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Clarity

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I've been told to warn people that this chapter is a 'teaser' with a timeskip, and that chapter one will chronologically go back to where 'Vapors' left off. Apparently, it's an alarming jump if one is left unawares, like a baby in the woods. And you may possibly despise it, irritated and unsettled by the jump. It's just the way it has to be. Crownsoflaurels, I'm sorry I'm such a substandard human. I'm so bad at human-ing. I'll try to get better.

If you think a teaser before you get the chronological content will make your life worse, exit now. You've been warned, so no sobbing in the comment section. I mean it this time.

Be reasonable, fanfiction druggies.


And now to our regularly scheduled programming. (It's not regularly scheduled. I don't even have a schedule oh god)

Clarity


She could almost see 'Obi rolling his eyes at her for getting overly enthusiastic and dropping the cloaking genjutsu that he had painstakingly taught her.

But this was fun too, in a different way.

Aiko smiled absently, tapping her big toe inside her right sandal along with the beat of a rather chipper song. 'Obi hated it, but she thought the theme song for those silly princess Fuin movies was cute. It had been stuck in her head for the last fifteen minutes or so, but she didn't mind. She ducked under what seemed to be a pathetically slow sword slice and twisted under the shocked Ame nin's raised arm to stick him in the gut with an old-fashioned kunai, literally without missing a beat in the staccato she was keeping.

"Sorry, love." She lied casually, stepping in just a little closer and giving a nice, big scoop with some serious elbow action and muscle behind it. His stomach opened up with piteous ease.

He made a choked sound and dropped his weapon with a clatter to reflexively reach for his gut. She batted one arm away with her elbow and used her free hand to grab his right wrist. Immediately she pulled it around his back so that she could brace his torso up with her forearm when his knees threatened to buckle.

In the instant where he was hanging supported by her leverage, frightened blue eyes met Aiko's turquoise eyes, silently begging for mercy.

She shrugged.

"Nothing personal." With deft motions, she pulled her blade out and made a precise jab at the pulsating artery on his upper thigh. He had a minute left by the time she extracted her blade, tops.

The gut wound would have been enough to kill him, of course, but she wasn't a sadist. This had to look messy, but there was no reason to let the man suffer for the hours it would take for intestinal bleeding to finish him.

Excess cruelty served no purpose, after all. It didn't entertain her and it didn't make her target any more dead.

She left her new friend awkwardly collapsed face-up with buckled knees on the cement floor, tucking a bit of loose hair behind her ear with the cleaner hand as she meandered through the storage facility of one of Ame's newly re-occupied border outposts. She'd never been there before, so she would be forgiven a bit of curiosity at the surroundings.

'In a desolate way, Ame is beautiful.' She took a deep breath of heavy, cold hair, feeling crisp condensation coat her lungs.

It was very grey, for lack of a better word. This was one of the few places she'd seen where a cement bunkhouse wasn't totally out of place. The rocks were grey, the long grass was a strange blue-green color she had seen in no other flora, and the sky itself was tinted from low-hanging clouds ambling with the sluggish wind.

Ame was clearly a hard place. Of course, she could have already concluded that by assessing the apparent character of the people who lived there. They were an awfully cantankerous lot, as far as she could tell. Proud and stubborn, Ame refused to admit that they needed military assistance to keep out Kumo.

They were horribly wrong, of course, but it wasn't like allies were lining up at the door to offer help. Ame really only had one country who had expressed a willingness to offer them assistance, but Konoha's help would certainly come at a steep price.

'That's what happens when you don't play well with others,' Aiko sighed, patting down a bit of frizz. 'You try to launch one little takeover of the world, and suddenly nobody wants to play with you after school'.

Not that she had any room to talk, of course, but that was beside the point. She didn't know exactly what had happened a year and a half ago, but she didn't really care, either. She'd been asked to pop over, sabotage Ame's relationship with Konoha, and stop to get milk on the way home. So there she was, slaughtering her way through the more alert sentries at various posts. Dull. But the havoc later should be fun.

She wasn't there to kill everyone, of course. It wasn't like she and 'Obi had anything against these people in particular, just the idea of Ame allying with such a large faction. Besides, it would be awfully impractical to get rid of everyone in the vicinity when she needed the breach in security to be detected soon.

Aiko started humming absently, kneeling to pry the lid off what proved to be a container of munitions.

Naughty, naughty. Ame had been dealing with the technology-rich countries outside of the shinobi nation-states. It wasn't a surprise, but it was good to know. She patted the crate companionably, information confirmed. It wasn't crucial, but it was nice to see that Kotaka wasn't useless after all. She made a note to put a little more faith in his reports, although she really would have preferred to know his sources.

The storage area had been a bit of a detour, but she considered it time well-spent, even though it meant she had to move that much faster to her true destination. It was probably a good idea for Ame to have their outpost separated into a few bunkers instead of as one big, internally connected building. In theory, that design protected most of the base when one section was compromised.

In practice, Aiko was mildly inconvenienced because the buildings weren't helpfully labeled but also weren't adequately guarded. She ended up in the barracks by accident, calmly holding her breath and sliding past a pale-faced duo who were talking quietly at a small table. They didn't hear her steps and they certainly didn't notice the slight friction of chakra against reality as the genjutsu wrapped around her like a silk dress let them see what they expected to see.

That was a little thrilling, to be honest. Genjutsu wasn't a strength of hers, but 'Obi had been drilling her mercilessly in using genjutsu to hide for the last month and a half. She'd spent most of that time grouching that she would never get the damn technique down and that she didn't want it anyways. Now that she was suddenly competent, Aiko found all sorts of situations where it was useful.

In other words, she was getting lazy as all hell and she probably owed her friend an apology for being a poor student.

'I'm terrible,' she thought with a thoroughly inappropriate smile at her own expense.

Hypocritical or not, the technique worked like a charm to get herself in the control center. It was pretty nice, for an office in a little outpost. That was thanks to the fact that border control had been one of Ame's greatest priorities after their dust-up with a four country alliance two years back. As a result, they had all but poured their money into the base and lit it on fire.

"Eeeny, Meeny, Miney, moe," she crooned, carefully leaving a sixteenth of a bloody fingerprint on the inside of the door. That was insignificant enough to look accidental. Aiko accidentally leaned a little too close and got a nose-ful of the cloying reek of iron and fear.

' Whoo, that's gonna piss somebody off.'

The inevitable forensics team would know it was from one of their people when the sample was compared. Even Iwa could handle that kind of detective work. Ame should do fine.

She left the office mostly untouched, doing her best to imitate the movements of an agent who was pressed for time, but attempting to ensure that they left no traces. The three bodies in the warehouse would be dismissed as a distraction from the intruder's real aim, hopefully, when all was said and done.

Even if they were really clueless, Ame would only be able to conclude that someone had commissioned an intelligence gathering mission.

If they were incompetent, they would think that Iwa had been the ones to break in, which was a violation of their current but shaky treaty. Ame should be leery about that, actually. A nominal ally sneaking around was much more hazardous than a known enemy. Their closest neighbors would be on Ame's shortlist of suspects, and Aiko had spent the night in a hotel not four hours away wearing the face of an Iwagakure kunoichi. Digging would uncover that and reinforce their paranoia in regards to their northern neighbors.

But if Ame's people were as good as 'Obi hoped they were, they would think that Konoha was framing Iwa in an attempt to pry apart their alliance.

(Aiko didn't bother fretting about the possibility that they would actually figure out that a third party had attempted to frame Konoha for framing Iwagakure. If Ame worked that one out, they deserved a pat on the back, no matter how much 'Obi would scowl and stomp around).

She lazily picked papers up nearly at random, leaving her scent in case Ame would think to check what had been touched that way. It wouldn't matter that it was hers, since they wouldn't know her personally. It took a great deal of time and experience to memorize an individual scent and not just follow a trail. There was no reason for any Ame shinobi to know her off-hand. All they'd know was that a female shinobi had been poking around. She paid special attention to information on orders in regards to the other nations, holding Ame's protocol about Rock-nin at borders and the records of contract for the longest time out of personal curiosity.

It was mildly interesting to see that Ame wasn't treating Rock with more caution than they were Suna or Kiri, who were understandably peeved about their tiff in the not-so-distant past. That wasn't wise of them, was it?

'This Konan woman must not be much of a politician. Too straight forward, I think,' Aiko decided disinterestedly. It was true on the surface, at least, that it was logical to be most wary of the countries that Ame had recently engaged in armed conflict with. Rock had been the only one out of the great shinobi nations who had stayed out of that scuffle, so Ame must have decided that Iwagakure was their most probable ally.

Stupid, and one-dimensional to overlook Rock's long and friendly history with Kumo, who was the primary antagonist that Ame had to worry about. Since Konoha had broken ties with the Raikage and attempted to keep Ame from being invaded by Kumo, Rock was free to support their oldest ally without having to make nice with Konoha. Ame was doing a surprisingly good job of keeping Kumo at bay, but if Rock joined in, they were pretty well doomed.

It all seemed rather infantile to Aiko, but 'Obi thought it was funny to watch them squirm. If she were honest with herself, there was some amusement value in sitting back with a bowl of ice cream while grown men and women squabbled like irritable toddlers.

That was why she was pretending to be a Konoha-nin framing a Rock-nin for illegally entering Ame and trying to assess their current information. Shame that the theoretical Konoha nin was going to make one tiny mistake that undermined their attempt to frame Rock.

Speaking of that…

Aiko dug around in the left-most pocket on her hip pouch and extracted a tiny glass bottle. She held it up to the light to see the dry corpse inside one last time.

' How on earth did he get one of these?'

She pursed her lips and shrugged, carefully tipping out one kikai bug onto the thin carpet right by the edge of the desk she knelt in front of.

The bug had died of natural causes—old age. They occasionally just did that, and fell wherever their master was. Any shinobi who looked around this room would be able to tell that there had only been one intruder, a female with a petite build. The bug clan was notoriously sneaky. So Ame wouldn't be surprised to 'discover' that an Aburame had gotten in the premises, though Ame wouldn't be pleased about it either.

'And there goes Konoha's hope of convincing Ame that the threat from an Iwa/Kumo alliance is more important than their pride,' Aiko sighed. She didn't really care one way or another, but it was a little shocking that the lives of so many people could be affected by something so fragile.

Or not. Maybe it wasn't that fragile, judging by the faint presence she was noting flicker on the edge of her awareness. Maybe Konoha had actually planned a mission like the one 'Obi was having her fake. Wouldn't that be funny?

She repressed a snort as she crossed her way across the lines of barbed wire and miles of icy marsh that made up the no-man's land between Ame and River Country. That was awfully convenient, but then, Konoha and Ame were running out of time for their respective goals.

She'd left a slight scent trail leaving Ame to River (although only an expert would be able to tell) because a Konoha nin wouldn't have gone directly through the border at Fire Country, but they wouldn't really go through Rock Country either. Nice neutral River country left plausible deniability for any party. Coulda been a Suna mission, even, if it weren't for the fact that Suna and Kiri were outright refusing to take part in Konoha's less than selfless efforts to keep Kumo from taking Ame. If Ame didn't formally ask for Konoha's protection, then Kiri and Suna couldn't be forced to take part in helping them. Konoha was crippled, until Ame pulled their collective heads out.

' Ugh, why am I wasting time thinking about this? It's not really my problem.'

Apparently, 'Obi was operating on the same wavelength as the Hokage, because there really was a Konoha-nin creeping towards Ame.

Or at least, she assumed it was a Konoha nin heading north through River. Aiko stopped leaving an intentional trail at all when she veered off course to meet with the approaching chakra signal. It would be a pain if this asshat managed to make it into the Ame border-post and do damage control.

'Like what?' Aiko snickered at her own dramatic thoughts, licking her lips. 'I don't even know how he would figure out what happened. Still, it's an unnecessary loose end.'

As soon as she saw him, she circled downwind, to the west of the traveler. He wasn't marked, but Konoha wouldn't have sent a hitai-ite on a mission like that anyway.

'No one I recognize,' Aiko thought wryly, wishing she'd made a cleaner kill earlier and hating the obvious stink on her arm and shirt. There was always a risk of running into a dog-nin when dealing with Konoha, and blood carried a strong scent.

She could have killed the sentries without the fuss, of course, but it was supposed to look like a hack job by an infiltrator who accidentally drew too much attention. Aiko hadn't had a problem with the men she'd run into, and could have ambushed them like an infiltrator should. But that didn't fit the profile she was attempting to imply. An Aburame who was canny and practiced enough to pull off a mission like this would already be well-known, and there wasn't one of those with Aiko's physical profile currently active. So she was portraying someone talented but inexperienced, a girl who managed to sneak past most of the security but had to fight for her life against a rather good Chuunin.

' This guy is definitely not a Chuunin, though. I wonder what that scarring is from. Very distinctive.'

In an odd way, the horizontal lines marring her new find reminded her of 'Obi. Except this guy's scars made a sort of rough triangle with a tip across the bridge of his nose that stretched and expanded over his left cheek, instead of decorating a neat half of his face. Odd, though not particularly important.

But the Konoha nin didn't seem to be a dog-man. No matter how obvious the stink of blood was to her, he was visibly ignorant.

He was skilled, however, even if he did have beady black creeper eyes. He picked his way rather expertly through the marshland, not leaving a physical trace of his presence. Like a veteran, actually.

'He has a lot more experience than me,' Aiko noted, more interested in an accurate tactical analysis than her ego. 'I can't afford to let him have a fair shot. It would be pathetically cliché for the young shinobi to underestimate someone cannier.'

It was almost a shame to unceremoniously kill someone that good, but she couldn't have him undermining her work. Aiko shrugged, picking a single senbon out of her leg holster and twirling it between her middle and forefingers as she examined her target to pick her shot.

'All that muscle might be enough to put the needle penetration off if I get the wrong spot. He's not in bad shape. What is he, in his mid-thirties?' Aiko gauged, eyes flicking over his lithe form for weaknesses. 'Definitely from Konoha, with that chest armor. They really prioritize that.'

Her target stopped suddenly, clearly alert.

She didn't know how, but he knew he was being watched. Did he have a chakra sense that was better than her suppressing? That would be odd, since his suppressing wasn't as good as her sensing. It was more likely that indefinable seventh sense that occasionally pricked the back of your neck for no apparent reason that had alerted him he was in danger.

' Oh, pooperscoop.'

Aiko pressed her lips out in a pout, slipping the senbon behind her ear like a schoolgirl would store a pencil. Now that he was alert, it would be a pain to get that perfect shot. And she hated unintentional messiness. There was no point in doing something sloppily when she could expend minimal effort and still get precise results by switching tactics. Her next tactic wasn't hard to choose, seeing as there was one obvious resource all around her, curling into her lungs and kissing her lips damply.

'Well, do you know where I am or not, sweetheart?' she wondered curiously, circling just a little bit as the sluggish wind shifted. She was still wearing her genjutsu, but no technique was perfect. A fellow infiltration shinobi was more likely to be able to spot the cracks in the technique than a random nin.

"Kai!"

Aiko jerked in mild surprise as the burst of chakra washed over her. Usually she could maintain her technique through one of those disruptions, but he'd really gone full-out with the power he'd put into the technique. Not bad. She was right, he was experienced. Special Jounin at least, if not a full Jounin. Konoha's Jounin were nothing to sniff at. Their standards for promotion seemed to be set higher than many other countries'. She should be wary and professional. Still…

"That's cheating!" Aiko faux-pouted, cocking her head slightly and letting him drink the sight of his killer in for just a moment.

Oddly, the man outright gaped. She might have thought he was leering, if it weren't for the fact that he seemed stuck on her face and hair and hardly glanced below the collarbones. (Not that there was anything to see, clad as she was in a high-necked but sleeveless top with pants). He looked more surprised at seeing her than he really had any right to, considering he'd just attempted to disrupt a genjutsu. Had that been luck? Did this guy just occasionally freeze like a startled deer and check for genjutsu?

'I'm definitely not telling 'Obi I got caught out by a complete lunatic,' she thought morosely.

Now that he'd seen her, he definitely had to die. She wasn't much good to 'Obi if the whole world knew about her, after all. Her hand slipped into her hip pouch for a smoke pellet.

Wow, he didn't even tense. Was he an idiot or what?

Generally, one took evasive action when an opponent was possibly reaching for a weapon. This man must be particularly clueless. Or trusting. It wasn't as if she had a mark of affiliation on her person. Maybe he wasn't willing to attack a stranger met within a country that was technically on peaceful terms with his own, if loosely.

That was… somewhat reasonable, actually.

Didn't matter. He'd kill her in an instant if he knew the mission she'd just completed. It wasn't particularly sporting to make the first move, but should that really matter in a fight to the death? Having had a chance to fight back wouldn't make the loser less deceased. Aiko had no plans of being that deceased shinobi.

Ah, well. Philosophy later, fighting now. Her hand darted like the head of a snake, snapping the pellet down with enough force that it burst open and spat a fat billow of scentless purple smoke. Aiko didn't bother repressing a smile and a cheeky wave in the instant that her upper torso was still visible, before she faded into genjutsu again and let the smoke cover her.

She didn't move an inch. No one other than a total idiot would expect someone to remain in the same position after using a smoke pellet. It was an absurd, just plain stupid strategy. Sure enough, as the smoke dissipated, the poor reasonable bastard of a Konoha nin clearly thought she'd merely moved into hiding.

'He really shouldn't be surprised that I would use the same trick twice,' Aiko assessed critically. 'Silly. Are Konoha nin just showboats or something? No point in re-inventing the wheel when you have a technique that gets the job done.'

No wonder 'Obi had been careful to keep her away from Konoha nin. He probably didn't want her to pick up bad habits.

With preternatural ease, she took hold of the mist clinging insistently to the air as a preemptive strike. It was almost too easy, really. It was a second's work to condense it into actual water—a trick that was nicely timed with the instant that her unknown opponent opened his mouth wide. "U-"

'It's like he wants to help me kill him,' Aiko thought, bemused. That didn't stop her from taking control of her element and bastardizing a water bullet to send it shooting down the Konoha nin's throat before he got out more than a syllable. His jaw clamped shut and a hand shot to his neck, but she was already flooding his lungs. Clinically, she tilted her head and watched as panic set in. He wasn't even looking for her anymore, preoccupied as he was with the fact that he was about to drown.

Dispassionately, she waited and watched while consciousness fled and the poor sap collapsed. He had the presence of mind to turn his face to the side when he fell, probably in hopes that she would get sloppy and bored. If she were in too much of a hurry to wait until he was actually dead, he might cough up the water even in his unconscious state. With his head to the side, it would spill out. It was a little trick, but it would have saved his life, had she been careless or rushed.

'That's a tactic straight out of the warnings about passing out drunk,' Aiko thought, charmed by his hopeful attitude. He was a cutie. 'Well, buddy, that was a nice try.'

She let the genjutsu slip away and stepped forward, delicately tilting his chin up with her clean hand so that he faced skyward. His eyes had fluttered shut when oxygen was cut off to his brain, and he almost looked peaceful. He laid still and quiet on his back without so much as a scuff or wrinkle on his clothes.

That was the way she preferred to operate. Nice and clean. Aiko gave his shoulder a fond pat as she rose, finally releasing her hold on the water and glancing curiously at the rings on his hand. She had waited long enough that he was definitely dead, so it had merely been her impulse towards perfectionism that had led her to thwart his last-moment plan and not any practical reason.

Finished, Aiko cast her senses out. She wasn't sure if she thought Buddy was operating alone or not. On one hand, Konoha nin did tend to travel in groups, so he very well could have back-up. Then again, it was often easier to get in and out on a stealthy mission with as few people as possible.

She didn't sense anyone… There could be someone who was very sneaky, but it didn't seem likely. Aiko wasn't a half-bad sensor.

'Well, if he had someone who was meant to help, I think they're running late,' she decided perfunctorily, tossing her head and distractedly unclipping her hair. It was going to kink up terribly if she left it like that for long, and she had plans for the night that didn't involve a bad hair day. She didn't give it another thought, casually loping back on her path to the point where she'd diverted to meet Buddy.

'If Ame really has anyone as good as me available to check this out, they are going to be so fucking confused when they find that body,' Aiko thought with unkind amusement as she went through the motions of leaving a slight trail in the direction she had initially intended to go.

Of course, that would be more amusing than the original plan. She half-hoped that Ame was more than competent, just for the entertainment value.

Chapter Text

OMG guys? This morning I woke up to 453 alerts. I'm surprised you didn't overheat my phone. Granted, one of those emails was from my sister reminding me about all the exciting things that we would do when I hauled my lazy carcass out of bed, but the rest were all fanfiction notifications. That was a lot of love. Sudden love. Somehow, it hadn't occurred to me that all those favorites and such built up on Vapors over 8 months would sort of... I don't know, lunge at the new story?

I was both shocked and pleased.

It made me feel like posting this earlier than I had planned to. So here, a nice long chapter for you.

In a way, this is the real chapter one. Originally, this was the prologue. As such, chronologically, a good deal of it is technically before the end of Vapors. This is very low on Aiko, but from after this chapter, it's back to her.


Two evenings after Pein's jaunt to scenic Konoha, asshole of the universe, Obito walked the streets gingerly and tried not to step on anything particularly foul. It was difficult, crowded as the relatively flat areas were.

Konoha was thoroughly trashed. Madara laughed with a sickening sort of glee in his head and monologued about how the rubble was an improvement over the mountain monument, but Obito felt nothing at all, other than mild interest at the fact that the only discernible remnant was the lower half of the second Hokage's face. (He'd caused nearly this much damage himself, years ago, it would be hypocritical to be offended or depressed). That was one of the less contemptible Hokages, in Obito's personal opinion. They should keep it like that.

'Pein-kun lost his temper,' Tobi observed with an unusual amount of solemnity. Obito valiantly schooled his expression into seriousness. No one was paying him any particular attention, as the citizens seemed to be either wandering shell-shocked or busily performing manual labor, but it just wouldn't be inconspicuous to start giggling at the voices in his head.

'That's never terribly inconspicuous, actually,' Obito mused philosophically. It was lucky that Tobi was a bit of a flake. Otherwise, even Hidan might have noticed that something was happening. 'Not that Hidan is a problem anymore. He's a bit very dead.'

Tobi giggled incoherently.

It wasn't really that funny, Madara projected crossly. They'd lost resources.

The other two had heard that enough in the past few days that they just rolled their eyes and ignored him. That was probably an ironic way to treat a personality that he'd invented as a way of having someone to bounce ideas off of, but in Obito's defense, he'd forgotten how irritating Madara was at the time. 'Where do you think our friend would be?' Obito posited idly, walking a calm circuit around the outer ring of the village.

Security was obviously not up to par in Konoha. Not that it was ever good enough to keep him out, of course, but it was worthwhile to note as a gauge of the state of affairs within the village. They were obviously prioritizing the relocation of civilians and establishing fortifications instead of tripling the patrols, as another kage might have done.

'Find out if she's dead,' Madara pointed out shortly. 'This errand will have been for naught if the bratling got herself killed.'

Tobi sighed, put-out, and settled to sulk quietly. He disapproved of most of Madara's input.

Obito bristled a little, but acknowledged the advice as good. It was easier said than accomplished, however. Any useful information like that would either be in central administration –tallying deaths would have been their first course of action—or through word of mouth. After an event such as this, it wouldn't exactly be suspicious to express worry about a supposed friend, but it was still an extra risk to make himself memorable. He would have to find where the main office was now operating out of, since the tower appeared to be ruined. That wouldn't be easy, but it was the best option.

'You lie to yourself,' Madara pointed out dryly. 'I do not know why you would bother. Infiltration through subtlety would not be an unwise choice under the circumstances. You would just prefer to abuse kamui and avoid having to talk to the degenerates here.'

He somehow avoided retorting that the older man was hardly a social butterfly himself. Madara was infuriatingly correct, however. Obito'd spent so long alone that he had a hard time talking to other people for more than a few minutes at a time. A little begrudgingly, Obito deigned to wander close enough to other human beings to casually entangle himself in conversations. The first three didn't naturally wander near the topic, but eventually he found a man who mentioned that he had been working on clean-up in the financial sector. That sounded like a clue to him. The highest priority points for reconstruction should be residential and what was needed in order to run the bare bones of the village.

Senju Tsunade had issues, but she was not so hilariously incompetent as to attempt to settle her people in banks and offices.

He was right, of course. It would probably be more intelligent to time matters so that he didn't have to cut down every person in the building, instead of walking through the front door in broad daylight. Shinobi often worked long, hard hours, but everyone had to sleep at some point. Obito found himself a seat outside the busiest building and nursed a drink he had received from a relief station. He went through two waters and the worst cup of coffee he'd ever encountered before the mass exodus of chakra signatures from the building indicated that the Hokage had left the building with her ANBU bodyguards. It may not have been to sleep, however, judging by the odd haste they used when exiting her building. He didn't know or care what the problem was, but it was fine by him.

Then he walked right in. Sneaking would have been more enjoyable, but sometimes it was actually less conspicuous to look bored and act as though you had a reason to be someplace.

It was almost uncanny how well the simple technique worked. If he had been the one running the village, now would be the time he was most concerned with security. On the other hand, the Konoha nin were likely running on fumes at best, and their tragic encounter with Pein had been so recent that no country would have been able to both hear a report and send a team of infiltrators out. When you were able to travel instantaneously, your outlook on security and assessing danger changed a fair bit.

'Speaking of which,' Tobi bubbled cheerily, apparently having forgotten his resolution to ignore Madara and Obito, 'Are we going to break Aiko-chan's legs so she doesn't run away again? Because that would make tag much easier.'

'Idiot,' Madara sneered, even as Obito cringed. He did his best to ignore the commentary and search the sealed office that Tsunade had left behind. It wouldn't have been bad security work, in a world without kamui. 'Hiraishin will be the problem, not running. It would be much more sensible to place a seal of loyalty on her. Much like the one on our body.'

Obito scowled, scratching self-consciously at the warped flesh of his cheek, hidden under a smoothing genjutsu.

It seemed like a dirty trick to him, but it would get the job done. That was a last resort, though. He wasn't a seal master or a surgeon. Cutting someone up to tattoo their insides with complicated fuinjutsu seemed like the sort of solution that Madara had happened upon with rather more trial and error than Obito could afford to invest. He didn't really want to kill Aiko, especially not in a stupid accident.

It wasn't like he was actually going to use her as the sacrifice. Probably. Unless he had to raise Madara after all. In a way, he was still doing her a favor, as he had planned when the idea of taking the girl had first occurred. Konoha was a dump. Anyone who reminded him of Rin deserved better than Konoha.

Whatever her administrative faults, however, Senju Tsunade kept a neat (if unforgivably tacky) office. That made it pleasantly easy to rifle through the visibly out-of-place slate gray filing cabinet she had left beside her pale pink-and-white marble-topped desk, once he'd finally managed to get the damn thing open. He had no idea what she'd done—jammed it, perhaps, or placed some security seals he was unfamiliar with on it—but he couldn't get it to budge at all, even after it was unlocked.

Obito ended up painstakingly carving the side off of the now wobbly box with a kunai, leaving metal shavings on the plush purple carpet. It was probably a good thing for his bid at world domination that no one saw him awkwardly forcing his fingers in and pulling papers out through a couple inches of space. Some papers tore and most wrinkled, but he didn't really care. At this point, he'd pretty much given up on covering his tracks: they were going to know someone had been in the office. Speed was now preferable to stealth. A few grabs were enough to figure out the gist of the organizational system—Shinobi were organized by rank and first names, which had been translated into a number code.

'She's not a complete simpleton,' Madara noted begrudgingly. Anyone who didn't know who they were looking for would be completely lost—last names weren't even on the records. That meant that you couldn't go looking, say, for a Hyuuga, if you were out on a nice jaunt of bloodline theft. It also meant that she was very familiar with her people.

Obito snorted. 'The bias of the voices in my head is clear,' he retorted. 'Otherwise, you'd have the sense to acknowledge that the woman regarded as the best medic in modern history can't possibly be slow.'

'You put too much stock in the opinions of others,' Madara muttered rebelliously.

He didn't bother to acknowledge that. 'Her record hasn't been updated,' Obito noted, utterly disgusted. What a waste of time spent digging through that stupid cabinet. It looked like the box had somehow been salvaged from the tower, then, and wasn't recent. Aiko had a file in it, but it wouldn't tell him what he needed now. He took it anyway to read later. It couldn't hurt to have as much information as possible.

Obito took a petty sort of pride in knowing he'd ruined the cabinet when Pein hadn't managed it. He gave the thing a little kick, just to be thorough. Then he sat unceremoniously in what had to be the Hokage's chair, eyes darting around the room.

"What does she see in her day," he mused thoughtfully. "Where does she look? If I were using sensitive information often, I would keep it either nearby or within sight, so I know it's safe."

There was a wall safe on the left side of the room. Optimistically, Obito pried it open by freezing and shattering the lock. He ducked immediately, senses clueing him in before his conscious mind could know anything was wrong.

"A gas trap," he grumbled wryly. Of course the safe was a decoy set to blow a sedative or poison in the face of whoever opened it. "Fucking Senju."

'So now you agree,' Madara pouted. Well. He wouldn't have described it as a pout, but Obito certainly did.

"Oh, shut up," he sighed, waving the last bit of smoke away from his face and giving a quick glare to the very empty safe.

Still not helpful. Damnit.

Next, Obito tried pulling up the redundant and doubtlessly costly rugs, looking for hidden papers or a floor safe. There was nothing but an old bubblegum wrapper. He found a half-empty bottle of wine hidden in a rather pathetic, obviously maltreated fern, but the flora didn't seem to hide any other secrets. There were no hidden bottoms in her drawers, a quick check revealed no genjutsu—there was nothing, as far as he could see. Flummoxed, Obito fell back onto Tsunade's chair to gather his thoughts.

"She's really good," he said wonderingly. None of the usual tricks were panning out. Wherever she was hiding her paper work, it was really… Oh.

'I'm glad no one was here to see that,' he thought a bit morosely, leaning forward to pick up the folder lying abandoned on her desk labeled 'active personnel'. Goddamnit. At the giggle in his head, Obito snapped, "Shut up, Tobi!"

Tobi was becoming more irritating than useful. Maybe it was time to phase him out of use.

With a bit of a pout, Obito scanned the lists inside and their notations as quickly as possible, looking for familiar names. It mostly seemed to be a handwritten list of names and their current whereabouts, probably so that Tsunade could use it as a reference while Konoha was in such disorder. There seemed to be a few pertinent notes on a select few shinobi, which tugged at his curiosity.

"Kurenai?" Obito mused, stopping for a moment. He hadn't thought about her in years. What was she… Oh. He turned the page. Nothing interesting. It must have been in code, because the notations didn't entirely make sense. He didn't care enough to parse through it.

'We do not have an unlimited time for you to reminisce about your painfully dull childhood peers,' Madara sighed.

'Asshole,' Obito scowled. He couldn't quite bring himself to disagree. Although that brief look at Kurenai's file hadn't been completely worthless. Now that he thought about it, there was a strange notation by Kurenai's name that was by quite a few others—a circled X. Probably a random symbol and not actual code, something that Tsunade had picked on the spot. It seemed to be a lazy marking to pick out certain people by whatever criteria she was using, instead of an attempt to hide something from a casual reader. Tsunade had probably just compiled these notes today, actually, in the last six hours or so in an attempt to sort out her manpower.

Actually… He flipped rapidly, comparing pages. It looked like it was by the name of almost everyone who wasn't either out of the village or most recently assigned to watching civilians or genin. Odd. He didn't recognize it—it didn't seem to mean anything, and he didn't see much correlation between the people who had it. Gender, specialization, and age were all widely varied.

'Maybe it just means anyone who fought Pein!' Tobi piped up helpfully.

Madara chuckled at that. 'Yes, Senju Tsunade could be worried about contamination from his general idiocy,' he agreed amiably. 'A fairly perceptive concern.'

Obito tried valiantly not to roll his eyes. 'You both suck.' Since it was clear that the peanut gallery wasn't going to leave him be, he abandoned his curiosity and went back to reading with all haste. Ooo, Bakashi was in Ame, along with Maito Gai and… damnit, it was irritating that he'd missed out on the chance to snatch up a two-for-one deal on Uzumaki twins.

Kakuzu had mentioned that Naruto was there, but it was still a vexation. Ame was a bit out of the way of his current errand. Besides, he didn't know what he'd do with such a high-level bijuu at the moment. He could probably scrape together enough chakra to deal with the four-tails' jinchuuriki, but not the nine-tail. Not now, anyway. Grumpily, he flipped that section entirely, despite seeing that there were more entries posted in that area. He was already certain that Aiko was in the village, or at least that she hadn't been posted to Ame. Kakuzu hadn't noted anyone of her description present. Not that he would necessarily have remembered, of course. If Kakuzu didn't see dollar signs when he looked at a person, they were a non-entity to him.

'She has that same marking as Kurenai-san,' Tobi noted, mildly surprised when Obito finally found Aiko's rather slim file. And no wonder it took so long—everyone who had been confined to the hospital was in the very back of the records.

'That is all? There are suspiciously few hospitalizations, when the amount of damage Pein caused is taken into consideration,' Madara scowled cautiously. 'We are missing information.'

"Well, that'll make her easier to find," Obito noted optimistically.

And it would have, if the hospital hadn't been about sixty percent missing when he traveled there. Obito stared in mild disbelief at jagged walls and wiring spouting sadly out of ruined metal and drywall.

It was one thing for the Hokage monument to be ruined, and for homes to be destroyed. But the hospital? He shook his head. It just seemed… wrong. What kind of jackass attacked a hospital?

Well, Pein would, obviously. But still.

' What now?'

Obito answered his own question before anyone else could. 'A hospital can't be relocated to another building like the Hokage's office was. It's not currently a state of emergency, so they won't be doing triage or working out of a tent. They had to have relocated to a real facility.'

That left precious few options. No one would want to lug patients further than they had to, so they were probably relatively close, for that reason and so that it was possible to stay in easy communication with Konoha. Tanzaku Gai was closest, but he didn't think they had a full-scale hospital. The civilians who lived there made do with a clinic and an old-fashioned folk healer, and traveled to Konoha for their other medical care.

Otafuku Gai it was, then.


It was the kind of thing he knew he would never be able to forget. No amount of dangerous missions, or banal pranks on his peers to assuage his innate pettiness, or time spent with his nose in a book would make him forget rounding the doorway just in time to see the people inside disappear like a mirage. He wouldn't have seen even that if he had followed protocol instead of slipping in the window of the break room a floor above and coming down the disused stairs to avoid getting spotted by a possessive medic-nin with silly rules about visitation hours. He just meant to check that she was alright and see what was going on, not disturb her.

Kakashi almost thought he was seeing things. They were there, and then they weren't, without any traces of a shunshin or chakra expenditure trail.

Common sense dictated that was not possible.

Except, of course, he knew that it could be done. He personally knew of two techniques that would allow a person to seemingly disappear. He was more than a bit certain that he hadn't accidentally uncovered his eye and used kamui on Aiko and the stranger, so that left Hiraishin.

But that didn't make sense either. There had to be something else. He paced like a caged animal, not caring that he really should be rushing to report to Tsunade. Every breath that he took in that otherwise sterile, unremarkable room filled his nose with a scent that was utterly impossible.

Or at least, it was severely implausible. It did make him re-consider Kamui as a possibility, however.


"You think we've failed to account for an Uchiha," Tsunade said flatly, eyes hard, when he finally managed to see her for more than the few minutes it took to report.

Kakashi nodded, jaw gritted shut tightly and his teeth grinding just a little bit. It was a bad habit, but he couldn't care at the moment. Besides, the office stunk of cleaning agents. Had that been her big emergency that kept her occupied? Her office was dirty? Because he might snap and commit the shinobi equivalent of regicide if Tsunade's nitpickiness had lost their chance to find that man.

"Do you think Itachi would have more information?" she tried, a bit doubtful herself.

"Yes," Kakashi bit out tersely. He ignored her faint surprise. "He was withholding some sort of information in Ame. At the time I thought it was just about Aiko, but it could very well be relevant."

Sasuke's only living relative or not, if that little punk had endangered one of his teammates through high-handed reticence, there was going to be blood.

Without another word, Tsunade flickered through the handseals for a summoning jutsu so fast that he could barely see movement. Unsurprising. Medics had deft fingers. "Kaysuya-sama, is Sasuke's team in condition to move out?"

The slug queen curled a little on the desk, smearing pink-tinted slime on forgotten financial statements from the office's last owners. There was an usual amount of papers out in the open, now that he thought about it. "I suppose," the slug snuffled delicately. "Wouldn't that short-hand the teams, however?"

"I'll send out replacements," Tsunade assured brusquely. "We have plenty of younger teams in good condition. Maintaining control is much less dangerous than the original assignment. Genin can handle it. Tell Sasuke to return home immediately, with as much haste as possible. He should bring Naruto, Karin, and Itachi with him."

"Alright," Katsuya trilled doubtfully, scrunching up her body. "As you say, hime. Should I advise Itachi-kun to disguise himself?"

While the females discussed logistics of bringing back someone internationally reputed as a criminal, Kakashi stood stock still and wished he could be doing something more productive. Like chasing a scent trail (there was no scent trail, except the one from the nurse's station where medical records had been stolen to Aiko's room) or gathering a team to take action (there was no action to take, as far as he could tell) or strangling Shizune's skinny neck for failing not once but twice to secure a patient under her care.

And Jiraiya, now that he thought about it. What the fuck had the old man been thinking? Why hadn't he been watching his goddaughter? The man himself was slumped against the far wall, staring bleakly into space. He barely seemed to be conscious.

'It would be really satisfying to punch Jiraiya right now,' Kakashi mused dangerously. To hell with the witness. What was Tsunade going to do about it?

His body was taut with tension and directionless fury, but Kakashi managed to master himself. He didn't want to look at either Jiraiya or Shizune right now, so it was a good thing Shizune had the wisdom to slink around elsewhere with her tail between her legs. The logical part of his consciousness knew that they weren't to blame, but his temper disagreed.

'I'm being a hypocrite. I'm blaming them because I feel guilty,' he diagnosed. 'What kind of teammate or authority figure can't protect their charges after the danger is actually over? We failed terribly.'

That hardly made him feel any better.

"Kakashi…" Tsunade started warily. He noticed that Katsuya was gone. That didn't explain the tension in Tsunade's face, however. "Tell me again. What did you say you saw?"

"He was holding Aiko's wrist," Kakashi reiterated impatiently. A full-grown man, standing over a teenaged girl's sickbed and grabbing at her. He couldn't remember it without feeling sick with anger. Probably the same man who'd harassed Aiko before, attacking her in a park at night. "Then they were just gone."

Jiraiya made a small, wounded sound.

"And she didn't…" The Hokage trailed off, looking troubled. "There's a possibility you should know about," she said quietly. "Aiko may have gone willingly."

"What."

It was probably a good thing that she spoke quickly, over the rage bubbling at that idiotic statement.

"Aiko wouldn't have known!" Tsunade denied hastily, brushing a bit of unwashed bang off of her forehead. "That's why she was in the hospital. Physically, she was fine."

Physically, she was fine.

Something rather like horror clawed at his gut at the obvious exclusion there.

Tsunade must have seen something horrible in his expression, but he had no idea what his face was doing at the moment. The Hokage swallowed, and her jaw tensed for just a moment before she continued. "It was brain damage of some sort. We hadn't gotten her to a specialist yet. It was…" She trailed off uneasily. "Did anyone tell you what happened here?" Tsunade settled for unhappily, jerking slightly as if to look at her teammate behind her. Jiraiya could have been carved for stone, for all that he moved.

Brain damage. God.

It was a stupid question with an obvious answer, but he obliged. "Akatsuki," Kakashi summed up emotionlessly. He hadn't stayed within Konoha long enough to actually get a full debriefing, once it became clear that Tsunade didn't exactly have the time to indulge him after he'd explained the situation in Ame. He'd set Yamato and Genma to work with the teams re-building the downtown district and set off to find out what had happened to his other subordinates. He hadn't managed to track down Sai, but he hadn't tried that hard either once he'd been reassured that the boy was uninjured but heard that Aiko was in hospital.

"Yes," Tsunade agreed distastefully. "That's the gist of it, I suppose. You're missing some critical information, however. It's unbelievable, but almost everyone died."

"There are almost no casualties," Kakashi rejected instantly. He'd seen that for himself.

"Because of what that freak did," Tsunade rebuffed, not noticing the other Sannin's tortured expression. She waved a hand tiredly. "I'm sure Jiraiya would give you a much more flowery version, but the leader of Akatsuki possessed a dojutsu that gave him control over life and death. Apparently the Rinnegan is a real thing."

It took a moment to chew that over. "That's crazy."

"And sick, and wrong," Tsunade listed wearily, eyes faraway on something he couldn't see. "A boundary that men were not meant to cross. Yes, I know all that already. He brought it up as a condition of his surrender. At that point, I figured we had nothing left to lose." Her thin shoulders shrugged slightly. "Right or wrong, it worked. Not without repercussions, however."

Of course it hadn't. Nothing in the world came without consequences. It was infantile to hope otherwise.

"Those being?" he asked tightly, not liking where this discussion was going. He could put pieces together. He didn't have to hear it from Tsunade's lips to know that-

"Aiko died."

'Ouch'.

"She didn't come back quite the same. I think that's not uncommon, though we haven't had much time to do a study on it."

Still, it hurt to hear.

"How?" he demanded.

Tsunade looked right at him and blatantly lied, gaze flickering down. "I don't know."

Another person might have been enraged that she wouldn't tell him the truth. Kakashi was just logical enough to read between the lines and realize Tsunade thought it would be better if he didn't know the particulars, probably for his own sake.

"I want to know," Kakashi said quietly. It was probably relevant, wasn't it? And if she'd had to endure it, he could cope with hearing, as penance for failing to protect her if nothing else.

Tsunade looked mildly queasy. "Stubborn." There wasn't any heat in her voice at all. "Her ANBU captain reported it in. Along with Mitarashi, they were fighting one of the Akatsuki. Mitarashi went first."

And Kakashi flinched, despite the fact that he'd seen Anko not six hours ago. He knew she was fine. They weren't even that close, so the sudden desire to ascertain that she was well was an illogical and useless impulse.

"I understand that the fight was not going well," Tsunade summed up carefully. He tried not to wonder what that meant. He would have thought that Anko dying was enough reason to rate the fight as a struggle. But there was no reason for Tsunade to be redundant. "Her captain, Yukimasa-san, seemed to think that Aiko was trying to protect him."

Improbable.

And he instantly felt shamefully guilty for doubting that assessment, carefully avoiding eye contact with Jiraiya, whose dull gaze had wandered over to Kakashi's face. Aiko could be very protective, yes, but generally of people she felt were weaker than her, not authority figures. He'd noted more than once that she demonstrated a worrying tendency to assume that her equals and superiors would be fine and to pay them little attention.

Guilt aside, it seemed much more likely that there had been another motivation. (Unless Anko's death really shook her, of course). Probably her damn temper. She wasn't a shouter like Naruto, but hell if she didn't hold grudges and act impulsively.

"And?" he prodded, because Tsunade didn't seem to be about to continue on her own.

"To be blunt, she killed herself," Tsunade admitted.

That was blunt. He realized that he had stopped breathing, but didn't care quite enough to take action to rectify that cease in motor function.

"Were you… No," Tsunade shook her head, tangling her fingers in her hair. "You wouldn't even know about that, would you? Hell. Where to start?" She glanced up at him, and apparently decided to go for the short version. "In the past year, she accidentally acquired a detonation seal that would fail when her chakra system failed to power it."

That really raised more questions than it answered. Though the pathetically guilty look on Jiraiya's face made him wonder…

"I think that she intended to use that to finish the fight." Uncomfortably, Tsunade stared at the bridge of Kakashi's nose in a way that implied she desperately wanted to look away. "According to Yukimasa-san, nothing the team had come up with managed to damage their opponent. And at that point, it appeared as though there weren't any good options she or Yukimasa were physically capable of attempting."

He really tried not to wonder how bad her condition must have been to dismiss any other possibilities. Aiko was very interested in survival. She wasn't always practical about it, but her failing seemed to more generally be an arrogant belief that she wouldn't be killed than that she didn't care about her own life. And that was a pretty typical teenaged viewpoint, if he were honest.

Jiraiya sighed tiredly. "Maybe she could have escaped with Hiraishin, but I don't think Aiko had it in her to leave Yukimasa to die, and she probably wasn't thinking that clearly. If she thought that the choice was between both of them dying and the explosion killing the Akatsuki after the fact, or saving her captain…" the toad sannin trailed off. There wasn't really a need to finish the thought.

In any case, it just didn't seem like her to think that there were really no options left. It didn't fit, it didn't make sense. Or maybe he just didn't want to believe it.

"I think I've heard enough. So this Akatsuki decided to raise Konoha's dead?" Kakashi interrupted, just to quiet the childish denials in his head.

"Yes. Nagato." At his puzzled look, Tsunade elaborated, "Apparently, Akatsuki's leader was one of Jiraiya's old students."

He should probably pity the older man. Maybe later he would be able to work up some sympathy, once he felt less like slamming Jiraiya's face into a wall repeatedly. And there was such a convenient wall, right there. It would look so much better with a Sannin-shaped hole in it.

"He was really the only Akatsuki present. He used some sort of puppet jutsu with corpses to make it seem like there were six shinobi."

Convoluted and stupid. Besides, he didn't really care at the moment.

"So what you're telling me is that this man's jutsu didn't do a good job of putting Aiko back together," Kakashi summarized impatiently.

Tsunade cringed, just a little bit. "For the most part, it worked," she assured weakly. "She just doesn't seem to remember anything. Or anyone, really. Other than that, she seems fine. Her vocabulary is age-appropriate, and she doesn't show any signs of reduced cognitive function. She's just confused."

How comforting. Jiraiya seemed to think so as well. His eyes were forced shut, but his face certainly wasn't peaceful.

"I picked Nagato's brain for everything he knew about the jutsu, but it was the same as the old stories. The Rinnegan can restore the dead to the state they were meant to be. It sounds nice, but it leaves a lot of questions about how the jutsu decides how to work. It doesn't seem consistent, but it could be that I haven't defined the parameters yet. Some people seem just fine, some are better than they were, and some…"

"Are not fine." That bit was obvious in context, so there was no point in dancing around it. "So an unknown Uchiha kidnapped Aiko for unknown reasons and she doesn't necessarily know anything is wrong."

"I hope you're right about Uchiha Itachi having information we can use," Tsunade said, in lieu of a direct answer. He already knew his summation was right. "As much as we need all our manpower, I would let you take a team to go look, if we had the first idea of what to look for. I'll call you in when Itachi reports so you can see for yourself what he knows. If you're going to be the one out looking for her, it makes sense for you to have the chance to get whatever information you deem necessary."

"Alright." He swallowed, feeling like he was carrying an extra hundred pounds on his back. "Have you told Naruto yet?"

The Hokage looked hunted and guilty.

"We're waiting until they're safely in the village to tell them that," Jiraiya rumbled without opening his eyes. "It's not the kind of thing you say via letter or an intermediate until you have to."

'It's not the kind of news you put off either,' Kakashi retorted internally. But he didn't want to be the one to break that news, so he nodded and left.


Two days had never seemed to pass so slowly before. Reconstruction had been sped drastically by Tenzou's assistance, but there was still plenty of banal work to be done by relatively strong helpers.

Kakashi found himself nailing thousands of tiles and laying wiring under his kohai's worried brown eyes, whenever Tenzou could pull himself away from his work for a breather. He almost envied the teams that rushed between Konoha and the nearest towns to carry loads of supplies. But he didn't quite envy them, because he had to be in the village when there was news.

He didn't wait for a messenger from Tsunade when Sasuke's team returned. There was no need. Hōseki had been more than willing to sit by the gates and wait for her mistress (and then "the cat people," as she referred to Itachi and Sasuke when told they might be able to help) to return. She had not been willing to listen to Pakkun's gentle explanation that she shouldn't get her hopes up.

Kakashi hadn't tried to dissuade her, not particularly interested in being an enormous hypocrite. No one was going to complain about an extra set of ears and a sharp nose, even if the attitude that came with was a bit of a bummer.

Not having Uzumaki-esque chakra reserves, it was a constant drain on his abilities to maintain a summoning for days on end (much less two) as Aiko had apparently done for the last week, but he hadn't argued. He'd been lucky enough that Hōseki had allowed him to summon her in an attempt to find out what she knew. It turned out to be almost nothing, a bitter pill in and of itself. Agreeing to help her stay in the human world to find out what had happened was a foregone conclusion, despite knowing that the solution was short-term at best.

When a mournful yap caught his ear, Kakashi dropped his burden without so much as looking back and bounded towards Hokage tower. He actually beat Sasuke's team there. Doubtlessly they were gaping at the destruction instead of speeding over.

Tsunade sighed, but didn't say a thing when he leaned against the wall facing the door to wait. Things became spectacularly more uncomfortable when Jiraiya joined them several minutes later and carefully avoided looking at Kakashi.

He understood the impulse. He'd chucked all his Icha Icha in the bin when he'd gotten to his apartment and discovered that his domicile was one of the lucky, still habitable places. Two minutes later, he had regretfully fished the books out and smoothed over the creases from his fit of temper. That didn't mean he'd felt much like reading them since. Maybe once he was less disappointed with the older man.

'I wonder if he expects me to castigate him?' Kakashi wondered bleakly. Now that his anger had cooled a bit… It was obvious that Jiraiya was doing a decent job of making himself miserable. It probably wasn't worth the effort to help.

The teenagers were a little less impassive than the three experienced shinobi. There was a collective cringe when Karin pushed open the door and they all saw him. They were probably thinking that they were about to be in trouble for their disobedience in Ame.

To be honest, he'd put that out of mind. There would be a reckoning, but not today. "Get out," Kakashi said quietly. "Everyone but Itachi. You three wait outside." His voice turned hard when Sasuke's face twisted and he opened his mouth to object. "This is not debatable," Kakashi clipped. Naruto looked disturbed, but was obedient enough to grab his teammate's shoulder and steer him out. As he went, the blonde whispered, "Itachi's a big boy now, mommy-bear. He'll be fine for a couple of minutes."

Itachi couldn't quite hide the hint of a smile around his eyes. He might not have been trying, as his brother wouldn't be able to see his face regardless.

Oddly, seeing the siblings look relatively happy put Kakashi's hackles up. There was an irony in Naruto comforting Sasuke about Itachi at this moment. Maybe Sasuke would repay the favor.

As soon as the door was closed and Sasuke's grouchy and defensive reply was cut off, Tsunade threw Kakashi a look that was half-way between questioning and annoyed, but he didn't care. This would go much faster without an audience. Kakashi drew himself up to his full height and paced directly in front of the younger man. He wasn't intentionally conveying danger, but Itachi seemed to sense it nonetheless.

"In Ame, you indicated you had information about one of my subordinates," Kakashi said quietly. "I want it, now."

He was mildly gratified to see that Itachi gaped slightly before he let his gaze wander over Kakashi's shoulder to Tsunade. She must have affirmed the order, because he opened his mouth.

"You refer to the Uzumaki girl, I assume?" At his terse nod, Itachi continued fluidly. "Very well, though I have trepidation about releasing this information, since she apparently deemed it unwise."

"And why would Aiko's opinion outweigh the Hokage's order?" Tsunade asked smartly. She was much cleaner than she had been the last time he'd seen her, but if anything, stress was pulling harder at her features and temper.

Somewhat wisely, the Uchiha backtracked a little. "Forgive me, Hokage-sama. I know how that sounds, but I believed that she was best qualified to make that decision at the time, since I did not have the information that she must. Years ago, I encountered Uzumaki-san's psyche when I returned to Konoha to investigate reports of instability after the attempted invasion."

"You mean when you attacked her," Kakashi clarified steadily, giving the younger man a hard stare. "She was what, twelve at the time?"

Even as the words left his mouth, he knew the aggression was unhelpful at this point in time. But Itachi's evasion was infuriating. That was a delicate way of saying that he'd assaulted someone less than half his skill level with genjutsu and presumably touched her mind in the way he'd touched Kakashi's, trapping her consciousness and rifling through her worst fears and the deepest reaches of her soul.

And he was supposedly loyal to Konoha. Konoha wasn't supposed to do that to her own.

"Not now, Kakashi," Tsunade dismissed, though her eyes weren't friendly either. "Continue."

Kakashi may have curled his lip into a snarl. Itachi actually hesitated before the next part- just for a moment, but enough that Kakashi believed he was seriously considering the possible impact of his words.

"I… considered the possibility that she was out of touch." Itachi's gaze remained fixed on Tsunade, despite the fact that Kakashi was in his personal space, and that Jiraiya looked a bit murderous at the reminder. "What I found in her psyche was distinctly odd. She knew a great deal that she could not possibly know, about things that had happened before she was born and had not yet come to pass. Some of those beliefs have since proved true, but many did not." Obviously unnerved, Itachi looked at Kakashi for just an instant. "It is my belief that she has some sort of gift of prophecy."

There was a clatter. All the shinobi moved in time to see that the pen Jiraiya had been fiddling with was rolling to a stop on the floor. The older man bent to pick it up, his mass of hair covering his face.

It took a moment for Itachi to pick back up on his trail of thought. "It seems to be often inaccurate, but still, I felt it would be most unwise to allow anyone else to come to know of her ability. Whether the ability was useful or not, she would be hunted for it."

Kakashi closed his eyes, and put a hand to his forehead. He had no reason to believe that Itachi was a liar, of course. That didn't mean that he wasn't barking mad. Even if he was insane, he was probably right in that a prophet would be a dangerous tool in unscrupulous hands. Someone who wanted to misuse potential information could do a great deal of harm with access to a seer. It wouldn't matter if the claim was true or not, so long as people believed it.

After a moment of silence, he pried his uncovered eye open and twisted to share a look with Tsunade.

She shrugged, clearly just as bemused as he was. "Jiraiya believes in prophecy," she shared noncommittally, giving just the shortest glance in her partner's direction. "You'll forgive me if I don't, of course, but I can still see that this claim would make Aiko a target. Do you have any evidence of this supposed ability?"

"She knew that I acted on orders from Konoha," Itachi offered up quietly. "As well as that Pein was not the true leader of Akatsuki. Or rather, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that she suspected he was not Akatsuki's leader. In other possible futures, Orochimaru would have killed Sandaime-sama and taken on Sasuke as an apprentice."

Tsunade nearly choked.

"Clearly, that did not come to pass, and the future is therefore not a book to be read at leisure," Itachi continued respectfully. "Although Aiko may have some experience with discerning how certain outcomes may be reached. You did have a second apprentice in that future as well," Itachi shared, nodding slightly at Tsunade. "So perhaps some things are set in stone."

If that were true, it would explain Aiko's reticence on this bizarre topic. Sharing the future could change it, and possibly for the worse. It seemed likely that trying to ensure a desirable future could circumvent it. Keeping quiet may have been her best option. Besides, who would have believed her?

He wouldn't have.

"And who was my alternate future's apprentice?" Tsunade rasped dryly, clearly trying for detached nonchalance and not entirely succeeding.

"A girl with pink hair. I did not recognize her."

That sentence felt like a physical blow to the gut. Weakly, Kakashi took a shuddering breath and backed away, trying to regain his composure.

He had no idea how Itachi could possibly have known about Sakura. But god, that meant that if he was right, somehow she could have been saved. And she would have become so strong. It was like losing a student for the first time all over again.

Maybe it just hit him especially hard because he'd just lost his second student.

'No. I haven't lost her yet.' Kakashi grit his teeth and denied that bleak thought, fingers reaching for the kunai in his thigh pouch like a safety blanket. He would have to ask Jiraiya how it was possible, since the Hiraishin should have faded when Aiko died. But he could still feel her chakra humming faintly along the seal. She wasn't dead. And if she wasn't dead, she could be helped.

Unlike Sakura. Poor sweet Sakura.

Jiraiya was giving him a sympathetic look that made him want to hide under the table, rather than risk condolences again. It was belatedly that he realized the other two shinobi were eying him warily. Ah. That was right. Tsunade had never even met Sakura, and Kakashi hadn't exactly had a heart-to-heart with her on the topic. She wouldn't know who Itachi was talking about.

Tsunade still didn't look entirely convinced, but Kakashi had been shown enough circumstantial evidence to at least want more information. He opened his mouth to confirm that Itachi had referenced someone he knew, but shut it without saying a word. They'd already discerned as much from his reaction, and he didn't feel the need to start storytime. Not now.

'Did Aiko know Sakura was going to die?' Kakashi flinched when the possibility hit him like a fist to the head, wracking his memory for anything that hinted one way or the other. Had she said anything that could have been a clue? Looked nervous? No… Maybe she'd pushed the kids a little harder than usual in training, but that made sense when nominating absolute rookies for a Chuunin exam.

'I don't think she knew. Or that she really believed it would happen. Maybe… If Itachi is telling the truth and correct, that could explain why Aiko had an out of character breakdown that night,' he concluded bleakly.

"You said she knew things from before she was born?" Jiraiya spoke for the first time, looking disturbed. "Like what?"

Itachi seemed ready for that question. "Odds and ends," he admitted. "Nothing coherent. A red-headed girl being kidnapped by Kumo nin and saved by a blonde boy. Something about a female jinchuuriki. And…" he frowned, looking perturbed. "my mother," Itachi added flatly. "Holding her the day she was born, in the Hokage's office."

'I have no idea what any of that would be about,' Kakashi thought, slightly relieved. In this, perhaps he preferred ignorance to knowledge of the specific things Aiko had already known about. Judging by the shell-shocked look on Jiraiya's face, something Itachi had said had rung a bell.

The Sannin exchanged an uneasy look. "Uchiha Mikoto was with Aiko when I brought Naruto up," Jiraiya admitted quietly.

"And the reports on Aiko's birth were in her handwriting," Tsunade added wryly. After a moment, her eyes widened and she cursed. "Hell, I wonder if the birth anomaly she recorded had anything to do with-"

"Birth anomaly?" Kakashi interrupted rudely. He'd never heard of anything like that.

"Well, yes," Tsunade said warily. "When Shizune was giving her an advanced physical, she realized that Aiko's chakra composition didn't match her old readings at all. Two days ago, Aiko had perfectly balanced spiritual and physical energy."

That was unlikely. Perfect balance was prized for the way it augmented chakra control abilities, but almost impossible to achieve. Sakura had been damn close. Aiko had never had bad chakra control, but hers wasn't good, either. It was far better than Naruto's, but not as polished as Sasuke's had been at comparative points in their early training.

"But her old records indicated a sharp imbalance in favor of spiritual chakra," the Hokage continued. "Shizune tried to make a timeline to see if the last results were typical, or just an unusually high reading on that particular day." Tsunade exhaled deeply, brow furrowed. "It was typical. Aiko had disproportionate chakra literally since the day she was born."

Creepy.

"That's very strange," Jiraiya said flatly. "What, like a little too much soul tagged along for the ride or something?"

Kakashi didn't believe in souls, but he was now very uncomfortable with the topic of conversation for a reason he couldn't define.

Tsunade cracked her knuckles, giving Kakashi one last troubled look. He was too busy thinking to feel up to reassuring her that he wasn't about to snap. After a moment, she sighed and turned her attention back to Itachi. "Tell me everything you remember."

Kakashi managed to drag himself out of paranoid re-examinations of rather faint memories in order to listen to that. Most of what Itachi knew was all but useless now, hopelessly outdated. According to Itachi, Aiko had known a fair bit about Akatsuki members, but most of them were dead now. So perhaps she had known what she was doing in feigning ignorance and quietly steering actions where she could. It was more than a bit unnerving to hear that she'd believed that the Akatsuki known as Tobi might be the long-dead Uchiha Madara, all things considered.

'Itachi made the same claim when we were in Ame,' he remembered. There had been more time-sensitive issues at the time, but… 'That could be a clue. If Itachi is right, and Madara uses dead Uchiha bodies as hosts, we might be able to track down whose he is using to get some idea as to his current capabilities.'

Feeling ill, Kakashi exchanged a glance with Tsunade. Itachi might have taken it for doubt, because he went on to mention that he had thought she was suspiciously deferential to Tobi.

"She was very careful not to provoke," Itachi informed.

"That doesn't sound much like Aiko in normal circumstances," Tsunade acknowledged a bit weakly. The woman was right. When she felt in danger, Aiko defaulted to flippancy and bravado rather than cautiousness.

And he had thought he smelled an Uchiha. (Cat-loving bastards, Kakashi thought uncharitably. And unfairly—he liked cats just fine himself). If Kakashi had discovered that Obito's eye could be used to tear dimensional rifts, then an Uchiha with a hundred years worth of time to waste and ability to select a designer meat-sack certainly could have encountered the power through experiment as well. That would have been how he had taken Aiko out of the hospital. It fit neatly.

However much circumstantial evidence there appeared to be, there was still a problem with this story.

"Madara should be dead," he rejected. That point he couldn't get over. "He's not a scientist like Orochimaru. There's no reason to believe Madara would possess the requisite skill-set to survive for so long. How would he transfer bodies?"

"I have considered the issue many time," Itachi agreed somberly. "It is my belief that after Madara was defeated at the Valley of the End, the Hokage let Madara go out of the memory of their old friendship. I do not know how he clung to life for so many years, but if anyone could, it would be him."

"Tobi did display interest in Aiko," Tsunade mused, face pale. "It fits."

Itachi narrowed his half-blind eyes on Tsunade with new intensity. "So Naruto-san informed me. I do not know how her knowledge could have come to his attention. I told no one."

"He's an Uchiha too," Jiraiya pointed out sourly, sneering ever so slightly at Itachi. The Uchiha looked uncomfortable. "If you could rummage around her psyche and discover the information, who is to say that he couldn't?

Unsurprisingly, Itachi didn't want to answer that. "Has Tobi come to Konoha?" he asked cautiously.

' I forgot he didn't know what was going on.'

It wasn't a bad guess.

"Yes, and he took Aiko with him when he left." Tsunade paused, apparently noting the collective wince from the light-haired men in the room. "Sorry," she added belatedly.

Kakashi waved her apology off, though the sting of her bluntness hadn't faded.

They stayed in that office for another hour wringing Itachi for information. Unsurprisingly, Kakashi somehow discovered a capacity to feel even worse by the time they were done.

'It would have been nice if he'd known anything useful. Or if he'd shared this before.' Kakashi stayed in his dark thoughts even as Itachi left and the three bored teenagers filed into the doorway in his stead. 'If we'd known, we would have been more careful. Someone would have watched Aiko directly.'

Tsunade seemed to take it as a possible boon that Aiko was currently amnesiac, whether through physical trauma or inability to cope with the information. (She'd nearly theorized aloud that it was because Nagato's jutsu really had worked at restoring her to the state she should be in, a state without strange extra knowledge, before Kakashi's obvious bad mood had brought her back down.) That meant that Madara couldn't get what she'd known out of her. It was good for Konoha as a whole, even if it wasn't for Aiko.

Of course, that didn't mean that she wouldn't have new visions that would endanger Konoha. And if she never did, Madara would probably decide she was worthless and kill her. There was no way to win. He would probably only keep her alive as long as she was useful to him. Of course, that didn't mean much about what state she would be kept in. There were a good many tortures that would leave a person perfectly capable of talking.

"There hasn't been much change since Kakashi left Ame," Sasuke began, clearly thinking they were present for a debriefing of the situation in Ame. Tsunade held up a palm, indicating that he should stop talking.

"Not important right now," she dismissed. "If there were no real changes, in any case. That's not our biggest concern. Right now, Konoha is focusing on itself. I expect all three of you to devote yourselves wholeheartedly to strengthening the village. We are in grave danger at the moment. Our numbers aren't particularly low, but our people are on the streets and we have no fortifications. We're a huge target."

'Nice speech, but that's not why they're here,' Kakashi thought sourly. Honestly. He knew perfectly well that medics were masters of compartmentalization—you had to be, to clinically diagnose bleeding hunks of meat instead of crying over wounded comrades—but at the moment, it rankled.

"But that's not why you're here," Tsunade added guiltily, fidgeting.

'That was uncanny.' Kakashi gave her a suspicious look, which she apparently took as motivation to jump right to the heart of the matter.

"Naruto, your sister is missing in action." Tsunade grimaced slightly. "And she's probably unaware of the danger of her situation."

' Is she technically missing in action? She wasn't in a combat situation at the time.'

That wasn't a productive line of thought. He steered away from it.

"What." It wasn't really a question, but Naruto seemed to want an answer. At his side, Sasuke was dangerously still. "How?"

"No, when," Karin interrupted, frowning. "When did this happen? I thought that the attack was days ago, and that the Ame nin already left."

Kakashi forced himself to wonder how Karin had heard that Ame nin were present instead of listening to the information he himself had compiled for Tsunade. He'd been dwelling on it for days, and turning the same information over hadn't born any fruit.

"She was taken out of the hospital," Tsunade said quietly. "We don't know who, other than that he is the Akatsuki who went by the name Tobi. Kakashi suspects he's an Uchiha. Itachi claims that Madara Uchiha may be possessing younger Uchiha in order to survive, and that this Tobi was the real head of Akatsuki."

He just didn't have any damn ideas. There hadn't been anything new to add until Itachi's report. There had to be a clue there. Something to go off of, a starting place at least.

"An Uchiha?" Sasuke asked incredulously, mouth not quite managing to close. "Where are these people hiding? Are you storing them in your lingerie drawer for when you really need to wow someone?"

'That's an odd thing to say,' Kakashi noted. 'I'm guessing there's something I haven't been told.'

Judging by the look on Itachi's face, he hadn't been told either.

"Probably Uchiha Madara," Jiraiya inserted uncomfortably, ruffling the back of his hair. "That would explain the grudge against Konoha personally."

'It's sad that I'm almost hoping it really was Uchiha Madara and not some mysterious Uchiha survivor,' Kakashi thought bleakly. Despite the frightening likelihood that Madara would be ill-disposed to treating an Uzumaki gently, he at least wasn't a complete unknown. There had to be some way to gather information about him. Childhood haunts, or habits, or mannerisms that could be used to identify him despite a henge or other disguise. It was the only clue he had, so he had to hope it was true.

"I don't- but…" Naruto shook his head, bewildered. His big blue eyes wavered, begging for someone to make it better.

It hurt, to see that Naruto still retained that bit of childish reliance on someone else to fix everything. Or rather, it hurt to see it and know that he couldn't do a thing to preserve it.

'Maybe Aiko made a mistake by taking care of everything Naruto couldn't handle,' Kakashi thought dully.

"He should be long dead," Sasuke argued. A man after Kakashi's own heart, he made the same argument the Copy-nin had made when he'd heard that theory.

"That's crazy," Naruto agreed.

The Hokage sighed. "Telling him that he should be dead probably won't help." Tsunade shared a grim glance with Jiraiya. "When we know more, you'll be the first to hear about it. I promise that we'll find her if there's any way."

Karin was crying silently, tears slipping down without her face moving or wrenched up. Her jaw was hard, and her chin didn't waver. Sasuke was a picture of grim understanding, the other end of the emotional spectrum.

' Strange that Karin is the most openly upset. She knew Aiko the least amount of time.'

A second later, Naruto disproved Kakashi's judgment by screwing his face up. Counter-intuitively, he looked more angry than sad.

"This is bullshit!" Naruto shouted, banging a fist on Tsunade's desk. It shook under the weight, despite looking perfectly sturdy. He didn't seem to notice, but he didn't hit it again. "Don't talk like this is the end or something. She's fine. She's always fine. She'll probably saunter right in the gates and then pretend like she doesn't even understand why we were worried."

"Naruto, don't be immature," Tsunade snapped, glaring at him in obvious frustration at his intentional pig-headedness. "No one is invincible."

"Then we'll go find her," Naruto countered immediately. Ah, Kakashi realized. He'd talked Tsunade into a corner. That was a rather good rhetorical play, for a teenager in a temper. "No offense, but it's stupid to work on putting up buildings when a real person needs help. I'm not doing it." Naruto crossed his arms combatively.

"You'll do what you're told, or you won't be on the team looking for her," Tsunade rejoined fiercely, placing her palms down and leaning over her desk. "Calm the hell down. I didn't say we were giving up, did I? We can't do anything without some information or clues as to where to start, so this is the time that your scruffy godfather and his intelligence network are the only ones who can do anything. Once we have a better idea than 'outside the village', then you can go tear through anyone in your way."

Sullenly, Naruto nodded, apparently not trusting himself to speak. Tsunade kindly pretended not to see Karin curl her fingers around his, or Sasuke carefully lean his shoulder against Naruto's.

Kakashi couldn't stop looking, however, feeling melancholy and strangely empty. Team. They were a good team.

They were probably better off without him. Everything he touched died. With the exception of Gai, but that probably had more to do with Gai's sturdiness than Kakashi's competency as a human being.

He looked away with herculean effort. "I'll contact you as soon as I know something." Even to his ears, his voice sounded strange. Sasuke looked at him sharply. "Assuming all three of you want in on this mission, of course. I'll see you later."

He left before they could say anything, unable to be in that room any longer.

Chapter Text

"So, where are we?" Curiously, Aiko poked a thin blue teacup with the tip of her finger—and then jerked to catch it when the delicate china tipped over and rolled off the shelf. Guiltily, she tossed a glance over her shoulder to be certain that her companion hadn't seen.

Nope, she was safe.

Surreptitiously, she awkwardly grabbed the lip of the teacup braced against her chest and carefully placed it in the sink. The dusty sink with hard-water stains and a suspiciously black plate lying abandoned at the bottom. Yuck.

'I don't think he's much of a housekeeper.'

She internally congratulated herself for not shattering the dish, grabbing two cups at random and rinsing them before taking them to the dusty table.

She hadn't been feeling particularly self-satisfied after the odd swirly transportation technique had made her feel dizzy and faint, to the point that drowned out the comforting humming in her ears and head. It was more than a bit embarrassing to realize she had gone nearly limp and was being supported by her companion, even if he didn't seem to mind. He hadn't given his name yet, actually. She frowned. Would it be rude to ask?

"A place that I have used as a retreat in past," he rumbled. He had such a pleasant voice, Aiko decided. She could listen to it all day.

Which was good, because he wasn't done talking.

"A sanctuary, of a sort. It's yours to use now. Actually, it's yours in general," he modified. "You hadn't been here before, the base you've stayed at in past is lost to us now." His fingers tensed slightly on the teapot he was fiddling with, but there was no other show of emotion at the recitation of a rather grim fact. "I'll show you other safehouses so you know where to go if something goes wrong, but you can do what you wish with this location."

"Oh." She blinked. "Thank you, I suppose." Was that what you were meant to say when someone gave you a house? She had no idea.

His lips twitched. Aiko noticed again that only one side of his mouth moved. That was odd. It probably wouldn't be polite to say anything, right?

She was mortified when he not-so-subtly covered half of his face with a hand. Flushing, Aiko looked down at the table. That was why she missed the faintly amused look on his face while he stood to go take the boiling water off of the heat. As he passed, he ruffled her hair. "It's alright," her companion excused. "I'm wearing a henge."

"Why?" Aiko asked innocently, running her fingers over the cold porcelain in front of her, marveling at its smoothness.

The next pause was a dangerous one, fraught with tension that she did not understand in the slightest.

"Because I'm ugly," he eventually answered, with a strange undertone that probably meant she shouldn't prod. Aiko didn't recognize it.

"I doubt that." She propped her chin up on her palms and glanced up at him through her eyelashes. "And who cares about 'ugly' anyways?"

There were a lot of things that were worse than being ugly. Like being mean or having to be bored or talking too much like Shizune. She didn't believe he could be so ugly that he was scary. He had a very nice voice, and besides, he was a good person. Even if he was ugly, she would just smile and tell him he was fine. That seemed like a thing that friends should do, right?

Even Aiko could tell that there was something unsaid and uncomfortable in the room when he took nearly a minute to reply. She fidgeted until he silently poured newly steeped tea into her cup, apparently studying her face. With almost childlike delight Aiko leaned forward enough to breathe in the fragrant mist that the cup gave off, letting her eyes flutter shut. According to him the tea leaves were stale, but it smelled nice to her.

He seemed to decide something in that moment. "Very well." His voice slipped just a little bit lower than it had been in that short phrase.

"Hmm?" Aiko pried one eye open – and then opened the other as well, to examine her friend.

He didn't look that different from his henge, really. It had exaggerated some of his features, and minimized others. The henge had been given brown eyes instead of his pure, deep black. They were striking, actually, she didn't know why he would want to cover them up. Very pretty eyes, with short but thick lashes. Why had he made them longer in the henge- vanity? His lips were thin but his jaw was strong.

Aiko touched the tip of her own nose thoughtfully. It wasn't much like his. Hers was straight and slightly upturned, but her friend's was slightly off center and just a little long.

It was probably a good amount of nose for a man, even if it would have been silly on her. In short…

"You're not ugly at all," she said honestly. "Actually, you're pretty."

The baffled expression he gave her pulled at the funny upraised lines on one side of his face, causing interesting wrinkles and shadows. Surprise at the phenomenon pulled a delighted laugh out of her lips. Without thinking, she reached out to touch just to see what they felt like. They looked soft and dry. They were like her scars, but the material seemed different—something that was the same tint as his skin, instead of a paler shade.

His hand caught her wrist inches before her fingertips grazed his skin, just a little too tightly to be comfortable. Aiko froze, suddenly unsure of herself. "I just wanted to touch," she defended herself weakly, not exactly sure what she'd done wrong.

After a moment, he released her hand. "Drink your tea."

She did.

"I think you have nice eyes," she offered meekly as a peace offering, once she was halfway through her cup and the silence had become uncomfortable.

He made a strange sound. "Thank you." After a moment, he relaxed, just a little, and shook his head. "You probably don't remember who I am, do you?" When she shook her head, he just nodded mildly. "Understandable. I'm Obito. We're both former Konoha nin."

"We are?" She blinked. "I think Shizune implied I was active duty."

"I- I'm sorry," Obito said quietly. "She was lying," he said gravely, setting down his drink and leaning over slightly to give her a very serious look. "They were taking advantage of your trauma to trick you. You've been working with me for years," he sighed. " Ever since we met while you were stationed on the Land of Wind's northern border. Konoha recently found out about me. They caught us meeting. We played it off like I was threatening you, but we both knew that it was only a matter of time until they put the pieces together. I wanted you to come away, where you were safe, but you wanted to finish your mission." He looked deeply dissatisfied. Regret sparked in his dark eyes.

"Oh." Aiko shuddered, feeling distinctly unsettled as she drank up the information that Obito offered. That… did seem to fit with the cautious feeling her intuition had given her. And explained why she hadn't recognized Shizune, when she supposedly should have. Shizune had been awfully squirrelly and secretive, asking questions but never answering them… In retrospect, that was bad.

"Why did I leave Konoha- why did we leave Konoha," she corrected, mind still on Shizune. The older woman had seemed professional, if not kind. She still felt oddly betrayed.

Obito grimaced. "Well, that's complicated," he obfuscated. "Really complicated. You and I share a distaste for Konoha's methodologies," he said delicately. "And I know that you, personally, really chafed against the restrictions they placed on your freedom. You were always trying to get out of the village."

Fancy that. She couldn't imagine why anyone would want to run away from the kind of people who would try to trick an amnesiac patient. God, that really bothered her. Shiz- that woman had lied to her so Aiko didn't know anything was wrong. Maybe she wasn't even a doctor. Aiko bit her lip, just a little too hard, breaking the skin.

'Maybe she isn't a doctor,' some paranoid part of her brain echoed, 'and maybe she is. Can I really base my entire opinion on this off of a gut reaction?'

On the other hand, was there a reason for her to disbelieve Obito? Not as far as she could tell.

"Hey, careful." Obito frowned at her, but didn't invade her personal space. "It's gonna hurt to get hot tea in that, you know."

She guiltily sucked at her lip, keeping blood from trickling down her chin by the simple expedient of licking it up.

He just sighed and shook his head at her, languidly leaning back. "Don't worry. It'll make sense eventually, but know that you're safe here. I won't let anyone get to you or make you go back." After a moment, he frowned. "Although some of my associates are dangerous people," Obito admitted ruefully. "Please be careful, until you know what's going on. Alright?"

"Alright," she agreed quietly, not entirely certain she was telling the truth. She would do what she wanted. But on the other hand, he was being considerate by giving her options and information. He hadn't really forbid her to do anything. Maybe she should wait a little bit to be sure. It was unsettling to hear about her apparently dangerous life second-hand and not know what she could safely do or say. If she didn't like what Obito thought she should do, could she leave? Would Konoha hunt her down and drag her back?

Aiko shuddered. She didn't remember living in Konoha, but she knew it was a shinobi village. A military institution wouldn't always be nice.

Obito seemed to care if she was hurt, as far as she could tell. That was more pleasant than professional, detached interest like she'd experienced in the hospital.

'It looks a lot like he's giving me options. If he's telling the truth, he might have saved my life from that woman and the people she worked for. On the other hand, she seemed amicable. Maybe I could have worked things out in Konoha.'

He smiled ruefully, as if he knew what was going on in her head.

Her stomach lurched. She tightened her fingers around her cup, disgusted with herself for sitting across from someone who obviously cared about her and disregarding his help. He'd gone more than a bit out of his way to rescue her, and she should appreciate that even if she didn't need it.

'There's no going backwards,' Aiko realized. 'It doesn't matter if Konoha would have been nice or not, because he's my only known ally now. I left with him willingly, despite thinking that there was something strange about his refusal to check out properly. You don't get to desert a military and then go back because it was all a funny misunderstanding.'

Basically, his story that she was a former Konoha nin allied with him was true now, even if it hadn't been true yesterday. Deserters didn't go home. And he wanted her here.

The thought was warming. Someone wanted her. She wasn't alone! She was somebody-to-somebody; wasn't that enough?

It was probably lucky that she didn't feel any particular attachment to Konoha. Staying there would have given her a purpose, but she probably already had one here as well. It would be nice to have something to do—something to think and accomplish.

"I'm glad to see you're well," Obito said quietly. Something dark fluttered across his features, his mouth twisting slightly. "When I realized you were in the hospital…" He trailed off darkly. Aiko shifted in her seat, discomfited by the implication of emotion she couldn't identify with. She didn't feel anything in particular other than relief, even if he'd been sad. "Well, I'm glad they healed you well, anyways." He cleared his throat and raised his tone to something a little less morose. "You went down fighting, you know. Not that I'm surprised," he added quickly. "You've always been brave." He winced. "I should have paid you much more attention," Obito added weakly, shaking his head. "My sensei's only kid, and I didn't keep you safe..."

She didn't know what to do with that last part and it made her uncomfortable, so she glossed over it and pretended not to hear.

'I've always been brave?' Aiko scrunched her brow slightly, trying out the thought. Was she really? That was a nice identity to have. Brave. Maybe she'd like being brave.

'Decisive, I can believe,' Aiko thought with a small amount of humor. 'I feel decisive.'

In a way, it was hilarious to make such knee-jerk decisions that would likely have consequences she couldn't fathom. But what else could she do?

"Why was I fighting?" she asked curiously, glancing down into the tea leaves at the bottom of her cup. It looked like a rabbit. Inexplicably, it made her feel sad.

She nearly missed Obito's scowl.

"As I said, you were doing reconnaissance while posing as a Konoha nin. Unfortunately, you got caught up in a fight between Konoha and someone who used to be one of our allies. He was a wild card, apparently. I'm sorry. I never would have allowed him near you if I had known what he would do."

Genuinely regretful, he tilted his head down and looked up at her beneath his lashes. "I'm so sorry I got you involved in all this. I should have been there. I-" He cleared his throat, correcting the slightly raised pitch of his voice to a quieter regret she had to lean in to hear. "If I'd just left you be, never talked to you in the Land of Wind, you would have been safe. Konoha would have protected you."

"That's… okay," she excused uncertainly. It didn't matter much to her, since she didn't know what he was talking about. And she was committed, either way.

But Obito shook his head. "No, it's not okay." He actually seemed a bit upset. "You're not really a frontline combat type. You're not supposed to be in that kind of danger."

She wasn't? That was actually interesting information, but it probably wouldn't be polite to try to find out exactly what kind of shinobi she was when her friend was obviously upset. She could find out later.

"Well, it's over now." Aiko offered up a smile, wincing slightly at the pull on her ouchie. "and I'm here with you. That seems pretty safe to me."


It was almost pitifully easy. Obito nearly felt guilty, but at least he was doing as little lying as possible. They were both former Konoha shinobi now, after all. There was no reason in changing other convenient details when he could just wrap his story around them instead. He had seen her while she was posted in the Land of Wind, after all. She hadn't seen him, but what did that matter?

'That modicum of honesty doesn't really count in your favor,' Madara noted sardonically. 'When it is taken into consideration that you are telling the truth so that her faith in you will not be shaken by discovering outside information.'

He smiled shyly instead of retorting, letting Aiko think she was comforting him. At the moment, she wasn't much more than a civilian with excellent physical conditioning and reflexes. He could read her reactions effortlessly.

She just seemed so young and earnest at the moment, beyond what a kunoichi should be able to muster. How long had she been active forces—six, seven years? Clearly a fresh start was good for her.

Of course, the somewhat childlike mindset she was displaying would have more than a few drawbacks. She would need to be desensitized again, if he didn't want her panicking and running away the first time she saw action.

'How logical,' Madara observed drolly. 'I am certain that it is why you gave her your real name. It couldn't possibly be misplaced sentimentality. You were being practical, as always, by making decisions before you think of rationales that excuse them.'

Hey, she might have recognized the 'Tobi' act. It didn't seem especially likely that he would stick out in her mind, but it would be a stupid reason to get caught, that was all. He wouldn't be able to fall back on Tobi around Aiko.

Of course, Madara was utterly unsuitable for dealing with any human being who he didn't want to terrify or murder, so that left Obito himself. Why not give her his real name? It wasn't like he wanted to end up assimilating a fourth person into his head. She was incapable of doing him harm. He wouldn't let her contact anyone who would recognize the name, so it didn't matter. And he could hardly convince her they were good friends if he refused to let her see his face. That was just ridiculously suspicious.

Besides, secrecy could be achieved easily enough. If he told her just enough of the truth, and then let her 'discover' information that corroborated his information, she would be amenable to keeping his identity quiet. Perhaps he would tell her that he was concerned for her because he was her father's last student (Bakashi didn't count) and that Konoha thought he was dead. That should inspire the need to quiet.

'Not Rin?' Tobi asked a little sullenly, irritated that he was being pushed back.

No, not Rin. He couldn't think of her like Rin. Rin was his age. She had been desensitized and burnt by the harsh realities of shinobi life when she was nine years old. Rin was extraordinarily kind, but not naïve. Aiko couldn't be like Rin, especially when she acted so young (even though that was a disconcerting mixed signal from an obviously grown woman). God, at Aiko's age, he'd… He'd killed her father, actually. Hmm.

But really, it wouldn't be so bad to spend some time babysitting Minato's kid. She could be like a bratty little sister! He'd never had a sibling before.

"I suppose you can't spy in Konoha anymore," he started, letting her think he was not quite focused on the conversation. Really, he was rather enjoying reeling her in with giving little bits of interesting information and making her work- making her think- to fill in the blanks. Conclusions that she had reached herself would seem much more convincing than ones he'd supplied, after all.

He painted on a frown consciously, knowing that at the moment she may not be alert enough to use subtle cues. "They figured you out somehow, they know you're not one of their agents. I wish I knew how exactly, though they were suspicious of our association already. Someone must have ratted you out." He shrugged helplessly, and had to avoid smiling at the obvious fascination on her face.

He'd picked a good tactic. It seemed she had a bit of an ego- she liked thinking that she'd been involved in something clandestine and exciting.

'I can use that.'

"What an asshat."

Obito blinked twice, tilting his head and trying to be sure he'd heard correctly. "Asshat?" he repeated uncertainly.

Aiko just shrugged at him. "I don't know, it was the natural thing to say."

"Was it," he drew out, a little unsettled by the oddity. He'd never heard Aiko talk like that before, but then, they'd never really been close. It could have been a fluke- slang she'd picked up from someone disreputable like Shizune, or a peer. It wasn't like Obito knew what teenagers said in Konoha anymore. Although, it could also mean that there really was something potentially troublesome buried in that fluffy head of hers. "You're funny, Aiko."

He smiled instead of scowling. He would watch for further developments.

With that in mind, he kept a careful eye on her over the next couple of days, knowing that Zetsu would cover for his absence. She didn't seem to suspect a thing. He made a game of testing her muscle memory, challenging her to play fights over who had to carry groceries or clean the shower (he hadn't used this hideout in a very long time, and it showed).

That, at least, bore some fruit. Thankfully, he wouldn't be re-training her from ground zero. She didn't remember learning, and she was hesitant when told to attack him, but clearly a lifetime of repetition had etched something into her subconscious brain or muscles themselves. The first time that she successfully blocked a hit, Aiko looked intoxicated and mildly stunned. It turned out that she was more than passable in that regard, while he was using full speed but considerably less than his full strength. Of course, if he really tried, he would snap her arms and legs like dry wood, so it wasn't proof positive of acceptable capability. She would do well against Chuunin and most Jounin, he assumed. He wasn't exactly a typical shinobi, so it was hard to gauge how well she would fare on her own.

He had to frown, however, that she seemed to want to block everything, now that she knew she could do it. Sometimes she seemed to move into blows, which demonstrated a worrying lack of insight into the whole point of taijutsu.

"No," Obito said sharply, holding up a hand for her to stop. Aiko looked a bit wounded. He sighed. "You're not a tank, Aiko. It's good that your defensive taijutsu is still sharp and reflexive, but what you should be working on it not getting hit. Don't be where I'm hitting," he enunciated carefully, demonstrating with a clone. "I've seen you fight. Your best natural advantage is that you're fast. You aren't very strong. You're the type of fighter who thinks," he stressed.

She looked a little sour, straightening and pretending to examine her nails so that she didn't have to look at him. When the response came, it was rather arch.

"And I suppose you're the type of fighter who hits things really hard?"

'When did she get sassy?' Obito wondered. 'Is that her real personality, or something new?'

He'd probably never know.

"No. I can hit a lot harder than you, but I also prefer to fight smarter," he drawled.

She didn't dignify that with a response. So he set her to practicing her projectile weaponry in an attempt to figure out what he was working with. Frankly… it wasn't much.

'How did she get to be a Jounin with genin level shuriken and senbon skills?' Obito wondered, utterly baffled. Madara made a confused sound in agreement. Aiko had pretty wicked accuracy with a standard kunai, but that appeared to be the only projectile she'd focused on after she'd left the academy. She could hit anyone who would stand still or walk slowly from about fifty feet with shuriken or senbon, but that really wouldn't be helpful in combat. Unless she wanted to fight the shuffling elderly, perhaps.

Had Bakashi really trained her? He'd been so good at projectiles. All of them were, really: it was one of the best ways to ameliorate a size disadvantage in combat. Rin had been an especially deft hand with senbon, which had been a large part of the reason she'd ended up in the medical program.

Further experimentation revealed that Aiko was simply much more talented in hand-to-hand than she was in ranged fighting, despite all common sense and her petite build. She didn't have a particularly wide technical repertoire, but her reflexes served her to a mid-Chuunin level with either a short sword or two kunai. She'd probably been better before.

'She must have managed by hitting fast and moving out,' Obito figured dryly. 'She doesn't have the build for long, drawn out close range fights, or the skills for distance fighting. But she can zip in and out of range, using moderate force and avoiding retaliatory blows.'

It fit with the little he'd seen of her tactics. That would be an annoying style to fight against. Not that he really had any room to talk, of course. Acting on a hunch, he tried to get her to remember her jutsu. They were probably short-range stuff as well, if he was picking up on the patterns in her skill set. He'd like to see what she could do.

But she didn't remember a damn thing. Try at he might, he got nothing out of her. Aiko could parrot his handsigns and re-memorized them with admirable speed, but she didn't have any memory of learning actual jutsu.

'I suppose that means I don't get to reverse engineer Bakashi's toys,' he noted sullenly.

Pity.

The bigger pity, of course, was that this circumstance (however outwardly fortuitous it may seem to have been) most likely eliminated the possibility that he would end up with a Hiraishin user at his disposal. He certainly couldn't teach it to her. Perhaps showing her some sealing texts would jog her memory, or she would have a very convenient stroke of genius. But short of a miracle, Aiko was probably quite a bit less valuable as a tool than she had been a week prior.

Oh well. He already had a transportation technique, and it was a small price to pay for the ability to continue on with his initial plan.

He stayed with her full-time for three days, only sneaking away to meet with Zetsu and his other underlings when Aiko was distracted or could be told he was taking a walk. Of course, it was the last night that he came alert, ears pricked and suddenly wary. He prowled down the hall, and carefully pushed open her door.

And then he had to side-step, because she nearly clocked him with a pillow.

At least her instincts were good, even if her choice of weaponry was somewhat underwhelming. Obito raised an eyebrow.

Aiko colored sheepishly, sitting up in bed. Her blue-green eyes were big and troubled, and her hair was drawn up in a messy little rat's nest at the side of her head. It was terribly cute, in a 'lost child' sort of way. "Sorry. I had a bad dream. Guess I woke up feeling aggressive."

Unease stirred in his gut. "A bad dream?" he asked lightly, coming in just enough to lean against the wall, monitoring her breathing and body language. But when her reply came, it didn't appear to be a lie. That was something, at least. She still trusted him. She really was naïve.

"Yeah." Aiko balled up a handful of her comforter, as if she could manage something productive by mistreating her bedding. "It was weird. There was this sense of being scared. There was a woman in a nurse outfit who was dragging me around, and an old man in a big ugly housecoat. And… dolls, I think?" Obviously embarrassed, she ran a hand through her mussed hair, and gave him a faintly amused smile. "It was a weird dream. I'm not scared of dolls, am I?"

"Not to my knowledge," Obito answered smoothly, keeping his real thoughts off his face.

Option one: the dream really might have been something random, pulled up from the bottom of her subconscious.

Option two: she still associated him with the Akatsuki, and she was talking about Sasori and his stupid toys. Had she met Sasori? He didn't remember.

'I should assume the worst. Those memories are in there somewhere.' He went through the motions of comforting her without dwelling too much on the fact that her father had once soothed his nightmares like this, assuring Aiko that it wasn't silly to wake up from a nightmare and that he didn't mind her throwing things at him. But his mind was churning.

'This adds an element of danger. It's a good thing I've hardly lied to her, huh?' He didn't wait for a grumbled response from the voices in his head. 'I'm going to have to resort to a new tactic no matter what if she remembers everything, but if it's really just bits and pieces, I picked the right strategy.'

'Smug brat.'


Aiko hadn't bothered to disturb Obito the second time that bad dreams woke her up. Not that she'd had the chance: he had left for the day already when she woke at five in the morning.

She had fallen asleep wondering about the day he'd said they met in the Land of Wind. The dreams that thought apparently spawned were strange. More monsters, of course, but these ones weren't living dolls with clacking mouths. They were frothing, bloody messes that lunged out of dark forests and tried to drag her down.

She had the vague impression of fighting with a small group of men at her side. Their foreheads had glinted with metal that must have been Sand and Konoha plates.

But she didn't remember any faces. Just adrenaline and dawning horror and the lingering thought that one of her companions was dying, bloody and twitching on the ground in a way that was frankly shocking.

And then she woke up.

That was especially frustrating, because she suspected the nightmare had been a real occurrence and not something she had concocted. She wanted to know what happened next. But it probably wasn't worth bothering Obito to know. He'd seemed distressed enough the first time that she told him she was having bad dreams. It would just make him feel bad.

'My life must have been a mess.' Glumly, she pulled her sleeping robe shut and went to splash her face with cool water in the sink. 'No wonder I left Konoha for Obito.'

She had to remind herself of her increasingly gory dreams on the second day that she woke up alone to a note on the table advising her to practice her katas and throwing skills.

'I didn't think I was going to be left alone until it was convenient to pay attention to me, like an animal in a pen.' Sullenly, Aiko tossed shuriken overhand until her shoulder hurt, and then switched to the other arm. She was ambidextrous, apparently, by practice if not by nature. 'I could have stayed in the hospital if that was what I wanted.'

Of course, that would have meant being at the mercy of strangers. Strangers who had apparently known she was a spy of some sort and wanted to get information from her. Information that she didn't even have. At least Obito didn't seem to want anything from her (although that was frustrating too, in its own way).

It was so ironic that she wanted to laugh until she cried. Konoha had probably only kept her alive because they thought that she was faking her memory problems and wanted to get information out of her. That was undoubtedly why she'd been in isolation. They hadn't trusted her. Waking up dazed and altogether confused had probably been what saved her from an unpleasant interrogation. In a way, she was incredibly lucky that she'd hit her head, since Obito hadn't been able to extract her immediately.

She hadn't been quite thick enough to miss the implications of the fact that an ally of some sort had been the person to tear Konoha a new asshole. If she were one of them, she would want the blood of anyone remotely connected to that rogue jackass. No matter that Obito had clearly tried to gloss over the dangers of the situation to avoid frightening her, Aiko wasn't thick enough to miss the clues and figure out that she owed him, big-time.

It might be nice to be able to repay some of that debt, instead of sitting in a house he'd given her and eating food he'd bought. She felt worse than useless, and oddly resentful. She hated being left alone at the house—her deficiencies seemed more obvious without someone around ready to smooth over anything she forgot.

She wanted to be useful to Obito? Ha! She could barely take care of herself. It was so frustrating. Like… like everything she needed to know was there, but when she actively tried to pull up the information, her mind hit a blank.

When she wasn't paying attention, Aiko easily pulled together a perfectly edible breakfast. Or she had started to, anyhow, while fuming about being left alone for the day. She'd come out of her thoughts holding a spatula and staring down at a hot, rectangular pan and had no fucking idea why there was a bowl full of whipped eggs to the left of the burner. Eventually, she'd poured it all in at once. That was apparently not what she was supposed to do. Unless a burnt/half raw egg brick was the idea, in which case she could do without.

If Obito had been there to gently step in and remind her about what the next step was, she wouldn't have messed up something obviously simple. Aiko resented him leaving when he should be helping her, for that reason, and disliked being dependent on him just as much. There was literally no way for him to win with her, was there? Kami, she was awful.

Those feelings weren't logical or fair to Obito, but it was still what she felt. Out of sheer boredom when Aiko grew incredibly sick of target practice, she trudged inside and took a long, scalding-hot shower. There was nothing else to do, so she found herself pulling back on a leg holster when she re-dressed.

It wasn't like she was too immature to understand why Obito couldn't stay at the house all day. He was clearly a busy man, with a lot of things to do.

But he could have taken her with him when he left. Why didn't he? Did he think she was incapable of helping? He'd made it sound so reasonable, and expressed so much concern for her safety that she hadn't been able to offer an argument at the time. But after a while to steam, Aiko was not best pleased.

'Is he this protective all the time, or does he think I'm incompetent now?' Aiko scowled, tossing the soggy towel in the sink and heading out to practice with the shiny, hair-thin senbon that Obito had provided for her. 'Figures. I must have been beaten really badly. Embarrassingly badly, if he doesn't have any faith in me anymore.'

It hadn't been lost on her that he apparently had reason to lose that confidence in her abilities. He could have done a better job at hiding his dismay at what must have been decay in her skills. Infuriatingly, Obito wouldn't even tell her what she'd forgotten—probably some misplaced attempt to avoid hurting her feelings. That made it harder to work towards fixing the deficit.

The senbon were a pretty good hint as to what she should work on. And something that she could do on her own without any more resources, more importantly.

In combination with his off-hand comments about what type of shinobi she was, it wasn't too hard to suppose that she should be working towards extreme precision. Obito had proved his point about direct combat to her. When he had taken off the kid gloves and came at her with force, he'd wiped the floor with her in spar after spar, until her body felt like one big bruise.

If that was what it was like to fight someone who wasn't even a front-line type by his own admission, she wasn't cut out for brute force. She just wasn't. She couldn't afford to let people like that hit her.

So instead, she was going to have to try to get her stealth skills back up to snuff and get really damn good at not needing more than one hit when she struck from the shadows. That would prove to Obito that he didn't have to coddle her.

He came back in the late evening, after she'd already washed the dishes from dinner and set to angrily tossing her needles at leaves (and missing, more than half of the time). It felt strangely domestic to turn and glare at Obito.

She nearly faltered in her resolve to confront him.

'What on earth is on his head?'

It looked like he was wearing a carnival mask propped up on the top of his head. It was probably better not to ask.

Besides, he seemed more amused than anything by her scowl. With her luck, he'd laugh and deflect whatever questions she had for the fun of it.

"What's that face for?" With a mild snicker, Obito walked out far enough to glance up at the spread of needles pinning little bits of greenery to tree trunks. He schooled his expression, but not before she could see the wince at the little pile of shining metal at the foot of the tree she'd been using—senbon that had failed to hit their targets with enough force to stick in the wood.

Aiko flushed, trying not to scowl as his casual attitude made her feel very silly for being grumpy all day. Her hair hung over into her face when she resolutely looked down at her feet, suddenly very interested in a rock she'd stepped on.

"Oh, don't pout," he said mildly. She didn't hear him move, but after a short pause he was giving her shoulder an encouraging squeeze. "It'll come to you with time."

'Yes, but I want it to come back now,' she thought. Instantly, she felt ashamed. That was childish and ungrateful.

Of course, so was the topic she'd determined to bring up. That wasn't about to stop her, so there was no point in trying to convince herself that she wasn't immature. "Obito, are you disappointed with me?"

He stilled, fingers barely brushing against the fabric of the high-collared shirt he'd given her. Without thinking, she clutched at the hand with her own, pinning it. As if that would stop him from pulling away or refusing to answer her question. She really was a child, wasn't she?

"Why would you ask that?"

At his wary query, she tilted her head to peer up at him, feeling sheepish and slow. "Well, I apparently failed at whatever I was meant to be doing last, and you haven't even talked to me about a new mission. Am I useless?"

Obito actually seemed surprised. "You want something to do already?" he pushed, letting his forehead crinkle. At least, half of it did. Part of it was too stiff to move. "I thought you should have a break, recuperate. I mean—you did just." He stopped abruptly, frowning. "Well. You should rest."

"I don't want to rest," Aiko stressed, trying valiantly not to whine. By the look on Obito's face, she might not have succeeded. "I don't want to be useless. And," she added in a fit of petulance, "are you ever going to stop dancing around what actually happened? I'm not going to panic at bad news, I promise. What is it, that I'm not going to get any memories or abilities back? That looks like what you're planning for." She gestured with the last two senbon in her free hand. After a moment's thought, she flung them at her target without even aiming for a leaf. One sank in crookedly—the other pinged off and bounced in the grass.

She took a moment to wish that she hadn't done that. Or at least, that Obito hadn't pointedly watched the thing fall. It sort of undermined her unspoken claim that she was capable of being useful still. Aiko clenched her jaw shut tightly, trying to be calm.

"Apparently, you died."

'What?'

"What?" she repeated, not quite managing to come up with anything more intelligent than her initial reaction. Obito just nodded grimly, not quite making eye contact.

"Yes," he agreed lowly. "That's about right. You technically died in Konoha, according to the medical records they had made about you. When our associate was defeated, he offered Konoha a favor for his life, like the rotten little coward he was." Bitterness twisted her friend's mouth into something ugly. For lack of anything to say, she tightened her grip on his hand, crooking her fingers around his index finger and pressing her palm flat on his knuckles.

He didn't even try to move his hand. Maybe he needed the comfort as much as she did.

"You found yourself in a fight with two Konoha nin and a puppet belonging to our mutual ally," Obito shared darkly. "He must have panicked, ratted you out to save his own skin. When the other two turned on you…" He winced, closing his eyes. Fascinated and horrified at what she was hearing, Aiko just stared as he took a steadying breath. "When they turned on you, you turned to a suicide attack. You managed to take them all with you, I think."

He opened his eyes, both pain and fondness clearly visible. She didn't resist when he placed his free hand on top of her head and gently knocked it back into his chest, letting him offer what comfort he could. "Like I said, you're brave."

Aiko swallowed, forced to look at nothing now that she was too close to twist and check his expressions. "That doesn't explain why I'm still converting oxygen to carbon dioxide," she joked weakly.

"That same man. Nagato. He possessed a technique that allowed him to raise the dead," Obito said bluntly.

Wait. Raise the dead. That was her. She was dead.

'That is creepy. So very creepy.'

Shakingly, she raised the hand that wasn't pinned to her shoulder to stare at it. It was the hand of a corpse. She was a walking, talking corpse. An abomination. With a shudder, she jerked the hand down to tangle in the loose fabric of the oversized pants she was wearing. It looked so normal that she couldn't stand to see it.

'I'm creepy. Disgusting-wrong-not meant to be here. Oh my god, I'm a monster.'

A monster trapped in innocuous, girlish flesh. She began shaking and her knees felt decidedly weak. She didn't fall—Obito twisted the hand that had been on her head around her waist lightning-fast and pulled her close, in a half-hearted hug.

Wasn't he repulsed? Why was he touching her? God, she was a corpse!

"Calm down!" Even with her torso pinned to his, she felt weak. Like she would collapse and shatter if he let go. Convulsively, Aiko grabbed onto the hand at her waist and clung to his support. She didn't want to fall she didn't want to die she didn't want to be dead but better to be dead than to be an undead monster-

"I said, calm down."

The firm tone did what the spike of panic hadn't. She obeyed, somehow firming the muscles in her legs to straighten.

"You're fine. You're really you, not anything wrong. Sssh, sssh, don't panic." Aiko gasped for breath, and only belatedly realized that her vision had been spotting and she hadn't been breathing. Oh. That was embarrassing. What a way to prove she was competent. Top-notch.

"Easy, there." When she leaned forward, Obito let her break his grip on her. She pulled free and turned around, unconsciously working her lips in a concerned pout. He gave her a weak smile, attempting to reassure her.

"It's not what you're thinking, I promise. Nagato had a bloodline, a very special bloodline." He paused carefully. "He was a relation of yours, actually."

Interesting trivia, but not really rele- oh. Oh. A relation of hers with a bloodline. That was relevant after all.

Maybe family wasn't a safe topic. She made a note.

"The Rinnegan's is a pure technique, not a perversion of nature like the impure resurrection," Obito explained, his voice a calming drone. Like he was talking to a wild animal. "You're not a monster. You're you, I promise."

"How did he do that to me?" Aiko asked, wishing her voice didn't sound so small. "Why did he do that to me? So Konoha could use me?"

Obito shook his head. "No," he breathed. "He didn't even intend to raise you. He used it as a blanket technique and restored everyone he'd killed. Then he ran." Obito's mouth twitched downward, and his voice dropped into something soft and unintentionally menacing. "Like the coward he was, he fled before the Hokage could come to her senses and have him killed. When I found him, and realized what had happened, I knew I had to find you."

There weren't really words for that, so she was just glad he let her step in and hug him.

"I was just scared for you," he whispered into her hair. She shivered, feeling warm, moist breath against her scalp. "I didn't mean to make you feel useless. I'll think on it. I know you're still helpful, Aiko."


'That went smoothly,' Obito mused, pulling the whorled mask down over his face to hide the faint satisfaction tugging at the operable side of his face. Mostly, he just felt tired, now that the energy provided by adrenaline had fled. He'd thought it would be harder to obfuscate to her. The fact that it had gone according to his script in the important ways almost made him feel should be harder to manipulate someone who trusted him that transparently.

'I thought she would ask me much sooner, to be honest. Who wouldn't be curious as to how they ended up in enemy hands?'

But it had worked out. He hadn't anticipated that she would panic outright, but he really should have. He'd even had the thought that Aiko had essentially been robbed of the mental conditioning that let her function as a shinobi, so his failure was inexcusable. There were reasons that civilians didn't go around killing people, and it was hardly that they were physically incapable. No, it took a sophisticated fine-tuning of a child's impressions to mold a young soldier who would cut down a half-dozen genin or helpless civilians, and be able to go home and sleep at night.

Without that… Well. It just wasn't surprising that she was less resilient.

The raw materials were still there, of course. It was best to make shinobi out of impressionable children, but that didn't have to be the case. He just had to be careful with her, that was all. Aiko could be acclimated gently, and still get the opportunity to stretch her legs that she had asked for.

Actually, her desire to get out into the real world could be used for that purpose. If she saw what it was really like out there, and came to see him as her savior from it, or at least a man with a plan to deal with it…

He expertly pushed down any guilt about coldly using her obvious distress to solidify her commitment to his cause. It wasn't like he'd really been lying, or had intentionally caused her pain. He really was impressed that she'd been willing to die for a cause she believed in. If he needed her for the Eye of the Moon plan, he could be sure he wasn't asking more than she was willing to give. It wasn't wrong, it wasn't. She didn't mind. She liked him.

Obito choked down a laugh. 'She thinks I'm pretty,' he remembered. She really was a good kid.

He liked the girl quite a bit. It was good that he'd pilfered all the paperwork he could find on her. It was an interesting read, so far as bland dossiers went. When he had claimed to be impressed by her capacity for self-sacrifice, Obito hadn't been lying or exaggerating. The situation was uncannily similar to Rin's death. Both girls had been willing to see that the only way to protect Konoha was their death.

It was a pitiful shame that Konoha wasn't worth what they had been willing to give. Still, the situation brought up ugly feelings and the recollection of the worst day of his life when Obito had visualized Aiko's stand against Pein.

Bakashi was probably kicking himself for not being there to stick his hand through her heart, just for the symmetry of it. Anal little shit.

He dismissed that uncharitable thought as best as he could.

'If Aiko was willing to die for Konoha, she would probably be willing to die for my cause if I asked her,' Obito reminded himself, focusing on the positives. That knowledge was a relief that mitigated the creep of guilt.

Hopefully, he would be able to get her somewhere near her old fighting fit without too much time. Her mission record wasn't unimpressive. As far as he could tell, Tsunade must have trusted her reasonably well.

'Although bringing her as a theoretical bodyguard to that meeting could have been nothing but a farce,' Madara thought dryly.

Obito couldn't disagree, although he wouldn't say so to Aiko's face. She'd probably been brought along for reasons other than her sheer combat capacity. Perhaps Aiko had been useful as a counter-intelligence specialist, or Tsunade had taken advantage of Hiraishin to communicate with Konoha while away.

'The things we could have done with that.' Madara sounded almost mournful. 'A spy with Hiraishin would be a perfect tool.'

'Obibi thinks she would still make a good sneaky ninja,' came the objection while Obito was still sucking on his lower lip in thought. 'Aiko-chan is very quiet, and she doesn't look scary at all.'

There was something to Tobi's point, actually. He could capitalize on her rather underwhelming physical presence.

If she'd had more of a reputation to inspire fear, he wouldn't want to disguise her identity. But that didn't fit with what he wanted her for anyway. He would be much better off gently encouraging Aiko to slip under the attention of anyone willing to sell her out for the reward Konoha would doubtlessly offer for information on her whereabouts. No one paid much attention to pretty little girls, or at least, not suspicious attention.

While his new housemate slept solidly for almost seven hours, Obito paced and planned. He didn't want to put Aiko in any real danger, of course. It would be idiotic to waste her life on some ultimately pointless errand invented to keep her happy and out of trouble. No. He wasn't going to put her in danger. At least, no more danger than was reasonable.

That was a new tactic for him. His pawns had always been sturdy but disposable. The situation would require some contemplation.

There had to be a better way to get use out of her. A 'mission' that would polish her skills, entertain her, and somehow benefit him. He just didn't know how he was going to think of one before breakfast as promised, when he had to hurry off to meet with-

Oh. Kakuzu. He had to meet with Kakuzu in the morning.

There were possibilities there. He could use capital, now that he'd lost Ame and most of Akatsuki. He could put Aiko to work on something that worked towards the aim of monetary acquisition.

Feeling quite satisfied with himself, Obito ruffled his hair, falling backwards onto his futon. Then he winced. He hated traditional futons. That was how everything was in the Uchiha place. He much preferred real beds. But he'd only put one bed in the house, and he was hardly about to crawl in with his little guest.

No, with his ally, he internally corrected. Guests could leave.


Note—the dish that Aiko forgot how to make mid-process is Tamagoyaki, a rolled egg omelet. Just in case anyone was wondering. It's awesome, but requires attention. It's definitely not a dish you can make without really looking at it, or wander away while working on. The end product is pretty, though.

Chapter Text

"This doesn't make any sense," Naruto insisted, not for the first time. Karin blinked bloodshot eyes, forcing down the urge to shake him until he stopped pacing like a lion at a zoo. That would hardly be very considerate or caring, considering the circumstances.

But watching him was making her feel sick.

Or hell, maybe she was nauseous for other reasons. Like thinking about what had probably happened to her cousin. Sure, Aiko was a brat, but that didn't mean she deserved whatever a rogue nutjob would unleash on her.

"Uchiha Madara? He'd be over a hundred years old! He should be feeding worms, not trying to get back at Konoha. What would he want from Aiko? What's the point?" Naruto stressed, pulling at his hair with a grubby fist, apparently not caring that nails were tucked between his middle and index fingers. He was still holding the hammer in his other hand.

Sasuke made a noncommittal sound, eyes even darker than usual. He was doing the best job of maintaining the illusion of working. None of them cared in the slightest about constructing the third house of the day.

Resentfully, Karin kicked at a bit of patio stone, and wished everything was on fire so she could go home.

'Look at me, I'm so handy,' she sneered. 'That's what Konoha is known for now. We get our asses kicked and our village razed all the time, but no worries, because we're all master craftsmen from all the practice we get rebuilding. Our client list is going to suffer as soon as someone thinks to mock us for being rubes with a bi-monthly invasion.'

She hadn't yet shared her analysis of the likelihood of someone thinking to use that rhetoric against Konoha. Probably Kumo, actually.

That was a near-heroic feat in itself, if anyone asked Karin. They didn't, of course, because everyone else was too busy to care that she hadn't signed up for a career in construction. She almost wished the supply train of shinobi and civilians hauling in lumber and other materials from various locations in Fire Country was less efficient.

'Practice makes perfect, though, so of course this is down to a science.'

At least she got to stop for a while whenever she ran out of materials. Poor Yamato had the worst deal, if she were to be fair about assessing the situation. He could build entire homes in minutes, albeit odd ones without a single nail or joint. He'd been worked mercilessly to raise the highest priority buildings until his chakra levels were barely above what it took to maintain consciousness. And then he'd done the same thing the next day.

"Are you two even listening?" Naruto demanded, voice breaking a little.

"Of course we are," Sasuke snapped, dropping the wood he'd been nailing with a clatter and wheeling on his teammate. "You won't stop repeating things we already know. Give it a rest! Whining won't bring her back. We can't do anything now, Naruto. So just stop." He took a deep breath. "Stop," he repeated raspily, glancing down and bending to pick up the plank he'd just dropped.

Karin swallowed, clenching her jaw and breathing in deeply through her nose. She just felt raw and angry, like water being poured over a sunburn. At least she had the restraint not to bite Naruto's head off.

Naruto was irritating the hell out of her too, but that didn't mean she was unaffected.

'Not like what I feel could compare to him,' she thought guiltily, wiping sweat off her temple before it rolled down her cheek. 'I've never had a twin. They were together all their lives. Losing that would be awful.'

Granted, she'd never seen them spend all that much time together. Nothing like the time she spent with Hinata. Aiko had Naruto over for dinner every week, and came over to the house in the mornings sometimes, but other than that… Well, she never seemed to seek him out for things unrelated to training.

'It's not like she ever really seeks anyone out, unless she needs something or has something specific in mind,' Karin thought, guilty for the observation but too logical to lie to herself. Aiko just wasn't social. She didn't seem to feel lonely and seek out human company. (Except Sai, who hadn't been proven to technically count as 'human company') It was weird and a little off-putting. That didn't mean she deserved to be kidnapped.

And tortured, probably. Honestly, it was unlikely that she'd survive the week. Statistically speaking, if they didn't receive some sort of ransom note by tomorrow, it was almost certain that her captor had no intention of keeping Aiko around for anything more than information. Joke's on him, Karin thought bleakly. He won't be getting any of that.

Of course, if the kidnapping was more personal, as the recurring interest made it seem, it was probably about revenge instead. Aiko had stolen two jinchuuriki from Akatsuki and made them look incompetent. It wasn't unreasonable that he could think to restore some of that reputation by proving it had been a fluke.

All that indicated was that Aiko would meet a much messier end, to be honest.

The only possibility where there was a reasonable likelihood (and by reasonable, Karin meant above ten percent, based on historical records of capture by enemy forces) of getting Aiko home alive was that Madara wanted to ransom her back for Naruto. And that excluded any possibility involving Naruto being handed over, because Tsunade would never let that happen. No, that chance came from the hope that Madara would make a mistake that allowed them to trace a path back to him, or that they would be able to overwhelm him at the supposed exchange site. Improbable and optimistic at best.

They'd know soon enough, she suspected. If Madara was going to kill Aiko after having made such a point of walking into Konoha's stronghold twice, he would extend that theatricality to making it obvious that she was dead. No shallow grave for Aiko, Karin suspected.

No. She was probably going to get strung up somewhere very public, to make a point about Konoha's weakness. Fucker.

As scientific and impartial as Karin liked to think she was, she shied away from any thoughts about possibilities that Madara had other reasons to want to keep Aiko alive and with him. She didn't want to think about Aiko being used against Konoha somehow, or being used in general. Her very first thought when his stalking had been made known was that there was a carnal interest involved, if she were honest. But god, he was older than dirt. That couldn't be it. It was too horrible.

Karin shuddered. Best not to mention any of that to Naruto. His imagination was clearly torturing him, but she didn't think that her estimation of different probabilities would soothe his mind at all. It might be kindest not to know.

They settled into a sullenly businesslike rhythm, working as the morning sun fled into painful heat at midday. A lot of the people working nearby drifted away in shifts to escape burns and dehydration.

A sudden up-shot in tension alerted the team that something had happened. Sasuke straightened, frowning slightly at the way the crowds staggering down the street with supplies cringed closer to the building faces being put up and repaired.

"Come on," he said shortly, abandoning his post.

The other two followed without a complaint, craning their heads.

"Are those… Kumo-nin?" Naruto asked skeptically, tilting his head slightly and putting his dirty hands on his hips, leaving blackened handprints on the low-slung green pants he was wearing to work in.

"Must be," Karin breathed, giving the small crowd a gimlet stare.

'I should have been paying more attention. They're not exactly blending in with the civilians. It's not like I know every Konoha nin's signature, but I should know everyone that strong…'

And the intruders really were strong. Actually…

"That's the Raikage," Sasuke said very quietly, eyes slightly narrowed at the tan giant wearing white everywhere but on his muscular chest.

'That's bad. That's really bad,' Karin realized. 'Does Kumo know that Sasuke's brother was the one who killed the eight-tail jinchuuriki? Because that would be a teensy bit awkward, now that Itachi's been reinstated.'

There was really only one way to find out.

The enormous man flanked by a grim-faced shinobi on either shoulder seemed to look over at their group. His eyes scanned over Karin without interest, but Naruto stiffened and firmed his gaze in a way that told her he definitely felt scrutiny. The slender blonde man next to the Raikage leaned over slightly to say something quiet that garnered an abrupt and not entirely kind bark of laughter.

"I don't like the way he's looking at you," Sasuke said quietly, moving ever so slightly in front of Naruto and raising his chin slightly in defiance.

The Raikage actually laughed at that defensive gesture, but at least he and his retinue continued walking past without comment.

For a moment, the only sound was Sasuke's teeth gritting and murmurs beginning in the crowd. Then Karin folded up the floor plans and shoved them in her pocket, before jerking her head towards Hokage tower.

"Let's go," she said darkly. "I want to know what's going on."

"Ummm…"

The other two stopped and looked at Naruto, wary of his uncharacteristic hesitation.

"We should probably clean up first," he said sheepishly, holding out his blackened, scraped fingers. "It's one thing to barge in on a meeting above our clearance, but another to do that when we stink. The old lady might actually murder us for embarrassing her like that. Our place is closest—I have some stuff you can wear, Sasuke-bastard."

The Uchiha grunted agreement, clearly more interested in haste than presentation.

Karin only felt a little guilty about abandoning her work in the civilian housing district to go home. It wasn't surprising that the central areas had suffered the most. Since paranoid, isolationist shinobi were most likely to live on the outskirts of the city (and were least inconvenienced by a long walk to the business and market districts), the military population was much less affected by the worst of the structural damage.

In other words, the empty Uchiha district and the Uzumaki house were both mostly fine, once debris had been pulled off the roofs and the broken windows had been replaced. They were livable, even if ugly and battered.

'I wonder what Kakashi-sensei and Yamato-taichou are doing.' Karin hurriedly scrubbed at her hair, cursing the filth that turned into mud in the shower drain. 'They both lived downtown. I bet there's nothing left. I think they've both been dressing out of the warehouse, so that probably means that nothing was salvageable.'

That must be awful. Should she ask? See if they needed space? Sasuke had much more room to offer, but there was still one empty room here.

(Karin was lying to herself. She was not going to ask because she didn't want to see what Naruto said if she offered out Aiko's room, no matter that it wasn't being used).

She tried not to stare too much at the way Naruto's standard issue blue pants and short-sleeve top fit Sasuke. The boys were wearing identical outfits, but it looked nearly indecent on Sasuke. Neither of her boys had very big builds, but Sasuke had a little more bulk than the blond. That translated to a rather tight fit in Naruto's tailored muscle shirt.

'Now is not the time, you insufferable pervert,' Karin told herself. She painted on a grim, professional mien, and tossed her damp hair over her shoulder before pushing her way to the front of the group and leading them to Hokage tower. Hopefully the boys would think that she was eager to get to work, instead of resisting the urge to ogle.

It was a damned shame that the Raikage had showed up at such an awful time. Konoha was disheveled. If they'd been anywhere near organized, then Sasuke would have already known the man was going to be in town.

In other words, Tsunade must be very stressed and distracted.

The Hokage was putting on a good front, however, when the trio made their way to the upscale bank that was serving as their administrative center for the moment.

"That's unnecessary," Tsunade said bluntly. The pale blond bodyguard turned to give Karin of all people an oddly scathing look when Shizune let the group in, but no one else paid them much attention. "Ame is no longer in control of the group responsible for the recent aggression. Punishing the survivors serves no purpose."

'That's awfully generous,' Karin thought doubtfully. There was probably something she was missing. Tsunade-sama wasn't that altruistic.

The Raikage sneered, giving a dismissive glance over the newcomers. Sasuke calmly met his gaze, moving to stand by Tsunade's shoulder. He actually belonged here, as her apprentice, and he looked comfortable. The Uzumaki, on the other hand, were obviously riding in on Sasuke's coattails.

'Not completely true. If Tsunade-sama really does have any intention of training Naruto as a possible successor, it's not unreasonable for him to be here. Course, that just leaves me as the intruder…'

Ah well. She didn't mind being rude. If they really cared, someone would kick her out.

"I was promised that Ame and Akatsuki would pay for what they did." Stubbornly, the Raikage cocked his head at Tsunade. He looked hilariously misplaced in the red velvet chair that had been scrounged up from somewhere.

"I never said that we'd take punitive action against Ame as a whole," Tsunade protested crossly. "What more do you want? Akatsuki is nearly finished. We need to hunt down the stragglers."

"Your representative guaranteed that I would have a chance to…" The enormous man sneered slightly, though the expression looked oddly fond. "How did she put it? Bury the fuckers ten feet down? There may have been something about burning Ame to the ground and dancing on the ashes." A shrugged dissidently, leaning forward ever so slightly. "What about that promise, huh?"

Something cracked in Tsunade's composure. "My represent- Oh, hell," she cursed fluidly.

The dark-skinned man with nearly white hair lurking at the Raikage's left shoulder looked scandalized.

"You mean Aiko," Sasuke said flatly. The tension in the room instantly ratcheted up. Karin made a grab for Naruto's hand, as if hoping to prevent him from doing anything risky. The tension in his muscles was obvious, but he didn't shake her off. "Unfortunately, Uzumaki Aiko is missing in action. So it is impossible to confirm your account with her. She was not alone when she made this offer, was she?"

Shizune sighed, swaying slightly. "I'll go get Hatake-san."

"Get Yamato, he'll be easier to find and he needs a break," Tsunade corrected, rubbing at her temple while the young woman bowed slightly and left.

The blonde man at the Raikage's right side looked so amused at the bad news that Karin seriously considered lunging over and punching him. By contrast, the Raikage was frowning.

"You lost her?" Displeased, he shook his head slightly. "You really are incompetent. I didn't think you would actually lose track of the Fourth Hokage's kid. Is that why this one is here, then?" A jerked his head toward Naruto. "The spare? How long until you get this one killed too?"

'He's trying to provoke us. Be calm. Be calm.'

Nope, she still wanted to rip off his stupid tacky belt and shove it down his throat after she used it to bludgeon him black and blue.

"She's not dead," Naruto said calmly, looking bizarrely unperturbed. "I'll be sure to convey your concern about her well-being when I next see her, though. I'm sure Aiko will appreciate your interest."

'What?'

The white-haired bodyguard might have been choking down a laugh, and he couldn't even see the flabbergasted expression on his kage's face. It was pretty glorious.

A let out a long breath, narrowing his eyes in a contemplative glare. Naruto stood straight, completely unaffected as far as the eye could tell. Karin cautiously disengaged her hand from his, not wanting to undermine the attitude he had going on at the moment.

"Well, that apple fell a little closer to the tree," A condescended grudgingly. "You look a lot more like the fourth Hokage, and you sound more like him too. Are you the smart one, then?"

Naruto, smart?

Well… he certainly wasn't stupid, but Karin had never thought of him as academically intelligent. He thought well on his feet, and he had both social and creative intelligence. Was that what the Raikage meant?

"Nope," Naruto smiled, and the tension in the room instantly fled. "But that's what I have Sasuke and Karin for."

"What am I, furniture?" Tsunade asked dryly. Karin wasn't fooled. The older woman was pleased that Naruto had managed to undercut the tense atmosphere.

Naruto wasn't quite magical enough to fix everything, however. After another twenty minutes of arguing, the Raikage stormed out with an anxious Shizune on his heels directing him towards the temporary 'diplomatic suite' where he would be staying the night.

Tsunade sighed heavily, slumping as soon as he was out of sight. "What a mess," she groaned. "I don't need his war-mongering right now. He really wants to storm the border himself."

"Why don't you want Ame punished?"

The blonde cracked one eye open to give Sasuke a tired look. "Isn't it obvious?"

Sasuke huffed, amused. "I thought you might want to monologue. Yes, it's obvious. The Raikage won't give up the territory once he's done with it. That would mean that one of our worst enemies would have a base very close to our center of power, one that was right next to the other large country out for our blood. Right now we have the protection of a three-country alliance, but we won't have that forever. We can't afford to let Kumo have Ame."

"Got it in one."

Appalled, Naruto opened and closed his mouth before he found words. "So Akatsuki is just going to get away with what they did, because we're too worried about Kumo being a danger in future?"

"No," Sasuke rejected. "Akatsuki itself will be punished, and Ame is going to be crippled for years to come. They're hardly getting off scot-free. They'll be paying diplomatic sanctions-"

"Crippling sanctions," Tsunade interrupted darkly.

The brunet nodded agreeably. "Right, they'll basically be giving us everything but their kidneys."

"And that's not good enough for the Raikage?" Karin ventured. "What more could he want?"

Tsunade gave her a pitying look that made Karin feel very young and small. "Revenge. Or justice, as he feels. He blames Ame for B's death."

"That's not completely unjustified," Sasuke muttered.

"Not completely justified, either," Naruto pointed out wryly. "That was your brother specifically, wasn't it? Technically on Konoha's orders to follow Akatsuki's orders, even if we didn't know it at the time. If that comes out…"

"We can't hand Itachi over, either," Tsunade groaned. "So stop being so damn fidgety, Sasuke. I'm not throwing your precious brother to the wolves. No, we're claiming that he was our man on the inside all along and that was why the invasion went so smoothly. No one is going to like it, but they won't disagree, either, since Itachi never did anything particularly offensive in his tenure in Akatsuki. As far as the public knows, anyways."

"Really?" Yamato asked sullenly, leaning on the doorjamb. "You mean he did nothing particularly offensive except attacking Jiraiya-sama and Naruto multiple times in an attempt to kidnap Naruto, or putting Kakashi-senpai and Aiko in the hospital?"

"Nothing offensive to anyone but Konoha," Tsunade amended, while Sasuke exchanged an uncomfortable expression with Naruto. They were probably going to have to talk that one over at some point. Then she scowled. "What took you so long? And did Aiko really promise the Raikage that he was going to get to exhaust his aggression on Ame?"

Yamato took a moment to answer, scratching thoughtfully at his chin. "I think there was something about burning it down? Which would be pretty hard, on account of the damp, but in her defense, she may have been unfamiliar with the climate."

Karin groaned.

"I suppose it could have been hyperbole," Yamato added with an air of contemplation, squinting slightly. "She sorta started by threatening Kumo if they didn't leave Naruto alone. That was where the burning thing came from, pretty sure. And then it just got transferred to the discussion of Ame. So technically, I don't think she promised that." He blinked, as if realizing the room was full of other people. "Does that help?"

No, that did not help. There was a moment of appalled silence.

"Good thing you didn't diplomatically empower anyone hotheaded with a flair for the dramatic," Sasuke commented mildly. "That would have been bad."

Tsunade crumpled up a paper and tossed it at his head in response.


Without opening her eyes, Aiko breathed deeply. Her bedroom still retained a bit of a dusty smell that made her nose itch, but it was beginning to seep with the scent of the shampoo and weapon polish that Obi had provided for her.

Obi was a liar.

Or at least, he was leaving something crucial out. Aiko rolled over and buried her face in her pillow, slinking her arms underneath the cool fabric.

It seemed a lot more likely that her nightmares and dreams were fragments of memory than that they were total coincidences. She'd brought up a couple of them, spaced days apart so that Obi wouldn't know she was having the dreams every night. He had claimed not to recognize what she was talking about. Either Obito was lying about being close to her (because he really should have known something about her personal life) or he was lying about not recognizing the situations she mentioned.

'Still, I suspect that it would be unwise to let on.'

She liked Obito, she really did. He was kind to her, and smart, and he helped her with all sorts of things. That didn't mean she was blind to the fact that she didn't really know what was going on, except that he now controlled every aspect of her day-to-day life, he was much stronger than she was, and that he had some sort of agenda for her.

Maybe she would go along with that agenda. Maybe she wouldn't. But she couldn't possibly help her situation by letting him know that she was suspicious of his intentions. If she was wrong, he'd be hurt. If she was right…

Well, she didn't even know what might happen to her. If he'd wanted her dead, she would be dead already. There had to be other things she had to fear, but Aiko didn't know what the hell they were.

'It might have been easier to stay in Konoha,' Aiko thought wryly. 'I probably would have figured out that they were hostile about the time I found myself strapped down with thumbscrews in my face. Would be nice to know where I stand with someone.'

But that ship had sailed.

Regretfully, she heaved her lazy carcass out of bed and rifled through the (approximately seventy billion) shiny plastic bags piled on the long-neglected furniture.

"I should probably put this away," Aiko mumbled, holding up …something, and squinting at it suspiciously. Maybe it was a scarf?

She didn't know what half this shit was or what she was supposed to deal with it.

"I get the feeling that Obi thinks I'm a kid," she remarked to an unimpressed dresser covered in a sparkly white table-runner.

It was just a fleeting suspicion, really, based on nothing more than the fact that the wardrobe he'd provided was rather heavy on flouncy skirts and high collars in pretty, bright colors. The inconsistency was odd. The man who was re-teaching her how to kill people –corpse corpse corpse—she shuddered—seemed to think she was an adorable kid.

'At least I'm sure he's not a pervert,' Aiko thought wryly, finally settling on a black skirt and a green button-up shirt with a high collar. 'That's one insidious motivation off the list of possibilities. And it does seem like he's fond of me. He's spoiling me terribly. If he really had no emotional attachment, he wouldn't go the extra mile, I think.'

As she slipped them on, she suspected that the white boots he'd provided had belonged to another kunoichi before, although Aiko had no idea who.

'Someone with big floppy feet,' Aiko thought meanly. And unfairly. She'd had to pad the shoes so that they weren't too big, but that probably had more to do with her than with their previous owner. Judging by the women she'd seen when Obito took her into town, she was a hopeless shrimp. Maybe there was a growth spurt in her future?

Because padded second-hand boots were not glamorous, and neither was the insidiously creeping suspicion that Obito was interchangeably acquiring her clothes from the child's and junior's sections.

It wasn't a thought worth lingering on.

The boots were in pristine condition, but they didn't feel stiff like the new equipment he'd gotten her did. Real shinobi gear was both expensive and hard to procure outside of a hidden village, from what she understood. The boots were the only thing in her wardrobe that appeared to be shinobi-tough, although they were well-disguised as merely pretty shoes.

'I like imagining that some poor woman is wondering what happened to her spare boots,' Aiko snickered. 'Obito, you silly creep.'

"See, you're adorable," were the first words out of his mouth when she trotted downstairs. "I told you to trust my taste." Aiko gave him a baleful stare.

"When did you get back?" she asked archly, tossing her hair as she settled against the counter. The motion would have been more dramatic if the mass of hair had cascaded or bounced or something. Unfortunately, she had an ugly explosion of tangles and knots that sort of jerked angrily.

The motion apparently drew his attention to her ill-maintained mop. Obito sighed, shaking his head slightly. "I just got here. Did you lose your hairbrush?"

Aiko blinked, hand frozen over the rather depleted fruit bowl.

'Hairbrush? What hairbrush?'

After a moment of racking her memory, she flushed self-consciously and patted at a tangle on her right shoulder. "Some girls don't brush their hair," she sniffed, tilting her nose up and randomly selecting a rather sad-looking orange.

'I remember that now. What happened to the hairbrush anyway? I haven't seen it in a while.'

The look on Obito's face implied that he didn't buy her lie. "You mean that you forgot. I thought that kind of thing was supposed to come naturally to girls," he drawled.

Aiko looked down and pressed her lips together, feeling strangely ashamed. It was hard to remember all the little things she was supposed to do.

She hadn't forgotten the humiliation that first night with the nurse who had helped her shower. Her impulse had been to say that she didn't need help—she knew enough to be certain that hygiene wasn't terribly difficult and that she should be able to handle it on her own. But when she was actually faced with the task at hand, Aiko had stared blankly at the arrangement of soaps and lotions she was supposed to use.

Could she just use one bottle and be fine?

No?

Well then. Was it shampoo and then conditioner? She was probably going to forget that at some point. What happened if she did it in the wrong order?

She was pretty sure that slathering herself in the scented chemicals deemed necessary by society wasn't meant to be actively stressful. She was getting better at it, though. The more she thought about it, the harder it was.

"Aww, hell. I'm sorry." Obito pushed that dumb mask that was always on his head up, exposing a slightly rueful expression. "It doesn't matter. Your hair looks exciting. Anyways, I have something for you to do today."

That perked her right up. "Really?" Aiko twisted to look at him, abandoning the fruit she'd been trying to peel with a plop onto the table.

He gave her a blank look for a moment before shaking his head slightly. "Yes, right." Oddly, he swallowed before he managed to gather his thoughts. "You'll be working with one of my associates. Zetsu should make sure that everything goes well. If worst comes to worst, he can contact me. I think you'll be fine," Obito added encouragingly.

'I should hope so. All you have me do is train.'

She gave him a thin smile instead of that bit of grumpiness. It wouldn't help anything. "So, what am I doing?"

Apparently reassured by her good attitude, Obito leaned back in his chair slightly and began twirling a kunai on his finger. "You'll be working to acquire monetary resources."

Aiko paused. Ruefully, she quirked an eyebrow at her comrade. He broke out into a sheepish smile. "Obiiii," she drawled. "You're telling me to replenish our coffers?"

He coughed. "Quite."

"That's not terribly glamorous."

"Nope," Obito agreed, popping the 'p' sound playfully. "But work often isn't. What do you think I do all day?"

'Steal cute shoes from giant women?'

She sighed theatrically, dropping the fruit onto the table and plopping down across from him. Aiko pursed her lips as she braced her chin on palm. After a moment, she tilted her head slightly, trying to convey pleading.

"That won't work," Obi said flatly. "I thought you wanted to work again? Ninja don't get to do only things that are fun."

"Ugggghhh," Aiko groaned, tossing her head back. "Fine. There goes my faith in humanity." She huffed. "So do I get details?"

"You're going to be answering a request for help that was communicated through some contacts of mine."

That was remotely encouraging. There was something a little romantic about swooping in to save the day. Was that what she and Obito did? Not bad.

"Help stealing an antique scroll. Seriously, this thing is ancient," Obito stressed, tapping his fingertips on the table boredly.

That was less encouraging.

"I'm a thief?" Aiko asked incredulously, scowling. "Seriously? Not even the cool kind of thief who does glamorous things, but a contractor?"

How boring, and businesslike.

Obito tossed his head back and laughed, flashing white teeth. "I may have left out the detail that you're stealing this back for the rightful owner."

"Oh." She blinked. "That… sounds okay, I guess. I think I could do that."

"Your confidence astounds."

Aiko scowled at his dry humor, and crossed her arms over her chest without paying any attention to how the added tension strained at the buttons of her shirt.

Obito flinched oddly.

"A-anyway, you'll have backup," he hurriedly assured her. "I'll introduce you to Zetsu-san when he gets here. Uh- he has the details. He'll walk you through it. But don't worry, you can do this. It's well within your capabilities, even now. Although to be safe, you should avoid using your real name. You don't want to be associated with a bad job. How about Masashi?" he teased.

Masashi. Righteous aspiration. It wasn't a bad name, exactly, but…

'A man's name? Fucking flattering. I don't know if that's worse than being told I'm likely to fail. Thanks, love.'

She gave him a black stare. Why did she hang out with this guy again?

That would be a thing worth knowing. She should look into that.

In response, he cleared his throat. "Yyyyeah. Um." Obito sucked in a self-conscious breath, aware that he was only digging himself a deeper hole and visibly desperate to change the topic. "So, are you going to do anything about your hair?"

That didn't help.

In the moment that Aiko considered leaping over the table and going for his throat, a rusty self-preservation drive kicked in. "Because I could do it for you?" he added weakly, wiggling his fingers. "And would like to very much?"

"Nice save," Aiko muttered forty seconds later, leaning back into the warm digits against her scalp as Obito finger-combed her hair. Even the frequent jolts of pain as his fingers caught on tangles couldn't bring down her good mood- she was all but purring. It turned out that her head was very sensitive. She whined unhappily when he gathered the mass in a slightly off-center tail at the top of her head and moved to awkwardly secure it with-

"Is that wire?" she asked incredulously, avoiding the urge to twist around to stare.

"What's wrong with wire?" her friend muttered self-consciously, withdrawing his hands like he'd been burnt. "Ninja wire has all kinds of uses."

It took a deep breath to calm down enough to formulate a coherent reply. "Obi?" He jolted guiltily at the nickname. "I'm pretty sure there's some sort of specialized product for tying hair."

"Maybe. A hair tie?"

She didn't really know for sure either. Apparently, personal grooming hadn't been particularly high on the list of priorities for her to remember.


I think I misplaced this omake? If it was in here somewhere before, I apologize. Had to rewrite.

Omake (Because Where Else Would Obito Think to Get Them?)


Haru jolted. It took a moment of nervous contemplation and steeling her nerves before she worked up the determination to peer around the corner into the room she was supposedly serving as an honor guard for.

The sounds coming from inside were just unseemly. She was almost certain that she was hearing muttering among the occasional thuds and clattering noises.

"Konan-sama?" She called, her voice breaking a little.

The only sound that could vaguely be termed a response was a thud that somehow managed to convey irritation. Haru flinched, and re-considered the wisdom of actually addressing Pein's Angel. She wasn't worthy. Frankly, she was still a little in awe of the woman had come back to claim leadership of Ame and asked for a few higher level shinobi to accompany her as she prepared to parley with the other leaders.

Still, without a direct answer, she was bold enough to step into the room.

That lingering awe was slightly shaken by the sight of her prospective kage on her knees, sweeping under the bed with her palms. All she could see from this angle was.. Haru flushed crimson, and looked away hastily. That wasn't dignified.

"My lady?" Haru croaked uncertainly.

Konan froze for a moment, with her hovering rear end tense and bare feet dangerously still. With quiet dignity, she backed out from under the bed and slowly lifted her torso, twisting to blink languidly at her minion. "I have misplaced my shoes," she said calmly, brushing a dust bunny off of her hair. "This is the third pair. I suspect conspiracy."

She had been previously unaware that Pein's Angel was crazy. Good to know.


Come on, you can't get kunoichi equipment just anywhere. And what would Obito know about buying the right stuff, even if he was eager to go into a hidden village to get it? It was probably his best/laziest option. That's the story I'm going with. Konan and Aiko are just never going to be friends, I think. It's not in their stars. That's the one ship that will never sail.


AND ONE MORE THING

I went and made a blog on tumblr! So, if anyone cares, here's a link to a post, because I'm not internet-savvy enough to link to the actual blog. Seriously, this shouldn't be this hard. Something is wrong with me.

electraposts . tumblr post / 92603073159 / vapors-is-over-and-i-never-got-this-scene-into-it

I hope that shows up? If it doesn't, I'm almost certain that the one in my profile works. Anyways. That link, as you might imagine, leads to an unused scene from Vapors. It was written in 2013, if that tells you anything. As such, I had no idea that I was going to turn one simple idea into something that long and have to break it up before that chronological point in the story. Yeah, I can overcomplicate things. The scene definitely does not work anymore, but I thought it was so cute that I hated to just toss it…

(maybe I just like Smug!Kakashi too much? No. Because it's impossible to like that too much.)

Chapter Text

As it turned out, her partner was a little unnerving. How long did he spend painting his face like that? What an odd hobby. Maybe it was some sort of artistic statement about the dichotomy between oppositional energies like yin and yang?

‘I wonder if he does that every morning, or just when he goes on missions? I bet it’s an intimidation thing.’

Aiko gave Zetsu a queasy smile, hesitating a moment too long before she gave a polite bow. “Please take care of me,” she mumbled, nearly stumbling over the platitude.

“A pleasure to meet you, Uzumaki-san,” came the neutral reply. That would have been fine, if the sentence “Or something like that,” hadn’t tumbled out in a deep raspy voice on the heels of the first sentence.

Uncertain, Aiko glanced up at Obito. He was wearing his orange mask again, but he gave her a surreptitious thumbs-up sign in encouragement.

‘I can do this. He’s probably a really nice guy.’

She beamed at her new partner. This was an adventure, and nothing was going to bring her mood down. “So, what’s the situation?”

“We should hurry,” Zetsu said politely, sounding distantly pleasant. “Kakuzu-san has arranged for us to meet our prospective client a few hours from here. It would be unwise to be late.”

“Impolite,” he added a moment later, once again slipping into his lower register.

Ok -ay

“Alrighty then.” Aiko managed to straighten her face into something a little less confused. “Lead the way, then.”

Traveling with Zetsu was an awkward proposition, in no small part because he chose to seep hip-deep in the ground. Aiko stared, thrown off-guard. He heaved a beleaguered sigh and wavered back up until all but his shins were above ground, giving her a pointed look.

She didn’t know what that was supposed to mean.

“So, we aren’t running?” she asked uncertainly. She’d thought…

“This is much faster,” Zetsu said curtly. “Grab on. We risk being late.”

“Have a good first day back at work!” Obito waved from the door, clearly amused in the moment before he whirled away in a smear of orange and black.

‘G- grab on? I begin to suspect that I have questionable taste in friends and associates,’ Aiko thought with the air of a shocking revelation. Gingerly, she walked up to Zetsu and hesitated a moment before shrugging and tossing her arms around his waist, hugging him from behind. “Like this?”

“Hold your breath,” he ordered curtly.

There was barely time to obey before they were enveloped in the earth. It didn’t feel like she was moving, so much as that the ground was moving around her. The feeling was strange and not entirely pleasant—there was pressure all around, but much more around her feet and legs than on her upper torso. Did that make sense? It didn’t seem to, but it was still true, even when she anxiously tangled her legs around Zetsu’s shins and tried not to cling too desperately.

‘It’s strangely cold. I would have thought it was stuffy in the dirt. That’s good to know, I think?’

If today was at all indicative, that knowledge was going to come in handy. Next time, she would find a jacket. And layer socks, instead of just stuffing a rolled-up pair in the toes of her boots.

That decidedly banal thought was cut off by her body’s increasing demand for oxygen. Eventually she was forced to gasp—and took in air, instead of dirt.

He’s maintaining an air pocket, ’ Aiko realized. ‘ That’s what is keeping us from being smothered. But that can’t last long.’

A little frightened but certain that Obito hadn’t rescued her just to have Zetsu suffocate her, Aiko stilled and tried to keep her heartrate and breathing low to save on oxygen. An approving rumble shook the bulky torso she was pressed up against.

Remaining calm had been the right decision. Zetsu seemed slightly less cool and disapproving when he popped up to the surface like a sprout, exposing both of them up to their waists. “Air,” he commanded gently. Aiko tilted her neck back enough to pull her face out of her companion’s black and red cloak and indulged her body’s need for oxygen.

“I expect you to learn this jutsu as well,” he remarked mildly, not struggling for breath at all. “I am currently shielding you from the negative effects of underground travel for the sake of presentation, but I do not intend to make that a habit.”

Aiko opened her mouth, ready to respond when Zetsu sneered and growled out,

“It’s a pain.”

She blinked. It was probably better to ignore that. Still, he had a good point. She didn’t have a latent yearning to get filthy, but it would be rude to depend on her partner to take care of everything. “Would you teach me?”

With her arms still wrapped around his torso, she couldn’t see his face at all. That left her off-kilter when all he said was, “Hold your breath.”

This time, Aiko sucked in a huge amount of air and immediately tucked her face into her companion’s back.

“It can learn,” Zetsu hissed, darkly amused. There was no time to respond- It? really, It ?- before they were suddenly surrounded by pressure and cold once more.

‘At least I wasn’t surprised this time. It’s easier not to panic that way.’

They traveled that way for a what seemed to be a painfully long time, broken up as it was by trips back up to the surface when the air pocket that Zetsu held around them began to stale and thin.

In reality, it only took two hours and twelve minutes. By the end, Aiko had managed to fall into a nearly meditative state, carefully controlling her breathing and trying to enjoy the body heat that she could borrow off of her comrade.

“Thank you,” Aiko mumbled when they finally stood on solid land again. She carefully unlaced her stiff fingers and disentangled her arms out of the folds of Zetsu’s cloak. She hadn’t even noticed that her arms had worked their way under the buttons in a sad search for warmth.

It was lucky that he was such a nice guy. She rather imagined that not everyone would tolerate their coworker inadvertently feeling them up for hours at a time.

“Don’t mention it.” He hesitated, and this time she noted that his eyes glazed over slightly before he added, “ Please .”

‘Does he not even know when he’s being mean? ’ Aiko wondered, pretending not to notice the second statement. That seemed like a solid working policy.

“You will approach the client alone,” Zetsu muttered, shaking his head and dislodging a bit of dirt that she hadn’t noticed. Wondering if her hair was dirty as well, Aiko swept her hand over the top of her head and shook out her ponytail before she realized that her companion was giving her an impatient look.

“Why?” Aiko tilted her head slightly to the side, watching him a little warily. She liked the idea of being in control, but on the first job she remembered doing?

Nerves bubbled up in her gut, and she chewed on a nail. Until she realized that Zetsu looked like he was considering cutting off her hand. Aiko moved to meekly move her hand down, realized what she was doing, and took one last defiant nibble while maintaining eye contact. As if to say that she didn’t take orders from him, thank you very much. Then she shoved that hand in the pocket of her skirt.

“I have a memorable face,” Zetsu bit out.

Aiko took a moment to wonder if it was really his face that lingered in one’s mind, or the enormous green fronds curling around his head. Either way, the point was fairly valid.

So she shrugged. “Alright by me.”

“So you are the nuke-nin that I’ve agreed to hire? You do realize that I require the utmost discretion and speed. You must have completed this mission and meet me at the Nakamura waterfall by that evening at the latest.”

The tall, thin man seemed a bit skeptical, frankly, at the disheveled and slightly muddy teenage girl that had shown up in his sitting room.

Aiko beamed up at him, radiating friendliness. She didn’t want him to regret his decision.

“Yepp! I’m happy to work with you, Atsushi. You can call me- Masashi,” she hastily decided. Damnit Obito , he totally sucked for putting that stupid boy’s name in her head. It was somehow his fault that she blanked out at the last moment.

Her prospective employer cringed. His mouth dropped open in what was probably shocked outrage, but his brushy mustache partially disguised the motion.

‘Did I say something? Was I not polite enough?’

“I mean, really happy,” she over-corrected, widening her smile to contain an obscene amount of teeth. “I bet this is going to be very profitable for both of us.”

Shimizu Atsushi, the third-richest man in Grass Country, wondered if this woman was balls-out crazy or actually so dangerous that she didn’t see a problem in referring to her social superior in an incredibly inappropriate, familiar manner. He considered being offended, and thought better of it. It would be best to just get her out of his home.

He’d already fronted half of the payment to the intermediary, and getting it back would be difficult. If she failed and died, at least it wouldn’t be in his front room.

(His prospective employee had genuinely forgotten about the polite convention of using honorifics. Obito hadn’t cared or used them.)

“You will be helping me regain property that was stolen by a former retainer,” Atsushi said sternly, shaking away the oddity in favor of professionalism. “The scoundrel has fled with my daughter.”

“Alright,” Aiko nodded slowly. “What’s the missing property?”

Atsushi gave her a look that implied she was a moron. “My daughter Koto,” he repeated slowly. With a sigh, he turned away. “Most importantly, of course. They also took a great deal of money and some heirloom jewelry, including my mother’s wedding ring. I suspect that they will sell as much of it as possible. Recover both of them and what you can. If I know her…” the man sneered. “They will be headed for the coast.”

‘So… his daughter eloped, and stole a bunch of his stuff?’ Aiko furrowed her brow, but took the information she was provided and left the manor to meet with Zetsu.

‘I guess that makes sense. Even if she was his daughter, it was wrong for her to steal from him. I’ll recover that and ask her to come home and apologize. And bring back the real thief, of course.’

She shook off the unsettling implication that Atsushi had referred to his daughter as property—he had probably just misspoken—in order to set off on her very first mission.

Well, sort of. She was counting this as mission number one.

At least the little brat was fast. Zetsu might have lost his temper and eaten her if she were completely incapable of keeping up.

He was sullen about his assignment, but maintained focus and contained his temper. This mission was more important than the brat realized, after all. If she were more aware, she might have wondered why such an apparently straightforward mission had been contracted out through a missing-nin instead of a proper village.

Missing nin were often used and discarded by employers because they had no village backing to protect them. That strategy made sense when the mission contracted out was prohibitively expensive or so blatantly dangerous or amoral that the proper village wouldn’t take it.

Nuke-nin with any sense for self-preservation would be wary of a mission that seemed neither illegal or excessively easy. There weren’t many reasons for a client to prefer to contract out a missing nin over someone from a ninja village.

It could always be that the customer was a criminal too wary of drawing attention to engage in legal business. Zetsu was unfamiliar with the client on a personal level, but most rich men were criminals in some way. Of course, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t risk going through legal channels if the job itself seemed legitimate.

As far as Zetsu could tell, there was no particular reason that the requested job would have been rejected by a shinobi village. That implied that the choice to hire a missing nin might be based on the fact that it was easier to get out of paying missing nin, or avoid the full price.

Kakuzu didn’t have the ability to negotiate anything other than the highest price, even if the intent was to teach Aiko a lesson about nuke-nin getting fleeced. So there was no probability that the promised payment for this mission was low.

With that possible explanation out of the way, Obito had discerned that the client would probably try to have his hired thug killed after she had completed her mission. There was no reason for him to think the plan wouldn’t work: that sort of thing happened all the time. Aiko hadn’t laid claim to any frightening reputation, and the client hadn’t been informed that he was hiring Akatsuki.

Aiko’s job was to complete the mission, and discover that the world was shitty and people were cruel and stupid. As much as it rankled to play the hero, Zetsu would save her at the last moment, take her straight to Obito, and let him use the experience as an example as to why change was needed. When he then offered a potential cure for humanity’s corrupt nature, Aiko would be ready to hear it.

“Hey, Zetsu? Are we going to stop somewhere for the night?”

‘Already? She wants to rest so soon?’

Zetsu scowled. What spoiled, lazy shinobi Konoha turned out. It was no wonder that Madara-sama had attempted to fight the regime that led to such weakness.

“No,” White Zetsu responded shortly. “We will press on and overtake them in the night. Once they are in our control, I will watch as you rest a short while before we return. Civilians are slow and not hardy. They cannot have gotten far in the course of two days.”

‘Obito coddled her by putting her in a house and buying her fancy equipment ,’ Black Zetsu scoffed. ‘ He should have let her walk about in the hospital garb and sleep on the cold ground a few nights, until she realized she could take what she wanted from those weaker.’

No, no, that wasn’t how Obito wanted this to go. In order to ensure that she would be a suitable carrier for the Rinnegan, the child must be slowly acclimated to share their vision. That began with showing her that humanity and the current order was flawed and amoral, and then having Obito present the solution. It would be highly foolish to make the same mistake that Madara-sama had made in giving the Rinnegan to an unpredictable pawn. She wasn’t particularly powerful as she was, but the Rinnegan could turn almost anyone into a respectable opponent. They did not have time to waste bullying a recalcitrant dojutsu user. She had to be molded properly before she was honed into a sharp tool.

They traveled running aboveground, despite the fact that traveling underground was faster. The head-hunter jutsu was very useful, but it did not enable tracking. Luckily, civilians left obvious trails. Not for the first time, Zetsu noted that his traveling companion was almost twitchy in the brush and copses of trees that they traveled through. Her head was constantly swiveling towards the smallest sounds, although she eventually began to be able to control the urge to look.

‘She was a jinchuuriki’s child,’ Zetsu remembered idly from old conversations with Obito. ‘ I had forgotten that. Her senses are likely heightened due to fetal exposure to such a powerful source of animalistic chakra. The Nine-Tails is a fox, so her hearing and sense of smell are likely the most affected.’

Foxes weren’t known for their vision—in fact, her eyesight probably was not augmented at all. But now that he knew what to look for, Zetsu was positive that the brat’s senses surpassed what she should possess without conscious memory of training in chakra augmentation.

“What’s this?” The brat stopped suddenly. Zetsu shot ahead of her several feet before he managed to stop, turning to glare at the waste of time.

It was wasted. She was on her knees, examining markings in the dirt with a little frown of concentration.

“I should know what this is.”

“Yes, you should,” White Zetsu agreed.

“This was where they camped last night,” Black Zetsu cut in derisively. “Baka. You waste time.”

The brat blinked at him. Zetsu suppressed a sigh of irritation. “Come,” he bit out tonelessly, turning to move again. “They will be bedding down soon.”

It took another four hours to cross the distance that their prey had managed in twelve or fourteen hours of daylight. The brat was flagging but focused through the minute trembles of her ill-used muscles.

It didn’t matter that she was in excellent condition for a village shinobi. Missing nin lived much harder lives, and the organization formerly known as Akatsuki was composed of only the best. The brat would need to toughen up.

The camp was small and dark. Their client’s former retainer was no slouch as a woodsman—their fire had been expertly covered, and they had been eating off of the land.

Yellow eyes glinted with the pale moonlight that provided the only visibility available. He shifted to check his companion: from her line of sight, he supposed that she could clearly see the slowly breathing figures curled together under a single blanket. The blue fabric had been pushed down far enough that the man was exposed head and shoulders. Only the woman’s face was showing, curled as she was with her face on her partner’s chest.

Neither was particularly interesting to Zetsu. Both were rather fit for civilians, but they were otherwise unremarkable. Human faces all looked so much alike.

“Immobilize them,” Zetsu ordered in a low mutter. They were being paid to return the two alive, after all. If they woke and ran, the brat might get sloppy. She wasn’t used to adjusting her force to cope with civilians after having trained with Obito.

The brat stiffened a little at being given orders but pulled a brace of glittering senbon out from her hip pouch.

He silently approved: it was difficult to kill someone with a senbon even if one’s aim was poor. Even if she failed, her target would likely survive.

The first senbon flew true, four more flickering on its heels into the meat of the man’s neck. He stiffened momentarily before going completely limp. For a moment, Zetsu was reluctantly impressed. And then the sleeping woman moved in her sleep, caressing up her lover’s chest. The Brat didn’t adjust her sixth needle in time, accidentally pinning the woman’s hand to her lover’s chest.

She woke up with a scream. It died in her throat an instant later when Zetsu shot a cloud of paralytic gas to mist over the two. He sneered at his companion, noting the frustration on her features.

“Incompetent,” White Zetsu muttered. Black Zetsu just hissed.

The large pack the man had been carrying was indeed full of pilfered goods. Unzipping it revealed a careless tangle of necklace chains and bracelets, with rings clanging around the bottom among a pretty set of jade statuettes and an engraved puzzle box of some sort. Only one piece really caught Aiko’s eye.

‘Oh wow, that is pretty. ’ A bit guiltily, Aiko held up a jeweled hairpin so she could examine it better by the moonlight. ' I really like this.’

The hairpin wasn’t even especially valuable or beautiful for the large collection. But something about the little blue dragonfly sparked at her memory and made her feel happy. Not just happy, but… safe.

She wished she could keep it, but dutifully put it away and zipped up the bag.

It was hard to feel satisfied about that even as she re-packed the stolen paraphernalia (she would be the one carrying it from now on) and settled down in their targets’ camp. Failure was sour and hot on Aiko’s tongue. She had a hard time getting to sleep, kicking her feet against the hard ground and shifting around in a half-assed attempt at comfort.

Sourly, she tossed a glance over at the tangle of unconscious civilians. They both looked spectacularly uncomfortable, faces locked into grimaces. She couldn’t bring herself to pity them, pathetic as they were. How could she? They were barely even the same species. They weren’t anything like her. She was a monster, and had been long before she was an undead monster. The brief flashes of memory she retained were all of death and violence, a good deal of which she dealt out. If violence was what she had to offer Obito, she could at least have the decency to be good at it.

‘I can’t believe I messed that up.’

Sleep didn’t come. Eventually, she gave up and turned to find her disgruntled partner. Zetsu’s mood had become even blacker after her failure. He had left her sight, but she didn’t think he would have gone far.

Surely enough, Zetsu slunk into visibility when she craned her head to observe the clearing.

“We should just go. There’s no point in staying here if you don’t intend to sleep and I can’t.”

For the first time, it seemed she had said something vaguely agreeable to her companion. Zetsu nodded. “You will run,” he rumbled. “I will transport them with my digging technique. I cannot transport three dead weights.”

Aiko winced at the truth in that. “Of course,” she agreed. At least she could run without messing anything up.

She was starting to change her mind on Zetsu. He was a genuinely unhappy individual, and not friendly in the least. At least he was competent and efficient. He wouldn’t be a terrible long-term partner.

‘and I won’t be either, ’ Aiko promised internally. ‘ I’ll keep working and get better.’

It had been such a rookie mistake to let her needle loose. She had even seen the muscles tense before the woman move. Aiko just hadn’t put that observation together with her chosen action in time to adjust her motions. The problem had been her perception and reaction time.

Experience would make that better, but so would practicing.

She forced away the temptation to mope and instead tried to encourage determination to do better. As soon as this mission was over, she was going to work her tail off. A good shinobi was efficient, quick-witted, tough, and endured all sorts of uncomfortable things like sleeping in the dirt and... and…

‘Alright. I’m amending my resolution to be a better shinobi. That’s going to be without the outside bits. I don’t like sleeping outside and I’m not doing that.’

Aiko ran as hard as she could, until sweat dripped down into her eyes and mouth and she thought she was going to taste salt forever. She had to stop at one point to throw up. Unfortunately, that was several miles before she came to a fast-running river where she could rinse her mouth until her teeth were painfully cold. She made a sad attempt to clean off her face, but gave it up as a bad job. Soap would be required before she was anything approaching clean.

(At the time, she had not gracefully accepted that reality. Aiko cursed like a sailor when she remembered that the soap was in Zetsu’s pack).

Despite pushing herself past what she thought was reasonable, Zetsu still beat her to the rendezvous point. Aiko slumped, mildly disappointed. She missed the appraisal her companion gave her.

  “We will have to wait to return them,” Zetsu said simply. “You are not expected until the next evening at the earliest.”

Aiko looked at him for a long moment. Then she looked at the sad, filthy civilians awkwardly sprawled on the ground where they had been dropped. She wasn’t an expert, but she began to suspect that Zetsu had drugged them enough to keep them unconscious and immobile for days.

“I’m going to get a hotel room,” she said flatly. “Come or don’t, I don’t care.”

He didn’t. In the morning she checked out of her room with clean hair and a still-damp outfit that she had washed in the tub by hand. She found that Zetsu hadn’t moved an inch, as far as she could tell.

Aiko got his attention by clapping her hands, though he undoubtedly already knew she was there. “How are we doing this, then?” she asked briskly, nodding towards the chumps they’d gone after. “If you can’t be seen, this is slightly complicated. I don’t think I can carry both of them.”

She definitely couldn’t carry both of them, although she could probably drag either one a fair distance by pulling on their ankles. That would have to be her backup plan.

Zetsu made a strange crackling sound that Aiko had no idea how to interpret. After a moment, he sullenly added, “I have little skill with genjutsu. I will wake one of them and it will be your job to convince them to return with you.”

Aiko pursed her lips and looked down at the couple collapsed on the ground. She was tempted to wake the man, but he seemed highly competent. The woman was a cloistered noblewoman. She would be more susceptible to persuasions.

“Wake the woman.”

Zetsu raised the smooth skin where another man might have had an eyebrow, but obligingly smeared something sharp-smelling over the woman’s lips.

“Meet me two kilometers north of here when you are done,” he instructed harshly before sinking down into the earth.

Fair enough. Aiko took a deep breath, tapping her fingers rapidly against the beautiful curved kunai that Obito had gifted her with, considering her strategy. By the time the woman groaned, her long, pale face contorting in discomfort, Aiko was ready.

“Wake up.” Aiko bent and slapped the woman, and stared into startled green eyes for just a moment before fear filled them. She might have forced a thin smile over her face if she thought she could manage it convincingly—but she knew she couldn’t it. If she moved her face from the impassive mask she was wearing now, she wouldn’t be able to hide her own nerves.

All she had to do was out-bluff a civilian girl. A non-violent offender, one who had committed a crime but didn’t deserve harm. Aiko carefully avoided looking at the bruise on the girl’s left hand with a perfect dot of dried blood in the middle.

It wasn’t anywhere near the brutality that she saw in her dreams or that she was capable of, but it was proof of the first time she remembered harming another human being.

She didn’t need to hurt the girl, but the civilian needed to think that violence was a possibility to scare her into compliance.

“What’s going on?” Consciousness didn’t really improve the sour look of Koto’s face. She was closer to handsome than pretty, with a long face, pointy chin, and slight bags under her squinting eyes.

‘Wow, her voice is an annoyingly high pitch. That’s positively grating.’

“Who are you?” Koto demanded, shaking her hair and struggling to her feet. She glanced down, noticed her lover, and turned white with what might have been rage or fear.

The silence didn’t last long. It turned to shouted recriminations, insults based on Aiko’s appearance, and threats that the other teenager had no chance of carrying out.

“-at bitch! What did you do to him? I’ll-”

‘If she were my daughter, I might have let her go. Jewelry or not,’ Aiko mused impassively. Was this really what civilians were like? No wonder that Obito didn’t let her mingle with them long than she had to.

“Ugly cunt!” Koto outright screamed in Aiko’s face, her unimpressive chest heaving and eyes wide. She was shaking violently and apparently thought that getting louder would force Aiko to react. It didn’t. “Fix him, or I promise I will cut you! I have friends who will come after you!”

Aiko watched Koto boredly. The taller girl fell silent once her voice went raspy, chest heaving with the effort of her vitriol.

“Are you quite done, Koto?” She guessed that the outrage and confused fear in other girl’s face was a victory. Aiko capitalized on that momentum, keeping her voice a steady, inflectionless drone that all but screamed disinterest. It claimed she did this every day. “You’re almost home.”

She was surprised by the choking sob the other teenager let out, but didn’t let that show.

“You really shouldn’t have stolen from your father,” Aiko mildly scolded, letting just a bit of disapproval color her tone. “I’m taking you home, and you’re going to tell your father that you are very sorry.”

“W-what? Apologize- what are you, my grandmother?” The other teen seemed flabbergasted. Kami only knew why. Surely she expected that her father would want her back? Granted, he’d chosen a strange messenger considering he was wealthy enough to have his own staff. But whatever, if he felt like throwing money at Aiko, that was just fine. “There’s no need for that,” Koto tried slowly. “I can pay you.”

Aiko raised an eyebrow. “With the things you stole from your father?” she asked dryly, pointedly lifting her shoulder so that the pack on her back was more obvious. It was the one that Koto’s little boy toy had been carting. “What kind of girl do you think I am?”

Koto opened her mouth, furrowed her brow, and then shut her mouth. She appeared to be momentarily broken.

Absolutely no sympathy stirred in Aiko’s chest. The girl shouldn’t have stolen: she’d written a check that she couldn’t cash. Koto didn’t even seem regretful. She just wanted to avoid the consequences of her actions. What a brat. She was far too old for that sort of behavior. If she had any dignity at all, she would accept responsibility and go home, now that she’d been caught.

“Please,” Koto said, very quietly.

‘Little weasel.’

Aiko felt her lip curl in revulsion despite her resolution to remain impassive and detached. “You’re annoying.” Against her will, her fingers curled around the one kunai in her weapon pouch. The other girl’s wide eyes clearly caught the motion.

‘I’m getting overly involved. I need to stay detached. This is just a job. It’s not my problem that she totally sucks.’

Koto considered her chances for a long moment, staring at Aiko’s face. Awkwardly, Aiko forced the tiniest smile onto her face, because the alternative was letting her resolve waver. She’d been trusted with a straight-forward mission. She could do this, even without Zetsu’s help on this last part.

Koto crumbled. “Alright,” she said quietly. “I’ll come.”

“That’s good,” Aiko chirped, turning away and giving a stretch. “You’ll be dragging lover-boy here home. I certainly couldn’t do it, I might break a nail.” She rolled her neck, yawning. After a moment, she added in an undertone as if it as unimportant and not another threat, “If I’d had to carry you, I don’t know how he was going to get to come with us.”

The implication being, of course, that she would kill him.

The other girl wasn’t strong, even for a teenager. Aiko would have done a much better job at pulling the unconscious lump of quietly drooling young man the mile or so to the isolated meeting point not far from the client’s manor. But she much preferred to have her hands free. Sweating and huffing would have undermined the image she needed to portray. If she were in Koto’s position, she would be looking for an opportunity to attack the bullying ninja and make free.

That wouldn’t work, of course, Zetsu was probably somewhere nearby. He was a few miles at the absolute most, and would notice if Koto tried to make a break for it. Aiko still wasn’t going to let it get to that point.

She mercilessly pushed Koto on, even after her pointy and not entirely pretty face was red as a cherry and her breathing had turned to harsh gasps.

“Maa, Koto,” she drawled, not knowing why the taunt sounded so right, “Are you tired already? Do you want a break already?”

Aiko was pretty sure that Koto hated her, but they were making pretty good time, all things considered. She hadn’t been to the meeting spot, but it was easy enough to recognize from the description that she’d been given.

There couldn’t possibly be that many waterfalls around.

“Just drop him,” Aiko advised carelessly, waving a nonchalant hand behind her and hopping up onto a large rock in the middle of the angrily bubbling stream fleeing the short waterfall. Well. She thought of it as short, but it was a good twenty feel from top to bottom.

If she wanted, she could probably run right up it, although it would be much easier to take the rocks.

(She privately resolved to do that once the exchange was over. It would probably be really fun to leap off the edge into the deeper pool collected at the bottom).

The sound of Koto’s breathing became muffled—she put her hand over her mouth, Aiko decided—and footsteps that the civilian probably thought were quiet sounded out behind her.

‘I’m surprised it took this long.’

Aiko turned lazily, her right hand whipping up to grab Koto’s wrist. She twisted, letting the momentum force the girl to drop the jagged rock she had picked up. Aiko gave a not entirely pleasant smile.

“At least you’re not entirely gutless,” she remarked, watching the determination in Koto’s eyes turn back to hopelessness. When the other teen wrenched her arm away, Aiko let her. “But you’re going to have to do much better than that. Try not to embarrass yourself next time you try to kill someone who kills for a living, yes? Or just be smarter.”

Wow, this was kind of fun. It was all bluffing, but Koto didn’t have to know that.

(it wasn’t exactly bluffing. She knew that she could snap a man’s neck with her bare hands if she had to, and that wasn’t the only way she had seen her dream-self brutalize another human being. If she had to, she could do things Koto couldn’t imagine with just one little blade. It only took one).

Koto whimpered, spineless again.

Disgusted, Aiko gently pushed the girl backwards until Koto stumbled out of the river, falling to her bum on the mud.

“Stay there,” she sighed. “Or come up with a better plan. It’d be better than glaring at each other for another hour,” Aiko mumbled under her breath.

Koto’s hostility simmered like a physical thing, leaving her practically generating a stormcloud over her head.

It didn’t exactly enhance the wait.

When Shimizu Atsushi strolled into sight, it was with two men at each shoulder. To be more specific, they were burly men, carrying unconcealed weapons. They looked like hired muscle.

Aiko frowned, unease stirring. She hadn’t seen anyone like that on the premises when she had met with Atsushi before.

Koto gave a strangled sob, climbing to her feet and brushing a bit of hair off of her face.

“Masashi, I didn’t expect you to beat me here,” Atsushi remarked, turning curiously calm eyes on his distraught daughter and the limp form of her lover on the ground. “You do good work. Koto-chan, I’m glad to see you unharmed. I was so very worried.”

Oddly, she glared at him.

Atsushi’s face twisted in concern. “Kinji-kun, would you please secure Aki-san here? I feel nervous knowing that a dangerous thief is unsecured.”

The man furthest from Atsushi’s right shoulder nodded, muscling his way past them. His thick geta sank slightly into the soft turf and his tan pants and shirt fluttered in the wind. Aiko caught the motion out of the corner of her eye, but didn’t turn around enough to keep her focus on ‘Kinji-kun’.

Something wasn’t right. Aiko moved slightly, opening up her chest and shoulders so that she could keep an eye on the entire clearing.

Strangely, Koto was the only other person who really seemed tense and alert like that. Atsushi and his four staff members were all relaxed looking.

And then ‘Kinji-kun’ picked up Koto’s lover like he was a doll, easy as you please. He gave one last glance at Atsushi before he grabbed the unconscious man’s lolling chin with one enormous hand and twisted, bracing the handsome and suddenly very dead thief against his chest.

The quiet pop was almost shocking.

Aiko’s mouth dropped open in shock.

‘Well, I honestly did not expect that.’

In the moment of quiet, Koto’s voice was very clear. “Ninja-san, they’ll kill the two of us as well. That’s the kind of man my father is. Fight for me.”

That wasn’t a half-bad argument. She palmed her kunai warily, taking a step backwards.

Atsushi left out a barking laugh. “Koto-chan, you’re not supposed to share family secrets. You see, this is why we have problems.” He took a casual step forwards, rolling his shoulders. “Yes, ninja-san, I’m afraid that I don’t intend to pay you. No one would disbelieve me when told that a violent nuke-nin attacked my family and attempted to rob me blind. It’s just business, I assure you.”

‘I can’t believe this crap.’ Aiko gritted her teeth, deeply unhappy with the change in situation. ‘He asked me to come here with the intention of killing me once I did what he asked to save a couple bucks? What an unmitigated buttmunch.’

That wasn’t the kind of dickery she could overlook. True, she could easily run away. There were problems with that. First of all, it would feel like letting Atsushi win, and her pride couldn’t tolerate that thought. Secondly… she maybe owed Koto an apology, because apparently there was a good reason not to want to spend time around her dillweed father.

The decision she was about to make was a terrible one, frankly. The first time that she picked a fight probably shouldn’t be when she was tired from running over ten hours yesterday and outnumbered. But apparently, she wasn’t a practical kind of girl. That was good to know.

Well, shit. Now would be an awesome time to have backup. Where the hell is Zetsu when I need him?’ Stubbornly, Aiko took a deep breath and decided that now would be an excellent time to switch loyalties.

“Koto?” She prompted, widening her stance. “Suggestions?”

The relief that washed over the other teen’s face told her that she’d made the right decision. “Stop them before they stop you.”

Well gee, you think?

Apparently Koto wasn’t going to be much help. Ah well. It had been a long shot anyway. She could probably do this.

Atsushi didn’t seem like a combatant to her, but Aiko was reluctant to rule him out. His daughter was scrappy enough that she was wary of him—it had to come from somewhere. That meant she had at least four opponents, possibly five. Four opponents of unknown skill was a poor match-up for her first real fight. They wouldn’t be gentle with her like Obito was. In other words…

‘I don’t think I can afford to let them make the first move.’

She assessed the situation with a blink. Kinji was still away from his fellows, ten feet separating him and backup. She stood roughly equidistant from him and his peers.

That was why Aiko swiveled on the balls of her feet and took a running leap at the loner, counting on the comforting weight of the blade in her right palm. He dodged to her left—

Which was perfect. She side-stepped behind him with a swivel and cut his throat from behind. He dropped to her feet with a gurgle.

(She winced, but pushed the regret and disgust away. She couldn’t be bothered by this, this was what she was supposed to do it was who she was it was what she’d been training for).

Someone screamed, but she didn’t know who. Blood was pounding in her ears and she had to move, had to move, she’d seen this a dozen times in her sleep if she didn’t move fast enough they would get her and she would be dead for real this time.

Aiko ignored the hot blood making her grip slippery and took a step backwards, forcing the fastest bodyguard to make the choice between jumping over his dead fellow or lose momentum by stepping around him.   The dark-eyed man chose to take a graceful leap over Shinji, moving to bring his blade out to meet her.

It was the wrong decision. He couldn’t dodge while in the air, and his hand couldn’t move rapidly enough while weighed down by his sword.

Her target was fairly obvious. The simplest, most direct solution was the best.

She let her kunai slide into his right wrist and jerked it haphazardly up into the meat of his arm, intentionally brutalizing the hand holding the short sword in his grip.

He screamed like a stuck pig and stumbled when his feet hit the ground, sending his weight crashing down. The downed man was struggling and moaning, clutching at his wrist with his free hand, but Aiko didn’t have time for pity. Unless he was ambidextrous and realllly determined, that should be good enough. She probably didn’t need to have killed the first one either, but in her defense, she’d just watched him kill a man.

They’re so slow,’ she noted in mild surprise, comparing her opponents to Obito, her only other sparring partner.

Perhaps it had been premature to jump straight towards so much force. They were… they were just civilians, apparently. Hired tough guys who basically amounted to genin level fighters. With that in mind, she adjusted her grip on the kunai to leave the blunt head uncovered. The weight was a comfort in her hand as she danced around the second man who had attempted to rush her. The last was standing in front of his nervous-looking employer, attempting to look menacing.

Her heartbeat slowed to manageable levels. It was hard to believe she had been so nervous about the thought of a real fight. She’d seen this a dozen times and her body knew the motions like it knew how to walk. It was piteously easy to give the man she’d stepped behind (a scarred bear of a man with a blonde ponytail) a good, hard whack on just the right spot on the back of his head with the blunt end of her blade.

He dropped like a rock.

Aiko sighed, shaking her hair back as she turned to look at the two threats left. Judging by the way they were gaping at her, she looked pretty badass at the moment.

The moment was ruined by a piteous whimper from behind her.

‘I completely forgot about him. That’s…embarrassing. What if he’d gotten back up and rushed me from behind?’

Her face went red as a tomato. “Oops?” she half-asked, rubbing at her head until she realized she was smearing blood over her hair. Atsushi turned a remarkable shade of purple.

“Stop her!” he snapped, shoving weakly at the bulky guard in front of him.

The remaining bodyguard looked a bit conflicted. His clear blue eyes looked at Aiko. Then he glanced at the man crying –something about his mother?—and shaking his mangled wrist. Then he looked back at Aiko with a question written on rugged features.

“I don’t have a problem with you,” she offered, shrugging.

He smiled, tense shoulders relaxing visibly. “Good to know, shinobi-san. I think that it is time for me to look for a new job.”

“Probably,” Aiko agreed, watching Atsushi shake with impotent rage. “You won’t be getting a letter of recommendation from that one, I think.”

He paused, giving a deep sigh that loosened the tight material of the red yukata across his chest. “…I don’t suppose you might be looking for a hired thug? Or that you won’t mind if I don’t change my sinful ways?”

“Thug away,” Aiko instructed, a smile tugging at one side of her mouth despite herself. “But I’m afraid I don’t need any assistance today, kind gentleman. We should part ways. If I see you again, I’d love to work with you.”

“Excellent. My name is Akemi, shinobi-san. Please take care of me.”

Aiko paused, frowning. She was pretty sure that was an alias. “That’s a girls’ name.”

Akemi (and he was such a large person for someone named ‘beautiful brightness’) raised an eyebrow. “Coming from you, Masashi-san, that rings a bit hypocritical.”

Fair enough. She didn’t say another thing as Akemi reached out and thumped Atsushi on the head impersonally with a meaty fist, idly catching the bony man before he fell and tucking the now-captive under a well-muscled arm.

That might have been the end of it. She had nearly forgotten that Koto was still there, until the other teenager stood, brushed off her clothes, and said in a very dry tone, “You do realize that they weren’t the people my father was intending on betraying you to. He didn’t expect you to defend me. You’re a terrible missing nin, by the way. Utter shit at your job. And this is coming from someone raised in the yakuza, so I know what I’m talking about.”

Aiko frowned at that, not sure if she should be insulted. “Then who was he planning on selling me out to?”

Koto sighed, rubbing at her face tiredly. She looked like she’d had a hell of a week. “If I know him, he’s contacted a village. They’d reward him half of whatever bounty you have, which would mean you’d dragged me back nearly for free. You got cheated, moron.”

Oh. Other shinobi were coming. Probably a whole team of them, too. Hmm.

Yeah, she wasn’t sticking around for that.

“I should go,” Aiko mumbled, wiping her blade off on her shirt and tucking it back away. Then she aimed a beaming smile at the other two, hands clasped in front of her torso. “It was very nice meeting you all! I’m sorry about that misunderstanding Koto, if I’d known he was going to kill your boyfriend I wouldn’t have brought you back. I’ll just take this bag as payment.”

Something twitched in Koto’s eye. She conspicuously said nothing.

“I should go too,” Akemi said awkwardly. “I’m a deserter and all. I suppose you should tell whoever shows up that you were attacked by rogue ninja who robbed your father or something so that you don’t get arrested.”

“I will try to remember that,” Koto all but hissed, before turning a sneer at her very unconscious father. “Although it won’t matter what I say, once father wakes up.”

Akemi looked down at his burden, and then nodded. “Ah. I see.” He hit Atsushi again, much harder this time. That was satisfying, actually. Aiko smothered a rather vicious smile. She really shouldn’t mix business and pleasure, but the man had tried to have her killed for doing the job he hired her for.

Koto blinked. “That’ll work.”

Aiko was already halfway out of sight.

“Uzumaki,” Zetsu hissed like a curse, sliding out of the ground. That had not gone as planned.

The idiot civilian girl that he had dragged across the countryside shrieked when she saw him for the first time. It took only a moment to shut her up, and not much longer to tip her unresisting corpse up into the hungry plant material around his chest and store the nutritious meat for later. He killed the two thugs that the brat had left unconscious (one was nearly bleeding out anyways) and hunted down the runner to do the same.

It was positively infuriating; he wallowed bitterly as he ripped the last witness to Aiko’s face apart. No one had done what they were meant to. Atsushi had improperly timed the ambush and then shown his hand too quickly, robbing Zetsu of the opportunity for his scripted ‘rescue’ of the brat, who would then feel loyalty. The brat had erred just as badly by forgetting herself and making friends with people that she should have been killing. When he returned to the rendezvous spot (after a short break to begin digesting in peace) Zetsu aimed a baleful glare at the redhead. She didn’t even seem to notice. Moron.

Fuck it, Obito could sort this out. And come up with a less convoluted plan with reduced risk for error next time.

The very lucky and very late Kumo nin who responded to honored tradesperson Shimizu Atsushi’s call for assistance were baffled when they arrived seventeen minutes after Zetsu left.

Chapter Text

 “I’m guessing things didn’t go well,” Obito said sympathetically, pushing his mask up over his head. Aiko didn’t like being unable to see his face. Besides, it was easier to fake sincerity when he could use his facial expressions and not just his voice. “I’m sorry. Are you alright?”

Aiko had settled down on the grass with a contemplative expression almost as soon as she had returned to the safehouse. That was a good indication to him that all had played out at it was meant to. Otherwise she would have been happy at a successful mission.

Oddly, he was beginning to feel tinges of guilt when he should have felt satisfaction at a perfectly executed plan. It seemed unnecessarily disingenuous to trick Aiko. She had made no secret that she was taking direction from him. Taking the precaution of convincing her was a bit redundant, considering that she would probably do what he wanted if he just told her.

Her thin shoulders shrugged. “It wasn’t so bad, until I realized that the client was a bad guy. By the way, I kept a piece of the loot as my pay. It’ll look better on me than on Zetsu anyway. It would clash with his hair, but it’s great with mine. I’ll show you later.”

Obito snorted involuntarily at the deflection, but recognized it for what it was. He didn’t respond, forcing her to continue. After a moment, the tactic worked.

She twisted to look up at him, fine-boned features twisted in confusion. “Seriously, he was a jerk. I felt a little guilty about bringing back Koto and her gentleman friend. There was probably a good reason for them to leave.

Probably, but Obito didn’t care about it.

“I mean,” she continued, “He hired us, and then he was going to kill me to save some money?” Incredulous, her voice inched higher in register, approaching the lower soprano ranges. “That’s so petty. I mean, money?”

Obito privately reflected that he would not introduce her to Kakuzu at this time. They wouldn’t get on.

Aiko gave an odd little laugh, wiping at her mouth compulsively. “I feel strongly about this for some reason. Is that part of why I left Konoha?” She didn’t give him time to answer. “That’s what civilians do, right? They hire us to kill people they don’t have the guts to face themselves.” Bitterness twisted her face into something oddly ugly. She shook her head slowly. “It’s despicable and small-minded. It’s one thing to be violent and fight, for your life or because you want to because you’re a vicious person. But hiding behind an intermediary to keep your hands clean is low. Posturing for false morality. Just- I don’t mind being an awful person, but I don’t lie about it.”

He scrambled for words, taken off-guard by her preoccupation with that aspect of the mission. It wasn’t that she was wrong, but she was terribly cavalier about the attempt made on her life. She hadn’t even mentioned being in danger from other nin, or that Zetsu had stepped in.

‘I can’t bring that up,’ Obito knew. ‘Not without her knowing that I predicted something similar.’

So he went for the next best thing: improvisation. That had never been his strong suit.

“It is petty,” he agreed. He was careful not to sit too close when he settled to the ground with crossed legs. It was important to be on her level for this conversation: he wanted her to feel like an equal, not a student. She had to think this was at least partly her idea and that meant this discussion had to feel like dialogue. “But it happens everywhere. No matter where you go, people are like that. It’s not just civilians. Shinobi use and discard people for petty reasons as well.”

The bitterness in his voice wasn’t entirely feigned. You truly couldn’t expect the best from people. It wasn’t their fault, of course, it was a fault in the human brain somehow. That didn’t change the fact that he’d trusted his best friend, and a year later Kakashi had pushed his fist through Rin’s chest.

No, you couldn’t trust a fickle human being at all.

Aiko made a dissatisfied sound, curling her toes in under her crossed legs. Moodily, she tangled her fingers around a cheerful looking tuft of grass and tugged, uprooting some.

‘She could give me a little more to work with,’ Obito thought, irritated. Still, he didn’t have time to feel sorry for himself, so he tried again.

“You were right, actually. The commercialism of murder was one of the things you hated about Konoha. The pointless, stupid death,” he all but growled, a bit of Madara bleeding through. “People like him only make the problems of the shinobi system worse. The only people who suffer are innocents. A lot of them are civilians, but there are also plenty of kids who get pushed out of the Academy far too young and into a world where they either die young or get used to hurt other people until they’re too broken to go on. Then they’re tossed like trash,” Obito said softly.

No one had even looked for his body, they’d left him there for Madara to find. He had been very near to the cave-in that had nearly killed him for months afterward. If anyone had cared at all, he would have gladly gone back to Konoha with them. Bastards. And like a chump, he had still intended to go back until he realized that the two people he had sacrificed himself to protect had… had…

He tore himself away from that destructive line of thought with herculean effort and glanced over at his companion.

The wide-eyed look that Aiko gave him hinted that she had sensed something was wrong, so he hastily corrected with a rueful grimace to soften the effect of his mood. “I hate it too.” The suspicion seemed to ebb after a few seconds—he all but sighed in relief, carefully calming himself. It wouldn’t be helpful to introduce her to Madara or Tobi. She needed a sense of stability, to see him as her rock and protector. No one wanted to give that role to someone mentally unbalanced.

“Hmm.” Her chin tilted down, and she stared thoughtfully at the grass. “Does that mean we were going to do something about it, or are we just abstaining from their system? It seems like we’re still perpetuating that kind of crap by running missions like this,” Aiko pointed out distastefully. “We didn’t mean to play into it, but Atsushi was going to use and toss us the same way.” She paused for a moment, and thoughtfully added, “Of course, he didn’t get away with it.”

Obito took a moment to wish she were a little less bright. It had taken him a long time to come to terms with that apparent contradiction.

“Sometimes you have to use the tools of a broken system to dismantle it,” he deflected. “Yes, we have a plan. It does require us to sink to their level for a time.”

They grimaced in unison. It wasn’t like Obito particularly liked killing people. He didn’t, whenever he could avoid it.

“It’s convoluted, though. I don’t know how well I can explain it.”

That was a damned lie, he’d all but prepared notecards for the very practiced way he wanted to frame this discussion. He could feel her eyes on him, but that didn’t stop him from sinking down into the grass and folding his hands behind his head. After a moment, the pressure of the mask pushing against the grass and then his head was vexing enough that he pulled the damn thing off entirely and lightly tossed it aside.

Taking off the mask was useful to create the illusion that he had nothing to hide, but it was still prudent to be sure that she couldn’t look at his face while he talked. She wasn’t as clueless as he had initially supposed, unfortunately.

As he had predicted, Aiko seemed to feel awkward staring down at him and mimicked his movement after a moment.

“What do you remember about genjutsu?”

It was very nearly a trick question—she shouldn’t remember anything. Her answer was satisfying.

“Right then.” Obito licked his lips, oddly nervous at giving this sales pitch. It hadn’t convinced him at first. Not until he’d lost his reasons to go back to Konoha.

Then again, Aiko had no loyalties to anyone other than him. She should be much less resistant.

‘Kami, I’m just as bad as Madara. I know it’ll all work out in the end, but if she really knew what was going on, she wouldn’t want to help me.’

“Obito?”

“Right, sorry.” He let sheepishness color his tone. “You’ve got to understand, all the things that are wrong with people are mistakes. Aberrations. When someone is greedy and short-sighted like that, it’s not really their fault. They can’t help it. Either because they were raised that way, or because there’s just something wrong in their head, or even because they live in such a broken system, people aren’t intrinsically bad. They do bad things for other reasons.”

The dubious silence that met his statement implied that she didn’t see the obvious solution.

“So you remove all that,” Obito said quietly. “Without the distraction of material greed and physical bodies, a lot of vices disappear altogether. The baseless traditions and myriad of little cruelties that enable the perpetuation of greed and senseless violence aren’t anything real. They’re not an army to be fought or out-maneuvered. They can’t be crushed. In order to defeat them, you have to either kill or overpower every single person who buys into it.” He shook his head, despite knowing that she couldn’t see that. “and that would be one of their strategies,” Obito spat, disgusted. “Crude and cruel. Remember, most people aren’t bad at all. They just don’t know any better, even the shinobi.”

Aiko had sat up, and was watching him talk with steady teal eyes and a slightly tilted head.

At least she was paying attention, even if she wasn’t nodding along. He carefully met her eyes and forged ahead, using his hands as he talked. He was gaining enthusiasm now, hoping that she would catch some of his energy.

“It’s hard to accept that what you know is wrong, so most people wouldn’t agree that those problems should be fixed. But an illness like that—a cancer like the governments that recruit child soldiers and send them out to kill other children—it needs to be fought, even if people don’t like that at first. A doctor wouldn’t let a child avoid getting medical care because she finds it frightening,” he stressed pointedly. “It’s the same thing! I don’t want to hurt anyone, and I don’t like that they won’t work with me. If there was a way to talk people around and fix everything that’s wrong with this world, then I would do that. But there isn’t. What there is, is a way to-” he waved a hand irritably, as if struggling for the right word. “To treat everyone,” Obito burst out, snapping his fingers. “I can stop them from hurting each other and anyone else! I just need… I need…”

“What?” Aiko burst out, leaning over him. She went back to biting her lower lip an instant later, clearly transfixed.

‘Gotcha.’

He looked away slightly to break eye contact, letting his eyes soften and his face settle into a sorrowful sort of seriousness. The expression was not at all natural to him.

“There are nine people that have to die in order for that to happen,” he said quietly. After a moment, he grimaced and sucked in air through his teeth. “Well, sort of.”

“How can people sort of die?” Aiko asked curiously, bringing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them.

Odd… she didn’t seem like she was going to judge at all that it would be necessary to hunt nine targets.

“They’re already dead, in a way,” Obito said solemnly. “It’s the most monstrous thing that shinobi villages do, actually. They make infants into human sacrifices so that they can use demonic power as superweapons. The resulting mixture of human and demonic energy in the child’s body is called a jinchuuriki.”

There was a pause.

“That’s almost cartoonishly evil. Like, if I was going to write examples of things that are evil, I might have come up with that on my own.”

“But it’s true,” he countered. “Make no mistake, the person is already lost the instant that the bargain is made, despite being unable to consent. It works by sealing one of the most powerful demons in the world into the child’s body. The person is… sort of alive,” Obito added grudgingly. “If you can call that living. But they’re just a tool for their village. They don’t have rights or agency. If they were to run or try to choose a different lifestyle, their village would just kill them and put the demon in a new host.”

Aiko looked awfully adorable with her chin propped on her knees and her big blue-green eyes all but popping against the color of her dirty, messy hair. It took some effort to merely blink up at her with a furrowed brow and sad eyes.

Her coppery ponytail slipped over a dirty shoulder when she cocked her head to the side. “Why does that mean they have to die? Because they would be used by the villages to stop us?”

“That too,” Obito said honestly. Or they would try, at least. “But not exactly. You see, in order to change everyone’s minds without hurting them, we need an enormous amount of power. We have to take all nine of those parasitic demons from their hosts and trap them where no one else can get to them. That means the villages won’t be killing any more infants. It would also allow me to use them to cast the biggest genjutsu that there has ever been.” She was staring, transfixed, when he reached up and tapped at the side of his head. “I have a bloodline limit called the Sharingan.” He didn’t even blink as he seamlessly activated the dojutsu.

Aiko recoiled in mild surprise as she saw his red eyes for the first time. She seemed more fascinated than frightened, however, when she leaned back in and let her lips part slightly as she admired the change.

“It can do a fair few things,” Obito added fairly. She would find that out anyway. “But the most important thing about the Sharingan is that it can control the bijuu. Which would be why Konoha killed all the Uchiha they could get their hands on,” he added in a tone of disgust.

Technically, that wasn’t a lie at all. He loved when that worked out. Lying to Aiko was surprisingly hard, because of his conscience moreso than because she was particularly alert.

“The Uchiha clan was actually one of Konoha’s founding villages. But it was a threat to their control of jinchuuriki, so it had to go,” Obito added quietly. It was sad, when he really thought about it. “But you don’t want to hear about that. Anyway. Because I have the Sharingan, I can siphon the energy I need from the demons without having to make a deal with them. The technique that I want to use was invented by my ancestor, Uchiha Madara. He managed to use it to a smaller scale for a time, but he didn’t have the energy to affect nearly enough people. When he was chased out of Konoha, he had to give up on it for himself.”

“If he gave up, how do you know about this?” Aiko asked skeptically. “How well did the technique work when Madara did it?”

She had an inconvenient habit of asking the wrong questions. Madara hadn’t gone into much detail as to how he knew the ultimate genjutsu would work as it should. Obito suspected that the older man was trying to make himself invaluable to the plan precisely so that Obito didn’t do what he was contemplating.

“When Konoha left me to die, Madara saved me.”

The words felt like an ugly lie, even though they were true. Madara had kept Obito from dying, but that had been against Obito’s will. His body had been so very broken. The genetic material that Madara had fused into his bones and flesh had been painful beyond words to meld with, and Obito suspected that it had changed him in more ways than the obvious. He had seemed older than he should have after the fusing was completed, as though the material had aged him closer to his prime, and he felt too young for a 32 year old man. It really would have been kinder to let Obito die in peace, thinking he had accomplished something.

Then again, if Madara had been interested in kindness, he wouldn’t have taken Obito’s crushed and ruptured chest cavity as an invitation to brand his broken body with a loyalty seal before Madara had set to attempting to fix Obito.

“He was very old,” Obito continued, hoping that she would forget he hadn’t answered both of her questions. “Madara knew that he didn’t have the ability to carry out his plan. So he entrusted me with that dream, as his protégé.” The smile he managed felt awkward and damning. “And I guess you’re my protégé now. You wanted to help make sure that no one had a chance to make another jinchuuriki. You have personal reasons,” he added awkwardly. This part was a gamble, but…

“Your family, the Uzumaki, are famous because they have a special chakra that make them optimal jinchuuriki,” Obito said gently. Disquiet registered on Aiko’s face almost immediately. “There are very few Uzumaki left, because the village they came from was destroyed in order to hurt Konoha, who used Uzumaki for their jinchuuriki sacrifices.”

A few inches from his head, Aiko’s hand curled into a fist in the dirt. “That doesn’t sound like you’re leading anywhere good,” she remarked bleakly.

Obito managed a huffing laugh. “No, I’m not,” he agreed. “You came very close to being used that way. There were only two child Uzumaki in Konoha when they last needed a sacrifice.”

Her face was very pale.

“Now that you’ve left, you’re a very valuable target,” he warned. “Even an adult Uzumaki is a better sacrifice than an infant from any other line. Worse, they could want to…” He coughed, genuinely uncomfortable with his next statement. It was true, though. “To use you to make more Uzumaki,” Obito added awkwardly. He was sure his face was scarlet.

He was relatively certain that the family traits that made Uzumaki stellar jinchuuriki were passed down in the female line, and he probably wasn’t the only one who made the supposition. He’d never heard of a male Uzumaki with chakra chains, after all, and Kumo had been pretty desperate to get their hands on Kushina until she made a name for herself.

Really, it seemed likely that he had inadvertently been the reason Aiko was safe from being used as a jinchuuriki. Snatching her brother had put the focus on him, and meant that the boy had been the infant close enough nearby when Obito ripped out the Kyuubi.

Funny how things like that worked out. He couldn’t imagine the boy with Minato’s face and a demon in his belly being as enjoyable to keep around as his sister was.

Aiko looked appropriately horrified. “Is that why you told me to use a false name?”

Obito nodded solemnly. “That’s a large part of it, yes. No one cares about me,” he pointed out depreciatingly. It was true, damnit all. “But lots of villages would want you. Not just Konoha. You have to be very, very careful. It’s a good thing that you’re fast. If anyone comes after you and I’m not with you…” Obito grimaced. “Well, it won’t be good, that’s all.”


 

“I think that went well,” Obito said mildly once Aiko had dragged herself inside the house.

Zetsu, who had been hovering nearby, seemed to sense that she had finally left and made a bee-line for his position. Obito met him calmly.

“Obito,” White Zetsu began. “About the mission and preparing the-Aiko (he changed hastily, not wanting to know what Obito would think about calling his pet by an unflattering moniker) for your mission-”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Zetsu, who had in fact been worrying about telling Obito that he had failed to control the situation, stilled cautiously.

“Our little talk went really well,” Obito waved his hand lazily. He pushed himself up, giving a stretch. “I assume you are ready to go with me to Kumo tomorrow?”

White Zetsu warred with avoiding Obito’s irritation and the desire to be honest. Black Zetsu opened their mouth first. “Of course,” he graveled out.

“Excellent.”


 

Her head felt fit to burst when she crawled into the shower and finally washed off the blood caked under her fingernails. It was a lot to take in.

‘I’m starting to think that Obito needs my help more than I need his.’

She didn’t know that she believed that the jutsu Obito talked about would work. Aiko hadn’t missed that he had avoided going into the mechanics of the trick. Besides, it didn’t seem plausible to her that there was a way to quash all resistance and make a perfect world, even if it was moral to do so. She was a killer, not a philosopher, so Aiko didn’t dwell on that very long. It wasn’t her problem.

The worry that ate at her most was that Obito seemed so invested in the plan. The passion in his voice had bled into fanatical territory. Before that discussion, Aiko wouldn’t have pegged him as an optimist, but it was clear that he was getting by on more faith and hope than facts.

That can only lead to tears,’ Aiko mused, lathering up her hair with a truly unnecessary amount of scentless shampoo. ‘And…’ she felt guilty for even thinking it, but, ‘He doesn’t seem that stable already.

She was no expert, but there was something truly disturbing about the way that his voice jumped registers as he talked. Obito didn’t even seem aware of the tendency. Aiko had no idea what it meant, but it put her hackles up and made her wary. Not for herself—she didn’t think there was a chance that he would hurt her—but for Obito himself.

‘He needs someone to watch out for him,’ she thought, feeling embarrassed for his sake. But she didn’t want to see Obito disappointed.

There was no helping it. All she could do would be to hang around and keep Obito company to be sure she was available when he needed help. Of course, that didn’t do anything about her sinking suspicion that he needed more help than she could give him. What else could she do?

Aiko mulled those thoughts over in the next months, as she trained both alone and with Obito in between occasional errands and tasks for him. He was too busy to spend much time with her, so she had to find other ways to keep entertained.

She chose finding her own work. Zetsu was still dismayed about being her babysitter, but he enabled her easily enough by putting her in contact with a few moderately shady characters who could pass work her way. Nothing she found that way was particularly stimulating, of course. There were always jobs convincing clients to pay, passing along blackmail, discreetly moving materials, and serving as inconspicuous protection on business deals that otherwise might go wrong.

The first job that she ever did on her own that way involved exchanging a package in one city for a great deal of money in another. Aiko came home with a fistful of cash and a grin. Obito met her at the door, absolutely furious.

“Where the hell have you been?” He grabbed her by the shoulders, not tightly enough to be painful but with enough force that it was clear he didn’t want her to go.

Aiko felt a line between her eyebrows crease. “Is something wrong?”

Obito sputtered incoherently, but his grip loosened. Once his fingers stopped digging in, she could feel that they were shaking slightly. “I came back and you were gone,” he finally managed. “You haven’t been here for days, I checked.”

Her eyebrows rose. “You leave all the time,” she pointed out practically. “For weeks at a time. What am I supposed to do, write sad poetry?” Aiko cocked her head to the side.

That seemed to do the trick. Guiltily, he sighed, giving a gentle squeeze to one shoulder and using the other hand to tug lightly at a forelock of messy hair. “Alright, I’m a terrible housemate. I’m sure we can all agree on that. I’ve been really busy, it’s just-”

“You don’t have to apologize,” Aiko interrupted. “I’m not mad. I just get bored.” She stepped back just enough that she had room to dig around in her front pocket.

Obito blinked in mild confusion when her hand came into view with a wad of cash.

“I’ve been working,” she explained proudly. “This week I learned about the transportation of illicit materials! Did you know that things like cigarettes and pornography are taxed really highly?” Aiko stuck her tongue out in mild disgust. “Which is dumb. So-”

By this point, Obito’s eyes were already glazing over while the speed of her voice increased. He sort of tuned out, until the words-

“and they gave me my own copies, ‘ttebane, and I don’t see why this stuff is so restricted! Did you know it’s banned in five countries?”

She sounded far too impressed by that.

“Wait, what’s banned?” Obito asked a bit helplessly, having become very lost.

There was a pause, while Aiko realized he hadn’t been listening, glared at him, and then shrugged it off in favor of removing her backpack and digging through it. A couple of seconds later, she made a triumphant sound and lifted a garish book high. “This!” Aiko said proudly, smiling at her prize as if it was a kitten or something similarly marvelous.

Icha Icha Paradise.

“Of course you brought home porn,” Obito muttered, rubbing at his temple. “Why wouldn’t you?”

“I can’t believe he gave this to me for free,” Aiko agreed, missing the point completely. “You know, it’s actually pretty good, I was reading on the way over. That was why it took so long, I can’t read and run, but I can read while walking.”

“But you’re too young to be reading that,” Obito argued, feeling that was a relevant point.

The expression on Aiko’s face indicated that was not an acceptable response.

Obito stared, considering his possible options. Tell her that pornography was inappropriate and ask her to get rid of it? It seemed like an overreaction, and not likely to sway her besides. Chide her for being so easily distracted and getting involved in possibly dangerous work? He couldn’t blame her for getting bored.

“Just… tell me when you’re leaving again,” he decided tiredly. “Leave a note or something detailing where you’ve gone and why, so I don’t come here and think you’ve been eaten by wolves.” With that, he started for the stairs, already dreaming of the lumpy futon that was his when he slept here.

“Obito?” came the small voice.

“I’m going to bed,” he said flatly. “I feel very old and tired.”

After that, she got pretty good about remembering to leave notes. He didn’t need the extra worry.


 

“Tsunade-dono,” Terumi Mei greeted levelly. Damn her, she was perfectly polished despite the situation.

The Hokage managed a smile without any real emotion behind it. Why would anyone else be as ragged as the Konoha delegation? They hadn’t been invaded. Tsunade could hardly complain about that either. Perhaps when the blow had been fresh, but now that months had passed since Nagato had come to Konoha it would be impolitic and unwise to remind the others of her country’s lingering weakness.

“Mei-dono,” she reciprocated. It was an odd mix of familiarity and formality, but it would work. It would be better to have allies going into this mess. “Shall we?”

The two Kage found their seats at the mediation table. All but one of the main Kage were assembled for the first time in kami knows how long. The lone ‘Kage’ of a minor village was very out of place.

Pity that it was about something like this.

“Ame has recognized one Konan as their representative,” the Kazekage began calmly, nodding towards the blue-haired woman seated serenely alone. Her two bodyguards had been left outside of the room. Everyone else’s were present, which was why Sabaku no Temari was gracing the Ame representative with a decidedly predatory smile. (and Tsunade was uneasy about what her hostility might mean for her brother’s decision-making) “The deliberations of this meeting will be her responsibility.”

“I don’t think that Ame needs a Kage,” A objected in what passed for his ‘indoor’ voice. “It wouldn’t be a first time that a village paid for their war crimes by dissolution.”

“In past, that has always come when a village was too battered to maintain functioning,” Gaara rebutted. “There is no historical or legal precedent for a council being empowered to dissolve the sovereignty of another shinobi nation.”

“I am sure that we possess the military strength to make that happen,” Mei added thoughtfully. “Strength does not make a wise course of action, however. It would create a dangerous precedent.”

Tsunade relaxed ever so slightly. She couldn’t make that argument easily without her personal interests being pointed out. The Raikage had come into this meeting already simmering on a low boil. When he lost his temper, Konoha couldn’t afford to be the focus of his anger. Not now, at least. Not while they were so weakened.

Her aim going into this was to defuse as much of the tension as possible, pacify the Raikage, strengthen her ties with her allies, and hopefully end up with aid in reconstruction efforts. Not physical aid, of course—monetary and material. Tsunade couldn’t afford any more breaches in security.

Ame was almost an afterthought for her. She was almost certain that Nagato was dead and therefore unable to pay for his crimes. Tsunade was far too old to put revenge over human welfare.

Her weariness was not the common feeling. The Raikage wasn’t the only country who (rather reasonably) felt disinclined to trust Ame to their own devices. They wouldn’t escape punishment, but views on what that should be differed.

It was common practice that the loser of a conflict had to financially reimburse the victors in exchange for mercy. Somewhat despicably, Tsunade found that her only real ally for that possibility was Konan.

The other leaders were in favor of a more permanent solution to defang Ame. Mei was clearly tempted by the Raikage’s desire to dissolve Ame, but too prudent to go through with such a rash action. She brought up a more permanent occupation as an option, as well as parceling out bits of the country to diminish the area of Ame’s influence. Not coincidentally, farmland far superior to what Mist owned would be part of what was carved out.

Tsunade realized with mounting trepidation that the Raikage was warming to that idea, once it became clear that no one would support his crusade.

That was the worst possible outcome, for her interests. If Kumo gained a base so close to Fire Country, it would only be a matter of time until they began to creep along the border and encroach on their most despised enemies. Besides, Ame had once been an ally, and could be again one day if the country wasn’t carved into pitifully small chunks.

Through it all, Gaara remained quietly neutral.

‘At least there’s no possible way to come to a consensus on this for a very long time,’ Tsunade consoled herself. ‘Even if the majority desires to carve up Ame, arguments over the choicest bits of land will take years.’

“What we need,” Tsunade interjected once the room had become quiet, “is to put aside this and focus on tracking down the rest of Akatsuki. We know that at least three members have escaped.”

She tried very hard not to hate the thin smile that creased Konan’s lips.

“This is a distraction,” A said dismissively. He slapped a hand down on the table and glared around the room. “Three missing nin are no threat to the orderly operations of the great nations. An entire country getting away with allying themselves with a terrorist organization, on the other hand,” he sneered, “sets a dangerous precedent, as the Mizukage would say.”

Mei visibly hesitated before responding, eyes darting between Tsunade and the Raikage. “I, too, feel that most of the danger presented by Akatsuki has passed,” she admitted carefully.

‘Oh, hell.’

She had hoped that it would be easy to remind the alliance of their original goals. The danger of Akatsuki certainly was not past. But how could she possibly convince her allies of that?

The most compelling piece of information she had to support her claim that the Akatsuki were still a threat was the theory that their leader had been Uchiha Madara. However, that claim was based on flimsy evidence at best.

There was zero possibility that she would tell the other nations about Aiko’s apparent visions (hell, she hadn’t even told Naruto and Sasuke), and Itachi’s suppositions would not hold up as hard evidence.

The only thing that ‘Tobi’ had done that made Konoha recognize him as a dangerous enemy was break into Konoha at least twice, kill an ANBU operative while stalking a Jounin, and then come back later to kidnap that Jounin and all the documentation on her career.

Tsunade absolutely could not tell the other nations that her country was so weak that her personal apprentice hadn’t been able to stop one person from kidnapping the Yondaime’s daughter from her sickbed. The symbolism was nearly painful—it wasn’t Shizune’s fault, tired, overworked, and unwittingly up against a master of his craft; but it would still be a hell of a rhetorical coup.

Sasuke had already made the tactical error of telling the Raikage that Aiko was missing in action. Due to the timing of that poorly-planned decision, however, the Raikage would almost certainly have assumed that Aiko had been misplaced during the attack on Konoha and not independently kidnapped.

No, the truth of that situation would have to stay buried. For now, she would keep her lips pressed together and if anyone happened to ask about Aiko, she was unavailable. She was a good Jounin, yes, but she was far more important for what she represented as one of Konoha’s rising youth and the Yondaime’s oldest child.

‘And she’s still alive,’ Tsunade reminded herself. ‘She could come back on her own, or Tobi will make a mistake and we’ll find her.’ At least, if you asked Kakashi she was undoubtedly alive. Jiraiya had been skeptical of the Hiraishin seal as evidence, pointing out that it seemed more likely that Aiko had found a way to make it independent rather than that it had magically survived her first death but would still reliably indicate if she were to die again. Tsunade preferred Kakashi’s theory for now. Seeing her teammate be on the skeptical side of an argument left a bitter taste in her mouth. Jiraiya was always the optimist.

Having important but unconfirmed information about the remainder of Akatsuki proved to be even more frustrating than expected. Her colleagues engaged in subtle sniping and power plays while the Ame representative watched quietly.

It was certainly in her favor to allow this process to be drawn out as long as possible. The more time she had to prepare before sanctions were leveled, the more preparation her people could do to ensure the blood-money drawn from them wouldn’t leave Ame citizens starving in the streets. Tsunade could hardly begrudge her that.

In the end, after five days of deliberation, nothing was decided and the great leaders left in disgust. Their business wasn’t resolved, but they could hardly afford to yell at each other until they came to agreement—their villages needed them. That didn’t mean the issue was ended, of course, but it meant that there was time before they met again, and time before a decision was reached. Time for Konoha to grow strong once more.

With that in mind…

‘It’s time to start training Naruto and Sasuke as my successors,’ Tsunade decided grimly as she slowed to a walk, relaxing now that she was within the forested lands of her ancient homeland.

She guiltily didn’t think about Aiko. It had been over two months since she’d gone missing, without so much as a whisper or sighting. If she had been back in the village or came back soon, Aiko had the same blood claim as Naruto, and a good deal more viciousness that might make her better suited for the hokageship during a time of war.

Whoever had the hat in ten or perhaps even five years, it wouldn’t be Tsunade.

She was old, and not as powerful as she had been twenty years ago. It would be pure foolishness to act as though she could maintain internal control and international respect indefinitely. Either one of the boys would be powerful enough to do the job, but it was best not to put all her eggs in one basket when war was so obviously wavering on the horizon. Optimally power wasn’t the only requirement: but as of now, neither of them was mature enough to take over her job. Hopefully it wouldn’t be much longer until they got their shit together.

“But if they’re not ready in time,” she said out loud, “You’ll have to hold down the fort.”

Kakashi looked up, mildly confused about what he’d missed but somehow experiencing a sinking feeling. “Pardon?” He had probably gotten distracted with thoughts of his current project—tracking down records of Uchiha to see if there were any suspiciously missing corpses that might be Madara’s current vehicle.

Tsunade jumped a little, having forgotten that her bodyguard wasn’t privy to the conversation in her head. She waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, nothing. You might have to be Hokage.”

He walked into a tree.

Chapter Text

"K-kai!" She pulsed her chakra out to disrupt what she was seeing, despite the uncanny realism. But nothing changed except that her training partner's smug smile widened slightly.

Not a genjutsu, then. Huh.

"What the hell is that?" Aiko breathed, stopping in her tracks.

Obito made a 'herk!' sound and jerked to halt his attack, vines whipping backward. "Something you're supposed to dodge!" he said, voice oddly shrill. "You can't just stop whenever something is interesting. Lots of enemies will have techniques you haven't seen before."

Aiko made a low sound of understanding, frowning slightly. "Sorry, it shocked me. Try again?"

'Shocked' wasn't really the right word. When plant matter had rocketed out of the ground in the middle of their spar, her first thought was that Obito had turned to genjutsu.

'For a second…' Aiko cleared her face as she readjusted her stance, ready to dodge in any direction. But her mind was still stuck on what she'd seen a moment ago. Or rather, what she hadn't seen. For just a second, she had caught the wood-like material moving out of the corner of her eye and had expected to see that her opponent was a completely different man. Someone with carefully mussed brown hair, big sad eyes, and the weirdest forehead protector she'd ever seen.

'I'm sure Obito would love to know that I'm having strange visions,' Aiko thought with some amusement. She could tell him, of course, and he probably wouldn't think she was crazy. But she didn't seriously consider it.

It was either a strange hallucination, or a flash of memory. There would be no point in telling Obito if the case was that her brain was on the fritz. She much preferred the idea that it was a bit of memory from another spar, that Obito's attack had triggered a faint recollection.

Aiko was a hoarder lately. Not of physical things, but little bits and pieces of her old life. She was strangely reluctant to share what she remembered with Obito. Why should she? It wasn't like he'd opened up about the minutia of his childhood.

He probably wouldn't be that interested anyway. Remembering that she had been raised in a crowded orphanage with a skinny blonde boy and a pretty woman who wanted to be called 'Aunt Mikoto' was interesting to Aiko, but probably boring to anyone else.

(She wondered what had happened to the people she remembered. Was Mikoto really her aunt, or just a volunteer as her memory seemed to indicate? Probably a volunteer. They looked nothing alike.)

"Look, forget it." Obito shook his head, disgusted. "Let's try again when I get back." He clenched his hands, cutting off the wood jutsu altogether. "You were doing well until you got distracted by butterflies."

"It's just all the pretty colors," Aiko deadpanned. "I can't help it."

His lips pulled into a smile despite his disgruntlement. "Try to get it out of your system while I'm gone."

"What's on the schedule?" she pried, interlocking her fingers and twisting her arms above her head. Aiko rolled her neck, cracking it while she walked. Her friend winced, but didn't pause in stepping inside and holding the door open for her.

"Well, after a shower," Obito prevaricated, "I'm going to go poke around Suna."

"What's in Suna?" Aiko cocked her head curiously, blinking up at him.

He looked away before responding, eyes distant. His voice remained congenial, though. "A reasonable man."

Aiko snorted. "Well, we can't have that," she said gamely.

Obito huffed a little. "No, we can't," he admitted with a twitch of a smile. "Our business is best done when the great countries are communicating as little as possible. When you live outside the law, effective communication and cooperation between the lawkeepers is less than beneficial to your continued well-being."

"In other words, screw that guy," Aiko concluded cheerily. She flopped down on her customary chair and gave him a cheeky look. "Are you going to kill him or something?"

"Nothing so drastic," Obito scoffed. "Better someone I can predict, for now. No. As I said, he's a reasonable man. If his people are upset and there are reasons for him to be wary of what his allies tell him, he won't commit to a course of action that would help international tension simmer down. He probably thinks that the Mizukage is greedy, the Raikage is impulsively violent, and the Hokage is holding back information." He gave an easy shrug. "A reasonable man wants to believe the best and prepares for the worst. If a couple of patrols go missing here, a spy is discovered there, and he comes across unsettling information every so often, he won't be able to be the voice of reason forming that gaggle of egotistical fools into something remotely competent."

Aiko paused.

"That sounds kind of fun," she admitted. "Can I do that?"

"Maybe later." Obito gave her a sideways look, smiling slightly. "It is pretty satisfying."

She made a rude pfft sound, despite not really being that upset. Her pout had no effect, but she hadn't really expected that it would.

He heaved a sigh and turned to fully face her, clearly amused. "Just come out and say whatever it is."

"I don't know what you mean," Aiko deflected.

He looked unimpressed.

"Alright, fine," she admitted with a dismissive wave. "I may have heard about a job request that sounded interesting. But it seems more like a two-person job."

Obito hummed under his breath, sucking on his cheek thoughtfully. "And you wanted me to adventure with you?" She looked sheepish. "Well, I'm sorry that won't work out. And-" he blinked in realization. "Zetsu is preoccupied for another week or so."

Aiko nodded miserably. "Right. Someone else will snap it up if I wait that long."

He looked at her sad little face, debating internally. She would stay at the base or take a duller mission if he asked. On the other hand, what would it hurt to treat her?

He sighed. "You know, we need a longer term solution for you. Zetsu and Kakuzu are capable of working without partners and prefer not to, and there's no one else I'd trust on missions with you. But taking little jobs whenever something interesting comes up through whatever contacts you've found involves a lot of travel for generally small jobs." Judging by the resigned frustration on her face, Aiko already knew that.

Oh, hell. He rubbed at his temples, feeling a bit sorry for her. All she wanted to do was stay busy and help. Was that so wrong?

"You'll have to work with a stranger on this one," Obito warned. Her eyes immediately brightened, and she nodded hastily. "Kakuzu is not a particularly approachable man."

"That's fine!" Aiko chirruped.

"Alright." He absently pulled down his mask. "I'll contact him right now. Do what he tells you, alright? You'll have to wear the uniform, or at least the cloak, so that he recognizes you. Don't let anyone else see you in it; the cloak is distinctive but reversible. We're keeping a low profile at the moment."

"I know," she stressed, having heard this speech. "I'll wear the stupid cloak."

He held up a hand, struck by one more thought. "Where is the mission? I'll tell him to meet you there."

Aiko shrugged. "Someplace called Kiichigo Fīrudo(1). It sounds nice."

"Prepare to be surprised," Obito responded distractedly.


'What a dump.' Aiko braced her elbows on her knees and tried not to frown too vigorously down at the grubby little farming town that had hosted a surprisingly well-paying mission request. 'I wonder who in this town would have that kind of money.'

She had an excellent view of people going about early morning chores from her perch on an overlooking bluff face.

Kiichigo Fīrudo boasted perhaps two hundreds souls—farming families, simple folk who lived off the land. They were currently going about all sorts of wholesome things like milking cows and hoeing fields and – and that was all the farm-ish things that Aiko could recognize to list, but there were doing plenty of other things.

Aiko crinkled her nose in mild revulsion. 'It wouldn't be so bad if it didn't smell so much like goats. This whole place should probably be cited and quarantined.'

She was actually rather thankful for the oversized cloak Obito had stuffed her into before he'd let her leave. The high collar easily covered her nose, which filtered out some of the funktastic smell.

("Deidara was actually closest to your size," Obito had chatted cryptically while she grumpily held her arms out to the side. "Konan's would be less broad through the shoulder if a little longer, but she's gotten rid of all her uniform clothes, so the point is moot.")

Well, whatever. She didn't care that much about bespoke cloaks.

"I take it you are to be my partner?" a low voice ground out.

Aiko took a moment to respond, still scowling down at the villa below. She was not looking forward to getting closer.

"Yes. You must be Kakuzu. Let's get this over with, shall we?"

He responded with a grunt and started walking. Aiko's fingers hovered at her collar for a while—Obito had said that she should take it off after Kakuzu recognized her. More specifically, he'd recommended that they turn the tell-tale cloaks inside out before anyone else saw them. But he'd also ordered her to follow Kakuzu's lead, and he didn't make a motion to remove his cloak.

Besides, the inside of the cloaks were red. She didn't see how that was less conspicuous than black with a couple of clouds.

'Well, I'll do what Kakuzu does,' Aiko decided. 'At least this collar keeps some of the reek at bay. I don't care much if it's right-side-out.'

It wasn't until after they had formally accepted the mission that Aiko realized that her partner was highly uncommunicative. Perhaps not going through the motions of civility with her current partner had been a mistake. Kakuzu-san seemed put-out with her.

Maybe her rudeness had hurt his feelings? He didn't look like a particularly delicate flower, but appearances were deceptive.

'I'll just be extra nice,' Aiko decided.

He apparently made no such resolution.

"You should have been capable of completing this mission without any assistance," Kakuzu criticized after a long period of silence. "If you are worthy of this organization, five shinobi should pose no threat to you."

She blinked in mild surprise. He didn't seem like a talker, but then again, it wasn't like she had much else to do for entertainment while they waited for the band of missing-nin that had apparently been extorting the little town. "All the mission request said was that it was a team mission sorting out gang-related problems," Aiko said finally. "I didn't know that it was such a small number of missing-nin."

That was true, although she'd half expected to find out their opponents were civilians and genin washouts.

Kakuzu grunted, not pleased by her answer. "You should have gathered more information before you accepted the mission. How did you expect to make a profit without knowing how much effort you would be expending? Foolish brat."

Aiko felt her hackles rise at the insult and greedy outlook.

'Don't engage. He's rude, but that's his problem, not yours,' she tried to convince herself. 'Arguing will only waste time and get me mad for no good reason. I'll get the mission done as soon as possible and we'll part ways.'

That in mind, she pressed her lips together and looked away dismissively. After a moment, she calmly managed, "I don't mind doing extra work for the reward. The mission sounded like it would be mildly entertaining and keep me out of the house."

It also counted as her good Samaritan deed for the week, she thought. She didn't share that part. Kakuzu didn't seem the type to appreciate hints of benevolence.

Aiko was actually rather proud of herself when her response came out civilly. Kakuzu grunted in what seemed to be disapproval, but he let the subject drop. It was a relief when a small caravan crested a distant hill and wound around the dirt roads that led into town.

"What's that, eight people on foot?" Aiko confirmed, squinting a bit. "There could be more in the carriage, of course, but I bet that's where the loot is."

This gang was at least ostensibly a group of travelers who offered mercenary protection for merchant's goods. It was actually a pretty good idea, Aiko thought. They'd transport others' goods from place to place as a sort of delivery company. Being on retainer theoretically made the prices much lower than transport protection that could be arranged on an individual basis with shinobi villages, and made it much easier to make multiple trips and sell a lot more merchandise. Produce, in this case.

They were almost certainly smugglers, in Aiko's opinion. That'd be what she would do, if the business was hers. Of course, she would take care to remain on their clients' good sides to skirt under the law and not all but rob them at knifepoint, but no one had ever accused most bandits of being particularly business-savvy.

She stood, giving a little stretch, and then began leisurely walking to close the distance. Aiko wanted to see them up closer. The odds that another group was using this road when the gang was expected were not good, but she'd like to be sure. It would be pretty embarrassing to accidentally murder random travelers instead of the people they'd been contracted to eliminate. They were supposed to be able to recognize their targets by kanji the hired muscle wore—lucky travels.

"That's them," her partner noted. The group was just now noticing the two cloaked shinobi, and raising a small commotion amongst themselves.

'They're deciding whether to be friendly or if we look like too much of a threat,' Aiko decided, curling her fingers around the length of wire she carried.

"Leave a survivor to question," Kakuzu ordered hoarsely. She nodded without thought. She'd already known that.

It took longer to loot the corpses for information than it did to tear them apart. Kakuzu apparently favored brutal ninjutsu. Aiko frowned at the excess, but she was a little jealous, frankly.

Obito had been working on perfecting her weapon skills, and not paid much attention to teaching her ninjutsu at all. He'd conceded that any active shinobi needed to be able to use henge, shunshin, the body-switch jutsu, and a bunshin of some sort, but those were the only combat jutsu he'd taught her.

She really shouldn't complain. Aiko couldn't learn everything at once. It did make more sense to prioritize the little things that helped in tracking and camping like the fire-spark jutsu and the really large jutsu he needed her to learn to help in bijuu extraction than it did to prioritize combat jutsu. Ninjutsu specialists were generally front-line, close-range fighters. And he didn't want her to be one.

'I could be a close-range fighter,' she thought resentfully. 'I bet I'd be good at it. I have lots of chakra.'

Aiko shoved down the internal complaint that Obito was being unfair in favor of helpfully clearing the road of corpses and debris. She glanced at the carriage—the horses attached to it were wide-eyed and distressed, but their hooves were still caught in the mud Kakuzu had made. There really wasn't any need to block the road like that.

He was busy interrogating their sole prisoner, and it wasn't like she had anything else to do…

"Hey, Kakuzu. Let the horses go. I'll take the carriage into town and report the first half of the mission is complete."

By the time she returned (with enthusiastic thanks ringing in her ears and a hefty tip in her pocket) Kakuzu had apparently gotten all he needed and disposed of the gibbering, sobbing survivor. She cast a dispassionate glance at the corpse out of curiosity. He'd apparently sliced the man up—it looked a little like the corpses she'd made with her wire.

' I thought he'd stick with ninjutsu. Then again, I suppose that would have been terribly wasteful in terms of chakra.'

Oh well. It didn't really matter.

"Aren't you going to clean that up?" Aiko asked instead.

Kakuzu stood. "No. We haven't been paid to do so." His lips twisted slightly into a sneer. "I'm sure this mess will be less offensive than the fertilizer currently in use here. Perhaps they should pay us extra for leaving them the bodies."

Aiko was torn between 'that's not very kind,' and 'that's not far off from the truth.' Instead, she cracked a smile. "I didn't know you were funny, Kakuzu." Honestly, she hadn't expected him to make a joke at all, even if it was a bit macabre. "I think I like you much better than Zetsu."

"Spare me your flattery, kunoichi." He began walking away, forcing her to hustle to keep up. "Even if you did not resemble a child, you are entirely the wrong sex to interest me."

Aghast, her jaw dropped.

He thought she was flirting with him? She didn't know if that was arrogant or just so cynical that it was sad.

"What, I can't be nice unless I want something?" Aiko snapped, offended.

All Kakuzu did was snort. "Come along."

The rest of the mission was completed in a tense, sullen silence on Aiko's part, interspersed with occasional brisk orders from Kakuzu. It took them several days to hunt down and eliminate the criminal elements of what turned out to be an actual, legitimate business.

The only time Aiko spoke up was to convince Kakuzu to let the actual owners, their family, and their staff live.

She had to resort to his language to do it, however, because she wasn't thick enough to think 'That's not very nice' would work on him. "We haven't been paid to kill businesspeople," Aiko pointed out. "In fact, allowing them to remain in business offers us future opportunity for further profit."

The woman who had founded the company nodded furiously, clutching her ten-year-old son so tightly to her chest that her fingers were white.

"Either they'll end up accidentally hiring more thugs that we'll get paid to kill without having to do the preliminary research again," Aiko listed in a stroke of inspiration, "or actually, I could replace their missing team. It'd be a long-term mission, paid very well since I can substitute for all the lower-level thugs, and you won't have to be involved at all."

It would also be easy drudgery that gave her an opportunity to get paid exorbitantly to travel and make money on the side moving contraband, but she left that part unsaid.

Kakuzu accepted that argument, but forced the business owner to sign a contract that he wrote up on the spot before he would leave.

"Sorry about him," Aiko apologized to her new employer as soon as Kakuzu's steps had faded. She didn't want his bad attitude to color her new business relationship, after all. "He's a bit of a grump."

The middle-aged brunette managed a quivery smile, still carefully placing her body between Aiko and the door she'd shooed her son through.

"Yeah…" She scratched at the back of her head, mildly uncomfortable with the continued tenseness. "Let's talk business, then? I don't do grunt work, so you'll still have to hire a couple of people to do packing and transport. What's the route like? And oh-" Aiko clapped her hands together sharply, remembering something. "I know it's not in the contract, but I don't sleep outside unless there's really no other option. What kind of accommodations are available in the various stops?"

She wouldn't intentionally intimidate this poor woman any more than Kakuzu had already done, of course. But if asking about accommodation right now netted Aiko a better deal, she wasn't too morally upright to pass that up. Now that she'd met the organization's financial manager, she was beginning to suspect that she would not be getting a wonderful budget for hotels.

Aiko wouldn't need a place to stay tonight, of course. She wasn't that far from a safehouse.

'I'll just stop by and leave a note for Obito,' she thought cheerily, already expecting praise for solving the problem of finding lucrative employment that Obito didn't have to pull another member away from their own work for. 'Other than that, I could start anytime. I wonder if she (Aiko suddenly remembered she didn't even know her employer's name yet) would notice if I made a detour. Moving produce is nice and all, but I'd make a lot more money if I pick up some other merchandise.'

Life was pretty good.


"I'm afraid that I have something to say."

Even the Raikage shut his trap and turned his stare on the Ame representative, who had somehow managed to find a comparatively dark corner to lurk in, despite the meeting place being both well-lit and circular. Konan had been pointedly, painfully silent except when directly addressed on their first meeting. That had been two months prior. After a flurry of exchanged messages, international opinion has settled enough that it had been possible to arrange another meeting to hopefully settle affairs.

'This can't possibly be any good.' Tsunade raised an eyebrow and leveled an impassive look on the younger woman.

"I would like to confirm the Hokage's report at our last session."

Wait, what?

Tsunade was still trying to figure out Konan's angle when the other woman continued speaking. "The criminal organization known as Akatsuki is still a threat to international relations. As a gesture of goodwill, I have prepared dossiers on the remaining members of the organization."

Displeased, Mei's lips twitched slightly. "There are only a small number of members available," she demurred. "Surely they do not present an urgent issue."

Konan gave a tiny smile. "On the contrary," she said smoothly. "Nagato was neither the leader nor the most powerful member of Akatsuki. The man responsible for forming the organization is one that you might remember, Mizukage-dono." Before Mei could spit fire at her for insinuating that they were social equals or that she was familiar with criminals, Konan waived a hand slightly. "He has been directing international events for longer than I have been alive."

It was a little bit of a thrill to realize that she knew where this was going.

"Uchiha Madara, the original nuke-nin, is responsible for the formation of Akatsuki."

The dropped jaws around the room were sort of hilarious. Tsunade wished a moment later that she had feigned shock when Gaara's eyes narrowed on her slightly.

Despite the clear logistical problems with what Konan had just claimed, no one seemed to dismiss the possibility. That, more than anything else, spoke to just what kind of legend Madara had. Konan hadn't been exaggerating when she described Madara as the original nuke-nin—the originator of that sin against country and kage, in a way. He may have been a Konona-nin, but he was in everyone's history texts.

'This is perfect,' Tsunade realized with a sharp bit of joy. Well, the news itself was bad, but it confirmed her suspicions and would hopefully convince her peers to come to a wiser consensus.

"What do you mean?" Gaara asked sharply, voicing what seemed to be the collective question. "How do you know that this man is Uchiha Madara? And what did you mean by your claim that he has been directing international events?"

It clearly rankled the group to be dependent on Konan for information. That was probably why she had arranged the situation the way she had. She had probably been silently steaming since she had been summoned to that first meeting.

Satisfaction was plain in the victorious glint of Konan's amber eyes, even though she remained generally professional. And why wouldn't she be satisfied? From a position of weakness, Konan had made them all look like fools and took control of the session. "I simply refer to the time when he was unofficially the leader of Kirigakure," Konan demurred.

Mei turned red almost immediately.

"I am certain that Amegakure and Kirigakure have not been his only targets, of course, but I was never privy to Madara-san's whims. Nagato was his intermediary for Akatsuki and thusly contacted him more, but their relationship was… tense," Konan allowed delicately.

Oh, clever girl. By making Akatsuki ultimately Madara's responsibility, Konan had made it that much harder for Mei, at least, to argue in favor of punishing the current regime for the last one's failures under Madara's control.

"Do you have any proof?" A bit out, not bothering to disguise his hostility.

"Little enough," Konan replied honestly. "Other than my own testimony, I have very little proof to offer. Madara-san showed his face to none and shared his identity with almost as few. I believe that the two subordinates he has left in Akatsuki are the ones most likely to have known his identity and been following his will alone." She gave the most graceful sort of shrug Tsunade had ever seen, inclining her head slightly. "I believe that Tsunade-dono may be in possession of some small corroborating information."

As all eyes turned to her, Tsunade resisted the urge to give Konan the stink eye. Little shit. "We had reason to suspect that the Akatsuki known as Tobi was an Uchiha," she admitted levelly. "Nothing concrete, of course, other than testimony based on the recollection of family scent characteristics."

"Smells like cat," Kakashi muttered half-heartedly. It was thoroughly inappropriate for a bodyguard to speak up unsolicited in this setting, but no one batted an eye.

A's face twisted into a sneer. "And I suppose you didn't share this information because you didn't want your village to look weaker than it already does," he accused.

She'd been expecting that. "It was an unconfirmed analysis that the culprit may belong to a specific family," Tsunade countered dispassionately. "There was no reason to jump to the conclusion that the Uchiha in question was a two-hundred year old man long thought to be dead. Had I brought such flimsy evidence to your attention, you would have dismissed it."

"That's very convenient," Mei said flatly.

She was cut off by a rude snort from A. "I'll say it is!" He brought both fists down on the table—apparently unconcerned with the fact that the shinobi brought as personal bodyguards jerked forward at the show of aggression. Tsunade hardly saw him leap to his feet (and she was reminded that A was possibly now the fastest man alive, and certainly not someone to underestimate). "It's obvious that you've been pulling everyone's strings!" he accused, pointing at Tsunade.

Oh, hell.

"I was made promises that you clearly have no intention of fulfilling," he continued, pacing. "The alliance of equals that you spoke so highly of seems to be a convenient fiction. And you," A snarled, rounding on the group. "Mizukage! Kazekage! You should be ashamed to act as lapdogs for Konoha."

"Excuse me?" Mei interrupted, tone dangerously cold and high. "No such relationship exists. Kirigakure is allied with Konohagakure on equal terms for mutual benefit."

"And that's why you jump when she snaps her fingers," A mocked. "Brats. You're practically suckling at her t-"

"Enough."

The Kazekage's voice was enough to halt all of them reflexively, whether it was due to shock or lifelong habit of taking orders. That was a hell of an accomplishment, actually, for a teenager with no real field command experience.

Gaara didn't revel in his minor victory. "This squabbling diminishes us all," he said levelly. Dark-rimmed eyes slowly traveled over every man and woman in the room with the weight of judgment. "Our duty is to ascertain the most reasonable, responsible, and beneficial course of action for our respective nations and to negotiate to a compromise. There is no place here for ego or insult. Amekage, please," he deferred politely, turning his face pointedly towards her. "What threat does Uchiha Madara pose, and what are his goals?"

"He wishes to collect the nine bijuu." Konan's words shocked no one. She visibly hesitated with her next words. "There was a time when Nagato-sama and I believed that Madara-san shared our vision," Konan admitted. "We desired to use the bijuu as an undefeatable weapon to force an end to human wars and violence. Now I suspect that we were tools in his acquisition. Hiding behind other regimes seems to be his modus operandi. I cannot say what he intends with the bijuu, but I do not believe it could possibly be to the benefit of the free world."

This was the first time that Tsunade had heard Nagato's moronic plan referenced since the day he had left Konoha and apparently killed himself in Ame after handing over the reins to Konan. It was just as annoying this time around.

Tsunade opened her mouth to speak-

"I'm done here," A said in disgust, pushing back his chair to leave. "Since none of you are going to come to your senses. Clearly we should be looking at Amegakure," he stressed, pointing one of his enormous sausage fingers at Konan. "If Akatsuki was really led by Uchiha Madara and headquartered there for a decade, that's where we need to begin rooting it out. We don't even know that this woman has abandoned her ties to Akatsuki," he criticized, glaring at Konan.

It wasn't a bad point. But there was also no way for outside parties to interfere in the selection of foreign leaders without setting the dangerous precedent that Mei was so wary of.

"Amegakure chose Konan-san as their representative," Mei said tightly. A muscle jumped in her neck. "As there is no indication of her continued involvement in Akatsuki and she cannot be held responsible for mere membership when the organization controlled the country without punishing every man, woman, and child therein, we must respect her authority over her domain."

A smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. "No, I see where you're coming from," he acknowledged. His body posture shifted from irritation to something confident, feet spread wide and shoulders pulled back.

That apparent agreement gave Tsunade a bad feeling about what was coming.

"I think it's the wrong stance to take and damned stupid, but I respect your consistency in applying the standard you have chosen. However." A leered rather unpleasantly at Konan. "Even if I am to concede that she cannot be internationally prosecuted for mere membership as a war crime, she has committed at least one international violation of treaty, and that must be investigated and punished. Wasn't it at your diplomatic conference, Mizukage-dono, where she attacked and participated in the kidnapping of multiple participants?"

He paused for a moment. Honestly, it was amazing that no one had brought this possibility up before. But Waterfall wasn't represented here, it was to Mei's interests if her disaster of a conference was swept under the rug, and Tsunade couldn't exactly produce Aiko to give testimony against Konan even if she thought it was worthwhile to have the blue-haired idiot thrown down from her position.

'He usually looks like such a moron,' Tsunade thought numbly. She had not expected this from the Raikage at all.

"Ah yes, it was," A answered his own question, since the room was silent. "I recall because one of my soldiers was in that party." He cracked his knuckles, giving the dumbstruck gathering a look that implied he would much rather be exacting a different kind of justice, but would milk this for all it was worth.

Konan was hard-faced and still as stone, but the pulse jumping in her neck belied her calm.

"As the first complainant, I believe that it is my right to take Konan-san here into custody. Unless, of course, the Mizukage chooses to supersede my claim. The crimes were committed in her country, after all."

Mei gritted her teeth. "Thank you for pointing that out, Raikage-dono. Yes. Konan-san, I'm afraid you will be coming with me today. You are expected to turn yourself into my custody with dignity and decorum fitting your station while you are investigated for war crimes." She stood, brushing off her dress. "Make the necessary arrangements with your representatives," Mei added tonelessly. "I will provide them an escort back to Amegakure as a good faith gesture."

' That did not go well.'

Tsunade sequestered herself in her diplomatic quarters –they were in the Land of Rice, this time around—and tried to soothe away her stress with a light novel she had picked up. Shinobi nations didn't get entertainment imports in nearly the amounts or for the low prices that the other countries did, so she'd never seen it. Unfortunately, the story about a little girl chasing rabbits failed to hold her attention. She was staring blankly at the wall when Shizune knocked on her door.

"You have a visitor, Tsunade-sama."

The professionalism in her apprentice's voice let Tsunade know that whoever it was could hear them at the moment. That was the only reason she restrained the groan that wanted to eke out and hauled her tired bones up and out to the front room.

Sabaku no Temari was curled in a chair as if she belonged there. She had also apparently managed to coerce or browbeat Hatake into fetching her tea. He was scowling and slouching slightly as he delicately filled two blue flowered teacups. Tsunade accepted hers with graceful aplomb and settled across from the younger woman as Hatake began to stalk off like an offended cat.

Tsunade kept her voice mild. "Hatake-kun, Shizune-chan. Please feel free to explore town and enjoy yourselves."

They took the platitude for the order it was and scattered. Her two companions were holding together a tentative truce based on avoidance of the elephant in the room. She had a feeling that this conversation might strain their ability to professionally pretend the other was someone else.

"Nice place you've got here," Temari said without looking up from her cup. "I think whoever assigned housing thinks that my brothers and I sleep in a pile like puppies. You have more room. Lots of space for activities."

Tsunade made a noncommittal noise, swishing around her drink. It tasted like crap. That was probably some passive-aggressive rebellion from Hatake-kun. God, she loved that kid sometimes. The Suna girl didn't seem to notice, sipping away gamely.

"I can't help but notice that you've had the same escort the last three times that I've seen you, and that they aren't your usuals," Temari prodded. "I thought you were training the Uchiha and Aiko-san for diplomatic work, what with the way they were always around."

Tsunade gave her an uncharitable look. "Say what's on your mind."

Her hard tone was enough to make the younger kunoichi fidget, pride and the fact that she was a skilled shinobi herself aside.

"I heard rumors that there were two casualties of your invasion, not one," Temari said bluntly. "Why are you hiding what happened to Aiko-san?"

' Rumors? How the hell did she hear that? It's not the most unlikely conclusion, given that almost no one would have seen Aiko alive after Pein. But I didn't realize that anyone was talking about it.'

"Aiko was in Konoha on guard duty when Akatsuki attacked, but she survived."

Sort of. Yes and no.

"That's good to hear, since she's going to be called as a witness for the investigation against Konan." Temari looked up at her, eyes hard and unamused.

'And the amnesiac will give fantastic testimony, I am certain,' Tsunade thought, pitying herself a little.

That information wasn't a shock, but she had to stall for time and obfuscate. She could not impede an international investigation, but Tsunade also couldn't give them the shinobi she didn't have.

That created a delicate conundrum.

' I can't lie. But if I imply that Aiko is on a confidential mission of undetermined length, they'll have to stall the trial. There's no way to force a foreign village to give up information about clients and private operations or compel me to cut it short. They'll have to wait. That won't work forever, of course. I need to ride Jiraiya's ass and get that girl found, yesterday.'

"I didn't say she was available," Tsunade said dryly. "You won't get any more than that from me. It's possible that she will be available for testimony.

Would the record please note that she said 'possible'? Not especially likely, but Tsunade did like to gamble long odds.

Temari gave a rude snort, dropping her cup with a clink and rubbing at her temples with both hands. "Be that way. I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page. You know that my testimony is going to be actively detrimental to Konan's case. I don't know if Aiko has any possibly mitigating information, but she's the only one who could help that rude woman." Temari shrugged. "She spent more time actually with Akatsuki members and conscious than the other two, from what I understand. Yugito-san and Fuu-san will have no reason to pull their punches, especially since Yugito-san's kage is the one forcing this. He's completely right, of course," she admitted grumpily. "This trial is legal and ignoring the old lady's crimes would make a mockery of the treaties she broke.

Tsunade twitched. 'Old lady? Konan is quite a bit younger than I am.'

If Temari hadn't connected those dots, Tsunade wasn't going to be the one to enlighten her.

"But the timing is terrible," she continued for the younger blonde.

The Suna kunoichi nodded, apparently unaware that she was snarling slightly.

Those Sabaku kids were rather sinister, Tsunade thought quietly.

The family resemblance was much stronger when the otherwise pretty kunoichi exposed her teeth and growled slightly like that. Perhaps she'd soaked up the insanity that the Kazekage had shrugged off in order to better fit his nutty skull into his nice new hat. Temari's hair was certainly puffy enough to be hiding some secretive craziness.

It would probably be polite to not notice any of that. She took a sip of tea.

"I can't promise much," Temari said testily, as if concerned that Tsunade would beg her for favors. "But I think Gaara will be more than willing to suggest that we wait a little longer than strictly necessary for an international trial. There's a lot of pomp and circumstance involved, of course, and we'll have to arrange an intermediary like a Daimyo or an impartial foreign leader. So you should have time to drag Aiko out of whatever mysterious hole she's in and get her ready to save Kage Blue-Hair's wrinkly hide."

"Well." Tsunade clicked her tongue. "Thank you, I appreciate your assistance and discretion in this matter."

There was an awkward pause when Temari leaned slightly in, expecting to be trusted with more information. The Hokage blinked guilelessly.

"Right." Temari drew the word out mockingly, letting it turn just a little nasal. "I'm so glad we had this talk. I think it's just peachy keen that we can be so upfront with each other."

That actually did make Tsunade feel the tiniest bit guilty. The younger woman had come over for the explicit purpose of offering her help and expressing concern for their countries' mutual interests.

She realized she'd been manipulated even as she opened her lips to give Temari a bone. "As I informed the Raikage when he huffed and puffed his way into Konoha, Aiko is currently missing in action. I cannot give any more information than that, although I can share that we have reason to believe she is alive and well. Please do not let this information pass beyond yourself and Gaara-dono."

Temari opened her mouth slightly and then didn't breathe for a moment. Once thought had apparently re-asserted itself she pressed her lips together, raised her eyebrows, and nodded slightly. The expression wasn't especially pleasant. "I see," Temari said tightly, swallowing the words. "Thank you for this information, given in confidence. I presume that the Raikage is under the impression that you simply haven't changed her official status and that she actually died at Pein's hands?"

Tsunade carefully didn't nod, letting the younger woman take her lack of dissent as assent.

That was her hope, since Sasuke had opened his yap without her permission. If Aiko really had died (and stayed dead) in that fight, Tsunade might have tried to keep it quiet for a while. It was no secret that the other nations thought Konoha was outright lying about having exactly one fatality in their invasion. Obscuring and minimalizing combat losses to the international audience was practically tradition. No one wanted their enemies to know exactly what their resources were.

So, hopefully, the Raikage would assume Konoha was hiding that Aiko had died. They would be looking for confirmation of that story, not signs of an unprotected Uzumaki out of village walls.

Konoha needed to be the only ones looking for Aiko to have half a chance in hell of locating her. Otherwise, they'd have to sort through counterintelligence and fight competing interests looking to buy the information Konoha wanted.

It would have been nice to come home to an orderly office caught-up on paperwork and a happy populace. For the most part, things were in order. But Tsunade had barely settled into her desk the morning after she arrived back home before the corpse-pale former Root that she'd snagged for her personal guard asked for a chance to speak with her.

"Talk," Tsunade commanded wearily, wishing she'd had more than store-bought cookies for breakfast. That just wasn't enough fuel for whatever trouble he was bound to bring to her attention. And hell, she was right.

"I suspect that the tenuous balance maintained by my former organization has failed," Sai shared calmly. He sounded like he might be commenting on the weather. "ANBU had been maintaining equilibrium for quite some time since Danzo-sama's death. Likely, they were fulfilling lingering orders and scrambling for new leadership. However-"

Reflexively, Tsunade curled her hand into a fist, waiting for the next news to hit her like a blow.

"in recent weeks, Sasuke-san first noticed changes in the mission-taking statistics of upper level shinobi."

Tsunade blinked. Sasuke? She would have thought that his hands were full enough in his absence that he wouldn't be able to start compiling information on anomalies he noted until she returned.

'If nothing else, he's efficient,' she remembered, a little proud.

Sai continued pleasantly, gaze professionally focused on her eyes in a way that even Sasuke struggled to maintain at times. "Several shinobi have significantly increased the number of times they report and petition for additional work. Had this begun months prior, it might have been patriotism. It seems more likely that these are operatives who have been completing extracurricular work until recently and are maintaining a steady workload by supplementing their official missions. This means, of course-"

"That until recently they've been occupied with work that was off-the-books, yes," Tsunade agreed. She was pleased with both his insight and initiative in bringing this to her. "That's good news, as far as I can tell. I prefer to start my mornings that way."

Sai inclined his head slightly. "I would concur with your analysis that these shinobi have decided to remember that their first vow is to the Hokage," he began carefully.

Tsunade caught on with a groan nearly instantly. "But you don't think that this is all of Root, do you," she confirmed. Her shoulders slumped slightly when he nodded. "Wonderful. Does that mean that their former compatriots will still follow whatever agenda Danzo left for them, or are they wildcards now?"

Sai blinked twice, long dark lashes almost shocking in contrast against his skin. "Any who have not chosen to give you their allegiance are likely still committed to Danzo-sama's cause," he admitted with a little trepidation in his tone. "However, they may not share the same interpretation of Danzo-sama's cause, how to go about achieving it, and if they should remain aligned with any or which of his contacts. The situation has every likelihood of becoming complicated and messy."

"Do you have a recommendation?"

She was glad she prodded a moment later.

"Hai, Hokage-sama," Sai said formally. "It is my lowly opinion that now is the time to ensure that the infrastructure ROOT maintained has been destroyed, especially in regards to the underground transportation network. Eliminating those would go a long ways toward preventing collusion within the village. Once isolated, an individual operative is little threat. Additionally, it would be wise to increase patrols and security in the closest sectors to the village to prevent information dealing that is out of your control."

Most of that sounded good, but- "Is there really a possibility that any of Danzo's tunnel system survived?" Tsunade asked a little skeptically.

The question was rhetorical by the end. While the unnatural attack used by Jiraiya's former student had done terrible damage to the village and probably collapsed any tunnels, she couldn't afford not to make sure. Tsunade repressed a sigh. "How far have you gotten on that map I wanted you to make up?" she prodded wearily. That hadn't been high priority, but now…

"It is completed to the best of my memory, Hokage-sama," her ANBU murmured with a slight bow. "I feel confident in my familiarity, but it is always possible that information was withheld from me. In order to be certain, I would ask that either a skilled genjutsu user or a Sharingan wielder accompany me to ensure that no hidden areas remain to pose a risk to village security. I anticipate that it would take several days to clear out the entire structure and make certain that it is unusable."

"Several days? That's not so bad. And your request for assistance will be granted, of course." Tsunade pinched the bridge of her nose, thinking. "How is your doton?"

When the boy hesitated, she waved a hand.

"No matter. This mission is going to be big enough that it makes much more sense to assemble several teams. Your logic in wanting either a Sharingan wielder or a genjutsu master is sound. Kakashi, Kurenai and—well, it'll give Itachi something to do as well," she decided on a whim. "You'll be involved due to your familiarity with the territory, of course, but I won't send down a group that doesn't have at least one expert doton user to keep the group safe in case of cave-in. Yamato meets that criteria," Tsunade mumbled, trailing off.

She was tapping the desk with her fingers and trying to visualize logical configurations when she realized Sai was still standing there at attention.

She cleared her throat a bit sheepishly. "Good work, Sai. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Please do your best to separate the map into three sections so that three teams can safely access every point labeled without more back-tracking than necessary. I'll call you in tomorrow to begin work on this project. You may go."


Notes

1. Raspberry Fields

Author's Note

I don't know if I've said it here—but I have definitely decided to add a final pairing to this story. I'm not saying what it is, but I did recently put up a Tumblr post that explains a lot about my interpretations of various characters in terms of romantic and sexual identity and compatibility. For anyone who is interested, that post is here.

http://electraposts.tumblrpost/94114544259/for-the-clarity-shippers

It's not a comprehensive list by any means, since I didn't know if there would be any interest. So if someone you're curious about isn't on there, feel free to ask (preferably on Tumblr, so I can keep things straight. It may well get lost if it's in reviews).

Chapter Text

Sharingan Mood Ring

The chapter in which if Obito knew what was going on, he would tell Bakashi to give back his eye and keep his weird emotional problems to himself.

And also Kakashi mopes.

And also Kumo is slightly terrifying.


This section is anachronistic: it should have been in the last chapter. Everything else is chronologically correct.


"Are you aware that you're doing this the hard way?" Obito asked delicately, frowning at Aiko as she meticulously lined the hidden seam in her skirt with tiny flat packets of herbs.

"Hmm?" She looked up. "Yeah, this bit is a little irritating. But we're crossing the border on this trip. Normally I'd just put the haul in my bag, but they'll check that at the post."

Obito sighed. "And you didn't think to use a storage scroll?"

She rolled her eyes at him, finishing her task and making for the door. He walked behind her, a little sullen but willing to indulge her. "You're bad at traveling like a civilian, 'Obi-kun. Civilians can't use those. That would be a pretty big giveaway, don't you think?"

He had to stop and think that over. "Why don't you just sneak past the border?"

"Great idea," Aiko huffed sarcastically, a smile tugging up one side of her mouth. "Me and the two civilians that Ando-san hires to do the heavy lifting will all just be very quiet and get past the border patrolled by shinobi."

Obito frowned. "That's… very strange. Working with civilians. Why don't you just-"

"If storage scrolls are your solution again, I should probably remind you that Ando-san sponsors a lot of trips that I'm not involved in." Aiko raised an eyebrow. "Yes, I could go alone and get the job done faster if I sealed the merchandise. Putting aside how sketchy it is to put comestibles in an intermediary dimension, wouldn't it be just a tiny bit suspicious if there was no trail from people and the wagon on only the trips I go on? Part of what I get paid for is making her rivals leery that there might be shinobi enforcement on any given trip."

Well, and also that Kakuzu had made the poor woman sign a contract on threat of death. But whatever, that was beside the point.

He sighed exaggeratedly. "Alright, alright. I bow to your expertise."

Aiko had to suppress a giggle. She knew he was humoring her, of course. But it was sort of fun that he'd been willing to indulge her by tagging along. Two nights prior, he had finally asked what exactly it was that she did when she went out on trips. The answer "shifty business" hadn't explained much, but it did make him laugh.

"Like, ninety percent of what I do is totally legitimate," Aiko had eventually explained. "I use a lot of the field skills that you pounded into my skull to make sure that no one gets lost, starves, or dies of dysentery on the road. At the start there were a fair few bandits to smack around, but now they're a bit warier." She shrugged. "Hence why I don't have to go on every trip now. Just the long ones, and enough of the day trips that no one can be certain there won't be a shinobi enforcer."

"And they can't figure out when you'll be there based on the trips where drugs are smuggled?" Obito asked dryly.

Aiko had given him a spectacularly unimpressed expression for that one. "Is there some part of the word 'smuggled' that you struggle with? Obviously, that service is not advertised, and no one is confessing to it. It's all word of mouth. I ditch any leftover merchandise that doesn't go to a specific client at a hotspot bar, and they sell the rest."

"I have now learned more than I ever wanted to know about selling petty drugs."

'He doesn't have to be such a downer. I don't sass him about his hobbies.'

Aiko was willing to sass in general, of course. She gave him a toothy grin, eyes creased shut.

"You're welcome, sweet cheeks."

The flinch had been spectacular.

The sound of crates being loaded and packed brought Aiko back to the present, blinking. Obito was slumped at her side against the wall of Ando-san's warehouse. His state of consciousness appeared to be a little closer to 'standing coma' than she'd like optimally.

"You don't have to look so excited," she murmured, elbowing his ribs gently. He pried open one eye—henged brown again—to look at her with tired amusement. "You're going to make me hyper and throw off my game."

"So far, this is not the adventure that I was promised," he sing-songed under his breath.

Aiko snickered. "Sorry, did I say adventure? I'm pretty sure I said something else. If I have to sleep out in the woods, so do you." She raised her eyebrows. "When was the last time you did that, sir?"

"A very long time ago," Obito said dryly. "I've evolved beyond that point."

Sometimes, she thought that Obito might be her spirit animal. The resemblance would be perfect, if only she had a magical ability to travel instantaneously instead of trudging around in the dirt like an animal.

'Not that I'm bitter at all or anything,' Aiko thought with amusement. 'One day, I too will possess such magic. And then there will be no fucking camping, ever again.' Of course, Obito was still waiting for a response.

"I tried telling Kakuzu that I had too, but he didn't buy it." Against her will, she pouted. "Sometimes I think he takes the long routes just to annoy me."

"No, he's just like that," Obito rebutted absently. "He figures that if he has to leave, he may as well get every single errand done at once for maximum efficiency."

"Going twenty miles out of your way to threaten a chump whose loan isn't up yet doesn't seem that efficient to me," Aiko muttered rebelliously.

It was sort of funny, in a really petty way. But it wasn't efficient.

"Hey, do you know how often people try to weasel out of loans?" Obito asked mildly.

Aiko scoffed. Of course she didn't.

"Me either," he confided. "But it's close to zero when Kakuzu is the one involved, so I'm going to have to trust his methodology."

She pursed her lips, but had to nod and concede the point. Their earlier conversation was still on her mind. "Hey, about the storage scroll thing?"

She could all but feel Obito rolling his eyes. "Yes, Aiko. You've already explained why they're not a practical solution. Unless of course our plan is to start hiding storage scrolls, which both is and isn't practical. The chakra signature is very low, so unless you're dealing with a sensor, it's a viable solution."

"Well, that too," Aiko said practically. She cozied up to him, schmoozing. He recoiled when she batted her eyes. "But I was actually thinking that you should teach me to make them. You can do that, right?"

Obito blinked. "Well. I'm not very good, but my sensei was a seal master. So I can manage."

"Really?" She grinned. "That's cool! I want to learn that."

Aiko had no idea why, but she had the distinct feeling that she'd said something very wrong. He swiveled to stare directly down at her, something hard and considering in his eyes. The moment passed quickly. The more elastic side of Obito's mouth curved into a slight smile. "We can go through the basics tonight at camp, then."

"Shall we go, then?" an uncomfortable male voice interjected.

Aiko blinked, having nearly forgotten about Ando-san's actual staff.

"Um, of course. Chūsei and Fukujū, this is my friend, Tobi," Aiko introduced easily. "Tobi, these are Ando-san's employees."

The civilians managed sickly smiles.

'It's almost like Ando-san warned them about my friends,' Aiko thought, turning away to hide a smile. No worries. Obito was much less likely to snap at one of them than Kakuzu was. Even if he was shifty enough to want to use a fake name, what was up with that? Obito wasn't that uncommon of a name.

Well, whatever.

Walking in four hour shifts to accommodate the much slower pace of the civilian escort was mind-numbingly dull. The two nights sleeping under the stars were about as scintillating as Aiko could have predicted, but she did at least have the satisfaction of seeing Obito make faces and fidget in the dirt in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to find a comfortable way to sleep on the ground.

The real highlight was when he kept his word and scribbled out very basic sealing matrices. He made her destroy all of it every night before they went to sleep, since it wouldn't do to be caught with proof of shinobi training at the border, but she didn't need it.

Seeing the symbology was enough. Aiko couldn't remember the names of each stroke and symbol, but she knew what they did and why they were arranged as they were.

And that Obito wasn't a very good fuinjutsu user.

"I'll try to get you scrolls," he eventually gave up, snatching the papers away from her in disgust and throwing them directly on the fire so that she couldn't continue to mock his sloppy workmanship. "They're generally kept under close wraps and passed from master to apprentice."

Fukujū edged a little further away when Aiko nodded and concluded, "So we're going to go beat up some fuinjutsu master for his notes?"

Obito eyed her wearily. "You don't have to be so gung-ho about it."

She lurched over and grabbed his hands without bothering to entangle her legs from her bedroll. "Obito," Aiko said very seriously. "This is for education. Crimes committed in pursuit of self-edification don't even count."

She tried very hard to keep the evidence of her thoughts off her face when two Iwagakure Chuunin shunshined into view, aggressively postured.

Obito flinched, a good second too late for the reaction to do any good. That was harder than it sounded, considering that both of them had fought down the impulse to cut the arriving Chuunin down before the civilians would even have known they were there. Fighting hard-won instincts wasn't easy. To be able to do that and then immediately slip into a less threatening persona was impressive.

'Obito is a surprisingly good actor,' she noted. The trick was to convince the border security that you were nervous (as any civilian would be when frisked by members of a foreign military) but not so nervous that they actually suspected anything. She did have official papers and had made this trip before, so there was no need to feign too many jitters.

She plastered on a smile that was slightly too stiff to be realistic and stepped forward to draw attention to herself, unfolding their travel documentation and holding it out before it was asked for. She had already been holding it, as if she'd been nervously contemplating this barrier for a while. "Shinobi-san? Masashi, with Ando-san's delivery to Saisekiba."

Of course, Aiko was a half-decent actress herself.

The two Chuunin exchanged amused looks, before the slight man with a blue ponytail reached out for her hand. Obito made an aborted movement as if to step between them, but mastered himself.

'Now is really not the time for the mama bear act,' Aiko scowled, grabbing at his wrist.

The other Chuunin, a hawk-eyed woman, gave Obito a hard look, but did nothing. That was probably in her best interest, honestly. If this went south, Obito was probably going to kill the Iwagakure shinobi and the civilian witnesses, which would put a wrench in her little home business.

'If he messes this up for me, I am going to mock him forever. Seriously, it's not that hard to pretend to be harmless and insignificant. Why does he have to be so dramatic?'

Luckily for everyone else, Obito didn't arouse too much suspicion, even when he pitched his voice a full range higher for no apparent reason.

(He was a weird guy, but he was pretty funny in a way).

"Alright," Chuunin #1 acknowledged, handing back their papers. His partner had finished surveying the stock – and ha, that was a point for Aiko, because she was a sensor—and given him a perfunctory nod. "You folks go on ahead. You know the way?"

At the chorus of stiff nods, the woman seemed to take a breath for patience. "Lovely," she replied sourly. "You'll be in town before noon. Enjoy your stay in the Land of Rock, but please remember that your traveler's pass expires tomorrow at six pm."

"Of course, shinobi-san," Obito shrilled, bobbing into a half bow.

Aiko tried not to wince. God, what was his deal? Was he just messing with her head? Or did he just not know how to act around normal people?

She didn't say anything until they were a good mile away from any other shinobi. At that point, Aiko reached over and elbowed him in the gut. He gave a theatrical 'oof!' and cringe, despite the fact that she'd probably done more damage to her elbow than his rock-hard abdominals. "You're not going to be that weird tonight," Aiko ordered, puffing up confrontationally. "I don't want to have to make another friend in this town."

Obito nodded indulgently. Then he frowned. "You have a friend here? In Iwa?"

"Of course I do," Aiko scoffed. "What, do you think I'm going to sleep outside when I don't have to? Hotels are expensive. Much better to make a friend with a nice house."

He blinked at her languidly. "You're a terrible person."

"Eh."

Despite whatever flippant accusations he had thrown about in regards to her relative morality, Obito was reasonably well-behaved when he met Fuji. Perhaps he was too well-behaved, actually. He'd poured on the charm. Aiko could see the moment that Fuji took in his strong shoulders, confident stance, low voice, and made a decision. She hid a smile while Obito politely followed Fuji's nephew upstairs while Aiko measured out Fuji's order and Fuji counted out Aiko's money.

"Is he yours?" Fuji whispered, nudging Aiko slightly as Obito trudged upstairs to the room he'd be using that night.

She shrugged, re-counting her take. "Seduce away."

The other woman—a tall, willowy woman with beautiful brown eyes and impeccably near nails, wiggled her eyebrows. "Is that a challenge?"

"No," Aiko said, bemused. "Go ahead. I don't care. I'm not with him."

"That sounds like a challenge."

"It really wasn't."

Fuji tossed her hair – a glorious, shining dark cascade completely unlike Aiko's messy mop—over her shoulder and gave Aiko a sultry look, hand trailing along the wall as she stepped away in the direction Obito had gone. "Wish me luck, then."

She came back downstairs five minutes later in a decidedly grumpy mood. Aiko, who was seated at the table and scribbling out seal matrices, gave her an amused look as the other woman stomped back in.

"I take it he's all yours? Madly, truly, deeply in love? He'll probably stay here with you instead of leaving in the morning?"

"Oh, shut up."

Aiko wasn't even surprised that Obito didn't have the patience to make the full trip back. They crossed the border back into Grass without incident, at which point he ordered her to bid a fond farewell to Ando-san's real employees, and then grabbed her arm and Kamui'd them the hell out of there before she could so much as open her mouth.

She shook him off, taking in the sight of their front room.

"You really aren't that into nature, are you?"

"No," Obito said sourly. He stalked off like an offended cat, en route for a shower ("one where I won't be ambushed by your touchy friend", he snapped). Aiko may have laughed slightly too loud to be strictly polite.

Two nights later, he did bring her a lovely hand-written book with only one bloody thumbprint on the cover from its former owner. Aiko hugged it to her chest, thanked him, and purposefully did not ruminate on where exactly he had acquired such a thing.

He was a pretty awesome friend to have.


"I didn't even know these were down here," Tenzou remarked glumly. Kakashi didn't bother to reply. Using his Sharingan for such a mundane matter as scanning dirt walls for genjutsu was a drain on his reserves, and he had been doing this for hours now.

"I mean," Tenzou continued, "I was practically raised in ROOT, and I had no idea. Was I not trusted? Is this structure just really recent? Or was this just reserved for Danzo's elite?"

"We'll probably never know," Kakashi said tersely, wishing that his kohai would just stop talking.

He'd just gotten back in from another disappointing mission two days prior, following up on one of Jiraiya's increasingly unlikely leads. As it turned out, there were more redheaded girls around than he'd noticed. Still, as frustrating as failing was, it gave more of a sense of accomplishment than walking around in the dark to check a map's accuracy.

This project was a pain in his ass, and had been even before they'd discovered that the walls were reinforced with fuinjutsu that had to be Danzo's personal make. The blunt, ugly symbols were certainly familiar.

That explained why the tunnels hadn't collapsed or been noticed.

"This is pointless," Kakashi grunted, rubbing at the back of his neck. "We can't collapse any of this until the seals have been removed. I can counter these if I have materials and preparation, but the other teams won't be able to. We need to go back to Tsunade and re-group so that she knows to add fuinjutsu users to the other teams."

"Alright," Tenzou agreed docilely.

The office was already moderately full when they made their way back—not only was Sai there along with Yuuhi Kerenai, but Uchiha Itachi awkwardly existed in close proximity to a talented genin corps kunoichi named Ami who was apparently a deft hand with earth ninjutsu. And of course Sasuke was there lording over them all, coiled on a chair and lurking like some sort of small, grumpy dragon.

"Tsunade isn't here," Sasuke snapped out before Kakashi could open his mouth. "Take a seat and wait."

Obediently, Kakashi sat.

'He used to be so much cuter,' he thought mournfully. 'What happened to the kids I got assigned?'

That led to the unsettling realization that Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura had been assigned to his care five years ago. Sasuke was already seventeen, Sakura would be too. Naruto wasn't shy of his birthday by much, either.

'I suppose it makes sense that they've changed.' Kakashi swallowed, not looking directly at his former student. 'It doesn't seem that long to me, but five years is a long time for a teenager. And- and- seven years for Aiko, that's even worse. They're really not kids anymore.'

The ones that were still alive, anyhow. Sakura would always be a little girl.

"Sasuke, you were meant to keep the rabble out," Tsunade grumped, throwing the door open with a bang. Her apprentice sneered at her, unfazed. "Can't you do anything right?"

"And you swore that you'd arranged missions so that there was unlikely to be any problems while you were gone, so we both messed up." He tilted his chin up, sloe eyes heavy-lidded and uncaring.

The room winced in unison, waiting for Tsunade to unleash righteous fury on her smart-mouthed pupil. Itachi in particular looked horrified, frozen in place.

The Hokage just shrugged. "It's not failing when it's me who did it."

"I must have missed that memorandum." Sasuke tossed the folder he'd been nursing on Tsunade's desk with a slap as she muscled past the crowd to take her seat. "I'm going back to work now. I see you've got a lot to do."

"No, wait," Tsunade commanded absently. "I'll need to talk to you after this." She shook her head slightly, before lifting her voice to address the crowd. "Now, what's going on? Just one person, please." She paused for a moment, and decided, "Kakashi."

"The tunnels are supported by fuinjutsu," he said bluntly, scratching at his head. "I copied the matrixes and can get rid of them, but I'll need a day or two to come up with a counter-seal."

"And a fuinjutsu user will have to be added to each team, yes," Tsunade completed, sounding utterly resigned. "I don't know why I thought this one little thing would go smoothly."

"The underground tunnels, you mean?" Sasuke asked curiously, cocking his head slightly. "The ones that go under the walls to the forest?"

There was an appalled silence while every other person in the office turned to stare at him.

Sasuke blinked, a thin line forming between his eyebrows. "What?"

"You know about the underground tunnels." Tsunade buried her face in her hands. "Dear god, why do you know about those? How? I thought- I didn't know about those!"

The teen rolled his eyes. "I didn't know it was such a big deal," Sasuke droned. "I suppose that explains why she said to-" He cut himself off, clearly noticing the odd expressions that his audience was wearing. "You know, never mind. Why don't you finish your debriefing and I'll regale Tsunade with tales of our youthful exploits later," Sasuke drawled, with a distinct lack of anticipation.

As expected, Tsunade rearranged team assignments so that there was a qualified seal user on each team. Tenzou and Kakashi were separated, and Anko would be pulled in to join Itachi and Ami tomorrow. That was an encounter that Itachi might not actually survive, but Kakashi didn't care enough to summon any sympathy.

When everyone else filed out, Kakashi remained stubbornly slumped against the wall. Tsunade didn't blink twice at his lingering, addressing her apprentice as if they were alone.

"Sasuke, what were you talking about?"

He paused for a moment. "Remember that ridiculous mission in Rouran?"

Tsunade and Kakashi groaned in unison.

"I will take that as a yes," Sasuke noted. "That's how Aiko smuggled us into the village."

The Hokage made a pained 'erp' sound. "I think that was left out of the debriefing," she said, sounding oddly stiff. "I believe the report indicated that Aiko made contact with the Sandaime."

Sasuke snorted. "That's accurate, if we understand 'made contact' to mean that she broke into his office and asked for his help, insinuated that his security needed work, and then threatened to break out and do things her own way-"

"I think I've heard enough," Tsunade choked out. Her face contorted in a way that Kakashi couldn't entirely understand, but could sympathize with. He wasn't sure if he wanted to smile or put a palm to his face. "That sounds… more familiar than I would like. Aiko does prefer the most efficient way of doing things."

"And not the diplomatic way?" Sasuke half-asked, half-stated. "I am aware, yes."

'Sounds like an Uzumaki.'

Had the situation been less serious, Kakashi rather suspected that Tsunade might have asked herself why exactly she had been trying so hard to get Aiko back. The expression on her face certainly indicated she was thinking along those lines.

He actually felt a little defensive. "Out of curiosity, what's your go-to plan to convince a former Hokage who won't recognize you that you come from the future?"

It probably wasn't wise to let the little edge of aggression slip into his tone, but Kakashi couldn't help it.

Tsunade just stared at him for a moment, baffled that he'd spoken to her that way. After a moment, she sighed and swiped her hand at him, making a quiet sound of disgust. "Fair point."

"Right, well, there you go," Sasuke said blandly, clearly bored with their tiff. "That's the riveting story of why Naruto and I have been down there. She told us not to mention it, and we haven't been back since."

'Well, that answers one question,' Kakashi thought, remembering Tenzou's attempts to guess how old the tunnel system was. It did make him wonder why Aiko would have known if Tenzou hadn't- perhaps Danzo had more difficultly moving his people under Tsunade's rule than he had under the Sandaime's.

Going back down there the next day was a dank and altogether unpleasant experience. Kakashi hated tunnels and being underground in any way other than under his own power. He had since he was twelve, and that Iwa nin had brought a cave down on Obito.

Something twinged in his chest. Kakashi swallowed silently, smoothing a piece of paper over one of the seals. With careful focus he began to trace the counterseal lightning-fast, trying not to dwell on thoughts that being trapped in the oppressive stillness stirred up.

'We never got Obito's body back,' his treacherous mind whispered at him. 'What if that's the body Madara is using?'

But no. It was impossible. He'd left Obito off the admittedly short list of potentially stolen bodies (the Uchiha had been careful about things like that) because his teammate had been brutalized beyond fixing. They'd had an incredibly talented medic-nin on their team who had taken one look and started to cry. Tsunade-sama in her prime couldn't have fixed Obito. His body would have been no use to a skin-stealing fossil like Uchiha Madara.

'Just because I can't see how it's possible doesn't mean I can justify excluding his name from the list,' Kakashi scolded himself dully. 'I'll qualify the addition with what I know so Tsunade doesn't waste too many resources on that possibility.'

God, remembering that they'd left Obito there to die alone in the cold and dark made him feel like the worst kind of scum. Kakashi hated himself so much he might choke on it.

He and Rin had been too weak to save their teammate, and too unseasoned and emotionally unprepared to give Obito a mercy killing.

And Obito had been so calm- so forgiving of their weakness. He'd managed to smile, even with half his face crushed and the visible eye gouged out and acclimating to Kakashi's skull. He hadn't even asked for that one kindness.

'Why didn't he ask us to kill him?' Kakashi wondered miserably. 'He was so much better than me. It should have been me. If he hadn't saved me, Rin would probably be alive. And Obito would have been a better sensei. I got one girl killed in an exam she wasn't ready for, couldn't keep one from being kidnapped, and the boys found better sensei. If Obito had been the one left, everything wouldn't have gone so badly.'

He didn't notice the way his breathing was becoming shallower, but Sai did. The teen gave the older man a wary glance, but remained silent.

It was a long period of days that Kakashi spent in darkness and doubt, gradually collapsing tunnels. But at the end, he added a name to his report for Tsunade that he would rather have left off.

If Madara really had found Obito's body and desecrated it, there would be hell to pay.

It wasn't true. It couldn't be true.

Still, he had to know for himself. Kakashi had a lifetime of dodging people attempting to unmask him as material to compose plans for removing someone else's mask.


Obito lingered in the training field long after Aiko had gone back to the safehouse for a shower. He didn't bother to turn around at the long, drawn out sound of a squelch from behind him, followed by a sound like chewing as flesh and plant matter separated.

'They're so yucky,' Tobi shrilled.

Madara quietly agreed.

White Zetsu lurched up to Obito's left side, Black Zetsu stalking to stand silently by his right. The robes and clothing they'd been wearing was left in shreds on the ground, abandoned when Zetsu split into two beings and spawned enough limbs to function from White Zetsu's wood release.

Darkdankcrowdedsmellslikedirtandfear

"She's coming along," White Zetsu observed. Obito still didn't look. The Zetsu had no genitals or much in the way of features at all, but he had no desire to look at another man's naked ass.

"The idiot is incrementally less pathetic."

A muscle twitched in Obito's jaw. Madara laughed inappropriately loudly.

'The idiot,' he humed, savoring the moniker. 'There are worse descriptors.'

'You just don't like Aiko-chan,' Tobi pouted. 'She's not an idiot.'

"No," White Zetsu disagreed. "That is unfair. The child was Konoha's. Obito has only had five or six months to repair the weakness left by their slack."

"He takes too long," Black Zetsu countered darkly.

Another flash—the world went dark in one eye for a moment, a monotonous hell of packed earth.

"I could perform the surgery today if we would like," White Zetsu suggested helpfully. "I'm good with pieces."

Black Zetsu scoffed. "I don't care who does it. It just needs to be done."

His better half made a noncommittal hum.

'They do realize that I am right here?' Obito wondered.

"We need a Rinnegan user to revive my master." He could hear Black Zetsu shift on his feet, impatient. "There is no point in attempting to educate this simpleton in genjutsu. White Zetsu should implant Madara-sama's Rinnegan in the brat and Obito should teach it to use its powers. That is why we have the thing, is it not?" He scoffed. "If it is not useful, we should eat it and find another host."

His teeth were pressed together just a little too tightly.

It was stupid to forget, even for a moment, that Black Zetsu was neither Obito's friend or comrade. White Zetsu and Spiral Zetsu had genuinely been his friends, but those days were gone. Spiral Zetsu was gone and White Zetsu inextricably tied to Black Zetsu, except when he wasn't.

Black Zetsu only served Madara. If Obito didn't move fast enough for his tastes, Black Zetsu would go behind Obito's back. Obito could beat Black Zetsu. Probably. If Black Zetsu wasn't prepared for that eventuality, and didn't have clones or spores sitting around.

In other words, it would be a frustrating, uphill battle and impossible to be certain that he'd stamped Zetsu out. Besides, it would mean killing his friend White Zetsu as well. In a way, that would be worth it to get rid of the dark twin.

'He really would eat Aiko.' Obito crossed his arms across his chest. 'He'd probably enjoy it, the freak.'

White Zetsu breathed in deeply. "It does smell nice," he admitted, sounding a little guiltily. "Fresh and a little sweet. It washes a lot more than the Kakuzu."

"No, I wouldn't want to eat the Kakuzu," Black Zetsu agreed quickly. "Rotten meat. Not fresh. Not sweet."

'Alright, that's enough of that.'

"She'll be ready soon," Obito said tightly.

She'd never be ready. He'd changed his mind, he regretted ever thinking he would revive Madara. The old man could stay dead. Obito didn't need him to fulfill his plan and fix the world. Of course, he did need to keep Black Zetsu off his case. Black Zetsu would be a terrible enemy to have, even if Obito had been in a position of power. With his organization depleted and weakened, it was a stupid fight to pick. Zetsu might well win, if only by playing Akatsuki against foreign and domestic enemies.

And he would kill Aiko, without reviving her later. That would be entirely Obito's fault: she'd never even have come to Zetsu's attention if Obito hadn't selfishly dragged her out as a scapegoat to put off the inevitable fallout for a while longer.

'Why did I get her involved in this? I should have worked alone.'

"How soon?" Black Zetsu pried, standing far too close and looming. Obito was a tall man himself, but the wood release construct stretched to a more impressive height in order to intimidate. "You've been saying soon since you brought it back."

Obito turned away without responding, back tight with repressed fury. He didn't appreciate the attempt to undermine his authority.

"I must resume my surveillance," White Zetsu inserted uncomfortably, backing away.

"Good idea. Don't you have work to do?" Obito prompted Black Zetsu. The friendly Zetsu made a break for it.

Black Zetsu grew teeth for the explicit purpose of favoring Obito with an unfriendly grin. "I'm already observing a target," he rasped. "I put spores on your pet."

'He didn't have orders to do that.' He wasn't certain if he was more angry or unsettled by the implication that Black Zetsu wasn't even going through the pretense of obedience.

Fury was tempting, but it wouldn't help anything. The information Black Zetsu had just taunted him with needed to be acted upon. It was a definite threat: Black Zetsu's spores could be activated at any time and used to immobilize or kill a target.

"Make sure Suigetsu hasn't gotten himself killed," Obito ordered stiffly. "I will take care of Aiko."

Fine. It wasn't ideal, and there was no point to it other than putting Zetsu off. But she was healthy enough that the transplant was unlikely to kill her, and seemed loyal enough so far. He would have liked to wait longer to ensure that she was committed, or take the Rinnegan himself… but if he did that, Zetsu would know he had no intention of sacrificing himself to reanimate Madara. The gesture would be pointless.

And… Well, if he asked Aiko for permission to conduct surgery, she was going to wonder why. She wasn't dim enough to fail to notice waking up with a sore head and new eyes, so he would have to tell her something. That conversation would certainly give away an agenda, but he could also follow Madara's lead more directly.

It wasn't as if Madara had asked permission to implant his eyes in Nagato's skull.

No, Madara had put the boy's parents under a truly stupefying genjutsu, had Zetsu perform the surgery, and let the little idiot think that they were an Uzumaki bloodline technique.

'Technically they are,' Obito had to admit in the interest of fairness. 'They're just not an Uzumaki bloodline trait that can be activated without Uchiha dna.'

So it was barely even a lie. Not bad.

"Three weeks," Obito decided. "I'll have it done in three weeks." Black Zetsu paused in his steps, but nodded and sank into the ground.

Naked bastard.

As if he didn't have enough to worry about.

Thestenchofearth,moistandfoulandinescapable

God, was that going to stop? There was just long enough between the visions for him to calm. That meant that every vision was jarring.

'I might be going mad.' Obito laughed once, mirthless and quiet. 'Or maybe I feel guiltier about this than I realized. I can't think of another reason that this eye keeps dwelling on darkness and doubt.'

Against his will, one hand reached slowly up to his face, towards the Sharingan that was originally his.

'I'm not underground,' he told himself. His tongue slipped out to lick dry lips. 'What is this, my subconscious telling me that I'm about to undergo a drastic change in ideological position? Or have I become the Madara in the scenario?'

He huffed. What a terrible thought. It'd be nice if he could stop dwelling on such morbid memories.

Of course, he was going to be channeling Madara very soon, so the thoughts of those days underground were probably appropriate. Pein had been an idiot. Hopefully, that was a coincidence and not an effect of having Madara's eyes implanted in his head. It would be most distressing if Aiko atrophied into a similar state of mental acuity.

He was actually a little leery about that part of the plan. Those eyes… Well. They were completely unprecedented. Not only had Madara activated the Mangekyou Sharingan, he had finagled himself the Rinnegan. Neither dojutsu had ever been studied. There was every chance that there was some sort of side-effect that Madara had been unaware of or simply not bothered to share.

'After all, Uchiha eyes weren't mean to be used by other people.'

His hand twitched toward the socket that should be empty before he stopped it. Bakashi was famous for that damn eye in large part because he couldn't turn it off. Judging by Nagato's use of the Rinnegan, that dojutsu did not consume a similarly prohibitive amount of chakra—or perhaps it did, and he had only survived because of the impressive chakra reserves inherited from his Uzumaki ancestors. If that was the case, Aiko may well be completely useless for a long time while she acclimated and the constant strain stretched her reserves.

And the entire procedure may well be pointless, except as a feint to keep Zetsu happy for as long as possible. Obito severely doubted that Aiko would ever be able to use the seven paths that the Rinnegan enabled: which mattered because the technique was required to build up the chakra necessary for revive someone long-dead like Madara. That inability was mental, not physical.

It wasn't funny, but he had to chuckle.

'It's a problem that I can't fix, no matter how much chakra and power I throw at it. How frustrating. I trained until my hands bled, but I'm certainly not a therapist. That's what she needs. She's cracked. Functional, but too damaged for my purposes.'

Zetsu couldn't find out—if he did, he'd kill the girl. But it was perfectly plain to Obito that she had not dealt with the trauma of her death at all. She was nearly crippled whenever she seemed to remember that it had happened.

'It was a mistake to tell her.' He began to walk back to the house, taking the long route. 'I should have thought of a better way. Why did I ever think that she would cope well with that information?'

That had been his fault, and he would own up to it.

Of course, he absolutely could not have predicted that she would possess a bizarre and completely inexplicable phobia of puppets. It really was perplexing.

(What the hell was so intimidating about glorified dolls? They were just another tool.)

Regardless of the lack of logic behind that particular fear, it did seem to cement the likelihood that she would be paralyzed at the prospect of being asked to turn corpses into puppets and enact her will through them. Inconvenient, to say the least.

'Life works in mysterious ways,' Obito mused philosophically.

Ah, well. He didn't need Madara to cast the Tsukyomi. What he needed was the nine bijuu. That could be accomplished, though not easily. If he didn't manage to acquire them all in a brief window of time, it would become exponentially more difficult. That window was rapidly approaching, now that the great nations had forgotten Akatsuki in their struggle for power and land. He just had to play them off each other for long enough that when the first two jinchuuriki disappeared, their home countries blamed their enemies instead of Akatsuki. After that, it would be a rush to snatch the rest before communication resumed between the shinobi nations and they realized what was happening.

And that? That, he could do without a single Rinnegan Path.

'Chakra chains would be helpful, though,' he had to think ruefully. 'How simple would it be to capture a jinchuuriki if their demonic energy could be contained?'

Wasn't that bloodline activated by stress?

That brought up interesting possibilities. Of course, he'd have to prepare Aiko for the Rinnegan before he tried to shock her into re-discovering her chakra chains.

He shoved his hands in his pockets and his dark thoughts away, and kicked the door open to step out of the sun's gaze and into the cool house.

'There's no time like the present.'


"Aiko?"

She jumped, just a little, when knuckles rapped gently on her door.

"What's up?" Aiko called in response, sitting up but not getting off the bed.

After a moment, Obito pushed the door open and leaned against the doorframe. Huh. He didn't often come to her room. She eyed him up, letting her book slump down to rest on her lap.

'He looks tired and stressed.'

She bit her lower lip thoughtfully. She'd never have known from his body posture, of course. But the dark circles under his eyes sort of gave it away. It was sort of sad that he was so used to feigning alertness and full strength that he was putting on an act in his own house.

"What's with the face?" He drummed his fingers against the door, nearly blocking out the view of the hallway. Aiko was reminded that he was a pretty big guy, for someone with not a pound of fat.

"Nothing. Why don't you come in?" Aiko patted the bed and scooted over, creating an inviting space as she put the novel she'd been reading on the bedside table. She raised an eyebrow in expectation.

"That's a little inappropriate," he said distantly. Actually, he looked distant in general—his eyes were directed into her room, but she really wasn't sure he was seeing her. The effect was unnerving.

'Is he even okay? Something has to be stressing him out. Not that he'll tell me if I ask, but he doesn't seem well…'

She made a cute pout to keep the mood light. "Please? It's gotta be better than lurking. I promise I'll keep my hands to myself. Your virtue is safe."

Obito gave in with a reluctant smile and sat gingerly—on the floor, using her bed as a backrest. Fine, she could work with that. Aiko flopped down onto her belly and tangled her fingers in his hair, scratching absently at his scalp. She had to tug the mask settled on his head off entirely and settle it on her bed to free up space, but Obito didn't protest other than with a sleepy grunt.

He rebuffed her sometimes, but she could tell that he really was a tactile person. Obito liked contact as much as she did.

'He just gets really weird as soon as it passes some invisible boundary of what he considers indecent,' Aiko mused. 'In a weird way, he's sort of an old-fashioned gentleman. He'll beat the tar out of me in training, but he won't hold my hand.'

"This isn't how you're supposed to have a serious discussion," Obito tried unconvincingly.

She gave a low hum and switched from scratching to rubbing circles behind and above his ears. He went nearly limp, putty in her hands. He only reacted when she ducked her face and rubbed the tip of her nose against his hair, sniffing slightly. He smelled comforting and nice—like man and something crackly.

"What, are you a dog or something?" He swatted over his head gently, skimming her hair.

She grinned. "Woof," Aiko said solemnly. "Anyway, I don't see why we can't have a conversation like this. I think you're tense. So I'm fixing you." He couldn't see her scrunch up her nose cutely, but the gesture was more for her sake than his anyways.

He sighed, but didn't pull his head away.

"Do you still want to come along on one of my missions?"

Her fingers stilled for just a moment. "What, really?" She pulled his head back enough to blink down into tolerantly amused black eyes. "Yes, that sounds peachy keen. I'm ready for an adventure. Where are we going? When are we going? Are we going to meet new people?"

"So hasty." He reached back and knocked gently on her hand with his knuckles. She playfully threw the hand away. "How's that jutsu coming along?"

Oh. She wilted, just a bit.

"Fine," Aiko muttered, rubbing the edge where his hairline bled into his neck. "I'm really good at it. The best."

He snorted. That was response enough, really. As it turned out, she had no talent for ninjutsu. Just none at all. Obito couldn't tell her if that was how she had always been or if it was a new problem, but she just didn't have the instinctive knack that a ninjutsu specialist needed.

Someone with innate talent could learn a new jutsu in hours and manipulate the techniques for effects that others would never be able to achieve with years of practice.

Unfortunately, she wasn't that type of person (though sometimes, she felt such frustration that she thought she must have known one of those unfair geniuses).

'At least I'm good at hitting things,' Aiko consoled herself. It seemed strange and unfair that she'd get genetic coding that gave her a short reach when hand-to-hand was her most natural skillset, but she'd cope. Somehow.

"Well, you're going to need it soon," Obito sighed, pushing his head slightly into her questing fingers. She could all but feel him melt. "You have the hand signs down, right?"

"Oh, yeah," Aiko assured him. "The memorization and speed aren't an issue. I struggle with the regularity of chakra output a bit, though." She scrunched up her nose. "For some reason, I really want to mess with the proportions much more than I need to. Like I think that I need to overcompensate with my physical chakras."

She could feel his head move ever so slightly as he shrugged. "That'll have to do."

"Does that mean we're going to go get a jinchuuriki?" Aiko had to frown. What would a human sacrifice look like, anyway? She knew that Obito had said they were just demons put into a human's body, but did that mean they just looked like regular people?

She shuddered.

'That thought was unexpectedly creepy. Let's not go there.'

"That's the plan. You're going to be with me, since I haven't taught you the projection technique yet." She could all but hear him frown—it was in the way that his voice got a little lower and his consonants became carefully pronounced. "I doubt that I'll have a lot of trouble with this one, but you never know." He huffed a quiet laugh, shaking his head slightly. "It would be easier if…"

"If what?" she prodded, leaning over him and tilting her head.

Obito looked chagrinned. "I shouldn't have said anything. It's no big deal."

A sinking feeling told her that it was, in fact, a big deal.

"Something else that I forgot?" Aiko asked mournfully. She bit her lip, pulling back into herself a bit and curling her back. Great. Just great.

He took a quick inhalation- and then hesitated.

She already knew that whatever he was about to say would be a very unconvincing lie, so she used her grip on his head to push his face down, pretending to be absorbed in giving him a massage. "Don't lie to me."

His shoulders, so much broader than her own, deflated slightly in her peripheral vision. "Sorry." He cleared his throat and talked a little louder. "Your bloodline."

Aiko blinked. "What, the eye thing you mentioned a relative of mine having?" she asked, unsure. "That would be a good thing?"

"Well, yes," Obito admitted. "Although not necessarily the eye part, in that scenario. That'd just be a side effect. Uzumaki also have a genetic possibility of developing something called chakra chains, which are very good to fighting jinchuuriki and restraining bijuu. Demonic energy is very corrosive, after all. It can melt the flesh right off your bones."

(He politely pretended not to notice the shaking of her hands at that point.)

"It doesn't matter, though." He leaned forward and twisted to smile at her. "We can handle it. I just worry. Actually…" He took a breath. "Maybe I won't take you on that mission. I just don't want to risk it."

'I can handle it! I can. Give me a chance.'

Her jaw dropped open at how unfair that was, but he kept going.

"I just don't want you to get hurt," Obito said sincerely, giving a gentle smile that creased his eyes nearly shut. "Maybe a different mission, yeah?"

It was hard to maintain an indignant attitude in the face of his genuine goodwill. "Yeah," Aiko agreed quietly.

He left not long after that—left her room and then left the safehouse the next morning. But Aiko didn't let the conversation fade from her mind. She couldn't be mad at him. She could be a little mad at herself, though. If this Nagato chump could activate that bloodline, why couldn't she?

If she had a bloodline ability that came with funny eyes and magic chains, it seemed like a thing worth pursuing.


"They're going to get that Ame woman released," Michiru warned, setting down a tray with a stack of papers on one side and a plate of cookies on the other. "There's precedent for a kage being let on bail so that the country don't suffer, honey."

A shrugged good-naturedly, stuffing a sweet in his mouth whole while his secretary bustled behind him and opened the window. C and Darui made longing eye contact from across the room, but remained professionally silent. They probably weren't going to get any cookies.

"I can put that back as far as possible to give Ame time to worsen. Nothing can be finalized without our participation." He frowned. "Though I can't actually be seen as constructive."

(Obstructive, C corrected silently. The word was 'obstructive.')

His elderly secretary clucked her tongue and shuffled back over to his desk to pat his cheek. "That's nice, dear. The third letter from the top is actually about that."

"Oh?" A shuffled the first two envelopes off to the side onto his desk and pulled out the specified paper. "Let's see…" He squinted, tilting his head.

Darui repressed a sigh. It was a good thing that the general populace was unaware that their Raikage let his great-aunt all but run the office. Michiru-sama was a very nice lady, except for all the poisoning, but she hadn't been selected as Raikage.

"That deteriorated quickly," A noted in a mildly impressed tone. "Riots, starvation, and - the slave trade? Ame has a slave trade?" He huffed, shaking his head. "I thought Ame had enough problems."

His great-aunt let out a polite titter, shuffling off to the kitchen around the corner. "Well, what do you expect? That would be the definition of anarchy. A country falls apart in a surprisingly short time without a leader. And their shinobi village has always been weak."

"Yes, Oba-san," he agreed easily.

(The ruling family in Kumo, C ruminated, was really rather terrifying, in a way that tended to get underestimated).

"Is there precedent for how long it'll take for a request to have the Ame woman released?" A asked, leaning back and stuffing another cookie into his face. "That Hokage woman is going to fight this, so she'll be trying to get Konan-san out. I don't know how competent she is, but any kage will do a better job than the local lords pussy-footing about now."

"I know," Michiru hummed. "I know, love. She'll want Konan-san to put Ame to rights before the trial. It'd be months before Konan-san is released under ordinary circumstances, but I'm afraid that the situation might get a rush order." She shook her wobbling head sternly. "I'd suggest stalling communications to buy time. She can't be released until the trial details have been confirmed so that she can sign agreement to return in time. They'll be doing their best to get a non-shinobi mediator, possibly from the Land of Iron or an uninvolved Daimyo." Michiru frowned. "You could attempt to compromise the partiality of potential mediators to narrow down the list of candidates, and then interfere with the internal operations of the most likely leaders."

A grunted, spewing crumbs. "I like it," he agreed genially, smacking a fist down on the coffee table. "That sounds fun! A trade embargo might do it, or we could more directly go in and intercept messengers." He slammed his meaty fist into his right palm.

C cringed. He was very glad that he served the most powerful country in the world, and not their enemies.

"You have such good ideas, honey," Michiru crooned fondly. The Raikage grinned, puffing his chest out and rapping his fingers against his knees.

It made sense to sabotage Ame's ability to function as part of their plan to argue that Ame couldn't function as a nation and should be dissolved. But the execution of that plan was brutal. A lot of people were going to die in Ame.

"Can I have a sandwich?" A asked hopefully.

Michiru brushed off the front of her dress and smiled, smearing a bit of red lipstick on her teeth. "Of course, dear."

C was very glad he served Kumogakure.


Two days after their disappointing conversation about chakra chains, Obito was waiting with a cup of coffee when she came downstairs with her hair still wet from her shower.

"You're back sooner than I expected," she observed.

He shrugged without looking up.

So helpfully chatty. That was… a little unusual actually. He could generally hold up a conversation on the times that he hung around without starting a training session. Aiko tried again.

"I didn't know you'd be staying at this safehouse," she commented, wringing a little bit of damp out of her hair before she sat at the table. "Usually you're gone for a while. Are we having practice again? I think I might be getting somewhere with that light refracting genjutsu."

"I'm not," Obito said absently. "I'm just stopping by. There was something I wanted…" he trailed off, but never finished his statement.

Aiko stopped and really took a look at him, now that they weren't throwing things at each other and trying pathetically to slip underneath the other's notice. (Okay, that was all her. He could genjutsu like a pro. She was apparently completely without talent in every shinobi art but fuinjutsu and taijutsu. Depressing).

'He looks like he hasn't slept in days. And he didn't bother to clean up after he came in from wherever. Ew. Also, not like him.'

She swallowed carefully. "How are you?"

He glanced over with sunken, tired eyes. She couldn't help but note that he looked paler than usual, and just a little too thin. A muscle twitched in his jaw. "I'm fine."

"You don't look fine," Aiko half-accused, not pleased that he was so obviously lying to her. "You look tired. Maybe you should lay do-"

"I said I'm fine!"

She jumped, eyes wide as his palm slapped down on the table with enough force to send it shuddering. The coffee cup clinked and shattered against the wood, sending scalding liquid flying. Aiko jerked her hand back reflexively, but not in time to keep her left arm dry.

Obito looked about as surprised as she did. Maybe he was surprised to see the spilt liquid—the voice that had shouted had been pitched lower than his usual speaking voice. She was starting to see a pattern.

'That is not normal,' Aiko thought, hating the chill that ran up her spine. 'Not normal. I know he's always had mood switches, but never like that. Not- not yelling and hitting things.'

Shamefully, at that moment, she couldn't help but remember just how physically imposing he was, and how strong he was. That wasn't fair, that was stupid. Obito would never hurt her.

'But he doesn't always seem like Obito. He's someone else when he's mad.'

And that was why he needed someone to take care of him. He didn't even seem to know.

'Something is very wrong with him. He's sick. He needs help.'

Of course, she had no room to talk. She was a walking corpse and she dreamed about killing people and occasionally about searing heat ripping her skull open. Aiko wasn't quite positioned to cast judgment about someone else's mental health. They needed each other, that was fine. It meant she wasn't alone and he wasn't alone.

"I'm sorry," Obito said gently,

Somehow, she forced a wooden smile onto her face. "It's alright. I didn't mean to upset you."

Impossibly, that seemed to make things worse. He shook his head and grabbed her hand when she reached out to gather the broken glass. "No- leave it. And please don't say that. I'm sorry. It's not your job to avoid upsetting me. I have no excuse for losing control like that." With one last regretful glance, he pushed his chair back and crossed the room to grab a hand towel. "I'll clean up. Is your hand alright?"

The skin on her wrist and forearm was red and swelling. Aiko pulled it off the table and put it on her lap, out of sight. "It's fine. Are you alright?"

He paused, letting coffee soak into the grey rag. One hand slowly drifted up towards his face, but he didn't actually touch his eye. Good thing too, she noted with concern. It certainly wasn't safe to go from cleaning up glass putting your hands on your eye. Feeling a little nervous about just how close his fingers were hovering, Aiko stood and took the two steps necessary to use her right hand to gently pull his arm down.

"Obito?" she asked quietly, covering his hand with both of hers.

For the first time, he looked in her direction and really seemed to see her. Obito gave a barking little laugh but didn't pull away. "It's childish, I'm afraid," he admitted with a rasp. "I keep seeing things. I'd say they're nightmares, but they're more like quick flashes of vision. I think I'm dwelling on bad times. I had a terrible time finishing a mission that should have been completely mundane. It was all very pathetic."

She stayed silent.

"I keep thinking that I'm seeing- that I'm underground again," Obito admitted. "and feeling so miserable. Thinking that I'm a failure and claustrophobic and I just can't stop thinking about that day." His hand shook a little. Concerned, Aiko pressed her fingers against it a little more firmly.

'I don't know what to do,' she realized, shivering unpleasantly. 'I want to help him but I don't know how.'

"Aren't you going to tell me to let it go because it's not real?" Obito asked, sounding oddly defensive. "Focus on the now and all that?"

Aiko didn't know what he was looking for- condemnation or judgment perhaps. She shrugged, uncomfortable but unwilling to let go. "It's real. If you feel it and remember it, it's real. I wish you were happy, but telling you not to be sad doesn't help."

He choked, shaking his head. "You don't even know what I'm talking about."

She wasn't sure if he sounded amused or derisive, so she kept her face clear.

"I suppose it's the day my life changed," Obito decided, with a dark sort of humor. "The day Konoha thought that I died."

Aiko became very, very still, because if that didn't sound like a trigger, she didn't know what would. Unconsciously, she tugged the hand she was holding closer and held it to her chest like a comfort blanket.

"I had two teammates," he said quietly. But he wasn't really talking to her. Obito's eyes were distant. Maybe underground again, remembering things he'd rather not. Aiko shivered.

"Rin and Kakashi." The emotion with which he pronounced each name was not remotely the same. 'Rin' was delicate and quiet, like something holy. The emotion attached to 'Kakashi' was different. There was something angry shuddering beneath the surface of that word.

"He didn't want to get her when she was kidnapped," Obito recounted distantly. "We fought, and I left. I ran into trouble- and he came back for me."

Kakashi sounded like he needed to make his mind up.

"He took a blow for me that ruined one of his eyes." Aiko winced. "And then when we found Rin, and the cave tumbled down, I pushed him out of the way of the rock that would have killed him." Obito laughed, short and bitter. "I don't know if I regret that or not. At the time, I begged Rin to give him my eye, so that I could still see the world. I didn't say it, but I was so scared. So scared to die." He cleared his throat and said so quietly that she had to strain to hear. "They just left me there in the dark. They should have killed me, if they didn't care. They never came back. Not even looking for a body."

The pain and confusion- a child's voice asking why- almost physically hurt her.

Eyes hot, Aiko took a step in and nudged her forehead against his chest, like a cat asking to be pet. She couldn't speak. Every word he said was quiet and terrible, inexorably drawn out of his chest. She didn't want to hear any more, but she couldn't stop him either.

"and then Madara found me. Less than a year later, Kakashi killed Rin."

'What.'

That shocked her into a flinch, drawing her chin down nearly to her chest. It sounded like there was a story there. She definitely was not about to ask.

"At least in my head, it all started when the rocks came down in that cave. That's what I've been thinking I'm seeing for the past two days," Obito finished, his voice clearing up. He gave a little huff of a laugh. "So, what do you think?"

"I think your teammate sounds scary," Aiko said into his chest. His hand, still caught between hers and pressed between them, twitched comfortingly. "They should have come back for you. I would."

He gave a shocked laugh, shoulders shaking a little. "He's not that scary. But thanks." Obito took a step back, tugging his hand out of her grip as he turned away and collected himself. Aiko let it go. He clearly didn't want her to linger on his little fit, so she turned to the window and put her hands on her hips, staring out into the sunshine. It'd be harder to wallow in misery and bad memories about being trapped in the dark when you were out and about, wouldn't it?

"I don't feel much like training today," Aiko said contemplatively. "Let's go out and do something fun. Outside."

Obito looked wryly at her, clearly knowing what she was doing.

"Really."

"Yepp." She rolled her neck, breathing in deeply. "I think it's time for an adventure."

"I have places to be."

"They're really not that important."

"Oh, yes they are."

"As important as going out to do something fun? You could take us to Iron and we'd see a movie."

Obito opened his mouth, considering. "…You're not suggesting this because that awful Icha Icha movie just came out, are you?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Aiko scoffed. "That's not out yet. But you are totally taking me to that. No, we're going to see a Princess Fuin movie."

The Icha Ichia movie wasn't going to be out for weeks. Although she had heard about a special screening up in Iron country where filming had been done that was rather intriguing.

Chapter Text

The omake goes at the top of this chapter, oddly enough. As a guest reviewer pointed out, Team Seven ended up actually featured in the film that Aiko and Obito went to see at the end of last chapter. There were giggles.


Obito took a moment to wonder at how the hell Bakashi, the Kyuubi container, and his youngest living relative had managed to end up in that dreadful Fuin woman's film.

'I don't care,' he decided viciously, stuffing popcorn in his mouth in lieu of glowering at his companion. 'I absolutely do not care at all that even now, Bakashi is spiting me by contaminating perfectly banal entertainment with his stupid big head. That's fine. I'm above that.'

Hey, there was some small bit of good out of this venture, though. Aiko seemed enthralled and got caught up in the energy of the film (at least, the parts with fighting) but she didn't say, 'oh, that blond boy is probably my brother.'

"What did you think about the fight scenes?" Aiko nudged him playfully, snicking a bit of popcorn out of the nearly empty bag on his lap (which put her hand in places it definitely should not be oh god no). She barely blinked when Obito abruptly shoved the snack over to her, used to sudden movements that made no sense to her.

"What about the fight scenes?" he tried. His honest answer; 'they make me incomprehensibly angry,' would probably just raise more questions for her.

The teenager shrugged, kicking her feet up on the seat in front of her as the lights came on and the other movie-goers stood. She was getting plenty of dirty looks for her rudeness in critiquing the film right away, but seemed barely aware. "Well, they were awfully dramatic," Aiko huffed, waving a hand in front of her face. "Wasteful, too. No ninja fights like that, with all the boring 'feelings' talk and pointing and shouting out the names of their techniques. The writing was sort of bad, but at the same time it was fun." She shrugged, making a wavery 'so-so' gesture with her hand.

'No ninja fights like that,' rang in his head mockingly. Obito stifled a Tobi-giggle, swallowing. 'Ha! So there, Bakashi. Apparently, you're not even a ninja'.

That did lift his mood a bit. Aiko had a point, he decided generously.

"If you ever meet a ninja like that," he counseled gravely, "get them while they monologue. Konoha nin do that sometimes."

He actually laughed at the appalled way her jaw dropped.

'I feel better now.'

Still, they were absolutely never going to see one of these grotesquely indulgent Princess Fuin movies again.


"And here I was thinking that we were never going to get along," Aiko chirped without looking up from the blade she was sharpening. "Yet here we are, spending time together socially. Tomorrow, I expect we'll be braiding each other's hair. The day after, we'll get friendship bracelets. I want blue and yellow on mine."

Kakuzu shot her a withering look, but didn't respond. They had been sitting in somewhat pointed silence ever since Obito left on his super-secret-not-telling-Aiko-mission.

'Peachy. Just peachy keen. Getting stuck with this guy is exactly what I wanted.' Resentfully, she scraped her whetstone with just a little more force than was habitual. 'What's Obito's deal lately, anyway? I'd rather work with Zetsu than Kakuzu. He's suddenly acting like Zetsu's going to eat me whole if he leaves us alone for ten minutes.'

Lately, Obito had been just plain fucking weird. He was terribly jumpy.

'And dramatic,' she reminded herself. 'I need to talk to you when I return from this mission,' Aiko mocked internally. 'Why not talk to me now? I don't know what he's so nervous about. Obito's been acting like he's nervous about something.'

Poor love. It'd been three days since his little fit, and he didn't seem much more stable. She didn't really want to leave him alone. He was quite possibly a danger to himself.

But telling him that she was worried about him hadn't stopped him from setting off on whatever job he had in mind. If anything, Obito had just seemed oddly guilty. The next day, Kakuzu had showed up in the safehouse with a disgruntled look, apparently under the impression that he was to babysit her while Obito was gone.

Which was just silly. It was called a 'safe' house for a reason. The only people who even knew where it was were her, Obito, Kakuzu, and Zetsu.

In other words, Obito was being really weird for no apparent reason.

'It probably wouldn't hurt to humor him by keeping Kakuzu around,' she tried to convince herself. It was annoying, sure, but not harmful.

"I need to go into town," Aiko spoke up, narrowing her eyes at her finished product as she held it up to the light. She tilted it slightly, letting reflections flash. "I'd planned on going alone to pick up some product for the next trip, but I suppose I'll have to ask you to come with."

Kakuzu offered an unenthusiastic grunt in response. She didn't mind or press. He eventually spoke up unprompted.

"When?"

"Day after tomorrow," she shared idly. She tested the sharpness of her blade on a fingertip—blood welled up instantly. Aiko made a sound of satisfaction and slipped it away, reaching for another dull kunai.

"Acceptable. Your initiative does you credit," Kakuzu admitted gruffly.

'Is he… being nice to me?'

She stilled, but didn't offer a smile or turn to look at him. Aiko was gathering the impression that Kakuzu didn't like being nice. Or at least, he didn't want to think he was kind. Calling excess attention to his statement would be unnecessarily disruptive.

"Thank you," she said carelessly. "I've been trying. There's not much challenge in the legal operations that Ando-san runs. She hasn't yet summoned up the courage to talk to me about using her organization as a cover for moving narcotics."

Aiko rather doubted that the civilian would mention a damn thing, assuming she knew. Ando-san was so twitchy. And thorough about keeping Aiko away from her son, actually. Hmm. What was that about? Aiko'd never threatened her even a little. That was all Kakuzu and that was like, forever ago. Weeks. Months, actually. Silly Ando-san.

"Narcotics are profitable," Kakuzu said approvingly. "How do you acquire your stock?"

She shrugged distractedly, working on her second blade. "I've made friends with a bartender who has a lot of contacts. We have a nice thing going on where I make troublemakers disappear, and her herbalist friend in Grass hooks me up."

There was a great deal of money to be made moving illegal substances into shinobi nations, which had a lot more restrictions and border surveillance than the other countries. Military states were just so silly about little things like recreational drugs, or medicines that hadn't been made in certified facilities, or odds and ends of counter-culture. They could afford to be selective like that, because the shinobi villages were fucking loaded (and needed to be intellectually controlled in order to maintain the hegemonic status quo). The quality of living and health care for a resident of a ninja village was so far above that of the people in outlying areas that it wasn't even funny.

That meant there were a lot of people desperate to get their hands on contraband for half the price of heavily taxed goods imported from the capitals. And Grass was a rich resource without years of infrastructure that she'd have to muscle aside to make space for herself: it hadn't been that long ago that Grass had been subject to restrictive policies itself. There was a lot of money to be made and only small fry like herself jostling for it.

"How is your accounting?"

She actually paused at that and looked over. "I don't keep hard records," Aiko admitted sheepishly.

Kakuzu looked downright appalled at that. "How do you know how much money you are making? You cannot devise strategies to improve profit and productivity without data."

"I don't really know how to go about compiling that sort of information," she had to confess. If she'd ever learned, it wasn't something that had come back to her yet. She expected it would eventually, though. She was remembering a lot of things.

The man at her side was still. Dangerously still. His voice was gruffer than usual when he managed to unhinge his jaw long enough to order, "Come. I have spare accounting books. You can have a set for two Ryo."

'That is ridiculously expensive. Like, three new outfits expensive. Twenty times what the cost should be, easily.'

Aiko gaped.

"I would suggest that you acquire your own materials upon the next time that you enter a place of business," Kakuzu said archly with an expression that was almost a smile.

"We could bump our trip up to tomorrow," she said a bit weakly.

He shook his head. "No. If I am going to get any information through that skull of yours, I must begin immediately. I have time now." He started off for the house without saying a word. "This project of yours is a superior beginning to anything that the other cretins have endeavored to undertake. Failure to improve upon it through record-keeping would be a pity."

"Oh." Aiko stood and followed, a little perplexed by Kakuzu's sudden interest and helpfulness. "So," she ventured as he extracted two small blue books from a drawer in his room. "Has no one else in Akatsuki ever-"

"Taken it upon themselves to pursue a useful endeavor? No," he said shortly. "Our previous associates were all addled simpletons."

At that point, he began muttering something angry about art and hobbies that she thought it would probably be best to pretend she didn't hear.

"What's your hobby?" she prodded. "I mean, I assume smuggling is a little pedestrian for your tastes."

Kakuzu made a noncommittal sound. "I hunt bountied shinobi. When someone else has gone to the trouble of compiling convenient lists of people whose heads they would pay for, it is a simple matter to memorize their faces and keep an eye out."

Wait. People would pay for-

"That's kinda cool," Aiko noted, morbidly interested. "Do I have a bounty?"

Her companion grunted, extracting a cheap pen and stalking out to the kitchen table. "You should. You had an unofficial one when you were a member of Konoha's military. Put out by Kumo, I believe. Or perhaps Iwa. In any case, now that you've defected, it should be replaced by an official one from your country of home origin."

'I wonder how much Konoha is willing to pay for my head…'

Well. There was a way to check that.

"Those bounties… how do you get a hold of them?"

"Your information broker would probably have a copy," he said shortly. "Now, pay attention."


Talking to Sayu was a mistake. Or at least, adding the new topic was a mistake. An unsettling one that brought up things she'd really rather not consider.

'That doesn't make any sense.'

"That can't be right," Aiko said slowly, pushing a lock of hair behind her ear.

The short woman shrugged. A streak of something suspiciously like mud moved on her cheek when she made a face. "That's what I have, kid. Your bounty hasn't been updated in years. It's still in the sketchy book, too." She waved said volume about pointedly. It was indeed not the official copy that Aiko had spent the last few minutes rifling through unsuccessfully. "It's not a bad number," she admitted grudgingly. A speculative look crossed her face. "Maybe I should turn you in and pay off my debtors, eh princess?"

"Very funny," Aiko grunted. She was too preoccupied to really enjoy banter at the moment, grabbing at Sayu's wrist to hold the book still so she could read it. The information was interesting. Seal master? Since when was she a seal master? And—she already had the chakra chains? That was a laugh. She thought that she would know if she'd activated a bloodline that made her eyes get all weird and purple. Clearly, these books weren't that accurate. And huh. She trained under Hatake Kakashi? That name was awfully familiar.

Maybe he was in the book too.

Sayu pursed her lips and flipped the book around to investigate it. "It's a seriously old picture, too. Look at the geeky smile. What are you, twelve?"

"No," Aiko muttered resentfully. Still, she had to squint at the date on the edition and count under her breath to put it together. "Fourteen? That can't be right. That's not a picture of me at fourteen."

God, she hoped not, at least.

The older woman snorted. "Shouldn't you remember? This looks like an official picture."

She knew perfectly well that grinding her teeth together was a terrible habit. It took conscious effort to unglue her jaw. There was no way she was going to admit that no, she didn't remember the picture, or in fact much of anything.

Who cared? It didn't matter anyway. She knew all she needed to know.

'Yeah, just keep telling yourself that,' Aiko thought bitterly. 'That'll make the weirdness here go away.'

"Thanks." Aiko bent, using her legs to lift the box of goods she'd come to pick up. "I'll see you in a few weeks, hotstuff."

"Am I going to get my book back?" Sayu asked, bemused. "I kind of need that, for that job that I do. You know, people pay me for information and I hook them up, pass over IOU's and verify kills. It's not fancy, but it pays. We can't all be in a super-special club that buys the dango, princess."

Aiko paused for a moment, before realizing that she'd tucked the little hitlist under her belt. "Oh, sorry. Can I-can I pay you for it? I'd like to keep that."

Sayu sighed. "Two ryo," she listed unenthusiastically.

Aiko's eyebrows shot up. "Why don't you just hit me over the head and rifle through my pockets? Jeeze, I thought we were friends."

"We're not that good of friends." The older woman cracked a wry grin, tucking the cash away. "Those are hard to get a hold of, if you're a civilian."

That actually made some sense.

"You took long enough," Kakuzu said gruffly, walking as soon as she exited the dank little building.

"Sorry," she apologized absently. "I got caught u-"

"I don't care," Kakuzu sighed.

Aiko pressed her lips together, trying not to let her eyebrows shoot straight up on her brow. 'At least he can be counted on. He's predictable.'

She'd thought that Obito was predictable too. But this put a wrench in her perception. She wasn't stupid. What he'd told her… well, now it didn't add up.

'If Konoha knew I was a traitor, they would have put out a bounty for me.'

Ergo, Konoha didn't know she was a traitor. Either they were spectacularly ignorant, or they knew something she didn't. That didn't fit with what Obito had said.

Wait. Don't get emotional. Don't be hasty. Think it through. Aiko licked her lips, attempting to consider every angle.

'I don't have all the information,' Aiko knew. 'I can't rule out either extreme: that Obito was telling the complete truth, or that he was completely lying. Not without more information. I can't think of a reason that Konoha wouldn't have put out a bounty on a missing nin, but that doesn't mean there isn't one. I need more data.'

Of course, getting the needed data would be very difficult while she was being watched (and how did it just now seem suspicious that Obito hardly ever left her out of sight, and needed to know where she was, and checked up on her? For all she knew, he or Zetsu kept an eye on her whenever she went off 'alone')

'I'm an idiot. I wouldn't know. They're both much better at hiding than I am at detection, and I haven't even been looking for watchers of their caliber. And now I can't check. If they have been watching me and I just now start looking, they'll want to know what's changed. That'll lead them to Sayu.'

"Hurry up," Kakuzu graveled out. "You're falling behind."

'It'd be a little faster if you helped carry. This is what, thirty pounds? That'd be nothing to a big guy like you,' Aiko thought resentfully, her bad mood spilling over to her current companion.

She didn't bother to apologize, focusing on moving and pushing her pace a little. Her arms were shaking and in outright muscle pain by the time they returned to the safehouse. She really should take the time to catalogue what she'd just brought and store it safely.

Aiko didn't care about that at the moment, so she dropped the box on the kitchen table and went to her room, barely hearing Kakuzu mutter about moody teenagers.

She locked the door and settled on her bed, desperate to put together a picture. All the time that Obito spent training her took a somewhat sinister cast when she wondered if he intended to use her rather than use her skills. Perhaps it was pathetic, but the nuance mattered a lot to her.

Shinobi were tools, in a way, yes. Aiko didn't mind being a valuable resource for reasons other than her intrinsic value as a person. That was different from just her skills being useful.

Then again, if what he was looking for was just a useful tool, it would have been stupid to pick her. There had to be people out there who would require less investment—she'd had to be retrained in her apparent specialties of mid-range weaponry, for kami's sake. No. It wasn't just her skills Obito was interested in. It was her; it had to be her.

'I don't want to believe that Obito lied to me.' Aiko rolled over onto her side and hugged a pillow to her chest. 'Or at least, not about the important stuff. I… I don't think he did. He really does like me. We're friends. He didn't lie about that. I can't totally distrust my own perception. He definitely does enjoy spending time with me, and he wouldn't spend so much time with me if he didn't care. He'd pass me off on someone else.'

So if she kept the assumption that Obito wasn't lying about feeling friendship with her, that left her with two options to extrapolate from. A. He had formed those feelings recently, after she had joined him in recent memory. B. They had been friends before what she remembered.

'Think it through, girl,' Aiko told herself, tugging on a bit of hair. 'Does it matter which of those two things is true? If so, why, and what difference would it make to my prospective course of action.'

Her intellect told her that it mattered. If he had only come to care about her in recent months, then that meant that he hadn't cared about her at the time that she remembered 'meeting' him in the hospital. That meant that whatever he had wanted from her at that time had not been coming from a place of concern for her best interest. If he had just been tricking a sick, confused girl into coming with him, then Aiko should be frightened, or at least interested in what he wanted from her.

Whereas if he had been emotionally attached to her before she remembered meeting him, that possibility seemed much less likely.

'Is friendship the only way to look at it, when the issue is better summed as emotional attachment?' She rolled over onto her back and dug her heels into the bed, pouting unconsciously. 'He would already have been emotionally compromised if he's telling the truth about being my dad's student. That would be much easier to verify than whether or not I really was secretly meeting Obito and narking on Konoha.'

How hard would it be to figure out who Obito's sensei was? He might fork over the information, and she could cross-verify it. Student-teacher relationships were probably well-documented somewhere, and someone somewhere would be willing to accept money for handing over information that seemed innocuous enough.

She felt a little better, having decided what she would accept as evidence that Obito had been emotionally compromised before eight months ago. Assuming that panned out, she could be reasonably certain that he wouldn't hurt her and hadn't planned to.

Of course, Obito could thwart that plan by refusing to tell her about his sensei, but she doubted that. He'd had much looser lips lately, though that might be due to his instability and emotionally compromised state than trust.

Those loose lips presented another plan: he'd let the name of his teammates slip. Assuming 'Kakashi' was still alive: well, that name couldn't be common. She could look up his sensei and teammates and verify Obito's story that way.

Actually… She twisted just enough to tug the book out of her waistband and rolled onto her stomach to flip through it. Obito hadn't said anything to make her think that his old teammate had defected, so he should be in the Konoha section if he was still active. She frowned when she didn't find anything under 'Kakashi', but some bit of stubbornness caused her to keep looking until she ran into 'Sharingan no Kakashi.' She huffed.

'That sounds about right, actually. Lines up with what Obito said and collaborates why Obito isn't with Konoha anymore, in a way. He's gotten famous off of Obito's eye? That's a little depressing.'

Really famous, apparently. He looked like that actor- no, that was backwards. The cute extra in that Princess Fuin movie had definitely been modeled off of him. That kind of resemblance was not an accident.

She shrugged off the tangent about his apparent presence in pop culture for more productive lines of contemplation. There was nothing listed about Sharingan no Kakashi's teammates, but his sensei had been—Namikaze Minato, the fourth Hokage? Aiko let out a low whistle. Nice. That was her dad? Hopefully, she bent the corner and went looking, but of course there wasn't still a page for the Yondaime. He was long dead.

'That's another thing I could check,' she decided. 'If I see a picture of him, I might be able to see any family resemblance. If I look enough like him, then Obito's been telling the truth.' Aiko paused thoughtfully, biting on her lip. 'Well, at least some of it.'

Aiko felt a little better as she calmed and worked through the logic, probably more content than she should feel. She now had an idea of what she wanted to investigate and several plans for how to get that information. Finding out whether or not she'd been lied to for over half a year wouldn't be impossible. She could do it.

But… god forgive her: despite what her brain told her, she had a hard time really believing that it made a difference if Obito had kidnapped and tricked her as opposed to being her friend rescuing her from Konoha's clutches.

It might be different if she had any reason to viscerally feel the betrayal. But she didn't. Aiko remembered bits and pieces from before Obito, but that was it. She didn't feel an emotional connection. So he just seemed more real to her than people she might have known in Konoha. Who cared if there were people out there missing her, if she didn't miss them?

That sounded awful, even in her head. But what would happen if she decided that Obito had kidnapped her and ran to Konoha? Even if she made it—and what were the chances of making that long trip, when she was watched— what would it be like to find herself in a place she didn't really remember, with people who had expectations and fond memories of her? What would they want from her—was she even the same person, in an appreciable sense, and would she measure up to what they wanted? Would they hold any changes against her?

'I'm getting overly defensive about the imagined reactions of people I don't remember.' Aiko huffed a little laugh, bringing the pillow on her chest up to cover her mouth. 'I'm ridiculous. I'm emotionally compromised, aren't I? Still. I feel like my life is here. I have hobbies, I have a friend, I have a job, and I have a- what the hell is Kakuzu, anyway? Is he friend number two?'

He probably wouldn't agree, but she thought that he was. So, yes. Friend number two.

That had a good ring to it. She grinned into her pillow. 'So, that's an emotional reason to stay. This is terrible form to come up with logical reasoning after I'm leaning towards a decision, but I still think my logic is sound in that I couldn't leave anyways. Obito checks up on me if I'm so much as a day late, which could indicate concern for my well-being just as much as it could be an attempt to keep me from running off. I wouldn't get very far if I tried to leave—not without help, which I appear to have no way of obtaining. So, following through that I have no apparent pressing need to escape… that seems like a lot of risk for low potential benefit. I can re-examine the issue if it seems that I am in danger or if additional resources present themselves, but as of now I seem to be both stuck and unmotivated to change my position.'

In other words, she'd pretty well concluded that without any game-changing information, she wasn't going to do anything drastic.

There was really only one question left, but Aiko had no idea to answer it. She couldn't help but feel that… Well. Now that she'd basically decided that Obito had probably lied to her in some capacity, shouldn't she resent him? Resentment would be one reason to leave, if only to spite him.

She couldn't muster up the emotion, however. It seemed dishonest to get huffy and indignant. If it suited her purposes, she'd do worse than convince an amnesiac that they were friends. Aiko had done worse. On her very first mission, she'd inadvertently led a man to his death and not lost a night of sleep over it.

(That would have been impossible. The nightmares already kept her up, or at least they had at that point. They were losing their effect now that their brutality was a bit passé.)

Aiko and Obito were shinobi, and that meant they were hired killers (and therefore not the greatest people already). Whining about a lie seemed a bit petty at that point. Although that didn't mean she had no sense of morality or things she wouldn't do. There had to be a line somewhere, of course, or else they'd just be gibbering loonies. No- not loonies. They'd be like wild dogs that needed to be put down, and not really people. Something separated even shinobi from mindless animals.

That line seemed like loyalty—to her chosen companion, at least, if not a cause or ideology.

'And I suppose I've chosen my side. Obito's been good to me. I want to stay with him.'

The thought of leaving him alone… Well, it made her sad.

He wasn't well, after all. Kakuzu was surprisingly decent, but there was no chance in hell that he would look out for 'Obi if Aiko took off. He just wasn't the touchy feely type.

Besides, if he had tricked her… He'd done a damn good job, actually, and she could appreciate the artistry there. From a professional standpoint, if nothing else.

'So,' Aiko decided firmly. 'If I find out that Obito was telling the truth, and I am therefore in little danger from him, I'm staying.'

The corollary being, of course, that if he didn't have her best interest in mind, she was going to run screaming in the opposite direction.

It was good to have that all figured out. Especially since it was Wednesday, Obito should be coming back soon for the weekly accounting paperwork party. (Obito called it a 'meeting', but Kakuzu had approved the name change). Anyway, she was just going to act normally.


His cycas revoluta were hardy and lush this year. Zetsu fancied that he could smell hints of the toxic sap as a break of new leaves was beginning to erupt from the base of the plant, but it was his imagination. They were beautiful, though, and this specimen was a fine plant that had been flourishing for hundreds of years. Convincing bees to pollinate had been a fuss that required other, more traditionally decorative plants to be relocated nearby, so he was well invested in the project. He carefully removed a pup, ready to transfer it to soil of its own. Beautiful.

Zetsu stopped his work when he heard the crackle of Obito's holographic communication jutsu, swiveling out of the sand to face the much younger being.

Black Zetsu might have snarled if it had possessed features at the moment. The child was a necessary tool in order to revive his mother, but taking orders from one so transparent and short-sighted did grate occasionally.

White Zetsu had no such thoughts, nor was he aware of the reasoning behind his companion's derision. If he had, he probably would have gotten in the way.

"As it turns out, it's a good thing that you put those spores on the girl."

"Oh?" the wood-clones asked in unison. They had already known that: the point had been to force Obito to finally commit to a course of action. That was transparently a beneficial course of action.

The image of their supposed master flickered. "Yes. I'll contact you telepathically when Aiko uses her chakra chains. Use up the spores draining her chakra to about 10%, but do not allow her to realize that the drain is being caused by anything but the activation of her genetic birthright. Time it so that she loses consciousness as soon as possible, before she has a chance to realize that her eyes are not changing naturally. I will bring you to her and conduct the surgery at that point."

"There are worse plans," Black Zetsu acknowledged.

It was a neat solution. Almost suspiciously neat, coming from someone with such dramatic flair. If efficiency had been Obito's du jour tactic, then his chosen aliases would not have been so ridiculously flamboyant. There would also have been no superfluous waste of Amegakure, Otogakure, and Mizugakure, countries that had all been under his indirect control at one point. World domination had been in the grasp of one man, and he'd carelessly tossed it aside in favor of pursuing a dead man's ambition for a genjutsu that only Kaguya could truly master.

(It was mildly entertaining that one man who was dead to the world could have so much power and use it so poorly).

The projection nodded, shadows covering the curved mask. "Oh, and Zetsu? Don't undermine my decisions again."

With that, the Uchiha cut short the technique and flickered out of sight. White Zetsu huffed. "It wasn't me," he pouted.

Black Zetsu didn't bother to respond.

At least Obito was making progress towards the ultimate Tsukyomi, in the defective and faltering way that Obito accomplished anything. As soon as that was cast, Black Zetsu wouldn't need him any longer. Kaguya would be revived and the worlds made anew.

If there was a problem, Black Zetsu couldn't see it. He might have suspected Obito's stalling was a hint that he'd become attached to the sacrifice, but that didn't seem to be in Obito's character. If that was going to happen surely he would have shown signs of that weakness in relation to one of the Akatsuki members in the past years.

He unclenched his hand, letting the pup that he'd crushed fall to the ground. White Zetsu made a mournful sound, but no comment.


This may be obvious, but I have not been reading manga updates. At this point, I feel like things have gotten so bad that it just parodies itself. I was reading through the articles on Kaguya Ōtsutsuki in an attempt to find just enough information to be sure that Black Zetsu's characterization and motivations made sense when I ran into the bit about how Naruto spontaneously discovered he could fly in time to save Team Seven from an active volcano.

*cue headache*

Not gonna lie, I had to close my laptop and take a break. Because that is just so incredibly stupid that it hurts me, even after I weathered the hits about Kaguya having both Byakugan and the Sharingan and being able to spam every jutsu that was previously acknowledged as chakra prohibitive and can also absorb any ninjutsu and a million more things because she ate a ...magic ...fruit. Yeah, that holds together.

In any case. If I'm misinterpreting canon, pretend it's intentional. Because I just can't cope with the recent (and not necessarily that recent) revelations. This is alternate universe stuff, people. I'm trying to use just enough that character motivations make sense, because otherwise the difference between White Zetsu and Black Zetsu seemed to be temperament and not motivation. So for those who know better, please tolerate my ignorance. Or clue me in.

ALSO if you haven't been, go to my tumblr! I have drabbles and headcanon and cut scenes and stuff there, and I love questions.

http://electraposts.tumblr.com/

Chapter Text

In the history of the world, there had probably been worse Tuesdays. Aiko couldn't think of one off-hand, but that was probably more her fault than that of the universe at large. She had sensed other shinobi approaching, but she hadn't expected them to be especially high level or to be an organized team. All she could do was push Ando-san's team into moving along in hopes that whoever it was would find them uninteresting.

The only people who should have bothered to disturb her would be small-time missing nin without more profitable ventures than harassing travelers. That level of threat was one that she could handle easily.

But the three-man team that had touched down in front of her were wearing Iwa forehead protectors and smirking. The combination didn't bode well.

The four shinobi waited in what was a tense stand-off, at least on Aiko's end. She kept her face locked into boredom. After a few seconds of silence, the Iwa shinobi's smiles seemed a bit forced. What, were they waiting for her to shriek and flail? Not happening.

Slowly, hostile chakras began seeping, weighing the air down. Yepp. They were spoiling for a fight.

Chusei was outright shaking from exposure to killing intent, but Fukuju appeared to be frozen stiff.

'Not good. Three on one is poor enough odds when I'm not responsible for two people who are panicking.'

"Pull yourself together," Aiko ordered, harsh times leaving no room for coddling. "Stay out of the way."

It was an odd situation, but she could win this. Talking them down would be preferable—this had to be a mix-up or coincidence. Sure, she had a bounty, and Obito's warnings about what happened to girls with bloodlines were ringing in her ears, but she pushed the thoughts down. After all, it wasn't as if they knew who she was.

"Uzumaki," the tall man with silky black hair hanging loose greeted civilly.

'Oh, hell.'

And hell was exactly what broke loose with a flurry of motion.


Something clenched in his chest at the hidden fear he recognized on Aiko's face, but he had a job to do. Obito pressed his lips together and remained unseen. It wasn't hard. She was too busy to look for him at the moment.

It had been a cruel stroke to make her think of the explanation she had been given for why it was important to keep her identity quiet, but a necessary one. Desperation would erode her capabilities for rational thought and make her more reliant on instinct.

She wasn't in real danger, after all. Not when the Iwa-nin chasing her were under control of his genjutsu.

Obito had hired them through an intermediary. They weren't actually contracted for the purpose of bringing Aiko in, of course. It would be far too dangerous to actually let Iwagakure know where an Uzumaki could be found outside of a village's protection. The Tsuchikage would have enjoyed that far too much and sent the proper amount of shinobi to take care of the problem.

A three-man Jounin squad controlled through hypnosis was perfect for Obito's purposes. They were swift and skilled enough that Aiko was hard-pressed to defend herself and the two civilians that she traveled with, but not so numerous that she didn't have the skill set to fend them off. She was merely unable to gain the upper hand.

'It is a shame that I have to lie to her.' He licked his lips, eyes nearly going dry from lack of blinking in his intense focus of the running fight. 'But this is the best way. I've come too far to go back. And having the Rinnegan won't hurt her. Besides, helping her activate her chakra chains is a favor. A powerful, long-distance ninjutsu is a rare skill.'

From what he understood, the chains functioned something like Sharingan did, in that need and fear for one's life made it much easier to manifest the bloodline. Unlike his eyes, chakra chains were a pure manifestation of will upon the environment, so Aiko should have little difficulty learning to use them once she was first startled into recognizing that she could.

Indirectly, her dedication to her act as a mundane, harmless civilian was a boon to his plan. There weren't many weapons that could be totally concealed while going undercover, and senbon weren't going to be enough to win Aiko this fight. Her taijutsu and speed were more than up to par, but without a weapon or ninjutsu to close the gap, she was struggling.

She was a blur in the distance, trading blows with one shinobi before she darted off to pull one away from her self-assigned charges. Very foolish, and rather more sentimental than Obito would have predicted. If Aiko gave up on keeping the civilians alive, she would have much less difficulty with her opponents.

'On the other hand, Kushina did claim that positive emotion was key,' Obito mused thoughtfully. 'Perhaps Aiko would be more easily inspired in protecting others than herself.'

The thought was inspiration to allow the man fighting Aiko to pull her slightly away from her charges (still running to the perceived safety of the village not ten miles away). Their cargo had been abandoned at the first sign of trouble, which made Aiko the only employee doing her job here. Quitters. That made him feel a little better about directing the kunoichi of the Iwa team to swoop in a bee-line, gathering angry, hot chakra that he knew Aiko could sense.

She was too far to run in time to intercept. Either this would work, or there would be some crispy civilian corpses in a moment.

'Come on, Aiko. You can do it. Reach.'

The eerie glow of blueish-white that lit the clearing brought an incredible feeling of satisfaction. If he hadn't been maintaining silence, he might have laughed in relief.

'Ridiculous. I thought that her file indicated that her chakra chains were subpar,' Obito noted, satisfied and duly impressed as Aiko's jutsu rocketed out and speared the other kunoichi, dragging the body twenty feet before colliding with an outcropping of rock. 'Either Tsunade is mad, or Aiko has gotten better with them.'

As much as he'd like to claim responsibility for that—he had invested a great deal of effort into her training—if anything he would have thought that her chakra chains would be less impressive than previously. Her chakra control when he had begun training her had been childish and inexpert, as if she was constantly miscalculating the effort needed to expend the correct proportions of yin and yang energies. She had made great strides in the past months, but still.

Ah, well.

Obito ducked back another hundred feet to ensure that Aiko would be unable to sense his chakra expenditure, and flicked through the handseals to form his projection. Zetsu wavered into visibility. "Now," Obito ordered curtly. He cut off the jutsu immediately, and bounded back to watch the end of the fight. Luckily, Aiko hadn't taken long to cut through the aggressive Iwa nin, and one more followed nearly instantaneously. She looked shocked even from his distant view, but easily bisected the last shinobi when he moved toward her.

Three silhouettes- Aiko, and the two men who had been hired to move Ando-san's merchandise—stood still for a moment, backlit by the fading glow. But when Aiko's knees hit the ground, someone gave a surprised shout—and the scum ran off!

Obito actually felt a bit indignant on Aiko's behalf as her eyes slid shut and she collapsed face-down into the grass, unintentionally letting her hair tangle in the growing puddle of blood watering the turf from her last kill. He shunshined to her side and pulled her out of the mess before she got soaked.

That lack of loyalty was disgusting. She'd just saved their miserable lives from- well, him- and that was how they repaid her?

'I'll kill them later,' Obito decided, gently rolling Aiko over and hefting her in his arms. Limp as she was, she felt far too light to be the same person who had sliced a man's spine in half like she was cutting pudding. He brushed off the three swollen blobs of Hashirama wood latched onto the crook of Aiko's neck and let them fall with a plop, crushing them under his heel before they could grow into Zetsu clones.

First priority was taking Aiko to Zetsu, so that she could get taken care of and then be allowed to regenerate chakra and awaken… somewhere far away and safe from Black Zetsu. Second priority was cleaning up these very distinctive kills. Third, he'd find the runners before they had a chance to get too far.

A twinge of guilt bothered him. Obito sighed, frowning off in the direction that they'd run. 'Perhaps I will allow Aiko to make the decision on their fates.'

She really did seem to like them, after all, and these silly drug running missions had solved some of their problems. It had been relatively safe for Aiko, had kept her busy, and had made Kakuzu happy. It would be unnecessarily unkind to close that door for her.

He readjusted the weight in his arms closer to his chest, glancing down fondly. Aiko would probably be both miffed and confused when she woke up, as his need to persuade her to awaken her bloodline had trumped her hobby.

Guilt pulled again, and damnit that was ridiculous. This- this wasn't morally acceptable, and he knew that. He shouldn't lie to her, it wasn't nice to lie to friends (and in an odd way she was, he hadn't had a friend in a very long time but he could still recognize the signs). But this one moral violation was so insignificant in face of the fact that he was going to make it all better. He was going to make a perfect world.

He'd tell Aiko then. Surely she wouldn't hold it against him.

His arms tensed a little with the effort of holding another human being without harming them. When had been the last time he had done that? A decade, probably. Obito pulled himself through Kamui—and wondered not for the first time at the reflexive jolt that Aiko made, even in her unconscious state. Well, that ruled out his theory that she subconsciously associated Kamui travel with the day he had accidentally frightened her in Konoha. That was something of a relief, although the discovery only raised more questions.

'Now is not the time.'

Carefully, he deposited her on a bed in a hideout that she had never been to. He did not trust Zetsu alone with Aiko at all, but there were things that absolutely could not be put off. Zetsu was relatively close—perhaps ten minutes away. That gave Obito plenty of time to flicker back to the scene of Aiko's fight and destroy the evidence, catch the cowardly civilians and dump them for safekeeping in a cell below ground, and move back to her side several minutes before Zetsu appeared at the door. Obito's heart was pounding even as he handed Zetsu the little glass bottle he had been holding onto since he had killed Nagato.

Obito felt the oddest urge to reach out and squeeze Aiko's limp hand when Zetsu briskly jabbed her with enough drugs to keep her unconscious and unfeeling for quite some time.

What a useless gesture. First of all, she wasn't conscious to appreciate the thought. More relevantly, Zetsu couldn't know that he actually liked the girl at all. As far as Zetsu was concerned, Aiko was completely disposable.

(It pained him to think it, but with the Eye of the Moon plan, she was. Even if he had decided he needed Madara and killed her to get the old man back, she would be revived in full once he had succeeded. So really, there was no logical reason at all for his heartbeat to pick up the way that it did).

He was far too experienced a shinobi to get queasy about a little thing like the calm way that Zetsu pinned Aiko's eyelids open with senbon and carefully scooped out her unseeing eyes, using careful flicks to sever the nerves just so in order that they might be neatly reattached to her shiny new set. The way that Aiko whimpered slightly in her sleep shouldn't have shaken him either.

Still. Obito glanced away to the side, just in time to miss Zetsu giving him a shifty glance and hurriedly pop the eyes in his open mouth like candy.

(It wasn't like they were worth storing, after all, and they were rather pretty.)

He stayed as Zetsu underwent the laborious process of guiding Madara's eyes into Aiko's sockets and attached them. There was a bit of a scare when they discovered that the size didn't line up exactly, but Zetsu did some voodoo that made it work. Obito winced, and made a mental note to get a doctor at some point very soon to make sure that everything would be alright.

The plant man hummed low, sending green chakra into Aiko's flesh through the pale hand laid across her brow. "It will take days to establish an average measurement, but the eyes are pulling on her depleted reserves. I might estimate that they are going to require twenty to thirty percent of her chakra at any given time."

"We expected that," Obito replied with a calm he didn't feel.

So much could go wrong. Those eyes had been Madara's—they had been Sharingan at one point. For all he knew they could be parasitic, maintain hints of his chakra, show Aiko images that Madara had memorized with his Sharingan, or they could be rejected by Aiko's body in a mundane but still dangerous issue of genetic incompatibility.

'She's an Uzumaki. It should be fine.'

"Will there be any side effects from the drugs?"

Zetsu gave him a curious look, but answered promptly as he began to drift out of the room. "She should wake up within four to five hours with a terrible taste in her mouth and no recollection of anything since first losing consciousness." With that he was gone.

"Fine," Obito said to a nearly empty room. Fine. He felt like the worst kind of monster as he bundled the girl up in sheets to pick her up again. He didn't quite feel worthy of touching her directly at the moment. That didn't stop him from moving them back to another safehouse with Kamui—one in the land of Lightning, far away from Zetsu despite the fact that she was probably safe from him now. Obito didn't need the plant man putting more spores on her.

'Doctor, doctor, I should get her a doctor for an examination at least, just to make sure there aren't any complications.' Logistical concerns ran through his head as he carefully settled her down on a couch and fetched a glass of cold water to leave beside her for when she woke. After a moment's contemplation, he grabbed an apple as well. Water wouldn't do much for a bad taste in her mouth, after all.

'Taking her to a doctor is too risky. She'll get much better care here under my supervision. Where do I get a doctor for her?'

Konoha had the best medical program in the world, but they were right out of the question. Putting Aiko in reach of anyone who recognized her would be a terrible idea, as would putting her within conversational distance of a shinobi who wasn't loyal to Obito. Shinobi were trained in psyche analysis and how to survive or recognize when they weren't going to survive a hostage situation—there were too many complicating factors. He couldn't risk someone persuading Aiko that she wanted to leave. Obito didn't want to think about what he would have to do to stop her if she tried to escape. Tobi's suggestion of breaking her legs was a conservative estimate of what he would have to do, but it would be a good start. No, that needed to be avoided at all costs.

Where on earth was he going to get a medic-nin who wouldn't recognize Aiko and wouldn't question why Obito had her isolated in the middle of nowhere instead of in a hospital?

The answer came quite suddenly. He wasn't, there was no such medical ninja. On the other hand, he could easily find a civilian practitioner, persuade them to stay a few weeks or months with a patient using genjutsu, and drop them off safely with a fat paycheck once they had done their job.

That would also help keep this incident off any shinobi radar. No one paid that much attention to the people outside of their direct purview.

He left and returned not two hours later with a confused middle-aged man. Fujihito-sensei was under the impression that he had traveled to a house in the country by wagon. The doctor toddled off to put his bags in the guest room that would be his before returning with the tools he would need for an examination.

At that point, Obito very carefully ensured that he hadn't dazed the doctor too much. He knew very little about medicine, but he did suspect that it required a clear head.

Luckily, that was when Aiko woke up—a good hour before Zetsu's earliest estimate, Obito noted. Uzumaki constitution indeed—which made it easier for the good doctor to gauge her symptoms.


Aiko woke up with a splitting headache and tears leaking out from her eyelashes. She tried to open her eyes—and immediately regretted it. Light was downright painful.

If asked later, she would forever deny that the sound she let out was a pathetic little whimper. But it totally was.

"Oh, shit, I didn't think about that," a familiar voice muttered, before raising slightly. "Aiko, don't try to open your eyes yet. You're overstimulated. Just let me get the light." Obito. Obito was here.

Wait. Where was here? The last thing she remembered was fighting Iwa-nin… weird glowing metal sprouting from her back… and then feeling tired and eating dirt. Lovely. Obito had probably come looking for her. She should thank him for that at some point. How embarrassing.

"How am I supposed to work in the dark?" a second voice asked in bemusement.

That man was not familiar at all. She tensed, muscles thrumming even as they creaked painfully. She trusted Obito, she really did, but waking up all but blind in a place that was definitely not where she last remembered being was unsettling enough without knowing that there was a stranger hovering.

Thank kami for Obito, who must have known what she was thinking.

"Aiko, this is Fujihito-sensei," he said quietly, his voice nearing again. "He's here to make sure that you're alright. I didn't expect- your eyes," Obito changed the subject abruptly. "You- well." He cleared his throat. "I think that you awakened your bloodline. You look a bit, um different."

'His voice gets oddly high when he's nervous,' Aiko noted. At another time she might have been distressed, but she felt oddly sluggish and heavy. A result of chakra drain, perhaps? She felt like she'd been banging around inside a spinning dryer for an hour: sore, hot, and depleted.

And apparently when she had passed out on the ground, something had crawled in her mouth and died. Oh god, what was that taste—rotten squirrel? Spiders and mold?

Nearly the instant that she made a disgusted face, Aiko felt a warm hand guiding her into a seated position on what must be a couch. A moment later, a cold glass was pressed in her grip.

God, Obito was a saint.

She drained the water in one go, only belatedly taking note of how thirsty she was. Far too late, she realized that she hadn't replied to what Obito had said and that she didn't exactly remember what it had been. She was feeling a bit off, really.

"I'm feeling a bit off," Aiko summarized thickly, swallowing. God, what was happening? There was just no reason for this kind of awakening. Was waking up after chakra exhaustion always like this?

She drifted in and out, gradually acclimating to the light enough to peel her eyes open. Obito hovered like a worried mother hen, so she docilely answered the questions that Fuji-fuji-the bearded man asked her. Aiko didn't even reach out and suckerpunch the old man for shining a light in her eyes. She was a little proud of that.

Aiko didn't remember falling asleep, but gaining consciousness again was a memorable experience. The thick haze had totally fled, leaving her instead feeling pain from her sinuses out to her ears, centering around her disgustingly dry eyes. She blinked furiously in an attempt to stimulate tears. No matter how much she blinked, her vision remained oddly cloudy—like she was looking through a tinted lens.

Well, that couldn't be good.

'I think it's fair to say that Obito was right about something weird happening with my eyes. Why did I want this again?' She laid very, very still, and tried not to draw any more of the universe's attention.

The chakra chains had been cool. No joke, the experience had been one of effortless destructive power. It had been thrilling for the forty seconds that it had lasted. Obito's description of how useful the jutsu could be had undersold it, if anything. She could understand why he would have thought that the chains were worth a change in eyes.

Assuming, of course, that this was a very temporary side effect. Was she going to be this sore and fatigued regularly?

What the hell did Obito even know about what had happened? She hadn't maintained consciousness for three minutes after activating the bloodline he was so excited about. Had that enormous chakra drain been from the chakra chains, or a result of whatever had happened to her eyes? If the energy drain had been from the chains, then there was no way she was using them again, especially against a jinchuuriki. What a stupid, useless bloodline.

Had her eyes been like this yesterday when she had passed out? She didn't remember them itching. Was it because she had failed to de-activate them or whatever?

'A mirror might be nice. I need to know what's happened.'

Of course, getting up was a nearly insurmountable effort. Aiko peeled herself off the sheets with a grimace, unpleasantly reminded that she had clearly missed at least one shower. One cold bare foot had barely touched down on the floor before Obito crested the door, already frowning at her.

"Should you be up? I think that you should lie down." Still, he stepped into the room and immediately helped her to her feet with a steadying arm around her waist.

"I have a headache," Aiko said dryly. "My legs aren't broken."

Obito made a dissenting noise in the back of his throat, and his fingers twitched on her back.

'He looks tired,' Aiko realized. 'How long was I out?'

Wow, she really needed to know what was going on. "I don't suppose I could get a hand mirror?"

"Uh, yeah-" he moved to jerk away, and then paused. "Wait. I don't have a hand mirror."

That seemed important, in retrospect. "I don't either. Help me to the little girls' room?" she asked sardonically, hating how weak she felt.

The girl she saw in the mirror didn't match up with her expectations. The skin around her eyes was swollen and red, which provided a nice contrast to the purple bruising underneath them. The rest of her face was wan, and her hair was—was that dried blood? Aiko cringed.

And that was the part of the package that didn't include her freakish new peepers. She made a distressed sound, leaning forward almost until her nose touched the glass.

"They don't even look like eyes," she realized, grimacing.

There was a soft scrape against the floor as Obito shifted his feet. She could see cautious concern on his face in the mirror. He hovered uncertainly at her shoulder, dark eyes locked on her face. "They're not so bad."

They were that bad. When she had asked about the Rinnegan, he'd described them as purple. She'd thought that meant that the teal part of her eyes would turn purple! Not that the white and the black parts of her eyes would meld together.

'How am I even seeing?' She shuddered. 'That doesn't even make sense. I guess I don't know what the white part of the eye is for, but I know that the pupil is the part that humans see through.'

"Do I still have a pupil?" she asked herself aloud, blinking slowly. It was rhetorical. She couldn't see it, but she had to have a pupil. Otherwise she would be blind. And that would be a particularly crappy bloodline limit.

A theory was forming—but she couldn't see any possible benefit to developing a purple film over her regular eye. That seemed to be what had happened, however. The type of substance was—well, it had to be partially transparent from looking out of the eye, and opaque from an observer's standpoint. She had no idea what it might be made of—she wasn't a medic of any sort. Maybe the doctor that she remembered seeing when she first woke could help.

'So this is probably a new layer over my regular eye,' Aiko summarized, biting her lower lip. 'Whatever effects it has as a dojutsu probably has something to do with the way it focuses chakra. It must be like Obito's Sharingan—a focus for casting jutsu, instead of using hands or emanating chakra evenly. It's gotta be heavily tinted with whatever chakra that the chains are made of. You would think that they would be the same color, though. I'm sure the chains were blue. So why purple?'

Skeptically, Obito shook his head. "I don't think so." He leaned in so close that Aiko found herself breathing in his scent. "I can't see one."

She blinked, remembered what she had asked, and then consciously tried not to give him a pitying look. Obito wasn't much of a critical thinker. Of course she had pupils.

'And he's still my best resource for information about this. That's surprisingly depressing.'

"How does your Sharingan work?" She sucked on her lip, turning her body away from the mirror and hefting herself up to sit on the counter with shaking arms. (and wow, chakra exhaustion was just the worst.)

He clearly did not see the correlation between the conversational points. The blank look on his face was disheartening.

'He is not at his best today.'

"I turn it off and on by altering the chakra fed to it," Obito asked more than said.

Well, at least he was obliging. Suddenly tired again, Aiko managed a thin smile. "Not what I meant, but that could be helpful."

Obito lifted one shoulder in a slow shrug, rubbing at his neck with the other arm as he glanced down. The overall effect was endearing. "Maybe. The Uzumaki and the Uchiha have a common ancestor from way back. I was never close enough to Nagato to ask him about the way that his Rinnegan worked," he qualified, spreading his fingers out with palms up. "But maybe it works a little like a Sharingan?"

'Maybe is not that reassuring.' She pulled her face into a reluctant smile. "I don't suppose there's a way to ask someone, or to get medical records?" At the shake of his head, Aiko nodded slightly. "It was worth a shot." Glumly, she glanced down at her knees. 'Ugh, this is awful. I can't see right, my bloodline apparently knocks me unconscious, and I look like a freak. Perfect. So useful.'

Wait, actually. "What are these good for?" Aiko jabbed the top of a cheekbone with an index finger, pointing at an eye. "Please tell me they're good for something."

'Other than raising the dead, that is.'

Oh god. OH GOD. She was like that freak now. Nauseous and light-headed, she tried to curl into her knees and lost her balance, nearly falling off the counter. Obito stepped forward fast enough to catch her, and she ended up with her nose pressed against the curve where his neck met his shoulder.

"I think it might be time to go sit down," he said, very calmly. Too calmly.

Aiko nodded slowly, and didn't protest when he easily scooped her up—he was frighteningly strong. Instead of turning back into her room, he settled her on the couch, fetched hot tea and a peach, and sat down a safe distance away.

"I think that the Rinnegan work as a genjutsu aid," Obito said softly.

She lifted her eyebrows in lieu of responding, since she was currently trying not to seem like a total pig at the same time that she sucked down her fruit as top speed. That didn't sound so terrible. She needed all the genjutsu help that she could get.

"I don't exactly know how, but I do know that it allows access to several powerful ninjutsu techniques." He leaned back, crossing an ankle over his knee. "I've seen Nagato perform quite a few of them, I'm sure we could reverse engineer them. There's the almighty push, an ability to summon animals-"

"Animals?" Aiko perked up, suddenly much more interested. "What kind of animals?"

Obito gave her a perplexed look, mouth slightly open. "Any kind you want?" he asked uncertainly. "I think that you just have to know where they are."

"Sweet," she hissed happily. Puppies. She was going to summon a litter of puppies and cuddle them until she felt better. As soon as she figured out how to use that summoning technique. Best jutsu ever.

'No, that's stupid. I can already summon dogs.'

Wait. What? No she couldn't. Confused, she opened her mouth and furrowed her brow, trying to formulate a question.

He misinterpreted her expression entirely, butting in, "There's a lot more, of course. But we can talk about that later." Obito stood hastily, brushing off the knee his foot had rested on. "I was supposed to fetch Fujihito-sensei to take a look at you once you woke up. You really scared me, you know." He gave her a troubled look with those big, dark eyes before he left the room, and Aiko suddenly felt so guilty.

She should have been better armed. Playing civilian to slip past the border had been a mistake that she wouldn't make again.

'I fucked up long before that fight,' Aiko thought darkly.

It rankled, but it had to be true. Those nin had recognized her. If she'd been more observant, she wouldn't have gotten pinned so easily by those Iwa-nin. Stupid, stupid, stupid! She must have said her name somewhere, or gotten recognized and sold out.

The list of people who could have sold her out was tragically short. Ando-san would have known her route, as had the two men who had been with her (and wasn't it just convenient that they had turned tail to run? Fuckers.) The only other person who had known where she was going had been Obito.

And as far as she could tell, there was absolutely no reason for him to sell her out to Iwa. If he wanted to collect her bounty, he could do so easily. If he took her in himself, he'd get the full amount. No matter how paranoid she was, that just didn't make sense as a theory.

Ando-san, on the other hand, had never hidden that Aiko frightened her. That was such a load of crap! Aiko had saved her wrinkly skin from Kakuzu, and then done a damn good job as an employee.

'If it was her that sold me out, I'm going to kill her slowly.'

"Look into the light, please." Aiko tilted her face up to glower at the kindly older man who had bustled into the room. It was impossible to maintain her bad mood for long. He didn't even seem to notice it all, which just made her feel guilty and childish.

"There's a lot of swelling and irritation," Fujihito-sensei mused distractedly, wrapping the stethoscope back around his neck after he'd listened to her vitals and breathing. "Hydration will help keep that down. I'm afraid I've never seen anything like your eyes before, miss, but there doesn't seem to be any immediate danger."

That was not the most reassuring summation she could have received.

He turned back to Obito, who had been watching from the door. "You said that she wasn't sleeping well, correct?" At the nod, the old man mumbled something under his breath, shaking his head slightly. He glanced back at Aiko. "I'll assume that was due to a migraine, judging by the apparent sensitivity to light and sound that you are experiencing."

Sensitivity to-

"Not so much right now," Aiko said doubtfully. "I just have a bit of an ache."

The old man hummed noncommittally. "Well, we shall see. I wouldn't be surprised if they come and go."

And damn it all, the doctor was right. The pain hit her again in the shower not an hour later. Aiko gritted her teeth together, pretended that the liquid on her face did not contain any tears, and very carefully massaged shampoo into her scalp in hopes that rubbing the skin might release some of the tension. If it helped, the difference was negligible.

She was breathing heavily by the time she shakily stepped out and pulled on a robe. The pain distracting from her concentration combined with the blurred fog of her vision to make navigating the hall back to her bed much harder than it should have been.

That was about the time she discovered that Obito was ridiculously overprotective.

"It's just my bloodline," Aiko tried two hours later, bundled up in bed while he hovered indecisively over where to put the tray he was holding. "It sucks a bit, yeah, but if it's natural it's not likely to kill me."

(It could clearly be completely awful and hideous, but it still shouldn't kill her)

He did not appear reassured in the slightest. The headaches and dry eyes came and went ("don't rub at them, Aiko-san", reminded Fujihito-sensei) but Obito stayed all day to keep her company. He wasn't exactly unwelcome, considering that reading made her head pound and there wasn't much else to do.

The real highlight was when he absentmindedly put his arms over the headboard they sat against and his fingers brushed against her scalp. Oo. That felt good. Aiko pushed her head against his fingers like a cat, eyes pressed shut as he fell silent mid-sentence, apparently bewildered. She made a note to trick him into rubbing her head properly later.

Later, when the fatigue of chakra drain had worn off and the only real problem was occasional headaches, she was no longer willing to lay around the house.

"There's gotta be a way to reduce how much chakra my eyes are using," Aiko theorized aloud. "Do you think I could restrict the amount being directed to the area? Would that turn them back to usual? I mean," she elaborated. "That's how you turn the Sharingan off and on, right?"

Obito looked up from where he was painting her toenails yellow (she honestly hadn't expected him to do that when she asked). His expression was doubtful. "That's how the Sharingan works. But I don't think that's possible for you. At least, I don't think that Nagato ever tried."

Her eyebrows shot up. That she could hardly believe. "He didn't try?" Aiko repeated skeptically. "He woke up one day with eyes that drained a third of his chakra (and suddenly Obito's refusal to allow her to become reliant on chakra-draining ninjutsu made all kinds of sense) and he never tried to do anything about it? Was he a complete moron, or just stupid on an amateur basis?"

Her friend took a deep breath, measuring his words. Obito tilted his head slightly, dark eyes focused on the tiny brush he was wielding in cold strokes across her nails. She shivered. "He had his eyes from a very young age," he said absently. "I suppose that he was just used to the drain and didn't even notice the difference."

Aiko pursed her lips and blew out, fluttering her bangs. That seemed… "I can't imagine getting that accustomed to this," she mused. "Automatically having such huge chunk of your chakra just gone is exhausting." She made a face.

"You'll get used to that," Obito assured in an oddly tight voice. "You're young, and your reserves will grow very quickly under the constant strain. In a few months, your available pool will be as large as your old one."

"Alright," Aiko agreed, just to pacify him. He was acting strangely involved. Maybe he just didn't like seeing her feel poorly. That was fair enough. Whining wouldn't help anyway, so she tried to keep the complaints and winces whenever her eyes pounded to a minimum.

Note that she did not agree to give up on her idea. She blinked into the mirror before bed, swallowing revulsion. Kami, her bloodline was ugly. The chains had been eerily pretty, but these… Her throat felt strangely tight and she sucked on her lower lip, staring.

Aiko didn't want to be shallow. She didn't think she was, really. But those eyes…

They just looked so wrong in her face. She hadn't hated the idea of her eyes changing up-front (Obito's changed back and forth and that was fine), but she couldn't possibly have expected to find out that they were lavender even in the places they were meant to be white, and that they were marked up by concentric rings in a much darker purple. When she leaned in very close Aiko could spot flecks of color variation in the rings—dark blue, black, and purples—but the majority of her eyes was a uniform shade.

Aiko shuddered, unnerved, and looked down at the sink. She felt oddly repulsed by her reflection.

"I'm a freak," she mumbled under her breath, mindful that Obito was still somewhere in the house.

Well. If she was right, she might be able to look like herself again. Encouraged by the thought, she closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to pick out the tenketsu that lead to her eyes.

That was harder than it sounded. She ended up sitting cross-legged on the bathroom floor and quietly meditating, feeling for just the right trickle of energy.

'Either this is the right one, or I'm about to shut down my brain,' Aiko thought with black amusement, licking her lips. This would be easier if she were a medic. Ah, well. She was mostly certain it was the right line of chakra. Not certain enough that she tried to stopper off both her eyes at once, of course.

Readjusting the flow of chakra to her eyes wasn't hard, once she'd located the right spot to mess with. Aiko sort of squeezed it, creating a blockade, and hoped that wouldn't end up backfiring horribly. She thought that she'd managed to slow the chakra consumption, though she didn't try to stop it altogether. That could be bad, theoretically. Baby steps, baby steps.

She opened her eyes, and swayed just a little. That was disorienting. What she saw through her left eye was still hazy and purple. By contrast, her right eye's vision was almost shockingly sharp. Wow, had she already forgotten what normal sight was like? It had only been a few days.

'I think I did it? Hello normal eye?'

The right eye was sucking down noticeably less energy than the left, at any rate. Aiko moved to get up for a look, cursed that her legs had gone to sleep, and eventually managed to crawl up the counter to peer into the mirror.

"Ah," she said, very intelligently.

It was definitely not how her eye had used to look. She swallowed, closing her eyes and opening them again hopefully. No. Not a trick of the light, then.

'At least the purple is gone,' Aiko counted as a blessing. 'And. There's, um. There's white parts now. And a little pupil.'

That was an undeniable improvement, but it didn't begin to explain why the colored part of her eye was red with black squiggles, not unlike Obito's. She didn't exactly miss the purple, but where had it gone? Why?

She whined, just a little, from the back of her throat. "It's like puberty," Aiko whispered aghast, pressing her forehead against the glass. "My body keeps changing and I don't know why."

'Calm down, think it through.'

She could do this. She could figure this out. There was always a reasonable, logical explanation. Aiko firmly believed in the power of deductive reasoning.

Okay. Starting now, she was thinking logically. Red was… purple… the circles had gone because. Because.

… That wasn't working.

"Fuck it," she sighed. Then she raised her tone and voice plaintively, knowing that the higher pitch carried much better than her normal alto. "Obito? I need help."

'Well, he did say that we were distantly related,' she consoled herself, licking her lips. 'It's not the Sharingan—the black bits are different from Obito's—but it does look like evidence for that claim.'

Freaky. So, the Rinnegan used the most chakra, the not-sharingan used less, and then her regular eyes used none?

Well. That just meant that she would have to figure out how to shut off the chakra to her eyes completely. And then she'd be back to normal. Having purple eyes that constantly ate at her chakra was not an appealing concept.

She huffed a laugh, despite not feeling amused at all. It looked like she was going to be wearing henge an awful lot. Just as well. The hair had to change, too. It was too damn distinctive. She couldn't be caught out like that again. If she'd passed out just a little sooner… No. It didn't bear thinking about what would have happened to her.

She had trained way too hard to get dragged off to some shithole village and used. Her showing had been utterly pathetic. She was far more skilled than any of those hacks that she'd fought, and had ended up eating dirt anyway. Pitiful. There was just no excuse for playing around.

Never again.

"Aiko? What's wrong?"

She pretended not to see the wide-eyed flinch Obito gave when she turned her face towards where he stood in the door, one eye purple and one eye red.


'This is the worst week of my life,' Obito thought dully. 'Nothing is going right.'

If he hadn't been wracked by guilt, he never would have allowed Aiko to talk him into such a stupid venture. Or at least he would have remembered to keep her away from the countdown calendar with the date circled in red pen. But god, the last four days had been a guilt trip. She wasn't even doing it on purpose!

As unbelievable as it sounded, Madara's Mangekyou Sharingan took considerably less out of Aiko than the Rinnegan had. No wonder Pein had been such a lazy bastard. Still, it was insane. Uzumaki really were something. She had been a bit less fatigued since she had managed to do what Pein hadn't in thirty years of having Madara's eyes. (And that was just embarrassing, frankly. Had he never talked to anyone with a dojutsu?)

Obito closed his eyes and prayed for strength. Even though she was wearing a henge for safety, this was still a terrible idea that he would be suffering from for a while. It wasn't even that inconspicuous. Sure, she was impossible to identify, but that was because she had transformed into a real life version of the heroine of Jiraiya's most recent book. That gave away that she was a shinobi.

Well. Hopefully people would think she was just being festive instead of hiding her identity. It wasn't like she was the only person who had dressed up for the premiere of whatever awful pornographic novel that had been made into a movie.

Despite feeling better, Aiko still wasn't looking well. She was pale and thin with stress.

It was pitiful enough that he had agreed to something that he should never have considered. She had asked, and he had brought her to this pit of vipers. He couldn't leave her alone here. Who knew what might happen in a crowd like this?

Some awful person might snatch her up and do terrible things. Like convince her that they were best friends and shove a 200 year old man's organs into her body while she was unconscious. And then let her think that it was her fault that she couldn't figure out how to make her eyes turn teal again. She was really kicking herself over that perceived failure.

'I am scum. The worst, just the absolute worst.'

"Stop pouting," Aiko sighed, squirming against his shoulder. He didn't bother trying to escape—her arm was already curled around his, effectively meaning he either had to stay put or shake her off. And he didn't quite have the heart to do that. Especially since it would have meant elbowing her in a sensitive spot. An area that he was determinedly Not Looking At and Not Touching.

'I either need to have Kakuzu give her the speech about respecting boundaries, or have her make an honest woman out of me so that I'm not going to inadvertently touch a boob out of wedlock,' Obito thought morosely. 'This is not appropriate. Does she even know what she's doing?'

He was soft, and weak, and sitting next to a girl wearing the hot pink promotional Icha Icha rhinestone studded bikini top, available only at the premiere. She had been embarrassingly eager at the giftshop when she saw it. Obito was hyperaware that said bikini top was pressed against his arm and that her shirt and lacy yellow bra were in his hip pouch. He slunk down a little further in pure shame, hoping for lightning to strike him down.

'At least I talked her down from changing into the bikini bottom,' he consoled himself. 'God, what the hell is wrong with Jiraiya? That man is sick, sick, sick.'

And the theatre was packed full of men in the promotional shirts and tipsy, giggly young women dressed just like Aiko. He was trapped in a dark room full of perverts.

(and worse, the toad Sannin was here somewhere. Obito had heard his voice earlier. That was a fight he did not want to get into. If Jiraiya recognized Aiko somehow, or she recognized him, it would be all over)

Obito cringed slightly, shuddering. This was risky.

"Hey, hey," Aiko whispered, shaking him slightly. "Do you like the tiara, 'ttebane?"

Obediently, he glanced down at the glittering circlet nestled in her hair. "Very nice," Obito assured her.

'How much money did she spend? And why did she need two commemorative kunai holsters? The ones she has at home are higher quality, I'm sure.'

Granted, the ones at home weren't red leather that hung low asymmetrically across her hips and then strapped around her thigh.

Obito swallowed uncomfortably and shifted in his seat, and thought about kittens. Fluffy kittens, with sickly-sweet bows and absolutely no lingerie thinly disguised as shinobi gear.

The thick red curtains raised, and a beam of colored light shone down from the back of the room. It coalesced into the form of a woman wearing only kunai holsters and a bikini, just like the ones that had been sold at the gift shop.

'Ah. So it's a joke from the book,' he realized, without feeling relief at all. The director started some sort of pandering speech that he didn't listen to at all while the indecent picture flickered and winked.

Yeah, that might actually make it worse.

"Are you going to change into your t-shirt?" Aiko whispered. It wasn't really a question. Obito knew perfectly well that she would have hurt feelings if he didn't like what she had bought for him with his money. "I have a matching tank top, too." She turned her face up and grinned tiredly at him, clearly putting on a brave face and trying to enjoy herself despite not feeling well. Obito knew that if he tried, he could see through the blue-green shine of her eyes to the red underneath.

Scum, scum, scum. Not even pond scum. Goldfish tank scum.

He forced his face into a queasy smile. "I'll wear it at home."


"Well, a lead is a lead," Tsunade decided optimistically, stretching her legs out underneath her desk.

'It's not exactly what I'd hoped for, but it's better than what I expected. Akatsuki is getting sloppy. What was the point of dropping off our radar for months, only to be seen menacing farmers?'

The toad planted in front of her licked its own face, clearly bored.

That soured her mood a little. "Thank Jiraiya, please," she ordered. "Tell him that I'll be sending a team to investigate." The amphibian didn't even have time to whine before she reached into her drawer for a piece of hard candy and threw it directly into a waiting mouth.

It beamed. "Thanks, Tsunade-hime!"

The summon animal left, presumably to go back to Jiraiya. The Hokage took a moment to think things over, frowning slightly.

'Now that I think about it,' Tsunade realized. 'Perhaps it wasn't sloppiness that led to this sighting. Akatsuki might have heard that Konan betrayed them and have decided to change strategies. Or this could just be a trap. They may want me to send a team to investigate.'

That incident hadn't been that long ago, after all. What, three months had passed? If she were Akatsuki and had recently learned that Konan had attempted to buy time and leniency by sharing their secrets, Tsunade would see that as grounds for changing tactics. Konan was in custody now, but that wouldn't last. It would take months to arrange the trial: as a courtesy, Mei would have to release the younger woman so that Ame didn't go entirely to pot.

For an organization interested in stirring up trouble, now was an ideal time to cause some confusion, while diplomatic missives were flying and the great nations were tensely waiting for a chance to argue their perspectives.

That possibility didn't sit well at all.

But could she really pass this opportunity up? Akatsuki was her only lead on finding Aiko, which was important for the girl's own sake but also to preserve Konoha's international standing in terms of the upcoming trial for Konan. Even if none of that mattered, they still needed to hunt down Akatsuki to keep Naruto and other jinchuuriki safe.

And damn it, Akatsuki would know that. It didn't matter if this was a trap or lucky happenstance: her response had to be the same.

"I hope two teams will be enough," she muttered to herself, rifling through rosters. The report had already been days old by the time that Jiraiya got it, so haste was imperative. Information was already low—a sensor had noted a frightful fight occurring not far out of town. Digging had led to an old account of Akatsuki cloaks being spotted in the area months prior. Eyewitness accounts were about all that they could hope for, considering that there certainly wouldn't be any physical tracks by the time their team arrived.

'That's not strictly true. It's not likely, but it can't hurt to send some of our best trackers.'

There was no chance in hell she would get away without sending some configuration of team seven on this mission, of course. They had extensive experience with Akatsuki already. So eight soldiers : two full squads. That would hopefully be enough that the odds were stacked in Konoha's favor if the teams really did find two S-class missing nin.

"Team seven would probably lose their collective shit if I didn't send some amalgamation of such," Tsunade muttered, absently tucking her pen behind her ear. She licked her thumb and flipped pages. "Kakashi as team leader, Naruto, Sasuke, and…" she made a face. "Yamato, I suppose. Although it's a bit of a boys' club at that point. And for the other team…"


Bright and early in the morning, Hinata tried not to yawn. She buried her face a little deeper into her hood, squinting away the unpleasant reality that sunlight was in her face.

Kurenai checked her mission parameters at a glance out of habit, despite already knowing what it said. "It looks like we're investigating in a village called Kiichigo Fīrudo." Shino sidled up beside her, glowering at the world for daring to exist so damn early.

"Cute name. That sounds nice," Kiba yawned, white teeth flashing.

"Prepare to be surprised," Kurenai said dryly.

He snorted disagreeably, and the group slid into a comfortable silence as only people who had worked together for five years could.

Six minutes before they absolutely had to be out of the village, the other team slouched up, arguing within themselves. Hinata's eyebrows shot up.

"-op your whining," Sasuke barked, red eyes narrowed.

That in itself wasn't unusual. The target of his displeasure was. Naruto was grinning with his arms crossed behind his head, and Yamato was busy looking as though he would much rather be anywhere in the world. Like inside a live volcano, perhaps.

"I should have just taken the week off and gone to the premiere," Kakashi said mournfully with no apparent regard for just how dangerously close he was to being punched halfway across Konoha. He spread his arms expressively. "I thought, fine. It's only released one day later in Konoha. I'll save the trip and see it here. Three or four times, to make up for the lateness, of course."

"Seriously, drop it," Sasuke growled over the sound of Hatake bemoaning the cruelty of being sent on a mission the day before Konoha's theatres would be playing the Icha Icha movie. "She was never going to let you go anyway. It's a complete waste of time. You would have accomplished nothing and spent thousands of ryo. She did you a favor, you degenerate scofflaw."

'Hatake is going to die,' Kurenai realized with a little thrill of terror. 'The Hokage's apprentice is going to rip his arm off and beat him with it.'

"Doesn't Tsunade have a heart?" Kakashi plaintively asked the back of Yamato's head. Yamato determinedly did not look or answer.

The Uchiha's fist tightened so hard that the material of his gloves squeaked ominously. "Shut up about your porn."

Hatake sighed, thin shoulders somehow slumping even further. "The world is so very bleak."

Kurenai clapped her hands and pasted on a tenuous smile as everyone's focus shifted from the approaching bloodbath to her. "Ready to go, everyone?"


Author's notes

Sorry/not sorry if I grossed anyone out with the eye switch. It's treated very frivolously in canon, to the point where I think I read at one point that Madara stole eyes from Obito mid-battle (what, did he call a time out?). I wanted to underline that this is some serious, gross shit with pretty dark implications. Also that people can't just swap parts with about as much thought as Mr. Potato and his wife.

Some issues that I guess need to be cleared up, judging from comments.

1. Time setting. I should have known this would be confusing. There have been multiple hints from various perspectives in throwaway lines, because there's been a fair few timeskips so far in Clarity. First things first: Aiko gives the timeline in the prologue when she mentions that she doesn't know what happened in Ame "a year and a half ago". Understandably, a fair few people came to the conclusion that this meant there had been a year and a half since the end of Vapors. Not quite. She's not counting from that date- or from the end of the conflict (which officially occurred months after she was with Obito). She's counting from the date that was retroactively considered to be the beginning of the Ame situation. I don't have exact dates figured out because I don't write fanfiction out of a deep love of math, but know that the time span she's been with Obito at time of the prologue is considerably less than a year and a half. And in the chapter before last, Zetsu mentions that Obito had only had 'four or five months' to bring Aiko up to par. In other words, he's had Aiko longer than that, but for the last 4-5 months Obito has been improving her skillset rather than getting her back to her old conditioning. That's about when she would have started doing missions. I can't find it, but in the last chapter someone should have mentioned that it's been about eight months since Aiko woke up in the hospital.

TL;DR : The time gap between now and the prologue is nearly closed.

2. What Aiko knows about Kakashi from the bingo book—I was surprised and a little confused at the misconception that Aiko didn't connect her teacher Kakashi with the Kakashi who was Obito's teammate. She did. I suppose it wasn't explicitly stated, but she noted that her teacher got famous off of Obito's eye (therefore 'Sharingan' Kakashi had to be the same guy) and then concluded that Kakashi's teacher had to be Obito's sensei as well. That lined up with Obito's claims so that she deduced Kakashi's teacher was her father. I suppose the logic wasn't outlined as clearly as it might have been.

Chapter Text

Oh god, don't think about the timeline too hard. If you understand how I went wrong, please either laugh quietly or tell me nicely. I don't know exactly how, but this chapter and the last one don't exactly wiggle together perfectly. (Covers face). As long as you don't think about it, it'll be fine. Whatever I did won't interfere with the communication of narrative.

Oh, and please remember that Ando-san actually has damn good reason to dislike Aiko. Killing off her entire staff and then using her business as a front for a drug run was a teensy bit rude. My intention isn't to make Ando-san a villain, she's just drawn that way.


"Shinobi-san, I don't have anything to tell you." The woman's green eyes were flat, but she couldn't quite control the hardness in the set of her mouth. Her sandaled feet were spread to shoulder-width from where they poked out from under her long tan kimono. "The only problem we had was with bandits, and that was a long time ago. You're not going to find your criminals here."

Kurenai let her brow wrinkle slightly in concern, looking friendly and relatable. But the civilian wasn't buying it.

"Am I free to go?"

Kakashi might have slumped slightly, as the fifth consecutive interview completely failed. The blonde civilian readjusted the green bag over her shoulder as she left, fingers white. She completely failed at subtly craning her head to see if the shinobi she'd just left were still watching. Naruto gave a wave. She jerked around and clattered away a little faster.

The staring was rude, but in her defense, many of the people out and about on the cobblestone street were glancing nervously in their direction.

'Coming in as a group was a mistake.' He repressed the urge to sigh—or worse, pinch his nose shut. Signaling that he thought this town was malodorous wouldn't help the negative impression that anyone here had of shinobi.

"Well, I for one am convinced," Naruto lied brightly, rubbing his fingers on the side of his pants. "None of this is remotely suspicious."

Kiba managed to give him a condescending look, despite being roughly the shade of the inside of papaya. His tan had gained a strangely yellow undertone, with hints of green.

Kakashi was wholly sympathetic. No one was enjoying the atmosphere, but it was hardest for those with dog-like senses but wholly human sensibilities. (He definitely did not turn to glare at Akamaru's obnoxious doggy grin and wagging tail. Being jealous of a dog was a little pathetic.)

Hinata nodded, frowning. Her voice was barely audible over the ebbing clamor of a moderately busy street in a small town. "She was lying. But she didn't seem frightened. I can't think of any other reason that so many people would want to protect Akatsuki members, unless they think they're being watched. Maybe Akatsuki weren't here, and the secret the townspeople are keeping is unrelated?"

A breeze of stiff, hot air buffeted the group, tugging on hair and loose clothes. Kurenai seemed to deflate with a sigh, her mouth twisting. She knew as well as he did that this method of approach was not working.

"Hinata."

No further explanation was needed.

The girl nodded, pale eyes searching out a promising target. "I will meet you outside of the boundaries. Shino, may I have a kikai insect to lead me back to you?"

A tiny black dot was already attaching itself to her back, crawling up her neck into her hair. Hinata was totally unfazed, apparently not even noticing that Naruto's jaw had dropped in disgust. Shino certainly noticed, judging by his stiff neck.

Kakashi approved of the tactic. Civilians often found shinobi to be intimidating, especially foreign ones. Where the official avenues met with resistance, a pretty and soft-spoken girl might soothe egos and nerves. It was certainly preferable to their other option—harsher interrogation tactics.

"We're going to leave her alone?" Sasuke asked in an undertone, disapproval turning his words sharp. Kiba gave him a look that was both approving and pitying.

It was Shino who clued in him. "There is no need for concern," he assured tonelessly. "If she requires assistance, Hinata will alert us with a subtle signal."

"He means that we'll hear the townspeople screaming and fleeing town to escape the snakes," Kiba explained more bluntly. The Hyuuga blushed slightly, a hand over her mouth bashfully.

Naruto and Sasuke had spent enough time with Karin to take that answer at face value. Yamato closed his eyes slightly, mouth twisted ever so slightly in memory of past trauma.

They couldn't really be blamed for inching away, although it was unfair to assume that Hinata-chan would use her summons with as much glee and lack of prejudice as Karin did. For all he knew, Karin's partner could be a completely reasonable young lady with a strong sense of restraint and fair play.

Before she turned to leave, the white-eyed girl gave team seven an angelic smile that sent a prickle of 'danger' crawling up Kakashi's spine.

Then again, she'd also trained with Anko. The boys might be onto something.

While Hinata hopefully gathered information, the group split and eventually pinpointed what had to be the site of the fight their contact had sensed. They could tell, using subtle cues and careful attention to detail earned in their vigorous training. There were faint foot-trails that ran through it from east to west: civilian judging by the faltering gaits and heavy foot-falls that hadn't avoiding breaking twigs and flipping rocks like a shinobi's would have.

Yamato let out a low whistle. "This does look like a clue."

"It's been razed," Sasuke noted, disgusted. "That's it, then. Someone destroyed whatever evidence was here."

And of course there was the fact that whatever bodies had resulted from the fight had been incinerated, along with a good portion of the immediate area. Whoever did it had been conscientious enough to put out the blaze before it spread, but clearly hadn't cared about hiding the fact that there had been a fight. Just the results.

The shinobi present with any experience at all in tracking—team eight and Kakashi—valiantly avoided rolling their eyes in what would have been a spectacular bit of unintentional choreography at Sasuke's expense. There was plenty of information to be found here. It had been long enough that scent was gone, but there were other signs about.

"Before we get to that," Kurenai deflected dryly. "Kiba, follow the tracks that head toward town, please." The dog-nin grinned and took off a lope, eager to do something. Kakashi shoved his hands in his pockets and trailed to the other edge of the scorched area, glancing at the faint, days-old tracks in the direction that civilians had been running from.

"Sasuke, Naruto. You don't have to be a tracker to gain information from this. Whoever did this didn't care if anyone knew there was a fight," Yamato lectured in the distance, spinning around the crispy landscape. His sandals crunched and kicked up soot that quickly turned his toes and ankles grey. "Look at what they destroyed—the bodies, and the plant matter. There was something distinctive about this fight that would have put one or more of the participants in danger or at least inconvenienced them. Most likely, the problem is distinctive weapon that would lead us back to the person who destroyed the evidence. So we're looking for hints of a weapon that can be traced to one person or one group."

"So someone with a kekkai genkai?" Naruto guessed uncertainly.

Sasuke snorted. "Of course, but more importantly, they either needed to hide that they were here or the identities of their victims. So the person who wanted the evidence destroyed is probably not allowed to be in the area. Either a missing nin or someone who doesn't have a cooperative treaty here."

"Or the victims were the ones who had to be hidden!" Naruto suggested, perking up a bit at having a contribution. "Maybe they were expected in town, or someone knew they would be operating in the area."

Kakashi felt a little bit of a smile pull at his mask as he stood from examining tracks. "Whoever these people were, they were running scared before they got to the burnt area," he remarked, tilting his head.

A snort from Kiba drew attention as he walked up. "With reason." Akamaru shot past him to beg Yamato for petting, who had proven himself to be weak for doggy eyes. "They didn't make it very far," Kiba shared with a slight grimace and a hand ruffling his hair. "The tracks just stop like someone scooped them up. It could be that I just can't see the footprints from the people who nabbed them. It has been a few days since… whatever this is," he deferred, wiggling a hand.

'Tobi? If he has a variation on Kamui, he could easily have ended tracks like that. But… No,' Kakashi dismissed. 'What would he want with civilians? The tracks are likely just gone.'

"You have often found evidence of the travels of even high-leveled shinobi days after the fact," Shino cut in, covering Kiba's modest deflection.

It was good that he appreciated his teammates' skills, Kakashi noted. Of course, Shino had some understanding of tracking. Naruto, Sasuke, and Yamato, who had no experience with the specialization, were feigning polite attention without understanding how impressive that feat was.

"Yeah, well…" Kiba looked away, rubbing at his neck. He was embarrassed, but faintly pleased.

The Aburame was very interested in a point in the far distance instead of on his teammate. "Hinata is on her way to intercept us."

Kurenai's lips were pressed together tightly, but the light shining in her eyes gave away her fondness for her boys and the way they awkwardly avoided admitting their bromance with deflections and apparent shyness.

Still, Shino hadn't just been making an excuse to change topics. The missing kunoichi arrived in a gentle whisper of air less than thirty seconds later, settling in between Kurenai and Shino.

The Jounin exchanged glances. Kakashi met Kurenai's quirked eyebrow with the bored, heavy-lidded look that always riled Gai up. Kurenai knew him well enough to take that as deference for the moment. She should be the one to manage her subordinates, after all. She spoke a moment later as if the pause had never happened.

"Hinata? Did you find anything?"

The girl nodded, digging a toe into the dirt. Her voice was confident enough when she spoke up. "Hai. The person I spoke to didn't want to be identified." Hinata frowned slightly. "Akatsuki was here, months ago. Two members, a man and a woman."

On the other side of the little cluster of shinobi, Kurenai's eyebrows shot up. As far as official intelligence knew, Konan-san had been the only female member of Akatsuki.

The only other woman he knew of 'associated' with Akatsuki was Aiko. But that was ridiculous. They wouldn't take her on missions. Then again, a civilian might not be able to tell if the couple were actually partners or if the woman was being coerced into behaving.

Yamato was subtler than Sasuke when they glanced at Naruto, but that didn't mean much while standing in a group of observant shinobi. Kiba caught the secretive motion and seemed irritated.

By the point, Hinata was clearly eager to be done with her report and her soft voice picked up speed. "The woman I spoke to couldn't offer a description, she didn't remember. She did want me to know that she was sure this must be a misunderstanding. Apparently, the Akatsuki showed up for a relatively standard mission dealing with bandits who had been bothering the town."

Dead silence, other than the sound of wind through the grass.

"That doesn't sound much like Akatsuki," Naruto said, tone curiously light.

Hinata shook her head. "I didn't think so either, but my informant stressed that they were very nice. Well," she amended, "the woman was nice, anyway. They showed up and spoke to whoever had officially arranged the mission. Unfortunately, no one was willing to identify who that was." A hint of a scowl slipped across her pretty features. "The woman came back into town later the same day to collect their payment and drop off the stolen wagon that the bandits had been using to cart away the villager's belongings. Someone found the corpses about ten miles out of the village. That was the last time anyone saw Akatsuki cloaks around here."

Downright bizarre.

"Thank you, Hinata," Kurenai allowed, despite her mystification.

"Fun," Kiba droned, clearly bored out of his gourd. "Why don't we get to work while Team Seven winks meaningfully and tries to communicate secrets through interpretive dance?"

'I like that kid.'

Only Yamato had the grace to look embarrassed. Naruto and Sasuke lurked grumpily as everyone else went to work, shuffling a ways behind.

'Kiba called this correctly,' Kakashi observed. 'The constant tracks are from two civilians running scared. Probably male, judging by the stride lengths. They at least thought they were targets, judging by the way they were weaving. That indicates either fear or an attempt to dodge attacks.'

The very occasional hints of footprints that had survived the weather were definitely from shinobi, however. Kurenai lined her sandals up against one partial print and raised an eyebrow. She didn't have to share her conclusion that at least one of the fighters had been a female. Her Chuunin and Kakashi had already made that connection.

"At least two males for certain," Shino observed. "Why? Because although the sandals appear to be of the same size, weight distribution and stride length appears to be different. I would posit that one is a taller man of approximately 160 pounds."

"Agreed," Hinata noted quietly. "Making the other about 5'5" and light. Probably the ninjutsu specialist of the team. Kiba-kun, can you tell if there was one or two kunoichi? Some of the tracks are… odd."

Not to mention that those tracks were more inconsistent and nearly gone. Unsurprising, as lower weight left less impact and fainter tracks from the start.

"Two kunoichi, on different sides of the altercation," Kiba said easily. Kurenai practically radiated pride for her puppies, giving Kakashi a meaningful look out of their eyesight. He nodded indulgently. She was right, they were good.

"I thought one." Shino didn't exactly sound miffed, but his insects were buzzing a bit more loudly than they had been before.

The Inuzuka rejected that theory with a low noise from his throat and a shake of the head, albeit without a hint of superiority. "Nah. The sandals are the same size, but one of the kunoichi is wearing a size or two too big." Kiba jogged back a ways and pointed out a scrape mark halfway up a tree trunk where someone had apparently leapt in a running fight. "They slip when she lands wrong, see? She's overcompensating with chakra to keep steady."

"And?" Kakashi interjected, wondering if he knew what that information implied for the physical profile that Kiba should have been constructing for that kunoichi.

Kiba hesitated, eyes darting around the chakra-deepened scrape he was staring at. Pity. The answer was in his face.

"The excess chakra will throw off your calculations for weight," Shino completed. His male teammate scowled, smacking the tree.

"That's a rookie mistake," Hinata said in an undertone. "Only an absolutely inexperienced shinobi or someone with no access to bulk resources would wear the wrong size. That must be our missing nin. Anyone from a village would buy the right ones."

"She could be borrowing a teammate's after something happened to hers," Kurenai interjected in the interest of fairness. "We can't assume that we're looking at any missing nin at all. This could have been conflict between two legally sanctioned missions. Grass has border agreements with multiple shinobi nations."

"This is fascinating and all," Naruto yawned, drawing attention to where he and most of team 7 stood in a bored clump. "But I can't help but wonder if that might be relevant." Seven sets of eyes followed the finger he outstretched and pointed to the faint outline visible in the distance. "That's the road," he clarified unnecessarily. "I bet they came from there when they got attacked and chased this way. That cart up there is probably from whoever was being assaulted."

There was a spike of irritation from the shinobi who had been too busy staring at the immediate area to scan the horizon and note what Naruto noticed in his boredom. The blond had already started walking, and everyone else followed with varying levels of enthusiasm. Yamato and Sasuke took a bee-line for the road, but Kakashi and team ten took the time they needed to ensure they weren't missing anything else. They worked in silence, trying to move quickly now that there was something interesting to work towards.

Kurenai sighed a few minutes later. They were close enough to the road now to be breathing in dusty air, and hadn't found anything that added much to their information. "Kakashi? Kiba? Any thoughts on what played out here?"

"It was either a three on one fight, a three-way fight, or we missed tracks from anyone else present. The civilians seem to have survived the fight, since their tracks leave the area of the fight. They wouldn't have out-paced the shinobi fight or outran someone who wanted them dead for that distance." Kakashi theorized, rubbing the nape of his neck. "That's odd. That could mean that the winner was the person defending them, assuming that one of the two groups was helping them."

The Inuzuka dissented with a grunt. "No, that's not necessarily true. I would buy that, except for the not at all suspicious way that they disappear. Their escort could have picked them up, but so could their enemy. Besides, if they had survived they would have either showed up in town with a story about being attacked, or gone back for their cargo," he pointed out practically. "Judging by the tracks, I'd say we're looking at a lone female fighting off three shinobi," Kiba summarized with a frown, continuing on his task while Yamato and the boys wandered off toward the road. His theory wasn't bad: the two males' tracks stuck together, but neither kunoichi had appeared to be engaged in group tactics. They could have each been a party of their own. "What, do we really think Akatsuki was involved in this? It seems like small time stuff."

"I don't think so," Kurenai opined gently. "The numbers just don't make sense. Akatsuki travel in groups of two, and the vast majority of squads consist of three to four people. Kakashi? What do you think?"

Kakashi shrugged, posture deceptively languid. "It doesn't fit their MO, but I wouldn't rule out Akatsuki just yet. They have a known presence in the area involved in fighting bandits, of all the things. There's something we're not seeing." There just wasn't enough data to extrapolate from.

Everyone came to attention at the sound of a muffled laugh in the distance, thirty feet away where the boys had reached the road. Yamato looked up guiltily, the dingy green cloth that concealed whatever cargo the wagon contained fluttering back down.

"It looks like a mixed shipment of vegetables, drugs, and one copy of Icha Icha in good condition," he listed, sounding surprisingly professional considering the ludicrous content of his sentence.

There was a moment while everyone present tried to wrap their heads around that. If Akatsuki had been involved in this altercation, they had been on the side that stopped it and not those attacked. That pretty well clinched it: whoever these poor bastards smuggling drugs and vegetables were, they were dead. If they'd been able, they would have come back for their things. So either the assailants hadn't been bandits of any sort, or had expected better loot for their effort.

"This is serving a niche market," Shino noted.

Yamato snorted, a hand flying up to his face.

"Not Akatsuki," Sasuke said dryly, rubbing at his face. "Clearly. This is a bit petty for them."

"I don't know, that's a lot of drugs," Yamato wheedled, prodding at a packet.

'Whatever Akatsuki is up to, I don't understand it.' Kakashi quizzically took the book and flipped through it. "Oh," he said, dismayed.

The others crowded around.

"Whoever had this didn't even get to finish their book," he explained sympathetically, waving the bookmark in the first third of the novel. An experimental sniff showed that it still smelled like the bookstore. Shame. He clucked his tongue and tucked the book away in his hip pouch. It never hurt to have extras.

That was when he realized he needed to talk quickly, before Sasuke and Naruto started lecturing about perverts and how he was going to end up like Jiraiya-sama.

Kakashi cleared his throat. "It could come in handy," he defended. "Ah, anyway. Tobi does have a history of ingratiating himself with a populace in order to gain influence." The reminder had been a hurried excuse, but just saying it aloud brought his mood down. Damn, he hated that man. "We need to make sure that nothing is going on with the local authorities. That's the best reason I can imagine for why Akatsuki would involve itself in stopping petty crime."

Kurenai sighed, stress crinkling her brow. "Let's split up to cover more ground. The way I see it, we need to cover two different angles. If it's alright with you, Kakashi, my team and I will go investigate the local lord and see if his people think he's been acting suspiciously."

"And we get to investigate… Ando Toki," Sasuke read dryly off the ride of the cart, unimpressed by the shakily painted logo.

Kakashi gave a very fake smile. "Don't forget that we're not in Fire Country, Sasuke. We're not going to mention the drugs. It's not our business. We'll just be concerned citizens bringing her the unfortunate news that her crew ran afoul of bandits, and tell her where her merchandise is."

Of course it would be rotten before long, but that wasn't their problem. Perhaps identifying the apparently dead civilians who had never been able to finish their route would lead to some clue as to why they had been targeted, if it wasn't a crime of opportunity.


"Thank god she's dead." There was real relief in the older woman's strident voice—and a small smile as she stirred sugar into her coffee. "No offense, of course, but who wants missing nin around?"

The only sound was the quiet clink of her spoon against the porcelain. Sasuke's expression turned to ice. As a whole, team Seven was a bit shocked by Ando-san's cold-hearted reaction to being told that her hireling was dead. Some more so than others, of course. Yamato's smile merely looked a bit strained. Naruto, on the other hand, seemed to be considering crushing his teacup or storming outside to wait on the porch. Pity. He had such high hopes for the civility of this interaction when she invited them in out of the rain upon hearing they had news for her.

Kakashi didn't let his pasted-on smile move. That statement was telling. Aside from her cruel dismissal of an employee's death, she was unintimidated by shinobi. She could just be giving lip service to the opinion that their status as loyal operatives made them superior to a nukenin—but either way, she wasn't overly nervous in their presence. That meant she had experience with them—probably with more than with this mysterious kunoichi.

'That's suspicious. Taking the drugs into context, she's probably in contact with criminals. She'll have access to bingo books and information.'

The fact that she didn't blink at four foreign shinobi on her doorstep implied that she had iron nerves, or that she had something to back up her tactlessness.

"Don't get me wrong, she did her job." The older woman waved a hand dismissively. Kakashi actually felt a little angry about how little she valued that human life. "But the pay she demanded was outrageous—the full sum of the eight men she replaced!" Ando-san scowled. "And she's- was," she amended callously, "so childishly picky. She didn't want to sleep outside, and she didn't want to go on all the missions, or follow my rules. Would you believe that she used my routes as an opportunity to transport-"

"I think we've heard enough," Kakashi interrupted icily. Judging by Naruto's aborted movement, Sasuke was gripping his knee under the table as a reminder not to start yelling. He had no desire to linger here, but he did need to finish this interview. He was leaning towards the theory that one of the many enemies Ando-san's personality made had led them to try to ruin her business. However, despite how unpleasant Ando-san was, there was a possibility that the kunoichi had been the target. The only way to investigate that was to figure out who she was.

Small lines formed around Ando Toki's eyes when they widened at his displeasure. For the first time, she seemed somewhat wary of her guests, though not fearful.

"Tell me about your employee," he commanded, ignoring the sounds of Naruto shifting in his seat. "Name, physical description, where she came from. Anything can help."

He added 'quick-thinking' to his catalogue of Ando-san's personality, as her eyes jumped over the group and thin lips twisted into a moue of unkind amusement. She knew that the assembled men's opinions had turned against her, and she didn't care. Actually- that wasn't true. She was upset about it, and had reclassified them from tentative allies to something else.

"The name she gave me was false—a man's name, as a matter of face. And I have no idea where the girl came from. As for looks…" Her predatory gaze rested on Naruto. "I'd say she looked a lot like that young man right there, though with orange hair and a pointier face."

She was describing Aiko.

Kakashi's thoughts at the moment were not suitable for vocalization. Had he been untrained, his hand might have been shaking with rage. After a lifetime of shinobi work, adrenaline had instead heightened his bodily control to a preternatural degree. That was the only reason he caught Sasuke before the lithe teen reached for a weapon.

She clearly couldn't see the motion at all as it happened. When she blinked and registered that the two youngest shinobi were suddenly standing and the air had gone from chilly to openly hostile, Ando Toki seemed to realize she had gone too far and paled.

"That's not possible," Naruto denied hoarsely, leaning over the table.

Kakashi latched onto the thought—and realized Naruto was correct. That claim couldn't be true. Ando-san's employees were dead, as shown by the way they'd abandoned their personal belongings along with the cargo and contraband. Therefore, if Ando-san's words were true, it would mean that Aiko was dead. His Hiraishin kunai was still active. She had to be alive.

That made this woman a liar and a waste of his time.

The middle-aged woman sniffed. "Ridiculous. I think I would know. Why would I lie?"

'Because you are a singularly unpleasant human being.'

That wasn't a hard question to answer less facetiously. Somehow, Ando Toki knew about the reward Konoha had put out for information about Aiko—probably through criminal and missing nin connections. That made this woman either opportunistically cruel and ready to leap at the chance to hurt someone with a physical resemblance to the girl she'd seen in a picture somewhere, or she was hoping to get money for her lies. Greed seemed more likely.

If they were in Fire Country, he might have taken her into custody and let Intelligence get the truth out of her. Of course, as a foreign citizen, she was safe from that possibility. That pared down his options. He sure as hell wasn't going to pay her for honesty, and she wouldn't be talked around with reason.

"We're leaving." Kakashi didn't stop his team from giving their hostess truly poisonous glares before they turned to leave. She sputtered and tried to come to terms with how she had lost control of the situation, but didn't manage any real words before the door slammed shut.

Sasuke took a shuddering breath, pale face angry. "If she was the target, I would have advocated a more direct approach."

He couldn't verbally agree with the violent sentiment, but the Uchiha was right. If he had a grudge against Ando Toki, he would have taken that out on her directly and not on her staff.

Kakashi unclenched his jaw enough to speak. "I think we've been looking at this the wrong way."

Ando-san had been more inconvenienced than hurt by the assault, so she wasn't the probable target. The claim that the poor missing-nin the hag had hired had been capable of doing eight men's work was almost certainly an exaggerated story. Anyone of that caliber would be reasonably well-known and able to accept choicer assignments than drudgery for a woman who obviously disliked shinobi. If that kunoichi had been targeted on personal merits from someone holding a grudge, it would have been by someone incapable of the type of destruction that they had seen.

"Those poor bastards were in the wrong place at the wrong time." Naruto's neck muscles were visibly tense, and his voice lacked its characteristic warmth. "Or someone hired a team to stop Ando-san's criminal activity, and they just got caught in the middle."

No one could disagree with his assessment. Somehow, the mood didn't return to its previous calm, even with that established.

"Let's go meet with Kurenai's team." When Kakashi bent to take off at a leap to the top of the buildings, the others mimicked him instantly. No one wanted to spend more time near that hateful woman than they had to.


 

As it turned out in the course of Kurenai's brisk investigation, the local lord of that area in Grass country had been dealing under the table with foreign powers.

Unfortunately, he was not, as team eight thought, under Akatsuki's control.

About a week later, Iwa was very confused and suspicious that their free travel throughout the region had been suspended such a short time after a team had gone missing in the vicinity. If anything, that encouraged the Tsuchikage to send more troops in.


(1.5 months later)

"I really think that you should stop."

Aiko frowned, ignoring Obito's words and increasingly harried tone. "It's possible," she argued. "I just need to get it right, refine my control. What I've been doing is-crude." She scowled at her red-eyed reflection.

'I think I spent more time looking in a mirror this month than I have in my life to date.'

"If you mess this up, you'll end up blind," Obito snapped, fisting a hand in his hair. "You're being stupid. You're not a medic nin or a Hyuuga. Trying to manually stop off the chakra flow to your eyes is dangerous."

"But you can do it!" She ducked her head and rubbed at her forehead with the first three fingers of both hands. "I don't see why this is different. This red-eye deal looks a lot like yours. Why wouldn't it follow the same rules?

He hesitated, as he had the last time she'd brought up that point. He didn't know. He was just convinced that it was different.

'It might be the fact that this is so hard for me,' she acknowledged reluctantly. From what he implied, he could turn the Sharingan 'off' and 'on' without a thought, after the initial learning experience of turning it on.

And alright, he was sitting on something that rang with truth, what with his whole 'if you cut off all the chakra the organ will cease to function' thing. She knew very little about medicine, but it sounded like a theory she shouldn't test. Chakra ran and sang through every part of the human body (as well as outside of it, she had to note. And there were some doozies out there, spots of humming chakra that she couldn't stop noting no matter where she was).

Anyway, since she didn't know what she was doing and apparently couldn't tell the difference between 'almost no' chakra and 'no' chakra, it was a phenomenally bad idea to mess around with it.

But the idea was less than appealing. Even the less chakra costly eye form was a constant drain on her resources. Sure, it made casting genjutsu a dozen times easier, but she wanted her eyes back.

'Fine. I'll stop for now and see what my options are. I can try again later.'

"Headache again?" Obito tapped his fingers against the doorway, dark eyes solemn.

Aiko kept her face straight, since he could probably see her reflection. "A bit."

'He's starting to seem weirdly overconcerned. Bordering on the line between mushily sympathetic and… what, guilty?'

If it was the first, yuck. She wasn't a child or helpless. She could appreciate concern and sympathy, but there came a point when his fluttering grated.

That point had been a while ago.

For the dozenth time, Aiko reminded herself that he meant well. Snapping at him for being full of feelings (ew) wouldn't help anything.

"I'll leave it alone." She puffed her lips out at her reflection, watching the grumpy red-eyed girl in the mirror sass her back, and then rolled her eyes and turned them back to purple with a bit of concentration.

As ugly as they were, the purple eyes made both genjutsu and jutsu spectacularly easy. The hideousness might be outweighed by their apparent utility, as well as the fact that Obito was awfully accommodating about teaching her how to use them. He'd been sharing little tricks for water, earth, and wind chakra natures and wasn't surprised in the slightest by how easily she picked them all up.

Maybe he just liked to teach, or training was just the best way he knew to bond. Either way, it was an improvement on being fussed over by the (now absent) doctor, but not quite as good as occasionally getting to do something new. What was the point of accumulating skills that she never used? Because she was itching to use ninjutsu other than chakra chains in a fight. It'd be a first for her.

"Is there any work? I need to get out of the house." She strode out to the front room, pulling her hair back in a low pony as she went. Besides, her offensive capabilities were drastically improved from what they had been the last time she'd been in a fight. It might be nice to try some of the basic ninjutsu moves out in a real fight.

She could hear the disapproval in Obito's tone.

"I don't think you're ready."

And there went her resolution to be reasonable. Aiko wheeled around and jabbed a finger into his chest, ignoring the vaguely started expression on his face.

"Obito, with kami as my witness, if I don't get out of this house for something other than training, I'm going to start drawing naked comics of you on the walls as various Icha Icha heroes." She took a step closer, right into his personal space, and darkly emphasized, "With lipstick."

Obito's jaw dropped in disgust. Yes. Perfect. When he could only resort to squealing and flailing, she'd already won the non-argument. He would turn pink, flee, and she could go do whatever she wanted without sad puppy eyes getting in the way.

"Will I be wearing lipstick, or is the artistic medium-"

Damn him.

"Both!" she snapped, her hands flying to her hips.

And damn him, he was laughing at her. It was silent, but she could tell by the way his shoulders shook. Aiko huffed and turned away, stalking to the kitchen. By the time she was pouring a glass of water, he had followed her in. Aiko became very interested in her drink.

"Aw, don't be like that. You can tag along on my next mission, okay? We can go right now. I recieved an odd report today that I should look into." When she still didn't grace him with a response, he sighed and sweetened the deal. "And then after that, you can go on a similar one alone. Deal?"

'That's all I wanted.'

"It'll have to do." Aiko sniffed, despite feeling a slight smile pulling at one side of her mouth.

"I'm glad that I can please you in this small way," Obito drawled. "Anyway, business talk now. We're doing reconnaissance and possibly taking corrective action." He frowned, a severe line forming on his forehead. "I think that the Hokage might have finally become senile."

Aiko stared blankly, feeling her grip loosen on her empty glass. She set it down, hoping to avoid breaking anything, and cleared her throat uncertainly. "What is that supposed to mean?"

'And why is he bringing up the Hokage?'

He wasn't going to suggest that they go to Konoha, right? Because that would be crazy. He never had her go too close to their borders, it was too dangerous. Sure, Konoha would take her in for a trial instead of killing her, but she much preferred even Iwa to Konoha due to the increased likelihood that a Konoha nin would recognize her face.

He shrugged, struggling for words. "As far as I can tell, they accused a local lord in Grass of being affiliated with us and his second cousin agreed and took his place after he was disposed."

"That seems pretty reasonable," Aiko said slowly. It sucked, but undermining an enemy's allies made good sense.

Obito made a weighing motion with his palms, mouth wide open in an expression she couldn't interpret. When it came, his voice was confused. "I would agree, except for one thing. We had nothing like that going on in Grass. So I think that technically, Konoha helped depose a rightful authority figure in a foreign country and put a corrupt relative in his place, possibly on accident. In that respect, their choice was a little strange."

Well. 'Strange' was one way to summarize that situation. Aiko almost didn't believe it, but changed into weather appropriate mission gear and wrapped an arm about Obito's bicep. Kamui was much faster than travel by foot, but ugh. She closed her eyes and grimaced against the awful sensation of his preferred method of travel.

'And we're going to have to do that on way back,' she mourned, a hand on her stomach in a weak attempt to soothe the feeling of upset. It was probably psychosomatic—the first few times she had traveled that way, the only difference had been that her head was a lot quieter (and she still regretted sharing that revelation with Obito, he'd looked at her like he was concerned about head injuries). But by now, her trepidation probably made the experience worse than it should have been otherwise.

Ah, well.

As sad as it seemed, Obito's baffling information was corroborated by the gossip that they heard around Grass.

"It almost makes me consider actually compromising the new lord, just for the irony," Obito mused quietly.

Aiko giggled at that for far too long.

They did eventually decide to leave Grass alone, not seeing any real benefit to setting up a puppet government. There wasn't a shinobi force for him to take command of, their economy was struggling to right itself, and Grass had little international sway. It would be a waste of effort, really, to add such a large task to take care of.

"Is this what your missions are usually like?" Aiko asked, shaking off the boring henge she'd worn like a dog would shake water from its coat as soon as they were safely alone. "Sneaking around, listening to gossip, and occasionally making life harder for someone else?"

Obito opened his mouth consideringly, and then had to shrug one shoulder. "Something like that."

She therefore wasn't too surprised a few weeks later when he told her over breakfast that they were almost out of milk and rice and that he had two missions to get done that week. "Pick one," Obito suggested generously, stabbing his chopsticks into his rice (and she cringed, even she knew that was incredibly rude). "I'll drop you off to do one and meet you at a rendezvous point when I'm done with mine. We'll still have time to go visit your grabby friend, if you still insist by the time we're done." He made a face, clearly hoping that she would change her mind. "We can hit the market by her house before we come home after we're all done."

"Alright." With a faint smile, Aiko ignored his exaggerated scowl at the prospect of visiting Fuji and rested a forearm on the table as she leaned over for a better look at the papers he'd been scanning. She glanced over at the open maps he had out, pilfered from god-knows-where. "What's going on here?" Aiko pointed at a map of a lower region of Lightning Country.

"Ah, the Raikage has been making it harder for Ame to function." He smiled boyishly, light shining in his dark eyes. At that moment, Aiko thought he looked very handsome. "Good man, the Raikage. Someone needs to meet an informant, so I know how best to act. You'd be passing along his reward, ascertaining that we're getting the truth, and surveying the situation in this town right here before you're done. They've been getting a lot of shinobi passing through there, and I want to know why."

Oh. That sounded okay, but…

"And the other mission is sabotage," Obito added, tone clearly indicated that he was on to her and knew she wasn't that thrilled about option number one. Aiko perked up immediately. "Konoha is trying to position themselves as Konan's ally, since she turned traitor."

"And, that's bad?" Aiko guessed.

He nodded solemnly. "Just know that she is irritating and working against us. Moving on. Konan will be back in Amegakure within a week or two unless the Raikage has his way, so now is really the only time to act. You definitely don't want to fight her," Obito cautioned, a little sternness creeping into his expression and tone at whatever he saw on her face. "If you hear that she's around, I want you to run. She's formidable."

"Yes, yes," Aiko waved him off, propping her chin on her palms and blinking up at him prettily. "I understand that I shouldn't pick fights with kages unless you're around to hold my hand."

He didn't buy the innocent act, but at least he let the topic drop.

"Right." Obito rolled his eyes. "Ame is suspicious of Konoha's admittedly selfish motives, but beggars can't be choosers. If nothing changes, they might align themselves with Fire Country, which would tie the Mizukage's and Kazekage's hands in terms of dealing with Amegakure."

So, she was going to sabotage Konoha and Ame?

Fun.

"Oh, and they might have been involved with Iron and Tea Country," Obito added absently, getting out of his chair. "Kotaka swears he's seen a lot of product moving. Check that if you can. I'll be back in a moment with the information you'll need."

Aiko gave his back a skeptical look. Wasn't Kotaka the guy who'd failed to notice that his regular contact had failed to report for a week?

Yeah, that information was sketch.


*the next section is altered slightly to reduce repetition and cut exposition that is not necessary after having read chapters 2-10 but was when it was just a prologue. I would re-read if I were you, because you're going to be seeing the same actions in a different context and the wording will reflect that. But I'm not you, so do what you want.


A familiar, simplistic melody of soft bells was stuck in her head. Aiko had to press her lips together to be absolutely certain that she didn't accidentally start singing along with the Princess Fuin theme song under her breath.

'I'll wait to break into song until Obito picks me up,' she promised herself. She was totally an adult, and she wasn't going to let a little thing like an incredible mood prevent her from behaving with a minimum level of professionalism on the mission. Sure, he hated those movies for some inexplicable reason, but he'd cope.

It felt so damn good to be out working again after spending all that time recuperating and training. At least all the practice meant that no one so much as sniffled when she passed by under genjutsu. Which was good, because she wasn't wearing henge on anywhere but her eyes. It wouldn't matter much, since the plan was that anyone to see her was going to die. Besides. She was young and green-looking, when her eyes weren't blood red. A lot of people hesitated and looked around for her backup instead of assuming she was the biggest threat when they saw her.

Speaking of which, an Ame nin with graying stress-hair and a hard set to his jaw rounded the corner, frowning slightly into the room she'd entered.

Ah. Well, that looked like a candidate for a necessary death that would ruffle Ame's skirts.

Aiko smiled absently, tapping her big toe inside her right sandal along with the beat of that Fuin song. Adrenaline kept her mood light, even as she tensed her muscles in preparation for the upcoming fight. Her target had barely stepped inside when a highly-honed sense of danger prompted the older shinobi to put his back to the wall and whip his sword out warily.

Well. She could go right to him, but that introduced extra risk since he had the tactical position. Besides, it just wouldn't give the right impression when his body was found. It was better for both his reputation and for ticking off Ame for him to have died in glorious battle, rather than backed up against a wall and confused.

With a shrug, she dropped the illusion and gave him a big smile to force him to be the one to attack her. Unfortunately, his skill level was below his awareness. (Which, in a way, made sense and explained why an obviously long-term Chuunin was on border duty). She ducked under what seemed to be a pathetically slow sword slice and twisted under the shocked Ame nin's raised arm to stick him in the gut with an old-fashioned kunai, literally without missing a beat in the staccato she was keeping.

"Sorry, love." She lied casually, stepping in just a little closer and giving a nice, big scoop with some serious elbow action and muscle behind it. His stomach opened up with piteous ease.

(She was reminded of her chakra chains, how easy they had been. But no, that wasn't possible right now. She needed to use less distinctive weapons)

He made a choked sound and dropped his weapon with a clatter to reflexively reach for his gut. She batted one arm away with her elbow and used her free hand to grab his right wrist. Immediately she pulled it around his back so that she could brace his torso up with her forearm when his knees threatened to buckle.

In the instant where he was hanging supported by her leverage, frightened blue eyes met Aiko's gaze, silently begging for mercy.

She shrugged. He wasn't going to find what he was looking for there.

"Nothing personal." With deft motions, she pulled her blade out and made a precise jab at the pulsating artery on his upper thigh. He had a minute left by the time she extracted her blade, tops.

The gut wound would have been enough to kill him, of course, but she wasn't a sadist. This had to look messy, but there was no reason to let the man suffer for the hours it would take for intestinal bleeding to finish him.

Excess cruelty served no purpose, after all. It didn't entertain her and it didn't make the three unlucky guards she'd met alone any more dead. She was just doing her job. Obito knew what he was doing. It was unfortunate that people had to die to create the confusion they needed to start snatching jinchuuriki, but life was unfair like that. In order for her to help Obito, she had to step on other peoples' goals and lives.

It really wasn't personal, despite her good mood. She wasn't taking out her irritation from her last disaster solo mission out on anyone. Holding grudges wasn't a good idea. Obito stressed that enough (although she thought he was managing to ignore a spectacular inconsistency in his behavior in relation to 'Bakashi' and Konan). Anyway. Taking business too personally would get you killed. If you were busy crying for your competitors and enemies, you weren't going to get anything done.

She left her new friend awkwardly collapsed face-up with buckled knees on the cement floor, tucking a bit of loose hair behind her ear with the cleaner hand as she meandered through the storage facility of one of Ame's newly re-occupied border outposts. She'd never been there before, so she would be forgiven a bit of curiosity at the surroundings.

'In a desolate way, Ame is beautiful.' She took a deep breath of heavy, cold hair, feeling crisp condensation coat her lungs.

It was very grey, for lack of a better word. This was one of the few places she'd seen where a cement bunkhouse wasn't totally out of place. The rocks were grey, the long grass was a strange blue-green color she had seen in no other flora, and the sky itself was tinted from low-hanging clouds ambling with the sluggish wind.

Ame was clearly a hard place. Of course, she could have already concluded that by assessing the apparent character of the people who lived there. They were an awfully cantankerous lot, as far as she could tell, judging by their choice to elect the traitor Konan to their kage. Clearly, they still weren't buying into international opinion that Akatsuki was a terrorist organization.

'That's what happens when you don't play well with others,' Aiko sighed, patting down a bit of frizz as she tapped down a set of stairs into a cool underground area well-insulated from the permeating damp. 'You try to launch one little takeover of the world, and suddenly nobody wants to play with you after school'.

Not that she had any room to talk, of course, but her own lack of a social life was beside the point. She didn't know exactly what had happened a year and a half ago that had led Ame into provoking what was now being called the 'Amegakure Incident' (not even a war, an incident). But she didn't really care, either.

Aiko kneeled to pry the lid off what proved to be a container of munitions.

Naughty, naughty. Ame had been dealing with the technology-rich countries outside of the shinobi nation-states. It wasn't a surprise, but it was good to know. She patted the crate companionably, information confirmed. It wasn't crucial, but it was nice to see that Kotaka wasn't useless after all.

The storage area had been a bit of a detour, but she considered it time well-spent, even though it meant she had to move that much faster to her true destination.

She ended up in the barracks by accident, calmly holding her breath and sliding past a pale-faced duo who were talking quietly at a small table. They didn't hear her steps and they certainly didn't notice the slight friction of chakra against reality as the genjutsu wrapped around her like a silk dress let them see what they expected to see.

That was a little thrilling, to be honest. When he'd started to teach her, Aiko had tried to convince Obito that she needed jutsu much more than genjutsu. Now that she was suddenly competent, Aiko found all sorts of situations where it was useful.

In other words, she was getting lazy as all hell with her fancy new eyes and she probably owed her friend an apology for being a poor student.

'I'm terrible,' she thought with a thoroughly inappropriate smile at her own expense.

Hypocritical or not, the technique worked like a charm to get herself in the control center. It was pretty nice, for an office in a little outpost.

Feeling strangely artistic, she carefully left a sixteenth of a bloody fingerprint on the inside of the door at a height that implied someone just a little shorter than she was. That was insignificant enough to look accidental. Aiko accidentally leaned a little too close and got a nose-ful of the cloying reek of iron and fear.

'Whoo, that's gonna piss somebody off.'

The inevitable forensics team would know it was from one of their people when the sample was compared. Even Iwa could handle that kind of detective work. Ame should do fine.

She left the office mostly untouched, doing her best to imitate the movements of an agent who was pressed for time, but attempting to ensure that they left no traces. The three bodies in the warehouses would be dismissed as a distraction from the intruder's real aim, hopefully, when all was said and done.

Even if they were really clueless, Ame would only be able to conclude that someone had commissioned an intelligence gathering mission.

If they were incompetent, they would think that Iwa had been the ones to break in, which was a violation of their current but shaky treaty. Ame should be leery about that, actually. A nominal ally sneaking around was much more hazardous than a known enemy. Their closest neighbors would be on Ame's shortlist of suspects, and Aiko had spent the night in a hotel not four hours away wearing the face of an Iwagakure kunoichi. Digging would uncover that and reinforce their paranoia in regards to their northern neighbors.

But if Ame's people were as good as 'Obi hoped they were, they would think that Konoha was framing Iwa in an attempt to pry apart their alliance.

(Aiko didn't bother fretting about the possibility that they would actually figure out that a third party had attempted to frame Konoha for framing Iwagakure. If Ame worked that one out, they deserved a pat on the back, no matter how much Obito would scowl and stomp around).

She lazily picked papers up nearly at random, leaving her scent in case Ame would think to check what had been touched that way. It wouldn't matter that it was hers, since they wouldn't know her personally. It took a great deal of time and experience to memorize an individual scent and not just follow a trail. There was no reason for any Ame shinobi to know her off-hand. All they'd know was that a female shinobi had been poking around. She paid special attention to information on orders in regards to the other nations, holding Ame's protocol about Rock-nin at borders and the records of contract for the longest time out of personal curiosity.

It was mildly interesting to see that Ame wasn't treating Rock with more caution than they were Suna or Kiri, who were understandably peeved about their tiff in the not-so-distant past. That wasn't wise of them, was it?

'This Konan woman must not be much of a politician. Too straight forward, I think,' Aiko decided disinterestedly. Maybe Obito was right about her being an idiot. It was true on the surface, at least, that it was logical to be most wary of the countries that Ame had recently engaged in armed conflict with. Rock had been the only one out of the great shinobi nations who had stayed out of that scuffle, so Ame must have decided that Iwagakure was their most probable ally. That was a one-dimensional way to look at things.

'Ugh.' She blinked back excess liquid and shook her head. Aiko felt a headache coming on. 'I should hurry out of here.'

Now that the adrenaline-filled part of the mission was over, she was losing interest. Still, the mission had to be finished. It was her job to leave the impression that Konoha was framing Rock for illegal entry that undermined Ame/Iwa relations.

Speaking of that…

Aiko dug around in the left-most pocket on her hip pouch and extracted a tiny glass bottle. She held it up to the light to see the dry corpse inside one last time.

'How on earth did he get one of these?'

She pursed her lips and shrugged, carefully tipping out one kikai bug onto the thin carpet right by the edge of the desk she knelt in front of.

The bug had died of natural causes—old age. They occasionally just did that, and fell wherever their master was. Any shinobi who looked around this room would be able to tell that there had only been one intruder, a female with a petite build. The bug clan was notoriously sneaky. So Ame wouldn't be surprised to 'discover' that an Aburame had gotten in the premises, though Ame wouldn't be pleased about it either.

'And there goes Konoha's hope of convincing Ame that the threat from an Iwa/Kumo alliance is more important than their pride,' Aiko sighed. She didn't really care one way or another, but it was a little shocking that the lives of so many people could be affected by something so fragile.

Or not. Maybe it wasn't that fragile, judging by the faint presence she was noting flicker on the edge of her awareness. Maybe Konoha had actually planned a mission like the one 'Obi was having her fake. Wouldn't that be funny?

She repressed a snort as she crossed her way across the lines of barbed wire and miles of icy marsh that made up the no-man's land between Ame and River Country. That was awfully convenient, but then, Konoha and Ame were running out of time for their respective goals.

She'd left a slight trail leaving Ame to River (although only an expert would be able to tell) because a Konoha nin wouldn't have gone directly through the border at Fire Country, but they wouldn't really go through Rock Country either. Nice neutral River country left plausible deniability for any party. Coulda been a Suna mission, even, if it weren't for the fact that Suna and Kiri were outright refusing to take part in Konoha's less than selfless efforts to keep Kumo from taking Ame. If Ame didn't formally ask for Konoha's protection, then Kiri and Suna couldn't be forced to take part in helping them. Konoha was crippled, until Ame pulled their collective heads out.

'Ugh, why am I wasting time thinking about this? It's not really my problem.'

Apparently, 'Obi was operating on the same wavelength as the Hokage, because there really was a Konoha-nin creeping towards Ame.

Or at least, she assumed it was a Konoha nin heading north through River. Aiko stopped leaving an intentional trail at all when she veered off course to meet with the approaching chakra signal. It would be a pain if this asshat managed to make it into the Ame border-post and do damage control.

'Like what?' Aiko snickered at her own dramatic thoughts, licking her lips. 'I don't even know how he would figure out what happened. Still, it's an unnecessary loose end.'

As soon as she saw him, she circled downwind, to the west of the traveler. He wasn't marked, but Konoha wouldn't have sent a hitai-ite on a mission like that anyway.

'No one I recognize,' Aiko thought wryly, wishing she'd made a cleaner kill earlier and hating the obvious stink on her arm and shirt. There was always a risk of running into a dog-nin when dealing with Konoha, and blood carried a strong scent.

She could have killed the sentries without the fuss, of course, but it was supposed to look like a hack job by an infiltrator who accidentally drew too much attention. Aiko hadn't had a problem with the men she'd run into, and could have ambushed them like an infiltrator should. But that didn't fit the profile she was attempting to imply. An Aburame who was canny and practiced enough to pull off a mission like this would already be well-known, and there wasn't one of those with Aiko's physical profile currently active. So she was portraying someone talented but inexperienced, a girl who managed to sneak past most of the security but had to fight for her life against a rather good Chuunin.

'This guy is definitely not a Chuunin, though. I wonder what that scarring is from. Very distinctive.'

In an odd way, the horizontal lines marring her new find reminded her of 'Obi. Except this guy's scars made a sort of rough triangle with a tip across the bridge of his nose that stretched and expanded over his left cheek, instead of decorating a neat half of his face. Odd, though not particularly important.

But the Konoha nin didn't seem to be a dog-man. No matter how obvious the stink of blood was to her, he was visibly ignorant.

He was skilled, however, even if he did have beady black creeper eyes. He picked his way rather expertly through the marshland, not leaving a physical trace of his presence. Like a veteran, actually.

'He has a lot more experience than me,' Aiko noted, more interested in an accurate tactical analysis than her ego. 'I can't afford to let him have a fair shot. It would be pathetically cliché for the young shinobi to underestimate someone cannier.'

It was almost a shame to unceremoniously kill someone that good, but she couldn't have him undermining her work. Aiko shrugged, picking a single senbon out of her leg holster and twirling it between her middle and forefingers as she examined her target to pick her shot.

'All that muscle might be enough to put the needle penetration off if I get the wrong spot. He's not in bad shape. What is he, in his mid-thirties?' Aiko gauged, eyes flicking over his lithe form for weaknesses. 'Definitely from Konoha, with that chest armor. They really prioritize that.'

Her target stopped suddenly, clearly alert.

She didn't know how, but he knew he was being watched. Did he have a chakra sense that was better than her suppressing? That would be odd, since his suppressing wasn't as good as her sensing. It was more likely that indefinable seventh sense that occasionally pricked the back of your neck for no apparent reason that had alerted him he was in danger. More experienced nin were frustratingly good with that type of awareness.

'Oh, pooperscoop.'

Aiko pressed her lips out in a pout, slipping the senbon behind her ear like a schoolgirl would store a pencil. Now that he was alert, it would be a pain to get that perfect shot. And she hated unintentional messiness. There was no point in doing something sloppily when she could expend minimal effort and still get precise results by switching tactics. Her next tactic wasn't hard to choose, seeing as there was one obvious resource all around her, curling into her lungs and kissing her lips damply.

'Well, do you know where I am or not, sweetheart?' she wondered curiously, circling just a little bit as the sluggish wind shifted. She was still wearing her genjutsu, but no technique was perfect. A fellow infiltration shinobi was more likely to be able to spot the cracks in the technique than a random nin.

"Kai!"

Aiko jerked in mild surprise as the burst of chakra washed over her. Hastily, she restored the henge over her eyes and stepped backwards. Usually she could maintain her technique through one of those disruptions, but he'd really gone full-out with the power he'd put into the technique. Not bad. She was right, he was experienced. Special Jounin at least, if not a full Jounin. Konoha's Jounin were nothing to sniff at. Their standards for promotion seemed to be set higher than many other countries', which meant that this would be nothing like fighting a Chuunin from Ame. She should be wary and professional. Still…

"That's cheating!" Aiko faux-pouted, cocking her head slightly and letting him drink the sight of his killer in for just a moment.

Oddly, the man outright gaped, though he didn't seem happy to see her like a friend or colleague might have. She might have thought he was leering, if it weren't for the fact that he seemed stuck on her face and hair and hardly glanced below the collarbones. (Not that there was anything to see, clad as she was in a high-necked but sleeveless top with pants). He looked more surprised at seeing her than he really had any right to, considering he'd just attempted to disrupt a genjutsu. Had that been luck? Did this guy just occasionally freeze like a startled deer and check for genjutsu?

'I'm definitely not telling 'Obi I got caught out by a complete lunatic,' she thought morosely.

Now that he'd seen her, he definitely had to die. She wasn't much good to 'Obi if the whole world knew about her, after all. Her hand slipped into her hip pouch for a smoke pellet.

Wow, he didn't even tense. Was he an idiot or what?

Generally, one took evasive action when an opponent was possibly reaching for a weapon. This man must be particularly clueless. Or trusting. It wasn't as if she had a mark of affiliation on her person. Maybe he wasn't willing to attack a stranger met within a country that was technically on peaceful terms with his own, if loosely.

That was… somewhat reasonable, actually.

Didn't matter. He'd kill her in an instant if he knew the mission she'd just completed. It wasn't particularly sporting to make the first move, but should that really matter in a fight to the death? Having had a chance to fight back wouldn't make the loser less deceased. Aiko had no plans of being that deceased shinobi.

Ah, well. Philosophy later, fighting now. Her hand darted like the head of a snake, snapping the pellet down with enough force that it burst open and spat a fat billow of scentless purple smoke. Aiko didn't bother repressing a smile and a cheeky wave in the instant that her upper torso was still visible, before she faded into genjutsu again and let the smoke cover her.

She didn't move an inch. No one other than a total idiot would expect someone to remain in the same position after using a smoke pellet. It was an absurd, just plain stupid strategy. Sure enough, as the smoke dissipated, the poor reasonable bastard of a Konoha nin clearly thought she'd merely moved into hiding.

'He really shouldn't be surprised that I would use the same trick twice,' Aiko assessed critically. 'Silly. Are Konoha nin just showboats or something? No point in re-inventing the wheel when you have a technique that gets the job done.'

No wonder 'Obi had been careful to keep her away from Konoha nin, aside from the whole 'they'd kill her on sight thing'. He probably didn't want her to pick up bad habits.

With preternatural ease, she took hold of the mist clinging insistently to the air as a preemptive strike. It was almost too easy, really. It was a second's work to condense it into actual water—a trick that was nicely timed with the instant that her unknown opponent opened his mouth wide. "U-"

'It's like he wants to help me kill him,' Aiko thought, bemused. That didn't stop her from taking control of her element and bastardizing a water bullet to send it shooting down the Konoha nin's throat before he got out more than a syllable. His jaw clamped shut and a hand shot to his neck, but she was already flooding his lungs. Clinically, she tilted her head and watched as panic set in. He wasn't even looking for her anymore, preoccupied as he was with the fact that he was about to drown.

Dispassionately, she waited and watched while consciousness fled and the poor sap collapsed. He had the presence of mind to turn his face to the side when he fell, probably in hopes that she would get sloppy and bored. If she were in too much of a hurry to wait until he was actually dead, he might cough up the water even in his unconscious state. With his head to the side, it would spill out. It was a little trick, but it would have saved his life, had she been careless or rushed.

'That's a tactic straight out of the warnings about passing out drunk,' Aiko thought, charmed by his hopeful attitude. He was a cutie. 'Well, buddy, that was a nice try.'

She let the genjutsu slip away and stepped forward, delicately tilting his chin up with her clean hand so that he faced skyward. His eyes had fluttered shut when oxygen was cut off to his brain, and he almost looked peaceful. He laid still and quiet on his back without so much as a scuff or wrinkle on his clothes.

That was the way she preferred to operate. Nice and clean. Aiko gave his shoulder a fond pat as she rose, finally releasing her hold on the water and glancing curiously at the rings on his hand. She had waited long enough that he was definitely dead, so it had merely been her impulse towards perfectionism that had led her to thwart his last-moment plan and not any practical reason.

Finished, Aiko cast her senses out. She wasn't sure if she thought Buddy was operating alone or not. On one hand, Konoha nin did tend to travel in groups, so he very well could have back-up. Then again, it was often easier to get in and out on a stealthy mission with as few people as possible.

She didn't sense anyone… There could be someone who was very sneaky, but it didn't seem likely. Aiko wasn't a half-bad sensor.

'Well, if he had someone who was meant to help, I think they're running late,' she decided perfunctorily, tossing her head and distractedly unclipping her hair. It was going to kink up terribly if she left it like that for long, and she had plans for the night that didn't involve a bad hair day. She didn't give it another thought, casually loping back on her path to the point where she'd diverted to meet Buddy.

'If Ame really has anyone as good as me available to check this out, they are going to be so fucking confused when they find that body,' Aiko thought with unkind amusement as she went through the motions of leaving a slight trail in the direction she had initially intended to go.

Of course, that would be more amusing than the original plan. She half-hoped that Ame was more than competent, just for the entertainment value.

'God, my head is killing me.' Aiko made a face, rubbing her palm against her temple in an ineffectual attempt at soothing the pain while she waited for her friend to meet her and whisk her away.


Genma jerked into full awareness, twisting to face the direction his partner had gone, much in the way that a prairie dog twitched toward a possible predator. He frowned, biting down on the senbon in his lips and worried at the tip with his tongue.

'What is Raidō doing?'

He waited a full twenty seconds, but his partner's chakra signature didn't reappear. That was unusual. Raidō was more than skilled enough to hide from Genma's senses, but he wasn't supposed to completely blank out until he was by the Ame border so that Genma would know where to rendezvous when Raidō came back out.

'Something is wrong.'

It was a violation of his orders, but Genma cared more about his partner than some stuffy rules. He hauled ass, cautiously blanking his own chakra signature. Raidō's choice to hide his signature probably meant that he had run into trouble. Whoever he was fighting shouldn't know that Raidō had backup coming. Or hell, Raidō might have chosen to hide his chakra because he knew it would draw Genma's attention.

Genma arrived at his partner's last known location ready to leap into a fight. He was hardly expecting a nice pot of tea, but he still wasn't prepared to see the dumbass he'd been working with for a decade laying on his back in the muck.

His heart actually stopped.

"Shit, man."

He didn't give a thought to the likelihood that the situation was now a trap for him, and that approaching Raidō was (from a tactical standpoint) a fucking stupid idea. In a blur of motion he dropped to his knees by his old friend and leaned over.

No pulse.

Genma felt sick.

But Raidō was still warm… which was odd, since it was so damn cold on the upper reaches of River country. He didn't have a pulse, but he was warm. What had happened? Despite his reputation for being easy going and a bit lazy, there was nothing slow about the way Genma processed information. There were no wounds on Raidō, no signs of jutsu use, no signs of a physical fight…

He had to frown. What the hell?

Genma firmly put his hands on his comrade to roll him over, thinking that there might be wounds on the back of his head or something similar. Instantly, he knew Raidō didn't feel right.

'No way he weighs this much,' Genma thought incredulously. 'I know I said he was getting fat, but this is ridiculous.'

It took a moment to make the connection. Raidō was too heavy because he was weighed down, weighed down with something actually inside his body and what type of death fit that- He released his comrade and started chest compressions, tilting Raidō's face slightly and spitting the senbon out without a second thought. At another time, he probably wouldn't have wanted to lock lips with Raidō, (despite popular opinion that Genma would kiss anything that held still long enough, he wouldn't disrupt his working relationships) so he probably never would have known that his comrade used cherry chapstick until he bent to give CPR.

It was a long shot. He didn't know how long exactly Raidō had been dead, unless he assumed that his comrade had never intentionally dropped off the map and the time Genma had known something was off was the time of death… That was what, seven minutes back?

Genma's eyes bulged in a spectacularly unattractive way when Raidō convulsed and spat up a glob of cold water directly into his mouth. He sputtered, falling backwards while his comrade lurched to the side and proceeded to vomit bile and plain water onto the marsh.

"That was foul," Genma hissed, wiping his mouth irritably. That didn't keep him from gingerly touching his hacking friend, hovering to make sure he really was alright.

Raidō blinked twice, and managed to focus. His face screwed up, and he opened his mouth to say something. Genma leaned in closer, not certain if Raidō's voice would be strained after drowning.

"My hero," Raidō crooned raspily, making a kissy face and fluttering his eyelashes. "I always knew you were just waiting for a chance to plant one on me."

Genma twitched. "Jackass."

'I guess he must be fine after all. Actually… that's uncharacteristic. Is he giddy from lack of oxygen? Or it could just be relief that he's not dead. Maybe he's even telling me that something is wrong…'

"We should go," Genma deflected, helping his partner up. "We need to get you to a medic. No, don't talk," he scolded. "Your voice is terrible. Just focus on breathing."

He desperately wanted to ask what had happened, but it didn't look like Raidō thought they were in immediate danger. That either meant that he'd had a weird medical issue instead of being attacked, or that he was too disoriented to make an accurate situational assessment. Either way, he wanted a medic, stat. Preferably Shizune.

Genma had to settle for a Chuunin medic-nin he didn't know at the closest border post, several hours away. He didn't even feel like flirting, instead settling his idiot partner on the cot with a stern glare to stay put.

"What happened?" The woman frowned, stress lines exacerbated by her confusion.

"I think that dumbass here slipped and drowned in a puddle," Genma prodded casually, expecting Raidō to look offended. Raidō just shook his head. "You do know what happened, right?" Genma asked uneasily.

"Yeah."

That was all Raidō said. The medic scowled, but she moved forward to check his vitals anyway and make sure there weren't any microtears in his lungs and esophagus, idly commenting something about freshwater as opposed to saltwater that Genma wasn't really listening to.

'He knows what happened, but he isn't saying. Raidō doesn't keep shit from me. That means that whatever happened is too sensitive to mention outside of a debriefing.'

Frowning, Genma moved to worry at his senbon—and then blinked, realizing he'd left it in River Country when he'd moved to give Raidō CPR.

'The things I do for this guy… Alright then. The mission is time-sensitive, but not by a matter of hours. We'll head back to Konoha, and a new team can go out tomorrow. The mission will be delayed by a day and a half, but it'll be fine.'

That was, of course, making the assumption that his partner wouldn't act like a total fucking weirdo before they managed to get to the Hokage's office. Now that they were inside Fire Country and with his relatively clean bill of health, Raidō hadn't been worrying Genma much until they checked in at the gate post outside Konoha. That sense of relaxation went out the window when Raidō clammed up as soon as he saw some blonde Chuunin having way too much fun with his post on guard duty.

It took a moment to recognize him.

'The Uzumaki boy? Damn, he's gotten tall. He looks scarily like Minato-sama now.'

Maybe that was what Raidō was thinking about as he rudely stared at the teen gabbing at his severely unimpressed desk partner and a trio of elderly women who appeared charmed. Raidō was certainly spending enough time staring at the bridge of the kid's nose to be noting a resemblance.

"Stop being so damn weird," he hissed, elbowing his long-term partner. "He's going to notice."

At that point, Raidō gave him a slightly confused look before adopting the opposite but equally awkward tactic of not looking at Uzumaki at all. Genma pushed past him to take care of their identification and paperwork, just wanting to get him to the office. Thankfully, it didn't take too long. He winced and gave Raidō a long-suffering look when, "Hey, Shino-kun! Is there something on my face?" was whispered a little too loudly behind them.

Subtle. Way to represent the elite, Raidō.

They only had to wait seventeen minutes to get into the Hokage's office, but that was more than long enough. Genma grunted with effort when his name was called, wrestling himself out of one of those godawful chairs and trying to look suave because Shizune was eying him.

He didn't think it worked.

"What's this about?" Tsunade asked perfunctorily, looking them over for injuries from behind her desk and frowning. "Aren't you meant to be on a mission right now? What happened?"

Raidō took a deep breath, frowned a bit, and then said nothing.

Weird.

"He didn't even make it to Ame," Genma informed mournfully. "I hung back to create less of a chance he would be noticed entering the border. A few minutes later, his chakra signature winked out. When I went to investigate, I found that he had drowned on dry land." He gave his partner a weak glare, still disturbed by the fact that he'd been technically dead.

Tsunade looked sympathetic, though she quickly hid the emotion. "I see. What happened, Raidō? I'm assuming you didn't do that to yourself."

"No," he said uneasily, glancing down for a moment. "I'm… a little uncertain about what I saw, actually. A kunoichi found and attacked me. She wasn't marked, but to be fair, I wasn't either," he admitted, "so she might not actually be an enemy."

"Sounds like an enemy to me," Tsunade remarked dryly. "What are you uncertain about?"

Raidō huffed a little laugh, shrugging. "Well, I must have been mistaken," he prefaced with an odd tone in his voice. "Though god knows why I would hallucinate a distant acquaintance."

'This isn't weird at all.'

"You thought you recognized her," Tsunade inferred, folding her fingers patiently.

'It's amazing that Hokage-sama can give off that soothing aura,' Genma thought, just watching the show unfold. 'We even know that she's utterly terrifying, but she gives you that look and it's like you're talking to your sweet maiden aunt.'

"I did," Raidō agreed. "I couldn't have. I mean, she's dead, I thought."

"Who is dead?" Tsunade asked, a line forming on her forehead. "Stop deflecting already. I understand that you aren't certain. You're wasting my time."

"Well…" Raidō coughed. "The Uzumaki girl," he admitted, looking embarrassed. "Not the scary medic one- I mean," he corrected hastily, misinterpreting the look on Tsunade's face, "not the one with the really long dark red hair. The other one. The blond's sister."

'Well,' Genma thought optimistically, 'That sort of explains some of his persistent ogling.'

Of course, now he was relatively certain that the medic back on the border had missed a head injury in her perfunctory scan of Raidō's pointy skull. It was pretty common knowledge that the Uzumaki kid was dead, even if not everyone was willing to admit it.

Tsunade was quiet for a long moment, and her face very still.

"She is dead, isn't she?" Raidō asked uncertainly, looking sheepish. "For a while there she was everywhere, but I haven't seen her around in a very long time. It was the strangest thing. I don't think I ever said two words to her, so it would be an odd person for me to imagine."

"Legally, yes," Tsunade said distantly. "She was assumed dead after being missing in action for six months. We didn't have any proof of fatality, however. Hatake would say we have proof she's alive, although that's complicated by some fuinjutsu nuance that Jiraiya-" she cut herself off, shaking her head slightly. "Have you told anyone else about this?"

Confused, Raidō shook his head. "No, Hokage-sama. So, do you think I really saw her?"

"Maybe," she prevaricated, frowning. "You say she attacked you? How?"

'What is she doing?' Genma scowled. 'She shouldn't be encouraging this delusion. Doesn't she care that something is wrong with him?'

"Ah… I don't know how long she was watching me, but I had a bad feeling and checked for genjutsu," Raidō summarized easily. "She just looked at me for a moment, seemed amused. I didn't get any hostile or aggressive impressions from her. I was going to ask her if she really was who I thought she was, but as soon as I opened my mouth…" he trailed off, more than a bit embarrassed. "I didn't even see it coming," he admitted. "I thought that maybe she was frightened that I was aggressive, but I didn't think she would make the first move. At worst, I thought she was going to run, once I saw her. But I opened my mouth and she slammed me with water. Pushed it down my throat and kept it there 'til I passed out."

Genma nearly made a fist, suddenly overcome by a powerful urge to strangle a kunoichi.

The Hokage looked severely disturbed. "That… doesn't sound much like Aiko," she said faintly. "I can believe that she would make the first blow, but I don't think I recall her using that modus operandi. You said that she seemed amused?"

'Calm down. He's fine.' A muscle jumped in Genma's neck, but no one was paying him any attention. 'If it was an enemy, she was doing her job. If it's somehow who Raidō thought it was, he wouldn't appreciate me fighting his battles anyway.'

"Ah, yeah," Raidō shrugged, squinting as if to look into the past and remember details better. "Downright cheeky, actually. She pouted at me when I found her, and waved when she hid again. That was before she attacked," he clarified unnecessarily.

Something twitched in Tsunade's face that told Genma that part of the report might sound like Aiko after all. Smartly, he kept his mouth clamped shut.

No way was he getting involved in this unless he had to. A missing Konoha kunoichi resurfacing after a year and attacking a comrade? Not a good sign. That had the potential to get very ugly and painful, no matter what the explanation was. Even if it was a total mix-up. If Uzumaki had gotten away from her captors and was in fit shape to take out Raidō, then she should have returned to Konoha.

"Genma, would you get me Hatake?"

He sucked in a deep breath, not liking that idea. "Raidō could do it," Genma suggested weakly.

Tsunade shook her head absently. "I want him to stay put. There might be a scent remnant on his person that could confirm this one way or the other."

'I severely doubt that. The encounter happened yesterday, we slogged through the rain and a forest, and we don't even know that she touched him,' Genma thought grouchily.

Still, it wasn't his place to tell Tsunade that her optimism was causing him too much work, so he shut up and restrained his sigh until he was out of the office. What a pain. It took him a full hour to track down the Copy-nin, by which time Genma was all but breathing fire.

"You," he said shortly. "Report to the Hokage's office."

There was a pause, wherein Hatake turned a page. "Hmm?" A languid grey eye drifted up, as if he'd just now noticed Genma's arrival. "Did you say something?"

"You heard me," Genma said shortly. It wasn't really his problem, but Hatake would probably regret it if he took too long and ended up missing out on a chance to catch a fading scent… "You should hurry," he added gruffly. "It's definitely of personal interest to you."

That caught the other man's attention.

"Is it now?" Hatake asked warily, straightening. "I don't think I've done anything recently."

"Nah," Genma rejected, wishing he had a senbon. "S'about one of your kids."

'Possibly. Either you're getting the good news that she's a murderous lunatic traitor, or she's dead and nothing's changed.'

Inwardly, he realized his mistake. Hatake was probably going to think something had happened to the grumpy Uchiha or Naruto. He was downright paranoid about his surviving students.

Sure enough, the younger nin was gone before Genma could blink. He snorted, shaking his head.

'Hope that turns out well, though I can't see how it could. I'm going home.'

Kakashi had nearly forgotten Genma in his anxious state by the time he slipped into Tsunade's office. He was reminded when he saw Raidō (who was practically connected at the hip with Genma most days).

'I thought this was about Sasuke or Naruto? No, it can't be Naruto, he's in the village. Sasuke. Where's Sasuke? I thought it was just a B class because of the potential for contamination and that the client is politically important.'

"Calm your tits," Tsunade said dryly, clearly noting his near panic. "The boys are fine."

Then why was he here?

"Tell me if you can smell anything unusual on Raidō."

That was weird enough that he stopped and gave his Hokage a baffled look. She nodded indulgently, as if she thought he'd been asking for permission instead of evaluating her sanity.

Raidō looked just about as uncomfortable as he felt about invading the other man's personal space and getting a good, long whiff. His nose crinkled. "Vomit," Kakashi clipped out, stepping backward hastily. "And damp that's turning to mold. You should throw out those clothes."

"Nothing else?" Tsunade led, sounding disappointed.

Kakashi scowled. "A moment." With a blur of motion and a puff of smoke, Pakkun sat on the floor, giving him an inquisitive look. "Could you see if you smell anything particularly odd on that man?" Kakashi directed, still not knowing what he was looking for.

Pakkun sighed heavily, but lumbered over to give Raidō a cursory examination. "You're too tall, buddy," he rasped. Obediently, Raidō crouched. Pakkun instantly flinched away. "Your breath is terrible," the dog criticized, shaking his head. "I'd ask if you've been drinking, but there's no alcohol. Just yack. You been eating grass, boy?" He sniffed a couple of times, checking Raidō's hands and the muck coated along the back of the man's vest and pants. "You apparently rolled around on a mildly poisonous plant," Pakkun informed, not reacting when Raidō gave a surprised jerk. "Hey, keep your clothes on. I'm not that kinda guy. Besides, you would know if this had touched your skin."

Kakashi choked down a cough as Raidō stopped tugging on his shirt. It had made it halfway up his back before the pug had scolded Raidō.

"Other than that, nothing odd," Pakkun summarized, sitting with a thump. "Two human scents on him. One is that jerk with the needle, and the other a female carrying a whole lot of antiseptic."

"The medic," Raidō said a little too quickly, as if trying to shut down the hope that flickered in Tsunade's face. "Genma took me to a medic before we came back."

Pakkun grunted in disinterest. "Do I get a treat?"

Kakashi released the summoning without another word, pretending he hadn't heard that last part.

Tsunade sighed, disappointed. "It was a long shot," she admitted. "I didn't want to bias you by telling you what you were looking for. But Raidō may have run into Aiko."

He made a conscious effort not to move his hand towards the rather worn Hiraishin kunai that he had never thrown in a fight and therefore risked losing. Checking that there was still chakra in it was part of his routine as much as talking to his dead comrades at the memorial stone, and he'd channeled his own chakra through it more than once in hopes of drawing his lost student's attention, but it seemed more than a bit pathetic to admit to such.

"Is that so," Kakashi managed evenly.

He couldn't, he wouldn't get his hopes up. How many times had someone brought up a lead? They were all false, every damn one of them. He'd taken Naruto (always Naruto, though the others changed) as far as Snow Country, chasing a red-headed girl who never turned out to be the right one. Or if she had, she'd been long gone before they got there.

Tsunade looked spectacularly uncomfortable. "I think you can go, Raidō," she decided. "I need that report within an hour. Actually…" she bent, digging in a side drawer to extract a sheaf of paper that the Jounin obediently took. "A mission report form. Just get it done as fast as possible and wait in the Jounin lounge."

"Hai, Hokage-sama." Raidō gave Kakashi one last cautious glance before striding out.

"What, do you suppose that I was going to leap across the room and strangle him if he shared bad news?" Kakashi asked, blackly amused.

His Hokage rolled her eyes. "It's not all about you, brat. He's had recent throat and lung damage. No point in having him undermine the healing job by talking our ears off. I have the basics. I assume you'll want to leave soon. Naruto can be taken off the guard roster, just this once," Tsunade said for what had to have been the tenth time in Kakashi's presence. He didn't say a thing about the favoritism that had Naruto's time on the least-loved duty reduced.

"I suppose that Yamato can be spared as well," she continued, flipping open a blue folder and eying the names therein briskly. "Who else would you want to take to River Country? Does it matter?"

Kakashi shrugged, apathetic. "A medic."

If looks could light Jounin on fire, he'd be a crispy critter. "Karin and Sasuke are both medics, dillweed," Tsunade huffed. "Pick one."

He heaved a sigh. "Why just one?" Kakashi managed sarcastically. What was the point of this exercise again? Was Tsunade independently investigating the effects of chronic disappointment on Jounin and Chuunin?

Tsunade rolled her eyes. "Why not, indeed. Sure, fine, what the hell. Take them both. Sasuke's getting fat and lazy anyways."

That was patently untrue.

"I can't help but feel that you're not taking this very seriously," she added wryly. "This is a huge opportunity. We need Aiko back, not just for her sake, but for Konan's trial. She's being released any day now, as soon as Iron settles on a date. This is important."

Kakashi tried not to look particularly dissident. It was not a predominantly adept attempt. "This is not the first time someone's sworn that they saw Aiko," he reminded her flatly. "Or the tenth." He didn't bother reminding her that there was no guarantee that Aiko would remember anything for the trial. For shinobi, a little thing like lying by omission was a small problem. If they had Aiko to testify, they could have her say whatever they wanted. No one else could contradict her—she'd spent a good deal of time alone in Akatsuki, and Tsunade did have a record of Aiko's debriefing to use as a reference.

Tsunade sighed. "Yes, well, that's the nature of the beast." For a moment, her tiredness peeked through her permanent transformation in shadows of the wrinkles that she really should have. "And at least this one is a kunoichi for sure."

"You said that about the gangster as well," Kakashi muttered bleakly. Probably a rumor started by that awful Ando woman. They hadn't even bothered to investigate that lead after they realized that the abandoned drug cart they'd found in Grass hadn't been connected to the Akatsuki. Besides, the woman was dead and her body burnt, apparently having been caught on the wrong side of Akatsuki trying to ingratiate themselves to local powers by clearing up criminal problems. It would have been pointless.

(Honestly. Even Naruto had been infuriated by that transparent attempt at cashing in. It wasn't like Akatsuki would be letting Aiko wander wherever she wanted.)

"We know she is a kunoichi, because she attacked Raidō and won," Tsunade said bluntly. "We're definitely not looking at a civilian or petty thug."

Kakashi actually blinked in surprise. "That doesn't sound all that much like something Aiko would do," he pointed out.

"Cut the crap."

He shrugged.

"She's a kunoichi," Tsunade continued dryly, "Aiko has attacked a lot of people in her time. Generally with orders, yes, but we don't know what's happened to her. For all we know, she could think that she is following correct orders. Or she's being controlled by a seal or genjutsu." She leaned back a little, idly rolling what appeared to be a marble between her fingers. "There are plenty of explanations. The physical resemblance was enough that Raidō, who was under the impression that Aiko is deceased, didn't even attempt to fight her," Tsunade drawled.

Kakashi pointedly avoided commenting on the stupidity inherent in that decision. Not that he would have attacked a long-lost comrade, but Raidō didn't know Aiko. That was terribly trusting for someone whose identity he didn't know enough to confirm.

(Raidō was a good guy. He should stop using that particular chump as a distraction for Gai).

"The fighting style didn't sound familiar to me, but that kind of thing could change in such a long time. The attitude definitely sounded like Aiko, and the kunoichi used water ninjutsu." Tsunade made a palms-up gesture, as if weighing the evidence. "It's probably the best lead that we've had."

He nodded slowly. It wasn't airtight—what, a sixth of shinobi across the continent were water-natured? Even more than that could use it as a secondary affinity. But in combination with the unusual hair color, it was enough that he saw why Tsunade thought the clue worth a look. How many cocky, red-headed kunoichi with water-style jutsu could there really be?

Kakashi shoved his hands in his pockets, letting his posture slump in good-natured resignation. "This might be a mission to leave the boys at home."

Unspoken was, there's no good way for this mission to end. Either they found out that Aiko had attacked a Konoha nin, or that it was a dead end. Tsunade nodded slowly, pushing her folder away and crossing her arms contemplatively.

"I can understand that. I'll give you Genma and Tenzou. You move out in two hours. Hopefully you'll get there in time for the scent to be fresh."


Please tell me the prologue makes sense now. Yes, like 40% of why I did that was that I am a troll. 60% was definitely a serious attempt to set the tone and trick you into misinterpreting what was going on, though.

(That doesn't count as trolling. It's an artistic decision.)

Author's note that anyone who doesn't care about Tumblr or learning to be a superhero can skip.

For background information, I try to leave reviews on everything I read, because I love getting reviews on what I write. Half the time when writing them, I feel like a gibbering idiot.

I've noticed in conversations with other authors in the fandom – people who I think are really good writers, who I love to read—that we all say the same thing. That writing reviews is hard. (So omg, thank you to everyone who does, on the regular or otherwise).

I've come to the general conclusion that writing excellent, top-tier reviews (Elelith, you here brah?) —the kind of reviews that authors love, the ones that help them tweak their writing and make them feel like they're engaging with like-minded people instead of shouting into the ether (and the ones where it feels like a conversation and lets me know what a reader is really thinking- Flower of Venus, that's you for sure)—is a rare skill set. It really is. I love all my reviews, of course, because they let me know that people out there are enjoying my work (and writing is a lot of work) and it fosters a real sense of community in what can otherwise be a solitary endeavor. But some people really knock it out of the park, and I know that I personally could stand to learn some of that kickassery.

So, you know, anyone who has advice or a philosophy they'd like to share is more than welcome to tag me in that on tumblr and I'll repost (maybe compile, if there's more than one or two). I dunno, I just think it'd be nice to acknowledge that there's a real skill set there that's pretty unique and hard to acquire, and there's people out there who'd like to learn it.

I can't remember who it was, so forgive me if you're reading this, but I know that someone posted about how to find really good fanfiction. (Tabetharasa, was that you?) That post was well-organized and very beneficial. Something like that on reviews would be rad.

I'm electraposts on tumblr, for easy reference. There's a link in my profile if you prefer to do things that way.

Chapter Text

"Have you ever decided what you want to do about your old boss," Obito called out over the irritatingly chipper sound of summer cicadas.

Aiko glared, not even trying to respond. That was too hard with a lungful of fire. She pushed the flames out, pursing her lips like her intention was to go in for a kiss. The small spray that she forced past her teeth came out in a thin, high-arching plume.

(and that heat hurt, if this was a C-class jutsu she didn't know how Obito's teeth hadn't splintered from the heat of higher level jutsu).

He dodged it easily, alighting on the pock-riddled ground with a butterfly's grace.

In comparison, she felt like an eighty year old smoker. She wheezed for a moment, tilting her head back to optimize oxygen consumption. "You tried to trick me into breathing in to speak," Aiko accused hoarsely through a hot, painfully dry mouth.

That would have hurt.

All she got in return was a surprisingly wicked grin, before he telegraphed the motions of a water jutsu. Her chest was still aching from the last chakra she'd filled it with, but she mimicked his motions anyway, letting him teach her another jutsu.

He'd become a much less gentle teacher since her eyes had changed. Admittedly, that appeared to be because he was sharing his formidable repertoire of elemental jutsu. Learning that way was paradoxically effortless but time and labor-intensive. Seeing him perform a jutsu was enough for her to mimic it and reproduce it, but she still had to practice everything he showed her when alone later to truly master it.

With a little too much glee, Obito had taught her the lesson that being able to perform a jutsu was unrelated to being able to control it by allowing her to copy an A-level earth ninjutsu, and then saving her only at the last moment when she nearly killed herself with it.

Maybe that hadn't been kind, but she wouldn't forget or complain again about it being dull to have to learn D- level ninjutsu before he'd teach her anything more impressive. At least she was past the really low level stuff now.

The water jutsu he demonstrated (in a mirror, really, her motions so closely followed his that it was nearly impossible to tell he was leading) turned out to form a slick of two-inch or so water that coated the ground.

'Meant to make it easier to track opponents I can't see?' Aiko theorized. He didn't spoon-feed jutsu to her. Figuring out their use was her job. 'The splash should allow me to find anyone who was too surprised to water walk in time. If I can sense through the water, or force someone to use chakra to stand on top, I can use that chakra expenditure to keep track of their movements.'

"I was serious, you know," he brought up when they finished. Aiko didn't look up, bent over as she was to dab at her face with the hem of her shirt. "I tracked down your civilian coworkers when I realized what had happened. I may have jumped to the conclusion that there was a reason you were down for the count and they were fine."

Aiko looked up sharply at his sheepish tone. "Judging by your phrasing, they weren't responsible."

"No," Obito admitted, breaking eye contact. "I don't know about the woman who employed you all, though. I thought you might like to know, for peace of mind if nothing else." He frowned audibly. "That doesn't mean that they don't still present a danger to you, mind. They saw you activate your bloodline. If you think there's a chance they might talk, we'll have to do something."

She sucked on her lower lip, considering it.

'I had fun with that job when it lasted, but it wouldn't really be worth it to go back to Ando-san and try again. Then again, it would be polite to talk to her instead of just wandering away forever. I wonder if she ever got her cart back?'

After a moment, he reluctantly added, "We could kill them. The decision is in your hands, but I don't see much point in taking care of them forever."

Aiko blinked, honestly taken aback. "No, I don't think that'll be necessary," she waved him off. "I don't think they knew what was going on, certainly not enough to sell information. Besides," she decided, "we could just…" her voice trailed off, as she tapped a finger meaningfully against her temple.

Obito snorted, rolling his eyes. "You mean me," he groused. "You'd probably fry their brains."

She shrugged, unbothered by his lack of faith in her abilities. He was right, after all. Who did she have to practice genjutsu on? No one, that's who. All she knew was stuff that worked by altering and distorting areas near her person. Hypnosis was entirely different.

"We may as well take care of that today," Aiko decided, giving a stretch. "You drop me off with Ando-san, I'll see if she's guilty and give my resignation if she's not, and you pick me up after an hour or so?" Her voice lilted in question.

"Of course," he indulged. "And I'll take your former co-workers home."

"Lovely." She leaned back so far that her back cracked three times, nearly collapsing in a puddle of sore muscles. "It would be kind of rude to just stop by, though," Aiko mused. She frowned slightly. Maybe she should bring a peace offering.


 

("I heard you were dead," Ando-san said tonelessly, staring at Aiko with an expression she couldn't quite sum up.

Aiko shrugged, not knowing how to feel about that. "That was for a limited time only. May I come in?"

The older woman's mouth moved silently for a moment. Apparently unable to verbalize anything, she stood back and held the door open.)


 

Team Kakashi had nearly returned to Konoha after the three men tracked away from the spot where Raidō had nearly been killed into a dryer forested area. Not because they were unsuccessful, per se.

"Located traces of both Aiko's scent and that of unknown Uchiha," Tsunade read silently from the scroll she'd been given by a dog in a blue cape. "Gone to reinvestigate clue from previous mission, suspect that woman known as Ando-san had been in contact with Aiko after all."

What? She furrowed her brow, not seeing the connection, until Kakashi's scribbles spelled out the logic- "Oh, I see." Tsunade blew air out of the side of her mouth.

Funny. It had taken Genma to point out something that one of them really should have seen before.

She hadn't released a photo of Aiko with the subtle call for their contacts to keep an eye out for her. It would have been too dangerous, considering the intention had to keep the information that she was missing quiet. The only internationally available photo of Aiko was the one in the bingo book.

'And that picture is old,' Tsunade confirmed for herself when she flipped open her copy to verify Genma's information. How lucky that he'd gone to look after she had attacked Raidō (and wasn't that a can of worms, shit). 'Far too old to be in use now, it should have been replaced. If anyone other than incompetent Iwa had put out the bounty, it would have been. This might even be her graduation picture.'

The girl in that photograph still had baby-fat cheeks, a choppy home haircut, and a truly obnoxious dimpled smile. She was much cuter than the pointy-elbowed teenager that Tsunade had first met years ago.

Kakashi had scribbled down the description the unpleasant civilian in Grass had given him for point of comparison. It did describe Aiko accurately: the Aiko of about age sixteen and up, when her face had thinned out and her big baby eyes seemed to fit her face better. The twins looked more alike now than they had before they'd lost their respective baby fat that disguised the fact that their bone structure wasn't that disparate.

If Ando-san had learned Aiko was missing, she wouldn't have known to describe her that way unless she had either seen Aiko recently or knew far too much about Konoha shinobi.

Assuming the first was true, Kakashi would get information out of her. If the second was true and Ando-san was a spy, she'd be coming back to Konoha in chains.

Tsunade actually smiled, leaning over to scratch the canine messenger behind his floppy ears with much more cheer than she ever treated Jiraiya's summons. The nindog allowed her touch, and after a moment dissolved into a gooey puddle of doggy love. His chin was laying on her knee and he was staring up at her adoringly through shining brown eyes when Sasuke pushed the door open and strode in, wearing a grumpy expression and mission clothes.

The look he gave the dog was truly withering.

"What's Kakashi done now?" Sasuke prodded, amusement tilting the corners of his eyes just slightly when the hound stiffened in offense.

'How petty does he have to be to taunt a dog?' Tsunade wondered. Out loud, she lazily replied, "He's found good news, actually. I'd tell you all about it, but I want your report first."

When Kakashi returned with Yamato and Genma three days later, she was relieved enough to nearly cry. Naruto had been trying her patience. Naruto practically bounced on his former teacher, mouth running a mile a minute. He peered over Kakashi's shoulder, deflating slightly when it became clear that his sister wasn't following.

Tsunade wasn't too cold to deny that she shared a little of Naruto's disappointment.

Gently, Kakashi pushed the blond away and patted his shoulder. He centered between his two teammates, slouched slightly in what wasn't quite his usual attitude.

"Any news?" she prompted.

Hatake glanced at Naruto for a moment, before directing his voice to her. "Genma was right," he admitted, a strange twist in his voice. Irony, perhaps. "Ando-san opened the door and greeted us with, 'I thought you said she was dead'," he mimicked, pitching his voice up slightly. "We'd missed her by about four hours. Apparently, Aiko came by with apology cookies for letting all Ando-san's goods rot and her wagon get stolen."

Naruto let out a surprised laugh, eyes glittering with relief. At least she sounded like she was doing reasonably well, if a bit confused. They'd been so close- next time, they'd work things out. They just needed to talk to her and she'd see.

Tsunade cradled her face in her palm, suddenly feeling a headache. "Should we be sending someone to wait around Ando-san's house?"

Kakashi shook his head regretfully. "The cookies were also an apology for quitting without notice."


 

And now for something completely different


 

"It is time to take our next jinchuuriki."

Five shadowy figures flickered in the dim light of a gaping cavern. Suigetsu, the only person who was physically present, rapped his fingers against the handle of his sword in boredom.

He heaved a beleaguered sigh and sneered. 'Dramatic old men.'

This whole thing reeked of theatricality. The heavy uniform cloak on his shoulders matched that of the projected participants. From their perspectives, his face was probably cast in as much shadow.

He'd never even seen his fellow Akatsuki, aside from the asshole that had recruited him. Not much for camaraderie and hugs, these guys. He told himself that was fine. There was no point in bonding with anyone other than a fellow swordsman of the Mist.

Their apparent leader's deep baritone rung out again, distorted through static by the projection jutsu he was using. "We will be hard-pressed to acquire all the jinchuuriki in time once the great nations are at odds. We must be ready to strike and seal the last bijuu in rapid succession. However, there is one jinchuuriki that can be obtained before the critical moment. My partner and I will do so. If all goes well, we will perform the jutsu tonight."

It was hard to believe that the prick had a partner. He didn't seem the type to play nice. Curious, Suigetsu let his eyes wander over the figure standing closest to the leader. They could be standing in the same location or miles apart for all he knew, but their apparition-like projections were perhaps only two feet apart.

Even if they'd been in person, the high collar would have obscured the vast majority of the person's face. As it was, the only physical characteristic Suigetsu could pin down was that the person was short in comparison to the leader. Very few men were that short.

That meant either a child or a small woman. His gut told him it was a woman, especially considering her proximity to the leader. His logic wasn't rock-solid: the leader could be a pedophile. But it seemed less likely.

If he was a pedophile, of course, Suigetsu'd have to kill the disgusting bastard. He would kill leader eventually regardless of what happened, of course, but still.

"Be ready."

With that, the jutsu cut out. Suigetsu irritably pulled his sword over his shoulder and used it to cut through a hanging wall of moss in the decrepit, damp shithole he had to wait around in all day. "Useless fuckface," he grumbled. "Better hurry that slow ass up."


 

Obito seemed to shrink a bit when the jutsu faded, leaving them staring at the front yard instead of a dark cave. "I think that went well," he said to himself in an undertone, apparently bemused at that.

'This is sort of exciting.'

Aiko finally felt free enough to bite down on the hard candy she'd been nursing while Obito monologued. Sharp chips of green apple flavor fell across her tongue and melted nearly instantly. She may or may not have let out a slightly gratuitous moan of long-delayed pleasure. Oh yeah, that's the stuff.

She could all but feel Obito consider giving her a wearisome look, and decide against it on grounds of pointlessness. When her mood was this good, she just couldn't be stopped.

This was going to be her first time using the ridiculously long jutsu, so he was going to have to excuse a bit of fidgeting and silliness. He'd cautioned her that it was an incredibly trying technique, but that made her feel more excited than anything.

Perhaps she should be worried, but at worst Aiko was feeling butterflies in her tummy. She grinned to herself while pulling off the distinctive outer uniform. She could do this: she could do anything. She didn't know where her talent for ninjutsu had been hiding before her eyes got all sassy on her, but the fact that it had come out was thrilling.

Perversely, she was sort of falling in love with her ugly eyes. They truly were awful to look at and they contributed to her fatigue, but they made her combat repertoire so much better that it was downright unfair. What element she was using didn't even seem to matter: breathing fire wasn't any harder than hiding in the earth.

Besides, the ugly eyes weren't a half-bad chakra exercise. The concentration required to change them was significantly less than it had been when she had first started. Obito was more irritated by that than she was: one than once, he'd implied that she shouldn't mess with them if she didn't have the automatic ability to turn them 'off' and 'on' in the way he did. Worrywart. Aiko chose to believe that she was the one who was better off, because deciding otherwise would be depressing.

"Ready to go?" Obito glanced back at her, apparently preoccupied with checking his equipment for the last time. "Chakra pills, hydration? We're not going to come back before we do the jutsu, and it can take the better part of a day."

'This is not the first time you have asked me that.'

Aiko blew air out through her lips in what was too forceful to be a sigh. "Yes, mom. I have a change of socks too. But you know we have to come back," she reminded wearily. "You don't want me wearing the cloak there, remember?"

Honestly. It was his plan; he could recall it for an hour or two.

He made a sound of vague comprehension, apparently only now realizing that she had shrugged it off and piled the hat on the table.

Their mission wasn't going to be that hard, frankly. She was still itching to get started. Hopefully, they would find their target quickly once Obito took them to the village. Most of the plan was up to him: he was going to hypnotize the jinchuuriki into fleeing the village, whether through stealth or violence didn't matter much. The point was that the blame wouldn't be on them when no one could find it. It'd just be another missing nin, albeit a demonic-powered one.

Sensible? Yes. That was the worst thing about that plan. But Aiko had to acknowledge that it suited their purposes a lot more than challenging the village of Waterfall to a glorious battle for control of their beast.

'Although I would totally kick ass, were that the plan. I can't believe he didn't want me to be a front line fighter. Ninjutsu and taijutsu are so much more enjoyable than throwing things.' Aiko flicked her eyes to purple, and then back to red. Purple-Red-Purple-Red-

"Stop that." Obito reached back and gently swatted at her head, ignoring the indignant sound that she made. "The chakra fluctuations are very distracting. You'll remember to suppress that?"

At that, she couldn't help but roll her eyes. Of course she knew how to go unseen.

And that was exactly what she did, while Obito transported them directly in the village that had apparently been hidden behind a waterfall.

'Some people take the 'hidden village' thing much more seriously than others,' she mused philosophically, carefully leaning into Obito's side to avoid colliding with an adorably tiny child who was appropriately incapable of seeing through his Sharingan genjutsu. 'I don't think any of the others are really hidden. Spectacularly inconvenient and remote, yes, but not hidden per say.'

Props to Taki for committing to the name thing, then. For all the good it did them. As far as she could tell, Taki didn't have a single person capable of realizing that two invisible ninja were in their midst.

That was almost a pity, because she might have liked a fight. The vast majority of her new toys had only been used on Obito in spars.

Aiko swallowed that awful thought and wrapped her hand a little tighter around Obito's bicep, tugging in the direction she thought most promising. 'This isn't a game,' she berated herself. 'If we have to fight here, it won't be a fun spar to test out my abilities. It'd be a massacre. I don't want that, what the fuck am I even thinking?'

There was something frightening and insidious about just how easy it was to forget that other people were real and their pain mattered in the way that hers did.

She couldn't let herself think that way. Rationalizing fighting for her life and killing people who were in her way was a necessity of doing her job. Bringing that violence to civilians and people who weren't her enemies was unacceptable.

'I'm such a child sometimes. A brawl in the middle of Taki wouldn't be fun for these people. It'd be terrifying, even if I didn't kill anyone.'

Mood dampened, she didn't try to work up enthusiasm when they actually managed to locate the jinchuuriki via process of elimination. Taki was small, after all, and there were only so many things that shinobi did in their off-time. Since a jinchuuriki was likely a shunned loner, finding it on the training grounds wasn't surprising.

The thing itself wasn't exactly what Aiko had expected, though. The picture Obito had shared was of a tanned girl with eerie orange eyes and hair that reminded Aiko of her base level eyes. As with all shinobi mugshots, it was neither flattering nor expressive. The thin-lipped girl depicted looked ready to reach out and hurt the viewer.

In person, the jinchuuriki seemed almost disconcertingly normal: cute and perky, and as preoccupied with training as any other shinobi.

For all the good it did. It never stood a chance.

'There's something artistic about watching Obito use genjutsu.' Aiko sucked on her bottom lip and watched the chakra move with purple eyes, transfixed by the illusions he was pulling together. The first three layers slid smoothly around the jinchuuriki, distorting its reality and interfering with inhibitions and thought process. There was a worrisome moment as Obito spun a compulsion into the mix when thin, teal brows came together as if the bijuu was trying to shake it off.

She pursed her lips, impressed when her friend soothed whatever objections were roiling in the target. Obito might have been onto something with his claim that the Sharingan could control bijuu.

Point one to him, then.

From start to finish, the jinchuuriki only stood still for about seven seconds while Obito flipped its worldview and made it realize that a walk outside the village would be quite nice right about now. Smoothly, it bent to slip the large, red cylindrical device on its back and took off at an easy gait, round-cheeked face smooth and untroubled.

It looked disconcertingly adorable. Aiko pressed a hand against her tummy, irritated that the tactic she used against others was kind-of-sort-of working on her. She knew that a pretty face on a petite girl could be disarming. She should have immunity or something.

'Apparently, it doesn't think sneaking is the way to go,' Aiko noted, tilting her head in mild interest as they trailed their target across streets full of people that pushed to get away from the beast. 'And no one looks interested in stopping it. Is just walking out seriously going to work?'

That just seemed too easy. Weren't villages supposed to have tight control and regulations? Perhaps the jinchuuriki was so habitually agreeable that the sudden turnabout had them all stunned and unable to react appropriately. That kind of whispering and pointing couldn't be the normal state of affairs.

There was clearly no love lost between Taki's monster and the slightly chubby man posted at the gates. As the three came closer, Aiko had to classify the expression on his face as 'cruel disdain'.

'That really can't be an intelligent way to react to a powerful village weapon,' she thought doubtfully. 'Either you're frightened, or you're not. There's no circumstance in which taunting the demon makes any amount of sense whatsoever.'

People were surprisingly stupid sometimes about the simplest things. She did enjoy the slight break in his expression the moment he realized that 'Fuu' was still smiling and walking towards him en route to leave the village.

The confused scowl that turned to flat-out befuddlement when the jinchuuriki walked out the village without a word was a memory that Aiko would treasure.

At her side, she suspected that the shaking of Obito's chest meant that he was hiding laughter as well.

'I can't believe they're really going to let their most powerful weapon just walk away,' she marveled silently as they followed past the namesake waterfall and a mile into the countryside without a hint of pursuit. 'Are they really so weak?'

Obito elbowed her after a few minutes, which she took as her signal to go. She shook off Obito's cloaking genjutsu with a concentrated blink of her purple eyes and strode up to the jinchuuriki, trusting that whatever illusion he'd put the beast under would keep her relatively safe.

If it had fought, the plan had been to use chakra chains to subdue it. Since that hadn't happened, it hardly seemed necessary. It would probably be enough just to keep the other shinobi calm. The jinchuuriki smiled docilely at her, apparently accepting Aiko's appearance without a second thought.

(Jinchuuriki were not very bright, were they?)

Then again, Obito had expected that it wouldn't find her to be particularly fearsome. No matter what conditioning was pounded into someone's head, shinobi still found it much easier to be wary of a tall man in a lurid mask than a pretty teenager.

She interlocked her arm with the jinchuuriki's companionably, giving a cutesy smile of her own. Aiko was oddly surprised at just how soft and warm its skin was. She didn't know why she had expected anything different, but it just seemed off. A heartbeat later she was drawn from her contemplations by the sensation of Obito wrapping a firm hand around her shoulder—they were about to Kamui away. "Ready to go, Fuu?" Aiko asked warmly.

For whatever reason, the taller female form all but melted against her at the small kindness. She felt a prick of guilt—it was terribly sad that the creature had been treated so poorly that she was vulnerable to this.

"Aiko," it greeted in a much higher conversational pitch than Aiko's near contralto.

It was an effort not to let her smile falter.

'Obito, you told it my name? Very creepy.'

Effective, but still disconcerting. She could have lived without that. On the other hand, if the jinchuuriki thought they were friends, of course soothing it would be easier. The tactic was an intelligent one.

"Where are we going?" Fuu followed up, turning her head slightly.

Aiko let her gaze wander westward, to the isolated locale in the Wind Country's great empty deserts that had been selected for this operation. "Nowhere special." She nudged the taller kunoichi (and it was disconcerting, just how human it seemed up close). "I think my house for a bit," Aiko shared easily, keeping her tone light. "We're going to go see some of my friends later, but they won't be ready for a while."

That extraction had been much easier and timelier than their worst scenario estimates. Obito would probably flit ahead to take care of last minute arrangements like putting out protective seals and traps to keep them from being disturbed while they worked while the other Akatsuki filtered in.

That was when Obito pulled them through what she privately thought of as a void to a safehouse with that same sick, twisting motion and eerie blankness. Fuu seemed a little motion-sick, but not nearly as disturbed as Aiko had been on her first few trips via Kamui.

Without ever letting the jinchuuriki know he was there, Obito tapped his fingers against Aiko's arm in the Konoha code he'd taught her.

Hour or less. Use caution.

'Of course I'll be careful. It's cute, but it's still dangerous.'

She nodded slightly in confirmation, making the motion look natural. She wouldn't have been able to tell that he'd left if she couldn't see through his genjutsu with the purple eyes of funkiness.

Aiko glanced into the jinchuuriki's trusting orange eyes, wondering how she was supposed to entertain them both for an unspecified period of time. They hadn't spent much time thinking about the mundanities of this outcome. Aiko was torn. On one hand, it felt like she should be locking the other kunoichi up and feeding her gruel or something. On the other hand, watching Fuu lean her cylindrical burden against the wall and blink agreeably up at the ceiling almost made her feel like she had a girl friend over.

'There's no particular reason to be unkind,' Aiko decided, twisting the end of her long braid around her fingers. On the other hand, leading the jinchuuriki to the more private areas of the house like her room or the sitting area seemed too friendly. She compromised by indicating that the other should pull up a seat at the kitchen table. Aiko poured herself a glass of water- and after a moment's thought, did so for her (guest? Prisoner?) companion as well. Manners never hurt.

When she came back to the table, she leaned her elbows on the table and her chin into her palms, sizing up the placidly compliant girl-shaped demon obediently sipping at her beverage.

'I wonder what on earth Obito did to it with that genjutsu.' Aiko tilted her head slightly, trying to catch latent glimpses of intelligence flickering in hypnosis-dulled eyes. 'He convinced her that she knows me and trusts me, for sure. What would it take for something like that to trust a person? From what Obito said, I wouldn't have thought it was capable.'

"Fuu." Aiko let warmth color her tone. The jinchuuriki perked up, pathetically eager at the small hint of affection. "Do you remember how we met?"

"Of course I do. You stopped me from using my bijuu in Mizu, which meant that no one was mad at me for causing an incident." Fuu frowned slightly, and added with a bit of petulance, "I thought you were an awful showoff."

She felt a muscle under her eye twitch. An awful showoff? That seemed pointed.

'Obito, you jackass.'

"I later confirmed that my initial analysis was accurate, but you're not all bad," Fuu blithely continued.

'Why is it that Obito teases me even when constructing elaborate backstory?' Aiko wondered, feeling her pasted-on smile waver. 'Did he come up with this specifically to test if I would be nosy enough to figure out what he did?'

Well, he could suck on that. She wasn't going to let on she'd done what he expected. He'd just laugh at her.

"Actually, by my standards, you might be my best friend." Fuu gave a depreciating laugh, rubbing at the back of her neck in a gesture that looked much more genuine than her otherwise muffled body language. "That's pretty sad, isn't it? You haven't tried to kill me, anyway, and you were nice to me at the hotsprings. And then there was the whole thing with Grandmother Time," she continued, before descending into babble about an imagined adventure that made absolutely no sense – something about traveling with a Kumo nin on the lam from the leader of Ame?

She tuned out most of the fantastical nonsense; mind still arrested by the phrase 'you might be my best friend'.

Heat rose in Aiko's cheeks before she controlled herself. Her throat felt oddly right—and that was ridiculous, none of this was real. She shouldn't feel embarrassed or pleased by that bit of emotional frankness. Everything the jinchuuriki was talking about was artificially constructed.

So she shoved the wiggling sensation of bashful pride down and changed the subject to an inquiry about what it was like to be a jinchuuriki.

What she heard indicated that her deductions had been dead-on: there was no one there who could hope to physically keep Fuu under control. So they had resorted to bullying and attempts to cow her into servile obedience.

(If she ever went back to Taki, Aiko might not use as much restraint as she had today.)

'Why does it matter?' Aiko wondered uncomfortably, hooking her feet around the rungs of her chair and letting the conversation fade into silence. 'It seems a lot like a person, and it has a hell of an imagination if Obito was letting it fill in blanks instead of coming up with that all himself. But it's not. So why does the idea of Taki mistreating it bother me? It's not just the illogical nature of that decision, it's something morally motivated.'

Obito gave her a funny look when he came back and noticed that she and the jinchuuriki were sitting in amiable silence, but didn't venture to comment.

Aiko smiled weakly, tilting her face up in a moue of cuteness that hopefully communicated the phrase, 'I'm not getting attached to her.'

She blinked, a little disturbed at that thought. 'It,' she corrected hastily. 'What am I saying, it's not really a person.'

Even as she thought that, Aiko wondered if she was lying to herself. But she couldn't think of a reason that Obito would have lied to her about that. It didn't seem to serve any purpose. If she was willing to fight and kill people for him, why would he worry about this specific job? If Fuu really was a person, killing her wouldn't be any different from killing other people.

Obito must still have been veiled under genjutsu, because Fuu never reacted to his appearance. Light didn't reflect off of his mask when he tilted his head, which was a little creepy. Aiko shrugged it off and glanced down at his hand quickly signaling through a short message.

Immobilize target. We move out.

She blew air out the side of her mouth and turned back to Fuu as she stood and walked around the table, pushing down the odd feeling in her gut. Getting attached was unacceptable.

Trusting, Fuu glanced up. She didn't even move to stand.

Aiko told herself she didn't care at all, easily reaching an arm around Fuu's shoulder in a parody of a one-armed hug. The teal-haired girl leaned into it, and didn't even react when Aiko's left hand curled up through her hair to pulse chakra into the base of Fuu's skull.

She balanced the jinchuuriki easily enough to a hand on each of its shoulders so that it didn't fall out of the chair, wiggling her eyebrows at Obito.

'See,' she said silently. 'I don't care. No big deal.'

He snorted in amusement. "Here, let me take that so you can put on your uniform."

"I still don't see why I have to hide my face from our coworkers," Aiko groused without any real feeling, gratefully latching onto the change of subject. Reluctantly, she kept her face still as Obito easily took the jinchuuriki out of her grip.

It was probably lucky that the uniform covered almost all of her face and shadowed what was left, because letting Obito take her to the cave rubbed in the reminder that they were about to kill Fuu, even if it was inadvertent. The hideous oversized statue that Obito had summoned to crouch over them all seemed like some demon god, and Fuu the sacrifice when she was laid at its feet.

The contrast was odd. Fuu didn't look like the demon in that scenario. Fuu just looked like a little girl.

'It has to be done.' Aiko pinned her lip between her teeth and calmed her chakra. 'Obito told me that this part was hard, but it's necessary for his plan.'

Whatever the hell that was, anyway. Tsuki no Me made little sense to Aiko, but Obito was passionate about it and he was her friend.

Outwardly serene, she made her way to the high pillars that ringed the cavern. There were far more than they needed, as far as Aiko could tell. She didn't comment and instead left an empty space in between her chosen perch and Obito's.

'It stinks in here.' She swallowed, breathing shallowly through her nose. 'It stinks like mold and death. Has Obito used this location before?'

On some pre-arranged order, another Akatsuki –the one she didn't know- sauntered over to the low central point where Obito had dropped Fuu and pulled the massive sword off his back. Aiko grimaced at the almost sensual way he stroked the blade before he allowed it to drop on Fuu's belly.

'Ew. That man has problems.'

Problems like his supremely creepy sword, she realized a moment later as it convulsed through the white wrappings and latched onto Fuu with what appeared to be scales. That was just nasty. She stiffened but didn't let herself look away. It would be both immature and disrespectful to distance herself from what was being done today. It was real even if she ignored it.

'It also looks really uncomfortable.' Aiko bit the inside of her cheek, tasting iron-rich blood. Fuu was shuddering visibly, convulsing on the rocks, brutalizing her own body in an attempt to squirm away.

As far as she could tell, whatever he was doing involved draining Fuu's chakra. Aiko reluctantly admitted to herself that decision made a lot of sense. It was twice beneficial: it would allow that Akatsuki member to pour more juice into the jutsu, and it would decrease the amount of time they had to spend draining Fuu of demonic chakra by getting rid of her regular chakra.

The Akatsuki who could only be Zetsu (the only person present with giant plant fronds that prevented him from wearing a hat) arrived last and took point across from Aiko, on Obito's other side. As Fuu was left alone, Aiko gratefully turned her attention to the people she would be working with.

'Small group,' she noted interestedly. 'No wonder Obito was nervous. This'll take longer than he'd like with only five participants.'

Obito raised his arms first. In perfect concert, everyone mirrored his motion. Aiko licked her lips and concentrate, bringing the painfully long hand sequence she had memorized into the forefront of her mind and pushing away the impulse to look down at the small figure below.

Rat-Dog-Dog-Dog-Tiger-Dragon- {...]

The whimpers started below at almost the exact moment that the group hit and held the last handsign. In the sickest, strangest way, they were comforting: Fuu sounded like an animal in pain, and not a person. A jinchuuriki, not a human being.

It went on and on, dragging out the daylight hours into one long monotonous blur of slowly letting energy seep out. Aiko switched her eyes to red in an attempt to preserve as much chakra as possible. Even Fuu seemed to tire: her pale limbs thrashed less, and her voice quieted for minutes at a time when all she could do was gasp raggedly.

What must have been an hour or so of painfully careful boredom was enough for it to become clear that even with her partially occupied reserves, Aiko was the chakra tank of the group. The others were all relatively comparable with the exception of the lithe swordsman that had stolen from Fuu's chakra. Once his stolen energy was sapped, he drastically altered his output in an attempt to keep from being drained.

Aiko was both irritated by his inability to fairly contribute and sympathetic with his desire to avoid chakra exhaustion. That could kill.

There was a noticeable lurch in the upswell of chakra, and a horrible scraping as one eye began to move on the grotesque statue. She would have known that meant the end even if Fuu hadn't begun shrieking with a new vigor, slamming the back of her head on the rocks again and again in mad, stupid pain. In contrast to the darkening Fuu must have been experiencing, the cavern was growing lighter from the pure concentration of energy accumulating.

Fuu's body was actually being pulled off the ground by the sheer stubborn force of the energy being sapped out into the hideous statue.

It was clearly the end. The demon went out in one last hurrah of vivid white light and an inhuman croak torn from Fuu's abused throat.

She fell like a broken doll in the instant that the cavern darkened, supernatural presence gone. Then she was limp, blood spreading out from her head and dripping slowly down into the rocks she laid on.

Aiko sucked her lip in between her teeth, glancing down. She didn't need to check to know that there was no pulse and that the girl would be growing cold. She took a deep breath and buried any regret at having helped kill a lonely thing like Fuu. At least it was over.

"Good work, everyone," Obito rumbled, voice exceptionally low from being silent for so long.

Despite her determination to be professional, she cringed at that juxtaposition of positive reinforcement and her bleak mood.

'He did say that this was hard.'

She turned her face slightly to look at him, despite knowing that she wouldn't be able to see anything but the light hitting his eyes. She swallowed the urge to ask what was going to happen to Fuu's body. Judging by the group silence, Obito was the only person who should be speaking up in these meetings.

In the end, she didn't have to ask. Zetsu made his way down towards the body, slipping into out of the shadowy heights to the wash of soft light below.

Oh, good. She didn't want to have to ask. It would be a bit pathetic to make it so explicitly apparent that she'd gotten somewhat attached in a few hours. But really, Fuu had gotten a poor hand in life. She deserved a nice send-off. Fire would be alright, although really-

Oh god. What- what was he… Aiko gaped, feeling her stomach lurch at the sight of what appeared to be toothy protrusions extending from Zetsu's fronds and digging into Fuu, dragging her whole into the shadows hidden by Zetsu's cloak. Someone chuckled, but she just felt ill.

Inanely enough, the next coherent thought she managed was, 'I don't think I like my coworkers much.'


 

"That was well done," Obito repeated, letting go of her arm as the kitchen coalesced into visibility around them. The overhead light flickered three times before coming on when he lazily flipped the switch, washing them in clinical brightness. "I think we should-"

"Can it wait?" she interrupted, in a calm voice that did not sound like her own. "I need a shower. I feel disgusting." Aiko didn't wait for a response, shedding the hat and cloak as she left and tossing them on the counter.

Strictly speaking, she didn't need a shower. She hadn't done much in the way of physical expenditure, though the cave had been foul enough that she would have claimed that was the problem if he'd asked. She shed her uniform, kicked it under her bed, and went to stand under the hot water for a while to breathe in steam and think in peace.

'That seemed unnecessary. I don't really mind that we killed Fuu, but the body could have been treated with respect.' A moment later, she frowned. 'I… I didn't like the way that we killed her, though. That was cruel. Is Obito's plan worth doing this to six more jinchuuriki? I know that they've already been twisted, but maybe that doesn't justify what we're doing.'

She remembered the gist of his words at the time—that nine beings had to die in order to buy peace. In the grand scheme of things, that wasn't much bloodshed. Of course, she'd also never seen something killed like that. All Aiko's kills were fast and efficient. But it had taken Fuu the better part of a day to give up and die.

'I don't think she deserved that. Fuu didn't do anything wrong. We hurt her because of something out of her control—something done to her as an infant. I didn't think of what we would be doing in that sense.'

Akatsuki was a lot more cutthroat than she had supposed.

It was ridiculous, of course. But she couldn't help but remember the matter-of-fact way Zetsu had gone about what was obviously a habitual duty and wonder what would happen to her if she ceased to be useful.

No, that was crazy. Obito cared about her. He wouldn't let that happen to her.

Aiko thought she'd dismissed her paranoia, but she found herself making a note to look into a few things. Like excellent seals for keeping her room safe, and whether or not Konoha really had put out a bounty on her that would keep her from going home. Though she had no idea how to find that out, since her entry in the most recent bingo book had been so very out of date…

She'd have plenty of time to start poking around and attempting to fill in blanks, since Obito had been so much busier lately.

'I mean, I have to figure out something.' Aiko swallowed, carefully rubbing about twice as much conditioner as she needed into her long hair. 'I don't really want to do that to another jinchuuriki. At least, not until I understand why we're doing it.'


 

Chapter Text

INTRUSIVE NOTE

I just want you to know that Susanoo are basically mood rings/accessories. You might all know this already, but they're super personalized. Itachi's was red or yellow (depending on manga or anime), Sasuke's purple, Madara's blue, and Shishui's was green and specially equipped to coordinate with his fire attacks. Kakashi's has a scar through the eye like his.

And apparently canon Obito doesn't have or is never shown to use the jutsu, which to me seems odd since the reason Kakashi can use it is that Obito gave him his powers. So, in my head, that means that Obito just never finished it and didn't want to use the early stages in fights because he's a bit of a showboat.

Roll with it…?


 

What she was seeing took a while to sink in. She'd done everything right. According to what she'd read, the only way to mess this up would result in either no change or temporary blindness. So she'd done it right.

That didn't change what she was seeing.

Black eyes. Not turquoise.

Aiko inhaled sharply, touching her reflection. This couldn't be right. But it was—the glass wasn't lying, and she could sense chakra well enough to be sure that the information she'd read jived with reality.

"Well, that makes exactly no sense," she murmured, displeased with the universe at large for allowing whatever the hell this was. She gently prodded one eyelid, as if to make sure that it was really her face she was looking at and not some black-eyed stand in.

It was very creepy. She didn't like this surprise at all. Surprises were supposed to be cake and glitter and cute boys. Not mysterious eyeballs. What the hell?

There's no denying that they're black and not turquoise. According to my understanding of my book, that's impossible. That means that I must have misread the textbook I bought,' Aiko reasoned shakily, knotting her fingers in her hair and scowling at her reflection. After all, a reference used to train doctors for actual hospitals wouldn't be inaccurate. That was just silly.

She swallowed and walked out of the bathroom with her head high, determined to figure out what she'd misinterpreted. In her eagerness to try to get her regular eyes back, she had probably put the book down too early after having found that there was no way for her to permanently maim herself by playing with the chakra output to her eyes. After all, she'd only read the introductory chapter and the one about eyes specifically. She must have missed something.

That faith carried her through the entire textbook. Twice. Her head was all but vibrating with pain and her eyes were dry by the time she finally put the book aside in confused disgust. Aiko pulled the curtains shut against the searing nuisance of dawn brightening the house, and tried to think.

'Alright, if that's impossible, something improbable has to be true. My eyes can't possibly have changed to black in their base state. Therefore, these can't possibly be the eyes I was born with. There's no chance.'

But that was ridiculous. Wouldn't she have noticed something like that?

Then she wished she could stop thinking, since her mind was stuck in a loop of 'what the fuck this makes no sense' and that wasn't helping anything.

It was hard to know how much time passed while she gradually forced herself to calm down and kept her face pressed against her bed. She didn't remember falling asleep- maybe she hadn't, maybe she'd just lain there all night, but Aiko hauled her aching carcass to the shower at noon. There was a terrible emptiness in her chest, and no amount of scrubbing did anything for it.

What she wanted to believe didn't change medical fact. It was impossible for her eyes to have actually changed color in their base state.

There was no excess chakra being funneled to her eyes at all. That meant that this wasn't some mysterious extra stage of eyes. These were the base eyes.

And they weren't hers.

They were familiar, though. How many people did she know who had black eyes? Just Obito. He couldn't possibly be the only person in the world with black eyes, of course, but it did seem like a coincidence worth noting.

'And he would be the only person who I trust enough that anything like secret eye surgery would be remotely plausible. That would take planning and knowledge of me personally.'

She felt guilty as soon as she had the thought. That was crazy. He wouldn't.

'So is finding out that-wait.' Aiko froze, muscles stiff. 'These aren't my eyes. Therefore foreign material is in my body. And where are my eyes?' A shudder worked its way down her neck to nest between her shoulderblades. 'I don't know which thought is more disturbing.' Feeling ill, she carefully set her razor down, giving up on shaving her legs. Normally, shaving with a bare blade was no trouble. Shaking hands might change that.

'I can't believe someone else's eye is in my body that can't possibly be hygienic-'

Aiko felt embarrassed by the overreaction the moment she lunged to turn the water to cold and jerked out of the ensuing stream to the back of the shower. But the steam fogging up the room wasn't making it any easier to breathe, and she seemed to be having an oddly hard time getting enough oxygen to keep her vision from getting shivery no matter how many gasping breaths she took. Deep breaths. In and out, counting.

For a shinobi, Aiko was terribly attached to her creature comforts. But for once she was thankful for the grounding sensation of pinpricks of icy water falling on her skin, thousands of needles biting and keeping her attention grounded. With very precise movements, she reached through the freezing wall to retrieve her shampoo and squeeze out just enough liquid. The heady scent of black cherries instantly flooded the air.

She needed to think, no matter that it wasn't pleasant. Okay, so this had been an unpleasant shock, and reminded her of things she would rather not think about. But she had to buckle down. She couldn't just freak out until Obito came home so that she could ask him. He might stop by tomorrow, or he might not for a week. Waiting would be infantile.

'Alright, I can do this. I can do anything. What do I know, and what can I extrapolate?' The intellectual routine settled her a bit. 'These aren't my eyes, but they're definitely the Rinnegan. Does that mean they're from another Uzumaki?'

If that was true, the obvious assumption was the mysterious, seldom mentioned Nagato. He was the only other Rinnegan user she'd ever heard of. Although that wasn't a good basis for future deliberations, it was an association and not a sure thing.

'What can I know with reasonable certainty?' Aiko chewed her lip, genuinely unaware that her flesh was paling under the cold. She was squeezing her eyes (no someone else's eyes oh god that's repulsive)  shut, after all. 'I don't necessarily need to know whose eyes these are to discern who had motive and opportunity to do such a thing.'

She paused.

'I can't even begin to think of how anyone would benefit from taking my eyes and giving me another set.'

Well, that wasn't precisely true. There were two ways to look at that:

Theory one was that the potential benefit came from whatever happened to Aiko's eyes. Presumably they still existed somewhere, and they were perfectly good eyes. She'd liked them quite well.

Theory two was that the potential benefit came from Aiko having the new ones. If there had been something unique about Aiko's eyes, taking them was gross but conceivable. But in absence of any noted benefit to her normal eyes, she was leaning towards the thought that the situation had been the other way around: the purple eye stage did allow her to do a lot of interesting jutsu. So theoretically, anyone who could convince her to use them for their benefit had motive.

…The only person Aiko took orders from was Obito.

'And he is the only person I trust enough that getting away with something like this is remotely plausible. I even sleep in the same house that he does. So he is around me when I'm vulnerable and I do know that he's a superior shinobi. If he wanted to, he could do something like that to me.'

It was equally evident that there had really been only one time period wherein someone could have conceivably conducted surgery on her without her notice: her long period of unconsciousness and subsequent drug-filled haze after she had barely won against the ambush by that team of Iwa nin.

'Obito somehow found me while I was unconscious,' she remembered, anger bubbling up. 'I had the eyes when I woke up. It fits.'

No, shut up. That wasn't true. He wouldn't do that to her. He was her friend he loved her that's what friends do.

She'd missed something, obviously. Because Obito was her only real friend in the world and he wouldn't do that to her.

Desperate to drown out the creeping doubt, she seized onto another line of thought. No matter what she tried to concentrate on, her mind kept crawling back to the same subject.

"Fine. What's the worst case scenario, then?" Aiko asked herself tersely, tipping her head forward to rinse the shampoo out. Maybe actually unpacking the paranoia would help her move past it and come up with a more plausible explanation.

'The most obvious explanation and worst case scenario is that Obito really did conduct surgery on me while I was unconscious.' She grimaced, teeth grinding together. 'and didn't even tell me. That implies that he thinks he doesn't even need to tell me, or that he had a reason to hide it from me.'

Which of course he would have because that would be a gross violation of her bodily autonomy and human rights essentially a rape via surgery but it didn't matter because he would never do that to her.

This was all very confusing. What would be the point of giving her Rinnegan eyes if she was going to get her own when she figured out how to use chakra chai-

Oh, hell.

'I'm making the assumption that the Rinnegan and chakra chains are connected. But I've never had that confirmed by anyone but Obito. He could have planned this. That's why he bothered to talk about the eyes being connected to the chakra chains beforehand. He was preparing my preconceptions to match up with what he was going to do so that I didn't question it. That bingo book was probably right, and I already knew how to use chakra chains. I didn't 'activate' any damn bloodline.'

Aiko didn't even register that some part of her had already determined that Obito (that bastard what was he thinking) had been the culprit.

But-wait. His plan had been contingent on coordination with the first time she used chakra chains. So those Iwa nin hadn't been an accident- and he had to have been watching, so that he knew when she used the chains! Had he arranged that entire encounter so that he could trick her? It had been intolerably convenient that those Iwa nin had been there-that he had rescued her so quickly- that her chakra chains had drained her so thoroughly at the time but not since-

'Is that why I've had constant migraines? Because my body wasn't built for these eyes? What are they doing to me?'

That led to a disturbing implication. Obito hadn't done this on a whim. Therefore the Rinnegan was important to him-he needed it- but he hadn't taken it himself. Why? That could mean that there was some consequence to having them that he wanted to be safe from. Maybe this meant she was disposable.

Like Fuu.

No, that was bullshit. She was not disposable.

"It would be nice if my head would shut up," Aiko growled, tangling her fingers in her hair and drawing her brows down. She didn't know if she was referring more to the ever-present humming-song or her increasingly upset thoughts.

Why would he do this? What did he want?

She didn't understand his motivations at all. She didn't know why he'd made her help kill Fuu, she didn't know why he kept her around, and she certainly didn't know why he needed her to have these eyes. Suddenly, those things seemed of utmost importance.

(What was he going to do to her when she wasn't useful anymore? Was she going to end up like Fuu?)

She didn't want to think that he would ever hurt her.

'I do know that he's unstable,' her mind whispered, logic unwilling to let that pass. 'It's been either better or less obvious lately, but his personality is inconsistent and he has violent moods. He burnt me once when he lost his temper. Who's to say something worse won't happen?'

Feeling sick, she twisted her torso to face the shower wall and rested her forehead against the comparative warmth of the mint green tiles. 'Who's to say that something worse hasn't happened? How would I know what's normal or not? Everything I know comes from him.'

No no no no no. So he had taken away her eyes and given her new ones, and he hadn't told her about it. That didn't necessarily prove that he was trying to manipulate her by giving her funky eyes. Maybe there was another explanation. Maybe her real eyes had been damaged in the fight –maybe she'd missed a fourth Iwa nin- and then he hadn't wanted to put her through further distress. So he'd hid it.

Of course that didn't explain why he so conveniently had Rinnegan eyes just laying about ready to be inserted into an unwilling skull. Or why he had claimed ahead of time that chakra chains and the Rinnegan came together as a set.

'Maybe the ones I have now didn't start out as Rinnegan eyes. I don't know much about dojutsu, but it makes more sense that there's something special about a person in general than eyes in specific,' she reasoned, licking her lips. 'Maybe whatever chemical or chakra property that activates a dojutsu is fed to the eyes, or in the larger genetic code and not contained just in such a small organ. There'd be no reason for an eye to develop the ability to do all those things, it makes more sense that someone originally mutated unique chakra or something and it manifests in the eyes. So maybe being put in my body after I managed to use my bloodline made my body work to make the eyes compatible enough and that's why my head hurts.'

If… if that was true, then there could be a less insidious reason for surgery while she was unconscious. That would fit with her theory that something had happened to her real eyes she didn't remember in that fight. If her eyes had been ruined and she was unconscious, it wouldn't be totally unconscionable for her closest friend to arrange treatment. Of course there was still the fact that he hadn't told her, but that was a flaw of his. It wasn't a good thing to do, but it did fit with his tendency to assume he could make decisions for her.

A lot of the time he did know better; maybe he'd been right. After all, she had developed a near-paralyzing inability to cope with the fact that she'd died and been brought back so maybe he was thinking of the parallels there. It wasn't nice but maybe it was okay-

'I'm lying to myself and making justifications with very little evidence. No, there's no acceptable reason for hiding something this big from me.'

Suddenly pissed off, Aiko threw the conditioner bottle in her hand with as much force as she could muster. The plastic bongk-d and ricocheted before spinning a few times, pale purple goop vomiting over the porcelain floor and her toes.

"Fuck!" She stomped her foot once, feeling impotent. Of course, that did nothing to help. She turned the water off violently and stalked out of the bathroom stark nude, wiping her foot on the rug in front of the sink as she passed.

It wasn't until she was standing in front of her dresser that Aiko realized she was shaking from cold, not temper or panic. Hastily, she pulled on a blue bra and panty set, plain black pants, and one of the few uniform shirts that she hadn't scissored into a cut-off. Her eyes slowly wandered over to the book that had started all this.

She knew that thought was illogical even as she had it, but that didn't make the resentment go away. If she hadn't bought that stupid textbook because she just couldn't let things go, she wouldn't be dealing with this. She wouldn't be so confused or worried that he had ulterior motives for her or-.

'I wouldn't be suspecting that he really did kidnap me again, if I could have just left well enough alone.' Aiko bit her lower lip, wishing she didn't have to confront the suspicion that she had been suppressing for so long. Because deep down she knew that complacency wasn't safety, but it still felt pretty nice. She liked living with Obito. He was fun.

The book that had brought all this back up sat innocently on her bedside table, as books are wont to do.

Corpse-cold fingers slid over the cover for a moment before Aiko came to a decision.

'There's no need for me to keep this. Obito'll be back sometime soon. If he sees this, he'll know that I didn't give up on trying to get my eyes back. I don't know if he'll figure out that I succeeded, but it's just an unnecessary loose end.'

(And that was unsettling, hiding things from him was just not something she did.)

But what else could she do?

Aiko genuinely did not know what she believed, beyond that Obito owed her a serious explanation and that something in her gut was urging her not to come out and just ask. So she covered her ass and preserved her ability to make future decisions by incinerating the book and flushing the ashes.

That decision was lucky, or at least well-timed. Not an hour later her ears perked at the sound of someone moving around in the kitchen. Cautiously, Aiko forced her eyes back to purple with only a little grimace at the upswell in chakra consumption. She made her way across the house and peered in, feeling exhausted and like she probably had hideous dark circles under her eyes.

Obito was humming as he worked, pulling groceries out of paper bags and washing vegetables. He glanced over at her, red-cheeked from cold.

'It's hard to look at him and think that he's been tricking me. He just doesn't seem capable of it. I know he's an amazing shinobi, but he's also kind of a silly chump.'

Aiko gave him a thin smile, watching as his hands worked lightning fast to pull out a cutting board and snatch newly clean produce from the sink.

His mouth twitched into a moue of concern. "Ne, what's wrong, Aiko?" He tossed a pepper into the air and sliced it in two while it fell, using the handle of his knife to bat one half onto the counter and slicing away at the half that he let fall to the cutting board. "You look tired," he continued, tipping the chopped bits into a clear bowl and retrieving the other half.

'Does he know something is different?'

(Obito was actually wondering if she knew that her shirt was on backwards.)

Completely unaware of the banality of his thoughts, Aiko shrugged slowly, not sure what to say. Everything running through her head sounded somewhere between too accusatory and too passive.

'What would I even say- I suspect that you did something really wrong to me? Maybe we should talk about that?'

"I didn't sleep well," she settled. It was self-evidently true, after all.

'I'll confront him when I either know more or have time to figure things out. Acting hastily never helped anything.'

The shriek she gave when a blank-eyed fish came sailing at her ruined her serious contemplations. That was probably why Obito had thrown it, of course. Aiko caught it at the last moment and grimaced, holding the cold corpse away from her chest.

"That is not hygienic," she bit out primly, trying not to notice whatever greasy liquid had splattered onto her shirt.

'I hate the smell of fish.'

Yeah, that wasn't working. While he grinned at her, Aiko set down the fish on a plate and pulled her shirt over her head. With a scowl at what had so recently been clean, she tossed the dark gray fabric in a crumpled heap on the floor. Obito's back seized up. Without commenting or looking directly at her, he washed his hands, pulled his long-sleeved shirt over his head and handed it back to her, leaving him in a short-sleeved mesh shirt.

She rolled her eyes, but pulled on the oversized shirt. Prude. If he could shove body parts into her while she was unconscious, it was ridiculously pretentious to act offended about a little skin.

Aiko didn't lie to herself: she was definitely not happy with Obito, even if she hadn't decided what exactly she thought he'd done or why. He seemed to figure that out from the slightly hostile silence as they worked. Obito attempted to pull her out of her funk with conversation over dinner. He eventually fell silent and watched her contemplatively, clearly considering a new strategy.

"How would you like to go train your Rinnegan today?" Obito shifted in his chair, breaking eye contact. "I know I've been busy lately," he apologized awkwardly. "You want to know how to summon animals? Or would it make you feel better to know about the jutsu that was used to revive you?"

It was hard to say no to that.

"The second one," Aiko decided, despite a strong desire to cuddle something fluffy right now. She did need to know. Maybe that was relevant to all this bullshit- anything involving Nagato, the only other Rinnegan user that she knew about, could be relevant.

He had apparently hoped she would take the other option. Obito was clearly uneasy, black eyes boring into her with uncertainty. Just as she thought that she might have to summon up watery eyes in order to get him to talk, he seemed to decide something. "Let's go for a walk." He led them a ways from the house, through gently rolling hills and close to the copse of trees where they got their firewood before he spoke up again.

"It's not anything bad," he started awkwardly, rubbing at the back of his neck.

Aiko raised an eyebrow. She didn't really believe him, and not just because she kind of wanted to punch him in the face at the moment.

"There are resurrection techniques that are forbidden, because they require human sacrifices or they enslave the risen dead," he explained bluntly. "Those are meant so that the user can revive powerful warriors and deploy them without personal risk. What was used on you is different, obviously. If it had been, you wouldn't have outlived Nagato. The Rinnegan offers a true resurrection." He frowned.

'A true resurrection?'

At this point, Aiko was actually listening intently for personal interest as well as practical.

"I've heard the theory that what the Rinnegan actually offers is unparalleled mastery of the forces of chakra," Obito shared, extending his arms out in a grandiose gesture. "If that's true, all that a Rinnegan user needs is the raw power and ability to imagine a way in which to use chakra to exert their will on the environment. Theoretically, you can do anything you have the chakra for." Idly, he swatted away an ambitious mosquito, killing it mid-air. "That might explain the versatility of the Rinnegan. That's why you can use all four basic elements easily, learn genjutsu easier, and all sorts of things that we haven't gotten to yet." He shrugged one shoulder.

'Wait. Why does he know so much about the Rinnegan?' Aiko carefully did not frown. 'I never questioned that. But if the Rinnegan is supposedly so rare and not common knowledge, either he did a lot of preparatory work to help me or he knows more than he would just from observing Nagato at a distance.'

He was giving her an odd look, so she hurriedly spat out the first question that came to mind so that he didn't wonder what she was thinking.

"Just the four main elements?" she asked, and elaborated quickly as his brows drew together. "If the Rinnegan is really a tool to help you enact whatever you can imagine, why wouldn't you be able to use lightning, or mimic bloodline limits like wood ninjutsu?"

As far as she could tell, Obito had genuinely not considered that. He gave a small laugh, shaking his head. "Maybe," he admitted. "I wouldn't know. Anyway, we're getting off topic." He coughed into his fist, looking mildly embarrassed. "Basically, you could do the same thing that Nagato did. It takes a lot of chakra, from what I understand. The more complicated the restoration, the more chakra. So if someone is recently deceased and in one piece, effort and energy required would be minimal," he explained, moving his hands as he talked. "If, on the other end of things, someone is long-dead or severely damaged, it takes more. A lot more."

Aiko took a sharp breath. That didn't sound good.

He glanced over at her, face serious. "You could die trying to resurrect someone. So be careful. Not that I think you'd mess with that," Obito added sheepishly, fluffing up his hair. "And it may not be so bad as all that. Nagato resurrected hundreds of people at a time in Konoha, so it's hard to know what the chakra cost is."

Whatever he saw on her face made him feel uncomfortable. He coughed again, eyes darting away. His voice was higher and faster when he concluded, "Anyway, I think all that you have to do is direct your will. Nagato said something- 'Samsara of Heavenly Life Technique,' I think, but it's a mnemonic aid more than an absolute necessity, I think. All you need to do is summon Naraka and make your intentions clear, and be prepared to lose a lot of life energy," Obito explained grimly.

'That's depressing.' Aiko licked her lips compulsively, scrunching up her nose. 'Depressing, but doable.'

He'd already talked about summoning Naraka in order to see if people were lying, after all. She hadn't tried it, but the theory wasn't complicated.

"Er-"

Obito was staring at her face, uncertain. She schooled her face into a belated smile, but he had already decided something.

"This is an uncomfortable, depressing conversation," Obito hissed between his teeth, making a face. He flashed an exaggerated smile at her. "Let's do something else. How would you like to see Susanoo?"

Her eyebrows shot up. "What's that?"

"It's kind of like a guardian deity," Obito explained, putting his palms up and making an 'ehhhh' sound. "I haven't mastered it yet," he admitted sourly. "I can do the first stage: an aural manifestation of pure chakra that serves as a partially permeable shield. When it's complete, it becomes a skeletal or armored behemoth that fights on your behalf."

'Sounds badass.'

"Yes, I want that," Aiko replied without having to think it over.

She watched Obito try twice- once with red eyes (that was still a mystery) and once with purple (Rinnegan. Whose Rinnegan?) before making an attempt herself. Her first reaction was smug satisfaction: seeing his eyes widen in shock and jealousy when she began to manifest a violently orange aura on her first attempt at imitation was pleasing. Aiko managed to note that it was shadowed with faint traces of pink- veins that almost made it look like something other than an orange fog.

Her second reaction was more of an observation. Pain. It was like every cell in her body was vibrating and tearing, screaming and protesting. She let the jutsu go after less than a second out of shock, the marrow of her bones still protesting what had just happened.

"Yeah, it's like that," Obito said blithely.

'Asshole.'

Aiko gritted her teeth, pushed down nausea and that damn migraine, and reached for her chakra again. She wanted to see what her Susanoo would look like.

"Was that seriously orange?" Obito called out after her second try, sounding disgruntled. "Orange, really?"

"You're just jealous," she bit out, licking her lips and readying herself. "Since yours is a dumb blue."

Neither of them made much progress after that initial success. Obito stopped her after a few hours. "Enough. You're shaking," he clinically pointed out.

She didn't appreciate that but couldn't argue with his recitation of fact either.

'I'm not ready to be done for the day. If I have these eyes, I should learn to use them.'

"Can we do something else?" Aiko asked, pushing a bit of sweaty hair out of her face. Her mouth was dry and she was probably dehydrated, but she didn't want to stop for the day yet.

The more she knew, the more options she had, after all. She might need the flexibility in her jutsu repertoire later. Aiko tried to avoid looking suspicious, but the effort was wasted. Obito seemed to have been expecting that. He collapsed onto the ground with a scoff.

"You and your animals," he groused, scratching at his shin. "But fine. Sit down, I don't want to look up at you." Obito stretched, toes curling. His back popped audibly when he yawned. "The theory is a lot like summoning Naraka. You're going to pull from the same dimension that a contracted summons would come from, but you can't contact anyone from one of the clans because they're protected," he cautioned. "So whatever or whoever you summon won't be bound to work for you. Nagato used his Rinnegan to hypnotize animals into compliance, but you need practice in that area."

She flushed, looking down at her toes.

Damn him for sounding so amused by that. Though, really…

'I don't know that I want to learn to control other people's minds. Summons aren't people, exactly, but they are sentient. That makes them both more dangerous and more valuable as allies.'

More relevantly, of course, it meant that they probably deserved the same sort of rights she'd afford to humans. Among those was mental and bodily autonomy.

"So I would suggest using as little chakra as possible and working your way up to larger animals," Obito continued. "I've never had a summons, but I'm pretty sure that's the way it works. The more chakra you use, the bigger the summons that can answer."

Aiko let out a slow breath, skeptical. "That's not very helpful without some idea to gauge how much is needed for a minimal summoning," she pointed out. "No matter how small the animal, I'd still be pulling across interdimensional space. That can't possibly be as chakra efficient as, I don't know, a grand fireball." She shrugged, palms up.

Obito made a rude pfft sound. "I suppose you'll have to just try it and see," he said eventually. "Keep in mind that this is dangerous, and that there are good reasons that our ancestors negotiated contracts with summons. Anyone outside of a summoning clan hasn't agreed to those treaties. They're likely to attack you on sight. I would suggest thinking about something remotely harmless. How about a kitten? Try summoning a kitten."

She rolled her eyes, but directed physical chakra to her eyes and held her hands in the closest seal to help her concentration- tiger. "Summoning jutsu," Aiko enunciated clearly, concentrating on a kitten, and gave a shove of energy into the ether. Chakra sparked and burned through her veins, rushing out of her like water off a cliff.

A shadow fell over her legs. Aiko looked up, up, up, and into the confused eyes of an eight foot tall feline with fluffy orange fur and long white whiskers. Not quite what she'd planned, but- "It is a kitten," she said slowly, noting the disproportionately big eyes and short body.

Obito groaned.

The kitten pounced, attempting to flatten him to the grass between enormous paws. The ensuing whoosh of air sent Aiko's hair flying straight back.

He barely escaped in time, rolling to the side.

'I think I fucked up. How do I suck at something so simple?'

"Get rid of it!" Obito bellowed, fingers stuttering on the last seal for a potent fire jutsu, apparently fighting his reflexes out of unwillingness to roast a kitten alive, no matter how oversized and dangerous its bulk and teeth made it.

She released it, red-faced and unwilling to make eye contact. The summon beast was gone from one moment to the next. Obito sniffed indignantly, pressing imaginary wrinkles off of the front of his pants. He leveled a Look at her.

"Try again, with less chakra," he ordered stiffly. Obito moved to stalk off, and then paused. "A lot less chakra," he clarified. A moment later he was gone.

Left alone, she practiced until her chakra levels began to scrape at about thirty percent of her capacity- which was fucking risky, considering that she had to keep her eyes red or purple while Obito was around. She should have stopped earlier, really. Aiko collapsed to the grass with a groan and cradled her head between her knees. The cat was the least problematic thing she tried—using the snake seal or the ram both led to outright vicious animals, as opposed to one that might have killed her for fun. At least the following experiments were made with significantly less chakra, and resulted in much smaller summons.

'I don't know if that was good or bad.' Aiko chewed on her lower lip, feeling weariness like a physical weight. 'At least I have a handle on summoning, even if I haven't managed to summon anything useful or figure out how to control a summons. No wonder people usually use contracts. That's much safer-ow!'

She stilled, suddenly registering that her index, middle and ring fingers were resting on her closed eyelids. And that her short nails were digging into delicate skin.

'What… was I doing just now?'

Wincing, she pulled her hands down to her side and glanced at her nails.

'There's skin under my nails.' Aiko blinked, registering the faint burn of scratches working their way from her eyebrows to the crease of her eyelid. 'What was I even trying to do? I…'

Need to stop being such a headcase, that's what she needed to do. She shook her head, allowing her messy bangs to work their way over her forehead to shadow her eyes. Lucky Obito wasn't that observant, because she didn't know how to explain that bit of weirdness. What would she say- wearing someone else's eyes creeps me out? True, but that would show her hand.

'Keep your shit together,' Aiko scolded herself, climbing to her feet. 'Just… keep it together.'

A little shaken, she made her way back to the safehouse- and stilled at the sound of voices from within.

"You're certain?" Obito confirmed, voice a little excited.

Zetsu's lighter voice responded. "Yes. Mizu trusts their elder jinchuuriki much more than its history would warrant."

'Jinchuuriki? Oh fucking hell. Not another one of these missions. I thought we weren't going to be doing another one of those for quite a while?' Aiko swallowed. She twisted her fingers into the fabric of her pants, digging into her skin. Her irritation with herself fled immediately, traded out for a jolt of loathing. 'Fucking Zetsu. What a creep. I wish he would just drop dead.'

"It's tempting," Obito allowed. There was a clack, as though he'd set something down. "I hadn't planned on making a move on any jinchuuriki from the five great nations until- but when else will a chance like this come along…" he trailed off.

Aiko remembered Fuu: how she'd smiled and talked comfortably. How she'd convulsed and died.

"It is a golden opportunity," Zetsu rasped. "Unprotected, traveling alone… It would be days before they knew it was missing. And it has run away before. Nothing on our part would be suspected, even if they could contact the village with enough speed to get a retrieval team sent before it was too late."

She held her breath at the low voice, remembering the ghastly slurping sound as that freak-monster-beast had eaten Fuu whole. Zetsu was basically a plant, wasn't he- Fuu was probably fertilizing him right now. She was the reason that his fronds were green. Zetsu was soaking in her blood.

'Pretty rich for Zetsu to call anyone an 'it'. If anyone is inhuman, it's him. Not whatever poor bastard he wants us to go after this time.'

"Alright," Obito said decisively. "We'll do it. It'll take you longest to get there, so head straight to the hideout in Wind where we performed the last extraction. Since they're closest, I'll order Kakuzu and Suigetsu to collect the jinchuuriki from Wave and take it south, through Fire Country. We'll perform the jutsu as soon as they arrive, before anyone has the chance to track us or arrange permission to cross those borders. Any pursuants will be hindered by their own treaties at border crossings."

'I don't want to do this anymore.'

She clenched a fist against her thigh, tuning out the discussion of logistics. Refusing to participate in torturing another jinchuuriki was probably analogous to quitting the Akatsuki.

'How does one write a letter of resignation to what is probably considered a terrorist organization? That was not in the handbook.'

Yeah, she had no idea how to do that. For a seventeen year old, she was terribly inexperienced. Having a guaranteed place to stay, allies, contacts, and monetary resources… Well. It was hard to turn her nose up at that, even though she had some serious fucking concerns about what Obito wanted from her and why he thought it was okay to make decisions about her body.

'If I leave, I'm in unknown trouble. If I stay, I'm in unknown trouble but my material needs are cared for. I'm not seeing a good option.'

Aiko stepped inside as the communication jutsu cut out and Zetsu disappeared.

Obito glanced over at her. His face split into a smile. "We're going to-"

"I heard," she interrupted in a bored tone, pushing hair that crunched with dried sweat behind her ear. "I need a shower, stat."

"Moody much?" Obito scoffed.

She rolled her eyes. "I'm going to need a lot of rest," Aiko dodged. That was true, after all. "If we're doing another extraction so soon, I need to be at my best. Maybe we shouldn't have done so much jutsu practice after all."

He switched his eyes to red, glancing up and down her body. Obito frowned slightly. "I think you'll be good to go," he decided after a moment. "But you're right, you need to rest and conserve chakra so that you're in good shape for the extraction in a few days." Apologetic, he offered a shrug. "I don't mean to rely so heavily on you. It's just-"

"I have a lot of chakra capacity, I know," she acknowledged, pouring herself a glass of apple juice. "I understand. That doesn't bother me."

'A lot of things bother me, but not that.'

Obito put a hand on her shoulder just as she tipped the cold glass up to her lips. Aiko managed to suppress the muscles that wanted to tense, instead loosely relaxing under the gentle grip. "This one shouldn't be so bad," he said encouragingly, squeezing. "The last one was the seven-tails. This one will be easier."

'Yeah, that's not what I'm upset about.'

She twisted to get a good long look at him. He was smiling, but his eyes were distant.

'How can someone mean well, but be so obtuse?' Aiko wondered. 'I mean, I think he means well. He's trying to be nice to me. But he has no idea at all what I'm actually thinking about.' She brushed past him to set her now-empty glass in the sink. 'I don't think I trust his decision making skills. I should tell him that I don't want to do this.'

Aiko opened her mouth and let it hang for a moment, struggling for words. 'I've never told him no. What would happen if I told him no? What, do I think he'll say ok, I guess we're done with the jinchuuriki thing now that the seventeen year old has cold feet? Of course not; he's been planning this for a really long time. Maybe longer than I've been alive. That's not the kind of thing you just give up on. What would he do if I refused to go along with this?'

He could try to convince her, but nothing he could say would make her trepidation go away. Maybe he'd just kick her out of his super-secret club. That would be lonely for her. It would also be a terrible decision on his part, considering all the information that she had on him.

(Aiko couldn't quite bring herself to consider the options that she would consider 'logical', were she in his rhetorical position. They involved more use of force than she'd like to think Obito was capable of bringing to bear against her.)

'I don't like not having an answer for that question.'

"Good night," Aiko said finally, barely hearing his distracted reply.

'I'm a coward.'


 

Naruto wiggled slightly in his seat, seeking a comfortable position. Or maybe it was a less comfortable position that he needed- Sasuke had made painfully clear that he would fall over and die of embarrassment or something something if Naruto something something and disrupted this meeting finalizing something something.

He hadn't been paying that much attention, okay? It was boring. But Sasuke-teme had been very stern while he'd said it, and Naruto remembered tones and general meaning well.

'I will not fall asleep. I will not fall asleep,' Naruto maintained, curling his toes in his sandals. The tensed muscles didn't ground him as much as he'd hoped, so he moved on to other muscle groups. He flexed his ankles, clenched his thighs, and was in the process of discovering previously unknown levels of booty coordination when a blue-clad aide with a stern look crept in silently and passed a note to the Mizukage before backing out in a bow.

'That's not weird at all.' Naruto smacked his lips contemplatively, staring as Terumi Mei began reading despite the fact that everyone else was politely averting their eyes. Finally, something interesting was going on.

It was hard to tell what was going on in her head. Whatever was going on might be private Mist business. She was probably really stressed about having to host a meeting so far from her home country, no matter how nice the hot springs were in this country. Sasuke was definitely not going to ask, busy as he was in conversation with Temari-chan while Kankuro slowly cycled through glowers at the side of his head.

"Hey, Mei-neechan," Naruto piped up, pawing at the air in front of him to get her attention. Conversation stopped. "Whatcha got there?" He blinked twice, letting the big blue eyes that bullied even Jiraiya into humoring him do their thing.

'Mei-neechan' let her jaw drop ever so slightly at that impudence. Naruto wasn't deterred at all. He knew full well the value of his adorability.

'There is no point in resisting. Give in to the cute.'

Naruto scrunched his nose ever so slightly and tilted his head to the side.

The slightly shell-shocked Mizukage seemed to melt, still staring at him oddly. She regained her composure after a moment, shaking her head. "Are all Konoha nin so…" her lips twisted as she sought out the perfect word. "friendly?" she tried, raising an eyebrow. She flashed him a smile that told Naruto no harm had been done. He grinned back in return.

Kakashi reached over and cuffed the back of his head. Naruto gave a little jump and scowled, rubbing at the spot.

"Mean," he hissed quietly.

"I would like to call for a recess," Mei-neechan decided, favoring the table with a languid blink. "Excuse me." With that, she tossed her hair and took off at a pace that was barely above walking. Most everyone cleared out or relaxed in their seats.

'I definitely want to know what that's about,'  Naruto decided recklessly, leaping to the balls of his feet and pouncing after the Mizukage's trailing robes.

The odd thing was that Temari was on his heels. Naruto tried his best not to notice just how much she reminded him of a bird of prey when she passed him and snapped her fingers.

"Excuse me, Mizukage-sama," she called, eyes narrowed. "Is something wrong?"

Mei-neechan turned around, the polite mask slipping just a bit to reveal irritation. She exhaled heavily, rolling her eyes up. "Perhaps. If you really must put your nose in it, I assure you that it need not affect this conference."

Naruto frowned. "Is something wrong?" he asked honestly, tilting his head. "Do you need help? I could do something. It's not like I need to be here—Shizune and Sasuke are handling all the actual advocating."

At his side, Temari gave a practiced smile. "Whatever assistance you require, you need but to ask."

'She doesn't seem enthused. I suppose it's her job to make sure nothing goes wrong,' Naruto decided.

The Mizukage looked at the two teens for a moment and seemed to decide something. "I suppose you could be of assistance, since I cannot afford to send off my few retainers at the moment. Follow me, then." The Mizukage ducked into an office a few hall ways over without speaking, a lead that they followed. The man waiting inside was a stranger to Naruto—a Mist nin with a brown ponytail and a harassed expression. He bowed as soon as she entered, sending a questioning gaze to the Suna nin and Konoha nin following Mei-neechan in.

Mei waved a hand. "What's this about Utakata-kun?" she demanded.

'Utakata? That name's familiar.'

Naruto didn't manage to place it before the Mist nin explained that the team that had gone to investigate his lateness hadn't located him.

"Well, he's not gone missing nin," Mei-neechan snapped irritably, tossing her hair.

The Mist nin seemed doubtful, but didn't say a thing.

"I would know if he was going to run off," she defended, a hand on her hip. "He wouldn't have left the boy." Then Mei pouted, pushing her lower lip out just a bit. "And he certainly wouldn't leave me."

"Perhaps he's just late?" the Jounin offered uncertainly.

Mei gave a little huff. "He wouldn't be dragging his feet, I assure you." She ran a hand down the front of her robes, unsubtly accentuating her curves. "I'm certain that he was using all due haste in his travels."

Temari choked quietly at his side, apparently cluing in to something amusing about whatever was being discussed. She inclined her head, looking less enthused about offering her services than she had earlier. "I would be honored to perform whatever duty would assist you, as our hostess," Temari said with one of those diplomatic tones that meant she was lying.

'I hate not knowing what's going on. I feel stupid. What does the Mizukage's boytoy have to do with anything? Maybe he's dumping her.'

Naruto crossed his arms behind his head, making a face. That would be really shitty. He hated people who did that. That guy should have the decency to cut things off to Mei-neechan's face. She deserved better. "So," he drawled, quirking an eyebrow. "We're going to go find your bootycall?"

Something twitched in Mei-neechan's face. "I hear that your sensei is an able tracker," she said with astounding delicacy.

He sighed, shrugging. "Leave it to me," Naruto promised with flagging enthusiasm. "I tracked down the Pervert Sage lots of times. I'm sure I can find your guy. I'll beat him up for standing you up, and then drag him back here."

"He didn't stand me up!" Mei snapped, flushing. "I'm certain that something has happened."

Naruto tried not to eye her too skeptically.

'Mei-neechan is too trusting. Doesn't she know there are guys like Jiraiya out there?'

Well, that made it his sacred duty to make sure this jerk wasn't playing with her heart.

He reiterated that argument an hour later, while his team leader glowered at him for getting them involved in this bit of pettiness. Temari was receiving a similar scowl from Kankuro, but Gaara placidly waved goodbye.

"It's good for relations," he said gravely, which cut off Kankuro's grumbling.

Sasuke gave Kakashi a smirk with all the self-assurance of a man that knows he wouldn't have to go hunt down some truant boyfriend. "Shizune and I will do our best to fulfill our mission while you are otherwise occupied," he soothed in a way that was not soothing at all.

Naruto snorted. "At least we're not going to be sitting around on our butts all day," he rejoined, sticking his tongue out. "You're getting fat as a house, Sasu-chan."

"Okay, time to go," Kankuro cut in, hurriedly stepping between the boys. He coughed into his fist, giving Gaara one last pleading look. Gaara's lips curled ever so slightly. Kankuro's shoulders slumped. "Fine," he sighed ungraciously. "Let's get this over with, shall we, since the romantics here had to get us involved."

Temari hit him fairly hard.

Chapter Text

 


 

Kakashi pushed the pace, running hard enough that his heartbeat was actually picking up from exertion.

The Mizukage was doubtlessly panicking by now. She'd expected them back the day after she sent them out, two days later at most. He could have ordered the small group to return for reinforcements once it became clear that the Mizukage's paramour had been forcibly taken. But he'd thought they could handle it, and might as well return with something to show for their trip.

'It would have been intelligent of her to share the fact that she was talking about her older jinchuuriki,' he thought darkly. If he'd known that the missing man was the same Utakata that had wandered about as a missing nin for years after the death of the fourth Mizukage, he would have sent for reinforcements. If Pakkun hadn't recognized the old Akatsuki's faint scent, they might have barreled into a confrontation with Akatsuki without warning.

"Just a while longer," he raised his voice in encouragement to the younger members of the team. Even Naruto was panting, despite his inhuman endurance. The Sand shinobi were struggling as well, and had been for the last few hours.

"We'd have caught them, if we didn't have to do the stupid borderchecks," Naruto groused for the tenth time.

He tried not to sigh. 'Naruto, that's not the kind of thing one says in front of foreign officials. We can't have our allies thinking that we don't respect our treaties. It's just not good policy.'

Temari grunted, landing hard and skidding in the sand when she leapt over an abandoned trap from some old altercation. "That only works if you're certain you won't get caught," she reminded. "We would have lost a lot more time if we'd ended up in a pointless fight with your or my border guard."

'How fortunate that Temari is as shameless as Naruto. They'd make a cute…'

He cut himself off before he could make a joke about the two of them as a couple, even in the privacy of his own head. That was just begging fate.

Privately, Kakashi suspected that he and Temari could have stealthily passed both borders without issue if they hadn't been accompanied by the younger two shinobi. Both young men were skilled, of course. But Naruto's strengths did not lie in stealth and Kankuro was a near unknown to him. The risk wasn't worth the potential gained time: However it galled Naruto and Temari, she was correct about the consequences of attempting to illegally pass borders when they were so lucky as to have shinobi from both nations in their party with legal papers.

'I'd feel much better if I had a full team that I knew here. Akatsuki is nothing to mess with. If the Mizukage suspected Akatsuki (and she must have, why else would she have chosen to speak with Naruto and Temari of all the people) then she should have sent more than one team.'

Not that there was anything wrong with the sand siblings, of course, but he worked well with Yamato, and he could trust Karin and Sasuke to watch Naruto's back. Having any two of them instead would have been vastly preferable.

'It shouldn't matter. There's just two Akatsuki, and the one is clearly injured.'

That both was and wasn't reassuring. Judging from the signs, the injured Akatsuki nuke-nin wasn't the one that he was concerned about. That left Kakuzu of Waterfall dangerous and perfectly capable. …No, the odds weren't as good as he'd like. This was still reckless. Kakashi moved from assuming all would go well to hoping that Pakkun hadn't been delayed in reporting. Once he'd realized that their chase was taking them through Fire Country, he'd sent the ninken off to report. Hopefully they had reinforcements coming in hot.

"Where do you think they're going?" Naruto puffed out, frustrated as his sandals skidded on sand dunes- certainly not the environs Konoha equipment was best suited for.

Temari's lips were pressed together into a thin line, and her eyes hard. "Far too close to Suna."

True. "I think they're almost to their destination," Kakashi said instead, because he wasn't going to lie to reassure her about the risks of having S-class criminals so close to her home village. "If anything, they're pressing harder. They're trying to reach something- a hideout, or backup." He grimaced. He should have sent his ninken to Suna instead of Konoha when asking for backup. The response time would be shorter. Hindsight, unfortunately.

If it were any other mission, he would have turned the group north towards Suna and counted that getting backup was worth the possibility of losing the trail. But that delay would mean losing any chance of retrieving the Mizukage's jinchuuriki from Akatsuki. Aside from all the political implications that failure would have, he wasn't willing to let Akatsuki do any more harm than they already had.


 

Killing intent poisoned the dry air, itching like sand on skin.

"What do you mean you were followed?"

Aiko pressed her fingers against her thighs under her long sleeves, as if that would do something to ward off the chill in Obito's voice. It had to be in her head, but she felt so cold.

That was ridiculous of course, they were in the desert. Even in an underground cavern like this, it was cool at best.

"Isn't that fucking obv- ow!"

Kakuzu cut the skinny Akatsuki off too late.

'I think I made my decision too late.' Aiko tried not to hold her breath, dreading the moment that she knew was approaching. If she'd confronted the fact that she really did not want to aid in another bijuu extraction before Obito had come back, she could have left. Maybe she would have gotten away and been able to figure out what Akatsuki had really wanted her for.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

For a long moment, the only sound was the intentionally audible collision of sandals on stone while Obito stepped towards the entrance that the newest arrivals were still lurking in. She'd been there as long as Obito had, this time, and had watched him summon the monstrous nine-eyed statue, presumably from a museum of modern art. (Or, you know, wherever he'd been keeping it. She hadn't asked).

'And isn't that a creepy mystery? I don't like it. Could it be any more obviously ominous if we had sat down and brainstormed? It looks evil. Like something that we should definitely not be filling with tons of demonic energy.'

Of course no one had asked her opinion on that. After the eyesore had been summoned, they had waited. Zetsu had been next to arrive, which had somehow made waiting slightly less uncomfortable than being alone with Obito. No matter how she'd tried, Aiko hadn't been able to do a good job of pretending that nothing had changed since she'd found out that Obito had fucking lied to her and taken liberties with her body.

'He's got to know that I've been acting off. I'm lucky that he hasn't said anything yet. He will soon.'

She felt trapped and stifled. The cavern was just as bad as the safehouse she'd come straight from via kamui. Her legs practically shook with the need to sprint, to leave her problems as far behind as possible. If she caught a glimpse of the sky, she'd just take off and never stop running.

She didn't want to talk to him about it, didn't really want to have it confirmed and finalized like that. She just wanted to be gone.

But that wasn't an option. Not now, and not while Obito had his eye on her. She was fast on her feet, but he could zip ahead of her if he knew her path. She wouldn't get anywhere while he was around. And lucky her- he hovered when he was worried. He hadn't left her alone in days. She was going to have to convince him that nothing was wrong, somehow, if she wanted him to leave her alone long enough for her to fuck off into the sunset.

'Or I could be honest. Tell him that I know. Maybe he won't hypnotize me into forgetting, despite the fact that we both know he's very skilled in that area and I have no ability. And the fact that he's set a precedent for disregarding my wishes isn't ominous at all. That sounds like it'd play out well. Great idea. Now I just need to figure out where we'll vacation while he ensures that I never have access to information that would let me figure that out again. Maybe Kumo is nice this time of year?'

Yeah, not going to happen. Across the open cavern, the svelte and foul-mouthed young man that had accompanied Kakuzu made the mistake of shifting uncomfortably under Obito's slow show of aggressive movement. Kakuzu was far too steely to show weakness, but he seemed cognizant of the very real possibility that their leader was about to attack them for their startling show of incompetence.

To be fair, they really should have killed off any pursuers long before approaching the area instead of leading enemies there. That didn't make her any less uneasy at the black silence Obito was maintaining.

'How have I not noticed before that he's actually kind of scary? I'll just go on ahead and count the ways that I don't want to be here. My surprisingly scary friend is taking advantage of me, he's about to make me torture some poor chump again, and I have serious doubts about my future with the company because the five-year plan is incoherent and the dental plan is shit. I also have concern about the optical care.'

She licked her lips and dragged herself out of her increasingly hysterical thoughts, grateful for the stupid belled hat that hid her mood. It was also helpful for concealing her grimace at that fucking headache. The light-haired newcomer had no such ability to hide his face— the one Akatsuki she hadn't known had taken off his hat for some reason. Perhaps he'd lost it in a fight with the slim man slumped over his shoulder.

Oddly, she was grateful that those two had been followed, even if that meant she had to fight someone. Any distraction would be good, as long as it put off the inevitable time when she had to help in another slow, drawn-out (unnecessary there's no reason for this Obito's lost it completely) brutal kill of someone who'd already been victimized. Aiko was hardly a bleeding heart, but this was kicking someone who was down for no real reason. That was just not her style.

As if reminded that he was still holding their victi-target, the young Akatsuki let go of the shin in his hand and jerked his shoulder to bump his load to the ground head-first. The jinchuuriki hit the cavern floor with a thud and subsequent clatter of displaced rocks, a pale leg bending at an uncomfortable angle. Apparently he didn't believe in pants, judging by his bare legs. Whatever sandals he'd been wearing were probably in Wave country. Against her will, Aiko glanced at the flash of skin and noted that his loose blue kimono had slipped off his left shoulder, leaving him nearly bare chested. If it weren't for his orange sash, he might have lost his kimono completely from the rough treatment.

Despite his good looks, the visual effect wasn't sensual. She looked away. Disrespecting his body like that was just unnecessary cruelty.

Aiko nearly laughed when she put that rumination in context.

'Ha, no, that's a minor problem at this point. Murdering him is unnecessary. Obito's cracked. His plan makes no sense and we're just going to kill this kid for no reason. Fucking fantastic.'

Lavender-haired boy bared sharp teeth at Obito, despite his poorly hidden discomfort. "We didn't do anything wrong, asshole. Ever think that the problem might have been your shit planning? You were wrong about the Mizukage being unable to send reinforcements, obviously."

He was probably right, but now was obviously not the time to grow a spine. Obito's patience was looking pretty damn short.

If they didn't need that moron, Aiko had no doubt that he would be a bloody smear on the wall right now, judging from Obito's posture. In lieu of that, the best he could do was terrify the brat into compliance. Of course, he didn't intimidate the crude way that other men might have. Whenever Obito used his bulk as intimidation, it seemed to be an accident. Of course, maybe that was just the impression he wanted to give. How would she know the difference?

'I never knew him, did I? The guy I knew wouldn't lie to me about something this big. The guy I thought I knew wouldn't have felt the need to pretend that jinchuuriki aren't people to justify what he wanted. I don't think even Obito knows what's going on in Obito's head.'

Obito took a graceful step in, raising one hand slowly –the pointy-teethed boy tensed, too proud to step away and admit fear- and Obito gently tucked a bit of hair behind the other man's ear and let his arm rest on the shorter man's shoulder, fingers stroking the hair at the back of his neck. His face was so close that the younger Akatsuki had to tilt his jaw straight up to keep eye contact with the dark holes in that ghastly orange mask.

He all but purred, "Who is following you?"

'Aiieeee, why you gotta be so creepy? That's not cool.'

She took a moment to be glad it wasn't her that he was lurking over. She thought she might shrink away from his touch at the moment.

Anyone who was willing to drug her and authorize surgery on her was someone she couldn't trust to have her best interests in mind. And she'd seen how he treated people he didn't need. Aiko swallowed, forcing down the same tingle of unease that had been twisting in her stomach all week.

'I don't want to be near him.'

And fuck, of all the stupid things, she felt guilty for that. She couldn't get her head around Obito being the person who had taken care of her for as long as she remembered and being the person who had tricked and used her. It just didn't make sense. She didn't want to hurt him or confront him (because that would mean dealing with that ugly truth). She just wanted away.

If he'd left her at all alone since she'd realized he was going to make her extract another bijuu, she probably would have tried her luck on the road.

Kakuzu stepped in, apparently bored with watching Obito intimidate his partner. "Konoha, I believe," he rumbled distastefully. She could practically hear his lip curl. "A dog man has followed us since we crossed Fire Country's borders. No one else could have been on our trail so persistently. I have not seen the team in person, however. They have come as close as ten miles to us before we lost them for a time."

Obito growled, roughly whipping his arm back and stalking away. He paced like a trapped tiger, apparently blind to the wide-eyed observation of the other Akatsuki. Even Zetsu leaned away when Obito veered a little too close on his angry circuit.

She sucked her lower lip in and bit at the flesh, not letting her wary attention slip off of her friend and nominal leader. It wasn't the most stable he had ever looked.

Reluctant, he stopped long enough to concede that, "Perhaps this is merely poor luck." Obito exhaled sharply, deciding something. "We'll have to take care of them. Since you two have been spotted" - he leveled what must have been a dirty look at Kakuzu and the new kid—"you will accompany me to deal with your pursuers before we begin the extraction."

'Obito is going to take care of this personally?' Aiko was nearly surprised, until she remembered his vendetta against Konoha. No matter what he said, he was bitter about his old village. Of course he'd take their potential interference as a personal affront. A bitter smile pulled at her lips. 'That almost works in my favor. I'm finally getting some time away from him.'

So close, but yet so far. She wasn't going anywhere with Zetsu hanging around to watch her. Obito might not have said that, but it was clear to her that he was her watcher- it might be intended to provide for her safety, but the supervision would keep her from running.

An indignant yowl split the air and tore her out of her depressed lethargy with a start. The young Akatsuki had leveled a rude finger at Aiko. She managed not to jump, despite suddenly being the center of attention. "Make one of them do something," the teen ordered, tilting his hips. "I don't see why I should do all the work."

The sound of flesh meeting flesh rang out. Aiko blinked- she hadn't even seen Obito move, but the boy was sprawled on his rear and gaping, one hand held to his reddening cheek.

"Don't whine, Suigetsu-chan," Obito chided brightly, kneeling to address the young man on level ground. "She needs her chakra, ne, since she'll be picking up your slack later. Zetsu will stay here as well because he isn't a combat specialist. Any other complaints?"

He kept talking, but Aiko was hung up on that last bit.

'I didn't know that Zetsu wasn't a fighter.' She licked her lips, and determinedly did not look at anyone else and risk giving away her thoughts. 'Come to think of it, I've never seen him fight. He's a spy, isn't he? He uses stealth and poison, I think. That doesn't lend itself to stellar combat skills. Maybe I could take him."

Her heartbeat was picking up speed.

It was a crazy thought. It'd never work unless she got lucky, and when the hell had she ever been lucky? But it still appealed to her.

"If everyone else leaves- if Obito leaves and then I get rid of Zetsu, I could make a run for it. He wouldn't expect it. He thinks I'm an airheaded princess.'

Of course, that would mean her escape would leave a casualty, and she hadn't wanted to be confrontational. …Aiko found that she cared a lot less about that drawback when the casualty was Zetsu.

The idea had a certain sense of symmetry to it. This was where Zetsu had eaten Fuu- and she'd helped kill Fuu, Aiko wouldn't deny that, but what Zetsu had done went beyond the pale. Of course, this Suigetsu brat apparently had about as much respect for their enemies as Zetsu. Had he been the one who laughed last time?

'I hate my coworkers.'

Well, whatever. Suigetsu was probably a douchebag. Kakuzu appeared to be the only half-sane person present, but he didn't make it worth sticking around this madness.

Nothing would. Killing Zetsu would be a little bit of justice for poor Fuu. Sure, she felt guilty for inadvertently benefitting from Fuu's murder by taking it as a warning, but there wasn't much to do about it that would ever erase her part in that. It wasn't like she could bring… Fuu… Back…

'I'm not the sharpest senbon in the armory, am I?'

To be fair, it was very strange and counterintuitive to think of dead people as a potential resource. She could theoretically bring Fuu back. She could try, at least- Aiko owed the girl that. Okay, Obito would not approve, but- but he was going to be gone for at least an hour. Probably more, depending on how long it took to kill whoever was coming. Here's hoping they took a while to die.

'He would be so mad…' Aiko's eyes darted over to Zetsu, whose back was facing her. He was watching the other three men disappear out of sight en route to intercept whatever obnoxious tail Suigetsu and Kakuzu had picked up. 'And he'll probably catch me. But it's a lot easier to ask forgiveness than permission. If I kill Zetsu, I bet there's enough of Fuu left in his creepy leaves for Naraka to rebuild her. I'm lucky that Obito hasn't figured out that I know already. I may as well try…'

And then- well, she still wouldn't have repaid Fuu exactly for the kidnapping bit and probably getting her listed as a missing nin, but she'd feel like less of a monster. She'd do one good deed and then take off into the sunset. Maybe Fuu wouldn't mind being a creepy zombie beast like Aiko. It wasn't all bad. Aiko felt a lot like a person. Probably. (How would she know if she wasn't a person? Maybe she wasn't and that was why she was seriously considering murdering a supposed comrade because he was in her way?)

'I may as well save this jinchuuriki too. No one deserves what Obito wants to do to him.'

Maybe she was just ludicrously theatrical, but she might as well go out with a bang instead of a whimper before Obito genjutsu'd the absolute crap out of her.

'And that would be one way to quit Akatsuki. Forget a letter. This would get my point across. Then I'll make a run for it in the opposite direction that Obito took. I… I may as well take the jinchuuriki with me, or send them in a different way. No point in saving them to get picked right back up like errant kittens.'

They'd probably be safer away from her. If she knew Obito at all, he would come after her first, to figure out what had happened if nothing else. In a sick and severely stunted way, he did seem concerned with her well-being.

Obito had only been gone for a couple of minutes, but he was far enough away that he wouldn't be paying attention to what she was doing. Okay, so she'd never summoned Naraka, but summoning in general seemed to be an instantaneous process. If she hurried, she could be running before he even reached his opponents.

'I think I'll owe Konoha a nice thank you letter after this is over, assuming Obito doesn't hunt me down and drag me back.'

Her heart was pounding against her chest with the force of her rebellious idea. It felt so naughty, but also right. Aiko licked her lips, feeling chakra build and concentrate along her spine. Silently, it slipped out in a long cord, twisting into the air above her head. She breathed in carefully, not allowing her breathing pattern to change and indicate that anything was wrong. Her resolve was finally firm: Zetsu was a creepy jerk and he was the only person standing between her and the open door. That was a pretty potent combination.

A thin shadow flickered on the wall barely in Zetsu's peripheral vision as the chain came down.

Squelch.


 

"I thought there were only two Akatsuki," Kankuro commented uneasily. Something of wood and metal clattered on his back.

He couldn't be blamed for his trepidation. Two on four was poor enough odds when the two were Akatsuki. Three on four was an engagement that they shouldn't be entering in.

'We don't have a choice. They came to meet us- they want a fight. There's no backing down now.'

Kakashi might have assured the younger shinobi that everything would be well, if it weren't for the fact that he felt frozen stiff with anger. He wasn't seeing red, he was seeing orange. It had been a long time since he'd seen the other man before, and that had been very brief. The Akatsuki member was taller and broader than he remembered. Not quite as physically imposing as Jiraiya-sama, but close to it. "Tobi," he greeted civilly, voice coming out as cool and unconcerned as it ever did despite hatred simmering in his gut at the stalker, kidnapper, and all around monster nuke-nin.

If Gai could see him now, there would be tears of manliness at his 'hip' attitude. It wasn't even intentional. Emoting became much more difficult when his tension went up.

"How kind of you to stop by for a visit." Something about that low voice put his nerves up and disturbed the hair on the back of his neck. It was both chilling and familiar.

But it couldn't be. He hadn't met this man before in his life.

'I wouldn't necessarily know. He wears a mask for a reason. I could have seen him anywhere.'

Alternately, of course, the corpse puppet that Madara was using just reminded him of Uchiha voices in general. Considering that Sasuke and Itachi were the only living Uchiha, it wasn't odd that a voice like that would sound like something from beyond the grave.

For the hundredth time, he told himself that there was no chance that Madara had gotten Obito's body, and ruthlessly suppressed the grief-maddened part of his mind that wanted to claim that his teammate might have grown into a man like that if he'd had a chance (If Kakashi hadn't been as inadequate a teammate as he was a son, teacher, and student).

"Naruto, your ninjutsu will be strong against the boy. Be careful, he can dissolve into water," Kakashi ordered. Temari and Kankuro should be the ones to fight together, standing against Kakuzu. He would have liked for Naruto to have backup, but at least his opponent looked to be in poor shape after a fight with a jinchuuriki and a run across the continent.

'Tobi was uninvolved in that fight. He's completely fresh. He must have been waiting here for the other two.'

And where did the missing jinchuuriki go?

'Utakata-san has been dropped off with Tobi's partner, whoever that is,' Kakashi decided. 'Akatsuki always travel in pairs. That's the only reason I can see for them to abandon that policy.'

"Kakashi-san?" Temari prompted, face hard. "Orders?"

Ah, right. Strategy didn't do any good if it wasn't shared with the underlings.

Kakashi pushed up his headband and blinked open a Sharingan, already spinning with Mangekyou. This was a fight he would have to go all out on. "Tobi is mine," he said simply. "You two take Kakuzu."

"Your confidence is charming, but I am afraid that you cannot be allowed to go any farther." Tobi tilted his head to the side, somehow conveying amusement. "I apologize in advance for killing you, but all mediocre things must come to an end sometime."

Kakashi blinked.

"Well, that was scathing," Temari commented.

"And rather personal." Mildly offended, Kakashi frowned at his opponent. "Have we met?"

Tobi seemed to leer. "I have been picking up your slack. Did you even try to teach poor Aiko how to throw?" He clucked his tongue disapprovingly. "I've been a much better teacher. You wouldn't even recognize her now. She's a sweet girl, isn't she?"

What.

A flicker of demonic chakra fluttered into being. Kakashi didn't have to look to know that Naruto's eyes were red.

"Stay calm," he cautioned, throat tight. "Don't let him get to you."

Of all the regrets that he had, the distribution of weapons skills he had taught Aiko didn't even register. The implication that Tobi had done his best to twist her and remake her in his image, on the other hand, set his gut churning.

"We're going to kick your asses," Naruto informed Tobi, not taking his eyes off his opponent. "And then you'll regret ever coming to Konoha." The fact that they had been following the Akatsuki team for a completely different reason appeared to have been dismissed.

"Why is everyone so worked up over this bitch?" The white-haired mist nukenin shouldered his oversized sword, elbow curled up by his head. He made a face, sticking his tongue out. "We are talking about the short, dumb one, right? The one that Aloe Vera called princess moron?"

'He makes it sound like she's the group punching bag,' Kakashi realized, feeling vaguely ill. Oh, kami. What had being left with monsters like this done to Aiko?

Tobi seemed nearly as offended as Kakashi felt. Perhaps that nickname hadn't been meant to be shared with Tobi.

Naruto bristled, tensing a moment before he leapt, the beginnings of a kage bunshin splintering off into the air helping him weave a Rasengan. "Fuck you, buddy," he spat out, nearly crashing into the nuke nin.

A grim smile of approval pulled at Kakashi's mouth.

'Well, that's one way to start a fight with Naruto.'

The others followed his lead, although Kakazu was the one that leapt to engage Temari.

Kakashi and Tobi stood for a moment in the middle of the conflict, making steady red eye contact.

'I only have to get one good hit in order to break that mask. And then I'll know at least one thing for sure.'

They moved.


 

'That was easier than I expected.' Aiko stared blankly at the corpse. Tentatively, she came close enough to nudge at it with a foot- it didn't react.

'What did I expect?' She shook her head. 'Of course nothing can survive being cut in half. It just seems like that was too easy. I mean, nothing ever goes that well for me.'

Still. Easy or not, it was creepy. There was little gore. At least she'd been right about his lack of humanity- an animal would be gushing blood. Zetsu's plantlike cells kept everything that hadn't been exactly in the way in place. The splatter of liquid in between the two pieces of the corpse appeared to be vaguely sticky water instead of blood. She didn't realize that she'd neatly split Zetsu in half- the line of his light and dark skin (which was she was surprised to see continued down his body) was preserved perfectly.

'Maybe I really did see him move at the last moment?' But no. If Zetsu had seen the blow coming, he would have avoided it, not made sure it was symmetrical. Aiko shook off the thought, smiling in awe of her daring. Damn. Maybe she really could do this.

She took a moment to glance over her shoulder at the jinchuuriki who was still out cold on floor. Maybe she should untie him before she tried to revive Fuu?

Aiko grimaced. On one hand, she didn't want him to wake up and think she was an enemy. Untying him would be a good hint that she was his tentative ally. On the other hand, he might wake up panicked and attack her while she was distracted with Fuu. Wouldn't that be rich?

"Well, I should get him out of here as soon as possible," she decided. He couldn't be in great shape after being tied up and dragged across three countries- his chances of escape were already low, so he really should get mobile. Aiko wasn't that invested in his survival- her interest was more in thwarting the particularly cruel death that Obito had planned for him because she sort of felt responsible. If he made it back to his village, more power to him- but she wasn't going to hold his hand and like, sing inspirational music to motivate him.

So she knelt, cut through the wire holding his wrists together, and then realized that she had absolutely no knowledge of field medicine or how to determine if he would wake up. All she really knew how to do was hit things.

'Play to my strengths, I guess?'

So she slapped him -pretty hard. Red bloomed on his pale cheek nearly instantly. Aiko held her breath when he stiffened, but he didn't wake up. Dubiously, she tilted her head. "Should I hit him again?"

Yes. Hitting was always the answer. She lifted her hand.

He groaned the second time. Encouraged by the success she'd been having with violence, Aiko wrapped her hands around his shoulders and shook him a little bit.

"Wake up!" she ordered, leaning into his personal space. "This is a shit place to take your nap."

'Ew, he smells like sweaty feet. Suddenly glad I didn't have to stand in an enclosed space with Suigetsu. Does he just have no concept of personal hygiene? Poor Kakuzu.'

One dark eye creaked open with what seemed like monumental effort.

Huh.

'I am the best medical professional, clearly. Just call me nurse.'

Aiko whistled lowly through her teeth, cheerfully pulling him up into a seated position. "I didn't think that would work," she admitted easily, patting the side of his head. "Anyway, do you really want to lie around all day? Go home or something. I've got stuff to do." She rearranged her grip to get his arm around her neck and hefted him up, mildly surprised when he barely assisted her and the bulk of his weight was on her shoulder. She staggered- he was svelte, but she wasn't that physically strong, even for her petite build.

The man's head lolled to the side, the tilted angle putting it nearly on her level in a way that had to be hard on his neck. He glared at her through what looked like a massive headache, eyes not quite tracking her movement. Maybe he wasn't ready to be up yet.

"Wait," he croaked, all but pouting. "You're not Mei-chan at all."

Aiko felt a crease form between her eyebrows. "No," she agreed, "Not even a little."

'He's definitely not ready to be conscious, certainly not ready to be vertical. That's annoying. I don't have all day to spend babysitting him.'

He leaned forward, concentrating on her face. After a long moment, the confusion was replaced with shocked disgust. "You. You again. You haven't changed at all," he accused, gaze drifting, even though his expression remained intense. "Still violent and annoyingly flippant. It does you no credit."

Okay then, crazy. Now he was mistaking her for someone else. Maybe she should have let him think she was Mei-chan. He might have been more cooperative for someone he'd liked.

Aiko rolled her eyes, already so done with this act of benevolence. "You probably haven't gotten any smarter," she sniped, prodding him in the rib with an elbow.

"I shouldn't be surprised that we keep meeting like this," the jinchuuriki ruminated darkly, staring several inches to the left of her face.

'God, he's dramatic. Also, meeting like what? How many times have you been kidnapped by Kakuzu and his junior varsity backup?'

"Oh cheer up," Aiko soothed, giving an impatient glance towards the cave opening that led to freedom. "I never want to see you again either. Actually, I don't know who you are."

There was a shocked silence. Her new friend jerked his supporting arm away from her with effort. Without looking away from what he seemed to think was her face, the poor man straightened the gaping material of his -very nice and rather expensive, she noted- robe. Bizarrely, he didn't pull it shut. So, um. All the chest on display was purposeful, then?

'Oh, he's vain,' she realized. In retrospect that should have been obvious. His clothes were decoration, not armor. She'd probably hurt his feelings.

"My name is Utakata," he said stiffly.

Yepp, definitely a butthurt pretty-boy. Well, whatever. Nuts to him. Maybe she could use this to shock him into waking up properly and complying.

"That's nice. Come on, stand," she ordered, letting go of his shoulder and letting him stand on his own. He wobbled and braced himself with a hand on the rock wall, glaring down at her over a perfectly formed nose. She made a face at his physical weakness. That could be a problem. She wasn't going to help him leave. Her goodwill only went so far.

Well, being mean had been working pretty well so far.

"What, did you break a nail? Come on man, stand up and get out of here. I don't want to have to look at your face." Aiko shoved him gently, trying to rile him up. Adrenaline was going to be his friend here. He'd surely understand why she'd trash-talked him when he was less woozy and out of danger.

He made a small, infuriated sound. Then he teetered to the side and lost his balance, ending up sprawled on his rear and blinking in faint surprise.

'…New plan. Maybe Fuu will be willing to help him out. Actually, maybe sending the two of them off together will increase both of their odds of survival until they get picked up a sand patrol team.'

She gave up on him for now, and shrugged, stepping away back towards Zetsu. "Stay if you want, I suppose. It's not a good idea, but if you really need to take a moment, there is a favor you could do me in exchange for saving your skinny hide."

"Favor?" his voice rose up warily from behind her.

Aiko nodded absently, wrinkling her nose at the slightly acidic smell that Zetsu's remains gave off. Experimentally, she pulled at a leaf above the dark half- it tore easily, like any plant. She didn't see the single finger twitch against the ground, hidden as it was under the scraps of ruined cloak. "Yeah, would you escort a lady friend of mine out of here? I think it's best that you two stay away from me."

Plus she didn't know that Fuu would be particularly happy to see her, on account of the whole 'leading her to her death' thing. Some people were so petty.

'If Obito was right, summoning the god of death requires a considerably larger blood sacrifice than summoning an animal.' Aiko grimaced, glancing down at her scarred thumb. Biting a little bit of flesh off might not do it this time. 'At least I heal quickly. I should be fine,' she assured herself, pulling a kunai off her thigh and dragging it across her left palm. A line of blood bloomed instantly, glossy in the dim light. She squeezed her hand shut, letting the forced muscle contraction speed bleeding until she had a respectable offering pooled on the rocks. Utakata was saying something but she wasn't listening, too busy twisting her hands into a seal.

She tried her best not to think of the liquid seeping through the creases in her fingers where her twisted hands touched, and flicked through a short sequence. Aiko raised the amount of chakra she fed to the technique steadily until it twisted out of her control.

Her first glimpse of the god of death was a massive head clad in tan. It pushed its way up out of the ground without disturbing the earth at all, revealing a black cloth crown and then a red frilled collar-

Ew.

The god of hell was hella ugly, with teeth like pointed tombstones and massive veins on a purpled tongue that stank of graverot- and- and skin the faint blue of an oxygen deprived corpse. Aiko recoiled, even before she registered that the god wasn't going to emerge any further and that the purple flames it was wreathed in weren't hot at all.

'Its mouth is big enough that I could walk right in,' she thought, dazed. Not that she wanted to of course, but it was the sort of thing she couldn't help but notice when the death god's freaking Rinnegan eyes were focused directly on her.

But he didn't speak.

'This is a god. What does that even mean?'

Suddenly wishing that she knew anything about religion at all, Aiko slipped into the deepest bow she could manage, and held it.

Still he didn't speak. Aiko chanced raising up to a 15 degree bow and spoke from that position, wishing she could see to gauge his expression but not daring to be rude enough to look directly. "I don't mean to be demanding or rude, but I wanted to revive the girl known as Fuu. Um, she's from Waterfall."

Graveyard breath washed over her, tugging on her clothes- and it was disconcertingly cool, breath was supposed to be hot but oh of course a dead thing didn't have a warm body-

And Aiko gasped, buckling to her knees with the shock of sudden chakra deprivation. One moment she was sitting pretty, and the next her reserves were scraping the bottom of the barrel. She blinked down at her fingers sprawled across the rocks, sticky with coagulating blood and pale where they were clean.

In her peripheral, Zetsu bubbled, the leaf she'd torn wavering. A rumble originated from the god of hell but he didn't speak, just looked at Zetsu's corpse so she did too as the leaf swelled and gravity compelled it to lay flat instead of drift on its stem. It stretched in length, and began to tear to reveal glistening pink flesh in a pod – like a pea! Stunned, it was all she could do to stare as the raw meat expanded and shaped, losing its blob-like simplicity and developing definition of –were those lungs? Yes, they were definitely lungs but no worry because they were quickly covered by what had to be muscle (and she saw the outline of bone appearing underneath the new muscle just for a moment, before the thing grew skin).

'The miracle of birth,' Aiko thought, and then she giggled faintly. Because that was ridiculous. It was like watching her own birth. This was exactly what had happened to her, wasn't it?

'It was so scary to wake up after that. Naked and sitting in a pool of blood is just not the best impression.'

A lot of those first days had faded in her memory, but that initial terror and confusion was still pretty fresh and impossible to forget.

That thought was actually why she struggled to her knees and used her cleaner hand to work the hidden buttons on her cloak. Fine muscle coordination was difficult, but she managed to get it off and turn the garment inside out so that only red was displayed. Then she waited a few moments. In the time that she had taken her eyes off Fuu, a head and legs had formed. Arms were sprouting- tiny nerves and veins flowing around bones being built from marrow out, and then muscle again and eventually hopelessly perfect, beautiful fingers rested at the end of thin wrists. Admiringly, Aiko stared for just a little too long at the incredible miracle she had witnessed birth itself from a leaf, of all the things.

And then she remembered that she was staring at a naked girl and turned bright pink. Fuu had a nice body, certainly, but staring at her while she was nude and unconscious was just fucking wrong. Aiko hastily draped her cloak over the other girl, still thrilled and fascinated by the faint signs of breathing and the flutter of a pulse.

'I did that,' she realized. 'Well, sort of. Because of me, there's life where there wasn't.'

The ramifications of that were stunning. She couldn't even properly consider them at the moment. It was all just so much larger than she was.

She didn't remember fully standing up, but she was, so it was easy to turn back to the god of hell and give another long bow. "Thank you." Aiko swallowed, humbled by that kind of power. He'd used her chakra to do that, but he'd done the work. That was artistic. "That was amazing."

Just as inscrutable as he'd been the instant she first saw him, the god blinked once, and then sank under the earth.

'My heart is still pounding.' Aiko put a hand to her chest, marveling that the heart she was feeling had been built just like that, out of an idea and someone else's chakra woven into physical form.

"Amazing," she said quietly.

"What was that?" Utakata demanded, sounding just a bit hysterical, as if he had been asking something along those lines for a while. "Uzumaki, what did you do?"

Aiko laughed once out of surprise and a rising sense of euphoria, too high to even remember that she hadn't told him her name. She shook her head, still smiling. "Don't you recognize a god when you see one?" She fell to her knees to check Fuu's pulse. It was going strong.

More importantly, a hand darted out to wrap around her wrist with bruising force, and orange eyes snapped open. Aiko didn't even have time to feel trepidation about her delicate bones being in someone else's grasp before recognition sparked.

"Uzumaki?" Fuu sat up groggily, clutching the cloak to her chest. Her brow creased and she jerked to awareness, surveying the cave. She didn't seem impressed.

Aiko couldn't blame her. Light barely stroked its way inside the hideout Akatsuki had been using to murder jinchuuriki. All that was visible was faint outlines of jagged rocks and hints of scraggly plant matter struggling to survive, and the hints of the hideous statue in the furthest reaches of the cave. And Zetsu's corpse, of course, which Fuu was nearly laying on.

'Oops. I didn't think that bit through.'

Fuu shrieked in surprise and leapt to her feet, distancing herself from the body in a blur of motion.

'Let's not dwell on that.'

"Utakata, this is the lady friend I was talking about," Aiko introduced. The man in question was bright red and turned away, because Fuu hadn't quite figured out that holding the cloak to her chest wasn't covering everything from view. It only took a moment for the girl to realize that and pull on the cloak, holding it shut with her left hand. "Fuu, Utakata will be escorting you away from here. I can't stay with you two." She paused, and then added, "I would suggest going in any direction that doesn't make tactical sense. The Akatsuki you'll be running from is a lot faster than any of us."

Missing the point entirely, both jinchuuriki looked around as if they'd find an opponent in plain sight. "Akatsuki!" Fuu clenched a fist, suddenly afraid. "Why am I here? I was in Taki. Chomei? Chomei?" She turned in circles, as if hoping that she had somehow missed a demon in her initial survey of the area.

It was sort of pathetic, actually. With her little bare feet, Fuu looked like a lost waif.

"Where are you?"

'I'm probably a bad person for being grateful that she doesn't remember my part in this. I suppose she doesn't remember the genjutsu at all.'

Aiko shifted uncomfortably at the increasingly frantic search, digging her toes into her boots. "There?" she offered, nodding her head towards the many-eyed statue.

"We don't have time for this." His words were harsh, but Utakata seemed a bit pitying when he laid a hand on Fuu's shoulder. "I am sorry about your friend. But Bijuu cannot die. He will be reborn after his prison is destroyed, or reemerge elsewhere. You do not have such resilience."

"She," Fuu corrected thickly, rubbing at her face. "Chomei- she's a she."

"Right," Aiko said, dubious about Utakata's comforting claim –dead was dead and short of being extracted again, it was stuck in that statue- but willing to let it go. "She'll be fine, but you should go." She gave a tentative stretch of her hand, making sure she knew exactly how the scabbing would restrict her movement.

'I need to get going too. I'm not going to be able to go as far as I'd like or as fast, if I can't afford to use chakra. Obito said that raising the dead was chakra prohibitive, but I never really thought it'd be like this.'

Stupid, perhaps, but in her defense he'd also said that Nagato had raised hundreds of people at a time. He'd either had hundreds of times more chakra than her or had somehow managed to use less for the job. Aiko didn't have it in her to pull out more than a mid level jutsu or two, and that would probably leave her a useless puddle.

She was still functional, of course. But the chakra that normally augmented her muscles was drained, leaving her feeling heavy- like she was walking through a pool of pudding. There was just more resistance. Was this what it was like to be a civilian, encumbered by the weight of your own flesh? How droll.

"No." Fuu's jaw was set stubbornly. "I can't leave her trapped here. If we destroy the statue, she'll be free."

Oh, for fuck's sake. She was really going on about a demon like that? Besides, that didn't make sense. If a jinchuuriki was killed without extracting their bijuu, the damn thing dissolved. That was the whole reason Akatsuki had expended time and energy to extract the thing instead of just cutting Fuu's throat. Why would the statue be any different?

'This is ridiculous. We're wasting time.'

Aiko rolled her eyes. "And what are you going to do about it?" she demanded, prodding Fuu sharply with a finger. "If I remember right, you're running on empty now, aren't you? What are you going to do, argue with the statue? It's solid rock. That'd take some major concussive force, or a decent ninjutsu."

"I'm not leaving," Fuu repeated stubbornly, stumbling over and placing her hands on the statue as if she could communicate with the demons inside. "I know she's lost to me, but she's my friend."

Aiko stared, aghast at that useless sentimentality. It wasn't a person. It was a demon. Were they even sentient?

'I didn't do all that so she could get herself killed by sticking around here. If it'll make her happy, who cares if we destroy the rock? It's ominous anyway.'

Coming up with the idea was easier than implementing it, considering the collective state of their ragtag group.

"Utakata, you got anything that could work?" Aiko tried, knowing that angle was hopeless but hoping anyway.

He shook his head, not even bothering to follow the women further into the cavern. "In my current state, certainly not. Perhaps if I called on Saikon?"

'He gave his demon a name too?' That was actually a little disturbing. One person being deluded was explainable. Two sounded like there was a legitimate explanation. 'Maybe they are sentient, then? Duly noted. They're not scary stupid things, they're scary smart things.'

All the more reason not to have them around, even if they wouldn't be a fucking beacon to anyone paying attention- namely Obito. "No!" Aiko cut Utakata off, nipping that idea in the bud. "Demonic chakra will bring him running right back. I just… Shit," she cursed unenthusiastically, running a hand over her braid. "Just fucking…" Out of options, she resigned herself to wasting energy on one more useless gesture to make Fuu happy. "I'll figure out how to get rid of it," Aiko promised.

Fuu brightened immediately, blinking childishly oversized eyes. That just wasn't fair, she was too stinking cute.

"But you two have to go now," Aiko stressed. "You understand? I'll do this for you, but I'm risking enough without worrying about you."

Her best option was her chakra chains, as far as she could tell. They took a lot of energy to use, but she got that all back when she reabsorbed it. They were capable of considerable concussive force. Other than that… well, c class earth techniques weren't going to cut it. Water and fire were her stronger elemental suits, but they were completely unsuited for the nature of the task. Her wind element repertoire was downright pathetic due to her lack of interest, which was a shame since the cutting properties would have been helpful.

'I'll give it a real try. If I can't do it, I'll just go. Fuu won't know the difference if I fail, if she's already left.'

Not that she wanted to lie or anything, but this wasn't worth dying for.

"Why do we have to go?" Fuu asked, tilting her head. "Wouldn't it make sense for the three of us to stay together? Strength in numbers and all that?"

Aiko stifled a snort. As if they stood any sort of chance against Obito.

"We are collectively weakened past the point of utilizing that strategy," Utakata noted with just a hint of amusement. "Stealth and haste are better options." And he was looking better, she observed, moving more fluidly than he had been ten minutes ago. Perhaps his bijuu was helping him.

Aiko nodded in agreement, although that hadn't been her primary reasoning. "And he'll be looking for me first," she explained. "Fuu here is probably lowest priority, since she's nothing but a witness at this point."

A disturbed look flew over Fuu's face, as if she'd just realized that her bijuu's absence should have meant she was dead. Aiko was definitely not ready to have that conversation, so she bullied the other two out, physically propelling Fuu with a hand between her shoulder blades.

"But-" the other girl started.

"Remember, you're actually better off not heading straight for anyplace that makes sense," Aiko reminded. "We're currently south of Suna. Don't tell me where you're going, it's better if I don't know. Move fast, he won't be gone long."

"Are you sure you'll get away?" Fuu asked, voice trilling up. Then she slapped her forehead with a palm and rolled her eyes self-depreciatingly. "How could I forget. Of course you'll be fine. You'll just disappear when you're done and reappear somewhere else."

'Is that some kind of joke?'

Aiko felt her face twitch. That girl needed to go get her head looked at, seriously.

Utakata at least had the sense of preservation to firmly take Fuu's arm and keep her moving without apparently caring about whether or not Aiko would survive on her own.

She could appreciate that. Now that he wasn't her responsibility, she didn't care if he pissed or went fishing.

"Good riddance," she mumbled. Jinchuuriki were troublesome. Aiko heaved a sigh and rolled her neck, trying to loosen her muscles. "I'll just… get this over with." She cast a dubious glance at the statue. This was, by any reasonable metric, the least difficult or unreasonable thing she'd set out to do all day.

But looking at it gave her an uneasy tug in her stomach, a lingering trepidation that she couldn't entirely explain away. Like it was something that she shouldn't be tangling with.

"Stupid," she chided, tugging on the end of the braid that laid over her shoulder. "It's a feng shui nightmare, not anything supernaturally powerful."

Just, like, supernaturally offensive to the eyes.

Destroying it was practically a deed for the good of mankind. Aiko kept that thought in mind as she pooled a good half of her remaining chakra along her spine and let it slide into three sets of thick links. She swayed on her feet when the chains erupted out of her skin to coil- triplet serpents twisting up to strike.

The combination of her physical circumstances hit her then. She was weary and worn from days of stress and poor appetite, and her chakra reserves were pitifully depleted. That was probably the only reason that the blood loss for that summoning was bothering her so much- she was already woozy and low on blood sugar.

'I need a nap.'

It was with that less than heroically inspiring thought that she struck at the statue from three angles- directly above the skull and in a pincer from the upper left and upper right- that sent fissures rocketing through the stone. Instantly the cavern stank.

But not of dust. The smell she breathed in was old bones and the acidic tang of poison like vinegar and rotting plant matter.

The top third of the fracturing statue jolted downwards with an eerie scrape.

'I do not want to get trapped under falling rock. Time to go.'

Aiko sucked her chakra chains back in and bolted, common sense knowledge about the general harmlessness of inanimate objects overcome by the startle of fear caused by the combination of noise, stink, and sudden movement. The scrape gave way to dozens of cracks and concussive sound from stone hitting other stone.

"Shit!" Aiko yelped, voice hitting a pitch normally only managed by small children. She leapt over the rocks towards the entrance without checking to see what exactly was making the unearthly racket behind her.

She broke out into the sunlight, dry heat slapping her skin. As soon as she'd cleared the shadows Aiko wheeled around to see- though she kept moving, walking backward jerkily.

"Thank god I'm a coward," she breathed. Foul-smelling smoke was drifting out of the cave, completely erasing the inside from view. It didn't seem like something to breathe in. She waved a hand at it, trying to push away the billows that prickled at her flesh and stung in her nose.

At least it was over. Alright, now she needed to get moving. Utakata had seemed to set a course west, so maybe she would go northwest. That wouldn't put her near anywhere useful or allies, but she was better off laying low for a little bit and letting Obito think she'd slipped past him en route to Suna or something.

Her heart dropped to her gut before she knew what was wrong, a full second before an overpowering wave of boiling chakra hit her and actually knocked her over. Aiko screamed in shocked pain, scrabbling away before she even saw that her skin was peeling and bubbling, before she knew that ugly red droplets were working their way out of her skin.

Inanely, she remembered Obito mentioning the dangerous properties of demonic chakra. He didn't fucking joke around, did he?

'This is a stupid way to die.'

She choked back a sob, lungs burning as if they were full of smoke but it was just poisonous chakra that she was breathing in. Tears covered her vision and made fleeing harder.

Nothing, nothing could distract her from the overwhelming noise of three different throats roaring and the tumultuous clatter of an enormous amount of rapidly expanding matter pulling apart the cave like it'd been made of lint from the dryer.

Some very small part of her was screaming, but the rest of her was frozen in shock.

Chapter Text

Kakashi suppressed a cringe, blocking a strike with a kunai and lashing out in a low kick that his opponent moved around. He tore his attention away from Naruto and firmly onto his own fight, but couldn't keep from commenting internally.

'Things like that are why people are frightened by jinchuuriki.'

The water brat really shouldn't have provoked Naruto. It took him a pitifully short time to rip apart the youngest Akatsuki on the cellular level- when a wind-natured Rasengan didn't do the trick, corrosive demonic chakra and his bare hands did. Kakashi tried not to wince. He half-wished he hadn't turned to see the source of the screaming.

Naruto was probably more resistant to the corrosion than even most other jinchuuriki- he'd been born to another jinchuuriki. His body had acclimated and worked around the poison even as he was formed.

It was still phenomenally creepy to see him only get bleeding rashes from exposure to the same poisonous heat that had vaporized the Akatsuki made of water. A few minutes later, Naruto was fine- not even panting anymore.

"Need help, sensei?" Naruto cupped his hands around his mouth to yell across the distance, too cautious to barge in on such a fast fight if his assistance wasn't needed.

'Tobi is too aggressive. There's no way I want Naruto in this fight.'

Kakashi grunted dismissively, despite knowing that the boy couldn't possibly hear. He dodged backwards and twisted away from Tobi's offensive. It took a few moments for him to have enough time to shake his head in response. Naruto must have seen, because he darted off to help the Suna nin.

'I have to know this man somehow, or he knows me at least. Whoever he is, he seems to want the visceral pleasure of killing me in close range combat, despite an inability to get the upper hand that way. If he'd just wanted to win, he would have kept using the showy techniques that put me on the run at the start of this fight.'

It was galling to admit, but Tobi was more powerful than he was. After all the work he'd done in the past years to improve his mastery of his Sharingan and despite a lifetime's worth of techniques stolen, perfected, and created, he was out-matched.

'Of course, I do have one advantage. He's arrogant enough to want to beat me at my best suit instead of the one where he has a strong advantage.'

And that he could use.

They were both fast-very fast. At their skill level, close combat was decided by how their skill sets matched up and who would slip up first. Slipping up was often precipitated by making decisions out of reasons other than practicality and tactical assessment. Tobi was already compromised- Kakashi had no idea why, but he was.

"What the hell is that?"

The startled exclamation in the distance came a full second before Kakashi had registered the emergence of an enormous chakra signature. Kankuro had been the first to know that something was wrong. Kakashi didn't have time to muse that he really wouldn't have called that, preoccupied as he was with performing a backwards flip to dodge a swipe from Tobi.

'That's not one chakra signature,' Kakashi realized, heartbeat picking up. 'That's three.'

There was no mistaking that for anything else. Three sources of demonic chakra- how many jinchuuriki were in the area?

'This is insane. I don't know about the other two, but one is almost certainly Utakata. Did someone send reinforcements after us?'

He would have spent more time thinking about it if his long-awaited opening hadn't come just as his sandals touched down to the ground. Almost in slow motion, he saw Tobi jerk around to stare, completely forgetting that he was in the middle of a fight. Mistake. Kakashi lunged, fist lighting up with electricity. He crossed the space between them in a millisecond, leading with his arm. He wasn't aiming for the chest.

The ceramic mask shattered, some shards falling forwards. Larger chunks were still attached to the strings that had attached it behind Tobi's head. Victory was thrumming in his chest- yes, this would throw Madara off balance, and that jawline was far too strong for most Uchiha he remembered. Tobi moved backwards too late to save the mask and barely in time to save his face, head jerking up so that Kakashi's fist grazed over harmlessly.

Kakashi's Sharingan registered the movement as if in slow motion. Every fraction of a millisecond might as well have been a minute with his brain running at adrenaline-assisted full capacity. That was the only reason he managed to register a full look at the features behind the flying bits of mask.

His momentum carried him past Tobi, but his feet felt like lead. His landing was ungainly.

'That can't be right. It was a trick of the light.'

The hair on the back of his neck was standing straight up. Almost unwillingly, Kakashi turned to stare. His Sharingan throbbed. His mouth was dry. He swallowed.

Uchiha Madara looked taken aback, as if he too was mildly surprised that he was wearing Obito's face. Half of it was mangled with strange wrinkled scar tissue. The other half was a cruelly pristine marble sculpture of what that laughing boy would have grown up to be. Obito had never been so dispassionate.

And then mismatched Sharingan (and where did Madara get the spare, only one of those was a match to the one in Kakashi's skull) looked past Kakashi in clear disinterest. He clearly considered whatever was happening in the distance to be more important than watching a man fall apart.

"We'll have to finish this another time," Obito's voice said through Obito's mouth oh kami that was his best friend's corpse.

Chidori died in his hand, despite having only made a glancing blow. His fingers felt numb. And then Uchiha Madara was gone. With Obito's corpse.

Blood rushing in his ears was the only thing he could hear. He didn't come down to the real world until someone gripped his upper arm. Kakashi blinked, and noticed that he was trembling.

Naruto washed across his vision, big blue eyes wide with concern. "ay Sensei?" he was saying.

"What?" Kakashi asked reflexively, focusing with a terrible vivid certainty on his student's face. He was so bright. So alive. He distantly noted that the inhuman chakra in the distance had receded a bit, through distance or suppression. His stomach roiled.

"Pajama man wants to make a deal," he repeated, looking more concerned. "He says-"

"Quiet, brat," Kakuzu spat. The nuke-nin was breathing heavily, but three odd masks were hovering protectively around his body on undulating tentacles of black string. Temari and Kankuro looked worse than he did- scuffed, dirty, and probably scraped. Temari was bleeding steadily from her right forearm. "I give you information, and you don't follow me," Kakuzu proposed brusquely. His red-green eyes were narrowed in cold calculation at Kakashi. "I know where the man you care about went."

"He's long gone," Temari spat in disgust, gripping her arm tight to staunch the bleeding. "Don't think we're stupid."

The Akatsuki didn't alter his stony look, unfazed.

'If what he says doesn't check out, we'll kill him anyway.'

Out loud, he said, "Tobi is more important, but the Suna patrols will get you anyway." That show of faith soothed Temari's hackles down, though she still looked ready to spit venom. "What can you tell me?"

'WhathappenedtoObitohowIdon'tunderstand.'

"Tobi," Kakuzu pronounced in a tone with a strange sense of irony (or maybe Kakashi was being overly sensitive). "has gone not far from here. We made the trip to meet you in several minutes' time. He will have used his technique to travel most of the way and then approach on foot to gauge the situation."

"And what is that situation?" Kankuro challenged, cataloging the tension in the group with single-minded determination to think about the here and now because if he let his mind wander he was going to be useless.

Naruto was merely serious, but the Suna shinobi were awfully high-strung about three jinchuuriki in their country releasing demonic-

Two. Two jinchuuriki releasing demonic chakra, Kakashi internally corrected. One of them had dropped off the map. It was impossible to discern whether that meant they were dead or simply under control now.

"He left the girl there."

It took a moment to interpret that dispassionate statement. "What-", Kakashi began.

Kakuzu cut him off, clearly irritated by their inability to comprehend a fairly simple sentence. "The girl you were arguing about," he elaborated. "Tobi considers her very valuable. He had left her with Zetsu instead of risking her coming into contact with Konoha ninja." There was a slight pause. "Zetsu has never liked her."

Naruto made a small, wounded sound.

Temari snapped her fan shut, holstering it on her back in preparation for a run. "Where are we going?"


The thing that saved her from boiling alive in her skin was just how hastily the bijuu recognized each other and restrained their chakra, simmering down from dangerously defensive posturing to what apparently passed for politeness.

Her whole body thrummed with pain, one raw open wound. When the white clouds of rock chalk polluting the air cleared and Aiko blinked away tears, she got her first real look at chakra demons. They were a mixed bag.

A glossy blue beetle with a long, spiked torso and pointed green feet yawned into cognizance, fluttering sparkling wings with the colors of sunset burnt into their delicate membrane. The second beast was something ghastly, built entirely of naked muscle and horns with coloring the angry red of raw flesh-and tentacles. Why tentacles? The last being was –

"A monkey?" Aiko asked herself hoarsely, taken aback at that underwhelming manifestation of demonic power. That wasn't very scary. Weren't demons meant to be either monstrous or majestic? It was hard to take monkeys seriously. She felt oddly let down.

All three bijuu jerked to attention, enormous snouts pointed directly at her. That, on the other hand, was pants-wettingly scary.

Oh god. She could not fight three bijuu on her best day. Scratch that, she wouldn't fight one bijuu on her best day. And if they had the slightest inclination to follow, she wasn't going to outrun them. Fight and flight were time-honored responses to danger, and the only things that would work against a bloody-minded animal. But.

'Utakata and Fuu implied that they were sentient,' she remembered faintly.

So that left groveling?

Aiko dropped into a bow, trembling slightly. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw her braid swing down, completely white with dust. All of her was, probably. 'Please let this work. If they're too angry, it won't. But if they're prideful, they'll like respect. If they're reasonably friendly they won't necessarily want to hurt someone peaceable. Maybe they'll want information. No one else can provide that.'

"What's this?" There was a scraping sound that jarred her bones.

"Brothers, I know that one." Hot breath bellowed over her. Her eyes were wide open.

'A bijuu is standing right over me and breathing on me.'

Did bijuu eat people? They were big enough that she must be like those tiny sugar candies. Maybe the chalk was off-putting? The dust settling and swirling over her feet in pale clouds didn't answer.

'How do people taste?' she wondered, mind racing. 'I could have asked Zetsu before I killed him.'

Little late now.

"Little one, stand up," another voice ordered sternly- probably the most masculine voice she'd ever heard. It was definitely not the same one as before.

She stood up.

The blue-green beetle was indeed uncomfortably close, primly seated with her curved wings pricked up in interest. The other two were much further back. Unwillingly, her eyes darted down towards the destruction of the cave that the bijuu were still standing in, searching out the body of the only authority she knew on consuming human flesh. Zetsu was just a blur, the approximate size of a mouse. And still dead, definitely not very helpful.

"Hi." Aiko greeted meekly, not managing to raise her voice nearly as much as she'd intended. They couldn't possibly have heard her, but the lingering bijuu knelt and oriented toward her, a meaty red head cocking in curiousity. The red and mint green simian put one fist down on the ground without apparently noticing black plant and organic matter squishing up between its (his? Did bijuu have gender? Fuu had implied so) knuckles.

Aiko choked back bile at the casual destruction of half of Zetsu's corpse. Her stomach attempted to rebel. She forced it down. If she was going to die in a moment, it wouldn't be covered in her own vomit. She had some pride.

'The monkey looks a bit more intimidating from the front,' she decided, feeling the blood drain from her face. 'His face is angry.'

The insect demon shifted forward, iridescent wings catching the light and casting faint shadows over Aiko. "Brothers, my host liked this one," she chirped, the split wings that made up her shell twitching. "Little one, little one, you must be lucky. We could have stepped on you."

Perhaps the bijuu weren't as unaware of squishing Zetsu as they had seemed. That might actually be more intimidating than having done so on accident.

"I feel lucky," Aiko lied, trembling without a hint of shame. She was still a coward. Good to know. Things she couldn't fight were still scary. It made sense to be scared of things that were scary.

"Stepping is not the issue at hand." The hamburger demon rumbled. "A human should not have survived such proximity to our unrestrained chakra. What are you?"

"Um," Aiko said stupidly, not knowing where to go with that. She was human. Pretty sure. Her head wandered a bit, darkness sparking at the edges before she blinked and drew her attention back on the situation at hand.

"It's insignificant. What does this one care if the tiny beast was liked by your jailor?" The red monkey's lip curled in a snarl.

'That one is not a fan. The pretty insect looks like my in.'

The big horned hamburger monster was still an unknown.

"Nyah, Son Goku is grumpy." The beetle twisted its long body back to prod a wing affectionately at the hamburger thing. "Gyūki, discipline our little brother."

The monkey reeled up in offense.

Thankfully, the raw meat demon spoke first. "Calm yourselves, young ones."

Over the grumbled words, "You're minutes older than I" and a series of clicking sounds, it continued. "Human. What has happened here? Why are we gathered?"

"Oh my god," Aiko said faintly, trying to figure out how she would even begin to summarize this situation. The rock fragments in her surface wounds itched terribly as her accelerated healing worked to smooth over the blistered skin and inadvertently trapped shrapnel. That was going to cause a problem later, but she pushed the observation away.

"We are bijuu, not gods," hamburger demon confirmed mildly while the monke- no, Son Goku- grinned toothily.

'Sure, that's what I meant.' She gave a smile that definitely didn't reach her eyes and felt like falling over.

What exactly was he asking about? Did he know that Akatsuki had been collecting bijuu? He was the first trapped, so he could well be ignorant. And how much did the seven tails know? If she'd realized what Aiko had done, her reception would probably be different. So the genjutsu must have really done a number on her perception.

'I'm sure as hell not telling them that I was with the men in red and black,' she decided wildly.

She cleared her throat. "Are you aware that the organization called Akatsuki has been hunting jinchuuriki with the intention of capturing bijuu?" As she spoke, her faint tone picked up a little volume and strength.

"Obviously something to that effect," the eight-tentacled hamburger drawled, sounding unfairly cultured for someone so icky.

"Brothers?" The insect piped up, quietly confused. She tilted her head, staring at a bent leg. "I'm getting smaller. My chakra is being drawn away."

"Chomei!" There was a shocked growl from hamburger, and an indignant shriek from the monkey.

"What?" Aiko blinked. Oh, hell. If something weird was going to happen to one of them, she'd prefer that it was the unfriendly simian. Why would it be the beetle- oh. "I think I know why," she ventured, trying to raise her voice above the monkey's bellows. No one heard her, preoccupied as they were with examining the seven-tailed insect and arguing within themselves. "Hey!" she shouted, and then developed into outright shouting, waving a hand in a ploy for attention. "Excuse me, sorry! I think I know why-"

"Stop shouting," Chomei said disapprovingly. At her voice, the male bijuu stopped talking immediately. "Honestly, all of you are dramatic." She clicked, pincers twitching. "I'm being sucked in by a seal." By this point, she was half the size of her brothers, a difference that even Aiko could notice.

"That's what I was trying to say," Aiko explained, curling her fingers into the fabric of her pants. She glanced down nervously. "I brought Fuu, her jinchuuriki, back from the dead." She forced herself to look up, as if to show off her Rinnegan. "I didn't intend for the seal to be reformed, but I suppose it must have been a critical part of her chakra paths after bearing it for most of her life."

The insect sighed with a buzz, deflating. "I wanted to play." She gave a stretch, her wings going out straight behind her in a line. "I won't have much time to use my wings."

'At least she doesn't seem angry?'

"I'm sorry," Aiko offered ineffectually.

Chomei sighed, digging her pointed feet into the ground. "It's not as good as being free, but I love Fuu-chan. She's cute, isn't she?"

Aiko had a sudden moment of terror that the bijuu had noticed her checking out Fuu earlier. She blanched and searched desperately for a distraction.

Actually, there was something important that should be said.

"Ah! Um." She fumbled for words, her tongue feeling heavy and slow in her mouth. "B-before you go, Chomei-sama." Aiko swallowed. Why was it so hard to talk? She never had this hard of a time talking. "There's a man who, um. The man behind Akatsuki is an Uchiha and he said that he could hypnotize bijuu and I just thought you should know about him if you didn't already because-"

"Enough, little one." Chomei, now only about twice Aiko's height, flew closer to address her softly. "I am aware, but thank you. I can do little about him at this time. Brothers, be careful." The last bits of her chakra were wisping into the direction Fuu had gone, glittering on the wind.

'I bet Fuu is going to be surprised.'

When she was gone, the mon- Son Goku, best to use his name- leaned forward to take her place. At his full size, he was hundreds of times Aiko's bulk. Even when contorted so that his chin nearly scraped the ground, his eyes were a good three feet above her.

'So this is how it ends. I really never expected this.'

Really, she hadn't. Giant monkeys had never figured into her life plan in any capacity.

"Why does the small beast care?" He raised one side of his upper lip aggressively, showing off pointed teeth. "It released us. What does it have to gain from our freedom?"

Hopeless, all Aiko could say was the truth. "I just did that because Fuu asked me to." She swallowed, eyes fixed on those terrible teeth. "I. Uh. The Uchiha is, um, my enemy too, and so I just thought…"

"Its cringing bores me." Son Goku reared back dismissively, catching Gyūki's eyes. "Stupid beast. It is less worthy of breath and chakra than speechless apes."

"Brother," Gyūki intoned seriously, as if he was disappointed but knew that his brother was unrepentant. "Be kind." Before the monkey could respond, it turned its attention back to Aiko. "I thank you for your warning, despite the selfish intent behind the deed. Tell me, what has happened to the one they call B?"

It took her a long moment to figure out what he was talking about. "You mean your old jinchuuriki," Aiko breathed out, wracking her brains. "Um. He's been dead for a while. Longer than I remember. I don't know much, I had some-" she cut herself off. The bijuu didn't care about her medical history, why was she babbling? "Yeah. He's dead."

Aiko looked down at her feet and was mildly surprised to see that they were nearly white. Like, really white, and not just pale.

'I have natural camouflage,' she thought wildly, remembering that the rock dust on her skin had come from the same formation as the rubble coating the ground. Haha. Like a lizard. Shame it wasn't helping her hide right now. Maybe lizardyness would help later. Lizardlizardlizard there was something about lizards poking at her consciousness, but now was so not the time.

Gyuki sucked in a breath that took a good five seconds. When he spoke, his tone was an unaffected and factual. She didn't believe it for an instant. "You revived Chomei's jinchuuriki."

Well yeah, but she'd been dead for less than a month. B… that had happened a long time ago. Aiko wouldn't know where to find a sample of his genetic material to revive him. Unless maybe he had a sweetheart who kept a lock of his hair, like in a cheesy romance novel.

'What am I going to do; tell a bijuu no? That'd be stupid.'

She tried not to start giggling, because nothing was funny at all. "I can, um. I can try to do the same thing for B," Aiko offered. "Just not right now. I'm pretty dizz… I'm about to pass out."

The eight-tailed tentacle thing rumbled in reply, inadvertently shaking the ground and rattling loose rocks. Aiko herself was unbalanced, and would have fallen over entirely if she hadn't been jerked into a tall and unfortunately pointed rock that propped her up. As it was, she found herself seated with her shaking legs bent underneath her body and her body listing to the side, arms wrapped protectively around her torso. Sticky heat against her side told her that blood was pumping into her shirt from her still oozing hand.

'When did the scab get ripped off? The bleeding had stopped earlier.'

It was hard to ignore just how pitifully tiny and weak she was in comparison to the bijuu in front of her, and how very much she was at their mercy.

The eight-tailed demon did look a little apologetic at how he'd jarred her. "I will hold you to that, tiny human." Gyūki bent over so that its chin nearly scraped the ground, breathing fiery chakra dangerously close in some misguided attempt to put them on equal ground. Heat licked at her skin- was it possible to get sunburn from demonic chakra? Because her flesh felt tight and hot, like it should be a shiny peeling pink. Where she looked at it, it was splotched with red rashes that quickly healed themselves and were reformed from the chakra lingering by her body. Her head swam.

'So dizzy.'

"Well, this magnificent one cares not if the dirty little beast revives the pathetic jailors." The four tai- no, Son Goku loomed over her, swaying slightly as if it was considering leaping in one direction or another. "Do not revive mine, or I will squash you like the worm you are."

"Okay," Aiko agreed stiffly, trying not to think too hard about that. "I, um. You two should probably hurry, if you don't want to meet the Uchiha. He's probably on his way back." There was no way this had slipped his notice. He wasn't insensible.

Son Goku gave an ugly snorting sound that she didn't even try to interpret, but he gave a stretch and started walking without so much as 'good-bye'. Gyūki cast a disapproving look at his brother and granted her with a polite nod of farewell before he followed, each footstep shaking the ground.

'Well. At least they're not going to step on me right now.'

Judging by how flat Zetsu's corpse was, that wouldn't have ended well for her.

She took a moment to consider the merits of breaking out into hysterical giggles and curling up in the fetal position. It probably wouldn't help anything, but it still sort of seemed like a good idea.

She was so, so tired, and her head was just not cooperating with the logic that it should be using. She could just stay down. Running seemed impossible at the point, and she definitely could not muster up another jutsu without risking her life. Chakra exhaustion was playing with her muscles, tugging tendrils of darkness over her vision.

A glance up showed that the bijuu had set off south. There was nothing there but desert and then ocean, but she wasn't about to play travel agent. Bijuu could do what they wanted with no argument from her. She watched for just a little while- each enormous step took them hundreds of feet. Despite their obscene size, they were out of sight within minutes.

'I need to stand up. Now is probably the time to move.'

Thinking that didn't magically get her up off the ground. Pity. Laboriously, Aiko leaned forward enough to plant her palms on the ground and awkwardly struggled up that way, feeling pain ringing through her bones. Standing hurt so much. It beggared disbelief that she could feel so terrible but have so few visible injuries. One little cut on her hand and a rash from poisonous chakra- oh hey, that was fading again already. Was it normal to heal so quickly? Every step hurt, but she started climbing her way up out of the bowl shape that the bijuu had somehow formed when bringing down the cave.

'Oh, no.'

She didn't have to turn around to know that Obito had just kamui'd into the area. He wasn't bothering to conceal his chakra signature at all. Aiko sighed, feeling her shoulders curl in.

'It was a pipe dream anyway. At least the others got out. This isn't what I wanted, but maybe it's for the best. At least I can get closure.'

She was just so tired.

"Aiko!" his voice cracked. "Oh, thank god. We need to go, they're… close…" She turned to face him in time to see the relief filter out of his body language to be replaced with confusion. Obito's shoulders stiffened, and light glanced off his glittering red eyes when he subtly moved enough to survey the area for details on his second pass. She was too preoccupied to even wonder why he wasn't wearing his mask.

She had to admit that the scene was pretty damning. The squished remains of her minder were painting the rocks, still wrapped in the scraps of his cloak. And, you know, there were no enemies in sight.

"I left you two alone for less than an hour," he breathed in a tone of disbelief. "What happened?"

'Oh god. This is hard.'

She tried to speak, but apparently stuttering at bijuu had used up all of her courage. Instead, Aiko wrapped her thumb and forefinger around the ring she wore on her right thumb, working it off. She tossed it underhanded, letting it make a glittering arc where dying light caught it. Obito caught it in a gloved hand wordlessly. "I quit," she enunciated clearly through a strange thickness in her throat, sounding much braver than she felt.

There was a stunned silence. He broke it with the scuff of a sandal on rock. She flinched back, and instantly cursed the gesture.

"No. You- you did this." His voice was flat. "Did- did Zetsu attack you? Is that what happened?" He shook his head, taking a step toward her. "I knew I shouldn't have left you alone with him after-"

"After things we're not talking about?" Aiko prompted when he cut off, moving her feet to shoulder width. It looked aggressive, but the motion was more to keep from falling over than it was in preparation for a fight, honestly. She raised her eyebrow. "Like nonconsensual surgery? What the fuck was this about, Obito?" She wished her voice hadn't cracked tellingly on that, but managed to breathily push out, "Wasn't I good enough?" Her abused knuckles cracked when she clenched a fist against her thigh.

She couldn't tell if he was stunned into silence or trying not to roll his eyes at her.

'I'm pathetic. Oh god, if I cry now I won't stop.'

Fiercely determined, Aiko blinked hastily. That reminded her- she shut down the chakra filtered towards her eyes to conserve energy. Because she really couldn't afford to lose that chakra right now.

She genuinely had not done that to provoke Obito. That didn't change the completely unwarranted betrayal he felt when he saw her eyes turn black.

"You kept messing with that? I told you to leave well enough alone." Obito's voice was high and stiff. "Why couldn't you just listen to me? If you didn't have to fight me on every stupid little thing-"

"What are you talking about?" Aiko demanded, giving her head a brisk shake to clear it. That motion had the side effect of making her sway a bit. "I never fight you!"

"You do! Everyone does," he shouted, body tensing aggressively. "You- and stupid Bakashi- and your dad-"

'Wait. He said my dad was his teacher. Why would he have fought my dad?'

She didn't want to think about the fact that the fourth Hokage had died young under mysterious circumstances when a bijuu was released on Konoha. She did anyway. Aiko could actually feel the blood drain from her face. Her voice probably shouldn't have been as accusatory as it came out. "What did you do?"

It wasn't hard to guess. Obito hated Konoha, was obsessed with bijuu, and had the ability to control them.

'This was never about me at all, was it? He was just getting back at people like my dad and this Kakashi. I'm a pawn. Oh my god.'

She took a step back.

That was a terrible mistake. The frail hold Obito had over his temper snapped at the thought that she was about to run from him like she had when he'd come to Konoha for her own damn good. "Don't you dare run," he snapped, whipping a kunai at her in a standard opening move from their spars. "If you're going to fight me, fight me."

Well. That settled it.

'I'm going to die.'

On some level, she really hadn't believed that Obito would try to hurt her. But belief didn't stop kunai.

Aiko lurched to the side to dodge the blade, propelled more by panic than grace or coordination. Her body was shaking too much for that. She wasn't fast enough to dodge the next blow- a fuuton jutsu that came as a solid wall of air and flung her up like a ragdoll.

For a moment, she was nothing. Not even a feather, just a bit of weightless nothing suspended in the air. Aiko could see the millisecond that Obito started in shock at her failure to dodge something that would normally have posed no problem. It had been meant to herd her into close quarters fighting, not hit her.

And then she hit the ground, rolling and colliding with what felt like hundreds of rocks. Her arms convulsed defensively around her head, gaining filthy gouges and ugly scrapes and a jarred bone in her right elbow. That move saved her face and skull, but left her torso completely open. She didn't feel a thing as it happened, but she heard ominous cracking through the roaring in her ears.

The first thing she realized was that she had come to a stop, body twisted so that her face was looking up and to the left, but that her right hip was supporting her weight.

The next thing was the realization that breathing was difficult.

The sound she made when she inhaled was a raspy gurgle. And- and it didn't do what it was supposed to do, she wasn't getting any air. Panicked and winded, she tried again. Her stomach roiled and she coughed, vomiting except no, that was just warm blood trickling out of her mouth and painting the ground. A few seconds of effort was enough for her muscles to turn to shaking jelly.

'Well, this sucks.'

Black spots stole across her vision at about the same time that shock faded away and she realized that her left arm was visibly broken and that there was an incredible pain in her chest. She tried not to move.

She should have been terrified. But all she wanted to do was hold very, very still. Just for a bit. Maybe rest.

'Sorry, hamburger. I don't think I'll bring back your bee,' Aiko thought regretfully. She hadn't meant to lie, honest. She'd never lie to meat. She loved meat.

"Aiko?" Obito sounded like he was talking to her through water. "I didn't mean to- get up," he pleaded, voice wavering strangely.

She closed her eyes. And then jerked them open again with a wet shriek at the feeling of a hand laid gently on her shoulder, it hurt oh it hurt. Stricken, Obito pulled his hand back, eyes wide.

"I didn't mean to," he repeated brokenly. Aiko couldn't reply through the liquid in her throat, so she sort of gurgled and spat instead. Obito gave an odd little sob, shaking his head. "I… I don't know what to do. I could take you to a civilian hospital but that's not the same. Medic, you need a-" he cut himself off. "That Konoha team must have a medic," he said slowly, in a tone of unwilling realization. "They're very close. They'll come this way, but with a little persuasion they'll hurry."

Aiko was too far gone to question that naïve assumption, or what it meant that he would put her well-being ahead of his hatred for Konoha. She was having a hard time caring about anything at the moment, actually. The look on Obito's face managed to bring her down a bit.

"I can't believe I'm hoping Bakashi will help," Obito said, still sounding stunned. "I..." He began making handsigns with a dazed expression. "Friend killer. That's him. Not me."

She vaguely put together that he was talking about the once-mentioned incident where Kakashi had murdered their third teammate, before he tilted his head back, brought his hands up to his mouth, and blew.

Apparently, 'a little persuasion' meant shooting three grand fireballs directly up into the air, in what the Konoha team would undoubtedly interpret as an exceptionally sassy 'come and get me, big boys'. In fairness, it was likely to bring them running. It was just… That wasn't Obito's style at all.

'He's totally losing it.' She licked her lips and tried to say something, but that just wasn't happening. Breathing was hard enough. Instead, she curled her fingers slightly and brought her hand up. Obito took it wordlessly, red eyes fixed on her eyes with uncomfortable intensity. She rubbed her thumb along his fingers and tried to communicate with her eyes in combination with awkwardly formed sign language with the hand he was holding.

I know you didn't mean to.

She wouldn't say that it was alright, or not his fault. Nothing was alright, and everything that had led them here could be attributed to him. He'd notice the specific wording and that he wasn't forgiven. Just, you know, that he hadn't murdered her on purpose. Aiko wasn't about to start mincing words to spare his feelings now. Wasn't really her thing.

'What an impulsive idiot. It's amazing that I find him likable.'

A muscle contracted in his throat, lines moving in a way that she noted but couldn't compute at the moment.

"They're almost here," he promised, voice distant but eyes intently on her. It looked like he was memorizing her face. His own was pale, from what she could see through her eyelashes.

She managed to shrug one shoulder. It was hard to care right now, fuzzy as her thoughts were. Her attention kept drifting inward to wavering darkness, away from stupid ugly rocks and the rubble of that statue and her pathetically codependent friend. Wasn't it common sense that you shouldn't break things you don't want to live without? Dumb Obito. She sucked in a breath and then had to exhale immediately, grimacing at the convulsions her insides were going through in an attempt to force out the liquid.

'Which is sort of a shame, really, blood is important. I lost blood earlier,' Aiko remembered dully. Yeah, that was probably not good. 'Now would have been a good time for one of us to have the bare minimum of field medicine competency. Goddamn.'

Obito flinched. "I'm sorry," he repeated brokenly, bending over a little.

'Is that all he can say?' Aiko managed a frown. 'I think that if anyone should be throwing a fit, it'd be me.' Laboriously she twisted her body so that her weight was on her back. He rushed to help, propping her up into a seated position and helping her rest against the steep outcropping she'd fallen off of. Maybe it was in her head, but that change in position made it easier for her to croak out, "Crybaby."

He gave a startled laugh with more enthusiasm than the lackluster taunt deserved, fingers clenching around her hand.

She couldn't reply- the exertion of speaking had set her to coughing again, but this position was much better- it allowed her to actually hack up a good chunk of slimy blood to the left of her legs. It splattered on the underside of her calves.

'Ew.' Aiko cringed. 'But at least I'm not choking on it anymore.' Breathing was a little easier, at least momentarily. She was cheered for a moment. Then she remembered what that meant.

'Awesome. I'll survive drowning in blood and die of blood loss instead. At least my legacy will be that of an unparalleled jackass who accidentally released two bijuu on an unsuspecting desert. Awesome.' She paused thoughtfully. 'Poor lizards.'

It could be worse than blood loss. Instead of struggling, she'd sort of just fall asleep. There wasn't energy left in her body to be frightened or angry about that. Just resignment. She'd already died once, after all. Her time had run out. And at least this was less gross and scary than it could have been. Everyone dies. She'd go see the creepy death god again sooner than planned, that was all.

Judging by his state of upset and the litany of incoherent apologies that Obito was spouting off, he wasn't taking that fact with anywhere near as much dignity.

She drew her eyebrows down into a disapproving V. The hysterics weren't any more appealing than his earlier loss of temper had been. Aiko didn't know if that was the message he got exactly, but his face smoothed out into a better facsimile of professional detachment. It would have been more convincing if he'd let go of her hand.

Obito let out a long, shaky breath, and squeezed her hand just a little too tightly. "I." He swallowed. "I apologize. And it's not that- not what you said earlier," he babbled, averting his eyes.

Aiko didn't remember what he was talking about or know if he was apologizing for smacking her down a small mountain of rubble or for stealthy surgery. She closed her eyes. His voice was hurting her head. She wished he would stop talking and just let her rest.

There was a moment of silence. He took his hand off of hers. She only now noticed that she was cold. "I'll see you around," he promised shakily.

'Yeah right. Pretty sure this is the end of the line for me, buddy.'

It was cowardly of him to kamui away instead of waiting with her, but Aiko didn't entirely blame him. She was a coward too, after all. She hadn't wanted to hurt him either. His leaving was a relief. Without him hovering and talking at her, it was easy to slip under the veil of consciousness.

She opened her eyes a few minutes later, roused by the sounds of her own pathetic struggle for air. Or maybe not- multiple voices were ringing out not too far away, probably on the other side of the uplifted ring of rubble she'd fallen down. 'Oh my god, shut up.' They were far enough away that it was impossible to understand what they were saying, or maybe that was just the blood rushing in her ears.

Aiko waited patiently for approximately forty seconds before her blood began to boil. She'd never dealt well with frustration.

'Fucking rude, is what it is. Can't I die in peace?'

Irritable and in pain, Aiko struggled around and closed her right hand around a sharp rock the size of her palm with the hopes of hitting someone and making them suffer. Then she picked up one the size of her thumb, because she couldn't easily lift the first one. She couldn't see at all, but throwing it blindly over her head in the direction of the voices did a little bit for her pent-up aggression. The motion nearly overbalanced her, since her broken left forearm was completely useless as a brace. It was worth slumping to that elbow and being unable to sit back up properly. Supporting any weight on that arm hurt like a bitch, yeah, but satisfaction soothed all ills.

'I hope I hit one of them.'

She tried to cackle at the image that put in her head, but blood got in the way. She wheezed quietly for a few moments, face purpling. That soured her mood again. If they hadn't made her laugh at them, she wouldn't have disrupted her carefully shallow breathing patterns.

'Stupid bastards,' she thought viciously.

Granted, that was probably more her fault than theirs, but she was dying. She was allowed to be a little dramatic.

The voices had halted, and for one blissful minute she thought they were going to fuck off. Then they started back up again louder. Angrily, she scrabbled for another rock and banged it down in short bursts, using the sound code Obito'd known to demand quiet- and not all that politely, for that matter. Just moving stretched her skin painfully. She didn't appreciate the need.

Four bodies whooshed overhead and landed back to back in a diamond formation a few dozen feet off. Anticlimactically, they appeared to completely overlook the spot where she was slumped in the shadow of an overhang. Ugh, honestly. Stupid blurry jackasses couldn't do anything right.

She rolled her eyes and threw her glorified pebble at the closest chump, the one facing her- some dork in hooded pajamas. He caught it, of course, and his eyes went wide when he followed the path of flight back to her.

Aiko bared her teeth, taking advantage of the fact that they were covered in her own blood. It wasn't like she was going to get to use her usual method of persuasion- looking cute and harmless.

Pajamas took a startled step backwards, into what appeared to be a traffic cone in a Konoha flak jacket. The painfully bright shape staggered and twisted around, barely keeping Pajamas from falling. The two shinobi who'd taken the north and south points seemed to deflate in embarrassment, turning in the direction that the other two were already looking at. And they froze.

To be fair, she probably looked like shit. The parts of her that weren't covered in blood were coated nicely in small rocks and white dust. …That phrasing implied that there wasn't overlap. There was, but she sort of preferred not to think of bloody mud getting stuck under her nails and in her hair, ew. If she lived (ha! She didn't realize she was an optimist), she was never getting this shit out of her hair. Rock dust was worse than flour—she couldn't bear to look, but her hair was probably one stiff glutinous mass. Attractive.

"Do you need help?" Pajamas stammered, sandaled feet spread wide.

'Moron.'

She didn't want his help.

"No," Aiko hacked out, glowering. "I'm exactly where I want to be doing exactly what I want. This is the plan. Fuck off so I can die in peace." A disgracefully large portion of those words came out as wet gargles, but she thought she got her point across.

"Oh my god," a female voice said faintly. "Is that-" She cut off, apparently too horrified to finish her sentence.

'Stuck-up priss. Like you've never rolled around in blood.' Aiko felt oddly insulted, despite her personal assessment that she was indeed a hot mess. It was okay for her to say, not anyone else.

'That was rude. I bet you don't look so hot - with a rock in your face!'

She took a guess at the speaker and chucked another rock, managing to nail the vaguely grey spiky blob. It was either too slow or too stunned to move. 'I can die happy now, knowing that I mildly inconvenienced strangers.' She raised an eyebrow in challenge, trying not to snicker. She was almost glad they'd showed up. At least in her last moments, she got to be grumpy. Aiko showed her bloody teeth again. "What're ya gonna do, kill me?"

It was probably best for posterity that she passed out at that point before she managed to incriminate herself for that whole bijuu thing in front of the Kazekage's siblings.

Chapter Text

"I know you're awake."

Aiko grudgingly cracked an eye open. The speaker had his back to her, but appeared to be a well-built young man. He turned just enough for her to catch his face in profile. If she had to guess, she'd say he was a medic. She might have guessed nurse, since they tended to be the pretty ones according to her personal bible (Icha Icha), but the grouchy tone just didn't fit the stereotype.

That was more because of the fact that she appeared to be a hospital room than any of her honed deductive skills.

'This is a surprise.' With some effort, she hauled herself to a seated position against the flimsy headboard and suspiciously catalogued her surroundings. 'Last thing I remember, I was… Oh. Right.'

Icha Icha, how long had she been out? This wasn't some backwater clinic. The equipment she saw was as gleaming as it was mysterious in function. That was the kind of funding that Hidden villages had and almost nobody else could afford. Wherever she was, she was in deep shit.

She could only conclude that the team that had been bothering Obito had dragged her away with them- so, what, did they want her to tattle on Akatsuki? She was in enemy hands? That would explain their motivation for taking her to get medical treatment-a dead informant was no use.

Aiko should have been intimidated, but she was more put-out than anything. It might be drug-induced malaise, but her most prominent feeling was indignation. They hadn't even restrained her or put her in a cell or whatever.

'I know I don't exactly give off an aura of danger—' (Zetsu had pointed that out more than once) 'but being so underestimated is just insulting.'

"How are you feeling?" A pen scratched against paper.

Feeling uncharitable and difficult, Aiko pressed her lips shut and looked away. That was a stupid question anyway. He was writing on her chart. He knew her condition: surprisingly good, all things considered. Still feeling the persistent weakness of recovery from chakra deprivation that occurred while strained cells replicated and her reserves stuttered and stretched, but that was the worst of it. Maybe she was a little dizzy. Her toes were cold. All in all, it was a laughable list.

'I thought I was done for. I know Konoha's supposed to be the best at sappy shit like healing, but still. That's stupidly convenient. I was dying, wasn't I?'

And she had no idea how to sort out the churning feelings and thoughts about that. She'd… well, she'd been resigned to it. Dying did sort of mean that she didn't have to confront a lot of unpleasant things, like the fact that Obito had confirmed her worst suspicions, or that she now officially had no friends, contacts, or life goals. She was directionless.

A put-out sigh marked the air for a moment, then brisk steps crossed the distance to her side. Aiko jerked her head around to watch the medic- and he was surprisingly young, she must not be terribly high priority- give her a fed-up look at and gently whap her over the head with his clipboard.

That was just so very baffling that she didn't even resist. There was no malice in the movement. Stunned and off-kilter, her mouth hung open. She took the moment to notice his hitai-ite: she was in Konoha, then. Huh. Her supposed home village. So maybe Konoha had decided that she'd just been in need of a rescue from Big Bad Obito? They were misinformed about her damsel in distress qualifications, of course, but at least that would indicate that she wasn't in danger from them.

'I'm so confused. This isn't how you treat enemy nin. I've been out of this village for a really long time. They should be at least a little suspicious of me. It's only sensible.'

"Pay attention, Aiko. Tsunade-shishou wanted to meet with you once you woke up. I've already sent notice. I'm sure you're confused, but please remain calm. She'll explain everything."

She twitched at his carefully neutral tone. There was a lot there that he wasn't saying.

'Technically, I never defected, and they never listed me on their bingo books. That probably means they'll want to re-assimilate me into their military. Assuming I pass whatever criteria they have, I suppose. And if this isn't just meant to put me off my guard because they know that I aided Akatsuki willingly. It could easily be a trap.'

Well. Maybe that last bit could have been a threat, now that she thought about it. His shishou would be a medical nin. And she had a bloodline ability- two, actually, though the stupid eyes were someone else's bloodline ability. Maybe she had to behave or she would end up a guinea pig?

'He could give me a little more to go off of.'

She licked her lips, too cautious to open her mouth and risk incriminating herself when she didn't know what Konoha was thinking. It'd be a damn shame to accidentally undermine their theories if they were beneficial to her.

No matter how her eyes pled for answers, the bastard of a medic didn't seem to notice. Dark eyes wandered over her face, and then - "Tch." He turned away, shaking his head slightly.

Maybe he had noticed. The moment stretched out into awkwardness. Aiko felt the distinct impression that he didn't know what to say any more than she did.

"Just stay here and at least try not to get kidnapped or in a fight for an hour or so. There's a nurse at the station and I'll be in my office." He paused for a moment, and gave the ceiling an irritated glance as if he was considering saying something else. "I'm one floor up from you by the central hall. If you need anything, press the call button and ask for me." Then he stalked off, shoulders stiff.

'…Try not to get kidnapped? That was oddly specific advice. I could see that working towards both theories. He definitely knows that I was a Konoha nin out of contact. He could just be genuinely concerned for my well-being. On the other extreme …Maybe he was telling me I can't run away?' Aiko theorized, sliding off the bed. He needn't have bothered. Assuming she was surrounded by any moderately capable nin paying attention, that was a last resort strategy. She was strategically flexible, not stupid.

Gingerly, she gave a few experimental stretches to gauge her condition, and tried to ignore the fact that she was barefoot and in an open-backed gown. That would make a daring escape slightly more scandalous. She made a note to find something a little more flattering, but she wasn't even entirely certain that a daring escape was called for. That medic hadn't seemed hostile at all. Granted, he'd told her not to get into a fight- that implied that he thought she might be hostile.

This didn't make sense. They weren't following any script that she could recognize.

'The conventional answer is that I should gain information.' Aiko pulled an arm over her head and gently tested it, grimacing when her left arm proved to be stiff and her fingers numb. Well. It was still better than a broken arm.

But how to gain information? What she needed to gauge was their reactions to her doing something unexpected. If they were immediately hostile and suspicious, she could be reasonably certain that the medic's calm had been an affectation and that desperation tactics like making a break for it made sense.

'I don't want a fight,' Aiko decided first off, ruling the possibility out altogether. 'I'm trapped somewhere in one of the largest Hidden Villages and not at my physical peak. That's a failing strategy. The Rinnegan tricks I have are my only trump card that they definitely won't know to expect. I'd never fight my way out, and then they would have actual evidence that I'm a threat. I don't want to do anything that will be interpreted as aggressive. Just undesired and out of whatever script they have for me so I can see what they do when they reassert themselves.'

So. Testing boundaries, was it? She waited ten minutes until she was absolutely certain that her medic was long-gone, hiked her backless gown up to be as decent as possible, (and then gave up on trying to cover her ass because that project was going nowhere), and strode out into the hallway confidently on silent feet.

Aiko looked to the left. Judging by the cheery signs posted on the walls, that was the way to the nurse's station. Mm, not very promising. Aiko walked to the right, dodging an open-mouthed teenager with a bear-sized dog. He turned around, presumably to stare at her uncovered ass when she passed. She hadn't intended to have witnesses, but it didn't really matter either way.

Then she saw it.

'Oh, that's perfect.'


 

"and then she just turned around and gave me this shit-eating grin, winked, and pulled the fire alarm," Kiba expounded, waving his hands emphatically. "I was kind of stunned, right, so I took a minute to get with the program. She just kept walking like nothing happened and got mixed in the crowd evacuating." He didn't even seem to realize that he was still grinning himself, one sharp tooth glinting in the light of the Hokage's office. Akamaru's tail thumped against the floor twice.

Jiraiya made a sound suspiciously like air leaving a balloon, face red.

"Thank you," Tsunade said tiredly, waving the Chuunin out of her office. She didn't even have the strength to pity herself for being surrounded by such utter boys. "Please keep this information to yourself." Kiba made a face, but nodded agreeably before he left.

The door barely closed before the toad sage started laughing.

The Hokage gave him a dirty look, but didn't do anything to stop him. She couldn't resent his mood. He was still riding high on relief after he replied to Naruto's toad message that yes, he was in Konoha, why did you ask— and then found himself nearly squashed by the enormous amphibian that Naruto had convinced to reverse summon himself, Kakashi, two confused Suna nin, and the long-missing Aiko.

'If she'd stayed lost, there would have been less trouble,' Tsunade groused, not really meaning that. But, still. Uzumaki were good for elevating the heart rate. Her apprentice had confirmed that she didn't recognize him upon waking via Katsuya. That news wasn't surprising, but it was a disappointment that complicated their situation.

That had been when the alarms went off- of course Sasuke had immediately assumed the worst when he darted from his office to her room and found it empty- it wouldn't have been the first time Aiko was kidnapped from a hospital. Or the second…

Thankfully, that wasn't the problem this time. Still, they should get the twit out of hospital as soon as possible so that they weren't courting her obnoxious luck. Or her general obnoxiousness as a person, actually. Someone might snap and wring her skinny neck.

'What had she been thinking when she pulled the fire alarm?' Tsunade frowned. Assuming Aiko's baseline personality hadn't been totally rehauled, there had to have been a reason that made internal sense. Aiko was a little … unorthodox, but she had never been noted as particularly impulsive. The decision must have been made quickly, but Aiko had certainly made some kind of decision as opposed to have acted on a whim.

What that decision was, Tsunade hadn't the damndest idea.

Sasuke had been quietly steaming when he related finding Aiko on the hospital lawn. Tsunade had actually sympathized with him- he hadn't known that Hatake had been watching her. No wonder he'd panicked. If she'd been the one to find the little shit dressed up in a stolen doctor's coat and directing evacuees back inside after having caused the trouble in the first place, she… she…

Well, she would have been just as frustrated, because it was hospital policy not to sabotage your own work by beating patients senseless. Even if the first thing they said to you was, "Not now, I'm working," followed by a particularly smug critique of how long it took you to find them when you forced them to stop impersonating hospital personnel.

'If he doesn't end up marrying one, Sasuke might actually kill an Uzumaki one day,' Tsunade mused, unaware that she was making a fist while she waited impatiently for her teammate to calm himself. It could only go one of two ways, she was certain. No court in the world would convict him- not while she was Hokage.

'Although that might not be much longer, depending on how insistent that Sabaku girl remains,' she mused. The Suna ambassador had not been happy about finding Aiko in the company of Akatsuki. At least she seemed to have come to the conclusion that Konoha hadn't precisely lied to her. Just misrepresented the danger Aiko was in to avoid having to open Konoha up to international scrutiny.

It could have been much worse. Temari could have wondered if Aiko really had defected to Akatsuki. Tsunade might have wondered that herself; if it wasn't for the hack job someone had done on her face with those dangerously parasitic eyes. That seemed like a pretty good reason to try to leave the organization.

Not that she was going to share that with Temari. Lucky that Temari hadn't spent enough time staring soulfully into Aiko's eyes to remember their original color. Tsunade hadn't noticed anything was different until she noted the chakra drain mid-way through the medical examination. When she had pried open Aiko's eyes, there had been a palpable 'what the actual fuck' moment in the surgery shared with Sasuke.

'That might not be the first topic to bring up, but we definitely need to have a conversation about that. If I didn't know better, I'd say those were Sharingan eyes. But a non-Uchiha shouldn't be able to deactivate them, judging by Kakashi's failure to do so after twenty years of attempts.'

"Send her in," Tsunade ordered, when it became clear that Jiraiya wasn't going to control himself of his own volition. That did the trick- he perked up like a particularly pathetic dog, wiping his ugly mug into something a little more dignified to make a good 'first' impression on his goddaughter.

Her blood pressure spiked in irritation before she knew what was wrong. At the quick rap of knuckles on glass, she turned ever so slowly to see…

"No," Tsunade snapped, glowering at what appeared to be Kakashi, Naruto, and his grumpy cousin. "Absolutely not. Get the hell out of here. We're not trying to overwhelm her. You've seen her. If you lunatics all come at her, we'd be lucky to drag her out from whatever hole she'll find to hide in."

Hatake-kun twisted his head slightly to the side, dark eye soulful. He remained firmly in place.

"He's not going to leave, is he," Tsunade said flatly, without looking at Jiraiya.

Her old teammate hummed. "Kakashi-kun, just make sure Aiko-chan doesn't notice anything," he warned idly. "Naruto, no shrieking or flickering your chakra."

That'd have to do.

Tsunade moved a plant in front of the window and suppressed her rising urge to hit someone. Probably Hatake. He'd been told not to be seen, yes, but he could have exercised good judgment and stepped in instead of silently watching Aiko raise hell. Bastard had probably been giggling at the pandemonium.

"Uh, Tsunade-hime?" Jiraiya shuffled his feet, still grinning stupidly. "Would you like me to have Shizune-chan bring her in now?" He glanced back at the window, where Team Kakashi could not be seen.

She finished moving plants and nodded, heading back to her desk.

Honestly, the situation was a little disorienting. Personally, Tsunade was suspicious of the level of involvement Aiko seemed to have been engaging in with Akatsuki. It wasn't her fault, of course, but that didn't mean she could risk the chance that Aiko had done anything that Konoha would have to take legal liability for later. She at least had to know what she had to start hiding. But there was no possibility that Naruto or Jiraiya were going to allow more than cursory suspicion. That made her first priority assessing Aiko's current personality, motives, and allegiance.

No matter what her old teammate would like to be true, Tsunade's first duty had to be towards her people in general. If Aiko was a threat, she'd have to be neutralized in a nice, gentle manner.

Of course, that would leave Konoha shit out of luck in the upcoming trial, so far as their supposed star witness was concerned. So, you know, she was hoping for good news.


 

"It was nice seeing you again," Aiko lied awkwardly. Chatty Nurse's smile looked equally strained as she bobbed and nodded. "I should, um. I should go now." She jerked her head towards the door that was slowly swinging shut.

"Of course!" The older girl chirped, relief flashing. "You don't want to keep the Hokage waiting. It's nice to have you back in Konoha."

Aiko offered one last grimace before fleeing into the doubtlessly tacky office. Whatever awaited her couldn't possibly be more uncomfortable than that discussion. At least Cha- Shizune, she corrected internally. At least Shizune had found her real clothes. Granted, it appeared to be from her own closet, but the social faux pas of standing next to someone in the same outfit was comparatively minor to stalking around pantsless.

Not that pantlessness had the power to stop Aiko, of course, but she did appreciate the thought. Shizune seemed like a generally inoffensive person, aside from all the apologizing for failing in her duties or whatever.

'And that's a laugh. Like she ever had a chance of stopping Obito.'

Aiko had barely been tactful enough to keep from reassuring Shizune that she'd never had a chance of doing her job due to her ineptitude. It was true, but, um. It didn't seem very politic. If Obito decided he wanted to contact her again to take her with him or just to shut her up, Shizune wasn't going to get anything done.

She chose to push away those fatalistic thoughts for another time.

'It could have been worse with Shizune,' she reassured herself. 'That was weird, but it was a professional interaction. I think.'

As far as she could tell from the way she'd been treated, Konoha was willing to accept her back with open arms. That was an opportunity that she should be grateful for, but the thought also made her feel sick to her stomach. She didn't know if she could do what they wanted from her on a professional or personal basis, or if she even wanted to. Was she up to par with her old self in the field? And what about friends- the idea of being approached by people who claimed to know her was… kind of scary. She didn't remember the people here. There was no way she could live up to whatever they wanted from her.

She barely made it three feet into the office before her pace faltered. Aiko recovered quickly, but there was no chance that the older shinobi in the room had missed the motion. They were probably busy ascribing all sorts of ominous theories to her stumble from dramatically sudden recollection to fear, but the reason for her shock had actually been quite innocent.

'Oh my god, I wish I had my Icha Icha with me. I bet Jiraiya-sama gives autographs.'

She'd seen that crisp white hair and carefully makeup-ed face so many times on the back of book jackets that she couldn't misidentify him. A little bit of a blush made its way to her cheeks. She could have gotten an autograph at that premiere if Obito hadn't been so damn insistent that they find their seats early and then kept distracting her.

In retrospect, that had been slightly suspicious.

'Eeeee my favorite author is looking at me. Play it cool, don't stare. Be cool, dude. I don't want him to think I'm totally weird.' With that pep talk in mind, Aiko let her expression fall into heavy-lidded boredom and tilted her jaw up to meet the Hokage's gaze.

Who was a total hottie, by the by. Goddamn, there was no safe place to look in this office. She determinedly fixed her point of view on the Godaime's perfect, slightly upturned nose.

"Uzumaki," the woman internationally known for her temper and surgical precision drawled, "You are a pain in my ass."

Jiraiya-sama choked a little.

She felt her brow furrow and blinked twice. "Ah. Sorry?" Aiko ventured insincerely.

"I'm sure," Godaime-hottie replied sourly. "I hear I have you to thank for that test of our hospital's evacuation procedures. How did we fare?"

Aiko heroically swallowed the words, 'You mad?' Instead she inclined her head slightly and pretended she thought that bit of poisonous sarcasm was a real question. "It could use some work."

The older woman's left eye twitched, just once. "Thank you," she allowed stiffly. "Let's move on from that. I'm sure you have many questions. I do as well."

She seemed to really expect to have a heart-to-heart in her office with a silent observer. The situation was just surreal. And- and what, why was there was only one chair in the office? Was Fire Country going through some kind of fucking seating shortage? She'd walked past a couch and fluffy chair when she walked in, but they were pretty far back from the Hokage's chair. Certainly she wasn't intended to walk back there while they spoke.

'Am I just going to stand here the whole time?' Aiko frowned. 'That's rude. Obito would never make me-' Her thoughts faltered at that. Right. It didn't matter that Obito had ran things differently. She wasn't with him anymore.

Leaving Obito- that was her choice and she had to deal with it. But she certainly hadn't chosen to be here.

Feeling sullen, Aiko backed up and flopped down on the couch, letting her legs hang over the edge. Maybe it was childish, but whatever. She hadn't agreed to make these people's lives easy or follow their rules.

The two older shinobi in the room had carefully neutral expressions when she looked back up. That pretty much set the tone for what followed:

"Do you consider yourself a member of the terrorist group Akatsuki?"

'What a genius,' Aiko had thought, severely unimpressed. So she opened her mouth and let sarcasm fall out.

"Yeah, getting thrown on piles of sharp rocks is something we do for team bonding as a trust exercise. It builds character."

The Hokage had twitched and tried again.

"You were admitted on this date (she'd pointed to a paper) with symptoms including confusion and retrograde amnesia. Have you recovered any memories in the time that you were out of the village in enemy hands?"

Aiko had been bristling at the description of her life as time spent in enemy hands. That was a gross oversimplification of a very complicated situation. Godaime-Hottie didn't fucking know Obito. He was sick in the head, but calling him an 'enemy' was facile. They had a lot of issues and he needed to answer to her for using her, but that was between Aiko and Obito. She would handle that herself. Who was this woman to make judgments like that? That was why her tone had been just a little too waspish when she detailed a few banal points about an orphanage (Jiraiya-sama had winced for some reason) and bullying some poor Academy teacher.

Godaime-Hottie's expression faltered slightly. "Nothing else?" she prodded, leaning forward. "There aren't any other details that stick out as pertinent? People, perhaps?"

'I don't know what she's digging for.' Aiko tried not to frown. 'She thinks I should remember something important.'

Well… it was hard to know what was a memory and what was her imagination. There were a lot of thoughts that she couldn't explain or oddments that could have just been flights of fancy. Sometimes she had little flashes that didn't seem to make sense—like looking at Obito during a spar and thinking she would see a completely different man. So she said so.

Oddly, conversation had been quickly steered away from that topic after that statement, and the older shinobi had looked a bit disturbed.

Bizarrely, they didn't ask a single thing about Obito while they went through what she knew about Akatsuki. Aiko felt a bit odd talking about Kakuzu, but they already knew about him. Suigetsu, on the other hand, could piss or go fishing for all she cared. She sang like a bird about him, though what little she knew took only a few minutes. They didn't seem that interested in Suigetsu, but they didn't steer the conversation away from him. Jiraiya-sama might have been politely horrified by Zetsu, but the Godaime Hokage kept a good poker face.

Her throat was dry when they started prodding her about jinchuuriki. They were interested in how Utakata had been taken, and then that had transitioned to how Fuu had been extracted from Waterfall.

It was only after she'd gotten half-way through that story that Aiko realized it might be a really stupid idea to bring up her wiggly-eye trump card. And there wasn't really a way to explain how Fuu was still alive without mentioning the seriously cool things that her eyeballs could help her do. Well, shit.

'Imma wing it.'

"And you say that her bijuu was extracted," Godaime-Hottie repeated, features very stiff.

Aiko nodded, keeping a pleasantly dopey look on her face.

Jiraiya-sama scratched at his neck. "That would kill her."

Aiko shrugged. "It did. She got better." On the inside, she was all but cackling.

Slowly, Jiraiya-sama and Godaime-Hokage exchanged a meaningful glance. Aiko buried her chin in her chest and tried not to let her lips twitch.

'They think I'm nuts.'

"Thank you, Aiko. You seem tired. I think we'll pick this back up at another time. Do you have any questions?" Godaime-Hottie asked.

Her good mood receded a bit. Aiko sucked in a deep breath and glanced down at her legs. They'd fallen asleep. This was a stupid thing to do, but it was going to come out eventually. It'd also gauge how serious Godaime-hottie was about keeping Aiko in Konoha.

"No questions, more of a confession," Aiko shared, twirling a bit of hair around her finger. "I may have maybe sort of murdered a Konoha nin a while back." She shrugged. "Some brown-haired man with a scar like this," she traced her cheek and nose. If she'd been standing, she would have held her hand out to indicate his height as part of the description.

The room was very still. Maybe she was anthropomorphizing, but she got the sense of someone being generally appalled from the crisp-smelling cluster of potted plants. Had they hidden a watcher there? Konoha was the village hidden in the leaves. Oddly, that made her feel vindicated. They hadn't trusted her from the start. She couldn't disappoint people who hadn't expected much from her. This was just how the world worked- people lied and tricked each other.

'I guess they're not that serious,' Aiko thought. She felt oddly smug. She'd known they didn't really want her. It didn't make sense.

"I wondered when she was going to mention that," Jiraiya's very deep voice rumbled out. Aiko blinked and dragged her face up, mildly surprised that he sounded congenial instead of disturbed. Against all sense, the two old Konoha nin looked pleased.

What.

'These people are so far beyond weird that it isn't even funny. They're all insane. No wonder Obito warned me away from Konoha nin.'

After a few moments of stunned silence, Jiraiya-sama took pity on her stunned expression. "Raidō survived. I'm sorry to say that you're a sub-par murderer." He paused. "Please don't try again to improve your performance. Learn to live with inadequacy. We like Raidō alright."

If anything, that made her feel more confused. How? She'd- she'd- this didn't make any sense. Aiko tried to say that, but her lips were numb. Instead her jaw worked futilely for a few moments, face twisted in utter bafflement.

'Was this some bizarre kind of test? They wanted to see if I would say anything?'

If so, that was short-sighted. 'What, do they think that proved I feel guilty? I don't,' Aiko reassured herself. 'I don't feel guilty. Then again… maybe I shouldn't tell them that. I don't actually want to get left in their prison indefinitely.'

"Right, that's it." The Hokage stood up abruptly. "I think I've heard enough from you. You'll be meeting with the fine gentlemen and ladies in interrogation next," she explained over the odd little sound that Jiraiya-sama made. "It's procedure, and it's common sense," the Godaime stressed sternly. She kept looking at Aiko, but she got the feeling that the conversation wasn't for her benefit. "You were out of the village with hostile parties and completely out of contact for a considerable period of time. Your loyalties need to be assessed, as does your mental state."

'That can only be described as redundant,' Aiko thought, bemused. 'I'm pretty sure I already made clear that I don't feel any loyalty to her club.'

She didn't bother to complain. This was the Hokage's party. Bitching wasn't going to get her anything but a notation on her file that she was uncooperative.


 

The click of the window being opened was unusually loud in the silence. Naruto swallowed. His eyes felt hot. Karin gave him a hopeless look before climbing in after Kakashi.

For a moment, he considered letting go of the building and dropping to the ground to be alone for a while. He couldn't think of a reason why not, but he followed the others in.

"I'm sorry, kid," Jiraiya said awkwardly, not looking at anyone in particular.

'My sister doesn't remember me.'

That didn't even make sense. How could she forget? He- he wasn't an idiot, he understood what amnesia meant, but…

'I guess I thought I'd be an exception.'

It made no sense at all and he knew that, but it felt like a betrayal. It felt like if she really cared she wouldn't have been able to forget her little brother.

'If that guy hadn't taken her away from us, she'd be better by now. Sasuke-teme said she'd need triggers.'

"How long will she be in T and I?" Karin twisted her hands in her skirt, oddly girlish and unassertive body language for her. Then she scowled- that was more like it. "You're treating her like a criminal."

Tsunade-baa-chan sighed. "Processing is a few hours," she admitted. "She'll be seeing Inoichi-san. Don't worry," she added with a twist of her lips. "I wasn't about to hand her over to just anyone. My intention isn't to punish her for being victimized. But we do need information. She was in enemy hands for a long time." Tsunade shrugged, palms up. "It's procedure for a reason. We're analyzing her mental health as well as making sure that she's as loyal as can be expected, given the circumstances. I won't endanger the village for one girl, no matter who she is. We don't know what she did with Akatsuki. There's repercussions for that kind of thing."

"She's not a danger," Karin said sharply. Her hands flew to her hips. "That's absurd. Obviously she wasn't loyal to Akatsuki. Madara wouldn't have hurt her and left her if she was."

He'd been trying not to think about that.

Aiko was his big sister. She wasn't supposed to be vulnerable. He knew that she had hard missions and that she got hurt a lot more easily than he did, but that wasn't the same as seeing her battered past the point that she couldn't even focus her eyes.

If Kakashi hadn't caught on right away and grabbed him, Naruto might actually have killed Kankuro for shoving a senbon in Aiko's chest. Apparently that was a thing that would help her not drown in blood by letting it drain? It hadn't looked much like helping at the time.

At least she hadn't died.

"That doesn't mean she's ready to fit back in Konoha," Jiraiya pointed out quietly, arms crossed over his chest. "You heard her- she's already attacked a Konoha nin once. I didn't get the impression that she regretted it. What if she doesn't change that attitude? Raidō would resent the hell out of us for bringing her back into the fold, and rightly so. We have a responsibility to Konoha as a whole, not just the people we care about."

"I don't think she's that removed," Karin argued. "She only attacked one Konoha nin, but she remembered him well enough to give a physical description. If the incident hadn't made an impression at all, she wouldn't be able to give a description so long after the fact."

Tsunade made an agreeable sound, looking at Karin with interest.

Naruto felt his jaw clench. "I can't believe this crap," he said quietly. "You're acting like she's an enemy. She's not."

Thankfully, Jiraiya spoke up then, because Naruto's throat had closed up. "At worst, she considers herself a neutral party, and she's pretty reasonable. Not cooperative," he added, because that was undeniable at this point, "But we haven't seen any indication of a shift in her personality towards cruelty. She doesn't remember us now, but she might in future. Even if she never does, we'll get close to her again, and then she'll be one of us in every way that counts."

He swallowed, hands clenching into fists. Making friends with his twin… that was a weird concept. Would she even like him, now that she didn't feel obligated to a sibling? He knew their personalities weren't actually that similar.

The hand that reached out and squeezed his shoulder was Kakashi's. Naruto mustered up a flicker of gratitude. Kakashi was so emotionally stunted that the gesture had probably taken concentrated effort. Especially since he'd been so despondent after seeing under Madara's mask.

Chapter Text

"I see that Shizune-san has been taking you around," the blond man said calmly. He was making slightly uncomfortable eye contact, but the soothing quality of his voice and demeanor kept her from feeling too trapped. "How is her company?"

Aiko shrugged one shoulder, still clad in Shizune's kimono. "She seems kind." She paused. "Very helpful and professional. At least outwardly less bizarre than everyone else I've met." She crossed and uncrossed her legs under the table, unable to get completely comfortable wearing so much more fabric than usual. It was a little too warm, especially in a room with no air circulation. Shizune must be a terribly civilized person to wear a pretty kimono everywhere.

A tiny wrinkle formed between the man's eyebrows. "Oh?"

"Yepp." She popped the 'p' sound and raised one eyebrow, pretending that her heart wasn't thumping against her chest. "I met the Godaime-Hottie, Jiraiya-sama, and some really grumpy medic who sucks at hide and seek. Also he hit me with a clipboard," she tattle-tailed confidentially, leaning forward and lowering her voice. "I think he has temper problems."

He'd kept a straight face throughout her recitation of thoroughly inappropriate commentary, but the strangest expression crossed Ponytail's features for just a moment at the last bit. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said delicately, folding his hands on the table. "I believe that the young man you speak of would be Tsunade-sama's apprentice, Sasuke-san. You have been acquainted with him in the past."

Aiko shrugged, pretending not to notice the way his voice lilted up in a subtle invitation for her to pursue that line of conversation. She didn't care one way or the other about the grumpy medic, and certainly didn't care to hear about the fun times they'd had back in the good old days that she couldn't remember. She was just trying to get a reaction out of her interrogator to get a measure of his character. The man had to be more than he seemed to be. He didn't appear terribly intimidating. It might have been the bedazzled purple scrunchie he was rocking, though.

'Everyone here is eccentric. Obito was right about that at least.'

"In any case." Ponytail coughed once, gracefully letting the last topic go. "You may call me Inoichi. I thought that we would talk for a while about your recent experiences and thoughts. How does that sound, Aiko-san?"

'Awful. How about we not do that?'

Aiko leaned back in her hard metal chair, scuffing her foot back and forth across the concrete floor. "Fine with me, Ponytail."

He didn't so much as blink, which was off-putting. He wasn't reacting like he should be and she didn't like that. He was hard to read. "Alright. Why don't you tell me about your time out of the village?"

That was such an open-ended question that Aiko didn't know what to do with it. She opened her mouth, and felt her eyebrows furrow.

'How do I sum up a year of my life? I don't even know what he wants to hear.'

Slowly, she rubbed a palm against her thigh, resisting the urge to glance down when her hand didn't run over a weapons pouch with the motion. Of course it didn't. They'd taken away all her weapons.

Ponytail gracefully pulled her out of her head with a soothing hum, still sounding perfectly calm and unconcerned. "That's fine, Aiko-san. We can try another tack. When you were brought into the village, you were not in the best physical condition," he prompted. Hay-yellow lashes caught the dim light when he blinked slowly. "What happened that day? We do have some questions that you could possibly help us fill in about an encounter that the shinobi who rescued you had. Hatake-san theorized that your injuries had been inflicted by Akatsuki. Is that accurate?"

Something gnawed in her chest at that clinical summation. "Yes."

'but it was an accident.'

She swallowed the defensive reaction, letting him assume the worst of Obito. Aiko genuinely had been trying to leave Akatsuki: that was what she should rhetorically emphasize. Obito could look after his fuckin self, apparently. He didn't need her help.

"When most of Akatsuki left, I attacked the man who was watching me and tried to leave. There were … complications, and I didn't go fast enough before he came back."

It was all true, but the words tasted sour rolling off her tongue. Aiko was too caught in her thoughts to notice that Inoichi's gaze sharpened at the subtle emphasis she put on 'he'.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Ponytail sympathized.

'Me too.'


Inoichi nodded to Keiko politely as he passed her to enter Tsunade's office. Jiraiya had apparently been downgraded to 'doorstop' sometime recently. He wasn't excelling at the job. The toad sannin let go slightly too early, nearly letting the door shut on Inoichi before leaning against the wall.

Having a conversation with an S-level shinobi at his back would have been an unsettling experience for many shinobi, but Inoichi didn't bat an eye. "Hokage-sama," he greeted. When he pulled up from an immaculately proper 45 degree bow, she was regarding him impassively.

"Inoichi-san." Tsunade-sama shuffled the papers on her desk, ostensibly so that she was looking at Aiko's file. "Please proceed with your findings."

He'd already planned how he would summarize his report, so he easily complied. "In my opinion, Uzumaki-san isn't a threat to Konoha's interests. With the proper treatment, she can be re-acclimated to her old position. In time, she may even regain the majority of her memories. The question of whether or not she will be ready to put on a show for Konan-san's trial is less certain, however."

"Why?" Tsunade-sama folded her hands, not paying her papers one bit of attention. "You implied that she's relatively stable."

"I didn't say that," Inoichi corrected mildly. A pale face swam across his mind's eye with the same cautiously blank expression the girl had worn for most of her interview. "At the moment, she's far from it. The leader of Akatsuki did a great deal to ensure that she was emotionally invested in his interests and person. She has built him up to an infallible, near mythic status in her mind. He was the center of her world and her most important person." Tsunade curled one side of her lip in revulsion, so Inoichi hurriedly added, "In a platonic sense." He cleared his throat, and pitched his voice back down again. "Uzumaki-san was injured after she attempted to leave Akatsuki, which would indicate that she is unlikely to return to him willingly. However, she thinks it is inevitable that he will find her again, and even looks forward to it. Uzumaki-san wants to settle some sort of grudge."

Jiraiya snorted. "That's vague."

"That was one of the topics she was cautious to avoid." Inoichi spread out his hands, palms up. "On the whole, she was forth-coming with what she thought I wanted to hear. Uzumaki-san isn't hiding much, but she definitely does not trust Konoha's benevolence. I chose not to push. She was already aware that she is a Konoha kunoichi and assumed that she would be required to resume that role in time. As she begins to feel more comfortable and trusting, she will open up."

"How do I make that happen?" Tsunade asked seriously. A bit of breeze from the open window behind her rustled her hair over her shoulders. "She might have information about Akatsuki that could help us keep Naruto safe."

Ignoring the spontaneous Hero Wind, Inoichi cast his mind back to exactly what he had concluded. "I respectfully suggest that you assign her to a Yamanaka mind expert working in collaboration with an expert in trauma and repression in order to do what we can to prompt her memories and encourage her to ruminate on the ones that she has re-acquired. Other than that, keep her in the village and with other Konoha shinobi in order to re-integrate her. She will need to re-learn social norms. Her viewpoint is very much skewed by what Akatsuki chose to expose her to."

The Sannin exchanged glances that gave away little, but some of the tension in the muscles around Jiraiya's eyes relaxed.

After he realized no one else was going to speak, Inoichi cleared his throat. "It's going to be a slow process and she needs to make overtures on her own. Uzumaki-san chose to leave Akatsuki because she realized that her supposed friend had intentionally cultivated a relationship with the intention of manipulating her. Anyone who reaches out to her will be viewed with similar suspicion. She's going to be misbehaving and pushing boundaries," he warned. "Uzumaki-san is waiting for the other shoe to drop and see Konoha expose less than altruistic intentions. Let her make the first overtures of interest, but be sure that someone is ready to talk to her about anything or anyone she expresses interest in."

Tsunade sighed, letting her bangs cover her face and rubbing at a temple, but her lips twitched. "So, we definitely won't be locking her in a room with her brother and letting him use the power of love on her."

Inoichi somehow kept a straight face. "She might actually run screaming if he did. I gained the impression that excessive honesty and expressions of affection are difficult for Uzumaki-san."

That almost wasn't worth commenting on. That was true for almost every shinobi.

"So she's basically the same person. She just doesn't remember why she should give any of us the time of day and has a new, debilitating mistrust of people who are nice to her," Tsunade summarized dryly. Jiraiya gave an uncomfortable cough from the back of the office.

"Also puppets for some reason," Inoichi said contemplatively.

There was a beat of silence while Jiraiya's eyebrows shot up at that bit of trivia.

"No, that's an old issue." Tsunade dismissed. She folded her hands and rested her chin on them. "So, where should we put her? I can't leave her in the hospital. Her old landlord could probably find a place for her, but that wouldn't provide enough supervision. She might have to go back to stay with Naruto and Karin..." The Hokage trailed off at the grimly amused shake of Inoichi's head.

"Not unless you think they will be able to treat her as a stranger and not push for an emotional attachment before she was ready to reciprocate." The grimace Tsunade didn't hide was almost expected. That was what he had thought. "She has to have space to be alone when she wants to be," Inoichi cautioned. "If she's knows that she is under watch all day, Uzumaki-san is going to snap. After a few days, someone can suggest that she go home as long as they don't pressure her. Other than that, I would put her with someone she isn't threatened by and give her a schedule to keep with a set training partner. Probably someone that she's already met so that she isn't being overwhelmed with new people."

Tsunade slowly let one eyebrow rise, not in the mood for guessing games.

"If you were to ask her opinion," Inoichi sighed. "I'm relatively certain that she'll request to stay with Shizune-san." He ticked off possibilities on a hand. "Your other apprentice seems to have bludgeoned her with a clipboard, she finds you intimidating, and putting her with Jiraiya-sama would be a terrible idea." He could all but feel the older man welling up with indignation, but he remained firm and explained his position. "She is under the mistaken impression that Jiraiya-sama is a writer of considerable talent. Given the chance to learn from and emulate his behaviors-"

"Shizune it is," Tsunade interrupted in a strange sort of tone that implied her throat was closed up. She cleared her throat and sat up straight. "Although she doesn't have time to train Aiko; she's far too busy getting ready for when I have to leave. I'll give that duty to someone else."

There was a moment of sullen silence. "I'm offended by that whole conversation," Jiraiya muttered, kicking the wall. "You can't keep me away from her, anyway. You need me to help her get Hiraishin back so that no one else knows something is wrong. My goddaughter is the only one that has taste."

"Bad taste," Tsunade said firmly.

Inoichi shrugged mildly, ready to go back to his home. "She also referred to you as the 'Godaime Hottie.'"

Tsunade paused for a moment, and amended, "Her literary taste is bad." Her lips twitched.

Yamanaka Inoichi hastily left, trying not to hear the sound of breaking glass behind him or Tsunade-sama ordering her old teammate not to look so damn smug.


That night, Aiko stepped cautiously through the doorway that her guide held open. This wasn't her first choice- she'd much rather be alone- but it was much better than going back to the hospital or interrogations. Or staying out on the street. There were just so many people and the skin on the back of her neck wouldn't stop prickling. It felt like they were staring, though she hadn't caught anyone at it.

'I want to go home.'

She closed her eyes, just for a moment and took a steadying breath.

'Not that I have a choice.'

She should behave. Whatever impression she left on Shizune could influence how these people treated her and how long she was forced to see their hack psychologists. It couldn't be an accident that she had been sent to live with the Hokage's assistant. The woman she had been given to was influential.

With that in mind, she resolved to step carefully.

Her mouth tasted sour. "Thank you for having me." Aiko shucked the clear plastic sandals that someone had found for her at the door, peering into Shizune-san's warm, sunny home. Like most Konoha citizens, she lived in an apartment complex. Most of them couldn't be this swanky, however. From what she could see, it was a sprawling open room filled with bamboo, tiny bonsai trees, and tanks filled with little orange goldfish.

'Of course the Hokage's apprentice doesn't live like everyone else.' Aiko gave the least obvious sniff that she could, noting that the faint scent of Shizune's floral shampoo and the tang of hospital air-freshener prevailed. Well. The poor woman probably couldn't do a thing about that aspect of feng shui.

"It's no problem at all. I hope you don't mind that I don't have a proper guest room. I have a futon that will fit well in my office." Shizune padded ahead of her barefoot, running a hand through her hair. "Would you like anything to drink? I'm sure that Inoichi-san kept you talking." She sounded rueful.
"He's chatty."

'Yes, he is.'

Aiko purposefully refrained from commenting and made a noncommittal sound as she followed her hostess to the doorway of the kitchen. That… was a lot of counter space. Aiko raised her eyebrows, not trying to hide that she was impressed. If she had made a prediction, Aiko would have guessed that Shizune's home was as utilitarian as she seemed to be. That was not so. If anything, it seemed like a zen sanctuary.

'She's confident in her abilities. No one who wasn't would live in a home with big windows like that.'

While Shizune's back was turned, Aiko palmed a kitchen knife off the counter and slipped it under her obi. It was good to have steel in her hands again. "Whatever you have would be fine," she said belatedly when Shizune gave her a questioning look. The older kunoichi returned from the fridge with a carton of juice a moment later.

She liked Shizune reasonably well, and the fact that the older woman went to bed early did give her a comfortable amount of space. Aiko still slept with her filched knife hidden under her pillow. She would have felt much better if they hadn't taken away her weapons and gear. Uneasy, she tossed and turned for a hideously long time, considering and discarding nervous predictions about what the next day would bring.

'If I don't piss them off, they'll have to give me my things back. Or something comparable. They don't have me here out of the kindness of their hearts- they'll want me to work eventually. I can't do that in a hand-me-down dress with my bare hands.'

Morning dawned with oppressive brightness into Shizune's flat. Aiko woke suddenly, muscles tense and still for a long minute before she realized that she was alone.

The knife was gone. In its place was a well-worn sleeping cap in the shape of a walrus. She picked it up and gave it a quick sniff, frowning. The scent it carried was… comforting, safe. Her head reeled. Aiko barely noticed burying her nose in the soft fabric to breathe it in. Lavender detergent, spiced shampoo, and a little bit of sweat that hinted at the personal chemistry of the person who'd worn it. Someone male and young. She closed her eyes. It had to mean something. Someone was making a point. Someone who could reach under her head without waking her was trying to make a point.

'I don't get it.'

She tossed the thing aside and tried not to focus on the way her stomach lurched.

Still clad in Shizune's extra dress, Aiko made her way out to the kitchen where Shizune was seated with a newspaper and a cup of coffee from some shop with a cheerful blue logo. She glanced up and then tilted her head toward the counter where another beverage sat. "I didn't know what you like, so I just got you a cappuccino. I hope that's alright."

'The hell is a cappuccino?'

Aiko nodded and took her drink to the table. She took one sip and carefully controlled her features.

'Awful. That's what it is. It's mind-bendingly bad.'

Subtly, she scraped her tongue against her upper teeth to try to get the taste off. Shizune didn't look up from her paper, clearly preoccupied with whatever was going on in the inner pages.

"I have work in an hour and a half. Do you know what you would like to do for the day?" Paper rustled as Shizune flipped over to another section, glancing over at Aiko for a moment. She somehow looked perfectly composed even though it was five in the morning.

When was the last time she'd been awake before seven? Aiko couldn't help but remember that she hadn't brushed her teeth and that her hair was probably one big knot. Self-consciously, she poked at her hair. Yes. It was matted in the back. Why wouldn't it be?

Shizune's voice sounded wryly amused. "Ah. Yes. I'm afraid I don't have time to take you out, but you definitely need supplies. I'll request a budget from Tsunade-sama and have someone sent over who will accompany you."

"I can shop on my own," Aiko rebutted sharply, puffing up.

'What does she think, I'll get lost in the scary new village? I'm not a child.'

"I know," Shizune said mildly. "But someone who knows where the shinobi outfitters are would be a helpful guide, and they might as well keep you company while I'm gone. It'll probably be one of Tsunade-sama's poor beleaguered Chuunin assistants. They would prefer carrying your groceries to running messages and filing."

Aiko didn't buy the implication that she would be doing anyone a favor but relented, shaking her head. Pride was nice, efficiency was nicer. "Fine." She blew air out of the side of her mouth and deflated. "What time should I expect this person?"

Shizune shrugged one shoulder. "Half an hour to an hour after I leave, perhaps. If you can't wait, you can shower with my things and pull another dress out of my closet."

Sharing soap? She couldn't be serious. Aiko skated right past that suggestion. She'd never shared basic hygiene supplies before and she wasn't about to start. That was just a little weird. She didn't want to smell like Shizune.

Waiting half an hour didn't sound so bad. She could wait a while to take care of basic hygiene and try not to ruminate on who had washed the rock dust and blood off her body while she'd been unconscious (or why she sort of smelled like hand sanitizer). What was another half an hour of ickness against the luxury of getting her own clothes and shampoo?

Of course, Shizune turned out to be a big fat liar. The man who showed up two hours later was almost certainly not some beleaguered Chuunin. He wore the Konoha flak jacket, yeah, but no Chuunin moved like that.

Also, she recognized him.

"Yo." Hatake 'Bakashi' raised a single palm on the other side of Shizune's doorway. He was slouched casually, but he still loomed over her.

The man that Obito had thought about as some weird rival didn't look like a mouth-frothing friend-killer, but looks could be deceiving.

Her fingers tightened on the door. He could well be very dangerous, no matter that he'd been her teacher at some point. Everything she'd been told indicated so.

On the other hand, she wasn't proscribing to Obito's worldview anymore- so that one-sided rivalry might be a good sign so far as Hatake's character went. He might be a really nice guy who hugged puppies and big fluffy bunnies.

She stalled for a moment, paralyzed in the face of making that judgment with so little information. Her heart was pounding and breath didn't want to come. Air, where was the air gone to?

Bakashi tilted his head slightly in inquiry, his hand falling back to his side.

Aiko shut the door in his face and locked it.

'Nope. Not dealing with that right now.'

There was a knock a few seconds later, as if he was mildly confused. She ignored it and went to take a shower, fed up with waiting in yesterday's clothes.

Floral scented bath luxuries weren't that awful. It could be worse, Aiko reminded herself firmly, pretending she wasn't rubbing someone else's handtowel on her skin. But- ugh, it was so unsanitary. With a shudder, she turned off the water and fled as soon as humanly possible, heart pounding a tattoo against her throat.

Stupid. She had bigger problems. Like the fact that she was supposed to be meeting someone for a training session in two hours. Would Konoha decide they didn't want her if she wasn't up to par?

Aiko chewed on her lower lip and tried to soothe the roiling in her gut with tea. She ended up pouring most of it down the drain and pacing in the small space available.

'I have to impress whoever they send. I don't want to find out what will happen if they don't want me anymore.'

The next time someone was at the door, the man on the other side was less visibly suspicious than Bakashi. He offered her a slightly crooked smile, displaying vividly white teeth.

'Someone listened to their mom when she said to brush three times a day. That smile is beautiful. He should be on posters. It's almost unreal.'

Actually, with the rock-solid build, square jawline, and painfully wholesome aura that her visitor owned, he looked shockingly like-

"You look like an underwear model," Aiko said bluntly, tilting her head to the side. "Are you?" Her foot tapped against the floor with poorly restrained nervous energy. This was the person she was supposed to fight? Was she supposed to be able to beat him? Could she? Hard to tell.

He didn't even blink. "Hello, Aiko-san," came the calm reply. "I'm Yamato, a Jounin shinobi of Konohagakure, and the Hokage has asked me to assess your current level. Are you ready to go?" His hair, somewhere between 'clean-cut' and 'intentionally messy', did not waver in the breeze from the open window in the stairwell. She suspected hair gel.

'A Jounin, huh? So, that's a tentative no to the underwear thing, but I'm still nursing suspicions.'

"Sure." Aiko placed a palm in the center of his chest and propelled him out of the way, using the grip to roughly gauge his musculature. Her free hand pulled the door shut behind her with a soft click. "Lead on, Nadeshiko."

'He's got a lot of muscle on me. I think he's physically stronger than Obito even. Close ranger fighter, or something that involves heavy work.'

He might be slow, then. Slow-twitch, bulky muscle could weigh down a shinobi. Then again, she probably wasn't supposed to kill him and most of her techniques were lethal by design to avoid a drawn out fight. Damnit.

"I wish you wouldn't call me that," Yamato protested mildly, disentangling her hand from his vest and turning to jog down the stairs. "That pun finally died out a few months back and I was glad to see it go."

'Someone else beat me to that? I thought it was a good pun.'

Her expression soured, just a bit. "Yamato it is." The last of her quietly spoken words were nearly swallowed by the wall of sound that washed over them when Yamato pulled open the door. A hot wave of air carried in hundreds of murmuring voices, the groaning of wagon wheels, and distant shrieking from happy children.

'It's awful.'

She had to steel herself to take the first step outside into the fray.

It was positively surreal. How had she gone from living with Obito to… to here, in this crowded mess of a city?

"I can't help but notice that you seem to be underequipped." Yamato paused for a moment on the stoop before he pushed out into the crowd, rubbing at his jaw with a finger. "Is that… intentional?"

Aiko twitched, rubbing her index finger against her thumb. "No," she said shortly. "Shizune said that someone would take me to get equipment, but the person who showed up was so sketchy that I shut the door in his face."

Yamato made a small sound of agreement, as if that was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. "Ah. Suh-keh-chi?" he asked carefully, as though the syllables were slightly foreign to him.

"Very." She flicked her gaze up to his profile, matching her stride to his and keeping a little closer to his side than she would like. He was pretty good at clearing a path through the throngs of people out doing their shopping. "Bad posture, messy hair, suspicious mask, and he was definitely not a Chuunin. Shizune told me to expect a Chuunin. I detected shenanigans and locked the door." She carefully did not contemplate that her reasons had been rather more personal than his unkempt, seriously suspect appearance. Yamato didn't need to know that. Aiko skirted slightly behind Yamato for a moment to avoid a woman carrying a large basket before darting back out to catch up.

'Wow, there are a lot of people out. I don't think I've been to anywhere that even sort of compares in terms of population density. Are all shinobi villages like this? They're packed in like animals.'

Yamato swallowed, face painfully blank. "I suppose it is important not to wander off with suspicious characters."

"Oh, definitely," Aiko agreed, watching two scruffy children race, both holding what appeared to be younger siblings on their shoulders. "Come to think of it, I probably should have made sure you were the right person; but you just don't seem that suspicious and you were actually on time."

"Your caution does you credit," he managed in a slightly higher, stiff tone.

'I was serious. Is he making fun of me?' She shot a suspicious glance up at her companion, managing to nearly blind herself on a glint of light from his metal face-place. That did make it harder to read his face. Maybe that was why he had it?

A flash of purple stapled to a telephone pole caught her eye- an advertisement for some kind of festival game calling for registration, apparently. Aiko looked at it a moment longer than strictly necessary, more interested than the sheet warranted.

'Why do I want to sign up? Am I suddenly eight or something?'

"Aiko-san?" She started guiltily and stepped quickly to catch back up, noting the tension in her escort's well-muscled neck.

Her face colored. "I'm here, I'm here."

Yamato made a humming sound, but paid more attention to her after that. Gradually the crowds thinned and the buildings transitioned from brightly-painted, oddly shaped multi-story affairs to sprawling traditional homes interspersed with occasional tall gates, numbered from 18 to 24. Yamato took her to gate 25 and pushed it open with a tap of chakra and a palm to display tall, healthy grass sprawling over a lightly hilled area. A cluster of trees in the distance cut off her sight.

'This is a Konoha training ground?' Aiko sucked on her lower lip, taking it in. It looked more like a small park than anything. She could smell the fresh scent of fast-moving water somewhere nearby to the east.

'Fancy.' She couldn't help but sneer, just a little bit. 'Obito and I did just fine with the backyard and mountain steppes by our safehouses. You don't need a specially designed field.'

Then again, when you lived in an industrial area, maybe you did. If Konoha hadn't specially set aside land, their shinobi wouldn't have any room to workout. In other words…

'I'm kind of an insufferable snob.'

Chastened by her own thoughts, Aiko scratched behind her ear and ducked her head a bit. Yamato was closing up the field- probably to ensure that no one else wandered into the middle of their practice and risked bodily harm.

"So." She spun slowly to survey the area, clasping her fingers in front of her body. "What are we trying to accomplish?"

"Today, I think we'll just gauge your current level. Without your weapons you won't be fighting at one hundred percent, so don't feel too pressured."

Aiko nodded, acknowledging that she understood.

'Oh, that's good. Not as much pressure as I'd thought. Konoha is a little soft.'

That was good, though. She didn't want to have to use her Rinnegan. No one had asked about her eyes. Maybe they didn't know.

She moved to settle into an athletic stance, and jolted back into reality when the tight material of Shizune's dress restricted her movement around her ankles. That was going to be annoying. Actually… Aiko bent to hitch the fabric up, tying it to the side against her thigh.

A high-pitched "urp" sound eeked out of Yamato's throat. She jerked up to see what was wrong, only to see that he was pointedly looking away from her.

"What's the matter with you?" Aiko frowned, finishing tying the ends of Shizune's kimono and checking her range of movement now. Not great, but okay.

"Nothing." Yamato coughed, clearing his throat. "Nothing is wrong."

With an eye-roll, she slipped into a defensive stance. "Just attack me already." She still didn't want to attack him. She didn't have her weapons, any poison, and jutsu could be too dangerous. She'd never fought with anyone other than Obito that she didn't want to kill. She didn't know how to be safe with them.

Instead of arguing, Yamato flowed forward in a surprisingly swift movement to engage her in taijutsu with a low kick. She jumped over the side-sweeping leg and darted behind him, ducking under the punch that followed when he twisted after her.

'I was wrong. He's not slow.'

He wasn't as fast as Obito, though, and that was good enough. Some motions were closer than others, but she managed to move away from every blow. After a few minutes she gritted her teeth and made an offensive movement of her own, throwing a technically perfect but underwhelming punch. He bent over backwards at the waist and moved into a flip, nearly managing to clip her well with a double-kick. She moved back so fast that she felt whiplash, fuzzy spots crawling over her vision.

"Stop." Yamato tossed his head some time later, as if to get sweaty bangs off his face. Again, his hair remained still. Definitely gelled into place, then. "Let's try ninjutsu." He had to have read the trepidation on her face but he widened his stance and held his hands in a seal. "Wood style!"

'Wait, what?'

She froze, mind sputtering on what she was seeing instead of picking a counter technique. The material that rocketed at her was much darker and thicker than Obito's vines, but it was the same technique.

'This can't be that common. I know Yamato. He's the training partner that I thought of when Obito first used this on me.'

The instant of hesitation cost her- her mind blanked on a suitable ninjutsu, and she threw her body out of the way instead. The wood curled back at her, giving her barely enough time to side-step and brace a hand on it to flip over.

"Aiko?" Yamato called out, confused. "Use ninjutsu. How about your chakra chains?"

Oh. That'd work. She jumped backwards, welling chakra along her spine.

Using her chakra chains was more annoying than anything, really. They were bulky and kind of clunky- not really fast enough to cut through the wood ninjutsu that Yamato could hurl at her (and that explained his physical strength, wood was heavy). Aiko ended up doing almost as much dodging as before, carefully positioning herself so that she could make token swipes that cut at the seemingly never-ending barrage her training partner could summon up.

Yamato only called a halt once her breath was coming in ragged gasps and sweat was tickling at her hairline, slipping behind an ear. She ducked her head to rub at the trickle with a shoulder. One hand trailed down to tug at the kimono where it was sitting heavy and lopsided against her leg. Kami, that was hot. She needed to get some shorts before she had to do this again. Shizune was nuts, just totally nuts.

Politely, her training partner averted his eyes while she fiddled with her clothes. He wasn't as worn out, but then again, he'd been more stationary. "I don't know about you, but I'm starving." He scratched at an arm, fingers slipping under the sleeves he had rolled up to his forearms.

'I would rather shower than eat, but I'm still short on clothes.' Aiko tried not to be too obvious about plucking the dirty, sweaty material of the kimono away from her chest.

In the corner of her eye, she could see Yamato glance at her with poorly hidden amusement. She couldn't blame him.

"You'll take me to get some things after?" she prodded.

His closed-mouth smile was even cuter than the big boy-next-door one. "If you don't think I'm too suspicious."

She reared back and punched him in the arm, a little vexed when he didn't even try to dodge. "Shut up and take me to dinner."

Dinner turned out to be at a cozy barbeque joint, fragrant with burning woods and heavy spices. Yamato took a four-person table by the back of the restaurant and glanced over at the kitchen. As if summoned by ninjutsu, a long-limbed teenager appeared at their table with a notebook and a bedazzled pen that tap, tap, tapped against the paper.

"Water for me."

Aiko glanced up through her lashes, still preoccupied by the menu. "I'll have a dark cola."

Their tanned, androgynous waiter gave a little headshake to coerce loose bangs out of the way, not even bothering to scribble their order. They heaved an enormous sigh that pulled the white fabric of their uniform across their chest. "I would love to get that for you."

She pressed her lips together to keep from smirking at the unenthused lie. Yamato's eyebrows shot up, but he didn't say anything until they were alone again.

"You must have been doing a lot of work." He fiddled with his menu, rubbing at the laminated paper with a thumb. "I don't know what I expected, but that wasn't it."

'He used to know me.' Aiko furrowed her brow and tried to read his expression. 'How well? Are we friends or just training partners? I can't tell.'

For a moment, she really wanted to ask. If she could believe what he'd tell her, she would have. Aiko gave a noncommittal grunt, shrugging one shoulder.

"You're light on your feet," Yamato tried again. His gaze flicked up to the returning waiter and he accepted his drink in the same motion that he pointed out his order. "Thank you." Seamless, he looked back to her. "I think we should work on your blocking and offense, however. You're hesitant. Is it a lack of aggression, or-?"

Aiko shook her head, pulling her lips off her straw. "No. I just didn't want to hurt you. The blocking is a fair assessment, I prefer to move out of the way."

That, and that Obito hadn't wanted her to get into those close-range fights. That had been remarkably short-sighted of him, now that she thought about it. Was that really how his 'Rin' had been? She curled a lip. Not impressive.

"That's not always plausible or practical." Yamato twisted his drink, turning the cup so that the water inside swirled. "You should at least be comfortable with your ability to block and minimize impact when you can't move out of the way."

The sick sensation of flying occurred to her again. The moment of weightlessness before a painful fall down sharp rocks. Aiko took a sharp breath and clenched her jaw, breathing slowly to concentrate on the present. "Yeah."

'I can see my reflection in the table. That's clean.' The wavery girl blinked up at her, dark splotches growing and moving on the yellow ceramic with the motion. A white dish settled in front of her with a clatter to break the reverie. Steam washed up over her face.

"You were worried about hurting me?"

The question took a moment to register. When Aiko remembered what he was referring to, she blinked. "I just…" She shook her head slightly, prodding at her food.

"We can work on that." Yamato picked up a piece of meat with his chopsticks and let heat waft off of it. "Hesitance is normal when sparring with a new partner. You'll learn when to push and when to hold back."

The tension in her chest loosened. She nodded, putting something savory in her mouth so that she didn't have to come up with a response.

'He's just so freaking nice. Is this guy for real?'

The ambient noise of clattering dishes and quiet conversations was gone. Something was wrong. Aiko registered that Yamato's expression was more chagrinned than panicked as she twisted to view the restaurant. It wasn't hard to find the disturbance. Almost everyone in the place had stopped to look at two young men that had walked in. The patrons that weren't looking were carefully not looking. The only exception was some poor man pouring over what looked like papers in need of grading, tapping a pencil against the base of his high ponytail.

'What the hell is wrong with these new people? I'm the only international criminal I recognize here. If anything, I should be the one getting stared at.'

With a start, she realized that she recognized one of dark-haired young men. The slightly shorter figure was the grumpy medic nin. The other man could have been his brother- they had the same svelte build, pale skin, and dark eyes set over beautiful cheekbones. The new man was even cuter than his medic friend, but that might have been the lack of a scowl. He seemed stiff and miserable under the scrutiny.

Aiko couldn't help but remember the weight of stares on her back when she had walked with Shizune last night.

'Me too, buddy. Me too.'

She wouldn't have cared in the slightest, if the medic hadn't seen and gifted her with a curt nod that momentarily drew the crowd's attention to her. She was dismissed almost as quickly. Something about those men was mesmerizing, apparently.

'I don't see the appeal. They're attractive, but they're not that attractive. And this seems hostile, anyway. Something else is going on. No one stared at the grump before… So the problem is probably the other man.'

Aiko turned back to the table, but kept her ears pricked while the two men seated themselves only two tables away. In the still restaurant, the beginnings of their conversation were easily audible.

"When must you return to the hospital to complete your paperwork?"

People were still staring. Aiko could tell that even without looking up.

'Maybe they think that if they just ignore people long enough, people will ignore them?'

"Tomorrow afternoon. I took the morning off. You're coming with me to work with Sai's team." The medic's voice raised, losing warmth. "Can I get a menu?" Belatedly, he added, "Please," in a long-suffering tone.

Aiko stifled a snort, meeting Yamato's eyes. And then she couldn't look away, wondering at the deep concern she saw there. Was something actually wrong? Why was he looking at her like that?

The waitress's "Of course," seemed to break the wall of silence that had afflicted the restaurant. The murmur of conversation and clatter of dishware obscured that quiet, pointedly polite discussion from her hearing.

She turned her attention back to her food and took a big bite. Whatever was going on, it wasn't any of her business.

Yamato cleared his throat, blinking for the first time in what seemed like several minutes. "Ah. So, do you have any hobbies?"

Reading pornography. Small-time drug smuggling. Being the unwilling subject of an ocular fetish.

'No, none of that gives quite the right impression. I don't want him to think badly of me.'

"Amateur art critic."

His eyebrows shot straight up, composure lost.

Aiko kept a straight face. "Just last week, I reviewed the most unfortunate antique piece of statuary." She paused deliberately. "It was accidentally maliciously destroyed."

'That part, I don't regret, no matter how cranky the Hokage is about me releasing demons on our allies. I wouldn't ever do it again; too dangerous.' She paused. 'I mean, if I could teleport to safety like Obito, I would break that statue that over and over again. I would do that to a soundtrack and commission someone to take photos. The whole situation was deeply funny.'

She took a moment to picture herself posing next to two bijuu making a peace sign while ugly pottery fell around them like confetti. Just Aiko and her basics. No big.

'I'm going to regret the missed opportunity for the rest of my life, aren't I?'

The tension seeped out of his shoulders when she couldn't help but smile. He was probably under the mistaken impression that she had been telling a joke, but Aiko was willing to let it go. The only thing interrupting the moment was quiet coughing from a table behind her.

"Pity," Yamato said gravely, lifting his glass in a solemn toast to lost statuary.


The rest of her day was a bit of an emotional let-down. Konoha didn't want to get rid of her. They wanted to help her be the best she could be. The positivity and general goodwill wafting in her direction was sickening.

'If this is how Konoha treats people like me, maybe I should have been leery about the pretty boy. He must be a baby kicking lunatic. I mean, what do you have to do in this town to get a little fear and respect?'

"It wasn't that bad, was it?" Shizune eyed her dubiously but walked along, only pausing to offer a polite bow to the frowning psychologist who had stood to watch Aiko stalk out, oversized shirt billowing behind her. Her lips thinned.

'She wanted me to re-examine my feelings and share them. It was that bad.'

She kicked off her slippers and shoved her feet into the terminally ugly blue sandals that Yamato had helped her find without pausing, throwing open the door. It was probably for the best that she didn't see Shizune exchange an amused look with the receptionist behind her.

"Perhaps you'll like the shinobi psychologist better," Shizune offered with a hint of a laugh in her voice.

Aiko wilted at the reminder that she would be subjected to two different weekly appointments. There would be no escape, judging by the calm way her minder had shuffled her off to her first appointment.

'I underestimated Shizune. She's formidable. Why did I ever think that the Hokage was the probable threat?'

With that newfound resentment in mind, it was easier not to dissolve into a weeping pile of nerves while she waited outside the Hokage's office for her next appointment. When the door finally opened and she was shooed in, no one came out.

Apparently, the small crowd inside was going to lurk around while she had her interview. Lovely. Jiraiya-sama was there again, no big surprise. The other man present, on the other hand-

She nodded without making eye contact when Hatake raised a hand in greeting.

Fucking fantastic. There was no door to shut this time. She'd have to deal.

"Aiko, please make yourself comfortable." Under the Hokage's gaze, she didn't have the nerve to plop down on the same couch as last time. She backed against the side wall that Hatake wasn't at, wishing she could be anywhere else.

No one offered comment or let on to whatever thoughts they must have about her behaving like a trapped animal.

"I know you talked with Inoichi-san about your time with the Uchiha and Akatsuki." Godaime-Hottie tapped her pen against the desk in a slow staccato. "But I'd like to hear more, if you don't mind. The Akatsuki is largely disbanded, but if we don't act, Akatsuki will just be reformed with different nin."

"Obito is stubborn like that," Aiko agreed, using a sandal to scratch at the back of a calf. It took a moment to realize that everyone in the office was looking at her just a little too intensely. Hatake- no, Bakashi, 'Bakashi' made him seem much less threatening- seemed to desperately want to say something, but the Hokage got there first.

"You mean Madara," Tsunade corrected gently.

Aiko tried so, so hard not to roll her eyes because now was not the time for sass. "I think I know who I spent a year with, thanks. Madara is dead," she clipped out.

'Thank kami. If that's where Obito got his nutty plan, it's probably for the best that the old guy is gone.'

Bakashi shifted his weight. "He survived the fight with the Shodaime." His tone was carefully neutral. "To what end, we don't know, but he must have some plan."

"Right." At her easy acquiescence, the room seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief just a little early. "He survived his fight with the hokage, and then he died, like a decade or two ago," Aiko said sensibly. That was still very old, but still. "I never asked for the timeline because frankly I didn't care and still don't, but he's super dead."

Above her head, Bakashi and Jiraiya exchanged troubled looks that they obviously thought she didn't see. She twitched at the condescending snub, one hand curling into a fist. The other grazed her thigh. There still wasn't a weapon there. They still didn't trust her with one. They didn't even trust her situational assessment and ability to remember what she'd been told; why would they arm her?

'What is the point in talking to these people if they don't believe what I say?' The only thing that kept her from stomping her foot was the vaguely conscious notion that acting childishly wouldn't convince anyone that she knew what she was talking about.

"Aiko," Jiraiya said gently. Far too gently. He sounded like he was talking to a child.

'I'm going to go home and burn all your stupid autographed books. I take back ever thinking you were cool.'

Somehow it hurt more when she remembered that she couldn't even do that. Her books were with Obito. She couldn't go home.

Her former warrior-poet idol looked at her with soulful eyes and let out an exhalation that seemed to shrink his enormous chest. "I'm sorry, but Uchiha Madara used that name to deceive you. Uchiha Obito is long dead. He was a casualty of the third war, and a loyal Konoha shinobi. He wouldn't have done what this man has. Uchiha Madara is using his body as a vessel. For Konoha's sake, he needs to be found. If there's anything of Obito left in there, we owe him our best efforts to free his soul so he can rest in peace." Counter to what he must have intended, his tone only sharpened her temper.

'Sentimental drivel. You sound like my freaking shrink.'

She bit her tongue and took a steadying breath, too frustrated to come up with a logical rebuttal at the moment. "Look," Aiko tried with patience she did not feel. "I spent a lot of time with him. I know him."

"Which is why you ran away from him," Jiraiya rebutted, frustration slipping into the rumble of his voice. "He's a dangerous man. You know that, Aiko. You can't protect him."

"I'm not trying to!" She could feel heat rising in her cheeks to match Jiraiya's moue of stubborn frustration. "But he's not evil. He's- he's unbalanced," Aiko stressed. Her tongue darted out to lick her lips. "He means well." Even she knew that was a losing argument, and her voice trailed off to nothingness. No one in the office looked the slightest bit sympathetic. Hatake looked like he might be ill if she kept trying to argue that his genin teammate was an international terrorist. Tsunade seemed more concerned for her mental well-being. If she kept arguing, Aiko was going to find herself back in Inoichi's tender care.

'They're not going to believe me.'

The irony of that took a moment to sink in. 'They think that I'm saying this because I'm emotionally compromised. Even if I wasn't, they wouldn't want to believe me because it's much easier to believe Uchiha Madara would be a villain than Obito. That's the emotional blockade getting in the way of communication.'

Of course, he wasn't a villain. Not exactly. He was ill and he needed help or to be put down and he might end up killing her but- but-

To be fair, from their perspective, his actions looked pretty fucking villainous. And if some chump tried to tell her that the man who had kidnapped them wasn't that bad, Aiko would think that person had Stockholm's syndrome, not a good point worth consideration.

Just a little bit of doubt tugged at her mind. What if- what if she never had known anyone but Madara? When she looked at it all that way, it seemed like her perception was the one likely to be skewed.

Aiko wrapped her arms around her chest and looked down at her feet, shaken and unwilling to argue anymore. If she couldn't trust her judgment… Did she even know anything?

'No. That was Obito. I know it in my gut. He's a lot of things, but he's got a core that's really genuine. Someone hurt him and twisted him and he needs help, but he's not a villain. He wouldn't have come up with the idea of putting everyone in a genjutsu on his own. And he didn't falsify they way he felt about his genin team. There would be no reason to tell me anything like that if he was Madara.'

"Aiko?" An oversized hand closed gently on her shoulder. "I'm sorry I yelled, kiddo."

"It's fine," she said mechanically, shaking off Jiraiya-sama's comforting grip. "What do you want to know?" The step she took had her back pressed against the wall. Thankfully, the toad sannin did not follow.

"Inoichi gave us what you know about active members of Akatsuki and contacts." The Hokage gracefully called all attention to herself, glamorous and composed. She blinked perfectly curled lashes. "Thank you for that, Aiko-chan."

(Chan? She tried not be bitter that she'd apparently been down-graded to a child.)

Tsunade stood, fluffing her hair as she turned to the window. "How many safehouses are you aware of? Could you locate them on a map?"

Aiko would have nodded, if the woman was looking at her. Instead she let out a sullen, "Four, yes."

'Not that it matters. Obito won't stay at any of them now. He's not stupid.'

The older woman must have had the same thought. She clasped her hands behind her back and ducked her head slightly. Her voice was lower when it came again. "Do you have any idea about what Uchiha's next course of action will be?"

"He didn't tell me much about his plans." Aiko wiggled her toes, tired of standing. "I didn't ask. I didn't care much. He wants- wanted," she corrected. "He wanted to collect all the bijuu and put them in his ugly statue and then use them to power a world-wide genjutsu."

Jiraiya gave a surprised curse, nearly dropping the kunai he had been balancing on a finger.

Slowly, Tsunade turned around to stare. "A world-wide genjutsu." Her voice was flat.

"I thought the plan could use some work," Aiko acknowledged easily. "Though to be fair, it's a hand-me-down plan from Madara."

Bakashi tensed, fingers drumming against his thigh.

The Hokage ignored her pointed reminder, glossing over their disagreement entirely. "You said this was a plan in the past tense?"

Aiko grimaced. "I may have taken bad advice from that Fuu woman and broken his statue. That's part of why he was pissed with me. It made a mess." She made an expansive gesture, shaking her head. "Rocks and bijuu everywhere."

Something broke when Jiraiya slapped his palm against the wall, falling to the floor before Aiko could see what it was. "What."

She stilled, uncertain about the sudden tension. Cautiously, she inclined her head slightly and eyed the adults. Her hand itched for a weapon that she still didn't have.

Damn, Jiraiya was close. And big. And the other two people in the room were S class shinobi. She was suddenly hyperaware of that.

Sensing her confusion, Hatake raised his palms in a gesture of peace. "We didn't know that was how the bijuu got out."

Tension was replaced by befuddlement. "What, really?" Aiko blinked.

'Oh my kami, they must really not think of me as a threat. I was the only person there. It shouldn't be shocking that I was involved in that.'

"Of course not," Godaime-Hottie said dryly. "I am suddenly thankful that the Suna representatives left. That gives us time to think of a plausible lie."

Aiko snorted, giving the blonde woman a thin smile for the first time.

'Not really. The jinchuuriki from Mizu and Taki both know. They were there right before I did it. It'd be hard to keep both of them quiet, and it's probably too late already.'

"But not that much time," Tsunade-Hottie continued, caution bleeding into her tone. "We have a lot to do, Aiko." She raised an eyebrow as one hand skimmed over to rest on her hip. "Are you aware of the upcoming trial of the Amegakure leader?"

"Something about breaking an international treaty?" Aiko rubbed the back of her neck. "I wasn't that interested."

"Get interested," Tsunade said bluntly, pointing a pen at her. "You're our star witness."

.

.

.

"Say what?"


Preview of the next chapter, where the tone changes a bit. Because people have probably been wondering what the fuck happened to Naruto.

Chapter 18

"Hey, Aiko!"

She halted mid-step in the lower lobby at a very loud, slightly raspy voice. The boy who'd come bounding out of the crowd was grinning toothily, pulling a one-handled bag off his shoulders.

"Hold up a minute, would you?" He didn't wait for a response, plopping the bag down and unzipping it in one motion. "I'm supposed to- I have your stuff," he amended, talking hastily. He scrunched up his nose in unconscious irritation with the strands of blonde hair that were hanging down into his eyes.

"You have my things?" Aiko repeated cautiously, frowning.

'Why does he have my things?'

"Yeah, I think baa-chan forgot," he said absently, pulling out a very familiar bit of red leather.

"My holster?" Aiko reached out, somehow unsurprised when he placed it in her hand without looking. In the work of a few moments she had it strapped on- no one had fiddled with the straps, so it was already fitted correctly.

"Yeah, I think there's some kunai and senbon in here too." With a careless clatter, the boy tipped the bag and collected the weapons that fell out. Someone had bound them together and polished them- they'd need to be unwrapped.

'This is strange, but… okay? I think it's okay.'

"Thanks," she said. She took the first package and began unraveling it, packing the freed weapons away. "So, um, you know my name…"

He flushed. "I'm Naruto. Uzumaki Naruto."

It took a moment for that to sink in. When it did, her fingers fumbled. A flash of pain was the only thing that told her she'd managed to cut her index finger on a bare blade.

'Uzumaki. That's my last name. He looks roughly my age. Obito said that there was only one other Uzumaki child in Konoha when the last jinchuuriki died and- and-'

She clenched her hand into a fist, pressing the leaking finger into her palm to stop the bleeding.

Dear kami, that was a jinchuuriki right there, not two feet away from her. Her heart jolted unpleasantly. A jinchuuriki, meaning a person who had another one of those bijuu in him.

A familiar acidic tang prickled in her nose and the feeling of dry heat, of slowly baking alive washed over her flesh. Fear. Helpless. Insignificant.

On some level, her mind was whimpering helplessly.

Did it- no he, she'd decided jinchuuriki were people- did he know that she'd helped kill jinchuuriki before? Was he holding a grudge? Was he-

He was awfully familiar. Actually.

"I think I know you," Aiko said carefully, giving a smile that she did not feel. "From the orphanage, right?"

For a moment, his face was very still. Then it cracked into a painfully bright smile, accompanied by a thumbs-up. "Yupp! We lived together up until we were fifteen or so."

'That's a long time.'

"Oh." Her mouth was dry. "That's nice. You, um." She fumbled for words, torn between wanting to be very polite and wanting to escape.

'Someone wants me to like him and to associate him with safety. That's why he's the person who gave me back my equipment. That's not a coincidence. Why does Konoha care? What do they want?'

"Want to get lunch?" Naruto asked hopefully, shouldering his deflated bag. "I'm heading out on a mission later today and I didn't pack a lunch, 'ttebayo."

God no. Never.

"Yeah. That sounds nice." Aiko forced leaden feet to move, keeping pace with Naruto's strides toward the door.

'He's related to me somehow. Probably pretty closely, since we share a last name and there are few Uzumaki. Should I ask? Is he emotionally compromised? He seems friendly. I don't think he's registered me as a threat.'

The place he took her to was a dinky ramen bar that had quite possibly survived an invasion or two, judging by the dents and pointedly fresh paint. A pretty serving girl greeted both of them –by name, that was so freaky- and immediately set to work on their order. As she walked away, Aiko curled her toes against the bar under her stool and looked at the counter.

They weren't the only patrons—an older couple was sitting further down, the taller man feeding his protesting boyfriend tonkatsu with a laugh. The other patrons seemed to be too busy to take a full lunch hour- while they waited on their order, no less than three people came by to pick up 'to-go' orders.

"Hey." Naruto looked as uncomfortable as she felt, glancing down at her from the corner of his eye. "You alright?" He leaned slightly into her personal space to push her bowl down to her and- and-

That was a familiar scent. She eyed his vibrantly yellow hair, noticing a tiny braid peeking out from under his right ear. Other than that bit of order, it was a riotous mass. It was rather like how hers might be, if it wasn't long enough for truly exciting tangles to form.

"What shampoo do you use?"

Naruto blinked, face blank. "Uh. Cloves and something else. I just use what Karin buys me."

Aiko hmmed, breaking her chopsticks apart and fiddling with them. "Gotcha. So, um. A walrus?"

That appeared to utterly confound him. A noodle slipped out the side of his mouth.

Oddly, that helped. It was hard to feel intimidated by someone with food coming out of their mouth. He tilted his head and licked futilely at the soup escaping down his chin, blue eyes straining and failing to see the mess. "Your sleeping hat," she explained. "Someone gave it to me." Aiko shrugged. "I recognize your scent. I'm guessing that wasn't you?"

Naruto snorted and clapped a hand to his face to prevent any more liquid from escaping. He took a moment to laboriously swallow his enormous mouthful of food. "Socially challenged bastard," he mumbled, sounding fond. "No, um." His voice raised. "That wasn't me. It was meant to be helpful, I'm sure."

She didn't have anything to say, so she stuffed the boiled egg that had come with her meal into her mouth. Her eyes watered almost instantly. Hot. Her bowl was too hot. As soon as she had swallowed, Aiko grabbed for her water.

"How are you doing?" Naruto burst out in a rush of air. He glanced at her under his bangs and then jerked his gaze back to the countertop.

"Um." Aiko set down her chopsticks and interlocked her fingers on her lap. "I'm fine." In a moment of uncharacteristic honesty, she stared into the depths of her ramen bowl and admitted, "This just feels surreal. You know? Like this last week is a weird dream and I'm about to wake up."

Naruto nodded slowly, licking off his chopsticks. "But not a bad dream, right?"

She hesitated. "It's not a good dream, but it's not exactly puppets and zombies either."

"Well… I'm glad to hear that, I guess." He flashed a smile at her, holding a hand up to signal for another bowl. The waitress must have been expecting that because she quickly fluttered over to switch out bowls. "It'll get better. You're staying with Shizune-chan, ne?"

"Mm," Aiko nodded. "Yepp. She's alright. Kinda strict, though." Her intuition had been right the first day, when she had thought that Shizune would be difficult to budge on the whole 'mental health care' thing. There was just no arguing with that woman.

Naruto gave a surprised laugh, interrupted in the middle of blowing on his ramen to cool it. "If she wasn't, we wouldn't get anything done," he shared mischievously. "Baa-chan is crazy smart and cool and stuff, but she lacks in organizational thought. Shizune-chan makes sure the day to day stuff gets done."

'…Wait. Is 'Baa-chan' the Hokage?'

Her lips twitched. Maybe she could see them being related. That nickname was flippantly inappropriate enough that she sort of wished she'd come up with it. The analysis of the power in Konoha, on the other hand, she stored away for later consideration. Naruto might have a pretty good gauge of his Hokage's character.

The boy in question gave an obscene slurp, polishing off his second bowl. Aiko glanced down at her ramen. It was still nearly full. Feeling mildly guilty for her slowness, she diligently picked through the mushrooms and pork belly, ignoring the greens.

"I need to go soon." Naruto frowned up at the position of the sun, waiting for his third bowl. "Can I get the check with this one?" The waitress gave him an indulgent smile and whirled away, smelling like flour and fresh dough.

Aiko didn't even pretend to look for her wallet. He was paying. She didn't have any money.

"I should be back in a week." Naruto gave her a nervous glance through his lashes, fiddling with a worn coin purse. "Want to do this again?"

The moment struck her as very awkward, in a sinking way.

'Wait. Was this a date?' She opened her mouth to ask, and then nodded silently instead. She didn't want to make an ass out of herself by misinterpreting the situation.

He grinned, counting out a hefty tip and exchanging cheek kisses over the counter with the ramen girl. A girlfriend, maybe? "Great!" Naruto chirped, waggling his fingers at the pretty brunette. She was already drifting away to take another order. "Have fun, yeah? Oh man, I'm gonna be late." He slipped off his stool and moved to push open the fabric veiling the stand from the street, tossing her one last blinding grin. "See ya!"


Please tell me your favorite scenes! I know this chapter is, like the start of what most of you have probably wanted since chapter one. I have been drowning under the weight of expectations for emotional resolution and I am just not good at that but I am trying so hard. See? See? I did good? I did a thing!

Chapter Text

This chapter is only 8000 words. Somehow it felt like twenty thousand. I'm just sick of looking at it. *throws trash baby chapter at the internet*


"Tell me, Uzumaki-san. Do you believe it is possible that you have repressed the memories of your death and associated time in Konoha because it is painful?"

Dr. Yamada blinked placidly from her leather chair, as if she hadn't asked a particularly prying question that implied Aiko was an emotional wreck. Aiko felt her teeth grind together, a new and unpleasant habit she had developed in reaction to her twice-weekly sessions with this woman.

"No."

The older woman didn't even have the decency to look surprised, her steel-gray bob barely shifting when she nodded understandingly. "Why is that?"

Why is-

Oh for shit's sake. How was she supposed to answer that? She didn't have any fucking problems with her feelings.

"I don't remember anything before the hospital because of head trauma sustained against Nagato," Aiko answered mechanically. Her fingers twisted the material of her long but close-cut black sleeves. The material was sturdier than anything Obito had provided, that was for sure. No wonder the shinobi here seemed to wear the same clothes over and over again when Aiko would have planned ten ruined outfits into her budget.

There was no point in looking any further into what had caused her memory loss; she wouldn't know any more and she didn't want to know any more. Aiko pointedly did not consider the conflicting information that she had been experiencing some severely creepy déjà-vu in Konoha. She hadn't talked about that with Dr. Yamada. It might as well not be true, as far as the doctor was concerned.

She took a shallow breath and wished that everyone else wasn't so scent blind. The office they had initially had consultations in had been poisoned with a sickeningly saccharine air freshener pumping in fraudulent vanilla stink that had been an instant route to a headache. The current office had been pointedly fumigated, but the tempting aroma of plasticky baking crap still hung enticingly in the air.

Unfortunately, there was no way around having to breathe.

"How does that make you feel?"

The big muscle on the right side of Aiko's jaw convulsed painfully. She consciously relaxed the joint, not letting her teeth touch.

'It doesn't make me feel anything and I don't see why it matters. The situation is what it is and talking about it won't do anyone any good.'

That answer would be unacceptable. Aiko didn't want to answer.

Artificial light glinted off of five tiny steel orbs. Dr. Yamada was the only working professional Aiko had ever met with a facial piercing- a little dot on the left side of her nose that matched the plain jewelry in her ears.

Her staring hardly seemed to bother Dr. Yamada. Pity. Aiko wouldn't mind sharing the discomfort.

Silence stretched on, thin and fraying at the edges. From painful experience Aiko knew that the civilian woman wouldn't allow the conversation to move on until she had an answer, however unsatisfactory. In her first sessions, Aiko had thought to be a troll and sit in silence for an hour and a half. That had been satisfying enough- until she was 'escorted' to her next session and realized that Dr. Yamada was still waiting patiently for a reply.

Ugh.

"I feel peachy," Aiko gritted out. She gave her sixty year old psychologist a look that threatened violence if the good doctor disagreed.

"Hmm." In the well-lit office, she could make out flecks of variation in Dr. Yamada's brown eyes. But she couldn't get a read on the other woman. That was part of Yamada's dark gift. The dark blue fabric of Yamada's immaculately neat pant suit shifted and shadowed when the older woman crossed her legs, still relaxed. Aiko didn't notice that she mirrored the motion, her own black pants barely a whisper of fabric secured with wound bandages.

"You know," Yamada said, sounding for all the world as if they were discussing matters unrelated to either of them. "Many people, civilian and shinobi alike, experience stress. The mind often deals with matters that are too traumatic or sudden by putting them aside until there is time to confront them."

That sounded perfectly alright as a concept applied in theory to other people. Aiko favored Dr. Yamada with a nod, trying to look attentive enough.

The faint wrinkles around Dr. Yamada's mouth moved nearly imperceptibly as she talked. "It would be quite understandable for a near-death experience to result in memory repression."

'Death experience. It was a death experience. And no.'

And that was where she lost Aiko entirely. She uncrossed her legs, letting them stretch out, and leaned back in an unconsciously arrogant pose with one elbow propped on an armrest. She did not speak, because there was nothing to say to that.

Yamada's eyes narrowed slightly, the smallest hint that Aiko was getting to her. "Mental health is every bit as real and critical to human performance as physical health is. It is merely less tangible and quantifiable, but there are real psychological connections between the mind and the body." She gestured ever so slightly at her chest as she talked.

That was another that that bothered Aiko. The mind was connected to the brain. It was so intuitively obvious - but she wouldn't try to tell Yamada that. The woman was convinced that a person was centered in their heart. The Yamanaka specialist, on the other hand, gave more credence to the eyes as the window to the soul. 1

Basically everyone but Aiko was weird.

But Yamada was still waiting for an answer, wasn't she? Aiko bit the inside of her cheek while she dredged up an appropriate platitude.

"I believe that."

However wrong-headed her psychologist was about the mind being in the heart or Aiko being a fragile flower incapable of coping with the inherent scariness of ninja work, she was undoubtedly correct about the paramount importance of mental health.

It was the wrong thing to say. Dr. Yamada gave another of her infuriatingly sphinx-like nods of acceptance. Aiko watched her mouth open almost in slow motion, dreading whatever crap would come next. "I'm glad to hear that. Uzumaki-san, it is my belief that your mental health is less than optimal. That state of affairs is affecting your ability to perform to your fullest capacity. In order to be happy and healthy, that residual fear and trauma must be dealt with."

Fear and trauma?

Irritation jumped up a full range into bubbling anger.

'Fear- bullshit. I'm not afraid. I think I know most about what goes on in my head, thanks.'

"I don't have any feelings like that." Oh. Shit, that was a poor choice of words. Aiko hurriedly backtracked, tapping her fingers on her lap. "I mean I do but in a completely normal fashion that does not impede my ability to function."

However much of a cipher she was, Yamada was a civilian. She was simply so threatening that Aiko occasionally forgot so. When her left eyebrow raised just a hair, Aiko saw it.

Aiko took a deep breath through her teeth in an attempt to calm herself, cursing the rush of foully sweet air that rushed in. It didn't work. "Oh, how would you know?" She instantly regretted snapping, words heavy and accusative in the air.

Yamada didn't say anything. She didn't look at the framed diploma that declared that she was in fact an expert in mental health. She didn't have to.

The stormcloud hanging over Aiko's head was all but a tangible thing, bubbling and seeping lower. "Fine." She tossed her hair, breaking eye contact to glare bitterly at the wall behind Dr. Yamada. It was a profoundly stupid wall and Aiko hated it. "You win this round."

"As I have said before, our consultations are not a competition," Dr. Yamada repeated for what had to be the tenth time. Aiko didn't deign to answer that, because she had looked up to the clock and- "It's time for us to finish now. Uzumaki-san, I would like for you to spend some time this week in meditation about what type of hurts fighting Nagato-san might have inspired. Can you do that for me?"

"Hai." Aiko agreed with no intention of following through, and stood abruptly. She wrestled with her poor mood for a moment- and then grudgingly gave a short bow. Her loose hair swung down, leaving the back of her neck bare and prickling with chill. However infuriating she found the older woman, Yamada-san was both highly educated and a worthy opponent. It would be indescribably rude to simply walk out. "I look forward to seeing you next week."

There was zero chance that her doctor believed that, but Dr. Yamada gave no indication she had thoughts otherwise. "Likewise, Uzumaki-san. Have a good week." She made some decisive notation on her discarded clipboard- probably the time.

'Oh, I fucking will. I'll have the best fucking week anyone ever fucking had.'

Then she wheeled around and stomped out of the office, flinging open the door carelessly without stopping. Shizune wasn't waiting to walk her home- Aiko was far too old to need an escort, and Shizune too busy for such trifling tasks. It wasn't like the older kunoichi didn't have someone watching and reporting to be certain Aiko behaved herself and went to her sessions.

'Two days of freedom. Then I go see the other hack.' Moodily, Aiko flipped up the hood on her pink vest and stepped out into the oppressive damp. At least the soggy heat was doing a serviceable job of beating most of the day-walkers back into their homes.

She was mildly jealous. If she could go home, she would. When her blue sandal landed in a particularly deep puddle, dirty water splashed up over and between Aiko's toes. Disgusting. She'd have to give herself a pedicure. How did anyone live like this?

'Akatsuki was much more civilized.'

Homesickness hit her like a physical thing, tugging at her gut. She was tired of sharing space with so many people. She was tired of being poked and prodded to talk about her feelings and health with Yamada and her experiences and resurfaced memories with the Yamanaka mind specialist. She wanted to be free and unfettered- to run and just not stop until she was so far away that everyone else might as well be dead. She wanted to be left alone in a dark home somewhere that Konoha wouldn't bother her. She wanted-

What?

Flummoxed, Aiko stopped to blink at the steps she was mounting.

'This isn't Shizune's apartment complex.' Confused, she took a cautious step backwards, sandals scraping back onto the cobblestone street. 'Where is this? Why did I walk here?' Aiko cast an unnerved glance over the construction- one of the many new buildings, a construction with a wooden frame, oddly abstract sense of whimsy in the design, and a paint job that made it look like some kind of dessert. All in all, it was surprisingly typical for Konoha architecture. There was nothing about it that caught her eye or explained why her feet had led her there.

A hand curled up to rest in a fist over her heart, feeling the gentle pounding for a moment. Then Aiko tightened her fist and brought it back down to her side. She tilted her face down against the rain and set off again, this time not letting her mind wander.

She was arrested one more time before reaching the safety of her temporary home.

"Uzumaki!" A male voice called out, sounding oddly disgruntled for someone trying to initiate a discussion.

She glanced over- a long-haired young man dressed in white was frowning at her.

Ew. There was something seriously wrong with his face. He appeared to be blind and had a bad problem with thick, pulsating veins on his temples and cheeks.

'I cannot imagine a world wherein I want to associate with this person. Konoha ninja are total freaks.'

"Your presence is surprising." He moved toward her easily, veins subsiding a bit. Still too creepy. "I had heard that-"

"Who are you? No, don't tell me. I don't care." Pointedly, she pulled her hood slightly further up and turned away, leaving Hyuuga Neji gaping in the street. Aiko walked a little faster than was really suave, eager to put some distance between herself and that creepy weirdo. Luckily, he didn't follow.

She peeled her hooded vest like a soggy second skin as soon as she was inside, grimacing at the way the fabric clung to her skin. It hit the ground with a wet schlopp, splattering rainwater onto Shizune's nice floor.

Feeling guilty, Aiko toed off her sandals and rubbed her numb, pink toes into the tatami. She gave a quick glance into the apartment to be sure she was alone and then stripped off her shirt and pants, using the fabric to wrap up the sopping jacket to reduce drippage.

'I should shower.'

Instead, she hung her wet things in the shower and all but leapt into her bathrobe. That was, of course, when there was a shunshin and a knock on Shizune's door.

'It's Yamato or Hatake.'

Aiko didn't even have to think to know that. She didn't know why they both hummed with identical chakra, but now that she'd determined a pattern, she couldn't deny that she was hyperaware of those two specific men.

She pulled open the door, hoping for Yamato.

Hatake Kakashi took one look at her –soaking wet and in a fuzzy bathrobe- took a step back, and said, "I'll come back later." Just like Sasuke, he was gone with a puff of smoke.

Aiko tilted her head to the side, watching it dissipate.

'I think that was the best interaction we've had so far.'

With a shrug, she went to cross the day off on the calendar in her room and tried not to scowl at the appointment note coming up far too soon. Her appointments were two days apart, but she wasn't going to see Dr. Yamada the next time.

By the time that session had rolled around, Aiko still hadn't warmed up to the idea.

As irritating as the appointments with the civilian trauma and mental health specialist were, Aiko reserved a special place in her heart for loathing of sessions with the pointy-faced Yamanaka who actually had the clearance to ask her about the specifics of her memories and missions. He was just as hard to lie to as Dr. Yamada, but Yamanaka-sensei couldn't be brushed off with 'that's classified'.

It was embarrassing to go over every nightmare she had in excruciating detail. She wasn't even sure that they were memories at all- for all Aiko knew, she was just baring her soul for the fun of it. Lovely.

There wasn't any choice. Dr. Yamada was there to ensure Aiko's mental health- Yamanaka-sensei was the one who was getting what Konoha needed to know out of her. She was savvy enough to see that, no matter what he said about patient confidentiality.

'I can't really begrudge them that anyway. I did attack one of their people.'

After her third session, Aiko lingered in the doorway to nurse the sucker she'd begged off the receptionist. Peach, of all the things, but the sugar still helped somehow.

Maybe the sessions would go easier if she had some method of validating or eliminating some of her opinions. She was itching for something to do- letting Yamato bat her around in spars wasn't that fascinating. Until she trusted Konoha enough to let go and use her spooky eyes on them, she was pretty much jutsu-less. An intellectual hobby might be a nice distraction from the increasingly crowded feeling of being in Konoha.

'What would they have information on that I could use? And how do I get it…'

She gave a hard suck on her candy, spinning the stick it was on as she stepped out into the streets to wander aimlessly. 'The obvious answer is a library, of course. But that's going to be heavily skewed on a lot of topics. I might… Huh,' Aiko marveled. 'I bet their genealogies and service records are complete. I could compare Obito and Madara to see if there's anything there I can use to convince them I know what I'm talking about.'

And while she was researching Uchiha, she could keep an eye out for information on the Sharingan and Rinnegan. She still didn't even know what the medium stage between the regular Sharingan and the Rinnegan was called or for- if anyone would have that kind of information, it would be Konoha.

But surely that sort of information wasn't accessible to just anyone. The blue building seventeen blocks from Hokage tower wasn't called a 'Public Library,' it was the 'Compendium for records of Konoha culture and history'.

'Lucky I know someone who could help me get in.'

Somehow, the sweet candy in her mouth tasted bitter. Aiko didn't like having to ask for favors, however small they may be.

"You want permission to go to the library?" Tsunade blinked once Aiko finally got an appointment, openly bemused. "What brought this on?"

'How many reasons are there to go to a library? I'm looking for a new pet, obviously.'

Somehow she managed to keep disdain from dripping into her tone. "I would like to do some reading through your records of Uchiha shinobi."

Assuming there was anything remotely useful, she might be able to find something- anything- to help her argument. And, more importantly, figure out if her eyes were liable to do anything particularly awful like liquidify if she used them incorrectly.

Aiko suppressed a shudder.

"Fine." Tsunade bent to the side to pull open a drawer and pulled out a yellow pad of paper.

Wait, what?

'That was too easy. She isn't really just going to give me what I want just because I ask, is she?'

Suspicious, Aiko took a moment too long to walk forward when the Hokage beckoned, pen in hand.

"Come on, girl. You'll need authorization, since you don't have a hitai-ite." She blinked, as if saying that aloud had made her realize the truth in that statement for the first time. "Hmm." The Hokage frowned, inking something arcane that didn't appear to be a seal script, hiragana, katakana, or kanji. "I'll have one brought up from the supplies. I hadn't realized that your old one would be completely…"

Completely what? What did happen to that?

Curious, Aiko cocked her head to the side as she took the proffered paper and immediately shoved it in her jacket pocket.

She gave it a second's thought and instantly regretted it.

'I died. That was probably when it happened. There aren't many reasons that a loyal nin loses their headband.'

Well, that was a mood killer. She slammed the door behind her as she left.


"You really think she's remembering things?" Tsunade watched the closed door contemplatively for a moment. "Yamanaka-san still isn't certain that her nightmares are anything more than nightmares."

The ANBU she had been talking to before a knock on her door slunk back into visibility from the little cove where he had been crowding her regular guard. He took up his position in front of her desk with a straight back, hands at his side. "As I said, she did attempt to return to her old apartment building yesterday," Yamato said mildly. "The memories are there on some level."

The Hokage hummed noncommittally. "You also said that her skills have deteriorated."

Yamato made a face, uncomfortable with that summation. "Not… exactly," he picked. "Her physical condition is noticeably better than I remember. And although her taijutsu is less varied, it's still lethal." He paused, giving the impression of attempting to be fair. "And her chakra chains are much more like Karin's now, although she wields them with far less speed and precision than she used to."

"That can be ameliorated with practice and attributed to the change in her chakra proportions." Tsunade rested her cheek on a palm, pursing her lips. "I would have to say that losing all of her jutsu is a significant sign of deterioration overall. She still won't show aggression in spars?"

"Not unless I specifically order her to, and it's halfhearted."

Tsunade sighed, leaning forward to relish the last trembling vestiges of sunlight from the window behind her. "And she still is operating under the delusion that the Waterfall jinchuuriki got better from being dead." Her lips twisted sourly, hidden by the angle of her head. "What a mess. If it weren't for that and the insistent confusion about Uchiha Madara, I would say that she was coming along well."

She needed Aiko to come along well and lie like a champion about Konan's coerced action for Akatsuki. Konan was the only shinobi who could hope to keep Ame in one piece. Not only was she their most powerful leader, but she carried the support of the shockingly deluded masses who refused to believe that Nagato was not a literal god who would eventually return to his faithful. They were willing to accept his 'angel' as a temporary stand-in.

'I suppose that personally ensuring Ame had no casualties for the length of his tenure would endear him to the populace. How many times did he revive his shinobi?'

"Is that why you gave her Chuunin clearance in the archives?" Yamato instantly flushed at the interest his question betrayed, though Tsunade didn't even look up at him.

"Yes. She's stubborn. No amount of repeating what we've already told her will change her mind." Tsunade pushed back her chair to stand, arching her back slightly to stretch. Women her age weren't meant to sit in one position for hours at a time.

She pretended not to hear Yamato's soft sigh and continued.

"I wish she would confide in Shizune or Yamanaka Santa. I want to know what the hell those eyes are about. Failing that, taking the initiative to ask for the ability to come to her own conclusions may be the best sign we've seen yet." She gave a teensy snort, shaking her head slightly. "Aside from her paranoid, delicate treatment of you, of course. It could be so much worse if she was hostile."

She glanced up in time to see the slightest hint of a smile on her jounin's face. Tsunade let one eyebrow slide up her forehead, not seeing what was so charming about that.

Yamato flushed at her scrutiny, ears pinking. "It's cute," he offered weakly.

'Cute.' Tsunade took a slow inhalation and released it in a controlled seeping, chest falling. 'He thinks it's cute. The people I work with.'

There was the slightest sound of a sandal scuffing on her brand new carpet as her jounin fidgeted. He cleared his throat. "As far as I can tell, it's genuinely because she doesn't trust herself not to hurt allies in a spar. It'll go away after a few weeks, I'm sure."

'I wish I shared that confidence. But as long as she only sees Konoha nin as those allies, we won't have problems with it.' Tsunade waived him out- and then spoke up just as he finished bowing and turned to leave.

"Tell Naruto he can contact her, if he likes. He's probably in Sasuke's office at the moment."

She was leery of exposing him to someone who had been in Akatsuki custody for such a long time, but even her paranoia had limits. Whatever problems she might have, Aiko didn't seem to be violent.

Yamato nodded and left without comment.


"Hey, Aiko!"

She halted mid-step in the lower lobby at a very loud, slightly raspy voice. She hadn't even completely made it out of Hokage tower. The boy who'd come bounding out of the crowd was grinning toothily, pulling a one-handled bag off his shoulders.

"Hold up a minute, would you?" He didn't wait for a response, plopping the bag down and unzipping it in one motion. "I'm supposed to- I have your stuff," he amended, talking hastily. He scrunched up his nose in unconscious irritation with the strands of blonde hair that were hanging down into his eyes.

"You have my things?" Aiko repeated cautiously, frowning.

'Why does he have my things?'

"Yeah, I think baa-chan forgot," he said absently, pulling out a very familiar bit of red leather.

"My holster?" Aiko reached out, somehow unsurprised when he placed it in her hand without looking. In the work of a few moments she had it strapped on- no one had fiddled with the straps, so it was already fitted correctly.

"Yeah, I think there's some kunai and senbon in here too." With a careless clatter, the boy tipped the bag and collected the weapons that fell out. Someone had bound them together and polished them- they'd need to be unwrapped.

'This is strange, but… okay? I think it's okay.'

"Thanks," she said. She took the first package and began unraveling it, packing the freed weapons away. "So, um, you know my name…"

He flushed. "I'm Naruto. Uzumaki Naruto."

It took a moment for that to sink in. When it did, her fingers fumbled. A flash of pain was the only thing that told her she'd managed to cut her index finger on a bare blade.

'Uzumaki. That's my last name. He looks roughly my age. Obito said that there was only one other Uzumaki child in Konoha when the last jinchuuriki died and- and-'

She clenched her hand into a fist, pressing the leaking finger into her palm to stop the bleeding.

Dear kami, that was a jinchuuriki right there, not two feet away from her. Her heart jolted unpleasantly. A jinchuuriki, meaning a person who had another one of those bijuu in him.

A familiar acidic tang prickled in her nose and the feeling of dry heat, of slowly baking alive washed over her flesh. Fear. Helpless. Insignificant.

On some level, her mind was whimpering helplessly.

Did it- no he, she'd decided jinchuuriki were people- did he know that she'd helped kill jinchuuriki before? Was he holding a grudge? Was he-

He was awfully familiar. Actually.

"I think I know you," Aiko said carefully, giving a smile that she did not feel. "From the orphanage, right?"

For a moment, his face was very still. Then it cracked into a painfully bright smile, accompanied by a thumbs-up. "Yupp! We lived together up until we were fifteen or so."

'That's a long time.'

"Oh." Her mouth was dry. "That's nice. You, um." She fumbled for words, torn between wanting to be very polite and wanting to escape.

'Someone wants me to like him and to associate him with safety. That's why he's the person who gave me back my equipment. That's not a coincidence. Why does Konoha care? What do they want?'

"Want to get lunch?" Naruto asked hopefully, shouldering his deflated bag. "I'm heading out on a mission later today and I didn't pack a lunch, 'ttebayo."

God no. Never.

"Yeah. That sounds nice." Aiko forced leaden feet to move, keeping pace with Naruto's strides toward the door.

'He's related to me somehow. Probably pretty closely, since we share a last name and there are few Uzumaki. Should I ask? Is he emotionally compromised? He seems friendly. I don't think he's registered me as a threat.'

The place he took her to was a dinky ramen bar that had quite possibly survived an invasion or two, judging by the dents and pointedly fresh paint. A pretty serving girl greeted both of them –by name, that was so freaky- and immediately set to work on their order. As she walked away, Aiko curled her toes against the bar under her stool and looked at the counter.

They weren't the only patrons—an older couple was sitting further down, the taller man feeding his protesting boyfriend tonkatsu with a laugh. The other patrons seemed to be too busy to take a full lunch hour- while they waited on their order, no less than three people came by to pick up 'to-go' orders.

"Hey." Naruto looked as uncomfortable as she felt, glancing down at her from the corner of his eye. "You alright?" He leaned slightly into her personal space to push her bowl down to her and- and-

That was a familiar scent. She eyed his vibrantly yellow hair, noticing a tiny braid peeking out from under his right ear. Other than that bit of order, it was a riotous mass. It was rather like how hers might be, if it wasn't long enough for truly exciting tangles to form.

"What shampoo do you use?"

Naruto blinked, face blank. "Uh. Cloves and something else. I just use what Karin buys me."

Aiko hmmed, breaking her chopsticks apart and fiddling with them. "Gotcha. So, um. A walrus?"

That appeared to utterly confound him. A noodle slipped out the side of his mouth.

Oddly, that helped. It was hard to feel intimidated by someone with food coming out of their mouth. He tilted his head and licked futilely at the soup escaping down his chin, blue eyes straining and failing to see the mess. "Your sleeping hat," she explained. "Someone gave it to me." Aiko shrugged. "I recognize your scent. I'm guessing that wasn't you?"

Naruto snorted and clapped a hand to his face to prevent any more liquid from escaping. He took a moment to laboriously swallow his enormous mouthful of food. "Socially challenged bastard," he mumbled, sounding fond. "No, um." His voice raised. "That wasn't me. It was meant to be helpful, I'm sure."

She didn't have anything to say, so she stuffed the boiled egg that had come with her meal into her mouth. Her eyes watered almost instantly. Hot. Her bowl was too hot. As soon as she had swallowed, Aiko grabbed for her water.

"How are you doing?" Naruto burst out in a rush of air. He glanced at her under his bangs and then jerked his gaze back to the countertop.

"Um." Aiko set down her chopsticks and interlocked her fingers on her lap. "I'm fine." In a moment of uncharacteristic honesty, she stared into the depths of her ramen bowl and admitted, "This just feels surreal. You know? Like this last week is a weird dream and I'm about to wake up."

Naruto nodded slowly, licking off his chopsticks. "But not a bad dream, right?"

She hesitated. "It's not a good dream, but it's not exactly puppets and zombies either."

"Well… I'm glad to hear that, I guess." He flashed a smile at her, holding a hand up to signal for another bowl. The waitress must have been expecting that because she quickly fluttered over to switch out bowls. "It'll get better. You're staying with Shizune-chan, ne?"

"Mm," Aiko nodded. "Yepp. She's alright. Kinda strict, though." Her intuition had been right the first day, when she had thought that Shizune would be difficult to budge on the whole 'mental health care' thing. There was just no arguing with that woman.

Naruto gave a surprised laugh, interrupted in the middle of blowing on his ramen to cool it. "If she wasn't, we wouldn't get anything done," he shared mischievously. "Baa-chan is crazy smart and cool and stuff, but she lacks in organizational thought. Shizune-chan makes sure the day to day stuff gets done."

'…Wait. Is 'Baa-chan' the Hokage?'

Her lips twitched. Maybe she could see them being related. That nickname was flippantly inappropriate enough that she sort of wished she'd come up with it. The analysis of the power in Konoha, on the other hand, she stored away for later consideration. Naruto might have a pretty good gauge of his Hokage's character.

The boy in question gave an obscenely loud slurp, polishing off his second bowl. Aiko glanced down at her ramen. It was still nearly full. Feeling mildly guilty for her slowness, she diligently picked through the mushrooms and pork belly, ignoring the greens.

"I need to go soon." Naruto frowned up at the position of the sun, waiting for his third bowl. "Can I get the check with this one?" The waitress gave him an indulgent smile and whirled away, smelling like flour and fresh dough.

Aiko didn't even pretend to look for her wallet. He was paying. She didn't have any money.

"I should be back in a week." Naruto gave her a nervous glance through his lashes, fiddling with a worn coin purse. "Want to do this again?"

The moment struck her as very awkward, in a sinking way.

'Wait. Was this a date?' She opened her mouth to ask, and then nodded silently instead. She didn't want to make an ass out of herself by misinterpreting the situation.

He grinned, counting out a hefty tip and exchanging cheek kisses over the counter with the ramen girl. A girlfriend, maybe? "Great!" Naruto chirped, waggling his fingers at the pretty brunette. She was already drifting away to take another order. "Have fun, yeah? Oh man, I'm gonna be late." He slipped off his stool and moved to push open the fabric veiling the stand from the street, tossing her one last blinding grin. "See ya!"

For a moment, she sat there to give her mind a chance to catch up. When she felt a little less like she had been hit in the face with a salmon, Aiko favored the girl behind the counter with a smile. "Ayame-san?" When she was met with a nod and the girl's full attention, the smile became a little more genuine. "Weird question. How often does he come here?"

"Not as much as he used to." The girl tapped her chin with a slim, uncalloused finger. "I'd say perhaps once a day when he's in town." She practically beamed. "I might be the first one to know when he's back from his missions!" Her laugh was as cute as the rest of her, Aiko noted.

'That's appalling. The food here is not nearly good enough to merit that.'

Aiko stretched her face into a parody of a smile, intentionally wrinkling the corners of her eyes. "I'll probably see you around, then." She tapped a loose parody of a salute before sliding off her stool and pushing her way through the fabric that separated the stall from the hubbub of Konoha's streets.

Irritatingly enough, she ended up backtracking in the general direction that Naruto had dragged her from. She only knew how to locate the library from the Hokage Tower. The only stop she made was a Shizune's apartment to acquire a notebook and a few nice pens: black and blue and pink ink that would be good for taking notes. It also wasn't a half-bad place to tuck away her flimsy pass.

When she got to the library, she just looked at the outside.

'I don't really feel like doing this right now.'

She steeled herself and went in anyway, only lingering to read the headline of a newspaper discarded on the long counter. SUNAGAKURE PLAGUED BY BIJUU. EXPERTS SUSPECT A WITHDRAWRAL FROM ALLIANCE IMMINENT.

Poor Wind Country. For just a moment, a guilty smile tugged at her lips. That was terrible, it really was. Bijuu were fucking scary. On the other hand, it was also sort of hysterical.

'It's also not important right now. I'm avoiding thinking about what I should be doing.'

Aiko shook her head, tugging at her hair. She really didn't want to go bury herself in books about Uchiha, but this was important. Information was her only weapon at the moment, so she needed as much of it as she could get.

Uncertain but stubborn, Aiko stalked in purposefully and flashed her Tsunade-gifted pass at the woman behind the counter.

Brown eyes narrowed on her with a fiercely intelligent sharpness, and then dismissed her just as easily. "You don't show that to me."

Aiko faltered, fingers tightening on her pass. The spiral notebook under her arm was digging into her skin, sticking uncomfortably.

"Where-"

"Up the stairs and to your left." There was the sound of a magazine page flipping. That had never seemed like a particularly 'final' noise before, but it ended the conversation handily.

"Right." Aiko pinned her lower lip between her teeth and attempted to look as though she knew what she was doing. She allowed her sandals to make tapping noise on the stairs, taking comfort from the steady punctuation. The man she was meant to show her pass to was in fact recognizable by his headband and the giant sign above his station.

He barely glanced at her paper, spending an exploratory tendril of chakra through the paper to check for who knows what. It must have passed muster because he passed it back.

"Looks fine. If you try to go to the fourth floor or higher, I am authorized to use lethal force."

Her eyebrows shot up. She couldn't quite keep from assessing him as a potential opponent while his arm was extended. Wiry muscle under a Konoha flak jacket indicated he was light and fast. The thin lines of scarring on his fingertips and palms told her that he was fond of some sort of wires or small blades.

'I think I can take him. I would take him down fast and hard- he's probably a clever fighter. I'd be better off using brute force. My Susanoo is utter shit, but it wouldn't have to be great to rip him apart in this confined space.'

Aiko shook that thought off and gave him a smile to cover that she had been contemplating how she would murder him.

He gave her an unimpressed look that implied he knew exactly where her head had been. "Mmhm. Enjoy the library."

She flushed and wheeled around, tucking a bit of hair behind her ear. She didn't need to ask directions. She'd just read titles until she found what she was looking for. That could only take a few hours or days. Very reasonable. She wasn't avoiding anything.

Surely there were genealogies and histories on this floor and the one above. Otherwise Tsunade would have given her higher authorization. Right?

Strangely enough, she did not find the correct section in that trip to the library. Aiko combed the second floor and discovered a great deal of information about Konoha's clans, founding, and administration.

It was on her second trip early in the next morning that she found what she was looking for. She took an armful of scrolls and books to a table without thinking too deeply about why most clan information and genealogies would be stored at private repositories off site but the Uchiha things had been moved to the library.

She went to the genealogies first, thinking to find Madara and start her research on him from there. It took a while to discern the slightest hint of the logic behind organization. The Uchiha had internally sorted itself by lines descending from their oldest known ancestor. Uchiha Sasuke, as far as she could tell, was the last scion of the 'purest' line- that descended from Uchiha Madara's female cousin Uchiha Kana, who had succeeded him as clan head after he scarpered the hell out of Konoha.

'Apparently, it was impolitic to enshrine Madara in the family tree. Seems rather counter to the stated purpose of a genealogy to leave out anyone you don't like. But then, if no one in Konoha was really closely related to him, the inaccuracy might be worth it for the ability to distance yourself from the legend of the first traitor.'

Painfully, there seemed to be ten or so different family lines within the Uchiha. That had probably been very useful in terms of keeping the inbreeding to a minimum, but it introduced another level of irritation to her research.

'So all I have to do is read each record of births and careers in the time frame that Obito was born to figure out which book he's in. I can discard any one book that has no mention of him in that time frame. It would be nice to know what time frame I need to investigate.'

She paused for a moment to wish that she had a more than vague idea of how old Obito was. He had a strangely ageless face. He was older than her, for sure, having been her father's student. But he didn't look like he could possibly be thirty. And that was a ridiculously conservative estimate- math that would have made him eleven at the time he murdered her father. So he had to be older than that.

But it just didn't seem possible. Obito looked twenty-five or so, on the skin that wasn't scarred with inhuman tissues.

Aiko scowled down at what felt like the hundredth nearly identical picture of a pale, dark-haired Uchiha with pretty features. She had almost convinced herself that the stupid family line in this particular book would be the right one, but she had reached Uchiha born a little over twenty years ago with no sign of Obito. Stupid Uchiha with their stupid, complicated eyes. Eyes that they never seemed to have any trouble with. She was sick and fucking tired of looking at generations of those smug bastards. Feeling irritable, she snatched her black pen and scribbled sunglasses over the pointy-faced jerk she had been reading about.

Then she paused.

'Actually, I like that. Uchiha look good in sunglasses.'

She couldn't quite resent them for that, no matter that she was envious of that sort of easy cool. The next Uchiha got big bug-eyed glasses, though they were slightly lopsided. Her next four attempts were better, at which point she felt confident enough to move on to rather suave cat eye glasses, and then a flat-topped variety that may have been a faulty paradigm in design. She worked it to a science, paring the time for each sketch down to about five seconds. Perhaps she should try-

"What the hell are you doing?"

Aiko jerked guiltily, pen flying. Uchiha Sasuke plucked it out of the air- damn him- and laid it down on the table by her defaced books.

'Nothing, why do you ask' wasn't going to cut it.

"Fixing this book." As soon as she recovered herself, Aiko leveled her steadiest gaze up on his dark eyes. Eyes that would indeed look better under a lovely set of cat-eyes or wayfarers. "The pictures are all wrong." Shameless, she raised an eyebrow in challenge.

He was very still, features unhelpfully blank. "They're… wrong."

"Yes." She pushed a book toward him. "Everyone knows that Uchiha always wore glasses. I was helping."

Sasuke looked down at her, knowing full well that she was feeding him a bald-faced lie. Aiko looked up at him, knowing that he knew she was a damn liar.

And then he nodded, pulling out the chair she had stacked with books and shifting enough that he could sit. "You have another-"

"Yeah, here." Aiko passed over the blue pen automatically.

'I can't believe that worked.'

The Hokage's apprentice pulled open a book, made a mildly amused sound at whatever he recognized, and inked a rather uninspired set of glasses over someone named 'Shisui' with the faintest hint of a smile. After a moment he leaned back, pursed his lips, and added a wiggle that was probably meant as a light refracting off a curved lens.

There was absolutely no chance he believed her. Right? Right, she assured herself. The world had just- just tilted a little bit. That was all.

Aiko gave a little shake to banish her disorientation and set back to her art so that she didn't risk looking at Sasuke again. She was a little more attentive to her surroundings this time, which helped her subtly shut her book and allow Sasuke to do the same a moment before a Chuunin messenger was standing at their table.

"Uchiha-san?" The girl's eyes flickered over to Aiko for only a moment. "Your presence is required in the hospital."

He stood up instantly, chair scraping on the wooden floor. "I understand. Go." The messenger gave a quick bob of a bow before fleeing. Aiko straightened a bit, ears perked in interest. He glanced down at her. "Better keep working, Uzumaki. There's a lot to fix."

She stuck her tongue out at him, but he was gone in a puff of smoke.

'I suppose that counts as having his blessing.'

Still, the appeal of her lonely campaign to help the Uchiha accessorize was dulling. Aiko pushed aside the useless book for a genealogy of another line- and finally struck gold.

"Holy shit." Aiko leaned back in her chair. "Holy shit. Obito is –is thirty-five?" She shook her head slightly, marveling. That was just… unimaginably old. Decrepit. Aghast, she leaned her forehead into her palms and let her mouth hang open.

'He's ancient. I never thought he was anywhere near that old.'

Then she took a mental step back, remembered that Konoha thought she had been spending time with Uchiha Madara. Perhaps she really was as naïve as Konoha thought she was. Even by her estimate, she had really believed a man nearly twice her age had been her friend and cared for her as an equal. What did a 35 year old man care for a 19 year old girl?

'I don't want to think about this.'

Aiko moved on to all but devour the little that the Uchiha had deemed worthy to record of Obito. It was admittedly minimal, bare in comparison to the entries before and after his. He had been born to a respectable career Jounin who had died less than two years later. There was nothing of his mother, childhood, or early career. Judging by the other records she had read, that meant that the Uchiha had found there to be absolutely nothing of value about him.

She re-read his entire entry and cringed, because it was two lines.

Uchiha Obito, born in the 90th year of the ninja. Died in service to the Sandaime Hokage in the 104th year of the ninja.

Ill at ease, she closed the book on the unsmiling academy graduation portrait of a disconcertingly small child who did not entirely remind her of the man she knew. There was nothing useful for her here.

It was hard to feel anything less than sympathetic with Obito's reluctance to return to Konoha when looking at that bleak record of his life and death.

'Is that how they think about me?'

Maybe. Maybe not. They certainly hadn't discarded her as easily as they had Obito, but they hadn't hidden that they had use for her.

Which was fine, honestly. The last time she had bet that someone would help her because he cared for her- well, she'd gotten burnt on that, hadn't she? Practical motivation was easier to predict. She was useful to them, so they would keep her alive. Konoha wasn't so stupid as to waste a perfectly good soldier of some small amount of political importance.

She felt her lips press into a grim smile. At the risk of being arrogant, she wasn't just a perfectly good soldier the way Obito had been. She was a symbol of Konoha's political legacy- the fourth Hokage's child.

'Not to mention badass in my own right. If they really want to make sure I re-learn the Hiraishin and make me exponentially more frightening…' Aiko shrugged, gathering up her belongings. 'That'll be fine. They don't even know I have the Rinnegan. What would it even be like to have Hiraishin and that?'

She didn't waste time in day-dreaming. All Aiko needed to know was that one day very soon self-determination would be within her reach. If she had enough power, no one would be able to use her again. Tools and techniques were one kind of power, but information and alliances were another type of power; one that that she needed altogether more.

And Uchiha Sasuke looked like a surprisingly weak point in Konoha's armor. Another girl might have been charmed by his unexpectedly diplomatic, tolerant response to finding her defacing his family's property.

Aiko saw his small, silent kindness, and chose to judge it possible vulnerability. That naivety was rather unbecoming in a kage's right hand.

'He'd be a good one to befriend.'

The poor phrasing of her thought struck her with enough force to make her cringe. Maybe 'friend' wasn't the right word for what she intended. Putting her idea in those terms made her feel scummy- it made her feel like Obito. That had been what he had done, after all. Befriended her for his personal gain.

'But that was to my detriment. I won't hurt Konoha or anyone in it. I just don't want them to hurt me.'


 

Note: 1. I didn’t make that up. One of the differences between Eastern and Western philosophy is the conception of embodiment of the self. Most westerners would point to their heads if asked where their mind was. People from Japan would indicate their heart as the seat of consciousness. Really, the only ‘unusual’ perspective here is the Yamanaka psychologist’s, but I think that can be forgiven, occupation and jutsu considered. I am in no way endorsing Aiko’s perspective that anyone else is weird or wrong. She’s just off-put and confused and not in a mood to be reasonable.

Chapter Text

"Are you meant to be here?"

Aiko flashed a guileless, pretty smile at the kindly baa-chan manning the desk and lifted her coffeeshop bag to show it off. "Ne, I just wanted to see Sasuke-kun..." She let her voice trail off softly and blinked twice.

That wasn't her primary objective, but it also wasn't a lie. He was highly placed in Konoha, after all. Sasuke would be a good person to worm her way close to. And he'd seemed surprisingly open to her presence last week. She was starting to suspect that he had been serious about his office door being open to her, way back on the day she woke up in Konoha.

She almost regretted pulling the fire alarm when he was the one watching her, in retrospect.

The older lady sighed and rubbed at her jade pendant in what looked suspiciously like a prayer, but didn't stop Aiko from knocking on the door to his little office in the anteroom that led up to Tsunade's. The only response was a grunt. She took it as permission to push the door open and swung the bag of canned chai tea in ahead of her, holding it aloft in offering. Everyone liked chai, right?

Her target was looking down at a frightfully large pile of folders and running his hands through the messy spikes at the back of his neck.

'Aww. Is Sasu-chan having a hard day with sensitive documents I might find interesting?'

"I come bearing refreshments," Aiko announced, and unceremoniously sat on his desk. Sasuke's fingers froze and he looked up at her, dark eyes blearily suspicious. "Not even slightly poisoned refreshments," she wheedled, pulling a drink out of the bag and popping the tab. She took a sip and then held it out to him.

He leveled an unimpressed look at the offering, then up to her face. "Do you have any idea what type of pathogens you could spread to my person like that?"

Wait, what?

"Are you …calling me diseased?" Aiko questioned, tilting her head slightly. She was meant to be charming him, but it was hard to keep the insult off her face. In challenge, she pushed the can slightly further into his personal space and steeled her expression. If he'd turned her down politely she wouldn't have cared. But now? Now he was going to enjoy some delicious tea if she had to shove it down his throat personally.

They exchanged stares for a moment. Sasuke sighed, breaking eye contact. When he did, she took the opportunity to glance at the paper he'd been reading. Oh. Accounts of recidivism rates something-something. Boring, in other words. "No," he admitted testily. "If only because Shizune-senpai would have noticed. That's still a foul habit. Do you share your food with everyone?"

Her lips thinned. "Just you, hime. Does that make you feel special?"

Sasuke rolled his eyes and finally took the can. He paused before taking a sip to furrow his brows and shoot her an uncertain look. "You came directly here, correct? You didn't attempt to reach me at the hospital first?"

Aiko snorted and ignored the grossed-out look that crossed his face at the sound. "Of course I didn't bring try to bring comestibles to your wing of the hospital. I've heard Shizune talk about what goes on there. I'm not going there again without a facemask and gloves."

And a living will. Honestly, some of Shizune's coworkers sounded frightening.

He let both his eyebrows travel up and pinched his mouth into an expression that clearly said, 'not the worst idea I've ever heard'. Then Sasuke finally took a sip. He shrugged and then drained the can, effortlessly crumpling the metal and tossing it across the room into his bin. "Not bad."

Her eyes followed the trajectory of what had been her drink. "You're welcome," Aiko said blandly, stretching her face into what vaguely resembled a smile.

'I love that tea.'

Well, at least she had one more can. She'd intended that one for him, but now-

"Hn." Sasuke looked away. "What are you really doing here?"

She widened her eyes innocently. "Sasuke?"

He raised an eyebrow.

"What, do I have to have an ulterior motive to come visit?" She snaked a little closer on his desk, twisting her body to face him more fully. "I just thought I would spend some time with you."

Wait, was that just a little bit of a blush-

"Oh, shit." Aiko hopped off his desk and to her feet, but didn't manage to escape out the window before Shizune pushed open Sasuke's door and leveled Aiko with a pleasant smile.

"Ready to go, Uzumaki-san?" Shizune asked as though she hadn't found her wayward ward hiding from her psychiatric appointment. She favored Sasuke with a polite nod but didn't take her eyes off of Aiko.

'This should have been the absolute last place she looked for me. How. How did she know?'

Her shoulders slumped. "Yes," Aiko lied glumly, letting go of the windowframe. She gave a transparently miserable sigh and dragged her feet when she crossed the office to follow Shizune out.

Sasuke waved once and opened the other can of tea, because apparently everyone in this town was a monster.


"You're late today," Yamanaka-sensei observed. His voice gave no indication as to how he felt about that.

Aiko averted her eyes to the smooth blue wall behind his head and wished there was more distance between their oversized chairs.

'Of course I'm late. Shizune found me sooner than anticipated.'

It really was an ugly office. It would look so much nicer if she tossed a smoke bomb into it and ran off.

'If I'd had my way, I'd still be hiding in Hokage tower. I can't believe she thought to look for me there.'

Aiko slouched back a little further into the soft cushion of her chair and didn't even care that she was openly pouting.

"No matter." Knuckles cracked ever so slightly as the older man adjusted, a now-familiar sound that brought her back to the pointed banality of the office setting she was currently trapped in. The small amount of poise she had managed to regain trembled tenuously.

'I need to pull myself together. Sure, he's spectacularly creepy. But he's just one old man. He's got to be like thirty. He's probably tired from hobbling to the office. We'll spend the session talking about Akatsuki. And fuck those guys, really, I don't need to protect them. Under the bus they go.'

Bravado aside, she couldn't bring herself to look at his face. Yamanaka-sensei's hands were scarred and wrinkled, prematurely aged by his profession. He wasn't a desk worker, she was certain of it. And thirty wasn't that old. "I thought that we would try my jutsu again today."

She would have winced if her muscles weren't already wound tight, strings ready to snap with tension.

'That was exactly what I didn't want to do.'

Who would want a near-stranger in their head? She'd heard his spiel about his family jutsu, and the thought of it made her queasy. It was unnatural. If she had possessed even the slightest bit of hope that it would work, she would hiss and try to protect her head with her arms.

That hadn't helped last time. Only the secret ninja art of 'stress vomiting' had saved her when he had first attempted his jutsu to roll around inside the open wounds of her mind.

'I might be able to put him off and distract him if I tell him about the recent dreams, if only because he could consider them worth investigating when he eventually goes into my head.'

Admittedly, the dreams she had been having lately were less tantalizing hints of lost memory than they were increasingly brutal scenarios of how Obito was going to try to kill her for quitting his boyband. No, that wasn't worth it long term. She needed to get it over with and not delay the inevitable. It was just like snipping sutures. She could do this.

The pep talk fell flat.

As much as she didn't want to risk eye contact, she was too high-strung to keep from watching when movement caught her eye across the coffee table.

"Try to relax, Uzumaki-san." He shifted forward, ageless blue eyes contrasting with weather-worn wrinkles on tanned skin.

It was unfair that he was so blasé about this.

She was probably just going to be ill again and all her worrying would have been for nothing.

'I'm aiming for his fancy hair this time,' Aiko thought with dark purpose. She made eye contact before he could order her to, holding onto pathetic shreds of pretense that she was a willing participant.

And then the office slipped away into darkness. Yamanaka-sensei wavered in front of her, a white chalk outline sketched into the unending confines of her mind.

That was about as far as he'd gotten last time, politely expelled by the shock of being dragged into her own consciousness disturbing her stomach. Unfortunately, the jolt was less jarring this time. She still hated the loss of physicality. It was uncannily similar to the confining quietness that Obito's kamui enforced.

Aiko looked down, raising her hands. They were just white lines as well. Feeling ill, she clenched one and slowly turned it, examining the changing visibility in what really appeared to be a two-dimensional version of herself. Her head swam, pinpricks of pain bursting behind her eyes. Everything was so wrong. She couldn't feel the weight of her body moving- there was no gravity.

"Do you need a moment to acclimate?"

The polite tones of Yamanaka-sensei's educated diction were somehow lower here, stretched out to vibrate slowly across what certainly wasn't air. There was no air here. She wasn't breathing. The realization made her inhale hastily, stubbornly reaching for oxygen where she knew there was none. Her lungs should be aching for it, but they were fine. She couldn't reply. She was too busy trying to breathe with no air.

"Please do not be troubled. Your disorientation is normal." There was no sound whatsoever when Yamanaka-sensei took a few steps away to give her space, giving an interested examination of the bleak void that surrounded them. It really didn't merit that. One patch of darkness looked like any other patch.

'Maybe he can see more than I can. This is his jutsu.'

She latched onto the thought, because if he got what he wanted maybe they could just go back to talking about the Akatsuki and the political situation in Fire Country and whatever stupidly banal shit he wanted to ask-

His hands were moving, but she couldn't tell what he was doing. It didn't seem like hand signs. It was difficult to concentrate, troubled as she was by the void pressing in on her.

And then she gasped, bending over to press her face into shaking thighs. Aiko dug her hands into the sides of her chair, relishing the sensation of fabric under the pads of her fingers. There was soft light again, and the poorly muffled conversation of someone out in the hallway.

"I think that's enough for today." His voice was back to normal, an unimpressive, perfectly standard arrangement of auditory stimulation.

What-

The clock on the wall claimed that twenty minutes had passed. Impossible.

That didn't reduce her need to get somewhere far, far away from that man and his awful ninjutsu. Aiko straightened and stood, noting that her feet were numb. Her stomach twisted, as did the room. The ugly tiled floor was moving towards her- only a calloused hand around her arm stopped her from ending up on her knees. Liquid splattered.

Ah. There was the vomit she had been waiting for. Glamorous.

"I'm sorry about that," Yamanaka-sensei said sincerely, pulling her back and settling into her chair again. He gifted a gentle pat to her left hand. Something fouly sour bubbled up in her throat again, but she had the presence of mind to swallow it this time. Her expression must have tipped him off, because he really did look sympathetic. "That jutsu was developed in usage against enemy nin. It isn't as gentle as one would hope. In addition, you appear to have a stronger reaction than most." He backed away, passing the nearby chair he had been in earlier now that there was no need for physical proximity.

That was the one thing she liked about him. He was good at giving her space. That didn't make him any less abhorrent. Aiko drew her knees up to her chest, not even realizing that she was dragging her dirty feet up onto the chair.

"I hope you will be reassured to know that we made significant progress today." She heard air move as the chair on the other side of the office compressed under his weight. "Your memories appear intact. I have attempted to reconnect the links between your conscious and subconscious, but only time will tell how effective this session was. There is a possibility that you will begin noticing the resurgence of information or outright memories connected to certain stimuli. On our next sessions…" he trailed off in thought. He was probably planning to do something like this to her again.

'Sadist. I hope he knows he's lost all chance at my friendship.' The scowl that twisted her face was downright ugly. But he couldn't see it when her nose was pressed between her knees. 'If I could get away with it…'

Aiko drifted off into violent fantasies for a moment, but pulled herself out with a shake. She would never get away with revenging herself on her doctor. Shizune was the most intuitive person she'd ever known. Aiko pictured that quietly disappointed expression with big dark eyes watering in sorrow, and lost her resolve to murder. For the moment.

Pen scratched against paper. The door opened off to her right. Yamanaka-sensei's civil timbre rang out again.

"Ah, Hagomono-san. Would you grant me the kindness of fetching something to clean up that mess?"

There was a murmur, and then retreating footsteps.

There was no chance in hell that Aiko was going to politely offer assistance. She levered her legs over the side of her chair to avoid stepping in still-warm vomit, awkwardly sliding off the chair. Her stomach jolted again, but her teeth remained firmly pressed together and nothing slid up her throat. Aiko pushed out her right hand to rest against the wall and used it as support. She took a step- yes, she was recovered enough to walk.

Her spine prickled. She didn't have to turn to know that Yamanaka-sensei was watching her ungraceful retreat. It was unforgivably impolite to depart without at least bidding him goodbye. No matter how she felt about him, he was her elder and a scholar. She opened her mouth to give him his due and breathed out a stink that could be classified as a gaseous weapon.

Nope. Aiko didn't give him a backwards look, much less verbal regard. By the time she had stumbled out of his office and onto the street, her balance had mostly returned. The morning market was still going strong- it wasn't even nine am yet.

'If I asked, Yamato would probably agree to cancel training today. He is an excruciatingly reasonable person.'

She gave it very serious consideration, pinching her nose closed with her fingers as she walked to avoid sensory overstimulation from hundreds of samples of body odor, mixes of soaps and perfumes, and fresh foods. The seafood's persistent notes turned her stomach regardless.

No. Asking for a day off felt too much like displaying weakness. She couldn't afford that. Even Obito hadn't given her slack in training, and he'd- Aiko shook her head, brushing off that infantile, lingering delusion that he had wanted to coddle her. She didn't want to think about him now.

'At least the jackass let me off early. I have an hour to rest. I should be in fighting condition by the time Yamato shows up.'

It didn't take long for her to regret that decision.

"Again."

Aiko clenched her teeth and exhaled slowly, testing her muscles for a moment by opening and closing her hand. She'd jarred it when flipping over unexpectedly lumpy mokuton in their first spar of the day, scraping her knuckles and breaking a nail down to a painful, ugly little stub. She glanced down- still bleeding a bit. Luckily, there shouldn't be any more acrobatic failures for the day. She wasn't supposed to move her body in their current exercise- just the chain. That was a pity and a blessing.

'These stupid chakra chains… I need to master them. They're the only thing I have a chance of using against Obito.'

He'd taught her everything else she knew, after all. Chakra chains were her only chance of surprising him. Obito would come for her eventually. When he did- well. He would probably kill her for betraying him, moment of weakness aside. But if she had any say about it, she'd take him down with her, or at least give him an ass-kicking to remember her by.

Their next jutsu clash was a moderate success on Aiko's part, but-

"What was that?" Yamato shook his head. "This time, I want you to stop it much earlier."

Luckily, chakra chains were all Yamato ever seemed to want to work with her on, for whatever reason.

She couldn't help but snort at that thought. Whatever reason indeed. 'It's certainly not that I'm pretending not to know any other ninjutsu.'

Feeling decidedly lackluster, she tried to ignore the knotting pain and stiffness in her back and shoulders. Her right shoulder twitched forward when she directed a chain into movement, slicing through Yamato's jutsu and looping to block the wood chip shrapnel that flew her way.

And- missed? She blinked dumbly, lowering the arm that had shot up to protect her face. Most of the shrapnel bounced off to the grass. But there was a small cluster of splinters sticking out of the meaty part of her forearm, bits of wood clinging gently to her shirt and settling disagreeably into her bra.

'I suck so hard.'

She blinked back tears- not from emotion, but from the pressure behind her eyes. Fucking Rinnegan. Even when they weren't activated, they were bothering her. She hadn't used them since she woke up in Konoha. Was that good for her health? Or worse?

'It's so painfully stupid to sit around in the medical capital of the world and not even try to investigate what damage my implants could do to me. If I told them what Obito did to me, they would look into it. Sexy kage does seem to want me to trust her.'

Because that wasn't fucking suspicious at all. Yeah, she was apparently of some small amount of political importance, having been produced with authentic Hokage genetics. That didn't merit this kind of leniency. Unless Konoha really was managed by optimistic, forgiving loons…?

An unnatural light bled through the clearing, illuminating Yamato's strong features in that stupid way she hated. "Pay attention!" He clapped his hands, summoning a little green wisp that turned into a twisting vine within the space of a heartbeat. "You did much better yesterday. Are you sure you don't want to call it a day?" Her training partner frowned, the lines of his face etched into disapproval. "Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah."

His mouth just kept moving. Aiko tuned out the last part, caught up in guilt for being unable to work past the effects of Yamanaka-baka's jutsu. No matter. It had probably just been more boring scolding.

"Blah blah blah!" Yamato put a hand on his hip, waving the other. "Blah blah, blah blah…"

The only thing was… hell. He was right- she hadn't been focusing, and the world was still lilting disobediently in the way it had been since she'd left Yamanaka-baka.

Wood loomed, growing like a virulent fungus out of a seed she hadn't noticed in the grass. It snapped up, remaining lightweight and flexible in similar dimensions as her chakra chains.

It didn't take long to survey her options. She wasn't ready to block the incoming attack and she wasn't allowed to dodge for the purposes of this exercise. Aiko winced but remained obediently planted, lashing out her single chakra chain. She fully expected it to deflect only the worst of the incoming attack. It wouldn't be the first time that Yamato had whapped her solidly with mokuton. She went home black and blue most days.

But Yamato took pity on her at the last millisecond, slowing his attack trajectory. Her chain managed to turn the vine away, twisting with it into what almost appeared to be a homely plait. He cut his connection to the mokuton and dropped the vine while she was still struggling to unwind her chain and shook his head. "Let's take a break for a few minutes."

Aiko flushed, humiliated that she must seem so pathetic today that he felt like pulling his punches. She didn't like losing.

'I could take him, if I abandoned the pretense of lacking jutsu. He's skilled, but he's a one-trick wonder. Fire, I think, would do well against the Mokuton.'

Of course, that might also have the bummer side effect of burning him alive. Obito had been fond of Katon, but they were the most dangerous jutsu to experiment with in terms of friendly fire. She was almost too petty to care about the very real possibility of what would happen if he failed to dodge.

'On the other hand, he's pretty cute. And he usually pays for lunch.'

Yamato seemed like a genuinely good person when he wasn't mercilessly running her into the ground. It wouldn't be very nice to murder him because she was a sore loser. She assumed. Aiko didn't claim to be a philosopher.

"Ready to go again?" He gave her one of those dopily bland smiles, exposing precisely the right amount of white teeth to thaw her temper.

'Fuck it all. He's adorable. I hate him and he's adorable.'

Aiko heaved a sigh and let him block and deflect her chakra chains with practiced skill. There was no doubt left in her mind that he had trained against her chakra chains before and was familiar with their weaknesses and strengths as weapons. He was an excellent sparring partner for her aim of hasty improvement. No matter her speed, he always seemed to know how to turn and twist at the last instant to dominate their spars.

'Not that he would stand a chance if I used the ninjutsu Obito taught me,' she thought sullenly. But she couldn't. It was too risky. She was in a far too tenuous situation to play up to her inexplicable need to impress him.

Well. Perhaps it wasn't completely inexplicable. He was the only person she'd had an outright flashback of while with Obito. She could still remember the shocking whisper of familiarity when Obito had first used Mokuton on her. That was familiarity that she had probably acquired in spars much like this one. They must have been companions of some sort to spend that much time training together. Maybe even more. Teammates? Lovers?

Clearly, she'd seen something in him at some point.

"Aiko! Pay attention!"

Whatever that mysterious appeal was, it wasn't his bossy-ass nature when working out. She scowled. He was skilled, attractive, and intelligent. But at the moment everything in her being was screaming at her to go kick him in the shins. Fuck the chains for today, she didn't have the focus anyway. She screwed up her muscles and bolted across the clearing, ditching her bloodline ability altogether for pure speed.

Aiko didn't bother to tell him that their match had suddenly become taijutsu. He'd figure it out.

On reflex, Yamato side-stepped when she was only four steps into her ten step sprint and brought his arms up defensively to block the high kick or punch he was expecting her to aim. She didn't. She didn't even slow.

There was the briefest moment in which Yamato's professionalism shuttered over into 'what the actual fuck'. He must have expected her to stop playing around; take a taijutsu stance. She instead dropped a shoulder at the last millisecond and body-slammed him, using momentum and enthusiasm to make up for the body mass she did not have.

Yamato had been in a perfectly stable athletic stance, after all. Kicking him in the shins wouldn't have done much.

Her shoulder dug into Yamato's diaphragm, winding him even as he wheeled backwards for the inevitable crash. Aiko was still registering the mild pain from her intentional collision when surprisingly bony hands gripped her waist and adjusted her momentum so that she was flung over his head instead of landing on him. His ass hit the forest floor- but his arms had flashed through the counter-move without his apparent consent, if his mildly surprised expression was any indication.

She did not have the ANBU-trained reflexes to recover from being thrown head-first parallel to the ground in any graceful way.

'Wow, the ground is close.'

She flung her palms out and attempted to recover with a flip, but couldn't shift the momentum Yamato had so kindly leant her in time. Instead she plowed into the dirt, somewhat protected by her elbows and knees. She rolled immediately and popped to her feet, because Yamato was already right there, ready to sweep her legs out from under her with a low kick. Aiko barely side-stepped it.

In the back of her mind, the thought tried to dawn that perhaps Yamato had been attempting to encourage this kind of aggression from her. He didn't seem like a naturally infuriating person. Aiko pushed it down in favor of grunting with effort to throw the hardest punch she could at the doubtlessly now-sore part of his torso she had already targeted.

Yamato caught the fist instead of deflecting it, which was really just needless showing off his strength. But he did use two hands to do it which left him open, so-

He let her hand go a moment later when she attempted to take advantage of his preoccupation to get in a good groin kick, big brown eyes widening in alarm. He moved enough that she only ended up kneeing his upper thigh and then had to hop back on one leg to avoid the next blow.

She grinned up at him.

'He probably did not expect me to fight like a barroom brawler'.

To be fair, it wasn't her strength or even a good idea against a serious opponent. It was just enjoyable.

That unorthodox tactic had somewhat worked, but lost novelty. Her mind whirred- she needed a new strategy now to counter his advantages and experience. He had superior reach- that could be ameliorated with a weapon, but they were fighting bare hand. He had superior strength- if she had any sense, she would use that against him and not let him get a good grip on her. She was slippery when she put her mind to it. Slippery, what would help with-

Ah. The lake.

She took off instead of moving in to attack again, knowing that her sparring partner would be hot on her heels.

Aiko slunk back to the apartment three hours later, sore and filthy from the taijutsu spar that she may or may not have turned into mud wrestling and then lost at.

"What was I thinking?" She groaned. When she rolled it, her neck crack-crack-cracked, but brought little relief. She padded into the room that had become hers and gingerly tugged down her green houserobe. For just a moment, she stood indecisive. Was it worth the ten seconds that it would take to find a bra, panties, and socks?

No, she decided, and sequestered herself in the bathroom to scrub away the pain. It didn't work, but it didn't not work either.

At least she was clean and nice-smelling when the hot water ran out. Aiko dragged her limp body reluctantly out of the steamy bathroom in search of a way to kill time before dinner. It was only about fifteen minutes after she had gotten settled on the balcony that she heard the front door open and close, indicating that Shizune was home.

"Hard day?"

Shizune settled into seiza on her balcony, cupping hot tea in her palms. She wavered slightly out of visibility behind the steam slowly drifting up into her face. It made her look made her look ethereal and wise when by rights she really should have just looked sweaty and a little sticky.

Aiko felt tension rising in her shoulders, stiffening beyond her control and trying not to breathe in the fragrance of shiroi tea.

Shizune knew damn well that Aiko had had a hard day. She'd probably known that Yamanaka-baka was going to try that jutsu today.

She looked away and pretended to be completely immersed in the very complicated task of shaping her nails. They were almost finished, trimmed and filed short with blunted edges that hopefully didn't look too ridiculous next to the broken nail on her right index finger. Having nice nails wouldn't do anything for her pounding headache or muscle soreness, but it wasn't like she had much else to do.

Wordlessly, Shizune leaned over and nudged the small bucket of her own accessories that Aiko had pilfered from the bathroom. She tapped the top of a light blue polish. Aiko glanced over, noting the slightest bit of glitter twinkling in its depths.

It was rather nice, if more subtle than she tended to aim for.

She took the recommendation, extracting the paint and setting it by her ankles. For the next few moments she waited for a reaction or comment, but Shizune seemed disinclined to comment on her reasoning. After about a minute, the older woman let out a soft sigh that tickled at Aiko's ears.

'I could ask her for help figuring out what's wrong with me. If I actually told a medical professional about my symptoms, I could get better. Shizune is slightly terrifying, but she gets shit done. And she does seem-'

She cut herself off there, before she could sink back into the comforting stupidity of trusting kind words and shows of concern. Obito had seemed just as concerned for Aiko's welfare once.

'And I still don't have any evidence to convince them that Obito is who we're dealing with instead of Madara. The library didn't pan out, but there has to be another source of information that could help. Some resource- just something. Anything.'

"Michiru is coming along nicely." Shizune's voice was mild and inoffensive. "I predict that she'll complete her masterwork project within the year."

"Oh?" Aiko unscrewed the base coat bottle and pulled the cold brush over her nails, not really seeing the glint of fading sunlight on the gloss. She couldn't tune out the sharp smell of the polish, giving three sneezes in quick succession. It burned, re-starting the watering of her tear ducts. Ugh. How was it that even when she was leaking water, her eyes felt dry and hot?

Shizune gave her a sideways glance that betrayed sudden comprehension about Aiko's decision to take her nail care session to the open air. Aiko sneezed again, eyes watering.

"Would you like me to-" The older woman gestured politely at the bottle.

She was tempted to say no. But the watering of her eyes was making it difficult to neatly apply the clear paint, so she handed over the polish. Aiko probably looked feline when she stretched, pushing her palms over the balcony's floor to Shizune, but the slight scrape of soft wood felt interesting on her skin. She would much rather focus on that than the cramps in her shins, because ow.

A tenseness that she hadn't registered in Shizune relaxed at the admittedly small concession. The older woman smiled, bright and sunny. "So, as I was saying. I fully anticipate that our toxicology department will be expanded in the coming years. Goodness, we have some talent in the hospital. Karin-san, for example, has been working on a charming project with neurotoxic venom that consumes living tissue…"

Aiko closed her eyes, letting familiar workplace babble wash over her while Shizune painted her nails with quick, sure swipes. As the base coat dried, Shizune gave a slight tug on Aiko's left ankle. A pedicure? That hadn't been in the plan… But. She let the medic take her foot and shape the nails while her hands dried.

"Aiko-san, I don't believe you've heard a word I just said." Amusement lilted Shizune's voice a pitch higher than usual.

Her lips curled up lazily. "Necrosis," Aiko parroted without opening her eyes to see the exasperation that her technically correct answer should prompt.

Shizune hummed, low and noncommittal. "That was literally the last word I said, yes. Did you hear any of the ones that came before?" She heaved a sigh and poked at Aiko's foot with a finger. "You're exactly as bad as Tsunade-sama. Everything goes in one ear and out the other if you don't want to hear it."

Cheeky, Aiko half-sung, "Aa." She rolled out of the way and popped up to her feet before Shizune could bop her nose in retaliation, leaving the older woman blinking at the air and holding two fingers aloft.

"E-eh?" She scrunched up her nose and blew air out the side of her mouth, sending her silky bangs fluttering. "Aiko-san…"

'Agh, she's adorable.' Aiko interlaced her fingers and stretched her arms out in front of her body, twisting to open her torso towards Shizune cutely. "Ye-es?" She tilted her head to the side, lips slightly parted.

"You can paint your own nails," Shizune said sharply, brushing off the front of her kimono with her free hand. The nail polish bottle hit wood with a clatter, rolling to clink gently against the railing. She gave an imperious head toss, lifting her chin up high as if to show off her elegant neck. Then Shizune sailed into the apartment, away from the heathen who didn't properly appreciate scintillating accounts of biological weapons research.

'Being cute had worked much better against Obito.'

Aiko grinned openly, now that there was no one to see. "Don't you love me?" Aiko called, raising her voice to be heard through the door. She heard the faintest, 'hmmph!' in response, and then the sound of the tea kettle being set on.

Still, there was something she should do. She padded into the apartment, pulling the door shut behind her. "Shizune?"

"Hmm?" The medic didn't look up, absorbed in measuring out some kind of spice.

Aiko leaned her back against the table and pressed her lips together to wait for Shizune's attention. She'd noted before that Shizune wasn't entirely capable of holding conversation when her mind was somewhere else. She'd hear things, but not respond until she'd finished her current task.

After a few moments, Shizune's eyebrows creased slightly. "Oh, I'm sorry Aiko-san. What were you saying?"

"I was wondering when Sexy-Kage wanted me to work on that Konan thing." Aiko shrugged, despite the fact that no one was looking at her. "She mentioned it was important that I be able to give the testimony Konoha needs to get Konan off the charges. Should I be reading the report I originally wrote about my time with the Akatsuki, or…?" She trailed off, not certain about what else she could possibly do to prepare for this trial. How could she possibly fool anyone who had known her before?

She was starting to feel niggling worry that Konoha had decided she wasn't worth the investment after all. That was ridiculous. They wouldn't be training her if they were about to discard her. Would they?

Shizune smiled up at her. The table digging into her back felt just that little bit colder.

"That's a good idea, Aiko-san. Tell you what, I'll see what Tsunade-sama would like for you to start with tomorrow."

Chapter Text

"This is a lot of reading," Aiko said doubtfully. She hefted the stack in her arms a little higher, nearly tipping backwards with the weight.

Godaime-Hottie's lips curved up. "Yes, it is," she acknowledged. There was something vindictive in her tone.

Looking around the Hokage's office, Aiko thought she might have an explanation for that. The Hokage was sharing her paperwork related misery.

Bitch.

"It's all very important," the blonde woman said mildly. She brushed a long, smooth pigtail back over her shoulder. "And you did ask for the ability to be helpful. In order to perform as I need you to at Konan's trial, you will need at least passing familiarity with the subjects of every one of those dossiers. It would be … awkward," she decided. "If you were to fail to recognize someone that you have previously met."

Aiko scowled down at her homework. "I would hate for things to be awkward," she lied with sarcasm that almost poisoned her lips on the way out.

"I'm so glad we agree." The Hokage did look very sweet with her big brown eyes and slight smile. She had to know that Aiko hadn't been serious.

'What does it matter? She has the power here.' Moodily, Aiko tightened her arms around her burden and went to spin around to stalk out.

"A-a-a." Hottie-Hokage held up two slim fingers sternly. "Those can't leave my office. Why don't you have a seat on the couch and start reading?"

Why wouldn't- oh. Sensitive information. She didn't want sensitive information leaving her office. That was fair enough, except-

"If I'm here, how will you do mission debriefings," Aiko pointed out. "That's sensitive information too." Feeling as though she had won, she let her expression slide into slight condescension.

The Hokage didn't so much as flinch. "Debriefings and meetings will run as usual."

Aiko's mouth hung open unbecomingly. Luckily, her burden hid the lower half of her face from the Hokage's viewpoint. That was…

'A ridiculous gesture of trust. She doesn't trust me- or at least, she shouldn't. I'm not loyal to her.'

Aiko knew that. The Hokage knew that. Which meant… was it possible that the gesture of trust was meant as a show for those who would be passing through the office?

'It makes a certain amount of sense', Aiko reasoned. 'I was apparently pretty well known here at one point, and then I disappeared for a year. There'll be rumors and theories about what happened. That's just how people work. They wonder and poke and prod. If she has me seen just casually in her company, it looks like we're close and the rumors won't approach any variety of scandalous that would damage my reputation for what she wants me to do.'

"Stop making that face," Hokage-Hottie sighed. "You looked like you just ate a lemon."

She shifted her weight. "This is just my normal face." Her tone was just a bit too defensive. She hadn't been making a face, had she? No one had ever mentioned that she had an odd thinking face before.

The hokage made a thoroughly undignified snort and a waving motion with her hand. "If you say so."

Mildly self-conscious, she lifted the pile of dossiers up just a little higher against her mouth and wheeled around to totteringly collapse onto the couch. The top of her pile slid ominously, despite her arms' firm grip around what she could reach of the stack. For a moment, she held her breath- and let it out with a curse as the papers lost their precarious balance. Most of it ended up sprawled across the cushions, but a good deal situated itself on her legs and the floor. Stupid Hokage-Hottie sniggered behind her, but Aiko didn't dignify her with a look.

'Just because some people have long arms and freaky unnatural strength…'

"Aiko."

The Hokage sounded a little uneasy. Uncertain, perhaps. The abrupt shift in tone was enough to make Aiko look up. Tsunade's pretty face was painted with discomfort and carefully pointed at one of her potted plants.

"I don't want you to be unpleasantly surprised," Tsunade explained. She licked her bottom lip. "Did you notice there are three blue folders?"

Aiko had not, but now they were apparent. She glanced down, measuring their distance from the top. There were about ten folders piled over those, after the mess she'd made of the neat stack.

"Yes?" she asked cautiously.

"That's because those are members of your family." Tsunade swung her head over to make reluctant eye contact. "If you're not ready to look at them, I won't pressure you. But you will need to read them before we leave Konoha. You'll be seeing all three of them in Iron."

Her heart jolted.

Family. Like Nagato? God, she hoped not.

Aiko tentatively pulled the corner of the first blue folder out to show more, contrasting the deep shade with the inoffensive yellow pallor of the others.

She could read it first. It might be nice to know.

'What would I do with family if I knew who they were? It's not like we'd just instantly click.'

Aiko frowned, brow creasing. She leaned back into the couch cushion.

'Where the fuck were they when Obito ran off with me? I mean, I was gone for a year. If they wanted me back, they could have made a bigger fuss. I… I don't know exactly what they could have done, but there must have been something.'

What did she want family for anyways? Family was just people who shared blood. She probably wouldn't like them, and who knew if they would like her?

'And the jinchuuriki is one of them. I know that for sure. He introduced himself with my name.'

She wanted to know.

She didn't want to know.

She swallowed. With her palms, Aiko lined up the edges of the piled dossiers and neatened the stack so that no obnoxiously blue corners were poking out. She flipped open the first folder with more force than was strictly necessary. And then let her eyebrows shoot up in surprise.

'This is a Konoha nin. I thought most of the dossiers would be foreigners.'

She snuck a glance at the Hokage, who had already busied herself with her own work and a surprisingly intense expression. Hmm.

Not only that, but it was a familiar Konoha nin. She barely noticed when the baa-chan who manned the desk waved a team of Chuunin in for a debriefing. Their mission was boring - carrying messages to a border post. They kept glancing at her with poorly hidden curiosity, but she was able to dismiss their presence in favor of her reading.

Apparently, the creepy weirdo had a name. Hyuuga Neji? Aiko rolled her eyes. Point taken: someone had seen her not-entirely gracious dismissal and thought her behavior should be rectified. To be fair…

She strained to complete that thought.

'Actually, I don't have a justification for my rudeness. I just don't care what he thinks.'

And by the looks of it, her old self wouldn't have either. It was creepy to read factual accounts of her relationships, but she plowed through what she needed to know. Apparently, he had been a year behind her in the Academy and her sparring partner. He was a taijutsu type with a bloodline manifestation and a stick up his ass. They had no significant interactions after graduation.

That didn't bother her at all. The thing that bothered her was sorting through the first six dossiers –all agemates- and realizing that she was noticing a pattern.

'I didn't really have any friends, did I?'

Aiko felt her forehead crease, but glaring didn't make the glossy picture any clearer. Yamanaka Ino appeared to be the strongest relationship of the classmates that she'd examined- and that was based off of a pattern of semi-regular spars that faltered to near nothingness after about age sixteen, six house visits, and occasional meetings for tea.

How crushingly lonely.

The second team of the day entered Tsunade's office self importantly. Probably a genin squad, judging by the exasperated Jounin herding them.

'Not like I'm doing any better now,' she noted with dark amusement. 'I had one really good friend who turned out to be an inconsiderate weasel butt. And now I'm not even trying to make real connections when they're banging on my door. Funny how shit works out.'

"You'll be taking your first C class mission," Tsunade's voice informed from the other side of the room to a chorus of excited squeals.

That was probably why these Konona nin were at the top of the pile of people for her to look at. It was perfectly sensible, but Aiko didn't like being manipulated into coming to other people's conclusions. It rankled. Once she'd finished reading about Yamanaka Ino's apparently deft social intellect, she tossed that folder onto the small pile of examined dossiers. It might have been paranoia, but Aiko keenly felt Tsunade's gaze on the side of her head. It tickled, slipping heavily against her jawline. Huh. The office was otherwise empty. When had the genin left?

'I could turn my head and look. Find out if she really is staring.'

Aiko considered it. Instead, she lifted a thick stack of folders –no doubt filled with Konoha nin- quite deliberately and shunted them off to the side.

The indignation from the other side of the room was almost palpable. She savored it while she readjusted for comfort and settled in for a scintillating read about some lunatic who wore a lot of face paint. Oh. The Kazekage had a brother? Good for him. Was he also a reasonable man? She worried at her lip. Ah, not so much. He was a-

She slapped the folder shut and pushed it off her lap. She'd read enough. Puppets. Fuck that guy and the saddled pig he rode in on- she wouldn't be talking to him.

"What, exactly, will I be doing?" Her voice was just a little too high to be casual, but thankfully the Hokage didn't comment on it.

"Testifying. We'll have to keep your presence as quiet as possible," she said in a tone of faint distraction. "The group who receives us will know, of course, but they'll be bound to respect the privacy of all interest groups in order to maintain their impartial status." She ran a hand through her hair, nearly loosening her right ponytail. "The international community is aware that we are bringing at least one significant witness, but I believe they will be expecting only Itachi-san. It is my hope that you will give them quite the surprise and interfere with the testimony planned to counter his."

'Who the hell is Itachi?' Aiko wondered. She nodded, pretending to understand. "Aa."

Hokage-Hottie gave her an amused look, looking up from the last of her paperwork about her meeting with the genin team. "It won't be terribly exciting for you, I'm afraid. You won't see the testimony that happens before yours, and you probably won't talk to anyone out of our delegation. I will summarize what has already happened for you, of course," she assured. "And tailor what you need to say. In the meantime, keep your head down," she grumbled. "The situation in Konoha is tenuous enough."

Aiko stared, not caring about the Hokage's problems. "So it's not really my testimony," she pointed out. Unimpressed, she stretched her legs out to take as much space as possible. "You're putting words in my mouth. Why bother teaching me about all these people if I won't be talking to them?"

Either she was just a tool, or she was meant to be an informed, thinking participant. It didn't work both ways.

"Something could always go wrong." The Hokage raised one perfectly penciled eyebrow. "And besides, you only need to lay low until your testimony. After that, our strategy is obviously out in the open."

'I'm not sure I like being your mouthpiece.'

"Hmm." She opened the next folder and ignored the Hokage, signaling that conversation was over despite the rudeness of the gesture. Oo, the Kazekage himself. He…

"doesn't look particularly reasonable," Aiko said under her breath. It almost looked like he was wearing fabulously thick eye makeup, but no. The Kazekage had deep bruising all around his eyes, and two premature lines in his skin that indicated he spent a great deal of time with his brows furrowed.

'He looks stressed and worn. Very thin. Cute, somehow. I wouldn't peg him as the greatest threat out of the kage, though.'

"What?" Hokage-Hottie seemed confused.

"Oh, nothing."

Obito had thought the Kazekage was the one to be cautious of. Was he mistaken or simply better informed than Aiko was? It could be dangerous to make the wrong assumption.

The door opened on silent hinges. "Hokage-sama, your next appointment is here."

Aiko glanced up, curious about the strain in the baa-chan's voice. Her wrinkled face betrayed nothing of her thoughts. Tsunade groaned without even looking at the door, burying her face in her palms. "Send him in," she ordered, resigned and muffled. The baa-chan disappeared back to her desk. Oddly, no one walked in. The door swung entirely shut and remained that way for three full seconds.

'Maybe they left?'

The door burst open, banging against the wall. "I have arrived!" a very male voice bellowed. He sounded like he was announcing a great personal victory.

She froze. What-

Tap-tap-tap. Jiraiya-sama skidded into the room sideways, making the maximum amount of noise possible with his geta. His arms were held wide enough out to the side that he couldn't possibly have walked through the door like a normal person.

Wait.

'How is he making that sound through the carpet?' Aiko's mind whimpered. It made no sense. Her grip on the partially-read dossier faltered.

"Tsunade-hime! I have come to grace the most beautiful woman in Fire Country- no, the world," Jirayia-sama gestured expansively, turning to face her directly. "with my presence! When you called, I came instantly!" He winked. "and then I journeyed here. Why-"

Jiraiya-sama cut off and dropped to the floor on all fours like a ridiculously fluffy, oversized cat. A kunai winged directly into the air where his chest had been and planted itself in the wall.

"Cut the crap," Hokage-Hottie said, hand still extended. Her eye twitched. "You are embarrassing yourself, and, more importantly, me. In fact-" her gaze cut to Aiko. "Why don't you go for a walk? I'm sure Sasuke would like a break as well if you ask him. He's doing budgeting." She paused, hand halfway up to her temple. "Bring back caffeine."

It didn't take a genius to conclude that this meeting was either about her or above her clearance. Possibly both. She pasted on a smile to hide her resentment and stacked the folders that had been on her lap off to the side. "Good. I could use the exercise."

'Kami only knows why that woman isn't fat as a house from sitting around all day, reading and giving out orders. I don't want to risk that.'

What she had actually said aloud was mostly inoffensive, but Jiraiya-sama tossed his hair back and gave a barking laugh.

She didn't stay to hear any more. Baa-chan issued her a sympathetic glance when she stalked out. Aiko nodded at her and then walked past the receptionist's desk to rap her knuckles against Sasuke's office door. He opened it in a huff, already looking mildly pissy.

"I am busy, you-"

"The hottie suggested we go on a coffee run," Aiko interrupted. She did not feel like dealing with his attitude. Besides, she might be able to overhear something interesting if they hurried on their errand and returned before that meeting was over.

Sasuke looked a little like he had been slapped in the face with a fish. "Oh. I thought-" He frowned, shouldering her out of the way and pulling the door shut behind him. "It doesn't matter. Fine. Let's go."

'The mention of coffee got him moving fast.'

He took her to a place ten blocks away. It must have been a normal convention for businesses to break or run errands at ten, because the streets were surprisingly packed with young professionals toting office supplies or refreshments. Aiko got solidly whacked with a bag hanging off of some man's arm. He hurried away without acknowledgement.

"Be careful," Sasuke warned dryly. "Some people aren't really human at this time of day." When she looked confused, he elaborated. "They're crashing from their morning caffeine and making the decision to get another dose or work through the sudden loss of mental acuity."

"How…"

'painfully banal'

"Interesting," Aiko lied politely.

Sasuke huffed, ducking into the coffeehouse. "I'm sure." When they emerged, it was with a total of four coffees between them. Which was nice, yes, but there were five people in the office. (Shizune was sequestered in the hospital for the day, as far as Aiko could tell).

"None for the pervert," Sasuke explained sternly. He didn't seem to notice that he was scowling. "If we make him feel welcome, he lingers like a bad smell." By the end of the statement, his tone had traveled from 'strict' to 'darkly predictive'.

"Ah." Aiko looked away from him and made a face. How rude. She leaned sharply to the right to avoid brushing her shoulders into the swinging arm of another shinobi who might have forced her to spill hot coffee on her front.

He glanced down, mouth open to offer apology- and stilled. For one quiet moment, details popped at her. The four vertical lines in his worn hitai-ite. The goggles hanging around his neck. The surprise in his eyes, and the way he focused on the shade of her hair.

Then he looked down to her eyes and the moment ended. His disappointment was obvious at whatever it was that he saw in her face.

"Sorry." And the stranger was gone in the crush of people.

'What was that about?' Aiko frowned, disconcerted. It was like he had expected something. Had he heard about her? Had Obito told anyone about her Rinnegan?

No. That was crazy, she dismissed. Her mind had just conjured up the strange anticipation of that moment.

"About time." Sasuke's gaze seemed to follow the man she'd noticed, apparently aided by his extra height in keeping track in the crowd. He seemed phenomenally unamused. "Messenger," he explained curtly. "Four man team that regularly goes between Ame and Konoha. He's a day late. We're waiting to officially confirm…" He trailed off, seeming to remember how divorced she was from Konoha's politics. "We've been waiting," Sasuke finished instead with a tone that said he would not be discussing the matter further.

That explained very little to her.

"Aa, I see."

"Uchiha!"

Sasuke's grip on the coffee cup in his right hand tightened ominously. How conscious of his strength was he? Aiko took a cautious step to the side, coming far too close to the frowning man who was attempting to get Sasuke's attention.

'Surprisingly aggressive for a civilian,' Aiko noted.

Of course, he wasn't just any type of civilian. The cut and fabric of his clothes said 'nouveau riche', but the thick muscles and scarred hands told a story of a life of manual labor. He was every bit as physically imposing and confident as she would expect from someone of that description.

"Hey, I think the Hokage owes us some answers." He settled with his legs spread wide and his arms akimbo.

Sasuke didn't seem terribly intimidated, but the crowd around them oriented to face the sound. She straightened her back.

'What is going on? This was not mentioned. Tsunade hinted at problems, but she did not say civil unrest and some type of anger at the leadership was a thing.'

"We aren't releasing a public statement at this time."

Aiko stole a glance up at Sasuke. He sounded perfectly civil and professional, despite the stutter in self control that she had witnessed.

"You will have to wait," he continued. Sasuke held his hands up in a gesture for peace that was somewhat marred by the coffee- or maybe it wasn't. It did make him look less like the Hokage's apprentice and more like an underling running errands.

The crowd deflated, moving on with their business. Sasuke kept eye contact with the other man for a long moment. He seemed to be debating trying to argue, but he nodded. "Of course. Good day, Uchiha-dono."

Sasuke inclined his head the absolute least angle that was socially acceptable as acknowledgement.

'Dono?' Aiko gave the back of Sasuke's head a skeptical look as they started walking again. 'Surely being the Hokage's apprentice doesn't give him that kind of pull or respect. Does it?'

He still looked like a normal teenage boy to her. A pretty one, yes, but no one she would acknowledge as a social superior.

'Then again, there's a lot I don't know about the people here.'

She stole a glance at Sasuke again. She could ask him a few things. No. Just one. She didn't want to seem too interested or like she was trying to hold an interrogation. But just one casual question shouldn't hurt.

"Sasuke."

He grunted softly.

It took her a second to phrase her question, and it didn't come out terribly well anyway.

"Who was that boy who gave me back my equipment?"

She'd forgotten the name she'd been given, and she couldn't very well say, 'tell me about your junchuuriki'. That would seem a bit suspicious, coming from a former Akatsuki.

When she didn't get a reaction, Aiko frowned and clarified, "It was weeks ago. Some blonde kid." She waved a hand dismissively, despite being out of his sight.

'Some blonde kid with an inappropriately cheery attitude, astute political analysis that hints at a close relationship with Tsunade, and a monster hidden in his body. There is no way that Sasuke doesn't know this kid.'

"I know the one," Sasuke said carefully, slowly. He didn't turn to face her. "You used to know him well. I'm not surprised that he sought you out. You mean Naruto, right?"

"Sure." She shrugged guilelessly. "I thought it was something dumb. That sounds about right."

Sasuke exhaled just a little too loudly. "He and his team are out of the country. You'll see them soon enough."

Aiko rolled her eyes. "I can't help but notice that doesn't answer my question," she bit out.

Sasuke stopped, and turned to the side to face her. "It's not really my question to answer."

She sucked her lower lip in. Damnit. He was going to make her say it, wasn't he?

"He's related to me somehow," she let out in a rush. "I know that, he used my last name. And the Hokage gave me a dossier on him and two other people and-" Aiko faltered, unsure of where to go from there.

With a surprisingly amount of delicacy, Sasuke averted his eyes and quietly said, "You're not ready to look. But you want to know about him."

Pretty much.

"Well, it sounds stupid when you say it that way. Forget it." Aiko kicked a rock, sending it flying into the back of some poor man's knee. She hastily pretended to be occupied watching a bird fly overhead when her victim spun around.

"He's a baka," Sasuke said in a rush. "He's loud and excited and he's still a chuunin because he can't keep a cool head." The last bit was just a little smug. Someone was proud of their recent Tokubetsu Jounin exam. "He's been like that since we were kids, but he grew up quite a bit after…" His voice faltered only for a moment. "After the first time we attempted the chuunin exams," Sasuke finished.

'Their first chuunin exams? How long ago would that have been?'

She subtly assessed her companion. It was hard to guess. He was a good-looking kid, but Sasuke seemed awfully young to be working for Tsunade as he did. What was he, seventeen? Sixteen?

(No, something protested. He's older than that.

Ridiculous. He was so inexperienced and temperamental for his rank. He couldn't possibly be much older than seventeen.)

Still.

"Chuunin exams aren't that big of a deal," Aiko prodded, twisting the end of her ponytail when he didn't continue talking. It sounded like there was a mildly interesting story there.

And holy shit Sasuke's cold-as-ice veneer cracked for an instant, though she had no frame of reference for interpreting what his expression meant.

'Other than I could bring this up again later if I need to throw him off balance.'

"It was a shock for our team," he said stiffly. A muscle jumped in his neck. Kami, he really was inexperienced. Was he even trying to conceal his thoughts?

'Team? Sasuke was on Naruto's team? They must be close. I… must have known Sasuke relatively well before, then. No wonder he's sought me out.'

Sasuke's tone had pretty well signaled the end of conversation, but Aiko didn't care. She had enough to ponder.


"I'm not certain that I see the purpose of this." Jiraiya gave the love of his life a skeptical look a solid minute after the door had closed behind his unfortunately confused godchild. In return, she gave him a look that could melt steel. But that was probably because his feet were propped up on her desk. "She can't possibly become a fuinjutsu master again in time. This is a ridiculous gamble."

"It isn't beyond the realm of possibility that she will remember enough," Tsunade countered. She looked away, out the window. He silently admired the lines of her neck and the strong shape of her chin. Something in his chest ached a little.

'She's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.'

Jiraiya wanted badly to draw her as she was now, ticking off points on her fingers.

"Last week was a breaking point. Yamanaka Santa said she should be integrating memories from now on; Yamato noted that her behavior patterns are changing to be more in line with the playfulness he remembers; and she actually asked Shizune what she could do to prepare. That's possibility, proof of integration, and demonstration of interest. It will have to be enough. I'm not risking another Shintenshin session after her poor reactions to the jutsu." By that point, Tsunade had her hands on her hips and appeared to be attempting to cow any potential challenges with sheer physical intimidation.

Jiraiya waved for her to stop, holding both palms out in front of his body. "Alright, you've convinced me. I suppose the worst that could happen would be she isn't ready."

"The worst would be that she never regains the Hiraishin," Tsunade pointed out, leveling her index finger at him rudely. She snorted. "That would be a damn shame."

"Could make things a bit awkward," Jiraiya acknowledged, picking up the official invitation to Konan's trial in the Land of Iron and waving it. His student. His only surviving student, other than Naruto. His eyes darkened, but his tone stayed light. "I'm hoping that you didn't tell them that you would be arriving by Hiraishin."

His old teammate tossed her head. "It was suggested," she started archly. "that I use such a form of transport. However, it could have been taken as a gesture of aggression." She blinked innocently. "Especially by our valued diplomats from Iwagakure, who are generously assisting the Land of Iron in maintaining order during the upcoming affair. It would be more politic to arrive as the others do."

Jiraiya pressed down a real smile, not the jester's affair he usually used. "You sound just irritated enough by the inconvenience that it could be the truth."

"Good." She pushed back from her desk and moved to crane out the window, around the foliage. There was just enough visibility cleared that the main road in from the public gates was shown. "That group from Amegakure checked in at the gates forty minutes ago."

"They're sure taking their time to get here," he observed impassively.

Tsunade shrugged, uncaring. "Their real mission is showing the populace that Ame nin aren't all complete lunatics. Wandering the streets, talking to people, and going out for a hot drink before they deliver their message are sound strategies." She held out a hand for the paper that Jiraiya had picked up and gave it the slightest glance before putting it away in a folder. "Besides," she admitted, lowering her tone. "Konan and I are only exchanging perfectly friendly but impersonal cookie recipes and book recommendations. Though it causes me distress, I can wait to discover the nuances of her apparently famous mochi. Itachi-kun really wants that recipe."

What.

Jiraiya gave her a disbelieving stare. After a moment, her serious expression cracked and Tsunade let out a laugh. "Oh, come on," she defended. "What else are we supposed to talk about? Our politics don't line up, our agendas are established, and anything we actually have to sort out on the personal level is a poor idea." Her nose wrinkled in distaste.

He took a moment to think about that. Konan had been part of an organization that had wanted to kill the boy Tsunade thought of as a pseudo grandchild. Konan had also kidnapped that boy's sister and nearly let her die from medical neglect.

On the other hand, Tsunade had weakened Konan's best friend and then allowed his death by sending him from Konoha unprotected, knowing full-well that he would be targeted.

There was some potential for clashes there, he had to admit.

"Still." He tugged on his hair. "That just seems so undignified for two village leaders. What if someone opened and looked?"

His reputation was deliberately bad, yes. But he wasn't a kage and never would be. His behavior didn't reflect on an entire country.

"Already happened." Tsunade waggled her eyebrows. "They thought it was code and tried to sell the information."

Of course. Jiraiya sighed. Why did he even bother?

"They should be here relatively soon." Tsunade glanced at the window again. "You should get going. You're a little bit of a …touchy subject. Besides, don't you have work to do? Study the seal." She shrugged, giving him a stink-eye that they both knew hid amusement at an old joke. "Practice not perving on a young woman while you're at it. You'll need all the help you can get." She tapped a finger against her chin. "Actually, maybe it would be best if you weren't alone with her. That could seem intimidating, and you're not familiar with her learning style in any case."

"I don't have a copy of her seal," Jiraiya pointed out slowly. Tsunade-hime was strangely forgetful today. Was she just preoccupied? "Weren't you going to give me one?"

Her expression froze. "I don't have time. Just- grab Hatake," she decided, waving her hand dismissively. "He has an active seal. Make a copy and hurry the hell up. Bring him with you when you work with her."

"Aa," Jiraiya acknowledged with a sigh. "Don't work too hard while I'm gone, hime. But first-" He cocked his head. "What's going on with Waterfall?"


"Young lady! What are you doing?"

The scandalized whisper was uninteresting, so she dismissed it. Ear pressed to the heavy wooden door, she held her breath and strained to hear.

Mutters cut off. There was momentary silence. Then- "Come in, Aiko." The older woman sounded like she was forcing down another, less charitable order.

'Damn. They're done talking.'

She heaved a sigh. Ignoring the outraged expression that the baa-chan was leveling at her back, Aiko pushed her way into the office.

Both Sannin were staring at her with faint amusement. Ah. At least no one was upset.

Aiko pressed her face into something that vaguely resembled a smile and settled a drink on the Hokage's desk. Hottie-Hokage picked it up possessively, tired eyes perking up.

"Hey, thanks." Jiraiya-sama plucked Aiko's coffee out of her hands and saluted her with it.

What.

She opened her mouth in a snarl to tell him off.

He was already breezing past to her the door. Jiraiya-sama twisted around just enough to holler back, "I'll see you next week for practice, Aiko-chan!" And then he was gone.

On another day, she might have chased him and attacked him to recover her property. At the moment, she was rather caught up on something else.

"Why am I seeing him next week," Aiko wheeled on Tsunade and demanded. She planted her palms firmly on the desk and leaned over to loom aggressively, absolutely fucking sick of being out of the know. "Why."

A little bit of coffee trickled down Hokage-Hottie's face, spilt when she jolted in surprise.

'I'm fast enough to startle a kage?'

"Because," Hottie started firmly. She turned her face away and wiped a discreet finger on her chin to mop up the hot liquid. "You're going to have to do a lot more than recognize key people in order to maintain the appearance of normalcy. If you appear to have stagnated or god forbid regressed, that's going to set off warning bells."

Wait. Did that mean in terms of combat?

"Thanks to Yamato, one of your signature moves has been perfected past the point that any records exist of it."

Apparently so.

Hottie set down her coffee with a quiet scuff. "That will help give the impression that the time you have been uninvolved in international affairs has been somewhat normally spent."

Aiko straightened her face and carefully did not think about strolling into Ame for Obito. Or all the drugs and weapons she'd moved over borders. Konoha didn't need to know that. Shinobi nations got strangely twitchy about trifling matters like that.

Somehow, the Hokage didn't seem to notice. Perhaps she'd been bluffing earlier about the ease she had reading Aiko's face?

"If pressed into combat, fall back on chakra chains. However!" Hotkage raised two fingers. "There is at least one more technique that is considered your signature move. If you do not re-master it, or manage to give the impression of having done so, the situation may get sticky."

Aiko furrowed her brow and tilted her head slightly in query.

"The international community at large will consider the Hiraishin to be proof positive of your identity, and the absence to be proof positive that you died a year ago and that we're trying to pull a fast one with your testimony," Hotkage said dryly.

Part of her was stuck on the word 'Hiraishin'. She knew enough fuinjutsu to know that she had nowhere near that kind of competency haha what a funny joke. But her mouth was moving, and the words coming out sounded suspiciously like, "But you are pulling a fast one."

The vicious glare she got for that pulled her back to the real world instantly. "Who are you, my grandfather?"

Aiko put her hands up, palms out and clearly unarmed.

The Hokage harrumphed and leaned back. "I'd have you working today," she grumped. "But it's probably best that you finish that project first." She tossed her hair and nearly inaudibly added, "And the pervert needs a chance to acquire a copy of the seal you used."

That brought her back to the surreal part of the conversation.

"Hiraishin?" Aiko asked very quietly, hoping she had misheard. "The thing that the fourth Hokage used?"

"The thing your father used," the Hokage confirmed mercilessly. "I don't suppose Tobi ever told you about that, did he?" There was something bitter and sympathetic in her tone. "If you'd known that you could leave at any time…" She trailed off.

Some muscle twitched in Aiko's neck. The floor in this office was fascinating. It looked new and luxurious. The Hokage had good taste.

"Oh, cheer up." The older woman sounded uncomfortable, maybe even guilty. She cleared her throat. "It could be worse," Hotkage offered with much more conviction. "You're back now. And you're not even the one dealing with progressively cranky letters from Waterfall."

Aiko made a baffled face. "Who cares about what Waterfall thinks?" She didn't keep the condescension out of her tone. Waterfall was a tiny village filled with gigantic jerkwads. Aiko regretted the whole 'bijuu extraction and murder' thing, but she didn't feel particularly bad about commandeering Fuu directly out of that cesspit.

The Hokage gave a surprised laugh, shoulders shaking. "That-" She shook her head to compose herself and offer a more measured response. "I have heard worse questions."

"And?" Aiko tilted her head.

"They are our allies," Tsunade pointed out dryly.

'Our allies? Does she genuinely think I'm on her side?'

"And they've asked for our help sorting out a situation that has failed to be resolved diplomatically." Her lips twisted. "We are obligated to lend assistance. Unfortunately, the country that they're having problems with is also one of Konoha's allies."

"And this second party is a more valuable ally?" Aiko surmised. That made sense. Almost any shinobi village would provide more tactical value than Waterfall, for one reason or another. Also, Waterfall sucked.

The Hokage glanced over, opened her mouth, and then seemed to remember herself. She gifted Aiko with a thin smile. "You should get back to reading."

'I think that's a yes,' Aiko decided. She did get back to reading and definitely did not sulk. The Kazekage's file was kind of interesting, after all. After a few pages, it leapt up to 'fascinating stuff'.

Oh snap. 'I personally know the Kazekage?' Her excited thoughts trailed off with a sinking realization. That…

'I would say that's cool, except I think a previous acquaintance makes the fact that I unleashed two bijuu on his country even more awkward. Somehow.'

She frowned at the papers. Well. Maybe he wouldn't find out.

'What happened with that situation anyway? I haven't heard anything about horrible deaths in Suna. So they probably fixed it,' she assured herself. 'Sealed them away in some nice, loyal Suna nin. Pity and all that I won't have to see Hamburger and his grumpy friend again, but I'll struggle on.'

The flippancy didn't obscure another, much more worrying tangent. She had made Hamburger a promise to attempt to revive his jinchuuriki friend. It would seem that he was no longer capable of enforcing that. On the other hand, what happened if he got loose in the future and she hadn't kept her word?

No, no. She didn't want to lie to a bijuu.

'I don't want to raise the dead either.'

Troubled, Aiko rubbed at her chest with a palm.

It was sick. Unnatural. Wrong. Amoral, as much as anything could be. She hated her freakish dead-but-healthy-flesh. She'd done it to Fuu and that had been sick and selfish, a balm for her guilt and not anything done for Fuu's sake. It had been wrong of her. She knew better than that. Contemplating doing that to another person- intentionally, and with deliberated intent- It was- it was-

'I'll have to think about this.'

Somehow, she managed to focus enough to retain information from six more dossiers before her head was pounding. Aiko grimaced.

'I'm sitting fifteen feet away from the most renowned medical nin in the world and not asking her to take a look at my headache. Sometimes it would be nicer to trust some of these people, because the irony might actually kill me before the eyes do.'

On the bright side, she was now familiar with the Kazekage's knockout sister (who she had apparently got on with in past) and a smattering of Kiri shinobi of varying importance, from the Mizukage herself (she may have been prematurely hasty in handing out the sexykage title), her bodyguards, and jinchuuriki.

One of whom she had personally made into a jinchuuriki, and the other she had dragged back to Kiri like an errant child. No wonder Utakata had been so cranky with her. Especially after she told him that she didn't remember him. Oops.

Aiko sighed, rubbing at her neck.

'I should have pretended to recognize him, or at least not explicitly pointed it out. I wonder if that's going to come back to haunt me.'


When she showed up at her normal training ground, Yamato gave her a mildly unhappy expression.

"You could have told me." He somehow managed to pout without letting his face display anything other than big, brown-eyed sorrow.

"Wait. What?" Aiko drew her head back a little. "I have no idea what you're talking about, crazypants."

Yamato raised an eyebrow. "That you have other plans for training today?" he half-asked.

Uh… what now?

Her expression must have clued him in. "Ah. I see." Yamato turned ever so slightly pink under his tan. "I assumed- that is to say," he fumbled, scratching at his leg. "I thought that-"

"Please stop," Aiko ordered authoritatively. She didn't notice raising her hands so much as that they were suddenly held high enough to push back the onslaught of embarrassed babble. "What are you talking about?"

He straightened, and hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "Senpai and… Jiraiya-sama," he said with a faintly displeased expression, "asked me to convey that practice has been scheduled in-"

"Thank you, we'll take over from here."

Yamato yelped and bristled like a cat, leaping away from the oversized hand that had clapped down on his shoulder.

Jiraiya-sama grinned widely. Hatake slouched into visibility behind him, appearing completely unimpressed.

'Actually, he might be asleep.'

Ugh on both counts. Jiraiya-sama was a warrior poet and had been her personal idol for a very long time, but she was currently pretty disillusioned with him after the Obito vs Madara debate. Her idol had no faith in her. Either he thought she would lie about something pointless, was delusionally ignoring the truth, or that she was such an idiot that she could fail to properly identify someone that she had lived and worked with for a year. None of the options appealed to her.

Reminded of her beef, she gave Jiraiya-sama a glower that he completely failed to notice.

"Come on, Yamato-kun." The Sannin leered. "You need to pay more attention. It's like you were completely distracted. What could do that, I wonder." He stroked at non-existent chin hair.

Yamato sniffed, looking faintly injured. "I have no idea what you might be referring to."

"Riiiight," Jiraiya-sama dragged out mockingly.

Aiko stole another glance at Hatake, who had leaned against a tree and slid down slightly. There was bark on his shoulders. Maybe he was dead? That'd be pretty okay.

That sounded a little cold, but in her defense- he also held one of the three unflattering opinions of her that Jiraiya-sama must proscribe to. In addition to that (which was reason enough to put red ants in his underwear), she also had reason to suspect that he was cold enough to kill his genin teammates. Not someone she wanted to spend much time with.

"Come, children!" Jiraiya-sama held his right fist high and began marching to some inaudible music. It might have been a waltz.

She winced, but reluctantly fell in line behind the one person there that she actually wanted to spend time with.

"Not you, faceplate," Jiraiya-sama scoffed. "Go whittle or something."

Yamato stopped in his tracks and gave Hatake a pleading look. Hatake pushed himself upright, eyed the group, and flapped a hand.

"Go on, run and play," he said mildly.

The hope for inclusion fled from Yamato's eyes and he huffed. "Fine," he sulked. "I understand when I'm not wanted."

"Sure, but only when it was explicitly pointed out by two people," Jiraiya-sama called over his shoulder in a tone of contemplation and not the cruelty that the insult seemed to merit.

Aiko gave the light-haired men a dirty look. "I'm sure you can do better with your day," she informed Yamato haughtily. "If I had a choice, I wouldn't be going with those scruffy reprobates."

"Ouch," Hatake said, sounding not the least bit hurt. He began walking, clearly expecting her to catch up.

But the ploy did the trick- Yamato gave her a hint of a smile and a joking salute before he split off in a different direction. Jiraiya-sama led the remainders out of the training field, but through a second entrance that Aiko hadn't even known existed.

"Is there any particular reason that field is unsuitable?" Aiko asked after a few minutes of walking.

Jiraiya-sama snorted, but didn't turn around. "You don't think that all the broken timber just laying around might be an impediment to a safe learning atmosphere?" he asked rhetorically. "You're better off with a flatter, more regular terrain to practice something like this on." He flung open the back gate and strutted out onto what appeared to be an ill-used street on Konoha's residential outskirts.

Jiraiya-sama, she couldn't help but notice, spent an improbable amount of energy smiling and waving at the people that they passed.

She might have dismissed it as mere friendliness, but a pattern was beginning to appear. Aiko glanced in the direction Jiraiya-sama was looking just in time to see a young woman spot him in the crowd. The girl turned red with fury, and tightened her fingers on her floral handbag. Even from a distance, Aiko could read the tension in her arm as the potential for violence. So did her companion- an older man who narrowed his eyes and placed a calming hand on the woman's arm.

Ugh. Now that she was paying attention, even from behind, Jiraiya-sama appeared to be leering at nubile young women and even some sleek, pretty young men.

'And so my literary hero turns out to be an overly dramatic, disrespectful loser. I can't believe he's staring like that.'

She crossed her arms over her torso and dug her fingers into her side with nearly painful force, but didn't slow down. If she did, the people with longer legs would leave her in the dust.

She didn't want to believe it. But young women, as a general demographic, were giving their group a suspiciously wide berth.

'And so I must pull down the golden statues of my idol. The innocence of childhood is gone, and my vision is clear. It turns out that Jiraiya-sama is in fact disrespectful and kinda gross.'

It pained her to demote one of her longtime idols, but- well. No one who had given that many people reason to skitter away from him –with expressions ranging from rage to panic- deserved to be her hero. His books could be great, but he clearly had odious habits.

"You know," she ventured with a noncommittal tone to hide her bitter disappointment. The two walking in front of her didn't turn back, but they were clearly both listening. "You're not subtle, Jiraiya-sama." His back stiffened, like an offended cat.

"What?"

"Your leering," she clarified with an edge in her tone. "It's rude."

The silence that followed was terribly awkward. Hatake coughed, shoulders shaking.

She looked away, hearing nothing but the soft sounds of two sets of sandals and a pair of geta on the dirt road. Apparently she wasn't going to get a response.

The route that he led them was intermittently occupied by small crowds around vendors and –was that a bathhouse? Aiko made a note to return at some point. It was miserably hot out. A nice soak would grant relief.

They finally pressed out of the residential districts and down a route to a set of training grounds that Aiko hadn't been taken to before.

"Here we are!" Jiraiya declared, far too jovial for the emotion to be genuine. "My favorite training ground."

Hatake mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, "For reasons that are entirely innocent, I'm certain." She was fairly certain that she wasn't meant to hear that, guessing by Jiraiya's guilty chuckle and backwards glance at her.

'Ugh. Stupid boys.'

"So." Aiko rallied herself, pulsing her chakra to check that they really were alone. Hatake pushed open the gate and let the others enter ahead of him. "You said I need to work on the Hiraishin?" She pulled her hair up absently as she went.

If her tone was a little disbelieving, surely no one could blame her. It was… difficult, to come to terms with the idea that it had once been the technique she was most known for. It put Fuu's commentary in a strange new light.

Still, this had definitely not been what she had in mind when she had attempted to find a way to prove herself useful.

'Duly noted: If you offer a centimeter, Konoha will take a league.'

The pervert gave her an amused look. It felt disconcertingly like he knew what she was thinking. Aiko consciously avoided stepping back and breaking eye contact.

'Don't be stupid. You're just paranoid because of Yamanaka-baka. He can't read your mind.'

The old man scanned the area. She thought it was for observers- but then he alighted onto the top of a comfortable looking stump, and she realized that he had been picking out seating. He did cut an imposing figure in the midday sun. The white of his hair was all but blinding when he tilted his head down to give her a serious expression. "If you don't know this when we travel to Iwa and anyone asks for a demonstration or favor, everyone will think we've sent an imposter to testify in your place."

'So, like, no pressure or anything.'

"Kakashi. Would you- Yes, thanks," Jiraiya mumbled when Hatake stepped far too close and handed her a little notebook.

Slowly, she unfolded her arms to take the offered book and ran fingertips over the paper. She breathed in crackling ink and tried not to think too hard about why Hatake would have had what appeared to be one of her sealing notebooks.

Talk about high stakes. This scenario was absurd. Why had she learned such an infuriatingly distinctive technique in the first place? 'I suppose I couldn't have known how much trouble this would turn out to be later. Still, what a pain.'

Completely unaware of her thoughts, Jiraiya went on talking. She flipped open the book- and her eyebrows rose. This wasn't her work, she was sure of it. Her handwriting was tighter than this, and whoever had written this had a heavy hand. She frowned, disliking the deep indentations in paper. She didn't write like this at all. Surely that hadn't changed.

'What ugly writing. I want to cry, just looking at it. This can't be Hatake's writing, can it? He's supposed to be a genius.'

"As an advanced fuinjutsu masterwork, very few shinobi have been known to use Hiraishin. It was developed in Konoha. You use it a little differently than your father did."

She snuck a glance at Jiraiya. The quiet wistfulness in his tone made him seem very old and tired.

The Sannin smiled, lost in memories. "He tended to use the seal cooperatively by giving marked blades to his allies. Minato-kun could fell a dozen men before the first blade landed. In your hands, Hiraishin ended up largely used as a diplomatic tool." His voice shifted from admiration to a quiet pride as he talked, but Aiko was barely paying attention. "You have seals on quite a few internationally important people. The Kazekage, the Mizukage, a few jinchuuriki…"

'Diplomatic tool? That's a little underwhelming. I can see why instantaneous communication or transport would be revolutionary, but what a disappointing use for a fuinjutsu masterwork. Not very glamorous.'

And what she was seeing deserved to strut. Even in that ugly handwriting, the seals she was seeing boasted hard, clean lines combined for surprisingly efficient and complex effect. If she'd been asked to invent a seal that did what Hiraishin was purported to do… Well. It probably would have collapsed under its own weight as she added and added and added.

'Whoever designed this was a genius.'

Frowning slightly, she traced the symbols with a fingertip. The bizarre thing was that the symbols were all familiar, although she wouldn't have thought to arrange them like that. Something just wasn't right. Some thought kept trying to occur, an undercurrent to her admiration for the original fuinjutsu master.

Oh, that thought was almost right. It was something about the original fuinjutsu master in contrast or comparison to herself. She didn't realize that she was all but scowling at this point, forehead deeply creased.

"How did you say this worked again?" The much-abused paper crinkled under her caress.

Hatake shot Jiraiya-baka a quick glance, and then spoke up only when it was clear the sannin had no intention of speaking. "The Hiraishin is a space-time manipulation technique that relies on a connection between the seal and the user." The hair on the back of her neck pricked up as she considered that. His voice went on, a soothing drone reciting information that was probably meant to jar her memory. "The user can travel to any seal with no lag in time. It demands heightened perception and a fast reaction. As far as I know, there is no limitation in distance and the only chakra cost is the effort expended to create the tag-"

"Please stop talking." Aiko scowled at the stubbornly silent paper, feeling a crease form in her forehead. Something really obvious was bugging her. The last parts of Hatake's recitation just hadn't seemed right.

'Whatever this is, I know it.'

Something about the design was pulling at her memory. But what was it? The gates of the eight tips on the seal indicated maneuverability and a sense of outward direction; that fit with what they were saying. Agh, it was something about limits that was trying to occur to her. Something about the limits that Hatake had described sounded like what she had heard about the Hiraishin but didn't line up with how she wanted to think about it.

"You said there's no limit on distance?"

"None," Jiraiya confirmed. "A user can travel to any seal."

That was the phrase that was ringing false. Something sparked, a match rasping against the edges of her memory to illuminate an old sense of accomplishment.

"You said my dad used these on airborne weapons?" She didn't even have to wait for the reply. Suddenly, it was obvious.

"That's not what I did." Aiko snapped her fingers, cutting Jiraiya-sama off carelessly. "That's not how I would use this seal at all. Traveling to a seal is the most basic application. It's level one." She straightened her back and talked with her hands, gaining enthusiasm and momentum as she went. She could see that neither of her listeners seemed convinced, and picked up the pace.

"That principle is the meat of the technique, of course, and it's the most efficient application of the seal in terms of focus and intellectual effort in the moment of travel. Hiraishin behaves like a body-switch technique, wherein the appropriate amount of force, for lack of a better word, is applied to one seal as a- as a- signpost for the destination instead of a physical object within view," she improvised, struggling for a word for the concept. That wasn't exactly right, but it got the point across.

Both men were staring at her with mildly perplexed expressions, but she didn't care. Oh, it was brilliant, didn't they see that?

"That basic Hiraishin concept (Jiraiya-baka flinched) is incredibly accurate because it relies on orientation around a very specific point in space at a very specific point in time. You don't even have to think about it, you just pull on that seal and then you're displaced. But you're thinking about it all wrong, you're talking like displacement is a constant with no variation or personalization."

Jiraiya opened his mouth, unfolding his legs and taking a step towards her. "Buh-"

She shook her head in emphatic denial before he got out a word, ponytail whipping around to smack her in the face. The short, loose hairs below it clung to her neck, plastered with sweat.

"It's not. If it was, there would be no control for the way the user appeared in relation to the seal. Clearly, the user's chakra system isn't actually centered on the seal for arrival, or I would have a lot of paper in my gut. I'm glad that's not how it works, of course, but that would have been the most logical probability with the theory that the Hiraishin allows for no variability."

In the brief moment when she paused to take a breath, the men exchanged a helpless glance. Hatake's fingers were twitching, as if he wanted to do something but had no idea what would make the babble cease.

Aiko grinned, making a slashing motion with one hand. "Eliminating that possibility leaves only appearing in close proximity to the seal, which would either be randomized or the exact same every way upon every utilization. Neither of those options could possibly be true unless my dad only threw kunai from one direction, which would be pretty much useless. If he couldn't control his landing with that randomized location, so to speak, then he would have ended up skewered on his own weapons and wow, that would be embarrassing."

She paused to suck in a breath, heart pounding. "That didn't happen of course, which proves that even if it was only unconscious, he could-"

"Aiko," Jiraiya interrupted weakly, shaking his head. "Get to the point."

She blinked, belatedly realizing that her audience still seemed less enthusiastic than she felt. Jiraiya-sama looked a little green about the recitation of ways Minato could have killed himself with the technique, truth be told.

"Oh, fine." Aiko deflated a bit. "Dull. I was getting around to saying that I didn't travel to seals, or at least I didn't only travel to seals. It takes the same amount of energy to displace the matter of my body regardless of destination, but it takes a lot more concentration and even math to move the landing point away from a seal."

"Move away from the seal," Jiraiya-baka repeated, professional curiosity piqued. His pale lashes stuck together when he blinked. "How?"

The sun burning down into her scalp was probably going to give her a burn. She gave another futile head toss. "By selecting multiple seals and varying the tension applied to each connection when I slipped dimensions, I could orient to any space between three or more seals. Although it'd be a really good idea to keep them at the same altitude and as close together as possible."

"Just, saying," she cleared her throat and let her voice trickle to a meek mutter, finally feeling self-conscious about her enthusiastic outburst. Was it weird to be excited about re-discovering something you already did?

'This could be the trump I need against Obito. If I have Hiraishin, we'd be on much more even footing.'

A hand rose up to rub at the back of her neck, and she looked down at her toes. "It opens up a lot more maneuverability, since you're not stuck with only the locations of seals that you manage to hide or whatever." Aiko shrugged, glancing up through her lashes to glean their reactions.

Jiraiya-baka's eye twitched. "Did she ever mention this to you?"

Hatake shook his head ever so slightly, eye fixed on Aiko as if he was trying to puzzle something out. "No. But that does explain some things."

"Why wouldn't she mention this?" Jiraiya-baka asked himself in an undertone, running a hand through his hair. Then he blinked and re-focused on Aiko with a slight frown. "Why wouldn't you mention this?"

'I never told them about how I used Hiraishin?'

The sun jolted from position over head to sinking in the west, welcome warmth dappling her skin through trees. Her body was sore from collisions, riddled with what would be bruises and goosebumps from the chill fall air. Kakashi looked much like he always did, but she knew he was amused. Dangerously close on her left side, Yamato, that pointy-kneed bastard, had a surprised expression frozen onto his features. They were alone in the training field- sheltered by tall, broad trees that only let in spots of sunlight.

"Well, that's one way to do it." Kakashi's attention slipped off of her and the man at her side, apparently bored.

Asshat. Like he would do any better with Hiraishin.

And then it was noon again, a stifling heat that made her chest feel tight.

'What the actual fuck.'

How long had she drifted off? Had that been a memory, or just a heat-stroke inspired hallucination?

Jiraiya and Hatake were still waiting for an answer. Shit. Shitshitshit.

'What was the question?'

She had to shrug to buy time, digging a toe into the ground while she improvised. They'd been talking about the Hiraishin still, right? "I probably just thought it was funny to spread misinformation."

Her heartbeat was pounding, and her gut was doing something acrobatic. It was hard not to stare at Hatake. She'd been training with him in that… whatever it was. If that hadn't been a hallucination, she had once trusted him enough to practice Hiraishin on him and Yamato, even if she hadn't told them what she was doing.

'There's something about Yamato and Hatake- I definitely associate them with each other. It has to have a basis in the past. Maybe it's connected to why they have such odd chakra readings. I'm no sensor. I shouldn't be able to detect them from the distances that I do.'

Hatake leaned his face down into a palm and was very still for a moment.

'It's hard to believe I was ever so close to Hatake. Yamato, sure. Yamato just seems trustworthy.' She swallowed. 'Maybe I thought so back then too. We were standing awfully close to each other.'

A thought for another time.

"Where did you even get an idea like that?" Jiraiya-baka frowned, interrupting her thoughts. "I'll bite and assume that you are correct and this modification works. But why would you think to improve on the Hiraishin? I've never thought about what you describe in terms of limitations." He cocked his head, tone turning philosophical. "Perhaps Minato would have known about the technique weaknesses that you're talking about because he used the Hiraishin for so long. But he didn't mention that in his notes, and you didn't even have the technique long enough to become bored with it. You had to have been thinking about the technique in non-traditional terms from almost the first times you used it. That doesn't make sense."

Obviously, she- she had thought- thought that-

Aiko consciously stopped herself from pressing a hand to her forehead to dull the headache. She didn't know. She knew that she should know but she didn't know. Nerves shot, she clenched her free hand into a fist to hide that her fingers were shaking.

'I can't deal with this right now. I just can't.'

"Does it matter?" She bluffed.

Currently, Jiraiya-baka's mouth was opening and she didn't think she could hold herself together long enough to continue this conversation.

"Can I take this?" She waved the notebook around to get attention, letting the pages flutter. "I'd like to copy this seal and play with it. This is the one that I used, right? Not made by me, of course," she muttered to herself, a statement and not a question, babbling to fill the air so that Jiraiya-sama couldn't. "This isn't mine at all." Someone else had recreated her seal from memory or notes. Jiraiya, probably. She didn't want to consider the fact that Hatake had been the one holding it.

Jiraiya made a small, frustrated sound and threw his hands up. "Take it." Then he gave her an odd look, eyes narrowing with a glint of hard intelligence.

'Fuck.'

She chose not to contemplate what her expression had given away about her mental state. Aiko fled before she could betray any more weakness. She made it to the gate before Hatake's voice rang out in falsely cheery tones.

"Just a minute."

She froze, neck stiff. Soft footsteps sounded behind her.

"I'll walk you home."

Her stomach sank down to rest between her hip bones.

'Open hostility would be a bad idea,' Aiko reminded herself. He didn't have to know exactly how uncomfortable she was. So she just nodded and let Hatake slouch along. Her pace picked up, but he managed to keep up while still ambling. Stupid jerk with his stupid long legs.

They passed most of the training grounds in a tense silence. At least, it was tense on her end. She couldn't read Hatake.

'And that's the problem, isn't it? I don't know what to think about him.'

She curled her tongue in her mouth, and then flattened it to rub against the hard ridges of her palette.

'I could ask him about Obito. Confirm Obito's story and then see how I can confirm his identity.'

Aiko opened her mouth- and then pretended to yawn, covering her mouth with a palm.

'This is stupid,' she criticized herself, making a fist. 'He's not that intimidating. He used to be my teacher and I clearly used to trust him to an extent. I can choose to disregard his perspective, but I have to hear it first. He probably isn't enough of a lunatic to attack me for asking questions. And if he is, I'll just kick his ass.'

She was hyperaware of his presence, despite the fact that she could barely see him out of the corner of her left eye.

'I could ask him about Naruto. If he was my teacher, he might have a different perspective than Sasuke.'

"Saa…" Hatake tilted his face up to the sky, drinking in sunlight.

Aiko waited. And waited. And- "What?" she asked, stopping for a moment so that their steps aligned.

He rubbed at the back of his neck with gloved fingers. "Oh, nothing. I was just thinking that it was a lovely day, that's all."

A lovely-

"We're broiling," Aiko said disbelievingly. "It is not a lovely day. I am cooking in my own skin like a potato."

Hatake winced. "That's… vivid." He actually sounded a little put-out. Which was ridiculous. He was a veteran-there was no way that she'd turned his stomach with that simile.

'He can't actually be that squeamish. Right?'

She felt the line form between her eyebrows, but couldn't muster up enough give-a-damn to wipe her face clear.

'He's trying to make me relax,' Aiko decided. 'Hatake plays the idiot to put others at ease.'

That had to be it.

She wouldn't let it work on her. How thick did he think she was? Hatake was an S-class shinobi; famous for his very public assassinations and double-duty as a tracker and assault specialist. There was literally no possibility that he was an idiot.

'He could, on the other hand, genuinely be socially incapable. That would explain the way he prompted me to start the conversation he wanted to have. And…' Her mind went back over their interactions, thinking of how quiet