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a night of dark trees

Chapter Text

Obito digs his fingers into the porcelain of his mask and wonders what the hell he’s doing.

The blank white face stares back at him without answer, one-eyed and watchful and cold to the touch, and Obito breathes in, drags a hand over his eye and ignores the whisper in his head that tells him it would be better to give up now, go back to the base, return to their plans for the Eye of the Moon. It sounds like Madara's voice, and Zetsu's. Like anger and madness and cold, hard grief ready to drown him.

Obito still doesn’t feel sane, can't even begin to imagine how to exist without that edge of madness riding him, churning at his thoughts, but for the first time in years his head is clear. He can breathe without feeling like his chest is on fire, like each inhale is a moment wasted that could be spent plotting his revenge on the world as a whole. Gone, now, like it never existed, and Obito's never been so glad for anything in his life.

The moon is rising over the Hokage Mountain, full and bloated and touched with red, and Obito lifts his gaze from his mask to watch it, stomach twisting. Time’s running short—he can travel instantaneously, but if he delays too long he’s definitely going to be missed. Zetsu keeps close tabs on him at the most inconvenient times, and while the moon is full tends to be one of those moments.

He has a plan, technically. Not a good one, but he’s been working on desperation and furious stubbornness for weeks now, driven to the very edge and over it. There's no time for a better plan, not if he wants his actions to amount to anything at all. Just this moment, in a village he set out to destroy, with a low-level ache in his chest and one last bit of hope left.

(Konan caught him in the heart while they were sparring. Hit him with a paper shuriken that hid an explosive tag, and Obito was a bare half an instant too slow to slip into Kamui. He’d been distracted, thinking of jinchuuriki locations, the appearance of a new missing-nin from Iwa they could recruit. Stupid, with someone of Konan's level, but Obito thought of it as sparring and failed to remember that Konan always fights to kill, regardless of who she’s facing.

Obito has never, ever been so glad to die, even counting the first time.)

Taking a breath, he lifts the mask, carefully fits it over his face. His newly-shorn hair is a strange sensation, obscenely light around his head, soft beneath his fingertips; he’d forgotten, over the years, the ease of short hair, and while there's more of a risk of being recognized wearing it like this, he couldn’t stand to look like Madara for one instant more. Bad enough to walk through the halls, to wander the throne room where Madara kept him, because Obito can't change any of that now. But his appearance—that at least is still under his control.

Nothing else is, but he’s working on it.

Knotting the mask’s ties, he pushes off the edge of the Shodai’s head, lets gravity catch him with a rush of wind past his ears. The twist of Kamui steals his momentum, spends it as he whirls through the other dimension and drops lightly to the ground on the other side of it, crouched and wary. There's no movement around him, though; the Administration building and the Academy are both still in the darkness, no lights in any windows. Konoha is never quite asleep, given the number of shinobi within its walls, but it comes close sometimes, and this is one of those nights. Better for Obito; he slips into the shadows, perfectly silent as he marks the one patrol in this area and avoids them easily.

It’s tempting to turn his feet towards the graveyard, maybe the Memorial Stone, but Obito doesn’t allow his attention to waver. There's no time to linger in front of Rin's grave right now; he has no idea how long this part of the mission will take, and if he spends his seconds unwisely it could ruin everything. If he finishes quickly, if it’s easier than he thinks, he might have a minute to spare, but for now Obito contents himself with the knowledge that Rin would much rather he put things as much to rights as possible than bring flowers to her grave. There's no fixing everything, no way to really atone, but—at the very least Obito can try to keep things from getting worse.

He checked Konoha's registry yesterday, slipped into the Records Building while Zetsu was distracted, and the address he needs is burned into his memory. The streets are still familiar, wild and overgrown enough that the green feeling hums under his skin like the reverberation of a gong, and Obito slips between leaning trees and thickets of vines to follow the bend of a particular road. The buildings are low and look closer to barracks than homes, worn and greyed out in the moonlight, but there's more chakra from this section of the village than there is from most of the rest of it. ANBU, mostly, Obito thinks, and it’s the perfect place for a shinobi to feel safe, inconspicuous and surrounded by other powerful, paranoid people.

Keeping to the street instead of the rooftops is a precaution, but there are enough seals and booby traps that Obito can see just from a glance that he doesn’t want to risk stepping in something particularly well-concealed. It’s already enough of a hassle having to limit his use of Kamui here, but—Kakashi’s eye is connected to his, and even if Kakashi left the village this morning with his new genin team, Obito still doesn’t want to chance Kakashi seeing something, maybe recognizing him. All it would take is one incautious word, and Kakashi doesn’t know to be wary. Not yet.

The house he’s looking for isn't quite on the corner, but it’s the building before it, a small, narrow place sandwiched between two rows of apartments, with a verdant rooftop garden full of flowers. Obito eyes it for a long moment, considering, but there are no lights on, no signs of movement. With a faint frown, he leaps up, redirecting off the railing of the walkway that fronts the next building over, and lands lightly in an old persimmon tree that overlooks the far side of the house. There's a balcony halfway down, but one glance from Obito's Sharingan is enough to see the currents of chakra in it, the tastefully nasty seals ready to incapacitate any person or unwary bird that sets foot there. It makes Obito snort, because there’s regular shinobi paranoia and then there’s the Head of Interrogation’s paranoia, and he leans out, snatching a particularly large persimmon from the nearest branch. He weighs it in his hand for a moment, then tosses it lightly, watching the arc as it falls to hit the balcony with a loud thump.

Kamui is like a cold wind across his skin, utterly familiar. Obito slips down through the roof, intangible, and lands soundlessly on the floor of the interior just as a large figure pulls open the balcony door. Being dressed only in boxers doesn’t make him any less intimidating, especially with a kunai in his hand, and Obito takes a careful step back, grips the back of the couch and pulls himself up to sit on it, watching with a hidden smirk as Ibiki sweeps a long, assessing look around the street, then grabs the persimmon and steps back inside. He turns, and—

Obito plucks the kunai out of the air with ease, twirling it around his finger as he leans back, and says, “Good morning.”

Ibiki is frozen, every line of his body tense and wary. Not precisely unarmed, because no shinobi is in their own home, but more vulnerable, and it’s clear he doesn’t like it. His fists are clenched, ready to swing, and he’s perfectly balanced to dodge or attack at a moment’s notice.

“What, no return greeting? Obito needles, flipping the kunai up into the air and catching it again. “That’s pretty rude of you.”

“Greetings are for guests,” Ibiki says, but it’s mild, and he straightens slightly. “How did you get past the wards?”

“Asking me to give up my secrets already?” Obito asks, makes it light and almost teasing. Not the Tobi persona he uses sometimes—that would just annoy Ibiki, and Obito needs the man to take him seriously. Needs it desperately, because he doesn’t have backup plans if this fails. Might be able to come up with one, but—not easily. “Well, I did come to share some secrets with you. They're just not mine.”

Even true, this time. No information about Akatsuki this visit, no information about Obito's own plans. This is a test for both of them.

“Secrets?” Ibiki asks, and takes two steps sideways, narrowed eyes still fixed on Obito, to pick up a tantō that’s sitting on the table. Obito makes no move to stop him, just watches, and he curls his fingers around the hilt but doesn’t draw it. “And what secrets would those be?”

Obito tosses the kunai from one hand to the other, keeps his motions lazy enough that they won't be mistaken for a threat. “Information on immediate dangers to Konoha that you don’t have any idea about yet.”

One brow rises, and Ibiki gives him a careful look. “Oh?” he asks. “And I suppose this is just out of the goodness of your heart?”

It’s a joke. Obito knows it’s a joke, but it feels like something fractures through his chest, like his lungs suddenly can't expand. “What heart?” he demands, and the words are too sharp, too angry, too much. He chokes on his next inhale, fights down the surge of fury-frustration-regret-rage that washes over him like a drowning wave.

Ibiki is perfectly silent, but those dark eyes are fixed on him and don’t waver an inch.

Obito forces himself to drag in another breath, gets himself back under control. It’s like there are fractured pieces of his composure sticking through his skin, but he ignores it, grips the kunai so tightly the handle is about to cut into his skin, and closes his eyes.

Another long stretch of silence, and then Ibiki asks, “What’s your price?”

Tempting to give him the information for free, to spill everything, but no intelligence officer is ever going to believe a stranger’s altruism is enough to get them to search out and hand over information like what Obito has. Still—

“Let’s call this one a freebie,” he says, and it rasps unpleasantly in his throat. “No skin off my nose to hand it over, but it should prove that I'm giving you facts. After that, I'm thinking five thousand ryō seems fair, especially with the safety of Konoha on the line.”

Carefully, Ibiki leans back against the table and folds his arms over his chest, frowning. “Generous of you,” he says dryly, and his gaze is assessing.

Obito can't meet his stare, doesn’t want to focus on the wary expression on his face or the echo of what heart that trembles in his bones. He slides off the back of the couch and heads for the window, leaning against the sill and absently keeping his hands clear of the traps there as well. Looks out at Konoha, all too aware of the man behind him, and breathes out.

There's a dogwood growing beside the building, the top of its branches just brushing the glass. Obito presses his fingers to the opposite side, watches the leaves curl towards him, and forces himself to focus. Time, he thinks, and it’s already running out. He can't waste any more.

“Suna's planning an invasion under the cover of attending the Chuunin Exams,” he says, and in the window’s reflection he can see Ibiki go tense again. “It’s not just them, either. Orochimaru killed the Kazekage and replaced him in order to get into the village. He’s after Uchiha Sasuke and his eyes.”

Stupid, when Danzō has so many extra at his disposal and raiding a Root laboratory would be easier, but Obito supposes it has something to do with Orochimaru’s grudge against Itachi, and Itachi's fixation on Sasuke. Orochimaru’s nothing if not petty, after all. It works out well for Obito, though; Orochimaru being captured will put more information about Akatsuki in Konoha's hands. Or, if he’s killed, it will take a dangerous wildcard out of play and keep Obito from having to account for him in every move. Foiling the invasion will make Konoha stronger, too, keep political unrest at bay for a little longer, at least until Obito can start dealing with everything else lurking in the shadows.

“Rasa has already been replaced?” Ibiki asks, and he’s got a good poker face, but Obito can see the calculation, the buried alarm. He’s been reading people for a long time now, and Ibiki is hardly the most difficult.

“Before he even left Suna,” Obito confirms. “The redheaded genin is Rasa's son and their jinchuuriki. They're planning to use him to crush Konoha.”

That look is definitely alarm, sharp and contained but clear. Obito understands it; jinchuuriki might as well be war-enders, for all that most Kage try not to use them. Suna bringing an undeclared jinchuuriki is close to an outright declaration of war, really. There's a reason most jinchuuriki are generally kept in the village and promoted directly by their Kage.

Deliberately, Ibiki taps his fingers against the hilt of his tantō, then sets it on the table again, an obvious sign that he’s at least considering Obito's words. “This is all easily verified,” he says, almost a warning.

Obito snorts, turning from the glass and tipping his head. “Why do you think I'm giving you this information first?” he asks. “I told you, it’s proof of intent. Your lack of faith wounds me, Ibiki.”

Ibiki hums skeptically, but inclines his head. “I assume you’ll be back at some point, then?”

Obito touches two fingers to his brow in salute. “I think you’ll see me around,” he says, and it’s a taunt, a challenge. Stupid, but—no one sees him if he doesn’t want them to, and Ibiki will be no different. As soon as he’s decided that Obito is telling him the truth, though, Obito will be back. He has a lot of information to pass on and not much time before Zetsu starts pushing for them to move. It’s already been hard enough to put Zetsu off, to argue for not having a full membership in Akatsuki, especially when Kakuzu keeps killing his partners.

A faint frown crosses Ibiki's face, but he inclines his head, steps forward. “On the—” he starts.

If Ibiki wants to dictate a time to meet, or a place, he’s out of luck. Even Obito can't guarantee when he’ll be able to get away next, but he can't say that outright. “Oh,” he interrupts instead, like an afterthought. “Your brother is still alive, by the way.”

Bare, blatant shock flickers over Ibiki's face.

“In Tea Country,” Obito finishes, and wonders if it’s mean to take pleasure in knocking Konoha's chief torturer off guard. Probably; everything about Obito is mean and cruel. “He got himself adopted by the Wasabi family. In case you were looking for him.”

Lifting a hand, he waves lightly, then shoves the window open and leaps out even as a seal crackles to life in a surge of electricity. He passes through it with a flicker of Kamui, and the moment he’s far enough out of sight he lets the warp catch him. Steps, one foot into the dark middle dimension and then out into a familiar cavern.

Madara's throne looms over him, empty and eerie, and Obito stares at it, then pulls the mask from his face. Plain white, with a single eye-hole, and he snorts and tosses it onto one of the looping roots.

You’re going to hate me, he thinks, with nothing less than vicious satisfaction. I'm going to undo everything you worked for, bastard, or I’ll die trying.

Chapter Text

Lack of sleep sits heavily on the back of Ibiki's neck, makes him want to rub the knots of tension out of his muscles. He doesn’t, because Konoha's Chief of Intelligence can't look tired even after the scramble to prepare for the Chuunin Exams, but the urge is there.

The stranger came to him at midnight, when Ibiki had only just managed to get to bed, and he spent the rest of the night in his office pouring over reports, trying desperately to find proof that the stranger was lying before the Suna group arrived. There's been no immediate confirmation one way or the other, though, just a lot of nothing, and Ibiki is a suspicious bastard. He’s more than ready to take nothing as plenty suspicious all on its own. It’s a feeling he was leaning towards, in the weeks before the Exams, because Suna's locked down their village, no information at all getting out. The Hokage's been willing to take it as regular preparation for the Exams, hiding their chosen genin teams and their abilities, but—

Suna's planning an invasion. Orochimaru killed the Kazekage and replaced him.

The words wind Ibiki's tension one notch higher, make him breathe out through his nose, and he quickens his steps as the figure in front of him turns down a side street. Still in view of the main road, though, and that’s all Ibiki needs.

“Hiashi-sama!” he calls.

Hiashi stops, turns. He lifts a brow as Ibiki bears down on him, perfectly, coldly composed, and asks, “Yes, Ibiki?”

Ibiki doesn’t waste time dancing around the subject; he can feel unfamiliar chakra signatures approaching on the main street, can see the flicker of an ANBU escort darting across the roofs. “How is your range?”

Surprise makes pale eyes widen slightly, and Hiashi pauses, assessing. Rude to ask a Hyuuga about the limits of their vision so blatantly, but Ibiki wants to keep this as quiet as possible until he has proof one way or the other. He holds Hiashi’s gaze without wavering.

After a long moment, Hiashi tips his head just faintly. “Several hundred yards,” he says.

Perfect. That puts them almost out of range of the main street, but still within the limit. “Would you look at the Suna party?” Ibiki asks, and keeps it from being an order by the skin of his teeth. Dealing with Clan Heads is a hell of a lot different than dealing with tokujō and elite chuunin.

“Am I looking for something in particular?” Hiashi asks dryly, but glances towards the street, veins at his temple bulging as his chakra slips out. For a moment he scans the street, expression sliding towards a frown, and—

Ibiki catches the moment he sees something. Watches his eyes widen, the way he takes a sharp step back, one hand coming up like he’s going to start for a jutsu or drop back into a Gentle Fist stance. He controls himself in time, though, snaps his head over to stare at Ibiki with alarm shading his features, and says, “That’s—”

“You recognize him?” Ibiki asks grimly, and retreats another step further into the shadows so they’re out of sight entirely.

“I’d certainly never forget that particular chakra. It’s like a cobra slithering over your throat,” Hiashi retorts, takes a breath. Rubs a hand over his face, and when he drops it again his Byakugan is deactivated. “That’s the Suna group? For the Exams? But we’ve heard of no power changes in Suna.”

“I don’t think they know.” Ibiki glances at the street, thoughts churning quickly. So that at least wasn’t a lie. Orochimaru’s replaced the Kazekage, and Rasa is likely dead. That doesn’t mean Suna's grudge against Konoha is, though, and a pending invasion would give Orochimaru all the opportunity he needed to supplant Rasa while everyone’s attention was turned elsewhere. “Anything else?”

“Isn't that enough?” Hiashi retorts, prickly, but turns back with narrowed eyes. Pauses, and Ibiki watches with something like grim resignation as he loses about three shades of color from his face.

“That’s…” he starts, and then stops himself. Turns to look at Ibiki, and Ibiki can see the question on the tip of his tongue, how he wants to ask how Ibiki could possibly know. He doesn’t, though; shinobi tend to know better than to question the head of Intelligence.

“The Ichibi?” Ibiki asks, just to be sure. He hasn’t heard any mention of Suna gaining another bijuu, but then, he didn’t hear about the invasion, either. If that’s what this is, and—

Well. Two out of three so far.

(Two out of four, really, but—Ibiki's trying not to think about that.)

“I assume,” Hiashi says, a faint grimace crossing his face. “That seal is one of the weakest I've seen. The Kyuubi’s seal at least contains the beast, but that one…if it’s not on the verge of breaking, I would be astonished.”

Even better, Ibiki thinks grimly, breathing out through his nose. An unstable jinchuuriki, a hostile force, a Kazekage who’s been replaced by one of the greatest missing-nin Konoha has ever produced. This is everything he’s ever wanted.

“I’ll include your verification in my report to the Hokage,” he says, then remembers who Hiashi is and curses himself. “If that’s all right with you, Hiashi-sama.”

Thankfully, Hiashi inclines his head without hesitation. “I’ll write up my own observations and send them with a courier,” he agrees. “Should you need one of my clan for observation—”

“I’ll let you know.” Ibiki nods, then steps back, turning on his heel and heading towards his second stop. Konoha's bureaucracy is a slow, grinding machine at the best of the times, and it’s best to set the wheels in motion himself, to give them a little bit of extra speed. If he tried to do this all through proxies, it would take meetings and couriers and days of navigating, and Ibiki chafes just at the thought of that.

Usually, in situations like this, he at least has someone to torture, or a spy to grill in exhaustive detail. But Ibiki's only source threw himself out Ibiki's window last night and vanished, and Ibiki's search through the streets didn’t turn up any trace of him.

Letting out a low, slow breath, Ibiki rubs a hand over his bandana, trying not to grimace too deeply—Anko's been accusing him of scaring the civilians, which is rich coming from her, but also probably more accurate that Ibiki would care to acknowledge. He’s tense, all but twitchy, and it takes effort not to cast glances over his shoulder every few feet.

Idate is alive. Somewhere in Tea Country, with a family he’s apparently slipped into, Ibiki's little brother is alive.

Gritting his teeth, Ibiki forces his thoughts back to the immediate problem, shuts out everything else. There will be time to deal with that later, and beyond that, Ibiki can't afford to have his attention divided; if he misses anything, it will be disastrous for Konoha. He was already unforgivably distracted last night, unable to press his visitor, unable to pick out the hints of intent that had to be there. It won't happen again. Ibiki won't let it.

He breathes in, breathes out. Sets his jaw, then lengthens his stride, passing the gates into the Nara Clan’s lands without pausing to acknowledge the guards at the gate as they come to attention. It’s not often that Ibiki uses his position to ignore the niceties, but this situation calls for it. Konoha's never been invaded before, despite all the battles it’s suffered through.

That fact that Suna is threatening one could be Orochimaru’s doing, but Ibiki is just as convinced that it could have been Rasa's plan before Orochimaru killed him. Suna's never had an easy relationship with Konoha, and Suna's recent economic troubles sure as hell haven’t helped.

The Nara main house is small, deceptive; it looks like any of the buildings scattered around the area, set back against tall, graceful trees and flanked by carefully tended gardens. There are deer in the garden, a doe and two tawny fawns, and Ibiki eyes them sidelong as he heads for the front door. He’s never been able to figure out if the Nara deer are actually trained for combat, and he hasn’t been able to wring a straight answer out of any of the clan members, either.

Whether they are or not, they let him all the way up to the entrance without making any move beyond nosing through the grass, and Ibiki pretends having them at his back doesn’t itch as he raises his fist and knocks. He can hear voices from inside, distant enough that he can't make out the words, but after several moments there's a step close by, and then a creak as the door swings wide. Ibiki blinks at the empty space in front of him, then drops his gaze to find Shukaku’s son staring up at him with narrowed eyes, looking exhausted.

“Dad!” he calls, without looking away from Ibiki. “It’s for you!”

Ibiki doesn’t bother asking him why he’s so sure of that; after all, Yoshino was in T&I before her retirement, and he’s called her out to help several times since she left. Shikamaru does tend not to see his mother’s talents, though. Ibiki has heard Shikaku complaining about it more than once.

“Shikamaru, don’t yell,” Shikaku says, but he steps into the hall, eyeing Ibiki with faint wariness. “Go help your mother with the dishes.”

Shikamaru pulls a face, but he leaves the door. “Ino's going to yell at me when I'm late,” he says grumpily.

“Then you should have gotten up earlier,” Shikaku retorts, unwavering. “Or you should help your mother quickly.”

Shikamaru pulls another face. This one implies that both of those options are death sentences, and he’s very clearly going to die. Shikaku ignores that one, too, and gives Ibiki a friendly nod as he pulls the door the rest of the way open, tipping his head to gesture Ibiki in.

“Early morning,” he says, though the sweep of his eyes has likely caught the deep wrinkles in Ibiki's uniform.

“Long night,” Ibiki corrects, and steps out of his shoes and into the pair of slippers Shikaku pushes towards him. He follows the jounin commander down the short hall, into the kitchen, and Shikaku waves him on.

“The porch should be out of earshot,” he says. “Coffee?”

Ibiki lets out a breath that’s mostly relief. “Please,” he agrees, and offers Yoshino the barest edge of a smile where she’s clearing the table. “Morning, Yoshino.”

“Ibiki,” she returns, expression warm, and tells her husband, “I’ll make a fresh pot.”

Shikaku leans in, pressing a kiss to her cheek in passing. “Thanks,” he says, and Ibiki leaves them to it, heading for the back door and stepping out into the open air. The morning is still a little cool, with a breeze off the Nakano, and Ibiki breathes it in, closing his eyes for a long moment. Sleeplessness is an itch behind his eyelids, a weight on his spine, but it’s going to be a while before he can go home, longer before he’ll allow himself to rest. He needs to reset his wards, maybe set new traps; the ones he has clearly didn’t deter his visitor, and while Ibiki wants to leave the option for him to come back, since he seems to be telling the truth, he has appearances to keep up.

A quietly creaking door jars him out of his thoughts, and he turns quickly, but it’s just Shikaku behind him, watching him, assessing. There are two mugs in his hands, and he offers one to Ibiki without hesitation. Black, but when Ibiki takes his first sip, it’s sweet. Yoshino remembers.

“She’s good like that,” Shikaku says, smiling faintly, and takes a swallow if his own, settling down on the edge of the deck with his legs folded under him. “I assume there’s something urgent, if you didn’t send a chuunin.”

Ibiki sighs, sinking down across from him. “Someone passed me some information last night,” he says. “Suna's going to invade. They brought their jinchuuriki with them for the Exams, even. But Orochimaru’s replaced Rasa as the Kazekage, probably in secret, and he’s after the Uchiha boy’s eyes.”

Shikaku freezes, cup halfway to his mouth, and stares at Ibiki over the rim of it. Ibiki gives him a crooked smile, lifting his mug in toast, and says, “It’s been a hell of a fucking night.”

With a snort, Shikaku sets his coffee aside, then rubs his hands over his face. “That’s an understatement,” he says, muffled, and then lifts his head. “I assume you want me to mobilize guard rotations, more ANBU teams, and…” He trails off, and grimaces.

He’s probably thinking of just how many people they’re going to have to get out, get ready, and arm for war. Ibiki has sympathy, because he’s in the same boat. Every agent he has is about to start scrambling, even if they don’t know it yet. And they have to deal with the Exams starting soon.

“Yamato is on a solo mission near the border with Yu right now,” he says. “And Kakashi is heading to Wave with his team. I figure we should get both of them back as soon as possible. If the Ichibi really breaks free in the village, Yamato’s going to be just about the only one who can contain it.”

“And Kakashi is a good strategist, even if he’s a lazy ass,” Shikaku says on a sigh, though the curve of his mouth is amused. Fond, faintly, but then, Hatake Sakumo was his jounin instructor. “I’ll send a hawk to Yamato, tell him to hurry and collect Kakashi and Team 7 on his way back. This takes precedence over finishing a few low-ranking missions.”

Ibiki makes a sound of displeasure, but doesn’t protest; Shikaku is right, after all. Two high-ranking shinobi abandoning their missions halfway through is risky, since word might get back to Suna, but—Yamato and Kakashi both know how to be circumspect, when the situation calls for it.

“I’ll send the hawk,” he says, and debates finding a cigarette somewhere on his way. Asuma usually has one he can bum. It’s a terrible habit, and one Ibiki has been trying to break, but if any day calls for it it’s probably this one.

Shikaku hums, inappropriately amused for the threat of a looming invasion, and asks, “Have you told the Hokage yet?”

Ibiki eyes him sidelong, but snorts. “He was about to go into a meeting with the Kazekage,” he says dryly. “I figured it was better not to burst in and announce my suspicions like that. I warned Genma, Iwashi, and Raidō to be on alert, though.”

“We might want to have a potential successor in the village before we tell him,” Shikaku muses, and when Ibiki gives him a sharp look he doesn’t even glance over. “It’s Orochimaru and a bijuu.”

“A bijuu with a faulty seal,” Ibiki adds, and when Shikaku stills, he tips one shoulder in a shrug. “Hiashi checked on them and saw it. I don’t think I've seen him pale that fast since Hizashi was given to Kumo.”

Shikaku's breath comes heavy, and he rubs the bridge of his nose. “This source of yours couldn’t have told us earlier?” he mutters

Ibiki debates what to say, but—Shikaku is the jounin commander, is close to Inoichi who used to be the head of Intelligence. “He wasn’t one of mine,” he says, and downs the rest of his coffee, then pushes to his feet. “Looks like what he said is true, though.”

There's a long, long moment of silence as Shikaku weighs that. “Well,” he says finally. “I'm grateful he decided to pick a side.”
Ibiki hasn’t decided whether he is or not yet, but—he’s getting there.

“Arresting Suna's Exams delegation is going to be a fucking headache,” he says.

“Like driving red hot pokers through our skulls,” Shikaku agrees, wry, and raises a hand. Ibiki nods in return, taking his mug back into the house. Yoshino is still in the kitchen, preparing a bento while her grumpy-looking son dries dishes, and she spares a smile for him, then points at one of the finished bentos sitting on the edge of the table.

“Take it,” she says, and when Ibiki opens his mouth to argue she plants her hands on her hips and glares at him. “Don’t even try to argue, I see those bags under your eyes. You haven’t stopped in hours, and don’t try to tell me otherwise.”

Ibiki hesitates, but a dark look from Yoshino has him picking up the bento without another protest. “Thanks, Yoshino,” he says, settling on amusement as his response. It’s safer for his ego that way.

“Call me if you need me,” she warns, and without looking around adds, “Shikamaru, hurry up or Asuma is going to come and complain again.”

Shikamaru rolls his eyes, but does as she says, and Ibiki snorts and leaves them to it. There are several thousand things he still needs to set into motion, but—

A hawk to Tenzō, Hiashi’s report, and then a meeting with the Hokage. And after that, Ibiki will strip out his wards and lay new ones, and hope that works to at least give him warning of any more late-night visitors.

 


The Mountains’ Graveyard is rabbit warren of tunnels and rooms, branching off from the main chambers. It makes for a good base for a handful of shinobi who don’t fit well with the outside world and tend to get vicious or grating—or both—in close quarters. There are enough rooms to provide space for practically every hobby, and to give each of the members whole sections where they don’t have to see other people if they don’t want.

Obito has a set of rooms, technically. They’re deep underground, far away from any chance of the Akatsuki members finding them, but while Obito’s learned to live with the feeling of earth pressing down around him from all sides, being that deep isn’t something he can stand for more than a few minutes at a time.

(He wonders, sometimes, if Zetsu knows that. He was the one to lead Obito to those rooms, after all, to hover in the doorway with a grin as Obito looked around, unable to think of anything but the pain of half his body being crushed, the weight of the rocks, the coldness as his body shut down and his life drained away. If it was some sort of test, it’s one Obito failed, because he’s been back to those rooms maybe twice in all his years shut away here, and he never goes that deep underground if he’s given a choice.)

Thankfully, the chamber where Madara used to have his throne is only two levels removed from the surface, close enough that there are still roots in the earth all around it. Obito minds these parts less, and there’s a tiny alcove off the throne room that used to be for weapons storage, which Obito cleaned out and repurposed. It’s miniscule, bare, and lacks any sort of door, but it’s a hell of a lot more comfortable than constantly reliving being crushed to death, and it’s not as if Obito spends a lot of time there anyway.

He’s sprawled out on the narrow futon, trying to make sense of one of Zetsu’s reports, when there’s a rap of knuckles against stone. A little startled, Obito sits up, and through the thick curtain of moss that hides the door he can just make out a figure. There are heeled sandals visible beneath the curtain, too, and that means there’s only one person it can be, unless Kakuzu’s taken to wearing heels.

“I think,” he says dryly, “that you’re only required to knock if there’s an actual door.”

There’s a pause, and then the curtain is pushed back. Konan eyes it as she steps through, letting it swing back behind her as she turns an unimpressed expression on Obito.

“I’m glad you recognize that the way you’re living isn’t anywhere close to normal,” she says blandly, and a flicker of amber eyes takes in the towering stack of books along one wall, the thick fall of vines over another. She pauses at the sight of the flowers growing there, and smiles, just faintly.

“We’re rogue shinobi trying to destroy the current way of life in the villages,” Obito tells her. “We’re working with a shinobi who’s almost a hundred, a shark-man, and a talking plant. Your friend animated the body of your dead boyfriend and has spent the last fourteen years using it as a puppet. But yeah, my room is the unusual part.”

Konan rolls her eyes. “Speaking of Kisame,” she says, and sets the tray she’s carrying on the low table beside the futon. “He made dango.”

Slowly, Obito drops his eyes from hers to the tray, and pauses. Reaches out to pick up one of the sticks, and says slowly, “Frogs?”

“Kakuzu ate the teddy bear ones,” Konan confirms, smirking, and sinks down to sit cross-legged on the other side of the table.

“He missed his calling,” Obito says dryly, and sets the dango back down. They’re almost too cute to eat, honestly.

Konan snorts, but tips her head, blue hair swinging. Just for a moment, Obito is desperately, vividly reminded of Rin—she used that gesture too, when she was about to try and get Obito to do something she wanted.

It takes effort to swallow past the knot in his throat. Gods, but Rin would hate him so much right now.

“He was asking about you,” Konan says, pulling him out of his thoughts. When Obito glances up at her, her expression has twisted, something like self-recrimination on her face. “Well. He was asking after the sparring partner I nearly killed.”

Obito hesitates. It’s—strange, to have to comfort someone. He’s not entirely sure he remembers how.

“You did the right thing, getting him,” he says after a moment. “I—his chakra was enough to save me. And besides, it was my own fault. I wasn’t paying enough attention.”

“That’s the easiest way to get killed,” Konan says quietly, and Obito has heard about what happened, learned from Zetsu, who was playing Madara at that point and was the one to approach them in the aftermath. But he’s never really thought about it, at least not in terms of what it means for Konan, who was the hostage. Who was the bait.

Knowing her, he can’t imagine it sits well, that memory.

“Lesson learned,” he says, a little rough, and meets her eyes. Means for both of them, stupid children forced to face things too early, unprepared, unaware. Getting people they loved killed, and then having to face down a dark, cold world empty of those lights.

(Obito has tried not to think about it, has tried not to dwell on it, but—with Madara’s control seal gone it’s all too short a step to speculation. Rin’s death was eternally convenient, and Zetsu witnessing it, reporting back about it—that was perfect timing, wasn’t it, to put Obito nearby just in time to see her impaled on Kakashi’s hand. So perfect, and the horror that rises in the wake of those thoughts has left Obito sleepless more nights than not, these past few weeks.)

“Lesson learned,” Konan echoes, bitterly amused, and takes one of the dango sticks. Bites into it, holding Obito’s gaze like it’s a dare, and says, “They’re good.”

Obito takes a breath, holds it for a beat of three, and then lets it out in a long, slow exhale. More than Madara ever did, Konan comes at things sideways, addresses them without ever actually saying the words directly. But—Obito’s gotten used to it, over the years. She and Nagato are the only ones who know him, really, and they’ve been his only contact with other humans in any meaningful way since he was fourteen. And this—this is Konan saying that he should enjoy the little things, given the chance. A bite of dango, a cute thing made by someone who cares, a moment of easy silence between two people who aren’t quite allies but aren’t actually enemies.

“They’re too cute to eat,” he says, almost a complaint, but he picks up one of the remaining sticks and studies it.

Konan snorts softly, tipping the dango, and very deliberately bites the face off the next sweet. “I hate toads,” she says. “And frogs.”

Obito pauses, considering her. They were Jiraiya’s students, her and Nagato and Yahiko, once upon a time. And given the Toad Sage’s proclivities…

“I heard,” he says, testing, because this is an overture of something like camaraderie but also vaguely self-serving, “that Jiraiya has been in Yu, stalking the hot springs. If you hate toads, that might be a good person to take it out on.”

Konan blinks, looks up. One brow rises, but there’s a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth, light and lazy. “Oh?” she asks, and that’s a test too. “And how would I take it out on him?”

Obito tips one shoulder in a shrug, focusing on his dango. “If we go there and poke around, we might come up with something,” he says. “I’ve heard there are a couple of creditors who might want to talk to him. It’d be a shame if they found him. Maybe especially if they found him when he couldn’t escape.”

Konan laughs, soft and a little raspy, like she doesn’t do it often. Leans back on one had, surveying Obito closely, and then says, “You’re different.”

It takes effort not to grimace, but Obito raises his head, meets her eyes again. “I was somebody else for a while,” he says, sardonic, and splays his fingers over the scars on his face. “I guess I’m just…remembering.”

Konan hums, a thumb brushing one of the red clouds on her cloak. “That might be nice,” she says, and it’s too dark to be wistful, but—maybe it’s something close.

Akatsuki was something else, once, before Danzo and Madara happened. Obito’s always known that, but this brings it into focus far more clearly. He watches Konan for a long moment, then takes a breath and offers, “Getting Jiraiya kicked out of Hot Springs country might help.”

Konan blinks, and then snorts softly. “It might,” she agrees, and smirks.

Nothing helps. Not really. The world is still dark and cold and empty, with revenge the only thing that makes it bearable. But…

This might be something close, Obito thinks, and makes a flowering vine curl down from the ceiling to drop its blossoms in Konan’s lap, just because it makes her smile.

Chapter Text

“Oh, hey! That’s a scary face!”

“Not scary enough, apparently,” Ibiki says, resigned, and bats Anko’s hand away from his cheek. “You’re late.”

Anko laughs, dropping into the chair on the other side of his desk and flinging her legs over the arm. “Of course I am,” she says, and pulls a scroll from the pocket of her coat to wave it in Ibiki’s face. It’s very thick. “You gave all of us even more work! I thought we were almost done prepping for the Exams.”

“Stop complaining. Most of what you’ve been doing is practicing your intimidating expressions in a mirror,” Ibiki says blandly, and ignores the dramatic pout she levels at him. Pauses, wary of what he has to say next, but—if Orochimaru is nearby, and Anko hears about it from someone else, she’s going to go after him. Understandably, and in any other situation Ibiki would give her a squad and wish her luck, but this is, unfortunately, a political situation as well.

“Anko,” he says, and brings his hands together. The seals laid on the room activate in a shimmer of crimson, sealing the door, and Anko’s eyes narrow instantly, her whole body tensing. Across the desk, Ibiki meets her eyes, and says, “Orochimaru is in the village.”

Anko snarls. In an instant she’s on her feet, bristling, raging, and she snaps, “Let me out, I’m gonna rip him into shreds—”

“Anko, wait,” Ibiki says, but—just for a moment it’s like he’s seeing double. Not just Anko, but the stranger who visited him, that moment of unhinged rage caught between seconds of cold calculation. What heart, and pure fury, wild and boundless. A faltering of reason, just for a moment, that lets it loose.

He knows Anko’s reasons for it. Knows how she suffered, and how she was betrayed, and what that’s done to the inside of her head. And he wonders, briefly, grimly suspicious, if his visitor is something similar.

“I’m not going to wait,” Anko snaps, and laughs, wild and furious. “Ibiki, I’m going to kill him! I’m going to cut him up and eat his bones!”

“Fine,” Ibiki says, and when she falters, stops in surprise, he meets her eyes again. “I’m putting you in charge of the squad to apprehend him. But your plans go through me, and you take him when I give you the okay.”

Brown eyes narrow again, and Anko watches him suspiciously, folding her arms over her chest. “Will you?” she demands, and she’s silly, usually, cheerfully and clutzy except when she’s serious, but this—this is something different. This is the little girl Orochimaru trained once, experimented on, abandoned. She’s angry, full of old wounds, and Orochimaru being so close is tearing them all open again.

“My word that I will,” Ibiki says, flat, straightforward. “You're best suited to taking him by surprise. And it needs to be by surprise. Don’t tell anyone beyond the squad members I assign you, and try not to let anyone realize anything is different.”

Anko huffs, offended, and scowls at him. “I wouldn’t!” she protests, and then grins, full of teeth and a bloodlust that makes her one of Ibiki's top interrogators. The shift is jarring, if familiar; Anko's not entirely steady, but that’s what makes her valuable.

Shinobi who are entirely sane don’t tend to make it very high in the ranks, if they manage to last past graduation at all.

“Make sure you don’t,” Ibiki says, and pushes a scroll across the desk. It’s sealed to Anko's fingerprint, and she’s the only one who can open it without it self-destructing, which will hopefully be security enough. If Orochimaru’s attempting invasion, there’s no doubt he has several spies in the village already, and Ibiki isn't about to take any unnecessary risks. “And keep an eye out during the second test. The likelihood of Orochimaru having spies among the teams is high, since he’s after the Uchiha kid.”

Anko pulls a face, but she takes the scroll. “I want your body,” she mimics in a high voice that sounds nothing like Orochimaru but still brings a smile to Ibiki’s face. “He’s such an old creep.”

“It seems,” Ibiki observes mildly, “that Tsunade is the only one who escaped the Sandaime’s team with her dignity intact.” After all, as powerful and respected as Jiraiya is, Ibiki’s had to chase him away from the women’s bathhouse one too many times to have any sort of illusions about his decency as a human being.

Anko cackles, shoving the scroll under the band of her miniskirt. “Make him deal with Orochimaru-sensei,” she proposes. “Two creepy old men cancel each other out, right?”

Ibiki grimaces. “If only.” If that were the case, he wouldn’t be nearly so concerned about Sarutobi’s response, either. Telling him was exactly as unpleasant as Ibiki expected, and about halfway through he’d reluctantly come to agree with Shikaku’s proposal of having a potential successor in the village as soon as possible. The closest one if Kakashi, unless Jiraiya wanders his way in some time in the near future, and that will have to be enough. If enough people tell Kakashi that he needs to take the hat, he will, even if he doesn’t want to.

Personally, Ibiki would much rather have Kakashi in the Hokage’s office than Jiraiya, which is probably only partially personal bias. After all, Kakashi actually stayed and kept serving the village directly after his string of personal tragedies, rather than bolting to drown himself in prostitutes and alcohol. Even if Jiraiya’s their spymaster, he’s definitely not anything else right now, and Kakashi is.

With a sigh, he fits his hands together in the ram seal, and the barrier around the room shatters, sounds from the rest of the building filtering back in. “All right,” he says, and gives Anko a narrow look. “I gave you my word, so no acting on your own.”

Anko blows out her cheeks like a pufferfish, leveling a pout at him. “I won’t!” she protests, then swoops in over the desk and plants a loud, wet kiss on Ibiki’s cheek. “Don’t make me wait too long, though! A girl gets impatient, Ibiki!”

Ibiki sighs and wipes his cheek. “Go away,” he tells her, unimpressed, and Anko snickers, bouncing back down onto her heels and then sauntering out the door.

Well. That certainly went better than Ibiki was anticipating. The lack of property damage is almost bewildering.

It’s getting late. The clock on Ibiki’s desk is a reminder that he missed lunch for a meeting with the Barrier Squad, and the dissipating seal on his office makes him remember that he still has to redo all the wards on his apartment. It’s tempting to get a room at the inn for the night, tackle it in the morning. Or maybe just drag out the cot he has down here, in preparation for long nights. Inoichi used to warn him about spending too much time in the office, though, and Ibiki wants to sleep in his own bed, even if it takes some extra work to—

Light catches on porcelain where no porcelain should be, and Ibiki wrenches around,, on his feet in a fractured heartbeat with a kunai in hand. His breath his caught in his throat, and his heartbeat is too fast. It’s been years since someone took him by surprise to thoroughly, but somehow, inexplicably, his office is no longer empty. The black-cloaked figure from last night is perched on top of his bookshelf, blank mask firmly in place, head cocked.

“How the hell,” Ibiki growls, “did you get in here?”

There’s no sound of it, but Ibiki is entirely certain he’s being laughed at. There’s also no answer, and Ibiki frowns, drawing back. “Not even going to give me a name?” he asks.

For a moment he thinks that isn’t going to get an answer either, but after a long second there’s a breath. “Did you confirm what you needed to?” the stranger asks.

“Yes,” Ibiki says, and leaves it at that. There’s no need to give anything more away, especially to a spy.

The stranger kicks his heels against the edge of the bookshelf, then drops. He lands soundlessly, and when he straightens, Ibiki makes a quick study of him. He’d done the same last night, but—best to confirm that this is the same man who visited him before, rather than an imposter, or even another from a group of spies. And it seems to be, though it’s hard to be entirely sure—the informant is shorter than him, broad in the shoulders, with messy dark hair and a single eye-hole in his mask. Every inch of skin seems to be covered, and his cloak hides anything identifiable about his body. Practiced in hiding, probably; most shinobi who make their living trading secrets are.

“Call me Tobi,” he says, and takes two precise steps forward to set a paper down on Ibiki’s desk. “That price we agreed on—”

“That price you set,” Ibiki counters, though he keeps his tone mild. He’s not about to give an inch, not to someone like this. Loyalty is hardly everything, in the long run, but there’s reason enough to be suspicious of shinobi who sell secrets, as valuable as they tend to be.

Tobi pauses, and through the hole in his mask Ibiki can see one dark eye narrow. “If you’re going to quibble over five thousand ryo, maybe I should sell my information to Kumo instead,” he says, and it rasps, an edge of something dangerous behind the light tone.

Ibiki doesn’t move, doesn’t waver. Meets Tobi’s hostile stare evenly, without letting himself be shifted, and says, “You came to Konoha first for a reason.”

Pushing is always a risk, but Ibiki is good at it. Good at finding the cracks, and he can see the edge of them. Like that moment with Anko, that flare-up, that fracture. Too many sharp edges, hiding what’s underneath, and Ibiki wants to dig. It’s a habit, something like a thought exercise even if there’s a human on the other end. Break someone, build them back up, pull them in, and Konoha getting one more shinobi to add to its ranks is a small thing overall, but Ibiki knows better than most just how valuable loyalty can be.

If he can find what drives Tobi, if he can use that, he can slot him neatly into Konoha’s structure and add his skills to those already present. It’s Ibiki’s job, and getting someone who might potentially work against them into their ranks is just as much his area as interrogation.

He half-expects Tobi to lash out, to disappear—that’s always a risk in the first moment. What he doesn’t expect is the laughter that cracks out of Tobi’s throat, sharp and shattered. Just for a moment, Tobi slumps forward, hands braced on the edge of the desk, and Ibiki gets a glimpse of a pale nape where his cloak bares it, a vulnerability too real to be calculated. Not a show, then, but—a weakness. Some sort of opening, and he sounds desperately, viciously shaken beneath the humor.

“I did,” he bites out, and Ibiki watches him with narrowed eyes. A dog that’s been kicked, he thinks, just one too many times. There’s no telling what he’ll do at the next kick, either. Maybe he’ll crumple, but—

There’s just as much chance that he’ll turn around and bite, too.

“I did,” Tobi says, a dare, a threat, and Ibiki holds a stare that’s sudden wild and furious. “You have enemies you can’t even imagine. Konoha, deep in the woods, and no one’s ever come for you before but this—” He breaks off with a hiss of pure fury.

Not, Ibiki thinks coolly, just about Suna, then. He’d suspected as much. No shinobi would hand over their most valuable information at the first meeting, not when more were implied. And that means that Suna’s plan to invade, Orochimaru’s murder of the Kazekage—those are small things, all told.

Ibiki doesn’t like that thought at all.

“All right,” he says. “Then tell me.” Crossing his arms over his chest, he leans back against the wall, eyes fixed on Tobi’s hunched form. He’s helping Konoha, probably. Ibiki’s willing to go along with the assumption, at least, and give Tobi enough rope to either hang himself or make a link. If he feels he’s believed, trusted, listened to, it will be that much easier to eventually reel him in.

For a long moment, the only sound in the office is Tobi’s rasping breaths. Then, slowly, he straightens, eye still fixed on Ibiki, and says, “The map. For my price.”

Ibiki glances down at the paper Tobi brought. It is a map, done in a neat hand and showing the outlines of Fire Country, Earth Country, and Lightning Country, as well as the smaller nations in between. Deep, vicious red slashes mark areas across all of them, though at first glance Ibiki can’t see a pattern between them. Raising a brow, he looks up, and asks dryly, “You’ve been treasure hunting?”

Tobi barks out a laugh, jarring against the intensity of a moment ago, but the reaction that Ibiki was hoping to provoke. “Rotten fruit, more like,” he says. “There are caves. Full of bodies. They’re not human anymore, but they’re not gone, either. Someone’s building up an army to attack Konoha with, and those are the soldiers.”

Ibiki goes still, thoughts leaping ahead. An army, an army of bodies to be reanimated, set against Konoha, and suddenly he feels like this is the fin of some great sea monster just breaking the waves. A glimpse at what’s beneath, but not enough to do more than hint at the danger.

“An army,” he repeats. “Who’s the general?”

Tobi laughs again, and this is the ragged one, the vicious one. He tips his head, and the motion is a predator’s consideration, a sizing-up that Ibiki hasn’t felt from anyone in years. He thinks, abruptly, of Tobi as a kicked dog, and how he’s going to react to pressure, and realizes that there’s very little chance of him crumpling. Not yet, at least. Right now, the only uncertainty is how many throats he’ll rip out when he turns around and bites.

“Five thousand ryo,” Tobi says. “It’s no fun if I spill it all at once.”

Silently, Ibiki crouches down, pulling a kunai and slashing a line across his thumb. The safe under his desk opens easily at the press of his bloody finger, and he withdraws a stack of bills, does a quick count, and then rises, dropping them in front of Tobi.

“Seven,” he says. “Consider it a bonus.”

Tobi isn’t looking at the money, though, doesn’t seem to have any interest in it at all. “You’re going to want to make finding them look like an accident,” he tells Ibiki, and straightens fully. Pauses, and then asks, “How’s your brother?”

It’s almost a relief when the sweep of a shadow-filled shunshin takes him away before Ibiki has to come up with an answer.

 

 

Baiting Zetsu by leading Konoha to his stock of White Zetsu is dangerous. It’s stupid, too, but Obito won’t allow himself to hold back. Not in this. He wants Zetsu on the defensive, on the move. Wants to see what slips out when he’s under pressure and running to keep ahead of the enemy. There are a lot of plans that need to be set into motion, and this is one of them, but—

There are others, too, that are just as valuable. More so, even.

“Kakuzu,” he says, bracing one gloved hand against the doorframe.

Suspiciously, Kakuzu raises his head from behind several towering piles of papers. The accounting book is open in front of him, and there’s a smear of ink across the bridge of his nose. For a long moment, he stares at Obito, eyes narrowed, and then says, “You again.”

Obito doesn’t reach up to touch his mask, even though the flicker of fear that says he might not be wearing it, might be exposed, is a hard thing to fight through. “Pein has orders,” he says instead. Kakuzu already saw him, after all, in the immediate fallout of his match with Konan. She’d run for Kisame, to feed him chakra so his healing could keep up with the loss of his heart, and Kakuzu had come along with the swordsman. Just spectating, maybe, or maybe he doesn’t like having secrets play out under his nose.

Either way, it means Kakuzu knows him, knows his connection to Konan, and through her to Nagato. That should be enough to give his words weight.

“Yeah?” Kakuzu asks, unimpressed, but he flips the book closed and leans back in his chair. “It had better be a paid mission.”

“It is.” One step into the office, and Obito slides the door shut behind himself. Better not to take chances, after all. “There’s a base in Rice Paddy Country that Orochimaru has been using. I want you to go and…liberate it.”

No need to tell him that that’s actually what Obito wants; Kakuzu will assume it’s a mercenary gesture. And, as expected, he snorts and rises, mouth curled in a dark smirk. “Let me guess. Liberate his research, too?”

“Bring whatever you find back to Sasori,” Obito confirms, and steps back, giving Kakuzu more space. Giving himself more space; being underground itches at him more than normal right now, and he doesn’t want to be crowded any more than absolutely necessary.

The weight of Kakuzu’s eyes says he notices the gesture, but he doesn’t mention it. “No partner?” he asks instead.

“If you wanted backup, you shouldn’t have killed your last partner,” Obito retorts, and Kakuzu snorts.

“He got in my way,” he says flatly, though the curl of his mouth is cruel. For a moment, he looks Obito over, and then says, “You look better.”

Suspicion, and Obito has been braced for it since Konan hit him. Even Kakuzu would have a hard time recovering from a blow like that. “I heal,” he says flatly, and Kakuzu pulls a face.

“That’s not healing,” he says flatly. “That’s coming back from the dead. But whatever you want to tell yourself.”

Behind his mask, Obito’s smile feels like a rictus. “I’ve had experience in that, too,” he says, and pulls a scroll from his pocket, offering it up. “The location and possible defenses.” The actual defenses, more like, but Obito isn’t supposed to know that. He isn’t supposed to be carving away at Orochimaru’s power structure, either, because Orochimaru is the one perfecting Edo Tensei, but Obito can’t risk Zetsu resurrecting Madara. There’s no saying what other surprises he sowed throughout Obito’s ruined body, and Obito doesn’t want to find out the hard way.

He’s the one at fault for turning the Kyuubi on Konoha, for leading to Minato and Kushina’s deaths. But he wonders, because he can’t not, just how much of that was him, and how much of it was the seal twisting his thoughts into a mockery of Madara’s own madness.

It doesn’t matter now. He can’t go back. All he can do is go forward, with the hope that he can make things better, change the fates he’s set in motion. This can’t be for nothing, or Obito himself is worse than nothing, and he won’t accept that.

“Orochimaru’s currently occupied,” he tells Kakuzu, though his throat is too thick to get the words out easily. “You shouldn’t have to worry about him being there, but be careful.”

Kakuzu slants him a suspicious look, but he takes the scroll with far less hesitation than Ibiki had, unrolls it to check the contents and then inclines his head. “Good pay,” he says, like it’s an accusation.

Obito has more than enough money hoarded away to keep Kakuzu from kicking up a fuss over an unpaid mission and potentially drawing Zetsu's attention. No one needs to know that this is his personal contribution to the mission pool. “And you don’t even have to split it,” he says dryly.

With a snort, Kakuzu slips the scroll up a sleeve, then casts another assessing glance at Obito. “You’re one of Pein’s, but you weren’t around much before.”

“I’ve always been around,” Obito says bitterly, and looks away. Wants to say you just never noticed, but that gives the bitterness an air of sullen jealousy, and—that, at least, Obito doesn’t feel. He’s fine not being noticed, arranged things that way. This is entirely directed at Madara, at Zetsu, the reason he’s around. The reason he’s not dead, and as grateful as Obito should probably be to them for that, he can't. Not when he knows what’s happened because of his survival.

For a long moment, Kakuzu is silent, wary, his eyes narrowed. Then, deliberately, he tugs his mask down around his neck and asks, “Betrayed?”

“Once,” Obito says truthfully, and then pauses. Thinks of Rin's convenient death, the seal on his heart, and smiles, crooked and cracked. “Well. More than once.”

Kakuzu grunts, looking past Obito, at the closed door. “Yeah,” he says flatly. “The shinobi world will do that to you.” Then, without another word, he stalks out the door and disappears towards his rooms.

Obito doesn’t watch him go, doesn’t want to think about it too closely. Turns away instead, slipping straight through the wall and out the other side of the stone, then down a level. He drops, passing through another floor, and the weight of the earth above makes his skin crawl.

Weak, something in him whispers, and it sounds like Madara's voice, tastes like blood in his mouth as he hauled himself to his feet. Feels like failure and pain and the sound that vibrated through his bones as rocks came down. Even the knowledge that he could just slip into Kamui if the same thing happened again doesn’t ease the tension at all; it’s an old fear, remembered, and logic won't banish it so easily.

Hell, but he hates caves.

There’s a figure approaching up the hallway, bright hair a strange contrast to his blank expression. Obito looks into the face of Yahiko’s corpse, thinking of Konan in his room, so grim and tired, and it takes effort not to step back.

“Pein,” he says.

Nagato is looking through Yahiko’s eyes, and he inclines his head, one brief motion. “Tobi,” he returns. “Leaving?”

“Scouting for the Rokubi,” Obito says, which isn't entirely a lie. He needs to warn Utakata to keep a lower profile than he has been, or maybe seek refuge in another village. Konoha would be ideal, but—the Mist and the Leaf haven’t had the best history, and Obito will take what he can get. Even Iwa would be more protection than being on his own.

Pein nods, turning back down the corridor to watch Konan approach. “Good,” he says, and passes, cloak flaring around him.

Konan stops next to Obito, and she waits there while Pein's footsteps vanish around the next corner. Then, softly, she says, “I think you owe me a trip to Hot Springs Country.”

It’s enough to make Obito smile, even just a little. “I do,” he acknowledges, equally quiet. “Can Nagato spare you tonight?”

“I’ll ask Sasori to look in on him,” Konan murmurs, and slips around him, vanishing without so much as a rustle of cloth. Obito traces her chakra up the corridor, heading for one of the libraries, and then breathes out, careful and precise.

He’d been intending to spend the night searching Konoha, gathering evidence against Danzō, because Danzō isn’t the type to let someone else manipulate things under his nose. Not unless he’s in on the manipulation. And while Sarutobi seems content to let Danzō have his head, Obito's sure that the clan heads will be far less thrilled to have proof of his continuing activities dropped in their laps. Particularly the Aburame, and as one of the remaining noble clans in Konoha, they’ve got more than enough clout to make themselves a problem.

Still. An evening spent harassing Jiraiya in Konan's company won't be a waste. Even outside of the fact that it will make her happy, Jiraiya needs to stay out of Konoha for a while, until Obito's finished planning things, and running from creditors and peeved brothel mistresses will keep him occupied for the foreseeable future.

Checking in on the Rokubi gives Obito reason enough to be out of the base, so he has some time. Zetsu won't be concerned if he thinks Obito is working, and as long as Obito has a handful of rumors to show for it, he won't rouse suspicion. That should give him enough leeway to slip back into Konoha and accomplish at least a few of the tasks he’s set himself. Some are definitely going to be easier than others, but getting a head start won't hurt.

Breaking into the Hyuuga Clan’s Main House is going to take some doing, but Obito's of the opinion that being able to walk through walls has to be good for ­something.

Chapter Text

Usually, when he sneaks into Konoha, it’s more actual sneaking, rather than just walking in through the front gate. Obito's always fond of variety, though.

Hound mask firmly in place, he waves to the chuunin guarding the gate, but doesn’t pause, leaping from the edge of the treeline to the top of the wall and then dropping over it. The pair of chuunin wave back without hesitating, barely pausing their conversation, and Obito rolls his eye to himself just a little. So much security, increased security even, and it’s still so very easy to get into the village. Maybe he’ll give Ibiki pointers next time he drops off information.

Wearing the ANBU uniform is a bitter thing, because Rin used to talk about being ANBU, and Kakashi was on the fast-track to it, but Obito ignores the mix of guilt and grief bubbling like toxic fumes in his chest, creeping up the back of his throat. Salutes another ANBU in a sparrow mask, then drops down to a lower level of roofs and slips into the middle of a rooftop garden with a massive weeping willow. Konoha has plenty of secret rooms and hidden entrances in such places, so an ANBU vanishing into one won't be remarkable to anyone watching, but this willow is simply a normal tree.

It’s not like Obito needs secret passages to get around, though.

Looking like an ANBU works to get into the village, but an ANBU wandering around the Hyuuga compound will just stir more unrest if Obito does get caught, and he’s not about to let his work settling things down be undone. Stripping off the hound mask and the uniform, he pulls on a plain black cloak and a violet mask with black rings, then steps right through Kamui and into a shadowed corner of the Hyuuga compound. Wonders, uneasily, how much Kakashi can feel of him using his eye, but—it can't matter right now. Kakashi’s not in the village, and Obito need to carve out all the parts of Konoha's structure that someone could use against them. If Orochimaru can't get Sasuke, after all, he’ll likely turn his attentions to the Hyuuga. Seals aren’t exactly a deterrent to him, even ones like the Caged Bird Seal.

The Caged Bird Seal itself is a nasty thing. It’s far too similar to the control seal Konan ripped from Obito's heart for Obito to let it go on existing, village power structures aside.

Inside the walls, the Hyuuga compound has little similarity to the old Uchiha compound. That one was militaristic, bare. Pretty enough, but in a simple, utilitarian way. Obito eyes the grass and gardens and neat houses of the Hyuuga compound and breathes out, curling his fingers tight against a gnarled trunk.

Pretty. A pretty, pretty prison for the Branch House members.

Gritting his teeth, Obito forces himself to focus, slips forward as soon as the closest Hyuuga turns a corner and disappears from sight. There are an inconvenient number of people around, all of them capable of seeing Obito's chakra if they use their Byakugan, but it’s safer to do this in the day than at night. If he’s caught sneaking around at night, it will raise an alarm, put the whole clan on the defensive. Right now he’s just a weirdo who got into the compound, rather than a child-thief.

Obito slips around another corner, then ducks into the shadow of a porch, right between a camellia and the wood. Above and beside him, steps cross, and a woman says, “—can’t believe he’s trying to master it. The nerve.”

“He’s talented,” a man murmurs in return, and their feet pause a few inches from Obito's hiding place. “It’s a shame he wasn’t born into the Main House.”

“No, it’s not,” the woman counters. “He’s got the same beastly personality as his father. He’d never fit in.”

“Still a better temperament than Hinata-sama,” the man says dryly, and the honorific sounds like an insult.

The woman laughs a little. “At least Hanabi turned out well enough,” she says. “I wonder when Hiashi-sama will give in and have Hinata sealed. It’s well past time.”

“He probably wants to see how she does in the Exams.” The man sounds displeased. “As if that could make up for her personality.”

“I hope the Elders mention something to him,” the woman agrees. “And that they advise him what to do with that boy. He’s stirring up unrest. At some point he’s worthless as a guard for the Main House if all he does is fight against his place.”

Their feet thump on the stairs, and a moment later Obito catches sight of them crossing through a small garden and towards the main gate. Letting out a disgusted breath, he slides behind several thick bushes and out the other side, carefully keeping his cloak from snagging.

Maybe it’s just because of his recent experience with the control seal, but—the Hyuuga House system makes Obito's stomach turn right now.

It’s the idea of fate, maybe. Fated to be born second, fated to serve, to die, for people who consider them lesser, and Obito knows what it’s like to be born a failure. His mother was an Uchiha, but not his father, and as soon as he was born the Uchiha Clan saw him as lesser for that. He could never escape that view, either.

Not until they were all dead. Not until Itachi killed them. And Obito hates his own part in that, but—sometimes it’s harder to feel guilt for that, after the way he grew up.

He wonders if the kid those Main House members were talking about feels the same way. A shame he was born into the wrong House, like they couldn’t change it if they wanted to. Like Hiashi couldn’t rewrite the whole system if he put his mind to it.

Obito would probably have a bad personality, too, in light of that.

The Hyuuga Clan Head’s house is set far back from the main part of the compound, well away from all the walls and gates. A new change, since the Hyuuga Affair nine years ago, Obito knows. The house itself is heavily warded, but it’s also the middle of the day, with all those wards deactivated. Right now, the place is as vulnerable as it will ever be.

Somewhere in the Clan Head’s house, there’s a master seal that they use to apply the Caged Bird Seal to new Branch House members. If Obito can find it, relieve the clan of it, he can start undoing the seal. He’s got the bare workings of an idea for how to manage that, but he needs a way to test it. Nullifying a seal is simple, with the right counter-array, and Obito can come up with one if he has a Caged Bird Seal and a few hours to work. Taking the master seal means he doesn’t have to deal with the risks involved in kidnapping a person already bearing the mark. If he can just—

A step through the wall and the first thing he hears is a cry.

Instantly, Obito freezes, unsure if he’s been caught. There’s no follow-up, though, no sound of alarm. That was rage, pure and simple, familiar in a bone-deep way Obito hates.

He slips forward, down the hall, and pauses at the very edge of an open door.

It’s a training room, padded and paneled, empty of all but a single figure. A boy, probably thirteen, with long dark hair and an expression twisted up in frustration. As Obito watches, silent, he staggers back to his feet and falls into a familiar Gentle Fist stance. Obito saw it a thousand times during the war, but—only in Main House Hyuuga. And, given the fact that this boy has a seal on his forehead, that means something.

Carefully, Obito slips past, heading for the far end of the house. He’s scouted the area enough times to know that Hiashi tends to keep himself to this part, appears behind windows here more frequently, so logic says he likely has an office, somewhere he keeps valuable things. The master seal will be somewhere accessible, but safe, and Obito's decent at spotting hidden caches. If he can locate it, he can start on the seal while in Hot Springs Country with Konan—she needs sleep, but Obito's body is something different.

The first few rooms he checks are bedrooms, a linen closet, a library. Just as he’s starting to wonder how much time he has, though, a door rattles. Instantly, Obito ducks through the library door, intangible for an instant, and then pauses there, listening. It’s Hiashi, muttering to himself, and Obito gives him two long minutes to pass out of hearing before he slips back out into the hall. The door Hiashi emerged from is closed, but that’s not any sort of deterrent to someone with Kamui, and Obito steps through the rice paper without pause, glancing around.

A small room, well-lit, with all the signs of frequent occupation. There’s an abandoned tray of tea, an array of pens, a page of notes left out. Obito checks them, and has to snort. Notes on observation, clearly the rough draft of a report, and it’s undoubtedly meant for Ibiki and the Hokage, since the subject is Gaara and his seal. Ibiki's been outsourcing, then.

Still, if Hiashi is going to deliver it in person, that means Obito has time. The Branch House boy likely doesn’t have the range to see him a solid hundred yards away, and Hiashi won't be back for a while. Pleased, Obito sinks down on his knees in front of the desk, scanning the floor with Sharingan-sharp sight. Madara might have emphasized the Mangekyō, all the abilities of a fully awakened Sharingan, but—it took Obito months to get used to the clarity, the detail of just the basic Sharingan. He went without for thirteen years, and suddenly having it was a learning curve unlike any other. His Mangekyō doesn’t seem to degrade his vision, either—a result of splitting the pair with Kakashi, maybe, or the Hashirama cells Madara grafted onto his body—so there’s no reason not to use it for little things like this.

Easily missed details are so much easier to spot with eyes built for memorization and the theft of jutsus. A scuff on the wood where there shouldn’t be, an indent between two tatami mats that should lie flat. A corner that isn't quite flush with the next, and when Obito digs his fingers into the gap, it comes up easily.

The floor underneath glows with seals, a lockbox carved to be impenetrable. Obito cocks his head, studying the marks, and he’s not the best with seals, but—those are blood locks, probably linked to Hiashi alone. Anyone else trying to get in is going to find themselves blown to bits, the things inside untouchable.

Untouchable for anyone tangible, at least.

Holding his breath, Obito lets his arm slide halfway into Kamui, then slowly reaches down into the box. None of the wards react, and with a breath of relief he rematerializes his fingers, catches hold of the first scroll he finds, and pulls it into Kamui and then out. It comes up cleanly, and Obito unrolls the first few inches, checks it. A finance ledger, marking clan payments to the Head. Rolling his eye, Obito drops it to the side, then reaches in again. He gets a sword that’s probably an heirloom, a copy of the charter the Hyuuga signed when they joined Konoha, an old book, a scroll of Gentle Fist’s forbidden techniques, and a money pouch, but no master seal.

With a growl, Obito shoves back to sit on his heels, considering the pile beside him, the now-empty lockbox. If there’s another hiding spot, he can't see it, but—where else would Hiashi put something as vital to his own continued power as the Caged Bird Seal? He has to use it, and he—

“Thief!” a voice snarls, and Obito has half a second to feel his heart in his throat before he’s up and turning, just missing the blow that almost hits him in the spine.

The Hyuuga boy he saw practicing comes to a stop, Byakugan coming to life. “I don’t know who you are,” he bites out, “but I won't allow you to—”

Damn. Damn, damn, damn.

Obito slides right through a hand aimed at his tenketsu points, rematerializes. Reaching out, he grabs the boy’s arm and pulls, half an instant before he can yell for backup.

The dark wash of Kamui blooms around them, the swirling air dissipating among the squared-of pillars. Obito hits the ground on his feet, but the boy isn't so lucky; unbalanced by the change, by the pull, he lands hard on his side, rolls up immediately. The tightening of his mouth is the only sign that the change in location unsettles him, because he falls right back into the Gentle Fist stance, ready to move.

In the space of a long second, Obito weighs his options. Lie, let the boy go back to the compound and raise the alarm, watch all the work he’s done to stabilize the situation in Konoha go to waste with the rising fear of uncaught intruders, or—

Truth, maybe. Or at the very least something like it.

“You're a Branch House member,” he says, and takes a deliberate step back.

The boy’s face twists, almost a scowl. “Yes,” he bites out. “So if you want my eyes—”

“I was looking,” Obito interrupts, “for the Hyuuga's master seal, so I could undo the Caged Bird Seal.”

Naked shock flickers across the boy’s face for half an instant before it’s buried by anger. “So you can take anyone you want and steal their eyes?” he demands. “I won't allow you to.”

Clearly this argument isn't going in Obito's favor. He hesitates for a moment, then relaxes deliberately. Eases back, sinks down, and crosses his legs beneath himself, making it harder for him to move quickly, to react. It’s as close to nonthreatening as he can be, here in his world.

“No,” he says flatly, simply. “Because there was a control seal on my heart, and I finally escaped it. And now I'm trying to help other people do the same.”

For a minute, the silence stretches. The Hyuuga boy doesn’t move, doesn’t even seem to breathe. And then, voice cracking just faintly, he demands, “Why should I believe that?”

“There’s no reason,” Obito says, and spreads his hands, palms up. “Nothing to make you. But if you promise not to raise an alarm, I’ll put you right back in the compound, as a sign of good faith.”

“I don’t think that’s how that works,” the boy says, judgmental. Even so, he shifts back just slightly, hands no longer in such a threatening position. He looks Obito over for a long moment, and then says suspiciously, “Your eye—it has chakra. A lot of chakra. Are you…”

He doesn’t finish, but Obito can guess the direction of his thoughts. “Not a Hyuuga,” he says, then tips his head, studying the boy in return. “You're from the Branch House, but you're learning the Main House techniques.”

“I'm teaching myself,” the boy bites out, bristling. “My uncle would never deign to teach me anything.”

Uncle. And…between that and his presence in the Clan Head’s house, Obito can draw the obvious connection. “Your Hiashi's nephew,” he says, a little startled.

“Yes,” the boy says, as if it’s being dragged from him. Angrily, with a simmering rage that Obito can feel. A rage Obito knows.

Something uncomfortable turns over in his chest, and with a breath, Obito looks away, out into the darkness. “It’s not right,” he says.

The boy laughs, ragged and wrathful. “It’s the way things have always been,” he spits, with the familiarity of a rote phrase. “It’s for our own good.”

Obito takes another breath, a third, a fourth. When his temper has evened, eased, he looks up into the boy’s eyes, and says, “I want to tear the House system down and leave the Main House with nothing but ashes in their hands.”

He thinks, for a moment, that the boy is going to protest again, that he’s going to make more accusations. Can see it rising, even, the indignation, the fury, the want, and—

The boy stops. Stares at him for a long, long pause, and then laughs again. Still wild, still furious, and all at once he’s moving, crossing the space between them. Dropping down on his knees before Obito, he demands, “What do you need? If you do it, what do you want in return?”

“Nothing,” Obito says, and holds his gaze. He’s unpracticed at truth, by now, but—maybe the boy can see it in his eyes anyway. “Just to see the Main House lose everything.”

“You won't hurt anyone from the Branch House?” he asks. “Removing the seal won't kill them?”

“No.” Obito reaches out, and when the boy doesn’t flinch, he presses a fingertip to the center of the seal carved into his forehead, the simple lines that mark him as cannon fodder for the Main House, meant to serve them. “I can counter it, as long as I have a version of it. That’s why I'm looking for the master seal.”

Mouth twisting, the boy looks away. “Hiashi-sama carries it with him,” he says disgustedly. “Always.”

Well. That certainly increases the difficulty, Obito thinks, frowning. It also means there’s pretty much no way to get to it without being seen.

“He has to take it off sometime,” he says. “During baths, or at night.” But getting to him without being seen at those times will be almost impossible, especially with the village on alert about Orochimaru and Suna. Obito could kidnap him, but that would raise even more alarm, and he’d rather avoid it if at all possible.

There's a pause, a breath. The boy curls his hands into fists against his thighs, then raises his head, squares his shoulders, and says, “Use mine.”

Obito blinks. “What?”

“Use mine,” he repeats. “You need a seal, right? And they're all connected, that’s how Hiashi-sama can punish large groups if he needs to. So if you undo mine, it will undo others, too.”

“If Hiashi notices you're gone, he’ll activate your seal,” Obito points out quietly. “I don’t know how long it will take.”

“I don’t want to die for the Main House,” the boy says fiercely. “If I have to die, I want it to be defying them. I want my death to mean something, not be just another sacrifice for a family that sees me as a living shield!”

There's no possible way Obito can argue against that.

“Is there anyone who will report you going missing?” he asks, and something like relief slides over the boy’s face. He closes pale eyes for a moment, relief filling his posture, and then nods.

“Gai-sensei,” he says. “We have training twice a day.”

Gai. Obito remembers him, his fixation on Kakashi and his undiminished enthusiasm, even in the middle of a war. Blowing out a breath through his nose, he reaches up to rub his forehead, only to realize belatedly that his mask is in the way.

“Is there an excuse he’ll believe?” he asks.

The boy considers that, then grimaces, looking about how Obito feels. “If I tell Gai-sensei I'm taking a few days to meditate in the forest and discover my inner Youth,” he says, like the term is a curse, “he won't even think to argue. Is that long enough?”

Obito can't help but snort. “More than,” he agrees, and rises, offering the boy a hand up. “Your name?”

The boy looks at him, then sets his shoulders, raises his chin, and takes the hand. “Neji,” he says. “I'm Neji.”

“Tobi,” Obito returns, and lets Kamui swirl to life, dropping them back into the office. After a moment of contemplation, he picks up the kinjutsu scroll, vanishing it into his dimension. Naji can probably use it. Everything else he drops back into the lockbox, then pulls the tatami back over it and resettles it exactly as he found it.

When he straightens, Neji is watching him, careful and wary, but he’s not running.

“Go make your excuses to whoever needs to hear them,” he says. “I’ll meet you outside the western gate when you're done.”

Neji nods once, sharp, and then turns on his heel and vanishes down the hall, moving quickly.

Well, Obito thinks with a sigh. That didn’t go anything like he expected it to.

Hopefully Konan won't mind some company on their trip.

 

 

“So who is he?” Kisame asks.

Konan pauses, lifting her eyes from her book. Kisame isn't looking at her, has his back turned as he folds omelets for himself, tipping and pouring and rolling with a skill that’s almost surprising. His hands are deft, though, and she remembers the dango, cute, sweet. Something made with care.

“A coworker,” she says, instead of playing dumb. “He helps gather information.”

Kisame digests that for a long moment, turning another omelet out onto a plate. Pours the egg into the pan, and as he lets it set he says, “He’s the one who recruited me.”

Konan knows that. Knows that Kisame has seen Tobi's face, even though almost no one else has. She has, and it’s…startling. Almost unnerving, with the scars, the missing eye, the strange, too-heavy intensity the second his attention settles. He’d reminded her of Nagato, the first time he took his mask off in front of them. Not Nagato as he is now, hiding behind Yahiko’s face, but the Nagato who followed Yahiko, who loved him so fiercely that he broke in the wake of Yahiko’s death. Pure belief, utter conviction, and then—

A hole in his chest, pouring blood, an absent heart, and Konan had run.

Kisame’s vast reserves of chakra were enough to save Tobi, and in the wake of that, everything changed. The conviction is gone, replaced by fury and something like grief, and Konan wonders if it’s wrong to see herself in this altered version of him.

“He’s good at that,” she says, and means he was.

Maybe, though, just a little, she means something else entirely. After all, the old Tobi wasn’t someone who would have offered her a chance to go after Jiraiya. He wouldn’t have noticed anything beyond his quest to capture the bijuu. And now he’s…softer. A little lost, but—

Konan is, too. She understands that.

Kisame chuckles, light, and turns. He slides two plates across the table to her, a neatly rolled omelet and rice, and says, “Miso’s almost done.”

“Thank you,” Konan murmurs, watching the way Kisame moves, the shift of muscles under his skin. He’s made for killing, but he’s here, trying to save the world with them even so.

Or maybe he’s trying to destroy it, and he just doesn’t care that they're going to rebuild in the aftermath.

Sometimes, even with the reminders of Yahiko and his dream ever-present, Konan doesn’t precisely disagree.

Setting her book aside, Konan picks up her cup of tea, wrapping her fingers around the warmth and breathing in the steam. Takes a sip, and then, thinking of Tobi's trust, Kisame’s care, she says, “I won't be in the base tonight. Would you bring Nagato his dinner, and look in on him if you have the time?”

Kisame glances at her, curiosity on his face. “Going out without Pein?” he asks curiously.

Konan hums, pleased even just to think about it. Jiraiya was their teacher, gave them the ability to defend themselves, but—he left them. He left them, and sometimes he looked at her and her skin crawled. Sometimes his hand on her shoulder felt like a looming drop, like the earth yawning open right before her feet, and if he’d slid his hand down an inch, if he’d tried to pull her closer, the whole world would have given way.

She was helpless, because he was their teacher, because he was more powerful, more dangerous, had the backing of Konoha. And she’d known what some men liked, that teasing about how pretty she was could turn into something else at a moment’s notice.

Nagato and Yahiko didn’t get it. They saw Jiraiya as their hero, their savior, right up until he left. But Konan felt helpless, defensive, with no way to escape. Now, finally, she has power. She has the ability to face Jiraiya down and ruin him if he tries anything.

It’s one of the greatest ironies in the world, though, that she doesn’t know if she would have had Tobi not suggested it.

You’re going to be beautiful when you get older. Make sure you come see me when you're eighteen, huh?

Konan breathes, breathes, breathes. Tries to shut out Jiraiya’s last words to her, but she hates them. And maybe all she can do right now is make Jiraiya’s life miserable in the short term, but she’ll take it. She’ll take it gladly.

“Yeah,” Kisame says into the stretching silence, and it’s cheerful, easy. “I can take care of Leader-sama for a night. Have fun.”

Konan closes her eyes, fingers tight around warm ceramic. Breathes in, out, in again, and lets herself smile.

“I plan to,” she says, and means it.

Chapter Text

This is without a doubt the stupidest, most reckless thing Neji has ever done.

His stomach is churning. Every muscle in his body is so tense it’s almost vibrating, and his breath wants to come short and fast even though he won't let it. His hitai-ate feels too heavy, and Neji is unreasonably sure that it’s about to slip off, despite the fact that he tied it like he always does. Slip off, fall away, and let everyone see

But not for long. Not for long if Tobi is right, if he really can remove the Caged Bird Seal.

Neji is resting everything on the hope that he can.

It’s stupid, but this seems too easy. The only people who might miss him among the Hyuuga have been told that he’s on a brief training trip into the woods, and if Hiashi deigns to notice that Neji isn't under his immediate control, that’s what he’ll be told. Otherwise, the only ones who will mark his absence are his team, and Neji can put them off for at least a day. Maybe more, if he’s lucky and uses his unhospitable reputation to its fullest extent. The Exams are coming up, and even if Gai hasn’t said officially that he’s going to enter them this year, it’s been understood from their training regimen that that’s what he’s aiming for. If Neji claims he needs isolation to work on a technique—

He doesn’t think about the chance that he might not come back. If Hiashi notices, or of Tobi fails, or just if Tobi isn't telling the truth, there’s every chance that Neji will die.

But. Better to die moving against the Main House, making a stand, than because one of them needs a human shield or a body double sometime in the future. Neji's made his choice, and he can't find it in himself to regret it.

Tenten's laughter is the first thing he hears as he approached, followed by Lee's strident protests about how many laps around the market he’ll do if he fails to perfect his newest combination. Something in Neji's chest twists, hearing them, and he pauses at the edge of the trees, just—watching. Tenten is perched on a log, legs crossed under her and a sealing scroll spread over her lap, while Lee bounces on his toes in the middle of the clearing, shadowboxing.

Neji grew up knowing the Hyuuga Clan and nothing else. His whole life before Team 9 was schoolwork and training and keeping his head down every second he might have attracted Hiashi's attention. Sparring with Hinata was a dangerous thing, meant pain, but it was expected, encouraged. Hisashi wanted his eldest daughter to finally beat his Branch House nephew, probably, but—

Neji spent years dreading those matches, his whole world revolving around facing Hinata and being punished for winning, dragging himself to the Academy and then back to the compound with no stops along the way.

It was hard to understand how the Main House lived until he met people who didn’t live like that. Lee and Tenten are both orphans, both live alone, but they're not angry. Not the same way Neji is. They don’t have to be. People push them down, ignore them, belittle them, but it’s the same. The Hyuuga clan is built on it, around it, their treatment of the Branch House. In places without that, they can have moments free.

Before this team, Neji had none of that.

He’ll regret it, if he dies. Not the action that led to his death, but the act of it. He wants to stay on this team, but—

He wants to be free even more than that.

“Oh, Neji!” Tenten says brightly, and Neji lifts his gaze just in time to catch her wave, the cheerful smile she directs at him. “There you are! Gai's in an emergency meeting, but he should be here soon.”

“A meeting?” Neji asks, stepping into the clearing.

“Yosh!” Lee says enthusiastically as he whirls around to face him. “A jounin meeting! Fear not, my rival, soon it shall be us invited to such things!”

Neji snorts, but doesn’t bother to argue. “About the Exams?” he asks.

Tenten makes a thoughtful sound, tipping her head to squint at her sealwork. “No,” she says, a little distracted. “Teams 7 and 8 are still out of the village, and the Hokage wouldn’t ask teachers to declare entry without everyone present.”

The fact that Tenten willing keeps track of the other teams is mildly bewildering, but also useful. Neji nods, sinking down on the cool grass and letting out a breath, and when he looks up there are two pairs of eyes on him.

“You're packed for a trip,” Tenten says, startled. “Did I miss something?”

“If we missed Gai-sensei telling us of a mission, I’ll run ten laps around the village on my hands in penance!” Lee says loudly, and then pauses. Blinks for a moment, and then says more quietly, “I don’t recall a mission, my rival.”

“There isn't one,” Neji says, rolling his eyes. “I'm going to go out and train by myself if Gai lets me.” Even if he doesn’t, probably. That will just make for a tighter timeframe for the seal’s removal.

Thankfully, Tenten has been just as brainwashed by Gai as Lee. She immediately brightens at the idea, and offers, “There's a nice waterfall where that one river from the east meets the Nakano. That’s always a nice place to train!”

Neji pauses, but—it’s a small enough thing. With a faint smile, he inclines his head, and says, “I’ll look there first, then. Thanks, Tenten.”

She gives him a silly salute, then straightens her scroll and starts sketching out another array. With a laugh, Lee spins around, collapses to the ground beside Neji and sprawls out on his back in the grass.

“It is a beautiful, youthful day!” he says, stretching his arms up towards the sun-dappled leaves above. “I feel full of springtime vigor! Tell me, Neji, are you feeling the same vigor? Is that why you are leaving us to train even harder?”

“Something like that,” Neji says dryly, but he leans back on his hands, lets himself feel the vibrating tension ease, just a little. Breathes, just to remind himself that he can.

No more seal. No more curse. It’s happening.

Neji wants to laugh, loud and giddy. It’s happening.

“My hardworking students! Taking a much-needed break, I see!”

“Gai-sensei! I've completed my mourning exercise routine, and I did it six seconds faster than yesterday!” Lee cries, jerking upright to give Gai two thumbs up.

Gai laughs. “Brilliant, Lee! Soon you will be running through it at twice the speed!”

“Afternoon, Gai-sensei!” Tenten looks up with a smile, though she rolls her eyes a little. “How was your meeting?”

Not good, Neji thinks, watching Gai's face as he steps into the clearing. He’s grinning, but it seems like a little more effort than normal, and there’s something tired in the lines around his eyes, a touch of regret that Neji doesn’t normally see. It makes his heart beat a little faster, a flicker of alarm, of I've been caught that has no logical basis. Still, he swallows, and asks, “Is everything all right?”

For a long moment, Gai is quiet. He takes a seat on Tenten's log, considering, and then raises his head. “I will tell you this in confidence,” he says, and his expression is far more serious that Neji has ever seen it before. “The Hokage is passing word to the jounin and tokujō, and it’s not to be spread. I believe the three of you will keep the secret, though.” He smiles, and it’s tired, a little grim. “Suna will likely stage an invasion during the Chuunin Exams.”

Oh.

Neji drops his gaze, looks down at the grass. That’s—not what he was expecting to hear. He’d known that the Suna delegation was already here, heard Hiashi mention it in passing, but…an invasion is something else entirely. Something Konoha hasn’t ever gone through before.

He remembers, suddenly, that Gai would have been the right age to fight in the last war, even though he was just past genin then. That he likely would have been on the front lines. And—his father was killed then, wasn’t he? Killed taking on the entirety of the Seven Swordsmen of Kiri, in order to give Gai and his team time to escape. If this is the precursor to another war—

“Is the delegation going to be captured?” he asks.

“If Konoha nin take them now, all the other countries will be up in arms,” Tenten says thoughtfully, and she’s watching Gai too. “The Chuunin Exams are supposed to be neutral.”

Gai beams at her. “Tenten, our flower of wisdom!” he says. “That is indeed the case! The Hokage must wait for Suna's action before he can move!”

“Don’t worry, Gai-sensei!” Lee chimes in. “We will train hard, and we will fight hard to keep Konoha safe with the fires of our youth!”

Gai's grin slants into something a little sad. “Indeed,” he says warmly, reaching out to ruffle Lee's hair. “Let us hope it does not come to that, though.”

The threat of war means that slipping out of the village is going to get harder to do soon. Neji swallows, slanting a glance at his pack, and—it’s selfish. He wants to go, and he’s going to, and if he dies that leaves Tenten and Lee without a third teammate for the exam, but—

But Neji wants the Seal gone, and short of the entire Branch House killing themselves trying to take the seal by force, this is the only way he’s ever found.

“Gai-sensei,” he says, and when Gai turns to look at him, he forces himself to meet Gai's gaze. “I've been having trouble with one of my techniques. I was going to train in the forest for a few days, to stay away from people I might hurt.”

Gai pauses, and Neji's heart leaps into his throat. Just as he starts to tense, thinking Gai is going to say no, Gai's expression breaks into a laugh, and he reaches over to clap Neji on the shoulder.

“You are forever a considerate soul, Neji!” he says. “Truly you have embraced the kindness of the fire in your soul! Would you like assistance with anything, before you go?”

Relief makes Neji dizzy, hardly able to breathe. “No, thank you, Gai-sensei,” he manages. “I just need to work through it on my own.”

“Truly a will of fire!” Gai says, and smiles. “Where will you be in the forest?”

“I—Tenten mentioned a waterfall,” Neji says. “I’ll see if I can train there.”

“My youthful team, supporting each other in all things!” Gai tears up. “Truly you are the incarnations of the fires of youth!”

“Gai-sensei! I feel the fires burning in me!”

“Lee! Such passion and will!”

With a groan, Tenten skirts the tangle of spandex-clad limbs as Lee and Gai yell about youth to offer Neji a hand up. He takes it, and when she pulls him to his feet she gives him a tired look.

“Don’t leave me alone with them for too long,” she says, and smiles. “But good luck.”

“Thank you,” Neji says with all the dignity remaining to him, and shoulders his pack. Hesitates, because if he doesn’t survive this is the last time he’ll see his team, and swallows, looking into brown eyes.

“Don’t let them drive you completely insane,” he says through a throat that’s almost too tight to get the words out.

Tenten squeezes his wrist, then steps back. “I won't,” she promises. “And don’t you do anything too crazy, all right?”

Crazy. Right. Like trusting a stranger who broke into the Hyuuga compound and promised to remove his seal through unknown, complex means. Neji almost wants to laugh.

“Never,” he says instead, and Tenten laughs in his face. With a roll of his eyes, Neji thumps her lightly in the shoulder, then slips around her, avoids Gai and Lee because he doesn’t want to get his spine broken in farewell, and heads for the western gate.

Tobi hadn’t given him a time to meet, or even a definite place, but—hopefully this wasn’t just a way to get past Neji and steal some of the clan’s valuables. All Neji saw him take was the kinjutsu scroll, though with his strange ability he could have grabbed all sorts of things before Neji got there. And—the scroll is useless for anyone without the Byakugan, so the odds of him being able to use it or sell it are slim, if he’s really not a Hyuuga.

Neji still can't decide if he wants him to be or not. On the one hand, he would have to be an escaped Branch member, and with the missing eye that makes for a horrifying picture. On the other, if he’s telling the truth about being someone under a similar seal who just wants to right wrongs—

Maybe it’s all the exposure to Gai, but Neji has always been in love with the idea of heroes.

There are a pair of kunoichi at the gate when he approaches, one vaguely familiar and the other a woman he doesn’t know. She’s clearly an Inuzuka, a trio of identical ninken sleeping at her feet, and Neji thinks he knows the other from T&I, the handful of times Gai has dropped off reports with them. He nods politely as he approaches, and the T&I woman grins widely at him.

“Hyuuga!” she says cheerfully. “Leaving on a mission?”

“Training,” Neji says simply, and the Inuzuka woman snorts.

“Watch out for the northeast parts of the forest,” she says, “if you work your way around to that direction. Kumo and Kusa are both on their way for the Exams, and Kumo at least kills first, asks questions later.”

“I’ll avoid it,” Neji confirms, and hopes he’s telling the truth. He loathes Kumo, with a ferocity that leaves him shaking every time he thinks about it for too long. He’d burn the whole country down if he could.

He never even got to bury his father, because of them.

The Inuzuka woman laughs. “Guess I don’t need to tell you to have eyes in the back of your head!” she calls after him, and then she and her partner dissolve into giggles. Neji rolls his eyes hard, taking the main road into the forest. The western road is less frequently used, the track here narrower; he assumes that’s why Tobi picked it to meet. The trees are thicker, too, older, and from what he’s heard the old Senju compound is hidden somewhere in this direction, even if it’s been years since someone was last there.

Just when Neji is starting to wonder if he should have stayed beside the gate, waiting for Tobi, there are steps behind him. Neji whirls, hands coming up automatically, and his eyes catch on the ANBU approaching in the branches. A dog mask, a simple uniform, even a red tattoo on his bicep, but—

The Byakugan makes recognizing his chakra easy, that strange burning green, the red concentrated around his sole eye. Neji lifts his chin, taking a step back to fall out of the Gentle Fist stance, and says, “You came.”

“I could say the same.” Tobi drops to the road, casting a glance up and down it, and then offers Neji a hand. “Matters are settled?”

Neji inclines his head, takes the offered hand. This time, he’s braced for the strange, twisting lurch of being wrenched somewhere else, and manages not to lose his balance as they land on the square island of light in the darkness. “No one’s going to look for me for at least two days,” he says, and wonders again just how stupid this decision is.

Very, honestly, but Neji is desperate enough that it’s hard to care.

“Good,” Tobi says, and then pauses. He looks Neji over for a long moment, and then says, “I'm taking you to Yugakure. I have a mission in the country, but I’ll have time to remove your seal while I'm there.”

A mission. Neji didn’t see any hitai-ate or other village markings on him, but—some shinobi don’t bother with them, or leave them off intentionally. Breaking into another village to steal from one of their noble clans is probably a good time not to flaunt one’s allegiance, too.

“Yu?” he repeats, and has to frown, because Yu is a pacifist country, without any real shinobi. They have contracts with most of the other villages to keep them from taking assassination missions inside Yu’s borders.  “What are you doing in Yu?”

“Getting revenge for a comrade,” Tobi says simply, and tips his head at Neji. “You might want to turn your hitai-ate around.”

It should feel like a bigger gesture than it is, reaching up and pulling his hitai-ate free. Neji should feel something, probably, but he slides it into his bag without hesitation and reaches up, rubbing at the seal on his forehead. That part feels uncomfortable; it’s too obvious, too clear, and he doesn’t like the idea of showing it to the world. But if it will lead to the removal—

“Here,” Tobi says, and shoves a strip of pale cloth into his hand. Bandages, unmarked, and Neji doesn’t let his breath of relief show as he quickly ties them around his forehead. His eyes are already distinctive enough; if they're trying to hide that he’s a Hyuuga, it’s best not to leave any more clues than he absolutely has to.

“This comrade you're avenging,” he starts, and then pauses, not sure how to finish. He wants to ask about Yu’s stance against assassinations, but he supposes that, with Tobi's power, technically the assassination won't actually be committed in Yu itself.

Tobi snorts softly, then raises a hand, making the air warp. “She’s joining us,” he says, and the spiraling space washes over them, disperses with long ripples to show a tunnel, windowless and wide. Cautious, Neji glances up, and his range isn't the best, but he can feel chakra signatures nearby. One in particular is right above their heads, vast and abrasive, and he takes a step to the side and away before he can help himself.

“Don’t worry, we’re leaving soon,” Tobi says, and crosses to a wooden door set into the wall. He raps his knuckles against it, then steps back.

There's a long, long moment of silence, and then the door opens just the faintest crack. Neji can see a sliver of pale face, blue hair and part of a paper flower, one golden eye and dark lips. For a heartbeat she just stares at Tobi, and then says without any sort of inflection, “I'm not decent.”

Tobi snorts. “Is that news?” he asks.

One corner of the woman’s mouth curves, amused. The door closes, and Neji tracks the burn of her chakra across the space. It’s low, thrumming, and she’s entirely covered in it like a second skin, thick enough that Neji can't see any of her tenketsu points. It’s mildly startling; even the Akimichi, using their clan techniques, have visible tenketsu, but she’s different.

Before he can ask, though, the door opens again, and the woman steps out to join them. She’s tall, beautiful, with sharp eyes that sweep over Neji from head to toe and linger on his eyes for a long moment. Raising a brow, she glances over at Tobi, and asks dryly, “Strays?”

Tobi scoffs. “He has a seal,” he says. “I'm going to undo it during our stay.”

Inclining her head, the woman accepts that easily enough, and offers Neji a faint smile. “Konan,” she says.

No affiliation, no clan name, no village marks on her, either. Neji wonders with a sense of resignation just what the hell he’s getting himself into. “Neji,” he returns.

If she realizes he’s leaving out his clan name, Konan doesn’t show it. Instead, she simply turns to Tobi, settling a bag over one shoulder, and says, “I hope you made us reservations somewhere nice.”

“It even has a shared hot spring,” Tobi says, like that means something. It must, because the curl of Konan's lips is a cruel thing, predatory.

“The creditors?” she asks.

“Sniffing around already,” Tobi returns. “I think a big blowout in the middle of the village will bring them running.”

Konan takes Tobi's arm, orange nails bright against the white ANBU armor. “I think we can provide,” she says, darkly pleased, and offers Neji a smile that makes a shiver curl down his spine. “I hope you like hot springs.”

Silently, Neji nods, and when Tobi beckons him closer, he moves very carefully to his far side, keeping the man between himself and Konan. “Who are you after?” he asks.

Before Tobi can answer, Konan snorts. “A man who harassed me as a child,” she says. “And who hasn’t stopped harassing women and girls since.”

Neji grimaces. Gai has taken them on a few missions where men have made comments about Tenten because she’s a kunoichi, or where the men they were working for or against were absolute filth.

Neji always likes the against sort of missions best, in those cases.

“Good,” he mutters, and drops a hand on Tobi's armored forearm. There's a shimmer of air, a twist, and darkness passes over them for half an instant they're reemerging somewhere bright. The summertime heat to the air is a shock after the cold of the tunnel, and Neji blinks in the light, glances around as he lets his Byakugan fade.

They're on a stone bridge, with a river cutting through the canyon below. Ahead of them, on the far side of the chasm, a village crowns the hill, more pale stone and verdant green. It’s pretty, and Neji squints up at it through the sunlight, just able to see the symbols crowning the gate. The former shinobi village turned hot springs town, apparently, and Neji isn't sure whether to feel derisive or not. Losing a competitor is good for Konoha, but—

It’s weird, seeing a shinobi village defanged. Ruined, in every sense of the word, and turned into nothing more than a tourist attraction. Neji doesn’t like it much.

“Cute,” Konan says flatly, and glances sidelong at Tobi. “You should change.”

Tobi makes a sound of annoyance, but a twist of air pulls him back into that strange dark place. Konan snorts quietly, then steps back to lean against the railing of the bridge.

She looks Neji over again, one long sweep of her eyes, and then asks, “Did he promise you revenge?”

Neji isn't sure whether or not to answer, but Tobi didn’t say not to. The fact that he brought Neji along is likely a good indication of how much he trusts Konan, too—removing a seal is complicated, and he’ll be vulnerable while he’s doing it.

“No,” he says at length. “He offered me freedom.”

Konan looks away, out over the gorge and the river below. “Freedom,” she echoes, and her smile is bittersweet. “How beautiful.”

It doesn’t sound mocking, but Neji still watches her warily, waiting for the follow-up. If there is one, though, she doesn’t offer it in time; the air twists, splits, and Tobi steps out onto the bridge. Or—Neji assumes it’s Tobi.

There’s no cloak, no ANBU uniform, no mask. With a deep grimace, only made deeper by the heavy scars on his right side, Tobi tugs at the hem of his shirt and says, “Can we go?”

Konan puts a hand up to her mouth like she’s hiding laughter. “Won't you melt without at least one kunai on you?” she asks.

Tobi gives her a flat look. “I have Kamui, that’s all I need,” he retorts, and sighs when she steps up next to him, but takes the arm she offers.

“The start of the Jiraiya-hunt?” he asks dryly.

Neji blinks. “Jiraiya?” he asks incredulously. “Like the Sannin?” Remembers what Konan said about him, and promptly grimaces. “I didn’t know he was like that.”

“You would if you were a woman under the age of fifty in Konoha,” Tobi says frankly, and starts moving as Konan pulls him towards the gate at the foot of the hill. Casts an assessing glance back, and asks, “Objections?”

Neji rolls his eyes. “None,” he says flatly, and follows them.

“Good,” Konan says, and smiles. It’s still terrifying. “You can help us, then.”