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秋 二

5, September, 1001

When Jūgo wakes, it’s in a cold, dark, cramped box made from iron bars. He can’t see anything, but he feels the frantic, running-hare-heartbeat of life buzzing around him in humanoid shapes. His eyes snap open wide. He’s surrounded, surrounded by people in the dark in a tiny cage and he needs to get out out out OUT and– No, no, calm down, breathe, this happens all the time please don’t make another scene please don’t kill more people– get out out OUT and run and run and run and kill everyone in my way and finally see the sun again and breathe the air and run wild and hunt and kill and eat and– Please, just once, just one day, can I go just one day without doing this

And Jūgo is on his feet, roaring as his forearms thicken and his nails grow out into claws and he’s slashing at the bars. They hit the metal and kick up sparks and he can see the masked faces of Sound jōnin as they back away from the cage. They shout curses and life is pushed out of them as they mould chakra, bring it up to their fingers and start forming hand signs. One of them sends a lancing bolt of lightning into the cage but Jūgo catches it on his forearm, his stony hide grounding the electricity. His arm stretches and thins and shoots through the bars as a spike that pierces the jōnin’s throat.

Jūgo retracts his arm and morphs it back into a bulky claw. He grabs the bars of his cage and starts rattling them, pulling them in until they start to bend. The jōnin start to gather lightning around their hands, lighting them up in bright blue. He grins. Stupid, stupid stupid stupid, stupid creatures showing exactly where they are and now he can pull open the cage and tear them all apart and eat their insides and–

A door opens at the head of the room, light flooding in; "Stop it!"

With the light comes a wave of calm. It hits Jūgo and the voice of the animal, the predator, recedes. He’s still transformed, still absolutely full of too much life, but at least now he can think. The jōnin blink a few times before letting their chakra dissipate into the air and dropping their hands to their sides. They all turn to the door. If the voice didn’t give her away, this genjutsu would have. Sakura is standing in the doorway, eyes wide, jaw clenched, one hand forming half of the Tiger seal while the other is holding a bento.

She shoots the jōnin a venomous glare and snaps, "If he starts acting out, come to me, don’t take it into your own hands. If you do, I’ll know. Now get out."

Despite being easily a decade older than her, each and every one of the jōnin stammer their apologies and shuffle out of the room like chastised children. Once they’re gone Sakura lets out a sigh of relief and walks the rest of the way into the room. She stops in front of the cage and opens the bento. In it are several onigiri, a few slices of cooked steak, some pickled vegetables and umeboshi.

She hands him the bento and a pair of chopsticks through the bend he created in the bars; "This is supposed to be my lunch, but what Orochimaru doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Eat up!"

For a moment, Jūgo just takes a few deep breaths. He pushes out chakra on the exhale, the life infecting him going with it, and his arms reverting back to their natural state. He settles down on the floor of his cage, sitting cross-legged with the bento on his lap. As he starts eating, Sakura heads back to the door, shutting it. It’s dark again, but not for long. Sakura flips a light switch just next to the door. Harsh fluorescents flicker to life, their buzz deafening in the silence. The room they're in is carved from featureless stone, with the door Sakura came through in front of him and a large metal gate at the back of the room. Beyond the gate is a slope leading up into darkness.

When Sakura comes back to sit on her knees in front of him, Jūgo asks, "Where am I now?"

Sakura pushes some hair out of her face and replies, "The main hideout. Officially the story is that I need you for some research I’m doing, and that’s not not true, I guess, but–"

Jūgo shrinks away, his shoulders pulling up and in; "What?! If I’m in the main hideout, if I get loose, I could–! It’s too risky, Sakura, why did you–?!"

Sakura reaches through the bars to put her hands on Jūgo’s shoulders, forcibly pushing them down; "Breathe, Jūgo. Breathe. Do you really think I’d put you and everyone here at risk without a good reason?"

Jūgo breathes, in, then out; "… No, I guess you wouldn’t, but… Why?"

Sakura purses her lips. For a long moment she just stares at his face. Sakura does that a lot. She spends so much time thinking he sometimes wonders if it gives her a headache. He knows when he spends too much time in his head, too much time trying to sort his thoughts from the thoughts that come when he’s far too full of life, it can feel like his head’s about to split in half. Sometimes he thinks it should. That way he could reach in and pull what’s wrong with him out and be rid of it once and for all.

"Jūgo," Sakura finally says, "Is this how you really want to live the rest of your life?"

He furrows his brow; "How do you mean?"

Sakura gestures broadly with one thin, spindly arm; "I mean, is being stuck in a cage underground relying on the whims of a madman to keep you fed and healthy and maybe give you a cure for your condition one day really any way to live?"

Jūgo shrugs, eyes drifting to the stone floor; "I tried living with people. It didn’t work. Nobody up there even said they’d try to help me. Down here, at least… Maybe Orochimaru won’t ever cure me. But at least I’m not the only freak."

Sakura’s voice cracks as she cuts in, "Jūgo you aren’t a freak. You’re sick, and that no one’s even tried to help you find a cure or a treatment before Orochimaru isn’t your fault, it’s theirs. And you– It isn’t fair, it isn’t right that they forced you to rely on someone like Orochimaru who’s just stripping you for parts, he– The things he does to people, to children– You deserve better than this. You deserve better than him."

Jūgo looks up to meet her eyes. They’re wide, shining in the fluorescents, and she’s shaking from head to toe. She doesn’t look scared. She looks angry. Not at him, but… for him. It’s a deeply foreign sight, and Jūgo has no idea how to process it.

Sakura runs a hand roughly through her bangs, shutting her eyes as she continues, "I don’t have it as bad as you, I know, but… Sometimes… A lot of the time… I feel like a monster. I feel like I’m not fit to be around people because of what I’ve done, and I think it’s better if I stay here forever because then at least I’d be in good company with a monster like Orochimaru."

"But… But you’re not a monster," Jūgo murmurs, putting a hand through the bars and letting it rest on the ground just in front of Sakura’s knees, "You’re… You sneak me fish and beef in my food, and you stay and talk to me whenever you can, you waste chakra keeping me calm and try to teach me jutsu and… You’re not a monster. You’re a kind person."

Sakura smiles and puts a hand on his; "You’re very sweet, Jūgo. And I know there’s a whole wide world out there that’s poorer without you in it. These bunkers are closed systems, no matter how far you go you’ll eventually hit a wall. If we stay here in the dark, we’re just going to be snakes eating our own tails. But out there… Maybe we can be better. Maybe we can both find redemption."

Jūgo feels his heart fluttering like a songbird, and speaks without thinking; "It’s been so long since I’ve been out in the forest, I… I miss the birds. I miss talking to them, they would tell me about all the things they see, and what it’s like to fly, and I… I’ve been down here so long, there can’t be any still alive that remember me, can there?"

Sakura smiles and replies, "Well, I can think of one way to find out. I've been working on something…"

16, October, 1001

Sasuke ties his jacket around his waist and asks, "Alright, you ready?"

Kakashi rolls up his sleeves and replies, "No, not really, but we’re already here aren’t we?"

Sasuke elbows him in the ribs and chuffs, "You say that every time."

Kakashi smiles beneath his mask, dark eye twinkling; "And it’s always true. Am I starting today or are you?"

Sasuke looks down at the roiling mass of dogs around their feet and remarks, "I think that’s up to them. Alright, guys, who do you want to throw fi–?"

There’s a chorus of barking and yapping and dogs yelling, through which the two of them can just barely make out the consensus; "Sasuke! Sasuke! Sasuke Sasuke Sasuke!"

Sasuke smirks over at Kakashi, who returns the rib to the elbow with a few cents of interest; "Don’t get smug. There’ll be no living with you."

Sasuke replies by taking the sturdy rubber ball, drawing chakra into his arm as he pulls back, and releasing it as he chucks the ball as hard as he can. It doesn’t quite break the sound barrier, but it does punch a hole clean through several trees. Kakashi swears out loud and breaks into a sprint, lagging a few steps behind the pack as they go bounding after the ball. Sasuke hazards a low laugh and leans back against a tree.

He was right to get comfortable. It takes five minutes for one of the dogs to come running back, Bull breaking through the tree line with the ball proudly held in his slobbery jaws. Sasuke drops to one knee and scratches Bull behind the ears, studiously ignoring the damp and sticky ball the dog dropped at his feet. The rest of the pack come tromping out of the forest a few moments later, Kakashi in the middle of the herd with several twigs sticking out of his hair.

Kakashi sets about extracting debris from his hair as he says, "You wanna know where that thing ended up? In a boulder. Bull dug it out."

Sasuke lets out a low whistle and shakes Bull’s paw; "Someone’s chakra control is getting better."

Kakashi holds out his hand; "You know the rules. Your turn to run, Uchiha."

Sasuke kicks the ball to Kakashi, who catches it with a masked grimace before pointing his free hand at Sasuke; "Remember, no cheating."

Sasuke rolls his eyes and holds his hands up; "Yeah, yeah, I got it. Go on and throw it already."

Kakashi’s eye crinkles at the corner as he runs through a set of one-handed signs. The ball disappears in his hand, and the dogs all cock their heads to the side, sniffing at the air in circles of confusion. Kakashi pulls his hand back and throws, but there’s no sound of an object flying through space. The only evidence a ball was thrown is the slight rustle in the leaves as something quickly soars past them. Sasuke and the dogs are off after it like a shot.

With every step Sasuke sends chakra radiating off his feet in waves, the ripples bouncing off the trees, rocks, and all eight dogs. The hair on the back of Sasuke’s neck stands on end as one ripple passes over something perfectly round and covered in foreign chakra, but just as he’s turned toward it Uhei is already grabbing the invisible ball in her mouth and darting back toward the field. Sasuke swears through his teeth and shoves an extra burst of chakra into his feet. He sprints after Uhei, quickly gaining on the dog, and just before they breach the forest he leaps to tackle them… Only to get pounced on by Bull. The two of them go rolling out of the forest, Sasuke pushing Bull off him just in time to see Uhei drop the ball at Kakashi’s feet, the genjutsu dropping with it.

Kakashi scratches her under the chin and croons, "Who’s a good girl?"

Uhei wags her tail with her whole body and chirps, "Me! It’s me! I’m a good girl!"

"Yes you are," he laughs, "How’d you find it?"

Uhei hops to her feet and replies, "It was easy! Sasuke was using waves of chakra from his feet to look, so I did what you guys do and I stole the technique!"

Kakashi doubles over laughing and Sasuke squawks, "Copying! We copy things! Give me the damn ball!"

After taking a few deep breaths to recover, Kakashi tosses the ball to Sasuke; "Don’t just pull the same trick twice now."

Sasuke’s smirk is back in place as he replies, "Oh you’re definitely not getting off that easy," before throwing the ball as hard as he can straight up.

It’s a race to see who can get higher faster, with dogs jumping off each other’s heads and Kakashi using some borrowed Wind Style techniques to leap past them. Everyone scrambles in the air to catch the ball, and if they can’t catch it they kick it out of reach of the others. Everyone but Pakkun. Pakkun waits patiently, sitting on his haunches and watching the madness play out in the air. He waits until a mistimed kick from Shiba sends the ball flying out and away from the tangle that Kakashi and the pack have become. Gravity takes over. The pack plummet straight down while the ball goes sailing away. Pakkun trots along the ball’s trajectory, leaping only a foot in the air to catch it seconds before it hits the ground.

Pakkun strolls back over to Sasuke as Kakashi extricates himself from the pile of dogs, depositing it at his feet with a simple, "Smart move, kid."

Sasuke rubs one of Pakkun’s soft ears and replies, "Same to you."

Kakashi storms up and swipes the ball out of Sasuke’s hand; "You are gonna pay for that."

And on it goes, the ball bouncing back and forth between the dogs while Sasuke and Kakashi never quite manage to lay hands on it. Kakashi gets close one time, but the second he touched it the ball burst into a dozen tiny Katsuyus, so it didn’t count. The game of Fetch lasts until the sun hangs low in the sky, and Pakkun has to remind the two of them of their dinner appointment with Tsunade all the way on the other side of town. The two arrive to Ichiraku covered in sweat, surrounded by dogs, and fifteen minutes late.

While Shizune frets over Sasuke’s minor bruises and cuts, Tsunade just arches a brow and snorts, "Considering last time you were both a half hour late I can only consider this an improvement."

Kakashi gives an exhausted attempt at a mock-courtly bow; "We aim to please, milady."

The four humans and eight dogs duck underneath the noren and Teuchi can only sigh, "Kakashi–"

"I know, I know, no pets," Kakashi replies, "But technically–"

"– Technically there are health codes," Teuchi cuts him off, jabbing a ladle in his face, "They wait outside."

Tsunade gives Kakashi an incredibly professional and appropriate slap upside the head; "Don’t make me collect the fine from him directly, Kakashi."

Kakashi heaves a sigh and turns to give the dogs the bad news. From the corner of his eye Sasuke can see Ayame already gathering up the day’s pork scraps in an extra large dish. She throws a wink over her shoulder at him before scooting out the back. In a few minutes more, the dogs are happily tucking into the scraps outside the ramen stand while the humans await their dinner at the bar.

"So remind me again how playing fetch is training?" Tsunade wonders, leaning a cheek on her hand and raising an amused eyebrow at Sasuke and Kakashi.

"Certainly," Kakashi replies, "As soon as you explain how having Sasuke do your paperwork and babysit your pig is training."

"It’s a primer on the drudgery and busywork of being an adult," Tsunade easily counters, "And besides, learning to forge my signature without the Sharingan is great practice for ninja work. Back me up on this, Shizune."

Shizune just turns to Sasuke and asks, "So, I know I’ll be reading the report soon, but how did your mission out near Wave go?"

Sasuke continues the trend of sandbagging his mentors by replying, "Pretty well, all things considered. Turns out pirates can be pretty open to negotiation when you stop their ship with one hand."

Tsunade chuckles and reaches around to give him a playful shove; "And you said that technique was pointless."

Sasuke shrugs; "I’ve said a lot of things."

"That earned us enough time to visit the island and say hello to some old friends," Kakashi adds, "They were hoping to see the whole team, of course, but we’re better than nothing."

Shizune perks up; "Oh, that’s right, your first ever A-Rank was out there! Goodness, how long ago would that have been?"

"Three years in Spring," Sasuke answers, breaking his chopsticks apart, "Those poor people have had to suffer with a bridge named after Naruto for three years."

Kakashi shoots him a lukewarm glare; "Come on now, don’t start when he’s not even here to defend himself."

Sasuke points a chopstick at him and shoots back, "I almost died on that bridge! That thing should be named after me! You saw, they couldn’t wash the blood all the way out where I’d gone down!"

The conversation melts into a comfortable rhythm. Once the ramen comes, Sasuke takes advantage of it to fill his mouth with noodles and reply only in nods and hums. He settles back and watches as Tsunade and Kakashi trade jabs, Shizune frets and soothes, Teuchi and Ayame hop in and out, and the dogs sneak under the bar to lie down near the space heaters.

Sasuke shuts his eyes and, for just a moment, lets himself bask in the warmth.

21, November, 1001

Orochimaru takes a long pull from the saké bottle and drums his fingers on the stainless steel tabletop. His eyes scan the complete and total mess he’s made of this lab, with papers strewn across the tabletops, whiteboards filled with script that he’s losing the ability to read despite having written it, monitors playing loops of footage ad infinitum, and the microfiche reader sitting in the corner because he might need to use it eventually. He lets the now empty bottle fall from his hand and it shatters on the hard stone floor. He wades through the growing carpet of porcelain shards and retrieves another bottle he left at the other end of the room. If he’s going to turn this fit of pique into an actual all-nighter he can’t afford to be without the stuff for too long.

After all, you think better when you’re drinking, and you drink better when you’re thinking.

That he still hears that in Tsunade and Hakumei’s voices after all these years makes him shudder from toe to crown and take yet another swig.

"It just doesn’t make any sense," he hisses through grit teeth.

Pinned up and written down around Orochimaru is every single piece of data he’s collected on Sakura Haruno, from his initial reconnaissance on Team 7 when he started circling closer to Sasuke to the most recent surveillance footage of her. He circles over to Kabuto’s first info card he made on the girl, scanning it through a sneer.

Name: Haruno, Sakura.
Clan: None.
Kekkei Genkai: None.
Accomplishments: None.

Surrounding this are academy records and mission reports hastily pilfered from the tower in the wake of the girl stealing the Curse Mark. And every test result, every quarterly progress report, every after-action-report from her missions she herself penned, they all paint the same picture. Sakura Haruno is a clanless child of civilians. She’s good at taking tests and not much else. At best she’ll stay a career genin and marry some other clanless nothing, at worst she’ll catch a stray kunai to the lung and die at thirteen.

In his day, children like that wouldn’t have even been allowed in the academy. Not without an extensive entrance exam, at least, where you were subjected to test after humiliating test while the Soon-to-be-Second Hokage stared at you over steepled fingers like you were a particularly persistent gopher making a mess of his garden. Not without the Soon-to-be-Second telling your mother to her face that he suspects her of fraud, because of course a civilian is always looking to leech off a ninja.

Sakura wouldn’t have had to go through that. Namikaze overhauled the entrance exams to be softer and more lenient before the girl was born.

Orochimaru grabs one of the mission reports and crumples it in his fist; "Then what is she doing here?!"

Next to the reports is the most coherent thing on the whiteboards, a graph drawn in as many colors as Orochimaru could find. The colors chart the growth patterns of Anko, Kabuto, the Sound Five, their projections for Sasuke, and a handful of other subjects who he actually bothered to train. Each of them progressed at a linear rate, steadily climbing or steadily dropping. Sakura… The line he drew in pink flies in a steep, quadratic curve, intersecting the others before soaring far past their highest heights.

Orochimaru leans in close, squinting at the graph as if there’s some kind of secret code hidden in the lines. It just doesn’t make any sense. How is this girl, this nothing girl, this castoff even the Leaf Village didn’t want, doing better than the scions of once-great clans and former Root operatives and even another castoff? This graph only shows effect, not cause. It could be the Curse Mark doing all the work, making the most of a blank canvas. It could be whatever training she got before she came to Sound making up the difference. It could be that she takes well to Orochimaru’s teaching style, and that with a pupil who’s actually eager to learn he’s starting to tailor his training to her strengths and–

He grits his teeth and shoves the whiteboard away, sending it wheeling violently into a wall.

He stalks deeper into his data. The handwriting shifts from his and Kabuto’s to Sakura’s, tables filling up with her reports, her notes, and her research proposals. The girl is fifteen, but here she is jotting down adaptations of old jutsu and formulas for entirely new ones like she’s a seasoned jōnin starting to get bored with her work. If her notes and the texts she stole are to be trusted, this child might have revealed the idol that is Wood Style to have feet of clay. She’s only been summoning snakes for a year and she’s starting to dabble in fuinjutsu, just because it’s there and it’s new and it’s interesting. The other day she was asking him about tattooing the seals on her arms like he did, only with modifications so she could reverse summon herself to Ryūchi Cave in case of an emergency retreat.

It was a clever idea. Far cleverer than anything he’d thought up recently. So of course he’d told her that the White Snake Sage would probably eat her for her audacity, because he knows what clever children are like and he’s already let her get too clever as it is.

He takes another pull from the saké bottle and drains half of it.

He walks past the bank of monitors. They loop through clips of her battling with prisoners, performing dissections, moving provisions to the storerooms, digitizing materials from the archives, and yet more mundanity. To say she’s made herself indispensable could be pushing it. To say she’s made herself a fixture, as normal a sight down here as a stalactite hanging from the ceiling, is perhaps more accurate. Imagining the hideout without her in it is becoming more and more difficult.

In between the rolling film of Sakura’s daily duties in Sound are the problems. Loops of her making just a bit too much conversation with Suigetsu in his tubes. Clips of her not doing very much experimenting on Jūgo, despite having requested him to be moved here entirely so she could experiment on him. Moments where her form flickers out of sync with the rest of the room, likely because she’s trying to trick the camera with genjutsu instead of the human eye. And each and every one of these tapes is riddled with what Kabuto calls "technical errors". Bits of missing time, minutes of no audio because the wiretaps were "malfunctioning", instances where almost every camera in a room "went dead" and the only working one just happened to be at an angle that obscured faces and hands.

Orochimaru crosses his arms over his chest and digs his nails into his bicep. It’s like Kabuto thinks he’s an idiot– No, it’s not "like" that, that’s exactly what it is. When did he lose his edge? When did Kabuto stop being afraid of him and get bold enough to start flagrantly lying to him and treating him like a senile old man?

He knows the answer, of course. It happened when one little girl bit her tongue and pushed a boy off a branch.

He underestimated Sakura once and it put him here. He’s not going to do so again. Orochimaru reaches the end of his data, the results of all the tests he’s run on Sakura– with and without her knowledge. Images of her cells sit next to those of the First Hokage. Scans of her body showing her chakra network are layered over top of X-Rays. Piles of dirt that used to be sheets of litmus paper before she touched them sit in a row. And surrounding them all are dozens, and dozens, and dozens of DNA profiles.

Orochimaru compared Sakura against every single clan he could think of. Uchiha, Senju, Hyūga, Shimura, any and everyone he had samples of and when he didn’t have samples on hand he sent the girl herself to collect more. When Leaf came up empty, he pulled from Mist, then Cloud, then Rock, even Sound. He even compared her DNA against the remains of the Uzumaki girl from Grass he found in the Forest of Death, just in case that pink hair is really a watered-down red. Nothing. Not even the traces that linger in half the ninja whose ancestral lands lie in the East.

For a moment, Orochimaru remembers that he’s a scientist. A scientist needs to listen to the evidence. And the evidence is screaming, as loud as it can until its throat starts to bleed, that Sakura is nothing but an ordinary clanless child of civilians.

Orochimaru growls through gritted teeth, then that growl turns into a snarl, and that snarl turns into a scream as he throws the bottle on the ground. It shatters at his feet, saké spilling everywhere, shards of porcelain cutting his toes.

"That’s wrong," he hisses, "It has to be."

Because if it’s right, then Sakura grew to be this powerful through nothing but her own hard work and intelligence. If it’s right, Sakura is powerful not because of a fluke mutation or a beast in her stomach but because she’s studied twice as much and trained twice as hard to make it look like excellence comes effortlessly. If it’s right, Sakura is the product of nothing but a desire to learn and a sensei that brought the best out of her.

If it’s right, then Sakura is exactly like him.

And that’s the worst thing she can be.

Because if she, like him, has no secrets lurking in her blood, he has no reason to keep her alive. When she comes for him, Orochimaru will have no reason to try and incapacitate her instead of kill her.

And she will come for him one day. Because the difference between the two of them is that Sakura hasn’t yet learned that love is a transaction, that people only stay with you when you have something to give and will leave when a better offer comes around– like a handful of orphans in Rain offering redemption or a frightfully boring man offering stability. Sakura still cries herself to sleep over the distance between her and home. There’s no way in Hell she abandoned them for power. There’s no way in Hell she’s going to sell the boy she sacrificed her body and soul for up the river.

And as for him… there's no sparing her. There's no giving up on the Sharingan. He's come too far, sacrificed too much, made too many bold claims far too loudly, and is just too old to go back on it all now.

He’s known all this since she walked into his audience chamber and she’s too smart not to see that. The last two years have been a tense staring contest, and whoever blinks first will die.

Orochimaru grits his teeth and snarls, "I will not blink first."