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冬 一

31, December, 999

Sasuke is awoken by a hard thwack to his forehead and Tsunade’s voice; "Alright, up and at 'em, kiddo."

Sasuke scrubs at his eyes and scans his surroundings. Apparently his intention of resting his eyes for a minute or two in the on-call room had turned into a one hour nap in the world’s most uncomfortable chair. Tsunade’s presence hasn’t woken the resident snoring in one of the cots, but if Sasuke’s time in the hospital as a patient and Basically An Intern has taught him anything, it’s that once a resident has actually managed to get to sleep they can’t be woken up for anything but the direst of emergencies. Tsunade takes another moment to peer down at Sasuke with an arched brow before grabbing him by the collar and heaving him to his feet.

Sasuke lets out a choked yelp and bats her hands away; "Stop doing that! I’m already up, what’s going on?!"

Tsunade doesn’t break her stride, strolling out of the on-call room as she replies, "First, like I’ve said, stop wearing collars that big and I’ll stop using them as a handle. Second, what’s going on is that it’s eleven and you’re here. Come on, if we’re making it to the Naka Shrine before midnight we’re gonna have to hustle."

Sasuke’s brow furrows; "What’s at the shrine?"

Tsunade shoots him a look one part weary, two parts unimpressed; "It’s more like what isn’t at the shrine. There’s too many damn people visiting the Shrine of Six Paths for New Years so we’re hitting up your neck of the woods."

Sasuke blinks, slowly and deliberately, as they cross the threshold of the hospital and head out into the cold of the night. Is it New Years? Winter Solstice was two weeks ago, so it would have to be, but Sasuke has been in the hospital since yesterday and hasn’t had to write the date on anything for even longer so he really couldn’t say.

Sasuke runs a hand through his hair and mutters, "What do people even do on New Years?"

Tsunade smirks; "Yeah, I feel that. Only reason I remember is because Shizune started dragging me to the shrine every year once she was strong enough to actually lift my drunk ass."

Sasuke hides the smirk that image brings to his face behind his collar. He doesn’t have to hide it for long. Tsunade’s quick pace brings them to the ruins of the Uchiha District in slightly less than a half-hour. Sasuke stumbles to a halt at the threshold. A million excuses and protests that had been nebulously forming in his brain as Tsunade swept him along suddenly come together in a lightning strike as Sasuke’s stomach does a somersault. His hands and feet go cold and numb. Every breath feels like he has to drag it in, then shove it out again.

"I– Look, I don’t–"

The last time he actually passed through the gate was five years ago, next to the last Hokage. Sasuke had frozen in his tracks back then, too. Sarutobi had tried to put his hand on Sasuke’s shoulder to steady him but Sasuke had shoved it off. He’d glanced up to see more of that pity (no, not pity, guilt, but why–?) in his eyes. The jolt of frustration had given him energy enough to throw himself forward and into the closed crime scene that was his home.

"I don’t see– There’s no point in celebrating, alright? I haven’t–"

Sasuke had kept his head down so he wouldn’t have to see the shuttered shops and boarded-up homes. He’d bit down hard on his lip to stifle the impulse to say I’m home when coming through his own front door. He’d kept his sandals stubbornly on as he took the long way to his room, telling himself that this wasn’t a house anymore, nobody lived here, nobody was going to care.

"You can do whatever you want, I– I’m–"

He’d stormed past Itachi’s room, his parents’ room, and almost missed his own. He’d shoved only his clothes and his ninja tools into the too-big duffle bag the village had provided for him. He’d considered bringing some of his books, or maybe one of the pictures in the living room, but quickly tamped down the ache that brought to his throat. He didn’t need them. Those books weren’t anything useful, there was nothing in them that would help him kill Itachi. Looking at those pictures would just make him soft and sad and that kind of grief doesn’t accomplish anything. It just makes everything rot.

In the present, Tsunade’s arm comes around his shoulders and pulls him tight to her side. Sasuke flinches, mind telling him to pull away from the person touching him without permission but body leaning into the warmth. He looks up.

There’s no pity, no guilt in the eyes of the Fifth Hokage.

Tsunade remarks, voice soft, "You know, one of the reasons I didn’t want to be Hokage was the house. Sure, the Senju had our own clan compound and I had my own place once I was grown, but between Grandpa, my great-uncle, and Sarutobi-sensei, that house is where I grew up. If the thought of walking through that door and remembering all the time I spent chasing Nawaki around the dinner table was enough to make me sick, there was no way I could handle being Hokage."

Tsunade squeezes his shoulder; "If you really can’t tonight, we won’t. We’ll pack in with the Hyuuga at their shrine or just skip the whole thing and stuff ourselves with soba at the house. But New Years is a time for starting fresh. I can’t think of a better time than now to give that a shot."

Sasuke closes his eyes. He can’t remember his last New Years with his family, not in any detail. He remembers the Naka Shrine’s bell ringing, one hundred and seven times before midnight and one time after. He remembers the taste of amazake, though he doesn’t remember what cousin snuck him a sip of the alcoholic kind. He thinks he remembers his mother telling him to not run too far, but he was always running off, it could’ve been from that New Years or so many others.

Grief makes everything rot. Even memories.

Sasuke lets out a long, shuddering sigh; "Yeah… Yeah. Let’s go."

Tsunade shoots him a smile and leads them along, expertly shifting the subject; "Apparently half the reason everyone’s all over the Sage’s shrine this year is because it’s the turn of the millennium. People are expecting the moon to fall on us or the sun to go dark."

Sasuke focuses on pooling Fire Chakra in the soles of his feet to melt the snow around them so he won’t look at the buildings; "That’s ridiculous."

"You’re telling me, but people always get antsy about auspicious numbers," Tsunade snorts, "Especially when all the doomsday cults out there start throwing their hats in to the ring. Nobody loves a special number more than a doomsday cult. Anything from the Sage of Six Paths returning to judge the wicked to Jashin swallowing the innocent, if it could happen it will happen on the turn of the decade, century, millennium, etcetera."

Sasuke’s nose wrinkles in a frown as he avoids looking at the police station standing silent vigil over the scene of the crime; "Are doomsday cults that big of a problem?"

Tsunade shrugs; "Around here, not really. But their voices carry, and they wiggle their way into the ears of scared and desperate people. After Orochimaru made this hidden village feel a lot less hidden and a lot less safe, we’ve got a few more of those kicking around. They’re like weeds. If you’re not diligent about keeping them out of your garden, you’ll suddenly find they’ve taken the whole thing over."

The district thins out the closer they get to the river, houses getting smaller and trees getting taller. The Naka Shrine is closer to how Sasuke remembers it than any other building. Nobody had been here the night of the massacre. If anyone’s stolen coins from the offering box, it’s only been some enterprising crows. The wear and tear on the building comes only from having been left to it’s own devices for five years. The Naka River has frozen over, there’s no using that water to purify themselves today. Not unless they want to get frostbite.

Tsunade purses her lips as they ascend the steps, passing under the torii gate on the right side; "Remind me what kami this was dedicated to?"

"Nakano, the dragon of the Southern river," Sasuke murmurs, "He’s probably left by now."

They make it up to the bell and Tsunade checks her watch– Ten ’til midnight.

She lets go of Sasuke and stretches; "Alright, let’s get to it. Keep count for me."

Dust and cobwebs come off the bell in a shower as Tsunade rings it the first ten times. Sasuke tries to shield his face and mouth, but his eyes water and he coughs up a lung all the same. Tsunade collapses into helpless peals of laughter and Sasuke glares at her, hoping for a spiteful second that a spider will fall into her hair. She keeps ringing the bell, and as Sasuke keeps count he starts clearing the sandō of snow with bursts of Fire chakra from the soles of his feet. By the time Tsunade reaches one hundred and six rings of the bell, the path is clear for anyone who wants to leave offerings.

Nobody will. But better that they have the option and choose not to instead of not being able to at all.

Tsunade rings the bell for the one hundred and seventh time at eleven fifty-nine. She holds the rope out to Sasuke with an expectant quirk to her lips. Sasuke’s eyebrows slowly arch, his eyes going wide.

"Well? Come on, this is your patron kami, kiddo," Tsunade remarks, one hand on her hip, "If anyone should ring him into the New Year, it’s an Uchiha."

Sasuke frowns, taking the rope almost on instinct; "Like I said, he’s probably gone. Nobody’s tended this shrine in five years."

Tsunade just glances over to the river; "Sure, maybe he’s not in the shrine anymore. But the river’s still flowing. He’ll hear you."

Sasuke purses his lips, his grip tensing on the rope. He closes eyes and counts down from five. Tsunade’s watch ticks to midnight and Sasuke rings the bell.

There’s a loud crack from the sheet of ice over the river. Sasuke can suddenly hear the rushing water through the crack in the ice. It sounds almost like the purring of a great cat. Tsunade’s eyebrows have shot up, her eyes wide.

She lets out a low whistle before grinning down at him; "Congratulations on the New Year, Sasuke."

It takes Sasuke a few tries, but he finally replies, "Congratulations on the New Year, ma’am."

Tsunade reaches out and ruffles his hair with one hand. With the other, she withdraws a hefty bottle of amazake from her winter coat. Sasuke blinks in surprise at the bottle’s sudden appearance. Where she hid that… nope, never mind. None of his business, especially where his mentor is concerned.

Tsunade hands him the bottle as she sets about pulling out a pair of saké cups; "Warm this up, kid. Amazake’s not worth shit cold."

Sasuke channels Fire chakra into the palms of his hands; "Is this the alcoholic kind?"

Tsunade smirks down at him; "What do you think?"

"That Shizune would crucify you if she smelled any alcohol on my breath and she has a better nose than Tonton," Sasuke deadpans, pouring the newly-warm drink into the little cups.

"Got it in one, kiddo," Tsunade lifts her cup, "To the new millennium."

Sasuke clinks his cup against hers; "To the new millennium."

Tsunade will drag him back to the Hokage’s residence before too long. They’ll slurp up Shizune’s toshikoshi soba and listen to her vent about the crowds at the Shrine of Six Paths nearly trampling poor little Tonton. Shizune will set him up in one of the rooms for the Hokage’s family, insisting it’s much too cold for him to walk all the way back to Kakashi’s apartment, especially since Kakashi is off on a mission and he’ll be there all alone. Sasuke will stay up reading Tsunade’s medical journals with Tonton curled up at his feet, watching the lights in the village go out from the corner of his eye.

But for now, Tsunade and Sasuke sit on the steps of the Naka Shrine, drinking the sweet amazake, listening to the contented rumblings of the Naka River, and drawing the first moments of the New Year out for as long as they’ll last.

10, January, 1000

When you’ve been trapped in various and sundry glass tubes underground for a year, you quickly learn to hone in on literally any interesting or different thing you see outside them. New faces are of particular interest. And new, pretty faces? Well, that’s the jackpot.

Suigetsu watches the girl with the pink hair collect Kabuto’s research notes from the desk and shuffle them into some sort of order, clipping them to a clipboard when she’s done. Her hair’s color is just the first thing about it he notices, the second being that it looks like someone cut the back with a hacksaw. She keeps pushing her bangs up and out of her face, only for them to fall back down again and hide her big green eyes. She’s rail thin, the black tights and long-sleeved shirt she’s wearing under a too big, cheaply made yukata only emphasizing how twiggy and eminently snap-able her arms and legs are.

She bustles around the space, doing the kind of grunt work that would drive Suigetsu absolutely insane. She collects empty test tubes and washes them in the sink. She places the chemicals and powders and whatever that Kabuto took off the shelves back on it, but not before taking long looks inside the bottles, reading the labels on the outside, and making some notes. She then proceeds to take everything on the shelves off the shelves and repeat the process for all of them.

Suigetsu suppresses a bubbling snicker. Someone’s fucking with this girl, that’s for damn sure.

Regardless, she runs through whatever inventory she’s supposed to be taking surprisingly quickly. Suigetsu would have to double check his own work mid-stride, but she works with a quick and efficient confidence that’s wasted on figuring out how much silver nitrate they have left or whatever the fuck Kabuto and Orochimaru are making her do…

Wait, what the fuck are they making her do?

This is the kind of shit Kabuto used to do himself. He’s watched him do it dozens of times and lost brain cells every time at the mundanity of it all. Orochimaru also does this kind of shit himself, because this is Sound and Orochimaru isn’t stupid enough to let anyone else touch his stuff. The prisoners are put to work doing basic cleaning and maintenance, but they’re not allowed in the labs. The actual ninja of the village barely spend any time inside it, they’re too busy maintaining a presence topside to keep the peasants from revolting quite as often.

So what the fuck is she?

It’s at that moment that she finishes her inventory and turns to head for the door. She doesn’t make it all the way. Instead, she stops parallel to his tube and gives it a second glance. She turns to look at it with a brow raised. He thinks. Hard to see through all that hair in her face and– Oh, no, there she goes pushing her hair out of her face again. That eyebrow is at least halfway up that huge forehead.

Her eyes scan up and down the tube, likely watching his liquified body spin around in this green, viscous… stuff. Suigetsu doesn’t know what it is, Kabuto would never explain it to him, only that it tastes awful and he hates it. Besides, it’s not this stuff on it’s own that makes it hard (but not impossible) for him to get up into the pipes. It’s all the fucking spinning. Trying to fight the force of it and move under his own power is like trying to swim out to sea in the middle of a storm. The only benefit of having to stay liquefied most of the time is–


The sound of the girl’s gloved finger tapping on the glass hits him like a gunshot. The vibration shakes him down to his currently liquid bones. He drags his body together as quick as he can, building himself from the organs up until a somewhat melty version of his upper torso is gripping the glass and he’s glaring at the girl.

He snaps, sharp as he can in this state, "Fucking stop that!"

She jolts back from the glass, yelping, "Sorry! Sorry sorry sorry, sorry, I–! I didn’t know you were in there!"

"Well I am," he growls, "Rule one of any aquarium, don’t tap the glass. Get it?"

She nods, quick and sharp; "Got it. Sorry. Again."

Suigetsu’s mouth flows into a frown; "Who are you?"

"I’m Lord Orochimaru and Kabuto’s research assistant–"

"Try again."

"… Excuse me?"

Suigetsu narrows his eyes; "This is Sound. Nobody trusts anyone else here, especially not with their research. Try again."

She frowns at him through her hair, tapping her index finger on the back of her clipboard as she holds it in front of her chest like a shield. Sea and fucking sky, this girl must be soft if she’s really this scared of a guy in a tube. She tapped on the glass, she knows how thick it is. Dumb and soft as she is yet still with the gall to dress halfway like a shinobi, you’d think she was from the Leaf Village…

Fucking– Of course.

His eyes go wide and his voice comes out in a rushed gout of bubbles; "You’re the new body?! I knew the Sound Four fucked up but not this bad, holy shit, how are you alive?"

She frowns at him; "I’m not the body. I’m Sakura Haruno, and I am Lord Orochimaru and Kabuto’s research assistant. Listen–"

"Listen," Suigetsu cuts her off, "Whatever they’re telling you, whatever they’ve got you doing, it’s bull. Best case, they’re yanking your chain to get some laughs out of you before you become the next meal for the snakes. Worst case, they’ve got plans," he drops his voice to a whisper, "We can get out of here. I’ll help you, you’ll help me. Whatever’s waiting for you back in Leaf can’t be worse than here."

She closes her eyes and continues tapping on her clipboard as she sighs, "I’m sorry, but I won’t be doing that."

Suigetstu twists his face into a snarl; "Listen, you’re cute but you’re fuckin’ dumb as shit if you don’t see– Will you fuckin’ stop tapping your fuckin’ clipboard it’s driving me–!"

Wait a second.

One long, drawn out, slow tap. One short tap. Another long, another short. A pause. Short tap, long tap–

Oh, fuck, god damn it, he owes Mangetsu a soda or something in Heaven, that fucking codebreaking class at the academy is actually coming in handy. How did this one work again? A combination of short and long sounds make a letter, you pause between each letter, and that makes a word or an abbreviation or something, right?

Suigetsu finally puts it together the fourth time Sakura repeats it: C A M E R A S.

What? Fucking– what? Yeah there are cameras and wiretaps all around the base but not in here, right? Kabuto does tons of shady shit in here, he wouldn’t– Wait, no, fuck that he totally would, Kabuto runs those cameras. Orochimaru’s too busy going balls deep in some science experiment or drinking himself to death most days to check any tapes he doesn’t specifically need. Of course there are cameras and wiretaps in here. Anything incriminating can easily go missing.

Okay, so she isn’t dumb as shit. Might just be plain dumb, depending on what angles those cameras are covering, but not dumb as shit.

Suigetsu scowls at her; "The fuck would you ever leave the Leaf Village for, anyway? You guys are the only ones who ever come out of the wars still sitting pretty. Too good for some cushy gig in Intelligence?"

As he speaks, he releases bubbles in the cadence of that same code: W H E R E ?

Sakura catches on quick, tapping away on her clipboard as she replies, "There’s more to life than just not starving to death. I had ambitions, but the Leaf Village is stagnant. I outgrew them."

G E N J U T S U. W E ' R E   C L E A R.

Well, that tracks. Suigetsu’s always been shit at seeing through that crap. The cameras could be anywhere in the room, then. She could be lying. She could be wrong. This is a Leaf Village code, Orochimaru and Kabuto definitely know it… Eh. Fuck it. Worst case when she tries to screw him over he screws her right back and lies about double-bluffing her. If he was willing to take a chance on Kimimaro and it got her here instead of whoever the real body was supposed to be then he might have better luck than he thought with this whole subterfuge thing.

"Yeah, sure, classic line from someone who’s never actually starved." W H O   A R E   Y O U ?

"Oh yeah? With a kekkei genkai like that, I’d guess you’re from the Land of Water. Your country harvests half the continent’s supply of fish, I hardly believe you’re doing much starving." S P Y.   A S S A S S I N.   A F T E R   O R O C H I M A R U.

"Yeah, we harvest it and then we sell it to the continent. The sea’s too fuckin’ lucrative for the daimyo to let just any old fuck fish for himself off the dock. You either need money to buy fish, money to buy the right licenses, or money to buy a boat that can take you out past the Mist Sea and back again. And guess what we don’t have a lot of thanks to getting our asses rocked in every single war?" B A L L S Y.

"And those islands aren’t really rich in farmland, are they?" N E E D   A L L I E S.

"Unless mangrove swamps have suddenly become a kind of farmland while I’ve been trapped in here, no. You want anything other than fish you pay out the ass for that too, import tax and tariffs all that crap being what it is." A N D ?

"The way Fire Country’s daimyo wields tariffs you’d think he’s trying to start another war." W I L L   H E L P   Y O U   E S C A P E.

"Who’s to say he’s not? The last one put you guys back on the top of the hill. Why not starve everyone out and kill 'em in their sleep?" A N D ?

"I defected. I am not one of them anymore." W H A T   D O   Y O U   W A N T ?

"Keep telling yourself that, honey. Anyone could clock you as Leaf from a mile away." S W O R D S.

"How?" ?

"You all live in a fuckin’ forest paradise with good land, good weather, and as much room as you want to stretch your legs. You’re the only country that’s actually been at peace these last fourteen years. You’re soft." S E V E N   M I S T   S W O R D S M E N.   T H E I R   S W O R D S.

"Considering one of us is liquid right now I wouldn’t go calling other people soft. You got to ask me all kinds of questions, now it's my turn: Who are you?" C A N   T A K E   Y O U   T O   Z A B U Z A.   F O U G H T   K I S A M E.   D I D N ' T   W I N.

"Suigetsu. First name is all you’re getting, honey." H O W?   T O   B O T H?

"Awww, I’m flattered you’re threatened enough to keep secrets from me!" H E L P   A N D   I ' L L   T E L L.

"Whatever. You’re a research assistant, right? Go assist in some research and stop bugging me." D E A L.

"I think I will. It was a pleasure to meet you, Suigetsu." T A L K   L A T E R.

Sakura trots out of the room and Suigetsu allows himself a grin he disguises as a leer. This might just be the start of a beautiful friendship.

14, February, 1000

Sasuke Uchiha hates Valentines Day.

If he’d had his way he’d just forget it existed like every other holiday he’d stopped celebrating for the last five years. But no, Valentines Day isn’t a holiday you celebrate, but a holiday you get thrust upon you. Quite literally. For his first two Valentines Days at the academy the deluge of chocolate from icky annoying girls had been a bizarre and overwhelming experience, and how Itachi and his mother would chuckle at his distress when he came home just made it worse.

After the massacre came and went like a hurricane, when all he wanted in the whole world was just to be left alone, still they persisted. Most days he arrived to the academy before the rest of his class, but no, not on Valentines Day. He’d slide open the door and they would be waiting, circling his desk like vultures. And that was just the ambitious ones. Valentines Day was, of course, a whole-day affair. He would be under constant threat of ambush, with girls coming out from behind shoe lockers and library shelves and supply closets to throw chocolate at him.

And for all they were trying so hard to prove that their affections were the strongest, deepest, truest, they all failed to realize he doesn’t even like chocolate.

Even Sakura wasn’t immune. The first three years in the academy she’d been too shy to actually give him her chocolate, lingering on the outskirts of the crowd, then running away with a squeak when she actually noticed his eyes on her. But after she and Ino stopped being friends and started being rivals she’d been just as confident as the rest, and twice as annoying somehow (because, Sasuke now realizes, he’d wanted her to be better than that).

After a while he’d just stopped coming to class on Valentines Day. None of the girls, not even Sakura, were quite brave enough to confront him at his home. And when he thinks about it, last year hadn’t been bad. None of his ancillary admirers had the free time to track him down and give him chocolate now that they were genin, and something about Sakura also giving chocolate to Kakashi and Naruto (likely on her mother’s urgings to remember her manners) had taken the edge off of her offering to him.

He remembers admiring the packaging. It was the same dark blue wrapping paper she’d later use to wrap his tantō. When they’d broken for lunch in the middle of their pointless D-Rank mission he’d made sure she wasn’t looking before unwrapping the chocolate to satisfy his own idle curiosity. The bar had been dark, nearly black, with flecks of red. He’d taken an experimental sniff and come back with bitter cacao and something spicy.

He’d stared at it, in naked shock that Sakura had actually picked up on his distaste for sweet things, then found himself staring at the back of her head. He hadn’t stared for long. Kakashi had appeared beside him, wondering if he was going to sit around staring and sniffing it or if he was actually going to eat it. Sasuke had glared up at him and shoved it into his empty bento, storming off to some other corner he could lurk in. He’d tried a bit of it when he got home that day. It wasn’t very good.

But it’s all he’s been thinking about since he woke up this morning.

Sasuke Uchiha still hates Valentines Day.

Because while the holiday is horrible when dozens of girls you don’t like swarm you like piranhas, it’s even worse when you do like one very specific girl that’s completely out of your reach.

Is this how the girls that fawned over him felt every year? Like they’d been thrown down a cavernous ravine and hit every outcropping of rock on the way down? Sasuke feels a sudden need to draft an apology letter to Ino at least, if only because she’s the only other admirer of his whose name he actually knows.

Kakashi is off on another long, drawn-out mission to the ass-end of the country with no ETA on when he’ll be back. Tsunade is in the capitol with the daimyō, handling something so sensitive and urgent it had required her to leave literally in the middle of their last training session. Today is, unfortunately, his day off from the hospital. Sasuke knows, intellectually, that this means he should take the day to train on his own. It’ll be good for his mood, too. Physical activity will get the endorphins flowing, he’ll be distracted, he’ll be busy, it’s the right move. He’s going to get up right now.

Right now.

Right now.

Any minute now.


Aaaaaaannnnnnd now.

It’s now ten thirty in the morning, and Sasuke hasn’t moved from his futon. Just as he’s contemplating trying again in two minutes (well, no, five minutes would be better– actually, no, ten minutes would make it a round number–) his door slides open and a huge, hairy weight crashes down across his chest. Sasuke’s yelp is more of a strained wheeze. Sasuke doesn’t need to look up at the face to see which dog this is; only Bull is big enough to completely fill Sasuke’s field of vision with just his flank.

"That’s not gonna get him out of bed, you big idiot," Pakkun grouses as his nails scratch across the tatami and he sits down next to Sasuke’s head, "You’re gonna make his lungs collapse."

Sasuke wriggles around, freeing his arms out from under Bull’s massive body. He concentrates his chakra in his arms and releases it as he goes to push Bull off of him. The dog goes rolling away with a whine too pathetic for such a big animal. Sasuke pulls the excess chakra away from his palms, drags it all the way up to the center of his forehead and lets it sit there, just like Tsunade taught him. It’s itchy and distracting and all he wants to do is release it, but that’s not what it’s for.

Pakkun pulls his attention from his forehead with a low whuff; "I stand corrected. You’re sitting up, so you’re up. Get dressed. You’re taking the pack out on a walk."

Sasuke frowns, but finds himself throwing the sheets off as he grumbles, "You guys are as smart as people. Can’t you take yourselves on a walk?"

Pakkun stares, unimpressed, at Sasuke; "Even if they can talk and wear headbands a roving band of eight mutts running around unsupervised doesn’t go over well with the general public. Someone will end up calling the Inuzuka and when Kakashi gets back he’ll have to deal with Tsume. And nobody wants to deal with Tsume."

Sasuke thinks back to every time he’s seen the Inuzuka matriarch. From half-remembered snippets of clan head meetings and official academy functions, he knows she’s brassy, confident, and loud. Reminds him a little of Hakumei and Tsunade, actually. Reminds him much more of Kiba.

Sasuke could probably handle at least one conversation with her. Kakashi… Sweet women like Tsubaki and Shizune can take him right to his knees in a matter of seconds. There’s no leaving him to a woman like Tsume’s discipline. He wouldn't come out of that conversation alive.

"Fine, fine," Sasuke grumbles, grabbing scattered articles of clothing and tools, "Give me five minutes."

"You’ve got two," Pakkun replies solidly before trotting out of the room. Sasuke watches his wagging tail disappear around the corner, not noticing Bull padding up to him until he settles down with a heavy thump at his side. Sasuke turns to get a face full of happy, excited bulldog-mix.

Sasuke’s brow furrows; "Why don’t you talk?"

Bull replies by licking the side of Sasuke’s face from jaw to forehead.

Sasuke is surrounded by dogs the second he leaves his room. They weave through his legs like cats and hop from paw to paw, some panting, some yipping, and some just saying "Walk? Walk? Are we going on a walk?"

Sasuke swallows hard, then shoves out through his teeth, "Yeah, we’re going on a walk–"

In a cacophony of barks, howls, and hollers, the pack go barreling out the door. Sasuke swears through his teeth and races after them, taking the stairs down to the street two at a time and shoving chakra into his legs to give himself the speed to keep pace. Pakkun makes a big show of slowing down to run parallel to Sasuke.

Sasuke calls down to the pug-mix, "Where am I supposed to take them?!"

Pakkun’s face remains neutral but his tail wags double-time as he replies, "Just focus on keeping up."

That advice proves to be both patronizing and pertinent, as the dogs quickly swerve into a forested part of the village and run up the trees. Sasuke is forced to turn on his Sharingan to keep track of all eight of them. They swerve and slalom through the trees on slightly different paths and at very different altitudes. Uhei and Urushi are the swiftest and the lightest, skipping all the way up to the canopy. Watching them first makes Sasuke feel very heavy and very slow, then makes him kick extra chakra down his legs and race up to meet them.

Sasuke’s competitive streak knows no bounds. He’s not going to let a bunch of dogs leave him in the dust.

The dogs drag him all across the Leaf Village. They bound across the rooftops downtown and Sasuke rattles shingles off them with the force of his chakra-enhanced jumps. They make it to the wall and run along it, forcing Sasuke to divert chakra to one arm to keep his balance. The dogs skirt around the Uchiha district, but the adrenaline gives Sasuke the courage to cut through it, even using some of his old shortcuts to get ahead of them.

When the dogs catch up to Sasuke they fall in step with him. Sasuke can feel the rhythm of their chakra pulsing from their paws with every footfall and hear it in their panting. He feels his own rhythms start to sync with theirs, until he’s no longer struggling to catch up with them or fighting to stay ahead, but comfortably in the center. He runs not as their human minder, but as part of the pack. Sasuke feels himself grinning as the wind bites at his face.

They bound past the academy training yard, the sight of the dogs and Sasuke distracting all the kids and ruining Iruka’s lesson. They stampede past Ichiraku Ramen, Sasuke only barely catching Teuchi and Ayame shouting a greeting. They strafe around a team of newly-graduated genin carrying a familiar cat back to the Hokage Tower and spook it out of their grasp.

It’s near sunset when the pack finally starts to slow, veering off the road toward the Naka River. They all dive down the bank, rolling down the grassy slope. Sasuke is the last to go sliding down the river bank. He comes tumbling to a halt in the middle of the heap of dogs, panting as loud and as hard as any of them. After a moment he rolls up, leaning back on his hands, face turned up to the sky. A shadow passes over him. He opens his eyes to find Hinata staring directly down into them, eyebrows up behind her bangs.

Sasuke blinks a couple times, then lamely says, "Hey."

"Uh… hi," her eyes sweep around the dogs, "Are these–?"

Urushi rolls over onto his stomach and yaps up at Hinata, "Hi! I’m Urushi! This is the pack! We’re out walking Kakashi’s boy!"

Sasuke whips around to shoot a wide-eyed, bewildered glare at Urushi while Hinata’s hands fly up to her mouth, failing to stifle a laugh.

"You are not walking me, I’m–!"

Guruko cocks her head to one side while lying on her back; "We’re not? I thought we were. Pakkun said we were. Said you were being all sad so we had to walk you like we walked Kakashi when he got sad as a puppy."

Hinata bursts into breathless laughter. Sasuke can only sputter ineffectually, trying to come up with any concrete evidence that he’s been walking the dogs instead of the other way around and finding none. Uhei, Akino, and Biscuit sniff intently at Hinata’s pants, likely smelling Akamaru. Bull drops his huge, heavy head onto Sasuke’s lap. Pakkun continues to stare blankly at Sasuke while his tail wags so fast he can hardly track it. Sasuke thought cats had the market cornered on smug, but Pakkun has proved him wrong.

Hinata folds herself down next to Sasuke and offers him a warm, weary smile; "I get it, I… V-Valentines Day is… hard, sometimes. E-especially times like… Like now."

Oh. Fuck. Right. He’s not the only person whose crush is miles away. Sasuke is getting used to these moments when he’s reminded exactly how much of a self-centered ass he can be, but he still doesn’t like them.

Sasuke rubs at the back of his neck with a wince; "How’ve you been holding up?"

Hinata shrugs, reaching out to scratch Shiba behind the ears; "I-I mean… I’ve been doing my best. I-it feels… It’s stupid, I-I know if Naruto was here I wouldn’t be able to g-give him anything, I-I’d just panic and run off, but… There’s a difference between won’t and can’t, I suppose."

Sasuke leans over, bumping Hinata with his shoulder; "No, you’d definitely give him something. If you didn’t pluck up the courage yourself I’d force you to."

Hinata grins, bumping him back; "S-so then… So would I be allowed to… force you to give Sakura something on White Day?"

Sasuke snickers, "Sure. Turnabout’s fair play."

Hinata’s smile slowly falls as she leans her head on his shoulder, and she murmurs, "Sometimes… S-sometimes I feel… bad that I miss him. It’s just… Our whole lives, I-I’ve always known exactly where he is. I-I could… tell the time by him. H-him being gone… It’s like if the Hokage Monument, o-or the academy, or Ichiraku just… disappeared. A-and I feel… It feels like I’ve been taking him for granted, that I just… expect him to always be around, b-but I still… miss him. Does that make sense?"

Sasuke presses his cheek into the top of Hinata’s head; "Yeah. Completely."

Hinata and Sasuke lean on each other and watch the last of the winter snowmelt surge downstream, surrounded by tired, contented dogs.

Chapter Text

春 一

28, March, 1000

It’s Sakura’s birthday and she’s disposing of a body.

The move up to the Northern Hideout brought with it a change in scenery, climate, and altitude. It’s also introduced a different class of rote, mind-numbing busywork. Sakura has been reduced to a glorified zookeeper, going from cage to cage in the ever-expanding grid of iron and stone halls, feeding the living prisoners and cleaning the cells of the deceased. That, of course, involves removing corpses. It’s inefficient to lug whole bodies all the way back to the labs, so Kabuto and Orochimaru have devised a system that’s somehow much more gruesome.

Kabuto’s instructions read almost like a recipe: Take samples of the hair, blood, and skin. Remove the list of organs tattooed on the small of the prisoner’s back. Remove the prisoner’s hands. Remove the prisoner’s clothes and burn them. Separate the head, torso, arms, and legs. Cut the torso and each limb in half. Douse the parts in oil. Set fire to the parts without using chakra. Drop the parts down the chute to The Pit once they’ve finished burning. Rinse and repeat.

The first time she’d dissected and dismembered a corpse, Sakura had vomited in the corner of the room and sobbed into the sleeves of her hand-me-down yukata. The fifth time, she’d gotten sick enough of mopping up her own vomit that she forced her gag reflex to cooperate and cried quietly as she worked. Now, the twenty-fifth time, Sakura’s eyes are half-lidded and she’s listlessly going through the motions. Apparently a shinobi really can get used to anything for the sake of the mission.

Sakura wheels two carts behind her through the halls, one filled with dozens of identical bento boxes and the other with refrigerated cases to hold the organs and samples. She’s tucked her scalpels into her weapons pouch on her thigh and shoved the bone saw into her obi, staining it red. The ring of cell keys jangles around her wrist like an oversized bracelet. Sakura’s sense of humor is wearing down like a shoreline enduring eons of tides, because she’s starting to wonder what would happen if she switched one of the bento boxes with one of the sample cases, and every ghoulish image her brain is concocting just makes her snicker all the harder.

Sakura shoves a burst of chakra into her feet and picks up the pace. She needs to get out of this hideout and get some fresh air or she’s going to completely lose her mind.

Her final stop breaks her out of her pattern. This cell has a grand total of seven locks, five on the door and two securing a pair of flimsy chains across it. Sakura’s brow immediately furrows. The locks aren’t her concern. The chains are completely out of place. They aren’t reinforced with chakra or connected to any kind of seal. These chains wouldn’t stand up to an enterprising bicycle thief, let alone a shinobi. They’re pure security theater, but for whom, Sakura has no idea.

She frowns as she undoes the five locks on the door. Information is worth more than gold right now. Time to get digging.

Sakura follows standard procedure, opening the door six inches and pushing her hair out of her eyes as she peers inside. There’s a young man curled in the far corner directly across from the door. The fluorescent light catches on his bright orange hair and brings attention to the rise and fall of his broad, muscular shoulders. Sakura’s eyes trace down his body and stop at a big, ugly cuff around his ankle made from black iron. The cuff trickles down into a chain connected to an iron ball twice the size of her head.

Before Sakura can start making inferences, the prisoner’s head tilts to reveal one burnt red eye, staring directly at her. She freezes.

His brow furrows, and in a deep voice he murmurs, "Kimimaro? Is that you?"

Sakura bites the inside of her lower lip. Backlit and from a distance she probably does look a bit like Kimimaro, doesn’t she? The Sound uniform and all the weight she’s lost certainly don’t help. She’ll have to approach this delicately–

The young man’s eye suddenly goes wide and his voice drops into a snarl; "No, you’re… You’re a stranger. You’re a girl. You’re not him."

It happens so fast Sakura almost doesn’t see it. The young man leaps to his feet with a swiftness belied by his tall, robust frame. Black splotches ooze across his skin like a slime mold. His right arm and leg change, flesh shifting and growing to form a long grasping claw and some kind of vent on the back of his calf. There’s a burst of chakra from the vent. The young man comes rocketing across the cell, claw grabbing for her face.

Sakura’s curse mark flares painfully to life. She channels cursed chakra into her arms and shoulder checks the heavy steel door. She slams it down on the young man’s wrist and pins it in place. He swipes at her with his claws and she watches the keratin rearrange itself, creating serrations. The claws scrape against the metal, drawing sparks that dance in the glow from the young man’s one gold eye.

He growls like an animal, "Another copy, and a bad one too! I’ll shred you into tiny pieces, until you’re just lean meat!"

Sakura grits her teeth and thinks as fast as she can. Whatever’s wrong with him has to do with the curse mark, release of adrenaline and chakra can make the curse mark activate on it’s own, if she can trick his adrenal glands into thinking the threat is gone that will at least shut off the flow of cursed chakra. It’s the best plan she can come up with on such short notice, so it’s what she’s going with.

Orochimaru’s voice plays in her head and her skin crawls as she reverse engineers a genjutsu he taught her, meant to trick the Fight or Flight response into making the body freeze in response to imaginary danger. If it can be used to make the body think there’s danger, it can be used to make it think the danger’s gone. Orochimaru could do it in an instant. Sakura’s going to need a few seconds she may not have.

Sakura weaves her fine net of Yin chakra, shouting to keep the young man’s attention, "Calm down! I’m not going to hurt you–!"

The door rocks against her hold, straining against the flimsy chains; "You won’t get the chance! I’m gonna hurt you, gonna make you scream and cry and beg and then I’ll kill you!"

Sakura grits her teeth, focus split between the genjutsu, holding the door, and her distraction; "Just listen to me! I’m not a threat, you don’t need to kill me, just calm down and we can talk!"

For a split second, Sakura lets herself throw all her focus into the genjutsu. The young man lurches against the door, shoving his whole head and shoulders out through the crack and lunging for her with his claw. Sakura weaves the finishing threads of chakra around his mind and slams her hands into the tiger sign.

The net closes.

His hand stops an inch from her throat.

The young man’s breathing starts to slow. His claws go still, his pupils dilate, his shoulders sink down from up around his ears. The transformed areas of his body don’t recede, not right away, and Sakura gets dangerously close to panicking before the young man takes a deep breath. On the exhale, the muddy gray skin fades to it’s normal pallor and his limbs twist back into a standard arm and leg. Sakura lets her brow furrow. Either he has better control over the curse mark than she thought, or his mark works differently than hers.

Information is worth more than gold.

The young man shrinks away from the door, pulling it almost all the way closed. He peeks out at her through a gap an inch wide, his eye locked on her in something like awe. Sakura takes a few deep breaths of her own and draws the cursed chakra back into the mark. He’s not the only one who needs to calm down.

He whispers in a shaking voice, "How did you do that?"

Sakura shrugs one shoulder, her lips quirking up at one corner into the best smile she can manage; "Genjutsu. Nothing harmful, I promise. It’ll wear off on it’s own after about an hour."

He blinks slowly, his voice coming out in a crawl; "Who are you?"

"Sakura Haruno, Lord Orochimaru and Kabuto’s research assistant," she replies, bowing slightly at the shoulder, "I briefly met Kimimaro when I joined. Were you two friends?"

The young man’s fingers tense on the door; "He’s my friend. He is… He was the only person who could calm me down, he’s the reason I’m here… Did the illness finally take him?"

Sakura runs her hand through her bangs with a sigh, "I honestly don’t know. Kimimaro helped me get to Sound, some six months back. I was being chased, he let me know how to find the main hideout and stayed behind to fight my… my pursuers. Either they killed him or the illness did."

The young man’s eyes rest on her feet for a few moments before he shakes his head; "No. He never wanted to waste away. He went down fighting…"

His eyes slowly travel up to meet hers; "… Fighting for you… Why?"

Sakura presses her lips into a thin line. Kimimaro didn’t die for her. He died for Orochimaru. He died for the body Orochimaru would one day inhabit. He died secure in the knowledge that he’d helped prolong his master’s life when Sakura’s only goal was to cut it short.

Sakura has two options. Either she licks Orochimaru’s boots or she puts traitorous words in a dead man’s mouth. She lets her eyes roam around the hallway, feeling with her chakra for hidden cameras and wiretaps. There are two cameras facing the door and one in the young man’s cell. Sakura bites the inside of her cheek– genjutsu can trick whoever’s on the other end of a camera a lot better than the machine itself, and she doesn’t know any Lightning style techniques that could fry the systems, even temporarily.

So she smiles at the young man and deflects, "He and I believed in the same thing. Well, introductions are a two way street– What’s your name?"

The young man’s eyes dart from her to the chains and back again; "I… My name is Jūgo. Please, do whatever you came to do and go. When your genjutsu wears off I might try to kill you again, and I don’t want to kill you. Especially not if you were important to Kimimaro."

It clicks like a lock in Sakura’s mind exactly who these chains on the door are meant to reassure.

Sakura frowns as she grabs one of the bento; "Is that why you’re here? To keep you from hurting people?"

Jūgo nods; "Orochimaru and I have a… a deal, I guess. He keeps me contained and I let him experiment on me."

Sakura has so many questions and each and every one of them would be way too incriminating and invasive for a first meeting. This isn’t like Suigetsu. The last thing in the world this guy wants is to leave. She’s going to have to become his friend before he becomes her ally.

Sakura strategically pushes her bangs out of her eyes and speaks a piece of her mind; "That’s a shame. You shouldn’t have to resort to something this drastic to get help."

Jūgo twitches a shoulder in a shrug; "Nothing else has worked. At least, not for longer than an hour."

Sakura hands him the bento and replies brightly, "Well, while I’m around I’ll do my best to keep you calm. Here’s your dinner," she leans in with a grin and pitches her voice down into a whisper, "Let me know if there’s anything you want me to sneak into yours next time."

Jūgo tentatively opens the flimsy plastic bento, trying and failing to hide how his nose wrinkles at the rice and canned pork. Sakura winces in solidarity with him. The only fresh and plentiful food they have in the hideouts is rice, thanks to the Land of Sound formerly being the Land of Rice Paddies. Everything else is canned, dehydrated, or modified in ways Sakura isn’t willing to mess with.

She’s so busy thinking about eating a real, home-cooked meal that Sakura near misses Jūgo mumbling, "Beef is probably too much to ask for… Too expensive… But maybe sardines…"

Sakura grins and steps back from the door; "That I can definitely do. See you tomorrow, Jūgo."

Sakura shuts the door, locks all five locks, and heads for fresh air.

9, April, 1000

The cherry blossoms are in full bloom as Hakumei sips her coffee and watches Sasuke somersault out of the way of another boulder. Her intern, a main house kid by name of Taiyō, is staring wide-eyed at the action two floors below. If he were any more engrossed (or three years younger) his face would be pressed right to the window. Hakumei can’t exactly blame him. Watching a fully matured Sharingan at work is always a trip, one way or another.

He glances over his shoulder at her, agog; "Do they do this every day?"

"You should’ve been here last week," Hakumei replies, deadpan, "She was making him dodge arquebus bullets."

And down to the floor goes Taiyō’s jaw.

"Don’t be too impressed," Hakumei remarks around another sip, "Like I said, he was dodging bullets last week. He’s supposed to be breaking those boulders now."

Taiyō stares at her like she’s grown a second head; "The Fifth Hokage is teaching the last Uchiha how to break boulders and you’re telling me I shouldn’t be impressed."

"Yeah, because you should be doing my paperwork," Hakumei shoots back, "Hop to it, little cricket."

"One time, I ate a bug one time when I was seven and no one in this clan will let me live it down," Taiyō grumbles.

He plops back down across the table from Hakumei, getting back to filling out medication orders and discharge papers with a running commentary of whispered bitching. He activates his Byakugan and Hakumei rolls her eyes. If he wants to make himself sick trying to focus on two things at once that’s his mistake to make. It’s a Hyuuga rite of passage at this point.

Hakumei’s eyes move in lazy arcs, tracking the motion of the boulders Tsunade throws and Sasuke ducking out of the way of them at the last possible second like it’s a giant game of chicken. They’re coming faster and faster now. It’s turning into a veritable meteor shower out there. The kid is fast, but he’s not omniscient. And Tsunade’s never lost a game of chicken in her life. Something’s gonna give in three… two…

One of the boulders slams right into Sasuke and sends him flying into the nearby trees.

"Aaaannnd one," Hakumei mutters.

Taiyō winces hard; "Is he gonna be alright?"

"Could be, could not be," Hakumei replies with a loose shrug, "Why do you think Tsunade trains him next to the hospital?"

Taiyō nods to himself; "Yeah, yeah actually that tracks."

Hakumei props up her chin, eyes following the distant figure of Tsunade as she stomps over to Sasuke and peels him off a tree that’s buckled nearly in half. She doesn’t need to see her face to know she’s scolding him. She has her hands on her hips and is tapping her foot like she always would when Jiraiya was being an idiot or Orochimaru was being stuck up. Sasuke is dusting himself off, scowling at the grass.

After a few moments his head whips up and he’s snapping something back at Tsunade. Hakumei arches a brow– the kid must be either brave or stupid to mouth off to the Fifth Hokage. Probably the usual, unstable, Uchiha cocktail of both. Sasuke and Tsunade’s voices slowly rise to the point where Hakumei can faintly hear them through the glass. She thinks she picks out the words 'brat', 'pissant', and 'shove my foot so far up your ass'. Standard Tsunade vocabulary.

Taiyō frowns; "What are they doing now?"

"Screaming at each other, by the sound of it," Hakumei replies, "And after about five more seconds of this Sasuke’s gonna go storming off and Tsunade’s gonna uproot one of those trees."

Taiyō grimaces; "Do they do this every day?"

"No," Hakumei grouses, "This is a new one. But the kid’s a testy teenager, it was gonna happen eventually."

Like clockwork, Sasuke storms off in a random direction and Tsunade watches him go for a few seconds before turning and roundhouse kicking an oak tree right out of the ground. Hakumei rolls her eyes, sets her coffee down on the table, and opens the window.

"I’m taking a walk," Hakumei says, already halfway out the window, "Those better all be done when I get back."

Taiyō glares at her back; "You’re the worst. You’re the complete, absolute worst."

Hakumei smirks over her shoulder at him; "Don’t I know it, Cricket."

She hops out the window, the sound of Taiyō yelping "ONE TIME!" quickly disappearing as she falls two stories, a burst of chakra from her feet cushioning her landing. She starts walking after Sasuke and whistles high and sharp to draw Tsunade’s attention.

Tsunade glances over at her and Hakumei calls across the grass, "Yo, Slug Queen! You need Good Cop or Bad Cop?"

Tsunade rubs at her temples with a groan of, "The kid’s a tangled mess, so… 'Not-Mad-Just-Disappointed' Cop?"

Hakumei shrugs; "I’ll give it a shot."

She strolls down the petal-littered street at a leisurely pace. The intermittent monsoons have been making the kid’s knee ache like an old veteran’s war wounds, there’s no way he got far. And far he did not get, since Hakumei finds him on the rocky bank of the Sōgyō River, ostensibly attempting to skip stones across it’s wide expanse but really just throwing rocks in it.

Hakumei puts her hands in her lab coat pockets and lets Sasuke chuck a few more stones before she remarks, "You’re gonna give some poor fish a concussion, kid."

"Go away," Sasuke snaps without even looking at her. He picks up another stone and throws it with an unnecessarily loud grunt. Hakumei forms the tiger seal and a gust of wind blows the rock back at Sasuke, hitting him in the center of the forehead.

"For an Uchiha you’ve got shit for manners," Hakumei remarks, heading down the bank to stand next to Sasuke, "You back-talk like that in the Hyuuga house you’re getting fifty lashes with a bamboo switch."

Sasuke’s eyes flicker in recognition, but he stubbornly keeps his jaw clenched shut and refuses to look at her. Hakumei closes her eyes and pinches the bridge of her nose. Fuck’s sake, she gets enough of this from Neji. How did she let managing the emotions of teenage dirtbags leak into her professional life, too? Put another tally mark under 'Things Tsunade Owes Her For'. Alright, alright, take a breath. Sasuke and Neji are bizarrely similar, when Neji gets like this all he really wants is an excuse to rant about everything pissing him off. Time to bait the hook.

Hakumei’s hands go back to her coat pockets and she idly asks, "Training isn’t going well, huh?"

Sasuke shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath in. Hook, line, sinker.

His mouth opens and he’s off to the races; "There’s no point in learning that strength-enhancing technique! A medic’s supposed to never get hit, I’ve got that down! She trained me to be fast, Kakashi’s training me to be fast, I have all three tomoe, I know the chidori I’m working on the chakra scalpel I don’t need to punch someone’s head off their shoulders when I already know how to kill people in one strike! What’s the point?! If it’s really so important that I learn this why can’t I use my Sharingan and copy it from her?! We’re wasting time!"

Hakumei rolls her eyes; "So the genius prodigy actually has to work at something for once. My heart absolutely breaks for you, kid."

Sasuke proves himself the most easily baited person on the planet as he shoots back, "I’m fine with working, I’ve been breaking my back and losing hours of sleep learning basic medical ninjutsu, I’ve been living in the on-call room, I can handle that! I’d rather be doing that then learning some stupid technique I’m not gonna use! Tsunade won’t let me enter the Chunin Exams until she thinks I’m ready and I’m already ready, I was ready in January and I’ll be ready in July but she’s so obsessed with this dumb fucking strength technique thing that I’ll never be ready to her!"

Sasuke flops down into a crouch, rubbing at his left knee and scowling out at the river. His eyes track the cherry blossom petals drifting along it’s surface. He’s staring at them with enough heat to set them on fire.

Hakumei will give teenage boys one thing– they’re easy to read. The kid is going stir-crazy as a genin with no team and stewing in his own inadequacies as the rains and an entire season named after the girl who abandoned him only make it worse. Standard angst, easily untangled.

"If you want a couple of practical reasons why you need to be that strong," Hakumei remarks, looking for a flat stone to skip, "The first is that a field medic is gonna be paying the bills with disaster relief missions. You need to be able to remove any obstacle between you and the wounded yourself, because your team won’t always be there to do it for you."

Some of the tension drains from Sasuke’s shoulders. His eyes dart down to his feet. Kid’s definitely kicking himself for not considering non-combat applications of the technique.

"Reason the second," Hakumei continues, picking up a rock the perfect size and shape for skipping, "Is that incorporating fine-tuned chakra control-based techniques into combat conditions your muscle memory. If it’s not just something you whip out when you have to heal it’s easier to do on a moment’s notice. That’s not just Tsunade’s philosophy, that’s standard practice. For example, check this shit out."

Hakumei skips her stone. The moment after it hits the water Hakumei forms half a hand sign and sends a thin, concentrated gust of wind after the stone. It bounces the stone up, higher and higher, like it’s skipping through air. Once it’s ten feet up, Hakumei whips her fingers around in a circle. The wind cuts clean through the stone, dicing it up into a collection of tiny cubes before scattering it into the water. Sasuke’s eyes are wide, but his jaw still tightly shut– this time to keep it from dropping.

She puts her hands on her hips; "Any teacher worth her salt knows to play to her students’ strengths. Mine taught me ninjutsu, and kid, you take to taijutsu like a duck to water. You’re already blending Lee’s style, our style, and your medical knowledge to hit soft spots and hit them hard. It’d be a waste not to teach you how to punch people’s heads off their shoulders."

Sasuke lets out a sigh through his nose. He’s still not looking at her, but he’s traded in impotent rage for simple sullenness.

Hakumei turns to face him, steel in her eyes; "If you’re serious about being a medic, you need to leave this attitude problem of yours at the door. The enemy and the whims of fate don’t give two shits about your personal problems. If you break chain of command in the middle of a crisis because you’re pissed off that’s an entire mission down the drain. That’s lives lost, people hurt, and security compromised. But you already know that, don’t you?"

Sasuke nods, murmuring, "Yeah… Yeah I do."

"Good. Now," Hakumei grabs Sasuke by the back of the collar and yanks him up, "Go apologize to Tsunade and get back to work. Double-time, Uchiha!"

Sasuke glares at her, but there’s no fire in it. He turns on his heel and starts jogging back to the hospital, grumbling all the while under his breath about how all these crazy women in his life just can’t get enough of dragging him around by the collar and maybe he will stop wearing these shirts, it’d serve them right.

Hakumei allows herself a smirk, and follows casually behind, taking her sweet time. After all, Taiyō needs all the help he can get if he’s gonna be done with her paperwork by the time she’s back.

13, May, 1000

Sakura scuttles along the ceiling like a spider, eyes locked on her opponent. The young man, some poor unfortunate abducted from the Land of Grass, is still occupied with a swarm of illusory duplicates dancing circles around him on the floor. He shoots streams of acid from his palms, passing right through them and melting sections of the floor down through the soil. Orochimaru and Kabuto look on from the far wall, Kabuto vaguely focused on the action on the floor with the glazed eyes and slight frown of someone who has much better things to be doing while Orochimaru’s eyes have been flawlessly tracking her through her Greater Invisibility Jutsu.

She frowns and forms the ram seal– let’s make him work for it. Sakura sinks into the ceiling, sliding down through the concrete into the floor. She slides around him in wide circles, looking for the perfect opening to slip between her duplicates and strike. The second she sees one she starts darting in, but the young man flies through a few hand signs and stomps his heel against the stone. Rays of acidic chakra flare out across the ground, melting everything in their path. And one is coming right for Sakura.

Sakura swears under her breath and leaps up out of the ground. She throws that momentum into a back handspring, bouncing out of immediate danger. The young man’s eyes zero in on her between two of her duplicates. He charges at her, zooming through yet more hand signs before firing another gout of acid from his hands. Sakura bobs and weaves around the acid, strafing to the right and sending her duplicates whirling the opposite direction. He stays on her tail, focusing fire and chasing her down.

From the corner of her eye Sakura sees Orochimaru lean back against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest. She hates that she’s already gotten so used to picking apart his every move to try and divine anything about his mood. She hasn’t even gotten any good at it. If she had to guess, he’s getting bored.

To be fair, so is she.

She lets the young man keep her on the back step, kiting around the acid and running in a serpentine pattern to draw them both to the center of the room. She draws a kunai and it’s glint in the harsh white light immediately draws the young man’s eye. Hand seals flash and now he’s spitting acid right at her wrist. Sakura jerks her hand out of the way, getting clipped across the knuckles instead of losing her hand. The pain is still enough to make her drop the kunai in shock. He grabs it out of the air and stabs for her eye.

Sakura doesn’t have time for all the hand signs. She releases the valve on the curse mark, the cursed chakra exploding across her skin like water from a broken hydrant.

She slams her hands together into the hare sign and snarls, "Sensory Overload Justu!"

The young man’s eyes go wide, his pupils dilating to nearly fill the iris. He recoils with a scream, immediately covering his own ears. She knows what’s going on behind those gigantic pupils. The lights are now blindingly bright, every sound loud as a bullhorn, the feeling of his prisoner uniform against his skin is scratching at him like dozens of tiny claws. Sakura jukes backward and the young man tears his hands away from his ears.

With a snarl he starts blind-firing acid, and as she swerves around it Sakura glances from the corner of her eye to Orochimaru. He’s back up off the wall, but other than that, no hint of approval or disapproval.

Fine then, time to end this.

She drops the sensory overload jutsu, freeing up space in her mind for concentration. Sakura only needs to run through dog and snake now before her visible, tangible form blows away on an illusory breeze. The Binding Death Tree isn’t ideal for a wide open space like this with no backup, but that’s not what she needs it for. Before setting the tree she has a precious five seconds of being completely invisible and completely untouchable. It’s the only way she’ll survive long enough to find an opening in this acid rainstorm. Sakura prowls around her opponent, holding her breath. She watches for an opening, counting down the seconds.

Five… four… three… two… For a split second he whirls so his back is to her and he’s firing at the opposite wall. Now.

Sakura conjures the tree around him, imagining the feeling of bark biting into her skin and a thick, heavy tree trunk against her back. She merges with the image of the tree, kicking up the young man’s back and perching above his shoulders. She melts from the tree, pulling a senbon from the holster on her thigh as she locks an arm around his throat.

She raises the senbon and briefly meets Orochimaru’s eyes across the concrete expanse. She has her opponent immobilized, unable to make hand signs, and completely at her mercy. That would be proof enough of her skill anywhere else. But not here. Orochimaru arches a brow, cocking his head to one side in silent challenge.

Sakura looks down at the young man’s face. His features are still soft, his pulse races against her grip, his eyes dart between her and Orochimaru as they silently plead for his life.

Sakura purses her lips. She thrusts her senbon into the exact right spot on his throat. Just as Kabuto said it would be, the effect is instantaneous. The young man jerks once in her grip before sagging with a long wheeze. The tree dissolves into fog and Sakura lets the young man’s corpse crumple to the ground, stepping back. If she did it right, he didn’t feel a thing.

Sakura is drawn back to the world by the sound of clapping harmonizing with Orochimaru chuckling, "Very nice, little flower! It seems fluorescents have been doing you as much good as sunlight."

She straightens to meet his gaze, smiling deferentially in the face of his patronizing grin; "Thank you, sir."

If Orochimaru is anything more than amused, he doesn’t show it; "Kabuto can assist you with the clean-up. Once that’s through, report to Lab 114. I’ll give you further orders then."

Orochimaru turns on his heel and trots out of the room. Sakura stares after him, taking deep breaths through her nose, until Kabuto comes to a stop at her side. There’s only one body and neither one of them wants to test their field dissection skills, so Sakura takes the shoulders and Kabuto takes the legs. They wordlessly heft what had been a young man fighting desperately for his freedom only seconds ago up off the stone floor and make their way to the Mortuary Lab.

Kabuto breaks the silence; "You’re a quick study."

Sakura twitches a shoulder; "Lord Orochimaru is a good teacher."

Kabuto’s lips quirk up at the corner; "That’s not what I’m talking about."

Sakura forces herself to keep breathing easy, to focus on putting one foot in front of the other; "Oh?"

Kabuto nods; "You’ve learned the most important lesson Sound can teach you. That when you’re in the pits of Hell, a painless death is the greatest kindness you can give anyone stuck down there with you."

Chapter Text

夏 一

4, June, 1000

Sasuke had been sure that the most boring part of this diplomatic mission to the Sand Village would be the meeting itself. He’d played the role of stenographer for Tsunade in council meetings before and this one would be no different. He had expected to nearly lose his mind cycling between identical conference rooms, taking notes on incredibly dry (ha ha) subject matter, and helping Shizune work the carousel slide projector because technology hated that woman about as much as Sasuke hated Itachi. He’d been half-right.

The meeting had started out fascinating. For one, the passive aggressive sniping and backbiting shoots up dramatically when the council consists of more than two (sometimes three) elderly people who are united in their desire to tell Tsunade she's doing everything wrong. For two, watching Shizune take charge of a room in Tsunade’s stead is bizarrely captivating– she never raises her voice, because she never has to, effortlessly controlling the volume and pace of discussion with a few well-placed words and a disarming smile. For three, Sasuke had no idea how hot-button an issue the Land of Rivers even existing as an independent state is, especially for the trading powerhouse that is his home country and the parched Land of Wind.

But then it had been time to discuss the Chunin Exams. And it just would not do for a genin to be in the room while they went over that. Was Sasuke even going to participate in the exams? He had no idea, the damn thing was a month away! But still. The principal of the thing, you know.

So here Sasuke is, standing out in the hall, arms crossed over his chest and back up against the adobe wall. He glares at the opposite wall, tapping his foot and grinding his teeth. The worst part of this isn’t that the Sand Council didn’t respect his position as Tsunade’s apprentice. It’s not that Shizune didn’t stand up for him nearly as much as she should’ve. It’s not even that there’s no clock out here and Sasuke left his watch at home, leaving him with no idea how long he’s already been waiting.

It’s that Tonton was allowed to stay in the room and he wasn’t.

"She’s not a security risk," Sasuke grumbles to himself, "Nobody’s going to gossip with a pig."


Sasuke turns his shocked jump into a fighting stance, whirling on his heel with Sharingan already blazing to face the voice. They alight upon a… he thinks confused Gaara. For a long moment they stare at each other, waiting for the other to move.

Sasuke takes the hit, shifting back to lean on the wall again as he wheezes, "How did you sneak up on me like that?"

Gaara blinks; "I didn’t."

Sasuke frowns; "What? You did. I didn’t hear you coming, you appeared out of nowhere. What were you doing? Was it Teleportation Jutsu or something?"

Gaara blinks twice; "I walked in."

Sasuke very pointedly says nothing, because he would rather endure thirty seconds of awkward silence than admit to someone he’s not sure is even his acquaintance that he’d been too busy grumbling about pigs to notice their presence.

In the midst of that silence, Gaara blurts out, "Do you want to see my cacti?"

Sasuke stares at him for a moment, then replies, "That… is an incredibly weird question."

Gaara’s gourd ripples; "Does that mean 'no'?"

"It means you’re showing me right now," Sasuke replies, pushing himself up off the wall, "Are we going far?"

Gaara shakes his head, already turning to leave; "No, not very."

Unlike in the Leaf Village, the Kazekage’s residence is in the same building as their administrative office, on the very top floor. Sasuke doesn’t even try to keep himself from looking all around the main room, comparing it against it’s equivalent in the Leaf Village. The rugs covering the stone floor are the only similarity, and even that is like apples and oranges. The rug adorning Tsunade’s floor is diverse in color and pattern, a feast for the eyes filled with images of soaring birds of prey and blooming vines. These rugs are infinitely more modest, woven from goat hair and dyed green when it’s dyed at all. The patterns are an intricate web of geometric shapes that radiate across the rug like the rays of the sun. Sasuke doesn’t need to be an expert to guess they were woven by different tribes.

There are no chairs, no sofas, just cushions of varying sizes arranged around a central hearth made from the same adobe as the walls. The low tables and hanging lamps are made from tarnished brass instead of living wood, forged with the same intricate, interlaced geometric design sensibility as the rugs. On the far wall is a pointed arch-shaped divot in the wall, within which sits a small altar. The altar is the only piece of wooden furniture in the main room, covered with mother of pearl inlay in yet more geometric design. On top of it two brass incense burners sit on either side of a photograph of a woman with blonde hair and Gaara’s sharp cheekbones.

Sasuke’s eyes crawl from the photo to the brass tables. Strewn across them are the ephemera of a lived-in home, from such general signifiers as a forgotten lime-green drink whose ice has nearly melted, to the specifics like a pot of purple face paint and a set of metal tools.

"It hasn’t always looked like this," Gaara suddenly says, as if he knew exactly what was on Sasuke’s mind, "When my father was… Before the exams, this room was a lot cleaner. The cushions are supposed to stay on the edge of the room, the rugs are all crooked, and we…"

Gaara takes a long look at his siblings’ things, then continues in a softer voice, "We didn’t spend much time out here."

Sasuke heard stories about what kind of man the Fourth Kazekage was. He can imagine exactly what this place was like when he was alive. The main room was a space for guests of the Kazekage, not for family. The children were never to leave their rooms except to dart quietly out the front door, and lived separate lives as the older two cowered in fear of their youngest brother. The girl (because that is, without a doubt, what the Fourth Kazekage must have called her in mixed company) was allowed to leave if the help was indisposed, but only to cook and serve. If anything was out of place, and the Kazekage would know if anything was, there would be consequences.

Sasuke shoves his hands in his pockets; "Why do you guys still live here?"

"We’re allowed to stay until the new Kazekage is chosen," Gaara replies, crouching down to slip a coaster underneath the green drink, "It’s easier for the Council to keep track of me if I live above their chambers. And Temari and Kankuro…"

Another long pause from Gaara. He spends this one staring through one of the porthole windows.

"I don’t think it’s nostalgia," Gaara murmurs, "I don’t think things were better before our mother died. I think… they see leaving this house and all it’s… memories behind as letting our father win."

Gaara’s room sits on the north side of the house. Nearly every flat surface is covered in potted cacti who merrily soak up the desert sun pouring through the window. On a table to one side is a large fish tank, lovingly decorated with rock formations and aquatic plants, in which a little goldfish is swimming to and fro. A piece of lined paper taped to the tank reads, "Sushi. Feed twice daily. Keep water between 68˚–74˚."

There are an impressive variety of succulents, many of which Sasuke has never even seen pictures of before. He drifts from pot to pot with Gaara shuffling a foot behind him, quietly telling him both the scientific and common names of the plants. There are little round cacti covered in inch-long spines with bright yellow flowers ("Ferocactus cylindraceus, or desert barrel cactus"), tall cylindrical cacti with coats of shaggy white hair ("Cephalocereus senilis, or old man cactus"), tiny cacti dwarfed by their own bright red flowers ("Rebutia miniscula, that one doesn’t have a common name"), branching cacti with pad-like stems ("Opuntia microdasys, or… bunny cactus"), and dozens more.

"You’re gonna need your own greenhouse soon," Sasuke remarks, "Unless you plan on putting some on your bed."

Gaara considers that for a moment before shrugging one shoulder; "You can take some with you when you leave. Some of them produce chemicals good for medicines and poisons. And it’s likely we’ll be kicked out of here soon. Wherever we can afford on our mission pay probably won’t have enough room for me to house them all, so I should start finding them new homes."

Sasuke frowns over at Gaara; "They’ve passed you over for Kazekage?"

Another one-shouldered shrug from Gaara; "Not exactly. They’ve dusted off an old law meant to take effect if there was insurmountable conflict within the council over who to appoint. It calls for the organization of a public vote. Any currently serving shinobi of chunin rank or above may campaign for the position, and any ninja of genin rank or above or civilian sixteen years old or older is eligible to vote so long as they’re a citizen. The fact that they legally can’t pass me over if I’m alive and willing to take the position but don’t want me assuming it apparently counts as conflict insurmountable enough for them to do this."

Sasuke scowls at one of the taller, skinnier cacti; "So instead of just rejecting you outright they’re setting you up to fail."

Gaara nods; "They know it will be… difficult for me to sway the public to my side. I will first need to perform so well in the upcoming chunin exams that even in the face of the disaster last year and my well-deserved bad reputation the council has no choice but to promote me. And as for the campaign itself, Temari and Kankuro have explained to me many times that sound policy doesn’t count for very much when your character is in doubt."

Sasuke nods to himself, blinks a few times, then turns to shoot a bewildered look at Gaara; "Wait a minute, sound policy? You… This isn’t a Naruto thing? You actually– What kind of policy are you talking about?"

Gaara’s voice is even and calm as he explains, "For one, fixing our relationship with the nomadic tribes. In the past the daimyō would use us to harass and cow them into accepting him as their sovereign, and when they won an amount of autonomy the daimyō and Third Kazekage decided to instead instate a law that barred us from accepting any mission requests from autonomous tribes since, technically speaking, they’re not citizens of the Land of Wind. The autonomous tribes are the people who need our protection the most, moving through the desert with valuable herds of goats and other animals makes you a target for bandits, yet we aren’t allowed to provide them with it. Then there’s the fact that our most common and lucrative missions to 'protect' water sources usually are a smokescreen for us keeping that water source exclusive to our employer, which–"

"Okay," Sasuke cuts in, waving a hand, "Okay. You’ve… actually put a lot of thought into this."

Gaara cocks his head a single degree to the side; "Why would I not? The Kazekage’s post is a serious responsibility, one my father abused. I don’t understand how someone could go after it without understanding the issues they’re going to be facing."

Sasuke’s memory conjures the image of Naruto going pale with terror when confronted with any of the bureaucratic realities of being Hokage. How indeed.

Gaara’s face twitches in a strange, aborted attempt at a frown; "And I… As a ninja in the field, I can protect myself. My sand protects me, and only me. If I become the Kazekage, I can use the power of the office to… extend that protection. But it won’t be worth much if I don’t know what I’m protecting people from."

Sasuke takes a long look at Gaara, watching him fidget in place, the sand shell of his gourd rippling like a pond in a rainstorm. He doesn’t need to ask what Gaara thinks his chances of winning are.

Sasuke’s brow furrows and he asks, "If your odds are so bad, why are you running?"

Gaara purses his lips and remains silent. He pads over to the fish tank, watching the gold fish glide around the water. He checks the clock on the wall, then pulls a tin of fish food from a desk drawer and sprinkles it into the tank. The fish gobbles it up, Gaara watching attentively to make sure it finishes every bite.

"I may not win," Gaara remarks, "But… I spoke to Naruto, on the day of Lady Tsunade’s inauguration. He was of the opinion that trying counts for something, even if you don’t achieve the exact result you want. I will still be a ninja after this election, whether or not I’m Kazekage. If through this campaign I convince even one of my peers or our civilian charges that these issues are important, if my efforts result in more people that are alive and safe, then I will be satisfied."

He turns to Sasuke with a smile that’s more in his eyes than his mouth; "And, well, Temari and Kankuro have appointed themselves my campaign managers. They’re much better at communicating with people than I am."

Sasuke smiles to himself. If Gaara can raise a goldfish in the middle of the desert, there’s no question he’ll become Kazekage.

23, July, 1000

Sakura’s in the middle of moving a shipment of rice to the storerooms when she remembers it’s Sasuke’s birthday.

She drops the bag of rice on her foot.

The pain does nothing to shock her back into survival mode. All she can think about is being thirteen years old and so excited as she spun on her stool in Ichiraku, presenting Sasuke with a tantō she’d saved up weeks of D-Rank mission pay to have custom made. Her cheeks had burned with pride as Sasuke looked at just the box in awe, because even he had forgotten that it was his birthday. Naruto had loudly lamented not knowing and not having a chance to buy a gift of his own. Kakashi had spent the whole dinner looking on in amusement, eye crinkled at the corner the only evidence of his smile.

Sakura grabs the rice and hauls it frantically to the storeroom so she can shut the door behind herself and press her hands into her eyes. She breathes in shuddering gasps. Trying to force her mind away from home is having the exact opposite effect. Dinner at Ichiraku on Sasuke’s birthday flows into her mother braiding her hair and Sasuke and Naruto adjusting to her father’s old yukata in her living room on the day of Tsunade’s inauguration, which flows into her and Sasuke laughing in her hospital room after midnight over the absurdity of her being matched up against Gaara, and it’s a never-ending stream of white water rapids that drags her under and smashes her hard against the rocks.

She’s fourteen but she feels seven years old, sobbing like the academy girls from minor clans are making fun of her for her forehead. The intensity of the flood of emotion makes articulating it all in an eloquent, mature way impossible.

Because it isn’t eloquent. It isn’t mature. She’s scared and she’s cold and she’s hungry and she wants to go home.

She wants her mom. She wants Kakashi. She wants Danzo to send her a message saying she’s done enough and she’s allowed to go home. She wants a grown-up, any grown-up, to sweep in and take her home. She wants to be wrapped in a blanket and given a mug of hot chocolate and told she can cry for as long as she wants.

But this is Sound. And she can’t cry here.

Practicality draws her back. She keeps repeating to herself, over and over again, that if someone catches her not doing her job that will draw suspicion from Orochimaru and Kabuto. If they see her getting homesick, they’ll doubt her commitment. If they doubt her commitment, they’ll doubt her motives. If they doubt her motives, they’ll start unraveling all her other lies, and then she’ll be dead. If she’s dead, Sasuke is at risk. Naruto is at risk. The village and everyone who lives in it is at risk.

Too much is riding on her ability to keep her shit together. That thought almost sets her off again.

Sakura forces herself to take deep breaths and hisses, "You have rice to move, get it together and move it."

Sakura storms out of the storeroom and stomps back the way she came. It takes every ounce of focus she has to push herself forward, putting one foot in front of the other, all the while keeping her mind on the moment and not how much she misses the taste of her mother’s yakisoba. This single-minded focus almost puts her directly in the line of fire. She doesn’t notice the saké cup flying through the open door until it whizzes just past the tip of her nose. It shatters against the wall behind her and Sakura can’t suppress a shocked yelp. Her arms fly up to shield her eyes from any ceramic shrapnel.

Sakura has barely recovered from the shock when she gets another; "Ha! I don’t know what’s worse, your reflexes or my aim!"

Sakura, for a moment, can only blink. That cannot be who she thinks it is drunkenly slurring through that sentence. She turns to look through the open door.

Sakura had been vaguely aware there was a wine cellar of some sort down here with the rest of the provision storage, and through the door she sees tens of thousands of saké bottles on shelves that go up to the ceiling and recede into darkness. Orochimaru is reclined loosely against the shelf directly across from the door, an empty bottle and several cups scattered at his side. His paper-white skin makes Orochimaru’s drunken flush all the brighter. Through his hair, far stringier and greasier today than Sakura’s yet seen it, his gold eyes make a concentrated effort to stay locked on her.

He wags his chin towards the shelf; "Make yourself useful for once. Get me another bottle."

Sakura has no idea how to play this, so she lamely stammers, "I-I was in the middle of moving the rice shipment–"

This time she has ample time to see Orochimaru pick up one of the two remaining saké cups and fling it at her forehead. She catches it out of the air and chokes down a scowl, as well as the urge to chuck it right back at him.

"I gave you an order," Orochimaru snarls, "Get in here."

Sakura reluctantly does. Despite being legally allowed to drink since she graduated, Sakura knows absolutely nothing about alcohol. Her mother would kill her if she touched the stuff before she turned twenty. As she pretends to scan the shelves for an appropriate bottle of saké she weaves a subtle genjutsu over her face to hide her bloodshot eyes and blotchy cheeks. Even like this, she can’t let Orochimaru know she’s been crying. Sakura plucks a random bottle out of the shelf and hands it to him.

Orochimaru takes it and snorts; "Feeling homesick, little flower?"

Sakura’s heart almost stops; "What?"

He turns the bottle around so she can read the label. It’s emblazoned with the Leaf Village’s symbol. Sakura reads the fine print and finds it’s brewed by some minor clan within the village walls. Sakura sucks back her sigh of relief.

For once, honesty will benefit her; "Speaking frankly, Sir, I picked the bottle without looking at it."

Orochimaru rolls his eyes; "Of course you did. Civilian like you, probably haven’t even tasted a drop of the stuff. Not that the taste is even the point but," Orochimaru cuts himself off with a long swig straight from the bottle. Why did he even bring the cups?

Sakura should probably be taking this moment to quietly excuse herself, but all she can do is stare down at Orochimaru. There are deep bags under his eyes, and now that he’s stopped teasing her and is just examining the label on the bottle his mouth has fallen into a sour scowl. There’s a faraway look in his eyes, like through looking at the Leaf symbol he can see all the way to the village.

"Figures," Orochimaru grumbles, "Even in the former Land of Rice Paddies nobody can manage to make a better bottle of saké than the Gekkei Clan. I think this bottle’s older than I am. That’s a feat all on it’s own."

Is… Is he the one who’s homesick?

Sakura almost asks, but quickly pivots before the words can get all the way out of her mouth; "Are– I-I mean, if we’re comparing you to alcohol, you’re not that old. There’s wines made a hundred years ago that still haven’t finished aging."

Orochimaru doesn’t throw another cup at her, instead just arching a brow and slurring, "Really. I feel like I’ve spent a hundred years trapped in a barrel. You think I’m this pale naturally? Nope, comes from spending every goddamn day underground. Just watch. You’re gonna go from blushing petal pink to white just as fast, that’s a fact."

Sakura doesn’t know what to say. Usually Orochimaru’s jokes lean more on the 'dark humor' and 'bad' side of the spectrum. 'Self-deprecation' isn’t something she thought he had in him.

Orochimaru takes another pull and continues, his consonants melting into each other, "Tha’s prob’ly why Kabuto’s plotting 'gainst me. Y’let chil’ren spend time in the sun and sudd’ly they’re too good for your hole in the ground."

Sakura shoves herself back into character and forces her eyes to go wide, sputtering, "He’s what?! Kabuto would n–"

"Don’t," Orochimaru snaps, glaring up at her, "You’re too smart t’play dumb. You’ve got to be a li’l bit dumb yourself to put au-then-ticity into th’ performance. Y’ve seen it just ’s well ’s I have. He made sure to play the middleman for the Sound 4, makin’ sure I wouldn’ know you were on th’ way 'stead of Sasuke ’til y’were already here. Same for the secur’ty cameras and the wiretaps. Either he thinks I don’ notice his clever li’l edits or he just doesn’ give a shit anymore."

Sakura purses her lips and lets a tiny bit of honesty leak through; "Well… He’s constantly telling me about how everyone in the Sound Village is out for themselves, so… I don’t think he gave a shit to begin with."

Orochimaru throws his head back and cackles, "Of course! Of course he’s trying t’use wha’ever you’re really here to do to his 'dvantage! Clever, clever, oh so fuckin' clever, why the fuck do I keep taking clever children?! I was a clever child, I know what you’re like but no I never learn!"

Sakura puts on her best indignant frown and lies, "I wasn’t lying to you about why I came here."

"'Course you weren’t, like I said, you’re smart," Orochimaru grouses, rolling his eyes as he rolls his neck, "You know how t’hide a lie by reframin' the truth around it. That way y’can stick to the true parts of your story when you’re un’er pressure and steer questionin' t’avoid the lies. Are y’here t’gain power and knowledge? Certainly. D’you have a chip on your shoulder so deep it should sever your arm from your torso? Absolutely. But…"

Orochimaru peers up at her, gaze still sharp and calculating through the haze of alcohol; "The day I met you, first thing I learned 'bout you ’s you were willing to blindly sacrifice yourself for Sasuke. That kind of love… it can be twisted, it can be tainted, but y’can’t get rid of it. Not without cutting out your heart."

Sakura’s brow doesn’t even start furrowing before Orochimaru scoffs, "I know that look. How does this old snake know anything about love? Trust me, I know enough. I know ’s a fucking scream-yourself-awake-nightmare that keeps randomly poppin’ in to throw you off your axis when you need it least."

He lets the bottle drop from his hand so he can run both through his hair with a heavy sigh before mumbling to himself, "T’Hell with her and Kato and Jiraiya and the whole fucking thing."

Sakura stares at him, arms hanging loose at her sides.

Slowly, she asks, "Sir… Are you… alright?"

Orochimaru extracts his hands from his hair. He stares silently at the open door for a long moment.

"That’s my business, Sakura," he mutters, "Not yours."

Sakura doesn’t say anything. She settles down next to Orochimaru and pours saké into the two cups. She takes one for herself and holds the other out to Orochimaru. It takes him a couple tries, but he plucks it out of her hand.

He raises the glass with a lopsided grin and unfocused eyes; "Kanpai."

Orochimaru tosses back the shot and Sakura pours hers back into the bottle while his eyes are closed.

5, August, 1000


The whole table knocks back their drinks. Sasuke immediately regrets it. He thought he could handle the burn, he’s had literal fire coming up his throat since he was eight, but no, no this is uniquely terrible. He is absolutely still too proud to admit that. Thankfully saké comes in small doses, and Sasuke swallows the whole thing before coughing up a puff of smoke and surreptitiously pushing his glass over to Kakashi.

Kakashi chuckles and leans in to mutter in his ear, "Yeah, that’s about how my first drink after making chunin went too."

"This a terrible tradition," Sasuke gripes, "How is this a reward?"

"You’ve got me," Kakashi replies with an easy shrug, "From the looks of some of your friends it’s not even their first drink."

Ino and Kiba are taking a commanding lead, as they always do when alcohol makes it’s way into the conversation. Sasuke starts counting the minutes until one or both of them has to go vomit. Tenten and Neji are sipping modestly at their drinks and pretending for Gai’s sake that they’re the first they’ve ever had. Lee, Hinata, Shino and Choji have followed Sasuke’s lead and let either their friends or sensei take the alcohol out from under their noses.

Sasuke leans over to Shikamaru on his other side and wonders, "Did Ino keep her hair short so she wouldn’t need anyone to hold it back?"

Shikamaru smirks over at him and elbows him in the ribs; "You and Ino are on ribbing terms now? What did I miss during the exams?"

Sasuke rolls his eyes; "Me getting a crash course in field stomach pumps. People kept trying to poison Choji and accidentally hitting Ino instead because they didn't distinguish between his food and our food. You’d think it’d be common sense that a clan that eats to fight is immune to sixty-five percent of ingestible poisons but the Rock ninja just couldn’t get enough of that low-hanging fruit."

Shikamaru’s brows hop up; "Huh. Then yeah, she probably did."

He bumps Sasuke with his shoulder and continues around a bite of his short ribs, "Thanks for looking after them, by the way. I know they’re pains in the ass, but they’re my pains in the ass, so…"

Ino spills over onto Shikamaru’s shoulder with a cackle of, "Aaaawwwwww! Were you worried about us, Shikamaru?!"

"Of course I was," he drones, "If you died out there I would’ve been obligated by clan alliances to ruin fifteen years of peace with Rock and start the Fourth Shinobi World War. And that would’ve been an even bigger pain in the ass than dealing with you every day."

"I can’t tell you how much it means to me to hear you say hanging out with me is less annoying than World War Four," Ino sighs, "It really warms my heart. Truly."

"Gotta love that Will of Fire camaraderie," Asuma sighs, glancing longingly at the No Smoking sign on the wall.

"Hey," Kiba calls out, raising his glass again, "Another toast! To Gaara, for making chunin and being one step closer to the Kazekage’s hat! If he can be the youngest Kage in history, then so can I!"

Only about half the table toasts this time, and Sasuke cranes his neck around to ask Hinata, "How many of these should we expect?"

Hinata shrugs a shoulder with a smile and replies, "P-probably around four or five, depending on when he finally blacks out."

"I’m curious, Sasuke," Kurenai remarks, resting her chin on her steepled hands, "Now that you’re a chunin, will you start a hospital residency or stay in the field?"

Sasuke blinks, pausing in the middle of plucking some beef tongue off the grill; "Uhm."

Tenten snorts; "Come on, this is Sasuke. We know better than to ask him about any goals with a term longer than the end of the week."

Sasuke frowns at her and shoots back with a mouth full of barbecued meat, "I have long-term goals, Tenten."

"Yeah, but the term on those is usually someday," she retorts, stealing a bit of pork belly he’d been saving, "Also they’re gloomy and serious and no fun to talk about so they don’t count."

Sasuke just scowls and activates his Sharingan to help him snatch the pork belly right out of Tenten’s chopsticks.

Tenten’s jaw drops; "You–! Motherfucker you better not–!"

Sasuke shoves the pork belly in his mouth without breaking eye-contact.

Tenten gets up onto her heels to reach across the table and smack Sasuke on the back of the head; "You asshole! First you steal my place as Tsunade’s apprentice now you steal my food?! What’s next, my boyfriend?!"

"Language, Tenten," Gai and Lee chorus in perfect affronted harmony.

"Please," Ino scoffs, "Sasuke and Neji wouldn’t last a week."

Shino nods and rasps in a voice permanently damaged by smoke inhalation, "It’s like if you have two queen bees in a hive, one of them would kill the other before too long."

Neji’s brow furrows; "What? Sasuke and I get along fine."

Tenten leans hard on his side, sneaking a piece of liver from Neji’s plate; "It’s different when you’re dating."

Neji narrows his eyes and swipes it back; "No it isn’t. The only significant difference between our relationship before we started dating and after is the amount of time we spend alone."

Tenten stares at him, unimpressed; "Really. All the making out isn’t significant."

Neji immediately goes bright red and Tenten collapses into giggles.

Ino slaps Lee on the shoulder to get his attention and points at his teammates; "How the Hell did that even happen before Naruto pulled Neji’s head out of his ass?"

Lee contemplates that question for longer than it deserves before answering, "To be perfectly honest, I do not know. I did not know it was happening until it had been happening for a month."

Kiba’s hand goes up in the air and everyone groans as he shouts, "Another toast! To Sakura! Because if that mission to get her back hadn’t gone so fuckin’ badly, none of us would’ve trained this hard to prove ourselves! We’re comin’ for you, Sakura!"

Sasuke can suddenly feel every eye on him like a red welt on his skin. He toasts Kiba with his water and takes a gulp. Everyone goes back to conversation, but it’s like a spotlight is shining on his seat the way everyone keeps fidgeting in place, eyes downcast as they flicker toward him then quickly away. Sasuke quickly finds he has to make a concentrated effort to keep his face at least neutral. Even Kakashi’s posture has stiffened and he’s making nervous askance glances, like he thinks Sasuke’s about to have some kind of sobbing meltdown.

Sasuke drums his fingers on the table. These people are his friends. Friends are supposed to know you. They should know that one little mention of Sakura isn’t going to send him spiraling, especially not when he’s having a good night, when he’s enjoying himself. It’s like he’s eight years old again and coming back to class for the first time after the massacre to a gaggle of anxious children walking on eggshells around him. He wants to get up and leave, go to the bathroom for a bit or pop out into the alley and take a breath, but then everyone will think he’s off crying his eyes out over Sakura, and the last thing he wants is to give them even more reason to pity him–

Sasuke is shocked out of his reverie by a napkin, folded into the shape of a shuriken, hitting him in the chest.

He follows it’s trajectory to meet Choji’s eyes. He wags his head in the direction of the door to their private room. Sasuke’s brow furrows, but he gives him a shallow nod.

After a few more moments, Choji gets up with a mutter to Ino and Asuma about heading off to the bathroom. Sasuke waits ten more heartbeats before excusing himself with the same line. He follows Choji to the restroom and finds him in front of the sinks, fiddling with his hands like Hinata.

"You looked like you were gonna burst into flames in there," Choji remarks, "You alright?"

"I was," Sasuke snaps, "But then everyone started looking at me all concerned just because Kiba mentioned Sakura, like I was gonna break down in public over it or something, and I–!"

Choji’s eyes go wide and he cuts in, "Wait– You thought everyone was looking at you?"

Sasuke’s train of thought hits a mountainside and crashes.

Choji shakes his head; "You– You’re hopeless, that’s what you are. Ino’s been calling you that since the Forest of Death last year but I’m only really now getting it. Do you–? Did you think you and Naruto were the only people on that mission or–?"

Choji frowns at the mirror and mutters, "Actually, I read the mission reports, I know that’s exactly what you thought."

Sasuke opens his mouth. No words come out.

Choji lets his head hang with a sigh; "This isn’t what I wanted to talk about… I’d just wanted to thank you for being our third in the chunin exams…"

Sasuke pulls a hand up to rub at the back of his neck; "It’s nothing, Choji. It’s not like there was anyone else–"

"There was," Choji cuts in, meeting Sasuke’s eyes, "There always is. Every year there’s dozens of career genin trying to get out of that ditch. Ino almost wanted to go with one of them, said it’d be better training for us to run with someone we don’t know instead of you, but… I wasn’t gonna do it without you."

Sasuke’s train of thought finds itself derailed once again, careening off a cliff and into the sea.

"… Huh?"

Choji’s hands and voice are shaking now; "I… You know what I had to do during the Sakura Retrieval Mission, right?"

Sasuke remembers his stomach flipping as he read that part of the mission report and he hoarsely replies, "Yeah."

"I didn’t… I don’t know if I… I wasn’t sure if I could trust myself," Choji whispers, "I needed someone to be there if I choked in a fight, or if Ino got hurt even worse than during the mission, and you… You’re a medic. You’re getting scary good at taijutsu. You were the only choice. So… Maybe Ino was right, maybe having you around was kind of a crutch, but–"

"Choji, I know more than I should about crutches," Sasuke interrupts, crossing his arms over his chest, "I know if you need one, it’s because without it you can’t walk. We both got promoted, so objectively you did better than great, you did amazing. If I was a crutch, at least I was one that worked."

Choji doesn’t respond with words. He responds by walking up to Sasuke and brusquely pulling him into the biggest, tightest bear hug he’s ever received. Sasuke freezes for a moment, eyes going wide. Once the moment passes, he struggles to free one of the arms Choji pinned to his side. When he finally wriggles it loose, he brings it around to awkwardly pat his back.

"Yeah, yeah, I get it," Sasuke chokes out, "If we keep this up for much longer everyone’s gonna steal the last helpings on the barbecue, you know."

"Yeah, I know," Choji mutters into Sasuke’s shoulder, "There is, and I don’t say this kind of thing lightly, more to life than food."

Chapter Text

秋 一

4, September, 1000

Tadami barely qualifies as a village. Most of it’s territory is made up of rice paddies, with the settlement itself consisting of a collection of squat buildings hugging the river. Harvest is a month away and the fields are full to bursting with healthy crops, but Tadami’s men, women, children tend them in tattered clothes that hang loose on too-thin bodies. The buildings that aren’t made from literal scrap show their age not in their style but in the amount of rot in the beams and holes in the shoji. Even from her vantage point at the top of a high hill Sakura can spot a mangy little girl digging through the trash behind what she guesses is the only tavern.

Sakura was always good at math. It takes her no time at all to calculate the ratio of field to building, average out what the yield of these fields could be from a good harvest like this, ring up a price for that yield, and come to the conclusion that someone is screwing these people. Considering how many bags of rice she has to move to the storerooms every week, she thinks she knows who one of those someones is.

"Don’t act so surprised," Kabuto sneers at her side, throwing Sakura back into the moment, "Get far enough from a country’s hidden village or it’s capitol and you’ll see all the same things. Come on. We need to enter town just as the sun’s setting if we want a plausible excuse to stay."

He turns and starts heading down the hill, dropping a Transformation Jutsu over himself as he walks to become a plain peasant looking haggard from a day of hard travel. Sakura follows his lead, turning herself into a girl with brown hair, brown eyes, and a farmer’s tan made darker by dirt. She hops up onto the back of the wagon and Kabuto takes the front, leading their nearly-lame mule back onto the road. Sakura leans against the bags of surplus masquerading as their trade goods, watching the road into town rumble by through her eyelashes.

Like clockwork, they roll into town exactly at sundown. Kabuto asks around about a place to stay the night– the roads are hardly safe by day in the Land of Sound, after all. They hitch up their wagon in the stable and head into the only tavern. As Kabuto gets everything sorted Sakura watches over her shoulder as that same filthy little girl sneaks into their wagon and steals away with as much of their surplus as she can carry. She wonders if Kabuto will even care that it’s missing. She’s certainly not going to tell him. They settle in for a meager meal and drink that’s far too strong, all the while scanning the barroom for their target.

The woman that arrives at seven would look ordinary to most assessments, middle-aged with gray-streaked hair and muddy eyes. The difference comes in how she carries herself, hiding her fatigue behind perfect posture and walking with the expectation that people will clear the way for her. And clear it they do. Heads perk up as the woman makes her way to the bar, eyes light up and people call "Good to see you, Honoka" from across the room with wide waves of their arms. Honoka receives the attention with a grin and small talk peppered with personal questions, such as inquiries about the health of parents and if children have written back from the city.

Sakura pretends to sip her moonshine. They’ve found their mark.

Kabuto and Sakura nibble at their dinner, whiling away the hours watching Honoka hold court. She moves through the people with ease and grace, a favorite aunt to some, a little sister who’s grown up well to others, a drinking buddy to make raunchy jokes with to yet more. She is Tadami’s favorite daughter, no mistaking. As the night rolls on the tavern starts to empty, with everyone who trickles out making sure to do it in full eye and earshot of the two strangers. The curious glances they’ve been getting all night start to turn to annoyance.

"Last call in one hour," the bartender calls, just a bit too loud for a warning only two patrons will actually need.

Kabuto meets her eyes for a split second and taps out a message on the table; W A I T   F I V E   M I N U T E S ,   T H E N   W E   G O .

Sakura takes a small bite of her rice with one hand and taps a reply with the other; O K .

They spend the next five minutes finishing their meal, then quietly excuse themselves up the stairs to their room. Once the door is shut and the shades are drawn, they set the scene. Two shadow clones are transformed to match their disguises and bundle themselves under the futon covers. Sakura drops her transformation so she can focus on draping a Greater Invisibility Jutsu over the two of them, and Kabuto compliments it with a genjutsu to muffle the sounds of their breathing, footsteps, and the rustling of their clothes. They move on silent feet out of the room and down the stairs, backs against the wall.

The barroom has transformed into a war room, with chairs pulled up around a large round table in it’s center. Honoka sits at the honorary head of the table, surrounded by nine other farmers whose eyes are all on her. Drinks have been set in front of them all, but no one raises them to their lips. There’s a low murmur of conversation between them as Honoka sits in silence and stares at the tavern door. The bartender is still present, wiping down the same glass as their eyes cycle between all the entrances and exits.

Honoka clears her throat and all conversation ceases; "Alright. Harvest is next month, so we don’t have a lot of time left. How are we on defenses, Sota?"

One of the men, clearly too old to still be farming, replies, "Seong-Hyeon should be returning with the black powder any day now. According to his letters the powdermonger was good for it, didn’t look too close at the counterfeit headbands and papers, just like we heard."

Honoka nods, the knot between her eyebrows failing to come loose; "Was he able to get any firearms?",

Sota winces; "He said that the powdermonger didn’t have any to spare, but… you know how he is. He probably let that anxiety get the better of him and quit while he was ahead."

Sakura feels with her sixth sense the chakra covering Kabuto move towards the table. He glides around it like a ghost, the crackle of chakra surrounding him raising the hairs on the back of the peasants’ necks. When he passes Honoka he dips in, sprinkling something colorless and odorless into her drink. He moves away and Sakura shuffles closer. She drip-feeds chakra into Honoka’s mid and hindbrain, imagining the feeling of her throat going drier and drier. After a moment, Honoka takes a sip of her drink.

"Can’t be helped," Honoka sighs, "The powder kegs are valuable enough on their own. So long as we can fashion a fuse and make a spark, they’ll do. Sound Village thugs will be coming to collect on the tenth, so we’ll need to have all our tools ready to be used as weapons and the road and river barricaded by then. Kyōko, have we made any progress on the river?"

Kabuto sprinkles the powder into Sota’s drink next, and Sakura leads him to take a sip.

A young woman with boyish short hair speaks up; "Yeah, so, you know how a ways upriver is that old village, Geojin? The one that turned into a ghost town? Well we were looking around and a lot of the old irrigation systems they put in place still work, so we can just close those dams instead of having to use ours and risk them getting too close too soon. Would that work?"

Kyōko is next on Kabuto’s list as he circles around the table like he’s playing a demented game of Duck, Duck, Goose. Sakura plays along.

Honoka shifts restlessly in her seat, but forces herself to smile and reply, "So long as we can get there and back with time to spare the night before, it should. Now… The big question. The last several meetings we haven’t gotten any closer to an answer, but it’s getting down to the wire. We have to decide this now. Are we evacuating everyone else?"

There’s a long silence before a middle-aged man with a dark complexion and a shaved head sighs, "I mean, what choice do we have? This isn’t their fight, anyone who isn’t here didn’t consent to this… revolution, if things go wrong–"

"Fuck’s sake Ryo– Every single meeting you go on and on about this being a matter of safety but it’s not," a man so young he’s little more than a teenager cuts in, "It’s a matter of logistics. We don’t have the resources to just pack everyone up and leave and send them off in the middle of the night! Even if we sent people off on the water buffalo, in every wagon we have and in every boat we have that’ll still not be enough for everyone! If we try to trickle it out over the ten day harvest people will notice and they’ll talk. It’s just not feasible to send everyone away!"

Powder in their drinks and dryness in their throats. Kabuto comes around behind Sakura and taps a message on her back; O N E   M O R E .

"It is absolutely a matter of safety," one of the older women fires back, "Pyong-Ho, if this goes badly, they will kill everyone. They’ll burn Tadami to the ground and salt the earth. They will erase any trace of us having ever existed! I don’t want that for my children, for my grandchildren! If we send them away they can escape that!"

Kabuto drops the last dose into her drink. After Sakura’s ministrations, she takes an angry swig. Now all there is to do is wait.

"Like there’s any escaping a ninja," an older man scoffs, "Anyone who flees will be tracked across oceans and deserts. Doesn’t matter how good you are at Hide and Seek, the shinobi always cheat."

The older woman runs a hand through her iron gray hair; "It’s not too late to hire rogue ninja to–"

A tall, broad-shouldered man breaks his silence by slamming his fist on the table and shouting, "Absolutely not! Why do you think we’re starving?! It’s so they always have enough to eat! If we cave and hire ninja to protect us we’re no better than that cowardly piece of shit squatting in the daimyō’s palace!"

"They left their villages, they hate the system as much as we do!"

"Have you even looked in a Bingo Book lately?! It’s full of monsters too insane for even those glorified asylums to handle! They can’t be trusted to uphold a contract!"

"It’s not like we even have the money to pay them, anyway."

"But without them, all we have is a couple casks of gunpowder and a bunch of farming equipment! How are we supposed to–?!"

There’s a loud clatter as Honoka is the first to fall out of her chair, convulsing on the ground. Her pupils have blown out, her limbs extended, her spine curves with each convulsion until she’s all but completely arched off the ground. There’s not much time to fret over her. Sota is the next to fall into a violent seizure, foaming at the mouth. Everyone Kabuto visited drops in short order, one after another, and those who remain frantically dart between the afflicted with no idea how to treat them.

The tall man points to the door; "Go get help! Go!"

One of the five remaining farmers, a young man, looks to the door and starts to move. Sakura catches him before he can. The young man makes a run for it, but trips over a chair she’d convinced him wasn’t there, slamming face-first into the ground. The packet of poison goes flying out of his pocket as he falls. So Kabuto’s been busy, too.

The young man pulls himself to his feet and makes it to the door, but it’s too late. Honoka violently seizes once, twice, a third time, then falls completely limp to the ground. Sota follows, then Kyōko, then Ryo and Pyong-Ho and the poor older woman. The five remaining farmers stare at the scene, eyes wide, jaws on the ground. The bartender keeps wiping down the same glass.

The tall man spots the packet and snarls at the young man, "You, you son of a bitch you turned on us?!"

"W-what?! No, no I– What are you talking about I–!"

"Don’t fucking lie to me! You slipped that shit in their drinks!"

"I-I swear to you I didn’t–!"

Sakura takes hold of the young man’s brain again, and after a moment his eyes go wide. He should be seeing an ANBU tattoo peeking out from the tall man’s sleeve.

He grits his teeth; "All this time… All this fucking time you–!"

The young man reaches down and pulls a dagger off his belt. The tall man’s eyes go wide and he doesn’t have time to react before the dagger is deep in his throat. He crumples to the ground, letting the young man go. The three remaining farmers, an older man and two women, stare at him in complete shock.

The younger of the two women points at him and screams, "Get the knife away from him!"

They rush the young man and grab him by the arms, but he flails wildly in their grip, smashing one’s nose in with an elbow and dropping the dagger. The younger woman runs in, grabs the dagger, and Sakura tricks her brain into sending an excess of adrenaline rushing through her bloodstream. In a breathless panic she starts stabbing the young man repeatedly in the chest, over and over and over. By the time she’s knocked away from him it’s too late. He falls in a bloodless heap in the middle of the carnage.

The older man grabs a chair while the older woman tries to talk the younger one down. Sakura drops her hold on the younger woman to take hold of the older man. When he turns around with the chair in hand, the women’s positions will be reversed, the younger standing where the older truly is. He creeps up behind the older woman, raising the chair high above his head. He brings it down on top of her skull. It fractures with a loud crack and she falls limp to the floor.

The younger woman lets out a shriek of terror and rushes him with the dagger. Sakura doesn’t intervene. She watches them struggle, the man using the chair like a makeshift shield and the woman desperately trying to stab at him around it. In a split second she gets a lucky shot, weaving around the chair and burying the dagger in his gut. He staggers back and topples to the ground.

As the young woman’s hands fly up to cover her mouth, eyes filling with tears, the bartender finally sets down their glass. They reach behind their back and pull a kunai off their belt. They toss it with a practiced hand and it pierces the young woman’s throat. She topples to the ground, twitching once, twice, then going still.

"And then there were none," Kabuto remarks as they both drop the genjutsu concealing their presence, "Excellent work, Sakura, Raven. Let’s get going, if we leave now we can intercept the agent carrying the black powder."

Sakura doesn’t say anything. Kabuto stares for a moment, then just shrugs and heads out the front door. The bartender’s Transformation drops, revealing the gray and black fatigues and porcelain bird mask of a Sound ANBU. They start to head out after Kabuto, but pause next to Sakura.

They ask in a deep, feminine voice, "I’m always curious about how you genjutsu types weigh what you do, at the end of the day. Do you feel like you killed them?"

Sakura’s voice comes out hoarse; "Yes."

Raven is quiet for a moment, then remarks, "Well. You’re the first I’ve heard say so."

They leave Sakura alone in the room. Once they’re through the doors Sakura darts between the bodies, looking frantically for someone, anyone who isn’t dead yet. Miraculously, the woman who’d been hit over the head with a chair is still breathing. She likely has a concussion, but she’s not dead. Sakura runs behind the bar, grabs some ice, wraps it up in bandages from her pack, and runs back to the woman. She uses the rest of her bandages to secure the ice to the swollen part of her skull, then gently slaps her cheeks to rouse her.

The woman blinks herself awake, bleary-eyed; "Wh– Who–?"

Sakura puts a finger to her lips; "Ssssshhhhh. Listen to me. You need to play dead for a little bit longer, okay? After ten minutes, get up, get your family, and leave. Tell everyone you can what happened here. The Sound Village did this, they tried to assassinate everyone here, but you can be the survivor. If you’re smart and you’re careful you can bring them to justice. Just remember to play dead for ten minutes exactly. Don’t fall asleep. Alright?"

The woman stares at her, eyes unfocused; "Oh… Okay…"

Sakura quickly nods and, with some rearranging of the broken and overturned furniture, obscures the woman’s head from view before making her way out of the tavern. Before she crosses the threshold she drops a simple genjutsu over her face, giving her red-rimmed eyes and tear tracks on her cheeks. She and Kabuto return to their wagon and Raven disappears into the darkness. Their mule limps along the road, Kabuto up at the reigns and Sakura sitting in the back.

"Check the cargo," Kabuto orders, "I think I saw one of the street rats trying to steal from the wagon."

Sakura pretends to check, and reports, "Looks fine to me."

13, October, 1000

Shikamaru is in the midst of kicking Sasuke’s ass at shogi when Sasuke suddenly asks, "About how much does the Nara Clan keep in savings?"

Shikamaru’s brow slowly arches, his piece hovering an inch above the board; "… Really wish you weren’t so fuckin’ awkward, Sasuke. The Hell kind of question is that?"

Sasuke frowns at him for a moment, but his face quickly snaps into a look of proper embarrassment; "Oh, f– No, I’m not– Listen, I haven’t actually been engaged in clan politics for like… I was gonna say six years, but no, actually I never really have. I’m not trying to like– I just need a point of comparison for something."

Shikamaru lets his eyebrow come back down and sets his piece on the board, taking one of his pawns; "For what?"

Sasuke moves one of his lances and explains, "Now that I’m a chunin I can finally access the Uchiha Clan’s bank account. When I first looked at the amount in there I was fine with it, it is a lot, but… After a bit, I started thinking that for a whole clan it didn’t seem like all that much. We were both pretty big and pretty rich, all told, but it’s been a minute since I’ve actually had a real sense of perspective about clan stuff. I was eight, an eight year old probably doesn’t have the best sense of scale where wealth is concerned."

Shikamaru drums his fingers on the board, one half of his mind making calculations and the other looking for his next move; "How much is in the account?"

"Twenty million ryo."

Shikamaru immediately looks up to meet Sasuke’s eyes; "The account’s been locked since the massacre, right?"

"Yeah. Assets frozen, too, but considering we didn’t invest much outside the clan it’s not really necessary."

"Then yeah, there should definitely be more money in there," Shikamaru replies, "With a ninja clan that size raking in money from normal missions, the police force, and all kinds of investments, even after taxes twenty million is next to nothing. You’re sure the account was locked?"

Sasuke takes one of Shikamaru’s pawns; "That’s what the brass kept telling me. I requested a list of statements covering the last six years and it didn’t show any change. After that I… I went looking through my old house to see what my father’s records on the account looked like, but anything that hadn’t been looted was so damaged by the elements I couldn’t read it."

Shikamaru closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose, groaning, "Great. More shit that doesn’t add up. Exactly what I needed. What a drag."

Sasuke narrows his eyes; "You know, last year you asked me if I trusted Tsunade. When I asked you why you wanted to know, you put it off, said we’d maybe talk about it over shogi."

Shikamaru drags his hand down his face; "Yeah, yeah I did say that didn’t I?"

Sasuke gestures loosely to the board; "Well, here we are."

"Here we are indeed, gimme a second," Shikamaru mutters, pulling himself to his feet and closing the storm shutters around the engawa, "Between my missions and not really making any progress I’ve been keeping this to myself, but if the whole Sakura-Orochimaru connection only hinted at you being a central piece of this puzzle this confirms it. You deserve to know."

Sasuke leans forward, bracing his elbows on his knees; "Alright then, let’s hear it."

Once all the storm shutters and shoji are closed, giving them privacy, Shikamaru settles back down and begins, "So. This all started when we got the mission to go after Sakura. Right off the bat I got the feeling that something about it was wrong. A bunch of genin and a chunin being sent on an A-Rank into enemy territory is one thing, now that I’ve got distance from it and know you vouch for her I can understand that was probably the only way Tsunade could get people on Sakura’s trail before it went cold. That’s not the problem. The problem is Sakura herself."

Shikamaru locks eyes with Sasuke; "Level with me, Sasuke. You know Sakura. You know her better than any of us, better than you think. Would she really resort to going rogue just because she’s got an inferiority complex?"

Sasuke stares at the arrangement of pieces on the board for a long moment, before letting his eyes slide closed and sighing, "When we were six, Sakura tried to turn herself in to the police because one of her library books was a day overdue. To get her to break the rules you need to make her desperate or show her a loophole she hasn’t already found."

"That’s exactly what I thought," Shikamaru continues, "But I also thought of something else. Judging by what I saw from Sakura in the second and third exams last year, Sakura’s willing to do whatever is necessary within the confines of following orders and the rules. So Sakura going rogue on her own doesn’t make sense, but what about Sakura going rogue because someone put her up to it?"

Sasuke’s eyes snap open, wide with shock; "What?"

"Think about it, from the perspective of the brass Sakura is the perfect low-risk, disposable mole in Orochimaru’s operation," Shikamaru explains, "She’s clanless, has no kekkei genkai, has an existing connection to Orochimaru through the curse mark, and is absolutely dedicated to following orders to the bitter end. My thought was initially that Tsunade had put her up to it, then took advantage of you being emotionally compromised to send us all after her on a mission doomed to fail that would cover her tracks."

Sasuke jolts up, nearly knocking over the board, exclaiming, "Are you serious?! That…" Sasuke’s eyes shift between Shikamaru and the board as he actually thinks the hypothesis over, then he slowly sinks back down, "… actually makes a lot of sense."

Shikamaru nods; "Yeah. But aside from your endorsement, when we got back from the mission I confronted her myself. Stupid move, I know, but I hadn’t slept in thirty-six hours and was feeling like a piece of shit, so I thought a bold move was in order. And I got lucky this time, because it actually paid off. Tsunade gave me information."

Shikamaru moves a piece and takes Sasuke’s lance without looking at the board; "Kakashi was the one who found Shino in the middle of that huge forest fire that started a while after we left. All that was in the overall mission report was that he’d gone after us, ran into resistance, and they left him for dead out there. What Kakashi reported is that the forest fire was set according to Leaf procedure for trapping hostiles and erasing material evidence. Kakashi found Shino before any evidence on his body had been destroyed. There were black stains on Shino’s jacket nobody had time to identify, beyond them not being blood or soot. Tsunade said that if this is an inside job, if someone from the village had Shino’s attacker waiting in the forest to take down our backup, then that jacket would disappear from the hospital without a trace."

Sasuke stares at his back row, eyes darting between his king and his generals; "… Shino got a new jacket after the mission."

"Yeah, he did," Shikamaru replies, "Because none of the nurses or orderlies could find his old one when he was discharged. Poof. Gone without a trace."

"So either Tsunade was gloating about her own coverup, something she’s definitely not stupid enough to do," Sasuke slowly remarks, "Or…"

"This doesn’t go all the way to the top," Shikamaru finishes, "It goes past the top. Kakashi said the forest fire was Leaf procedure but considering the ruthlessness of that tactic I’d say it’s probably more like ANBU procedure. ANBU is supposed to only answer to the Hokage, but I wouldn’t put it past Utatane or Mitokado to have their own inroads with them."

Sasuke frowns at the board, rubbing at a spot on the center of his forehead; "I… don’t know if I’d peg them as the conspirators. They have the authority, yeah, but… Unless they’re really good actors they seem like they couldn’t care less about Sakura herself. They…"

Sasuke’s other hand clenches into a fist; "Do you wanna know how long any conversation I try to start about retrieving Sakura lasts? Two minutes. At best. They don’t give a shit if she spills village secrets, because they’re convinced that there’s no way she could even know any. They don’t even care if she dies. The only thing they care about is that I care about her, because if I go after her again Orochimaru might snap me up and steal my eyes. They slapped her name in the Bingo Book and that’s the end of it as far as they’re concerned."

Shikamaru shrugs a shoulder; "Remember, they’re shinobi, same as any of us. They really could be that good of actors. And like I said, Sakura is a perfect low-risk, disposable mole. The fact that they don’t give a shit about her just makes that even more obvious. Though her name already being in the Bingo Book is more compelling. Even if they were accepting the possibility of her dying by Orochimaru’s hand you’d think they’d try to mitigate her getting killed for the bounty by some rando before she can get them any good, workable information."

Sasuke leans his cheek on his fist, staring hard at the shogi pieces; "Could it be someone in ANBU itself pulling the strings?"

"Maybe, but that’d be a hard lead to chase all the way down," Shikamaru replies, "You and me are adjacent to people who would actually know the identities of high ranking individuals like squad leaders and the ANBU Commander, but we’d get our asses wrecked if we were caught trying to actually find that out ourselves. And with the secrecy that surrounds the whole operation, even if we did rustle up whoever orchestrated it it’d be too easy for anyone else involved to disavow them as a rogue element playing by their own rules."

Sasuke scowls at the board and grumbles, "And I still can’t tell what all of this has to do with my fucking bank account."

Shikamaru takes a few more pieces off Sasuke’s side of the board; "I don’t doubt that officially your account has been locked and their assets have been frozen these last six years. I also know that with the police force gone ANBU has usurped all matters of internal law enforcement in the village. Your clan’s case has been the sole jurisdiction of ANBU and the Hokage’s office– including the Council– since the massacre. When investigating a crime you need unfettered access to all the information related to the victims. Your clan’s account has been locked, sure. But only the front door. The back door has been wide open this whole time. "

Sasuke’s jaw drops; "You’re saying–?!"

"Someone in the tower could’ve been embezzling from your clan’s account this whole time," Shikamaru cuts in, "And they’d have all the resources at hand to make it look like nothing had ever happened. Like I said, between Orochimaru having been after your eyes in the first place and the money missing from your account, either the Uchiha Clan or you specifically play some role in this. It might turn out that these things aren’t related. But going after Sakura almost got all our friends killed. This might get a friend of ours killed, if things go wrong with Sakura. I’m not throwing out a clue until I know for sure it’s worthless."

Sasuke can’t help a bitter little laugh; "Well, at least that rules out Tsunade. She didn’t even know the Uchiha were all gone until she met me."

Shikamaru nods, taking both of Sasuke’s generals; "Is there anyone else you can think of on the level of the council or the Hokage that could be in on this? I know officially the council is just Utatane and Mitokado but I know other old fogies who can’t handle retirement would cycle in and out of the conference rooms when the Third was in office. Any of them stick out to you?"

Sasuke’s brow furrows, a strange intensity in his eyes for a few tense seconds, before his face relaxes and he shakes his head; "No one’s jumping right out at me, but I’ll keep my eyes open the next time I’m in the tower."

He lets his face drop into his hands and groans, "God this is a fucking drag."

Shikamaru takes his king and snorts, "You’re telling me."

7, November, 1000

Any warm feelings coming home to the Land of Fire’s dense forests brings up in Sakura quickly drain from her as Orochimaru leads her Southeast, hugging the border with the Land of Hot Water. The land here slowly dips down the closer you get to the ocean, diving below sea level before it’s even in sight. The ground turns marshy, threatening to suck you down into the mud and trap you for the great beasts of the swamp to find. Sakura nearly rolls an ankle twice in their journey. Orochimaru travels through the land like she would navigate through her grandmother’s house, with ease, familiarity, and a light fondness that brings a quirk to the very edge of his mouth.

After two days, they’re close enough to the ocean that fog rolls off it in the morning, saturating the air with a salty tang. It’s almost refreshing, this early in the morning. How it brings visibility down to a foot certainly is not. Some of the swamp trees have given way to limestone spires, but the landscape is no less crowded than it ever was. The mounting sense of unease settling heavy in Sakura’s gut doesn’t budge.

"You’ve been very quiet, Little Flower," Orochimaru remarks as he strolls through the pre-dawn darkness, "Something on your mind?"

Sakura purses her lips and pushes some hair out of her eyes, taking a long look around; "I’m just… I suppose I’m just wondering how much further we have to go?"

Orochimaru pauses to shoot a taunting grin over his shoulder at her; "Really? You’re wondering if we’re there yet?"

Sakura frowns at his back; "I was trying to be diplomatic about it, but yes. You said it would take two days to get to Ryūchi Cave, and this is the morning of day three."

"Doubting my sense of direction, are we?" Orochimaru wonders with a sing-song lilt coating his voice like caramel.

"Not at all," Sakura replies, "Just perhaps wondering if you didn’t slightly undersell how long the journey would be."

Orochimaru whirls around to walk backwards, putting a hand over his heart and a mock-wounded expression on his face; "Does that really sound like something I’d do, Little Flower?"

Sakura answers that by frowning deeper and arching a brow.

Orochimaru laughs, rich and dark; "My little teacher’s pet, you catch on quick as always! But this time I wasn’t having fun with you. Ryūchi Cave is a cagey mistress who guards her secrets jealously. To find her you have to be deliberately seeking her, and to seek her is to accept that your route to her will take as long as she thinks is necessary for you to traverse it. Sometimes it takes two days, sometimes three, sometimes five. You never know for sure. I simply gave you my best guess."

Her bangs fall back into her face and Sakura stubbornly tries to talk and blow them out of her eyes at the same time; "So then how do we know if we’re there?"

No answer. Sakura pushes her bangs out of her eyes, and she’s utterly alone in the swamp. For a moment, all she can do is try to blink the shock away. The second she does, her stomach does a flip. She immediately reaches out with her chakra sense, trying to ferret out what genjutsu Orochimaru is hiding under, but immediately hits a gigantic bank of chakra. There’s chakra all around her, soaked into the marsh, running through the veins of the trees, floating in the fog. It’s as if she’s suddenly stepped into a gigantic body, it’s chakra network thrumming around her in time with it’s heartbeat.

Sakura bites her lip and for a moment starts to refine her focus, but stops herself. What good is that going to do? This is Orochimaru’s game, this is how all her training has been since the day she arrived and it’s not about to change. He explains something in the vaguest possible terms, then leaves her to sink or swim alone. Whether or not she can decipher his hints is part of the training. Sakura takes a deep breath, stands up straight with her shoulders back, and walks resolutely forward.

Ryūchi Cave will reveal itself if she seeks it. She keeps that in the center of her mind as the ground beneath her feet slowly starts to firm up from muddy marshland into limestone. The sun has to have risen by now, but the fog shows no signs of burning off. If anything, it’s getting thicker. Sakura purses her lips and pushes on. She won’t blink, not for Orochimaru and not for the snakes of Ryūchi Cave.

A breeze whirls in from the East, blowing away a section of the fog to reveal what appears to be a humble temple entrance built into the side of one of the larger limestone spires. The gilding has been worn away by years of salt water damage, but the structure is remarkably well-kept. Two massive stone statues of rearing cobra sit on either side of the front steps, their mouths wide open to reveal needle-sharp fangs and long forked tongues. More striking than any of that, however, is the simple presence of a young woman sweeping the porch.

She perks up and turns to Sakura with a look of surprise. She’s dressed almost like a miko, but not quite. Her hakama are a deep forest green, her dark hair has been pulled into three separate buns, and around her forehead is a delicate golden tiara with two green ribbons attached at the temples. On a cord around her neck hangs a jade pendant carved in the shape of a tomoe. Sakura can’t help the frown that slowly unfolds across her face.

The young woman smiles kindly down at Sakura and bows from the waist; "Ah, welcome to Ryūchi Cave. You must be a pilgrim seeking the White Snake Sage. I am one of her disciples, Tagorihime. You look exhausted, poor thing, you must come inside and rest a while."

Sakura lets her mouth fall open, slowly replying, "Uh… Thank you for your hospitality."

She climbs the steps and follows Tagorihime through the front doors into a dark antechamber lit by a few flickering braziers. Incense burns at the foot of another statue of a rearing cobra, this one monumental in scale and carved from white marble. Sakura is dimly aware that Tagorihime is saying something about getting her some food, but she’s too busy scanning the room.

Beyond the statue are two hallways that fade into darkness; Tagorihime disappears down the westernmost hall. The incense has something of a salty scent, not unlike the fog outside, and nothing like Sakura’s ever smelled in a temple. Sakura looks to either side of the door for somewhere to put her sandals and doesn’t find a shoe rack. Sakura crosses the distance to the two incense sticks and intently watches them burn, taking meticulous note of the rate at which the incense shrinks.

At just that moment Tagorihime’s voice chirps from down the hall, "You’re quite lucky, I found some treats in the pantry."

Sakura turns to see Tagorihime returning to the room, beaming with two plates of umeboshi and rice in hand. She settles down cross-legged on the floor in front of the statue and beckons Sakura to join her down there. Sakura, for a moment, only stares at the pickled fruit. The umeboshi Orochimaru keeps in the storerooms are the sour, salty sort, but these carry the unmistakable scent of honey. Sakura sits across from Tagorihime and takes the plate.

"I’m surprised a temple of ascetics would keep something like this in the pantry," Sakura remarks.

Tagorihime giggles, "Even ascetics need a bit of energy every now and again. Keeping a whole sacred cave system in order is honest work, certainly, but when there are only three or four of you around at a time to do it the task is quite fatiguing. The snakes aren’t much help, for reasons I imagine should be obvious. Now please, eat. I wouldn’t want you to meet the sage on an empty stomach."

Sakura’s eyes are focused on the plate. After a moment, she lets them slide shut, and takes a deep breath in through her nose.

The scent that hits her is absolutely putrid. It’s the scent of rotting flesh, rotting fruit, rotting wood, the pure encapsulation of rot.

Sakura opens her eyes and glares at Tagorihime; "You’re good at this. But I’m better. Drop the genjutsu and let me pass."

Tagorihime cocks her head to the side with a concerned tilt to her brows; "Whatever do you mean? You must be exhausted from your long journey, poor dear, I–"

"Shoes aren’t allowed inside temples," Sakura cuts her off, "Most of them have places for visitors to put their shoes just inside the door. The incense smells like the fog outside, and it’s burning too fast. You did almost have me with the umeboshi, if I hadn’t been suspicious already I probably would’ve just given up and taken the opportunity to eat my favorite food again. But it was my favorite food, and that was too perfect a coincidence for me to trust it. Like I said, you’re good at this. But I’m better. Let me pass. I won’t ask a third time."

Tagorihime isn’t the first thing to break. First, the food on Sakura’s plate melts into a black sludge filled with misshapen lumps and wriggling pieces. Sakura shoves the plate off her lap and onto the floor as the firelight flickers out, the floor turns from hardwood to limestone and the monumental snake statue starts to crumble. Tagorihime’s smile stretches into a misshapen grin, her mouth falling open to reveal sharp fangs and a forked tongue. Her form shifts, limbs retracting, skin shedding to reveal white scales, eyes turning a bright gold with dagger-like pupils.

"Clever clever," she hisses, "Your chakra would have been so delicious, arrogant as you are. You may think you are skilled in genjutsu, but we have the wisdom of centuries behind ours. You are a hatchling who hasn’t shed her egg tooth."

With a deep, resonant snap, the image of the temple falls away, dropping Sakura into a dripping cave lit only by the faint glow of luminescent crystals jutting out of the ceiling every few yards. Sakura glances over her shoulder in search of the entrance and finds only a winding path disappearing into the dark. She looks back just in time to see the back half of a white snake, speckled with green scales and half the size of Sakura herself, slither into a hole in the wall and disappear.

Sakura tentatively takes another look back over her shoulder. To be this deep into the cave system already when it felt like she’d barely stepped through the front door of that temple… Maybe she should have held her tongue.

Sakura heads forward, deeper into the cave, but she has a feeling that it wouldn’t really matter which direction she went. She finds herself hovering near the wall, fingers dragging along it to keep track of her position in the low light. Through her gloves she can feel the smooth surface, worn down by so much water and the motion of massive snakes that it almost has the finish of chrome. The glow from the crystals twinkles off veins of minerals in the walls, the points of light like stars in a night sky.

The tunnels take her on long, winding paths, their shifts in direction and elevation so gradual Sakura stops being able to tell what way she’s headed except 'forward'. Periodically she checks to see if she’s under the effects of Sly Mind Affect Jutsu or anything similar, leaving shuriken lodged into the walls or scoring a small line in the stone with a kunai and waiting to stumble upon them again, but she never does. Keeping track of time becomes next to impossible. She could’ve been walking for minutes or hours. All she knows is that the ache in her feet has been slowly and steadily getting worse the further she walks.

Eventually her path opens up into a larger chamber with glowing crystals covering the ceiling, lighting up the whole room. Geometric crystal shards litter the floor, each no bigger than the palm of her hand. Sakura tentatively steps into the room, eyes running over every inch of it. Once she’s at the center the ground pitches and rumbles beneath her feet. Sakura trips to her knees. As she shoves herself up slabs of earth a foot thick shoot up and block the two entrances, sealing them up so tight not even air can escape.

Sakura looks wildly around before a youthful, female voice chirps, "Well that’s not good!"

She whirls back to the entrance she came through to see a girl, probably a year or two younger than her, leaning against the barrier blocking her way. Unlike Tagorihime her manner of dress is much more casual, her white and blue robe lacking sleeves and ending far above the knees. Her white sandals resemble those of a gladiator instead of a ninja, her dark hair is up in two buns, her face is framed by a gold tiara and a pair of blue earrings shaped like tomoe. She’s resting her chin on her hands, smirking merrily at Sakura.

Sakura schools her face into a frown and asks, "And who are you?"

She cocks her head to the side with a giggle; "You may call me Ichikishimahime! I wouldn’t waste much time talking to me if I were you– You have quite a task ahead of you if you want to get out."

Sakura’s brow furrows and she turns to examine the other exit. The slab of rock covering the way out is covered in geometric divots, each cleanly carved and shaped. She slowly looks down to the pieces of crystal at her feet. At first glance she’d thought them pieces randomly chipped from the chandelier of crystal above, but now that she takes a closer look they’ve all been cut into pyramids, diamonds, squares, etcetera and etcetera. Sakura picks up a pyramid-shaped red crystal and holds it up to the door, closing one eye. It would fit perfectly into one of the square divots.

"This is really the trial," Sakura remarks, turning back to arch an eyebrow at the 'girl', "A matching game."

Ichikishimahime throws her head back with a hearty laugh; "Even after walking for so long you’re still full of yourself! Your chakra is going to be even sweeter once it’s worn down! Go ahead, try your best! Give it your all! You’ll waste away trying to prove your worth!"

Sakura rolls her eyes and turns away from the girl back to the pieces of crystal on the floor. She pulls a pair of bobby pins out of her weapon pouch and pins her bangs back before settling down on her knees and starting the process of methodically separating the crystal pieces into categories based on their shape. After what feels like three hours but was probably one, Sakura has ten different piles in front of her, each consisting of around fifteen to twenty crystals. She then picks up one crystal from the pyramidal pile and closes one eye. She compares it against the holes, finding about five where it would fit. She repeats the process for each shape, this taking what feels like one hour but was probably two.

Once Sakura has finished, she laces her fingers under chin and frowns at the door. The gems she has fit all but one of the holes on the door. The remaining hole is a strange shape, a pair of rectangles sitting at a right angle to each other, and is just slightly too small to finagle two of the rectangular gems to fit in it without taking any drastic measures. Sakura picks up two of the rectangular gems and holds them next to each other. Theoretically she could maybe adapt an Earth style technique to melt the two together, but crystal requires precision even she hasn’t mastered to manipulate it, and–


Sakura stands up and crosses the distance to the the door. She takes one glove off, reaches out, and places her hand against it. The feeling of stone against her palm is unmistakable, with the same smooth finish as the tunnels beyond. Sakura closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, pulling Earth chakra out from the base of her spine. She channels it down through her feet and up and out through her hand. The chakra that leaves her feet pulses through the ground, up into the walls, pooling in the glowing crystals, treating the earth like it’s an extension of her body. The chakra that leaves her hand hits open air and dissolves into nothing.

Sakura opens her eyes and turns to Ichikishimahime; "Okay, I’ll admit it, that one was a lot better. I don’t think I could’ve tricked every mundane sense at once, especially not as well as you did."

Ichikishimahime frowns and sticks a forked tongue out at Sakura, blowing a raspberry; "You’re a big fat cheater, just like little Orochimaru. But you did think outside the box to figure out the trick, so I guess I’ll let you go on. I’d like to see you try and cheat Tagitsuhime."

Sakura blinks and Ichikishimahime has instantly reverted to the form of a white and blue python, the barriers blocking Sakura’s path disappearing with her human disguise. The snake slithers quickly out of sight and Sakura is left utterly alone in the chamber. Sakura takes the moment to stretch and quiet her growling stomach with a food pill. After taking an inventory of her weapons and supplies, Sakura sets off further into the cave.

She doesn’t get far. The chamber is still a light in the distance when a hard weight slams into Sakura’s back. The unmistakable piercing pain of snake fangs buries itself in her neck. They pull a pained shriek from her as they withdraw, and a deeper pain shoots through her veins in time with her heartbeat. Her vision blurs and spins, then clears to reveal a woman with fair skin and dark hair towering over her. The woman’s hair is pulled into one bun that spills into a ponytail, a golden tiara perched upon her head. She wears the red and white robes of a priestess, with a necklace of three red tomoe settled around her neck.

The woman speaks in a voice that is high yet resonant; "I am Tagitsuhime. You have slithered your way around Tagorihime and Ichikishimahime’s trials, but this is not a puzzle to be solved. This is a test of your heart. If you cannot withstand it and your heart breaks, it is mine to consume."

Sakura tumbles to her knees, the pins in her hair coming loose and her bangs falling down over her eyes. The pain is nothing like the curse mark. It is oozing and cold, settling heavy wherever it touches and penetrating down to the bone. Sakura grits her teeth, pushing herself up to her knees with one hand and shoving the hair out of her eyes with the other.

Standing above her is no longer Tagitsuhime, but the unmistakable shape of Kakashi. Immediately Sakura starts to whisper "He’s not real" over and over under her breath, but the pain courses down her arms and the look of disappointment in his eye forces her to look down towards his feet.

Kakashi’s voice is weary as he asks, "What’s the point of this? How is this getting you any closer to fulfilling your mission? You could’ve slipped poison into Orochimaru’s saké and started slowly poisoning him months ago. Instead here you are, blatantly following in his footsteps. What are you really trying to accomplish?"

Sakura bites her lip and hisses through her teeth, "He’s not real, he’s not real, he’s not real–"

There’s the scuff of sandals on stone and Sakura’s eyes are instinctively drawn back behind her. Naruto is glaring down at her, teeth grit in a snarl, eyes blazing red and hands clenched into fists. It’s Naruto as she last saw him, as he was the moment before she fired an arrow of Yin chakra directly into his heart.

He sneers, "Face it, you didn’t take this mission because you care about the Leaf Village. All you’ve ever wanted is to prove to everyone that you’re better than them. That’s why you’ve been treating these spiritual tests of character like they’re exam questions with a right answer, because you were just itching to prove that all the time you’ve spent studying genjutsu was actually worth something."

"You and Orochimaru are a match made in Heaven," Sasuke’s voice spits from her left side as Sakura’s eyes travel up his legs, past his brace, all the way up to the disdainful glare he shot her way every time she’d fallen short of the standard he and Naruto set, "You’re both know-it-alls obsessed with learning more, no matter the cost. You’ve been hurting and killing innocent people on his order so you can stay under his wing. You’ve been manipulating people who are just as much Orochimaru’s prisoners as you are, all in service to your mission. You and Orochimaru treat people like things."

On her right Ino appears, shaking with equal parts rage and fear as she snaps, "You talk such a big game about doing this for your friends, for the people you love, but you hurt them the worst. You left your mother and Kakashi all alone. You tossed me aside like trash. You broke Sasuke and Naruto down, you fought to kill them, you made Sasuke’s leg give out and were ready to drown Naruto. You said horrible things to them, as far as they know you hate them. All they wanted to do was help you and you spat in their faces."

Kakashi is gone and Gaara stands above her, cold eyes staring at her from either side of the scar she gouged through his face; "You rake them both across the coals for being reckless and stupid, but you’re worse than them both combined. You feel it, don’t you? The Curse Mark eats away at your mind, when you use it you act like an animal. The more you’ve used it the more shortsighted, the more aggressive, the more arrogant you’ve become. It’s a curse. And you’re utterly addicted to it. What will happen when you accomplish your mission? The Leaf Village will want to finally get rid of it or seal it off indefinitely. You’ll be stuck with your own meager chakra reserves, your own skinny body, things you’ve barely worked on fixing with training because why train when the curse mark can do everything for you?"

Naruto is gone, and her mother’s voice is exhausted, exasperated, at the end of her rope with this girl who just won’t listen; "What do you even want, Sakura? What comes after Orochimaru dies? What comes after you come home a hero? Do you just settle down as the next matriarch of the Uchiha? Do you become a jonin and teach genin for the rest of your life? Do you use the skills you learned here to join ANBU and manipulate and assassinate yet more innocent men and women who just want to live lives where they don’t have to worry about starving? How can you even go back to the Leaf Village after what you’ve seen here?"

Sakura looks up. All the people she knows are gone. A face she has only seen in photographs stares back at her. Rin is her height, thin but not as dangerously, worryingly skinny as Sakura is now. She stands up straight, not as a posture put on to make people think she knows her purpose, but the natural result of certainty and determination.

A voice Sakura has only ever imagined asks, "Who are you, Sakura Haruno?"

Sakura feels like she’s turning to stone as the pain permeates her body down to her cells. She wants to cry, but realizes after blinking that she already has been. She stares down at her hands as they brace against the ground, desperately straining to keep her upright. Her body is shivering violently, like she’s out in the middle of a blizzard. Everything they’ve said is no more and no less than what creeps into her mind every night as she lies in the darkness of her room on her cot, staring at the ceiling. Of course it is. This is genjutsu, it turns the mind and the heart against themselves. Her mind and her heart turn on her every time she lets the doubt seep in. So how does she always break that spell?

Sakura closes her eyes and goes back to the moment that brought her here. She remembers biting down hard on the side of her tongue, the tang of blood filling her mouth. She remembers the burn, the ache of the muscles in her legs as she forced them forward, running gracelessly but with all the passion, all the fury and speed her skinny little body could hold, to protect one of the few fixed points in her world.

Sakura opens her mouth and quietly replies, "I know that every single thing I’ve done, that I’ve endured, that I’ve given up, it’s all been for love. And I believe… I have to believe that a life lived with love and with courage is one that will end, however it ends, without regret."

There’s a long silence, punctuated only by the sound of water dripping from the ceiling.

The voice that breaks it belongs to Tagitsuhime; "So there is something strong inside you. You may be our most interesting pilgrim yet."

The seeping, freezing pain disappears as quickly as it arrived. Sakura slowly lifts her head and looks around. There was no fade, no flicker, no skip. One moment she was in a narrow, damp tunnel, the next she’s in a massive, excavated cavern lit by enough crystals and torches to make it seem bright as daylight. Rows of stone tablets covered in ancient writings flank a walkway leading to a temple entrance flush against the rock wall, the very mirror image of the illusion Sakura entered through. Tagorihime and Ichikishimahime kneel on either side of the massive doors, heads bowed, eyes closed, hands folded in their laps.

Tagitsuhime stands on the front steps, smiling down at Sakura; "You have passed our three trials. The White Snake Sage awaits you within the temple. I will leave you with a piece of advice. A strength can easily become a weakness if it is used on the wrong battlefield. Consider your weapon carefully before you draw it. Now go. The Sage will become impatient if you dawdle."

Sakura drags herself up to her feet. She feels like she just came out of a fight for her life– and if Tagitsuhime was being serious about eating her broken heart, that isn’t so far off the mark. Sakura climbs the steps to the double doors and pulls herself through them, stepping into a dimly lit chamber that smells of clove and cedar wood. At the head of another set of steep stairs is a massive stone throne carved in the shape of a coiled dragon. The first ten coils of the White Snake Sage’s body lie draped across the throne. Her tail winds throughout the room, piled on top of itself, looping around and around and disappearing off into darkness. The Sage adorns herself with gold bands around her tail, an emerald pendant easily the size of a boulder, a bejeweled black turban and an orange headdress. Clenched in her jaw is a massive cigarette holder with the source of the clove scent burning at it’s end.

Sakura immediately drops to her knees and bows so low her forehead touches the floor; "I-it’s an honor to meet you, Your Holiness."

The laugh that… emanates from the White Snake Sage is dry and rattling, like the sound of dead leaves crunching underfoot; "Where were these manners when you faced Tagorihime and Ichikishimahime? I ought to eat you for being so two-faced, Hatchling."

Sakura feels an embarrassed flush spread up her neck all the way to her forehead; "Y-you… would be within your rights to do so, Your Holiness. I didn’t show this place and it’s inhabitants the respect they deserved. Tagitsuhime reminded me of my place, and I… I-I beg your forgiveness."

Another rattling laugh, this one with a warmth to it; "Get up off the floor, Hatchling, you’ve made your point. I hardly expected you to be humble. Your students never are, Orochimaru."

Sakura rises back to a sitting position just in time to see Orochimaru emerge from behind the White Snake Sage’s throne. It’s rare to see a naked, unvarnished emotion on Orochimaru’s face, at least when he’s sober. And now… Now he’s staring at her in pure, unadulterated shock.

A section of the White Snake Sage’s tail undulates out and bumps Orochimaru’s back, knocking him slightly off balance; "What’s the matter, boy? You expected her to make it, didn’t you?"

Orochimaru shoots a quick glare up at her, but doesn’t respond. He makes his way carefully down the staircase to Sakura, eventually stopping right in front of her. He kneels down, offering his arms; Sakura takes them, letting Orochimaru help her back to her feet. He doesn’t let go. His expression is… complicated. He’s not smiling, his lips are pursed, but there’s something… bright in his eyes. He opens his mouth a few times, but no sound comes out, and he has to close it again and look away for another moment.

Finally, he murmurs, "I’m… impressed. You… You did quite well to make it here."

Sakura can only stare at him, mouth hanging open. That’s the first compliment he’s paid her that wasn’t coated in a thick glaze of mockery or a damnation through faint praise.

She lets herself smile; "Thank you, Sir."

"Now," the White Snake Sage booms, snapping them both out of the moment, "Come forth, Sakura Haruno. It’s time for you to sign the contract, and for us to see what kind of summoner you become."

Sakura’s eyes are wide, locked on the giant snake that looms above her, surrounds her, threatens to constrict her. Orochimaru gives her arm a gentle squeeze, the most reassurance he’s ever given her.

Sakura bows at the waist; "It would be my honor, Your Holiness."

Chapter Text

冬 二

21, December, 1000

Kakashi winces as Sasuke pulls the bottle of root beer from the drink case; "Really?"

Sasuke shoots a lukewarm glare over at Kakashi and replies, "Got a problem with it?"

"Several, many, dozens," Kakashi replies, "How? Why?"

"It’s good," Sasuke protests, dropping the bottle in the shopping basket, "I also don’t know how it’s a surprise. I get it all the time, it’s always in the fridge."

"Is it? You must be putting it on my blind side," Kakashi muses, artfully stepping around the real reason it’s a surprise, "Or maybe I just expected better from you, young man. Such a disappointment."

Sasuke rolls his eyes; "What’s disappointing is all the takeout you eat. You are an adult, right? You should cook like one."

This time all Kakashi does is hum in a vague gesture of acknowledgement. There’s only one response to that and they both know it. Kakashi could cook, in theory, but that would necessitate spending more time in the apartment. And Kakashi is very good at making himself scarce. He has to be taking literally every mission he’s offered, for how often he’s gone. Sasuke has to wonder if the real reason he was moved into Kakashi’s place in the aftermath of Sakura’s defection was to act as a glorified dog sitter.

Sasuke shoves a sigh out through his nose. It’s Winter Solstice. The whole reason they’re here is so they can focus on celebrating the holiday properly and pretend like nothing’s wrong. That’s what holidays are for.

So he deflects, "Alright, what else do we need?"

Kakashi rustles up the list Sasuke scribbled on the back of a receipt and reads, "Glutinous rice, sweet ginger syrup, and… you literally just wrote 'shit to put in the balls'."

Sasuke flinches; "… I did?"

"You did," Kakashi sighs, "We are completely out of our depth here, aren’t we?"

"We should’ve brought Pakkun," Sasuke grumbles, "He’s more competent than both of us put together."

A warm, feminine voice chuckles from behind them, "Well I’m not a dog, but hopefully I’ll do in a pinch."

Sasuke jumps and Kakashi turns easily to the source. Tsubaki Haruno is smirking mostly at Kakashi, mauve hair pulled up and away to counterbalance the large scarf around her neck and a shopping basket balanced in the crook of her elbow. Sasuke finds his throat going dry. He hasn’t spoken to Sakura’s mother since before Sakura left. He’s seen her around, certainly, but every time she’s even gotten close to looking his way he’s gone sprinting in the other direction. What do you even say to a woman whose daughter you let run away to be an international criminal?

If Kakashi’s any indication, you smile beneath your mask and sigh, "You’re a life saver, Tsubaki. Did we catch you en route to the Nohara Winter Solstice feast?"

Tsubaki rolls her eyes and bumps Kakashi with her hip as she effortlessly takes the lead; "And listen to my uncle from Tea Country tell me exactly how he feels about divorce and single motherhood? Gag me. So, have the two of you made tangyuan before?"

Kakashi and Sasuke in perfect harmony go to scratch at the back of their necks and mumble something vague to the effect of "Well it was a long time ago" or "I mean I was kind of young when…" in a vain attempt to dance around the incredibly depressing facts of their lives.

Tsubaki watches them for a few moments before chuckling into her hand; "I see. You need more help than I thought. Alright, follow me, and do take notes. This will be on the test."

Sasuke turns on his Sharingan and Tsubaki lets out a bewildered, coughing laugh; "Not like that!"

Tsubaki lets Sasuke and Kakashi know exactly how out of their depth they were by grabbing the ingredients to make sweet ginger syrup instead of some sort of prepackaged, premade version of it. She knows exactly where everything is in the store without having to scan the aisle labels and can somehow tell the difference between identical-looking ginger roots just by picking them up. She asks them if they’d prefer black sesame or red bean filling and Sasuke’s response of "Whichever is less sweet" earns him an incredulous look and Tsubaki grabbing both. Once she’s gotten everything for tangyuan she starts getting extra helpings of the ingredients she already had in her shopping basket, because of course Sasuke and Kakashi are joining her for dinner, when was that ever in doubt?

As they stand in line for the checkout counter with her Kakashi leans in and whispers, "Before you ask, yes, she’s always like this."

Sasuke opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. He isn’t sure what’s more confusing, Sakura’s mother sweeping them into a Winter Solstice dinner with next to no prompting, or that Kakashi knows her well enough that he’s not surprised by it.

Any trepidation Sasuke feels being in Sakura’s house for the first time in over a year is shoved away by Tsubaki immediately putting him to work. She ropes Kakashi into helping her prepare the ingredients for hotpot on her left and directs Sasuke through the process for making tangyuan on her right. Sasuke follows her instructions for making the fillings almost to the letter, only deviating to put half the recommended dose of powdered sugar in the black sesame filling.

The hospital has gotten Sasuke used to juggling a thousand tasks at once, so he quickly finds a rhythm. When the rice dough needs to sit he goes back to the ginger syrup, when that needs to sit he works on a filling, and when that needs a rest he’s back to the rice dough. Beyond listening for Tsubaki’s instructions and corrections, the world outside what Sasuke needs to do in the next five minutes falls into the background, blurred and muffled. Before he knows it he’s dropping the last of the tangyuan in a pot of boiling water, then leaning back on the table and letting out a long breath.

Tsubaki smiles over at him and remarks, "They look good! We still need the sink down here so why don’t you go ahead and wash up in the bathroom? It’s upstairs at the end of the hall."

Kakashi’s eye crinkles at the corner as he asks, "Does this mean I get a break too?"

Tsubaki grins and points at him with the knife in her hand; "Just a short one. You are nowhere near done, Mister."

Something about watching them banter makes Sasuke mutter a quick, "Yeah, okay, be back in a second," and dart out of the kitchen without a second look. He flies up the stairs and down the hall, locking himself in the bathroom and taking his time washing his hands. As he stares at the water he lets his mind wander– always a bad idea. Tsubaki was getting the ingredients for hotpot before she found them, but she said she wasn’t going to eat with her family.

Either she was going to subject herself to an evening of her family talking around the fact that her daughter was missing and blew it off for just two people doing that, or she was going to have a meal for a group by herself. Sasuke shuts his eyes and splashes water on his face. He starts making his way out of the bathroom and back down to the first floor.

Sasuke pauses midway down the stairs when he hears Kakashi’s voice, clearer than ever, asking softly, "So, how are you holding up?"

Sasuke’s feet put down roots in the stairs. Kakashi’s mask is off. He, Naruto, and Sakura once wasted a week and a half trying to get that thing off him. He’s halfway through an Invisible Cloak Jutsu when he hears Tsubaki’s answering chuckle. It’s a raw, ragged thing, like the words alone put her on the edge of tears. Sasuke is frozen mid-hand sign.

Tsubaki replies, "If you were anyone else, Kakashi…"

"Sorry," he breathes, "I imagine you get that question enough these days."

Sasuke slowly lets his hands fall to his sides. He settles down on the stair and leans his head against the wall, closing his eyes. He feels like he’s eight years old again, listening in on his parents talking in hushed whispers about Itachi acting out more and more.

"It’s not that they’re asking it’s how they’re asking," Tsubaki snaps, the sound of her chopping vegetables coming to a stop, "They’re asking it like they did after Rin, after the divorce. The worst part about it isn’t even that they’ve all given up on Sakura– They have, Kakashi, you know they have, don’t give me that look."

"I wasn’t about to argue," Kakashi replies, "Her name’s in the Bingo Book, I know for a fact they’ve given up on her."

Everything is silent for a few moments before Tsubaki growls through gritted teeth, "The way people talk to me… It’s like they’re not even surprised. Like it’s just habit to pity me for losing people, like that’s just who I’m always going to be. I’m not their neighbor or their seamstress or even that shit head teenager who would go around putting firecrackers in the mailboxes of the clan compounds, I’m just… the woman who gets left behind."

There’s the sound of chair legs scraping on a wood floor. There are no footfalls, but Sasuke can hear the sound of rustling fabric. There’s the sound of something being set down on the wooden cutting board, and Tsubaki letting out a shuddering sigh. He doesn’t want to put the sounds together into a picture, but human instinct makes him do it anyway. Kakashi at the very least is at her side, maybe with an arm around her shoulders. From the muffled sound of Tsubaki’s breathing, he’s probably closer than that.

A long moment passes before Tsubaki asks, "I’m sure you’re just as sick of the question as I am, but it’s only fair– How are you holding up?"

A groan from Kakashi, the sound of skin hitting skin, and his voice is briefly muffled when he replies, "It’s like… Do you ever just feel yourself falling into bad patterns, and by the time you think you should be doing something about them you’re already back in the deepest part of the rut? Every morning I keep telling myself today is the day I’m going to stop isolating myself and maybe I’ll spend the day training with Sasuke or fucking around with Gai or something, but then I blink and I’ve taken another mission near the Land of Sound. It’s a miracle I’m even here today."

"It’s only gotten worse now that Sasuke’s a chunin, hasn’t it," Tsubaki murmurs, not even pretending it’s a question.

"Exponentially," Kakashi sighs, "I thought… I was so sure I’d outgrown this. I thought I was done chasing shadows and trying to force solutions when they aren’t going to come and throwing myself into combat so I don’t have to think about all the progress I’m not making and I… I thought I was ready to step up and be the fucking adult for once but I keep… I just keep letting these kids down. Sasuke needs me now, Sakura needed me before, Naruto’s always needed me and I keep pawning them off to other people or just letting them run loose and… I thought I was better than this."

"Trust me," Tsubaki murmurs with a sound like a hand rubbing fabric, "Grief has a way of making us all devolve into younger, worse versions of ourselves. I mean, you remember when you broke the news to me a year ago. I turned right back into that girl too angry and self-centered to realize slapping one of the most powerful ninja in the village might be a bad idea."

Kakashi lets out a choked laugh; "Oh God don’t call me that. I’m nowhere near that good, are you kidding me?"

"Civilian, remember? I have no sense of scale," Tsubaki snickers, "An academy student’s as dangerous to me as the Hokage. And as far as I’m concerned you’re the most dangerous man in Fire Country. Orochimaru should be quaking in his boots."

"You’re terrible at flattery," Kakashi remarks, barely suppressed laughter in his voice.

"Suisen said the same thing all the time," Tsubaki shoots back playfully, "It was one of his grievances during the divorce, 'didn’t stroke my ego enough'. Wasn’t the only thing he thought I didn’t stroke enough, of course–"

Kakashi is laughing from the belly now, trying and mostly failing to speak through the laughter; "You– You’re terrible, you– You have a child, you’re a grown woman–"

He devolves into more breathless laughter and Tsubaki laughs breezily along with him. Sasuke opens his eyes by a fraction, staring through his eyelashes at the light at the bottom of the stairs.

After the laughter peters out Tsubaki speaks again, her tone warm and resolute; "She is coming back, Kakashi. Whether that means she comes home on her own or you have to drag her back. I believe that."

"I wish I had that kind of faith," Kakashi murmurs, "If I did, maybe I’d be here more often instead of constantly trying to chase her down."

"Well, try to be here right now," she replies, "Little steps, Kakashi. They’re all we can take."

"Yeah," he whispers, and Sasuke’s sure he’s saying something else, but with another rustle of clothes it’s muffled again. Sasuke stays on the stair, temple pressed to the wall, and keeps waiting. He waits until the silence breaks and the sounds of cooking fill the first floor of the house, the smell of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin wafting up the stairs and surrounding him. And then he waits some more.

He waits until he hears Tsubaki call, "Sasuke, dinner’s almost ready! You alright up there?"

Sasuke forms a few hand signs, and when he opens his mouth his voice comes from further up the stairs; "Yeah, fine, I’m coming!"

He pauses for a moment, then stands up and walks the rest of the way down to the kitchen. Kakashi, mask back in place, jokes about him hiding up there to get out of having to help cook with that look in his eye he always gets when he’s seen right through him. Sasuke just deflects by sitting down at the kitchen table and asking Tsubaki how close to ready 'almost' means.

The three of them feast on the best hotpot Sasuke’s ever had, Tsubaki asking Sasuke question after question about his work at the hospital and Kakashi eating from behind a fabric catalogue because Tsubaki forbade Icha Icha Paradise at the table. Sasuke tells her only the nice stories, only the lives saved and the weird complaints at the clinic and the births he’s had to assist with. Kakashi doesn’t talk any shop, instead sharing anecdotes about Gai’s challenges and cute things Pakkun did when he was a puppy. Tsubaki shares only the mundane civilian gossip she’s picked up at work, even though a seamstress for ninja probably has to repair her fair share of bloodstained clothes.

They have the tangyuan for dessert. They’re sweet, but bearable, and Sasuke eats as many of them as he can stomach. Then he eats a few more.

He spends the whole night pretending nothing’s wrong, because that’s what holidays are for.

27, January, 1001

Orochimaru’s eyes roam across the lab as he remarks, "Doing some independent research, are we?"

Sakura nearly leaps out of her skin, whirling away from one of the whiteboards she’s colonized with all manner of loose leaf documents pinned up by magnets. She’s quickly running out of space for her to write chemistry equations, draw Punnett Squares, and scribble near-illegible comments. By Sakura’s standards this room is a complete mess. The unspooled scrolls and open books are only organized in alphabetical order on the tables they’ve been isolated to. She’s even gone as far as to drag one of the microfiche readers all the way from the archives and plant it in the corner with a whole case of microfilm.

Sakura opens her mouth just in time for a puff of smoke to burst into being right above her. A little white pit viper curled around another scroll falls out of the smoke and into Sakura’s waiting hands. The snake trades the scroll for winding around Sakura’s wrist. Sakura looks from the snake to the scroll and finally back to Orochimaru.

"I can explain."

Orochimaru’s chuckle comes out far warmer than he intends as he wades deeper into the controlled chaos; "I’m sure you can."

He meanders over to the nearest whiteboard and skims it’s contents. His eyebrows leap up when he finds a page of his own lab notes on the experiments he conducted with Hashirama’s cells back in the Leaf Village– surrounded by Sakura’s own notes in dry erase marker, of course.

"Well now," Orochimaru remarks, stepping back and tapping the notes with his knuckles, "I knew you were ambitious, but I didn’t think you’d go shooting for the moon quite this early!"

Sakura blows a couple locks of hair out of her eyes and replies, "I mean, that’s not exactly what I’m… I’d been digitizing most of the material we had on the First Hokage and Wood Style already, and since I had to read it all I got to thinking about it, and after a little bit I just started thinking that…"

Sakura’s eyes dart this way and that, like she’s looking to see who’s listening, before blurting out, "Either the First was an alien or a liar because there’s no natural physical way Wood Style should work like people say it does."

Orochimaru blinks several times, wide-eyed, before turning and leaning his hip against one of the tables with a sigh, "An alien, maybe not, but certainly a freak of nature. I’ve seen his cells, Little Flower, that man was an anomaly the likes of which we’ll probably never see again."

"Yeah, but," Sakura cuts in, eyes now wide and bright, "But that’s just it, I don’t think anyone’s really considered exactly how he’s an anomaly because nobody really thinks about how combination elemental style Kekkei Genkai work! Like think about it, why are these styles Kekkei Genkai at all? Like in theory anyone who masters the two styles that make it up should be able to at least get started on learning one of the combination styles, right? People can learn and master any of the elemental styles, some are just harder than others based on your natural affinities, so why not these?"

Orochimaru arches a brow and cocks his head ever so slightly to one side; "Don’t think you’re the first to ask that question, Little Flower."

Sakura frowns and lets out a puff of exasperated air; "I know I’m not, why do you think I have all this stuff out? I’ve been looking through all the scholarship we have, trying to see if anyone’s proposed the same hypothesis I have, and nobody has."

"Really," Orochimaru laughs, "A bold claim, dear! You had my interest, now you have my attention."

Sakura’s whole face lights up. Orochimaru watches her pin her hair back and race around the room, pulling all the whiteboards together so her notes are all in one place. He’s seen her driven, he’s seen her focused and attentive and proud. He’s never seen her excited like this. It radiates out from her, filling the whole room up to the ceiling. He almost wants to say she’s blooming, but perhaps that’d be a bit much.

Once she’s pulled all the boards together Sakura whirls around and launches in, "Okay, so, most of the time when discussing how chakra natures work and trying to describe how combination natures happen people talk about it in terms of it being a matter of instinct– Someone with the Kekkei Genkai just whips it out in a burst of adrenaline then can start practicing with it once they know they have it because they know how to get to it again. And for some incredibly gifted people yeah, that’s true– But think about it, I needed help to find out what my chakra nature even was and I bet you did too, right?"

Orochimaru nods; "Most clanless or minor clan ninja need to have their nature tested, that’s true."

"Exactly, so why is it that the clan ninja with these kekkei genkai are different? They aren’t," Sakura continues, darting over to another whiteboard, "If they were left to their own devices they’d need to get that tested like anyone else but the clans have generations of experience under their belt that tells them it’s a sixty percent chance or better what their children’s chakra nature will be. They’re probably checking at birth just to be sure, and just like clan kids come into the academy with extra training from family to boost them up these clans with these Kekkei Genkai come in already knowing their chakra natures and the basics of how to knead chakra into their element."

Sakura leaps over to one of her Punnett Squares and points to it as she rattles on, "And, and, these ninja– These clans, generally what comes with a Kekkei Genkai is some kind of physical abnormality, whether it’s something as huge as the Hōzuki ability to just melt or something as subtle as the Sharingan. But as far as we know there’s nothing like that in the combination styles, except maybe some kind of mutation in the chakra network, but when those have been documented they usually affect chakra control and capacity. Which I mean, that actually kind of helps my point but– No, no, back on topic–"

Orochimaru blinks; "I wasn’t aware we hopped off."

Sakura talks and redoes one of her chemistry equations at the same time; "If there’s no obvious physical abnormality and there’s no abnormalities in the chakra network– which, of course, we can’t be sure there aren’t– then it stands to reason there’s only one actual difference on a physical level between a ninja without one of these kekkei genkai and one with it. They’re born with two elemental affinities, and what does having an elemental affinity get you? Well, beyond a susceptibility to the opposing element that can be downplayed through training and equipment, considering it doesn’t lock you out of learning any of the other elements all it really does is make learning the basics easier! It’s like any other talent! When the basics are easy practicing is fun, and when practicing is fun you can ramp up the intricacy and complexity at a faster rate than someone who struggles with the basics!"

Sakura whirls around and slaps her open palm on the center of the whiteboard; "So what I’m getting at is that combination natures aren’t a matter of physical difference or instinct or character! They’re a matter of time and privilege and control! All the Kekkei Genkai grants is being born with two natural affinities, so they have a much easier time mastering both, and that gives them a head start on the chakra control required to mold their chakra into the component elements then mold them back together into the combination element and then form that into a technique! For most ninja doing all of that would require years of training to learn how and an hour to actually perform, but clans with these Kekkei Genkai have been working on the style for centuries so they have expediting that process down to a science! Anyone should be able to use any combination style, even Wood! Isn’t that crazy?!"

Orochimaru’s eyes have gone wide, and it takes him a few moments to reply, "Crazy indeed. I enjoy a good iconoclastic hypothesis as much as the next scientist, but if this is the case then I still don’t see why the First Hokage is the only person we know of to use Wood Style."

Sakura’s shoulders sink a bit as she turns back to her work; "I’m still working on that. I think I can answer at least why he was able to use it to the extent he did– From what I’ve read it sounds like his chakra reserves were absolutely massive, and he had this life force that was just… insane. He could sleep off injuries that force people into retirement at best, kill them at worst. The Rock assassins that did him in had to collapse an entire mountain range on him and then decapitate him when he crawled out of the rubble. Wood Style is different from the other combination styles in that you’re creating something that’s alive, so– Like–"

Sakura waves a frustrated hand through the air; "Life needs things to live, and if you’re gonna just summon a full grown tree out of nowhere you become the thing that gives it life. The First could create forests and gigantic goddess statues because he had enough life force and chakra to spare to do it. So that’s my working theory as to how he can do so much, and as for him being the only… That’s why I’m ready to call the First a liar because I don’t think for a second he was the only one. Maybe we can’t find anyone going forward with the Kekkei Genkai, but if we look back…"

Sakura goes quiet for a moment, then throws her head back with a massive sigh; "And that’s where I’m stuck."

Orochimaru can’t help an incredulous laugh; "That’s where you’re stuck?"

"Yeah," Sakura exclaims, throwing her hands up, "Between clans guarding their secrets with their lives and village archives always being the first things hit when they fall under siege in a war the historical record turns into a spotty mess before the founding of the Leaf Village! The Senju clan is too scattered and watered down for any word about them after the founding of the village to be worth much, but if we had historical evidence and precedent to work with…"

Sakura slaps her hands against her forehead and drags them down her face, groaning, "It’s no use. Any facility that’d have that kind of information is under guard too heavy to break through. This is the end of the line."

Orochimaru slides in next to her and points to the snake around her wrist; "Isn’t that what these little ones are for?"

Sakura frowns as she runs a finger along the back of the snake; "Well I mean, to an extent, yeah. But you know the snakes, even the big ones are really literal-minded. You have to know exactly what you need and know for sure it’ll be small enough for them to carry before sending them off. I only sent this little guy out because I’ve checked this scroll out of the Leaf Library so many times I could describe it in my sleep."

Orochimaru gasps, leaning back like he’s about to faint; "You stole from the library?! Oh my dear I knew I was a terrible influence on you, but you’ve gone much too far! What kind of monster have I raised?!"

Sakura holds up her hand and the little viper lashes out to bite for Orochimaru’s wrist. He whips it out of the way and cuffs Sakura on the back of the head, knocking her bangs loose from their pins. Sakura mutters an apology and Orochimaru grins at her ever-increasing cheek.

He pushes off the table and makes the rounds of Sakura’s research. She isn’t wrong about that kind of historical precedent being a nightmare to assemble. Any knowledge of the deeper past the Warring States Period didn’t eradicate in it’s two centuries of rampant violence is hoarded by the villages like a dragon hoards gold. Ninshū historians may claim that history began with the Sage of Six Paths, but it might as well begin with Hashirama Senju. Anything before him is so scattered and abstract it’s as good as myth. Considering so much modern knowledge of Ninshū, the Sage, and his descendants comes from scrolls squirreled away in the Temples of the Tailed Beasts for the nine hundred years before their escape it might just be myth–

And a lightbulb goes off above Orochimaru’s head.

"Sakura, my dear," Orochimaru trills, turning to her with a grin, "As always you show a penchant for thinking inside every single corner and seam of the box, but never even considering the outside. Tell me, Little Flower, what other places beyond the hidden villages would have interest in the past as it pertains to ninjutsu and the working of chakra?"

Just as he predicted she would, Sakura stares at him like he just asked her to describe what the inside of the moon looks like.

Orochimaru takes Sakura by the shoulders and shakes her as he cackles, "Ninshū temples! Ninshū monasteries! The religion was revived by scrolls hidden in the tailed beasts’ temples, who’s to say they aren’t sitting on even more?! What more secure place to keep your records than in a place meant to be sacred filled with a whole class of people trained in the art of manipulating chakra who have nothing better to do than be on guard at all times?!"

Sakura grabs his arms to steady herself, stammering, "Y-you’re… Actually yeah you’re right but– But that just means they’re also really well-guarded–"

Orochimaru wags a finger in her face; "Ah ah ah, Little Flower! You forget how complacent people can get when they live in peace and isolation for generations! That doesn’t just apply to the monks– That applies to anyone else trying to sack their compounds. If the monks are expecting anything, it’s a full frontal assault by people trying to overpower them with brute force. They won’t be expecting an infiltrator using genjutsu, now will they?"

Sakura’s eyes go wide; "I– You want me to–?! I will, but can I– I-I’ll need a team, if you let me assemble a team I can guarantee you I can do it, I–"

The fact that Orochimaru’s impulse is to say yes makes his blood run cold.

He pulls his mouth into a sneer; "This is training, Sakura. And you won’t learn anything if you lean on others. You won’t be getting a team. You’ll be getting a handler, to make sure you don’t stray too far."

Sakura’s shoulders sink; "I… That’s… Yes, Sir."

Orochimaru reaches out and runs a finger along the spine of the viper on her wrist; "And besides, you’re a snake summoner now, Little Flower. We’re never really alone, are we?"

Sakura looks down at her feet; "… No, we aren’t, Sir."

Orochimaru tips her chin up so he can look her in the eye. She probably thinks that she’s hidden that spark of defiance somewhere deep and dark, but it burns as bright as a wildfire.

Orochimaru grins as his stomach turns and hisses, "There’s a good girl."

25, February, 1001

Lee winds the last of the linen wrappings around his wrist with a smile; "Alright, everyone remembers the rules?"

Sasuke rolls his eyes as he rolls his shoulders; "No Sharingan."

Neji tucks a few flyaway strands of hair into his high and tight bun; "No Byakugan."

"And no Gates," Lee finishes, smile widening out to a grin as he slides into his ready stance, "If your back hits the floor and stays there for ten seconds, you are out. We start on the count of three. One…"

Neji drops into his stance; "Two…"

Sasuke takes a deep breath in, then surges towards Neji with a shout of, "THREE!"

Sasuke’s whirling roundhouse kick clips the side of Neji’s head as he jolts up and out of reach, swerving around both jabs that come after. He whirls back in and answers with a palm thrust and two precise strikes for bundles of chakra points on Sasuke’s neck. Sasuke easily bobs and weaves around all three strikes. Before he has the chance to jeer something about a medic never getting hit, he feels a rush of wind behind him and ducks beneath a high kick from Lee. Lee goes low as Sasuke’s popping back up, sweeping his ankles and knocking Sasuke off his feet.

He was taught that a medic should never get hit. But Sasuke has two teachers, and the other one taught him to turn every hit the opponent scores against them.

Sasuke shifts his weight mid-fall. The second his shoulders hit the ground he spins his body around, legs whirling in a wide circle, lightning chakra surging around them in bolts and sparks. They connect with a loud crackle, knocking Neji back and sending Lee sprawling into a half-melted snowdrift. Sasuke flips himself upright just in time to see Neji pull a Practice Brick wall up from the dirt. With a burst of physical force and compressed chakra Neji sends the wall rocketing across the ground straight at Sasuke. Sasuke pulls chakra into his arms and redirects the excess into his feet. When the wall hits Sasuke catches it. He skids back several inches, the chakra in his feet not quite enough to anchor him, then punches straight through the wall. The force of the blow sends rubble flying like shrapnel from a grenade.

In the split second Sasuke uses to shield his eyes from the flying bits of rock he’s grabbed from behind. Lee flips Sasuke around and forces him down onto his back, pinning him with a knee on his stomach and a hand on his chest. He brings up his free hand and strikes twice at Sasuke’s face. Sasuke bobs around them both. Lee cracks the ground with the force of his blows. Sasuke leverages his core and his legs to shift his weight and flips them again, putting Lee on his back. He channels lightning chakra down his arm and into his fingers. He pokes both of Lee’s shoulders, the lightning coursing through his nerve endings and temporarily disrupting the electrical impulses. Lee’s arms both fall limp at his sides.

Sasuke doesn’t get to take advantage of that. From the corner of his eye he just barely catches Neji finishing a round of hand signs and making a sweeping motion with his arm. The entire snowdrift behind Sasuke surges up like a tidal wave and crashes into him, knocking him off of Lee and sending him tumbling away. Sasuke scrambles out of the snow, lightly bruised and soaking wet. He grits his teeth– if he uses any more lightning style techniques like this he’ll do just as much damage to himself as his opponents.

He calls over to Neji, "You’re an asshole, you know that?!"

Neji grins; "Takes one to know one."

Sasuke can’t form a witty response to that, not when Lee is leaping to his feet and proclaiming, "This is nothing! I train with my arms bound all the time, it will take more than this to stop me!"

Lee running with his arms flapping uselessly behind him like ribbons would be a comical image if it wasn’t followed up by Lee pulling his leg up like a flamingo and kicking to knock Sasuke’s head off his shoulders. Sasuke swerves around his lightning fast foot, teeth grit and eyes wide.

"Shouldn’t have agreed to train with both of you," Sasuke grouses, "I knew you’d gang up on me."

Sasuke concentrates chakra in the sole of his foot and stomps the ground. It doesn’t come out as pure, earth-shattering force, but instead a burst of flame that sends Neji and Lee leaping back and dries Sasuke off. Neji lands ankle deep in another snowdrift. He races through a hand signs and bright blue water chakra sloughs off of him, into the slush. The snow rises up around him and separates into loosely held together balls, each the size of a fist. Neji throws out several empty palm thrusts and with each one a slushball goes flying towards Sasuke. Sasuke drops to his stomach and all of them smack Lee in the chest.

Lee glares at Neji and jukes around Sasuke so he’s in between the two of them. He throws a pair of butterfly kicks, one cracking Neji across the jaw and the other barely missing Sasuke’s chin. As Lee lands on his feet and his arms swing to dangle in front of him he flexes his fingers, then his elbows, then his shoulders. The technique’s worn off, and now Lee is twice as dangerous.

Sasuke channels lightning chakra down his arms and throws two jabs, one for Neji’s cheekbone and one for Lee’s forehead. Neji’s eyes zero in on a point beneath Lee and Sasuke’s jaws before thrusting his fingers like spears right for them. Lee lobs a pair of good, old-fashioned body blows at both of his sparring partners.

All three screech to a halt. Neji’s fingertips are an inch away from Sasuke and Lee’s throats. The lightning crackling around Sasuke’s hands shines in Lee and Neji’s eyes. Lee’s fists are exactly one inch away from Sasuke and Neji’s stomachs, and they both know an inch is all he needs. The three stare at each other, breath heaving, hearts racing, eyes wide.

"Okay," Sasuke wheezes, "Here’s the deal. On the count of three, we all back off and call this round a draw."

Lee bobs his head in a shallow nod; "One…"

Neji keeps his eyes locked on their hands; "Two…"


All three of them drop their hands to their sides. Sasuke lets the moment sit for exactly one second before whipping his leg around and slamming his shin into Neji’s side with a burst of chakra he’d been building up all fight. Neji goes flying into Lee and they both sail all the way across the garden and through the back wall of the Hyuuga Compound. Sasuke grins at the quickly clearing cloud of dust and rubble and strolls through the hole– easily done, considering it’s at least five feet across. Neji and Lee are lying on their backs, Neji groaning through grit teeth and Lee coughing up all the dust he’d swallowed.

Sasuke places his hands on his hips and counts, "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. I win."

Neji doesn’t respond with words. He responds by narrowing his eyes and, quick as a cobra, sitting up and jabbing his fingers into the upper left quadrant of Sasuke’s abdomen. Sasuke shouts out a swear in time with his spleen rupturing.

"What the fuck Neji?!"

Neji just smirks; "Now it’s a draw."

After dusting themselves off the three boys settle down on the Branch Manor’s back porch, Lee and Neji taking grateful gulps of bottled water while Sasuke casually works on mending the damage Neji did to his spleen.

Lee smiles over at the two of them and chirps, "I am impressed! Your forms have been improving, especially since we started implementing the No Dōjutsu rule!"

Sasuke rolls his eyes and uses his free elbow to jab a bruise on Lee’s shoulder; "You know we’re both just trying to catch up to you. If we can’t match you without gimmicks we might as well not be doing this at all."

Lee laughs, a flush of pride coming to his cheeks at the compliment even as he effaces, "Nonsense! Your kekkei genkai are not 'gimmicks', they are gifts! They make you unique!"

Neji rolls his eyes and scoffs, "Try feeling unique when living in a gigantic compound full of people who have the same basic skill set and learn all the same basic techniques you do."

Sasuke nods and taps at the corner of his right eye; "And when your special unique gift is literally copying other people’s moves."

Lee shakes his head; "Perhaps I misspoke– The two of you truly have a gift for reading every situation in the most cynical and unpleasant way possible."

Sasuke elbows Lee’s bruise again and snickers, "You’ve been spending too much time with Ino, her smart mouth’s starting to rub off on you."

Lee softly swats Sasuke back; "That is enough of that. Tell me, Sasuke, how is your medical training progressing?"

Sasuke takes his hand off his spleen, wisps of teal chakra retreating into his palm and up to the center of his forehead; "Considering I healed that in record time, I’d say pretty good."

Neji lets his hair down and comments, "How much 'training' are you actually doing these days? I thought most of a chunin medic’s education just comes through practice in the hospital and the field, unless they’re pursuing a specialty."

Sasuke can’t help the smirk and the urge to lift his chin; "Yeah, but I’m not most chunin medics. I’m Tsunade’s apprentice, and that means I’m not only expected to learn how to summon and utilize Katsuyu as well as a bunch of other techniques Tsunade herself invented, but also to do original research and work on creative application and adaptation– maybe even invention if it calls for it– of medical techniques to push the field forward."

Neji’s eyebrows nearly hit the seal on his forehead; "I knew her expectations for you were high, but that’s a bit much, isn’t it?"

Sasuke shrugs a shoulder; "She’s the mother of modern medical ninjutsu. I don’t think she’d expect me to do anything less than completely outclass her."

Lee leans in, eyes bright, as he asks, "So what are you considering for your research?"

"Forget considering, I’ve already gotten started," Sasuke replies, a steely glint in his eyes, "I’m researching juinjutsu. Everyone who uses it keeps it’s secrets locked down tight, so there’s next to no writing on how to unravel it. Getting Sakura back physically is only going to be half the battle. She’ll only be free once Orochimaru’s brand is off her and off her for good."

Lee drops a hand on Sasuke’s shoulder and says, "And she will be free. If anyone can, if anyone should be the one to free her, it will be you."

Neji has gone quiet, his eyes unfocused as they stare past the hole Sasuke broke in the wall.

After a moment, he straightens up and asks in a surprisingly small voice, "Sasuke… If you figured this out, would it only apply to Orochimaru’s juinjutsu?"

Sasuke stares at Neji, his brow furrowed, for a moment before replying, "I’m coming after all Juinjutsu. If I find something that works, I’ll take the seal off you myself."

Neji whips around to look at Sasuke, his eyes wide; "You… Why? T-the Main House would– If they found out you even knew how they’d–"

Sasuke cuts him off with the simple statement, "I don’t give a fuck. You deserve to be free."

Neji holds Sasuke’s gaze for several breaths, only breaking eye contact to rub at his eyes; "I think… I’m starting to understand why Hinata speaks so highly of you."

Sasuke smirks and is in the middle of a smartass remark to lighten the mood when the shoji behind them slams open. All three boys whirl around to see Hakumei Hyuuga looming above them. Her hair and the bandages that usually cover her seal are loose, her white lab coat is missing, and she’s staring past them at the gigantic hole in the compound wall with a blank expression. Her left eye twitches, once, twice. Then the veins around her eyes all bulge out at once and she glares bloody murder down at the trio of terrified chunin.

"Clean this up right now and I’ll consider keeping this to myself," Hakumei growls, "Though I’m damn sure Gai and Tsunade would be very interested in how your latest sparring session went."

The boys have leapt from the porch and are scrambling to collect all the salvageable pieces of stone before she’s even finished.

Chapter Text

春 二

22, March, 1001

What the territory between the Land of Waterfalls and the Land of Sound is called is mostly a matter of opinion.

The Five Great Elemental Nations mark it on their maps as the Land of Swamps, as it had preferred back when it had a daimyō and a village to back up it’s claims to autonomy. Any smaller nations with no stake in the politics of the Lands of Sound or Waterfall either do the same or just mark it’s borders with dotted lines and call it Contested Territory. The daimyō and kage of Sound and Waterfall on their maps and in their official statements claim the peninsula as theirs even as they fight day in and day out to see who can hold it the longest.

Sakura has come to know it by a much more descriptive name– No Man’s Land.

It describes the landscape as much as the political situation. The weeping willows and cypresses along the border have been reduced to blackened spires reminiscent of a burnt-down match. The swamps run black with soot. The ground is pockmarked with the scars of artillery shells and jutsu, and more than once her ANBU handler has to warn her that she’s about to step on a land mine. Sakura sees scores of abandoned, ruined villages before she sees one where people still live, and their presence is really the only aesthetic difference. The only features shared by most people of No Man's Land are drawn faces, knobby joints, and visible ribs. They speak in accents and dialects that run the gamut of the triangle formed by the Lands of Earth, Fire, and Lightning. They make their living by selling what scrap of the battlefield they can salvage, when they make a living at all. It's a home for those with literally nowhere else to go.

No Man’s Land is a country without a state, which makes it the perfect place to go to do dirty business. Sakura’s heard that rumor, but only sees it in action when Kabuto materializes from the shadows to cleanly kill and replace her handler.

"So, which would you prefer," Kabuto asks as he casually changes into the dead man’s fatigues, "Badger dies in the assault on the monastery or during the journey there?"

Even after a year and a half, Sakura hates that she has to make choices like this; "During the assault. That way you can head back sooner and don’t have to pretend your mission ran overlong."

Kabuto’s smirk carries none of the hidden warmth of Orochimaru’s; "And leave you to get back by yourself? That wouldn’t be very gentlemanly of me, would it?"

If Suigetsu is an ally and Jūgo a friend Kabuto is a cellmate, biding his time until they breach the prison walls. That suits Sakura fine.

Sakura rolls her eyes; "Well, you aren’t a gentleman. No point in pretending to be one now."

The second bit of dirty business takes them deep into the swamps, to a town built on stilts to slow it’s descent into the soft ground. The ramshackle buildings resemble mushrooms in how they seem to grow in terraces from the trees. Orochimaru had intended Sakura to test her reconnaissance and information-gathering skills by sending her to find someone she’d never met with only the vaguest of headings. Kabuto has no such investment in Sakura’s development. He’s been where they’re going hundreds of times and cuts a clean path up the rickety walkways to the building that sits at the apex of the town. It's not the largest, but it is the brightest, its windows blazing while the rest flicker like dying candles.

Kabuto pounds twice on the flimsy wooden door, hard enough to make it bow inward. It’s answered by a massive man with a shaved head, an elaborate tattoo that seems to cover every inch of skin Sakura can see besides his head and hands, and a pair of swords– katana and wakizashi– hitched to his hip. His arm rests in a pantomime of laziness on the two hilts, half-lidded eyes dragging across the two of them as he sizes them up.

Kabuto takes off Badger’s mask and arches a brow; "Good to see you, Hidekazu. How’s the daughter? Still working hard in the capitol?"

Hidekazu looks over Kabuto’s shoulder to sneer at Sakura; "Who’s this?"

Kabuto puts a hand on the small of her back to push her forward; "This is Sakura Haruno, Lord Orochimaru’s newest apprentice. Say hello, Sakura."

Sakura bows at the waist; "It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sir."

Hidekazu’s sneer twists into a smirk; "So he’s got you training your replacement, huh? Maybe you should ask the boss if he’s got any openings while you’re doing business."

Kabuto grins and replies, "Now there’s an idea. Who knows? He might give me your job."

Hidekazu’s smirk falls into a scowl and he turns on his heel, stalking into the building. Kabuto follows him and Sakura follows Kabuto. The interior is draped in tacky, degraded splendor. Scrolls bordered with gold and crimson hang from the ceilings, swaying in the weak draft and growing mold in the damp air. Dozens of gold and jade trinkets litter the front room, but Sakura doesn’t need to see where it’s flaked off to know most of the gold is plating. The only things that aren’t rusting or moldering are the firearms mounted on the walls. Artillery is considered a coward’s weapon in the Leaf Village. There are more firearms in this room than Sakura’s ever seen in her entire life. She spies arquebuses, cannons, mortars, and all manner of contraptions she’s never seen before. None are bolted down– they’re all mounted with the intention of taking them down at a moment’s notice.

Hidekazu leads them down a narrow hallway and through a bead curtain standing in place of a door. Sakura is first struck by the strong scent of kizami before she can take in any other sensory details. She has to cover her mouth and nose to hide a cough, and from the look Kabuto shoots her she can tell she didn’t succeed. The room is filled with a haze of smoke that makes Sakura’s eyes water as she strains to see through it. She expected several dozens of people all enjoying their own pipes, but there’s only one man sitting in the center of the room.

Sakura’s not proud of how her eyes immediately zero in on the massive third degree burn starting halfway up his skull, creeping down the left edge of his face, pouring down his neck and disappearing into his loosely-tied robes. His left arm ends several inches above the elbow, his sleeve tied into a knot at the stump. His right leg shifts below the knee, trousers cuffed around the top of a strange marriage of a peg leg and a mortar.

He clears his throat and Sakura forces her eyes up to his face, where a pair of pale green eyes regard her coolly. His auburn hair has been tied into a short tail but pieces have mutinied to fall in his face instead. He hasn’t shaved in at least a week. Balanced precariously between his fingers sits a pipe, over a foot long, forged from silver in the shape of a dragon in flight. He’s perched on a throne made from threadbare cushions, all stained sickly shades of brown from sitting in this constant cloud of smoke.

The man arches a brow and drawls, "And how old’s this one?"

Kabuto tilts his head to one side and remarks, "I believe she’ll be fifteen in a little under a week."

The man rolls his eyes and shifts his pipe to sit between his ring finger and pinky so he can rub at his temple; "Great. Fuckin’ ninja…"

Sakura arches a brow; "You are the powdermonger, right? I thought you’d be used to how ninja do business by now."

He narrows his eyes and jabs his pipe at her, snapping, "First– I don’t care what dumbass rank your village gave you, you’re fourteen and if you sass me again you’re getting a lesson in manners courtesy of Kaz’s swords. Second– I am used to how you do business, but that doesn’t mean I gotta like it."

He wags the pipe in Kabuto’s direction; "The Hell’s she even doing here, Kabuto? Is this another one of Snake Eyes’ mind games or does he really think a teenager doing his business deals is a good idea?"

Kabuto shrugs and simply says, "You know Lord Orochimaru well enough now to know it’s a bit of both."

The man shakes his head and sighs, "Whatever. It’s not my problem. What’s the occasion? Your regular order’s on it’s way and we got the payment yesterday."

Kabuto strolls a little further into the room, crossing his arms behind his back; "Well we’ve actually come to negotiate for a few more kegs, if you can spare them, of course. You see, Zhàdàn, there was a nasty situation brewing in Tadami last Fall. The civilians were planning a little uprising, nothing new… Except for the fact that one of them had managed to purchase some gunpowder of their own."

Sakura catches from the corner of her eye Hidekazu’s hand closing around the hilt of his katana. Zhàdàn doesn’t flinch.

"Fascinating," he drones.

"It kind of is," Kabuto remarks, "I mean, the one law any of the daimyō can agree on is that the sale of gunpowder and firearms to civilians is strictly prohibited. For a powdermonger to risk his freedom by breaking the law, and more importantly his reputation with the hidden villages by enabling popular uprisings…"

Kabuto’s smirk turns sharp; "He must be an idealist, or very desperate."

Zhàdàn holds Kabuto’s gaze for a few moments before taking a long drag from his pipe and blowing the smoke directly into Kabuto’s face. Kabuto flinches, right eye twitching, but he holds his smirk.

"Tell Snake Eyes he can shove this shitty little blackmail routine up his ass," Zhàdàn grouses, reclining against the wall, "It’s mutually assured destruction if either of us sing and we both know it. You want more powder? I’m happy to sell it, but this shit ain’t gonna get you a fuckin’ discount, xīxuèguǐ."

Now that’s a word Sakura hasn’t heard in quite a while. Her relatives from down South would always spit it when taxes came up at the dinner table or when telling her mother to withdraw Sakura from the academy, with or without Sakura’s consent. Tenten’s parents and siblings would grumble it after tense conversations with the clan parents at academy functions. It leaked into her own mother’s vocabulary when one of her shinobi clients tried to pull rank over a handful of ryo.

She can use that.

Sakura steps forward, tilting her head to one side; "Are you from Southern Fire Country or Tea Country?"

Zhàdàn arches a brow; "What’s it matter? Either way I’m way further North than I ever wanted to be."

Sakura shrugs a shoulder; "Well, it’s one thing to be far from home. It’s another thing entirely to be this far and… well, holed up here selling gunpowder to civilians and a hidden village two of the great elemental nations have condemned."

Zhàdàn lets his mouth quirk up at the corner; "Trust me, Pinky, if I could sell to legit clients I would. ’S far more profitable."

Kabuto regains his composure and remarks, "Really? If I’d known you were blacklisted already I would’ve saved myself the trouble of threatening you."

Zhàdàn rolls his eyes; "Here’s the other thing about you ninja– Shit’s always dramatic with you. I ain’t on any list, black or otherwise. Gunpowder’s been around for hundreds of years and people have been sellin’ it for just as long. Nowadays, though, through their exclusive legal claim to the shit the villages control the trade. Every village found their guy when they set up and they’ve been on contract with them for four generations. Small businessmen like myself have to content ourselves with the change that falls between the cushions– criminals, madmen, revolutionaries, you get it."

Sakura sits down across from Zhàdàn and remarks, "It seems like criminals and madmen would be more lucrative than revolutionaries, or even some villages. They can definitely pay you more… What did Tadami’s people pay you?"

Zhàdàn tilts his head to one side, regarding her suspiciously; "What does that matter?"

Sakura tucks her legs underneath herself; "Well, I don’t come from a shinobi family. My mother’s family are tailors and my father’s are textile merchants. I would help out around my family’s shop before ninja work left me too busy, and I started to notice something. The prices my family would quote fluctuated, not depending on how difficult the order was but on our clients. They’d charge the shinobi more than the civilians every time."

Sakura smiles despite herself, fiddling with her hair; "I was a goody-two-shoes kid. Lots of people would argue that I still am, but I was way worse back then. I called my grandma on it, saying it wasn’t fair. She said, 'So is asking people for money they don’t have. Civilians need our services as much as ninja do'. That didn’t sit right with me, I had wondered why we didn’t just charge everyone the lower rate… Then I got my first C-Rank paycheck. In one mission I made more than my mother makes in a week."

Sakura pushes some hair behind her ear; "On the one hand, it’s good business. Easiest way to ensure loyalty in your clients is by charging a price they can regularly pay and they consider to be 'not that much' when they factor it into their budget. I can tell just from looking around that you’re at least a good enough businessman to live as well as you can in a place like this."

Zhàdàn grins and spreads his arm out wide; "Got it in one, Pinky. I can see why Snake Eyes keeps you around, you’re smart."

Sakura bows slightly from the shoulders; "Thank you, but I don’t think I did get it in one. There’s another part of that sentiment I think you and my grandmother agree on– 'Civilians need our services as much as ninja'."

Zhàdàn’s grin immediately falls. Sakura can hear one of Hidekazu’s swords coming at least an inch out of it’s sheathe. The hairs on the back of her neck rise as Kabuto starts gathering chakra.

"Sure, it’s good business to make your rates flexible depending on the client," Sakura remarks, holding her ground, "But it’s better business to cultivate a client base that sits at the intersection of 'pays you the highest rate you can get away with' and 'loyal to the end'. Criminals and madmen are better for that than revolutionary peasants who will likely die in a blaze of glory lit by the powder you sold them. A lot of people go into business just to get money. But a lot more do it because they see a need that isn’t being met."

Zhàdàn hastily breaks eye contact, grumbling around his pipe, "There a fuckin’ point to this or do you just love the sound of your own voice, Pinky?"

"There is," Sakura replies, "I’m not here to get that extra powder or blackmail you. I’m here because I have a proposition for you– If you want to pretend you’re only in this for the money, then I can open the door for you with the Leaf Village. If you want to admit that you care, then helping me will see a lot of good people getting out from under the thumb of a cruel daimyō and an even crueler kage. What I’m asking is going to sound crazy and be incredibly risky, but if we pull it off– which will be far more likely if you accept– it can be lucrative for us both."

Kabuto takes a half-step forward and taps out a message on the back of Sakura’s head; B A L L S Y.

Zhàdàn slowly lets his eyes shift back to hers; "… Just who the Hell are you, really?"

Sakura smiles; "A clanless child of civilians."

Zhàdàn is quiet. He takes a thoughtful drag from his pipe, letting the smoke leak from his nose and mouth as he stares past her. Sakura follows his eyes to a scroll on the far wall. On it is painted the story of the carp that jumped a waterfall to become a dragon.

After a moment Zhàdàn leans forward, bracing his elbow on his knee, and says, "Alright, Pinky, I’m listening. Let’s talk business."

14, April, 1001

Shizune straightens his haori for the fifth time before stepping back and beaming; "You look so handsome! You sure you don’t want me to take a picture?"

Sasuke rolls his eyes and grumbles, "It’s a clan council meeting, Shizune. I’m gonna remember it fine without pictures proving I was there."

It’s been years since he’s had to attend a clan council meeting and Sasuke still feels like he’s drowning in his formal wear. With how the rains are making his knee ache Sasuke’s dreading having to kneel for several hours almost as much as having to represent a clan of one and talk politics he’s still reacquainting himself with. Sure, almost all his friends will be here, but as the heirs (or in Kiba's case the spare, a position Sasuke remembers very well) they’re to sit a foot behind their parents and only speak if directly addressed. Tsunade both doesn’t and can’t represent the Senju, and the Incident with Kakashi’s father left him so estranged from the Hatake Clan leadership was shunted onto a completely different family.

He’s going to be all alone in there. The deep dark something in his stomach twists and Sasuke wonders why that’s suddenly a problem now. Hasn’t he been alone since the massacre? Isn’t killing Itachi his responsibility and his responsibility only?

Sasuke is quite literally pulled out of his thoughts and into a tight hug by Shizune. It’s still weird that his nose now clears Shizune’s shoulder instead of getting pressed painfully into it. Sasuke sighs, but accepts the embrace. He pats Shizune’s back half-heartedly.

Shizune whispers into his ear, "You’re gonna do great in there, I just know it."

"Yeah, thanks," Sasuke mumbles, a sheepish flush lightly dusting the tips of his ears, "Can you let go? I’m gonna be late."

Shizune reluctantly does, waving at Sasuke until he’s disappeared through the Hyuuga Clan compound gates. A member of the Branch House meets him with a low bow and quietly guides him to the main hall. He knows it’s a matter of formality and security, but the fact that he knows he could easily get there himself still makes him bristle. Sasuke has arrived early. Not uncouthly early, there are a handful of other clan heads and their heirs scattered along the meeting hall whispering to each other while Hiashi and his daughters sit (still and quiet as death) at the head of the room, but early enough that Sasuke’s surrounded by empty seats down near the end of the hall.

He hates that he can’t tell if this means they’re being sat in alphabetical or prestige order.

Sasuke only chances a wave to Hinata and a nod to Hakumei and Neji in the corner. He spends the next fifteen minutes as the rest filter in staring at the byōbu and pretending he doesn’t feel the embroidered Uchiha crest on the back of his haori heat up every time a new set of eyes runs across it. The scene painted on the screen is of a pair of lionesses fighting over a carcass while a lion watches from atop a rock. The artwork is technically beautiful, but something about the image makes Sasuke’s stomach turn.

Once the hall has filled up, Sasuke only has a moment to take stock of the situation. His friends and their parents are dotted amongst a sea of people Sasuke only vaguely recognizes. There’s only one other clan head without an heir or dowager sitting behind them. Sasuke’s the only clan head under the age of twenty. And Sasuke checks once, twice, three times, before confirming that all eyes keep darting back to him.

Sasuke resolves to keep his mouth shut as long as he can, because if he opens it there’s no guarantee he won’t immediately vomit.

Hiashi clears his throat; "This meeting of the Leaf Village Clan Council will come to order."

There’s a brief run-through of the minutes from the last meeting before they transition into addressing any old business with new developments. Sasuke had thought that now that he was a clan head-by-default expected to actually participate in these things he’d start seeing their purpose and why they weren’t the most boring things in the universe, but he is quickly proven wrong. He finds himself biting the inside of his cheek and digging his nails into his palms to keep himself awake. By the time they finish with old business Sasuke has counted all the tatami mats in the room and is working on the wooden beams in the ceiling.

"Now, onto new business," Hiashi states, "First Order– It has likely not escaped anyone’s notice that the Uchiha have rejoined us. Sasuke Uchiha, upon gaining the rank of chunin, has been given the title of Uchiha Clan Head and will be taking up the duties and authority of his late father. Sasuke, if you would say a few words to mark the occasion…?"

And there come all of Sasuke’s nerves, flooding back in like a tidal wave. Sasuke’s stomach does a flip. No eyes had ever really left him during the meeting, but now no one has to hide the fact that they’re staring him down. Across the way Sasuke catches a glimpse of Kiba shooting him a thumbs up and a big goofy grin, but his sister Hana’s hand quickly shoots out to slap him upside the head.

Sasuke shifts in place, clearing his throat, and wills his voice not to crack as he begins, "It’s an honor to be here, though I wish it was under better circumstances. In the aftermath of… the massacre, I vowed to restore the Uchiha Clan as well as avenge it. Restoration means more than just repopulation. I hope I can continue my clan’s legacy of supporting and cooperating with you all to make the Leaf Village a better place. Thank you."

There’s a soft rumble of scoffs and chuckles, but no one says anything. Sasuke thinks he spies Hinata smiling encouragingly at him from the corner of his eye, but maybe that’s just what he wants to see right now.

"Well said, Sasuke," Hiashi says, betraying absolutely nothing in his voice or on his face, "If any of you have anything to say on the matter of the Uchiha Clan’s return to this council, you may speak now."

A hand immediately goes up. It’s connected to an older woman in a dull red kimono, her graying hair cut short, with the marks of a Sarutobi Clan summoning master around her eyes. Her gaze is locked on Sasuke, her jaw clenched tight.

Hiashi inclines his head toward her; "Yuwa Sarutobi, you have the floor."

Yuwa lowers her hand and says, voice icy, "I have a question of protocol. It was my understanding that to be granted and retain clan status a clan had to have a population of fifteen or more members, contain at least three living generations, or be made up of at least three individual families. Considering the Uchiha Clan– both in fact and in law– meets none of these requirements, I was wondering if the law had been changed recently without our being told."

Sasuke’s throat dries out in an instant and he croaks, "No, I– It hasn’t, but–"

"The Uchiha were afforded an exception," Hiashi cuts in. The words hit Sasuke like a slap in the face. Several hands go flying up.

Hiashi narrows his eyes; "One at a time, thank you very much. If you cannot decide who among you can wait to speak, I will choose for you."

Three hands sheepishly lower. A man with Yūhi-red eyes and a sour look on his face keeps his stubbornly raised.

"Akairo Yūhi, you have the floor."

Akairo immediately whips around to glare at Sasuke; "On what grounds was this exception granted? The Uchiha Clan’s contributions to the village cannot be understated, but the same could be– and has been– said on behalf of the Uzumaki. They, however, failed to meet the formal requirements for clan recognition and had their status revoked. I would be interested to know why the Uchiha are being given preferential treatment."

Sasuke almost speaks up over the din of whispers, but chokes as he catches from the corner of his ear someone muttering, "Because he’s the hokage’s student, of course. She just wants him in here to spy and parrot her party line."

Before Sasuke’s stunned silence can stretch out too long, he hears Hiashi speak up; "Shikaku Nara, you have the floor."

He glances over to see Shikaku lowering his hand and shooting Akairo an annoyed look; "Pardon my less than professional language, but you know damn well why. The Uchiha founded this village. Without them we’d all still be killing each other for the scraps that fall from the daimyō’s table. And if what our grandparents accomplished is too far back for you, I’ll remind you that the Uchiha were our police force. They protected the people of this village up until the night they died. We owe them more than we can ever repay."

For a blessed moment, everyone is silent. Sasuke breathes a sigh of relief, letting his shoulders drop from up around his ears. And then another hand goes up.

"Shibi Aburame, you have the floor."

Sasuke hasn’t even finished blinking the shock out of his eyes before Shino’s father retorts, "While an appeal to history isn’t unwarranted, it obscures the facts. And the facts of the matter are that while Hiashi claims Sasuke is taking up the duties and authority of his father, due to the police force’s dissolution and the massacre of the clan there are no duties and authority for him to take up. While the Uchiha Clan may one day rise again, Sasuke’s presence here strikes me as premature."

Sasuke frowns and finally finds his voice again; "I understand what you’re saying, but I can’t afford to wait until I have grandchildren to start acting as clan head. The decisions made here impact the whole village, sometimes even more than the council’s do. Like Shikaku said, the Uchiha founded this village. We should have a say in where it goes."

Akairo’s hand goes up and he doesn’t even wait for Hiashi to officially give him the floor; "Some would argue you have a better chance of steering where this village goes by just speaking to your mentor, the Hokage. Inserting yourself into these proceedings is certainly one way to gain the influence you’re looking for, but there are dozens of others more suited for an individual, especially one your age."

Sasuke clenches his jaw to keep it from dropping. Were people ever this transparently rude to his father or had Sasuke really just been paying that little attention?

Another hand goes up and quickly down as a white-haired woman with a vague resemblance to Kakashi remarks, "There’s no need for that kind of vitriol, Yūhi. We are the adults in the room, we ought to act like it. Now, Sasuke, while your point is sound enough, I would provide a counterargument. Your clan’s peers, the Senju, could claim as much right as the Uchiha to deserving a say in the village’s affairs. But they willingly withdrew from this council and waived their own clan status. Do you know why that is?"

Sasuke grits his teeth and hisses through them, "No."

The bruise of a smirk darkens the corner of the Hatake woman’s mouth; "The Senju had grown too decentralized, too disorganized and too diverse to truly come together as a clan. They could no longer act as a cohesive political entity. Any decision made or opinion voiced by their head at this council would be impossible to apply to the entire clan. The clan could not reliably put into practice anything they preached in these council meetings. Simply put, the Senju found they could no longer practically influence the village, and thought they had no right to do so ideologically. A noble and mature move, wouldn’t you agree?"

Sasuke wonders how hard he needs to glare at this woman before her kimono catches on fire; "I thought appealing to history was obscuring the facts."

"In this case, I’d say it highlights them," Yuwa cuts in, not even bothering to raise her hand, "Your dedication to the village is admirable, Sasuke. Your clan would be deeply proud of it. But the fact of the matter is that the Uchiha Clan consists of you and a traitor. If the other founding clan of this village was wise enough to know when to bow out, when to stop acting as a clan and start acting as individuals, it is only right that the Uchiha do the same. After all, an Uchiha trying to impose his singular will on the village nearly brought it to ruin once–"

Sasuke sees red and sparks fly from his hands; "You’re comparing me to Madara?! All I’m trying to do is keep my clan alive–!"

"A better way to do that would be staying alive yourself," Akairo cuts in, glaring down his nose at Sasuke, "As Aburame said, the Uchiha Clan may rise again, once it has the numbers to be considered one. The graceful thing to do here, young man, would be to bide your time."

Sasuke sputters out a few choked syllables as the Hatake woman raises her hand and fixes Hiashi with a cool, hard stare.

Hiashi makes her wait for a long heartbeat before he says, "Miyayo Hatake, you have the floor."

Miyayo smiles sweetly, folds her hands in her lap, and states, "I motion that that this council expel Sasuke Uchiha and appeal to the Hokage to revoke the Uchiha Clan’s clan status."

Sasuke’s cry of "What?!" is smoothly ignored by Hiashi; "Very well. Who s–?"

Akairo’s hand shoots up; "I second the motion!"

Is he hyperventilating? Sasuke thinks he might be hyperventilating. His palms are slick with sweat and his knee is throbbing painfully in time with his rapidly beating heart.

"Then we have a motion," Hiashi remarks, brow tilting ever so slightly up, "The motion to expel Sasuke Uchiha and appeal to the Hokage to revoke the Uchiha Clan’s clan status has been seconded. The floor is open to debate."

Miyayo lifts her chin to look down her nose at Sasuke; "We’ve stated our case for the motion. Any who have a case against it, feel free to argue."

The room is spinning. Sasuke’s eyes are burning and he’s trying to turn off the Sharingan but it won’t turn off. Why did he even come here? He could just leave. He could get up and run straight through the shoji and be halfway to Sand before he could come up with an argument that would actually change these people’s minds. What do they want from him?! Why should he have to argue for his clan’s right to exist?! Is this why Father was always angry, why Itachi was always simmering beneath the surface, because apparently some people will never let Madara go?! What is Sasuke supposed to do?! What would Father do?! He should’ve paid attention and learned from his example but paying attention was Itachi’s job this should be Itachi’s problem not his Itachi was the heir but he slaughtered the clan and now it’s about to be slaughtered again–

Hiashi’s puzzled voice breaks through Sasuke’s fevered mind; "Danzō Shimura, you have the floor."

Sasuke drags his eyes over to an old man with one bandaged eye, an X-shaped scar on his chin, and the arm that isn’t raised hidden in his robes. Sasuke’s brow furrows. Has he seen this man before? He feels like he has, but it’s vague, blurry, like a memory of a dream. Or maybe that’s just the intense stress he’s under playing tricks on him.

Danzō makes everyone wait a few breaths, letting his one eye roam around the whole room before speaking; "It fascinates me that you praise the Senju’s wisdom in stepping away from influencing the village. And yet I recall you all, to a man, rejoicing in a Senju finally taking the office of Hokage again. If the Senju are dead, if they are no longer to be recognized as a clan, then why should Tsunade’s surname make her any more or less qualified to be Hokage than a Sarutobi or a Namikaze?"

Yuwa swallows hard and she looks down at the floor like a child in the midst of being chastised by her parent.

Danzō lets those words sit for a moment, then continues, "Each and every one of us knows the laws for attaining clan status were devised to keep official records tidy, not to reflect how a clan is truly understood. A clan is more than it’s people. All of our clans were brought to the edge of death and back again dozens of times during the Warring States Period and even before. So long as a clan’s name is still uttered in reverence or in fear, so long as the clan’s blood still flows in any set of veins, so long as their crest still stirs the mind and the heart, a clan is alive. That is a comfort we all would like to take should our clans undergo something as horrific as the Uchiha. To take that away from them sets a precedent that harms us all."

"Hear fuckin’ hear," Tsume barks, waving a hand loosely up into the air, "If a crotchety old bastard like Danzō thinks you’re being an asshole you probably are. Lay off the kid and lay off the Uchiha. Like Shikaku said, they’ve done more for this village than any of us. Least we can fuckin’ do is let Sasuke try to keep 'em on life support."

Hiashi pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs through his teeth, "Tsume, I swear on all six paths if you cannot conduct yourself like a professional I will make sure Hana is the one who gets the meeting announcements instead of you."

"I would take Danzō’s words to heart, all of you," Inoichi sneers, eyes narrowed in a poisonous glare echoed by Ino a foot behind him, "Imagine it. Truly imagine it. Your clan is destroyed and only your heir is left. They come before us, trying to live your legacy and follow in your footsteps. And not only do we slam the door in their faces, we try to lock it and barricade it. Would your soul rest easy knowing that at least we made sure the law was followed to the letter? I know mine wouldn’t."

Chōza crosses his arms over his chest and simply says, "You all, individually, decided it would be a worthwhile use of your time and ours to bully an orphan. I don’t think I need to say any more than that."

Sasuke takes a deep, shuddering breath, and finally finds his voice again; "You… None of you get to decide if the Uchiha Clan is dead. The Hokage has made her decision. Either you honor that or you don’t."

Hiashi’s upper lip lifts in a sneer; "I think both sides have made their opinions clear. The motion will be put to a vote."

The motion fails, but Sasuke suspects it’s only because those who would have proudly voted to kick him out before Danzō said his piece decided to abstain instead. Hiashi moves the meeting along like nothing happened, and Sasuke tries to learn how to breathe again. When it finally, mercifully, ends, Sasuke doesn’t linger. As the clan heads shoot the breeze and Sasuke’s friends all start making their way to him, Sasuke cuts a straight line over to Danzō. He clears his throat to get his attention, drawing him out of a whispered conversation with his heir, a girl a few years older than Sasuke with Danzō’s pale eyes and strong jaw.

"Thank you," Sasuke murmurs, bowing at the waist, "I don’t know how to repay you, but I will."

Sasuke comes up from his bow to see Danzō staring at him appraisingly, eye narrowed like he’s trying to read incredibly small print. Ino had been the closest on Sasuke’s tail, but she stops two feet away with a choked gasp, shrinking away from Danzō’s gaze. The Shimura girl fixes Danzō with a steady glare, crossing her arms tight over her chest.

Danzō closes his eyes and sighs, "What I did was not done to gain a favor. My aim was to teach you a lesson– One your father would have imparted to you had he been able to pass down his title properly. In here, as in on the battlefield, you need to fight for what you know you deserve. I intend to do that whether that makes us allies or enemies. It is up to you whether or not you will do the same."

The Shimura girl pushes a sigh out through her nose before smiling a weary smile at Sasuke; "What my grandfather means to say is it was no trouble at all, and you don’t owe us anything. Have a good evening, Sasuke Uchiha."

Sasuke gives them another shallow bow before whirling on his heel and moving at a hair shy of a sprint out of the main hall. He can hear his friends all in a disorganized herd behind him, chorusing his name and begging him to wait. It’s grating on his already frayed last nerve. When he makes it outside and a hand grazes the sleeve of his haori it finally snaps.

Sasuke whirls around, the whole world red, and yells, "Shut! UP! All of you just shut the fuck up and stop following me!"

He’s treated first to Hinata’s eyes going wide and clasping her hands to her chest. His friends are spilling down the front steps, Shino huddled at the far back on the engawa with a mostly confused Chōji just a few steps ahead. Shikamaru, Ino, and Kiba linger on the steps, Shikamaru and Ino with their lips pursed tight and Kiba with a troubled frown twisting his scars. Neji is just behind Hinata, pulling her back by the shoulder. He meets Sasuke’s eyes and simply shakes his head.

"W-we– I-I just w-wanted to… a-apologize…" Hinata whispers thickly, tears beading at the corners of her eyes.

Sasuke shuts his eyes. He pulls the chakra from his optic nerves up into the center of his forehead. He takes a deep breath, holds it for a moment, then lets it out.

"Sorry, I… Sorry," Sasuke mutters, "I know you’re all just… Look, I… I just want to be alone right now."

"Is that a good idea?" Kiba wonders, quirking an eyebrow.

Sasuke shakes his head; "Probably not. But it’s… It’s nothing I’m not used to."

And before any of them can say another word, Sasuke turns on his heel and stalks down the path to the gate. Cherry blossom petals litter the ground, kicked up every so often by a gust of wind as it blows the rainclouds in for another monsoon.

Sasuke’s knee aches in harmony with his throat, and when his eyes burn, it’s not from chakra.

1, May, 1001

At this elevation this far north snow is still falling thick and heavy, coating the ground and forcing Sakura and Kabuto to channel chakra into their soles to stand on top of it instead of sinking into it. Zhàdàn has no such abilities. Sakura can feel him glaring at her back as she surveys the monastery through her binoculars.

"I’m gonna ask this until I get an answer that actually makes sense," Zhàdàn grouses through chattering teeth, "Why is Plan A not just rolling up those steep-ass steps, knocking on the door, and asking the nice monks if you can take a look at their books?"

Sakura lets Kabuto answer; "We’re going to need these scrolls for longer than whatever arbitrary period the monks will allow us to stay in the monastery. And copying the information we need is a waste of time we don’t have. This journey has already dragged on far too long."

Zhàdàn grumbles, "You’re tellin’ me. You don’t even need me here to do this, you know, if you weren’t paying me I–"

Sakura tunes out Kabuto and Zhàdàn and focuses on the monastery. She shifts from foot to foot, anxious to just stop planning and start doing. Like Kabuto said, this journey has dragged on far too long.

Their current perch is on a neighboring peak with a clear view of the front of the building, a perfect vantage point even if it was hell to get their yaks up here. The complex is carved out of the mountainside, four tiers of natural cliffs squared off into a terraced four story building painted in radiant red and gold. The fourth story is open to the air, holding only a massive brass bell that echoes down into the valley when rung. The monastery sits on rough-hewn stone that melts back into the mountainside, only one set of steep, narrow steps acting as the way in and out by conventional means.

Sakura scans the exterior. There are windows on every level, though they’re relatively small, as well as an exterior door that opens out onto the roof of the level below. She waits and watches for several minutes and doesn't see a single monk go out onto the terraces, nor does she see any linger by the windows. It's now or never.

Sakura hands Kabuto the binoculars without looking. She crunches over to one of their pack yaks, giving him some scratches behind the ear for his troubles before unhitching one of the water barrels and tying it to her lower back. She takes the katana and wakizashi she 'borrowed' from a craftsman in Waterfall and ties them to her obi. Sakura does a sweep of the yak to see if there’s anything else she needs before adjusting her heavy cloak and heading back over to Zhàdàn and Kabuto.

"Alright," she begins, drawing their attention, "I’m heading in. Zhàdàn, you remember the drill. Don’t stop hitting the monastery until we’re out."

Zhàdàn frowns; "You’re sure that’s what you want. You’ve thought this plan through, right?"

Sakura frowns and brushes a few snowflakes off her hair; "I’ve been working on it for a week, of course I have."

Zhàdàn stares down at her for a few more minutes before shutting his eyes and shaking his head; "Well, practice what you preach, Pinky– Your rank makes you an adult. Being an adult means living with the consequences of your decisions. Hope you’re ready for that."

Zhàdàn doesn’t wait for Sakura to say anything more, spinning on his peg leg and heading away. He walks for several yards before turning, sitting down in the snow, and unscrewing his peg leg. He pulls the bipod mount off the side of the leg and sets it down before slinging his pack off his back. He pulls out the base plate and the sight, attaching them both to the leg, then retrieves a sealed scroll.

He pauses in his work to shoot Sakura a glare; "What, never seen a one-armed one-legged man take his own leg off and turn it into a mortar before?"

Sakura quickly looks away, heat rising to her cheeks; "N-not so efficiently."

Zhàdàn rolls his eyes and holds the scroll up in the air, calling past her, "Need your chakra over here, Four Eyes."

Kabuto turns to Sakura; "You’re sure you don’t want me with you."

Sakura smiles and pats the barrel on her back; "We’ll be fine."

Kabuto narrows his eyes, but holds his tongue. He heads over to Zhàdàn and unspools the scroll, tapping the seals one by one to release over a dozen mortar bombs. Sakura pulls her attention away from them and clears a spot on the ground with a few bursts of fire chakra from her feet. Once she has a one-foot-radius circle of clean stone around her, Sakura takes one last moment to make sure she has everything. Katana and wakizashi, check. Barrel, check. Various and sundry ninja tools, check.

Sakura takes a deep breath, takes off her cloak, and reaches out to the curse mark.

It’s like trying to direct the flow of water from a blown-open fire hydrant. Sakura grits her teeth, straining to guide the torrent of cursed chakra just to her shoulder blades and keep it there. Sakura’s back burns like it’s been set on fire. She feels her skin split, her wings unfurling through the slits in the back of her shirt, the delicate constructs flapping faster and faster until they’re a blur and a hum.

The last thing Sakura hears before she leaps off the peak is Zhàdàn sputtering, "Has she always had those?!"

Sakura dives down and soars across the gorge. The wind cuts at her face, stinging and biting at her cheeks. She wishes she could have covered herself with a genjutsu before taking flight, but splitting her focus between staying on course and keeping the cursed chakra from spreading is taxing enough as it is. Sakura waits until she’s directly above the first level’s roof before shoving all the cursed chakra back into the mark. She drops like a stone, but she doesn’t drop far. Sakura ducks into a roll before she hits the roof. Sakura knows intellectually that the instant she rolls to a stop she should cover herself with genjutsu, but she takes a moment to just shut her eyes and take a few shuddering breaths.

She’s going to need to thank Jūgo for teaching her that trick.

With her composure back Sakura puts her cloak back on and weaves a fine shroud of chakra to pull around herself. The genjutsu muffles the sound of her putting her cloak back on and hides the sight of her repositioning the water barrel. Once those longer-lasting genjutsu are in place Sakura forms the Tiger sign and performs a Minor Illusion Jutsu, creating the sound of a howling wolf echoing mournfully across the peaks. Sakura holds her breath. She waits, eyes locked on the opposite peak. There’s a near-imperceptible flicker atop the peak before Sakura hears a set of feet dropping to the stone below.

She creeps over to the edge of the roof and peers over. She catches sight of Kabuto putting on Badger’s mask before striding forward and kicking the front door open. He heads inside and out of view. Sakura nods to herself and looks back to the peak. There’s a long pause, punctuated by the sounds of crashing and shouting from below. Then Sakura sees a bright orange light flash to life on the peak before flying in a high arch for the eastern corner of the first floor. Sakura leaps to her feet and sprints towards the door into the second floor. She reaches it just as the first mortar bomb hits. The building shakes. Sakura braces herself against the door and shuts her eyes. When the shaking subsides and the dust clears, Sakura turns to see the far eastern corner of the roof crumbling down into the gorge below, heavy stone falling away like crumbs from dry bread.

Sakura races inside, because she might have much less time than she thought.

Sakura heads West, past the monks’ quarters (weaving through a crowd of them rushing out towards the chaos), through the scriptorium and into the archives. Despite the explosions rocking the building and the distant sounds of breaking bones and choked screams, Sakura can’t help but take a moment to gawk. The archive is enormous. The shelves, also carved from the mountain’s stone, reach all the way to the ceiling. Not a single shelf is bare. Sakura winds through them with wide eyes and delicate, reverent touches to the spines and ends of the myriad books and scrolls. Titles are written in gold ink, in blood, in languages so old their script doesn’t even bear a resemblance to the common tongue. The archive has everything, from scrolls of forbidden jutsu to volumes of love poetry to Earth Country’s earliest histories, predating even the Sage of Six Paths.

Sakura wants to check everything out and renew them as many times as she can. But this isn’t that kind of library.

Sakura slaps her own cheeks and whispers, "Focus!"

She slaloms through the elaborate stonework until she comes to the very back of the room, where volumes upon volumes of historical texts from and about the Land of Fire sit. Sakura does a quick scan of the collected texts until she spies a series of tales of shinobi from the Imperial period. Her eyes light up. It’s surrounded by other pre- and mid-Warring States texts, records of battle and subterfuge and sabotage. Sakura’s grin could split her face in two.

She runs through hand signs within her cloak and opens it to release a swarm of snakes, each anywhere from six inches to two feet long. She directs them in whispers and they coil around title after title before disappearing in puffs of smoke. They take the records with them, saving Sakura the trouble of protecting these precious, irreplaceable works written on incredibly fragile materials across hundreds of miles of hard travel. Sakura’s heart is beating in a giddy flutter, her mind wandering from the danger all around her to fantasize about reading these tomes, getting to feast her eyes on knowledge no one has perused in decades or even centuries and–

"Excuse me."

Sakura freezes. She slowly turns her head toward the voice.

Standing at the entrance to the aisle is a handsome woman with a freshly-shaved head and warm brown skin. She wears the saffron outer robe of a monk wrapped around a one-sleeved black robe and trousers that end just below the knee. She’s carrying a heavy iron staff in one hand while the other is outstretched, fingertips ghosting along the shelf. Her eyes are pale and clouded by cataracts.

Sakura holds her breath and dedicates all her concentration to maintaining the genjutsu masking the sounds of her and the snakes. If she stays very still and very quiet the blind nun should think she was just hearing things and go away…

The nun’s mouth quirks downwards in a frown. Sakura gets no warning before a pulse of chakra comes off the nun, seemingly released from every chakra point at once. It doesn’t disrupt her genjutsu but hits it straight on, rolling over Sakura and the snakes like a wave breaking on the shore. The woman’s frown flips up into a mirthless smirk.

"I see," she says, pointing her staff directly at Sakura, "My instincts were correct. All that mess outside was just a diversion. I’m sorry, my child, but you cannot borrow from this library. Return what you have stolen at once."

Sakura purses her lips and slowly raises her hands above her head, dropping the genjutsu and pulling her snakes up into her cloak. She turns and starts walking towards the nun.

"What do they call you?" Sakura asks, tilting her head to one side.

The nun arches a brow; "My name is Sarmeela, though I doubt you will have much use for it."

Sakura grins and replies, "You’re right, I won’t."

She reaches behind her back and throws the water barrel right at Sarmeela. Sarmeela’s reflexes are lightning quick. She spins the iron staff around and brings it down on the barrel, knocking it out of the air and slamming it onto the stone. The wood snaps inward. Water splashes out in all directions. Droplets sprinkle Sarmeela’s face and her eyes go wide.

Sakura unhitches the swords from her obi and tosses them towards the point of impact. The water, seconds before it hits the shelves, pulls in and up. It coalesces into a humanoid shape that grabs the swords out of the air and forcibly unsheathes them by swinging them so hard the scabbards go flying for Sarmeela. She whirls her staff in a wide circle to knock them both away. She nearly misses her window to bring it up and block the two blades as the fully-formed Suigetsu slashes for her throat. The blades graze her, barely breaking the skin and blood beading to the surface.

Suigetsu bounces away from Sarmeela, bringing the blades up into a defensive stance as he lands; "We have a plan, Sakura?!"

"We will in a second," Sakura calls, sending out the last of her snakes to coil around the last few scrolls she needs, "That’s what you’re for! Keep her busy!"

Suigetsu rolls his eyes; "Girls, always need you to do the dirty work they’re too good for. Alright, hop to it!"

Suigetsu and Sarmeela parry and riposte back and forth while Sakura strikes with snakes hidden in her cloak for any opening in Sarmeela’s form she can find. She bites the inside of her cheek hard enough to taste blood. Tricking the chakra sense is the tallest order a genjutsu specialist can receive, even when they’re expecting it. With every swing of her staff Sarmeela sends out waves of chakra like a bat screeching to echolocate. Shadow clones would probably read the same to that kind of sense as a normal human, but the problem is there's only one way in and out of the archives and Sarmeela knows that better than she does. A decoy would barely slow her down. If Sakura just bounces those waves back before they can make contact with her body that’ll tell Sarmeela as much as if the chakra waves had hit, though it might contract her 'view' of the space and maybe she could lead her into some sort of–

The building quakes beneath their feet, knocking everyone off balance. Right, Zhàdàn. She doesn’t have that kind of time.

Sarmeela recovers the quickest, darting around Suigetsu to get to Sakura. She brings her staff up and jabs for Sakura’s forehead. Suigetsu liquefies and flows between them, parrying the staff with his katana. The arm holding his wakizashi stays partially liquid, winding and flowing around the staff to slash for Sarmeela’s belly. She sucks in a breath and leaps back, the blade only managing to cut through her saffron robe. A pulse of chakra gives her a split second to block a pair of whirling strikes from Suigetsu’s hyperextended arms. His strikes once again come close enough to leave shallow cuts, but don't dig any deeper. Suigetsu keeps his hands where they are and retracts his body to meet them, spinning in midair to slice for Sarmeela’s skull and getting blocked again.

Suigetsu strains against the staff, grinding out through his teeth, "I thought Ninshū monks were pacifists!"

Sarmeela tilts her head a degree; "We are not to harm people with chakra. This staff is not chakra, is it?"

Suigetsu snorts and finally manages to push the staff away; "Well fuck, if that’s the only requirement then I oughta shave my head and stick around here!"

Sarmeela’s mouth twists in a fierce grin; "Perhaps not. You wouldn’t like our punishments for thieves."

It hits Sakura in a flash. She’s a thief. Thieves don’t need to win fights, they need to get in and get out alive. She doesn’t need to render Sarmeela blind all over again, she just needs to get away. Sakura brings chakra out from her navel, kneading it until it’s hot enough to burn, and starts bringing it up to her throat.

When she calls out to Suigetsu smoke billows from her mouth; "Suigetsu! Water bullet! Straight up!"

Suigetsu doesn’t hesitate. He flings one hand into the air, collecting a bead of concentrated water at the tip of his finger. He fires it at the ceiling and Sakura spits a Phoenix Flower to intercept it. They collide and explode into a thick cloud of steam saturated with chakra. Sarmeela sends out a wave and the bank of misted chakra slows it’s movement to a crawl. Sakura grabs Suigetsu by the wrist and sprints out of the aisle, dragging him along behind.

"We have ruined that whole aisle of books," Suigetsu hisses into Sakura’s ear as they run past the shelves and make a beeline for the door, "She’s gonna be pissed!"

"She was already pissed," Sakura shoots back, "Just keep running and we won’t have to deal with it!"

They’ve only barely entered the scriptorium when Sakura hears the rapid slapping of bare feet on stone and realizes she was being way too optimistic.

Sarmeela comes leaping through the doorway behind them and stabs the butt of her staff into the small of Suigetsu’s back. His eyes go wide and his legs quite literally turn to jelly. One liquefies entirely from the knee down while the other gets stuck in a gelatinous state. Suigetsu goes bouncing and rolling across the ground, and before Sakura can even begin to figure out what that means Sarmeela whips the staff around and jabs it hard at the intersection of Sakura’s right shoulder and neck.

The entire arm goes numb.

Sakura tries to channel chakra down it and it’s like trying to pour water into a glass while blindfolded. Sakura doesn’t have time to process that before Sarmeela is swinging for her head and she ducks away a second too late. The staff cracks Sakura across the temple and she sees stars. Sakura weaves and wobbles, balance thrown off by her dead arm and probable concussion. She leaves herself wide open for Sarmeela to spin the staff around and land two more strikes, one to the ribs and one to the knee both hard enough to break bone, before Sakura finally recovers her senses.

Sakura redirects her chakra down her left arm, uncapping the curse mark just enough to get petals swirling across her skin, and releases a white snake as tall as she is from her sleeve. It strikes for Sarmeela, who lets it bite down on her staff before twisting it and wrenching it out of Sakura’s grasp. The snake’s eyes go wide. Sarmeela shakes it off her staff, dropping it to the ground, and slams a heel down on it’s belly. It thrashes, but not for long. Sarmeela brings the staff down on it’s head and punches all the way through.

Sarmeela dashes back in and Sakura can only stay on the backstep. A mortar bomb hits the roof ten feet away, rocking the room and caving in a portion of the ceiling. Suigetsu half-runs half-crawls to get out of the way of the falling rubble. He’s getting control of his legs back, but nowhere near fast enough. One thing is clear– Between Sarmeela and her own diversion, Sakura doesn’t have time to be clever. She reaches for the curse mark and tears the cork the rest of the way out. Cursed chakra comes bursting out from her in whorls, forcing Sarmeela to take a big step back and bring her staff up in a defensive stance.

It burns like she’s being dipped in lava every single time. Sakura bites her tongue to keep from screaming as her hair and nails grow out and her wings burst from her back, beating so fast they force her cloak to billow around them like it’s been caught in a strong wind. The cursed chakra mends her skull, her ribs, her knee, but her right arm is still a mess of tingling static she can't quite move. She digs her claws into her palm and immediately breaks skin. Sakura zips across the room to Suigetsu and pulls him onto his feet. She grabs Suigetsu’s right hand with her left and forces him to make the hand signs with her– Boar Dog Bird Monkey Ram.

Sakura forces their hands to the ground and screams, "Summoning Jutsu!"

She pours a gout of cursed chakra into the effort. She needs something big. There’s a burst of smoke, large enough to fill the whole room. She can barely hear Sarmeela suck it in and cough it up under a deep, rumbling hiss.

The smoke clears to reveal an absolutely massive blue-black viper struggling to fit in the scriptorium. His cool green eyes survey the area as his tongue tastes the air. The snake rears up and takes a larger look around, towering over all three of the humans in the room even as it's forced to bend to fit inside. Suigetsu chokes on a swear and Sarmeela breathes a short prayer to the Sage.

The snake speaks in a soft, deep, reserved voice; "It seems you’re in quite a bit of danger, Miss Sakura."

Sakura gives him a shallow bow and replies, "Forgive me for bringing you into a scene like this, Aoda, but I needed your size and your strength. I need you to get me and my friend out of here, now."

As if for emphasis, there’s an explosion from just outside the scriptorium and the sounds of screams getting abruptly cut off.

Aoda looks from the sound to Sakura; "We should be going then.

She grabs Suigetsu by the collar and soars up to perch on Aoda’s head. The second she touches down Aoda brings his head low and Sakura’s forced to hit the deck as the massive snake whips it’s tail around in a wide circle, demolishing all the walls around him and slamming Sarmeela into a pile of rubble. Aoda broke down a clear route from the scriptorium straight to the first level’s roof and he goes slithering for it, paying no heed to the artillery fire raining down on the monastery.

The roof is full of holes and Sakura gets a moment to glance down into them. Another snake, easily as large as a draft horse, is running rampant in the main hall of worship. It whips it’s tail back and forth to knock away the monks harrying it from behind and swallows those that come at it from the front. The statue of the Sage is on fire, as is most of the room and several dozen corpses. What monks aren’t on the ground are split between trying to take down the snake and ganging up on Kabuto. His mask has fallen away to reveal a twisted grin. The monks all fight with Sarmeela’s ferocity and airtight technique, but Kabuto is a medic, and a medic’s number one priority is not to get hit. Ever. He dodges like a dancer, whirling around and behind and through groups of monks. A blade of razor sharp chakra glows around his hand and his lightest touch to the right place is enough to send a monk sprawling to the ground, dead in an instant.

Sakura is brought back to her own battle by Sarmeela shouting, "You will not escape me, Heathen!"

Sakura whirls around, eyes wide in disbelief. Sarmeela is clutching her side with one hand but still sprinting after Aoda at a breakneck pace. Her jaw is clenched tight and her pale eyes are burning.

Suigetsu exclaims, "How in the actual Hell is she still standing after Aoda’s tail smacked her?!"

Sakura flexes her right hand, banishing the last of the static numbness; "Doesn’t matter. She won’t be for long."

Sakura leaps off Aoda’s head, spinning around to face Sarmeela in midair. As her wings take her higher and higher Sakura points a finger like a pistol at Sarmeela’s heart. With her other hand she pulls back, the green chakra gathering and bursting forth in the shape of a bow and arrow. The arrow’s fletchings come together in a shape reminiscent of a five-petaled flower, blooming wider and wider as Sakura gathers more and more Yin chakra.

Sakura takes a deep breath in through her nose. In this split second, everything is still.

She releases the arrow, the breath, and the name she’s finally chosen for the jutsu; "Hama Ya!"

The arrow flies straight and true. It hits Sarmeela square in the chest and her unseeing eyes go wide before sliding shut. Sarmeela falls out of her sprint, collapsing unconscious on the stone roof. Sakura twirls in the air and darts back down to Aoda, perching next to Suigetsu on his brow ridge. The massive snake slaloms through the falling rubble, and as he strafes by the front entrance Sakura only glimpses a flash of silver before Kabuto appears between the two of them. He digs his fingers in between Aoda’s scales and drops low, chest flush with the top of Aoda’s head, gritting his teeth so hard Sakura thinks they might crack.

Kabuto’s eyes whip over to her and he shouts over the chaos, "Aoda?! Really?!"

Sakura grips Aoda’s brow ridge tight enough to turn her gray knuckles white; "I needed something big! Aoda, get us over to the peak where the mortar fire’s coming from!"

Aoda would probably be shooting her an incredulous look if she wasn’t on top of his head; "You want me to go towards the smell of sulfur and smoke?"

Sakura digs her claws in and snarls, "Just do it!"

Aoda rumbles, but does as he’s bade. For a snake this size the gorge is more like a dip in the road. Aoda slides on his belly down the snowy mountainside, his momentum taking him halfway up the opposite peak before he has to start actively slithering again. Aoda strains against the snow and the stone, his body undulating this way and that, nearly knocking his three passengers off. Sakura pools her chakra in her belly and goes as flat against Aoda’s head as she can. With one last push the massive snake crests the peak, coming up in a burst of snow. She expected that to scare the shit out of Zhàdàn, but he doesn’t even flinch.

Kabuto doesn’t waste any time sliding off Aoda, taking a deep breath and wheezing, "Why does no one but me understand that snakes are not riding animals?"

Now that they’re on the other side of the chaos there’s a bloom of warmth in Sakura’s chest. She did it. She actually did it. All this bluffing around Orochimaru, getting him to be in the right hideouts away from Suigetsu's tube, breaking and redirecting lines of communication between the field and the village, making under the table deals, it all worked. So it can work again, and it’ll work even better now that she’s had practice. Orochimaru was right– this really was good training.

She quickly thanks Aoda before dismissing him and dropping to the ground, using her wings to break her fall. Suigetsu briefly liquefies before hitting the ground, melding with the snow and spreading the force out across the expanse of white.

He turns to Sakura as she gathers all the cursed chakra and pushes it back into the mark; "Those fuckin’ books better have been worth it."

Sakura grins over at him and exclaims, "Of course they were! Those texts were pre-hidden villages, pre-Warring States, I think I saw one that was pre-Imperial! The history in those things, there’s bound to be all sorts of information about pre-Warring States Senju! Sarmeela was an element I couldn’t have planned for, if she hadn’t been there just imagine–"

There’s a loud rumble and a sound like ice breaking on a monumental scale.

Sakura whirls around toward the monastery. Her jaw drops and she covers her mouth as snow and rock come surging down the peak like a tidal wave. A curtain of filthy white envelops the monastery. The building that endured centuries of wind and rain and sleet vanishes in an instant.

"Wh– How? It wasn’t s–!"

Suigetsu crosses his arms over his chest and replies, voice even, "The building was built into the mountain. Hit that building enough times and it was gonna shake something loose. You told Zhàdàn to keep hitting the place until you got out, didn’t you know this would happen?"

Sakura thinks back to every hit that shook the whole building and feels her stomach twist. She wasn't trained for this environment she's never even used a mortar how was she supposed to know–?! Sakura runs her hands through her hair, scraping her nails across her scalp. She was supposed to know because this was her plan.

Zhàdàn doesn’t look at the destruction as he breaks down his mortar, turning it back into a leg and screwing it back on. He solemnly packs up what black powder and bombs are left. Before he stands he puts a hand to his heart and mutters some phrase Sakura can only understand a few words of. He gets to his feet and starts loping over to the yaks, but spares Sakura a sharp look as he passes.

His words hit harder than any of Sarmeela’s blows; "Nothin’ like a job well done, eh Pinky?"

Sakura’s tongue has gone numb. Thousands of scrolls of history, mythology, songs and poems and techniques, gone. Dozens of human lives, gone. All of it crushed at the bottom of a gorge beneath hundreds of tons of earth and snow. Why didn't she just ask the monks if she could read the texts? Why didn't she just ask if she could make copies? Why did she consider those options then laugh them off, like no one in the world would ever just do something for nothing? Sakura clasps a hand over her curse mark. It's still warm.

Kabuto strides up to her side and shades his eyes as he surveys the destruction; "I think we can safely report 'no survivors' on this one. Good work, Sakura. I’m sure Lord Orochimaru will be very pleased."

Sakura stops fighting the urge to vomit all over the snow.

Chapter Text

夏 二

30, June, 1001

"Sasuke," Kiba crows, "We’ve got another one!"

Sasuke hisses through his teeth, "Of course we do," and only diverts ten percent of his focus away from the shattered femur he’s supposed to be rebuilding.

Akamaru comes bounding over, a little boy draped across his broad back. Kiba is left to the delicate task of laying the boy out on the nearest piece of flat, clean ground and whispering some encouraging nothings to him because if Sasuke takes his hands off this man’s leg for even a second all his work will come undone. Despite his attitude grating on him there’s no one Sasuke would rather have covering his back right now than Kiba– After all, no one else in the Leaf Twelve-Minus-Two has an older sister who drilled them in the basics of field medicine until they could recite them in their sleep.

Sasuke redirects all his attention to the case in front of him. That’s all the harder to do when his 'surgical theater' is actually just four metal rods holding up a tarp to keep the rain off in the middle of a destroyed village, with other members of his pitifully small squad racing this way and that to clear the boulders and mud blocking roads and filling homes. Blocking out the sound of pounding rain, shouted orders, and survivors calling out frantically to the missing is almost harder than actually mending this bone. After a few more moments of hard-won focus, Sasuke exhales and pulls his hands back. He’s done all he can do. He hates how often that’s the note he has to leave on, not a total victory or a total failure, just an earnest attempt.

He calls to Taiyō, "Clean this one up," and doesn’t spare a glance to see how the genin medic is doing before turning on his heel to the new arrival.

Kiba’s already removed the boy’s shirt to reveal a massive bruise so purple it’s nearly black. The boy’s pale-going-on-white skin is mottled with smaller contusions and one of his pupils is larger than the other as his eyes stare blankly at the canvas ceiling.

"He was caught in the debris flow," Kiba explains, "Everything in there ran roughshod over the poor kid and beat him to hell. He’s gonna have hella internal bleeding and trauma. This a lost cause or–?"

"No, because you brought him to me," Sasuke snaps, palms blazing to life with blue-green chakra, "Get back out there and–"

Lee comes barreling over, exclaiming, "Sasuke! Kiba! We have finally opened the way into the canyon, we have five wounded coming up this way!"

Sasuke lets out a harsh grunt; "Are you fucking–?! I am not gonna be done with this kid by the time they get here!"

Kiba looks between Taiyō and Sasuke before turning to Lee; "How bad's it look?"

Lee winces and just says, "Very."

Sasuke shuts his eyes and growls, "I fucking hate landslides."

Kiba snorts; "Pretty sure everyone in this town relates."

Sasuke takes a deep breath. He and Taiyō are the only medics in the squad thanks to a severe miscommunication over the scale of the disaster. He’d been trying to conserve chakra and pace himself, but Taiyō doesn’t know Mystical Palm yet. Tsunade’s working on getting more medics stationed out here on the border with Hot Water but that’s the future and right now any support won’t get here in time to make a difference for these people. Nothing else for it.

Sasuke opens his eyes and the Sharingan blazes to life.

He hears a shuddering gasp and bare feet slapping on muddy ground. He sets to work but diverts a thimbleful of attention to the source of the noise. There’s a woman in her thirties, soaking wet and caked in mud from elbows to fingertips from digging out friends and family, sprinting as best she can towards the tent. The expression on her face is one of pure, unadulterated terror as her eyes stay locked on Sasuke’s Sharingan.

"Kiba–" Kiba’s already on it. Akamaru runs ahead and stops the woman in her tracks, tail wagging too hard and tongue lolling out of a doggy grin. The sudden appearance of a large friendly dog delays the woman long enough for Kiba to make it up to her and block Sasuke with his body. The woman starts babbling frantically in the local tongue and Kiba replies in the same language, fluent and trying very hard to be calm.

Sasuke hears Taiyō warble out a little laugh; "So that’s why he’s here."

The woman keeps pointing to Sasuke, insistently jabbing her finger like she’s trying to make some point that Kiba’s just not getting. Kiba puts his hands on her shoulders and keeps his voice even and firm. Sasuke hears the word 'Uchiha' hop back and forth between them several dozen times. Akamaru bounces around her, laying on the Big Friendly Dog routine incredibly thick until she finally starts petting his drenched fur. The simple act of petting Akamaru causes some of the tension to drain from her shoulders.

After a few moments her speech slows down and she stops pointing at Sasuke, but her eyes never leave his for long. Eventually Kiba steps away, hopping onto Akamaru’s back and racing off to sniff out more survivors. The woman watches him go, then looks back to Sasuke just in time to catch him looking at her from the corner of his eye. She freezes for a split second before whirling around and darting away like a spooked deer.

Sasuke doesn’t have time in the day or space in his head to wonder about what the Hell that was all about. The patient is all that matters.

With his Sharingan active Sasuke works with machine-like precision and efficiency, not a movement wasted or a second lost. He stabilizes the patient, makes a long midline incision with the chakra scalpel, and opens up the abdominal cavity. The Sharingan picks out every source of bleeding, and Sasuke sets about controlling it with one hand and using Mystical Palm to cap it off with the other. Once done he moves on to the injured organs, treating them in order of most to least severe. Sasuke is in the middle of closing the boy up when the five wounded Lee promised come around the corner, three on stretchers and the other two over both of Lee’s shoulders.

Sasuke clicks his tongue against his teeth and calls over his shoulder to Taiyō, "Scan the new arrivals while I handle the kid’s concussion!"

Sasuke keeps an ear open while he brings his glowing palms up to the child’s temples, and Taiyō reports after a few moments, "I can take three of these guys, the other two are in a bad way. They’re all yours."

"Great, you’re a lifesaver Cricket," Sasuke grouses, the chakra flickering out on his fingertips as the little boy blinks, quicker and quicker as he’s getting his senses back.

Taiyō’s indignant whine of "Come on, you’re not even in the clan," is probably not very encouraging to his patients.

Once his vision is clear and he can focus, the little boy’s eyes meet Sasuke’s Sharingan.

He lets out a piercing, ear-splitting scream.

He scrambles out of Sasuke’s hands and all the way over to Lee, moving quicker than someone who was concussed and had suffered some of the worst blunt force trauma he’s ever seen ought to. The little boy cowers behind Lee’s leg, clinging to it like a rock in the middle of a stormy sea. Sasuke’s jaw drops open but no sound comes out. What does he say? He's had patients be afraid of him before he treats them but after is something else entirely.

The little boy’s voice comes in a near incomprehensible torrent, but Sasuke’s able to get some of it; "No no no no I promise I’ve been good I promise please don’t look at me please please please–!"

"Hey," Taiyō exclaims, coming around and kneeling down next to the boy, "Hey, hey, calm down, Sasuke’s not gonna hurt you! He saved you, you were gonna die before he helped you out! What’s the matter, huh? What’s so scary about him?"

The little boy shrinks even further behind Lee’s leg, pointing at Sasuke’s eyes; "The village sends the ninja with scary eyes when you’re bad! If they look at you with their scary eyes they make you go crazy or fall asleep and never wake up or–!"

Sasuke's heart skips a beat; "What?"

"Whoa whoa whoa," Taiyō cuts in, putting his hands on the little boy’s shoulders, "I don’t think Sasuke can even do any of that."

There’s a pause, then Taiyō looks over at Sasuke; "Can you do any of that?"

"No," Sasuke huffs as the wounded are set down and he immediately identifies his cases. Sasuke’s thought of I don’t have time for this becomes a mantra to calm his backfiring nerves and keep him focused on the patients.

There’s a woman whose left side from the pelvis down has evidently been crushed and a man covered in burns that could only have resulted from one of the town’s two power lines going down directly into whatever body of water he was swept away in. One of the reasons Sasuke is uniquely suited to this line of work is that the massacre left him desensitized to the horrific things that can happen to the human body, and he’s able to calmly make the assessment that the woman can wait if he’s quick. With the Sharingan active, Sasuke is nothing if not quick.

Sasuke focuses on treatment, but can’t help overhearing Lee’s voice dropping into something soft and gentle; "Now now, there is no need to be afraid. Look, see how Sasuke moves as he treats that man’s burns? He is fast, and very accurate– That is thanks to his eyes. They are not scary, they help him help people. If he had not used them he would not have been able to help you."

The little boy’s voice is quieter but no less harried; "But–! The grown ups all talk about the scary eye ninja coming and–! Momma says that’s why my poppa and Hoa’s poppa and Shun’s momma and Yoo-Mi’s momma had to go to the hospital in the city and stay there forever, b-because they were being bad and made the daimyō mad and–! A-and grandpoppa says during the war they’d–!"

Lee gently shushes the boy; "All of that was a long time ago. Those ninja were Sasuke’s family, but Sasuke is not like those ninja. You said your father did something bad? Well, how would you feel if because he did something bad people said you were bad?"

The little boy is quiet, and when he speaks again it’s in a heavy whisper; "It feels really really awful and I hate it."

Sasuke almost steals a glance back at the little boy. Tsunade’s voice in his head snaps that he doesn’t have time for this and neither does his patient. Sasuke keeps his eyes on his work.

The work goes as well as it can and Sasuke does all he can do for his patients. The flood of wounded eventually narrows to a trickle, because the thing about landslides is that they create a lot more dead than they do injured. Sasuke finds his focus constantly wandering, because all he can see now is his lucid patients staring at his Sharingan while holding their breath for some other shoe to drop, and all he can hear is those townsfolk outside the medical tent whispering to each other, repeating 'Uchiha' and 'Sharingan' like they're the names of folklore monsters coming down the mountain to steal their children away in the night.

The rain eventually stops and the sun starts to set behind the thick clouds. Thunder rolls through the sky and the air is muggy with the sticky heat of a Fire Country Summer. The busywork of monitoring patients and sending ripples of Lightning chakra along his skin to kill any enterprising mosquitoes does little to keep Sasuke from going deeper and deeper into his own head.

As he’s changing some bandages, Taiyō sighs, "This is so weird. Like– I thought people liked the Uchiha. Like, I mean, civilian people. They do in the village, anyway. You guys were the police, you solved crimes for them and kept them safe in, like… a normal way, not a scary way like the ANBU. You honestly had more to do with them than any of us."

Sasuke simply replies, "We’re a long way from the village."

Taiyō runs a hand through his ponytail and mutters, "No kidding."

After an hour or two more of Not Doing Enough, Sasuke’s sitting on the ground in the middle of the medical tent when he hears the sounds of fur rustling and two-too-many footsteps on mud. A large, fluffy weight leans heavy on Sasuke’s side and another back presses against his.

Kiba asks from behind him, "We lose any yet?"

"Three so far," Sasuke replies in a fatigued mumble, "Probably gonna lose a fourth soon if that guy on the far right is as bad off as I think he is."

"God disaster relief sucks," Kiba mutters, leaning his head back and pushing Sasuke’s forward, "I don’t know how you do so many of these. I’d go crazy."

Sasuke scoffs; "You know how I usually do them? With more than just one genin and you to support me. First thing I’m doing when we get home is telling Tsunade to tell the daimyō to fix the fucking infrastructure out here."

"As you fuckin’ should," Kiba sighs.

They fall into a silence punctuated only by the high whine of mosquito wings. Sasuke knows he doesn’t need to say anything more. Akamaru has flopped down to drop his head in Sasuke’s lap. Sasuke could just sit here, pet the very big, very good dog, and keep an eye on his patients.

But if Sasuke’s good at anything, it’s making himself feel worse; "That woman you were talking to in the local tongue, the one who was pointing at me, what was that about?"

Kiba shrugs, jostling Sasuke slightly; "I mean, she was scared of your eyes, but that’s not surprising. Mom always said the Uchiha always got stuck with all the messy jobs, 'cause the Sharingan made it so they were really good at them. You know, T&I, ANBU, suppressing dissidents, all the shit you really hope they never ask you to do. Uchiha who didn’t want to do that stayed cops and the ones who were okay with being bogeymen to keep people in line went into the regular forces."

Sasuke isn’t surprised, but he wishes he was; "The kid you brought in said his father had his mind broken by someone with my eyes."

Kiba nods; "Sounds about right. Our clan’s old lands are out around here, I swear I heard somethin’ about some people at least making some plans to revolt or some shit last time we visited. It didn’t get too far. Guess we know why now."

Sasuke shuts his eyes. Akamaru nuzzles into him and lets out a high whine. Sasuke runs a hand through his thick, soft fur, scratching behind his ears. He takes a few deep breaths, shuddering on every exhale. Kiba reaches up and buries a hand in Sasuke’s hair, giving it a tug just painful enough to pull him a few inches out of his own head.

"Sasuke, don’t go there," Kiba rumbles through grit teeth, "This isn’t on you. This happened years ago. You are not your clan."

Sasuke’s shoulders tense up. He clenches his jaw and purses his lips, pressing them into a tight line. The uchiwa pinned between him and Kiba burns, so hot Sasuke wonders if it’ll burn Kiba too and finally after seven years (nearly a decade) there will be another person bearing this mark.

Sasuke whispers, "Yes, I am. I’m all that’s left."

7, July, 1001

Sakura spends her first vacation in nearly two years returning books to the library.

She’d spent most of May and all of June studying, digitizing, and hand-copying the texts she stole from the monastery, only leaving the archives to eat and use the bathroom. Anything she needed from outside that wouldn’t contaminate the ancient documents she sent snakes to fetch. Technically speaking she wasn’t sleeping in the archives, mostly because she was barely sleeping. She hadn’t trimmed her hair even once, just adding more and more bobby pins to keep more and more of it up and out of the way. After four weeks without bathing she didn’t so much smell bad as she did musty. Sakura would’ve been content to waste away in there for the rest of her days. But Orochimaru had seen fit to order her to take some time off.

"No missions, no nothing, just… go outside," he’d sighed, running a hand through his hair as his eyes darted up and down Sakura’s disheveled form, "I don’t care where you go or what you do just stop doing this for… I don’t know, a week? Seriously, Little Flower, keep working yourself this hard and all your petals are going to fall off."

Sakura had frowned at him and croaked, "Do I need to take a handler with me when I go?"

He’d waved a hand dismissively and replied, "Of course you don’t, I can track you wherever you go through your curse mark. Now get out of here or I will drag you out and lock you out."

Sakura hadn’t wanted to leave. She’d wanted to stare at the antique paper and ink until she got sucked inside it and never had to come out again. But her sleep-deprived, guilt-addled brain had conjured an idea even more self-destructive and masochistic. Sakura had grabbed it and run like the thief she is.

And that’s how Sakura found herself walking through the Leaf Village’s western gate with a select few of the stolen texts and the handful of scrolls she’d had snakes steal from the village library nestled safely in her backpack. Sakura had told Orochimaru that these texts were too fragile to be handled constantly and she’d put them in the archives’ secure, climate-controlled vault. He’ll likely be furious with her when he discovers the truth.

Good. Someone should be.

In one sense, only obscuring herself with a basic transformation to make her look like an ordinary traveler is a practical move. Sakura’s visit has coincided with Tanabata. The Leaf Village’s festival draws visitors from miles around, the crowds are enormous enough to overwhelm even a whole village of trained shinobi made doubly wary by a relatively recent terrorist attack. A genjutsu isn’t necessary, and it might even be worse because all the sensors will be on high alert for elaborate works of chakra.

But in a larger, more honest sense, Sakura’s really just hoping one of the chunin stationed on the gate will notice her ducking around the security checkpoint and stop her. Maybe they’ll grab her shoulder and feel the chakra covering her. Maybe they’ll break her transformation and see that it’s her, a wanted criminal listed in the Bingo Book as a threat to be detained immediately and killed if necessary. Maybe they’ll throw her in jail and she can just sit there and rot forever.

So of course they don’t notice her.

The Leaf Village has changed in the little, subtle, but important ways you only notice when you’re so familiar with a place you could navigate it blindfolded. Sakura’s favorite tea shop downtown has closed it’s doors and the sign in the window says it’s going to be an izakaya in the fall. Asuka Nara’s pharmacy has moved further down the main thoroughfare where the rent is cheaper. More streets are actually paved now. They finished carving Tsunade’s face into the mountain, and now she watches over the village alongside her grandfather, great-uncle, and teacher.

The Nohara Tailoring Shop is still where it’s always been, with a stall out front for the festival selling pre-made garments. Sakura can’t see if her mother is manning it and she doubles her pace so she doesn’t have to.

The crowds thin out the closer Sakura gets to the library. With ninja fewer and farther between Sakura is safe to throw an old standby over herself, a genjutsu that makes her seem deeply uninteresting and compelling any eyes to simply pass over her without a second glance. Ordinarily Sakura is quite good at shoving down the memories any jutsu she learned outside Sound bring back. Something about walking up to the building where she’d first read about it, down the street Kurenai had used as their training ground for it during the lunch hour rush, makes that so much harder. And that’s the point. It shouldn’t be easy, it should leave her feeling like there’s a massive iron weight on her chest making her ribs creak under the strain.

Sakura pushes through the doors and walks with purpose to the sections where these scrolls normally live. She slides each one back in it’s place on the shelves, double-checking their call numbers against their neighbors to make absolutely sure nothing’s changed. Nothing has. Nothing really does in the library. Once she’s returned those scrolls she searches the building until she finds a temporarily unmanned cart of books and scrolls in the process of being re-shelved. Sakura checks to see if the coast is clear before placing the antique texts on it. She tucks a bookmark with the message Please accept this anonymous charitable donation (Handle With Care) into each one.

She leaves as quietly as she entered.

When she comes back out into the sun and fresh air, Sakura pretends to check a watch that isn’t actually on her wrist. She made it into the village without incident and will probably be able to get back out again just as easily. And that was the plan, kind of, but it wasn’t really the plan. What does she… do now? Does she just leave? She should just leave. This is a sign, maybe, probably, but all it signifies is probably that the village needs to up it’s security.

Before she knows it, Sakura is wandering back down the main street. She looks aimlessly around at the festival she’s attended every year she could. This was going to be the third in a row she’d missed, before she’d decided to drop by. Last year she was in Sound, and the year before she’d been in the hospital following her fight in the preliminary round of the Chunin Exams.

She remembers looking down at these same decorations from her hospital window. She’d watched the streamers and strings of paper cranes blowing on the breeze. She’d watched people, so many she knew and so many more she didn’t, hopping from festival booth to festival booth to buy and win all kinds of treats. Couples had shared dango while strolling arm in arm, children had begged their parents to buy them things they didn’t need, groups of friends had challenged each other to see who could do better at the festival games. Sakura had yearned to be out there with them.

Now she is. And all she can do is float through the crowd like a ghost, haunting her old home.

Before Sakura’s thoughts can grow any darker she’s knocked off her feet and right onto her ass. The sudden impact breaks her concentration on the genjutsu that had been cloaking her. That’s the thing about a jutsu that makes people ignore you. They ignore you. And if you ignore them right back there’s no one to make sure you don’t all crash into each other. Sakura can hear a few people gasping, some asking if she’s alright, and she’s content to ignore them all and make her own way back up before someone reaches down to her.

The hand being offered is masculine, smooth-palmed, and crowned at the wrist by a bracelet made from polished blue-black stones.

Sakura knows exactly who’s offering to help her up before he asks, "You alright?"

She follows the line of the arm to a yukata sleeve that used to belong to her father but has been altered to fit a shorter, slighter body. Her eyes sweep along the curve of his shoulder, up the column of his neck, over his lips, and right into the charcoal gray eyes of Sasuke Uchiha.

His brow furrows, he repeats his question, but Sakura can only stare at him. The soft edges to Sasuke’s face as she remembers it are in the process of being chiseled into something sharp, noble, and mature. She catches glimpses of his arms, his shoulders, his chest beneath the yukata, and she can see lean muscle making it’s presence known. Every urge puberty planted in her mind that she’s been shoving down (that haven’t been hard to shove down because the only person in Sound she would even consider experimenting with is trapped in a glass tube most days) comes stampeding up in a rush so powerful it’s paralyzing. Good God, Sasuke has gone right past handsome into fucking hot.

But her eyes drop to the palm of his hand… It’s so smooth. She remembers Sasuke’s hands being covered in calluses, little nicks from kunai, shuriken, and all other sorts of blades, burns from lightning and fire. But healing chakra has smoothed all of that over. He’s been keeping up with it. He hasn’t given up. He’s been learning at Tsunade’s side and helping people, and a fierce pride in the brooding, angry, wound-tight boy she’d first fallen in love with bubbles up only to tangle in a knot when Sakura remembers how she’s been spending these last two years and how did she ever think she could do this mission and just come home like nothing happened how will this Sasuke take her as she’s become and–

And suddenly Sakura is on her feet and sprinting away from Sasuke as fast as her legs can carry her. She thinks she hears him calling after her, but that's wishful thinking. Sasuke wouldn't care about some random traveler. Sasuke wouldn't care about her. Sasuke wouldn't care. Period.

That's a filthy lie, but it's shouting louder than the truth and that's all Sakura needs.

She runs and runs and runs until she's at the foot of the Shrine of Six Paths. The shrine is surrounded by a massive, lush bamboo grove. It’s the heart of the festival, where people go to leave their wishes, sample the best of the food stalls, and climb the shrine’s imposing staircase to find the perfect spot to watch the fireworks. Sakura still remembers snippets of her very first Tanabata, when her father was still around. He’d put her on his shoulders so she could tie her tanzaku to the higher branches and get the best view of the festival.

Sakura scrambles to the bamboo grove, going past the tree line and into the depths. She drops her transformation. She doesn’t even have the presence of mind to conceal her scent from the panda bears that roam the grove. All she can do is stumble to a stop and wrap her arms around herself as she sobs through her teeth.

She’s a coward. She’s a fucking coward. None of this guilt is worth a damn thing if she’s too scared to face the consequences of her actions. Why couldn’t she have just let some guard at the village gate catch her?! They’d throw her in jail and she’d be having an awkward conversation with Danzō right now instead of standing in a bamboo grove and feeling like her heart is going to tear in two because she’d just gotten a glimpse at Sasuke– and suddenly she's seized with panic as she realizes who she didn't see at his side. Where was Naruto? Was he a chunin now? Was he on a mission? Did something happen to him? No, no, she forfeited the right to worry about bad things happening when she wasn’t there to do something about them–

"You shouldn’t be here."

It takes Sakura longer than she’d like to admit to place the voice. Once she does, she turns to see a familiar ANBU tiger mask under a cloak that cannot be comfortable in the sticky heat of a Fire Country July. Sai is standing three feet away, deeper in the grove. With the bamboo between them it feels like Sakura’s looking at him through the bars of a cage.

He continues, "This is an unnecessary risk to your cover. Why are you here?"

Sakura swallows hard; "Have you been getting my reports?"

He inclines his head in the shallowest of nods.

Sakura looks away; "Then you already know why."

Sai is quiet for a few moments before bluntly remarking, "No, I don’t. You haven’t assassinated Orochimaru, therefore your mission isn’t complete. Therefore, you have no reason to be coming back to the village."

Sakura whips her head around to shoot him an incredulous look and sputters, "Wh–?! I-I told y–! Dozens of people are dead because of me, and I–!"

"I fail to see the problem," Sai cuts in, "These deaths were a result of actions done in service to the mission, were they not?"

That stops Sakura in her tracks.

Her first instinct is to say no, but she was there to get the scrolls on orders from Orochimaru who did not take kindly to orders being disobeyed, and she’d staged the heist as a dry run for her actual assassination plan. One of the many reasons she’d been researching Wood Style is because democratizing the style could make defeating Orochimaru that much easier. She was only able to research it because one of her rewards for passing the trials of Ryūchi Cave was unfettered access to the archives, and those were trials she’d passed to get closer to her target and gain more tools in her arsenal for the fight against him.

So Sakura replies, "I… Yeah… but–"

Sai’s voice hits her like a cudgel; "Then there is no problem."

Sakura runs a hand through her hair, stammering, "B-but– You don’t get it, it’s– It’s more complicated than that, I–!"

"No it isn’t."

Sakura chokes on her own tangled emotions and can only stare, open-mouthed, at Sai. His mask’s black lenses meet her gaze, empty as the Summer sky.

"You are making it complicated," Sai continues, "You may be working for Root, but you clearly don’t understand our mission. Think of what roots do. They work below the surface to sustain, to support, to perpetuate and to defend the plant. We work in the dark so that they," he gestures towards the edge of the bamboo grove, "can live in the light."

Sakura’s words drop from her mouth like raindrops into the ocean; "But… The monks… They didn’t need to die… I’m… I’m a bad… person…"

Sai's voice is as flat and cold as the blade of a knife; "The only thing that makes you a bad person is whether or not you decide to abandon your mission. If you choose to let someone like Orochimaru live to see his next attack on the Leaf Village, then you are a bad person who deserves punishment. Right now you are not."

It isn’t… wrong. And that’s the most disturbing thing about it. It would be so, so easy to just believe that. Sakura’s already been living underground in the dark for this long. She could be one root among many, crawling deeper and deeper down to support, to sustain, to defend the plant. But…

Seriously, Little Flower, keep working yourself this hard and all your petals are going to fall off.

A sakura is a flower. A tsubaki, a suisen, those are flowers. Flowers are responsible for more than just keeping this plant alive. Flowers attract bees and birds that carry their pollen to other plants. Flowers create fruit. Fruit feeds animals and people, and they spread the seeds so that more plants can grow. That… That seems so much harder. But it’s what her parents named her. It’s what Orochimaru constantly calls her, and for some reason what he thinks of her matters now.

Leaves, flowers, roots. Plants need all three and more besides to live.

Sakura shakes her head; "You aren’t wrong. But I don't think I can believe it’s that simple."

Sai’s voice tilts in the barest note of displeasure; "This has been a largely unproductive conversation. Will you be leaving the village and returning to your mission or not?"

"I will," Sakura replies, "Just give me one moment."

Sakura retrieves her tanzaku and hangs it on a nearby branch. She wrote her wish with her right hand. That combined with her handwriting renders it near-illegible.

Sai’s voice is back to it’s normal flat, featureless tone; "What did you wish for?"

Sakura simply replies, "That’s not relevant to the mission. Come on, let’s go. You can escort me to the gates."

She and Sai slip out of the village under cover of fireworks. The only evidence that Sakura was ever here are a set of old books and a slip of paper hidden deep within a bamboo grove, bearing a simple sentence.

I wish to set things right

13, August, 1001

For Sasuke, Obon starts before sunrise.

He wakes in the dark to find Kakashi still away and all the dogs asleep. He doesn’t wake them. He lights a chochin emblazoned with the Hatake crest and hangs it outside the door. He lights another chochin emblazoned with the Uchiha Crest, bundles together all the offerings and supplies he picked up yesterday, and creeps out into the pale sunlight to trek all the way out to the Uchiha District. He doesn’t stop by the tower or the hospital to let them know where he’ll be. It’s just him and the pack that weighs as much as he does. He passes through the gates to the district, past the homes that used to house his relatives, around his own family home, and takes a right at the Naka Shrine to arrive at the Uchiha Cemetery.

Sasuke can still remember his first Obon after the massacre, arriving to the cemetery to find every family’s grave greatly expanded and covered in familiar names. It had made him sick. Now the fact that each grave is stuck at it’s current size, never to grow again, makes his stomach twist.

Sasuke takes a deep breath, dragging it in and pushing it out. He heads over to the Naka River and fills a bucket with water before setting to work.

Sasuke takes his time to combat the feeling of being a worker on an assembly line, repeating the same rote task over and over. He lights a lantern. He joins his hands in prayer and says a few words to the deceased. He washes the grave with water from the Naka River. He places offerings of food and flowers. He lights a candle and offers incense. He joins his hands in prayer again. He goes back to the river to refill the bucket.

Sasuke clings to the things he remembers. Izumi had loved sunflowers, so he places a lightly-crushed bouquet of them across her family’s grave. He leaves dango and green tea for Shisui, because he and Itachi couldn’t get enough of the stuff. He leaves senbei on the grave of Teyaki and Uruchi’s family and apologizes for it, because they’re probably nowhere near as good as the Uchiha Senbei. Obito died before Sasuke was born, but he remembers Obito’s grandmother leaving peonies and red poppies for him every year, so he does the same. He leaves saké at the graves of Inabi, Tekka, Yakumi and Yashiro, because he remembered them drinking with his father more than any other officers.

On so many more graves Sasuke just leaves chrysanthemums and rice. An eight year old boy can’t possibly know every member of his massive clan. And now he never will.

It’s nearly noon when Sasuke finally comes to his own family’s grave. It sits at the very back of the cemetery, ensconced in the roots of a massive fig tree. Sasuke pauses in his rhythm to stare at the stone edifice and read the names. He climbs his family tree all the way to the top, to the reason why the grave is all but hidden.

Madara Uchiha. His grandmother’s father. Sasuke feels like he remembers some argument, some story told over dinner, some whispered conversation he wasn’t supposed to be listening to, about the clan almost leaving his name off the grave when it was first erected. But Grandmother had insisted. And she tended to Insist with her Sharingan active.

Sasuke reaches out and lets his fingers trail along his great-grandfather’s name. If Itachi had merely pruned the clan’s branches instead of cutting it down to the stump, would anyone Insist that his name and ashes be added to the family grave?

Sasuke presses his mouth into a pale, thin line. He lights a lantern. He joins his hands and says a standard prayer. He washes the grave. He places offerings of inarizushi for Madara, higashi for his grandparents, daifuku for his mother, omusubi for his father, and green tea for no one in particular. He surrounds the grave with orange and red spider lilies. He lights a candle, offers incense, and joins his hands in a prayer he doesn’t finish. He makes his way back through the cemetery and tries to ignore the crows settling on the graves, even as their beady eyes follow him out.

Sasuke drags his feet. He’s deeply aware of the bags beneath his eyes and the ache in his knee. And he’s not even done.

Sasuke’s break for lunch lasts only as long as his omusubi does. Once done, he gets to work on the Naka Shrine. After paying his respects to the kami he sweeps the sandō, cleans out and lights the stone lanterns, clears the haiden’s gutters, and generally performs any maintenance on the shrine that wouldn’t require a trip to the hardware store.

The work is hard, but better than tending to the cemetery. Just like medicine, cleaning lets Sasuke push the world into the background. He doesn’t have to focus on how empty and dark the haiden is when he’s busy getting rid of cobwebs. His complete, isolating focus only breaks when a slightly-out-of-place tatami mat catches him off guard, tripping him and sending him sprawling onto his face. For a half-second, Sasuke considers just lying there for a little while, breathing in whatever toxic mold is probably growing in these mats.

He pushes himself up and turns to the mat, mouth screwed up into a scowl. The scowl quickly falls. That isn’t just any mat. That’s the seventh mat on the far right side of the haiden. He’s the reason it’s out of place. He’d followed Itachi’s directions seven years ago, creeping down the cold stone stairs to find a stele with chakra-carved inscriptions he couldn’t decipher. He’d stormed out of there feeling entirely too much at once, and hadn’t done a very good job of closing the 'door' behind him.

That had been before he awakened his Sharingan.

Before he can tell himself to stop, Sasuke is peeling the mat off the floor and setting it aside. He pads down the winding staircase, finding it narrower than he remembered but just as dark. After a significantly shorter walk than the one in his memory Sasuke stumbles into a cramped chamber, it’s walls painted with fierce images of winged beings wielding fiery swords. In the middle of the room are the same bronze braziers, and as he passes between them seals in the center of their bowls flare violet and produce a pair of strong, steady flames with a burst of chakra.

At the head of the room sits the stele. It now comes up to Sasuke’s waist instead of dwarfing him. The text is indecipherable, as it was years before, but now Sasuke can see the shimmer of chakra on the edges of the inscribed words. On the wall above it is a framed piece of yellowing parchment, holding words Sasuke can read:

For a thousand years, we have kept this knowledge. The eyes of the unfavored son may look upon it, and learn the secrets of his power. When he has set his feet upon the cursed path, he may look yet deeper. Only the eyes of his father may see all and know all.

Sasuke remembers reading those words seven years ago. He remembers the twisting in his gut. He’d thought he was the unfavored son, and yet the stele had stayed locked away behind its shroud of chakra. Did this mean that Sasuke had been loved all along, or that he didn’t even count as a son of the Uchiha? It had been too much for his grief-addled brain. Now…

Sasuke activates his sharingan to find out for certain.

A portion of the script squirms, wriggles, and twists itself into new shapes. The first quarter of the stele rearranges itself into something antiquated, but legible.

The sharingan is awakened for the first time when a son of the Uchiha looks upon a god of death, and sees his face reflected in its eyes. But it is only mastered when he becomes that god, and one whom he dearly loves looks into his eyes, and sees their death there.

In the left eye, a weapon to obliterate the minds of all your enemies. In the right, a weapon to obliterate their bodies. From both springs the shield about you that no weapon may pierce.

It is power born of pain, and pain will be the price paid for its use. Like the grief from which it came, it will devour the sunlight of your world, until all that is left to you is darkness.

This is the Mangekyō sharingan.

The rest drifts into nonsense Sasuke couldn’t read even if he wanted to.

Sasuke slowly sinks down onto his knees, then further and further down until he’s lying on his side, the stele towering over him once again. It takes the whole slow trip down to the floor for Sasuke to realize something.

Up until this very moment, Sasuke had been sure Itachi was lying.

He lies there in numb, cold silence for hours. His vision starts to blur and his hearing muffles like he’s being waterboarded in a bucket full of blood. He hears a sound from the corner of his ear growing steadily closer, a sound like a pebble bouncing down the stairs. There’s an odd warble, then the world snaps into sharp relief when a hand closes around his shoulder. Sasuke’s grabbed his tantō and whirled around to put it to the intruder’s throat before they can take another breath.

Kakashi reacts to Sasuke’s blade sitting a hair away from his jugular vein with a lightly arched eyebrow and a slow, "Easy, Sasuke. It’s only me."

Sasuke stares at him for a long moment. He drops the blade and uses his other hand to throw a hook. Kakashi easily catches it, but his dark eye narrows, and Sasuke can’t help a frisson of dark satisfaction that he’s getting even a fraction of a rise out of him.

"Okay, can’t blame that one on shock," Kakashi mutters, keeping a tight hold on Sasuke’s fist as he tries to push against him, "Do you want to use your words like the adult you legally are or do you just want to hit me?"

Sasuke’s eyes aren’t burning and his voice is not coming out thick and choked as he snarls, "Oh, you wanna pretend like you’re the fucking grown-up now?! You wanna talk like you know jack shit about what’s going on with me?! Fuck you!"

Kakashi lets his eye fall shut and pushes out a sigh, "I won’t know what’s going on with you if you don’t tell me."

A weird, tortured laugh comes flailing out of Sasuke’s mouth as he shoves himself up and away; "I don’t need to tell you shit! The answers are all right there," Sasuke flings an accusing hand towards the stele, "Go ahead, read it! You’ve got the sharingan, you can!"

Kakashi’s eye darts between him and the stele before he slowly lifts his headband. His sharingan runs up and down along the text, eyes growing wider with every letter.

After a moment, he breathes, "Good God."

Sasuke throws his arms out wide as he shouts, "Right?! Exactly! Hell you can probably read more than I can– You saw what it said, you get the Mangekyō by killing someone you love! Wanna finally tell me how you got that eye, Sensei?!"

Kakashi’s eyes whip to his, burning with barely-contained fury as he snarls, "Sasuke, you are out of line. You need to calm down right now, or–"

Sasuke feels a jolt right to his heart, and finds the filter between it and his mouth broken as he screams, "Shut up! Shut the fuck up! Don’t tell me what to do, you’re not my fucking father!"

Kakashi’s expression flips in an instant, eyes going wide and tension draining from his shoulders; "I– What–?!"

Sasuke shuts his eyes and presses his hands hard against them, the stars on the inside of his eyelids all bloody red; "You’re not even an Uchiha, you’re barely even here! You’re just off running after Sakura and I’m just stuck here by my fucking self getting raked across the fucking coals by your clan and all the others for existing and now I know why! It’s not just Madara, it’s not just Itachi, it’s every fucking one of us! I’ve been up since dawn tending their graves but how many were put there by their own family?! How many of the blind old people in the clan only went blind because they stabbed their cousin while on a mission in the back country?!"

Kakashi takes a step toward him; "Sasuke–"

Sasuke buries his hands in his hair, nails scraping at his scalp; "And I know– I know– I know for a fact people did! Itachi wasn’t the first one! Did you know how much wetwork we got stuck with?! How we got sent out to break people’s minds so often that we’re monsters to the people outside the village?! What happened to you, to Sakura– It’s happened before, and with Itachi out there it’ll happen again and–! How do you trust a clan that does this?! That has to do this to get the kind of power to–?! Is this it?! Is this really the only way I’ll be able to match him, by killing Naruto or Sakura?! Did he– Is that his real game, don’t kill me but break me by forcing me to do this?!"


Sasuke is pacing manic circles around the chamber; "And there’s no one I can even talk to about–! Who the fuck would I talk to?! Tsunade’s always running off to fix something or hear some grievance and her clan has hated mine for generations! Shizune, my friends–! None of them get it, none of them can get it or ever will get it! Sakura can’t get it and it’s not like it fucking matters if she would, she left! Maybe Naruto would but he left too, and you–! I don’t even know, I’ve never seen your face and you’re never here and–! And Itachi took fucking everyone else who–! I’m so fucking–! I’m just–! Everyone in my fucking life just keeps leaving or getting torn away from me and I’m starting to think the only way to end it is if I’m the one who–!"

Strong arms wrap tight around him. Sasuke goes boneless in the embrace and Kakashi crumples to his knees right along with him, not letting go or loosening his grip for even a moment. He’s pressed so close he can feel Kakashi’s breath hitch and his heart beating like a hare on the run.

Kakashi speaks like he’s opening a wound; "Don’t. Don’t go there. You… You aren’t… I know where you are right now and I’m sorry I wasn’t here to keep you from going there and I…"

Kakashi’s voice dissolves into a raw, ragged noise Sasuke can only classify after a moment of stunned silence as a sob.

That’s all it takes to get Sasuke to press his face into Kakashi’s shoulder, bring his arms up to hold him as tightly as he can, and break down. Sasuke hasn’t cried like this in seven years. He sobs so hard it makes his whole body shake, his throat aches like he’s swallowed broken glass, and no matter how many deep breaths he takes he just can’t stop. Everything he’s been shoving down comes up and out of him in a flood. Kakashi doesn’t let him go. He rubs Sasuke’s back in small circles, and he’s whispering something but Sasuke has no idea what. It doesn’t really matter, anyway.

Sasuke has no idea how long it takes, but the sobs eventually die down into uneven breaths and hiccups. He feels like he's been cut open and hollowed out. He doesn’t make any effort to pull away. If he stays in this embrace, keeps his eyes shut, he can pretend Kakashi is…

… Who, exactly? Not his father. His father wasn’t the one who held him when he cried. Not his mother, not Itachi, because it was… different with them. His mother would fuss and whisper and try far too hard to bring his tears to an end before they’d run their course. The few times Itachi had been there, he’d been all but paralyzed, just letting Sasuke cling and staring down at him with eyes wide in… maybe it was shock, maybe it was fear, Sasuke doesn’t know anymore.

Sasuke feels the light scratch of the flak jacket against his cheek, the subtle but unmistakable strength in Kakashi’s arms, the sound of breath muffled by a mask, and more than anything he feels… safe.

Sasuke has never been very good at pretending, so he stops trying.

Kakashi’s voice is hoarse and soft when he finally speaks again; "I know I’m not your father. I’m not Itachi. I’m not an Uchiha, and I can barely call myself your sensei after how I’ve failed you. You, me… I think we’re too alike for our own good, sometimes. But…"

Kakashi brings his hands up to Sasuke’s shoulders and pulls him off so he can look him in the eye. His mask is damp with tears. Sasuke almost wants to laugh, but he doesn’t think he can without it turning into another sob.

"We’re all that’s left, Sasuke," Kakashi murmurs, squeezing his shoulders, "If we can’t stick together, if we can’t look after each other, then there really isn’t any hope for us. But there still is. I see you, Sasuke. I know you’re trying, and I… I’m the one letting you down. I’m your sensei, but… I should be learning from your example."

Sasuke’s eyes slowly widen; "Wh… What?"

Kakashi’s eye crinkles at the corner; "Two years ago, your only reason for being around people is because they were means to an end. Now… Remember what I told you, after the exams? 'A ninja’s worth isn’t measured in how many lives they take, but how many they save’. Sasuke, you’re a medic. Saving lives is what you do. You’re getting stronger every day, not by locking people out but by letting them in. And that’s a skill I still struggle with… So, Sasuke, will you teach me?"

Sasuke holds his gaze and his breath.

After a long moment, he finally replies, "Only if you actually stick around to learn. And no being late, or I’ll send the dogs after you."

Kakashi laughs, "At least it’s not Katsuyu. You know how I feel about slugs."

Kakashi helps him to his feet and they hobble out of the chamber together. The sun is resting on the horizon, painting the sky in vibrant oranges and rich pinks. It’s still Obon, so Kakashi comes with Sasuke down to the river and helps him light yet more lanterns.

Kakashi sets one on the water, watching it float downstream, as he says, "So you were wondering how I got this eye."

Sasuke tenses, remembering the venom he spat at Kakashi just minutes before; "I– You don’t have to–"

Kakashi sends another lantern down the river and cuts in, "No, this conversation was always coming. It… should happen today, I think," Kakashi stands up and puts his hands in his pockets, staring off toward the setting sun, "When I was your age, I had an Uchiha on my team. Obito Uchiha. He and I got along like cats and dogs, but… On our last mission together, our teammate was kidnapped. I put the mission first, but Obito said I was worse than trash for abandoning a friend, and put her first."

Sasuke’s breath catches in his throat.

"When I came around to help, I lost my eye," Kakashi continues, "Obito’s sharingan awoke right then. He used it to protect me. We freed our teammate, but while trying to escape I got hit on my blind side, and… Obito took a blow that should’ve killed me. As he lay there on death’s door, he gave me his eye. He said it was a gift. It helped us escape…

Kakashi drops back into a crouch at Sasuke’s side, lighting another lantern; "Obito was an Uchiha, as much as you, Itachi, your father, or anyone else who lived in this compound. When I read that tablet, I could only imagine what he’d think. And…"

He turns to flash Sasuke another smile that reaches his mismatched eyes; "I think he’d call it all bullshit."

Sasuke opens his mouth, but all that comes out is a choked syllable, and he has no idea what word it was supposed to be.

Kakashi finally pulls his headband down to cover Obito’s eye; "Right now, you are your clan. But I don’t think that means what you think it does. If Obito got to decide what his sharingan was for, what to do with it, then you get to decide what to do with yours. And you get to decide what the Uchiha Clan will become."

He leans on Kakashi, who puts his arm around Sasuke's shoulders. They watch the Naka River carry the souls of his clan further and further away, all the way to the ocean.

Chapter Text

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."

Chapter Text

春 三

16, December, 1001

If it’s possible for someone to die of embarrassment, Moegi is pretty sure she’s on death’s door right now.

In reality she’s on a hospital examination table waiting for the medics to look at her swollen knee, which has turned a lovely shade of bile yellow, while Udon frets over her on her left and Ebisu scolds her on her right. The only member of her team not crowding her and talking directly into her ear is Konohamaru. And that’s because he’s too busy laughing at her.

"Seriously?! You tripped?! You tripped! That’s so dumb," he cackles, holding his belly as his whole body shakes, "How do you trip when jumping through trees?!"

"Hey, come on, it’s not funny. Moegi’s really hurt," Udon tries to protest, but Konohamaru literally can’t hear him over his own laughter.

Ebisu’s voice comes in louder and sharper as he adjusts his glasses and snaps, "I have taught you better than this, Konohamaru! When a teammate is injured you show concern, even if they’re the ones to blame for their injury!"

Konohamaru rolls his eyes; "She’ll be fine! It’s just a sprain, right? I sprain things all the time and I’m always fine like a day later!"

Udon frowns at the mess that is Moegi’s knee and mutters, "It doesn’t look like a sprain… Are you sure that’s what it is, Moegi?"

Moegi’s cheeks flush as she hastily lies, "Yeah, I didn’t fall from that high up, I’m fine. I’ll be fine."

"See? She said it herself," Konohamaru cuts back in, "And seriously, you won all the time at Ninja Tag, how did you trip–?"

Ebisu’s jaw clenches and a vein stands out on his neck; "Konohamaru I swear on–"

The door slams open with a loud snap, drawing all eyes away from Moegi and over to the doorway as two figures come through it.

A handsome young man with dark hair comes striding into the room, the Hyūga genin that saw them in a few steps behind him, and snaps, "Alright, anyone who isn't injured or sick get out of my way."

A ripple of shock passes over the team, and everyone immediately closes ranks around Moegi.

Konohamaru scowls at the handsome young man, getting directly in his way; "Hey, I know you, you’re Sasuke Uchiha! Where do you get off talking to us like that?! No wonder Naruto was always trying to kick your ass, you’re a real d–!"

Sasuke shuts his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose; "Taiyō, you have five seconds to get this kid out of my way before I throw him through a wall."

The Hyūga boy holding Moegi’s chart shoves himself between Konohamaru and Sasuke, pasting on a grin; "Hey, look, listen, you are absolutely right about Sasuke being a dick right now. But I promise you he’s not always a dick, and he’s also really good at medical ninjutsu. Just let him work, alright? Please?"

Konohamaru’s face screws up into a glare that could start a forest fire; "… Fine."

He lets himself be gently pushed to the side and Sasuke storms the rest of the way over to the examination table. Udon and Ebisu reluctantly scoot back, but keep their eyes locked on Sasuke. Moegi lets her face fall into her hands as it heats up. Of course she got Naruto’s asshole teammate as her medic. As if her team dressing her down for her stupid injury wasn’t enough now he’s going to rake her across the coals for it. She peeks through her fingers just in time to see him taking off his heavy canvas jacket and tying it around his waist.

Moegi lets her eyes roam along his toned arms and chest. Why do all the hot boys in this village have to be jerks?

The moment he takes a look at her knee, something in his expression softens; "… Okay, I can see why you called me here."

Taiyō comes around to the other side of the table and activates his Byakugan with a smirk; "Am I off the hook for interrupting your research now?"

Sasuke’s palms flare to life with bright blue-green chakra and he replies, "We’ll see, Cricket, we’ll see. Keep an eye on her heart and your fingers on her pulse."

Taiyō chokes down some foul word, but takes Moegi’s wrist in his hands and turns his eyes to her chest. She can’t suppress the shudder that rolls through her at the thought of him looking at her organs. Sasuke’s eyes snap from steel gray to bright red, three tomoe materializing around his pupil. He picks her knee up from below with his left hand and uses the right to channel healing chakra into her. All of Udon’s suspicion and ire goes flying out the window and he creeps in to get a closer look at Sasuke working. Konohamaru chews on his lip and shrinks in on himself– It’s the look he always gets when he’s impressed, but absolutely does not want to be.

Moegi’s knee feels like it’s been submerged in a tropical sea, warm and weightless. She can feel the chakra pulsing in slow waves, the tomoe of Sasuke’s Sharingan spinning in time with it. Beyond that her knee is pleasantly numb. Every few moments her heart rate starts to climb, but Taiyō catches it just as she does and Sasuke pauses until it’s gone back down.

Evidently Udon’s seeing a pattern, as he asks, "You’re healing Moegi’s knee, right? Why is this jutsu affecting her heart?"

"Technically speaking, what I’m doing affects the whole body," Sasuke replies, the edge of annoyance long gone from his voice, "Mystical Palm Jutsu accelerates the body’s natural healing process. We need to use just the right amount of chakra to heal the specific injury we’re dealing with to avoid sending that process into overdrive, overloading the patient’s circulation and potentially throwing them into cardiac arrest. There’s even more risk of that when we’re dealing with a growing body that hasn’t acclimated to being healed that way. We usually do kids in multiple sessions if the injury isn’t life threatening."

Konohamaru pipes up from the wall he’s slouched against, "Are you gonna do that for Moegi?"

Sasuke’s hands go out and he looks over to Taiyō, who takes a long look through Moegi’s leg before answering, "Yes, but probably only one or two more, and only if it’s super necessary. You guys caught it at a relatively early stage, so Sasuke got her through the worst of it."

Sasuke sets Moegi’s leg back down, his eyes fading back to gray; "I’ll tell Tsunade to put your team on leave for the next four weeks. While you’re off you’re gonna want to keep that knee elevated and ice it for twenty minutes every few hours. I’ll send you home with a crutch, and after two weeks you’ll come back in so I can run you through a shorter course of Mystical Palm and fit you for a brace, which you should be out of in another two weeks. Taiyō, can you take her team out to the lobby and get them started on the paperwork?"

Taiyō nods and immediately starts herding her team; "Alright, alright, everybody out! She’ll be fine, now come on, scoot, scat, get–!"

The protests of her team and Taiyō’s urgings disappear as Taiyō closes the door behind them, leaving her alone in the room with Sasuke. For a moment, Sasuke doesn’t say anything, just walking around her and over to a cupboard to retrieve a crutch.

Just as she’s starting to wonder what the point of this is, Sasuke remarks, "So I know you lied to us."

Moegi’s heart leaps up into her throat; "W-what are y–?!"

Sasuke strolls back over and cuts her off in an even tone, "You said you sprained your knee on your way to meet your team this morning because you tripped while jumping through trees and your leg twisted when you landed. The knee I healed had been injured yesterday and had been walked on, trained on, and jumped on since then. The first piece of advice I’m gonna give you is not to try lying to a Hyūga, they can literally see right through you."

Sasuke stops at the side of the table and leans on the crutch like it’s a cane, arching a brow at her; "So? Wanna tell me the real story?"

Moegi gulps, shuts her eyes, and blurts out, "I was practicing on my own in the forest behind my house and I knew the branch I was gonna land on looked kinda weak but I thought it was fine because it was holding so much snow but it wasn’t and it broke and I fell twelve meters and landed on my feet like an idiot and I didn’t want anyone to know so I just… didn’t tell anyone…"

Sasuke stares at her for a few moments. Moegi tries to pick apart his expression to see if he’s judging her, but it’s like trying to psychoanalyze a concrete wall.

His mouth tilts at one corner in a wry smile; "Consider yourself lucky– You didn’t have to fight on that knee."

Moegi’s brow furrows and Sasuke answers by, with a wince, bringing up his left leg and bracing it against the table; "During my first run at the Chunin Exams two years ago I fell from a tree, landed wrong, and fucked up my knee. I then got into two fights on it, where my opponents worked my knee until it was beyond normal medical ninjutsu’s help. I lived with a limp and chronic pain for three months until another fight left me with no choice but surgery or amputation. Surgery got rid of my limp, but I still need to wear a brace sometimes to manage the pain. Because I was stupid and proud at twelve I’m now a teenager with arthritis."

Moegi feels a chill lance up her spine, but Sasuke isn’t done, looking her in the eye as he says, "And even I’m lucky, because I actually got a choice of what to do with my leg. Imagine if I’d been on a mission, deep in the heart of enemy territory, without any other medics on my team. How many options do you think I’d have then?"

Moegi tucks her chin into her chest and murmurs, "I’m sorry…" She can feel her eyes starting to sting and her throat starting to ache.

Two fingers tap against the plate of her headband, gently pushing her head back up so she’s looking at Sasuke again. Her eyes go wide and her jaw drops, because Sasuke… Sasuke is smiling at her. In an instant his face has turned into something warm and kind, with a mirthful spark in his dark eyes.

"Don’t be. You’re still young, Moegi," he laughs, "Now’s the perfect time to make mistakes. That’s the only way you’re gonna learn. Like I told you, I only got where I am now by making a bunch of really stupid mistakes. My knee isn’t the worst of it– I used to practice medical ninjutsu on myself. I’d poke my arms with kunai, try to fix my knee, one time I even broke my own toe just so I’d have a broken bone to practice on."

A giggle bubbles out of Moegi’s chest as her cheeks flush red; "No way!"

Sasuke grins with a nod; "Way. It took weeks of that before I finally learned that I couldn’t just do everything by myself and needed to ask for help as soon as I needed it. That’s the hardest lesson any ninja can learn. Some never do."

Sasuke holds the crutch out for her to take; "So, in a sense, it’s a good thing you’re learning it early."

The crutch almost slips out of Moegi’s hands, on account of her sweaty palms, and she stammers, "Y-yeah, I– I-I promise, I promise, next time I’ll come here the minute I get hurt!"

Sasuke helps her down from the table and shoots her another one of those wry, lopsided smiles; "I’ll hold you to that."

If it’s possible for someone to die of embarrassment, Moegi is pretty sure she’s on death’s door right now. Because she can’t believe she’s now yet another girl who has a crush on Sasuke Uchiha.

27, January, 1002

hates going to No Man’s Land. Which, honestly, is probably why she keeps being sent here.

Slogging through ankle deep water, always on the lookout for alligators and leeches, is only the surface. Below it are the explosive tags, tripwires, land mines, all manner of traps and tricks left behind by her people (or maybe Sound, but who knows anymore?) that turn every mission into a deadly game of Roulette. Below that are her teammates, never the same ones twice, who hiss under their breath about having to guard the freak and slip poison into her food. And below even that are the terrified gasps and burning glares the people of this territory give her as her Team of the Week parades her through settlements to show off the power of Waterfall.

If Fū can take any solace in today’s mission, it’s that during Winter you’re a lot less likely to get bitten by an alligator.

She trudges along at the back of her squad, boring holes in their skulls with her eyes. This may be the worst team she’s been assigned yet. Dara, their scout, let her walk right into a pit trap while guiding the rest of the team around it. Minh is in charge of their provisions, so of course he made Fū beg for more rations after hers turned out to be poisoned, again. Makaio had seemed nice until Fū overheard her and Sukanda whispering behind her back, calling her 'Dung Beetle' and hoping something here would step on her.

Before Fū can drift off into pleasant daydreams of running away and never going back to Waterfall, Dara puts a hand up; "Stop."

Sukanda narrows her eyes and flips her long braid over one shoulder; "What now? At this rate we’re gonna be sixty by the time we get to that Sound outpost!"

Dara glares over his shoulder and hisses through his teeth, "Just shut up, I’m trying–"

Sukanda’s eyes go wide and she snaps back, "Don’t you tell me to shut up, you little–!"

Minh puts a broad hand on Sukanda’s shoulder; "The more we argue the more time we have to spend here, just do as he says."

Makaio slips on one of her fake smiles and flutters her eyelashes; "We all want to get this mission over with, Sukanda. Just be p–"

"If you don’t all shut up I will skin you alive," Dara snarls, warping the scar across his mouth, "Now shut. The fuck. Up."

Everyone falls into a tense silence. Fū shifts from foot to foot, the water sloshing with her, but Minh throws another glare at her and mouths 'Stand still'. She turns her attention to Dara instead, just in time to see his eyes go wide. They dart this way and that, his jaw clenches tight, and a bead of sweat rolls down his face.

Dara turns to the squad and whispers, "Where are all the birds?"

Fū’s breath catches in her throat. In that moment, she hears no sparrow songs, no dove calls, no hawk cries. The swamp is completely silent.

"W-what– What does that mean?" Fū stammers, trying to pick out a single bird in the branches of the thick canopy and finding none.

"It means something’s wrong, dumbass," Sukanda shoots back, "We’re not alone. What’s the protocol here? Fan out? Counterambush? What?"

Makaio runs her nails along the shaved sides of her head; "We don’t even know what we’re up against yet. It could be an enemy unit, it could be we’re in the territory of one of the giant gators, it could be a dozen different things."

Minh’s beady eyes coast along the squad before finally settling on Fū; "Fū, you take point with Dara. Get a head start and stay ten yards ahead of us. We’ll go slowly and fan out to get a clearer view of the terrain, see if we can’t ferret these people out."

Fū finds herself scowling; "Why am I taking point?"

Minh doesn’t take the bait; "I’m Squad Leader, so you do as I say. Now go take point."

Fū bites her tongue. She adjusts her pack and shoves her way forward through the muck. She and Dara creep ahead, crouched low and moving so slowly the water barely ripples. Fū gnaws the inside of her cheek. She’s not made for slow and still and quiet. Is that another reason they keep sending her out to No Man’s Land, so one day she’ll fuck up a stealth mission and get herself killed? She wouldn’t put it past them.

Fū lets her eyes roam over the swamp; Dara is fifteen feet to her left, and she can’t see the rest of the squad anymore. She could run. She could slip behind a tree and wait until Dara had passed her and go West, or South, or even North to the ocean. She could hide in No Man’s Land forever. She could–

Dara puts a hand out and whispers, "Wait."

Fū stops and follows his gaze. The swamp ahead is thick with water plants, cattails and reeds obscuring the view down to the bottom of the water. They spread out in all directions as the cypress trees grow tall and thick, creating a claustrophobic terrain with no shortage of hiding places.

Dara shoots her a glare and snaps, "You’re useless with scouting. Stay here, I’ll look for traps."

Fū doesn’t have to be told twice. She glares at Dara’s back as he wades into the reeds, sending pulses of chakra through the water. The reeds wobble out of his way as he pushes through. It’s only a moment too late that Fū notices the few reeds that lean towards him.

There’s a loud hiss as several reeds stretch out and wrap around Dara’s arms and legs. They pull him down into the bed of water plants. The image of cattails and lily pads dissolves in the water, replaced in an instant by a roiling bed of snakes. There are dozens, hundreds, thousands of snakes. They coil and twist around each other and quickly overwhelm Dara, winding around everything but his face. Fū yelps and Dara screams, high enough to shatter glass. A python as thick as Fū’s arm and twice as long coils around Dara’s neck and starts to squeeze down.

Dara thrashes one arm free and reaches for Fū; "Help! Help me! Stop gawking and fucking h–!"

Fū turns on her heel and sprints back the way she came. She splashes noisily through the swamp, but can still hear Dara’s screams get cut short by a sickening crack!

Out of the corner of her left ear Fū can hear the sound of thrashing in the water, harmonizing with Makaio’s voice as she yells frantically for "Someone, anyone, help me!"

Fū’s feet are moving toward the sound before she can remind herself that she doesn’t owe Makaio a thing. She wheels around a tree to find Makaio’s head barely sticking out of the swamp water and one arm flailing in sluggish arcs through the air. The rest of her body is submerged beneath the swamp muck and mud, sinking lower every second.

Her eyes lock on Fū’s and she starts babbling, "Fū I’m sorry I called you a dung beetle and looked the other way when Sukanda poisoned your food I’m sorry I’m sorry please pull me out please please please–!"

Fū knows she doesn’t mean it. But she races over and grabs her arm anyway. Fū tries to pull Makaio out, but this skinny teenage girl is somehow heavier than an elephant. Fū’s heels sink into the mud as she pulls and Makaio has to tilt her head back as far as it can go to keep her mouth from going below the water. Fū braces one foot against a cypress trunk and pulls with all her might. Her other heel slides out from under her and Fū goes tumbling backward, Makaio’s arm slipping out of her grip as she lands back first in the swampy water.

She scrambles to get back up, but it’s too late. With a strangled scream Makaio slips into the water. Her head goes under the mud. Her arm thrashes and grasps at nothing before it, too, disappears.

Fū stares at the spot where Makaio once was for a long moment before shoving herself up to her feet and crying out, "Minh! Minh, where are you?! Minh!"

She hears him on her far right call out, "Over here, Fū! I’ve found the enemy! Get in here and back me up!"

Fū channels chakra into her feet and leaps from tree trunk to tree trunk, bouncing between them to keep her feet out of the mud. She follows the sounds of splashing water, weapons clattering off trees, and Minh grunting in pain. Fū spills out into a small clearing in the swamp and comes stumbling to a stop, eyes wide in shock. Minh isn’t fighting a Sound ninja. Minh is currently throwing a bevy of kunai at a wild-eyed, blood-spattered Sukanda.

Sukanda runs through some hand signs and draws two thin streams of water up to her hands, shouting, "Fū, great timing! I’ve found the enemy, let’s take them out and regroup with the others!"

Fū’s jaw drops open and she stammers, "Sukanda– S-sukanda that’s not–!"

Sukanda’s already lashing out with her water whips. Minh ducks and rolls beneath them, running through a reel of hand signs before shoving his hands up to his forearms in the mud. Muddy ground surges up and around Sukanda, wrapping around her like a cocoon. Sukanda thrashes, but the mud hardens around her in an instant.

She snaps over at Fū, "Fuck, I can’t make hand signs, hurry up and break me out of this you fucking–!"

"That’s enough from you, Sound scum," Minh snarls, pulling a hand out of the swampy ground and slapping it against the mud cocoon. The mud around Sukanda’s head softens and surges in, filling her mouth and nose. Sukanda’s muffled screams only help her suck more mud into her lungs. Fū’s legs move before she can tell them not to and she’s racing over to the mud cocoon. She channels chakra into her fists and starts punching the hardened clay, cracking it, but not breaking it. Fū pulls back for another blow but is knocked away by Minh’s elbow crashing into her nose.

She goes rolling back through the water and manages to right herself just in time to see Minh spit a jet of pressurized water at her head. Fū ducks beneath it and strafes around the clearing, running just ahead of several more blasts of water and earth.

"Traitor," Minh snarls, "Stupid fucking traitor! Do you think Sound’s gonna treat you any better than we do?! You’re a monster! A relic of an old war everyone wants to forget!"

"Minh you’re under a genjutsu," Fū calls, leaping and rolling under a lancing blade of water, "That wasn’t a Sound operative, that was–!"

He snarls over her, "Screw you, you think I don’t know when you’re lying?! Just do everyone a favor and die already!"

Fū forms the tiger sign, slaps her palms together, and releases a spray of glittering scales from her mouth. They fill the air like fog and Minh grunts out a swear as the scales get in his eyes and they slam shut. Fū palms a kunai and closes the distance between them. She grits her teeth and thrusts the blade into his windpipe. Minh chokes on his own blood as he tries to scream. Fū uses her momentum to push him all the way down into the water, falling with him and landing with a knee on his stomach. She uses her other hand to shove his head beneath the water. He writhes and flails but Fū doesn’t let up, not until he’s gone completely still beneath her and the bubbles have stopped rising to the surface.

There’s a cracking sound from the corner of her ear. Her scales settle on the water’s surface and Fū turns towards the noise. It’s the sound of the mud cocoon falling off of Sukanda’s corpse in chunks, the body falling with them when there isn’t enough mud to keep it upright.

Fū’s blood runs cold as she stands and creeps backward, putting her back against a tree. She’s the only one left. Her whole squad was wiped out, and the enemy hasn’t even shown their face. She’s the jinchūriki, there’s no way she isn’t the target. Tremors wrack her body from head to toe. What are they going to do with her? She’s heard horror stories about Sound and seen enough of their work here to know at least half of them are true. At least in Waterfall she knows what she’s in for. In Sound…

"Hey. You."

Fū whirls towards the voice, picking out it’s source directly above her.

There is a girl perched on a branch. She's dressed all in black, with tinges of red on the edges of her yukata. She's exceedingly pale and exceedingly thin. Big green eyes peer down at Fū through raggedly-cut pink hair.

Fū’s fight or flight reflex shatters when the girl’s piercing green eyes meet hers. She freezes. Her heart is hammering against her ribcage and all she wants to do is run but her legs won’t move.

The pink-haired girl cocks her head to the side, looking almost like an owl; "What’s your name?"

Her voice comes out in an unsightly dribble; "F– F-fū…"

The pink-haired girl stares at her for a moment more before her body blows away on the wind, dispersing like mist. The only thing Fū can move are her eyes, and they dart around in wild zig-zags looking for the girl. There’s no trace of her, no sound of shifting water or creaking branches, no shadows darting between the trees, nothing.

And then a hand closes around Fū’s shoulder.

Fū lets out a blood curdling scream and spins away from the hand. The pink-haired girl is melting out of the tree Fū had been cowering against, everything below her waist submerged in the bark. Her hair is hanging stringy and greasy in front of her face, her eyes peeking out through the curtain of pink. Fū starts to form hand signs, but loses her nerve as snakes come oozing out of the tree, slithering across the ground towards Fū. They slalom between her legs and circle around her feet, thread themselves through the branches and hang over her. Their hissing and rattling all starts to harmonize into one overpowering rasp.

The pink-haired girl’s voice cuts through it with scalpel precision; "Fly back home to Waterfall, Fū. No matter what you do, don’t look back until you’re across the border. When you’ve made it all the way back to the village, when they ask you what happened here, tell them that your team was eaten by a monster. And tell them the monster sent you back with a message."

Fū’s croaks out a shaky, "W-what’s the message?"

The girl’s mouth twists into a bizarre parody of a smile; "That things are going to change very soon in the Land of Sound."

"W-what does that–?!"

All Fū does is blink.

When her eyes open after a heartbeat of darkness, she is alone in No Man’s Land. No snakes, no girl. Only swamp water and silence.

Fū takes a deep breath and sprints for home. She doesn’t look back, not even sparing a single glance over her shoulder to see if the pink-haired girl is still watching. She flies East as fast as her legs can carry her to tell her village of the monster lurking in No Man’s Land, never knowing that she turned back right before a different pair of monsters could spirit her away to eat her alive.

20, February, 1002

Jiraiya has learned in the last two years that caring for Naruto is a lot like caring for an exotic hothouse flower. When all his very specific needs are being met he’s a revelation to behold, but when even one of them isn’t he starts wilting and withering and falls into a death spiral.

Well, "death spiral" might be pushing it. More like "depression spiral". But but he certainly wilts and withers with the best of them.

The kid is supposed to be practicing a bit of rudimentary fuinjutsu. He’s instead listlessly drawing random lines on the page and kicking his bare feet back and forth in one of Mount Myōboku’s empty tadpole ponds. Jiraiya can’t help wincing as he watches from afar. He can deal with Naruto being a bratty, testy, willful, pain-in-his-ass little shit. What he can’t deal with is… this.

To an extent, he can’t blame the kid. He remembers being his age during his own training, he’d gotten pretty sick of spending all his time around a bunch of frogs pretty quick. But to his own credit, Jiraiya had tried to mitigate that. Naruto was by no means confined to the mountain. They left all the time, made the circuit of the surrounding lands, saw all kinds of new things and new people– Because that, by far, was the need Naruto needed met most urgently. If he wasn’t making new friends or visiting old ones on a constant, rapid rotation the kid would get squirrelly. And a squirrelly Naruto was a dangerous Naruto.

Jiraiya grimaces as he remembers what Naruto did to the Great Lord Elder Gamamaru’s throne. They probably won’t ever be able to wash the stains all the way out.

But squirrelly and stir crazy are still things Jiraiya knows how to deal with. This… This isn’t that.

These spells were few and far between when Mount Myōboku and the world outside the Leaf Village were new and exciting, when the threat of the Akatsuki was still distant, when Sakura… Well, Jiraiya’s not sure if Naruto’s feelings about Sakura have gotten any less muddy and complicated, so maybe that’s not part of it. Regardless, Naruto had spent the vast majority of their time away in relatively good spirits. Now, it feels like all he does is sulk. Sulk. Jiraiya hadn’t thought the kid physically capable of sulking, but he supposes every teenager has it in them.

It’s an easily solved riddle. Naruto’s playing the part of the prisoner, so desperate for the day of his release that he can’t think of anything else until it comes. And they’re due to start back toward the Leaf Village at the end of the month.

There’s nothing Jiraiya can do to meet this need but put them both back on the path to home.

Home. Jiraiya… It’s not something he’s proud of, but he hasn’t thought of the Leaf Village as home in decades. He feels for it the sort of obligation he imagines someone feels to an ex-wife you divorced on amicable enough terms. He cares about it, he might even say he loves it, but he can never stay with it for long. Any time he does it just brings all the bad memories bubbling to the surface and reminds him why he left it in the first place. Naruto, it seems, is the opposite. Despite how much it hates him, he just can’t let the damn place go. He misses a handful of people so he longs for the whole village.

There’s only one person in the Leaf Village Jiraiya actually wants to talk to. There’s a lot more people he has to talk to.

There’s a part of Jiraiya that wants to keep Naruto here forever. He’ll be safe here, safer than the village would ever let him be. The Akatsuki will never find this place, and neither will anyone else who’d want to get their hands on him. Here, he’ll never take up the cursed role of Hokage and die as tragically as Sarutobi did, as Minato did, as Hashirama did, as Tsunade might. Here, Jiraiya will have all the time in the world to work up to telling him about Minato and Kushina. Here, life can move slowly, peacefully.

But Naruto is an exotic hothouse flower. And that means that while he can grow in a greenhouse like Mount Myōboku, he won’t thrive anywhere but under the wild sunshine.

Jiraiya swallows a sigh and ambles over to Naruto.

"You know what, go ahead and stop for the day," Jiraiya remarks, putting a hand on his hip as he stops just behind Naruto, "You should get a head start on packing."

Naruto cranes his neck to look directly up at Jiraiya, a brow arched; "We’re going somewhere?"

Jiraiya frowns down at him in mock exasperation; "Of course we are! We’re heading back to the Leaf Village in the morning. Now go on, g–"

Naruto’s scrambled to his feet so quickly he almost spilled the bottle of sealing ink; "What?! But I– I thought we were leaving at the end of the month, why–?! Are you serious? You’re not just messing with me, are you Pervy Sage?!"

Jiraiya can’t help a smirk; "Come on now, would I really joke about this?"

Naruto just frowns at him.

Jiraiya rolls his eyes; "Alright, fine, maybe I would. But I’m not. Shinobi’s honor. We’re leaving tomorrow, that’s the truth."

Naruto’s mouth is twitching up rebelliously at the corners; "But I mean– Are you sure? I’ve still got training to do, right? And the Akatsuki are still out there, I mean– You’re sure it’s a good idea to get going early?"

Jiraiya shoots him a lopsided grin; "Sure I’m sure. In the grand scheme a few weeks won’t make much difference. Now’s as good a time as then to get going."

Naruto’s grin spreads all the way across his face and it’s like someone’s shining a spotlight directly into Jiraiya’s eyes; "Then what are we waiting for?!"

The kid almost bowls him over as he goes sprinting off towards his quarters. Jiraiya’s barely blinked before he’s back, shoving things in his backpack as he jogs down towards the gate to the mountain pass leading to the sanctuary.

Jiraiya lopes after him, squawking, "Hey, slow your roll, kid! I said we’re leaving tomorrow, not right now!"

He can hear the grin in Naruto’s voice as he replies, "You said it yourself, if a few weeks won’t make a difference in the grand scheme then a day will make even less difference!"

Naruto looks over his shoulder and fixes Jiraiya with a sunny grin as he crows, "Come on, Pervy Sage! If we get going now we'll be back in no time, believe it!"

Jiraiya pauses for a moment. But he can’t fight the fond smile that spreads across his face. See, this is why Minato and Kushina should’ve chosen a different godfather– He just can’t say no to this kid.

"Fine, then lead the way."