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XIII. Neji was never very impressed with the capital.

He should be. Tokei is an ancient city, a trading port since the invention of ocean trade, and its architecture shows the eras the city has lived through like the rings on a tree. The city’s sprawl is staggering, surpassing the Leaf Village in size and leaking out past old fortification walls once, twice, thrice over. Nestled between volcanic mountains and the ocean, the climate is mild and the soil is fertile, leaving the city both beautiful and prosperous beyond the wildest of dreams. The daimyō’s palace is the jewel its crown, large enough to take up several city blocks with gilded statues covering the outside and exotic gardens hidden within. The city is a hub of culture, its food delicious, its art cutting edge, its people cosmopolitan and exciting. By all metrics, Neji should salivate at the idea of Tokei and jump at any chance to take a mission here.

But Neji is of the Hyūga Branch House. He more than anyone knows beauty like this rarely exists without something ugly holding it up.

As their platoon made their way through the foothills, Naruto had marveled over the size of the city while Neji quietly catalogued the rickety shantytown buildings making up the city’s furthest limits. They’d picked their way through the city’s dense weave of streets and Guy lectured Naruto about Tokei’s history while Neji glanced down cramped alleyways where poorer families were living ten to an apartment. Tsunade, her guards, Sasuke, and Team Eight headed into the grand palace of the daimyō, leaving Team Guy and Naruto to stand watch while Neji’s eyes stay on the ruin-covered island not even four miles off the coast.

Tenten, perched upon one of the guardian lion statues flanking the palace gates, snaps him out of his reverie; "Dwelling on it isn’t going to change anything, you know."

Neji forces a breath through his nose, and though he knows lying to Tenten never works, he still gives it a try; "I don’t know what you’re talking about."

Tenten rolls her eyes and wags her chin towards Lee, Guy, and Naruto taking in the ocean view; "You could give their way a try. I don’t think a few hours of turning your brain off and enjoying the pretty scenery would kill you."

Neji smirks up at her; "That’s not a luxury I can afford while we’re at work. I don’t want to risk not being able to turn my brain back on."

Neji pulses the Byakugan to get a sketch of their surroundings. No enemies lying in wait on the rooftops, atop the telephone poles, or in the guise of beggars. Any shinobi worth the name would anticipate the Byakugan before infiltrating a large settlement in Fire Country. Danger could still be lurking just beyond his sight. But thanks to his other assignment, Neji knows it’s quite a bit closer than that.

His eyes fall on Naruto. The seal up his sleeve feels like it’s written on lead instead of paper. As Tsunade and Kakashi outlined exactly what Naruto was capable of if not kept in check, Neji’s skin had prickled with the phantom burn of the caustic chakra Naruto had drawn on during the Exams. Part of him wonders if that’s why he’s who they chose. Neji may respect Naruto personally, but he knows firsthand just how close to the surface the monster is.

Or it could be that between all five jōnin on this mission, he’s been marked as disposable. Either is likely.

Naruto himself pulls Neji back out of his head this time, hooking his thumb towards the island on the horizon and asking, "What’s that out there?"

Guy and Lee’s smiles fall, but a wistful grin crosses Tenten’s face as she answers, "That’s where Whirlpool used to be. I’ve been here so many times, but when I look out at the island I still can’t believe they were this close to us and they still fell. Guess it must have happened fast."

Neji bites down the urge to chime in, Or there was incentive for us to let it fall.

Naruto scratches at the back of his head, squinting hard at the island; "Whirlpool… You mean the Land of Whirlpools or the Village Hidden by Whirlpools?"

"Nowadays, they might as well be one and the same," Guy explains, voice somber, "Their hidden village and their capital used to be on that island, but before they fell Whirlpool had colonized Benisu Island, Nanakusa Island, and some of the outlying islands in the Mist Sea. But that’s what led to its downfall. The islands were simply too far apart for Whirlpool to effectively coordinate a defense when the Land of Water started grasping for territory."

Lee’s brow furrows; "That is surprising. The Uzumaki Clan placed seals on the ocean floor that would create whirlpools if ships without the corresponding key seals on their hulls got within a certain distance, did they not? You would think that would be defense enough against an invasion by sea."

Tenten leans back on her hands, sighing, "You sure would. But like you said, the seals had keys. And if you wanna keep trade flowing, you gotta keep records of the keys somewhere. Spies stowed away on approved ships, got off on Whirlpool’s islands, found where those records were kept, and sent them back to Mist. The rest is history."

"Wait, wait, wait," Naruto exclaims, eyes wide, "You can’t just casually mention that there’s an Uzumaki Clan like that! What? How long has there been an Uzumaki Clan?! And why did nobody tell me?!"

Neji imagines that Team Ten or Eight would be sheltered and privileged enough to be shocked that no one told Naruto about his clan. He can so clearly see them innocently humiliating Naruto by asking how he possibly couldn’t know. But Team Guy are the village’s castoffs, the same as Naruto. They know full well that until very recently, there was no one who cared enough to tell him. Neji suspects that even now that people do care, they consider his ignorance bliss.

Tenten has never held that opinion; "Because there isn’t an Uzumaki Clan anymore. The name still gets passed down in families, sure, but the clan is defunct. They were based out of Whirlpool, and because they were allies of the Senju through marriage we took in a lot of their refugees when the country fell. But wars are nasty and messy. The Uzumaki Clan was cut down to a quarter of its population before they were scattered. And there weren’t a lot of them to begin with. Some of their fūinjutsu has survived, but that’s about all that’s left of their legacy."

"That," Guy adds, pointing with his thumb to the spiral on the back of his flak jacket, "And their symbol. We in the Leaf Village wear the insignia of our departed allies on our backs, commemorating a friendship that lasts long after death."

Neji watches Naruto’s face as it goes on a long, winding journey. The spark in his eyes dulls when Tenten tells him the clan’s unfortunate fate, dimming more and more as she outlines the extent of their destruction, then lighting back up again when she says the word 'fūinjutsu'.

Naruto jogs up until he’s right in front of the lion statue, staring in awe up at Tenten; "You said their fūinjutsu survived, right? How’d you learn about them?"

Tenten beams from ear to ear; "Records of their techniques are in the village archives. If you’re not a jōnin yourself you need one supervising you to read the scrolls, but I’ve learned tons of them. I can show you some when we stop for the night, if you want!"

Naruto starts to nod enthusiastically, then catches himself; "I mean yeah, but, like… Since we’re gonna be going ahead with the daimyō, we’ll probably lodge overnight in a town, right? All the inns we’ve stayed at have been really… run down. With really thin walls. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about, like, my clan’s old secret jutsu where anyone can hear."

Tenten waves that off; "That’s what privacy seals are for. They’re more reliable than genjutsu and anyone with a little chakra can use 'em."

Neji restrains himself from pointing out privacy seals are basically just genjutsu with an on/off switch. That’s an argument that can last for hours.

Naruto’s mind is wandering again. Neji can see it in the way his brows are knitting together and his head is tilting to one side again. No wonder Hinata likes him– She’s always had a soft spot for puppies.

Naruto turns around, leaning against the statue’s pedestal and tilting his head back to keep looking up at Tenten; "Man, why are all the towns out there so run down, anyway? Like, the place we stopped last night didn’t even have electricity. Like I get some places are gonna be big and nice like here and home and some places are gonna be little and shitty but like. You’d think there’d be more in-between places, believe it."

Neji’s eyes slit in a glare as he spits, "It’s simple arithmetic. There’s a finite amount of resources in this country. Those in power decide where they go. They have an incentive to keep their military loyal and their centers of power thriving, so the lion’s share goes there. What little is left over once those two needs are satisfied has to be evenly distributed across an entire country. Everyone else gets a fraction of a fraction."

Neji catches Lee and Guy wincing again. Neither wants to admit he’s right, but they’re too good of men to deny the suffering of others. Naruto is staring at Neji with wide eyes.

Naruto cranes his neck to look over his shoulder at the palace; "You’re making it sound like the daimyō is keeping those people poor on purpose."

Tenten arches an eyebrow; "That’d be a pretty wild accusation to make while sitting on the guy’s front porch."

"It certainly would be," Neji replies, lips quirking in a sly, mirthless smile.

Before anyone else can weigh in, the palace’s grand gates creak open. Team Guy and Naruto turn toward the sound. An ornate carriage drawn by draft horses and flanked on all sides by ninja rolls out into the sunlight. Team Eight walks even with the horses, while two of the Twelve Guardian Ninja guard the carriage itself and Sasuke takes up the rear. Another pulse of the Byakugan tells Neji that Tsunade and a third member of the Twelve Guardian Ninja are riding in the carriage with Daimyō Ogasawara himself.

An unenviable position, if all the stories Neji has heard about the man are true.

Guy’s usual grin is back in place as he exclaims, "Excellent! It’s time for us to get back on the road! Everyone, to your positions!"

Neji has never followed orders faster. The sooner they can put Tokei behind them, the better.

"I should be the one on lookout," Itachi mutters for what Kisame swears is the millionth time tonight.

Kisame wants to sigh out loud, but that will lead to an argument. And arguments with Itachi aren’t fun, because Itachi doesn’t really get mad, he gets sad. He just goes down a fatalistic spiral that leaves him less and less willing to listen and more and more willing to do something stupid and self-destructive. Which describes what they’re doing right now quite well, but considering this is an order from the boss– the real boss– Kisame couldn’t really object. But he’ll be damned if he lets Itachi get in the way of what he can do to take some weight off of him.

So instead of sighing, Kisame turns to Itachi, points to a lump on the horizon, and asks, "Tell me, what’s that?"

Itachi frowns up at him. They both know how unfair the question is. Even with his Sharingan making up for his deteriorating vision, it’s the middle of the night, the moon is waning, they’re looking out at the ocean, and even the Sharingan has a limit in terms of range.

But Itachi has enough Uchiha Pride kicking around to bluff, "An island."

Kisame arches a brow, then points at the surf lapping at the shore in front of them; "How about the tides? They look normal to you?"

Itachi’s left eye twitches; "Yes."

"And that’s why you’re not on watch," Kisame chuffs, putting a hand on Itachi’s head to turn it towards the 'island' he pointed out, "Because sure, you may have the Sharingan, but you don’t know the Mist Sea. Anyone who’s sailed out this way as often as I have would know there is no island over there, at least not one you can see from the island we’re on."

Kisame moves his hand from Itachi’s head to his shoulder, bringing him gently down to crouch next to him as he points at the tides; "With the time of year and the phase of the moon, it should be high tide right now. But it’s low tide. And if you look very closely, you can see that the tides aren’t going straight out. They’re going out at an angle, towards your 'island'."

Itachi’s cheeks and the tips of his ears have colored in an embarrassed flush; "Fine. I get it."

Kisame grins. He’s cute when he’s flustered. Shame it doesn’t happen more often.

"I don’t think you do," Kisame murmurs, looking off towards the horizon, "Because this all means that our target is coming this way."

Itachi’s brows slowly rise; "If it’s that big on the horizon…"

"It’s massive up close," Kisame finishes, "How close do you need to be?"

Itachi purses his lips as he thinks; "I’ve never tried this before, so I can’t be certain. But it needs to be close enough for me to make direct eye contact."

Kisame clicks his tongue against his teeth; "So just close enough to be dangerous."

Itachi swallows hard; "Unfortunately."

Kisame frowns out at the water, letting the silence stretch out for a long moment, before he asks, "Are you sure you can do this? That your body can handle the strain?"

"It has to," Itachi replies, voice flat and remote, "It doesn’t have any other choice."

Most everyone accepts the image of Itachi, kin slayer and unrepentant maniac, as gospel. Kisame imagines that’s all down to the distance Itachi has created between himself and the world. If anyone else heard him say that they would immediately realize the story has to be more complicated. Kisame wonders if Itachi will ever let him get close enough to find out.

But that’s not going to happen tonight, so he instead grins and asks, "Any chance I can get a kiss for luck?"

Itachi’s expression doesn’t change, but the color comes rushing back to his face; "No."

Kisame laughs, rising to his feet; "Maybe next time, then. Alright… Let’s get to work."

Kisame’s eyes flicker from the horizon to the tide, back and forth. As the silhouette grows larger and darker, the tides start to grow choppy, peaking white like strong winds are blowing while the air remains still. Kisame extends one arm all the way, closes one eye, and brings up his thumb. He waits until the shape is roughly the same size and shape as his thumbnail before walking out into the water, stopping when it’s up to his waist. The sea is moving around him like white water rapids, threatening to drag him under and away. A pittance of chakra to his feet roots him to the sea floor.

Kisame slaps both palms together, water chakra pooling between them, before slamming one hand onto the water’s surface; "Water Style: Five Hungry Sharks."

Kisame releases the chakra from the tips of his fingers into the water. The water melds with his chakra, coalescing into the form of five great white sharks. They circle around him, and Kisame takes one moment to let his fingers gingerly stroke the tops of their heads before, with a flick of his wrist, they race along the current towards the shape in the distance. Kisame leaves his palms on the water’s surface, water chakra buzzing beneath the skin and ready to make more sharks should he need them. From the corner of his eye he catches Itachi jogging to the rickety dock, positioning himself next to their boat with a clear view of the target.

After a few tense moments, the shape suddenly thrashes to one side, the movement revealing the bumps on its silhouette for the spikes they are. It whirls with a surprising amount of speed for its size, one of its spiny tails lashing down into the water. Kisame feels a twinge at the base of his skull and knows, instinctually, that it destroyed a shark in one strike. Nothing he wasn’t expecting. He releases chakra into the water, sending another to take its place.

He knows what his sharks are doing without having to see them. Two are harrying the creature from the front while the other three rapidly swim from it’s back to it’s flanks and back again to force it forward. All the while they’re staying below the creature, snapping at the soft spots it’s armored carapace doesn’t cover. The creature has no shortage of ways to destroy his sharks– One it pierces through with a jagged spike of coral, another it shreds with it’s claws, three it sends spiraling down into the depths with a pulsing shockwave, and five at once it destroys by spinning fast enough to create a wave that crashes down on them with the force of an oncoming train.

The wave makes its way to their position, hitting the dock and nearly sending Itachi sprawling. The wave slams into Kisame. He doesn’t budge. He grins, showing off two rows of serrated teeth.

Kisame slaps his hands together once more before plunging them beneath the water. Ten sharks materialize around him and cut through the increasingly violent tides towards their quarry. The effect is instant. The creature jerks to one side, the other, rears back, then drops low and speeds through the water with the wake of a speedboat spraying out behind it on an infinitely grander scale. The waves are beating at Kisame’s chest like a thousand fists, but he stands sturdy against the tide. His sharks force the creature closer and closer until it’s finally close enough to make out its features.

The Three Tails has always been a horrifically ugly beast. Between its lashing trio of tails, man-like hands, spines that can tear through freighter hulls, jaw full of jagged teeth, and one piercing eye, the creature earns every ounce of fear it strikes into the heart of sailors. Ships it wrecks rarely have survivors. Kisame counts himself among the lucky few. His grin turns a touch feral. The Water daimyō ought to be paying them for this service.

The Three Tails swims in wide, serpentine arcs, careening towards them far faster than his eyes can track. But one glance reveals Itachi’s moving just as fast. Kisame lets the tips of his teeth dig into his tongue. He wills his sharks to change formation, bringing half to the front to slow the Three Tails’ approach. He channels raw water chakra into the sea around him, grabbing hold of the roiling current and forcing it to move against the creature.

Kisame moves the sea itself to push the Three Tails back by mere inches, but that much resistance is just enough to grab the beast’s attention. Its eye alights on him, widening by inches. It rises to the height of a mountain, displacing enough water to send another towering wave their way. Kisame grits his teeth. He knows he’ll withstand it, but if Itachi gets knocked over he’ll miss his window–

The instant the wave hits there’s a deafening hiss. When the wave passes, Kisame looks to Itachi to see the water parted around him. His fingers are locked together in Tiger. He’s wreathed in flame and steam, glowing like a wildfire in the night. His eyes are wide and ferocious, his teeth grit in a snarl, as he looks the beast in the eye without flinching. He is beauty and terror and Kisame wants to burn alive in him.

And for all that effort, it ends in an instant.

Itachi goes still. The Three Tails freezes at the exact same moment. Its one eye shimmers red in the moonlight. The seas slowly calm, and Kisame finds a moment to catch his breath. The relief only lasts until he notices that Itachi still isn’t moving. He’s staring up at the Three Tails, eyes wide, shoulders slumped, mouth hanging slightly open like he’s caught in a trance.

Kisame is at his side in an instant; "Itachi? Can you hear me?"

No response. Itachi only moves to take slow, heaving breaths.

Kisame spits a curse through his teeth, running a hand along his scalp as he looks Itachi up and down for some clue as to how to reach him. His eyes linger for a moment on Itachi’s hands, the low light glinting off his chipped nail polish. The idea comes in an instant and he’s worried enough to immediately run with it.

Kisame takes Itachi’s hand; "Itachi, squeeze my hand if you can hear me."

There’s an agonizing pause before Itachi squeezes his hand.

"Good," Kisame sighs, "Can you move? Squeeze once for yes, twice for no."

Two squeezes. Damn it. This is why Madara should’ve just done this himself.

"Can you be moved? One yes, two no."

One squeeze.

"Okay," Kisame hisses, "That’s something. One last question: Do you have to maintain eye contact?"

Two squeezes, though they’re softer than before. That could mean that Itachi’s strength is already fading. But Kisame has a feeling it really means Itachi isn’t as sure as he was of his last two answers. Only one way to find out.

Kisame lifts Itachi up off the dock with far more ease than he was expecting. Worrying in it’s own right, but more of a long-term problem. Kisame carries Itachi into the boat, setting him down near the back so he can raise the sails. Once done, he hauls the anchor all the way up so he can grab hold of the anchor itself, then turns to get a look at the Three Tails’ eponymous tails. If he’s lucky, he can find a soft spot on them. And luck’s about all he can count on right now.

Kisame calls over his shoulder to Itachi, "Make it head West."

Itachi takes another deep breath in. When he breathes out, the Three Tails turns west and starts to swim. Kisame waits until one of its tails is passing by, then hurls the anchor. The anchor’s hook buries itself into a gap between the armor plates and digs into the flesh beneath. The creature keeps swimming as though nothing happened, dragging their boat along behind it.

Kisame settles down on one knee. His gut twists as he thinks about the work to come. Itachi won’t be able to defend himself while he’s controlling the Three Tails. It’s going to be up to Kisame to keep him safe. A tall order, considering what they’re going to be doing.

But it’s like Itachi said– He has to. He has no other choice.

From up above and far away, Chukyō almost looks peaceful. Cradled by mountains and enshrouded in morning mist, it’s as though the whole bay is curled protectively around the city. You would be forgiven for thinking the city is cozy, maybe even quaint.

But Jūgo knows cities are noisy beasts, full of light and stench and trouble. Cities are full of people, and people like to stare. People like to poke and prod, because they’re so far from nature they’ve lost their fear of wild animals like him. Jūgo tucks his chin against his chest, drawing his hood further up. He hopes Sakura will let him stay outside until their ship leaves. But considering she was the one who begged him to change from his scrubs into Zhàdàn’s spare clothes to be less conspicuous, it’s not likely.

He glances over at Sakura and Zhàdàn. As they’d left Ryūchi Cave, trudged through saltwater swamp, traveled over rough country road, and hiked a jagged mountain pass, Jūgo had felt them growing more and more anxious to see civilization again. Even though navigating the difficult terrain on one leg was an ordeal, Zhàdàn had taken the lead. He’s looking over the city now with the faintest of smiles. Sakura can’t manage that. She’s a wanted woman, a city is as dangerous for her as it is for Jūgo, no matter how much she wishes it were otherwise.

Jūgo looks to Suigetsu, and finds… Jūgo blinks. Once, twice, three times. Suigetsu’s stance is loose. His eyes are wide as the sky, his mouth hanging open just enough to show his serrated teeth. His grip on his pack has faltered, the heavy bag sliding down his shoulder into the crook of his elbow.

Jūgo’s brow furrows. He looks… awestruck. It can’t be by the city. Jūgo adjusts his stance so he can follow Suigetsu’s line of sight. It falls not on Chukyō, but on the ocean, an endless sprawl of slate gray beneath an overcast sky. Something heavy settles in Jūgo’s chest as the pieces click together.

He looks down to Suigetsu and asks, "When was the last time you saw it?"

Suigetsu swallows hard, blinks harder, but the remnants of unshed tears cling to his eyelashes; "Three years ago."

Jūgo adjusts his hood once again to hide the small smile playing across his face. He’s as happy for Suigetsu as he is envious. He wishes something as vast as the ocean could be home to him, too.

Zhàdàn murmurs, gentle as he can, "Come on, guys. There’ll be a better view from the city."

Suigetsu swallows hard and does his best not to run ahead of Zhàdàn as they all make their way down the mountain. He doesn’t do a very good job. The pines lining the road grow thinner as they approach, humble homesteads taking their place. Sakura draws her hands into her traveling cloak and runs through a seal sequence. Her chakra falls over them like a lace veil, rendering them completely uninteresting to passers-by.

Jūgo doubts they need it. The closer they get to the city, the busier the roads become. Travelers, horses, carts, and the first horseless carriages Jūgo has ever seen pass their group on both sides in bursts of noise and speed. They have to move to the edge of the road, lest Sakura’s genjutsu get them all run over. Jūgo can feel his teeth grinding together. Sakura waves him forward so she can put a hand on his arm, silently urging him to breathe in rhythm with her. It only calms him a little. A little is enough for now.

Between the mountains and the sea, Chukyō never had any need for walls. The city limits are instead marked by a pair of high stone watchtowers topped with the scarlet and gold pagodas of the old empire. The city past them is a patchwork, each neighborhood seemingly from a different time and place as the others. At the city’s edge the buildings are shabby and narrow, with steep roofs covered in fish scale tiles that curve at the ends. Government buildings, ryokan, and temples that show their age not through wear but rusticated foundations and gold ornamentation dominate the city center. Clean black townhouses line the fashionable streets connecting the city to the harbor, and down at the waterfront the warehouses, offices, and businesses catering to sailors are all cement, glass, and steel.

The hustle and bustle only grows faster, louder, and more crowded as they follow Zhàdàn through the city. They’re forced by the flow of traffic to move at a pace just below a jog. Jūgo has to wonder if today is special, or if Chukyō is always like this. Things thin out very slightly once they hit the harbor, giving them just enough room to breathe and set their own pace. Suigetsu slows down as they walk along the waterfront, eyes drawn to the sea like metal to a magnet. Zhàdàn puts his hand on Suigetsu’s shoulder to keep him moving. To Jūgo’s surprise, Suigetsu lets him.

Zhàdàn leads them along the main harbor boulevard for fifteen minutes before he takes them down a side street, then another, and another, and then suddenly swerves down an alleyway. Jūgo can tell by the tiny frown on Sakura’s face that she wants to tell Zhàdàn her genjutsu is enough to shake any tails, but she won’t. They get halfway down the alley before stopping in front of a nondescript metal door with a not-so-nondescript slot in it at eye level.

Zhàdàn looks to Sakura; "Alright, drop the spell, Pinky."

Sakura’s frown grows by a centimeter; "It’s ninjutsu, not a magic spell."

Zhàdàn rolls his eyes; "You do a bunch of hand motions, say an incantation, then do something outside the scope of normal human abilities. I’d say that makes it magic."

Sakura pushes an exasperated breath through her nose and forms half a hand sign, breaking the jutsu so cleanly Jūgo barely feels the chakra disperse. Zhàdàn thanks her under his breath before kicking the door with his peg leg. The sound of metal hitting metal rings out loud enough to make Jūgo, Sakura, and Suigetsu all wince and cover their ears. The slot in the door slides open, a pair of narrow eyes beneath a heavy brow peering through it.

Zhàdàn grins and waves; "Hey, Kaz. Missed me?"

The eyes go wide and the slot slides shut. There’s the muffled sound of several locks unlocking before the door swings open, revealing a man only slightly shorter than Jūgo. Every visible inch of skin aside from his face and hands is covered in intricate tattoos, a few even encroaching onto his shaved scalp. Two swords, a katana and wakizashi, hang at his hip.

"Well well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes," he laughs, trading grips with Zhàdàn, "Thought you’d be living it up in the Land of Fire by now, Boss."

Zhàdàn flinches; "Yeah, well… There were some," his eyes reflexively dart to Sakura, "miscommunications. We need the Old Man’s help, Hidekazu."

Hidekazu’s grin drops and he steps aside, waving them in; "Let’s get off the street, then."

The four of them rush through, Jūgo ducking low to keep from hitting his head on the steel door frame. He’s confronted with the scent of tobacco the instant they cross the threshold. He’s gotten used to the smell on Zhàdàn, but this is a dozen times stronger. They seem to have stepped into some sort of gambling parlor, though at this hour nobody is betting at the tables. There are a handful more individuals who share Hidekazu’s elaborate tattoos and rough appearance scattered around the room, some counting stacks of ryō, some smoking while making idle conversation, some inspecting bricks of what Jūgo is going to pretend for everyone’s sake is flour. None turn to gawk at the new faces, but it’s hard to miss how their eyes flicker towards them every so often.

Hidekazu closes the door behind him and crosses his arms over his chest; "So, how bad are we talking?"

Zhàdàn grimaces; "'Wanted by the Leaf Village for treason and sedition’ bad."

Hidekazu’s eyes go wide as saucers; "Oh. Oh you need to get out of here yesterday."

"Exactly," Zhàdàn replies, "We need passage to Wave and we need it ASAP."

"The Old Man won’t like it," Hidekazu warns, "Especially not right now."

Sakura pushes some hair out of her eyes as she asks, "What’s special about now?"

Hidekazu does a double take; "Have you all been living under a rock?"

"More or less," Suigetsu snorts.

"The Hokage and the Fire Daimyō are on their way here," Hidekazu explains, "Chukyō’s acting as a neutral location for them to meet the shogun of Sound tomorrow. If you’re caught here, if you’re caught with us–"

"We won’t be," Sakura immediately cuts in, placing a hand over her heart, "I’m a shinobi, I specialize in genjutsu. I can hide us."

Hidekazu frowns; "Kid, I know you think–"

Sakura only needs to make one hand sign. In a breath, the four of them disappear. Hidekazu’s eyebrows fly up, his hand darting to his swords. Everyone else in the room is too shocked to pretend they aren’t watching, dropping what they were holding and choking out curses. Jūgo blinks. Cities this size tend to have ninja stationed in them on long-term defense contracts. You’d think people would be used to ninjutsu here. Evidently, you’d be wrong.

Sakura drops the genjutsu, reappearing at Hidekazu’s side; "I know perfectly well what I’m capable of, sir."

Once Jūgo, Suigetsu, and Zhàdàn have reappeared, Zhàdàn adds, "I get it, Kaz, I’ve worked with as many arrogant rogue ninja as you have. But Sakura’s the real thing. Still arrogant, but the real thing. If anyone can keep us from being discovered, it’s her."

Sakura shoots Zhàdàn a glare and Suigetsu stifles a laugh behind his hand. Hidekazu’s eyes shift from Sakura to Zhàdàn and back. After a moment, he heaves a sigh.

"It’ll be up to the Old Man," he mutters, heading towards a set of stairs in the far corner of the room, "Come on, Zhàdàn. If this is gonna work, you’re gonna have to beg him personally."

Zhàdàn presses his mouth into a tight line, glancing at Sakura before he says, "Go on ahead and butter him up for me. I need to talk to the kids real quick."

Hidekazu’s eyes narrow, and he simply replies, "Don’t keep him waiting," before disappearing up the stairs.

Zhàdàn wags his head towards a dark corner of the gambling parlor. He ambles over and the three ‘kids’ follow, huddling in tight. Suigetsu, Zhàdàn and Sakura all angle themselves so their backs are to the rest of the room. Jūgo frowns. Showing these criminals their backs feels completely antithetical to everything he’s heard about ninja training… It clicks quickly. These people are civilians, Sakura and Suigetsu will feel them coming if they try to stab them in the back. What’s more important is they not see their lips moving. Jūgo adjusts his stance to match them.

Zhàdàn whispers, "You really don’t have anything to say about this, Pinky?"

Sakura’s face screws up in confusion; "What are you talking about?"

"The woman who wants you dead is going to be here tomorrow," Suigetsu hisses, "You wanted information, right? No better person to get it from than the Hokage."

"And there’s the matter of Sound having a shogun," Zhàdàn presses, "Doesn’t sound like the kind of title San-Ha would take to me. Aren’t you the least bit curious about that?"

Sakura’s eyes drop to the carpet; "Of course I am. But I’m not so arrogant as to think I can even do recon on Tsunade with only one ally and no time to plan in a city I don’t know. Besides, it’s not like I can send the two of you ahead on a ship and stay behind with Jūgo. Drawing a map to Zabuza’s sword and sending you to Tazuna with a letter vouching for you isn’t going to get you far."

Zhàdàn and Suigetsu both open their mouths to argue, but cut themselves off. There’s a storm thundering behind their eyes as they grind their teeth and grip their packs with white knuckles. Sakura is just staring at them, incomprehension writ large across her face. Her logic is sound. But Jūgo gets the feeling logic is fighting a bloody battle against something far stronger in Zhàdàn and Suigetsu’s minds. And Sakura is buried too deep in her own mind to see it.

Zhàdàn shakes his head, breaking eye contact; "If this is the plan, Pinky, then it’s the plan. I’m gonna go talk to the Old Man. Don’t go far."

Zhàdàn turns on his peg leg and ambles to the stairs before Sakura can get a word in edgewise. Sakura watches him go with a tight knot between her brows. The silence slides in, thick like molasses. Jūgo’s eyes keep skating over the criminals in the room. He can feel the buzz at the base of his skull rising into an insistent thrumming. They’re cowards, too afraid to just stare at them right out but also too afraid to take their eyes off of them. What are they worried about? That he’ll snap? That he’ll leap over those roulette tables, tear their teeth out of their mouths, split their skulls–

Sakura’s hands are tugging insistently at the front of his cloak; "Jūgo, Jūgo, look at me–"

These people think they’re so strong, covering themselves in tattoos like poisonous fish displaying their danger through bright colors. They’re not strong. Jūgo could lift them by their hair and send them straight through any one of these tables, he could send them through the floor, he could rip their ribcages open without a thought–

Suigetsu hisses through his teeth, "Can you cloak him and calm him down?"

He could tear through their skin with his teeth, rip their limbs from their bodies with his hands, tear their jaws from their skulls, rip and tear, rip and tear, rip and tear until they’re nothing but meat and bone painting the hall red and white–

Jūgo is suddenly moving. Sakura has a hand on his shoulder and Suigetsu is dragging him by the elbow. Jūgo wrenches against Suigetsu’s hold– no one cages him no one contains him no one controls him no one no one no one– but Sakura squeezes his shoulder, and the rational part of his mind manages to shout through the fog that this isn’t him. This is Natural Energy, filling him up and overwhelming him. Jūgo breathes hard and slow. It’s taking all his strength just to hold it together, and he’s not sure how long he can manage that much.

Suigetsu pulls them back out into the alleyway, cutting across the main boulevard and all the way down to the beach. He doesn’t stop until they’ve ducked beneath a tall pier, hidden in its shadow from the light rain and prying eyes. Suigetsu lets go and Sakura takes Jūgo by the shoulders, forcing him to look down at her.

"Breathe, Jūgo," she whispers, " Breathe with me, look for the Natural Energy inside you…"

Jūgo shuts his eyes, breathing in time with Sakura. It takes far longer than it would for someone with shinobi training, but Jūgo pinpoints the flow of his chakra. It takes twice as long to isolate the feeling of Natural Energy mixing with and rubbing against it, but he’s able to differentiate the low pulse of Natural Energy from the high buzz of chakra.

"I have it," he mutters.

"Good. Now try to move it. Move it separate from your chakra, bring it up towards my hands."

It’s like she’s asking him to redirect a river’s flow. He can’t do it anywhere near as cleanly as she wants. He pulls the Natural Energy up towards his shoulders, but he’s using the same reflexes he uses to move chakra. It’s impossible not to bring chakra along with it. The skin on his shoulders is growing rough and spiny beneath Sakura’s hands, buzzing like a live wire, but Sakura keeps hold of him.

"Okay, good enough. Now push it out. Don’t worry, I’ll help you."

Jūgo opens the chakra points on his shoulders. Immediately he can feel Sakura drawing the Natural Energy out, separating it from his chakra with the ease of talent and practice working in harmony. Jūgo doesn’t have much of either. Here at the level of his skin he can’t tell chakra from Natural Energy and just sends it all out into the air in jets of heat and sparks. It’s only when he starts to shake, when his extremities go deathly cold, when Sakura insistently whispers “Stop”, does he finally shut his chakra points again. He drops heavy to his knees, his body shivering but his mind clear.

He pries his eyes open just a crack; "I’m sorry."

Sakura crouches down across from him, her smile weary; "I’ll say this as many times as it takes, Jūgo– This isn’t your fault."

"I should be… better at this," Jūgo grumbles, absently grabbing a handful of sand just to let it slip through his fingers, "You did most of the work there at the end."

Sakura blinks; "I did?"

Jūgo’s frowns; "Yeah, you did. If it’d just been me I would’ve pushed out all my chakra and lost consciousness."

Sakura looks away, a slight flush spreading across her pale cheeks; "Oh… I guess I didn’t notice… It didn’t feel like I was doing much… It felt too easy, I was kinda getting worried–"

Jūgo arches a brow; "Don’t brag, Sakura."

Sakura’s eyes go wide and she frantically waves her hands, sputtering, "No, no no no, I wasn’t–! I didn’t mean for it to come off that way, I just meant–!"

Jūgo grins, laughing softly, "I was joking, Sakura."

Sakura lets out a bewildered giggle; "You were? That’s the first joke you’ve ever told me!"

Jūgo shrugs a shoulder; "I’m broadening my horizons."

It’s in that moment Jūgo realizes Suigetsu isn’t next to them. He spots a trail of damp footsteps leading back out into the rain. At its end is Suigetsu, sitting on the sand with his feet melting into the water. His face is turned up to catch the rain, every drop sending ripples out across his body.

Sakura catches sight of Suigetsu a moment later. She pads over to his side, settling down silently. She reaches a foot out towards the surf, but the instant the water laps up over her toes she hisses at the chill and draws her leg back. Jūgo takes a deep breath, picks himself up, and follows only to the edge of the pier. He leans against a thick wooden pillar, and watches.

No one speaks. The waves crash upon the sand, the ships blare their foghorns, the seagulls cry across the bay, the city rumbles like distant thunder. Suigetsu lets the water wash over him, into him, with his eyes shut. Sakura runs her fingers through the sand.

Suigetsu breaks the silence; "Thank you."

Sakura pushes a few locks of hair out of her eyes, the wet hair sticking to her forehead; "For what?"

Suigetsu opens his eyes and smiles at the sky; "For this."

Sakura tries to look up, but has to squint to keep the rain out of her eyes. Her gaze shifts to Suigetsu and stays there for a long moment, like she’s reading a difficult passage in a complicated text.

Sakura turns back to the sea and bumps Suigetsu with her shoulder; "Don’t mention it."

It’s another hour before Zhàdàn finds them, though he (understandably) doesn’t join them on the beach. Sakura and Jūgo lean on each other as they amble toward the road, Jūgo’s knees weak from the outpouring of chakra, Sakura unused to and unskilled at navigating wet sand. Suigetsu walks backwards the whole way so he can laugh at them.

Once they make it up to him, Zhàdàn puts a hand on his hip and shakes his head; "You’re all soaked. I leave you alone for five minutes and you all go and risk catching cold."

"Hey, I’m waterproof," Suigetsu cuts in, "Don’t lump me in with them!"

"We’re fine, Zhàdàn," Sakura scoffs, "A little rain isn’t going to–"

Sakura cuts herself off with a sneeze so powerful it makes her double over. Zhàdàn loses a fierce battle against a smirk. Sakura glowers up at him, but doesn’t bother digging herself any deeper.

"I have good news, bad news, good news, and bad news," Zhàdàn reports, "Good news, we have ship passage. Bad news, ship leaves tomorrow, midmorning. Good news, one of the ryokan is a Family Business so we have a room for the night. Bad news, between that, ship passage, and convincing the Old Man that we’re worth the trouble, I’m down to half what San-Ha paid me for the powder warehouses."

Sakura wilts; "I’m so sorry, I can pay–"

"Don’t," Zhàdàn sighs, "Let’s just get you out of this cold water and into some hot water."

Sakura isn’t given room to protest. Zhàdàn quickly leads the way towards their lodgings and Suigetsu is happy match his pace, forcing Sakura to jog to follow and Jūgo to stumble along at the rear. Sakura barely has time to hide them with a genjutsu before they’ve found the ryokan. The building is far more modest than it’s peers, as any business run by criminals ought to be, but the interior is clean and warm and the staff doesn’t ask questions. Their single room has a private onsen tucked away in a tiny garden off the back. Suigetsu and Zhàdàn badger Sakura into being the first to use it, shutting the doors tight behind her and keeping their backs to them.

Jūgo waits until Zhàdàn is in the middle of making tea to ask, "Is this what you want?"

Zhàdàn doesn’t look at him, but responds, "What? The tea? I mean, it’ll do."

"You know that’s not what I meant," Jūgo states, "Sakura’s plan. The arrangement. Leaving. Is that what you want?"

Zhàdàn pushes a breath out through his nose; "Sure it is. Why wouldn’t it be?"

"Yeah," Suigetsu grumbles, stubbornly avoiding looking Jūgo in the eye, "Why would we stick around? Doesn’t make sense."

Jūgo opens his mouth to speak, then thinks better of it. He presses his lips together and hums a neutral acknowledgement. He can’t force this to happen before they’re ready for it.

Jūgo listens to the rain, and waits.

Karui smells smoke.

She wrinkles her nose and takes a wide look around. In the desolate tundra of the Land of Frost, anything burning should stick out like a sore thumb. But all she sees is snow and her teammates. They’ve been traveling together for nearly two full days, if either Omoi or Samui had picked up a smoking habit in that time Karui would definitely have known.

She sniffs the air again, and Omoi finally notices, face screwing up in confusion as he asks, "What are you doing?"

"Don’t tell me you don’t smell it," Karui mutters, scanning the sky for any too-dark clouds, "Smoke."

"It’s probably from a village," Samui drones, face not moving an inch.

Omoi frowns, murmuring, "No, the only settlements are too far away… Oh shit, I mean we are tracking Yugito’s squad, right? The Two Tails uses fire–"

Karui shuts her eyes tight and growls through her teeth; "Don’t start with this again–"

Omoi is already off to the races; "I mean, she was going to investigate what happened in Sound, Sound are tricky bastards, they could’ve embedded people in Hot Water to lie in wait for anyone trying to snoop into their business. What if they ambushed Yugito’s squad on the border? Yugito’s squad would have fought, maybe it forced Yugito to use the Two Tails, she could’ve started a forest fire–"

Karui’s eyes fly open as she snaps, "A forest fire that’s been burning for four days?! In this weather?! You’re out of your mind, Omoi–!"

"Wait," Samui cuts in, icy eyes narrowing, "Look, on the horizon."

Karui and Omoi follow her gaze. Karui’s heart leaps into her throat. She’s passed the Hot Water-Frost border outpost so many times on journeys south, she knows where its silhouette is supposed to be. But instead she sees a pillar of thick black smoke rising into the crimson sky. She almost darts ahead, but Samui and Omoi both grab fistfuls of her cloak, rooting her to the spot. Omoi shakes his head with wide eyes and pursed lips. Karui grits her teeth. She stays put.

Samui takes point. She runs through a seal sequence and casts her chakra over them like a net. Anyone who looks their way will find the setting sun reflecting off the snow to be particularly harsh, hiding them in the glare. Samui draws her tantō and makes the standard Cloud hand signal for advance. Karui and Omoi follow her lead, drawing their weapons and heading out. They move quickly but quietly, Karui and Omoi watching their flanks and rear. The scent of smoke grows stronger in the air, mingling with the frigid wind and stinging Karui’s nose.

They crest over a slight rise in the terrain. The sight beyond forces them to stumble to a halt and stare, eyes wide, mouths agape.

The outpost is nothing more than a charred skeleton, not simply set aflame but blown to pieces, its blackened boards scattered far afield. Bodies litter the ground for yards around the outpost’s remains. The snow is stained with blood and ash where it hasn’t been forced aside or melted to reveal the stone beneath. The copse of trees behind the outpost is still burning with familiar blue flames.

Samui swallows hard, a paper-thin mask of composure slotting itself onto her face; "Fan out and search the scene."

Karui swallows hard, but mutters a quick, "Yes ma’am," before making her way down the rise and towards the carnage. She and Omoi move instinctually, Karui breaking left and Omoi to the right. The first body Karui comes across is one she recognizes. The middle aged man had gone by 'Z', but that wasn’t his real name, of course. Karui had never had the privilege of learning it. He had headed some of the first few missions Karui had taken as a chūnin, had soothed her nerves with a kind smile and honest praise, had taught her a few Lightning style techniques she still uses to this day.

And now he’s lying dead at her feet, and will never teach her anything else.

Karui grits her teeth and forces all of that sentiment to the back of her mind so she can examine the body. The flesh and fatigues are a ruin of shallow cuts. She tries to count and loses track somewhere in the hundreds. Some odd shapes in the snow around him catch her eye. Karui crouches down to investigate, using the tip of her sword to peel a sodden sheet of paper off of the snow. She stands and does a full rotation to find dozens more sheets of paper surrounding Z’s corpse, soaked through with blood and snowmelt.

Karui files that away with a shudder before moving onto the next body. The only identifiable feature on this corpse is a dented Cloud headband. The flesh and clothing has been burned so severely Karui fears the slightest disturbance will make it crumble like the logs of a long-dead campfire. The chest has been blasted wide open, the inside of the body burnt black. Karui knows exactly what this is. This is what happens when you hit someone with a point-blank blast of Lightning chakra.

The corpses she finds next are only corpses in the broadest sense of the word. What she finds are bits, pieces, limbs, heads, and just… meat, scattered at the bottom of two deep craters. The craters seem like the sort mortars and mines leave in their wake, but with far more blasting power than Karui has ever seen. She’s able to pick out enough details in the remains to identify one Cloud ninja and one Hot Water ninja.

Karui circles back towards the center of the scene to find one last Cloud ninja splayed out spread eagle on the snow. Their face is untouched, but from the neck down their body has been mutilated, deep gashes crossing their torso. It’s like they were mauled by a gigantic set of claws, but the lacerations look worse than they are. They’re wide and, if the color of the snow is any indication, seem to have bled a great deal. But they’re not deep. There are only three deep wounds on the body, puncturing the stomach, the liver, and the heart.

Karui walks to the body’s feet to find a circle drawn in blood in the snow, a triangle within it. A shiver runs up her spine. She knows this symbol, but can’t place where from. Omoi and Samui crunch through the snow to stand across the circle from Karui, their faces pinched and grave.

"I found one Cloud ninja and five Hot Water ninja," Omoi reports, "Most were cut to pieces, I think by wind techniques?"

Samui’s eyes flick to Karui, who picks up, "I counted four Cloud ninja and one Hot Water over here."

Karui details her findings to Samui, whose scowl grows harder with every detail. Once she’s finished, Samui’s eyes drop to the circle in the snow, her cheek dimpling as she bites the inside of it.

"Five ninja, one of them Z," Samui mutters, "That, plus the blue fire… No doubt about it. This was Yugito’s squad… Except…"

Omoi’s brow furrows; "Wasn’t Yugito part of a six man squad?"

Karui pulls her cloak tighter around herself; "We’re missing someone. And unless that blasted-to-pieces body in the craters was her–"

"Couldn’t be," Samui cuts in, "Jinchūriki don’t go quietly, or cleanly. Forget those trees– The whole border would be scorched."

Karui chews on her bottom lip as the wind picks up, bringing clouds and snow with it. The reality of their situation settles like a pair of cold hands on her shoulders. They’ve lost one of their jinchūriki– No, if this scene is any indication, she was taken. And there’s only one group on the continent in the business of taking jinchūriki.

Crunching in the snow has everyone whirling towards the Hot Water side of the border, weapons drawn. The shadow in the snow at first looks like one large, hunched figure. It trudges closer, resolving into a girl with a much larger boy draped over her shoulders. The girl is nearly doubled over with the effort of dragging her companion along, her labored breathing coming in puffs of steam. Her short blonde hair is speckled with snow and blood. It’s difficult to get an idea of what the boy looks like beyond his general size and the mane of tawny hair flowing wildly down his back. When she’s within ten yards the girl looks up, pale blue eyes wide. She straightens up enough for Karui to clock the Leaf headband around her waist.

The Leaf girl takes one hand off the boy’s arms to raise it above her head, palm open; "W-wait, wait! We’re not a threat! I’m Chūnin Ino Yamanaka of the Leaf Village! My teammate and I were attacked and separated from our team on our way to this outpost! We’re injured, low on chakra, and low on supplies! Please, grant us sanctuary! Please!"

Samui doesn’t move an inch. Omoi squirms in place, eyes flickering between Samui and the Yamanaka girl. Karui looks them over. The girl has bloody bandages sloppily wrapped around her midsection. Her face is white with pain. Even at this distance Karui can see the panic in her eyes. That’s what seals it. This is technically insubordination, but Karui’s conscience won’t let her rest if she doesn’t risk it.

Karui straightens up and sheathes her sword, calling across the snow, "Alright, keep your hand up as you approach and stay in the middle. We’ll be watching you the whole way."

Samui shoots up to glare at Karui, eyes wide; "What are you–?!"

Karui meets her gaze dead on; "For a Leaf ninja from a major clan to ask Cloud for help, she’s got to be desperate. They’re no threat, Samui."

Samui’s eyes are arctic cold; "And if you’re wrong?"

Karui squares her shoulders and holds her head high; "I’m dead or discharged. I’m not afraid of either. Are you?"

Samui holds her gaze for an instant longer before spitting over her shoulder to Omoi, "Where’s the closest settlement?"

Omoi blinks rapidly, then lets his eyes drift up as he recalls, "I think Nay-Kotan is an hour’s run East?"

"Then that’s where we’re going," Samui grumbles, "Omoi, take point. Karui and I will watch the Leaf ninja."

Karui spares one last glance towards the destroyed outpost as the Leaf ninja fall into their formation. It never feels right, leaving bodies for the beasts and the elements. But there’s nothing more they can do for the dead. Not when the living need their help.

Karui falls in at the flank and heads East.

Sasuke imagines the great hall of the jito’s residence is bathed in the same red and gold splendor of all the Imperial buildings in Chukyō’s city center. It’s a bit hard to tell when there’s a genjutsu over his eyes washing out all the color.

The Leaf delegation had arrived at the venue for the peace talks early in the morning. Tsunade lived by a policy of 'trust but verify'. She hadn’t openly questioned the Hot Water ninja stationed as security for the jito, but had assigned Team Eight to scout the building before dawn and patrol the city during the talks to intercept incoming threats.

A part of Sasuke wishes he’d gone with them. He can’t stand it in here. There aren’t any windows, the walls instead covered in hanging scrolls that aren’t any substitute for a view to the outside. Six thick pillars hold up the too-low ceiling and make for obnoxiously obvious places for the team to post up, with Sasuke, Naruto, and Neji covering one side of the room while Lee, Guy, and Tenten take the other. It would take Sasuke a full six seconds to run all the way over to Lee, and even longer to get to the doors. And when life and death is on the line, that’s too long. Just in general, this room is too long, too narrow. And the negotiating table is all the way at the end of it. It’s basically a death funnel, one that he has the displeasure of being at the very end of alongside all the important dignitaries.

Tsunade had insisted that Sasuke stay on the pillar closest to her, though he’s not sure why she’s bothering. Not only are Genma and Raidō behind her, she’s kneeling beside Daimyō Ogasawara at the negotiating table, and he’s flanked by three guards. She hardly needs Sasuke’s protection. Maybe she’s throwing him a bone, putting him in perfect position to spot Kabuto’s tells. But something about that doesn’t add up.

"Jeez, how long is he gonna take," Naruto grumbles through the corner of his mouth, "We’ve been waiting for almost half an hour now!"

"He’s trying to get the upper hand," Sasuke mutters back, "Typical negotiating strategy. You make them wait, let them start to squirm and overthink things, and just when they’re starting to get really anxious–"

The doors creak open, drawing every eye. Kabuto sweeps into the hall flanked by ANBU. Sasuke has to resist the urge to roll his eyes at his ridiculous new getup and the insufferably smug smirk painted across his face. Even with ten feet between them him he can feel Naruto bristling in barely contained fury at the sight of Kabuto. Sasuke clicks his tongue against his teeth to get Naruto’s attention, then shakes his head. Much as he’d also like to tear Kabuto limb from limb, that won’t get them anywhere.

Kabuto settles down on the other side of the table from Tsunade and Daimyō Ogasawara and bows low; "My sincerest thanks to you both for meeting with me on such short notice. It warms my heart to see such dedication to peace from the Land of Fire."

Tsunade’s eyebrow twitches, and when she bows it’s a shallow gesture; "Well, we obviously couldn’t let such a novel opportunity as this pass us by."

Daimyō Ogasawara’s bow is more of a nod; "We are more than happy to repair relations with the Land of Sound. We had been on such good terms with the Land of Rice Paddies before Daimyō Saitō took the throne, I would love nothing more than a return to those days."

Sasuke purses his lips. Well. Ogasawara’s not in any mood to be subtle, then. He basically just spelled out to Kabuto that the only thing he cares about is getting the Land of Sound’s rice. He might as well have handed him these negotiations on a silver platter.

Tsunade bites back a scowl and cuts in, "Your Lordship, while I agree with your sentiments, from a security perspective, I would prefer to gain more insight on the events that lead to the Lord Shogun’s coronation before we discuss terms. After all, we need to know if there are any dangerous elements still lurking in Sound in the aftermath of the regime change."

Tsunade meets Kabuto’s eyes, a sharp challenge in her gaze. Kabuto arches a brow, but keeps his smirk.

Kabuto lets his eyes slide shut and his smirk fall, a mournful timbre to his voice as he says, "The Lady Hokage is correct, Your Lordship. If we wish to create a peace that will last between our two nations, total transparency is in order. Let’s see, where to begin…"

Sasuke blinks, activating the Sharingan behind the genjutsu on his eyes. The instant Sasuke opens his eyes again, he’s looking directly into Kabuto’s. The rest of his expression is still somber, but his eyes are sharp as daggers. He noticed. He knew. Sasuke swallows the shiver trying to make it’s way up his spine. He squares his shoulders and meets Kabuto’s gaze without blinking.

Kabuto holds the stare for a breath before shifting it back to Ogasawara and Tsunade; "There had been rogue elements within the Sound ninja and citizenry since the day Daimyō Saitō and Otokage Orochimaru took power. Orochimaru had a tactic of turning his prisoners into his soldiers. Less than half of the ninja enlisted with the village were actually native to Sound. They resented this land they’d been abducted to and the man responsible for it. At the same time, Daimyō Saitō cared for little more than keeping himself and his court living in the manner to which they’d become accustomed. The price for that level of luxury was the peasantry living in squalor. Many resented their treatment and sought to change it. Thanks to the illegal black powder dealer Huǒ Zhàdàn, these two groups made contact through the party arming them."

Sasuke exchanges a quick, troubled glance with Tsunade. She doesn’t buy this either. There are elements of truth here, certainly enough to make it so Kabuto’s not giving off any tells the Sharingan can pick up. But it’s too simple. It’s too easy. And worst of all, it’s old hat. Blame the former Daimyō, the former Kage, the foreigners and the poor, then wash your hands of the whole thing. Every daimyō, every nation uses that as a smoke screen when they’re under the microscope.

So he supposes that means Kabuto’s a natural at politics.

"We can’t be certain how long these groups plotted their insurrection," Kabuto continues, removing his glasses and using his sleeve to wipe the lenses, "It all happened quite suddenly. I had been at a Sound village outpost in the North when it happened. By the time word arrived of the situation, the village itself had been destroyed and Jungsimji besieged. I gathered up all the loyal ninja still alive, and we made for Jungsimji. That was where we discovered Orochimaru and Daimyō Saitō’s… remains."

Sasuke can feel every ninja in the room holding back the urge to scoff. All of this has been a performance, but Kabuto wincing and dancing around the severed heads of Orochimaru and the Daimyō is the most performative part of it all. Kabuto may be a politician now, but he was a ninja first. He was a medic first. Kabuto wouldn’t flinch at decapitation. None of them would.

Tsunade narrows her eyes; "I’m surprised. You’re not native to Sound, either. I would think you would side with the rebels."

Kabuto puts his glasses back on, adjusting them and hiding his eyes behind the glare for just a moment as he cuts back, "One could’ve said the same thing for Sakura Haruno. But all the reports from the village’s fall placed her right at Orochimaru’s side, fighting to defend him until the village collapsed on top of her. There is a difference, Lady Hokage, between those of us who went to Sound willingly and those who were taken."

Sasuke’s whole body goes cold. The tension drains from his shoulders. His eyes have gone painfully wide, the Sharingan sputtering out. He hears Naruto crossing the distance between them, feels Naruto’s hand close around his shoulder, but he can’t look at him. He can only stare at Kabuto.

Kabuto takes notice of him, and a mask of contrition slides easily into place; "Oh, I’m so sorry. I thought– Well, perhaps that was unfair of me to think in the first place. Even the most unrepentant traitors still have people who care for them."

Sasuke grinds his teeth, lip lifting in a snarl; "You… You–!"

The ground shakes. The lights flicker, then go out. From not far enough away, there’s the sound of crashing waves, and a screeching roar like a massive metal beam bending until it breaks.

Sasuke’s eyes dart from Tsunade to Naruto and back. The moment he opens his mouth, there’s a crackling sound, then a burst of light and force as the doors break inward. Chunks of wood and metal shrapnel scatter into the room, followed by a pair of bodies burnt black with their chests caved in. Sasuke can just barely pick out the Hot Water insignia on their warped, scorched headbands.

Two shadows darken the doorway. One is tall, the only visible part of his face a pair of piercing green eyes surrounded by black sclerae. The other is silver-haired, with a massive, triple-bladed scythe slung over his shoulders. Both are wearing the black cloaks with red clouds of the Akatsuki.

The man with the scythe steps forward, grins, and crows, "Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, but do you have a moment to talk about Jashin?"