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0. Suki Uchiha wakes to the sound of screaming cicadas with tear tracks on her face. Neither is anything she’s not used to.

Suki struggles out of her bedroll and takes a broad look around the tent. In its wide expanse there’s only her and her nurse, Hotsu, sleeping on her left side with her back to the front flaps. Suki hears that the daughters of daimyō can sneak away from their sleeping nurses in the middle of the night and slip out of their estates to go have all sorts of adventures. She knows the second she moves out of her bedroll Hotsu will be on her feet, kunai in hand and Sharingan spinning. Suki just shakes her awake.

Hotsu blinks, bleary-eyed, and yawns, "Young Mistress, what is it? You should be sleeping."

One of the first lessons Suki learned in her seven years was how to speak when all she wants is to sob; "I would like to go see my father, please."

Hotsu opens her mouth to give her the usual speech, that her father is a very busy man and whatever it is can wait until morning, but her gaze hangs on Suki’s quivering lip and the words catch in her throat.

Instead, she sighs, "Very well then, Young Mistress. Hold just a moment."

Hotsu extricates herself from her bedroll and ambles over to the front flap. She lifts it and pokes her head outside, speaking a few hushed whispers before drawing back and ushering Suki over. Hotsu parts the tent flaps for Suki to stumble through. Her uncle Izuna is waiting just outside, as he always does– No man of the Uchiha Clan is ever assigned to guard his own wife and children.

Izuna smiles and asks, "Would you like me to carry you, Suki?"

Suki finds it in herself to pout; "I– I-I’m too old for that, Uncle."

Izuna laughs and offers his hand; "I see, do forgive my impertinence then, Lady Uchiha. Come, allow me to avenge this slight by guiding you to your father."

Suki hides a hiccuping giggle behind her sleeve and gives Izuna her other hand. He dips low in a courtly bow before leading her towards the heart of the Uchiha Compound.

Suki has been told that once upon a time the Uchiha Compound had been a fortress at the top of a mountain, given life by the spring that birthed the Naka River. The walls had been glittering white, the roof tiles deep blue, and the clan crest painted in brilliant red wherever there was room. The forest had hidden them and the mountain had protected them. War had been far away, there. Suki cannot imagine that life. She was born in a forward operating camp. All she has ever known is a life in constant motion, their caravan making pilgrimage from battle to battle in the Naka River Valley. In seven years she’s lived in thrice as many places, leaving by day to find the next battle or by night with enemies dogging their steps.

They say in seven more years she will marry a daimyō’s son to secure a contract, or a clan head’s son to secure an alliance. Suki thinks she would prefer the daimyō’s son. Perhaps living within his estate will bring her closer to what their home on the mountain might have been like.

To eyes without Sharingan, all the Uchiha tents look the same. Now that Suki has awoken hers, she can see what makes her father’s grander than the rest. In iridescent red a dragon twists and whirls along the heavy canvas, scales glittering in the torchlight. Izuna catches her gawking from the corner of his eye. He smiles, but the expression is dulled by a wash of sorrow. Many Uchiha smiles are.

Izuna lifts the tent’s front flap and chuckles, "Venerable Lord Uchiha, I come to you as escort for one of our clansmen. She has come with an urgent petition that must be heard at once."

Her father, lit by low candlelight, looks up from the maps splayed out in front of him. With firelight playing through his long dark hair and a stern frown darkening his features, for a moment Suki sees only Lord Madara Uchiha, Dragon of the South and one of the most fearsome shinobi alive. Suki cannot keep from sucking a sharp breath in through her teeth. His eyes, keen as a falcon’s, dart to the sound and pick her out of the darkness. The tension drains from his shoulders and his frown washes away, replaced by the barest shadow of a smile. In the time it takes for a hummingbird to flap it’s wings he is her father again.

He nods to Izuna; "Thank you. You are dismissed."

Izuna bows low and takes his leave. There is a brief pause where father and daughter stare at each other across a map of the river valley, neither sure who ought to speak first. Her father makes the first move and wordlessly pats the cushion at his side. Suki forgets that she is a daughter of the Uchiha, the daughter of a ninja, and scrambles ungracefully around to throw herself against her father’s side and bury her face in his robes. Her father’s arm comes around to tuck her in closer, sheltering her like a hen hides her chicks beneath her feathers.

He murmurs, voice rich and dark like the night sky, "Which raid did you dream of?"

Her voice is thick and high and reedy as she chokes out, "T-the last– The one wh– When M-mother–!"

Suki’s words are torn to pieces by sharp sobs that make her whole body convulse.

She remembers her mother in all her shades. She remembers Mother in bright sunlight, gathering flowers and braiding them into her hair, tucking one behind Father’s ear and winning a warm smile and a kiss to her temple in return.

She remembers Mother’s eyes burning with the Sharingan as she grabs an assassin by the collar, forces him to the ground, and thrusts a single senbon into his neck to kill him quickly and painlessly.

She remembers Mother through a hole in the physician’s tent, sagging against Father, whispering, "I can’t do it again, Madara, I can’t, I can’t lose another baby, not like this or on the battlefield or–" and Father drawing her closer as he murmurs, "So you won’t, my love. We did what we could. No more."

She remembers what the inside of Mother’s chest looked like as the white-haired Senju in blue armor carved her open with a blade of water, the blood black like oil in the light from the burning tents; The Senju had turned his gaze toward Suki, but Mother’s last act in this world had been to spit blood directly into his eye, making him flinch right into a bevy of shuriken from Izuna.

She remembers her mother’s corpse growing more and more distant as Izuna threw her over his shoulder and carried her away, remembers her corpse waiting every time she closed her eyes, every time she slept.

Her father’s hand cards through her hair, his voice bringing her home to the present; "You miss her."

Suki gasps, "I don't k-know what I–! What do I do without her?"

Suki looks up to see her father’s eyes staring off, past the tent, past the river valley, past everything; "I’ve been wondering that myself. I don’t know if that’s a question that actually has an answer. For now… For now, we do as we have always done. We do unto the Senju as they have done unto us."

Suki nuzzles closer to her father, eyes resting on the map without reading it. No matter how many times they do unto the Senju as the Senju have done to them, it never seems to break through their armor and pierce the soft underbelly. They lay waste to the Senju on the battlefield, steal their clients, raze their camps, and they always come back to cut down yet more brothers and mothers and friends, never satisfied with the pain they’ve already caused.

Suki grasps a tight handful of her father’s haori and murmurs, "Do the Senju hate us because we’re cursed?"

Her father had been drafting some sort of missive with his other hand, but it immediately stills and he fixes her with a startled look; "Cursed?"

Suki shrinks away from her father’s gaze; "They… I’ve heard smallfolk say we’re cursed. That we have a Curse of Hatred, where our love turns to hate when we lose the people we care for, and we lose ourselves trying to prove that we’re better, and–"

"Not a word of that is true."

Suki’s eyes leap back to her father’s face. His gaze is hard, but not cruel. He looks as he does when he gives speeches to inspire the men, when he barters with daimyō who will easily cave at the sight of Sharingan, when he rides off to a battle he knows he can win.

He continues, "There is no curse upon our blood. The Curse of Hatred is a vile piece of slander the Senju spit about us to any who will listen. They’re blind to their own faults, to the blood they’ve shed in the name of revenge. They would rather paint us as monsters than admit to being anything less than wise sages who are above such base things as caring when those they love are slain. Each of them, to a man, hypocrites."

Her meets her eyes; "You have heard of the Curse of Hatred. Have you also heard of their Will of Fire?"

Suki nods, grip tightening on her father’s robes. All the smallfolk are abuzz about the Will of Fire, obsessed with the Senju’s pretty dream. She hears it being whispered around every street corner, this utopia where every man forgets clan and family and acts as just one root holding up a tree so large it breaches the clouds. It’s inescapable.

Father strokes her hair and his voice drifts into the tone he uses when telling her a story; "My grandfather fought the head of the Senju Clan when they were young men. He chased him through the clan compound and all the way to his home. As the clan head’s defeat drew nearer, Grandfather sent him tearing through the wall of his tent, and when he followed, he saw the man’s wife and infant son huddled in a corner. He thought of his own wife, miles away. He thought of my father, still so young. He offered the head of the Senju Clan a simple set of terms– leave, and the Uchiha Clan would not follow. Leave, and he could see his son grow up."

Father’s hand stills on the top of her head. He shuts his eyes. He takes a deep breath, in through his nose, out through his mouth. Suki waits.

His voice is brimming with sorrow and shaking with rage as he continues, "His wife threw a kunai into her husband’s throat. She drew another and drove it into the heart of her wailing son. My grandfather asked her why. She had answered, 'Better he die for the clan than live for us'. The Senju came upon the scene and did not see my grandfather. They saw their clan’s leader and his heir martyred, his wife mad with grief. The Senju were galvanized by her pretty lie instead of shaken by the truth. They brought their whole clan down upon our compound and cut us down by half."

Tears run down Suki’s face as she imagines the poor baby, screaming his little throat raw. He must have been so frightened. He must have been clinging so tight to his mother’s breast, secure in the knowledge that at least this was safe. At least she would protect him. What could he have thought as the knife came down? Could he have thought anything at all?

Father draws her onto his lap and holds her close. He presses his lips into her hair. She buries her face into his chest and inhales the scent of smoke. Father’s love is warm and steady, like a heavy quilt in Winter.

She feels the rumble of his deep voice as he murmurs, "The Senju speak of fire, but they only see its light, its warmth. They don’t touch it, shape it, breathe it as we do. The only will fire has is the will to consume whatever it touches. Senju throw their lives away, abandon those they are to protect, throw any body– able or not– onto the front lines, recklessly sacrificing pieces to save the whole. The Will of Fire asks you to set yourself aflame to keep others warm."

Suki would hold onto those words, even after the alliance, the founding of the village, her father’s defection, and her clan’s disavowal of him in favor of licking Hashirama’s boots.

She would spit them at her husband through grit teeth when he would return from meetings of the clans with his tail between his legs, having conceded yet more to the Senju.

She would whisper them to Fugaku when he was small and still needed to cry away the nightmares on her lap. She would mutter them to Fugaku again when he was not quite small, not quite tall, and it fell to her to teach him what it truly took to be the head of the Uchiha Clan. She would state them solidly and without flinching when Fugaku was a grown man and expressed doubts about the coup d’état.

She would spin them to little Itachi and Sasuke as she told them stories from a time not as long ago as they would like to hope, when the Tailed Beasts roamed free and all was anarchy.

And they would be the last words that passed through her mind as Itachi came for her on that blood-soaked night, tears streaking down his face as the Will of Fire burned him alive.

Chapter Text

I. In the pre-dawn light, the world is a pale blue-grey. Fog rolls down the mountains and spreads out across the vast open wetlands of the Land of Sound. It settles thick over the rice paddies, and if any were awake, none of the farmers would see the long slender leaves shifting ever so slightly as a shadow slaloms through their crops. The shadow creeps West, moving until he hits the edge of the paddy, where it buts up against a copse of oak trees. He climbs out of the paddy, shaking the water off the hem of his dark cloak. He pauses.

Sai observes the trees through his tiger mask. Not for the first time, he wonders how they got here. Perhaps a grave marker for a Senju, commemorating a battle that took them this far North? Or perhaps they just grew here naturally. After all, oak trees aren’t unheard of in Sound. It’s the simpler explanation, so it’s likely correct.

He sighs beneath his mask. Return to the task at hand. There is no room for curiosity.

Sai falls back into his rhythm. He stays low as he inches deeper into the trees, eyes crawling across the uneven ground for his target. The asset is good about rotating her drop points, but she falls into her patterns, the same as any Leaf. If he’s read her right, it should be nestled between two roots on the largest tree in the copse at it’s dead center. Sai keeps his breathing slow, his steps soft, his chakra contained. The civilians may be asleep, but this is the perfect time for ninja to be out.

His caution proves prudent. Before Sai can come all the way around a tree’s thick trunk he catches sight of a form leaning against the largest tree in the copse. He immediately presses his body to the bark and, with a ram sign, uses the Hiding in Surface technique to sink into the tree. He slides up it’s trunk and into the canopy, breaching carefully so as to not disturb the branches.

From his perch in the leaves Sai observes the interloper. The round glasses sitting low on his nose are covered in a layer of condensation. His long silver hair has been braided and draped across his shoulders. Any identifying fatigues are hidden beneath a heavy cloak with a mantle that reaches down to his elbows, but Sai doesn’t need that hint– He recognizes the face from the intel. Kabuto Yakushi is mere feet away from him. One of Kabuto’s arms is crossed over his chest while the other tosses a round stone up in the air and catches it, over and over again. Sai resists the jolt that tries to run up his spine upon seeing the stone.

Before he can formulate a strategy, Kabuto holds the stone up above his head. He taps the face of it with his thumb, chakra flowing into the rock and lighting up a seal.

The seal breaks, releasing a hushed, feminine voice into the air; "This is Sakura Haruno reporting on March First, One-Thousand-and-Two. All my assets are in position and all my preparations have been made. I’ll be making my move in ten days time. If all goes well, I will have eliminated the target in twenty four hours with no casualties and will be arriving back to headquarters in a week at most. If… If it doesn’t… There’s another stone, buried in the dirt below this one. It has a message for my mother, Tsubaki Haruno. If you can, please bring it to her. If Danzō says you can’t, then… I understand. Signing off."

Kabuto smirks, drawling, "See, that’s why you never work with amateurs."

Sai drops from the branches, landing a yard away from Kabuto; "If Sakura’s mission was your primary concern, I imagine you would be back at your base killing her right now. So it stands to reason I am your target."

Kabuto chuckles, "Got it in one."

"And if I am your target," Sai continues, "You discovered me long before I got close, and could have engaged me or trapped me then. So, then, your intention is…?"

Kabuto’s smirk stretches into a grin; "Things have changed since my day, but I know you’re still wired with a radio. Call your boss. Tell him Kabuto wants to make a deal."

This past Winter was a warm one, so even this early in the season the cherry blossoms are starting to open up, blanketing the Leaf Village in petals. From his vantage point atop this telephone pole Naruto feels like he’s looking at the village through fluffy pink clouds. If there’s an ideal way to finally see his home again after two years away, Naruto’s sure this is it.

In a way, everything’s changed. Sakura’s favorite tea house is now an izakaya, the main drag is actually paved, the hospital has grown another wing, and Tsunade has joined her family and teacher on Hokage Rock. But there are still kids running through the street, laughing and smiling. There are still genin teams sitting on benches and enjoying a snack after some mind-numbing D-rank. There are still little convenience stores with cats lounging out front in the warm spring sunshine.

People are still happy. So the Leaf Village hasn’t changed at all.

Naruto grins wide and stands to his full height, throwing his arms out wide as he calls out, "Look out, Leaf Village! Your future Hokage is back to take this town by storm, believe it!"

A few people look up in shock. Some more wave. Even more shoot dirty looks his way. Jiraiya shakes his head and crosses his arms over his chest with a fond chuckle. So many more people just keep on walking.

Nothing Naruto didn’t expect. This place really hasn’t changed at all.

"Hey, Dumbass!"

Naruto almost falls off the telephone pole. He spins toward the familiar voice and finds it’s source perched on the next roof over and… grinning at him? Naruto rubs his eyes. No, it’s real.

Sasuke Uchiha is smiling in a way that shows his teeth in public in broad daylight.

He’s gotten taller, swapped out his stupid high-collared shirt and shorts for a heavy canvas jacket and pants, and his headband now sits where his brace used to. His face has gotten more lean and chiseled in a way that almost makes Naruto think of Itachi before he pushes the thought away. He’s still slightly favoring his left leg as he grins (grins!) at Naruto across the gap.

Sasuke brings a hand up to cup around his mouth as he calls, "Long time no s–!"

Naruto doesn’t let him finish that sentence. He’s leapt over to the roof and pulled him into the tightest bear hug he has in him before Sasuke can blink. Sasuke returns the squeeze twofold, the strength of his grip forcing a shocked wheeze out of Naruto’s lungs.

Sasuke breaks the embrace and pulls back to say, "No wonder Shizune insisted I take the rooftops for that errand. Did you just get back?"

"Yeah, like five minutes ago," Naruto laughs, "It’s been forever, dude, how are you? How's the village?"

"Well, as you can see," Sasuke gestures with his arm to the surrounding buildings, "I managed not to burn the place down while you were gone."

"Good thing you didn’t! If I got back here and couldn’t get my Ichiraku fix there’d be Hell to pay," Naruto replies, "We’re definitely getting lunch there, believe it!"

"Sure, but first I gotta drag you to the tower," Sasuke sighs, "You know how Tsunade will get if you put off reporting back."

A voice, less high pitched than he remembers, calls from the ground, "Hey! Naruto!"

Naruto and Sasuke peer over the side of the roof. Naruto recognizes Konohamaru’s long blue scarf a fraction of a second before he recognizes the kid himself. He hasn’t changed as much in the face as Sasuke, but he’s shot up at least half a foot and he’s replaced Naruto’s old goggles with a proper Leaf Village headband. His two friends are close by, also sporting headbands and bright grins. From the corner of his eye Naruto spies Jiraiya hanging back, eyeing the gaggle of genin with an arched brow and bemused smirk.

Naruto grins wide and crows, "Hey guys," before leaping off the roof. He hears Sasuke roll his eyes before he follows him down, the two of them landing in front of the three kids.

Naruto reaches out and ruffles Konohamaru’s hair; "Good to see you, Konohamaru! So you made genin, huh? That’s great! Are these guys your team now?"

Konohamaru flushes with pride; "You know it! I can’t believe you’re back, we’ve been on so many missions and I’ve got so many crazy new jutsu to show you, I–!"

"You’ve got time for one," Sasuke cuts in, "The Hokage’s waiting on him."

Konohamaru shoots a quick glare over Naruto’s shoulder at Sasuke before it falls into a pensive frown. He taps his chin with his index finger as he thinks. After a moment, his eyes light up and his mouth unfolds into a wicked grin.

Konohamaru runs through dog and boar as he exclaims, "Check this out! Se–!"

Moegi’s fist slams down on the top of Konohamaru’s head like he’s a Whack-a-Mole. Konohamaru chokes on his own spit and goes crashing to the ground before he can even think of forming ram.

Moegi glares down at Konohamaru and snaps, "What is wrong with you?! We’re in public and Sasuke is here! If you embarrass me in front of Sasuke I swear I will strangle you with your own scarf!"

She turns to Sasuke and is all sweetness and light in blink of an eye; "I’m so sorry about him, Sasuke, I don’t know where he gets these ideas from–"

As Moegi prattles on Naruto crouches down next to Konohamaru and whispers, "Yeah, uh, Pro-tip on the Sexy Jutsu: Don’t do it in front of girls."

Konohamaru rubs the sore spot on the top of his head and mutters, "Got it, Boss."

Sasuke grabs Naruto by the elbow and drags him to his feet as he starts down the street, "Yeah we’re gonna get going now, come on Naruto."

From the corner of his ear Naruto hears Moegi call, "Bye Sasuke! I’ll see you around, that’s a promise!"

Jiraiya falls in step with the two of them and snickers, "So you’re still popular with the girls, huh Uchiha?"

Naruto's shoulders slump as he groans, "Of course that didn’t change."

"If you want a legion of preteen girls who fall in love with you after you heal one training injury following you around you can have them," Sasuke hisses through grit teeth.

Naruto is ready to withhold any and all sympathy for Sasuke’s plight. That’s before they’re waylaid on their way to the tower by a half dozen more girls between the ages of eleven and fourteen trying to flag down Sasuke. One even fakes a bad fall to get Sasuke’s (medical) attention, but instead gets a scolding from her jōnin sensei. All told, they make the straight shot down the main drag to the Hokage Tower take an extra ten minutes.

"I can’t believe there are no girls your own age in your little gaggle of admirers," Jiraiya grouses as they spiral single-file up the stairs to Tsunade’s office, "That circus outside would be bearable if it got you even one date, but–"

From his position between Sasuke and Jiraiya Naruto sees Sasuke’s shoulders tighten and his grip on the handrail go white-knuckled. The metal crunches under his grip, and when he removes his hand that portion of the railing is a perfect mold for the inside of Sasuke’s fist.

Sasuke’s voice comes out rough and dark; "I'm not interested in a date."

Sasuke keeps going up the stairs but Naruto and Jiraiya hang back for a moment, watching his back recede.

"Well," Jiraiya mutters, "Guess that answers the 'is he over Sakura yet' question."

Naruto tastes something sour on his tongue he can’t identify and jogs to catch up with Sasuke. They fall back into small talk, expertly pretending that didn’t just happen without needing to discuss it.

They make it to Tsunade’s office and Sasuke raps on the door with his knuckles; "Lady Tsunade, you have a," Sasuke shoots Naruto an apprising glance before continuing, "mildly important visitor."

Naruto elbows Sasuke in the ribs and Sasuke elbows him back as Tsunade calls from inside, "Bring him in."

Naruto brings himself in, throwing the doors open and declaring, "Howdy there, Grandma! I’m back!"

Tsunade, Shizune, and Tonton aren’t a surprise. They’re exactly where he expected them to be and reacting how he thought they would– Shizune is beaming from ear to ear, Tonton is bouncing excitedly in her arms, and Tsunade is rubbing her temples while fighting a wry but fond smile. The surprise comes as Shikamaru and a blonde woman it takes Naruto a few shameful seconds to identify as Gaara’s sister Temari turn away from Tsunade’s desk to fix Naruto with a matching set of shocked expressions.

Shikamaru breaks into a lopsided smile; "Well well, look what the cat dragged in."

Temari crosses her arms over her chest with a tiny smirk; "Looks like I have more good news to bring home. It’s good to see you again, Naruto."

"Same to you," Naruto replies, strolling further in, "What dragged you guys all the way up here?"

"They arrived on time for an appointment," Tsunade cuts in, shooting Sasuke a pointed look, "Want to tell me how a five minute walk took ten minutes?"

"Your apprentice’s fanclub is how," Jiraiya snorts, hooking a thumb at Sasuke, "We had to beat them off with a stick."

Sasuke drags a hand down his face and grumbles, "Should’ve used the rooftops."

Tsunade lets a soft, breathy laugh sneak through before turning her sharp eyes back to Naruto; "So, I trust your time away was productive?"

Naruto grins wide and puts his hands on his hips; "You know it! You’re looking at a whole new ninja, Grandma, believe it!"

Tsunade steeples her fingers in front of her mouth; "Really. Talk is one thing, Naruto, and we all know you’re the biggest talker in the Leaf Village. Can you back it up?"

Naruto’s grin drops as he surveys Tsunade’s office; "I mean, sure, but I don’t think you want me to make your office any more of a mess so–"

Tsunade rolls her eyes; "Not here, obviously. I think a test is in order to see how far you’ve really come."

Temari perks up and remarks, "I could administer the test, Lady Tsunade, if you’d allow it. And I’m sure my escort would be more than happy to help, wouldn’t he?"

Shikamaru lets his eyes slide closed as he groans, "Really? This is how you want to welcome the kid back?"

Temari flashes him a predatory grin; "No better way to catch up, in my opinion."

Tsunade almost looks proud as she smiles over at Temari; "I appreciate the offer, but I already have a proctor lined up. He should have been here ten minutes ago, but–"

From the corner of his eye Naruto sees a flicker outside one of the far windows. As he hears it open Naruto turns to the sound, his eyes going wide at the source.

"Sorry everyone," Kakashi sighs as he perches on the windowsill, "I was on my way over here when this fruit cart–"

Naruto wants to be happy to see Kakashi again. He is happy to see Kakashi again, for the most part. But deep in his gut he feels something twist at the fact that today, of all days, Kakashi is late.

Naruto shoves his darker thoughts to the back of his mind and puts his grin back on; "I can’t believe your excuses have gotten even worse, Kakashi-sensei!"

Kakashi’s eye crinkles at the corner; "Well well, look who’s all grown up. Welcome back, Naruto."

Naruto perks up and jogs over to the window; "Oh yeah! Before I forget, I have a souvenir for you!"

Kakashi’s eyebrow lifts as Naruto rummages around in his weapon pouch, then leaps all the way up to disappear behind his hair when Naruto presents him with the little green book. He can hear half the room let out some form of a groan as they get a glimpse at the cover. Jiraiya makes an indignant grunt, but doesn’t complain out loud.

Kakashi’s eye is nearly sparkling; "Is this–?"

Naruto nods; "You better believe it. What good is having an in with famous people if you can’t bum favors off them for your friends?"

He hears Tsunade sputter from her desk, "Famous?! Infamous is more like it, and even that’s pushing it–"

Jiraiya cuts in, "Oh I’m sorry, how many bestseller lists are your books on? That’s right, none."

"Yeah, because I have a real job–"

"Naruto," Kakashi puts his hand on Naruto’s shoulder and looks him in the eye, "You’re my new favorite."

Sasuke comes around Naruto’s other side, spluttering, "What happened to 'I don’t play favorites'?!"

Kakashi smirks beneath his mask; "I don’t play favorites, but I can still have them, can’t I?"

Naruto sticks his tongue out at Sasuke and Sasuke shoots him a withering glare, whispering, "You know I live with this asshole now, right? I have to live with the consequences of your actions."

Naruto immediately blanches; "I… I am so sorry."

"Ahem, excuse me," Shizune shouts above the bickering, "Now that everyone’s here, Lady Tsunade, should we–?"

"Yes, you’re right," Tsunade picks up, schooling her voice back into a somewhat authoritative tone, "Naruto, Sasuke, Kakashi will be testing you both in a challenge of his design. How you fare will determine your future status."

Naruto quirks a brow; "Our future status? What does that–"

"With all due respect, Ma’am," Sasuke talks over him, crossing his arms over his chest, "Won’t teaming up with me give Naruto an unfair advantage?"

Naruto feels another twinge in his gut; "What’s that supposed to mean?"

Sasuke shrugs a shoulder; "Kakashi and I have been training and taking missions together for the past six months. The information I have plus our numbers advantage gives our side an edge over his."

Another twinge, like something in Naruto’s stomach is tying itself into a knot. He can tell from the look on his face Sasuke isn’t trying to rub it in that he’s spent more time with Kakashi recently than Naruto has in their entire time as a team, but it sure sounds like he is.

"I wouldn’t be so sure about that," Kakashi drawls as he thumbs through the first few pages of the new Icha Icha Paradise, "You’ve been training and fighting with me, but that just means I’ve been training and fighting with you. I have the exact same edge you do, plus an extra twenty years of experience as a ninja. And on top of that, neither of us has any idea what Naruto’s hiding up his sleeve, do we?"

Naruto can’t help a smug grin while the tips of Sasuke’s ears flush and he looks away, muttering, "Yeah, yeah, fair enough."

Naruto pounds a fist into his hand and crows, "Alright then, let’s get right to it! Lead the way, sensei!"

Kakashi’s eyebrow hops up again; "And not give you any time to settle in? No, no, this can wait. Go ahead and see some more of the sights– I’ll meet you both at Training Ground 3 in two hours. Don’t be late!"

He disappears in a flicker of lightning-quick movement, and Naruto can’t help grumbling, "Where does he get off telling us that?"

Sasuke bumps Naruto with his shoulder; "Bet he just wants to get a head start on that book while I’m not in the apartment to hear him j–"

Shikamaru comes up from behind and claps them each on the shoulder; "Two hours sounds like just enough time for a bite to eat. Since we can’t test you, we’ll treat you. How’s that sound, Temari?"

Temari rolls her eyes; "Doesn’t matter to me. I’ll mark it down as a mission expense and get it reimbursed."

Naruto’s grin is back in place; "Sweet! Hope the Sand village is ready to go bankrupt, 'cause I’m gonna clean Ichiraku out!"

Sasuke shoots a playful glare at Shikamaru; "Look at what you’ve done. You’ve caused a financial crisis, all for this dumbass."

Shikamaru just shrugs as he leads them out of the office; "No better dumbass to do it for."

Once the office doors close behind the four young ninja, Jiraiya arches a brow and remarks, "Uchiha did have a point, you know."

"He has spent a lot of time facing off against Kakashi," Shizune adds, futzing with Tonton’s necklace, "And since he has the Sharingan, he has perfect recall of all of Kakashi’s tricks. You’re sure they won’t have an advantage?"

"Shizune I understand, but Jiraiya, you know as well as I do what the Bell Test is really for," Tsunade replies, returning to her paperwork as she speaks, "It’s not about winning or losing, not in the strictest sense, anyway."

She looks Jiraiya in the eye as she decisively scribbles her signature; "The Bell Test is about teamwork. The point of this test is to see if Naruto, who’s spent two and a half years working solo, and Sasuke, who’s spent that time with people who know how to work together on instinct, can meet in the middle and learn how to be a team again."

"Oh, I see," Shizune exclaims, eyes lighting up, "And they’ve been developing on different paths with different mentors, we’ll need to see how they can adjust to someone whose skill set they don’t know!"

Jiraiya examines Tsunade for a long moment before he says, "It’s not just that, is it."

Tsunade reads over, fills out, and signs off on a few more forms. Silence fills the room, thick and heavy like snow.

"Naruto and Sasuke… When things are going well, they bring out the best in each other," Tsunade sighs, setting her pen aside to rub at her Strength of a Hundred Seal, "That competitive streak they both have makes them push the other to get better, and they grow faster together than they would apart. But, when things aren’t going well, when they aren’t seeing eye to eye, they can bring out the worst in each other just as easily."

Shizune’s eyes drop to the floor; "We’ve all seen how ugly it can get between them when they’re not getting along, and that was when they both were… Less formidable, let’s just say. They seemed like they were doing fine here in the office, but–"

"There’s still baggage there," Jiraiya cuts in, "I could see it on Naruto’s face. Tsunade, I get what you’re trying to do, but what you think is just a rabbit hole could be hiding a fox."

Tsunade arches a brow, eyes shining bright and fierce; "Then it’s a good thing they’re up against a hound."

Lunch was probably a bad time to ask after his friends. As Temari, Shikamaru, and Sasuke rattle off the various promotions to chūnin and jōnin everyone has earned Naruto can feel his ramen making the journey back up his digestive tract. It almost breaks through when they casually drop the fact that Gaara actually managed to become the Fifth Kazekage. He has to force it back down with an audible, visible gulp.

"That’s amazing," Naruto exclaims, shoving all the Bad Feelings down to make room for all the good ones, "I knew he had it in him, but to power through a whole election like that–! When you get back, tell him I said congratulations!"

Temari smiles and chuckles, "Certainly," she cranes her neck around to look at Sasuke, "Should I also tell him you enjoyed your Succulent-of-the-Month, Sasuke?"

Sasuke rolls his eyes and makes an affirmative, yet aggrieved, noise around his mouthful of ramen.

Naruto cocks his head to one side; "Huh? Succulent of the what?"

"Whenever someone from Sand comes to the village on official business Gaara always sends them off with a cactus for Sasuke," Shikamaru explains, "Don’t ask me how or why that arrangement started up."

Sasuke finishes his bite and clarifies, "Some succulents are good for making into poisons or medicines. Gaara grows them as a hobby, so the easiest way to get my hands on samples is to just ask him. And the flowers make good treats for Katsuyu, so that’s something."

Naruto cringes; "Oh yeah, Grandma Tsunade would be teaching you how to summon slugs, huh? Talk about gross."

"You think you’re grossed out by them, Kakashi can’t cope with them at all," Sasuke scoffs, "I’m not allowed to summon them into the apartment unless it’s a life or death emergency, that’s how bad it is."

Naruto throws his head back with a cackle, "Who knew Kakashi was such a wimp about slimy stuff! That’s what we should do for the test, just throw slugs and frogs at him ’til he gives up!"

"Or until he makes his dogs eat them all," Temari remarks, making both Naruto and Sasuke go pale.

"You only think they’re gross ’til they’re saving your life," Shikamaru comments, "If you didn’t have Katsuyu during that shit show out near the Rain border, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now."

"You would’ve been fine," Sasuke chuffs, "Missing an arm, maybe, but still fine."

"I think you both are forgetting who really saved your life," Temari remarks, sitting up straight and looking down her nose at Shikamaru.

Shikamaru holds her gaze for a moment before remarking, "Yeah, Kankuro really came in clutch with that Sand backup–"

Temari jabs her chopsticks at Shikamaru’s throat; "You know I know over thirty ways to kill a man with these, Nara."

Shikamaru just rolls his eyes; "With sweet talk like that I have no idea how some lucky guy hasn’t snapped you up yet."

"Guys, we’re in public," Sasuke groans, "Please save it for Temari’s hotel room."

They both turn to glare sharply at Sasuke across Naruto; "We aren’t–!"

"Yeah yeah, sure," Sasuke sighs, "Try that line on Naruto instead of me, see if he believes it. After all, he hasn’t heard it a million times."

Naruto’s eyes go wide as he finally catches up with the banter before shooting a mischievous grin at them; "Go on, tell me what you guys definitely aren’t doing!"

Shikamaru keeps his glare on Sasuke and spits, "You’re the worst. You are the absolute worst."

Temari shuts her eyes tight and snaps, "Sasuke is under the impression that there’s something going on between us. I don’t know where he got the idea–"

"Yeah, I dunno," Sasuke cuts in, "Maybe it was the time you rescued Shikamaru at the Rain border, or that time in the Land of Rivers, or that time in the Land of Grass, or that time in Rain, or that other time in Rain, or that other other time in Rain–"

"Hey, that last time I rescued her," Shikamaru interrupts, "At least let me keep one scrap of dignity."

Temari’s lips quirk up in a smirk; "Oh from what I remember you threw your last scrap of dignity away when Akimichi went down."

Shikamaru nudges her with his shoulder; "Like you were any better when they grabbed Gaara."

"We all lost it when they grabbed Gaara," Sasuke adds around a mouth full of noodles, "I mean, that almost started a war–"

Naruto’s eyes can’t go any wider; "What?! When did that happen?!"

Sasuke frowns for a moment before pointing a chopstick at Shikamaru; "You tell the story better."

"No I don’t, you–" Sasuke has already shoved another bite of ramen into his mouth, so Shikamaru just sighs, "What a drag. Alright… So, a little while before Gaara was elected Kazekage, we got what was marked as a C-Rank Disaster Relief mission for a border village hit by a flood…"

Naruto tries to absorb the story of disaster relief turning into counterterrorism turning into Stopping a War in Five Easy Steps, but he can’t help but focus on how Temari buts in with corrections and Sasuke will make the odd sarcastic comment, how the three of them have a rhythm to their conversation that Naruto can hardly keep up with. They have their own language of inside jokes and anecdotes and mannerisms, and just when Naruto picks up something he remembers from before he left he’s hit by something completely new.

It’s one thing to be thinking about everything he’s missing, day in and day out, for two years. It’s another entirely to actually see it. Naruto’s surrounded by friends, but he feels weirdly alone.

Naruto fills his mouth with ramen so they won’t notice that he doesn’t have anything to say.

Sakura is in the middle of trimming her hair when a snake comes slithering out of her sink’s drain.

Sakura takes a moment to stare at the snake before asking, "Do you have a message for me, Ishi?"

The little brown adder slithers towards the walls of the sink. Sakura sets her kunai down and dips a hand down for Ishi to slither around, winding her way up her arm and settling around her neck like a scarf. Sakura strokes a line from the top of her head along her spine.

Ishi hisses, "Lord Orochimaru wishes to see you in his audience chamber. The matter is urgent."

Sakura knows Ishi can feel her pulse jump against her belly, but she keeps the rest of her tells locked down; "I see. Tell him I’ll be there as soon as I can."

Ishi periscopes her head up to bump against Sakura’s chin; "Move with haste. He did not seem pleased."

Sakura lets her mouth tilt up at one corner; "Is he ever?"

Ishi’s hiss could be interpreted as a laugh, depending on the ear. She slides back down Sakura’s arm and into the sink, disappearing down the drain. Sakura watches the drain for a moment before she brings her kunai back up to her hair. She finishes trimming the back, then sloppily chops two inches off the bottom of her bangs. She surveys her work. It’s short enough in the back that nobody could get much purchase, but the bangs… She considers pinning them back. After all, she’ll need to see what she’s doing now more than ever.

… No, better not. Pins can fall out. Pins can be used as weapons against her as much as she can use them in a pinch herself.

Sakura steps back from the sink and brushes the last strands and chunks of pink hair off her shirt and leggings. She heads over to her cot, pulling her yukata on and tying her obi tight around her middle. Just as she was taught in the academy, she hides extra weapons in her obi, just in case. She straps her kunai holster to her thigh, pins her weapons pouch to her obi, and pulls on her sandals.

Before she puts on her gloves, Sakura pulls the backpack full of all the other possessions she cared to keep out from under her cot. She rolls up her right sleeve, revealing a still-healing tattoo of her snake summoning contract. Sakura bites her left thumb hard enough to draw blood and drags the blood up along the tattoo, wincing at the stinging pain. She runs through the signs and slaps her palm on the ground. In a burst of smoke, a black-scaled snake as thick as a man’s waist and twice as long as Sakura is tall appears coiled at Sakura’s feet. Even compressed she takes up a quarter of the floor space in her room, though that says more about the size of the room than the size of the snake.

Sakura smiles and kneels down to stroke along her head as she says, "Hello, Kiyohime. Do you remember that day I told you might be coming soon?"

Her tongue flickers out and her voice comes with it; "It is upon us at last, is it? A shame."

"Yes… Yes it is," Sakura sighs, hefting her pack around in front of her, "You remember what I asked of you?"

Kiyohime responds by unhinging her jaw and swallowing Sakura’s backpack.

When she speaks again, it sounds like a human trying to speak while sucking on a hard candy; "Do not be long, or I will swallow you, too."

Sakura just smiles and strokes beneath Kiyohime’s chin; "Thank you, Kiyohime. I won’t."

The snake tastes the air one last time before bursting into pale smoke. As it dissipates, Sakura makes a circuit of her tiny room. Anything she’d usually have squirreled away in secret compartments or seals she just sent off with Kiyohime. Her room looks exactly as it did the day she came to Sound, with it’s bare stone walls and rough dirt floor. Sakura spares a glance toward the cameras by the door. If Kabuto did his part, those should have conveniently gone dark an hour ago.

She walks back to her sink and taps her fist against the porcelain in a Leaf Village code, with combinations of short taps, long taps, and pauses coming together to form letters and words: E V E R Y T H I N G     R E A D Y ?

Sakura waits for a few moments before her faucet starts to drip, the drips coming in the same code; A L L   C L E A R .   L E T ' S   G O .

Sakura nods once and turns on her heel. She stalks towards the door. She pauses as she takes hold of the handle.

Everything she’s been working toward, all her efforts over these two years in the dark will finally bear fruit. She can feel her headband sitting heavy in her weapons’ pouch. She resists it’s call. She can only wear it again when her mission ends, however it ends.

Sakura takes a deep breath and opens the door.

Time to shed her skin.

Chapter Text

II. Naruto bangs his head against the chain link fence, creating a jingling rhythm to soundtrack his groans of, "I can’t believe he’s late again for the second time today!"

Sasuke crosses his arms over his chest with a sigh; "I don’t know how he does it. Genuinely I don’t. It’s almost impressive."

"Seriously? You live with him now and you still don’t know why he’s so late all the time," Naruto grouses, "The dude’s gotta be cursed or something, believe it."

Sasuke winces to himself; "Well, I mean… You might not be wrong, but…"

Naruto peers owlishly at him, cocking his head to the side; "What do you mean?"

Sasuke purses his lips, considering Naruto for a few moments, before replying, "Let’s just say he’s lost a lot of people in his life. The specifics are his story to tell, not mine."

Naruto frowns and looks away, muttering, "So I’ll never know. Great."

Sasuke’s brow furrows; "Now what does that –"

There’s a puff of smoke at the top of the fence, out of which comes a sheepish, "Sorry about that, guys, I ran into Hana Inuzuka on the way here and we got to talking about our dogs and–"

"I’ll give you this much, your excuses are starting to get more believable," Sasuke snorts, "Come on, the sun’s going down, let’s get to it."

Kakashi drops down onto the other side of the fence, opening it from the inside and gesturing for them to come in. Sasuke has to pause once he’s through to take the scene in. The three posts, the memorial stone, the wide river, he knows these things better than he knows some people’s faces. Training Ground Three. Where it all started.

Naruto’s eyes are doing a circuit of the grounds, wide with wonder; "Man… Now this takes me back…"

"Yeah," Sasuke breathes, "It’s been a while for me, too."

Lately it’s been easier to keep his mind occupied and focused on the present, but the one downside to Naruto’s return is how it brings back so many memories. There had been three of them the last time Sasuke was here. They’d gathered to wait for Kakashi, and when he’d popped in he’d told them they were just gonna train, since they didn’t have a mission. Almost as an afterthought, he’d mentioned that they were breaking early to have a celebratory lunch with Team Ten to celebrate Shikamaru’s promotion to chūnin.

Naruto had been loudly flabbergasted by the news. Sasuke had been quietly surprised and slightly disappointed that Shikamaru was the only promotion. But then he’d gotten a glance at Sakura. She’d been staring into space, face blank, eyes unmoving. He’d tried to ask her what was wrong. When she said she was fine, it sounded like she was saying it from the bottom of a deep dark pit.

She’d stayed that way all through training, until her chakra control faltered (Sakura’s chakra control, Sakura never faltered) and she dropped into the river. Kakashi had sent her home, because something was wrong, but she wasn’t about to tell them what. They should’ve pressed her, shouldn’t have relented until she let it out and they could’ve found something to say, something to do that would’ve made her stay but–

Sasuke digs his nails into his palm. There’s no point in thinking about the past. Not when the future is still wide open.

Naruto turns to Kakashi, arms folded behind his head; "So are we gonna get on with this test or are we gonna keep sitting around?"

Kakashi’s mask warps in a smirk and he replies, "Always so impatient. But I suppose you’re right," he reaches into his weapons pouch and pulls out a familiar pair of bells, "It’s about time we got started."

Sasuke and Naruto’s brows both hop up as they exchange surprised glances; "Wait, are we really–?"

"Since we’re already reminiscing, it seemed appropriate," Kakashi replies, jingling the bells for emphasis, "It’s the same basic test. You have until sunrise to get these bells away from me. All the same rules apply. No techniques or weapons are off limits, and–"

"We remember the drill," Naruto cuts in, tightening his headband, "We gotta be ready to kill you, or we can kiss our chances of passing goodbye."

Sasuke ties his jacket around his waist and pulls on his gloves as he adds, "If you think you’re gonna get away with reading while fighting us again you’ve got another thing coming."

"Oh I’m more than aware of that," Kakashi replies, pulling his headband up to reveal the Sharingan, "I get the feeling I’m going to have my hands full with the two of you."

Naruto looks to Sasuke from the corner of his eye. His mouth quirks up in a smirk, and before Sasuke can decipher what that means Naruto’s reaching into his weapons pouch and tossing a handful of shuriken at Kakashi.

Kakashi immediately hits the deck, tossing his own bevy of projectiles at Naruto’s feet. Naruto leaps over them and crosses his fingers in the sign for Shadow Clone Jutsu, summoning a clone into the air above his head. As the clone falls Naruto forms the ram sign, his body transforming into a massive shuriken. The clone grabs Naruto-the-Shuriken out of the air and lobs him at Kakashi.

Kakashi stays low, Naruto-the-Shuriken flying over his head. Naruto transforms back in midair and lands behind Kakashi, reaching his hands into his jacket and drawing them out with the tekagi-shuko Sasuke sent Naruto off with firmly affixed to his hands. Naruto lets out a canine snarl and slashes for Kakashi. Kakashi nimbly dances around the strike, grabbing Naruto by the wrist and twisting his arm around his back with one hand while the other puts a kunai to Naruto’s throat.

"Like I said, always so impatient," Kakashi begins, only for one of Naruto’s discarded shuriken to burst into a puff of smoke. When the smoke clears, another Naruto is at Kakashi’s back with his own kunai, poised and ready to strike. The grin on Naruto’s face has a feral, ragged edge. Sasuke can’t help one of his own. Naruto’s knack for using clones and transformations for mischief has come into it’s own on the battlefield– He didn’t know a person could even transform themselves into something as small as a standard shuriken, but Naruto has always been full of surprises.

Kakashi smirks beneath his mask and continues, "Clever, certainly, but still impatient. I didn’t even say 'start' yet."

Sasuke cracks his knuckles; "Then what are we waiting for?"

Kakashi lets out a soft chuckle; "Fine then. Ready… Set… Start!"

Orochimaru curses his own flair for the poetic as Sakura comes through the door to his audience chamber. Bathed in the cold blue light from the fish tank, strange shadows flickering across her form, she looks exactly like the girl Kabuto brought to him two years ago. She’s still a tiny thing, barely four inches taller than when she arrived and certainly a few pounds lighter. Her clothes, feminine and dark and floral, only make her seem all the more fragile. Like he could reach out and snap her like a twig with his bare hands.

And he intends to. But he knows she won’t make it easy for him.

Sakura’s eyes alight on him across the long oak table and she bows from the waist; "You sent for me, Sir?"

Orochimaru balances his chin atop his steepled fingers as he replies, "I did indeed. It seems our dear Jūgo has decided to go on walkabout. He escaped from his holding cell ten minutes ago."

Sakura’s eyes go just the right amount of wide and she gasps, "What?! Ten minutes ago–?! W-we need to get out there, we need to find him before he–!"

"Don’t play dumb," Orochimaru snaps, Sakura freezing in place at the sound of his voice, "You’re far too smart to be any good at it."

Sakura could’ve made a beautiful actress in another life. She doesn’t break character for even a moment, choking on her words and staring at him in mute apprehension. Her eyes swim between fear of Jūgo and fear of him.


Orochimaru slowly rises from the table and stalks toward her at a creeping pace; "The only cells capable of containing Jūgo are those that have been made specifically for him. He has been perfectly capable of breaking out for months now. And yet, he hasn’t. He chooses today. Would you like to know what else has been happening today, Little Flower?"

Sakura takes a half-step back; "I-I don’t–"

Orochimaru’s eyes narrow and he forms half a seal. He grabs hold of Sakura’s curse mark, squeezing down. Sakura’s eyes go wide and her teeth clench, a cry forcing itself out through the cracks as she nearly falls. One hand catches the back of a chair and the other flies to her shoulder in a vain attempt to staunch the flow of pain.

"Kabuto’s mission report is running horrifically late," Orochimaru begins, "Suigetsu has disappeared into the pipes. Prisoners are being shuffled around like cards on orders I didn’t give. And all the while the security cameras and wire taps are all going haywire, all at once. Coincidence?"

"Lord O–" Sakura cuts herself off with a sharp scream as Orochimaru presses on the mark. She collapses to one knee, eyes screwing shut. Orochimaru pauses without his own approval as he catches tears beading at the corners of her eyes.

He forces himself forward and snarls, "Absolutely not. I wonder, just how stupid do you think I am? I knew you’d betray me one day, but to think you’d do it this blatantly… Suffice to say, I’m disappointed, Little Flower. I thought I trained you better than this. I thought I made sure to teach you never to underestimate your opponent."

Sakura’s knee buckles and she crumples into the fetal position. The sound she lets loose is a broken, high-pitched sob. Orochimaru stops above her body, the rest of his monologue caught in his throat. Is this it? Is this really all it takes to make her revert to being a scared little girl? Is pressing down on her sorest spot until it nearly bursts really enough to break down all of Sakura’s carefully constructed barriers?

… No.

Of course it isn’t.

Because he trained her.

That realization gives Orochimaru a precious half-second to notice the water in the fish tank starting to bubble and churn. He lets go of Sakura’s curse mark and brings his arms up to block his eyes a heartbeat before the entire tank explodes. Broken glass and water come spraying out from all sides, pelting and drenching him in equal measure. He blindly reacts to the sound of water flowing and something sharp cutting through the air, a hand flying up to painfully parry a blade. Orochimaru whirls to the source, eyes opening to see Suigetsu’s body flowing up and out of the water coating the table.

The boy grins with a mouth full of serrated teeth; "This has been a long time coming, Old Timer."

Suigetsu’s hands soar through signs. His feet dissolve, melding with the water covering the table and floor. It all lights up with chakra, rising up in floating globules that shudder before firing shards of glass like dozens of fragile bullets. Orochimaru ducks and rolls beneath the worst of it, a few splinters clipping the back of his neck as he comes up at the head of the table. Before Orochimaru can form his first sign, Suigetsu flips off the table, landing at Sakura’s side and dragging her over to the wall.

Just in time for the door to burst inward, Jūgo roaring through it. His arms shift into big meaty claws that let him effortlessly pick up the conference table and turn it onto it’s side. His flesh shifts on his elbows and the back of his calves, creating vents that jet out compressed air and send Jūgo firing at Orochimaru like a rocket. The table hits Orochimaru head on, knocking the wind out of him and pushing him all the way to the back of the room. Orochimaru’s back collides painfully with the wall and his head knocks against the table.

He’s only between a rock and a hard place for a bare moment. Orochimaru pushes against the table and finds no resistance. The second it falls away is the second Sakura finishes a round of hand signs. Flower petals burst from her body and fill the room like smoke. Through the haze of pink Orochimaru can barely make out the three traitors scrambling for the doorway. The petals that touch Orochimaru’s skin dissolve into chakra, forcing his eyelids to droop, but he knows this trick of Sakura’s too well to fall for it ever again.

He forms half a seal and snarls, "Release."

The petals all burst into threads of chakra before they can hit the floor, giving Orochimaru a clear view of Sakura’s dress fluttering around the corner as she scurries out into the hall. For a moment, Orochimaru just stares at the doorway. There’s no way that was the whole plan. He trained Sakura better than that, and Suigetsu at least is intelligent enough to know there’s no outrunning him in his own hideout. No, that was just the opening gambit. The real fight starts the second he leaves the audience chamber.

Orochimaru stalks after them, hissing under his breath, "Ready… Set… Start. "

There’s a puff of smoke. Naruto lurches forward as the hands that were holding him in place disappear. When the smoke clears, Kakashi is nowhere to be found. Naruto dismisses his clone and clicks his tongue against his teeth as he scans the area for some sign of him. No tracks, no sound. Naruto channels chakra into his nose, sharpening his sense of smell, and doesn’t even pick up a scent. It’s like he was never there.

Naruto mutters through his teeth, "Okay, all this deja vu is starting to get old."

He glances over at Sasuke. He’s standing with a hand on one hip and the other at his chin, brow furrowed in thought. Naruto opens his mouth to ask what’s on his mind, but quickly thinks better of it. Sasuke takes being interrupted when he’s thinking very poorly. Or, at least, he used to. Maybe that’s changed too.

Sasuke drums his fingers on his hip as he mutters, "Deja vu, huh…"

He stays like that for a few moments more before perking up and, with a snap of his fingers, declaring, "I know where he is."

Naruto nods and asks, "Alright, how do we flush him out?"

Sasuke smirks over his shoulder at Naruto; "Brace yourself."

Sasuke stomps the ground. The ground breaks.

The earth rumbles beneath Naruto’s feet, nearly knocking him on his ass, as a jagged fissure opens up in front of Sasuke. Sections of ground jut up and out of place, soil flying everywhere. Cracks spread all the way to the river, breaking the riverbank and sending water flowing into the broken ground. When the dust clears and Naruto can get his balance again, the fissure is easily twenty feet long and thirty feet deep. Ten feet into all that broken ground, wedged between two displaced spears of stone, is a wide-eyed Kakashi.

Naruto gulps. He’d thought that maybe Grandma Tsunade would teach Sasuke how to do whatever it is she does to be so strong, but him being this strong only after two years didn’t even cross his mind. What is crossing his mind now is how it would feel to be on the receiving end of a blow like that.

Suffice to say, the idea of going one-on-one with Sasuke just got a lot less appealing.

"I appreciate a throwback, Sensei," Sasuke calls to Kakashi, "But if you keep pulling the same tricks you did two years ago this is gonna end badly for you."

The surprised look on Kakashi’s face quickly drops; "True. But if you keep expecting those same old tricks, Sasuke, this is going to end badly for you."

The center of Kakashi’s stomach starts to glow red hot, quickly spreading out across his whole body. Sasuke backpedals and Naruto runs in to grab him by his collar and drag him back. Kakashi bursts into flames. The aftershock of chakra sends both Naruto and Sasuke flying backwards. They hit the ground and bounce, rolling for a few more feet before coming to a stop. They dust themselves off and get to their feet to find scorched Earth, burning grass, and no Kakashi.

"Well," Naruto remarks, "We flushed something out alright."

That dusting of pink has found it’s way back to the tips of Sasuke’s ears; "Okay, I’ll admit it– What I know about Kakashi is nowhere near as dangerous as what he knows about me."

The moment he exits the audience chamber Orochimaru catches a glimpse of Sakura, Suigetsu, and Jūgo out of the corner of his left eye. He turns just in time to see them wheeling around a corner and out of sight. He rolls his eyes, but creates a shadow clone and sends it running after them anyway. Whether those are clones or an illusion, it won’t do to give the game up to Sakura just yet. While his shadow clone goes left, Orochimaru goes right. As he stalks down the hall he opens his chakra sense, searching for signatures that hum in rhythm with his own.

His shadow clone lights up strong and bright, like the fluorescents above his head, several yards behind him. Hovering a layer below him and a few yards to the right is a fragment of his own chakra, burning just as bright as his clone. It almost captures his attention before another signature, identical to it in every way, brightens the lower edge of Orochimaru’s sensing range.

Orochimaru leans against the wall, shutting one eye. Like this, with half the world drowned in darkness, it’s slightly easier to focus on the floating flames of his own chakra. It’s still impossible to definitively tell the genuine Sakura apart from her clone and his clone by sensation alone. With their chakra as divided as it is, the three signatures are nearly identical.

Orochimaru’s lips twist in something that’s not angry enough to be a snarl and not proud enough to be a grin; "Clever girl."

Sensing alone won’t give him answers, but he’s never been one to rely on just one tool. Orochimaru sketches a rough mental map of the base over top of the three signatures. He designed this hideout himself, he could draw it’s blueprints from memory and navigate it blind. The closest signature is making it’s way toward the mortuary lab on this level, moving quickly and with purpose. That’s definitely his clone, chasing dutifully after a genjutsu.

The second signature is fifteen feet down and ten feet to his right. That part of the second layer is devoted to R&D. Narrowing it down section by section, room by room, she should be in the archives, in the temperature controlled vault. He clicks his tongue against his teeth. Clever, clever, but too clever by half. Obviously she didn’t think he’d realize where she’d sent her clone until he was already there. There’s no way the girl would bring a fight to the archives. Not after the disaster in the Earth Country mountains.

The third signature is at the very bottom of the hideout. The lowest layer is provision storage and the reservoir. That signature is straining at the very edge of his perception, but close enough that he can draw out the map around it. After a moment, he’s sure that signature is in the reservoir chamber. The room has plenty of space to maneuver and nothing precious, breakable, or alive stored inside. It’s as out of the way as it can be in a closed system like this, giving her and her friends more than time enough to prepare while he chases down her diversions. Clever, clever, but deeply predictable.

He should’ve broken her of that long ago.

Orochimaru channels Earth Chakra around his body and drops into the ground, turning it into a fine sand and digging down toward the third signature. He flies through the ground like a missile through the air. In a blast of sand he breaches the ceiling, falling into a room with a double height ceiling dominated by a deep, dark pool of water. A forest of columns keeps the ceiling from collapsing in on itself, while massive pipes and water pumps snake out of the pool and onto the catwalk surrounding it, pulling the water from the ground into the rest of the hideout.

Orochimaru only catches a glimpse of Sakura on that catwalk glancing up at him, green eyes going wide, before he lands directly on top of her. They go crashing to the ground, Orochimaru with a knee on Sakura’s stomach and a hand wrapped around her throat.

He grins down at her and hisses through his teeth, "A clever trick, Little Flower, but I know you far too well to fall for it."

The sun has just dipped below the horizon when Naruto and Sasuke find Kakashi again. It only takes one strike for Sasuke to uproot the tree he’s hiding in and knock him out of it’s branches, sending him plummeting to the ground. Naruto pounces for Kakashi, claws out. Kakashi rolls away and kips up, lightning fast. Naruto tucks and rolls, coming up on the other side of the clearing while Sasuke blocks off the entrance.

"It seems you have me cornered," Kakashi drawls, Sharingan spinning as he shifts into Gai’s idle stance, "What ever shall I do?"

Sasuke just huffs out a breath, catching Naruto’s eye over Kakashi’s shoulder and calling to him, "I go high, you go low!"

Kakashi grins behind his mask; "Fair enough then. Lesson One– Taijutsu!"

Sasuke made a big mistake saying he’d go in high. Kakashi immediately drops low and sweeps a kick at his ankles. Sasuke deftly avoids the strike, swerving out of the way, and his Sharingan blazes to life. He brings a leg up in a perfect imitation of one of Tsunade’s earthquake axe kicks and Kakashi realizes he made a mistake going low. Kakashi rolls out of the way seconds before Sasuke’s heel connects with empty ground and cracks it in a one-foot radius. He surges up and clips Sasuke’s jaw with an uppercut, making his teeth clack painfully together.

Sasuke turns his stagger into a tactical retreat, darting out of Kakashi’s reach. Kakashi looks over his shoulder to see Naruto sprinting in, keeping low, and diving to tackle his legs out from under him. Kakashi jukes out of the way and Naruto handily turns his landing into a roll. Kakashi’s arms shoot out and he grabs hold of Naruto by the collar and the back of his jacket. Kakashi only rethinks his plan of throwing Naruto at Sasuke when he actually tries to heft the boy up and realizes he’s much heavier than he thought he’d be. Naruto takes advantage of the momentary shock, digging in his heels and lurching forward.

Kakashi stumbles. That’s all the opening Naruto needs.

In seconds Naruto flips the grapple around, hip-tossing Kakashi to Sasuke with a call of, "He’s all yours!"

Sasuke knocks Kakashi to the ground with a roundhouse kick that rattles his whole skeleton. Kakashi forces his eyes open just in time to see Sasuke making a fist and driving it down towards his head. Kakashi’s Sharingan spins and he breaks out a move he copied from Sasuke himself, using his core muscles to keep his shoulders on the ground and whip his legs up and around in a whirling kick that knocks Sasuke back and allows Kakashi to flip back to his feet.

He doesn’t have time to breathe. Naruto letting out another war cry gives Kakashi a precious few seconds to turn and see him darting in low and striking high, slashing with those steel claws for his eyes. Kakashi tucks his chin against his chest on reflex and Naruto scores the surface of his headband instead of tearing his eyes out of his skull. A disturbing thought, but at least he’s taking the test seriously.

There’s a crackle of lightning and Kakashi’s instincts take over, his head swerving out of the way of Sasuke’s palm thrust as it whizzes past his ear. Kakashi pivots around in time to see Sasuke closing the distance between them, one hand glowing soft cyan and the other raining sparks. He bobs and weaves around two more palm thrusts, the chakra on Sasuke’s hands making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. Sasuke fakes a third left hook before juking to the right, revealing Naruto sprinting into range with his claws dragging through the dirt.

Naruto wrenches up with his claws, a gust of chakra-laced wind following the movement of his arms and kicking up a cloud of dust directly into Kakashi’s face. Kakashi’s arm flies up to cover his Sharingan– he doesn’t have time to protect both eyes. Dust hits his normal eye and it slams shut, stinging like a motherfucker, but Kakashi backpedals out of the cloud and reveals his Sharingan again. He’s back in business, just in time to see Naruto bursting through the dust and slashing for his throat.

Kakashi sneers beneath his mask, "Alright, fine, two can play this game," before slamming his sole right into Naruto’s crotch.

Naruto’s face twists into an expression of complete and total agony for the split second before he bursts into smoke. A sandaled foot comes flying out through the haze and hits Kakashi in the chin, the force of the blow sending him flying up into the air. Kakashi is well above the forest canopy when an iron-strong grip wraps around his torso, flips him upside down, and starts to spin.

His heart skips a beat at the sound of Sasuke’s voice crying out, "Primary Lotus!"

They’re corkscrewing toward the ground, quicker than thought, but Kakashi’s been trapped in this move by Gai enough times to have a counter. He uses all his strength to wrench one arm out of Sasuke’s hold and thrust a hand out toward the ground. He molds chakra in his chest and sends it surging down his arm, coming out of his palm in a blast of compressed air that hits the ground a breath before they can. The burst of air hits them from below, shocking Sasuke into breaking his grip and sending them both scattering away. Naruto catches Sasuke out of the air and Kakashi lets himself fly into the trees, crashing through branches and eventually bouncing to a stop on the ground, several meters away.

Kakashi rolls to his feet and listens for their voices. They’re far away, but Naruto’s sheer volume makes hearing them laughably easy.

"You good? That move always took it out of Bushy Brows…"

"I’m fine, come on! He left a trail!"

Kakashi spares a moment to smirk to himself. They’re skilled in Taijutsu, certainly, but neither one of them used the opportunity to lift the bells off him. Even with Naruto throwing dirt in his eyes, they’re still fighting unbearably straight.

So it falls to him to fight dirty.

"A clever trick, Little Flower, but I know you far too well to fall for it."

The faint wisps of triumph in Orochimaru’s chest are blown away by a roar of, "GET OFF HER!"

Orochimaru’s head whips towards the sound to find Jūgo lunging off a massive pipe, serrated claws slashing for his throat. Orochimaru lets go of Sakura’s throat, rolling up and off of her just in time to avoid getting shredded. A piston-like growth comes jutting out of Jūgo’s elbow, drawing back and compressing in time with a whirling strike that tears four long gashes in Orochimaru’s skin, revealing glimpses of the body beneath.

The force of the blow knocks him off his feet, but Orochimaru sends chakra surging down his arm, dislocating his joints and stretching the limb out to grab one of the pillars in the reservoir. He retracts his arm with a sound like a rubber band snapping and sends chakra down into his feet, catching himself in a crouch on the pillar’s side. The second he lands he catches sight of Sakura sprinting towards one of the pipes. Orochimaru braces his back against the pillar and throws his arms out toward the catwalk, a pair of white vipers twice as long as he is tall leaping from his sleeves and striking for Jūgo and Sakura.

A jet of water bursts up from between Orochimaru’s pillar and the catwalk. Metal whistles through the air and blood dyes the water red as his snakes split in half. Orochimaru lets their corpses fall into the reservoir, rolling out of the way as the jet changes trajectory and splashes into the pillar. Suigetsu comes charging out, a katana and wakizashi in each hand, and strikes for Orochimaru’s throat. He ducks beneath the wakizashi and jukes out of the katana’s reach, just in time to spot Jūgo growing two more boosters on his back and come flying across the gap. He lands just above Orochimaru, hitting hard enough to shake the pillar.

So they have him in a pincer. But a ninja doesn’t get to fifty without knowing exactly how to turn those to their advantage. Orochimaru fakes a too-late dodge and lets Jūgo’s claws clip the side of his ear. He listens for the sound of air jetting out of Jūgo’s elbow piston and hits the deck, rolling around the pillar to come up on the other side. He catches sight of Suigetsu’s half-liquified form flowing around to meet him, just in time for them both to feel the impact of Jūgo’s fist hitting the stone. Cracks spiderweb around the pillar, crawling all the way up to the ceiling and knocking fragments of stone loose.

Suigetsu swings to take his head off his shoulders. Orochimaru unhinges his jaw, Kusanagi rocketing up his throat to parry the blow. He spits the blade all the way up, grabbing the hilt and follows his parry with a riposte. He takes the ends off a lock of Suigetsu’s hair, but doesn’t scratch his skin. Suigetsu flows around two more stabs before whirling in, forcing Orochimaru further down the pillar as he ducks and dodges around his wide, frenetic strikes. What advantage Orochimaru has in reach with Kusanagi is quickly brought down to Earth by Suigetsu’s lightning fast parrying reflexes, knocking the blade away with the wakizashi and slashing across his stomach with the katana.

Suigetsu forces him down nearly to the water’s surface before calling over his shoulder, "Jūgo! Now!"

Orochimaru stabs for Suigetsu’s throat, his blade punching straight through water. Suigetsu melts into a deluge and splashes down into the reservoir, just in time for Jūgo to let out another mighty roar and slam another fist into the pillar. The cracks beneath Orochimaru’s feet widen out into massive fissures, chunks of rock raining down around him. He tosses his sword from his left hand to his right, stretching out his right hand painfully far to grasp the edge of the catwalk. He pulls himself off the pillar just before it crumbles, snapping back to dangle off the edge of the catwalk.

He flips up onto it, catching the sound of a booster firing off and rolling out of the way of a whirling, flying kick from Jūgo. Jūgo lands heavy and clumsy, leaving himself wide open. Orochimaru spins to his feet and strikes in the same fluid motion. Jūgo’s attention is split three ways between regaining his balance, bringing a hand up to block, and shifting that hand into a form that actually can block a blade. He gets the first two, but is two slow for the third. Kusanagi’s blade cuts three of Jūgo’s clawed fingers off at the root.

Beneath Jūgo’s piercing shriek Orochimaru catches the sound of water crashing onto the catwalk to his left. He swings around and catches Suigetsu half-solidified, piercing through his liquid stomach and dragging Kusanagi up to cut into his flesh and blood chest. Suigetsu jerks away, a jet of pressurized water blasting from the wound. It pushes Orochimaru back and gives Suigetsu the room to stagger out of reach. He brings his swords up into a guard stance, hardly hiding the pained grimace on his face as blood spreads through the liquid parts of his body.

Orochimaru can’t give chase, not when Jūgo comes bounding right up into his face. The remaining fingers on his maimed hand fuse together into a sharp, drill-like point and stab for his eye. Orochimaru effortlessly parries the strike down and away. The spike rams itself into the catwalk, pinning Jūgo in place. Orochimaru grins to himself– Why not help the boy out of that predicament? Before Jūgo can pull himself out, Orochimaru swings Kusanagi down and takes off the arm at the elbow.

Blood sprays out across the ground and Jūgo yowls like an angry cat. Orochimaru’s eyes sweep over the battlefield. Despite their brave faces, these boys are each a blow away from death. That’s not as comforting as it should be. Sakura is still nowhere to be seen, and she’s at her most dangerous when she’s out of sight.

"Come out come out wherever you are, Little Flower," he calls, voice reverberating out across the massive room, "Or your friends are going to lose more than their limbs!"

The moon isn’t yet as full as it could be, so it falls to Sasuke to take point as he and Naruto creep through the woods. The Sharingan takes the low light and turns it up, letting Sasuke pick out every broken branch on the trees above them and every scuffed footprint in the dirt below. He moves slowly and cautiously, half to keep Kakashi from getting wise too soon, and half because he has little choice. It’s not often he opens the Inner Gates, the process still leaves him a bit dizzy.

He glances over his shoulder to Naruto, who’s aping Sasuke’s careful stride so perfectly it’s like he’s the one with a Sharingan. Sasuke can only be impressed at how well Naruto’s doing. It seems like Jiraiya finally managed to beat some notion of ninja having to be stealthy into the dumbass. Still couldn’t get him out of the orange, though.

Sasuke turns his attention back to the forest. Kakashi’s trail has grown sparse, with only a snapped twig here and there letting Sasuke know he’s even on the right track. Sasuke channels chakra into his nose and his ears. Kakashi’s scent is faint, and the sounds of rustling in the foliage are too distant for Sasuke to tell a grown man from a squirrel or a skunk. To coin a phrase, it’s quiet– Too quiet. Or, rather, not quiet enough. It’s like Kakashi’s making sure to just leave enough of a trail to keep them on a set path.

"I don’t like this," Sasuke whispers, "This feels like–"

There’s a loud rustle from behind a large oak tree’s trunk. And there would be the other shoe. 

A skinny, feminine form made from molded Yin chakra comes staggering out from behind the tree. The projected girl’s ragged hair and smooth skin are marred by bloodstains and lacerations as senbon and kunai stick out of her like the needles on a cactus. Her breath is coming in high-pitched wheezes, and she collapses to her knees in a heap.

Her voice is familiar, but two years too young; "S-sasuke, Naruto, I’m so–"

Sasuke’s hand snaps into half a seal and he snarls, "Release," the image of the battered Sakura dissolving into threads of chakra.

Naruto’s face twists into a scowl and he voices Sasuke’s own thoughts; "That was a dirty trick, Kakashi-sensei."

Kakashi’s voice comes from a tree Sasuke’s sure he isn’t in; "Trust me, you haven’t seen dirty. Lesson Number Two– Genjutsu!"

Sasuke’s world suddenly shifts from dull red to an eye-searingly bright crimson. He’s not just seeing every leaf on the trees anymore but every cell in every leaf on every tree. His own cry of pain is louder than a train whistle in his ears and Sasuke can suddenly feel every fiber of his shirt scratching at his skin like a thousand tiny claws. The constant low ache of his knee is a sharp, piercing pain that throbs in time with his heartbeat. He knows it’s a genjutsu, it’s the most blatant and transparent genjutsu Sasuke’s ever seen used in a combat situation, but that doesn’t change the fact that the whole world around him is too loud too bright too rough too much–

Sasuke’s reflexes take over and his Sharingan shuts off. The world turns from a bright red to a slightly-less-bright blue. It barely helps. Sasuke can still hear every night bird in the forest like they’re chirping in his ear, can still feel every bead of sweat pooling on his hands beneath his gloves, can taste the inside of his own mouth. Sasuke isn’t sure what reflex will finally win the day, the urge to tear all his skin off or the urge to vomit on the grass.

Naruto’s voice is loud most days, but now it’s piercing enough to shatter a whole glass house; "Hold on, I’ve got you!"

Sasuke can feel Naruto pulling down the high collar of his shirt with one hand, exposing the back of his neck to the freezing night air. Something cold and wet touches Sasuke’s skin, making him hiss through his teeth as Naruto draws some kind of symbol on the back of his neck. The electric burn of chakra surging through the mark makes for a half second of the most searing, agonizing pain Sasuke has ever felt in his life.

But before Sasuke has time to scream, everything ratchets down. Sasuke slowly opens his eyes to the view of a perfectly normal forest at night. The birds and crickets chirp faintly in the distance, and Sasuke can bear the feeling of his own clothes on his skin again. Sasuke’s brow furrows and he reaches around to feel the back of his neck. He runs his fingers along tender first degree burns in the shape of a rudimentary seal.

Sasuke turns to Naruto, eyes wide and eyebrows high; "What did you do?"

Naruto grins and holds up one hand, missing it’s claw and bleeding from his index fingertip; "The Pervy Sage taught me some fuinjutsu! The one I put on you’s pretty handy, it activates if it senses Yin chakra in your brain and breaks the genjutsu for you! Look, see," Naruto turns around and pulls down the collar of his jacket, revealing burns in the same basic shape, "I had one on me, and it popped off when that first genjutsu of Sakura came out. Downside is though that it’s a one and done kind of thing."

Sasuke smirks as he pulls off his gloves, puts one hand on his own neck, the other on Naruto’s, and channels healing chakra through both; "Leave it to you to both pull off a trick and have it blow up in your face."

If he were still under that genjutsu Sasuke’s sure he could hear Naruto rolling his eyes; "Leave it to you to not just say 'thanks'. Tsunade didn’t beat any manners into you while I was gone, huh?"

Sasuke just grins; "She did, actually. You clearly don’t remember how bad I used to be."

Sasuke had meant that as a joke, but Naruto’s shoulders tighten in response to it, and Sasuke has to bite his lip to keep in a sigh. He’s starting to get really sick of Naruto thinking he can keep things to himself while broadcasting them with his whole body. There’ll be time for that later. Now, they have to get those bells.

When he’s finished, Sasuke gently smacks the spot he just healed and says, "Come on. We’re burning moonlight," before turning on his heel and heading deeper into the woods. Naruto falls in step behind him like nothing happened.

"Come out come out wherever you are, Little Flower, or your friends are going to lose more than their limbs!"

Orochimaru’s world explodes into a kaleidoscope of sound and color. All he can hear is at least ten different songs all blasting over each other, each one loud and grating in it’s own unique way. The dull and washed out reservoir chamber is now a blinding bright rainbow constantly shifting from one color to the next. Spots dance across Orochimaru’s vision and he can’t fight the reflex to cover one ear in the vain hope it’ll block out some of this noise. It’s a genjutsu, of course it is, but Orochimaru’s instincts could care less about that. He can barely pick out Suigetsu and Jūgo as they whirl with color at the same pace as the room around them.

He reaches into his own mind and can feel the fine, intricate web of Yin chakra laced tight around it. He curses Sakura through grit teeth. This isn’t just one genjutsu, it’s a cocktail of several woven into a fine tapestry. Unraveling one would be simple. Unraveling them all would require concentration and time.

Orochimaru feels the rush of wind and just barely ducks out of the way, something sharp slicing a shallow line across the back of his neck. He doesn’t have that kind of time.

He tries and mostly fails to pivot around hard, blunt blows from Jūgo’s fist and fine, sharp slices from Suigetsu’s swords. No matter how much he’s trained his other senses he can’t deny the fact that he’s a human who spends ninety percent of his time relying on his eyes and ears. With them both overloaded, he’s just a touch too slow, a touch too close, overwhelmed enough to die from a thousand tiny mistakes.

There are options here, but all of them come with costs he’d rather not pay. He could play as defensively and evasively as possible to buy himself time to break this the old fashioned way, but that’s a waste of time he can’t afford to lose. He could hunt down Sakura and break her concentration– she has to be close to be working something this intense, but that’s yet another waste of time. She has his eyes and ears hostage, she can be wherever she wants.

He could let one of these blows land, the pain of it shocking him out of the genjutsu. But making sure he’d survive that gamble will cost him quite a bit of chakra. In the long run, that’s not a bad idea. Unimpressive as they are, his chakra reserves are still deeper than those of these children. But all three of them know that, and they don’t want this fight to have a long run.

Orochimaru sneers and starts gathering chakra. So it will fall to him to teach these children the value of patience. He sinks deeper into the whirling vortex of sensation, letting his dodges turn into staggers and his parries into random flailing. A blade of pressurized water pierces Orochimaru’s side. One instant of horrific, rending pain is all it takes to break the genjutsu, his world dropping back into washed out neutrals peppered with bright spots of orange, pink, and silver. He releases all his gathered chakra as the empty shell that was his body an instant ago is sliced in two at the waist, flopping onto the ground in two clean pieces.

He makes them wait for it. One heartbeat, two, three, four. Jūgo is pacing frantic circles. Suigetsu is shifting from foot to foot in place, head cocked to the side. Sakura, perched upon a massive pipe, watches his body like a hungry owl.

Suigetsu frowns and mutters, “Was that it?”

Orochimaru grins. Of course it wasn’t. He reaches up and unhinges the jaw of his substitute, pulling it open as wide as he can. Jūgo and Suigetsu both choke on expletives and backpedal out of reach as he drags himself out of his own mouth, body whole and dripping with viscous fluid. He looks up through his hair, eyes locked on Sakura.

“How nice of you to finally join us,” he rasps.

With a flick of his wrist Kusanagi floats up and off the floor. It slices through the air, straight for Sakura, who lets out a gasp and leaps off the pipes onto the ground. His mouth opens, wide as it can go, and a torrent of snakes come pouring out. The countless snakes race across the ground, spreading out wide enough to carpet the whole catwalk.

Suigetsu lets out a strangled, “Holy fuck,” and starts sprinting back towards the pipes. Jūgo snarls and shifts his stump into a scythe-like appendage. He swipes at the oncoming tide of snakes, but for every head he lops off two more pop up in its place. It’s only when Sakura lets out a high, sharp whistle that he grits his teeth and starts doubling back.

Sakura leaps and rolls out of the way of Kusanagi’s strikes, somehow managing to keep whistling as she does. The sound loops and whirls, and as it twirls around through the ears of both Orochimaru and his snakes the ground beneath them almost seems to soften. It feels like he’s trying to move his wall of snakes through molasses. They struggle against the soft ground, crawling over each other and getting twisted up into knots. The tide slows just enough to put some distance between the snakes and their prey.

Orochimaru dissects Sakura’s technique in record time. She’s using a sound-based genjutsu, this one far less complex than her previous attempt. In an instant he’s formed half a seal and broken it’s hold over his mind, the catwalk firming up again beneath his feet. The snakes, however, are still struggling, still twisting and writhing. 

Of course. That’s the benefit of a sound-based jutsu, you can affect anything with ears. That sharp whistle was a signal, prepping Suigetsu and Jūgo to break it before it could slow their steps. But the snakes are simple creatures. They’re worse than useless right now, unless Orochimaru takes the time and the chakra to break the genjutsu for each and every one of them.

His eyes zero in on Sakura. There’s a much easier way to do that, this time. He leaves the snakes to their own devices, instead focusing on Kusanagi. Sakura pirouettes around the blade as it thrusts for her chest, dipping and ducking beneath two more swipes. Her eyes briefly flicker over to his before she runs through a set of signs and she disappears from sight. Orochimaru rolls his eyes and reaches out with his chakra sense, finding the fragment of his own power exactly where Sakura had been standing seconds before. Still underestimating her opponent. It’s like he didn’t teach her anything at all.

He sends Kusanagi soaring around her in dizzying circles, coming closer and closer, his misses nearer and nearer with every passing breath. The blade passes so close it forces Sakura to drop the Greater Invisibility, breaking her concentration in order to dodge the blow. Orochimaru sends the blade hurting backward, hilt first, toward her throat. Sakura dodges the hilt, but doesn’t see the sword pause in midair and thrust forward, stabbing through the back of her throat.

She explodes into petals. Her high, warbling whistle keeps spiraling through the air.

Orochimaru’s eyes go wide. No. No no no no. No. She didn’t trick his chakra sense, there’s absolutely– He bites the side of his tongue hard enough to taste blood and reaches out again. The fragment of his chakra lights up, directly above his head.

Orochimaru grabs for it and squeezes with all his might. The whistle cuts off into a sharp scream. He sends Kusanagi flying straight up and feels the fragment of chakra skittering along the ceiling like a spider, making a beeline for the nearest intact pillar to the catwalk. 

Orochimaru lets Kusanagi give chase until she’s hit the top of the pillar. The second she does he sends all his snakes surging off the catwalk. They swarm the pillar, slithering up it and wrapping around something solid. Sakura flickers back into view, petals nearly covering what scraps of skin she’s showing, thrashing frantically against the snakes as they wind around her. They squeeze down on her arms, legs, stomach and throat.

The snakes will smother Sakura alive. She is going to die down here, alone, in pain, and screaming.

Orochimaru swallows the sour taste at the back of his tongue; “This is no less than you deserve.”

He's not sure who he's talking to anymore.

The moon is a good half hour from being in the center of the sky, but it lights up the river well enough as Naruto and Sasuke break through the tree line on the heels of their teacher. Kakashi sprints seamlessly from land to water, only pausing to pivot around when he’s halfway across the river.

Naruto can see Sasuke grin from the corner of his eye and mutter, "Good, now I won’t cause a forest fire."

Sasuke only has to run through Horse and Tiger before taking a deep breath in and spitting out a gigantic fireball. Naruto shields the bottom of his face from the heat and aftershock of chakra, squinting to get a look at Kakashi past the flames. Kakashi isn’t even making an effort to move out of the way. His hands are flashing through hand signs too fast for Naruto to track before slapping flat on the surface of the river.

"Lesson Number Three– Ninjutsu! Water Style: Water Dragon Jutsu!"

The water glows beneath Kakashi’s hands and surges up in the shape of a roaring dragon, jetting forward to swallow the great fireball before it can reach Kakashi. Steam bursts from the dragon’s mouth like smoke, cutting off visibility, but the sound of rushing water is all Naruto needs to know that dragon is about to crash down on them like a tsunami. If it hits them it’s gonna knock them on their asses and leave Sasuke soaked. A soaked Sasuke is a Sasuke that’ll electrocute himself if he tries to use any Lightning Style.

Naruto speeds through hand signs, kneading chakra around his heart, and throws his hands out in front of himself. Out from his palms comes a powerful gust of hot wind. The steam disperses in time for Naruto to see the wind hit the water dragon head on, forcing it up and over their heads. Kakashi forms half a seal and the water immediately loses it’s shape, turning from a dragon into a formless deluge. The water sprays out and down. Naruto chokes on a swear and shifts the wind as quickly as he can to curve up and around. The wind forces the water out in a wide circle, only a fine drizzle falling onto the two of them.

Sasuke’s eyes light up with the Sharingan as he looks between Naruto and their misted surroundings; "Can you use Wind Style to launch things?"

Naruto shrugs a shoulder; "It’s pretty much the only thing I can do with it half the time."

Bolts of electricity come sparking down Sasuke’s arm, collecting in his palm; "What about people?"

Naruto grins, wide and ferocious; "Say no more!"

Naruto grabs Sasuke by the collar and the back of his shirt, pulling a yelp out of him as he swings him around in big circles. He kneads Wind chakra and pours it into his arms, releasing it in a jetstream when he throws Sasuke out over the river and sending him rocketing at Kakashi. Sasuke finds his bearings in midair and his Chidori crackles to life, lighting up the night sky as he divebombs toward Kakashi. For half a second, Naruto is sure they’ve got him.

"Earth Style! Bones of the Earth!"

Six pillars of stone burst up and out of the river. One rises up beneath Kakashi, sending him up twenty feet above the water and out of Sasuke’s reach. Another comes up right in front of Sasuke. Sasuke’s arm punches through the stone, down to his forearm, the chidori fizzling out. As Sasuke tries to wrench his arm free Naruto chews on his lower lip, frantically trying to remember what Jiraiya taught him about which chakra natures are good against which. Water beats fire, he knows that, but what beats Earth–?

Naruto’s eyes go wide and he’s immediately crossing his fingers to summon five more clones. The clones all form identical hand signs, take deep breaths, and blow out powerful gusts of air to create a wall of pure force. The wind hits the pillars and the pillars bend, then break. Kakashi is blown off his pillar, but catches himself midair and rides the wind like a gliding bird down to the water’s surface. Sasuke was much less prepared. He’s buffeted by the wind and knocked down to the water’s surface, barely giving him time to messily coat his body in chakra and land on the river instead of in it.

He grits his teeth and shouts over the sound of the raging gale, "Fucking warn me next time!"

"Sorry!" Naruto calls as he leaps up and lets the wind carry him out over the river. He was supposed to ride it until he landed right on top of Kakashi, but Kakashi forces himself up into a crouch, speeds through handsigns, and in an instant the wind is eaten alive by a gigantic wall of fire. Naruto’s clones cut off the air supply and Naruto drops like a stone, but it’s too little too late. What would’ve been a sizable flame on it’s own has become a raging inferno thanks to all the oxygen Naruto fed it, and it’s racing toward him faster than Naruto can form hand signs.

Naruto cuts the flow of chakra to his feet and drops beneath the surface of the river. He swims as low as he can before turning to look up. For a moment, the entire surface glows a bright orange as the fire rages. Then the water to Naruto’s left shifts and swirls up toward the surface and, with a distant hiss, the fire goes out. Naruto can feel the turbulence of the water being continuously pulled up toward a shadow on the surface– probably Sasuke. He has Kakashi distracted– This is the only shot Naruto’s going to get. He disperses all but one of his clones, the lucky survivor diving into the river and swimming to his side.

He holds out a hand and the clone starts shaping chakra into a tight, spinning orb in his palm. As the clone works on his Rasengan Naruto keeps an eye on the shadows above him. The water keeps churning as Sasuke keeps pulling it up, keeping Kakashi at a distance. The Rasengan is almost complete when Kakashi’s shadow disappears and a bright, crackling light bursts to life. It expands out across the entire surface of the river, dissolving down into it and not quite reaching Naruto, but getting uncomfortably close. He can’t hear much, but there’s a warbled sound that’s too close to Sasuke screaming for Naruto’s liking. His clone pulls back and fires off another gust of Wind Style, sending Naruto rocketing up and out of the river.

Naruto breaches the surface, Rasengan whirling, a few feet away from Kakashi. Sasuke is on hands and knees a few yards away, panting heavily, with skin that is either smoking or steaming. Naruto grits his teeth in a snarl and sprints straight for Kakashi, who whirls around to face him, eyes wide.

"Take this! Rasenga–!"

Naruto didn’t even see Kakashi make the hand signs. He throws out a hand and fires a whirling gyre of wind, hitting Naruto square in the chest and knocking him up and away. Naruto’s concentration on the Rasengan drops and the threads of whirling chakra unravel like a ball of yarn falling down the stairs. Kakashi whips his arm up and the wind changes direction, dragging Naruto in an arc through the air over his head. Once Naruto hits the apex of his arc Kakashi slices his arm through the air and the wind dunks Naruto down onto the surface of the river, sending Naruto bouncing and rolling directly into Sasuke.

Before Naruto can even think about getting back up Sasuke’s gloved hand has fisted itself in his collar and he’s being dragged toward the riverbank.

Naruto claws at his hand and shouts, "Hey, let go, we–!"

"We’re making a tactical retreat," Sasuke shouts, "Come on, on your feet, before he’s done!"

Naruto’s eyes dart back to Kakashi, whose hands are a blur of signs as chakra seeps out of his feet and into the river. The whole river. Naruto’s eyes go wide and he manages to pull himself up as Sasuke drags him, breaking into a sprint once he’s all the way up. Naruto and Sasuke make it to the riverbank just in time for Kakashi to pull the whole river up into a tidal wave and send it racing toward them. Thanks to their tactical retreat the worst of it doesn’t land on them, but the very edge of the wave crashing down behind them is enough to knock the two off balance and send them sprawling end over end past the tree line, back into the woods.

The two thoroughly soaked and thoroughly battered boys take a moment to cough and curse through the pain in the dirt. Sasuke is the first to get up, pulling himself to his knees and taking deep breaths. Naruto watches as, in rhythm with his breathing, Sasuke coats his very raw and slightly charred skin with a thin layer of pale cyan chakra. The angry red burns slowly start to shift back to Sasuke’s natural pallor.

Naruto props himself up on one hand and grouses, "Okay, what’s the move now? We tactically retreated but we still haven’t gotten the–"

Sasuke snaps through grit teeth, "Shut up, just– Shut up."

Naruto scowls. There, at least, is something familiar.

The second the snakes swerve away from him and Jūgo, Suigetsu leaps into action by literally leaping off the catwalk. He shifts from solid to liquid a second before he hits the surface, the force dispersing along with his body across the water’s surface. First order of business is pulling water up into his chest, using it to fill in and rebuild everything Orochimaru pierced with Kusanagi. He lets his chakra spread out through the water, expanding his senses in proportion to the scale of the reservoir. He catches sight of the snakes swarming the pillar, surging up it and dragging Sakura down.

The water lights up with his chakra as he takes hold of the reservoir. He fires a massive jet of highly pressurized water at the pillar, cutting cleanly through the mass of snakes as well as the stone beneath. The snakes lose their grip on Sakura and she goes plummeting toward the water’s surface. 

Suigetsu molds the water around his chakra, drawing it up and into a massive, blurry version of his own body. He catches Sakura with one gigantic, wet hand. She sinks into his palm and has to doggy paddle to keep her head above water. Suigetsu balls his other hand into a fist the size of a boulder and slams it down on the catwalk, missing Orochimaru and Jūgo by an inch and punching straight through the catwalk. Orochimaru backpedals away from the gap and Jūgo leaps easily over it, charging after Orochimaru. Suigetsu is about to try asking Sakura what the move is when, out of the corner of his eye, he catches her taking a deep breath and dropping down into his hand.

The feeling of someone swimming through his arm, across his chest, and down his other arm is going to haunt Suigetsu's dreams for at least a week. Sakura comes bursting out of the back of his fist, kicks off the wall, and lands a yard away from Orochimaru. She runs through Horse and Tiger and rolls to press her palms to the stone of the catwalk, lime green chakra flowing into the stone catwalk below Orochimaru's feet. It breaks apart into jagged chunks beneath him, but Orochimaru is still faster than her.

Chakra surges down into his feet and he sprints across the breaking ground, leaping onto one of the larger pipes. Suigetsu reaches out and grabs the pipe as easily as he'd grab the hilt of a sword. He tears it out of the wall, a chunk of the wall coming with it. Orochimaru isn't thrown by the sudden movement, running along the pipe and leaping onto the water pump it had been attached to.

Orochimaru drops to one knee atop the water pump and points a finger like a pistol at Suigetsu. A bright, impossibly tiny pinprick of chakra gathers on the tip of his finger. He fires off the bead of chakra at Suigetsu’s chest, hitting the target Suigetsu so graciously made bigger for him. Suigetsu doesn’t even have time to regret it. The second the bead of chakra hits it bursts outward into a massive ball of lightning, the electricity coursing through Suigetsu’s body. 

He can’t even hear himself scream. He’s being burned alive from the inside out, reservoir water sloughing off him like fat off the bone. The world goes white. All he can feel is the pain and the rush of wind as his body falls with the rest of the water. Something hits him from the side and his momentum suddenly changes direction, sideways rather than forward. The distant sounds of battle are overwhelmed by the sound of rapid wingbeats, right in his ear. The world starts to fade back in, and Suigetsu is treated to the blurry image of Sakura, up close and fully transformed. He takes a bleary look around to find himself flying away from Orochimaru, slaloming around the columns in the reservoir. Sakura must be carrying him.

He shuts his eyes and mutters, "I'm gonna get airsick and throw up all over you, I hope you know that."

"Throw up on me later," Sakura snarls, twirling around in midair to look back toward Orochimaru and Jūgo, "I need you back in the game now."

Suigetsu's eyes are drawn over to the catwalk by a loud woosh. Jūgo is knocked back by a massive gust of wind, rolling to a stop at the edge of one of the breaks in the catwalk. He leaps to his feet and points his stump at Orochimaru, the end shifting into one of his boosters and firing a blast of compressed air at Orochimaru. Orochimaru's hands dart through signs and he conjures another pinprick of chakra, this time right in front of his chest. The compressed air hits the bead of chakra and it expands into a massive fireball. Orochimaru sends it flying back at Jūgo, hitting him in the chest and knocking him off the edge of the catwalk. Jūgo's reflexes are quick, his arm shifting into a long, almost spine-like appendage that stretches for the catwalk and buries it's pointed tip in the stone. He retracts it, quickly pulling himself back, and capitalizes on his momentum by pointing the booster behind himself and firing down at the water. The force of the blast sends him rocketing at Orochimaru, and Jūgo whips his other appendage toward his throat.

Orochimaru flies through Tiger Ox Dog Rabbit Snake, takes a deep breath in, and breathes out a whirlwind powerful enough to send Jūgo flying end over end across the room. He slams back-first into the opposite wall, the stone cracking with the impact. His head smacks against the stone and his body goes limp, his limbs shifting back to normal and the dark patches of his skin receding. Sakura's breath hitches on a gasp. Suigetsu quickly looks between her and Jūgo before pushing off her chest and rolling out of her arms, falling down toward the water.

He only has a second to hear Sakura shout, "What the fuck are you–?!" and call back his own, "Don't worry about me get hi–!" before he hits the water.

He liquefies and spins his chakra down through the water, then pulls it all back up into a massive waterspout. He whirls across the surface of the reservoir, breaking clean through the pillars in his way. The moment he comes close to the catwalk he releases his grip, the water losing it's shape and collapsing directly on top of Orochimaru. The force knocks the old snake off the water pump and back down to what remains of the catwalk. Suigetsu is thrown from the waterspout directly at Orochimaru.

The katana and wakizashi are long gone, lost to the depths of the reservoir, but when Suigetsu can't find a sword he can always make one. He shifts his right arm into a watery blade and plunges down toward Orochimaru, stabbing for his throat. Orochimaru dodges a second too soon for Suigetsu to hit his target but too late for him to miss entirely. He knocks Orochimaru to the ground, the water blade burying itself in the stone next to his head. He doesn't have time to pull it out and try again. Orochimaru's hand shoots up and buries itself in Suigetsu's liquid arm. Lightning flares to life around Orochimaru's hand and burns through Suigetsu's body, forcing another cry out of him and rattling his body like he's stuck in a pachinko machine.

Orochimaru pushes against Suigetsu, forcing him back and bringing himself up. He keeps his lightning-coated hand buried deep in his arm, grin growing all the wider as Suigetsu starts to lose his solid form and shift into something almost gelatinous. The second before Suigetsu's vision can white out for a second time, there's another roar and a blast of compressed air hits Orochimaru in the side. He goes whirling off of Suigetsu, bouncing and rolling along the catwalk and skidding to a halt near the edge. Suigetsu pulls himself up to one knee, just in time for Jūgo to step in between him and Orochimaru.

Jūgo gnashes his teeth and snarls, "Nobody kills the wet one but me!"

Suigetsu pulls more of himself together, chuckling weakly through his teeth, "At least you didn't call me the moist one."

Orochimaru leaps to his feet just in time for Sakura to come flying down from the ceiling. He meets her in the air with a kunai. The image of Sakura immediately bursts into petals and another comes falling down on the other side to replace her. Another kunai, another burst of petals, and in an instant the chamber is full of Sakuras. Each one Orochimaru hits bursts into petals, dissolves into water, explodes in a puff of white smoke, or melts into mud. There are almost more petals in the air than oxygen molecules at this rate. Orochimaru snarls something under his breath and, with a flick of his wrist, Kusanagi comes flying down from the ceiling to cover his back, slicing through the clones and Petal Illusions harrying him from behind.

Deep within the cloud of petals, within the crowd of identical Sakuras, Suigetsu picks out one that isn't just running at Orochimaru like it has a death wish. She's running through hand signs, and it's a fucking long sequence for being in the middle of the fight. What even is she– Ram Tiger Snake Dog Rat Ox Horse Rabbit Tiger Boar Snake what jutsu even is–

A Practice Brick wall bursts up from the ground directly in front of Orochimaru and smacks right into his chin. You could hear the sound of his teeth clacking together all the way up on the surface. His eyes go out of focus and he staggers to one side. Kusanagi immediately falls out of the air, landing with a clatter on the stone ground. Oh fuck. Oh fuck. Oh fuck now's his chance.

Suigetsu leaps into a sprint. His vision tunnels, the world narrowing down to a single point: Kusanagi. He drops into a roll a foot away from it, grabbing it off the ground mid-roll and coming back up into a drifting run. Orochimaru's back is turned. He's focused on Sakura. Now. Now now now now. Suigetsu shoves all the chakra he has left down into his legs and fires himself like an arrow from a bow at Orochimaru. He thrusts Kusanagi out and up, piercing through Orochimaru's chest from behind and not stopping until the hilt hits his back.

Orochimaru goes still. His body sags, the strength leaving his legs. Kusanagi through his chest is the only thing keeping him upright. Suigetsu can't believe it's over. He can't. He won't.

And he's right not to. Orochimaru's torso bulges and ripples until the flesh splits. The body explodes, forcing Suigetsu to cover his eyes to keep the blood out of them. There's a massive, meaty thump and a hiss that overpowers Sakura and Jūgo's horrified gasps. Suigetsu brings his arm down and his stomach lurches.

The… thing looming over them now… It has to be Orochimaru, but it’s– It’s body is a writhing mass of white snakes, hundreds of scales rasping against each other to create a sound like television static. It’s easily twice the size of Orochimaru, how the Hell that thing was hiding inside his body is a question Suigetsu doesn’t want answered. It’s head almost looks human, with shaggy hair, a pointed chin, scales for skin and several rows of sharp teeth.

It can’t be Orochimaru. It can’t. But it’s eyes are bright, burning gold, and glaring down at the three of them with nothing but contempt. Suigetsu sees those eyes in his nightmares. There’s no one else it can be.

He shifts a foot back towards the reservoir; “Did you get the signal yet?”

Sakura slowly shakes her head; “I… I didn’t…”

Suigetsu’s pulse jumps, and his voice comes out in a yelp; “So? What’s the plan?!”

Sakura stares at the creature for a heartbeat longer before she cries out, “ SCATTER!

She doesn’t need to tell him twice. Suigetsu steps backward off the catwalk and is liquid before he hits the reservoir’s surface. He races through the water, into one of the intact pipes, and is gone.

The moon is at it's zenith, and Gaara has been flipping through the same three pages of this fifty page report for the past ten minutes.

His desk is stacked high with documents, many more urgent and more deserving of his attention, but something about Yura's report on village security just wouldn't let him put it down. All his proposals in the council chambers and the measures Gaara had seen in practice had seemed both reasonable and prudent. The nagging sense of unease had seemed to have no origin. If he were anyone else, if these measures were being reported by anyone else, Gaara would have chalked it up to nerves. After all, these security measures are only necessary because the Akatsuki are targeting him. Specifically. That would be enough to make anyone paranoid.

But Gaara is still the Sand Village's captive monster. Yura is still a man who speaks his name to his face and spits it behind his back. Of course his security measures would seem reasonable and prudent and entirely in the Kazekage's best interest, but the devil would be in the details.

And after reading and rereading this security report in varying amounts of detail on and off throughout the day, Gaara is almost certain he's found that devil.

Because for all Yura has fortified the village walls, for all he's called back skilled jōnin, for all he's kept genin on domestic D and C ranks to consolidate manpower, there is one hole. No one is watching the sky.

There are a few sentries within the village's walls keeping an eye out, and they do have ballistae on the walls and the taller buildings, but they aren't nearly enough. Not for the Land of Wind. Not for a country of wide open desert and wider skies. Their Nightjar Corps, the Fan Corps, and the Falconer Corps are scattered, the bulk of their manpower on assignments outside the village. Yura in his report chalks this up to assignments made before they learned of the Akatsuki.

Unlikely at best, untrue at worst.

Incredibly convenient, regardless– Temari is out of the village. As their puppetteers and saboteurs belong to Kankuro, the airborne divisions are Temari's children. When she's here, she has the final say over where they go and what they do. She would never leave the sky unprotected, especially not the sky above the village. She better than anyone would know how easy it could be to invade the village from above.

A darting white spot in the corner of his vision draws Gaara's eye to the window.

Flying over the rooftops of the Sand Village, stark white in the light of the full moon, is a bird. An absolutely massive bird. The only birds he's seen that match it are Falconer Corps summons, but not one of those birds is as white as the driven snow, white enough to glow under the light of the moon. It flies strangely, its movements too smooth, too perfect. Like the platonic ideal of a bird.

There are no birds like that one in this desert.

Gaara stands from his desk and immediately doffs his Kazekage robes to reveal the combat fatigues beneath. He straps his gourd to his back and makes for the roof to confront the intruder. Once he's done, Yura has some explaining to do.

Chapter Text

III. It’s midnight, and Sasuke has been pacing in circles for at least two minutes.

Naruto, from his seat on the ground with his back leaning against a tree, grouses, "You’re gonna kill all that grass, you know."

Sasuke’s eyes slam shut and sparks dance across his fingers as he snaps, "For the love of– Naruto, we need a strategy. If you’re not gonna say anything helpful, just be quiet."

Naruto rolls his eyes; "Well good luck, because I’ve used up all my good ideas… I mean, besides maybe threatening to spoil the Icha Icha book I gave him. That might make him close his eyes and cover his ears or something."

Sasuke pinches the bridge of his nose; "I don’t think there are enough hours in the day for me to explain how stupid an idea that is."

"Yeah, dude, that was the joke," Naruto shoots back, "You really think I’m that dumb?"

Sasuke’s mouth quickly opens and shuts. They both know what he was going to say. Naruto just narrows his eyes in a glare and Sasuke looks away. The night is quiet and still, the air between them stifling.

Sasuke runs a hand through his hair with an exasperated breath through his nose; "This is just… frustrating. I know if we were going up against him in a straight fight we could probably take him out, but…"

Naruto lets his head drop back against the trunk and groans, "No, we have to get those stupid bells."

He glares at what he can see of the night sky through the trees. At least this isn’t going as bad as their first attempt at the test. All he’d had was confidence, with next to no skill to back it up. Sasuke had skill and confidence but no practical experience in battle. And Sakura… Well, Sakura had contributed about as much as she’s contributing right now. At least now they don’t have to worry about who’s going to be sent back to the academy because they couldn’t get their hands on a bell.

Naruto’s brow slowly furrows, and he wonders aloud, "Wait a minute, why do we have to get those stupid bells?"

Sasuke rolls his eyes; "It’s a lesson in teamwork–"

Naruto cuts him off; "Well yeah, we learned that the hard way, but think about it. Back when we took this test the first time Kakashi was trying to hammer home that you have to put your teammates first, right? Like that’s why there were two bells but three of us, and all that drama about you guys not being allowed to feed me so you’d be forced to show if you cared more about the rules than your teammates. The test is made to test teams of three. But there’s only two of us, and it’s basically the same."

Sasuke perks up, a hand going to his chin; "It’s actually easier. Two bells, two of us. We were allowed to eat before the test, and there’s no soft time limit halfway through where anyone without a bell is forced to miss lunch. Why wouldn’t they tweak the test to suit two people or put additional handicaps on us? Like this, it might as well just be a combat test with an extra hurdle."

Naruto frowns hard at the dirt as he turns the question over in his head. That’s true on paper, but if it’s really as easy as Sasuke’s saying, they should’ve gotten those bells hours ago. At their best, he and Sasuke used to have an unspoken rhythm when they fought together. Naruto only needed a glance at where Sasuke was on the battlefield to know where to go and what to do. And there have been moments during this test where everything clicks into place and it’s like their last fight together was yesterday instead of two years ago.

But the rest of the time, it’s like they’re trying to dance to two different songs. Worse still, Naruto’s dancing to a song Sasuke forgot, and Sasuke’s performing an elaborate routine he practiced with another partner. And neither of them are all that great at communicating off the battlefield, so they’re even worse on it. How many times have they silently agreed not to talk about something in the last twenty four hours? It feels like at least fifty. Why does their worst shared habit have to be the thing that’s survived two years of separation and countless instances of that exact thing blowing up in their faces? He thought things would get better after that fight when they were trying to convince Tsunade to come back to the village, but nearly killing each other apparently isn’t enough–

Naruto’s eyes go wide. That’s what they’re testing for! It has to be! Kakashi, Tsunade, Shizune, Jiraiya, they all know this is what happens when he and Sasuke are pushed to their limit! But… they could still be pushing harder. It would be even easier for him and Sasuke to lose focus on Kakashi and start fighting each other if they were hungry and fighting under harsher conditions. Jiraiya never went easy on him during these past two years. Tsunade never goes easy on anyone.

But Tsunade said the test was of Kakashi’s design. Kakashi, whose soft spot for his students has always been a bigger blind spot than the eye he keeps covered. Who’s been living with his favorite pupil for two years. Who signed the three of them up for a test even Naruto can admit, in hindsight, they probably should’ve waited another six months for because he was sure they were ready for it.

He wants them to pass. He’s setting them up for success, but not just handing it to them. It’s brilliant.

And it’s exploitable.

Naruto’s face splits into a mischievous grin; "I’ve got a plan."

Sasuke arches a brow, but is down on his haunches, whispering, "Alright, let’s hear it," in an instant.

Naruto tells him the plan.

Sasuke stares at him for a long moment, then chuckles through his teeth, "You really are the Number One, Unpredictable, Knucklehead Ninja. I’m in."

Sakura has to imagine this is what Orochimaru’s lab rats in his horrifying mazes feel like as she flies around a corner, the sound of ivory snakes slithering over and around each other dogging her trail. She compulsively drops Petal Illusions in her wake, the illusions zipping along her previous course while she wheels down a hallway or cuts through a room. She’s starting to lose track of what floor she’s on, what direction she’s going, if the snakes are even still after her. A bad sign. A really bad sign. A sign she’s been in this cursed form too long. She has to end this and end it fast, but how does she fight that thing?! She’d suspected that something more monstrous lurked beneath Orochimaru’s skin, but nothing like this, nothing on this scale. Maybe the plan can still work, but she still doesn’t know–

The combination of a pipe bursting above her head and stomping footsteps from around the next bend in the hall make Sakura move on instinct. She yelps out a foul word and has senbon between her fingers in the blink of an eye, throwing them twice as fast. Two fly harmlessly through water and the other two hit metallic flesh formed into an axe-like blade.

"Sea and goddamn fucking sky, Sakura," Suigetsu snarls, body pulling together from the jet of water still spraying from the pipe, "Watch where you’re pointing those things!"

Sakura stares ahead, slowing her wingbeats and dropping back to her feet. It certainly looks like Suigetsu and Jūgo are standing in front of her, Kusanagi still firmly in Suigetsu’s grip and Jūgo slowly getting drenched thanks to Suigetsu’s dramatic entrance. But she knows better than anyone how treacherous images can be.

She draws two more senbon from her obi and points them at the boys, voice shaking as she snaps, "The password. Now. Every word of it."

Suigetsu and Jūgo slowly exchange glances before both look up and away, mumbling such elegant recitations as "Uh… fuckin’… We thrive in… somethin’…" and "There’s… the word 'gate' in there–"

Suigetsu slaps a hand to his forehead as he groans, "Of course I don’t fuckin’ remember it!"

Jūgo grits his teeth tight before roaring, "Enough! We should be killing Orochimaru! Cutting up every last one of those snakes until this whole base is painted scarlet!"

Jūgo swings the axe replacing his severed hand at Sakura and Suigetsu effortlessly brings Kusanagi up to parry, knocking it away. The axe blade buries itself in the wall a foot above her head. Sakura can’t help a smirk. Just as she thought, there’s no way either of them would have the patience for that password. She’ll need to thank Sasuke one day for inadvertently teaching her that trick during the Second Exam.

"Okay," she breathes, stowing her senbon, "You’re definitely the real thing. Now, it’s obvious that we’re… not in a great spot right now."

"Fuck yeah we’re not," Suigetsu cuts in, "Did you even know that he did… that to himself?! What the fuck did he even– How the Hell do you replace your whole body with snakes?!"

Sakura shakes her head; "No idea, but we have to work with what we’re given."

"Screw that, we need to get out of here," Suigetsu fires back, "We don’t stand a chance against that thing, we need to regroup and try again later."

Jūgo saves Sakura the trouble of voicing her own thoughts; "No! We gotta kill him, gotta kill him now! I’m not gonna rest until I’ve torn him to pieces!"

Sakura takes a breath, then adds, "Speaking from practicality, if we ran, that just gives Orochimaru time to rally his forces and send them after us. And our plan can still work, but that’s going to depend on Zhàdàn and Kabuto."

"Speaking from experience, relying on Kabuto’s always a fucking trap," Suigetsu spits, "And relying on Zhàdàn was your biggest mistake back in the Earth Country mountains! Face it, Sakura, we gotta fall back on Plans B through Literally Anything Else, because Plan A’s fucked six ways from Sunday!"

Sakura’s voice comes out in a growl; "Trust me, you don't want to be a part of Plan B–"

A puff of white smoke bursts into being above Sakura’s head. A snake, a delicate little garter with pale green stripes breaking up her black body, falls from the cloud. Sakura catches her out of the air as Suigetsu brandishes Kusanagi and Jūgo makes ready to swing.

The little snake winds tight around Sakura’s wrist and whispers, "M-mistress Sakura, I– I am– Master Kabuto has sent me here with a message. He says, 'The coop is empty and the traps are set for the fox'."

Sakura’s mouth goes dry, and she rasps with a sandpaper tongue, "I… I see. Thank you, Nino. You’re free to return to Ryūchi Cave."

She quickly does, disappearing as abruptly as she appeared. Sakura’s hand slowly curls into a tight fist.

She looks Suigetsu and Jūgo in the eye and orders, "Go. Get topside as fast as you can."

Suigetsu purses his lips, running a hand through damp hair; "You’re really staying down here, huh?"

Sakura shrugs a shoulder; "Someone has to light the fuses."

Jūgo points a clawed finger at her throat and snarls, "If you don’t make it out of here, I’m going to dig you up and tear your corpse to shreds."

Sakura’s laugh is weak and breathless; "I would expect nothing less."

The two boys turn and start sprinting away, both sparing her a lingering glance over their shoulders before they disappear from sight. The sight of them looking back at her in guarded, cautious concern makes something in her gut twist. She closes her eyes and shoves a hard breath out through her nose. She lets her wings pick her up off the ground and shoots off down the corridor.

It’s time to get back to work.

Kakashi watches from a safe distance as Sasuke and Naruto chase after a clone, keeping pace with them as quietly as he can. A shinobi has to carefully weigh speed versus stealth, and right now the boys are forcing him to err on the side of speed. Even after hours of fierce battle they’re still putting him through his paces. That, at least, is a good sign. Now, if only they could actually get their hands on a bell.

Naruto and Sasuke force the clone out into the open, cornering it between the three posts and the memorial stone. The two of them leap into action, engaging the clone in another tense taijutsu bout. Kakashi’s eyes narrow, focusing on Sasuke and Naruto. They’re starting to get sloppy. Sasuke’s taking as many hits as he lands, and what few signs there are that Naruto’s not just acting on feral instinct are ebbing away in favor of more cheap shots and wild swings. Worse than that, their performance back at the river seemed to be a preview of coming attractions, because now they’re tripping over each other’s feet and getting in each other’s way instead of seamlessly fighting in sync.

Kakashi bites the inside of his cheek. Damn it. A long night of fighting can grind anyone down, he supposes, but this is… concerning.

A lucky palm thrust from Sasuke disperses the clone, prompting Naruto to throw his head back and groan, "Come on! We wasted all this time on a clone?! What good is that Sharingan if you can’t tell a clone from the real thing?!"

Sasuke shoots a piercing glare over his shoulder at Naruto; "I’m not going to explain how this works for the hundredth time. Get your head out of your ass and back in the game."

"Oh, you’re telling me to get my head out of my ass, that’s fuckin’ rich," Naruto scoffs, "You haven’t changed a bit, you know that?"

Sasuke rolls his eyes, adjusting his gloves; "Pot, meet kettle. I don’t know why I expected you to do any growing up when you spent the last two years with a manchild and a bunch of frogs."

Kakashi drags a hand down his face, stifling a sigh. This was coming sooner or later, he supposes. Nothing for it but to wait and see if they’ve matured enough to solve this themselves.

Naruto takes Sasuke by the shoulder and forcefully turns him around, getting up in his face and growling, "Hey! Do not talk shit about Jiraiya!"

Sasuke doesn’t even flinch, just sneering, "Oh, so you’re allowed to talk merciless shit about both of my teachers, but I can’t speak the truth about yours. I see how it is."

Naruto bares his teeth in a snarl; "It doesn’t matter how much training I do, does it?! You still think you’re better than me, you stuck up jackass!"

Sasuke lifts his chin, literally looking down his nose at Naruto; "I know I’m still better than you. Those two years away were a waste of your time. You were dead last before you left, you’re dead last now."

Naruto’s grip tightens on Sasuke’s shoulder, his claws digging into his skin; "Call me dead last one more time. Come on. I fucking dare you."

Kakashi squeezes his eyes shut and mutters, "Sasuke, don’t–"

He opens his eyes to see Sasuke lean in and spit, "Dead. Fucking. Last."

God damn it.


Naruto rears back and slashes for Sasuke’s eyes. Sasuke throws a punch at Naruto’s throat. Neither connect. Kakashi bursts out of the trees and is between them in the blink of an eye, effortlessly catching Naruto’s wrist and Sasuke’s fist.

"That is enough," Kakashi snaps, "You’ve shown me all I need to see. I’m disappointed in both of you, but I’m especially disappointed in you, Sasuke. I thought we were past this–"

Whatever he was about to say next dies in his throat when he notices the smirk spreading across Sasuke’s face. Kakashi’s eyes flicker over to Naruto and find an identical smirk. Both of their bodies start to undulate, rippling and twisting and bulging unnaturally. Kakashi doesn’t get a moment to brace himself before Naruto and Sasuke explode, their skin bursting like water balloons, but it isn’t water that comes bursting out of them.

It’s frogs.

And slugs.

Dozens and dozens of frogs and slugs, each the size of Kakashi’s fist.

Kakashi can’t help the undignified yelp that comes sprinting up and out of his mouth. The frogs come surging up his right arm and the slugs ooze up his left, both moving far quicker than natural and with absolutely too much purpose. Sticky, slimy, wriggling forms cover his eyes and ears. He can feel the mucus oozing into his ears, spreading across his skin, seeping through his mask and getting into his mouth. The slug slime from the many tiny Katsuyu fragments tingles as it spreads across his skin, everywhere it touches quickly going numb.

It’s like being submerged in mud. Mud that’s alive.

Before he can come up with a strategy to get the horrible slimy things off, one of the slugs wriggles it’s way beneath the edge of his mask. Oh God, it’s going for his mouth. Kakashi loses the last threads of his composure. With a high-pitched shriek, he collapses to the ground, everything going dark.

There’s no hiding from Orochimaru. Not now. Not anymore. This is his domain. And in this form, with his body split into dozens of snakes, he chases down all of Sakura’s clever little clones and illusions at once. In this form, he can feel the vibrations of her wings as they bounce off the tunnel walls. He can smell her fear, and the chakra she’s using to cover it. Oh, if only he could savor this chase. If only he could play with his food a little longer before he had to swallow it whole. But Sakura is moving with purpose. He has to end this, and end it now.

He chases down her doppelgängers and shields, bursting and dispersing them all, forcing Sakura to move the way he wants her to. He chases her up from the third layer, down from the first, and out of all the little nooks and crannies in the second layer. He cuts off hallway after hallway, forcing her to make sharp turns, somersault through the air, dip and dive and twirl out of his reach. He’ll run her until her wings can’t keep her aloft anymore.

He cackles though his many mouths, "Fly away home, little flower, fly fly fly!"

He finally corners her, two pieces of his body chasing her toward one of the support pillars holding up the second layer’s ceiling before coming together again. And like any cornered rat, Sakura has no choice but to bite the cat. Sakura whirls around in midair, hands flashing through signs before she brings them up to her mouth and takes a deep breath. She spits out a storm of little flames, each no larger than the pad of a thumb. Orochimaru’s body parts around the flames, the beads of fire going straight through him and hitting the support pillar. Sakura zips through the air, flying in zigs and zags just out of his reach, faking left and flying right as he lashes out for her with his jaws.

A cluster of snakes break off from the whole, slithering up along the wall and launching off it to hit Sakura’s right flank. The impact kills her momentum, allowing Orochimaru’s body to surge up and absorb the piece back into the whole. His body constricts around her, squeezing down until Sakura’s gray skin starts to turn red. Her eyes keep darting up to the top of the support pillar as she struggles. Orochimaru follows her gaze. Hidden in the darkness, marked only by a spark moving rapidly towards it, is a satchel tied by cord to where the pillar meets the ceiling. A rope, a quickly burning rope, is sticking out of the top of the satchel.

It’s a satchel charge, filled to bursting with black powder. She must have lit it with that fire jutsu she threw at him before. Something cold and sharp jolts through his heart.

He turns his glare back to Sakura and hisses, "Where are the others?!"

Sakura forces a grin and just replies, "Where do you think?"

There’s a muffled boom! The ground beneath them rocks and shakes. Orochimaru doesn’t have time to catch his balance when there’s another boom, this one rocking the base hard enough to knock stalactites off the ceiling. The shock of the explosions breaks his grip on Sakura, letting her dart up toward the ceiling. She doesn’t even need hand signs for Hidden Mole Jutsu anymore, Earth chakra simply pulsing off her in a wave of green and the stone immediately yielding to her touch. She bores a hole straight up, and before Orochimaru can follow the satchel charge explodes in a blast of fire and force. The pillar crumbles and the ceiling goes with it, caving in on top of him.

He’s too slow to disperse his snakes, two large chunks of stone landing directly on him before he can. One hits his skull, forcing an eye shut, and the other his back, breaking dozens of serpentine spines. He works through the pain, splitting the living components of his body and slithering up through the rubble. He kneads Earth chakra and covers himself in it, grinding the broken rock around him into fine sand. Even split up like this he doesn’t move as fast as he’d like, and the instant he makes it to the first layer of the hideout is the instant the ceiling comes crashing down with the force of yet another explosion.

Orochimaru avoids the worst of it this time around, quickly retreating back into the tunnel he’d carved for himself. Dozens of ceiling fragments come raining down into the tunnel, battering him like a thousand tiny fists. He grits his teeth and keeps digging, forcing himself ever upward. Even when it’s falling to pieces around him (everything he built everything he ever made it’s slipping through his fingers literally crumbling to dust) Orochimaru knows his base better than anyone else. He knows he’s almost at the surface. He pulls his body together, using the full strength of this massive form to make the final push to the surface. He just needs to keep going, keep moving, he’s going to breach the surface in three, two, one.

He breaks through the ground into bright moonlight.

"And fire!"

Pain explodes across his left flank, fire and smoke filling his vision. All Orochimaru can smell is sulfur and blood. The rapid concussive blasts are forcing him to the right but he uses all his strength to turn his head toward the source of his pain.

Civilians. There’s a rabble of skinny and filthy civilians, each and every one of them firing mortars, rifles, cannons, and all manner of artillery weapons directly at him. They’re in a tight formation of staggered rows, and at the back are the last of Sakura’s accomplices. Huǒ Zhàdàn, the powdermonger, has crawled out of his hole in No Man’s Land to play commander. Orochimaru can hear him shouting orders to the rabble, giving nonverbal signals with his one remaining arm. When the front line runs out of ammunition, he directs the line just behind them to move forward and keep up the pressure.

And in the very back, calm despite the storm raging around him, is Kabuto. He stands with one hand on his hip and the other giving silent commands to the newly freed prisoners. They rush on and off of a pair of sturdy wagons, rolling barrels of black powder to the peasants to reload their weapons. Orochimaru grits his rows and rows of teeth. He can handle the pain, he needs to handle the pain for just a little longer. Just long enough for this trump card to turn on them.

The more shots they land, the more of his blood comes bursting out, only to evaporate. Orochimaru’s eyes zero in on the center of the front line, where an older woman with a scar on her temple suddenly seizes up. Her jaw locks, her fingers close around her rifle, and in an instant she’s all but frozen. The two peasants on either side of her quickly follow suit, and the ranks around them start to shift and burble with shock at the hole in their bombardment.

Zhàdàn’s eyes go wide and he shouts to Kabuto, "What the Hell is he doing?!"

Kabuto’s brow furrows as he calls back, "His blood in this form vaporizes on contact with the air! Fall back, if you breathe it in you’ll be paralyzed!"

The civilians and prisoners follow his order, but they’re not soldiers. They weren’t trained in how to fight and retreat at the same time. There’s an opening in their offensive line, one Orochimaru races straight for. He’s going to break their formation clean in half. Wherever Sakura is, the sacrifice of these innocents she dragged into battle against him will definitely ferret her out–

A feral roar sounds from behind one of the black powder carts. The cart jerks, jostles, and lifts off the ground. Orochimaru only catches a glimpse of Jūgo, holding the whole cart up an arm transfigured to be twice as muscular and covered in vents, before he throws the whole thing directly at him. Kabuto reaches into his weapon pouch and flings a kunai with an explosive tag attached to it on the cart’s heels. The cartful of black powder barrels smashes into Orochimaru. The kunai hits the cart, the explosive tag going off and starting a chain reaction through the black powder barrels. The explosion is bright enough to blind. Orochimaru can’t rely on his discipline and training anymore, letting loose a howl that sounds over the explosion.

There’s a silver lining, if only for a moment. The force of the explosion sends wooden shrapnel flying all across the battlefield, digging into the flesh of the unarmored civilians and knocking them to the ground. Yet more of his blood vaporizes in the air, blowing on the force of the blast to paralyze all but the back line. The moment passes when Suigetsu comes sprinting through the battlefield, a scrap torn from his shirt hastily tied around the bottom of his face. He skids to a halt at the front line, making hand signs with one hand and brandishing Kusanagi with the other. The blade glows with foreign blue chakra. Suigetsu takes the hilt in both hands, and swings.

What comes from the blade is a massive wave, following the trajectory of Suigetsu’s swing. The wave crashes into Orochimaru, knocking him back from the front line and stealing back all the distance he gained. Suigetsu raises Kusanagi’s blade straight up, the moonlight glinting off the steel. Sakura shoots up from behind the remaining cart, flying higher and higher until she’s yards above Orochimaru. She points a finger directly at his head and pulls back with her other arm, green chakra forming into a bow and an arrow with flower petals for fletchings.

She lets the arrow loose with a fierce cry of, "Hama ya!"

Time seems to slow as Orochimaru watches the arrow fly for him. He sees Sakura’s gray skin, white hair, and delicate wings all recede. Her eyes roll back, and she immediately starts plummeting to the ground. As the arrow comes closer, within the blaze of chakra Orochimaru can see a sharp, dark branch with delicate pink flowers blooming at it’s end.

He lets his eyes slide shut an instant before the arrow pierces his mouth.

And everything goes dark.

Kakashi is brought back to the world by the sound of jingling bells.

He pries his eyes open. Naruto and Sasuke are standing over him, each with a bell in hand and a slimy creature perched on their shoulder. Both of them are wearing insufferable smirks, but he can’t say they don’t deserve to feel smug right now. He eases himself up into a sitting position, pulling his headband back down over his Sharingan and smiling wearily behind his mask.

"Alright," he sighs, "You got me. That was an impressively dirty trick."

"Which part," Sasuke wonders, "The frog and slug clones, or the fake fight?"

"Personally I’m proud of the clones," Naruto remarks, puffing out his chest, "Some of my best work yet, believe it!"

The toad on his shoulder lets out a loud croak, as if it agrees. The small Katsuyu on Sasuke’s shoulder seems to find the act of slowly crawling into his hair much more interesting than their conversation. Kakashi shivers as the cool breeze hits just a bit colder, what with all the toad and slug slime covering his skin and soaking into his clothes.

"The fake fight," Kakashi replies, running a hand through his slightly sticky hair, "You’re both far better actors than I gave you credit for. With a little more polish, you two could be scary."

Naruto and Sasuke trade grins and bump fists. A dull, warm ache throbs through Kakashi’s chest. They really are growing up right before his eyes. Was it really only two (nearly three) years ago that Naruto had been tied up to the very posts he’s standing in front of, with Sasuke offering him his lunch and making excuses for it? A part of him, not as tiny nor as distant as Kakashi pretends, can’t help but wonder if this could have been him and Obito.

"A strong showing," a familiar voice cuts in over the sound of crunching undergrowth, "But on the downside, I now owe Jiraiya a hundred ryo."

All eyes turn to the trees just behind the memorial stone. Tsunade makes her entrance first, Jiraiya a few paces behind, but both are quickly overtaken by Shizune. She sprints over to the boys with an excited squeal and throws her arms around them both. Tonton trots in circles around their feet, oinking merrily. Naruto’s eyes go impressively wide and his face impressively red. Sasuke endures Shizune’s affection with his usual light flush and subtle smile, bringing an arm up to pat her back.

Kakashi pushes up to his feet, shooting Tsunade an amused glance over his shoulder; "What were you betting on?"

Jiraiya cracks a smirk; "How long it’d take for them to pass. Tsunade thought it’d go down to the wire."

"Well, at least you bet on us almost failing instead of just failing outright," Sasuke snorts, carefully extracting himself from Shizune’s embrace, "You said this test would determine our future status. What’s the verdict, Ma’am?"

Tsunade crosses her arms over her chest, lips quirking up in a smile; "I did say that, didn’t I? Well then, in light of your performance, Naruto, Sasuke, Kakashi, for the foreseeable future the three of you will be taking missions together– Not as students and teacher, but as a team of shinobi on equal footing. For clarity and because I’m uncreative, your designation will be Team Kakashi."

Tsunade shifts her eyes to Naruto, adding, "And for you, Mister, the test isn’t over. Since Sasuke is an experienced chūnin and Kakashi a seasoned jōnin, you’ll be participating in missions of higher stakes and scale than you’re used to. Depending on how well you do on these missions, I may be able to get a special dispensation to promote you to chūnin without having to take the exams."

Naruto’s eyes light up, but Tsunade cuts him off, jabbing a sharp fingernail in his face; "I’d have to go through the council for that, and they’re crusty old bastards always trying to find the tiniest flaws in my proposals to argue over for hours. Your work better be so exemplary they can’t tell me shit. Don’t disappoint me, Uzumaki."

Naruto blinks rapidly, but grins wide and folds his arms behind his head and crows, "No sweat! Just you watch, Grandma, I'm gonna blow you away– believe it!"

The conversation falls into casual small talk about what to do for dinner when ninety percent of the shops are closed, and Kakashi looks on wistfully. He knows he should be seeing himself out, after all he was just informed he has team registration paperwork to do, but he wants to savor this moment for just a little longer.

"I hope you’d be proud of them," Kakashi murmurs to all the people who aren’t here, but should be.

Sakura is brought back to the world by Jūgo softly jostling her and whispering her name. She curls closer to the heavy, solid warmth at her side. She can feel her hands shaking, and is just so, so cold. But she has to get up. People are counting on her.

Opening her eyes feels like trying to pull a pair of magnets apart. When she finally gets them as open as they’re going to get, she takes blurry stock of her surroundings. She can see the edges of trees framing the night sky and the not-quite-full moon. She can see Jūgo, directly above her. From the angle, she has to imagine she’s being cradled in his arms. It takes her longer than she’d like to remember why that would be. He has to have caught her, right after she fell out of the sky. He’s reverted back to his normal state and his eyes, two parts concerned one part awed, keep flickering between her and something just past her.

The rest of her allies are nearby. Suigetsu and Zhàdàn are the closest, Suigetsu kneeling at Jūgo’s side and Zhàdàn standing over him. Suigetsu and Zhàdàn are close to her, close enough to touch, but their eyes are stuck on something just to her left. Suigetsu’s jaw is on the floor as he looks at… whatever it is, the moon caught in his big purple eyes. Zhàdàn is no less transfixed by whatever it is they’re looking at, but seems less awed, more disturbed. His one hand keeps rubbing at his beard, covering his mouth.

Kabuto is a few steps removed from the four of them. Sakura cranes her neck just a bit to see him injecting something from a syringe into one of the civilians, a young man. The young man being injected had been stock still, but suddenly takes a deep breath, and sags forward when Kabuto removes the needle. Sakura’s brow furrows for a moment, before Kabuto shouting something about a paralytic poison shuffles back into her mind. Kabuto picks himself up and starts to move deeper into the crowd, but pauses to look over his shoulder. Not at her, but at whatever is just to her left. His eyes are unreadable, as always.

A civilian woman with cropped brown hair and a scar on her temple comes over to the young man Kabuto just treated, squeezing his shoulder and whispering to him… Sakura struggles with her name for a few moments before the memory of her, concussed but alive in a tavern in a tiny rice-farming village, comes staggering back to her. Tang San-Ha, from Tadami. Sakura had saved her life, and she’d gone on to stoke more and more revolutionary fires across the Land of Sound. Sakura owes her more than just a thank you for all this manpower. What she’s going to have to pay her… She doesn’t know where she stands on it yet. But it’s too late to back out now. San-Ha also can’t help stealing glances over her shoulder at whatever is on Sakura’s left, eyes widening every time she does.

Sakura licks her chapped lips, trying to puzzle out what they’re looking at. From what she remembers of the battle, the hideout… or what was the hideout… should be that way. As should Orochimaru’s corpse. She can’t imagine that’s very pretty, and even trying to picture it makes a strange bolt of pain lance down the back of her throat. No, she can’t think about that. She has to think about what’s necessary, what’s right in front of her.

Sakura shifts in Jūgo’s arms, trying to sit up; "I’m awake, Jūgo. How is everyone? Is anyone injured?"

Jūgo frowns down at her; "Sakura…"

"We should get everyone packed up and ready to move. We can’t stay here long. We should also take stock of how much powder we used, see how much we owe Zhàdàn."


"Right, shit, I should be– How are you, Jūgo? Orochimaru took your arm off, is that still a problem with your kekkei genkai or–"

"Sakura," Jūgo’s voice comes out forceful, but not angry, and that’s enough to shut Sakura up as he points with the stump of his arm to her left, "Look."

Sakura swallows hard. She takes a deep breath. She looks. And gasps.

Rooted on the edge of the crater that had been the hideout is a cherry tree in full bloom. Twisted up in it’s gnarled trunk is the body of Orochimaru, bark and branches growing over, around, and through him. The branches of the canopy are all growing up and out from his open mouth, where she’d aimed her arrow. Sakura can only gawk as the petals come drifting down on the night breeze.

She whispers, "I did that?"

Jūgo nods; "You did that."

Zhàdàn takes his hand off his mouth, staring down at Sakura; "That’s Wood Style, isn’t it? Only the First Hokage could do that. Just what the Hell are you, Sakura?"

Sakura gapes at him for a moment, then slowly shakes her head; "I– No, I– Any ninja who can do Earth Style and Water Style and has good chakra control can do this, i-it just takes more chakra and more… m-more of your life force than any ninja can really afford to give up, I– That shouldn’t have worked for me, I’ve tried that before but I can only do it when I’m using the Curse Mark a-and– And even if it had worked, what if Jūgo didn’t catch me, I would’ve… I’m not anything special, Zhàdàn. I just got… really, really lucky."

"Please… You’re the least… lucky… person I’ve ever met."

Sakura’s breath hitches and her head whips back to the tree, just in time to see Orochimaru’s body start to… melt. The flesh comes sloughing off the tree, white snakes falling to the ground as lumps of disfigured meat. The strange, almost puppetlike head plops to the ground in pieces. The flesh starts to dissolve at the edges into chakra and an odd green light. Jūgo’s hackles rise as it washes over them all. Sakura doesn’t have the chakra left to calm him, so she just squeezes his upper arm. The last chunk of flesh falls away from Orochimaru’s head, revealing…


He’s human again, or at least humanoid. The branches of the canopy are sprouting from where his heart should be. Sakura finds herself relaxing by just a fraction. He’s still going to die. She didn’t mess up. But… He’s almost as she remembers, but he looks… thinner, his face gaunt with deep lines around his eyes and mouth. His hair is thinner too, no longer glossy black but dull and streaked with gray. He looks his age, instead of the nebulous void of 'not young, not old' she’d known for the past two and a half years.

Something about that makes Sakura’s heart clench tight.

His lips twist in a pale shadow of his regular grin; "No, you’re… not lucky… But you’re certainly not special, either… I suppose that makes you… annoying."

Sakura wants to laugh. It comes out choked and weird. It almost sounds like a sob. Her vision’s starting to blur again. She hopes she isn’t about to pass out, there are things she still needs to do tonight.

Orochimaru’s head lolls to the side, strands of graying hair drifting over his face like fog; "Oh… Don’t do that… You won… try to enjoy it…"

Sakura doesn’t know what he means until she rubs at her blurry eyes and her gloves come back wet.

Orochimaru gives her one last raspy chuckle, "Save your tears… Little Flower… We’ll meet again."

Sakura swallows hard, and finally manages to croak, "I hope we do."

Orochimaru’s chuckle tapers off into a long wheeze. His body goes still. Sakura looks up at the blossoms. The branches are quickly going bare, far quicker than even the frailest, most transient of cherry trees. Sakura carefully climbs out of Jūgo’s arms, limping over to the tree. She pulls a kunai from her weapon pouch and scratches off a small strip of exterior bark. The cambium bark beneath is brown and dry, the mark of a dead tree. Sakura purses her lips. She knew this was too good to be true.

She coughs, "Let’s get the wagons packed up and ready to go. Suigetsu, I need to borrow Kusanagi. Jūgo, give me a boost."

Suigetsu pushes himself up to his feet, a hand going to his hip; "What do you need it for?"

Sakura scans the crowd and meets San-Ha’s eyes. San-Ha crosses her arms over her chest, narrowing her eyes, but not blinking. The terms of their deal won’t change, no matter how much Sakura cries.

Sakura takes a deep breath, and replies, "I need to cut off Orochimaru’s head."

Takamaru is a good bird. Takamaru is a fast bird. It may be dark and cold, but the humans gave him a message and told him to fly fast to the Leaf, and Takamaru is a good bird who always does what he’s told. Takamaru flaps his wings as hard as he can, pushing to go quicker than quick, faster than fast, speedier than speed itself. The humans were upset. That means even the fastest bird in Sand has to be faster.

He is close, he knows he is, when the wind suddenly changes direction and pushes him down instead of forward. Takamaru goes crashing through the branches and into the forest. He doesn’t fall for long. A hand catches him out of the air. When it closes around him, the stinging warmth that surrounds his humans pulses through him and forces a squawk from his beak. He wants to thrash and peck and claw, but it’s as if he’s asleep, but awake, because he can’t move even an inch. His heart is beating too too fast. He’s a good bird. A good bird. He has to move. He has to go to the Leaf village. He has to give them the message quickly, or he’s not a good bird.

It’s dark, so so dark. He thinks a hand is covering his head. He’s scared. He knows what happens when humans catch ninja hawks. They take their messages off their backs, then kill them, and they are bad birds who didn’t do their jobs. He’s scared. He doesn’t want to be a bad bird.

He feels a hand take the message off his back. There’s a pulse of stinging warmth, faint, but close.

Everything is quiet for a terrifying moment, before a flat voice says, "This bird is from Sand. The Kazekage has been kidnapped by the Akatsuki."

Another voice, higher, but just as flat, asks, "Will this be detrimental to the operation in the East?"

There’s another long pause, then the first flat voice replies, "Negative. This will be a serviceable distraction, drawing the Hokage’s immediate attention West instead of East. We will have more time to work."

"Should we delay this bird any further?"

"Hold it for another hour. I’ll start back to headquarters and report to Danzo. He should know about this before the Hokage does."

There’s a brisk shift in the wind, quick and fleeting. Takamaru lies there, still and blind, for what feels like forever. But then the message is returned to it's place on his back, and the hand comes off his eyes. In an instant, he can flap his wings, shake his head, snap his beak. Takamaru takes a brief glance at the ninja that held him. Their feathers are black everywhere but their face, which is white and red with two dead black eyes that don’t shine right.

Takamaru takes off, flying for the Leaf Village. He will not let those ninja make him slow. He will fly even faster, even harder, and deliver his message. He will not be remembered as a bad bird.

Chapter Text

IV. Team Kakashi’s first act as a semi-official unit is to have a sleepover.

It’s a lot more practical than it sounds. Naruto’s apartment may have been kept open for him these last two years, but it’s also one in the morning, and Naruto claims his landlord would take being woken up right now to get the keys very poorly. Combine that with the fact that the place is covered in dust and has no food in it, it’s a lot less hassle for Naruto to have a cup of instant ramen at Sasuke and Kakashi’s place and crash on the couch. It’s just good teamwork.

That’s how Naruto and Sasuke have found themselves sitting on either side of Kakashi’s tiny kitchen table, slurping up ramen Sasuke boiled in broth, transferred from cups to bowls, and added egg, pork, green onion and nori to. The dogs are all clustered under the table in a snoring pile, Bull acting as a footrest for Naruto. Kakashi is in his bedroom, but thanks to the thin walls Sasuke can hear him scribbling away at their team registration paperwork and swearing at the bureaucratic nonsense.

Naruto finishes off a particularly noisy bite and remarks, "I don’t know why I didn’t think about adding all this stuff to instant ramen myself, this is way better than just eating it as is."

Sasuke shrugs and replies, "I mean, I didn’t come up with this idea. Shizune came over once, saw me and Kakashi were both eating like crap because no one ever taught us how to cook, and came back the next day with a whole binder of meal plans and shit. She then added 'teaching me how to cook' to our training regimen in between teaching me how to make poisons."

Naruto’s eyes go wide at that last point; "Wait– Wait– You were learning to cook and make poisons at the same time? Did you–?"

Sasuke snorts around a wry smirk; "Yes, I did get some things mixed up a few times. Nothing really bad, nobody had to get their stomach pumped, but Kakashi did nearly shit to death, so–"

Naruto cackles out loud; "Oh my God! He must have been so pissed at you!"

Sasuke snickers around a bite of ramen, "He knew the risks when he left dinner in my hands."

Naruto’s laughter tapers off into a thoughtful silence. He’s still smiling, but it’s a wisp of a thing. His eyes are far away. It’s an expression Sasuke hadn’t thought Naruto capable of before today. Sasuke’s brow furrows as he considers his friend. He doesn’t know what to do with this new, secretive, almost shy side of Naruto. The boy he remembers seemed to blurt out every thought in his head as soon as he had it. Wherever this is coming from, whatever it’s hiding, Sasuke’s pretty sure he can’t take too direct an approach if he wants to break it open. He’s tried that before with people like Ino and Neji when they’re deep in a Mood, and the only thing that breaks is his nose.

So Sasuke comes at this from the side; "So, how would you rate your first day home? Better than expected, worse, what?"

Naruto purses his lips, pushing his egg around the ramen; "Hm… I guess it kinda evens out to average? Like, it was great finally seeing you and Kakashi and everyone again, I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed you guys, and getting to show off some of what I’ve learned during the bell test was great, and getting put on a team with you guys is awesome…"

Sasuke arches a brow; "But?"

Naruto lets out a long sigh; "But… I 'unno, it feels stupid, I…" Naruto pauses again, frowning tightly down at his food. It doesn’t take someone especially skilled in reading people to realize Naruto’s deciding what he should and shouldn’t say. Sasuke just waits. He can’t really force Naruto to say anything he doesn’t want to… Well. He could. But injecting your friends with sodium thiopental is generally frowned upon.

Naruto looks off toward the window and continues, "I knew in my head that I’d be missing a lot, but I guess in my heart I thought when I came back I’d just slot right back into the spot I left behind and things would be normal again. But you guys outrank me, and you’ve all been working together for two years, and… It’s dumb, I shouldn’t have expected everything to be exactly the same but I still feel like an outsider when I’m with my friends. I…"

Naruto doesn’t quite look him in the eye, but he gets close; "I thought I made so much progress in making friends and making the village recognize me, but now it feels like all of it got wound back. Like, I think about becoming Hokage, and I just think about how Gaara stuck around his village and managed to become Kazekage while I was off training and… I wonder if I wasn’t off learning the wrong stuff."

Sasuke drums his fingers on the tabletop, thinking over his next words carefully. His first instinct is to tell Naruto that he’s completely right. It had been a stupid idea for him to leave the village, where all his friends are, where his sensei is, where he would’ve been perfectly safe. He has been learning the wrong things, because if Sasuke has learned anything over the past two years it’s that no amount of strength and skill can make up for understanding the chain of command and how to adapt to new teammates and work with old ones when they’re being pains in your ass. He is further away from his goal, because right now Sasuke’s better qualified to be Hokage than Naruto is. But even if there’s a single kernel of truth in any of those statements, it doesn’t change that they’re born of bitterness, and that they’re just plain mean.

His second instinct is to tell Naruto’s he’s being an idiot. Of course there’s going to be an adjustment period, he was gone for two years. It isn’t like he’s coming home to people who couldn’t care less that he left. Everyone has missed him as much as he’s missed them. He has no idea how quiet the village has been without him, how Kiba has gotten louder to fill the silence, how Gaara ends every letter asking if he’s heard from Naruto, how Hinata drifts through the streets like a ghost. Everyone has been waiting for him to come back, and they’re willing to make more room if he can’t fill his old spot. But just telling Naruto all of that won’t mean as much as when he actually meets up with everyone again and experiences it.

And his third instinct is to tell Naruto that of course everything isn’t back to normal yet. Because 'normal' includes Sakura. But… that’s not a conversation either of them are ready for.

So, with his shitty, petty, bitter, unhelpful instincts out of the way, Sasuke sighs, "I get where you’re coming from. I mean… I haven’t given up on the whole 'avenge and restore my clan' thing, you know. But I’m not out there chasing after Itachi. I’m stronger, sure, but my training’s not really designed for assassinating single targets with Sharingan. Like… There will be times when I’m at the hospital, or I’m training with Lee, or I’m looking after the dogs, and I just find myself thinking What am I doing? How is this helping me avenge the clan? It… feels like it’s never been further away, honestly."

Sasuke forces himself to take a bite of his ramen. It gives him more time to think. Naruto watches him eat, waiting quietly for him to continue.

Sasuke swallows, then says, "I guess it’s the sort of thing that’ll stop when Itachi’s dead. In the meantime, I… There’s this thing Tsunade says to patients when she’s prescribing some treatment or medicine they don’t like: What’s good for us doesn’t always feel like the right thing, but you have to trust that it’ll help you in the long run. I say it to myself, and I’m gonna say it to you."

He looks Naruto in the eye, "Your skillset is way more diverse than it was before you left, you’re making better use of skills you already have and picking up new ones I don’t think anyone but Jiraiya would’ve actually tried to teach you. You are unequivocally a stronger ninja for your time away. As for the rest, well, you just gotta trust that it’ll catch up."

Naruto’s face slowly breaks into one of his trademarked sunny grins; "Yeah… Yeah. Thanks, Sasuke."

Sasuke can tell there’s still more Naruto isn’t saying sitting somewhere low and dark. But it’s not gonna come up if Naruto doesn’t want it to. The time for pushing and emotional vulnerability has clearly passed.

So Sasuke cracks a smirk and replies, "Any time, Dumbass."

Shikamaru is surprised to find he’s missed hearing Naruto miles before he actually sees him. He’s a few flights of stairs down from Tsunade’s office when he hears Naruto faintly jabbering something about seals being "a bitch and a half to paint on my own back". Shikamaru’s eyebrow lightly arches and he instantly makes the call that whatever that’s about, it’s none of his business. Naruto’s voice grows closer and closer until he comes around the curve in the hall, Sasuke at his side and Kakashi at his back.

Sasuke catches sight of him from the corner of his eye and grins, calling down the hall, "You’re up early!"

Shikamaru smirks and replies, "Someone had to walk Temari to the gates, and you know how Tsunade gets if you don’t report new developments promptly."

Naruto perks up and leans closer Sasuke, whispering conspiratorially, "He walked her to the gate? Oh they are definitely–"

Before Naruto can finish that thought there’s a shout from just behind Shikamaru; "Out of the way! Urgent Cipher Corps business! Clear a path!"

And Shikamaru is suddenly catching an elbow to the side, the blow shoving him violently to the right as a young woman with half-finished makeup and short brown hair comes barreling through on his left. She almost gets all the way past Naruto, Sasuke, and Kakashi before glancing over her shoulder, spinning on her heel, and grabbing Sasuke by the elbow.

"Sasuke, great timing! I’m gonna need to borrow your Sharingan, hurry up and come with me!"

She doesn’t give Sasuke much choice in the matter. Sasuke’s bewildered expression is the last thing Shikamaru sees before he disappears around the bend in the hall. Naruto’s eyebrows are nearly up behind his headband as he gawks after his teammate.

He looks to Kakashi and asks, "Is Sasuke part of the Cipher Corps too?"

Kakashi runs a hand through his hair with a sigh; "No, but as the Hokage’s apprentice he spends so much of his time in the tower that everyone here knows who he is and what he can do. And Tsunade doesn’t mind loaning him out if it’s urgent, so," Kakashi shoves his hands in his pockets and starts walking back the way they came, "Let’s go see what all the ruckus is."

Naruto nods and sprints after Sasuke. Shikamaru just watches the former Team Seven dart back down the hall, staying rooted to the spot. Now that definitely is none of his business. Emergencies are the very definition of "a drag", and he was looking forward to going back to sleep after reporting in. Still… can’t hurt to let Tsunade know she’s in for an early morning headache. Shikamaru climbs the rest of the way up to Tsunade’s door and raps a loose rhythm on it with the back of his hand.

Tsunade’s voice is already painted with a tinge of agitation and exhaustion; "Come in."

Shikamaru opens the door and begins, "So I’ve got good news and bad news."

Tsunade looks up from her mountain of paperwork with a long-suffering sigh, "Of course you do. You know the drill, good news first."

"Good news, Temari’s safely on her way back home," Shikamaru reports, hands going into his pockets, "I saw her to the Western Gate a half hour ago, because that woman is an ungodly early riser. I’d say that marks my mission of escorting her around as officially complete, wouldn’t you?"

Tsunade arches an eyebrow and cracks a smirk; "I’d call that going above and beyond the call of duty, especially for your lazy ass. Are you looking for a medal, or am I not the girl you’re trying to impress?"

Shikamaru pinches the bridge of his nose; "Of course Sasuke’s infected you, too. Is that why I keep being assigned to be her escort? Because you’re playing matchmaker?"

Tsunade snorts out a chuckle; "I have no idea what you’re talking about. Now, the bad news?"

Shikamaru runs a hand through his hair; "Right, that. So, bad news, three quarters of Team Seven are probably gonna come rushing in here in like five minutes with even worse news. They were on their way here when a member of the Cipher Corps came barreling through like a bat out of Hell, shouting about urgent business, then she grabbed Sasuke so she could use his Sharingan. If she doesn’t think there’s time to crack genjutsu ciphers the old-fashioned way, we’ve probably got something bad on our hands."

Tsunade’s brow furrows; "Where were they going?"

Shikamaru frowns and replies, "The codebreaker was heading East, so probably the aviary. Why, were you expecting some bad news this morning?"

Tsunade drums her long nails on the tabletop, creating a rhythmic clicking sound; "Not exactly."

This is none of Shikamaru’s business. He’s done what he came here to do. Prying leads to trouble and work and the rest of your day going up in smoke.

But his mouth is opening before he can stop it and he’s asking, "What do you mean by that?"

Tsunade gives him a considering look for a moment, her eyes flickering to the window before she answers, "Usually, when I get here in the morning this desk is covered in reports from ninja on missions outside the village– Those who can take the risk of making reports, anyway. But," she gestures to her desk. Shikamaru scans the documents, skimming their contents. What few mission reports he can find are either domestic, or dated too far back to have come in any earlier than yesterday.

The wheels are turning in Shikamaru’s mind and he already has a million questions, but the room hasn’t been secured, so all he says is, "That’s weird."

Tsunade nods; "Very."

The door slams open and Sasuke’s voice calls over it, "Ma’am, we’ve got an emergency!"

Shikamaru gets violently shoved aside for the second time this morning as Sasuke comes storming up to Tsunade’s desk, an open scroll in hand and Naruto and Kakashi on his heels. Naruto’s eyes are wide and his jaw clenched tight. Kakashi’s one dark eye is hard and sharp, but beyond that he’s unreadable. Sasuke slaps the scroll down on Tsunade’s desk and Shikamaru peers at it over his shoulder. It’s written in code, of course, but even though Shikamaru can identify the cipher in seconds and probably break it in a few more, that’s not what he’s focusing on. For something this urgent… the ink seems too dry.

Sasuke’s voice draws him back to the present; "This came from the Sand Village on the back of their fastest bird. The Akatsuki infiltrated the Sand Village and kidnapped Gaara at midnight last night!"

Shikamaru’s blood runs cold. The voices of Sasuke and Tsunade come through in muffled pieces as his mind races, loud and fast as a freight train.

"… any other details, anything else we can…"

The ink is too dry. It’s absolutely too dry. A message this urgent, a situation this urgent, the longest they would’ve delayed before sending off their fastest bird has to have been an hour at most. The Akatsuki may have hit the village, may have taken down more than just Gaara on their way in and out, but no amount of chaos or confusion could’ve kept them from sending a message to their strongest ally for any longer than that.

"… heading East, towards us, when they left the village. It also says Kankuro went after them, but…"

Their fastest bird, that has to be Takamaru. He’s asked Temari about this before, she knows everything about Sand’s airborne division, she knows every hawk by name. She said Takamaru’s top speed is thirty miles an hour. Sand is ninety miles away. Assuming a delay of an hour between Gaara’s kidnapping and this message going out, Takamaru should’ve arrived somewhere around four in the morning.

"… only two of them, one on a large bird the other walking, but the one on the bird didn’t fly ahead of his partner…"

There’s always someone in the aviary for eventualities exactly like this one. Unless someone called in sick last minute, there’s no way Takamaru arrived earlier to an empty aviary. Even if he came in while someone was on break, that would only lead to a five or ten minute delay. The Cipher Corps are a branch of the intelligence division. Even with all the emergency protocols meant to cut through bureaucratic delays between the two divisions, thanks to the Intelligence Division not running twenty four-seven there would still be a delay of anywhere between a half hour and an hour between receiving this message and getting it decrypted. It’s currently six in the morning. Takamaru couldn’t have gotten here any earlier than five.

Shikamaru cuts in, "This message was delayed. By an hour at least, maybe two."

Everyone shoots him a questioning glance and he runs through the short version of his thought process. As he speaks Sasuke’s grip on the scroll tenses up, threatening to tear the paper. Tsunade starts cracking the knuckles on her left hand, finger by finger. Kakashi’s gaze drifts to the window and scans the horizon. Naruto’s eyes keep bouncing around, from Shikamaru to Tsunade to his teammates and back to Shikamaru.

"The weather’s too mild this time of year both here and in Eastern Wind Country for a foul wind to have thrown him off," Shikamaru concludes, "So all I can think is that this was deliberate. The Akatsuki are the most obvious suspects, but that just begs the question of why they wouldn’t just kill the bird and burn the message so no one knows what they’re up to. Personally, I’d rule them as too obvious."

Kakashi crosses his arms over his chest; "That’s all incredibly worrying, but the most worrying part is that we don’t have time to dwell on that. We have no idea what the Akatsuki actually intend to do with the jinchūriki, but it’s safe to say we don’t want to find out. We’re racing against time."

Tsunade steeples her fingers over her mouth, brows drawn together in thought; "Yes, we are… Under any other circumstances, I’d have no choice but to send out the first qualified shinobi I see on this mission, but…"

But sending Naruto could be as good as hand-delivering him to the Akatsuki all tied up in a bow. But the last time Sasuke had to choose between taking revenge and saving a jinchūriki from the Akatsuki, he chose revenge. But the last time Naruto and Sasuke were sent to rescue someone important to them from certain doom, they almost singlehandedly fucked the whole mission up and sent her there themselves.

Shikamaru looks to Naruto. He keeps starting to speak, but catching himself and biting his tongue. His eyes keep dropping to the floor. No doubt he’s remembering everything Shikamaru is, point by point, in agonizing, humiliating detail. Could Naruto handle something like this being his first mission back? Could he handle failing a mission like this a second time?

His eyes shift to Sasuke. Sasuke always sits in an odd gray area with his tells, where you know something is on his mind, but never specifically what. Right now his eyes are shut, his head bowed, his lips pursed tight.

After a few long heartbeats, Sasuke opens his eyes; "Ma’am, you have the final say. You always do. But just know that I’m not going to let something like Shukuba Town happen ever again."

Naruto’s eyes go wide as he stares at Sasuke’s profile in something like awe. Kakashi looks away to hide the subtle shifting of his mask in a smile. Tsunade holds Sasuke’s gaze for a moment. She reaches out and gives his hand a quiet squeeze, one he returns.

"Team Kakashi, your first official mission is to provide the Sand village with aid and support in rescuing the Kazekage," Tsunade declares, "Follow their orders and bring the Kazekage back alive. You leave at once."

Shikamaru pipes back up, adding, "Temari should be on the main road, she wasn’t in a rush. If you’re quick you can catch up to her."

"Good, that’s what I’m counting on," Sasuke says, turning on his heel and making for the door, "I have a plan."

"You have a plan?! Already?!" Naruto splutters, scrambling to keep up.

"Keep them honest, Kakashi," Tsunade mutters, just before Kakashi’s through the threshold.

He spares her a masked smirk over one shoulder; "Don’t I always?"

Kakashi shuts the door behind him. Shikamaru immediately gets to work, hands zooming through the signs for a genjutsu to cloak the inside of the office from prying eyes and ears. Tsunade stands up and makes a circuit of the room. Shikamaru can feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as she sends out pulses of chakra in the hopes that they’ll bounce off anyone or anything hidden in plain sight. After a few moments, Tsunade taps her foot on the ground in rhythm: A L L   C L E A R.

"No other reports have gotten through all morning, but that one does," Shikamaru remarks, "It’s still early, there could be mundane reasons for the delay, but it’s highly unlikely literally every other shinobi we have in the field all sent their hawks out into bad weather."

"And it’s a Hell of a report to let through," Tsunade adds, putting her hands on her hips, "With an allied Kage’s life in danger I have to make this the priority. I’d call it a perfect ruse if it wasn’t something so hard to fake."

Shikamaru glares down at the scroll; "Our shadow seems to be getting ambitious."

Tsunade arches a brow; "You have a name for them now?"

Shikamaru nods; "Dogging our every step, working just out of sight, acting shady as all Hell toward an end I still can’t see– You know I of all people hate to call them this, but 'shadow' fits pretty damn well, doesn’t it?"

Tsunade looks away with a sigh, "Fair enough. I won’t ask you to look into this, but I won’t stop you, either. Just be careful."

Shikamaru nods as he walks to the door; "You too, Lady Hokage."

Shikamaru heads back out into the tower. Great. Now he needs to find Choji and Ino and tell them they’ve got an unofficial mission to root out village corruption first thing in the morning.

What an absolute fucking drag.

Temari’s not really sure if there’s a good time to be waylaid four miles into your ninety mile journey home by two of your youngest brother’s three friends so they can tell you he’s been kidnapped by a mysterious crime syndicate, but she’s sure that eight fifteen in the morning is the worst time for it.

After years spent being afraid of Gaara it always comes as a bone-shaking shock when Temari finds herself afraid for him. Gaara’s supposed to be an invincible monster with an impenetrable defense and unquenchable thirst for blood. But that Gaara died the day Sakura Haruno scarred his face. Now, the Gaara in her mind’s eye is all thin wrists, heavy eyelids, and secret smiles quickly hidden behind a hand or a turn of the head. She couldn’t give a damn what could happen to the One Tail if the Akatsuki get their hands on it. For all the grief it’s given the Sand Village they can take it. But they can’t take her brother. They won’t.

The instant Sasuke finishes detailing the situation, Temari snaps, "We need to get to get moving. Now."

"I agree we do, but," Sasuke cuts in, "We don’t have three days to spare. Technically speaking you’re in command, Temari, so you can shoot down anything we suggest. But, if you’re willing to listen, I have a plan."

Temari narrows her eyes. Sasuke’s plans aren’t nearly as reliable as Shikamaru’s, that much she knows. But that’s an impossible standard to live up to. She gives the kid an apprising look, scanning him up and down. He’s tense, but focused, eyes steadily on her. On either side of him Kakashi and Naruto stand solid. She doesn’t know either one of them well, but she can reason that if a jonin is staying quiet and letting Sasuke take the lead, whatever he’s got up his sleeve might have merit.

As she’s thinking, Naruto chimes in, "Listen, he went over it with us while we were catching up with you, and it’s a little crazy but like– It’s the kind of crazy that’ll work, believe it."

Temari arches a brow; "I’m listening."

"Alright, so first I need to know something," Sasuke begins, reaching over his shoulder to rifle around in his pack, "I know Sand has a whole airborne division, and I know you’re one of the best Wind Style users in the village. Is there any way you can use Wind Style to travel by air?"

Temari’s other brow hops up to join it’s twin; "I– Well, yes. In theory I could ride on my summon’s back and cut the journey down to half a day. But that requires a lot of chakra to keep a hold of him and keep him on course. And at best he can handle one other passenger. I don’t know any way to get us all there in under three days."

"That’s fine," Sasuke replies, hand emerging from his pack holding a small potted cactus, "Not all of us need to get there that fast."

He passes the plant to Kakashi; "You said the dogs could get Gaara’s scent off this?"

Kakashi holds the plant up to his face. There’s a soft glow beneath his mask as he channels chakra into his nose and takes a whiff, sniffing around the plant, the soil, and the pot.

After a moment punctuated only by the sound of a human man snuffling at the plant like a hound, Kakashi reports, "I’m getting your scent, the pot, the soil, the plant itself, and… there he is. Well, if I can unearth Gaara’s scent beneath all of those, the dogs should have no problem."

Temari crosses her arms over her chest, shifting in place as her feet itch to sprint for home; "Cut to the chase and tell me where you’re going with this."

"Happy to, now that I’m sure it can work," Sasuke replies, "The plan is that you and I fly ahead to Sand to provide immediate aid to the village. Meanwhile, Naruto and Kakashi make their way to Sand on foot with the dogs fanning out around them, looking for Gaara’s scent. The Akatsuki were heading East out of Sand. With the dogs looking for Gaara, at best we catch them while they’re still in transit, at worst we rule out a search area."

Temari purses her lips; "Splitting the team is always a gamble, Uchiha."

Sasuke crosses his arms over his chest, face set in a determined frown; "I’d rather gamble with our lives than Gaara’s."

Temari shuts her eyes tight, biting down on the inside of her lower lip. And there’s the rub. A safe bet for them is a death sentence for Gaara. Even if the Akatsuki don’t kill him in the next three days, that’s still three days of travel they’ll have on them by the time they get to the Sand Village, and they’ll keep that lead when it’s time to turn around and actually pursue them. They already have an eight hour lead. With a Kage’s life– with her brother’s life– on the line, they can’t afford to do anything less than risk it all.

Temari opens her eyes and stalks up until she’s nearly nose to nose with Sasuke, hissing through her teeth, "If this blows up in our faces I will make you regret it."

"You won’t have to," Sasuke states, voice clear and steady, "Summon your weasel. I have one last touch to put on this."

Temari steps back and Sasuke immediately drops to one knee, biting the pad of his thumb hard enough to draw blood. He races through signs and slaps his hands on the dirt. In a puff of smoke a fragment of Katsuyu appears, about the size of a small cat, before immediately splitting into two palm-sized Katsuyus. Sasuke picks up one and gingerly buttons her into his jacket pocket before handing the other to Naruto.

"Keep her close and keep her safe," Sasuke instructs, keeping his eyes locked on Naruto as he flails to find a suitable spot for the slug, "She’ll act as a method of long-range communication between us. If you find something worthwhile out there, tell her and she’ll tell us."

Temari leans on her fan and allows herself the ghost of a smirk; "Couldn’t spring for a radio?"

Sasuke rolls his eyes; "Didn’t have time to requisition one. Besides, Katsuyu’s more reliable over longer distances."

"She’d better be," Temari mutters, taking several more steps back and unfurling her fan. She breaks the skin on her own thumb and runs through the motions of Summoning, swiping her blood along her fan. Kamatari appears in a swirl of smoke and wind, the horse-sized weasel drifting to the ground and quizzically fixing his one sharp eye on Temari.

Temari reaches out and strokes behind his ear; "There’s an emergency. We’re going for a ride."

Kamatari’s eye narrows and he rumbles from deep in his chest, "You’re sure?"

She bobs her head in a shallow nod; "Yeah. It’s that bad."

She swings one leg over his narrow back and pats the spot just behind her. Sasuke ambles onto the weasel, shifting around as he tries to find the best way to distribute his weight. Once he’s found it he loops his arms around Temari’s midsection. Chakra floods his forearms, turning his grip iron tight. Temari channels chakra into her arms and legs, affixing herself to Kamatari’s back.

She leans down until her chin is settled between his ears; "Take off."

Kamatari shoots off the ground like a bullet from a gun. The wind threatens to tear Temari’s hair out of it’s four tails, but it holds fast. She grits her teeth as the wind cuts at her cheeks. She tugs hard on Kamatari’s fur, making him shift ever so slightly to put him on a direct course for the Sand Village. Her eyes water and burn, but she can’t close them. She won’t. Not until her feet touch the ground again.

Temari presses herself flush to Kamatari’s back and hunkers down for eleven hours of the wind howling in her ears.

A shinobi’s most valuable tool is their body. That in and of itself is their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. A shinobi stripped of their weapons and gear can still fight so long as they have chakra. A properly trained and sufficiently talented shinobi can be more destructive than a siege engine and isn’t restricted to traveling over roads, letting them take quicker, more direct routes. But it’s because they rely so much on their body that a shinobi can’t afford to run it ragged, even (especially) when a politically important life is on the line. They may be able to take the more direct route, but that’s not worth much when they’re forced to lose hours of progress resting and recuperating every night.

Kakashi can’t help but curse that as he and Naruto stop to make camp in a rocky cavern ensconced by cotton trees. They’ve barely crossed the border of the Land of Rivers, but the setting sun forced their hand. For one, they’ve been running for eight hours straight. He’s not sure about Naruto, but Kakashi aches down to his bones and his eye is screaming for him to close it. More importantly, travel by night is risky enough in the Land of Fire’s dense forests, but the Land of Rivers’ terrain is… difficult, to say the least.

Penned in on either side by imposing mountains, the country’s interior is an intricate web of gorges, crags, and river valleys, all shaded and hidden by tall trees. In the Land of Fire, if you’re jumping through the canopy in the dark and miss a branch you just hit the forest floor. In the Land of Rivers, at best you’ll go rolling all the way down a mountainside. At worst, you plummet hundreds of feet into whitewater rapids and they never find your body.

The thought makes a shiver run up Kakashi’s spine as he lights a modest campfire. The dogs still haven’t circled back. He sent them off after Gaara’s scent moments after Sasuke and Temari left. He knows they’re faster than him and Naruto by a wide margin. He knows they can see five times better in the dark than any human. He knows he trained them to be smart when scouting, to hide when they can, flee when they can’t, and only fight when they’re cornered. And yet…

"Are you worried?"

Kakashi blinks rapidly, eye darting to Naruto. He’s sitting in a loose ball by the fire, elbows resting on his knees. His lips are pursed as he cautiously looks him over. It dawns on Kakashi that, despite how simple the question is, because Naruto is the one asking he has no idea how to respond. Shame congeals in his stomach, heavy and dense like mud.

Naruto shifts in place, frowning just a bit and letting his gaze drop to the dirt; "About the dogs, I mean. I know there’s a lot worth worrying about right now, but that’s like… The closest thing, I guess."

Kakashi clears his throat like he’s giving himself the Heimlich Maneuver and forces himself to speak; "Yeah. I suppose no matter how well I train them I’ll always worry."

The tiny smile on Naruto’s face doesn’t reach his eyes, but it’s not for lack of trying; "Man, you spent so much time talking tough when our team first started out, I can’t get over what a big sap you turned out to be."

Kakashi arches a brow, fishing a ration out of his flak jacket pocket as he mutters, "Takes one to know one, I suppose."

Kakashi has a feeling that if he was Sasuke Naruto would’ve fired back another good-natured insult, maybe thrown something at him, and the tension would take a backseat to banter. As it stands, they lapse into an awkward silence as Kakashi eats behind a volume of Icha Icha and Naruto stares into the fire.

After a few tentative nibbles, Kakashi pulls his mask back up and coughs, "What about you? You’ve been out of sorts since Sasuke decoded the message. Worried about Gaara?"

Naruto flinches slightly as Kakashi’s question brings him back to the moment; "Yeah."

"Understandable," Kakashi ventures, eye refusing to settle on Naruto’s face, "He’s not just the Kazekage, not to you. The two of you are… close, right?"

Naruto shrugs a shoulder; "I mean, close as we can be when we’ve only talked like three times."

"Well, yes, but you’re both jinchūriki. The two of you share something only seven other people in the world could possibly understand."

Naruto stares into the fire for a long, silent moment, before clenching his hands into tight fists; "He worked his ass off to finally get his village to respect and recognize him. To work that hard, struggle that much, deal with all that heartache and loneliness, only to die or worse right when life’s finally getting good… It isn’t fair. It’s wrong. I’m not gonna let that happen."

Kakashi frowns behind his mask. There’s a fine line between empathy and projection, and Naruto is balanced on it like a tightrope walker. But he can’t really judge, can he? He’s been walking that line with Sasuke since they met…

And it’s as Kakashi’s thinking that over that he realizes they’ve dropped into another awkward silence. He can never find the right thing to say to Naruto, can he? Suppose it just goes to show that the longer you put something off, the harder it becomes.

There’s a rustle from the undergrowth. Naruto and Kakashi leap to their feet, weapons in hand and eyes trained on the noise’s source. They hold their breath until a furry, quadrupedal form breaks through the foliage and lopes into their campsite. The firelight glints off Akino’s sunglasses as the ninja hound strolls casually up to them.

He settles down and scratches behind his ear with a whuff of, "We caught the scent, Boss."

Naruto’s eyes go wider than the sky and in an instant he’s crouched in front of Akino, voice coming out in a frantic rush; "You did?! Where?! When?! How far?! What way was it going?! Can we still catch him?!"

Kakashi drops to one knee at Naruto’s side; "One question at a time, Naruto. Akino, give us the rest of your report."

"We caught it fifteen miles Southwest of here, somewhere in the Sand-River border range," Akino continues, "Scouting it left us as certain as we can be that the scent’s heading Northeast. It’s not going all that fast, two miles an hour at best. The rest of the pack is working on triangulating the scent, seein’ if they can’t get more precise info. For now, take a sharp turn South toward the Hidden Valley Village and you’ll likely intercept it in another five hours. If you’re quick and they don’t veer off course, anyway."

"And if neither of us falls to our deaths on the way there," Kakashi mutters, "Which is very sizable 'if'."

"But–! He’s so close," Naruto insists, throwing a hand out wide in a vague but emphatic gesture, "What’s the point of all this scent tracking and us lagging behind Sasuke and Temari if we get right on top Gaara and just let him go?!"

"I’m not saying we do nothing," Kakashi counters, "I am saying that five hours is a serious investment of time and energy, especially after what we’ve put in so far. It’s a risk. With Gaara’s life on the line and ours in the balance, we have to assess every risk carefully."

Naruto’s face screws up into a frown; "What are you talking about? I could do another five hours no problem!"

Kakashi narrows his eye; "Yes, I have no doubt you could. You’re young and you have a tailed beast providing you with extra chakra and stamina. I’m not young anymore and don’t have that advantage. We’re in this together. We have to consider each other as much as Gaara when moving forward."

Naruto scratches his head as he thinks out loud; "I mean, we have soldier pills…"

"Yes, we do, but if we take them that puts a hard three day time limit on this mission," Kakashi replies, "If the mission runs over, whoever takes one passes out and leaves the rest of the work to Sasuke, Temari, and whatever backup Tsunade can scrounge up. I’ll grant you that you can soften the impact if you take half a pill, but that also gives you half the energy."

Naruto scowls at the dirt for a few more moments, then looks Kakashi in the eye; "I don’t know what the Akatsuki actually wanna do to Gaara or me or any of us jinchūriki. But I… I dunno, there’s a feeling in my gut like if we haven’t gotten Gaara in three days, we’re probably already too late."

Kakashi can’t help a hard sigh through his nose. There’s really no counterpoint to that. At the end of the day, they’re trying to rescue not only the Kazekage but the vessel of a beast more powerful than an army of shinobi fighting at their best. Taking Gaara back alive is almost less important than making sure the Akatsuki don’t get away with the One Tail. Much as they can’t afford to come into a fight exhausted and blind, the price they pay if they arrive even a moment too late is far steeper.

Kakashi fishes around in his pack and retrieves two soldier pills; "Best we take them whole, then."

Naruto’s eyes light up and he snatches the pill from Kakashi’s hand, swallowing it dry.

Kakashi can’t help but cringe; "Not even going to think about washing it down?"

The grin Naruto cracks is bright but sharp, more like the ones he pulls in battle than with friends; "Like we’ve got time for that! Come on, old timer, take your pills and let’s get going! Gaara’s counting on us and we’re not gonna let him down, believe it!"

Kakashi shakes his head; "In for a penny, I suppose. Akino, take point and guide us toward the scent."

Akino nods and gets to his feet, shaking out his fur; "Whatever you say, Boss."

Kakashi snuffs out the fire, swallows his soldier pill dry, and leaps into the dark.

Zahra has no idea how long she’s been staring out at the horizon, only that her eyes are starting to sting.

She takes the binoculars down and rubs at her eyes. Of all the duties to be assigned in the aftermath of the Kazekage’s kidnapping, she’s certain keeping watch on top of the wall is the most humiliating. The most she’s seen all day is the team that retrieved Kankuro shlepping back to the gates, defeated and carrying his unconscious body. The sun set an hour ago and she still hasn’t been reassigned. Nobody’s going to come over the horizon with good news any time soon and they know it. No, she knows why she’s here. She’s not strong enough to clear the rubble blocking the gate, she doesn’t have enough medical training to provide care to the wounded, and she doesn’t have the mobility to go out and comb the desert. The only thing she’s good for is staring at nothing.

Zahra heaves a sigh, letting her hair down from it’s tail. One upside of being on night watch, it’s now cold enough that having her hair on her neck isn’t unbearable. The downside is going to come in another hour or so, when it gets too cold and windy to bear being up this high. Hopefully by then someone will come to relieve her. Hopefully. With all the chaos in the village over their kidnapped leader and the only people who could take his place indisposed, she won’t be surprised if they forget about her completely and she has to spend all night up here.

Zahra hoists the binoculars back up to her face and settles in for another four to five hours of seeing absolutely nothing. Those plans are ruined by a whirling gyre of wind and sand coming over the horizon at a breakneck pace. Zahra nearly drops her binoculars, one hand keeping them on her eyes while the other reaches blindly around for her radio. She has it up to her mouth and is about to call in an unknown hostile when a bead of golden light flies straight up from the gyre. It races high into the sky before it explodes in a burst of yellow flame, almost like a firework.

Zahra fumbles with her radio for a few tense seconds before turning it on and shouting, "Jōnin Baki, this is Genin Zahra at the Western Wall reporting an unidentified flying object coming towards the village from the East! V-visual is unclear, just a lot of sand and wind, but they fired off an airborne division flare signaling them as a friendly needing to make an urgent landing! They’re moving at… at uh… they’re moving really fast! What do I– I-I mean, please advise!"

There’s a silence a second or two longer than she’d like before Baki’s voice comes through in a garbled bark, "Fire off an 'all clear' answering flare, then get out of the way! If that is who I think it is, she’s gonna land right on top of you once she gets that signal!"

Zahra’s eyes go wide and she yelps out a swear, scrambling to haul her radio, binoculars, and flares up as she sprints to one side. She drops the rest of her tools in a clattering heap as she grabs one of the flares and pulls fire chakra up from her belly, spitting a bead of flame onto it’s fuse. She throws it up into the air the moment before the fuse burns all the way down and the flare fires off into the sky. The explosion is deafening and the burst of green light near-blinding. Zahra blinks the spots out of her vision just in time to see the gyre of wind and sand is halfway across the desert and gaining. If her quick mental math is right, that thing is going to be on top of her in–

The gyre suddenly picks up speed. Zahra shrieks and drops low, covering her head as the sound of howling wind comes closer and closer. The wind whips at her hair and her skin, sharp and hard enough to cut. In one last wail, the blurry object slams directly into where Zahra had been standing moments before. Wind spirals out from the impact zone and knocks her all the way onto her back. She throws her hands up to block her face as the wind kicks up enough sand to leave scrapes all over Zahra’s unarmored forearms.

The wind dies down as quickly as it arrived. Zahra slowly drops her arms and rolls to her knees to peek at the new arrivals. Sliding off the back of a giant weasel is none other than Temari, the Kazekage’s older sister and de facto commander of the airborne division. Her cheeks and nose are red from the wind’s constant bite, her arms and legs shaking, her lips blue. Hopping off right behind her, looking far less worse for wear, is a boy Zahra has never seen before. Even if she hadn’t caught the headband tied around his leg, she’d recognize him as a Leaf Village ninja by his fair skin and bulky jacket– neither are suited to life in the desert.

The giant weasel disappears in a burst of white smoke and Temari struggles to her feet, using her fan for support. She catches sight of Zahra out of the corner of her eye and opens her mouth to speak, but snaps it shut and covers it as she leans forward, stifling a retching sound.

The Leaf Village boy steadies her with an arm around her shoulders, keeping her upright as he mutters, "You don’t need to push yourself anymore, let me take things from here," before catching Zahra’s eye and his voice going sharp, "You have a radio, call whoever’s in charge right now and tell them Chūnin Medic Sasuke Uchiha from the Hidden Leaf Village has arrived with Jōnin Temari. Tell them we’re the advance support from the Leaf Village, and that Temari is suffering from Chakra Exhaustion."

Zahra’s jaw drops. She may never have seen this boy before, but she knows that name. The Last Uchiha and apprentice to Legendary Sannin Tsunade Senju– Being one of those things would make you merely interesting, being both at the same time makes you famous. She makes the call to Baki with sweaty palms and a shivering voice, eyes constantly darting back to Sasuke. Sasuke isn’t returning the favor, preoccupied with crushing up some kind of tablet into Temari’s canteen and urging her to drink. She gulps it down like she’s been lost in the desert for weeks.

Baki’s reply comes in quick and harsh; "Bring them to the hospital immediately!"

Zahra chokes out a quick "Yes, sir," and turns off her radio, relaying to Sasuke, "I-I’m supposed to take you to the hospital–"

Sasuke has one of Temari’s arms over his shoulders and is making his way to the stairs; "No need, I know where it is."

Zahra’s voice comes out in a squeak as she sprints to catch up; "W-wait, no, you can’t–! T-technically we haven’t verified your identity so I can’t let you go in without an escort–!"

Sasuke glares over his shoulder at her, eyes flashing a bright red as he activates the Sharingan. Zahra stumbles over her own feet, breath caught in her throat.

He snarls through bared teeth, "Is that verification enough for you?"

Zahra’s mouth might as well be glued shut. He rolls his eyes and turns away from her, taking the stairs two at a time. Sasuke homes in on the hospital like a hunting hawk and is at it’s doors in an instant. He kicks the door open hard enough that the hinges scream at the sudden impact, swinging violently in his wake.

The hospital waiting room is a wide space with many branching hallways coming off it like spokes in a wheel. Seats for patients and desks for nurses and orderlies sit on the very edge of the room, leaving plenty of space for large amounts of patients to be rushed through or– in highly dire situations– the room itself to act as ICU, operating theater, and whatever else they need it to be. Plants with little need for sunlight or water sit in the furthest corners, basking in the bright, recessed, artificial lighting beaming down on them. Adobe walls keep it cool during the day, warm during the night.

Baki is standing in the center of the waiting room, flanked by medics on either side; "Chūnin Uchiha. You’re early. Will there be more of you?"

Sasuke nods; "We have others coming behind us on foot. They’re tracking the Kazekage’s scent, seeing if they can’t catch the Akatsuki en route before they get here. I came ahead to assist in your relief efforts, under orders from Lady Tsunade to defer to you."

Temari takes another long gulp from her canteen and gasps, "Where’s Kankuro?"

Baki’s jaw clenches, and he mutters through his teeth, "He’s the reason you’re both here. Follow me, I’ll brief you."

He leads them towards the stairs as he explains, "Kankuro managed to catch up to the Akatsuki and engage them, but obviously he didn’t win. The agent he fought coated their weapons in some sort of poison. A potent one, too– He was able to manage a few sentences of a report, then started lapsing in and out of consciousness. This was five hours ago, and he’s been completely unresponsive ever since."

"Let me guess," Temari huffs, "Chiyo has refused to come out of retirement and help, like she always does, the ragged old bi–"

"Worse," Baki replies, "She’s up there with him right now, has been for hours. She can’t identify the poison. The only thing she knows for sure is that it’s designed to make the target suffer a slow, painful death. On the plus side, we have a few more days to–"

"No," Sasuke cuts in, voice hard and dark as obsidian, "We do not have 'a few more days’. I know poisons like that, I’ve made poisons like that. They’re designed to make you think you have time. If you let the poison ravage the body for long enough, even if you develop an antidote and save their life the damage done to the tissue and organs in the meantime will still take the victim out of action– maybe temporarily, usually permanently, especially if it’s doing anything to the brain. We don’t have days. We have hours."

Baki doesn’t respond with words. He instead responds by sending a burst of chakra to the soles of his feet and breaking into a run. Sasuke is quick on his heels, keeping up easily despite Temari’s weight on his shoulder. They climb all the way to the top floor, Sasuke stopping only when they’re right outside the door to one of the operating theaters to ease off Temari.

"Do you think you can stand on your o–?"

Temari sprints out of his grasp and through the door, calling her brother’s name like it’s being torn out of her throat. Sasuke and Baki quickly follow, but Baki has to pause once he’s through. He’s seen it so many times since Kankuro’s return, but the sight of him like this never fails to make his blood run cold.

Seeing Kankuro without his face paint and puppeteer garb is like seeing him naked. With his hair exposed and his features on full display, the resemblance between him and the Fourth Kazekage makes Baki’s stomach roll. His skin is pale and clammy, the sheen of sweat glistening almost yellow in the fluorescent light. His eyes are mostly closed. Like this he can see them glazed over, twitching in their sockets, moving without seeing. Baki is used to hearing Kankuro’s voice shouting orders, drawling through jokes he knows are horrible, and chuffing rough but sincere praise to his siblings. It’s just not made for these weak, pained groans and hoarse, wheezing breaths.

Temari shoves her way past the medics standing vigil around Kankuro and crashes to her knees at his bedside. She takes his hand in hers, squeezing it with white knuckles.

Baki can’t see her face from this angle, but he doesn’t need to, not when he can hear Temari whispering, "Hey, Kankuro, it’s me. It’s Tem. I’m here now. I brought help, I promise you’re gonna be okay and we’re gonna get Gaara back, I promise. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I wasn’t here sooner, but I’m here now, I’m here–"

Kankuro’s fingers twitch in Temari’s grip. Baki’s throat tightens and he forces his gaze over to Sasuke. Sasuke elbows his way through the medics and up to Kankuro’s side, Sharingan flaring to life. His jacket is off and around his waist in seconds, a thin membrane of chakra coating his hands like latex gloves as he starts poking and prodding at Kankuro’s body. He opens one of Kankuro’s eyes all the way and fishes a tiny flashlight out of one of his jacket pockets, shining it on his eye for a few moments before pocketing it again and forcibly opening his mouth, probing around inside with his fingers. Well. You can’t say he isn’t being thorough.

After a few more moments of examination he holds one hand out to the medics and snaps, "Chart. Now."

The medics exchange astonished glances before the one nearest to Sasuke blinks rapidly, stammering, "I-I– Who–?"

There’s a clatter nearby and an elderly voice snaps, "Just who do you think you are, boy?!"

Sasuke is the only person whose head doesn’t whip toward the new commotion. Chiyo is fuming at her workstation, scrolls, vials, various and sundry herbs all forgotten in favor of glaring poisoned daggers at Sasuke. Ebizō is a foot behind Chiyo and similarly interested in Sasuke, peering curiously at him from beneath his long eyebrows.

Sasuke just snaps his fingers and repeats with a blood red glare over one shoulder, "Chart. Now. I won’t ask a third time."

The youngest of the medics, a girl with the deep brown skin of the Southeast border tribes, fumbles the chart directly into Sasuke’s waiting hand. He mutters a nearly inaudible "Thanks" before flipping through the pages at rapid speed, eyes moving too fast to track. Baki glances back to Chiyo. She grinds her teeth and looks Sasuke up and down several times before her gaze gets stuck on the Uchiha crest on the back of his jacket. Baki preemptively drags his hand down his face. This will not end well.

"What is the world coming to," Chiyo spits, fixing Baki with a look that could strip the paint from a wall, "that you’re putting one of our own people’s life in the hands of not only a Leaf ninja, but an Uchiha?!"

Baki sighs through a grimace, "Lady Chiyo, Sasuke is perfectly qualified–"

"Bah," Chiyo scoffs, "Uchiha are only qualified to do one thing: Destroy."

"Now now, that’s not fair," Ebizō chides, "Don’t you remember Sayano Uchiha, from the war? Brilliant surgeon, that one, had an encyclopedic knowledge of anatomy–"

Chiyo fires back before he’s even finished, "And why do we know that? Because she’d use it to take our men apart on the interrogation table before taking their minds apart with her Sharingan! And we could never put them back together again! A person who can do that, a clan who can do that to people without even thinking–!"

Sasuke barks just above Chiyo’s ranting, "This is a heavy metal-based toxin meant to tear up muscle tissue. It’s ultimate aim is to weaken the cardiac muscle until the heart collapses and stops functioning. In the meantime it poses a significant risk to the rest of his body. If you want Kankuro to come out of this not only alive but still able to walk, I’m going to need you to do as I say and do it fast."

The medics immediately snap to attention; "Y-yes, sir!"

Chiyo, of course, crosses the distance and grabs Sasuke’s shoulder as she shouts over them, "How dare you–!"

Sasuke whirls on his heel to face Chiyo; "How dare I what?! How dare I act quickly and decisively?! How dare I not mince words when there’s a life on the line?! How dare I act like a goddamn adult?! Take your pick, I don’t care! I don’t have time for your petty tribalist bitching and neither does Kankuro! Either get out of my way or I will make you get out of it!"

Chiyo’s jaw clenches and her shoulders tense, but Ebizō quickly comes up behind her; "Listen to the boy, Chiyo. You’re forgetting yourself."

Sasuke doesn’t watch the tension leak from Chiyo like air from a balloon as Ebizō leads her away, turning back to his patient without giving her a second glance. Baki follows her with his eye, watches her shuffle out into the hallway and settle on the bench across from the door. Chiyo keeps her eyes narrow and trained on Sasuke, following him like a fox tracking a lizard across the dunes. Baki takes his cue from her, turning his attention back to Sasuke.

"As I was saying, I’m going to need water and basins. Lots of them. Double time," Sasuke snaps, and the medics hastily comply.

In the brief moment that they’re gone, Temari angles a smirk up at Sasuke and rasps, "Who taught you your bedside manner, doc?"

Sasuke replies, "Women who forced their way to the top of this field thirty-five years ago and invented modern medical ninjutsu as we know it."

Temari coughs out a chuckle; "I see. That explains it."

From the corner of his ear, Baki catches Chiyo muttering, "It can’t be. That old slug queen wouldn’t take an Uchiha as her apprentice. There’s no way."

Ebizō’s affable murmur brings a smirk to Baki’s face; "Times change, Chiyo. Perhaps Tsunade changed with them."

In the space of a few more breaths, the medics return with several basins and gallon-sized canisters of water. Sasuke guides them through setting out one of the basins and filling it with water, placing the rest on standby, then directs them all to surround the bed on either side.

He looks to Temari and Baki; "If you can, I’m gonna need you to help hold him down. He’s not gonna like this part."

A jolt of panic goes down Baki’s spine, but he goes and positions himself down by Kankuro’s legs without a word. Temari pulls herself to her feet and posts up at his shoulders. Sasuke dips a hand in the basin and his Sharingan slowly start to spin. When he takes his hand out, he brings the water with it. It glows from within with blue green chakra, casting strange shadows on the walls of the operating theater. With a deep breath Sasuke presses the water onto Kankuro’s chest… Then into his chest.

Kankuro’s eyes shoot open wide. His voice comes blasting out in a raw and tattered scream, thrashing against and away from Sasuke’s ministrations. Temari, Baki, and the medics all force him down, using all their strength to keep him still. Sasuke grits his teeth, tomoe spinning faster and faster as he moves more and more of the chakra-saturated water into Kankuro’s body through his pores. Sasuke brings his other hand over to the opposite side of Kankuro’s chest and lays it flat over his heart.

He shuts his eyes, takes a deep breath, and pulls the water back out with that hand. Baki’s eye goes wide. The water comes out the other side speckled with blood and peppered with larger splotches of a dark purple liquid, twisting around in the fluid like wriggling insects.

"Is that the poison?" Temari gasps, eyes darting between the water and Kankuro’s face, contorted in pain.

"If it isn’t I have some questions about your brother’s diet," Sasuke mutters, dropping the water into the basin from whence it came, "Another one!"

The process is long, drawn out, and painful for everyone involved. Baki’s arms creak with the effort of pinning Kankuro down, and his screams never abate. He’s sure he’ll be hearing them when he goes to sleep tonight. While Sasuke does the heavy lifting he instructs two of the medics to break off and separate the poison from the water as best they can. They go through more water than Baki can quantify at a glance as Sasuke works his way down Kankuro’s body, forcing the poison out of his major organs and muscle groups. He works with the kind of methodical precision only gained through practice– the Sharingan is helping, certainly, but rote imitation and sharper sight can only get you so far. Sasuke’s making up the difference with the kind of effort that makes sweat roll down your face like raindrops.

It’s easily two hours before Sasuke drops the last of the water in the very last basin, leans back, and sighs, "Okay, now I’ve bought us some time."

The medics break out into big smiles and clap Sasuke on the back as they let out little triumphant cheers. The still-chakra exhausted Temari staggers away, back hitting the wall, and slumps down to the floor with a massive exhale. Baki pats Kankuro’s shin and smiles up at his face. They may not be out of the woods yet, but they’re on their way.

"Now comes the Slightly Less Hard Part," Sasuke continues, straightening up and dusting off his hands, "I’m gonna need a list of the medicinal herbs you have in the village. In the meantime, we should change his bandages, hook him up to an IV drip, and set aside samples of the poison."

The medics hop back to work, and from the edge of his vision Baki can see Chiyo slowly making her way back into the room. Her eyes are still trained on Sasuke, her expression tight and pensive. Sasuke doesn’t seem to be paying her any mind.

Not until she speaks up; "Are you really that old slug queen Tsunade’s student, boy?"

Sasuke doesn’t bother turning his Sharingan off as he meets her gaze with a steady glare; "I am. She sent me here personally. And my name is Sasuke Uchiha. Call me 'boy' again and we will have a problem."

Chiyo arches a brow; "We aren’t having one now?"

Sasuke bares his teeth in a primate grin, pure challenge with none of the mirth; "You haven’t seen anything yet."

Jungsimji is an old city, one of the oldest in the East. She remembers when the Land of Sound was the Land of Rice Paddies. She remembers when the Land of Rice Paddies was Imperial Province Suiden. She remembers when the Imperial Province Suiden was the Kingdom of Non, and the people of Non dragged stone all the way from the Kingdom of Suối Nóng to build a fortress to defend themselves against the armies of the first emperor. They named her for what she was: The center of their world, the heart of their kingdom, the most pivotal and important point in the whole country.

And when the emperor’s armies arrived she had burned down to the stone. Kings were warriors then, and the king had fought until his last breath in the streets of his capital to defend his home, his people, and his very way of life.

Seven hundred years later, Jungsimji is once again burning. And her daimyō is hiding in a wardrobe.

Daimyō Kazuyuki Saitō has no idea when the chaos started, precisely, only when it reached the ears of his guard. Saitō had been in the middle of breakfast when his personal bodyguard, a shinobi hand-selected by Orochimaru who called herself Mōkin, had been called aside by one of the palace guards. She was a severe woman, loathe to move her face even to blink, but whatever the guard had whispered to her had made her eyebrows leap halfway up her forehead.

She had whirled on her heel and hauled him to his feet, dragging him away; "The city is under siege, my lord. Come. We must move to a more secure part of the palace."

All he had thought to splutter with a mouth still half-full of food was, "Is the whole palace not secure?"

Mōkin’s mouth had simply twitched, distorting one of her scars; "Of course it is, my lord."

At first, he was simply restricted to the honmaru. But after another guard, this one with fear in his eyes and sweat on his brow, whispered something to Mōkin she restricted him to the tenshukaku. Then to the upper two floors of the tenshukaku. Then to the top floor. Then to his quarters. And finally, she had thrown him physically into his wardrobe.

The last thing he saw before she shut the door and barred it were Mōkin’s flinty eyes and her tense jaw as she hissed, "Do not try to leave this wardrobe. If you want to live, stay quiet and still as a corpse."

And here he has sat, following her instructions, for what feels like hours. Saitō occupies his nervous hands by rubbing one of the silk robes he’s sandwiched between, his mind racing. For his guard to be this nervous yet this silent about why, it can only be the peasants. And for it to be the peasants, something must have gone horribly wrong on Orochimaru’s end. That was his part of the bargain. He keeps the peasants in line, keeps the flow of grain and revenue going steadily up so it can trickle down, and Saitō lets him run the Hidden Sound Village however he pleases.

It’s been working for over a decade. Orochimaru may be an unsettling creature of a man but he gets results. It’s thanks to him Saitō has been living in comfort for this long. It’s thanks to him that Saitō is sitting where his simple cousin sat all those years ago, enjoying the privileges his cousin had endured. What could have possibly happened to a Legendary Sannin to make him shirk his duties like this? Saitō forces himself to breathe easy. Orochimaru gave him his very best men to defend the palace, defend him, defend his wife and heirs. He will be fine. The peasants may be numerous, but they’re nothing compared to ninja, they don’t have the raw power–

There’s a muffled boom in the distance and the sound of crumbling rock. If that was one of the palace’s cannons going off there would be no rock for them to hit, unless they're breaking their own walls now…

Saitō’s breathing spikes and he clutches at the silk robes around him like a security blanket. Where did the peasants get gunpowder?! Nevermind the powder, where did they get cannons?! Orochimaru was supposed to enforce the law, keep gunpowder out of the hands of peasants, because gunpowder is all it takes to turn a rabble into a militia and–

No, no, no, they’re untrained, unskilled, uneducated. They’re simple people. They don’t have formations, battle plans, strategies, anything you need to take a fortress. They’re like the tide, they roll and crash upon the cliffs and they break. It takes eons for waves to erode a cliffside. These people don’t have eons. They have days, at best. He can outlast them. His guards can outlast them. Easily. He just needs to follow Mōkin’s instructions. Stay still and quiet as a corpse if he wants to live, don’t try to leave, and–

The wardrobe doors splinter open. A beast with an orange mane, golden eyes, and skin splotched with gray leers over him, his heaving breaths steaming in the cold night air. With one massive claw, he grabs Saitō by the scruff and throws him into the center of his bedchamber. The first thing he sees is Mōkin’s corpse, blood from three massive gashes across her chest and a hole in her forehead staining his Northern Wind Country rug, her face frozen in a scream. His clock, built by artisans in the capital of the Land of Fire, lies in pieces at her side. It's gilt hands are forever stopped at ten o'clock. The night glows red hot as firelight filters through the shoji. Saitō can hear the sounds of clashing blades, firing artillery, and dying gasps, nowhere near as distant as he'd like.

The orange-haired, man-shaped beast calls over his shoulder, "The coward’s in here!"

The heavy oak doors creak open and two figures step through, a woman and a slip of a girl. The woman has cropped brown hair, a scar on her temple, and her plain jeogori and baji are stained with blood. In one hand she totes a rifle, while the other is hidden behind her back. Saitō tries to get a look at the girl, but all he catches is pink hair before she seems to dissolve into the harsh shadows cast by the fire outside.

The woman takes three steps into the room before bringing her other hand out from behind her back and tossing something dark and round towards him. The object hits the ground, bounces, and rolls to a stop a foot away from Saitō's face. He's face to face with the severed head of Orochimaru.

The woman’s lip lifts in a sneer; "We'll be accepting your surrender now, Daimyō Saitō."

Chapter Text

V. Like a salmon always knows exactly how and when to go back to the stream they were born in, Ino can find her way to the Nara and Akimichi Compounds like a magnet is pulling her there. It’s an instinct she’s had for so long she might as well have been born with it. That’s what makes it so hard to fight.

Ino power walks from street lamp to street lamp, her blonde pixie cut nearly white in their cheap sodium glow, as she meanders vaguely in the direction of the Nara Compound. Ino dips down alleyways, goes up backstreets, sends a clone to jump around the rooftops, all in the service of making herself a pain in the ass to tail. Not that she’s ever caught anyone tailing her. It’s ten in the evening, and in the Leaf Village that means there’s no one around but stray cats and crickets. Besides, this is a village, everyone knows everyone, no one should even want to tail her. But because she’s a ninja, she knows better than that.

Her long, spiraling walk takes her down a quiet cobblestone street hemmed in by trees. The space between the street lamps grows with every step, like the street is being stretched from both sides. It’s her least favorite part of this walk. But the tiny wisps of fear blow away on the wind when she catches the sound of heavy footsteps and something crunching coming up the road.

Ino turns down a side street. The sounds grow louder and louder before falling into perfect step beside her. Ino smiles up at Choji through her bangs. He smiles back down at her, mouth full, hand in a bag of chips.

"Careful eating on the job, Choji," Ino chuckles, "Our shadow might follow your breadcrumb trail."

Choji shakes his head and replies around a bite, "Nah, no chance. It’s an ancient Akimichi Clan Secret Technique: Crumbless Eating Jutsu."

Ino gives his shoulder a shove that doesn’t move him an inch; "Knowing your clan, that’s probably not even a joke."

Ino and Choji walk right past the gate to the Yamanaka Clan compound, and after a few minutes more they come to a stop in front of the Nara Compound. The gate towers over them both, a heavy wooden edifice built without iron nails, handles, or hinges. It sits between walls of heavy stone, piled high and dense. The way their fathers always told it, the Yamanaka, Akimichi, and Nara clans settled in the central valley before even the Senju. That gate is older than the forest behind it.

Typical Naras. They were too lazy to move.

Ino looks up at Choji through her lashes and whispers, "Did you bring The Stuff?"

"Of course I did, I’m a professional," Choji replies, fishing a colorful plastic packet out of his armor.

He tosses it up to the top of the gate, where it stops and hangs in the air. Then the darkness melts away. Crouched atop the gate is a shinobi in his late thirties, his dark hair in a loose ponytail and his darker eyes ringed with green eyeliner. He scratches at his goatee with one hand and holds the packet up to the light with the other. After a moment’s inspection, he tears it open, digs out a small sugar candy, and pops it into his mouth.

Around the candy, he remarks, "Smart move, bribing the gate guard instead of sneaking under the hole in the fence. You’re growing up so fast."

Ino rolls her eyes; "It’s good to see you, too, Uncle Ensui."

Ensui winks at her before dropping down behind the gate. There’s a moment’s pause before it yawns open, revealing Ensui and the winding path through the trees. Ensui steps to one side with a courtly bow before the darkness reaches out and swallows him again. Choji and Ino exchange fond snickers before they set off down the path.

The canopy completely blocks out the moon, leaving the path to the Nara Clan Head’s home the darkest one in the village. The narrow dirt trail is punctuated every fifteen feet by matching pairs of stone lanterns, their flames burning small and dim. Deep within the trees Ino can just barely make out the silhouette of deer, standing eerily still until suddenly sprinting out of sight. It isn’t long before the path opens up onto the Nara manor. The Hyūga have a far more opulent mansion and the Inuzuka certainly have a larger one, but as Ino carefully avoids the squeaky boards on the stairs and catches sight of the notches in a post where Shikaku would track how tall she, Shikamaru, and Choji were getting, she’s sure that few other clan manors feel more like a home.

Ino knocks on the door, and it isn’t long before Yoshino Nara answers. For just a moment, as Yoshino pushes some hair out of her eyes and sighs through her nose, Ino is struck by the dark circles beneath her eyes and the harsh slump of her shoulders. But then her eyes alight on the two of them. The smile that spreads across Yoshino's face makes her look and Ino feel years younger.

Ino beams and opens her arms for a hug; "Hi, Auntie Yoshino!"

Choji bows from the shoulders; "Good evening, Missus Nara."

Yoshino pulls them both in, one arm going all the way around Ino and the other barely clearing Choji’s right shoulder; "It’s good to see you two, though I wish Shikamaru would stop calling you in so late. If he keeps this up much longer I swear the three of you are going to become nocturnal."

Ino pulls back from the embrace; "Speaking of Shikamaru…"

Yoshino’s smile drops; "Right, right… He’s in The Hole again."

Ino and Choji cringe in rhyme. They say their pleasantries to Yoshino, slip off their shoes, and make their way deeper into the house. Ino notices the traces of Shikaku’s absence as they cut through the front rooms– A plate at the kitchen table covered over by a bowl, a half-finished crocheted afghan on the sofa, the lamp burning by the door. Ino wonders if he called to tell Yoshino not to wait up for him. She wonders if Yoshino’s waiting up anyway.

Scratch that. She doesn’t need to wonder. She knows Yoshino would never pass up an opportunity to playfully rake Shikaku across the coals for coming home late, and Shikaku would never miss an opportunity to hear her do it.

Choji and Ino creep deeper into the house, past Shikaku’s study, past the master bedroom, past Shikamaru’s room, and finally stopping at a perfectly nondescript door. Ino knocks the first half of "shave and a haircut" on the direct center, sending chakra out through her knuckles and into the door with every knock. After exactly ten seconds, there’s an answering "two bits" knock. The hall lights up purple as a seal scrawls itself across the door, then goes out just as quickly. Ino spares Choji a long-suffering wince before heading inside.

They squeeze into what used to be a servants’ quarters back when the Naras had servants. What Shikamaru has turned it into is… well, The Hole. Shikamaru stands in the center of a web made from equal parts string and paper. The walls are coated with photographs, reports, maps, graphs, receipts, and so many miscellaneous scraps that Ino can’t see the actual wood anymore. Pins don’t just hold up the collected evidence, but act as points of connection for an intricate weave of many-colored strings.

Shikamaru has a hand to his chin and is staring intently at the tableau in front of him. Choji shuffles over to stand on Shikamaru’s left side. Ino shuts the door, resets the seal, and settles on Shikamaru’s right.

She arches a brow as she wonders, "Remind me how you convinced your mom to let you use her crochet yarn for this again?"

Shikamaru replies in a deadpan, "With my irresistible wit and charm. What’ve you got for me?"

Ino crosses her arms over her chest; "Not as much as you’re hoping for. I popped in and out of the Barrier Team’s headquarters as often as I could, but no unsanctioned entry or exits were reported or detected. I tried to get them to tell me if there were less hawks coming into the village than normal, but that got me stuck in a lecture about how if they paid that close attention to every single bird that flew in and out of Leaf airspace they’d lose their minds, so we can say pretty much for sure they’re not gonna be much help."

Shikamaru taps a finger against his lips in a slow rhythm; "What about the Intel Division?"

"They showed off just how good they are at putting on a brave face," Ino scoffs, "I snooped enough to see that, just like you said, reports from abroad were scarcer than normal. But nobody was freaking out about it. They were way more preoccupied with Gaara’s kidnapping. I did as much surface thought skimming as I could get away with, there was a lot of 'It’s fine sometimes agents run into trouble, it’s fine Tanaka told me that dead days like this happen, it’s fine it’s fine it’s fine’."

Ino shrugs, huffing hard enough to ruffle her bangs; "Granted, these were rank and file chūnin I was scanning. I’m not stupid enough to think I can sneak in and out of Ibiki’s mind, or my dad’s. Just looking at them, they didn’t even seem like they noticed."

Shikamaru simply nods and asks, "What about the wall, Choji?"

Choji frowns, running a hand through his hair, and answers, "Second verse, same as the first. They were clocking way fewer messenger hawks than normal flying in, but if that worried anyone nobody was letting it show. I did get a few chūnin talking about it, and they mostly shrugged it off with 'shit happens, the reports will get here when they get here'. I got into it with a couple jōnin, but they shut down real quick when I brushed close to anything I didn’t have the proper security clearance to know about."

"Yeah, same here," Ino chimes in, "Honestly, Shikamaru, it might just be a dead day."

Shikamaru’s voice comes in quick and sharp; "Not a chance. Thanks to you guys, now I know for sure there’s something going on."

Ino arches a brow; "Really?"

"Really. Think about what you guys kept saying– Reports were scarcer. There were less hawks coming in," Shikamaru explains, slowly starting to pace a short loop, "Not 'none'. Not a complete blackout. That tells us that we aren’t dealing with something earthshaking that could take out dozens of hawks or dozens of ninja all at once. We’re dealing with humans. Humans with an upper limit to their manpower. Humans that are fallible enough to miss a good ten to twenty percent of the communications they’re trying to block, but smart enough to know that."

Ino cocks her head to one side; "Where are you getting that second part from?"

"Once again, think about what you kept saying," Shikamaru continues, his pacing speeding up, "People are worried. But not enough to think they’re allowed to make a scene about it. Not enough to get the higher ups to sweat. Not enough to prompt immediate, decisive, visible action. And remember, of all the communications to let though, they made sure the one about Gaara’s kidnapping made it here. Adding that and foreign reports slowing to a trickle together, you buy yourself anywhere from a few days to a week to sneak around in the dead zone you’ve created and do… whatever it is you’re doing."

Choji squints just past Shikamaru at the tangled mess on the walls; "That’s the thing, isn’t it? What could they be doing that requires complete radio silence from our agents in the field?"

Shikamaru clicks his tongue against his teeth, slowing his pace; "That is indeed the thing. It’s still too early to guess any specifics… But I have a heading."

Ino is leaning in now, eyes running along the strings like a spider; "What are you thinking?"

Shikamaru turns and taps two fingers against the papers on the wall; "We need to get a good look at where all the reports that make it through are coming from. Because I will bet you if we add them all up, we’ll find one spot where it is a total, complete blackout. Blocking almost everything is a smokescreen. They’re trying to block something specific happening somewhere specific."

Choji scratches at his scalp, his frown turning into a wince; "Shikamaru… We definitely don’t have the clearance for that. And if our shadow’s really as embedded in the village as you think, there’s no way we can pull strings with our parents or Tsunade to get clearance without them noticing."

Shikamaru is quiet for a long moment before he mutters, "No… no we can’t… But we all know someone who can."

Ino’s eyes go wide; "Wait a minute, are you thinking–?"

"Asuma’s a jōnin, a Sarutobi from the leading line, and a former member of the Twelve Guardian Ninja," Shikamaru cuts in, "He has more connections in higher places than any of us. I didn’t want to get more people involved in this than I had to, but…"

Choji finishes the sentence; "Are you sure you have to?"

Shikamaru doesn’t say anything. He leans closer to the wall, until his forearm is flat against it. He drums his fingers on a report as he stares at the pages in front of him hard enough to set them on fire.

Finally, he sighs, "I’ll sleep on it. But if there’s another way to get the information we need, I can’t see it."

Ino chews on her lower lip as she stares at Shikamaru’s back. He looks like he could fall right into this web of evidence, this pit of leads and dead ends, and never come out.

She keeps her voice soft; "Shikamaru… This is risky enough for us, but Kurenai is pregnant…"

Shikamaru twitches a shoulder in an attempt at a shrug; "If anyone’s ready to handle those risks, it’s Asuma."

Ino throws Choji a worried glance and he tosses back one of his own. Ino wags her head toward Shikamaru’s right side. Choji shuts his eyes, then does the same towards Shikamaru’s left. They don’t need to say it out loud. Now and always, they know exactly where they stand.

The deep river gorge lights up bright orange, bringing the figures of the two Akatsuki agents and their captive into harsh relief. One stands tall and lanky, weight on one foot and a hand on the opposite hip. The other sits low and misshapen, with some sort of strange appendage lashing back and forth in the shallow river. A man-sized bird that does not breathe hovers at their side, a limp but twitching body curled in its tail feathers.

And just as quickly as it came to life, the light dies. In the moment of darkness as his eye readjusts, Kakashi can hear rock scraping against rock. When the spots clear, the Akatsuki agents and their bird stroll through a torii gate and beneath a gargantuan boulder. The moment they’re through, the boulder slides back into place. A square of paper on the boulder’s face flashes once, then the night is as silent and dark as always.

From his perch on the cliffs at the top of the gorge, Kakashi sets his binoculars on the ground, and thinks. He and Naruto are lying flat against the ground within the underbrush. It’s unlikely that either agent saw them, but not impossible. He spares a glance to Naruto, just to his left. To his credit, Naruto isn’t fidgeting. But he is clenching his fists hard enough to break skin. Kakashi brings the binoculars back up and adjusts the magnification. Sure enough, there’s a seal on the boulder. Kakashi starts wracking his brain to scrape together everything Minato taught him about fuinjutsu, an effort that’s difficult enough when Naruto’s nervous energy isn’t throwing him off.

Naruto throws him even further off as he whispers through a mouth full of his own lip, "They’re right in front of us, Kakashi-sensei, we could–!"

"No, we couldn’t. Look," Kakashi passes Naruto the binoculars as he explains, "As if the door being a gigantic boulder wasn’t enough, there’s a seal on it. There’s no telling what it will do if we approach."

Naruto stares at the boulder for a long moment, the tight set of his shoulders loosening at the same time as his brow is furrowing. The tip of his tongue pokes out from the corner of his mouth for a moment before he starts muttering something under his breath. Kakashi can’t help arching a brow as he watches Naruto think out loud.

After a moment, Naruto suddenly says, "Oh, I know what it does."

The only thing Kakashi can think to ask is, "You do?"

"Yeah, like," Naruto brings the binoculars down and scratches at his head, "I’m still not great at actually doing fuinjutsu 'cause seals are real intricate and complicated and sometimes I just can’t concentrate on getting them all the way down, but Jiraiya still drilled me enough that I, like, get what parts make them up and stuff and–"

Kakashi cuts Naruto off in his best Sensei Voice, "Okay, Naruto, just slow down. Explain to me how the seal works."

"Right, right, gotcha," Naruto scoots closer, until he and Kakashi’s sides are touching, before holding the binoculars up so Kakashi is looking through the left lens and Naruto is looking through the right, "See the two kanji at the top there? Reading them like normal they’d usually mean 'tree' or 'wood', but with fuinjutsu it’s not that… literal, I guess? They’re more like, like the person who made the seal was thinking about a forest of trees sprouting up, like things growing. And the big kanji at the bottom–"

Kakashi squints at the kanji in question, muttering almost to himself, "Is that even a real kanji?"

Kakashi feels Naruto’s shrug as it jostles him to one side; "Well I mean no but like, it’s close to two different kanji, one that usually means 'important' and one that means 'end'. But like I said, it’s not that literal, it’s more trying to say that this seal is the center of something, the lynchpin, basically. And you can’t pay too much attention to the actual characters because what matters more is how many strokes make them up–"

Kakashi can only deadpan, "I’m suddenly remembering why my sensei’s lessons on fuinjutsu didn’t really take."

Naruto lets the binoculars droop so he can blink owlishly at Kakashi and wonder, "Your sensei did fuinjutsu?"

For the first time in a long time, Kakashi finds himself smiling as he talks about Minato; "He didn’t just do fuinjutsu, he was an expert on it. He came up with techniques people still haven’t been able to replicate."

Naruto’s eyes go wide enough to catch a few of the stars; "Whoa…"

Kakashi’s throat is suddenly full of thorns. Why does he have to look so much like them?

Kakashi forces his gaze back down to the gorge; "So what were you saying about the strokes in the kanji?"

"Oh, right! Right, so, like," Naruto pulls the binoculars back up with one hand and makes vague, evocative gestures with the other, "The two 'wood' kanji are made up of four strokes each. That plus the 'lynchpin' kanji means that this seal has multiple tags connecting to it, and the amount of strokes equals the amount of tags. The lynchpin kanji confirms it, because it’s made of five strokes. Four outlying tags, one center tag, that’s five tags in all. That’s also confirmed by the border–"

Kakashi’s brow hops up; "The border is important?"

Naruto lets the binoculars sag once again so Kakashi can see him rolling his eyes; "Yeah, that’s why I’m not great at fuinjutsu, everything you put on the page is important. You can’t improvise, not really, one wrong stroke and the whole thing blows up."

Kakashi’s smile is warm and small, but he hopes Naruto can still hear it; "Yeah, that’s not your style at all. So how is the border important?"

Once again, Naruto has to reel himself back on to his original train of thought; "Right, yeah, the border is rectangular and boxes in the seal. That means this seal is supposed to block off a rectangular area, and the four tags are placed at four points to mark the edges. And the lynchpin tag is in the center, so that means we’re in the sealed zone right now."

Only now is Kakashi keeping pace as he taps a finger against his chin and adds, "So this seal isn’t designed as a hard barrier but a soft one."

Naruto nods hard enough to make his whole body bounce a half-inch off the ground; "Yeah! Hard barriers require a lot more chakra and more active work, so they can’t cover super wide areas. Soft barriers can still be nasty though. Can do things like reflect damage you try to do to anything in the 'forbidden' area back on you and shit, it can be rough, believe it."

Kakashi huffs out a sigh, "And let me guess, hunting down and tearing off the tags one at a time wouldn’t work, would it?"

Naruto shakes his head with a wince; "Nope. You’d probably have to take them all off at the same time. And you’d be in for a shitty surprise when you did."

Kakashi narrows his eyes, the wheels in his head turning quicker and quicker; "Don’t tell me… That second 'wood' character means something’s going to sprout up when you remove one of the four corner tags."

"Not just something," Naruto replies, "Look, the characters are identical. Almost like they used a stamp. The tags’ll make some kind of clone when they’re torn off. Probably of the person who tore them off, that’d be easier to do over a long distance."

Kakashi considers that for a heartbeat, then turns to smirk slyly behind his mask at Naruto; "Clones, hm?"

Naruto stares at Kakashi, brow furrowed, for exactly ten seconds before he lights up their hiding spot with a huge grin; "Oh! Yeah! Yeah! This is gonna be a piece of cake, I make four clones, send 'em off with the dogs, find the tags, then tear 'em all off at the same time! My clones will fight their clones and we’ll head in!"

Naruto starts to get up and Kakashi reaches around to put a hand between his shoulder blades and push him back down to Earth; "One problem with that plan: There’s still a big rock in our way."

Naruto’s mouth screws up in a frown; "You couldn’t break through it?"

"Not quickly. You?"

Naruto just grimaces. That’s all the answer he needs to give.

"That’s what I thought," Kakashi continues, "We can’t discount the possibility that the instant we break the seal the Akatsuki will be alerted. They might have a way out of there, they might not. Either way, that’s another chance we can’t take. We need to be ready to bust our way in within moments of breaking the seal. And that means…"

Naruto groans, letting his face fall into the dirt; "We have to wait for Sasuke."


Naruto props himself up on his elbows, opens up his jacket, and unzips an interior pocket on the chest. Two white eyestalks come popping out before Katsuyu pokes the rest of her 'head' out, taking a broad look around. Kakashi does his best to suppress a shudder.

"You doing okay in there, Li’l Slug?"

Katsuyu inclines her head in the best attempt at a bow a slug can probably muster; "I am doing fine, Naruto, you need not worry about me. Would you like me to relay all the intelligence you’ve just gathered to Sasuke?"

"Yeah, please, and tell him to hurry."

"Of course."

As Katsuyu withdraws, Kakashi remarks, "In the meantime, you and I get to have ourselves an old fashioned stakeout."

Naruto just perches his chin on one hand, eyes half-open, as he grumbles, "Yeah, yeah, fine."

Kakashi swallows a sigh. And there goes all his energy, like air out of a balloon. He really should be taking notes on these conversations, that way he can track exactly what it is he’s doing that kills them every time.

He lets his voice drop into something softer and says, "Remember, we’re a team, Naruto. We win and lose together."

Naruto just mutters into his palm, so low Kakashi’s sure he’s not supposed to be hearing it, "Then why are we always apart?"

Kakashi doesn’t have an answer for that.

"That is where things stand with Naruto and Kakashi," Katsuyu concludes, "Do you wish to send a reply?"

The tiny slug sits among a mess of dried herbs, beakers, burners, scrolls, pipettes, and dozens more pieces of alchemical equipment Sasuke has forgotten the names for. He considers Katsuyu’s question as he grinds scurvy grass in a mortar and pestle. The greenhouse around him is abuzz with activity as the resident medics race in and out, taking clippings from the plants and delivering samples from the outlying greenhouses. It’s the kind of chaotic rhythm Sasuke’s become used to over the past two years, he’s sure he wouldn’t be able to think as clearly without it.

"Give them the gist of the situation here, then tell them I’m working on an antidote for Kankuro," Sasuke replies, "Much as I want to turn right around and head out once I’m done–"

"That would not be wise, Sasuke," Katsuyu cuts in, "You have been awake for seventeen hours, that you can still function as well as you are is a stroke of luck. You shouldn’t push it."

Sasuke shoots the little slug a lopsided smirk; "Don’t worry, I know the human body well enough to know I won’t have much choice in the matter. Just tell them not to expect another update from me before sunrise."

One of the residents calls from a pond of dawn lotus, "Should one of us go clean up the on-call room for you?"

Sasuke jabs the pestle at them and shoots back, "Make an intern do it, I’m not done with you yet."

Sasuke’s mind runs on two tracks, one considering his next move and the other assembling the antidote. He confers with the other medics, mixes together ingredients, tests and re-tests and re-re-tests, works straight through a shift change, all while plotting out the route from here to the Akatsuki hideout. His gut twists and clenches with every step he takes closer to synthesizing an antidote and every obstacle he can imagine the Akatsuki throwing into his path. Sasuke works with a red-eyed shadow looming over him, watching his every move.

After four hours of trial and error, Sasuke uses an eyedropper to place a sample of the poison in the center of a testing scroll. He fills a pipette with the same amount of antidote, then drops it onto the scroll. The antidote absorbs the poison and disappears in a puff of steam.

Sasuke grins to himself and hisses, "Take that, Akatsuki."

Sasuke separates the antidote into three vials, each a full dosage. The residents don’t let Sasuke clean up after himself, all but pushing him out the door to go cure Kankuro. It’s a quick and quiet jog back to Kankuro’s room as the hospital has fully transitioned into the graveyard shift, and when he knocks on the door, a young intern is the one to answer.

Her dark eyes light up at the sight of the vials; "Are those–?"

Sasuke nods; "Yep. Is he awake?"

The intern opens the door a bit wider and waves him in; "No, but please, come in. I’ll have him up shortly."

Sasuke steps in behind her and closes the door on his heels. He surveys the room in a wide arc. Baki is the first person he sees, asleep sitting up in a chair next to the door. His shoulders are square and his arms crossed tight over his chest, like he could leap up and into battle at a moment’s notice. Temari has compressed herself as much as she can to fit on Kankuro’s hospital bed with him, molded to the side opposite his IV drip. Kankuro is already looking less pale, but the hand holding Temari’s has ghost-white knuckles.

The sight of them makes Sasuke’s heartbeat stutter, but it doesn’t last long as the intern gently coaxes Kankuro awake. He blearily looks around before his eyes settle on Sasuke.

Sasuke forces a smirk and holds up one of the vials; "Room service."

Kankuro tries to laugh and mostly coughs. Sasuke pulls up a chair at Kankuro’s bedside, helping him sit up without disturbing Temari. With the extra help of the intern and a few pillows, they manage it, even if they also drag Temari halfway up with him.

Sasuke holds the vial out to Kankuro; "So, you have two options. I can brew this into tea to make it taste slightly less terrible, or you can just drink it like a shot."

Kankuro takes a few deep breaths before shrugging his free shoulder; "In my experience, two in the morning is a great time to do shots."

Sasuke uncorks the vial; "I’ll save my professional medical opinion on that for later."

He hands the vial to Kankuro, who knocks it back with practiced ease. He lets out a harsh wheeze as he comes back down, thumping a hand against his chest.

Kankuro winces over at Sasuke; "Oh she is smooth, isn’t she?"

"She’ll get the job done," Sasuke chuckles, "You’re also gonna need to take some vitamins and supplements over the next few days, since chelators tend not to care what metal they get rid of and you’ll need to replenish the beneficial ones while the antidote makes it’s way through your system. I'll write you up a prescription in the morning."

Kankuro cracks a faded grin; "Once again, Sasuke, you’re a lifesaver."

"That’s literally the job description," Sasuke snorts.

Kankuro’s grin slowly falls and, after a moment of silence, he asks, "So… What’s the word on Gaara? We made any progress?"

"Shockingly, yeah, we have."

Sasuke explains the situation to Kankuro, who hangs on every word with an intense look on his face. It’s all the more intense without his facepaint and puppeteer uniform. One could think it's a mask, meant to hide his face from the world. But Sasuke, the part of Sasuke that jumps when he sees his own face in the mirror because it's the same as seeing a ghost, knows that’s not who it’s for.

Once Sasuke’s finished giving him the rundown, Kankuro snickers, "And here I thought I was being smart for once, getting a piece of their cloak."

Sasuke shakes his head, insisting, "That is smart, Kankuro. You had no idea we were coming. Hell, even if you thought Leaf would send backup you had no idea what any backup would do. Most people would’ve just run straight here and let you guys call all the shots without taking any initiative."

Kankuro gives him an odd look, arching a brow and cocking his head to one side; "And you aren’t like 'most people', are you?"

Sasuke sits up a little straighter and holds his head a little higher; "Never have been."

Kankuro rolls his eyes, scoffing, "Oh I can see why Chiyo hated you."

Sasuke bristles at the sound of her name; "Trust me, I’ve known the woman for six hours and the feeling is already mutual."

Kankuro rasps out a far better laugh than his previous attempts; "Yeah, she’s got that effect on people."

Sasuke’s mouth twist into a scowl and he spits, "Why do you even keep her around? If she’d had her way, she would’ve just bashed her head against a problem she couldn’t solve on her own until she ran out of time and you died rather than let someone more qualified take over, all because I’m from another village."

Kankuro lets his eyes slide shut and he sighs, "Remember, man, she’s old. She made it through all three wars. She’s older than the entire concept of hidden villages, more than any of us she knows just how temporary and meaningless alliances can be. Chiyo lost her son, daughter-in-law, and grandson to war. I hate to be that guy who goes 'she’s not really that bad you just caught her on a bad day', but you probably did catch her on a bad day. This whole thing is as personal to her as it is to me and Temari."

Sasuke’s brow furrows; "How do you mean?"

Kankuro stares down at his hand as he flexes his fingers, his lips pursed; "Well… Short version? That grandson she lost? He’s the one I fought. Long version…"

The story Kankuro spins is an old one. A little boy loses his parents to The War, is tossed in after them because the village is desperate, and breaks into a dozen monstrous pieces while his grandmother looks on, helpless to stop him. Every hidden village has hundreds of these stories. That’s how someone as deranged as Sasori can find a partner equally as deranged to work alongside. Still, it’s a credit to Kankuro’s skill as a storyteller that this old, predictable tale still has Sasuke leaning closer with every twist and turn.

Kankuro finishes with, "Underneath it all, she’s one of the best puppeteers and saboteurs this village has ever turned out. I can’t say I don’t respect her, I wouldn’t be where I am without her paving the way ahead of me. Her wisdom and experience has been invaluable in the past–"

"But this isn’t the past," Sasuke cuts in, "Eventually new problems are gonna surface that the wisdom of the past has no experience with and no answer for– No, screw eventually, that literally happened today."

Kankuro frowns at Sasuke and counters, "But old problems have a habit of not really going away, just lying dormant. You know the saying, 'those who don’t learn from history' and all that. Sasuke, I get it, trust me I do. I don’t know how Gaara can sit in the council chambers with all the other backwards pieces of shit still squatting in a seat they stole twenty years ago, but…"

He shakes his head with a sigh, "Somehow he turns the lumps of lead they give him for advice into gold, so I gotta believe there’s some value in keeping them around, if only so we know what not to do."

Sasuke rubs at his eyes, the weight of all the time he’s spent awake landing on his shoulders all at once; "Well, we'll get Gaara back and he'll tell us how he does it himself."

Kankuro’s eyes flicker up and down Sasuke, examining him critically; "Yeah, you’re not gonna do much 'rescuing' looking like that. How long have you been awake?"

Sasuke can feel the tips of his ears heating up; "Uhm… Twenty-one hours, I think?"

Kankuro immediately points to the door; "Out. Now. Go sleep."

Sasuke wags his chin towards Temari; "You mean I can’t sleep in here, too?"

"Obviously there’s no room left," Kankuro snorts, "Besides, visiting hours are over, family only."

Sasuke shoves himself up out of his chair; "Fine, fine. See you in the morning."


Sasuke turns toward the door, waving over his shoulder to Kankuro. Once out, Sasuke’s able to find the on-call room with a bit of asking around and a lot more aimless wandering. Tucked in the far corner of the second floor, the earthen walls, sparse furnishings, and dim light makes it feel more like a cave. Sasuke indulges himself, using the Sharingan for half a second to help find which of the four bunks crammed into the room are empty. Sasuke drags his carcass to the very back of the room and up the bunk bed ladder, folding himself into the bed.

A dozen thoughts drift through his mind as he stares at the ceiling. In these moments between sleep and waking, the fact that Sasuke’s wearing his shoes in bed, the guilt he feels over getting to sleep in a bed while Naruto and Kakashi are scouting in enemy territory, the ever-present ache of Sakura’s absence, and the thrill of this finally being his chance to take Itachi out all seem equally important.

But the last thing Sasuke thinks of before it all goes dark is Kankuro and Temari, each running themselves to exhaustion and past it, all the way to the edge of death, all to rescue their brother. And even though Gaara isn’t far from death himself, Sasuke can’t help but taste the horribly bitter tang of jealousy on the back of his tongue.

Sakura wakes up in the bed of the Sound daimyō’s wife.

It’s an ornate, four-poster affair, with a proper canopy and sheer drapery to enclose it while still letting the light through. The sheets are pure silk, the pillows goose down, and the mattress is large enough that Sakura could invite Jūgo, Suigetsu, Zhàdàn, and Kabuto to join her and still have room to toss and turn. It’s everything Sakura had ever dreamed of when playing Princess with Ino as a little girl. For a moment she lies motionless, soaking in the pale sunlight and sinking deeper into the mattress.

She shuts her eyes and heaves a sigh. Pulling herself up and out of the mattress is like extracting herself from a pit of custard. She parts the drapes and swings her legs over the side of the bed, her feet making contact with a blood and soot stained carpet.

The feudal lady’s chambers are the least trashed part of the palace, but that isn’t saying much. The carpet’s elaborate design is hidden beneath a coating of filth. There’s a fist-sized hole punched through the shoji, the echo of the cannonball buried in the opposite wall. The wardrobe is open and empty, the beautiful garments too elaborate for one person to ever put on by themselves all strewn about the floor.

Sakura finds her jaw clenching as she stares at the clothes. Those pieces must have taken months, maybe even years, of backbreaking work to create. Someone had to embroider all those designs by hand, by sunlight and electric light and candlelight. Fabric merchants carried those silks over hills and valleys, through storms and across ravines, just to get them to the artisans that would make them into something beautiful for someone who’d barely appreciate it because to her they barely cost a thing.

Sakura shoves herself to her feet and starts gathering the garments in her arms. They weigh as much as she does– actually, considering how little she’s eating these days, they probably weigh more. But she hauls them back to the wardrobe anyway. One by one, she folds them back up and puts them back in their place. She can’t know what their place was, but she can guess. It takes her fifteen minutes, fifteen minutes where all that matters to her is folding clothes, looking around the wardrobe for space, and filling it. It’s rote and it’s mindless, but Sakura can’t stop until she’s done. Once the very last haori has been put away, Sakura slams the wardrobe shut.

She turns to where the garments were. There are three stains on the floor. Slightly red, but mostly brown.

Sakura hasn’t seen the daimyō’s wife or his two sons since she entered the palace.

Sakura shuts her eyes and hisses, "I need to get out of this goddamn country."

Sakura gets dressed, gears up, throws her pack over one shoulder, and stomps out of the feudal lady’s chambers. She takes a long, winding walk down the tenshukaku through the morning fog. From this vantage point she can see the extent of the collateral damage. All the previous night’s fires have been put out, but the rubble is scattered out across gardens and courtyards, some particularly large chunks sitting in the center of deep dents in building roofs. The black markings where mortars and artillery shells hit are scattered across the palace grounds like blackheads on a face. Sakura can track Suigetsu’s path through the grounds by which sections are flooded.

Separating the tenshukaku from the great hall is what was a very lovely garden. Now, it looks plucked out of No Man’s Land. The trees look like empty coatracks and artillery shells sit undetonated in pits of upturned dirt. Arched bridges would’ve connected a network of small islands in a manmade pond to create a meandering path from the great hall to the keep, but the wooden bridges lie in pieces in the water and the stone bridges are severely cracked. Sakura is in the midst of trying to plot the safest course across the pond when she catches a flash of orange hair on one of the islands closest to the great hall.

Jūgo looks quite large on the little island. He sits with his back to Sakura, huddled into a ball at the water’s edge. Sakura takes a broad look at the island’s bridges. Both are standing, but neither look particularly stable. She channels chakra into the soles of her feet and walks directly across the water. She deliberately goes against all her training in how to walk without making a sound. Sneaking up on Jūgo rarely goes well. He doesn’t react to the sound of her footsteps, not even as they reach the island, crunch across the grass, and Sakura settles down on his left.

Sakura examines him from the corner of her eye, and the first thing she notices is the stump of his right arm, bandaged inexpertly but tightly. Jūgo wouldn’t have let Kabuto do it. It must have been one of the revolutionaries, one of the few brave enough to actually get close to Jūgo. The second thing she notices is that he’s still in his prisoner’s uniform. He doesn’t have any shoes. The fabric is thin and cheap. She can see goosebumps rising on his arms and neck.

Jūgo draws her out of her observations; "Sakura?"

Sakura blinks herself back into the moment; "Yeah?"

Jūgo stares out over the garden as he asks, "What were the chances that there were bird nests in these trees?"

Sakura’s gut twists, but she answers, "I… I don’t know, it’s possible there were a couple."

"Gophers could probably dig up and into the garden, too," Jūgo murmurs, voice and gaze growing distant, "There were probably koi in these ponds. Things lived here. They didn’t care that the daimyō made it, that every plant here was bought and paid for. The plants didn’t care, they just grew where their roots could take hold. And now… now it’s all gone."

Sakura purses her lips, her eyes dropping to her knees as she draws them up toward her chest; "Well… It’s like you said, the daimyō made it. It can be made again. They can find the same landscaper, his old plans, and make it exactly the same as it was."

Jūgo nods, just once; "Yeah. But the birds won’t come back."

Sakura doesn’t have anything to say to that. At least, she doesn’t think she does until she catches a ripple on the pond’s surface. She turns to get a better look and sees the ripple moving steadily across the water’s surface, not the echoes of a pebble, but maybe the wake of a single koi. When it’s five feet away Sakura almost nudges Jūgo’s shoulder to get his attention. Before she can, the ripple moves up.

The pondwater molds itself into a damp Suigetsu. Sakura stifles a sigh. Suigetsu shoots her a grin and a two-fingered salute. He sits down with a splush on Sakura’s left, his heels still in the water.

He pushes some wet hair out his face as he asks, "What are you sad sacks moping about first thing in the morning?"

Sakura glances back to the ruined garden; "Collateral damage, I guess."

Suigetsu rolls his eyes; "Pffft, come on, we stuck it to the man! That means sticking it to all the man’s stuff, too! It makes a statement: 'Fuck you and fuck all this stuff you used the people’s money to buy'! Don’t act like you guys don’t get that– Jūgo, you wrecked the guy’s room! Sakura, you took his wife’s bed!"

Sakura slits her eyes in a glare; "I needed somewhere to sleep–"

Suigetsu jabs his chin towards her backpack; "You got a bedroll in that thing, right? Coulda unrolled that and slept on the floor."

Sakura chokes on her stammering attempt at a rebuttal.

Suigetsu claps her on the shoulder, leaving a wet handprint on her sleeve; "Look, I get it, feeling sorry for yourselves is your favorite pastime. But come on. We won. We killed Orochimaru and unseated the daimyō within the same day. A messed up garden and some broken furniture is nothing compared to that."

Sakura wants to ask if it’s nothing compared to the three stains on the carpet. Her teeth are clenched too tightly for it to sneak through the cracks.

Sakura’s ears perk up at the sound of soft swearing coming from behind her. All three of them turn toward it. Making his way across the bridge connecting the island to the great hall is Zhàdàn. As if trying to negotiate an unstable bridge with one leg wasn’t enough, balanced in the crook of his one arm are four ornate-yet-chipped bowls full of something steaming. Sakura is on her feet and halfway to the bridge, but Zhàdàn shoots her a pointed look that freezes her in her tracks.

Zhàdàn takes each step with exceptional care, avoiding the cracked and crumbling pieces of the stone. It takes him a good three minutes longer than it would Sakura, but he creeps the rest of the way over the bridge and arrives unharmed on the other side. Now on more solid ground, he lopes across the island, maneuvering one of the bowls into Sakura’s hands as he passes her. Sakura follows on his heels, sheepishly tucking herself back in between Jūgo and Suigetsu.

"So this is where you guys are," Zhàdàn remarks, rolling two of the bowls into Suigetsu and Jūgo’s hands, "Here, some of the rebels found the kitchens and made breakfast for everyone. When the three of you didn’t show up, I got wheedled into feeding you."

Sakura looks down at the bowl. It’s filled with a basic rice porridge. The only 'garnish' is the handle of the spoon poking out. Sakura takes the spoon with one hand and runs through a quick set of three one-handed signs with the other. A green film of chakra settles over the porridge. After a few moments, it dissolves harmlessly into the air, meaning there’s a ninety nine percent chance it isn’t poisoned. Sakura still sniffs her first spoonful before popping it in her mouth.

It tastes like nothing. Sakura takes a few more bites, and it still tastes like nothing. But it’s filling and it’s warm, and that’s enough on mornings like this.

Suigetsu wrinkles his nose at dish; "We raid and capture a whole noble palace and we’re still eating rice porridge?"

Zhàdàn rolls his eyes; "If you can think of something quicker to make and more filling to feed what’s basically a small army, I’m all ears, Soggy."

Sakura almost chokes on her second bite and Suigetsu’s eyes go wide as he splutters, "Soggy?! That’s my nickname?!"

Zhàdàn shrugs a shoulder, barely hiding a smirk behind the bowl; "Couldn’t think of a better one."

Suigetsu fires back, "I can think of a million better ones! Sharky! Sharp-tooth! Water Boy! Sword Guy!"

Zhàdàn almost snorts his porridge; "Sword guy?"

Suigetsu throws his hands in the air; "It’s better than Soggy!"

Sakura glances over to Jūgo. He hasn’t touched his porridge yet, instead staring at it with a furrowed brow as his eyes flicker between his bowl, his spoon, and the stump of his right arm. He picks his spoon up, not to bring any porridge to his mouth, but seemingly gauging the distance between the bowl in his lap and his mouth. For someone as tall as Jūgo, it’s a long, treacherous way up. His mouth screws up in a frown.

Sakura touches his shoulder; "Jūgo, do you need–?"

Zhàdàn calls over her, "You don’t have to use the spoon, Big Guy," he waves the bowl in his hand, "Just drink the stuff like soup."

Jūgo blinks over at him; "Oh… Okay."

Jūgo wordlessly hands his spoon to Sakura. Sakura holds the two spoons and, for a moment, very seriously considers eating with two spoons at once. She shakes the stupid idea out of her head.

Suigetsu cranes his neck around Sakura to stare at Jūgo’s missing arm; "Can’t you, like, grow that back or something?"

Jūgo glares at Suigetsu from the corner of his eye; "I could, if I transform and consume something living. But the only living things here are the three of you."

Suigetsu’s lip twists in a sneer; "Is that a challenge–"

Zhàdàn lets his head drop back and groans, "I swear to God if you two start fighting I’m taking my leg off and shooting you both. Take it back like twenty notches, please."

"Like your mortar could really hurt us," Suigetsu scoffs.

The banter continues around her, hanging in the air and filling it like the fog. Sakura smiles a complicated little smile into her breakfast. As she’s taking her last few bites she chances a glance over her shoulder, just in time to catch Kabuto stepping out onto the great hall's engawa. With his hair loose and his glasses sitting a tad too low on his nose, he looks like he just woke up. He catches her gaze and wordlessly taps a phantom wristwatch. Sakura purses her lips and quickly finishes her porridge.

Sakura stands up, dusts herself off, and says, "I’m going to go talk to San-Ha. Zhàdàn, I’d like you there with me, if you’re alright with that. Suigetsu, Jūgo, you should get ready to leave."

Suigetsu lets out a low whistle; "You’re really that homesick, huh?"

Sakura cocks her head to one side; "Aren’t you?"

Suigetsu doubles over, cackling, "Now I know you’ve never been to Mist!"

Zhàdàn doesn’t say anything, just holding his hand out for Sakura to grab and help him up. She stays ahead of him as they walk back to the the bridge, earth chakra pulsing out from her feet and mending the stone as she crosses it. Zhàdàn is free to make his way as carelessly as he likes. When the two of them reach the engawa, Kabuto falls smoothly in step with Sakura.

Kabuto says, "She’s in the daimyō’s audience chamber."

Sakura lets her eyes flicker up to his; "Do I want to know where the daimyō is?"

Sakura doesn’t think Kabuto is capable of smiling without smirking anymore; "Depending on what gate you leave through, you might find out for yourself."

The three of them cut through the dining hall, where the rebels are doling out ladlefuls of rice porridge from three iron pots as wide as Sakura is tall. The hall is bustling and conversation fills it up to the ceiling, but Sakura’s eyes see right through the catharsis of victory to it’s cracked clay feet. While the rebels may be laughing and grinning, it’s only at each other. They’re all clustered on the right side of the hall while the Sound ninja and former prisoners are lurking on the left. The ninja sit in tight groups, no one showing the civilians their backs. The rebels don’t stare quite as openly, but no one is eating without an arquebus slung over their shoulder.

As they weave their way through the crowd, Sakura can feel eyes sticking to her. Everyone, ninja and civilian alike, keeps stealing glances at her. Some look frightened, some look awed, but everyone looks wary. Sakura fights her instincts. Dropping a genjutsu over herself and turning invisible in the middle of a huge crowd like this would be counterproductive.

They head out of the grand dining hall, down a corridor, and arrive at the doors to the audience chamber.  A guard sits on either side, a young woman with mossy green hair and a young man with a scar cutting through the corner of his mouth. Each are holding rifles, the young man with his across his lap and the girl cleaning the barrel of hers. Both of them freeze at the sight of Sakura, their eyes going wide and their mouths snapping shut. Sakura steps past them and opens the door without knocking.

The daimyō’s audience chamber is hemmed in on all sides by golden screens, painted with scenes of water buffalo plowing rice fields, cranes in flight, kami watching from the clouds, and ninja doing battle. The daimyō’s throne sits on a raised platform, putting it six inches above the tatami floor. San-Ha has foregone the throne for the floor. The older woman scratches at the scar on her temple as she reads over one sheaf of paper among many that surround her in piles. From what Sakura can see at a glance, at least half of them are financial ledgers and records.

At the sound of the door opening, San-Ha heaves a sigh, "What is it now–" she looks up and directly into Sakura’s eyes. Her shoulders tighten and she immediately sits up straight.

"Oh. Sakura."

Sakura forces a smile; "Good morning. You look busy, I’ll keep this short."

San-Ha’s eyes narrow; "Okay…"

Sakura slips off her sandals, pads into the room, and settles down on her knees in front of San-Ha; "I know you want the Land of Sound–"

San-Ha’s jaw clenches and she spits, "Land of Rice Paddies. We’re not keeping that name your teacher forced on us."

Sakura’s reflexes are too fast for her to keep from flinching; "Right. You want the Land of Rice Paddies to be a country that doesn’t bow to daimyō or ninja. That’s why the daimyō and his family had to," Sakura swallows hard, her throat aching with the motion, "disappear. So it’d probably be for the best if I did, too. I plan on leaving with Suigetsu, Jūgo, and Zhàdàn today."

Sakura expected a sigh of relief. Instead, San-Ha leans back, her eyes going wide. She slowly sets down the ledger and runs a hand through her short brown hair.

"Really? That’s… Hm."

Sakura’s brow furrows; "Do you not want me to leave?"

A knot forms between San-Ha’s brows as she replies, "It’s complicated. This whole damn thing is always more complicated than it seems. Even if we are a country that doesn’t bow to ninja, we still have ninja in our borders. Not just the ones who were born here, but the ones Orochimaru captured, too. We’ll need a way to safely send the prisoners home, and we need a complete overhaul of the Shinobi system to keep the native ninja from overpowering our new government. I had hoped you could help with at least part of that, but…"

Sakura freezes.

The easy answer here is to tell San-Ha the truth: 'Well I’m an undercover agent from the Leaf and have been the entire time, so now that my mission that directly involved hijacking your cause for my own purposes that really only benefit you as a coincidence I gotta go'. That’s a one-way ticket to a pair of bullets flying through the door and into Sakura’s back.

She could stay, tell Danzō and Tsunade that it was a necessary part of her mission to make sure that the new era she helped usher in would actually last, but Sakura never wanted to usher in a new era. She only helped oust the daimyō because that was San-Ha’s price. She only wanted Orochimaru dead. And now that she thinks about it, she isn’t sure what she thought would replace him. A Village Hidden in the Rice Paddies, maybe, but not… whatever it is that San-Ha and her people are going to create. Ousting the daimyō and replacing the feudal system was already more change than Sakura could really conceive of. Changing the shinobi system feels like it’s beyond possibility.

Just as the silence is starting to border on uncomfortably long, Kabuto sits down on Sakura’s left and says, "Your ideas are admirable– Incredibly admirable, I’d add. But Sakura isn’t the right person to help you achieve them. Keeping her around in a leadership capacity will just give the legend of her accomplishments more fuel. I imagine you’ve already heard people gossiping about how she killed her master, a legendary sannin, 'singlehandedly'."

"And how she singlehandedly organized the Sound Village’s revolt, don’t forget that part of it," San-Ha snorts.

"But I didn’t– You two are more responsible for that than I am," Sakura cuts in.

Zhàdàn comments from the wall he’s leaning against, "Don’t forget whose gunpowder actually brought the walls down."

Kabuto adjusts his glasses; "Exactly. But Sakura just being one critical piece in a larger puzzle doesn’t make for as good a story, does it? The more time she spends here, the more opportunity those dissatisfied with the revolution’s reforms have to use her as a puppet or symbol for a counter-revolution."

Sakura perks up, an idea forming like a lighting strike; "And besides, Orochimaru has supply caches, hideouts, and laboratories squirreled away all around the country. There are tons even I don’t know about, but Kabuto does. Kabuto knows everything about Orochimaru’s network, his prisoners, his experiments– He’d be a way better fit to help you dismantle and reform things."

Kabuto’s eyes go wide, and when he speaks it’s slowly, haltingly, like he’s not sure he’s allowed to, "I… Well," he dredges up a wry smirk, "I suppose I also cut a less inspiring figure. Nobody’s going to try installing me as the Second Otokage."

San-Ha turns her hard stare squarely onto Kabuto; "And how can I trust you?"

"The same way you trusted Sakura," Kabuto replies, "We’ll make it a contract, each of us agreeing to hold up our end of the bargain for mutual benefit."

San-Ha brings her hand back up to her chin; "What do you want out of this?"

Kabuto waves the question away; "We can discuss that later. I don’t think Sakura’s finished."

Sakura nods, quicker this time, and adds, "No, I’m not. I didn’t want to leave you guys high and dry, otherwise I could’ve just snuck out under cover of genjutsu. So," she looks over her shoulder to Zhàdàn, "You have powder warehouses in the Land of S– Rice Paddies, right?"

Zhàdàn lets his eyes slide shut as he sighs, "Where’s this going, Pinky?"

"I was thinking you could cut a deal with San-Ha," Sakura answers, "agreeing to sell some of those warehouses and supply lines to the new government. With Orochimaru and the Hidden Sound Village gone, they’re going to have to broker new deals for black powder on their own, and–"

Zhàdàn pushes off the wall with his foot, grumbling, "And even the countries that recognize the new Land of Rice Paddies are gonna wage the Trade War from Hell on them and make it damn near impossible for them to make those deals, I get it. Fine," he ambles over and sits down, as cross-legged as he can get, on Sakura’s right, "Go see if any of the revolutionaries out there are also lawyers, Pinky, I want this contract airtight."

Sakura, in fact, can’t find a lawyer. All she does find is that a large proportion of the revolutionaries are illiterate. For want of a lawyer, San-Ha and Zhàdàn both agree that Kabuto will do in a pinch. The process of drafting up a contract, then getting the proper payment out of the daimyō’s vault and all the way up to the audience chamber, is a long and not particularly interesting one. Sakura takes the opportunity to go find and collect Suigetsu and Jūgo, who 'packed' by stealing essentials from the palace and throwing them in burlap sacks.

On their way back to the audience chamber, Sakura and Suigetsu debate how safe it is for him to just shove Kusanagi through one of his belt loops and call it a day. Sakura arrives just in time to see the moss-haired girl handing over several hefty stacks of ryō to Zhàdàn. Once he’s examined the bills in the light and stowed them in his own pack (far too close to an arquebus and a cask of gunpowder for Sakura's comfort), Zhàdàn and San-Ha stand and bow to seal the deal.

"Pleasure doing business with you," San-Ha says, then nods to Sakura, "Good luck on your travels, wherever they take you."

Kabuto gets to his feet; "I’ll see her to the gate. When I’m back, San-Ha, we’ll draft up a contract of our own."

Sakura bows to San-Ha and says, "Thank you. I hope you can make your dream come true," before leading the way out of the honmaru and through the palace grounds.

As they walk, Suigetsu glares at Kabuto and snaps, "We can find our own way out, you know."

Kabuto’s smirk is back in place; "Unlike some people here, I remember my manners."

Sakura rubs her temples and hisses through her teeth, "Can we not do this? Can we just try to end things on a civil note? Once we’re through that gate none of us will ever have to speak to Kabuto again."

Suigetsu crosses his arms over his chest, eyes still fixed on Kabuto; "Yeah, try being experimented on by him for three years then tell me to 'be civil' again."

It’s a good half hour before the five of them make it out of the palace and into Jungsimji proper. The neighborhood hugging the palace walls is the wealthiest of them all, with ornate townhouses painted in rich reds, golds, and greens. Revolutionaries are out clearing the streets of debris, corpses, and blood. Those elite lucky and quick enough to get inside before the siege hit are nowhere to be seen. But as they move downhill and the houses get cheaper, Sakura catches sight of a few people peeking their heads out.

Sakura finds herself wondering out loud, "How do you think they’ll cope? You know, with the change?"

Zhàdàn replies, "The rich aren’t gonna take it well. As for the poor and the middling sorts, well, I’ll bet you they’ve been talking for years about how someone ought to do something about the daimyō. Just depends on if they were ready for someone to actually do something."

Suigetsu holds a hand out with his palm up; "Alright, place your bets people. Ten ryō says this place is annexed into the Land of Waterfalls by Summer."

Jūgo frowns down at him; "Can’t you just be happy for them?"

"Oh I’m happy as Hell for them," Suigetsu drawls, "But happiness is temporary. The tide always comes back in sooner or later."

Kabuto cuts in, his voice carrying an odd, hard note; "Well, so long as I’m here, it’s going to be later."

For a moment, everyone just stares at him. Kabuto doesn’t seem to notice. His eyes are focused on the horizon as he walks with his back straight and his shoulders square.

Sakura asks, "Do you… actually believe in them? In a new Shinobi system?"

"I was never satisfied with how the Leaf Village ran things," Kabuto explains, "I joined Orochimaru because he offered something different. A new kind of Hidden Village. But it was still a shadow government that acted more like yakuza than an army, sucking the blood from their country like leeches. So, now we have a blank slate. Maybe now we have a chance to actually change things."

Sakura stares at Kabuto’s face in profile. She knows she can’t trust anything he says. His performance during the chūnin exams was proof of how capable an actor he can be. But it's an odd lie to tell, especially since he's never seemed to care enough about her to lie in the past.

Still, Sakura stays cautious, and simply says, "Well… Good luck, then."

Suigetsu cranes his neck around her to spit at Kabuto, "I’ll believe it when I see it."

They make it to Jungsimji’s southern gate, still blown wide open. Sakura’s eyes climb the stone base, fly up past the first level of the wooden pagoda, and stop at the very top. Mounted on pikes are two severed heads. One is nearly bald, with the hair around the sides and back of the head pulled into a knot. The other has long black hair that drifts in the weak wind.

Sakura can’t feel her hands and feet.

She opens her mouth, and the only thing she can force out is, "… Well."

Kabuto nods; "Well, indeed."

Sakura turns to Kabuto and bows from the waist; "Goodbye, Kabuto."

Kabuto bows from the shoulders; "Goodbye, Sakura."

Suigetsu, Jūgo, Zhàdàn, and Sakura walk through the gate. Once they’re far enough away to actually see their faces, the three men turn and look over their shoulders at the heads mounted on the gate. Suigetsu even flips them the bird. Sakura keeps her eyes on the road.

Zhàdàn fishes his pipe out of his pack, and as he’s lighting it he says, "I’ve got a question for you, Pinky."

Sakura blinks up at him; "What is it?"

Zhàdàn takes a long drag from his pipe, then angles his eyes down to meet Sakura’s gaze; "What do you think of all this, really?"

Sakura lets her eyes drift back to the road as she thinks. When she hitched herself to the wagon of the revolution, it was never supposed to be complex. It was like in the Land of Waves– they help good people get out from under the thumb of someone who’s cruelly exploiting them, then they leave and the Land of Sound slots back into it’s place in the status quo. But that's exactly what they didn't want. It wasn't Orochimaru and Daimyō Saito that put them in the gutter, it was every kage, every daimyō, the whole fuedal and shinobi system.

Sakura was born in a Hidden Village. All her life, she knew that Hidden Villages were good. A Hidden Village means daimyō don’t have to draft farmers to fight. It means that the soldiers are an organized trade with the bargaining power to say no if a daimyō is requesting they do something unjust. It means Ninja clans can live in comfort instead of constantly moving from battlefield to battlefield and losing children. Yes, the Hidden Sound Village acted as the daimyō’s thugs for hire, but…

But Orochimaru is Orochimaru, he was unequivocally evil. He didn’t care about anyone but himself (he didn’t care about her he didn’t he didn’t he didn’t) and subverted the system. His puppet daimyō only cared about riches and comfort. Tsunade isn’t like that. The Fire daimyō… Well, he can be a bit harsh with taxes and tariffs, but Tsunade wouldn’t answer to some simpering manchild like the man they found cowering in his own wardrobe. If the right person is kage, if the right person is daimyō, they can look out for the needs of everyone…

But Sakura’s relatives from the South call the ninja Xīxuèguǐ, vampires, bloodsuckers that always have enough to eat while those without chakra starve. Sakura still made more money at twelve than her own mother. The only friends she had who understood living in a too-small house with a roof that leaked and weeks where you made your leftovers stretch well beyond their means were Naruto and Tenten, Naruto because the village had left him to fend for himself, and Tenten… because she was also civilian-born.

Sakura is a clanless child of civilians. But she’s also a ninja. And though there was always friction, Sakura never thought that was a contradiction. But San-Ha does. And Sakura’s not sure if she can.

Sakura wants to let all of that pour free. But… Suigetsu, Jūgo, and Zhàdàn… She trusts them with her life. She can’t trust them with this.

So, all she says is, "I don’t know."

Zhàdàn studies her for a moment, then sighs through a plume of smoke, "Yeah… Yeah, you’re just a kid, after all. You’ll figure it out."

Sakura, frantically grappling for a change of subject, looks to Suigetsu; "You know, the Leaf Village is pretty much exactly halfway between here and the Land of Waves. I’ll have to report in once I’m back."

Suigetsu immediately wilts, groaning, "Can’t we just go around?"

Zhàdàn jabs his pipe at Suigetsu, cutting in, "That ain’t fair to me, you know. I’m gone once Sakura gets me in the door with the village, I don’t wanna take a detour."

Suigetsu fires back, "And I’m gone once I get Zabuza’s sword! I don’t wanna laze around the village while Sakura does paperwork and hangs out with her friends!"

Sakura’s mouth turns rebelliously up at the corners; "The Leaf Village is a nice place, you might enjoy lazing around there."

Suigetsu visibly cringes; "Fuck no. Shit’s full of soft boy genin who can barely throw a shuriken and pencil pusher chūnin and you can’t see the ocean, I’d rather go back in the tube."

Sakura jolts back, exclaiming, "You’ve never even been to the Leaf Village, you have no idea what it’s like!"

Suigetsu rolls his eyes; "I know enough about you to know it turns out insufferable know-it-alls who wear stupid dresses into battle."

Sakura’s jaw drops; "Hey! My mom made this dress!"

"And that just proves my point–"

Zhàdàn and Jūgo exchange long-suffering glances over Suigetsu and Sakura’s heads as the four of them bicker off towards the horizon.

Kabuto stands beneath Jungsimji’s southern gate, watching Sakura’s team grow smaller and smaller. The further away they get, the quicker Kabuto’s face falls into something blank and remote. He reaches beneath the high collar of his shirt and futzes with his radio. The earpiece hidden by his long, loose hair squawks to life.

He whispers, "This is Silver. The asset is heading South with three accomplices. Her destination is the Hidden Leaf Village. Do you copy? Over."

A blank voice crackles in over the radio, "This is Ink. We copy. Will intercept the asset when she crosses the border. Blackout is in full effect. Over and out."

Kabuto closes the channel, turns on his heel, and starts the long, uphill walk back to the palace. He keeps a careful eye out for the eyes of others. In those brief moments where every single civilian’s eyes are pointed away, Kabuto borrows a trick from Sakura’s book and drapes himself in a genjutsu. The civilians don’t look back to him. Why would they? To them, he’s now as uninteresting as the dirt beneath their feet. Kabuto walks for a few meters more before ducking into an alleyway. Once he’s halfway down it, there’s the sound of feet hitting the ground. A member of Sound’s ANBU melts into view, her birdlike mask regarding him coolly.

Kabuto asks, "Where are we?"

"ANBU have Jungsimji surrounded," Raven replies, "On your signal, we’ll start tightening the circle."

Kabuto nods; "Consider this my signal. Remember, this is a stealth op. I want full Ghost protocol. We’re ninja. Let’s damn well act like it for once."

She nods, smooth and silent; "Understood."

Quickly as she appeared, Raven is gone again. Kabuto veers back onto the main road. From the corner of his eye, he sees things the revolutionaries don’t catch.

A woman is clearing some rubble from a porch. The man helping her leaves to take a break while her back is turned, only to poke his head out of a nearby alley and ask her for help. Of course she goes to help him, disappearing into the alley to never reappear.

A child sobs in the middle of the street, covered in equal parts mud and blood. A teenage girl runs up to them, dries their tears, and picks them up to see if they can’t go find their parents. The child loops their arms around the girl’s neck and slips a senbon out of their sleeve in the same motion.

All along the street, people disappear. It’s a quiet thing. There’s no fanfare, no struggle. People are simply there one moment, and gone the next. Kabuto can’t help a smile. It’s like a symphony, everyone playing their parts in perfect synch.

Kabuto lets the genjutsu degrade as he climbs up into the rich neighborhoods closest to the palace. A young man falls in step with him. His clothes are plain and dirty, but his hair is too clean.

Kabuto murmurs from the corner of his mouth, "Shift change on kitchen duty should be in five hours. You’ll find what you need in a nattō container at the back of the fridge with the sell by date February 28th 1002."

The young man smirks; "Clever. I wish nattō was odorless and tasteless."

"Don’t we all. Remember, don’t just dump it into the pot. Stagger it. Make it seem random."

The young man waves him off; "I’ve got it, I’ve got it. This isn’t my first saboteur gig, you know."

Kabuto’s hand shoots out, grabbing his wrist mid-wave; "No mistakes. If you fuck up, we all go down."

The young man swallows, wrenching his wrist out of Kabuto’s grip; "Right."

The young man runs on ahead. Kabuto resets the genjutsu as he crosses the threshold of the palace grounds. He strolls all the way through the sannomaru, crosses into the ninomaru, and instead of taking a left to keep going on towards the palace, he takes a right. Kabuto ducks down a blind alley designed to throw off invading armies, walking all the way down to the end. His contact melts into view on Kabuto’s right, in mid-crawl down the compound wall. This ANBU agent’s mask has sharp, hornlike spikes above the eyes and where the nose ought to be.

Kabuto asks, "ETA on the outlying forces?"

Chameleon drops to the ground in a crouch; "Two hours for the furthest, a half hour for the closest. Forces stationed in No Man’s Land should be here by nightfall."

Kabuto nods; "Tell them to go in quiet when they get here. How about the whisper campaign?"

Chameleon’s voice is muffled, but smug; "The Sound ninja are feeling sufficiently emasculated and the prisoners are fearing for their lives."

Kabuto’s mouth curls in a smirk; "Perfect."

Chameleon cocks their head to the side; "All due respect ’n all that, Boss, but why go to all this trouble? These people are as skinny and untrained as they were last night. One Fireball Jutsu could end this all in an instant."

Kabuto’s smirk immediately drops, and he snaps, "Last night they had nothing to lose. Now, they have something to protect. That, more than anything, makes them dangerous," one of his hands drifts to his stomach, ghosting over the whirling, scrawling scars of a Chidori and Rasengan, "I know that from experience. Don’t underestimate them again."

Chameleon nods stiffly; "Yes, sir."

They melt out of view. With no more pending appointments, Kabuto takes the rest of the stroll to the audience chamber at a leisurely pace. When Kabuto arrives at the door, the guards tense up, but don’t quite freeze like they did when Sakura appeared. He can’t help the twitch that brings to his eye. The moss-haired girl clutches her rifle tight to her chest, fixing him with a poisonous glare, but he doesn’t pay her any mind. Kabuto strolls up to the door, pausing before knocking as he catches the sound of multiple voices coming from behind it. He knocks anyway.

San-Ha’s voice rises over the others, calling, "Come in."

Kabuto does as he’s bade, finding San-Ha surrounded by a good five other civilians all bickering over each other. Kabuto doesn’t take the time to catalogue individual features, but a survey tells him they’re all around middle age. He faintly recognizes a few of them from Tadami, though of course none of them were in the tavern that fateful night. A pot of tea steams in the center of the rabble, but the cups are all empty. The rabble take notice of him all at once, falling silent.

An older, balding man purses his lips, then whispers to San-Ha, "We’ll leave you two alone."

San-Ha immediately pinches the bridge of her nose; "No, that’s not– If you keep–"

The rabble stand and file out, paying San-Ha no heed as she urges them to stay. Kabuto watches them go, brows arched.

He waits until they’ve shut the door behind themselves to ask, "And they are?"

San-Ha rubs at her temples, griping, "I was hoping they would be my co-rulers until we set up a proper representative assembly, but it seems like they’d rather be my advisors while I become Basically Another Daimyō."

Kabuto sits down across from San-Ha, cross-legged; "Representative assembly?"

"Yes, I– Legends say that before the Sage, when people lived in tribes, everyone in the tribe would vote on what the tribe should do," San-Ha explains, "I hear some of the tribes in the Land of Wind still do that. The Land of Rice Paddies isn’t very big, but it’s still not so small that we can feasibly have everyone in the country debate on matters of policy, but maybe we could have provinces elect representatives who do the debating and drafting of laws, then they’d vote on whether or not to put them into practice?"

Kabuto holds her gaze for a few moments before remarking, "That… sounds incredibly inefficient."

San-Ha lets her shoulders slump, already too tired to keep up the front of the strong leader this early in the day; "I know, but I just– People should have a say in how their government treats them, right? We can’t just trust that because the people who’re in charge are in charge that makes them good and just people who will always do the right thing! That’s how we got into this mess in the first place!"

Kabuto stays diplomatic; "Well, my recommendation would be to concentrate on strengthening your hold on the country. Your existence poses a threat to the rest of the world. You’ll need to defend yourself from those who want to take advantage of this adjustment period. You need to get your defenses in order, and to seem like you’re not changing that much. They’re afraid of you giving their people ideas. At least pretending that you’re still going to be strong and centralized with a hidden village for now–"

San-Ha cuts him off with a voice as hard as iron; "You’re saying that like 'giving their people ideas' isn’t what I want."

Kabuto doesn’t let her see him freeze; "Really."

San-Ha nods, the fire lighting back up in her eyes; "Definitely. They need to know that they don’t have to live like we did. Orochimaru was no different from the Raikage, the Tsuchikage, even the Hokage. They’re all parasites controlling their daimyō from his shadow, Orochimaru was just the most blatant. The people need to have a beacon to lead them to a brighter future. They need hope."

Kabuto smiles. Because San-Ha just took her last chance and threw it away.

Kabuto takes the teapot and pours out two cups. A lot of ninja work is less magic, more sleight of hand. And with a very simple trick, Kabuto is able to sprinkle something odorless and tasteless into San-Ha’s cup before handing it to her. The warm cup in her hands and the scent of matcha makes her uncoil again, just a little bit. She uncoils all the way when Kabuto takes a sip of his tea. Even after surviving Tadami, a traumatic experience is no substitute for shinobi training.

As she takes her first sip, Kabuto says, "So, about our contract…"

"That’s how things stand," Sasuke concludes, "Naruto and Kakashi can’t move until I’m nearby, but according to Katsuyu they’re a good day, day and a half journey out from here. You guys know better than I do that we don’t have that kind of time."

The sun has risen over the Sand Village, and Sasuke, Temari, Baki, and Kankuro are all talking strategy around Kankuro’s hospital bed. Temari’s hair is loose as she sips water filled with crushed up electrolyte tabs. Kankuro is still hooked up to an IV. Baki is nursing a mug of coffee strong enough to wake the dead and Sasuke has his pack in his lap to hide his restless leg as he itches for the road. Katsuyu is perched on Sasuke’s shoulder, though he can feel her slowly making the journey into his hair.

Kankuro looks to Katsuyu; "About how accurate is your sense of where your other pieces are?"

"Very. When my proximity decreases my precision increases, but it is always accurate," Katsuyu replies.

Baki rolls the coffee mug between his hands; "This wouldn’t even be a discussion if Temari was up to another flight, but–"

"If it comes to it, I can be," Temari cuts in, grip tightening on her water.

Sasuke shakes his head; "I’m not going to ask that of you. If you ran out of chakra or your control faltered while we were in midair, the mission’s over."

Kankuro arches a brow; "What, Uchihas don’t always land on their feet?"

Sasuke smirks and replies, "Not since we lost our tails, I’m afraid."

"Come on, we have to think of something," Baki snaps, "Every moment we sit here deliberating is a moment that our allies are risking their lives!"

Kankuro offers a loose shrug; "I mean, what more can we really think of? Our options are kinda limited, here. It’s not like–"

Temari suddenly sits up straight, wide-eyed gaze snapping to the window. Everyone follows her eyes. A structure, built high into the Western cliffs, is swarming with gigantic birds. Dozens more, bigger than even albatrosses, circle the structure as they come down to land. Temari is up and out of her seat in an instant, sprinting for the door.

Sasuke looks between Temari and Kankuro; "Where’s she going?"

"Over there," Kankuro snorts, wagging his head toward the window, "That’s the Aerie. Looks like the Falconer Corps are back. I’m chained to this IV drip, so go, get a move on. Don’t let her leave you in the dust."

Sasuke chases after her, Baki a few steps behind. Temari moves quickly for someone still recovering from chakra exhaustion, navigating her way through the winding village streets and up onto the carved paths through the cliffs. Sasuke has to divert chakra to the soles of his feet to keep his footing on the narrow and steep trails, but Temari runs up them like a mountain goat.

They eventually open up onto a small mesa with a stone-carved pavilion in it’s center. Birds of prey fill the sky like rainclouds. Hawks, falcons, and eagles of all shapes and sizes nest on ridges cut into the surrounding cliff faces, the rock below stained a distinctive white. The air is filled with the sound of flapping wings and high, sharp bird calls. Sasuke, for a moment, can only gawk. He’s never seen this many birds in one place. He shakes himself back to the present and keeps following Temari.

She leads them to the pavilion, where two dozen ninja are settled on stone benches and tables tending to their gear and gathering meat scraps to toss to the birds. The falconers bear the standard Sand head coverings, as well as thick leather vambraces and khol around their eyes. Each stand to attention when Temari passes, all except for a man with yellow eye makeup resembling the markings of a Peregrine Falcon who comes in and wraps her in a bear hug. Temari returns it twice as fiercely.

After a long moment, Temari looses herself from the hug and smiles up at the man; "Welcome home, Arsalan."

He inclines his head to her in a low bow; "It’s good to see you again, Commander. I wish it was under better circumstances," his eyes alight on Baki and in an instant his solemnity gives way to a wide, warm grin, "And you are always a sight for sore eyes, my dear Baki."

Baki, to Sasuke’s surprise, flushes from forehead to neck and hastily looks away. The other falconers titter on the edges of the pavilion like children watching their parents flirt.

Temari gives Arsalan’s shoulder a shove; "Circumstances being what they are, we don’t have time for the usual song and dance. We have the Kazekage’s location."

Arsalan is all business again, ushering them all to a large table in the center of the pavilion. Spread across it is a map centered on the Land of Wind, with lands marked past it’s Western frontier that Sasuke’s never even heard of before.

Arsalan gestures to a box of pins set off to the side of the map; "Mark it."

Temari nods to Sasuke, who takes Katsuyu off his shoulder and places her near the Land of Rivers. Slow enough to build suspense, Katsuyu crawls in a circle, marking off an area a few miles Northeast of the Hidden Valley Village with a trail of slime. Sasuke takes a pin and buries it in the dead center of the circle.

Arsalan leans over the map, clicking his tongue against his teeth; "Well, at least it’s not far. I’ll talk to the chūnin, see what birds are in flying shape."

Sasuke turns to Temari; "Does he mean–?"

Temari nods, a warm smile resting on her face; "The birds that nest here are big, certainly, but the summons are large enough to carry two passengers on their backs and two captives in their claws. One can take you straight there."

Baki frowns, chiming in, "They could get you there in an hour if you go alone, but sending you by yourself is a risk we shouldn’t take at this stage."

Sasuke shakes his head; "I won’t be alone when I get there."

"But you will be along the way," Baki counters, "We can’t know what defenses and surveillance measures the Akatsuki have around their base. Considering the agent Gaara fought had a bird of his own, it’d be stupid to think they’re not monitoring the air, too."

Temari arches a brow at Sasuke; "Let me guess, you wouldn’t clear Kankuro for active duty, would you?"

Sasuke shakes his head; "Not a chance."

Temari crosses her arms over her chest with a huff, "If the Falconer Corps are back already, the Nightjars and Fan Corps can’t be far behind. They’ll need me here to coordinate and give orders."

"This village has tons of talented shinobi, I’m sure we’ll find someone–"

A sand-weathered voice from the pavilion’s edge cuts Sasuke off; "If a Sand Shinobi is needed, then I’m the one to go!"

Sasuke shuts his eyes, not bothering to look while everyone else turns toward the source. He can just picture Chiyo’s smug expression.

He grinds out, "No."

Chiyo’s footsteps come tapping over, stopping at his side; "I seem to remember overhearing that you’re not in command of this mission, young man. Troop deployment isn’t up to you."

Sasuke turns to glare at her; "And I seem to remember overhearing that you’re retired," he glances over to Baki, "You can’t seriously send her out on a mission this important!"

Despite being six inches shorter than him, Chiyo finds a way to look down her nose at Sasuke; "Indeed, I am retired, that means I can do whatever I want."

Sasuke balls his hands into fists, snarling, "And that means I don’t have to work with you–"

"Sasuke," a resigned Baki cuts in, "Lady Chiyo is one of the foremost experts on poisons and puppet techniques. No one’s better equipped to face Sasori than her."

Sasuke whirls around to face him, wide-eyed; "Are you kidding me? You’re actually considering this?!"

"He’s talking sense is what he’s doing," Chiyo sneers, "Tsunade may have taught you a few parlor tricks, but you’re still a Leaf Ninja. You’re simply not trained to counter Sand techniques. Besides, I haven’t looked in on my sweet little grandson in ages, isn’t it within my rights to pay him a little visit?"

Sasuke snaps over his shoulder at her, "Hell no, that just means you’re too cl–!"

Temari’s voice comes down like a steel gate; "Sasuke. Really think about what you’re about to say before you say it."

Sasuke does.

And in an instant he realizes what a gigantic hypocrite Temari just saved him from becoming. He slowly shuts his mouth and lets his hands hang loose.

Sasuke mutters through grit teeth, "I… was ordered… to defer to your command. So… this isn’t up to me."

Temari grins her jackal-sharp grin; "Don’t forget that again. Lady Chiyo, consider yourself temporarily reinstated."

Chiyo bows from the shoulders to Temari; "Thank you, dear."

Temari glares poisoned daggers at Chiyo; "Don’t call me 'dear'. Make no mistake, I'm not sending you because you're an expert. I'm sending you to atone for your part in this."

Chiyo tenses up. Sasuke's brow furrows, his eyes drifting from Temari to Chiyo and back again. It seems Kankuro didn't have the whole story.

"If we’re done yelling at each other," Arsalan calls from the pavilion’s edge holding a summoning scroll above his head, "You’re in luck. Garuda took a flight shift from morning to noon yesterday, so he’s fully rested and ready to go. With two passengers, he should make it there in two hours."

Baki smiles, wide and proud; "You’re brilliant, Arsalan."

"We should get into international emergencies more often, if this is what it takes to get you to sweet talk me," Arsalan laughs.

Temari rolls her eyes; "Please, go ahead and summon him. Sasuke, are you ready to move out?"

Sasuke sighs through his nose, picking up Katsuyu and placing her back in his pocket; "As I’ll ever be. Katsuyu, relay our ETA to Naruto and Kakashi."

"Of course."

Sasuke and Chiyo follow Arsalan out to a wide open stretch of the mesa. Arsalan unfurls the scroll, bites his thumb, and runs through the signs for Summoning Jutsu. He slaps his palms in the center of the scroll and the resulting cloud of smoke nearly engulfs the whole mesa. Just as quickly as it appeared, two massive wingbeats clear it away. The hawk dwarfs the scroll that summoned it, standing over ten feet tall with a wingspan twice, maybe thrice that. The bird immediately starts preening Arsalan’s head wrap and Arsalan strokes the sides of it’s neck, speaking to it in a language Sasuke doesn’t understand.

After a few moments, Garuda steps back from Arsalan, who nods to Chiyo and Sasuke. Chiyo trots over to the bird and bows deeply from the waist, a bow that Garuda returns. He stays bowed, allowing Chiyo to climb (with Arsalan’s help) onto Garuda’s back. Sasuke takes a tentative look around before stepping forward and bowing low. He watches through his eyelashes as Garuda cocks his head to the left, then the right, then slowly bows in return.

As Sasuke climbs onto Garuda’s back, Chiyo scoffs, "So you do have manners, after all."

Sasuke rolls his eyes; "Another thing Tsunade taught me."

Chiyo’s voice is low, but not low enough that Sasuke doesn’t catch her muttering, "You must have been a terror before, then."

Arsalan clears his throat, drawing Sasuke’s attention back down to him; "I gave Garuda your heading, but you might need to change course along the way. He’ll respond to verbal commands, but if there’s no time for those you can tap the side of his neck to make him move in that direction. Good luck out there, both of you. Bring the Kazekage home."

Before Sasuke can reply, Garuda dips down low, spreads his wings, and takes off with one mighty flap. He soars for River Country, dragging Sasuke and Chiyo along with him.

As Katsuyu outlines Sasuke’s situation, Kakashi can’t help but dwell on the sick feeling in his stomach. It’s a very specific feeling, like falling too quickly from too high up. It feels like your stomach is all the way up in your chest, and it won’t settle until you hit the ground. But Kakashi still can’t see the ground.

When Katsuyu finishes, Naruto frowns and remarks, "Well, at least we only have to sit around for two more hours."

Kakashi forces a smirk beneath his mask; "Well, maybe I will. You, on the other hand…"

Kakashi whistles high and sharp. Bull, Uhei, Akino, and Biscuit come creeping out of the undergrowth on their bellies, shaking the leaves out of their coats.

"It’s time you started looking for those other tags," Kakashi says.

Naruto’s eyes go wide, lighting up with the prospect of getting to do something; "Alright! Leave it to us! Shadow Clone Jutsu!"

There’s a burst of smoke that quickly clears, revealing four more Narutos all crouched down low. They’re bunched in so tightly they almost look like pumpkins.

Naruto points to them and orders, "You all heard Kakashi-sensei, follow the dogs’ noses and find those tags!"

The clones salute in unison; "Aye-aye, cap’n!"

Kakashi addresses the dogs next; "Go down and get the scent of the ink from the tag in the center. If Naruto paid as close attention as he says he did to Jiraiya’s fuinjutsu lessons, that’ll lead you right to the corner tags."

The dogs nod and bound down into the river gorge, the clones hot on their tails. Kakashi and Naruto watch intently as each dog sniffs at the tag, then scatter into the forest.

Kakashi rests his chin on his hand; "And now we’re back to the waiting."

Naruto lets his head fall backwards as he groans, "It was good while it lasted, I guess."

Kakashi gives Naruto a Look from the corner of his eye; "This is what ninja work is, Naruto, the banal reality of it. It’s a lot of sitting around and staring at things."

Naruto opens his mouth, but stops. His face falls into an expression best described as 'complicated' for a long moment. Before Kakashi can ask what’s on his mind, Naruto shakes his head.

"I’ve gotta concentrate," Naruto holds up a closed fist, "I’ll put up a finger for every tag the clones find."

"Right," Kakashi coughs.

And once more they lapse into silence. The fact that Naruto is completely still, his eyes closed, just makes it feel all the more stifling. The silence is punctuated by Naruto putting up a finger approximately every twenty-to-twenty five minutes. It takes almost the full two hours before all four are up and Naruto finally opens his eyes.

Kakashi turns to look at Katsuyu poking her head out of Naruto’s pocket; "How far out is Sasuke?"

"Not very," she replies, "He’ll likely arrive within the next five to ten minutes."

Naruto looks to Kakashi; "Well. You know what I wanna do."

Kakashi weighs his options. On the one hand, his gut is still telling him to be cautious. Experience is telling him to slow down, hold back, to not make a move until the whole team is together.

But where has that gotten him in the past? Waiting and seeing and taking things slow lead to him being too slow to catch Sakura before she slipped through his fingers. Following his instincts and his gut lead to him isolating himself from Sasuke and getting so, so close to losing him. Trusting the lessons of experience lead to him giving Naruto away like a jacket that didn’t fit.

He told Tsunade he would keep Naruto and Sasuke honest… But maybe it needs to be the other way around.

So he says, "Let’s go."

Naruto’s jaw drops; "Really?"

Kakashi nods, rising to a crouch; "Really. Come on."

Naruto’s face blossoms into another grin. Kakashi feels a warmth building in his chest. The two of them leap down into the river gorge, channelling chakra into their feet to land on the river instead of in it. Naruto creeps up to the hideout entrance, aligning himself with the center of the torii gate, and taking hold of the seal tag’s corner.

He turns to look over his shoulder at Kakashi; "Alright, the clones are all ready. Count me down?"

Kakashi nods, backing up; "Right. On three. One… Two… Three."

Naruto tears off the seal. The second he does, a wave of pressure hits them both, rocking them onto their heels, as the clones do the same in perfect sync. The pressure hangs in the air for a moment before, in one stroke, dissolving. The seal is broken.

But just as Naruto turns to grin at Kakashi, there’s a scuffing sound at the top of the gorge, right above the hideout. Naruto and Kakashi’s heads whip up to the source.

Perched atop the gorge is an individual in a familiar black cloak with an unfamiliar face. He peers down at them with ruddy purple eyes, his silver hair slicked back away from his face. The top few buttons of his cloak are undone, revealing no shirt underneath. Around his neck hangs a struck through Hot Water Village headband and a medallion of a circle with an upside down triangle inside it.

Oh, and of course, there’s a triple-bladed scythe with a long metal cable attached to the end slung across his shoulders.

He grins like he’s opening a wound; "Well whaddaya know! We’re getting two jinchuuriki for the price of one! What a steal."

Naruto’s head whips from Kakashi to the man and back; "What the–?! Kakashi-sensei, who is this guy?!"

Kakashi wracks the bingo book of his memory. It would be one thing if he came up empty. But instead, his memory takes reports and rumors and paints a picture in shades of blood. Bodies piled atop ritual circles. Hot Water Village’s attempt at peaceful disarmament ruined by a massacre. A winding trail of death with no end in sight.

Hidan is the kind of monster that needs no epithets. His name alone is enough.

But before Kakashi can say any of that, Hidan sneers, "Oh I’ll tell you who the Hell I am," he stalks down the ravine’s side, dragging his scythe behind him and kicking up sparks, "To you, Nine Tails, I’m your worst nightmare."

He flips the scythe around to point it directly at Kakashi; "And to you, Bloodbag, I’m the motherfuckin’ Angel of Death."

Hidan lobs his scythe at Kakashi.

And all Kakashi can think is, Here comes the ground.

Chapter Text

VI. Chiyo still remembers her first flight. She had been just a girl then, still struggling to adjust to her tribe tying themselves down to give this 'hidden village' a try. Her wandering had taken her to the top of the cliffs, where a handsome young man of the Alsaqr tribe was feeding his bird. He’d looked to her, kohl-rimmed eyes bright, and offered her a ride. Boredom had been more powerful than caution. She’d accepted. The view from the air had been beautiful enough through young eyes for her to immediately fall in love with the man who’d gifted it to her.

Now, all she can do is scan the horizon for threats.

Sasuke should be keeping a lookout for their landing point. But when she glances up to check on the boy, he’s staring out instead of down. His eyes are wide, dark but bright. It’s like he can’t even feel the wind biting at his cheeks. What is the world coming to, that even the Uchiha are turning from wild boars to fattened hogs like the rest of the Leaf? In killing the entire rest of the clan Itachi must have severed their link to what sense Madara had.

Chiyo snaps, "There’s no time to gawk, Boy. Eyes on the ground. We can’t have you missing our landing point."

Sasuke’s shoulders tighten and he glares over his shoulder at her, sharingan whirling to life; "I won’t miss it."

Oh, if that boy had seen what Suki Uchiha could do to the minds of men with her sharingan, he wouldn’t think his own were so intimidating.

Chiyo simply sneers, "A set of sharingan are only worth as much as the head they’re in. If you use your eyes and not your head you’re as good as useless."

Sasuke arches an eyebrow; "That’s not a popular opinion."

Chiyo lets her eyes dart back to the horizon as she speaks; "Of course it isn’t. The Leaf Village has always maintained it’s position at the top of the hill by flaunting it’s weapons' strengths and hiding their weaknesses. It was tailed beasts before, and it’s dōjutsu now."

The boy is quiet, his eyes dropping, but not to scan the ground; "Well. If you mean the byakugan, yeah. They can’t really flaunt the sharingan when there are only two sets left and one turned traitor."

Now it’s Chiyo’s turn to lapse into silence. How can a boy who saw his entire clan murdered before his eyes still be so naiive? But the operative word there, she supposes, is boy. She knows better than most how children can have uniquely childish interpretations of and reactions to the world’s horror.

To her, her voice sounds like it’s coming from past the horizon; "A village’s failures can be just as useful a tool as their successes. Why do you think your brother is still running free?"

Sasuke’s jaw clenches, words coming through his teeth like flour through a grinder; "Because I haven’t put an end to him yet."

Chiyo frowns tightly; "Is that why you’re really here? Revenge?"

Sasuke shoots back, "Isn’t that why you’re here?"

Chiyo purses her lips; "Don’t you remember what Temari said? This isn’t about vengeance. It’s about atonement."

Though her mind rebelliously wonders how mutually exclusive those concepts are. Not just for her. She catches Sasuke’s eye as he glances back at her for a moment. She doesn’t know much about the massacre, but she does know how to do basic arithmetic. In her day, at the age he witnessed the massacre Sasuke would have been a genin, maybe a chunin. But she’s burned too many tiny corpses to believe that would’ve made much of a difference. That he could still consider himself responsible for an entire massacre…

A child's childish interpretation of the horrors of the world. It's achingly familiar. Chiyo buries that thought beneath decades of prejudice, but it burns, bright and insistent at the edge of her mind.

Sasuke finally trains his eyes on the ground; "Doesn’t matter either way. Even if Sasori and Itachi are right in front of us, Gaara comes first."

Chiyo focuses on the horizon. Her eyes roll over the trees, the mountains, the flocks of birds… Then back to the birds. A murder of crows is flying their way, cruising steadily fifteen feet above them. Chiyo’s brow furrows. This is crow country, certainly, the trees are tall enough for them to roost. But that’s too many crows to be flying that smoothly. Not just smoothly– They’re flying in formation, in a V like migrating geese. Just in time to confirm her suspicion, the murder suddenly dives, the spear point of their formation piercing straight for Garuda.

Chiyo cries out, "Dive, Garuda!"

The great hawk dives a fraction of a second too late. The crows clip his tail, Chiyo’s scalp, and the arm Sasuke throws between their claws and his eyes. Sasuke grits his teeth and throws a glance over his shoulder just in time to see the crows moving as one, whirling around and racing after Garuda. Sasuke taps the left side of Garuda’s neck and the hawk swoops to the left, pulling his wings in and punching through the canopy. The crows break ranks and half follow them down, their smaller bodies flying easily through the holes in the foliage. Sasuke taps both hands on the crown of the hawk’s head and he pulls back up, the hairpin turn leaving some of the crows scrambling to follow.

They break back through the leaves only to fly directly into the other half of the murder. Their eyes glow red in the morning sun as they swarm Garuda, beaks and claws tearing out clumps of his feathers. Chiyo ducks down, pressing herself as tightly to Garuda’s back as she can. The crows slash at her back and pull at her hair, drawing blood. Sasuke grits his teeth and keeps an arm between the crows and his eyes, forcing them to take chunks out of his exposed arms and tear holes in his shirt.

Chiyo only has a moment’s warning. She catches sight of Sasuke tapping one side of Garuda’s neck then the other in rapid succession before channeling his chakra into his arms and legs to stick himself to Garuda’s back. Chiyo sends chakra threads out through her fingertips and wraps them around Garuda, tying herself to the hawk. The instant she does, Garuda does an abrupt barrel roll. The bird’s wide wingspan whipping around in a circle scatters the crows, but only for a moment. The instant Garuda levels off, the crows are back on his tail.

Those crows left behind in the forest come swooping up from the canopy to rejoin the murder. Garuda swoops and dives and spins in tight, nauseating corkscrews, but the crows have his scent. They keep perfect pace with the great hawk, shifting their formation to adapt to every evasive maneuver, always staying one wingbeat ahead.

Just as Chiyo is wracking her brain for a strategy, Sasuke shouts, "Garuda, level off!"

Garuda does as he’s bade, pushing ahead of the crows with a few strong wingbeats before catching the wind and flattening out. Sasuke pulls the chakra in his arms into a spot on his forehead and funnels all the chakra in his legs into the soles of his feet. He doffs his jacket, ties it around his waist, and pulls on a pair of familiar leather gloves. He pushes up into a crouch, then to his full height.

Chiyo splutters, "What are you doing?!"

Sasuke shouts above the rushing wind and screaming crows, "Flight’s not working, and we can’t fight if Garuda flings us off!"

Chiyo yelps, "Have you lost your mind?!"

Sasuke’s mouth pulls into a manic grin; "It runs in the family, doesn’t it?!"

Chiyo accepts in an instant that she is going to die and this little Uchiha pissant is going to be the cause.

Hidan lobs his scythe at Kakashi. In a blur of orange Naruto tackles him out of the way, sending them both crashing down onto the river's surface. They can’t stay down long. The scythe’s blades come down a few feet past them and drag the river, slicing for Kakashi’s scalp. Kakashi grabs Naruto by the collar and rolls them both out of the way, the scythe missing them by a hair. He pulls them up and onto their feet in time to hear the whine of metal cable as Hidan retracts the scythe. He doesn’t pull it all the way back to his hand, instead waiting until it reaches the apex of it’s arc before whipping it around and swinging it back towards them with a flick of his wrist.

Naruto’s eyes dart from Kakashi to Hidan and back before running through Dog Boar Ram and shouting, "Throw me!"

In a puff of smoke Naruto is replaced with a fūma shuriken. Kakashi grabs Naruto-the-Shuriken out of the air, whips his body around in a circle, and throws him like a discus. If Kakashi was facing a person with any sense of self-preservation, they would’ve ducked or dodged out of the way and thrown off the arc of their swing. Hidan doesn’t move an inch. Naruto-the-Shuriken’s blades hit him right in the gut, cutting a gash through Hidan’s torso deep and wide enough to expose a length of intestine.

And all it does is make Hidan laugh, "Hook, line, and sinker!"

The scythe’s blades come swinging back for Kakashi. Kakashi dives to the side, channeling chakra into his hands to grab hold of the ravine wall and throw himself onto it. Before he can stick his feet to the wall there’s the horrible sound of metal scraping on stone. Kakashi cuts the flow of chakra to his hands and drops back to the river, narrowly avoiding the scythe’s blades as they drag through where his fingertips had been seconds before. He lands on the water’s surface just as a gust of wind sends Naruto-the-Shuriken flying back around for Hidan. This time the blades slice through the junction of his right arm and shoulder, digging down into the chest.

It’s the kind of wound that should leave that arm useless forever. But Hidan reaches over with that arm to grab the cable and whip the scythe up, hitting Naruto-the-Shuriken mid-flight with the shaft. The shuriken bursts into smoke and Naruto tumbles out of it. He’s able to catch himself midair and land in a roll on the river, stopping next to Kakashi in his low stance.

From the corner of his eye Kakashi spots Naruto shaking himself off like a dog, his pupils elongating out into slits. The air around him grows a few degrees warmer and the hair on the back of Kakashi's neck stands up. The seal Jiraiya gave him is itching in the chest pocket of his flak jacket.

"What the Hell?! He shouldn’t even be standing right now," Naruto exclaims, "What’s with this guy, is he immortal or something?!"

"And Itachi said you were dumb," Hidan laughs, dragging his feet to smear his own blood in a circle on the wall, "Well, he didn't use the word dumb because he's too polite, but I got the gist."

Hidan’s feet come to a stop. He’s smeared the blood from his gut wound into a design identical to the one on his medallion. It’s the same design Kakashi’s seen in crime scene photos, the centerpiece nightmarish tableaus filled with bodies that endured all manner of tortures before finally being allowed to die. What exactly it does, Kakashi can’t say. But he’s not about to find out.

He pulls up his headband to reveal his sharingan. His hands flash through signs and he’s drops to slap one flat on the river’s surface. His chakra twists down into the river and swirls up, dragging water with it in the shape of a roaring dragon and firing it at Hidan. Hidan kicks off the ravine and leaps to the other side, narrowly avoiding the dragon. It crashes against the circle but doesn’t so much as smudge the blood. Only now can Kakashi see the chakra mixed in with the blood, sealing the circle in place.

Hidan cackles, "Like Hell is it gonna be that easy!"

Hidan sprints along the wall, whipping the scythe out ahead of him. Naruto tucks and rolls around Kakashi, weaving around the scythe’s blades. He grabs hold of the scythe’s shaft and cable, his eyes shift from blue to red, and with a mighty grunt he pulls towards himself. He tears Hidan off the wall, but in midair Hidan reaches into his coat and the cable reels the scythe back in, pulling a bewildered Naruto with it. Naruto flies directly into Hidan’s fist, the blow hitting him right in the nose and breaking his hold on the scythe. Naruto drops like a stone. Hidan keeps flying along his arc, landing in a roll a yard away from Kakashi.

Hidan hops to his feet with a grin; "Now that we’re all up close and personal, I gotta ask– Have you heard the good news about Jashin?"

Kakashi can only stare at him for a heartbeat before Hidan lashes out, blades cutting for his throat. He drops into a crouch, narrowly avoiding the scythe, and sweeps a kick for Hidan’s ankles. Hidan spins out of range, swinging his scythe in sync with his body and forcing Kakashi to roll backwards to avoid the blades.

"We get a bad rap, but really Jashinism is the perfect faith for shinobi. Like, Ninshū is so hypocritical. Promoting pacifisim? Really? Newsflash, Sage, you can’t invent ninjutsu then tell people not to use it!"

Naruto comes barreling back into the fight, claws on his hands and slashing for Hidan’s eyes. Hidan takes his scythe in a reverse grip and blocks Naruto’s claws with the flats of the blades, knocking him away with the shaft. The metal cable grates on Kakashi’s ears as Hidan leaps back and throws the sycthe forward, swiping the blades a hair’s breadth from their guts. They both leap backwards, the scythe missing them by heartbeat.

"Like yeah yeah, the rituals and prayers can be a bit tedious, but what’s life without ritual? You’ve got no structure, and that’s what Jashinism gives you!"

The scythe buries itself in the gorge wall and Hidan retracts the cable, pulling himself in. Kakashi and Naruto both flash through hand signs, Naruto firing off a gust of wind and Kakashi a fireball. The fireball absorbs the wind and balloons out to fill the ravine with heat and light. Hidan catches himself on the wall and runs along it, grabbing his scythe midstep and shielding himself from the flames with a few wide circular swipes. He punches through the flames with pieces of his robe and skin smoldering, but of course he doesn't care.

"But it’s not about the rituals, not really. What really drew me to the faith was the real core of it, the philosophy."

Hidan leaps off the wall and flies between Naruto and Kakashi. He spins in midair, the scythe spinning with him like the blades of a windmill. Kakashi darts out of the way an instant before Naruto does, the blades tearing through his jacket and scratching against his chain shirt. Hidan lands with another sweep of his scythe, kicking water up around him in a fan.

"It’s about helping people, you know? Easing their fears, taking the burdens of the world off their shoulders. And how you do it couldn’t be simpler!"

Naruto and Kakashi both throw their arms up to keep the water from getting in their eyes. Kakashi brings his down first, just in time to see Hidan charging straight for him. Kakashi draws a kunai in each hand. He needs to stop dodging the scythe and start blocking, that’s the only way he’ll get in close enough to do anything worth a damn. Naruto drops into a low run, sprinting with his claws bared and his eyes locked on Hidan’s flank.

Hidan grins. Once he’s a yard away from Kakashi he suddenly pivots, throwing his scythe directly at Naruto.

"You just gotta kill the shit out of 'em!"

Naruto’s reflexes are quick. Hidan’s are quicker. And Kakashi’s beat them both. He sprints in between Naruto and Hidan, shoulder-checking Naruto out of the way and ducking just beneath the scythe. The metal cable screams. Kakashi feels the blades tear through his shoulder before he sees them, flying back to Hidan’s hand. Kakashi rolls to a clumsy stop, a hand shooting up to put pressure on his injured shoulder. Hidan drags his tongue along the blades, slurping up Kakashi’s blood, before turning tail and dashing back towards his circle.

That's not good. That can't be good. Why would he run after finally gaining ground? Why did he lick Kakashi's blood? He doesn't know details but his gut is screaming at him, and ignoring his gut got them here.

Kakashi shouts to Naruto, "Don’t let him reach the circle!"

Naruto bares his sharp teeth, summons a clone, and races after Hidan. The clone follows a half-step back, gathering chakra in Naruto’s outstretched palm into a spinning gyre of light that grows and grows with every step. Hidan swerves up and onto the wall, barely a few yards away from his circle. If he can hear or even cares about the extra-large Rasengan both Narutos are carrying, he’s not showing it. Naruto and the clone follow him onto the wall, quickly gaining on him, but Hidan is shoving so much chakra into his feet to keep his lead that they’re glowing bright blue.

The instant before the two Narutos catch up, Hidan throws his scythe, burying it in the wall just a few steps past the circle. He retracts the line, skating along the wall with chakra coming off his heels like sparks. Both Narutos let out frustrated roars. Chakra, red and bubbling, coats their soles and boosts them forward. The stone beneath their feet breaks as they run across it. They make up the lead, but not by enough. They thrust the Rasengan forward just as Hidan skids to a halt in the center of the circle. Hidan’s legs light up as he shoves a metric ton of chakra into them.

The Rasengan collides with Hidan’s back. Hidan’s torso jolts forward, doubling almost all the way over, but he stays rooted to the spot.

And before Kakashi can even curse their luck, he feels a rending drill grinding into his spine. The force of the blow knocks him to his knees, the sudden burst of uniquely agonizing pain pushing a ragged scream past all his training about how a shinobi should not show weakness and out through his mouth. It’s like being hit by a hurricane compressed into an area the size of a beach ball.

A distant part of Kakashi’s mind can only think, So that’s what getting hit with the Rasengan feels like.

The howling wail of the Rasengan cuts off. Kakashi coughs blood into his mask and he tries to force himself to his feet, but his legs feel like they’re ten feet away from his body. His chakra control is wavering, his knees and palms sinking an inch below the surface of the river. Kakashi pulls his head up to see Naruto’s clone dispersing into smoke, Naruto staring at Kakashi in feral horror.

Hidan slowly straightens. His back is a ruin of ground flesh and shattered bone. Even if he's immortal, damage to his spine on that level should leave him paralyzed, but Kakashi supposes the fact that he can still distantly feel his own legs is proof enough that it looks worse than it is. Around the gaping wound, Hidan's flesh has changed to a deep black with markings in white in the abstract echo of the bones beneath. Hidan pivots around, a painfully wide grin on his skull of a face.

Hidan throws his arms out wide and laughs the laugh of a crazed clown; "Now, let the ritual finally begin!"

Sasuke rolls his shoulders, lightning coursing down his arms and sparking off his fists. With his sharingan active he can track each bird in the murder as they swarm around Garuda like a storm cloud. That doesn’t make their speed, numbers, and ferocity any less intimidating. A voice that sounds like Lee in the back of his mind tells him that trying to punch flying birds out of the air is a fool’s errand.

And another, his own, reminds him that if he can punch a boulder out of the air and dodge arquebus bullets he can definitely punch out a bird.

Sasuke swings for the fences. His first punch collides with a crow flying for his eyes. The lightning roasts the bird alive and sends it falling away, a smoking trail following it down to earth. The second hits a crow trying to swoop around him to get to Chiyo and the bird goes shooting off into the wild blue yonder like a black firecracker.

Sasuke throws hands, feet, elbows and knees at any birds that come close. Each blow connects, sending birds flying off them like soot from an erupting volcano. But Sasuke only has four limbs. There are over fifty crows, and when one falls three swoop up to take it’s place. The crows move with intention and intelligence. Crows are smart enough on their own, but these birds act like they’re being directed by a trained tactician, with formations and divisions and everything. While the vanguard charge Sasuke, giving him sacrificial targets to keep him busy, the cavalry flank Garuda and harass Chiyo. The rearguard surrounds them, blocking visibility, because the sharingan isn’t the byakugan and cover is cover even if it’s made up of a murder of crows.

That tactic isn't just intelligent. It's eeriely prescient. Sasuke's not sure if the chill up his spine is fear or excitement, so he settles on calling it 'both'.

Sasuke dips down into a crouch and taps the junction of Garuda’s neck and left wing. Garuda swoops down and to the left, breaching through the cloud of crows and buying them a yard of space before the crows turn as one and give chase.

He takes this moment to open his jacket pocket and call down to Katsuyu, "Are we still on course?!"

The slug’s soft voice strains to be heard over the rushing wind and screeching crows; "Yes, if we can keep going straight at this speed we will make it there in three minutes–!"

Chiyo cuts in, shouting over Katsuyu; "These crows won’t let that happen! We’re outmatched in the air, we have to bail out and try finding the summoner!"

Sasuke grits his teeth and snarls, "We don’t have time for that! If you’re not gonna help me, just shut up and let me focus!"

"That’s the point, I can’t help you while we’re on this damn bird," Chiyo snaps, "I’m a puppetmaster, if I summon my puppets their weight will drag Garuda down!"

Sasuke glares over his shoulder and opens his mouth to shout something unhelpful, but snaps it shut when he takes a second look at Chiyo. Tying her to Garuda’s back are a weave of chakra strings, glowing bright against her dark robes. Sasuke’s mind races back to every time he’s crossed paths with Kankuro, every mission of theirs that’s intersected on accident and on purpose. He’s seen him use chakra strings to rappel down cliff faces, tie up enemies, create surveillance webs, and even sew wounds shut. They’re arguably more useful than the puppets themselves.

Sasuke’s eyes glance past Chiyo to the quickly advancing crows; "I’ve got an idea but I need to know if it’ll work!"

Chiyo rolls her eyes; "Spirits preserve me, what is it now?!"

The gears in Sasuke’s head are turning quickly enough to kick up sparks; "I know you can use chakra threads to grab onto opponents! What about extending that chakra thread to connect an opponent you’ve grabbed to someone else?!"

Chiyo’s mouth drops open, but no sound comes out. Her eyes sweep back and forth, doing mental math at a rapid pace. The crow vanguard swoops below Garuda, biting and clawing at the underside of his tail. Garuda lets out a sharp cry, wobbling in the air. That lapse is enough for the crows to make up the gap. In an instant the murder is back on them, surrounding them on all sides.

Chiyo shoves a breath out through her teeth; "It’s possible! It could only connect a few targets who are right next to each other and it would strain the thread, weakening it, but it could be done!"

Sasuke nods; "Alright, I need you to connect as many of the crows as you can! Tell me when you’re at your limit and I’ll take care of the rest!"

Chiyo sputters, "Are you allergic to telling people your whole plans, boy?!"

"Do you want me to throw you off this bird?! Because I will if you don’t stop talking and start helping!"

Chiyo clicks her tongue against her teeth, but unravels the strings keeping her flush against Garuda’s back and brings herself up into an unsteady crouch. Sasuke, on instinct, reaches back to steady her. She spares him an odd little look before flexing her fingers, drawing chakra up to the tips, and shooting ten chakra strings out into the cloud of crows. Sasuke starts gathering chakra, kneading it in his chest and his stomach.

Sasuke tracks the strings with his sharingan, watching as each finds a crow flying slower or sloppier than it’s fellows and grabs it by the ankle. The crows thrash against the tether but the strings hold fast. The strings loop around the crows’ legs before shooting out at a random angle, catching the ten crows nearest to those already captured. The strings are already looking lean and pale. Free crows turn their attention away from Garuda to bite and claw at the strings, threatening to snap them. Still, Chiyo grits her teeth, and with a grunt the strings shoot off once again to grab ten more crows.

The strings are nearly invisible. Blood is beading at the tips of Chiyo’s fingers, the force of thirty crows all flapping their wings and flying in circles threatening to pull Chiyo off Garuda’s back. There’s no way she can afford to send chakra down to her feet. It’s pure luck she hasn’t been thrown off already.

Sweat pours down her weathered face as she hisses, "Whatever you’re going to do, do it now!"

Sasuke jolts to his feet. He reaches for the portion of the strings between Chiyo and her targets and takes hold of all ten, five in each fist. He sends the chakra he's been gathering surging up to his shoulders and down his arms. His right arm is a shower of red and yellow sparks, his left a torrent of blue. He channels the chakra all the way down past his hands and into Chiyo’s chakra strings.

The strings ignite, shocking blue and burning red. The murder of crows explodes like a volcanic lightning storm. Thirty crows drop like flies, burning comets and charred lumps of ash, while a dozen more fly in frantic corkscrews in a desperate attempt to put out burning feathers. The crows swirl around Garuda like swarming wasps, all semblance of organization dead and gone, but still incredibly dangerous. Maybe even more so. Their eyes don’t shine red anymore, shifting back to button-black.

Sasuke wants to contemplate the implications of that but he doesn’t have time, instead shouting down to Katsuyu, "Are we there yet?!"

Katsuyu’s reply comes back in the closest thing to a yelp he’s ever heard from the slug; "Yes! We’re right on top of the hideout!"

Sasuke grits his teeth. Even broken and burnt the crows are still swarming. They won’t let Garuda come in for a landing without a fight. But if these crows are the Akatsuki’s doing, Garuda’s not the priority, not really. An idea comes to him an instant. It’s a terrible, completely boneheaded, impulsive move that Tsunade will chew him out for when he gets back. But it’s the only idea he’s got.

And besides, Tsunade can only chew him out for what actually goes in the report.

Sasuke turns to Chiyo first; "Get on my back!"


"Just do it or I will leave you behind!"

Chiyo scrambles over and Sasuke helps her onto his back. She secures herself with chakra strings tied tight around his abdomen.

Next, Sasuke calls to Garuda, "When I whistle, dive down to meet us!"

Garuda lets out a loud call. He’s just gonna go ahead and pretend that’s a yes. Sasuke takes one last second to get his bearings. They’re circling above a river gorge with a torii gate and a large boulder embedded in the side. Through the sharingan's sharp red filter, Sasuke can pick out a pair of leaf headbands at a glance. One of them is on the ravine wall. He spits a low curse, but he knows Naruto's reflexes are quick. He waits until Garuda is almost perfectly lined up with the boulder.

Then, finally, he shouts, "LOOK OUT BELOW!"

Sasuke leaps off of Garuda’s back.

Chiyo screams in his ear in harmony with the rushing wind. Sasuke moves all the chakra he’s been building up over the course of the fight into his fist, pulling it back. The instant before he hits the ground, he strikes, releasing the chakra at the same time his fist collides with the ground.

And the ground caves in.

Naruto’s voice is a harsh, rock-scraping-against-rock growl; "What did you do?!"

Hidan is still cackling. Kakashi is still gasping for breath, a hand on his back clutching at the growing bloodstain on his flak jacket. The air around Naruto ratchets up a degree, the chakra in his belly bubbling like molten lava.

His hands snap out, his claws digging into Hidan’s shoulders, as he shouts in his face, "Tell me what the Hell you did right now–!"

Naruto is cut off by a choked swear from Kakashi. He looks over his shoulder to see him double over again, fresh puncture wounds piercing through the shoulders of his flak jacket all the way down to the skin. Naruto immediately lets go, pushing off Hidan like he’s red hot and stepping back along his path of broken earth.

Hidan clicks his tongue against his teeth, wagging a finger at Naruto; "Temper temper, Nine Tails! Anything you do to me, you do to him! It’s Jashin’s ultimate gift, the ability to truly feel and understand the pain of others. Why would you rob your sensei of something so enlightening?"

"Don’t call me Nine Tails! I’m Naruto Uzumaki, not that thing!" Naruto roars, fingers flexing as his claws itch to rake the grin right off of Hidan’s skeletal face.

Hidan leans in, a hand to his chin; “You sure? You’ve got predator eyes, claws, flesh-rippin’ teeth–”

He reaches out for Naruto’s mouth and Naruto snaps his teeth at his fingers, only making Hidan laugh as he draws them back, “You’re even biting like a fox! Face it, kid, you’re as close to beast as you can get without growing a tail.”

"Naruto," Kakashi shouts, drawing Naruto’s attention back over his shoulder, "You have to force him out of the circle! Why do you think he’s spending so much chakra to stay in it?! It’s the key to the ritual, it has to be!"

Naruto pushes against the fog of rage, a cocktail of him and the thing inside him, clearing just enough room to take stock of the situation. This guy’s sharp, but he made one big mistake by drawing this circle on a vertical surface. The obvious move is to lame him out, run down the clock and wait for his chakra to start running low and his control to slip, but that’s not gonna work. Not with someone who’s immortal and a Kakashi that’s super not immortal. If Naruto stalls, Hidan will just stab himself through the heart and that’ll be the end of Kakashi.

He could overwhelm him, but summoning a bunch of clones to beat on Hidan until his concentration breaks and he falls is the same as sending them all to beat on Kakashi. The answer here isn’t pretty, but it’s at least simple. He needs to hit Hidan with something hard and blunt to shove him out of that circle in one shot.

Naruto pulls absolutely too much chakra from the wellspring in his stomach, kneading it around his heart. He sends it down his arm as he throws a punch at the empty space in front of him. The chakra comes off his fist as a blast of compressed air aiming right for Hidan’s stomach. A tiny part of him apologizes to Kakashi, because this is gonna hurt like a motherfucker.

Hidan’s hand shoots into his coat and comes back out holding a spike made from black metal. He flicks his wrist and the spike extends into a spear half as tall as Hidan himself. In the same motion he thrusts the spear not out but down. The point pierces through Hidan’s left leg, just above the ankle, and doesn’t stop until the spear is buried a foot into the ravine wall. Naruto hears a splash and a grunt of pain. He doesn’t need to look. He can picture Kakashi stumbling mid step, blood welling up from his shin and through his fatigues, his chakra control faltering and his leg dropping into the water.

He can’t stop the blow, not now that it's left his fist. It slams headlong into Hidan’s stomach. He and Kakashi let out pained oomphs in perfect sync. Hidan’s legs stop glowing as his chakra control falters, but while his body falls to the side the spike through his leg keeps his foot pinned to wall. The spear twists and Naruto squeezes his eyes shut, gritting his teeth at the sound of a strangled cry from Kakashi. The fog of rage surges back in. When Naruto opens his eyes, he’s seeing red. Hidan channels chakra back down his right leg and swings the rest of his body back into the circle.

To Hell with this, he’ll just pull him off.

Naruto bares his claws, but before he can run forward Hidan crows, "Oh I know that look! Better get prepped!"

Another lightning fast flick of the wrist and a second spear is in Hidan’s hand. Naruto sprints along the wall, so low he’s nearly on all fours, but Hidan is faster. He drives the second spear through his right leg, pinning that leg to the wall. Kakashi doesn’t scream or even grunt this time. There’s just another splash as he seems to choke on his own breath, like breathing alone is a Herculean effort. Hidan’s torso leans towards the ground as he doesn’t even bother sending chakra into his legs anymore. The spikes groan under his weight, but keep him pinned like a butterfly in a display case.

Naruto skids to a halt, inches away from the circle. The gears of his mind have a wrench thrown in them. All he wants to do is tear Hidan off the circle, even if it means ripping his legs off at the knee. But Kakashi’s quick, ragged panting is like an animal caught in a trap, and it’s all he can hear.

Hidan’s grin twists into a sneer; "Go on. I know you want to. Look at him, Nine Tails. Take in his pain. Feel it."

Naruto slowly lets his head turn, glancing over his shoulder.

Kakashi is up to his chest in the water, arms glowing up to the elbow as they hold onto the river’s surface to keep himself from having to tread water. The river around him is running red. His mismatched eyes are wide and his face is ghostly pale, a perfect match for his hair.

Kakashi shakes his head; "It doesn’t matter what you have to do, Naruto, just"

"Not so fast, sensei!"

There’s the sound of metal sliding on metal. Naruto’s head whips back to Hidan. He’s holding his scythe up, all three blades a hair’s breadth away from his chest. Naruto’s heart skips a beat.

His voice drops into a low rasp; "Think carefully, Nine Tails. I’m immortal. Sensei isn’t. I’m a pious man, you know, and Jashin’s most important commandment is that a battle is meant to be a complete and total slaughter. I’m not supposed to leave people half dead, but…"

Hidan pulls the scythe away and points with it towards the hideout entrance; "Jashin isn’t signing my checks, and I really gotta start pulling my weight around here, you understand? My boss in there would just love it if I brought another Jinchūriki in today–"

Kakashi’s voice comes from behind him in a shout; "Naruto don’t, Sasuke’s almost here–!"

"– And you can help me do that! Just agree to turn yourself over without a fight–"

"– Don’t listen to him! He won’t–!"

"– And I’ll walk out of this circle. We’ll head into the hideout together and Sensei can go free. How’s that sound?"

Naruto’s head feels like it’s about to split in half. He can barely hear the sound of his own thoughts beneath a deep, resonant growl of rip and tear with tooth and claw break his bones and cut his flesh wide open rend him asunder and make him regret ever threatening what’s yours. Naruto is at once on this ravine wall and in a damp dank cell, straining to hold the gate closed as massive jaws snap at the bars. His vision is tunneling down to a single point, that hyena grin on Hidan’s face. He wants to wedge his claws in the corners of his mouth and cut up to his ears. He wants to rip the tongue from his mouth and eat it.

Naruto snarls, as much beast as man, "Go fuck yourself."

Hidan’s jaw drops open, and he laughs, "For being a fox, you sure ain’t clever," before flipping the scythe back around to point at his chest–


Naruto’s head whips up just in time to see a blue and black shape plummeting down from the sky, just below a giant hawk being harried by a murder of crows. The shape drops like a stone, getting close enough quick enough for Naruto to identify it as Sasuke with an old woman on his back, pulling his fist back for some kind of blow.

Kakashi calls out, "Get out of the way, Naruto!"

Naruto shakes his head and shouts, "Sorry, Kakashi-sensei, this is gonna hurt!"

His hands lash out like rattlesnakes, wrap around the spears in Hidan’s legs, and tear them out. Hidan’s eyes go wide. He starts to fall.

Sasuke hits the ground.

And the ground caves in.

Chapter Text

VII. The only warning Deidara gets is Zetsu and Itachi’s eyes both going wide at the exact same time, and three voices snapping, "Brace yourselves–!"

Deidara’s art form is explosions. His reaction time is honed down to the millisecond. He zips through one-handed signs and in a heartbeat his clay bird is over his head, wings spread wide. He crouches on the statue’s knuckle as Pain's shadow forms the Snake sign. The Nine Phantom Dragons pull back, dragging the One Tail’s jinchūriki to float between the Gedo Statue’s open palms. The statue’s hands creak closer to each other, shifting the projected silhouettes of the Akatsuki back onto the knuckles, as they slowly attempt to close over the One Tail.

And then the ceiling collapses.

Deidara cloaks himself in Earth chakra and drops to his stomach. He grips the statue’s finger like a monkey gripping a tree trunk, arm and legs wrapped as far around it as he can get. His bird takes the brunt of the blow, massive chunks of stone smashing it’s tail and the tip of it’s beak clean off. What sneaks through the cracks bounces and slides off Deidara like water off a duck’s back. Through his scope, he keeps an eye on the merchandise. Despite not closing all the way around the jinchūriki, the fingers of the Gedo Statue are large and sturdy enough to shield the One Tail from the worst of the debris. Sasori’s probably fine.

The first thing Deidara hears when the rain of rock lightens to a drizzle is Hidan groan, "Boss, the rockslide killed the body double! We really gotta start finding sturdier guys for this jutsu."

Deidara hops back to his haunches and surveys the damage. His eyes go wide. The entire hideout is exposed to the sky and is now sporting a new carpet made from rubble. The boulder gate and ravine wall have gone the way of the ceiling, and though water trickles out through the cracks the debris have completely dammed up the river. With his scope Deidara can pick out pieces of broken torii gate, the nearly-pulped arm of Yura, and the mangled leg of whoever had doubled for Itachi poking out of the stone.

There’s movement out near the river, but Deidara’s eye zeroes in on the two forms crouched in the dead center of the 'blast zone’. The young man and old woman look dusty and crow-bitten, but there aren’t any burns from explosives going off in their faces. The young man’s gloved fist is planted in the middle of the ground, the last wisps of chakra dissolving around it. The young man stands, helping the old woman off his back, and when he glares up at the Akatsuki it’s with a pair of bright red sharingan.

"Holy shit…" Deidara’s mouth spreads into a giddy grin and he crows, "Holy shit that was amazing! Look at this! You did this with just your fist?! Hey, hey, Itachi, this is your little brother, right? He has way more style than you do, hm!"

Sasuke’s eyes zero in on Itachi’s silhouette, sharingan meeting sharingan, before his lip lifts in a dark, ragged snarl, "Coward."

Deidara shrugs a shoulder; "Okay so maybe you both got the overdramatic self-serious gene but nobody’s perfect, hm."

Sasori’s voice comes from his left, painted in quizzical shades; "Chiyo. You look well."

Chiyo purses her lips, then forces herself to look down her nose at Sasori; "No thanks to you. How long has it been since you looked in on your dear old grandmother? Your mother and father would be ashamed."

Sasori’s wooden face doesn’t shift, but his tail thrashes out from beneath his cloak, whipping this way and that like an angry cat.

Deidara’s eyes dart between Sasori and Chiyo; "Seriously, Sasori my man? Your grandmother is here too? Why did no one tell me this was going to be a family reunion? I would’ve invited my sister, hm."

"Both of you, focus," Pain’s resonant voice snaps, drawing Deidara’s attention back to him, "The extraction is only a third of the way complete and our cover is blown. Deidara, Sasori, hold them off while I work. The rest of you are dismissed. You will be notified once I’ve moved the Gedo Statue and jinchūriki to a more secure location."

"You’re not taking him anywhere," Sasuke snaps, "Chiyo, cover me! Naruto, Kakashi, if you can hear me, hold the entrance!"

Six of the seven silhouettes flicker out, the Nine Phantom Dragons going with them and dropping the One Tail into the crook between the Gedo Statue’s slowly closing hands. Sasuke leaps into action. He sprints for the Gedo Statue, as fast as his brother, maybe faster. Deidara chokes on a swear and leaps up onto his bird, soaring towards Sasuke while Sasori scuttles down the statue’s arm like a spider. Deidara shoves his hand into his hip pouch and feeds his last bit of explosive clay to the mouth on his hand, kneading his chakra into it.

Deidara isn’t in the air long before he hears the sounds of rattling wood coming from either side. He clocks two puppets flanking him, one modeled after a dark haired woman wielding a serrated katana and another modeled after a red haired man wielding a wooden whip covered in kunai. He swerves in midair to avoid their blows and the puppets dog his steps, determined to keep him as far away from Sasuke as they can. Deidara’s running too low on clay to go slinging it around willy-nilly, so instead he reaches out with tendrils of Earth chakra to pull up two broken boulders and fire them at the puppets.

The puppets come together, clasping their free hands for a moment before pulling them apart to reveal razor wires connecting them by the fingers. They loop through the air like synchronized swimmers and slice the boulders to pieces, chunks of stone flying everywhere, but Deidara’s not one to let a tool go to waste if he can still use it. He grabs the chunks of stone out of the air with his chakra and turns them in, sending them flying back at the two puppets. The puppets break the wires, stow their weapons and fly until they’re back to back. Both press their arms together, palms out, and the slats on the sides of their arms fan out. Chakra radiates out from their arms in a shield, the stone chunks bouncing off them and joining the rest of the rubble on the ground.

As he grapples with the puppets Deidara keeps an eye trained on Sasori. Once Sasori is within fifty feet of Sasuke he lets Hiruko’s jaw drop open, spitting a hail of senbon at the oncoming threat, but Sasuke’s reflexes are supernaturally fast and any he doesn’t dodge he knocks out of the air with a tantō emblazoned with the Uchiha crest on the pommel. Sasori lifts his left arm and fires off the torpedo-like appendage. Sasuke leaps over it, whirling in the air an instant before the senbon shrapnel fires off and avoiding or blocking every single one in his path. Sasuke throws the tantō the moment before Sasori’s tail whips out to strike for him. The blade catches between two joints of the iron tail, freezing the tail in mid-strike. Sasuke lands hard on the center of Hiruko’s back, shattering the puppet’s heavy lacquer shell with one foot like he’d stomped on a glass figurine.

Hiruko’s pieces go flying, forcing Deidara to swoop to avoid some of the shrapnel. While he catches sight of Sasori’s "real" body landing in an undignified heap a few feet away from the wreckage, Sasuke doesn’t seem to give two shits. He pauses only to wrench his tantō out of Hiruko’s tail before launching back into his marathon sprint. He’s barely thirty feet away from the Gedo Statue, it’s hands still folding around the One Tail at an agonizing pace. It’s definitely not gonna have them closed by the time Sasuke gets there.

Sasori and Pain both look to him and snap in perfect synch, "Deidara!"

The combined pressure of Pain’s eerie pond-ripple gaze and Sasori’s dead doll eyes is more than enough to get him to comply. He drops low and forces his bird to do a barrel roll, knocking the two puppets away for an instant and giving himself room to soar up and out of the massive hole that was the ceiling. The puppets make to follow him, but Deidara takes a page out of Onoki’s book and forms a one-handed Snake seal. Earth chakra seals itself to the two puppets, who suddenly plummet like iron butterflies as the force of gravity drags them back down to Earth, knocking Chiyo to her knees with the sudden pull against her chakra strings.

Once he’s past the hole’s edge, Deidara breaks his hold on the puppets and does a quick circle of the battlefield to take stock of the shit show this day has become. While Sasuke is running for the Gedo Statue and Pain is trying to close it’s hands around the jinchūriki, Sasori is whipping out a summoning scroll and Chiyo is redirecting one of her puppets to intercept him. Out on the river, a silver haired and badly battered Leaf shinobi is dragging himself by his arms over the rubble remains of the boulder gate. Most concerning is the strange red chakra bubbling up from the cracks in the rubble like water from a deep sea vent.

Deidara takes one look and decides that is definitely a later problem.

His hand spits the tiny lump of clay back out, having molded it into a little bird built for speed and accuracy. This is going to cut it close, but the statue looks sturdy, Pain will probably forgive him. Probably. Deidara throws the bird like a dart and it transforms in midair, growing to it’s full size and flying straight for Sasuke’s back. Deidara catches from the corner of his eye Chiyo’s male puppet in the midst of a close quarters fight with Sasori suddenly going limp and falling in a rattling heap, the moment before chakra strings grab his bird out of the air, swing it around, and send it flying back the way it came. Her female puppet’s jaw drops open and fires a kunai with pinpoint accuracy to intercept the bird in midair.

Deidara bites out a quick "Ah fuck" before making his mount dive back down. The puppet’s kunai hits the bird, detonating it fifteen feet above Deidara. The aftershock of the explosion gives Deidara a speed boost, one he was only half-anticipating, but embraces. Because coming in hard and fast is kind of his thing. He wheels around Chiyo’s female puppet as she comes back up to engage him again, aiming for the lifeless male puppet and opening his bird’s broken beak. Chiyo takes the bait, a chakra string firing out from her free hand for the male puppet.

Deidara tears a handful of clay off his bird’s back and chews it up in his palm. His palm spits out three itsy bitsy clay spiders in short order and Deidara sends them crawling down the bird’s open beak. The instant before the bird can swallow the puppet, Chiyo yanks it up and away and Deidara’s clay spiders leap from the bird to the puppet, burying themselves in the ruff around the puppet’s neck. Chiyo’s gonna be in for a nasty surprise in a bit, but like any good surprise party, you have to act like there’s nothing planned.

So Deidara groans, "Oh come on, you get to take my toys but I don’t get to take yours?! So not fair, hm!"

Sasori’s voice is quite a bit less intimidating when he’s outside Hiruko, but no less authoritative; "Stop screwing around and get the Uchiha!"

Deidara glances back just in time to see Sasuke leaping for the Gedo Statue’s hands. There’s only a five foot gap between them now, but Sasuke catches himself where the statue’s pinkies meet it’s palms. He skids down until he’s almost at the wrists, cutting his momentum off with a burst of chakra to his palms and soles. The muscles in Sasuke’s back tense up, he grits his teeth, and he pushes out. The statue and Sasuke meet each other strength for strength. The statue’s hands come to a grinding halt.

Deidara and Sasori’s eyes meet for an instant. The instant after, they leap into action.

There’s a puff of smoke from Sasori’s summoning scroll, one that Deidara quickly clears with his bird’s wings as he swoops back down towards Sasori and the newly revealed puppet of the Third Kazekage. With one hand Sasori sends the Third Kazekage leaping across the cavern for Chiyo with his poison-tipped claws bared, and with the other hand he lashes five chakra strings to Deidara’s bird. Chiyo reads their strategy in an instant and pulls the female puppet back to guard her while sending the male puppet after Deidara. Deidara forms half a seal, detonating the clay spiders. The male puppet goes up in flames like a pile of dry tinder in the middle of Summer, the fire running up the strings and onto Chiyo’s right hand. Instead of stopping, dropping, or rolling, Chiyo just clenches her jaw. With a click, her right forearm falls out of her sleeve and lands on the ground, the fire consuming it.

While the Third Kazekage and Chiyo’s female puppet trade blows, Sasori swings Deidara’s bird around his head once, twice, and on the third go around he breaks the strings, throwing Deidara at Sasuke like a stone from a sling. Deidara doesn’t need to do anything fancy for this. He just holds his arm out to one side, ready to give this kid the clothesline from Hell–

Sasuke shouts, loud enough to wake the dead, "Someone grab Gaara before this thing crushes me!"

The rubble at the hideout’s entrance explodes with a roar. Something flies over Deidara’s head, red hot like a comet, passing him so quickly he can’t even track it with his scope. It shoots through the goalposts that are the Gedo Statue’s hands, missing Sasuke by an inch, and collides headlong with the One Tail. The two of them roll out of the gap between the statue’s thumbs and land on the ground between it’s arms and it’s chest. For the moment that they’re still, Deidara gets a look at the thing that just fucked up literal years of prep work.

The Nine Tails matches Itachi’s description to the letter, give or take two years of puberty and an outfit change. Oh yeah, and the cloak of bubbling red-orange chakra in the vague shape of the Nine Tailed Fox. That’s also new. The jinchūriki’s head snaps up to reveal red eyes, distended canines, and a face covered in bruises and blood. The Nine Tail uses his mouth as much as his hands to maneuver the One Tail onto his back, then runs almost on all fours back the way he came.

Deidara makes a hairpin U-turn and follows. An heartbeat later there’s the sound of sandals scuffing against earth, then a running chorus of "Shit shit shit shit shit" as Sasuke goes racing after him.

Pain’s voice echoes through the room, rage simmering across every syllable; "Do not let them escape."

There’s a wave of pressure followed by a blast of thick black smoke. Deidara rolls his eyes, fishes a far less artistically inspired but serviceable exploding tag attached to a kunai from his weapon pouch, and throws it over his shoulder. The blast gives him another, much less powerful boost, and forces the smoke out through the hole in the roof. The smoke clears to reveal the Nine Tails, already halfway across the cavern with no signs of slowing down.

Deidara also has a clear view of Chiyo and Sasori’s battle, or really the proxy battle between the puppets. Chiyo is cowering behind her female puppet’s chakra shield as she inches her way closer to the exit. The puppet’s movements are stiff and sluggish, and Deidara doesn’t have to guess why. The Third Kazekage is surrounded by a halo of iron sand, no doubt Sasori left grains behind to gum up the puppet’s works. Sasori keeps pushing, wearing away at the chakra shield with the puppet’s hidden blades and iron sand to force the puppet closer and closer to Chiyo. The fight has barely begun and Chiyo’s face is pale beneath a sheen of sweat, her hand shaking with the effort of keeping her puppet in the fight. This is a war of attrition, and those are wars the elderly can’t win.

Sasuke’s chant of "Shit shit shit fuck shit god fucking damn it I’m so fucking stupid–" suddenly ratchets up in volume and in speed. He suddenly appears just past Deidara, catching up to then overtaking him in the same breath. And he’s apparently not lying about being a fucking idiot, because instead of swerving around the fight between two of the greatest puppet masters in history, he dives right into the center of it. Sasuke rolls to a crouch between Chiyo’s puppet and the Third Kazekage, whirls to his feet, and spits a massive fireball directly at the Third Kazekage.

See, that’s the thing about human puppets. If normal puppets made from lacquered wood are piles of dry kindling, human puppets– with their dried out hair, papery skin, and protective layer of enough preservative chemicals to make a man immortal– are that same pile of kindling except it’s been doused in kerosene. Sasori bites out a word in a language Deidara doesn’t speak that nevertheless sounds horribly foul. His reflexes take over and he’s yanking the puppet back like a parent grabbing their child the instant before they can fall into white water rapids. The iron sand swerves away from Chiyo’s puppet to form a shield, blocking the worst of the flames as well as Sasori’s vision.

Sasuke takes advantage of the cover to dart off course, grab Chiyo around the waist abruptly enough to make her spit that same foreign curse, throw her over one shoulder and keep running for the exit. Chiyo presses her lips tightly together, then cuts the strings connecting her hand to the female puppet. The puppet falls limp and Sasuke gains a burst of momentum from the literal weight taken off his shoulders. Sasori pauses for a moment, eyes lingering on the female puppet, before shaking his head back into the game.

Deidara feels the chakra strings latch onto the underside of his bird before he sees them. The bird lurches down to one side as Sasori reels himself in, using his momentum to swing all the way around the bird, grab Deidara’s collar, and come to a stop on the bird’s back. Deidara can hear the joints in his other hand clicking away as he makes the Third Kazekage "run" even with them. Fat lot of good it’ll do– It’s still a hunk of wood and metal with a whole tub of iron shavings in it’s stomach. Deidara can feel it slowing them down like a parachute made of lead.

"After them," Sasori snaps, "Double time!"

Deidara rolls the eye behind his scope; "Easier said than done, Sasori my man, easier said than done!"

Sasuke allows himself a half second’s pause as he and Chiyo tumble over the hideout’s broken threshold to try and get a bead on Naruto. He catches sight of him out of the corner of his left eye. With the cloak of demonic chakra giving his stamina a boost and extending his reach, he has a commanding lead of over a hundred and twenty feet as he bounds South along the quickly drying riverbed. Gaara is on his back, breathing, but not moving. Before Sasuke can give into his impulses and start running after him, a hand closes around his ankle. Sasuke looks down to lock eyes with a bloodsoaked, waterlogged Kakashi.

"Sasuke," Kakashi huffs, voice raw like he’s been screaming for hours, "When this mission is over, we are going to have a talk."

Sasuke grimaces and hauls Kakashi up onto his other shoulder; "Yeah, I had a feeling."

From the corner of his ear Sasuke hears Sasori shout, "After them, double time!"

Sasuke is back on the move before he can blink. Sasuke conserves chakra by moving in great leaps, short bursts rather than a steady stream. Over short distances he may have been able to outrun that clay bird, but there’s no telling how long this chase is going to go for. Once he’s put thirty feet between himself and the hideout, Sasuke angles his head up and whistles, high and sharp as he can.

There’s a moment where Sasuke’s heart doesn’t beat. All he can do is strain his eyes in an attempt to pick out the one silhouette he wants to see in the pockets of sky hidden among the tight, tall trees.

In a burst of leaves and feathers, Garuda punches through the canopy. The great hawk keeps his wings and legs tucked tight against his body like a guided missile until he’s just above Sasuke’s head. Before he can hit the ground beak-first his wings spread wide, catching the wind and letting him coast at a steady speed.

Sasuke can’t help a fierce grin; "Good bird!"

Sasuke tosses Kakashi up to Garuda, who catches him in one claw with only a shocked yelp of protest from the thoroughly battered jōnin. Sasuke kicks off the ravine wall and lands on Garuda’s back, finally letting Chiyo down. He chances a glance over his shoulder. Deidara and Sasori are cruising fifteen feet back and ten feet up, with Sasori’s puppet bounding between the ravine walls. Iron sand is streaming from the puppet’s mouth and forming into wicked spikes, circling the puppet’s head like a crown of thorns.

Chiyo interrupts Sasuke’s train of thought; "Now what are we supposed to do?! We’ve thrown Gaara from one kidnapper’s hands to another!"

Sasuke grits his teeth; "Everything I said before about throwing you off if you don’t have anything helpful to stay still applies, you know! Kakashi, what’s going on with Naruto?!"

"Naruto got caught in the blast and went under the rubble," Kakashi calls, "He was already having trouble fighting off the Nine Tails’ influence, the shock and intensity of his injuries must have broken his concentration!"

Sasuke’s eyes go wide; "You mean I did this to him?!"

"Yes and no, beat yourself up about it later," Kakashi snaps, "Right now I do have a way to help him, but it has to be soon!"

Sasuke’s eyes track the distance between them and Naruto. Garuda’s wings have made some progress towards closing the gap, but not by much. Up ahead the ravine is criss-crossed with massive roots. Naruto’s cloaked appendages are stretching out and swinging on the roots like monkey bars, giving him extra kicks of momentum. Before Sasuke can start drafting a strategy, there’s the sound of rattling wood and metal-on-metal. Sasuke lets his reflexes take over and taps the bottom of Garuda’s neck, the bird diving beneath a bevy of iron sand spikes that swerve in midair to catch them on the backswing. Garuda whirls out of the way, but the spikes don’t pull back, instead hovering around them like iron hornets.

Sasuke shouts, "Someone needs to hold these guys off!"

Kakashi’s voice is starting to take on a frantic edge; "It’ll have to be me, I can’t move my legs right now so I can’t chase Naruto–!"

"But aren’t you the one with the thing that can help Naruto?!"

"I am but–!"

Chiyo clicks her tongue against her teeth; "Enough of this 'either or' nonsense! Sasuke, you stay on Garuda and hold off the Akatsuki! I can puppeteer Kakashi!"

Sasuke shoots an incredulous look over his shoulder; "You can?"

Chiyo’s grin is wan and thin, but definitely smug; "Of course I can! Any self-respecting shinobi should know how to make a weapon if they can’t find one! Now get out of my way, I need you covering my back!"

Sasuke and Chiyo scramble around each other, somehow managing to switch places without falling off the bird. Sasuke rises to a crouch, keeping a hand on Garuda’s back to keep himself steady, and takes stock of his opponents. They’re sharp, and with their focus narrowed down by the ravine and Garuda Sasuke can’t count on them having to split it and leaving gaps for them to slip through like in the hideout. He needs something big, and it needs to be ready the instant they send Kakashi off towards Naruto.

Sasuke pushes a breath out through his nose; "Garuda, on the count of three, drop Kakashi!"

Kakashi’s "What?!" is drowned out by Sasuke counting, "One, two, three!"

Garuda releases Kakashi. Chiyo lets him drop five feet before five strings shoot out from her remaining hand and attach to Kakashi’s arms, legs, and head. The strings catch him in midair where he hangs for a moment, limp, before leaping after Naruto. With the nimble movements of Chiyo’s fingers Kakashi moves with the grace of a dancer between the ravine walls and the roots, making quick and steady work of the gap between him and his target. Sasori clenches his jaw and strikes in two directions, sending a torrent of iron sand after Kakashi while the Third Kazekage dives toward Sasuke.

Sasuke’s hands flash through Ox Rabbit Tiger. One goes to his mouth and the other into his weapon pouch. He spits a blizzard of flaming shuriken at the Third Kazekage. To Sasuke’s shock, the shuriken seem to home in on the Third Kazekage, picking up a boost of speed as they lock on. Sasori’s odd dead eyes go wide. The iron sand drops out of the sky and the shuriken lose their sense of direction. The Third Kazekage swerves out of the way of the Phoenix Flower and drags the clay bird along with it. Deidara bites back a swear at the sudden jerk and fights to right the bird.

Sasuke lets Sasori have a moment to reorient his puppet. He needs that moment to think.

He already knows fire’s bad for puppets, that would’ve been easy to guess before Sasori dropped everything to keep his puppet from going up in flames. But the shuriken being attracted to the puppet is new. And Sasori’s dodge confirmed it has something to do with the iron sand. It’s all about moving metal. What makes metal move? What draws metal towards things? Magnets. It has to be magnets, or some kind of magnetic kekkei genkai, either way it means there’s got to be something inside the puppet generating that magnetic force.

Which means it has a weak point. And he has to force it out into the open if he wants that puppet gone for good.

Sasuke reaches into his weapon pouch and comes out with senbon, kunai, and shuriken between each finger. He kneads chakra in his stomach, sends it up his arms, and sets the weapons alight. He flings them all at the puppet and Sasori makes it dance, moving through the air like a fish through water to avoid the flames. Sasuke doesn’t cut him any more slack. He continues the assault, throwing flaming tool after tool, the fire eating up the oxygen and not giving Sasori room to breathe. Sasori’s smooth face is starting to twist, minutely as it can, into a mask of rage.

From the corner of his eye, Sasuke chances a glance back at Kakashi. Chiyo’s guidance has nearly closed the gap, with Kakashi leaping and swinging off the massive roots quicker than Naruto can avoid him. Naruto’s cloak is slowly spreading, a second tail waving half-formed in the air next to the first one. Kakashi’s almost there, he just–

Iron sand rises up from below and races back, towards Sasori. Sasuke bites out a swear and fires off another Phoenix Flower. The shuriken dart through the air like hummingbirds but the iron sand is faster, flowing into a wide, flat disc to block the projectiles and send them bouncing harmlessly down to the riverbed. Sasori draws more and more iron sand out of the puppet’s mouth, forming it up into an iron pyramid so large it’s corners scrape the edges of the ravine. For a moment, all Sasuke can do is stare. A medical ninja is never supposed to get hit, but Sasuke’s pretty sure he’s not gonna have much choice in the matter if Sasori throws that thing at them.

The Third Kazekage’s robe slips down one shoulder and a panel on the puppet’s chest opens, revealing a metal apparatus where the real man’s heart would have been. With the sound of whirring electricity, the device starts to glow. Sasuke’s eyes go wide– There! He draws his last kunai, coats it in fire, and throws it with a speed and accuracy bolstered by the sharingan. Once it’s within thirty feet of the puppet, the kunai abruptly changes direction, flying back the way it came. Sasuke bites his tongue and jukes out of the way, his own chakra singing his cheek. Fucking magnets– They don’t just attract, they can repel too, and Sasori has that under tight control.

The iron pyramid starts to spin, faster and faster until it resembles the head of a massive drill. Sasori draws his fingers together into a point, then thrusts it forward.

Sasuke uses that instant to shout, "EVERYONE, DIVE!"

Garuda swoops down, diving beneath outstretched roots. Sasuke and Chiyo crouch so low their faces are almost buried in Garuda’s feathers. Chiyo pulls Kakashi gracelessly straight down, flinging him out of the way like a rag doll. The iron pyramid thunders over their heads, mere inches the difference between their survival and getting run through. As it passes over him Sasuke can feel the hairs on his arms and neck standing on end, the tell-tale static pull of Lightning chakra.

Sasuke looks frantically over his shoulder to Naruto, who is doing the same just in time to catch sight of the iron pyramid. He lets out a snarl more annoyed than angry and takes Gaara’s sleeves in his mouth so he can let go of his legs. He lands on one of the roots and turns to face the iron pyramid head on. Naruto doesn’t catch the iron pyramid, but the chakra claws of his cloak do. The pyramid’s momentum pulls them back, stretching the arms like they’re made of taffy, but Naruto holds fast. With a barely muffled roar, Naruto throws the iron pyramid back the way it came.

A million voices shout over each other in discordant harmony.

Kakashi from below, "He’s standing still, now’s our chance! Get me up there!"

Deidara from behind, "Don’t let that fucking thing hit us Sasori!"

Sasori from even further behind, "What kind of amateur do you take me for?!"

Chiyo at his back, "You have an opening! Take it!"

And Sasuke, drawing the tantō from it’s sheath, snapping, "On it!"

Everyone moves at once.

Chiyo makes Kakashi fly up the ravine walls and swing around the outstretched roots. Naruto catches sight of him and, unable to tell friend from foe, strikes for him with the long reach of his chakra cloak. Deidara makes the clay bird dive down. Sasori’s fingers work at a break-knuckle pace, drawing the Third Kazekage back and reversing the polarity of the magnet, freezing the iron pyramid in midair. Sasuke’s hand bursts into a ball of chirping lightning, the bolts running down to cover the blade of the tantō.

With Chiyo’s help Kakashi darts effortlessly around Naruto’s strikes, closing the distance between them in moments. Chiyo breaks the string on his left arm. Deidara tears a piece of clay off the bird’s back. With Sasori’s guidance the iron pyramid starts to change shape. Sasuke’s sharingan spins and he channels the excess chakra into one chakra string attached to the pommel of the tantō.

Kakashi’s hand darts into his flak jacket and comes back out holding a paper seal. Chiyo prays to spirits of wind and war and victory. Deidara swears under his breath. The iron pyramid shifts into a ball of spikes, like a sea urchin made from tree branches. Sasuke throws the tantō, aiming for the magnetic apparatus in the Third Kazekage’s chest.

Kakashi slaps the seal on the center of Naruto’s headband. Sasuke’s tantō hits it’s target.

The Third Kazekage’s body convulses as lightning courses through it’s metal heart, spreading across the mummified surface of it’s body. The iron sand loses it’s shape, the wind carrying it like sand off the crest of a dune. Sasuke pulls his tantō back and shields his eyes to keep out any stray grains. The puppet ignites, flames spreading and turning it into a fireball.

Sasori’s jaw clenches and he snarls, "That was one of my favorite pieces! But if you’re so keen on taking it from me, then here, take it!"

Sasori swings the puppet around and around, faster and faster. The instant before the fire can spread all the way down the strings and reach Sasori’s hands, he cuts the strings mid-swing. The flaming puppet flies like a bolide through the air, straight for Garuda. The bird suddenly drops another five feet in the air, beating it’s wings twice as hard to stay aloft. Like it all of a sudden got heavier.

Naruto’s voice crows over the rushing wind, "Nah, you can keep it!"

Sasuke’s eyes whip down to see Naruto swinging around Garuda’s left flank, one chakra string tethering him to Chiyo. While Naruto runs through Dog Horse Bird, Sasuke cranes his neck down and around. Clutched tightly in Garuda’s claws are Kakashi and Gaara, Kakashi staring wild-eyed at the chaos above and Gaara still dead to the world.

Naruto kicks off the ravine wall, brings his hands up to his mouth, and fires off a spiraling gust of wind. It hits both the flaming puppet and Deidara’s bird, sending them all tumbling end over end back up the ravine. The last thing Sasuke sees before they’re pushed out of his visual range is Deidara fighting to wrest back control of the bird and Sasori wrapping them to the bird with chakra strings with one hand while throwing the other straight up. But after an instant, they’re gone, Chiyo is groaning in pain, the string holding Naruto is snapping, and Naruto is falling out of the sky.

Sasuke lets out an undignified yelp. His sharingan spins and he fires off chakra strings, clumsily wrapping them all around Naruto’s arm. Naruto grits his teeth in a wince as his fall comes to a jerky, undignified stop. The sudden weight tethered to his arm almost pulls Sasuke off his feet, but he quickly redirects the excess chakra down into his soles to catch himself. Naruto is now being dragged behind Garuda, flapping in the air like a flag, but at least he’s not falling.

Sasuke cringes and calls, "You alright?!"

Naruto forms a painful thumbs up with his other hand; "You dropped a bunch of rocks on me and dislocated my shoulder! I’m doing great!"

Sasuke’s laugh is high and warbling; "Yeah, sorry! I thought you were gonna be smart and dodge, but you are a dumbass–"

Naruto cracks a grin that’s as fond as it is ferocious; "And I thought you were gonna be nice and not make moves that could get your teammates killed, but you are a jackass–"

Chiyo turns to put her hand on Sasuke’s shoulder, gasping, "Garuda can’t– This is too many people, he’s weighed down, we have to land!"

Kakashi calls from beneath them, "We can’t, they could still be following us! We have to get more distance, throw them off our trail!"

Garuda gives his input by suddenly dipping down, crying out in pain, then flapping his wings as fast as he can to right himself.

Naruto blinks a few times, then says, "Oh, is that all? I’ve got you!"

Naruto pulls his hands together and zips through Dog Boar Ram. Sasuke almost gets pulled off his feet again as, in a puff of smoke, one hundred and twelve pounds of Naruto transforms into a single kunai. Sasuke reels Naruto-the-Kunai in as Garuda pushes up, past the ravine’s edge and out through the canopy. Garuda course-corrects, catching a Western wind and flying for the mountains separating the Land of Rivers from the Land of Wind.

Sasuke keeps his eyes on the horizon behind them. He stays coiled like a spring, ready to leap into action the second Deidara’s bird pops out through the trees. It doesn’t. For fifteen minutes, there’s nothing but the wide blue sky and the sound of rushing wind.

The instant Sasuke starts to relax, the peace is torn in two by Gaara screaming at the top of his lungs.

Garuda rocks beneath Sasuke’s feet. A massive claw formed from sand and covered in deep black markings rears up from beneath the bird and rakes through it’s right wing. Another appendage, so twisted and misshapen that’s all Sasuke can call it, shreds Garuda’s left flank. The air fills with blood and feathers and sand as Gaara shrieks in agony and these pieces of Shukaku lash out in all directions. Claws grow off of claws, reaching past the bird to swipe blindly at Sasuke and Chiyo.

Sasuke throws himself between the blows and Chiyo as he shouts, "What’s going on down there, Kakashi?!"

Kakashi shouts back, "I don’t know, the sand is coming out through Gaara’s skin, it–!"

One of the appendages pierces through the bottom of Garuda’s neck. The bird’s screech is choked with blood. It cuts off with a burst of smoke, and in an instant, there is nothing beneath Sasuke’s feet.

The sudden loss of momentum sends them all scattering in the air like bones thrown by a fortune teller. Sasuke gets an instant to glimpse Gaara, writhing in midair with sand forcing it’s way out through his pores and whipping around him like a localized sandstorm. The canopy is quickly rising to meet them and Sasuke has run out of quick and clever ideas. The terrified scream bouncing around in his mind rips it’s way out of his mouth.

There’s another burst of smoke and Naruto is no longer a kunai but Naruto again. He twists in midair and throws both hands out at different angles, one behind him and the other out toward the rest of the group. Sasuke can see him draw up absolutely too much chakra from his stomach, knead it around his heart, and come out of his hands as gales of hot wind. The force of the wind blows them all towards a sizable clearing in the dense forest, but they’re still falling. They’re falling even faster than before, poised to hit the ground like mortar bombs.

Sasuke only has time to close his eyes. This is gonna hurt.

Kakashi couldn’t tell you what hitting the clearing ground was like. That moment is gone, disappearing the instant Kakashi’s head bounced hard against the dirt.

He can tell you what it was like to come back to consciousness, barely ten seconds later, covered in blood and dust and lying in the middle of the kind of crater a meteorite leaves when it makes it all the way down to Earth. Kakashi attempts to bring himself up to hands and knees, but can only get as far as hands. The instant he tries to put weight on his knees a pain so sharp and intense it forces him to dry heave runs up his spine. His knees give out, and Kakashi only barely catches himself on his elbows.

He takes a few shuddering breaths and takes stock of the clearing. Sasuke and Naruto seem to have bounced and rolled all the way to the opposite edge. Naruto is swaying to his feet, shaking himself back to the world and popping his shoulder back into it’s socket, but thanks to his 'tenant' the worst he looks is dazed. Sasuke’s skin is suffused with a cyan glow quickly closing all the cuts and bruises the landing left him with, but he winces hard when he tries to put weight on his left leg.

Chiyo is only a few yards away from Kakashi. She’s conscious, but only upright on one elbow. Her face is white with pain as her hip juts out at a strange angle. And in the clearing’s center is Gaara, thrashing under the power of the pieces of Shukaku forcing their way out of his body by whatever means are necessary. They’re tearing their way out through his clothes and sand armor, blood mixing with the sand as they stretch his pores and chakra points wider than they were ever meant to stretch. Gaara’s eyes have rolled into the back of his head and he’s only conscious enough, only coherent enough to scream the scream of a wounded animal trying to rip it’s way out of a trap even if it leaves it’s leg behind.

Kakashi pushes himself up and shouts over Gaara, "Naruto! Try and hold Gaara down! Sasuke! Triage!"

Naruto and Sasuke both blink themselves back to reality before leaping into action. Naruto races in, dodging around Shukaku’s writhing appendages and making it up to Gaara’s shoulders. He lurches over him and presses the whole weight of his upper body down on Gaara’s chest. A few of the appendages rear up and start slashing at Naruto’s back and shoulders, but Naruto grits his teeth and holds fast against the assault.

Sasuke darts over to Chiyo, his limp disappearing as he runs and channels healing chakra down his left leg. Once he’s at her side he tears his gloves off with his teeth and channels healing chakra into her broken hip with one hand while the other carefully resets the bone. Chiyo hisses in pain and Kakashi can catch Sasuke whispering a quick apology. After nearly a full minute, Sasuke pulls his hands away and helps Chiyo shudder up to her feet. She’s stable, but she certainly isn’t steady.

Kakashi wags his head towards Gaara and barks to her, "Go! Help Naruto!"

Chiyo shoots him a troubled look, but complies. She throws her one hand out wide, five chakra strings lashing to the base of five of Shukaku’s appendages and wrapping tight around them. She closes her hand into a fist and pulls it back. The strings tighten around the appendages, cutting them off at the root. The appendages don’t dissolve into sand, instead wriggling over to each other and forming up into a lump of warped Shukaku-flesh. Kakashi’s sharingan picks out several spots on Gaara’s body where yet more chakra is bubbling up towards the surface. Chiyo closes the distance and wraps chakra strings around Gaara, pinning his arms to his sides.

Sasuke makes it over to Kakashi’s side. He throws one of Kakashi’s arms over his shoulders and brings his other hand around to the base of Kakashi’s spine, channelling healing chakra up and down the length of it. He drags Kakashi over to Gaara, and as they move Kakashi can feel the pain in his legs abating, little by little.

"Just get me fixed enough to keep myself upright," Kakashi says, "I get the feeling Gaara’s gonna need more of your chakra."

Sasuke purses his lips, but nods. By the time they make it to Gaara’s side Sasuke’s able to set Kakashi down on his knees. It’s still painful, but Kakashi had his eye ripped out at twelve. This is only half as bad. Sasuke comes around on Gaara’s other side, opposite Naruto, and channels chakra down his arms. His hands close over Gaara’s arm and shoulder like iron clamps, holding him tightly in place and allowing Naruto to pull back a bit.

Chiyo looks to Naruto and says, "Get ready. I need to check his seal, and I’ll have to break the strings to do it."

Kakashi’s brow furrows as he quickly puts the pieces together; "You were the one who sealed Shukaku in him in the first place, weren’t you."

Chiyo meets his eyes for a moment. She just nods. Naruto’s jaw clenches shut and he swallows hard. Chiyo breaks the strings and Gaara’s arms blindly flail outwards, but Naruto and Sasuke tamp them down. Chiyo removes what’s left of Gaara’s vest, opens his coat, and pulls his chain shirt up to reveal a broken mandala made from the same vein-like markings on Shukaku’s body in the center of Gaara’s chest. A third of the seal’s design is gone, replaced with patches of bloodied skin with sand bubbling up from beneath and forming up into more pieces of Shukaku.

Chiyo clicks her tongue against her teeth; "It’s worse than I thought. The Akatsuki have torn part of Shukaku out of Gaara and broken the seal!"

Sasuke jerks against another thrash from Gaara; "So what’s left of Shukaku’s trying to get out?!"

"Yes, desperately," Chiyo replies, "The damage and trauma must be extensive if Shukaku’s willing to tear it’s host apart to get free!"

Naruto blinks rapidly; "Wait, you mean Shukaku’s scared?"

"For it’s life, perhaps," Chiyo spits, glaring at one of the appendages as it lashes out towards her and she ducks out of it’s way, "If it forces it’s way out like this it will rip Gaara to pieces at best, cannibalize him at worst!"

Kakashi runs a hand through his hair, nails scraping along his scalp; "Can you repair the seal?!"

Chiyo shakes her head; "I set this seal fifteen years ago, and I was following instructions put down by someone long dead! Even if I had a breakthrough, repairing a seal is a completely different matter than putting one down fresh, one that requires time, precision, and concentration! I’m not going to have any of those things while Shukaku is thrashing about like this!"

Kakashi looks to Naruto; "Naruto, could you help her?!"

Naruto shakes his head; "I’ve never seen a seal that looks like this, I dunno where I’d even start!"

Sasuke grits his teeth and grunts, "Why do we need to fix the seal?! It wants out, I say we let it out–!"

Chiyo and Kakashi both snap in perfect unison, "We can’t!"

Chiyo meets Sasuke’s gaze and pins it down; "When a jinchūriki has their tailed beast removed, they die!"

Naruto’s voice cracks as he exclaims, "We what?!"

Chiyo shoots a glare over at Naruto; "You heard me, boy! They die! Not a single jinchūriki in four generations has ever survived their beast being removed, and we are nowhere near equipped to pull off the impossible! Reinforcements are a day and a half away, and by then Shukaku will have devoured him!"

Sasuke is breathing quicker and quicker, coming right up to the edge of hyperventilation; "We leave Shukaku in he dies, we take Shukaku out he dies, we wait for help to come he dies, what the fuck are we supposed to do?!"

Naruto is chewing on his lip, muttering to himself, "Maybe if we calm Shukaku down, maybe–!"

Chiyo’s voice goes shrill; "There’s no calming a monster, boy! You should know that better than anyone here!"

Naruto’s glare is pure poison as he snaps, "You don’t know anything about me, old lady!"

Sasuke growls through his teeth, "Naruto, don’t, we can’t be–!"

"You don’t get to talk right now, if you hadn’t gone on ahead–!"

"I would’ve traded Kankuro’s life for Gaara’s, and we don’t trade lives!"

"Ha! You say that only because you’ve never had to! Of course in the darkest hour Leaf 'discipline' shows it’s true colors–!"

Kakashi thunders over them all, "ENOUGH!"

All three of them snap their jaws shut.

"Now listen to me! We are not giving up on Gaara, because we are equipped to pull off the impossible," Kakashi continues, "But that’s going to require precision and focus, so all of you need to calm the fuck down right now! We are ninja, each and every one of us! That means we don’t cave under pressure, we follow the orders we’re given, and the mission isn’t over until everyone’s dead! Get me?!"

Everyone’s eyes drop to Gaara’s writhing form, Shukaku’s appendages thrashing about like the tentacles of a beached octopus. They nod and mutter their assent. Morale’s still low, but it’s not dead. Kakashi shakes his head. You work with what you’ve got.

"Alright," he looks to Chiyo, "Jinchūriki die when their tailed beast is removed, we’ve got that. How does that kill them, exactly?"

Chiyo frowns and replies, "When a jinchūriki has been one since birth, their chakra slowly adapts to and melds with that of the tailed beast. The beast and the host’s chakra supply are one and the same. Removing a tailed beast is, in essence, the same as draining someone of all their chakra all at once. They die as much from shock as from chakra exhaustion."

Kakashi nods; "That’s what I thought. Alright. Here’s the plan."

He looks to Chiyo; "If you can, I need you to dismantle what’s left of the seal. That will force all of Shukaku’s parts to come out of one location at a steady rate."

Chiyo’s brows draw together and she sputters, "I–! I-it can be done, but that would–!"

Kakashi looks to Naruto and Sasuke, making them choke on their objections; "Sasuke, Naruto, the two of you need to transfer your chakra into Gaara at the same rate that Shukaku is being siphoned out. Is Katsuyu still with you both?"

The boys’ jackets wriggle in sync, and both pieces of Katsuyu stick their heads out of their pockets; "Yes, I am."

"Good," Kakashi says with a nod, "Katsuyu, you’re going to transfer the chakra out of Naruto. Sasuke, you’ll have to do it yourself."

Sasuke nods, ironing out the tremble in his hands; "Right. I can do that. What about you?"

Kakashi takes a deep breath; "Once Shukaku is out, I can contain it. But I’ll need time to prepare this jutsu, so if the Akatsuki find us–"

Naruto nods and cuts in, "I’ve got you. I’ve still got plenty of chakra, I can give Gaara some and fight at the same time."

Chiyo frowns and murmurs, "I suppose he doesn’t need an entire person’s-worth of chakra, just enough to keep him alive and let his natural reserves regenerate… If they even know how to anymore after having spent so long in a symbiotic relationship with Shukaku…"

Chiyo looks Kakashi in the eye; "Are you sure this will work?"

Kakashi shakes his head; "Not in the slightest. But even if it doesn’t, at least no one can say we didn’t try."

Naruto nods; "It’s like you told us, abandoning your friends makes you worse than trash. We can’t abandon Gaara now!"

Kakashi tucks away how that makes his heart clench with bittersweet pride and just says, "Exactly. Now, let’s get to work."

Everyone springs into action. Sasuke places his piece of Katsuyu on Gaara’s stomach, right over his chakra reserves. She lights up a strange pale violet as the piece with Naruto settles herself on the back of his neck and glows in sync with her other half. Naruto’s eyes go out of focus for a second before he shakes himself back and mutters something about that 'feeling weird as shit'. Sasuke presses down harder on Gaara’s arm and shoulder and his hands glow blue, his chakra moving out of his palms and into Gaara’s chakra network.

Chiyo first retrieves a scroll from her pack and unravels it, summoning from a seal a single puppet’s arm. She shoves the arm up her empty sleeve and, with a click, the fingers spring to life. Two-handed again, Chiyo brings her hands up to the seal and starts a slow trek around the outermost layer. Tiny chakra strings come off the pads of her fingers and attach to the pieces of the seal. With surgical precision, they slowly pull the chakra-infused ink out of Gaara’s skin, where it dissolves into thin air. Kakashi starts gathering chakra and pulling it up to Obito’s eye.

For several minutes everything is tense, if not silent. Gaara is still screaming. He never stopped. His voice is starting to crack and go hoarse. It won’t be long before one of his vocal cords hemorrhages. In the meantime, the flow of Shukaku’s chakra moves up Gaara’s body to the unraveling seal. The surge of Shukaku’s appendages crawl along the ground towards the mass Chiyo severed, molding into it and building it up. The mass grows larger and larger, quickly dwarfing all five of them, and Kakashi can at least take some solace in the fact that this target won’t be particularly difficult to hit.

That solace is broken by the sound of massive wings and Deidara shouting, "Found you, hm!"

All eyes snap up. Deidara’s clay bird is circling the clearing, looking far worse for wear than they had left it. 'Flight feathers' are missing from it’s wings, and it’s body is covered in divots where handfuls of clay were torn away, making the bird overall look ragged and starved as it struggles to stay aloft. Regardless, Deidara is sneering down his nose at them while Sasori is rising to a crouch, unbuttoning the first few buttons of his cloak to reveal an upper body made from carved joints and pieces. Where his heart should be is instead a circle of flesh and veins marked with the kanji for ’scorpion'.

Sasori pulls a scroll from behind his shoulders and hisses, "What a sorry sight you all make. You’re battered, beaten, gasping for breath, and miles away from help."

Naruto grits his teeth and shouts back up at him, "You two don’t look so hot yourselves! And so what if we’re tired?! We still have you outnumbered!"

Sasori grins the grin of a corpse; "I’m about to remedy that."

He unfurls the scroll and opens a panel in his chest, opposite the core of flesh. There’s a burst of smoke big enough to block out the sun. Puppets drop from the smoke and onto the grass like rain. They pour into the clearing, one after another, until a total of one hundred puppets are surrounding the paltry rescue team. At a sight that would prompt lesser ninja to immediately surrender, Naruto just arches a brow.

He scoffs, "That’s all? Please. Check this shit out!"

The answering cloud of smoke covers the whole clearing. When it clears, a wall of Narutos stands between them and the puppets, one clone for every puppet summoned. Deidara’s visible eyebrow leaps up. Sasori’s face doesn’t so much as twitch. The real Naruto wobbles on his knees, the chakra surrounding Katsuyu flickering in and out for a few moments, but he steadies himself and puts on a grin.

Naruto points a pair of finger-guns at the puppets and crows, "Sic 'em!"

Sasori grits his teeth and splays both hands out wide in front of him; "End them."

The puppet and clone armies charge towards each other, meeting in a clash of black and orange. The puppets move almost as quickly and gracefully as real ninja, but Naruto fights like a siege engine. His clones slam against the puppets with unrelenting force, overwhelming Sasori’s ability to coordinate a hundred different fighters at once. They take advantage of the cramped quarters, boxing in the puppets and keeping them from slipping out of reach, even meeting them in the air if that’s what it takes.

From the corner of his eye, Kakashi catches Deidara and Sasori muttering to each other. Deidara says something that makes Sasori shut his eyes, heave a sigh, and give him a begrudged nod. Deidara grins wide and forms half a seal. One of Naruto’s clones slams a whirling kick into a hulking puppet’s flank, and the instant his heel connects the puppet explodes in a burst of force and fire. The clone goes up in flames and disperses. The force and heat of the explosion knocks several more clones onto their heels, just in time for the four puppets in the blast zone to explode in the same fashion. It’s a deadly chain reaction that spreads through the crowd like wildfire, kicking up dirt and grass and filling the air with deafening noise.

Kakashi glances over to Sasuke, the real Naruto, and Chiyo. Chiyo is gritting her teeth, her hands trembling like they’re caught in a windstorm. Sasuke has his eyes shut tight and his shoulders bunched up almost to his ears. Shukaku’s chakra is still growing, rising above the crowd of puppets and clones and threatening to spread out into the melee. It’s shape remains a writhing mass of pieces, with tails and claws whipping out then withdrawing, eyes and jaws opening then shutting. Kakashi can hear, below the din of the explosions, a guttural voice wailing in harmony with Gaara.

Kakashi shouts, as loud as he can, "Naruto! Push the puppets back!"

Naruto’s face scrunches up in confusion, and while Kakashi can’t hear him he can read his lips; "What?! You want me to do what?! I can’t– It’s too loud, sensei!"

Kakashi rolls his eyes and, far too exhausted for proper hand signals, just mimes shoving something.

Naruto understands perfectly. The remaining clones fall back, forming as tight a ring as they can. They all run through signs, take deep breaths, and blow out whirling gusts of wind. A handful of puppets explode from the force of the initial impact, the Wind chakra fueling the flames and lighting patches of grass on fire. While the flames spread, the puppets flail in the wind like the rods of a wind chime. Naruto doubles over again. The flow of chakra from him to Gaara sputters in and out like a dying candle.

Kakashi forces his eyes to focus on a spot just above Shukaku’s mass. Victory isn’t likely, but they don’t need victory. They just need to last a few moments longer.

Chiyo pushes through the noise, through the debris and the strain, and pulls up the last character in the direct center of the seal.

Howling wind and shredding sand heralds the last burst of Shukaku’s chakra. It flows out from Gaara’s chest and joins the writhing mass, bringing it up to it’s full height of thirty feet. Sasori's mouth flips into a grin. The strings leading from his chest to his puppets snap. The puppets scatter into the woods, the wind from Naruto’s clones tossing them aside like the lifeless dolls they are. Sasori points with all ten fingers at Shukaku, then crosses his arms in an 'X' and clenches his hands into tight fists.

He’s fast. But Kakashi has the sharingan. He knew what Sasori was going to do the instant before he did.

"Alright, let’s do this," Kakashi snarls, "Kamui!"

Like punching a hole in the sky, a dark spot the size of Kakashi’s head appears slightly off-center a foot above Shukaku’s mass. Kakashi pictures a box, thirty feet tall, thirty feet wide, and thirty feet deep, bounding in the mass. He releases all the chakra he’s been building up. The dark spot starts to distort space in that thirty foot cube, pulling everything inside it up towards the spot. Sand siphons off of Shukaku, up to the spot, and disappears inside it. Shukaku’s pained roars take on a panicked edge and claws and teeth grasp at the ground, trying desperately to pull itself away. The ground beneath it grinds up and dissolves into sand that Shukaku pulls up into itself in an attempt to replace what it’s losing.

Sasori’s jaw makes a wooden clacking sound. He fires off one hundred and ten chakra strings, Deidara’s bird flying in wide but quick loops so they can wrap all the way around Shukaku. Sasori jolts forward, the force of Kamui pulling on the strings and nearly yanking him off the bird. Deidara throws his hand back and grabs Sasori around the elbow. It keeps him on the bird, but Kamui is still pulling them in, so Deidara forces the bird to flap it’s wings as hard as it can to pull them in the other direction. Shukaku’s lower half drags along the ground after them, it’s flailing limbs smashing puppets and dispersing clones.

Kakashi focuses as hard as he can on Kamui. It pulls more and more mass off of Shukaku and into it’s fathomless darkness, but Sasori is making slow but steady progress, dragging more and more of it out of the area of effect. Sweat is pouring down Kakashi’s forehead, his eye aches like he’s been staring at a bright light for hours on end, and he’s clenching his teeth hard enough to crack them. He wants to bark more orders but he can’t afford to take his attention off of Kamui, not for a second, not if he wants to deny the Akatsuki their prize.

Ten chakra strings wrap around Shukaku from it’s other side, grabbing hold of it just above Sasori’s strings and pulling taut. From the corner of his eye Kakashi spies Chiyo, almost on her stomach as she fights against the strength of Sasori’s hold. Her fingers, wrists, arms are all being pulled as straight as they can go, nearly out of their sockets. Shukaku slows down by inches, but inches aren’t enough. Chiyo is being dragged after him, her knees digging furrows in the dirt.

Sasori’s face twists into a snarl and he shouts, "Why won’t you just roll over and die, you pathetic old woman?!"

Chiyo fires back through grit teeth, "I may not be able to defeat you, but even if it’s the last thing I do, I will stop you!"

The strings coming from Chiyo’s left hand suddenly widen out into ropes as Sasuke appears on her left, takes her arm, and sends his chakra surging down into the strings. Sasuke digs his heels in, his strength rooting him to the spot and slowing Shukaku’s movement to a crawl. Chiyo spares Sasuke a wide-eyed look over her shoulder. Sasuke doesn’t return it. His eyes are focused on the black hole pulling Shukaku up into the darkness.

Deidara grits his teeth and spits something under his breath. The hand on Sasori’s elbow lights up with chakra that races through his body and into his strings. The bird wobbles in the air, but Sasori’s strings thicken and tighten. The ground Sasuke gained them quickly disappears as Sasori and Deidara yank Shukaku another five feet out of the cube. Sasuke and Chiyo skid along the ground, drawing closer and closer to the area of effect. The edges of Chiyo’s fingers are starting to flicker as she brushes close to the spatial distortion.

"Come on, face it," Deidara jeers, "You’re all running on fumes! You can’t outlast us and you can’t outstrength us! Just give up, it’ll be less humiliating if you do, hm!"

"Fuck that! We never give up and we never quit, that’s our ninja way! Believe it!"

Naruto appears on Chiyo’s other side. He takes her right arm, the five chakra strings at the ends of her fingers lighting up with bright orange chakra like they’ve been set aflame. Naruto nearly falls to one knee. They’re able to gain back some ground, but only a few centimeters. Naruto and Sasuke each put one arm around Chiyo’s middle and try to pull her back, but only succeed in nearly losing their balance.

Kakashi lurches down to hands and knees. The strain in his eye has spread to his whole head. His skull feels like it’s about to split in half. Kamui has warped maybe a fifth of Shukaku’s mass away. That’s nowhere near enough. They’re not going to make it.

Kakashi whispers through harsh breaths, "Sorry, Obito. Looks like I squandered your gift."

Two years ago, Gaara learned pain.

He learned the stinging, lancing pain of a blade splitting sensitive skin when you aren’t expecting it, the deep throbbing pain of a stab to the shoulder that courses down your arm and leaves it stiff for days, the burn of explosive tags, the rattling shock of a head butt, and the ache of healing that stays with you for weeks even after everything has stopped bleeding.

Horrifying as it was in the moment, he would learn that pain was survivable. It was something you could adapt to. It was something that he learned not to fear.

And now, two years later, he is learning agony.

He’s learning the ripping, shredding, stretching agony of the thing inside you trying to physically force it’s way out like oil welling to the surface, destroying or consuming whatever flesh lies in it’s way. He’s learning the frenzied, anguished, feral agony of that thing’s fear for it’s life overpowering his conscious mind and filling it only with that same all-consuming need to be free, forcing him to scream until flecks of blood fly out of his open mouth. He’s learning the agony of being hollowed out like a gourd as that thing flees and takes all his chakra with it, leaving him alone to die.

But he isn’t alone for long. At the same rate that Shukaku is fleeing, two presences rush in to fill the gaps.

One is cool but not cold, in fact it burns with lightning and fire and a passion so intense that it allows them to think only in extremes. It is those extremes Gaara feels, hands wrapping possessively around his shoulder and snarling that they might have taken Her and Them but they won’t take this one. Like a dragon, it gathers it’s hoard and guards it with tooth and claw and will die before giving even one piece of it up.

The other is warm like the air downwind from a fire, carrying sparks and burning the lungs. There is passion here, but it’s a mask, a shield behind which a fear both paralyzing and galvanizing hides. It’s empathy is caustic, it takes Gaara’s pain into itself and replaces it with it’s own. A beast claws and bites at a prison within them, too, and if they keep Gaara together that means they won’t be torn to pieces by their own parasite.

Their chakra settles in his chakra network, flowing along the paths that Shukaku left empty. The world comes back to Gaara in pieces, first the texture of dirt and grass beneath his back, then the taste of blood on his tongue, then the smell of sulfur and smoke, then the sounds of explosions and wind and screaming and–

The cool presence cuts the flow. Then the warm presence. Their chakra stays in his system, moving and flowing and stoking the fire in his belly, reminding his body how to create chakra without Shukaku. But he is merely stable, not steady, not standing. He knows there is a world outside of this darkness, outside this puzzle with one piece missing, but he is right on it’s border with no way across.

He can’t stand idly by. He is the Kazekage. His will shapes the Sand, it can’t lie dormant. But though the mind is willing, the flesh is weak. It always has been, beneath the armor of sand and the ultimate defense and the monster. Gaara can only lie still, screaming and beating against the walls of his mind, utterly alone.

But he isn’t alone for long.

He feels ripples of warmth through the cracked remains of his sand armor, like hands stroking his face. They are foreign in how familiar they feel. The life he lead of no one being brave enough to show them their love through action ended long ago, but this isn’t one of Temari’s crushing hugs or Kankuro’s hair-ruffles or Baki’s hand on his shoulder. This is someone who he has never met, and yet, they feel like they’ve been here the whole time.

A voice– like Temari’s, but nearly threadbare– murmurs, "It’s a rare privilege, dying for someone twice."

The remaining pieces of armor crack and crumble. The chakra within passes through his skin and into his network. The fire in his belly ignites, hot and bright.

"My tiny, feeble child… I used my last breath to pledge that I would always protect you… But the time has come for you to learn how to protect yourself."

Gaara’s vision clears.

He’s lying on his back in the eye of a hurricane with tears drying on his cheeks. From the corner of his eye he picks out a familiar head of blond hair, and the Uchiha crest on the back of a jacket. Gaara shoves himself up, first to his elbows, then his hands, his knees, his feet. He grits his teeth. Moving his legs feels like pushing a mountain, but Gaara has done far greater things before. He drags himself, step by agonizing step, to stand between Naruto and Sasuke. They both do a double-take, eyes going wide. Chiyo can’t afford to gawk, not when her hold on what remains of Shukaku is threatening to break at any moment.

Gaara picks the Akatsuki out of the air, eyes slitting in a glare, and snarls, "Let’s see you work for it."

Gaara sends Earth chakra racing up Naruto and Sasuke’s arms, down Chiyo’s chakra strings, and into Shukaku’s mass. He grabs hold of the sand within and pulls it back. The sand mixes in with the strings, reinforcing them with the strength and stability of the Earth itself. Shukaku’s slow slide comes to a screeching halt. Sasuke exchanges a quick glance with Naruto, who bobs his head in a nod. The two of them turn back to Shukaku, tighten their grip on Chiyo’s arms, and start heaving her back as one. Gaara moves with them, staggering backward and pulling the sand with all the chakra he can spare. Chiyo pulls her arms in, as close as she can.

Deidara grips his teeth, his bird flapping it’s wings so fast they’re nearly invisible. Sasori’s eyes dart in a dozen different directions at once as he struggles to stay on the bird and pull Shukaku’s massive form away from the dark vortex threatening to consume it. After a moment, his eyes shut. He clenches his hands into fists and yanks them back, like pulling a ripcord.

Sasori’s strings squeeze down, tight as they can, and rip what’s left of Shukaku in half at the middle.

The sudden change in weight sends Sasuke, Naruto, Chiyo and Gaara all falling backwards, landing ungracefully in the dirt. Kamui sucks one third of Shukaku up into the darkness, it’s screams disappearing into nothingness. The black hole shrinks down, down, down, disappearing into the bright blue sky. There’s the sound of something heavy hitting the dirt, and Gaara’s eyes dart over to catch Kakashi falling onto his side in an exhausted heap. Sasori hauls the last third of Shukaku up off the ground as the bird darts off towards the horizon.

Naruto picks himself up onto his knees and shouts after them, "Hey! Hey! Get back here!"

They don’t heed his words. They disappear from view, the piece of Shukaku they’re dragging with them screaming and thrashing all the way.

Gaara takes a deep breath, then sighs, "Good riddance," but to whom, he’s not quite sure.

He pulls himself up into a sitting position, letting his eyes roll across the ruin of fallen puppets, burning grass, and upturned dirt that this clearing has become. They run over Sasuke at his side, taking several heaving breaths and drawing his excess chakra up to that point in the middle of his forehead. Gaara’s eyes come to a screeching halt on Naruto. With the adrenaline petering out of his system, with his senses coming back and assuring him that he’s not dreaming, it hits him all at once what Naruto being here means.

His mouth falls open and his thoughts spill out, "Naruto… You’re back."

Naruto blinks a few times, then turns to Gaara, his mouth spreading into a wide grin; "Yeah… Yeah, I am! And so are you, man! We did it!"

Naruto reaches as far around as he can to pull both Sasuke and Gaara into a rough hug; "We did it, dude! We got you back!"

Sasuke fights a losing battle against the smile spreading across his face; "Welcome back, Lord Kazekage."

Naruto’s eyes light up, half with joy and half with tears, and he shakes Gaara by the shoulders; "That’s right! You’re the Kazekage! You’re the fucking Kazekage, dude! Congratulations! I’m so proud of you!"

Gaara’s mouth curls in a tiny smile, and he breathes, "Thank you… You–"

The mood dies a quick and painful death at the sound of Chiyo sucking in a sharp, pained breath.

All three boys whirl around to find Chiyo on the ground, face pale, eyes wide, hand clutching at her chest. They all scramble over, but Gaara and Naruto can only hover at her side while Sasuke coats his hands in healing chakra and does a quick and dirty field examination.

After a moment, he rasps, "Her body couldn’t handle the strain of this battle, she’s having a heart attack! Gaara, flip her onto her back and hold her still! Naruto, start doing CPR!"

They clumsily do as they’re told, Gaara rolling her onto her back and taking hold of her shoulders while Naruto starts chest compressions. Between rescue breaths Chiyo stares up at Gaara through glassy eyes, her mouth struggling to form words.

The most Gaara gets is a choked, whispered, "I’m sorry," before her eyes roll back, her jaw going slack.

Sasuke swears through his teeth, his palms ignite with lightning, and he shouts, "Naruto, pull back! Gaara, keep your fingers on her pulse, let me know when it starts back up again! Clear!"

Sasuke presses his palms to Chiyo’s chest and her body jolts an inch off the ground at the shock. No pulse.

Sasuke rubs his palms together, coating them in yet more lightning; "Clear!"

Her body flops on the ground like a fish on the deck of a boat. No pulse.

Sasuke grits his teeth, hissing, "God damn it god fucking damn it not when I was just starting to respect you you old– Clear!"

He tries once more, twice more, and barely stops himself from going for a third. Sasuke lets his hands fall into his lap. He stares down at Chiyo’s body for a long moment before shutting his eyes. He takes a few deep breaths, shuddering on the exhale. When he opens his eyes, he’s calm again, or at least as calm as he can force himself to be.

His eyes run over Gaara and Naruto before he says, "I’ll be back over to heal you guys in a second, I gotta deal with Kakashi first."

Sasuke picks himself up and lopes over to Kakashi. Gaara keeps staring down at Chiyo’s body. For all the life he has taken, it’s rare that Gaara is ever this close to a corpse. That life can leave a body so quickly, leaving it only an inert lump of meat and bone, is something he still has trouble fully comprehending. He wonders if anyone can, really.

"Hey," Naruto murmurs, drawing Gaara’s attention to the troubled look on his face, "She said… She was apologizing to you… Do you…"

Naruto meets his eyes and asks, "Do you think you can forgive her?"

Gaara is quiet for a moment.

He closes Chiyo’s eyes and replies, "I don’t know. I suppose I’ll just have to try."

Chapter Text

VIII. Pain’s voice echoes in Itachi’s head, "This is the second time your brother has interfered."

Itachi says nothing.

"His attachment to the Nine Tails hasn’t waned after two years of absence. It is safe to assume that wherever the Nine Tails is, your brother will not be far."

Itachi says nothing.

"The Nine Tails’ time will come. When it does, I expect you to make the intelligent decision. Do you understand?"

Itachi’s voice comes out pale and starved; "I do, Sir."


Pain’s presence in his mind flickers out. Itachi stares out at the landscape, blood red and far too sharp. He pushes the chakra out of his optic nerves and the world blurs. The shinobi in him tenses up, starts listing off all the dangers, all the ways an enemy could sneak up on him and take advantage. The man in him doesn’t mind it. The world looks like an Impressionist painting, with forms built from daubs of pure color and suffused with light. It isn’t reality. But it certainly is beautiful.

A shadow falls over him, and Kisame’s voice comes in low and smooth from his side; "Itachi."

Itachi unfolds himself from his cross-legged sitting position, his knees creaking after having spent over half a day bent; "We need to move."

Kisame’s hand on his chin freezes Itachi in place. His pulse jumps at the contact. Kisame turns Itachi’s head so he’s facing him. Itachi keeps his eyes focused on the strokes of red on a field of black that make up Kisame’s cloak.

"Itachi. Look at me."

Kisame tilts Itachi’s head up and Itachi’s eyes follow it, a beat behind. Without his sharingan, Kisame is almost invisible against the blue sky. If not for the lighting-strike scars scrawling ruddy gray across his face, he would be. Another gift from his brother.

Kisame says evenly, "I don’t know why you left Sasuke alive. I don’t know why you keep leaving him alive. That’s between the two of you, and unless you’d rather it be otherwise I’ll make sure it stays it that way. But… Itachi. Look at me."

Itachi presses his lips tight together, draining their color, and activates his sharingan. Kisame turns from a blurry blue to sharp gray, the red tint washing him out. His mouth is set in a stern frown, his narrow eyes seeming to see more than they should. Itachi has always liked that about Kisame. Maybe, when he’s feeling slightly less like torturing himself, he can even admit that he loves it. That, even as whatever semblance of control he pretended to have over his life spirals further and further out of his grasp, his one stroke of luck was being partnered with Kisame.

Kisame doesn’t say anything, not right away. He drops to a crouch, putting them at eye level, and lets his fingers roam up Itachi’s jaw to his hairline. He runs his hand through Itachi’s hair and Itachi leans into the touch. His fingers catch on Itachi’s hair tie and pull it loose. Itachi’s hair spills like ink over his shoulders. Kisame plays with the split ends.

After a moment, Kisame bluntly says, "If your brother crosses the Akatsuki, then he gets the same treatment as anyone who crosses the Akatsuki. You can go easy on him all you want. Like I said, whatever is between the two of you is between the two of you. But he didn’t pull any punches with me, so I won’t pull any with him. It’s personal, certainly. But more than that, it’s business. I won’t ask you if you understand. I know you, so I know that you do."

And Itachi’s gut and heart twist at that, because even as Kisame’s words pile like straw on his already-broken back Itachi can’t be anything but grateful for his honesty. For how he does know Itachi, well enough to pry the mask away and see the storm beneath. He’s not sure anyone else in his life ever has ever known him quite as well. Perhaps Shisui, but the amount of time he’s spent without Shisui is slowly catching up to the time he spent with him, and grief is making his memory rot.

It’s another thing he likes about Kisame. When he is feeling like torturing himself, he can even admit that he loves it.

That’s always been his problem, Itachi supposes. He only knows how to love in one way: With so much of his heart that at the end none of it is left for him to keep.

Kisame weaves his fingers into the hair at the nape of Itachi’s neck and brings him closer, close enough for their struck-through headbands to clink against each other. Itachi deactivates his sharingan. At this distance, mere inches away, he can see Kisame’s face as though he’s looking through water.

Kisame murmurs, "I know you understand. I just want to know if you’re ready."

No; "Yes."

"You’re sure?"

No; "Yes."

"Itachi. Tell me the truth."

Hang the Akatsuki hang the Nine Tails but don’t make me choose between Sasuke and you because you will lose and I want to keep you for as long as I can; "I am."

Kisame sighs, almost into his mouth, "I don’t know why everyone says you’re such a good liar. But fine. Keep the truth between you and your soul," he withdraws, standing tall and sturdy as a pine, "Let’s get going."

Itachi staggers to his feet, standing like a tree that has given away all but it’s stump, and replies, "Lead on."

Obito runs his hands through his hair; "What do you mean one third of the One Tail is gone?!"

It’s days like this when Obito starts to question his own judgement. The Akatsuki were supposed to be an elite, dangerous, unstoppable force. They were supposed to make gathering all nine tailed beasts easy. That’s what Obito wanted, but what he got was fifteen years of stalling, infighting, setbacks, and failures so utterly embarrassing Obito had to resist the urge to rip Nagato’s eyes out and just do everything himself.

Two years ago, Obito thought their lowest moment was their attempt to take the Nine Tails– a child who knew two jutsus– being thwarted by two more children who knew (gasp) four jutsus. Two months ago, he thought their lowest moment was Hidan and Kakuzu going all the way into No Man’s Land only to miss the Seven Tail because she turned around and left a few moments before they could cross paths.

But both of those pale in comparison to their hideout being immediately discovered, the One Tail being torn into thirds, and one of those thirds just being gone. And instead of drafting up plans to find, isolate, and subdue the remaining tailed beasts he’s here, pacing circles in a River Country forest, dreaming of all the myriad ways he could beat Nagato senseless.

"Exactly what I said," Nagato replies, the echo of telepathic communication doing little to disguise the tremble in his voice, "Sasori and Deidara reported Kakashi Hatake summoning some sort of black hole in the air above the One Tail. It drew the One Tail’s body into itself, according to Sasori it would have sucked up all of it’s mass if he hadn’t cut their losses and ripped that piece of the One Tail in half. What do we do about this?"

Obito’s pacing comes to a stuttering halt; "Kakashi Hatake? You’re certain it was Kakashi Hatake who summoned the black hole?"

"At the moment it’s just Sasori and Deidara’s word, but Zetsu would be able to corroborate their story."

Obito snaps his fingers. One of the nearby trees ripples like the surface of a pond. Zetsu’s head comes sliding out of the bark, yellow eyes blinking just slightly out of sync.

The creature’s two voices talk over each other; "You rang?" "What do you want now?"

"You were following Sasori and Deidara," Obito snaps, "Was Kakashi Hatake one of their opponents? And remember, answer one at a time."

Zetsu’s head does a strange diagonal nod, the white half pulling an unwilling black half along after it as it says, "Oh yes! He’s hardly changed a bit since we first saw him, still all messy hair and gloomy attitude! I guess some people never really grow up!"

"He used Kamui," the black half rumbles, "It’s different than yours, it seems to have a longer range. But it’s the same jutsu. You got lucky, for once."

Obito’s heart skips a beat, and he mutters in a rush, "Give me a moment."

Obito has tried to explain what the feeling of being sucked into Kamui’s dimension is like in words and has failed every time. The closest he’s ever come is saying that it’s like someone is grabbing him by the eyeball and pulling hard enough to turn his body inside out. It’s horrifically uncomfortable and it used to be disorienting, but even a rogue ninja can get used to anything for the sake of the mission.

In the blink of an eye, Obito is no longer in a dense forest, but instead a deep dark void filled with randomly arranged and differently sized rectangular towers that go on for miles. He’s used to this place being silent and still, but the instant Obito touches down all he hears is wretched wailing. Obito’s eye locks onto a mass of writhing claws, whipping tails, gnashing teeth and bulging eyes on the tower just opposite the one he landed on. Sand and wind are whirling around it in lashing streams. With his Sharingan active this piece of the One Tail almost seems to glow, as it’s chakra and it’s physical body are one and the same.

Chakra flows around the creature in drunken spirals, winding up and up and up until it dissolves into the air. Obito grits his teeth. The creature is injured, bleeding, fading. If they leave it in here much longer it might completely disappear, and two thirds of a Tailed Beast are no substitute for the whole creature where the Plan is concerned. Obito is about to warp away when several eyes open up on the creature’s flank, irises like gold coins picking him out of the darkness.

A mouth splits the flesh on the back of a claw and the One Tail’s voice rattles, "Hurts… Hurts… Scared… Scared… Help? Help… please?"

Something stirs in Obito’s chest. Something old and soft.

For just a moment, he lets it speak; "Don’t worry. You’re going to be just fine."

Obito warps away, but he doesn’t return to where he came from. He comes rolling out of Kamui’s dimension and onto a rocky plateau underneath an overcast sky. The Village Hidden in Rain looms on the horizon, a jagged spike of industrial towers jutting out of the ground like a massive stalagmite. The Land of Rain is edging towards it’s drier season, the clouds merely misting the rocky terrain with a light drizzle and making everything damp and slippery.

Obito rises to his feet; "I’m back. We have a chance to salvage this, but we need to move quickly. Tell Sasori and Deidara to regroup at the hideout in Rain. I’ll meet them there. While they’re en route, let the rest of the Akatsuki know that they’ll be needed again shortly and to stand by."

There’s a pause, long enough that Obito starts to wonder if Nagato wasn’t listening, before his voice echoes in his mind again; "So you’re revealing yourself to the rest of the Akatsuki, then."

Obito sneers beneath his mask; "I have no other choice. Or, I suppose it’s more accurate to say that you’ve given me no other choice. Don’t misunderstand– This is not success. You have gotten supremely lucky today, Nagato. When this is over, you and I are going to have a discussion about the Akatsuki’s future."

Nagato’s voice drops into something rough that rattles Obito’s brain in his skull; "The Akatsuki are mine, Madara. Your support and advice have been invaluable in the past, but you have no right to give me orders."

Obito has to bite the inside of his cheek to stifle a snicker.

Instead, he simply asks, "In the fifteen years that this organization has existed how many tailed beasts have we successfully sealed, Nagato?"

Nagato is silent.

"You’re close," Obito sneers, "One. We have one. Obtaining money, cornering the mercenary market, taking control of the Land of Rain, all of that is temporary. The tailed beasts can bring about change that will last. I strongly suggest you rethink your priorities, Nagato, while you still have the option."

Nagato’s presence in his mind flickers out without a word.

"Soldier pills?! The two of you really popped soldier pills," Sasuke exclaims, pausing in disinfecting one of Naruto’s cuts to cuff the back of his head, "What the Hell were you thinking?! Those things are poison, and you didn’t even need them!"

Naruto rolls his eyes and snaps, "Well you didn’t need to drop a whole cliff on my head but you did it anyway!"

Sasuke finishes cleaning the wound, fishes some gauze out of a pocket, and presses down on it; "How many times am I gonna have to apologize for that?"

"Once for every rock that hit me," Naruto replies with a shit-eating grin, "Wanna go back to the hideout and count?"

Sasuke just presses even harder, forcing a yelp out of Naruto’s mouth. Naruto, Sasuke, and Gaara have regrouped a respectful distance from Chiyo’s body and are sitting in a loose circle near the unconscious Kakashi. According to Sasuke, a combination of chakra exhaustion, blood loss, head trauma, and just normal exhaustion had hit Kakashi with the force of an out of control train and his body just couldn’t handle the strain of being conscious in the face of all that. Naruto had thought that soldier pills were supposed to keep that kind of thing from happening, but apparently he was wrong.

"But hey, it’s not so bad," Naruto continues, "Since I’m gonna be good for another two and a half days I could pretty much just carry you guys all the way back to the Sand Village! The clones won’t mind the workout!"

Sasuke shakes his head; "We shouldn’t move Kakashi yet, at least not without a stretcher. We’re better off bedding down here, where it’s safe, or asking for sanctuary from the Hidden Valley Village."

"I wouldn’t say we’re 'safe' here," Gaara murmurs, futzing with his fingers in a way that reminds Naruto so much of Hinata it makes him homesick all over again, "You said we’re… How many miles north of the Hidden Valley Village?"

"About eight," Sasuke replies.

"That’s not far at all," Gaara remarks, "It strikes me as… unsettling, that hideout being so close to the village, and yet they haven’t noticed it. If the three of you were able to find it within a day, I can’t imagine it was particularly well hidden."

Naruto frowns, turning that over for a few moments, before finally finding the spots where those pieces fit together; "Wait, you don’t mean–?!"

"It’s a serious accusation, so I’m not etching anything in stone yet," Gaara cuts in, "But the village is small, too small to effectively protect a border territory rich in natural resources with lucrative shipping lanes connecting the Lands of Earth, Wind and Fire. It’s possible, maybe even likely that they could’ve been subcontracting more difficult and dangerous missions to the Akatsuki in exchange for allowing them to maintain a hideout in the country."

Naruto is sure he looks like a dog as he cocks his head to the side, but he can’t fight the reflex; "Wait, the Akatsuki do mercenary stuff too? I thought they were, like, a creepy cult or some shit."

Sasuke shrugs a shoulder; "There’s no rule saying they can’t be both, I guess."

"It wouldn’t be wise to bring me to the Hidden Valley Village," Gaara continues, "Bringing them a weakened Kage and asking for sanctuary is basically tantamount to saying 'here, have a free hostage who can get you every single concession you’ve ever wanted from the Land of Wind'."

Naruto’s face scrunches up in disgust; "They wouldn’t do that, would they? That’s a huge dick move!"

Gaara’s mouth twitches at the corner; "It certainly is. But this country is small. The Wind and Fire Daimyō would both prefer it annexed into their own territory. The Land of Rivers knows better than to trust it’s larger neighbors, and any edge they can get on them is one they have to take."

Naruto frowns at the dirt; "That sucks."

"That’s politics," Sasuke sighs.

"Politics suck," Naruto spits.

Gaara arches a brow; "Says the future Hokage."

Naruto’s reply catches in his throat. He lets the silence stretch out for several minutes. It feels stupid when he actually puts it into words, but Naruto hadn’t really thought of what the daimyō do and want being their problem. Ninja take jobs from anyone who pay, right? The daimyō should just be clients, no more or less special than anyone else. But, then again, the daimyō also own the land the villages are in. If they tell the daimyō to fuck off he could probably just evict the whole village or something. But the villages are the country’s army, basically, so how’s he really gonna enforce something like that? If the daimyō told them 'get out of my country' the village could just go 'make me bitch'. But going and kicking the daimyō’s ass just because they didn’t like something he said feels gross for some reason. But…

Naruto’s head is starting to hurt.

He flounders for a change of subject and finds one when his eyes run across Kakashi; "Hey, Sasuke, what was that crazy jutsu Kakashi used to suck up Shukaku? That was a sharingan thing, right?"

Sasuke had been in the middle of taking a roll of bandages out of his pocket. The question makes Sasuke suddenly fumble with the roll and drop it on the ground. He scrambles around way longer than he should need to before finally picking it up again. He dusts off the bandages and starts wrapping them around one of Naruto’s wounds, tight enough to hurt.

"Hey, hey," Naruto yelps, snapping his fingers next to Sasuke’s ear, "Earth to Sasuke! What the Hell is wrong with you?! I just asked a question, why are you trying to cut my circulation?!"

Sasuke stops, shoulders pulling in tight, and he mutters, "I was hoping you didn’t notice that."

"Well I did, so what gives? What’d he do?"

Sasuke’s eyes slowly pull up to meet Naruto’s, a flinty look in them Naruto hasn’t seen in ages; "I don’t know for certain. I’ve never seen anyone do that before, but… With my sharingan, I could see the pattern on his eye change, and… The only thing I know that can make how the sharingan looks change is the Mangekyō Sharingan."

Naruto takes a moment to think that over. He’s definitely heard the term Mangekyō Sharingan somewhere before, but where exactly is harder to place. He digs through his memory, then suddenly hits the image of Sakura. She’s lying in a broken heap in the middle of a motel hallway in Shukuba Town, blood leaking from her mouth, her eyes dead and blank. Jiraiya is holding Sasuke back as he tries to go to her side, voice breaking in panic. And Naruto is standing there, struck dumb and useless.

Naruto blurts out, "That thing your brother has?! I thought that was some kind of fucked up torture genjutsu, how’d Kakashi slurp up a third of a Tailed Beast with it?!"

"From what I understand, the Mangekyō Sharingan manifests differently in the left and right eyes," Sasuke explains, running a hand through his hair, "The right eye lets the user cast a ninjutsu, and the left lets the user cast a genjutsu. Kakashi has the right eye, so he has a ninjutsu, but that’s not the point."

"Then what is?"

Sasuke purses his lips tight enough to make them disappear. He leans back from Naruto’s wounds, braces his elbows on his knees, and holds his head in both hands. Naruto shoots Gaara a wide-eyed look, silently asking, 'What the hell?' Gaara just shrugs, shaking his head.

When he speaks, Sasuke sounds like he just swallowed drywall; "Kakashi told me… He got his sharingan because one of his friends sacrificed himself and gave it to him as he was dying. But the Mangekyō… You only get the Mangekyō Sharingan by killing someone you love."

It’s like someone hit Pause on the world.

Naruto’s stomach is up in his lungs. He feels like he’s about to float off the grass and into the sky, past the clouds, all the way into the stars. Kakashi told them that teamwork was more important than anything. He told them that abandoning your friends made you worse than trash. But Kakashi has been abandoning Naruto since the Chūnin Exams, hasn’t he? Why is him being a gigantic hypocrite suddenly surprising?

Sakura had called him her best friend the night before she tried to murder him. Naruto should be used to this. He should be used to the people he loves being two-faced pieces of shit.

But he doesn’t want to be.

Gaara’s voice pulls Naruto back down, not into his body, but beside it; "Did Kakashi tell you how his friend died?"

Sasuke replies in a shivering monotone, "Not exactly. He said he took a mortal blow for Kakashi, and that he gave up his eye as he was dying."

"It could have been a mercy killing," Gaara remarks, low and steady, "If his death would have been slow and painful otherwise, he could have put him out of his misery after the transplant."

Sasuke whips a glare towards Gaara and snaps, "Then why wouldn’t he just tell me that?! Why wouldn’t he tell me that he has the Mangekyō if he didn’t kill a friend in cold blood to get it?!"

Naruto frowns, and he feels like there’s a delay between his mind and his mouth as he says, "I still don’t get that, I mean… How do you even get the Mangekyō if you have to kill someone you love to get it? You can’t really love someone if you’re killing them, can you? That just doesn’t work!"

Gaara’s face smooths over, his eyes looking past the clearing; "Love isn’t some immutable, primordial force. It’s just an emotion, dependent on people for it’s expression. And twisted people will inevitably express love in twisted ways."

Naruto wants to tell Gaara to shut the fuck up. He can tell from just one glance that Sasuke does, too.

But neither of them can say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Gaara’s eyes suddenly jump to the sky, catching the sun’s light. Naruto hears the sound of massive wings and tenses up, hand going to his weapon pouch. Gaara grabs his shoulder, stopping him mid-motion. Naruto follows his eyes. The silhouette of a massive bird of prey is circling the clearing fifty feet above them. It does two loops before a high, sharp, complicated whistle rings out through the air. The bird dives down toward the clearing just in time to avoid a gust of wind from the West, so powerful it makes the trees bend at sixty degree angles.

The wind blows in a handful of birds, not quite as large as Garuda or the bird descending on them now, but large enough to fly comfortably with a single rider on their backs. Behind them are a score of ninja gliding on what look like massive kites, catching the wind from a dozen more ninja standing astride the smallest of the great birds and waving massive fans. They all circle down towards the clearing, the largest of the birds– an osprey the size of a draft horse– reaching them first.

The bird bows low to let it’s two passengers slide off it’s back. One is a man Naruto doesn’t recognize with bird-like eye makeup, and the other is Temari. Naruto doesn’t get to take in much else about Temari before she sprints across the clearing, tumbles to her knees in front of Gaara, and throws her arms around him in a crushing hug. Naruto hears flapping wings, sandals crunching rapidly across burnt grass, and suddenly a Kankuro with no hood but hastily-applied face paint is barreling into the hug. He nearly knocks his brother and sister over, but Gaara has enough strength to brace himself against the ground and roll with the impact.

Sasuke glares over at the man with the eye makeup and snaps, "Seriously, Arsalan?! Kankuro just got a deadly, heavy metal-based toxin flushed out of his system and you take him along to potentially fight the Akatsuki?!"

'Arsalan' puts his hands up defensively; "Hey, you try telling him not to go rescue his brother. It was either we let him come along or he would’ve found some way to smuggle himself onto a bird."

Sasuke’s eyes drift back to Gaara, Kankuro, and Temari. Temari’s voice is thick as she reprimands Gaara through a watery smile. Kankuro has most of his face pressed into Gaara’s hair, every breath making his back shake. Gaara is smiling, small and warm and practiced. No amount of exhaustion can hide the envy on Sasuke’s face.

Sasuke shakes his head and sighs, "Whatever. Nothing to do about it now."

Ninja drop from the backs of birds and glide down on paper wings. By the time all their reinforcements have touched down in the clearing, Naruto has counted more than fifty shinobi in all.

Gaara stares past his siblings at the crowd; "The Airborne Division…"

"Everyone who’s in flying shape," Temari replies, voice brimming with pride, "A hurricane couldn’t keep them from coming after you."

Arsalan’s face falls into a solemn frown and he puts a hand to his heart; "You have the Falconer Corps’ sincerest apologies, Lord Kazekage. If we’d caught on to Yura’s treachery sooner, none of this would have happened."

A ninja wrapped head to toe in pale linens comes up next to Arsalan, dropping to one knee; "I apologize on behalf of the Nightjar Corps, Lord Kazekage. No intruder should have ever been able to use the skies against you. We won’t allow it to happen again."

Temari shoots Gaara a weary smirk; "I don’t have to say 'ditto' on behalf of the Fan Corps, do I?"

Gaara is still staring, awestruck, at the crowd; "All of them… They all came here… for me?"

Kankuro shoots Temari a grin over Gaara’s head; "If he’s gettin’ all worked up over fifty people he’s gonna lose his shit when he gets home to a whole village happy to see him."

Naruto is happy for Gaara. Really, he is. He deserves this. But Naruto’s sure that no amount of exhaustion can hide the envy on his face.

The Nightjar next to Arsalan stands up to their full height and turns to Sasuke; "We noticed your injured comrade and… Lady Chiyo. Our kites can be converted to stretchers to transport them, if you like."

Sasuke shakes his head, picking himself up; "If you let us borrow one, that’ll be fine. Gaara should be well enough for air travel, and Chiyo… Well, you know. You all go on ahead, we–"

"Absolutely not," Gaara cuts in, voice hard and authoritative. Sasuke flinches a bit at the sudden change in tone, but Naruto almost jumps. It’s like Gaara aged ten years in ten seconds.

He slowly comes to his feet, Temari and Kankuro on either side helping him up despite not looking so steady themselves; "The three of you did the Sand Village a great service. For us to leave you to your own devices now would be a grave insult. And there are those in the village who would be… interested to know exactly what Kakashi did with Shukaku. We will escort you back to the village on foot, with contingents of the Airborne Division keeping watch on the surrounding area for danger."

Gaara’s mouth quirks up at the corner and he sighs, "Don’t fight me on this, Sasuke. We’ve all had too long a day for that."

Sasuke shakes his head, a smirk struggling to break through; "As you command, Lord Kazekage."

Sasuke comes over, offering to help Naruto to his feet, and Naruto lets him. Three Nightjars break down their kites, two turning theirs into stretchers and one into a shroud for Chiyo. With Kakashi and Chiyo safely bundled onto their stretchers, the party start their long, aching journey back across the sand.

The Akimichi build their buildings like they build their clansmen: tall, broad, and round. Akimichi buildings are the reason for the Leaf Village’s signature architecture, everything from the Hokage Tower to the wall itself were built by Akimichi hands. The easiest way to find an Akimichi abroad is to look for round buildings with flat tiled roofs sticking out above the rest of the architecture, yet not looming over it. And the easiest way to find an Akimichi in the village is to go to their greatest creation, Yamanekoya.

If the Hokage Tower is the village’s brain, Yamanekoya is it’s heart. The restaurant takes up the better part of a city block in the middle of the main drag, standing round and tall at two double-height stories. The building’s bright red walls and the large lanterns hanging from the roof make it impossible to miss no matter the time of day. Despite walking past it daily for over two decades, it never fails to make Asuma feel small as he approaches it’s circular double doors.

Asuma dodges around a party of chūnin leaving just as he’s entering, toes off his sandals, and steps up into the waiting area. The wide room is bustling with people as servers ferry handfuls of customers to their tables and yet more come up to the front desk to put their names in. Asuma cranes his neck to get a look at the hostess around a jōnin and his three bouncing genin inquiring about a table. The girl is a cousin of Choji’s, a sweet girl named Momoka with fluffy brown hair, sharp eyes, and rosy cheeks. The moment she finishes with the genin team, Momoka spots Asuma. Her round face lights up in a bright, shining grin.

She bows from the shoulders as she calls out, "It’s so good to see you, Asuma! How long has it been since you last came in?"

Asuma smiles and closes the distance to the front desk, bowing in return; "Good to see you too, Momo. Jeez, when was the last time– Three months ago, I think… Ah, I’m getting sidetracked. This is gonna be a working lunch, so–"

Momoka’s eyes spark with recognition for just a moment before she affects a picture perfect pout and sighs, "Ah, I see, no time for small talk. Would you like indoor or outdoor seating?"

Asuma futzes with the lighter in his pocket, funneling his nerves out through his hands so they don’t show on his face; "Indoor. Less distractions that way, this place’s food is distracting enough, you know."

Momoka nods and puts her smile back on; "I’ll go ahead and seat you, then."

She takes a menu from the front desk and starts off towards the seating area. Asuma follows three steps behind, deliberately keeping his pace at a casual lope. Momoka leads him on a meandering walk through the first floor’s spacious dining rooms, past civilian families having lunch with their children, groups of ninja blowing off steam, and travelers stopping in to see if the Leaf Village’s greatest attraction is worth the hype. Sunbeams and bird calls stream in from the windows, giving those inside views of the lush courtyard garden with scattered outdoor seats carved out of the building’s core.

When they’re halfway around the loop Momoka pulls off to one side, treading lightly up a staircase narrow enough that you could mistake it for the inside of the wall. Asuma squeezes up the stairs behind her, the sounds of the busy restaurant full of satisfied people slowly receding as they climb. The second floor trades wide open space for one long hallway with sliding doors on either side. Even if Asuma couldn’t feel it in the hairs on the back of his neck, the fact that even their footsteps are barely making a sound would be enough for him to clock the privacy genjutsus coating this floor like caramel on an apple.

Momoka leads him further down the hall before finally stopping at a door that looks identical to all the others. She forms half a seal with her free hand and presses her fingers to the center. With a pulse of chakra and a sound like the chiming of a bell, a small seal lights up beneath her fingers before disappearing. Momoka slides the door open to reveal a private dining room with richly embroidered cushions, a table made from lacquered oak, and screens painted with scenes of Akimichi Clan warriors battling giant monsters. The only feature even slightly out of place is the small door set into the Western wall.

Asuma steps inside and Momoka hands him the menu and her pen, dropping the coded doublespeak to tell him, "When you’re ready send your order down to the kitchen in the dumbwaiter. Should your guests be seated immediately, or…?"

Asuma shakes his head; "Stagger them. Have different hosts bring them up if you can."

Momoka’s soft face firms up into a pensive frown; "This is serious, isn’t it?"

Asuma looks her in the eye with a frown of his own; "Deadly."

It only takes Momoka a moment and one deep breath before her professional smile returns, and she chirps, "Enjoy your meal!"

Momoka bows and steps out of the room, shutting the door behind her. There’s another pulse of chakra from the door as Momoka resets the seal, leaving Asuma alone with his thoughts. And of course the first place they go is to the carton of cigarettes burning a hole in his flak jacket pocket. His hand is already undoing the button holding the pocket closed before he stops to think. It’s always a bad idea to light up in a sealed room, especially when you’re waiting on guests who will complain about the smell. At the same time, lighting up would calm his nerves…

Asuma takes the carton of cigarettes out of his pocket and frowns at the label. The question of To Smoke or Not To Smoke was way easier to answer last week. Now, Kurenai is pregnant and marrying her would be the responsible– but incredibly expensive and frightening– thing to do. Now, Shikamaru is pulling damn near everyone he knows into chasing down leads on his conspiracy theory, a theory that Asuma wishes he could dismiss as a kid’s overactive imagination. Now, the Kazekage’s life is hanging in the balance and everyone is waiting on bated breath to hear if the brand new Team Kakashi was enough to save him.

All incredibly compelling reasons both to light up and not to light up.

Asuma is about to slip a cigarette out of the carton when the door slides open. He hastily shoves the carton back in his pocket and turns to see who arrived first. A different Akimichi cousin bows and shows Ino inside, a courtesy Ino repays only with a quick nod of a bow before she turns the full force of her smile on Asuma.

Ino is at his side in the time it takes the hostess to close the door behind her; "Hey Asuma-sensei! How are you doing?"

Asuma smiles with a loose shrug; "I’m surviving," he opens his arms and beckons her in with a small wave, "C’mere."

Ino sweeps down into the hug and Asuma gives her a tight squeeze. The scent of the Yamanaka Flower Shop on her is almost enough to drown out the smell of smoke on him. Ino breaks the hug to settle down beside him at the table, wincing and hissing as she sits down on her bent knees.

Asuma winces in solidarity; "Still having trouble with your joints?"

He doesn’t have to say why. The moment he returned to the village after a mission away and learned that two of his students, his kids, were in the hospital because one had poisoned himself to win a fight and the other had been nearly beaten to death by her teammate is burned into his memory. The panic he felt that turned to anger that turned to shame is cast in bronze, preserved forever.

But, in the present, Ino just grimaces and gripes, "Ugh, don’t put it like that. Makes me sound like an arthritic old lady."

Asuma grins and gives her shoulder a soft shove; "Makes you sound like a seasoned shinobi is more like it. Every time it rained my old man would complain about some old scar or another giving him Hell."

Ino arches her one visible brow; "Oh yeah, Old Man Third is exactly the Hokage every girl in the village wants to be compared to."

Asuma wags his chin towards the table; "You can stretch your legs out, you know. Choji and Shikamaru won’t mind."

Ino rolls her eyes, scoffing, "Are you kidding? They’ll bitch endlessly about me taking up all the leg room," before stretching her legs out anyway.

"They bitch about everything," Asuma chuckles.

Ino throws her head back with a theatrical sigh; "Why do I even put up with them?"

Asuma shrugs a shoulder; "Tradition?"

Ino flops over to lean on him; "Gotta love it."

The next to arrive is Choji, who of course complains about Ino taking up all the leg room at the table the moment he sits down. Ino retaliates by shoving his knee with her foot and sticking her tongue out at him. Choji immediately gets to ordering lunch for everyone. He may not have been the best student in the academy, but he has a keen memory for the things that matter to him, and he has his team’s food preferences etched in stone. Besides, having Choji order for him saves everyone the trouble of hearing Shikamaru gripe about how much of a drag ordering is.

Choji shoots Asuma a cheeky grin and asks, "Sure you don’t want me to order any extra helpings to take home to Kurenai? She is eating for two now!"

Asuma rolls his eyes with a sigh, "No. If anyone sees me doing that they might start getting curious and talking, and so far it’s more than overwhelming enough with just you guys knowing."

Choji’s grin drops along with his jaw; "You guys still haven’t told anyone else? Not even Kurenai’s dad?"

Asuma grits his teeth; "Especially not Kurenai’s dad. You do want me to live to see that kid be born, don’t you?"

Ino rests a cheek on her hand, giving Asuma a look he thought she reserved for when Sasuke was being absolutely hopeless; "You still haven’t bought a ring, have you?"

Asuma drags a hand down his face, grumbling, "That’s none of your business."

Ino, of course, just laughs at him.

Choji has just sent their order down to the kitchen when Shikamaru finally arrives. Ino and Choji rib him for being late and Shikamaru claims he was far more interested in watching the clouds drift by than coming to lunch. Shikamaru also complains about Ino taking up all the leg room and gets shoved for it. They bicker and gossip like it’s business as usual, but Asuma knows his kids far too well for that. Ino is sitting up too straight. Choji is futzing with his chopsticks. Shikamaru’s eyes never rest on one spot for long.

The act drops when there’s a ring of a bell from the dumbwaiter, signaling the arrival of the first helping of food. Ino’s smile drops. She pads on silent feet to the dumbwaiter, sliding the door open and running through hand signs. After a moment, she glances over to Shikamaru and shakes her head. Once she brings the plates to the table, Shikamaru slides them all over to Choji. He runs through a quick set of one-handed signs, coating all the food in a thin draping of chakra that rests for a few moments before dissipating. Choji nods to Shikamaru.

"Alright," Shikamaru sighs, "No poison, no bugs, we’re as clean and secure as we can be. Alright, let’s start with updates. Ino, Choji, anything new in your necks of the woods?"

"Yeah, actually," Ino replies, mouth already full of food, "Barrier Team is reporting more messenger hawks than yesterday coming in. Same with Intel Division, and a lot of the reports they’re getting were delayed by about a day or so. It’s still less than usual, but nowhere near the drought there was yesterday."

Choji nods and piggybacks off of Ino’s report with, "Word from the wall is about the same. Anyone whose job it was to notice that kind of stuff noticed more hawks and reports and all that. And that made it so everyone else stopped paying attention 'cause now they can just blame it on some bad weather or something."

Shikamaru just nods, his brow furrowed, one hand covering his mouth and the other drumming on the tabletop. Asuma swallows a wince. Shikamaru has the look of someone who’s been thinking so hard without breaks the gears in his brain are starting to grind down smooth.

Shikamaru catches Asuma’s gaze and brings his hand away from his mouth to say, "Alright. With updates out of the way… Sensei. What do you have for us?"

Asuma sighs through his nose; "Well. Before we start let me remind you, Shikamaru, that everything we’re looking at is still circumstantial–"

"Circumstantial evidence isn’t worthless evidence," Shikamaru immediately fires back, sharp black eyes pinning Asuma’s down like butterflies in a shadowbox. It’s difficult to tell if the kid’s got conviction or mania.

"I’m just telling you not to get too excited and jump to any conclusions," Asuma continues, breaking out his low and steady Sensei Voice, "If this is as serious as you think it is, as it is if you’re right, there’s no such thing as being too careful."

Shikamaru arches a brow and attempts a smirk; "Asuma-sensei, when have I ever had enough energy to jump to conclusions?"

Asuma shakes his head, fighting a fond smile; "Smartass. All that being said, let’s get into it. Thanks to a few friends in the intel and archive divisions, I was able to get access to the reports from yesterday. Like you asked, I paid closest attention to where the reports were coming from."

Asuma reaches over to the sushi platter with his chopsticks, moving all the pieces of tuna sushi into the center; "Far and away, the most reports came from missions in Fire Country itself. But we knew that already."

Next, he moves the mackerel pieces off to the left; "Second most came from the Land of Wind, of course. They’re our staunchest ally and we’re rescuing their Kazekage, they’re gonna do everything they can to get messages to us no matter what."

Now the salmon pieces over to the upper left corner; "Third, Land of Earth. That old rivalry is gonna die hard and bloody, so of course we have tons of agents in their borders. Quantity is gonna overpower the quality of any blackout in that regard."

Asuma continues moving pieces of sushi around, creating a rough map with the amount of sushi of each type reflecting how many reports came in from the region in question. Once he’s finished, there’s a distinctive gap in the Northeast between the Land of Waterfalls and the Land of Hot Water.

Asuma jabs his chopsticks down into that gap; "There was nothing from the Land of Sound or the Land of Swamps."

Ino drops her chopsticks. Choji’s eyes go wide as saucers. Shikamaru is still as a statue.

"You’re sure," Ino stammers, "Y-you’re sure you didn’t miss any? You could have missed some. There had to be some– There can’t have been none, that–!"

"I’m sure," Asuma cuts in, putting a hand on her shoulder to steady her, "There was absolutely nothing."

"So whatever’s happening, whatever they’re trying to cover up," Choji gulps, staring intently at the gap in the sushi map, "It’s happening there."

"We’ve been watching those bastards like hawks for years," Ino blurts out, shrugging Asuma’s hand off as she whirls to look him in the eye, "There’s no way! We have people whose whole job is just to stare at Sound and tell us if they do anything weird! How could we suddenly lose track of them completely?!"

"It’s not just because of the personal vendetta that we have so many eyes on Sound," Shikamaru replies in a mutter, almost to himself, "It’s because even before this blackout getting word from inside the country was nearly impossible. Orochimaru runs the place like a bear trap– If you get stuck in there you’re gonna have to chew your leg off to get out."

"And, I mean," Choji pauses to chew on his lip for a moment before continuing, "The call’s coming from inside the house, remember? Our shadow probably knows we have a bunch of people watching Sound. That’d make it way easier for them to intercept their communications or… intercept them."

Ino’s shoulders slump as she stares past Asuma, eyes unfocused; "So. Something’s happening in Sound."

"Yeah," Asuma pauses to purse his lips before turning to Shikamaru, "Tsunade has to hear about this."

Shikamaru’s cheek flattens, the telltale sign that he’s biting the inside of his mouth; "Yeah. Problem is, now I’m sure Hokage Tower is the least secure place for a conversation like that."

"You know this place is always safe, Shikamaru," Choji remarks, putting a smile back on, "That’s what the restaurant’s for, a good meal and a safe place to talk for ninja. That’s how it’s been for generations."

Shikamaru shakes his head; "We can’t rely on any one place. Not for long, anyway. I’ll think on it."

"Think quickly," Asuma mutters, hand itching for his lighter, "Like Ino and Choji said, foreign reports are already filling back out. If our shadow is really behind all of this, we can’t wait for them to give us a clue. We have to steal one."

Shikamaru nods; "Let’s finish lunch. Stagger your exits. Choji, go out through the kitchen. I’ll head out the West exit, Ino, you get the East. Asuma, go out through the front."

Everyone agrees in mumbles or loose nods. Choji attempts more small talk and Asuma does his best to keep up with him, but Shikamaru and Ino aren’t even trying. Ino isn’t even eating. She just keeps staring at the far wall, brow slowly furrowing, mouth slowly twisting into a scowl. She leaves first without any prompting, stomping out of the room without a word and slamming the door behind her. Shikamaru leaves next, with only a nod to Asuma and Choji for their trouble. Choji lingers behind, finishing the last of the food and remembering his manners with a proper 'goodbye'.

Asuma sighs to the empty room, "Remember, Asuma– At least you’re not Team Seven’s sensei."

He waits for five minutes before dragging himself to his feet, sending the paid check down in the dumbwaiter, and schlepping back the way he came. The energy of the restaurant feels like it’s a million miles away as he goes over everything in his mind. He barely even notices Momoka at the hostess desk, replying to her pleasantries with mindless monosyllables as he hears but doesn’t quite listen to them.

"Aw, no leftovers? Kurenai’s gonna be disappointed to see that, you know, since she’s eating for two now."

That remark doesn’t hit Asuma until he’s already put his sandals on. Then it slams into him like a palm thrust to the chest.

Momoka knows. She knows Kurenai is pregnant. How? His team are a bunch of little shits, but he trusts them with his life as well as his secrets. Kurenai laid down the law that she wasn’t telling anyone until she knew what they were going to do about it. There are only five people who know Kurenai is pregnant. There can only be five people who know Kurenai is pregnant. So how does Momoka know?

No, no, Asuma, breathe. She’s basically a civilian, their type gossip all the time about ninja drama, it’s probably a rumor. A rumor that’s too close to the truth for his liking, but a rumor. Asuma turns to her, ready to say whatever gossipmonger told her that was talking out of their ass. The remark dies on the back of his tongue.

Momoka is still smiling at him. But her eyes have lost all their light. They’d look better in the face of a dead fish– No. Those are the eyes of someone looking down at a fish they’ve hooked and are dragging through the water, inch by thrashing inch.

She grins like a wildcat and trills, "Have a great rest of your day, Asuma! Tell Kurenai we say hello!"

Asuma can’t stop himself from staggering a half-step back. He opens his mouth, but chokes on his words as a party steps around him to the hostess desk and Momoka’s eyes light back up. She helps seat them with all the genuine cheer and enthusiasm she showed him when he walked in. Like the flat, dead creature he saw in her eyes never existed.

Asuma stumbles out through the front door. He can’t light a cigarette fast enough.

Noa sprints as fast as her legs can carry her, moss-colored hair falling in her eyes. She passes blood and soot stains on the road to the honmaru’s gate, tracking more behind her. She clutches her arm, trying to staunch the flow of blood from the burns running from her fingers to her elbow.

The moment before she crosses the threshold, Noa hears Kabuto’s voice calling out, "After her! Don’t let her leave the castle grounds alive!"

Noa sucks a breath in through her teeth and leaps through the gate.

It feels like everything went wrong in an instant. One moment, Noa was sitting outside the throne room, tending to her rifle and thinking about the kind of future she could have in the new state San-Ha wanted to make. The next, there was a thump against the hard wood and the sound of San-Ha choking on her own spit. She had leapt to her feet at the same time as her fellow guard, throwing open the shoji to find Kabuto standing over San-Ha as she writhed and foamed at the mouth. Noa’s body had frozen while her eyes had darted between San-Ha, growing increasingly blue in the face, and Kabuto’s menacingly blank expression.

Her fellow guard hadn’t hesitated. He’d pulled his rifle up to his shoulder and taken aim, but Kabuto was faster. You never want to be slower than a ninja in a small space. Kabuto, in a flicker, got between them both and grabbed their rifles by the barrels. His hands had glowed for a brief moment with red hot chakra before the powder in the rifles ignited. Both guns exploded in their hands. Her fellow guard had his up by his face. He hadn’t stood a chance. But Noa had wrenched her hand out of the fire the second the explosion went off.

For just a moment, there had been a screen of black smoke between her and Kabuto. She took that moment and ran with it. As she’d run she’d cut through the dining hall, hoping to find help. All she’d found was more people– so many people, everyone, it looked like everyone– dead and dying as they choked on the same poison that killed San-Ha. Noa had burst out of the dining hall and out into the honmaru proper, running for the exit. All along the way she caught sight of her fellow revolutionaries disappearing into shadows, never to reappear. Good folk, honest folk, folk who just wanted to be treated fairly, died from senbon in the neck, lightning chakra shocking their hearts to a stop, and genjutsu that looked like nothing at all from the outside.

Noa kept running. She's been running for hours, going in desperate circles to avoid the ninja before finally finding an opening to make a break for it. It’s taken her as far as the ninomaru. It’s going to have to take her all the way out of Jungsimji, all the way out of the Land of Sound.

Feet, don’t fail her now.

Noa’s eyes jolt up to the rooftops penning in the winding road out of the palace. She can spot several silhouettes with porcelain faces dogging her every step. The fact that she can spot them at all means they’re not taking her seriously. Means they’re toying with her, playing with their food. She grits her teeth in a snarl. She never bowed to ninja before and she's not starting now.

She forces her eyes forward and bites out a curse in Sound’s native tongue. Someone must have triggered a pit trap, because the road in front of her is cut in half by a deep, wide, dark trench. She thinks she can spy spikes at the bottom of it, as well as several skewered bodies– wait, why can she see that from this angle? That doesn’t make sense, that doesn’t work, that’s– That’s not real. It can’t be real. But what if it is? There’s no way for her to tell. The hairs on the back of her neck refuse to settle down, she can feel chakra working all around her but she can’t reach out and touch it like ninja can.

She has to trust her instincts. She has to trust herself. The instant before she hits the lip of the pit she shuts her eyes, forcing herself to keep running straight ahead without stopping.

Her feet hit solid ground.

Noa runs for another foot before opening her eyes again. Just in time, too. She can hear the sharp whistling of metal flying through the air and crackling of fire. She swerves left and right in a jagged zig-zag, juking out of the way of a bevy of flaming shuriken. She’s coming to a bend in the road, but she can’t take it. It’s a blind curve, they’re going to have an ambush on the other side. She remembers Zhàdàn telling them that they had to take advantage of those blind curves themselves when laying siege to this place. She’s not going to get caught in her own trap.

Noa veers off to the right and into a narrow alleyway that barely earns the name. It’s more like a crawlspace, a passage only rats and the cats chasing them should be using. She squeezes through it an inch at a time, her heart stopping every time she hears the distinctive sound of feet on roof tiles. She comes tumbling out of it, end over end, and adrenaline turns her stumble into a roll.

Once upright again, Noa scrambles through the ninomaru’s winding roads. Out here, it’s somehow worse than in the palace itself, because out here it's dead silent. Out here, the ninja have already done their work. Out here, the resistance has already disappeared. Bitter, furious tears bite at Noa’s eyes. She needs to get out. Not for herself. Not for her own life. But for the revolution, because someone has to tell the world what they did, what they were trying to do, what was done to them. Someone has to tell the world the truth.

Noa prays to any kami and spirits that might be listening that she can get away, and if not her, someone, anyone. This dream can’t die in vain.

A wire, thin as hair but sharp and strong as iron, loops around Noa’s neck and pulls taut. Noa’s breath leaves her in a yelp. She’s pulled off her feet up to the roof level, kicking her legs this way and that. She can see the hands holding the wires if she cranes her neck, but she can’t crane it far. She claws at the wire with both hands, cutting her burned fingers as she tries to force them under it.

She hears a slimy, masculine voice chuckle in her ear, "No use running, country mouse."

Her mind clears like the crack of a whip. She can hear that voice loud and clear. He’s not wearing a mask.

Noa throws her head back and feels his nose crunch against her skull. The sudden blow makes his grip on the garrote slacken just enough for her to force her fingers under it. Noa forces her way out of it and drops painfully to the ground. Her ankle rolls on impact, but Noa ignores it. She doesn’t have time to be in pain. She dashes for a hole in the wall separating the ninomaru fron the sannomaru, blown in by their own cannons just last night, and soars through it. She’s out of the ninomaru. She’s almost out.

Noa cuts through the sannomaru like scissors through paper. They did far and away the most damage here. There’s a path of destruction that cuts straight through walls and structures to the palace gate. She has no choice but to take it, even though it makes it easy for the ninja to follow her. She has a lead, but it’s not by much. Kunai and shuriken miss her heels by inches. She feels the burn of fire and lightning jutsu on the back of her neck. Noa keeps sprinting like the crow flies for freedom.

But, with the gate in sight, Noa swerves off the path again. The palace gate may be fingertips away, but so are the palace stables. Noa cuts through rubble to get there, jumping over loose pieces of stone and mortar scars. She shoulder-checks the door and spills into the stable, causing no small number of the horses to rear up and whinny in terror. Noa quickly scans the stable and zeroes in on the one horse not frightened by her sudden appearance, a brown mare tied up near the back. She crosses the distance to the horse, unties them, and climbs up onto their back.

Horses aren’t so different from mules in all the ways that matter. For example, both will go running like hell if you jab your heels into their sides, crack the reigns, and scream. Noa’s not-so-gentle urgings send the horse galloping back the way she came. They crash through the stable door, drift around the corner, and clear the palace gate.

Now it’s a straight shot. On horseback, Noa’s just that much faster the ninja, just enough to make a difference. She can make it out. She just has to get there.

Clouds gather in the darkening sky, cracks of lightning thundering across their dark expanse. Noa grits her teeth, eyes darting between the clouds and the road. A handful of spots on the clouds start to glow a bright blue. Noa guides the horse to swerve around the nearest one just as a bolt of lightning comes crashing down to earth. Her horse bucks, but Noa cracks the reigns again. She’s not taking any backtalk, not now, not from a fucking horse.

She slaloms around the lightning bolts as they thunder down around her like electric rain. Noa never takes her eyes off the prize for long. She keeps the gate in sight, no matter what. She’s going to get there. She has to get there.

She hears a voice call something out, too quick for her to register. The ground ahead of her ignites. A sheet of fire leaps up, turning the road ahead of her into the entrance to Hell. She can only barely make out the gate through the fire. Her horse lets out another harsh screech of a whinny. Noa digs her heels in as hard as they’ll go.

She won’t blink. She forces the horse forward in a dead charge, as close as she dares, before snapping the reigns as hard as she can.

This horse was trained for battle. It knows exactly what to do. It springs into the air, flying over the wall of fire in a clean arc, and hits the ground running.

Noa shoots through the gate. The horse keeps running down the main road, away from the city, away from Kabuto and ANBU, away from the danger.

Noa’s mouth breaks into a grin. She’s out. She’s done it. She’s–

A kunai cuts through the setting sunlight and buries itself down to the hilt in her horse’s throat.

With a choked bray, the horse veers off the road and into the rice paddies. It trips over it’s own hooves as they get caught in the marshy ground, front legs bending at an impossible angle. The horse goes tumbling end over end, dragging Noa down with it. It rolls to a stop, it’s dead weight pinning Noa half under the water and snapping something in her left thigh. For a moment, Noa is feral. She claws and shoves and thrashes to get out from under the dead beast, anything to keep her from drowning.

A hand grabs her face and forces it down into the water.

Noa thrashes, but between the hand shoving her head below the water and the dead horse pinning her body down, Noa can’t wriggle free. Her lungs are screaming, burning, about to burst. But she can’t get up. Not this time. She doesn’t have any leverage, any strength. The hand's palm is covering her mouth and nose. She twists her head this way and that, and as her vision tunnels, she gets one last glimpse between their fingers of the person drowning her in a muddy rice paddy like a common thug.

Just like San-Ha, the last thing Noa ever sees is Kabuto, sneering down at her in sadistic triumph.

Suigetsu feels like he’s been watching Sakura across the fire pit for hours now. And now that he thinks about it, if you add up all the times he’s stolen glances at her since they broke to make camp, he probably has.

Their little ragtag team crossed the border into the Land of Fire in the middle of the afternoon. If they were traveling at the pace of ninja, they’d at least be halfway to the Leaf Village before dark. But they’re traveling at the pace of a one-legged civilian, so the Sound border is still nowhere near far away enough for Suigetsu’s comfort. Sakura had insisted they make camp. Jūgo could have kept going, but he always defers to her. Zhàdàn made token protests, but from how white and clammy his face was looking, Suigetsu could tell he was aching to stop. So it’d been up to him to complain for all of them.

Sakura, of course, had shut him down by frowning at him and saying, "If you want to keep going on ahead without us, be my guest. Just don’t come crying back to me when you get lost in the woods."

He’d kept griping and groaning as he’d helped them set up camp and skin the rabbits Jūgo caught them for dinner, but that was mostly out of a sense of obligation by that point. In all honesty, Suigetsu’s mind had been on one thing since they’d captured Jungsimji. And now that the night has wound down and it’s just him and Sakura at the fire, Jūgo and Zhàdàn snoring away in their bedrolls nearby, there’s nothing Suigetsu can do to keep his mind off it besides put it out into the world.

Suigetsu reaches down to his belt and draws Kusanagi, setting it down across his knees; "Hey, Sakura."

Sakura looks up from the map on her lap; "If this is another gripe about our pace I don't wanna hear it."

Suigetsu rolls his eyes; "Please, I know that battle’s not worth fighting anymore. The longer I do it the more I look like an asshole."

Sakura arches a brow and says volumes by not saying a thing. Suigetsu slits his eyes in a glare and bares his teeth. Sakura’s eyes drop down to the map, the corner of her mouth quirking in one of her 'barely-a-smile-but-it-counts' smiles. Smartass.

Suigetsu takes Kusanagi by the hilt and holds it out to her; "Here."

Sakura looks back up, brow furrowed in pure confusion; "What?"

"I’m giving Kusanagi back," Suigetsu replies, "Go on, take it."

Sakura blinks; "I thought you were collecting swords, why are you giving it to me?"

"Much as I’d love to show off that I defeated Orochimaru, he was your teacher," Suigetsu huffs, ruffling his bangs, "And on top of that, you struck the killing blow. That means you get his sword."

Sakura’s mouth screws up in a frown; "Says who?"

Suigetsu flails his other hand in a vague, formless gesture; "Tradition, okay? Call me superstitious, call me old-fashioned, but there’s some traditions you just don’t fuck with. They… They matter. The sword’s yours. You inherited it."

Sakura’s face, for just a moment, goes blank. Fuck. 'Inherit' was the wrong word. She doesn’t want to inherit anything else from Orochimaru, of course she doesn’t. But… He was her teacher. He made her what she is. She can’t be as smart as she is and not see that.

Sakura shakes her head, her Barely A Smile returning; "Okay… If it’s mine, I get to decide what to do with it, right? Then I’m giving it to you. It’s a gift."

Suigetsu scowls at her; "Don’t patronize me, Sakura–"

"Just keep it, Suigetsu," she cuts in, running a hand through her hair, "Orochimaru didn’t teach me swordplay, and I didn’t want to learn it. I wouldn’t know what to do with Kusanagi. It’s better off seeing use in your hands than rusting in mine. Keep it. Please."

Suigetsu purses his lips and pushes a sigh out through his nose. He studies Sakura’s face. She won’t look at him. Her eyes are focused on the fire, orange flickering in the green.

Suigetsu brings the sword back to his lap; "Fine. But don’t go changing your mind when you get sentimental and want something to remember Orochimaru by, 'cause you’re not getting it back."

Sakura’s hand drifts up to her shoulder; "Don’t worry. I won’t."

They sit in awkward silence for a few moments. Suigetsu resists the urge to chew on his lower lip. Fuckin’– This was supposed to be a nice thing he was doing for once in his damn life. Now it’s just weird.

Sakura breaks the silence; "I’ll take first watch, you can go ahead and sleep."

Suigetsu shakes his head; "Nope. Not happening. You’re running on fumes, Sakura. Go to bed."

Sakura, firelight emphasizing the deep bags beneath her eyes, shoots him a glare; "I’m fine."

"You’re super fuckin’ not," Suigetsu replies, "And we’re not gonna argue about that because you know you’re not. I’ll let you take the next one if you really want, but not this one. Go to bed."

Sakura glowers at the fire. Suigetsu knows that look. That’s the look of a shinobi that doesn’t want to sleep because she’s afraid of her own dreams. But everyone has to face their fears eventually. Either she does it now, or she does it when she passes out from exhaustion.

Sakura rolls up the map and starts the trek over to her bedroll; "Wake me when it’s time for second watch."

Suigetsu gives her a mock salute; "Ma’am yes ma’am."

Suigetsu watches Sakura curl up between Zhàdàn and Jūgo, not taking his eyes off her until her breathing slows to match theirs. Once he’s sure she’s asleep, Suigetsu holds up Kusanagi and inspects her blade. She’s a beautiful sword. Probably forged somewhere in the South, by the shape of her. Definitely old, but Orochimaru kept her in impeccable shape. Suigetsu can’t help a snort. Old snake actually did give a shit about something other than himself after all.

He catches his reflection on the blade and stares into his own eyes. A sword is a sword, and a well made, well maintained sword is nothing to pass up. But in this moment, he understands why Sakura did. Orochimaru used this to cut down innocents. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. A sword is an extension of the wielder, and this thing is an extension of the hands that captured and tortured him for years. Suigetsu isn’t sure what’s better revenge, using the sword to build his new legacy as a free man, or throwing it off a cliff into the ocean.

Suigetsu shakes his head, muttering in his best impression of Mangetsu, "Don’t get sentimental about metal."

He shouldn’t have taken first watch. It’s always night when the grief comes creeping back in, like a pathetic alley cat begging for scraps. His best impression of Mangetsu is getting worse by the day as he slowly forgets what his voice sounded like. He’s starting to forget what he looked like, too, replacing his face in his memories with a warped mirror of his own. Suigetsu glares at his reflection in the sword’s blade, starts to turn it away so he won’t have to look at himself, at his brother’s eyes.

He stops dead. At this angle, he can just barely see something glinting in the trees above them. Suigetsu clenches his jaw and shifts the sword by centimeters, enough to make it look like he’s examining a scratch further up on the blade as he tries to get a better view of whatever is above them.

At this new angle, he can see what is clearly a pair of dark glass lenses reflecting the light refracting off Kusanagi’s blade. Suigetsu’s heart stops. For a moment, he’s sure those are Kabuto’s glasses. But he pushes the shell shock to one side and forces himself to think it through. They’re too small. If they were glasses, there would be metal rims also catching the light. And the glass itself looks like it’s tinted.

No, that’s not Kabuto. It’s worse. It’s the lenses of an ANBU mask.

Act natural, Suigetsu. Don’t give the game away until you know what they’re after.

Suigetsu’s senses are now on high alert, high enough that he catches the barest rustle of leaves from the corner of his ear. The lenses drop out of sight. Suigetsu clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth and twists the sword again to follow them down. He catches the dark silhouette hitting the ground yards behind Jūgo, Sakura, and Zhàdàn’s sleeping forms. Slowly, they prowl into the light. They don’t look like any ANBU Suigetsu’s ever seen. They have the mask, a Tiger design, but the rest is shrouded in a heavy black cloak. No identifiable uniform. Of course they got the blackest of the black ops.

Suigetsu lets the ANBU operative stalk closer to the sleeping members of his team. He starts gathering chakra, slowly moving it down his arms and into his hands, waiting for the right moment.

The ANBU operative stops right above Sakura. They kneel down. Suigetsu catches the glint of a senbon in their hand.

He’s done waiting. He thrusts the chakra in his hands into Kusanagi’s blade. It lights up bright blue, the blade soaring out of his grip and straight for the ANBU operative. The ANBU operative jolts backward and proves their skill by parrying a sword with a senbon, breaking the needle but getting out of danger.

Suigetsu whirls around, Kusanagi shooting back to his hand, and grins at their attacker; "Good plan! Do it quick, quiet, and painless and I wouldn’t notice ’til she starts to smell, right? Well tonight, you were dead wrong."

Suigetsu brandishes the sword and snarls, "Come on, Tiger. Show me what you’ve got."

Chapter Text

IX. Sakura wakes to the sound of splintering steel.

Shards of senbon fall around her face like shining rain. Her eyes dart back and forth, rapidly trying to make sense of her surroundings. Crouched above her is a figure in a familiar cloak and tiger mask. Kusanagi, glowing blue as the sky, is flying away from them and back into Suigetsu’s hand. Suigetsu’s eyes are locked on Sai as Sakura’s catch Jūgo thrashing violently awake and Zhàdàn jolting up to his one elbow.

Suigetsu grins and jeers, "Good plan! Do it quick, quiet, and painless and I wouldn’t notice ’til she starts to smell, right? Well tonight, you were dead wrong."

He brandishes the blade at Sai and snarls, "Come on, Tiger. Show me what you’ve got."

Sakura’s heart is pounding louder than thunder. Oh no. Oh no. Suigetsu made a mistake, he made a deadly mistake, she has to stop this fight before it starts. Sakura scrambles halfway to her feet, but Zhàdàn and Jūgo both grab her and shove her flat to the ground. She doesn’t even have time to yelp at the impact before a blizzard of paper and ink birds comes bursting forth from Sai’s cloak. They home in on Suigetsu, who relaxes his stance and turns from solid flesh to upright water, the firelight refracting in dizzying whirls through his body. The birds hit Suigetsu in a wet slap, losing their form and turning back into soggy scraps of paper.

Suigetsu picks the wet pieces of paper out of himself and spits out the ink before fixing Sai with a razor sharp sneer; "Oh this is gonna go quick."

Sai darts to her left and Suigetsu sprints after him. Sakura wriggles out of Jūgo and Zhàdàn’s hold, almost getting to her feet again before Zhàdàn grabs the back of her collar. They both nearly tumble to the ground at the sudden halt of Sakura’s momentum.

"Don’t," Zhàdàn hisses, dragging Sakura back and holding her tight to his chest, "This clearing’s too small, if too many people get involved in this fight it’s gonna turn into a clusterfuck! Suigetsu’s got his number, we need to get out of here!"

Sakura shakes her head, words coming out of her mouth in a frantic surge; "No, no no no no, no, you’ve got it wrong, Suigetsu has it wrong, this is a mistake and I can fix it just let me fix it–!"

"ANBU don’t make mistakes," Jūgo growls, blotches of skin on his neck turning gray and rough, "He won’t leave us alone until he’s dead, more of us means he’s more dead, we need to kill him!"

"No we don’t," Zhàdàn snarls, "Suigetsu has this. Like I said, we need to get our shit and go–"

Sai’s cloak flutters open again, this time releasing a pair of baying hunting hounds made of sharp, quick ink lines. They shoot like arrows, straight and true, towards Suigetsu. Suigetsu’s grin twists. He grips Kusanagi’s hilt in both hands, the blade glowing ocean blue with his chakra. The hounds leap for him and Suigetsu swings wide. The chakra bursts out from the blade as a highly pressurized burst of water. The hounds are cut clean in half, as are the tree branches just past them. The hounds burst into ink and Suigetsu leaps through the black shower, throwing his momentum into a spinning slash. Sai jukes back, quick enough to avoid any harm, slow enough that Kusanagi’s tip scores a thin line along his mask.

Sakura grits her teeth. She doesn’t have time to argue with these people. She throws her hands together into a sequence of signs, reaching out for Suigetsu’s inner ear and wrapping it tight in her chakra. She hits the last sign in the sequence and feels the chakra clamp down. Suigetsu’s next swing suddenly goes wide and he stumbles, nearly falling on his face. He stabs Kusanagi into the dirt, catching himself but falling dizzily to one knee and leaning hard on the blade. Sai looks down at him for a moment before his cloak starts rustling again.

Zhàdàn’s eyes go wide and jolt down to her in a look of shock. Sakura whispers an apology before throwing a blind elbow back, hitting Zhàdàn in the stomach. He coughs out a curse, his grip on her breaking. Sakura darts out of his reach, far too quick for civilian reflexes to catch again.

Sakura runs out into the heart of the clearing, stopping right next to the fire pit with her hands raised in a warding gesture; "Sai, no! Don’t! Suigetsu’s with me!"

Suigetsu glares at her over his shoulder; "Really? You’re taking his side?! He was gonna stab you and leave you to die, Sakura–"

"No, Suigetsu, I know what this looks like but it’s not– This is my handler," Sakura cuts in, "He’s the one I’ve been reporting to this whole time! Sai, please, these people helped me accomplish my mission, they’re not–"

Sai fixes the dark glass lenses of his mask on her and simply says, "Sakura Haruno, you are guilty of treason and sedition against the Lands of Fire and Sound. As such, the powers that be in the Leaf Village have seen fit to mark you with a 'kill on sight' order. If you surrender, we will make the execution of you and your accomplices swift and painless."

Everything freezes.

Sakura’s hands fall limp to her sides. Her shoulders slump. Her eyes have gone so wide they hurt. She opens her mouth and closes it like a fish on the deck of a boat.




There’s… No. No, this… No. It’s a mistake. It’s another mistake.

Maybe this isn’t Sai, he does have a kind of generic voice and it’s dark and she just woke up, she could have made that mistake under the circumstances, maybe it’s some other member of ANBU who doesn’t know– Or no, no, maybe it’s a member of Sound’s ANBU, maybe Kabuto is really screwing them over after all, or– or– or–

Wait, did he say we?

Sakura feels her genjutsu suddenly break the instant before Suigetsu’s head and shoulders jerk back, then slump down again. He slowly rises to his feet and turns towards her. Sakura’s blood runs cold. Suigetsu’s face is smooth and blank, not an emotion to be found. That’s not him. That can’t be him.

And just in time to confirm her suspicions, he pulls Kusanagi out of the ground and thrusts it towards her ribs.

Sakura drops and rolls out of the way of the strike. As she’s getting to her feet, two more masked figures emerge from the trees on either side of Sai. One is slight with dark, straight hair framing her rat mask. The other is tall and broad, with spiked brown hair poking out from behind his goat mask. Rat shifts into a fighting stance that could never be mistaken for anything but Gentle Fist. Goat cracks his knuckles, his forearms and hands swelling to the width of Sakura’s waist.

Sakura expects Rat to strike first and pays for it dearly. Goat flickers out of view, then back in right in front of her. One massive hand wraps all the way around her middle. In the instant it takes Sakura to process the fact that she’s been grabbed, Goat winds up and lobs her like a baseball clean across the clearing. Sakura hits a tree back-first, all the wind bursting from her lungs in one sharp gasp. Her vision spins, swims, then clears to reveal Rat mere feet away from her. Sakura doesn’t have time to dodge. Rat’s fingers jab like surgical scalpels directly into Sakura’s left shoulder. Her chakra surges into the chakra points on either side of the curse mark, cutting off off the flow of chakra through it.

Everything snaps into cruel focus. They know exactly where her curse mark is and how it works. So that has to be Sai. These have to be Leaf Village ANBU. And they’re here to kill her. The how and the why of it all can wait. Her and her team’s survival is Sakura’s first priority.

The instant she thinks of her team, Jūgo letting out a bloodthirsty roar draws her attention across the campsite. Jūgo is barreling towards Goat like an out of control train, foaming spittle flying from his fanged mouth as his arm and stump shift into dense blocks of stone-like flesh meant to bludgeon Goat into the ground. Goat moves quickly and deliberately, whirling on his heel to face Jūgo and sliding into a low, stable stance. Jūgo swings for Goat. Goat catches him, his mallet-arms fitting easily in his palms. Jūgo’s momentum and strength doesn’t push Goat back, but instead cracks the ground beneath Goat’s feet.

Sakura’s attention quickly jumps to Zhàdàn as he swears through grit teeth at the sight of Unstoppable Force Jūgo colliding with Immovable Object Goat. He doubles back towards their bedrolls, slinging Jūgo and Sakura’s packs over his good shoulder and picking up his own with his teeth. While he rifles through it one-handed, Kusanagi in the possessed Suigetsu’s hand glows a sputtering blue-green. It shoots toward Zhàdàn, just slow and wobbly enough for him to drop to one knee in time for it to only graze the top of his head. The sword spins through the air back to the possessed Suigetsu’s hand just as Sai’s cloak bursts open, three hawks flying forth. One veers sharply up to circle above the fray. The remaining two dive down to take swipes with their razor claws at Zhàdàn’s scalp and shoulders to keep him from standing back up.

Sakura pulls her focus back to herself. If there’s any jutsu she could recognize with her eyes closed, it’s Mind Transfer. The Yamanaka has to be within ten meters of Suigetsu, and considering this clearing is ten meters across that means the most likely place is somewhere on the clearing’s edge, just on the other side of the tree line. She needs to buy herself time to look for them, and a standard genjutsu isn’t going to cut it here.

Sakura flies through hands signs, pulling Water chakra up from the center of her pelvis and weaving in threads of Yin chakra from between her eyebrows, collecting it all in her mouth. She hits the final sign, pulls her clasped hands up to her mouth, and whirls in a circle as she releases from between her lips a forceful jet of water. It pushes Rat and 'Suigetsu' back, filling the space between them with a thick mist. The firelight hits the mist and refracts into a kaleidoscopic rainbow, dancing in dazzling waves around the clearing.

Sakura had planned on sprinting out of the mist while 'Suigetsu' and Rat were still regaining their balance. But the moment Sakura tries to move she stumbles, stars dancing across her vision. Damn it. She forgot how much chakra that takes when she doesn’t have the curse mark feeding into her own natural supply, let alone the strain of molding two different natures of chakra together on her chakra network. She doesn’t have time for this. Sakura digs her heels into the dirt, takes a deep breath, and the instant she’s able she darts out of the mist, eyes bouncing around the trees for any sign of the hidden Yamanaka.

She’s distracted from her search immediately by the sound of Jūgo letting out a panicked yelp. Sakura looks over just in time to see Goat lifting Jūgo off the ground by his arms, swinging him up and over his head to slam him back-first into the dirt behind him. The earth shakes and cracks again at the impact, but Goat still doesn’t budge, maintaining the perfect bridge of his back. Sakura almost pauses to marvel at that. Almost. She catches the sound of rapid footsteps from behind her and drops to her knees, sliding beneath two palm thrusts from Rat. That’s the byakugan for you– Sakura wasn’t even able to buy herself a full six seconds.

From the corner of her eye she catches Jūgo thrashing his head back and forth. The flesh around his lower jaw turns the mottled gray of his arms before, with a horrid crack, his jaw distends and dislocates. His teeth twist and morph into long, serrated needles. Jūgo opens wide and bites down on Goat’s forearm, teeth sinking down to the gum. Goat flinches, but doesn’t cry out. The flesh of Goat’s arm quickly starts to wither and Jūgo’s stump starts to grow, forming the literal bones of a new arm within Goat’s weakening grip.

Sakura’s eyes jump to Zhàdàn and find him doing something with a small bag of gunpowder, some paper, and a length of twine while Sai’s paper hawks continue to harry him. Their claws and beaks tear into his shoulders and the crown of his head. Blood is dripping down Zhàdàn’s forehead but he seems more concerned about keeping it out of the powder than his eyes. Sakura retrieves a kunai from her obi and almost throws it at one of the hawks before 'Suigetsu' comes piercing through the mist, sword plunging for her throat. Sakura parries one blow with the kunai, but as she rolls on her side to get some more distance between herself and her two opponents 'Suigetsu’s second strike slices a jagged line across her back.

Sakura hisses through grit teeth, ignoring the pain as best she can. Come on, come on, there has to be some clue, something they’ve forgotten that’ll lead her right to where the Yamanaka is hiding. She looks, up, down, left, right– then back up. Sai’s third hawk. Three hawks would be better than two to keep Zhàdàn down, but the third hawk is just circling the top of the clearing, why–? Of course, the Yamanaka’s up in one of the trees. Sakura follows the hawk’s path until she catches the glint of light bouncing off a tinted circular lens at the top of a tree eight feet ahead of her.

The sound of ripping flesh heralds Goat tearing his arm out of Jūgo’s mouth, taking a few teeth with it. He lets go of Jūgo’s other arm only to wrap his hand all the way around Jūgo’s throat. Goat’s arm doubles in size once more before he picks Jūgo up off the ground, whirls him around in circles over his head, and chokeslams him hard enough into the ground to form a crater a foot deep. Jūgo’s eyes roll back in his head. In seconds, every transformed part of his body reverts to normal, his regrowing arm stuck as bone and tendon.

For one damning moment, Sakura’s instincts take over. Her eyes go wide. She cries out something wordless, primal, and terrified. She spins on her heel, throwing herself into a mad sprint to Jūgo’s side. Only to screech to a halt when she catches Rat strafing around behind her and striking for her back. Sakura yanks her head to one side to avoid the blow she sees coming, but the one she doesn’t hits her with the force and speed of a bullet.

Chakra floods into the cluster of chakra points at the base of her spine, clogging it up and blocking it off. Sakura is overcome with a sudden head rush, all of her limbs suddenly floaty and light like she's just finished a particularly strenuous workout. Her body feels like it’s a helium balloon, like any breeze strong enough could pick her up off the ground and send her floating off to space. Fuck. That cluster of chakra points is where you draw and mold Earth Chakra from. In one fell swoop Rat just cut off Sakura’s access to half her ninjutsu arsenal.

Just as Sakura’s starting to panic, Zhàdàn shouts to her from across the clearing, "I’m almost done! Keep your shit together until then!"

Zhàdàn’s face is hidden by a mask of his own blood as the hawks tear at his hair, clothes, skin. But he’s not flinching. His jaw is locked in a tight grimace as he pours the last of the powder into the paper, folds the paper into a bundle, and ties it tightly shut with the twine. The instant he ties off the knot, a roar sounds from Sai’s cloak. A massive black and white shape streaks across the clearing and slams into Zhàdàn’s back, knocking him to the ground but failing to break his grip on the packet of powder. Only once they crash down can Sakura see the massive lion pinning Zhàdàn, claws raking at his chest and jaw snapping at his hand.

'Suigetsu' comes sliding around to a stop in front of Sakura. 'He' raises Kusanagi high above 'his' head and Sakura makes ready to block, only for the sword to light up bright cyan at the top of the swing and fire backwards out of 'his' hands. Kusanagi plunges down through the bones of Jūgo’s regrowing arm, shocking him painfully awake, but pinning him to the ground. Sakura grits her teeth in a snarl. She pivots so she’s facing Suigetsu and Rat, brandishing her kunai in one hand and using the other to form hand signs. She winds up a throw, keeping her eyes locked on 'Suigetsu' as she molds what chakra she can access around her navel. She stokes the flames of the Fire chakra until smoke is pouring from her nose and mouth, then shoves it all down her arm into the kunai.

Sakura swings her arm wide in the forward throwing arc the academy taught her, but instead of letting go halfway through the swing Sakura follows the momentum of her arm to whirl one hundred and eighty degrees and throw the kunai at the tree Yamanaka is hiding in.

Sakura hits the last sign in the sequence just as the kunai pierces the leaves. The stored-up chakra bursts forth from it into a flurry of smaller fireballs, lighting up the top of the tree like the head of a match. Suigetsu suddenly falls to his hands and knees right as an ANBU agent with a monkey mask and red hair tied in a ponytail comes leaping down from the canopy, landing in a roll and rising with their tantō drawn. Suigetsu shakes his head like a dog shaking off water, then shoots Sakura a poisonous glare. His mouth opens to snap at her–

Goat is across the clearing in the blink of an eye. His one massive hand wraps around the trunk of the burning tree and uproots it as easily as a child picks a flower. Goat swings the burning tree down like a club. Sakura tries to dodge but Suigetsu beats her to it, tackling her out of the way seconds before it slams into the ground. Sakura and Suigetsu land hard and heavy. Sakura's stomach is churning with nausea, shame burning hot on the back of her neck. She should be better at this. She got so good at rationing her chakra out when the mark was sealed. But the mark hasn't been sealed for a long time.

Sakura shakes her head to snap herself back to the present. She and Suigetsu dodged in the opposite direction as Rat from the oncoming tree, but Rat quickly makes up that distance by vaulting over the fallen trunk and gunning right for them. Suigetsu shoves Sakura down and rolls to cover her. Rat’s first strike hits the air where Sakura’s head had been and her second jabs right into Suigetsu’s sword arm. Suigetsu shoves a foul word through his teeth, his arm immediately losing it’s color and only barely holding onto it’s form.

Sakura’s breathing speeds up in time with her heartbeat. Jūgo is pinned. Suigetsu’s sword arm is out of commission for God knows how long. She doesn’t know what or how much she has left in her with the curse mark and Earth chakra locked out of her arsenal. She could come up with a strategy if she had time to think and space to breathe but these ANBU are showing exactly how they earned their spot by making sure she has neither. They’re going to die here. They’re going to die like dogs in the middle of nowhere and she doesn’t even know why–


Sakura catches sight of Zhàdàn wrenching his arm out of the paper lion’s jaw just long enough to lob the packet of gunpowder directly into the fire pit. Sakura only has a moment to squeeze her eyes shut before the pit explodes in a burst of soot and flame. The force of it sends Sakura and Suigetsu rolling away, landing in a heap five feet back. The instant they stop Sakura tries to open her eyes, but all the smoke and ash filling the clearing forces her to slam them shut again. She reaches out with her chakra sense instead. The ANBU operatives flicker into "view" first. All of them were blown back and thrown to the ground, that much she can tell for sure.

Jūgo’s bright, blazing signature is exactly where he was before the explosion. They likely have Kusanagi to thank for that. Zhàdàn’s signature is usually weak, most civilians’ are, but now it’s flickering in and out like a candle’s flame. He’s not far from where he was when he threw the bomb. The paper lion must have taken most of the force and fire.

A spark ignites in Sakura's mind. They don’t win this fight. But if she moves quickly, before Rat can get up and pinpoint them with her byakugan, they have a chance to escape. Sakura maneuvers herself so she can throw her hands together into a quick sequence of signs, tossing threads of Yin chakra out and hooking them to the ANBU operatives like fishing lines.

Sakura hits the final sign and shouts, "Everyone, dogpile on me! Quickly!"

Suigetsu, Jūgo, and Zhàdàn will hear exactly where her voice came from. But the ANBU agents will all have heard her voice coming from a different direction. It’s not much, but it can at least buy her time. Sakura hears Jūgo stifle a pained grunt just as she senses his chakra signature starting to move. It strafes around the fire pit, pausing next to Zhàdàn’s for a moment, and when it starts to move again Zhàdàn’s signature moves with it. A few moments later, she hears two heavy thumps at her side. She opens her eyes into a tight squint, just enough to make out the blurry forms of Jūgo kneeling at her side and Zhàdàn– still stubbornly draped in all the packs he could carry– tucked under Jūgo’s good arm.

Sakura struggles to her knees, wriggling out of her gloves as she hisses, "Make sure all of you are touching me. I’m not leaving anyone behind."

Sakura dips her left thumb into the wound on her back and swipes the blood down her right forearm. The line of blood cuts through a perfect mirror of the summoning contract tattooed on her left arm. Suigetsu loops his solid arm around her neck, almost tight enough to choke her. He holds his other arm up in the air, and after a moment Kusanagi comes flying through the smoke to land back in his waiting hand. Jūgo shoves Zhàdàn’s hand up under Sakura’s obi, then covers the whole crown of her head with his palm. Sakura takes a deep breath. She memorized this hand sign sequence forwards. Now to do it backwards.

Ram, Monkey, Bird, Dog–

Sandals scuff at lighting speed across the clearing. Rat punches through the smoke and ash, bearing down on them and aiming to hit Sakura right in the temple–


Sakura slaps her right palm against the ground and howls at the top of her lungs, "REVERSE SUMMONING JUTSU!"

Seal script races out from Sakura’s palm along the ground, spreading out until it takes hold of all three men holding onto her. White smoke bursts forth from the seal. In an instant there’s a vacuum sensation pulling at Sakura hard enough she expects it to rip her organs out through her mouth. She’s sure she’s screaming, in pain and fear and cowardly triumph, but she can’t hear it over the rushing in her ears. Her vision has gone dark. There’s nothing under her knees, her palm, nothing around her but the whipping wind. Suigetsu, Zhàdàn, and Jūgo have been reduced down to the sensation of their arms and hands against her body.

And as quickly as it came on, it all stops.

Sakura is kneeling not on dirt, but hard stone. Air that had stung with smoke and flame is now cool and clear. The labored breathing of her teammates echoes off massive cavern walls, the hissing of scaled bellies sliding over the stone floor slithering just beneath it. Sakura tries to get a good look around, but her vision is swimming. She’s able to make out the rough shapes of her team, the facade of Ryūchi Temple, and three familiar white shapes slithering down the temple stairs before they shift into humanoid forms.

One shape, white and red and tall, snaps, "Sakura Haruno. To invite yourself and guests this deep into the cave at this time of night is quite bold."

Sakura forces herself to smile and opens her mouth, expecting to say, "I assure you, Honored Sister Tagitsuhime, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this."

What comes out instead is a spurt of blood and bile. Sakura collapses onto her side, blacking out the instant her head hits the floor.

Showers drench the Land of Rain’s barren badlands. The gray stone plain is quiet and still, the people having retreated below ground and the birds huddling in their flocks beneath rocky overhangs as they wait out the weather. All of the birds save one, soaring high through the sky and dragging something vaguely round and definitely thrashing behind it. A closer look reveals the bird’s massive size, the ball of writhing appendages caught tight in a net of chakra strings dragging along after it, and the two figures in black sitting astride it's back.

And a closer listen reaveals one of the riders singing in a weary voice, "Oh what will we do with a drunken sailor, what will we do with a drunken sailor, what will we do with a drunken sailor–"

"Stop. Singing," Sasori grinds out through his teeth, jabbing one wooden elbow into Deidara’s ribs.

Deidara clenches his jaw tight, then snaps over his shoulder, "What would you prefer I do instead, Sasori, hm? You want me to talk about how the rain is disintegrating the bird under our asses? Want me to talk about how I haven’t slept in forty eight hours and I can feel this soldier pill I’m on running out of juice? How about the fact that literal, bonafide, certified YEARS of prep work was ruined in less than a day by some kids, an old woman, and Kakashi Fucking Hatake?! Want me to talk about how that sorry fuckin’ excuse for a tailed beast WON’T STOP SCREAMING?! Because that’s all there is to talk about, Sasori my man! There ain’t anything else out here, hm!"

"I want you to shut up," Sasori snarls, "We’re almost there. I’d prefer we make it there together. Pain’s already furious with us, if only one of us arrived because we fought to the death he’d likely send the winner to go join the loser in Hell."

Deidara leans backwards until he and Sasori are spine to spine, his wet hair draping over Sasori's shoulders; "If you say so. This whole country looks the same to me, man, everything’s just different shades of gray. I can’t figure out why Pain settled here, this country’s aesthetic is trash, hm."

"For once we agree," Sasori grumbles, "You can’t build anything that lasts in a climate like this. Either it rusts in an hour or erodes in a century."

"Yeah, like, if you’re gonna be all about impermanence you could at least be flashier about it," Deidara groans, "This is just boring, hm."

Sasori’s mouth quirks upward in a mask of a smirk; "No wonder our leader likes it, then."

Deidara barks out a laugh. Just as Sasori predicted, they only need to fly for a few minutes more before he picks out one of the Land of Rivers’ odd, three-tiered, highly ornamented torii gates sitting right up against a plateau wall. He’s heard they’re called torana in the local tongue, though whether that makes them truly different or not is beyond him. Art is his forté, not architecture. Sasori points it out to Deidara and he brings the bird down to land in front of it. With half a sign and an effort of chakra, the mangled, bedraggled clay bird transforms back into a figurine. The mouth on Deidara’s palm slurps it up, chewing it like gum.

Deidara looks between Sasori and the struggling third of the One Tail bound up in his chakra strings; "I should probably open the door, hm?"

"Please," Sasori huffs, squeezing his strings tighter in response to a particularly violent flail from the One Tail.

As Deidara runs through the seal sequence one-handed, Sasori finds his eyes wandering to his partner’s empty sleeve. A puppet prosthetic would look quite fetching on Deidara. He could maybe even get Deidara to agree to it if he could rig it to fire explosives or detonate when detached. Or he could challenge himself, try taking Deidara’s measurements in secret and attach it while he’s sleeping. Far more dangerous, certainly, but far more creatively stimulating as well. Decisions, decisions. He’ll have plenty of time to think it over while they’re working.

Deidara finishes the seal sequence and presses his palm to the rock wall. The stone ripples like water, melting into a slurry of mud and gravel. The rain quickly washes it away to reveal a steel-plated tunnel. Deidara offers his arm and Sasori transfers half his strings to Deidara. They each wrap the chakra strings once around their hands, hoist them over their shoulders, and drag the piece of the One Tail behind them into the tunnel. Once they and their charge have crossed the threshold the slurry flows up and back, re-solidifying into stone and sealing them in. The darkness only lasts for a moment. Fluorescent lights buzz to life above them, throwing how drawn the both of them truly are into harsh relief.

They trudge through the winding corridor for what feels like an hour but is likely less than half of one. The sound of their footsteps and the One Tail’s claws digging into the steel floor harmonize into something uniquely unpleasant. Sasori has to imagine it’s far more grating for Deidara than it is for him. One of the things Sasori gave up when transferring himself from a human body to a puppet were the extremes of the senses– he hasn’t heard high pitched sound, seen blindingly bright light, or felt sharp pain in well over two decades now. From how Deidara’s mouth is twisting, Sasori’s sure he’s not missing much.

The corridor mercifully opens up into a massive man-made chamber. The steel-plated walls tower so high above them Sasori can't actually make out the ceiling. Rain water pours down through slots in the walls into a drainage channel surrounding the central platform, then down the slanted floor of the channel into the darkness below the far wall. The Gedo Statue looms in the center of the chamber, seven silhouettes perched upon it’s fingers. Sasori’s jaw clicks. On top of everything else, he and Deidara are late. Simply perfect.

Deidara and Sasori cut the chakra strings and step aside, revealing the piece of the One Tail as Deidara remarks, "Here’s what we’ve got, for all the good it’ll do, hm. Are gonna just launch right into this?"

"Not quite," Pain replies, "Not until we have the other missing piece."

Sasori arches a brow; "With all due respect, we have no idea where that piece is. Hatake could have done anything from transport it to destroy it. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to just seal what we have, then look for the last piece?"

Pain isn’t the one who answers, but instead a bassy voice Sasori doesn’t recognize replies, "Ordinarily, yes. But you’re mistaken on one very important point."

There’s a rushing sound, like air being sucked through a tube. A dark spot appears beneath the Gedo Statue’s hands. Two shapes start to spiral out from it, one a humanoid silhouette, the other a wriggling mass similar in size and shape to the one Sasori and Deidara dragged in. The vacuum pull intensifies, growing strong enough to draw the hems of Deidara and Sasori’s cloaks towards it, before suddenly ceasing. The silhouettes solidify into a human and the final third of the One Tail.

Sasori looks the human up and down. The only identifying feature on their person is a shock of dark hair. All else is hidden by an Akatsuki cloak and an orange mask with a swirling design centered on a single hole for their right eye.

The masked man gestures to his piece of the One Tail; "We know exactly where the missing piece is."

Deidara clicks his tongue twice against his teeth, his standard signal that he wants Sasori’s attention. Sasori looks to him, and Deidara makes a small gesture with his head towards the red-eyed shadow of Itachi Uchiha. Sasori looks up just in time to catch Itachi’s eyes widening by just a fraction as they take in this new member of their ranks. Well now. Anything that can shock Itachi into a visible reaction is far more than interesting.

Sasori and Deidara’s piece of the One Tail lets out a screech that teeters between elation and horror. A mass of claws grows from it’s "front", grasping at the ground to drag itself towards the masked man’s piece. The masked man’s piece screams in response and scrabbles in lopsided zig-zags along the steel floor towards the other piece of itself like a drunken crab. Once they’re within a yard of each other the two pieces send lashing appendages out to crash together, sand melding into sand as the creature reunites with itself.

Deidara cocks his head to one side as he looks the masked man over; "Neat trick. That’s a space-time manipulation jutsu, hm? Seems like too useful a skill for you to just be a backup member, so which one of us are you here to replace?"

Sasori catches Pain drawing in breath to speak, but the masked man cuts him off with a dry chuckle; "I’m neither backup nor a replacement. I suppose the right term would be… a shareholder. A majority shareholder, to be precise."

Sasori’s mouth quirks up in a grin that doesn’t reach his eyes; "I see. Is your investment underperforming?"

The masked man glances over his shoulder at Pain before he replies, "While the Akatsuki’s individual members certainly don’t lack for talent, to put it bluntly, your methods are inefficient and ineffective. So your leader has agreed to bring me on as a… consultant. The specifics can wait until after the One Tail is sealed. For now, all you need to know is that there will be changes."

Sasori glances over to Pain. Even as a silhouette, Sasori can see him bristling at this 'consultant' dancing right up to the edge of insulting him in front of his subordinates. And hints are more than enough for the Akatsuki. Rogue ninja like them are sharks in the water waiting for the first drop of blood. And from how the silhouettes atop the Gedo Statue’s fingers are exchanging glances and hushed whispers, there’s no doubt that all of them have caught the scent.

"Sasori, Deidara, to your places," Pain snaps, his resonant voice drawing them back into the moment, "We’ve lost enough time already."

Deidara and Sasori both bow from the waist; "Yes, sir."

As they draw back up, Deidara shoots Sasori a grin, waggling an eyebrow. Sasori gives him a slight nod in return.

Men are fragile, fleeting things. All of them in their time fracture a little, crack a little more, then break all at once. Sasori is not loyal to men. But organizations are things that last. Organizations can be built from steel structures, reinforced with stone, sealed with cement, and last long after every man that founded it has died. Sasori is loyal to the Akatsuki, no matter who sits atop it’s throne.

This 'consultant' will be one to watch.

Chapter Text

X. Shino observes the Hokage’s office through compound eyes. Though using his colony in this way is still new to him, Shino has had enough time to determine that it’s rather like watching security footage from a camera with a very wide field of view, but not the highest resolution. He can see nearly the entire scope of the office, but can only tell Tsunade apart from her desk by variations in what few colors his bug can see. Far more useful are the bug’s other senses. He can hear through its tympanal organ every scratch of Tsunade’s pen on paper, and smell through its antennae the specific cocktail of scents that makes Tsunade unique. Everything comes together to form a tableau that’s clear, if not always easy to comprehend.

This member of his colony hasn’t moved from the center of the ceiling in hours, staring dutifully down at the top of Tsunade’s head and waiting for something of interest to happen. He can feel it growing hungry, nervous, as close to frightened as an insect can manage. If Shikamaru and Asuma’s deductions are to be believed, it won’t have to wait for much longer.

The door to the office opens, a dark shape that scent and sound confirm to be Shizune chirping, "Lady Hokage, I have news!"

Tsunade immediately sets her pen down and gives Shizune her full attention; "Alright, let’s hear it. Good news first."

Shizune nods, looking between a sheaf of paper in her hands and Tsunade as she reports, "Team Kakashi were able to locate where the Akatsuki had taken the Kazekage yesterday morning. They’ve successfully rescued him, and are bringing him back to the Sand Village alive and with the entire Sand Airborne Division as an escort. They should arrive back in the Sand Village this afternoon!"

Tsunade lets out a long sigh; "That’s a relief…"

Shino can’t see Shizune’s face well enough to confirm, but from the sound of her voice she’s likely wincing; "But…"

"But this news came too quick," Tsunade mutters, drumming her nails on her desk, "Quick means sloppy. And sloppy means either casualties, serious injuries, or something fell through the cracks."

"In this case, we’re unfortunately looking at all three," Shizune murmurs, "There was only one casualty. Lady Chiyo had been sent along with Team Kakashi to provide her expertise on Sasori of the Red Sand, one of the Akatsuki members who kidnapped Gaara. She ended up dying during the rescue."

"Her own grandson," Tsunade mutters, "Did she choke in battle against him?"

"No," Shizune replies, "The report simply puts down her death as 'natural causes'. The woman was in her seventies, the strain of suddenly being thrown back into ninja work and being forced to keep up with Sasuke and Naruto must have been too much for her."

Tsunade rubs at her temples; "Alright. Tell me how bad these dumbass kids hurt themselves."

"Naruto and Sasuke at the time of this report seem to have recovered quickly from whatever injuries they suffered," Shizune continues, "Kakashi was… significantly less lucky. He sustained many severe injuries in rapid succession, some of the worst to his back and spine. Sasuke’s notes in the report say that Kakashi should make a full recovery, but only once he’s received intensive treatment in a proper hospital."

Tsunade runs her hands through her hair; "Okay. I’m ready for it. Tell me how they fucked up."

"They… This is… odd, and unprecedented," Shizune remarks, scratching the top of her head, "But they seem to have… cut the One Tail into three pieces?"

Tsunade slaps her hands on the desk and whips her head up to look at Shizune again; "What? How did they–? Wait, the One Tail isn’t in Gaara anymore?! How is he still alive?!"

"Apparently that is going to be in the full debriefing," Shizune answers, "But the long and short of it seems to be that the Akatsuki managed to successfully extract one third of the One Tail before Team Kakashi retrieved Gaara, then for Gaara’s own safety they had to release what remained inside of him, and once they’d released it Kakashi and two members of the Akatsuki… This section was written by Naruto, so I’m just going to quote it word for word: 'Kakashi and the Akatsuki dudes played tug-of-war with the One Tail so hard that they ripped it in half and now one part is in Kakashi’s eyeball hole and the Akatsuki dudes took the other part.'"

There’s a long silence.


"Shizune," Tsunade murmurs, "What would be the better course of action: Immediately dissolving Team Kakashi the instant they walk through the front gates, or just kicking them through a mountain?"

"Now ma’am," Shizune stammers, immediately putting her hands up like she’s trying to calm an animal, "Remember, they did accomplish their mission! They did it quickly, and with only one casualty! That’s very good, especially for a squad far smaller and with far lower-ranked shinobi than we would usually send on a mission like this!"

Tsunade chuffs out a mirthless laugh; "Yes, they did well on paper. But this kind of sloppy, frantic, panicked work isn’t like Sasuke… Or it’s not like how Sasuke’s been lately."

Shizune bows her head, clutching the report close to her chest; "You… You do have a point, ma’am. It could be that being back together is making Team Kakashi drift back into old bad habits. But you must also admit that there are other extenuating circumstances here. Gaara is both the Kazekage and someone personally important to Naruto and Sasuke. They were thrown into this mission on Naruto’s second day back with next to no time to prepare. I don’t think you’re wrong to be worried about them, ma’am, but I would wait until you have the full mission report on your desk to make any judgements."

Tsunade’s voice is wry but fond; "Remind me to have you in the room when I have to spin this to the council. Was that all you came in here to tell me about?"

"No, I have one last bit of troubling news," Shizune replies, shuffling through her papers, "We’ve received a series of odd, incomplete reports from Sound. The dates on them put them as having been sent two to three days ago. What the intel division has been able to gather from these reports is that there was some sort of riot in the capitol that made it all the way to the daimyō’s palace."

"And Orochimaru didn’t do anything to stop it? That corrupt piece of shit is the only reason he even has a village."

"That’s the other thing the Intel Division found… The Sound Village seems to have gone completely dark the night before the riot."

Tsunade is quiet and still. Shino can smell her fear through his bug’s antennae.

After a moment, she whispers, "Do we have any idea where Orochimaru is?"

"No, ma’am. Not yet."

Tsunade runs another hand through her hair, scraping her nails along her scalp; "Fuck."

Shino has seen all he needs to. With a quick instruction to the bug to fly through the door Shizune left open, Shino’s senses snap back to his body. He blinks rapidly behind his sunglasses to reorient himself. He’s sitting beneath a tree in the Aburame compound, Shikamaru sitting in front of him and Asuma leaning on another tree across the narrow path. Shikamaru is worrying the inside of his lower lip as he stares intently at Shino, waiting for his report. Asuma’s eyes can’t seem to settle on anything for long.

"Well?" Shikamaru asks.

Shino sighs, then rasps in his smoke-damaged voice, "The news is… uneven."

He repeats everything he heard in as much detail as he can, keeping a close eye on how Shikamaru and Asuma both receive the news. Shikamaru’s brow furrows more and more, but beyond that he doesn’t show much of what’s going on in his head outside of it. If Shino had to guess, he’s not telling Shikamaru anything he didn’t already suspect. Meanwhile, Asuma remains distracted, his gaze far away. It could be because Shino forbade him from smoking on his clan’s land to avoid upsetting the insects. But Asuma is a jōnin. More than that, he’s a professional. That shouldn’t be all it takes to throw him off his rhythm.

Once he’s finished, Shikamaru snorts with a wan smirk, "That’s about what I expected for Team Kakashi’s first mission. At least that’s resolved, even if it wasn’t clean."

"But that’s not what you’re interested in," Shino says, "Shizune was vastly understating it when she called the news from Sound 'troubling'."

"Yeah," Shikamaru mutters, scratching at his chin before looking over his shoulder to Asuma, "Orochimaru’s a slippery bastard at the best of times, losing sight of him happens all the time. Losing him while there’s a riot in Jungsimji… What do we think? Is he involved, or did he get taken out?"

Asuma flinches ever so slightly, then replies, "Remember, Orochimaru’s a Legendary Sannin. Someone just taking him out is a tall order."

"Yeah, but think about it," Shikamaru counters, "All the plans we’ve seen Orochimaru carry out in the open in the last three years have failed. Even if he’s strong, it seems like he’s struggling to balance all the plates he has spinning. That leaves room for someone to trip him while he’s trying to keep his balance. I wouldn’t call it the most likely option, but we can’t rule it out. Especially when Orochimaru has a weasel like Kabuto and possible double agent Sakura hanging around him."

Asuma exhales hard through his nose; "Yeah, I suppose you’re right."

Shino narrows his eyes. Asuma can usually keep up with Shikamaru intellectually. But he seems like he’s at least a step behind today. Shino can feel his colony starting to buzz around agitatedly in his chest.

"We obviously need more information," Shino cuts in, "I do have a sentry in the Intel Division. I can take a look through it, see if that can’t tell us any more."

Shikamaru frowns and glances over his shoulder to Asuma, who gives him a tight shrug in response. After a moment of thought, Shikamaru looks back to Shino and nods. Shino bows his head and forms the hand seal usually used for Mind Transfer Jutsu in his lap. This technique was another one of Shikamaru’s brilliant ideas, though at first Shino and Ino had both balked at giving away clan secrets in order to develop it. Eventually they’d been won over by the compelling argument of "What your clan elders don’t know won’t hurt them".

Shino focuses on the scent and chakra signature of that particular sentry as he builds up chakra, and once both are clear in his mind he releases it. There’s a rushing feeling, like he’s being shot out of a cannon, before suddenly he’s gazing through another set of compound eyes at a nondescript hallway from it’s wall. The technique isn’t exactly like Mind Transfer Jutsu. Learning how to command the mind and body of an insect is a bridge farther than any ninja in recent memory has attempted. The difference between insects and humans is just too vast. Shino is less puppetmaster, more copilot, seeing what his sentry sees and giving it very simple commands.

The sentry bug lifts off the wall and flies down the hallway, rounding a corner to find four ninja making small talk. The scents are familiar and the specifics of the mundane conversation about their work confirm that Shino indeed has hitched a ride with the right bug. He must be deep in the Intel Division building, especially if these four ninja are just casually griping about having to piece together the reports from Sound. Shino urges the sentry to stop, settling on the wall just beside the four ninja.

The tallest of the four, a Yamanaka if scent is to be believed, grouses, "The stupidest thing about this whole situation is that this is some of the best intel we’ve ever gotten from Sound. Can you believe that?"

"Of course I can, I work here too," a short, dark-haired ninja replies, "All I’ll say is whatever’s happening couldn’t have happened to a nicer daimyō. This has been a long time coming for him."

"I just hope this doesn’t give Waterfall or Cloud any ideas," an Inuzuka kunoichi mumbles, "If they invade a weakened Sound, our daimyō won’t like it."

"He won’t like if Cloud does it," the fourth ninja, a young man with bright green hair, snaps, "No one’s gonna shed a tear if Waterfall takes Sound. Good riddance to Orochimaru and Daimyō Saito, I say."

There’s a rumble of agreement, then the Yamanaka and the green-haired ninja take their leave, citing a meeting with Inoichi they need to get to. The short ninja and the Inuzuka say their goodbyes and linger in the hallway asking about how each other’s families are doing until the other two’s footsteps disappear. Then, in an instant, the two ninja’s arms fall to their sides. They stand up ramrod straight. They stare directly at each other, unblinking.

When the Inuzuka speaks, her voice has lost the timid edge in favor of absolutely no emotion to speak of; "Stage 2 is proceeding as scheduled. Awaiting further instruction."

"You are to continue the release of information at this pace," the shorter ninja replies, voice similarly devoid of all emotion, "There are two reports that make mention of the asset’s involvement and whereabouts. Make sure they are altered."

"Of course."

"Once Silver has completed the hand-over you will receive further instructions. Keep your cover until–"

The shorter ninja’s head turns whip-crack fast. Their gaze is locked on Shino’s sentry. Their hand flies up, and Shino has one heartbeat to cut the connection with his sentry. He goes rushing back to his own body the instant before their palm slams down on the bug. When he arrives back to himself it’s with a gasp and a jolt.

Shikamaru’s hand is on his shoulder, eyes wide with concern; "What is it? What happened?"

Shino repeats it all in a rush. Shikamaru’s eyebrows steadily rise as he listens, naked shock on his face. His eyes leave Shino to dart this way and that, as if he’s visualizing all the pieces of this puzzle and racing to put them together. But Shikamaru isn’t who Shino’s interested in. He keeps his gaze squarely on Asuma. Asuma’s arms are crossed tightly over his chest, his jaw clenched even tighter. He’s staring out past the two of them with a haunted look in his eyes. Like he knows something. Like he recognized something.

The instant Shino finishes, Shikamaru immediately says, "They tipped their hand. We can’t let this go to waste. We need to tell Tsunade as soon as possible."

"Slow your roll, Shikamaru," Asuma cuts in, fixing Shikamaru with a stern glare, "Yeah, we caught them being shady, but they just killed our witness. And if they recognized it as a spy bug that means they’re on to us."

"But that’s also evidence," Shikamaru exclaims, "They recognized a kikaichu! That’s proof they’re born and bred Leaf Village traitors if they recognized a kikaichu at a glance!"

"I’d also remind you that Shino saw that via a technique only four people know about," Asuma shoots back, "That’s going to cast doubt on our story. A story that also centers around us blatantly spying on our own village. I’m not saying we don’t tell Tsunade, but we need to get our story straight, and we need to get her alone. Both of those things are gonna take time."

Shikamaru briefly scowls at Asuma before forcing his eyes towards the ground; "And we’ll need to get her alone in a way that won’t alert our shadow. Us talking to her one-on-one is the last thing they’re gonna want."

Asuma bobs his head in a curt nod; "I’ll see if my contacts in the tower can’t pass along a covert message. At the least they can give us an idea of what her schedule’s looking like if we need to just pull her away."

Shino’s colony is humming with nerves. What is Asuma thinking? They get their first lead on what their shadow is doing in years and he wants to wait? Shino is a strong advocate of caution and observation, but even he can admit when it’s time to stop watching and start acting. The more time they waste, the more information their shadow will release and alter, and the less control they’ll have over what comes next.

As Shikamaru and Asuma discuss what their next move will be, Shino lets one of the females of his colony crawl out from his sleeve and onto his palm. He angles his hand so neither of his colleagues can see her. He waits until Shikamaru and Asuma finally turn to say their goodbyes. Shino walks them to the compound’s gates, brushing past Asuma to open them. In the instant that they touch, the female flits from Shino’s palm to Asuma’s flak jacket, dutifully hiding herself in one of the pockets.

Shino exchanges clipped farewells with them both. He watches their backs recede, all the while hoping that his suspicions are wrong.

The last thing he hears before the explosion is an unassuming 'click'. Then, everything is fire, smoke, dirt, pain. Zhàdàn’s back is on the ground and his eyes on the sky. He hears his father shouting for him, feels his arms hook under his back and his knee. Singular. His eyes slowly roll down to see his father’s arm and his own left leg covered in blood. The right… Everything below the knee is mangled meat and bone.

All Zhàdàn can think is that there’s no way his father’s going to let him come with him anymore. Zhàdàn had been so good at finding the mines, the tags, the shells, the explosive detritus that sloughed off the war machines of the ninja. But if he stepped on this one, he can’t have been that good. There’s no way his father will let him come back out. That’s one less set of hands working. That’s less ryo in their pockets. That’s less food on the table. That’ll mean less mouths around the table, eventually.

Zhàdàn only realizes he’d been babbling all this out loud when he hears his father, voice thick, hiss, "Don’t worry about money right now, boy. Stay awake, Zhàdàn, stay with me."

Zhàdàn’s vision twists and spins. He sees their journey home in whirling colors, blue and green of the countryside giving way to the myriad browns of town then to the rust red of their home. His vision unfortunately clears just in time to see his mother and sisters running over to them, horror all over their faces. His sisters stay focused on him once they’re close enough to touch, but his mother’s eyes meet his father’s and her face twists in a righteous fury.

She opens her mouth and shouts, "Oh my, is he still healing?"

… What? No, that’s not what she said. That’s also not her voice. She had said something about telling his father not to take him out scavenging, that it wasn’t a job for a child. This voice slurs it’s ’s’ sounds and is high and raspy, his mother’s voice had been low for a woman’s, resonant and authoritative–

His oldest sister wraps her arms around his mother’s middle, pulls her back and sobs, "Well of course he is! He’s a member of the Laity, after all, their systems are far less receptive to the spiritual arts."

That. Is not at all what his sister said. And not at all how she sounded, or even how she sounds now. His oldest sister blinks and her eyes are yellow with slit pupils, white scales spreading across her skin.

His littlest sister is up in his face, her eyes turning into snake eyes, and when she sobs it’s with a forked tongue; "Oh! I think he’s waking up!"

Zhàdàn’s eyes rocket open. He nearly screams, because the first thing he sees are three white snakes looming above him. Each is at least as large as a human, with bright yellow eyes that remind him far too much of Orochimaru. The largest snake in the center has a central stripe of red scales running from the crown of her head down her back, the second-largest two blue stripes, and the smallest three green stripes.

Before the scream can get all the way out of his mouth, the red-striped snake turns to the others and sighs, "Of course he’s panicking. Let’s put our faces back on, sisters."

The air ripples like a heat wave, and in an instant the snakes are gone, replaced with three young women. Each are dressed like priestesses, their outfits reflecting the colors of their scales, their accessories and hairstyles reflecting the number of stripes. Zhàdàn freezes. All that makes it out of his open mouth is a breathless squeak.

It’s only then that the bone-deep, full body ache hits him. The pain pulses out from his scalp and his chest, which tracks with the spots he remembers the paper animals tearing into. He lets his hand roam over to his chest, his fingers prodding carefully around where the lion’s claws dug through his flesh. He feels the ragged edges of fresh scabs where he’d expected open wounds. The area is slightly warm to the touch, and when Zhàdàn brings his fingers away they’re slightly smeared with blood and a clear fluid.

He lets his eyes float around what little he can see past the three snake-girls. He spies thick red pillars rising up to the eaves of a roof, but when he follows the eaves they hit limestone, not wood. Past the eaves are smooth stone walls that soar into a ceiling covered in crystals. The crystals glow from within, the light shifting slowly from yellow to green to blue and back again as motes of light meander through the crystal formations. Zhàdàn has never seen anything like it in his life. For a moment, all he can do is stare.

Then the blue girl leans down, sticking fingers he did not expect to be solid in his open mouth and pulling back his lips; "It’s been so long since one of the Laity has made it this far in! They really do look just like the Ordained on the outside!"

The red girl slaps the blue girl on the wrist, fixing her with a maternal glare; "Remember your manners, Ichikishimahime. Until Her Holiness decides what is to be done about Sakura’s transgression she and her companions are to be treated as guests."

The green girl rolls her eyes; "Come now, Tagitsuhime, you know Her Holiness will order them all executed. We ought to just eat this layman now."

Ichikishimahime sticks a forked tongue out at the green girl; "He won’t be any good to eat, Tagorihime! His chakra won’t have any flavor! We should play with him instead!"

Zhàdàn’s blood runs cold. He’s only known these snake-girls for a few seconds, but that’s long enough for him to know he doesn’t want anything to do with their idea of 'play'.

Zhàdàn clears his throat to get their attention, and once all six eyes have turned back to him he croaks, "Excuse me, Honorable Sisters, but I’m more than a little lost. Where exactly am I?"

Ichikishimahime taps a finger against her chin; "Oh yes, you were unconscious when Sakura brought you here, weren’t you?"

Tagitsuhime folds her hands in her lap and looks down her nose at him as she explains, "You are on the threshold of Ryūchi Temple within Ryūchi Cave. Further within is the domain of the White Snake Sage, but only those among the Ordained who have formed a contract with our people are allowed to enter."

Zhàdàn’s brow furrows; "May I ask what exactly you mean by 'Ordained'? I get the feeling you’re not using that word the same way I would."

Tagorihime puts a hand to her mouth to cover a snorting giggle; "Oh, they must still be calling themselves ninja."

Ichikishimahime doesn’t bother with modesty, throwing her head back as she cackles, "Do they still believe that fairytale about Kaguya and the Sage of Six Paths?! Oh that’s so cute! I thought they would’ve outgrown it by now! Can I tell them the truth? Can I can I pleeeaaaase?"

Tagitsuhime shoots Ichikishimahime another pointed look; "The males, maybe, but not Sakura. She’s just stopped crying and if she starts again she’s going to flood the cave."

Something sharp and hot and terrified shoots from Zhàdàn’s heart to his throat, and despite the pain that bursts across his chest as he moves his arm he’s pushing himself up to his elbow, words flying from his mouth; "Where are the kids?!"

The three snake-girls jolt back, eyes going wide. Their guises shift, white scales replacing skin, pupils sharpening, jaws unhinging to reveal sharp fangs. They all let out harmonized hisses. Zhàdàn bites his tongue. If there’s anything he remembers from stories and scripture, it’s that the Sacred Animals take matters of politeness incredibly seriously. If he didn’t just shock these snake-girls but also offend them, he’s getting eaten, no two ways about it.

He quickly bows his head, ignoring how his body creaks and groans at the effort; "My greatest apologies, Honorable Sisters. My concern overtook my manners. It will not happen again."

He keeps his head bowed, but looks up at the snake-girls through his eyelashes. They stay still for a moment, the only movement their forked tongues flickering in and out of their mouths. Tagorihime and Ichikishimahime look to Tagitsuhime. Tagitsuhime closes her eyes and gives them a shallow nod. Their guises right themselves, the snake features disappearing and the human faces returning to the fore.

Tagitsuhime pushes some hair behind her ear and says, "We will forgive this lapse of yours, Layman. Pray you do not suffer another."

"As for your question," Tagorihime chimes in, "The Ordained children are not far. See for yourself."

The snake-girls move aside with inhuman grace, revealing the full scope of the cavern to Zhàdàn. The first thing he sees is Jūgo at the far end of the temple porch. At a glance, he almost looks like he’s praying, the way he’s kneeling with his head bowed. But then Zhàdàn notices the paper talisman stuck to his forehead, his closed eyes, and the brass manacles around his wrists and ankles. The characters written on the talisman and inscribed along the manacles are glowing a pale green that pulses every time Jūgo exhales. The light dances up through the air to the crystals, disappearing into them.

Zhàdàn looks to Tagitsuhime and asks, "Why is Jūgo… What’s happening to Jūgo?"

Tagitsuhime clicks her forked tongue against her teeth and sighs, "The large one seems to absorb Natural Energy passively and unconsciously. This cavern is full of it, and while most of the Ordained don’t notice the presence of Natural Energy until they’ve been taught to and the Laity’s own Natural Energy simply resonates with the Natural Energy surrounding them, the large one quickly started to become overwhelmed by it. Had we not sedated and restrained him, he would have either turned into a stone snake or a monster. Letting either happen to a guest is highly improper. So until he is either removed, executed, or taught to manage this condition of his, this is how he will stay."

Zhàdàn stares blankly at the snake-girl for a few moments, then says, "I will be perfectly honest, Honorable Sister. I understood maybe twenty percent of that."

Tagitsuhime jolts back again, this time seemingly in pure shock; "Do they not teach the Laity about Natural Energy anymore?"

Zhàdàn shrugs a shoulder; "Maybe not with the words you’re using. All I can tell you is that unless you have money, they don’t teach us much of anything."

The snake-girls exchange puzzled looks. Oh God they probably don’t know what money is. Zhàdàn certainly doesn’t want to be the one to teach them, so he turns his attention back to Jūgo. The kid’s left forearm is still bone and tendon, sitting limp in it’s brass manacle. Zhàdàn’s no expert on any of this, but even he can tell the arm shouldn’t stay that way. His eyes travel down the temple stairs, picking out Suigetsu sitting in the middle of the bottom step. He can’t see the kid’s face from this angle, but he can see him running a whetstone across Kusanagi’s blade in tight, sharp, frustrated strokes.

And it takes him more than a few moments, so many in fact that he starts to worry she bolted or is hiding with genjutsu, but he finally spots Sakura’s distinctive pink hair. The girl is curled up against the far wall, arms wrapped around her chest like she’s trying to give herself a hug. Zhàdàn shuts his eyes and sighs through his nose. This is how she was after the monastery, only he can imagine it’s ten times worse than it looks beneath the surface.

Zhàdàn turns back to the snake-girls and asks, "Could I ask a favor of you, Honorable Sisters? Could one of you help me down to Suigetsu? I’d like to talk to him, but I don’t think I can move that far by myself."

Tagorihime sniffs haughtily, eyes on his chest; "Of course you can’t. After all, sitting up reopened one of your wounds."

Zhàdàn follows her gaze down. One of the scabs on his chest has indeed torn open, blood starting to seep from the wound again. Before he can comment on it Tagorihime leans forward, fingers outstretched and glowing a calming green. She traces over where the scab tore, her chakra sealing the wound once again. Zhàdàn’s head spins. His heart rate spikes suddenly at the rush of chakra into his system. But it runs deeper than the physical. The only language he has for it is that Tagorihime in this moment is in his flesh, veins, cells, and all he wants is her to get out.

Ichikishimahime grabs hold of Zhàdàn’s shoulder to steady him. When his vision clears, the two younger snake-girls are looking to Tagitsuhime again in wide-eyed surprise.

Tagitsuhime just nods; "Just as I said, Sisters. The Laity are less receptive to the spiritual arts. Now, Ichikishimahime, please help Zhàdàn down the stairs. For the time being, he is still our guest."

Zhàdàn swallows the shiver those words send up his spine. Despite looking barely older than thirteen, Ichikishimahime is easily able to sling Zhàdàn’s arm over her shoulders and help him up. Zhàdàn doesn’t fight the flood of relief that comes when he looks down and sees his leg is still screwed on. At least if worst comes to worst he can try to run. Ichikishimahime helps him down the large temple steps, moving at a stiff, deliberate pace with the tip of her forked tongue poking out from the corner of her mouth. He supposes this is what counts for gentle from one of these snakes. It’s almost endearing.

Ichikishimahime helps Zhàdàn lower himself down to sit next to Suigetsu. Her job done, she shifts back into a snake and slithers up the steps without so much as a nod. Zhàdàn doesn’t watch her go. Instead he turns to study Suigetsu. The kid’s eyes are locked on the blade and whetstone in his hands, his jaw clenched tightly shut and his lips pressed into a thin line. Zhàdàn finally lets out a proper, long, heavy sigh all the way from the bottom of his lungs.

"I know because I’m an adult you’re expecting I’m gonna tell you to look on the bright side," Zhàdàn begins, "But I’m not gonna patronize you. This sucks. I know it sucks and you know it sucks. So there’s no use pretending like it doesn’t."

Suigetsu strikes the blade with the whetstone hard enough to send up sparks, snarling, "I can’t believe I went along with some dumbass Leaf Village girl’s game of fucking pretend! I knew Leaf Village kids were stupid and soft but nooooo the girl with the pink hair and stupid dress her mom made her is different! I’m such a fucking idiot!"

Suigetsu throws the whetstone out into the cavern, letting Kusanagi clatter from his hands to the steps as he shoves his face in his palms; "We’re fucked. We’re so fucked, Zhàdàn."

Zhàdàn shakes his head; "We’re not fucked yet. But if we want to not be fucked, we’re gonna need to rely on the person who got us into this mess to get us out of it."

Suigetsu glares at Zhàdàn through his fingers; "Hell no."

Zhàdàn scowls and snaps, "No. You do not get to give me or her this kind of crap. We do not have the privilege of holding grudges and being pissed at each other. Not when we’re all accessories to treason and sedition. I don’t want to be practical either, Suigetsu, but we don’t have a choice. We need Sakura if we want to make it out of this cave alive, and that means you need to go and talk to her."

Suigetsu pulls his hands off his face and stares wide-eyed at Zhàdàn; "Why me?!"

Zhàdàn leans down and looks Suigetsu hard in the eye; "Because I have no idea what she’s going through. I can’t say anything that’ll mean anything to her. But I know you do. So I know you can."

Suigetsu freezes, and when he speaks again it’s in a horrified whisper; "How do you know about that?"

Zhàdàn frowns at the ground; "Snake Eyes liked to talk."

Suigetsu bites his lip, serrated teeth drawing blood. Zhàdàn is suddenly glad Suigetsu is on his left. The urge to wrap an arm around the kid’s shoulders and give him something like a hug is a lot easier to fight when you don’t have an arm to act on it with. Besides, kid would probably melt into water at the shock. As it is, Suigetsu shuts his eyes. He takes a few deep breaths, holding them for five seconds each before letting them out. After four breaths Suigetsu shoves himself up to his feet and stomps over towards Sakura. Zhàdàn watches him go, eyes and ears trained on them both.

Suigetsu settles down next to Sakura. It takes him a few moments before he finally manages to look over at her. Her gaze is glassy and wet, tear tracks cutting two thin lines down her face. In the harsh shadows cast by the crystals above all the eye sees is how thin, how pale she is. She looks like a ghost. Not an angry, avenging ghost, but one that’s using what little strength it has to cling to the world of the living.

Suigetsu heaves a sigh; "I was gonna just start this with a 'pull yourself together'-style speech, but… God, I remember what this part of it was like, so I can’t really fault you too much for all the wallowing and the crying."

Sakura turns her head by a fraction of a degree, just barely enough to qualify her as looking at Suigetsu; "What are you talking about?"

Suigetsu forces a laugh through his teeth; "I mean… I guess I’ll answer that question with a question. You ever wonder how I ended up with Orochimaru?"

Sakura nods, a tiny motion that jostles more of her hair to fall in front of her eyes; "I did."

"So, here’s the thing," Suigetsu sighs, leaning back on his hands, "This will get way too complicated if I start at the beginning. So I’m just gonna drop you right in the middle of it. Almost four years before you and I met, I was on a mission with my genin team. It was real basic shit, just scout out one of the smaller islands to see if rumors of bandits hiding on it were true. We hit the mangroves and Sensei tells me to take point. I do. Why wouldn’t I? He’s my sensei, the only person I ever trusted more was my brother, and he…"

Suigetsu trails off. He pulls his knees up close enough that he can rest his arms on them, not quite curling into a ball, but close. He keeps his eyes stubbornly off of Sakura, who now has turned fully to look at him.

Suigetsu swallows hard and mutters, "He was long gone. Died on a mission that should’ve been easy, 'specially for a Swordsman of the Mist, a few months before. I didn’t get that then, though. Didn’t think about it. If I had, I might not have been…"

Suigetsu pauses to scrub at his face with both hands, "God, fuck, where was I… Right, taking point. So yeah, there I am, right, waist deep in the mangroves and on the lookout for anyone hiding in the trees. And I spot them. But it’s not bandits. It’s ANBU, and not our ANBU either. Didn’t know what country then, but now I know it was Sound. I was able to yell to my team before they jumped on me, but when I looked back… My teammates weren’t there. And my sensei was watching, hands in his pockets. I yelled to him for help more than a couple times during the fight. And he just kept watching. Didn’t even flinch."

"So they beat you," Sakura murmurs, staring intently at Suigetsu through her stringy bangs.

Suigetsu lets out a bitter little snort; "I called it a fight, it was a fuckin’ slaughter. I was good, sure, but not ANBU good. Not take on two ANBU by myself and WIN good. They knocked me close to unconscious, and while they were getting ready to take me away, I heard them talking to my sensei. Didn’t catch much, but… Never gonna forget what I did pick out. I heard coins change hands, and one of the ANBU said, 'The next time the Leaf Village calls for aid, remind Lady Mizukage who got rid of the only credible threat to her reign'."

Suigetsu finally turns to look Sakura in the eyes, a dour glare on his face; "My village sold me out. They literally sold me to Orochimaru, just because my great-uncle or great-grand-something was the Second Mizukage so apparently that gave me enough claim to the office to be a threat. Never mind that I’m a visibly lower caste than Terumī, never mind that I was twelve– and sure, Yagura was young too, but he was still older than I was– and of course never mind that I didn’t want the stupid hat! Obviously I’m the problem, and I need to go away, so away I fuckin’ go!"

Sakura slowly opens her mouth and Suigetsu quickly looks away, shoving out, "And I know what you’re gonna ask, I’m not gonna explain the caste system right now, shit’s too fuckin’ complicated."

"That’s not… I’m… I’m sorry, Suigetsu," Sakura mumbles, eyes dropping to the stone floor.

Suigetsu sighs hard enough to ruffle his bangs; "What I’m trying to say is… This shit happens all the time, Sakura. For stupider, pettier reasons than whatever landed you here. Ninja are tools. That means the people who use us, who own us, think they can throw us away whenever we’re not useful to them anymore."

Sakura’s voice is halting, stumbling out of her mouth like a drunkard; "I knew… I had heard about that happening… in other villages… But… I thought…"

"You thought the Leaf Village was different," Suigetsu scoffs, "You thought that every other village was either a dog-eat-dog hellhole or had gone completely soft and was too weak to defend itself, let alone it’s country. And you were sure that even though your village had skeletons in it’s closet things were better now."

Suigetsu roughly shoves Sakura’s bangs up and out of her face, forcing her to look him directly in the eye; "Guess what, Sakura? So did I. So does every kid in every village’s academy. The village needs you to think it’s 'the good one' or 'the strong one' or 'the least bad one', because if you don’t it’s gonna be a helluva lot harder to convince you to murder people for it."

He turns away from Sakura, taking his hand off her forehead to run through his own hair; "Who knows how much worse things were before Madara and Hashirama founded the first hidden village. But I know for sure that now the villages are rotten to the core, and they’re too big and too strong for little revolutions like San-Ha’s to make a difference. You’re better off just turning your back on the whole thing."

"So that’s it then," Sakura warbles, voice cracking and fraying, "We just run away?"

"You can do whatever you want," Suigetsu snaps, "As for me… Ninja never live long. Never have, likely never will. If they stick with their village, they spend that short life doing a bunch of horrible shit just because they’re ’supposed to’. If my life’s gonna be short, I want to spend it doing what I want to, not what I’m supposed to. And I’m sure as Hell not gonna cut it even shorter fighting a hopeless battle. That’s as good as turning the knife on myself."

Sakura pulls her knees all the way up to her chest; "Fight and die… Give up and die… Run and die… Those can’t… This can’t be…"

Suigetsu is quiet for a while longer, and once it’s clear Sakura isn’t going to say any more, he sighs, "Okay. Here are the facts. If we step out of this cave, we step into a whole world that wants us dead. We have two wounded– One of which is a civilian, so he’s gonna take longer to recover than we would. This place is, in theory, somewhere safe and hidden where we could lick our wounds and figure out what’s next. But in practice, the snakes that own it want us gone. You’re the only one here who can negotiate with them. I don’t expect you to fully process your grief in a few minutes. God knows I didn’t. But you need to pull yourself together enough to solve this problem, because if you don’t, we are fucked. Get me?"

Sakura presses her face into her knees for a long moment. When she brings her face back up, it’s as if she never started crying. Probably a genjutsu. One she’s had to use a lot, considering she didn’t make any hand signs. Sakura rises to her feet, moving with a smoothness that is almost as unnatural as the snake-girls, and strides over towards the stairs. She climbs up past Zhàdàn, eyes steadily forward. Zhàdàn frowns as he watches her over his shoulder. It’s probably for the best she didn’t look at him. He’s not sure what he would’ve said if she did. The only thing in his throat right now is a burning, tangled knot of anger, at Orochimaru, at her village, at every damn thing that dropped a teenage girl into this literal snake pit.

Civilian kids may grow up fast, too. They’ve got to if they’re gonna help the family business, help around the house, keep the family going. But they don’t grow up like this. No one should grow up like this.

The massive temple doors groan open at Sakura’s approach, and quickly start to creak closed once she’s over the threshold. They don’t close all the way. Tagitsuhime, Ichikishimahime, and Tagorihime slither up to the doors, shifting back into human form so they can hold them open a crack and poke their faces in to watch what happens next. Zhàdàn doesn’t go that far. He doesn’t want to see Sakura grovel. But for his own sake, he has to hear it.

Sakura’s voice only wavers at the very edges as she speaks; "Words cannot express how sorry I am for intruding upon your hospitality and straining the bounds of our contract, Your Holiness. We were in grave, mortal danger, and I–"

A booming, raspy, feminine voice snaps, "You need not speak your reasons, Hatchling. Anyone with eyes could see them. That you invited yourself into the cave via the reverse summoning contract to get out of danger is one matter. Inviting yourself in whilst you are being actively hunted and bringing others who have not proven themselves worthy of a contract into this sacred chamber is quite another."

Sakura pauses for a moment, then murmurs, "I know. And once more I apologize. But I must ask, I must beg you to be lenient. It’s as you said, Your Holiness, we are being hunted. And we can’t run from our pursuers while two of us are injured. Ryūchi Cave is nearly impossible to find, much less infiltrate. Please, grant us sanctuary here, just long enough for us to regroup. That is all I ask."

"That’s all you ask," the Snake Sage scoffs, "You say that as though it’s a small thing! Remember your own words, Hatchling– Ryūchi Cave is nearly impossible to find and infiltrate. Skilled hunters with keen hounds can find their way into any warren if they’re determined enough to catch their prey. In asking for safety you put us in danger. And what do you offer in return? Nothing, as of yet! It’s not at all a wonder you murdered Orochimaru, you have surpassed your master in terms of your pure, unadulterated arrogance."

Sakura’s breath hitches as she stammers, "I-I– I have not offered anything in return so that you may… So that you may name your own terms, Your Holiness. The unfortunate truth of the matter is… We can’t bring you sacrifices or supplicants. All we have is what was on our backs when we arrived. You already have my service whenever you require it, as is the terms of our contract. But that is all I can give, all I can guarantee. I beg of you, on my knees, to please… Please grant us sanctuary. And whatever price you require we will pay as soon as we are able."

Zhàdàn presses his face into his hand. This is what he was afraid of. There’s nothing worse to bring to the negotiating table than naked desperation. But he can’t help her. None of them can. He can only hope the snakes make it quick.

There’s another long pause, and when the Snake Sage speaks again her voice is soft; "I simply have one question, Hatchling. When you killed Orochimaru, what were his final words to you?"

Sakura takes a deep, shuddering breath, then replies in a voice that cracks without breaking, "He… He said… 'Save your tears, Little Flower. We’ll meet again.'"

"Sentimental fool," the Sage laughs, sounding less like a near-divine creature and more a doting grandmother, "Then you are still to be counted as one of his brood. The laws of hospitality dictate that we cannot deny you and yours refuge while you are healing. But once all of your companions are well enough to travel, you are to leave at once."

Zhàdàn’s head shoots up and he whirls to stare wide-eyed over his shoulder. The two younger snake-girls are exchanging similar looks of shock, but Tagitsuhime is still focused on the chamber within. The White Snake Sage’s soft spot for Orochimaru and his "brood" must not be a surprise to her.

Sakura’s voice comes out in a babble; "Y-you–! I-I can’t– Thank you, thank you so much Your Holiness, I swear we–!"

"Do not thank me yet, Hatchling," the Sage sneers, the sound rattling through the cavern, "The layman and the large one may need to rest while they heal, but you and the child of the ocean do not. I intend to make you earn your sanctuary."

The snake-girls titter to each other with hissing laughs, and Zhàdàn can hear the slump of Sakura’s shoulders in her reply; "I… Yes, of course, Your Holiness. Whatever you require."

Well. That’s that, then. They have sanctuary, at least for the moment. And all it cost was Sakura’s dignity.

Zhàdàn supposes he should feel relieved. But all he feels is sick.

The first thing that comes out of Kakashi’s mouth once he’s regained consciousness is, "We need to talk."

It’s both a shock and a relief for Naruto to hear that. The long walk back to Sand may have been a bittersweet victory lap for the Sand shinobi, but for Naruto and Sasuke it had been quiet and tense as both of them mulled over the mission. Sasuke, at least, had been able to keep himself busy with tending to the wounded. Naruto didn’t have any distractions. All he had was his own thoughts.

And that hadn’t let up once they’d returned to the village. It seemed like every man, woman, and child had come to welcome their Kazekage home with bright grins and tears in their eyes. Gaara and his siblings had been swept away to deal with the political fallout of this incident, and Sasuke had to oversee and assist in Kakashi’s treatment. That had left Naruto to pace around the hospital, munching on his rations to stave off the effects of the Soldier Pill he took, waiting for Kakashi to get out of the surgical theater.

Even once Kakashi was out of surgery and he and Sasuke had nothing else to do but wait at his bedside, Naruto still couldn’t extract himself from his own head. He kept trying to, kept trying to voice his worries to Sasuke, but there were just too many and the only words he could find to make them concrete made him sound like an asshole. There’s so much they need to talk through, but the idea of being the one to start that conversation is somehow scarier than facing down the Akatsuki.

Therefore, shock and relief when Kakashi does it for him.

Sasuke helps Kakashi sit up, brow furrowed and lips pursed. Before Kakashi continues, he looks the two of them over with his one dark eye. The other hasn’t opened. Naruto can’t help squirming in the stiff plastic chair. It’s been ages since Kakashi last scolded him, but the look in his eye makes Naruto think he’s in for the dressing-down of a lifetime.

"We may have accomplished our mission," Kakashi begins, "But we were way too reckless. I’ll grant you both that the situation was urgent. But even with that in mind, there were some bad calls we all made. And not just because the Kazekage– and a friend– was in danger."

Kakashi’s eye focuses squarely on Naruto; "If you have a problem with us, Naruto, the only way we can work on solving it is if you tell us. You haven’t been anywhere near as subtle about it as you think you’ve been. All three of us know exactly what can happen if resentment is allowed to brew unchecked beneath the surface."

Naruto proves Kakashi right by visibly flinching.

"Sasuke," Kakashi says, turning his eye to him, "I know you were trying not to repeat old mistakes. But you overcompensated. You went too hard the other way, and as a result we could have lost not only our target but our entire team. And we did have a casualty. I’m not blaming you for Chiyo’s death, that wouldn’t be fair. But I won’t sugarcoat it and say that the pace you set for this mission wasn’t a factor."

Sasuke’s cheek dimples ever so slightly as he bites the inside of it, but aside from that, no change in his expression.

Kakashi’s eye slides shut, his shoulders slump, and he sighs, "And then there’s me. I could have put my foot down so much sooner. I could have prevented so much of this, but I let my own past mistakes keep defining the ones I’m making now. I didn’t question you, Sasuke, because I was so invested in your growth and how far you’d come that I wanted to see what you’d do. And I didn’t question you, Naruto, because I felt guilty over the rift I let form between us and second guessed myself."

Naruto’s eyes go wide. That Kakashi even knows there’s a rift between them is maybe the biggest shock Naruto’s gotten today.

"I could go on and on about what I did wrong, but this is about all three of us," Kakashi continues, "And the fact of the matter is, unless we can get what’s going on and what’s making us all act like this out into the open to start fixing it, Team Kakashi is likely going to disband almost as soon as it was formed. So. Let’s all of us get what’s eating us off our chests."

Even though that was an open invitation to just blurt out all his feelings, Naruto still hesitates. Because what’s him feeling left out and ignored next to Sasuke needing to know if Kakashi murdered someone? And at the very least, the fact that Naruto’s feelings about Kakashi are so dumb and childish means they can be talked through. What are they gonna say when he tells them he doesn’t feel the same burning drive to get Sakura back that they do? That she’s nowhere near as enshrined in his heart as she is in theirs? That his good memories of her have all been tainted by the fact that she tried to kill him for reasons he doesn’t understand? That could turn a rift into a chasm.

But he has to say something. Maybe he can’t say all of it, but he can at least try.

Naruto opens his mouth a half second before Sasuke does, blurting out over him, "Even back when things were fine, Team 7 didn’t really feel like something we were all part of. Yeah, when we were on missions and training before the Exams and stuff it wasn’t always like that, but then the Exams screwed everything up. Suddenly Team 7 was you and Sasuke and Sakura and you just left me. Like I know why they needed special attention but… I needed you too. And you pawned me off on other people like you didn’t even want to deal with me. And that never really changed."

Naruto takes a deep breath, shutting his eyes as he continues, "I had hoped we could start again when I came back, but then… The day I get back, you’re late. You’re always late, I know, but I thought you’d maybe try to be on time to see me for the first time in two years but you didn’t. And you and Sasuke kept talking about how you’d spent two years together, about how well you know each other, and when it was just you and me on the mission I realized… I realized I don’t know you at all, Kakashi-sensei. Because nothing had changed. All my friends, all the good stuff I remembered about the village had changed. But the bad shit is still the same."

Everything about Sakura is on the tip of his tongue. But when Naruto opens his eyes, he sees Sasuke and Kakashi staring at him, eyes wide. There’s a twist, a shot of something like fear through his gut. Naruto tucks his head down, chin nearly against his chest. He can’t do it. He can’t.

So he mumbles instead, "I know it’s stupid… But it’s been gnawing at me this whole mission… So…"

"It isn’t stupid, Naruto," Kakashi immediately replies, "And I’m sorry for letting things get this bad. Whatever my reasons, I knew that you didn’t have anyone else, and left you alone anyway. All I can do now is try to make up for that going forward, and I intend to."

Naruto… Naruto isn’t sure what he expected. There’s some vindication in the fact that Kakashi is acknowledging he fucked up, he guesses. And realistically, yeah, Kakashi can’t really do anything but try and be better. And with their lives and jobs being as chaotic as they are, he can’t really promise what form that’ll take. But there’s only so much reassurance, so much catharsis 'I’ll do better in the future' can give. Especially when the person making that claim hasn’t done much to prove they can or will back it up.

Naruto crosses his arms tight over his chest, his eyes glued to his knees as he mumbles, "Alright."

Sasuke frowns at the floor for a few moments before looking up, meeting Kakashi’s gaze dead-on; "There’s something I– Something we need to know, Kakashi. That technique you used to neutralize the One Tail… We know that was the Mangekyō Sharingan."

Kakashi freezes. Both eyes fly open wide. Naruto’s not sure if he’s breathing. Naruto sits up straight, eyes darting between Kakashi and Sasuke. Sasuke is similarly sitting straight backed with his shoulders square, but his hands are clasped in his lap to hide the fact that they’re shaking.

"We all know how you get the Mangekyō," Sasuke continues, voice sharp enough to cut, "And we all know how you said you got your Sharingan. We need the truth, Kakashi. And I… I need to know why you didn’t tell me about this before."

Kakashi is silent for a very long moment. He’s not looking at them, not really. His eyes are somewhere far away. After a while, he takes a deep breath, one hand drifting slowly up to the edge of his mask. Sasuke and Naruto’s eyes both go wide. They exchange frantic glances, both of them open their mouths– to say what, he’s not sure either of them know– but before any words escape Kakashi is already pulling his mask down.

And his face is… normal. Perfectly normal in every way. There’s a mole near the corner of his mouth, but beyond that, he’s just… just a guy. He’s pressed his lips into a tight, tense line as he exhales through his nose. Naruto looks to Sasuke again. His face is a mess of emotion, shock and wonder and embarrassment and regret and curiosity and so much more battling for dominance. Naruto’s sure he probably looks the same.

When Kakashi speaks, his voice is trembling, "I… didn’t tell you, Sasuke, because I… I’m… It’s not something I’m proud of. I didn’t… I never wanted you– either of you, any of you– to know that I’d… done this. I don’t want to know that I’ve done this. The memory is… It’s enough to make me sick, sometimes, and I–"

"W-wait, Kakashi-sensei, you really don’t have to tell us," Naruto exclaims, his hands flailing wildly out in front of him in a gesture he’s trying to make look reassuring, "If this is too much, like, I get that you want us to know the truth but if you’re not ready–!"

"I’m never going to be ready," Kakashi cuts in, a wry bruise of a smile coloring the edge of his mouth, "And you both deserve the truth, no matter how ugly it is… So… Bear with me, this is a story that… It hurts to tell it."

Naruto feels like his bones are made of lead. He can’t leave, no matter how much he wants to.

Kakashi takes another deep, shuddering breath, and begins, "I’ve told Sasuke about one of my teammates, Obito Uchiha. He’s the one who gifted me his Sharingan when he was on the verge of death. Everything about that story is true. I didn’t kill Obito– We were forced to flee before he’d actually died, otherwise all three of us would have been crushed to death. He… He died alone."

The pure pain and regret in those words is more than enough to convince Naruto. From how he glances at Sasuke from the corner of his eye and sees him with his eyes squarely on the floor, bottom lip pinned between his teeth, he’s certain Sasuke is too.

"The third member of my team was named Rin Nohara," Kakashi continues, "I can tell from the look on your face, Sasuke, that name is ringing a bell. It should. 'Nohara' is Sakura’s mother’s maiden name. Rin is… Rin would have been Sakura’s aunt. She was kind, gentle, intelligent, everything you’d hope for from an aspiring medical ninja. She… she was the one who performed the transplant. Obito was my friend at the end of it all, but he’d been her best friend since the academy. And she took his eye out without even flinching…"

"She sounds incredible," Naruto murmurs, eyes wide in a kind of melancholy wonder.

Kakashi’s faded smile returns; "She was. But… Not even a year later, she was kidnapped by Mist. They had sealed the Three-Tails inside her, and at the time, we had no idea why. I was sent in to rescue her, and I did retrieve her. But we were pursued by Mist ninja as we ran, and she… She kept telling me to kill her, kill her before we made it to the village, because she didn’t want the Three-Tails to destroy it… I kept saying it didn’t have to come to that, that there had to be another way… I had promised I would protect her. While Obito was dying, I promised him. And even beyond that, I… She was…"

Kakashi shuts his eyes, covering his mouth as he takes another hitching breath. Naruto’s brow furrows, trying to put the pieces together. He looks to Sasuke again. Sasuke’s head is bowed, forehead resting against his clasped hands. His jaw is clenched tightly shut.

And it clicks.

Kakashi had loved her.

Naruto’s heart drops into his stomach.

Kakashi drags his hand down his face; "The Mist ninja caught up to us. There were… God, I don’t even remember how many there were. That fight was a blur, it was just me and Rin against dozens of jōnin, dozens of ANBU, and they… I just said it, they were ANBU, I had to use the Chidori, there was no other choice, so I gathered the chakra and turned to strike the nearest enemy and…"

Kakashi is staring at his shaking right hand as he whispers, "And there she was. And my hand was… It was…"

Kakashi chokes on a sound. He presses his face into his hand. Naruto doesn’t need any time to put these pieces together.

His mind is violently shunted all the way back to the Land of Waves. He’s seen exactly what it looks like when the Chidori hits someone square in the heart. He remembers the sound, the crunching, bursting sound like crushing a giant beetle. He remembers exactly how long it takes someone to die– they maybe have a few seconds, long enough to choke out one name, before they fade away. He remembers exactly how close the killer gets to their victim, face to face, almost nose to nose, with no choice but to look them in the eye as they die.

Naruto’s heart twists. He supposes this is proof, proof that Kakashi is going to make an effort to let him get close, to share with him the kind of things he’s shared with Sasuke, but… He doesn’t feel happy about it. How could anyone feel happy about this?

Sasuke’s the one who breaks the silence; "I’m sorry. I didn’t… I shouldn’t have… I thought the worst of you, and now we’re… I’m sorry."

Kakashi doesn’t say anything. Naruto purses his lips, brow furrowed, as he thinks it over more.

"I… For what it’s worth," Naruto mumbles, "You were surrounded, right? You had a bunch of guys on you, and you were trying really hard to save Rin, and she’d just been telling you to kill her… There was a lot going on all at once… If I were your sensei or part of the brass or whatever back then… I wouldn’t have blamed you for that."

Kakashi slowly takes his hand off his face. His eyes are red-rimmed and hollow.

He taps one finger to the corner of his Sharingan and simply says, "Well. I know Obito does."

Naruto’s jaw drops, and suddenly the boy he was at twelve who could never hold a thing back reappears in a flash as he shouts, "What?! What the fuck?! No, no, that’s–! Look, okay, I don’t get how the Sharingan works, but there is no goddamn way you can believe for even a second Obito would blame you for this! He was your friend, right?! He loved you enough to give you his eye, right?! And you said it yourself, you’d never kill Rin! You promised to protect her! If the Mangekyō Sharingan thinks that you hitting her on accident counts as 'killing someone you love' then it can fuck off, because it’s wrong, and you can’t let a stupid eyeball tell you how to feel, believe it!"

Kakashi and Sasuke are gawking at him again, and Naruto can feel heat creeping up the back of his neck. God, how did he used to do that? Just say shit and not care about the consequences? He can see Sasuke’s jaw clenching tight, probably about to tell him that he has no idea what he’s talking about, because he doesn’t, oh God why didn’t he just keep his big mouth shut–

Kakashi chuckles weakly; "Well, that’s good. I was starting to worry you’d lost that spark of yours, Naruto."

Naruto’s jaw clacks shut, his eyes somehow finding a way to go even wider. Sasuke looks to Kakashi like he’d just grown a second head.

Kakashi shakes his head and says, "I know it’s not healthy to think that way, but it’s… It’s one thing to know that, another thing to understand it. What I can say is," Kakashi shifts in his hospital bed, getting close enough to the edge that he can reach out and put a hand on both Naruto and Sasuke’s shoulders, "My team fell to pieces once. My sensei, Obito, Rin, all three of them are dead. That story is finished. But the three of us are alive. Sakura is alive. And anything I can do to make sure you don’t go through what I went through, I’ll do. That’s a promise."

Naruto’s gut twists. Well. That settles it. He can never tell Sasuke and Kakashi how he feels about Sakura.

So instead of letting himself blurt all that out, Naruto hooks one arm around Kakashi’s shoulders and the other around Sasuke’s to pull them in for a rough, kinda awkward, but very warm group hug. Sasuke jolts at the sudden embrace, but after a moment returns it with just as much force. Kakashi wriggles an arm free to pull his mask back up, but not before Naruto catches him smiling.

"Careful with that," Kabuto drawls, "It’s worth far more than you are."

The Sound ANBU bristles at his comment, but adjusts his hold on the glass pod as he carries it out of the laboratory. Sound ninja are buzzing around the lab like bees as they break down select pieces of equipment, disconnect containment pods, bundle up records, and cart them all out of the room to be spirited away from this hideout. The Root operative at Kabuto’s side, the redheaded Yamanaka Danzo usually likes to keep close at hand, is watching the proceedings with the blank stare Kabuto remembers all too well. It had taken quite a bit to break himself of that training.

"Really, it’s the least the old man could do to send some of his own men to help with the handover," Kabuto grouses, adjusting the royal purple haori draped over his shoulders, "There’s so much more important things my men and I should be doing."

"This is your part of the bargain," the Yamanaka drones, "You must uphold it yourself."

Kabuto clicks his tongue against his teeth. He can’t really argue with that. Still, this whole thing is so tedious. At the very least once he’s moved everything he managed to badger Danzo into letting him keep to Jungsimji he won’t have to bother with the upkeep and infrastructure of these hideouts anymore. That was always one of the greatest drains on the Sound Village’s coffers– maintaining one underground hideout as a massive, self-sufficient, multi-purpose structure with it’s own water supply and electricity network is expensive. Maintaining a network of them across not just one country but multiple had nearly bankrupted them.

Suffice to say, Kabuto is more than happy to be downsizing.

"I had been under the impression Sai was going to be overseeing the handover," Kabuto remarks, glancing at the Yamanaka from the corner of his eye.

The Yamanaka shows exactly why he’s one of Danzo’s favorites by not flinching, pausing, or giving any other tells; "Sai has shown signs that his assignment as Haruno’s handler has compromised him. After the failed assassination attempt, he was sent back to the village immediately for evaluation."

Kabuto lets out a low hum as he thinks that over. Usually that’s all but a death sentence. But Sai’s abilities, at least from what Kabuto’s seen, are fairly unique. It would be a waste for Danzo to just kill him outright. If the evaluation shows he can be reprogrammed, they’ll likely give it a try…

Kabuto chuckles through his teeth, "Poor kid."

Chameleon comes strolling over from the far side of the room, dusting off his hands as he says, "That’s the last of it."

"Finally," Kabuto grouses, pushing off the wall, "If I never see the inside of one of these places again I can die happy."

Yamanaka turns to Kabuto and asks, "Do you have the missive?"

"Of course," Kabuto replies, pulling a scroll emblazoned with red ink and gold leaf from his shirt and lazily handing it over, "Feel free to make whatever alterations you like. Just keep the core message intact."

Yamanaka doesn’t bother opening the scroll, simply pocketing it and bowing from the waist; "We will see that it arrives in a timely manner."

They form half a seal and, in a whirl of leaves, disappear. Kabuto strides out of the laboratory, holding a hand absently out to one side. Raven appears from the shadows, placing his helm in his waiting palm. It’s similar to a Kage’s hat in shape, but the insignia of Sound is emblazoned upon a raised metal disk. Sharp, sweeping prongs extend from either side of the insignia, creating a crescent moon shape.

Kabuto dons his helm as he orders, "Chameleon, see that everything makes it back to Jungsimji in one piece. If there’s even a scratch on any of it, I’ll know. Raven, send word to Sasori that I’m upping the timetable on our meeting to the sixteenth. Understood?"

They both bow their heads and reply, "As you command, Lord Shogun," before flickering out of sight.

A grin spreads across Kabuto’s face, chills shooting up and down his spine. Oh, he hopes he never gets used to hearing that.

Chapter Text

XI. The moon is just visible above the horizon when Tsunade’s office door rattles open. Shizune squeezes through it, face white as a sheet. Tsunade immediately drops her pen, standing as quickly as she can and fighting past a head rush. She’s been working for what feels like twelve hours straight. The moment she thinks she’s done more comes crashing down onto her desk. She’d had to eat lunch and dinner here, and neither was very substantial. She is in no mood for bad news. But she’s the Hokage, so she doesn’t have a choice.

"What’s happening, Shizune?"

Shizune’s eyes dart between Tsunade and the door before she stammers, "T-the council is on their way here, I don’t know how they got this news first, but they have it, and they’re insisting on talking to you about it now."

Tsunade’s brow furrows; "What news?"

"The Land of–"

Shizune is cut off by the door creaking open, and a weathered voice droning, "Lady Hokage. We have received official word from the Land of Sound that you will find very interesting."

Shizune freezes, slowly turning and shuffling aside to reveal Danzō darkening Tsunade’s doorway. Utatane and Mitokado are just barely visible behind him, their faces the pinched, disapproving masks they always are. It takes every ounce of Tsunade’s composure to keep from sneering.

"What I already find interesting is how you got your hands on this information before I did," Tsunade remarks, an eyebrow lifting in challenge.

"A fortunate coincidence, nothing more," Mitokado parries, pushing his glasses up with his middle finger, "I happened to be nearby when the code breakers deciphered the message. They thought it prudent to hand it over to a member of the council, given the matter’s importance."

Tsunade’s lips press together into a tight line. That feels like a lie. Something in Tsunade’s gut is screaming that it’s bullshit. But logically, it’s infuriatingly plausible. Utatane and Mitokado are always skulking about the tower, maintaining a presence so that the rank and file never forget how much authority they hold. Danzo also makes sporadic appearances, as though he has nominally less power than Mitokado and Utatane, what power he has is power he will never let people forget. And though Tsunade and all of the heads of the various different departments in the village know that everything goes to her before it goes to the council, bureaucracy being what it is makes it unfortunately quite easy for the lower ranks to forget the details of the chain of command.

If Tsunade can think all that through, these three have definitely factored it into their story. Trying to catch them in this lie will just spark a fruitless argument she doesn’t have time for. Unfortunately, she’ll have to go along with it for now.

"Well then, I hope you gave them a stern reprimand about breaking chain of command and village protocol," Tsunade remarks, voice deliberately light, "So what was so important that it necessitated an immediate council meeting?"

As the three elders make their way inside, Shizune shutting the door behind them, Mitokado retrieves a scroll from up his sleeve. The scroll is highly ornamented with gold leaf and red ink. It’s so gaudy Tsunade has half a mind to think she’s being insulted by it. Mitokado hands it to Danzo, who hands it to Tsunade. Tsunade unspools the scroll across her desk and begins to read.

To the Esteemed Fifth Hokage Tsunade Senju,

I hope this missive finds you well. I write to you with unfortunate tidings, but a hopeful heart. It is with no shortage of regret that I inform you a revolt among the ninja and the peasantry in the Land of Sound has cost First Otokage Orochimaru and Daimyō Kazuyuki Saitō their lives. I am certain you have your fair share of questions, but the details of this event are sensitive enough that they ought not be discussed in a message that can be intercepted and decoded by our enemies. What is pertinent and safe for me to tell you is that I, Kabuto Yakushi, have quelled the chaos with the help of those ninja still loyal to this country and taken the reigns as the Shogun of Sound.

While Orochimaru may have been my mentor and employer once, I am hoping not to repeat his mistakes, and to forge a new, peaceful, prosperous path for the Land of Sound. It is to that end that I think old grudges should be put to rest and new alliances rise from their ashes. I humbly request to meet with you and Daimyō Ogasawara in ten days time to discuss terms of peace. You need not trouble yourselves trying to find a neutral meeting place, for I’ve already made arrangements with the Land of Hot Water for our meeting in Chukyō. I await your swift reply.


Shogun Kabuto Yakushi

Tsunade’s mouth drops open and she exclaims, "What the Hell?!"

"Not quite how I would have phrased it," Utatane sniffs imperiously, "But I don’t disagree with the sentiment. We need to react to this quickly."

Tsunade shakes her head, holding a hand up; "No, no we don’t, this is– These claims are all insane. You can’t expect me to make a decision without proof that any of this is true!"

All Danzo says is, "These came with the scroll," before dropping a pair of photographs on her desk. They’re two different angles on the same subject: The severed heads of Orochimaru and Daimyō Saitō mounted upon Jungsimji’s southern gate.

For a moment, Tsunade forgets how to breathe.

Orochimaru had been so many things over the past fifty years, but her heart will never let her forget that before any of them, he had been her friend. He’d been close to her in a way Jiraiya never could be. They’d bonded over their insatiable curiosity, desire to innovate, and unmatched work ethic. She’d even had a crush on him when they were children, before they both grew up enough for her to realize he could never be emotionally available in the way she needed (when he was sober, anyway).

And now she’s staring at a photograph of his severed head.

Tsunade finds herself sinking back down into her chair. She’s not sure if she’s about to pass out or throw up, but she knows she can’t do either in front of the council.

"While he’s certainly using a lot of reconciliatory language," Mitokado remarks, "The subtext here is a blatant threat."

Tsunade finally manages to pull her thoughts together into something useful; "Not necessarily a threat, but definitely a power move. The… photos are one thing, but… The most obvious flex here is the meeting time. Asking a Kage and a Daimyō to clear their schedules and meet with you in a matter of days is absolutely delusional."

"It’s an assertion of the legitimacy of his office," Utatane sneers, "One head of state asking to meet with another to discuss peace terms would be an exception to that rule. No doubt if you refused, he would claim you weren’t taking him seriously."

"Which, I’ll be blunt, I don’t see why I should," Tsunade snaps, glaring up at the council, "As far as this village and this country is concerned, the only audience Kabuto Yakushi is owed is with a tribunal to discuss his sentence for espionage, treason, and sedition. The man was instrumental in helping Orochimaru invade this village and assassinate Hiruzen! Which isn’t even mentioning the fact that I’ve been personally attacked by him, and so have both of my apprentices and our jinchūriki! If we didn’t humor Orochimaru’s attempts at playing politics I don’t know why we should extend the same courtesy to his star pupil!"

"If he didn’t feel it necessary to lie about Orochimaru and Daimyō Saitō’s fates, I’ve no doubt he’s telling the truth about the arrangements he’s made with the Land of Hot Water as well," Utatane replies, "Which indicates at least one nation is treating his new government and office as legitimate."

Tsunade resists the urge to roll her eyes. Of course now they’re treating Hot Water like it’s a politically relevant nation whose opinion on anything matters. Some days she swears the council’s political alignment is just “contrarian”.

Instead of stating that up front, Tsunade comes at it from the side; "To be fair to Hot Water, they’ve always had to be… delicate with how they handle the Land of Sound if they wanted to keep from being turned into another Land of Swamps."

"And yet, when the country should be significantly weakened and no longer a threat," Danzo counters, "Hot Water is as afraid of them as ever– Perhaps even more so. Another threat Kabuto is making is in the use of that title."

Tsunade frowns, cracking the knuckles on her left hand finger by finger; "It tacitly declares him the political and military leader of the country. There’s no shortage of Kage who’d prefer to be Shogun."

"His public declaration that he is one will give them ideas," Mitokado continues, "And if the most powerful Kage and Daimyō in the world show everyone that they’re intimidated by refusing to treat with him, there’s no doubt in my mind that someone as enterprising as Kabuto will be perfectly happy to stoke those flames."

Tsunade grits her teeth, growling through them, "So that’s the real message here– Indulge me or I’ll set this whole continent on fire."

"At a time like this, the last thing the Land of Fire can appear to be is weak," Danzo states, hard and resolute, "Our position is not ideal, but we can do more to turn it to our advantage by showing up to the negotiating table rather than ignoring this opportunity out of hand."

Danzo pauses, taking a breath that shakes ever so slightly, before he continues, "For all our differences, Hiruzen was my friend. I am as loathe to cooperate with someone complicit in his murder as you are. But if it must be done to protect our people, then let it be done."

Everything in her recoils from that display of sentiment from Danzo. Who in the world does Danzo think he is, trying to appeal to her emotions, when all he ever does is–

That flash of sense disappears, so quickly Tsunade won’t remember it was even there. A resentful, begrudging acknowledgement is slotted into its place. Yes, Danzo was one of her teacher’s closest friends and confidants. Just as Utatane and Mitokado were. That’s why Danzo was definitely, absolutely, certainly allowed a provisional, less-than-official, very very occasional advisory position back on the Leaf Village Council shortly before Hiruzen’s death. It’s not yet time to go against one of her teacher’s final decrees. Not yet.

Tsunade rubs at her temple, sighing, "Shizune, draft a response to Kabuto telling him that we accept and will meet him at the appointed time. Also, start drafting a message to Daimyō Ogasawara informing him of the situation– Be very deferential. This is gonna be a hard sell."

Shizune doesn’t leave right away. There’s a moment, just a moment, where Shizune’s eyes are darting between the elders and Tsunade. Her brow is furrowed, her jaw set tight like she’s trying to puzzle something out. Tsunade arches an eyebrow. What could she be–?

Before Tsunade has too much time to think on that, Shizune shakes her head and bows at the waist; "At once, Lady Hokage."

With that, Shizune is out of the room, and Utatane is speaking again; "Good, with that settled, we ought to discuss how you will be approaching these peace talks. After hearing word of Team Kakashi’s last mission, there’s something we had in mind…"

Tsunade shuts her eyes, sighing through her nose. This is going to be a long night.

"Sakura! Come here, we have a task for you!"

Sakura frowns over her shoulder. She thought cleaning the shed skins out of the tunnels was her task, but the snakes are nothing if not unpredictable. Sakura shuts her eyes, reminding herself that more work means less time to wallow. She sends a few sparks of fire chakra through the shed skin at her feet to cleanly incinerate it, then heads back the way she came. She has to squint every time she goes from the cramped, dark tunnels to the main chamber. There has to be sunlight filtering down through the crystals, that’s the only way it can be this bright during the day in here.

Ichikishimahime appears from nowhere to fall in step with Sakura; "So, are you curious? Do you have any idea what your task will be?"

"I could not hope to guess, Honored Sister," Sakura replies in the pleasantly neutral tone she was taught in the academy’s kunoichi classes, "It is not my place."

Ichikishimahime blows a forked raspberry at Sakura; "Tagitsuhime did far too good a job scaring you straight– At least when you were rude and arrogant you weren’t boring."

Sakura keeps her kneejerk response of "Better boring than dead" to herself. She’s always been dimly aware that that priorities and values of the sacred animals are arcane at best, alien at worst. The only way to avoid breaking a rule you didn’t know existed and carried the death penalty was to be as mild and agreeable as possible. But that was information she learned to help her deal with them in sparing, transactional encounters. It’s cold comfort when she’s actually living with them. Having to act like this all the time, especially right now, is torture.

Ichikishimahime reverts smoothly into her snake form, slithering ahead. Sakura follows her lead up the temple stairs. She passes Zhàdàn on her way up. He hasn’t moved much over the past day, mostly because he can’t without risking reopening his wounds. They exchange glances and nods. Sakura pretends she doesn’t feel him watching as she continues her climb.

Ichikishimahime leads Sakura over to the edge of the porch where Jūgo has been kneeling for the past twenty-four hours. Sakura’s gut twists. She’d unknowingly made so many grand promises she could never keep, but the one that hurts the worst is the one she made to Jūgo. Sakura had promised him a better life, a new home, a new start. And all he’s gotten is grievously wounded and placed in a coma.

Sakura kneels down at Jūgo’s side; "What would you like me to do, Honored Sister?"

Ichikishimahime shifts back to her human form so she can gesture to Jūgo; "I think we call can agree that this is no proper way for any host to leave their guest, yes? So, as an introduction to your greater task, we will start with a small one. You are to identify the Natural Energy within this boy, separate it from his chakra, and siphon all of it out of him. Simple!"

Sakura struggles to keep her jaw from dropping. She doesn’t even know where to begin with that. She supposes the most obvious point is that she barely has an idea of what Natural Energy even is. Orochimaru mentioned it in passing and it came up on occasion when she was researching Wood Style, but nobody had been kind enough to give her it’s basic description. And she knows Ichikishimahime won’t, either. The snakes are very "sink or swim" in their teaching style, just like–

Sakura purses her lips far too hard, forcing herself to look Jūgo up and down while reaching out with her chakra sense. Her eyes drift to his manacles, to the glowing glyphs and wisps of green light that come pulsing out of them every time Jūgo exhales. Now that she’s looking at it more closely, the green light is quite familiar. It tugs on memories of Orochimaru’s monstrous form falling to pieces as he’d died, those hunks of flesh dissolving into chakra and… this. Sakura tentatively reaches out, fingertips ghosting along the script as she narrows her sixth sense down to this area.

She picks up something, but it isn’t chakra. While there can be minute differences from person to person, on the whole raw chakra buzzes at a constant rate and is warm to the touch. This pulses like a heartbeat, cool like river water every time it washes over her hand. Sakura closes her eyes, keeping the cold pulse and the green light in the center of her mind.

Chakra signatures light up in her mind’s eye, Ichikishimahime at her side and Jūgo in front of her. At the edges of her sensing range she can pick out the White Snake Sage and Zhàdàn, as well. But now that she’s seen it, felt it, this new energy slowly starts to appear all around her. It flows out from Jūgo’s manacles and to the crystals above, then into the stone above that. She follows that path and finds more of this energy in the limestone floor, in the wood of the temple facade, in the water dripping from the stalactites.

Jūgo’s chakra signature had always seemed strange to Sakura, and now she realizes why. It’s not pure chakra. This other energy is mixing with it, leeching up from the ground into his chakra network and moving against it’s natural flow. Jūgo isn’t the only creature glowing green from within. Sakura picks up drops of it within herself, not in her chakra network but beneath it, in the very bones and flesh that make up her body, and… in the curse mark?

Sakura can’t think about that for too long, as her focus is drawn to the great well of energy that is the White Snake Sage. Just like Jūgo, her vast reserves are filled with more than just chakra. Chakra moves one way through her myriad coils while this energy moves the other, matching their paces in a perfect balance. And most surprising of all, while Zhàdàn has the typical weak, dim chakra signature of a civilian, this other energy seems to suffuse his entire body and fill the spaces chakra occupies in a ninja.

There’s too much of it pulsing all around her, making her feel like she is a small creature swallowed whole with no other option but to listen to the heartbeat of the beast that ate her. She draws her sixth sense back, forcing it to focus on her own chakra.

Sakura’s eyes fly open and she turns to Ichikishimahime, breathless; "Is that Natural Energy? It’s everywhere! And Zhàdàn– Why is it in Zhàdàn?"

Ichikishimahime leans back on her hands, grinning wide; "Beautiful, isn’t it? That is the essence of Life, Sakura, the essence of the Natural world. And of course it’s in the Layman, why wouldn’t it be? The Laity are of the Natural, just as we Ordained are of the Spiritual. That is the way."

Sakura blinks, slowly at first, then quicker and quicker. Of course Ichikishimahime found a way to answer her question by bringing up a dozen more. Sakura stows them all away. She still has a task ahead of her, after all, and she’s only completed the first part of it. Sakura takes a few deep breaths, shuts her eyes, and opens her sixth sense. The sheer amount of Natural Energy around her is still dizzying, but she counters that by narrowing her focus.

Jūgo’s body is pulling Natural Energy into itself without Jūgo needing to do anything but breathe. It’s difficult to follow its exact path through his body, especially as it mixes with and rubs up against his chakra. But, less via her sensor abilities and more basic deductive reasoning, Sakura is able to trace it down to his manacles and into the air. Sakura’s tongue pokes out of the corner of her mouth as she thinks. She sets her fingers on the manacles once more, this time with the intention of feeling out exactly what they’re doing.

It takes her a while, but Sakura’s able to break down the basic principles at work. They behave almost like magnets, attracting Natural Energy and repelling chakra at a rate just slightly slower than Jūgo is absorbing it. Sakura is going to have to drain the Natural Energy from Jūgo much quicker than that. That’s not something she’s going to accomplish entirely by herself on her first try… But if she uses the manacles as a stopgap, that might be something.

Sakura gets as good a grip on the manacles as she can. She sends leading lines of chakra into the metal, feeling out where they connect to Jūgo’s network and creating a connection to her own. When Jūgo breathes out, Sakura breathes in. On each inhale, she pulls the Natural Energy in the manacles into herself. On each exhale, she pushes it out through her chakra points.

It’s like trying to bail out a sinking ship with a bucket. Jūgo is taking on more Natural Energy than she can carry. But that’s nothing she wasn’t expecting. Sakura starts gathering more Natural Energy on each inhale, trying to push it out faster and faster each time. She’s not sure she’s succeeding. Natural Energy, she’s finding, doesn’t like to be moved. It rubs up against her chakra, the cool current giving way to burning friction. Sakura can feel her skin prickling and burning in an unnervingly familiar way, but instead of flower petals blooming across her skin it feels like she’s growing scales.

Sakura bites her lip with teeth far sharper than she remembers. However painful the work, she is making progress, Jūgo is starting to glow more blue than green, one last push and she can give him a moment of relief. If she could fight off the curse mark she can fight off this. Sakura takes in a hissing breath, tongue forked and fluttering, and draws in as much of the Natural Energy within Jūgo as she can reach. The instant she’s sure it’s in her chakra network and not his, Sakura rips her hands off the manacles. With a cry, she opens every single chakra point on her body at once and forces all the Natural Energy out of herself in one last push, a good amount of her own chakra going with it.

Sakura finally opens her eyes. Her teeth shrink painfully back down. Sakura shakes her head to clear it, and dried scales drop off her face like the shed skins she’d just been cleaning up moments ago. The tingling in her extremities and chill in her lips marks the edge of chakra exhaustion. Sakura slowly turns to Ichikishimahime, whose eyes and mouth are unabashedly wide.

"Goodness! I was sure your arms and legs were going to retract, you were so close to becoming a snake!"

Sakura tries to sit up, panting, "Take the tag off, that’s the only way we’ll know if I even did anything."

Ichikishimahime reaches forward and rips the seal tag off of Jūgo’s forehead. He wakes with a start, eyes darting all around the cavern before settling on Sakura. Sakura tries to give him an encouraging smile, though she’s certain she looks a mess. She feels a mess.

Jūgo reaches out to her with his right hand; "Sakura, are you alright? I’m sorry, I wanted to help more but when we got to the cave there was just– It was too much, coming in too fast and–"

"It’s okay, Jūgo, you’re okay," Sakura replies, taking his hand, "At least, you are for a little while. I was able to pull the Natural Energy out of you, but… I don’t think I can do it twice in one day."

Jūgo’s eyes are wide as lakes; "You can do that?"

Ichikishimahime nods, chiming in, "It’s the absolute basics of sage training! If Sakura’s going to be a sage worth following, of course she has to be able to manipulate Natural Energy! Though really, child, if your clan was going to do something stupid like trying to breed sages they should have at least taught you how to balance your energies yourself. I’m shocked someone left you in this state."

Jūgo stares at Ichikishimahime; "Uh… I… don’t know what you’re talking about…?"

Ichikishimahime’s eyes go even wider, and when she speaks her voice is crackling with rage; "You were bred as a sage and no one told you?! The absolute, unmitigated cruelty! Tell me your clan’s name right now and I promise you they will pay for that atrocity–!"

"Honored Sister," Sakura cuts in, just forceful enough to get her attention, "That’s kind of a later problem. Right now while Jūgo’s still lucid we need to start healing his arm. In order to regenerate, he needs to consume something living. Can you please–?"

"Oh, that’s easy," Ichikishimahime remarks, rage gone in an instant, "Hold a moment."

In a puff of smoke, Ichikishimahime disappears. Jūgo and Sakura exchange puzzled glances, but before they can open their mouths there’s another puff of smoke. It quickly clears, revealing Ichikishimahime in her snake form constricted around a very young and very distressed wild boar. Sakura winces, putting a hand over one ear to muffle the sound of the boar’s screams. Jūgo’s eyes flash yellow. He tears his right hand out of Sakura’s grip as it morphs into a thin, needle-like appendage. The needle shoots into the boar’s flesh, right between it’s eyes. With a ghoulish slurp, Jūgo starts to drain the flesh from the boar’s body, muscle creeping down to cover the bones of his left forearm.

Sakura keeps her sixth sense trained on Jūgo. His partial transformation coincided with a rush of Natural Energy into his system, and with only the manacles to manage it the energy isn’t leaving his system quickly enough. His breath is starting to come in heaving, growling pants, his body trembling with barely-repressed rage. The patches of gray on Jūgo’s skin are taking on the texture of both scales and stone. His canines are starting to lengthen into fangs, while his other teeth are retracting. His pupils are lengthening out into slits.

Sakura waits until the muscle covers his wrist before shouting, "Sister, put the tag back on him!"

Ichikishimahime switches to human form quick as a lightning strike. Her hand snaps out and slaps the seal tag onto Jūgo’s forehead. His eyes roll back before sliding closed, his whole body going limp and falling like a sack of bricks onto his side. Sakura watches with pursed lips as Jūgo’s body slowly returns to normal and his breathing relaxes. All that work had been worth was ten minutes and a few pounds of muscle.

Almost as if she’d sensed the direction Sakura’s thoughts were going, Ichikishimahime remarks, "That was highly impressive for a first try, and from a hatchling at that. Though I suppose Orochimaru had been training you for this with the start, what with that curse mark acclimatizing you to having senjutsu chakra in your system."

Sakura frowns as she looks over to Ichikishimahime; "What did you mean about me becoming a sage?"

Ichikishimahime shrugs; "Exactly what I said. Your greater task is to succeed where your mentor failed and become our human sage, acting as intercessor between the Natural and Spiritual worlds and maintaining balance. Poor little Orochimaru wasn’t able to find a body strong enough to fulfill his responsibilities before he died, but perhaps you might…"

Ichikishimahime drifts into silence for a while, eyes far away, before she sighs, "I miss all of our humans when they leave us, but I think I will miss Orochimaru just a bit more. I still remember when he wandered in here for the first time. He was so cute and small, Manda and I begged the White Snake Sage to let us keep him, but his parents still lived and they had the rightful claim."

Sakura’s eyebrows leap up; "Manda wanted to keep him? I thought Manda hated him!"

"What are you talking about?! Manda adored Orochimaru,” Ichikishimahime exclaims, “You should have seen him when news of Orochimaru’s death arrived, he was beside himself! The duels he’s been having with the Child of the Ocean have taken his mind off it, but only for so long. He’s barely been eating, I worry he’ll starve…"

Sakura looks down at her hands; "My apologies… I guess I don’t understand you all very well."

Ichikishimahime shrugs again, this time with a fond smile; "Few humans do. Perhaps that’s why so many other animals have let their summoning contracts become so… secular. I mean, humans aren’t even that good at understanding other humans, and Ninshū only made them worse at it while also making them obsess over it. Why bother asking them to care about the Natural and Spiritual worlds when they’ve completely forgotten either one exists?"

Sakura fiddles with her fingers; "I… By that criteria, I don’t know if I’d necessarily make the best Sage, Honored Sister."

"We won’t know until we try," Ichikishimahime replies, "As we have so many times before, we must train you, see if you can handle senjutsu chakra, and then see what you do with it."

Sakura frowns at her knees for a long moment as she thinks that over, then looks Ichikishimahime in the eye; "If that’s your price, I’ll do my best to pay it. But if I may, I’d ask that we try to teach Jūgo what you’re teaching me? If only so he can learn how to manage his condition."

Ichikishimahime looks Jūgo over with an appraising eye; "Hmmmmm… I will need to discuss it with the White Snake Sage, but I doubt she’ll say no. It’s not often a bred sage just drops in our lap, even a flawed one. Worst case, you can keep using him as a practice dummy."

Sakura keeps herself from wincing at the callous language and says, "I’ll take it."

Chiyo’s funeral is small and quiet. Few people who loved her, respected her, or even knew her name still live. Gaara and his siblings attend, the Sand council attend, Ebizō attends, Team Kakashi attend despite how impossible a task getting Naruto to rise that early had seemed, and the rest are scattered people with vague connections to her Sasuke doesn’t know. No matter what he’d felt about her, Sasuke can’t help thinking Chiyo deserves better than this.

The tribes of the Land of Wind don’t cremate their dead. Chiyo’s body is shrouded in white cloth and brought to her grave on a litter by Kankuro and three other men in the garb of puppet masters. Ebizō recites a long, winding prayer in a language Sasuke doesn’t understand, but everyone from Sand seems to. The pallbearers lower her into her grave on her side. Kankuro uses three tightly packed balls of dark red earth to prop the body up. Once Ebizō reaches the end of the prayer, Gaara fills the grave with a flick of his wrist.

Gaara bows his head, finishing the rite with the words, "May her spirit fly along the winds and travel this land forevermore. Peace be upon her."

Sasuke follows the lead of the crowd, bowing his head and repeating, "Peace be upon her."

While the gathered mourners take turns giving their condolences to Ebizō, Team Kakashi hangs back a respectful distance away. Naruto is watching everything play out with an inquisitive glint in his eye.

Sasuke softly bumps him with his shoulder; "What’s got you all interested?"

Naruto blinks a couple times before shrugging, a slight smile at the edge of his mouth as he replies, "Funerals are way different here, believe it. Like, we’re not even a hundred miles away from home, right? And they’re speaking a whole other language and talking about spirits and stuff. Like I knew in my head that stuff would be different out here, it’s a whole other country, but I never guessed how different."

Sasuke blinks. He’d never pegged foreign culture as something Naruto would care about. When they were younger it had always seemed like Naruto’s mental map of the world was just a small circle labeled "The Leaf Village" inside a bigger circle labeled "Not the Leaf Village". But Naruto has spent two years outside of the village since then, and Sasuke has no idea what he saw in his travels. Part of him wonders if Jiraiya’s wanderlust didn’t rub off on him.

Naruto grimaces, rubbing the back of his neck; "There’s a ton of questions I wanna ask, but I should probably save them for later, huh?"

Sasuke smirks, breathing a soft laugh out through his nose; "Yeah, now’s not really the time."

Gaara and his siblings are the last to give Ebizō their condolences, speaking in hushed tones and the same language Ebizō had prayed in. Sasuke can at least deduce that while Temari and Kankuro are conversationally fluent, Gaara is seriously struggling to keep up. Ebizō retrieves a white and red scroll from his sleeve and holds it out to Kankuro. Kankuro’s eyes go wide, and he stumbles over his words as he tries to push it back. Ebizō takes Kankuro’s hands and folds them over the scroll, voice soft but resolute. Kankuro shuts his eyes, takes a deep breath, and murmurs something that sounds like an assent.

After a few goodbyes, the Sand Siblings make their way over to Team Kakashi. Kakashi does his best to straighten up in the presence of the Kazekage, though nobody is expecting much from a man Sasuke only barely cleared for light duty.

Temari nods to them all; "We’re finished here. Thank you for coming, and for being respectful."

Naruto cocks his head to the side; "Why wouldn’t we be?"

Temari shoots Naruto a warm, wry smile; "Naruto, has anyone ever told you you’re one of a kind?"

Naruto grimaces; "Yeah, but they never say it the way you’re saying it."

Kankuro stows the scroll in his fatigues as he turns to Kakashi and asks, "You’re sure you can do this? We can give you another day or two to recover if you need."

Kakashi glances over Kankuro’s head to where the Sand Council is hovering and replies, "I won’t lie and say it’ll be enjoyable, but I can get it done. Besides, in case I do have a fainting spell we have Lady Tsunade’s apprentice to catch me before I smack my head on the stone floor."

Sasuke shoots him a glare; "Keep talking like that and I might not."

Kakashi smiles behind his mask; "Promises, promises."

Gaara nods, voice raspy but resolute as he says, "We’ll lead the way."

The walk back to the Kazekage’s Office is a long one, longer still since Kakashi is leaning on Sasuke for support. Sasuke is dimly aware that Naruto is asking all sorts of questions about the funeral, but he’s far too busy thinking in circles to hear any of it. He doesn’t like this. He understands the need for urgency, to get their portion of the One Tail out of limbo and sealed somewhere it can be monitored before the Akatsuki come storming back to claim it, but Kakashi’s still having trouble standing. Sasuke had guessed that Kakashi had regenerated enough chakra to use Kamui again safely, but a guess is all it had been. Sasuke doesn’t know enough about the Mangekyō to say anything definitive, and from his discussions with Kakashi before clearing him he barely knows any more.

Sasuke’s stomach turns. Inconvenient as it is, he doesn’t blame Kakashi. He wouldn’t want to use something he’d gotten by killing a friend, either. There’s a kind of ghoulish poetry in Sakura’s defection making him reconsider. Gaining it had cost him Rin, but using it could be the deciding factor in getting Sakura back. Sasuke understands the thought process perhaps a little too well. Sasuke has made plenty of excuses to cover for tormenting himself, too.

In contrast to every other time Sasuke has entered the chambers of Sand’s government, they go down, not up. Gaara creates openings in the walls that reveal dark tunnels boring deep into the ground. Bronze sconces light themselves as they pass, and Sasuke catches Naruto craning his neck to take in the seals etched into the metal. Kakashi braces an arm against the tunnel wall and Sasuke tightens his grip on Kakashi’s waist. The way down is steep, and it wouldn’t do for Kakashi to tumble all the way to the bottom. Especially not with the Sand Council breathing down their necks.

Their path hits a dead end after ten minutes, but another flick of Gaara’s wrist has the wall fall away into sand to reveal a large chamber. While the tunnel here had been simple, rough-hewn earth, the walls and floor of this room are covered in geometric tile designs in shifting shades of blue, yellow, and green. Metal braziers blazing with smokeless flames encircle the outer edge, lighting it up like daylight.

Fūinjutsu specialists are scurrying around the room, placing the final touches on two mandalas formed from seal script. The mandala to Sasuke’s left measures thirty feet in diameter, with a large empty space in its center. Radiating lines connect it to the mandala on his right, a far smaller circle with a simple brass censer sitting in the middle.

Sasuke can’t help a frown, muttering to Naruto, "Can something that small really hold a tailed beast?"

Naruto leans forward, squinting to get a better look; "I mean, maybe not the whole thing, but I guess if they did it right it’ll be fine to hold a piece of it. I can see seal script on it, but like… It’s the same stuff that was on Gaara’s chest, so like, I’ve got no idea what any of it means."

Sasuke rolls his eyes; "Some help you are, dumbass."

Naruto elbows Sasuke in the ribs; "And what are you bringing to this party, jackass? Bet you couldn’t even make an explosive tag."

"Guys, please," Kakashi sighs, "I don’t need a migraine before I use Kamui."

A member of the Sand council, a weathered old man with a scar blinding one eye, clears his throat; "Is everything ready?"

One of the fūinjutsu specialists replies from beside the censer, "Everything’s ready on our end."

Kakashi takes one whole step away from Sasuke, holding himself as upright as possible; "I’m as ready as I’ll ever be."

Gaara nods and orders, "Everyone, to your places. Let us begin."

The fūinjutsu specialists position themselves at the ends of the radiating lines coming off the two mandalas, all of them breaking skin on some part of their hands and placing them on the end of the line. Kakashi limps to the edge of the larger mandala, pulling his headband up to reveal his Sharingan just as it’s shifting to the Mangekyō. Sasuke stays five steps behind him, tensed and ready for any medical emergencies. Everyone else retreats to the wall. Naruto squeezes in next to Gaara, shooting Sasuke and Kakashi a pair of thumbs up and a wide grin.

Kakashi takes a deep breath. With a crackle of chakra that sets the hairs on the back of Sasuke’s neck on end, a black hole the size of a man’s head appears thirty feet above the larger mandala– slightly off center, but close enough. The spatial distortion spirals out from the black hole, a vacuum push threatening to shove Sasuke to the ground. He channels chakra into his feet to stay anchored, activating his Sharingan just in time to see everyone else in the room doing the same.

Sand comes blowing out from the hole, spraying all around the room. Sasuke braces himself. The rest of the One Tail can’t be far behind. The wind keeps blowing, sand keeps flying out, more and more until it… starts to taper off? The last sprinklings of sand are scattered throughout the room, and then… nothing. Sasuke strains his ears, his eyes, but he can’t make out any sign of the One Tail.

Kakashi doesn’t stop pushing. He doubles over for a second, but quickly rights himself. His eye goes wider, and suddenly the vacuum push ratchets up in intensity, buffeting everyone in the room with near-gale force winds. Everyone shields their eyes and hunkers down. Sasuke grits his teeth, squinting so he can get a look at Kamui, and…

Nothing’s coming out. No claws, no mouths, no tails. What’s going on? Kakashi isn’t the most practiced with this jutsu, but he was sure that anything he put in Kamui he could get back out again. And Kakashi’s not the kind of man to say he’s sure when he’s not. So where is it? Why isn’t it coming out? What’s–?

Sasuke’s stomach drops.

It’s not likely. But it’s possible. And they have to find out now. But they can’t just have someone stick their head into the hole and look, if Kakashi loses his grip on Kamui while they’re still looking in that could spell their death…

It could spell death for a human.

Sasuke bites his thumb, drops to one knee, and whirls through the signs. A small Katsuyu poofs into existence in front of him, and Sasuke quickly scoops her up before she’s blown away.

He calls out over the rushing wind, "Kakashi! Make it pull instead of push!"

Kakashi’s shoulders tense, and for a second Sasuke thinks he won’t, but with another wave of chakra the wind shifts. Sasuke’s hair and jacket start fluttering towards the black hole instead of away from it.

Next he barks to Katsuyu, "Split in half! I’m sending part of you in! You need to tell me what you see in there!"

Katsuyu gives him an indecipherable look, but dutifully splits in two. Sasuke buttons one into his jacket pocket, then pulls his arm back and lobs the other towards the black hole. She gets just close enough for Kamui to grab her out of the air and pull her in. And not a second too soon. With an anguished cry, Kakashi slams his eye shut and falls to his hands and knees. The black hole shrinks quickly down to nothingness.

Sasuke races to Kakashi’s side as he asks Katsuyu, "What do you see in there?"

There’s a moment of silence, then Katsuyu softly replies, "There are many rectangular towers within this place, but there are no other objects or individuals here besides myself. If the portion of the One Tail is still here, it is too far away for me to detect."

Kakashi coughs out between ragged pants, "No, I… Every time I’ve… Every time I’ve put something in, I can pull it right back out… I don’t think it matters where… Where in there it is… The One Tail… The One Tail is gone."

You could hear a pin drop.

Kankuro is the first to speak, spluttering, "What do you– How can it be gone?! Where could it go?!"

A member of the council puts a hand to their bearded chin, thinking out loud, "The creature is made from pure chakra, and it was injured. Perhaps the chakra dissolved over the past two days?"

Temari shakes her head, eyes hard; "A third of a tailed beast is still made from a hell of a lot of chakra, it would take more than two days for it to dissolve completely."

Naruto looks around the room before jogging to Kakashi and Sasuke, kneeling down so he can whisper to them, "Maybe… This is kinda crazy, but Sharingan are a matched set, right? Do you think–?"

Sasuke cuts him off with a shake of his head; "No, like I told you, the right eye has the ninjutsu and the left has a genjutsu, I don’t think if someone had Obito’s left eye they’d be able to use Kamui. And besides, wasn’t Obito crushed by a boulder, Kakashi? His eye would be unsalvageable."

Kakashi nods, but it’s loose and weak. On top of the strain from Kamui he’s obviously in shock. And Sasuke can’t really blame him. Of all the things that could’ve gone wrong, this was the absolute last one Sasuke was expecting. He glances over his shoulder to see the Sand Council and the Sand Siblings talking over each other as they scramble for what to do next. Gaara is the only one not lending his opinion, simply staring with his brow furrowed at the empty censer.

Gaara perks up, suddenly flicking his wrist. The area of the wall they came in through dissolves into sand once again, revealing Baki and Arsalan on the other side. Both are pale, mouths pressed into grim lines. Arsalan is clutching a scroll with white knuckles.

"Apologies for interrupting, Lord Kazekage," Baki rumbles, striding quickly into the room, "But we come with urgent news from the Leaf."

Gaara spares one last frown at the scene in front of him before turning to Baki and replying, "Let’s hear it, then. Everyone here has roughly equivalent security clearance, so hold nothing back."

Arsalan hands the scroll to Gaara and reports, "The Leaf Village received a request for peace talks from the Shogun of the Land of Sound, Kabuto Yakushi, last night. This is following a period of total radio silence from their agents tasked with monitoring the country, both within and without. Shogun Yakushi only volunteered that there was a revolt among the populace that killed Orochimaru and Daimyō Saitō. The Hokage has requested we relieve Team Kakashi of any additional duties as soon as possible so they can return to the village without delay."

The eruption of voices crying out for explanations and details is a dull, muffled roar in Sasuke’s ears. He’s not sure if he wants to laugh or scream. Of course. Of course the universe isn’t content with undercutting their victory against the Akatsuki. When it rains it doesn’t just pour, it pours so hard it makes a fucking mudslide. Sasuke’s brain is whirling in circles around one central point: Sakura. If Orochimaru is dead and Sound is in shambles, then where is she? What happened to her? Whose side did she take, did she get out alive, is she still there, how–?!

Kakashi’s hand lands heavy on Sasuke’s shoulder forcing him to look over and meet his dour gaze; "Sasuke, help me up. We’re going."

Sasuke blinks himself rapidly back to this moment, this set of problems; "But– You’re still–"

"I know," Kakashi mutters, "Trust me, I know. But we haven’t been given a choice in the matter."

Sasuke’s jaw clenches, but he still loops an arm around Kakashi’s waist and helps him to his feet. Naruto keeps a hand braced on Kakashi’s back, just in case.

Kakashi turns to the assembled Sand ninja and says, "We’ll be on our way, then."

One of the few female members of the Sand Council sputters, "Now hold on, the One Tail still hasn’t–!"

"The only option we have here is for me to keep pushing until my eye bursts," Kakashi cuts in, blunt as a rusted blade, "Returning to the Leaf Village, where we have plenty of records on the Sharingan, can give us more information and let us know what exactly happened here. But with all due respect, we are Leaf shinobi. We answer to the Hokage before anyone else. And we’ve been given orders to return immediately."

Gaara nods, speaking just a hair louder than he usually does to silence any voices of dissent; "Jōnin Hatake is correct. At this point, all we can do is trust and cooperate with our ally. Temari, can the airborne division spare any birds? It wouldn’t do for Hatake to exacerbate his wounds by making the journey back on foot."

Temari shares a quick look with Arsalan before she replies, "I believe Garuda’s made a full recovery. We’ll double check."

Gaara nods; "If the rest of you would, please wait for me in the council chambers so we may discuss the situation in the Land of Sound. I would like a private word with Team Kakashi."

Everyone shuffles out on Gaara’s order, the fūinjutsu specialists pausing only to dismiss the seals and collect the censer. Once Gaara has closed the wall behind them all, his shoulders sag, his eyes sliding closed with a heavy sigh. Sasuke winces. He can’t imagine the council has been too sympathetic to everything he’s been through– Actually, from how little he’s gotten to see Gaara over the past few days, he knows they haven’t.

Gaara opens his eyes, mouth twitching in a weak smile; "It’s a bit selfish of me, but I was hoping I’d have more time to spend with you all before you had to leave."

Naruto comes in close enough to give clap Gaara on the shoulder; "Nah, man, you’re good. I get it. You think you’re gonna be alright?"

Gaara shakes his head; "Whether or not I think I will, I have to be. I’m still the Kazekage, after all. I delegate as much as I can, but… Some things you can’t leave in the hands of others."

Naruto frowns, opening his mouth before quickly closing it and looking away, eyes downcast.

Gaara turns his gaze to Kakashi as he continues, "I would hope this goes without saying, but to make it clear, I don’t place any blame on you for whatever has become of this piece of the One Tail. To be perfectly blunt, I won’t miss it if it has been destroyed. The council may not be so generous, but I have plenty of experience with changing their minds."

Then, to Sasuke’s surprise, Gaara bows from the waist; "And I won’t let this go without saying: Thank you. I owe you three more than I can possibly repay. Alliances may shift and change, but you will always have my aid whenever you need it– If not as Kazekage, then just as Gaara."

Sasuke manages a smile; "Having 'just Gaara' in our corner is more than enough. I’d rather have a friend on my side than a kage."

Gaara can’t hide the split second of shock that crosses his face as he rises from his bow. He quickly turns his head, trying to hide a smile and not succeeding in the slightest. Naruto grins wide, holding out a hand for Gaara to shake. Gaara takes it and Naruto uses the 'handshake' to pull Gaara into a quick but sincere hug. Gaara’s eyes go wide for the second time, but he has little choice but to return the hug with his free arm. He shoots Sasuke a questioning look over Naruto’s shoulder and Sasuke just shrugs. Gaara had better get used to this if he wants to be Naruto’s friend.

The instant Gaara and Naruto step back from each other, the warmth drains from the room. Everyone remembers all at once the reason they’re all saying goodbye.

Smiles fall, eyes sharpen, and it’s back to work once again.

Asuma’s mouth is full of soba when Kurenai says, "I’ve volunteered to be on Tsunade’s security team for the peace talks."

He nearly chokes.

Asuma appreciates that Kurenai believes in open and honest communication, but he was hoping he wouldn’t have to think about how buck wild shit was getting around the village while they were having a date night in. He finishes his bite, doing his best to avoid meeting Kurenai’s piercing crimson gaze across her kitchen table.

Noodles thoroughly chewed and swallowed, Asuma coughs, "I didn’t know they were recruiting for that already."

Kurenai shrugs a shoulder; "Neither did I, until someone let it slip."

That catches on something in the back of Asuma’s mind, and before he can stop himself he’s asking, "Who?"

Kurenai’s brow furrows. She’s perceptive– You have to be if you’re going to specialize in altering the perceptions of others. Keeping her out of the loop of Shikamaru’s investigation has been about as difficult as the investigation itself, especially when he’s roped in two of her students. Asuma keeps his face as innocently curious as he can.

After a breath, Kurenai’s brow smooths out, and she replies with her mouth full, "Ashi Inuzuka, from Intelligence. You wouldn’t know her, she’s pretty timid– I know, a timid Inuzuka, I thought it was an oxymoron, too. We make conversation sometimes when I’m visiting Kiba, and like everyone in town the Sound debacle was all she could talk about when I dropped by today."

Asuma rolls his eyes and drawls, "The way word spreads in this town you’d think we had a population in the hundreds, not the hundreds of thousands," to cover for his blood running cold.

There’s only one timid female Inuzuka he knows of, and he just yesterday got reliable word she was one of their shadow’s agents. Why on Earth would she be leaking this information to Kurenai? It’s like trying to play shogi against someone with a curtain covering their side of the board.

Kurenai is looking him sternly up and down again, and after a moment she shuts her eyes and sighs, "You don’t like it."

Asuma blinks; "Don’t like what?"

"That I volunteered," Kurenai replies.

Asuma grimaces, rubbing the back of his neck; "I mean, you are pregnant…"

Kurenai opens her eyes to frown at him; "I’m not that far along. It’s going to be a while before I need to be taken off the active roster. And besides, we still don’t know what we’re doing. The mission doesn’t start for a few days. In theory, I could solve that problem."

Asuma’s stomach does a back flip; "That is also a pretty intensive medical procedure, you know–"

Kurenai leans back in her chair, crossing her arms over her chest; "Asuma, I wasn’t opening the floor for debate. I’m telling you what’s going to happen. I’m going on that mission. I have to."

Asuma’s brow furrows; "I didn’t know this was so important to you."

Kurenai’s shoulders sink, her eyes dropping to the tabletop; "I know she wasn’t part of my team, but… Sakura was my student, too. I feel like I had the chance to really reach out to her, to help her like I helped Hinata, but I just… Kakashi had been getting better with her, and she wasn’t as obvious about when things were bothering her as Hinata, so I didn’t keep as close an eye on her… There’s been no word on what happened to her after Sound imploded. She could be on the run, she could be dead in a ditch. If anyone knows, it’s Kabuto."

Asuma purses his lips, reaching across the table to put a hand on Kurenai’s arm; "Babe, I understand. Trust me I do. I just… Taking this mission for personal reasons could do more harm than good, you know? You’re a good shinobi, but even the best can make mistakes when their focus is split between the mission and their own desires. And you’re heading into what could easily be a trap set by one of our enemies, going in with that mindset…"

Kurenai shakes her head; "I don’t have any other choice. Almost everyone in this village has given up on Sakura, or just never cared about her to begin with. I’ve tried everything else, but no other missions could ever take me close enough to Sound to get any information worth a damn. This is the best chance I have. No matter the risks, I’m taking it."

The gears in Asuma’s brain are kicking up sparks. So this is part of the answer to why their shadow approached her. They must have known she’d be deeply, personally invested in getting this. But why her? Why now? Why with an agent Asuma was bound to recognize–

An agent Asuma was bound to recognize. An agent Asuma knew for a fact had discovered Shikamaru’s investigation, just days after another one of their agents had let him know that they knew Kurenai was pregnant. And now they’ve manipulated her onto a dangerous, shady-as-all-hell mission that she can’t be convinced to drop right in front of him.

The message crystallizes: If you want her to come home alive, you’ll do what we say.

It’s like someone has their fist wrapped around his heart and is squeezing as tight as they can. His world narrows down to a single point. All that matters is the woman in front of him and the unborn child she’s carrying. He can’t lose her. He can’t lose them. Not now, not like this. Not when he can protect them.

He takes a deep breath and forces himself to smile; "Don’t know what I was thinking– As always, you’re way smarter and way tougher than me."

Kurenai snorts, leaning across the table to give his shoulder a playful swat; "Don’t you start, I don’t let my kids talk that way about themselves and I won’t let you do it either. I know you’re just worried, Asuma."

Asuma takes her hand, lacing their fingers together; "Yeah, I am, but… Earlier, you said we didn’t know what we were doing. I’ve been thinking carefully about that ever since you told me you were pregnant, and…"

Asuma swallows hard and looks her in the eye; "I don’t have a ring. Don’t know if I even have money for one. But if you wanted, I’d carry you to the tower and we’d sign those papers right now. When I think about my future, Kurenai, you’re there with me. I’ve always wanted to start a family with you, and sure, it’s sooner than I ever thought it’d be. But we’re ninja, right? What are we if not good at adapting?"

Kurenai shuts her eyes, smile wide and voice thick; "Two things. First: You’d better not be proposing because you’re scared I’ll die, you pulled that shit once and you know how I felt about it."

Asuma grins and cleanly lies, "Yeah, I know better than to do it again."

Kurenai squeezes his hand and whispers, "Second… You may not have a ring, but you’d better get down on one knee and say the words, because you’re the only person I’ve ever wanted to hear them from."

Asuma lets go of Kurenai’s hand, walking around the table and kneel at her side. Kurenai turns to look down at him, tears beading at the corner of her eyes.

"Kurenai Yūhi, will you marry me?"

Kurenai responds with a laugh and tackles him to her kitchen floor, kissing him like he’s the one about to go off to war.

After a passionate few hours, Asuma carefully extracts himself from Kurenai’s bed. She stirs, but a kiss to the top of her hair and a murmur from him sets her back to snoring. Asuma puts his boxers and pants back on, then fishes his cigarettes and lighter out of his flak jacket. He heads out onto Kurenai’s balcony, closing the sliding glass door. He uses one of the tricks she taught him, casting a simple genjutsu to turn human voices into the sounds of night birds and crickets.

He leans on the railing, lights a cigarette, and says into the night, "Whatever it is you want, you’ll get it."

A silhouette appears at the edge of Asuma’s vision. He deliberately doesn’t turn to look. He doesn’t say a word as they outline his task. He doesn’t need to. They tell him every cruel detail. All Asuma does is nod when they ask him if he understands. The shadow fades. Asuma is alone.

He presses his face into his hands and bites his lip until it bleeds.

Sasori is starting to regret leaving Deidara in the hotel.

Not because Deidara would be useful right now, all Sasori’s doing is standing on a bridge, but at least if he had Deidara’s company he’d have something to focus on beyond the fact that Kabuto is dancing up to the edge of being late. The man is many things, but one of the deciding factors for making him a mole was his punctuality. Sasori looks down at his hand, listens to the knuckles clicking as he flexes his fingers. This is going to be a very different meeting than he’d envisioned it to be.

The aged planks of Tenchi Bridge creak. Sasori’s head snaps up towards the sound. Kabuto has arrived, but not at all in the fashion Sasori had expected. He usually likes to slink about beneath heavy cloaks like a thief on the run. Today, he’s striding forward with his head held high, clad in the helm and haori usually befitting a kage. The smirk on his face is so smug Sasori has half a mind to slap it off of him.

Sasori narrows his eyes; "You certainly took your time."

Kabuto’s smirk widens out into a grin; "Sorry about that. My guards were more concerned with my safety than being on time, and since you’ve swapped bodies they weren’t sure you were really Sasori. It took a bit to assuage their fears."

"You have guards now," Sasori remarks, arching a brow, "I think we’re going to need to skip pleasantries. It seems we both have quite a bit to share."

The takeover of Sound Kabuto describes is nothing short of a masterwork. With how thoroughly he manipulated everyone involved and is continuing to do so, he ought to be declared an honorary puppet master. Sasori can’t help a twinge of envy. He also makes a mental note to have someone send this 'Sakura' girl a bouquet for finally putting Orochimaru down. There’s no doubt in his mind that the old snake has one last contingency plan waiting in the wings, but getting him down to that is still an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Once he’s finished, it’s Sasori’s turn. Kabuto takes in the information with keen interest, a hand rubbing at his chin as he thinks every point over. The Akatsuki’s latest disaster of a mission almost gets him smirking, but he has a strong enough sense of self-preservation not to do so in front of the man most humiliated by that whole affair. The smirk wouldn’t have lived long, anyway. As Sasori details the changes their shareholder has thrust upon the organization, Kabuto listens with a furrowed brow and a wisp of a frown.

When Sasori finishes, Kabuto taps his chin in thought; "Well. Your new policies are going to make my request slightly longer of a shot than I was hoping for."

Sasori makes a sound that’s close to a breath, since actually breathing is off the table; "Looking to hire us already, Lord Shogun? The people you kept must not be as good as you claimed."

Kabuto shakes his head; "Oh, my men could suffice, but they wouldn’t send the right message. Besides, I don’t think you would like us taking two tailed beasts out from under your noses."

Sasori’s eyes widen by just a fraction; "Excuse me?"

Kabuto’s smirk returns, a sharp edge to it; "I should’ve lead with that, shouldn’t I?"

"Yes, you should have."

The air between Sasori and Kabuto wavers, flickering around a pinhole punched in the world. A human form spirals out from the hole, their shareholder appearing in the middle of Tenchi Bridge. Sasori bristles. Not many men can remain intimidating in the light of a pale sunrise, but their shareholder has managed it.

Sasori catches the barest glint of red from their mask’s one eyehole as they purr, "Now, despite what some may say, I’m not an unreasonable man. I’m certainly not opposed to being paid to do something I was planning on doing already. Come, Lord Shogun… Let’s discuss this job offer of yours."

Kabuto grins a hyena’s grin; "Yes, let’s."

Chapter Text

XII. Hearing the news from Sound is no less shocking the second time. If anything, getting it straight from the Hokage’s mouth just makes it worse.

Kakashi can tell the boys are taking it harder than he is, which is a feat considering how hard he’s taking it. Sasuke is trembling from head to toe, staring with too-wide eyes at Tsunade. His jaw is clenched tight, fists clenched even tighter. Naruto, meanwhile, has his arms crossed over his chest, eyes on the floor. Kakashi still isn’t up to standing for prolonged periods of time, so he has to settle for leaning as far forward as he can in his chair, elbows braced on his knees and hands clasped. Even setting aside what all of this might mean for Sakura (no small thing), this move of Kabuto’s has the potential to sow instability all over the continent. If they don’t play a perfect game against him, they could be due for another war.

That’s a prospect anyone else would find frightening. For Kakashi, it’s just exhausting.

"To say we were caught off guard by all of this would be underselling it," Tsunade grouses, rubbing at her temple, "If it were solely up to me, I wouldn’t add any more complicating factors if I didn’t have to. But unfortunately, the council had an idea."

Sasuke glares like those are the foulest five words in the common tongue; "I think I know where this is going."

"I said I’d try to get Naruto a special dispensation to be promoted to chūnin depending on his mission performance," Tsunade explains, "In light of that and Naruto’s… uneven showing in Sand, the council decided that a further test of his ability to prioritize was in order."

Kakashi puts the pieces together and a frisson of rage jolts up his spine; "They want to assign Naruto to your protection detail as a test? Are they taking this seriously or aren’t they?"

Naruto looks up, shooting Kakashi a halfway offended look; "Hey, I know I didn’t do my best on the Gaara mission but I wasn’t that bad!"

"No, you weren’t, I’m sorry," Kakashi sighs, running a hand through his hair, "We still don’t know if this is a trap yet, and it very well could be. I just don’t understand why the council would risk losing the Hokage and the Nine Tails. They’re pragmatic to a fault, I have no doubt that the reason they gave for making this decision is nowhere near true."

"What I don’t understand is why you went along with all this," Sasuke remarks, arching an eyebrow at Tsunade.

Tsunade frowns hard in Sasuke’s direction; "We’ve been over this, Sasuke. The Hokage only has absolute authority during wartime. Until the moment I put my signature on an official declaration of war, I can’t do anything without majority approval of the council, and I can’t just ignore their proposals, either."

Naruto’s eyes go wide; "Wait, what? So you mean the Hokage can’t just do whatever they want?"

"No, they can’t, and under normal circumstances that’s a good thing," Tsunade replies, "If it wasn’t for his council, my great-uncle would have gotten rid of the Uchiha long before Itachi was even born. The problem is that I’m stuck with Hiruzen’s pain in the ass war hawk teammates until I’ve been Hokage for three years. Only then can I dismiss them and appoint my own council."

Naruto’s face screws up in a grimace; "So that means you’re stuck with them until August? Putting up with them for another five months sounds like a nightmare, believe it."

"Honestly, the council shouldn’t be an appointed position at all," Sasuke comments, eyes drifting to the window, "The First and Second just chose their families, the Third chose his genin teammates, and from what I’ve read the Fourth was gonna do the same as the Third. The closest we ever got to having the council not be an echo chamber was the First having Madara on as an unofficial member, and we all know how long that lasted. And the fact that there’s no maximum amount of council members outlined anywhere is insane. The fate of an entire village shouldn’t be determined by three people."

Kakashi smiles wryly beneath his mask, making eye contact with Tsunade; "He’s starting to sound like you."

Tsunade grins for the first time since they walked into her office; "I mean, with how often he’s heard me rant about how hard it is to change even the smallest laws in this goddamn village, can you blame him?"

Her smile quickly drops, and Tsunade continues, "While they centered it around Naruto, their specific proposal had been that all of Team Kakashi would be assigned to this mission. But we’re leaving for the capitol to rendezvous with Daimyō Ogasawara on the twentieth, and if everything I’ve heard about Kakashi’s condition is correct…"

"He’s not gonna be ready for travel or battle in four days," Sasuke finishes, shaking his head, "Maybe if he was subjected to highly intensive Mystical Palm treatments until the minute we leave, he could be. But that’s not only impractical, it’s dangerous."

"Four days is more than enough time for me to find a replacement for myself," Kakashi remarks, sitting up as straight as he’s able, "I actually have someone in–"

Tsunade shakes her head; "That’s not going to be necessary. The team already consists of five jōnin and four chūnin, and Ogasawara will be accompanied by at least three members of the Twelve Guardian Ninja. With Naruto and Sasuke added to that total, we’re dancing right up to the edge of having to cut people from the team to keep it from getting too bloated. Rest assured, I think I can manage badgering the council into accepting an incomplete Team Kakashi as still counting."

Kakashi frowns, countering, "That may be, but Naruto is a genin, to not have a jōnin specifically supervising him on a mission above B rank is against the law in a non-emergency situation–"

"As I said, there are five jōnin on this mission," Tsunade parries, "Even with two of them acting as my personal guards, that still leaves three candidates to act as his supervision."

Kakashi bites his tongue. The law isn’t the problem here, and they both know it. But neither of them can say it in front of Naruto. His relationship with the boy is a delicate thing right now, and declaring he’s a monster that needs to be shackled if he loses control could easily break it. He chances another glance from the corner of his eye. Naruto’s lips are pursed as his eyes slowly scan the room. That was always the balancing act when trying to keep things from Naruto– The kid’s emotionally aware enough to know when he’s not being told the whole truth, but doesn’t quite have the raw intellect to deduce what exactly is being hidden.

Sasuke breaks the silence, voice shaking; "And you’re sure. You’re sure you want us… You’re sure you want me there."

Tsunade nods, simply replying, "There’s no one else I’d rather have at my side."

Sasuke swallows hard, looking away and hiding his eyes behind his bangs; "Alright. If it’s all the same to you, then, I’m heading out. Let me know when the full-team briefings are and I’ll be there."

Tsunade doesn’t even finish her nod before Sasuke turns on his heel and darts out of the room. He slams the door behind him hard enough to crack the frame. Tsunade lets her head drop into her hands with a sigh. Naruto grimaces at the door. Kakashi just shakes his head. If his hair wasn’t gray already, dealing with teenagers would’ve turned it within a month.

Naruto turns to Tsunade, standing up with a valiant attempt at his usual grin on his face; "Don’t worry, Grandma, I’ll prove it to the council that I’m ready to make chūnin. This mission’s gonna go super smooth, believe it!"

Naruto looks to Kakashi; "You want me to help you up?"

Kakashi shakes his head; "Could you wait for me outside? I’d like to discuss a few things with Tsunade in private."

Naruto doesn’t blink twice at the excuse to leave the room, skittering out of there like a stir-crazy cockroach. At the very least he closes the door instead of slamming it. Once they’re alone, Tsunade raises a single, questioning eyebrow. Kakashi takes a deep breath and, with no small amount of pain and effort, pushes himself to stand at his full height.

"Tsunade, you know we can’t send Naruto off without someone to keep the Nine Tails in check," Kakashi states, "If I can’t be there to seal him, at least let Tenzo–"

"Tenzo is an active member of ANBU with his own missions," Tsunade cuts in, "I can’t reassign him as easily as you think I can. As I said, a jōnin from the team can be assigned to look after him. They can also be briefed on the situation and provided with the proper equipment. I understand the urgency, the Nine Tails is always a danger, but you don’t need to tie yourself up in this many knots about it."

"If this was any other mission, I wouldn’t," Kakashi replies, "But even though we’ve been talking around it, you know what this mission is going to mean to those boys. A confrontation with Kabuto means an opportunity to learn more about Sakura’s whereabouts. The emotional strain of fighting to save Gaara nearly had Naruto growing a second tail. The risk that he’ll go even further is exponentially higher with Sakura’s fate on the table."

Tsunade steeples her fingers beneath her chin and fixes Kakashi with a sharp look; "Alright, since you apparently haven’t noticed this, I’ll spell it out for you. I really don’t think you need to worry about Naruto getting overwhelmed emotionally about Sakura."

Kakashi’s brow furrows; "Excuse me?"

"Think this through with me, Kakashi," Tsunade sighs, "During this whole meeting, how did Sasuke look?"

"Like he wanted to scream," Kakashi replies.

"Right. He had the look of someone who, if he saw Sakura in front of him right now, could easily suffer some kind of breakdown. Now. How did Naruto look?"

Kakashi thinks it through. Naruto was… Well, he wasn’t calm, but he certainly wasn’t overwhelmed either. He wasn’t the ball of nerves he’d been when they were going after Gaara. He’d looked troubled, but not necessarily worried. He’d looked…

"Ambivalent," Kakashi mutters.

"Exactly," Tsunade says, "For better or for worse, it seems Naruto has very mixed feelings about Sakura. Maybe if something happens to Sasuke during this mission Naruto might need someone to restrain him and get the Nine Tails back under control. But to be perfectly blunt, Naruto’s attachment to Sakura isn’t strong enough to warrant that kind of caution."

Those words nearly knock Kakashi’s feet out from under him.

Not for the first time, he curses himself for all the time he spent away from Naruto. He’d just assumed that Naruto’s feelings for Sakura hadn’t changed. After all, the kid had forgiven far greater crimes from people he had far weaker connections to. Why wouldn’t he just forgive Sakura, too? But maybe that was the difference. Maybe because she’d been so close to him he took her betrayal that much harder. And maybe…

Naruto and Sakura had seemed close, but now that he really thinks about it, what did those two have in common? The connections Naruto made with Haku and Gaara were forged from a shared trauma as outsiders, hated and feared by the world. Sakura, at least to Naruto’s eye, must have seemed like she lived a charmed life. She did well in the academy, she had a family who loved her, she had teachers who supported her, she had friends who cared about her, and the village tolerated her presence.

What’s the pain of your father divorcing your mother and exiting your life, never to return, to a boy who never knew his parents? What’s the pain of being merely tolerated, never allowed to shine because you’re constantly being underestimated and dismissed, to a boy who people spat at in the street? What’s the pain of striving for more power, not even to excel but just to keep up, to a boy who was cursed with more power than he’ll ever know what to do with?

And Kakashi thought the hard part of this would be untangling what had made Sakura go rogue. After all these years, he still has a few drops of naiveté left in him.

Kakashi drags a hand down his face; "I think it’s time I left, then. I have… a lot to think about. Good luck, Lady Hokage."

The next day and a half passes for Naruto in a blur of meetings and busywork. He doesn’t have much time to enjoy the fact that Team Eight and Team Guy will be joining them for the peace talks, since when they’re all together it’s for briefings on their route, their travel pace, their formations, their supplies, and all kinds of stuff Naruto knows is important but threaten to put him straight to sleep. When he isn’t prepping, Naruto is rushing to handle all the little details involved in returning to the village he didn’t have time to deal with before they ran off to Gaara’s rescue.

Most of it centers around his apartment. It’s not enough to just get the keys back from his landlord and get back to how things were before he left. No, he has to dust everything, restock his fridge, get rid of a bunch of too-small clothes, get his utilities running again, replace his bed sheets because the moths have been snacking on them while he’s been gone, and perform a thousand more annoying chores. It’s thankless, sweaty work that at least guarantees Naruto will sleep soundly through the night once it’s done.

Naruto spends this time internally begging for literally anything else to do, so when Sasuke brings up after their second day of briefings that Team Ten wanted to get together with the Rookie Eleven that night for dinner it takes all of Naruto’s self control not to start sprinting to the restaurant halfway through his sentence.

Team Ten meets them at Yakiniku Q just as the sun is setting. Chōji greets Naruto with a back-breaking hug and dozens of questions about his time outside the village. Shikamaru gives him a nod and a smile, overpowered instantly by Ino warmly ribbing Naruto’s new outfit and growth spurt. Naruto gives as good as he gets, calling out Ino’s still-short hair and just as short shirt. Team Guy is the next to arrive in typical energetic fashion, Lee finally letting all the effusive praise and curiosity he’s been holding back during their official briefings flood out of him all at once. Tenten and Neji share Naruto’s long-suffering wince.

Team Eight arrives last. Naruto isn’t really sure what Kiba and Shino are doing, because his eyes– just like in the briefings– seem to block everything else out in favor of Hinata. There’s just something… distracting about her. It’s not like she’s changed that much, she’s a bit taller, her hair’s a lot longer, her sweater doesn’t hide her figure quite as much, she holds herself a little more confidently in conversation, but beyond that she’s just about the s–

Hinata looks Naruto in the eye, her cheeks immediately dusting with pink, and she says through a soft smile, "I-it’s good to see you again, Naruto."

Naruto’s thoughts all slam into each other in a massive pile-up. What the fuck, why is she so cute?

Naruto grins as wide as he can to try and banish that thought from his head; "Ah, come on, you’ve seen me plenty! But it’ll be great to finally talk again about stuff that’s not the mission, believe it!"

Naruto can feel Sasuke smirking at the back of his head as they file inside the restaurant. He feels that smirk widen to a grin as they’re squeezing into the private room Chōji booked them in advance and Sasuke makes sure the seating arrangements will put Naruto and Hinata shoulder to shoulder.

Once everyone’s settled, Naruto finally asks, "So, what’s special about tonight? Or are we all getting together just 'cause?"

Ino’s eyes go wide, and she looks between Naruto and Sasuke as she exclaims, "Sasuke, didn’t you tell him? This is for you, Naruto! We missed our chance to have a big 'Welcome Back' dinner because of the whole Gaara thing, you guys are gonna head off on another long mission away in two more days, and we’re off on our own long mission away tomorrow morning. We’re doing this now or not at all!"

Lee’s thick brows immediately furrow, and he instinctively leans in closer to Ino as he asks, "You are? This is the first I am hearing of this, why did you not tell me?"

Ino bumps him with her shoulder and replies, "Ease back a bit, Caterpillar Brows. We literally just found out today."

Lee’s pensive frown doesn’t budge; "What is the mission?"

"Recon," Shikamaru answers on Ino’s behalf, "Some teams are heading into Hot Water ahead of you guys to take a look around, see if we can’t work with their village to head off any trouble before it reaches Chukyō. It’s a drag and a half, but someone’s gotta do it."

Ino shoots Lee a grin, softly pushing his chest as she adds, "They just want us checking around the border with Frost, that area’s nice and boring. Now unclench and enjoy the grilled meat, Caterpillar Brows."

Lee’s brow doesn’t quite smooth all the way out, but he does return Ino’s smile; "I am glad to hear that. I will be looking forward to your safe return!"

Ino just laughs, leaning hard against him; "Oh come on, you’re the one going on the Big Ticket Mission with the Hokage, that should be my line!"

"Alright, we have hit the cutoff for talking shop at the dinner table," Chōji declares with a near-deafening clap of his hands, "No more talk about current or future missions!"

"Thank God you didn't say past missions," Tenten remarks with a wry smirk, "Otherwise half of us would have nothing to talk about."

Kiba barks out a laugh; "Even still, I don’t think our guest of honor wants to hear about the millionth time we escorted a member of the daimyō’s court from one end of the country to another! Come on, Naruto, tell us where the Hell you’ve been for the past two years!"

Naruto grins and fires back, "What, Sasuke didn’t get you guys together and hold group readings of my letters while I was gone?"

Tenten snorts into her drink; "Oh hell no. Sasuke’s not as much of a jerk as he used to be, sure, but getting him to put his work down and hang out with us is like pulling teeth."

"I am literally right here, Tenten," Sasuke remarks, deadpan.

Tenten reaches across the table to pat Sasuke’s hand and reply sweetly, "And we’re all very proud of you for showing up."

Sasuke’s glare could peel the paint off a wall.

Naruto gives Sasuke a friendly shove before he launches in, "I mean, we didn’t really go a lot of places while I was away. We spent most of our time on Mount Myōboku, so–"

Neji’s eyes go wide and he nearly drops his water; "Mount Myōboku? The mountain accessible only to the sacred toads and their sages? You just… lived there? For two years?"

Naruto blinks owlishly at him; "Yeah? Why, is that weird?"

Neji sputters, seemingly choking on his own voice, for a few moments before he can pull words together; "Yes it’s weird! You lived in a place people have died trying to find! What–?! How did you even–?!"

Naruto shrugs, not fighting the smug edge creeping into his grin; "Guess that’s just the perk of having a Legendary Sannin as your teacher! Yeah, it got kinda boring after a while, but to start it was pretty cool being there…"

Naruto leaves nothing to the imagination as he describes the mountain, how in places it’s more waterfall and pond than land, how the spawning pools fill with tadpoles in late Winter that grow into colorful little toads that cover the mountain like flowers in Spring. Describing the lush greenery and the odd architecture designed with toads in mind sends a pang of unexpected nostalgia through him. He’d been so homesick for the village Naruto couldn’t imagine missing the mountain, but here he is, a tiny part of him aching for the days he spent beneath the shade of the tall trees with his bare feet soaking in the ponds.

It’s easily offset by the dozens of questions coming from all around the table. Even Shino speaks up, using his rough, weak voice to ask about the lands surrounding the mountain. Naruto answers each one in exhaustive detail with an ever-brightening grin. He’s been told that it’s obnoxious and tacky to admit that not only do you want attention, you want to be the center of attention. Naruto’s response to that will always be "Yeah, I know, why do you think I wear bright orange all the time?" The spotlight is finally back on him tonight. He’s going to revel in it, no matter how tacky or obnoxious it makes him look.

Once the food starts to arrive conversation starts to fragment a bit, but Naruto’s gotten enough undivided attention up to this point that he’s fine with that. It certainly helps that Hinata has kept her eyes on him the entire time. Naruto’s pretty sure that by now he’s just talking to her. But he doesn’t really mind. Hinata asks good questions, even if it takes her a few false starts, and listens to him talk like he’s the most interesting person in the world. Naruto basks in the energy of being surrounded by his friends having their own conversations, drifting away from and coming back to the table, and just generally carrying on exactly like they used to before he left. The details have changed, but tonight, things are more familiar than they are foreign.

After a while, Naruto gets up to use the bathroom. He’s halfway down the hall when he catches the sound of two voices from around the bend. Naruto stops in his tracks, brow furrowing. He doesn’t need any time at all to identify them as Ino and Sasuke. He does remember them both stepping out a little while ago, but he thought at least one of them had made it back by now. Had he really been paying that little attention?

Naruto starts walking again on silent feet. He can’t make out specific words yet, but he can hear tone just fine. Ino’s voice is coming out in harsh bites while Sasuke’s has dropped into the cold near-monotone he used exclusively before the Chūnin Exams. Naruto’s stomach twists. One part of his brain tells him to speed up, walk around the corner as blatantly and loudly as he can so he can break this up and not have to hear any of it and let all three of them pretend it never happened. The other, larger part is making his hands go through the signs for one of the only genjutsu he picked up from Sakura.

Naruto pulls an Invisible Cloak Jutsu around himself. His mouth screws up in a wince as sound muffles and color fades. Naruto doesn’t need to see himself to know that his surroundings are bending crudely around his body and the edges of his form are wobbly and obvious. If he stands out in the open, if Sasuke and Ino look directly at him, they’ll clock him immediately. So Naruto instead presses his back flush to the wall, creeping up until he’s at the corner, and cranes his neck just enough to get a good look at what’s up ahead.

Sasuke is leaning on the wall between the men and women’s restrooms, arms crossed tight over his chest. Ino’s hands are firmly on her hips as she glares up at him. Ino has a scowl etched onto her face while Sasuke has defaulted back to the 'mostly blank but the tiniest bit annoyed' expression he wore at all times when they were younger. Naruto doesn’t wanna see where this is going. He stays and watches anyway.

"Don’t bullshit me, Sasuke," Ino snaps, blowing her long bangs out of the way only for them to fall back over her right eye, "We’ve known each other too long for that. Tell me why you’re going."

"Because the Hokage told me to, why else," Sasuke grunts.

"Literally what did I just say," Ino exclaims, throwing her hands out in an emphatic gesture, "You could’ve said no! You are legally allowed to say no! It would’ve been smart for you to say no! And despite your best efforts to prove me wrong, I know you’re smart!"

"And telling the Hokage 'no' to their face usually isn’t smart," Sasuke counters, eyes narrowing by a fraction.

Ino rolls her eyes with her whole head, groaning, "Oh my God, Sasuke, I know Tsunade isn’t the fucking Second Hokage, she’s a normal reasonable woman! And she’s your teacher who adores you, you really expect me to believe you were just too scaaaaared to tell her–?"

"You already know why I’m going," Sasuke cuts in, voice burning like acid, "You just want to hear me say it."

Ino rocks back, eyes going wide for a moment, before she regains her footing and her scowl returns; "Yes. I do. So go on, Sasuke. I’m not letting you go until I hear you admit it. Out loud."

Sasuke sighs through his nose, holding his silence for a long moment before he finally says, "I need to know where Sakura is. I need to know what happened to her. If anyone knows, it’s Kabuto."

Ino slaps her hands over her face, making a frustrated sound through her teeth; "God, hearing it out loud is just– Sasuke, you can’t seriously think you’re going to be able to just ask someone like Kabuto that question and get a straight answer!"

"Of course not," Sasuke snaps, "That’s what the Sharingan are for. Nobody can lie without tells."

"Oh yeah, that’s gonna go over real well," Ino scoffs, throwing her hands off her face in another wide, dramatic gesture, "That’s gonna be a huge show of good faith to the person we’re trying to keep from setting the world on fire! Are you seriously going to risk international stability and security over a fucking girl?!"

Sasuke bares his teeth; "Like you said, Ino, I’m not an idiot. There’s plenty of ways for me to use my Sharingan without getting caught–"

Ino slams a fist into the wall beside Sasuke’s head. He doesn’t flinch, but he does shut up.

Ino asks in a low, threatening rumble, "Do you wanna know why I cut my hair, Sasuke?"

Sasuke’s head tilts, his bangs falling forward to obscure his eyes; "No, but you’re going to tell me anyway."

Ino’s jaw clenches, a vein popping out on her neck; "When we were kids, all Sakura and I cared about was one-upping each other by seeing who’d get to you first. There was a rumor going around that you liked girls with long hair. So we both grew our hair out. And then, during the Exams, we both cut our hair to get away from someone trying to kill us. Sakura kept her hair the way it was as a reminder. So did I. And when she left…"

Ino steps back, crossing her arms over her chest, and spits in Sasuke’s face, "It hit me all at once that I was trying so hard to copy and catch up to someone who never gave a shit about me. I don’t know what she’s really trying to pull and I don’t care– The facts are that Sakura was willing to drop me as a friend over a boy. Sakura was willing to kill me because I was in her way. Sakura was willing to lie to me and betray our village because I wasn’t worth even reconsidering for. So I cut it all off. Because I’m done living in her shadow. I’m done trying to beat her by being someone you’d want. My hair is mine, and my life is mine. I’m done letting her tell me what to do with it."

Ino’s eyes soften for just a second, and she whispers, "Is there even a chance that you’re gonna do the same?"

Sasuke says nothing. He turns away from her, hiding his face completely.

Ino shuts her eyes and sighs, "You’re hopeless, Sasuke."

The words are familiar, but the tone isn’t. Ino used to tell Sasuke he was hopeless like someone tells a puppy it’s adorable. This… It's like she’s saying goodbye. Naruto swallows and it burns the whole way down. He pads back to halfway down the hall, then drops the invisible cloak, folds his arms behind his head, and strolls as loudly as he can towards the bathrooms.

He hears Ino mutter something under her breath before whispering, "I can’t tell you what to do or how to feel. Just… Be careful."

Sasuke doesn’t respond. Ino comes around the corner just as Naruto’s about to turn it, arms crossed tight and eyes on the floor. Naruto does her the kindness of pretending she’s not even there.

Naruto turns the corner, forcing himself to sound casual as he says, "Damn, you’re still here? Everything good?"

Sasuke gives him a quick jerk of a nod; "Yeah. Everything’s good."

He doesn’t give Naruto the chance to say anything else, turning and heading back to their private room without another word. Naruto keeps his lips pursed tight as he uses the restroom. He knew things were going too well. He knew he was getting too comfortable. When he circles back to dinner, all he can see is how Sasuke and Ino are barely talking to anyone and definitely not talking to each other. All he can see is Sasuke staring into space, Ino leaning so hard on Lee she might as well be in his lap. All he can see are scars criss-crossing Kiba’s face, stiffness in Neji’s shoulder, effort in Shino’s every breath.

All he can see is how tightly they’ve packed themselves in to hide the empty space at the table.

Everyone eats their fill and pays their share of the check. Naruto is hyperaware of how his friends pair off (or don’t pair off) as they leave. Neji puts an arm around Tenten and they head off in the direction of her house naturally as breathing. Sasuke waves wordlessly over his shoulder and disappears down the street. Shikamaru drifts off with a clipped goodbye and a pensive knot between his eyebrows, but Chōji spares the group an apology on his behalf before following him. Shino almost offers to walk Hinata home before Kiba elbows him hard in the ribs, wags his head in Naruto’s direction, then makes excuses for them both that leave Hinata red-faced and frowning as they walk away. Lee insists on seeing Ino home. Once she relents he sweeps her up into his arms and sprints away, leaving a dust cloud, an echo of Ino shrieking in surprise, and a wide-eyed Naruto and Hinata in his wake.

It’s only after a moment of silence that Naruto realizes he’s been left alone with Hinata. He glances down to see her futzing with her fingers, her eyes on the ground. It’s familiar. It’s cute. Why is it so cute?

Naruto rubs at the back of his neck, asking just as Hinata opens her mouth to speak, "Which way’s the Hyūga Compound from here? I’ll walk you home."

Hinata’s white eyes whip up to meet his, wide as the moon; "O-oh, no– N-no, no, you don’t have to do that, it’s so far from your apartment, I wouldn’t want to impose–"

"You’re not imposing if I’m offering," Naruto cuts in, grinning again, "Besides, what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t make sure you got home safe? The shitty kind, believe it!"

Hinata’s mouth closes in a tiny, bright smile, and after a moment she nods; "W-well then… I-if you’re sure. I-it’s this way…"

Hinata starts walking and Naruto falls in step with her. The village streets are quiet this time of night, the buzz of street lamps and the sound of night birds filling the silence between the two of them. Naruto’s eyes keep darting to Hinata. His mind is still stewing on the conversation between Ino and Sasuke, and all this quiet isn’t helping that. He should say something. But what?

Naruto shoves his hands in his pockets and looks up at the sky as he defaults to petty gossip; "So what’s up with Ino and Lee? Are they, like, dating now?"

Hinata shakes her head, pushing some hair behind her ear; "Not yet."

Naruto arches a brow; "Not yet?"

"W-well," Hinata laughs lightly, shrugging her shoulders, "I-I think… I-it’s pretty obvious, you know… T-they’re very close, a-and neither are all that subtle when it comes to their feelings. B-but… I-I don’t think they’re ready yet."

Naruto frowns; "What’s there to be ready for? He likes her, she likes him, they’re both so transparent there’s no way they don’t know they’re both into each other, what’s left but to make it official?"

Hinata looks up from the ground and fixes her gaze on the road ahead; "Well… I-I can’t be sure, you know, I’m… I-Ino and I are closer than we were, but… We don’t really talk about these kinds of things. And I’ve never been that kind of close with Lee. But… I know what it’s like, to be…"

Hinata tips her head down so that her hair obscures most of her face, her voice dropping to almost a whisper, "T-to have very strong feelings for someone, for a very long time. It almost… I-it becomes like another constant in your life, you know? The sun rises in the East and sets in the West, the sky is blue, you’re in love with… for Ino, Sasuke, for Lee, Sakura. A-and for that to change…"

"It’d be like waking up and the sky’s green," Naruto finishes in a low mumble.

Hinata nods, clasping her hands and letting them rest just below her chest; "C-change is… Change is scary. No matter what kind. I-it makes you doubt everything… Especially yourself. Pretending everything’s the same is easier. Pretending that something that’s obviously true isn’t… is a lot easier."

Naruto forces a harsh breath out through his nose; "Guess I should be grateful Sakura made it easy for me, then."

Hinata glances at him, brow furrowing; "W-what do you mean?"

Naruto almost launches into it all, but catches himself. Hinata and Sasuke are pretty close. He’s not sure how close, but… He can’t take chances that this will get back to him.

Naruto looks Hinata in the eye; "Can you promise me that you won’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you?"

Hinata blinks rapidly, then nods twice as fast; "Y-yes, a-absolutely, of course."

Naruto shuts his eyes and sighs, "I guess I was kinda in the same boat as Ino and Lee before Sakura left. I was trying to sort out that Sakura and Sasuke actually liked each other now, and that I didn’t really have the same crush I used to on Sakura… And then she left the village trying to get power she doesn’t need from the guy who killed the third Hokage, she put us through Hell, she nearly killed Sasuke, she nearly killed me, and now–"

Naruto runs his hands through his hair with an agitated grunt; "Forget not like-liking her, I don’t know if I even like her anymore! I know Sasuke and Kakashi are desperate to get her back, but I– Whenever I think about her, all I remember is how fucking mean she was when we fought. Not just the things she said but how she fought. And it just makes me remember all the times when she’d call me annoying and stupid and hit me for I guess making her look bad in front of Sasuke or something, and… I’m starting to forget why I ever liked her in the first place."

Naruto lets his hands drop from his head with another sigh; "I feel like an asshole. She was one of my best friends, if I should be able to understand and forgive anyone it should be her, but I… I just can’t."

Hinata is quiet for a long moment, staring thoughtfully down at her hands as she futzes with her fingers. Naruto shoves his hands deep in his pockets and tries not to stare at her. He’s pretty sure he’s doing terribly.

She looks up at him from the corner of her eye; "I do… I-I understand where you’re coming from. And I don’t think you’re wrong to be… upset with her. She hurt you. She hurt all of us. I was… I was upset with her too, for a while. After all, if she hadn’t run away… I-If she hadn’t left, my teammates, my friends wouldn’t have gotten seriously injured trying to get her back…"

Hinata brings her hands up to run through the ends of her hair, angling her face so she’s looking straight at Naruto; "B-but at the same time… A-after a while, and after talking to some of the others, I… I don’t know. I agree that what Sakura did didn’t make sense, and I didn’t understand it. But… I… I started to realize that might have been because I didn’t know as much as I thought I did."

Naruto frowns; "What do you mean?"

"Well," Hinata explains, "S-Sakura and I weren’t close. But… But even then, I knew Sakura wasn’t… Sakura kept things to herself a lot. E-even when we were in the academy, she never really… She didn’t speak her mind. I-I know I… I envied her life, sometimes. It felt like she had everything I wanted, an accepting family, good grades, the ability to just… blend into the crowd…"

Hinata’s mouth quirks at the corner with the hint of a smile; "But then… Like I said, I talked with the others, and it got me thinking… No family is perfect. N-nobody can get grades like that without studying. A-and for some people… Some people want to stand out. Sakura was… S-sakura is very different from me. And she’s very different from you, too. It’s hard to understand people we don’t have a lot in common with, especially when they keep so much under wraps, but… It’s not impossible. Sakura could be mean, and she could be petty and selfish and small-minded, but… Well, so could Sasuke. And he didn’t commit treason… I don’t know. I-I feel like we don’t have as clear of a picture of why Sakura did what she did as we might think we do."

Naruto bites down on the inside of his cheek. Much as he doesn’t want to admit it, Hinata is right. But the fact that he doesn’t want to admit to that still says something. He’d accepted that Gaara wasn’t just a monster. He’d accepted that Haku and Zabuza weren’t monsters. But they hadn’t been his friends first. They hadn’t left him. They hadn’t told him he was a stupid, selfish idiot who wasn’t special, just a monster. They hadn’t told him he was holding them back.

The wounds Sakura left are still bleeding, and he doesn’t know how to make them stop.

Hinata touches his elbow, feather-light, to bring his attention back to her; "I know… I-I know that it’s scary to think about, but I really think you should talk to Sasuke about this. Y-yes, he is biased because of his feelings for her, but… At the same time…"

Hinata’s eyes drop to the ground, her cheeks flushing; "I-if Sakura… If Sakura is anything like me, then there are… When talking to the person she loves, maybe she’s told him things she didn’t feel like she could tell anyone else. Maybe he… M-maybe he really does know something we don’t."

Naruto stares down at Hinata for a few moments before he finds it in himself to smile; "Thanks, Hinata."

Hinata runs her fingers through her hair, all but beaming at the ground; "I-it’s nothing, really, I-I– I was j-just rambling, but I’m… I’m glad you… Yeah."

Naruto’s eyebrows leap up; "You call that 'rambling'? Hinata, you’re really smart, believe it!"

Hinata all but jumps at the praise; "What? No, no no, that wasn’t– A-anyone could’ve–"

"I couldn’t," Naruto cuts in, "I didn’t. I’m calling it. You’re smart. And I’m not gonna let you say you’re not."

Hinata shoves her own hands in her jacket pockets, mumbling, "If… I-if you insist… then… Thank you."

"No problem," Naruto replies, "Man, is this the longest we’ve hung out together since Tsunade’s inauguration?"


"That settles it, we absolutely have to do this more often," Naruto declares with a resolute nod, "Do you like ramen? We should go to Ichiraku’s after the next mission briefing tomorrow. Sasuke says he’s already sick of ramen and I’ve only been back for, like, a week."

Hinata’s whole face is cherry red, but she manages at least to answer, "I-I might be… I-I don’t know if I’ll be free."

Naruto just shrugs; "All good, if you’re free you’re free, if you’re not, some other time. I just think we should hang out more, is all."

Hinata takes a deep breath and looks Naruto directly in the eye, voice coming out in a rush; "I'd like that."

It’s not much longer before they’re at the gate to the Hyūga Compound. The white walls glow in the moonlight, making the black wood and tiles of the gate itself seem that much darker in contrast.

Hinata bows from the waist; "T-thank you for walking me home."

Naruto grins, folding his arms behind his head; "No problem, I had a good time! See you tomorrow!"

Hinata stands up straight and hits him with the full force of her smile; "S-see you tomorrow."

Hinata darts through the gate, quick as a rabbit and just as quiet. Naruto lingers at the gate for a moment, listening until Hinata’s nearly-silent footfalls disappear. He turns on his heel and heads for home, humming under his breath the whole way.

Sakura pushes the last of the Natural Energy out of Jūgo then, after a breath, removes the tag from his forehead with a smile; "Good morning, Jūgo."

Jūgo blinks himself awake, flexing his still-mostly-skinless left hand as he does. His eyes roam past Sakura and lock onto Suigetsu and Zhàdàn as they amble up the stairs. Despite having to lean on Suigetsu to make it safely over to the group, Zhàdàn’s in better shape than he was. He’s sporting clean bandages over all his wounds, and once they’ve made it to Sakura he’s able to step away from Suigetsu and carefully move to sit on her left side without any help.

Suigetsu… Well, he isn’t moving like he’s wounded, but he looks a mess. His clothes are covered in distinctive tears that could only come from razor sharp fangs and bloodstains. Not his blood, of course. Suigetsu doesn’t really bleed unless something’s gone horribly wrong. Suigetsu drops down to sit between Jūgo and Zhàdàn with a grumble, rolling his neck and rubbing at a sore spot on the back of it.

"Alright," Sakura begins, keeping one hand on Jūgo’s shoulder to encourage him to keep pushing Natural Energy out as he breathes, "How are we all holding up?"

"Considering I’ve been doing nothing but kicking the asses of testy snakes day in and day out, could be worse," Suigetsu huffs, resting a cheek on his fist, "I could be fighting the female snakes."

"They’d kill you in minutes," Jūgo mutters.

"Sure would," Suigetsu sighs, "And with all their fancy genjutsu tricks I probably wouldn’t even know it happened ’til I was buried."

"I’m surviving," Zhàdàn answers, "Bored out of my skull, honestly. Might ask Ichikishimahime for one of those sleepy tags she puts on you, Big Guy."

Jūgo scowls at him; "They don’t put you to sleep. It’s like… blinking. Except when you open your eyes again, a whole day has passed."

"That’s even better," Zhàdàn remarks through a wan smirk.

"It won’t be long before we’re well enough to travel and our borrowed time is up," Sakura states, "I… have an idea of what we should do next."

Suigetsu opens his mouth, likely to tell her to piss off, but Sakura puts a hand up; "Before you say anything, hear me out. I’m not asking we stay together any longer than we have to. What I am saying is that I made promises to you all that I can’t keep, but I’d like to keep as much of them as I’m able, and help you disentangle yourselves from me. Once that’s done, we can go our separate ways, perfect strangers."

Suigetsu lets his mouth hang open for a couple seconds longer before he says, "Let’s hear your idea, then."

Sakura pauses to take a breath before she explains, "I’m proposing that I escort the three of you to the Land of Waves. Once there, Suigetsu, I know where Zabuza’s sword is and can take you to it. I know the engineer who built the Great Naruto Bridge. My team saved his life multiple times. If the good will he has towards me and my team is stronger than his fear of the Leaf Village, I can try and leverage that connection to book you all passage on a ship to the Southern ports in the Land of Wind. If you make it there, you can use that as a jumping off point to head further West, where shinobi won’t follow. It’s… It’s not much. But if I can, I’d like to help you get somewhere safe. You don’t deserve to go down for my mistakes."

Zhàdàn rubs at his beard with a frown; "And what are you gonna be doing while we’re sailing away, Pinky?"

Sakura’s eyes drop to her knees; "I’m…"

It’s harder to say this out loud than she thought it’d be.

She takes another breath and pulls her chin up, forcing herself to pull her chaotic thoughts together; "I need to know the truth. I need to know why the village… screwed me over. I don’t know what I’ll do when I find out. But I’ve tried to put the pieces together, try to deduce what it is I did or know or don’t know that would lead to this and I… I don’t have enough information. So I have to find more."

"I’m staying with you."

Sakura’s head whips around to stare wide-eyed at Jūgo. He’s doing his best to keep calm and collected even as his breathing is starting to grow heavy with the effort of pushing out more and more Natural Energy. That he’s kept himself lucid for five minutes straight is his biggest step yet.

"J-jūgo, you don’t have to–"

"I want to," Jūgo cuts in, his gaze intense, "You’re the only person who’s ever really tried to help me. I’m not just going to abandon you, Sakura. You’re my friend."

Sakura wants to cry. Sakura wants to give Jūgo a hug. Sakura wants to blurt out that she lied to him when they first met, that she lied to Kimimaro, that she only tried to become his friend in the first place to use him and she doesn’t deserve his kindness. But the saddest part of it all, the thing that makes her eyes burn and throat ache, is that even if she did tell him all of that Jūgo wouldn’t care. Not because he has Naruto’s all-forgiving heart, but because he still doesn’t think he deserves any better.

Sakura doesn’t want to try unpacking all of that in front of Suigetsu and Zhàdàn. She can tell they don’t have time, anyway. Patches of gray are starting to appear on Jūgo’s skin. They’re smaller and growing more slowly than usual, but they’re there. When, if she returns for more sage training, she’ll have to bring him along.

Sakura looks him in the eye; "Only if you’re sure."

Jūgo nods; "I’m sure. You should probably put the tag back on. I don’t… I don’t think I have much longer left in me."

Sakura sighs through her nose, nodding silently. With one arm she helps Jūgo sit up straight while she uses the other to grab the tag. She places the tag on his forehead and his eyes instantly slide closed. He slumps forward, but doesn’t fall to the floor. That’s an improvement too, she supposes. Senjutsu is turning out to be a subtle, frustrating discipline, with growth measured in centimeters rather than inches. It’s nothing she isn’t used to. But right now, she could really use something more dramatic.

Sakura turns back to the other two members of her team. She was hoping they would look… Well, not happier. She’s not sure that’s possible in their situation. Contented? Satisfied? Whatever she was hoping for, she’s sure it’s not the stormy looks on their faces. Sakura swallows hard. This was the best solution she could come up with, and if they’re still not alright with it–

Suigetsu forces a harsh breath through his teeth and mutters, "Fine. Sure. That’s– Fuckin’, whatever. It’s fine."

Zhàdàn stares her down with a sharpness that brings on a sudden flashback to Kakashi’s dark eye picking her apart during their graduation test; "You asked Jūgo if he was sure. Are you?"

Sakura blinks a few times, then forces herself to nod; "Like I said, you all don’t deserve to go down for my mistakes. This is for the best."

Zhàdàn shuts his eyes and shakes his head; "Yeah… I suppose it is. Alright. Where exactly is this cave we’ve been squatting in?"

Sakura glances furtively over her shoulder in search of any snakes. There aren’t any she can see, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any around. Just in case saying it out loud is against the rules, Sakura instead answers by taking her map out of her pack, unfurling it, and pointing out their exact location. Zhàdàn takes his pipe out from where it’s wedged in his belt, twirling it around with his fingers as he studies the map.

Zhàdàn jabs the bit of his pipe into the apex of the bay a mile to the north; "Then when we leave, we’re going to Chukyō. I know people there. They’ll get us passage to the Land of Waves for cheap."

Sakura lets out the breath she’d been very aware she was holding; "Thank you."

Zhàdàn flips his pipe so the stem is facing her; "Thank me by holding this while I pack it."

Sakura dutifully does. She avoids eye contact with Zhàdàn the whole time. She was hoping this would ease the tension between them all. But it’s still there, hanging as thick in the air as tobacco smoke.

Well. At least they won’t have to be around each other much longer.

Shikamaru must really be losing his touch, because he doesn’t realize his team is being watched until they’re a few miles out from their destination.

He had chalked up the feeling of eyes all over him for the past day and a half to the paranoia he’s been living with for two years. It was an easy rationalization to make when they were in dense forest, craggy border mountains, and the unfamiliar streets of the Hot Water Village. It’s a lot harder when you’re out on open volcanic tundra, with only snowdrifts and the occasional erupting geyser acting as cover for anyone lying in wait for an ambush.

Shikamaru looks to Ino over his shoulder and whispers, "We need to talk. Quietly."

Ino doesn’t need to know any more than that. Her eyes nearly close and she forms the ram sign as discreetly as possible. Invisible lines of chakra shoot out from Ino’s brain to connect the minds of everyone in Team Ten. Shikamaru bites the side of his tongue, forcing any thoughts he doesn’t want the others to see away from the surface.

He transmits to the team, "We’re being followed. Have been since we left the village."

Chōji cobbles his shock and disbelief together into, "Are you sure? I haven’t seen anyone."

Shikamaru’s teeth dig deeper into his tongue, not enough to draw blood but it’s not far away; "Neither did I. But they’re having a harder time hiding out here."

Instead of explaining with words, Shikamaru lets the raw data flow from his mind to theirs. Displaced stones on the rocky ground, traces in the snow that aren’t footprints anymore but obviously were at some point, puffs of steam from distant geysers that just don’t look right, shadows on the horizon that by speed alone can’t be animals or birds, drops of water too far away from geysers or snowmelt to be from them, a collage of tiny signs that they’re being followed by people good at covering their tracks in any other environment than this one.

Or people who are deliberately leaving signs, but Shikamaru doesn’t let that thought get through.

Chōji’s eyes flicker up to the sky; "The sun’s going down, and we’re nearly at the outpost. Do we want to just push through and face them in a more defensible position?"

Asuma frowns hard, shooting Chōji a sharp look from the corner of his eye; "That might be why they’re following us. If we lead them straight there we’re exposing it to whatever enemy of Leaf or Hot Water is trailing us."

Shikamaru looks to Asuma; "Shake or counter?"

Asuma clicks his tongue against his teeth; "That’ll depend. Ino, take a look."

Ino shuts her eyes. The lines of telepathic communication break as Ino draws her chakra back in, then releases it in a wave of static tingling that washes over the team. It radiates out from Ino in a twenty meter radius sphere, something Shikamaru can’t see, but knows like it’s instinct. A knot forms between Ino’s brows, a slight frown dimpling one cheek. She takes a breath, putting her hands back into the ram sign on the exhale. Chōji swallows hard, running a hand through his hair. Asuma adjusts his headband, the plate glinting in the low sunlight.

The moment before Ino can connect their minds again, the ground shakes beneath Team Ten’s feet. The intensity of the quake knocks them to the ground. All the geysers around them simultaneously erupt, spewing forth massive gouts of steam that fill the air like fog rolling in off the ocean.

Shikamaru forces himself upright, looking wildly around. He can’t see more than a foot in front of his face. The world has grown eerily silent. He waves a hand this way and that through the steam and meets a surprising amount of resistance, barely budging the vapor. Shikamaru chances sending chakra up to his nose to sharpen his sense of smell and is hit with the pungent odor of sulfur. He immediately cuts the flow. They’ve got almost every mundane sense covered. If he’s right about why this steam is so thick, if Ino tries to link their minds again the chakra suffused within the steam will make it impossible for her to get a clear idea of where they are.

Shikamaru chances the one sense a smokescreen wouldn’t be able to block and shouts, "Asuma! We need a wind jutsu, now! Make it big!"

Shikamaru drops, preemptively bracing for gale force wind to buffet him from all sides. He waits one heartbeat, two, three…


Shikamaru jolts back up to his feet; "Asuma?!"

From what sounds like miles away, Shikamaru hears Ino’s voice calling, "Shikamaru, is that you?! Where are you?!"

Shikamaru’s heart skips a beat. He hears Chōji’s voice shouting something faint and indistinct. No Asuma. There’s no way they could have gotten this far apart in a few seconds. Is this a genjutsu? If it was, why not just silence their voices completely? Why isn’t Asuma responding? Why isn’t he using a wind jutsu? Why–?

He hears Ino let out a wordless cry of shock that quickly fades, as if she was dragged away mid-scream. There’s a noise, it could be Chōji, but it’s so quiet Shikamaru can’t tell. Shikamaru’s mind is outracing his heart. This is too perfect, this timing is too perfect. They had to have been close, they had to have known exactly what Ino was doing, they had to know she knew where they were but this timing was too perfect, how–?!

Stop, stop stop stop, that’s not relevant, that’s not helpful, he needs to disperse the smoke but how? He doesn’t have any Wind jutsu up his sleeve, what does he have up his sleeve? Shadow techniques, of course, but shadows cast in fog are almost as useless as shadows at night–

Shikamaru hears the sound of claws scratching on stone and drops to his stomach. A lean shadow soars over him. A second slower and it would have crashed right into his back. It lands in a sprint. Shikamaru only gets the barest glimpse of canine back legs and a whip-thin tail before the creature disappears into the steam. There’s a chorus of growls, Shikamaru can’t tell how many.

Hounds. They’re hunting him with hounds.

Shikamaru grits his teeth and rises to his haunches. If they want to hunt him like a stag, fine. But they’re gonna learn that a stag’s antlers aren’t just for show.

Shikamaru needs to clear the fog and he needs to create light. He has all the tools to do that in his flak jacket pockets. Shikamaru reaches into one of the pouches on his chest and draws out a single Leaf village chakra flare. He holds it in his teeth as he keeps rifling through his pockets, drawing out all the flash bombs and explosive tags he has. He sets them all down in a circle, alternating one flash bomb-one explosive tag, until he’s fully penned himself in.

Last but not least he reaches into one of the pockets near his waist and pulls out a spool of wire. Shikamaru unspools a few meters of the wire and ties one end around the flare. The rest he cuts with his teeth into shorter lengths of wire, tying them all back to the original strand like a cat-o-ninetails before tying each strand to an explosive tag or flash bomb. Shikamaru makes sure each explosive connects back to the flare before setting it on the ground in the center of the circle. He places his heel on the flare, then holds his hands together in the rat sign as he waits.

He doesn’t wait long.

Nails scratch the ground and the growls quickly grow in volume. Shikamaru holds on until the steam starts to shift and ripple. He shuts his eyes before pushing down with his heel, breaking the flare. The compressed chakra courses down the wire and hits the explosives. All around him the flash bombs explode into light, the tags burst into flame and smoke, and the force of the blasts punches a hole three meters wide in the steam. Shikamaru opens his eyes to see five dark, lean, identical hunting hounds baring their teeth.

He slams his hands into the bird sign; "Ninja Art– Shadow Stitching Jutsu!"

Shikamaru’s shadow beneath him goes shooting out, narrow spikes flying across the ground until they’re beneath the dogs before shooting up off of it. The spikes of darkness spear through the dogs’ jaws, throats, chests, any part of them Shikamaru can reach. Three dogs burst into white smoke. Two yelp in pain, blood splattering the ground. Shikamaru’s shadow tendrils wrap around the dogs, binding them in place. He’s taken care of the hounds, if the hunter wants to catch him they’ll have to come out of–

There’s a rumble beneath his feet. The ground splits. All Shikamaru sees is the flash of ice-white teeth before the hound’s jaws snap down on his throat. Shikamaru’s concentration breaks. His shadow retreats back beneath his feet, freeing the dogs. They shake their heads, gnash their teeth, and with earsplitting barks they leap after their packmate. Fangs dig into his knee and elbow. The three dogs knock him to the ground. They’re lean, but not so thin that their weight isn’t enough to pin him. Shikamaru tries to move, tries to thrash out of their grip, tries to scream, but the dog at his throat squeezes down and shakes it’s head. Shikamaru’s head whips back and forth. The pain and pressure on his windpipe keeps the sound and air trapped inside.

A human hand in a deep black glove snakes out of the fissure in the ground left by the third dog. A human, petite in stature with their face hidden behind a porcelain wolf mask, crawls up onto the rocky ground. Their fatigues are pure black, unidentifiable. They stalk over to him, staring him down through black glass lenses. Shikamaru doesn’t need to see their face to know they’re considering whether or not to have the dog break his neck.

They consider him for a few moments longer before winding up and kicking the side of his head with a steel-toed boot.

Shikamaru sees stars. The world whirls and blurs like he’s being spun in rapid circles. Pain blossoms from the point of impact and courses through his whole body. In the moments before Shikamaru drops unconscious he sees another shape, another human, making their way over to his side.

A voice, harried and angry and horrifically familiar, hisses, "This wasn’t the– You said you were going to take him alive!"

Another voice, flat and dead, drones, "He is alive. There are medics among us. He will survive the trip."

A hallucination. That first voice has to have been an auditory hallucination brought on by the head trauma.

But Shikamaru’s mouth opens, and through the vice grip on his throat he squeezes out a faint, "Asuma…?"

There’s a long pause. Shikamaru’s heart drops as his vision starts to tunnel.

The first voice sighs, "I’m sorry, Shikamaru."

And everything goes dark.

Chapter Text

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?"