Work Header


Chapter Text

Unlike other countries, the Land of Rice Fields is not really a country at all. It’s a loose collection of tribes that have refused to be conquered under the banner of a single Hidden Village or a Kage. Despite its name, there are very few actual fields in the country. The only rice fields are at the fringes of the land, and it is this farmland that defines the ambiguous and porous borders of the country beyond—the rolling plains and Birchwood forests that hide the great nomadic clans and tribes of the Land of Rice Fields.

Orochimaru tried to conquer this country, and the resistance to his efforts was so great that he had to burrow himself into the earth to hide from the enemies that surrounded him from all corners. He was a coward, and the only way he could tame the land was by emerging from his hole at odd intervals to strike against unsuspecting tribes and to take their greatest pride and possession: warriors. Jugo, Suigetsu, Karin and the others are all orphans from Orochimaru’s wanton destruction. For a while, the tribes receded into the depths of the forests and the blank stretch of plains, leaving behind the gaping wound of Otogakure that Orochimaru had dug into the landscape.

Now, though, nearly two decades after Orochimaru had begun his warpath and just three years after his death, the land has come back to life.

The free tribes are traveling across the land again, and more than once, Sasuke has to reroute his journey to avoid running across a band of mounted warriors. Every now and then, he dismounts from Michi and presses a knife into the ground to bend and listen with his ear; the blade sings with the distant echoes of thundering hoofs and humans on the move as spring blooms into summer across the world and the hunt becomes bountiful.

Urausu is one of the few, well-defined towns in all of the Land of Rice Fields. During harvest, Urausu is quiet and subdued. In the warmer months, though, the town is bustling with strangers from all across the country. Warriors, civilian farmers, and merchants gather to trade goods, information, and make peace for the harvest season that lies ahead.

It is very easy for Sasuke to blend in with the crowd and make his way into Mrs. Oonishi’s tavern. He arrives in town a little after dark, and at this time of day, the tavern is filled to the brim. He sits at a long table at the back of the room, drawing no more than a few curious glances from the others at his table—two civilians and three warriors of considerable chakra-strength—before they resume their conversation. It’s a negotiation; the farmer at the table is there with his daughter, a sharp-boned slip of a girl who can’t be older than twelve, as he drives the hard bargain of hiring protection for the harvest season from wandering bandits.

“I can spare four men,” a man with a heavily tattooed face answers after listening to the farmer provide details of the location and lay of his land.

Surprisingly, it is the girl who counters. “Five, and we’ll need more if there’s trouble.”

They go back and forth on the details for so long that Sasuke tunes them out. He keeps an eye on Mrs. Oonishi at the bar in the front. She has hired a few hands for the season: two girls to help her with the orders, and a boy outside who had nodded earnestly when Sasuke handed him the reins to Michi and a warning to give her fresh dried oats, not the leftovers from two seasons ago if he knows what’s good for him. 

Sasuke has already ordered some food, but the girl has not returned with his order just yet. He's been traveling for the past two weeks, and he ran out of soap three days ago. His beard is thick, and he is sick and tired of rabbit and deer meat. It’s not unusual for a road-weary traveler to show up at Mrs. Oonishi’s for a quiet meal, and usually, the traveler can expect to be left alone.

Sasuke has no such luck. The farmer’s daughter turns to Sasuke a few moments after the transaction with the warriors has completed and they have turned to their food. “Where are you coming from? You smell like you could use a bath.”

“Sarada,” her father says, stern, and lays a hand on the girl's forearm. “Pardon my daughter.”

“Well he does,” Sarada mutters, sulking at her food. She has glasses framing chocolaty brown eyes that almost look red in the firelight. “I’m the one who has to sit next to the stinky warrior.”

The father’s response grows sterner. “Sarada!”

Sarada stabs at her food. “Sorry.” 

Just then, Sasuke’s food arrives, and he takes it gratefully from the waitress. A glance at Mrs. Oonishi tells him that she still doesn’t know about his presence. “It’s fine,” he tells the girl's father, ripping up his bread into small chunks to dip into the stew. “She has a point.”

“Long road?” the warrior with the tattooed face asks from across the table.

“Longer still,” Sasuke answers mildly and makes just enough eye contact to be polite without inviting too much further conversation. The talk returns to the harvest ahead, with the farmer opening up about the rains and soil conditions. The warriors listen intently, sharing information about the density of game in the forests.

Next to him, Sarada is spending more and more of her time staring up at Sasuke with bright eyes. For some odd reason, she reminds him of Sakura, and he can’t help but return her gaze. The girl is chewing on her lip as if she’s dying to say something, so Sasuke takes pity on her. “Spit it out, girl.”

“Your battle-ax,” she says in a gush. Her voice is a whisper. “It’s from the Biratori tribe isn’t it?

Sasuke can’t help but be impressed. The sigil for Jugo’s clan is nothing more than a small etching at the head of the ax, barely visible unless someone looks carefully. “You know your tribes.”

“I know all of them,” Sarada says hotly. After a moment, she adds, proud, “I’m ten and three quarters. I’m top of my class. I’m going to be a doctor. But I might also be a historian.”

Sasuke bites into his meat and chews carefully. A doctor. Like Sakura. For the first time in nearly two weeks, he finds himself missing home. “A historian?”

“To write down all about the Land of Rice Fields,” she says, turning in her chair to face Sasuke. She looks excited to be participating in a conversation that has nothing to do with crop lines. “The other countries have textbooks about their history. But we don’t. Someone has to write it all down.”

It’s a surprisingly astute observation. “And you’ll be a doctor on the side?”

“Yes, I will, because my father says that people aren’t going to pay me to be a historian anyhow and there’s plenty of cuts and bruises that need healing in this world,” Sarada recites stoically. Most likely, it’s a direct quote she has heard from her father several times before. “Are you a Biratori tribe warrior? How come you don’t have orange hair like they say they do? Have you ever met Jugo the Giant? Why do you talk so funny?”

Sasuke has to take a swig of his drink to hide his smile. Jugo the Giant. He hasn't heard that one before.

“I’m not Biratori,” he answers. The attention of the other warriors at the table shifts to him now as they wait for Sasuke’s answer. Sasuke speaks the Northern dialect fluently, but there is always a slight accent that he carries with him. In a diverse country like the Land of Rice Fields, everyone has an accent, but Sasuke’s is unusual. “And I’m not from around here.”

“Where are you from? How come your eyes are so funny looking?” Sarada presses. Thankfully, her father steps in before Sasuke is forced to answer all of her questions.

“My apologies again, sir. We’ll be leaving now,” he says and gets to his feet. When the girl doesn’t immediately get up, he picks her up around the waist and deposits her on her feet. “Let’s go, kid.”

Sarada stares at Sasuke for a moment before saying, “Hope you take a bath soon.” Then, she turns to the other warriors and waves. “See you at harvest.”

The tattooed man smiles. “That you will, little one. You can tell me your histories then.”

The father ushers the girl out of the tavern with a firm hand on her shoulder.

Sasuke watches them go and is about to turn back to his food when the tattooed warrior speaks again. “Five and more if there’s trouble,” he quotes with a chuckle. He pushes the jug of ale that he and his warriors have been sharing towards Sasuke. “Drives a hard bargain, she does.”

“Didn’t have to agree to her terms,” Sasuke points out mildly and helps himself to the drink the man has offered. “Obliged.”

“Erimo’s woman here just had a baby girl,” another one of the warriors says with a roll of his eyes. “So now he lets ten-year-old pipsqueaks drive his prices down.”

“You say that now, but wait till you have a squalling bundle in your arms. We’ll see how you do then,” Erimo counters neatly. Between one moment and the next, his gaze zeroes in on Sasuke. “So tell me. What brings Uchiha Sasuke back to the north?”

The other warriors freeze, hands dropping below the table to their weapons.

Very, very carefully, Sasuke puts his hands flat on the table in front of him, showing that he is unarmed. “Just passing by.”

Erimo places a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “The Biratori tribe is an old ally of ours. I’ve heard you and Jugo are blood-brothers, which means there are no enemies at this table.” He gets to his feet carefully. His men follow suit, being overly cautious in their movements. “Let the man enjoy his meal. We’ll leave you to it.”

They walk out of the tavern, keeping a careful eye on Sasuke as they go. The whole encounter can't have lasted more than two minutes, and none of them raised their voices. Still, they have drawn attention, and when the door shuts close behind the warriors, Sasuke finds that the boisterous din in the room has become more cautious. 

It’s only now that Mrs. Oonishi notices him. She looks so stunned to see Sasuke that she nearly drops the pint of beer she is filling for another customer. She recovers quickly, though, and once people have returned to their meals, the waitress approaches him again. She looks nervous, but she manages to stutter out a message from Mrs. Oonishi under her breath while refilling his ale.

“Mrs. Oonishi would like you to wait in the storage in the back.”

Sasuke slips out of the tavern as casually as he can and wanders around the village to leave a trail for anyone who is interested in pursuing. When he’s sure he’s not being followed, he doubles back and sneaks into the storage shed out back. It’s filled with odds and ends: a spare bar stool, keg barrels, and rows of broken or chipped mugs laid out on a rickety table. Sasuke settles down in a corner on an old chair with its back broken off. The door doesn’t open for a few hours.

Mrs. Oonishi is beaming. “Look at you, child. Just look at you, coming home after all these years.”

“Just passing through, Mrs. Oonishi,” Sasuke says, and sees her smile diminish. It’s an easy mistake for her to make. He has arrived with a horse, fully loaded with supplies, and dressed like a Northerner without even a hint of Konohagakure’s colors or sigils.

Mrs. Oonishi rallies her cheer and ushers him out of the shed. “You’ll be looking for Karin, then?”

Sasuke follows her into the back kitchen. “I can go to her this time,” he offers. Karin will not step foot into Urausu until it clears out of all the curious travelers.

“How about a hot meal first?” Mrs. Oonishi offers, and it's been enough hours since he ate that Sasuke is hungry again. He can do nothing but take a seat at her familiar kitchen table. The taproom out front is empty so late in the night, so it’s just the two of them in the wide space.

As she puts together a plate of food, Mrs. Oonishi fills Sasuke in on all that has happened in the Land of Rice Fields. She talks about shifting allegiances between the different clans, the ebb and flow of the rain and how the crop was productive last year, but only the gods know what it will be this year. She tells Sasuke about the threat from the west, how there have been more Amegakure shinobi causing trouble and breaching their borders, how Karin, Jugo, Suigetsu and the others have become a rallying cry for the fight against them.

Sasuke freezes at the information about Amegakure. Madara is pushing against the borders of the Land of Rice Fields, then. But why?

“Orochimaru couldn’t conquer us. What makes those Akatsuki think they can bully us?” Mrs. Oonishi asks tiredly. She turns her attention to Sasuke. “What have you been up to, child? What brings you so far north?”

“My brother,” Sasuke answers truthfully. Mrs. Oonishi only nods. She knows enough of the story to put the pieces together.

“And you need Karin to track him?” she asks. “She’ll say no, Sasuke. Your brother is a dangerous man with dangerous people hunting him.”

Sasuke has suspected as much. But searching for Itachi will be like finding a needle in a haystack. There have been no new rumors about him; he has vanished entirely. The only thing that Sasuke knows for certain is that he is alive. “I just need her to point me in the right direction.”

“Jugo and Karin are traveling with the Hozuki tribe,” Mrs. Oonishi says. “Last I heard, the Betsukai had run into them by the foothills of the Yoro Mountain.”

That's a week of hard riding at the very least. Sasuke swallows down on the frustration. He had passed by the Yoro on his journey to Urausu; he might just have missed them. With this new information about Akatsuki’s actions against the Land of Rice Fields, the need to find his brother is more urgent than ever. “How long ago?”

“Four, five days ago?” Mrs. Oonishi ventures. “You’ll be heading out in the morning?”

“If you have a bed to spare,” Sasuke says.

The wrinkles around Mrs. Oonishi’s eyes deepen with her smile. “No beds,” she says, and then gestures at the strip of empty space between the kitchen table and the counter. “How’s this?”

Sasuke eyes the dimensions of the space. It’s either this or he wanders through Urausu looking for someone with a spare room. He’s too recognizable to afford that kind of exposure so early in his search for Itachi. “It’ll do.”

Mrs. Oonishi pushes herself to her feet. “Let me get you some spare bed rolls.” She’s about to walk past when she pauses to consider him. She’s so short that even though Sasuke is sitting, they are almost even in height.


Mrs. Oonishi takes his face in both of her weathered hands. “Nothing, child. You just look different.”

“I could use a shave, yeah,” Sasuke admits. “And a bath.”

“No, I’ve seen you looking worse. It’s not that,” Mrs. Oonishi says, tilting Sasuke’s face one way and then another. After a few moments of consideration, she lets go, satisfied.

Sasuke flushes under her scrutiny. “What?” 

“You’ve grown,” she decides finally, and it is so like Kakashi’s words that Sasuke goes still. Mrs. Oonishi walks around the kitchen table to help set up Sasuke’s bedding. “About damn time,” she calls over her shoulder. Her laughter fills the kitchen.

He makes good time to the Yoro Mountain. Michi doesn’t complain at the hard pace he sets, and they reach their destination in just under five days. The Hozuki tribe’s fires are bright in the twilight, burning big enough that Sasuke can see the smoke on the horizon well before the encampment comes into view.

He makes as much noise as possible as he approaches, letting his chakra sing to herald his arrival. The Hozuki tribe, more so than others, is skittish and prone to violence. It would be suicidal to sneak into their camp unannounced or without an explicit invitation. The combined strength of their chakra signatures alone is enough to make Sasuke reconsider the merits of approaching in the dead of the night like this. It’s tantamount to breaching the walls of a Hidden Village, but at a much more concentrated scale and without the rules and protocols that might allow an intruder to survive such an attempt. In the Hozuki camp, they wouldn’t bother to ask questions until after they’d slit his throat.

There is a line of warriors in a loose, defensive position waiting for him as he approaches with Michi at a slow trot. They are armed heavily. At the front of the welcoming party, though, is a familiar face.

“Uchiha goddamn Sasuke,” Suigetsu calls out with a laugh. “At the edge of the motherfucking world.”

Sasuke swings down from Michi and is almost immediately engulfed in a warm hug. Suigetsu pounds Sasuke on the back a few times, laughing still with unadulterated joy, and Sasuke can’t help himself; he hugs him back and grips tight.

“Look at this ugly mug,” Suigetsu calls out, grabbing Sasuke by the shoulder and turning to face his men. It’s been years since Sasuke last saw Suigetsu, and the years have made a difference. Suigetsu is still tall and lanky, but there is added breadth to his shoulders and more muscle on his frame. He looks healthy now that he is no longer under Orochimaru’s toxic watch, and he’s chosen to grow out his silver hair and tie it with a string as tribe warriors do. His eyes are the same brilliant violet. “Look at this ugly motherfucking face!”

Suigetsu leads Sasuke through his camp, making his way through a maze of tents and campfires and past gaping children and warriors alike. They are all on edge, but no one says anything. Suigetsu is the tribe leader and his word is law: if he wants to lead the most dangerous of Orochimaru’s henchmen through their camp with an arm around his shoulder, then they have no choice but to accept Sasuke into their midst.

Jugo is waiting outside the largest of the tents in the camp; its draped tapestries are dyed with the colors of the Hozuki tribe. There is a wide, open circle in front of this tent and most of the men have gathered here. When Jugo spots Sasuke, he crosses the distance in four quick strides and pulls Sasuke into a bone-crushing hug. “I didn’t believe it was you when Karin felt you heading our way,” he says, smiling wide. “How are you, my friend?”

“I’m fine,” Sasuke says and grips Jugo’s arm tight. After so long on the road, it’s a relief to see a familiar face. “It’s good to see you, Jugo.”

Karin ducks out from the tent a moment later. She is wearing riding gear consisting of a worn leather jacket and gloves, with comfortable looking pants tucked into tall boots. There is a glint of silver by her ears, made all the more noticeable by the fact that she has braided her hair back for the day. She smiles when she sees Sasuke, bright and genuine. “Welcome home, Konoha.”

Suigetsu throws an arm around Sasuke’s shoulder. “Let’s go in. I want you to meet someone!”

The inside of the tent is warm and cozy. The space is wide enough that at least a dozen people could easily gather without issue. In the center is a low fire, its smoke streaming upwards to the small opening above. At one corner of the room is a pile of pillows and a comfortable looking bed. There is a child on it, mouth slack in sleep and fingers curled into small fists.

Suigetsu leads Sasuke straight to the bed and kneels by the girl. He touches one of the tight, silvery-blonde ringlets framing her round face. “Sasuke,” he says quietly. He looks up at Sasuke with a smile. “Meet Megumi.”

Sasuke kneels by the bed next to Suigetsu. It’s like having the breath knocked out of him. “Megumi,” he repeats, and reaches out a finger to touch one of her delicate knuckles. Her entire fist is the size of Sasuke’s thumb.

“Look what I did, Uchiha,” Suigetsu says, hushed.

Megumi is wondrous, but what captures Sasuke’s attention is Suigetsu’s face. There is a peace about him, none of that manic anger or hate that made him so volatile. He’d been taken from his tribe at a young age, raised under Orochimaru’s careful tutelage into a deformed, angry thing. Still, Sasuke found friendship with him, and it’s only now, after all the layers of Orochimaru’s hatred have been washed away, that Sasuke can see the truth of Suigetsu’s heart.

“You did good, Hozuki,” he says, and Suigetsu grins at him. “I should have met her sooner.”

Suigetsu straightens to his full height, and Sasuke follows suit. “You were fighting and dying. And you’ve met her now,” he says, and turns to Karin. “You’re here for Karin, I’m guessing.”

Karin tilts her chin up. “I almost left before you got here,” she says. “I have better things to do than wait around for you.”

“Shut up, you love it here. You didn’t set Megumi down for the entire week,” Suigetsu says dismissively as he walks towards the seating area by the fire. It’s just a low-set pile of cushions covered with handwoven rugs; they're dyed in bright colors showing the vibrant landscape of the Birchwoods. They settle around the fire, and it’s only now that Sasuke notices that there are abandoned wooden mugs of ale. Suigetsu leans over to a tray by his side and serves Sasuke a drink.

Karin stretches her legs out in front of her. “And meanwhile there’s Amegakure shinobi that keep infiltrating our ports.”

Jugo turns to fill Sasuke in on the details. “We’ve been discussing whether Karin should raise her banners or not.”

Sasuke’s eyes widen. Karin doesn’t have banners. Technically, she doesn’t even exist except as a murky story of death and destruction that slipped past Orochimaru’s stronghold. That is her strength.

“My men will answer the call,” Suigetsu says, his voice pitched low to make sure he doesn’t wake Megumi. Sasuke has seen Suigetsu before in the quiet moments before battle, assessing strategy, but he has never seen him as a leader until now. He wears the mantle easily, somehow holding his own against Karin’s presence around the fire.

“And the Biratori,” Jugo says. “When we’ve done gathering.”

“You’re gathering your keep?” Sasuke asks, feeling as if the sand is shifting underneath him. He has been out of the loop for so long, he hadn’t even realized that Jugo was rallying his tribe.

Jugo smiles wanly. “What’s left of us,” he says. He doesn’t carry his grief for his massacred tribe like a raw wound anymore, but the mood in the tent shifts nonetheless with their memory.

“I met a farmer’s girl in Urausu named Sarada,” Sasuke says, trying to lighten the mood. “She’s no older than ten, but she wants to be a doctor and a historian. She said she wants to write about the Land of Rice Fields, all the tribes and their banners and stories. She saw my ax and asked me if I was Biratori and if I knew Jugo the Giant.”

Jugo’s smile breaks into a wide grin. “Jugo the Giant? Haven’t heard that before!”

“I haven’t either,” Karin says with a smile. “Maybe she came up with it herself.”

Suigetsu chuckles. “I like it, Jugo. Suits you.”

The conversation wanders from there, moving from topic to topic, but always circling back to the central issue of whether Karin should act as a rallying point for the other tribes in the fight against Amegakure. “Orochimaru was once Akatsuki,” Karin points out thoughtfully. “His directive was to conquer the Land of Rice Fields, but his plans were…diverted.”

Suigetsu laughs. “You mean you diverted them,” he corrects. “You and Uchiha here.”

Which is the truth of it. Sasuke might have been the first to say, I want to kill him, but Karin had been planning Orochimaru’s demise long before Sasuke arrived in Otogakure. She was biding her time, and Sasuke was the perfect tool for her to accomplish her goals. She was the one who came up with the strategy to defeat Orochimaru, the one who sealed Otogakure behind Sasuke so he could destroy each and every single warrior who might one day rise up as an enemy against her. She guided Sasuke to Orochimaru in the end, too, but escaped before she could get caught in the crossfire. She survived—willed herself to survive.

“Pein wants this land,” Karin says, bypassing Suigetsu’s comment entirely.

“Not Pein,” Sasuke corrects quietly. “Uchiha Madara.”

Karin’s eyes narrow in thought. “The third Uchiha I sensed. The one with the old chakra,” she clarifies. It takes her a moment to put the pieces together, but she gets to the truth of the matter the way she always does. “He betrayed the Shodaime Hokage, Senju Hashirama,” she explains to Jugo and Suigetsu with startling accuracy. She doesn’t reveal even a hint of surprise at finding out that someone as old as Madara is still alive; she must have sensed his chakra and known he isn't quite human.

Jugo leans over to grip Sasuke’s forearm tightly. “Sasuke, what is going on? You must tell us what we’re facing.”

So Sasuke does. He tells them as much as he can without revealing any details about the ghosts. Karin becomes progressively still as Sasuke reveals his information. “He'll destroy the north,” she says once Sasuke is finished talking. “Just to settle a centuries-old score.”

“We have to unite,” Suigetsu insists. “We can’t stand against someone like Madara as divided tribes.”

The conversation takes off again in hushed whispers, Jugo and Suigetsu arguing for the need for some kind of power structure while Karin insists they need to stay diffuse and unpredictable. She’s right—what makes the Land of Rice Fields so difficult to conquer or invade is its unpredictability. There are marauding tribes across the great expanse of these plains, and any conquering army or Kage can never be sure who will resist. After Orochimaru, though, Sasuke isn’t sure how willing some of the clans will be to follow a leader, especially one so closely associated with Orochimaru’s memory. But Suigetsu and Jugo are also right in their assessments. Divided, Jugo points out, we fall. That is exactly how Orochimaru did so much damage.

Karin pins Sasuke with her gaze. “You’ve been quiet.”

“I didn’t want to intervene.”

Suigetsu is the one who responds to Sasuke’s diplomacy. Predictably, he’s not polite about it. “Stop acting like a fucking stranger, Sasuke.”

Sasuke looks at the faces around the fire. He’s been away for years, but the moment reminds him of all those nights together in Otogakure, sharing a fire, cigarettes, drinks, and food.

“Madara is no ordinary enemy. He may have failed in conquering the Land of Rice Fields, but that’s a reflection of Orochimaru’s weaknesses, not his own,” Sasuke points out. “He wants this land, so he’s testing the waters. You should gather your forces before he makes his move. But Karin is right, the only advantage you have is that no one knows what cards the Land of Rice Fields holds.”

Sarada, at the end of the day, had been right. No one knows the Land of Rice Fields, the full expanse of her lands or the tribes that move within it. This is her greatest strength, one that Orochimaru never understood. He sought to subjugate.

Suigetsu frowns. “So what? Are you arguing for uniting or staying divided as we are now?”

“Both,” Sasuke explains. “Unite when facing an enemy. Stay divided in peacetime. Convene all the tribes, big and small, build an alliance large enough to span the entirety of the country, and let there be a vote. Elect your leader as the situation demands. Don’t follow to the one-Kage one-rule tradition that the other countries have. It won’t work for you. Once the threat is eliminated, the tribes can go their way.”

Suigetsu considers the advice carefully. “Should we build a new Hidden Village?”

Sasuke scoffs. “Orochimaru was a fucking idiot and went underground because he couldn’t build on the strength of his surroundings. Konoha has her redwoods, Kirigakure has her mists, and Iwagakure has her mountains. The Land of Rice Fields doesn’t have any natural barriers. It’s just a land of nomads. So use that to your strength.”

Jugo straightens. “A moving Hidden Village?”

Sasuke smiles. He has always excelled at military strategy, and it’s a heady feeling having a chance to put it to use. “A moving village that only appears when under threat. An enemy can’t target the Village because it’s never still. It appears and disappears as needed.”

Karin leans forward with a smile. “Ride with us, Sasuke.”

Sasuke takes a deep breath. “I can’t.”

“If it looks like a Northerner, acts like a Northerner, and quacks like a Northerner,” Suigetsu insists, “it’s a motherfucking Northerner, Sasuke. Don’t bullshit us. You’ve always been one of us.”

He’s an Uchiha, and their Clan still follows the old ways. They have more in common with the northern tribes of Hozuki and Biratori than the other great families of Konohagakure. That’s why it's so easy for Sasuke to blend into the Land of Rice Fields. They have the same religion, the same code that governs their life.

But his brother is out there, still.

Jugo speaks before Suigetsu can keep pressing his case. “You’re not wearing Konoha gear, Sasuke,” he points out, mild. “Last we heard you were Lieutenant of Konoha’s ANBU forces. Now you’re here with us, like old times.”

“I’m free of my oaths to Konoha,” Sasuke admits. It’s worth it to see the slack-jawed surprise on their faces.

Karin’s mouth flaps open. She is almost never surprised; she gathers information greedily and senses chakra hundreds of miles away. It is almost impossible to catch her unaware, but Sasuke has done just that. “Are they hunting you?”

Sasuke shakes his head. “The Hokage released me and my keep from the blood oath. I’m a free man.”

He doesn’t tell them why. He doesn’t tell them how he had walked out on the Nidaime and Shodaime; how he had refused to even look Sarutobi in the face after finding out the truth. Don’t leave it like this, Pakkun had told him, and Sasuke had left it all behind.

“So join us,” Suigetsu says hotly. He leans forward. “Stand with us, Sasuke. This is your home. You’re known here. You could gather men. They’d follow you. Think about it; your own tribe, one that you lead. Fuck Konoha and the miserable politics that—”

“Your brother,” Karin says quietly, interrupting Suigetsu’s steady stream of words. The disappointment in her face is hard to swallow, but it’s not the first time they’ve had this argument. Her nickname for Sasuke, Konoha, was never meant as an endearment. It is an accusation of his distant loyalties, the fact that even though the four of them fought and bled alongside each other, Sasuke’s heart always stayed true to Kakashi and Konoha. “That’s why you’re here.”

Jugo takes a deep breath and turns to Karin, waiting for her decision. She doesn’t say anything for so long that Sasuke steps in with an explanation. “I just need a lead, Karin.”

“It’s not free.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Suigetsu grumbles. “It’s Sasuke asking.”

“Is it?” Karin asks, and although her voice is mild, there is an edge to her tone. “Or is it the Commander Hatake Kakashi? You might be a free agent, Uchiha, and you might not be taking orders from that Kage of yours. But you’ve always been stupidly loyal to Hatake.”

She’s never liked Kakashi, a habit she picked up from Orochimaru who always viewed Kakashi as an ever-present threat. When Sasuke left Otogakure for Kakashi, her dislike intensified into hatred. The four of them had fought a long, drawn-out war for five years together, but Sasuke had turned his back on all of it just because Kakashi taught him better.

But for once, Kakashi’s voice is not in his mind, guiding him. Sasuke says, “It’s me asking. My brother needs me.”

Jugo’s eyes widen. “What do you mean needs you?”

Sasuke looks Karin in the eyes when he answers. “My brother is innocent,” he says, and it’s the second time in one night that Sasuke manages to surprise Karin speechless. “I need to find him before Madara or Pein do.”

Karin’s response is the very last thing Sasuke was hoping to hear. “West,” she answers. “The Land of Earth. He’s been spotted in three villages. Kitamuayama, Oe, and Mogami. He's going back and forth between them, though I’m not sure why.”

Suigetsu starts laughing so hard that he has to push a pillow into his face to muffle the sound.

Jugo looks heavenwards. “Literally any other country on the continent would be safer territory for you,” he grumbles.

Sasuke scrubs a hand over his face. That’s nearly three thousand miles west. “You’re sure about his location?”

“Last I heard,” Karin answers neatly. “He started moving west a few months ago. I lost track of him when he went beyond my range. He seems to be circling Iwagakure. There are a lot of stories floating about.”

“What stories?”

Karin makes a face, as if she’s tasted something sour. “I don’t know if the intel is—”

“What stories, Karin?” Sasuke presses.

Karin looks around the fire, as if looking for confirmation from the others. Both Jugo and Suigetsu, though, look just as confused as Sasuke. It is unusual for Karin to act this way. She only shares information she knows to be true; that is how she maintains the quality of her business. “He’s been looking for someone,” she says finally.

Who, Sasuke wonders, could possibly be on the western edges of the world? When Karin doesn’t speak immediately, Suigetsu makes a gesture, as if to say, Go on.

Karin squares her shoulders. “Senju Hashirama,” she says, and Sasuke can’t help it: he starts laughing.

Suigetsu throws a pillow at him, so Sasuke does Megumi a favor and smothers his face to muffle the sound of his laughter. Itachi has been searching for Senju Hashirama at the edge of the very world, and Sasuke—

Sasuke had just turned his back on the man.

Suigetsu lets him settle down in his tent for the night on bedrolls stacked on top of one another in an imitation of a mattress. It’s more comfortable than most beds that Sasuke has slept in, though, because there’s a cool breeze from outside and the familiar sounds of a fire crackling a few feet away. Just outside the fabric of the tent, he can hear the men, women, children, and animals settling into the night until all he hears are the sounds of the night animals: a coyote that gets too close and makes the horses whinny nervously; an owl’s hoot carrying over the occasional strong gust of wind descending from down the mountain and blowing across the plains.

He wakes up because Suigetsu is crooning good morning to his daughter, singing, There’s my Princess, did you sleep well? It earns him a chirrupy laugh from Megumi. She’s pawing at his face with her chubby fingers, echoing, Daddy, Da-ddy, Da-ddy with unbridled joy. Suigetsu mock gasps and points at Sasuke. “Who is that?”

The girl blinks at him with the same violet eyes as her father. “Who is that?” Suigetsu repeats, coming over to Sasuke’s bedding. “It’s Uncle Sasuke!” He sets Megumi down on her feet and she clutches at his pants while she peers at Sasuke curiously.

Sasuke understands now why Suigetsu’s joy has changed him so much. He rolls onto his side and reaches out a single finger for her to take. “Hello.”

Megumi blinks at him, face still pink from sleep. She lets go of Suigetsu’s legs to waddle over to him and grips his finger solemnly. “Hi.”

Suigetsu grins at him. “Want to spend time with her and babysit?”

Sasuke surprises even himself with how quickly he answers: “Yes.”

Sasuke spends the next few hours with Jugo, babysitting Megumi while Suigetsu and Karin go about making preparations for Sasuke’s long journey west. She is familiar with Jugo and waddles willingly over to him when he holds out his arms. Jugo introduces Sasuke to all the little games that delight Megumi—peek-a-boo, Sasuke realizes, is already yesterday’s news—and before long, Megumi is shrieking with laughter each time Sasuke presses raspberries into her stomach or when he throws her into the air to catch her again with a whoop.

She calls Jugo Uncle Ju-Ju. Naturally, Sasuke becomes Uncle Sa-Sa.

Every now and then, Suigetsu will stop by the tent to check on his daughter, which usually ends with Megumi running to him excitedly, yelling, Daddy daddy daddy daddy until Suigetsu picks her up for a lingering hug.

It's during one of Suigetsu’s visits—without Karin’s presence—that Sasuke sits down with Jugo and Suigetsu to explain the full extent of Itachi’s innocence. He does this willingly, without prompting from either of them, because they know the full story. He’d told them the truth in fits and starts one night before battle, after Jugo and Suigetsu laid bare their own bloodied histories and broken families. They had listened, and they had understood, because both of them had buried their kin, and all three of them had the cursed seal burning on their skins.

When Itachi orchestrated his own death, Jugo knew to look for his body. He breached enemy borders and allowed himself to be arrested just to deliver Sasuke the news in person. He’d known Sasuke well enough to know that at the end of the day, Sasuke would mourn the news of Itachi’s death, and that he would want to hear the news from someone who understood that.

In Urausu, Erimo had cut to the truth of it. Blood brothers, he’d said, and that is the bond Sasuke shares with Jugo and Suigetsu. They are beyond best friends; they are the ones who stand as godfathers to each other’s children.

Jugo goes completely still when Sasuke tells them the full truth; even Suigetsu is rendered speechless. He holds Megumi close and doesn’t say anything for a long, long while. “Don’t tell Karin,” Sasuke says, and he doesn’t need to explain why he doesn’t want Karin to have this information. She’ll weaponize it in some way. She’ll force his hand, tether him to the Land of Rice Fields using all her machinations so that Sasuke breaks free from his loyalties to Hatake Kakashi once and for all.

She is the Black Widow, and while Sasuke is still her friend, she is first and foremost a strategist. She wants a Sharingan guarding the Land of Rice Fields; she wants Sasuke beholden to her, at her command. Jugo, Suigetsu, and Sasuke have learned to tread carefully around her. “You won’t tell her,” Sasuke confirms, looking at Jugo and Suigetsu both in the eyes.

Suigetsu nods. Megumi squirms in his grip, trying to get to the floor and continue her play, but Suigetsu holds her fast. “I’m so sorry, my friend.”

Jugo rubs at his face, looking weary all of a sudden. “You need to find your brother, Sasuke.”

“I know,” Sasuke agrees. “I will.”

Around midday, Suigetsu leaves Megumi with one of the camp women who has three other children hanging on her arm. She’s a middle-aged woman, and while she seems familiar with Suigetsu, it’s obvious there is no intimacy between them. Suigetsu presses a kiss to Megumi's hair before he leads Jugo and Sasuke through the tents, and Sasuke waits until they step outside before asking the question that has been on his mind. “So a single parent, then?”

Suigetsu sighs. He has more than one woman, Sasuke knows, but like the land itself, the boundaries of relationships in the Land of Rice Fields are porous. A tribal leader can have many women or men, and children often have both mother and father.

Megumi, though, it’s become obvious now, seems to have no mother. “Megumi’s mother isn’t a part of the picture,” Suigetsu answers finally. Jugo jostles Sasuke lightly with an elbow, signaling for Sasuke to shut up, now. So Sasuke does, even though he wants to know how Suigetsu is pulling it off: single father, a tribe to lead, and under a new threat from Amegakure. He wonders why a woman would be stupid enough to walk away from him and Megumi, but Suigetsu seems prickly about the topic so Sasuke lets it drop easily enough.

They meet up for a quiet lunch with Karin, the four of them bent over a map to plot Sasuke’s journey west. None of them have been to Iwagakure, and they have to rely on intel from Karin's contacts. He’ll be going in blind, and what’s worse, if anyone catches wind that Uchiha Sasuke is breaching the Land of Earth borders, it will reopen old wounds. The Land of Earth and the Land of Fire have an age-old enmity, spanning centuries before the two countries even declared themselves as nations.

“But he’s not Konohagakure shinobi anymore,” Jugo points out diplomatically.

“As if that makes any fucking difference,” Suigetsu scowls. He stabs at the dot indicating Iwagakure with his knife, leaving it embedded in the table underneath. “They’ll assume it’s Konohagakure attacking. It’s not like it’s widely known that Sasuke is a free agent now.”

Karin looks up sharply. “I can fix that,” she says with a smirk, and just like that, the problem has been solved. Three riders fan out from the camp within the hour: northwest, southwest, and true west. They carry with them the necessary rumor to spread, along with plausible stories.

Uchiha Sasuke is free of his oaths. The Godaime Hokage herself released him from his blood oaths.

Technically, Tsunade was not the one to release him from his oaths, but Sasuke lets the lie rest. “The news will reach Iwagakure faster than you do,” Karin assures him. “Nothing spreads faster than a rumor.”

In the afternoon, Suigetsu convinces Sasuke and Jugo that they should go on a hunt. “Like the old days,” he says, and they thunder out on their horses with spears, bows, and arrows onto the gentle slope of the Yoro Mountain. The buck they bring down is massive with branching antlers like a crown. It takes them a few hours to bring him down back to camp.

They feast that night with some of the men, the smell of roasted meat hanging thick in the air and sending the dogs at the outer edge of the camp into a frenzy of yipping and tail-wagging in anticipation of the scraps. Suigetsu holds court with Megumi by his feet. She is busying herself with the antlers that Sasuke and Jugo carved into toys for her, tapping a private rhythm with the antler pieces on the earth happily. She seems used to the bustle around her, but Suigetsu immediately calls for someone to take her away when her energy starts to flag early in the night.

“Say good night!” Suigetsu orders, and on cue, the men and women around the campfire say in unison, “Good night, Megumi.” Megumi hides her giggle in her father’s shoulder, and Suigetsu presses a kiss against Megumi's hair, breathing deep, before handing her over to the same woman from this morning. Megumi waves at Suigetsu as she’s carried away, and Suigetsu doesn’t shift his gaze until the tent flap falls shut behind her.

Sasuke has to leave early the next morning, but they linger by the fire anyways. Karin is looking off into the distance as she tracks wayward chakra signatures, and Jugo and Suigetsu talk quietly through the details of where and when they might convene the tribes for a vote on a warlord for the north.

Sasuke listens to their quiet words and the whip and crackle of the fire, head pillowed on his arms and stretched out on the soft grass. Overhead, the stars are so vast and clutter the night sky so completely, they nearly outshine the moon.

He leaves at the crack of dawn, just as the sunlight breaks over the ridges of the Yoro Mountain. Suigetsu, Karin, and Jugo see him off at the western end of their camp.

Suigetsu has resupplied him with food and water under the condition that Sasuke will visit again when he can. Jugo presses a hunting knife into his hands, this too with the Biratori sigil. Karin sends him off with only her instructions: “Be safe, Konoha.”

“I will,” Sasuke promises, and heads west.

Kakashi once told Sasuke about the wars with the Land of Earth when Team 7 had been assigned a particularly long mission. They had been away from the city for two and a half weeks, and everyone was feeling stretched thin, itchy to head home. The march to Iwagakure, he said, mild, is ten times as long. During the war, Kakashi explained to them, Sarutobi had deployed his troops to the front lines in eighteen-month tours. It took three of those months just to get to the Land of Earth and the front lines there—a long, miserable slog through the winter months across hostile territory. Sasuke, at least, has the weather on his side, and Michi to ease the distances.

Still, it’s a long journey. Not because of the distance, but because his cover story requires that he can’t cut a straight path to the Land of Earth. Instead, he has to loop through the countryside, stopping to linger at the sights that the Continent has to offer. He has to take his damn time instead of heading straight for his brother.

The story that Karin has concocted for him, the one that the riders carried westward in advance of his trip, is not just that Sasuke is free of his bonds. It is also that he is traveling the Continent, rudderless and seeking reprieve from so many years of war and death.

A road trip, Sasuke thinks, because that’s exactly what this is. He’s a tourist on a road trip and it irks him to have to play this role. But he knows the importance of sticking to his cover story, so he leaves breadcrumbs where necessary, detouring along his path to visit famous hot springs and temples and cities so ancient that the murals on the walls still show samurai in their armor. He stays off the main road as much as possible, making an occasional appearance on the main road when he thinks it’s time to throw off anyone who may be following.

Somewhere in the Land of Waterfall, though, something changes. The memory of Konoha—of the Shodaime’s downturned gaze when Sasuke called him a liar, of the Nidaime’s still face as Sasuke named him monster—becomes bearable. He folds and refolds that memory into such small parcels in his mind that even his Sharingan can’t remind him of the moments in excruciating detail anymore.

Settle into your own skin, the Nidaime had told him once, and Sasuke finds himself doing just that. And suddenly, when Sasuke looks around, he notices his surroundings.

The Land of Waterfalls is tucked among the Western Alps, and no matter which way Sasuke turns, he can hear the gentle burble of a brook or swift-moving stream. The water in these streams is cold and fresh, so pristine that Sasuke feels guilty dipping in for a swim or wash. There is a quietness in these lands, something about the lush green of its grass and the gentle sway of its willow trees that makes Sasuke take deep breaths.

When Sasuke runs out of food, he finds the road and travels to a quiet hamlet nestled against rolling plains. It’s not until he’s in the center of the small town that he remembers that the Namikaze tribe is from these parts.

Everywhere he looks, he sees golden-blond hair and blue eyes. But none of these people have the same lush lips, sharp cheekbones and slender build that Naruto does—these details, Sasuke knows from the Yondaime, reflect the Uzumaki in Naruto, the distinct Land of Whirlpool beauty that Naruto possesses in spades. The memory of Naruto—and Sasuke is Sharingan, so even the memory is vivid, precise, and breathtaking—makes something stir in the very depths of his gut.

The local innkeeper tells him that the town is called Funagata and provides directions to the local tavern. Sasuke draws attention wherever he goes, but it’s not the same wariness that his name is usually associated with. He’s nearly an hour into his visit when he realizes that the person he is talking to—a local tea farmer who saw Sasuke sitting by himself at a table and joined him with a friendly, Hello!—has no idea who he is.

“Uchiha Sasuke,” the man repeats thoughtfully. “Now that’s an old name if I’ve ever heard one. Where did you say you were from again?”

Sasuke smiles and is surprised to find how genuine it is. “Nowhere special,” he answers.

He wonders if Karin predicted he would be so unknown in this town, why she insisted that he stop here as a place to rest when they planned out his route.

Sasuke stays a full day in Funagata. He walks along the quiet paths of the small town, watches the rise and dip of the farmers, and makes small talk with the locals who stop to stare at the new local attraction. On his second night in town, Sasuke falls into bed with a woman named Akemi. She has dirty-blonde hair and a smile that leaves dimples in her right cheek. She works at the inn where Sasuke is staying, and after catching a glimpse of the gentle curve of her waist, Sasuke approaches her.

He spends the night with his face pressed into the curve of her neck, spreading his fingers along the soft give of her thighs and feeling his chakra unfurl in his stomach with each aching roll of his hips. He leaves the next day and heads south, making sure to stay at each Village he passes. In Asahi, he meets Kazue with her olive-green eyes and skin so dark it blends with the darkness in their room. In Hachirogata, he meets Izumi who laughs each time Sasuke presses a kiss against her inner thigh. In Yamanobe, he meets Moriko, the owner of a rare bookstore, who leaves smudges of ink on the sheets and on Sasuke’s skin. In Oishida, it’s Airi, with hair that falls down to the small of her back and who indulges Sasuke as he runs his fingers through the full length of her loose curls and coils a strand around his fingers as he presses in, blood running hot in his veins.

Every day he looks skywards and is reminded of the blue of Naruto’s eyes.

He is so lost in the actual journey that he doesn’t even notice the passing of his birthday. He wakes up a week after the date and realizes: Eighteen.

He’s survived far longer than he thought he would. What’s more, he’s walking towards Itachi now, following the tug of their blood bond. Brother, Sasuke whispers to himself as he and Michi make their languid way across the Continent. Not Kin-Butcher, but Brother.

When he sees Kusagakure’s walls looming on the horizon, it’s unexpected. The miles and months have passed without being so unbearable. The Land of Grass is a cluster of boisterous cities, one after another. He doesn’t even realize he’s arrived at the capital until he notices the large banner hanging over the Village walls. The chuunin at the gate is curious, but not rude about it. “Uchiha Sasuke,” he repeats, wondrous.

“So they tell me,” Sasuke answers mildly. He has no documents of official identification. He had to yield his papers with the Konohagakure seal when he severed the blood oath; a shinobi without a liege lord is utterly without identity. But this doesn’t bother Sasuke as much as he thought it would.

He knows exactly who he is.

Thus far, he has not needed any paperwork for entry, and most people have taken him at his word. Now, though, he is holding up the long line of visitors seeking entry into Kusagakure.

The chuunin puts his pen down carefully. He isn’t much older than Sasuke, but there’s a wide-eyed wonder about him that Sasuke doesn’t ever remember having. “Do you have any paperwork or—” He stops before he even finishes the question. “Stupid question. I’d heard you were traveling westward. Didn’t think you’d actually stop by our city, though. Stay here, I’ll be right back.”

Karin was right. The rumors spread fast and wide, arriving well before Sasuke even gets to his destinations. The chuunin indicates that Sasuke should step into a small back office and wait for him to return. He disappears to discuss the matter with his COs. It takes nearly twenty minutes for the question to climb up the chain of command and an answer to filter back down.

“Welcome to Kusagakure,” the chuunin says with a flourish and sets Sasuke free.

After spending over two months traveling through mountains, forests, and valleys, it’s odd to be back in such a large city. He feels acutely like an outsider, not just because he is one, but because he is so obviously a foreigner in these lands. He towers over everyone else—the tallest man he sees is still a few inches shorter than Sasuke—and is broad-shouldered and muscled where everyone else is lean. They dress differently, speak with an odd accent that makes his Northern-tinged Western dialect sound especially out of place. In his traveling gear and strapped as he is with a sword, battle-ax, and curved knife, he looks even more like a marauding warrior from the North.

After settling Michi comfortably in a stable, Sasuke sets off to explore the city. It’s nothing like Konohagakure, with her wide streets and bustling throughways. Kusagakure is cramped, with buildings that climb skywards without seemingly any limit. There is a tram that is constantly rumbling from one corner to the other, and rickshaws, bicyclists and pedestrians everywhere. They all part around Sasuke like a streaming brook around a stone in the middle of its path. At the center of the Village is a large stone arch leading to the massive Kage complex.

He eats dinner at a restaurant with outdoor seating at a plaza. He knows he’s being gawked at, but his own curiosity is too great, so he requests the hostess to seat him outside. He takes his time while he eats, watching kids splash around in a fountain at the center. The fountain is ornate with arching spirals, and oddly enough, a lush sculpture of a woman in the center holding a vase out of which the water keeps streaming, endless. She’s wearing nothing but a strip of cloth, her left breast exposed and her hair flowing down her back as she looks towards the sky. A sculpture like this would never be displayed in stately, austere Konoha with its square streets and massive, arching buildings that are intended as a display of strength.

When he’s finished eating, he walks around in search of a drink. The bar he chooses is bustling with people, so Sasuke hedges his bets that the drinks are good. There is a stunned silence when he walks in, but the loud din of people talking picks up almost immediately. There are shinobi and civilians alike in the place, and Sasuke makes his way to the bar to place his order.

He first notices Yasu from across the bar by the tinkling joy of his laugh. When he turns to look, he finds Yasu surrounded by a group of his friends at a high table a few feet from Sasuke, all of them in shinobi gear. Yasu is wearing a jounin vest that hugs his lean frame tight. There’s something about the smooth column of his neck that has Sasuke’s gaze lingering. He must have let his gaze linger for too long because Yasu turns and catches his gaze. He tilts his head at a curious angle, considering Sasuke.

It’s the first man he has ever been attracted to other than Naruto, and for a moment, Sasuke feels as if he’s been caught doing something wrong. He pushes the thought aside, though, and holds Yasu’s gaze for a moment longer while he considers his next move.

With women, it’s easy to gauge their interest. But with men, he never knows—he remembers distinctly mistaking Neji’s friendship with Naruto as something far more intimate not too long ago. But then, Yasu smiles, slow and easy, and any uncertainty Sasuke feels is gone in an instant. When he approaches Yasu’s table with a drink, Yasu’s friends melt away like snow on the first day of spring, leaving them alone after just the barest introductions around the table.

Sasuke fumbles more than usual when he finally manages to start a conversation, but Yasu takes pity on him and fills in the gaps easily. Apparently, he majored in art history in college, and he answers Sasuke’s question about the statue in the plaza, the oddly cramped but graceful architecture, and the massive arched gateway leading to the Kage palace. He is built like a runner, with lean muscles and a compact chakra signature. His eyes are a lovely shade of crystal green—not as bright, not as wide or almond-shaped, or fringed as thickly with lashes as Naruto’s, but Sasuke knows now that he can search the entire breadth of the Continent and find no one who can approximate the sheer loveliness of Naruto.

Still, Sasuke finds himself staring openly for the entirety of their conversation. Yasu doesn’t bat an eye. The heat in Sasuke’s gut is as coiled and urgent as it is with women, and it eases the first few, fumbling minutes for Sasuke: pressing Yasu down into the bed, sliding a hand under his shirt to palm at the smooth skin there, biting his way down Yasu’s neck—

He freezes when he feels the hard line of Yasu’s interest against his thigh. Yasu goes still. “Are you honestly telling me,” he says into the awkward silence that settles, “that the Uchiha Sasuke has never been with a man before?”

Sasuke pulls back, grateful for the relative darkness of the room. His face is hot. “I’ve been with women.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of your conquests with women,” Yasu says, but there is no taunt in his words. Sasuke does a push-up to lever himself off Yasu, but Yasu stops him with a hand around the back of his neck. “I don’t mind.”

Some of it is new, but Yasu takes the lead and Sasuke has always been a quick learner. His initial anxiety falls away when he noses his way down the flat planes of Yasu’s stomach and breathes in the deep scent at the space where Yasu’s thigh meets his hips. Later, he freezes, but only slightly, when he feels Yasu line up behind him, but then the sheer pleasure and release that follows is enough to make his chakra spike and crackle (imagines, for a moment, being on his hands and knees for Naruto instead). Some of it, though, is familiar, like when Sasuke has Yasu braced on his hands and knees and slides in with a groan. The snap of his hips is the same as it is with women, but the heat and clench of Yasu’s body is different. “This,” Sasuke groans into Yasu’s neck, “I could get used to.”

Yasu’s laugh trails off into a moan when Sasuke starts to move again.

In the morning, Sasuke wakes up to Yasu mouthing his way down his stomach and spends the first fifteen minutes of wakefulness blissed out and groaning up at the ceiling. They shower together, and one thing leads to another. By the time Sasuke stumbles out of Yasu’s apartment, he is as loose-limbed and relaxed as he has ever been. Yasu sends him off with a kiss at the Village gate, yielding when Sasuke pulls him close and licks his way into Yasu’s mouth greedily, uncaring of onlookers. Sasuke only pulls back when Michi paws impatiently at the ground, tugging at her reins.

It’s almost noon by the time Kusagakure disappears over the horizon behind him, but Sasuke’s joints feel loose after the night before and he can’t find it in himself to care that he’s fallen behind on his travel schedule by almost six hours.

Besides, Kusagakure was his last chance at any material comfort.

He makes sure to pass through a border checkpoint at the Land of Wind. The Sunagakure shinobi on duty eyes him warily.

“It takes a few months to cross,” he says when Sasuke casually lets it drop that he plans on making the trek across the vast distance of the southwestern deserts. The chuunin pulls out a map and spreads it out on the table between them. It’s just a large splotch of yellow depicting the dessert. With a pen, he draws a large X along the solid line indicating the border between the Land of Wind and the Land of Earth and says, “We are here.” He circles a few more areas on the map at seemingly nondescript locations. “Reliable watering holes, even this time of year. Double your water intake for the first few days since it takes a while to get used to the heat. Your horse…” He eyes Michi through the glass windows of the building. Outside, the sun is setting over the horizon in a striking mix of violet and orange.

Michi, though, is blissfully unaware of her surroundings under the cool shade of the shed with unlimited access to water and fresh horse feed.

“Your horse might make it,” the chuunin says. “If you make sure to keep up your supplies.”

Sasuke gives the map the due consideration he is expected to give it. “The watering holes. Are they anyone’s territory or—”

“No, no,” the chuunin says, waving aside Sasuke’s question. “The watering holes are open for everyone to use. We don’t even do patrols along those wells unless it’s wartime. You don’t plant a flag on water and call it yours, Uchiha. That’s not how this part of the world works. We all have to survive the sands.”

So no one that he needs to show his face to; his alibi will be secure. For all intents and purposes, Uchiha Sasuke can disappear into the deserts and not be seen or heard from for months without raising any suspicions.

A good magic trick, Sasuke knows, is all about the diversion.

“Are we talking twelve weeks or longer to cross?”

“Thereabouts. Sixteen to eighteen weeks for most foreigners. If they make it across.” The chuunin taps his pen against the map thoughtfully. “There’s not a lot of villages between here and Sunagakure. You might run into some nomad tribes, but they’re probably sticking close to the groves for the harvest. It’s a pretty…solitary journey.”

Sasuke looks up from the map. “Isn’t that the point?”

The chuunin responds with an open smile. “I only mention it because I’ve heard you don’t like to sleep alone at night. If you’re looking for that kind of a visit, might be best to wait for the next caravan heading out to Sunagakure. You’ll get to the capital in half the time.”

Sasuke tilts his head, considering the chuunin. He has chocolate-brown eyes and an easy smile. His hair is curling and long, messy and unconcerned—easy, Sasuke imagines, to twist around his fingers and tug. There is a delicate upward tilt of his eyes, something intriguing about the strip of skin at his wrist between his long-sleeved shirt and fingerless gloves. The chuunin’s easy smile slips into something more hesitant when he notices Sasuke’s interest.

It’s always been easy for Sasuke to take what he wants. Even more so when it’s offered so readily. Sasuke sees his opening and leans forward over the counter; the chuunin moves back imperceptibly before swaying forward again. “You didn’t give me a name.”

“Yori,” the chuunin says, and his eyes dip to Sasuke’s lips.

Sasuke repeats the name with care. “Yori.” He has a desert and then the solitary trek through the Land of Earth to look forward to. Might as well have fun while he still can. “It’s my last meal before the sands, and I was hoping for some company.”

Yori’s dinner is just the typical border posting ration meal in the backroom, but neither of them get to the food. What ends up happening instead is Sasuke bracing Yori against the wall.

Yori glances over his shoulder when he hears the tear of the condom wrapper. “This is against regulations,” he breathes out, flushed from the ten minutes of foreplay that Sasuke indulged in. His neck is rubbed pink from Sasuke’s beard, a trail leading down his shoulder. For convenience, Sasuke has divested Yori of his clothes, and now, he pushes his own pants down just enough to get the job done.

“What’s against regulations?” Sasuke asks, and lines himself up. Yori’s eyes flutter shut as Sasuke presses their bodies together without pushing in, just ruts idly in the delicate cleft between Yori’s legs.

“You’re technically a sanctioned individual of the state,” Yori says, trailing off into a moan when Sasuke finally takes pity on both of them and slides in. Sasuke could write books on the many, many uses of weaponry oil: sharpening blades, smoothing the rough edges of kunai and shuriken. Also, lube.

Sasuke lets his forehead drop to Yori’s shoulder and groans at the tight clench of his body. “The Land of Fire and the Land of Wind are not at war.”

Yori whimpers high in his throat. “Just you, not all Land of Fire shinobi. You’re considered an unfriendly agent, unrelated to your country’s—”

“This feels pretty friendly to me,” Sasuke says, and moves his hips in shallow thrusts between each word. Yori tips his head back on Sasuke’s shoulder, breathing hard.

“I’ll get a visit from my CO,” Yori murmurs, and grips Sasuke’s forearm, moving onto his toes to make up for the difference in height. Sasuke holds up his weight and rests a hand against the wall in front of him. “There’ll be an inquiry when they find out you’ve passed through this border point.”

It is slightly insulting that Yori is sustaining an entire conversation in this state. So Sasuke pulls out and manhandles Yori onto his narrow sleeping bunk. Yori’s words dissolve into incoherent whimpers and moans after that. It’s not until the next morning that Yori picks up his abandoned train of thought. “My God,” he says, watching Sasuke towel himself dry after a quick shower. “My CO is going to kill me.”

Sasuke pulls on his shirt. “For what?”

“You!” Yori gestures at Sasuke from head to toe. He still hasn’t pulled on his clothes, which has Sasuke reconsidering his decision to leave immediately. Granted, he’d woken up early enough for round three and the shower was memorable—Sasuke has never believed that there is ever too much of a good thing. Besides, Yori is a pretty little thing; for him to be so far removed from the rest of civilization is a crime unto itself. “For sleeping with you!”

“Don’t tell your CO, then,” Sasuke says and bends to start repacking his bag.

Yori dresses hurriedly. “I can’t not tell my CO,” he says, sounding mournful. “I heard the Kazekage hates you. Personally. He really hates you. He’ll demand an explanation.”

Sasuke glances up at this, but doesn’t respond.

Outside, Michi is drinking peacefully from the trough. She lifts her head when Sasuke approaches, huffing in recognition. Yori watches as Sasuke saddles Michi and ties down his gear. “Why does he hate you so much anyways?”

Sasuke swings himself up onto Michi. He still remembers the thoughtful way Gaara let his gaze linger on Naruto, the way they had come together from the shared experience of their demons during the chuunin exam. Every interaction of theirs seemed intimate; Sasuke always felt as if he was trespassing.

Gaara, Sasuke knows, still sends Naruto flowers for his birthday every year. Once, he’d even asked him out for dinner when he made a diplomatic visit with his sister.

“He wanted something of mine,” Sasuke answers, and his words come out as a growl. Yori freezes, looking up at him with bright eyes.

“Something,” he ventures cautiously. “Or someone?”

Sasuke stares down at Yori, his Mangekyou whorling. “Give the Kazekage my regards,” he says, and tugs at Michi’s reins to orient her into the desert.

Sasuke travels four full days south into the desert before he’s convinced that they haven’t sent out any shinobi to trail him. It’s a grueling trek, but despite the effort, he doesn’t cover more than two hundred miles in those four days. The days are blisteringly hot—even in September, he thinks—and the nights freezing. There’s absolutely nothing as far as the eye can see, just the shifting dunes and biting winds. After a lifetime spent in the redwood forests, the desolation of this place is hard for Sasuke to wrap his mind around. The map Yori gave him shows a desert that stretches nearly seven hundred miles across and four hundred miles wide; Sasuke can’t comprehend the vastness of this land.

Still, there is something beautiful about the landscape. The sand is never a single color. Between one hour and the next, the color shifts from turmeric yellow to goldenrod to the orange of dying embers. At the right hour of the day, the sand reminds Sasuke of the gold of Naruto’s hair, and in others still, the light tan of Naruto’s skin. Most of the time, though, it’s as if the sands shift through the different hues of Konoha’s redwoods in fall. At its brightest, the sun makes the entire sand glow a yellow so brilliant it’s as if Sasuke is walking on the surface of the sun.

What makes Sasuke’s heartbeat thunder, though, is the sky overhead. Sunsets and sunrises are more violent on the desert than anywhere else. He gets up early to watch the sun rise and always stops his travels when the sun sets.

He changes directions abruptly west the fifth day and curves back towards the border cautiously. The Land of Wind is nearly two times the size of the Land of Fire, and her borders touch a good number of the other countries in the continent. The Kazekage doesn’t bother manning or patrolling his borders, though, because there is absolutely no need to: the desert is the only barrier he needs to keep his enemies at bay. It’s unlikely an army can make it across the full expanse of the desert intact; thirst alone would cut their numbers in half.

So it is easy—almost too easy—for Sasuke to slip entirely unnoticed from the barren deserts and into the salt flats of the Land of Earth.