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The Village wall looms in the distance, and Itachi’s gaze never once dips to ground level. He is so fixated on the walls that he nearly trips over Akamaru, who only chuffs happily at him and butts his head into Itachi’s stomach, affectionate, when Itachi mumbles a sincere apology for his clumsiness.

Kiba is the one who puts Itachi at ease with a firm slap on his back. “Welcome home, Itachi.”

Itachi looks towards Konohagakure. “A few more miles to go.”

“Nearly there,” Kiba says with a kind smile, and keeps walking.

Sasuke falls back so that he’s walking in line with Neji. They’re protecting the rear for the next few miles, but thus far, Neji hasn’t even looked at him. Sasuke takes a breath and says the words he’s been chewing over in his mind. “You were right.” Neji glances at him quickly but doesn’t say anything. “About Naruto,” Sasuke elaborates. He hates every moment of this conversation, but he needs to push through.

Neji returns to his task of scanning the perimeter. Sasuke is about to write off the whole thing as wasted effort when Neji says, voice pitched low, “I was out of line to suggest that you are dishonorable.” He takes a breath and offers Sasuke a small smirk. “I still think you’re a fucking idiot, though.”

Sasuke doesn’t want to drag this argument on by countering, so he just lets the comment go.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” Neji says suddenly. When Sasuke turns to look at him, expectant, Neji offers, “I’m only authorized to say the words once we’re securely within the Village walls and a perimeter has been established.”

Sasuke knows orders are orders, so he doesn’t press for more details. A silence settles over the group—even Kiba doesn’t speak—and the last few miles pass by quickly, contracting in a way that makes it seem as if time is slipping by without Sasuke realizing. He glances ahead at Itachi, who has squared his shoulders and is walking—almost marching—up to the gates now. Thankfully, Akamaru is by his side, providing easy company.

Sasuke can sense the crackle and flare of Kakashi’s chakra. It is familiar, and despite all the thousands of miles and all that has transpired the night before—Neji’s anger and Kiba’s censure—Sasuke takes a deep breath and feels his chest expand with something like relief. This is what they were marching all those miles for, carrying Zetsu’s coffin.

When Sasuke and Itachi deposit Zetsu’s body at Kakashi’s feet, he will know what to do. Kakashi will call his men and women to arms, and they will go to war. They will win because Kakashi is a wartime Commander. Kakashi will lead his army, and when they march, they will lay waste to Madara and whatever middling force he will rise. They will end Madara, end this fight once and for all. It has gone on for too long. Senju Hashirama failed in stopping Madara. Senju Tobirama failed. Sarutobi Hiruzen and Namikaze Minato failed as well. Hatake Kakashi, though, will not.

Sasuke knows this because there is something primal and fierce about Kakashi’s chakra that crackles through the air even all these miles away. Itachi notices Kakashi’s chakra at the same time Sasuke does, and he stiffens, hand dropping involuntarily to his sword hilt before he remembers himself. The last time Itachi encountered him, Kakashi was already weakened from a previous battle and his Mangekyou was a slow-leeching parasite. Still, he held his own against Itachi. This is Kakashi at his full power.

Sasuke doesn’t realize he’s walking too fast and has fallen out of formation until Shikamaru calls out from his side of the cart, “Uchiha, the Boss isn’t going anywhere.”

“The Commander is waiting for you, actually,” Shino says, perched comfortably on the cart. It is his turn to take a break today, and he’s making the most of it: his white robe is draped carelessly over the bench, and his bugs have fanned out in a loose formation overhead. Four of them are perched comfortably on Sasuke’s shoulder.

Sasuke falls back into formation, impatient now to get back to the Village. When they get to the Western gate, there is a chuunin waiting for them. He salutes sharply to Neji. “Sir,” he says, curt, but his eyes are trained on Itachi. He looks pale. He recovers, though, and indicates the cart with the covered tarp. “I’ll need to check the contents—”

Sasuke steps forward to the front of the group with a low growl of impatience. He hears the bzzz of Shino’s bugs moving away from his impatience. “Step aside, soldier. Now.”

The chuunin stares at him with wide eyes, nearly tripping over himself to give the signal. The group spills into the Village; behind them, the gates close shut.

Now that he is inside the city, Sasuke’s impatience becomes even greater. It has taken far too long for them to cross the Continent; there can be no more delays. Sasuke has fallen into an odd, languid pace with Itachi, as if he was just on some road trip and not working against a ticking deadline. Now, though, he knows better.

There are over half a million souls in this Village. Madara has no concern for a single one.

It’s startlingly easy to slip into old habits. “Aburame, secure the package. Loop in Lieutenant Yamanaka for a secure facility in KPD, but no one else. Call in other Unit 3 members for guard duty if needed.”

Shino angles his head politely, so Sasuke turns to Shikamaru next. “Lock it down with SCI, Nara. I don’t want any information getting out of this city about my brother or the package. Round up that chuunin at the gate and keep a tight lid. If even the slightest bit of information gets out, I’m skinning your fucking hide. Work it out with Captain Nara. I don’t care for the details.”

Shikamaru takes a breath but keeps his peace. “Hyuga,” Sasuke continues. “Let Captain Hyuga know that we’ve arrived. Start a recall on all but essential ANBU back to the City. If Madara finds out that my brother is alive and that Zetsu is missing, he’s going to want information. I don’t want the men beyond the borders unless it’s vital.”

Sasuke looks over the team of men to make sure they’ve heard their orders. “Move out.” There’s the slightest bit of hesitation, enough for Sasuke’s chakra to coil. He doesn’t have an armband, but this is just—“Yes?”

“Sarge,” Kiba says, stepping forward. “Now that we’re back in the Village, I need to talk to you.”

Akamaru moves away from Sasuke with a whine at the flare of Sasuke’s chakra. He’s so used to having his orders obeyed that having them questioned now is making his Mangekyou quicken with anger.

“It’s urgent,” Kiba presses.

Sasuke tears his gaze away from Kiba and considers the others. “Anyone else?”

“No, sir,” Shino says neatly and takes off in the direction of KPD with the cart. Shikamaru and Neji break as well, but not before Neji gives Kiba a long, heavy look.

Sasuke rounds on his heels and heads for the Tower. Kiba falls into step beside him; Itachi follows closely behind. “Do that again, Inuzuka,” Sasuke says mildly, “and there will be consequences.”

Kiba clears his throat. “Technically, Sarge, you’re not actually my CO anymore so—” He falls silent when Sasuke’s Mangekyou spins a slow circle. “It’s really important. We need to establish a secure perimeter before I can tell you, though.” Akamaru whines in his throat. His ears are tucked flat against his head as if he’s trying to make himself as small a target as possible from Sasuke’s gaze.

Sasuke ignores Kiba in favor of turning to Itachi. “Stay close, Brother. If anyone attempts an arrest, don’t retaliate.”

Itachi raises an eyebrow. There’s a hint of a smirk on his face. “No kidding.”

Sasuke has to bite down on his anger. Itachi might be his elder, but he’s been away from the Village hierarchy for over a decade. “Only high command knows about the Wildfire Contingency. To the rest of the troops, you’re still an enemy they’ve been trained to hunt and kill for the past decade. What matters most right now is for you to get to Kakashi and make your report.”

Itachi eyes narrow in consideration. “To the Hokage, you mean.”

Sasuke steps away from Itachi. “I don’t have a Kage anymore.”

He starts performing the seals slowly until Itachi understands. They finish with the crane seal almost simultaneously, leaving behind Kiba and Akamaru. It takes three rounds of the jutsu for them to reach the Tower. No one stops Sasuke as he storms through the heavy double door and bounds up the wide stairways two steps at a time.

The West Wing of the Tower is familiar to Sasuke, and he navigates his way towards Kakashi without needing any directions. Kakashi isn’t in his office, but in the Senju Conference Room. Sasuke takes a left and falters only lightly when he senses that Neji and Shikamaru are already there. Along with an entire coterie of chakra signatures. He doesn’t bother to identify who or tally up the signatures because Yoshie is waiting outside the doors for him.

She smiles at Sasuke. “Welcome back, Sasuke.”

This is the second time he’s been greeted home by Yoshie on his way to Kakashi. It takes a moment for him to remember his manners. “Thank you, ma’am. Is he ready to see me?”

Yoshie smiles. “He was getting impatient waiting for you, actually,” she says, almost as familiar with Kakashi’s moods as much as Team 7. She’s been his secretary for nearly five years now, and she knows Sasuke well enough that she keeps a container of cookies on her desk for him. Her smile disappears a moment later, though, because Itachi pops into the space behind Sasuke. “That’s a strong family resemblance,” she mutters, sounding wondrous.

Sasuke makes the introductions, because if he doesn’t, Itachi will likely descend into one of his long lectures on manners. “Yoshie, this is my big brother, Itachi. Itachi, this is Yoshie, Kakashi’s personal aide.”

Yoshie grips the hand that Itachi holds out for a shake and holds his gaze when she says, “Welcome home, Itachi.”

Itachi goes still for a moment. He clears his throat before talking. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Yoshie sweeps the doors open with a bright smile. Inside, the conference room is packed: Tsunade, Jiraiya, all the Captains. (The details of everyone present don’t interest Sasuke, though, because he realizes a key absence: Naruto.)

Most of the people are standing, scattered about the room in loose circles, talking quietly. Tsunade, though, is sitting at the head of the table; to her left is Jiraiya. Kakashi is standing over Tsunade’s shoulder, bent at the waist to indicate something in front of Tsunade.

The room falls completely silent when they all realize that Itachi is in their midst.

The Yondaime glances over his shoulder from his seat, the one usually reserved for Kakashi to Tsunade’s right. His smile freezes when he spots Itachi, but Sasuke keeps his eyes focused on Kakashi. He’s made a fool of himself addressing the ghosts in front of an audience in the past; he won’t do it again in front of a larger audience.

The door slams open behind him, and Kiba rushes in, looking flushed. Even Akamaru is breathing heavily. No doubt, they’d sprinted across the Village to catch up. “Sasuke,” Kiba says in a hurried whisper. “Listen to me—”

Sasuke heads straight for Kakashi, leaving behind Itachi and Kiba by the door. Kakashi keeps his eyes focused on Itachi, but Sasuke starts talking before Kakashi can react. “You need to order them down,” he says, hurried. “There’s no point keeping the Wildfire Contingency a secret anymore—”

Jiraiya steps in before Sasuke can finish his argument. He sounds amused. “You telling the Commander of the Joint Forces what to do, Uchiha?”

It takes less than a heartbeat for Sasuke’s urgency to trip into anger. He rounds on Jiraiya, Mangekyou whorling. “Yes,” he answers, and holds Jiraiya’s gaze. “I’ll also tell you this. If anyone arrests my brother or lays a hand on him or disrespects his goddamn shadow, they will deal with me.”

Tsunade gets to her feet, cutting off Jiraiya’s response. “Welcome home, agent. Glad to see you’re well. I was worried I would never have the pleasure of meeting you. Or thanking you for your service.”

Itachi snaps to attention. “Ma’am.”

Tsunade’s smile is genuine. “We haven’t been properly introduced. My name is Senju Tsunade.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Itachi says, polished despite years of absence from the protocols of Konohagakure. His eyes are unnaturally wide, though, as if he’s shocked by Tsunade’s easy acknowledgement. It’s an odd reaction, but Sasuke doesn’t take much notice. Maybe he wasn’t prepared for such a large audience?

“At ease,” Tsunade says, and gestures at the table. “Take a seat, please.”

Itachi approaches the table cautiously, eyeing the spread of chairs to determine where would be most appropriate for him to sit. His gaze keeps darting back to the head of the table, flickering between one person and the next. Tsunade must sense his hesitation. She smiles. “Anywhere is fine, Itachi.”

Itachi pulls a chair and sits down stiffly. He keeps his eyes glued to Tsunade, who is watching Itachi carefully. Sasuke ignores everyone in favor of taking a step closer towards Kakashi to make his report. “You need to see something. Shino is securing it. Zetsu.”

Kakashi angles his head, interested now.

Sasuke continues. “My brother was hunting him down. He’s Senju Hashirama’s clone.”

Kakashi’s gaze flickers briefly over to Itachi. “That’s certainly interesting,” he says, mild as always. “Is Zetsu dead or alive?”

Sasuke glances at Itachi for a prompt. Itachi shrugs a shoulder, just a twitch of a motion. “Both?” Sasuke ventures. “Neither? There’s two of him in one body, and one half is dead, but the other isn’t. He’s immortal.”

Hiashi leans back heavily into his chair. “Of course he is.”

Kakashi hm-s under his breath as he connects the dots. As always, it doesn’t take him long. “So you used your brother’s death as a cover to transport Zetsu’s body.”

“Not bad, Uchiha. You have your moments,” the Yondaime says, grudging with the praise he gives Sasuke. “But what do you mean when you say he’s Senju-sama’s clone?”

Sasuke doesn’t look at the Yondaime, just stares resolutely at Kakashi, who is watching him with an amused crinkle of his one visible eye. “Minato-sensei asked you a question, Sasuke.”

Sasuke freezes. He still doesn’t dare to look at the Yondaime. “Who?”

“Minato-sensei,” Kakashi repeats slowly. “The Yondaime Hokage-sama. He asked you a question. You should answer him.”

Sasuke counts to ten and keeps his eyes fixed on Kakashi. This could be Kakashi testing him—he must have put the dots together—but Sasuke won’t make the same mistake twice. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Jiraiya groans into the silence that follows. “For fuck’s sake, Uchiha. The cat’s out of the bag.” He waves a hand to indicate the Yondaime. “Minato—sitting right there—asked you a question. Answer it.”

Sasuke still doesn’t quite trust that they’re telling the truth. He says, without looking away from Kakashi, “Brother?”

Itachi responds immediately, sounding strained, “I see him.”

And now, finally, Sasuke turns to meet the Yondaime’s gaze, who gets to his feet with one of his lopsided smiles. Sasuke sees it now that he’s focusing on the ghost, because he’s not the same odd-shimmery blue shade he had been. He’s—

Sasuke’s hand hits flesh and bone. The Yondaime doesn’t shake off Sasuke’s hand on his shoulder, just waits patiently while Sasuke moves his hand to the Yondaime’s bicep. He grips it hard for a moment, another, and then a third, frozen in shock. “I’m here,” the Yondaime says quietly, and it’s such a visceral reminder of that moment in Tsunade’s waiting room all those months ago, the Yondaime’s kindness just before Sasuke was about to step inside to learn the truth about the Nidaime and the Shodaime.

Carefully, Sasuke moves his hand down to the Yondaime’s forearm. It is solid. The cloth of his Kage robes feel as real as Sasuke’s own cloak. He presses a finger into the divot by the Yondaime’s wrist, feeling for a pulse. It’s silent.

“Edo Tensei,” he whispers and flinches back, dropping the Yondaime’s wrist. Orochimaru once cast the Edo Tensei. He taught Sasuke what is required to perform the technique: DNA from the body of the spirit being called forth, and a human sacrifice whose flesh is transformed to become the vessel of the summoned spirit.

Sasuke wants to hurl.

The nausea passes, though, replaced quickly with anger. He rounds on Tsunade and Jiraiya. Who else? Who else but another—

Sannin,” he snarls. The lights overhead flicker with his chakra and the building shakes, not enough to cause damage, but enough for Akamaru to whine in the back of his throat. “You insult him—his memory—” He’s incoherent with rage, words coming out as nothing more than a snarl, dipping in and out of the Northern dialect and snake tongue in his anger. His hand falls to the hilt of his sword, and his knuckles nearly creak from the pressure of holding it so tight as he collects the vocabulary to speak to the Sannin in a language they will understand. “You dishonor him with this. You disrespect him and his memory—his legacy—with this—” He drags in a breath, feels his throat closing on his anger. “This abomination. How dare you?

The Yondaime pulls him back with firm grip on his shoulder. “Ease up, Uchiha. Look at me. Look—” He forces Sasuke to face him with the strength of his grip alone. “Do I look like I’ve been summoned with an Edo Tensei?”

Sasuke stares at the Yondaime’s eyes and his skin. There is no coloring to his skin; he looks oddly flat. But there are no black, spider-web veins emanating from each of the major chakra junctions. His eyes are blue. Just to be sure, Sasuke snatches the Yondaime’s hands and stares at his nails. They don’t have that odd, yellow discoloration of the dead; none of the chipping that would otherwise be present. Instead, his nails are whole. Clean, neatly-trimmed. “The fuck?”

The Yondaime grins at him. “Let me guess. You didn’t give Kiba or Neji a chance to explain the situation to you.”

Sasuke’s mouth hangs open. He’s still not sure—how, what, why, how, how, how—but then all the thoughts in his mind come to a screeching halt, because he realizes: if the Yondaime is here, then…“The others?”

The Yondaime’s face softens with a kind smile. “The others are running late. They’ll be here in a while. If you want, you can wait for Tobirama-sensei and Hashirama-sama outside for privacy—”

The door slams open and the Nidaime barrels through, tugging absentmindedly on his Kage robes. “I’m late, I’m late, I know,” he says by way of hello, ignoring how every single person in the room has snapped to attention, even Tsunade and Jiraiya. “Brother and Hiruzen are running even later than me, so let’s get caffeinated and eat all the bagels in the land while—” He freezes when he sees Sasuke.

Sasuke is the one who looks away first. He stares at a spot on the floor, at the table, at the wall, and out the window, anywhere but the Nidaime’s unrelenting gaze. Monster , Sasuke had called him. What did I ever do to you to deserve that kind of punishment? He’s about to excuse himself when the Nidaime says, loud and sounding the same as he always does, “So now he’s shy.” Sasuke glances up sharply at this. The Nidaime is smiling. “You look like shit, Uchiha.”

Sasuke feels unsure of himself around the ghost like he has never felt before. Still, the Nidaime is trying to lighten the mood, so he will do the same. “Well, you’re a literal walking corpse, Senju, so I feel pretty fucking good by comparison.”

The Nidaime's laughter fills the room. He crosses the distance between them, but Sasuke stays frozen in his spot.

The Nidaime pulls Sasuke into a hug with a fierce grip, the thump-thump-thumping of his hands on his back familiar and comforting. He pulls Sasuke back by the shoulders, but his smile is hesitant now. “Listen. I should have said this a long fucking time ago, but I’m—”

“Don’t,” Sasuke says, rushing to interrupt the Nidaime before he can finish the word. He’s had thousands of miles to think about this, and in the end, Sasuke has decided on what felt most natural: Stay true. The Nidaime wrote the Wildfire Contingency, Sasuke knows, but he was also the man who taught Sasuke his technique. I would not hesitate, he once told Sasuke, to place my life in your hands.

“No, listen,” the Nidaime insists, still holding onto Sasuke by both his shoulders. “Listen, Sasuke—”

“No, you fucking listen. Just shut up and fucking listen, for once in your fucking life,” Sasuke interrupts harshly, speaking loud enough to override the Nidaime now. “Don’t.”

The Nidaime peers at Sasuke carefully. “So we’re okay?”

There’s a hesitation in his voice that doesn’t sit right. He is Senju Tobirama. Nothing less. Sasuke takes a deep breath and holds the Nidaime’s gaze steady. “Yeah. What else would we be?”

“We’re okay,” the Nidaime repeats, smiling now. There’s no question in his words, so Sasuke doesn’t bother suppressing his own grin.

This is relief, Sasuke realizes, the feeling of this wound finally healing. “I didn’t braid you a fucking friendship bracelet, if that’s what you’re waiting for.”

The Nidaime’s laugh is even louder and brighter than before. He pulls him back into a hug, still laughing, and this time, Sasuke hugs him back and eases into the familiar thump-thump-thump of the Nidaime’s hand slapping him on his back. When the Nidaime finally lets him go and steps back, Sasuke clears his throat and asks the question that’s clawing at his throat: “Where is he?”

The Nidaime doesn’t need clarification. “Brother’s on his way.”

Sasuke flinches. “I have to go and make sure Zetsu is—”

He doesn’t even have time to finish his excuse because the Nidaime throws a hand across Sasuke’s shoulder and pulls him close to his side, pinning him in place. He steers Sasuke straight towards Itachi. “Introduce us, why don’t you.”

Itachi gets to his feet so suddenly his chair topples over. “Sir,” he says, crisp. “Uchiha Itachi.”

The Nidaime glances at Sasuke, shaking him lightly. “See, that’s how you greet me,” he says, and turns his attention back to Itachi. Around them, people take their cues to return to their conversations. As if they’re used to seeing the ghosts, Sasuke realizes. This isn’t new. “We have a lot to talk about, agent. Come find me later.”

“Yes, sir,” Itachi says, and he looks star-struck, caught entirely off-guard in a way Sasuke has never seen him. “It would be an honor, sir.” A little stupidly, he adds again, “Sir.”

The Nidaime’s lip curls up into half a smile. He releases Sasuke to hold out a hand for Itachi to take. “I’m pretty sure the honor would be mine, but sure, have at it.” 

Itachi stares at the outstretched arm for a few moments too long. “You shake it, Brother,” Sasuke prompts, and this earns him a scowl from Itachi. He takes the Nidaime’s arm carefully and the Nidaime shakes it twice. When he withdraws his hand, he stares at his palm, as if it’s a foreign limb and not something attached to his own body.

The Nidaime hm-s under his breath. “I don’t understand why people keep doing that,” he mutters, and stares at his own hand, turning it over as if examining it for flaws. When he finds none, he holds it out for Sasuke to inspect. “Check it out. Do I feel dead?”

Sasuke rolls his eyes, but he shakes the Nidaime’s hand anyways to test the theory. “You are dead,” he points out. “But it feels fine to me.”

The Yondaime joins the conversation neatly with a grin. “At least people have stopped fainting, Tobirama-sensei.”

The Nidaime grins, all teeth. “They just can’t handle this beautiful face.”

Sasuke opens his mouth, ready with at least twenty different jokes he can make on the Nidaime’s beautiful face, but before he can say any of them, the Nidaime smacks him upside the head, and turns back to Itachi. “Minato here took it hard when he heard you might be dead

The Yondaime holds out a hand. This time, Itachi doesn’t need prompting. “Welcome home,” the Yondaime says. His smile is genuine. “Tobirama-sensei won’t say it, but he also took it hard. He wanted to order a full ceremonial burial and be a pallbearer for the ceremony. I convinced him to hold off to keep your cover intact.”

“What’s the point of a cover if you’re dead, is what I want to know. As if Madara hasn’t figured it out already by now,” the Nidaime says. Itachi’s mouth gapes open at the Nidaime’s gesture. A Kage, and that too the Nidaime Hokage, as a pallbearer.

Sasuke is the one to acknowledge the act. He turns to the Nidaime with a smile. “The dead can’t be pallbearers for other dead people, Senju. It’s unnatural.”

The Nidaime accepts the roundabout Thank you with a smile, but it’s strained. It’s the Nidaime’s orders that Itachi so blindly followed. But that’s not what Sasuke thinks of in that moment. Instead, he remembers standing vigil for Itachi with the Nidaime. He remembers the Nidaime’s voice when he had said, sounding raw and broken, When my brother died, it nearly killed me

Itachi keeps looking between the Nidaime and the Yondaime as if he can’t decide where to look, so the Yondaime takes pity on him and steers the conversation onto more neutral grounds. Sasuke tries more than once to get away from the Nidaime and make an exit before he has to face the Shodaime, but the ghost’s grip around his shoulders is firm. At one point, he manages to get out of the near-chokehold the Nidaime has him in, but he’s dragged back by the scruff of his shirt and a stern, Oh, no you don’t, you piece of shit, even as the Yondaime says, kinder than he’s ever been, “Uchiha, he’s been waiting for you to come home. He wants to see you.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t,” Sasuke mutters, and twists the Nidaime’s elbow at an angle, forcing him to yield his grip. He gets two feet away when the doors open.

The entire room snaps to attention again when the Shodaime enters, followed closely by Sarutobi. The silence in the room is deeper with the Shodaime there. Even Akamaru dips his head, bending at the knee as if he’s doing some kind of bow. Sasuke makes an aborted movement towards the Shodaime, but catches himself at the last second.

“At ease,” the Shodaime says, and the room relaxes just a fraction. The Shodaime’s eyes go straight to Itachi, and then to Sasuke. He has a small smile on his face—relief, Sasuke realizes, because everyone had believed their cover that Itachi had died.

Sasuke feels as if he should stand at attention, maybe say something, but the room is silent and he doesn’t know what to say. He’d called the Shodaime a liar (You don’t have to live with anything, he’d said), forced the Shodaime to release him from his oaths, and left without a single word. What can he possibly say now to make up for that?

The Shodaime’s shoulders move up and down with a deep breath. And then another. A third. Sasuke thinks that he should leave, but the Shodaime speaks, voice thick. “Welcome home, son.”

The relief is so overwhelming, Sasuke feels a breath rattle out of him.

Sasuke is the one to move, jerking out of his stupor and taking large strides to cross the distance between them. The Shodaime just holds out his arms.

He holds Sasuke tight when Sasuke reaches him, presses a careful hand on the back of his neck, and stands still. Sasuke closes his eyes and breathes in one shaky breath after another, feels something finally settle into place. He grips the fabric of the Shodaime’s robes in a fist, knows that he’s holding on too tight, but he can’t bring himself to care because the Shodaime is holding him back just as fiercely.

It takes a few moments, but Sasuke finally says the words rattling around his ribcage for all those thousands of miles, every time he thought of Konoha. “I should have counted to ten. I shouldn’t have said those things to you. I should have counted to ten before I—”

“There is nothing to apologize for,” the Shodaime assures him, pulling back to look Sasuke in the eyes. “You never have to apologize to me.”

Sasuke ducks his head, feeling his face get hot and swallowing on the lump in his throat. 

“I should be the one,” the Shodaime continues. He takes a breath. “I should be the one to say—”

“No, stop,” Sasuke interrupts hurriedly. He doesn’t know what to say so he mirrors the Shodaime—like he’s always done, because after years of silence, the Shodaime was the one who patiently taught him how to speak again, a call back and forth between them on their walks together as the Shodaime said a verse of poetry, and Sasuke would repeat it back (Keep a bower quiet for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams and quiet breathing, he said once in the quiet of the dawn, and Sasuke had taken a full minute to choke out the words in bits and pieces, imaging that kind of peace for himself—and for Itachi and Shisui and all the others—and aching for it).

Sasuke never felt embarrassed repeating after the Shodaime, no matter how long it took him to find the words, because the Shodaime had always had a quiet patience about him, a kindness that grounded Sasuke and made him feel secure (It is all right to take your time, Sasuke). Now, he does it again, staring at a spot over the ghost’s shoulder when he says the words aloud: “You don’t ever have to apologize to me, either.”

The Shodaime lets out a sudden, aborted laugh, almost a cough, and when Sasuke’s gaze flickers to his face, it’s to find that the Shodaime’s eyes are bright with tears. “You are home,” he says, voice thick. He clears his throat, but still, his voice is a bit unsteady. He holds Sasuke face with both his hands, “You are home now. All is well.”

All is well, Sasuke realizes. It finally is; he just needed to hear the Shodaime say the words aloud to believe it. "Okay."

The Shodaime presses a kiss to Sasuke's forehead (where he always placed a cold hand before after each one of Sasuke's nightmares, assuring him, Just a dream, son), and then pulls him into a hug again. This time, Sasuke relaxes into the embrace, feels the Shodaime press his lips against his hair, lingering, hears a murmured, All is well now. The Shodaime holds him close for a few moments longer, until Sasuke shrugs away, getting annoyed now.

“Yeah, all right,” he grumbles, taking a few steps back. “Moment’s over.”

The Shodaime throws his head back and laughs, belly-deep and loud. One of his large hands comes up to ruffle Sasuke’s hair, and Sasuke puts an appropriate amount of effort trying to shrug him away, because his hair is already a wild spiking mess, he doesn’t need to look any more like a crazed thug, thank you very much. “You should meet my brother,” Sasuke says, half-turning towards Itachi (who looks appropriately horrified, Sasuke thinks). Smirking, Sasuke adds, “He’s your number one fan, Shodaime. It’s a bit embarrassing.”

The Shodaime smiles. “I would be honored to meet your brother,” he says. “But, Sasuke…” He halts Sasuke with a hand on his elbow and says, “You cannot be so angry at him for so long.”

Him being Sarutobi, who Sasuke still hasn’t been able to look in the eyes, even though he’s standing just a few feet away from him. Sasuke looks over his shoulder at the Nidaime, who is standing in utter stillness while he waits for Sasuke’s decision. He looks at Itachi briefly. Itachi is watching him back with saucer-wide eyes. He was following orders, the Nidaime told him, and Sasuke understands that better than anyone else. His brother and Shisui had understood as well. They are Uchiha, born and bred to be warriors and soldiers.

If Kakashi had given him the order—

Sasuke takes a breath and holds it for a brief moment. Then, he turns to face Sarutobi. The wrinkles in his face are exactly the same as Sasuke remembers them when he’d woken up in Sarutobi’s office after the Clan’s massacre. You can cry if you want , he’d offered.

What is the point of all this anger, anyways? He’d traveled with it for thousands of miles. He can travel with it for a lifetime if he chooses to, but what would be the point?


Sarutobi offers him a small smile. “It’s good to see you again, Sasuke.”

There’s still hesitation in Sarutobi’s eyes, so Sasuke meets the man’s eyes. “You too, Sarutobi-sensei.”

The smile Sarutobi gives him is wide and genuine. His eyes are a lighter shade of brown with his relief and happiness. Out of habit, Sasuke dips his head in a bow to close the difference in height between them. Sarutobi’s hand lingers on his crown.  

The Shodaime’s hand on his shoulder is heavy and familiar in its weight, but there is no chill this time with the contact. “You promised me an introduction.”

When Sasuke approaches Itachi with the Shodaime at his side, Itachi’s eyes grow impossibly wider. The Shodaime holds out a hand in greeting, and Itachi—for what has to be the second time in his life—forgets his manners entirely and just stares, gob-smacked. When a moment passes and Itachi still doesn’t react, Sasuke prompts, “Brother?”

Itachi croaks, “I need to sit down.”

The Shodaime lowers his hand without missing a beat, and draws out a chair for Itachi. Itachi stays standing, staring between the chair and the Shodaime, as if he’s not sure which part of this is real. The Shodaime keeps smiling beatifically. “It is an honor to meet you, Itachi. I have heard so much about you from Sasuke. I never thought I would have the joy of meeting you in person, but I am so grateful that I do.”

Sasuke beams. An honor, the Shodaime said, to meet his big brother.

Itachi says again, “I need to sit down.”

He stays standing at attention.

The meeting was convened for Sasuke to make his report. Once SCI had pieced together that Sasuke had traveled nearly to the gates of Iwagakure to find his brother—after leaving a trail that disappeared into the deserts—they needed to move fast to contain the situation. But since Sasuke returned with Itachi, the focus shifts from the Land of Earth and Akatsuki to Itachi instead.

Itachi delivers his report, and it is pitch-perfect. He starts exactly where his last report left off—when he joined Akatsuki. He skips over vast stretches of time, listing bullet points of relevant information as it concerns Madara’s evolving role in the group. The majority of his report focuses on the work he did piecing together who and what Zetsu is. He starts with the clue of the Shodaime’s name he sent with Sasuke and the reason why—“I didn’t trust anyone else,” he says flatly. The clues are hidden, barely anything of significance. But Itachi is Itachi, and he had connected the dots together. The work he did while undercover is extensive, thorough, and so goddamn risky that Sasuke has to clench his hands into fists at how reckless Itachi has been in pursuit of the truth.

“Zetsu,” Itachi says, “is Senju Hashirama in some elemental way. I think Madara used his DNA, but for what purpose, I don’t know.”

Itachi’s explanations of Madara’s final plan, though, are still incomplete, and this is where his report dissolves into hazy speculation. “He’s collecting the demons. He wants to combine them somehow. I don’t know how he intends to do it or how Zetsu is involved. I couldn’t find out much else. By then Madara was starting to lose trust in me. He’d seen me fail, time and again, to obey his orders and kill my brother, and his suspicions were raised. I was never involved in the planning of the final plans.”

The silence that follows in the room is absolute. “Combine the demons,” Shikaku repeats after a few moments, his eyes closed in thought. He takes an audible breath before opening his eyes to look at Itachi again. “He said those words.”

This information is new to Sasuke. He leans forward in his seat to listen. “Yes, sir,” Itachi answers. “Verbatim.”

“But nothing else?” Hiashi presses. “No indication as to how.”

“Is it even possible, Hiruzen-sensei?” Jiraiya asks.

Sarutobi hm-s under his breath. “Not that I’m aware of.”

The memory returns to Sasuke like a sudden clap of thunder. He can hear the Shodaime’s quiet voice as he told him the story, the crunch of leaves under their feet and the slow crescendo of birds rising with the sun. “Shinju,” he breathes.

Ten-Tailed it was, the Shodaime had said, And it’s shadow plunged the world into darkness.

The Nidaime stares at the Shodaime, looking as if he's close to laughing but unsure of whether he should or not. “There’s no fucking way, Brother.”

The Shodaime is lost in thought, chin resting lightly on a loose fist. He looks as though he’s relaxing, but Sasuke knows the man’s expressions like he knows the back of his hand. He is worried.

“What’s Shinju, Hashirama-sama?” the Yondaime asks.

The Shodaime makes the smallest of movements, just a flick of one of his fingers towards Sasuke. He doesn’t want to be bothered with the explanation, so he has delegated the task. Sasuke knows that he is quieter than the Nidaime, but he’s always been open with Sasuke; it surprises him to see how reserved the Shodaime is, even though everyone is clearly deferring to his authority.

Sasuke takes his cue. “Once upon a time,” he begins, reciting the words the Shodaime once told him. Jiraiya shifts in his chair with a mutter under his breath about a fairytale , but Sasuke ignores him. “Princess Kaguya mastered chakra, the first to do so in the world. She conquered the Continent and held all the power close. But as the years passed, she realized that her sons, Hagoromo and Hamura, were becoming stronger. One day, they would contest her rule, and fearing that day, Princess Kaguya summoned a spirit from the other realm, so powerful that it nearly shattered the world. This spirit was Shinju.”

The Shodaime told Sasuke he found out about the Shinju during his research. He was searching for a way to stop the Demons from ruining the earth, and he found an ancient scroll, a third-hand account that had been passed down through generations. It was a series of letters between two high-level officials of the Otsutsuki Empire as they discussed the impending coronation of Otsutsuki Hagoromo. The conversation was about the murder of Princess Kaguya. Matricide.

Sasuke skips over the details about the source, just goes right to the story. “Otsutsuki Hagoromo, the Sage, defeated his power-hungry mother and the demon Shinju in battle with the help of Hamura, his brother. Hagoromo sealed the Shinju in his body. He extracted the chakra from the body, and then he split the chakra into nine tailed beasts.” One of them is in Naruto right now, Sasuke knows, but he doesn’t want to acknowledge this aloud. The last time Shinju roamed the world, there was utter and complete destruction.

Sarutobi looks at the Shodaime. “I’ve never heard this, Hashirama-sama.”

“It wasn’t mean to be heard,” the Nidaime answers.

“So let’s assume the story is true. The nine demons are manifestations of chakra, which is how we can seal them in humans,” the Yondaime says, slowly piecing together the parts of the story that Sasuke hasn’t even shared. “But this Shinju sounds corporeal. If the chakra are the Tailed Demons, then wouldn’t Madara still need a body to contain it?”

“Gedo,” the Nidaime answers. “The body is called the Gedo Statue.”

Hagoromo had sealed away the Gedo in the moon. It's nothing more than the exoskeleton of the Shinju. The chakra, he split into the nine Tailed Demons. In the end, Hagoromo was crowned Emperor despite the sin of matricide staining his hands. It was a necessary evil, the high-level officials concluded.

The Shodaime had told Sasuke the stories in the quiet of the redwoods before the sun rose. Sasuke listened to the stories and thought nothing of them. He assumed they were bedtime stories, but the Shodaime’s expression now makes him wonder if there is more to this.

“Where is this Gedo Statue?” Tsunade asks and looks directly at the Shodaime for an explanation.

The Shodaime doesn’t answer, just looks into the vague distance. He hasn’t said a single word since Itachi finished his report. Sasuke stares out the window. “Two hundred thousand, eight hundred fifty-five miles,” he mutters under his breath.

The Shodaime shifts his gaze to Sasuke. He raises an eyebrow. Explain.

“The distance to the moon,” Sasuke answers, and keeps his eyes fixed on the sky outside. Uncle Inabi had read Sasuke a bedtime story once, but it was more like a scientific book for children. Sasuke remembers sitting in Uncle Inabi’s lap and flipping the pages with both hands when his uncle indicated that he should. He can still remember the slight bend to Uncle Inabi’s broken index finger as he pointed to the words and read them aloud. Sasuke remembers the detail on one of those pages: the round orb of the moon, and underneath, a picture of an owl hooting out the interesting scientific fact about how far it is to reach it.

It’s not sunset yet, so there is still light visible. The city beyond is bustling with activity. The Gedo Statue is in the moon. That is what Madara needs.

The Shodaime follows Sasuke’s gaze out the window.

Madara needed the Shodaime’s DNA. There are one of two reasons for this. Revenge, which alone is motivation enough, but not enough to explain why Madara prizes Zetsu so much. Or it’s part of the process. But how?

A seal to undo what was done. Hagoromo performed a seal to extract Shinju’s chakra from its body, and then a second seal to split the chakra into nine. The Shodaime, of all the men who came before him, was able to tame the nine demons into their vessels. There is greatness in the Shodaime, Sasuke knows, but what if it’s more?

Kakashi is the one who comes up with an answer. “It’s a blood seal,” he says. “The Otsutsuki blood to cast it, and now Shodaime-sama’s blood to undo it. Theatrics aside, Senju-sama, Madara harvested your DNA and made Zetsu for something.”

And now, finally, for the first time in nearly half an hour, the Shodaime speaks. “Where is Zetsu?”

Ibiki clears his throat. “KPD building, sir. My Lieutenant, Yamanaka Ino, and Jounin Aburame Shino have secured its location.”

When the Shodaime stands, the entire room stands with him. “Lead the way, Captain.”

Ino is armed to the hilt and guarding the heavy metal door leading into the very basement of KPD. She already has her sai swords drawn, but when she sees Ibiki leading the large group of visitors—Hiashi, Shikaku, Tsunade, Jiraiya, Kakashi, as well as the four dead Kages and Sasuke, Itachi, Kiba and Akamaru—she sheaths her swords and stands at attention.

Sarutobi eyes the fresh ink of the wards drawn into the door. “You did well, Ino.”

Ino smiles at Sarutobi, and her eyes are warm with affection. “Thank you, Sarutobi-sensei,” she says, and opens the door for them.

Chouji, Hinata and Shino are inside. Hinata’s Byakugan is thrumming with life; all around the room are blood seals so thick with the intent to ward off unwanted trespassers that the air in the room is heavy with it. There is a bandage wrapped around both of Hinata’s wrists, soaked through already with her blood. Her skin is paler than usual, and Sasuke wonders just how much blood she shed to seal this room down with the full force of the Byakugan Clan seals.

Chouji is standing directly next to the coffin, and Shino is crouched, a hand pressed into the ground below him. There is a steady hum of his bugs in the air. All three of them stand at attention when the group walks into the room.

Sarutobi assesses Hinata’s work with a measured half-circle loop around the room until he comes up to stand by her side. “These are potent, Hinata. Well done.” He places a hand on her head. “Make sure to take care of your wounds, child.”

When he was alive, Sarutobi visited the Academy every month—the only Hokage to ever do so, Iruka told them—and spent an afternoon with the children. Sasuke remembers him reading stories before nap time during kindergarten, letting a chubby Chouji drool into his shoulder because Chouji was always the first one to pass out after a big meal. The grief after his death was palpable because he did this with everyone: he learned all the names, took the time out of his day to be kind to all those who followed his orders. No wonder, then, that the shinobi around the room—even Shikaku—are so affectionate in their answers when Sarutobi asks them a question. Even the line of Itachi’s shoulders had eased when Sarutobi addressed him during the meeting.

The Hokages—dead and alive—and Kakashi approach the coffin. Unthinking, Sasuke follows the Nidaime. Chouji steps back to make room, and they stand around the coffin.

“It’s a nice coffin,” the Nidaime remarks as Sasuke bends to the task of opening it.

“I helped make it,” Sasuke points out. “Got a discount for services rendered.”

The Nidaime laughs. “You’re a morbid piece of shit, you know that?”

Sasuke grins at the ghost. “Heads up. He’s an ugly ass mother—”

“Language, son,” the Shodaime warns, but it’s nothing more than a soft exhalation of air, an exasperated sigh with none of his usual irritation at Sasuke’s lack of manners.

“Motherlover. A lover of mothers. He has particular affection for his own,” Sasuke finishes primly, and is rewarded with one of the Shodaime’s quiet laughs. Sasuke grins—too wide, his face feels as if it’s going to split. He’s forgotten what it felt like to be in the Shodaime’s grounding presence and to share a laugh with the Nidaime. “Also, he’s buck-ass naked.”

The Nidaime rolls his eyes heavenwards. “Why are all the crazy ones always naked?”

“Not all the crazy ones. Your important bits are covered,” Sasuke points out, and the Nidaime cackles, even as Sarutobi dips his head to hide a chuckle of his own. The Yondaime is less subtle: he tries to hide his laugh with a cough. The Nidaime smacks him on the back, laughing still, and the Yondaime nearly pitches forward from the force of it.

“You need a hand with that?” the Yondaime asks, smirking, when Sasuke carefully starts to undo the tags that hold the lid shut.

Seals, Namikaze,” Sasuke enunciates with a roll of his eyes. “I know you’ve been dead for a while, so here’s a refresher. Seals are these things you draw in blood and ink to—”

“Shodaime-sama!” the Yondaime interrupts loudly, and points an accusatory finger at Sasuke. “With all due respect, sir, I will kill him!”

“Boy, that is enough,” the Shodaime warns Sasuke, before he can goad the Yondaime into his full anger like usual. Sasuke holds his tongue and gets to work. When the lid finally falls away, Zetsu’s eye rolls over and lands on the Shodaime with startling intensity. 

“What,” the Nidaime mutters, peering close, “the ever-loving shit am I looking at?”

“How is he still alive?” Sarutobi wonders, bending at the waist. “He’s not breathing.”

The Shodaime crosses his arms across his chest. “I would like words with Zetsu.”

Sasuke considers the logistics for a moment before deciding on a course of action. “Step back for a bit.”

The group around the coffin takes one step back, and Sasuke leans in to grip one of Zetsu’s Venus flytraps in one hand. “Pardon me,” he says, grinning, and pulls.

The sound of the leaves ripping off of Zetsu’s body is obscene in the quiet of the room. There is an immediate pulse of mud-brown blood; it smells like stale molasses. Zetsu’s eyes shift to stare directly at him. When Sasuke moves to the second one, the anger in Zetsu’s eyes hardens.

By the time he is pulling Zetsu’s body up into a sitting position, the Nidaime is frowning. “You traveled three thousand miles with this?”

“I felt like we made a deep bond,” Sasuke says conversationally, and holds Zetsu’s now-open head in his hands. Without the covering of his Venus flytraps, he realizes just how petite Zetsu is. Sasuke angles Zetsu’s head this way and that, feeling out for the spinal cord. He finds the cervical spine he’s looking for and rearranges his fingers around Zetsu’s face. It’s easy enough to break a neck; but to make it deliberate, to sever the spinal cord at the exact right level to achieve a desired effect is something entirely different. This is a trick he learned from Orochimaru.

The crack of Zetsu’s neck sounds like wood breaking. Sasuke grabs the hilt of the kunai. It’s wet with the slow drip of blood. There’s no guarantee this will work, and even if it does, Zetsu will no doubt regenerate soon after. “If he starts twitching, I’m going to have to cut the conversation short.”

The Shodaime makes a short, compact movement with his wrist, so Sasuke pulls the kunai out with a soft, squelching sound. Zetsu’s breath rasps in the air, as if he’s taking his final dying breath rather than the first one after half a year of suspended death. He stays motionless, though, because Sasuke was exact and everything below the neck is now immobilized. Sasuke wipes the kunai and his hands on the burlap sheet covering Zetsu, and props him up in the coffin before he returns to his spot next to the Nidaime. Zetsu’s eyes have shifted back on the Shodaime.

“Senju Hashirama,” the darker side of Zetsu’s face snarls. “In the corrupted flesh.”

Sasuke glances at the Shodaime. They still haven’t told him how they’ve summoned the ghosts. All he knows is that it’s not the Edo Tensei, but here is Zetsu, calling the Shodaime corrupted flesh. Sasuke pushes the thought aside and returns his concentration to Zetsu. If he moves, he will have to act fast.

The Shodaime watches Zetsu, calm as he always is. There is not a hint of emotion in his expression. But then again, Sasuke thinks. Then again, this is the man who looked across the battlefield at the fury of nine demons and tamed them—all nine of them.

Zetsu is the first one to crack. He swivels his gaze towards the Nidaime, and the hatred on his face is almost breathtaking. “Never thought you’d give up those secrets of yours, Tobirama. He fights like you.”

“He’s a quick study,” the Nidaime says easily. He lets his hand rest on his sword hilt. “Make this easy for yourself, Zetsu.”

Zetsu hacks a laugh, and a small stream of blood drips down on his chin. “This will end the way it was always meant to end, Tobirama. Whether it’s easy for me or not.”

When the Shodaime speaks, it’s sudden. His voice is the same measured pitch as always. “My blood for the Otsutsuki seal. How is that an equivalent trade?”

Zetsu looks at the Shodaime, a sly smile on his face. He can’t hold his own head up, and it hangs limply to one side. He has to pivot his eyes at wild angles to look from one person to the next. “Your inheritance isn’t as pure as you thought it was, Hashirama. Your ancestors weren’t as faithful as you were to your wife. The Otsutsuki and Senju Clans were…intimate once.”

“Why a clone of my brother?” the Nidaime asks. “Why not me?”

Zetsu’s lips twitch. “Your clone may have murdered Madara in his sleep. There was no such concern with Hashirama,” he points out, and his gaze swivels to consider the Shodaime. “A true friend indeed.”

“That leaves the Gedo,” the Shodaime continues. He tilts his head at an angle, considering. “Where is it?”

“You don’t know?” Zetsu counters, but there’s false bravado in his tone. So Madara doesn’t have it yet. “I know you know the stories, Hashirama. You discussed them with Madara, did you not?”

Of course, Sasuke thinks, of course the Shodaime shared his information with Madara. They were brothers in arms, in the trenches together when the world was cracking around them from the fury of the Tailed Demons.

“Stories are just that,” the Shodaime says. “I want the truth.”

Sasuke lets his focus drift to Zetsu’s face, neck, and shoulders. It’s been two minutes since he pulled the knife out of the back of his skull; he should be able to regenerate soon. “You know,” Zetsu says, and Sasuke is so focused on assessing the slackness of Zetsu’s fingers that he doesn’t realize Zetsu is talking to him. Sasuke glances at the Shodaime. Most of the time, Zetsu has kept his gaze fixated on him. Occasionally, he’s looked at the Nidaime, but that is the extent of his curiosity about the large crowd gathered around him. It’s odd that he’s looking at Sasuke now.

“The moon,” Sasuke answers, and knows immediately that it’s a stupid answer. It’s impossible, even for Madara. Two hundred thousand miles is not something that even he can cross, no matter how great his vengeance.

Zetsu shifts his gaze back to the Shodaime. “How much you and Mito yearned for a son, Hashirama,” he says, smiling broadly. “All those dead boys you buried.”

The Shodaime stands silently while Zetsu continues his taunting. He’s letting him talk, letting his arrogance run his mouth so that some useful information can be gleaned. It’s one of the oldest techniques in the book, but Sasuke isn’t sure how the Shodaime is maintaining his composure when Zetsu is talking about his boys. He hadn’t even known the Shodaime had any children beyond his one daughter. So Sasuke does the only thing he can do: he keeps his eyes fixed on Zetsu. He will give the Shodaime his privacy for this.

Zetsu, though, returns his attention to Sasuke. “Uchiha Sasuke,” he says. “Do you know the story of Uzumaki Mito?”

The Shodaime spoke of his wife fondly, but never at great length. Sasuke never pressed, because it was clear to him that even now, the Shodaime was in love with her and her memory. So when Zetsu names her, Uzumaki Mito, it makes him freeze. Naruto has her name.

“Senju Hashirama was traveling through the Land of Whirlpools on the hunt for the Two-Tailed Demon when he saw Uzumaki Mito from across the banks of Lake Tokachi. She was famous for her beauty, you see, for her bright hair and jewel eyes and that lovely grace of hers. You know what I mean, don’t you, Uchiha? You watch that pretty little jinchuuruki of yours closely enough—”

“Careful,” Sasuke interrupts. He can’t stand to have this thing talk about Naruto. It takes all his effort to keep his voice even, to stay as aloof from this whole conversation as the Shodaime has been, listening to Zetsu speak about his wife and sons.

Zetsu doesn’t retaliate. Instead, he returns to his story as if Sasuke hadn’t interrupted him at all. “Uzumaki Mito’s beauty made this famed warrior stop cold in his stride. It was a quick courtship. Senju Hashirama, after all, is not a man who hesitates to make his what he wants, and so their fabled love story began. She traveled with him to the Land of Fire, and she brought her two sisters with her. A trinity of lovely things, they were. And each of them with souls so large and wide they could contain the vast multitudes of a demon.”

Zetsu pauses a moment. When he speaks again, he says the words with relish. “But her womb. Such poison it held for her sons. She bled to death birthing that son of yours, didn’t she, Hashirama? Burying your wife and son at the same time—what was he? The third one? That must have stung.”

“You have my memories,” the Shodaime says, as if the discussion at hand doesn’t concern his wife and his buried sons.

Zetsu’s lips pull up, an ugly, wicked thing of a smile. “Every waking moment.”

The Shodaime watches Zetsu carefully. He holds himself with a heavy stillness, as if he commands each molecule of air around him by the sheer aura of his presence alone. Sasuke has only ever known the man in shades of translucent blue, a cool presence at his side to nag Sasuke to eat healthier, swear less, and assure him, Just a dream, son. Now, though, Sasuke looks at him and wonders: Were you born this way, or were you made into it?

Zetsu looks away from the Shodaime again—and who wouldn’t, Sasuke wonders. Who could ever hold the Shodaime’s gaze? Zetsu stares at Sasuke, eyes hard with anger. “After all that’s been said and done, after all those boys you buried, you look at Madara’s descendent, this half-spirit, and you call him son.”

It’s only then that Sasuke notices that Zetsu’s chin has lifted a fraction. The Shodaime is being polite about this, but Sasuke has no such compulsion. He learned well under Orochimaru. So Sasuke pulls out his kunai and drags Zetsu’s head up by his hair to face him. He’s regenerating already. “Where’s the Gedo, Zetsu?”

“Don’t you know?” Zetsu asks again and this time, his question makes Sasuke grip Zetsu’s hair tighter.

Zetsu has already told him where. Sasuke just hasn’t connected the dots.

I was made there, Zetsu told him. Sasuke has felt the rot of his soul under the rumble of a volcano and the weight of an ocean. He carved his brother’s name into the Dragon Stone and felt a gust of warm air in rejection because Itachi’s soul had not passed.

The Gedo is not in the moon. That’s just a story. It’s somewhere far more sinister.

Zetsu knows the instant Sasuke understands. “You know, Uchiha. You know in your bones. You know in your worst nightmares.”

Sasuke forces himself to keep his expression unchanging even as the dread of it is coiling in his belly. “I do.”

Zetsu bares his teeth in a grin. He twitches forward in a half-aborted motion, moving even closer to Sasuke to snarl. “You will pay for the insult I’ve suffered at your hand, Uchiha. When the world cracks open, and when the darkness falls, I will find you.”

Sasuke looks down at Zetsu and meets his gaze. “It’s a date. Don’t keep me waiting, sweetheart.”  

Zetsu strains his neck to look at the Shodaime. “Make sure you’re watching when I find your boy, Hashirama. You buried him once when he didn’t return from Amegakure, didn’t you? I give you my word; Uchiha’s death will be more permanent this time. I will make him suffer, and you will weep that he didn’t go quietly into the night like your other stillborn sons—”

“That is enough,” the Shodaime interrupts calmly. There has been no change in his expression, and despite how mild his voice is, Zetsu falls eerily quiet immediately. The Shodaime considers Zetsu for a few more moments. “He calls himself Tobi now.”

Zetsu grins. His eyes flicker to the Nidaime and then back. “Madara always did have a sense of humor.”

“I always hated when he called me Tobi,” the Nidaime growls.

Zetsu rolls his eyes. “Only my big brother calls me Tobi,” he says, mimicking the Nidaime’s unpolished growl, but making it sound far younger. “It’s either Tobirama, or it’s my fist in your throat.”

The Shodaime’s lips twitch up in a smile even as the Nidaime’s scowl deepens at the startlingly accurate imitation. “I cannot give you your death yet, Zetsu,” the Shodaime says.

Zetsu laughs, a dry, grating noise. “I assumed as much.”

“I want him secured, boy,” the Shodaime says, and pivots neatly on his heels. The Nidaime falls into step next to him, followed closely by the other ghosts. Tsunade, Kakashi, and the Captains follow, but not before Shikaku turns to say, “Agent Uchiha? If you don’t mind.” 

Itachi tilts his head politely. “Sir,” he says, and falls into step. He lingers before closing the door, holding Sasuke’s gaze steady. “Take care of this, Sasuke.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “No kidding, Brother,” he says, and makes sure to mimic Itachi’s earlier amusement when he’d told him those exact same words.

Itachi scowls, annoyed at Sasuke’s answer. The door snaps shut.

Sasuke stands behind Zetsu. He pulls out a kunai and grips Zetsu’s hair to steady him.

“I will remember this, Uchiha,” Zetsu warns him.

“You do that,” Sasuke comments mildly, and shoves the kunai in to the hilt. Zetsu’s body goes slack immediately. Sasuke looks around the room at the Hyuga Clan seals written in Hinata’s blood. They’re formidable, but he knows there’s a better way.

He turns to Shino, stretching overhead to relieve the kinks in his neck. He hasn’t slept on a good bed in a week. “Get me Shikamaru.” There’s a faint hum in the air and a line of bugs takes off from within the folds of Shino’s robes. “While you’re at it, get the others, too,” Sasuke orders, and a few more bugs take off, disappearing into the narrow space underneath the door.

Hinata clears her throat politely. “Are you saying my seals aren’t secure enough, Sasuke?”

Sasuke scrubs at the scruff on his face. He shaved two days ago, but it’s already starting to feel thick on his face. Wistfully, he thinks of the shower in Mrs. Miyake’s studio. “I’m saying there aren’t any seals as secure as the Nara Clan’s,” he says, as diplomatic as he can.

Kiba steps forward before Hinata can respond. He says, quiet, “Hinata, your wounds.”

Hinata gives him a weak smile and holds out her hands. The bandages are completely soaked through with blood. Shino goes about the job of rewrapping her bandages. “I have sent my ninken for Sakura. She will be here soon,” Shino says, head bent in concentration over Hinata’s wounds. Kiba puts an arm around her waist, holding her close enough that she can sag against him. The amount of blood she sacrificed is immense, Sasuke knows, but he has a job to do and he has to do it well. Even if it means undoing everything she’s done.

Ino opens the door a few moments later, leading Shikamaru, Neji, Lee, and Sakura into the room.

Sakura is dressed in scrubs and carrying a medic bag. When she spots Sasuke, her eyes go wide. She smiles at him, but it’s brief because she heads straight for Hinata, unzipping her bag even as she takes Hinata’s hands in hers. Hinata, what the hell, she grumbles, and gets to work.

Shikamaru whistles when he spots Zetsu. He ambles over casually, Neji and Lee close by his side. “Not what I was expecting,” he says and shoves his hands into his pockets. “You want me to secure him?”

“I have orders to contain him in the KPD building,” Ino says. “Will this room do?”

Shikamaru looks around the room with a thoughtful expression. “It'll do." He directs everyone in placing Zetsu’s body and securing the kunai into his brainstem with strips of cloth. He even insists that they bind Zetsu’s eyes shut, and then moves about the room, muttering under his breath while he cuts and re-cuts the pads of his fingers to draw blood and sketch the seals of his Clan into the stone walls. The shadows flicker and curl around him as he does, and within moments, Akamaru starts to whimper, nudging at Kiba to move away.

Shikamaru looks up from his crouch in one corner of the room. “You should all leave now.” The shadows are dripping down the walls like water towards Shikamaru, but it’s not like any darkness Sasuke has ever seen. There’s something absolute about the shadows that Shikamaru is calling forward—Sasuke thinks that if he were to step into this darkness, he may never return.

It reminds him of the place where he was remade. He can remember how bits of his soul had leeched away into the darkness there. 

Kiba leads the way out of the room, and they file out into the corridor beyond. When the door closes, there is absolute and utter stillness. Sakura stands next to Sasuke, threading her fingers with his, and together, they wait.

No one speaks until the door opens, and when it does, they all take a step back.

Shikamaru opens the door to oblivion, a negative space so profound that it feels as if all the air and and light in the corridor is being sucked in.

It’s instinct for Sasuke to push Sakura behind him, shielding her with the bulk of his body from the gaping hole that Shikamaru has created in time and space. There is nothing—absolutely nothing—behind him, just an empty space, Zetsu long gone. Sasuke feels as if he’s going to tip in, fall over the edge and back all the way down to—

Shikamaru closes the door shut, and the feeling passes. “He’s secure,” he says, and turns to Ino. “Lieutenant, I’d recommend that this section of KPD be quarantined. My father and I should be the only ones with access, for the sake of everyone involved.”

“Of course,” Ino says, and rounds neatly on her heels to lead the group out of the basements.

Sasuke takes a deep breath when they step outside into the fresh air. The others are doing the same, blinking up at the sunlight and taking slow, easy breaths. Shadow-Benders, Rin calls them, and Sasuke understands now the power that the Nara Clan possesses.

“What now?” Sakura asks, interrupting Sasuke’s careful consideration of Shikamaru, who is now deep in discussion with Shino. She still hasn’t let go of his hand, and now that they are in the sunlight, Sasuke tilts his face down to meet her gaze. Her eyes are as green as he remembers them, and there’s a block of her hair falling into her face. Home , the Shodaime said, and this is what this is. Before he can second guess himself, Sasuke reaches up to tuck the hair behind Sakura’s ear, sees that yes, she’s still wearing his mother’s earrings.

Sakura gives him a brilliant smile. “Welcome home, doofus,” she says, and stands on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. She wrinkles her nose when she pulls away. “You need to shave. And shower.”

Sasuke blinks at her, because yes, he knows he needs both those things, but it’s not as if he lives in the city anymore. And besides, he has no money left to even check himself into a motel. “Can I use your place?”

Sakura heaves a world-weary sigh. “One of these days,” she says, “I’ll stop having to take care of your sorry ass, Uchiha.”

Sasuke smirks. “Not today, though.”

“No,” Sakura agrees, and threads their fingers together more securely. “Not today.”

Lee’s clothes are far too small on Sasuke, so Sakura sends Lee out to grab some standard-issue jounin uniforms. “He’s an extra large,” she instructs him as he’s stepping out of the apartment—a new place. She lives with Lee now, apparently, but Sasuke had guessed as much the minute he walked in and saw a moss-green ottoman in one corner of the room. Lee kisses Sakura on the cheek before he steps outside, and then, it’s just the two of them.

Sakura rounds on Sasuke, who is sitting in nothing but a towel on her couch and dripping water all over her furniture. He’s shaved, given himself a buzz cut, and spent long enough enjoying Sakura’s shower that she interrupted him with a few bangs on the door and a warning to stop destroying the planet, Uchiha.

Before Sakura can say anything, Sasuke says, “I’m hungry.”

“Of course you are,” Sakura sighs, and heads into the kitchen. Sasuke lies down on the couch and listens to her cook. He doesn’t get up until Lee returns with an enthusiastic, “Sasuke, my dear friend! I bring you fresh underwear!”

There’s really nothing to say to that, so Sasuke just accepts the bags of clothes and disappears back into the bathroom to dress himself. When he steps outside again, he finds Sakura and Lee in the kitchen, moving easily around each other as they prepare food.

“He eats almost as much as Chouji,” Lee is commenting as he places all the food on the table.

“Almost,” Sasuke enunciates, and sits down to start eating. Sakura and Lee watch him while he decimates what has to be the entirety of their fridge and pantry in less than half the time it took for them to make the food. Sakura, he notices, has made as many of his favorites as she could. When he finishes eating, he sits back in his chair to brace himself for the shit-storm he knows is headed his way. Sakura doesn’t disappoint.

“Let me tell you the differential diagnosis,” she begins, “for people your age who acutely develop neurologic symptoms such as auditory and visual hallucinations.”

Of course this is what would anger her most—that Sasuke didn’t immediately come to her when he started seeing the ghosts. “They weren’t hallucinations.”

Sakura’s left eyebrow twitches.

Over the next two hours, Sasuke learns a great deal about neuroblastomas and other malignancies of the brain. Sakura also interrogates him, in great detail, about all that has happened since he started seeing the ghosts, going in chronological order until Sasuke debriefs her on every single important detail. Lee is the one who cuts her ranting short with an arm around her shoulder and a quiet, “Sakura, he just got back. Maybe he’d like to rest?”

“Rest?” Sakura growls. She cracks her knuckles. “I’ll show him rest—”

“I have to find my brother,” Sasuke says, grateful for Lee’s interruption. “And Kakashi.”

“We have a couch and a spare bedroom for you and your brother if you need it,” Sakura offers without skipping a beat. “Don’t even think about spending the night in a motel.”

Sasuke wants to point out that he and Itachi can’t afford a motel, but refrains himself. Instead, he just accepts Sakura’s generosity, and lets her pull him in for a lingering hug before he leaves. She tucks her head under Sasuke’s chin and sighs when Sasuke presses his face into her hair. “I’d tell you to see Naruto, but I don’t think you should,” she says.

It’s the first time she’s ever warned him away from Naruto, and it stings more than he cares to admit. But—Rule one. If Sakura tells him to stay away from Naruto, he will. “I know.”

Sakura pulls back with a hesitant smile. “Come by the hospital tomorrow. I want to give you a physical and run some tests. God knows what you picked up.”

Sasuke scowls, and very pointedly ignores Lee’s ill-concealed snigger. He’d used condoms every single time, but trust Sakura to look at him as if he’s an irresponsible idiot. “I was safe.”

“Yeah, we’ll see about that,” Sakura snaps, and pushes him out the door with a warning that if he isn’t at the hospital the next day, she’ll hunt him down herself.

He doesn’t go to Kakashi and Itachi immediately, even though he can sense Kakashi’s crackling chakra. His brother is in the Tower too, chakra signature suppressed into an understated hum. Still, his chakra thrums against Sasuke’s perception, familiar as his own. Instead, Sasuke takes a detour along the Naka River, following the river’s meandering curves until he’s standing at the bridge looking down at the Uchiha Clan shrine.

The paint of the building has been worn by time and weather into a dull, rusted red. The dragons curling along the archway leading to the steps don’t seem as fearsome as they used to. Sasuke doesn’t go inside, though, and instead heads to the Village gates. The chuunin on duty is stunned to see him—apparently, not everyone got the memo that he is back—but he lets him pass without any comment.

He picks a trail at random and runs. He keeps his pace slow enough that he doesn’t sweat, just feels the slow-rising rate of his pulse. After a few miles, he slows to a walk, looping around the wide berth of the trees. Every now and then, he drops down to a knee to consider a trail left by one of the forest animals, or reaches out a hand to press against the rough, familiar bark of the trees. He’s been away from the redwoods for a year, and everything seems new again.

When the sun starts to set, Sasuke loops back towards the Village. It’s the same chuunin on guard, and he salutes crisply. Technically, Sasuke isn’t Konohagakure shinobi anymore, and the chuunin doesn’t have to acknowledge him, let alone salute him. But Sasuke doesn’t bother correcting the man, just breathes deep and steps back into the Village.

This time, Sasuke heads straight for Itachi’s chakra signature in the Tower. Sasuke is expecting to find his brother in some conference room being grilled to death for further details on his mission, but after wandering around the Tower, he finally finds Itachi in the residence section—the private portion of the Hokage Tower that is reserved for the Hokage and their family.

It’s a large suite—complete with a fireplace with a seating area, a dining table by large bay windows, and a door on the side of the room leading to what looks like a large private bedroom. On the far side of the room there is a grand piano, set near massive windows overlooking the city beyond.

Itachi isn’t alone, but the group is not as large as before. Still, it’s an audience:

The Nidaime, Shodaime, and Yondaime, Tsunade, Jiraiya, Kakashi, and—


There’s no rhyme or reason to how everyone has settled around the table, which makes Sasuke wonder if he’s just walked in on an informal dinner. Naruto is sitting to the Yondaime’s right, and Kakashi is sitting to the Yondaime’s left, and both of them are leaning forward on the table as if they have been mid-sentence. Naruto is wearing his usual robes, but he’s brushed his hair for once so that the messy sweep of bangs that usually falls across his forehead is swept to one side. The glint of his earrings is more obvious this way, as is the sharp cut of his cheekbones. His face is entirely expressionless when Sasuke pushes through the large double-doors of the suite and comes to a dead halt at seeing him.

Sasuke drags his gaze away from Naruto—and it takes all his willpower to do so because he had looked at the sky every day for the past year and thought of nothing but the bright hue of Naruto’s eyes, had looked across the vast plains of the deserts and been reminded of that single moment when he’d felt the texture of Naruto’s hair between his fingers—and looks at Tsunade.

It takes a moment for him to dredge up the manners that his mother taught him. “I was just looking for my brother, Hokage-sama.” He pauses a beat and adds, just to be on the safe side, “Ma’am.”

Tsunade smiles, and there’s something like affection in her gaze. It catches Sasuke off-guard. “You found him, Sasuke. Come on in.”

Itachi is freshly showered and shaved, wearing standard jounin gear, although there is no vest on his shoulders. There is an empty plate of food in front of him, along with a glass of wine that is half full. Most of the people at the table have wine, although the Shodaime has opted for a coffee (they eat now? Sasuke wonders, but now is not the time or place to ask the question). He’s about to come up with an excuse and make his exit when the Shodaime halts him. “Jiraiya was worried you may have left again, but I assured him you were likely spending some time in the redwoods. Did you enjoy your run?”

Sasuke shrugs, face flushing from the combined scrutiny of everyone in the room. “It was fine.” They still stare at him, so Sasuke clears his throat. “Where’s Sarutobi-sensei?”

“He has a family, you know,” the Nidaime points out. He’s dressed down for the occasion: none of his Kage robes, just a long, white-sleeved shirt that strains against the width of his muscles. He considers Sasuke for moment. “What's wrong with you? Why are you acting so weird?”

Sasuke bites down on a response and keeps his peace. He’s familiar with the ghosts, but there’s an audience now. He feels suddenly out of place. Earlier, when he first saw them, the rush of emotions had been overwhelming and he’d forgotten everyone else around him. Now, though, he’s keenly aware of Jiraiya’s sharp gaze on him.

“You must be hungry,” the Shodaime says with a smile, talking right over Sasuke’s discomfort with practiced ease. This is how he always draws Sasuke out of his silences—endless kindness, patience, and a willingness to put up with Sasuke’s sullenness and anger without any judgement.

Also: bribes involving vast quantities of food.

The Shodaime gestures at an empty seat at the table next to the Nidaime. There’s plenty of food left on the table—which can only mean that Itachi was polite and didn’t eat his full; there’s no other explanation for leftovers whenever an Uchiha sits down to eat—so Sasuke leans over and snags the Nidaime’s empty plate before he starts to serve himself.

He eyes the decanter of wine. He doesn’t like the cloying sweetness of wine, and he doubts he’ll start liking it now. Sasuke opens his mouth to ask, but the Shodaime steps in neatly before he can get a sound out.

“No, you may not have a beer,” he says. Sasuke takes a breath to respond, but the Shodaime beats him to it again. “Not even if it is just one drink.” Sasuke scowls, but the Shodaime is ready again with another rebuttal. “No, I am not being unreasonable. You can survive one meal without alcohol.”

Sasuke glares at the Shodaime from across the table. He’s sitting next to Tsunade, and now, side-by-side in the flesh, the resemblance is uncanny. “I’m back for a goddamn minute and you’re already on my case about—”

“Those green things are called vegetables,” the Shodaime says, pointing at the salad bowl in the center of the table. “Eat them, please.”

The Shodaime’s favorite topics of conversation include: Sasuke’s eating habits, his drinking habits, his smoking habits, and his general level of hygiene and manners. In his quiet moments, he likes poetry and the arts. But when he’s feeling chatty, he likes to talk about Sasuke and his many vices, with some relevant tangents about plants and trees, and the vast diversity of the arboreal genus, and landscaping.

He looks chatty today.

Sasuke would rather gouge his own eyes out before sitting through another one of the Shodaime’s lectures on proper nutrition or a rambling discussion about the eastern art of Feng Shui. So for the sake of everyone at the table, he obeys and fills his plate with a hefty serving of vegetables. The Shodaime smiles, pleased.

Sasuke chews angrily on a clump of what amounts to grass with an occasional baby tomato and lump of cheese. He knows it's petty, but he’s not going to let the Shodaime have the last word on this. “This is disgusting.”

“I thought the vinaigrette was zesty,” the Nidaime comments thoughtfully.

Zesty? He reaches over to feel for a pulse at the Nidaime’s neck. The Nidaime stays still while Sasuke presses and prods into his flesh for the carotid, but his lips are twitching with a suppressed smile. The pulse is silent. Sasuke scowls as he pulls away. “What the fuck are you doing eating a zesty vinaigrette?”

The Nidaime grins at him, all teeth. “I don’t need to eat,” he explains. “I just want to.”

He remembers Rin’s curling hiss in his ear, When a spirit becomes too attached to this world or tries to stay longer than is asked, or needed—

The Nidaime’s chest, Sasuke notices, is completely still. “Not the Edo Tensei,” he repeats, just to be sure, pushing down the memory of Rin under a cool night sky telling him, The spirit becomes infected by the pettiness and ugliness of your world.

The Nidaime shoves at his face, pushing it back towards his food. “Quit worrying, and eat your goddamn vegetables before Brother starts up again.”

Sasuke can’t find his appetite though, because there’s something off about this whole situation. They don’t breathe, but they’re sitting around a dinner table as if they’ve been doing it for years. What if they change? What if their spirits become infected and they become unrecognizable or— “If not the Edo Tensei, then what?”

“Pakkun,” Kakashi answers politely.

Sasuke glances at those gathered around the table. It looks like a family gathering, but it’s not right. Sasuke knew the entire time he was with the ghosts how unnatural it all was, but at least they were spirits—they just woke up from their slumbers one morning, and the understanding was that one day, they would go back to sleep. But with bodies? Will they die? Will they need burials? How will everyone mourn? Before, it was contained with just him, and even then, he’s gotten attached—he knows how attached he’s gotten—but what about Kakashi? Will he have to bury his sensei a second time?

And Naruto—

He ignores everyone who is watching him eat with extreme interest and turns to the Shodaime. He holds the ghost’s gaze, unwavering. He doesn’t say anything, though, because there is a time and place, and besides—the Shodaime knows him well enough to know what Sasuke is leaving unsaid. The Shodaime heaves a weary sigh. “We will talk tomorrow.” He looks at the Yondaime. “All of us. With Pakkun.”

The Yondaime stares back, unflinching in his gaze. It is odd to see the Yondaime so defiant against the Shodaime, but a father’s love, Sasuke knows, is a tricky thing. Especially a father like the Yondaime, who looks at Naruto with such absolute longing. “What Zetsu said in the end,” the Yondaime says, and his gaze finally breaks away from the Shodaime’s face to look at Sasuke. “I’m assuming you know where the Gedo is?”

Above a cold void, below a fire, and in between —where no man should go, no soul should linger, where demons roam, waiting for the earth to crack open and the final battle to spill over and consume everything: gods and men and serpents and dragons. Sasuke’s hand drops to his sword at the thought.

Jiraiya clears his throat to get Sasuke’s attention. “Where?”

The Shodaime is the one who answers. How he puts together the dots to arrive at the correct answer, Sasuke doesn’t know, but he sounds mournful. “Where you came back from. Where Rin took you to bring you back to life.”

“You said you were in Hell,” Tsunade prompts quietly.

“That’s your religion’s word for it,” Sasuke says carefully. He closes his eyes against the memory: the press of the earth around him, the rumble of the ocean above, the darkness and the stench of mud and filth—

“Sasuke?” Itachi prompts, and because it’s his brother asking, Sasuke answers.

“First there was ice, frost, and fog,” Sasuke recites. “Above, a cold void. Below, fire. And in between, a demon. The demon mixed the north and south, and where the fire met the void, there was chakra. The demon made one of its kin, then, and nine more followed. Ten terrible demons they were, and they roamed this space in between until the final battles that’ll consume the gods and men, and the demons and the dragons. That’s where the Gedo is. In between.”

“It’s a story, Sasuke,” Itachi says in the quiet that follows. He recognizes the stories because he was right there with Sasuke, sprawled out on the cool grass while their grandfather told them about demons and dragons after a night of sacrifices and celebrations.

“That’s where I was, Brother,” Sasuke says, and Itachi closes his eyes at the confession. “Eight months, two days, nine hours, forty minutes and seventeen seconds.”

Itachi surprises Sasuke by speaking out of turn. “I put a sword in your hand, and I told you to go,” Itachi breathes, dipping his head with the memory. “I sent you to that place.”

“No,” Sasuke interrupts before Itachi can shoulder the burden—because that is what Itachi does. He put his body in between Fugaku’s anger and Sasuke, held Sasuke’s wrist, gentle, as he guided him into the redwoods and taught him how to snare a rabbit, how to kindle a fire, and twist his fingers so the shadows look like wolves and dragons. “You were sending me to the Great Hall,” Sasuke insists, and finally, Itachi meets his gaze. There’s a pinched look to his face, as if this conversation is physically hurting him. “And I would have gone on my way if Rin had let me.”

The Yondaime is the one who breaks the silence that follows. He places a hand on Itachi’s shoulder with a smile. “Your brother is a magnet for bad luck, Itachi. That’s not on you, trust me.”

Itachi only stares at a spot on the table.

Yondaime redirects his focus to Sasuke. “So this place is…in between? In between what? Worlds? Realms? Dimensions? What are we talking about here?”

Zetsu is from the very same place, which means—Itachi is the one who pieces it together. “Madara already knows where. Zetsu is from the same place. He said he was made there.”

“So where is it?” Hiashi demands. “You said you climbed out after you died, Sasuke. Where did you climb to?”

“A northeasterly island in the Land of Water,” Sasuke answers. “Twelve miles northwest from a village called Chubu. Under a willow tree.”

Tsunade gives Jiraiya a quick glance at this information. “Is it a door? Is that how it works?”

“It’s a hole in the ground,” Sasuke explains, and gestures with his hands to indicate the size. “It exists, and then it doesn’t. Something has to pass to open it.”

Naruto breaks his silence for the first time since Sasuke entered the room, and voices what is on everyone’s minds. “They’ve already captured four jinchuuruki.” He directs his comments to Tsunade primarily, but looks to Kakashi for backup. Now and then, his eyes flicker over to the Shodaime and Nidaime, but there’s a hesitation there. “Getting Zetsu to this…in between place. That’s the penultimate step for the vessel. He’s closing in.”

“Options, Kakashi,” Tsunade says.

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. He doesn’t move from his slouch as he answers Tsunade’s question. “First option, and the most obvious one, we retaliate immediately. Send out track-and-kill parties. Logistically feasible, but realistically thorny. Madara’s death is…not guaranteed with normal battle techniques. And we don’t know if he has a contingency that sets his plan in motion even if he isn’t the one to orchestrate it. Pein is still alive, as far as we know. More importantly, we’d be splitting our resources.”

Jiraiya moves his wine glass in slow circles on the wood of the table. “Naruto and the Village would be too exposed.”

“Tsunade-sama,” Itachi says, breaking protocol again and addressing the group at large. “If I may, I can go back into the field—”

“You’re staying put. That’s an order, Itachi,” Tsunade says firmly.

Sasuke eases his grip on his fork. For just the briefest moment, he thought Tsunade would say yes.

“So option two,” Kakashi continues without missing a beat. “We focus instead on the plan itself. He wants Naruto? Let’s lock Naruto down. He wants the Gedo? Let’s destroy it before he can get his hands on it. Strategically more sound, but logistically a nightmare. Securing Naruto isn’t difficult. It helps that Naruto can throw a punch.”

“Thanks Kakashi-sensei,” Naruto says, flushing a pretty pink at the compliment (Sasuke forces himself to look away, makes absolutely sure that he’s looking at Kakashi and no one else). “But how do we get the vessel?”

Kakashi holds up a finger. “Still working on that bit. I thought Sasuke might have thoughts on how we can get there.”

All eyes turn to him, so Sasuke answers truthfully; just because he knows where it is doesn’t mean he knows how to retrieve it. “I have no clue.”

The Yondaime perks up. “What if we killed you again, and sent you back to that place?”

Jiraiya raps his knuckles on the table. “I vote in favor of this plan, kiddo.”

The Yondaime grins. “I second it, Jiraiya-sensei.”

“You can’t second your own goddamn plan,” Sasuke snarls, but the Yondaime ignores him entirely. 

Tsunade is the one who puts an end to the Yondaime’s enthusiasm. “Minato,” she reprimands, and there are entire depths of affection in that single word. She’d watched him grow up under Jiraiya’s tutelage, Sasuke realizes, and it hits him again: all the ties that bind these ghosts to the living, the shared histories and the bonds of family stretching back and forth across generations.

The Yondaime gives her a lopsided smile. “It was just a suggestion, Tsunade-sensei.”

“I suggest a combined approach, ma’am,” Kakashi offers politely. “Secure our assets while simultaneously going on the offensive. Madara has time on his side. We don’t. We can’t sustain a never-ending war, so the best option is to strike once, strike hard, and—”

He stops, abrupt, without finishing the quote. No doubt, he’s just realized he’s sitting across the table from the man who originally spoke the words, and has then been cited in every textbook on military strategy since. The Nidaime grins at Kakashi. “It’s got a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”

Kakashi sits straighter in his chair. It takes a moment for Sasuke to recognize it, but then he does: this is Kakashi feeling shy. “Yes, sir.”

The Shodaime steps in neatly, sparing Kakashi any continued embarrassment. “It is getting late. I suggest we call it a night. We can return to this discussion at our morning intelligence briefing.”

When the Shodaime stands, everyone around the table follows suit. Kakashi stands at attention, as do Jiraiya, Tsunade, Itachi, and Naruto. It takes a moment for Sasuke to realize just how awkward it is to be the only one sitting at a table when everyone else is standing, so he hauls himself to his feet as well. He considers standing at attention—spreads his feet, squares his shoulders…and then abandons the idea, because fuck it. He didn’t break his oaths just so he can stand around saluting COs all over again.

In the end, he just shoves his hands into his pockets and scowls at the Shodaime.

The Shodaime arches an eyebrow at him, lips twitching. Sasuke speaks before the Shodaime can. “Not a word.” The Shodaime looks as if he’s going to talk anyways, so Sasuke holds up a finger. “Nope. Stop it.”

The Shodaime fakes a cough, but his mirth is evident anyways.

The Nidaime, on the other hand, bursts into laughter. “Did you just try to salute Brother? Is that what that flailing was about, Uchiha?”

The Yondaime starts laughing as well. On cue, Sasuke feels his neck get hot. The Shodaime speaks before Sasuke can reply. “Thank you, everyone. Have a good night,” he says with a chuckle, and everyone at the table finally pushes away. The Shodaime holds out an arm, and Sasuke steps into the embrace easily. The Shodaime's hug lingers, but Sasuke allows it. He even allows it when the Shodaime pulls back and pats him on the cheek lightly. “Get some rest, son.”

“I will,” Sasuke promises, and watches as the Shodaime is drawn into a conversation with Tsunade.

Naruto falls into step beside the Yondaime and Jiraiya, who throws an arm around Naruto’s shoulder and tucks him close. Sakura had told him to give Naruto his space, and he has (Gods know, he has, he’s been sitting across the table from Naruto for the past thirty minutes and looked at him just once), but now—

The Nidaime clasps him on the shoulder and leans close. “Give him space.”

“I wasn’t going to—”

“You were thinking about it,” the Nidaime mutters. “And I’m telling you, don’t. You don’t get to sleep your way across the Continent and expect Naruto to greet you with open arms the first night you’re back. And trust me, you really don’t want to get Minato started on this.”

Sasuke swallows on all the words crawling up his throat. “How does everyone know?”

The Nidaime looks at Sasuke oddly. “This world trades in secrets, kid.”

Sasuke starts walking towards the door with the rest of the group. Itachi has been waiting patiently for him while Sasuke was talking to the Nidaime, and he doesn’t want to make his brother wait any longer. “So why the fuck can no one keep a goddamn secret?”

Exactly,” the Nidaime says nonsensically, and thumps Sasuke on the back a few times. “Get some rest.”

Sasuke looks over his shoulder at the Shodaime, who is still in conversation with Kakashi and Tsunade. Kakashi is standing at ease: hands clasped behind his back, shoulders and spine rigid, eyes fixed on his CO. In all the time Sasuke has known Kakashi, he has never seen the man standing at ease, let alone standing at attention. Just in one day, though, he has seen Kakashi snap a crisp salute several times to the Shodaime and the Nidaime. 

“Get some sleep, kid,” the Nidaime prompts again, so Sasuke heads out the door with Itachi.

Itachi waits until they are outside the Hokage Tower before pulling out a slip of paper. He opens it and reads, “Fourteenth and Grand Ave. Highland Park. Apartment 2A.” He pulls out two sets of keys, one of which he hands to Sasuke. “Tsunade-sama’s valet gave it to me.”

“So, it's not a hotel room.”

“Doesn’t sound like it,” Itachi agrees. They walk slowly along the streets, taking an unnecessarily meandering loop through the City. Sasuke lets Itachi lead the way even though he’s tired and just wants to sleep. This is Itachi’s first night back in the City; no doubt, he wants to reacquaint himself with her.

The apartment building is an old house set on a hill overlooking the Naka River. It’s in a relatively quiet neighborhood, although it’s set close to the bars and restaurants of Uptown. They had even passed a café on their block with civilians and shinobi alike inside. There are two doors at the front of the house: 1A and 1B.

They both pause to take count of the chakra signatures within the building. “Spies?” Sasuke ventures.

Itachi rolls his eyes. “Neighbors, idiot.” They follow a stone path that is curving around the side of the house and through a low-set fence that creaks when Sasuke pushes it open. There are flower beds tucked up against the side of the house, and some metal patio seating. There is even a grill. “This is…domestic.”

“Fucking creepy is what it is,” Sasuke mutters under his breath, and climbs the wooden stairs. At the top is a door with a sign that is slightly crooked: 2A.

The first key Itachi tries doesn’t work, so he tries the second one on the key chain. Sasuke fumbles along the wall until he finds a switch. It’s a narrow mudroom with a small coat closet. Sasuke and Itachi can barely fit standing side-by-side. The second door opens much easier, and this time, Itachi leads the way and finds the light switch first.

The place is wide and welcoming. The upstairs apartment must take up the whole square footage of the two apartments below, Sasuke realizes, and feels encouraged by the fact that Tsunade hasn’t stuck them in some barracks. No doubt, this is to welcome Itachi home properly; she must have ordered for these arrangements earlier in the day. The kindness is above and beyond what a Hokage is obligated to do, and Sasuke finds some of his earlier reservations about Tsunade slipping away. They have never gotten along, but if she treats Itachi with this much respect and kindness, then she’s fine in Sasuke’s book.

There is already furniture in the living room: a couch, two armchairs, a coffee table. There is a spacious kitchen with an island that’s lined with barstools. The dining area is just off the kitchen and surrounded entirely by windows; there's a patio door leading to a balcony with a panoramic view of the Naka River, and beyond, the bustling center of Uptown.

There are three doors connecting to the living area: one to what is obviously a small, half-bathroom. The other two are closed shut.

Itachi glances at Sasuke. “Dibs on the master bedroom.”

Sasuke throws up his hands. “Oh, come on!”

“Called it,” Itachi says, sounding smug, and closes the door shut behind them.

Sasuke wakes up to the incessant ringing of the doorbell. He’s sprawled sideways on his bed, his right hand numb where it’s been trapped under his head. When he shifts, he grunts from the sensation of pins and needles working their way up and down his arm. The sun is streaming in through the open blinds of his windows, which he had been too stupid to close the night before. The clock on the night stand next to him shows 06:29. As Sasuke is watching the clock, a flap turns down and another minute passes: 06:30.

Itachi’s chakra is still in the apartment, dulled and steady the way it is when he sleeps. This can only mean that Itachi heard the doorbell ringing and dismissed it as Sasuke’s problem. Sasuke hauls himself out of bed. There is a genin at the front door. He looks barely ten, if Sasuke were to guess. Do they graduate them this young now? “What?”

The genin holds out a slip of paper with the Hokage’s seal on it. As an afterthought, he adds, “Sir.” 

Sasuke takes it and is about to tell the boy to wait so he can get his wallet and tip him properly, but the genin takes off down the steps and jumps over the low fence. Your loss, Sasuke thinks, and retreats into the warmth of the apartment. When he opens the note it’s to find it isn’t even for him. He pounds on Itachi’s door. “Hokage wants you at fourteen hundred hours.”

Inside, Itachi’s chakra shifts slightly. Sasuke slides the note under Itachi’s door and heads back to his room.

Itachi had gotten the master bedroom, but the only difference is in the size of the room and the fact that Itachi has some extra features: skylights, a walk-in closet, a table, and two armchairs by a low-set bookshelf. Sasuke’s came furnished with a comfortable queen-sized bed, a dresser and a single armchair by the window that overlooks the Naka River. The closet was equipped with standard-issue jounin uniform—including the vest—and even some KONOHA emblazoned sweatpants, and plain white t-shirts for nightwear.

Sasuke heads into the bathroom to start getting dressed for the day. He’s already up. Might as well.

By the time he emerges, Itachi is poking around in the kitchen, opening and closing cabinets. Sasuke heads for the fridge. Unsurprisingly, it’s stocked. “I can make eggs,” Sasuke offers, eyeing the available groceries. “There’s OJ.”

Itachi comes up to stand next to Sasuke. They both consider the contents of the fridge. “I am sick of your cooking.”

“I’m sick of yours,” Sasuke returns, but there’s no insult intended by either of them. They have eaten each other’s cooking day in, day out in the almost six months they traveled together. Granted, their produce was limited, but the idea of making and serving food is tiring. “I know a place. Fresh baked goods.”

Itachi eyes him warily. “I don’t have any money.”

“Neither do I, but this meal will be on the house,” Sasuke offers. Itachi looks skeptical about cashing in on someone’s generosity for a free meal, but he follows Sasuke anyways.

Mrs. Miyake’s store is closed so early in the morning, but there’s already smoke billowing out of her chimneys. Sasuke raps his knuckles on the glass front until the door opens with a jingle. “We’re closed. We don’t open until—” Mrs. Miyake stops when she sees Sasuke. Her surprise shifts quickly into a smile, and she swings her door wide open.

“Sasuke!” She holds out her hands widely, gesturing for Sasuke to approach. “You’re home!”

Sasuke can’t help but smile at her warm welcome and meets her halfway in a hug, nearly bending in half to account for the difference in height.

“Oh, let me look at you, let me look at you, child,” she says in a rush, and pulls back to hold Sasuke’s face in her hands. She squeezes Sasuke’s cheek and turns his face left and then right, inspecting him closely. “You’ve lost weight. And you’ve gotten taller.”

“Been on the road,” Sasuke offers by way of explanation, and moves aside to indicate Itachi. “Mrs. Miyake, this is my big brother, Itachi. Brother, this is Mrs. Miyake, my old landlord.”

Mrs. Miyake covers her mouth in surprise. “Look at you two,” she breathes, glancing between Sasuke and Itachi. She steps forward to tug Itachi further into the shop with a hand on his elbow. Itachi lets himself get manhandled, yielding to Mrs. Miyake’s enthusiasm and kindness.

As usual, Mrs. Miyake talks. A lot. She settles Itachi and Sasuke in her kitchen in the back and starts pulling together a meal for them both: freshly baked bread, homemade marmalade, a glass of milk for them both with the option of coffee if they want, and bustles about the kitchen planning something special to add to their plates—“Eggs and some bacon, now how’s that sound?”

“This is more than enough, ma’am,” Itachi says, politely trying to halt her madcap dash around the kitchen to get the ingredients together.

Mrs. Miyake pauses, but only long enough to look at Itachi and Sasuke. Her eyes are wet. “Look at you two, so polite. And such handsome boys! Your mother was a lucky woman.” She wipes at her eyes with the back of her hand, returning almost immediately to her usual boisterous self. “Don’t be silly, growing boys like you, of course you need more than some toast to get you started for the day—”

Mrs. Miyake fills Sasuke in on the new tenant, a student at the local university (not nearly as handy around the house or helpful as Sasuke was) her granddaughter, her daughter, the new business down the street, and how she’s increased her sales in the past year so much that she’s had to hire some staff. She doesn’t ask Sasuke or Itachi where they’ve been, but rather, where they are now. Sasuke describes the apartment they’ve been assigned—temporarily, he emphasizes—and Mrs. Miyake sniffs at the low standards but agrees that it’s best if they live together.

“Family,” she says sagely, “should stick together.”

Itachi glances up from his food and looks at Sasuke at the comment. He has shaved, cut his hair, and slept well. The circles under his eyes have improved, and there’s a slight pink to his nose from the cold outside. He looks young for the first time, twenty-three like he is without the haunted look of an older man. Sasuke has spent half a year with Itachi—and no one else—and he’s realizing now what that has meant for them.

Somewhere along the way, they have mended what was broken.

“Blood runs thick,” Itachi agrees, and offers Sasuke one of their mother’s dimpled smiles.

Itachi and Sasuke help Mrs. Miyake around the shop to repay her kindness. Mrs. Miyake protests, but it’s easy to override her and get to work. Sasuke helps restock her shelves, while Itachi cleans out her ovens. They sweep out the massive pantry together, slowly devouring a box of cookies that Mrs. Miyake sets out for them as snacks. Before they leave, Mrs. Miyake says, hurried, “I almost forgot, Sasuke! Follow me.”

She leads him to the basement. In the corner are the three boxes Sasuke had left out in the back to be recycled, donated, or trashed. “I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away, so I hired some young college boys to bring them down here for me,” Mrs. Miyake explains. She touches Sasuke’s elbow lightly. “I heard that you’re not a Konohagakure shinobi anymore, and that you travel around the Continent now. But this is your home, I think. Whether you return to it or not. I thought I could hold a piece of it for you whenever you needed it.”

Sasuke doesn’t have anything to say to that but thank you. So Itachi and Sasuke spend the next forty minutes hauling his three boxes back across the City to his new apartment. By the time they’re done, they’re hungry again, so they bang around the kitchen for snacks. The combined knowledge of their culinary skills produces messy, lopsided peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Around a particularly gooey mouthful, Sasuke points out, “Sakura said I should come in for a full med eval and get tested today.”

Itachi looks up at Sasuke with a scowl. “You weren’t safe?”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. Why, he wants to ask, does everyone assume he’s stupid enough to not use condoms. And besides, Itachi—like all Uchiha men with their voracious appetites—got around just as much as Sasuke on their travels. No one is tripping over themselves to ask if he needs STD screening.

“I was safe,” Sasuke says, enunciating slowly. “But just to be sure.” He pauses a beat to make sure Itachi understands what he’s implying—it’s not like he can say, Get tested, Brother, without prompting angerbut he doesn’t really need to. After their snack, Itachi falls into step next to him and they head to Konohagakure General Hospital together.

Mrs. Wakahisa, the triage nurse, is rendered speechless when she sees Sasuke and Itachi standing next to each other. “My Lord , look at you two,” she breathes, looking between them. She covers her mouth with a hand, but it’s not enough to hide her smile. She says the words that Mrs. Miyake said, sounding just as wondrous. “Look at you two handsome boys. Your mother was so blessed.”

Sasuke launches into the now-familiar introductions. Once he’s finished, Itachi offers Mrs. Wakahisa one of his dimpled smiles. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

Naturally, Mrs. Wakahisa is immediately charmed. She even gives Itachi two lollipops while they wait. (Sasuke only gets one; Itachi smirks at him, smug). Fifteen minutes later, Sasuke is being ushered into a clinic room, leaving behind Itachi who is deeply engaged with the latest issue of Home & Garden.

Sakura bursts into the clinic room almost immediately, her white coat billowing behind her. She says, “Strip. On the examining table.”

She conducts a thorough physical from head to toe, peering carefully into his eyes until Sasuke’s Mangekyou stings from the brightness of her penlight. The orbital chakra pathway examination alone takes a full twenty minutes, but Sasuke yields to Sakura’s thorough examinations and follows all her instructions as she makes him go through all the basic seals and observes his chakra spikes carefully. She’s filling up four tubes of blood—full STD screen, she explains—at the crook of his elbow when she says, casually, “Does your brother need a doctor?”

“He’s fine. It’s just a routine visit for him.”

Sakura heaves a sigh. “That’s not what I asked,” she repeats as if speaking to a particularly slow child. “You told me once that the Uchiha Clan had a single family physician. I’m telling you I know your bloodline.”

Sasuke stares at her. “It’s not just taking us on as patients,” he explains carefully. “It’s a blood oath to the Clan. You’d be bound by our Clan laws. It’s—”

“I know what it is,” Sakura interrupts him neatly. She holds his gaze steady. “The Sharingan needs proper medical attention, Sasuke. It degenerates too rapidly otherwise. Even Kakashi-sensei doesn’t take his appointments with me lightly. From what I understand, your brother spent the past decade undercover without any medical attention. He hasn’t received even the most routine eye examinations since he activated his Mangekyou, let alone adjustments to his orbital chakra pathways. It’s a miracle he isn’t blind yet.”

“It’s a blood oath,” Sasuke repeats, trying to make Sakura understand. “It’s permanent. My brother would become your Clan elder. You’d be an Uchiha in all but name, and that comes with responsibilities and allegiances. The laws will apply to your children and your children’s children. You can’t break from the oath.”

“You don’t want me to take the oath?” Sakura demands. She pulls away the last tube and presses down a Band-Aid where her needle had pierced skin. “You can just tell me if you don’t want me to take the oath. I won’t mind.” 

“You’re already my keep,” Sasuke says quietly, and Sakura goes entirely still. “I don’t need an oath for that. I’m not Clan Elder. I don’t even have the authority to take that oath. But my brother does, and he’ll demand it before he lets an outsider near his Mangekyou.”


Sasuke scrubs a hand over his face. “My Clan is…” He has to grope for the right words. “Uchiha Madara is related to me,” he says, switching tactics. “The last generation got murdered. I don’t know what’s in store for the next generation—if there’s even going to be one. All we do is go to war and bleed and die and fuck things up—”

Sakura leans forward to take Sasuke’s hand in both of hers, and this, finally, puts a halt to Sasuke’s words. She smiles brightly at him. “If your brother says no, he says no. But I want to ask. He’s your family, Sasuke. Which makes him mine.”

Sasuke’s eyes track towards the glint of diamond at her ears and the strip of silver hidden under the V of her scrubs. He realizes it only now: she’s already accepted everything about him, and still, she loves him unconditionally.

This is just a matter of formality at this point. “He might say no,” Sasuke warns, and starts tugging on his clothes.

Itachi is surprised when Sasuke steps into his examination room. Before he can say anything, Sasuke starts to talk. With each passing moment, Itachi gets progressively more still, but Sasuke pushes on, explaining why Itachi needs medical attention, and why Sakura should be allowed to take the oath. “She’s in my will, Brother. She’s—”

“I get it, Sasuke,” Itachi interrupts quietly. “She knows what it means?” When Sasuke nods, Itachi takes a breath. “All right, then.”

Sakura is waiting just outside the room when Sasuke steps outside. He holds the door open. Sakura squares her shoulders, and in that moment, she reminds Sasuke so much of the twelve year-old he first met—the stubborn set of her chin, the fierce look of determination—that he can’t help the twitch of his lips. “He’s a bit of an asshole sometimes,” he says, “but just ignore him.”

“I can hear you, Sasuke,” Itachi says loudly from inside, and now, finally, some of the tension in Sakura’s shoulder eases. She steps into the room and shuts the door behind her.

They don’t emerge until a full hour later, and by then, Sasuke has read every single available issue of Sports Illustrated in the waiting room. He’s flipping through The Economist with as much enthusiasm as he can muster when Sakura and Itachi walk out. Sakura is still talking; she looks angry.

Sasuke gets to his feet when they approach him. “Every day seems a bit excessive,” Itachi says carefully. “Are you sure that—”

Four partially blocked chakra pathways in the left eye, including your supraorbital, and both your ethmoidal pathways,” Sakura snaps, overriding Itachi entirely. “And two fully blocked in your right, including the inferior ophthalmic, which explains why you have a blind spot the size of Iwagakure. Did you not think that was worth getting medical attention for? Did you not think that maybe, the slow darkness creeping into your vision was worth getting help for—”

“Is he sick?” Sasuke asks, pressing forward to interrupt Sakura’s angry tirade. He has to swallow on that sour taste in his stomach, the sudden-rising panic that’s threatening to overwhelm him.

“He’s an idiot ,” Sakura hisses, and stabs a finger into Itachi’s chest between each word. Itachi stares at the spot where Sakura’s finger is pressing into his chest, looking confused. Sasuke realizes now that he should have warned Itachi about Sakura’s temper, but it’s too late now. Sakura’s chakra is already spiking dangerously. “This imbecile is nearly blind because—”

“Blind?” Sasuke breathes, and has to repeat the word to himself. Itachi is only twenty-three. For his Mangekyou to have degenerated so fast means that his Mangekyou is powerful, but it also means that he will likely face the rest of his lifetime without his vision, without—

“Almost blind,” Sakura corrects, sounding furious still. “Itachi, you stupid, stupid, piece of—”

“I am, technically,” Itachi points out mildly, “your Clan Elder.”

Sasuke goes still. Family, he realizes, looking at Sakura. That’s what they are now.

“Bite me,” Sakura growls, and ignores the way Itachi’s mouth flaps open at the disrespect. “We will meet every day for an hour. I’m going to reopen your chakra pathways and rehabilitate your Mangekyou to slow the degeneration. I swear if you miss even a single damn appointment, Itachi—” She fists Itachi’s shirt and tugs him down to eye-level to round off her threat. “I will personally hunt you down and cause you some permanent damage. Am I clear?”

“Crystal,” Itachi says, and Sakura shoves him away with a muttered curse. She stomps off, muttering under her breath about how many patients she still has to round on, how she’s stuck teaching stupid medical students who don’t know their heads from their asses, and of course, now she has to deal with not one, but two monumentally stupid Uchihas, what kind of family have I gotten myself into

Itachi waits until she’s rounded a corner before speaking. “She’s wearing Mom’s jewelry.”

“When I died in Amegakure, she inherited everything,” Sasuke explains. When he glances at Itachi, it’s to find that Itachi is trying and failing to suppress a smile. There are dimples in both his cheeks.

“She has a temper,” he points out, and now, finally, his smile breaks loose. “She’ll fit right in.”

Sasuke interrogates Itachi over lunch about his vision until Itachi snaps and slams out of the apartment to get to his appointment with the Hokage. Sasuke laces up for a long, winding run in the redwoods, breathing deep against his own anger at Itachi and mulling over what Itachi had revealed.

If Itachi closes his left eye and stares at a spot straight ahead, he can’t see anything in the lower half of his vision. He barely has any peripheral vision left on his right side, and his left eye is slowly blurring around the edges, narrowing in scope with each passing year. Every time Sasuke asked, Why didn’t you tell me? Itachi had gotten angrier and angrier.

The farther he runs, though, the more Sasuke’s anger fades away enough for him to understand. How would Itachi have even told him the truth? He would have had to admit the weakness of his own Mangekyou, how parasitic it had become without proper medical care. He couldn’t have trusted Madara to check on his Mangekyou, or any of the other Akatsuki members. Which means that Itachi had woken up one day with his Mangekyou burning in his skull, and swallowed on the fate that awaited him. He would have accepted his eventual blindness and death the way he accepts everything—orders to stand down and let his family be murdered by a madman; a decade away from home, haunting the shadows of the man who murdered his mother, but knowing he had to stay his hand because there was always a larger war to be won; a lifetime spent away from his only remaining kin and the certainty of a lonely death.

This is what Sakura swore allegiance to, Sasuke realizes. This family where children are born and raised to be only one thing—soldiers and warriors.

Sasuke comes to a slow stop nearly fifteen miles away from the Village, chest heaving from the punishing pace he’d set. When he looks over his shoulder, he can’t make out the Village walls anymore. The redwoods are too thick around him, the canopy rising up over three hundred feet in all directions around him.

He returns to the Village at a slower pace, and only because the afternoon heat is starting to die out and the Shodaime had promised him answers. By the time he stumbles past the chuunin on guard, his anger against Itachi is entirely gone. Instead, his chakra spikes and flares for an entirely different reason: Madara did this, he thinks with each step he takes towards Kakashi’s chakra signature in the Tower. He did this to my brother. He counts to ten again and again, and when he reaches the East Wing of the Tower, there’s nothing left of his roiling anger against Madara but a low-churning heat in his stomach.

Kakashi isn’t alone. Shikaku, Hiashi, and Itachi are with him. Yoshie makes Sasuke wait for a few minutes before indicating that Kakashi will see him. “He can take a break from his meeting,” she says, and sweeps Sasuke into Kakashi’s imposing offices.

The four men in the room are gathered around the large table to one side of Kakashi’s office, all nursing steaming cups of coffee. They’re hunched over a large map, a pot of coffee acting as a paperweight on one corner to keep the scroll unrolled. What draws Sasuke’s attention, though, is Itachi. He’s wearing a Lieutenant armband and jounin vest with a badge at his waist: SCI Lieutenant. In the Village hierarchy, he’s only a step below the ANBU Captain in the Chain of Command. Less than twenty-four hours in the Village, and he’d gotten a promotion already. Several promotions.

Typical, Sasuke thinks, and tries very hard not to roll his eyes.

Sasuke is tempted to snap to attention with so many eyes on him, but then he remembers he’s not a soldier in Kakashi’s armies anymore. Shikaku and Hiashi are not his superiors. Instead, he pushes his hands into his pockets and waits for Kakashi to acknowledge him.

Kakashi makes a Come here motion with a crook of two fingers. Sasuke crosses the distance and stands at the far end of the table. He can see now that the map is of the Land of Rice Fields. There are four large areas marked, indicating large swaths of the plains on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains. Kakashi indicates the map. “Tell me about these areas.”

It’s not a question. It’s an order.

Sasuke walks around the table to stand next to Kakashi—Hiashi moves aside helpfully to give him space—and considers the map. He sweeps a thumb over one of the locations. It’s not difficult to see why Kakashi is concerned with this land. “You think Madara is hiding out here?”

Itachi is the one who answers. “Madara liked to abandon Amegakure when under threat. His backup plan in the event the city wasn’t secure was the Land of Rice Fields. These were areas he talked about as potential rendezvous points if the group was ever splintered.”

Sasuke taps a finger at the edge of the table, considering the locations. He remembers Sarada and her determination to document the history of the Land of Rice Fields. The entire nation is an unknown. He doesn’t have an answer to Kakashi’s question—Should we look for Madara here?—but he can help shed some light. “This location here is Hozuki Tribe territory,” he explains, indicating one of the locations. “The Hozuki maintain strict control of their lands and don’t tolerate squatters. This area here are the hunting grounds of one of the lesser tribes, the Kamisunagawa. They’re not…friends of mine. I can’t speak to the other locations. The tribes move, and I’ve been away for too long.”

“Hozuki,” Hiashi says thoughtfully. “Rumors are they’re your allies.”

Sasuke has to bite down on a smile. He remembers Suigetsu’s fierce pride and battle joy. “Bloodthirsty motherfuckers,” he elaborates. “Good people.”

“We can start with the Kamisunagawa, then,” Shikaku presses. “Send out some teams.”

Sasuke dismisses Shikaku’s suggestion with a wave of his hand. “They’re not stupid enough to shelter my enemies.”

Itachi raises an eyebrow, looking amused. “You sure about that?”

Sasuke smiles, feels the touch of battle calm at the edges of his periphery. He’d left six of the Kamisunagawa dead on a battle-field once; he’s stronger now. He could lay them all to waste if they dared rise against him. “I’m sure. We’ve met before.”

“The Battle of the Rankoshi,” Itachi identifies with startling precision.

Hiashi takes a deep breath. “I’d heard about that.”

Sasuke inked himself with his dragon after his victory there: Sasuke, Suigetsu, Jugo, and forty-five of Orochimaru’s branded men. Sasuke had led them against seven of the smaller tribes united against Orochimaru. The battle lasted three days in the Rankoshi Valley, and the mud was so churned with bones and blood and the festering meat of dying men that it’s a fertile riot of flowers now. It was Sasuke’s first time as a battle commander, his first time in front of a battalion. He was fourteen. “Keeping tabs on my victories?”

“Keeping tabs on your body count,” Itachi corrects, Mangekyou a slow-pulsing heat in the room. Itachi’s eyes narrow with disapproval, daring Sasuke to challenge him publicly. Peace, that’s Itachi ’s end-game. World peace.

Sasuke is not like his brother. He has a million and one things he wants to say to Itachi’s reprimand, but apparently Itachi is still smarting from their argument this morning even if Sasuke has put it aside. Now is not the time for this quarrel. And besides, Itachi has the right to censure Sasuke wherever he wants. It’s his privilege as Elder—even in front of the senior commanders.

Sasuke does not have the same right, and he won’t undermine Itachi’s authority in front of strangers. He swallows on the hot churn of his chakra in his stomach and turns to Kakashi. “Do you have a minute?”

Kakashi looks amused. He raises an eyebrow as if to ask, Well?

Sasuke should ask the man in private. But Itachi’s insult is still a sharp sting, and he doesn’t have any patience anymore. “I need to talk to Pakkun.”

At this, Kakashi becomes entirely still. “How rude.”

Rude is putting it mildly. For one shinobi to ask another to speak to their ninken is beyond the pale. But the ghosts are walking around in the flesh, and Sasuke figures that this, if nothing else, is adequate reason to break etiquette. Pakkun was the only explanation he’d received when he asked about the ghosts’ presence in Konoha. There is more, he knows, and the Shodaime insisted on Pakkun’s presence for this conversation. So here he is, breaking nearly every rule in the book, asking another shinobi to summon ninken for him.

Kakashi settles his coffee cup very carefully on the table. “I assume you’ll want to have this conversation with my ninken in private?”

Sasuke pushes his hands into his pockets. The temperature in the room is dropping. “It won’t take long.”

Kakashi stares down Sasuke with such intensity that it makes Sasuke’s fingers itch for his weapons. He came here completely unarmed, though, for this very reason. So even though Kakashi watches him as if he’s considering the manifold ways to hand Sasuke his ass for stepping so far out of line, Sasuke holds his ground.

In the end, Kakashi’s reaction surprises Sasuke. Kakashi’s seals are quick and efficient. There’s nary a hitch of chakra before Pakkun is at their feet. He takes stock of his surroundings, and his button-black gaze settles immediately on Sasuke.

“Well, it’s about goddamn time, kid,” he grumbles, and his casual reprimand—as if Sasuke’s tardiness is the issue here—makes the tripwire of Sasuke’s already unstable anger flare.

“You’re going to give me that bullshit, Pakkun?” he snarls. “I’m gone for a few months, and I come back to find that you’ve broken every fucking rule in the book.”

“You were gone for nearly a year,” Pakkun corrects, trotting towards the door already. “And if we’re going to start talking about breaking rules, you’re not allowed to comment. Let’s go. Hashirama has waited for you to come home long enough.”

Sasuke follows, making sure not to meet Kakashi’s heavy gaze on him as he slips out of his office. Sasuke is expecting Pakkun to lead him somewhere private. Instead, he leads them across the building towards Tsunade’s offices. “Whatever you did to bring the ghosts back, you need to—”

“Be patient,” Pakkun warns in a low growl and doesn’t stop walking until they’re at the door leading to Tsunade’s office. He looks pointedly between the door and Sasuke. “It’s either that or I break down the door.”

Sasuke knocks once before opening the door. The ghosts are inside, along with Tsunade and Jiraiya.

The Yondaime is the one who speaks at the interruption. “Not now, Uchiha.”

“Now, Minato,” Pakkun insists and steps fully into the room. “We’ve delayed this long enough.”

The Nidaime pinches the bridge of his nose. “You really waste no time, do you, kid.”

Jiraiya twists in his seat to look at Sasuke. “We’re about to step into a meeting with the Captains, so if this can wait—”

“It cannot,” the Shodaime interrupts quietly. He looks to Tsunade with an apologetic smile. “Tsunade, this is highly presumptuous of me, but may we borrow your office?”

Tsunade gets to her feet. “Of course,” she answers, and although her voice is steady there is a question on her face.

Sasuke waits until the door closes behind them before speaking. “Not the Edo Tensei.”

“No,” Pakkun says. “I made them out of clay and bound their souls to the vessels.”

Orochimaru tried this technique once. It was one of his failed experiments; he could never make the process work. All that he could create were loose approximations of something humanoid. And unlike the ghosts, Orochimaru’s summons couldn’t maintain their forms. They would ooze into murkiness, their features dripping away, their eyeballs disappearing into the squelch of mud, and their vocal cords degenerating so all that was left was the odd, haunting moans that echoed throughout Otogakure. Sasuke used to pray on the nights when Orochimaru conducted these experiments; he’d grip his sword and stare into the darkness of the barracks and recite the names of his gods for protection. He could hear other men in the barracks doing the same, men promising sacrifices of boar and heifers just for the protection to survive the nightmares that Orochimaru had unleashed. “Why?”

And now, finally, Pakkun’s bravado disappears. “Kakashi kept asking,” he begins, and launches into a winding, looping explanation about how Tsunade had reacted after Sasuke left; how the captains all demanded explanations; how Pakkun’s blood oath is to Kakashi, first and foremost. How, Pakkun asks, how was I supposed to keep lying to Kakashi? “And Naruto,” Pakkun says, sounding wrecked. “He begged, Sasuke. He was crying. He wanted to see Minato so badly. How could I say no to him?”

“What’s wrong with that?” the Yondaime asks, voice brittle with grief. “What’s wrong with me seeing my child?”

“What’s dead,” the Nidaime answers, “should stay dead, Minato.”

Sarutobi places a hand on the Yondaime’s shoulder, trying to offer comfort. “I don’t know how I’ll say goodbye to Konohamaru and Asuma again,” he says, sounding even older than he looks. “But I know I have to. We all have to say our goodbyes—”

“I held him for ten minutes,” the Yondaime says, pushing away Sarutobi’s hand. His hands are balled into tight fists. “I held my baby boy for ten minutes before the world ended around me. I never asked for anything before this. And all that time with nobody but the Uchiha to see us. I would have given anything—I would have done anything—for just the chance to hold him again—”

“You’ve had the chance,” the Nidaime interrupts quietly. “How much longer? You keep asking for one more week and look at where we are now. It’s been five months, Minato.”

There are a million and one thoughts in Sasuke’s mind, but he keeps returning to the same memory:

Rin, under a cool night sky, telling him, If a spirit becomes too attached to this world, if it stays longer than is asked, or needed, it turns evil. It becomes infected by the pettiness and ugliness of your world.

The Yondaime looks to the Shodaime pleadingly. “He’s my baby boy—”

“Minato,” Sarutobi says, sounding devastated, and now, finally, the Yondaime’s grief yields in the face of reason.

“Madara is coming for him,” he bargains. “Let’s stay until we put an end to him, at least. So I can rest in peace knowing Naruto is safe.”

It’s a reasonable request; they’ve lingered in this realm through the mundane trivialities of Sasuke’s life. Now that Madara is approaching them, now that the very world might crack open, they are needed here more than ever.

“When it’s over, you have to leave,” Sasuke says. “If you stay too long, you’ll be unrecognizable. You’ll be infected with all the hate and pettiness of this world. That’s what happened to Shinju and the Tailed Demons. That’s what happens to spirits that stay too long in a realm that isn’t their own.”

The Yondaime takes a deep, shuddering breath. His eyes are wet. “Until it’s over then.”

“But if at any time before then, if there’s any reason,” Pakkun amends, pinning Sasuke with his heavy gaze. He doesn’t finish his sentence. He doesn’t need to.

Sasuke turns to the ghosts. “I won’t let your souls be corrupted. You’ll pass to the Great Hall in death, as you were in life. I’ll make sure of it, whether you want me to or not.”

The Shodaime takes a deep breath. “Thank you.”

Pakkun teaches him the technique in the depths of the redwoods, far from the Village walls. The Shodaime insisted that Sasuke learn right away, so Pakkun and Sasuke head north.

There is no undoing the jutsu, Pakkun explains. There is only completing it.

Pakkun had used clay to make his vessels for the ghosts. He had hardened the clay, and used the ghosts’ remains to bind their souls to the vessels. To complete the jutsu requires fire, but it is not a katon. It is something else, something like the firing of clay in a kiln. It takes Sasuke the better part of three hours because Pakkun’s instructions are limited to speaking out the sequence of seals for Sasuke to perform. He doesn’t let Sasuke complete the jutsu, always halting him just before the very final boar seal.

“Can’t you do this?” Sasuke asks after the ninth run.

Pakkun paws at the ground beneath him. “Hashirama wants you to learn,” he says, by way of explanation, and disappears. By the time Sasuke returns to the Village, it is late evening. He heads for the Tower and finds his way to the Shodaime.

The Shodaime and Nidaime are eating dinner with Kakashi, Tsunade, and Jiraiya. There are maps spread out on the dining table, along with stacks of manila folders with the SCI seal. The Nidaime is scrutinizing one of those files when Sasuke walks in. He puts down the folder with a sigh and leans back in his chair. There’s none of his usual boisterousness when he asks, “Done?”

“Yeah, done,” Sasuke confirms, and shoves his hands into his pockets so he can keep them still. I will have to burn them, he thinks. When the time comes, he will have to burn them. It doesn’t matter if the task at hand is complete—whether or not Madara is dead—the jutsu ends only one way. He will have to look them in the eyes and watch them burn. And it has to be Pakkun—or him. Because he is what he is: of both this realm and the other. No other human can complete the task. That’s why Orochimaru failed each time he attempted it.

The Shodaime sighs wearily and gets to his feet. He approaches Sasuke and places a hand on his shoulder. Sasuke pulls back angrily. “You do not have to do it, Sasuke.”

“You were the one who wanted me to.”

The Shodaime’s shoulders move up and down in a deep breath. “In my religion,” he says, voice pitched low, “the duty of burial falls to a man’s son.”

Sasuke feels all his resistance melt away then. He looks over the Shodaime’s shoulder at the Nidaime, who is watching them both silently. Tsunade and Kakashi are also watching openly, but Sasuke focuses his attention on the Nidaime. “What’s your book say?” Sasuke asks. He’d been bored in a hotel room a few years ago during his travels, and had slid open the nightstand to find the familiar book, leather-bound and looking worn from all the travelers who had read it before him. The words come back easily to Sasuke now. “By the sweat of your face, you will eat bread, till you return to the ground. Because from it you were taken.”

“For you are dust,” the Shodaime finishes. “And to dust you shall return.”

He has to ask, so he does. “Is it okay that I don’t follow your religion? For the rites?”

The Shodaime aims for a smile. “That is absolutely fine. I was hoping to keep a sword at hand as well.”

To gain entry, Sasuke realizes, to the Great Hall. Because that is where Sasuke will go in the end.

Sasuke stares at the tips of his muddied boots and swallows on that odd lump in his throat. The ghosts have been with him for so long, he still wakes up from his nightmares expecting the Shodaime’s cold touch on his forehead, his familiar voice reassuring him, Just a dream, son. The thought had never occurred to him, but now it does. Finishing Pakkun’s technique will banish them from this realm. They will be gone.

“Did I misunderstand your religion? Am I allowed?” the Shodaime asks quietly. “Unless you would rather I did not—”

“You’re allowed, anyone is,” Sasuke interrupts, and hates that his voice is thick. He doesn’t have to keep up appearances around the Shodaime, though, so he asks, “Will the Nidaime?”

“We both will,” the Shodaime promises, looking over his shoulder towards the Nidaime. They’re far enough away that the Nidaime can’t overhear, but he must know exactly what they’re talking about because he offers Sasuke a crooked smile from across the room. The Shodaime places a hand on Sasuke’s shoulder, drawing his attention back. “Everything will be all right.”

“I know,” Sasuke says, and blinks hard, trying to make the details of his shoes come into focus. His vision is getting blurry, and he feels young and stupid again, but this is the Shodaime and he’s never judged Sasuke for being just that.

For the second time, Sasuke steps forward before the Shodaime does. He puts his arms around the Shodaime to grip tight, closes his eyes against the image of the Nidaime watching him carefully, and hides the sting of his eyes in the Shodaime’s shoulder, breathing deep when the Shodaime’s hands come up to hold him close.

The Shodaime smells like the earth.