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The next day, Sasuke realizes that there is, very literally, nothing for him to do.

Sasuke wakes up at four in the morning to the sounds of Itachi banging around in the kitchen and stares at the ceiling. He doesn’t have clearance to sit in on any meetings where decisions are being made. Madara and Akatsuki are in the wind, so there is no lead for him to follow.

Even if he were to try and hunt them down, he can’t leave the Village—not with the ghosts haunting the Tower. He’d promised the Shodaime that he would make sure their souls passed uncorrupted into the other realm. He can’t keep that promise if he isn’t watching them.

Itachi is drinking a coffee while reading the news, an empty plate of breakfast in front of him when Sasuke enters the kitchen. There is enough breakfast for two, so Sasuke helps himself to a generous serving of eggs and sits down across from Itachi at the dining table. The table is loaded with Itachi’s gear for the day: his kunai pouch, arm band, sword, and smaller knives. His vest is thrown over one of the chairs. He’s clean-shaven, and his short, military-cut hair is in damp spikes.

If he’s having trouble integrating back into the city, he’s not showing it. Sasuke rehearses in his mind what he wants to say a few times, but it still comes out sounding awkward and halting. “You’re…okay to go back to work?”

Itachi glances up from his newspaper sharply. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Sasuke shoves another forkful of eggs into his mouth because the alternative is to blurt out the obvious: Because you’ve been undercover for longer than any other agent in the country. Because you had to watch your family be murdered. Because you spent over a decade with the murderer of your kin.

They had traveled for thousands of miles together, and it felt like they were suspended in a bubble for all those miles. Now, back in Konoha, the bubble has popped. Sasuke wants nothing more than to take Itachi away from this city, away from the politics of this place, away from all the memories it holds.

Speak, Sasuke reminds himself, and takes a deep breath. “There’s no rush for you to enlist again.”

Itachi scowls. “Why? Because I’m a delicate flower that needs—”

“Because I was fucked up in the head for years, and compared to you, I got the lucky end of the deal,” Sasuke interrupts, and watches as Itachi’s irritation falls away almost immediately. “If you want to take a minute before signing up to be on the front lines again, no one’s going to blame you.”

Itachi’s gaze shifts to a spot over Sasuke’s shoulder. He smooths out wrinkles in the newspaper absentmindedly as he says, “I don’t know how to do anything other than…” His fingers become still on the newspaper. It takes another moment for him to finish his sentence. “Other than be on the front lines.”

Sasuke distinctly remembers the celebrations in the Compound when Itachi was recruited to ANBU. He hadn’t even turned eleven, and while the adults drank through the night to celebrate, Itachi returned to his room by ten—for his bedtime.

This is what it means to be an Uchiha: looking at your brother across the table and realizing that he had no childhood, never even had a chance. He was given a sword when he was six and was sent out to follow orders and fight battles he did not understand by ten. Sasuke would give everything he has for a chance to protect Itachi—just once, because the gods know, Itachi has spent an entire lifetime protecting him. First from their father’s anger, and then from his Clan’s treachery, and now from Madara.

Itachi is still looking at a spot over Sasuke’s shoulder, not making eye-contact, so Sasuke does them both a favor and bends his head over his food. “You should settle into your skin and get your feet planted on the ground,” Sasuke says to the plate of eggs. He’s never been good with words; might as well use the Nidaime’s. “Everything else should come second.”

Itachi is quiet for long enough that Sasuke glances up briefly. He’s dragging a fork through a few scraps left on his plate, still not meeting Sasuke’s eyes. “You settled?”

“Getting there. Or trying to, at least.” Which is the truth of it. He sleeps better now, and when he wakes up, he never wonders, Why. He doesn’t feel so tired all the time, and he doesn’t feel that deep-seated ache anymore, the one that felt like it was sapping away at his marrow. But he had to face Rin across scorched earth and walk the breadth of the Continent to get settled. Itachi isn’t giving himself any time—he’s just soldiering on because that is who he is. “Dr. Ueno Nobuyuki.”

Itachi glances sharply up at the name. “Who?”

“He’s a shrink,” Sasuke says.

Itachi’s carefully neutral expression shifts into disbelief. “You went to a shrink?”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “Just once. Then I found out about the Wildfire Contingency and left the city, so I never went back, but—” He stops, abrupt, realizing that the conversation is going off on a tangent now. “It’s not the worst thing to ask for help, Brother. Do you have any fucking clue how amazing it feels to get a good night’s rest?”

Itachi considers Sasuke carefully for a moment before saying, carefully, “Ueno Nobuyuki.”

“He’s retired, but just ask Tsunade for a referral,” Sasuke says.

Itachi angles his head like a bird, considering. Sasuke knows the exact moment he makes up his mind to follow Sasuke’s advice, because he presses his lips into a thin line, hm-s under his breath, and picks up the newspaper again.

Sasuke returns to his food. Itachi clearly doesn’t want to extend the discussion. He’s chewing on a mouthful of eggs and staring out the window at the Naka River in the distance when Itachi says, “Do you need money?” Sasuke blinks away from the window to stare at Itachi, who is, once again, very carefully not making eye contact. “I have a paycheck now, and back pay from when I was undercover. I know you blew through all your savings on the journey. So I can—”

“I’m not a kid, Brother,” Sasuke interrupts.

Itachi folds the newspaper carefully. “You’re unemployed,” he points out. “And your skills are limited.”

“If that’s your passive-aggressive way of bringing up my lack of higher education,” Sasuke says, “you’re not being very passive about it.”

Itachi frowns. “The Clan set up college funds for all of us so we could—”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “I didn’t want to go to college anyways.”

Itachi gets to his feet with a sigh. He pulls out his wallet and throws down a handful of bills. Sasuke can’t help but notice his brother’s generosity. “I don’t care what you do, Sasuke. I have to get to work.”

“I’m not taking your goddamn money.”

Itachi tugs on his jounin vest with more force than is necessary and starts to arm himself. “Like I said,” he snaps. “I don’t care what you do.”

He doesn’t slam the door behind him, but it’s a near thing. Sasuke glares at the money for a few long moments, but he doesn’t take it.

The clock on the microwave reads 04:45. He has an entire day to himself, and absolutely no orders to follow, no paperwork to file, not even the prospect of a single mission to while away the hours. In the end, habit kicks in.

Mrs. Miyake kept all of Sasuke’s training gear, so he drags the equipment out to the Nidaime’s personal training grounds. They are as empty as the first time the Nidaime showed him the place. To one corner, Sasuke’s punching blocks are still standing erect. When Sasuke gets closer, he finds that the faded marking is still there. He’d been working with the Yondaime on speed training when he was last here.

Sasuke drops his bag and considers his surroundings. He’s used to the Nidaime’s constant presence for training now—coaching, more like, because the Nidaime was at his side at every single moment of it. Even Kakashi left Sasuke to his own devices for much of the time, but the Nidaime’s technique was so precise that he was forced to guide Sasuke through each inch of movement.

The Nidaime is a strategist, and so Sasuke’s training was planned down to the last detail: He wanted Sasuke at a specific weight and muscle-to-fat ratio to maximize the insulation effect of the muscle fibers around Sasuke’s extensive chakra pathways. He was relentless about the basics and focused on each muscle group in Sasuke’s body as something worth perfecting. He wanted Sasuke to think of his body as a weapon with its own strengths and weaknesses. Sasuke has bulk, weight, height, and expansive chakra pathways. He has a body built for war, armed with a sword and sword-fighting style from Kakashi. He learned the Nidaime’s combat technique, but his chakra has given him stamina and his Mangekyou has made him dangerous. What he lacks is speed—that same weight and height that gives him an advantage in taijutsu also slows him down, makes him a larger target for enemies—and his ninjutsu repertoire, although impressive given his Mangekyou, is not his strength.

He’s come a long way, but he can be better still. And while the Nidaime is no longer here to bark instructions, Sasuke doesn’t need him to be.

He is a Sharingan. He remembers.

Sasuke decides to check up on the ghosts on a Friday morning on one of his rest days. It’s been nearly two weeks, and he’s delayed the visit for as long as he can. Worst case scenario, he tells himself as he solemnly eats his way through three eggs scrambled with hefty servings of vegetables and cheese, I’ll kill them today.

“I’m coming with you to the Tower,” he announces. Itachi looks up from his breakfast. Sasuke has taken over the cooking because of the strict specifications of the Nidaime’s nutrition plan. Itachi grumbles about the utter lack of flavoring, but he’s put on some muscle as well, and he looks healthier. The bags under his eyes have disappeared entirely.

Now, they’ve fallen into a different kind of routine from their traveling days:

Sasuke will wake up at four, go for his run and return in time to make breakfast for the two of them. Itachi will emerge from his bedroom ready for the day, and they’ll share coffee and food, with Itachi providing as much detail as he is able to about his work. He’s spending more and more time in Jounin HQ or in the Tower coordinating intelligence and missions hunting for Madara. Sasuke doesn’t have clearance, so he only gets bits and pieces of information that Itachi feeds him. It’s odd for him to be so far out of the loop on this, but he figures that Kakashi or Itachi will eventually bring him into the fold when the time comes.

Sakura joins them for dinner most nights, because Itachi and Sakura’s schedules don’t allow for his medical therapy every day. They cook dinner together, the three of them moving around one another in the kitchen while Sakura orders them to chop this, grate that, measure out two cups of water—or with Itachi, to just do the dishes, for the love of God, because Itachi is an unmitigated disaster in the kitchen and he only needs to look twice at a pot of food for it to go sideways. After eating dinner at the table—no talk of work allowed, Sakura’s rules—and clean up in the kitchen, Itachi and Sakura start on their therapy. Itachi will sprawl out on the living room floor, Sakura sitting cross-legged by his head as she carefully works her chakra through his orbital pathways. Sakura talks throughout their therapy sessions, and as the days pass, Itachi’s voice occupies as much space in the conversation as Sakura’s. Eventually, their voices mingle, open and bright, filling the space of their apartment and invading all the quiet spaces of Sasuke’s mind.

Sasuke gives them the space for their sessions because Sakura is Clan now, and he wants her to learn Itachi the way Sasuke has over the years. He is a Clan Elder worth following, a brother worth loving. So he retreats to the patio with a chilled beer (and sometimes, if Sakura is distracted enough, a cigarette), and a book. More often than not, he finds himself reading poetry, revisiting some of the Shodaime’s favorites, and exploring new writers that the librarian starts to sneak into his pile of books whenever he spends his lunch break returning books and perusing new ones.

The three of them will stay up sometimes, decimating bowl after bowl of popcorn in front of the TV. “Oh my God,” Sakura breathes one day, “you don’t know about the Bachelor, Itachi.” And just like that, they start watching what has to be the single most ludicrous show on television in the history of the planet. (Somehow, Itachi gets sucked into it and Sasuke has no choice but to follow. They even start a betting pool among the three of them. Naturally, Sakura almost always wins.)

Sometimes, though, Itachi gets out of Jounin HQ early in the evening. On those nights, Sasuke and Itachi will “train” together. This usually involves a round of basketball on the street outside their apartment building. Sasuke had stumbled across a hoop that one of their neighbors had erected for their children one day, and after some haggling, they sell the hoop to Sasuke and Itachi to make use of; their children moved out long ago.

Sasuke and Itachi have never trained together, even when they were young. They’re too old now to play games in the redwoods, but basketball is a fair substitute. At least now the ball isn’t bigger than Sasuke, and he can actually participate instead of watching Shisui and Itachi from the sidelines.

Every few nights, Kiba or Neji will seek Sasuke and Itachi out for a drink with the other men. It’s easy to fall back into this routine as well—whiling away the hours while drinking endlessly. And just like Sakura, the men learn to accept Itachi’s stillness, inherent bossiness, and odd humor. Itachi makes Shikamaru laugh with elaborate puzzles and riddles, and listens seriously while Shino explains the exoskeletons of his ninken, asking pointed, respectful questions that leave Shino smiling brightly. He only blinks a few times at Lee’s exuberance when they first meet, but then returns it with a deadpan, “Such wondrous acquaintances we make in the springtime of our youth, Lee. It truly is a marvel,” which naturally has Lee signing up to be his Number One Fan since Itachi is So Very Cool and Hip. He pays for Chouji’s food when Chouji’s credit card maxes out one night, and sneaks fries and onion rings to Akamaru under the table. Kiba almost immediately signs onto the Itachi Fan Club, and sometimes invites Hana to their gathering (and Sasuke watches Itachi’s smile soften around the edges as Hana draws out his fondest memories of Shisui with her presence).

And still.

Sasuke doesn’t see Naruto again. They are separated by just a few short miles, but Sasuke felt closer to Naruto on the salt flats of the Land of Earth and the sand dunes of the Land of Wind than he does now. He looked up at the sky in the Land of Rice Fields and felt Naruto like an ache in his bones, because on the very edges of the Continent, his imagination had filled in the details—sitting across from Naruto for dinner, waking up with Naruto in his arms to hear him say, I’m in love with you.

But even with Naruto’s absence, the days seem almost enough. Clan, that is what he has found again, family, blood, kin—not two, but three now, Sakura fitting neatly into that gaping wound of everyone else’s absence and filling it with the sheer force of her loyalty and love alone. Some nights, Sasuke will look over at Itachi and Sakura paying serious attention to the TV, shushing each other in anticipation of who’s getting booted and who’s getting the rose, and remembers Naruto’s words:

If you want it.

Just two weeks in, and it feels like Sasuke could settle into this routine for the rest of his days. But then he remembers the rolling plains of the north, the crackle of a large fire under an open sky, the scent of fresh pine leaves and majesty of climbing the peak of a mountain. (He remembers the words of a poet he’d stumbled across while thumbing through a dusty bookshelf in the library: To seek a newer world, to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, until I die.)

It’s easy to settle into the familiar pattern of this life, but he can’t hide from the reality of the ghosts for much too long. Today, he will check on the ghosts, and he will hope against hope that the Shodaime and the Nidaime are themselves still.

“Are you going to talk to the Commander?” Itachi asks as he straps on his weapons. He ties the Lieutenant arm band with practiced ease now, and it strains across the width of his bicep as if it was meant to be there. Itachi is just Brother to Sasuke, but to anyone else who meets him, it’s apparent that he was born to wear badges and stripes of command.

“Not Kakashi, the ghosts,” Sasuke corrects, and straps on his sword and kunai pouch. Mrs. Miyake had kept most of his clothes, so he didn’t have to invest in a whole new wardrobe. At least it looks as if his growth spurts are finally slowing: he’s only gained an inch in height in the past year, so his clothes still fit. “They’re at the Tower?”

Itachi stares openly at Sasuke. His curiosity about Sasuke’s relationship with the ghosts has not receded, but he’s being polite for once and not demanding answers from Sasuke. “They’ve limited their movements to the Tower so word doesn’t spread of their return,” Itachi offers. 

Sasuke bites down on the words crawling up his throat. They shouldn’t even be here. But this is not a conversation to have with Itachi. It’s not a conversation to have with anyone except the ghosts themselves and Pakkun. They’ve been here for five months already; the fact that they’ve kept such a tight lid on their presence in the Village is a miracle unto itself.

Sasuke follows Itachi out the door. The workday start early for most shinobi, and the city is already bustling even this early in the morning. As they walk, Itachi launches into a disjointed lecture on the Mangekyou and ninjutsu. Apparently, he’s teaching Sakura katon techniques, and Sakura is working out the biology of the Mangekyou with him—we’ve never had such a skilled medic as part of our Clan, Itachi points out. Itachi can also see better now, and as they walk, he points out—a little unnecessarily—details along the way (The font of the street signs changes depending on whether it’s a blue sign or a green one, he observes at one point, sounding confused by the detail), and it’s almost as if they’re playing I spy again.

When they reach Jounin HQ, Itachi lingers for a moment. “Why do you need to talk to the ghosts?”

There’s no easy way to answer the question. Sasuke opts for the closest thing to the truth. “The Shodaime likes me to check in every now and then.” To make sure his spirit isn’t becoming corrupted, he doesn’t say. “The Nidaime, too.”

Itachi watches Sasuke carefully. “You never told me about Senju-sama.”

Sasuke frowns. He’d answered nearly every single one of Itachi’s questions about the ghosts on their trip back to Konoha. “Which Senju?”

“Both,” Itachi answers. A moment later, he adds, “You’re close with them. I didn't know you were so close with them.”

Sasuke looks towards the Hokage Monument. This close to downtown, they loom large. As always, Sasuke marvels at just how inaccurate the sculptors have been. They’ve somehow gotten every single one of the ghosts wrong. The Yondaime doesn’t have his usual easy smile, and Sarutobi’s silhouette doesn’t contain an ounce of his patience. There is none of the Shodaime’s kindness or the Nidaime’s warmth.

If he finds the spirits changed, it will fall to him to complete Pakkun’s jutsu and send them to their peace. When Sasuke doesn’t say anything for a long moment, Itachi breaks the silence. “They’ll be in the Tower,” he repeats, and disappears into Jounin HQ.

Sasuke retraces his steps to the suites where he found the Shodaime and Nidaime two weeks ago. The valet at the entrance is absolutely aghast that Sasuke would show up unannounced before seven in the morning, sir, I must insist

As predicted, the ghosts are awake already. The four of them are sitting around the dining table, which is laden with breakfast food. None of their plates have a trace of food on them, although all of their coffee cups are steaming. “You eat all three meals a day now?” Sasuke asks by way of good morning.

The Shodaime looks up from the newspaper he’s perusing with a smile. “No. We only eat when we have company. This is more of a formality. Tsunade insists.”

“I will not say no to a cup of coffee, though,” Sarutobi says, taking a languid inhale of the steam drifting upwards from his mug.

Sasuke takes the empty seat to the Shodaime’s left and across from the Nidaime, who is considering Sasuke carefully. It doesn’t take long for him to connect the dots. “You’ve been training!”

The Yondaime’s eyes narrow in consideration. “You’ve put on weight in just two weeks. Rapid progress, Uchiha.”

Sasuke snags the Shodaime’s empty plate and starts serving himself. He’s at two hundred and twenty-three pounds last he checked; his ideal weight is between two hundred and twenty-five and two hundred and thirty. He can afford a second breakfast. “It’s my day off.”

“So you came here,” the Shodaime says with a smile. He’s pleased.

Sasuke peels an orange and starts to separate the slices. He’s not sure how he’s going to explain the real reason for his visit. I’m here to make sure your spirits aren’t becoming evil is just ridiculous. He’s not even sure what he’s looking for. Pakkun was vague about the details.

“Day off?” the Nidaime grumbles, irked already. “What are you working on now?”

“Footwork,” Sasuke answers easily.

The Nidaime isn’t convinced. “You’ll be here at noon every day so I can assess just how much of a mess you’re making of my technique.”

Sasuke doesn’t take offense. He’s used to the man’s staggering overconfidence in his own abilities and disregard for the merit of those around him. To be fair, though, there’s a reason for the Nidaime’s hubris. It’s supported by fact. “I’m following what you taught me.”

The Nidaime rolls his eyes. “I didn’t teach you everything I know in eight weeks, punk. Noon tomorrow. We’ll spar for an hour. Start your days at four, and stick to the usual schedule.”

The usual schedule is a ten mile run, followed by stretches and warmups, and then strength training. At eight, Sasuke breaks for his breakfast, and then continues with taijutsu. At ten, it’s a snack, and then it’s either weapons training or ninjutsu on alternating days. Sasuke’s morning schedule with the Nidaime was so structured that he could go through the routine with his eyes closed.

“I’ll find you at noon,” Sasuke repeats, and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t keep down the excitement in his voice. He liked training with the Nidaime.

The Nidaime grins. “I’m going to wipe the floor with your ass, kid.”

The ghosts fall into one of their rambling conversations—driven largely by the Yondaime and Nidaime—while Sasuke munches through a second breakfast. It reminds Sasuke of all those weeks and months when they haunted Sasuke exclusively, inserting themselves into his life and nagging him about each and every aspect of it. He has been traveling for so long without their company that he’s surprised at just how easy it is for him to step back into old habits and while away the time in the ghosts’ company. The Shodaime eases Sasuke into the conversation, and gently coaxes him into sharing details about his time on the journey.

Sasuke is used to talking to the Shodaime alone—he sometimes even initiated conversations when they trained together in those early morning hours—but it’s almost as easy to talk to all four of the ghosts. He tells them about all the things he saw, the people he met, and the odd cultural clashes he encountered. He is telling them about the architecture in Kusagakure (“Statues of naked babies with wings, pissing water in the middle of the street, I kid you not,” he is saying to the ghosts’ booming laughter) when there is a sharp knock on the door.

The valet enters. “Your morning intelligence meeting, sir?”

The Shodaime waves his hand. “Thank you, Teshio. Send them in.”

Teshio sweeps the door wide open to reveal none other than the senior commanding officers—and Naruto. Tsunade leads the way, followed closely by Kakashi, Shikaku, Hiashi, Jiraiya, and an older man with bandages around his hands and right eye. Naruto and Itachi round off the group, and the door shuts behind them.

Naruto heads straight for the Yondaime, who is already getting to his feet. He says a quiet, “Hi, Dad.” and the Yondaime says, “Hey, kiddo,” and opens his arms wide for a hug from Naruto, who leans in easily and tucks his head under the Yondaime’s chin. The Yondaime plants a lingering kiss on Naruto’s crown, followed by a second, shorter kiss on his forehead. “You should have woken me up,” Naruto says, pulling back.

“You worked late last night. I wanted to let you sleep,” the Yondaime says, and pins Tsunade with a stern look. “You overwork him, Tsunade-sensei.”

Tsunade’s smile is genuine. “I actually can’t stop him from overworking,” she points out, and Jiraiya grumbles an agreement about how apples don’t fall far from the trees, and where does Minato think the boy got his workaholic tendencies?

Five months, Sasuke realizes. That’s how long they’ve been here. Itachi told him that the ghosts are in lockdown to keep their presence a secret from the public. But those who matter know. Five months, Sasuke thinks again. There is no hesitation in the way Naruto leans into the Yondaime’s side with a smile.

Sasuke glances at the Nidaime, who is leaning back in his chair to talk to Jiraiya. The Shodaime, for his part, is reaching up to grip Tsunade’s fingers gently when she places a hand on his shoulder. “Good morning, Grandfather.”

“Good morning, Tsunade,” the Shodaime responds, fond, and Tsunade moves away to take her seat at the other end of the table across from the Shodaime.

“I asked Lieutenant Uchiha to join us for these meetings from here on out,” Shikaku says to the Shodaime. “I thought that might be wise, sir, given his expertise.”

“It is,” the Shodaime agrees, and gestures with a hand for Itachi to take a seat. “Welcome, Lieutenant.”

“Sir,” Itachi says with a crisp salute, and stands a foot away from the seat he intends to take. It’s perfect protocol: Itachi cannot take a seat without his senior COs having done so.

“And I wanted Naruto to sit in on the intelligence briefings moving forward because the twerp's my point person for foreign policy and he'll be whipping votes in the Senate in case we need any changes to the military budget,” Tsunade says. “And also because I dislike taking notes.”

Naruto doesn’t respond except with a slight wrinkle of his nose. No doubt, Tsunade will hear an earful from him later. For now, though, he is a consummate professional—except, of course, when his father pulls him into a hug. A few years ago, Sasuke might have teased Naruto about such obvious pampering. He’s lost that right, though, even though he can still feel the warmth of Naruto’s pendant against his skin.

Once Tsunade has taken her seat, the other commanding officers sit down as well, filling in at the other end of the large table. They do it by order of rank: Tsunade is at the other head of the table; to her right is Kakashi and to her left Jiraiya. Shikaku sits down next to Kakashi’s right. Hiashi takes the seat next to Jiraiya with a smile directed at Sasuke.

The man with the bandages sits next to Sarutobi, and Itachi takes the last remaining seat next to Sasuke.

Sasuke takes that as his cue and gets to his feet. The Shodaime interrupts him before he can leave, though. “Sit down, Sasuke.”

Sasuke glances at the commanding officers in the room. They have the blank expressions of soldiers at ease. Even Kakashi’s face is blank. “I’m not Konoha shinobi anymore, Shodaime.”

The Shodaime dismisses Sasuke’s concern with a small wave of his hand. “Let us begin.”

Shikaku unrolls a large map of the Continent on the table and starts talking. He runs down on a brief summary of their most recent intelligence, and summarizes relevant jounin activity within and without the country borders. He’s interrupted every now and then with questions from everyone at the table—including Naruto, who asks pointed questions that show that he is obviously well-prepared for this meeting. Hiashi follows it up with a report of the activity of his own men.

The only people who doesn’t ask questions are the Shodaime and the man with the bandages. The Shodaime just rests his elbows on the arm of his chair, leans back, and listens.

From what Sasuke can understand, the decision has been made to pursue a combination of the two options Kakashi presented at the previous meeting. Hunt and track Madara with the possibility of an assassination; and explore the different possibilities on how to secure the Gedo somehow. Naruto is apparently in charge of the second task. He’s spending a lot of time in the libraries and archives with the Yondaime and Sarutobi, looking for clues on the original Otsutsuki Hagoromo seals.

What Sasuke understands after half an hour of debriefing, though, is that they have nothing. No leads.

War is a trial in patience, Orochimaru once told him, If you can’t outlast your enemy, at least make him impatient first. So this is what Konohagakure will do: Hurry the things they can do, and then wait. Meanwhile, somewhere in the far reaches of the Continent, Madara is lying in wait for all his pieces to fall into place.

Sasuke starts zoning out around the time Hiashi and Shikaku go into the nitty gritty details of balancing routine demands on the shinobi under their command with the larger issue of Madara and Akatsuki. It’s not that these details aren’t important. They are, if only because they concern the lives and wellbeing of Konohagakure shinobi. The logic behind the argument, though, is a waste of time.

Madara will not let himself be hunted down, not a second time. He’s too smart for it. He won’t be anywhere they look.

He had hoped that being freed from his oaths would mean being free from long, never-ending meetings. Apparently, he was wrong.

To pass the time, Sasuke goes over old battle formations in his head, rehearsing the lessons that the Nidaime had taught him about the strengths and benefits of attacking in oblique order rather than a double envelopment. He is so busy recreating the Battle of Cannae in his head—Hiashi and Jiraiya are now discussing the merits of sending ANBU into Amegakure—that he doesn’t catch himself in time to stop the jaw-cracking yawn.

Jiraiya looks thunderous. “Are we boring you, Uchiha?”

It’s instinct. “A bit, yeah.”

The Shodaime’s reprimand is immediate, sharp and layered with his disapproval.“Boy.”

Sasuke meets Jiraiya’s eyes. He counts to ten before he can find the words. He might have had drinks with Jiraiya, but old habits die hard. Still, the Shodaime is watching him, so Sasuke grits his teeth and says what needs to be said: “My apologies, Jiraiya-sama.”

Jiraiya looks surprised. So does Kakashi, whose one visible eye is wide. Even Tsunade is shell-shocked. Apparently, the only thing Sasuke had to do to catch Jiraiya off guard was to show some manners. “That’s fine?”

“If you are bored, Mr. Uchiha, you may excuse yourself,” the man with the bandages offers politely. There’s a dangerous edge to his tone, though, and it has Sasuke turning his full attention to the man. He’d ignored him so far because his chakra was so dormant. Sasuke had assumed he was a civilian. Now that he’s focusing, though, he senses a low thrum of chakra. Shinobi. The bandage over his right eye is so thick and broad that it covers most of his right cheek. He’s old—older than Sarutobi—but there’s a strength to his posture, a clarity to his gaze.

Something about his chakra—something odd about it—“Who are you, again?”

The man hold’s his gaze steady. “Shimura Danzo.”

Sasuke lets his Mangekyou whorl to life, chakra unspooling in his stomach. He knows the exact angle of this man’s signature, the way his script loops across a page—Wildfire Executive given greenlight by CO Sarutobi Hiruzen and CO Danzo Shimura.

Even without realizing it, Sasuke’s breathing evens out, and he feels the battle calm creeping in at the edges of his consciousness.

Itachi’s grip on his forearm is brief and light—just enough for Sasuke to drag his gaze away from Danzo. Itachi meets his gaze squarely and gives the briefest shakes of his head. Sasuke turns back to Danzo and forces his chakra back under control, letting his Mangekyou settle back down to its dormant state.

Danzo’s expression hasn’t changed a fraction, but even as he opens his mouth to respond to Sasuke, the Nidaime steps in with a grin. “I’m bored too, but that’s because I’m dead,” he says. The Shodaime mutters under his breath, Tobi, but the Nidaime continues undeterred. “Why are you bored, Uchiha?”

Sasuke tears his eyes away from Danzo, and focuses instead on the Nidaime. There is a reason the Nidaime asked him the question, so he answers truthfully. “This discussion is pointless.”

“We need to consider all our options,” Jiraiya counters neatly. “If Madara is in Amegakure—”

“He’s not in Amegakure,” Sasuke interrupts easily. “He’ll be nowhere you look.” Kakashi’s expression doesn’t change, which means he agrees with Sasuke. “Madara wants Konohagakure to waste resources sending out scouting parties. He let us transport Zetsu across the Continent back to Konohagakure, a neat little package with a message about the end of the world, just to see the City waste its resources following protocol. Which—”

Sasuke gestures at everyone gathered at the table with a sweep of his arms. “Ta-da,” he deadpans.

“Are you physically incapable of making a point without mouthing off to your superiors?” the Yondaime grumbles, but there’s no real heat to his question. He just sounds exasperated.

Sasuke makes a show of considering the Yondaime’s question. “I don’t know. Does the sun still rise in the east? Is that stick still up your—”

Sasuke, the Shodaime breathes, just as the Nidaime leans forward in his chair to pin the Yondaime with a grin to say, “You walked right into that one, Minato.”

“You kind of did, Namikaze,” Sasuke confirms, and can’t suppress his grin. “You feeling all right?”

The Yondaime’s lips twitch with a suppressed smile. “I haven’t had enough coffee yet, you delinquent. Don’t test me,” he counters. “Finish your thought. He’s not in Amegakure and not anywhere we look. Your proposal?”

“Invincibility lies in the defense,” Sasuke says, reciting one of the lessons that Kakashi taught him a long time ago. He meets Kakashi’s gaze as he finishes the sentence. “The possibility of victory in the attack.”

Kakashi angles his head. “Quoting my own words back to me, Uchiha?” he asks, mild. “Shows a distinct lack of creativity.”

“Madara is too intelligent to make a mistake this late in the game,” Itachi points out. “If he doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be.”

“And even if we find him,” Hiashi adds, “We don’t know how to kill him.”

The conversation moves along, but Sasuke doesn’t bother following along with it. A trial in patience, Orochimaru had told him in his odd, hissing drawl. They will never be able to outlast Madara’s patience; he’s waited for more than half a century already. So the alternative is—

Make your enemy impatient first.

Kakashi said he showed a lack of creativity, and Sasuke doesn’t intend to let that criticism go unanswered. “Draw him out,” Sasuke offers, interrupting Shikaku mid-sentence.

Kakashi’s eye crinkles with a smile, but Itachi is ready with criticism. “The idea is sound, but it won’t work,” he says. “Madara is…obstinate. There’s no bait tempting enough for him to make a mistake. Not so late in the game.”

The idea breaks through like a clap of thunder on a sunny sky, and only because Sasuke is sitting right next to it. The answer, he realizes, has been staring at them in the face the entire time. “Yeah, there is.”

The Nidaime is the one who catches on first. “Brother.”

The Shodaime turns to the Nidaime with a soft hm? under his breath.

“No, you, Brother,” the Nidaime says, laughing now. “You’re the bait.”

“And you, too, Nidaime. He hates your fucking guts. He’s not going to be able to resist,” Sasuke adds, sitting forward in his chair. The Shodaime’s expression is the same blank austerity that is on the Hokage Monument. “You know it’ll work.”

The Yondaime leans forward in his chair and raps his knuckles on the table. “Say we spread the rumors about Hashirama and Tobirama-sensei’s return. Say we let them both be seen. Say we even publicize it openly, maybe a press release,” he says carefully. “Would he be convinced, Itachi?”

Itachi doesn’t speak for a long moment. Sasuke can see the gears spinning in his mind. “It’s so implausible. At most, he’d write it off as the Edo Tensei, which he knows how to counter.”

Sasuke considers Itachi’s words carefully. “Unless he gets the information from a credible source,” he says, and as he speaks the words, the plan takes formation in his mind. Zetsu, Madara’s right-hand man, the lynchpin for his plans. “Like a certain creepy goatfucker in the KPD basement.”

The Shodaime heaves a sigh. “Sasuke.”

Sasuke makes sure his face is entirely blank. “My apologies, Shodaime-sama. I meant no insult to any goats.”

Across the table, the Nidaime bursts into laughter, and the Yondaime follows soon thereafter, with Jiraiya just a second behind. The Shodaime pinches the bridge of his nose, but not fast enough to hide the quirk of his smile.

In the end, they don’t arrive at a decision. Tsunade thanks her advisors for their input, and says she will announce her decision after more consideration. They still need to gather more intel and come up with a credible game plan for setting Zetsu free.

Danzo is the first to leave, bending at the waist to say something to Sarutobi that makes him chuckle. On his way out, he rests a hand on the Nidaime’s shoulder, with a murmured, “Tobirama-sensei. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

The Nidaime grins. “Sure thing, kid.” (Kid, Sasuke realizes, because even though Danzo looks old enough to be the Nidaime’s father, he was still the Nidaime’s student at one point.)

Danzo sweeps out of the room with a billow of his robes, even as everyone else is getting to their feet. They break into smaller groups, falling into lighter conversations now that the meeting is over—Itachi discussing details of SCI surveillance teams with Hiashi; Tsunade leaning across the table and drawing Sarutobi and the Yondaime into a different discussion entirely. Something about lockdown protocol for containing the Kyuubi in the event of a breach. Jiraiya leans forward in his chair to draw the Shodaime into a conversation, beginning his question with a respectful, Sir, if I may.

Sasuke gets to his feet to make an exit, because it’s either that or sit there and try not to stare at Naruto (the elegance of his wrist and fingers as he gathers paperwork into neat stacks, the affection in his smile when the Yondaime turns to him with a comment).

He’s nearly at the door when Kakashi steps neatly into step with him. He doesn’t speak until the doors close behind them. “You got a minute?”

Sasuke blinks at the man, caught off-guard by the question. Kakashi has only asked him for his time once before, and only to apologize for the Wildfire Contingency. Here he is doing it again, but Sasuke can’t think of a single reason that would make Kakashi behave this way.

Kakashi misunderstands his hesitation. “If you need to be somewhere—”

“I don’t,” Sasuke interrupts hurriedly before the moment can get any more awkward.

Kakashi jerks a thumb over his shoulder. “Let’s step outside.” He doesn’t say a single word as he leads them out of the building.

Sasuke almost laughs when Kakashi leads him to the smoking section of the Commons, clearing out the few smokers with a curt, Clear out. They settle on the same bench as the last time they were here, but this time, Kakashi is the one who draws out a cigarette pack. He even has a lighter. He takes a deep breath of a cigarette. “Don’t tell Sakura.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “She probably already knows, Hatake.”

“This goddamn job,” Kakashi mutters under his breath, and glares balefully at the cigarette in his hand. There’s stubble emphasizing the strong line of his jaw. Combined with his unruly hair buzzed down into short spikes, it makes him look younger, as if he’s just another jounin who didn’t get a good night’s sleep, couldn’t catch a break on his last mission, wanting nothing more than a smoke and a goddamn drink.

Sasuke stares out at the Tower. Naruto’s chakra is back to normal now. “Meditation helps.”

Kakashi stares openly at him. “Meditation.”

“It helps with the nicotine withdrawal,” Sasuke explains, flushing under Kakashi’s gaze. He can feel the tips of his ears burning because Kakashi’s mouth has dropped open. He doesn’t fight the urge to defend himself. “The Shodaime taught me.”

Kakashi leans back into the bench. “The Shodaime Hokage taught you meditation techniques to help you quit smoking,” he repeats slowly.

“He doesn’t like it when I smoke. Or drink, swear, or sleep around, or—” He stops, abrupt, realizing just how long this list could get. “He’s an uptight, puritanical pain in the fucking ass, but the meditation thing actually works.” He pauses a beat. “If you want to try it.”

Kakashi finally looks away from Sasuke and stares out towards the Tower. “I’m not the meditating type.”

“I’m not either,” Sasuke points out.

“Clearly,” Kakashi says with a quiet laugh, “you are.” He doesn’t give Sasuke a chance to respond because he switches topics entirely. “You and Shodaime-sama are close.”

Itachi had said the same exact thing only a few hours ago. This time, though, Sasuke responds. “I couldn’t tell you about the ghosts because—”

“Because you couldn’t,” Kakashi finishes neatly. He gives Sasuke a sidelong glance. “Guess we’re even now with the secrets.”

Sasuke takes a deep drag of his own cigarette, pilfered from Kakashi’s pack. It’s as even as they’ll ever get—Kakashi hiding the Wildfire Contingency, and Sasuke hiding the truth about the ghosts—but there’s something about the way Kakashi said the words that makes him pause. There’s nothing left to forgive, but he wonders if Kakashi needs to hear it again anyways. It reminds him a little of the Shodaime, always telling him, Everything will be all right. Sasuke always breathes deeper after hearing the words.

They smoke through an entire cigarette while Sasuke mulls over what to say. Kakashi holds out his cigarette pack, and Sasuke takes a second. He doesn’t speak until they light up. Even though he’s practiced the words in his head, it still sounds awkward when he says it aloud. “Maybe next time,” he ventures carefully, “we could just…not.”

Kakashi breathes out a cloud of smoke through pursed lips. “Not what?”

He’s said the words already, might as well push through it. “With the secrets,” Sasuke clarifies. “Next time, maybe we should just…not. Spare ourselves this—” He gestures between them, the awkwardness and space between them. “This shit-show.”

Kakashi’s eyebrow shoots up in surprise, and impossibly, he looks younger still with that expression. “Pick up some wisdom in your travels, Uchiha?”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “Your fucking rules only go so far, Hatake. Half of them don’t even make any goddamn sense,” he points out, and at this, Kakashi starts to laugh, and Sasuke can’t help himself—he joins in.

Once they’ve caught their breaths, they return to their cigarettes. But the silence that follows is heavy still. Kakashi is watching the Commons closely, taking such long breaks between each inhalation of his cigarette that he wastes most of it. When the silence stretches too long, Sasuke prompts, “I appreciate you sharing the cigarettes, but clearly, you have something else on your mind, Hatake.”

Kakashi takes a long breath of his cigarette and taps the ashes onto the ground carefully. “Tsunade-sama instructed me to offer you back your hitae-ate if you—”

“Hard pass,” Sasuke interrupts with a chuckle. He settles more comfortably into the bench. No wonder Kakashi was holding himself so stiffly. The conversation is not worth having, though, because Sasuke knows now the freedom of having no oaths. He may have retraced his steps back to Konohagakure, but he will not retrace his steps to his old life again. “And you can let her know my answer won’t change. Ever.”

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. He still doesn’t meet Sasuke’s gaze. “Your brother accepted a promotion as Lieutenant.”

Sasuke avoids having to reply immediately by take a deep breath of his cigarette. He lets out the smoke carefully. He still hasn’t talked to Itachi about this—about what they will do after Madara—he doesn’t want to talk to Kakashi about it either. “That’s his choice.”

And now, finally, Kakashi turns to look at him. “So you’ll be leaving again soon,” he says. There isn’t a hint of emotion in his words. “For Madara?”

Sasuke frowns. “I’m not leaving my brother.”

“So you’re staying,” Kakashi ventures carefully.

There’s no point trying to avoid this conversation. Kakashi seems intent on having it, although Sasuke isn’t sure why. “For now. Until we finish this.” Until Madara is in the ground. Until he lays the ghosts to rest. And then—

Where can he go? North? And if Itachi chooses to stay?

Sasuke pushes the thoughts aside firmly and holds Kakashi’s gaze steady. “Why are you asking?”

Kakashi’s shoulders move up and down with a deep breath. “I’m not your CO anymore, Sasuke. But I am the Commander of this Village still. I need to know if—”

“If I can be counted on as an asset,” Sasuke finishes neatly, and Kakashi looks almost relieved that Sasuke spared him the effort of finishing the sentence.

We’re even now with the secrets, Kakashi said earlier, and he’d held himself so carefully as he said the words. They are stuck in the memories of their failures, Sasuke realizes, picking at old wounds, watching each other bleed and hating themselves for it.

Kakashi will never forgive himself for any mistakes he makes—he still holds Obito’s death so raw and bloody in his heart, and he sees Obito in Sasuke, sees Hatake Sakumo in Sasuke, sees the sum of all the mistakes he couldn’t prevent, sees the lies of the Wildfire Executive writ large in all the silences between them.

The weight of these mistakes is so heavy now that he asks Sasuke for his time, prompts him with careful questions about whether he will stay or go, forfeits nearly a decade of Sasuke following his orders—his rules, each and every single one—and says, I’m not your CO anymore.

Kakashi will never cauterize the wounds he inflicts on himself, so Sasuke takes a breath and finds the words to do it for them both. “I didn’t travel over five thousand miles to end back at square one, Hatake,” he says. “Let’s just start on a clean slate.”

Kakashi’s lips curl in a small smile, the one that makes his gray eye crinkle. “A fountain of wisdom now, aren’t we, Uchiha?” Sasuke rolls his eyes, but before he can counter the man’s sarcasm, Kakashi presses forward. “And what should I tell Tsunade-sama? Do you plan on hunting down Madara independently since you’re still a free agent?”

It would be pointless to split their resources, not against someone like Madara. But that’s not the point, Sasuke knows, because Sakura and Naruto are right in their assessments: Kakashi is as emotionally stunted as he is, and if they don’t clear the air now, it will hang over them both. This is Kakashi unsure of himself, unsure of what is left between them with all that’s been said and done. They both thought they had said their goodbyes, but here they are again, smoking cigarettes and trying to pick up where they left off. “Tell her that I’m not following her orders,” Sasuke says. “But if you raise your banners, I’ll ride to battle.”

This time when Kakashi smiles, it reaches his eyes. “I could use an extra man in the ranks,” he says, mild, and the relief of the moment is almost overwhelming.

Still, Kakashi is trying to move the conversation to lighter grounds. The least Sasuke could do is oblige. “I’ll follow your orders, Hatake, but I'm not following your stupid fucking rules anymore.”

Kakashi huffs a laugh. “I think my rules have a nice flare to them.”

“Your rules are shit,” Sasuke counters neatly, and can’t help the quirk of his own lips. He never thought they’d ever get past all that’s behind them, but here they are now, cresting over the hill and finding that everything good is still intact. “You came up with rules twenty-seven through thirty-two while you were drunk. Always drink a whiskey neat? What the fuck is that shit? Sometimes you order it on the rocks so you don’t get hammered two drinks in.”

“I wasn’t drunk,” Kakashi says—lying through his teeth, the son of a bitch—and kicks his feet out. “I have to get to a meeting,” he says. He doesn’t move an inch.

They smoke the entire pack together lazily, faces tilted towards the sun while they watch clouds drift by.

The next morning, Sasuke officially becomes a mercenary.

Tsunade contracts him as a soldier for Konohagakure, and Tenten negotiates a paycheck for him as generous as the one he received as Lieutenant. He’s expected to sit in on meetings, train the troops for war readiness, and review the defenses of Konohagakure. He will report directly to Kakashi, Jiraiya, and Tsunade, and no one else. He’s given a choice of a team.

Naturally, he recruits Unit 3, all nine of them: Kiba, Neji, Shikamaru, Shino, Chouji, Lee, Ken, Tottori, and Jiro.

Overnight, Sasuke’s daily routine changes completely. He no longer has unlimited time to dedicate to training. Instead, he only has time for a morning run and an hour of taijutsu practice before he’s required to attend the morning intelligence briefings. He suffers through them patiently, and then spends all morning training the men of Konohagakure with Kiba and Akamaru. He starts with ANBU and jounin, falling into his old responsibilities as ANBU Lieutenant easily enough. He evaluates each and every single one of them by observing their sparring in pairs, in groups, and in formations. Then, he gets to work whipping them into shape. He is the student of both Hatake Kakashi and Senju Tobirama. He knows how to drill a squadron into battle-readiness.

He leaves the training of the chuunin to Lee and Jiro: Lee for taijutsu, and Jiro for weapons training. Jiro notifies him solemnly that on the first day of training, Lee ran a group of chuunin into the ground with his drills; nearly all of them required rehydration and medical attention in the ER. So Sasuke reassigns Kiba to watch over Lee’s overeager training regimen.

His afternoons are spent with Neji, Shikamaru, and Shino, poring over maps of Konohagakure and the Land of Fire, reviewing the defensive formations and protocols in place. When appropriate, he sends out Ken, Tottori and Chouji on missions to conduct surveillance and report back on the status of the far reaches of Konohagakure’s defensive lines.

The only break in his day is the hour sparring with the Nidaime. Since the Nidaime is still under house arrest, he commandeers the Hokage’s personal dojo in the Tower. There are strict orders about access to the dojo: no one except the dead Hokages and Sasuke, is allowed access. If anyone breaks the rule, they’ll have to speak to the Nidaime personally. Tsunade is generous in allowing Sasuke full access to her training rooms. Sasuke’s jaw drops when he first sees it: the arching ceilings, the packed clay ground, and rows of gleaming weapons laid out for display. The Nidaime also oversees the installation of mirrors along one wall.

The purpose of training, Sasuke knows, is not to repeat old lessons. It’s to build on them. He’s seen the Nidaime fight, so Sasuke knows that he is nowhere near mastery. He has made peace with that because he’s come to the understanding that he can train for an entire lifetime and still not reach the Nidaime’s mastery of fighting. What Sasuke doesn’t realize until a week into his training is that the Nidaime does not share his views.

He expects Sasuke to master his technique.

The Nidaime nitpicks each of Sasuke’s moves—from the angle of the crook of his elbow to the exact slope of his shoulders and the tempo of his breathing. He is relentless, driving Sasuke even harder than the first original eight weeks of training.

The hour of training leaves him sore, tired, and oftentimes frustrated—I can’t be you, he wants to say to the Nidaime, but for all the Nidaime’s infectious joy and informality outside of training, he does not tolerate any of Sasuke’s usual rebellions once their hour starts. Sasuke bites down on the words and pushes himself every hour of every day, making his morning routine more rigorous to accommodate the Nidaime’s new expectations and practicing the Nidaime’s lessons late into the afternoon. The Nidaime is ruthless as always, but he refrains from breaking bones. I don’t want to risk an injury so close to the finish line, the Nidaime explains when Sasuke comments on it.

The Nidaime even sends Sasuke home with homework. Every day, he gives Sasuke the name of a battle. Sasuke is expected to study it overnight and report back the next morning—the exact details of the battle, including formations and the numbers in each battalion, and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing battle commander’s strategy. He is also expected to devise a strategy of his own for the given scenario, from the perspective of both commanders.

War games, the Nidaime calls them, and these discussions occur in the time it takes them to walk to the dojos from the Senju Conference Room at the beginning of training, and the time it takes them to walk back to the suites where the Shodaime will be waiting to have lunch with Sasuke. Sasuke always meets the Nidaime outside the Senju Conference Room where the commanding officers meet for their strategy meetings—the war against Amegakure, Sasuke learns from Itachi, is still very much an option—and if the Nidaime is delayed in any way, he always adds time to the end of their training.

All told, the Nidaime spends an hour and a half with Sasuke every day to train. Sometimes, when Tsunade is available, the Nidaime will insist that she perform a physical examination and heal any of the many aches and pains in Sasuke’s muscles. Sasuke thinks this is overkill, but the Nidaime is as strict about this as he is with everything else. Sasuke doesn’t bother complaining about the odd treatment, because Tsunade is every bit the healer she is reputed to be: he feels better. Old wounds that he sustained under Kabuto and Orochimaru’s care vanish under her careful prodding. His right shoulder feels loose again, and his chakra feels more grounded.

Like Kakashi, though, the Nidaime’s patience is limited.

Sasuke hits a plateau in his second week of training, and the Nidaime forgets his own rule and gives Sasuke a beating that leaves Sasuke’s left eye quickly swelling shut and his mouth filled with blood.

The Nidaime’s annoyance is clear in the grim set on his face. “Don’t waste any more of my time until you’ve mastered the move.”

Sasuke bites down against the frustration crawling up his throat and keeps his peace while the Nidaime berates him ruthlessly for his mistakes. After three weeks, he feels stronger than he ever has. He’s at his heaviest, too, almost two hundred thirty pounds of sheer muscle. He’s been working on his speed and agility so that even with the added weight, it hasn’t slowed him down too much. His taijutsu is crisp, his ninjutsu is efficient, and his weapons handling has never been better.

Don’t waste any more of my time, the Nidaime repeats a second time, as if Sasuke has done nothing but dedicate himself entirely to his orders like he always does. The Nidaime storms out of the dojo, and after a few moments of miserable silence, Sasuke follows suit, heading straight for the hospital because he can’t see out of his eye anymore. Sakura sighs heavily when he finds her, but she doesn’t say anything and simply attends to the swelling of his eyelid. Even Itachi is stunned speechless when Sasuke limps home at the end of the night, but is diplomatic enough to shut up when Sasuke levels a glare at him.

But while Sasuke can stomach Sakura’s weary exasperation and Itachi’s wide-eyed stare, what he can’t stomach is the Shodaime’s still, startled look when he walks into the morning intelligence briefing the next day.

Sasuke feels his face get hot from the way people are openly staring at him. He knows he looks like a mess; the bruising has gotten more colorful overnight, and an entire side of his face looks as if it’s been pummeled in. When he chews, his neck hurts, and he can still feel a sharp pain in his shoulder where the Nidaime’s foot had made contact, forcing him to fall to his knees. Every time he blinks, his left eye stings from the effort of it. He arrived early enough that he should have avoided this spectacle, but the Shodaime and Yondaime have already gathered with Jiraiya, Tsunade, and Naruto. To make matters worse, the Shodaime immediately gets to his feet.

“With me,” he says, and Sasuke swallows his pride and walks past Jiraiya’s wide-eyed surprise and follows the Shodaime out onto the balcony.

The Shodaime shuts the large glass doors behind them, and Sasuke is grateful for this modicum of privacy because it gives him the space to say, “I’m fine.”

The Shodaime’s hands against his face are gentle as he tilts Sasuke’s face to the right and then the left as he inspects the damage more closely. “Anything broken?”

“No.” Sasuke yields to the Shodaime’s consideration of the bones around his eyes. “I’m fine.”

The Shodaime steps away with a sigh. “Does it hurt?”

Sakura is the only other person who ever bothers to ask Sasuke this question, but she does this so often it’s rote at this point: when she asks, he always answers on a scale of one to ten so she can note it in his chart. He remembers Mikoto asking him when he was little, but even then, the answer had always been the same: “No.”

The Shodaime’s shoulders sag. “Are you in pain?”

Sasuke stares at a spot on the Shodaime’s shoulder. “Sakura gave me painkillers,” he offers.  There is bruising all along his right flank, and a fist-shaped bruise on the lower edge of his right ribs that makes it hard for him to take a deep breath.

The Shodaime surprises him with his next question. “What is he teaching you?”

Sasuke shrugs and then regrets it a moment later because his right hand tingles with pain at the motion. “The usual. I was just sloppy.”

He swallows on the disappointment and anger crowding in his chest at having to admit it aloud. He will not complain. He has done nothing—nothing—but dedicate himself to the Nidaime’s training and his new job, but he needs to do more. He will do more, and he will not complain. He will not give the Nidaime another reason to dismiss him again. And there is shame, too, because he will have to face the men he trains later today with evidence of his own failures writ large on his face.

“He was impatient,” the Shodaime corrects quietly. He seems lost in thought for a moment before making up his mind. “I will expect you for lunch starting today, and every day thereafter.”

Sasuke scowls. “It’s not my battle calm,” he counters. He doesn’t need the Shodaime to teach him that anymore. It’s a matter of skill that’s lacking. 

The Shodaime shakes his head lightly. “Lunch,” he insists. He has a familiar look of determination on his face, so Sasuke concedes; there’s nothing he can do to change the Shodaime’s mind. “Did you take the painkillers Sakura gave you?”

Sasuke nods once, feeling his face get hot from the admission. The Shodaime takes a deep breath and says, “You can take the painkillers, Sasuke. It is all right. I will not tell him. Even if I did, he would not fault you for it.”

“Just don't tell him,” Sasuke says sharply, because the last thing he needs is the Nidaime to think that he’s not fit for training. Or worse, that he’s standing here and complaining to the Shodaime about it like a child. So Sasuke turns away, eager to take his seat before the Nidaime arrives and sees him having a private conversation with the Shodaime.

Thankfully, the Shodaime lets him go. Sasuke takes his usual seat and counts to ten—over and over again—because the day only gets worse after that. Shikaku stops mid-stride when he enters the room and sees Sasuke, and Sarutobi tuts in sympathy. 

The Nidaime only acknowledges him indirectly. He indicates Sasuke and gives Kakashi a lopsided smile. “Sorry about that.”

Kakashi is unperturbed, but only because Sasuke has ended up knocked out cold after their training sessions more than once. “I’ve done worse,” he says, mild as always. “He brings it out in you.”

Sasuke dredges up a grin, and feels the muscles in his face ache from it. “Part of my charm.”

“Your goddamn charm, all right,” the Nidaime begins with a chuckle, but he doesn’t get a chance to finish his sentence because Naruto speaks.

“Should we begin, Hokage-sama?” Naruto asks, words sharp. He’s staring resolutely at Tsunade, sitting up ramrod straight in his chair with perfect posture as always. Apparently, they may not be talking, but Naruto still responds the same way to the Nidaime beating the shit out of Sasuke as he does when Kakashi beats the shit out of him: with anger, which usually manifests itself with icy indifference towards Kakashi for a few long days. Apparently, he will give the Nidaime the same chilly treatment.


“Please,” the Shodaime agrees, and the meeting begins.

By the time lunch rolls around, Sasuke wants to do nothing more than lie down for a while. He takes two more painkillers and heads to the Tower for lunch with the Shodaime, hoping that maybe the Shodaime will give him some pointers. The Nidaime has refused to continue training him until he masters the move; the Shodaime might point him in the right direction.

But when he arrives for lunch, it’s to find that lunch means exactly that—lunch. There is a spread of food for Sasuke, and the Shodaime gestures for him to take a seat. He draws Sasuke into conversation while Sasuke eats: poetry, art, neoclassical literature, gardening, and memories from his younger days (We did not have electricity, the Shodaime says with a smile, and goes on to explain life in a world without light, how at the worst of the demon’s wrath, they had to ration kerosene and firewood). Sasuke tells the Shodaime about his journey—skipping the parts with the women. He tells him of the majestic peaks of Yoro Mountain, the willow trees in the Land of Waterfalls, the breathtaking expanse of the desert, and the unrelenting cruelty of the salt flats.

When Sasuke is full, the Shodaime gets to his feet and guides Sasuke to the far end of the suites towards the piano. He takes a seat on the bench and pats the space next to him.

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “I don’t know how to play, Shodaime-sama.”

The Shodaime’s smile makes his entire face brighter, deepening the crinkles around his eyes. “I know. Sit down.”

Sasuke is a Sharingan, so it is almost ridiculously easy for him to learn how to play the piano. Learning to read music takes longer, but the Shodaime is patient with him as he is with everything else. He extends their lunch hour and sends Sasuke home with sheets of music, and Sasuke spends the last moments before bed pouring over them. Once he learns to recognize the patterns, though, it’s a breeze. They fall into a new routine: a quick lunch followed by an hour or more of music. It’s no different than the times the Shodaime taught him poetry, and Sasuke doesn’t mind sitting through these lessons because the Shodaime has the same expression of peace and happiness he did whenever he was walking through the redwoods.

Sasuke’s technical skills are impeccable, but the Shodaime doesn’t seem fully pleased. Sasuke scowls at the sheets of music in front of him. They’re playing a song for a woman named Elise, and although the notes are precise, there’s something about the Shodaime’s expression that tells Sasuke he’s not there yet. “What the fuck am I doing wrong?”

“Language,” the Shodaime says. He taps a finger on the polished ivory of the keys without making a note. “Think about the battle calm, Sasuke,” he says after a moment. “Go there. It is the same joy.”

So Sasuke counts, gets into the posture the Shodaime taught him, and lets his fingers move. The Shodaime’s eyes light up with a smile at the end of the piece, and he pats Sasuke on the shoulder. “How about another piece?”

After two days of these piano lessons, the Shodaime turns to Sasuke with a question. “What do you think?”

Sasuke blinks at him. “About what?”

The Shodaime smiles. He taps the piano with a finger. “Do you like it?”

Sasuke shrugs. “It’s okay.”

The Shodaime is relentless as always. “Would you like to keep learning?”

“If you think it will help my training, I can—”

“Do you want to learn?” the Shodaime interrupts gently.

They’re sitting side-by-side on the bench, and there’s no escaping the moment, absolutely no way to distance himself from the Shodaime’s kind gaze. Sasuke stares at the piano and considers the question. “Why did you learn?”

“My mother taught me,” the Shodaime answers. “I liked it, so I kept playing whenever I could. Do you like it?”

Sasuke considers the black and white of the tiles in front of him. He presses three of the tiles down: G-flat major chord. The sound lingers just long enough for Sasuke to find the answer. “I like it.” 

“I can teach you, if you would like,” the Shodaime offers, and Sasuke nods once, quickly, still watching the tiles. The Shodaime presses a hand carefully to Sasuke’s uninjured shoulder. “We will break here for today. Go and get some rest.”

Sasuke gets to his feet. “I have to train the men,” he says. “And I have to master the move or the Nidaime will throw another shit-fit.”

The Shodaime takes a deep breath. “I will see you tomorrow,” he says. Sasuke throws a distracted, Sure, over his shoulder, and is nearly at the door when the Shodaime calls out, “Sasuke. I will see you tomorrow.”

Sasuke pushes open the door, but pauses at the entryway, half-in and half-out the room. “Yeah, I got it.” The Shodaime still doesn’t look convinced, so Sasuke adds—over-enunciating the syllables and consonants—“Tomorrow.”

The Shodaime takes such a deep breath that Sasuke can see the movement of his shoulders from across the room. “Good,” he says, almost to himself. “Go get some rest, son.”

But Sasuke doesn’t go home to get some rest. Instead, he returns to the Hokage’s dojo and stands in front of the mirror, considering the dimensions of his body. The errors he makes are minute, almost imperceptible. The height he raises his arm in defense, the width of his stance when he lands on his feet after recovering from the Nidaime’s attack. It’s not the basics, no. Sasuke has mastered those.

It’s the precision of his defense and the brutality of his attack. It’s how efficiently he breathes, and how well he maintains his upper hand against all odds. He fights with the battle calm, but there’s still something raw about it. It’s not as exact as Kakashi or the Nidaime.

He’s not there yet. But then, he remembers the feeling of sitting in front of the piano, how the calm takes over and he can call forth sounds from silence.

Count, Sasuke reminds himself, and stares at his reflection. Thus far, the Nidaime hasn’t specified the reason for the mirrors, but Sasuke thinks he might understand now. He knows what it is to settle within his skin; he’ll learn to watch himself, now, to judge the fit as an enemy might. The way he watches his fingers on the black and white tiles of a piano.

Master the move, the Nidaime had ordered.

Sasuke begins.

He’s in Neji’s offices in ANBU HQ listening to Shikamaru and Neji argue about the merits of bolstering the river-front defenses east of the city when Naruto finds him. They are at the end of their two-hour meeting, but as always, they’re lingering to talk over cartons of take-out dinner and beer that became too warm too long ago. Sasuke has not come to a decision on the eastern defenses, and he intends to hear out both sides of the argument before making a recommendation to Kakashi.

“Here, here, and here,” Neji is insisting, pointing to three spots on the large map they’ve pinned up on the far wall. “Weak points—”

“Not worth defending,” Shikamaru interrupts neatly. “We’re spreading ourselves too thin.”

Neji tugs off his gloves. He’s already taken off his armor and untied his sword, face mask, and weapons for this meeting. “We don’t know which direction the attack will come from—”

If there is an attack,” Shino points out. “Will Akatsuki risk another full-frontal attack? The last time they did, we defeated them. There is no way for Madara to recruit enough mercenaries to counter our numbers.”

Exactly,” Shikamaru says, turning to Sasuke to make his point. He launches into another defense of his points, but is interrupted with a crisp knock on the door.

Naruto cracks the door open just enough to peek inside. “Am I interrupting?”

Neji smiles warmly. “No, Naruto. We were done anyways,” he says, and Shikamaru grumbles under his breath about like hell we’re done, Im not done.

Like everyone else in the room, Sasuke assumes that Naruto is there to speak to Neji. He gets to his feet with Shikamaru and Shino. He gathers his empty take-out boxes, downs the last dregs of his beer, and throws his duffel bag across his shoulder—all the while making absolutely sure that he is not making eye contact with Naruto. “Tomorrow?” Neji asks, stretching overhead.

“Same time, same place,” Shikamaru says, leading the way out the door. He says an off-handed, See you later, Naruto, as they walk past. They’re at the door (Shikamaru asking Sasuke, You want to grab a drink or a smoke or something, to which Sasuke says, Yeah, sure while Shino intones, I will say yes to the drink, and no to the smoke. Kiba is likely free now, too), when Naruto says, suddenly, “Actually, I was looking for Sasuke.”

Everyone in the room freezes at once, looking at each other in the silence that follows. Shino is the one who breaks the moment. “Good night, then,” he says, and gives Sasuke a heavy, lingering look. For added effect, Shino tilts his head none-too-subtly at the door. Get out.

Sasuke takes the hint. “Let’s step outside,” he offers, and holds the door open for Naruto. The minute the door closes behind them, they hear three overlapping voices. Sasuke hears Neji say distinctly, Kiba is going to throw a hissy fit for missing this.

Sasuke flushes at Naruto’s arched brows. “They’re gossips.”

“No kidding,” Naruto says mildly, and leads Sasuke out of ANBU HQ. It’s just past the summer solstice, so even this late in the evening, there is light in the sky. Sasuke has no choice but to follow as Naruto leads them down the street towards the Commons. He counts to ten, counts his heartbeats, and counts each breath he takes, but it does nothing to stop the wild tangle of thoughts crowding his mind. He gropes for the right words to say—Speak, speak, say something, anything—but before he can work up the courage to do so, Naruto stops walking.

He’s led them into a quieter part of the Commons, stopping by a bench nestled under the arching branches of a flowering Cherry tree. Sasuke looks around at their surroundings, because it’s either that or stare stupidly at Naruto’s face: the cut of his cheekbones, the slight upward tilt to his almond eyes, or the way the setting sunlight dapples across his skin. He looks older, more exhausted. Sasuke had crossed the entire continent and thought he’d remembered the details, but he hadn’t. The reality of Naruto is always more vibrant than anything his imagination can conjure.

He only drags his gaze back towards Naruto when he clears his throat. “I ran into Sakura today.”

Sasuke waits for the follow-up. When none is forthcoming he says, “And?”

“She told me she’s helping Itachi with his eyes,” Naruto says. He pauses a moment, and then abruptly changes the topic. “She said that your—” He points to his own left eye, indicating Sasuke’s injury from the Nidaime’s training session. “Your eye is okay.”

“It’s fine,” Sasuke confirms, and shoves his hands into his pockets because his palms are starting to sweat now. “Looks worse than it is.”

Naruto presses his lips into a thin line. He doesn’t speak again for a few long moments, and when he does, his voice is pitched low. “She said you took the painkillers this time.”

So that’s what this is about, Sasuke realizes. Sakura told him about the painkillers, and Naruto is here to check on him because Sasuke almost never takes painkillers. He only took them this time because he thought he might need it to get through the first day after the injury. He hasn’t had to rely on them since, and he’ll likely flush the rest of the pills down the toilet later. But he doesn’t know how to say all of that to Naruto. Instead, he shrugs. “Just a few.”

Naruto takes a step back. “Good. I just—I just wanted to make sure. Shodaime-sama looked worried, so I—I just wanted to make sure,” he says, and takes another step back.

“The Shodaime always looks worried,” Sasuke dismisses, trying to find the words that might keep Naruto here for a moment longer.

Naruto offers him a wan smile. “Good. I guess—See you tomorrow at the intelligence brief, I guess.”

“Bright and early.” Surreal, Sasuke thinks. That’s what this conversation is. Surreal. As if they’re two acquaintances running into each other in the middle of the street, just colleagues who can’t exchange anything beyond small talk. Naruto is already walking away when Sasuke tries again, reaching for a last-ditch attempt. “Naruto, do you—” He freezes when Naruto turns to look at him again. “Ramen? Or a drink or something?”

It sounds pathetic now that he’s said the words aloud. What’s worse is that Naruto shakes his head. “I already ate,” he says apologetically. Surreal. “And I have an early morning, so—”

“Yeah, sure, of course,” Sasuke rushes, stumbling over the words now, and looking for an escape. He clears his throat. “Good night.”

Naruto turns to walk away a second time—and turns back a second time.

Sasuke feels his heartbeat pick up in a wild race. Maybe, just maybe, Naruto will break this awkwardness between them. Maybe he’ll say something, anything, to dispel this. Maybe, he thinks, just maybe

“Actually, this is awkward,” Naruto says, and twists a finger around the sash that’s holding his robes close. Yes, Sasuke thinks, awkward is one word for it, but before he can make a joke of it, Naruto keeps talking. “Could I—Could I have it back, please?” 

Sasuke is so caught off-guard he doesn’t even understand the question. “What?”

Naruto’s hand flutters up to his neck. Sasuke still doesn’t understand, so he clarifies, “The necklace.”

He responds before he can think twice. “But you gave it to me.” He hates himself the moment he says it. Kiba was right: he is reckless, and he is cruel. Now, he’s being downright petulant, refusing to return a gift that Naruto so generously gave him.

Naruto tries for a smile, but it falls flat. “It was actually a gift given to me by Tsunade,” he explains, and there’s a hint of something in his voice finally—a catch in his words. He clears his throat and presses forward. “She got it as a gift from her grandmother, Uzumaki Mito. And Uzumaki Mito got it as a gift from her husband, Senju Hashirama, on their wedding day. Tsunade gave it as a gift to her fiancé once, but he passed, so she gave it to me instead,” Naruto makes a vague gesture, cutting himself off from his own rambling explanation. “It just keeps getting passed from person to person, but I guess I don’t want to let go of it. I know it’s rude to ask for it back, but—”

“No, it’s not—of course, it’s yours,” Sasuke says, hurriedly, reaching for the necklace and pulling it free from under his shirt. He pulls it over his head, and crosses the distance between them to give it back to Naruto.

When he lets it drop into Naruto’s open palm, Naruto’s hands close in a fist over it. He holds it close with both hands, going completely still for a moment with what looks like relief. He tucks it behind his shirt carefully. “Thank you,” he says, and this time, when Naruto smiles at him, there’s something familiar in it. “You should put some ice on that, Uchiha.”

A few years ago, Naruto would have marched Sasuke back to his place and pressed an ice-pack to his face while he settled into a long, rambling lecture about all the ways Sasuke is a stupid, no-good bastard, what kind of worthless nincompoop would get himself beaten up like this anyways, don’t even get me started on how pathetic your defense is, Uchiha.

The words are out of his mouth before Sasuke can stop himself. “I fucked up, didn’t I?”

Naruto indicates a spot on Sasuke’s face where the bruising is the worst. “Clearly, you did,” he critiques. “Your never protect your right flank. It’s a weak spot because you’re too focused on pressing your left-handed advantage and—”

“I meant this,” Sasuke interrupts, and watches Naruto go still.

This being them. Naruto offers Sasuke a small smile. “No you didn’t,” he says quietly. They’re standing close enough now that he can pitch his voice at just a whisper and Sasuke can hear everything he says. “I did.”

Trust Naruto and his guilt complex to take on this burden as well. “I was the one who kept breaking your heart, Uzumaki,” Sasuke corrects, and Naruto’s lips twitch up in a wry smile at the words. He’d said the same exact words nearly a year ago to Sasuke: You keep breaking my heart, Sasuke, and Sasuke had been too stupid to realize the truth of it. Reckless. Reckless and cruel.

“I was the one who let it get broken,” Naruto points out gently. “Everyone kept telling me, and I didn’t listen. You told me, and I didn’t listen.”

“I told you what?”

Naruto takes a deep breath, and looks away from Sasuke. He stares at the bench a few feet away, talking almost to himself now. “You told me you didn’t want anything, and you wouldn’t stay here after it was all over. I just didn’t listen.” he says. He goes entirely still for a moment, and then continues, quieter still, “I just kept thinking that—I somehow convinced myself that if I just loved you enough, you would—One day, you would turn and see that I was waiting for you, and you’d—”

He stops abrupt.

You have no right, Neji told him, and Sasuke realizes now just how true his words had been. The words come tumbling out, and Sasuke doesn’t stop himself in time to rethink what he says. “Those women didn’t mean anything. And Tenten and I—I was drunk, and we didn’t even do anything. I just don’t think sometimes, and I know I can be a piece of shit, but I never meant to—”

“I know you didn’t mean to, Sasuke. It’s not your fault,” Naruto says, interrupting his rush of words. He finally looks away from the bench to face him. He offers Sasuke a smile. “I’m headstrong,” he says. “I can be pigheaded about things. But some things—I’m too old now to spin myself a fantasy, and convince myself I can make it real if I just try hard enough. I can’t keep believing in fairytales. I should know better. So Im the one who—” He gestures at the space between them. “This is on me.”

Sasuke can’t find his footing. It feels like the conversation is happening over his head, and he’s only watching it pass by. But he also knows that if he lets this conversation go by, he will never have a chance to remedy things. “I didn’t know what the necklace meant.”

Naruto laughs, not his usual loud, bright sound, but something quieter and subdued. “I’ve been dropping hints like bricks, Uchiha,” he says, once he catches his breath. “It just meant, if you wanted it…” He shrugs, trailing off. “It just meant…you know.”

“But I don’t know,” Sasuke says honestly.

Naruto smiles again. “It just meant, I loved you, you bastard.”

In that moment, Sasuke is reminded of Pein, pushing a kunai into his chest to the hilt. He remembers Pein digging it into his lungs, twisting it full circle as if trying to carve out his insides. He remembers choking on his breath, feeling the muscles stitching his rib cage together giving way. “And now?”

Naruto meets his gaze. “Now I don’t want to anymore.”

Thousands of miles, and not even his Sharingan could replicate the blue of Naruto’s eyes. It’s startling, just how crystal-sharp the color of his irises are, even from such distances. He is the most beautiful thing Sasuke has ever laid his eyes on. For all that has happened—for all the death and blood and mud and guts and shit that Sasuke has endured—the gods created Naruto and placed him in Sasuke’s path.

And now Naruto is trying to walk away.

Sasuke has always been selfish. He’s been selfish and reckless. He’s been cruel. He tries not to, but he can’t help but ask the question: “Why?”

“It’s okay, Sasuke,” Naruto says quietly, and offers Sasuke a hesitant smile. There isn’t an ounce of his usual brightness in the gesture; it’s nothing at all like the smiles Sasuke imagined and re-imagined all those miles across rolling plains, fast-moving streams, and tawny sand dunes. “It’s okay. We’ll be okay.”

Sasuke can’t help himself. He has to ask. “What does that mean?”

Naruto’s expression softens a fraction. “We’ll always be friends,” he says. “We’re just going through a rough patch now, but that’s on me. I just need some time to get over it. That’s all.”

“But I—”

Want this, I’m ready now to keep this, Sasuke means to say, but Naruto talks over him. “We will always be friends,” he repeats, firm, and Sasuke knows that this is Naruto convincing himself. I’ll be Kage one day, he said when he was seven, and he’s worked single-mindedly towards it. He’d dreamt a dream for them both: a summer wedding, a house, three to four kids, peace and solace at the end of all things. He’d believed it would be possible, and he waited, patient, for Sasuke, unerring in his loyalty and love. And now, he’s convincing himself out of that dream. Has convinced himself that his love is one-sided. “I just need some time and space to get over it, and we’ll be back to being friends. We’ll be okay.”

Just friends, is what Naruto is saying, because he might have loved Sasuke once, but he doesn’t want to anymore.

“I have to be at the Hill,” Naruto says. “I’ll see you around.”

There’s no promise in his words, though, and Sasuke knows without it being said that he will not see Naruto around—not unless they happen to be in the same room together, or unless they pass each other in the halls of the Tower or on the sidewalk. It’s just something strangers say to each other.

Naruto is a few feet away when he says loudly, Oh, as if he’d just remembered something. When he turns around to face Sasuke again, he’s smiling—

As if this whole conversation is an inside joke, something they can look back on and laugh about. Sasuke feels as if the earth is shifting under him. 

“You owe me, by the way,” Naruto calls out, raising his voice to be heard across the distance that separates them now. “I had to negotiate with Temari to make sure Gaara didn’t send out troops after that asinine message you sent him.”

Yori. He’d told his CO, and somehow, the story had filtered back to Naruto. “Just for future reference,” Naruto says, smiling still, “you actually don’t have any authority to talk to the Kazekage as a representative of this administration, let alone send him thinly veiled threats. Gaara wanted to put a bounty on your head, and I talked him out of it. You can still visit the Land of Wind next time you travel. So you’re welcome, you bastard.”

Naruto doesn’t wait for Sasuke’s response, just repeats, “See you around, Uchiha,” and turns neatly on his heels. It takes a while, but Sasuke finally understands the feeling in his gut for what it is. He’s always been the one to turn his back, so it takes a few heartbeats for him to pinpoint the moment for what it is:

Naruto, walking away.