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The next morning, Shikaku announces that Madara has fully abandoned Amegakure. SCI agents and ANBU have been surveilling Amegakure, but they still don’t have surveillance from inside the city to confirm this information.

“I’ll send out a team,” Hiashi says, stepping in neatly. “We’ll have confirmation within the week.”

Jiraiya scowls at the reports he’s skimming. “A high-ranking team is probably a good bet, Hiashi. Madara might not be in the city, but other Akatsuki members might be,” he suggests. He turns to Tsunade with a grin. “I can go, Tsunade.”

Naruto perks up. “I can go with Jiraiya-sensei!”

The Yondaime’s response is immediate. He gives Naruto a frankly disbelieving look, and says, “The hell you are.”

Naruto gets that familiar look on his face that lets Sasuke know that the best thing to do here is to seek shelter, because there are no scientific instruments that can measure the exact decibels of his voice that’s how goddamn loud he gets. “Here we go,” Kakashi mutters, but before Naruto can unleash his considerable vocal prowess, Tsunade cuts in. “Neither of you are going anywhere,” she says, and keeps talking right over Jiraiya’s sputtering, Goddamnit, Tsunade, what did I ever do to you, and Naruto’s unconvincing argument: I will concede the point that I may be a target of interest to Akatsuki, Naruto begins—because although he’s still loud and bullheaded, he now has legal training—but it isn’t as if he hasn’t been on high-ranking missions before where people have wanted to kill him, and besides, just because he got kidnapped that once

“I apologize, Naruto. I had no intention of harming you,” Itachi mutters under his breath, and Naruto interrupts himself solemnly to give Itachi a brilliant smile.

“I know you didn’t,” he says, and even though the smile isn’t intended for him, it makes Sasuke’s gut clench to see such affection in Naruto’s expression. That was once mine, he thinks, and the loss of it feels so acute, as if he’s watching Naruto walk away from him right this moment.

Tsunade seizes the break in Naruto’s unrelenting argument and turns to her captains. “If Madara abandoned Amegakure with the intention of going into hiding for another few decades while he bides his time, I don’t intend to let him. I want to hear options for luring him out.”

Hiashi speaks up first. “If we were to use Zetsu as a messenger to Madara about Shodaime-sama’s return, we risk losing him entirely as an asset.”

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. “Naruto, you had some thoughts you shared with me yesterday. Feel free to share them with the Hokage now.”

Naruto doesn’t bat an eyelash at being placed under sudden scrutiny. “We’re operating under the assumption that Zetsu is the only option Madara has for undoing the seals of the Gedo,” he says, “But we have nothing that suggests that even a valid assumption to make. If it were, isn’t it likely that Madara would have spent considerable resources to retrieve Zetsu? He had months of the Uchiha brothers traveling openly across the Continent to track Zetsu down, but he didn’t. From all of Lieutenant Uchiha’s reports, it seems like he’s very cautious. Which makes me wonder if Madara wouldn’t have a contingency plan of some kind. He wouldn’t risk all his plans on a single, unpredictable player like Zetsu. Would you agree with that assessment, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir,” Itachi answers. “I agree we may be placing an outsized value on Zetsu’s importance.” His words are formal, but there’s a layer of warmth to his voice, a slight curl of his lips that Sasuke picks up on immediately. Two weeks tops, Sasuke thinks. Naruto and Itachi will be best friends before the end of the month because they’re cut from the same cloth of nerds who will take any opportunity to preach about world peace and the military industrial complex and how it’s a derivative of outsized emphasis on chakra, which not only stifles science and technology, but also engenders a differential power and class structure between chakra users and civilians. Sasuke has heard some variation of that lecture from both of them several times already. They even sound the same.

The Nidaime leans back in his chair with a groan. “Say we let Zetsu escape and take news of me and my brother back to Madara. I haven’t heard a good plan yet.”

The last sentence is directed almost entirely at Sasuke. The idea to use Zetsu as a lure originated with Sasuke, so he has to be the one to provide a feasible option. “We need to put on a show,” Sasuke answers. When Tsunade gestures at him as if to say, Go on, he continues laying out the plan. “The most realistic scenario would be me or my brother transporting him to a different location, letting ourselves get goaded into some kind of fight, and letting him get away. He hates us, and he’s proud. There is no way he won’t try to escape if given half a chance. Not after the humiliation we’ve put him through.”

“He might not fall for the trick and lead us to Madara with the news, though. He might just lead us in circles,” Shikaku points out.

It’s a valid point, but an easy one to counter. “We don’t need Zetsu to lead us to Madara. We need Madara to come to us.”

“It’s an option,” Danzo says diplomatically. “Hokage-sama, if I may—”

“No, you may not,” Tsunade interrupts. Her voice hasn’t changed in pitch or tone, but something about her gaze on Danzo is cold. Sasuke doesn’t know the politics of the Village but he’s been assuming that Tsunade tolerates Danzo’s presence in these meetings for a reason. Danzo was Sarutobi-sensei’s teammate, the Nidaime’s student. “I’ll remind you that this meeting is for military high command, and you are here to bear witness. Any objections you or the Senior Council might have can be brought up at a more appropriate time and place. The Senior Council meeting, for example.”

Naruto once told Sasuke that the Senior Council is technically a civilian branch of government. The members of the council are made up of all the Clan leaders of the Village—every Clan has a single representative, regardless of their size or importance or role in the founding of the Village—but they cede their membership and authority in the military. Their role is to act as a check and balance on the office of the Kage. Naruto often complains that the Senior Council is an outdated remnant of the old Clan governing structure; he’d much rather work with the Senate, which acts as a voice for the people and legislates over the vast lands of the country; or the Supreme Court, which interprets the law when needed. (If I had to redo my career, Naruto said once when he was just fifteen and sighing dreamily over his constitutional law textbook while they waited for Kakashi to show up for training, I’d work towards being appointed to the Supreme Court. Lifetime appointment, and a lifetime of writing legal briefs.)

But all of Naruto’s complaints about the Senior Council always circle back to Danzo—how he has consolidated too much power, how he controls an entire voting block that essentially determines how the Council will vote on any given topic, how he obstructs Tsunade at every turn, even for middling details on legislation that has nothing to do with his constituency. Sasuke always assumed Naruto’s complaints stemmed from his professional disagreements with Danzo, but the way Tsunade is staring him down now—and that too in front of the rest of her high command—reminds Sasuke of Danzo’s signature at the bottom of the Wildfire Executive, just beneath Sarutobi’s.

Danzo’s expression doesn’t shift a fraction under Tsunade’s polite reprimand. “Of course,” he says easily, and for added measure, dips his head a fraction, ceding the ground to Tsunade entirely.

Tsunade turns away from Danzo entirely, her sharp gaze shifting to Sasuke and Itachi instead. She taps the table with a finger in a slow beat, her lacquered nails making a steady clicking noise against the wood. “You or your brother will have to make it convincing,” she says. “I don’t want any collateral.”  

Like hell will he volunteer for such an embarrassing mission. Not only would Sasuke have to deal with Zetsu and his creepy pronouncements, he’ll have to pretend to lose to him. He’s an Uchiha; he has his pride. Itachi seems to have the exact same thoughts, because when they speak, it’s in unison: “My brother will do it.”

“What the shit,” Sasuke says, rounding on Itachi in his chair. “You do it.”

“I’m the older one,” Itachi snaps, sounding exactly as he did when he was eight because—apparently—Itachi can be surrounded by high command and still act like a little bitch. “And I say you’re doing it.”

“Who died and made you king?” Sasuke snarls.

Everyone, dipshit.”

They both freeze at Itachi’s comment.

Sasuke considers the moment, assessing the damage that Itachi’s words may have caused. It’s been over a decade, and while the hurt of their loss still feels fresh sometimes, they need to move on. They need to move forward. If they can only talk about it openly when one of them is on the brink of suicidal ideation, then they will never get past it. So Sasuke smirks at Itachi and makes absolutely sure his nonchalance is convincing. “Way too fucking soon, asshat.”

A dimple appears briefly on Itachi’s right cheek, but his relief at Sasuke’s answer quickly disappears in the face of more pressing matters at hand. “I’m Clan Elder so I don’t have to do these stupid things anymore. It’s beneath me. You’ll set Zetsu free.”

Beneath him? Itachi’s staggering overconfidence has always been annoying, but now, it’s downright rage-inducing. No wonder Shisui and Itachi got into fights so often; Itachi is an insufferable, smug piece of shit. “You can’t just keep pawning off shit you don’t want to do on me and Sakura! How is that fair?”

Itachi rolls his eyes at Sasuke with exaggerated care. “This isn’t a democracy, Sasuke. You and Sakura don’t get a vote.”

“I’m going to tell Sakura you said that,” Sasuke warns, and watches some of Itachi’s bravado disappear in the face of that threat.

Itachi’s Mangekyou spins two slow circles before coming to a stop. “Go ahead. She likes me better than you anyways, you teenage dumpster fire.”

Sakura calls Sasuke doofus and Itachi dum-dum, which is her way of expressing affection. Sasuke knows for a fact that Sakura loves them equally because Sakura told them so. She tells them repeatedly, because she says that Uchiha men need to frequently hear the words, I love you. She is convinced that otherwise, they will forget how to feel human emotion and dissolve into alcoholism and sex addiction.

Itachi use all the oratorical flourishes in the whole world to imply favoritism on Sakura’s part—teenage dumpster fire? Sasuke is almost nineteen now. He’s almost not a teenager anymore.

“Alright, let’s go, you little bitch,” Sasuke snarls, and holds out a fist. “Loser sets Zetsu free and does dishes for the next week.”

Itachi raises a fist as well. They’ve been performing this tradition since the moment Sasuke could speak. “I am going to beat your stupid ass.”

They close their eyes and pump their fists three times while muttering in unison, Rock, paper, scissors. When they open their eyes Sasuke can’t censor the involuntary hah that he lets out, triumphant: Itachi is holding up paper to Sasuke’s scissors.

“Don’t gloat, Sasuke, it was never a good look on you,” Itachi says with a scowl, looking all of sixteen in that moment. But he sounds even younger—the way he did when he was ten, and so supremely pissed off that he had to babysit Sasuke again instead of getting to stomp around the redwoods with Shisui.  

“Oh no!” Sasuke mock-gasps. “Is the losing loser who loses upset because he lost again?”

“I will punch you in your face,” Itachi promises darkly. “Repeatedly.”

“My face?” Sasuke asks seriously. He points at himself. “This face of victory? This rugged, classically handsome, victorious face?

Itachi closes his eyes, and very visibly takes two deep breaths. Then, he faces Tsunade with as much dignity as he can muster. “I will volunteer for the mission, Tsunade-sama.”

Sasuke grins at Tsunade and it feels as if his face is going to split in half. It’s so rare that he wins against Itachi. “My brother is a true servant to the country,” Sasuke says. He pats Itachi on the shoulder, but Itachi shrugs him away with a muttered curse and a spike of chakra that makes his Mangekyou whorl. Sasuke smiles at him beatifically. “What a champ.”

“I swear to all the gods, Sasuke,” Itachi snarls. “I will—”

“Boys, do I need to separate you two?” Tsunade asks, but there’s absolutely no heat to her words.

Itachi and Sasuke answer at the same time, because it’s not as if Mikoto hadn’t asked them the same question a million times before. “No, ma’am,” Sasuke says, cheerful, but Itachi’s response is mumbled under his breath, petulant, No, Tsunade-sama.   

Tsunade covers her mouth, but not fast enough to cover the twitch of her lips. Jiraiya doesn’t bother to hide his laughter at all. The Yondaime’s silent laughter lets loose, and before long, even Shikaku and Kakashi are laughing along. Sasuke gives Itachi the most shit-eating grin in his arsenal; it makes Itachi sulk even more, which Sasuke didn’t think was even possible.

The Shodaime gives Itachi an encouraging smile. “I can empathize, Itachi,” he says, and dips his chin in the Nidaime’s direction. “I wish I could say that it gets better with age, but it really does not.”

The Nidaime doesn’t even notice because he’s too busy trying not to fall out of his chair from his raucous laughter.  

Itachi takes a breath. “Yes, sir,” he grits out.

When Tsunade chooses to act, she does so quickly: Sasuke gets the green light to set Zetsu free. The details of how are left up to Itachi. They have to make a show of it to convince Zetsu that his escape is real for the information to filter back to Madara. Itachi and Shino are tasked with putting on the show.  

Sasuke waits to hear about the outcome of Itachi’s mission with Kakashi and the rest of high command in the Shodaime and Nidaime’s suites. They idle about the room, nursing tar-black coffee and ignoring the plates of food that Tsunade’s personal assistant has laid out.

Sasuke stares out the windows towards KPD. Zetsu will be transferred from the KPD basement to SCI Jounin HQ. Too many men, and Zetsu wouldn’t be able to justifiably make his escape; too few, and Zetsu would be capable of inflicting real damage when he breaks free. The mission is only for the distance of two city blocks, but it’s enough time for Zetsu to make his escape. The plan is for Itachi to let Zetsu goad him into an attack. In the confusion that follows, Shino and Itachi will fail to properly secure Zetsu. Then they need to create a situation that gives Zetsu the advantage he needs to make an escape, and they need to do so without incurring any serious damage themselves. It’s one thing to win a fight, Sasuke knows; it’s another to lose one on purpose without too much injury.

When Sasuke realizes he’s fidgeting with his kunai, he gets to his feet suddenly, startling Jiraiya who is sitting next to him. Everyone turns to stare at Sasuke, but Sarutobi is the only one to speak. His concern makes the wrinkles deepen even further around his eyes. “Is everything all right, Sasuke?”

“Fine,” Sasuke bites out, and heads to the balcony before he can get drawn into a conversation. The Shodaime is already there, enjoying a cup of coffee. “Waiting can be difficult,” he says when Sasuke leans against the railing next to him.

Sasuke mumbles, It’s not so bad.

There’s a pleasant night chill in the air, the darkness quiet around them except for the occasional sound that filters out from the streets below. From this distance and height, the street lamps are fuzzy halos of gold suspended in air. Sasuke takes a deep breath and counts to ten. With each number, he feels some of the tension in his shoulders ease.  

By the time he gets to eight, he’s ready to break the silence without tripping over his own anxiousness. “Fucking sucks you’re stuck in the Tower like this.”

The Shodaime chuckles, and for once, there isn’t a reprimand about language. “I am not of the living,” he points out quietly. “I should not be anywhere, Sasuke.”

Sasuke knows for a fact that the Shodaime loves the redwoods, loves every inch of those forests deeply. He raised his daughter among those trees, married his wife under the arching branches of the forest, led his people to safety from the wrath of the demons and waged a war that saved the entire Continent. He loves the plants and ferns and the trees, loves the sound of birds and the quiet chirrup of crickets in the early evening hours. He has been confined to the Tower—to these suites, the Hokage Office, and the Senju Conference room—for months now. Whenever Sasuke walks in for his lunch session, it’s always to find the Shodaime looking out the window towards the redwoods.

Sasuke glances at the Shodaime and finds that he has abandoned looking out over the Village and is instead watching Sasuke carefully. He looks old, Sasuke thinks, and the thought surprises him into stillness for a moment. He doesn’t assign age to the Shodaime, just a presence, but now that he looks carefully, he can see the grays in his hair and the crinkles around his eyes. “Maybe we can sneak you out sometime. You can walk around the redwoods again.”

The Shodaime smiles. “I would like that.”

The silence settles again for long enough that Sasuke can feel the flux of Itachi’s chakra signature somewhere in the streets below, sudden and sharp. He’s giving chase.

There’s no need to ever do anything but share silence with the Shodaime, but Sasuke finds himself talking, if only to distract himself from Itachi’s chakra signature. “I found this lake on my run two days ago. Didn’t even know it was there.”

“A lake?”

“Twenty-three miles out from the Eastern gate,” Sasuke says, and launches into a low-pitched explanation on how to get there: the trails he took, the missed turn that had him stumbling past a thicket of trees onto a lake so still and undisturbed that Sasuke wondered how he’d ever missed it. He’d been running the trails around the Village for years and years, and he’d somehow missed a lake.

It was blue and so pristine it reflected the trees. He’d watched the sun rise over the lake, burnishing the water from inky blue to the orange-blue hue of a campfire. It looked like a mirror, and after the sun had risen, Sasuke had stripped off his clothes and waded in to his waist and stood still enough for the water to settle around him again. He looked into the water and caught a reflection of himself so clear, he could see the patterns of his Mangekyou.

The water was cool, Sasuke tells the Shodaime, remembering the muted rush of it closing around him when he went under. He’d been late to work that day because he couldn’t bring himself to leave.

“A lake,” the Shodaime repeats, disbelieving. “What a thing to miss all these years.”

“It’s not big, so it’s easy to miss. But it’s deep.”

The Shodaime laughs. “The thing to do here is to send out a team to properly survey these lands.”

“They’ll go stomping around and make a tourist destination out of it,” Sasuke grumbles. He knows he sounds petulant, but he doesn’t care. After his swim, he’d made absolutely sure he’d left the place as undisturbed as he found it; he even used a branch with leaves to sweep out his footsteps, and carefully picked his way through the dense thicket of trees cloistered around the lake to preserve the privacy of the space.

The Shodaime gives Sasuke a sidelong glance. “I said that was the thing to do,” he points out, leaning closer to Sasuke so that their shoulders bump. He pitches his voice low, as if sharing a secret with Sasuke. “Not that we should do it.”

Sasuke grins. “They might never find it.”

The Shodaime straightens with a sigh. “Until someone does find it, let it be your place.”

“Yours, too,” Sasuke says, and feels foolish for saying it almost immediately. “I can show you where it is. You shouldn’t have to stay a prisoner in here.”

The Shodaime goes still. He looks tired, Sasuke thinks, but the Shodaime recovers a moment later. He pats Sasuke’s cheek with a big hand, and Sasuke submits to the gesture. It’s becoming something of a habit for the Shodaime: lingering hugs, a hand on his head to ruffle his hair when Sasuke makes a joke. Usually, Sasuke will make a show of looking annoyed or shrugging away—he’s never liked people touching him like this—but today, all Sasuke can think is, He looks old.

“I would like that,” the Shodaime agrees quietly, and pats Sasuke’s cheek once more, pressing his thumb gently on the scar over Sasuke’s cheek, the one Pein had cut so ruthlessly onto his face: from eyebrow down to his cheek, a mess of tissue that has healed into a jagged, uneven line. “Does it hurt, son?”

“No. Sakura said it missed my facial nerve by a few millimeters.” Sasuke has never been so thankful for his dumb luck because he has seen men with facial nerve injuries, and knows how it can linger for years.

“Good,” the Shodaime says, pulling away. “I worried that you hid the pain or—” He stops, abrupt, so unusual for a man of his eloquence that it makes Sasuke freeze. The Shodaime doesn’t finish his sentence no matter how long Sasuke waits.

Pakkun had told him that he should watch the ghosts for signs of change. If there is even a hint of their souls becoming corrupted, he promised Pakkun he would step in and finish the jutsu to banish the ghosts from this realm. True, the Shodaime is acting strangely, but he’s not becoming angry or twisted in any way. And neither are the other ghosts. If anything—

Sasuke glances over at Sarutobi and the Nidaime through the glass door of the balcony. Both the ghosts are in deep conversation with Jiraiya, Kakashi, and Tsunade. They’re smiling at something Jiraiya is saying. The Yondaime is removed from them, speaking with Hiashi and Shikaku easily the way he always does—friends from his childhood, classmates with him in the Academy. They graduated together, went on double dates with each other’s girlfriends and then their wives. They became fathers around the same time, and attended the baptisms of each other’s children. He has a hand around Naruto’s shoulder, hugging him to his side, absent-minded in his affection. Shikaku punches the Yondaime lightly on the arm, giving him a lopsided smile as he speaks, and the Yondaime rolls his eyes with exaggerated care, which makes all of them laugh. It looks like a normal gathering of friends, as if they are all living and breathing and laughing together, not mingling with ghosts and spirits from another realm.

“You should go inside, Shodaime,” Sasuke prompts, because maybe solitude is what’s making the Shodaime act this way. If he’s with the Nidaime and the others, it might help.

The Shodaime hm-s under his breath, and Sasuke knows for a fact that the ghost hadn’t heard him. The Shodaime is not the kind of man to give anything less than his complete attention to those around him. He is kind in that regard, someone who is generous with his consideration of everyone else. “Shodaime,” Sasuke repeats, and again the Shodaime doesn’t hear him. He’s still looking out into the distance, lost in his consideration of the lights of the city in the distance.

Is this it?

Maybe the soul doesn’t get corrupted like they show in the movies. Maybe it isn’t anger and dissatisfaction that corrupts the soul, but the lingering ache of love for those left behind. Maybe it’s sadness that changes a spirit into something unrecognizable. Sasuke knows that sadness intimately. He’d let it corrupt him to the very marrow once. Maybe the ghosts are all—

“Hashirama-sensei,” Sasuke tries, and now, finally, the Shodaime shifts his gaze to Sasuke.


He looks exhausted, Sasuke thinks, and remembers the bone-deep weariness that settled into his every breath and heartbeat. He doesn’t want to think that the Shodaime is feeling the same kind of weariness and sadness.

And if he is?  

The Shodaime is still waiting for him to speak, so Sasuke clears his throat. “I was just saying—”

There’s a sharp rap of knuckles on the glass: Hiashi, smiling at Sasuke and jerking a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the two new additions to their gathering: Itachi and Shino.

Itachi is talking, no doubt debriefing his COs. Even through the glass pane, Sasuke can sense Kakashi and Tsunade’s approval of his report.

“Shall we?” the Shodaime asks with a smile, leading the way back indoors. As he passes, he pats Sasuke on the back. It’s neither warm nor cold. Clay, that’s what the Shodaime is now. Made from earth, infused with something not of this world, his soul tethered to a likeness of his body when he was alive.

One day, Sasuke will have to burn him.

Count, he reminds himself, and follows the Shodaime when he gets to five.

They don’t leave the Tower until much later in the evening. Shino parts with Itachi at the entrance of the building, but not before Itachi clasps him on the shoulder and says, sincere, “Well done, Aburame. Go home and get some rest.”

“Sir,” Shino says, smiling, and disappears with a pop.

“Takeout?” Itachi asks the minute Shino is gone.

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “You trying to avoid doing dishes?”

Itachi ignores him. “I’m the one who just finished a mission, so I get to pick,” he announces, and sets off into the night with great determination. So late in the evening, in fact, that there isn’t much by way of option except for greasy bar food or even greasier takeout. Itachi stews over the menu of each place they pass, ruling out every establishment for one asinine reason or another.

After the fourth restaurant, Sasuke puts his foot down. Itachi complains the entire time they walk about how he should have final say in their choice of food for the night seeing as he had to carry out that truly asinine mission. Still, he shuts up the minute Sasuke pushes through the drapes at the entrance and announces his presence. “Teuchi?”

Teuchi, the owner, doesn’t immediately respond; he’s too busy gawking. “There’s two of you! Ayami, sweetheart! Come see this!”

Itachi flushes from the attention that Teuchi is drawing from the other customers already seated at the stand: three chuunins, and a civilian woman with an older man who appears to be her father. A moment later, Ayami, Teuchi’s daughter, steps out from the back. Her mouth drops open when she sees Itachi.

“Teuchi, Ayami, this is my big brother, Itachi,” Sasuke introduces, and Itachi steps forward to dutifully shake their hands. “Brother, this is Teuchi and his daughter, Ayami. They’re the owners.”

“Welcome to Ichiraku Ramen,” Teuchi says, solemnly shaking Itachi’s hand.

Ayami points at the blackboard menu with the day’s specials and menu. The chalk is faded after a long day, but it’s still Ayami’s rounded handwriting that Sasuke has come to expect after all these years. “First meal is on us,” she says cheerfully. “You’re practically family, seeing how much Sasuke spends here.”

Itachi raises an eyebrow at Sasuke. “Didn’t know you liked ramen that much.”

Before Sasuke can respond, Ayami says “Oh, not Sasuke. I mean how much he spends here for Naruto. It’s Naruto’s favorite spot.”

Itachi gives him a pointed look, but for once, he holds his peace. He scrutinizes the selection and then comes to a decision. “A chicken and a beef.”

Sasuke steps in to place his own order. “I’ll have those two as well.”

Teuchi smiles. “You’re hungry today, Master Sasuke. Do you want extra servings of chicken and beef in your orders?”

“Sounds good,” Sasuke says, resolutely ignoring the other customers who are openly staring now. He’s spent an entire lifetime ignoring people who gawk at the vast quantities of foods he eats, and now is no different.

“And you, Itachi? Extra serving of chicken and beef?” Teuchi asks, ringing up the charge. When Itachi says yes, Ayami disappears into the back to take care of their orders. Teuchi presses a few more buttons on his cash register. It makes a pleasant trilling sound, and Teuchi rips out the receipt. Sasuke pulls out his wallet. He’s counting out the bills, calculating out a tip large enough to cover the cost of the free meal that Teuchi offered, when there’s a crackle of familiar chakra and Naruto pushes through the drapes with a loud, I’m here!

Sasuke goes absolutely and utterly still, frozen mid-way to paying.

Ayami steps from the back of the restaurant. “You said half an hour, Naruto. I haven’t started on your order yet,” she says, but Naruto doesn’t pay her any attention. He’s frozen, staring at Sasuke. “I didn’t know you came here anymore.”

This is Naruto’s place. He’s only ever been here once or twice without Naruto in his entire time in Konohagakure; he hasn’t even let himself walk down this street since Naruto said, I don’t want to love you anymore, because he’s not sure he could ever eat a meal under the cheerful lanterns hanging overhead without being reminded of every single time he’s sat across the table from Naruto.

Sasuke feels his face get hot. “Not often.” He has to clear his throat to find his voice and words again. “I didn’t know you were going to be here tonight.”

“That’s not—I didn’t mean—You don’t have to—” Naruto makes a vague, awkward gesture in the air, and then settles on twisting the hem of his black, long-sleeve uniform shirt into a small knot between his fingers. He’s changed out of his Councilor robes and is now wearing navy-blue sweatpants that say JOUNIN in white lettering down the side, but his jounin vest is nowhere in sight. “You can eat here if you want. It’s not off limits or anything.”

Which implies that Sasuke thinks it’s off-limits for some reason (which he does, but he doesn’t want to admit that aloud.) So Sasuke rushes to say, “I know it’s not off-limits. I just didn’t want to…” He trails off, realizing that he has no direction in which to take that sentence. The silence drags for a few more agonizing moments.

“This is awkward,” Ayami says, which does absolutely nothing to dispel the moment.

And now, finally, Naruto startles out of the moment. He glares at Ayami until she takes her cue. “I’ll get on that order of yours,” she says, and vanishes.

“And I,” Teuchi announces with great deliberation, “I will go help my daughter.”

Which leaves Itachi, staring between Naruto and Sasuke with what looks like a combination of bewilderment and panic. Sasuke stares at Itachi, trying with all his might to convey, Do something, hoping against all hope, Itachi will start a conversation with Naruto so they can move past this moment. Or, even better, suggest that they eat elsewhere. He doesn’t even care that he’s already paid. He just wants to get the hell out of here, even if it means he doesn’t eat a single goddamn noodle. Of course, Itachi misinterprets entirely. “I’m going to step outside for a smoke,” he says, which is nonsensical because Itachi considers himself a nonsmoker—except when he bums a cigarette off Sasuke or Shikamaru or Kiba or Neji or any one of his subordinates.

Itachi is already walking away before Sasuke can stop him. Sasuke heaves a sigh. His brother doesn’t carry cigarettes, which means that he’ll likely end up standing outside like the utter idiot he is. Sasuke takes pity on him and calls out, “Brother.” He tosses his cigarette pack at Itachi, who snatches it mid-air, flushing when Naruto levels a flat stare at him.

“I forgot my cigarette pack at home earlier in the evening,” Itachi says by way of explanation. Sasuke resists the urge to cover his face because of course Itachi—the number one dork that he is—decides to offer an explanation for an obvious lie, which makes the whole thing so much worse. Naruto doesn’t look convinced, so Itachi keeps digging his hole, trying his best to sell the situation. “I mentioned this in passing to Sasuke just now, but then I forgot that I didn’t have my cigarette pack on me, which is why I almost walked out of here for a smoke without any, but Sasuke remembered I don’t have my cigarettes and so—”

“Itachi,” Naruto interrupts gently. “You don’t have to develop a nicotine addiction as an excuse to avoid this situation.”

“I’m trying to quit,” Itachi grits out, looking as if he’d rather chew and swallow an entire year’s supply of cigarette cartons than continue suffering this miserable experience. Sasuke feels a pang of sympathy for his brother, he really does, but at least it means he’s not on the receiving end of Naruto’s attention. Sasuke is not sure he has recovered any dignity after his earlier fumbling. “I actually do smoke.”

“Then maybe you should go do that?” Naruto prompts.

“Thank the gods,” Itachi breathes out, and slips out before Naruto can respond. Sasuke tracks his chakra as he stomps a few feet away from the kiosk; plenty of distance for Naruto and Sasuke to feel as if they have some privacy.

Which is ridiculous, Sasuke thinks, because they don’t need privacy.

Naruto lets the silence last long enough for the other customers to return to their meals and conversations. “Your brother is really—”

“An idiot,” Sasuke finishes.

“I was going to say sweet,” Naruto corrects with a smile. “He’s really kind. I like him.”

Sasuke shrugs, trying to stay nonchalant but instead feeling stiff in the dimensions of his own body. “Most people do.”

Naruto nods. He doesn’t let the silence linger for long. “I’m sorry.”

The apology is so unexpected that it takes a moment for Sasuke to process it. “For what?”

Naruto smiles. “I didn’t mean to imply that you couldn’t come here earlier.”

“I know you didn’t,” Sasuke answers, and it’s too quick to be anything but embarrassing. He rushes to find a better excuse. “You said you wanted space.”

Naruto seems as surprised by Sasuke’s answer as Sasuke is. “Sometimes,” he says. “But not always.”

Sasuke considers the merits of dragging on this conversation. There is plenty of time for it to go completely off the rails and end in a fight of some kind. But Naruto seems quieter these days around him, guarded and careful with his words in a way that he never has been before. Sasuke doesn’t know how to behave around him anymore, what distance to stand, how to hold himself, where to look or what to say. “I’m not good with…” Sasuke gestures at the space between them. “Social cues.”

Naruto laughs, bright and loud, eyes crinkling with it. Sasuke feels his own lips twitch, and while Naruto laughs, he lets his gaze linger, catalogues all the details about Naruto all over again in his mind. He looks taller and slimmer in these dark colored clothes, more graceful than usual. Sasuke wonders if he could put a single arm around Naruto’s waist and encircle him entirely. “An understatement for the ages, Uchiha,” Naruto says, once he’s caught his breath.

“You need to tell me when you need space. I won’t know otherwise because I’m not good with those cues,” Sasuke continues, because the gods as his witness, he will use his words and finish this sentence if it kills him. Naruto is staring at him with what seems like incomprehension, so Sasuke takes a breath and explains, “I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable. Or hurt you.” He makes a vague gesture. “I seem to do that often.”

Naruto’s expression becomes entirely still for a moment. Then, he offers Sasuke a lopsided smile. “Not as often as you think, and it goes both ways,” he says. “You should tell me too, if you want space.”

“I don’t need space,” Sasuke promises. He can’t imagine a world where he ever would want it.

Naruto ducks his head and makes a great show of smoothing down non-existent wrinkles in his shirt. “You know, of I all the things I imagined,” he says, “I never thought it would end up like this between us.”

There’s no point in trying to avoid the truth, not when the conversation already feels so surreal. “How’d you imagine it would end?”

Naruto sidesteps the question neatly. “How you imagined it ending, I’m guessing.”

Lawyers. Naruto has always been good with his words; after law school, it’s impossible to pin him down in any argument. “I never imagined it,” Sasuke points out, because he’s not clever with his words like Naruto. He doesn’t know diplomacy. He only knows how to hold his silence, and when forced to answer, he knows how to keep the truth to himself. But the Shodaime has taught him how to put together a sentence and speak his mind, so he will. “Never imagined us starting, so never got around to imagining us ending.”

Naruto arches an eyebrow. He looks amused. “So what was all that staring? Seemed to be doing a lot of imagining then.”

He knows what Naruto is implying—and he wouldn’t be wrong; Sasuke has an itemized list of all his fantasies of Naruto, categorized by location and position, and a separate list entirely that involves a full array of role playing. Naruto is trying to make light of the situation, move past it, but Sasuke doesn’t want that to be what Naruto walks away with. Sure, Sasuke stared, but it was more than just what Naruto seems to think.

“The Sharingan remembers movement, not static objects,” Sasuke explains carefully, and Naruto’s smile drops away in increments. He doesn’t seem to understand immediately, so Sasuke tries again. “I can’t remember the shape of your eyes or your eyelashes if I don’t see you blink, Uzumaki. You need to move for me to remember things. That’s how the Sharingan works. I needed a few seconds to commit the details to memory. That’s why I was staring, most of the time. Not because of…you know.”

“Why—” Naruto stops talking, abrupt. He takes a deep breath, shoulders moving up and down. “Why would you need to commit the details to memory?”

There’s an odd relief to be talking out loud about these things, Sasuke realizes. Maybe this is how they move past it. Naruto can tell him, I don’t want to love you anymore, and Sasuke can say, I needed to commit the details to memory. And then, when all the words have been said, Sasuke will relearn the exact distance he needs to stand from Naruto so that things between them can heal undisturbed. Maybe they will be friends again, the way they used to be.

“I figured that was all I’d get, so I wanted to get the details right,” Sasuke says with a shrug. Naruto is watching him with wide eyes still, so Sasuke adds, “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable by staring. Like I said, bad with social cues.”

Naruto exhales carefully. “You’re not so bad.”

Sasuke forces himself to look away from the glint of his piercings, bright in the lanterns hanging overhead. It’s these details he was hoping to avoid by coming to Ichiraku. He should have stayed away this evening, but he’d been hungry, and Itachi was being picky. Next time, he’ll just be patient. He’ll let Itachi scour the entire goddamn city if he wants.

They spend the rest of the wait in silence, Sasuke watching in the direction of Itachi’s chakra signature and counting to ten over and over again while Naruto sits at the counter and waits for his order. When Ayami hands Naruto his food, she widens her eyes at Naruto meaningfully, but he ignores it. He’s fumbling for his wallet, one-handed, when Sasuke steps in. “No, please, you don’t need to,” Naruto says, understanding Sasuke’s intentions immediately. “I just need to find—”

“I got it, Naruto,” Sasuke insists, feeling something clench in his gut at the idea that Naruto might insist on this formality between them. As if they’re strangers.

Thankfully, Naruto concedes. He doesn’t say anything else when Sasuke presses a generous amount of bills onto the counter. “I’ll get your order,” Ayami offers, and she gives Sasuke a small, encouraging smile as she’s walking back to the back of the shop. “It’ll be just a minute, Sasuke.”

Naruto clears his throat. “I should go,” he says, jerking a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the Tower. “Working dinner with Hinata.”

Sasuke can’t come up with something witty to say in response; he’s too busy noticing the way a block of Naruto’s hair has curled slightly; he must have just stepped out of the shower before coming here and didn’t have time to run his fingers through his hair the way he usually does. He keeps his hair short these days, with just enough length that he can still brush it away from his face in elegant sweeps. It only emphasizes the sharp cut of his cheekbones, the near-perfect symmetry of his face. Sasuke always thought that Naruto’s hair was a single shade of yellow, but the more he looks, the more he realizes that the sun has bleached some of Naruto’s hair into lighter shades of gold, while others remain deeper still.

Naruto’s confidence falters, his smile falling away slowly. “You’re staring again, Sasuke.”

Normally, Sasuke would try to find an excuse. But today, he only takes a careful step back. “Old habits,” he says. And because Naruto had asked him for space, he adds, “Sorry.”

“You didn’t have to—” Naruto stares at a spot on Sasuke’s chest. “You didn’t have to commit details to your memory. I was right there. I wasn’t going anywhere.”

“But I was going,” Sasuke points out. It’s such a careful, delicate dance they’re doing here, trying to extricate themselves from each other, make sense of what has been left in the destructive wake of Sasuke’s reckless decisions, one after another, breaking Naruto’s heart and faith in slow, painful increments. “And now, you are, I guess.”

Naruto doesn’t look away from that spot on Sasuke’s chest. “You must hate me.”

Sasuke can’t help himself: he laughs. It’s inane that he might hate Naruto for something, for anything. And now, finally, Naruto drags his gaze up to meet his eyes.

“The thing with old habits, Uzumaki, is that they’re hard to break,” Sasuke says, after he’s caught his breath. “There’s also this saying about old dogs and new tricks.”

“Wherein I’m the old habit, and you’re the old dog,” Naruto says with a tentative smile. He holds Sasuke’s gaze steady for few moments longer, and then takes a step back. “Thanks for the ramen.”  

Thanks, as if they’re strangers. Naruto has never thanked him for this before, and somehow, that single word sours all the memories of before—when Sasuke so easily stepped up to pay the way he always does; when Naruto indulged him, and only rolled his eyes whenever Sasuke insisted, I was raised with some manners, dead last. “Another old habit.”

Naruto’s smile reaches his eyes this time. He half-turns, pausing just long enough to offer, “Good night.”

Sasuke doesn’t know what to do with his hands, so he clasps them behind his back as if he were standing at ease. He clears his throat to find his voice because he’s realizing now that it’s not just a one-time thing. He’ll have to watch Naruto walk away from him again and again and again and again. “Good night.”

Itachi re-enters a few moments later, smelling like cigarette smoke. When Sasuke holds out a hand for his cigarette pack, Itachi places an empty carton in Sasuke’s palm.

“You smoked an entire pack?”

“I’m trying to quit,” Itachi intones, serious. He glances towards the stools at the counter. “We can ask them to pack it to go.”

“It’s fine,” Sasuke insists, and sits down before Itachi can make this situation worse. Ayami arrives with their order a few minutes later, but what surprises Sasuke is that Teuchi is close at her heels, holding a bottle of sake. He places two glasses in front of Itachi and Sasuke.

“I didn’t know you had a liquor license,” Sasuke says, watching Teuchi fill the glasses with expertise.

“I don’t,” Teuchi says, and settles the sake bottle in front of Sasuke with a smile. “I thought you could use a drink, though.”

“And let’s be honest,” Ayami adds, ignoring Sasuke muttered, Oh for fuck’s sake, everyone calm down. “We’re probably never going to see you in these parts of town again, Sasuke. I thought we could send off our best-paying customer with a bang.”

Which is the truth of it. He’s not going to be able to ever come back to this place without the reminder of Naruto saying, Thank you and Good night and walking away. Still, he lies, “I’ll be back. No need to be dramatic.”

“Liar,” Ayami says, gentle. “You don’t even like noodles.”

Which is also the truth.

Sasuke bends his head over his food, and starts to eat. Next to him, Itachi does the same. After a few bites, Itachi says, “It’s not bad.” He gives Sasuke a sidelong glance. “I can see why you like the food here.”

It’s Itachi’s way of giving Sasuke a graceful exit to the shit-show that just happened. “I told you,” Sasuke says, but there’s absolutely no conviction to his words. “The food’s good here.”

Between the two of them, they finish four orders of ramen and an entire bottle of sake without much effort at all.

The next morning, Sasuke receives the official order to ride out to Amegakure.

Tsunade’s instructions are clear, but it still takes a moment for her words to sink in. “Get back into the city, and confirm that Madara has abandoned the city. Take care of any Akatsuki that he’s left behind. If Madara has truly gone, see if there’s a trail for us to follow. You know the drill for this mission, but I don’t want you dying this time, am I clear?”

“Time to earn that paycheck of yours, Uchiha,” Jiraiya says gruffly.

Sasuke blinks blearily at Tsunade from across the table. “Today?”

“No, not—“ Tsunade’s eyes go wide with understanding. “Are you hungover?”

Sasuke takes a careful, careful sip of his coffee. There is a headache so intense rattling around his skull that it’s pounding down the full length of his spine at this point. “No.”

Itachi takes the opportunity to say something extremely unhelpful that makes him sound all of ten years old. “Can I go too?” He pauses a beat and adds with great dignity, “Hokage-sama.”

Tsunade considers Itachi and then Sasuke again, disbelieving. “Are you both hungover?”

“No, ma’am,” Itachi says, but it’s an obvious lie because Itachi looks like death warmed over. Neither of them had a chance to shave this morning; Itachi wore sunglasses on the walk to the Tower. Sasuke knows for a fact that if Itachi looks the way he does, he must look worse. Itachi clears his throat and tries his best at sounding dignified. It’s an exercise in futility. “Will I be going to Amegakure, Hokage-sama?”

The Shodaime answers before Tsunade. “No, you will not, Lieutenant,” he says, words clipped. “It is a basic premise of our strategy that at least one Sharingan will be manning the City walls. This is due to the fact that our highest priority at the moment is an extremely well-developed and powerful Sharingan user. Is that clear?”

Itachi’s expression crumbles at the Shodaime’s anger. Sasuke rolls his eyes heavenward. Of course, he’d take the Shodaime’s reprimand to heart. Itachi worships the Shodaime; when they were little, he used to get into fistfights with Shisui whenever they played Demons and Shinobi because Itachi always wanted to be Senju Hashirama. “He’s not mad at you, Brother, he’s just mad you’re drunk. Mostly, he’s mad at me for getting you drunk.”

“I am disappointed,” the Shodaime enunciates clearly, “In both of you.”

“He’s not, really,” Sasuke says, because Itachi looks ready to walk off a cliff. The Shodaime opens his mouth to disagree, but Sasuke ignores him and turns back to everyone else at the table. “When do I ship out?”

Kakashi, gods bless his soul, steps in before the Shodaime or Tsunade can let their anger truly get a hold of them. His one visible eye is crinkled in a smile. “Two days. Assemble a five-man team.”

Sasuke pinches the bridge of his nose and takes deep, soothing breaths. His tongue feels like sandpaper, and if he doesn’t get something for his headache, he’s fairly certain he’s not going to be able to walk to the training grounds, let alone ride out to Amegakure. Sasuke takes another breath before answering. He understands the importance of this mission, but it still feels like a waste of his time when Madara is anywhere but Amegakure. “Yes, sir.”

Tsunade shakes her head—despairing, almost, and rounds on her Captains. “Does anyone else want to add to this disgraceful display?”

The Captains in the room mutter, No, ma’am simultaneously. “You two look like shit,” the Nidaime says with a chuckle. “How much did you drink?”

Itachi glances miserably at Sasuke, but Sasuke doesn’t have an answer either. The last thing he remembers is Itachi declaring after their first post-dinner bar that they should find more sake, Sasuke, I’m sick of beer, and then there was a bar crawl of some kind. Sasuke remembers doing shots with Itachi. There was also a pin the tail on the donkey contest, which they both lost somehow. The night ended with both of them in a dive bar in the East End of the Village. Itachi disappeared with a woman at the bar who was out celebrating the successful completion of her graduate program’s qualifying examinations. Sasuke lingered long enough to start talking with a cute waitress, a brunette with a tattoo of small, delicate birds spanning across her right collarbone. The sting of Naruto walking away had still been so recent, and one thing led to another—

Sasuke digs the heel of his palms into his hands, trying to soothe the sting of his Mangekyou. This is the problem, Sasuke thinks, this right here. He’s stupid and careless and two drinks in, he invariably gets even more stupid and careless. He starts thinking with his dick, as Sakura likes to point out, and next thing Sasuke knows, everything has gone to shit. Just when Naruto was starting to talk to him again, Sasuke goes and sleeps with some woman he doesn’t even remember. Not that Naruto is open to starting anything again, but Sasuke has been trying his goddamn best to not be an utter and complete piece of shit to Naruto since he came back. Instead, he'd woken up in the women’s apartment at the crack of dawn and had to take a tram back home. But of course, he’d lost track of his keys sometime during the night, so he had to wait around by the front door until Itachi hauled his sorry ass from wherever he spent the night.

The Nidaime whistles, long and loud. “Must’ve been quite the night.”

Itachi rubs at the scruff on his face. The fact that he hasn’t even shaved this morning, means, by Itachi’s standards, that he’s close to death. “Yes, sir.”

The Shodaime takes a deep breath, and then another. Sasuke can almost hear the ghost counting. “I am very disappointed,” he pronounces seriously, “In both of you.”

Sasuke looks imploringly at the Shodaime, who looks as if he’s gearing up for one of his rants. “I won’t do it again,” he offers as sincerely as he can.

Sarutobi sets down his tobacco pipe on the table. “I have lost track of how many times you have made that promise, child.”

“Thirty-seven,” the Shodaime answers easily. “You have made that promise to me thirty-seven times. And you have broken it, thirty-seven times.”

“Technically,” Sasuke points out, “I never said the words, I promise.”

The Shodaime’s sharp gaze becomes flat with his anger and displeasure, all the muscles of his face becoming so still, he looks like the carving on the Hokage Monument. Sasuke has been on the receiving end of this look several times before, but it never ceases to make him want to take cover. There’s no risk of the Shodaime beating him up like the Nidaime or Kakashi. Instead, the Shodaime’s anger always manifests itself as a low-pitched discussion about his expectations for Sasuke, the hopes he has for the kind of man Sasuke will become. I am disappointed in you, he will say, and his words will be such a quiet baritone, Sasuke will feel the Shodaime’s disappointment in his bones. He almost wishes the Shodaime would just beat him up. But since that’s not going to happen—and because the Shodaime is still looking at him—he says, “I’m going to stop talking now.”

The Yondaime tuts under his breath. “You do that, Uchiha.”

Sasuke snaps his mouth shut with a click of his teeth and pays very careful attention to a spot on the table.

Akamaru is so displeased with the idea of going back to Amegakure for a clean-up job that he clamps his jaws around Sasuke’s shin to make his displeasure known. “We sneak in, look around, and sneak out,” Sasuke repeats, but Akamaru’s grip only tightens even further.

Shikamaru puts out his cigarette with such vehemence that small clouds of ash float up from the ashtray. They’ve gathered in Neji’s offices for this meeting because Sasuke doesn’t technically have an office anymore. “So it’s just the five of us on Madara’s tail?”

Sasuke carefully pries Akamaru off his leg, but the dog doesn’t move far. Instead, Akamaru sits by Sasuke’s feet and growls at him. Kakashi had given him a four-man team, and he’d picked the most obvious choices: Neji, Shino, Shikamaru, and Kiba with Akamaru as his usual plus one. He’d assumed they’d be willing to follow him back out to Amegakure, but now, Sasuke is wondering if he made a miscalculation. They had all barely survived their last mission to Amegakure; it is entirely understandable if they have reservations about going back. “It only takes five men to confirm if he’s actually abandoned Amegakure, and to see if he’s left a trail for us to follow,” Sasuke explains. He wants to give these men an out if they want it, so he adds, “I wanted to share the mission specifics with you before sharing it with the rest of the men and opening up the rosters for volunteers—”

“Shut up, Uchiha,” Neji grumbles. “We’re not saying we won’t. We’re just saying that shit tends to hit the fan on your missions. So maybe we should take more than five men.”

Sasuke makes sure he doesn’t look too relieved. For a moment—just for a moment—he was worried his Unit wouldn’t follow him. Now, he feels stupid for having doubted them.

“Shit won’t hit the fan,” Kiba says with great feeling, and entirely ignores the stare that Akamaru levels his way. Sasuke has learned over the years to interpret the volume of Akamaru’s bark, the enthusiasm of his tail wagging, and the precise angle of his ears—so he knows, for a fact, that Akamaru’s posture indicates, What the fuck, you stupid human.

Sasuke stares into the depths of his coffee and despairs, because Kiba and Shikamaru have launched into a heated argument about shit, fans, and one making the acquaintance of the other. Meanwhile, Akamaru has taken to angrily biting down on his shin again, although at this point, Sasuke doesn’t even know why Akamaru is angry with him.

“It is only surveillance, Akamaru,” Shino says, taking pity on Sasuke and prying Akamaru back with a hand around the wolf’s neck. “When do we leave?”

“Two days’ time,” Sasuke announces. When he gets to his feet, the rest of the men follow. “Pack light.”

“Shit,” Kiba repeats in a heated whisper, “will not hit the fan.”

Shikamaru scowls. “I will stab you in the eye if you don’t stop jinxing us, Inuzuka.”

Shino ignores them both and looks at Sasuke with his solemn gaze. “Sasuke, are you hungover?”

Sasuke looks heavenward, and wonders why in hell’s name he even bothered getting out of bed.

He goes home for a quick nap and wakes up, nearly giddy with relief to find that he doesn’t have a headache anymore. It’s still early enough in the afternoon that Sasuke tugs on an old T-shirt, pants, and laces up for his run.

The chuunin at the Eastern gate salutes him with a crisp, Good morning, Sarge. He’s younger than Sasuke, a brown-haired boy of no more than fourteen if Sasuke were to guess. Sasuke has tried and failed to make the troops stop saluting him or calling him Sarge, but the younger ones don’t seem to be getting the memo. So Sasuke only mutters, At ease, as he passes through the gate and steps outside the Village walls.

He has a mission the next morning, so Sasuke takes an easy, looping path for his run back to the lake. He breaks it up with frequent walks so his muscles don’t become overstrained, and it takes longer than the last time to find the hidden lake again. He nearly gets lost once, but then he finds his way back, and when he pushes through the thicket of trees, it’s to find that the lake is exactly as he left it.

It feels selfish to enjoy this space by himself, so Sasuke closes his eyes. Yuuta.

Yuuta appears with a soft pop. He takes in his surroundings quickly. “Well,” he says, and settles in a loose coil next to Sasuke on the slightly damp beach soil. Sasuke can feel the snake’s presence in his mind, sorting through memories. “Amegakure again?”

Sasuke hm-s under his breath, and draws his knees up to his chest. He loops a hand around his legs and watches the distant horizon, waiting for the sun to set. “Routine this time. I don’t expect to find Madara.”

Yuuta’s tongue flickers out. “What will you find, I wonder,” he mutters, almost to himself, and pillows his head on the coils of his body. He doesn’t move again until the sun settles just above the peek over the tree-line; with the dying glints of gold, Yuuta sways upright.

They watch the sunset together, quiet as the world comes to life around them with birds and crickets and frogs and all the other insects that come out at night, a low din of sound that can only be heard deep in the redwoods at twilight and nowhere else. Every now and then, Sasuke will hear the soft splash of water—a fish or a frog, Sasuke thinks, making its presence known in the shallow ends of the lake. It feels as if they’re in a pocket of the world removed from everything else, containing nothing but the flat, blue plane of water, filled to the brim with the golden heat of the sun even as the warmth is surely fading as steadily as the descending sun. It’s almost as if the redwoods around them are containing the fading rays of sunshine in this space.

When the sun has set fully, Yuuta slithers into the water for a swim, and Sasuke follows. He sheds his clothes haphazardly and walks into the water until it closes over his head. He stays there, suspended, tracking Yuuta’s movement going further and further into the water. Sasuke stays underwater until his lungs burn from it, and then floats back to the surface to lie out on his back and drift.

He stays long after the sky turns bright with stars, and then makes his way back to the Village in a slow jog. Yuuta stays with him until they reach the Eastern gate, and then drops to the ground just outside the metal gate that allows pedestrians to enter and exit the city. The chuunin from the afternoon is long gone; in his place is an older, higher-ranked chuunin for the night shift.

Sasuke assumes Yuuta will disappear, but the snake surprises him by breaking the silence they have shared for the past hours. “When I was young, my grandmother, Wazuka, told me a story.” Rin almost never talks about her mother; the only time he has heard Wazuka’s name was when Rin mentioned in passing that the Snake Clan was, by all standards, a small tribe. But they are ancient. Rin can trace her matrilineal lineage to eleven generations, but there the knowledge of her ancestry ends. First, there were dragons, she told Sasuke on a cool night after Sasuke crawled out of her nest that very first time. And then we were made, a bastard lineage of the dragons in the era before time. When it is time, Rin will make another daughter out of her chakra and clay; the first daughter had been murdered by Rin’s uncle; once the grief of that wound closes, Rin will set to the task of mothering an heir. That daughter will continue the tribe.

Sasuke crouches by Yuuta, ignoring the curious glances that the chuunin on guard is giving him. “What did she tell you?”

Yuuta angles his conical head. “The Shinju is not just a manifestation of the Nine Demons.”

Sasuke frowns. “Then what is it?”

Yuuta looks away from Sasuke towards the treeline. “Something ancient,” he says.

That isn’t much of an answer at all, so Sasuke tries again. “Does Rin know? Would Pakkun?”  

Yuuta shakes his head. Sasuke can sense the sharp edge of the snake’s impatience against his own consciousness. “No one knows, Sasuke. It comes from an era before time. That’s my point. You chase Madara, and you think it ends with him, but you’re chasing something far greater than that.”

Sasuke gets to his feet. The point is to catch Madara before he summons Shinju, and Sasuke intends to do just that. Still, it’s hard to ignore Yuuta’s unmistakable fear, the dread pushing itself into Sasuke’s consciousness even though Yuuta is as unmoving on the surface as always. He knows that the snake is not trying to infiltrate Sasuke’s mind with his own concerns; this is involuntary, the way Sasuke’s thoughts and feelings bleed over into their consciousness when he’s unable to control his own emotions. Yuuta’s fear amplifies in his mind, echoed by vague memories of a large, patterned boa constrictor silhouetted against the night sky, hissing a warning that Sasuke hears in his own mind, as if Wazuka were by his side, saying the words:

The earth cracked open, and from within that rift in time and space, the sky spilled forth.

Sasuke breathes against Yuuta’s memory. It takes a moment before he can find the words to try and dispel the moment. “Are you worried about me, Yuuta?”

The bite is so fast he doesn’t even see it. “Humans,” Yuuta snarls. “I’m surprised your kind hasn’t driven itself to extinction from sheer stupidity.” He vanishes with a pop before Sasuke can reply.

Later that night, Sasuke falls asleep to the image in his mind over and over again, borrowed directly from Yuuta’s memory: the dark- and light-brown patterning on Wazuka’s scales, her button-black gaze, the soothing lull of her words as she describes the end of the world, of a beast emerging from a tear in the very fabric of reality where the earth and the sky collapsed onto one another. Somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, though, Yuuta’s memory shifts into a dream.

In Sasuke’s dreams, something emerges from a crack in the earth, something so dark and with such weight it makes the earth shake. Sasuke looks to his left and sees a raven with red eyes that is also watching the crack in the earth, waiting with one wing spread out as if it’s about to take flight. Just beyond the raven is another figure, a woman with bone-white skin and hair as black as the raven’s feathers, with mismatched eyes: one blue and one gold.

She too is watching the chasm, so Sasuke turns to look. The thing emerges from the crack in the earth in flashes. He feels the rumble of its growl in his bones before he sees the thing: first the spreading, rugged wings, each with hooked claws at its tapered end. The right wing has an ugly tear in it, and the beast flaps the wings a few times to lift itself from that chasm in the snow-covered earth. A coiling tail, thick and powerful, appears next, grappling for purchase on the snow, leaving behind deep trenches of churned up mud and snow. It’s four-legged, but it crouches low to the ground like a large cat, each of its limbs tapering off into curved claws the same silvery metallic as Sasuke’s swords. It has a powerful neck, and the back of its body lined with faint scars. It’s facing away from Sasuke, but after a moment, it must realize his presence because it turns and Sasuke sees—

A row of teeth, glowing orange from the fire that the beast is swallowing on, flames licking out from the edges of its mouth to look like whiskers, its low growl becoming overlaid with a faint whining, higher and higher pitched, until it feels as if Sasuke’s eardrums will burst, and Sasuke knows in that moment that the beast will open its mouth and he will burn, but Sasuke can’t look away because the beast blinks and in an instant, Sasuke notices:

Two red irises in each eye with black patterning, swirling in opposing circles—

He gasps awake in the dark of his room, drenched in sweat, shaking as he pushes himself out of bed and takes step by unsteady step to the windows to push them open for some cool night air. But when he finally gets his sweaty palms to unlatch the window, all that blows through is a warm gust of wind.

A moment later, the night becomes still.

It’s an effort to pay attention in the morning briefing the next day. Sasuke keeps finding his mind drifting, and halfway through the meeting, he gives up all pretense of paying attention and stares at a spot on the desk, trying to clear his mind. Every time he blinks, he sees it again:

A woman, with mismatched eyes. A raven, with a wing spread out in anticipation of flight. And a chasm in the earth, a rip in time and space, the sky opening. And from within that rip a winged beast with claws like swords and a mouth bursting with flames, and eyes like

He nearly groans with relief when Tsunade calls the meeting to an end, but before he can make an escape to some solitude—and hopefully some sleep—Kakashi catches up to him with a quiet, Let’s go.

This time, Sasuke doesn’t need Kakashi to lead the way. It’s becoming something of a ritual now, so they walk side-by-side to the smoking section of the Commons. Kakashi doesn’t bother with please and thank you, just orders, “Clear out.”

Sasuke settles into the bench with a sigh, reaching into his back pocket for his cigarette. Kakashi settles at the opposite end of the bench and waits patiently for Sasuke to tap out cigarettes for them both. Kakashi doesn’t speak until they take a few deep breaths. “You look like shit, Uchiha.”

Sasuke rubs at his face. “Just need some sleep, that’s all.”

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. “Understandable,” he says, mild. “If I had another assignment to Amegakure, I’d lose some sleep too.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “Spare me the fucking—”

“Are we really going to pretend you don’t have clinical depression and a history of suicidal ideation?” Kakashi asks without skipping a beat. He gives Sasuke a sidelong glance. “That’s what your file says, at least according to a Dr. Ueno Nobuyuki. Dr. Haruno Sakura also signed off on that diagnosis.”

“A history of,” Sasuke enunciates, and Kakashi’s lips twitch. “Which means it’s in the past. Also, Sakura is my family’s physician. Her records of my evals are private. You shouldn’t have access to those.”

“This eval was before she became an Uchiha,” Kakashi counters neatly. “Speaking of which. My congratulations. To all three of you.”

Sasuke looks involuntarily towards Sakura’s crackling chakra signature. “Just congratulations? No comment?” When Kakashi doesn’t say anything, Sasuke looks back towards him. “It was probably not her smartest move becoming an Uchiha. It puts her on Madara’s hitlist.”

“We’re all on Madara’s hitlist,” Kakashi says with a chuckle. He taps the ash off from his cigarette carefully. “And it’s her choice to make.”

Sasuke glances towards the sky. There’s no clouds overhead, and the air is unrelentingly stifling and hot. It’s as if overnight, the winds stilled and the water was sucked out from the air. Even the leaves are hanging completely still on the trees around them. The silence stretches, and it takes a while for Sasuke to break it. Kakashi didn’t ask him here to offer congratulations for Sakura becoming an Uchiha. He’s treading lightly around the issue, but Sasuke is too tired to bother with such pleasantries. “Are you worried I’m not fit for the mission tomorrow?”

“I’m worried you’ll try to see it to the end,” Kakashi says easily.

Sasuke sighs. “I know my orders, Kakashi. I won’t pursue Madara or engage him. It’s just surveillance.”

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. “Good,” he says, and puts out the cigarette. It’s not even half-done.

Sasuke raises an eyebrow at Kakashi; the man has never wasted a cigarette before. “You in a rush?”

“I’m going somewhere with air conditioning,” Kakashi grumbles, and gets to his feet.

“You used to make me run laps when I complained about the heat,” Sasuke points out, and gets to his feet as well.

Kakashi levels a stare at Sasuke. “Genin,” he says, pointing a finger at Sasuke’s chest. He then points at himself. “Commander of the Joint Forces. I’m allowed to complain. You’re not.”

Sasuke falls into step next to Kakashi when he starts walking again. As they walk through the Commons, back to the Tower, Sasuke points out that Kakashi was only a jounin when he mercilessly made Sasuke run laps in the mid-afternoon heat, and although Sakura and Naruto complained endlessly as well, they never got the same punishment. Kakashi doesn’t even bother to defend himself, just says that Naruto and Sakura always knew when to apologize, and besides, Sasuke was—and is—an unvarnished, Category A piece of shit.

“Like teacher, like student. So what does that make you?” Sasuke says.

Kakashi’s eye crinkles with a smile. “It makes me Commander,” he says. Sasuke is about to counter, but Kakashi beats him to it, switching topics neatly. He stops walking abruptly under the shade of a tree to make his point. “Don’t pursue Madara. Just go into Amegakure, confirm if he’s there. If he’s still in Amegakure, don’t engage. If he’s not, figure out which direction he went, but don’t pursue. There’s a bigger war to be won.”

Sasuke clenches his hands into fists and forces himself to count to ten. He understands why Kakashi is putting him on a leash, but he still hates the feeling of it around his neck. “If I have a clean shot—”

“We do not engage with Madara on his turf,” Kakashi interrupts sternly. “We agitate him. We draw him out. We make him deviate from his strategy. And then we strike. The battle will be fought on my terms, not his. I don’t like repeating myself, soldier, and I don’t like my orders disobeyed.”

One, Sasuke tells himself firmly, and grinds through the next nine numbers in his mind. “Yes, sir.”

He’s expecting Kakashi to leave, but instead, Kakashi lingers, considering Sasuke carefully. “There’s a bigger war to be won, Sasuke,” he repeats, quieter now. “We can’t make mistakes, not with such high stakes.”

Sasuke remembers the distinct pattern of claw marks on the snow as the beast lifted itself from the tear in the earth. If he focuses, he can almost hear the low growl of the animal. “You’ll win the war, Kakashi.” If not you, he wants to ask, who else?

Kakashi looks towards the Tower, looming large at the far end of the Commons. “My mother once told me that ghosts weren’t real,” he says in a low murmur, almost as if he’s talking to himself.

“So did mine.”

Kakashi watches the Tower for a few heartbeats longer before returning his gaze to Sasuke. “End of the goddamn world,” Kakashi mutters, shaking his head in disbelief. A moment later, though, he snaps out of his reverie. He leaves with a nonchalant, Have fun in Amegakure.

Sasuke watches him go, finds himself remembering words that he’d forgotten long, long ago. Now, though, the memory comes back crystal clear: the uncomfortable motel mattress, the smooth leather cover and the weight of a book in his hands, how thin the pages were, how he had to angle the book towards the dim night lamp because the words were so small, layered in in two cramped columns.

I looked, and behold, an ashen horse, Sasuke thinks. And he who sat on it had the name Death.

The words haunt him throughout the day, and then follow him home to dinner, where they drive Sasuke to such distraction that he’s barely able to contribute to the conversation even though Sakura keeps trying. She had arrived earlier in the evening, loaded to the brim with groceries, announcing her plans for a good family dinner, so help me God, Itachi, if you burn anything tonight and ruin Sasuke’s meal before he heads back out to Amegakure again, I will hurt you.

The meal is extravagant even by Sakura’s standards, but Sasuke can barely taste the food. Still, between the two of them, Itachi and Sasuke decimate the entire spread. He lets Sakura fuss over him after dinner, letting her pack and repack his traveling bag. Even Itachi gets drawn into her obsessive compulsive need to arrange his medical emergency kit, and when Sakura begins to quiz Sasuke on each of the items in the medical pouch, Itachi reprimands Sasuke to pay attention, gods damn it, Sasuke, you’re useless when it comes to first aid. It’s unnecessary, but Sasuke doesn’t object because he knows what this is about: Sakura’s worry is obvious on her face. When it’s time for her to leave, Sasuke offers to walk her home, and for once, Sakura doesn’t object.

Instead, she threads their fingers together on the walk back, and presses close to his side. “You said goodbye to Kakashi-sensei?”

“I did.” Although Sasuke isn’t sure their conversation earlier in the day counts as a goodbye. Not that he and Kakashi need to say goodbye to each other. Besides, Sasuke thinks, it’s a routine mission.

“And the ghosts?” Sakura asks, looking up at him with green eyes that are bright even under the dim street lamps outside her apartment building. “Naruto and Kakashi-sensei say you’re very close with Shodaime-sama and Nidaime-sama. Even Tsunade mentioned it a few times.”

“It’s just surveillance, Sakura,” he says, and watches Sakura’s nose wrinkle with annoyance.

“I have higher clearance than you, Uchiha. I’m aware of the exact specifications of your mission,” she counters. “I’m just saying—”

“It’ll be fine,” Sasuke promises her, and when Sakura continues to scowl at him, Sasuke does the only thing that will work to end this conversation. He steps close and pulls Sakura into a hug, tucking his chin neatly over her head and feeling Sakura sigh into the embrace. They stand there for a moment, long enough that Sasuke dips his face into her hair and presses a kiss against her crown. This is family, he tells himself, and it rattles the breath out of him, the sheer force of the affection he feels towards her.

“You better come back in one piece,” Sakura threatens. Her voice is muffled against his chest. She pulls away from the hug and glares at Sasuke. “I’m getting so sick of healing you. I love you, but you’re the worst patient I’ve ever had the displeasure of healing.”

Sasuke tucks a lock of her hair behind her ear, just enough so that his mother’s ear rings are visible. Sakura’s expression softens then, and she stands on tip-toes to plant a kiss against his cheek. “Don’t be a doofus, Uchiha,” she warns, and then disappears into her apartment building.

He has an early morning tomorrow, but Sasuke still finds himself walking towards the Tower instead of back home. It’s not that Sakura’s words prompted him to seek out the ghosts, just that odd feeling in his stomach. He’s not the same lost, confused teenager as before, but he still feels a need to seek out the Shodaime’s council, tell him, I dreamed of a winged beast crawling out of a rift in the earth. He wants to ask the Shodaime: Does the Shinju have two red irises? Does it swallow on fire?

So late in the evening, the Tower is nearly emptied of its staff. There is only a handful of people left in the building, most of them watching for any emergency situations that might need immediate attention. Still, the place is crawling with the chakra signatures of the Secret Service. Sasuke is stopped at the front by the civilian guard whose job it is to sign in every single person who enters the building. Sasuke realizes only then that he doesn’t have a pass to enter the residence, let alone a legitimate reason to do so.

“My name is Uchiha,” he says, enunciating clearly. “Uchiha Sasuke.”

The man raises a bushy eyebrow at him, unimpressed. “And that’s supposed to mean something to me?”

Where in the actual fuck, Sasuke thinks, did this man come from? “You don’t know who I am?”

“I know who you are, sir,” the man says. His name tag says Nakajima Daiki. It’s an odd name, for an odd man, who has an odd accent. He’s built like a bulldog, and if he weren’t a civilian, Sasuke wonders just how impressive a soldier he would make with his heft and weight. Not to mention the fact that he is holding Sasuke’s gaze without batting an eyelash, even though Sasuke’s Mangekyou is whorling now with his anger. “I’m just asking you what the purpose of your visit is, and why you want access to the residence this late in the evening.”

“To see—” Sasuke catches himself at the last minute. If he says Senju Hashirama, no doubt, the man will call Secret Service to detain him, if only because he’ll sound like a lunatic. Instead he says, “I need to speak with the Hokage.”

“Not happening, good night,” Daiki says, and goes back to the book he’s reading. Sasuke catches a glimpse of the cover, which has large bold letters: The Vanishing Point, it reads, Post-War Economies of the West. Sasuke’s chakra spikes. All the lights around them flicker out in an instant. The man clears his throat in the darkness that follows. “Fix that, would you?”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Sasuke snarls, and lets his chakra flare dangerously again. The lights flicker back on.  

Daiki returns to his book, nonplussed. “Do I look like I’m kidding?” he deadpans. “Go talk to your CO, and if they determine that you need to talk to the Hokage, they can walk it up the chain of command. Have a good night.”

“I’m not military,” Sasuke bites out, and feels the temperature of the space climb steadily upward with his anger. The overhead lights flicker again. “I’m a military contractor.”

“All the more reason for you to not be here,” Daiki says, and flips a page.

Sasuke opens his mouth with a threat at the tip of his tongue, but just then, Naruto comes rushing down the corridor. He’s wearing oversized pajamas: a button up top and an even looser pair of pants that go well past his toes, both in the same shade of peach-orange. He looks ridiculous, but Sasuke still feels his mouth go dry because there’s a high flush to his cheeks and Sasuke can see the smooth line of his clavicle dipping into the folds of his shirt.

“I’m here, I’m here,” Naruto says, skidding to a halt by Daiki’s desk. “Sorry, Daiki, I forgot to leave his name on the guest list for the night.”

Daiki’s bushy eyebrows crawl up so high, they disappear under the mop of hair flopping down to cover his forehead. “Young man,” he says sternly. “Are you inviting this—” He gestures at Sasuke from head to toe. “As a guest for the night?”  

Sasuke blinks away from Naruto long enough to remember his earlier anger at the guard. “Who the fuck are you to—”

“It’s for work,” Naruto interrupts loudly. “Tsunade’s orders.” When Daiki’s expression doesn’t change, Naruto rushes to add, “Jiraiya knows about it. It’ll be a short visit.”

“It better be, young man. Your godfather will be hearing of it otherwise,” Daiki warns, and watches as Naruto fills out the guest list. After he’s finished signing his initials, Daiki checks his watch. “Sign in time is 21:07,” he announces, and taps the face of his wrist watch. Clearly, he will be timing Sasuke’s visit.  

Sasuke opens his mouth, ready with any number of things to say, but Naruto beats him to it with a loud, Thanks, Daiki, and drags Sasuke away by a firm grip on his elbow before Sasuke can even get a single word out. He waits until they round a corner before turning to face Sasuke. “What are you doing creating such a scene so late at night?”

“I wasn’t creating a scene.”

“You short-circuited the electricity with your chakra!” Naruto hisses in a loud whisper. “Do you not understand that my father has ordered Secret Service to place you under custody if you’re found lurking around the Tower outside of normal business hours?”

It takes a moment for Sasuke to connect the dots and remember the exact moment when the Yondaime said the words—but Sasuke didn’t think the ghost had been serious. The Yondaime has issued so many threats with such varied eloquence that Sasuke no longer keeps track of all the rules and laws the Yondaime has laid down for him to follow. “I thought he was joking.”

Naruto’s mouth flaps open and he stares incredulously at Sasuke. “You thought my father was joking about something that concerns me, his only child,” he says slowly. “You thought that my overprotective, doting father who literally broke the laws of the natural universe and forced his way back from the realm of the dead to see me again was joking about something to do with my safety and happiness. You thought he was joking.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “He threatens to kill me if I look at you too long, Uzumaki. I don’t think I need to take him seriously all the time.”

Naruto pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes with a deep breath. “Sasuke, for future reference, just take everything he says about me seriously.” When he opens his eyes again, he pins Sasuke with a stern gaze. “Please tell me you’re here to see the ghosts. That is the only way you’re walking out alive. Hand to God, my father has a sword ready. He will commit murder tonight if you don’t have a good reason to be here.”

“I need to see the Shodaime,” Sasuke announces, and tears his gaze away from Naruto to start walking up the stairs.

“Is everything all right?” Naruto asks, following Sasuke doggedly down the corridor.

“Everything’s fine,” Sasuke answers neatly, but Naruto halts him with a hand on his elbow, not allowing Sasuke to knock on the doors leading to the Shodaime and Nidaime’s rooms.

Naruto holds Sasuke’s gaze steady as he repeats the question. “Is everything all right, Sasuke?”

He doesn’t want to tell Naruto about his dream. It sounds nonsensical, and there is no one—not a single person—he trusts with these kinds of insane thoughts but his snakes and the Shodaime. Kakashi, maybe, if the man forced him. The Shodaime will listen to him without judgement, he will provide clarity, and he will settle that odd dread in his stomach that Yuuta’s words and memories have stirred. Instead, Sasuke gropes for the most feasible lie. “I'm shipping out for a mission tomorrow. I wanted to see him before I left, that's all.”

Naruto drops his hand with a quiet, Oh. He recovers from his surprise only a heartbeat later. “I need to sign you out again at the front desk. I can wait outside, or—”

“I’ll find you,” Sasuke interrupts. He doesn’t want to keep Naruto waiting, especially not when the Yondaime is ready with a sword somewhere in the building. “You should probably get back to Yondy. I’m guessing he’s throwing a shit-fit right now.”

Naruto purses his lips into a thin line. “That’s my father you’re talking about, you know.”

“I know,” Sasuke replies easily, “Your overprotective, doting father from the realm of the dead.”

Naruto rolls his eyes. “I’m at the north end of the residence,” he declares, and rounds on his heels without giving Sasuke any further directions on how to find him. Sasuke doesn’t let himself watch Naruto leave. Instead, he gives the most cursory of knocks on the doors leading to the Shodaime and Nidaime’s rooms before shouldering inside.

The Shodaime and the Nidaime are both at the seating arrangement at the far end of the room, closer to the fireplace. Tsunade is with them, and all three of them look up sharply at Sasuke’s sudden entrance.

Tsunade frowns, obviously concerned, but the Shodaime’s smile makes the wrinkles around his eyes deepen. “I was wondering when you would visit.”

“Sakura wanted to have a family dinner,” Sasuke says, and stays hovering at the doorway, feeling awkward under Tsunade’s scrutiny.

The Shodaime talks right over Sasuke’s discomfort, waving him in with a broad gesture of his hand. “The three of you cooked together?”

“Me and Sakura. Brother is only allowed to do the dishes and clean up,” Sasuke mutters, and settles uncomfortably in the space next to the Nidaime. He glances around at the scrolls and books covering nearly every available surface around them. Most of them are seals he doesn’t even recognize. “If you’re busy—”

“Please don’t leave,” the Nidaime begs him. “If I have to look through another book of seals, I’ll kill myself.”

“You’re already dead,” Sasuke points out reflexively.

The Nidaime rolls his head onto the back of the couch. “I’ll kill someone else then.”

“How about we call it a night,” Tsunade offers with a smile. She gets to her feet before Sasuke can say, No, ma’am, I can leave, and bids both the ghosts goodnight. Instead of her usual farewell, though—Sir or Hokage-sama—she leans at the waist to plant a kiss on the Nidaime’s cheek and says, “Good night, Pop-Pop.”

Pop-Pop? Sasuke ducks his face to hide his smile, but he still catches a glimpse of the Nidaime reaching up to cup Tsunade’s cheek with a smile. “Night, peanut.” The Shodaime does the same when Tsunade bends to kiss him good night, saying, I’ll see you in the morning, Grandfather—only he calls Tsunade sweetheart, and kisses her on the cheek as well, wishing her a good night, telling her, Sweet dreams, child.  

Sasuke feels as if he’s trespassing on something private, but Tsunade doesn’t seem to mind sharing the moment with him. Instead, she pins Sasuke with her gaze and says, stern, “I expect you back healthy and whole from Amegakure, Sasuke. I don’t intend to attend your funeral again.”

Sasuke feels his face flush under her gaze. They don’t like each other, that’s their thing, but here she is, sharing private moments with her family with Sasuke, looking at him with affection, telling him to come home safe. “Wasn’t planning on dying,” he says, trying to dispel the awkwardness.

“Good. I would be very unhappy if you do,” Tsunade says, and smiles at him again.

Which is too much, really. Sasuke has no idea how to handle situations like this, so falls back on old habits: he gives Tsunade his most rakish grin, the one that makes even Sakura blush, and says—purrs, really, with as much exaggeration as possible—“The last thing I want is for you to be unhappy, Tsunade-sama.”

This startles a bright laugh from Tsunade. “I knew your grandmother, punk.”

Sasuke grins at her. “You say that like it makes an iota of difference, ma’am.”

“I am right here,” the Shodaime points out, but his lips are twitching. Tsunade leaves after bidding the ghosts good night again, but not before she smacks Sasuke upside the head on her way out, muttering under her breath about how she should have listened to Kakashi a long, long time ago, You’re such a piece of shit, Uchiha.

Sasuke calls out to her retreating back, “An unvarnished, Category A piece of shit, ma’am,” and hears her tinkling laughter as she closes the door.

“She reminds me of Mito,” the Nidaime says under his breath. The Shodaime hm-s in agreement, and they both let their gazes linger on the closed door for a few moments.

The Shodaime sits back in his armchair, turning his full attention to Sasuke. “What is on your mind, Sasuke?”

It takes a few fumbling starts for Sasuke to get started. “The other day, I went for a run to that lake I told you about.”

The Nidaime frowns. “What lake?”

Sasuke takes a breath, frustrated now that the words seem to be escaping. Sometimes he thinks things, but when he tries to speak them, it comes out halting and awkward and nonsensical, as if after all the years of hoarding his silences, his mind is unwilling to let go of its old habits. He’s gotten better with the Shodaime’s help, he knows, but it’s still difficult some days. Old habits, he tells himself, and pushes forward. “The lake isn’t important. I summoned Yuuta, so he could go for a swim,” Sasuke corrects impatiently, and it’s a rush of words now, pushing against each other.

The ghosts listen patiently while Sasuke describes Yuuta’s memory, the one that he shared with Sasuke: Wakuza, hissing the warning to her grandson about the end of the world. He has to force himself to say the words, clench his hands into fists against that dread that Yuuta shared with him. Fear. He’s never felt his snakes’ fear before. He’s never known they were capable of it.

The earth cracked open, and from within that rift in time and space, the sky spilled forth, Sasuke whispers, and feels his heartbeat thunder. “I saw a pale woman with long dark hair. She had an eye of gold and an eye of blue. There was a raven, waiting to take flight. I don’t think those are from Yuuta’s memories, but it felt like a memory.”

Neither of the ghosts react immediately. Sasuke looks between them to try and read their expressions, but they’re both thoughtful, considering Sasuke’s rambling explanation seriously.

“The first time I saw a demon in its full form, I thought I was going to throw up or shit my pants or faint, or an improbable combination of all three,” the Nidaime says finally. Sasuke rolls his eyes, about to point out that even the idea of Senju Tobirama being afraid is so ridiculous that it’s not even worth making a joke out of it, but the Nidaime holds up a hand. “No, listen. I was fucking terrified. It ranks in the top ten worst goddamn moments in my life, and that list includes when my brother died. That’s how it felt looking at a demon across the battlefield.”

Sasuke frowns. “But you and the Shodaime conquered it—”

“No, we didn’t, not at first,” the Nidaime interrupts. “It destroyed nearly half our troops, and we retreated. For a while, all we did was go from one hiding place to another, trying to stay safe. We just turned tail and ran. We didn’t want to fight the battles we fought, Sasuke, we were forced to fight them. And we were terrified.”

The Shodaime tilts his head curiously, considering Sasuke for a few thoughtful moments. “You have never been afraid to ride into battle before, have you, Sasuke?”

Sasuke frowns. There are a hundred answers he can give immediately, but then he considers the question seriously. He’s never feared death because he spent most of his life looking for it. He doesn’t ache for death anymore, but he’s not sure he’s truly scared of dying, not when Shisui and Uncle Kyoguku are waiting for him on the other side to share a drink. The only real fear he ever lived with was dying without fulfilling his duties to his Clan. He was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to kill Itachi, and he was afraid of doing just that. He was afraid about going to the Great Hall and not finding his brother and his kin there; worse, he was afraid of being denied entry for the sin of fratricide. But none of those fears are comparable to the dread he felt listening to Yuuta and sharing Yuuta’s memory. He’s never woken up from a dream scared.

Sasuke shrugs. “Mostly I feel annoyed before battle.”  

The ghosts both burst out laughing, the Nidaime leaning into Sasuke even as he thumps Sasuke on the back, muttering under his breath, God damn, kid, just when I think you can’t surprise me anymore.

It takes them a long time to collect their breaths. “You are allowed to be afraid, Sasuke,” the Shodaime says finally, giving Sasuke one of his quiet smiles.

The Nidaime nods in agreement. “How else do you fucking know when you’re being brave?”

That explains the dream, Sasuke realizes. Not an omen or anything worth examining. Just a dream because he was afraid. And that’s fine. If Senju Hashirama and Senju Tobirama themselves felt fear, then there is nothing in this world that dictates that Sasuke has to be fearless. He just has to be brave, and he knows how to do that because bravery—he’s learned over the years—is a particular brand of stupidity in the heat of battle. According to Kakashi, he has that in spades.

So Sasuke gets to his feet with a sigh. “That’s me. Uchiha Sasuke. A profile in courage.”

“Yes,” the Shodaime says, missing the joke entirely. He gets to his feet as well. “You are.”

“Remember your training, Uchiha,” the Nidaime orders, which is as much a goodbye as the Nidaime will ever say, so Sasuke takes it.

The Shodaime walks Sasuke to the door, lingering long enough to pull Sasuke into a hug. “Get a good night’s rest, son,” he says, and pats Sasuke on the cheek three times. “I will see you when you return.” Sasuke is almost out of the room when the Shodaime calls out, “Sasuke. Be safe.”

Sasuke frowns. “Yeah, yeah, I get it,” he grumbles, and leaves before the Shodaime can get even more maudlin. All day, he’s had people behaving as if he’s walking to the gallows, and he’s sick of it.

He’s nearly at the foot of the stairs when he remembers that he has to find Naruto to make his exit past Daiki’s absurd vigilance. So he bounds up the stairs again, taking them two at the time, following Naruto’s chakra signature like a lure down an unfamiliar stretch of corridors. The north end of the residence is another dead-end like the Shodaime and Nidaime’s suites. Naruto’s chakra is tucked behind a heavy wooden door, mixed in with a few other chakra signatures. He recognizes Kakashi’s easily enough, but it takes a moment for him to place the other one: Jiraiya. When he knocks, the voices inside fall silent. A few moments later, Jiraiya opens the door to another set of suites, decorated much like the Shodaime and Nidaime’s. These rooms, though, don’t have a piano, and they’re only slightly smaller. It’s still far more opulent than any place Sasuke has ever spent the night.

“You make quite the entrance, Uchiha,” Jiraiya says, sweeping the door wide open to let him in. “Next time, try not to short circuit electricity to announce yourself.”

Sasuke takes only a few steps inside, and hovers at the exit. Everyone is gathered around the dining table, a board game laid out between them. Kakashi has a few cards in his hands, and he’s considering them seriously. He’s taken off his jounin vest, and his face cloth is nowhere in sight. There are four spots laid out, which can only mean that Jiraiya was also playing.

It’s such an odd scene it takes a moment for Sasuke to process it. He tears his eyes away from the game board and meets Jiraiya’s eyes. “The idiot at the front desk—”

“His name is Daiki,” Naruto interrupts, “and he’s a good man.”

Sasuke ignores Naruto’s comment. He won’t get drawn into a conversation about his manners or behavior. Like the Shodaime, Naruto likes to pester him about these things. “I need you to sign me out.”

“Don’t even think about cheating, Kakashi-sensei,” Naruto warns sternly.

“Now that’s just insulting,” Kakashi says, sounding mournful, and dutifully puts his cards face-down on the table.

Naruto gets to his feet. The Yondaime’s expression softens into a smile when Naruto instructs, Make sure Kakashi-sensei doesn’t cheat, Baba. He tracks Naruto’s movements to the door, watchful as always over Naruto’s every movement. Sasuke is about to follow Naruto out when the Yondaime calls his name: Sasuke.

Not Uchiha or Oi, delinquent. So Sasuke turns to him and waits.

“I’ll see you when you get back,” the Yondaime says carefully.

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “Not you too, Yondy. It’s just surveillance.”

The Yondaime concedes to Sasuke’s irritation with an easy smile. He doesn’t even make his usual fuss about the disrespect of Sasuke’s nickname for him. “Either way, I’ll be right here.”

Sasuke freezes, remembering that aching moment before he stepped into Tsunade’s rooms to find out about the Wildfire Contingency. I’ll be right here, he’d said then, because he’d been the only one not to know. He’d found out, and the moment he did, he’d offered, I’ll be right outside, if you need me. Sasuke has to take a deep breath against that memory, and watches as the Yondaime’s expression goes still; he must remember too. The Yondaime holds his gaze, smile changing from lopsided and joking to something quieter.

He never said thank you, Sasuke realizes, in the silence that follows. He’d been so blind with rage when he left, and consumed with the day-to-day since coming back that he never spoke to the Yondaime of that moment. The words are out of his mouth before he can tell himself there is a better place and time for this:

“Thank you.”

His voice comes out pitched low, but the Yondaime hears him. “Anytime, kid.” He takes such a deep breath that Sasuke can see the rise and fall of his shoulders from across the room. “Anytime.”

The ghost’s voice is quiet as well, and that’s how Sasuke knows they’re thinking of the exact same moment, suspended as they were at the doors leading to Tsunade’s offices, when the whole world felt as if it came crashing around Sasuke. It feels as if it was a lifetime ago, but Sasuke can remember the way the chair had hit the back of his knees when he took a step back, when he realized that the Shodaime had known, too. Throughout that meeting, Sasuke remembers glancing over his shoulder at the door, knowing that the Yondaime would keep his word and wait for him.

Sasuke straightens his posture—spreads his feet apart to ground himself, squares his shoulder, and tilts his chin up. “Sir.”

The Yondaime takes his cue. “Dismissed.” Sasuke sketches a crisp salute, and steps out into the corridor with Naruto close at his heels.

Naruto waits until they’ve rounded the corner before speaking. “Can I ask what that was about?”

“You can ask,” Sasuke says, and glances at Naruto just in time to catch his exasperated smile.

“I think Dad actually likes you,” Naruto says thoughtfully, bare feet soft against the long, expensive rug that lines the corridor. The hems of his pajama bottoms are dragging with each step, but Naruto pays it no mind.

Sasuke steps aside to let Naruto lead the way down the stairs. They’re narrow enough that they can’t both walk side by side. Naruto keeps glancing over his shoulder as he talks, extrapolating on all the reasons why, exactly, the Yondaime may or may not like Sasuke. On the one hand, he begins, and lists off an argument before pivoting on his own logic.

Sasuke listens, nodding in agreement at the appropriate moments even as he lets his mind wander. His focus is drawn almost entirely on a strip of skin visible just over the hem of Naruto’s collar. The collar is too wide on Naruto’s petite frame, looking even more ill-fitting since the shirt is sitting lopsided on Naruto’s shoulders. The color is truly atrocious by any stretch of the imagination; nobody with a decent pair of eyes would think to purchase the monstrosity, let alone wear it. But while Naruto has been trained to be a polished, impeccable counselor, he still comes home from work and changes into old sweat pants that are worn and comfortable, hideously colored pajamas, and shirts that are either too big or too small on him. It’s as if he doesn’t own a single pair of clothes that fit him properly in his quieter moments, but the minute he steps into his role as Counselor or soldier, all those private details about him get tucked away behind crisp kimono robes with creases sharp enough to cut, and ink-black face-cloths and jounin uniforms.

He’d spent months traveling imagining and re-imagining the details of Naruto’s smile or the exact fan of lashes fringing his almond-eyes. After Naruto said, I don’t want to love you anymore, he’d taught himself to not even think of those details. But now.

Now, Sasuke wants to reach out and adjust the shirt on Naruto’s shoulders. He pushes his hands into his pockets to make absolutely sure he doesn’t, and falls into step next to Naruto as they begin walking down the last stretch of corridor to where, no doubt, Daiki is waiting impatiently for Sasuke to check out.

“He does have elaborate fantasies of killing you, but I don’t think those have much merit. I’d say his overall impression of you is fairly positive” Naruto is saying, and Sasuke realizes he’s still carefully examining the Yondaime’s precise feelings towards Sasuke. He’s chewing on his bottom lip, deep in thought, and Sasuke’s gaze zeroes in on that detail again, remembers the press of Naruto’s lips against his, brief, in the pre-dawn light before Sasuke left for Amegakure for the first time.

Naruto seems unaware of Sasuke’s fixation because he says a cheerful hello to Daiki and bends to initial where Daiki points. Sasuke doesn’t leave immediately, though. He feels tethered to the spot by Naruto’s bright gaze. “Don’t you have a mission tomorrow, bastard? Or do you plan on standing here all night?”

“I’m going,” Sasuke says, and takes a step back. He doesn’t know what prompts him—maybe the monstrous peach of Naruto’s pajamas, or the way the clothes are too large and boxy on his frame. Or maybe it’s the way he had smiled at him earlier. It’s nonsensical, but Sasuke finds himself wanting to extend the moment anyways. “Early morning tomorrow.”

Naruto’s smile is hesitant. “Try not to die this time.”

“I’ll see you when I get back,” he says, even though the question rumbling deep in his chest is, Will you wait for me to come home?

Naruto nods. “All right.”

Sasuke clears his throat. Coward, Naruto named him once, a long time ago, when Sasuke was about to leave for Amegakure. He was a coward then, but now that he wants to be brave, he’s not sure if he’s allowed that liberty anymore. Time and space, that’s what Naruto wants. That’s what Sasuke will give him. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Naruto returns—because this is a thing they do now; they are polite and they wish each other Good night and Good morning and say Thank you and please. Naruto leaves, and Sasuke stays standing, watching him go until he rounds a corner and disappears entirely. It’s only then that he exhales.

Daiki rolls his eyes with great care. “You’re not very good at this.”

“No,” Sasuke admits, and breathes against that twist in his gut. Eventually, he will get used to this. “I’m not.”