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“This? This right here?” Shikamaru states in a harsh whisper. He gestures widely to indicate the drainage pipe. “This is shit hitting the fan.”

Sasuke scrubs at his beard, which is now out of control. They’ve been on the mission for nearly a week, and they still haven’t found their way into Amegakure. The original timeline had them returning to Konohagakure on the ninth day, but here they are, day six already, finding that yet another entrance point has been blocked off. Madara has plugged up every single potential entryway into the city with cement.

“There has to be some way in,” Shino mutters under his breath, eying the walls looming overhead. They’re threaded with sigils and explosives; there are archers, patrolling the walls back and forth like pendulums. Sasuke can sense their crackling chakra signatures, broadcasting their presence to ward off any would-be thieves and invaders.

“They’re draining water from their industrial plants somehow,” Neji says, pressing a hand flat against the cement plugging the drain they had scouted out.

“We’ve scouted the city perimeter at least a dozen times, Sasuke,” Kiba breathes. He is crouched by Akamaru’s side, scratching absently behind Akamaru’s ear. “There’s no way in through the pipes.”

“And the walls are not an option,” Shino adds, holding out an index finger. One of his bugs lands on his finger moments later. Shino has been sending his bugs out almost constantly, but they too have been unable to find any cracks in Amegakure’s armor.

“Short of walking through the front doors, we can’t—” Neji falls silent when Sasuke’s gaze swivels to him, Mangekyou whorling. “Uchiha,” he says, slowly, “we are not walking through the front doors.”

“Sure we are,” Sasuke says, because he spent his adolescence being exposed to Naruto and then Orochimaru and hairbrained schemes are actually in his DNA.

The plan, of course, is better in theory than in practice. First, they scout the inbound caravans of supplies, watching the guards at each of the city gates do thorough inspections. There is no way to hitch a ride on the caravans and sneak past inspections. They’ll need to create a distraction.

The men vote, unanimously, for Sasuke to be the distraction. “It’s your shit idea,” Neji snarls, “you do it.”

“Just set a few things on fire,” Kiba says encouragingly, which is how Sasuke ends up setting a caravan of crock pots on fire.

But it’s hard for crock pots to burn, and none of them are explosive, so he switches tactics and tries setting one of the city banners flapping overheard on fire instead. This, too, proves difficult. He concentrates his chakra with such intensity that it gives him a headache. The wind keeps destroying any progress he makes, so Sasuke decides, fuck it, and steps out from his hiding spot in the tree line and walks up to the caravan that is smoking lazily. There is a small group of soldiers clustered around the caravan, trying to calm down the merchant.

The point is to distract most of Amegakure’s defensive corp long enough for the others to scale one of the walls. A burning caravan of crockpots is not nearly enough to draw the attention of trained mercenaries.

It takes a moment for the guards to notice him. An arrow lands at his feet. “State your name!”

The original plan had called for a covert operation. “Best laid plans of mice and men,” Sasuke mutters, remembering one of the Shodaime’s favorite sayings, and unsheathes his sword. Almost immediately, three more arrows land within inches of his feet. Two more guards yell out the question, even as the others take cover behind the burning caravan. “State your name!”

They need a distraction. What bigger distraction than Sasuke walking up to the gates of the city and declaring war? Kakashi said they needed to agitate Madara; there is no better way for Sasuke to agitate the man than by coming back from the dead and breaching the walls of his own city.

“The name’s Uchiha,” Sasuke calls out. “Uchiha Sasuke.”

He blurs in an attack.

They don’t find Madara in the city. They find Zetsu.

He’s waiting for them in the city square, lounging by an impressive fountain that seems out of order. The fountain sculpture is a warrior astride a horse that is rearing back, mid charge. When they find Zetsu, he’s picking up coins from the bottom of the fountain and throwing it at the horse—aiming for the horse’s open mouth, and only rarely missing. He has a katana in a loose grip, its tip resting idly by his feet.

Shino draws a sword almost immediately. He turns to Sasuke and says solemnly, “Permission to neutralize him, sir. I feel that I should get this task, seeing as how I was explicitly told not to kill him in our last encounter.”

“Abu-ra-me Shi-no, we meet again,” Zetsu sings, and then his golden gaze switches to Sasuke. He’s entirely black now; his albino half is missing. There are no venus fly traps around him, and it makes him seem almost human, although there is clearly something wrong about his eyes, the pointed row of his teeth, and the dual hue of his skin. “Uchiha Sasuke. I was waiting for you.”

Sasuke sheaths his sword, even though the rest of the team is fanning out around Zetsu into an attack formation. “You have got to be fucking kidding me. Every time I turn around, I run into your ugly mug, Zetsu.”

Zetsu’s smile doesn’t abate. “I heard you announce yourself before attacking the city walls. That’s one thing you have in common with Madara. Your pride in your name.”

There is no liking or disliking being an Uchiha. You are , and you are who you are with pride. Madara has dragged the Uchiha name through the mud. For a few years, Sasuke did the same. But no more. Itachi is Clan Elder now, and the Uchiha will rise again.

Akamaru slowly circles Zetsu, fur rising on end. His low growl is barely audible, but Zetsu’s eyes track the wolf anyways. When Akamaru finishes a full circle, Kiba takes a careful step forward. “Speaking of Madara—”

“He’s not here,” Zetsu interrupts neatly. “He was never here. This was Pein’s domain. Not Madara’s.”

Shikamaru’s sai swords are at the ready, but his words are still the same drawl as always, almost as if he can’t be bothered to partake in the conversation because it’s too boring for him. “So why are you here?”

“I was waiting for you,” Zetsu announces, and uses his katana up to point at Sasuke. “Will you hear me out, Uchiha?”

Sasuke wipes at his face. He’s covered in blood after one particularly messy kill, and every time he blinks, he can feel the sticky clump of his eyelashes. He’d left a trail of dead bodies behind him, if only to make a statement, because he is in absolutely no goddamn mood to fend off idiot mercenaries who want to waste Sasuke’s time. When he’d blown through the southern wall, he stepped into the city in a billow of crackling chakra, making such a show of it that his chakra caused each building he passed to rumble and shake. After that, most of the mercenaries fled, although there are still a few chakra signatures that he can sense here and there. The rest of the team made good time sweeping in through the other entrances and establishing a perimeter, but the city is large and they don’t know the terrain very well. Sitting here and talking to Zetsu is a waste of everyone’s time.

There is no point to even racking up his confirmed kill count. Madara isn’t here. The soldiers he left behind are of no concern.

“You have a minute to talk,” Sasuke decides. “If I don’t hear anything interesting—”

“I was waiting,” Zetsu cuts him off sharply, “to help you.”

Kiba laughs, and keeps laughing until he’s bent over, clutching his stomach. Akamaru’s tongue rolls out with his amusement as well, and even Neji ducks his head to hide his low-pitched chuckles.

Sasuke smirks. “How kind.”

Zetsu ignores the laughter of the men surrounding him. “I wish to point you in the right direction in your pursuit of Madara. Clearly, Amegakure is a dead end.”

Shikamaru sheaths his sai swords. “And why do you want to help us?”  

“So that you may stop him, of course.” Zetsu grins.

“Again,” Shikamaru says. “Why?”

Zetsu angles his head thoughtfully. “Our interests have diverged,” he says after a moment. “It’s time that we both seek out new opportunities.”

Kiba frowns. “You’re going to have to do better than that shit explanation, Zetsu.”

Zetsu hums under his breath for a few moments while he gathers his thoughts. “Madara’s plans are…detrimental to my continued existence.”

“You mean he is aiming to kill you,” Shino clarifies.

“He’s aiming to kill everyone,” Zetsu points out with a chuckle. “It’s not death that I fear.”

I was made there, Sasuke remembers Zetsu saying once, and there was fear in his voice. It’s not death that Zetsu fears, it’s where he will be trapped for eternity after he dies. “You’re needed for the Gedo,” Sasuke ventures. “And that involves you returning where you came from.”

Zetsu’s lips press into a thin line. “He doesn’t need me to retrieve the Gedo.”

Akamaru begins his slow circle around Zetsu again, his claws scraping against the cobblestone. For this mission, Sasuke had debriefed his team on all that he’s learned from high command. They know about the Gedo now. They know about Shinju, and they know that they were sent here to help stop Shinju’s resurrection. When Akamaru circles too close to Zetsu, he takes a careful step sideways. Kiba advances another foot as he does. It’s a sound strategy—Akamaru is driving Zetsu towards Kiba’s sword, circling and circling menacingly until Zetsu has no choice but to face Kiba. If Zetsu makes the first move, Akamaru will attack from one side and Kiba the other. Shikamaru, Shino and Neji will step in if needed. Kiba’s voice is light even as his eyes track Zetsu’s movements carefully, waiting for an opportunity or reason to attack. “There’s another Senju clone?”

“There is more than one clone,” Zetsu confirms. So Naruto’s assessment had been right. Madara has backup plans. “He doesn’t need me to retrieve the Gedo. But once that rift is open—” He stops, abrupt. Fear, that is what Zetsu is trying to hide.

“It’ll come for you,” Sasuke finishes. That thing in the darkness. He’d felt it too, and the memory of it is enough to make Sasuke’s palms sweat.  

“It will come for you too, half-spirit,” Zetsu mutters. “If he opens that rift fully, you and I…we won’t be of here or there. We’ll be stuck in between. Eternal darkness, and nothing but the endless silence to swallow our screams.”

I am human, Sasuke tells himself forcefully, tries to remember Ishi’s conviction when he said the same thing to Sasuke. “What’s changed, Zetsu? This was always Madara’s plan.”

Zetsu shakes his head. “He knows of Hashirama and Tobirama’s return now. It’s made him more…reckless.” He angles his head thoughtfully. “Which, I suppose, was Hatake Kakashi’s plan all along. Well done. But tell your master that he should be careful what he wishes for. If Commander Hatake lures Madara into the open, he should be ready to spring the trap.”

Sasuke grips his sword. There’s a warning in Zetsu’s tone. “What is he planning, Zetsu?”

Zetsu smirks. “I will point you in its direction.”   

Neji crosses his arms across his chest, clearly unimpressed by the whole tenor of the conversation. “So you tell us where Madara is, and in return, we let you walk away?”

“I’m not even here,” Zetsu says, nonsensical, and turns his attention back to Sasuke. “So, Uchiha Sasuke. Would you like to hear what I have to say?”

“Sure, why not,” Sasuke says, and even as he speaks the words, he counts his heartbeat, lets the battle calm settle in.

“Go to your birthplace,” Zetsu says, and the answer forces Sasuke out of the calm. His heartbeat takes off in a wild thunder, and he hears, distantly, Kiba murmur, sounding devastated, He’s marching on Konoha, but Zetsu ignores him entirely. “Go to the place of your most binding oath. You will see what Madara has done.”

He starts to blur around the edges, almost as if his coloring is fading. “Transportation jutsu,” Neji calls out, but it’s too late, because a moment later, Zetsu vanishes. There isn’t a flare of chakra, nothing at all to suggest he was here in the first place. Not a transportation jutsu, then, because it’s unlike anything Sasuke has seen before. He crosses the space to where Zetsu had been a moment before and finds that there is a seal inked onto the ground that has caught fire and is slowly vanishing.

“What the fuck is this?” Kiba mutters, crouching low so he can observe the pattern of the seal. Kiba sniffs carefully around the edges of the seal and then scents the air.

“Not a transportation jutsu,” Neji amends. He sounds impressed despite himself.

Akamaru barks a few times, and Kiba translates. “He wasn’t here,” Kiba says. “Akamaru can’t catch a scent. It’s like he was just a—a projection of some kind?”

Neji tucks his kunai away. “Is he setting a trap for us?”

“What kind of trap is it to direct us back to Konoha?” Shino mutters.  

“Why is he even trying to help us, is what I want to know,” Kiba mutters under his breath. He’s still crouched over the seal as he copies it onto a small notepad the size of his palm, evidence for later assessment. He flips the page over, sketches a few more notes, even as the seal vanishes entirely. It leaves nothing behind but a soot-stained outline, and it’s only then that Kiba gets to his feet, pocketing his notepad and small pencil in his jounin vest.

“Self-preservation?” Neji ventures. “He’s understanding just how insane Madara is, and is ensuring his own survival at the end of this.”

“He’s been loyal to Madara until now,” Shino points out. “I think it is fair to assume Zetsu delivered Madara the message about the ghosts.”

“But fear is a very strong motivator,” Shikamaru says, finally breaking his silence. He holds Sasuke’s gaze steady. “Fear of death, especially. Fear of eternal darkness, even more so.” He pauses a beat and angles his head a fraction, gaze unwavering from Sasuke. “What was the place he was talking about, that eternal darkness and silence? Seemed like you knew what it was.”

First, Sasuke thinks, there was ice, frost, and fog. In his worst nightmares, he can almost feel the mud and shit between his fingers, the tug of his soul downwards. He imagines an eternity in that place, but his mind skitters away from the thought.

He hasn’t told his unit all the details, only that Madara is trying to summon the Gedo from another realm. He wonders if Shikamaru has somehow connected the dots regardless.

Kiba is the one who breaks the silence. “Could still be a trap,” he says. “But…”

He trails off, but he doesn’t have to finish his sentence for the others to understand. Trap or no, there is only one option for them. If Konohagakure is under attack—if there is even a possibility of attack—they have their orders.

Sasuke doesn’t have to give the order, just turns east. All five of them take off in a sprint, aiming south and east, towards Konohagakure.

They’re just a hundred miles from Konohagakure’s borders when the thought strikes Sasuke: he’s heading in the wrong direction.

They’re pushing themselves hard to make it back to the city, stopping only for a few hours of sleep a night. The men want to push themselves harder still to make better time, but they would be useless if they arrived in Konohagakure without any energy reserves; they need to be battle-ready when they reach their destination, so Sasuke has insisted they take a few hours of rest each night. He has summoned his snakes to keep lookout as they sleep, and wakes up when Ishi slithers over his wrist to wake him gently, communicating, The sun is rising .

Sasuke blinks open his eyes and sees Ishi turned east, his hood fanned out to its full brilliance. In the dim, predawn light, the patterning on the back of his hood looks almost like a third eye, watching Sasuke. “You will be worn out for battle if you keep up this pace,” Ishi hisses, still watching the eastern horizon. The sky is indigo-pink now; the sun is about to begin its ascent.

“I don’t want to get there too late,” Sasuke mutters. He knows he should wake the others, but they have a few more minutes. “Kakashi will hold the line.”

“He will,” Ishi agrees. “Konohagakure is his to defend. The Dog-Master’s oaths bind him to it. He will hold the line, or he will die trying.”

“We'll all die trying,” Sasuke mutters. He pushes himself up, scrubbing a hand over his scruff. They have two hundred more miles to cover, and he cannot afford to lose daylight. Akamaru stirs a few feet away, and lifts his head to assess his surroundings. As if on cue, Kiba shifts. The others start to move as well, stirring from their sleep without Sasuke having to say a single word.

Ishi looks away from the rising sun. He considers Sasuke carefully. “You shouldn’t.”

Sasuke is so busy checking the supplies in his rucksack—their mission had been delayed in Amegakure, and they were forced to stretch their rations for the mission—that he doesn’t understand Ishi’s comment at first. “What shouldn’t I do?”

“Die trying,” Ishi says, and his voice is tight with something like anger.

Sasuke pauses in his task and glances up sharply at the cobra. "Excuse me?”

Ishi folds his hood, tilting his face up. “You have no oath to Konohagakure,” he says. “You may have forgiven the Senju spirits, and you may have forgiven Dog-Master. You may have even forgiven the Chieftan for signing the orders against your Clan. That has always been your weakness, your unconditional loyalty. But remember this, Sasuke: Konohagakure does not deserve your loyalty. You owe her no oaths. Fight this battle, if you want, but Konoha is not a city worth dying for.”

Ishi’s anger is thick in the back of Sasuke’s mind. He doesn’t need to explain himself to his snakes, but if Ishi is still this angry about Konohagakure, then surely, his other snakes as well. He can’t ask them to serve for a cause they do not believe in. “The Sharingan stands sentinel, Ishi,” Sasuke says. Uncle Kyoguku taught the words to Kakashi, and Kakashi taught these words to him. Now, he says the words to Ishi. And no matter what has happened, it is still his birthplace. He grew up in Konoha; his fondest memories of his Clan are within those city walls. Birthplace, Zetsu had called it.

Ishi picks up on his last thought. “Being born in Konoha should not bind you to her,” he concedes. “It may be your birthplace, but Konohagakure does not hold your most binding oath.” He pauses a beat and holds Sasuke’s gaze steady. “And it never should, not ever again.”

It’s the conviction of Ishi’s words that snag Sasuke’s thoughts. It isn’t just anger that is percolating through their bond; Sasuke can feel the utter certainty of Ishi’s thoughts, pushing aside even his early-morning sluggishness and weariness from long days of travel and rationed food. Konohagakure cannot hold Sasuke’s most binding oath because Sasuke’s most binding is with Ishi. It is with Rin and his Snake Clan. The oath that binds them together is beyond blood and chakra; no oath that Sasuke takes will ever rival it.

“No, it cannot,” Ishi agrees, picking up on Sasuke’s thoughts again seamlessly. He recedes from Sasuke’s mind in increments. “Call Fudo or Hideyoshi for tonight. Kanaye and Daichi are unhappy for having to do guard duty again.”

A moment later, Ishi vanishes with a pop.

“Everything alright?” Neji asks.

Sasuke blinks away from where Ishi had been just a moment ago and sees that the rest of the unit is ready to go. He turns back to packing his rucksack, but can’t focus on the task at hand because Ishi’s words. Konohagakure does not hold your most binding oath, he’d said, and that was the truth of it.

Sasuke gets to his feet carefully and shoulders his rucksack. Kiba turns, as if ready to go, but then hesitates when Sasuke doesn’t given the order. “Sarge? We moving out or what?”

Sasuke turns east. There is a crescent of sun visible just over the horizon; Konohagakure lies in that direction, but Ishi had spoken the truth. And if that were the case—“To my birthplace,” Sasuke recites carefully. “To the place of my most binding oath.”

It’s an odd turn of words, odder still in the way Zetsu said it. He’d intended it for Sasuke, held Sasuke’s gaze.    

“Sasuke,” Shino prompts. “What is it?”

If the snakes hold his most binding oath, then his birthplace is—

“We’re going the wrong way,” Sasuke breathes, and turns north.

Akamaru paws at the ground, impatient. “This is the fastest route to Konoha, Sasuke,” Kiba says. “We’ll pass by one of the garrisons, so we can leave word there for the oncoming attack, and then—”

“Madara isn’t in Konohagakure.”

Shikamaru frowns. “Zetsu said to go home.”

Sasuke holds the man’s gaze steady. “Konohagakure isn’t my home.”

Shino is the one who breaks the silence that follows. “It might not be your home, Sasuke. But Zetsu said you should return to your most binding oath. I know you no longer have an oath to Konohagakure, but that is all our most binding oaths. Your ancestors made that oath—”

“My most binding oath isn’t to Konohagakure,” Sasuke interrupts quietly. “I have no oaths to Konoha anymore.”

He thinks of Rin’s careful coil around his body in the very depths of the earth while his bones and muscles and soul reknit themselves under her stubborn care. He thinks of her faith in him, and his faith in her, and to all his snakes, how they are one and the same.

“Fine, you don’t have any affection for Konohagakure anymore, but you were born there, weren’t you?” Neji demands, impatient now. “So can we please, for the love of God, get back to the City?”

Sasuke covers the tattoo of Rin on his neck and feels the steady beat of his pulse just below. He received life on an island in the Land of Water. Not once, but twice. Such was Rin’s love for him, such was the strength of the oaths they took to one another. “We should go north.”

Neji grits his teeth so hard a muscle in his neck jumps. “I will follow you anywhere, Sasuke, but you’re asking me to turn my back to Konohagakure when Madara might be marching on it right now. My sisters, my family, our friends. He could be marching on them right now.”

“Madara isn’t in Konohagakure,” Sasuke insists. “We need to go north, that’s where—”

Kiba cuts him off with a fierce whisper. “I trust you, Sasuke. Fuck, you know I trust you, I’d ride into any goddam battle if you give me the order. But Zetsu was talking in riddles, and I don’t want to leave this to chance.”

Sasuke looks around at the four men. They’re not saying they won’t follow him. They’re asking him not to give them the order.

Sasuke knows—he knows in his gut, in his marrow—that Zetsu was telling him to go north. He knows it’s foolish to listen to someone like Zetsu. For all he knows, he could be walking into a trap. But Zetsu implied that Shinju might not even be Madara’s endgame. There is something larger at play here, and he needs to find out. Madara left him a trail of breadcrumbs, and while that trail might lead to a trap, something in his gut tells him he should follow. He closes his eyes and remembers:

A snow-covered ground, and fissure in the earth. A winged beast shaking itself free. Four irises, spinning.

He counts to ten. “We split up,” he says, and Neji’s disappointment is obvious in the way his shoulders slump. Kiba rubs at his face, breathing deep as Sasuke continues to give orders. “The four of you return to Konohagakure. Neji, you’re in charge. I’ll head north, and report back when I can.”

“Sasuke,” Shino breathes. “If there was ever a time that Konohagakure needed you, it’s now. Whether or not you are oath-bound to Konoha, please—”

“Move out,” Sasuke interrupts, stern now, and the silence that follows is absolute.

Neji takes a step back. His expression is flat with his anger. “Let’s go,” he orders, and takes off into the tree-line. The others follow, casting final looks towards Sasuke before they set off. Sasuke remembers then:

They had split up the last time they returned from Amegakure.

Akamaru lingers long enough to approach Sasuke. He nudges his large head under Sasuke’s fingers, and Sasuke scratches between his ears. “Cover their trail, Akamaru.”

Akamaru’s golden gaze is bright. He nods, just once, and vanishes.

Sasuke turns north.

He sees the trail of refugees long before he reaches Hyogo. It’s a long line of people, looking worn out and carrying packs of varying sizes. Men, women, and children drawing carts, wheelbarrows, whatever they can carry. He walks past a girl of no more than twelve pulling an old man in a rickshaw; the left side of his face is wrapped with a dirty cloth that stained red. None of the civilians even make eye contact with him, just keep their heads low and keep walking. There are hundreds of them. Their combined procession has churned the path into mud.

He asks for information from a couple that has stopped to rest by the side of the road. It’s a woman and her husband, both middle-aged. The man watches Sasuke carefully as he approaches. “You’re going the wrong way,” he says by way of hello, and introduces himself as Kichida Hotaru, and his wife as Ayaka.

Sasuke introduces himself with the first name that comes to mind. “My name is Yuuta.”

Hotaru arches an eyebrow and very pointedly stares at the tattoos on Sasuke’s forearms. “Nice to meet you, Yuuta.”

Ayaka is staring at his tattoos as well. Sasuke ignores their looks. He doesn’t regret getting his tattoos—he likes them, and he might get another one soon enough—but he should have thought ahead about how conspicuous they would make him. “Where are all these people coming from?”

“We’re going inland because of the waves,” Hotaru says, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “They’ve destroyed the coastline.”

“They were a hundred feet tall,” Ayaka explains, groaning heavily as she gets to her feet again. She reaches for the sack she’s carrying, and Sasuke rushes forward to help her, assisting  her with settling it across her back. “The gods know how many men and women were lost at sea. It came out of nowhere last week.”

Sasuke looks down the road leading to Hyogo. It’s the biggest port-city in the Land of Rice Fields, and that’s where he will need to go if he intends to find a ship to the islands of the Land of Water. He’ll need to make his way to the easternmost tip of the sprawling archipelago that makes up the Land of water, all the way to Ikamame, the one and only port city on Yaeyama. From there, he needs to retrace his steps to that willow tree. He’d crawled out from a hole under that willow tree not once, but twice now; that’s where he’ll need to return. “Is Hyogo still standing?”

“Some of it,” Hotaru answers wearily. “I wouldn’t head that way if I were you. The city is in ruins.”

“I need to get to Ikamame. It’s a port city on the Yaeyama island,” Sasuke explains, and Hotaru and Ayaka exchange glances.

“Most of the eastern islands are destroyed,” Ayaka says, looking at Sasuke with pitying eyes. “I don’t know if there’s anything left for you to return to on Yaeyama.”

I looked, and behold, an ashen horse, Sasuke remembers, feeling his gut clench. And he who sat on it had the name Death.

“Thank you for the information, sir,” Sasuke says. He dips his head politely to acknowledge Ayaka. “Ma’am. Safe travels.”

He’s taken two steps, when Hotaru calls out, “Captain Uchiha, a moment.”

Captain Uchiha. It’s been years since he’s heard that title. He was a Captain in Orochimaru’s forces. As time went on, they began calling the platoon that Sasuke led the death-riders. Suigetsu even fashioned a flag for them, different from the Otogakure sigil that Orochimaru insisted on them hoisting whenever they marched. That was Orochimaru’s first mistake, Karin had once told him. He gave Sasuke eighty riders and assumed they would remain more loyal to him than the captain that led them from victory to victory.

Now that he hears the title again, Sasuke freezes, mid-stride.

Hotaru rummages around his bag and pulls out a small bundle. He unwraps it carefully to reveal a meager assortment of food: some chunks of bread, two apples, a few slices of cheese, and some strips of dried meat. “Here,” the man says, and holds out the bag. “Take some. There isn’t much food back there.”

Sasuke looks between Hotaru and Ayaka. Both of them are wearing worn clothes, looking so run down that it’s a miracle they’re still standing. He shakes his head. “I have food, but thank you,” he lies. He ran out of his rations for the mission days ago, but he cannot accept their generosity. He pauses a beat and adds, “If you find any trouble, just use my name. Say that you’re under my direct protection. Get to safety.”

Ayaka looks up at Sasuke with a smile. “The way they talk about you…” she murmurs to herself, searching Sasuke’s face carefully. She must find what she’s looking for because a moment later, she adds, “Stay safe, child.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sasuke says, and starts to walk again. On a normal day, it would be easier to take the road to Hyogo, but the train of people makes it hard for him to push his way through. What’s worse is having to walk past them without offering help.

Sasuke slips into the trees and picks his way through the dense forest towards Hyogo, keeping the road to his right at all times. It takes him two more days to reach Hyogo, and he finds that the man is right: the city is in ruins.

There are entire neighborhoods missing. The waves have reclaimed the land, knocking over trees and street signs and buildings. At the end of every street, there are large signs covered with pictures of the missing, and letters: Shizuka, one reads, I’ve taken the children to my mother’s. Come home to me when you can – K. There is another sign that reads in large letters, UNCLAIMED BODIES CAN BE FOUND IN THE TOWN SQUARE. Still, the city hasn’t been abandoned. There are groups of men and women digging their way through rubble; even the children have picked up shovels and buckets.

Sasuke climbs over an upturned horse cart and finds what is left of the docks. It’s still bustling with fisherman calling out to each other as they rebuild. There are already a row of boats, some a kaleidoscopic mix of different colors and nonsensical mixtures of lettering on the side. It takes a moment for Sasuke to realize that the fishermen are rebuilding boats from debris. He approaches a boat that is being loaded. There’s a woman with a clipboard watching the procession of material sternly, and Sasuke heads straight towards her.

This time, he makes sure his tattoos are completely covered. “Which way are you headed?”

“Supply run to the Ryuku Islands,” she says, and glances up from her clipboard. She’s younger than Sasuke imagined, just a few years older than Sakura if he were to guess. She’s wearing ripped pants, and her leather boots are covered with mud. Her hair is in a stern, high ponytail. “My crew is full.”

“I need to get to Ikamame,” Sasuke says, hoping beyond hope, because Yaeyama is one of the Ryuku Islands. It’s the most eastern one, but maybe he can convince her to take him all the way there. If she can’t, he’ll hop from one island to the other until he gets to his destination. If Zetsu is telling the truth, then Sasuke will find the answers he’s looking for under a willow tree. “I can pay.”

“I don’t need money,” the woman answers neatly. “I need to get her to the Ryuku Islands to supply the survivors. I need space so I can bring back the ones who need immediate medical help. I can’t afford to carry another warm body.”

Sasuke takes a breath. “It’s important.”

The woman turns back to her clipboard, checking off something when one of her men rolls by with three crates stacked on top of one another. “Everything’s important, mister,” she grumbles under her breath.

Fuck it. “The name is Uchiha,” he says, and the woman glances up sharply from her clipboard, eyes narrowed. “Uchiha Sasuke."

“A dozen men a day call themselves Uchiha Sasuke,” she counters evenly, even though the grip around her pen tightens to the point that her knuckles turn white.

Sasuke points at his Mangekyou. “You see a dozen men a day with these eyes?”

The woman’s eyes track down to the tattoo on Sasuke’s neck. She still looks unconvinced, so Sasuke tugs up the sleeve on his left hand. The first rune is covered, but the last two are clearly visible: War-forged. Death-blessed.

“I want no trouble,” the woman says.

Sasuke feels his lips twitch. He’s walking into the gaping maw of it all. He’s hunting Uchiha goddamn Madara, and he’s asking this woman for a lift. “Neither do I,” he lies.

The woman considers him carefully for a moment before coming to a decision. She stabs her pen at a stack of crates on the dock. “I don’t need your money. But you can make yourself useful and start loading those,” she orders. “I don’t care what you tell the other men, but you don’t call yourself Uchiha Sasuke, not while you’re on my ship. I’m Captain or Captain Biei to you. The First Mate is a grouchy son of a bitch. His name is Kenbuchi. You’ll know him when you see him. Get to work.”

Sasuke heaves a sigh. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

Most of Ikamame is standing; there isn’t nearly as much damage as in Hyogo or the other port cities they’ve stopped off in. Even Biei is impressed. She had agreed to extend her trip by a day so that she can drop off Sasuke at Ikamame, because her usual supply route doesn’t extend as far east as Yaeyama. It raised a few eyebrows among her crew, but she runs a tight ship, and they obeyed her orders without complaint.

“I expected it to be worse,” Biei mutters under her breath, scanning the approaching land.

Sasuke had too, because he found out from some of the other men and women in the crew that the waves began at the easternmost tip of the Ryuku Islands. By all accounts, the waves were first seen in Yaeyama, and gathered momentum as they swept past the rest of the islands and crashed into the eastern coastline of the Land of Rice Fields. Hyogo seems to have suffered some of the worst damage, but somehow, Ikamame seems to have survived mostly unscathed.

“This doesn’t make a lick of goddamn sense,” Kenbuchi scowls, chewing viciously on his tobacco. He’s almost always chewing tobacco or smoking it, but all that nicotine doesn’t seem to help settle his rattling nerves, not a single bit. He’s always scowling and always in a foul mood. Sasuke has learned to avoid him at all costs, even though he’s a good First Mate. The only one on the ship who seems to be able to make heads or tails of Kenbuchi’s sour mood is Biei—half his age, and less than half his size, but still able to silence him with just a look.

“No, it doesn’t,” Biei agrees. “But I suppose we can be grateful that there isn’t more damage.”

Kenbuchi agrees, launching into a now-familiar story that he tells everyone he comes across. His grandfather lived through the waves when he was a child, he begins. There was a bone-shattering earthquake a few minutes before the waves rose up, dark stormy clouds, and entire flocks of birds taking flight just before the worst of the ocean’s wrath.

“Sometimes,” Kenbuchi finishes mournfully. “The ocean just becomes angry. All we can do is weather her anger, and hope she calms.”

“What a bitch,” Biei mutters under her breath, and turns away to yell out orders, Kenbuchi close at her heels.

They dock without much fanfare. Biei shakes his hand goodbye. “Nice meeting you, Captain Uchiha.”

Sasuke smiles. He’d introduced himself as Nakagawa to the other crewmates; he hasn’t heard his real name in three days now. “Thanks for the help, Captain.”

“Don’t expect it again any time soon,” she says with a wry smile, and turns away. Sasuke lingers in Ikamame long enough to gather some supplies and heads off. The last time he made this trip, it had been in the dead of winter and he’d been wearing the borrowed clothes of a dead fisherman who was at least a head shorter and a hundred pounds lighter. His ill-fitting shoes had holes in them, and his socks were so thread worn by the end of a single day’s walk that he tossed them away. This time, though, he is prepared for the walk. It amazes him how much shorter the distances seems under a clear blue sky, when there’s nothing more than a slight, cool breeze blowing in from the ocean.

The longer he walks, the less sure he is of having followed Zetsu’s clue. He doesn’t sense anything out of the ordinary. He even finds the willow tree without any issues, although he makes looping circles around the tree to establish a secure perimeter and approaches cautiously.

It’s just a willow tree. He walks around the tree three times, prodding carefully at the ground to test for where the opening might be. There’s nothing, not a single goddamn thing to suggest anything out of the ordinary. A trap. Maybe to distract him from Konohagakure.

He clenches his fist and counts to ten, twice, before his thoughts can spiral out of control. This could be a trap, but it clearly isn’t—if Madara were lying in wait for him here, he would have attacked a long time ago. This could also be a dead-end, but he can’t walk away without making absolutely sure. Something in his gut is telling him that Zetsu was not leading him astray. He only has to remember the slow rise of the dragon out of that crack in the earth, the bone-deep dread that Yuuta was unable to conceal from him.

So Sasuke closes his eyes and summons the one being who would know more about this space than anyone else: Rin.

She appears a few feet to his left, and the moment she does, she freezes. “This is the last place I ever thought you’d be.”

“You and me both,” Sasuke mutters, and taps his forehead. “Rin, look.”

A moment later, he feels her presence in his mind, shuffling through his thoughts and memories and putting together the details that she has missed. “Zetsu thinks there’s more to Madara’s plans than Shinju?”

“I don’t know. He said, go where I was born, to where my most binding oaths were.” Sasuke gestures at his surroundings. “Here we are.”

“Here we are indeed,” Rin mutters under her breath, and makes her way slowly around the tree, pausing every now and then to inspect a clump of grass or overturn a stone. “I already looked,” Sasuke calls out when Rin is on the opposite side of the willow tree.

He feels her amusement in the back of his mind, like a tickle. “You didn’t look hard enough.”

Sasuke nearly trips over himself to join Rin on the other side of the willow tree. She looks pointedly at a patch of grass in front of her. Sasuke crouches on his heels. “I don’t see anything.”

“Idiot human,” Rin mutters, and swivels her head around in search of something. She finds it quickly enough: a large stone, which she patiently begins moving with her nose. She is deliberate about this, almost delicate in her movements. When she’s satisfied with the placement of the stone, she pulls back and nudges Sasuke gently with her body. “Watch.”

Sasuke stares at the stone. He stares and stares, and keeps staring. A full minute passes, and then a second. Sasuke settles on the grass more comfortably when his calves start to burn. Rin though, is patiently watching still. She could almost be confused for a statue in the light of the setting sun, but every now and then, her tongue flickers out and Sasuke can still see the slow rise and fall of each of her breaths. Sasuke leans his weight against her, and although she allows it, he hears in his mind her gentle reprimand: Patient.

Eleven minutes pass. Sasuke almost misses it entirely because he’s distracted by the lazy revolutions of a bee that seems very confused about where it is or what it’s doing. Rin’s hiss snaps him out of his reverie, and when Sasuke drags his attention back to the stone, it’s to find that it is sinking. It’s disappearing in increments, slowly sinking downwards, pulling with it blades of grass and twigs. It takes only a few seconds for the stone to disappear entirely; all that remains is a dark, jagged line in the ground, no more than a few inches wide. It’s easy to miss, almost as if someone took a twig and drew a line in the mud. But the loose earth around the edges is crumbling inwards , as if falling in somewhere.

“What the fuck,” Sasuke breathes, and startles as if to move closer.

Rin holds him back with the coil of her tail around his torso. “Be careful,” she warns. Sasuke crawls forwards slowly, feeling Rin’s coil around his torso tighten with each careful inch he takes. He cranes his neck to inspect the crack, and sees nothing beyond the dark line and crumbling earth. He’s about to withdraw, but then he feels—

A breeze, with a tangy, metallic scent that settles in the back of his throat as if he’s just swallowed on a mouthful of blood. He feels heat against his face, as if he’s putting his face too close to the embers of a fire.

“Is this what I came out of?”

“No,” Rin murmurs, and tugs Sasuke bodily away from the crack. “That leads somewhere else.”

Sasuke rubs at his face and feels the rough scratch of his beard against his palm. He hasn’t showered in days, hasn’t shaved in over two weeks. He hasn’t eaten anything more than dried meat, stale bread, and soggy fruits. He’s tired, and he’s at the edge of the world without a single damn clue but a crack in the earth. He can’t voice any single one of the questions cluttering his mind, but he pushes the two most important ones towards Rin, overlaying the questions with his frustration: What does Madara want? Where is the Gedo Statue?

Rin’s coil around Sasuke’s calf tightens. “I don’t know what Madara wants or where the Gedo is. What I do know is this.”

When she doesn’t finish her thought, Sasuke scratches lightly at the scales on her neck to get her attention again. “Rin, what do you know?”

“There are countless realms and countless dimensions,” Rin says, picking her words carefully. “You live in one, and I live in the other. The realm that I am from, the one that all the spirit animals are from, is connected to this one through the bonds of chakra and blood that we share with humans. The bonds create a passage for us to move along. I took you to one corner of my realm and hid you away from all the other spirit animals so that you could recover safely. There are millions, billions, an infinite number of other realms that I know nothing of. The tailed demons came from one of these realms, and they lingered so long, their spirits became corrupted with it. The Gedo is hidden in another one of these realms, where the Otsutsuki brothers left it. Do you understand?”

Sasuke tries to grasp the full meaning of Rin’s words, but finds that he’s only reaching at the edges of the universe that she’s describing. In the Academy, they talk about the axis of rotation of the earth, the speed of light, and the exact magnitude of gravity’s pull. They draw out parabolic curves on boards and use precise math to trace the path of an arrow. What Rin is talking about is beyond anything Sasuke can comprehend, even though he has lived through it. He spent almost nine months in another realm, and every moment had felt like death.

“So this thing—” Sasuke indicates the line in the mud, which is now emitting an odd whistle: the breeze is pushing through with greater force now, and Sasuke goes still, listening. But then, the breeze dies out. All is silent again. “This thing opens to another realm?”

“One of them,” Rin agrees, her golden eyes unflinching as she considers the mud before her. “It is a fissure. It cuts through time and space and connects your realm to another, although I don’t know which one.”

Sasuke stares incredulously at Rin. “Madara spent all his goddamn time trying to make this three-inch crack in the earth? The Gedo is going to crawl out of this? Is there any way we can just…plug it?”

Rin’s laughter is a lilting hiss in the quiet of the descending night. “I don’t know what Madara intends,” she says, voice pitched low now, as if she’s sharing a secret. “There are weak points in all the realms, places where time and space are flimsy enough that you can rip through and create a door. That is why you emerged both times from this place. And this might look small, Sasuke, but imagine the power it takes to push through across realms. It takes chakra. It takes blood. It takes an oath like the one we share. Whatever Madara is doing is powerful enough to create tears. He may not have intended for this particular tear to occur, but it did.”

Sasuke mulls over her words. “There was a tsunami here. You think the waves were because of the crack?”

Rin’s head swivels towards the ocean. She considers the horizon carefully, and although they are surrounded by trees, Sasuke can still smell the salt in the air. “You should get back to mainland,” she says after a few long moments. “The islands are not safe.”

Sasuke gets to his feet. “Madara? The Gedo?”

Rin shakes her head. “This crack will widen,” Rin says. “It is growing, slowly, and you should not be here when it does. It is not safe for humans. It is especially not safe for you. It will pull at you, and you know what it is to be trapped in a realm that is not your own.”

Sasuke grips his sword hilt. “There’s thousands of people on these islands—”

“You cannot save them all,” Rin interrupts sternly. “Staying here to evacuate the island is a waste of your time. The best thing you can do is get to safety, and stop Madara before he finishes whatever it is he is planning. Do you understand?”

He can’t argue with her logic. How would he get everyone off the island anyways? Rin knows the minute he understands because she nods her head once. “Take this news back to Senju Hashirama and the Dog-Master,” she instructs, sounding urgent now. She’s scared, Sasuke realizes, and it makes the breath rattle out of him. He's never known Rin to be scared. “The Dog-Master needs to assemble his army. Do not delay, Sasuke.”

“I won’t,” Sasuke promises, and Rin vanishes with a soft hitch of chakra. Sasuke stays utterly still, watching the line in the earth, counting his breaths and listening to the quiet, undisturbed chirp of crickets and buzzing insects around him. He feels the dread mounting in slow increments (a winged beast, with claws like swords, two roving irises in each eye colored like the red of dried blood). When the wind starts to whistle through the crack in the earth again, he rounds on his heels and takes off in a dead sprint.

Rin told him not to delay, to take the news to Kakashi and the Shodaime. But when Sasuke lands in Hyogo, he can’t bring himself to return to Konohagakure, not without making a detour first.

He has to find Karin. He has to warn her, so she can spread the word. He needs to give Jugo enough time to gather his people. Hyogo is the easternmost tip of Suigetsu’s territory; he needs to let Suigetsu know so he can get Megumi to safety. They need to prepare for war.

It takes him three days to travel north to Urausu, and when he gets there, Mrs. Oonishi asks him the same question that he intends to ask her:

“Where are Jugo and Suigetsu?” she demands, stepping aside to let Sasuke in. “Is Karin with you?”

Sasuke stares at her. “What are you talking about?”'

Comprehension dawns on Mrs. Oonishi’s face. “Gods be good,” she whispers under her breath. “They rode south to find you, and you rode north to find them.”

“Why did they ride south?”

Mrs. Oonishi looks at him with pitying eyes. “We’re at war, Sasuke. Jugo rode south with a party to find you. He needed to secure Konohagakure’s alliance. Uchiha Madara is in the Omine Valley.”

Sasuke looks heavenward. He has to close his eyes and count to ten because of course this happened. Kiba told him, Shikamaru told him, nearly every goddamn person told him. Whenever he goes on a mission to Amegakure, things go sideways.

“Shit,” he says. “Meet fan.”

The Omine Valley is a large swath of plains that dip and roll along the northwestern border of the Land of Rice Fields. They are bordered on three sides by mountains ridges: the Yoro on the east, the Gassan on the west, and the Northern Alps above. It’s a fertile land, but they say that the tailed demons waged wars in these valleys. The sky cracked with their chakra and thunder, and the earth trembled from their malice. Since the demons, there have been countless wars and battles. Entire armies have been decimated within the gentle cradle of the three sister mountains overlooking the Omine Valley. Tribes now only pass through the valley; no one calls it their own or makes camp on the lands—it’s inauspicious to tread on ground that has seen so much blood spilt.

Madara, apparently, has no such qualms.

He finds out over dinner that Karin was the one who found Madara. She had been following a lead when she sensed his chakra. Jugo gathered the tribes for a war council to elect a leader. If they were going to face Madara, he insisted they had to do it united, and for once, there was agreement.

“A hundred free tribes gathered,” Mrs. Oonishi says in nothing more than a whisper. “And they chose Lord Biratori Jugo.”

Sasuke takes a deep breath. He doesn’t know what to do with the feeling expanding in his chest. From the broken fields where he buried his murdered kin, from the very depths of Otogakure, Jugo has risen. His snakes call him True-heart.

“Jugo said that we need an alliance with Konohagakure to defeat Uchiha Madara,” Mrs. Oonishi continues. “He said that we needed an Uchiha to defeat another Uchiha, a Mangekyou to defeat a Mangekyou. The Commander Hatake Kakashi has a Mangekyou, and he has an army. We heard rumors that you and your brother were united again, that your Clan was whole again. So he went south to find you.”

Sasuke rubs a hand over his face. “I didn’t know. I was on a mission, and then I came here to find him.”

“They’re all in Konohagakure,” Mrs. Oonishi says. “Karin, Jugo, Suigetsu, Subaru, Inoue, and a few of the other tribal leaders. They went to parlay.”

“I’ll ride out first thing tomorrow,” Sasuke promises.

When he wakes up at the crack of dawn, Mrs. Oonishi is already awake and ready for him. She feeds him breakfast, and packs a generous bag of supplies for his journey home. She also has gifts for him. The entire north is now pulling together for this war, and she is receiving daily shipments of supplies for warriors who need it. She gives Sasuke a generous selection from her inventories, including clothes and armor. There are well-made shirts that he can wear under armor, pants, even new leather boots. She has two cloaks for him, one that is trimmed with ink-black wolf-fur, and new leather armor that is so well-made that it nearly makes Sasuke bounce on his heels with joy. She helps Sasuke strap it on, because adjusting the straps on new armor is always a job for two. She pulls the buckles tight, adjusting the one-sided, spiked brace over Sasuke’s right shoulder, so that it sits snug and can help shield his non-dominant hand while he’s wielding a sword.

Later, she takes him to the back shed and opens it to reveal an entire inventory of weaponry for him to peruse. He selects a jet-black shield, and three knives. The first he straps on a knife to his right calf. He adds two smaller ones onto his back, settling them perfectly between his shoulder-blades. They crisscross so he can reach both hands overhead and reach them to throw in one easy motion. He even stocks the weapons pouch on his thigh with fresh shuriken and newly-sharpened kunai.

After he steps back from his careful selection with a satisfied smile, Mrs. Oonishi arches an eyebrow. “I have seen children in candy stores less excited than you right now.”

Sasuke flushes. He may have gone overboard, sure, but it’s hard not to coo at a perfectly made set of throwing knives. He can’t wait to throw them, can’t wait for them to sink into a target like they were destined to. “I like weapons.”  

“Well, try to contain yourself for the next part,” Mrs. Oonishi warns, but it’s useless because Sasuke gasps aloud when she leads him to the stables in the tavern.

She’s a magnificent purebred of the north, long lines and such precise musculature that it’s as if she’s in motion even when standing. She’s a large horse, large enough to carry Sasuke’s height and weight, large enough to be able to charge into battle with Sasuke in full armor with a shield. Her coat is so inky-black that it blends into the pre-dawn sky, and when Sasuke runs a hand across her thick neck, she turns her head inquisitively to look at him, ears perking up.

Askuzai. There’s no mistaking her breed, not when they are so rare and so precious. The greatest of the horse breeds, the pride and joy of the Kesen tribe in the north. They are worth their weight in gold; he’s known tribes to ration food for their troops to keep their Askuzai well-fed.

There is no way Sasuke can afford such a beautiful creature. “I can’t, Mrs. Oonishi,” he breathes, and hates himself for saying the words, because he can feel the power of her muscles under his hand. He’s seen paintings and sculptures of great warriors riding into battle on horses such as these. “I can’t accept her.”

“You can, and you will,” Mrs. Oonishi says, stern. “She was given to me by a Kesen merchant who owed me a favor. But what will I do with her? Put her to work in the fields? That’s a dishonor to her. She’s meant for battle and for riding across the plains, Sasuke.”

Manners dictate that Sasuke should at least protest one more time, even for the show of it. But he can’t. “What’s her name?”

“Ozora,” Mrs. Oonishi answers, and Ozora’s ears flicker in recognition.

Sasuke ties his rucksack to the saddle and swings his leg over her. She only shifts a fraction to accommodate his weight.

Mrs. Oonishi smiles at him. “I always imagined you’d ride into battle this way,” she says, and steps back to consider him. She holds the iron hammer hanging around her neck in a fierce grip, and calls on the god of war to send Sasuke on his way:

“Victory in battle, or death,” she says in a fierce whisper.

Sasuke lets his hand drop to his shield, feels the strength of the wood and metal under his fingers. It’s his fate to die in battle—he will accept no other death, not in this lifetime—but it will not be in this battle against Madara.

“Victory in battle,” Sasuke agrees, and turns Ozora south.

It takes them only five days to cover the distance to Konohagakure. The chuunin guards on duty open the gates wide to let them through, and Sasuke leads her through the streets towards Kakashi’s crackling energy at the center of the City.

He’s used to drawing stares, but Ozora draws such slack-jawed reactions from those he passes that it feels as if he’s in a parade. Both civilians and military line the streets. Even though the sight of a mounted warrior is commonplace in a hidden village, Sasuke knows he looks decidedly out of place in his full northern battle gear. Word spreads ahead of him because when he reaches the Tower, there is a crowd waiting.

Even with so many people gathered, Sasuke’s gaze is drawn immediately to Suigetsu, who is dressed like a northerner as well. He stands out among all the men and women around him, draped in mink-trimmed cloak and with his silver hair pulled back in a high ponytail. There are silver rings on his fingers, and he looks every inch the lord that he is, one of the richest in the north, someone who commands the large swath of land from the Yoro Mountains to the eastern coast line. He’s striking on his most casual days, almost always the most handsome man in any room he walks into, but dressed as he is now, he sucks all the attention to himself.

It doesn’t hurt that he also has the loudest voice and the most dexterous facility with vulgarity of anyone that Sasuke has ever met. Sasuke still hasn’t dismounted before Suigetsu is yelling at him.

“Uchiha, you motherfucking son of a goddamn piece of goatshit,” Suigetsu shouts, stepping forward with a grin. “I got tired waiting for your sorry ass!”

Sasuke swings out of his saddle with a grin. “Hozuki, I’ve seen shit that’s dribbled out of a cow’s ass that looks better than you.”

Suigetsu bounds in for a hug, laughing loudly and thumping him on the back, shouting in his ear that Sasuke looks uglier than ever, gods be good, Uchiha, what did you do? Fall off a cliff, face-first? Sasuke finds himself laughing along with Suigetsu, gripping him fiercely. Suigetsu pulls back, and says, voice even louder, “Megumi says hello Uncle Sa-Sa, she would like you to come home so she may play Ninjas and Outlaws with you. She wanted me to give you a kiss for her, but you’re way too fucking ugly for me, so we’re going to skip that part. She loves you lots and lots, to the moon and back.”

Sasuke feels his heart clench. “She’s gotten bigger?”

“She knows the names of all the gods,” Suigetsu says, beaming. “She knows her numbers to twenty, too, although she counts fourteen three times in the middle because fourteen and fifteen confuse her and she can’t say seventeen yet.”

Sasuke grips Suigetsu’s shoulder. “I wish I could spend more time with her.”

“I know you do,” Suigetsu says easily, and steers Sasuke towards the Tower. “But first, we have work to do.”

Sasuke pauses long enough to unburden Ozora of the shield, which he straps onto his back, while Suigetsu moves forward to take his bag. Sasuke turns to one of the genins who is staring at him, gob-smacked and mouth hanging open. He startles when Sasuke addresses him. “Shut your mouth,” Sasuke orders, and the genin snaps his mouth closed with a click of teeth. Sasuke indicates Ozora, and rounds off a series of instructions: that she should get her own clean stall in the stables, fresh food and clean blankets and cool water; he doesn’t want stable hands interrupting her every two hours with loud noises and if he doesn’t brush her down with the utmost goddamn care, Sasuke will find him again.

He’s pampering Ozora, he knows, but after just the first few hours with her, he’s fallen in love. She’s aware of his affections, too, because she nuzzles her large head into his chest hello every morning, and whinnies when he presents her with an apple for a treat. The genin nods mutely, and rushes forward to obey. Suigetsu watches the genin lead Ozora away, parting the crowd as he goes. She draws lingering looks in her wake, and even Suigetsu sighs expansively. “I should have guessed Mrs. Oonishi would gift her to you. She always liked you best.”

“She likes Jugo best,” Sasuke corrects as they take the stairs to the towers. “I went to Urausu looking for Karin and the two of you, so I could warn you. Mrs. Oonishi told me that Madara was in the Omine Valley and that you’d ridden south to find me, so I came as soon as I could.”

Suigetsu’s stride falters, and he comes to a dead halt. He steps closer to Sasuke and switches entirely to the northern dialect, pitching his voice low. “Warn us about what? They told us you were on a surveillance mission looking for Madara. What did you find?”

Sasuke takes a deep breath. He tries to make sure his voice is steady, but he can still see in his mind the way the stone had dropped through that line in the ground. He can still taste the tang of the metallic air whistling through that chasm in the ground. His voice is no more than a whisper. “I found a crack in the world.”

Suigetsu’s face becomes still. “Megumi is east of the Yoro Mountains. Is she safe?”

It makes Sasuke’s gut coil with dread, something in his chest get tight with worry. Suigetsu looks as if he’s ready to move mountains, so Sasuke answers truthfully. “The crack is on Yaeyama. It caused some waves that destroyed Hyogo. You have to make sure she stays away from the coastlines. Get her into the Birchwood forests and hide her away there until the danger passes.”

Suigetsu presses his lips into a thin line, but his relief is obvious in the way the straight lines of his shoulders relax a fraction. “I’ll send a messenger out right away,” he says, and starts walking again. Sasuke falls neatly into step next to him.

Suigetsu seems to know his way around the Tower, and he explains this away by pointing out that the northerners have been in Konohagakure for nearly a week now, haggling and arguing over the details of their alliance.

Suigetsu fills him in as they walk. He explains to Sasuke how Madara’s mercenary army had moved silently into the Omine Valley, like a whisper of a breeze. Karin had followed lead after lead, relentless in her pursuit of rumors of ghost-armies that don’t sleep, eat, or speak, moving silently across the land and leaving only flattened grass and horse tracks. Her hunt led her to the crest of the Omine Valley, where she saw an army of nearly four thousand spread out across the valley. Madara, Pein and Akatsuki have taken over the Valley and all the towns and villages bordering it, with complete control of the water supplies and roads that lead into it. More men are arriving each day to join Madara’s ranks, though no one recognizes their banners or how they have breached the Land of Rice Field’s borders so easily. They number thirteen thousand now.

Konohagakure can send four thousand troops; Kakashi is readying the northern garrisons for war already. Jugo has a close to six thousand. They’re outnumbered.

“Why the Omine Valley?” Sasuke asks. There’s nothing in the valley, just endless fields of flowers that buzz constantly with insects. “There’s nothing there.”

“Nothing but bones and restless spirits,” Suigetsu agrees. “You need to tell Karin and Jugo what you found.”

They’re still drawing looks as they walk, with most Konohagakure shinobi coming to a dead halt to gape at Sasuke, but they both ignore everyone as they walk. Even in the north, the four of them always drew looks. Suigetsu was Kijin, the Demon’s Second Incarnation, so well-known on the battlefield that there are songs about how he kills in a blaze of starlight. Jugo was so famous for his ease with a battle-axe that enemies would start running before he walked onto the battlefield.

And Karin.

Karin was the promise of death when she appeared. Orochimaru never risked her in campaigns, so she only ever rode when there was a certainty of victory. When the battlements had been lowered and the bodies were being burned, Karin would walk through the field in search of those who were on the brink of death—enemies and allies alike. She would crouch by their bodies, bend her ear to their lips, and listen to their last requests. She would press a sword in their hands, and she would steady their weak grips with her own so that they would be sure to pass to the Great Hall. Later, she would fulfill each and every single one of their last requests—silver and gold to the loved ones left behind; final words of faith and loyalty to brothers, sisters, wives, and children; instructions on where their bodies should be burned, and where their ashes should be scattered.

She did this out of compassion. She did this because she trades in gratitude everlasting. Entire tribes have debts they can never repay Karin for the kindness and mercy she showed their fallen kin. And this is how she earned her name:

Widow because she was the last woman so many men saw before they took their last dying breath, because she held their gaze with such affection and care until their eyes went blank. Black, because despite her red hair and maroon-flecked irises, despite her ivory-white skin and blood-red lips, her presence on the battlefield only foretold death and darkness.

Sasuke realizes now that Suigetsu is leading him to Jugo and Karin. He stops walking, forcing Suigetsu to slow down as well. “I need to see Kakashi first.”

Suigetsu gives him a sharp look. Like Karin, he disapproves of Sasuke’s loyalty to Kakashi. But while Karin hates Kakashi for having secured Sasuke’s unerring allegiance, Suigetsu dislikes the idea of Sasuke beholden to anyone. You’re a northerner, he tells Sasuke over and over again. You were born to ride free.  

“Jugo and Karin are waiting for you,” he points out. “We all have, Sasuke. For nearly a week now.”

“And I’m here, Suigetsu,” Sasuke insists. Kakashi’s chakra is a crackling beacon in the East Wing, and he won’t go to Jugo or Karin before he sees Kakashi. He can’t. He’s been following Kakashi’s orders for far too long now, and even though Kakashi is no longer his CO, he feels Kakashi’s authority in his bones. “But I need to see Kakashi.”

Suigetsu sighs. “Karin won’t be happy.”

“She never is,” Sasuke agrees. “Not when it comes to this.”  

Suigetsu angles his head thoughtfully. “Are you happy with this?” There isn’t any accusation in his voice, just a gentle, probing question. “You don’t have any allegiances anymore, not a banner you ride under, no liege lord or men of your own to lead. I was told you were a military contractor now, Sasuke. That’s just a polite way of calling you a mercenary—”

“We’ll talk about this later,” Sasuke interrupts, rounding on his heels neatly. “I’ll meet up with you soon.”

He doesn’t wait for Suigetsu’s response, just sets off towards Kakashi’s chakra signature, coming from the direction of the residence. It’s a larger gathering than usual in the Shodaime’s suites, and it feels almost too crowded even though the room is spacious enough to accommodate everyone comfortably.

Ibiki has joined the other two Captains, even though his jurisdiction is strictly domestic. All three Captains have brought along their Lieutenants—Itachi, Neji, and Ino—and Kakashi has summoned Sakura, his right hand when he needs the logistical support the most. She’s wearing her Medic Corps Captain uniform, the strap around her arm a moss-green to signify who she is.

Danzo is here to represent the Senior Council, but Tsunade has also stacked the room with her aides: Jiraiya, Shizune as her Chief of Staff, Hinata, and—


Tsunade smiles when Sasuke meets her gaze. “Welcome back, Sasuke. I was starting to get worried.”

Sasuke searches for something intelligent to say in the face of Tsunade’s kindness. All he can come up with is: “Thanks.”

There are no empty seats at the table, especially since several extra chairs seem to have been procured for those already gathered, so Sasuke leans back against the side table laden with snacks, hitching himself up so that he’s half-sitting on it without resting his entire weight and toppling over the whole setting. Sasuke is fairly certain now that the Shodaime only orders this table of food to be placed for the sake of Sasuke and Itachi’s relentless appetite, although most of it is annoyingly healthy options. Today, there is a bowl of grapes, and he helps himself to a handful.

Danzo watches Sasuke carefully. “According to ANBU Lieutenant Hyuga, you felt the need to head north,” he says. He speaks in a deep rumble, words slow and thoughtful. “Based on the report, I am assuming you headed for your birthplace.” He pauses a beat and adds, “The place of your most binding oath. Where is that, I wonder?”

Sasuke chews on a grape and doesn’t rise to the bait. He knows what Danzo is implying about his loyalty; he just doesn’t care to answer it. “Not here,” he says, popping another grape into his mouth. He makes a show of chewing languidly, holding Danzo’s gaze steady. It’s not just the way his chakra grates on Sasuke’s nerves—something off about it, though Sasuke can’t place his finger on it—it’s the memory of Danzo’s signature on the bottom of Itachi’s report of the massacre. It’s the knowledge that Danzo had wanted to burn all the evidence that traced back to the Wildfire Contingency.

Danzo’s expression doesn’t shift. “So where did you go, I wonder?”   

Sasuke considers the merits of answering Danzo. The decision is an easy one to make. “Yeah,” Sasuke mutters, reaching for another handful of grapes. “I’m done talking to you.”

He looks away from Danzo entirely and focuses instead on Tsunade and Kakashi, neither of whom are bothering to acknowledge the obvious show of disrespect towards Danzo. Sasuke considers how he ought to break this news. He doesn’t want to explain his reasoning for going north to this audience. They will not understand, and he doesn’t like to talk about his bond with his snakes with anyone.

But there really is no protocol in place to talk about what he saw. “I have good news,” Sasuke begins, “and bad.”

Tsunade doesn’t skip a beat. “Bad news first.”

There’s no point in leading up to it. “I found a crack in the earth that tears through time and space and leads to a different realm. It caused waves that destroyed several of the Ryuku Islands in the Land of Water, and decimated most of Hyogo. I’m pretty sure Madara is the cause of it.”

Jiraiya leans carefully back in his chair. “What’s the good news?”

Sasuke has an answer ready. “The crack is three inches so far.”

Hiashi sighs so loudly it’s audible across the room. “No doubt, I’ll regret asking this, but how is that good news?”

Sasuke smirks. He’d almost forgotten the joy of making Hiashi despair over him in this way. If the world really is ending, he ought to take every opportunity he can get. “It could be four inches long, Captain. Or worse, five.”

Itachi barely manages to cover his laugh with a cough. He flushes when Hiashi mutters, “It’s genetic, then, the sense of humor.”   

“Yes, sir,” Itachi says, cheek dimpling with a barely-suppressed smile as he gives Sasuke a quick glance.

Sasuke grins at Itachi. Crazy runs in the family, Uncle Yakumi would say whenever he woke up after a particularly wild night of drinking and found a portion of the Compound smoldering from their drunken katons. Uncle Inabi would always agree, Batshit insane, the lot of us. Madara might be trying to end the world, but the dread Sasuke felt when he watched that stone fall into the crack falls away when he meets Itachi’s gaze. “Apparently, it’s the end of the world, and it’s three inches long already,” Sasuke says. He looks around the table in the silence that follows. There may have been better ways to break the news about the end of the world, but— fuck it. They’re batshit insane, the lot of them. “I mean, I know people say size doesn’t matter, but let’s be honest. It does.”  

Itachi’s smile breaks into a full grin this time, both cheeks dimpling fiercely from it. He dips his head to hide his amusement, shoulders shaking from silent laughter. He tries to cough again to conceal his laughter, but it comes out as a wheeze.

The Nidaime is the first to crack, and then, Jiraiya. This sets off Tsunade, who’s laughter is more like a cackle. She recovers a moment later—along with everyone else—when the Shodaime clears his throat.

Naruto wrinkles his nose, glaring at Sasuke from under the thick fan of his eyelashes. Even Shikaku had smirked, but trust Naruto not to find the humor in a well-timed dick joke. “Yes, of course, now is the most appropriate time to practice your stand-up routine, Uchiha. Because the end of the world is so funny.”

Sasuke’s attention is drawn once again. He gives Naruto a shrug, aiming for nonchalant but mostly failing because the reality of Naruto is always a shock to his senses. It takes a moment for him to find his words. “I was aiming for a smile.”

“Well, I don't find myself amused,” Naruto retorts hotly. There’s a flush high on his cheeks.

“Can’t fault a man for trying,” Sasuke counters, and doesn’t bother hiding his smirk when Naruto narrows his eyes in anger. Sakura can tease Sasuke all she wants for pulling Naruto’s pigtails but gods be good, Sasuke thinks, Naruto flushes such a pretty pink.

Naruto shoulders shift with a deep, audible breath. His chakra is sparking. "You are out of line, soldier."

Sasuke tries his utmost best to not stare, but Naruto is wearing the more formal version of his Counselor robes: rich white silk with the Konoha sigil embroidered on the back in elegant maroon lettering. He’s brushed his hair for the occasion, and there’s a flush high on his cheeks. He tilts his chin up, giving Sasuke a withering glare, but Sasuke is distracted by the way the movement reveals the lovely length of Naruto’s neck. 

Sasuke watches the flush on Naruto's cheek get brighter, and feels the heat coil in his belly at the sight. Gorgeous. "Apologies, Counselor."

“That's it. I am sitting right here, you delinquent,” Yondaime bellows.

Sasuke drags his gaze away from Naruto, and meets the Yondaime’s gaze. “Yes?”

The Yondaime turns to the Shodaime. “Shodaime-sama!” He points a finger in Sasuke’s direction. “With all due respect, sir, I will not stand for this insult any longer. This delinquent—yes, you, Uchiha, I’m talking about you, you good for nothing, sorry piece of shit—he ogles my son in front me. In front of my eyes! When I am right here!

It’s instinct to needle the Yondaime. He opens his mouth to say something, but Sarutobi interrupts him sternly. “Sasuke.”

The Yondaime is being restrained back into his seat by Jiraiya, but that’s nothing unusual, so Sasuke ignores the ghost. “Yes, Sarutobi-sensei.”

Sarutobi’s frown eases. “Start from the top, Sasuke. Tell us what you saw.”

Sasuke lays out his findings in an organized way, and when he’s finished, there’s utter silence around the table. The Nidaime is the first to break it. “It doesn’t change the timeline. He’s in the Omine Valley, so we go get him before he executes the rest of his plan, whatever it is.”

“Unless his plan is a battle in the Omine Valley,” Shikaku points out. He’s tapping an odd rhythm out on the table. “Either way, we have to meet him on the battlefield.”

“The issue is if we want him dead or alive,” Hiashi points out. “If he’s put into motion something that will keep going even after his death, we can’t afford to eliminate him just yet.”

“We need him alive,” the Shodaime says, sounding resigned now. “We need to bring Madara home. I need to speak to him.”

The Nidaime rubs a hand wearily across his face (tired, Sasuke thinks, even the Nidaime looks tired, and he’s always so vivid in his joy that it puts living men to shame). “This motherfucker.”

Tsunade turns her sharp gaze to Kakashi. “I want this done, Kakashi.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Kakashi answers neatly. His voice is a deadpan, as if there is no doubt, not even a chance for loss because he has said the words.

Sasuke is too busy observing the Shodaime that he doesn’t notice the conversation moving on. The Shodaime closes his eyes, and Sasuke watches the rise of his shoulders once, twice, and then a third time. Bring him home, because Madara was the Shodaime’s oldest and best friend. They went to war together to save the world, and then Madara betrayed him. But after all that has been said and done, the Shodaime still gives the order to bring Madara home.  

When the Shodaime opens his eyes again, his expression has smoothed out. He is himself, and he turns his attention back to Shikaku, who is now talking about capturing and returning Madara to Konohagakure safely.

“We sever the brainstem, like we did with Zetsu. Or we can break his neck to immobilize him without killing him as Sasuke did during Zetsu’s interrogation,” Itachi offers. “Either should work.”

Sasuke tears his gaze away from the Shodaime at the sound of his name, only to realize that the Yondaime is watching him carefully, eyebrows furrowed. He angles his head, and his intent is clear: What’s wrong?

Sasuke shakes his head slightly, turning his attention back to conversation at hand. Shikaku points out that they will need to reevaluate the Omine Valley battle plan entirely if the goal is to capture Madara, not kill him. Hiashi agrees, says something about fighting a war on two fronts if Madara intends to wreak havoc on the east with these natural disasters while he’s creating a sinkhole in the Omine Valley for them to throw troops into.

Tsunade puts an end to the back-and-forth. “We need to discuss this with Lord Biratori,” she says. “This is a different battle than we originally anticipated, but it’s not an insurmountable task. I intend to end this war, ladies and gentlemen. I intend to win it.”

Tsunade turns to Kakashi, offering him the space to add his thoughts. Kakashi has been quiet this entire time, and now, he jerks a thumb over to indicate Tsunade, and says, mild—bored almost—“What Tsunade-sama said.”

Even Itachi laughs, and just like that, the meeting ends. When the Shodaime gets to his feet, everyone follows suit. For a moment, there’s only the sound of chairs moving back, and the rush of fabric as everyone snaps to attention. “Thank you, everyone,” the Shodaime says with a polite dip of his head, and that’s the official end of the meeting.

Sasuke doesn’t immediately follow the others to join the northerners for lunch, even though he’s so hungry now he could hunt and eat an entire deer by himself. Instead, he approaches the Shodaime, interrupting a conversation he is having with Shikaku. Almost immediately, the Shodaime excuses himself from Shikaku, who takes his cue and leaves with the others. When he turns to Sasuke, his usual smile is in place, making the crows feet around his eyes become deeper.

“You are home,” he announces.

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “No kidding.”

“No kidding,” the Shodaime mimics with a laugh, copying Sasuke’s northern accent with startling precision. Sasuke frowns; he hadn’t even realized that his accent was so thick. But before he can ask the Shodaime about it, the Shodaime opens his arms wide. Sasuke steps into the hug, gripping the Shodaime’s Kage robes tightly. When the Shodaime pulls back, he’s frowning. “What is it?”

Sasuke could lie to the Shodaime, but it’s not worth the effort. He tries to arrange the words in his head ahead of time, but it still comes out stilted and jumbled. “You shouldn’t have to go through this again. He was your best friend.”

The Shodaime’s expression softens. “He was my best friend, and I was his. He was a good godfather to my daughter. He was a good Commander to his troops.  We were like brothers.” He pauses a beat and offers, “We were how you are with Jugo and Suigetsu. What is the northern word you use?”

“Blood-brothers,” Sasuke says, translating it into the southern dialect for the Shodaime. He says the word again in the northern tongue.

The Shodaime repeats it carefully in the northern tongue, says the word with the full weight it deserves. “He was a good man.”

Trust the Shodaime to look at a man like Madara and say, He was a good man. It makes Sasuke’s blood boil that Madara would ever betray the Shodaime’s faith. “He tried to kill you.”

The Shodaime takes a deep breath. “And I tried to kill him,” he admits. “Perhaps this is my chance to correct the mistakes I made. The mistakes that we both made.”

Sasuke spent an entire lifetime trying to kill Itachi, and he knows the loneliness and misery of such a task. He knows the bone-deep ache it can create. “You shouldn’t have to correct this mistake,” Sasuke points out. No one should have to live with that grief.

“I am not the one correcting it. I bear none of the true burden of this mistake,” the Shodaime insists. “It is Tsunade and Kakashi and their Captains. It is you and your brother. It is the troops that we are sending to the Omine valley. I failed. And in doing so, I failed this country. I failed you.”

The Wildfire Contingency. Of course, the Shodaime blames himself for that too. “That’s stupid,” Sasuke snaps, stepping away now because this conversation will be endless otherwise. The Shodaime’s guilt complex is almost as massive as Naruto’s. “You can’t blame yourself for Madara. That’s like blaming yourself for the plague.”

The Shodaime laughs, patting him on the cheek lightly. “Go eat. You must be hungry.”

Hungry is an understatement for what Sasuke feels. And he still has to see Jugo and Karin and the other northerners who are here. It will be good to share a meal with old friends. As he’s walking away, the Yondaime falls into step next to him, stepping so pointedly away from Naruto and Jiraiya, that they both take the hint and fall back to give Sasuke and the Yondaime space. Sarutobi falls into step on Sasuke’s left, so the two ghosts are flanking him.

The Yondaime pitches his voice low. “Everything all right?”

Sasuke swallows on all the doubts that are crawling through his head. He wants to hoard his fears, but if he can’t share them with the ghosts, then who else would he speak his mind to? “He looks tired. They both do.”

“Hashirama-sama fought this war his entire life, Sasuke,” Sarutobi says, halting him at the top of the stairs where they need to part ways. The rest of high command continues to take the stairs downstairs, heading for lunch with the northerners, but the ghosts need to return to their suites and hide their presence from outsiders. News of the dead walking amongst the living is too dangerous to spread; too many know of their existence as is. “Tobirama-sensei continued to fight in his lifetime, and he died thinking that he’d settled the matter. Now, it’s haunting this country again, a country they built with their bare hands. They are tired.”

“Kakashi will end it,” Sasuke promises, and grips his sword to make the oath. “Gods as my witness, my brother and I will end it. They won’t have to be tired anymore.”

The Yondaime’s lips quirk up in a smile. “We know,” he says, and grips Sasuke’s shoulder, tight, before letting his hand fall away.

Sarutobi smiles kindly. “Don’t let us keep you. Your friends have been looking forward to your return.” He turns away with the Yondaime, leaving Sasuke alone at the top of the staircase. Sasuke watches them round a corner towards their wing of the residence—Sarutobi talking quietly, and the Yondaime listening with the utmost deference.

Are you tired? he wants to ask them, but the moment has passed.   

When Sasuke finally tracks down Jugo’s chakra, it’s in the same direction as Kakashi. Lunch with the northerners is a joint event that includes the southerners, set in a part of the Tower that Sasuke has never seen. It’s a massive hall with arching ceilings and chandeliers that reflect the sunlight streaming through the large windows lining an entire side of the room. Beyond the windows is the rose garden, a resplendent background for the space. There are several long tables laid out with rich, creamy linen and perfectly polished utensils. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to where people are sitting, although there is a long table at the front of the room that is clearly intended for the highest-ranking people in the room, both northerners and southerners alike.

Even though Suigetsu is the one who spots him first—he interrupts the din of conversation in the room with a loud, Look who’s finally decided to join the motherfucking party—Karin is the first person he sees, the one that his gaze is drawn to even though the northerners all break out into cheers (Nohine calls out, Finally, the man’s here, and Inoue and Subaru take up the cheer.)

Karin is striking in her northern warrior vestments, draped from head to toe in shades of black, interrupted only by the deep oak-brown of the leather around her forearms. Her red hair has been braided intricately, and her eyes are lined with black, making her gaze sharper still. She has painted her lips a bright red, as if she has just pulled back from biting into a man’s jugular.

To her left is Jugo, and Sasuke feels his chest swelling when he sees Jugo, who is getting to his feet from his seat next to Tsunade and Kakashi. Jugo crosses the distance between them with a wide smile. He’s wearing a cloak trimmed lightly with grizzly bear fur, chest and forearms both wrapped with rich leather. At his waist, he has a battle axe and a broad sword, and he towers over everyone else around him, nearly six-five in height and with the heft to accompany it. In the tradition of the Biratori, he’s grown out his beard, and his hair has been shaved on the sides, but longer at the top and braided back. He looks like a warlord now, although there’s no mistaking it because he’s leading a contingency of northerners who fall into line behind him.

True-heart, Rin calls him, and that is what Jugo is. When Sasuke first arrived in Otogakure, Orochimaru had starved him as punishment for his tardiness. Jugo had shared his own meager food supplies even though he didn’t even know Sasuke’s name. Sasuke found out later that Jugo had been punished for his generosity. He was punished every time thereafter when he was loyal to Sasuke against Orochimaru’s wishes.

Sasuke moves before Jugo can reach him. He snaps back his cloak to reveal the hilt of his sword, bowing low at the waist even as he spreads out his right hand in a slow, graceful arc outwards. It’s a show of respect in the north, a sign of allegiance: yielding the hilt of his sword and dipping his gaze. The northerners fall immediately silent, their earlier enthusiasm giving way to the respect that this moment demands. He’d been forced to do it for Orochimaru, and Sasuke always counted his heartbeats to hold the pose, swallowing on his pride at the humiliation. This time, though, there is no humiliation, only pride. He bows lower than he ever has for Orochimaru, lower than he ever has for anyone, averts his gaze and names Jugo for who he is:

“Lord Biratori.”

Sasuke lifts from the bow and meets Jugo’s gaze. “Apologies for the delay, sire,” he says, and finds not an ounce of hesitation in speaking to Jugo with such deference. He fought in a war for five years for Orochimaru, and he’d hated every waking moment of it. He’d ridden under the banners of a man so corrupt and twisted that there was no longer even the shadow of honor left in him. Now, though, he feels the overwhelming rush of pride making his chest expand at seeing Jugo wearing the mantle that Orochimaru insulted.

Jugo crosses the final distance between them in three quick strides and pulls Sasuke into a fierce hug, which Sasuke returns. “Blood-brothers, always,” he whispers in Sasuke’s ear. When he pulls back he adds, “And don’t ever bow to me again. You look ridiculous doing it.”

“That was a one-time event,” Sasuke says, voice pitched low, even though the din in the room has gotten loud with conversation now. Suigetsu joins them at the doorway, turning his body so that they’re in a close huddle.

Jugo grips Sasuke’s shoulder tight. “Where have you been, Sasuke?”

“Yaeyama,” Sasuke answers. “I was tracking a lead.”

Suigetsu pitches his voice low. “I sent Futaba to get the children and older folk to the Birchwood forests,” he says.  

Jugo turns to Sasuke, eyes wide with fear. “Is Megumi—”

“She’s safe,” Sasuke interrupts. But for how long? Are any of them? He pushes aside his doubts firmly. “There were waves that destroyed most of the Ryuku Islands in the Land of Water last week. They reached Hyogo. The city has been decimated.”

Jugo nods, connecting the dots quickly. “Suigetsu received word about the damage done to his lands and people a few days after it happened. He sent some of his men to help with the rebuilding. You think that Madara—” He stops, abrupt, face becoming grim. “I’ll speak with the tribal council separately. It’ll cause panic if we announce it now.”

“They’ll start to panic if we keep whispering like gossiping crones here,” Suigetsu points out.

Sasuke glances around the room and takes stock of the tribes represented: the Kumatori, Betsukai, Suwanosejima, and Shinmoedake are here, representing the four largest tribes. Jugo has also brought with him representatives from tribes with strategic value, those who preside over mountain passes, bridges that arch across the widest of rivers, larger townships, and the grain belt that supplies the entire north with its food—the Yanaizu, Aizubange, Adatara, and Furudono. Sasuke recognizes most of the representatives of the larger tribes. He’s faced them in battle or fought alongside them. Those he doesn’t recognize, he identifies by the colors they are wearing, the exact tattoos on their face and the intricate braids in their beards and hair: Happo, Shimogo, and Hishiaizu, along with a few others.

Jugo turns back to the room, expression smoothing out into an easy smile. “The man knows his way with a sword, but unfortunately, he can’t read time,” he announces to the expectant northerners, and there’s another round of laughter. He speaks in the southern tongue, and Sasuke’s eyes track to the Konohagakure shinobi in the room. Jugo has always been courteous and respectful, and the northerners in the room take their cue from him. They all speak in the southern tongue, much of it broken and with thick accents.

Mishima of the Kesen tribe leans back in his chair and says in a loud voice that Sasuke likely overslept, isn’t that what he always does? Didn’t he show up late to the Battle for the Murata River, rushing to join the shield wall ten minutes past the blast of the horn, still lacing up his birches because he’d spent the night with the enemy’s daughter?

Namie suddenly yells, “You slept with my cousin, you motherfucker?”

Sasuke blinks lazily at Namie, feigning innocence even though Mishima got every single detail of that day right. “If we’re going to start calling each other names, let’s at least be accurate,” he responds. He’s always felt comfortable with the northerners, with their rollicking sense of humor and absolute disregard for the asinine pleasantries and etiquette that the south demands. He smirks at Namie. “It’s cousin fucker, thank you very much.”

Namie’s hand drops to his sword. “Oi, you whoring piece of—”

“My lords, my ladies,” Karin calls out, voice smooth like honey. She’s barely speaking over a husky whisper, but the laughter eases almost immediately. “If we were to make treaties based on who Lord Uchiha here has insulted with his prodigious appetite—” she pauses for the laughter “—we would never have allegiances or even a simple horse trade across this Continent.”

There is no choice but for the men in the room to look at her. She sucks the air in the room towards herself, commands each inch of space and draws attention so fully that it’s impossible not to notice the details of her body, the soothing lull of her voice that might remind a man of honeyed mead and the soft slide of sheets in bed. She looks like death, but her voice is a promise. Sasuke knows that this version of Karin is not meant for him. It’s meant for the strangers around her, the potential enemies she sees in this room. Once, a long time ago, she was still a teenager, awkward and growing into her beauty. But under Orochimaru’s toxic shadow, she turned inwards, taught herself to hoard her weaknesses and spin a web around her so tightly that no man would ever harm her or hers again. She has been defending the north since she was a teenager, married herself to the cause with such ferocity that she lured Orochimaru to his own death when she was barely seventeen.

“The horse trading can continue without issue,” Sasuke says. He places a hand over his heart and adds with exaggerated sincerity, “I give all of you my word, I have never fucked a horse.”

Inoue snorts water out of his nose, which makes the volume of laughter in the room get even louder. “Goats, though, he enjoys immensely,” Suigetsu points out, and even Sasuke has to laugh at that. Jugo is covering his face to hide his amusement, but it’s a worthless effort because his shoulders are shaking from it.

Jugo throws an arm around his shoulder, tugging him towards the tables at the far end. “Say hello to them,” he says under his breath, so Sasuke lets Jugo lead him around the room. The northerners all get to their feet and hold out hands for Sasuke to shake. He meets them halfway, gripping their forearms before moving into a one-armed hug, the way northerners greet allies and old friends. Inoue and Subaru approach him first, laughing, patting him on the back, asking him, Where the fuck have you been, Uchiha ? Despite his hunger, Sasuke ignores the food spread out in front of him. He’s grinning so wide it feels as if his face is going to split in two. He hasn’t seen Subaru and Inoue in years, although they spent some of the worst months together in Otogakure. They were always by Sasuke’s side throughout it all, and Karin still relies heavily on them. Jugo counts Subaru and Inoue among his closest circle of advisors. So Sasuke asks them questions about their women and children. He asks them how the quarry is on their lands and if the river beds are still rich with bounty.

Faced with the other men, Sasuke finds himself slipping into the northern language with relief. He asks them all the same questions he asked Inoue and Subaru: how are their families, their lands, their sons and daughters, and their women and men. There is news of newborn babies, elders who have passed, new hunting grounds as the tribes have moved across the plains. There are tribal representatives that Sasuke doesn’t know, but they know of him or know someone who knows him. For all its vast expanses, the North is small in many ways.

It takes them over twenty-five minutes to finally make their way up the room to the table at the front. Sasuke stands over Itachi’s shoulder and grips his shoulder lightly. There is no seat next to Itachi for him. “The fuck, Brother, you couldn’t save me a seat?”

“Your friends did,” Itachi says around a mouthful, and tilts his chin towards an empty seat across the table, immediately next to Karin. Someone has already set a plate so loaded with food, it’s nearly overflowing with it. Sasuke groans with relief.

Karin watches Sasuke sink into his chair carefully. “Find me a man to look at me the way you look at a plate of food,” she deadpans in the southern tongue, but there’s something strained about her smile, a tightness around her eyes and a rigid set to her shoulders.

He’d ridden to Urausu desperate to warn Karin about the end of the world, but she was already in Konohagakure, facing it down with her steely determination. According to Suigetsu, Karin was the one who pursued rumors of Madara’s army all the way to the Omine Valley, and she was the one who brought back the news to Jugo. She convinced the hundred free tribes of the north to gather, and she pressed for the election of a warlord.

It’s not fear that he sees—Karin doesn’t show fear, not anymore—but it’s the closest thing she’ll reveal. “I always look at you the way I look at food,” Sasuke promises, glancing around at the sudden, intent silence that has fallen at the table the moment Karin began to talk. Tsunade is watching her with a sharp gaze, and Kakashi’s gaze is no less intent.

“Don’t lie to me,” Karin warns, and switches topics neatly, acting as if she does not even notice how everyone is now eavesdropping openly on their conversation. “How bad is it in Hyogo?”

Sasuke looks at Suigetsu when he answers. Hyogo is his land. “Most of the port is destroyed. Hundreds dead. The refugees are going inland,” Sasuke says, speaking in the southern tongue because Jugo and Karin have set the example; it would be rude for him to speak in a language that Tsunade and Kakashi don’t understand, not when they’re sitting just two seats away. “More in the Ryuku Islands. No one knows how many were lost while out at sea. They locals have set up rescue efforts. A woman named Captain Biei is heading the supply runs. She's a good leader, Suigetsu.”

“I'll send her reinforcements to help with the search and rescue efforts,” Suigetsu says, leaning back in his chair. The line of his shoulders is stiff. “But with the war, I can't spare many men.”

Jugo holds Suigetsu’s gaze steady. “If you need your men to protect your lands, Suigetsu, I will understand if—”

“My lands won’t be safe as long as Madara is alive,” Suigetsu interrupts. “None of us are safe.”

“That’s our land he’s defiling with his festering rot. Those are our people,” Karin says, looking between Sasuke, Jugo, and Suigetsu. Her voice is sharp like a blade. “I will eat his heart raw.”

"So let's march to war and carve his heart out for a feast," Suigetsu says. He holds up his drink, and Jugo, Sasuke and Karin mimic him. “To the north. To home. To this war, and to hoping that this will be our last,” Suigetsu declares, but it’s not his usual boisterous toast. His voice sounds strained.

The rest of the northerners fall silent when they realize Suigetsu is offering a toast. Suigetsu looks surprised by the sudden attention on him. He doesn’t rise to the occasion like he usually does with his elaborate toasts that leave half the room wiping away tears from raucous laughter—how could he, Sasuke wonders, when his mind is so preoccupied with his daughter hundreds and hundreds of miles away. Suigetsu turns to Jugo with a frown. “Care to say a word, my lord?”

"All I do is talk these days,” Jugo murmurs. He gives Sasuke a small smile. “Your turn, Sasuke. Make it a good one. They’ve waited for you to get back.”  

Sasuke remembers Wazuka’s lilting hiss. The earth cracked open, he thinks, and the sky spilled forth. He imagines the northern plains vanishing into the earth, falling into open sky in another realm below. He raises his mug and holds Jugo’s gaze. They’d bled and watched their friends die for the north before. He fought with Jugo at his right and Suigetsu at his left. Sasuke turns in his seat to look at the northerners assembled. He’d fought against some, and he’d fought with the others. Five years, they fought in an endless, meaningless campaign. Just when peace has returned to the north, they need to ride again.

“Speech, Captain!” Inoue calls out, and Subaru picks up on the call, raising his voice over the low rumble of laughter in the room. “Speech!”

“Make it a good one, Captain!” Nohine calls out from a few tables over, and grins when Sasuke meets her eyes.

Sasuke flushes when all eyes turn to him. He’s given speeches to larger groups of men before, but that was always in the heat of war. This is different. It can’t just be a short, concise statement that ends with, Enjoy the food. There is a tradition he must follow. Out of habit, Sasuke looks over his shoulder—and realizes just how stupid that is because the Shodaime is solid and whole. He’s not a hidden presence by Sasuke’s side, guiding Sasuke with the words that need to be said.

Count, Sasuke reminds himself. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten

He raises his mug. “To the Birchwood forests,” he begins, and keeps his eyes locked on the far door to avoid looking at anyone. He’s not like Suigetsu; he can’t put together words with intent. He’s not even like Jugo, with his quiet confidence. But he is a Sharingan and he has his memories, so he draws on them. “To the majestic peaks of the Yoro at sunrise, and the still waters of the Ikeda at sunset. To the soothing breeze on the vast, rolling plains, and the company of friends under a cluttered, starry sky, under that green-blue veil of the northern lights.”

And under that lustrous sky, Sasuke paints himself a picture he’s never dared to imagine before: “To laying down our weapons, just for a while, for a moment of—” Serenity, the Shodaime said once, as they walked through the redwoods together, What do you think of that, Sasuke? Sasuke reaches for that feeling that makes his ribcage too tight from yearning, hears the sound of a piano in his mind as he grasps at the edges of that feeling— “Solace.”

He pauses and remembers the words the Shodaime taught him, the words he’s been saying to himself like a prayer (Keep a bower quiet for us, the Shodaime recited gently as they paused under the majestic shade of a redwood, and a sleep full of sweet dreams and quiet breathing. He’d looked away from the canopy overhead, at the sliver of blue sky and sunlight streaking through, to look at Sasuke with a smile. How does that sound to you, son? )

He has to close his eyes at the image, feels that ache in his bones for the wanting of it. He’s traveled thousands and thousands of miles. He’s found his brother. He’s found his Clan. Still, he hasn’t found that bower.

Where do I look now?

“To that quiet bower we seek,” Sasuke recites, and breathes deep. “And to that sleep full of sweet dreams and quiet breathing.”

He takes another deep breath and opens his eyes to find that Suigetsu’s eyes are bright, and his chest is heaving. Sasuke remembers Suigetsu carefully wrapping a cloth around Sasuke’s hand to tie his sword into place, and Sasuke returning the favor. At the worst of it, they were worried they wouldn’t be able to reach for their swords because the cold had been so relentless on the frontlines, it hurt just to move. He remembers Jugo double- and triple-checking the knots around their swords to make sure the swords wouldn’t slip free if they were cut down from their horses.

“To the north,” he promises, echoing Suigetsu’s words even as he holds Suigetsu’s gaze steady. 

There’s a wrenching moment of silence and Sasuke thinks he’s said all the wrong words—where, he wonders, is a quartet of voyeuristic Kages when you need them—but then Suigetsu whispers, voice thick, “To home, brother.”

Karin reaches for his hand on the table, and threads their fingers together (he remembers Karin doing the same as he drifted off into fitful sleep after his battles, after Orochimaru’s training sessions and punishments, remembers the strength of her conviction as she held vigil over him while he slept.) Sasuke turns his hand over so that they are holding hands, palm to palm, and she gives him a shaky smile, eyes bright.

A moment later, she blinks, and her gaze is hard again. She raises her glass and says loudly, “To home,” her voice like a whip, and on cue, the northerners in the crowd wipe at their eyes, blink away tears, and sit straighter in their chairs. She smiles at those assembled before her, the red gash of her mouth making her words sound even more lustful for blood. “And to all the sorry sons of bitches who think they can take it from us.”

When she glances at Jugo with a sharp grin, he picks up his glass. “To the sorry sons of bitches,” he declares.

The northerners all raise their glasses. They drink.

Lunch turns into an hour-long debrief on Jugo’s forces. Inoue, Subaru, Nohine, and Suttsu pull up their chairs to the head table to join in on the conversation, and before long, all the northerners have pulled up their chairs in an impromptu gathering so they can discuss numbers and forces and supply routes. They speak in the southern dialect out of respect for the southerners in the room. Tsunade, Kakashi, Jiraiya and some of the Captains chime in every now and then, even Itachi, but they yield the floor to the northerners because the battle field is in the north, and most of the fighting forces are northerners.

Sasuke slouches back in his chair and listens, speaking only when he has specific questions. He’s nitpicky, but this is how battle is waged and won, by knowing every single detail down to the number of horses they have for battle, and the number of horses they have to transport food and armaments. Jugo takes in the information quietly like he always does, only stepping in to settle arguments when necessary.

“If it’s winter, we’re fucked,” Suttsu points out, swearing in the northern dialect but picking the rest of his words carefully in the southern tongue. He’s only a few years older than Sasuke, and bears Orochimaru’s cursed seal. He was loyal when it counted most, and just as he’d left Otogakure, he told Sasuke that he would always have an ally in the Aizubange tribe and the magnificent fleet of ships they wield to keep command of the rivers that snake their way to the Northern Seas.

Sasuke tilts his head to consider the information. “The rivers in your lands freeze late November, don’t they, Suttsu?”

“Sometimes earlier,” Suttsu ventures. They’re already well into June. If they are to attack, they have to do it soon. “Once it does, there’s no way I can get supplies west to the Omine Valley.”

Kakashi clears his throat politely, and all attention turns to him. “What would a winter campaign look like for our battle field?”

The northerners look amongst each other, eyes wide. The Omine Valley is tucked into the northwestern most province of the Land of Rice Fields, so far north and west that the snows are relentless. The wind is worse. “If the drifts are high and the wind fierce, men can freeze to death walking from one end of the valley to the other,” Rausu says. He’s a Betsukai, and his people once claimed the valley as their own territory. “The snowfall is always heavy in the valley. The winds never die down. Even Captain Uchiha and his death-riders steered clear.”

Sasuke frowns at Rausu’s tone of voice—even Suigetsu stiffens in his seat next to Sasuke, violet eyes narrowing at Rausu with consideration. His words hadn’t been insulting, but it was close to it.

Ono speaks before either of them can say anything. “Nothing grows in the valley but the tall grass. There are no animals to hunt. Even the insects are quiet at night. It’s a place the gods abandoned,” Ono says, and every single northerner reaches for their sword hilts—along with Sasuke and Itachi.

Itachi’s grip loosens on his sword, but he doesn’t let go of it entirely. “That could be why he’s there.”

Karin raises an eyebrow. “He believes in the gods still?”

Itachi looks out the window, frowning. “He’s an Uchiha,” he says at last, and Sasuke breathes against the reminder. Uchiha Madara . They share blood. Itachi blinks away from the rose garden and holds Jugo’s gaze steady. “The Omine Valley is risky. There are mountains to the north, west, and east. He might have boxed himself into a corner, but he’s also forced us to attack from the South. This is the kind of strategist he is. He orchestrates impossible situations. But no matter all the disadvantages he faces, his enemies are almost guaranteed to be playing against worse odds.”

They lured him out, Sasuke realizes, but Madara is setting the trap.

Suigetsu looks grim. “We fought a winter campaign,” he points out. “We had victories.”

“Which we won with a steep price, and never so far north,” Inoue says with a sigh. “Whether we fight in the winter or in spring, we’re still outnumbered. Can Konohagakure spare more men?”

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. “We’re still operating under the assumption that Madara will eventually head south to attack Konohagakure. This city has always been his priority, and I intend to protect against it. I can send three thousand men. Four thousand if I move the warriors from the southern garrisons.”

“You need a thousand men to defend against pirates and bandits in your southern lands?” Karin asks, arching an eyebrow at Kakashi. She looks amused. “The rumors spoke such high praise of your battle prowess, Lord Commander Hatake. Surely, not all of it was a load of horseshit.”

She bites off the last word with flair. Karin, Jugo warns, but she pays him no mind, and neither does Kakashi. His eyes have been entirely focused on Karin the entire time she was talking, but now there’s a sharpening of his gaze, a heat in it, as if he’s considering the weapon he’ll choose against her. When he speaks, his voice is mild. “Organic, free-range shit from the happiest of horses in the valley. Only the best for you, Lady Widow.”

Sasuke is expecting Karin’s temper to flare at the round of laughter that follows, but instead, her lips curve up in a half-smile. For fuck’s sake, Sasuke thinks. At this rate, Karin and Kakashi will circle each other endlessly. They’re both bloodthirsty motherfuckers when it comes down to it.

Thankfully, Nohine speaks before the moment can stretch on. “If Sasuke raises his banners, the northern island tribes will ride. The Isoya and Abuta will answer the call,” Nohine says. She looks around the room to make her point. “The Furabira, Yoichi, and Yufutsu will too. That could be another three hundred men. They owe him a debt. And the Rebun—”

“The northern isles aren’t even of the free tribes,” Subaru interrupts. “They might trace their lineage to the Land of Rice Fields, but they left the mainland a long, long time ago.”

“And fuck the fucking Rebun,” Inoue snarls. “They have their mountains for protection, and they have the entire Rikubetsu Peninsula to roam. The world could end, and they won’t move.”

This sets off a loud clamor of voices. Some point out that the northern islands are not even really northerners, those cowardly motherfuckers, if they wanted to be part of this fight, they should have heeded the call to the tribal council to elect a warlord, but Nohine counters that it is not a matter of who is northern enough, they’re all free tribesmen and women. “We can’t sit here arguing over petty differences while an army gathers in the Omine Valley. Lord Biratori, I urge you to send a message to the northern isles. Tell them that Uchiha Sasuke rides with you. They might not answer the call of the tribal council. They might not even consider this war to be theirs. But they will ride to settle their debts to your blood-brother. They are honorable warriors.”

Jugo presses his hands flat against the table and gets to his feet. “I’ll make my decision by the end of the day,” he announces. He looks around the room with a wry smile. “This was intended as a time to break bread among friends and new allies. But apparently, you can’t gather twenty northerners without declaring war on someone.”

There’s a smattering of laughter. “We’ll reconvene in three hours,” Jugo orders. “This war will keep. For now, go outside. Step into the sunshine. Breathe some fresh air. Walk through the gardens. Enjoy this beautiful city.” He gives Tsunade a kind smile. “It’s a marvel of this continent.”

Tsunade returns the smile, and her genuine affection is obvious for anyone who bothers to look. Then again, Sasuke thinks, it’s hard not to love Jugo.

“Go on, go make a spectacle of yourselves,” Suigetsu announces with a grin, as the northerners get to their feet with even more chuckles and laughter. “But please try not to terrorize these gentile southerners. They don’t know what to do with you savage motherfuckers.”

Nohine rests her hand on Sasuke’s shoulder as she walks by, squeezing tight. Suigetsu watches the northerners leave the room, followed closely by the lower-ranking southern soldiers. He waits until the door closes behind them—leaving behind only Konohagakure high command—to ask, “I’m guessing you already made up your mind about the northern islands, Jugo?”

“Nohine is right. Send word, Suigetsu,” Jugo orders. “Tell them that the free tribes have gathered under the banner of the northern stars to march in this war, and that I lead this campaign of six thousand men and women. Tell them that Lord Commander Uchiha Sasuke, is calling in their debts. I want their best warriors, as many as they can spare.”

Sasuke startles from mindlessly pushing around a green pea around his plate with his fork tines. “The fuck? Why do I have to command?”

Suigetsu frowns. “That question is stupid even for you, Sasuke.”

You be Lord Commander, Hozuki, and see how you like the job,” Sasuke snarls. “Or put Nohine in charge. She’s a fantastic strategist, and she commands the respect of—”

“Are you going to make me ask you?” Jugo interrupts calmly, and almost immediately, Sasuke’s anger vanishes.  

Blood-brothers, always. Sasuke falls back into his chair and hisses a few choice curses in Snake Tongue, and then for added measures, switches to the northern tongue. He curses Jugo, Jugo’s ancestors, and the horses they all rode in on with such eloquence that when he’s finished, Suigetsu gives him a slow clap.

Jugo’s lips quirk up in a smile. “The next council meeting is in three hours. I want a strategy by then to share with Tsunade-sama and the Lord Commander Hatake Kakashi.”

“You’re dead to me,” Sasuke promises.

Jugo ignores him. “And your second, Sasuke?”

“Don’t,” Suigetsu snarls, sitting up in his chair, but it’s too late.

“Hozuki, you’re my second,” Sasuke says, and takes great pleasure in the way Suigetsu’s face falls. “I’ll take Nohine, Inoue and Subaru for captains.”

“And Betsukai Rausu,” Karin adds. When Sasuke says, No, she talks over him with an explanation. “There are a hundred tribes riding under Jugo’s and your banners, Sasuke. There must be a balance of leadership. The alliance will be strained otherwise. You’ve picked a captain from the largest tribes in from the north, east, and south. This is to your credit. But seeing as the battle front is in the west, I would advise you also select Rausu. ”

“He’s a pup,” Sasuke says. If he has to lead a goddamn army, he’ll do it without politics, thank you very much. And besides, he didn’t like Rausu’s tone from earlier. “I don’t have time to babysit.”

“He’s Betsukai Togichi’s first-born son, and he’s heir to the largest stretch of the plains west of the Yoro Mountain,” Karin interrupts, stern. “The Omine Valley was once their ancestral land. They’re almost as wealthy as the Hozuki, and they have pledged hundreds of warriors to this fight. And if none of this concerns you, then at least Lord Betsukai Togichi’s name should sound familiar, seeing as he defeated you not once, but twice.”

Itachi speaks up suddenly. "Twice?" He asks, frowning. His voice is pinched with something like anger. "You lost twice against the same enemy, Sasuke?"  

Suigetsu covers his face with both hands. His voice is muffled when he groans, “Please don’t get him started.”

Sasuke meets Itachi's gaze, Mangekyou whorling. “It was just two battles in a five-year war that I won.”

Itachi arches an eyebrow, and leans carefully back in his chair. A muscle jumps in his cheek; no doubt, Sasuke will be hearing about this later. Not that Sasuke can blame him; the insult of losing—twice, to the same enemy—is not something that an Uchiha will tolerate. If the Clan had been alive, he would have gotten a stern talking from all his uncles and aunts. Sasuke tries to swallow on all the words he wants to say. The best thing to do is move on from this conversation, but Itachi's disappointed gaze feels heavy. “I never even wanted Betsukai territory. Orochimaru’s pride forced me to ride into those battles, and it was his pride that made me lose them.”

“Of course,” Karin agrees soothingly.  

Sasuke bites his tongue and glares at Karin. He forces himself to count, but at four, he can’t help himself. He opens his mouth to speak his mind, but Jugo beats him to it. “Gods be good, Sasuke, I will not sit through this conversation with you again,” Jugo says, pushing away from the table. “You will take Betsukai Rausu as your Captain.”

Sasuke grits his teeth. “Yes, sire.”

Satisfied, Jugo turns and addresses Tsunade directly with an apologetic smile. “Tsunade-sama, you must excuse me. I know lunch was not intended as a war council, but—”

“Please, don’t apologize, Lord Biratori,” Tsunade interrupts with a smile. “We have a war to fight.”

“I will see you in three hours,” Jugo promises her with a smile. He gives Sasuke a sidelong glance. “Hopefully by then, my commander will have stopped sulking.” Sasuke opens his mouth to speak— sulking?— but Jugo holds up a hand. “I swear to all the gods, Sasuke, if you say flanking maneuver or troop surge one more time, I will punch you." 

When Sasuke speaks, it’s with exaggerated deference. “Yes, sire.”

Jugo levels a flat stare at Sasuke. “Excuse me, Tsunade-sama,” he says pointedly, and leaves after giving Tsunade and Kakashi a polite nod. He begins scolding Karin almost immediately as they start to walk away. “You couldn’t have made your point without reminding him of Togichi? He’s going to chew my ear off about this now. I won’t have a minute’s peace once he gets going—”

The door closes behind them, muffling Karin’s response. Sasuke and Suigetsu exchange glances. Suigetsu puts a finger up, his warning clear, so Sasuke offers, “I’ve said my piece.”

Suigetsu raises a single, silver brow. “You sure you’re done talking about it? It’s only been five years, Sasuke. If you want to stew about it for another five years and make it a nice round decade of bitching, you just say the word.”

“I’m done talking about it,” Sasuke promises, and watches Suigetsu’s shoulders slump with relief. But it’s an itch just under his skin. “Twenty men, and I could have held the line. That’s the last thing I’m going to say about—”

“That’s it,” Suigetsu snarls, pushing away from the table so violently that the chair topples over. He strides out the door, muttering curses under his breath that Sasuke can go fuck himself gently with a battle-axe, and once he’s done moaning and groaning about the goddamn Betsukai, he can come find Suigetsu, but he better put a lid on it, because gods be good, he’s had to listen to this for years now , even Megumi has heard it because you told it to her like it was some kind of bedtime story, she’s a toddler, you bastard

The door slams shut behind him, leaving silence. It feels odd now for Sasuke to be sitting at one table, alone with Konohagakure high command. The empty chairs of the northerners spread out in front of Sasuke’s table makes the space look like an abandoned classroom. Sasuke feels suddenly too small in this massive space, surrounded by fine silverware and staring down Konohagakure’s highest COs.

Kakashi’s eye crinkles in a smile. “Lord Commander,” he says. “I look forward to hearing your battle strategy in three hours.”

Sasuke gets to his feet with a groan. This goddamn day, he thinks, just will not end. “I’ll get on that,” he mutters, and turns to find Suigetsu and the others to convene a council and come up with a strategy of some kind. He’s a few feet away when he realizes he’d slipped up, and turns to face Tsunade. “Permission, ma’am.”

Tsunade considers him with a curious tilt to her head. “You don’t report to me anymore, Sasuke.”

Sasuke frowns. “Are you firing me? I know I split up the team and pursued Zetsu’s lead, but it was the right call.”

Tsunade’s lips twitch with a smile. “I’m not firing you,” she says carefully. “I’m just terminating your contract seeing as you’ve just gotten a much better job offer.”

Sasuke’s thoughts come to a halt. He’s not even a military contractor for Konohagakure anymore. Generations of Uchiha warriors in the Konohagakure military, and now Sasuke is firmly aligning his allegiance with the free tribes of the Land of Rice Fields. Even when he’d followed Orochimaru’s toxic lure north, the bargain had felt temporary. But now—

Sasuke looks to Itachi for direction, but Itachi’s expression is neutral. Sasuke isn’t sure what to do with the situation at hand, so he falls back on old habits: he stands at ease and stares at a spot over Tsunade’s shoulder. “Ma’am.”

Tsunade smiles. “Just this one last time, then,” she says. “Dismissed, Lord Commander Uchiha.”

Sasuke leaves. It isn’t until he’s leaving the Tower that he realizes how Tsunade and Kakashi had named him:

Lord Commander.