Karin’s hatred for Kakashi has somehow gotten worse.
When Sasuke presents his war strategy to Kakashi with Suigetsu, she speaks up every now and then with biting, cutting remarks that makes Kakashi’s gray eye go flat with anger. She needles him endlessly, pressing for more troops, a more aggressive line of attack, greater commitment of supplies, and more importantly, Naruto.
“Who is right here,” Naruto points out for the third time, because Karin does not even deign to acknowledge anyone’s presence in the room except Tsunade and Kakashi. “I also have a name. It’s—”
“Should not be out on the frontlines,” Karin finishes neatly, talking right over Naruto as if he hadn’t even said a word. “You might as well give Madara a knife and ask him to cut your throat, Lord Commander Hatake. You can’t parade out the Nine-Tailed Demon in front of him and expect him to not take the bait.”
“Just Commander,” Kakashi says. His voice is mild, but there’s a dangerous edge to his tone, one that has Jiraiya glancing at him nervously. “We don’t have lords in our military.”
“No, just obedient dogs,” Karin agrees, leaning back in her chair. She tilts her chin up, and even though Kakashi is standing, it’s almost as if she’s looking down her nose at him. “Sit. Heel. Roll over.”
“Karin,” Jugo says, stepping in for a second time now. Every time Karin crosses the line, Jugo is there to place himself between her and Kakashi’s mounting impatience. “Please excuse her, Lord Commander, but she has a point. If Counselor Uzumaki is a primary target—”
“Just Commander,” Kakashi repeats. “And Naruto is a valuable asset. He’s a politician by trade, but he’s a soldier by training. He’s my subordinate, and I will ask that you respect my authority on this.”
Sasuke happens to agree with Karin and Jugo on this issue, but he holds his tongue. If he were to suggest in public that Kakashi bench Naruto—or worse, stow him away in a safe house somewhere in the south so that Madara would never find him—it would start a whole new argument. Even Jugo concedes the point with a polite dip of his head.
Besides, there are other details to discuss. Sasuke and Suigetsu field questions from the southerners about where, who, what, why, and how. Jugo, Karin, Suigetsu, Inoue, Subaru, and Nohine spent an hour with Sasuke coming up with a strategy, and then opened up the meeting to the other tribal leaders. After hearing their concerns, Jugo and Sasuke had taken another hour to themselves to come to a final decision. But since this is a joint venture—and because Sasuke is relying on Kakashi’s troops to counterbalance some of his weak spots—they now need to iron out the minutiae together.
Kakashi and Sasuke stand side-by-side at the head of the large conference table, moving small pieces of stone that Suigetsu had labeled with tribal sigils: black stones for troops, gray stones for cavalry, and white stones for archers. Sasuke pitches his voice low as he walks Kakashi through his thoughts, the way he used to when Kakashi was first teaching Sasuke how to think through a battle strategy. When Kakashi hm-s thoughtfully, Sasuke pauses, reassess the words he just said, and then tries to anticipate any weaknesses he may have missed. If he’s unable to come up with the problem himself, Kakashi steps in with a mild comment that identifies a problem that no one else in the room had seen, and offers a solution that is as unpredictable as it is ruthless.
What surprises Sasuke most is how infrequently Kakashi corrects him. When he was younger, it would be a slow conversation, but now, Kakashi agrees with him more often than not. It makes Sasuke stand up straighter and hold his chin high knowing that he can keep pace with Kakashi on something like battle strategy. He will not pretend to be Kakashi’s equal—he never will be—but he is at least grateful that he’s not embarrassing Kakashi in front of high command, especially as Jugo’s Commander.
Shikaku draws a finger along the three edges of the Omine Valley. “He has the Northern Alps in the north, guarding his back. He has the Gassan Mountains protecting his flank from the west. The Yoro Mountain is to his east. We can only approach from the south, and there’s no guarantee we can even make it across the Valley if the campaign drags on into the winter.”
Naruto is the one who offers the solution, and he does it almost off-handedly. “So why not approach him through the mountains?”
“The Gassan Alps are impenetrable,” Rausu says, sounding almost apologetic. “The rock formations there are unstable. A lot of silt. The men and horses will fall to their death.”
“And the Yoro turns into a canyon on the western edge when it faces the Omine Valley. It’s a straight cliff down,” Suigetsu adds.
Naruto looks around at the northerners. “And the Northern Alps?”
The Northern Alps are a jagged line of slate-gray mountains that are frozen throughout the year. They are the one and only defense between the Land of Rice Fields and the Rikubetsu Peninsula beyond, a land still so untamed that they belong to no nation. They are north of the northerners, so tied to the old way of living that they speak a dialect that is different from the one that the northerners use. The Rikubetsu Peninsula is a vast, unforgiving land of snow and ice, and the tribes in the north vanish into the white landscape. The only tribe in the Rikubetsu that maintains any contact with the south are the Rebun, a massive tribe that controls the only two passes that lead south: the Hiroo Pass in the east, and the Kasai Pass in the north.
Naruto leans forward and draws out a path along the eastern edge of the Omine Valley, through the Hiroo Pass, into the Rikubetsu Peninsula beyond. “Go into the Rikubetsu Peninsula through the Hiroo Pass, traverse north, and then come down the Kasai Pass. Surprise Madara from the rear.”
“Naruto, that’s—” Rausu’s southern dialect comes out halting as he tries to find the right words. “The Kasai Pass is controlled by the Rebun. Both passes to the Rikubetsu are controlled by the Rebun. They control trade that goes through these passes strictly. They’re not likely to allow an army to march through. And even if they allowed it, the mountain passes are miserable. No army can go through those passes and come out of the other side ready to fight.”
“So go ahead of time,” Naruto says. “Lie in wait.”
“You’re suggesting a small force of the army crosses north, waits out with an army in the Rikubetsu Peninsula, and then cross back through the Kasai Pass when it’s time for battle,” Hiashi repeats, sounding incredulous himself.
“Why not? In fact, recruit the Rebun to our cause. We need the numbers,” Naruto says. “Madara is camped out on their front porch. I’m sure the Rebun would like to help get rid of him.” He points to a large river that cuts through the middle of the peninsula, connecting the two sides of the Northern Ocean together. “You can sweeten the deal with an incentive. A trade route,” Naruto announces. “Right now, all ships have to travel around the Rikubetsu Peninsula. They carry tuna, mackerel, whale oil, practically half the seafaring goods from the Land of Water to the Land of Earth’s northern port cities. Tell the Rebun to open the Esashi River to allow ships to cut through the peninsula rather than around. It’ll cut down the journey by half. The Rebun can control the tariffs of ships passing through, the Land of Water will cut down on its export costs, and the Land of Earth will cut down on its import costs. Everyone wins.”
Naruto looks around the table in the silence that follows as everyone tries to follow his logic. “We keep talking about this war as if troops and cavalry are all the cards we have to play,” he says. “There’s ways around those limitations. Leverage.”
Sasuke has to duck his face to hide his smile. Leverage, Naruto says, as if it’s so obvious, when he’s just pulled another unexpected trick out of the hat like he always does. When the silence lingers, Naruto tries again. “It’ll work, Kakashi-sensei,” he promises earnestly. “The Land of Water and the Land of Earth were hemorrhaging money to maintain their trade routes. They have for centuries. If you cut the Rebun in on the deal, you’ve fixed three problems with one solution.” He gives Tsunade a quick smile. “Plus, Konohagakure gets the credit, so we can stack our cards the next time we sit down for talks with the Mizukage or the Tsuchikage.”
“And here I thought you were just a pretty face,” Karin purrs, and entirely ignores Naruto’s startled anger at her words.
Naruto doesn’t have time to respond, because Kakashi steps in, hm-ing under his breath. “Even if they don’t agree to join the fight, surprising Madara from the north is a strategy worth pursuing. At the very least, we should consider closing off the northern passes so Madara doesn’t have aid from the Rebun.”
Tsunade seems to agree. She shifts her gaze to Jugo. “Would negotiations work with the Rebun, Lord Biratori?”
Jugo yields the floor to Rausu again. “Your people are the Rebun’s closest neighbors in the north. Would they agree to this?”
Rausu presses his lips into a thin line while he assesses the question. He’s four years older than Sasuke, but he hasn’t fought in even half the battles that Sasuke has. Still, he is his father’s son, almost as good at strategy as Togichi. He commands the respect of his peers, and when he speaks, he considers his words carefully. “They might, sire. My father could help negotiate. They have a new leader who’s more cautious than the previous ones.”
“Rebun Ashoro is dead?” Nohine asks.
“He had two sons, Gojome and Onuma, but Gojome passed and Onuma married away into a different tribe and lives with his husband’s people in the north,” Rausu explains. “Ashoro’s other son-in-law has taken control.”
Karin looks up sharply. She seems surprised by this information, which makes Sasuke pause. There is almost no information in the north that Karin is not aware of. “Son-in-law? What happened to his daughter?”
“She passed in childbirth. Twins, from what I hear. Ashoro loved his son-in-law like his own,” Rausu says. “The man is a good leader, but he’s cautious. He’s been isolating the Rebun from the south over the years. He mostly sends representatives, and if he does need to meet for more important discussions, he will only meet with my father. Even I’m not allowed in the room.”
“We need an audience with him,” Naruto insists, looking at Rausu with his blue, blue eyes. “Is that possible?”
Rausu gives Naruto a lopsided smile, focus entirely on Naruto to the exclusion of the commanding officers and lords in the room. “For you? I’ll make it possible.”
Sasuke’s Mangekyou whorls to life. This Betsukai pup, Sasuke thinks, his battle calm creeping into the edges of his vision as ice settles in his veins.
Suigetsu grips his elbow firmly, stepping into his space to whisper in his ear, “Let it go. The insult only exists if you acknowledge it.”
Jugo picks up the cue immediately. “I want a more definitive answer, Rausu. Send a message with one of your hawk ninken to your father. Ask Togichi to negotiate with—what’s the Rebun leader’s name?”
Rausu is already turning away to obey Jugo, but pauses just long enough to answer Jugo’s question. “Obito, sire.”
Kakashi glances up sharply at the name, and Itachi goes entirely still. Even Sasuke is temporarily startled out of his anger, because Obito is such an uncommon name and Uchiha Obito died years ago, but.
But. There are other Uchiha, long presumed dead, still wandering this earth.
Sasuke never met Obito, but he thinks that he would like to. Kakashi holds his memory so dear, can barely look at Sasuke when he speaks Obito’s name. He spends so many hours on that hill, standing vigil for his best friend. Sasuke still remembers the way Itachi and Shisui used to talk about him (Uncle Obito, the one uncle that Sasuke never had the privilege of loving, the one who left Itachi his goggles before his last mission). He has vivid memories about Fugaku’s grief for Obito’s loss, how the entire Clan turned inward. If Madara is alive, then maybe—
It’s wishful thinking, Sasuke knows, but he’s not the only one having that thought. There is a pinched look around Itachi’s eyes, a measured tempo to his breathing. Kakashi, for his part, looks as if he’s carved out of stone. They smooth over their features almost immediately, though, because Rausu is still talking. “He’s not likely to respond, Lord Biratori. And even if he does, he’ll likely want to meet with you or the Lord Commander to finalize the negotiations. For something as big as this, he’ll demand to speak with you face-to-face.”
“Lay out our offer,” Jugo says. “Tell him that if he is amenable, Lord Commander Uchiha will meet with him.”
“Yes, sire,” Rausu says, and his eyes track over to Naruto. He smiles again—the casual smile of a man whose intentions are clear, whose interest is so goddamn obvious it’s a miracle he’s not writing verses of poetry for Naruto at this very goddamn moment.
Rausu is a handsome man, with that nutmeg-brown hue to his skin that all the tribes in the west have, and he has light hazel eyes that go bright when he laughs. He’s clean-shaven like all the other Betsukai, and his long hair has been braided in the tradition of warriors in his clan. He’s the kind of man who draws attention wherever he goes, the kind of man who gets what he wants. Even the goddamn scar on his cheek looks decorative, as if he’d drawn it in to highlight the strong line of his jaw.
He’s gone before Sasuke can pummel that smug grin off his face. Tsunade gets to her feet with a sigh. “With or without the Rebun,” she announces, “we still have not finalized the attack from the south. Commanders?”
Kakashi draws a line on the map with the tip of his finger, just beyond the highest ridge overlooking the southern entrance to the Omine Valley. “We start here,” he begins.
The meeting continues for hours. They break for coffee and snacks, taking the opportunity to get up and stretch their feet. They cluster in smaller groups around the Senju Conference room while working through the food that Tsunade had ordered the kitchens to prepare.
Sasuke is working through his third sandwich and watching with great amusement while Karin and Kakashi spit insults at each other when he realizes—
More often than not, Kakashi and Karin are smiling.
He nearly chokes on a mouthful of food, and Suigetsu is right there, slapping him on the back. He leans towards Sasuke and follows Sasuke’s gaze towards Kakashi and Karin, who are standing by one of the windows, ignoring the plates of food they’re holding in favor of talking to each other. Sasuke overhears Karin say, If you think this is my first time in your city, Lord Commander, you’re sorely mistaken. Your defenses are pathetic. Kakashi holds himself so carefully it’s obvious that his anger is just beneath the surface.
But he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t do anything other than tilt his head and ask, And how did you like your previous visits to Konohagakure?
Sasuke knows in that moment—he knows—what Karin is doing. She is spinning her web around Kakashi. Karin is stunning, from the burnt-sugar timbre of her voice to the sinewy curves of her body. She demands attention and holds it. She dares to challenge Kakashi, flings back his authority in his face as if it is the least impressive thing she has ever encountered, and then presents herself like a challenge, like someone to be conquered.
And Kakashi—like any other man—is falling for the trick. Hook, line and sinker.
Suigetsu leans close to whisper in his ear, “They’re hate-fucking, aren’t they?”
“Kakashi knows better,” Sasuke counters.
Suigetsu only arches an eyebrow and returns to his food. Around a mouthful, he asks, “If negotiations with the Rebun are productive, you plan on leading the northern attack or the southern?”
It’s a working coffee break, so of course this question reignites conversation about the strategy. Even Karin and Kakashi abandon their spot by the window and settle at the table again. Sasuke listens to the arguments for and against his leading the northern attack, but before he can put an end to the endless conversation, Rausu speaks up from across the table. “Lord Commander, I can cross the Hiroo and Kasai passes. I’ve done it once before, and I’ve dealt with the Rebun all my life.”
He is sitting next to Naruto, leaning towards him, a casual tilt of his body that places him closer to Naruto than the situation warrants. Sasuke feels his heartbeat slow, the edges of his vision fading so that all he sees is Rausu, sitting across from the table. He could kill the man four different ways and he wouldn’t even have to draw his sword. “Is that so.”
Rausu hand drops to his hilt. “Lord Commander?”
Karin steps in, sounding languid as always, but Sasuke hears the edge to her tone. “The Lord Commander is impatient after a full day of talks,” she says, and for once, Sasuke doesn’t bristle at the characterization. “I’d venture we’re all a little weary.”
Nohine offers a bland smile at Karin’s attempts to keep the peace. “Lord Biratori, may I suggest we return to this tomorrow?”
“I agree,” Jugo says, seizing onto Nohine’s suggestion immediately. He breaks protocol entirely by getting to his feet, not even giving Tsunade the courtesy to say yes to the question he’s asking. “Tomorrow, Hokage-sama?”
Tsunade’s keen gaze lands on Sasuke, and then to Rausu. She smiles. “Of course, Lord Biratori. We’ve done enough for today.”
The clutter of chairs is loud in the room as people get to their feet and push away from the table. Jugo ambles over to Sasuke and places a hand on his shoulder, but it’s anything but a casual gesture. He keeps Sasuke rooted in his chair with the weight of his arm, leaning into the contact so that Sasuke knows to stay put. It makes Sasuke’s anger tighten, makes him feel as if he’s a disobedient dog that needs to be managed. The anger is made worse because Rausu dips his head to say, Have a good night, Naruto, smiling, lingering in his conversation with Naruto as they talk about the Rebun, about the possibility of a treaty that can extend diplomacy and trades across the peninsula.
The highest-ranking members of Konohagakure—Tsunade, Jiraiya, and Kakashi—linger out of respect because Jugo has yet to leave the room. As Rausu’s conversation with Naruto continues, Suigetsu steps into Sasuke’s line of sight, blocking them from Sasuke’s view entirely. He gives Sasuke a heavy look, making sure that Sasuke meets his gaze before shaking his head. He twists his fingers in their battle code, Stand down.
Sasuke grits his teeth so hard that he feels a muscle in his cheek jump. He looks carefully away from Rausu, staring out of the window and counting with each breath he takes, fighting the tug of the battle calm with each inhale and exhale. In. Out. Jugo’s grip tightens on his shoulder.
Karin steps forward again. “Counselor Uzumaki,” she calls out, voice syrupy-sweet. “A moment, please.”
Rausu touches Naruto’s elbow lightly, says, Tomorrow, then, and disappears. Naruto turns to Karin, his face carefully blank. Karin doesn’t waste a moment. “I was told you were a lawyer and politician by trade, so I hope you won’t mind me giving you some advice as it pertains to the politics of our northern lands.”
“Karin,” Jugo warns, even as Suigetsu warns in the northern tongue, “Leave it, Karin.”
“I’d be much obliged for any advice,” Naruto says, voice flat with practiced politeness.
Karin smiles, but her expression is without any real humor or warmth. “It would be very helpful to the proceedings at large if you stopped batting your eyelashes at Rausu.”
“Karin,” Jugo snarls, his anger bubbling over. He almost never loses his temper, even more so now that he’s a warlord. But Karin has a way of pushing boundaries, testing all the limits until she hits a nerve. Naruto is no different; she has found his weakness—his pride in his work, a career he built so carefully, working twice as hard to prove that he is more than a jinchuuriki, more than the legacy he bears as the son of a Kage, the student of a Commander and future Kage, the godson of a Sannin.
“Excuse me?” Naruto snarls. He looks to Tsunade, but Tsunade has a blank look on her face as she watches Karin carefully.
Karin brushes aside Naruto’s anger with just a casual flick of her wrist. “Rausu is trespassing on another man’s property. He’s doing it in public, and you’re not discouraging him. We’re in a closed room now with allies, but if word gets out that Rausu—Betsukai Rausu of all people—stood too close to you without any consequences, Sasuke will be weakened. And if you weaken Sasuke, you weaken Jugo. I can’t allow that.”
Naruto’s chakra crackles dangerously, so vast and so powerful it fills up all the corners of the room. “I am no man’s property,” he bites out. “I am not a thing, or a vessel, or a jinchuuriki. I am—”
“You’re too pretty for your own good, and clearly, you grew up without a mother. Had she been alive, she would have taught you how a man might misunderstand a smile or a look. Rausu is enthralled, and you encourage his fantasies with your behavior, whether you intend to or not. You need to stop,” Karin interrupts, uncaring of Naruto’s anger now, or even Jiraiya’s shell-shocked stare at her brazenness. “Don’t embolden Rausu. He’s heir to the only man who presented any real challenge to Sasuke during the tribal wars.”
Suigetsu moves towards Karin with purpose, but she is unflinching as always. She keeps talking even though Suigetsu grips her upper arm, hard, and pulls her to her feet forcibly. “Men act like fools when they think they’re in love. For all your pride, Naruto, for better or for worse, rumors in the north are that you belong to Uchiha Sasuke. For the sake of the war, at least, act like it.”
“Get her out of here, Suigetsu,” Jugo growls, and now, finally, she steps away, walking towards the door as if it had been her idea all along. Suigetsu holds the door open for her, but she doesn’t immediately leave. Instead, she looks over her shoulder at Naruto with a smile, sugary sweet. “Just lie back and think about Kage and country, Counselor. Who knows, you might even enjoy it.”
Suigetsu pushes her out the room with the sheer bulk of his body, and slams the door shut behind them. The silence that falls in the room after the door closes is stifling even though Suigetsu’s raised voice can be heard just beyond the door. The sound of his words disappear as Suigetsu and Karin get further away. Naruto’s chakra is still a steady thrum, making the air buzz with static.
“Counselor Uzumaki, I apologize,” Jugo says, turning to Naruto. He dips his head in a bow. “She was out of line and—”
“Excuse me,” Naruto bites out, and slams out of the room in a billow of his cloaks.
Jugo gives Jiraiya a pleading look. “I’m sorry, Jiraiya-sama. She was—”
Tsunade holds up a hand, and Jugo falls silent. “Did the Betsukai vote for you in the tribal council?”
Sasuke glances up sharply. She is Senju Tsunade, her grandfather’s true heir. She is able to move past the insult of Karin’s actions to refocus on what’s important. The Betsukai own the lands immediately beyond the Omine Valley, and they’re the Rebun’s closest allies. They’ve pledged hundreds of warriors. They are crucial to this entire war effort, so Jugo included Rausu amongst his party to parlay with Konohagakure.
“Not in the first two rounds of voting because Togichi was also nominated,” Jugo says. “But he conceded to me in the last round and vouched for me.”
Kakashi leans casually against the wall. “Can we count on them?”
For something so important as a war council to be disrupted by something as asinine as—Drama, that’s what it is, Sasuke thinks, and hates himself for compromising Jugo’s command in this way. He will not give Jugo cause to defend his authority to strangers again. “Lord Biratori was elected unanimously,” he interrupts. His Mangekyou is whorling still with his chakra. “The hundred free tribes pledged their allegiance to him. They’ll honor that allegiance.”
Jugo places a hand on Sasuke’s shoulder again, settling him before Sasuke’s impatience can spin completely out of control. “I apologize for Karin’s insult to you and your keep, Jiraiya-sama. She can be…” He trails off, trying to find the proper words. In the end, he settles for the simplest explanation. “There is no authority over the Black Widow, not on this Continent. She tolerates none. She convinced the tribes to gather for a war council. She was only trying to protect me against politics—”
“I understand, Lord Biratori,” Jiraiya says, breaking the tension in the room with his easy forgiveness. “I lived through my godson’s adolescence. This isn’t the first time some idiot hot-head tripped over himself to get Naruto’s attention. There was no harm meant, and there was no harm done. Just high stakes, and as you said, politics.”
Jugo sighs. He seems relieved not to have to talk any more than he already has. “Thank you for understanding.”
Tsunade gives Jugo another smile. “Did you want us to stay, Lord Biratori, or did you want this space for yourself?”
Jugo looks around the room. Now that it has emptied out, it seems almost cavernous. “If you don’t mind?”
“Use it as long as you need,” Tsunade assures him, and leaves the room with Kakashi and Jiraiya flanking her on either side.
When they leave, Jugo folds himself into the chair next to Sasuke with a groan. He looks exhausted, and without an audience, he lets it show. He kicks out his feet, slouches into his chair and rubs at his face tiredly, as if he’s trying to rub out his weariness. “I’m impressed you didn’t slit Rausu’s throat.”
Sasuke shrugs. “Not my place.”
Jugo crosses his arms across his chest. “What happened between you two, Sasuke? You want to talk about it?”
Sasuke feels his Mangekyou make a slow rotation with his pulsing chakra. “I’d like to talk to you about the cavalry formations, sire.”
“Then, talk,” Jugo says, and pulls his chair closer to the table to get to work.
It’s another three hours before Sasuke finishes with Jugo. Suigetsu joins them after a while, and the three of them go through each detail obsessively, from where they’ll have the men form shield walls, to calculating the time it would take for a cart of grains to travel by land to the rear lines. They move pieces around the board over and over again until every time Sasuke blinks, he sees stones behind his eyelids. When the clock on the wall ticks past midnight, Jugo tells them both to go to sleep. “This will keep,” he says, so they part ways: Jugo and Suigetsu to their lodgings downtown reserved for diplomatic parties, and Sasuke—
Towards Naruto’s chakra.
He’s exhausted. He started his day thirty miles outside the walls of Konohagakure, and since reaching the Village, he’s been in meetings all day. He hasn’t had a moment’s peace. All he wants to do is crawl into bed, but the anger and hurt on Naruto’s face had been genuine. He won’t do Naruto the disservice of disrespecting him by not apologizing, not when Karin had so crassly told him, Lie back and think of Kage and Country . He has better manners than that.
So Sasuke counts to ten and stares at the heavy double-doors to the Yondaime’s suites. He could knock. But then the Yondaime would no doubt throw his ass in jail for daring to call on Naruto so late in the night. Instead, Sasuke closes his eyes and thinks, Hideyoshi.
The snake appears at his feet with a yawn so wide it nearly makes his lower jaw dislocate entirely. His fangs are sharp and bright in the tasteful overhead lighting. Sasuke crouches by Hideyoshi and says, “You’re going to hate me for this.”
Hideyoshi tilts his head curiously. His presence in Sasuke’s mind is familiar and comforting. When he puzzles together the reason for Sasuke’s summoning—as a messenger, of all things—his irritation is immediate. He doesn’t reprimand Sasuke, though, because out of all his snakes, Hideyoshi is the most patient. Also, he likes Naruto. “I do this for the Fox-Child, and for the insult he suffered at the hands of the Chakra-Hunter,” he declares. “Make sure you offer him the apology he deserves, Sasuke.”
Hideyoshi vanishes with a pop. Sasuke walks a few feet down the hallway. A full minute passes, and then a second. Five minutes in, Sasuke starts to pace. He’s contemplating knocking on the door and facing the Yondaime’s anger when the door opens and he hears Naruto’s voice, “—just some work in my office that I forgot, Dad. You should go to bed.”
The Yondaime’s voice is far more muffled coming from inside the suites. Naruto responds, “I won’t. I’ll be back soon,” and then, the door is closing.
Sasuke steps out from behind the pillar he’d been hiding behind in case the Yondaime stepped out. Naruto arches an eyebrow at him, and a moment later, Hideyoshi crawls out from the billowing folds of his pajamas and drops to the floor.
Naruto’s pajamas are striped today: a forest-green so bright that even Lee might hesitate to wear it, with citrus-orange stripes going up and down both his pants and shirt. It makes something clench in Sasuke’s stomach to see Naruto like this. The question is out of his mouth before he can help himself. “Where do you find these atrocities to wear, Uzumaki?”
Hideyoshi’s exasperation is bright in Sasuke’s mind. “You’re making this worse,” he warns in a low hiss, and then vanishes with a pop.
Sasuke takes a breath. “What Karin said earlier today—”
“I get it,” Naruto bites out. “I won’t bat my eyelashes at Betsukai Rausu anymore.”
“You can if you want,” Sasuke says, and hates himself for it. There’s an easy way out of this. He just needs to get the words out. “Not that you are. Batting your eyelashes, I mean.” Naruto’s frown is deepening, so Sasuke switches tactics. “I’m trying to apologize. Karin shouldn’t have spoken the way she did.”
“Well, she did,” Naruto deadpans. “Anything else you wanted to say, or can I go back to bed?”
Sasuke clenches his hands into fists, wishing in that moment for the Shodaime’s invisible presence at his shoulder to guide him through this. “I need to protect Jugo’s authority,” he says finally. “I can’t be a liability to him. It’s trivial and it’s insulting to you, but there’s rumors about us, and it can be seen as a sign of weakness or a challenge to me because of who Rausu is—”
Naruto holds up a hand. “I get it, Sasuke,” he repeats, but there’s less anger in his voice now. “We don’t need to talk about this anymore. And you don’t need to talk to Rausu. Or anyone, for that matter. I am capable of doing my goddamn job.”
Sasuke pushes his hands into his pockets, trying to find even footing in the conversation again. “I’m sorry about what Karin said to you. She shouldn’t have disrespected you in that way.”
Naruto shrugs, shifting from one foot to another. “I owe Lord Biratori an apology,” he says finally. “He was trying to be kind, and I was rude to him. If you could convey my apologies to him. I’ll do it myself, of course, but if you could tell him for me, too.”
Naruto and his goddamn guilt complex. “I’ll tell him.”
Naruto nods once, taking a step back. “Good night.”
Sasuke grits his teeth, forces himself to say the words. It’s the least he owes Naruto after all that’s been said and done. Sasuke has to spread his feet shoulder-width apart to ground himself. “If you want, I can ask Karin to spread news that we parted ways. There won’t be any fallout if people know that you don’t—” Love me anymore. “ That there’s nothing between us.”
Sasuke has never met any of Naruto’s boyfriends. Before he returned from Otogakure, he heard that Naruto had been seeing a jounin, but the relationship ended. Once, he’d walked in on Naruto with a chuunin on a mission, but that’s it. He doesn’t know how Naruto behaves around other men, or how he telegraphs his interest to someone. He tries to remember the precise curve of Naruto’s smile when he’d been talking to Rausu. He’d assumed that Naruto was just being polite, smiling with Rausu the way he does with everyone, but Sasuke has lost all rights to Naruto’s time and attention. The least he could do is step out of the way after all the damage that he has done.
Naruto is staring at him with an absolutely blank expression, so Sasuke takes a step back, desperate now to get away from Naruto’s stony silence. “Nevermind. I’ll go. Good night.”
He rounds on his heels, cursing himself at his utter stupidity, and heads straight for the stairs. He takes them two at a time, and then at the bottom, gets so desperate to get out of the building that he lets his fingers fly into seals.
He lands outside in the Commons and spends a few moments just breathing in the fresh air, smelling the lush scent of blossoming cherry trees. Son of a bitch. He’d anticipated Naruto would move on eventually, but for him to return Rausu’s smile—a Betsukai, of all people—
“Thirty men,” Sasuke mutters to himself. If Orochimaru had given him thirty more men, he would have defeated the Betsukai. Maybe then, the sting of watching Naruto smile at Rausu would be lessened. “Thirty fucking men.”
He sets off in the direction of Suigetsu’s distinctive chakra in hopes of finding Karin with him. He’ll ask Karin to spread the rumors—the truth, for once—so that Naruto will not be judged so harshly for every move he makes. His hunt leads him to a large, elegant mansion overlooking Lake Mori. But Sasuke doesn’t go inside the building. He’s frozen under the streetlamp across the street because there’s another familiar chakra signature inside.
There is no reason for the Commander of Konohagakure’s Joint Forces to have any contact with foreign dignitaries outside of the Tower, certainly no reason for him to be at their lodgings so late in the evening.
Hook, line, and sinker, Hatake, you fucking idiot, Sasuke thinks, and rounds on his heels. His anger is so acute he doesn’t trust himself to do anything but go home. He can talk to Karin tomorrow about putting an end to those asinine rumors about him and Naruto.
And he’ll talk to Kakashi separately, tell him to stay away from Karin because he’s just a man and he doesn’t see the full danger of Karin, enthralled as he is.
Sasuke has never tried to guess at Karin’s actions or motivations, because she’s always ten steps ahead of everyone around her. Now, though, he finds his mind racing. She hates Kakashi, hates him almost as much as she hated Orochimaru. She’ll defeat Kakashi slowly, wrap a web around him so tight that he won’t know he’s caught until it’s too late. Orochimaru’s surprise at Karin’s treachery had been writ large in the widening of his eyes, the thin line of his lips—
Men act like fools, Sasuke reminds himself, when they think they’re in love.
He walks home slowly even though he’s so exhausted he could lie down on any one of the benches he passes and just fall right asleep. The cool air is soothing against his skin after an entire day spent indoors. In the apartment, Itachi’s chakra is a gentle lull, so Sasuke moves quietly through the apartment. He peels off his armor and spends a few cursory minutes under the shower. By the time he crawls into bed with a groan, it’s well past two in the morning.
He pulls the covers over himself and stares up at the ceiling in the darkness. Each time he closes his eyes, he sees Naruto’s smile for Rausu. For all he knows, there is nothing more than a short-lived flare of attraction between them. They’ve gotten to know each other over the past week; no doubt, they’ve become friends. Sasuke has tumbled into bed with people he’s known for a fraction of the time, within an hour even. He can live with Naruto choosing someone else, even if it’s just for a single night or maybe more. He can live with this.
He forces himself to imagine someone else—another man, faceless—who gets to fall asleep next to Naruto dressed in ridiculous pajamas of horrendous colors and patterns. He forces himself to hold that image in his mind (Naruto, in too-big pajamas of green and orange and peach; a man slipping into bed next to Naruto at the end of a long day for a night’s rest, and Naruto smiling—peace, solace, serenity at the end of all days). He forces himself to hold that image for a full count of ten.
He’s nearly breathless by the time he counts, Nine, ten, because the aching mix of anger and disappointment in his chest is so overwhelming that he has to exhale carefully against it. Sasuke knows he’s a good soldier. He always been good at practicing until he’s perfect. He’s learned Kakashi’s swordsmanship, and he’s learned the Nidaime’s taijutsu technique. If he can learn those, he can learn this. He will do this every night until the sting is bearable, until he can breathe through that ache in his gut.
Like fools, Sasuke thinks, and pulls the covers over his head to fall asleep.
Sasuke wakes up to an odd gathering of people in the kitchen: Itachi, Sakura, and Tenten.
Itachi and Sakura greet him with a chorus of: “Good morning, Lord Commander.”
Tenten’s greeting is much milder. “Uchiha. Welcome back.”
Sasuke says hello to Tenten, and greets Itachi with a middle finger. He then pretends to sit in the same seat Sakura is in. She shoves and kicks at him, shrieking with laughter (worth it every single time to make her laugh, Sasuke thinks, unable to hide his own smile), telling him get off her lap, you giant.
Sasuke stands up, frowning. “I didn’t see you there, Haruno,” he deadpans, and Sakura kicks at him again half-heartedly. When Sasuke takes the seat next to Sakura, she rewards him with a loud, smacking kiss against his cheek. “Welcome home, doofus. You want breakfast?”
“Have I ever said no to your cooking?” Sasuke asks, and Sakura gives him a blinding smile. She gets to her feet to put together breakfast for Sasuke and Itachi, who volunteers to consume a second breakfast and gets to his feet to help Sakura.
Sasuke frowns at Tenten. “Not that I’m not happy to see you, but what are you doing here?”
“She’s our family lawyer,” Itachi says, and arrives a moment later with a mug of steaming coffee for Tenten. He offers her a dimpled smile, which Tenten returns with a smile of her own and a soft, Thank you.
Fuck’s sake, Sasuke thinks, because Itachi is a subdued man on most days, but he had just served Tenten coffee, unprompted, and smiled at her.
“And as your family lawyer,” Tenten says, turning back to Sasuke, nonchalant, almost as if Itachi flirting with her is an everyday occurrence. She draws out a thick manila folder from her handbag. She holds it out for Sasuke. There is page after page of dense paperwork. At the top is an application for Sakura to be officially registered as an Uchiha Clan member, with additional legal jargon that details how she is next-in-line after Itachi to take the Senior Council position reserved for the Uchiha Clan elder.
Sasuke breathes a sigh of relief, glad that he didn’t have to ask Itachi and Sakura for this—they must have known, though, that the last thing Sasuke wants is a tether to Konohagakure. He glances at Sakura and Itachi, who are working side-by-side, familiar and at ease with each other in the kitchen. He wants to say thank you to them for sparing him of this responsibility, but then he realizes just how unnecessary that is. They are family. They knew and they understood without Sasuke saying a single word on the matter.
There are stacks of pages dedicated to the start of a college fund for future Uchiha children, joint bank accounts for emergency funds, explicit instructions on inheritances, power of attorney for medical decisions, and even several documents on what to do with an Uchiha body in event that another Uchiha is unavailable to perform the proper rites. There are pages and pages and pages of documents—Itachi’s and Sakura's doing, Sasuke knows. They are two of the most obsessive people he knows; no doubt, they even enjoyed getting all the Clan's ducks in order.
Sasuke heaves a sigh. Apparently, while he was gone, Itachi had also hired a family lawyer. Who he enjoys flirting with.
Fan-fucking-tastic. “Do we have to do this now?”
Tenten smiles at him. “Rumors are it’s the end of the world. No better time to do this than right this moment.”
Sasuke wants to point out that if the world is ending, there really is no point in establishing a college fund for future Uchiha children. But Itachi is watching him with such intensity that it’s not worth the argument. He takes the pen she’s holding out for him and signs, initials, signs, initials, signs and initials on each page until it feels as if the words are blurring in front of him. When he’s finished, Tenten begins to double-check the paperwork.
“Speaking of the end of the world, I’ve been thinking,” Sakura says from the kitchen. I’ve been thinking is always Sakura’s way of saying that she’s been obsessing, so Sasuke holds his peace. “Why would he end the world? Madara will end with it. It makes no sense.”
Sasuke glances at Tenten, who only arches an eyebrow at him. “I have clearance, Uchiha,” she says. “And I’ve heard this theory of hers already.”
“I’m saying it doesn’t make sense,” Sakura continues, talking more to herself as she chops vegetables with vigor and gestures with her knife to punctuate her words. “Why end the world, if you’ll end with it?”
“He’s insane,” Tenten points out. “It doesn’t have to make sense. I’ve tried two cases where the defendant took the insanity plea. That’s the definition of insanity. None of it has to make sense.”
“Yes, it does,” Sakura insists. The pan sizzles as Itachi adds the vegetables and eggs; at his side, Sakura starts to season absentmindedly. “I don’t think he’s clinically insane. He doesn’t fit the bill for any of the diagnoses. He doesn’t act like a paranoid schizophrenic.”
A few moments later, she sets a plate of food in front of Sasuke and Itachi, who settles to dig into his second meal of the day.
Sasuke takes a bite and sighs with satisfaction. “This is good.”
Sakura doesn’t even acknowledge the compliment. “He doesn’t sound like someone with a personality disorder. He sounds narcissistic, but that’s not unusual among high-level shinobi. There’s nothing to suggest that—”
“Are you profiling Madara?” Itachi asks around a mouthful.
“Someone ought to profile him, preferably an actual profiler at SCI,” Sakura grumbles under her breath. “The problem is that our strategy is only reactive. We’re not able to predict what he’s going to do, so we’re always two steps behind. We don’t even know what motivates him.”
“Revenge,” Tenten answers easily. “He wasn’t elected Kage so—”
“He’s not a child,” Sakura interrupts sternly. “Even the most petulant toddler will get over something like that. He’s been at this for over a century now. There’s a bigger prize at the end of this.”
“He never trusted me enough to tell me,” Itachi says. He chews carefully on a bite of eggs. “Tenten, are you sure you don’t want breakfast? Sakura is a good cook.”
Sasuke knows he’s staring, but he can’t help himself because Tenten turns to him with a smile again and says, “No, thank you, Itachi. Another time, maybe.”
“Another time,” Itachi promises, and gives Tenten a smile so wide Sasuke can’t classify it as anything but a grin. He can’t even remember the last time he saw his brother grinning at a girl.
Oh for the love of—“You’re fucking kidding me,” Sasuke grumbles. First Kakashi, and now Itachi. Before he can say anything, Sakura kicks him so viciously under the table that he curses. It’s all the confirmation he needs.
Tenten is the one who breaks the awkward silence that follows. “I should get going,” she announces.
“You have to leave?” Itachi asks. He doesn’t even bother to hide the fact that he is disappointed.
“I have a mission tonight, so I need to get all my casework done before I leave,” Tenten says, and sounds genuinely regretful about the whole prospect. She gives Itachi another smile—not her usual sharp smirk, but something softer, private. Itachi returns it with a small, lopsided smile of his own, his right cheek dimpling with it.
Sasuke feels embarrassed for them. He’s embarrassed for everyone because it’s almost like they’re trespassing on a private moment between Tenten and Itachi.
Itachi walks Tenten to the door, and Sasuke and Sakura both lean in their chairs to watch Itachi and Tenten linger in the doorway and dance around the most protracted, inane goodbye that Sasuke has ever seen. Sakura is nearly scrambling over Sasuke to get a good look, and Sasuke can’t blame her because their goodbye is truly absurd. Itachi says, I’ll see you when you get back , and Tenten reassures him it’s only a protective detail, Nothing I can’t handle , and Itachi says, Of course, I didn’t mean to imply you couldn’t, I only meant —which Tenten rushes to interrupt with, But I’ll see you when I get back?
“You will,” Itachi promises, and finally, the moment is over. The front door closes behind Tenten. Itachi stands still for a moment with his hand curled around the doorknob. By the time he turns around, Sakura and Sasuke are seated upright again: Sasuke is eating his food, and Sakura is perusing the day’s newspaper with perfect nonchalance—as if, just a moment ago, she hadn’t been climbing over Sasuke to better eavesdrop on Itachi and Tenten.
Itachi sits down and returns to his food serenely.
Sasuke can’t help himself. This isn’t Itachi’s casual interest; he’s seen that before, and that involves nothing more than small talk before he whisks the woman away to someplace more private. This is far more serious; this is Itachi with a crush. “Smooth, Brother. Real smooth.”
Itachi puts down his utensils with a loud clatter. His Mangekyou is whorling, but he’s blushing a furious shade of red. “You’re one to talk,” he snarls. “At least I don’t make an ass out of myself in front of high command like you do every time Naruto walks into a room.”
Sakura interrupts them before they can start an argument. “Could we please focus on the undead Mangekyou and the end of the world?” When she’s convinced that she has Itachi’s and Sasuke’s attention, Sakura sits back in her chair, chewing on her bottom lip the way she does when she’s stewing over a particularly stubborn puzzle. “How do you explain Zetsu’s actions?”
“Because he realized just how fucking insane Madara is, and he doesn’t want to get trapped in another realm when shit hits the fan,” Sasuke says. “The world is ending, Sakura. We stop Madara, we can stop Madara finding the Gedo and unleashing Shinju, and we can stop the apocalypse. That’s all there is to it.”
“No, it doesn’t make sense,” Sakura insists, tapping her finger in an off-kilter rhythm on the table. “We’re missing something.”
“Who knows,” Itachi offers. “Maybe his Mangekyou can sustain his body forever, even after the end of the world.”
Sakura’s finger stops moving on the table. She turns her gaze to Itachi, frowning. “What did you say?”
“He technically is immortal,” Itachi explains, too busy with his food to notice Sakura’s careful consideration of his words. Sasuke has seen this expression on Sakura’s face before, so he knows what it means. She’s close to figuring something out.
“No, no,” Sakura breathes, sitting forward in her chair. “What you said earlier—”
“Maybe his Mangekyou can sustain his body forever, even after the end of the world,” Sasuke parrots for Sakura’s benefit.
Sakura’s mouth drops open. “It’s eternal. It’s not a transplant. It’s one laid on top of another without issues of graft rejection because of the genetic similarities,” she breathes, sounding awed. She’s looking intently between Itachi and Sasuke, but there are too many disjointed sentences for them to follow her logic. “That’s why he murdered his own brother.”
“He’s a psychopath, Sakura,” Itachi points out. He’s gone stiff in his own chair. “He has no qualms killing his kin.”
“No, but there was a reason for it,” Sakura whispers and gets hurriedly to her feet. She heads straight for Itachi’s bedroom, throwing over her shoulder, “I need to go through the Clan scrolls in your room, Itachi—your turn to do dishes, Sasuke!” The door slams shut behind her.
Itachi frowns. “What’s gotten into her?”
Sasuke weighs his options. When Sakura is in one of her moods, there isn’t much to do but stay quiet and give her the space and time to solve the puzzle in her head. And besides, Sasuke doesn’t want to ruin his day contemplating the murder and bloodshed that has haunted his Clan since Madara was born into it. He started a cycle of death, and it has not stopped since. He doesn’t want Itachi to have the reminder of it so early in the morning; his brother has had that burden for long enough. For now, Sasuke wants Itachi to enjoy his damn eggs.
Sasuke takes a large bite of his food. It’s layered with cheese and vegetables and bits of bacon, so far out of his usual diet that it’s almost too decadent for Sasuke. “It’s the end of the world,” he says around a mouthful. “You really going to waste those eggs?”
A small furrow appears between Itachi’s eyebrows. “No,” he says, solemn, and gets back to the task of eating.
It’s more of the same in the war council. They talk endlessly, and within the hour, Sasuke’s mind is saturated with details. There’s a low thrum of a headache at the base of his skull, and it’s made worse because every time Karin and Kakashi get into another argument, he’s reminded of all the other asinine things he has to deal with: Kakashi and his idiocy, Karin’s motives, and—
Naruto, who is seamlessly drawing a firm line with Rausu. He’s only made mild adjustments in his behavior: he still smiles at Rausu, but his eyes drift away quickly; he lets Rausu stand close, but he turns his body away just a fraction. And when it’s time for their lunch break—there is an official gathering with some Konohagakure politicians to smooth the process of the treaty signing—Naruto eases into the space by Sasuke’s right. He leans close enough that Sasuke can feel the heat of his body. “Why call them a ghost-army?” Naruto asks in a low voice.
Sasuke takes a small, careful step sideways, trying to place distance between himself and Naruto. He knows what Naruto is trying to do; he’s trying to prove to Rausu and the other northerners that the rumors about them have merit. But this charade stings more than the careful indifference Naruto regards him with these days.
“They march through towns and don’t raid for food or supplies,” Sasuke explains, keeping his eyes glued to the map in front of him. “The farmers only know the army has marched through their fields the next day when they find their crops flattened.”
Naruto leans into his space again, and tilts his face up, forcing Sasuke to meet his gaze. “Are they actual ghosts?” he asks, voice pitched low so that it’s mostly a whisper.
Sasuke is unable to look away. The night before he’d laid awake in his bed and forced himself to imagine another man standing this close to Naruto. Now, with Naruto standing so near, it’s so easy for his mind to imagine himself with that right. Count, for fuck’s sake. Count.
“Seeing as you’re the resident expert on the supernatural,” Naruto continues. “What are we dealing with here?”
“Ghosts aren’t solid. They float through walls so they don’t make for very good soldiers,” Sasuke answers, and feels idiotic the moment he says the words.
Naruto smiles, and it’s the smile he gave Rausu the day before. But it’s not intended for him at all, just the audience around them.
Sasuke takes a jerking step away from Naruto, nearly running into Suigetsu at his side. “Excuse me, Counselor,” he says stiffly, and forces himself to walk out the room as calmly as he can manage. He walks and keeps walking and doesn’t stop until he’s staring at a set of familiar double doors.
He knocks just once before stepping inside. The Yondaime and Sarutobi are surprised to see him. They both have their sleeves rolled up and are drawing sigils in ink. The entire dining table is covered with large sheets of blank paper; there is an entire stack of used pages on the ground next to them.
“Don’t you have lunch with Tsunade and the northern delegation?” the Yondaime asks with a frown. There are smudges of ink on his left cheek. He’s stripped down to just his long-sleeves for this task, so he looks nothing like a Kage. He looks like a jounin, as young as Kakashi.
“Is everything all right, Sasuke?” Sarutobi asks, getting to his feet.
“Everything’s fine,” Sasuke mutters. “I just needed a break.” He walks carefully around the large dining table, observing the sigils. He doesn’t understand or recognize any of the runes incorporated into the seals. “What are you doing?”
“The Otsutsuki seal,” the Yondaime says with a groan. He rubs at his eyes with the heels of his palm. “I’ve been working on this for hours. How are the strategy sessions coming along?”
The strategy sessions are endless and mind-numbing. But there are six thousand men and women under his command now; Sasuke will do his job if it kills him. “They’re fine,” he says, and glances around the room. “Where are the others?”
“Hashirama-sama is meditating, and Tobirama-sensei is on the balcony,” Sarutobi answers, watching Sasuke with a frown.
The Yondaime peers carefully at Sasuke’s face. “You sure everything’s fine?”
Your son doesn’t love me anymore, Sasuke thinks. But that’s not something he can say to Namikaze Minato. Instead, Sasuke repeats, “I just needed a break.” He heads for the balcony before Sarutobi or the Yondaime can press him for details.
The Nidaime is sitting on the ground, leaning against the railings. There are balcony chairs laid out under a table with an umbrella, but the Nidaime seems content where he is. His feet are stretched out in front of him as he reads from an old, worn book and smokes a cigar. But the detail that makes Sasuke frown is not the fact that the Nidaime is wearing dark-blue Konohagakure sweatpants and an undershirt and sunglasses, but that he’s barefoot.
The Nidaime glances at him with a grin. Even with the sunglasses, Sasuke can imagine the crinkles around his eyes. “Aren’t you supposed to be rubbing elbows with politicians right now?”
Jugo had threatened bodily harm on Sasuke if he didn’t show up for lunch because this is their last true gathering before the northern delegation heads back north. It’s an official event, the kind that required Sasuke to wear his full armor today. But lunch also involves making small talk with representatives from the Senior Council—and Danzo, that creepy motherfucker—along with Senators on important committees that control the budget for any war that Tsunade wants to wage. By all accounts, Sasuke should be posturing with Jugo to reassure the politicians of Konohagakure about the alliance and the war.
Sasuke eyes the patio furniture. He unbuckles his sword, battle-axe, and kunai pouch. He strips off most of his armor and lays it out carefully on the patio table until he’s wearing just his undershirt and pants. And then—why the fuck not—he takes off his shoes and socks so he’s barefoot too. The ground is warm under his feet.
The Nidaime gives him a wry smile when Sasuke settles next to him. He looks impossibly young with the sunglasses. Sasuke points to the Nidaime’s shades. “Where’d you get those?”
“Kid, I’m a founding father of this country,” the Nidaime says, giving him a toothy grin. “If I want sunglasses and a fruity alcoholic drink with a little umbrella in it, I get it.” For added effect, the Nidaime gestures at the row of empty cocktail glasses on the patio table. There are little umbrellas in each and every single one of them. He’s been at it for a while, it seems, although there’s nothing about the Nidaime to suggest he’s four drinks in.
Sasuke raises an eyebrow. “Having fun?”
The Nidaime shrugs. “I can’t get drunk.”
“So if you can’t get drunk and don’t need to drink, why drink?” Sasuke asks, and the Nidaime hm-s under his breath.
“They’ve made some advances in mixing cocktails since I died. Having electric-powered blenders has helped considerably,” he says. He studies Sasuke’s face for a moment before asking, “What’s wrong?”
“The job is shit,” Sasuke answers easily. He’s only ever led a small band of eighty men. Now, he has six thousand. Now, he has to stand in a room and pretend to be Hatake Kakashi’s equal. And why? Because he is Jugo’s blood-brother, and Jugo is his. “Fucking nepotism.”
“Don’t be stupid,” the Nidaime mutters under his breath. “You think my brother made me his commander because of nepotism?”
“The Shodaime made you his commander because you’re Senju Tobira—”
“For fuck’s sake, why do people always talk about me like I’m a goddamn fairy tale?” the Nidaime grumbles, shutting his book close with a snap. He looks at Sasuke, expression unreadable behind his sunglasses. “I was your age when my brother made me Commander. He trusted me to do the job and frankly, there was no one else stupid enough to go up against demons, so I stepped up to the fucking plate. Jugo trusts you, so you’ll do the same.”
“Orochimaru never trusted me with more than eighty men to command,” Sasuke points out. “If I asked for more, he always sent someone else to take over.”
“He probably thought you were too dangerous to give more than eighty men,” the Nidaime says easily. “And you were a fucking teenager, Sasuke. I wouldn’t trust you with more than eighty men, no matter how much of a boy wonder you are on the battlefield.”
Boy wonder? Sasuke ignores the insult and tries to make his point again. “That was just a few years ago. Eighty men half a decade ago, and six thousand now.”
The Nidaime dismisses his concern with a casual wave of his hand. “You weren’t properly trained back then. Throwing you into a war was one way of sharpening your skills, but you’ve got the proper instruction now. You are a born and bred warrior, kid. It’s in your blood. It’s your instinct.”
Sasuke stares at his hands. His calluses from wielding swords and kunai and shuriken are beyond redemption now, even though every now and then, Sakura will go through and shave off some of the dead skin carefully with a scalpel. He may have been born and raised in Konohagakure, but he spent the most important years of his life in the Land of Rice Fields, fighting a war. He was a child when he joined as a foot soldier, on the cusp of his teens; by the time he hit his first growth spurt, he was leading troops in battle and marching across the land. He grew up in a war. He got a foot taller, and a hundred pounds heavier. Mrs. Oonishi handed Sasuke his first drink after his first battle, and it was in Otogakure that he learned how to drink and keep drinking until the world got hazy and bearable. He got his first ink from a Yanaizu tattoo artist after he defeated the Kamisunagawa in open battle. He lost his virginity in the trenches to an Aizubange warrior. He doesn’t remember her name because he had been so roaring drunk that night. He learned to ride into war, found out that he was good at it, and just kept going because he wasn’t sure what else to do with himself—surely someone would kill him in battle, and put him out of his fucking misery.
No one did. What ended up happening was that Sasuke became intimately familiar with the grime and squalor of battle, the resistance of a body when he pushed a sword into it. When he dragged Orochimaru’s body back to Konohagakure, he was hoping to leave that body count behind.
“Jugo’s asking me to lead men who I fought against. I conquered their lands. I murdered their kin for no reason at all. I was just…following orders.” He was following Orochimaru, a man so perverted in his malice that there was nothing human left of him. “There was no honor in what I did.”
The Nidaime’s voice is quiet when he speaks. “It’s not murder when it’s on a battlefield, Sasuke. It’s the job.” He pauses a beat, and adds, voice quieter still, barely a whisper, “There isn’t always honor in war.”
“No,” Sasuke agrees. “I guess you just learn to live with what you’ve made of your name.”
The Nidaime jostles him lightly in the ribs with an elbow, drawing Sasuke’s attention back towards him. “My father gave me my name when I was born. It’s just a name. I made my legacy. You will too.”
“Is this your attempt at a pep talk?” Sasuke asks. The Nidaime is clear and precise when it comes to their training sessions, but sometimes, the man can talk in circles and make no sense at all.
The Nidaime smiles, but there’s something strained about it. “I sometimes think that if I met you before I wrote the Wildfire Contingency, the world might not be ending today.”
Sasuke’s eyes track down to the Nidaime’s toes. It’s such an innocuous detail, but it draws his gaze. Senju Tobirama has toes. He’s heard the Nidaime wax poetic about the art of brewing beer, and that one time he got high as a kite and ended up eating through their entire food supply, and Brother was so pissed! But here sits the man—Senju Tobirama—saying, I made my legacy, while bouncing his bare feet to a nonsensical rhythm.
Sasuke stares at the scar running around the Nidaime’s right ankle when he asks the question. “You and the Shodaime are getting tired, aren’t you?”
The Nidaime’s foot goes still. He curls his toes, and then uncurls them again. “It’s that obvious?”
"To me, it is," Sasuke admits. Once, the Nidaime had promised Sasuke, You have us. Sasuke had begged Rin to kill him, and scorched an entire acre of earth in his desperation to die. Afterwards, the Nidaime had looked him in the eyes and promised him, We’ve got your back. So now, Sasuke holds the Nidaime’s gaze and asks, “Are you in pain?”
The Nidaime’s lips quirk up in a smile. “No,” he says, quiet. “Just tired.”
“Do you sleep?”
The Nidaime shakes his head lightly. “Something like sleeping,” he mutters, taking off his glasses to rub a hand over his face. “My mind wanders in this space between waking and sleeping, and I open my eyes thinking I can feel my heart beating in my chest.”
Sasuke takes a deep breath. “When Rin took me to that place to give me life, I was trapped in between realms. I spent a little over four months there the first time. Over eight months the second time.” The sun is slanting across the sky so that both Sasuke and the Nidaime are both directly in the path of its rays. Sasuke covers the tattoo of Rin on his neck instinctively. Stubborn, there’s no other word for her. She’d refused, time and again, to let him go on his way. Whatever happens with Madara, Rin cannot stand against his death a third time. “I can feel it sometimes. It’s in my bones. My soul’s been corrupted, and I can feel it.” The words come out as a whisper; it leaves Sasuke nearly breathless from admitting the truth of it. He’s never said it aloud, but he’s never kept a secret from the Nidaime before. He doesn’t intend to start now. “Is that happening to you?”
The Nidaime clenches his jaw so tight it makes a muscle in his cheek jump. He holds Sasuke’s gaze steady for a long moment, and then nods his head just once. “Brother, too, I think. But he doesn’t tell me.”
Sasuke has to swallow on the bile rising in his throat. He doesn’t want the Shodaime and the Nidaime to suffer through what he did. He doesn’t want the Yondaime and Sarutobi’s final waking memories to be of that sickening dread. They’re stuck between realms, as Sasuke had been for all those months. “You don’t have to stay,” Sasuke offers. “You and the Shodaime—”
“We have to,” the Nidaime interrupts quietly. “We should’ve put an end to Madara a long time ago. We failed. We have to correct our mistakes. Minato won’t leave until Naruto is safe, and Hiruzen won’t leave Minato behind, no matter how tired he gets.”
There’s no point arguing with the Nidaime, not when his face looks as if it’s carved out of stone. This is the Nidaime’s war, and even though he’s not in the war council or the battlefield, this is a fight he intends to finish. “After Madara, then,” he promises. He doesn’t finish his sentence. I will lay you down to sleep.
The Nidaime’s shoulders slump with obvious relief. “After Madara,” he agrees. He watches Sasuke’s face carefully for a few moments. “What will you do after this is over?”
Sasuke shrugs, but it feels stiff. “I think Brother wants to stay. He had me sign papers today about the line of succession for Clan Elder and college funds for the next generation. Sakura is definitely shacking up with Lee, and she's family now, so if she stays, that's even more reason for Brother to stay. Sakura and Itachi are probably going to start looking for property soon for the Clan. And now Brother’s flirting with Tenten. Who the fuck knows where that’s going—”
“I didn’t ask about Sakura or your brother, Sasuke,” the Nidaime interrupts quietly. He’s watching Sasuke with a small frown. “What are you going to do?”
Sasuke has gotten used to waking up every day and having his brother by his side—shuffling miserably out of his room and fumbling for his first cup of coffee; scowling at breakfast and asking why, in the name of all the gods above, can’t we have cheese, Sasuke? Eggs demand cheese; filling out his Sunday crossword puzzle with a pen because pencils are for losers who make mistakes; giving Sasuke a dimpled smile across the basketball court; settling into the couch next to Sasuke at the end of a long day and playing a round of rock, paper, scissors to decide who gets to pick the movie.
Itachi eats as if he’s working towards a heart attack at forty, as if the only relevant food groups are junk food, pastries, beer, and cheese on everything because he can’t cook for shit. Someone will have to make sure he eats a vegetable every now and then.
Sasuke could spend the rest of his life being Itachi’s brother and that would be enough. He can imagine Itachi getting old, with gray in his hair and crow’s feet around his eyes. He imagines Itachi with children, with grandchildren—peace and solace after a lifetime of war. That is all Sasuke wants for Itachi; he will fight to make sure Itachi has it. One day, his brother will settle into the role of Clan Elder as he was born to do—as Yashiro knew the moment Itachi blinked open his eyes and stared curiously at the world from the gentle cradle of Mikoto’s arms—and people will stand out of respect.
But Sasuke? Sasuke closes his eyes at the end of each day and still remembers walking towards the horizon across rolling plains and blistering sand dunes. He remembers sleeping under a blanket of stars and feeling a cool breeze drifting down from the mountainside, looking up at the sky and seeing—
Crystal-blue eyes fringed with thick lashes, and cupid’s bow lips curling into a soft smile, telling him, I love you.
“I don’t know,” Sasuke admits finally.
The Nidaime stretches out both his legs, crossing one over the other to get more comfortable. “What about Naruto?”
Sasuke can’t look at the Nidaime when he answers, so he doesn’t. He looks towards the Yondaime, visible through the glass doors leading to the balcony. He’s painting seals with a brush, Sarutobi at his right, the two of them talking earnestly. The Shodaime has joined them, and he’s watching the proceedings carefully. “He said he doesn’t want to love me anymore.”
The Nidaime lets the silence rest between them for a few moments. When he speaks again, his voice is back to being loud. “You know what you need?” Sasuke raises an eyebrow at the Nidaime because he knows the man well enough to recognize a rhetorical question. “A smoke,” the Nidaime says with great determination, and gets to his feet. Sasuke has no choice but to follow the Nidaime to the balcony furniture. The Nidaime reaches towards a small lacquered box on one of the chairs, hidden from view. He snaps open the box with a flourish and Sasuke can’t help but smile at what he sees inside: Cigars.
“You ever have one?” the Nidaime asks, and when Sasuke shakes his head, he talks Sasuke through the process. He tells Sasuke what to look for in a good cigar, how to store them to preserve the leaf, how to clip off the end, and how to light it with a match—none of your katon tricks, you hear. He shows Sasuke first how to breathe the cigar to life, eyes crinkling in approval when Sasuke replicates him perfectly. “Well?”
Sasuke breathes deeply. He’s so used to cheap cigarettes that the heft of the cigar in his fingers and the richness of the smoke is almost overwhelming. “You held out on me, Senju,” Sasuke points out. “You should’ve shared this gift with me sooner.”
The Nidaime leans against the balcony railing to look out at the Village. “I should have,” he admits. “If I don’t teach you how to smoke like a man, no one will.”
Sasuke has to concede to his logic. “Who taught you?”
“Senju Butsuma,” the Nidaime intones with exaggerated seriousness. At Sasuke’s confused expression, he clarifies, “My father. Brother doesn’t smoke much, and my younger brothers were young when they died, so it was just me to enjoy the small things in life.”
Sasuke tries not to stare at the Nidaime but mostly fails. He’d always assumed that the Shodaime and Nidaime were the only Senju siblings, but—younger brothers, the Nidaime said, too casually. He’s missing pieces.
Sasuke isn’t sure how he’s missed it all this time. He and Itachi are missing pieces too, the negative space contorting in the silence around them where Shisui should be but isn’t. Tomomi was still an idea, but with Sakura in their lives now, her absence is becoming more pronounced. With Sakura as a blueprint, Sasuke can imagine how a sister could have fit into both their lives.
“How many were you?”
“Four. There were two after me,” the Nidaime answers. “Itama and Kawarama.”
I’m sorry is what most people say, Sasuke knows, but the grief of a brother lost can’t be countered with such trite words. Instead, Sasuke holds his peace and waits for the Nidaime to break the silence when he’s ready.
It’s a few more minutes before the Nidaime speaks again. He returns to the original bone he was picking, because the Nidaime is tenacious if nothing else, especially if it means avoiding talking about himself. “So it’s over with Naruto?”
“I fucked it up. It’s what it is now,” Sasuke admits. It makes something in his gut clench to admit it aloud, but he’s getting better at it now. He can learn to live with this. But still, the sting is still fresh. He takes another deep breath of the cigar and on the exhale, adds, “A fucking Betsukai, though.”
The Nidaime gives him a sidelong glance, so Sasuke tells the Nidaime about his two miserable campaigns against the Betsukai, about Betsukai Togichi, that wily son of a bitch, and now his son, Rausu, that pup. Thirty men, he tells the Nidaime, that’s all I needed to win. And now Betsukai goddamn Rausu is making Naruto smile. “It’s not my business,” Sasuke insists. “It’s not my place, but of all the goddamn people, Naruto smiles at Betsukai Rausu.”
“Naruto smiled at him,” the Nidaime deadpans.
“It was obvious to anyone who was looking what that motherfucker Betsukai was—”
“Naruto smiled at Rausu,” the Nidaime repeats. “For fuck’s sake, Sasuke, you’re going to have to sit through Naruto’s wedding one day. You can’t even watch him smile at another man? Get a grip, kid.”
“I’m not going to the wedding,” Sasuke snaps.
The Nidaime scoffs as he looks away. “I did,” he mutters under his breath, gaze focusing on the far horizon where the wall rises to its full height, blocking the view of the redwoods beyond.
It takes a moment for Sasuke to connect the dots. It’s the careful way the Nidaime is holding himself, the way he’s staring off into the distance. I was a coward once, the Nidaime said, and Sasuke has always wondered what kind of woman could leave a man like Senju Tobirama look so brittle. “What was her name?”
The Nidaime closes his eyes and inhales, deep and steady. On the exhale, he says her name, careful, so very gentle, like the name itself is precious: “Naori.”
Sasuke goes absolutely still. He’s seen that name on the dragon stone. According to the Clan records, she died in old age after stepping into the position of Clan Elder once Uchiha Izuna passed. She was Izuna’s and Madara’s half-sister; Sasuke is a direct descendent of Uchiha Naori. It’s a unique name, but he still has to ask to make sure. “My great-great grandmother’s name was Naori.”
The Nidaime nods, still not making eye contact with Sasuke. He is scanning the horizon, but Sasuke wonders if he’s really seeing any of the details of the Village laid out below them. “Like I said, just a few different choices on my part and...who knows what this world would look like right now.”
Sasuke knows he should hold his silence, but he can’t, not when the Nidaime looks so brittle. “You made the choices you made given the circumstances you were in,” Sasuke argues, trying to lighten the weight the Nidaime is obviously carrying. He doesn’t say the specifics of the circumstances, though, because they are endless: who she was, who she was related to, what Madara did to the Shodaime, the war, the Wildfire Contingency. “You couldn’t be with her.”
“It’s not that I couldn’t. I didn’t,” the Nidaime corrects him gently. “I could have, but I didn’t. I chose not to. That’s the thing, Sasuke. It’s a goddamn choice. A man has to choose, and I didn’t.”
The Nidaime has never talked about something as personal as this. Over the months and years they’ve known each other, Sasuke has learned the Nidaime’s moods and his temper. He’s learned the Nidaime’s favorite songs, food, and books. He’s intimately familiar with all the Nidaime’s pet peeves—tardiness, disobedience, a kitchen without at least one decent bottle of whiskey—but never something personal like this. Sasuke can’t help himself. He asks, “Why not?”
“I was a coward,” the Nidaime answers. It’s not the first time he has said this. He’s said it to Sasuke over and over again, every time Sasuke hesitated to turn to Naruto. Don’t be a coward, he’d cajole, I was. “I watched her fall in love with another man, and then I watched her marry him. I went to the wedding. I had to. I thought, if I watch her walk down the aisle, I could finally learn to live with it, but—” The Nidaime’s hand clenches into a fist, and he stops talking. It’s a long moment before he gathers his thoughts again. “At least, I passed before she did.” He gestures widely to encompass the Village spread out before them. “Years fighting to keep all of this safe. What would be the point without her being in it?”
The words come tumbling out before Sasuke can stop himself. “How bad was it?” The Nidaime gives him a curious look, so Sasuke elaborates, “Watching her be with someone else.”
The Nidaime smiles. “That’s one thing I don’t have to teach you, kid,” he says, but there’s no humor in his voice. Sasuke regrets asking the question now, because the Nidaime’s earlier mirth has vanished entirely. Tired. He looks goddamn exhausted. “You’ll be fine, though,” the Nidaime promises, almost as if he’s talking to himself. “You ship out tomorrow?”
Sasuke has marched to war so often that he doesn’t stop to consider what the march tomorrow will mean. He will march north with Jugo and the other northerners and set up a new hidden village at the mouth of the Omine Valley to box Madara in. Kakashi will follow with his army, and they will finally attack. When they capture Madara alive, they will return him to Konohagakure and then…
Boar seal to finish, that’s what Pakkun told him.
“Yeah. We leave early tomorrow.”
“Make sure you diversify your attack sequences,” the Nidaime says thoughtfully. It’s a slight weakness in his defense. Not significant, but enough that it might lead to trouble against a certain caliber of opponents. Like Kakashi or Itachi. Or Madara. Sharingan users, all of them. “When you pivot on your left heel, watch how you overpronate. It could be leveraged against you to unbalance you.”
Sasuke is used to this level of instruction. The Nidaime is a perfectionist, and they are at a stage in their training that the Nidaime nitpicks the precise angle that his heel strikes the ground. Most days, Sasuke will absorb all the criticisms and work on them for their next training session. Today, though, he looks at the Nidaime and realizes—
There will be no more training sessions.
“—the issue isn’t precision. Your technique will constantly evolve, so there will be constant need for modifications,” the Nidaime is saying. He stops, abrupt, and frowns at Sasuke. “Something on my face?”
“No.” Sasuke can’t find the words to make light of the situation and point it out. He just stares at the Nidaime, and keeps staring, watching for the small movements of his body so he can capture the details: the precise hue of the tattoos on the man’s face, the furrow of his brows, the line of his jaw.
“The fuck, kid, quit staring,” the Nidaime grouses. “If something’s on my face, the polite thing to do is tell me about it.”
“I’m just zoning out,” Sasuke says, and the lie falls flat. The Nidaime gives him a lopsided smile, leaning into him lightly to jostle him with an elbow.
“Quit worrying, kid,” he offers. “You've got this.”
The thing to do is move on from this conversation, but Sasuke can’t look away from the weariness in the Nidaime’s gaze. “I’ll end this quickly,” he promises.
The Nidaime carefully inspects his cigar, although there’s nothing to see there. “Make sure you do,” he says, voice just a low, rumbling whisper now. “Brother hasn’t been sleeping well. And Minato is…It’s getting hard for him. Hiruzen, too.”
Tired, all of them. “And you?”
“It’ll be worse when you’re off fighting the war. The waiting will be worse,” the Nidaime says, evading the question entirely. He straightens from his slouch against the balcony railings. In an instant, he’s just as unyielding as the carving on the mountain behind him. “We’re not used to sitting on the sidelines.”
“I’ll be back soon,” Sasuke promises. “I’ll be back with Madara, alive. We’ll end this.”
The Nidaime considers Sasuke carefully. “If you don’t want to do this, Pakkun will.”
He has had the ghosts by his side for so long that it’s instinct now to wake up from nightmares and seek out the Shodaime. He can sometimes feel the phantom press of the Shodaime’s hand against his forehead, hear his voice say, Just a dream, son. He hears the Nidaime’s voice in his head when he wakes up in the morning for his run;
To your feet, the Nidaime would say when Sasuke was at his worst and could barely open his eyes for his aching to just yield to his grief and lie down to never wake again. Rise, to your feet.
He owes them this. He will help them find their peace at the end of their long, weary years. He knows what it is to be trapped between realms, and he will ease them from that suffering. It is the least he can do. “And miss the chance to say that I killed Senju Tobirama?” he asks, giving the Nidaime a sharp grin. It feels as if his muscles are frozen in place; it almost hurts to smile. “Like hell.”
The Nidaime’s smile is sharp and bright as always. Sasuke lets his Mangekyou whorl to life so he can memorize it. “Now that’s just downright rude,” the Nidaime says with a laugh. He glances towards the other ghosts through the glass of the door. “Looks like Brother ordered food for you.”
Sasuke follows the Nidaime’s gaze and sees that the Shodaime has cleared off the dining table to make room for copious amounts of food. They both step back inside together, and for the first time in a long time, the five of them sit down for a meal. They watch him eat, and as always, they talk while they do, falling into a familiar, easy banter. When Sasuke finishes clearing off his plate, the ghosts linger instead of getting back to work. Tired, all of them, Sasuke realizes. He knows that weariness.
“Why are the northerners insisting on heading before Kakashi and his troops?” the Yondaime asks.
Sasuke leans forward to grab a handful of blueberries from the plate in the middle. No desserts in his nutrition plan means he relies almost entirely on berries for his sugar fix. “We need to set up Otogakure.”
Sarutobi looks unconvinced. “You intend to raise up an entire hidden village in just a few days?”
“Two days, at most,” Sasuke says with a shrug. “It’s the north. All the tribes are nomadic, so they’re used to it.”
Sarutobi hm-s under his breath. “It should be quite the sight to behold.”
“It will be,” Sasuke says. “The north is…” He trails off, trying and failing to find the right words.
The Shodaime smiles. “The north is?”
It takes a few stuttering attempts, but Sasuke eventually manages to tell them about the vast rolling plains, the swollen blue sky, the mountain peaks and the powerful rivers. The scent of pine on the breeze, he says, and explains to them the feeling of walking through the Birchwood forests as the seasons turn, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the crispness of the air. He even tells them about the jagged cliffs of the northern seas, the cold, relentless crash of waves, the sting of salt against his face when he crossed the strait to the northern isles. There are glaciers in the northern isles that are an aquamarine blue so clear it’s as if there are fairies holding lamps under the ice. A magic trick, he tells them, but not really, because he’d pressed a hand against the ice and stared deep into its depths and found nothing but the crystalline perfection of ice frozen into place, millennia ago. “And when the ice shifts, it’s like thunder cracking beneath your feet,” Sasuke says. “It’s just pure white snow, so bright it makes your eyes hurt, and you can’t even tell where the horizon meets the sky—”
He stops, realizing he’s been rambling. The others are all watching him quietly still, so he clears his throat and says, “The hidden village will be built quickly and efficiently.”
“The hell, kid,” the Nidaime murmurs under his breath. Sometime during Sasuke’s rambling, he had slumped forward to rest his chin on his forearms on the table to listen, but now, he straightens. “Where’d you learn to talk like that?”
“He always talked like that,” the Shodaime says quietly. “He just kept it to himself.”
The Yondaime gives the Shodaime a lopsided smile. “I guess you were right, Hashirama-sama. He has a poet in him after all.”
Sasuke scowls. “I don’t have a fucking poet—”
“You should hear him play the piano,” the Shodaime says, and before Sasuke can protest, he’s parked in front of the instrument. When he just scowls at the piano keys, the Shodaime heaves a world-weary sigh and takes a seat next to him.
Sasuke watches him in profile, the movement of his fingers, the small smile he gets when he lets himself get lost in the music for a moment. He plays only for a few short minutes, and then turns to Sasuke. “If I am willing to play in public, you should be, too, Sasuke.”
Normally, Sasuke would protest, but then he notices again the wrinkles around the Shodaime’s eyes, the whites in his hair. Sasuke turns his attention to the piano, and chooses one of the Shodaime’s favorite pieces. The Shodaime moves away from the piano entirely and sits next to the Nidaime on the couch while Sasuke continues to play.
When he’s finished with one piece, Sarutobi clears his throat and puts in a request for another, naming it by the composer and title. Sasuke plays that as well, and then plays a third, another one for the Shodaime, because it’s worth it to see him smile again.
When the final note lingers in the air, the Nidaime murmurs again, “The hell, kid.”
“I told you,” the Shodaime says.
“I assumed he would be good,” Sarutobi says quietly. “But it is an entirely different thing to hear him play, Hashirama-sama. A poet, indeed.”
Sasuke flushes. “It’s the Sharingan,” he says. “It memorizes movement, so it’s easy to learn instruments or, more importantly, weapons and taijutsu—”
“Don’t,” the Yondaime says, cutting into Sasuke’s explanation quietly. He gives Sasuke a small smile. “You’re good, Uchiha. You should keep at it.”
When we’re gone, is what he’s not saying, but Sasuke hears it nonetheless.
“I will. I like playing,” Sasuke promises, holding the Shodaime's gaze steady. He’s rewarded with a smile.
Sasuke pushes away from the piano, and briefly drops back out onto the balcony to gather his gear before he heads for the door, pointing out that he should get back to work, which the ghosts agree is likely a good idea. He’s wasted away most of the afternoon already, when he had an endless list of things he should have been doing instead. He doesn’t regret spending the time the way he did, but he has to march tomorrow.
The Shodaime walks him to the door. “Did you pack for your march?”
“I will later tonight,” Sasuke answers, and lets his Mangekyou whorl to life just in time to memorize the Shodaime’s fond exasperation at his perpetual procrastination.
“I’ll be back soon,” Sasuke promises him—and the others, too, holding each of their gazes as he says the words. They have all gathered around the dining table again, pulling out the books and scrolls on the Otsutsuki seals from before. “It’ll be over soon.”
Sarutobi goes still. “That would be nice,” he says after a moment. He breathes out carefully, blowing out just a wispy stream of smoke from his pipe. “Perhaps, we should ask Kakashi to leave Pakkun here with us just in case.”
“I’ll talk to Kakashi,” the Yondaime offers. “Nothing wrong with being prepared just in case.”
Just in case their souls change and become corrupted. Just in case Sasuke doesn’t come back in time to give the Shodaime the burial he wants. He steps out of the door, and the Shodaime lingers in the doorway as always to see him off.
“I’ll be back soon,” Sasuke promises again. “You can look Madara in the eyes, and end this.”
“I will,” the Shodaime agrees. “Get some rest tonight, son.”
Sasuke had been planning on saying goodbye to the ghosts later in the evening, but he’s not sure he can do this twice. So he lingers. “You too, Shodaime.”
The Shodaime’s lips curl up in a smile. “I will try,” he promises, and holds out a single arm.
Sasuke steps into the embrace and grips the Shodaime’s robes tight. “Are you in pain?”
“No,” the Shodaime answers easily. "I am fine."
Liar. He knows it immediately, knows it in his bones, because the Shodaime goes still in his arms as he says the word. It’s the slightest tell, only noticeable because they’re embracing.
Sasuke tries another question, just to be sure. “Would you tell me if you were?”
The Shodaime puts a hand carefully to the back of Sasuke’s neck, holding him steady. “Yes, of course.”
Him and the Nidaime, the both of them, liars. They’ve lied to him before about far greater things; they can lie about this too. They aren’t just tired, they’re in pain, too.
Sasuke steps back, determined now. He will march. He will return. He will do it quickly. They do not deserve this prolonged misery. “I’ll see you when I get home.”
“You will,” the Shodaime promises. He holds Sasuke's shoulders, holding Sasuke still at arm’s length while he looks carefully at Sasuke. It takes a moment for Sasuke to recognize what the Shodaime is doing. Memorizing details.
Sasuke needs to make sure, so he steps back in for another hug. “I’ll see you when I get home, Hashirama-sensei,” he repeats, and holds the Shodaime close as he says the words.
“You will, son,” the Shodaime repeats. This time, Sasuke knows, it’s the truth. He pulls away before the sting in his eyes can overwhelm him entirely, and walks away.
The Betsukai rider arrives in the middle of the night. He thunders through the Northern gate, breaks every rule on the road to the Tower, and to top it off, spurs his horse up the steps of the Tower in a clatter of hooves, ignoring the increasingly hostile shouts from Secret Service to stand down, goddamn it, man, stand down. Instead, Togichi’s nephew, Rausu’s cousin and blood-brother, swings down into a sea of armed Jounin guards and bellows, My name is Betsukai Abira. Where is Lord Biratori?
Sasuke and Itachi hear of the dramatic arrival of Betsukai Abira from an irate Secret Service guard who marches Abira to Jugo and stiffly reports what has occurred to the Konohagakure high command gathered. They had both been awakened by a genin messenger from the Tower pounding on their door; they’d arrived at Tsunade’s offices just in time to hear the jounin’s report.
“Fuck you very much,” Abira says with a blinding grin when the jounin finishes talking, and Sasuke knows immediately that here, at last, is a Betsukai he likes.
“What’s the message, Abira?” Jugo demands, getting to his feet, hand resting casually on the head of his battle-axe at his belt. He towers in the room, and even though they’ve assembled in Tsunade’s offices for this occasion, he holds command firmly.
“His army’s grown, sire,” Abira announces flatly. “My men had been watching him over the Tomioka ridge as you commanded, and overnight, he’s added nearly eight hundred men. There wasn’t a single goddamn report of troop movement. We’d been watching every road into the Valley, and we didn’t see anything. Just like that—” he snaps his fingers. “There’s fourteen thousand men in that valley now.”
Jugo glances at Sasuke, expression unchanging. But Sasuke notices the way his hand tightens around his battle-axe. “Did you have men watching the northern passes?” Sasuke asks.
“As if the Rebun would let us watch those passes,” Abira grumbles. He tugs angrily at the leather strap holding his cloak around his neck. Like his boots, it’s spattered with mud. He’s traveled hard and fast, but despite the dirt on his face it's clear that he's a Betsukai: strong-jawed, clear-eyed, and deep hue to his skin. Handsome, too, like Rausu.
Jugo picks up on Abira’s discomfort immediately. “Rest your feet, Betsukai,” he orders, and Abira groans his relief before heading for the empty spot on the couch next to Jiraiya. “Pardon,” he says, and sinks into the cushions, rolling his head back onto the couch, moaning in relief. “Motherfucker, I could marry this chair.”
“What colors were the men wearing?” Suigetsu demands. He’s lounging against the window sill on the far side of the room. He didn’t even have a chance to pull on all his clothes, just a short-sleeved undershirt that shows off the scars crisscrossing on his powerful forearms—Orochimaru’s souvenirs.
“No colors. Just black gear,” Abira explains, rubbing at his face. He’s a handsome man like Rausu, but the journey has clearly worn him thin. Even the indigo-blue tattoos on the left side of his face seem faded from his exhaustion.
Suigetsu gives Sasuke a quick glance. The troops came down through the northern passes; there’s no arguing that point anymore. Suigetsu asks the more relevant question. “Are the Rebun siding with Madara?”
“It’s not the Rebun. They wear white or gray, to blend with the snows,” Abira says, lifting his head from the couch. He looks around at the people gathered in the room. His gaze slides easily over Konohagakure’s high command, but he takes careful note of the northerners in the room, eyes lingering on Karin. “Where’s my cousin?”
“Rausu's on his way,” Karin answers easily. “You’re sure it’s not the Rebun?”
Abira shakes his head. “They might have come down through the northern passes, but it’s not Rebun troops. Those Rebun motherfuckers are loud and vicious. They sing their battle songs when they know they’re being watched by the enemy. These troops were quiet. Too quiet. And they were wearing black.”
Jugo heaves a breath. “Fourteen thousand men. Where is he getting this army from?”
Abira is the one who answers. “A ghost-army, sire. That’s what the rumors are. But I was counting their numbers, and I can tell you, they look solid to me.”
Sasuke glances towards Naruto who is chewing his bottom lip in thought while he watches Jugo. He’d said the same words the other day. But that can’t be, Sasuke thinks, because that would mean that Uchiha Madara has somehow raised an entire army of clones or zombies or some other supernatural clusterfuck. It’s unlikely, but if there is even a remote possibility—
Sasuke clears his throat, drawing Jugo’s attention to him. He dips his head politely because Abira is here and there is a hierarchy he must obey. Jugo’s authority has been given voluntarily by all the tribes; Sasuke will not do anything to cast that authority in doubt. “A moment, if you would, sire.”
“Excuse us, Tsunade-sama,” Jugo says, getting to his feet. “Nohine, Karin, take care of this.” He heads for the door even as Karin and Nohine dip their heads and acknowledge the command with a polite, Sire. Sasuke follows, pausing only long enough to make eye contact with Suigetsu and hold his gaze. Suigetsu understands immediately and falls into step next to Sasuke as they step outside.
The minute they’re alone in Tsunade’s waiting rooms, Suigetsu speaks. “On a scale of one to ten, one being Megumi has a cold, and ten being the end of the world, how would you rate the news you’re about to break to us?”
Jugo watches Sasuke solemnly. They have spent far too much time in the trenches together; of course they both immediately understood the gravity of the situation before Sasuke even says a word. “I can live with a five,” Jugo says. “A six, even.”
Sasuke doesn’t know how to say what needs to be said, or where to even start. He’s told them about the crack in the earth, but he hasn’t told them yet all that came before it. The best thing to do is to ease them into it. He can start with the easy news and then build up to the possible army of the undead.
Sasuke takes a deep breath, counts to ten, and says, “I see dead people.”
Suigetsu’s mouth flaps open. Jugo covers his face with both hands. “This feels like a five,” he says, voice sounding muffled from behind his hands. It makes something clench in Sasuke’s chest to know that Jugo and Suigetsu accept his words without hesitation, that they can hear something as asinine as I see dead people and just absorb the news without questioning it. “I can live with a five.”
“Also,” Sasuke says, because there’s no place to march but onwards at this point, “There is a possibility that Madara actually has an army of the undead.”
“That definitely feels like a ten,” Suigetsu breathes. He recovers from his shock a split-second later. His voice ratchets up to its highest volume. “Uchiha goddamn Sasuke, you piece of motherfucking shit. I hate you so goddamn much, I might die from it.”
Abira complains endlessly and with great eloquence about his shit luck. “It’s so nice and warm here,” he yells, flailing his arms about to indicate his surroundings. It’s the crack of dawn, and they have assembled at the northern gate to march after a night of little sleep. Abira’s intelligence is concerning, but it doesn’t change anything except put a clock on their war plan. The longer they let Madara stew in the Omine Valley, the larger his army is getting. They must strike now.
Abira has the energy of a man who has just been jolted awake by a few volts of caffeine despite the hour of the day. Sasuke doesn’t blame him because the man just rode south and now he rides north again, with barely a few hours of respite. “I just got here!”
Inoue chews thoughtfully on his apple. “After a day, you’ll think it’s too warm, Abira.”
This only serves to set Abira off on another fit of flailing arms. “I want a vacation! I at least want a drink! A fruity, colorful drink! With a little umbrella in it! They drink those here, you know!”
Nohine leans forward in her saddle, smiling. She is striking in her war gear, dark hair pulled into a high ponytail which only accentuates the riveting angles of her face. She’s a tall woman, but astride her horse, she looms taller still. When Sasuke was young and fighting Orochimaru’s wars, he dreamed of taking Nohine to bed. She was far too smart to let him anywhere near her; Sasuke thinks that their friendship is stronger for it. “I’ll buy you a drink after the war, Abira,” she offers. “In fact, we’ll all buy you a drink after this is over.”
Abira jabs a finger at the congregation of northerners. “I will drink you motherfuckers dry,” he promises them.
“Abira,” Jugo warns, and Abira stalks over to his horse to begin saddling up. Jugo turns to Tsunade with a smile, and holds out his hand. “It was an honor, Hokage-sama.”
“The honor was mine,” Tsunade promises him. There’s an audience for this moment, so they both pitch their voices loud enough to be heard. Konohagakure high command has assembled for this send-off, along with a few key members of Senior Council and Congress. It’s a goddamn parade, and while Jugo and the northerners seemed confused for the necessity of such formalities, Jugo gamely accepted Tsunade’s heartfelt speech of thanks, well wishes on his journey, and promise to meet him on the battle-field. He even countered with a speech of his own, far shorter but infused with the kind of sincerity that only Jugo can convey. Even Hiashi had been beaming by the time Jugo finished talking about the future that he envisions, a north and a south united, a peace that outlasts all the centuries of strife that came before it.
Sasuke finishes adjusting the straps on Ozora’s saddle. She paws at the ground, impatient already in the early morning stillness. The northerners sit astride their mounts with the ease of a lifetime in the saddle. Sasuke learned how to ride in the north, but it’s still hard not to admire how Rausu swings onto his mare with one graceful motion and stills her with just a hand on her thick, powerful neck.
Karin mounts her horse and gives Sasuke an arch glance. “Go on, go say your goodbyes, Konoha.”
It’s clear who she’s referring to. Normally, Sasuke doesn’t respond to her taunts about his loyalty to Kakashi, but he doesn’t hold back this time. “Did you say your goodbyes?”
It’s petty and it’s childish, but Sasuke can’t find it in himself to care, not when Kakashi’s grey eye is focused almost entirely on her every move. He hasn’t looked away from her a single moment during their protracted farewell; he didn’t even look away from Karin when Jugo was speaking.
Why, he wants to ask her. You hate him so much, so why? He’s not even sure he wants to hear her answer. If it’s to place a careful crack in Kakashi’s defenses, he’ll be vulnerable for a lifetime. If it’s just to mock him, the insult will run deep. There is no good reason for Karin’s actions, and after a lifetime of following Kakashi’s orders, it stings Sasuke that Karin would do something so brazen.
Karin only smiles. “I’m sure your family would like to say their goodbyes,” she says, bypassing Sasuke’s insinuation entirely. She moves her horse away with a slight tug before Sasuke can respond, joining Inoue and Subaru like she usually does.
There is a time and place for this conversation with Karin, and now is not it. Now is the time to say goodbye to Sakura, because she had arrived to see him off like she always does. She’s wearing a jounin uniform, standing close to Itachi. She breaks away from the rest of the Konohagakure shinobi when Sasuke approaches her with his arms held out. She fits neatly into his arms, and Sasuke tucks his chin over her head, feeling his annoyance at Karin disappear entirely. “I’ll see you on the battlefield.”
“You will,” Sakura promises him, voice muffled into his chest. She pulls back just enough to stand on her tiptoes and press two quick kisses to his cheek. “Don’t get impatient and start the war without us, doofus.”
When she pulls away, she falls back to her original spot next to Itachi. Sasuke doesn’t bother hiding his smile. Your family, Karin had said, and Sasuke remembers all those times Fugaku had told him, Blood runs thick. “Be good while I’m gone, Uchihas.”
“I’m always good,” Sakura counters primly.
Itachi makes a face as if he’s tasted something sour. “Be good,” he says, mimicking an atrocious northern accent. “Says the only Uchiha here with a criminal record.”
It’s instinct. He can’t stay silent, not when Itachi is already scowling as if he’s swallowing on an entire lecture about Sasuke’s delinquencies. Sasuke holds out his arms. “I’ll miss you too, Brother. I think we should hug this out.”
Itachi’s Mangekyou whorls. “I haven’t had my coffee yet. Don’t push me.”
Sasuke takes a step forward, grinning so wide it makes his cheeks hurt. Sakura’s shoulders are shaking with silent laughter. “Bring it in, Bro. Show me some fraternal love.”
Itachi snarls, Why do you have to be so goddamn annoying, but it’s too late. Sasuke is taller than Itachi by a few inches and he weighs a considerable amount more. It’s not hard to bundle him in for a hug, thumping him on the back with gusto. “It’s not even five in the morning. How in blue fuck are you so goddamn annoying already?” Itachi asks in a grumble, but he puts his arms around Sasuke.
It’s the most lukewarm hug Sasuke has ever received, but he steps away from it with a grin anyways. “I’ll see you on the battlefield.”
“I really need coffee,” Itachi says in response, which is as much as a farewell as he will ever give.
Sasuke returns to Ozora, and swings into his saddle easily. Jugo is still saying his last-minute farewells to Kakashi, Tsunade, and Jiraiya—and Naruto. Sasuke looks quickly away before Naruto catches him looking. He won’t put Naruto on the spot by dragging out a stilted, polite farewell; it’s better to just spare them both of that. Instead, he busies himself with checking the straps holding his weapons onto Ozora’s saddle until he senses Jugo mounting his own horse a few feet away.
The northerners fall silent immediately, so all that remains is the sound of the horses in the quiet of the early morning: their hooves on the packed earth, the occasional snort or whinny, the sound of men and women settling into their saddles. Ahead, the village gates are open wide enough to let the twenty riders pass through. Sasuke looks towards the thick cluster of redwood forests.
And beyond, he thinks, is the north.
Jugo gives Sasuke a lopsided smile. When Sasuke rode with his eighty men, he outranked Jugo. It was his authority to give the signal to ride. This time, Sasuke dips his head, conceding authority entirely. “Sire.”
Jugo spurs his horse to the front of the formation, smiling at Tsunade as he moves past her. Sasuke follows just a few paces behind, and Suigetsu falls into place next to him. Suigetsu grins at Sasuke, leaning over in his saddle with a fist held out. Sasuke meets him halfway, bumping fists like they sometimes do. For good luck, for cheer, for no reason at all.
Jugo holds up a hand, glancing just briefly over his shoulder. “We ride!” His voice is loud, a boom in the quiet of the morning, and Sasuke feels the call deep in his bones. Jugo drops his hand to give the signal to ride. “North!”
Sasuke joins the others in calling back, “North!”
They thunder out of the gates, kicking up dust and making the earth shake.