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Abira is the best kind of company for long marches. He is loud, exuberant, and imaginative. Riding next to him makes the miles bearable. It makes Sasuke miss Suigetsu’s presence acutely, because like Suigetsu, Abira likes to sing. He’s almost as good a singer as Suigetsu too. All his songs involve raunchy women and men and far more euphemisms for oral sex than Sasuke ever thought were possible. At one point, there is an extended verse about grapefruits and peaches and the relative delicacies of both, and Sasuke can’t help himself, he starts laughing and can’t stop laughing until he’s doubled over, clutching his stomach and tilting so far out of his saddle that his horse snorts in annoyance at the shift in weight.

Kiba asks Abira what’s so funny, because Abira only knows songs in the northern tongue, which has Abira launching into a broken, poorly translated explanation of his lyrics. The jokes don’t translate well, which has everyone staring at Abira, waiting for the punchline, but the whole conversation has Sasuke laughing even louder, clutching at his stomach and wiping away tears.

War, Sasuke learned while living under Orochimaru’s rule, was hurry up and wait. The battles became famous, but Sasuke spent most of his time walking and marching. Every now and then, they would stop marching to face an enemy. In between, they had to spend the hours of the day together, and it is these smaller moments that Sasuke remembers most fondly about his time in Otogakure. He shared most of it with Suigetsu and Jugo, Subaru and Inoue, and all his other death-riders. Eighty of them, marching from one end of the Land of Rice Fields to the next. The march north this time reminds Sasuke of those days; he’s glad to share it with Itachi and the others.

“It’s funnier in our language,” Abira promises the southerners. He is a skilled enough rider that he’s able to bring up his own mare right alongside Sasuke’s horse without either of them startling from the proximity. Sasuke only presses his face into his horse’s mane and keeps laughing. “And the Lord Commander here has a good sense of humor.”

It takes a few more miles for Sasuke to keep a straight face, and by then, the landscape around them is changing. The trees are becoming sparse, and there is a gentle slope to the land ahead. They’ve been marching for a week now with the last platoon of Konohagakure soldiers. They are mostly jounin and ANBU forces, including all nine members of the former Unit 3, and most of Sasuke’s Academy class. Kakashi is riding ahead with Sakura, Naruto, and Itachi. The road is narrow enough at this point that they can only ride three abreast. The clatter of horses is loud in the quiet of the forest around them. Konohagakure shinobi—like all shinobi—march to war the way they conduct their missions: in relative silence and sobriety. Northerners are far less disciplined.

But the closer to the Land of Rice Fields they get, the louder Abira gets. His jokes and stories and songs get bawdier and funnier, and by the time they finally come across the first strip of rice fields on the border of the northern countries, Sasuke hasn’t stopped smiling for miles. He even teaches Abira a song that Suigetsu used to sing, which makes Abira fall off his horse and roll around the ground, laughing until he cries and disrupting the march of everyone behind them by blocking their path.

“You’ll alert any enemies in a hundred-mile radius,” Neji points out mildly when they make camp on their seventh night. They can only go as fast as their slowest soldier on foot, so the march is taking longer than it would on horseback. Sasuke doesn’t mind the languorous pace, though; he’s almost enjoying it. He starts the fire with a thought, and Akamaru sighs happily, settling close to the heat. It’s getting colder at night the further north they march.

“In our religion, the gods need to hear us on the march to war so they can bless our efforts,” Itachi explains, and glances up at the night sky. By rank, he is Kakashi’s right-hand at the moment, and he fulfills his duty with the same dedication that he does everything else.

“Why are you southerners so fucking quiet?” Abira demands. “It’s unnatural.”

“It’s our training,” Kiba says with an easy shrug. He is busy checking Akamaru’s fur for fleas and ticks, while Akamaru dozes lazily. “What kind of training do you get as shinobi?”

Abira scoffs. “There’s no shinobi in the north because we don’t have a hidden village. We have the free tribes,” he says and launches into a detailed explanation of the northern way of life. The open skies, the open lands. He describes how he grew up in the Betsukai tribe, roaming the vast plains, learning to ride a horse when he was just a boy, archery lessons with his kin, sword fighting with his cousins. Abira is just a few years older than Sasuke, and much of his childhood was quiet. Until Orochimaru threatened their borders, the only skirmishes they fought in were bandits coming in from the west, and constant tug and pull with neighboring tribes. The Betsukai control vast swaths of lands, so they have to maintain peace and order across hundreds of small villages and towns dotted across the plains.

There are a hundred free tribes, Abira explains to his rapt audience of southerners, and there are farmers and merchants and fishermen. There is trade between them—meat and protection in return for food, materials, and if necessary, shelter. Children who want to learn a trade can settle in the larger port towns along the giant rivers of the north; children who want to become warriors can pledge their allegiance to a tribe and be trained to wield sword and shield.

“Why not settle down and build a hidden village?” Sakura asks. “You would have a centralized healthcare systems, infrastructure, educational centers…the Land of Rice Fields is the third largest country on the Continent. With the diversity of natural resources alone, you could build cities larger than Konohagakure or Sunagakue. There’s a reason why the Tsuchikage keeps trying to conquer your lands.”

“The same reason why your Hokages tried for all these years,” Abira points out. Sakura presses her lips into a thin line at the reminder of the constant attempts throughout history of the Hokage trying to push their northern border further north. The Land of Rice Fields has a grain belt, and it has mountains rich in metal and ore. It has rivers teeming with fish that empty directly into the northeastern seas. They have vast, untouched tracts of Birchwood forests that can yield such a quantity of wood and materials that they could build empires with them. There is an abundance of riches in the north, and nearly every country has sought to claim it as their own. “We have hospitals and schools and universities. We have cities. Not as big as yours, but we have what we need. We just prefer to roam.”

“Strategically speaking, it would be better if you established a hidden village,” Shikamaru points out.

“Fuck strategy,” Abira grumbles, and kicks his feet out with a groan. There is good game in the forests around them, so they were able to eat their full for the night. There are at least twelve other fires clustered around the campsite, but Kakashi is at this fire, so it is the largest one with the greatest audience. “We haven’t been conquered in a full millennia. The free tribes will stay free. It’s our way.”

“You’ve united under Biratori Jugo,” Kakashi points out. His comment is mild, but there is a sharp interest in his gaze. As always, he’s flanked on either side by Naruto and Sakura. They’re both busy with preparing arrows: Naruto is trimming the fletching, and Sakura is carving in a single sigil onto the side with a kunai tip: Hawk . They have already amassed a good pile of them. Sasuke has seen Naruto give Sakura cover with arrows from clear across a field; he uses his affinity for wind chakra and the hawk sigil to guide the arrows with deadly precision to his targets. “He’s Kage in all but name.”

Abira reaches over to carve out another piece of meat for himself. “He’s not Kage,” he says. “He’s a warlord. We elected him, all hundred tribes, unanimously.”

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. “Semantics.”

Abira knows the hierarchy of Konohagakure’s military, but he is not bound by it. He does not hesitate to arch an eyebrow at Kakashi. “Semantics matter, Lord Commander.”

“Just Commander,” Kakashi says, reflexively correcting Abira like he does all the northerners. One of these days, Sasuke will explain to Kakashi that the northern language does not have a word for just commander; the word commander itself is a hyphenated mixture of two nouns: lord and he who commands. For now, though, Sasuke keeps his peace because Kakashi is a dog with a bone to pick and he’s not done pressing Abira—although Sasuke doesn’t understand what question Kakashi is so intent on finding the answer to. “What happens when this is all over? The tribes go their separate ways?”

Abira grins. “I’ve got pups to raise, Lord Commander. That’s plenty to do.”

Sasuke doesn’t bother hiding his smile. Betsukai Abira. A father, of all things. “I didn’t know you had pups. How many?”

“Pups,” Ino repeats, frowning at the word. Another translation error, Sasuke realizes. “As in children?”

“Children,” Abira corrects amicably, over-enunciating the word, which only makes his accent sound even more pronounced. “I have three, two boys and a girl. Oldest boy is nine, girl is seven, and the youngest boy is five.”

Sasuke shakes his head in disbelief. All these miles marching and Abira had never mentioned his children. Kiba sits forward with a chuckle, and asks, “What woman did you trick into this, Abira?”

Abira turns to Sasuke when he answers. He holds Sasuke’s gaze when he speaks, and his expression is carefully neutral. “They’re my sister’s. I’ve been raising them since their mother passed five years ago.”

It takes a moment, but Sasuke is a Sharingan. He remembers all of his opponents. Sasuke feels the smile slip off his face in slow increments. Betsukai Kikuyo , she’d named herself when she stepped in front of Sasuke on the battlefield. This is my land you’re trespassing on, Uchiha. She had brown hair bleached into dark gold from the sunshine, braided over her shoulder with silk in the colors of her tribe: indigo purple and emerald green. He made sure she was holding her sword when it was over; she was a skilled warrior, heir apparent to Betsukai Togichi. Afterwards, when Sasuke ordered his men to retreat from the battlefield in the face of Betsukai Togichi’s onslaught, he’d watched from his position on the crest of a hill while they took away the bodies of the fallen.

Abira was there on that battlefield; he must have collected his sister for her burial. He must have taken her back to her children so they could see her before they burned her body on a pyre.

She had children. Three of them, one was still a newborn. The boy never got to meet his mother.

Abira had marched at his side, mile after mile, sharing jokes with him, meals at the end of a long day, and quieter conversation in between. He hadn’t once mentioned his sister until now.

“Betsukai Kikuyo,” Sasuke says aloud. His voice comes out rough, like gravel scraping. In that moment, he remembers Sarada saying that her mother was a Kamisunagawa warrior and had died in battle. Had he done that, too? He’d been the one to beat the Kamisunogawa into submission.

“My sister’s name was Betsukai Kikuyo, chosen heir to the Betsukai lands, best of the northern riders,” Abira confirms. He says her name with reverence, gentle with affection and longing. He holds Sasuke’s gaze steady. There is no anger, only a lingering grief. “That was her name, Lord Commander. Betsukai Kikuyo.”

Lord Commander. Lord, and he who commands. Lord, and he who murders kin.

He needs air to breathe. “I’m going to do patrol,” he announces, and hates how inane the excuse is. He had just returned to camp from his training session with Itachi; his food isn’t even finished. He doesn’t do patrols; he’s a commander now. Kakashi has men and women maintaining their perimeter.

Abira doesn’t look away from Sasuke’s eyes even as he gets to his feet. “I can do patrol, Lord Commander.”

Lord, Sasuke thinks, getting to his feet, and he who orphans children. “No, I’ve got it,” he says, and ties his sword to his waist.

Abira dips his head, finally breaking his gaze. He moves his cloak aside to reveal the hilt of his sword, moving his hand out in a graceful arc. He even bows slightly at the waist, keeping his eyes fixed at the ground by Sasuke’s feet, averted. A sign of obedience. Respect.

It makes Sasuke’s stomach churn.

“Lord Commander,” Abira says, this time in the northern language.

Sasuke walks away, swallowing on the bile in his mouth. He does patrol all night long—there’s no point sleeping, not when he’ll be woken again by that dream. He circles their camp until the sun rises.

The civilians in Urausu line the streets when the platoon marches through. Sasuke falls back to let Kakashi ride at the lead, and hears the excited rumble of conversation fall into a hush when word spreads that the man with the silver hair leading the platoon is Commander Hatake Kakashi himself.  

Kakashi is wearing his usual jounin uniform, and there is nothing to distinguish him from the troops following just behind him. But the Land of Rice Fields has spent years under Orochimaru’s rule and they all learned of Kakashi as the threat to the south. In their minds, Kakashi represented a chance for hope and freedom. If Kakashi had marched north, then Orochimaru and Uchiha Sasuke—the undefeated captain of the death-riders—may have finally been defeated. They waited for Kakashi to ride north, but he never did. This is the first time Kakashi has led an army into their lands, years after Orochimaru’s death, and they are welcoming him as the long-awaited savior they had all dreamed of him to be. It makes Sasuke sit straighter in his saddle and tilt his chin high.

There are awed whispers of the Copy-Cat Nin, but the name that ricochets through the silent crowds is Lightning-Master.

“What are they saying?” Sakura asks, so Sasuke translates all the names for her. She arches an eyebrow at Lightning-Master. “He’s going to hate that one,” she mutters under her breath. Naruto stifles a laugh with a cough, and Sasuke feels his own lips twitch. Lightning-Master . Kakashi will hate the name. He hates almost all the names they call him. He takes great care to hide his identity, but there’s no escaping who he is. His mask and the hitai-ate covering his eye give him away.

“Make way for the last Samurai of the East,” Sasuke calls out with a smirk, using one of Kakashi’s least favorite nicknames. Naruto dissolves into laughter when Kakashi turns to glare at him, chakra spiking. Sakura slaps a hand over her mouth but her shoulders start to shake when the crowd takes up the name immediately. Sasuke distinctly hears a child call out with wonder, He’s a samurai? After that, the hushed awe makes way to cheers and applause for Kakashi because even full grown adults will succumb to the romance and myth of samurais. When people start to throw flowers at Kakashi, scattering his path with a riotous tapestry of colorful flowers in bloom, he turns again in his saddle to glower at Sasuke.

Sasuke smirks, and slows his horse’s pace to fall back even further to avoid Kakashi’s mounting impatience, falling into place next to Shikamaru and Kiba, who asks him, “He’s not really a samurai, is he?”

Sasuke can’t help himself. Kakashi tries to downplay his lineage, but he’s not fooling anyone, not with the way he looks and fights. “The Hatake Clan are originally western samurai. When they heard that the eastern Clans were being overrun, they migrated east and offered their swords to protect the lands against the Tailed Demons,” he explains. He’d pestered Kakashi until the man relented and told him this story. It is one of Sasuke’s favorites. He doesn’t even care that the Konohagakure soldiers around him have fallen quiet and moved closer to hear Sasuke’s explanation. “The hair’s not a genetic quirk. The Hatakes are from the Three Wolf Mountains in the Land of Iron. Hatake Kakashi is heir to one of the oldest and greatest warrior lineages in the Continent. Watch him fight with his sword, if you need more proof.”

Kiba’s mouth drops open. Even Shikamaru looks shocked.

It’s slow going to the center of the village because the crowd is starting to push forward to catch a glimpse of Kakashi and the warriors that he’s leading. It forces Kakashi to slow his pace so that he doesn’t run over the eager children who manage to escape their parent’s hold on them to dart out onto the streets.

Sasuke knows that they’re a sight because the Konohagakure shinobi all have impressive chakra signatures and they march in perfect order unlike the loose formation of warriors in the north. They all wear a uniform and are strapped to the hilt with their weaponry even on long marches, which makes them even more of a curiosity.

Sasuke is fending off Kiba’s questions about Kakashi’s lineage when he hears someone call out his name: The death-rider!

He glances towards the voice, but he can’t spot it because the crowd falls deadly silent in a moment. In the hush that follows, it’s easy to hear the questions springing up: Is that him? In the front? He’s here?

Sasuke grits his teeth and stares at a spot straight in front of him. He’s content to just ride in silence, but then Abira falls suddenly away from the front. He had been riding with Kakashi to guide him to Mrs. Oonishi’s tavern, but now he slows his horse until he’s riding alongside Sasuke.

“If you wouldn’t mind falling back,” Abira says looking at the Konohagakure shinobi around Sasuke. He’s smiling, but there’s a sharp tone to his words that makes the request seem more like an order. “Give the Lord Commander some space, if you would.”

Neji glances sharply at Itachi, who has turned in his saddle to watch the exchange. Itachi nods just once, and that’s all the permission Neji and the others need to tug on the reigns of their horses. The southerners melt away from around Sasuke—some moving ahead to join Itachi, Naruto, and Sakura, and the others slowing their paces to fall further behind—leaving Sasuke alone in a bubble of isolation. Sasuke feels as if he’s on display, like some sort of goddamn museum exhibition. His Mangekyou whorls to life, and he turns to Abira for stepping so far out of line, but Abira holds his gaze and says, “Roll up your sleeves, Lord Commander.”

Like Abira, Sasuke has not been riding in full armor. He’s wearing just the loose shirt that goes underneath armor. It’s more comfortable for the long miles, and it gives him a chance to enjoy the cool breeze against his face. There is nothing to distinguish him from Abira. But Sasuke’s tattoos are so unique that he can be identified by even illiterate northerners.

“No need,” Sasuke bites out.

“Roll up your fucking sleeves, Lord Commander,” Abira counters. He tugs at his horse’s reins sharply in his impatience. “It’s the least you could do after making everyone wait for you as long as they did.”

Why the fuck would anyone wait for me to return? Sasuke wants to ask. Instead, he grits his teeth so hard he feels his jaw ache from it.

Sakura is glancing over his shoulder at routine intervals now to watch the conversation between Abira and Sasuke. No need to make this any worse. Sasuke pulls up the sleeves of his shirt, bunching them high on his forearm. The moment he does, the whispering in the crowd dies away as well. Abira falls back a few paces so that Sasuke is alone again.

He stares off into the far distance, grips the reins tightly in his left hand, and counts from one to ten, over and over again as the noise in the crowd picks up slowly, murmurs and whispers combining. Unlike Kakashi, he has no nicknames. He only hears Uchiha Sasuke. There is no applause, no cheering. No one throws flowers at him.

And they shouldn’t, Sasuke thinks. By the time they reach Mrs. Oonishi’s tavern, he wants nothing more than disappear.

Mrs. Oonishi is waiting for him in the large courtyard just outside of her tavern with a few of her staff around her. She’s holding Sarada’s hand tightly, although it’s not doing much to contain Sarada’s eagerness. She’s jumping up and down, the only person truly, overwhelmingly happy to see Sasuke. It is a balm to a wound to see her.

She looks healthier now. There is no more swelling on her face, and her cast is smaller in size. Her hair is still short, but she’s clipped back her messy bangs with something that sparkles in the sun. She has new glasses, too, and she’s wearing clothes that fit. The moment Sasuke dismounts, Mrs. Oonishi lets go of Sarada’s hand.

Sarada is off like an arrow, launching herself at him with such enthusiasm that Sasuke has no choice but to catch her around the waist and lift her up to throw her in the air, if only to hear her shrieking whoop of laughter. The moment Sasuke catches her again, she’s talking in a rush of words: “You’re back! I’ve been taking care of your warhorse! Ozora likes apples! She comes to me when I whistle now! Do you want to see? Mrs. Oonishi hired a private tutor! My teacher says I have a photographic and eidetic memory! I’m all the way up to trigonometry now! I know all the formulas! Do you want to know the volume of a sphere?”

Sasuke can’t help but return her grin. He has played with Megumi, and after time with Sarada, he has learned that children are far, far easier to deal with than adults. They are guileless, easy to please, and they don’t begrudge Sasuke his silences or stilted conversational skills. He doesn’t even have to make small-talk with children. Playing with them is easy. So Sasuke pretends to stagger under Sarada’s weight, which makes Sarada laugh. With great difficulty, Sasuke holds her up, still pretending like he can barely withstand her weight.

Sarada shrieks with laughter when Sasuke pretends to nearly drop her with an exaggerated oh no, oh no, whoa hold on! He dips her so low that she nearly touches the ground, and then hauls her back up onto his hip with a great heave. She’s still a small thing, not even as heavy the lightest weights that Sasuke trains with. “Gods be damned, short-crop, what is Mrs. Oonishi feeding you?”

Sarada holds out a hand, palm facing up. “You swore! Contribute to the swear jar! It’s for my education! Because medical school is expensive!”

Sasuke has only spent a few days with Sarada, and he has learned a few things about her:

First, there are apparently only two volume levels for this kid: loud and louder. Second, everything makes her laugh.

And she places a stupid amount of faith in Sasuke. He breathes fire in her imaginations. She will believe you if you say the sky is orange, Suigetsu told him once, out of the blue. He hadn’t meant it as a joke, just pinned Sasuke with his unrelenting gaze and said, That’s the thing with kids, Sasuke. Everything they do is unconditional.

Sasuke has absolutely no money on him so he dips his head and blows a raspberry into Sarada’s outstretched palm, rubbing her hand against his beard. Her laughter bubbles over again, and she starts squirming from ticklishness so Sasuke maneuvers her over his shoulder, carrying her like a sack. Her delighted squeal ends with a snort of laughter.

Mrs. Oonishi holds out her arms, and Sasuke crosses the distance towards her, still carrying Sarada. He bends in half to press a kiss to her forehead. Mrs. Oonishi looks up at him with a smile. The wrinkles around her eyes are deeper than before. She considers Sasuke carefully and places a weathered hand against his cheek. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he lies. “What news from Jugo?”

“Let’s get inside first,” Mrs. Oonishi says, and glances over Sasuke’s shoulder. “Welcome home, Abira.”

“Good to be back, Mrs. Oonishi,” Abira calls out, swinging out of his saddle. He lands on his feet, and jogs to cross the distance to Mrs. Oonishi. He draws her into a hug, which Mrs. Oonishi returns warmly. Abira presses a smacking kiss to her cheek. “How are you, my dear, fair lady, keeper of my heart?”

“Your aunt has been sending me a messenger a day asking for your return,” Mrs. Oonishi grumbles, but her tone is belied by the lingering kiss she gives Abira on his cheek. Sasuke hadn’t known they were close, but most of the warrior tribes pass through Urausu during harvest, and Abira is a hard man to miss. He imagines Abira as a child with his sister, running around and wreaking havoc in Urausu during the harvest visits.

“We actually got back sooner than planned. We didn’t even make it all the way back to Konohagakure,” Abira says. He indicates Itachi, who is waiting politely with the rest of the southerners in the courtyard. “Turns out it was a false alarm.”

Mrs. Oonishi’s eyes widen when she sees Itachi. “Gods be good, can all Uchiha men return from the dead?” Mrs. Oonishi breathes. She turns away, muttering under her breath about how it would have been nice for someone to send her word about Itachi’s miraculous return from death, she’s been worried for the past two weeks, wasn’t anyone raised with any manners?

“I was raised with manners!” Sarada calls out, sounding slightly miffed.

“You were not,” Mrs. Oonishi throws over her shoulder. Sasuke steps forward to help her up the stairs to the tavern. She shoos him away by waving her cane threateningly. Abira grins at Sasuke. “You’re in trouble,” he sing-songs, and steps neatly into place next to Mrs. Oonishi to help her up the steps.

Sasuke turns to Kakashi, “Let’s go inside. She doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

Itachi arches an eyebrow. “She’s the garrison commander?”

Sasuke frowns. “Urausu isn’t a garrison. Mrs. Oonishi runs the local tavern and brewery,” he says. “She’s also the town priest.”

Shikamaru’s expression looks pinched. “I have no goddamn clue what to make of this country.”

Sarada squirms again, lifting herself up to peer curiously at the southerners. “Who are they?” she asks Sasuke in a loud whisper. Sasuke sets her down on her feet, but she doesn’t go far, just grips his cloak in a tight fist and stares up at all the shinobi. “Are they here to help Lord Biratori in the war? That’s the Konohagakure symbol, isn’t it?”

Kakashi indicates Sarada with with a dip of his chin in her direction. “Something you’d like to share with the class, Uchiha?”

“This is Sarada,” Sasuke introduces, and she steps closer to him automatically at hearing her name, like she always does. A little shadow, no matter where he goes. Hero worship, he first thought, but Suigetsu had shaken his head and said that it wasn’t hero worship at all.

Kiba clears his throat politely. “And she is…” There is a weighty pause. “Who, exactly, is she?”

Sasuke glances down at Sarada, who tilts her face up to meet his gaze, patient, and waiting, as always, for Sasuke’s next words or move. Sasuke has never had anyone look at him the way Sarada looks at him. Sometimes, Sasuke can barely meet her gaze. Not hero worship, then. Something else, something worth living up to.

Something he can’t fuck up. Lord, Sasuke thinks. He who orphans children.

“Not to belabor the point, but who is she?” Kiba asks, sounding a little more rushed now. Akamaru prowls closer to Sarada, who follows the wolf with her thoughtful gaze.

When Akamaru is just a few feet away, Sarada steps closer to Sasuke. It didn’t take long for Sasuke to realize that she tends to stick close to him when she is most anxious or scared—and ever since she escaped from the Omine Valley, she has been anxious and scared. Small sounds set her off, or sometimes large crowds. An unexpected hand on the shoulder will almost always have her scrambling away, reaching for weapons with wide eyes. More often than not, Sasuke would find her curled under her bed in the mornings, having crawled under there sometime during the middle of the night to fall asleep. But she is a warrior’s daughter, and she would rather chew off her own hand than admit that she is scared and wants her father, that she misses her grandmother, that she is sad to be an orphan.

Sasuke recognizes each and every single one of her instincts, even the one to hide under her bed. Some day, maybe, she will grow out of this. Her time in the Omine Valley will be a distant memory, scabbed over with enough scar tissue that it will no longer give her nightmares. He hopes she will reach this place of peace, that she will never crawl into the dark recesses of her own spirit and let the grief eat away at her like it did with Sasuke.

The most Sasuke can do—for now—is make sure she knows she does not have to face the wolves alone.

So Sasuke drops a hand on her crown and ruffles her hair slightly. “His name is Akamaru and he’s my teammate,” he explains. “No need to be—”

“I’m not scared!” Sarada says loudly even before Sasuke can finish his sentence. She reaches up to adjust her hair, patting it down with great flair even though it does nothing to help the wild tangle. She glares up at him, scrunching up her entire face into a pout.

“I wasn’t going to say you were scared,” Sasuke offers diplomatically. “I was going to say...hostile.”

Sarada’s entire face breaks into a grin. She has such a small face, and such big eyes. It always amazes Sasuke to see the proportions of her: the tiny half-moons of her fingernails, the little button of her nose. “I want to be hostile,” she admits, pleased. “Like you!”

Sasuke tries and fails to hide his smile. “Yeah? How’s that going for you, short-crop?”

Sarada jumps from one foot to the next and takes a few hops backwards. “I’ve been practicing! Look! Watch, watch!”

Sasuke dutifully watches as Sarada scrunches up her entire face—her entire body, even—and puffs out her chest. A moment later, she lets out a large burp and with it, a massive burst of flames that warms Sasuke even from a few feet away. When the fire clears, Sarada opens her mouth wide and lets out a theatrically large puff of smoke.

Sasuke knows he’s grinning almost as wide as Sarada; his cheeks hurt from it. But something in his own chest blooms and expands—this kid, he thinks, this unbelievable kid—and he can’t help his triumphant laugh. “You’ve been practicing!”

Sarada says, “I figured out you cheated that time to make me feel better, and I wanted to do it on my own and so I practiced and practiced and practiced and then I made fire!”

The kid has a photographic and eidetic memory. She swallows her fears whole, crawls into the forbidden depths of the Omine Valley, and emerges again, unbound. Her chakra calls out to fire, like Sasuke’s. She breathes like a dragon. She is a miracle in so many, many ways, and Sasuke cannot contain the joy he feels at the moment, his laughter. All he can do is repeat after Sarada, “You made fire!” 

“I did!” Sarada shouts, jumping from foot to foot now. She gestures widely with both hands, hops closer to Sasuke and tugs at his cloak to get his attention—as if Sasuke's attention wasn't already completely on her already. “Did you see how big it was!”

Sasuke remembers his very first katon. The pride he feels now dwarfs that moment a thousand to one. And he wasn't the only one to see it, there was an audience. Sasuke turns to Itachi. "Did you see her, Brother?" He prompts, because what there are very few chakra-users with an affinity to fire, let alone such a natural affinity that Sarada displays, almost as tuned to it as an Uchiha. She is one in a million, and Itachi will recognize her rarity because he is an Uchiha and they were both raised believing that only Uchiha are true-born fire keepers.  "I think her chakra affinity for fire is almost as good as mine was when I was her age." 

Sakura is the one to answer. Her eyes are saucer wide. "What," she says stupidly. She glances between Sarada and then Sasuke, and says again, "What?"

Kiba says, loudly, “What the fuck.”

Sasuke heaves a sigh. "Could you not swear in front of her? I don't want the first words she learns in the southern language to be curses."

Shikamaru’s mouth flaps open in such abject surprise that his cigarette falls to the ground. Neji steps forward, his Byakugan active already. “What the fuhell, Uchiha,” he says in a furious whisper that Sasuke is sure the troops in the back can hear. “What the hell!”

“I don’t think this is what we think it is,” Itachi says, neatly intervening. He places a hand on Neji’s shoulder to steady him, but Itachi’s chakra is already spiking dangerously. “Is it, Sasuke? Because if it is, I’m going to beat the sh—stuffing out of you if you kept this from me. I mean it.”

Sarada grabs Sasuke’s hand tightly and presses so close to his leg that his cloak covers her partially. Sasuke frowns at Itachi, but he’s too distracted by Sarada’s obvious attempt to reach for the knife strapped to his boot to respond with anything more coherent than: “What are you—”

The door to the tavern slams open in that moment, and a wave of laughter and conversation pours out. Sasuke turns just in time to see Karin step outside, followed closely by a serving girl. She is dressed in rich leathers today and her hair is loose, but her mouth is still painted a violent red. There are knives strapped to her hips and her thigh, along with Sai swords strapped to her back. She looks ready to ride into battle at this very moment.

Karin speaks in the southern tongue as she surveys the crowd. “Welcome, everyone. Mrs. Oonishi would like to extend an invitation to the high command and officers of Konohagakure’s army to break fast with her,” she announces. She indicates with a hand to Mrs. Oonishi’s serving girl. “This is Ao. She can guide the rest of your troops to tents and meal halls that we have set up. They can rest and gather their energy for the march that lies ahead. We all fully provisioned for your men, women, and horses.”

Kakashi steps neatly into his role. “We thank you for your hospitality, my lady.” He gestures with just at tilt of his his head and Anko turns to carry out the order. The troops fall out of formation into smaller groups, and follow Ao without a single word. Only high command and the officers remain behind to take up Mrs. Oonishi’s offer of a meal inside: Kakashi, Itachi, Sakura, Naruto, Anko, and Unit 3.

Karin arches an eyebrow, looking amused. “Such quiet little mice you command, Lord Commander,” she comments wryly.

Kakashi’s gaze stays sharp. “You know us southerners. As you said, we like our orders. Sit, roll over. Comes handy on a battlefield, if I do say so myself.”

Karin’s gaze lingers for a beat on Kakashi before shifting to Itachi, and then finally, to Sasuke. Between one moment and the next, her expression shifts. Her smile becomes more genuine, her gaze affectionate and warm. “Welcome home, Sasuke.”

Sasuke is about to respond, but he feels his knife being lifted out of its holster by his shin. He looks away from the kid for two seconds, and she finds her way to a sharp object. It’s a good instinct, but he’d rather she develop the instinct with some sort of instruction instead of trying to lift weapons from Sasuke’s body every single chance she gets. "Short-crop."

Sarada blinks wide eyes up at him, holding the knife close to her chest. “I thought there was going to be a fight with the Konoha soldiers. You said to always have a weapon handy in case a fight breaks out.”

Sasuke heaves a sigh. He can’t deny it; he said the words aloud at one point. Still, he make a show of displeasure as he ushers Sarada up the stairs towards Karin, who is already holding an arm out. Sarada goes, dutifully taking a hold of Karin’s outstretched hand. Karin smooths away the hair falling into Sarada’s eyes, tucking Sarada close to her side, even as she pitches her voice low for Sasuke to hear. “You’re walking into an audience.”

Sasuke had sensed the high-level chakras inside. He had assumed they were friendlies, but Karin’s voice suggests otherwise. “Who?”

Karin gives Sasuke a short, terse heads-up about who is present: Death-riders. Twenty-five of them had arrived after their latest patrol of the southern provinces to flush out any lingering members of Madara’s troops. There are Betsukai warriors with them; Lord Betsukai Togichi is insisting on a small group of his men to escort any and all troops traveling across his lands. They were waiting in Urausu to march north with Sasuke. Karin had arrived just two days ago after one of her scouting missions; she had stayed behind to wait for Sasuke as well. “Word has spread about your traveling back south to mourn your brother’s loss. The tribes are holding fast, but you need to make a strong showing. People need to see that you're not in mourning.”

Because if there is even a hint of weakness on his part, Jugo’s leadership will be weakened. Sasuke sighs. “You mean Betsukai Togichi’s men need to see that I’m not in mourning.”

“He’s not a threat to Jugo’s command, but he can be. It's not worth taking the risk, especially when Togichi is already so unhappy about letting you back onto his land. He hasn't forgiven you for the kin he's lost at the edge your sword,” Karin points out. Kikuyo, Sasuke thinks. She was Togichi's niece and heir. He understands Togichi's lingering anger; what he doesn't understand is Abira's acceptance of him. Karin turns her attention back to Sarada. “Give back the knife, sweetheart. Sasuke has to go work.”

Sarada holds out the knife for Sasuke to take. “Don’t be too hostile,” she instructs solemnly.

Karin’s laughter is so sudden and uncensored that Sasuke has no choice but to join her. This kid. He taps her once on the small button of her nose, which makes Sarada scrunch up her entire face. Karin gives Sasuke a smile, eyes bright with mirth. “I won’t be too hostile,” Sasuke promises.

“Just hostile enough to make Jugo and Suigetsu proud,” Karin prompts.

“And you, too,” Sasuke adds, and watches Karin’s entire expression soften.

“I am proud of you. All three of you,” she murmurs. She pauses a beat. “I know I might not always show it, but.”

She stops speaking, abrupt, and looks away. She makes a show of smoothing away Sarada’s hair again.

Karin, in her quieter moments, carries a sadness about her that makes Sasuke’s thoughts come to a grinding halt. He doesn’t know where this sadness comes from, or why. She does not speak of a Clan, only a mother—long dead, her memory held so closely with affection that she doesn’t even have a name. Karin does not speak of a home. No northern tribe has claimed her, so the only truth anyone knows about her is that she is not from the Land of Rice Fields. Still, she has spent most of her life roaming the north and these are her lands and her people.

She holds her secrets to rigidly to herself that in the rare moments when she speaks, it leaves Jugo, Suigetsu, and Sasuke silent. Now that Karin is saying, I am proud of all three of you, Sasuke finds himself at a loss. “We know.”

Karin’s exhale is shaky, but her gaze is steely when she tilts his face up to look him in the eyes. “Madara’s army grows. There is no room for hesitation. This is a war we must win, Lord Commander.”

Lord, Sasuke thinks. And he who rides into the valley of death.

Sasuke’s attention is drawn to Kakashi and Itachi almost instinctively. They are three Sharingan. It has to be enough. “We’ll win.”

Karin’s offers him a half-smile. “Your confident is breathtaking, really. I feel so reassured.”

Sasuke ignores the sarcasm in her voice and turns back to Konohagakure’s high command, who are all waiting politely be invited inside the tavern. Karin picks up the cue neatly and indicates the double doors with an elegant sweep of her hands. “Please, ladies and gentleman, come inside the feasting hall. Rest your weary feet, break bread and share a drink with us.”

Sarada squirms out of Karin’s grip the moment Kakashi starts to walk towards her. She lands on both her feet and is about to dart forward—to do gods knows what, but Sasuke doesn’t trust her not to start a fight for the sake of it—but Karin reaches out to grab her hand again. “Sarada, what did Jugo say?” Karin asks calmly.

“Watch and learn, and don’t run head first into trouble,” Sarada mutters under her breath. Her eyes track Kakashi closely as he steps inside, flanked on either side by Naruto and Sakura. Her eyes don’t miss a single detail as the Konohagakure troops file neatly inside the building—in order of rank, Sasuke notices. Itachi gives Sasuke a long, meaningful look as he walks past. He doesn’t say anything, but his body language is clear: anger. Although Sasuke doesn’t know why, yet. Even Neji and Shikamaru throw a few glares in his direction. Kiba pats Sasuke on the shoulder solemnly, lets out a heavy sigh, and rounds out the last of the Konohagakure troop with Shino. The door shuts behind them.

Karin arches an eyebrow at Kiba’s odd behavior, but thankfully doesn’t comment. “After you, Lord Commander.”

Sasuke almost says, Stop calling me that. There is no one to hear, so there is no need for the formalities. But rather than start that conversation, he pushes into the tavern.

Yonabaru is the first to spot him, and he holds up his mug and calls out, “Captain!” The cheer that follows is so loud it takes all of Sasuke’s willpower not to walk right back outside. He’d rather spend the afternoon listening to Sarada’s excited rants about geometry lessons.

Karin follows closely behind and says, voice pitched low so that only Sasuke can hear her, “What are you doing? Go.”

Sasuke wants to do nothing more than lie down at this point, or maybe play hopscotch with Sarada. He had gotten no sleep after finding out about Abira’s sister last night, and the seven hours of marching to Urausu had been miserable. Abira kept trying to return things to normal, but Sasuke was unable to smile at a single one of his jokes. He could barely meet the man’s gaze. Then there had been that protracted, miserable parade through the crowds to get here. Now, he has to deal with this.

He’s glad to see the men, but he is tired. “I see that none of you wasted time in making yourselves comfortable,” he says to laughter, making sure his exhaustion is well hidden. Before Sasuke can find a seat, he is accosted by the men standing closest to him. He says hello to them—and everyone else in the room—because they rode with him for the long campaign in the tribal wars and they had waited for him in Urausu to ride north into another war.

They grip each other’s forearms in hello and Sasuke asks every one of them by name how they are. He remembers all their families—the names of their sisters, mothers, fathers, brothers, and blood-brothers and blood-sisters. He made sure to learn which tribe each of them belonged to, even though all of them had left their tribes for one reason or another to follow Orochimaru. He asks about their kids, the bounty of their lands, and the welfare of their people. Of the twenty-five men in the room, six of them have dormant cursed seals on their shoulders. Like Sasuke, they broke their oaths to their clans and their former allegiances. He led a band of eighty traitors, but they were under his command, and although Sasuke was following Orochimaru’s orders as their Captain, he was trained by Hatake Kakashi.

Rule one, the first rule, the most important one, has always been: Protect your teammates.

The eighty men Sasuke commanded—sixty-four left standing by the time the war was over—were his teammates for a couple of years. They were unruly and ungovernable at first. He could barely get them to start a campfire. But they fell into line, and by the end of it, they were stepping in front of him with shields raised against the oncoming hail of arrows. Twenty-five of them had ridden out to Urausu and waited for Sasuke to welcome him back north.

Yonabaru gets to his feet when Sasuke finally makes his way towards him. He grips Sasuke’s arm tightly and then leans forward for a hug, gripping tight. He’d been among the first after Suigetsu, Jugo, Subaru, and Inoue, to pledge his allegiance to Sasuke. “Welcome back, Captain.”

“Lord Commander!” Sarada corrects, jumping from one foot to the other, and almost bumping into Sasuke from behind. She’s been doing that fairly consistently every time someone slips up and calls Sasuke, Captain.

“Apologies, little one,” Yonabaru says solemnly. “Lord Commander.”

Abira steps forward to introduce himself. He’s been trailing Sasuke with Karin at his side, periodically excusing himself from his conversation with Karin to introduce himself to the warriors that he doesn’t know, and making small talk with those he does know.

“A Betsukai, riding alongside the Captain,” Yonabaru says, disbelieving. He holds out a hand to introduce himself. “Shioya Yonabaru.”

“Betsukai Abira,” Abira says, gripping Yonabaru’s forearm tight.

Yonabaru turns his attention back to Sasuke. “You should say a few words, Lord. The men have been waiting.”

Sasuke feels the muscles in his face tighten with an approximation of a smile. “Another time, maybe. I’d like a drink, first.”

Yonabaru’s expression shifts into something like confusion, but Karin steps in neatly. She  turns to the group at large and speaks in the southern tongue, voice pitched loud. “Enjoy your meals today, death-riders. Enjoy the men and the women in the camps, pray to the gods, and write your letters to your kin. Your lord and commander is here now, and tomorrow, he will lead you to the battlefield, and he will lead you to victory.”

With each word she says the cheers get louder and louder. The tavern is a wide space, but it’s still deafening to be in a closed space with twenty-five warriors stomping their feet and drumming the tables while whooping in joy. Karin raises her voice. It is sharp as a blade, and cuts through the noise. “Tomorrow, you will ride to Otogakure, and you will bring death to those who dare to lay claim to our lands!”   

The cheers reach a fever pitch. It feels as if the wooden beams overhead might collapse from the sound of it.

Count, Sasuke tells himself, but it’s hard to think in all the sound around him. Unthinking, he looks over his shoulder, looking for the guidance that has always been there. He doesn’t find the Shodaime or the Nidaime. Sarutobi and the Yondaime are nowhere in sight. Instead, he sees Kakashi, watching him carefully with the other southerners along the edges of the room.

Sasuke looks carefully away when he realizes that Yonabaru is talking to him. “Welcome home, Lord Commander,” he says, pitching his voice loud enough to carry over the noise. He presses a drink into Sasuke’s hand.

There’s an audience. Sarada is watching him, smiling up at him still. Her grip on his cloak is tight, as if she’s keeping him in place.

Sasuke raises his glass, meeting Karin’s gaze as he does so. Her smile has become frozen in place, her previous joy replaced with something hard-edged as she watches Sasuke. He drinks to thunderous applause.

Sasuke is starving by the time they sit down to eat lunch, but even food doesn’t offer him a moment’s peace.

Mrs. Oonishi clears the room so that the southerners can could eat. The higher-ranking southerners and northern death-riders are in the tavern, but the remaining men and women have been served their meals at the long barrack tables in the back. The place is bustling with Mrs. Oonishi’s serving girls and boys, who are going from table to table and keeping meals and plates full. Mrs. Oonishi is personally serving Sasuke and Abira, even though they both protested and told her to sit down and rest her feet.

The conversation is stilted and painful, with Karin and Kakashi spitting carefully veiled threats at each other and the rest of the gathering eating in silence. Eventually, though, Karin’s attention shifts to Sasuke, which only makes things worse because they immediately get into an argument. “I don’t need a room,” Sasuke repeats for the second time. “I’ll be fine camping out with the rest of the men.”

“You should take the room that Mrs. Oonishi has prepared for you,” Karin says. For some reason, she insists on having this conversation in the southern language, even though Sasuke first tried to counter her arguments entirely in the northern dialect. Sasuke knows Karin isn’t speaking in the southern language to be polite to their guests; it’s to make sure there’s an audience.

This is the second time through this argument. He’s always camped out with the men, and now is no different. He doesn’t care where he sleeps, and frankly, he prefers the open skies. Karin hears none of his arguments. She insists on him sleeping indoors in one of the larger rooms in the tavern. She is adamant about it. She’s downright mean while making her point, even though the whole conversation is petty and meaningless. Sasuke is sick of this argument, which has sabotaged all other conversation at the table. Even Kiba and Abira have fallen silent, even though they can usually always be counted on to lighten the mood in any situation. “I’m done talking about this,” Sasuke warns.

Karin opens her mouth to counter, but Mrs. Oonishi steps in. “Let him eat, Karin,” Mrs. Oonishi says with a weary sigh. She grips Sasuke’s face in both her hands, tilting it to the right and the left. “You’ve lost weight.”

Only Mrs. Oonishi could have Hatake Kakashi at her table and completely ignore him in favor of treating Sasuke as if like he’s still twelve. “My weight is the same as two a weeks ago, Mrs. Oonishi,” he says. “Which is when you last saw me. Two weeks ago.”

“You giving me lip, boy?” Mrs. Oonishi demands, finishing with her inspection of Sasuke’s face. Abira sniggers, but falls silent when Mrs. Oonishi glances towards him. He turns to his food dutifully, and Sasuke follows his cue. “Everyone, eat.” Mrs. Oonishi orders. She picks up the serving spoon and adds another serving to Sasuke’s already overflowing plate. “I made all your favorites.”

“Nothing but the best for the prodigal son of the north,” Karin croons. Next to Sasuke, Sarada shifts uneasily. She might not understand the contents of the conversation while Karin speaks in the southern tongue, but she’s trying to hide herself from Karin. Sasuke doesn’t blame her; Karin terrifies grown men.

Mrs. Oonishi, though, ignores Karin entirely. “I’m just glad you’re home, Sasuke.”

The civilians outside had welcomed Sasuke home with silence, as if he was a walking funeral procession. He forces a smile. “Me, too.”

Sarada tugs at his sleeve hurriedly, suddenly remembering a detail like she always does. “My tooth is loose!” She opens her mouth and tilts her head to show off.

Sasuke peers curiously into her mouth, making the appropriate noises of interest when Sarada taps one of her upper teeth and makes it wobble dangerously. “She needs a dentist, Mrs. Oonishi.”

“Because dentists are in such surplus at a time of war,” Mrs. Oonishi mutters, moving down the table to serve Abira, muttering under her breath that Abira’s aunt has been pestering her to feed Abira properly the moment he steps foot into Urausu. “I could barely find her a tutor. She’s far too smart for her school.”

Sasuke turns to Sakura. “Do you get trained in dentistry?”

Sakura frowns. “I can do a basic check-up.”

Sasuke takes a moment to consider Sarada. “She also broke her hand. Could you just give her a full physical?”

Sakura glances between Sarada and Sasuke. Her eyes are sharp. “Of course.”

Karin’s gaze shifts to Sakura. “Sarada is fine, thank you. We don’t require your services.”

“Sakura will examine Sarada. I want to make sure the chakra pathways in her hand haven’t been damaged,” Sasuke says. Karin’s distrust of the southerners runs deep, but denying Sarada medical care—and that too from Sakura —is a step too far into her paranoia.

Karin arches an eyebrow. There is a polite smile on her face, but her words are sharp. “I’ve had the camp healer check her. He says Sarada is fine.”

Sasuke doesn’t understand what argument Karin is building up to, but he doesn’t care. “And I want Sakura to make sure she is.”

Karin’s gaze becomes flat with displeasure. She gets to her feet with a loud scrape of her chair. “Sasuke, a moment,” she says, and doesn’t even wait to hear Sasuke’s response before she’s walking to the back of the tavern where the kitchens are. Both the southerners and the northerners in the room watch wearily, the silence hanging in the air as the swinging doors to the kitchen swing open and close behind her.

Sasuke glances down at Sarada who is looking up at him with wide eyes. She doesn’t speak the southern language, but she is smart. No doubt, she heard her name being said a few times. Sasuke begins to count to regain his composure, but it is easy to let go of her anger when he is looking at her. “Eat your food. Don’t steal anyone’s weapons. Everyone here is a friendly.”

Sarada grips her fork tightly. “Okay.”

Mrs. Oonishi murmurs Sasuke's name as he walks past, sounding resigned, but Sasuke ignores her in favor of tracking down Karin. She isn’t in the kitchens. Since her chakra is near-dormant as usual, Sasuke follows his instinct and steps outside through the back door. He makes a loop around the tavern before finally finding Karin in the stables. She is feeding Ozora a green apple, but Ozora’s focus moves immediately to Sasuke when he steps near. She crowds forward in her stall, butting Sasuke in the chest lightly with her head in hello.

“Hard to win the loyalty of an throughbred Askuzai,” Karin comments. Her voice is mild, but there is a sharp edge to her tone. “I asked Mrs. Oonishi to gift her to Jugo, but she said that she wanted to gift him to you. You being her favorite, and all.”

Fights with Karin are always like being blindsided by a knife on his weak flank. Sasuke never knows what the angle of attack is, so he meets her gaze and counters with the most neutral response he can think of: the truth. “Jugo is her favorite.”

Karin’s expression doesn’t shift. “Jugo is everyone’s favorite. The north stands with him.”

Just spit it out, Sasuke thinks, but saying that would only anger Karin even more. “He was elected lord of lords.”

“I’m wondering, though, where you stand,” Karin continues, overriding Sasuke’s words as if he hadn’t even spoken. She gestures vaguely towards the tavern where the cluster of high-powered chakra feels prickles against Sasuke’s skin. “Clearly, your attentions are divided—”

Sasuke’s Mangekyou whorls to life. “If you’re talking about Sarada—”

“I’m not talking about Sarada,” Karin hisses, her neutral facade dropping away between one moment and the next. “But since you bought her up, let’s talk about her—”

“No,” Sasuke interrupts. “She’s not up for discussion, she’s just—”

“She waited for you for days,” Karin snarls. “The first thing she asked for when she opened her eyes was when you’d be back home. She asked before she went to school, and she looked for you when she came back. The last question before going to bed was—”

“And what lies did you tell her?” Sasuke demands. Sarada is the orphan daughter of a Kamisunagawa warrior, already showing great promise. No doubt, Karin will take her under her wing. She’s an asset. And she knows that she holds some value to Sasuke—although he can’t place why. Maybe it was because he’d seen Sarada cry fat tears, saying, Sorry, and trying to be brave all at once. Or maybe because Sarada shadows him so persistently, and keeps trying to burp fire at every turn. Whatever the reason, Karin must spot another weakness she might try to use against him. “How did you try to manipulate her? New glasses, a hairclip? How do you plan on using her against me?”

Karin looks furious. “I’m not a monster, Sasuke.” She tilts her chin up. “But if you don’t trust me with her, feel free to step in. If you want to stand for her and take responsibility for her—”

“She is my responsibility,” Sasuke interrupts. He’d killed the girl’s mother. He may not have been the one to drive the sword into Sarada’s mother, but he led the campaign against her tribe. And then her father had been murdered by Uchiha Madara and his men. Either way, Sarada is an orphan because of him, and no matter what sins he has on his hands, Sasuke will not be the kind of man to turn away from the responsibility of a child he has orphaned.

“Take her away, then,” Karin says, cavalier. “Take her back to Konoha.”

“Konoha is better for her than this war zone,” Sasuke snarls. “She’ll be safe there. There’s good schools in Konohagakure, a medical school—”

“The golden city, caged in by walls on all sides. The promised land where children are conscripted into armies with oaths they’re too young to even understand,” Karin drawls, flinging it out like an insult. “Your true north, isn’t that right, Konoha?”

That name again, Konoha, an insult, an accusation, all of Karin’s hurt and disappointment in one single word. He doesn’t mean to be loud, but his voice still fills up the cloistered space of the stables. A few of the horses whinny, but Sasuke doesn’t pay it any mind.

“I am sick of this,” Sasuke hisses. He takes a step towards Karin. “I am sick of you questioning my loyalty to you—”

“I’m not questioning your loyalty to me, I’m questioning your loyalties to the north. If you didn’t want to come home, you could at least have the decency of telling Jugo,” Karin points out. “You abandoned him and Suigetsu once before. It won’t be your first time disappointing them. You didn’t even ride north to stand godfather to Sugietsu’s daughter.”

There is no one on this earth who can make Sasuke lose his temper this way; she knows all his insecurities, all his weaknesses. She makes sure to know these things about friends and foes alike. He never returned after killing Orochimaru. He couldn’t face it—the shame of forgetting Kakashi’s rules, his own humanity, even for a moment; the vast expanse of the north, made fertile with the blood he spilt; the aching grief for his family; the love he still had for his brother; Naruto—and he abandoned his blood-brothers in his wake. It’s no surprise Karin knows this, knows all his deepest thoughts.

He can’t argue against counter her, not when she speaks the truth. Still, his voice rings loud in his own ears. “How dare you question my loyalty to them?” She juts out her jaw tilts her chin up in the face of his anger, sneering prettily. It makes his chakra coil hot in his stomach and throat. “They are my blood-brothers, and I am theirs—”

“Do you even know the meaning of the word?” Karin hisses. “Careful, Konoha, your southern heritage blood is showing.”

For a moment, the anger is so acute Sasuke can’t hear anything but a high-pitched noise. He takes a step back, knowing that he is retreating but not caring. He doesn’t know how he thought he could ever hold ground against Karin. “Gods damn it, woman, will you let me have a moment’s peace?”

“Peace?” Karin repeats. She laughs, her white teeth sharp against the red gash of her rips. “Uchiha Sasuke, suing for peace.”

“Enough,” Sasuke warns, breathing hard against his anger.  

“I spoke with Abira eralier. He told me that you found out who his sister was,” Karin says, digging in the knife and twisting now. “Do you feel guilty about Kikuyo? Or maybe you feel guilty about Sarada?”

“Leave Sarada out of this,” Sasuke snaps, anger brewing into something more dangerous, more volatile. Something resembling real fury.

Karin talks right over him. “You waged a war for years, Sasuke. For five years, you conquered this land, from the eastern coast to the Betsukai plains, from the southern grain belt to the northern shores, and beyond to the free isles in the northern seas. You can’t erase that past. At least be man enough to own it. Don’t hide . Guilt isn’t a good reason to be there for Sarada. If you want to be there for her, be there.”

Guilt is a perfectly good reason, he wants to tell her. Sasuke takes a step back. He hates conceding ground to Karin, but she’s relentless. “I don’t have to listen to this—”

“Your guilt is insulting. You sit there, tallying your sins, and you reek of shame,” Karin snarls. “You defeated Abira’s sister and countless others in open battle. They died honorably against a man named Uchiha Sasuke . So honor their deaths by being Uchiha Sasuke instead of running from that name. It’s the least you can do for them. It’s the least you can do for every northerner who stood against you, and every northerner who rode with you. And if you don’t want to do it for any of them, do it for Sarada. She worships the ground you walk on, and she’ll follow the path you set.”

Her shoulders are heaving by the time she’s finished talking. She’s only ever expressed her anger in roundabout, cutting ways. This is the first time she’s raised her voice at him and screamed out her frustrations. He doesn’t know how to counter her anger in a way that isn’t violence.

Karin presses her advantage relentlessly in the face of Sasuke’s silence. “You want to know why I always question your loyalties?” she asks. “Because you left, Sasuke. You left the moment it was done. You didn’t even give me the satisfaction of watching Orochimaru’s body get picked by the buzzards. You dragged his body all the way to Konohagakure, as if Orochimaru’s greatest sins were against those gods damned southerners who made him into the monster he was, and not the people of this country that bled and died under his poison. You took Orochimaru’s body back to Konohagakure to prove your loyalty to fucking Hatake gods damned Kakashi, when your loyalty should have been with the north, with your blood-brothers, with me. You just left.”

Sasuke clenches his hands into fists. “I’m here now. I’m standing right fucking here.”

Karin takes two steps away from Sasuke. She’s breathing hard in her anger, but in slow increments, she schools her features. “You decide if you’re here or not, Sasuke. We march tomorrow. Figure out before then where the fuck you stand.” She rounds on her heels and walks away. Just before she leaves the stables, though, she pauses long enough to throw over her shoulder, “Go back inside and finish your meal. The last thing I need is for Betsukai’s men to see the Lord Commander sulking. I intend to hold this alliance together. I intend to win. So get over yourself, and deliver the victory that Jugo has promised the north.”

She’s gone before Sasuke can respond. Sulking, like a child. Sasuke counts to ten twice, and by the time he starts his third round of counting, he has to admit that she has a point. The men cannot see him hesitating or showing displeasure as he marches into war.

He owes Jugo better.

The feast hall falls quiet when Sasuke walks back inside. He makes a point of returning through the kitchen again, although no doubt, everyone is aware that Karin had stepped entirely out of the building and he had followed. Karin is already back in her seat.

Sasuke meets Mrs. Oonishi’s eyes as he’s returning to his seat, but thankfully, she doesn’t say anything. It takes a few moments before the noise picks up again in the tavern, Abira leading the charge with a commendable effort to draw Shikamaru and Kiba back into a conversation.

Sasuke knows he should join someone or another in a conversation, make light of what just happened and return the afternoon to some semblance of normalcy. But his focus snags on Sarada, who has her head bowed and is eating her food methodically, shoulders hunched in on herself. “What’s wrong now, short-crop?”

Sarada’s answer is immediate. “Nothing’s wrong.”

She still hasn’t looked up from her food, so Sasuke heaves a sigh and takes the initiative. “Look at me.”

Sarada puts down her fork next to her bowl and looks at him. She manages to hold Sasuke’s gaze for all of a few seconds before breaking under the scrutiny. “Is Karin mad at me?”

Kids. “She’s always mad," Sasuke answers, glancing up at Karin across the table. She's watching them, no doubt following every single word of their conversation. She's not the only one observing him carefully at the moment, but he doubts that the southerners can understand him. Small mercies. "Don't worry about it.”

Sarada’s expression, for some reason, crumbles. She hides it quickly, turning her attention back to her food. “Are you?”

She heard Karin and Sasuke arguing about her, and so naturally, she thinks it is her fault. Sasuke tries to make light of the question, and makes absolutely sure that his confusion at her question is writ large on his face. “Of course not. Why would I be?”

Sarada picks up her fork again in a fist. Even the fork seems too big for her to hold. “I’m Kamisunagawa. My clan stood against you during the tribal wars.”

The thing about being an orphan is, no single place feels true. Sasuke always felt like he was overstaying, no matter where he was. He never felt like he belonged anywhere, because there wasn’t anyone for him to return to. In the absence of kin, he was never sure who would want him.

Sarada heard raised voices, people disagreeing about her. She thinks her time is up here now, that she is no longer welcome or wanted. Of course she did. That is what Sasuke would have assumed, at her age.  

Sasuke leans towards Sarada in his seat and pitches his voice low. “Look at me.” Sarada lifts her face to meet his gaze again. “Did your gramma ever tell you about the Battle of the Rankoshi?”

Sarada nods. “Yes.”

I killed your kin there, Sasuke thinks. I may have killed your mother. “So you know what happened there?”

Sarada nods again. She is breathing carefully, but her face is becoming a blotchy red despite her best attempts at keeping her composure.

It hits Sasuke in that moment. She knows. She knows the way Abira knew about Kikuyo.

Karin was right. Guilt is not a good reason. Sasuke has no good reason, but he knows—in his bones, he knows—the effort it is taking Sarada to keep her posture so precise, to swallow on her own doubts and keep her silence. It isn’t guilt, it’s something else. He doesn’t have to name it, he just has to accept it. It takes a fraction of a second for Sasuke to find that acceptance. “Are you angry at me?”

Sarada considers the question carefully. “No. My gramma says that the gods bless battlefields, all the warriors. Not just one side over the other. So you can’t be angry when the gods bless it.”

Sasuke believes in the gods, too, but he thinks this one is a lie that children are taught. The gods are nowhere to be found on the battlefield. There is nothing there but blood and shit and death, misery polluting each and every single gasping breath every dying warrior takes. He doesn’t want to counter this lie though. Sarada is a warrior’s daughter. She will learn the truth of the matter in her own time, when she steps onto a battlefield herself. Sasuke cannot shield her from that, but he can shield her from her own uncertainty. "If you're not angry at me, then how could I be angry at you?" Sasuke prompts. 

Sarada shrugs, her movements stiff. "My gramma says I can be a handful and get in the way sometimes.”

Sasuke allows himself a small smile. “I’m a handful and get in the way too, you know.”

Sarada’s eyebrows climb up her forehead. “They do?”

“All the time. Ask anyone,” Sasuke says.

Sarada accepts this argument with just a nod and turns resolutely back to her food. She picks up her fork in a fist and starts to eat again, head bowed so that her face isn’t visible to anyone at the table. Six and two-thirds, but she looks smaller. The bowl of food is as big as her entire face. Sasuke would see her grow big safe and sound and happy, like a child ought to be. But she is alone, when no child should be alone. She had been so happy to see him. 

What can he say to a child like her? I’m sorry about your parents sounds empty. I was alone for a long while, too, but she shouldn't have to be burdened with knowledge of Sasuke's losses too. What comes out instead is: “Since we're both handfuls and get in the way, you could stay with me. Birds of a feather, and all that.”

Sarada’s face is still red, but her shoulders aren’t so stiff anymore. "Birds of a feather?"

"Flock together, short-crop," Sasuke finishes. Someone has to make sure she goes to the dentist. Someone has to read to her at night, so that she doesn't fall asleep alone and wake up again with nightmares. And someone has to coax her out from under the bed in the mornings when her night terrors become too unbearable for her to face alone. "What do you think? Do you want to stick it out together for a bit?"

Sarada watches Sasuke with her big, dark eyes. “Okay.”

It is odd, Sasuke thinks, to be negotiating this way with a child. But then again, this is a world that demands soldiers out of children. What else is there to do but for two orphans, laying out a tentative contract. “All right.”

It is an instinct that he didn’t know he had, but he yields to it. Sasuke places a hand on her back (covers her entire back with just a single hand). She frowns up at him from behind her glasses, cheeks puffed out with the massive bite she had just taken. Now that he has her attention, he doesn’t know how to say what he’s trying to say. He reaches for words that the Shodaime might say to him. “You’re not so bad, short-crop. You're not a handful for me, and you don't ever get in my way. No matter what anyone says, you’re just fine with me. I think you’re just fine.”

Sarada wipes at her mouth with the back of her hand. She mumbles something that sounds like okay around the food in her mouth. Her face is a blotchy red again and her eyes bright, but her expression is otherwise composed. She chews and swallows before speaking again. “May I be excused? I want to go read my book now.”

She almost never asks to be excused, but Sasuke understands why she is now. Sarada pushes away from the table almost immediately, without waiting for permission. She barely clears the top of the table. She is just a child. She is hurt, and so she will run and keep running if no one keeps her close. “Hey, short-crop. I didn’t say you could leave.”

Sarada pauses just as she’s about to leave, and squares her shoulders before turning to face Sasuke. Her chin is quivering.

He doesn’t know what drives him—that odd instinct rising from his gut—but he yields to it again before he can second guess himself. Sarada’s hair tickles his chin when Sasuke presses his lips against the crown of her head. He lingers, closes his eyes and breathes deep when he feels Sarada shift towards him. The muscles in her back, rigid under his hand until just a moment ago, uncoil. He hears her take in a shuddery breath, so he does them both a favor and scoops her up into his arms. Sarada’s arms come up around his neck instinctively, and when Sasuke gets to his feet, her legs come up around his waist. She pushes her face into his shoulder, and he feels it then, a wet patch forming on his shirt collar.

He remembers the Shodaime, the breadth of his hand against the back of his neck, holding him close. So Sasuke presses a hand to her back, holds her close. He feels a dozen sets of eyes on him, every single person at the table glancing up from their food.

He can meet no one’s gaze except Karin’s. She tilts her chin up, eyes bright, shoulders moving with deep breaths. She gets to her feet as well, and her eyes move towards Sarada. Karin opens her mouth as if to speak, and Sasuke knows—he just knows—that the next words out of her mouth will be hurtful. He does not want Sarada to hear them. So he takes a step back, tilting Sarada away from Karin, and shaking his head sharply, No.

For once, Karin holds her peace. She is the first to look away, her anger evident in the rigid line of her shoulders.

There’s nothing to do but leave, so Sasuke does just that, uncaring of what the Betsukai troops in the feast hall might think or say. He is too tired to keep up appearances and play politics.

He waits until he is outside before he speaks again. He imagines what the Shodaime would say to him, and for the life of him, can’t think of a single thing. All he remembers is the solid feel of the Shodaime’s hand on his forehead, saying, Just a dream, son. He can do nothing but hold Sarada close, and repeat himself. “You’re fine,” he tells her. “You’re just fine.”

Sarada’s entire body heaves with a sob.

Eventually, Sarada calms down enough to climb down from his arms. She scrubs at her face a few times, and then gets right to work helping Sasuke set-up a tent. She starts with an informal tour of the campsite where the death-riders have pitched their tents. It’s set a fair distance from the village center, and it takes them fifteen minutes to walk there carrying all their gear.

They’re half-way through setting up the tent when Abira joins them, scowling as he dumps his tent and rucksack onto an empty spot next to Sasuke’s tent. “There’s a spare room in the tavern,” Sasuke points out.

“With all due respect, Lord Commander,” Abira says cheerfully. “Go fuck yourself.”

Sarada’s gaze snaps towards Abira, mouth flapping open. She gathers herself a moment later. “Swear jar contribution!” She yells, and holds out a hand, palm up. “I’m going to medical school!”

Abira looks heavenward and digs out his wallet. He gives her two neatly folded bills. Sarada is about to hand him back one of the bills, but Abira waves her aside. “That’s for your therapy fund. Trust me, kid, you’ll need it.”

Sarada pockets the bills. “Why will I need therapy?”

Abira jerks a thumb towards Sasuke. “Because of that jackass over there.”

Sarada’s hand shoots out again. Abira reaches for his wallet a second time.

Sasuke understands why Abira had insisted on camping out with Sasuke instead of taking Mrs. Oonishi up on the offer of a roof over his head and a comfortable bed. He is technically under Sasuke’s command. If Sasuke sleeps outdoors, he must as well. But Sasuke can’t sleep indoors when twenty-five of his men are out in the open, so he tries to transmit his apologies to Abira by helping him set up his tent.

It’s only late afternoon, so there is plenty of the day left to waste away before their march tomorrow.

Otogakure. That is what the new hidden village is called. Yonabaru tells Sasuke that Karin had insisted on the name. Sasuke glances up sharply from his task of laying out his bedrolls. Yonabaru is standing at the entrance of his tent, keeping the flap open so that the sun and air are coming through. It’s the typical tents warriors carry to war in the north: pointed at the top, versatile, easy to set up, and with just enough space inside for a bedroll and a small corner for his battle gear and weapons. He’d spent years sleeping in tents like these; there’s something comforting about being in one again, but the space feels smaller now that he’s grown more than half a foot and gained nearly a hundred pounds of sheer muscle since he was a thirteen-year-old..

He changes out of his riding gear and into something more comfortable while talking to Yonabaru. “She wanted to call the village Otogakure?”

Yonabaru shrugs. “I’m glad she did. Why not reclaim the name as our own?”

The logic is unassailable, but it still doesn’t wash away the sour taste in Sasuke’s mouth at the idea that he is riding to Otogakure again. This whole war has soured. The march started off with the promise of an end to this whole ordeal. But then Abira had looked him in the eyes and said, My sister’s name was Betsukai Kikuyo.

“Some of the men are thinking of grabbing a few drinks, Captain,” Yonabaru offers when Sasuke pushes back out into the open and scans the fields for Sarada. She’s not difficult to babysit; mostly, she minds her own business. Currently, she is playing a game she has invented for herself. It involves running between the death-riders outside their tents, slapping their outstretched hands, and then making a lap. They all seem familiar with Sarada. To a fault, they call her, little one. (And she is little. She’s almost too small for her age. He’ll have to ask Sakura about that.)

He could share a drink with his men. He wants to do nothing more than drink. But he’s been riding for days now, and he wants nothing more than his solitude. “Maybe later.”  

Yonabaru’s lip quirks up in a smile. “You’re going to find a woman? Or maybe it’s the blue-eyed jinchuuriki I saw among the southerners…” He trails off. “It’s rare for rumors to be an underestimation of what someone looks like.”

“He’s not just a pretty face,” Abira adds with a grin. “Sharp as a kunai, that one.”

Sasuke ignores the conversation. “Tell the men to take the afternoon and evening off,” Sasuke orders as he walks away. “Anyone hungover in the morning will walk to Otogakure and carry all their gear. We march at dawn tomorrow. I want everyone packed and ready to ride twenty minutes before the sun rises.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” Yonabaru says, smiling still.

Sarada falls into step behind him, skipping as they walk and keeping up a steady stream of observations and thoughts. Sasuke walks fifteen minutes away from the village before he finds a spot secluded enough. It’s an opening in the middle of the wheat fields, the land smoothed out by feet and carts. All around him is the tall grass, goldenrod and green, and overhead is a sky so swollen and blue it feels as if Sasuke is in a fishbowl.

“What are we doing?” Sarada asks. “Are we going to play?”

Sasuke looks down at her. Her mother was a warrior, and Sarada herself is talented. Her chakra needs focus, and she’s precise with an axe even though she can barely lift one. There is no point pretending that she isn’t destined for the life of a warrior. “We’re going to train,” Sasuke announces, and Sarada’s face breaks into a wide smile.

They start with ten minutes of meditation the way the Shodaime taught him. Sarada is miserable at meditation—she keeps squirming in her seat and cracking open an eye to spy on Sasuke— but she tries her best. Then, they move into a few easy warm-ups, working through reps of increasing difficulty. After that, it’s just a matter of working through his poses. Sarada tries to keep up with the poses, and she’s precise. She’s not suited for the Senju Technique—the taijutsu is meant for someone with heft and weight—but it’s still worth it for her to learn the basics.

They’re taking a water break and playing with a handful of stones (a nonsensical game Sarada invited; Sasuke doesn’t understand the rules) when he senses Kakashi’s chakra moving unerringly towards him. Sasuke turns towards the chakra signature. By the time Kakashi emerges through the wheat stalks, Sasuke’s heart rate has returned to normal.

Sarada gasps when she sees Kakashi. A handful of stones go flying out of her hand when she points at Kakashi excitedly. “It’s you!” She turns to make sure Sasuke is looking and repeats, still gesturing wildly in Kakashi’s direction, “It’s him! The Lightning-Master!”

Kakashi smiles at Sarada, and says in broken northern tongue, with a truly horrid accent, “Hello, Sarada. How are you?”

Sarada giggles. “You sound funny,” she says, but Kakashi doesn’t understand. Sasuke translates for him, but he adds a few embellishments. Most notably, he says Kakashi sounds like a deranged idiot.

“I doubt she said that, Lord Commander,” Kakashi points out.

Sasuke takes a deep breath and gets to his feet. “It’s a translation error,” he bites out. He speaks the two words in northern tongue: lord and he who commands . “It makes sense when Abira calls me Lord Commander in the southern tongue because he’s translating it from our language. It’s fucking asinine when you call me Lord Commander because your language has an actual word for just commander.”

“A rose by any other name,” Kakashi says, eye crinkling with a smile. It makes Sasuke want to punch him. Kakashi considers their surroundings. It’s not a very large clearing, and with three people, it almost feels claustrophobic. Kakashi doesn’t seem to notice, because he comments, mild as always, “You seem very comfortable with the northern language. Far more comfortable in it than our language, it seems. You seem more comfortable in the north in general.”

Sasuke’s Mangekyou whorls. “If you’re questioning where my loyalties lie—”

“I’m not questioning anything. I know exactly where your loyalties lie,” Kakashi interrupts easily. He takes off his jounin vest and tosses it to one end of the clearing. His kunai pouch, sword, and the rest of his weapons follow a moment later. “I’m just wondering if maybe you know.”

“I know,” Sasuke snarls. “I don’t need a goddamn lecture or—” Kakashi pushes off his hitai-ate, which makes Sasuke stop mid-sentence. The moment becomes more surreal because Kakashi tugs off his face-mask, pulling it off entirely and letting it drop on top of the rest of his gear. “You want to train?”

Somewhere to his left, Sarada gapes, completely speechless for once.

“I want to assess you before battle,” Kakashi says. “Taijutsu first, and then with your sword.”

Sasuke holds out his canteen to Sarada. “Go stand over there,” he instructs her. “Try to follow along, and see if you can keep track of how many blows each one of us lands. It’s important to be able to follow movement with your eyes. Understand?”

Sarada nods vigorously and runs to the corner of the clearing. She squats and holds the canteen close.

Sasuke angles his body to face Kakashi. He takes a deep breath and begins to count to let the battle calm take over. One, two, three, four, five. “I’m going to kick your ass, old man.”

“Thirty-four is not old,” Kakashi grouses, but he’s becoming still even as he speaks the words. His posture becomes more precise, from the slope of his eyebrows to the precise line of his shoulders. Sasuke realizes then that he hasn’t had a chance to show off his new technique to Kakashi yet; this will be the first time he has fought Kakashi from the crystalline space of the battle calm. Six, seven, eight, nine

“Attack,” Kakashi orders.

Ten. Sasuke blurs.

Sasuke’s left eye is swollen shut, it hurts to inhale deeply, but it is worth it because Kakashi’s lip is split and his left finger is displaced. He lost to Kakashi, but only after forty minutes of sparring. Kakashi had to fight for the victory. It’s Sasuke’s best performance to date; Kakashi only gained the upper hand once they drew swords.

Kakashi critiques his performance thoroughly while they walk back to the village, each smoking a cigarette lazily. Kakashi talks Sasuke through his mistakes with precise, exacting detail while Sasuke nods and takes it all in. Sarada is running a few feet ahead of them because Sasuke knows intimately the effects of second-hand smoking on developing lungs. Sakura gave him a presentation on it once. “And when you pivot on your right foot—”

“I overpronate,” Sasuke finishes knowingly. The Nidaime has been trying to correct him of this mistake since they first started training.

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. “Did Nidaime-sama train you with uneven weights on your feet?” When Sasuke shakes his head, Kakashi says, thoughtful, “That might help correct for it. Minato-sensei used to do that with me after I tore my ACL. I’ll ask him when we get back to Konoha. He’ll know what to do.”

It’s the way he says the Yondaime’s name that makes Sasuke stop walking. He talks about the ghost as if his presence is guaranteed. He talks about him the way Sasuke thinks about the Shodaime and the Nidaime, as an everlasting, unyielding presence. Kakashi stops walking as well and turns to look at him.

Sasuke clears his throat. “When we get back, I have to complete Pakkun’s—”

“I know,” Kakashi interrupts quietly. There is a breeze moving through the wheat stalks around them, and the sound from it is louder than Kakashi’s voice.

It’s clear that Kakashi doesn’t want to talk about the Yondaime, but Sasuke feels compelled anyways. “When I died and Rin brought me back, I was trapped between realms,” Sasuke says carefully. Kakashi looks up to meet Sasuke’s gaze. He still hasn’t put his face mask back on, so his surprise is easy to spot. Sasuke soldiers on through his explanation. He tells Kakashi about listening to the ocean moving overhead and the rumble of volcanoes below, the relentless darkness of the space, the tug of something pulling him down. He places a hand over his heart. “I can feel it still. My soul is corrupted, and I can feel it.”

Kakashi watches Sasuke carefully. “Is that what it’s like for Minato-sensei now?”

Sasuke nods. “They’re trapped.”

“Pakkun says completing the jutsu is equivalent to burning clay,” Kakashi says. He holds Sasuke’s gaze steady when he asks the question. “Will it be painful?”

They can’t feel pain, not in the real sense of the word. But they are in pain now. “It will be a relief.”   

Kakashi looks towards the village. Sarada has paused a few yards ahead, watching them carefully. “It’s going to break his heart,” he murmurs.

Sasuke follows Kakashi’s gaze towards Naruto’s chakra signature. Sasuke knows from Pakkun and the other ghosts that Naruto has spent every day with his father since the Yondaime returned. They share every meal together. The Yondaime trains with Naruto every morning, and presses a kiss goodnight to his forehead at the end of the day. He has even commandeered the kitchens in the Hokage Tower to cook meals for Naruto—because that is the kind of father he wanted to be for his child. Despite the war brewing and Madara’s looming death, despite the end of the very world as they know it, the Yondaime has created a protective cocoon for Naruto in the Tower where they are a family: father and child, nothing more, nothing less.

Kakashi is still watching in the direction of Naruto’s chakra signature, looking a decade older than he did just a moment ago.

Sasuke has seen Kakashi die once before, so he knows what it’s like. He almost says, It’ll break your heart, too, but Kakashi changes topics abruptly like he always does.  

“You should have taken the room that Mrs. Oonishi prepared for you,” he says, and starts walking again. “You’re a commander now. You can’t think of yourself as a rank and file CO, and neither can the men and women you command. They need to know you, respect you, and obey you, even if you give a command they don’t agree with. It’s harder for them to do that if they think of you as a friend they can disagree with. Do you understand?”

Sasuke heaves a sigh. He wants to argue, but he knows Kakashi is right. It’s just the instinct to defend himself against Kakashi’s criticism. The Yondaime told him once that he needed to learn how to stand in front of a battalion from Kakashi. “I understand.”

“It will be important for you to distinguish yourself from your death-riders,” Kakashi says, pinning Sasuke with a sharp gaze. “The other tribes won’t look so kindly on Jugo choosing you as Lord Commander if they think you still mostly identify as Captain of the death-riders. Especially since you led the death-riders to defeat most of the tribes who will be fighting under your command. You’re commander of all the tribes now. You have to convince the tribal leaders of this. Especially the Betsukai and their allies, the Kesen.”

Sasuke can’t help but agree with Kakashi’s assessment, but then he stops short when he realizes just how familiar the words sound— Hatake, you goddamn idiot, Sasuke thinks. Not even a few hours in Urausu, and the man is already quoting Karin. “Please don’t tell me you’re sleeping with Karin again.”

Kakashi gives him a sidelong glance. “Just to confirm,” he says, picking his words very, very carefully, and not making any eye contact. “There isn’t anything between you and her that I need to know about, is there? Because if you want me to back off for personal reasons, I will. And if there’s a kid involved, obviously, I don't want to complicate matters…”  

He didn’t deny it, which means it must be true. When, is what Sasuke wants to know. They’d just gotten to Urausu. Does the man have so much game that he can get laid within hours of arriving in town? It would be impressive, if it weren’t Karin they were talking about. But since it is Karin they’re talking about, Sasuke mostly wants to reach for a weapon. “It’s not personal, Hatake. She’s dangerous. I’ve never been stupid enough to touch her.” He pauses a beat as his mind catches up with another detail. “What kid? Sarada?”

Kakashi looks relieved, which is not at all the reaction Sasuke had been hoping for. Relief should not be associated with Karin. Wariness, maybe. Fear, even. “The way the two of you were arguing about her, I assumed custody issues.”

Sasuke’s mouth drops open. He knows he’s gaping, but he can’t stop. “You thought Sarada was my kid? With Karin?” Kakashi only shrugs. “For fuck’s sake, Kakashi, I would have told you if I got a girl pregnant. You would be the first fucking person I told. And Sarada is six and a half years old.” He gives Kakashi a flat look. “Math, Hatake. It’s simple fucking arithmetic. I’m not her father!”

Kakashi holds his palms out in surrender and unsaid apology. “Sarada is small for her age. She looks like you, Sasuke, and she breathes fire. You don’t talk about your time in the north much, either, so I wasn’t sure. Itachi told me she probably wasn’t yours because you would have told him if there was another clan member. But I wanted to make sure.”

Sasuke opens his mouth to tell Kakashi the exact magnitude of stupid he is for thinking that Sasuke would hide something as monumental as a daughter from him, but Kakashi interrupts. “Why do you distrust Karin so much?”

“I trust her with my life. I trust her to protect and save the north,” Sasuke corrects. “I don’t trust her with your heart.”

Kakashi’s startled laugh is loud and deep. He laughs until there are tears at the corners of his eyes. “My heart?” Kakashi asks once he collects his breath. “I know your brain is awash in hormones everytime Naruto comes within a mile of you, Sasuke, but not everything is an epic romance—”

“It’s not a rational decision you make,” Sasuke says, speaking over Kakashi’s amusement. He doesn’t know how to make Kakashi understand. “You wake up one day, and it’s happened. You don’t know how or why or when, but now you’ve got a blind spot the size of Iwagakure and a chink in your armor so wide, a toddler with a dull blade could find the weakness and drive that blade home. Karin knows this. She’ll exploit it to her advantage.”

“Poetic as that may be, Uchiha, you don’t need to worry,” Kakashi says. His lips are still twitching in a barely-suppressed smile. You goddamn idiot, Sasuke thinks, but Kakashi keeps talking without giving Sasuke a chance to respond. “And all this hate for me because I’m your CO?”

“Because you’re my CO,” Sasuke agrees.

“And that’s where you stand? Lord Commander of the northern tribes, but a CO in Konohagakure?” Kakashi asks.

He’s been asked this question time and again—by Karin, by Tsunade, by every single person who has ever met him. This is the first time Kakashi has asked him, and his temper snaps at his insistence. “Why do I have to stand anywhere?” Sasuke demands, stopping to round on Kakashi. He points at the ground beneath his feet. “I’m standing right here. Right fucking here. Why can’t I just stand right where I am? Why can’t I just be?”

Kakashi doesn’t flinch in the face of Sasuke’s loud anger. “Then do that,” he counters calmly. “But if you’re going to stand where you are and be what you are, don’t apologize for it.”

“I’ve never apologized for it,” Sasuke snaps.

Kakashi’s gaze tracks pointedly to his tattoos. “You don’t even ride at the head of the platoon, Sasuke.”

Sasuke flushes at the memory of how he’d hidden away in the rearguard. He resists the urge to tug down his sleeves to cover the tattoos again. “There’s no need to announce myself everywhere I go.”

“You could try wearing a face-mask like me,” Kakashi offers.

Sasuke scoffs. “The face-mask didn’t work for you.”

When Kakashi smiles this time, his eyes crinkle with it. “Exactly my point, Lord Commander,” he says, and he speaks the northern word for it: Lord; he who commands.

They continue north at the crack of dawn the next day. The march starts of miserable, and it only gets worse. Sasuke had been hoping to sneak out with the rest of the troops, but of course, Sarada is on to him. She is alert and awake with Mrs. Oonishi for the send-off. He hugs Mrs. Oonishi goodbye and waits for Sarada to do a repeat of her over-enthusiastic hug, but she only stands silently, by Mrs. Oonishi’s side. She doesn’t even look up at Sasuke, just stares at a spot on the dirt by her feet.

Mrs. Oonishi gives him a pointed look, so Sasuke turns to Sarada. “What’s with the mopey face, short-crop?”

Sarada scrubs at her face. “I don’t have a mopey face.”

“You’re moping,” Sasuke points out evenly. “That means you have a mopey face.”

Sarada looks up at him miserably. It’s not even sunrise, but somehow the kid has managed to rouse herself and get dressed. She’s carrying a small rucksack. “Can I come with you?”

This kid. “No.”

Sarada hefts her rucksack over her shoulder. “I’ve been to the Omine Valley, so I even know the way! I can hunt and I can walk long distances,” she promises him earnestly. “You don’t even have to look after me. I can be on my own. I did it before. I was alone for weeks. I won’t slow you down. I’ve been practicing my stances and chakra concentration. I promise I’ll be brave when we fight the enemy.”

Weeks. She’s six years old. She shouldn’t have been alone even for a single day. “I said no.”

Sarada’s face is still pudgy with sleep. She flushes red and blinks rapidly at him. It takes a moment for Sasuke to realize what’s happening. She’s trying not to cry. For fuck’s sake. He’s making a six year old cry. “Don’t cry.”

Sarada takes a shuddering breath. “I’m not going to cry,” she says loudly, but her face is getting wet anyways. There’s a thin line of snot dripping down her nose already.

Sasuke has seen Sarada cry before. He wasn’t sure what to do then, and he’s not sure now. He’s seen Megumi cry, too, but she’s a baby and babies are supposed to cry. Not that Sarada is far removed from being a baby herself. “Oh, fuck,” Sasuke hisses. He knows how to play with children, but he has less experience when they start crying. “You’re going to cry, aren’t you?”

“Swear jar,” Sarada says, voice cracking on the words.

“Don’t cry,” Sasuke warns, and this time, he pitches his voice to make it sound like an order.

Sarada rubs her knuckles against her eyes, and then starts to bawl.

Sasuke glances at Mrs. Oonishi, but she only levels a flat look at him. Sasuke crouches in front of Sarada and takes a breath. He tells her to please stop crying. He tells her he’ll get her ice-cream if she stops crying. This does not have the desired effect because Sarada launches herself at him and Sasuke is forced to hold onto her, rubbing small circles into her back the way he has seen Suigetsu soothe Megumi.

He has had kunai wounds less painful than this experience. “Or cake,” Sasuke offers. “An entire cake made of ice-cream. Toys. Hair clips. Weapons. Books.”

Sarada’s hiccuping wails come to a meager halt. Her glasses are smudged with her tears, and her nose is still dripping with snot. There’s a wet spot on Sasuke’s shoulder that he doesn’t really want to think about. “What kind of weapons and books?”

Books make her stop crying, but apparently not an ice-cream cake. “I’ll let you pick. There’s a massive library in Konoha. And there are a lot of weapons shops. I don’t know, kid, just stop the waterworks, would you?”

Sarada scrubs at her cheeks. Her face is pudgy and a splotchy pink. She looks like a goddamn toddler. “You’ll take me to Konoha?”

He’s going to regret this one day. Guilt is not a good reason, but she is his responsibility and he will not run from it, even though he doesn’t even know what it means to take responsibility for another small human being.

For one thing, medical school is fucking expensive. He doesn’t even have a goddamn job. He’s got a title, Lord Commander, but even that is temporary and it’s not like Jugo is paying him. Itachi set up college funds for the next generation, but he doesn’t even know how a college fund works. And kids need food, toys, a roof over their shoulders. Pediatricians. And new clothes every now and then because they grow up. Shoes, too. Fuck. “I thought we agreed to stick together for a while.”

Sarada nods so vigorously her glasses slip down her nose. “Yeah. Okay.”

Sasuke gets to his feet now that she’s finally stopped crying. “You remember our training session?” Sarada nods vigorously again. “Practice what I taught you everyday, and don’t give Mrs. Oonishi too much trouble.”

“I’ll practice,” Sarada promises him earnestly, looking up at him with the same wide eyes she always does. She doesn’t even clear his hip, that’s how short she is. “But I can’t promise not giving Mrs. Oonishi trouble. She says I was born troublesome.”

This goddamn kid. “Just...don’t do anything I would do,” Sasuke says.

“There’s very little you wouldn’t do,” Mrs. Oonishi observes with a sigh. “Leave before you make this worse.”

Sasuke decides to take her advice, and returns to Ozora. Sarada follows him a few paces, but stops short when Mrs. Oonishi calls her name. Sasuke can feel her eyes on him the entire time as they ride away, and although he doesn’t plan on looking back, he can’t help himself. Just as the road begins to curve away, he turns in his saddle and sees that she is still standing there, just a small figure next to Mrs. Oonishi.

He blinks, imagines for a startling moment, four figures standing just behind her. Unthinking, he raises a hand and watches the small figure jump up and wave back furiously.

Sasuke turns back and grips Ozora’s reins tightly. “She’ll be fine, Sasuke,” Itachi assures him. They’re marching in a loose formation, and Itachi has fallen into step next to him without much comment. Sakura is to his left, close enough that she can overhear.

“She’s coming with me when this is over,” Sasuke announces. Guilt isn’t a good reason, but wanting to is. That is all the reason he and Sarada need. “She doesn’t have anyone.”

“I’m sure we’ve got space for one more in the Clan,” Itachi says without pausing a beat. Sasuke glances at Itachi and finds that both his cheeks are dimpled. Blood runs thick, Sasuke thinks, and here is proof of it: Itachi, stepping up, without question, without hesitation.

Sakura is smiling too. “She can stay with me and Lee. We have a spare room,” she offers, and twists in her saddle to pitch her voice loud enough for Lee to hear, just a few feet away: Sarada can live with us, right Lee?

Lee smiles, eyes lighting up with joy. “The alternative is that she stays with Itachi and Sasuke,” he says, nudging his horse forward so that he can ride next to Sakura. “My dear friends, as much love as I love you both, you are unfortunately rather unqualified to raise a child.”

“We’ll read a book, Lee. It’ll be fine,” Itachi defends, but Sasuke has to admit that Lee has a point. Sasuke and Itachi’s apartment resembles a barrack more often than not. Sarada will not be comfortable there. “She’ll have to learn Clan laws.”

Sakura rolls her eyes. “I know, she’ll learn all the laws,” she promises, and the three of them launch into a long discussion about how to integrate Sarada into the Academy. Lee suggests a private language tutor, which Itachi and Sakura agree with wholeheartedly. Sasuke tries to follow along, but he gets lost when they start discussing linguistic pedagogy—

“Pedagogy,” Abira repeats, tripping over the consonants of the word. “What does that mean?”

Sasuke urges Ozora ahead so that he can escape the conversation as it moves to color themes for Sarada’s room (Itachi and Lee vote yellow; Sakura, naturally, wants pink). “Fucked if I know,” Sasuke answers, and moves his horse to the head of the platoon where Yonabaru is leading the death-riders.

Abira pulls his horse ahead as well, falling into the space at Sasuke’s left. He glances over his shoulder and listens for a while as Sakura opens up an impromptu poll to all those within earshot of yellow or pink colored walls for a little girl’s room and starts taking a tally of hands (Kakashi judiciously raises his hand for pink; Naruto yells out an alternative: orange!). “Leaving the pups behind is the worst part,” Abira says with a sigh.

Sasuke gives Abira a sidelong glance. “Where are yours now?”

Abira shakes his head. He’s more subdued than usual. “Uncle Togichi sent all the little ones away with the older folk to be with our Kesen allies. They’ll be safe there until this blows over.”  

“It’ll be over soon,” Yonabaru says.

“Gods willing,” Abira mutters. “Let’s just get there first.”

The great plains are endless, and as they march further north, the temperature keeps dropping. Before long, the northerners are pulling on fur-trimmed cloaks and the southerners are zipping on jackets.

It’s colder than anticipated, and on the seventh day of their march, Sasuke wakes up to find that there are icicles on his beard where his gusting breath had frozen. He gets to his feet immediately and looks around to see that the ground around him has patterned out into rings. Only the Konohagakure guards are awake. “Betsukai, Shioya!”

Abira draws his sword as he wakes, blinking at his surroundings. Yonabaru pushes aside his cloak and gets to his feet, similarly armed. Karin follows a moment later, the three of them waking up the southerners as they rush to their feet.

Sasuke doesn’t have to say anything; they understand immediately when they see the patterning in the ground around them. There is a round of loud cursing when the death-riders realize what has happened overnight.

The first time Sasuke saw the earth break out into perfect patterns of soil and rock, circles all around camp, he’d thought it was a jutsu. Or maybe magic, the gods of the earth waking from a deep slumber. Suigetsu told him that this was the coming of winter; the water in the ground freezes and like all the things created by the gods, it becomes evident in perfect symmetry at the surface.

“It’s not even fucking September,” Yonabaru snarls. He crouches on his heels, and they watch as he digs his kunai into the ground. He frowns.

Fuck,” Abira hisses. Sasuke can understand their frustration. A freeze this early means an early winter. If this campaign drags, the Ikeda River will become impassable as it traverses towards the Omine Valley. It means that supply lines will be slowed as they cross the windy, hilly landscape. It means that soldiers will have to fight in the cold. If there is snowfall, they will never be able to reach Madara hidden in the very depths of the valley until the spring thaws.

“Not even September,” Karin mutters under her breath. They have barely spoken since their fight, but now, she’s looking at Sasuke with a frown. “The frost has never been this early.”

“In a language we can understand, please,” Itachi says, cutting into their conversation. He makes a full circle, frowning at what he sees. “What happened to the ground? What are all these circles?”

Yonabaru translates for the group at large. “The freeze is setting. It’ll be an early winter. The snow will start in September in the Omine Valley. Sooner, given how high this frost is already.”

Itachi frowns. He’s wearing nothing more than his jounin shirt, but the cold is not affecting him because he is using his chakra to stay warm. He is impassive, a bright, hot point of chakra in the middle of southerners bundled in jackets. “It can snow in August?”

“Not often,” Sasuke mutters, crouching by Yonabaru in the middle of a circle. He presses his hand to the ground, frowning at the brittle feel of dirt under his hand. There is no moisture; a blade of grass crumbles into pieces in his hand. “You seeing what I’m seeing, Yonabaru?”

“I’m seeing it, my lord,” Yonabaru confirms, rubbing the dirt between his fingers. “The fuck is this?”

“I didn’t see the birds take flight, either. I’ve been roaming all season, and I haven’t seen the birds take flight,” Abira says, craning his neck to look at the sky.

Shikamaru rubs at his face tiredly. “What are we looking at here? Some kind of climate improbability?”

“That’s one way to put it,” Karin mutters, looking out towards the horizon. She’s frowning. “Something lies in wait. Something ancient and brittle with rage.”

Madara, Sasuke identifies. He gets to his feet and meets Kakashi’s gaze. “We need to move.”

Kakashi nods. “Thirty more miles to cover today. I want everyone loaded and ready to go in fifteen,” he says, turning to Itachi to carry out the orders. “Make sure the men know the pattern on the ground is nothing to worry about, just the frost setting in.”

Karin is about to return to her bedroll, but Sasuke stops with her a touch to her elbow. “About our fight in Urausu—”

“We don’t have to talk about it,” Karin interrupts. She holds Sasuke’s gaze steady.

Karin is somehow even more averse to discussing what’s on her mind than Sasuke. But he will not lose this friendship to silences that go unbroken. Sasuke takes a breath before he speaks. “You were right. I should have taken the room in the inn.” Karin only arches an eyebrow, so Sasuke presses forward. “And you were right about the other thing, too. I can’t pretend I’m not who I am.”

Karin scoffs. She’s always been difficult to placate, and now is no different. “You do this soul-searching all on your own, Konoha?”

Sasuke doesn’t rise to the bait. “Kakashi had to talk me into it.”

Karin’s surprise is uncensored. “Kakashi talked you into it?”

Kakashi. First-name basis now, apparently. “What are you doing with him, Karin? What’s the gain in this for you?”

Karin’s face goes blank. “None of your damn business.”

She turns away before Sasuke can say anything else. Sasuke heaves a sigh— Men, he thinks, act like fucking idiots—and turns to prepare Ozora for the day’s march. As promised, Sarada had taken fantastic care of her; her coat was gleaming, her hooves well rasped, and her saddle in impeccable condition. He’s grateful for Ozora’s steady presence as they ride because it gets colder and colder, and she doesn’t miss her stride.

Karin rides by his side after that, keeping up a steady stream of chatter with Abira and Yonabaru. It gets colder with each passing mile, and the winds start to pick up. The southerners pull on hats and gloves, and Sasuke exchanges his cloak for the heavy wolf-fur cloak that Mrs.Oonishi gifted him. By the time the Yoro Mountain comes into view, its peaks are capped with snow.

On their twenty-second day, just as they are rising with the dawn for the last few hours of march to Otogakure, one of Kakashi’s scouts comes thundering back towards them. He is breathless when he reaches Sasuke. The horse’s breath comes out in loud, misty gusts.

“It’s Otogakure, Commander,” the scout pants. Sasuke doesn’t even need to hear the message to know what has happened. The news is writ large in the scout’s wide-eyed expression, his tight grip on the reins of his horse. “We’re under attack.”

The war has begun.