Orochimaru had carved Otogakure into the crevices of the earth. He hid like a coward. There was never any sunshine. There was barely any fresh air.
Jugo has built Otogakure under the swollen blue skies. Even surrounded by wooden stake walls and towers, Otogakure seems open and wide, as if too great to be contained. There is a large hall at the center of the village, made of timber, where the tribal leader can gather. Clustered around the hall are tents of varying sizes, arranged concentrically and draped with the colors and sigils of the tribes they represent. Jugo’s banners of the brown grizzly against a white flag is flapping in the wind, raised over the great hall. On the second-largest tent is the Hozuki banner: a golden mountain lion stalking the green slopes of a mountain. Sasuke spots the Betsukai hawk, and the Kesen stallion. The banners with Inoue’s Suwanosejima twin spears and the crossing rivers of the Subaru’s Shinmoedake are both flying close next to each other.
Konohagakure’s forces have been laid out in neat rows to the south of Otogakure. Jiraiya, Hiashi, and Shikaku are somewhere in that cluster of tents, along with a handful of senior jounin Kakashi picked to lead the men and women: Asuma, Genma, Kurenai, and Gai. He had sent his captains ahead of him while he stayed by Sasuke’s side for Itachi’s vigil; Sasuke wonders how much that cost them, but there is no time for regret now.
A hundred free tribes are lying in wait at the mouth of the Omine Valley, waiting to march. It’s a massive gathering of northerners. Seven hundred, Sasuke thinks, looking out over the multitude spread in front of him. With Kakashi’s five hundred, there are nearly twelve hundred soldiers in Otogakure.
Otogakure is burning when Sasuke first lays eyes on her. The greatest damage has been done to the Konohagakure tents. Most are on fire. From this distance, Sasuke can see and feel the spark of chakra as some of the troops use jutsus to quell the flames, but most are already getting into formation to face an enemy.
“Two hundred enemy foot soldiers on the field already, with seventy-five cavalry. They arrived in formation from the north,” Takamaru reports. He’s perched on Abira’s forearm, talons digging into Abira’s leather forearm braces. He is a large hawk and no doubt weighs a considerable amount, but Abira is still as a statue while he holds his arm aloft for Takamaru. He’d summoned the hawk to scout the battlefield as soon as they got the scout’s report, and the hawk has been circling the battlefield since. “There are more troops just beyond those two hills in the east and west. Otogakure is surrounded on all three sides. Two hundred foot soldiers in each direction, and two hundred cavalry distributed evenly.”
Jugo has also sent a scout to report to Sasuke, a Hishiazu warrior named Aso who fills in the gaps that Takamaru does not know. Madara’s troops attacked in the dead of the morning, according to Aso. They had arrived out of nowhere, silent and deadly. They had killed all the men who had been stationed as lookouts and outposts as they moved. Not a single guard dog or horse had made a sound at their approach.
Most of the mounted warriors in Kakashi’s platoon had spurred their horses forward to arrive as quickly as possible to Jugo’s aid. Sasuke has twenty-five death riders. Kakashi has twenty of his cavalry, including all nine of Sasuke’s of Unit 3 members, Naruto, Sakura, Ino, Tenten, Hinata, Lee, and Jiraiya. They have all lined up on the crest of a hill overlooking Otogakure just below them.
Sasuke looks out over the battlefield below. The open stretch of land east of Otogakure is streaked with blood. Otogakure warriors have lined up in a shield wall on the east and west, waiting for an assault, even though there is no enemy there. To the north, he can see Jugo’s shield wall holding fast against the enemy that has already arrived, but there is too much chaos to make out much else.
The death-riders are jittery with the need to jump into the fray, but Sasuke needs to assess the field before he can charge in head-first. “A lot of blood on that battlefield.”
“It’s the horses, my lord,” Aso says. He looks grim. “His men slaughtered over fifty of our horses, and nearly a hundred cattle head and sheep. The enemy sent in a unit of troops under cover of night. They had butchering all night long in the stables and fields, but the animals didn’t make a noise. They got to the guards as well without the dogs alerting us to their presence. One of the stable-hands got away long enough to alert us to their presence just before dawn.”
It’s an odd detail, one that makes even Karin stare at the messenger with something like incomprehension. They slaughtered fifty horses and their food supplies—without the animals making any noise? A scared horse will rouse even a dead man from his sleep, and fear spreads fast through a herd. But somehow, they slaughtered scores without any resistance.
Sasuke turns back to the battlefield. The only thing worth focusing on is the next relevant question. “The shield walls?”
“Lord Biratori and Lord Suigetsu are holding fast on the northern line, sire,” Aso answers crisply. He’s covered in soot and mud. There’s a long gash on his arm visible through a cut in his leather braces and crusted with blood. “Inoue and Subaru have mounted a shield wall facing east in anticipation of the next line of attack with the Betsukai. Captain Nara and Captain Hiashi are holding the western front. But the enemy is only attacking from the north so far. You can’t see them from here, but they’re lined up just beyond those ridges. We don’t know why they’re waiting.”
Karin looks sharply at Sasuke with a frown. “Waiting for us?”
Itachi stands up in his stirrups to get a better view, Mangekyou whorling slowly as he considers the landscape. “Waiting for the right moment.”
Sasuke watches the field for a few moments longer, considering his options with care even though he can see the death-riders in his periphery moving forward a few paces before turning back to rejoin the line, jittery with anticipation of the fight that lies ahead. If it’s a trap, it’s an odd gamble. Madara had sent eight hundred troops. Too few troops to overwhelm Otogakure’s troops, and too many to carry out any covert, targeted attacks. It’s a show of force to sow fear into Otogakure: Look what I have done—eight hundred men as an opening move.
But as far as opening moves go, Sasuke thinks this one is weak. The man wants to have the pomp and circumstances of a showy victory, but the attack would have been more effective if Madara wasn’t so cautious. They are surrounded on three sides, but Madara has only attacked from the north. The most logical thing would be for him to push from one direction, wait for the troops to all converge on that point and then close around from both sides in a pincer.
“He’s using very traditional tactics, Brother,” Sasuke points out. “I was expecting more flair for someone so batshit fucking insane.”
Itachi huffs a wry laugh. “He’s always been a fan of the classics.”
They teach academy students how to defend against a pincer attack; there only a few ways to do it effectively. But Madara must know this. They will have to outmaneuver him. Sasuke has the advantage of higher ground and the ability to attack the enemy’s flank. But if Sasuke steps into the fray, the pincer will close on both sides of him. He could attack the troops lying in wait, but the horses would be worn out from skirting around the landscape to reach the enemy. And by then, they will be ready for him. He doesn’t have the numbers either.
“Commander, we’re weak on the western side,” Itachi points, turning to Kakashi. “Konoha troops can’t fight with a fire at their back and the enemy at their front.”
Shikamaru offers his own assessment. He’s not nearly as high-ranking as Itachi, but there is no denying his strategic mind and Kakashi listens with care while he talks. “If he’s going to form the pincer on the east and western sides, we should try and break through the north to give ourselves an opening,” he points out. “We can’t fight on all sides. He can overwhelm us.”
“We have to fight on all sides, there’s no way to escape that eventuality,” Naruto points out. “We could split the troops in anticipation of that. Half to the west, and half to the north.”
Sakura chimes in with agreement. “At least we’ll be more evenly distributed so one flank doesn’t give way to the enemy.”
They are all valid points. Kakashi leans forward onto the pommel of his saddle and pins Sasuke with his mismatched gaze. “What’s your plan, Lord Commander?”
Sasuke starts to tug off his cloak. If Madara wants a showy battle, Sasuke will give it to him. After years fighting in the tribal wars, Sasuke has learned how to overwhelm his enemies. “The point isn’t to withstand the pincer,” he says, starting to untie the gear from Ozora’s saddle. He lets the bedroll and rucksack drop to the ground haphazardly. Then, he starts to untie his weapons and strap them onto his body, starting with his sword to his waist. He shrugs on the leather holster that holds the double throwing knives in the middle of his back, and checks that the knives at his shin, thigh, and right forearm are properly tied. Around him, the death-riders are going through similar motions, preparing for the charge.
Sasuke lets his shield drop to the ground as well. He needs to travel light and fast for the charge he is about to make. “The point is to make sure the pincer never closes in around us.”
“Double-sided cavalry attacks?” Itachi guesses with an arched eyebrow. “That’s a bit...extravagant.”
Sasuke grins. “I’m a man of fine tastes, what can I say.”
Itachi shakes his head, left cheek dimpling now with his half-smile. Sasuke realizes then that this is the first time he has ridden into battle with his brother. He can’t help but share in Itachi’s joy at the moment. “So what’s the plan? You don’t have the numbers to do a double-sided cavalry attacks.”
Sasuke speaks to Yonabaru directly, although the words are intended for Kakashi as well. Yonabaru will have to spread news of the tactic down the line so the men know what to do; Kakashi will have to be aware of his strategy to complement it. “We don’t attack the flanks head-on. We’ll attack the edges of their shield walls. The goal isn’t to drive through the center. We stay at an oblique angle, and we stay nimble. Glancing strikes at each end, and we rotate around camp so the pincer can’t close,” Sasuke orders. “We start from the northern flank to eastern, and then back again to western. Have the men stay on me.”
“Yes, my lord,” Yonabaru says, and spurs his horse to carry on the message.
Sasuke can hear his loud, booming voice as he shouts out orders. “Death-riders! Oblique attacks on the edges of the enemy shield walls, we don’t engage the center! We stay on the Lord Commander! Make ready!”
Sasuke assesses the southern cavalry men. There is no point in trying to mix the northern troops with the southern; their styles are too different and it would result in chaos. “Kakashi, the strategy won’t work for your troops.”
“No,” Kakashi agrees. He doesn’t sound offended at the frank assessment. Konoha’s shinobi are trained for precise, silent attacks. They can hold a line and move in formation, but most of them have spent their entire careers fighting in thick forests. Southerners use horses primarily as transportation, while the nomadic tribes of the north spend most of their time on horseback. They are used to the cloister of the redwoods and dense forests of the south, not these vast, open terrains. Sasuke intends to thunder into the battlefield, screaming death with his horde of northern warriors. This is a northern war on a northern battlefield. A northern strategy is needed. “I’m curious as to how you’ll make it work yourself, Lord Commander.”
Sasuke doesn’t bother hiding his smirk. Kakashi has trained him to fight, but they’ve never seen each other in a war. “What’s your plan?”
“We split the forces, on the northern and western flanks,” Kakashi answers easily, opting for a combination of all the suggestions he has heard. “Itachi, lead the charge on the western flank. I’ll be on the northern line. Naruto with me, get the troops ready. Sakura, you’re with Itachi. Pick your fighters, Itachi.”
There is a flurry of activity as the troops prepare, splitting off into groups and getting ready for the charge. Abira approaches Sasuke and asks, voice pitched low, “Do I march with the death-riders, Lord Commander?”
Sasuke glances up from tying in his battle axe to his waist. He understands why Abira feels the need to ask. But Karin was right. It’s time he honor Kikuyo’s death, the way she would have wanted to be honored. The way Abira wants to honor her now. “You need a handwritten invitation, Betsukai?”
Abira’s smile is wide. “No, my lord.”
Sasuke spurs Ozora forward, and begins to count.
One, two, three. By the time he gets to five, his mind is clear. He assesses his men, who are waiting on his command. Their horses are pawing at the ground, their breaths fogging up the air with the mist. The moment before a charge are always jittery, and it has been years since they’ve followed Sasuke into battle.
If you are going to be who you are, Kakashi told him, don’t apologize for it.
Sasuke bares his teeth in a grin. He stands up in his stirrups, and spreads both his arms wide, making a show of it. “How do I look?” He calls out in the northern tongue. “I want to make a good first impression.” Yonabaru starts to laugh first, and then, Karin follows soon after. Before long, the raucous laughter of the death riders is filling the air. “Let’s see if any of these motherfuckers can kill us!” he thunders, and their cheering gets even louder.
Abira whoops with joy, adding his voice to the others. Sasuke spurs Ozora and moves up and down the line, calling out over the sound of their cheers, “Death-riders! On me!”
Sasuke turns Ozora towards the battle field and holds up a hand, and lets it stay in the air. The men and women fall silent in increments behind him. When there is near silence, Sasuke raises his voice. “We ride!”
Yonabaru blasts the death-rider battle horn. It is low and deep, and echoes around the valley. For three years, the battle horn had been heard across the Land of Rice Fields; it became so distinct that most warriors learn to recognize the arrival of Sasuke’s men and women. Even from this distance, Sasuke can see the troops already engaged in battle below turn to the sound. Yonabaru lets out another blast of the horn, this one louder than before. In the valley, some of the enemy soldiers turn and start making a hasty shield wall in preparation. Yonabaru lets out a third and final blast of the horn.
Sasuke lets his hand drop. “Otogakure!”
Ozora takes off like an arrow when he lets his hand drop, and Sasuke leans into the wind. Behind him, a thunderstorm follows.
It is an exhausting battle, every minute of the two hours that it lasts feeling like a year’s worth of effort.
Sasuke leads the death-riders down the slope in a loud rumble of hooves. He attacks the enemy’s shield wall at an oblique angle, and the force of the death-riders riding down on the edge of the enemy line is so fierce that it bends and splinters almost immediately. But Sasuke doesn’t press the advantage. He leaves that job to Jugo’s shield wall, which presses forward insistently.
The enemies are not ghosts or zombies. They are men, each with a distinct face and fighting style. They do not die from blood loss or exhaustion; they don’t seem to even realize they are bleeding or hurting. Only a death blow can bring them down. But for all their silent marching across the Land of Rice Fields, they die screaming.
Sasuke maneuvers his troops around the edge of the battle, looping widely around the enemy to attack the other end. A pincer movement relies on precise formations and well-timed movements. Sasuke and his men disrupt it efficiently—even though it has been years since they rode together, they are well trained. Sasuke drilled them constantly during the winter months, and they spent years riding to battle together. They know how to follow his lead, and Sasuke acts as the spear tip to their charge.
There are only twenty-five death-riders at the beginning of the charge, but as Sasuke thunders by Jugo’s lines, he calls out for more cavalry men to join him. When he’s satisfied that he’s disrupted the enemy lines on the northern edge—enough for Jugo’s shield wall to rush through and break the ranks entirely—he moves on to the western flank. By then, the remaining enemy troops have surged down the slopes and begun to close in on both sides of Otogakure.
It is one thing to face a single enemy across a field. It is another to charge through an attack and wreak havoc. Butchery, Orochimaru liked to call it, and Sasuke is uniquely suited to the task. When he was fighting under Orochimaru’s banners, he sought an end with such desperation that he would sometimes ride into battle without armor, just his sword and Sharingan. He would hack and cleave through the enemy in search of someone—anyone—strong enough to oppose him. He did not die. He could not die, no matter how hard he tried to.
Suigetsu was astute in the name he gave their troops. Death-riders. Not because Sasuke meted out death to their enemies. It was because he sought it out. He welcomed it. He called out for it before battle. And men and women followed him.
A battle-calm settles over Sasuke as he fights. He loses track of his kill count. When they slam into the edge of the enemy’s lines, he has more than forty men at his back, and the sound of their battle cries is mixed with the thunder of hoofbeats and the scream of enemies dying. A chakra-powered spear flies a few inches from his face, and nearly forces Sasuke off Ozora’s back. He turns in the direction of where the spear came from. He spots him immediately. It’s hard to miss the orange of his hair:
Pein, on horseback, just a short distance away, hand still aloft from the spear he set loose. The man’s chakra is a crackling center of power in the battlefield.
He wants to hunt Pein down and slit his throat, but there is a battle to be won. He’s been delayed on this flank long enough, and he needs to head to the eastern flank where the Betsukai troops are lined up. “Death-riders, on me!”
Yonabaru’s horn sounds again, calling the men to order, and they thunder off to the eastern flank.
Sasuke does two full loops around Otogakure, riding around the enemy as they close in on Otogakure, and slamming into them at the edges and never allowing the pincer to fully close on the allied troops. The enemy lines bend and splinter at each glancing strike Sasuke leads.
The enemy falls into retreat at the end of the second hour, heading north in the direction where they came from. There are three short horn blasts, and they all start to trickle away, fighting as they go. Sasuke lines up the death-riders at the northern battle line, and feels Kakashi’s crackling chakra at his back, along with Sakura and Naruto.
An enemy in retreat is easy killing. Sasuke will not let this opportunity to go to waste, especially when Madara outnumbers them by such wide margins. And besides, Pein is amongst those retreating, although he can’t spot the man.
Suigetsu and Jugo join him at the front of the riders. They are both muddy, streaked in blood and sweat, shoulders heaving from the effort. Suigetsu is grinning like a maniac. There’s a hazy edge to his gaze, which means he is sinking deep into that murderous state of mind that made him so famous.
There is something in Suigetsu. Not a Tailed Demon, but a demon nonetheless. Kijin, they call him, and it splits Suigetsu’s mind. It only surfaces when Suigetsu gets a taste of blood. He becomes murderous, a kind of bloodlust that even Sasuke can’t comprehend. His Clan abandoned him as a child in the middle of the western plains because of this disease. Orochimaru had found him and nurtured that split. Jugo, Sasuke and Karin were the only ones who would talk to the demon child, and the three of them put their bodies on the line to stitch Suigetsu’s mind back together after the Kijin emerged. Sometimes, there was no way to contain Suigetsu except for a blow to the back of his head. Once, they had to shackle him. They would take turns and sit by Suigetsu’s bedside and watch him sweat and shake through nightmares; when he woke up, he’d be Suigetsu again—remorseful, wracked with guilt over the blood he spilt.
He’s been getting better. He is better. But a battlefield littered with corpses will twist the most level-headed of warriors, even Jugo, who looks he just crawled through a mud pit. His armor is speckled with blood.
Jugo wipes at his face. “Let’s finish this.”
Sasuke looks over his shoulder. There are over fifty men at his back. He has corralled all the death-riders without realizing it, and just behind the death-riders is the full force of the Otogakure troops, lining up for a final charge. Kakashi is still on horseback, but it’s not the stead he began this battle with. Itachi is also on horseback, face streaked with blood.
Sasuke’s eyelashes are clumped with blood, and he can feel the sticky goo of it in his beard. His armor is soaked with it, his grip slick with those he has cut down. His throat feels sore, but when he calls out to them, it is still a loud bellow. “We ride!”
Sasuke leads the charge, and with Ozora’s speed—only slightly diminished after hours of fighting—he gets the first kill of a retreating enemy. Sasuke lets his battle-axe fly, catches a soldier in the back, and leans down in his saddle, hanging so low that he nearly touches the ground to rip the battle-axe out of the enemy soldier’s body again before swinging back upright. Suigetsu gets the second death moments later, his arrows finding their mark even though his horse is in full gallop. Jugo slams a spear into an enemy with such force that it lodges into the ground and keeps the enemy’s body pinned upright.
Sasuke gets a second kill, a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth…
He loses count again.
Suigetsu and Jugo stay with him, and they route the enemy off the field together until they reach the crest of the slope. Sasuke lets Ozora’s gallop come to a slow; there is no point in riding over a hill crest and exhausting the horses. If the enemy has realigned into formation beyond the hill, they will be riding into a trap. Instead, he sends a scout to track the enemy’s movements, and then leads the back to the village, maneuvering their horses past the trail of dead bodies they have left behind. The field is littered with them.
By the time they reach Otogakure, the fire has been put out and the injured and dead are already being carried off the fields. The commanding officers are at the center of the village in the gathering hall. The death-riders fall back to help with the efforts to gather the injured and dead—only Jugo, Suigetsu, and Sasuke maneuver their tired horses through the now-bustling village to get to the gathering hall.
Jugo blows through the double doors leading to the great hall, Sasuke and Suigetsu flanking him on either side. The room is wide and expansive, and easily fits the Otogakure military leaders. All conversation stops when Jugo enters. His first question is: “How many?”
“Over a hundred injured, sire,” Nohine answers. Her right hand is wrapped in bandages already soaked through with blood. “Forty-seven casualties and counting.”
“And Konohagakure?” Jugo asks.
Karin is the one to answer. “Over eighty injured, nearly thirty dead. They’re still counting, my lord.”
The first day of the war, and they have lost nearly three hundred. They have dealt an equivalent blow—perhaps greater—to Madara’s troops as well, but three hundred out of twelve hundred is a far greater proportion than three hundred out of nearly two thousand. They have lost horses and cattle as well. They won’t know the full extent of the damage they have suffered until tomorrow.
Jugo purses his lips into a thin line. “Tell Lord Commander Hatake Kakashi that we will provide any help they need,” he orders Karin. Then, he turns back to Nohine. He has been fighting since daybreak, but he doesn’t let an ounce of his exhaustion show through. He rattles off a list of instructions to Nohine: he wants all the dead identified before they’re placed on pyres; he’ll speak to the convention of tribal leaders by night’s end about their men and their food stores. He tells Inoue to have the men make use of what can be salvaged of the butchered cattle before night falls and the wolves are drawn. Subaru is tasked with re-establishing a defensive perimeter.
The aftermath of a battle is nearly as convoluted as the preparation for it, but more wearisome because of the bodies they must account for. Sasuke adds his own instructions of how he wants the defensive perimeter. If the army can march without being detected and raising a single one of their alarms, then they will need to reevaluate their lookouts.
“Have the Betuskai hawks on shift for patrol. I want one in each direction, and a Betuskai rider to stand guard for each ninken,” he instructs Rausu. “Karin, take the lead. I want to know any chakra signature that moves within twenty miles.”
Karin nods, but she doesn’t say anything until the captains have filed out and it’s just the four of them again. “I shouldn’t have left the village,” she says, voice tight with her guilt. “I should have stood guard for Otogakure instead of riding south for a scouting mission.”
“We were caught unawares, but we weren’t unprepared, Karin,” Jugo says kindly. “Your presence here would have given us heads-up, but the outcome would not have been so different.”
“I would have alerted us before we lost so many of our horses and cattle,” Karin insists. “And the fire against the Konohagakure troops—”
“What’s done is done,” Jugo interrupts. He places a hand on Karin’s shoulder. “You carry enough weight, Karin. This doesn’t have to be on your shoulders, too.”
Karin’s jaw clenches, a muscle in her cheek jumping with all the words she’s withholding. “Our cavalry is crippled, we’ve lost a good portion of our food supply, and our ally’s camp is on fire,” she lists. “Not the best start to a war.”
“It had to start one way or another,” Suigetsu mutters, sitting down heavily at one of the tables. Sasuke sits down next to him, but Jugo and Karin remain standing.
Jugo lets his hand drop from Karin’s shoulder, and he turns to the others. He meets each of their eyes and holds their gaze. “We’ve faced far worse, and we’ve survived every time. We’ll do the same now.”
Jugo leads them to his wide, spacious tent, and has one of his squires fetch them food. The four of them are not even half-way through a meal—quiet, subdued, nothing but the sound of their utensils clinking against their bowls and the occasional request to pass the water canteen—when Abira pushes into Jugo’s tent. His hawk is perched on his shoulder. “Sorry to interrupt, my lord. I had sent Takamaru to scout the enemy, and he came back with a report.”
Jugo heaves a sigh. “What is it?”
Abira’s ninken delivers in the news in a deadpan. “A large force of Rebun troops have gathered at the mouth of the Kasai and Hiroo Passes. There are two hundred at the Hiroo Pass, eight hundred more at the Kasai. They haven’t crossed the passes into the Omine Valley yet, but they are waiting.”
Takamaru and Abira exchange glances, hesitating. “Spit it out,” Sasuke orders.
Abira is the one who speaks. “They’re flying the Akatsuki sigil.”
Karin sucks in a sharp breath. “The Rebun have abandoned the north.”
The silence that settles is heavy. There is bad luck, and there is being thwarted at every goddamn turn. Naruto’s strategy had relied on the Rebun being amenable to negotiation—if not to join forces against Madara, then to at least not join him. But the time for negotiation has past. Even if they fight Madara’s forces and defeat them in the Omine Valley, the Rebun are ready to overrun them from the north. They are outnumbered. They won the first battle, but at a price: warriors, horses, and a portion of their cattle.
And now, the Rebun have abandoned the north.
Sasuke runs a hand through his hair and comes away with flakes of dried blood. They’d all been so exhausted they hadn’t even bothered to clean themselves before sitting down to eat.
“Gather my captains, Abira. Send word to Konohagakure high command. Tell them we must meet. I’ll break the news to them myself,” Jugo says quietly. Abira and Takamaru both dip their head politely, murmur, Sire, and vanish into the cold outside.
“That’s one way to start the war,” Suigetsu mutters, staring down at his food. Sasuke had been famished just a few moments ago, but now even his appetite has deserted him.
“Eat,” Jugo urges quietly. He picks up his food again resolutely. “We have a long day ahead.”
Sasuke bows his head over his food. He eats one tasteless bite after another, forces himself to chew and swallow.
Betsukai Togichi was the most cantankerous son of a bitch Sasuke ever had the displeasure of meeting four years ago. He has somehow gotten worse in the intervening years.
Sasuke outranks him, but the man still treats him like he did all those years ago when he’d faced Sasuke on the battlefield and told Sasuke to go home. The battlefield is no place for children barely weaned, he’d said, and then handed Sasuke two defeats so devastating that the memory of it still makes Sasuke’s Mangekyou whorl.
Togichi is not the strongest fighter, but he is a strategist on par with Kakashi. When he walks into a room, people notice because he is built like Jiraiya in heft, and has a long, white hair that he has braided in the way of his people. His face is marked with scars, and his left hand is missing the tips of his index and pinky fingers. He lost these fingers to a bad frost or a fight against a polar bear. Accounts vary.
Most of the Konohagakure troops arrived before Kakashi—he had lingered to stay by Itachi’s sie—and in that time, Togichi has become friends with Jiraiya, Shikaku, Hiashi, and Kurenai. He also seems at ease with Asuma and Gai. Now that it is the aftermath of the battle, proper introductions are made to the final contingency of warriors who have arrived.
The moment Togichi meets Kakashi, he conveys his respect with a dip of his head. “Lord Commander Hatake Kakashi.”
“Just Commander, my lord,” Kakashi says, and grips Togichi’s forearm as a northerner might instead of clasping the palm like southerners do. Togichi smiles at the gesture. Kakashi points out the rest of his party who has gathered in the great hall, including the Lieutenants gathered.
Tocichi singles out Itachi among the Lieutenants to greet him with something like wonder. “The keeper of the dragons,” he says. “An honor, my lord.”
Itachi flushes. “I’m not a lord, Lord Betskai, just a soldier,” Itachi says, humble to a fault. Of course, Togichi is immediately charmed.
Togichi’s looks over the other southerners gathered, and his gaze immediately zeroes in on Naruto. “Emerald-blue eyes, golden hair,” Togichi lists off, assessing Naruto from head to toe as if taking stock of inventory. “You must be the jinchuuruki. I heard you were quite the beauty, despite the scars on your face.”
Naruto’s expression becomes slightly pinched. In the south, it is rude to so frankly appraise someone to their face. There are no such rules of etiquette in the north. “My name is Uzumaki Naruto, my lord.”
“As I said, Togichi, he’s my godson,” Jiraiya says, stepping in neatly. Sasuke doesn’t miss the way Jiraiya places himself to shield Naruto behind the bulk of his body from Togichi’s calculating gaze. Sasuke has seen Kakashi do this countless times before, starting when Naruto and Sakura started to grow into their beauty—coltish in their youth with their bright hair and brighter eyes, drawing attention with their easy laughter wherever they went, neither of them knowing exactly how many eyes they were drawing, how the gazes lingered, some predatory, a few far too old to be considering either of them with any sort of interest. Kakashi’s reaction was always predictably hamfisted. He made examples of the worst offenders—he beat a man unconscious once for daring to lay hands on Naruto and Sakura as they were passing by his table at a restaurant, and was slapped with a citation on his record for excessive use of force—but Jiraiya seems far more judicious in his response.
Togichi doesn’t pick up on Jiraiya’s obvious attempts to move the conversation along. “Your boy could fetch a good allegiance the way he looks. There are warlords that would gift you mountains filled with iron ore for a rare beauty like your godson, Jiraiya,” he says. Naruto moves forward as if to give Togichi a piece of his mind, but Sakura halts him with a firm grip on his elbow. Togichi keeps talking, uncaring of any offense he might give. He is a lord and these are his lands; he has the authority to talk however he pleases. “Rumors were that the Kazekage himself came courting, but it seems your boy chose...the lesser option.”
It takes a moment for Sasuke to realize that he is the lesser option. The lesser option to Gaara. His Mangekyou whorls to life. Before he can speak, Karin steps forward neatly. “Lord Betsukai, allow me to reintroduce you to your Lord Commander, Uchiha Sasuke.”
Your Lord Commander. It is not a very subtle reminder of Togichi’s place. Togichi arches a sharp eyebrow. Despite his age and the scars on his face, he is a handsome man. He stands tall with his feet spread shoulder-width apart, as if he is constantly ready to draw a sword. “I heard you died. Pity it didn’t take.”
“Is that how you’re spending your twilight years, Lord Betsukai?” Sasuke asks. “Listening to gossiping fishmongers?”
Togichi’s lips twitch, but he doesn’t smile. “We Betsukai have to rely on what little news finds its way across our plains,” he counters. “But even this far north, your exploits precede you. How did you survive Orochimaru, I wonder? Only to come back to life, and die again in Amegakure. Twice now, you’ve evaded death. Such a charmed life you lead.”
Before Sasuke can respond, Suigetsu steps in with a hand around Sasuke’s shoulder. It looks like an easy gesture of friendship, but Sasuke knows for a fact that Suigetsu is only doing this so he can hold Sasuke back if he decides to lunge for the old man’s throat. “He’s a hard man to kill, Lord Betsukai.”
Jugo doesn’t let the moment linger too long. “Shall we?” He gestures at a long table behind him. They have lingered at the entrance of the hall to say their hellos, but now, Jugo urges them into the wide space. The space is so large that there are two fireplaces burning on either end. It can easily accommodate over a hundred people—enough for a representative from each free tribe to gather. For now, only a few of the long tables have been laid out with drinks.
They take their seats by rank, which means that Sasuke has the distinct displeasure of sitting directly across from Togichi.
No sooner as the pitcher of ale been passed around that talk of war begins. The final tallies are in. Konohagakure has lost ninety-four men to injuries, and has buried forty-two. Otogakrue has lost one hundred and twelve men to injuries; there are fifty-six pyres burning, including the guards that were murdered as the shadow army marched towards Otogakure.
The voices are subdued as plans are made to transport the injured back to the nearest city for medical treatment. Sakura offers to oversee the medical care of the Otogakure troops as well, and Jugo accepts her offer gracefully. Shikaku reports that the remaining four hundred Konohagakure soldiers are ready to march, and Suigetsu adds that the last of the warriors from the free northern isles have arrived by boat. They should be arriving within a day or two, which will add sixty men to their ranks and whatever supplies they bring. They review the lists of cavalry, food soldiers, and archers.
The campaign can last no more than a few weeks as it stands; if winter sets in early, they will be forced to retreat, or get frozen into place and starve to death.
“The reason I called for a meeting is to share with you a report from one of our scouts,” Jugo announces. “The Rebun have sided with Madara. They have gathered a force of eight hundred men at the mouth of the Kasai Pass, and two hundred more at the Hiroo Pass.”
Kakashi is usually not one to flinch in the face of bad news, but today, his emotions bleed through just enough for him to sit back carefully in his seat. “Have they crossed into the Omine Valley?”
Jugo only shakes his head, and Togichi takes over the explanation as the man at the table with the most knowledge of the lands. “The Kasai pass is about six miles long and a mile wide. The Hiroo Pass is longer and narrower, but only barely. They can join the war at any moment.”
“A thousand men,” Hiashi repeats quietly.
Shikaku glances at Kakashi for permission to speak, which Kakashi affords him with just a brief nod. “Lord Biratori, may I suggest we meet again tomorrow?”
“Of course,” Jugo says, gracious as always. “I only wanted to deliver this news in person.”
“We appreciate it,” Kakashi says, and gets to his feet.
They file out slowly, breaking up into smaller. Sasuke sticks close to Jugo, stewing over his own thoughts while Jugo holds a conversation with Kakashi. It’s too cold for the Konohagakure troops to camp outside, so Jugo offers Kakashi the use of the gathering hall and stables for the men who have been displaced by the fire. He even offers his own tent for Kakashi, in case he didn’t have time to set up a command center for himself. Kakashi accepts the offer for the troops, but declines Jugo’s generosity beyond that. “I won’t put you out in your own village, Lord Biratori.”
Jugo waves aside Kakashi’s concern. “It’s not a bother,” he insists. “I can share with Sasuke or Suigetsu. We’re used to it.”
Kakashi declines a second time, eyes crinkling with a smile at Jugo’s polite insistence. Finally, Jugo relents. “I’ll see you in the morning, Lord Commander,” Jugo says, which is the cue for the rest of the group to break into a brief round of good nights. Sakura offers medical assistance to Inoue for the injured, while Subaru reiterates to the Konohagakure captains that if they need manpower or supplies, they only need ask.
Sasuke just wants the pleasantries to come to a goddamn end, but just as he’s about to turn away, Togichi singles him out. “Lord Commander, I look forward to whatever strategy you’ll come up with.”
His words are dripping with enough sarcasm that the rest of the group goes still for an awkward moment. Count, Sasuke reminds himself, and does just that. He gets all the way to five before he can swallow on his anger enough to speak. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Lord Betsukai.”
“We will see all of you tomorrow,” Suigetsu says with great determination, and steps close to Sasuke to usher him away. He leads Sasuke silently to his tent. There is no banner flying over Sasuke’s tent, although it is large enough to suggest that it can belong to no one but the commander of the forces. There is a squire idling by Sasuke’s tent, sitting on an upturned barrel and kicking his feet out of boredom.
The squire is no older than thirteen—wiry, tall, and bundled in a fur cloak to ward against the cold. Based on the tattoo markings on his face, he’s from the Kesen tribe. When he spots Sasuke and Hozuki, he launches himself to his feet, but Suigetsu speaks before the boy can say a word. “Stay here, Fukuoka,” Suigetsu orders, and pushes Sasuke past the squire and into the tent with a firm grip on his shoulder.
The tent is wide and airy, with wide bedrolls stacked in one corner and a small trunk at the foot of the bedrolls. There is even a small table with benches for seats, large enough to seat four comfortably. At the center of the tent is a fire, the smoke of it curling up towards the small opening at the conical top of the tent. The opening of the tent is big enough to let out the smoke, but not let the cold seep in too much. There is enough room for Sasuke to pace, but for now, he just sits at the small table.
Suigetsu sits across from him with a sigh. They stare at each other across the table. If Suigetsu is any indication, Sasuke must look like death warmed over. He can feel the dried blood on his cheeks. He wants to do nothing more than lie down, but the pointed barbs that Togichi leveled in his direction are making it impossible for him to settle his chakra. “I can’t have Togichi disobeying my orders.”
Suigetsu pulls back his hair and re-ties it into a high ponytail. There are some strands stiff with blood and sweat, but he manages to wrest his hair into control. “He won’t. He’s an arrogant motherfucker, but he pledged loyalty to Jugo. He’ll stand by his word.”
“So I just let him insult me?” Sasuke demands. “In public?”
“It’s only an insult if you acknowledge it,” Suigetsu says, cautioning him the way he always has. “You can’t let him get under your skin so much that. Why are you so insecure about the Betsukai? First Rausu and now Togichi, you keep acting out.”
Sasuke’s anger is so acute his Mangekyou bursts into life. “Insecure?”
“Everyone has defeats, and no one has a perfect record,” Suigetsu continues. “Let it go.”
Sasuke clenches his hands into fists. He’s not the kind of man to pout about a defeat in front of the man who defeated him, but that’s not what had irked him about Togichi’s attitude. “Lesser option,” he spits. “A lesser option to Gaara, that motherfucker. Why? Just because he’s a Kage?”
Suigetsu frowns. “If Naruto wants more than one man, he’s allowed, Sasuke. How many women and men do youhave?”
Sasuke takes a moment to form the proper sentence, but it still sounds stilted when he speaks them. “In the south, they usually only have one man or woman after they take oaths to one another. They speak an oath of faithfulness during their weddings, in front of their god. It’s part of their religion.”
“Then you can’t find insult every time a man looks at Naruto, you idiot, not the way Naruto looks,” Suigetsu snaps. “You’re just going to have to get used to it. Just know Naruto is yours and move on.”
But he isn’t mine, Sasuke thinks. He can’t say that aloud, though. Instead, he grits his teeth and stares at a spot on the table.
Suigetsu sighs. “Fuck’s sake, Sasuke. Whatever it is, make it up to Naruto and move on. It’s just a lover’s spat, not the end of the world.”
Sasuke scowls at the characterization. “It’s not a lover’s spat. There’s nothing between us. We’ve never—” He stops talking abruptly because Suigetsu’s mouth flaps open.
“Ever?” Suigetsu asks carefully. “Not even a little…” He makes a vague gesture in the air.
There is no point in trying to maintain his reputation with Suigetsu. During their first year in Otogakure, Suigetsu lost his virginity and then proceeded to tell Sasuke about how amazing it was. You’ve got to try it, Uchiha, he said, and so Sasuke tried and had to admit that yes, it was amazing. There aren’t too many secrets left between them. “We’ve never been like that.” He pauses a beat, and adds (because he has his pride, gods damn it), “He kissed me twice.”
Suigetsu looks at Sasuke with equal parts horror and disbelief. “He’s kissed you. Twice.”
Sasuke exhales forcefully. “Technically, just once.”
Suigetsu arches an eyebrow. “Once,” he repeats carefully. “What happened the other time? You trip and fall?”
Sasuke hefts a shoulder, but it doesn’t feel anything like a shrug. If this were anyone but Suigetsu, he’d reach for a kunai to put himself out of his own gods damned misery. “I didn’t trip and fall. Naruto tripped and fell onto me. Shikamaru pushed him.” Suigetsu’s mouth flaps open, so Sasuke hurries to provide context. “We were in school. Naruto was sitting on the table in front of me and—for fuck’s sake, why does it even matter?”
“Well, clearly, it matters to you,” Suigetsu sighs. He shakes his head, disbelieving. “There were so many goddamn rumors about the two of you, even I assumed that—”
He’s interrupted by Fukuoka stumbling into the tent, looking harried from both the cold and his own anxiety. “Lord Biratori is here to see you, my lord,” he says hurriedly, and even before he finishes the sentence, Jugo steps in. Sasuke tells Fukuoka to get out, and the boy nearly trips over his own feet to obey.
Jugo watches Fukuoka go with a sigh. “I made him your squire as a favor to his mother,” he admits. “She wants her son to be a warrior like herself, but the boy wants to go to school to be a veterinarian. She thought being your squire would inspire him.”
Sasuke looks heavenward. Of course he’s stuck with a squire who doesn’t even want to be warrior. “The fuck is he doing in a battle camp?”
“Feeding our troops corn and barley. His mother’s territory is fertile ground,” Jugo answers neatly. He doesn’t take a seat, just motions with a hand for Sasuke and Suigetsu to follow him. “I’m making my rounds with the tribal leaders before heading off to the medic tents. Let’s go.”
Suigetsu gets to his feet with a sigh, and Sasuke follows suit. This is the aftermath of a battle. They must speak to all the tribal leaders and take account of the dead. They will make lists of names of the fallen, so that Jugo and Sasuke can later write letters to their kin and Suigetsu will send money on their behalf given his inordinate wealth. They’ll have to visit the injured to say thank you and wish them a safe journey to safety and hospitals in the towns and cities further south.
“I also want to do a perimeter check,” Sasuke adds as they step outside. It’s not likely Madara will attack the village again, but that is no reason to get sloppy. “And we need to discuss a new strategy now that the Rebun are involved.”
Jugo makes cups his hands and blows sharply into them to warm them. There are clouds overhead, which makes the air feel colder than usual. None of them have even gotten a chance to get clean, and the dry flakes of blood and mud on their faces makes the wind feel worse. “Is that what you two were discussing? What did you come up with?”
Suigetsu scoffs. “We weren’t discussing battle strategy, sire. We were discussing the fact that Uchiha Sasuke here is a truly sad sack of shit.”
Sasuke feels his chakra spike. “Don’t you dare, Hozuki,” he snarls, but it’s too late because it’s rare they have secrets between them. Even if there is a secret, Suigetsu and Sasuke will slip up and share it sooner or later; Jugo is the only one who can keep his silence between the three of them.
Suigetsu grins at Jugo and leans in say in a faux whisper, “He’s never laid a single finger on the jinchuuruki.”
Jugo’s surprise is so acute he stops dead in his tracks. “At all?”
Suigetsu shakes his head. “Nope,” he says, and pops off the word with relish.
Sasuke quickens his stride so he doesn’t have to partake in this asinine conversation. Jugo and Suigetsu follow close at his heels, and descend into furious whispers as they discuss this revelation. Sasuke pretends not to hear them.
Dinner that night is an exhausted affair in Jugo’s tents. It is dark by the time they even get a chance to clean themselves of the filth of battle, and only because Lord Aizubange Osaka insists that they rest their feet for the day. He offers the use of his tribe’s bath houses—a wide open tent with a row of wooden tubs being manned by squires—so they get themselves clean and walk back across camp to Jugo’s tents for a meal. It’s meat stew, made using what can be salvaged of the cattle that Madara’s troops have slaughtered. There is a crew of men and women working to preserve as much of their lost food supply as possible, and the cold temperatures help. But the wolves are already howling around their camp; it’s an endless chorus of the beasts on the hunt, and it’s making their horses restless and jittery.
Out of habit, Suigetsu places four mugs for the ale before he catches himself. “Where’s Karin?”
Jugo heaves a weary sigh. “Where do you think?”
Suigetsu fills three of mugs and leaves the fourth empty. “They’re not good for each other.”
The comment is intended for Sasuke. He doesn’t want to undercut Kakashi’s judgement, though. Not even in front of Suigetsu and Jugo. He doesn’t understand why Kakashi is unable to keep away. In Konoha, in Urausu, and now, in Otogakure. The only time Karin hadn’t snuck away to spend the night with Kakashi had been during the march, and Sasuke isn’t even sure of that. He hadn’t been keeping a very careful eye on either of them. “Good or bad, it’s up to them.”
The silence falls again as they return to their food. Every once in awhile, conversation starts up and then dies out once the topic is worn out: troop numbers, the status of the next supply line, the weather conditions for battle, what kind of recompense to give to the family of the dead, and the most important topic at hand, the Rebun.
Rausu had briefed them on what had happened. Apparently, the Betsukai messenger had been received by a representative of Rebun Obito, who told the Betsukai messenger that Rebun Obito would consider the offer, and they would get back to Lord Biratori Jugo and Lord Commander Uchiha Sasuke shortly with an answer. The answer, apparently, was to assemble his troops under Akatsuki’s banners. It’s answer enough for Sasuke, but Jugo seems stuck on why.
“What could Madara possibly have offered them?” he asks, looking at both Sasuke and Suigetsu in turn. Cleaned of all the filth from the day, his exhaustion is starting to finally show through. There is a sharp cut at the edge of his jaw that has crusted blood into his beard, but as always, Jugo does not even seem to notice the wound. “Naruto’s trade agreement was the most generous thing anyone could possibly offer the Rebun. What could Madara have offered to counter it?”
“It doesn’t matter what he offered,” Suigetsu points out. “It matters what he chose. And the motherfucking Rebun do what they always do. They looked out for themselves, fuck the rest of us.”
Jugo pins Sasuke with a heavy look. “Be honest with me Sasuke,” he says, voice pitched low. “Can we win this?”
They have Hatake Kakashi on their side with hundreds of his men. They have Itachi. They have some of the strongest warrior bloodlines, the very reason why Konohagkaure looms so strong and dangerous on the Continent: Hyuga, Nara, Yamanaka, Aburame, Inuzuka, Akimichi, and more. Naruto and Sakura are with them. Jugo has amassed the largest army that the north has ever seen. He united the hundred free tribes, the first warlord in history to do so.
The silence is suffocating. Jugo’s hand clenches into a fist on the table. He holds Sasuke’s gaze steady when he admits, “I'd rather concede than lead our people to certain death.”
Suigetsu exhales sharply, as if he’d just been cut. “Jugo, you can’t—”
“I have gathered the best warriors in the north,” Jugo interrupts quietly. “A hundred free tribes sent their strongest men and women. If I lead them into a battle that cannot be won, I will rob the north of its future. I will destroy any chance of security. We will be crippled, and there will be nothing to stop Madara from overrunning the north.”
Suigetsu shakes his head. “If we retreat now, he’ll overrun us anyways.”
Out of all of Kakashi’s lessons, this is one Sasuke learned the hard way. “There is no cowardice in a strategic retreat.”
Suigetsu’s shoulders slump. “You think we should retreat?”
Sasuke has never retreated from a battle in his entire life. But he commands hundreds now. If he were to let his pride make this decision, all the ink and paper in the world wouldn’t be enough to the write letters of condolences to families. “I’m saying there isn’t cowardice in it, Suigetsu.”
Jugo pinches the bridge of his nose. “We’ll sleep on it and meet before the joint council with Konohagakure tomorrow.”
The stew has congealed into a lukewarm mush by now, but they resolutely return to their food. “Can this day get any worse?” Suigetsu demands.
“We could find women for the night,” Jugo suggests. “No need for the entire day to be soured.”
Where there are armies in the north, there are brothels. Karin will have made sure of it, along with two other essentials for any battle camp: bathhouses, and mess halls. “Fuck this shit,” Suigetsu says, and gets to his feet, abandoning his meal entirely. “I’m out.”
Jugo also gets to his feet as well. He turns to Sasuke as he is leaving. “You coming?”
Sasuke hasn’t gotten laid since that waitress in Konohagakure. The days have been so goddamn dreary since that he hasn’t even had time to jerk off as often as he usually does when he isn’t getting laid. The last time he even had time to think about sex was in Urausu on the night before their march, when he had had time and space to think about Naruto and let himself indulge in his imagination. On most days, joining Suigetsu and Jugo on the trip to the brothels would pique his interest, but the thought of touching another man or woman curdles his stomach today. He knows what he wants. And what he wants, he can’t have. Going to a brothel will be like rubbing salt into a wound.
He can’t say any of that to Jugo and Suigetsu, though. So he picks up his spoon. “I’m going to finish my meal and get some sleep. Early morning tomorrow.”
Jugo arches an eyebrow, but Suigetsu is already walking away, saying, “Suit yourself, Uchiha.” When Jugo doesn’t immediately follow, Suigetsu turns to him with an impatient, “Well? Let’s go.”
Jugo levels a flat stare at Suigetsu, who throws up both hands. “I am not going to get sucked into this fucking Romeo and Juliet drama,” Suigetsu says loudly. “One or both of them has to drink the fucking poison and put us all out of our fucking misery.”
“Look at him,” Jugo says, indicating Sasuke with a hand. “He looks pathetic.”
Sasuke’s Mangekyou whorls to life. “Fuck you, Biratori, I don’t look—”
Suigetsu interrupts Sasuke with a growled string of insults on Sasuke’s personhood, and stomps back towards the table. They both sit back down again: Jugo calmly, and Suigetsu with a flurry of insults about Sasuke and his sorry sack of shit existence.
Jugo refills his mug of ale before doing the same for Sasuke’s and Suigetsu’s. “You want to talk about it?”
If someone were to press a knife to Sasuke’s throat, he might admit that he’s grateful they didn’t just leave him to go to the brothels. It would have made his night even more miserable knowing that they were getting laid while Sasuke contemplates an entire goddamn lifetime without having ever kissed Naruto, let alone taken him to bed. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
Suigetsu leans across the table. “You better damn well talk about it, you piece of shit,” he hisses. “I just got cockblocked by you and your moody fucking love story. Are you moping because he won’t let you touch him? Is that it? In that case, man the fuck up, buy him some flowers, grovel, and beg him to—”
“There’s no amount of groveling that I could do to fix this,” Sasuke snaps, and hates himself for saying the words aloud. It sounds pathetic, even to his own ears, but there’s no point in trying to maintain appearances in front of these two. “He doesn’t want to love me anymore.”
Suigetsu rests his forehead on the table. “I vote you drink the poison.”
“What happened, Sasuke?” Jugo asks, sounding mournful.
The last thing he wants to do is talk about it, but Jugo pushes his drink towards him, and Sasuke has no choice but to confess, “I fucked up.”
Half an hour later, though, Sasuke retracts his confession. It’s not that he fucked up, it’s that Naruto speaks in fucking riddles. “One minute it’s, I love you,” Sasuke says, pacing the length of Jugo’s tent. He’s speaking too loudly, but he feels that the volume is appropriate to make his point. “The next minute, it’s I don’t want to love you anymore. Apparently, he hates me now. Do I get a say in it? No. I can’t even get in a word edgewise. You know why? Because Naruto is a lawyer. He can talk a man to death. He can even talk a dead man back to life, and then kill him again with his oratory skills. Half the time, I don’t even know what the fuck he’s talking about.”
“I don’t think he hates you,” Jugo says. He’s watching Sasuke pace patiently, nursing his drink with his feet kicked up on the bench.
“I do,” Suigetsu deadpans from his sprawl on Jugo’s bed. “I hate you with the burning passion of a thousand fucking suns, Uchiha.”
Sasuke ignores Suigetsu and does another circuit of the tent. “How was I supposed to know what the fucking necklace meant? Did he leave a note? No, because that would be too easy! Apparently, the necklace is a starter house. How was I supposed to know that a necklace represents a fucking starter house?”
Suigetsu lifts his head from the bed. “What’s a starter house?”
Sasuke answers as best as he can. He even tells them about the conversation under a lamplight where Naruto had told him about a second date, a summer wedding, and three to four kids. “Then, he gives me a necklace,” Sasuke says, gesturing so emphatically with a hand that some of his beer sloshes onto his hand. He’s far too many drinks in at this point, but that’s not the point. The point is that Naruto should have left him a note. “And then he said I should give it back, because he doesn’t want to love me anymore.”
Suigetsu swings his feet over the bed rolls. “Let me get this straight,” he says carefully. “He asked for the necklace, and you just...gave it back?”
Sasuke scowls. “I have some manners.”
Jugo pinches the bridge of his nose. “Sometimes, Sasuke, I weep for you.”
Sasuke swallows on all his protests, and waits, patient, for the explanation that Jugo is no doubt gearing up for. Jugo doesn’t disappoint. He leans forward in his chair and pins Sasuke with his earnest gaze. “Naruto wants marriage, children, a family. An entire future with you. I know what he means to you, Sasuke. But all the love in the world won’t be enough if you two want different things. You gave back the necklace, you let him walk away. You didn’t ask for another chance, and you didn’t make an effort to show you might be ready for a future with him. So you can’t expect him to stay faithful to you and to keep waiting for you. And you certainly can’t get angry at him for wanting to move on. Not unless you want to meet him halfway.”
Sasuke stops pacing. You act like he’s cheap, that’s what Kiba said once. And this is how Sasuke does it. In these small, thoughtless, selfish moments. Fuck’s sake, Uchiha, Sasuke thinks, and sits down at the table heavily. He’s bad at social cues. He knows this because everyone from the Shodaime to Iruka-sensei have mentioned it to him several times. But this is beyond Sasuke being bad at social cues. He’s a goddamn disaster.
“Do you want any of the things he does? Do you even want to meet him halfway?” Suigetsu asks, serving them both another round of drinks. They’ve made it through three pitchers of ale. Sasuke drank an entire pitcher by himself, but he won’t say no to another drink. “Or are you just counting down the time to pull another one of your disappearing acts because you got wanderlust?”
“Wanderlust?” Sasuke demands. “I don’t have wanderlust.”
“Even in war, we’d always take the longest route to get anywhere,” Suigetsu points out with a smirk. “You can’t sit still, Uchiha. Gods know how you’ve survived for so long inside Konohagakure’s walls.”
He abandoned Otogakure for Kakashi and for himself. He stayed in Konoha for Naruto, but the plan was to always leave. The plan was to die. Best laid plans, Sasuke thinks to himself. He’d never envisioned a future beyond killing Itachi and dying; now that it lies in front of him, he isn’t sure what to make of it. Even though the redwoods are home—in a way that no place on this earth will ever be home—he doesn’t want to ever be beholden to Konohagakure again. He wants to be unbound, untethered. As fiercely as Sasuke wants to stay free of Konohagakure’s oaths, Naruto is bound to her. “Naruto won’t leave Konoha. He’ll be Kage one day.”
Suigetsu scoffs. “He is completely out of your league, son.”
Sasuke scrubs a hand over his face. He knows Naruto is out of his league; he doesn’t need anyone to remind him. “This conversation is fucking depressing.”
“And that’s not even counting the fact that the world is still ending and you’re still Lord Commander for the losing side of this war,” Suigetsu adds with faux cheer. He indicates Sasuke from head to toe with a sweeping gesture. “I present to you, sad sack of shit.”
Jugo frowns. “I’m going to go find a woman,” he announces, and Suigetsu enthusiastically signs on, promising hotly that he will find two women, fuck it, he’ll take three.
“I hate you both,” Sasuke promises them with feeling.
They file out of Jugo’s tent together. “You’ll figure out how to fix things with Naruto, Sasuke,” Jugo promises him. “It just takes time and effort.”
“Bigger things to figure out now,” Sasuke points out. They’re good friends, which is the only reason why they had listened to him waste the better part of an hour complaining about something so asinine on the same day they received news of the Rebun.
Jugo steps closer so that the three of them are standing in a loose circle. “We sleep on it,” he repeats. “And tomorrow, you will both tell me your honest opinions. Not the opinion that my pride wants to hear, but the truth of what needs to be done.”
“I already told you what I think,” Suigetsu says. Suigetsu’s argument has merits, but Sasuke isn’t sure if he can advise Jugo so readily to march into the battle, not with a thousand Rebun waiting to ride south into the Omine Valley. But if they retreat, Madara will overrun the north. His poison will spread across the entire Continent. He’s contained in the Omine Valley for now, amassing a massive army that seems to grow stronger by the day. Suigetsu jostles him lightly with an elbow to his side. “What was it that you said? There’s no cowardice in a strategic retreat?”
That’s what Hatake Kakashi said. “Something like that,” Sasuke mutters
“Get some sleep, Sasuke,” Jugo prompts, gripping Sasuke’s shoulder tightly. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
Then, they’re disappearing into the night, heading west towards the brothel. Sasuke should go back to his tent just a few yards away. He started this morning at the crack of dawn a few hours from Otogakure. He’d ridden into Otogakure and descended into a battle. They won that battle, but the rest of the day had been defeat after defeat: long lists of the dead and visiting the injured, an accounting of just how many horses and cattle they lost, and then, the news of the Rebun.
Sasuke starts walking north. Unlike the Konohagakure camps, Otogakure is laid out like most tribal battle-camps in the north: concentric circles, with the leader and grand hall in the center. As he walks towards the edge of Otogakure along the icy paths between tents, the tents change in color and style. They do not have uniform gray tents like Konohagakure troops in the north; instead, the tents are draped with animal skins and sigils. It’s a riot of color even in the darkness, and occasionally, Sasuke will stumble onto an open space with a fire. There are almost always men and women gathered around the fires, and they all get to their feet to greet Sasuke or offer him drinks. He pauses to talk to them to learn their names and stories because they are riding to obey his command. They deserve his respect.
By the time he makes it to the northern perimeter of camp, he’s already cold, but he keeps walking past the sentry warriors. One of them calls out, “Lord Commander, the wolves!”
“I won’t go far,” Sasuke promises her.
She jogs over to him and holds out her torch. The smoke curling off the fire smells of the oil used to dip the cloth. “The packs are on the hunt, my lord. They scent blood from the dead bodies and cattle, but there’s no kill to be made, so they’re getting aggressive. Take a fire at least.”
Offering a torch to an Uchiha is like offering water to a fish in the ocean. Sasuke can’t help himself: he laughs. Before she can take offense, he grips her shoulder lightly. “Thank you, but I’ll be fine. I won’t go far. Get back to your post.”
She has a cloth wrapped around her face, likely to preserve heat while she stands guard, but Sasuke can tell by the crinkle of her eyes that she’s smiling. “Yes, my lord. I’ll stand watch for your return.”
Sasuke sets off. The moon is partially shadowed, but the snow such a pristine white that it seems to be glowing. The men and women have worked all day to clear the surrounding area of enemy bodies, but the landscape is still pockmarked with dark blood stains. The scent has called forth the wolves.
The snow has crusted with ice, and crunches with each footstep he takes. The further away he walks from Otogakure, the louder his footsteps and the howl of wolves all around him. There is nothing stupider than setting out alone on the plains when the wolf packs are hunting, but Sasuke keeps walking until he crests a small hill. It’s not enough height to see far, but he can see the thicket of evergreen trees in the distance, separating Otogakure from the Omine Valley.
Just over ten miles ahead, Madara lies in wait with his army. It’s too far for Sasuke to make out any details beyond the dark shock of trees, but he imagines he can see the curling smoke of camp fires. Beyond, the Northern Alps rise into the sky, blacking out on the horizon. He’s never traveled this far west. Betsukai Togichi stopped him in his tracks, so Sasuke was never able to conquer this land. This is his first time seeing the alps. They’re nothing more than a dark silhouette, but there’s no missing the heft and might of them.
The stories say giants lived in the northern alps. Sasuke has no doubt believing they once did. And now, the alps are hiding a thousand Rebun warriors.
The howl of the wolves around him as quieted, which means they have scented him. Likely, they’re assessing him as prey, but Sasuke stays standing and considers the dark shadow of the mountains ahead.
Madara has the greater numbers, mountains at his back, and mountains protecting his flanks. Even if they defeat Madara, they will be overrun by Rebun Obito—assuming, of course, that the Rebun will wait to join the melee. Most likely, the Rebun will thunder through their passes at an opportune moment. The Kasai Pass leads directly to the center of the Omine Valley, into the heart of the battle itself; the Hiroo Pass curves along the eastern edge, which means that the Rebun warriors will outflank Kakashi’s and Jugo’s troops.
Naruto had suggested they cross through the Hiroo Pass with a small force of men, traverse alongside the Northern Alps, and then descend through the Kasai Pass at Madara’s back. That is no longer an option, not with Rebun troops lying in wait at both those passes.
Work the battlefield, one problem at a time, the Nidaime told him during one of their war games. He taught Sasuke all the important battles of history. Sasuke memorized the details of all of them. The key, the Nidaime told him, is to work the problem. One at a time.
He’d been thinking of Madara and Rebun as a singular problem, but that’s not the case. Madara is one problem. Rebun Obito is another. If they can somehow solve the problem of capturing Madara alive before the Rebun ride south? No, Sasuke tells himself firmly. That’s not it. He reorders the battlefield in his mind. The Rebun first, then.
The way to victory is not to withstand the combined forces of Madara and Rebun Obito. He needs to neutralize the Rebun. He needs to remove them from the picture, and reclaim the advantage in the battle field. He can hear Kakashi speaking the words, as if he were standing right at his side: Attack your enemy where he’s unprepared. Appear where unexpected.
Madara is expecting Rebun Obito to ride south with close to a thousand men. Sasuke will appear instead.
It’s just a slight tingle on the back of his neck, a sudden hush in the sounds around him, a furtive shadow streaking in his periphery. Sasuke turns his attention away from the mountains just in time to see the large, dark shape of a wolf move across the snow, just a few yards away. He realizes it now:
He’s surrounded by amber-yellow eyes. He’s only seen wolves on the hunt once before, and only at the end, when they closed in for the kill. He’d been watching from high ground as they circled and took down a massive buck. They slip around the enemy, prowling closer and closer until they’ve ringed the prey in a tight circle. They attack all at once, so the prey has no way to defend itself from all sides. And then, they make their kill.
They’d tightened the noose around him while he wasn’t paying attention, focused as he was on the mountains and Rebun ahead. All around him, there are dark shapes in the snow. The snow muffles sound, but they’re so close he can hear the soft press of snow under their paws. He can even see the gust of breath from one of them, just to his left. No doubt, Sasuke must present an easy target. He smells like blood, and he’d been stupid enough to wander into their territory.
Sasuke presses his boot into the snow to ground himself while he twists his fingers into seals, making the snow crackle under his weight. The wolves go still. A few of them dip closer to the ground.
Crane seal to finish.
He reappears a dozen yards away, and almost immediately, the pack is on him.
Sasuke runs, feels the rush of wind in his face and hears the muted sound of wolves running alongside him. They have evolved over centuries to run across snow with speed; but Sasuke uses his chakra to propel himself forward, his cloak whipping behind him. The snow hisses into mist with each one of his steps as his chakra makes contact with the ground.
He arrives back at camp, breathless with laughter.
Suigetsu is furious at the interruption. He is so furious he barely manages to get himself dressed while the woman in his tent—two of them, the greedy son of a bitch—watch from their lounge under the furs. “This better be good,” Suigetsu snarls.
“I have a plan.”
Suigetsu’s anger vanishes in an instant. “The fuck you do,” he breathes. He hurriedly tugs on the rest of his clothes and steps out into the cold, Sasuke close at his heels. Once they’re alone, he rounds on Sasuke. “What is it?”
“I’m still working out the details,” Sasuke says. “Where’s Abira?”
Abira curses out both Sasuke and Suigetsu with exquisite flare when they awaken him from a deep slumber in his tent. Still, he answers all of Sasuke’s questions: How wide, exactly, are the Hiroo and Kasai passes? How long? What is the geology of the mountains they cut through? Rocks? Ice? Snow?
“Have the passes ever been closed off?” Sasuke asks.
Abira yawns. “Once or twice when I was younger. The snowfall was heavy that season, and there was an avalanche. We couldn’t get through the Hiroo Pass until spring.”
Sasuke considers this information carefully. The vague outline of a strategy had taken shape while he was in that quiet solitude, surrounded by wolves while considering the alps. He needs to work through the logistics now, and thus far, it seems possible.
“Is there a way to reach the mountain passes without crossing them?” Sasuke asks. Abira frowns, so Sasuke clarifies, “Can we climb the mountain itself, Abira? I’m not talking about crossing the passes, I’m talking about climbing the mountain and crossing into the Rikubetsu Peninsula.”
Abira looks between Suigetsu and Sasuke with wide eyes. “It’s a climb, my lords. There are ice gorges and—”
“Can it be done?” Sasuke demands.
Abira nods. “The Betsukai make the climb every now and then to keep an eye on the Rebun. Rausu and I have made that climb a few times each.”
Suigetsu grips Sasuke’s elbow fiercely. “Please don’t tell me you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking.”
“I’m still thinking,” Sasuke evades, and starts to walk away. They have a few more people to wake up.
Yonabaru is groggy with sleep, but he gets dressed quickly and follows. How many death-riders have you reconvened? Sasuke asks, and Yonabaru gives him the best news he’s heard all day. “All of them, Captain,” he says.
“This is insane, Sasuke,” Suigetsu hisses, and keeps muttering under his breath about how bat-shit crazy Sasuke is. A thousand Rebun, he says. There are a thousand Rebun, and just over sixty death-riders. You can’t possibly defeat them.
“I don’t want to defeat them. I just want to stop them from riding south to join Madara’s troops,” Sasuke points out. He mulls over his battle strategy as they walk, fine-tuning details in his mind. He learned the strategy from the wolves; he needs to adapt it to humans.
Yonabaru mutters a curse under his breath. “So we change the entire battle strategy overnight?”
Abira heaves a sigh, his breath gusting out in a large billow. “What now?”
Sasuke turns his back against a gust of wind that blows across the plains at that moment. “Get me the Captains and meet me at my tent, Yonabaru. Abira, I want your hawks to start scouting the Kasai Pass. I want updates every two hours. Suigetsu, let’s get to work on the battle strategy.”
Abira and Yonabaru disperse to carry out their duties. Suigetsu watches them go with a frown. “You sure we can pull this off?”
Sasuke starts to head back towards his tent and Suigetsu falls into step beside him. It’s a gamble of monumental proportions, but he doesn’t know how else to unravel this knot. The Nidaime is nowhere near to give him guidance, but he sent Sasuke north with the promise that Sasuke’s training had prepared him for Madara.
Suigetsu touches Sasuke’s elbow lightly to get his attention. The touch stops Sasuke short. “Sasuke. Are you sure we can pull this off?”
To ten, Sasuke reminds himself. Centuries of Uchiha warrior blood, the Mangekyou he bears, the sword he carries, all of it for this battlefield. He gets to four before he finds the answer: “Yes.”
They reconvene in the grand hall in Otogakure over breakfast to discuss strategy. Jugo yields the floor to Kakashi, because like Sasuke, Kakashi had decided to throw out the their previous strategy and start fresh.
Kakashi’s strategy looks menacing drawn out on paper. He sets forth his strategy in neat, precise terms. It is a layered attack. Each platoon will strike out into the Omine Valley with a precise target. They will strike hard and will retreat. The platoons will move out in waves, attacking disparate targets simultaneously so that Madara is forced to defend against multiple waves of attacks from multiple directions. He has ironed out the strategy with his Captains, but the bulk of the idea is Kakashi’s.
Drawn out on a map, it looks like a pinwheeling shuriken. Sasuke considers the map carefully. Danzo’s betrayal had forced Kakashi to reconsider his original tactic, so he overhauled it entirely. It’s not just a simultaneous, coordinated attack. Madara won’t have respite between each round of attack. Hatake goddamn Kakashi.
Sasuke looks up from the map to meet Kakashi’s gaze and holds it steady. They will teach this battle strategy in textbooks for centuries to come. It will be required reading, part of curricula in each and every single hidden Village on the Continent. What privilege, Sasuke thinks, to be standing across the table from Kakashi at this moment.
Kakashi arches an eyebrow. “Your thoughts, Lord Commander?”
“Elegant,” Sasuke says finally. It is an honor that Kakashi might look at him like an equal and ask him for his opinion. But Sasuke can’t think of another word to describe it. “Elegant, sir.”
“It’ll do the job,” Kakashi says, nonchalant, as if he hadn’t just devised the most innovative strategy since Senju Nidaime himself rode out onto battle. “It’s not foolproof.”
“No,” Sasuke agrees, although it is as close to foolproof as he has ever seen a strategy. He taps the edge of the dark lines Kakashi had drawn out onto the map laid out in front of them. “Your troop movements will push Madara’s forces to the edges of the valley in retreat. There’s slight weaknesses at the corners in your formations, and they’ll press that to their advantage.”
Kakashi hm-s under his breath. “I was hoping some of your troops could provide cavalry support at the flanks.”
“We can,” Sasuke says. “It fits nicely with what I was thinking.”
Togichi speaks directly to Sasuke for the first time since the meeting began. “And what would that be?”
Madara had surrounded himself on three sides with mountains thinking they would be all the defense he needs to protect him. According to the scouts, he has stationed most of his troops at the southern entrance into the valley, and clustered the rest loosely at the center of the valley. The periphery is undefended.
Madara is like Sasuke, so focused on the mountains in the distance that he will not notice the wolves circling around him.
“A noose,” Sasuke announces.
Kakashi’s eye crinkles in a smile. “Interesting.”
Sasuke draws his finger along the eastern rim of the valley. “Inoue, Subaru, and Jugo will lead their troops along this edge and thread them along the rim of the valley.” He moves his finger to the western edge of the valley. “Suigetsu, Rausu and Nohine will lead a portion of their troops along this rim. We move around the edges. We do it at night, but the point is not to be subtle about it, the point is to surprise. It’ll be on horseback, it’ll be fast, and it’ll overwhelm any resistance along the edges,” Sasuke demonstrates the path they take by drawing his finger around the full edge of the valley. “And then, at dawn, we attack inward, concentrically, in staggered lines of mounted cavalry and troops. Basically, we’re forming a—”
“A noose,” Hiashi mutters under his breath, leaning forward in his chair to consider the map carefully. “You’re threading a noose around his neck.”
“That leaves the north,” Naruto points out. “The Rebun will ride south and overrun any attempts of closing the loop. Not unless—” He stops talking, abrupt, and stares openly at Sasuke. “You can’t, Sasuke. How would you, even if you wanted to?”
It’s no use trying not to look at Naruto, not when he’s talking to him, and especially not when Naruto seems to be on the exact same page as he is, as always, without Sasuke having to say a word. They used to be a good team, once. He’d forgotten what that was like. “Aren’t you always the one saying that things are impossible only because no one’s tried it yet?”
Naruto’s smile makes his scars lengthen. “There’s impossible and then there’s insane,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. He tilts his chin up, pins Sasuke with that blue, blue gaze of his. “So, how would you do it?”
“Do what, exactly?” Shikaku demands, interrupting politely.
“He plans on stopping the Rebun before they can ride south,” Naruto explains. “I’m guessing with the death-riders.”
Jiraiya arches an eyebrow. “There are nearly eight hundred Rebun troops at the Kasai Pass, and two hundred more at the Hiroo Pass. There’s fifty of your death-riders?”
“We number over sixty,” Yonabaru corrects with a smile. “And while we have a fearsome reputation, the Lord Commander’s plan is not to defeat a thousand Rebun.”
Suigetsu clears his throat politely. “The plan is C4.” He pauses a beat and adds, “A lot of it. Speaking of which, we’d like to borrow some of your C4.”
Kakashi starts to laugh. He ducks his head and covers his eyes as he laughs. Sasuke feels his cheeks hurt from how wide he’s grinning. Kakashi taught him most of what he knows. It’s no surprise he figured out Sasuke’s strategy.
A moment later, Naruto catches on. He pinches the bridge of his nose tiredly. “I understand your affinity for fire, Sasuke, but this is starting to become unhealthy.”
Togichi frowns. “What do you plan on doing with the C4?”
Kakashi answers for Sasuke. “He’s going to climb the mountain with his death-riders, blow up the mountain passes, and ride south to surprise Madara in the rear,” he says, still chuckling. He shakes his head in disbelief. “Uchiha goddamn Sasuke.”
Sasuke leans back in his chair and meets Kakashi’s gaze across the table. “You’ll be the sword to his throat. And I’ll be the knife at the back when he turns to run.”
Kakashi has finally regained his composure, and he leans back in his own chair in his usual sprawl to consider Sasuke’s plan. His grey eye is fixed on the table in front of him. Sasuke knows his plan is atypical; he’d borrowed it from a pack of wolves on the hunt, not any of the military textbooks the Nidaime taught him or the lessons in strategy that both Kakashi and Nidaime have drilled into his head. It is risky, and it is bold. It will require a mounted cavalry of troops and foot soldiers to make a sudden, fast attack along the outskirts of enemy camp and then fall into formation for a final assault. It requires a mountain pass crumbling and halting the march of a thousand enemy warriors.
But they are at a disadvantage. They are outnumbered, and Madara seems capable and willing to wait out the winter. Kakashi and Sasuke cannot take that risk, not with rips in space and time making waves rise a hundred feet tall.
And besides, Sasuke thinks that if anyone will appreciate the precise, elegant prowl of a wolf across an ivory-white landscape in search of prey—it’s Kakashi.
The moment stretches, though, as Kakashi considers Sasuke’s strategy with his usual stillness. Sasuke can hear the others gathered shifting in their seats. A few even clear their throats, as if to restart the conversation, but Sasuke is the one to break the silence. “Your thoughts, Commander?”
Finally, Kakashi’s looks away from the map laid out between them and meets Sasuke’s gaze. “Elegant,” he says finally. It’s a surprise to hear Sasuke’s own words used again, but Kakashi says it once more. “Elegant, my lord.”
For a moment, Sasuke isn’t sure what to do with the praise. It’s the highest he has ever gotten from Kakashi. It feels as if he’s spent an entire lifetime training for this precise moment, and now that he is here, he’s not sure what to do beyond hold Kakashi’s gaze for a few more heartbeats.
Kakashi turns to Jugo next. “We’re agreed, Lord Biratori?”
Jugo gives Kakashi a lopsided smile. He’d met with Sasuke, Suigetsu, and their captains before the joint war meeting with Konohagakure forces, and he signed off on all of it. We should not retreat, Sasuke told him. We should press forward to victory. “We’re agreed. Let’s end this war, Lord Commander.”
Kakashi’s eyes crinkle with a smile. “Let’s,” he agrees. When Kakashi gets to his feet, the southerners all stand and snap to attention in perfect unison. “Dismissed,” he says easily, and the southerners finally take their cue to push away from the table. Naruto is the only one who lingers.
Nohine blinks up at the southerners. “That never stops being strange,” she murmurs and mimics a salute to the other northerners at the table, all of whom laugh and return the gesture. None of them salute properly.
Jugo gets to his feet as well, smiling at their antics. Now that they have a plan, a chance of victory, the mood is buoyed. “Thank you. You have your orders. Prepare the troops.”
Inoue gets to his feet and stretches overhead, yawning so widely it seem as if his jaw is unhinging. The room empties out, and as the door stays propped open, the cold air rushes in. Sasuke almost follows Jugo and Suigetsu out the door, but then he realizes that Kakashi has taken his seat again, Naruto standing just over his shoulder. Kakashi looks pointedly at him, so Sasuke takes his cue and takes a seat as well.
When the door finally closes on them, Sasuke turns to Kakashi. “What is it?”
Oddly, Kakashi yields the floor to Naruto, twisting slightly in his chair to meet Naruto’s gaze. “Take a seat, Counselor. What’s on your mind?”
Naruto takes the seat immediately to Kakashi’s right. “The Kasai Pass is their major artery for trade into the Rikubetsu Peninsula. If we intend to blockade it, there will be collateral damage, Kakashi-sensei.”
Kakashi tilts his head. “It’s war, Naruto.”
Naruto leans so far forward in his chair to make his point, he’s perched on the edge of it. He’s sitting with a straight back and meets Kakashi’s gaze calmly as he makes his point. “Consequences for the fighting forces are to be expected, but I’m talking about the civilians on the peninsula,” Naruto says. “The Rebun are isolated. From what Rausu tells me, they rely heavily on trade with the Betsukai and the other northern tribes during the harshest winter months to survive. All of that trade flows through the Kasai Pass, and blockading it will cause shortages in the civilian populations as the winter wears on. Come spring, I expect the Land of Rice Fields will have a lot of refugees on its hand moving south.”
Kakashi leans back in his chair with a weary sigh. “And your recommendation?”
As Counselor to the Hokage, Sasuke can imagine that part of Naruto’s job involves just that: providing counsel. But he has never seen Naruto at work before. If Kakashi had asked him that question, Sasuke wouldn’t even know where to begin—he’s not even sure if it’s worth discussing at this moment. They have a battle to fight; they can worry about food shortages when they have won the war. But Naruto is already two, three, four steps ahead. “It will fall to the Betsukai and the northern tribes to deal with the aftermath of any food shortages in the Rikubetsu Peninsula. If we are to maintain our allegiance in the long-term with the Land of Rice Fields, it’ll be important that we don’t leave them footing the bill for our strategy here.”
Kakashi arches an eyebrow. “Your solution?”
“I’d like to assure Lord Biratori that Tsunade’s administration intends to stand as allies even after this war. Financially, and with food supplies, as needed. It’s the right thing to do, and if that isn’t sufficient reason, it will strengthen our allegiance with the north, both now and in the long run. Especially if we need their help against the Tsuchikage in the future,” Naruto says. He pauses a beat and then adds, words slower now, “I’d like to keep this discussion informal, and include only Lord Biratori for the moment. I’m not sure what Karin’s play is here, and I’d like to be cautious until I can figure out what it is.”
Sasuke is looking, so he spots the moment when Kakashi’s nonchalance slips just enough to reveal a tell. The moment Naruto had bought up Karin, Kakashi’s fingers had stilled on the table where he’d been idly rubbing his index finger back and forth along a ridge on the wood. But Naruto misses it because he is still musing aloud about Karin, lost in his own thoughts. “She’s going to make her play soon. I don’t know what it is yet, and I don’t know what cards she’s holding,” he says thoughtfully, looking towards the doors leading outside. “But what I do know is, she has the better hand.”
Kakashi makes absolutely sure he does not meet Sasuke’s gaze, even though Sasuke is boring holes into the side of Kakashi’s head. “I doubt that anything you discuss with Lord Biratori won’t eventually make its way to Karin.”
Naruto smiles. “I’m counting on it,” he answers. He pauses to look at Sasuke. “What do you think, Lord Commander?”
Sasuke has no idea what the Tsuchikage has anything to do with future food shortages in the Rikubetsu Peninsula, but it must be something worth considering because both Kakashi and Naruto are looking at him expectantly. So he does what he has learned is best to do in these situations: agree with whatever Naruto is saying. Over the years, he has found that Naruto is right about most things. It makes Sasuke’s life significantly easier if he just agrees with Naruto—the alternative is to sit through one of his endless lectures.
And besides, Naruto had looked at him with those pretty eyes and said, Lord Commander.
“That sounds good.”
Naruto’s smile makes his eyes impossibly brighter. “With your permission, Kakashi-sensei?”
Kakashi considers for a few moments, head tilted in thought. “Tread lightly. Debrief Nara Shikaku on your strategy. I don’t want us making any promises we can’t keep. Dismissed.”
“Yes, sir,” Naruto says, getting elegantly to his feet. As he’s leaving, he glances briefly between Sasuke and Kakashi, a considering look on his face.
Kakashi waits until Naruto is out of the room before speaking. “You’re going to have to learn to disagree with him, every now and then.”
Sasuke rolls his eyes. “I disagree with him. We’re always disagreeing.” Kakashi arches an eyebrow at him, so Sasuke tries another tactic. “I don’t know anything about politics, in the north or south. It’s just best to listen to him about these things. He tends to be right, and you can avoid the angry yelling.”
Kakashi heaves a sigh. “I knew law school was going to turn him into a menace,” he mutters under his breath, looking towards the door that Naruto just slipped out of. “He has Minato-sensei’s ideals, and his mother’s intelligence. And with Tsunade training him...”
The silence falls between them, and for a while, Sasuke lets it rest. He follows Kakashi’s gaze towards the door and tries to parse out Kakashi’s mood—whether he’s worried about Naruto, or just thoughtful. He can’t quite put his finger on it, and just as he’s about to ask, Kakashi breaks the silence. “There’s a saying about eggs and baskets. It seems to me that it may apply to our current situation.”
Sasuke looks towards the map on the table, the stones laid out in precise order to indicate where and how their forces would converge. They don’t have a back-up plan. This is it. If they lose this battle, if Madara escapes, if the Gedo crawls out of that crack in the earth, if, if, if.
Kakashi points to a line on the map demarcating where they will begin their attack. “We regroup here if Madara escapes,” he says, and launches into a low-pitched strategy for what they will do for each of the ifs that might happen. If Madara escapes, if they lose too many troops, if Madara surprises them with something that neither of them can even account for.
If, if, if.
Kakashi goes through each of the ifs in such detail, Sasuke wonders how many hours he lay awake at night coming up with these failsafes. Sasuke interrupts Kakashi only when he spots errors in Kakashi’s logic—rare, but still present—and they work through each of the problems until they are satisfied.
The only if that snags on Sasuke’s mind, though, is one that Sakura had raised a few nights ago: “And Naruto? Sakura mentioned that Naruto talking to the demon was dangerous. Something about Naruto getting trapped?”
“We have protocols in place for the Nine-Tailed Demon,” Kakashi answers, neatly sidestepping Sasuke’s attempts to gather more intelligence. “Naruto knows the drill. He will fall back if he is in danger of becoming a liability. If he does get captured, Sakura has practiced the seals. Shikaku and Jiraiya will also step in. Yamanaka Ino and Hyuga Hinata are also trained in containment protocols.”
Sasuke has never been involved in the Kyuubi protocols. He always assumed he was excluded because of his betrayal, and he accepted the decision to exclude him. Now, though, he wants to know. He can only guess what it might involve based on what Kakashi has revealed so far:
A Yamanaka to hold Nartuo’s mind steady, a Hyuga to steady his chakra. Sakura will perform the seals, and Shikaku and Jiraiya will contain him—whatever that means. The idea of containing Naruto doesn’t sit well with Sasuke; Naruto cannot be contained. “What does containment mean?”
Kakashi glances up sharply. “It means you stand down,” he says firmly. “It means you don’t get in Shikaku’s or Jiraiya’s way.”
Sasuke frowns. “What does that even mean, Kakashi?”
“It means you stand down,” Kakashi repeats, words sharp now. His chakra is a frisson of electricity against Sasuke’s skin. “This isn’t your jurisdiction.”
Kakashi’s temper seems to be close to being worn thin, but this is Naruto, and Sasuke cannot stand down. Not about this. “I’m not a threat to him, Kakashi.” He has to take a breath, if only to bite down on the words clamoring in his throat. “You can trust me with him. I know that’s a lot to ask given my track record, but you can trust me.” He takes another breath and says the words again, trying not to sound like he’s begging but knowing that is exactly what he’s doing. “You can trust me to keep him safe. I give you my word.”
Kakashi’s anger vanishes in an instant. “That’s not what I—” He stops talking abruptly and exhales carefully. “I know I can trust him with you, Sasuke.”
“Then tell me,” Sasuke prompts.
Kakashi holds Sasuke’s gaze steady. “You’re not Konohagakure shinobi anymore,” he says evenly. Sasuke opens his mouth to protest—what good is allegiance to Konohagakure, anyways, he wants to ask—but Kakashi keeps talking. “And even if you were, you will not have the clearance for this.”
“You could give me the clearance,” Sasuke counters.
Kakashi’s shoulders move up and down with a deep breath. “No,” he admits finally. “No, I wouldn’t.”
He wouldn’t, Sasuke realizes with a start. He could, but he wouldn’t. It stings, more than Sasuke would care to admit. He wants to ask, Why not, but he’s not sure he wants to know the answer. This is Kakashi, offering him as much of the truth as he can. Sasuke will have to trust him with the rest. But this is about Naruto, and for that reason alone, Sasuke can’t let the subject drop yet. “There better be a really good reason for why you wouldn’t, Hatake. For this, there better be a really fucking good reason.”
“There is,” Kakashi promises, and gets to his feet. “I want to attach a team of Konoha to your deathriders for your mission at Kasai Pass.”
Sasuke doesn’t object. It is expected that they embed fighters in each other’s forces to integrate the battle strategy. And besides, as under-manned as Sasuke is, he will take whatever additional bodies he can get. “I’ll take my usual team. Hyuga, Nara, Aburame, and Inuzuka, if you can spare them. And Ehime Taro, along with all the C4 he wants.”
“Your unit’s explosives expert has a tendency to want a fair bit of C4,” Kakashi mutters with a wry smile as he heads out the door.
Sasuke follows him out the door. The minute they step outside, Kakashi hisses a curse under his breath. “Does it ever get warm in this goddamn country?”
Sasuke gives Sasuke a sidelong glance as he falls into step next to him. Konohagakure soldiers stand at attention as Kakashi walks by. The northern warriors raise a hand in greeting or call out, Lord Commander or My lord! When Sasuke walks by. Sasuke raises a hand in return, but he doesn’t linger to talk to them. “I was under the impression that your bed was being kept warm for you.”
It’s the most oblique way he can think to ask the question about Karin, and Kakashi immediately picks up on it. “I am really tired of this conversation.”
That is all the confirmation that Sasuke needs to know that yes, Hatake Kakashi is as spectacularly stupid as Sasuke has always suspected. He’s said all that he wants to say, though. More important is the fact that Karin has vanished; she has opted to sit out on strategy sessions. Either she is still guilty about leaving Otogakure unguarded to Madara’s surprise attack, or she’s staying out of Jugo’s and Sasuke’s way for some other reason. “Where is she?”
Kakashi gives him a sidelong glance, slowing his pace until they’ve stopped walking. “I assumed she spent her time with Lord Biratori, Lord Hozuki, or yourself. I also hear the names Inoue and Subaru often associated with hers.”
Inoue and Subaru are Karin’s right and left hands. The three of them arrived in Otogakure at the same time, long before Sasuke, Jugo and Suigetsu were recruited. But Inoue and Subaru haven’t seen Karin since they arrived either. This is not unusual for Karin. She disappears, and then she reappears. There is no way to govern her. “Have you seen her every night since we’ve arrived in Urausu?”
Kakashi arches an eyebrow. “I can’t tell if you’re being rude or—”
“I’m going to give you a piece of advice,” Sasuke interrupts neatly. He doesn’t need Kakashi to answer. It’s obvious enough. They must have fallen into bed again the minute they laid eyes on each other in Urausu. He understands why Kakashi is drawn to her. He is just a man, at the end of the day, and a fool, at that. But he still can’t pinpoint Karin’s reasoning for this. She has hated Kakashi for as long as Sasuke can remember. She will hate Kakashi even more when Kakashi becomes Kage and becomes an even greater threat to the south. “If you’re going to sleep with your most dangerous enemy, try keeping track of her whereabouts. It will significantly improve your chances of survival.”
Kakashi angles his head thoughtfully. He holds Sasuke’s gaze for a long moment before speaking. “She isn’t my enemy, Sasuke. And I’m not hers.”
What are you two to each other, Sasuke thinks, but he doesn’t think Kakashi would tolerate the question. “Naruto was wrong. When Karin makes her move, it won’t be because she has a better hand and she’s playing it.”
Kakashi looks faintly amused. “So you do disagree with Naruto every now and then.”
It’s a paltry effort to change the topic, and Sasuke doesn’t fall for it. “It doesn’t matter what cards she’s holding, Kakashi. She doesn’t play her hand,” he explains. “She plays the man.”
Kakashi’s gaze becomes sharp with something like anger—no, not anger, Sasuke realizes with a start, hurt. “Is it so hard for you to believe that she might—” He cuts himself off so abruptly, his entire body flinches with it. “I’m done talking about this.”
Men act like fools. And Hatake Kakashi, Sasuke knows, is just a man. He can’t push Kakashi on this, not anymore. It isn’t just sex, the almost instinctive attraction for something that is forbidden, and it isn’t just wanting to claim a woman who refuses to yield. It’s something else, something more. There is no other explanation for how rigidly the man is holding himself in the face of Sasuke’s warnings. “I’ll drop the topic.”
“Good,” Kakashi bites off, and rounds on his heels and starts to walk again, zipping up his jacket all the way up with far more force than is necessary.
All the southerners are wearing jackets, gloves, and even caps, but Sasuke is used to the winds of the open plains. A cloak is more than enough so early in the season. Still, he can’t help but feel a chill against his skin.
Defend, he thinks as loudly as he can at Kakashi, hoping that he’ll hear him somehow. He tries to project his thoughts, will it towards Kakashi’s retreating back like he might with his snakes when one of them is under attack. Defend, you fool.
Fifty death riders will climb the mountains to the Kasai Pass with Sasuke and the core of Unit 3. Abira will act as a guide, and Tottori will be the explosives expert. A second, smaller group of twelve death-riders will approach the Hiroo Pass and seal it off.
Abira and several other Betsukai warriors lead an impromptu training session on mountain climbing in the grand hall. Rausu traces the path on a map, and lays out the important landmarks. The whole journey sounds impossible to accomplish, but apparently, the Betsukai are used to this climb. Rausu and Abira have completed it together. Several times, in fact.
Sasuke stays long enough to master the knots—just a few minutes, really—and then heads out to speak with Jugo, Suigetesu and the captains. He finds them gathered around a map in Jugo’s command tent. There are mugs of ale on the table, but they have been largely forgotten. Sasuke takes a drink and falls into his spot to Jugo’s right, just in time to hear Jugo ask Rausu how quickly he can get his warriors around the eastern rim of the valley.
Rausu considers the question carefully before answering. He lists out the relevant details: the circumference of the valley, the terrain along the edges, and the conditions they will be facing. They have to thread the noose around Madara’s neck quickly and without drawing much attention, which means they have to coordinate their troop movements at the height of Kakashi’s attacks when Madara is most distracted. Kakashi promised some pomp and fanfare to hold Madara’s gaze steady, but Sasuke still needs to work out with Rausu and the other captains how they will stagger the troops. He will push Madara troops right towards Kakashi’s and Itachi’s sword.
It’s a careful dance Sasuke is orchestrating, but war is chaotic by nature. The most he can do is plan obsessively leading up to the battle, account for all variations of his strategy, and then wait for the cards to fall. Whatever the case, they have to seal off the mountain passes.
“Lord Commander, you could let Yonabaru lead the death-riders lead the northern charge,” Rausu presses. “Climbing the mountain is feasible, but it’s an unnecessary risk to place yourself in.”
Sasuke arches an eyebrow at him. “War is an unnecessary risk, Betsukai. The mountain might be the safest place in this whole shit-show.”
There’s a smattering of laughter, but it’s subdued. “He has a point, my lord,” Nohine mutters.
“It’s not a matter of who leads the death-riders. It’s a matter of balancing Sharingan,” Sasuke explains, looking around the table. “Madara is an Uchiha, and we have to trap him in the Omine Valley. Alive. There are only three Sharingan in this world to face him. Hatake Kakashi, my brother, and me. Kakashi and my brother will defend the southern entrance into the valley, I will defend the northern pass. We attack him on both sides.”
Jugo taps the Rikubetsu Peninsula with a finger. “Tell me about the Rebun, Rausu.”
One meeting bleeds into the next. Sasuke, Jugo and Suigetsu meet with all one hundred tribal leaders again in a large gathering over lunch. Information about their strategy has been disseminated through the captains, and everyone has their orders. The meeting is intended to discuss troop readiness, supplies, and camp defenses. There is an extended round of trading between tribal leaders, with larger tribes offering to lend support to smaller ones so that the whole army is evenly split. There are more concerns raised about the wisdom in Sasuke himself climbing the mountain, and again, Sasuke has to defend the decision. It’s annoying, but they are all lords in their own right. They have the authority to voice their concerns.
The only respite they have is for a meal, which is when Karin finally reappears in their midst. Suigetsu sits up suddenly mid-bite, gaze snapping to the entrance of the tent. Sasuke feels it a moment later, the tingle of chakra that is so faint it’s barely noticeable. Karin’s chakra signature is nonexistent; for her to announce herself this way is only a matter of courtesy.
“About damn time,” Suigetsu grumbles, and a moment later, Karin enters the tent in a snap of robes. Her hair is pulled back in a high ponytail, and her nose is red from the cold.
“Takamaru and I have news,” she announces, languidly removing her cloak and gloves before settling down at the table next to Jugo, who immediately starts to serve her food. She leans into Jugo’s warmth; news, apparently, means bad news—there is no other explanation for the way Karin sags against Jugo.
“On a scale of one to ten, one being Megumi has a stomach bug and ten being Madara is at our gates at this very moment,” Suigetsu ventures, “How bad is the news you’re about to break us?”
Karin takes a breath. There is no warmth in her eyes. “Ten.”
Takamaru’s talons are shredding the map and rending deep gouges on the table, but Jugo pays it no mind. “You’re sure it’s human, Takamaru?”
“It’s human,” Takamaru reiterates. This is the third time he has made this pronouncement, and each time, he has been unerring in his confidence. After hearing Karin’s announcement, Jugo had no choice but to call Konohagakure high command to his tent to hear the news as well.
Karin, though, does not yield. “It was not human, sire.”
Shikaku clears his throat politely, interjecting the back-and-forth between Karin and Abira’s ninken hawk. “You both sound equally sure, but you both can’t be right. The only thing you two seem to agree on is her location.”
Which, Sasuke thinks, is precisely where Sarada had described an odd, defensive formation. At the heart of the Omine Valley, Madara had set up a coterie of his high-ranking lieutenants and some soldiers. It was not a defensive formation, but it was facing inward. Whatever it is they’re defending, it isn’t from Konohagakure or Otogakure troops. They’re defending against something from within.
Takamaru extends his left wing, which is so wide that it forces Hiashi to sit back in his chair to stay out of the way. They’ve gathered in the great hall once Karin delivered the news to Jugo: she had sensed an ancient, malicious chakra in the Omine Valley. Something so inexorably powerful that it felt as if the earth was shaking. Demon, she thought.
But when she requested Abira’s ninken’s help in conducting surveillance, Takamaru had contradicted her instinct. Not demon, something human. He’d felt a human. He’d seen her with his own eyes. There was no demon. “You’ve made a mistake, Karin.”
“I do not make mistakes,” Karin counters neatly. Her voice has not been raised in pitch since she began talking, but her anger is barely suppressed. “There is a demon in the Omine Valley. Madara has summoned one.”
“Are you saying I can’t identify a demon when I see it?” Takamaru demands hotly. His talons shred what’s left of the map on the table.
Karin’s anger finally snaps. She slaps the table with a hand, startling Inoue next to her. “What did you see, then? A human? What human chakra feels like negative space? It gets colder and colder as you march towards the Omine Valley. Just two miles north, and the trees are snapping in half from the frost. Three miles, and you can hardly breathe from the cold. There is death in the Omine Valley, ice and death—”
“What did you see, Takamaru?” Jugo interrupts, cutting into Karin’s anger. Any other man, and Karin would have slit his throat for the insult, but Karin yields easily to Jugo’s authority. When Jugo glances at her sharply, she snaps her mouth shut with a click of teeth, jaw clenching so tight that the muscle in her cheek jumps.
“A woman,” Takamaru answers. His voice is quieter now that he no longer has to compete with Karin’s anger. “Her chakra signature was different, I will admit, but she is not a demon. She is not even a jinchuuruki.”
Hiashi seizes on the important detail. “Different how?”
Takamaru glances sharply at Karin. “Most humans project chakra. That is the basis of ninjutsu. Bot some humans learn to gather chakra to themselves, like this woman. That technique died long ago, but this woman seems capable of performing it.”
“The technique is called Senjutsu,” Jiraiya says. “And it’s not extinct. Naruto, show them.”
It happens between one heartbeat and the next. Naruto doesn’t even perform a single seal, just closes his eyes and inhales. On his exhale, his chakra signature collapses onto itself, becoming invisible and then... nothing. The air starts to shimmer around him, and Naruto holds out a hand. It coalesces into his hand in a translucent turquoise orb. Chakra. But not his own.
Sasuke has seen this technique just once, and at a distance. Now that he’s close enough to witness it, he understands. Naruto is summoning chakra, not his own, but from his surroundings. The chakra is drifting upwards from the ground, the bench, the air around him. He brings his palm up to his lips and blows gently.
The orb of turquoise chakra dissipates, like a dandelion in a strong summer breeze.
“The fuck,” Suigetsu breathes, flinching back when the chakra gets too close.
Takamaru turns towards Naruto. “Who taught you, jinchuuruki?”
Jiraiya leans forward on the table with a sharp grin. “I did.”
Takamaru’s eyes narrow. “Did you think that was wise, Sannin? You thought to teach this technique to a jinchuurki with immeasurable chakra stored inside it. A technique that would allow the jinchuuruki to gather even more chakra to itself—”
“It?” Jiraiya asks. The wood of the table shudders with his chakra. “Did you just refer to my godson as it—”
Naruto leans into Jiraiya with a strained smile. “It’s okay, Jiraiya-sensei,” he says. It’s not okay. It has never been okay, but Naruto has always been good at brushing aside these insults. “Senjutsu users can change temperature patterns. If you suck away enough chakra from living things, they’ll die and wither. That could explain the trees snapping and the frost. But she’d have to be very powerful.”
“She is,” Takamaru affirms. “Whoever she is.”
“Itachi?” Shikaku demands. “What do you know of Madara’s affiliates?”
Itachi has been silent for this entire conversation. He’s still so lost in thought that that Shikaku has to repeat his name to get his attention. “I don’t know, sir. He had a lot of contacts, and he never trusted me fully. What do we know about her aside from the fact she can perform senjutsu?”
“She has dark hair,” Takamaru says. He stretches out both wings as if about to take flight, but then settles again with a flutter of wings. “She’s easy to spot because she seems isolated from the other humans. She doesn’t even seem affected by the cold, she only wears a white dress. She doesn’t even carry any weapons”
“A dark-haired woman in a white dress,” Hiashi repeats slowly. “That’s all you can tell us?”
“They have archers,” Takamaru snarls, feathers spiking with the insult. “I got as close as I could.”
“Anything else, Takamaru?” Itachi asks, polite as always. “Any details at all would be helpful.”
Takamaru’s golden gaze lands on Itachi. “She sensed me once, and looked up at me. Her eyes were odd, even from a distance,” he answers, soothed by Itachi’s show of respect. “One blue and one gold.”
Can’t be, Sasuke thinks. Can’t be. It was just a nightmare. A recurring nightmare of a woman, a raven, and a monster climbing out of a crack in the earth.
But then again. Dead men walk this earth.
“Left eye blue and right eye gold?” Sasuke asks to get Takamaru’s attention. The hawk is elegant in the air, but he maneuvers on land awkwardly. He has to move in a full circle to face Sasuke at the other end of the table. “Pale skin, with long hair down to her hips in braids? Skin and bones, mostly?”
Takamaru angles his head. “You know her.”
Sasuke scrubs at the beard along his jaw. It’s almost too nonsensical to be real. But then again, the world is ending. “You could say that.”
“Please, for the love of all that is good,” Jiraiya growls, “don’t tell me she’s one of your jilted ex-lovers.”
Sasuke remembers the expression on her face when he’d suggested the same thing. How rude, she’d said, and it felt like she was contemplating how Sasuke’s would taste when she cracked his bones open to suck at his marrow.
“Who is she, and how do you know her?” Shikaku demands.
Sasuke glances around at the audience. His captains are here, along with Abira, Takamaru, Togichi, and Karin. Too many eyes and ears. but if they are marching into this war, they deserve to know. “Her name is Otsutsuki Kaguya,” Sasuke announces.
Karin inhales sharply, a rare reaction from a woman who is almost never caught off-guard. “That’s impossible.”
Shikaku seizes on Karin’s brief display of emotion. “Why is that impossible?”
Karin considers Shikaku carefully for a few long moments. She is unhurried in her inspection of him and holds his gaze steady. Shikaku, for his part, seems surprised by her open gaze. He is a man used to intimidating his enemies by just stepping out of the shadows, but here is a woman watching him with the careless disregard of someone who knows how to hold the upper hand. In the end, Karin decides to answer Shikamaru’s question. “It is impossible because Otsutsuki Hagaromo sealed his mother away millennia ago,” she explains, smiling politely at Shikaku. “As you know, the Otsutsuki seals are unbreakable. The Otsutsuki brothers made sure of it.”
For a moment, Sasuke thinks that Jugo must have told her about the Otsutsuki seal, but Jugo looks just as surprised at Karin’s knowledge. Shikaku’s eyes narrow. “And how do you know about the Otsutsuki seals?”
Karin looks between Jugo, Suigetsu and Sasuke carefully. It doesn’t take her long to connect the dots—that Sasuke, Jugo, and Suigetsu had withheld something from her. She smiles, amused as always whenever she watches someone try to stay ahead of her. “It doesn’t matter how I know about them,” she says, bypassing the question entirely. “It only matters what Madara knows.”
Shikaku doesn’t budge. “What do you know about the seals? And what do you know about Otsutsuki Kaguya?”
“I know that the seals cannot be broken. Apparently, I was wrong, since Madara has somehow broken them,” Karin answers. “As for Princess Kaguya…” She turns to Naruto. “Her chakra feels like a demon. But unlike yours, there is nothing human containing it. She is a negative space.”
Naruto tilts his chin. “You can’t fight a negative space with typical techniques. You’ll be throwing fuel on a fire if you do. She’s a Senjutsu user, as am I. Leave her to me.”
“Aren’t we lucky to have a Senjutsu user of our own,” Karin mutters under her breath. “What good fortune.”
Naruto’s gaze snaps towards Karin immediately. “You already knew I was trained in Senjutsu, Karin,” he says, words sharp like a kunai. “Your spies have always been diligent. You must have figured out how I take my coffee by now. ”
“Black, a dash of cream, no sugar,” Karin recites neatly. How Sasuke wants to know, but of course Karin knows. She must have spies crawling all over Konohagakure. She’s only revealing her hand to intimidate Naruto with her knowledge, but Naruto doesn’t seem affected. “You have your first cup after you train in the morning to practice that Senjutsu technique of yours. A second cup to go from a cafe called Bakin on Fourth Street.”
They’re only talking about coffee, but Sasuke’s fingers are itching for a weapon. He’s not the only one because Kakashi is watching the exchange carefully; Itachi’s Mangekyou is whorling, and Suigetsu’s hand has fallen to the hilt of his sword. The shadows in the room are flickering dangerously, the low thrum of Shikaku’s chakra making Sasuke’s antsy for his sword.
Naruto’s face remains expressionless. “I’ll tell the barista you said hello. Or maybe it isn’t her...” Naruto angles his head in consideration. A moment later, he ventures, “It’s the paperboy across the street. He never offers me a newspaper when I walk by.”
Karin neither confirms nor denies it, but Sasuke knows that Naruto has hit the nail on the head by the heat in Karin’s eyes. Whenever Sasuke watches Karin, it reminds him of a predator circling her prey. This time, though, it feels like watching two big cats circle each other cautiously. Kakashi seems flat-footed against Karin compared to how evenly Naruto holds Karin’s gaze, the slight curl of his lips to indicate that Naruto knows he has correctly guessed Karin’s spy.
Karin gets to her feet languidly. “You should get a pastry to go with that coffee of yours,” she croons, eyeing Naruto from head to toe. “You could use some meat on your bones. I’m sure Lord Commander Uchiha won’t mind.”
Sasuke is grateful for his beard at that moment because he can feel a flush on his face. It’s bad enough to know about the rumors swirling around; it’s another thing entirely for it to be talked about so openly in a meeting of senior officers.
Naruto, however, doesn’t react to the snide remark. “Well, if the Lord Commander doesn’t mind, then I’ll get right on that,” Naruto deadpans. “After all, the only true joy and purpose in my life is to sit pretty for him.”
Karin considers Naruto carefully. For a moment, Sasuke thinks that she will turn violent. But then, her lips quirk up into a sharp, dangerous smile. “I meant no insult, of course, Counselor Uzumaki.”
Naruto’s face is expressionless. He tilts his chin just a fraction, and even though he’s sitting while Karin stands, their gazes are matched. “Of course not,” he says, and waves a hand elegantly towards the entrance of the tent. “I don’t mean to keep you, Lady Karin.”
It’s a dismissal. A polite one, but a dismissal nonetheless. Sasuke has never seen anyone dismiss Karin, not since Orochimaru.
Karin’s expression becomes calcified. She doesn’t look away from Naruto even as she directs her next words to Jugo. “Sire, if I may.”
Jugo gives her his permission with a sharp nod, which is the only saving grace for Karin in this moment. Naruto may have dismissed her, but she sought and received permission from the lord and liege of the north. Karin leaves the tent in a sharp gust of cold, the flap of the tent snapping open with the force of her exit.
The moment that she does, Naruto gets to his feet and turns to Kakashi. “Permission, sir,” he says stiffly. Kakashi makes a vague gesture with his hand, and Naruto leaves almost immediately.
In their absence, the tent suddenly feels cavernous. It takes a few moments before Jugo returns the talks sternly to the strategy discussions on hand. When they all file out of the tent a few hours later, Jugo lingers with Kakashi, Shikaku, and Jiraiya. He waits until only Sasuke and Suigetsu are by his side and the remaining senior officers have walked away before turning to them.
Before he can speak, Jiraiya steps in, voice tight with anger. “You need to order your people to show some fucking respect. If your people and even their fucking animal summons continue to insist on insulting my godson—”
“I am a warlord, not a Kage,” Jugo interrupts calmly. “I don’t order my men to do anything. They choose to follow me.”
“And you’d do well to remember who it is you’re speaking to, Sannin,” Suigetsu adds in a low voice. “And when you do speak to him, you will address him as sire or Lord—”
Jugo raises a hand and Suigetsu immediately falls quiet. Jiraiya takes a step forward, and out of instinct, Sasuke steps in between Jiraiya and Jugo, hand falling to the hilt of his sword. Jiraiya’s face twists into something like surprise, but hardens a moment later. “What happened, Romeo, cat got your tongue? I didn’t hear you defend Naruto in there—”
Kakashi halts him with a hand on the shoulder. “I’ve noticed that tempers seem to run hot when they’re both in the same room,” Kakashi says politely. “Perhaps in the future, we should avoid holding meetings where both of them attend simultaneously.”
Jugo considers the suggestion for a moment before nodding in agreement. He murmurs, Lord Commander Hatake, and then takes his leave.
Suigetsu waits until they’re out of earshot before saying, “They’re a war waiting to happen.”
Why is what Sasuke wants to know. He can understand Karin’s hatred for Kakashi, but he doesn’t understand why she insists on antagonizing Naruto in this manner, with cutting remarks and condescension. And he doesn’t understand why Naruto, someone who always opts for diplomacy, so openly displays his disregard for Karin. He goaded her with knowledge about her spies following him. And then, he dismissed Karin in a room full of superior officers, not because he needed to, but because he knew the insult would sting Karin.
Jugo heaves a sigh. “That’s a war for another day.”
Sasuke glances towards the bright flare of Naruto’s chakra, moving towards the other end of Otogakure to where the Konoha troops are stationed. As always, he can’t sense where Karin is, but now he wonders if Naruto is keeping tabs on her somehow.
He’s known Naruto for the better part of his life now, and even though Naruto will always argue for peace, Sasuke knows that Naruto is relentless once he has a goal in mind. He’s dangerous, not just because of that quicksilver speed of his—too fast for most of his enemies to defend against—but because he also knows how to be patient. Naruto has set his sight on Karin now and sees no ally in her. Karin, too, has made it clear that she counts Naruto as an enemy, someone worth spying on and pressing for weaknesses. If it’s a war that’s brewing between them, Sasuke wonders if they’ll amass armies larger than the ones laid out in the Omine Valley or if they’ll step into the darkness and press blades into the small, almost invisible, spaces between their armors with their words alone.
Suigetsu jostles him lightly with an elbow, noticing where Sasuke’s attention has drifted. “I wouldn’t worry, Uchiha. Naruto looks like he can handle himself just fine against Karin.”
Sasuke forces himself to look away from the direction of Naruto’s chakra signature. “I wouldn’t be worried about either of them,” Jugo says, sparing Sasuke from having to respond.
No, it’ll be the rest of us ducking for cover, Sasuke thinks, but keeps his thoughts to himself.
The death-riders are scheduled to leave at sunrise; knowledge of Kaguya’s presence doesn’t change the timeline. After dinner—more meat stew—Sasuke and Sakura pack his rucksack for the climb while Itachi oversees the proceedings. As always, Sakura takes on the task of packing Sasuke’s medical kit. She has kept up a steady lecture about hypothermia, frostbite, oxygen toxicity, and all the ways that Sasuke can go blind at high altitudes. “Remember,” Sakura says as she’s hugging him goodbye. “The sharingan is highly susceptible to changes in atmospheric oxygen pressures. You have to be careful.”
Sasuke can’t help but smile. “I’ll see you on the battlefield, Doctor.”
Sakura’s pulls back with a smile. She stands on tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. “I love you, doofus. See you on the battlefield.”
Itachi’s goodbye is much more subdued. “Don’t slip and fall to your death up on the mountain,” he says with a smirk and leaves before Sasuke can flip him the bird. Sasuke knows he should sleep, but once he’s alone, he finds himself stewing over the map spread out on his desk again. Kakashi and Sasuke have gone over every detail obsessively. They have moved pieces around on the board so endlessly that the stones began to blur in Sasuke’s vision. He can redraw the terrain of the Omine Valley blindfolded, but he can’t look away from the contours of the land. He is sending men into this valley, where Madara, Pein, and Kaguya lie in wait. He cannot afford to make a mistake.
Naruto arrives an hour after Sakura and Itachi leave. Sasuke is so engrossed in his consideration of the map that he doesn’t even register Naruto’s presence until Fukuoka stumbles in to announce his arrival, sounding breathless. “Sire, there’s a Konoha soldier here to see you.”
Sasuke hm-s under his breath, still not looking up from his map, and Fukuoka hurries to obey.
Naruto enters a moment later, Fukuoka close at his heels. This time, Sasuke’s focus on the map breaks and he blinks stupidly at Naruto. He’d anticipated Neji or Shikamaru when Fukuoka announced a Konoha soldier, not Naruto.
For a moment, there is a stilted silence: Sasuke and Fukuoka both gaping at Naruto, and Naruto looking patiently between the two of them. In the end, Naruto takes charge of the situation. “Thank you, Fukuoka,” Naruto says with a smile. When Fukuoka doesn’t take the cue and leave, Naruto smile becomes gentle. “That will be all. Thank you.”
Fukuoka turns a brilliant shade of red when Naruto turns his attention towards him. For fuck’s sake, Sasuke thinks. Not only is the boy an idiot, he’s drooling over Naruto as well.
Fukuoka continues to gape at Naruto despite the dismissal, so Sasuke does everyone a favor and snaps, “Out, boy.”
“Sire,” Fukuoka stammers, and disappears into the cold again.
Naruto sighs. “You don’t have to be so harsh with him.”
“He’s a useless pup. Jugo stuck me with him as a favor for some barley and corn,” Sasuke answers, regaining his own senses. He turns back to the map because the alternative is to gape at Naruto like Fukuoka. “Did Kakashi want something?”
“No,” Naruto answers neatly. “I wanted to talk to you about Kaguya while I had the chance.” A working visit, then. “What intel do you have?”
Sasuke begins to clear off scrolls from the bench to make space for Naruto. “I’m not sure if you can consider my dreams reliable intel.”
“My father is back from the dead, there’s a rip in time and space, and it’s the end of the world,” Naruto says wryly, taking a seat. “Your dreams are just as good a bet as anything.”
Sasuke can’t argue with that logic, so he returns to his own spot across the table from Naruto and debriefs Naruto on all that he knows, both from the Shodaime and his dreams. There isn’t much he can offer, and although he feels ridiculous using words like evil and malice to describe her, he lays it out neatly for Naruto’s consideration. “I felt cold in my dreams when she got close. It was like I couldn’t breathe.”
He doesn’t mention the raven or the beast with the spinning, double-irises. Even for the situation at hand, that seems a bit far-fetched.
Naruto chews over the details, eyes focused on the map in front of him. “Karin says that the weather north of here is enough to make a grown man freeze to death,” he says after a long silence. “I need a perimeter established around her. But Jiraiya and I are not sure how wide the perimeter has to be to keep the troops safe from her technique. Her reach seems wide.”
Sasuke remembers the patterned ground. Not even August, and the frost had set in, miles and miles away from the Omine Valley. “You plan on eliminating her by yourself?”
“I’m taking a team,” Naruto answers with a smile. “Sakura will get close to Kaguya with me. Her chakra control is advanced enough that she can suppress her signature entirely. Sakura might not be able to use the Senjutsu technique, but she should be safe from it.” He leans forward to point at a spot on the map, drawing a circle with his finger. “This is where Takamaru says he saw Kaguya. I want to contain her so she doesn’t have a chance to move towards the frontlines.”
He neatly lays out the plan, which involves Naruto, Sakura and Jiraiya leading the team into the heart of the battlefield under cover of illusions from Kurenai, Hinata, Ino, Tenten, and Shikaku. Jiraiya will establish a perimeter and counteract Kaguya’s senjutsu technique from a distance, giving Naruto and Sakura enough room to eliminate her in direct combat. Naruto has assembled a strong team, but at the end of the day, it’s only Naruto and Sakura against a woman of such ancient malice that Sasuke had felt it in his bones in his dreams.
The strategy relies almost entirely on Sakura’s cleverness, brute strength, and chakra control, and Naruto’s Senjutsu technique and lightning speed. He’s faster now, Sasuke knows from Sakura, because the Yondaime has been training him every day since he has returned. Sakura and Naruto are one of the most decorated teams in the military, routinely sent out on complicated missions that require precision and guaranteed outcomes. Still, Sasuke can’t help but ask, “You’re not taking Kakashi? Or my brother?”
Naruto shakes his head. “Kakashi-sensei and Itachi will be kindling to her fire. They don’t have the chakra control, and she’d just suck them both dry for their chakra reserves.”
Sasuke knows Naruto is good, but he hadn’t realized Naruto was now at a level that he can coolly criticize Kakashi and Itachi for their subpar chakra control. Sometime in the past few months and years, Naruto has improved yet again. There was a time when he knew exactly where Naruto stood in terms of his technique and skill, but those days are long past.
He hadn’t even realized until now just how much time they’ve spent apart. He’s spent more time with the Naruto in his imaginations—private smiles and soft sighs with each gentle touch, the slide of bedsheets and the feel of skin—than the Naruto in front of him.
When was the last time we sparred? Sasuke wants to ask, but Naruto keeps talking. “And besides, Itachi and Kakashi-sensei will be targeting Madara with you, so they’re otherwise occupied.”
“I can give you backup,” Sasuke offers.
Naruto makes a face, as if Sasuke suggested something truly inane. “Sasuke, between you, Kakashi-sensei and Itachi, your chakra control is the worst. You wouldn’t stand a chance against Kaguya’s Senjutsu technique.”
Sasuke scowls. “You haven’t seen my Senju Technique.”
“I’ve heard about it,” Naruto drawls, arching an eyebrow in amusement. “The best taijutsu and weapons technique in the world is useless if you’re slow.”
“I’m not as slow as you think I am,” Sasuke counters neatly.
Naruto eyes him, unconvinced. “Muscle mass alone slows you down, Uchiha,” he says, eyes bright with his smile now. It’s a genuine smile, not strained and tentative. “It’s physics. Brick shithouses don’t move too fast.”
Sasuke decides, judiciously, not to rise to the bait. “After this is over, why don’t you and I spar and see which technique wins out. Loser can buy lunch afterwards. Fair warning, brick shithouses tend to eat a lot.”
Naruto’s smile shifts from being easy and open to strained in an instant. “Sure.”
It’s a no. Sasuke is bad at social cues, but he knows a polite no, thank you, when he hears it. The conversation comes to a dead halt, the silence settling uncomfortably between them. Sasuke reaches for something to break the moment, but the most he can manage is, “I know you’re busy, of course.”
Naruto’s expression crumbles. “I didn’t say no, Sasuke. I just meant—”
“No, I know what you meant,” Sasuke interrupts says. You stupid fucking idiot, Uchiha, he thinks. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong words. Naruto had been explicit about time and space. Sasuke had fallen into old habits. Just a few moments of Naruto’s easy smile, the familiar ease of their bantering, and he’d forgotten. He can count on a single hand the number of times he’s been rejected, but it has never stung the way it does now. He has no idea how to get out of this situation, though. “I was just—”
“God, we’re bad at this, aren’t we?” Naruto interrupts. He’s watching Sasuke with something like disbelief. “We’re terrible at this.”
Sasuke exhales, relieved at the open acknowledgement of the hole he kept digging deeper and deeper for himself. “Trust me, it’s not you, it’s me,” he says, trying to make light of the moment and move on. “I thought I was getting better at social cues, but clearly it’s still a work in progress. Give me another decade. I might be able to hold a conversation with you without putting my foot in my mouth by then.”
Naruto’s frown deepens. It isn’t the smile that Sasuke was going for, but he doesn’t know what other joke there might be here for him to play. The silence settles for a beat too long, stretching uncomfortably in the space between them. Another thing that’s new about who they are now; silence has never been uncomfortable between them before.
But just as he’s about to turn the topic back to Kaguya, Naruto breaks the silence. “We’re miserable together, and we’re miserable apart,” Naruto says quietly. “We keep hurting each other, and we keep trying to apologize, which only makes things worse. It’s endless.”
Sasuke doesn’t flinch, but it’s a near thing. “I didn’t know you were so unhappy.”
Naruto gives Sasuke a soft smile, as if sharing an inside joke with Sasuke. “Aren’t you?”
“No.” Sasuke has known no truth more firmly than the answer to this question. “I was never—I always—” He doesn’t even know how to order the words in his mind. All he can say is repeat, dumbly, “I didn’t know I made you unhappy.”
Miserable is the word Naruto used. No wonder he wants to keep his distance. Sasuke thinks that Jugo’s advice to put in time and effort would be different if he heard Naruto say the word miserable.
Naruto exhales in a soft sigh. “Not always.”
“But often enough,” Sasuke points out. He thought Naruto’s earlier rejection stung. This is worse. This—this knowledge of Naruto’s hurt, of his unhappiness—is far worse than anything that has preceded it. He doesn’t want to meet Naruto’s eyes anymore, but he owes Naruto at least that much. “I didn’t know I made you so unhappy.”
“I just feel like…” Naruto trails off, but Sasuke stays quiet, giving Naruto the space to find the words he wants to say. It’s rare for Naruto to be searching for words; he’s always so eloquent. “It feels like we’re never walking side by side anymore. We’re always out of step, and it just feels like we’re drifting,” Naruto murmurs, looking off into the distance just over Sasuke’s shoulder. “I don’t know what we are anymore. I wonder if it’s just better to stop trying to figure it out.” He blinks back to awareness and gives Sasuke a wry smile. “What is it again that Kakashi-sensei says sometimes? There’s no cowardice in a strategic retreat, right?”
Sasuke absorbs the words. It takes him a moment to find his voice. “I’ll keep my distance if that’s what you want. I’ll stay away.”
Konohagakure is a large city. The world is a large place. It would be so very easy to never see each other again; they barely saw each other in the past two years as it is. Drifting, that’s the word for it.
Naruto is quiet for a few moments longer before he answers. “What do you want?” When Sasuke doesn’t answer, Naruto prompts him with another question. “Would you be okay with distance?”
It’s a question that doesn’t need to be asked. Sasuke tries his best to keep his expression unchanging, but he’s not sure he succeeds. His muscles feel frozen. “I’d learn to be okay with it.”
“Would you?” Naruto asks quietly.
Miserable is the actual word for what Sasuke would feel. “I’d learn.”
“I guess we both will,” Naruto agrees, voice quiet still. He gets to his feet, expression shuttering close between one breath and the next. Sasuke walks Naruto to the entrance of the tent, but Naruto doesn’t immediately leave. He pauses just before he steps outside to give Sasuke another smile. “Thanks for the intel on Kaguya.”
The best thing to do would be to let this moment end, but Sasuke can’t help himself. He reaches out to grip Naruto’s elbow lightly just as he’s about to push back out into the cold. Naruto’s surprise is uncensored on his face. “What are the containment procedures for Kurama?”
Naruto goes utterly still under his touch. He looks at a spot over Sasuke’s shoulder when he answers. “It’s classified.”
Sasuke hasn’t let go of Naruto, and Naruto hasn’t pushed him away yet. So Sasuke takes a chance and tightens his grip on Naruto’s elbow, steps closer towards him until Naruto’s shoulder is brushing against his chest. He dips his face towards Naruto to catch his gaze, but Naruto resolutely stares at a spot over Sasuke’s shoulder. Sasuke presses closer still. “Naruto, it’s me.”
And now, finally, Naruto meets his gaze. “It’s classified, Sasuke.”
For a brief, nonsensical moment, Sasuke wonders how he could pry these secrets from Konohagakure. If Kakashi and Itachi won’t tell him—if Naruto won’t tell him—then who will? Sakura? The Shodaime? The Nidaime? Sarutobi or the Yondaime? None of them are here to answer. “Are you—” Sasuke reaches for the right words, but in the end, all he can come up with is: “Are you safe?”
Naruto’s expression softens with a small smile. “I’m safe.”
Sasuke searches Naruto’s face to see if it’s a lie, but he can’t tell, not when Naruto’s gaze has drifted away again to a spot over Sasuke’s shoulder.
“I know things are—that I fucked up things between us,” Sasuke says, “but you can always ask me for backup if you ever need it. I know I fucked up, but—” It takes all his effort to not grip Naruto’s elbow tighter. He’s never been good with his words, but it seems harder now in this moment to say what he wants to say. “I’m here if you ever need me. For backup, or...” His words are starting to fail him again. He searches for the right combination to make say what he wants to say. “Or anything.”
Naruto’s gaze snaps back towards Sasuke. He watches Sasuke carefully for a few long moments. Just when Sasuke thinks he will leave, Naruto shifts forward, movements a little jerky. He stops just within Sasuke’s space, and reaches up a hand, lets it hover just over Sasuke’s chest, but then he lets it drop again. Sasuke counts; he reaches ten, but Naruto still doesn’t say anything, just exhales in a shudder. When he finally speaks, it’s barely above a whisper. “I’m here, too, if you ever need me.”
Sasuke can’t help the quirk of his lips. That is the one thing he has never doubted. “I know.”
Naruto reaches out again, and this time, his hand hovers closer. Sasuke knows he should step back, but instead he grips Naruto’s hand and guides it the last two inches. Naruto lets out a shuddery exhale and stares at the spot on Sasuke’s chest where his hand is resting. A moment later, he pulls his hand away entirely.
“I wish I’d known I made you so unhappy.” Sasuke should step back. He knows he should step back. But Naruto is taking deep, unsteady breaths, still not making eye contact, and sometimes the best thing for a wound is to cauterize it with a hot blade. “I should have known. I should have seen that I made you unhappy. I shouldn’t have hurt you like I did.”
Naruto is quiet for a moment. “Not always.”
“Did I ever—Was it always—” He has to know. He wants to be able to sleep at night, eventually. “Were you ever happy?”
Naruto ducks his head with a sigh, and even that small movement brings them closer still. Sasuke knows he should step back, but instead, he tilts his head down just a fraction. Naruto takes a shuddery breath in. On the exhale, he lifts his head and meets Sasuke’s gaze. This close, Sasuke can see the small lines on Naruto’s lower lips where the wind has made it chapped. “Of course I was happy, you stupid bastard,” Naruto lets out a quiet huff of laughter. “I didn’t fall in love with you because you made me miserable.”
Sasuke feels his lips quirk in a half-smile despite himself. “It was my irresistible charm, I’m sure.”
“There are ten thousand reasons why I fell in love with you, and ten thousand more after that,” Naruto says with a laugh, stepping away from Sasuke again. “Charm is not among them.”
He hasn’t had the chance to make Naruto laugh in so long, the moment feels all the more like a victory. “My square jaw, then.”
“Very square,” Naruto agrees, but his smile slowly fades. He searches Sasuke’s face for a moment. “Were you ever happy?”
Does the sun rise in the east? Sasuke almost responds. It’s a facetious answer, and he doesn’t want to cheapen Naruto’s question with it. “Always,” he says, and finds that the truth is easy to speak. “Every moment with you.”
Naruto’s gaze drifts away from Sasuke’s face, back to the spot over Sasuke’s shoulder. “Liar.”
Stubborn. Always so stubborn. Sasuke doesn’t know how to convince Naruto, he isn’t sure if Naruto even wants to be convinced. But the truth feels nice to speak aloud, for once, so he does. “Maybe not happy,” he admits. Naruto’s gaze returns to him at the admission. “I don’t think I knew how to be happy back then. I was too fucked up in my head, so maybe happy isn’t the right word. But with you, I was...”
“Irritated?” Naruto prompts, wry.
It’s Naruto turn to try for a joke, but for once, Sasuke doesn’t take the easy exit for the conversation. “With you, I was...”
In Sasuke’s mind, he sees a green space, quiet and lush. A bower, the one he’d imagined a thousand times. He imagined it again and again and again. A sleep, full of sweet dreams and quiet breathing. It is nestled into the gentle curve of a redwood tree’s roots, the sound of a brooke trickling nearby. Crisp fall air, bright blue skies. A sun, unclouded. The affection in Naruto’s smile. He can feel the texture of Naruto’s hair from that memory, distant now, when he allowed himself the privilege of drawing Naruto close under a streetlight.
Naruto frowns. “You were what?”
It has always been difficult to hold Naruto’s gaze for too long, and now is no different. Sasuke feels flat-footed. “I never knew peace, but when I was with you,” he says finally. He hates how the words sound, but it is the truth of the matter. “You were my serenity.” He pauses a beat and allows himself one more confession: “You are, still.”
Naruto’s eyes are wide, bright and rimmed on the bottom with a fine line of tears. He exhales carefully, and in the chill of the tent, it comes out in a slow mist. “I’m sorry I wasn’t more—that I couldn’t be more.”
For a moment, Sasuke doesn’t understand him. But then, he does. Naruto, the idiot that he is, is ready to take the fault. But the premise itself is ridiculous. “You were perfect. You are.”
Naruto rolls his eyes. Stubborn, Sasuke thinks. So damn stubborn. “Clearly, Sakura has made you watch a few romantic movies—”
“I’m an Uchiha,” Sasuke interrupts. He needs Naruto to understand. He will not let Naruto walk away again thinking that Sasuke is quoting empty dialogue from a cheap move, that he was less than in any way. “I’m no good for anything but a sword and shield.”
Naruto frowns. “What?”
“Orochimaru put me on the front lines the minute war broke out in the north,” Sasuke explains. He hasn’t told Naruto about his time in Orochimaru. He really hasn’t told anyone about it, but he thinks maybe he should. Maybe Naruto will understand then. “I was in the shield wall for my first battle. I still hadn’t hit my growth spurt, so the shield was too big for me. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. But Orochimaru kept sending me to the shield wall until I got good. He would give me a week or two rest during the winter, but I was on the battlefield unless I was too injured to fight. I got really good. He knew I’d get good. He knew because I’m an Uchiha. We’re born and bred for the battlefield.”
Naruto is utterly still, listening intently. Sasuke shifts his weight forward, leans towards Naruto and waits for Naruto to step away. He doesn't.
“But then, I came back to Konoha,” Sasuke continues. “I didn’t know what the fuck to do with myself. Years in a war, and suddenly, B-rank missions. Day in, day out on the front lines for year after endless fucking year, and now, I was on protective detail for rich landowners.” Sasuke feels his lips twitch in something resembling a smile. “I was depressed, suicidal. And I wanted nothing more than to be back on the battlefield. Somewhere. Anywhere. I didn’t know what else I was good for but to live and die on some fucking battlefield, fighting some fucking war, for some fucking asshole who didn’t give two shits who I was, as long as I racked up a really high body count. I’m violent. I know that’s what I am.”
Naruto exhales. “You don’t hurt people—”
“I’m a violent man, Naruto, because violence is all I’ve ever known. It’s probably all I’ll ever know,” Sasuke continues, talking over Naruto before he loses his nerve entirely. He holds Naruto’s gaze steady, inhales carefully. “But when I look at you, I think maybe—”
Count, he reminds himself. He doesn’t know why this is so difficult. He thinks things, but then when he tries to say them aloud, the words just disappear. His jaw feels frozen shut. Count. Naruto waits, because for all his anger and bluster, Naruto has always been patient with him. He always gave Sasuke space to be silent, to be angry, to be anything he needs to be, and now is no different.
He makes it to seven before he finds his voice again. “When I look at you, I think I can maybe not be—” Every single word that comes to his mind is lacking. “I think I could maybe put down my sword and shield for just a moment and—”
Naruto is watching with him with wide, bright eyes. There are better words to say what he is trying to say, what he feels when he sees Naruto: A quiet bower, full of sweet dreams and quiet breathing. He takes another breath and tries one last time to make Naruto understand.
“I look at you, and I find peace. I find solace,” Sasuke says. He doesn’t know what else to do but repeat himself. Peace, that is what Naruto is. He just doesn’t know how to make Naruto understand. “You were enough. You are enough. You are more than I could ever hope for. You are—”
Naruto interrupts him by pressing his fingers against Sasuke's lips. It's a gentle touch, but Sasuke can still feel the fine tremor of Naruto's fingers. His eyes are bright, his chest moving with ragged breaths. "I can't," he whispers. "I can't hear you say things like this. I can't—I'm trying to—" He inhales shakily, and on the exhale, breathes, "Sasuke."
Over the years, Sasuke has carefully catalogued all the ways Naruto says his name. In annoyance, in anger, in exasperation, in laughter, and once, Naruto said his name after the words I love you. Naruto has never, though, said Sasuke's name in this way, as if he doesn't quite trust himself to say it, like he is pleading with Sasuke.
Sasuke doesn't know what Naruto is asking for, except for silence. It's an odd request, after so many years of Naruto asking him, Speak, tell me what you're thinking about, talk to me. He feels wrung dry after saying all the words that he's shared already; he doesn't have anything else to say. He can't do anything but focus on the soft press of Naruto's fingers against his lips. Naruto is about to move his hand away, and in that moment—
Sasuke remembers the Nidaime telling him, Don't be a coward.
It isn't a difficult choice for Sasuke to carefully grip Naruto's wrist with his fingers. He tilts Naruto's hands back towards him, presses his lips carefully to Naruto's palm. Naruto doesn't pull his hand away immediately, just stares up at Sasuke with blue, blue eyes. “I didn’t know I made you so unhappy.”
Naruto’s shoulders move with a slow exhale, and then, an even slower inhale. “I was happy,” he says finally. It is barely a whisper. “You made me happy.”
In that moment, all that comes to Sasuke’s mind is the weight of a small, leather-bound book found tucked away in the drawer of a motel he’d passed through. The book talked about creation, about how God took the rib of a man and crafted a woman. From the same flesh, this man and woman. Sasuke wonders if the man pressed into his chest, where his rib was, and knew he was missing a piece. Sasuke wonders if the man wanted to reclaim that missing piece, if he ached for that woman, if that need was as constant as Naruto’s presence on Sasuke’s mind.
He knows he should let go of Naruto's hand, but he doesn't want to. He hasn't felt Naruto's touch in so long, and he has always been selfish when it comes to Naruto. So he pulls Naruto's hand close again, presses a kiss to Naruto's knuckle. "Tell me what to do to make you happy again," he asks. Naruto only stares at him, chest heaving, so Sasuke presses another kiss to his knuckles. A third kiss, this one lingering. "Just tell me what to do—"
Naruto wrenches his hand back, takes a shuddering breath, and then leaves.
Sasuke stares at the space Naruto occupied for a moment before returning to his bedrolls. Jugo’s advice is always thoughtful and has never failed Sasuke. But all the love in the world is useless now because the damage is far too great. Jugo had told him that he would eventually figure out how to fix this mess he has made. It would take is time and effort. But how? No one—not a single gods damned person—is telling him how.