There is being cold, and then there is the bone-shuddering, biting frost of the mountain.
They make good time for the first nine thousand feet because the snow is dry and packed, while their snowshoes carry their weight easily over the tracks. They travel in a single line for the first leg of their journey, with Abira leading the way. Sasuke follows him with Tottori close behind, carrying their most precious cargo: C4. Kiba and Shino are next, and Shikamaru and Neji round off the first group. Behind them, forty-nine death-riders follow, silent.
The wind around them comes in gusts, cutting into the skin of Sasuke’s face and making him regret his decision to trim his beard down to a scruff earlier that morning in preparation for the journey. The only saving grace is that the skies stay clear; the sun turns the snow around them such a blinding white that Sasuke has to squint against the glare of sunshine. They stop for a brief meal after four hours of hiking, but that is their only respite.
After six hours, the landscape shifts dangerously. The snow-covered slopes turn into jagged ice and rock. The air starts to thin, which makes the climb worse than it already is. They abandon their snowshoes and tie on iron spikes to their boots instead, making each of their footsteps crackle in the eerie silence around them. Sasuke has made a solitary journey across the breadth of the Continent before, but there is something truly desolate about climbing a mountain, even as he’s not actually alone.
Every time he looks over his shoulder to check on the others, he can see the expanse of the land beyond. Otogakure becomes smaller and smaller as they climb, until it’s nothing more than a collection of doll-sized tents and buildings. Eventually, the evidence of the slaughter from the battle two days ago disappears, so that Otogakure looks like just another peaceful village and not a garrison city surrounded by dead horses, cattle, sheep, and streaks of enemy blood. They are climbing the mountain at an oblique angle, so Sasuke cannot look into the Omine Valley, but he imagines Madara in there, his army readying for battle.
Eventually, Sasuke doesn’t even have the luxury of taking in the view around him. He is forced to focus entirely on his footsteps when the path gets more and more dangerous as they go. They carefully ease along ledges just a few inches wide, gripping chain that has been hammered into the icy walls of the mountain side to stay steady. To make the cross past the chasms in the ice or the sharp edges of the mountain—and where there are no chains—they use wooden ladders as makeshift bridges. The ladders have been dropped across deep gorges of ice, and are held aloft by woven rope. The Betsukai painstakingly maintain this backdoor path through the mountain, sending climbers ahead to lay down markers, hammer in chain links and rope along the sides of the mountain, and tie down ladder bridges. Abira seems familiar with the route, leading them unerringly along at the head of their party. He crosses the ladders carefully, testing their strength as they follow, one at a time, keeping a careful eye on the next one who crosses.
Sasuke did not think he was scared of heights, but on his first ladder, he finds himself balanced on all fours on a ladder in the middle of a yawning chasm of a gorge. In that moment, he remembers with vivid clarity that he weighs two hundred and thirty pounds. With all his gear, he is easily two hundred seventy or eighty pounds—perched on the length of two wooden ladders roped together across a gorge that cuts through to the heart of the mountain, Sasuke doesn’t like his odds.
The wind suddenly feels strong enough to pitch him over, his grip too lax, his body awkwardly balanced. The final few feet to where Abira is waiting stretch on endlessly. The muscles in his thighs are spasming, and there is a thin line of sweat starting to break out over his body. Don’t look down, he thinks a little hysterically, and forces his eyes to look away from the darkness below and towards Abira, who is crouched and waiting for him on the other side. He counts to ten as he starts moving again; he reaches Abira at eight, and is so grateful to feel the ground under his feet that it leaves him breathless, as if he’s crashing from an adrenaline high.
He leans close to Abira to hiss, “I’m not fucking doing that again, Betsukai.”
Abira slaps him on the shoulder. “You’re going to do that four more times, Lord Commander, and for larger gorges than this one.” He pauses a beat and adds, sympathetic, “It gets easier.”
Sasuke can do nothing but crouch alongside Abira and watch, breath bated, as his men crawl across the ladder one at a time, each one slow and steady. Some of them pause for a few moments too long, head bowed, and Sasuke finds he has to bite down on the instinct to call out encouragement to his men. When Shikamaru crosses over, he lies down on the snow for a long moment, breathing heavily. He doesn’t get to his feet until Sasuke holds out a hand for him to take, muttering goddamned troublesome under his breath.
Abira is right, though. It does get easier. It takes half the time to cross the next few gorges, and they keep marching silently behind Abira. When they are nearly at the peak, Abira pauses in front of a sheer cliff side. He points to the top of the cliff. “The cliff plateaus out beyond that,” he says, speaking loudly over the gusts of winds buffeting them on all sides. He pauses to collect his breath before he continues speaking, because the air is so thin here now that they can barely slot two sentences together after their steep climb. “The journey down is easier than the journey up, but we need to climb this first.”
Tottori takes a few, careful steps back, staring wide-eyed at the wall in front of them. It is covered in ice so pure that it’s reflecting blue. “We have to climb this?”
Sasuke turns to the other death-riders. There are still a few men climbing, and he waits for them to gather before turning to Yonabaru. This is where the two groups will split. The larger group of fighters will crest along the ridge of the mountain and lie in wait. Sasuke will climb with a smaller group to plant the C4 and bring down the mountain behind him. If Tottori’s C4 will not do the trick, Sasuke will have to assist with katon jutsus. They will reconvene at the exact right moment.
“Wait for us to seal off the pass. If we can’t get it to close, face the mouth of the pass. We’ll hold off the Rebun.”
Or we die trying.
Kakashi and Jugo cannot hold the line if there are twelve hundred Rebun men riding down on them from the pass. Madara will overrun the North and his malice will spread over the Continent. They have to neutralize the Rebun; there is no hope for them to win this war if they don’t. Eggs in a basket, Sasuke thinks, but makes sure his voice has no hint of doubt. “Patience, you greedy bastards. Wait for the signal. Don’t get started without me.”
There is a smattering of laughter, muffled by the snow around them.
“Move out,” Sasuke orders, and Yonabaru sets off to lead the death-riders to their destination. They have only a map to guide them; if they get lost on these mountains they will freeze to death. Sasuke stands by as they file past him, holding the gaze of his men steady as they pass. A few, he thumps on the shoulder, identifies them by name to those who look cold, tells them, Victory in battle. To a fault, they all respond: Victory in battle, Lord Commander.
When they’ve disappeared down a slope, Sasuke turns back and sees that Abira and the others have set up for the climb. Abira inspects each one of their knots carefully, and when he’s done with his inspection, gives Sasuke a curt nod.
Sasuke makes absolutely sure he doesn’t glance up at the towering height they have to climb when he gives the order. “Rope in. We follow Abira’s lead.”
“Watch where I place my hands and feet. Watch where I use my ice axe. Once I have the top ropes set up for you, you can clip in and the Lord Commander will belay while you climb. I’ll be at the top waiting,” Abira instructs, and then begins the ascend.
He is a good climber. He seems to find the precise spots on the ice where his ice axe will find the greatest hold. Betsukai climbers have hammered in a few strips of metal as hand and footholds for them, but every now and then, Abira pauses to hammer in new anchors and loop in the top rope. It is harrowing watching him climb up the ice because if he falls, there is nothing to stop him. Chakra is useless on a climb like this; the ice would just melt under contact. They have no choice but to rely on ice axes, the spikes tied to their boots, and the studded grip of their gloves. Halfway through, Abira halts and hangs onto the side of the ice for long enough that Sasuke starts to worry. He is too far for Sasuke to make out any details though; at this point, Sasuke is craning his head straight up just to keep track of Abira.
“He’s resting,” Neji guesses, voice pitched low with his own worry. “He has to be resting.”
“He’s resting a really long fucking time,” Kiba says, rubbing his hands together. He starts to mutter under his breath, Come on, Abira. Keep going. Keep climbing.
Abira keeps climbing, but laterally. He moves sideways a few feet before Sasuke realizes the reason for Abira’s dealy. The path had been dangerous, so he was scouting another way. A few feet to the left, and then Abira starts to ascend again.
Slowly, steadily, Abira makes it to the top and, with him, the top rope. Abira has done the most dangerous work on this leg of their journey, and has made the climb much safer for everyone after him, but Sasuke still feels his heartbeat take off when Shikamaru ropes in. He will act as belayer for each of the men as they climb, watching their ascent and modulating the slack in their rope as they climb in case they fall.
No one falls, but every single one of them pauses at the spot where Abira had shifted directions abruptly. Sasuke holds the rope carefully, providing them enough tension so that the men can rest their weight on the rope more as they start to climb sideways. Sasuke and Shino are the last two to climb, and Shino goes before him, leading as Sasuke follows at a pace behind him. They are separated by twenty feet as Abira instructed them, acting as each other’s anchors in case either one of them falls.
They are just twenty feet from the top when Shino’s chakra spikes dangerously. Sasuke immediately grips the rope, heart thundering. Shino drops a few feet, but the anchor catches him. A few moments later, a shower of ice slams down. Sasuke has just enough time to flatten himself against the side of the mountain; large pieces of ice miss him narrowly. When he looks back up, it’s to see Shino swaying in the wind just a few feet above. They are practically on top of each other.
They’re close enough now that Sasuke can afford to call out to him without pitching his voice too loud. “You good?”
“In the future, I am not agreeing to another one of your plans, Uchiha,” Shino answers. It is the most annoyed Sasuke has ever heard him. “In fact, I am going to—”
His voice trails off into a shout. The belay snags tight, but there is no anchor to catch Shino—nothing but Sasuke himself. The cliff side is falling away in a shower of rock and ice, and the rope threads through the belay at Sasuke’s waist in a rush.
There is only a sheer, blinding panic for a moment before Sasuke grabs a hold of the rope. The friction from catching hold of the rope burns through his gloves, and for a second—a breathless, nerve-wracking second—Sasuke thinks that he has caught Shino. But then, the entire sheet of ice Sasuke is resting against cracks and then begins to slide down. Sasuke feels the air rushing against his skin, hears Shino’s choked out, No, as they start to fall together.
The panic Sasuke feels is unlike anything he’s felt before. There is only the rush of air, the blinding fall of ice around them. He hears himself screaming, a pure, animal response in the face of something as inescapable as gravity. Blindly, he strikes out with his ice axe. He doesn’t know how many times he strikes out, but each time he feels his axe glance off. His body slams against the cliffside once, and the shock of the impact makes him strike out again.
The ice axe in his right hand finds purchase, and out of pure instinct, he wraps the rope holding Shino around his hands a few times, around his forearm. A moment later, when he finally halts Shino’s fall, the pain hits him. It is immediate and immense. It feels as if both of Sasuke’s hands are being dislocated out of their joints, and he screams reflexively, unable to bite down on the sound in time to muffle it. He can’t find purchase with his feet against the ice, so it’s just a single point of contact holding both their weights up as they sway gently before finally going still.
His right shoulder is a bright point of pain, spasming with the small movements as Shino’s weight stabilizes mid-air. Once they stop swaying in the wind, Shino calls out, “Sasuke! Are you all right?”
Sasuke blinks away tears. “Can you climb?”
Shino shifts to reach for the ice, and the shift makes Sasuke groan. Slowly, steadily, Shino finds purchase in the ice. He sinks his ice axes into the wall and looks around for a moment. “We’ll have to free climb,” Shino instructs. “Are you all right? What’s the damage?”
Sasuke shifts carefully so that he can find purchase with his feet and ice axes again. He rests his forehead against the ice, breathing hard. Sasuke blinks against the brittle in his eyes where his tears from the pain have frozen. The fingers in his right hand are tingling. It doesn’t feel as if he’s dislocated his shoulders, but the pain lingers. “It’s a sprain, I think.”
A few moments later, he hears Shino’s voice at a closer distance. “Is it your right arm or left?”
Sasuke cracks open his eye and sees Shino directly across from him on the ice, just a few feet away. Sasuke carefully curls his right hand into a fist. “Right.”
“Not your sword arm,” Shino says, sounding relieved. No, Sasuke thinks. Not his sword arm, but his shield arm. On a battlefield, a man needs both. Shino must know this, but he doesn’t comment on the very obvious fact that Sasuke may not be able to stand in the shield wall. Instead, he asks the next most relevant question: “Can you climb?”
What is the alternative? To climb back down to Otogakure for an injured shoulder? He glances up at the ice wall again, feeling his heart sink. They’d dropped over forty feet. Maybe fifty. “Climb ahead of me. I’ll follow at my own pace. If you reach the top before I do—”
“I’ll pull you up,” Shino finishes neatly, and starts to climb. “Go easy.”
Sasuke follows at a careful pace. He has to pause every now and then to let his right arm rest. Shino moves ahead and with each passing minute, he gains elevation. He checks in with Sasuke often. And then, just as suddenly, Shino’s voice drops away entirely. A few moments later, the rope hanging between the two of them—their only tether, the rope that Shino would have used to pull him over the top—falls away limply next to Sasuke. There’s a burst of chakra overhead: Shino, and then, a few more signatures that Sasuke can’t identify. Far more in number than Sasuke’s unit. Enemies.
Sasuke takes a deep, calming breath.
“Shit,” he mutters to himself. “Meet fan.”
It’s too dangerous to draw a sword. He can’t even afford to let go of his hold on the ice axe to make seals. He will have to join the fray with only taijutsu.
He climbs. Slowly, steadily, and with his eyes constantly scanning above him for any archers. No one appears. Not a single arrow is loosed. He doesn’t understand why the enemies haven’t killed him yet. He is easy picking, and yet, nothing. He can sense the six chakra signatures of his teammates, pulsing steadily in a low thrum to warn Sasuke, and a dozen or so other chakra signatures.
Two chakra signatures, though—
Sasuke pauses climbing. There are two signatures that feel familiar. Not his teammates, but familiar. It’s at the tip of his tongue, but no matter how much Sasuke focuses, he can’t quite identify them. Akatsuki? He might have faced them in battle before, but he pushes aside thoughts of trying to recall who they are. It doesn’t matter who they are. They will die.
With the battle ahead to focus on, the climb itself loses importance in Sasuke’s mind. He moves steadily ahead, calculating odds, imagining battle scenarios. The enemy has the upper hand. There is no other explanation for why none of his men have peered over the edge and called down to him. They all walked into a trap, disadvantaged from the very beginning. All the enemy had to do was wait for them to reach the top and then secure them as prisoners. They must know about Sasuke’s approach, too. He can’t avoid giving his position away, but each drive of the ice axe makes a sharp noise; the crunch of his studded boots feels too loud in his ear.
There is nothing he can do but face what awaits him. When he is just a few feet from the top, Sasuke pauses to call out in the Northern language, “Are my men safe?”
An archer appears overhead, bow taut with an arrow that is aimed straight at Sasuke. The man is clad in white, patterned with light gray markings to blend into the snow. His face is wrapped with a white balaclava, and there is a white hood covering his head. “No sudden movements.”
Sasuke meets the man’s gaze. “I’m not really in a position to make any sudden movements at the moment.”
The man doesn’t seem amused. “Unload your weapons. Let them drop. Slowly.”
Sasuke grits his teeth, but does as he’s told. He makes sure he has sure footing and grip on the ice before carefully moving his left arm to his kunai pouch. He keeps his eyes on the man above, even though he is tempted to glance down and watch his weapons fall away. Carefully, he reaches down to his right shin and pulls out the knife in his boot. He holds it up for the man to see and lets it drop away. “I have knives strapped to my back, but they’re part of my armor. I can’t unfasten those without both hands, and I can’t do that without falling,” Sasuke announces. “I have my sword. And that’s it.”
“Leave the knives on your back. Get rid of your sword. You can reach that one without falling,” the man points out, jerking his arrow lightly to indicate the sword at Sasuke’s waist.
Sasuke makes absolutely sure that his Mangekyou stays dormant. “Not the sword.”
“I said all your weapons—”
“Not this sword. I can toss her to you, but I’m not getting rid of her,” Sasuke interrupts calmly.
The man pulls back his hand, drawing his arrow taut and aims.The Rebun may be enemies, but they are Northerners. They follow the same gods. So Sasuke takes a breath and adds, “I want to enter the Great Hall with her. Don’t make me give her up.”
The man glances briefly over his shoulder, and Sasuke hears another voice. A CO of some kind, no doubt, giving orders. The man’s shoulders relax and he returns his gaze to Sasuke. “Go ahead.”
Sasuke pulls his sword out of the scabbard and carefully—so very, very carefully, so that he doesn’t jostle himself loose from the ice and fall to his death—he tosses the sword overhead. “Got it,” the man confirms. “Now climb. Slowly. Hands always where I can see them.”
As a general rule of thumb, Sasuke does not respond well when someone points a weapon at him. Still, he follows the man’s instructions because he can sense the chakra signatures of all his men above and he can’t risk any theatrics.
He heaves himself up onto the summit and sees that Shikamaru is frozen in place, breathing steadily even though he is facing a dozen enemy nin, all of them primed to let their weapons loose. Five of them have knives pressed against the throats of Sasuke’s teammates, but their shadows are trapped. Four other men have escaped Shikamaru’s shadow technique. They have trained their arrows and weapons on Shikamaru and the others.
There are two enemies for each one of his men on this plateau of snow at the top of the fucking world. Three enemy soldiers, including the archer at the edge, turn to face Sasuke with their weapons at the ready. Shikamaru has control of some of the men, but not all of them. If he makes any sudden movements, there is nothing to guarantee the safety of the rest of the team.
A fucking standoff on the top of the motherfucking world, Sasuke thinks with gritted teeth.
Sasuke carefully angles his body to make himself a smaller target. Two of the enemies shift their arrows to point directly at Sasuke. They are powerful weapons; at such close range, he wouldn’t have time to duck. He can’t make out their faces, because as Sasuke’s team has done, they have wrapped their faces with cloth and tugged up fur-trimmed hoods to ward off the cold.
“On your knees,” one of the men says, voice steady. Clearly, he’s the leader. He has a thick Northern accent. Rebun. “Put your hands up slowly. If any one of you moves, the others die.”
“Please, go ahead. I don’t even like him,” Neji says, sounding far too amused for a man with a knife to his throat and weapons to the throats of all his unit members. His Byakugan is alive when he meets Sasuke’s gaze. Any one of them could have broken free on their own, but that would involve risking the others. Shikamaru would be the first to die.
“Stand down, everyone,” Sasuke orders. He takes a breath and counts. One.
The man who spoke pulls his arrow back even further, the line of it taut. He can’t move his feet or torso from Shikamaru’s shadow technique, but his fingers are still of his own volition. Two. “On your knees. No sudden movements!”
“I agree,” Sasuke says, and slowly raises his hands in surrender. He spreads his feet apart and breathes deep, making a show of bending his knees as if he’s about to kneel. “Let’s all not make any sudden movements.”
He blurs, aiming straight for the five men who have trained their weapons on Shikamaru. As he moves, he lets his chakra snap and crackle to distract them. Out of instinct, they abandon their focus on Shikamaru to focus on his oncoming attack, giving Shikamaru just enough time to snap back the shadows of the five men holding down the others.
Sasuke focuses on the five that are left. He slides easily past their attacks, ducks, twists, and uses their own momentum against them. He disables three of them easily enough, and they fall to the ground unconscious. There is no point killing them, at least not yet; they may have useful intel.
There are two—a boy and a girl—that are still standing despite Sasuke’s initial attack, each holding swords. Both of them are wearing snow goggles, and aside from a slight difference in height and weight, they are almost indistinguishable otherwise. Even their chakra signatures seem comparable. They are crouched into an attack, angled towards one another so that they are protecting each other’s weak spots.
Sasuke angles his head. “Stand down.”
“Go fuck yourself,” the girl says, and launches herself forward, the other following close behind. Sasuke doesn’t bother drawing a weapon. Instead, he uses their weapons against them, using the sword of one to defend against the other. For a while, it’s just the quick-footed stepping of their combat, and Sasuke is sunk so deep into the calm that it takes him a moment to realize:
They’re mirroring him.
They don’t know how to mimic the Senju Technique in a way that gives them any advantage, but it’s clear they’re trying to mimic Sasuke’s movements. They don’t do it well—the Senju Technique is a state of mind, not just a series of movements—but it gives them a slight edge. Enough to hold their own against Sasuke longer than their comrades, and far longer than Sasuke had anticipated they would. They’re good, surprisingly so. Against Neji or the others, they would have been able to hold their own.
But they are cocky, reckless and imprecise enough for Sasuke to take advantage.
In the end, Sasuke maneuvers them into a disadvantage against the slick ice. He slams one onto the ground using the same technique that the Nidaime taught him, placing a boot on his back and twisting the boy’s hand back so that it strains his ribs. With another hand, he leverages his own weight as a counterbalance while he holds the girl over the edge. She pinwheels her hands, trying not to fall. Sasuke has only allowed the tips of her boots to rest against the edge of the ice, holding her at a sharp angle away so she’s tilted precariously back by a handful of her cloak and shirt. She has no choice but to scramble for Sasuke’s arm and grab a tight hold to not tip over the edge.
“I said stand down,” Sasuke repeats. His team is already moving fast to neutralize and secure the others; surely, these two idiots must see that they’ve lost this fight.
“Fuck you,” the girl says. Her voice is quaking with anger. She is fearless, even though she is at the knife’s edge of the cliffside. “Go fuck yourself, you piece of shit, let go of my brother—”
“If you hurt my sister, you will regret it,” the boy on the ground snarls. Sasuke twists his hand further, and hears the boy groan into the snow. He knows the pain of this hold, so he modulates the twist to make sure he doesn’t break any ribs. He is tempted to both break the boy’s arm and drop the girl over the edge, if only for the annoyance they have caused, but they need intel. There might be other Rebun or Akatsuki in their path, and they can’t be caught off-guard again.
Sasuke glances over at the others and sees that they have immobilized the enemy. Kiba is sitting on top of a prisoner. Shino is handcuffing the others with paper-sigils while Shikamaru holds them tight by their shadows. Abira and Neji are crouched in front of one of the men, talking in a low voice, while Tottori is going through his now-routine check of the C4 and the fuses. He can’t afford to let it get too wet or jostle it too much, and he is careful with this task.
“All clear, Sarge,” Tottori calls out.
“Clear,” Neji reports, and steps back from the line of enemy kneeling in the snow. They have their hands bound behind them, and all their weapons have been laid out in a pile to the side. “Rebun scouts for a welcoming party. How nice of them.”
Abira indicates the man he had been talking to, “This one’s name is Kobe. Troop leader.”
Sasuke hauls the girl that he’s holding over the ledge into the snow. She sprawls a few feet away, almost immediately trapped in one of Shikamaru’s shadow techniques. The one under Sasuke’s boot tries to lift his head. “Don’t you darehurt my sister!” he warns Shikamaru, even as the other fighter levels the same warning against Sasuke.
Sasuke rolls his eyes with great care. The two have potential as fighters, but they’re clearly idiots and don’t know when they’ve lost a battle.
The Rebun warrior named Kobe lifts his head and says, “Kakashi, Minato, shut your gods damned mouths.”
Neji’s mouth flaps open, and in his surprise, Sasuke lets go of the enemy he’s holding. Even Shikamaru drops the shadow technique on the girl. She scrambles to her feet immediately and draws a weapon. The girl thinks she can actually face Sasuke again. And not just Sasuke, but everyone else as well. Sasuke ignores the knife she is wielding threateningly. “What’s your name?”
“My name is none of your fucking concern,” the girl hisses. “Let go of my brother right now, or—”
“Her name is Kakashi,” Kobe calls out. “The one on the ground there is Minato, Lord Commander Uchiha.”
The girl freezes, and then falls out of stance slowly, tugging off her goggles. She’s staring at Sasuke, wide-eyed, and it’s only now without the goggles that Sasuke realizes the coloring of her irises: Red, with black markings, spinning fast.
“You’re an Uchiha, too?” she asks, sounding wondrous. She tugs off her mask and pulls back her hood. There’s no mistaking who she is, not with the shock of black hair, which she’s twisted into a thick braid over her shoulder. With her sharp nose and high cheekbones, she’s the spitting image of Uncle Inabi.
“You’re an Uchiha?” the girl—Kakashi?—demands again, eyes wide in wonder. Her Sharingan dies away, revealing a familiar dark gaze.
Sasuke tugs off his face mask and pushes off his hood as well.
Her gasp comes out as a gusting mist in the cold air. “You’re Sasuke.”
She knows who he is. But how? Sasuke bites down on the questions clamoring in his mind and asks the one worth asking: “You’re Rebun Kakashi?”
She shakes her head. “Rebun is the name of our people. My name is Uchiha Kakashi, but everyone calls me Kiko,” she corrects. She indicates her brother. The other boy has also taken off his hood and face-mask and is watching Sasuke, eyes bright and eager. The resemblance is uncanny. Twins, Sasuke realizes. This one has a sharper nose; he reminds Sasuke of Uncle Yakumi. “This is my brother, Minato.”
“You’re Uchihas?” Neji breathes, eyes wide.
Minato doesn’t move his gaze away from Sasuke’s face. “We’re cousins.”
Cousins. Because their father is Rebun Obito—no, Uchiha Obito.
Sasuke finally finds his voice again. “Where’s your father?”
They know all about Sasuke and Itachi; apparently, they had been keeping tabs of their cousins to the south. They walk on either side of Sasuke and keep up an easy conversation as they move along, peppering Sasuke with so many questions he can barely think straight.
Sasuke is too stunned by their existence to answer more than a few brief questions. Their existence means Uncle Obito is alive, which means that all those years of Kakashi’s brittle grief and silence sapping away at him were for nothing. It means the Yondaime’s grief was for nothing. Their family shouldn’t have had to mourn him. It means that Fugaku should not have become twisted into the angry man that Sasuke had known him as. It means, at the very least, Sasuke hadn’t needed to be alone for all those years after Itachi left.
(And of course, there is the relief so overwhelming that it leaves Sasuke breathless: that Obito survived because he never came home again. If he had been there on that night, maybe Sasuke would have burned his body along with all the others, too.)
When they realize that Sasuke is unlikely to answer all their questions, they turn to the others on Sasuke’s team. They ask if it’s true Sasuke died once (Kiba points out that Sasuke has technically died twice). They ask Abira if it’s true Sasuke is the Lord Commander for Lord Biratori and the first army of a united free tribes in the North (Abira says yes, and what a gathering it is; Otogakure has risen from the ashes). They ask about Itachi, and Shikamaru confirms that yes, Itachi is the Lieutenant of Jounin Forces; yes, his Sharingan is as powerful as they’d heard it to be. He has the Eternal Mangekyou.
“He has the Eternal Mangekyou?” Minato breathes, his steps faltering. He slows down enough to fall into step next to Sasuke, who had dropped to the back of the group while he tried to make sense of his thoughts.
“It’s nothing you want,” Sasuke answers sharply.
Kiko (Kakashi, that’s her name) arches an eyebrow. “We’ve already heard the Sharingan Is A Curse speech from Father, so spare us.”
They talk to him as if they know him. There is no surprise when they meet his eyes. But Sasuke can’t help but stare at them, failing to comprehend their existence. Cousins. Kin. He thought it was just him and Itachi, the last of the Sharingan. “Is it just the two of you in your family?”
“It’s just Father and us. Ma died when we were young. Uncle Onuma is our mother’s younger brother. His husband is Uncle Rumoi,” Minato explains easily. “They have two girls and a boy.”
Kiko steps carefully over a plane of black ice. Abira had been right: the climb down is easier than the climb up, but only because they’re taking the major routes and not trying to be covert. The Rebun have chiseled out pathways down the mountain. They have even built proper bridges across ice chasms, so it’s not as dangerous. Every now and then, they pass a lookout hut with smoke curling from its chimney. Kobe is leading the pack at the front, and the ten warriors who came with him have surrounded Sasuke’s unit at the front and back. The path is narrow enough that only three or four men can walk together. To their right is a sheer drop, which is their only escape if something were to happen.
Not that Sasuke is planning for anything to happen. He doesn’t want to assess these people as enemies, because Kiko and Minato are family. But then again, Madara is family too.
There are five Rebun at the front of the group, leading the way. Abira is walking with Tottori and Shino. Shikamaru, Neji, and Kiba are walking in a line just behind them. Sasuke is flanked on both sides by Minato and Kiko. Behind him, there are three more Rebun. They’re outnumbered, but it’s not much of a problem if something were to happen. The trick will be to fight on slippery, narrow terrains like this.
Sasuke glances up at a wall of ice to his left and spots another lookout hut at the top of the cliff. They are built out of stone and sit low to the ground. There are at least three chakra signatures inside, but it would take those men a few minutes to join the fray if a scuffle breaks out. Whatever they do, they would have to get out of there fast. They need to get to the Kasai Pass, plant those explosives, and bring it all crashing down. Abira is the only one with any knowledge of this territory, and Tottori is the only one who has the training to be able to bring down an entire mountain pass. They are crucial for the success of this mission; their protection is Sasuke’s priority.
The Rebun warriors have let Sasuke and his men keep their weapons. Sasuke’s fingers are itching for the hilt of his sword, but he doesn’t reach for it, not when Kiko and Minato are watching him so carefully, still. They seem to be tracking each one of his movements with great care.
“Does your father live in the mountains?”
Kiko scoffs. “We’re not mountain people. The troops are camped a few hours ride from here.”
Neji glances sharply over his shoulder. Takamaru had reported there were a thousand troops at the mouth of the pass itself, but the way Kiko is talking, there might be more still a few hours ride away. “The troops?”
“There’s a war, don’t you know?” Minato asks, sounding amused.
Shikamaru also looks over his shoulder, his steps slowing gradually until he comes to a complete halt. “And whose side are you on?”
Kiko grins, all teeth. Her Sharingan flares to life in the space of a heartbeat, and Sasuke’s breath catches in his throat to see it. “The winning side.”
A few hours ride doesn’t mean a few hours on horseback. It means a few hours on a sled led by a team of dogs that are thick with muscle and fur. There are twelve dogs in pairs for each sled, and as they approach, the chorus of yelps and barks is so loud that they can barely hear each other talk over it.
When the dogs see Kiba, though, they fall silent. Kiba angles his head thoughtfully and says, “This is interesting.”
Neji approaches the dogs carefully. Sasuke has seen many things in the north, but he’s never seen dogs leading a sled. “You travel with dogs?”
“Sled dogs,” Minato corrects. He’s watching Kiba, who walks right up to the dogs and stands in their midst. They all turn to him, eerily silent. When Kiba holds out a hand, they each sniff at him carefully.
“Are they your kind, Kiba?” Shino calls out.
Kiba crouches down on his heels and stares straight into the eyes of a dog with arctic-blue eyes. The dog also sits down and holds Kiba’s gaze steady.
“Close, but not quite,” Kiba answers after a moment. He gets to his feet, and steps over the dogs, all of them watching him carefully.
Kiba whistles low under his breath as he’s stepping away, and it’s as if a spell is broken because the dogs start to move freely, tongues lolling and tails wagging. They are silent this time, not a single one of them barking even though Kiba is moving freely among them, touching each of them lightly on the head as he passes. He makes sure to greet every single one of them, and sometimes, he pauses to cup an ear or scratch under a chin lightly. They lean into the touch easily, and they all stay quiet except for a few expectant chuffs and lolling tongues.
Kobe is watching Kiba with a frown. “How did you do that?”
But Kiba is already distracted by his inspection of the sleds. He doesn’t bother answering Kobe, just counters with his own question: “How does this work?”
The Rebun show the others how they operate the sleds, explaining how they manage enough space for two or three men on the flatbed in front. Including the dog driver, each sled carries three or four people. There are four sleds—just enough for the sixteen warriors in their two groups.
Abira and Tottori are Sasuke’s first priority. He meets Kiba’s gaze, and they know each other well enough now that Kiba doesn’t need him to spell it out.
“I can run a sled,” Kiba offers. “I’ll take two of our men. Maybe three if we fit.”
Kobe considers this for only a moment. He turns to his men and tells a few of them to stay back. Tottori and Abira casually join Kiba on his sled. Shikamaru hems and haws for a moment before joining them. Kiba stands easily at the driving bow, whistling lightly under his breath. The twelve dogs in front of him snap into place neatly, which has the Rebun gawking, because the other dog drivers are having to call out the names of the dogs in loud voices to get them in order.
Shino and Neji join Kobe on a sled. Before Sasuke can join them, Minato calls out, “Sasuke, ride with us.”
Neji gives Sasuke a sidelong glance. “More space for us, Sharingan.”
It’s a mild comment, but layered with meaning. The situation is not ideal. Sasuke will be separated from the others, which means he can’t provide backup. At least Kiba is helming a sled independent of the Rebun with Akira and Tottori; worst case scenario, they will be able to separate from the pack and finish the mission. But then again, Kobe hadn’t divided up his team with Rebun men. He’s allowing Sasuke’s soldiers to get into a fourth sled separately.
If they were enemies, they would insist on the Konohagakure shinobi going in separate sleds, and surround them with their own men for good measure. They might even insist on a few of them staying back. At the very least, they’d take their weapons away.
Sasuke follows Minato to a third sled and sits down amidst a few bedrolls that have been tied down to the flatbed. Kiko is driving the dogs, and Minato settles next to Sasuke in a loose sprawl.
Kobe calls out, “Mush!” His sled takes off, leading the formation.
Kiba holds Sasuke’s gaze and says, “We’ll see you when we get there, Sarge.”
Get the mission done, Sasuke wants to say, but they’re beyond that now. He has to trust that Kiba will see it through if Sasuke can’t. “Try not to let the dogs eat Hyuga, I’d miss him too much,” he deadpans, earning a few laughs from the men.
Kiko snaps the reins of the sled before anyone can say anything else, and the dogs set off. Behind them, Kiba whistles again, a slightly different pitch that have the dogs taking off until they’re running alongside the pack pulling Sasuke’s sled.
Sasuke carefully looks away from Kiba’s sled and turns his gaze resolutely at the landscape rushing by; he doesn’t want to alert the Rebun by watching his team too carefully.
Minato doesn’t let the silence last long. He pitches his voice loud over the rush of wind and asks, “How old are you?”
It’s an odd question. Sasuke had been expecting an interrogation on the war or his troops. “I turn nineteen soon.”
The dog drivers stand at the back of the sled, so Kiko is more than able to hear the conversation and take part. “And Itachi is twenty-four?”
Sasuke doesn’t know what the point of this conversation is, so he doesn’t bother to confirm the age.
Minato doesn’t seem to notice. “Kiko and I are sixteen.”
“I’m the older one!” Kiko yells loudly from the back.
“By six minutes, which doesn’t even count,” Minato says without skipping a beat. “Father says Itachi was chosen as the next Clan Elder when he was born?” He is relentless in trying to cajole Sasuke into a conversation.
It’s not so much a question as it is a statement, but he leaves his comment open-ended, as if waiting for Sasuke to participate. Apparently, Uncle Obito had been teaching them the ways of their Clan, but never bothered to travel south to actually be with his family.
“He was,” Sasuke says, but if Obito is alive, he will take on that role. Does he even want to? “Sakura comes after him.”
Minato’s eyes go wide. “Who’s Sakura?”
“Haruno Sakura. She’s the clan physician,” Sasuke answers.
Kiko yells, “My Sharingan is so overdue for a check-up!”
The conversation is beyond surreal, so Sasuke goes about avoiding it entirely. He glances over to Kiba’s sled; Kiba’s been placing distance between his sled and the others, fanning out to the left a little. But it’s not such a great distance that it’s noticeable. The fourth sled full of Rebun warriors don’t even seem to realize that Kiba is breaking slightly from formation.
“Is she Itachi’s wife?” Minato asks.
Sasuke knows he’s grimacing at the thought. He can’t help himself from answering because the very idea of it is just wrong. “She was my genin teammate. She’s like a sister to Itachi and me.” He pauses a beat and corrects, “She is a sister to us. She’s family.”
“Genin teams are your shinobi unit when you graduate from the Academy, right?” Minato asks. He turns to face Sasuke directly, so that his knees are knocking into Sasuke’s side. He doesn’t seem to notice. “Who else was on your team?”
It takes a moment for Sasuke to understand what this is about. They’re Uchiha but they were born and raised so far north they don’t even comprehend Konohagakure and life as a shinobi. They are more Northern than Sasuke is. Konohagakure is nothing more than a story to them.
“Uzumaki Naruto was the third member,” Sasuke answers. “Hatake Kakashi was the team leader.”
Kiko leans forward in her perch so suddenly that the sled pivots slightly. “You know Hatake Kakashi, right? We heard you were his student.”
He gave me my Mangekyou, Sasuke almost says. “He was my CO.” Minato angles his head, frowning in confusion, so Sasuke clarifies, “CO means commanding officer.”
Kiko’s chakra spikes. She averts her eyes and stares ahead, seeming to withdraw entirely from the conversation. The silence that settles after is almost stifling. Minato leans towards Sasuke—casual, unthinking, as if he’s not sitting next to a possible enemy—and says, “Father doesn’t tell us much about Hatake Kakashi. It’s a touchy topic for Kiko.”
Kiko yells, “I can hear you, shit-for-brains!”
Minato gives Sasuke a meaningful look, and leans back into his seat. He rummages around the rucksack closest to him. Sasuke tenses for an attack, but after a few moments, Minato emerges, triumphant with—
He takes a stick of jerky and then offers it to Sasuke. When Sasuke stares at it, he says, “You don’t have bison jerky in the south? It’s good.”
“There’s no bison in the south. There’s beef jerky,” Sasuke says. He can’t comprehend the surrealness of the moment. He is discussing different types of jerky with a cousin. His hesitation isn’t about the food, it’s the fact that he’s on the back of a dog sled, sharing bison jerky with a cousin who shouldn’t exist. A cousin named after the Yondaime Hokage. Sasuke takes a stick and bites into it. Minato hadn’t been lying: it is good.
“Hel-lo!” Kiko yells, louder still.
Minato rolls his eyes, but dutifully reaches out to the back of the sled and holds out the packet of jerky for Kiko, who takes a few sticks. She chews angrily, holding onto the reins in one hand and somehow not losing her balance even though they’re flying over the snow now.
Sasuke turns away from them and focuses entirely on the line of pine trees they’re pushing past. They’re all topped with snow, like the fat icing that Mrs. Miyake pipes onto her pastries.
It occurs to him then that he will have to break the news of Obito, Minato and Kiko to Itachi. He will have to tell Kakashi that Obito is alive, and that Obito named a daughter after him. He will have to break the news to the Yondaime as well, and say, He named his boy after you.
Minato returns to his seat and starts another round of questions. “What’s Konoha like?”
Sasuke keeps his eyes on the tree line and pretends he didn’t hear the question. Thankfully, Minato lets the conversation drop.
Obito is shorter than Sasuke, closer to Itachi’s height. He’s narrower at the shoulders and slimmer too, but the bristling polar bear fur he’s wearing broadens him. He has wild, spiking hair that he keeps short, and a beard that is peppered with white.
He looks like Uncle Kyoguku.
The resemblance makes Sasuke come to a dead-halt the minute he enters the tent. He stops so abruptly that Kiko runs into his back, which is the only thing that keeps Sasuke moving forward towards Obito.
There is a fire at the center of the space, dug into the earth, and rugs on the ground. There is a table with food laid out on it. It’s already night fall, and even though Sasuke’s last real meal was just before they set out of Otogakure, he has no appetite. He might throw up, in fact, because Uncle Obito has tied a strip of black cloth around his left eye, and is looking at him with a single Mangekyou that has the same exact pattern as Kakashi’s Mangekyou.
He is looking at Sasuke with something like wonder. He doesn’t seem to be hearing Minato and Kiko’s exuberant introductions; he doesn’t look at anyone but Sasuke. When he speaks, his voice is a deep, rumbling timber.
“You look like Brother,” he breathes. “You look like Kyoguku.”
Sasuke responds before he can stop himself. “You do, too.”
Obito is still looking at him carefully, but no matter how hard Sasuke tries, he can’t find the words for this kind of situation. A stifling silence settles over the room, but Obito doesn’t seem to care to break it.
In the end, Sasuke falls back on what Jugo had made him practice in case he met face-to-face with the Rebun leader. “Lord Rebun, I am here as commander of Lord Biratori Jugo’s forces. The North is under attack, and Lord Biratori calls on your assistance in—”
“It’s uncle. Not lord,” Obito interrupts quietly. “And the name is Uchiha, not Rebun.” He watches Sasuke for a moment before repeating, quieter still, “It’s uncle, Sasuke.”
Sasuke grits his teeth and takes a breath. “Lord Biratori calls on your assistance in his campaign against Uchiha Madara. We need—”
“You’re angry with me,” Obito says, and he might as well have been screaming for how loudly his quiet words fall between them.
“No, my lord, just a little tired from the climb,” Sasuke says very carefully. He doesn’t know what he is. He just wants to stop looking at Kakashi’s Mangekyou—no, Obito’s Mangekyou, it always belonged to him—in a face that looks like Uncle Kyoguku with a voice that sounds like his father. He has to break his gaze from Obito’s relentless staring. He looks around the tent, forces himself to take stock of the number of chakra signatures. They’re surrounded on all sides; Neji’s sparking chakra is fading fast as the rest of the men are being led away to get food on Minato’s insistence. Then, Minato had led Sasuke inside one of the bigger tents in the camp to meet his father.
Sasuke’s cover, if he gets caught, is to pretend that his trip is a diplomatic mission. Assuming, of course, that they haven’t checked Tottori’s bag and seen the C4. Until he knew for sure otherwise, Jugo instructed Sasuke to act as if he was here to negotiate. “My men and I would appreciate some shelter for the night, my lord. If you’re amenable, we could discuss the details of—”
“It’s uncle,” Obito repeats, voice thick. “I’m your uncle, Sasuke.”
Sasuke’s Mangekyou whorls to life. “Are you?”
Obito’s shoulders move with a deep breath. “I woke up and didn’t remember anything. My memory was blank for six, seven years, and—”
“Six, seven years,” Sasuke repeats.
Obito was presumed dead at thirteen. He’s two years older than Kakashi. Thirty-six now, and with two children who are older now than what Obito had been when he was presumed dead in the Land of Earth. Obito remembered who he was after Madara slaughtered their entire family. He escaped Madara’s butchery and still chose to not return. Sasuke had been so stupidly grateful the entire trip to camp that Obito hadn’t returned to Konohagakure and fallen victim to Madara.
But now he’s faced with the knowledge that Obito survived and chose not to return. Not even when it had been safe to do so. Not even when Sasuke had needed him.
Sasuke spent years alone, suffocating in the silence that his family left behind. He left for Otogakure thinking he had to murder Itachi. He nearly killed himself out of loneliness, and all along, Obito was setting up a whole new fucking family—
“I’m so sorry, Sasuke,” Obito breathes, taking a step forward.
Words spill out of him in a rush. He tells Sasuke about how he woke up from the mission, half-blind and in a Land of Earth prisoner of war camp. They’d asked him who he was, but he couldn’t remember. Eventually, he escaped and traveled, hiring himself out as a mercenary where he could, all the while dreaming in snippets of faces he once knew. He tells Sasuke how he found himself in the Rikubetsu Peninsula, marching in Rebun Ashoro’s troops as hired mercenary, still dreaming of faces and not knowing who they were. He met a woman named Wairu, Ashoro’s eldest daughter. They fell in love, and then, one day, he woke up and he knew his name: Uchiha Obito. By then, Wairu was pregnant. So Obito rode south to reunite with his family, to share the news of his little ones. As he traveled south, he heard the rumors. The Uchiha Clan had been wiped out. There was no one left.
“I found out about the Wildfire Contingency, and it took me years to get over my anger and return home. I wanted to bring you north with me, to keep you safe, but when I got to Konohagakure, you’d already left for Otogakure—”
“My men and I would appreciate shelter if you could spare it, my lord,” Sasuke cuts in evenly. He can’t make sense of the details that Obito is revealing: he knew about the Wildfire Contingency (How? Who told him?), he returned to Konohagakure but didn’t even bother to show himself to Kakashi (who still visits Obito’s grave every day, hours at a time, his grief settling deeper and deeper with each passing year). He hadn’t even bothered to find Sasuke, even though he knew that Sasuke had left for Otogakure.
They had been separated by just a mountain pass, while Sasuke fought an endless war with a curse seal burning into his skin. He had been alone under Orochimaru’s toxic care, and Obito had not come for him.
“Sasuke,” Obito breathes. His voice is rough, single eye bright with tears. “I’m sorry. I should have been there for you. I’m sorry.”
Sasuke clenches his hands into fists, breathes deep against that clamoring tightness in his chest. “I didn’t need you,” he says, and hates that his own voice is thick with the lie. “I was fine on my own.”
The silence settles heavily, interrupted only by the crackle of fire. Obito is still watching him carefully. “You look like Kyo,” he whispers. “Built like a gods-damned ox. Just like him. Tall like him, too. He was the tallest out of all of us.”
Sasuke stares at a spot on his boots, swallows on the knot forming in his throat. He can’t breathe past it. At eight years old, Sasuke could barely lift Kyoguku’s body onto the barrel to get him to the pyre. He’d been so heavy and slippery with blood. Sasuke’s eyes sting with the memory of the precise lettering outside the empty office in KPD: Captain Uchiha Kyoguku. He’d been Hatake Sakumo’s prodigy, taught Hatake Kakashi everything he knew to repay a debt to Kakashi’s father. He served his Kage and country with such esteem that they dedicated his old office as a living monument for him—the room barren except for the walls that are cluttered with all of the medals and awards that Kyoguku had accumulated over the years.
Not one, not two, but three Medals of Honor, hanging side by side. A Congressional Medal of Honor. A Distinguished Service Cross. A Silver Star. A Maroon Shield. A KPD Medal of Valor.
One of the most decorated officers in Konoha history, and he had been taken to his final resting place in a wheelbarrow. He’d been too heavy for Sasuke to lift, as tall as he was. So Sasuke folded him into a wheelbarrow, limbs askew, and pushed him to a pyre. Sasuke remembers how his hand, bent at an odd angle, had dragged along the ground.
He’d lit the pyre with a weak, sputtering katon, not the pure, blue-white fires that his uncle deserved.
Sasuke takes a deep, shuddering breath. Closes his eyes and grinds his teeth against the sting of tears beneath his lids. Clenches his fist, feels the tension creep up his arm and across his shoulders even as his face gets wet and his nose starts to get runny. He wants to get away from here, away from the twins watching this. Away from Obito. He wants to be alone.
He wants to stand on the banks of the Naka again, near that patch of grass that held Kyoguku’s body in the end. He wants to hear Kyoguku’s voice again. He didn’t realize how much until he laid eyes on Obito.
“Gods be good, looking at you know, it’s like he’s standing right in front of me again,” Obito murmurs in an unsteady voice.
Sasuke tries to exhale carefully through his mouth, but it comes out stuttering. “Stop—” His voice comes out all choked. He clears his throat. “Stop talking about him.”
“I forgot his name for seven years,” Obito whispers. He sounds wrecked. “After I remembered him again, I don’t know how I could have ever forgotten my own brother. I don’t know how I lived seven years without Kyoguku’s memory.”
Sasuke covers his face with a hand at the admission. If he focuses hard enough, he can remember the swooping sensation in his stomach every time Kyoguku had lifted him onto his shoulders. He feels his entire body become tight with something raw and wounded that is starting to coil in his gut. He bites down on it as much as he can, but still, the sound escapes, just a low groan, as if someone had punched him in the solar plexus.
Obito moves towards him then, crossing the distance between them with three large strides. He pulls Sasuke into a rough, fierce hug. Sasuke stands stiffly for a count of ten.
But then, Obito says, I miss him, too.
Sasuke yields. He puts his face into Obito’s shoulder and lets out the sound that’s building up inside him, something that starts like a scream but ends on a sob. His whole body is shaking. He grips Obito’s cloak tight, hears himself say between heaving sobs, I was just south. I was just south of you in the Land of Rice Fields. All those years, he was alone in the trenches and marching from one battlefield to the next. And Obito was just north of him. He tells Obito, I was just beyond the pass. I was just south of here.
Obito’s grip around him becomes tighter still. He’s saying, I know you were, I knew where you were, always, I knew. He says, I couldn’t come for you, and I’m sorry I couldn’t come for you and Itachi, and I’m here now, I promise. I’m right here. Obito repeats I’m here now, I promise like a chorus. He repeats it in an unwavering, unrelenting loop. There’s something soothing about hearing it being said aloud. Again and again and again.
Eventually, Sasuke feels his heartbeat and breathing settle. The fine tremor in his body dies out.
Obito’s face is wet with his own tears when he steps back. He holds Sasuke’s face in both hands, wipes away the tears on Sasuke’s cheek. His hands are shaking. “Look at you,” he whispers. “Look at you. You were on my mind a hundred times a day, every day. I imagined and reimagined what you’d be like.” Obito’s hands move to Sasuke’s shoulders and then his arms. Obito looks him up and down with wide, disbelieving eyes. “Look at you now. Just look at you.”
And Obito looks at him, eyes wondrous, face naked with such uncensored joy Sasuke almost feels embarrassed to be on the receiving end of it. Obito’s hands shift from Sasuke’s shoulders to hold his face again, and then back to his shoulders.
The seconds tick by, and Sasuke wipes at his face, frowning. “This is starting to get weird,” he points out. “Emotional reunion aside, this is very awkward now.”
Obito laughs; it reminds Sasuke of Uncle Yakumi, especially when the crow’s feet around his one visible eye deepens. He reaches out to hold Sasuke’s face in his hands again, but before Sasuke can react with a scowl or a sarcastic comment, Obito is pulling Sasuke down and forward to press a kiss to his forehead, lingering for a second before drawing him into a hug again. Sasuke can do nothing but allow the embrace, especially because Obito’s hug has transformed from being too tight to something more careful. He’s holding Sasuke gently, patting him on the back every so often and breathing deeply.
Sasuke glances over at the twins who have been watching them quietly this entire time. Minato hurriedly wipes at his face when he catches Sasuke’s eyes.
Sasuke heaves a sigh and asks the twins over Obito’s shoulder, “Is this normal behavior for him?”
Kiko’s voice is quiet when she answers. “I think he just missed you.”
How can he have missed me, Sasuke almost asks. They’ve never even met until now.
“I did miss you,” Obito agrees, pulling away with another smile that makes his eye crinkle. “I missed you and your brother very, very much. Every moment. Every day.” His smile becomes slightly strained a moment later. “How is Itachi?”
It’s the obvious desperation in Obito’s eye that makes Sasuke answer truthfully. “He’s home now,” he says. “He’s getting better.” We’re brothers again, he wants to add, because brothers means family and Sasuke will move the earth on its axis if it means keeping Itachi safe. His brother will grow old and live out the rest of his life happy, healthy, and surrounded by family; Sasuke will make sure of it.
Obito takes a step back. “And Kakashi?”
The twins had asked him about Kakashi as well, but they’d asked him as if Kakashi was a story. Obito speaks Kakashi’s name as if it’s a wound he’s reopening. Sasuke doesn’t know how to answer Obito’s question in a way that will satisfy him. “He’s…” Sasuke trails off, unsure of how to put it into words.
Obito misinterprets Sasuke’s hesitation entirely. “Is he all right? My scouts tell me there was a battle in Otogakure.”
“He’s fine,” Sasuke says. He wonders just how closely Obito has been watching the proceedings in the Omine Valley from his high vantage points. The Rebun are flying Akatsuki’s banners, which means whatever intel Obito is gathering goes straight to Madara. Including Sasuke’s presence here.
Obito may have held Sasuke close while Sasuke sobbed like a child over the memory of Kyogoku, but that doesn’t change the fact that Obito’s troops are flying Akatsuki’s colors.
“And Kakashi sent you here,” Obito says.
“Lord Biratori did,” Sasuke corrects. “He was chosen by the hundred free tribes to lead an army of—”
“I know who Lord Biratori Jugo is, Sasuke. The entire Continent knows of him now,” Obito says with a lopsided smile. He gestures towards the table laden with food, flanked on both sides by benches. “And I’m sure you have much to say on his behalf, but first, let’s eat.”
Sasuke is hungry enough that he doesn’t bother protesting this. He takes a seat on the bench across from Obito. He assumes the twins will both sit with their father—best to keep a table between you and your potential enemy—but only Minato settles next to his father’s side.
Kiko scowls at Sasuke. “You going to hog all this space?”
Sasuke blinks stupidly at Kiko. He wants to warn her that she will need the distance to attack Sasuke effectively. But instead, he scoots over on the bench and watches as Kiko settles in easily. She even unbuckles her sword belt and leans it against the table, almost out of reach. As do Minoto and Obito.
Sasuke dropped his kunai pouch off the side of a cliff, along with the knife in his boot. These were the weapons that would have been the most helpful in such a close combat situation. He has two knives strapped to his back, but reaching overhead for them would expose his right flank to any attack Kiko would mount. It would guarantee a kunai between his ribs, unless he managed to draw his knives fast enough. He has his sword, but holding onto it now when everyone else has disarmed would trigger a confrontation. Sasuke unbuckles his sword belt and places the sword against the table to his left. It’s a miserable placement: he is left handed, and draws his sword from his right hip, but now he’ll be forced to draw with his right hand and switch the blade to his left once it’s drawn. It’s a second or two of being unarmed at most, but it leaves him open.
Obito’s eye zeroes in on the sword. “That’s an Iwate sword,” he identifies with startling precision. His face is slack with surprise. “That’s Minato-sensei’s Iwate sword.”
Jiro is an Iwate, and once explained to Sasuke that every master swordsmiths in his clan has a unique signature that they etch into their creations, like artists signing a painting after its completion. His family’s weapons are coveted across the Continent for their balance, the sheer, sharp-edged perfection of them. The markings on Sasuke’s sword are small, but they are stark against the whetstone black of the sword hilt: a single white dot on the butt of the hilt with a line bisecting it; bracketing on the right is another thin white line. It is a tell-tale sign for anyone who cares to look.
Obito leans across the table to reach for Sasuke’s sword, and then comes to a complete still when he realizes the breach of etiquette. It is rude to grab another warrior’s weapons without permission. Weapons are personal things, imbued with meaning and memories. A priceless weapon, like an Iwate sword, is even more off-limits than a regular weapon. Obito sits back. “May I?”
Out of instinct, Sasuke’s hand curls around the hilt of his sword. He doesn’t like other people handling her; he’s already had to throw her away once this day. What’s worse, he’ll be disarming himself at a table full of Uchihas who are allied with Madara.
But there’s something about how carefully Obito is holding himself, the pinched look around his eye. The Rebun may be flying Akatsuki’s flag, but Obito named his children Kakashi and Minato.
To this day, Kakashi and the Yondaime’s expressions become tight with longing every time Obito’s name is mentioned. The Yondaime constantly told stories about Obito to the other ghosts and Sasuke; sometimes, he’d repeat a story he’d already told them, lingering over every single detail with such affection and care that none of them ever had the heart to say, You’ve already told us this one.
Sasuke hands the sword to Obito across the table. Obito inspects the scabbard carefully. “This is new.”
“Kakashi bought it for me,” Sasuke explains.
Obito looks up at the detail. “When he passed it down to you.”
The scrutiny is unnerving, especially because this is a part of Sasuke’s life that is private. It has only ever been between Sasuke and Kakashi. Even Naruto and Sakura don’t know all the details. But Obito was Kakashi’s best friend. If it were Jugo or Suigetsu, Sasuke would want to know, too. “He got it inscribed, too.”
Obito unsheathes it fluidly, and traces the initials etched at the base of the sword with a thumb: NM HK US.“Namikaze Minato. Hatake Kakashi. Uchiha Sasuke,” he reads carefully, reverent almost. With utmost care, Obito returns the sword to Sasuke. “When did he give this to you?”
Sasuke settles it against the table again. “When I made ANBU. He gave me his sword and his mask from when he was ANBU.”
Obito’s shoulders move with a deep breath. His voice, when he speaks again, is quiet. “And your Mangekyou? Did he give that to you, too?”
How do you know? Sasuke wants to ask. Only a handful of people know the truth of how Sasuke got his Mangekyou: his teammates on the mission, the ghosts, Tsunade, and Jiraiya. Naruto and Sakura know because Kakashi told them. Itachi knows because he was there with—
Pein. And Madara.
The words are out of his mouth before Sasuke can reconsider his actions. “You already know when and how I got my Mangekyou. Madara told you.”
Obito’s gaze is unwavering. He does not move a single muscle in response to Sasuke’s accusation. “He told me that he killed Hatake Kakashi. He told me he killed you, too. He told me he would kill Itachi, for his betrayal. Imagine my surprise when I heard the three of you were marching north to kill Madara instead.”
This is kin. “Stand aside, Uncle.” He intended for it to sound like an order, but even to Sasuke’s ears, it is clear he’s pleading. Uncle. He has to beg his kin to step aside so that he won’t be forced to murder his own cousins—two people Sasuke would call Brother and Sister. “Stand aside.”
Obito considers Sasuke carefully. “You’re surrounded by Rebun troops. At least seventy-five men. Warriors, each of them.”
Sasuke takes a moment to assess the chakra signatures of the men in camp. The Nidaime taught him to be aware of his strengths and his limitations, to know exactly where he stands against an enemy, so it’s not arrogance or boasting when he says, “I can’t guarantee the lives of my men. But every man or woman to stand against me would die.”
Obito watches Sasuke carefully for a moment. “Madara said you were an impressive fighter. But not as good as you say you are.”
“I’ve improved since he last saw me,” Sasuke promises, because he knows that the difference of his skill then and now are like night and day.
Madara had told Obito that he killed Sasuke. He’d told Obito that Kakashi gave Sasuke his Mangekyou, and that it was with this newborn Mangekyou that Sasuke died. He’d told Obito that Sasuke was an impressive fighter, but not so impressive that he could stand against Pein and Madara’s combined malice.
Madara had told him all of these things, but still, Obito insists that he isn’t Sasuke’s enemy. It takes all of Sasuke’s effort not to sink into the battle calm again. It’s Kiko’s presence next to him that keeps him grounded. She is Sister first.
“I know you’ve improved,” Obito admits. He reaches for his ale, his movements slow, carefully telegraphing his intent. “You breached Amegakure’s walls and left a trail of bodies in your wake. Zetsu was rather impressed. And Zetsu is rarely impressed by anything.”
Sasuke knows how to wield his sword, but he doesn’t know how to counter Obito’s cool, measured words. Not even an hour ago, Sasuke had sobbed into Obito’s shoulder about Kyogoku. Like a child, he’d cried. But now, Obito is talking about Zetsu as if they’re friends. If Sasuke killed Obito now, Itachi would never have to know. He wouldn’t have to live with Obito’s betrayal.
But maybe he can save his sister and his brother. He’s lost Shisui and Tomomi. Maybe he doesn’t have to lose Minato and Kiko, too. Sasuke looks between the twins. They’re watching the proceedings with wide eyes, utterly still. Both of their Sharingan are spinning.
“Minato, Kiko, step outside.”
Minato startles. “What?”
“Walk out of this tent. Go find my men,” Sasuke orders. “Wait for me with them. I’ll come get you. I’ll take you to Brother and Sakura. We’ll keep you safe from Madara.”
Kiko’s gaze narrows. She reaches out with a hand for her sword. “What are—What the fuck?”
Sasuke watches Kiko’s hands close around the hilt of her sword. All those years, convincing himself he had to murder his own brother. The relief of finding out that he could love his brother, instead. And now, this. Right back where he started, contemplating the ways to butcher what’s left of his family. He has to murder a sister whose name is Kakashi.
This is what Madara has done to his family, how far his malice has spread. If Sasuke kills all three of them now, if he and his men kill each and every single Rebun warrior in this camp and walk away from the carnage, if he orders his men to keep this secret, no one would have to know.
Itachi would never have to know. Kakashi wouldn’t have to know. Neither would the Yondaime. Their hearts have been broken enough times. But he has to be sure—“Is there any chance Brother or Kakashi knows about you?” Sasuke drags his gaze away from the sight of Kiko’s hand around her sword to face Obito. “Is there any reason they might suspect you’re alive?”
Obito sighs. “No.”
“And how many of the Rebun know you’re Uchiha Obito?”
Oddly, Obito’s lips curl up in a small smile. “A handful. My father-in-law gave me his name. Rebun.”
Itachi and Kakashi would never have to know. The Yondaime would not have to know. Sasuke could walk out of this tent with Obito’s blood on his hands, with Kiko and Minato’s blood on his hands. He can carry this to his grave. No one would have to know. They won’t have to grieve all over again. “And this handful that knows you’re an Uchiha, they’re all in this camp?”
Obito watches Sasuke for a few moments. “You want to spare Itachi and Kakashi.”
Sasuke breathes deep. “I can do this.” His voice is barely a whisper. He’d burned Uncle Kyo’s body. He’d burned all of their bodies. He can light a pyre for Obito, too. He can burn his brother and sister. He knows how. ”I’m really good at it.”
Obito frowns. “At killing?”
Yes, but that’s not what Sasuke means. “Laying my kin to rest,” he corrects.
Obito’s shoulders slump. His entire posture changes, as if he’s crumbling in on himself. “You were too young,” he breathes. “You were too young to have to bear that burden alone.”
Sasuke holds out his hands. “There was no one else. Madara did that. He murdered them because—”
“No, he didn’t. That’s not what happened, Sasuke,” Obito interrupts quietly.
Sasuke frowns. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Obito leans across the table and grips Sasuke’s forearm gently. “What you remember is what Itachi showed you happened that night,” he explains. His voice is pitched at a low volume. His words are measured. Uncle Inabi used to tell Sasuke bedtime stories in this same voice. “And what Itachi remembers isn’t the truth because Itachi wasn’t even there for most of it. Madara didn’t kill everyone, Sasuke. Itachi just thinks that he did, because Itachi didn’t believe Madara was telling him the truth. Madara didn’t kill anyone. He was—”
Sasuke snatches his hand away. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You weren’t even there—”
“Zetsu was,” Obito says. He reaches for Sasuke’s hand again, squeezing gently. “The massacre didn’t start with Madara.”
“And you trust Zetsu?” Sasuke demands.
Obito’s expression doesn’t change. “For the right price, Zetsu’s information is always reliable.”
Sasuke tries to pull his hand away, but this time, Obito doesn’t let him go. He holds Sasuke’s hand in both of his own, and keeps Sasuke rooted to his seat. “Look at me, kiddo,” Obito says in a low murmur. “I wouldn’t lie to you. Not about this. Not about Kyogoku.”
“Brother showed me what happened. Tsunade told me about the Wildfire Contingency,” Sasuke insists. “I read the mission report.” He still remembers Itachi’s chicken scrawl: Tobi, suspected U. Madara (?) - 21 CKs, refer to KPD files for body count. Gravely injured U. Mikoto.
“Our family was under suspicion ever since the Nine-Tails Demon attacked. There was good intelligence suggesting an Uchiha was involved,” Obito explains steadily, ignoring Sasuke’s words. “The Nidaime Hokage wrote the Wildfire Contingency anticipating a betrayal by the Uchiha Clan. So Sarutobi Hiruzen and Shimura Danzo ordered Kyogoku to spy on his own family as part of the Wildfire Contingency, and Kyogoku recruited Shisui and Itachi because he knew he could trust them and he thought he could keep them safe from all of it. Shisui and Itachi followed him because they would follow Kyogoku to the edge of the world and because they loved him—”
“I loved him, too,” Sasuke says loudly. He places the hand Obito isn't holding over his chest, where his heart is, where it hurts the most whenever he thinks about Kyogoku. “I loved him. I had to carry his body in a wheelbarrow because he was too big. Madara did that—”
“Kyogoku thought he could keep the children separate from the rest of the family’s betrayal,” Obito continues. His thumb is moving in small circles on the back of Sasuke’s hand, as if he’s gentling Sasuke through the truth. “Kyogoku was always loyal to Konoha. So when the Hokage Sarutobi Hiruzen followed the Wildfire Executive and gave Kyogoku orders to turn his back on the Clan and spy on his own family, Kyogoku did it. And when Sarutobi Hiruzen ordered Kyogoku to eliminate any threats to national security he found within the Clan, to protect Konoha from his own kin, Kyogoku agreed to do that too.”
“Uncle Kyogoku would never hurt anyone in the family,” Sasuke says. Kyogoku was the next Clan Elder. He loved all of them. “He loved all of us.”
“He did,” Obito agrees. “But your grandfather was working with Danzo and they were both allied with Madara. So when Kyogoku’s actions threatened their plans, your grandfather allowed Danzo to murder Shisui—”
“That’s not what happened,” Sasuke insists. He remembers his grandfather at Shisui’s vigil. He remembers his grandfather comforting Kyogoku. Shisui loved their grandfather. “Some of our family might have been allied with Madara, but they wouldn’t murder their own kin—”
“And when Kyogoku found out that your grandfather helped murder Shisui,” Obito says, “He killed your grandfather.”
Patricide, that’s what Obito is saying Kyogoku did. He will not accept this truth. He has spent nearly a lifetime telling himself that he will see Kyogoku one day in the Great Hall. “No. Uncle Kyogoku wouldn’t have hurt anyone in the family. No—”
“And when they saw father’s body, Yakumi and Inabi drew their swords against Kyoguku. But only because Kyogoku drew first blood. Your aunt Tsubasa decided to stand with Kyogoku and drew a sword against Yakumi and Inabi. And when Tsubasa refused to yield, your father stood with Kyoguku, too—”
Sasuke pulls away roughly from Obito. “Madara killed them.”
“Madara is strong, but not that strong,” Obito points out calmly. “You’ve faced him in battle. You know he’s not strong enough to stand against the entire Clan.”
None of this makes sense, Sasuke thinks. “But Madara killed Ma. I remember—”
“Your mother was killed trying to stop the fighting. It was an accidental blow, from Taro. He was delirious with blood loss. He struck out, thinking she was going to—”
“Madara did that,” Sasuke counters. “He wounded Ma and Father. He made Brother kill them to see if Brother could activate his Eternal Mangekyou without a transplant, he—”
“He did that, yes,” Obito concedes. “But your mother was dying by Taro’s hand. It was an accident, and Taro spent his last moments trying to save her. Your father killed Taro thinking Taro murdered Mikoto on purpose. And your father was injured from Yakumi defending Taro. Madara didn’t kill any of them that night, except to give them peace instead of a prolonged death. He placed swords in their hands. The ones who were severely injured, he sent on their way to the Great Hall. Madara couldn’t afford any loose ends, but he wasn’t the one who killed them. He wasn’t even there for most of it.”
None of this makes sense. But it does. So much of it does. Sasuke closes his eyes and recalls how he found those bodies and what the medical examiner reports said:
They were all armed. They all had swords in their hands. There had been multiple injuries from multiple angles. In most cases, the injury that killed them all was a single downward attack from a sword, straight to the heart. His mother had incurred only two injuries: a striking glance to her abdomen, and another to her throat. There had been evidence that someone had tried to staunch the bleeding and save both his mother and his unborn sister (and in Sasuke’s memories, the ones Itachi had given him all those years ago, he realizes now—to make Sasuke hate him, to make Sasuke want to kill his own brother because Itachi blamed himself for not being able to stop any of it from happening—it had been Sasuke trying to stop the bleeding, to fix what he thought had been Itachi’s crime).
The only person who died unarmed was Sasuke’s grandfather. Kyoguku had done that.
Sasuke looks to the twins for support, but they’re only watching him quietly. He’s spent years turning over his memories of his family. Every quiet moment of joy that he shared with them: Uncle Taro’s hand on his back while he walked back and forth in the compound with Sasuke in his arms when Sasuke couldn’t fall asleep; Uncle Inabi reading him bedtime stories, pointing to the words with his crooked finger. Aunt Tsubasa letting him sit in her lap and pretend that he was studying for the chuunin exams with her. The weight of Uncle Yakumi’s hand on his head, ruffling his hair as he left for a mission. Every evening he spent walking home from the KPD with Uncle Kyogoku, stopping for ice cream on the way.
He remembers trying to save his mother, but he knows from Itachi’s report that Mikoto was already dead. What he remembers is Itachi’s memories: It was Itachi finding Mikoto injured and trying to staunch the flow of blood. It was Itachi calling out for her, Ma, Ma, Ma and a few times, Mama. And it was Itachi, slitting Mikoto’s throat under threat from Madara. Afterwards, Fugaku had put a bloody hand on Sasuke’s shoulder and said, Sasuke, my boy—
No, Sasuke realizes. It wasn’t Sasuke that Fugaku was calling out. It isn’t even Sasuke’s memory. It is what Itachi showed him, and in Itachi’s memory, Fugaku had put a hand on Itachi’s shoulder and said, My boy.
Years and years and years of remembering and reliving the memories. Somewhere along the way, Sasuke’s grief had warped the memories into something else entirely. He never asked Itachi what happened to confirm the truth. They didn’t talk about it. How could they, when they were both still so brittle with grief?
“Brother’s report said that Madara killed all of them,” Sasuke repeats. The more Obito speaks, the less Sasuke is sure of the truth he knows.
“Your brother got there too late. He blamed Madara for it. But family died by each other’s hands, Sasuke,” Obito says with quiet surety. “Your grandfather started this. He thought thought Konoha was the birthright of the Uchihas. It is. All of Konohagakure once belonged to the Uchiha Clan, back when the tribes were still independent. But your grandfather was an arrogant man. He wanted Konohagakure to pay its dues to the Clan, and when they didn’t pick Kyogoku for Hokage—”
“Uncle was a warrior,” Sasuke interrupts. Sasuke knows this because Shisui had told him. There were so many hushed conversations at dinner and people visiting his uncle at all times of the day to offer support. Sasuke never made much of these memories. Men and women got to their feet. But Shisui told him the truth of it. “He wanted to be a police officer and keep law and order in the city he loved. He never wanted to be a politician.”
Obito’s lips curl into a smile. His gaze settles on a spot over Sasuke’s shoulder. “No, he never wanted to be a politician. But Father…” Obito drifts off into silence. He is quiet for so long, Sasuke thinks the conversation may be over. But then, Obito speaks again. “Father and Madara poisoned our family. They divided the Clan. Yakumi and Inabi would do anything for Father, they were so gods damned desperate to get his approval even though nothing we did would be enough. Kyogoku was the only one of us who could meet Father’s expectations, but Kyogoku had a good heart, and Father couldn’t stand that. He—”
Obito stops speaking abruptly. His hand clenches into a fist on the table. He’s still looking over Sasuke’s shoulder, almost as if he’s having this conversation with himself. “If I were Kyogoku, I would have done the same. Your grandfather wasn’t an easy man to love.”
Sasuke can’t comprehend the hard edge of Obito’s voice. He doesn’t have many memories of his grandfather. He was always removed, and Sasuke was taught at a young age to keep out of the way of the Clan Elder. His world revolved around his play right up until the moment he came home from playing in the redwoods one day and found carnage. “I made sure Grandfather was holding a sword on the pyre.”
Obito’s single eye returns to Sasuke. “He died without one. Whether he was holding one on the pyre is inconsequential. He will not gain entry into the Great Hall.”
Here is a son who hates his father, Sasuke thinks. Sasuke thought he was the only son in his family to be this way, the kind of son who had to convince himself to love his father. But for all his mixed feelings for Fugaku, Sasuke is grateful that he was holding a sword in the end. He will see his father when this is all over.
But he doesn’t know anymore who he will see when he finally reaches the Great Hall. “I made sure Uncle Kyogoku was holding a sword.”
“He’ll be there, son,” Obito promises Sasuke with a small smile. His single eye is bright with tears, but his cheeks are dry. “If anyone will be in the Great Hall, it’ll be Kyogoku. He was the best of us. He died with honor.”
He died slumped against the corridor wall just outside the dining hall. He had a sword in his right hand. With his left, he was reaching for Aunt Tsubasa in his final moments; she was curled on her side, clutching her sword to her body with both hands. Sasuke ducks his head and stares at the calluses on his hands. He remembers pressing both hands to Kyogoku’s cheeks. He remembers how tacky Kyogoku’s beard had been with his blood, the lack of warmth in his eyes. “I couldn’t get the katon right at the funeral.” This is a truth he hasn’t admitted to anyone except his snakes. “It was a weak katon. I had to take apart the main hall for the kindling for Uncle Kyogoku—”
“I know,” Obito says. His voice is cracking on the words. “It’s all right, Sasuke. You did just fine for Kyogoku.”
Sasuke scrubs at his cheeks and lifts his gaze to Obito. “And because Zetsu was there and he told you all this, you believe him? You don’t think all of this is Madara’s fault?”
“It wasn’t just Madara’s fault. It was Father, too. It was your uncles, Yakumi and Inabi, placing Clan before common sense,” Obito points out. He sounds tired. “It was Kyogoku, with that big heart of his, thinking that love and honor would prevail over someone as twisted with pride as Father. Kyogoku was supposed to protect Konoha from the Clan, but he didn’t do anything until it was too late, because he loved them still. And even when he finally acted after Shisui was murdered, what did he do? He just walked into the mess, without a single gods damned plan and murdered Father with a knife to his throat. How did Kyogoku think the day would end, if not with blood? It wasn’t just Madara. It was Konohagakure, and that Wildfire Contingency, an entire standard operating protocol waiting for the right moment when the Uchihas would falter. Orders from on high to give the COs of Konohagakure enough cover to stand idly aside while our Clan burned itself out. You can’t be so naive that—”
“I’m not naive,” Sasuke snaps. He gets to his feet with enough force that the bench is pushed back. Kiko grabs onto the table to keep her balance even as the bench underneath her moves dangerously. “Whatever happened or didn’t happen, Madara started it. He wants to end it now by ending the whole fucking world—”
“Technically, he wants to unite the world under a single banner so there won’t be any more war,” Obito interrupts. “He doesn’t want to end the world. He just wants to conquer it.”
“I don’t care what his fucking plan is, I am going to put him in the fucking earth.” Sasuke’s voice is too loud in the tent, but he doesn’t give a shit. Obito talks endlessly. He talks so much, point for counterpoint, as if he has an answer for everything. He talks so much, Sasuke can barely gather his thoughts for long enough to string together a sentence.
Obito meets Sasuke’s gaze squarely. “Madara does have a point. There is a lot of unnecessary war and strife in this world. He has a plan to end that. I actually don’t see much wrong with that part of his logic, at least.”
“So what?” Sasuke demands. He can’t keep up with Obito’s words. “He rips apart time and space to summon Kaguya from another realm to bring world fucking peace?”
Obito takes another drink of his ale, unperturbed by Sasuke’s anger. “I said parts of his logic had some merit. I didn’t say I agreed with how he intends to go about executing it.”
Sasuke throws up his hands. “What the fuck does that even fucking mean? Why can’t you just fucking tell me—”
“Don’t swear at me, boy,” Obito reprimands mildly. “Sit down. You haven’t eaten your food yet.”
Sasuke grabs his sword. “No. I’m not fucking sitting down for a fucking meal until you tell me what the fuck you plan to do here—”
“I’m sitting this one out,” Obito answers.
For a brief, disorienting moment, Sasuke thinks that Obito is joking. But then, the pieces start to fall into place. He sits down again slowly, reassessing the battlefield in his mind even as he says, “The Rebun don’t intend to march south to Madara’s aid. You’re going to sit out this whole battle and make your move when the dust settles. You’ve assembled the troops at the Kasai Pass, but you have no intention of ordering them south.”
“No, the Rebun will march south,” Obito corrects. He seems unconcerned. “My father-in-law was allied to Madara long before I got here. He promised the Rebun the Land of Rice Fields. Hanzo is leading those troops in the Kasai Pass, and he’s Akatsuki. I have nothing to do with that. The men at this camp are stationed here to make sure the battlefield doesn’t spill into the rest of the peninsula. I don’t plan on engaging otherwise.”
Sasuke stares at Obito. Blood runs thick, yes, but he has no clue what to make of his uncle. “How can you say all this? Don’t you care at all? Brother is on the other side of that pass. Kakashi is, too. If the Rebun march, they will both die trying to hold the line against them. And you’re just going to sit here like a coward and watch them die?”
And now, finally, Obito’s expression shifts into an emotion that Sasuke recognizes. His Mangekyou whorls to life, the muscles in his face tightening with his anger. “You think this is cowardice? You think it’s cowardly to not want to fight?”
Sasuke’s answer is immediate. “Yes.”
“That’s Kakashi’s answer,” Obito responds. Point, counterpoint. He’s like Naruto, parrying every single thing that Sasuke says with another question. “Let Madara act out his delusions, and let Konohagakure reap what it sowed with the Wildfire Contingency. No one’s hands are clean. There are no heroes here, Sasuke. Why should this battle be your responsibility?”
Because I promised the Shodaime, Sasuke wants to say. Because Madara will set the whole world on fire. Because Rin was scared when she saw that space under the tree.
Because there has to be an end to this. There has to be an end, so that Itachi can grow old and gray. So that Sakura can walk down the aisle one day. So that the Uchiha Clan can have peace.
“Because I am a Sharingan and the Sharingan stand sentinel,” Sasuke answers finally. Uchiha Kyogoku taught Hatake Kakashi these words, repaying a debt to Hatake Sakumo for saving his life. And Kakashi taught Sasuke, repaying a debt to Kyogoku for saving him from the Sharingan burning in his left eye.
Obito leans forward in his seat, both hands facing up on the table, as if he’s pleading with Sasuke. “What’s your plan, then?”
Sasuke holds Obito’s gaze steady, and makes sure to memorize the smaller details: the crows feet around Obito’s eye, the smattering of gray in his hair and short-cropped beard. “It was nice to meet you, Uncle.”
He’s about to push away from the table when Kiko gets to her feet suddenly. For a moment, Sasuke thinks she’s about to attack. But instead, she stares down Obito and announces, “I’m going with Sasuke.”
Obito blinks up at his daughter, the surprise writ large on his face. “No, you’re not.”
“I’m sick of hiding away behind these mountains—”
“No,” Obito interrupts. His voice is a low rumble. “Neither you nor Sasuke are going anywhere. You are both staying right here, as far from Madara as possible.”
Kiko clenches her hands into fists. She is nearly vibrating with her anger. “No. I’m going with Sasuke. I’m done hiding. You’ve told us stories all our lives about Uncle Kyogoku and Uncle Fugaku and Aunt Tsubasa, all of them, taking a stand. All our kin took a stand. Shisui died fighting. Itachi spent an entire decade undercover with Madara. And now, Sasuke is leading an entire fucking army. Every single one of them took a stand. You expect us to just sit on the sidelines and hide from Madara? You keep telling us we’re Uchihas. It’s about gods damned time we start acting like it.”
“I am your father,” Obito says. His voice is loud now, tight with his barely controlled anger. “You will obey, Kakashi, or gods help me—”
Kiko is already stepping away, tossing her braid over her shoulder. “Minato, you coming?”
Minato looks between his sister and his father, wide-eyed. Obito stares him down, but then Minato reaches for his sword. Obito grabs Minato’s arm in a tight grip before Minato can get to his feet. “No.”
Minato covers Obito’s hand with his own. His voice is gentle when he says, “I’m not going to stand aside while everyone else is fighting, Father.”
Obito’s hand drops away from Minato. He looks around the table, and in that moment, Sasuke is reminded of the Yondaime saying No, when Kakashi volunteered to hunt down Madara in Amegakure. He remembers the Yondaime pleading with Sasuke to convince Kakashi to stay in Konohagakure. “Madara has summoned Kaguya. His army outnumbers us. The warriors who march for him are under an illusion. They feel no pain, they have no will of their own. They will not stop.”
They are fighting against such odds, Sasuke can barely keep track of all the obstacles in their path. Kakashi had spent hours with Sasuke going through each permutation of events that could lead to defeat—if, if, if, if. But all those years in the north, fighting Orochimaru’s war has taught Sasuke how to place one foot in front of the other and keep marching. This time, he has Kakashi at his side. He has the Nidaime’s voice in his mind, telling him, You are a born and bred warrior. It’s in your blood. It’s your instinct.
And beyond all of that, he has Rin, her coils large and golden, her chakra poisoning the earth and air around her. He is meant for greater things than what anyone will make of him. He makes his own destiny, his own name.
“Kakashi and I stand together in this, Uncle,” Sasuke says. “We don’t intend to lose.”
Obito’s shakes his head, disbelieving. “No one intends to lose, kiddo. They just do.”
“Win or lose,” Sasuke says, unflinchingly. “I will march.”
“Because you are Sharingan and Sharingan stand sentinel?” Obito asks, voice pitched low. “That’s your answer for why you’re riding off to fight a war you can’t win?”
Sasuke gets to his feet and reaches for his sword, retying her to his waist carefully. “Yes, that’s my answer.”
“That’s Fugaku’s answer,” Obito insists, getting to his feet as well. “Your father taught you those words, and he died believing in those words. They all died believing in them. We have lost enough of our family to Madara’s madness. We don’t have to—”
“Kakashi taught me those words,” Sasuke corrects. Obito’s entire body becomes still. “And Uncle Kyogoku taught them to Kakashi. Uncle Kyogoku taught them to Shisui and he taught them to Brother, too. Who taught you those words?”
Obito clenches his jaw so tightly that Sasuke can see a muscle jump in his cheek. “Kyogoku did.”
“And you taught them to Kiko and Minato,” Sasuke guesses. He knows he’s hit the truth because Obito doesn’t counter him. “So what are you doing here?”
Obito dips his head. “I am so tired of this. I am so gods damned tired of all of this. I want our family to have peace.”
“Then let’s end it, Uncle,” Sasuke presses. “Let’s end it. On our terms.”
For a brief, unbearable moment, Sasuke thinks that Obito will say no. The silence stretches on and on, for so long that even Kiko sends him a worried glance. But then, Obito lifts his head from his careful consideration of the table top and pins Sasuke with his one-eyed gaze. “Let’s hear it, then.”
Sasuke is so caught off-guard that he can only answer, “What?”
“There are over a thousand Rebun soldiers in the Kasai Pass. They will march through the pass tomorrow at dawn to join Madara,” Obito points out. “I assume you’re here with your men to stop them somehow. So what’s your plan? How many men do you have hidden away on the other side of the mountain to make sure they don’t march south?”
Sasuke rolls his eyes. “I wasn’t going to personally stand in their way. I was just going to blow up the mountain. I figured an avalanche or rock slide would do the trick and halt their movements.”
Kiko’s gasp is audible in the room. “I am so in.” She slams a fist into her palm, grinning now. “I’ve always wanted to blow shit up.”
Sasuke cannot argue with her. The louder the bang, the better. “We have C4. A lot of it.”
Obito pinches the bridge of his nose. “I’m going to need a drink for this.”
Sasuke figures that’s as much a yes as he’ll get from Obito, so he settles back in his seat and reaches for the ale.
Sasuke frets over the message to send. There is no gentle way to break this news to Kakashi and Itachi. In the end, he falls back onto the easy familiarity of battle communication etiquette: short, to the point, and with enough detail to get the job done. Takamaru listens intently as Sasuke speaks the message aloud, directing it to Jugo and Kakashi as the situation requires.
Uchiha Obito is alive, Sasuke tells the hawk. Seventy Rebun men loyal to him will join us.
Just seventy Rebun, because the thousand warriors encamped at the Kasai Pass are loyal to Akatsuki, and they are being led by a man named Hanzo, as per an agreement between Madara and Obito’s late father-in-law. Obito has promised Madara that he will not personally interfere—he will neither prevent nor join the majority of the Rebun troops from marching south to join Madara’s cause. Instead, he will make camp a few miles north of the Kasai Pass with his most trustworthy warriors and wait.
They’ve gathered around the table in Obito’s tent, which is large enough to accomodate everyone present but still feels claustrophobic. Sasuke doesn’t want to waste too long debating the logistics of pulling this off, but it’s necessary—Hanzo has spies and scouts all along the Kasai Pass. He also has spies on Obito’s camp. Obito has intercepted two already, both of whom were on their way to deliver the message of Sasuke’s arrival at Obito’s camp to Hanzo.
Sasuke had intended to hike up to the Kasai Pass during daylight and plant the explosives well before sunset. But now, they will have to wait for sunset and do it under cover of night. In the meantime, they have gathered to discuss how seventy soldiers will vanish up a pass without alerting the enemy.
“Wait for what, exactly?” Shikamaru asks. He hasn’t stopped watching Obito since the minute he stepped into the tent, and he hasn’t stopped asking questions either.
“Collateral from the battle,” Obito answers neatly. He doesn’t seem offended by Shikamaru’s questions. He answers each and every single one with the same mild tone he’s used for everything thus far. He sounds constantly amused. It is impossible to pin his true emotions down on anything, and the more he maintains this nonchalant attitude, the more Shikamaru’s patience wears thin.
Shikamaru leans back in his chair and takes an inhale from his cigarette, frowning thoughtfully. Once Obito agreed to his plan, Sasuke had invited his team to take part in the discussions, and Obito had invited Kobe, his right-hand man. “What kind of collateral are you expecting from the battle in the Omine Valley?”
“Last I heard, Madara’s meddling ended with waves a hundred feet tall; it destroyed entire islands in the Land of Water,” Obito says. “Who knows how this will end.”
Neji crosses his arms across his chest. “How do you know what caused the waves?”
“We’ve established how already. Madara told him,” Sasuke answers. He understands his team’s reluctance to trust Obito immediately. They don’t have shared blood, and the details Obito knows about Madara’s plans would raise anyone’s suspicions. “Let’s move on.”
Shikamaru ignores him entirely. “Why did Madara tell you any of these details?”
Sasuke’s patience, already worn thin, snaps. “I said let’s move on, Nara.”
Obito holds up a hand before Shikamaru can respond. “Let the man do his job, Sasuke. I’m glad at least one member of your team has a healthy dose of paranoia. Not surprised that it’s Shikaku’s son with all the questions.”
Shikamaru frowns. “I’m not paranoid. Neither is my father.”
“Kid, your father is constantly playing three-dimensional chess in his head, and all the scenarios end with everyone else dying,” Obito says with a laugh.
Kiba sniggers at the characterization, but Shikamaru is ready with yet another question. “So what did Madara tell you about the waves in the Land of Water?”
“Collateral from summoning Kaguya,” Obito says mildly. “Apparently, it’s not the only damage he’s inflicted.”
Neji gives Sasuke a sharp, sidelong glance. “We don’t have any intelligence of other natural disasters on the Continent beyond the usual—”
“Oh, nothing beyond the usual, I’m sure,” Obito interrupts with a half-smile. “A mudslide in southwestern Land of Earth, which is not unusual for that part of the world. But odd that it happened outside of the monsoon season. And there were a series of avalanches along the White Mountains further north in the Rikubetsu Peninsula. One after another, entire metric tons of snow just deciding to crumble. I heard about a few mild earthquakes in the Land of Lightning, all occurring within the span of a few days. Each of these events on their own would be within normal limits, but all of them? Within the span of four months? I don’t know what’s usual about that.”
How? Sasuke wants to know. Obito has secluded himself in the most northern reaches of the Continent. He has an entire mountain range between him and the rest of the world. And yet, he’s reciting facts and data from the far corners of the world.
Shikamaru sits forward in his chair, frowning. It is odd for Konohagakure intelligence to be caught unawares. “Did Madara tell you all this happened because he summoned Kaguya?”
Obito considers Shikamaru carefully for a few moments, as if he’s weighing the merits of sharing his intelligence. “If you pull on a thread long enough and hard enough, you’ll eventually unravel something.”
In that moment, Sasuke remembers Rin’s dread, blooming in his mind as her emotions leaked across their connection. She had seen a small tear and coiled her entire body around Sasuke to keep him away from it. He’d felt a breeze against his skin when he’d gotten close to that hole in the ground. He’d tasted metal.
“He’s unraveling time and space and he has no clue what he’s doing,” Sasuke breathes. He falls back into his seat on the bench to brace himself. Rin had said that the animal summons were all consulting Gamabunta in their world, anticipating havoc and disaster because of Madara. “He’s just…tugging on strings, the fucking idiot.”
Obito’s gaze snaps to Sasuke, pinning him in place with his Mangekyou. “How do you know that?” he demands. His easy-going tone has vanished entirely; there’s a sharp edge in his voice now. “How did you figure it out?”
Sasuke doesn’t answer, just returns Obito’s gaze steadily. It’s not his secret to share. It’s Rin’s. Tsunade has assured him that the reason for why Sasuke was able to see the ghosts has remained classified, but he knows there are questions about it now. Too many people know Rin’s secret as it is. And while Obito may be kin, Sasuke’s most binding oath will always be to Rin and his snakes. “That’s classified.”
Before Obito can counter with another question, Shikamaru steps in. “Zetsu,” he says, as if just realizing something. “We found Zetsu in Amegakure, and he gave Sasuke the clue. You were working with him.”
Obito looks impressed despite himself, and that is all the answer Sasuke needs to know that Shikamaru has hit upon the truth. Why? Sasuke almost asks Obito. His uncle had held him as they grieved over Kyogoku together, but now, Sasuke has no idea if this man is his enemy or a friendly.
“Technically, I wasn’t working with Zetsu to send you the message,” Obito concedes. “I only suggested he share Madara’s plans with Konohagakure in some way. He was the one who said Sasuke would likely be the best recipient, although he never told me why he thought Sasuke would be able to put two and two together with just a few hints. I never even found out what Zetsu told Sasuke, for that matter.”
Neji scoffs. “You suggested to Zetsu that he betray Madara by sharing Madara’s plans with Konoha? And he listened?”
Obito smiles. “All roads lead to Konohagakure, as they say.”
“With all due respect, sir, right now, all roads lead to you,” Shikamaru says. The shadows in the tent bend towards him. The twins, who have been slouching against a table at the far corner of the room, move away from the shadows, fingers hovering over their weapons. Kiba reacts as well, moving easily between the twins and Obito. A low hum starts up—Shino’s bugs, taking flight along the corners of the tent.
Obito eyes the shadows in the room with a half-smile. “That’s one way to go about questioning someone, Shikamaru.”
“I have other ways of asking questions, if you’d like,” Shikamaru counters neatly. The shadows crawl across the room, but Shikamaru doesn’t trap Obito. “Frankly, I prefer straightforward answers to simple questions.”
Obito heaves a sigh. For a man outnumbered in his own tent, he doesn’t seem very bothered. “You want to know if I’m working with Madara,” he says, looking around the gathered people. “The answer is not anymore. Your next question, of course, is…” Obito trails off, and looks towards Shikamaru, gesturing with a hand as if waiting for Shikamaru to finish his sentence.
Shikamaru picks up the cue easily, but Sasuke can see the muscles of his jaw tightening. He looks irritated by Obito’s ability to dictate the interrogation. “How long have you worked with Madara?”
“I worked with him for about ten years,” Obito answers perfunctorily.
Sasuke bows his head. This is kin. It took all of a few minutes for Sasuke to feel the full force of their blood ties, and now he can do nothing more than sit in silence while the truth of Obito’s betrayal is laid bare. He’d sent Kakashi a message, and so Itachi will know as well. They’ll have to live this betrayal, have to share in the pain of it with Sasuke. He shouldn’t have sent that message. He should have waited to confirm Obito’s allegiance. And what damage has he done by sharing his plans with Obito? Are the Rebun troops already crossing the path?
“For about ten years,” Shikamaru repeats in the silence that follows. “And are you still?”
“We’ve parted ways,” Obito reveals.
Neji is the one who follows up with a question. “Why?”
Oddly, Obito’s Mangekyou drifts to Sasuke in that moment. He holds Sasuke’s gaze as he explains, “Madara grew up in a time of war. He spent most of his life in a war, too. He extended his lifespan, and still, he saw war. Generation after generation marching off to one war after another. He thought he could put an end to it—”
“Enough,” Sasuke snarls. “Just tell me the truth and be done with it. I’ve had enough of you talking in circles. Just tell me the truth.”
“I haven’t told you a single lie,” Obito insists evenly. “There is no black or white, Sasuke. The world isn’t as neat and ordered as that. What happened to our family wasn’t just any one person’s fault. It was as much Madara’s fault as it was your grandfather’s, or Kyogoku’s, or Konoha’s. And Madara is right. War is endless in this world; it goes on and on. He thought he could put an end to it, and I believed him.”
“You don’t anymore?” Shikamaru asks.
“He had a bridge to sell, and for a while, I was willing to buy it,” Obito says with a mirthless laugh. “But the thing is, Madara actually believes his bridge is going where he wants it.”
Sasuke doesn’t understand Obito. He doesn’t understand why Obito can’t just speak plainly, why he has to answer every question with vague answers that duck and weave and spin around the truth of the matter. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“He wants a war to end all wars,” Obito answers. “He’s gathered the Tailed Demons and summoned Kaguya to contain all ten of them. His war will lay waste to every single Kage and Hidden Village on the Continent. For those willing to sign up for the cause, he offers paradise. An illusion that makes them think they have everything they want. Have you seen his armies marching?”
Zombies, that’s what Sarada had called them. But they all died screaming. Sasuke had killed countless of them, and he’d watched the terror twist their faces at the moment his sword sunk home. They march as if they’re puppets on a string, but they die human.
Sasuke has cast mild, harmless illusions before. All dojutsu users share in this ability. The Sharingan, the Byakugan, and the Rinnegan have all documented uses in hypnotism. But the illusions are often mild. Sasuke passed his ANBU exam with a silly tweak of Naruto’s Sexy no Jutsu—an illusion to make his opponent live out his most desired fantasy. It was meant to be a distraction. But Madara is sustaining an illusion far more powerful over hundreds of men and women. He hadn’t been the most accomplished taijutsu fighter, but his Eternal Mangekyou had been unlike anything Sasuke has seen.
“So why don’t you believe in his cause anymore?” Shikamaru asks.
“I wanted to know what happened to our family. So I started gathering my own intelligence to verify what he was saying about what happened,” Obito says. “Once I realized he was lying about that, I figured he must be lying about other things.”
“What made you look into the Uchiha Clan massacre in the first place? There must have been a reason why you started to doubt Madara,” Shikamaru prompts. Sasuke has never seen Shikamaru in an interrogation before, but he reminds Sasuke of Shikaku. He is relentless. Sasuke doesn’t understand why Obito is so casually subjecting himself to this kind of questioning. He could try and escape. He may be outnumbered in this tent—just the twins and Kobe—but he could alert the seventy warriors camped outside that he is under attack. And yet he doesn’t; Sasuke doesn’t understand him at all.
Obito’s look of mild amusement trickles away in increments, until his face is utterly devoid of expression. Only his Mangekyou is spinning in a slow circle. “He wouldn’t guarantee the safety of my family. He threatened them.”
Sasuke glances over at the twins. They’re both watching their father, hands still hovering over their swords and Sharingan alive with their chakra. They don’t seem surprised by anything that Obito is saying, which means Obito must have told them everything already. Sasuke feels something like hope cautiously bloom in his chest. Obito, at the end of the day, is a father. He wouldn’t draw his children into something as toxic and hideous as Madara’s hatred. He wouldn’t—
“When did he threaten the twins?” Shikamaru asks. “Before or after—”
“Not the twins,” Obito corrects neatly. “He threatened Sasuke. And then, he threatened Itachi.”
And now, finally, surprise flickers across Shikamaru’s face. “Orochimaru was originally an Akatsuki member,” he mutters, looking between Sasuke and Obito. “He had orders to extract Sasuke from Konohagakure and secure the north for Akatsuki, but he betrayed Madara.”
“I didn’t know that Orochimaru had targeted you. I didn’t know Madara had given the order until it was too late,” Obito answers. He looks at Sasuke, and the look of regret on his face is so obvious he may as well have apologized aloud. “I wanted you to stay with Kakashi, at least until you were old enough and I could—”
“And Brother?” Sasuke demands. “You just left him with Madara all those years?”
Obito sighs. “For a while, Itachi was where I wanted him. With Madara. Away from Konoha,” he says. “That was before I decided that Madara needed to be eliminated sooner rather than later. And by then, Itachi had run away from Akatastuki.”
As always, Shikamaru is the first to connect the dots. “You decided to eliminate Madara when you found out he killed Sasuke and was targeting Itachi.”
Oddly enough, Kiko is the one to break the silence that follows. “Father got pretty close to getting rid of that motherfucker, too,” she grumbles. “But then Sasuke came back from the dead, and Madara must have figured out something about how to summon Kaguya, because next thing we know, bam, it’s go time on his plan to conquer the world—”
“Kiko,” Obito chides, interrupting his daughter before she can finish her angry rant.
The shadows in the room fall away abruptly. Shikamaru gets roughly to his feet and starts heading for the exit. “Sarge, a moment with Hyuga?”
“I thought you were an ANBU Lieutenant,” Obito says, looking perplexed as Neji and Sasuke both get to their feet. “Since when does ANBU have a rank of sargent?”
“It doesn’t,” Sasuke answers, even as he follows Neji out the opening of the tent and into the blistering cold.
Shikamaru walks away from the tent until they’re out in the open and the nearest Rebun warrior is just a distant figure. The snow stretches out endlessly north, and to their south, the Northern Alps loom. This close, Sasuke can make out the different shades of gray of the rocks forming sharp-edged cliffs.
Neji steps close so that the three of them are huddled together against the wind. “What the fuck is going on?”
“I don’t know. I can’t get a fucking read on this guy, let alone pin down a timeline for his sequence of events,” Shikamaru snarls. He gestures in the direction of the tent. “I think he got more out of us than we got out of him.”
“You think he’s lying?” Neji asks. “His chakra signature was steady throughout the questions. I didn’t notice any spikes to indicate he was lying or—”
“You think a guy like that is going to get caught in a lie because of an errant chakra spike?” Shikamaru demands. “He’s survived Madara for at least a decade. And not only did he survive, he’s been privy to most of Madara’s plans. And according to Kiko, he’s gotten close to killing Madara, but Madara still seems to think Obito’s on his side.”
Sasuke turns his face towards the Rebun. They can’t see the armies from here, but they can make out the smoke curling up from the campfires of the army in thin wisps of gray. Sasuke imagines he can almost smell the smoke on the air—over a thousand Rebun soldiers, just beyond the mountain pass. And they are flying Akatsuki colors. “For all intents and purposes, my uncle is on Madara’s side.”
“I don’t think he is, though,” Shikamaru says thoughtfully, following Sasuke’s gaze.
Neji tugs his hood more securely around his ears. “Not being on Madara’s side doesn’t necessarily mean he’s on ours.”
“What did he say?” Shikamaru asks, turning to Sasuke. “There’s no black and white.”
“The world isn’t as neat and ordered as that,” Neji finishes. “So what do we do? Trust him or no?”
At this point, Sasuke wants nothing more than to walk away. If he were to start walking north, away from this war, he could keep walking until he fell off the face of the earth. He wouldn’t have to stand here and wager where Obito’s loyalties lie—whether he’ll break Kakashi’s heart again. Whether he’ll ruin Itachi’s love for him, and the Yondaime’s faith in him.
“I’m not arrogant enough to think that I have a handle on who Uchiha Obito is or what he’s capable of,” Shikamaru concedes. “But I do think we can trust him on one thing.”
Neji and Sasuke both turn to Shikamaru, but the man doesn’t finish his sentence. He’s turned his face towards the Rebun campfires again, gaze unfocused.
“Shikamaru?” Neji prompts.
Shikamaru’s breath gusts out in a large mist. “I think that Uchiha Obito will move heaven and earth to keep what’s left of his family safe,” he says finally. “Whether it’s from Madara or from Konohagakure and the Wildfire Contingency, I don’t think he cares anymore. I don’t think he even sees a difference between Madara and Konoha anymore. They all have his family’s blood on their hands.”
“Clan first, all else second,” Sasuke murmurs. He remembers hearing the words in his uncle’s voices. He remembers his grandfather asking the question: What is the order of things? And his uncles and aunt would always answer the same way.
Sasuke hadn’t been old enough to speak them, and by the time he was old enough, he was alone. But he knows the words. He’s known them all along, as if they’re carved into his bones, encoded in his genes. Hadn’t Tsunade said the same thing when she defended the Wildfire Contingency? Hadn’t the Nidaime written something similar in his order? The Uchiha will always—always—place their Clan above everything else. That’s what Uncle Yakumi and Uncle Inabi had done.
“Is that what he’s doing?” Shikamaru asks. He pulls out his cigarette pack and holds it open for Sasuke. “Placing clan first, and everything else second?”
“It’s the order of things,” Sasuke admits, taking a proffered cigarette. “Your clan doesn’t have an order for things?”
Neji scoffs. “I was branded at birth for being born to the wrong brother,” he says, wry. He takes a cigarette of his own. “Trust me, every clan has a fucking order for things.”
“Fuck that archaic bullshit, man,” Shikamaru mutters, balancing the cigarette between his lips while he tucks away his pack into his pocket. Sasuke lights all three of their cigarettes with his chakra, and for a moment, it’s just the sound of them inhaling deep.
“My sister is trying to change things. She says it’ll be different for the next generation,” Neji mutters, almost to himself. “If anyone can fix our family, it’s Hinata.”
Sasuke gives Shikamaru a sidelong glance. “What about your clan? How are you guys fucked up?”
“Let me count the ways,” Shikamaru answers, without missing a beat. “First, we’re afraid of the dark.”
Neji starts laughing first, but Sasuke isn’t far behind. Before long, they’re all doubled over, clutching each other to stay standing.
By late afternoon, a third of Obito’s men have already trickled up the mountain. They leave in small groups of five and seven, slipping away and blending in so thoroughly into the snow that if it weren’t for their subdued chakra signatures, they would be difficult to spot. The majority of the troops will climb the mountain and join the death-riders on the other side. Obito intends to lead a smaller group of Rebun warriors to finish the mission with Sasuke and his team.
They head out just as the sun begins to set. Sasuke has marched armies across snow plains before, but this march takes them along the foot of the Northern Alps. It is a blistering stretch of rock and ice, with an unrelenting, treacherous wind that makes setting up camp a miserable, futile exercise. The worst part is that Sasuke can’t use his chakra to keep himself warm. The Rebun are generous; they offer Sasuke and his men extra furs to keep them warm and fresh spikes for their shoes.
Obito is leading the party, and is confident with where he places his feet for grip, even though they have decided against torches to keep their cover. Neji and Shikamaru are directly behind Obito, followed by Shino. Kiba is flanking Tottori to protect him and the C4 he is carrying. Sasuke, Minato and Kiko are walking a safe distance behind them. Abira and Kobe round off the group with two other Rebun fighters.
In the darkness, the mountain is even colder than before. The moon is bright enough to provide them light to guide the way. Every now and then, though, the light will fade under the cover of clouds and Obito’s footsteps will slow to a crawl. They move carefully up the mountain, edging along a ridge so that the Kasai Pass will be to their right. It takes them hours to reach their destination, and as they get closer, conversation fades away.
The Rebun Camp appears suddenly, a massive gathering of men illuminated by bright fires. There are large tents for the centers of command, and smaller tents fan out in concentric circles like in Otogakure. From their vantage point, the warriors look like toy soldiers, their horses like ants. The Rebun army have halted at the entrance of the Kasai pass. They are louder than the Northerners gathered in Otogakure; their war songs echo against the ice and snow of the pass.
“Fuck, Sarge,” Kiba breathes, turning to look at Sasuke with wide, worried eyes. Over a thousand men and women. An entire army lying in wait to join Madara and overwhelm Konohagakure and Otogakure. Madara has over fourteen thousand already; if the Rebun troops were to march through the Kasai pass, Madara would be fighting with Kaguya at his side and fifteen thousand warriors at his back.
Konohagakure and Otogakure have just ten thousand warriors between them.
Sasuke has to seal the Rebun troops’ passage to the Omine Valley. Madara had held them at the pass to maintain his element of surprise, but Sasuke will deny him this advantage. If they cannot blow up the mountain, then he will turn and face the Rebun so they cannot join the fray and overwhelm Kakashi and Jugo’s forces.
The others must be realizing the same thing—it must be dawning on them the numbers they face, the sheer insanity of their scheme to blow up a goddamn mountain to stop this army—because they are all frozen, looking out over the camps below with wide eyes.
Despair is a potent thing. Sasuke has seen it take hold of men on the battlefield, spreading like a contagion. He has fought against the odds in all the battles he has ever waged. Orochimaru gave him only eighty men to command, and sent him against tribes who numbered in the hundreds. He remembers his first battle, standing at the center of the shield wall, facing down the enemy, and hearing the men praying to the gods around him.
His unit is fearless, he knows, but this is their first, true war. There is no time for chatter, but the words need to be said. “The Rebun will go no further,” Sasuke orders, looking up at the men halted on the slope above him. He turns back to address those trailing him. “This is the end of their march.” He shifts around and meets Kiba’s eyes. “We hold the line for Konohagakure. We hold the line for Otogakure. The Rebun will face the rock and ice of this mountain, or they will face the edge of our swords, but either way, they will go no further. Am I understood?”
Kiba nods. “Yes, sir,” he says, and Shikamaru, Neji, and Shino echo him. Tottori says it twice: Yes, sir, the first time, and then a second time, firmer, sounding bloodthirsty, Sir, yes, sir.
Sasuke looks towards Obito, Mangekyou whorling. “Let’s move.”
Obito’s grin is sharp. “Aye, Lord Commander,” he says, and starts to climb.
It’s just a slight shift in rocks that alerts the enemy to their presence. Tottori is climbing back down from placing another bundle of explosives when a block of packed snow dislodges a few feet to his right.
“No,” Minato hisses, and reaches forward, but it’s too late. Before Sasuke can even comprehend what is happening, the block of snow shatters against a loose pile of rocks and ice, and those begin to tumble down. They gather speed as they roll down the sloping cliff. It can’t be more than a handful of rocks, but the sound they create as they trip down to the pass below is deafening.
“Down,” Obito commands. Everyone drops to the ground, but Tottori, Abira, and Shikamaru are still hanging onto the side of the mountain. They had climbed sheer cliffs and crawled into crevices to carefully place the explosives along a hulking cliff along the pass. Tottori had been careful in his selection of where the explosives were placed, and had even gone back to move blocks of C4 to better achieve the effect he desired. Now, they are left exposed on the high wall of rocks. Shikamaru is using his shadows to help them move down, but it is too late: a curtain of flame is approaching them—arrows, dipped in fire. They are not intended to incur any damage, just illuminate the mountain so that the scouts can assess if there are any enemies.
“Please, Lord God above,” Kiba prays earnestly from just behind Sasuke, “please, let them not have seen us.”
There is a wrenching moment of silence, and then, a horn blast follows. They’ve been spotted.
“Once,” Shikamaru hisses at Sasuke once he’s climbed down hurriedly from the cliff. Abira and Tottori follow a moment later, just in time to miss another volley of fire-tipped arrows. “For once, I’d like a mission with you to go as planned.”
Neji opens his mouth to say something, but Kiko interrupts him before he can: “Run.”
They have the advantage of height. It would be easy to evade the Rebun entirely. But that is not the point. The point is that the Rebun start to march, heading straight for the Omine Valley.
“No,” Shino breathes, watching them from their perch. He sounds mournful. “No.”
They have met up with the death-riders and the rest of Obito’s men a few hours before sunrise. Together, they number around a hundred fifty men and women.
Yonabaru debriefs Sasuke on their rendezvous with Obito’s Rebun troops. The first group was nearly attacked when they appeared, but then, the Rebun troops had shown Yonabaru the message that Sasuke wrote—with the sequence of numbers at the bottom of the page to authenticate it.
“Your number matched up, Lord Commander, so there were no casualties,” Yonabaru says with a bitter smile. When Sasuke waged war for Orochimaru, he used to assign a random sequence of six numbers for all his deputies, and he’s kept up that practice now; any messages between him and his deputies needed to include those numbers. It was his way of protecting against Orochimaru’s treachery and spies. “No casualties yet, at least,” Yonabaru clarifies, watching the Rebun troops march forward below them. “How many of the explosives did you plant?”
“Five pounds at most,” Tottori says, rubbing his hands together to stay warm. He had tried to return to the task, but the Rebun archers are precise. It was not a mission worth dying for, so Sasuke had ordered Tottori to stand down. “Now what, Sarge?”
He has about a hundred and fifty soldiers scattered alongside the mountain at the rendezvous point. There are a thousand enemy Rebun warriors below. Even the Nidaime wouldn’t take these odds, but there is no choice. If the Rebun cross, the allied troops will be overwhelmed. Sasuke scans the valley below. It is far too wide for a hundred and fifty of his men to block. They will be overwhelmed and overrun. “Tottori, if you set off the explosives you’ve already rigged, could we narrow the valley?”
“Maybe?” Tottori says, chewing on his lower lip. It is cracked and bleeding from the cold, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He eyes the mountain thoughtfully and then points to one of the spots where he had clustered most of his explosives. “That would cause some damage, but we’re still looking at a pass that is at least a few hundred yards wide.”
Half a mile is better than a mile. Sasuke scans the valley and spots a narrowing further down, just wide enough for his troops to mount a shield wall. He points. “Shield wall there. Tottori, on my command, you’ll bring down the mountain,” he says. It’s not a bottleneck, but it’ll do in a pinch. There is no other option when facing an enemy so large. They have to force the enemy to approach them in more manageable numbers, and narrowing the pass is the only way to do it.
Neji follows Sasuke’s gaze. “But, sir—”
“Abira, I need a message sent,” Sasuke says, interrupting Neji. He knows the consequences of his decisions. He is leading them to their death, but there is no other option. Abira performs the seals quickly, and a moment later, Takamaru appears, feathers ruffling immediately with the biting wind. Abira immediately pulls Takamaru close to his body to shield him from the cold.
Takamaru understands the situation the moment he surveys the land. “What should I tell Commander Hatake and Lord Biratori?”
Sasuke takes a breath. “Tell them that the Rebun troops are marching through the pass. We can’t seal the pass with the explosives,” Sasuke instructs Takamaru. If he can’t stop them, he has to delay them. Long enough for Kakashi to get the troops in order to counter this, if he can. “Tell them both to stand at the ready. We’ll hold the line.”
Takamaru glances briefly at the massive Rebun army moving slowly down the pass. They can hear the rumble of the mounted cavalry, the low din of conversation and the tread of the soldiers’ footsteps. “You are outnumbered ten to one, Lord Commander.”
Sasuke knows his odds. “We’ll hold the line.”
Takamaru turns his golden eyes towards Sasuke. “There is time to retreat, still.”
If they retreat, Otogakure will be overrun. The north will be overrun. Madara will advance, and he will spread his poison across the entire Continent. He has undone ancient seals, torn through time and space to summon monsters from another realm. They cannot retreat. They have to hold the line long enough for Kakashi to finish the job.
“We will hold the line,” Sasuke repeats. He looks at his troops, scattered about him in a loose cluster, and raises his voice. He has ordered men and women to near-certain death before. He has learned over the years that as commander, he has to project certainty even in the face of such overwhelming odds. There can be no hint of his own doubts. “We hold the line!”
Kiba lets out a shaky breath. “Yes, Sarge.”
Takamaru spreads his wings, preparing to take flight. “Tell Jugo: blood-brothers, always,” Sasuke says, pitching his voice low. “Tell Kakashi—” Sasuke takes a breath. “Tell him: hold fast. Tell them both we’ll hold the line.”
Takamaru dips his head in a bow. “Yes, my lord.” He flaps his wings twice, powerfully, and then begins his ascent.
Sasuke watches him disappear into the clouds, high enough that he will evade any archers.
“We hold the line,” he orders again, turning back to his men. He starts to walk down to the valley and tries not to think of the condolences letters that Tsunade will have to write after this is over—letters to family members that Sasuke has met and knows.
They slot their shields together just as the enemy comes into view. They had nearly run down the mountain side, but there’s just enough time for Sasuke to give the order before he spots the general leading the Rebun troops, a man almost as large as Jugo. He’s wearing a mask and carrying a scythe, long blond hair flowing behind him, snapping in time with the wind. His chakra signature is so massive, so distinctively malicious, that Sasuke can feel his shield wall shift back slightly.
“Meet Hanzo the Salamander,” Obito murmurs from Sasuke’s right. He’s braced the shield solidly against his left shoulder, leaving his dominant hand free to draw his sword.
Hanzo moves his horse up and down the long line of his troops. This close to the army, the sound of their voices is even louder, almost deafening. The enemy is spread out in front of them, occupying the full breadth of the valley. They must be at least four hundred soldiers, standing side by side, with countless others stacked beyond. Sasuke had picked the most narrow spot of the valley to mount a defense, but it’s a pathetic effort. He has a hundred and fifty soldiers; locked tight as they are in a defensive formation with their shields, they barely span half the width of the valley. There are large gaping holes on either side of them. If Hanzo chooses, he can just ride around the paltry line of warriors Sasuke has assembled.
“What do I need to know about him?” Sasuke asks.
“Aside from the fact that he’s extremely powerful, breathes toxic venom, and has been raised from the dead?” Obito asks. “His favorite color is green.”
Fan-fucking-tastic, Sasuke thinks. Of course. Trust his shit luck to present him with an undead, venom-breathing motherfucker leading an army of twelve hundred.
“Not that I doubt you, but is this really the plan, Uchiha?” Neji asks from Sasuke’s left. His voice is steady, but Sasuke thinks Neji knows exactly what they are up against. Everyone must know, Sasuke thinks. They will die holding this line. Sasuke can barely keep his shield up with his right shoulder, still sore from his fall down the cliff just the day before. He is a liability in this fucking shield wall; he will get his men killed.
Work the problem, Sasuke tells himself sternly, and forces himself to remember the Nidaime’s voice saying the words, uses his Mangekyou to recall the image of Kakashi, sitting on a log by a crackling fire and drawing out battle formations in the soil with a stick on their way home from missions.
The problem is that he needs to funnel the enemy to him in a controlled flow. The battlelines are too wide.
“No, this isn’t the plan,” Sasuke decides, stepping back from the shield wall. Even from a distance, Hanzo’s attention snaps to the sudden space Sasuke has created in the shield wall. Sasuke turns to his men to call out the orders. He uses the tip of his scabbard to draw out the formation in the ground while pointing to uneven, jutting rock formations on the sides of the pass. “We’ll use the mountain side as our flanks. The enemy can’t climb over those rocks. Lines here and here—”
He draws two layers on each side of the pass. He has a hundred and fifty men. “Seventy-five men on each side, in staggered lines to form the shield wall. The shield wall will be slanted so that the enemy will face a spear tip.”
“And what’s the tip of the spear?” Neji asks, pointing to the hole that Sasuke’s formation is creating.
“We are. A small, mobile group,” Sasuke announces. “Uncle, take your men and form the line to my left. Yonabaru, your men will be my right.” He looks around at the slack faces of surprise to make sure they are all on the same page. “How many of you know earth and plant jutsus?”
“Stakes and walls to support the shield wall?” Yonabaru asks. “I don’t think any earth or plant jutsu can stop a force that large, my lord. Unless the plan is to just slow them down.”
“How long do we need to hold them off for?” Obito asks. He holds Sasuke’s gaze steady. “How long can you hold them off for?”
Sasuke doesn’t answer Obito. Instead, he turns to Neji and the rest of Unit 3. He doesn’t know who else to ask. He’s always dreaded this moment, and now it’s here. Someday, Kakashi told him once, you’ll have to leave someone behind. And you’ll have to live with it. He’s not planning on leaving Unit 3 behind; he’ll walk to death with them.
But there is an odd thump of his heart now when he faces Unit 3. He will ask them this. He has to, because that is his job. He will not imagine Inuzuka Hana’s face or Hyuga Hiashi’s devastation when they get a condolence letter from Tsunade about how their kin died in battle they were sure to lose. He makes sure his face is utterly devoid of any expression but certainty when he says, “Shit’s hitting the fan, gentlemen. Let’s step to it.”
Kiba offers him a half-smile. The humor doesn’t reach his eyes. He knows it’s a death sentence. “I’m just glad Akamaru isn’t here. Just the smell alone.”
“You sure that is not you, Inuzuka?” Shino asks, aiming for a joke and missing by a country mile.
“I’m coming with you, Sasuke,” Kiko says, stepping forward. Obito breathes, No, but Minato is already stepping forward as well. Neither of their faces betray any fear they might feel.
Sasuke can’t drag his cousins—his brother and sister—into this, too. But what is the alternative? They will all die here, eventually. Hanzo’s men are starting to move forward. They have spotted the shift in Sasuke’s shield wall, and they are seizing the opportunity. Out of all the options, this is the best he can come up with on such short notice. He can’t stand in the middle of a doomed defensive line, holding up a shield with a weakened arm when he could be moving freely. He will have his men hold the flanks, and funnel the enemy towards him in the center. “Move out.”
“My lord,” Yonabaru says with a bow of his head. He jogs away and start barking out orders to reform the line.
Obito lingers. “Not like this,” he murmurs in a low whisper. “I can negotiate with Hanzo. I can—”
“Move out, Uncle,” Sasuke repeats. He doesn’t have time to deal with a father’s grief. He can’t even promise Obito that he will watch out for Kiko and Minato. All he can hope for is that Obito will not witness it happen, if it does.
Obito reaches up to press a hand to Sasuke’s shoulder, and another on Kiko’s. Minato steps close so that the circle is complete. “Have your sword with you,” Obito tells them. “I’ll see you all when this is over.”
Obito turns away and starts walking towards his Rebun men, calling out orders to form a line.
Sasuke leads Unit 3 and the twins towards the enemy. He stops a hundred yards from the enemy line. “I will lead the charge,” Sasuke calls out to his team. “Staggered formation behind me. Protect each other’s flanks. We hold this line. Am I clear?”
There’s a scattered response of clear from Unit 3 and the twins. Sasuke watches them get into formation. They’ve practiced these kinds of spear-tip formations countless times before; even the twins look to be familiar with where they need to stand. But usually, these offensive formations are meant for smaller scale incursions. Not as a defense against a thousand enemy soldiers.
“What a troublesome day,” Shikamaru mutters from behind him. “What a troublesome fucking day.”
“I’ll move forward,” Sasuke repeats to the team. “But you’ll hold your lines. Keep your shields high. Fall back if you need, but do not advance into enemy lines. Understood?”
Because ahead lies death. This is their line, and they will hold it. The team holds his gaze steady. Kiba says, Aye, Sarge, and Shino only nods. His bugs are buzzing around him, but they are not as loud as usual. The cold is getting to them, too.
Sasuke turns back to the enemy line and walks forward. He drops his shield as he walks because while the Nidaime taught him many things, the Senju Technique is better unhindered. A man needs a sword in battle, the Nidaime once said. Everything else is just optional.
He draws his sword just as Hanzo dismounts and starts walking towards him, twirling his scythe in a neat arc.
When he is within hearing distance, Hanzo calls out to Sasuke. “And who are you?” His voice echoes from within the respirator he is wearing. “Where is Obito? I’d like to have words with him.”
“The name is Uchiha,” Sasuke announces, and lets the tip of his sword rest lightly on the ground. “Uchiha Sasuke.”
“I’ve heard of you, boy,” Hanzo says, laughing now. He indicates the two halves of the shield wall behind Sasuke. There is a wide, undefended gap in the middle, and Sasuke stands in front of it. “Is this the best Hatake Kakashi could send to face me? Did he let you off your leash to face me for a welcoming party?”
Sasuke lets his sword sink into the ground below, and starts to walk, cutting a line into the earth as he goes. The Nidaime used to do this in training sessions. Cross this line, boy, he’d challenged, and Sasuke would batter himself bloody trying to break the Nidaime’s defenses. He’d done this day in and day out. Sasuke is a Sharingan. He learns his lessons well.
“You will go no further,” he calls out to Hanzo and the troops behind him. He draws the line from one edge to the other while Hanzo watches with a curious tilt to his head. Sasuke counts with every step he takes. Usually, he reaches the first stages of battle-calm at ten, but Sasuke moves past that space, keeps counting until he sinks deeper and deeper, deeper than he has ever sunk into that crystal space. He is hyper-aware of the warmth of the rising sun slanting into the valley, the breeze against his cheek. He can feel the slight give of the ground as his sword cuts in an invisible defensive line, knows it to be as impenetrable as the calm he feels in his mind.
When he returns to the center of his line, it’s to find that Hanzo is watching him with great amusement. “Is that so?”
“You will go no further,” Sasuke promises him, and turns his body at a slight angle, sword held loosely behind him. He considers the enemy in front of him. Four hundred men and women, spears and swords drawn, shields lifted at the ready. Nearly a thousand more behind them.
One, two, three, four, five—
“Archers at the ready,” Hanzo calls out. So deep in his battle calm, Sasuke can almost hear the strain of bowstrings being drawn back, the taut creak of the wooden bows bending in anticipation as the archers nock their weapons. “Aim,” Hanzo calls. Sasuke lifts his sword to give Tottori the signal. “Release!”
Sasuke drops into a stance just as the sky overhead darkens with arrows. He can hear the whistle of arrows, the shield wall behind him lifting overhead to protect against the oncoming attack—and underneath all that, the click of Tottori pressing down on the detonator.
The mountain shudders beyond the enemy, causing panic as the troops realize that a mountain of ice and stone is stumbling down on them from the rear.
Sasuke lets loose his chakra in a flare upwards. The arrows overhead catch fire from the heat of his chakra. They descend to the earth as nothing more than a mist of ash and soot.
In Sasuke’s mind, the battle calm is a lake. It is a river. It is the first blanket of snow on an early winter morning. He breathes in, breathes out, feels his mind still, and is at peace.
Sasuke loses track of his kills, empties his kunai pouch within half an hour, slams his throwing knives into the backs of two enemies who try to rush Sasuke and move past him, registers Neji and the others putting enemy after enemy down, and then, finally, finds Hanzo.
Hanzo is formidable, and his scythe keeps Sasuke at bay. But he is far too cautious in battle. It’s easy to push him back, inch by inch, easier still with his sword and Senju Technique. He doesn’t register Hanzo’s surprise when Sasuke’s Chidori cuts neatly through his scythe in a crackle of lightning and sparks. He’s expecting Hanzo to reach for a weapon, but Hanzo reaches for his respirator instead. He rips it off his face, revealing a handsome face marred only by a single, ragged scar on his right cheek. He takes a ragged breath and breathes into Sasuke’s face.
“Die,” he snarls. It is far too late for Sasuke to hold his breath, but he feels nothing more than a tingle in the back of his throat. Hanzo’s eyes go saucer-wide with surprise. “You’re immune,” he murmurs, shocked, as he takes a staggering step back.
Hanzo the Salamander, Obito had called him. Even deep in his battle calm, Sasuke feels a flicker of amusement. Rin would appreciate the joke. The man thought salamander poison could kill him even as Sasuke belongs to the snakes.
Sasuke bursts into motion, sword at the ready.
Hanzo dies with a hiccupping gurgle. He reaches for his throat, trying to staunch the flow, but the blood is already spilling down his front. Sasuke turns away before Hanzo’s body even drops to the ground and faces the enemy in front of him. Not a single one has crossed the line he has drawn in the ground. Their path has been impeded by the low wall of bodies Sasuke and the others have accumulated from their kills.
He snaps his sword to the side, flicking off Hanzo’s blood from his blade, and starts to walk forwards, moving further and further from his Unit, the twins, and the shield wall at his back. As he walks, he doesn’t bother to sidestep the bodies he has left littered on the ground. He stands on the back of an enemy, who is slumped over two more bodies. From this height, he can see beyond the ranks of the enemy. They line the entire valley, but Tottori’s rockslide has crushed a large portion of them, narrowing the pass. It has forced the bottleneck he wanted, packing the enemy too tight.
They make for easy pickings. He considers the defense they have mounted against him. Hanzo’s deputy, a Rebun warrior, calls out, Shield wall!
It’s the wrong order.
There is a shuffle of feet as the enemy realize the fate that lies ahead, but the shield wall holds. Sasuke can scent the fear in the air. The commanding officers yell at their archers to stand at the ready and to aim, corralling their troops to stand, to hold the line, hold the line, gods damn it—
Sasuke is already running towards the shield wall, just as the sky darkens overhead again with another volley of arrows. He lets his chakra flare, hears the arrows snapping overhead as they catch fire and fill the air with smoke and soot as they burn. He slams into a weak spot in the enemy shield wall, forcing the enemy to his knees. He uses the listing shield as a springboard, one foot on the shield to launch himself in a neat arc over the line of soldiers. He lands on the other side of the shield wall, surrounded on all sides by his enemies.
One of them starts to scream, “Breach!”
On his lake, his river, treading that blanket of snow, Sasuke breathes deep and easy. He lets his sword sing, hears a piano’s tune as the world turns grey with the ash of arrows burning overhead from the immense heat of his chakra.
They run. They have no choice but to run. Sasuke keeps pushing through and only stops when he realizes that the enemy’s ranks have thinned out so much that it is no longer worth the effort to keep killing them. He turns and starts to walk away from the enemy Rebun, back towards his own troops. He emerges from his battle calm as he walks, realizing only then that he is breathing in smoke and the lingering soot in the air. The valley is so strewn with bodies, broken shields, and weapons that the ground is no longer visible. He steps into thick, cloying puddles of blood and innards that have slipped out. The dead are piled on one another; most have fallen with their hands curled around their swords, but some have not.
Yonabaru and Obito have held the shield walls, defending against the enemy soldiers that had made it past Unit 3, the twins, and Sasuke, while he was otherwise engaged. Miraculously, there are no casualties on their side. Sasuke blinks back to awareness slowly as he watches his warriors gripping each other in joy, shaking hands. Some get to their knees to thank the gods. They had raised walls of earth and stone covered with branching vines of trees to defend against the enemy. They were battered, but they held the lines.
“A few injuries, but nothing serious and no casualties, sir,” Neji says, picking his words carefully. He pauses a beat and asks, voice pitched low, “Sasuke?”
“Easy,” Obito murmurs, stepping forward. He reaches a hand out to Sasuke, movements slow and deliberate. It takes a few heartbeats for Sasuke to feel the pressure of his hand on his shoulder. It jars him fully out of the calm.
Sasuke blinks at his surroundings, noticing the thin layer of ash and soot covering all his men. They are the only ones standing; in the far distance, the enemy continues to run. His shoulder is aching, a hot flare of pain that is making his entire right hand tingle. His muscles are sore. There’s a stinging tug on his flank, and when he looks down it’s to find that his leather armor has been cut. A glancing wound from Hanzo’s scythe. He’d forgotten about it.
“Should we rig the rest of the explosives, just in case the enemy reform their lines, sir?” Shikamaru asks. There’s a stilted formality in the way the men are standing around him. Even Kiba is standing at attention; Kiko and Minato have adopted the same pose as well: spine straight, the line of their shoulders rigid, chin tilted so that their gaze is staring not directly at Sasuke but somewhere into the middle distance. Only Obito is meeting his eyes.
Sasuke tilts his face towards the sky. He can see the sun again. For a while, there was only arrows, catching fire mid-flight. The air is still thick with the ash that the wind is stirring, but much of it has settled. It’s unlikely that the enemy will reform their lines and march south to Madara’s aid, but it’s not a risk worth taking. “Send Tottori and Abira to complete the mission and seal up the pass with the explosives,” Sasuke orders. “I want a team of eight with them, four of the Rebun men and four of the death-riders.”
“Sir,” Shikamaru says, and salutes sharply. He moves to obey the order, calling out to Abira and Tottori in a resounding voice.
“What next, Sasuke?” Minato asks. He looks south towards the opening of the Kasai Pass. “Madara probably knows we’re here now.”
“Good,” Sasuke says.
He starts to walk towards the Omine Valley, stepping over the line he drew in the ground all those hours ago. Sasuke picks up the shield he had dropped on the ground before it all started. The men heft their shields, and follow him. The tread of their boots blurs the line in the ground as they march south to rejoin the war.
It is already nightfall when they reach the mouth of the Kasai Pass. The Omine Valley stretches ahead of them. The Otogakure troops are nowhere in sight. It is silent.
For a brief, disorienting moment, Sasuke thinks that his strategy has failed. But then, Takamaru arrives with a messages from Jugo and Kakashi. The attack will be delayed to tomorrow.
“Lord Commander Hatake says that it may be better to—”
“Wait,” Sasuke interrupts, guessing at Kakashi’s thoughts. He looks down the line of Madara’s campfire in the far distance, letting a hand fall to his waist where the leather of the belt for his sword angles down from his right hip to his left thigh. It is sticky with dirt and blood; he has lost all his knives and most of his kunai. He only has his sword left, but that will have to be enough. “We should wait for light of day.”
Takamaru picks up his message where he left off. “Yes, my lord. He also said—”
“He wants to change the sequence of attacks,” Sasuke interrupts again, undoing the belt. It isn’t heavy, but it is a relief to be untying his sword from his waist. There is blood clumped in his beard and hair; he can still smell the metallic stench of the men he’d killed in the Kasai Pass. He can rest, at least for a few hours, and he begins by untying his sword.
Takamaru tsks under his breath, letting his displeasure about the interruptions be known. “I wonder if there was even a need for me, my lord. You seem to already know the contents of the message.”
The moon is bright enough that Sasuke can make out the narrowing of Takamaru’s bright eyes. The bird seems unwilling to speak anymore, so Sasuke stops guessing at Kakashi’s changes to the strategy. It isn’t too difficult, because they are exactly the same calculations Sasuke might make. The whole point of Sasuke’s strategy had been to overwhelm and confuse: a mountain crumbling to the north, riders on horseback threading around Madara’s camp, and all the while, Hatake Kakashi waiting to strike at the mouth of the Omine Valley.
But the C4 had exploded without making much of a dent, and Sasuke has revealed his hand with a drawn out battle in the Kasai Pass. They have lost the element of surprise. The best option is to adapt. And the best adaptation at this point is to give Madara the illusion that they intend a double-sided attack from the north and south, and then thread the noose that Sasuke had planned. “Did Kakashi say something about a heavy attack from the south, followed by staggered attacks from east and west? He should make the first move, before I ride down from the north once he gives the signal.”
Takamaru’s responds begrudgingly. “Yes, my lord, he did.”
Shikamaru lets out a low whistle; the sound is immediately carried away by the wind. A moment later, he mutters to himself, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Neji shifts from one foot to the other, trying to stay warm against the wind. “What’s the signal?”
Takamaru’s wings rustle. “Lord Commander Hatake did not specify.”
“He didn’t specify?” Obito demands, sounding incredulous.
“I asked,” Takamaru mutters. “He only said—”
“I’ll know when,” Sasuke finishes neatly.
Neji mutters a curse under his breath, but when Sasuke’s gaze shifts to him, he snaps to attention again, voice crisp and in line with the chain of command. “Permission to speak, sir.”
Sasuke already knows the question, but he allows Neji the respect of asking. He hm-s mildly, which is all the permission Neji needs. “It may make it easier for the men to look for a specific signal in anticipation of the attack,” Neji says. He hesitates, and then says, “And with all due respect, I also wonder how you will know the moment to attack given such a vague message from the Commander.”
But it isn’t vague. The signal isn’t even actually a signal. It’s the moment when everything falls into place—the troops, the terrain, the wind, the precise energy of the enemy’s attack. Sasuke will know when because it is a well-honed reflex, almost instinct. Sasuke will know because Kakashi taught him to know.
But that is a long explanation and Sasuke is too damn tired.
“I’ll know,” Sasuke says, pushing aside Neji’s concern with a small wave of his hand. He turns to Yonabaru to issue orders. “Set up camp. Let the men know the attack will be later than planned, on my signal. Tell them to get some sleep. We have a long day tomorrow.” He pauses a beat and adds, “We might be able to sleep in and get some breakfast tomorrow, too.”
“Any message for the Lord Commander, sire?” Takamaru asks. It is Takamaru’s job to return to Kakashi with confirmation of the message delivered.
Sasuke considers his options. In the end, he settles for, “The eggs look good, so far.”
Takamaru is quiet for a few moments. “The message is, the eggs look good, so far, my lord?”
If, if, if, if. They’d spent hours going over the ifs, and not a single one of their ifs has come true, and not a single one of their contingency plans has had any use. They were ambushed on their first day in Otogakure, and found out at the eleventh hour that their enemy ranks had swelled by twelve hundred Rebun. The C4 didn’t work, but they’ve held the Kasai Pass. They’ve lost any element of surprise, so now they have to recalibrate their attack sequence on the fly.
Dozens, hundreds of hours spent thinking about this war and the strategy. Late nights staring at the maps, obsessing over supply routes, cavalry formations and defensive strategies. And war, as always, comes down to the same thing at the end of the day.
All our eggs in a single basket, Sasuke thinks with a wry smile.
“My lord?” Takamaru prompts. “Will the Lord Commander understand the message?”
Sasuke blinks away from where he had been looking towards Kakashi’s bright chakra signature. Kakashi is not being subtle about his presence, and while Sasuke had puzzled over such showmanship from Kakashi, he understands now.
In fact, he can do Kakashi one better. He’s lagging in the scoreboard a bit—109-78—so he might as well try and catch up.
Sasuke lets his own chakra flare. His Mangekyou whorls and tingles with the untethering of his chakra in a deep exhale. It’s such an effort, usually, to keep his own chakra signature constantly under check, even after the Shodaime’s patient training. It is almost a relief to let it loose now.
Obito’s grip on Sasuke’s arm is immediate, accompanied by a low warning: Sasuke, your chakra—
Obito is interrupted, because overhead, Kirin’s silhouette takes shape with a fissure of lightning that brightens the snow fields around them. A moment later, the snow on the mountains rumbles with the beginning of an avalanche before settling. The men all tilt their heads up to look at the crackling dragon above, just in time for a crash of thunder to echo around the valley, but Sasuke keeps his eyes fixed on the far distance.
A moment later, Kakashi returns the call.
Thunder snaps across the sky within moments of lightning. The air becomes electric, even from this distance. For a moment, the Omine Valley is alight.
Sasuke lets his chakra settle, but without any intention of muffling his presence. Kakashi arrives at the same conclusion from across the valley, and for a moment, it feels like their training sessions: Kakashi and Sasuke, looking across a field at each other, their chakra crackling in casual anticipation of a fight.
In between them, Sasuke can sense the frisson of a cluster of high-level chakra at the center of the Omine Valley. One of them, he knows, is Madara. He and Kakashi will sleep well tonight, but Madara—
Madara will lie awake, waiting, a hand curled around his sword because Sasuke is to his north and Kakashi is to his south.
“Tell him the eggs look good so far,” Sasuke repeats, turning his attention back to Takamaru.
Takamaru spreads his wings. “My lord,” he says with a polite dip of his head. Abira lifts his forearm and Takamaru takes flight.
Sasuke watches the hawk’s dark shape disappear overhead before turning back to his men. Even with only the moon for light, he can see the surprised look on their faces.
Kiko is the one to break the silence. “Now what?”
“Now,” Sasuke says, “we dig foxholes.”
They have no supplies to light fires, so they settle down in groups of three and four to share body heat. The Northerners show the Southerners how to dig a hole, how to use the snow to their advantage and build long walls around their holes to block the wind, how to drape their cloaks to trap the body heat. They share rations amongst themselves in relative silence and complete darkness.
Sasuke tries to help the men dig foxholes, but then pauses when he realizes his shoulder hurts like a motherfucker. He gives the orders to set up camp, and retreats to a quiet corner to take stock of his injuries.
Sasuke’s beard is coated with a mixture of ash and blood that has long since dried into a stiff mess. His armor is still wet in places with blood, and the shirt underneath his armor is tacky and stiff with sweat. They arrived in Otogakure just four days ago, and he has already fought two battles. He has climbed the full height of a gods damned mountain and then descended again. He needs to eat, drink, and sleep. He is of no use to Jugo or Kakashi if he rides into battle exhausted.
His shoulder is still aching, so Sasuke pries off his armor to evaluate the extent of the damage. He rotates his arm carefully through a few circles. Not a dislocation, but an injury that may slow him down if it gets worse. He has to ride into battle tomorrow, and he is not anywhere near his best fighting shape.
For a moment, he wishes for Sakura’s presence with such blind desperation, it almost knocks him off his feet. He presses a handful of snow to his shoulder to ground himself. Count. Always, count.
When he opens his eyes at ten, it’s to find that Minato is crouching in front of him. Sasuke doesn’t startle, but it’s a near thing. He didn’t notice Minato’s approach. “You’re quiet.”
“Kiko’s the loud one,” Minato says easily. He pulls out supplies from his medical kit. “You want me to wrap your shoulder? I also have some pills.”
Sasuke lets his hand fall away from the shoulder, which Minato takes as an invitation to move closer. He peers at Sasuke’s shoulder thoughtfully and traces out the joint with careful fingers.
“You a medic?”
“No, Kiko always gets into a lot of trouble. I grew up watching doctors set a lot of her bones and fix her up. Picked up a few things,” Minato says. “This doesn’t look like a dislocation or a break. A tendon tear, maybe?”
Minato wraps Sasuke’s shoulder efficiently. The wrappings are snug and help ease some of the throbbing. When Minato offers him a handful of pills, Sasuke dry swallows them without bothering to listen to Minato’s full explanation about which ones were for the inflammation and which ones were for the pain.
By the time they rejoin the others, Kiko and Obito have finished digging the foxhole for the Uchihas. “Everything all right?” Obito asks.
“It’s not a break or a dislocation,” Minato says and crawls into the foxhole. Obito settles at the far end, and then the twins lie down next to him.
Sasuke hesitates before stepping down. He’s settling into his spot when Kiko grouses, “Man, you stink.”
Sasuke goes still. He can’t smell himself, but it’s not a stretch to imagine just how bad he must stink. He’s so thoroughly coated in blood and sweat that even his hair is in stiff spikes. His boots are caked with mud and innards. “No, seriously, you stink,” Kiko says, poking Sasuke in the side to indicate that he needs to move further away. “You do realize that bathing in your enemy’s blood is just a turn of phrase and not a suggestion for how you should fight, right?”
“Shut up, Kiko,” Sasuke growls, and turns on his side, his back to Kiko.
Minato seems less concerned about Sasuke’s general body odor. “What was that technique you used to cut Hanzo’s scythe in half? It sounded like birds.”
“Chidori,” Sasuke identifies. “Kakashi invented the technique.”
“And Hatake Kakashi passed it down to you,” Kiko finishes quietly. It’s the way Kiko says Kakashi’s name: Hatake Kakashi. She says his whole name, spells it out, as if she’s talking about a fairytale. Obito might not have shared anything about his past with Kakashi with his children, but Kakashi’s legend is known even so far north. “Will you teach it to us?”
“No,” Sasuke answers flatly, and just like that, Kiko’s temper flares. She’s halfway through a hissed, expletive-ridden assessment of Sasuke’s arrogance when Sasuke finds an opening to interrupt. “Ask Kakashi to teach you himself.”
Kiko falls eerily silent, but Minato is ready with a follow-up question. “Would he say yes?”
Sasuke huffs a laugh. He had to pester Kakashi for months before he deigned to teach him. “Sure, why not. The piece of shit can be generous in his better moments.”
They’re pressed so close to each other, Sasuke can actually feel Kiko bristle. “Is that a yes or a no?”
“It’s a sure, why not,” Sasuke repeats, which is exactly the wrong thing to say because Kiko goes off on another furious rant, which Minato keeps trying to interrupt with attempts at diplomacy to convince Sasuke that he should ask Kakashi to teach them or, at the very least, that he should teach them himself—
“I wouldn’t want to learn it even if you did teach us, you asshat,” Kiko hisses, melodramatically flailing about as much as she can in the cramped space of the foxhole.
“Yeah, you would,” Minato mutters, and Kiko nearly brains herself against the top of the foxhole trying to twist around and confront her brother with a snarled, Shut up, Minato, which Minato responds with, No, you shut up, Kiko, and of course, Sasuke somehow ends up getting roped into the whole argument when he tells them both to fucking can it, and then they’re all just hissing at each other to shut up I will punch you in your stupid fucking face and squirming around to make their point.
It only ends when Obito steps in and tells them all to shut up, “I will set this foxhole on fire.”
Kiko unclenches her fist from Sasuke’s armor, Minato stops trying to rub Kiko’s face into the dirt, and Sasuke pulls his hand back from where he’d been using Minato’s cloak to try and smother them both. There’s a moment of blessed silence, and then, Kiko mutters, “You really stink.”
“Gods as my witness, I warned you,” Obito snaps, and lets loose a billow of chakra.
Kiko’s cloak catches fire.
“Seriously, what’s taking him so long?” Kiko grouses, squinting against the sun.
Kakashi had said dawn, but the sun is already bright overhead. The men even had time to eat their rations for breakfast.
Obito crosses his arms across his chest. “This isn’t like him,” he says. He hasn’t looked away from the valley since sunrise, just stood, unmoving, holding vigil for Kakashi to start the attack. “This isn’t like him at all.”
“What isn’t like him?” Minato demands. He’s been pacing slowly back and forth as they wait for Takamaru to return from his surveillance of the joint forces. From this distance, they can see a hazy line of soldiers, beyond where Madara has assembled his troops. The two armies are assembled, facing each other from several hundred yards away, but they are frozen.
Sasuke remembers lining up his plastic toy soldiers in the same way when he was younger.
Despite Sasuke’s assurances that they only needed to be patient, Obito had gotten so antsy three hours after sunrise that he asked Abira to dispatch his summon with a message for Kakashi: Why the delay?
“It isn’t like him to be late,” Obito grumbles.
Sasuke can’t help himself: he starts to laugh. He laughs until his eyes start to tear up and he’s doubled over. He even crouches on his heels because the alternative is to tilt over from how hard he’s laughing. When he finally regains some semblance of control and straightens to his full height, it’s to find that everyone is watching him, all of them waiting for an explanation.
Sasuke holds Obito’s gaze steady when he speaks. “Hatake Kakashi has never been on time to a single gods damned thing in the entire time I have known him.”
Obito frowns. “Kakashi was the most uptight, punctual piece of shit on the gods’ green earth,” he says. “He would chew me out for hours if I was even a minute late for training—”
“And you were always late for training,” Sasuke finishes with a grin. He’s heard the stories from the Yondaime himself.
“I wasn’t a morning person when I was young,” Obito grumbles.
Minato makes a frankly disbelieving face. “Father, you’re the dictionary definition of a morning person.” Kiko joins in to point out that Obito sings every fucking morning like a deranged lunatic; half the Rebun wanted to drown him in the ocean for his perkiness. There is no explanation for Obito’s cheeriness in the mornings, Kiko says, not even the best fucking coffee in the world can explain why Obito is so grateful to be awake at the asscrack of dawn—
She’s interrupted by the loud flap of winds. They all tilt their faces up to the sky to watch Takamaru gracefully descend to rest on Abira’s outstretched forearm. Abira scratches affectionately under Takamaru’s chin, murmuring a sincere apology for making Takamaru fly back and forth in such cold temperatures.
“Well?” Obito demands. His foot is tapping a steady rhythm in the snow.
“The armies are assembled and ready to attack,” Takamaru explains. “They’re just waiting on Lord Commander Hatake’s order.”
Obito throws up his hands. “Fantastic, Hatake. Just sit there on your ass, twiddle your thumbs, and give Madara time to organize his forces in defense.”
Sasuke starts laughing again. This time, he clutches at Kiba to stay upright, bracing himself because his stomach is hurting from his laughter.
“What’s so funny now, Uchiha?” Neji asks, sounding exasperated.
Sasuke wipes at his eyes, dislodging the tears that are starting to freeze at the corners of his eyes against his lashes. “Imagine you’re Uchiha Madara and you have more than thirteen thousand men, ready for battle. You’ve summoned Otsutsuki Kaguya from another realm to end the world. You’ve been working up to this theatrical moment for decades.” He pauses a beat, looking around the group to see if they see Kakashi’s intent, the sheer audacity of the man. They’re still watching him with something like confusion, so Sasuke continues. “Imagine you’re Uchiha Madara, and the one real threat to you since Senju Tobirama walked this earth is Hatake Kakashi, who now stands at your door with over seven thousand men. But instead of attacking, Hatake Kakashi just…waits. He just sits there. You’ve been waiting decades, and Hatake Kakashi is—”
“Making you wait,” Kiko finishes, looking out over the valley, comprehension dawning in her eyes. “He’s making you impatient. He’s making you angry.”
“He also has a message for you, Lord Uchiha,” Takamaru says. Sasuke turns towards Takamaru, but he finds that the hawk is looking at Obito instead. “Lord Commander Hatake says, and I quote, Quit fretting, moron.”
For a moment, Obito goes utterly still. Kiko and Minato both glance at Obito, worried, but a moment later, Obito breaks his silence. “That condescending piece of shit,” he snarls. “I am going to pummel that smug smile off his fucking face when I see him—”
“To which Lord Commander Hatake says,” Takamaru interrupts neatly, “I’d like to see you try.”
Obito rounds on his heels a moment later, growling under his breath all the ways he plans to hand Kakashi his ass when they next see each other.
“Glad to know they’re still on talking terms,” Kiko mutters. She turns to face the valley again. She is tapping a fast rhythm against her thigh with one finger, jittery with nerves. Minato is doing no better; he’s still pacing.
Sasuke manages to withstand their fidgeting for a few moments longer before he snaps and tells them to conduct a perimeter check.
Kiba follows Sasuke’s gaze. “They’re young for their first war,” he mutters
Sasuke turns back to the valley. He can still see the smoke rising from Madara’s camps. In broad daylight, he can make out the swarm of tents and men in the far distance. Thirteen thousand is a number on paper. In person, they are legions. “I was a lot younger.” Just twelve, and barely into his first growth spurt.
Shikamaru rises from his sprawl in a nearby foxhole and ambles up to them, cigarette dangling from his lips. “Let me guess, you were cool as a cucumber for your first battle, Uchiha,” he says. He doesn’t sound mocking. If anything, he sounds annoyed.
Sasuke feels his mouth twitch. The cursed seal had been burning on his skin. He had been feverish with bloodlust. His Sharingan had been whorling so fast with his chakra, it had made his vision blur. Across the battlefield, Betsukai Togichi had been ready with two hundred men to Sasuke’s eighty. “I threw up before I marched for my first battle.”
Jugo had stood guard so that Sasuke could throw up without any prying eyes; Suigetsu handed him water after he finished throwing up. And then, Suigetsu threw up himself, Sasuke holding back his hair for him while he heaved into the bushes.
“This is an inspiring conversation, Sarge,” Kiba deadpans. “Very appropriate for the occasion—”
There is a crack of thunder overhead, the sound ricocheting across the valley with such ferocity that the snow on the mountain shifts. Shikamaru drops his cigarette to the snow with a hiss, turning to watch the mountain top fearfully in anticipation of an avalanche, but most of the men hurry to their feet and line up to watch the valley. Minato, Kiko, and Obito arrive in a blur, their Sharingan already tinged with chakra.
There is another echo of thunder, and overhead, silhouetted in glare of sunlight and a pristine blue sky, an arch of lightning sparks across the sky.
“Hatake goddamn Kakashi,” Sasuke mutters, and breathes deep to count to ten. He descends easily into the calm as the lines of soldiers in the valley below start to move. Kakashi moves his troops first. It’s a feint, Sasuke knows, because the crux of Kakashi’s strategy is to strike suddenly, a pinwheeling rotation of cavalry and foot soldiers that will attack on the retreat, not on the charge.
“Now?” Shino asks.
One, two, three. “Hold,” Sasuke orders. Kakashi has signaled the start of the battle, and Madara has responded predictably. The troops on the ground are covering large distances at fast speeds, but their movements still seem slow from Sasuke’s vantage point on the mountain. Madara’s troops are surging forward to press their advantage in numbers.
“Now, then,” Kiba murmurs, when Madara’s first line of troops makes contact with Kakashi’s soldiers.
Four, five. “Hold,” Sasuke repeats. He has to make sure that the first part of Kakashi’s tactic is deployed. Then, and only then, will he risk descending the mountains with his own men.
“We’re going to miss all the fun, Uchiha,” Neji mutters under his breath.
Six, seven, eight. “Hold,” Sasuke murmurs, and holds up a hand.
Drawn on paper, Kakashi’s strategy looks like a shuriken. But from this distance, it reminds Sasuke of his snakes when they surround an enemy, hissing and poised to attack. His snakes always take turns when they attack, darting lines of coiled muscle and energy, forcing the enemy to defend on all sides, surrounded by their venom and bared fangs.
Kakashi leads the first attack. Sasuke knows it even from this distance, because he sees a crackle of chakra arching down from the sky, almost making contact with the ground where a small platoon of men has broken off from the western flank of the Konohagakure troops.
A moment later, the second attack is launched, this time on the eastern flank. There is a snarl of fire blossoming out from the center of it, smoke billowing upwards as the fire catches hold and spreads outwards.
Obito inhales sharply. “That’s Itachi.”
“Where?” Minato asks, standing on tiptoes as if that will help him see any better. “I don’t see him.”
Kiko tugs at Minoto’s sleeve to draw her brother’s attention and points. “Over there! How fucking powerful do you think that katon is for us to be able to see it from here?”
“Now, sir?” Shikamaru murmurs, stepping close. He has been patient, but now, watching the battle unfold, his patience is starting to wear thin.
Sasuke keeps his hand aloft. Nine, Sasuke counts, and waits, patient, for what he knows will happen—
The sound of a horn.
Jugo’s mounted warriors take the field, streaming around the neatly lined, defensive battalions of Konohagakure soldiers. They break left and right suddenly, starting the hard push around the valley to begin threading the noose around Madara’s neck. Even from this distance, Sasuke can hear the dim rumble of hooves, the lingering sound of battle horns mixing. The men are screaming out battle cries as they ride; it sounds like a faint hum.
“Now,” Sasuke orders, and leads the charge down the slope, and into the Omine Valley.