The salt flats nearly kill Michi. She gets so weak crossing the distance that Sasuke walks alongside her for the last twenty miles, coaxing her along with a gentling hand on her flank that becomes thinner and thinner with each passing day.
By the time the landscape shifts from the barren hellscape of the salt flats to something with more vegetation, they are both limping with exhaustion. Sasuke can’t afford to be seen, though, so he expends the last of his energy in finding a water source and they both collapse next to it. He doesn’t even build a fire for the night.
Karin had warned him about the salt flats. He didn't really understand what she'd meant until he was two days into the journey, when even the moisture in his throat seemed to be scraped dry. Even the desert was more forgiving than the salt flats.
But then again, he hadn’t spent more than a week in the desert, and he hadn’t even gone that deep into it. He crosses the full breadth of the salt flats, and although it takes him over two weeks to do it, he manages.
They are at the bottom of a craggy hill, with enough cover that Sasuke feels comfortable taking a day to recover in preparation for the next leg of his journey. He hunts, washes off the fine layer of salt and dirt on his skin from the past three weeks, and even shaves his beard clean. Michi takes the time to recuperate by grazing quietly on the vegetation around the small stream Sasuke has located, staying in the shade of the few, low-hanging trees in the area.
Michi has traveled over two thousand miles with Sasuke over the past few months, and the toll it has taken is showing. She is favoring her right hind leg, and her coat has lost some of its luster. She does not complain, though, even when Sasuke re-saddles her and sets out in search of the nearest village. He finds what he’s looking for nearly twenty-three miles north: a single house, sitting low against the ground and surrounded by a fence. There is a stable built a distance from the house. Even from a distance, Sasuke can hear the excited bark of a dog.
Sasuke unburdens Michi of all her weight, including the saddle and reins. She shakes her mane loose and pushes against Sasuke with a gentle nudge. Sasuke leads her towards the house as quietly as he can. When he’s within a good distance, he steps back from Michi and lets his chakra gather at his fingertips to spark against her hindquarters.
She takes off in a gallop, heading straight for the house. Sasuke lingers long enough to see a man come out with two young boys at his side at the sound of her galloping. Together, the three of them circle Michi and coax her towards them. She lets herself be guided into the stables, and finally, Sasuke turns away. Iwagakure is another three hundred miles north, and he can’t afford to linger like this in the Land of Earth.
Karin had given Sasuke several maps to help plot out the best route for him to take in his travels westward. She had been painstakingly detailed in this task, selecting the exact villages for Sasuke to stop in, the amount of time she thought it best for him to spend at each location to provide just enough proof of his aimless wandering. One of the maps is an illustration of the Land of Earth. On it, Karin has drawn three small circles just outside of Iwagakure. The lettering is so small that Sasuke has to squint to read the names of the towns:
Kitamuayama, Oe, and Mogami.
This was the best guess Karin could give about the last known whereabouts of Itachi. The information filtering out of the Land of Earth is rumor at best, purposefully distorted at worse. Be careful, she cautioned.
This could all be one elaborate trap, Sasuke knows, but there is no other information on where Itachi is. This is all he has. So Sasuke spreads the map out on the ground and taps the point of Jugo’s knife against each circle.
“Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” Sasuke mutters under his breath, “catch a tiger by the toe.”
His knife tip lands on Oe.
Sasuke pulls his rucksack and bedroll over his back and sheaths his knife at his waist. He walks.
Sasuke is camped thirty miles southwest of Oe when he senses a dulled chakra signature approaching him. He wakes with his Mangekyou tinged with chakra even as he summons backup.
The snake appears almost instantly, head raised in preparation to strike. He swivels his head towards the chakra stalking his way. “You were followed?” Daichi asks softly, his hiss bleeding away into the night.
Sasuke hasn’t even dared to light a fire at night, and he spends a few hours each day doubling back to remove any evidence of his trail and misdirect anyone who may be following. He’s been making his way so carefully across the rocky canyons of the Land of Earth that he hasn’t slept for longer than four hours at a time. It would be almost impossible for anyone to follow him. He doesn’t explain any of this to Daichi, just strongly projects his annoyance and indignation at him.
“Not followed, then,” Daichi amends, and stands guard while Sasuke rolls up his bedroll and ties his cloak around himself. It’s early November, and nights in the Land of Earth are almost as cold as they were in the desert. “Just tracked.”
“I could call Hideyoshi if you can’t handle it,” Sasuke offers, and is rewarded with Daichi's lightning-fast bite on his ankle. Daichi is not as poisonous as Kanaye or even his own twin, Hideyoshi, but he’s fast.
“You want me to scout?” Daichi asks, slithering a few feet away from Sasuke to hide in the grass.
Sasuke crouches low, focused on the tree line. He doesn’t want to draw his sword yet, because there’s a gibbous moon overheard and his katana will no doubt catch the light the minute he draws it. And besides, Sasuke isn’t even sure if he’ll need a sword for this encounter. The chakra signature is considerable, but nothing that poses a serious threat.
Sasuke may have reacted differently once, but that was before Senju Tobirama taught him taijutsu, and before Sasuke could summon dragons from the sky with the strength of his katon alone. It was before Kakashi gave him his Mangekyou.
“Let him come,” Sasuke says lightly. He waits patiently while he packs up camp. He breathes slowly and steadily as he goes about his task so that he can slip into a battle calm if need be.
Seventy yards and getting closer.
“The chakra,” Daichi says after a few moments. “It’s odd…”
Daichi is quiet for a few minutes longer. Fifty yards. The chakra signature pauses. “Muffled,” Daichi says after a moment. Sasuke lets his hand fall to his sword hilt.
Muffled, as in masked. As in:
Someone has cast themselves in a blood sigil so powerful that the user has diminished his presence in the world, becoming almost unrecognizable. There are only a few people who have that kind of knowledge. Sarutobi Hiruzen is the only one Sasuke knows who can cast that kind of ninjutsu with any efficiency; even Kakashi can’t hold it for long. But this chakra has been stalking closer to Sasuke for the better part of fifteen minutes now, and even under all the layers of its blood ward, the chakra is strong enough that it prickles against his skin. It’s a volatile, pulsatile heat in the far distance. Whoever it is has the knowledge to cloak their own chakra signature.
And they’ve snuck up on Sasuke.
Should I scout ahead? Daichi asks, knowing the exact moment in which Sasuke’s attention shifts from mild annoyance at being woken up to something more.
Sasuke shifts on the balls of his feet. Circle around behind him. Don’t engage.
Daichi slithers away with nothing more than a soft whisper of the grass parting.
Sasuke counts his breaths and waits. The chakra signature is still at fifty yards. It stays there for a few, long minutes, and with each passing moment, Sasuke’s mind replays what feels like a distant memory now:
In a barren corner of the Land of Rice Fields, hunting for his brother. He’d called Daichi for backup that night too. Daichi is the one who confirmed Yuuta’s original discovery. Two of your kin, he’d said, delighted, and Sasuke had watched from the shadows of the brush as Madara and Itachi had talked under the dim, waning moonlight.
Now, though, the chakra is almost unrecognizable.
Where are you, Daichi?
Not in position yet, Daichi communicates back. He is somewhere to Sasuke’s left, taking a wide, arcing loop to scout around the threat and make sure there are no other hidden surprises. The chakra signature is still stationary. Sasuke’s fingers curl around the hilt of his sword.
There’s a slight shift in the air around him, something that Sasuke can’t quite pinpoint. It’s nothing tangible, nothing but a quickening in his heartbeat, something primal and instinctive that makes Sasuke shift. He’s coming my way, Sasuke communicates to Daichi even though the chakra signature is still eerily still. Daichi projects his confusion back at him, but Sasuke tunes out Daichi’s words in favor of collecting himself.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine—
He doesn’t finish his count before the chakra signature starts to move. It’s sudden, and within the span of a few breaths, the enemy has covered a third of the distance separating them. Fast.
Sasuke shifts his posture, angling his body sideways so that he can minimize the target he presents. Carefully, he relaxes the muscles in his back, his neck, his shoulders and fingers. He concentrates on his calves and eases the muscles there as well, letting his heels dig into the earth to ground him in his place.
He’s moving too fast, Daichi communicates, hurried. I can’t—
Stand down, Sasuke orders, and performs the seal to dismiss Daichi before the snake can react. He draws his sword then. She is bright under the moonlight, and with each inch that Sasuke drags out of his sheath, it’s as if he's pulling out strips of silver. He lets the tip of his sword rest against the ground. The chakra feels stronger the closer it gets.
Twenty yards and moving closer. Fifteen, ten at most—
He hears it now: the soft snap and crackle of twigs, the muffled crunch of leaves giving way for the force behind this approach. The attacker veers suddenly to the right at the last moment, just skirting the tree line. Sasuke tracks him with his eyes, shifting his body only when the angle of attack becomes too oblique for him to face properly. He’s ready when the attacker breaks through the trees.
For one, disorienting moment, there is only the sound of their swords meeting midair. The attacker is wearing a face-cloth and clothes so black that they blend into his surroundings. He’s almost of Sasuke’s height, but just a few inches shorter and slightly narrower at the shoulders. He doesn’t have the same weight as Sasuke, none of the coiled muscles that store all of Sasuke’s aggressive chakra.
The attack is powerful enough, though, that Sasuke has to yield ground, letting his backwards momentum dispel some of the force. He twists out of the way, too fast for the next strike that comes down, but there’s a powerful kick aimed at his side that forces him to step back one, two, three full steps before he has the space to draw the hunting knife that Jugo gave him. He needs an advantage, and this is how he will carve it out—with two blades, each a different length. Kakashi taught him how.
He’s about to move forward with his counterattack when he realizes that the attacker has let his sword hang limply by his side—he concedes? Sasuke thinks stupidly. He was just getting started; the battle calm hasn't even overtaken him yet. Sasuke has put so much force into his back leg to propel himself forward that he stumbles in an effort to stop his attack from landing. He will not strike down an enemy who won’t defend himself, so Sasuke changes the angle of his attack at the very last moment, passing harmlessly by the man and skidding to a stop a few feet away.
He turns back to face the man again, ready with a question, but the words get stuck in his throat. He didn't notice it before because the moonlight had hidden the man’s features too long, the face-cloth pulled up so high that his eyes are barely visible. Now that the heat of their battle has abruptly ended, he can look the man in the eyes and see the truth for what it is:
Itachi tugs his face-cloth down and stares at Sasuke, eyes wide. Sasuke can’t remember the last time he caught Itachi off-guard. “What are you doing here?”
Sasuke gapes back at his brother. “Looking for you.”
Itachi lets the tip of his sword drop down to the ground. He’s exhausted, Sasuke realizes. There is no other explanation for the weariness in the set of his shoulders. “You found me.”
Sasuke takes a tentative step forward. Itachi’s grip on his sword tightens a fraction in response.
Sasuke rolls his eyes and sheaths his sword. “Time out.”
It takes a moment, but eventually, Itachi sheaths his sword as well. “I’d heard you were crossing the sands. Finding yourself while you slept your way across the Continent.”
Does everyone know? Sasuke wants to ask, but that is a fantastically stupid question. Of course everyone knows. If Itachi, hiding out in the very innards of the Land of Earth has heard about Sasuke’s meandering path westward—and apparently, all the women (and two men) he has slept with along the way—then surely, anyone else who is interested can find out the information easily.
“No,” Sasuke says, enunciating slowly. “I was coming here to find you. I left a trail leading into the Land of Wind.”
Itachi considers Sasuke carefully. “It was a good strategy. Well executed,” he says after a moment, and Sasuke can’t help the way he stands up a little straighter at the praise. “Now leave.”
The moment, apparently, wasn’t meant to last long. Itachi is already turning away. “Wait, Brother, just listen—”
“Look, Sasuke, if you’re not here to kill me, then the only thing you've accomplished is to waste my time. So unless—”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, I know about the Wildfire Executive,” Sasuke interrupts, and Itachi freezes.
He is utterly and completely still for a few long moments, in the way that only Itachi can be. There has always been an odd stillness about him as the gears in his brain click away. “Did the Hokage send you?”
“Didn’t you hear? I’m a free agent now.”
Itachi closes his eyes. Even in the darkness, Sasuke can see the steady rise and fall of his shoulders. “They weren’t just rumors.”
Itachi must think that the Hokage started the rumor so Sasuke had enough cover to pursue him. Sasuke doesn’t know how to explain to him the full truth of what happened, of why he left. Instead, he settles for a shrug. “I’m not too good at following orders.”
Itachi’s temper is immediate—he is an Uchiha, and for all the calm stillness he possesses, an Uchiha is always an Uchiha. “No,” he snarls. “You aren’t. You are such a little—” He ties his sword abruptly over his back, movements quick and sharp. “Stop interfering, Sasuke. Go back to your little road trip.”
It has been over ten years since Sasuke has been on the receiving end of Itachi’s temper; by the time Sasuke gets his thoughts together, Itachi is already disappearing into the tree line.
Sasuke grabs his rucksack, bedroll and ties his sword securely around his waist. He has to jog a bit to catch up with Itachi, and when he does, Itachi doesn’t even look at him. He keeps walking, so determined in his stride that his footsteps are making far too much noise.
“You’re going to alert any halfway decent shinobi if you keep stomping around in your little hissy fit.”
“I am not,” Itachi bites off, “having a hissy fit. Go away, Sasuke.”
Sasuke watches his brother in profile. His hair has been chopped off into the same short spikes that Sasuke has. He’s also sporting scruff. “Nice haircut.”
Itachi stops walking and rounds on Sasuke. “What is the point of you coming to find me? So now you know the truth. Did you want a gold star or—”
“Are you really looking for Senju Hashirama?” Sasuke interrupts before Itachi can launch into one of his lectures.
Itachi starts to walk again abruptly. Sasuke follows, wondering just how far he can push before Itachi’s temper snaps completely. He isn’t sure how to handle Itachi anymore. He knew once, but that was a decade ago and before the secrets and grief of their family separated them. It didn’t take long for Sasuke to figure out why Itachi had kept him in the dark about the Wildfire Executive. He was doing what he always does, being a big brother and protecting Sasuke—from the truth about their grandfather and uncle’s treason, from the truth that even Tsunade was able to identify with startling clarity: the Clan does come before country (Blood, Fugaku had taught them again and again, runs thicker than water.)
At the end of the day, the Uchihas would have fallen in line and betrayed their country if it meant protecting their kin. Itachi would have done anything to protect Sasuke from the ugly truth about their family’s ultimate treason, about why Shisui had died and why Uncle Kyoguku’s heart was so broken.
But now that Sasuke wants to help Itachi, he’s not sure what to do. He’s traveled thousands and thousands of miles and hasn’t even once considered what he would do once he found Itachi.
Eventually, they reach what must be Itachi’s camp by a slow-moving stream. There is a bedroll tucked up around the roots of a large tree. Itachi immediately goes to a water bottle that he has left by his bedroll and takes a deep drink. He hasn’t said anything in the past ten minutes, just walked with a blank expression on his face.
Fuck it, Sasuke thinks angrily. He doesn’t need a goddamn invitation. He sets down his bedroll and spreads it out a few feet from Itachi, angling it so that they split the difference of covering their perimeter.
This gets Itachi’s attention. “What are you doing?”
“We should sleep.”
Itachi throws down his canteen to the ground with force. “You’re not staying, Sasuke. Go away.”
Kanaye, Daichi, Hideyoshi, Fudo, Ishi.
The snakes appear simultaneously, and immediately, their focus hone in on Itachi. Fudo’s tail rattles. “You found him.”
Ishi’s hood fans out and then recedes. “What luck you have, boy. Your brother just walked right up to you.”
Kanaye slithers away from Itachi, who is frozen and watching the snakes with all the focused intensity he reserves for enemies. “He tried to kill me once, you know. In Amegakure.”
Daichi hacks a laugh. “He should have finished the job.”
Sasuke steps in before they can start bickering. “You’ll keep lookout?”
Hideyoshi perks up. “I call last shift!”
The others grumble amongst themselves, but eventually, they settle into a shift schedule for lookout. Daichi has third shift, so he slithers close and settles by Sasuke’s head in a loose curl. Sasuke reaches out and scratches at his scales. “I dismissed you suddenly earlier.”
It’s the closest Sasuke will make to an apology, and Daichi—like all his snakes—accepts it easily. “It’s fine,” Daichi mutters and resettles his coil into something more comfortable. Ishi slides up the tree trunk and loops around one of the branches with a sigh. Sasuke senses Kanaye rooting around to find a good nook to hide in for the night while Fudo sets up for first watch further away. “You had it covered.”
“I did,” Sasuke agrees and glances at Itachi, who is staring up at Ishi with what looks like mild alarm. He switches to human tongue. “They’ll keep watch. We should sleep.”
Itachi sits down carefully on his bedroll. After a moment, he unties his sword from his back and rests it by his bedroll. “I thought it was just a rumor that you could speak their tongue.”
Daichi lifts his head. In broken human tongue he says, “His accent is deplorable. But we make do.”
Sasuke huffs a laugh and rolls onto his back. Ishi is already dozing overhead. “It’s my third language. Give me some credit.”
Itachi settles into his own bedroll. He shifts around a bit before finally settling. “You have to leave in the morning, Sasuke.”
Sasuke closes his eyes. “Sure thing, Brother.”
“I mean it.”
“I know you do.”
“Will everyone shut the fuck up and go to sleep?” Kanaye snarls in human tongue from somewhere inside the tree. He practices his human tongue with Sasuke so he is fluent enough to curse. He almost sounds human. “Some of us have a shift to take.”
Sasuke takes a deep breath. Ishi was right. What are the odds that Itachi would find him? Unbidden, a memory comes to him of the Nidaime sitting across Sasuke as they were winding down after a long day of training. The Nidaime was describing a battle he fought in on the banks of the Komo River, how the tide had shifted in his favor at the last minute and how they had beaten the enemy into submission as the sun was setting. Lucky break, Sasuke had said around a mouthful, and the Nidaime had laughed. You make your own luck, kid.
Not luck, then. Sasuke has crossed the entire Continent in search of his brother. He's gathered the intelligence he needed and was headed towards Oe. He would have found his brother sooner or later. It just happens to have been sooner. Still, that doesn’t mean he can get sloppy about this now. Knowing Itachi, he needs to have all his bases covered. Let me know if my brother tries to sneak off, he tells his snakes.
Can I bite him if he does? Kanaye sounds too eager at the prospect, but Sasuke pays it no mind. Instead, he closes his eyes and counts—backwards, starting at one hundred, breathing steadily and deeply between each number.
He falls asleep sometime around eighty-three.
Kanaye wakes him up by biting him on the ankle. Sasuke hisses a curse and struggles awake. “Can we go?” Daichi asks by way of hello. Hideyoshi cracks a yawn so wide his jaw unhinges entirely from the rest of his skull. His fangs are sharp glints in the morning light.
The sun is breaking over the horizon. Itachi is already up and breaking down camp. There is a modest fire with a tin can on it. Oats, from what Sasuke can tell, but he doesn’t know if the breakfast is intended for both of them. Itachi looks less tired compared to yesterday, though Sasuke doesn't put much stock in it. Itachi is the kind of man to write off internal bleeding as a flesh wound.
Sasuke grabs Kanaye and tries to yank him off his ankle. “Yeah, you can go—would you quit it, Kanaye?”
Kanaye lets go of Sasuke’s ankle and slithers away. “Lots of venom in that one. Call me for stupid guard duty again and I’ll send it straight into your fucking carotid.”
Fudo swivels his gaze towards Itachi, who has now paused in his task of gathering his rucksack to watch them. “You will be fine on your own with him.”
It’s not a question, but it’s the closest to one that he will ask. “I will be,” Sasuke replies.
The snakes disappear with soft pops, but Fudo lingers. He eyes Sasuke carefully, and Sasuke can feel him shuffling through Sasuke’s sluggish, early-morning thoughts. Finally, he withdraws his inquiry, eyes slitting with something like a smile. “He is your brother, Sasuke. And you are his,” he says finally. “Trust in that, if nothing else.”
Sasuke hauls himself to his feet to gather his belongings. The doubts from last night are still crowding his mind. He’s found Itachi. So now what? “We haven’t been brothers in a long while.”
Fudo scoffs, tail rattling a nonsensical rhythm. “Idiot human. You have always been brothers. Blood runs thick.”
He disappears without giving Sasuke a chance to respond. Sasuke stares at the spot where Fudo was just a few moments ago.
“Your snake bit you,” Itachi points out mildly, and settles on the grass by the small fire he's constructed. He leans over the flames to check on his meal, stirring it with a wooden spoon. It’s not just oats, Sasuke realizes, but some dried meat as well. He didn’t think to check his snares and traps last night, just followed Itachi blindly away from his own camp. He regrets it now, feeling as if he could hunt, gut, and eat an entire deer.
“His name is Kanaye,” Sasuke says, and starts gathering his bedroll into a tight package for him to carry. “He was angry I had him on guard duty.”
“Shouldn’t you—” Itachi gestures vaguely at Sasuke’s ankle where there are twin spots of red. There are ugly, black tracks spider-webbing outwards from the spot where Kanaye’s fangs sunk in.
“Their venom doesn’t work on me,” Sasuke explains, and pushes away the blood with a thumb. “I’m immune to most known snake venoms.”
“Most?” Itachi asks and gets to his feet.
“To all the breeds in my Clan, at least,” Sasuke says. He piles his packed rucksack and bedroll next to each other. “So what’s the game plan?”
Itachi’s Mangekyou whorls slowly. “I didn’t recognize your chakra last night. That’s why I attacked.”
The admission stings more than it should. They are brothers, and still, Itachi hadn’t recognized him. Sasuke knows Itachi’s chakra signature like the back of his own hand. Had it not been for that chakra muffling sigil, he would have been able to identify Itachi from a mile away.
“You looked pretty surprised.” Sasuke clears his throat. “So I figured as much.”
Itachi tugs up his sleeve and shows Sasuke the blood sigil on his skin. “It’s this sigil. It muffles my signature, but it also makes me more insensitive to someone else's chakra.”
So not because his own blood was unfamiliar to him, then. A sigil. Sasuke studies it carefully. Sarutobi had drawn out the sigil for him once in the sand, cautioning him against its use. It’s a chakra drain to maintain it, and sustaining it comes with a high price. What’s more, Itachi has done it wrong. No wonder he looks so tired.
Cautiously, Sasuke approaches Itachi and points at one of the arcing lines of blood on his skin. “You did it wrong.”
Itachi frowns. “No, I didn’t.”
“Yeah, you did,” Sasuke says and crouches close by Itachi to draw in the ground. He draws the sigil out with the tip of a kunai. “This is the right way to do it.”
Itachi’s response is immediate. “No, idiot—” He stops, abrupt, when he realizes that he’s in the wrong. Even with all the dirt and grime on his face, Sasuke can see the hint of a flush spreading on his cheeks. Itachi can probably count on his hands the number of times he’s been wrong. Sasuke can’t help himself; he grins.
“How do you know this sigil?” Itachi demands.
“Newsflash,” Sasuke says, wiping out the sigil with his boot. He could tell Itachi about the ghosts, or—“I’m actually good at my job.” Itachi scrubs at the blood on his hand, and just like that, his chakra blooms in the air around them, familiar and pulsing with life. He reaches for a kunai, but Sasuke stops him. “Don’t.”
Itachi looks up. “Why not?”
“It’s a chakra drain. You said yourself it muffles your senses,” Sasuke explains. “You decide what’s more important: staying undetected, or having your full faculties with you if you’re attacked. There’s a reason why they don’t teach this sigil.”
Itachi’s hand hovers over his kunai. “I’m hunting someone.”
“Senju Hashirama,” Sasuke says, and makes sure that his face betrays no emotion as the name leaves his tongue. He left Senju Hashirama in his wake when he left Konohagakure. He entrusted his hitai-ate to the man, and the last words he said to him were, You don’t have to live with anything. “But trust me. You’re not sneaking up on Senju Hashirama. Sigil or no.”
Itachi rolls his eyes and lets his hand drop from his kunai pouch. “I’m not actually hunting Senju Hashirama, idiot.”
Sasuke sits down on the ground and leans back on the heels of his hands. “Then who?”
Itachi reaches for his water bottle. “I’m hunting his clone.”
Sasuke looks heavenwards. Of course there’s some clone of Senju Hashirama running around out there. This is his life. Apparently, Madara is more like Orochimaru than Sasuke previously thought. Both of them are sick enough to perform a resurrection with a human sacrifice. “The Edo Tensei.”
“Not the Edo Tensei,” Itachi corrects and looks out over the stream. “Something else. I’m not sure. It’s not even Senju Hashirama. Just some…thing with his DNA.”
“Zetsu,” Itachi spits, as if he hates the word.
Sasuke is well briefed on Akatsuki and all its members. Zetsu is one of the more inhuman ones—reportedly a cannibal, and with odd leaf flaps covering his face. As far as SCI can tell, the leaf flaps seem like organic matter; there are witnesses who reported seeing the flaps open and shut. The intel also suggested that he had some form of a split personality, but Shikamaru was less sure of the veracity of those reports. Not many people, it seemed, survived their encounters with Zetsu to provide solid intel. Most of it is heresay.
“What does Zetsu have to do with—”
“Could you just be quiet for ten minutes and eat your breakfast?” Itachi snaps, what little patience he has vanishing entirely.
Sasuke glances at the oats. “I don’t want to cut into your supplies.”
Itachi ignores him and pulls out a spare tin cup. He ladles half of his food into the cup and tops it off with two strips of bacon. Sasuke remembers all those times when the adults in the compound were away or busy and it fell on Itachi and Shisui to babysit him, the messy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that Itachi made when he came home from school because that was the extent of his culinary expertise. Shisui was the one who cut off the crust for Sasuke; later, they’d all go to the redwoods and see what kind of animals they could lure with the leftover crust as bait.
He is your brother, and you are his, Fudo said. Trust in that, if nothing else.
So Sasuke takes the offered food. He’s chewing the bacon thoughtfully—too tough by far, and the oats are really nothing more than mush at this point; as usual, Itachi has let it overcook—when Itachi pins him with his Mangekyou. “One word about the food,” Itachi grouses, “and you can cook your own goddamn meals.”
“Did you hear me complaining?”
“I could hear you thinking it,” Itachi says curtly. “We move out in twenty. You can clean the dishes.”
They spend the rest of breakfast in silence. Later, as Sasuke is washing out the dishes in the stream, he mutters under his breath, “It’s making oats. Not brain surgery—”
A kunai lands a mere centimeter from his left foot.
Their destination is not Oe, but Kitamuayama. Itachi sets a fast pace, so there isn’t much time to talk. They travel in a loose, fanned out formation, keeping abreast of each other by feel of their chakra alone. They don’t arrive until late evening, and they gather at the outskirts of the small town to consider their options.
“About eight hundred people, mostly farmers. Some very poorly trained guards. Civilians only,” Itachi says in a low voice, pointing at the palisades circling the village. There are fires along the perimeter, and Sasuke can see the occasional guard walking the border. Beyond that, there is little activity in the village except for the smoke rising from their chimneys and hearths. It’s a poor town with only a few stone houses; the rest are all thatch or mud. What interests Zetsu in a place like this is beyond Sasuke’s understanding of the situation. Itachi doesn’t seem to have any better ideas because he adds a moment later, “Not sure what he’s doing here, but…here he is.”
Itachi is entirely focused on the task at hand, so Sasuke holds off on the million questions cluttering in his head (Why are we here? What does Zetsu have to do with anything? What is going on?). It’s odd enough that Itachi is letting him tag along for the ride, and he doesn’t want to press his luck. Instead, he considers the town in front of him. If Zetsu is as dangerous as the reports suggest, their priority will be to make sure the civilians are clear of whatever happens if and when they engage him.
“Eliminate or extract?”
Itachi tilts his head at an angle. “Extract,” he answers. “But we may need to eliminate to get him to cooperate.”
Sasuke glances at Itachi. “We need to kill him to get him out alive?”
“He’s like Hidan, I think,” Itachi says, and it’s only now that Sasuke notices the odd pattern Itachi is tapping out on his thigh with his finger. He’s unsure of himself.
“Immortal?” Of course, Sasuke thinks. Not just a Senju Hashirama clone, but an immortal one. Fan-fucking-tastic.
“Not quiet,” Itachi says. “Hidan’s religion, Jashin, had these rituals. They made him…” Itachi makes a vague gesture. “Something to do with his soul not being able to pass, although I don’t know the specifics. Just that you couldn’t technically kill him.”
“So Zetsu is different from Hidan how?”
Itachi lets his knee drop to the ground to get more comfortable. They have been crouching low for the past fifteen minutes now, and Sasuke is starting to feel the burn in his calves. “It’s not a technicality with Zetsu,” Itachi answers after a moment. “I don’t think he can actually die because he was never alive to begin with. I don’t know what Madara did, but he made Zetsu. They’ve been gathering the tailed beasts, and I think Zetsu is involved in whatever comes next. I never had Madara’s full trust, so I don’t know the full details. But I’m pretty sure whatever the end game is, he needs Zetsu for it.”
Sasuke takes a moment to process all the information. In the end, all he can come up with is, “What the ever-loving fuck? Does Madara have nothing better to do with his time?”
Itachi’s lip curls into a half-smile. A dimple appears, and Sasuke remembers then in sudden clarity: the dimples of his mother’s smiles.
“Idle hands,” Itachi says, and the words are familiar too. Something their uncle Inabi would say whenever he came upon Sasuke or Shisui dozing on the grass under the sunlight.
“Devil’s workshop,” Sasuke finishes and has to look away from Itachi before the memory becomes too overwhelming. A decade, his brother has been away from home, carrying the memory and truth of their family alone. And all that time, Sasuke was chasing his misplaced hatred into a downward spiral, further and further away from his brother. Konohagakure has been quietly ticking away, chasing bits and pieces of intel against the enemy while Itachi has been circling the truth of the matter with the same determination and focus that he applies to everything. The end game, that’s what this is about.
Itachi has let him tag along on this task because that is his way of asking for help. He doesn’t say, I need backup because the man I’m hunting is not even human and can’t die. The most Itachi can bring himself to do is reluctantly tolerate Sasuke’s presence.
The least Sasuke can do now after all these years is to be at Itachi’s side. “So he’s not alive and we can’t kill him,” Sasuke says slowly. “What’s the plan then?”
Itachi pulls out a knife strapped to his leg. “The brain stem,” he says and grips the knife tight. “Sever it so he’s dysfunctional. It should make him more amenable to the extraction.”
“And let him regenerate when we want him functional?”
Itachi shrugs. “It should work in theory.”
Sasuke pulls out a kunai. “Ladies first.”
Itachi’s lips thin in a frown. “You’ve gotten more annoying with age.”
“Like a fine wine,” Sasuke agrees, and can’t help but give Itachi the most shit-eating grin he can manage. Itachi starts stalking towards the village walls without warning or waiting for Sasuke.
They find Zetsu in the stables at the far end of the village. It takes them a while to find and trace his chakra. By the time they get there, Zetsu is waiting for them.
He is, if possible, even uglier in real life than the intel has suggested. There is an odd leaf-like thing on either side of his face, like a Venus flytrap—the leaf flaps witnesses had reported, Sasuke realizes. His skin is oddly colored, with his left side half-albino, and the right half so dark that it almost looks like charcoal. The yellow of his eyes is eerie. But what makes Sasuke’s skin crawl is the odd mismatch between the two sides of his face: the albino side is smiling while the darker side has a flat expression.
There is nothing human about him.
When Itachi and Sasuke enter the stables, Zetsu is waiting for them at the center of the building. He is wrapped in a rough blanket, something intended for the horses. His feet are bare. “Itachi, Itachi, Itachi,” he sing-songs. Around them, the horses whinny with fear. “We were waiting! We got so bored!”
“Zetsu,” Itachi says with an almost polite nod. He seems used to Zetsu’s odd, song-like speech. We, Zetsu said, but Sasuke doesn’t sense any other chakra signatures nearby. To be sure, Sasuke summons Ishi with a thought. The cobra appears a few feet behind Sasuke, blending easily into the hay scattered around the barn. The horses get louder in their panic at the appearance of the snake.
Sasuke reaches out to Ishi. Any enemies?
You’re alone, Ishi confirms.
“And your brother,” Zetsu murmurs. The Venus traps around his face widen and then contract. So the intel is accurate, then; the flaps are part of his body. “Well. Well. Well. This is curious. We’d heard rumors about you, Sa-su-ke.”
Sasuke raises an eyebrow. “Please tell me you’re not naked under that. This’ll be so much more awkward if you are.”
Zetsu bares his teeth in an odd imitation of a grin. The black side of his face, though, stays flat. "Wit-ty,” he says, clipped. “For a half-spirit, at least. More than half now, though, we'd say. Three-quarters-spirit, perhaps."
Sasuke freezes. That's what Rin had called him once. Half-spirit. Half-human, half-something else. How does he know?
"You're barely human anymore, U-chi-ha Sa-su-ke," Zetsu sings, off-key and crooning the syllables. "Your soul reeks."
Sasuke falls into old habits. He always responds to danger in the same way: he smirks. “I clean up nice, though. "
"You're an abomination," Zetsu says. He licks at his teeth as he says the word. "You don't belong in this realm."
Sasuke eyes the man's leaf flaps. "And you do?"
"No, we don’t," Zetsu admits easily. The royal we, Sasuke thinks. Zetsu is insane.
Zetsu continues to consider Sasuke carefully with his freakish gaze, as if peeling Sasuke apart layer by layer. The black side of Zetsu’s face shifts suddenly, coming to life like a resurrection. When he speaks, his voice is lower, more of a growl with none of the high-pitched, chirrupy tune from earlier. Not the royal we, then. We—because there are two of them. Two bodies in one, two halves of a whole. The albino half with its odd sing-song voice, and this darker side that holds Sasuke’s gaze as if he’s searching the back of Sasuke’s skull for the fine etchings of his thoughts. "You were there twice. The second time for a little over half a year, was it?"
Sasuke doesn't say anything, not sure how to respond to the question. Zetsu angles his head thoughtfully at Sasuke. "Eight months," he says slowly. "Two days, nine hours, forty minutes."
It’s hard for Sasuke to breathe. Next to him, Itachi’s posture shifts slightly. Sasuke doesn’t move his gaze from Zetsu.
How does he know?
He’s not human, Ishi answers, and through their connection, Sasuke can sense the beginning of Ishi’s concern. He’s…something else.
"Forty-two minutes," Sasuke corrects. He'd asked Rin the exact time afterwards. He needed to know how long he was there, to the second, because those moments, each and every single one of them, haunted him every night for months afterwards. Hearing Zetsu speak about it with such confidence is making his skin crawl. How does he know? Still, he doesn't want Zetsu to have the upper hand here. "And seventeen seconds."
"Forty-two minutes and seventeen seconds," Zetsu amends. "Those seventeen seconds before you finally made it out and took your first breath of fresh air––exquisite, wasn't it? The desperation of that moment."
Sasuke swallows on that old dread. It's not so close to the surface as it was once, but hearing Zetsu talk about it with such precision is bringing back old memories. "You've been there."
Zetsu tilts his head a fraction. "I was made there, Uchiha."
Sasuke flinches back; in the back of his mind, he feels Ishi’s own alarm ricochet and amplify his own.
Zetsu smiles. He looks triumphant. "You felt it, didn't you? That…presence in the darkness? Did it try to pull you down when you were there? Can you feel it still? That tug-tug-tugging in the middle of the night when you're asleep with that pretty little jinchuuruki in your arms. You must lie awake wondering what it is."
Sasuke’s Mangekyou is whorling. How does he know? He's forgotten much of that place, but Zetsu is dragging those memories back now.
It was Death, Ishi answers, forcefully pushing back against the mounting dread in Sasuke’s stomach. It came for you, and Rin would not yield. There is no monster in the dark, Sasuke. Only the end, and we must all face it.
"It is what ate those parts of your soul in that darkness, those parts that you so dearly miss now," Zetsu says in the silence that follows. "You might have crawled out of there, Uchiha, but it still reaches for you in the night. It doesn't like to leave a meal unfinished."
Sasuke lets his hand drop to his hilt. "When I die, I'll have my sword with me."
Zetsu sniggers. "With or without your sword, you won't get to your Great Hall. Your Gods cannot protect you, no matter how many sacrifices you make in their name. You and I? We go to a place reserved just for our kind. The abominations that nature did not intend. The half-spirits like you, and the purebreds like me. And that place where we are destined? You know that place. On your worst nights, you dream of it still."
Sasuke breathes deep. Count, he tells himself firmly. Count, count, count—
He lies, Ishi insists. You can only enter that space with an animal spirit. No human belongs there. You face your death in a realm different than ours.
"An eternity," Zetsu promises. "An eternity in that place, Uchiha Sasuke. Now tell me. What would you do to avoid death knowing what I have told you now? What would you do to avoid that place?" He lets the question hang just a moment. "I can help you."
It's almost as if he's waiting to hear what Sasuke is willing to pay. He's selling something.
Maybe, Ishi ventures, slithering through the hay until he’s coiled by Sasuke’s feet. He rises and fans out to his full brilliance. Sasuke doesn’t have much to work with but gut instinct, but he ventures a guess. "Is that what Madara is doing? Avoiding that place?"
Zetsu's smile freezes, but he holds it firmly in place. Bingo, Sasuke thinks, and makes absolutely sure he doesn’t show his triumph too readily. "He found a way, yes," Zetsu says, hedging now. "Don't you want to know how?"
Sasuke grins. "He hasn't figured out shit. He can't avoid that place any more than you can."
Zetsu sneers, and impossibly, his face becomes even uglier. "You're coming with us—"
"No, I'm not," Sasuke bluffs. He forces himself to believe the words and fling them out with all the confidence he can muster. Zetsu cannot sense any weakness in his resolve. "I'm part human still. You're––well, you're something. Gods know what you are. And Madara is fully corrupted. He started off human, but there's nothing left in him now."
Zetsu bares his teeth in a snarl. "You're barely human yourself, Uchiha—"
"We can measure dicks all day long, Zetsu, but at the end of the day, I'm still more human than you or Madara will ever be," Sasuke says, overriding Zetus's voice. Zetsu presses his lips into a thin line and Sasuke grins, triumphant. He didn’t think he’d hit the truth by striking out so blindly. But he’s hit a nerve. "I might only be part human, but I'm human enough."
Zetsu opens his mount to say something else, but Sasuke beats him to it. "You’re coming with us, Zetsu.”
Zetsu smiles wryly. "Is that what you think?”
“That’s what I know,” Sasuke answers, and lets his shoulders relax. He takes a breath, feels his muscles relaxing entirely. He’s practiced the pose so many times, it’s just an easy exhale to angle his body and consider Zetsu. “Make this easy for yourself.”
Zetsu’s eyes narrow. “I’ve seen that technique before.”
Sasuke draws his sword. “Then you know how this will end.”
Zetsu’s hand shifts under the cover of his burlap blanket. A weapon, possibly. Or seals. Sasuke angles his head in consideration. Zetsu’s eyes flicker briefly to Itachi and then back to Sasuke. There is something ugly about his gaze. He looks angry. “And here I thought Senju Tobirama’s technique died with him. He’s found an heir in you, then.”
The battle calm is just at the edge of Sasuke’s conscience, so the fact that Zetsu knows about the ghosts does not disturb him as much as it probably would otherwise. The stillness is settling so deep into his muscles it's as if Sasuke can feel the shift of the motes in the air around him, can feel the warm breath of the horse in the stall next to him. “Is that who sent you?” Zetsu snarls. “Tobirama? Or was it Hashirama?”
Sasuke smiles, slow and easy. “Senju Hashirama sends you his regards,” he lies—just for the pleasure of seeing Zetsu freeze with fear, because what kind of fool would not pause at the Shodaime’s name, Senju Hashirama? In the north, they call him Demon’s Bane. In the songs, he is Lord of Lords, King of Kings. A demi-god, descended from the God of Thunder himself.
Zetsu lets the blanket drop. He’s naked but there is nothing human about him in his nakedness. Just a gnarled stump of a torso and a crude imitation of humanity. Now that he can see all of him, Sasuke realizes what Zetsu looks like: a tree.
“Have you learned your lessons, boy?” Zetsu snarls. “Let’s see the measure of the Senju Technique.”
“I’ve got this, Brother,” Sasuke says, even as he thinks, Dismissed, Ishi. He drops low into a fluid pose with his sword just as Ishi vanishes with a small pop. The calm envelops him, familiar as an embrace. He belongs in this space like no other.
Zetsu has just enough time to bring up his hands to form seals, but by then it’s too late. Sasuke is skidding past him on his knees, using the hay on the ground to propel himself forward. The sword slides neatly up along Zetsu’s side, and Saske keeps pushing despite Zetsu’s angry snarl until the sword tip emerges above Zetsu’s shoulder. Around them, the horses scream at the stench of the murky-brown blood that gushes out from the wound.
Never drop your sword in battle, Kakashi taught him. But this is no ordinary battle, so Sasuke lets go of his hilt. With one hand, he grabs his empty sword scabbard and with the other, he pulls out a kunai, just as he uses his momentum to lift to his feet. The Venus flaps around Zetsu’s head are already closing in protection, but not fast enough to stop Sasuke from wedging his scabbard between the flaps sideways, keeping them propped open.
The kunai slides easily into the vulnerable stretch of Zetsu’s neck. Sasuke steadies Zetsu with a hand around his jaw and angles the sword up and up until he feels the slight give of Zetsu’s spine. His body falls loose—Zetsu lets out a gurgled shout, scrabbling at his neck—but Sasuke holds him up with a single hand curled around his neck. He feels the slight twitch of Zetsu’s body, and shoves the kunai in to the hilt.
When Zetsu’s body goes completely still, Sasuke reaches down to draw his sword out of Zetsu’s side. The splutter of blood is grotesque in the musty, crowded space of the stables. The horses have fallen oddly silent now, but the whites of their eyes are still bright in the light. Sasuke lets Zetsu’s body drop to the floor.
Carefully—it was a gift, after all—Sasuke withdraws his scabbard. The wings around Zetsu’s face sag but don’t close entirely. Sasuke cleans his sword on the burlap blanket Zetsu had been using and sheaths his sword carefully. The albino side of Zetsu’s face is slack in death, but the black side is still awake. The golden orb of its eye swivels to consider Sasuke, though the rest of him is entirely still. Sasuke bends a fraction to answer Zetsu’s question:
“I learned my lessons well, Zetsu.”
The fog of the battle calm leaves him in increments, and it’s only now that he turns his attention back to Itachi, who is frozen and staring at Sasuke with wide eyes. There isn’t enough time to explain right now, so instead, Sasuke turns and considers the horses in the stalls. His eyes land on the calmest of them, a mare that rises to his height.
She shifts back in her stall, pawing at the ground, but after some encouragement, eventually yields. Her ears flatten over her skull when Sasuke hauls Zetsu’s body over her own, but he talks her through it, telling her, That’s a good girl, you’re going to be brave for this piece of shit, right? Be a sweetheart and stay still while I tie him up. We don’t want him slipping and braining himself. He doesn’t bother with stirrups, just threads the reins so that he can guide the horse out of her stall. She doesn’t flinch when Sasuke throws the burlap blanket over Zetsu’s body and ties it down as well; it’s obvious there’s a body underneath the covering, but at least Zetsu’s monstrosity isn’t fully visible.
She is reluctant, but follows as Sasuke coaxes her with even more gentle babble—I know. He’s naked and all up in your business, didn’t even buy you dinner, but let’s be honest here, girl like you, you’re probably used to that kind of attention from all kinds of horse’s asses, aren’t you?—as he starts readying his own horse. By now, Itachi has caught on and is saddling up a horse for himself. Sasuke ties the horse carrying Zetsu with his own. They pull up their face-cloths before exiting the building, because just outside, there is the sound of voices raised in concern.
They slip out the stables and find that the noise of the horses has drawn attention. Five men and four women are standing at a safe distance from the stable, holding a mixture of weapons: old swords, axes for chopping wood, hunting knifes, and some pitchforks.
“Pitchforks?” Sasuke calls out. “Really?”
“We don’t want trouble,” the leader calls out stoutly. “Just leave us—”
“We’re leaving, buddy,” Sasuke interrupts. “Step aside.”
The crowd parts for them, and Sasuke nudges his horse forward. Itachi follows at his side. They’re a few yards away from the crowd when Sasuke turns in his saddle to yell, “Look by the oak tree a few yards northwest of your gate’s entrance,” he instructs. For a town this poor, they can’t part with precious resources, let alone three well-bred horses. “Tell the owners of these horses 'thank you' and that they’ll find payment there.”
A woman steps forward. “You’re not welcome, you bastards!”
Sasuke can’t help himself: he laughs. When he takes off in a gallop, Itachi follows.
Itachi is quiet while Sasuke counts out a hefty sum of cash and leaves it under a rock by the oak tree as promised. He stays silent as they set off in a thunderous sound of hooves and head southwest. Any attempts of being subtle are outweighed by the need to get away and fast. They’re in the Land of Earth territory and their little encounter was loud enough to draw attention.
Itachi finally speaks when Sasuke calls out to ask which way they're headed:
Yuuta doesn’t sense a tail until they’re nearly at the border of the Land of Waterfall. “Sixty miles or so,” he says, holding himself completely still. The dull light of their fire casts his pale-brown scales into a brilliant gold; in that instant, he looks like Rin.
Sasuke rubs at his face. “Brother. Company.”
Itachi looks up sharply. They have been fleeing for two days now, and still, Itachi hasn’t said a word to him aside from Konohagakure. It’s not the silent treatment—by that definition, Itachi’s entire existence is one long and uninterrupted stretch of the silent treatment—but it’s as close to it as he will get. He keeps glancing at Sasuke when he thinks Sasuke isn’t paying attention, staring outright when Sasuke is turned away.
Sasuke only knows because Yuuta or one of the others will alert him to it with a mild, Your brother is watching you again. Sasuke constantly has one of the snakes accompanying them now as they make their escape, because their chakra-sensing abilities are much more fine-tuned. They can pick out humans from a distance of up to eighty miles, so Sasuke lets them curl around his neck or bicep as they ride across the endless plains of the Land of Earth.
They’ve just stopped for the night to let the horses rest, but now they have to keep moving. There is no shelter in these parts; there is just the limitless stretch of greenlands everywhere they look. Sasuke starts on the task of putting out the fire while Itachi breaks up camp. Sasuke checks to make sure that Zetsu’s body is securely tied in—the single golden eye tracks his movements—and confirms yet again that the kunai is still lodged into Zetsu’s brainstep.
They saddle their horses without any further discussions and set off again at a modest pace. The horses are tiring, but they won’t have a chance to change horses until they pass into the Land of Waterfall.
It’s late morning by the time the landscape around them shifts to something with more trees and brush. Itachi leads them off the path and into the lush foliage.
Are we in safe territory? Yuuta asks, coiling more tightly around Sasuke’s bicep.
Safe enough. It’s unlikely the Tsuchikage will bother to send soldiers into the Land of Waterfall for some stolen horses, Sasuke answers and dismounts when Itachi brings his horse to a slow trot. Itachi follows suit, and for a moment, they stand across from each other.
Itachi’s Mangekyou comes alive when he speaks. “Explain.”
It was bound to happen sooner or later. Itachi had heard enough in those stables. He’s very patient, Yuuta observes mildly. Holding off for so long before demanding answers.
Patience is one word for it. Or more likely, he’d heard Zetsu’s words and wondered exactly how different Sasuke was from Zetsu. Two nights ago, Itachi had flinched when Sasuke reached across the fire to pass him the water canteen.
You are brothers, Yuuta says sternly, picking up on Sasuke’s thoughts. You are blood. Trust him with the truth.
Sasuke glances over his shoulder in the direction they just came from. They don’t have much time to linger and hash this out, so he goes for the shortest possible explanation. He meets Itachi’s gaze when he answers. “I died twice. The second time was in Amegakure. My ninken, Rin, didn’t let my soul pass, and brought me back to life. She filled the missing parts of my soul with something from her world. So now I see dead people. Specifically, the dead Hokages. Can we keep moving now?”
The only indication of Itachi’s surprise is a slight widening of his eyes. Sasuke grips his horse’s reins so tightly in his hands, he can feel the leather digging into his skin. It’s hard to keep the anger out of his voice. “Or maybe you’re wondering if you need to shove a knife into my brainstem?”
Now, finally, the tension in Itachi’s shoulders breaks. “Don’t be an idiot,” he snaps, and starts walking. His horse follows dutifully. “Let’s go. It’s two thousand miles to Konoha.”
Blood runs thick, Sasuke tells himself. Trust Itachi to absorb this information without anything more than wide eyes.
He leads his and Zetsu’s horses behind Itachi. They walk quietly through the forest for a few hours. “Why Konohagakure?”
Itachi looks over his shoulder. “According to you and Zetsu, the real Senju Hashirama is hanging around still. Might as well go straight to the source.”
Sasuke tugs his cloak around himself more securely. It was early summer when he left. Winter is already in the air now. He had left Konoha thinking it would be the last he’d see of the City for years to come, but here he is, retracing his steps just a short few months after he left.
There’s a determined set to Itachi’s shoulders, which means he’s made up his mind and there is nothing Sasuke can say to change it. “You’re handling this news surprisingly well.”
Itachi doesn’t even bother to look at him. “You were always a weird kid, Sasuke.”
“Yeah, because you were the paragon of normalcy, Brother,” Sasuke grumbles under his breath, and feels Yuuta’s amusement in the back of his mind.
Up ahead, Itachi raises his free hand and salutes him with a single finger.
They exchange horses in a town three days later. Sasuke hangs back outside the town with Zetsu while Itachi makes the trade. He returns a few hours later with the horses, supplies, and a fresh shave.
Itachi looks down at his new clothes. “Yes.”
Sasuke throws up his hands. “That’s not fucking fair!”
“You can go into town the next time we need supplies or fresh horses,” Itachi offers, diplomatic.
Sasuke narrows his eyes. “And when will that be?”
Itachi shrugs. “When we get there,” he says, calm as always.
Petulant, Sasuke makes no move to help Itachi with hauling Zetsu onto the third horse. He watches for a while before saying, “This isn’t going to work.” Itachi hm-s under his breath, acknowledging Sasuke but not responding to it in any way that counts. Sasuke presses his case. “We can’t roam about the countryside with a body out in the open like this.” Zetsu’s eye focuses on him. “For fuck’s sake, the man is naked and bleeding still.”
“We’ll be fine—”
“No, listen,” Sasuke insists, and this time, Itachi pauses in his task and turns to him. “I have an idea.”
Itachi hears out Sasuke’s idea quietly. When Sasuke finishes, Itachi pins him with a flat stare and says, “No.”
Sasuke turns over the idea in his head for the night. In the morning, he wakes up with a refined plan. “A coffin,” he says, triumphant, and Itachi looks up from his food. “Your coffin.” Sasuke grins. “People already know that I’m wandering about the countryside. How hard would it be for them to believe that I’m bringing your body back to Konohagakure for a proper burial?”
Itachi sets his food down. “So your genius plan is to build a coffin for Zetsu, stow him away, and travel with him openly in the countryside pretending it’s me in the coffin,” he repeats slowly.
“The best cover I ever had,” Sasuke insists, “was being in the open.”
Itachi narrows his eyes. He hasn’t rejected the idea completely yet, which means there is still a chance for Sasuke to sell this. “If I’m supposed to be in the coffin, what the hell do I actually do?” Itachi asks.
“Is your Mangekyou so damn weak you can’t use a bit of illusion to throw people?”
The insult hits home. Itachi’s chakra stirs. “I meant, what’s my cover, idiot? People will wonder who Uchiha Sasuke is traveling with, especially if he looks a lot like Uchiha Sasuke’s supposedly-dead brother.”
Sasuke considers this. “You can be Senju Shisui.”
“That’s your alias, and a stupid one,” Itachi snaps, getting fed up now. “When you came back from the dead after Amegakure, everyone knew exactly who you were.”
“Exactly,” Sasuke says. “You be me, I be you. Who’s counting? How many people this far out west actually know what I look like? Aside from the fact that I have red eyes and some tattoos? You have the eyes. As far as the tattoos, just keep your arms covered.” The only rumors that will spread will be that Uchiha Sasuke—Senju Shisui—is heading home with the body of his brother.
“Madara will be looking for us,” Itachi points out mildly.
Sasuke grins, feels the edge of the battle calm licking at his consciousness. He killed Madara once, and that was before he learned the Senju Technique and mastered Kakashi’s sword-fighting style. He did it alone. Now, Itachi will be by his side. “Let him find us,” he says. “Although, I’m willing to bet he won’t reveal himself, even for Zetsu. He probably knows we’re together again.”
Itachi sits back at this as the logic of Sasuke’s argument sinks in. He glances at Zetsu, lying still on the other side of their fire. They have wrapped him up in a spare cloak, but his murky-brown blood is oozing through. Every few miles, they have to re-pad the injury to make sure he’s not dripping a trail that can be followed. As always, the black-half of Zetsu’s face is alert and watching them.
“Plus,” Sasuke mutters, “we don’t have to look at his creepy fucking face all the time.”
Itachi glances at Sasuke. “There is that,” he admits, and that’s when Sasuke knows he’s won the argument.
They put their plan into action in the next village they run into. It’s easy enough for Sasuke to saunter into the village and ask for a coffin. When the carpenter asks him why, Sasuke has an answer ready. “I need to take my brother home,” he says, and the carpenter’s face crumbles in sympathy. It takes him just a few short hours with Sasuke’s help to make a simple coffin out of poplar wood. Sasuke even helps the carpenter coat it with a stain to darken the color of the wood—and hide Zetsu’s blood.
Zetsu’s eye is hot with rage when they lower him into the coffin and start drawing in blood seals on the inside to prevent Zetsu from opening. They’ve tied the kunai into place using a strip of cloth, so it is unlikely Zetsu will escape—not with a knife more or less permanently wedged into his brainstep. “Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Sasuke assures him. “I’ll tuck you into bed every night.”
Acquiring a cart involves some negotiating, but in the end, they have all they need: a cart for the coffin, two horses, and enough supplies to last them to the next village. When they roll into the next village, Sasuke goes in first. He makes sure he is noticed, but not too obviously, and heads into the local tavern to book a room.
“We don’t have a single. But we have two queens,” the woman at the counter says, recovering quickly from the shock of Sasuke saying his name aloud.
Sasuke puts down some money. “That’s fine.”
He’s two drinks in when Itachi ambles into the tavern, settling neatly into the back without drawing too much attention. With all the focus of the villagers on Sasuke, Itachi is barely noticed. Sasuke nurses his drink, eats a hefty meal for the first time in weeks, and then calls it a night. A few hours later, Itachi slips into the room after checking on the coffin. He sits on the empty bed across from Sasuke, looking thoughtful.
“That actually worked,” he says after a moment.
Sasuke gestures at the bed and then the door leading to their bathroom. “Soft beds to your right. Above, you will notice a roof,” he says. “And to your left, you will find plumbing. Enjoy your stay.”
Itachi falls onto his back with a sigh, pushing his hands out wide and taking a deep breath. A moment later, he closes his eyes. “I’ll admit this is better.”
“You’ll admit you had your head up your ass, and I was the one to extract it for you,” Sasuke corrects. “You’re welcome.”
He barely ducks out of the way when Itachi launches a pillow in his direction.
They don’t speak about it because that is what Uchihas do. When the Clan was over twenty strong with nearly a dozen active Sharingan users and more on the horizon, their Uchiha compound was always loud.
The Uchiha are like the fires they tend: bright, roaring with warmth, and with voracious appetites.
Sasuke learned his silences later in life.
They’d gotten the cops called on them once or twice because alcohol, fire-breathing shinobi, and the Uchiha temper are never a good mix. Sooner or later, someone would start a pissing contest and before long people were seeing just how good they were at setting things on fire—with their eyes blindfolded, from greater and greater distances, after downing an entire bottle of sake, or some other inane dare that Uncle Inabi and Uncle Yakumi came up with. It helped that Uncle Kyoguku was the KPD Captain.
Noise was such an issue that they had to apply for permits for their religious celebrations on the solstices. Yashiro would invite the few remaining families in the Village who still practiced the Old Religion, and in the center of the compound, the Sharingan users would dig a large pit all morning while the others prepared mountains of food. At sunset, surrounded by fires they’d lit around the Compound, they would make sacrifices—boars they hunted and cornered; meaty heifers that brayed their fear into the night as they were led into the pits; sheep that went eerily silent just before the swing of the blade, as if they knew exactly what their fate would be. Then, they’d roast the meats for hours and feast into the night.
These are some of Sasuke’s fondest memories. Uncle Kyoguku would let Sasuke sit on his shoulders so he could see all the action, and when all the men would whoop and cheer as the sacrifices were made to their gods—for courage in battle, for protection, for the chance to test their mettle in war—Sasuke would cheer with them. He grew up thinking that this would be his heritage, that he would one day be down in the pits helping his father and uncles draw the sacrifices in or maybe even swinging the ax himself. He grew up thinking that one day, he would teach his own sons how to hunt down a boar and lead it to the pit, how to swing the axe so that the spine of the animal is severed neatly and with mercy.
When he was in Otogakure, he had been given the opportunity to make sacrifices to the gods—the Uchihas were more like the tribes up north than anyone else, and maybe that’s why Sasuke felt so at home in those lands—but he’d declined. It felt wrong sacrificing to the gods, doing something so joyful, when he would soon have his own brother’s blood on his hands.
Sasuke’s gods are lustful: for blood, for food, for sex, and for glory. But Sasuke has never had to consult a witch to know that no god of his would ever forgive the sin of fratricide.
But for all their raucous joy and the sheer volume and magnitude of their love, the Uchihas don’t speak.
“Speak,” Mikoto would encourage her children when her husband wasn’t looking and couldn’t reprimand her for teaching his sons anything but the Uchiha way. She’d say so whenever Itachi and Sasuke got into their fights, or if Sasuke chewed clean through his bottom lip just to keep from tears falling when his father had raised a hand in anger. “Speak your minds and your hearts.”
For all her attempts, Mikoto was never successful in this. Itachi and Sasuke swallowed their words, ate their hearts raw because that is what Uchihas do.
Now is no different. They travel the miles and don’t speak to each other.
They talk because they are brothers and talking to each other is easy. They talk about what Madara’s plan might be; the best routes to take; how long their supplies will last; whose turn it is to cook, hunt food, gather firewood, set up camp, check on the kunai in Zetsu’s neck keeping him immobile and the seals binding him to the coffin. Sometimes, Itachi will ask Sasuke questions about the Hokages—he was always a nerd, so he has read entire volumes on the Shodaime and textbooks on the Nidaime’s military strategy and genius—and Sasuke will answer as best as he can, always struggling to keep his emotions in check.
It’s not that he doesn’t want to share those memories, it’s just that he doesn’t know how to keep his answers neutral when the last words he said to the ghosts were so hurtful. The Nidaime had raised a hand in farewell to him, but he’d stood across from the man and said so many things he can never take back now. He hadn’t even said goodbye to them.
For all their words, they don’t speak to each other in any way that matters. They act as if they are brothers and just that, as if they exist in no other space but this odd little bubble of their journey with a corpse—they do not exist in the context of a family. They do not mention their parents. They always refer to Konoha by her full name, Konohagakure, as if she’s a foreign land, just another unknown stop in their journey. She is never home.
Things boil over in the fifth week of their journey in a midsized city called Naie about two hundred miles southwest of Kusagakure—and all because of an offhanded comment from Itachi.
They are checking into a fancy motel late in the night—fancy, at least, by their standards—when the woman behind the counter recognizes his name. She’s about Mrs. Miyake’s age and she has the same kind smile when she hands Sasuke his keys. “I’ll send supper up for you.”
It’s past midnight, and Itachi has been quietly irritated for the past five miles because Sasuke had told him to shove it, Sarutobi-sensei himself taught me this protective seal, I’m right and you’re wrong, Brother. No doubt the only thing Itachi wants to do is sulk in bed for the night. “No thank you, ma’am.”
The woman pushes the keys further across the counter, so Sasuke takes it. “It’s on the house, child,” she says, the lines of her face crinkled in a small smile. “I heard about your brother. I lost my own brother a few years ago. I know what grief can do, but you still need to eat. I’ll send up the food.”
Sasuke can’t say no to kindness like that, so he accepts with a mumbled, Thank you, ma’am, and retreats to his room. Itachi enters a few minutes later and, as predicted, works himself into a sulk. He has never been good at admitting that he’s wrong, especially if it’s against Sasuke or Shisui, even more so when it comes to ninjutsu and chakra theory. When the promised food arrives with a soft knock on the door, Itachi pins him with an angry glare and hides in the bathroom. Sasuke takes the offered food and tips the girl—no older than fourteen, looking sleep-mussed but still dipping to offer Sasuke a bow—enough money to cover the cost of the food. She blinks at the cash in her hands before muttering a, thank you, and skipping down the corridor, any trace of sleep gone in the blink of an eye.
Itachi enters the room and eyes the generous portions of food. “You ordered in?”
Sasuke places the food on the small table in the room and pulls out a seat. Itachi sits across from him. “The lady at the counter said it was on the house.”
Itachi opens one of the lids, eyes going bright when he sees a steaming dish of well-roasted lamb. It’s beyond generous, Sasuke knows, and regrets not tipping even more.
“She felt sorry that I had lost a brother,” Sasuke answers. Itachi smiles, pleased as always when their cover works so well to their advantage, but Sasuke remembers the woman’s voice when she had admitted her own loss. There’s nothing funny about this, he wants to say. He stares at the food, losing his appetite all of a sudden because he knows now that the woman will likely go to bed tonight thinking of her own brother and his death. Across the table, Itachi is digging into his food. “She lost her brother a few years ago,” Sasuke says quietly.
“You should pull the dead brother card more often,” Itachi offers.
Sasuke stares at him. “What?”
Itachi shrugs, focused entirely on his food. They hadn’t broken their journey for lunch or dinner that day because the cold was relentless and a chilly rain had begun to hound them. Traveling across the Continent in winter is never ideal; burdened as they are by a heavy cart and a coffin, it’s even worse. “If this is the treatment you get when people just think I’m dead,” Itachi says, absentminded as he contemplates what his second serving will be. He settles on another ladling of the chicken stew and rips apart a chunk of the fresh bread to dip. “Imagine the sympathy you’ll get when I actually am dead.”
Sasuke feels his thoughts come to a screeching halt at Itachi’s nonchalance. When, he’d said. Not if.
Itachi tilts his head like a bird. “You not eating?”
Sasuke feels acid burning in his throat, as if he could throw up, but his body needs fuel. “Yeah, I’m eating.” He sits forward and serves himself. They don’t talk much over dinner, and Sasuke, for once, is grateful for the silence between them.
The comment haunts him the next day, hounding his thoughts and not giving him any peace. When it’s his turn to lead, he takes it gratefully, even if it means that he has to give up his comfortable spot in the back of the cart dozing under the warmth of the tarp covering the coffin. It’s an unnecessary precaution this time of year, because the roads are so inhospitable that it’s unlikely they’ll run into any travelers, but it’s not a risk worth taking. If Madara is on their heels—and he might be, if he were to find out that Itachi has Zetsu—they need to be safe.
And besides, this way at least, one of them will have the chance to lie down and rest for a while. It’s a bit odd, sleeping next to a coffin, but they both got over the novelty of it a long time ago.
Thankfully, the roads around Kusagakure are well paved, but the weather is still miserable. Sasuke’s wolf-fur cloak is drenched from the rain; the bench of the cart is soaked through so even his ass is cold now. They’ve had rains for the past three days without a single reprieve.
He can’t find it in himself to complain, though. At least out here, the rain and wind can distract from the endless loop of his own thoughts. When, Itachi said, not if. Sasuke said the same words to Kakashi all those times, and the memory of those moments makes him grip the hilt of his sword to steady himself.
He’s two hours into his shift leading the horses when the rain abruptly dries and the sun comes out, sudden and vicious. Itachi pokes a head out from under the tarp and squints at the sun. “Finally.” When Sasuke doesn’t look over his shoulder at Itachi or make a comment, Itachi scoffs. “If you were so miserable about doing your shift in the rain—”
“I’m fine doing my shift,” Sasuke interrupts. His anger is just at the surface, and the insult in Itachi’s words—that he’s unprofessional, that he is the kind of soldier to complain about taking a shift in the rain—makes him grit his teeth so hard that a muscle in his jaw jumps.
“You don’t seem fine,” Itachi says mildly and stands in the back to drain the tarp of the small collections of water over the edge of the moving cart.
The sudden shift in weight makes the cart lurch a bit and Sasuke finally snaps. “Do you have to do that now?”
Itachi pauses. “I don’t want to get wet.”
“It’s just a bit of fucking water, princess,” Sasuke snarls, knowing that he is stepping out of line. “Sit your ass down.”
Itachi’s eyes narrow. There is something dangerous about the way he’s watching Sasuke now. They are brothers, sure, but there is always a hierarchy. Itachi is older than Sasuke by five years; he was once designated as the future Clan Elder. He commands a certain level of respect, and there is a fine line in the sand that no one—not even Shisui—ever crossed.
Despite all their years apart, Itachi still expects this deference from him, and that makes Sasuke’s anger even more acute. “Excuse me?” Itachi says, deceptively mild.
Sasuke does the stupidest thing he could possibly do in this situation. He turns his back to Itachi and urges the horses into a faster pace. Their wheels are equipped with small metal spikes so they have traction against the snow and ice, but they add weight and make their journey unbearably noisy sometimes.
When Sasuke doesn’t answer, Itachi instructs in a clipped voice, “Whatever your problem is, Sasuke, sort it out now. I don’t have the time or patience to put up with your tantrums—”
Sasuke pulls the horses to such a sudden halt, he hears Itachi curse lightly under his breath when he's forced to steady himself. Sasuke is off the cart and stalking off into the tree line before Itachi has a chance to recover. The snowdrifts come up to his knees, so Sasuke uses his chakra and the bulk of his weight to push through.
Itachi raises his voice to be heard. “I don’t need you for this, Sasuke.”
Sasuke rounds on Itachi, hand curled around the hilt of his sword. “No, you don’t. So go right ahead. Head on home, Brother. Go get your fucking hero’s welcome, and your goddamn parade.”
“Hero’s welcome?” Itachi growls, voice like gravel now. He jumps off the cart and stalks towards Sasuke, kicking up snow as he pushes towards him. “You think that’s why I’m doing this?”
Sasuke throws up his hands. “I don’t know why you’re doing this! Who on the face of this fucking planet knows why you do anything you do?” Sasuke smacks his head as if just remembering something important. “Oh, I know what’s a great idea. I’ll just twiddle my fucking thumbs while my Kage orders me to stand by while some psychopath murders my family. You know what’s an even better idea? I’ll let my—”
“I did what I had to do,” Itachi hisses.
Sasuke talks over him. The snow acts like a muffler, eating the volume of Sasuke’s voice. “My little brother should not only survive, I’ll let him believe that I’m the one who did all the killing. Great job. Upstanding Brother of the Year award goes to, wait for it—”
“But no, wait for it,” Sasuke finishes. “The best part of this plan is the failsafe you have in place for yourself. I’ll let my own brother kill me, tie it all up with a neat fucking bow. Uchiha Itachi, exit stage left.” Sasuke heaves in a breath. “You selfish piece of shit.”
Itachi’s mouth is hanging open at the sheer barrage and viciousness of Sasuke’s words. In the silence that follows, Sasuke hears the distant crackle of a tree bursting from its frozen sap. “Grandfather was not open to reason,” Itachi says finally, voice pitched low. “Madara had poisoned Uncle Yakumi’s mind. He was going to start a war. They were going to unseal the demon from the jinchuuruki. Uncle Taro and the others weren’t going to turn on their own brother, so the entire Clan would have risen up against Konohagakure—”
“I know the reasoning behind the goddamn Wildfire Executive,” Sasuke interrupts. “Trust me. I heard it from the fucking source.”
“It was that,” Itachi says, “or the Village. It was that or the entire Country. Our Clan name. Our legacy. It’s easier to explain a single mad man butchering his kin than drag our family name through the mud like that. They would have died anyways. The Hokage would have given the order sooner or later. So I made a call, and I’m the one—” He pauses. “I’m the one who has to live with it every second of every minute of every hour of every day and week and month and year and decade,” he finishes in a rush. He takes a heaving breath, and then another.
“You don’t want to live with it, though,” Sasuke points out in the silence that follows. “You want to die. You want me to kill you.”
“Who else?” Itachi says, and his voice is loud now. “Hatake Kakashi’s Mangekyou couldn’t kill me—so who, Sasuke? What other Uchiha is left in the world?”
There’s a reason why the Wildfire Contingency called for an Uchiha to carry out the orders. A Mangekyou is best defeated by a Mangekyou; fighting fire with fire is what the Uchihas do. Itachi, ever the strategist, hedged his bets.
At his lowest moments—when Sasuke had pressed a kunai to that space between his ribs, or when he’d begged Rin to let him die—Sasuke wonders if he looked like Itachi does now. There is something hollow about him. He’s not like Sasuke was, not entirely, because Itachi isn’t actively seeking to die as Sasuke had been. This is more calculated; Itachi is just ensuring himself an exit so that he doesn’t have to live into old age with the burden he is carrying.
Every second of every minute of every hour.
Sasuke sees the clarity of Itachi’s logic now, the faith he has held constant even after all these years because Itachi hasn’t contemplated suicide, not like Sasuke did. He knows the punishment for it, the way suicide corrupts the soul so beyond recognition that even if he were to go to his death gripping his sword with both hands, he may never gain entry to the Great Hall. The hounds guarding the doors may not give him entry. Itachi is different from Sasuke because unlike Sasuke, he was always more mindful of the gods and the fate that had been written for all of them. He will accept no other death than one meted out in battle against an enemy he considers worthy. He will not seek this death until after he completes his duty—for Kage and Country, for his liege lord and his lands, for the oaths he swore and the oaths his ancestors swore to the dragons.
Itachi grips the hilt of his sword in a tight fist. “Who else could I ask to send me on my way, Sasuke?” He gestures at his surroundings. “Shisui isn’t here anymore. There’s no one left.”
It’s the way Itachi always says Shisui’s name, as if it’s being ripped out from inside the cavernous space of his chest, bloody still with his grief. Every second of every minute of every hour, and Itachi had been alone for all of those moments. Sasuke at least had Kakashi. He had Sakura and Naruto, Jugo, Suigetsu, his unit. He had the Shodaime and the Nidaime.
He had his ninken.
Sasuke doesn’t have words of his own to counter Itachi’s logic, so he uses Rin’s instead. He draws on the same anger she must have felt when Sasuke had begged for release in front of her. “Kneel, then.”
Itachi’s surprise is genuine. “What?”
“Kneel.” Sasuke draws his sword. “I’ll end it for you.”
It takes a moment for Itachi’s surprise to morph into anger when he understands what Sasuke is offering. “How dare you—”
“This is how cowards die, Brother,” Sasuke interrupts calmly and takes a step forward. The hilt of his sword cuts a thin line in the snow piled up to his knees. “Kneel.”
Itachi’s Mangekyou is spinning with his chakra now; it is melting the snow around him. “Coward?”
Sasuke doesn’t react with his own chakra. “What’s the difference?” He remembers Rin saying the exact same words to him, not too long ago. “What’s the difference between seeking death as you do and slitting your own throat?” He doesn’t give Itachi a chance to answer. “I can tell you what the difference is. Nothing. There is no difference. I would know because I tried it both ways. When I was twelve, I held a kunai to my chest, right over my heart. I couldn’t go through with it, so I tried just about everything else to die.”
Itachi’s anger drops away in an instance at the admission. Sasuke keeps talking even though it feels as if he’s hollowing out his bones to harvest the marrow for Itachi to take. Anything—anything, he thinks—to make Itachi see. “I figured, on the one hand, I could be locked out of the Great Hall for fratricide. I wouldn’t get to see you again, or Shisui, or Uncle Kyoguku, or Uncle Inabi, or any of the others. I could do that. Or I could just find some unsuspecting motherfucker to do the honors for me. That way I could see you and Shisui and everyone else again. But then the years just went on and on. I was just getting so fucking tired of it because I couldn’t die!” Sasuke laughs, but it’s a dry sound with absolutely no warmth in it. “I kept trying to die. I nearly did twice, but Rin kept bringing me back, so I said, fuck it. What she giveth, she must be able to taketh away, so I summoned her and begged her to end it for me.”
Itachi is staring at him openly now, frozen in place. He doesn’t speak for a few long moments after Sasuke has finished talking. “Why would you—”
“Because,” Sasuke answers, swallowing on that burning in his throat. “It was either that. Or kill you.”
Itachi takes a breath. “It would be a lot easier if you just hated me for it, Sasuke.”
Sasuke keeps his eyes fixed on Itachi. He knows his eyes are wet—Fugaku would not approve, he knows, but Mikoto had told him, Speak. So he speaks, ignores the crack in his voice when he forms the words: “I don’t hate you for it, Brother. I never hated you. I never knew how.”
Itachi looks away from Sasuke then, staring resolutely at the cart. His chest is heaving even though Sasuke is the one who did most of the talking. He clears his throat once, twice, and then looks skywards. It takes a moment for Sasuke to recognize the wet sheen on Itachi’s cheeks, difficult to spot because even though Itachi shaved before setting off, there’s already the shadow of his scruff emphasizing the strong line of his jaw.
“I’m here, Brother,” Sasuke presses. He remembers the way Itachi had pressed a sword into Sasuke’s hand and held it tight for both of them, told him, Rest. His voice is hoarse from talking for so long and so loudly, but he pushes out the words anyways. “I’m right here.”
Finally, Itachi finds his voice and looks away from the clouds. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Sasuke promises.
Itachi clears his throat. “We should hit the road.” And just like that, he’s moved on.
Speak, Sasuke wills, but Itachi just turns and heads back to the cart. He settles on the bench, and when Sasuke begins to protest that he can finish his shift, he waves off Sasuke with a dismissive flick of his wrist. “I’m sick of my break.”
Sasuke settles in the back, wedged in the spot next to Zetsu’s coffin. They’ve set up a sleeping area of sorts, complete with a balled up shirt as a makeshift pillow and a bedroll. Sasuke starts to rearrange the tarp back into place after Itachi’s attempts to dry it out. He’s settling into the bedroll and pulling up the tarp when Itachi turns in his seat and leans back to lend him a hand, tugging the tarp up and over Zetsu’s coffin in one large tug.
Sasuke settles down with a sigh. He got no sleep the night before so he’s grateful for this chance at rest. They have hundreds of miles left to go. Itachi doesn’t secure the tarp close over his head immediately though, so Sasuke cracks open an eye and glares at him. “I’m trying to sleep here.”
Itachi considers Sasuke carefully for a moment. He bends at the waist. For a moment, Sasuke thinks he’s reaching for the water canteen, but instead, Itachi just leans down and—
Flicks a finger against Sasuke’s forehead.
He pulls the tarp over Sasuke’s head before Sasuke can react. “We split the difference on the extra hours I’m taking,” he says, voice sounding muffled now that the tarp is covering Sasuke.
Sasuke presses a hand against his forehead. Speak, Mikoto had said, and this is Itachi trying his best.
“Wake me up when it’s my turn.”
Itachi scoffs. “Oh, trust me, I will.”
They’re in Ajisawa, a border town at the edge of the Land of Waterfall, when Sasuke finally opens Naruto’s gift to him—the one he'd pressed into Sasuke's hand as he was leaving and said, For the road. If you want it.
Itachi is the first one to enter town, this time with Sasuke’s not-so-subtle Senju Shisui alias—and he has caught the eye of the barmaid. After their argument on the side of the road, they’ve fallen into something more familiar. Whatever tension they had between them is gone, and Sasuke didn't realize the full strain of it until it had slipped away entirely.
Now, they’re even comfortable enough around each other to agree to an odd, informal routine where whoever enters the town first has the night off—
To do anything. With anyone.
Sasuke has learned several things about his brother in the past weeks of travel. For one thing, his brother is straight. His tastes run towards pretty women with curves, bright eyes, and long, sweeping hair—the fact that their tastes are similar forced Sasuke to lay out two rules: No accidental swapping or sharing and Whoever sees them first gets dibs, both of which Itachi was more than happy to agree to.
Apparently, his brother only needs to look at women to get their attention. Sasuke knows how to woo a woman, but he has to put some effort into closing the deal. He has to at least talk to them. Itachi only has to look at them soulfully, give them a half-smile with a dimple, and then, just like that, he’s bagged them. Tonight, Sasuke watched with morbid fascination from across the room while Itachi caught the attention of a stunning woman, some otherworldly beauty with legs for miles and thick blonde hair wrapped up in a high ponytail that swung across her lovely hips with each step she took.
It’s awkward as all hell to see this aspect of his brother, but they adjust quickly to it. They fall into a routine around each other easily enough—from their bathroom ablutions so they don’t get in each other’s way, to the way they bed down for the night. Itachi even learns the names of Sasuke’s snakes, and starts offering a quiet Thank you to whoever is left out in the cold with Zetsu’s coffin to keep watch. Sasuke is fairly certain his snakes like his brother more than they like him at this point because Itachi has also learned all their favorite snacks—grapes for Kanaye, blueberries for Daichi, clementines for Hideyoshi, and strawberries for Yuuta—and has taken to sneaking them food every chance he gets. They’re teaching him snake tongue.
You are brothers, Fudo had said, and Sasuke sees it now, with every passing moment, just how thick their blood runs.
Itachi still isn’t back from wherever he is with the blonde woman (Legs-For-Miles, Sasuke christens her in his mind), so Sasuke takes the time to take inventory. He cleans and sharpens his sword and battle-ax, then moves to his kunai pouch. When he empties it onto the bed, the small pouch Naruto gave him tumbles out.
Sasuke stares at it for long enough that Hideyoshi stirs from his coil on the windowsill. He slithers up the bed to nose at it. He pecks through Sasuke’s memories to understand what the pouch means. “From Fox-child?”
“Yeah,” Sasuke mutters. He doesn’t understand how he has forgotten something like this. The drive to find his brother had been fierce, true, but there had been thousands and thousands of miles of slow solitude, weeks and months with nothing but the easy gait of Michi across the Continent. He hasn’t thought once—not a single time—to open Naruto’s gift.
It hasn’t even occurred to him.
“You were busy,” Hideyoshi dismisses, picking up on Sasuke’s thoughts. “Better late than never. Open it.”
The pouch is small and unsubstantial in Sasuke’s hands. The knot holding it close is tight, and it takes a moment for Sasuke to pry it loose. He empties it onto the bed, freezing when the present slides out.
It’s Naruto’s green pendant, the one that he always keeps around his neck. It’s on the same silver chain that Naruto wears.
If you want it, Naruto told him. If you don’t, just mail it back.
Sasuke doesn’t know much about this necklace beyond the fact that Tsunade gave it to Naruto. He also knows that it is important to Naruto, important enough that he doesn’t leave his house without it. He has seen Naruto idly reach for it around his neck in the quieter moments, twisting the chain around his finger when he’s deep in thought, or tuck it carefully under his shirt when he’s training.
Sasuke touches it with just a tip of his finger.
Why would Naruto think he needs this? Or want it? Should he mail it back?
“Is it a weapon of some kind?” Hideyoshi asks, curling around Sasuke’s hand to nudge at the pendant with his head. His body gets tangled with the chain, but Sasuke doesn’t try to move him away. “Seems harmless. What does it do?”
Like his other snakes, Hideyoshi has not spent too long in the human world, so things like a toilet flushing make them curious; TVs are practically magic. “It’s not a weapon,” Sasuke explains. He doesn’t know the word in snake tongue so he uses the human word. “Jewelry.”
“Je-wel-ry,” Hideyoshi repeats in human tongue, tripping over the consonants. “What does it do?”
“Nothing.” Sasuke pushes at the pendant again. “Humans wear it for its beauty. This one goes around your neck.”
“All the easier to strangle you with,” Hideyoshi points out with a scoff. His curiosity is unrelenting, though, so there is another follow-up. “Why did he give it to you?”
Sasuke tugs at the pendant until Hideyoshi slides away. Something to remember Naruto by, maybe. But Sasuke doesn’t need a necklace for that. He only needs to look at the sky; he just needs to breathe deep. Always—
Always, forever, Naruto.
Hideyoshi butts his head against the pendant, making it swing lightly in Sasuke’s grip. “So? Why did he give it to you?”
If you want it, Naruto had said, as if it was a choice for Sasuke to make, when all along, Sasuke has been helpless against Naruto, has forced himself to walk away again and again. Want what? “I don’t know why.”
Hideyoshi peers up at Sasuke, gaze unblinking. “You don’t seem happy.”
Sasuke tucks it back into the pouch and closes it shut. “I don’t know what I am,” he says, and goes back to his weapons.
A few hours later, Itachi slips into the room with a soft click.
Sasuke has already brushed his teeth and settled into his bed, so the lights are out and the room is dark. He hears Itachi taking a shower before he emerges with a gust of steam to settle into his own bed across the room. He heaves a sigh. “The coffin?”
“Secure,” Sasuke answers. “Daichi is on lookout tonight.”
Itachi shifts under the covers. “We’re losing time with this plan,” he points out. Every few nights, Itachi will make a comment on how they have been slowed down. Traveling with a coffin on a cart is forcing them to stick to well-paved roads instead of heading straight for Konohagakure. Every now and then, they have to stop at a village or town for supplies and maintain their cover.
Usually, when Itachi makes this comment, Sasuke puts an effort to defend his idea before Itachi concedes. Today, though, he finds that he doesn’t care. “Just go to sleep, Brother.”
The light on the table between their beds flicks on a moment later. Itachi has pushed himself up on one hand. Sasuke squints at the light and pulls the covers over his head. “What’s wrong?” When Sasuke doesn’t answer for a few long moments, Itachi takes the hint and turns off the light. “Suit yourself,” he mutters, irked, and then shifts around under the covers for a few moments before settling. His breathing evens out a few minutes later.
Sasuke stares up at the ceiling for so long his eyes start to sting from the strain of it. He pushes himself up in bed and finally yields—
The pendant is bright even in the darkness of the room. When Sasuke turns it over in his hands it catches the slim strip of moonlight coming through the window. If you want it.
The silver is cool against the skin around his neck, but the pendant itself is warm. He falls asleep with a hand curled around the gem.
By the time they cross over into the Land of Fire, it’s late winter , and the final, relentless storms from the north are passing south. “We could call in for backup,” Sasuke suggests when Itachi picks a wide, looping path around one of Konoha’s outpost garrison cities despite the storm gusting around them.
Itachi just pins him with a stare. “Or we could not be idiots.”
They don’t pull into a town until two weeks later when the snows force them off course. The tavern they walk into is filled with travelers, all seeking safety from the storm outside. Sasuke settles in a chair by the bar and breathes a sigh of relief.
The bartender comes to take Sasuke’s order quickly despite the rush. “What’ll it be for you, then?”
Sasuke is ordering when he senses Itachi enter. There aren’t too many seats in the place left, just a few empty spots at the bar. Itachi heads for one a few seats down from Sasuke, angled in such a way that they can stare directly at each other if they choose to. Sasuke keeps his eyes fixed on the bartender. “Whatever you have on tap for a pale ale.”
The bartender moves away to finish the order. Sasuke unfastens his wolf-fur cloak and lets it drape along the back of his chair to dry. Even his feet are tingling from the cold. Outside, he can sense Kanaye’s quiet fury at having been assigned guard duty on the coffin. They’ve covered the cart with the tarp, at least, so he’ll be protected from the worst of it. Still, Sasuke has to push away a pang of guilt at asking so much and so often from his snakes on this journey.
The bartender doesn’t return with his order. In his place is a woman: brunette, olive-skinned with a quick smile. She is statuesque, graceful in a way that makes Sasuke’s gaze linger. It’s easy to imagine cupping the swell of her breast, the curve of her hip, the round of her thigh. It was his turn to enter and establish their cover, so this is his night to do what he wants. Sasuke smiles. “Thank you…your name?”
The woman’s lip quirks up. “Akane. And if you are who I think you are, then no, thank you, shinobi.”
Sasuke places a hand over his heart, feigning hurt. He gives her a smile, the one that makes even Sakura blush. “I haven’t even introduced myself, Akane.”
Akane, though, seems unperturbed. “Oh, trust me, I know exactly who you are,” she says, and pushes Sasuke’s drink towards him. “Heard about your brother. This one’s on the house.”
The kindness catches Sasuke by surprise for long enough that he doesn’t get a chance to try again with Akane. She leaves to take care of some other customers, and when Sasuke’s gaze flickers over to Itachi, he finds that his brother is trying and failing to hide a smirk.
Sasuke scowls. His brother is just as big a whore as Sasuke is, but apparently, Sasuke is the one with the reputation. Somehow, he has managed to cockblock himself, just for the sheer crime of being himself.
He’s eating what is a surprisingly good meat stew—and fending off the curious glances and questions his neighbors are throwing his way—when Akane returns to refill his drink. “How are you finding the food?”
“Good,” Sasuke says honestly.
“Damn well better be,” she says. “I had that on the stove for three hours this morning.”
Sasuke looks down at the stew. “In that case, it’s very good.”
Akane throws back her head and laughs. His eyes track towards the lovely angle where her neck meets her shoulder, lower still to where the neckline of her blouse dips down—“Eyes up here, soldier.” Sasuke lets his gaze linger for a moment longer before meeting her gaze. She looks amused. “You are relentless.”
“Persistent,” Sasuke corrects, and doesn’t bother to hide the curl of his lips.
Akane scoffs, indicating Sasuke’s neck. “Oh, please. That’s not persistence, sunshine. That’s a wandering gaze if I’ve ever seen one.”
Sasuke glances down at his chest and realizes that at some point, Naruto’s pendant has fallen loose. “What’s her name?” Akane asks, not missing a beat as she dries the set of wet mugs she pulled out from under the counter. When Sasuke doesn’t answer, she switches tactics. “She waiting for you back home?”
All of his earlier mood disappears in an instant at the memory of Naruto. The heat in his gut from watching Akane move vanishes entirely. “No.”
There was an ending—whatever it is they had, they had ended it that night under the streetlight, just outside that bar. Sasuke looks up at the sky and is reminded of Naruto every day, but it had ended. He was walking away from Konoha and all that it held—even Naruto. He had made that decision and walked away.
What’s done is done, Sasuke tells himself firmly, and repeats, “No.”
Sasuke is suddenly very aware of the silence of those around him and Itachi’s eyes boring holes into his side. Akane sets down the mug carefully. There is something like pity in her eyes. “You break her heart or she break yours?”
“It wasn’t—” Sasuke catches himself and bites down on the rest of his sentence.
Akane leans across the counter and takes the pendant in her hand gently. Sasuke has to use all his willpower not to flinch back and hide it away. “I’m sure she was very beautiful,” she says after a moment, “to have broken your heart so.”
He, Sasuke wants to correct her, but he can’t form the words because she’s right—so many beautiful women and men, thousands of miles now, and still…
Always, always, Naruto.
“Is,” he corrects after a moment—can’t help himself, because this is Naruto, and he doesn’t want to listen to Akane talk about him as if he’s in the past tense, not when Naruto is so vibrant and staggeringly beautiful in every moment, in Sasuke’s memories and in Sasuke’s dreams. He wraps his hand carefully around Akane’s wrist to move her away from the pendant. “Is beautiful. Not was.”
Akane pulls back from Sasuke’s grip, gentle. “You sure she’s not waiting for you?” she asks, stacking the mugs along the counter. She indicates the necklace. “That’s not something someone gives if they don’t intend it as a promise of some kind.”
It ended. Sasuke is sure of it. The necklace could mean a million and one things, and none of it is: I’ll wait for you.
When Sasuke left, he had left everyone and everything.
Sasuke picks up his beer to take a drink, signaling and end to the conversation. When Akane just watches him patiently, he asks, “Now who’s being persistent?”
The line lands flat. “I’m sorry,” she says, and it’s the sincerity of her apology that makes Sasuke’s irritation at the intrusion disappear. Akane picks up another mug and returns to her task of drying. “What is she like?”
Sasuke moves the stew in his bowl around with his spoon. “He’s…” he trails off at the memory of it (the curve of Naruto’s quieter smiles, the texture of Naruto’s hair, the angle of his cheekbones, the elegant length of his neck, the soft press of Naruto’s lips against his, just that one time, when he’d named Sasuke, Coward.)
If you want it. Sasuke tucks the pendant securely under his shirt—presses a hand against his chest to hold it there for a moment, remembers the feel of Naruto’s hand in his, being close enough to hear Naruto say, I’m in love with you—before picking up his spoon again.
Akane watches him carefully. “I’d heard you set fire to Otogakure to go home to him once. I thought they were just rumors, just an overdone story about a mercenary and the Hokage’s godson.”
Sasuke manages to sound amused when he finds his voice. He tries his best to divert the topic. “Mercenary? Now that’s just rude.”
“I think I still have the wanted posters from when there was a bounty on your head,” Akane says with a laugh. “Obviously, you’re the mercenary in the story, Romeo. Which makes Uzumaki Naruto Juliet, I suppose.”
The name falls like a stone in still water; the men eating at the bar have all gone silent, eavesdropping. Itachi is eavesdropping, Sasuke realizes, and feels his ears burning with the knowledge.
Akane must not notice Sasuke’s discomfort, though, because she keeps talking. “I’d heard that your Juliet is very beautiful. From the Land of Whirpools, right?”
Sasuke glances up at this. Naruto is a household name across the country, if only because he is such a presence in Tsunade’s administration. The laws he helps pass affect the daily lives of everyone across the country. What Sasuke hadn't known, though, is that people know what he looks like. “How do you know that?”
Akane smiles. “My brother’s friend, Riku, went to Konohagakure once to petition the Hokage. All our wells were drying up two summers ago, and the governor was doing nothing, so the village elders sent Riku and a few of the other younger men all the way to the capital. The Hokage was too busy to talk to them, so they met with her junior councilors instead. Uzumaki Naruto was one of the Council members that heard his petition. Riku was quite taken with him.”
“Quite taken,” Sasuke repeats carefully, and Akane bursts out into laughter.
“Riku is happily married,” she emphasizes. She starts drying the mugs clean as she continues her story. “But a man’s bound to notice. Riku and the other boys who went on the trip kept going on about the gold of his hair and the blue of his eyes, and what a pure heart. Going on and on, and I thought, what a load of hogwash. A pretty face comes along, and they start thinking with their dicks; mucked up the whole point of the journey to the Capital.”
Akane tells Sasuke about how Naruto showed up in their village three months later with engineers. Such a skinny, pretty little thing, Akane says, but Naruto had gotten into the ditches with the construction crew and dug for two days until they hit water. The wells they have now are guaranteed to last a lifetime, she says. One of them is called the Uzumaki Reservoir.
The man next to Sasuke suddenly jumps into the conversation. “I heard they named a bridge after him a while back,” he volunteers.
“You hear that his hair is spun of gold, too?” Akane asks, good-natured, and the men seated at the bar laugh.
“They make them pretty out there in the Land of Whirlpools,” the man admits. “They say he’ll be Kage someday, probably after the Commander now.”
“Only natural,” a man two seats down pipes up. “Uzumaki Naruto’s father was Hokage in my father’s time. And he’s godson to the current one.”
“Imagine that,” the man next to Sasuke says with something like wonder in his voice. “A Kage’s son and a Kage’s godson coming down to dig some ditches because a few crops are going dry.”
Naruto is Jiraiya’s godson and Tsunade’s legal heir, but the mistake is an easy one to make. Sasuke turns back to his food, intent on finishing as quickly as he can so he can escape to the relative privacy of his room. The conversation shifts towards the politics in the capital, the men discussing Kakashi. A war-trained Commander becoming Kage, one of the men at the bars says. The last time we saw that happen was Senju Tobirama himself.
Sasuke reaches for his wallet before he can get dragged into another unwanted conversation. “I’ll close down my tab now.”
This time, Akane doesn’t say anything. Instead, she turns around to pull out the slip of sheet with Sasuke’s tab on it to tally up his total. Sasuke pushes the money towards her, and although he’s irked at the attention she’s drawn towards him, he makes sure to include a hefty tip. “I don’t need the change.”
He doesn’t wait for Akane’s response before he’s walking away from the bar. The entrance to the rooms is in the far back, and Sasuke takes the stairs two at a time. He slams into his room and stands there for a moment, breathing hard.
The bathroom, at least, is wide and clean. He strips down and lets hot water run down his shoulders and back for a long while. When the fog gets too heavy, he turns off the water and steps out into the bedroom.
Itachi is sitting on his bed, taking off his boots. He stays silent until Sasuke is settling down in his own bed, about to slip under the covers. “I hadn’t realized,” he says carefully, “that what they said about you two is true. I assumed they were just rumors or—”
“Can it,” Sasuke snarls, letting his Mangekyou come to life with a burst of chakra.
Itachi stares back at him, calm despite Sasuke’s mounting anger. His eyes track down very pointedly to the silver chain around his neck. “What happened?”
Sasuke wants to punch something. Preferably Itachi. But that would likely end in bloodshed. And besides, there are civilians downstairs. “Good night,” Sasuke bites off, and turns the sheets over for the night.
Itachi takes his time showering and getting ready for bed. He turns off the lights behind him and settles into his own bed quietly. “Zetsu’s secure,” he offers, checking off their daily ritual.
Sasuke turns onto his side to settle into sleep. It’s just a short four hundred miles to Konoha now. He’s traveled over four thousand miles in the past eight months, and he’ll be exactly where he started all over again.
Itachi is quiet for so long that Sasuke thinks he’s fallen asleep. But suddenly, Itachi clears his throat. “When Madara first assigned me to extract Naruto,” he begins, and Sasuke freezes. He still remembers the agonizing dread he'd felt when he realized Itachi had taken Naruto. “I could hear you running down the corridors, looking for him. I thought, I’m going to have to kill this idiot if he doesn’t stand down.”
Itachi’s story ends as abruptly as it started. “He was my teammate,” Sasuke says by way of explanation. Naruto didn’t hold the sway over Sasuke back then like he does now. This feeling—this feeling buried deep in his bones—grew over time. It grew and grew and grew until Sasuke couldn’t breathe around it anymore.
“If I was the reason that it didn’t work out for you two,” Itachi says into the quiet that follows. He sounds as if he’s straining for the words. “Because I lied to you about what happened and made you think you had to—”
“He wants a starter house with a yard. A summer wedding. Three, maybe four kids,” Sasuke interrupts, if only to put Itachi out of his misery. Leave it to Itachi to play the martyr, to blame this on himself too. He’s always been far too willing to bear the burden of the world, but at the end of the day, this lands squarely at Sasuke’s feet. “That’s why it didn’t work out.”
Itachi moves in his bed slightly, but Sasuke keeps his eyes resolutely closed. “That doesn’t sound half-bad.”
Sasuke shifts so that his back is to Itachi. Thankfully, Itachi doesn’t speak again for the rest of the night.
The miles bleed away after that. The closer they get to their destination, the more Itachi’s nerves start to show. It’s unnoticeable at first: he’s quicker to snap at Sasuke, more petulant about doing his share of the chores, and even snaps at Zetsu each time he cracks open the coffin to check on the knife and seals, even though, thus far, Sasuke has been the only one to acknowledge Zetsu with an overly cheerful, Morning, sunshine! And, Goodnight, sweet cheeks.
Sasuke doesn’t put two and two together until they pass the first mile marker.
KONOHAGAKURE it reads. 325 miles.
Itachi stares at it so intently that he turns in his seat to watch the sign pass by. Sasuke is sitting up in the back of the cart for this leg of the journey, carving small pieces of an apple with a kunai while the cart jostles along. “Is that what’s got your panties all twisted?”
“That phrase,” Itachi huffs, “is extremely sexist.”
Sasuke rolls his eyes. He’s aware of the sexism of the comment because he's had both Sakura and Naruto in his life. “They’re not going to court-martial you, Brother. They’ll pin a fuckton of medals on your chest and then send us both out again to take out Madara once Kakashi figures out what the game plan is.”
Itachi shifts in his seat and hunches over the reins. “I don’t want medals.”
“Well, Tsunade likes to give them out,” Sasuke says. He knows, he has a Medal of Honor, but he doesn’t know what he did with it. It’s entirely possible that he donated it along with the rest of his surplus junk when he moved out of Mrs. Miyake’s. “Stop being a baby about it. It’s just Konoha.”
“I haven’t been back in a long time, Sasuke,” Itachi snaps. “I don’t even know what the streets look like.”
“So?” Sasuke takes a large slice of the apple into his mouth and chews with a satisfying crunch and burst of juice. “Get a map.”
“Shut up, Sasuke.” Itachi doesn’t stay silent long, though, because he turns in his seat to ask, hesitant, “So no one else can see the Hokage ghosts?”
“Nope.” Sasuke pops off the end of the word with relish and watches Itachi’s eyes narrow. “Don’t worry. I’ll make proper introductions.”
Itachi considers the offer. “We should stop at a town along the way to make ourselves presentable,” he determines.
Sasuke doesn’t censor himself. He laughs at Itachi’s formality. “Trust me. The ghosts don’t care.”
“Well, I do,” Itachi says primly, and turns back to the road.
Sasuke settles on his back and stares up at the blue sky that peeks out from between the trees every now and then. It’s March now, and although there’s still a slight chill in the air, it’s nice to be finally done with winter. So Sasuke ignores Itachi’s reprimand—Get under the tarp, it’s no time to start getting stupid when we’re so close—and watches the clouds drift by for the rest of the afternoon.
Eventually, even Itachi relaxes into the bench. He leans back to demand that Sasuke share slices of his second apple, asking, “So who won the basketball championships last time you were in the City?”
It’s almost nightfall before the laziness of their day is interrupted. Sasuke is explaining, in great detail, the fumbling idiocy of Konohagakure University’s basketball coach, and Itachi is agreeing with him, What kind of idiot places their point-forward—
High level chakra signatures. Four of them—ahead, directly in their path.
They switch immediately. This close to Konohagakure, no one with half a brain would believe that Itachi is Sasuke. Itachi pushes down his chakra until it’s nothing but a slow, humming buzz. Their chakras are so alike that it is easy for Itachi’s signature to be overwhelmed by Sasuke’s and be missed. Itachi pulls out two kunai, while Sasuke settles at the front of the cart.
“Enemies?” Itachi asks in a low voice.
“Can’t tell.” They’re too far, still. Twenty miles or so, and unfamiliar enough that the distance makes it difficult for Sasuke to identify.
“Are you sending your snakes to scout ahead?”
Sasuke takes a breath. There’s four of them, whoever they are, and he doesn’t want to risk his snakes on scouting out shinobi who are both powerful enough—and arrogant enough—to declare their presence so boldly. If it’s Madara, he’ll spot his snakes easily. And besides, Yuuta had said once that Madara could sense him somehow. “No,” Sasuke decides.
Itachi hm-s thoughtfully, and settles down low. Sasuke pulls the tarp over him and secures it just enough so it stays tight but not so much that it might impede any immediate move Itachi might need to make. Not that Sasuke can’t handle these four, but he’d rather not risk anything with Zetsu still in the coffin.
The distance between them shortens slowly but steadily, and yet, the four do not move. Sasuke moves his cloak so that he can easily reach the hilt of his sword. “These stupid motherfuckers,” he grumbles. “Don’t they know who I am?”
Itachi’s scoff is audible even from under the tarp. “Humility, meet Uchiha Sasuke.”
Sasuke ignores Itachi. He isn’t arrogant out of misplaced confidence. He’s arrogant because he has the track record to prove it. He is Hatake Kakashi’s student, and even though Naruto and Sakura share evenly in Kakashi’s legacy, Sasuke carries Kakashi’s sword. He wore Hatake Kakashi’s mask. The Nidaime Hokage himself trained Sasuke in the Senju Technique. He was forged in war and fire and death in Otogakure when most shinobi his age were still testing their mettle in one-on-one battles of middling B- and A-ranked missions.
It’s the inconvenience of it that annoys Sasuke.
The annoyance starts to fall away, though, as they get closer. Fifteen miles out when something like recognition flits across Sasuke’s mind. He knows those signatures, but he can’t quite place them.
Eight miles out, he identifies them. “Konohagakure soldiers,” he declares.
Itachi isn’t convinced, paranoid bastard that he is. “I don’t know if we should trust shinobi just because they’re from Konohagakure, Sasuke. Slow down so—”
“We can trust these shinobi,” Sasuke interrupts, and leans forward into the wind.
They appear only in snapshots: just as Sasuke’s road dips low enough that he can see their silhouette over the horizon, or when the road curves just so that he can see the blaze of their fires. As they get closer, Sasuke can see that they’ve set up what has to be the most pathetic excuse for a roadblock that he has ever seen.
Kiba cups his hands around his mouth and yells, “Can you move any slower, Uchiha?”
He can’t help the wide grin splitting across his face, and when they’re close enough, he stands up with the reins in his hand and yells out, “You call this a welcoming party, you miserable shits?”
Kiba whoops so loudly in joy that Akamaru picks up the cue and starts howling at the moon. The dog takes off in a dead sprint towards them and the horses start to panic. “Oi, Akamaru!” Kiba yells after the wolf-dog. “Hold up! You’re scaring the horses! Come back here!”
Akamaru slows and takes a few bounding steps back, barking loudly still and wagging his tail. He trots a few steps back towards Kiba but doesn’t go all the way, making small circles back and forth to escort Sasuke’s cart all the way until they’re just a few feet away. Sasuke jumps off the cart; Kiba is pulling him into a hug immediately even as Akamaru pushes up against his side happily, tail wagging furiously.
Shikamaru hasn’t moved from his slouched position on the roadblock sign. He’s smoking a cigarette, and Neji is leaning up against the barricade next to him, watching Sasuke with barely a hint of emotion. Shino pulls Sasuke into a hug next, mercifully sparing Sasuke’s ear from Kiba’s overenthusiastic yells and happy welcomes.
“You can blame the Commander for the paltry roadblock,” Neji says, finally moving forward with an outstretched hand. They shake. They’re all wearing jounin vests, except for Neji who is in ANBU gear and wearing the Lieutenant armband. “He didn’t want to waste any more money on your sorry ass, Sharingan.”
Shikamaru stretches, yawning loudly. “Why did you take so damn long?”
Sasuke indicates the cart, and it’s now that their joy falls away. “I heard about your brother, Sasuke,” Kiba says, gripping Sasuke’s shoulder in a firm grip. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Shino clears his throat to get Sasuke’s attention. “We wanted to be here to be pallbearers.”
“Perimeter?” Sasuke asks, glancing around at the still forest around them. This late in the night, he can barely see beyond a few feet of the fires that the four have lit.
“Secure,” Shino answers, tilting his face into the sky. “Just us.”
Sasuke clears his throat. Shino’s bugs are thorough, and he’s always relied on him to establish a secure perimeter without any prying eyes or ears. He turns to the cart and raises his voice. “It’s clear.”
The tarp moves, and a movement later, Itachi swings over the side of the cart.
There is a very awkward moment of everyone staring at Itachi, and Itachi staring back at everyone else placidly.
Sasuke clears his throat. “Brother, this is my old ANBU unit.” He gestures at the four men individually as he identifies them. “Hyuga Neji. Nara Shikamaru. Inuzuka Kiba. Aburame Shino. Gentlemen, this is my brother, Itachi.”
Itachi glances around the slack-jawed men. “Nice to meet you,” he says, polite as always.
Shikamaru is the one to react first. He looks heavenwards and groans, letting out a steam of smoke from the last inhale of his cigarette. “So. Goddamn. Troublesome.”
Akamaru keeps circling Itachi curiously as he walks, making wide, looping tracks around him and occasionally moving close to sniff at the air around Itachi. Despite the interference, Itachi’s stride doesn’t change. He just walks at a steady pace ahead of the group, giving them privacy to hash things out and holding up the torch to lead the way.
Not that the privacy is doing much, because Kiba’s panicked voice is too-loud in the night air. Neji had suggested that they travel past the barricade before setting up camp, just to be on the safe side, and this is what they are doing now, traveling at such a late hour of the night with nothing but a few torches to light the way.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Kiba hisses in what he thinks is an approximation of a whisper. It’s a low shout on the best of days. “So there’s a not-dead dead guy—”
“I am so sick of immortal assholes,” Shikamaru grumbles from his perch on the cart. He was, of course, the first to volunteer to steer the cart. He’d apparently been walking for fucking years—Sasuke refrains from pointing out that Shikamaru is only a few hundred miles from Konohagakure, and Sasuke is the one who has literally traversed the width of the Continent and back again in the nine months it's been now since he first left Konoha.
Kiba eyes the tarp. “What is it with immortal motherfuckers and Akatsuki? Do they put up a sign? Wanted: Immortal psychopaths who like nailpolish. Well-adjusted humans need not apply.”
Shino glances at Itachi. “I am glad you made peace with your brother, Sasuke.”
“Oh, yeah! That’s awesome,” Kiba says, pausing for a moment to give Sasuke one of his blinding grins. It vanishes quickly though, because he remembers his original concern and gestures at the cart. “What the fuck! You carried a corpse across the Continent! This isn’t even your first time, Sasuke! You need to seek help! What is it with you and bringing back dead people to the Commander? You know who does that? Crazy people! And cats! Cats do that! They kill birds and then lay them out like utter fucking creepers for their owners—”
“Orochimaru was different. Cats are different. This is different, Kiba,” Shino says mildly. “What is the plan, Sasuke?”
“The plan,” Sasuke says firmly before the conversation can get out of hand. “Is to deliver the package back to Kakashi. We have more than two hundred miles to cover still.”
Neji clears his throat and raises his voice loud enough that Itachi can hear him up ahead. “We should make camp. Give the horses some rest.” He’s been oddly silent this entire time, but it’s to be expected. Uchiha Itachi is in their midst; for almost their entire professional lives, they have been conditioned to believe that Itachi is an enemy of the State. They don’t have shared blood to forget the past as easily as Sasuke has. Old habits, as they say, die hard.
Itachi pauses up ahead. He considers the suggestion before deciding and returning to join the group. He considers them for a moment before saying, “Inuzuka, firewood. Aburame, perimeter. Nara, you and I check the seals on Zetsu. Hyuga, water. Sasuke, set up camp.”
He pushes past the silent group and moves towards the back of the cart. Neji turns his milky-blue gaze to Sasuke and stares pointedly. He is clearly the highest-ranking officer in this group, but Itachi has barreled right over his authority without a moment’s pause. “Forgot to mention,” Sasuke says, by way of apology. “He’s a bossy son of a bitch.”
“Camp, Sasuke,” Itachi repeats, irked now that Sasuke is talking about him so obviously.
Sasuke rolls his eyes and starts on his task. Behind him, the others follow.
Neji’s stony silence doesn’t give way to anger until a few days later, when they’re just a day’s ride away from the City. Kiba is telling Sasuke excitedly about all that has happened in the past year—how they have all moved onto Jounin Forces, how Hiashi convinced Neji to stay on as Lieutenant, how Hinata had gotten a promotion and Naruto—
Sasuke glances up from his bowl of food sharply at the name, and the mood around the fire shifts from easy comradery to something more strained. Itachi is leaning against a tree, set apart slightly from the group but still watching all their interactions carefully. He’s retreated into his usual silences around strangers, but he’s getting more and more comfortable with the other men, going so far as to play a game of chess with Shikamaru that involves nothing more than the two of them calling out spaces to each other. Bishop to B9 or Knight to F3. They rarely get to Check or Checkmate; the challenge is enough that Shikamaru’s usually reserved demeanor breaks and he spends hours mulling over his moves. Now and then, Itachi will throw a smile Shikamaru’s way and say, You sure about that move? And Shikamaru will dissolve into the closest thing to a fit that Sasuke can imagine him ever approaching.
Even Akamaru has taken a liking to Itachi and is now curled around him, snoring, while Itachi scratches behind his ears lazily. Which naturally means, Kiba likes him, and Shino follows soon thereafter. Neji is the only one who still views Itachi warily, but it likely has more to do with Itachi’s blatant disregard of protocol and the easy way he has assumed the position of authority in the group.
“And Naruto?” Sasuke prompts, ignoring Itachi’s sudden sharp interest.
Kiba loses his steam. “Uh, well, you know.” He clears his throat. “Seconds?”
The silence is so thick with what’s unspoken that Sasuke’s heartbeat picks up despite himself. He doesn’t bother with making it sound casual. “What about Naruto?” There is no answer; even Shino busies himself with his traveling pack in an attempt to avoid meeting Sasuke’s eyes. “If something’s wrong, just tell me now so—”
“So that you can fuck it up even worse?” Neji asks, mild. Sasuke pins Neji with a stare at the sudden venom in his voice.
“Neji,” Shino says, voice pitched low, but Neji holds up a hand to ward off whatever reprimand Shino has to offer.
“I mean, the man asked, so he’s clearly concerned,” Neji says. “What a fucking hero.”
Sasuke sets down his bowl and spoon carefully. “Do we have a problem, Hyuga?”
Neji gets to his feet. “I’m getting more firewood.”
Sasuke gets to his feet as well. “Here we go,” Kiba breathes, and Akamaru stirs in his sleep.
Sasuke is very aware that he is no longer Neji’s CO because Neji does not hesitate to activate his Byakugan and stare down Sasuke. There is real anger in his gaze, the kind Sasuke has not seen in a while. “If Naruto is in some way hurt or—”
“Don’t,” Neji snarls. “Don’t talk about him like you give a fuck when—”
Sasuke’s Mangekyou whorls to life with such force that the fire in the center of the group roars to life. Neji doesn’t flinch back at the sudden rush of heat, just holds Sasuke’s gaze across the campfire.
“Oh, that’s right, I forgot,” Neji hisses. “You’re the only one who’s allowed to hurt Naruto. When you do it, I guess it’s allowed, because he’s yours to hurt, isn’t he? God forbid any of us who actually have his back—”
“I’m warning you, Byakugan,” Sasuke interrupts calmly.
Neji’s hands drop into fists by his side. “Stay away from him,” Neji warns. “He’s one of my closest friends, Uchiha. If you hurt him any more than you already have, so help me God—”
Sasuke blurs. He has Neji pressed into the ground before he can react. A few years ago, his anger would have crippled him so much that he would have been evenly matched with Neji. But he’s stronger now, and the surprise on Neji’s face is worth it. “I warned you,” Sasuke says, voice casual.
“That’s it,” Kiba says. “Shikamaru, do you mind?” Sasuke’s limbs go stiff, and he’s trapped. He resists, but muscle by muscle, Shikamaru makes him submit and pull him away. Neji is suffering the same embarrassment, but his anger has hardened.
“I defended you when we first heard the stories,” Neji says. “I thought you were honorable—”
“That’s enough,” Kiba says, stepping into Neji’s space. He places both hands on Neji’s shoulders, blocking his view of Sasuke. “Now is not the time, Neji. We’ve got a task to finish.”
Neji’s eyes flicker towards the coffin. He chokes down on his own anger, chest heaving with the effort of it. The veins in his forehead recede slowly. “Let me go, Shikamaru.”
Shikamaru assesses the situation for a moment before releasing both of their shadows. Neji doesn’t wait a moment too long, just rounds on his heels and disappears into the forest.
Shino gets to his feet. “I will go find him,” he offers, and disappears.
Kiba looks heavenwards. “My big fucking mouth.”
Sasuke tracks Neji’s chakra until he's out of earshot. “Is Naruto okay?”
Shikamaru laughs. When Sasuke turns to stare at him, he puts up both hands in surrender. “I’m staying out of it.”
Kiba digs his heel into the muddy ground in front of him. The late March-snow has melted around their fire and all that’s left is a circle of dead grass and mud. “Honestly, Sasuke, you know I’ll always have your back but—”
“Is he or is he not okay?” Sasuke demands.
“—but you can be such a horse’s ass sometimes, you know?” Kiba finishes, staring Sasuke straight in the eyes. “Is Naruto okay? Are you fucking kidding me?”
Sasuke sits down angrily. “I’m allowed to ask, Inuzuka,” he says, leaning towards Kiba. “Whether or not you want to answer is—”
“No, actually, I’m not sure you’re allowed to ask anymore,” Kiba interrupts, chin tilted up in defiance. “Neji was out of line, sure, but he has a point.” He takes a breath. “But yeah, Naruto’s fine, I guess. You know, the moment he heard about your brother, he started asking the Hokage to come out with pallbearers so you wouldn’t have to be alone for the trip home. The idiot wanted to come himself, even though we’d been hearing for ages that you were hopping from one bed to another across the Continent, just living it up.”
“I was looking for my Brother, I wasn’t—”
“Oh come on, Sasuke. Even for you, it was pretty ridiculous, the sheer amount of fucking you did,” Kiba says, overriding Sasuke with his voice alone. “You just leave, Sasuke. We’re the ones who see what happens after.”
Sasuke clenches his jaw so hard he can feel the strain of it in the muscles of his neck. Kiba brings his gaze back down from the stars and pins Sasuke again. “You’re reckless with Naruto. You take him for granted, and you’re selfish about it. You’re downright cruel,” he says, and the words sting, even more so because it’s Kiba who is saying them.
“I’m not telling you to get on one knee to do right by Naruto. Clearly, that’s not what you want. That's not even what Naruto is expecting,” Kiba continues, unflinching in his sincerity. “But you nearly slept with one of his best friends, and that was even before you left. The minute you leave, you're fucking around. You weren't even subtle about it. You act like he's cheap, Sasuke. He never blamed you for it or for being who you are, but goddamn it, man, do you have to rub it in his face so much?”
The words sting, like the reopening of a sharp wound. Tenten, he realizes, because that's what she is: one of Naruto's closest friends. He'd spent the night at her place the day before he left, the very evening before he asked Naruto out for dinner. Sasuke begins to defend himself before he even realizes he’s doing it. “I never treated him like he was cheap—”
“Maybe not cheap, but you’ve never been kind,” Kiba says, loud, interrupting Sasuke again. “The least you could do is be kind to him.”
Sasuke can’t hold Kiba’s gaze anymore, so he stares at the fire instead. It’s an odd orange-blue now from his chakra, and he concentrates until it returns to its normal hue. The necklace is warm around his neck, and it takes all of his willpower not to reach for it now. “I didn’t know he was waiting for me to come home.”
Shikamaru laughs again, and this time when Sasuke looks at him, he doesn’t hold his silence. “Sasuke,” he says, words lazy even though his gaze is sharp. “Naruto is always waiting for you to come home to him.”
Just then, Neji and Shino return to camp. They’re carrying a few twigs. “Nice job with the firewood,” Kiba says, friendly and easygoing now that the moment is broken.
Sasuke gets to his feet. “Where are you going?” Kiba calls out.
Shikamaru falls onto his back with a groan. “We’re going to freeze to death at this rate.”
Sasuke walks for a hundred yards before his steps slow. He stands utterly still in the silence of the forest and finally pulls out the necklace. The green is bright in the darkness, as if it's emitting light instead of just reflecting it.
If you want it, Naruto told him. He knows now what that means, and still, he’s left unsure…
He tries imagining Naruto’s version of events: a house, a wedding, children—but all of it in Konohagakure and her redwoods, by the Naka River where he held vigil for Shisui with Itachi’s clammy grip around his wrist, the dragonstone etched with the names of his kin. He imagines building a future in that city, Naruto at his side (with his crystal-blue eyes, cupid’s bow lips, and tinkling laugh—every detail of him bringing solace to Sasuke), but in that very moment of imagining it—
Remembers waking up, day after day, with the sure knowledge that his brother is near (right here, Sasuke)—breathing deeply into a pillow or grumbling under his breath Gods be good, what I would do for a fresh cup of coffee—
Remembers walking across the wide expanse of the Continent, with no other destination in mind than the horizon that lay ahead. The vivid clarity of sunrises and sunsets, the weightlessness of walking on sand dunes so bright it felt as if he was stepping, light-footed, across a solar flare—
Remembers gazing up at the stars, a cool breeze drifting down from the peaks of the Yoro Mountain and spreading across an endless stretch of rolling plains.
Sasuke tucks the necklace carefully under his shirt, and presses a hand against his chest to hold it close. He lets the feeling of the pendant digging into his skin hold him to the present and push away the memories of all those months journeying across the Continent, unchained and untamed. He forces himself to imagine a different path, because if he wants it, it’s his to have: a life, an entire lifetime with Naruto—
But he would be tethered and bound by Konohagakure, by her walls and her blood oaths.
For the first time in weeks, he feels the urge to turn westward again.