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The journey north is miserable—so miserable, in fact, that even Jugo comments on it. “Aren’t you southerners supposed to have good weather?”

“We do,” Sasuke mutters, blinking against the rain. It started a day into their journey and has not let upsince. The lightning overhead arches across the sky with bone-shuddering thunder as accompaniment. Sasuke isn’t too annoyed by the weather, though, mostly because he’s too exhausted. He hasn’t gotten a single night’s rest since leaving Konohagakure.

Sasuke dreams every night of the ride north, and every night he wakes up with his chakra spiking, feeling too hot even through the sharp gusts of wind that push the rain into his face. Before long, they are all soaked through, and there isn’t much Sasuke can do but grit his teeth and bear with it.

When the landscape finally shifts—the trees thinning out and becoming shorter and sturdier, the landscape flattening out into gently rolling plains—they are all relieved. The skies clear just as they push through the first expanse of rice fields, which still offers no respite to Sasuke’s dreams. It is always the beast and its unholy screeching, and that woman, with bone-white skin and mismatched eyes.

And a raven, waiting to take flight, always hesitating in the last moment before Sasuke wakes up gasping for breath.

By the time they see Urausu in the distance, Sasuke is so exhausted that Suigetsu remarks on the circles under his eyes. “When we get to Mrs. Oonishi’s, get some rest,” he says to Sasuke, voice pitched low so the others don’t hear. “I’ll take care of organizing the supply train with the Captains.”

“You think no one will notice that their Lord Commander is taking a nap while everyone is preparing for war?” Sasuke asks

“They’ll think you’re the Lord Commander and supply trains are not something you bother yourself with,” Suigetsu counters neatly. “When was the last time you got some fucking sleep?”

Sasuke grits his teeth. They’ve been traveling for a week now. He’s gotten just a handful of hours in all that time. “I’m fine.”

“You’re having nightmares,” Suigetsu says. He would know too; Sasuke and Suigetsu place their bedrolls next to each other, as they’ve always done, ever since they were rookies in Orochimaru’s army. In Otogakure, people quickly realized Sasuke and Suigetsu both had the same kind of nightmares—the ones where they woke up drenched in sweat, ready to hurl, sometimes screaming, but almost always reaching blindly for weapons. Out of necessity, Kabuto had ordered Sasuke and Suigetsu to settle their bedrolls off to the side. Just in case one of you kills the other in your sleep, he’d said .

Kabuto always was a pessimistic fucker.

But they never did end up killing each other. Instead, Sasuke kept watch over Suigetsu on his worst nights, as Suigetsu did for him.

Suigetsu knows most of Sasuke’s nightmares, and Sasuke knows most of his.

“Is it like before?”

Sasuke shakes his head. “These dreams are different.”

Suigetsu sighs. “How is it you’re still collecting material for new nightmares, Uchiha?” His voice is barely heard over the clatter of hooves and the low hum of conversation of the men and women around them.

Sasuke arches an eyebrow at him. When Suigetsu was born, he was named Kijin, the Demon’s Second Coming, for his amethyst eyes and silver hair. He’s clawed tooth and nail against his destiny since. “You’re not?”

“I have a toddler. Most nights, I just pass the fuck out,” Suigetsu says with a lopsided smile. “You can rest when we get to Mrs. Oonishi’s.”

But when they get to Mrs. Oonishi’s tavern, there is no rest. Urausu has ballooned in size and population. When Sasuke was last here just a week ago, the road leading to Urausu had been narrow, shaded on both sides by trees and rutted. Now, the road has been widened and beaten down into smoothness by the steady march of feet and horses. The town itself has expanded. There are new stables and barracks, along with a few newly built inns. There are tents radiating outwards from the town for the civilians who have fled to Urausu in the face of the coming war. With the tribal warriors marching to war, those left behind—children too young to fight, women heavy with children, the elderly, the injured, or the disabled—will seek shelter in the towns and villages across the country.

It’s slow going riding through the crowded tents and roads to get to Mrs. Oonishi’s tavern. When they get there, they don’t even get a hello. Mrs. Oonishi only says, About damn time. “There’s a child here waiting to see the three of you.”

Suigetsu’s eyes go wide. “Please don’t tell me I’ve fathered another child by accident again.” He pauses a beat before adding hastily, “I’m not saying that I wouldn’t be happy. Megumi is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, but—”

“It’s not your child, Suigetsu, hush,” Mrs. Oonishi sighs. She gives Jugo a considering look. “She says she has information for you, Jugo. She won’t share it with anyone else. She won’t even give me her name, and she’s been here for three days now.”

Jugo squares his shoulders. They haven’t even had time to sit down, but any hint of exhaustion vanishes from his face immediately. “Lead the way, then.”

Mrs. Oonishi ushers them upstairs with a finger held over her lips.

Jugo, Karin, Suigetsu, and Sasuke climb up the stairs behind Mrs. Oonishi, making sure to keep their footsteps light. They all hold their silence, but when Mrs. Oonishi pushes open the door to one of the rooms upstairs, Suigetsu breaks the silence. “What’s going on—” he starts, only to stop up short when Mrs. Oonishi holds the door wide enough for them to see inside the room.

“She was asking for directions to Lord Biratori’s war camp,” Mrs. Oonishi says in a whisper, nodding her head at the figure sleeping on the bed in the far corner of the room. Mrs. Oonishi breathes in sharply and turns to give Sasuke a hard look. “Mostly, she was asking for you, Sasuke. She says she has information she needs to give you.”

“She’s a child,” Karin counters hotly. Even though the blinds are drawn, there is enough sunlight outside to make out the girl on the bed. She is small, too small for the makeshift cast on her right arm. There is a bandage on her cheek, which only highlights the swelling of her right eye and the split lip. There are finger-shaped bruises along her neck; someone tried to strangle her. “Who did this to her?”

“She won’t say,” Mrs. Oonishi murmurs, stepping into the room fully. They follow her inside. The girl is sleeping so soundly that she doesn’t even stir. "She barely says a word to me, except that she wants to see you, Jugo."

Now that he’s peering down at her, it strikes Sasuke; she’s familiar to him. She’s cut off her hair so she looks like a boy—too young to have the injuries she does—but there’s no mistaking it.

“Sarada,” Sasuke says. “Her name is Sarada.”

Karin glances sharply at Sasuke. “The girl you met? She called Jugo a giant.”

She wants to be a historian. And a doctor. She’s ten and three-quarters. She’s top of her class, Sasuke thinks. The fingers of her right hand are swollen from the break in her arm. She has a father. Where is he? “She needs a healer,” Sasuke says.

“She refused.” Mrs. Oonishi looks grim. “She can’t be more than seven, the poor thing.”

“She’s ten,” Sasuke says. Ten and three-quarters.

“That’s not a ten-year-old,” Suigetsu denies gently. He bends at the waist, reaching out to touch her cast gently. He looks incredibly old and tired all of a sudden. “Where are her parents?”

“Who did this to her?” Karin demands, repeating Sasuke’s question from before.

Sarada stirs at the sound of Karin’s sharp voice. She flinches away from Suigetsu’s touch before blinking her eyes open. For a while, she squints at those around her, and then reaches under her pillow to pull out a familiar pair of glasses that are held together by crudely wrapped tape. The left lens is cracked, but she doesn’t seem to notice because the moment her gaze lands on Sasuke, her entire expression crumbles. She seems to slump into the bed even more.

Relief, that’s what it is. She’s relieved to see Sasuke. She’s so small, Sasuke doesn’t know how he ever believed her lie about her age. She even has her baby-fat, the same chubbiness around her cheeks that Megumi has in spades.

“Hello,” she says. She sits up in bed, revealing a shirt that is several sizes too big on her. Her gaze takes them all in, shifting from person to person carefully, but  it is Sasuke her eyes keep slipping back to.

“You cut your hair short,” he says when their eyes meet. “I didn’t recognize you.”

Sarada’s hands flutter up to smooth down her hair. “My name is Kamisunagawa Sarada. We met before—”

“Ten-and-three-quarters, top of your class,” Sasuke recites. Kamisunagawa. He hadn’t realized she belonged to that tribe; he’d assumed she was a civilian after meeting her father, but she has taken her mother’s last name. There’s warrior blood in her, but—  

Warrior or not, no child as small as her should be sporting the bruises she has. “You want to be a doctor and a historian.”

Sarada nods at his words, a pleased little smile teasing at the corner of her mouth; she looks surprised he’d remembered. “Your tattoos were covered, so I didn’t recognize you back then,” she says. “The stories say you’re seven feet tall and breathe fire and eat children who don’t go to sleep when my gramma tells them to.”

Sasuke feels his lips twitch; Suigetsu covers his laugh with a cough, but Jugo is helpless in hiding his laughter. Sasuke is too amused to take offense at the fact that he’s now the boogey man in the north. “I only eat children when they lie to me about how old they are.”

Sarada twists the sheets around her nervously. “The school wouldn’t let me take classes with the older kids,” she murmurs miserably. “So my dad lied to the principal.”

“How old are you?”

“Nine,” she answers hotly. When Sasuke arches an eyebrow, she tries again, muttering the answer into her lap, “Eight.”

“Try again,” Karin prompts.

Sarada slouches even further. “Six,” she whispers. “And two-thirds. Nearly three-quarters.”

Six. Nearly half the age she said she was. He isn’t familiar with children. He doesn’t know how tall they get or what they’re supposed to do aside from go to school and run around, but he’s not sure how he mistook a six year old for a ten year old.

Suigetsu sits on the edge of Sarada’s bed, just a hand’s distance away from her. “Where are your parents, sweetheart?”

Sarada tugs at the bed sheet with both her hands. “My father disappeared seven months ago when the ghost-army marched through,” she answers quietly. “He went with Erimo and four of his men to track down the army, but they never came back.”

Erimo, the tattooed warrior with a newborn daughter. He was providing Sarada’s father with protection for the harvest season. Sasuke doesn’t need to press Sarada for details. It’s easy enough to imagine—a silent army marching past their lands, and Erimo setting off to do his job to track down the unknown threat. Sarada’s father must have offered to accompany them, likely as a guide. Disappeared, Sarada said, but that was seven months ago. They’re long dead.

“Your mother?” Suigetsu presses, and Sarada shakes her head lightly. Dead or gone. “Grandmother? Godfather? Godmother? Any kin?” She shakes her head again, and then pushes her glasses up her nose. It slips a moment later. An orphan. She needs new glasses.

Karin is the one who breaks the silence that follows. “You said you’re Kamisunagawa?”

“My mother was a warrior,” Sarada answers. “She died in battle when I was little. My father is a farmer.”

Was a farmer, but Sasuke doesn’t correct her. He doesn’t even ask her, Did your mother die in battle against me? Was she at the Battle of the Rankoshi? He left six of her tribe dead on the battlefield that day.

Jugo crouches by her bed. With his height, he’s at eye-level with her even though she is sitting upright. “Is that why you’re here, little one? Are you looking for Lord Kamisunagawa? Mrs. Oonishi said you wanted directions to my war camp.”

Sarada looks at him silently for a moment before she moves to get off the bed. She pushes gently at Jugo’s shoulder to move him aside and carefully places her bare feet on the floor. She heads for the door, but just when Sasuke thinks she’ll leave entirely, she crouches by a pair of worn looking shoes. They’re splattered with mud and so ragged that it’s a wonder they’re still in one piece. Sarada picks up her left shoe and neatly tugs out the strip of leather inside.

A moment later, she pulls out a piece of paper so carefully folded that it’s become entirely stiff when she holds it out for Jugo to take. “Erimo told me that you, Uchiha Sasuke, and the Kijin, Hozuki Suigetsu, were blood-brothers, so I came looking for you. They say you’re going to fight the war against the ghost army in the Omine Valley, Lord Biratori.”

Jugo gets to his feet and unfolds the paper carefully. Suigetsu and Sasuke look over his shoulder, and he angles it so that they can all read it. It’s the top right corner of a memo addressed to Tsunade about the Hiroo and Kasai passes. The message cuts off mid-sentence. The next sentence mentions Rebun Obito and it, too, gets cut off. Shikaku’s signature is on the bottom of the page.

The header at the top of the page is easily recognizable: an SCI report. This was a report that Shikaku had forwarded up the ranks for Tsunade’s review. She had then signed off on it with her seal. The date under her signature is from last week, when Jugo and Suigetsu had still been in Konohagakure discussing the possibility of a northern attack.

Sarada has bought this memo down from the north, where it had no business being. A report this classified can’t even leave the Hokage tower without proper protocol in place. And yet, somehow, it had made its way to the far north within days of Tsunade’s signature.

Karin glances up sharply at Sasuke, but she doesn’t have to say anything. It’s obvious enough: Traitor.

Sarada is watching them with wide eyes. She’s standing before them nervously, wearing nothing but an oversized undershirt meant for an adult, looking almost jittery in anticipation.

Jugo refolds the piece of paper, his expression still open and kind. “Thank you for giving this to me.”

Sasuke’s fingers itch to re-examine that piece of paper, but there’s no point in denying what it is. A mole. Madara knows their battle strategy. He’s lying in wait for them. “Where’d you get this, short crop?”

Sarada’s hand flutters up to her hair again. She reaches with her right hand, but then remembers last minute that her fingers are wrapped in a cast. In the end, she ends up patting down her short hair with both her hands. “It’s easier being a boy than a girl,” she says hotly. “Because of the patriarchy.”

Karin’s laughter is sudden and uncensored. She laughs so hard she doubles over, and keeps laughing so much that she has to grip Suigetsu’s arm for support. Sasuke has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep his own laugh in check because Sarada is frowning at the smiles everyone is giving her. She’s right—it is easier to be a boy in this world, and exactly because of the patriarchy. Sasuke wonders how she even knows what that word means.

“Where’d you get this, kid?” he asks again.

“I was tracking the ghost army,” Sarada says in a whisper. She’s twisting the hem of her shirt with her fingers and then smoothing it out again, repeating the motion rapidly. “They’re in the Omine Valley.”

What’s left of their smiles falls away immediately. “Give me your full report,” Sasuke orders. When Sarada just stares at him, he tries, “Pretend you’re writing a history report on this subject. They teach you how to write a report in school?”

“Introduction, thesis statement, structure statement, got it,” Sarada says, nodding vigorously. She clears her throat and begins. “I believe the enemy is gathering in the Omine Valley with an army of zombie clones. First, the army doesn’t eat or poop or pee. Second, they don’t die. Third—I don’t have a third point.”

Count, Sasuke reminds himself, but he can’t, not when his thoughts keep skittering back to the one obvious truth: a mole, a traitor, in Konohagakure, sending missives to Madara. Who?

Jugo’s voice is steady despite the information that Sarada is revealing. “And how do you know—”

“Oh! I know my third point!” Sarada says, jumping up a little. “I also think someone is telling all of your secrets to the enemy, Lord Biratori! They’re cheating!”

Sasuke’s Mangekyou whorls. Even a child has connected the dots.

“Where did you find this?” Sasuke asks again, indicating the scrap of paper still in Jugo’s hand.

The fidgeting starts again. She looks as if she’s vibrating out of her own skin. “In the tent of a man named Pein. I thought he was Biratori because he has bright hair, but his eyes are weird and he doesn’t look or act like a northerner.”

Suigetsu holds Sarada’s gaze steady. “Were you in the Omine Valley, Sarada?”

Sarada hands fall to the hem of her shirt again. She starts to twist it around her fingers, eyes wide. “I thought my dad and Erimo were there,” she says miserably. Six and two-thirds. She’s a child. She should be nowhere near the Omine Valley.

Just a child, and she had crossed the battlefield before Sasuke had a chance to make it safe for her. Sasuke has to take a deep breath to keep his anger contained. “Did you cross into the Valley?”

Sarada nods. “Gramma says that there’s ghosts and death in the Valley and no one should go into it,” she says. “But I wanted to find Dad and Erimo. So I crossed the Valley. Erimo was teaching me how to fight and find my chakra. He says I’m good at hiding, and I’m a good tracker, because I’m a true northerner and have Kamisunagawa blood in me. But I’m not good enough to win all my fights yet. I lose sometimes. I lose if they’re bigger than me.”

Sasuke clenches his hands into fists so that he doesn’t reach out and touch her. She looks wound tight, as if she’s holding herself together with sheer will alone. “Who hurt you, kid?”

Sarada’s eyes dart away. “I was reading Pein’s letters because I thought I could find out where they kept their prisoners,” she mutters. “He caught me. I didn’t find anything about prisoners of war.”

He doesn’t want to keep asking her questions, not when she’s hunched in on herself as if she’s expecting another blow. But he has to. “Did you see anything else? What did you read in Pein’s letters?”

Sarada shakes her head, jerky in her movements. “I tried to—this is the only letter I could hide. His eyes weren’t normal,” she says, almost folding herself in half now. “Erimo was teaching me how to use a sword, but I didn’t know—there were a lot of them—” A fat tear squeezes out of the corner of her eyes and tracks down her cheek. She wipes at it with the back of her hand. “I ran away. I’m sorry. I couldn’t find Dad or Erimo, and I got scared and I ran away—I’m sorry.”

Sasuke freezes. Sorry because she got scared. She was looking for her father and walked into the mouth of hell, just a child, and she’s sorry that she couldn’t get more intel.

Suigetsu crouches in front of her. “It’s all right,” he soothes, but when he reaches out to comfort he, she takes two quick steps back, murmuring still, I’m sorry. Suigetsu puts up both hands carefully, and moves away to give Sarada space.

He’s being gentle with her, Sasuke knows, but a hurt child will run and keep running if no one insists on keeping them close. Sasuke would know.

Sasuke crosses the distance between them and crouches in front of Sarada the way Suigetsu had a moment ago. She freezes in place, staring at him with wide eyes, still bright with tears. “Stop apologizing,” Sasuke says firmly. “It’s okay to cry. And it’s okay to be scared.”

Sarada wipes at her cheek again, and then at her nose when it starts to drip. “I couldn’t even find my dad.”

He could hide the truth from her, but what use is that? “Your dad is probably gone, kid. So is Erimo.”

Sarada’s tears are making her entire face wet now. Her nose is dripping pretty badly too. “I know,” she says around a shuddering sob. “I wanted to find their bodies so I could give them a proper burial. I wanted to make sure Erimo had a sword in his hand, like my mom did when she died. I wanted to see my dad again. But I got scared.”

Sasuke grits his teeth so hard a muscle in his neck jumps from it. He’d done the same with his kin after the massacre. He’d been alone, then. Sarada has been alone for months now. “They’re in the Great Hall now. Your mom, your dad, and Erimo. When you get there, they’ll be waiting for you,” he promises, and Sarada nods furiously, tears dripping off her chin at the motion. Sarutobi had looked him in the eyes once and said, It’s all right. You can cry if you want, Sasuke. “It’s okay to be scared,” he repeats, but this time, his words are quieter in the crowded silence of the room.

“You don’t get scared,” Sarada counters, voice cracking on the words.

Sasuke shakes his head. “I get scared all the time.”

Sarada scrubs at her face with the sleeve of her shirt. She leaves a streak of snot across her cheek, but doesn’t seem to notice. She keeps her eyes fixed on Sasuke. “Really?”

Sasuke makes sure he holds Sarada’s gaze steady. This is a lesson he learned from the best of men, so he knows it to be true. “How else do you know when you’re being brave?”

Sarada considers this for a moment. “But I couldn’t fight off the enemy. I wasn’t strong enough.”

“You’re the size of my thumb,” Sasuke says dryly. “Your only job right now is to eat your vegetables and go to school. When you’re bigger, you can fight. In the meantime, you can leave the fighting to me.”

Sarada’s face is puffy from her tears. She sniffles and squares her shoulders, hands forming small fists. “I can help you fight. I want to go to battle with the death-riders,” Sarada announces. “I want to ride with you, so I can be war-forged and death-blessed like you.”

This kid. Sasuke can say no, but that would likely end poorly. So instead, he unbuckles his battle axe from his waist and holds it out for her. Sarada nearly trips over herself to reach for the weapon. She takes it carefully with both of her hands, eyes bulging huge. “Biratori,” she breathes, running a finger over the sigil. The axe is big as she is. Clearly, she wasn’t lying about Erimo giving her lessons, because although she can barely lift the thing, she’s holding it correctly. “Do you see the problem here, short crop?”

Sarada glances at the axe. She readjusts her grip and makes it even more precise. “How about now?”

Oh for fuck’s sake. “That thing is as big as you are. I’d have to arm you with a goddamn toothpick. You’re not riding with me.”

Sarada returns the axe reluctantly when Sasuke holds out a hand. “I can take care of your war horse,” she offers. “Or I can guide you across the Omine Valley! I snuck in once, I can—”

“I also eat children when they talk too much,” Sasuke says mildly, and Sarada’s mouth snaps shut with a click.

She doesn’t hold her peace long. “You don’t eat children,” she whispers, but there’s a question in there somewhere. “You’re not seven feet tall. You probably don’t even breathe fire. Gramma just wanted me to eat my vegetables.”

“I feel I would have liked your gramma very much,” Mrs. Oonishi says with a chuckle.

Sasuke tilts his head up, gathers his chakra in his throat and then lets out a burp. The fire he breathes out is just a puff of chakra from his stomach that flares out in a showy burst of orange and yellow. There’s barely any heat, just color and light. It’s a trick he learned from Shisui when he was little, a stupid thing they’d practice around the dinner table after a particularly heavy meal. For added effect, he breathes out smoke in a perfect ring.

Sarada’s mouth drops open. “Whoa.”

“Whoa,” Sasuke agrees, deadpan. “Get your ass back in bed. We’re going to find a healer for you first thing. Until then, get some sleep, and don’t go anywhere.”

When Sarada only tilts her chin up and pouts, Sasuke rolls his eyes and picks her up around the waist. He hoists her over his shoulder like a sack of rice, and walks her back to the bed. She sits stiffly in bed when Sasuke deposits her, so he swallows his annoyance, and tucks her in. “Sleep.”

“I’m not a kid, you know,” Sarada counters hotly.

“Sure thing,” Sasuke mutters.

He is almost out the door when Sarada calls out, “Look at this!”

He turns just in time to see Sarada standing on the bed. Her face is scrunched in concentration. She puffs out her cheeks. The flare of chakra she unleashes is impressive, as is her burp. She looks disappointed when nothing happens. “Why didn’t it work?”  

Karin slaps a hand over her face to hide her laughter, but her shoulders are shaking. Suigetsu has ducked his face, and Jugo is biting his lower lip to hide his smile.

It didn’t work because she isn’t an Uchiha. Naruto’s chakra is attuned to wind, and Sakura’s to organic matter. He’s seen Naruto summon gales when he’s angry; Sakura can make a tree vine blossom with just a touch of her hand. Kakashi’s makes the sky rumble with lightning. But there is no point in giving Sarada a rambling lecture on chakra theory, because that would not assuage her disappointment.

Sasuke heaves a sigh. “Focus,” he instructs her, and hides a hand behind his back. “Burp really loud.”

Sarada nods vigorously and does as she is told. Her burp is louder than before, and the chakra even more impressive. For someone so small, she expels a formidable amount of chakra with ease. Sasuke performs a single seal, Dragon, and focuses on the space a comfortable distance in front of Sarada.

It appears as a blossoming chrysanthemum of violet and pink. For added flare, Sasuke adds a crackle of orange and yellow, and finishes it off with a loud bloom of smoke. Sarada gasps. “Did you see that?” she whispers in awe, turning to Sasuke. “Did you see that?”

“I saw it,” Sasuke confirms. “Now sit your ass down.”

Sarada does a dive onto the bed, falling onto her back. She stares up at the ceiling for a moment before flailing her hands and feet about as if she’s jumping while lying down. “That was the coolest, most awesomest—”

Sasuke leaves before her voice can get any louder. Mrs. Oonishi stays behind with Sarada, and Suigetsu closes the door on them, but they can still hear Sarada’s excited yelling from within.

Jugo looks around at each one of them in turn. “All right,” he says with a deep sigh. “We can deal with this.”

How? Sasuke wants to ask, but he holds his tongue. Karin, though, has no such reservations. “A traitor in Konohagakure,” she snarls. “Why am I not surprised? That goddamn Village, and goddamn Hatake Kakashi can’t even—”

“Enough,” Jugo says sternly. “I don’t have time for your anger, Karin. I will hear solutions.”

Sasuke is Lord Commander now. He was given a job, and he will do it. “I’ll send one of my snakes back to Kakashi with a message. There’s two scenarios here. Either Madara knows we know, or he doesn’t. We should operate under the assumption that he knows.”

“And hope that he doesn’t,” Suigetsu mutters. “Either way, we need to plug the leak.”

“How much does this change our strategy?” Karin demands. “He likely already knows of our plans to raise a hidden village at the mouth of the Omine and cut him off.”

“That’s not much of a secret,” Sasuke points out. Any battle strategist would guess that Kakashi and Jugo would begin their attack at the southern opening of the valley; the issue is that their troop movements, supply lines, and defensive protocols have all likely been leaked. Madara must also know that they intend to capture him alive. But they cannot wait, they cannot delay. Madara’s army grows larger with each passing week, and the rips in time and space are making waves hundred feet tall.

Into the Valley of Elah, Sasuke thinks, remembering a story the Shodaime told him of a battle: a giant and a single man, armed with nothing more than a slingshot.

“I suggest we stick to the plan until we determine who the leak is. We’ll need to rework our strategy, but that comes later,” Sasuke offers.

Suigetsu rubs at his face wearily. “It took us a week to decide on a battle strategy, Sasuke. You want to just wing it when we get to the Omine Valley?”

Sasuke shrugs. “If your opponent is temperamental, irritate him. Pretend to be weak, so he’ll grow arrogant,” Sasuke recites. Kakashi said those words a long time ago. They were walking back from a mission that left Kakashi facing off against three mercenaries from the Land of Water. When the mercenaries asked him who he was, he lied about his name. Then, he pretended to get hurt during battle, making Naruto and Sakura both scream, but it had been a feint.

Jugo hm-s under his breath as he considers the advice. “Suigetsu?”

Suigetsu takes a moment to think, looking off into the distance over Jugo’s shoulder before he comes to a conclusion. “Not many other options left. Might as well irritate the shit out of the arrogant motherfucker.”  

Jugo lips curl in a lopsided smile. “We continue as planned until Lord Commander Hatake can contain the leak,” he decides. “Sasuke, send the message.”

Sasuke closes his eyes, and summons Hideyoshi with a thought.

He dreams that night. Despite his exhaustion, he dreams. It is as it always has been, a memory on loop:

A crack in the earth , the sky spilling through. A beast clawing out a sound that makes Sasuke’s eardrums ache, double irises of red in each eye, spinning in opposite directions. Flame, licking out from behind rows of sharp teeth, like whiskers. And over his shoulder...

A woman with bone-white skin and mismatched eyes, her gaze so flat it makes Sasuke’s heartbeat thunder. He turns his back to the beast coming out of the earth because that monster is not the enemy. This woman is. This woman with porcelain skin, so slender that the bones of her clavicles and cheekbones stand out sharply. Her hair is a riotous tangle of braids, falling over her shoulders and even across her face, but her concentration on the beast is so absolute that she doesn’t seem to notice.

As always, the raven is with her, preparing to take flight. It hesitates at the very last moment, and pins Sasuke with its ink-black eyes. The woman turns her gaze away from the monster, and for the first time, she locks eyes with Sasuke. It makes his stomach curdle with bile. He wants to throw up. He wants to run. He cannot look away. There is something dead and decaying in her gaze, a malice so absolute Sasuke feels it like a knife against his throat—

He gasps awake with such force he falls out of bed in a tangle of sheets. He scrambles for his sword in a blind panic until it hits him that he’s not in that darkness and in that mud, just the cocoon of sheets wrapped around him. By the time he’s untangled himself, Suigetsu is at the door, breathing hard. He must have sprinted out of bed when he felt Sasuke’s chakra spike.

“Easy,” Suigetsu says carefully. He holds up both hands to show he means no harm. “Easy.”

Sasuke waves aside his concern with a scowl. “I’m awake. I’m not sleepwalking,” he assures him, and shoves aside the sheets tangled around his feet. The room is too hot; even Suigetsu has a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead. “How bad was the chakra spike?”

“Barely noticeable,” Suigetsu says, moving to push open the windows another couple of inches wide. The air outside is completely still. “There were gale winds just a fucking second ago, I swear,” he mutters. “My windows slammed shut. That’s why I woke up, not because of your nightmare. I heard a loud thud, and I thought it was Sarada.”

Sasuke sits down on the bed with a groan. He needs sleep. He can’t face Madara so sleep-deprived. “Sarada sleep through it?”  

“She’s out like a light,” Suigetsu confirms. He settles on the bed next to Sasuke, and for a while, they just stare at the opposite wall together. “Was it your family again?”

Sasuke shakes his head. “I don’t know what it is.”

Suigetsu hm-s under his breath. “If you’re still trying to kill yourself, sleep deprivation before riding into war is one way to do it.”

Sasuke glances sharply at Suigetsu. He hadn’t told Jugo or Suigetsu; it’s the one secret he’s withheld from them, the shame of it too great to ask even his brothers in arms to accept. “How’d you know?”

Suigetsu arches an eyebrow. “I was the one who called our platoon the death-riders, remember?”

“It had a nice ring to it,” Sasuke admits.

Suigetsu scoffs. “I had the entire north thinking that you were the captain of the death-riders because you brought death wherever you went,” he mutters. “You were just looking for a stupid motherfucker to put you out of your misery.”

Sasuke stares at his hands. “I actually tried twice. But not in battle,” he says and can’t help his small wince as the shameful truth slips past his lips.Next to him, Suigetsu goes still, but Sasuke doesn’t feel as embarrassed as he probably should sharing these details with Suigetsu. Not when Suigetsu once told him, Orochimaru found me digging through trash for food at the edge of camp. “On my own, once. With a kunai to my heart. I asked Rin the second time.”

“She beat the shit out of you?” Suigetsu asks. “Because I would. I wanted to for years the way you were carrying on. But I was fucked up in my own head, and I didn’t think you would do anything but be reckless on the battlefield. I thought that as long as I had your back out there, I could protect you from yourself, from those fucking impulses you got sometimes. I didn’t think you’d—”

“Rin beat the shit out of me,” Sasuke interrupts quietly, and watches Suigetsu’s shoulders slump. “It’s past now, Suigetsu. I don’t feel that way anymore.”

Suigetsu dips his head and pinches the bridge of his nose. He closes his eyes, and takes a deep, shuddering breath. It’s a long time before he speaks again. “Get some sleep,” he orders.

Sasuke pretends not to hear the thickness in Suigetsu’s voice. “You too,” he says, and follows Suigetsu to the door.

Suigetsu pauses with his hand on the door knob. “If there’s ever a third time,” he says, turning to look at Sasuke. He holds Sasuke’s gaze steady. He doesn’t finish his sentence, but he doesn’t need to. It’s a given between them.

“There won’t be,” Sasuke promises him.

“Better not,” Suigetsu grumbles. “My kid loves you, Uchiha. Don’t go breaking her fucking heart. I’ll murder you myself if you do.”

“I know you will,” Sasuke agrees.

“Get some sleep,” Suigetsu repeats, but once the door has shut behind him, Sasuke realizes that there is no hope for sleep anymore.

He changes into an undershirt. He pulls on his shoes and sneaks back outside again, this time, aiming straight for the rice fields in the distance. He walks past the edges of Urausu and disappears into the tall grass. The crop closes around him, scratching at his arms, pressing close at all sides. The scent of it is thick in the air, cloying. There is just enough moonlight to show the way, but not enough that Sasuke can see very clearly.

He starts to walk. All around him, he hears the breeze moving the harvest-fat rice stalks. It sounds like an ocean wave, rising.

Hideyoshi appears five days later, just as they are preparing to continue their march onward to the Omine Valley. They have lingered as long as they can in Urausu, but any longer, and Madara will get suspicious: the supply lines are ready, the captains have been sent out to each corner of the Land of Rice Fields to rally their troops, and there is already a large contingency of Hozuki, Suwanosejima, and Yanaizu warriors further north at a rendezvous point. The Betsukai will escort Jugo and the first of his men to the Omine Valley. The hidden village will be built soon thereafter.

Hideyoshi shows up in the middle of dinner, appearing on the table, and startling Sarada into a shriek. She presses against Sasuke—the girl has been shadowing him wherever he goes, following so closely in his footsteps that she’s run into his legs more than once when he stops. He ruffles her hair. “Easy, short crop. No need to be scared.”

Sarada picks up her fork, and spears a piece of chicken on her plate with excessive force. “I wasn’t scared.”

Sasuke makes absolutely sure he doesn’t laugh out loud (he has learned in the past few days that there is a very keen difference in Sarada’s mind between Sasuke laughing at her and laughing with her), and turns to Hideyoshi with a wry smile. “Can’t say that I’m happy to see you,” he says in Snake Tongue. He had been hoping for a good night’s rest in a bed before the final push to the Omine Valley, but apparently, he will have no such luck. He switches to human tongue so that Jugo and the others can understand, and asks, “What does Kakashi say?”

Hideyoshi glances towards Sarada. He is oddly quiet, so Sasuke tries to reach out to him with his mind. There is a strong push back, barring Sasuke entry into Hideyoshi’s thoughts. The child shouldn't be here.

Mrs. Oonishi has handed off Sarada to Sasuke, and now it is his job to monitor her at all hours of the day. He wakes her up in the morning. She can be a picky eater, but Sasuke knows enough that children need to eat their vegetables, so he has to make sure she eats broccoli and carrots. He takes her to school, and then picks her up after classes are finished. He watches over at the playground her while she leads the other children in raucous play. Sometimes, he plays with her himself. If she hurts herself—and she is always hurting herself, he doesn't understand how such a small thing can be so full of energy and constantly finding ways to get into trouble—she comes to him first with her scraped knees and elbows. Sasuke has to make sure that she showers before she sits down for dinner, and that finishes her meal. He reminds her to floss her teeth before she goes to bed. He reads to her before she falls asleep because she has nightmares, and she seems to sleep better if Sasuke tucks her in. And so it is his job to turn to Sarada and say, “Go to your room, Sarada. Take your food with you. You can finish it upstairs.” 

Sarada dawdles as long as she can, but eventually leaves. The door closes behind her, shutting out the loud conversation of the other northerners in the front room. Jugo had wanted some privacy while they discussed with Sarada what she had seen in the Omine Valley, so Mrs. Oonishi had set up their meal in the kitchen itself.

Sarada had been explaining an odd configuration of men at the center of the valley. Based on her description, it sounds like a defensive perimeter, but Sasuke doesn't know what Madara might be defending. Sarada assumed it might have been the prisoners of war, and she edged as close as she could to find her father. That’s when Pein found her rummaging around his belongings in his tent; she barely made an escape.

Jugo waits until he’s absolutely sure that Sarada is not eavesdropping before turning to Hideyoshi. “What news, Hideyoshi?”

“They have found the traitor,” Hideyoshi says in stilted human tongue. He keeps his gaze on Sasuke, his amber gaze unwavering. “Fox-Child and Mind-Thief found him.”

Mind-Thief. Yamanaka Ino. Which means KPD has custody of the traitor already.

“And?” Karin prompts, frowning at Hideyoshi’s reluctance. “Who is it?”

“Shimura Danzo,” Hideyoshi says, and for a moment, Sasuke’s mind goes blank. Danzo had signed the Wildfire Executive with Sarutobi.

Of course. Who else?

“The creepy motherfucker with the bandages?” Suigetsu asks, chakra spiking angrily. “Gods damn it, he was practically in every single meeting.”

“He must have had co-conspirators,” Karin insists, moving faster than Sasuke can think. Every time he blinks, he sees Danzo’s signature under Sarutobi’s, the elegant curl of his letters. “That piece of paper Sarada found somehow got to Madara and Pein. Fast. How is he sending his intelligence? Did they find anything else?”

Hideyoshi ignores Karin. He crosses the distance to Sasuke, moving between jugs of ale and food to curl up Sasuke’s arm and settle around his neck. He doesn’t stop there, though, because he curls around Sasuke’s eyes, blocking his vision entirely. “Steady,” he says in a quiet hiss. “Steady, Sasuke.”

Sasuke reaches up to tug at Hideyoshi, frowning. It’s rare for them to cover his eyes; they only do it when his Sharingan is active for too long, and even then, Sasuke dislikes it. “Hideyoshi, what the hell are you—”

Hideyoshi presses a memory into Sasuke’s mind:

Danzo, sitting in an interrogation room. Ibiki is seated across from him, and Ino is standing over his shoulder, unwrapping the bandages around Danzo’s arm and eye.

In memories, time lapses. Sasuke and his snakes share their thoughts, every aspect of themselves with each other. They share space in each other’s minds, and they have been doing it for so long, that Sasuke doesn’t find it odd anymore to watch someone else’s memory unfold. Usually, if they want to convey vast amounts of information to each other, they rifle through each thoughts and it is a fast impression of events. This time, though, Hideyoshi guides him carefully through the memory, controlling the speed of it.

Sasuke watches as the bandages fall away in bits and pieces.

He sees Aunt Tsubasa’s Sharingan first, closest to Danzo’s wrist. Then, Uncle Inabi’s appears. Then—

“Father,” Sasuke breathes. Count, Sasuke tells himself, and presses a hand against his forehead where the Shodaime always does whenever he wakes up from a bad nightmare.  

Uncle Inabi’s Sharingan appears next, and Sasuke hears himself say, Oh, Gods, because then, it’s Uncle Kyogoku, high up on Danzo’s forearm, just beneath the crook of his elbow. He doesn’t register Ibiki getting to his feet, the sharp intake of breath as Ino discovers the truth, because she moves to the bandages on his eyes, and this time, Sasuke has to grip the edge of the table and swallow on the wave of nausea.

“Shisui,” Sasuke says, and feels his eyes sting. Hideyoshi has curled around his head so that he can’t blink; he only feels a hint of wet against the corner of his eyes, nothing more. “Shisui.”

He thinks it might be over when he feels Jugo’s hand on his shoulder, Suigetsu at his side, both of them murmuring his name, but it isn’t, because Hideyoshi’s attention in the memory shifts from Danzo to his right, and he sees Itachi, pressing a hand against the one-way mirror.

Shisui, Itachi is saying, sounding hollow.That’s my brother, Shisui.

Tsunade is at Itachi’s side, speaking to him in a low voice, urging him to take the seat that Jiraiya has hurriedly vacated. Itachi is blinking at her slowly, and Hideyoshi’s perspective shifts again in the memory as he moves across a table to get closer to Itachi. Sasuke sees that Itachi’s Mangekyou is rotating slowly; each eye is moving in opposite directions. The left eye is moving counterclockwise. Sasuke has seen that only once, and that too, in his dreams.

In Hideyoshi’s memory, Kakashi steps forward, pushing aside his hitai-ate. Shut down your Mangekyou, Itachi, he’s saying, Look at me, eyes on me.

Before Kakashi reaches him, Itachi falls.

After that, it is just a quick succession of images: Kakashi catches Itachi just in time to ease him to the ground. He checks Itachi’s pulse, hisses, God damn it, and Tsunade steps in right away, kneeling to do compressions even as Kakashi pulls aside his face cloth to tilt back Itachi’s face and pinch his nose. He breathes twice into Itachi’s mouth, and Tsunade continues to press onto Itachi’s chest, calling out instructions to get medics, to call a code, to get Sakura and Shizune now.

Sasuke doesn’t notice the details of the medics arriving with a stretcher, or how Kakashi moves aside to let one of them press a face mask against Itachi’s mouth and nose. The medic pumps air in once, twice. Itachi’s chest rises, and falls. Rises and falls. Sasuke doesn’t notice any of those details because—

“He isn’t holding his sword,” he says, tugging at the snake around his face. “Hideyoshi, my brother wasn’t holding his sword—”

Hideyoshi doesn’t move, just presses more details into Sasuke’s mind: Itachi, in a hospital bed, tubes coming out of his mouth, wires attached to his body everywhere. He is in a sterile room, crowded on all sides by machines. His chest rises and falls with the mechanical rhythm of the ventilator. Sakura is standing over his body, arguing with Tsunade, Kakashi, Hiashi, and Shikaku. My right as Clan Elder, she is saying, hair standing on end with her chakra. I will claim my rights as allowed by the Twenty-Second Amendment.

There is a chorus of voices. Madara, Hiashi insists. We need to maintain our element of surprise, Shikaku continues. There is a bigger war here, one that Itachi wanted to see to the end, Kakashi says. Tsunade points out that Itachi’s kidneys are failing, his liver enzymes are elevated, his brain shows no activity.

I will reclaim what belongs to the Uchiha Clan, Sakura says, voice sharp like the edge of a sword. This Village owes the Uchiha Clan a debt after all the years of service they gave, after the atrocities Konohagakure committed, signed off by the traitor himself. You will stand aside. You will pay your debts to my Clan. I demand it.

Sasuke does not comprehend what is going on because Itachi is still not holding a sword.

Sasuke gets to his feet and feels Jugo steadying him with a firm grip on his elbow. There is a way to give this news and receive it. “Is he well?” Sasuke asks, and hates how his voice closes on the words. “Is my brother well?”

“Yes,” Hideyoshi answers. But Sasuke can sense Hideyoshi’s unease with that answer, his hesitation.

Count. At ten, Sasuke finds his voice. “Show me.”

The rest of his memory is a rapid-fire succession of words and images and impressions. Do not do this, Hideyoshi is saying to Sakura, and Sasuke understands that this is a surgery. Kakashi tells Sakura don’t, Naruto begs with her, tells her, If you love Itachi at all, you won’t do this to him.

I’m doing this because I love him, Sakura insists. I’m not going to let him die.

The next memory is of Itachi, in a bed, with bandages wrapped around his eyes. The ventilator is still pumping air into him. He is still not holding his sword.

“What did she do, Hideyoshi?” Sasuke asks. “What did she do?”

“She gave him the Eternal Mangekyou,” Hideyoshi answers quietly, and presses into Sasuke’s the full obstinacy and weight of Sakura’s love for Itachi:

She has reclaimed what belonged to the Uchiha Clan. She took Shisui’s Mangekyou from Danzo and gave it to Itachi in his left eye, laying it over his existing Mangekyou the way she deduced Madara had with his own brother’s. She stabilized the orbital pathways that had been activated and overwhelmed in Itachi’s grief. She did this all out of love, and Sasuke feels his stomach churn with it. He breathes deep and watches the last of Hideyoshi’s memories, so vivid it’s as if Sasuke himself had witnessed it—

Itachi is sitting up in his bed, two pillows at his back, while Sakura unwinds the bandages around Itachi’s eyes. Kakashi is sitting in the chair next to his bed, hitai-ate pushed up so that his Mangekyou is visible. He is leaning forward in his chair to hold onto Itachi’s hands—both of them—because Itachi keeps reaching for the bandages, voice still hoarse from the intubation. It doesn’t feel right, Sakura. Sakura? Sakura, say something, am I blind?

Sakura isn’t answering any of Itachi’s questions, and Kakashi has nothing better to offer, either. All he can say is, Easy, Itachi, over and over again, a low murmur overlaying the beep of Itachi’s heart monitor.

Itachi blinks around at the room when the bandages are finally undone. He looks unbearably young in that instant: hair is sticking up in all directions, eyes wide, a small frown on his face when he looks to Sakura and asks again, Sakura, it doesn’t feel right. Say something?  

Again, it’s Kakashi that answers. He says, Easy, Itachi, just breathe, easy, and holds up a small mirror. Itachi has to lean forward to peer at himself, and when he finally sees—when he finally understands—

It takes Kakashi’s full weight to pin Itachi down, and even then, Itachi keeps thrashing against him. That is last that Hideyoshi shows him:

Itachi, face smeared with his blood, trying to claw out his own eye, screaming, Get it out, get it out, get it out of me.

Jugo orders him to go back to Konohagakure, even though Sasuke insists that he will not turn his back on a battle, not when the rest of his army marches ahead. I will not be remembered as that kind of a commander, Sasuke insists.

In the end, he only goes because Jugo fires him. “The war will keep,” Jugo promises him. “When you get back, you can be the kind of commander I know you to be.”

Suigetsu wants to ride with him, but in Sasuke’s absence, he has no choice but to take up command. Karin is needed to track their enemies, so she cannot follow either. In the end, Abira steps forward. The rest of their group has scattered back to their tribes to rally the troops, and only Abira has remained behind to escort them to the Omine Valley. “I can make the journey on my own,” Sasuke insists. “You just rode back north, Abira. Are you so eager to go back and forth?”

Abira brushes aside Sasuke’s excuses. “I’m trying to set a personal record for the trip.”

So they head back south towards Konohagakure. Sasuke leaves behind Ozora so that she doesn’t get worn out from the journey again, telling Mrs. Oonishi he will return to collect her when he rides north again for the battle. Sarada puts up a fight, not wanting to leave Sasuke, but then Sasuke tells her the truth. Her eyes become big and sad when Sasuke admits, My brother is sick. Mrs. Oonishi sends him off with a lingering hug; Sarada promises to look after Ozora until Sasuke returns.

Mile after mile, he goes through the motions of travel: setting up camp, eating, sleeping, waking up early, and riding south. His snakes act as a relay team, jumping back and forth between Konohagakure and Sasuke with updates every day. He is still alive, they tell him.

They use the word alive, not well.

They sedate Itachi against his will the first day because he keeps trying to claw out Shisui’s mangekyou. They move him to the inpatient psychiatric floor, so that he may be monitored at all hours of the day by nurses and cameras. On the second day, Yuuta informs him that Tsunade spent three hours with Itachi, talking to him while Itachi sat silently. He did not make eye contact. He barely seemed aware when Tsunade lifted a spoonful of food to his lips. A nurse comes in to walk him to the bathroom and then back again, making sure Itachi makes no sudden movements. But Itachi makes no attempts on his own life; he barely seems present in his own body. On the third day, Daichi reports that Itachi spent thirteen straight hours on his side facing the window in his room, gaze blank and unwilling to meet Sakura’s eyes no matter how much she pleaded with him, entreated him, said, Brother, please.

On the fourth day, Itachi trips on his IV cord getting out of bed, rips out the needle, and slams into the ground without any attempt to break his fall. He does not seem to register the fact that he has fallen, and does not get up again until a nurse urges him back to his feet. The psychiatrists and neurologists give him the diagnosis: Catatonia.

On the fifth day of travel, Sarutobi walks into Itachi’s room. The doors stay closed for the full day, and the night.

“And?” Sasuke asks, looking up sharply from his task of packing up camp.

“Dragon-heir slept through the night. The Chieftain watched over him. He fed Dragon-heir, and bathed him,” Kanaye says. His tail keeps twitching, although he’s making a good effort at seeming unperturbed. He recalls an image for Sasuke to see: Sarutobi, sitting on the edge of Itachi’s hospital bed, a hand curled around Itachi’s. They are both utterly still in the darkness, nothing to prove that either of them is alive except for the soft rise and fall of Itachi’s chest and the gentle movement of Sarutobi’s thumb, rubbing circles onto the back of Itachi’s hand. “Should I go back?”

Sasuke shakes his head. Just because his snakes can travel long distances without him doesn’t mean they should. It requires chakra for them to remain in this world; he does not want them weary on the eve of a war. And if Sarutobi is with Itachi, then there is nothing more that Sasuke can do. “Get some rest.”

“Send Ishi,” Kanaye prompts. “He can watch over Dragon-heir for the day and report back—”

“No,” Sasuke insists. There is no point. His brother will not kill himself, because he knows that he will not be able to enter the Great Hall if he does. He will just fade away.

From a broken heart, that’s how Itachi will have died. The Uchiha Clan’s greatest son, with a Mangekyou so powerful it nearly rendered him blind before he turned twenty-five. Itachi had his heart broken one too many times, and his grief will eat him alive, inside out.

“He isn’t dead yet,” Kanaye says. His voice is so low, it’s barely audible over the sounds of the forest coming to life around them. They crossed the border to the Land of Fire mid-day yesterday, but while the trees are dense around them, they are still many miles from the redwoods. Kanaye curls around Sasuke’s ankle. “He’s still alive, Sasuke.”

“Is he?” Sasuke asks. He pretends not to notice Kanaye’s disappointment and grief at his words, just dismisses Kanaye and settles in for another long day of riding. He will face whatever it is that is waiting for him when they reach Konohagakure.

They’re thirty miles into the redwoods when the first Konohagakure scout stumbles onto them, a chunin with a mask covering her features. She dips her head in acknowledgement, and then retreats to make her report before Abira can flag her down for information. He squints up at the redwoods with a frown. “The least she could do is come down here and answer a few questions,” he mutters under his breath.

Sasuke spurs his horse forward, but he doesn’t urger her back to her original speed. “She’s a scout. Her job is to gather information, not share it.”

Abira falls neatly into line next to him. “The army has started to move north, then?”

“They started moving a week ago,” Sasuke points out. There are four thousand men and women who will need to march north. Some of the army will be deployed from the northern garrison in Nagoya, and another brigade from the eastern garrison in Kyoto. The southern garrison of Ichinomiya will contribute another five hundred fighters, and the western garrison of Okinawa will yield another five hundred. Knowing Kakashi, he will order his men and women to move out in diffuse waves to minimize any damage should the army be attacked. Ahead of each wave, Kakashi will send out scouts. He has stuck to their original schedule, despite losing the lieutenant to his jounin forces for the battle. For all Sasuke knows, Kakashi and the others are already in the Land of Rice fields; he might have been marching north with his captains at the same time Sasuke was marching south. “We’re not too far from Konoha. We’ll switch horses, and then ride back north with the last wave of soldiers leaving the city.”

Abira is quiet for a few miles. “No one would fault you.”

Sasuke blinks back to awareness. He’d been staring at the vanishing point of the road ahead, letting the rhythmic sound of hoofbeats on packed earth lull him into an odd, empty space in his mind where he doesn’t have to think about anyone or anything—not Danzo, not the Mangekyou of his uncles and aunt spinning in slow circles, not his brother’s mind slipping away, of wondering when, just when , the Uchiha will ever be able to lay down their weapons for just that single goddamn moment of peace—

He lets the hoofbeats lull him into a suspended state of mind, one where he does not think about all the things he can’t stop thinking about, because all he has to do is follow this road back to Konohagakure, to his brother, and face what’s left of him. “What?”

“No one would fault you,” Abira repeats, meeting Sasuke’s gaze. “If you wished to stay with your brother for a few days. Or longer, if you need to.”

Sasuke knows he shouldn’t have abandoned Jugo in the first place, and here is Abira telling him, Sit out this fight . “Excuse me?”

Abira doesn’t flinch in the face of Sasuke’s sharp tone. When he speaks, his voice is still pitched low. “I grew up with so many cousins, I lost track of them. If one of us got sick or needed help, there were always ten, twenty Betsukai around to help ease the load.” He pauses a beat. “There’s just the two of you, Lord Commander. He’s your kin. Your only kin. No one would blame you.”

Sasuke’s first instinct is to take offense at Abira’s presumption, but he can’t find the energy to be angry. “We were twenty-six, once.” He realizes his error a moment later. “Twenty-five. Tomomi hadn’t been born yet. My sister.”

Abira goes quiet at that, and stays quiet for a long moment. Finally, he says, “I didn’t know you had a sister. I did, too.”

Sasuke turns to face Abira. “I never got to meet my sister.”

“I grew up with mine,” Abira says, lips quirking with a small smile. His voice is hushed with his lingering grief.

Sasuke turns his attention back to the vanishing point of the road. He doesn’t want Abira to see the twist of jealousy on his face. “I got eight years with my brother when I was younger. I remember a few of those years. We had this past year together.”

“And you’ll have the years that lie ahead,” Abira points out.

Sasuke tries to imagine the years that lie ahead: watching his brother fade, helping his brother to the bathroom and back, helping him stand when he falls. If Itachi were to ever awaken from his stupor, if Itachi were to be aware of his reality again, Sasuke will have to make sure Itachi doesn’t claw his own eyes out and kill himself by letting his Sharingan shut down. Sasuke imagines swallowing on his own instinct to cut out Itachi’s eye, of seeing Shisui’s Mangekyou implanted into Itachi’s eye socket—both brothers looking at him, neither of them truly alive.

He says none of this to Abira, just spurs his horse forward to pick up some speed. He falls back into that trance, is so deep in it, that he misses the chakra signatures headed their way. He only realizes they have company because Abira stops his horse and lets out a sharp whistle. “Gods be good,” he mutters, sounding impressed. “That’s an army heading our way, all right. Can’t tell how many there are, though. Should I send one of my hawks?”

It’s a large cluster of high-level chakra signatures, and they are not being too subtle. But it takes Sasuke only a moment to recognize the ones he knows best: Kakashi, Sakura, Naruto , and—

Sasuke sucks in a sharp breath. “Brother?”

Abira gives him a sharp glance. “Your brother? Is he with—”

The rest of his question is lost to the wind and the thunder of hooves when Sasuke digs his feet into his horse’s flanks.

He thunders past the scouts, ignores the soldiers he spots moving through the trees on either side of the road, and doesn’t even slow down when the clusters of soldiers become thicker the closer he gets to the center of the regiment. The soldiers jump out of the way, pushing each other off the road so that they don’t get mowed down by the horse galloping towards them. He heads straight for Itachi’s chakra signature, and dismounts from his mare as she slows to an easy trot, not bothering to secure her because he cannot look away from Itachi—whole, upright, riding at Kakashi’s side, wearing his Lieutenant arm-band.

Itachi, who is dismounting as well, but slower, with more consideration than Sasuke’s mad dash off his horse mid-gallop. The distance between them is just a few long strides, and Sasuke crosses them quickly.

When he pulls Itachi close, Itachi grips him back. Sasuke hears himself make an odd sound, a short, aborted laugh, but his voice is thick and it comes out more like a cough. He’s gripping Itachi too tight.

Itachi doesn’t meet his eyes right away when Sasuke pulls back. He stares at a spot on the ground to the left, and then his eyes track up to Sasuke’s shoulder, Sasuke’s chin, and then, finally, Sasuke’s eyes.

The Eternal Mangekyou is an ugly thing. It is a perverse, twisted abomination. Unlike every other Sharingan, the pattern on the Eternal Mangekyou is asymmetric. It looks diseased. There’s an odd veneer to it, the same milkiness of cataracts.

It is the most powerful Sharingan Sasuke has ever seen.

Sasuke was worried that he would see Shisui’s Mangekyou in Itachi and want to do nothing more than cut it out off Itachi’s body, if only to spare him of this misery. But now that he sees Itachi—now that he sees the fading cuts on his cheeks and eyelid where he’d tried to claw out the Mangekyou with his bare hands—he thinks that he will never be able to thank Sakura for bending death to her will, of saying, No, when Itachi yielded to his grief.

Itachi takes a few ragged breaths, readying to speak, but all he does is exhale harshly. He takes another harsh breath, but Sasuke interrupts him before he can speak. “You here, Brother?”

Itachi hefts a shoulder, a stiff imitation of a shrug. His gaze tracks away again to that spot on the ground to the left. Sasuke reaches out and places a hand on Itachi’s upper arm, grips him tight. He feels solid, but Sasuke wonders if his brother is fading still, the insides of him being hollowed out and seeping out into the air around him. “I’m still here,” Sasuke promises him. “You?”

Itachi’s exhalation is more a shudder. He clears his throat, but his voice is still a rasp from the days of intubation. “Yeah. I’m still here.” He pauses a beat. “Stop making a scene, idiot.”

Sasuke is startled by his own laughter. “ I’m the one making a scene? I rode almost all the way back to Konohagakure for your catatonic ass—”

“Let’s go,” Itachi orders primly, lips quirking up in a smile even as he turns away. “I want to put an end to this war, preferably sometime this century. You’re holding everyone up.”

Sasuke looks over Itachi’s shoulder and sees that they have held up the line of soldiers marching behind them. Kakashi doesn’t seem too displeased by the delay, though, because he raises a hand in a lazy greeting when Sasuke meets his gaze. “Lord Commander, fancy seeing you here. Going our way?”

Sasuke approaches Anko, who has helpfully detained Sasuke’s errant horse for him. He settles onto his saddle again and guides his horse to Itachi and Kakashi’s side. “Heard there’s a war brewing up north,” Sasuke says, grinning at Kakashi. His smile is so wide it’s making his cheeks hurt, but the relief of seeing Itachi whole again—bossy, and downright pissy like he always is, rolling his eyes at Sasuke just over Kakashi’s shoulder—is overwhelming. “Thought I might take a look, see what all the fuss is about.”

Kakashi’s eye crinkles in a smile. “Lead the way, my lord.”  

Sakura, Kakashi and Itachi all assure him that Itachi wasn’t dead for very long, but Sasuke needs to be sure. He summons Rin to confirm.

She peers curiously into Itachi’s eyes while Itachi sits very, very still. “This was very well done, Plum-Wine,” she says in human tongue. It sounds like bones grinding, her words clipped from how rarely she uses the language. “You have retrieved Dragon-heir from the edge of death.”

Sakura doesn’t respond, which is when Sasuke realizes the error in translation. He catches Sakura’s gaze. “You’re Plum-Wine.”

Sakura doesn’t take her eyes off Rin. Everyone around the campfire, in fact, seems unable to look away from Rin. Akamaru keeps circling close and moving away again, ears flat against his skull, and hackles raised. This is the first time any of them have seen her up close, and Sasuke does not miss the way everyone’s fingers are hovering around their kunai pouches. Only Naruto seems unafraid. “I’m what?”

“Your name is Plum-wine,” Sasuke explains. “She’s complimenting you.”

Sakura pauses a second too long. “Thank you.”

Rin’s tongue flickers out. Itachi, to his credit, does not flinch back when it nearly grazes against his skin. She moves away from him entirely a moment later and returns to Sasuke’s side, coiling neatly by his side. Sasuke can’t help but smooth a hand down her scales. She must have shed a layer of skin, because she looks like molten gold in the firelight.

Rin’s gaze pivots to Sakura. Almost immediately, Sakura’s fingers curl around the hilt of a kunai. “You have denied death,” she tells Sakura. “That requires a price.”

Sakura’s lips thin. “It was a surgical intervention, not—”

“Twice, death came from Sasuke, and twice, it was denied,” Rin interrupts neatly. She does not say, I denied it , because that is a truth only a handful of people in this world know. Sasuke glances towards Kakashi and sees that he is watching Rin with his full attention. “He pays the price for it. And now, Dragon-heir will pay the price of your actions. Because you denied his death.”

“I’m a physician,” Sakura counters primly. She tilts her face up. “Denying death is in the job description.”

Rin’s laughter is a soothing hiss in the quiet of the night. “I mean no insult, Plum-wine. It was well done, whatever the price may be.”

Sasuke leans into Rin. What’s the price, Rin?

Rin doesn’t answer. Instead, her gaze shifts to Akamaru, who has once again emerged from the shadows to inspect Rin. He’s been circling their campfire since Sasuke summoned Rin, ranging wide from where the rest of Unit 3 has established camp for the night. “That one is annoying me,” she declares in human tongue. She holds Akamaru’s gaze steady. “Leave, before I kill you.”

Sasuke looks heavenward. This is why he doesn’t let Rin out in public. She’s not socialized very well. “Don’t eat Akamaru, Rin. He’s a friend.”

Rin’s taps her tail lightly against the earth, considering Akamaru for a moment longer before turning her attention back to Itachi. Akamaru, for his part, disappears into the shadows again. “You are human, still. No part of your soul passed while your heart stopped beating.”

“That’s…good to know,” Itachi says. “Thank you.”

Rin eyes Itachi for a few moments longer, the silence stretching uncomfortably. Sasuke has rarely seen her so interested in a human, but he firmly reins in his thoughts to keep from interrupting her. In the end, Itachi is the one to break under her scrutiny. He clears his throat. “Was there something else, Rin?”

“Your Sharingan evolved as it would for a dragon,” Rin pronounces. “It is too powerful for a human. You will suffer for it.”

Itachi flinches. “It’s the price of the Sharingan. Sakura and I are working on—”

“Your right eye will go blind within the decade. There is no altering this fate. But the Eternal Mangekyou in your left eye will keep you alive,” Rin continues neatly. “Plum-Wine has saved you from death, not just the one you faced this past week, but the one you would have faced in a few years time. Your dojutsu will only get more powerful. You will not not die from it.”

“That was the point,” Sakura says. Sasuke can’t help but stare at her, the proud tilt to her chin, the way she squares her shoulders in the face of Rin’s unerring gaze. He remembers the day she rushed off from breakfast, saying It’s eternal. He hadn’t realized she had solved the puzzle of Madara’s Eternal Mangekyou. “I can save them both from the Mangekyou. I know how.”

“Is the price worth paying?” Rin counters.

Sakura doesn’t miss a beat. Her voice is sharp and precise as a blade. “It is.”

No, Sasuke thinks. It isn’t. Nothing will ever be worth the price of having the Mangekyou of a brother implanted into your body. Itachi might not want to claw out his own eyes at this moment, but Sasuke wonders how long this acceptance will last. He would want to, if he were Itachi. He would want to because Shisui deserves to be at rest.

Rin must pick up on Sasuke’s thoughts because she hisses, low and long, a warning, before returning her attention to Itachi. “The disease is not in your eyes, Dragon-heir. You are sick at heart. But this grief you bear will not be the end of you. It cannot be the end of you. Do you know why?”  

Itachi frowns. Sasuke can see him visibly swallowing on his initial reaction (I’m not sick at heart, or some other denial, something to reprimand Rin for her presumption). But he reins in his temper to answer her question. “No, I don’t know.”

Rin sways upwards, her throat thickening with breath and poison. “Because you are destined for greater things. You and your brother, both, and the sons that you will sire, and their sons thereafter. The Uchiha were here when the first battles were fought on this continent. They were chosen by the dragons as worthy of their allegiance. And you are their direct descendent, son and heir, the best among them, true-born promise of the dragons. You are Dragon-heir, and you will die as Dragon-heir, not from grief, but with honor, with glory, with a sword in your hands, red with the blood of your enemies, on a battlefield you have set aflame with your breath. This is not your end, because you are an Uchiha, and your end will be one worthy of dragons. You have no other choice.”

You are more , Rin told him once. Sasuke did not believe her when she’d said it, but he believes her more and more with each passing day. And in the moments that he doesn’t believe at all, he can recall that afternoon in the redwood forest, the trees withering around them, and how Rin’s conviction had burned like poison in his veins.

Itachi’s mouth is parted slightly, as if he about to say something but has forgotten the words. He doesn’t look convinced, but his Mangekyou—both of them—are spinning. His Eternal Mangekyou is spinning counter clockwise.

Rin eases into a gentler coil, leaning her weight more fully into Sasuke’s side as she does so. Her body is cool, as always, but her scales have been warmed by the large fire. “It does not matter if you believe this to be true or not,” she says, sounding amused now. Her gaze pivots to Sakura and her eyes slit with something like a smile. “She believes it to be true. She will see you fulfill your destiny, whether you want to or not.” She pauses a beat. “You did well, Plum-Wine.”  

Sakura’s posture finally relaxes. Her lips quirk up in a smile. “Thanks.”

Rin moves closer still to Sasuke. He can’t help but cup her face. What he feels for her is so immense, he doesn’t know what to do with it. “You have to stop with the ominous prognosticating,” he tells her in Snake Tongue. “Keep talking about destinies, and sooner or later, people will start thinking you’ve got a screw or two loose up there.”

Rin leans forward to nudge the side of his face with hers. “Do not summon me for this battle,” she says. “I do not like the northern cold.”

Sasuke wonders if other ninken complain so endlessly and outright ignore orders all the time, or if it’s just his snakes. He’s never seen any of Kakashi’s dogs or Naruto’s toads throw such a fit whenever they’re summoned. Sakura’s slugs are even pleasant to her. “I’ll try my best not to.”

“You will not just try, you absolutely will not summon me,” Rin insists. He can feel her annoyance at him thick in his mind.

Sasuke buffs a kiss against the flat of her skull between her eyes before she can get any angrier. “Fine. I won’t call you. I’ll call Kanaye.”

“He may strangle you,” Rin warns him, her laughter a low, sibilant hiss. “It is cold in the north. Take care when you summon them. They will have to spend most of their energy staying warm, and that will weaken them. They’ll be vulnerable in this battle.”

Cold-blooded creatures, useful south of the equator, Orochimaru told him when he gifted Rin and her clan to Sasuke. So far north, the Snake Clan’s power was diminished by the long winters. Orochimaru did not have much use for Rin or her family, so he gave her to Sasuke instead. Rin and the others were not meant to be a worthwhile gift, but Orochimaru had always been a fool. “I know. I won’t summon them until I’m dying.”

“You won’t die,” Rin promises him. “Not on this battlefield.”

“What did I tell you about prognosticating?” Sasuke counters with a smile. “Thanks for checking on my brother.”

Rin lingers long enough to acknowledge Kakashi again, the way she did when she first arrived: with a respectful dip of her head. “Dog-Master.”

Kakashi returns the gesture. “Rin.”

“The eve of battle draws near. I consulted with Gamamaru at what path lies ahead for you,” Rin says. Sasuke frowns. She doesn’t like talking to outsiders, but here she is, extending her stay in this world to make what amounts to small talk with his teammates.

Kakashi frowns. “I’m sorry, I don’t know any Gamamaru.”

“He’s the Great Sage. He can see the future,” Naruto answers. He is looking at Rin with something like surprise. “You went to Mount Myoboku?”

“I did. I was not the only one. Pakkun consulted with Gamamaru as well, along with some of the other ninken tribes,” Rin says. “Many of our kind would see this war come to an end. Madara has disrupted the realms. It wreaks havoc not just in your world, but in ours as well. You must stop him, Dog-master.”

Kakashi’s eye narrows in thought. “What did Gamamaru say?”

Rin holds Kakashi’s gaze steady, lets the silence settle around them. “Hold fast,” Rin says. “Have faith, and hold fast.”

Kakashi frowns. “That’s highly specific and very useful, thank you.”

Rin’s open-throated laughter is a surprise. It sounds like a murder of crows taking flight. “Gamamaru is as old as time. He lives in the past, the present, and all the futures that can be. We must make the best of the wisdom he provides.”

“Did he say anything else?” Naruto prompts, voice pitched low.

Rin angles her head. “You are always in his heart and mind, Fox-child, especially now, when the task that awaits you is so shrouded in shadows.”

“He always says that,” Naruto says, smiling with open affection.

“He would not stop talking about you. It proved difficult to redirect his attention to my questions,” Rin says, her voice lighter now with her own amusement. “Visit with him when you have a moment. It would ease his burden to lay eyes on you from time to time.”

Naruto’s smile falls away in increments. “Did he think we were in a universe where I died?”

Rin’s coil tightens. “I could not determine if he was awake or asleep. He seemed convinced you had passed. He was in mourning for you.” She pauses a beat. “You are walking into shadow, Fox-child. Madara would trap you there, and Kurama would see you stay in that shadow, if only for its own freedom.”

It takes a moment to connect the dots. Kurama, the name for the demon inside Naruto. He’s only ever called the Nine-Tails, but it has a name. Naruto looks away from Rin and considers the crackle and snap of the fire. “Kurama has been quiet. He won’t answer any of my questions.”

Sakura goes utterly still in her seat, and Kakashi’s gaze snaps away from Rin towards Naruto. Sasuke realizes a moment later what Naruto has just revealed: he has been talking to the demon.

Sasuke hadn’t even realized he could do that.

“His silence is to your benefit. Buttress the fortresses in your mind, child,” Rin repeats, voice barely over a whisper. “Kurama will come alive on the battlefield when he is surrounded by death. Your bloodline will ensure he remains tethered to you, but Madara seeks to break that tether. Hold fast.”

Naruto places a hand over his stomach. The silence settles for just a beat, but then, Naruto drags his gaze away from the fire and meets Rin’s gaze with a wan smile. “And have faith?”  

Rin’s eyes slit with a smile. “Always.” She moves away from Sasuke a fraction, easing closer towards the fire and Naruto across from it. “Be well, Fox-child.”

Naruto’s smile this time is more genuine. “You too, Rin. Thank you for bringing me news about Gamamaru.”

Rin acknowledges Naruto’s gratitude with just a dip of her chin. And then, she’s gone with a small puff of smoke. The minute she’s gone, Naruto gets to his feet. “I’m doing a perimeter check,” he announces. Sakura gets to her feet as well, but Naruto levels a glare in her direction. “Alone.”

“The fuck you’re going alone,” Sakura snarls. “What were you going to do? Just not tell anyone you were consulting with the demon without proper security measures—”

“I was careful,” Naruto counters. He tilts his chin up. “Kurama has valuable—”

“Careful?” Sakura demands. She tugs at her hair. “Careful? Careful how, Naruto? What exactly was your plan if you had gotten trapped? What if Kurama had weakened the seals?”

It’s rare for Naruto and Sakura to get into shouting matches with each other, and it is just as uncomfortable every single time. The trick is to defuse the situation before Kakashi’s anger snaps, but neither Sakura nor Naruto hear Sasuke when he speaks. “Hey, how about we use our inside voices instead of—”

“I don’t need you to lecture me,” Naruto snarls. “I know how to maintain the seals—”

“You don’t know anything if you thought it was a good idea to breach those mental barriers. You’ve gotten too comfortable with that thing inside you, and you’re taking shortcuts and risks,” Sakura hisses. She takes a step towards Naruto, her chakra making her hair stand on end now. “If you knew anything, you would have stuck to the protocol.”

“All right, let’s all take a minute,” Sasuke tries again, pitching his voice a little louder. “Count to ten, and—”

“Comfortable? I’m the one who lives with him, Sakura, not you. Every waking moment, I live with him,” Naruto says, voice louder still. Sasuke throws up his hands because he might as well be invisible. The demon seals are above and beyond Sasuke’s security clearance, but he’s been witness to conversations like this several times before, and almost every time, Sakura and Naruto will both cross a line that leave them fuming silently at each other for days. “So you can go take your protocol and shove it up—”

“Naruto, with me,” Kakashi says suddenly. He gets to his feet so roughly that he knocks over the canteen by his feet. He starts walking away from camp right away. Naruto stays standing for a few moments, shoulders heaving, hands clenched into fists.  

“Go,” Sakura prompts. “And for once, try keeping your mouth shut. The troops shouldn’t hear him angry, so try not to mouth off to him—”

“I know,” Naruto snarls, and rounds on his heels to follow Kakashi. Akamaru trails Naruto for a few feet before Sasuke calls him back with a soft, Don’t, Akamaru.

Sakura spends a few seconds glaring at the fire before getting to her feet. She stomps off in the opposite direction. Sasuke heaves a sigh. “Follow her, Akamaru. Stop her if she starts punching rocks.”

Akamaru trots off after Sakura a moment later.  

Itachi arches an eyebrow at Sasuke. “Should we count to ten with our inside voices to pass the time?”

Sasuke kicks his feet out towards the fire and rolls his eyes but otherwise ignores Itachi’s comment. “Do you have clearance for the Nine-Tails protocols?”

Itachi follows Sasuke’s gaze in the direction that Kakashi and Naruto disappeared. They’re well beyond camp if their chakra signatures are anything to go by. Kakashi’s chakra is a slow-pulsing heat in the dark of the night. It makes the air turn metallic, like the moments before a storm. The campfires around them have gotten quiet; most people are staring in the direction of Kakashi’s chakra signature. “I do.”

Sasuke waits for Itachi to say something else, but the silence drags on. He turns to Itachi. “Did you know that Naruto could talk to the demon?” Itachi’s lips thin into a line. “I’m just asking what the protocol is for this sort of thing,” Sasuke presses. Sakura had looked livid; Kakashi was just a few moments from losing his composure entirely. Whatever it is that Naruto has done, it is serious. “What does it mean when Naruto talks to the demon? Sakura said he could have gotten trapped?”

Itachi looks carefully away from Sasuke’s gaze and makes a great show of returning his attention to his food. No doubt, it’s long cold, but Itachi tucks away his rations for the night one dutiful spoon after another.

“I have a right to know as his teammate,” Sasuke points out.

“Ex-teammate,” Itachi corrects neatly, unrelenting in his faithfulness to his duties. He will not breach confidentiality, even if it is with Sasuke.

Sasuke grits his teeth and returns to his own food. The alternative is to yield what’s left of his dignity and beg Itachi for the answers. They eat in stilted silence for a few moments longer, but just when it becomes almost unbearable—just when Sasuke is about to excuse himself and rejoin Abira and the rest of Unit 3—Itachi clears his throat. “You shouldn’t have ridden south again.” He pauses a beat. “Bad enough that the troops look at me like I’m a liability.”

Sasuke is so distracted by the absurdity of Itachi’s comment that for a moment, he forgets to chew. “The fuck?”

Itachi puts down his now-empty bowl and turns to Sasuke with a scowl. “They don’t need to see you riding south to fret over me like I’m some kind of—”

“You nearly died,” Sasuke interrupts, saying the words as slowly and carefully as he can. He’s not sure if Itachi understands. Maybe Sakura didn’t get around to explaining everything to him. “Your heart stopped beating. They did CPR on you. You were catatonic for nearly a week.”

Itachi rolls his eyes. “I know. I was there, idiot.”

Sasuke remembers the Shodaime saying on multiple occasions that the Uchiha were a special breed of stubborn, the kind that defies all rationality and is truly absurd—a miracle any Uchiha survives past the age of ten, the Shodaime likes to say, because, surely, such a level of stubbornness is contrary to the basic evolutionary necessity of self-preservation. Sasuke always ignored the Shodaime in these moments, but he understands now.

He also understands that Itachi, even more than Sasuke, is unlikely to see logic. Especially coming from Sasuke. He always thinks he’s right, no matter what, by sheer dint of the fact that he was born first. There’s no point in trying to make Itachi see what’s obvious, so he switches tactics entirely. “When this is over, you should put in for paid leave.”

Itachi’s usually placid expression breaks into unadulterated confusion. “What?”

“I heard the southern beaches of the Land of Fire are nice in the summer. Good waves,” Sasuke continues. “I’ve always wanted to learn how to surf, and we can get bright, fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them.”

Itachi’s scowl deepens. “What the fuck are you going on about?”

“Vacation,” Sasuke clarifies around another mouthful. “It’s this thing people do. They go away from their jobs for a while.”

“I’m not—”

“You are, and you will,” Sasuke interrupts firmly. “You nearly died. Your heart literally fucking stopped beating because—”

“It stopped because I overrode my orbital chakra pathways and the Sharingan in its Mangekyou form cannot handle a second activation,” Itachi says. “My chakra pathways went into a self-sustaining feedback loop trying to find another override pathway, and I went into sudden cardiac arrest from the resulting electrical anomalies in my heart—”

“Gods be good, Brother, listen to yourself,” Sasuke breathes. “Are you so fucking stupid that you think you can survive with Shisui in your skull by ignoring it?”

For once, Itachi doesn’t have an answer ready for him. “Sarutobi-sensei talked to me,” he offers instead. “I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not.” Sasuke sighs. “It’s not like setting a broken bone, you can’t just fix it. You can’t just ignore it. I tried once, and it doesn’t work. You’ll get dragged under, and you won’t even know you’re drowning until it’s too goddamn late.”

“So what?” Itachi demands. “A vacation with a fruity drink will cure me?”

“No, I just want to learn how to surf,” Sasuke answers easily. Itachi’s lips quirk up with something resembling a smile. “But for starters, don’t override your orbital chakra pathways and let your heart stop. Go to fucking therapy. Talk to somebody, because clearly, you don’t want to talk to me about it. They even have these pills these days. I’ve heard they do wonders for your mood.”

Itachi looks away from Sasuke abruptly, and then at the fire. He then fixes his gaze on his boots. “I don’t want to talk to you because I don’t want you to have my memories, too,” he says, voice pitched low. He hefts a shoulder in an imitation of a shrug. “No use now, though, not with a reminder of Shisui everytime you look at me.”

“It doesn’t remind me of Shisui. It looks nothing like him,” Sasuke corrects. He does Itachi a favor and stares at the fire when he talks, if only to give Itachi the illusion of privacy. He doesn’t like seeing Itachi like this, head bowed under the weight of his own grief, unwilling to mourn with Sasuke for their family, wondering if people see him as weak for grieving the murder of his clan, not even wanting Sasuke at his side on his deathbed—because an Uchiha’s place will always be on a battlefield first, by his brother’s side second.

Rin was right. They have no choice. This is what it means to be an Uchiha, and they are too gods damned old now to learn how to live any other way.

Still, Sasuke thinks they are allowed a moment to be brothers. He counts to ten before he trusts himself to say the words aloud. “I miss him.”

Itachi is silent for a long while next to him. Just when Sasuke thinks Itach will let the silence swallow Sasuke’s admission whole, Itachi speaks. “I do, too.”  

Later that night, when they’re settling into their bedrolls—Sakura, Naruto and Kakashi still nowhere to be found—Itachi asks, voice pitched low, “How far south are these beaches?”

“Far enough from Konohagakure,” Sasuke promises him. Itachi hm-s under his breath, considering. “The drinks have little umbrellas in them. I saw it in a magazine once. They make them in neon colors.”

“That sounds ridiculous,” Itachi counters immediately.

“Yeah, but you want to try one now,” Sasuke points out. “Admit it.”

“It sounds stupid,” Itachi grumbles, and makes a great show of turning onto his side. Sasuke decides to count this as a victory and holds his peace. He listens to Itachi’s breathing become deeper as he slips into sleep.

Sasuke matches his own breathing with Itachi’s inhale and exhale until the percussion of their breathing evens out. He imagines a third person, breathing in sync with them, imagines it so forcefully that he can almost hear Shisui’s heart, beating alongside his own.

The dreams return, as always.

Sasuke watches the monster crawl out of the earth and heaves a sigh. “You have got to be fucking kidding me.”

The beast turns to face him, startling at his presence almost. Its double irises whorl, and Sasuke holds its gaze steady. He doesn’t want to look over his shoulder at the woman he knows is standing there. He can feel the cold press of her malice on the back of his neck.

As always, the dream is accompanied by a familiar feeling of dread. But overriding that fear is sheer exhaustion. He has to march north again, retread his steps to fight a war that has dragged on for so long he can’t remember what it’s like to live life without Madara’s shadow looming over it. He has better things to do than being kept awake at night by a ridiculous dream on repeat. At least, the raven is nowhere to be found now.

Fuck it.

Sasuke turns to face the woman. She’s watching him with eerily mismatched eyes. The woman angles her head thoughtfully and considers Sasuke. He feels very, very small all of a sudden, even though he is far taller than her and likely has over a hundred pounds on her slight frame. Behind him, he can hear the beast gearing up for an attack, the high-pitched sound becoming louder and louder. He can feel the heat of its flames just behind him.

Between a rock and a hard place, Sasuke thinks.

He’s only ever reacted to fear in one way. “Did we spend a night together, and I forgot to call you back?” he asks with an easy smile. “Is that why my subconscious is pestering me?” There is a slight furrow in her brows, the very first sign of an expression on her face. Sasuke keeps pushing his luck. “I meant no offense,” he continues. “I don’t usually call people back. I’m sure we had a lovely night together. I’m also sure I wouldn’t mind a repeat, but I have to say, this is no way to get a man’s attention.”

The woman’s expression smooths out again. “How rude,” she says. Her voice is like cut glass. It makes Sasuke want to find cover.

Sasuke swallows on his gut churning fear. “My name is Uchiha Sasuke,” he says loudly, speaking over the sound of the beast’s growl at his back. “What’s your name?”

The woman arches an eyebrow. Behind Sasuke, the high-pitched warning before the beast’s attack becomes even more urgent. He can feel the beast’s breath against his neck, but still, he holds his ground. This is usually when he wakes up, but he forces himself to stay tethered to the dream, even though the woman starts to walk towards him.

Sasuke once fell through thin ice on a mission, and he remembers the way his muscles had seized up from the cold. It felt as if his heart slowed down from it. Watching this woman walk towards him reminds Sasuke of that precise moment when he fell through; the chill of it. There is a malice about this woman, something unnatural. He regrets speaking to her about something as crass as sex.

When she is a hand’s breadth away, Sasuke takes a jerky step back and feels—sharp scales at his back, a hot breath, the edge of teeth, and the warm pressure of fire just before release. He had been so stunned in his fear of the woman he hadn’t noticed the beast approaching.

Wake up, he tells himself. Wake the fuck up, wake up, wake up

“Kaguya,” the woman says, stepping close to him. Her breath feels like frost against his cheek; it smells like the nail polish remover Sakura uses. Acetone . “My name is Otsutsuki Kaguya.”

She reaches out a hand to touch his face, and Sasuke knows that he will die with just her touch. He closes his eyes and yields to the fear—

Sasuke wakes up with a gasp, shaking.

Sakura is crouched over him. Easy, soldier, she’s saying, even as she brushes a hand gently through his hair. “Bad dreams?”

Sasuke pushes aside his bedroll. Kakashi, Naruto, and Itachi are all awake and watching him. He had slept through their return, and dreamed loudly enough that he woke them up from their own sleep. He’s grateful for the low light of the campfire; his face must be red as a tomato right now.

“You were muttering in your sleep,” Sakura says. “Are you alright, Sasuke?”

Sasuke feels three sets of curious eyes on him. He doesn’t want to talk about it. The Nidaime and Shodaime told him that his dreams were a manifestation of his anxiousness. He is afraid of what lies ahead, of the Otsutsuki seals, of the monsters that Madara is unleashing, and his dreams are becoming twisted from it. It is nothing to be ashamed of—what is bravery in the absence of fear?—but he doesn’t want to give voice to his fears, not on the eve of battle. “I’m fine. Just a really weird sex dream.”

Sakura arches an eyebrow. “Don’t be cute, Uchiha.”

“There was this pale woman with long black hair. A little skinny for my tastes, but hot in a freaky way, you know what I mean?” Sasuke continues, making sure his voice is light. He knows from experience this is the best way to move this conversation along to safer grounds. “I dreamed she was—”

“Good Lord above, help me, you are disgusting,” Sakura mutters, moving away with a scowl. She settles back down to sleep, dragging the bedroll over her head and still muttering about how Sasuke is a no-good, disgusting piece of shit, and she much preferred him to before puberty, thank you very much.

Kakashi gives him a considering look before settling back under his own bed covers. Naruto watches for a few moments longer. Twice, he opens his mouth as if he’s about to say something, and Sasuke waits each time, but there is only silence. In the end, Naruto only settles back to sleep in silence, not even a goodnight in sight.

Itachi widens his eyes meaningfully. Sasuke heaves a sigh. “I’m going to make camp with the rest of my men,” he announces to no one in particular. The alternative is to sit in this stifling awkwardness: Kakashi still angry at Naruto; Sakura and Naruto angry at each other, Itachi respectfully maintaining silence for all of them, and Sasuke stuck in the middle.

He makes quick work of gathering his things and walks the distance towards where Unit 3 has made camp. Abira has settled in with them, and he’s snoring quietly, utterly at ease even though he is surrounded by soldiers who were enemies a few short weeks ago. Akamaru is the only one awake, and he moves away from Kiba’s side when Sasuke starts to unpack at the edge of the circle of men. Akamaru settles at his back, covering him from any external threats. It’s an unnecessary precaution, even though Sasuke is at the outermost edge of the campfire, well beyond the secure perimeter of his teammates.

Sasuke digs his fingers into Akamaru’s fur. “It’s fine, Akamaru.” Akamaru huffs, annoyed. His eyes are bright under the moonlight. There’s no moving the wolf, so Sasuke might as well take advantage of his presence. “Wake me up if I start talking in my sleep.”

Akamaru nods just once, and tucks his head on his folded forepaws. Sasuke falls asleep with the wet tip of Akamaru’s nose pressed into the back of his neck.

Akamaru keeps his promise. He wakes Sasuke up a few hours later, just as the flames engulf him in his dreams and his bones freeze to Otsutsuki Kaguya’s touch.