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Unlike other countries, the Land of Rice Fields is not really a country at all. It’s a loose collection of tribes that have refused to be conquered under the banner of a single Hidden Village or a Kage. Despite its name, there are very few actual fields in the country. The only rice fields are at the fringes of the land, and it is this farmland that defines the ambiguous and porous borders of the country beyond—the rolling plains and Birchwood forests that hide the great nomadic clans and tribes of the Land of Rice Fields.

Orochimaru tried to conquer this country, and the resistance to his efforts was so great that he had to burrow himself into the earth to hide from the enemies that surrounded him from all corners. He was a coward, and the only way he could tame the land was by emerging from his hole at odd intervals to strike against unsuspecting tribes and to take their greatest pride and possession: warriors. Jugo, Suigetsu, Karin and the others are all orphans from Orochimaru’s wanton destruction. For a while, the tribes receded into the depths of the forests and the blank stretch of plains, leaving behind the gaping wound of Otogakure that Orochimaru had dug into the landscape.

Now, though, nearly two decades after Orochimaru had begun his warpath and just three years after his death, the land has come back to life.

The free tribes are traveling across the land again, and more than once, Sasuke has to reroute his journey to avoid running across a band of mounted warriors. Every now and then, he dismounts from Michi and presses a knife into the ground to bend and listen with his ear; the blade sings with the distant echoes of thundering hoofs and humans on the move as spring blooms into summer across the world and the hunt becomes bountiful.

Urausu is one of the few, well-defined towns in all of the Land of Rice Fields. During harvest, Urausu is quiet and subdued. In the warmer months, though, the town is bustling with strangers from all across the country. Warriors, civilian farmers, and merchants gather to trade goods, information, and make peace for the harvest season that lies ahead.

It is very easy for Sasuke to blend in with the crowd and make his way into Mrs. Oonishi’s tavern. He arrives in town a little after dark, and at this time of day, the tavern is filled to the brim. He sits at a long table at the back of the room, drawing no more than a few curious glances from the others at his table—two civilians and three warriors of considerable chakra-strength—before they resume their conversation. It’s a negotiation; the farmer at the table is there with his daughter, a sharp-boned slip of a girl who can’t be older than twelve, as he drives the hard bargain of hiring protection for the harvest season from wandering bandits.

“I can spare four men,” a man with a heavily tattooed face answers after listening to the farmer provide details of the location and lay of his land.

Surprisingly, it is the girl who counters. “Five, and we’ll need more if there’s trouble.”

They go back and forth on the details for so long that Sasuke tunes them out. He keeps an eye on Mrs. Oonishi at the bar in the front. She has hired a few hands for the season: two girls to help her with the orders, and a boy outside who had nodded earnestly when Sasuke handed him the reins to Michi and a warning to give her fresh dried oats, not the leftovers from two seasons ago if he knows what’s good for him. 

Sasuke has already ordered some food, but the girl has not returned with his order just yet. He's been traveling for the past two weeks, and he ran out of soap three days ago. His beard is thick, and he is sick and tired of rabbit and deer meat. It’s not unusual for a road-weary traveler to show up at Mrs. Oonishi’s for a quiet meal, and usually, the traveler can expect to be left alone.

Sasuke has no such luck. The farmer’s daughter turns to Sasuke a few moments after the transaction with the warriors has completed and they have turned to their food. “Where are you coming from? You smell like you could use a bath.”

“Sarada,” her father says, stern, and lays a hand on the girl's forearm. “Pardon my daughter.”

“Well he does,” Sarada mutters, sulking at her food. She has glasses framing chocolaty brown eyes that almost look red in the firelight. “I’m the one who has to sit next to the stinky warrior.”

The father’s response grows sterner. “Sarada!”

Sarada stabs at her food. “Sorry.” 

Just then, Sasuke’s food arrives, and he takes it gratefully from the waitress. A glance at Mrs. Oonishi tells him that she still doesn’t know about his presence. “It’s fine,” he tells the girl's father, ripping up his bread into small chunks to dip into the stew. “She has a point.”

“Long road?” the warrior with the tattooed face asks from across the table.

“Longer still,” Sasuke answers mildly and makes just enough eye contact to be polite without inviting too much further conversation. The talk returns to the harvest ahead, with the farmer opening up about the rains and soil conditions. The warriors listen intently, sharing information about the density of game in the forests.

Next to him, Sarada is spending more and more of her time staring up at Sasuke with bright eyes. For some odd reason, she reminds him of Sakura, and he can’t help but return her gaze. The girl is chewing on her lip as if she’s dying to say something, so Sasuke takes pity on her. “Spit it out, girl.”

“Your battle-ax,” she says in a gush. Her voice is a whisper. “It’s from the Biratori tribe isn’t it?

Sasuke can’t help but be impressed. The sigil for Jugo’s clan is nothing more than a small etching at the head of the ax, barely visible unless someone looks carefully. “You know your tribes.”

“I know all of them,” Sarada says hotly. After a moment, she adds, proud, “I’m ten and three quarters. I’m top of my class. I’m going to be a doctor. But I might also be a historian.”

Sasuke bites into his meat and chews carefully. A doctor. Like Sakura. For the first time in nearly two weeks, he finds himself missing home. “A historian?”

“To write down all about the Land of Rice Fields,” she says, turning in her chair to face Sasuke. She looks excited to be participating in a conversation that has nothing to do with crop lines. “The other countries have textbooks about their history. But we don’t. Someone has to write it all down.”

It’s a surprisingly astute observation. “And you’ll be a doctor on the side?”

“Yes, I will, because my father says that people aren’t going to pay me to be a historian anyhow and there’s plenty of cuts and bruises that need healing in this world,” Sarada recites stoically. Most likely, it’s a direct quote she has heard from her father several times before. “Are you a Biratori tribe warrior? How come you don’t have orange hair like they say they do? Have you ever met Jugo the Giant? Why do you talk so funny?”

Sasuke has to take a swig of his drink to hide his smile. Jugo the Giant. He hasn't heard that one before.

“I’m not Biratori,” he answers. The attention of the other warriors at the table shifts to him now as they wait for Sasuke’s answer. Sasuke speaks the Northern dialect fluently, but there is always a slight accent that he carries with him. In a diverse country like the Land of Rice Fields, everyone has an accent, but Sasuke’s is unusual. “And I’m not from around here.”

“Where are you from? How come your eyes are so funny looking?” Sarada presses. Thankfully, her father steps in before Sasuke is forced to answer all of her questions.

“My apologies again, sir. We’ll be leaving now,” he says and gets to his feet. When the girl doesn’t immediately get up, he picks her up around the waist and deposits her on her feet. “Let’s go, kid.”

Sarada stares at Sasuke for a moment before saying, “Hope you take a bath soon.” Then, she turns to the other warriors and waves. “See you at harvest.”

The tattooed man smiles. “That you will, little one. You can tell me your histories then.”

The father ushers the girl out of the tavern with a firm hand on her shoulder.

Sasuke watches them go and is about to turn back to his food when the tattooed warrior speaks again. “Five and more if there’s trouble,” he quotes with a chuckle. He pushes the jug of ale that he and his warriors have been sharing towards Sasuke. “Drives a hard bargain, she does.”

“Didn’t have to agree to her terms,” Sasuke points out mildly and helps himself to the drink the man has offered. “Obliged.”

“Erimo’s woman here just had a baby girl,” another one of the warriors says with a roll of his eyes. “So now he lets ten-year-old pipsqueaks drive his prices down.”

“You say that now, but wait till you have a squalling bundle in your arms. We’ll see how you do then,” Erimo counters neatly. Between one moment and the next, his gaze zeroes in on Sasuke. “So tell me. What brings Uchiha Sasuke back to the north?”

The other warriors freeze, hands dropping below the table to their weapons.

Very, very carefully, Sasuke puts his hands flat on the table in front of him, showing that he is unarmed. “Just passing by.”

Erimo places a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “The Biratori tribe is an old ally of ours. I’ve heard you and Jugo are blood-brothers, which means there are no enemies at this table.” He gets to his feet carefully. His men follow suit, being overly cautious in their movements. “Let the man enjoy his meal. We’ll leave you to it.”

They walk out of the tavern, keeping a careful eye on Sasuke as they go. The whole encounter can't have lasted more than two minutes, and none of them raised their voices. Still, they have drawn attention, and when the door shuts close behind the warriors, Sasuke finds that the boisterous din in the room has become more cautious. 

It’s only now that Mrs. Oonishi notices him. She looks so stunned to see Sasuke that she nearly drops the pint of beer she is filling for another customer. She recovers quickly, though, and once people have returned to their meals, the waitress approaches him again. She looks nervous, but she manages to stutter out a message from Mrs. Oonishi under her breath while refilling his ale.

“Mrs. Oonishi would like you to wait in the storage in the back.”

Sasuke slips out of the tavern as casually as he can and wanders around the village to leave a trail for anyone who is interested in pursuing. When he’s sure he’s not being followed, he doubles back and sneaks into the storage shed out back. It’s filled with odds and ends: a spare bar stool, keg barrels, and rows of broken or chipped mugs laid out on a rickety table. Sasuke settles down in a corner on an old chair with its back broken off. The door doesn’t open for a few hours.

Mrs. Oonishi is beaming. “Look at you, child. Just look at you, coming home after all these years.”

“Just passing through, Mrs. Oonishi,” Sasuke says, and sees her smile diminish. It’s an easy mistake for her to make. He has arrived with a horse, fully loaded with supplies, and dressed like a Northerner without even a hint of Konohagakure’s colors or sigils.

Mrs. Oonishi rallies her cheer and ushers him out of the shed. “You’ll be looking for Karin, then?”

Sasuke follows her into the back kitchen. “I can go to her this time,” he offers. Karin will not step foot into Urausu until it clears out of all the curious travelers.

“How about a hot meal first?” Mrs. Oonishi offers, and it's been enough hours since he ate that Sasuke is hungry again. He can do nothing but take a seat at her familiar kitchen table. The taproom out front is empty so late in the night, so it’s just the two of them in the wide space.

As she puts together a plate of food, Mrs. Oonishi fills Sasuke in on all that has happened in the Land of Rice Fields. She talks about shifting allegiances between the different clans, the ebb and flow of the rain and how the crop was productive last year, but only the gods know what it will be this year. She tells Sasuke about the threat from the west, how there have been more Amegakure shinobi causing trouble and breaching their borders, how Karin, Jugo, Suigetsu and the others have become a rallying cry for the fight against them.

Sasuke freezes at the information about Amegakure. Madara is pushing against the borders of the Land of Rice Fields, then. But why?

“Orochimaru couldn’t conquer us. What makes those Akatsuki think they can bully us?” Mrs. Oonishi asks tiredly. She turns her attention to Sasuke. “What have you been up to, child? What brings you so far north?”

“My brother,” Sasuke answers truthfully. Mrs. Oonishi only nods. She knows enough of the story to put the pieces together.

“And you need Karin to track him?” she asks. “She’ll say no, Sasuke. Your brother is a dangerous man with dangerous people hunting him.”

Sasuke has suspected as much. But searching for Itachi will be like finding a needle in a haystack. There have been no new rumors about him; he has vanished entirely. The only thing that Sasuke knows for certain is that he is alive. “I just need her to point me in the right direction.”

“Jugo and Karin are traveling with the Hozuki tribe,” Mrs. Oonishi says. “Last I heard, the Betsukai had run into them by the foothills of the Yoro Mountain.”

That's a week of hard riding at the very least. Sasuke swallows down on the frustration. He had passed by the Yoro on his journey to Urausu; he might just have missed them. With this new information about Akatsuki’s actions against the Land of Rice Fields, the need to find his brother is more urgent than ever. “How long ago?”

“Four, five days ago?” Mrs. Oonishi ventures. “You’ll be heading out in the morning?”

“If you have a bed to spare,” Sasuke says.

The wrinkles around Mrs. Oonishi’s eyes deepen with her smile. “No beds,” she says, and then gestures at the strip of empty space between the kitchen table and the counter. “How’s this?”

Sasuke eyes the dimensions of the space. It’s either this or he wanders through Urausu looking for someone with a spare room. He’s too recognizable to afford that kind of exposure so early in his search for Itachi. “It’ll do.”

Mrs. Oonishi pushes herself to her feet. “Let me get you some spare bed rolls.” She’s about to walk past when she pauses to consider him. She’s so short that even though Sasuke is sitting, they are almost even in height.


Mrs. Oonishi takes his face in both of her weathered hands. “Nothing, child. You just look different.”

“I could use a shave, yeah,” Sasuke admits. “And a bath.”

“No, I’ve seen you looking worse. It’s not that,” Mrs. Oonishi says, tilting Sasuke’s face one way and then another. After a few moments of consideration, she lets go, satisfied.

Sasuke flushes under her scrutiny. “What?” 

“You’ve grown,” she decides finally, and it is so like Kakashi’s words that Sasuke goes still. Mrs. Oonishi walks around the kitchen table to help set up Sasuke’s bedding. “About damn time,” she calls over her shoulder. Her laughter fills the kitchen.

He makes good time to the Yoro Mountain. Michi doesn’t complain at the hard pace he sets, and they reach their destination in just under five days. The Hozuki tribe’s fires are bright in the twilight, burning big enough that Sasuke can see the smoke on the horizon well before the encampment comes into view.

He makes as much noise as possible as he approaches, letting his chakra sing to herald his arrival. The Hozuki tribe, more so than others, is skittish and prone to violence. It would be suicidal to sneak into their camp unannounced or without an explicit invitation. The combined strength of their chakra signatures alone is enough to make Sasuke reconsider the merits of approaching in the dead of the night like this. It’s tantamount to breaching the walls of a Hidden Village, but at a much more concentrated scale and without the rules and protocols that might allow an intruder to survive such an attempt. In the Hozuki camp, they wouldn’t bother to ask questions until after they’d slit his throat.

There is a line of warriors in a loose, defensive position waiting for him as he approaches with Michi at a slow trot. They are armed heavily. At the front of the welcoming party, though, is a familiar face.

“Uchiha goddamn Sasuke,” Suigetsu calls out with a laugh. “At the edge of the motherfucking world.”

Sasuke swings down from Michi and is almost immediately engulfed in a warm hug. Suigetsu pounds Sasuke on the back a few times, laughing still with unadulterated joy, and Sasuke can’t help himself; he hugs him back and grips tight.

“Look at this ugly mug,” Suigetsu calls out, grabbing Sasuke by the shoulder and turning to face his men. It’s been years since Sasuke last saw Suigetsu, and the years have made a difference. Suigetsu is still tall and lanky, but there is added breadth to his shoulders and more muscle on his frame. He looks healthy now that he is no longer under Orochimaru’s toxic watch, and he’s chosen to grow out his silver hair and tie it with a string as tribe warriors do. His eyes are the same brilliant violet. “Look at this ugly motherfucking face!”

Suigetsu leads Sasuke through his camp, making his way through a maze of tents and campfires and past gaping children and warriors alike. They are all on edge, but no one says anything. Suigetsu is the tribe leader and his word is law: if he wants to lead the most dangerous of Orochimaru’s henchmen through their camp with an arm around his shoulder, then they have no choice but to accept Sasuke into their midst.

Jugo is waiting outside the largest of the tents in the camp; its draped tapestries are dyed with the colors of the Hozuki tribe. There is a wide, open circle in front of this tent and most of the men have gathered here. When Jugo spots Sasuke, he crosses the distance in four quick strides and pulls Sasuke into a bone-crushing hug. “I didn’t believe it was you when Karin felt you heading our way,” he says, smiling wide. “How are you, my friend?”

“I’m fine,” Sasuke says and grips Jugo’s arm tight. After so long on the road, it’s a relief to see a familiar face. “It’s good to see you, Jugo.”

Karin ducks out from the tent a moment later. She is wearing riding gear consisting of a worn leather jacket and gloves, with comfortable looking pants tucked into tall boots. There is a glint of silver by her ears, made all the more noticeable by the fact that she has braided her hair back for the day. She smiles when she sees Sasuke, bright and genuine. “Welcome home, Konoha.”

Suigetsu throws an arm around Sasuke’s shoulder. “Let’s go in. I want you to meet someone!”

The inside of the tent is warm and cozy. The space is wide enough that at least a dozen people could easily gather without issue. In the center is a low fire, its smoke streaming upwards to the small opening above. At one corner of the room is a pile of pillows and a comfortable looking bed. There is a child on it, mouth slack in sleep and fingers curled into small fists.

Suigetsu leads Sasuke straight to the bed and kneels by the girl. He touches one of the tight, silvery-blonde ringlets framing her round face. “Sasuke,” he says quietly. He looks up at Sasuke with a smile. “Meet Megumi.”

Sasuke kneels by the bed next to Suigetsu. It’s like having the breath knocked out of him. “Megumi,” he repeats, and reaches out a finger to touch one of her delicate knuckles. Her entire fist is the size of Sasuke’s thumb.

“Look what I did, Uchiha,” Suigetsu says, hushed.

Megumi is wondrous, but what captures Sasuke’s attention is Suigetsu’s face. There is a peace about him, none of that manic anger or hate that made him so volatile. He’d been taken from his tribe at a young age, raised under Orochimaru’s careful tutelage into a deformed, angry thing. Still, Sasuke found friendship with him, and it’s only now, after all the layers of Orochimaru’s hatred have been washed away, that Sasuke can see the truth of Suigetsu’s heart.

“You did good, Hozuki,” he says, and Suigetsu grins at him. “I should have met her sooner.”

Suigetsu straightens to his full height, and Sasuke follows suit. “You were fighting and dying. And you’ve met her now,” he says, and turns to Karin. “You’re here for Karin, I’m guessing.”

Karin tilts her chin up. “I almost left before you got here,” she says. “I have better things to do than wait around for you.”

“Shut up, you love it here. You didn’t set Megumi down for the entire week,” Suigetsu says dismissively as he walks towards the seating area by the fire. It’s just a low-set pile of cushions covered with handwoven rugs; they're dyed in bright colors showing the vibrant landscape of the Birchwoods. They settle around the fire, and it’s only now that Sasuke notices that there are abandoned wooden mugs of ale. Suigetsu leans over to a tray by his side and serves Sasuke a drink.

Karin stretches her legs out in front of her. “And meanwhile there’s Amegakure shinobi that keep infiltrating our ports.”

Jugo turns to fill Sasuke in on the details. “We’ve been discussing whether Karin should raise her banners or not.”

Sasuke’s eyes widen. Karin doesn’t have banners. Technically, she doesn’t even exist except as a murky story of death and destruction that slipped past Orochimaru’s stronghold. That is her strength.

“My men will answer the call,” Suigetsu says, his voice pitched low to make sure he doesn’t wake Megumi. Sasuke has seen Suigetsu before in the quiet moments before battle, assessing strategy, but he has never seen him as a leader until now. He wears the mantle easily, somehow holding his own against Karin’s presence around the fire.

“And the Biratori,” Jugo says. “When we’ve done gathering.”

“You’re gathering your keep?” Sasuke asks, feeling as if the sand is shifting underneath him. He has been out of the loop for so long, he hadn’t even realized that Jugo was rallying his tribe.

Jugo smiles wanly. “What’s left of us,” he says. He doesn’t carry his grief for his massacred tribe like a raw wound anymore, but the mood in the tent shifts nonetheless with their memory.

“I met a farmer’s girl in Urausu named Sarada,” Sasuke says, trying to lighten the mood. “She’s no older than ten, but she wants to be a doctor and a historian. She said she wants to write about the Land of Rice Fields, all the tribes and their banners and stories. She saw my ax and asked me if I was Biratori and if I knew Jugo the Giant.”

Jugo’s smile breaks into a wide grin. “Jugo the Giant? Haven’t heard that before!”

“I haven’t either,” Karin says with a smile. “Maybe she came up with it herself.”

Suigetsu chuckles. “I like it, Jugo. Suits you.”

The conversation wanders from there, moving from topic to topic, but always circling back to the central issue of whether Karin should act as a rallying point for the other tribes in the fight against Amegakure. “Orochimaru was once Akatsuki,” Karin points out thoughtfully. “His directive was to conquer the Land of Rice Fields, but his plans were…diverted.”

Suigetsu laughs. “You mean you diverted them,” he corrects. “You and Uchiha here.”

Which is the truth of it. Sasuke might have been the first to say, I want to kill him, but Karin had been planning Orochimaru’s demise long before Sasuke arrived in Otogakure. She was biding her time, and Sasuke was the perfect tool for her to accomplish her goals. She was the one who came up with the strategy to defeat Orochimaru, the one who sealed Otogakure behind Sasuke so he could destroy each and every single warrior who might one day rise up as an enemy against her. She guided Sasuke to Orochimaru in the end, too, but escaped before she could get caught in the crossfire. She survived—willed herself to survive.

“Pein wants this land,” Karin says, bypassing Suigetsu’s comment entirely.

“Not Pein,” Sasuke corrects quietly. “Uchiha Madara.”

Karin’s eyes narrow in thought. “The third Uchiha I sensed. The one with the old chakra,” she clarifies. It takes her a moment to put the pieces together, but she gets to the truth of the matter the way she always does. “He betrayed the Shodaime Hokage, Senju Hashirama,” she explains to Jugo and Suigetsu with startling accuracy. She doesn’t reveal even a hint of surprise at finding out that someone as old as Madara is still alive; she must have sensed his chakra and known he isn't quite human.

Jugo leans over to grip Sasuke’s forearm tightly. “Sasuke, what is going on? You must tell us what we’re facing.”

So Sasuke does. He tells them as much as he can without revealing any details about the ghosts. Karin becomes progressively still as Sasuke reveals his information. “He'll destroy the north,” she says once Sasuke is finished talking. “Just to settle a centuries-old score.”

“We have to unite,” Suigetsu insists. “We can’t stand against someone like Madara as divided tribes.”

The conversation takes off again in hushed whispers, Jugo and Suigetsu arguing for the need for some kind of power structure while Karin insists they need to stay diffuse and unpredictable. She’s right—what makes the Land of Rice Fields so difficult to conquer or invade is its unpredictability. There are marauding tribes across the great expanse of these plains, and any conquering army or Kage can never be sure who will resist. After Orochimaru, though, Sasuke isn’t sure how willing some of the clans will be to follow a leader, especially one so closely associated with Orochimaru’s memory. But Suigetsu and Jugo are also right in their assessments. Divided, Jugo points out, we fall. That is exactly how Orochimaru did so much damage.

Karin pins Sasuke with her gaze. “You’ve been quiet.”

“I didn’t want to intervene.”

Suigetsu is the one who responds to Sasuke’s diplomacy. Predictably, he’s not polite about it. “Stop acting like a fucking stranger, Sasuke.”

Sasuke looks at the faces around the fire. He’s been away for years, but the moment reminds him of all those nights together in Otogakure, sharing a fire, cigarettes, drinks, and food.

“Madara is no ordinary enemy. He may have failed in conquering the Land of Rice Fields, but that’s a reflection of Orochimaru’s weaknesses, not his own,” Sasuke points out. “He wants this land, so he’s testing the waters. You should gather your forces before he makes his move. But Karin is right, the only advantage you have is that no one knows what cards the Land of Rice Fields holds.”

Sarada, at the end of the day, had been right. No one knows the Land of Rice Fields, the full expanse of her lands or the tribes that move within it. This is her greatest strength, one that Orochimaru never understood. He sought to subjugate.

Suigetsu frowns. “So what? Are you arguing for uniting or staying divided as we are now?”

“Both,” Sasuke explains. “Unite when facing an enemy. Stay divided in peacetime. Convene all the tribes, big and small, build an alliance large enough to span the entirety of the country, and let there be a vote. Elect your leader as the situation demands. Don’t follow to the one-Kage one-rule tradition that the other countries have. It won’t work for you. Once the threat is eliminated, the tribes can go their way.”

Suigetsu considers the advice carefully. “Should we build a new Hidden Village?”

Sasuke scoffs. “Orochimaru was a fucking idiot and went underground because he couldn’t build on the strength of his surroundings. Konoha has her redwoods, Kirigakure has her mists, and Iwagakure has her mountains. The Land of Rice Fields doesn’t have any natural barriers. It’s just a land of nomads. So use that to your strength.”

Jugo straightens. “A moving Hidden Village?”

Sasuke smiles. He has always excelled at military strategy, and it’s a heady feeling having a chance to put it to use. “A moving village that only appears when under threat. An enemy can’t target the Village because it’s never still. It appears and disappears as needed.”

Karin leans forward with a smile. “Ride with us, Sasuke.”

Sasuke takes a deep breath. “I can’t.”

“If it looks like a Northerner, acts like a Northerner, and quacks like a Northerner,” Suigetsu insists, “it’s a motherfucking Northerner, Sasuke. Don’t bullshit us. You’ve always been one of us.”

He’s an Uchiha, and their Clan still follows the old ways. They have more in common with the northern tribes of Hozuki and Biratori than the other great families of Konohagakure. That’s why it's so easy for Sasuke to blend into the Land of Rice Fields. They have the same religion, the same code that governs their life.

But his brother is out there, still.

Jugo speaks before Suigetsu can keep pressing his case. “You’re not wearing Konoha gear, Sasuke,” he points out, mild. “Last we heard you were Lieutenant of Konoha’s ANBU forces. Now you’re here with us, like old times.”

“I’m free of my oaths to Konoha,” Sasuke admits. It’s worth it to see the slack-jawed surprise on their faces.

Karin’s mouth flaps open. She is almost never surprised; she gathers information greedily and senses chakra hundreds of miles away. It is almost impossible to catch her unaware, but Sasuke has done just that. “Are they hunting you?”

Sasuke shakes his head. “The Hokage released me and my keep from the blood oath. I’m a free man.”

He doesn’t tell them why. He doesn’t tell them how he had walked out on the Nidaime and Shodaime; how he had refused to even look Sarutobi in the face after finding out the truth. Don’t leave it like this, Pakkun had told him, and Sasuke had left it all behind.

“So join us,” Suigetsu says hotly. He leans forward. “Stand with us, Sasuke. This is your home. You’re known here. You could gather men. They’d follow you. Think about it; your own tribe, one that you lead. Fuck Konoha and the miserable politics that—”

“Your brother,” Karin says quietly, interrupting Suigetsu’s steady stream of words. The disappointment in her face is hard to swallow, but it’s not the first time they’ve had this argument. Her nickname for Sasuke, Konoha, was never meant as an endearment. It is an accusation of his distant loyalties, the fact that even though the four of them fought and bled alongside each other, Sasuke’s heart always stayed true to Kakashi and Konoha. “That’s why you’re here.”

Jugo takes a deep breath and turns to Karin, waiting for her decision. She doesn’t say anything for so long that Sasuke steps in with an explanation. “I just need a lead, Karin.”

“It’s not free.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Suigetsu grumbles. “It’s Sasuke asking.”

“Is it?” Karin asks, and although her voice is mild, there is an edge to her tone. “Or is it the Commander Hatake Kakashi? You might be a free agent, Uchiha, and you might not be taking orders from that Kage of yours. But you’ve always been stupidly loyal to Hatake.”

She’s never liked Kakashi, a habit she picked up from Orochimaru who always viewed Kakashi as an ever-present threat. When Sasuke left Otogakure for Kakashi, her dislike intensified into hatred. The four of them had fought a long, drawn-out war for five years together, but Sasuke had turned his back on all of it just because Kakashi taught him better.

But for once, Kakashi’s voice is not in his mind, guiding him. Sasuke says, “It’s me asking. My brother needs me.”

Jugo’s eyes widen. “What do you mean needs you?”

Sasuke looks Karin in the eyes when he answers. “My brother is innocent,” he says, and it’s the second time in one night that Sasuke manages to surprise Karin speechless. “I need to find him before Madara or Pein do.”

Karin’s response is the very last thing Sasuke was hoping to hear. “West,” she answers. “The Land of Earth. He’s been spotted in three villages. Kitamuayama, Oe, and Mogami. He's going back and forth between them, though I’m not sure why.”

Suigetsu starts laughing so hard that he has to push a pillow into his face to muffle the sound.

Jugo looks heavenwards. “Literally any other country on the continent would be safer territory for you,” he grumbles.

Sasuke scrubs a hand over his face. That’s nearly three thousand miles west. “You’re sure about his location?”

“Last I heard,” Karin answers neatly. “He started moving west a few months ago. I lost track of him when he went beyond my range. He seems to be circling Iwagakure. There are a lot of stories floating about.”

“What stories?”

Karin makes a face, as if she’s tasted something sour. “I don’t know if the intel is—”

“What stories, Karin?” Sasuke presses.

Karin looks around the fire, as if looking for confirmation from the others. Both Jugo and Suigetsu, though, look just as confused as Sasuke. It is unusual for Karin to act this way. She only shares information she knows to be true; that is how she maintains the quality of her business. “He’s been looking for someone,” she says finally.

Who, Sasuke wonders, could possibly be on the western edges of the world? When Karin doesn’t speak immediately, Suigetsu makes a gesture, as if to say, Go on.

Karin squares her shoulders. “Senju Hashirama,” she says, and Sasuke can’t help it: he starts laughing.

Suigetsu throws a pillow at him, so Sasuke does Megumi a favor and smothers his face to muffle the sound of his laughter. Itachi has been searching for Senju Hashirama at the edge of the very world, and Sasuke—

Sasuke had just turned his back on the man.

Suigetsu lets him settle down in his tent for the night on bedrolls stacked on top of one another in an imitation of a mattress. It’s more comfortable than most beds that Sasuke has slept in, though, because there’s a cool breeze from outside and the familiar sounds of a fire crackling a few feet away. Just outside the fabric of the tent, he can hear the men, women, children, and animals settling into the night until all he hears are the sounds of the night animals: a coyote that gets too close and makes the horses whinny nervously; an owl’s hoot carrying over the occasional strong gust of wind descending from down the mountain and blowing across the plains.

He wakes up because Suigetsu is crooning good morning to his daughter, singing, There’s my Princess, did you sleep well? It earns him a chirrupy laugh from Megumi. She’s pawing at his face with her chubby fingers, echoing, Daddy, Da-ddy, Da-ddy with unbridled joy. Suigetsu mock gasps and points at Sasuke. “Who is that?”

The girl blinks at him with the same violet eyes as her father. “Who is that?” Suigetsu repeats, coming over to Sasuke’s bedding. “It’s Uncle Sasuke!” He sets Megumi down on her feet and she clutches at his pants while she peers at Sasuke curiously.

Sasuke understands now why Suigetsu’s joy has changed him so much. He rolls onto his side and reaches out a single finger for her to take. “Hello.”

Megumi blinks at him, face still pink from sleep. She lets go of Suigetsu’s legs to waddle over to him and grips his finger solemnly. “Hi.”

Suigetsu grins at him. “Want to spend time with her and babysit?”

Sasuke surprises even himself with how quickly he answers: “Yes.”

Sasuke spends the next few hours with Jugo, babysitting Megumi while Suigetsu and Karin go about making preparations for Sasuke’s long journey west. She is familiar with Jugo and waddles willingly over to him when he holds out his arms. Jugo introduces Sasuke to all the little games that delight Megumi—peek-a-boo, Sasuke realizes, is already yesterday’s news—and before long, Megumi is shrieking with laughter each time Sasuke presses raspberries into her stomach or when he throws her into the air to catch her again with a whoop.

She calls Jugo Uncle Ju-Ju. Naturally, Sasuke becomes Uncle Sa-Sa.

Every now and then, Suigetsu will stop by the tent to check on his daughter, which usually ends with Megumi running to him excitedly, yelling, Daddy daddy daddy daddy until Suigetsu picks her up for a lingering hug.

It's during one of Suigetsu’s visits—without Karin’s presence—that Sasuke sits down with Jugo and Suigetsu to explain the full extent of Itachi’s innocence. He does this willingly, without prompting from either of them, because they know the full story. He’d told them the truth in fits and starts one night before battle, after Jugo and Suigetsu laid bare their own bloodied histories and broken families. They had listened, and they had understood, because both of them had buried their kin, and all three of them had the cursed seal burning on their skins.

When Itachi orchestrated his own death, Jugo knew to look for his body. He breached enemy borders and allowed himself to be arrested just to deliver Sasuke the news in person. He’d known Sasuke well enough to know that at the end of the day, Sasuke would mourn the news of Itachi’s death, and that he would want to hear the news from someone who understood that.

In Urausu, Erimo had cut to the truth of it. Blood brothers, he’d said, and that is the bond Sasuke shares with Jugo and Suigetsu. They are beyond best friends; they are the ones who stand as godfathers to each other’s children.

Jugo goes completely still when Sasuke tells them the full truth; even Suigetsu is rendered speechless. He holds Megumi close and doesn’t say anything for a long, long while. “Don’t tell Karin,” Sasuke says, and he doesn’t need to explain why he doesn’t want Karin to have this information. She’ll weaponize it in some way. She’ll force his hand, tether him to the Land of Rice Fields using all her machinations so that Sasuke breaks free from his loyalties to Hatake Kakashi once and for all.

She is the Black Widow, and while Sasuke is still her friend, she is first and foremost a strategist. She wants a Sharingan guarding the Land of Rice Fields; she wants Sasuke beholden to her, at her command. Jugo, Suigetsu, and Sasuke have learned to tread carefully around her. “You won’t tell her,” Sasuke confirms, looking at Jugo and Suigetsu both in the eyes.

Suigetsu nods. Megumi squirms in his grip, trying to get to the floor and continue her play, but Suigetsu holds her fast. “I’m so sorry, my friend.”

Jugo rubs at his face, looking weary all of a sudden. “You need to find your brother, Sasuke.”

“I know,” Sasuke agrees. “I will.”

Around midday, Suigetsu leaves Megumi with one of the camp women who has three other children hanging on her arm. She’s a middle-aged woman, and while she seems familiar with Suigetsu, it’s obvious there is no intimacy between them. Suigetsu presses a kiss to Megumi's hair before he leads Jugo and Sasuke through the tents, and Sasuke waits until they step outside before asking the question that has been on his mind. “So a single parent, then?”

Suigetsu sighs. He has more than one woman, Sasuke knows, but like the land itself, the boundaries of relationships in the Land of Rice Fields are porous. A tribal leader can have many women or men, and children often have both mother and father.

Megumi, though, it’s become obvious now, seems to have no mother. “Megumi’s mother isn’t a part of the picture,” Suigetsu answers finally. Jugo jostles Sasuke lightly with an elbow, signaling for Sasuke to shut up, now. So Sasuke does, even though he wants to know how Suigetsu is pulling it off: single father, a tribe to lead, and under a new threat from Amegakure. He wonders why a woman would be stupid enough to walk away from him and Megumi, but Suigetsu seems prickly about the topic so Sasuke lets it drop easily enough.

They meet up for a quiet lunch with Karin, the four of them bent over a map to plot Sasuke’s journey west. None of them have been to Iwagakure, and they have to rely on intel from Karin's contacts. He’ll be going in blind, and what’s worse, if anyone catches wind that Uchiha Sasuke is breaching the Land of Earth borders, it will reopen old wounds. The Land of Earth and the Land of Fire have an age-old enmity, spanning centuries before the two countries even declared themselves as nations.

“But he’s not Konohagakure shinobi anymore,” Jugo points out diplomatically.

“As if that makes any fucking difference,” Suigetsu scowls. He stabs at the dot indicating Iwagakure with his knife, leaving it embedded in the table underneath. “They’ll assume it’s Konohagakure attacking. It’s not like it’s widely known that Sasuke is a free agent now.”

Karin looks up sharply. “I can fix that,” she says with a smirk, and just like that, the problem has been solved. Three riders fan out from the camp within the hour: northwest, southwest, and true west. They carry with them the necessary rumor to spread, along with plausible stories.

Uchiha Sasuke is free of his oaths. The Godaime Hokage herself released him from his blood oaths.

Technically, Tsunade was not the one to release him from his oaths, but Sasuke lets the lie rest. “The news will reach Iwagakure faster than you do,” Karin assures him. “Nothing spreads faster than a rumor.”

In the afternoon, Suigetsu convinces Sasuke and Jugo that they should go on a hunt. “Like the old days,” he says, and they thunder out on their horses with spears, bows, and arrows onto the gentle slope of the Yoro Mountain. The buck they bring down is massive with branching antlers like a crown. It takes them a few hours to bring him down back to camp.

They feast that night with some of the men, the smell of roasted meat hanging thick in the air and sending the dogs at the outer edge of the camp into a frenzy of yipping and tail-wagging in anticipation of the scraps. Suigetsu holds court with Megumi by his feet. She is busying herself with the antlers that Sasuke and Jugo carved into toys for her, tapping a private rhythm with the antler pieces on the earth happily. She seems used to the bustle around her, but Suigetsu immediately calls for someone to take her away when her energy starts to flag early in the night.

“Say good night!” Suigetsu orders, and on cue, the men and women around the campfire say in unison, “Good night, Megumi.” Megumi hides her giggle in her father’s shoulder, and Suigetsu presses a kiss against Megumi's hair, breathing deep, before handing her over to the same woman from this morning. Megumi waves at Suigetsu as she’s carried away, and Suigetsu doesn’t shift his gaze until the tent flap falls shut behind her.

Sasuke has to leave early the next morning, but they linger by the fire anyways. Karin is looking off into the distance as she tracks wayward chakra signatures, and Jugo and Suigetsu talk quietly through the details of where and when they might convene the tribes for a vote on a warlord for the north.

Sasuke listens to their quiet words and the whip and crackle of the fire, head pillowed on his arms and stretched out on the soft grass. Overhead, the stars are so vast and clutter the night sky so completely, they nearly outshine the moon.

He leaves at the crack of dawn, just as the sunlight breaks over the ridges of the Yoro Mountain. Suigetsu, Karin, and Jugo see him off at the western end of their camp.

Suigetsu has resupplied him with food and water under the condition that Sasuke will visit again when he can. Jugo presses a hunting knife into his hands, this too with the Biratori sigil. Karin sends him off with only her instructions: “Be safe, Konoha.”

“I will,” Sasuke promises, and heads west.

Kakashi once told Sasuke about the wars with the Land of Earth when Team 7 had been assigned a particularly long mission. They had been away from the city for two and a half weeks, and everyone was feeling stretched thin, itchy to head home. The march to Iwagakure, he said, mild, is ten times as long. During the war, Kakashi explained to them, Sarutobi had deployed his troops to the front lines in eighteen-month tours. It took three of those months just to get to the Land of Earth and the front lines there—a long, miserable slog through the winter months across hostile territory. Sasuke, at least, has the weather on his side, and Michi to ease the distances.

Still, it’s a long journey. Not because of the distance, but because his cover story requires that he can’t cut a straight path to the Land of Earth. Instead, he has to loop through the countryside, stopping to linger at the sights that the Continent has to offer. He has to take his damn time instead of heading straight for his brother.

The story that Karin has concocted for him, the one that the riders carried westward in advance of his trip, is not just that Sasuke is free of his bonds. It is also that he is traveling the Continent, rudderless and seeking reprieve from so many years of war and death.

A road trip, Sasuke thinks, because that’s exactly what this is. He’s a tourist on a road trip and it irks him to have to play this role. But he knows the importance of sticking to his cover story, so he leaves breadcrumbs where necessary, detouring along his path to visit famous hot springs and temples and cities so ancient that the murals on the walls still show samurai in their armor. He stays off the main road as much as possible, making an occasional appearance on the main road when he thinks it’s time to throw off anyone who may be following.

Somewhere in the Land of Waterfall, though, something changes. The memory of Konoha—of the Shodaime’s downturned gaze when Sasuke called him a liar, of the Nidaime’s still face as Sasuke named him monster—becomes bearable. He folds and refolds that memory into such small parcels in his mind that even his Sharingan can’t remind him of the moments in excruciating detail anymore.

Settle into your own skin, the Nidaime had told him once, and Sasuke finds himself doing just that. And suddenly, when Sasuke looks around, he notices his surroundings.

The Land of Waterfalls is tucked among the Western Alps, and no matter which way Sasuke turns, he can hear the gentle burble of a brook or swift-moving stream. The water in these streams is cold and fresh, so pristine that Sasuke feels guilty dipping in for a swim or wash. There is a quietness in these lands, something about the lush green of its grass and the gentle sway of its willow trees that makes Sasuke take deep breaths.

When Sasuke runs out of food, he finds the road and travels to a quiet hamlet nestled against rolling plains. It’s not until he’s in the center of the small town that he remembers that the Namikaze tribe is from these parts.

Everywhere he looks, he sees golden-blond hair and blue eyes. But none of these people have the same lush lips, sharp cheekbones and slender build that Naruto does—these details, Sasuke knows from the Yondaime, reflect the Uzumaki in Naruto, the distinct Land of Whirlpool beauty that Naruto possesses in spades. The memory of Naruto—and Sasuke is Sharingan, so even the memory is vivid, precise, and breathtaking—makes something stir in the very depths of his gut.

The local innkeeper tells him that the town is called Funagata and provides directions to the local tavern. Sasuke draws attention wherever he goes, but it’s not the same wariness that his name is usually associated with. He’s nearly an hour into his visit when he realizes that the person he is talking to—a local tea farmer who saw Sasuke sitting by himself at a table and joined him with a friendly, Hello!—has no idea who he is.

“Uchiha Sasuke,” the man repeats thoughtfully. “Now that’s an old name if I’ve ever heard one. Where did you say you were from again?”

Sasuke smiles and is surprised to find how genuine it is. “Nowhere special,” he answers.

He wonders if Karin predicted he would be so unknown in this town, why she insisted that he stop here as a place to rest when they planned out his route.

Sasuke stays a full day in Funagata. He walks along the quiet paths of the small town, watches the rise and dip of the farmers, and makes small talk with the locals who stop to stare at the new local attraction. On his second night in town, Sasuke falls into bed with a woman named Akemi. She has dirty-blonde hair and a smile that leaves dimples in her right cheek. She works at the inn where Sasuke is staying, and after catching a glimpse of the gentle curve of her waist, Sasuke approaches her.

He spends the night with his face pressed into the curve of her neck, spreading his fingers along the soft give of her thighs and feeling his chakra unfurl in his stomach with each aching roll of his hips. He leaves the next day and heads south, making sure to stay at each Village he passes. In Asahi, he meets Kazue with her olive-green eyes and skin so dark it blends with the darkness in their room. In Hachirogata, he meets Izumi who laughs each time Sasuke presses a kiss against her inner thigh. In Yamanobe, he meets Moriko, the owner of a rare bookstore, who leaves smudges of ink on the sheets and on Sasuke’s skin. In Oishida, it’s Airi, with hair that falls down to the small of her back and who indulges Sasuke as he runs his fingers through the full length of her loose curls and coils a strand around his fingers as he presses in, blood running hot in his veins.

Every day he looks skywards and is reminded of the blue of Naruto’s eyes.

He is so lost in the actual journey that he doesn’t even notice the passing of his birthday. He wakes up a week after the date and realizes: Eighteen.

He’s survived far longer than he thought he would. What’s more, he’s walking towards Itachi now, following the tug of their blood bond. Brother, Sasuke whispers to himself as he and Michi make their languid way across the Continent. Not Kin-Butcher, but Brother.

When he sees Kusagakure’s walls looming on the horizon, it’s unexpected. The miles and months have passed without being so unbearable. The Land of Grass is a cluster of boisterous cities, one after another. He doesn’t even realize he’s arrived at the capital until he notices the large banner hanging over the Village walls. The chuunin at the gate is curious, but not rude about it. “Uchiha Sasuke,” he repeats, wondrous.

“So they tell me,” Sasuke answers mildly. He has no documents of official identification. He had to yield his papers with the Konohagakure seal when he severed the blood oath; a shinobi without a liege lord is utterly without identity. But this doesn’t bother Sasuke as much as he thought it would.

He knows exactly who he is.

Thus far, he has not needed any paperwork for entry, and most people have taken him at his word. Now, though, he is holding up the long line of visitors seeking entry into Kusagakure.

The chuunin puts his pen down carefully. He isn’t much older than Sasuke, but there’s a wide-eyed wonder about him that Sasuke doesn’t ever remember having. “Do you have any paperwork or—” He stops before he even finishes the question. “Stupid question. I’d heard you were traveling westward. Didn’t think you’d actually stop by our city, though. Stay here, I’ll be right back.”

Karin was right. The rumors spread fast and wide, arriving well before Sasuke even gets to his destinations. The chuunin indicates that Sasuke should step into a small back office and wait for him to return. He disappears to discuss the matter with his COs. It takes nearly twenty minutes for the question to climb up the chain of command and an answer to filter back down.

“Welcome to Kusagakure,” the chuunin says with a flourish and sets Sasuke free.

After spending over two months traveling through mountains, forests, and valleys, it’s odd to be back in such a large city. He feels acutely like an outsider, not just because he is one, but because he is so obviously a foreigner in these lands. He towers over everyone else—the tallest man he sees is still a few inches shorter than Sasuke—and is broad-shouldered and muscled where everyone else is lean. They dress differently, speak with an odd accent that makes his Northern-tinged Western dialect sound especially out of place. In his traveling gear and strapped as he is with a sword, battle-ax, and curved knife, he looks even more like a marauding warrior from the North.

After settling Michi comfortably in a stable, Sasuke sets off to explore the city. It’s nothing like Konohagakure, with her wide streets and bustling throughways. Kusagakure is cramped, with buildings that climb skywards without seemingly any limit. There is a tram that is constantly rumbling from one corner to the other, and rickshaws, bicyclists and pedestrians everywhere. They all part around Sasuke like a streaming brook around a stone in the middle of its path. At the center of the Village is a large stone arch leading to the massive Kage complex.

He eats dinner at a restaurant with outdoor seating at a plaza. He knows he’s being gawked at, but his own curiosity is too great, so he requests the hostess to seat him outside. He takes his time while he eats, watching kids splash around in a fountain at the center. The fountain is ornate with arching spirals, and oddly enough, a lush sculpture of a woman in the center holding a vase out of which the water keeps streaming, endless. She’s wearing nothing but a strip of cloth, her left breast exposed and her hair flowing down her back as she looks towards the sky. A sculpture like this would never be displayed in stately, austere Konoha with its square streets and massive, arching buildings that are intended as a display of strength.

When he’s finished eating, he walks around in search of a drink. The bar he chooses is bustling with people, so Sasuke hedges his bets that the drinks are good. There is a stunned silence when he walks in, but the loud din of people talking picks up almost immediately. There are shinobi and civilians alike in the place, and Sasuke makes his way to the bar to place his order.

He first notices Yasu from across the bar by the tinkling joy of his laugh. When he turns to look, he finds Yasu surrounded by a group of his friends at a high table a few feet from Sasuke, all of them in shinobi gear. Yasu is wearing a jounin vest that hugs his lean frame tight. There’s something about the smooth column of his neck that has Sasuke’s gaze lingering. He must have let his gaze linger for too long because Yasu turns and catches his gaze. He tilts his head at a curious angle, considering Sasuke.

It’s the first man he has ever been attracted to other than Naruto, and for a moment, Sasuke feels as if he’s been caught doing something wrong. He pushes the thought aside, though, and holds Yasu’s gaze for a moment longer while he considers his next move.

With women, it’s easy to gauge their interest. But with men, he never knows—he remembers distinctly mistaking Neji’s friendship with Naruto as something far more intimate not too long ago. But then, Yasu smiles, slow and easy, and any uncertainty Sasuke feels is gone in an instant. When he approaches Yasu’s table with a drink, Yasu’s friends melt away like snow on the first day of spring, leaving them alone after just the barest introductions around the table.

Sasuke fumbles more than usual when he finally manages to start a conversation, but Yasu takes pity on him and fills in the gaps easily. Apparently, he majored in art history in college, and he answers Sasuke’s question about the statue in the plaza, the oddly cramped but graceful architecture, and the massive arched gateway leading to the Kage palace. He is built like a runner, with lean muscles and a compact chakra signature. His eyes are a lovely shade of crystal green—not as bright, not as wide or almond-shaped, or fringed as thickly with lashes as Naruto’s, but Sasuke knows now that he can search the entire breadth of the Continent and find no one who can approximate the sheer loveliness of Naruto.

Still, Sasuke finds himself staring openly for the entirety of their conversation. Yasu doesn’t bat an eye. The heat in Sasuke’s gut is as coiled and urgent as it is with women, and it eases the first few, fumbling minutes for Sasuke: pressing Yasu down into the bed, sliding a hand under his shirt to palm at the smooth skin there, biting his way down Yasu’s neck—

He freezes when he feels the hard line of Yasu’s interest against his thigh. Yasu goes still. “Are you honestly telling me,” he says into the awkward silence that settles, “that the Uchiha Sasuke has never been with a man before?”

Sasuke pulls back, grateful for the relative darkness of the room. His face is hot. “I’ve been with women.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of your conquests with women,” Yasu says, but there is no taunt in his words. Sasuke does a push-up to lever himself off Yasu, but Yasu stops him with a hand around the back of his neck. “I don’t mind.”

Some of it is new, but Yasu takes the lead and Sasuke has always been a quick learner. His initial anxiety falls away when he noses his way down the flat planes of Yasu’s stomach and breathes in the deep scent at the space where Yasu’s thigh meets his hips. Later, he freezes, but only slightly, when he feels Yasu line up behind him, but then the sheer pleasure and release that follows is enough to make his chakra spike and crackle (imagines, for a moment, being on his hands and knees for Naruto instead). Some of it, though, is familiar, like when Sasuke has Yasu braced on his hands and knees and slides in with a groan. The snap of his hips is the same as it is with women, but the heat and clench of Yasu’s body is different. “This,” Sasuke groans into Yasu’s neck, “I could get used to.”

Yasu’s laugh trails off into a moan when Sasuke starts to move again.

In the morning, Sasuke wakes up to Yasu mouthing his way down his stomach and spends the first fifteen minutes of wakefulness blissed out and groaning up at the ceiling. They shower together, and one thing leads to another. By the time Sasuke stumbles out of Yasu’s apartment, he is as loose-limbed and relaxed as he has ever been. Yasu sends him off with a kiss at the Village gate, yielding when Sasuke pulls him close and licks his way into Yasu’s mouth greedily, uncaring of onlookers. Sasuke only pulls back when Michi paws impatiently at the ground, tugging at her reins.

It’s almost noon by the time Kusagakure disappears over the horizon behind him, but Sasuke’s joints feel loose after the night before and he can’t find it in himself to care that he’s fallen behind on his travel schedule by almost six hours.

Besides, Kusagakure was his last chance at any material comfort.

He makes sure to pass through a border checkpoint at the Land of Wind. The Sunagakure shinobi on duty eyes him warily.

“It takes a few months to cross,” he says when Sasuke casually lets it drop that he plans on making the trek across the vast distance of the southwestern deserts. The chuunin pulls out a map and spreads it out on the table between them. It’s just a large splotch of yellow depicting the dessert. With a pen, he draws a large X along the solid line indicating the border between the Land of Wind and the Land of Earth and says, “We are here.” He circles a few more areas on the map at seemingly nondescript locations. “Reliable watering holes, even this time of year. Double your water intake for the first few days since it takes a while to get used to the heat. Your horse…” He eyes Michi through the glass windows of the building. Outside, the sun is setting over the horizon in a striking mix of violet and orange.

Michi, though, is blissfully unaware of her surroundings under the cool shade of the shed with unlimited access to water and fresh horse feed.

“Your horse might make it,” the chuunin says. “If you make sure to keep up your supplies.”

Sasuke gives the map the due consideration he is expected to give it. “The watering holes. Are they anyone’s territory or—”

“No, no,” the chuunin says, waving aside Sasuke’s question. “The watering holes are open for everyone to use. We don’t even do patrols along those wells unless it’s wartime. You don’t plant a flag on water and call it yours, Uchiha. That’s not how this part of the world works. We all have to survive the sands.”

So no one that he needs to show his face to; his alibi will be secure. For all intents and purposes, Uchiha Sasuke can disappear into the deserts and not be seen or heard from for months without raising any suspicions.

A good magic trick, Sasuke knows, is all about the diversion.

“Are we talking twelve weeks or longer to cross?”

“Thereabouts. Sixteen to eighteen weeks for most foreigners. If they make it across.” The chuunin taps his pen against the map thoughtfully. “There’s not a lot of villages between here and Sunagakure. You might run into some nomad tribes, but they’re probably sticking close to the groves for the harvest. It’s a pretty…solitary journey.”

Sasuke looks up from the map. “Isn’t that the point?”

The chuunin responds with an open smile. “I only mention it because I’ve heard you don’t like to sleep alone at night. If you’re looking for that kind of a visit, might be best to wait for the next caravan heading out to Sunagakure. You’ll get to the capital in half the time.”

Sasuke tilts his head, considering the chuunin. He has chocolate-brown eyes and an easy smile. His hair is curling and long, messy and unconcerned—easy, Sasuke imagines, to twist around his fingers and tug. There is a delicate upward tilt of his eyes, something intriguing about the strip of skin at his wrist between his long-sleeved shirt and fingerless gloves. The chuunin’s easy smile slips into something more hesitant when he notices Sasuke’s interest.

It’s always been easy for Sasuke to take what he wants. Even more so when it’s offered so readily. Sasuke sees his opening and leans forward over the counter; the chuunin moves back imperceptibly before swaying forward again. “You didn’t give me a name.”

“Yori,” the chuunin says, and his eyes dip to Sasuke’s lips.

Sasuke repeats the name with care. “Yori.” He has a desert and then the solitary trek through the Land of Earth to look forward to. Might as well have fun while he still can. “It’s my last meal before the sands, and I was hoping for some company.”

Yori’s dinner is just the typical border posting ration meal in the backroom, but neither of them get to the food. What ends up happening instead is Sasuke bracing Yori against the wall.

Yori glances over his shoulder when he hears the tear of the condom wrapper. “This is against regulations,” he breathes out, flushed from the ten minutes of foreplay that Sasuke indulged in. His neck is rubbed pink from Sasuke’s beard, a trail leading down his shoulder. For convenience, Sasuke has divested Yori of his clothes, and now, he pushes his own pants down just enough to get the job done.

“What’s against regulations?” Sasuke asks, and lines himself up. Yori’s eyes flutter shut as Sasuke presses their bodies together without pushing in, just ruts idly in the delicate cleft between Yori’s legs.

“You’re technically a sanctioned individual of the state,” Yori says, trailing off into a moan when Sasuke finally takes pity on both of them and slides in. Sasuke could write books on the many, many uses of weaponry oil: sharpening blades, smoothing the rough edges of kunai and shuriken. Also, lube.

Sasuke lets his forehead drop to Yori’s shoulder and groans at the tight clench of his body. “The Land of Fire and the Land of Wind are not at war.”

Yori whimpers high in his throat. “Just you, not all Land of Fire shinobi. You’re considered an unfriendly agent, unrelated to your country’s—”

“This feels pretty friendly to me,” Sasuke says, and moves his hips in shallow thrusts between each word. Yori tips his head back on Sasuke’s shoulder, breathing hard.

“I’ll get a visit from my CO,” Yori murmurs, and grips Sasuke’s forearm, moving onto his toes to make up for the difference in height. Sasuke holds up his weight and rests a hand against the wall in front of him. “There’ll be an inquiry when they find out you’ve passed through this border point.”

It is slightly insulting that Yori is sustaining an entire conversation in this state. So Sasuke pulls out and manhandles Yori onto his narrow sleeping bunk. Yori’s words dissolve into incoherent whimpers and moans after that. It’s not until the next morning that Yori picks up his abandoned train of thought. “My God,” he says, watching Sasuke towel himself dry after a quick shower. “My CO is going to kill me.”

Sasuke pulls on his shirt. “For what?”

“You!” Yori gestures at Sasuke from head to toe. He still hasn’t pulled on his clothes, which has Sasuke reconsidering his decision to leave immediately. Granted, he’d woken up early enough for round three and the shower was memorable—Sasuke has never believed that there is ever too much of a good thing. Besides, Yori is a pretty little thing; for him to be so far removed from the rest of civilization is a crime unto itself. “For sleeping with you!”

“Don’t tell your CO, then,” Sasuke says and bends to start repacking his bag.

Yori dresses hurriedly. “I can’t not tell my CO,” he says, sounding mournful. “I heard the Kazekage hates you. Personally. He really hates you. He’ll demand an explanation.”

Sasuke glances up at this, but doesn’t respond.

Outside, Michi is drinking peacefully from the trough. She lifts her head when Sasuke approaches, huffing in recognition. Yori watches as Sasuke saddles Michi and ties down his gear. “Why does he hate you so much anyways?”

Sasuke swings himself up onto Michi. He still remembers the thoughtful way Gaara let his gaze linger on Naruto, the way they had come together from the shared experience of their demons during the chuunin exam. Every interaction of theirs seemed intimate; Sasuke always felt as if he was trespassing.

Gaara, Sasuke knows, still sends Naruto flowers for his birthday every year. Once, he’d even asked him out for dinner when he made a diplomatic visit with his sister.

“He wanted something of mine,” Sasuke answers, and his words come out as a growl. Yori freezes, looking up at him with bright eyes.

“Something,” he ventures cautiously. “Or someone?”

Sasuke stares down at Yori, his Mangekyou whorling. “Give the Kazekage my regards,” he says, and tugs at Michi’s reins to orient her into the desert.

Sasuke travels four full days south into the desert before he’s convinced that they haven’t sent out any shinobi to trail him. It’s a grueling trek, but despite the effort, he doesn’t cover more than two hundred miles in those four days. The days are blisteringly hot—even in September, he thinks—and the nights freezing. There’s absolutely nothing as far as the eye can see, just the shifting dunes and biting winds. After a lifetime spent in the redwood forests, the desolation of this place is hard for Sasuke to wrap his mind around. The map Yori gave him shows a desert that stretches nearly seven hundred miles across and four hundred miles wide; Sasuke can’t comprehend the vastness of this land.

Still, there is something beautiful about the landscape. The sand is never a single color. Between one hour and the next, the color shifts from turmeric yellow to goldenrod to the orange of dying embers. At the right hour of the day, the sand reminds Sasuke of the gold of Naruto’s hair, and in others still, the light tan of Naruto’s skin. Most of the time, though, it’s as if the sands shift through the different hues of Konoha’s redwoods in fall. At its brightest, the sun makes the entire sand glow a yellow so brilliant it’s as if Sasuke is walking on the surface of the sun.

What makes Sasuke’s heartbeat thunder, though, is the sky overhead. Sunsets and sunrises are more violent on the desert than anywhere else. He gets up early to watch the sun rise and always stops his travels when the sun sets.

He changes directions abruptly west the fifth day and curves back towards the border cautiously. The Land of Wind is nearly two times the size of the Land of Fire, and her borders touch a good number of the other countries in the continent. The Kazekage doesn’t bother manning or patrolling his borders, though, because there is absolutely no need to: the desert is the only barrier he needs to keep his enemies at bay. It’s unlikely an army can make it across the full expanse of the desert intact; thirst alone would cut their numbers in half.

So it is easy—almost too easy—for Sasuke to slip entirely unnoticed from the barren deserts and into the salt flats of the Land of Earth.

Chapter Text

The salt flats nearly kill Michi. She gets so weak crossing the distance that Sasuke walks alongside her for the last twenty miles, coaxing her along with a gentling hand on her flank that becomes thinner and thinner with each passing day.

By the time the landscape shifts from the barren hellscape of the salt flats to something with more vegetation, they are both limping with exhaustion. Sasuke can’t afford to be seen, though, so he expends the last of his energy in finding a water source and they both collapse next to it. He doesn’t even build a fire for the night.

Karin had warned him about the salt flats. He didn't really understand what she'd meant until he was two days into the journey, when even the moisture in his throat seemed to be scraped dry. Even the desert was more forgiving than the salt flats.

But then again, he hadn’t spent more than a week in the desert, and he hadn’t even gone that deep into it. He crosses the full breadth of the salt flats, and although it takes him over two weeks to do it, he manages.

They are at the bottom of a craggy hill, with enough cover that Sasuke feels comfortable taking a day to recover in preparation for the next leg of his journey. He hunts, washes off the fine layer of salt and dirt on his skin from the past three weeks, and even shaves his beard clean. Michi takes the time to recuperate by grazing quietly on the vegetation around the small stream Sasuke has located, staying in the shade of the few, low-hanging trees in the area.

Michi has traveled over two thousand miles with Sasuke over the past few months, and the toll it has taken is showing. She is favoring her right hind leg, and her coat has lost some of its luster. She does not complain, though, even when Sasuke re-saddles her and sets out in search of the nearest village. He finds what he’s looking for nearly twenty-three miles north: a single house, sitting low against the ground and surrounded by a fence. There is a stable built a distance from the house. Even from a distance, Sasuke can hear the excited bark of a dog.

Sasuke unburdens Michi of all her weight, including the saddle and reins. She shakes her mane loose and pushes against Sasuke with a gentle nudge. Sasuke leads her towards the house as quietly as he can. When he’s within a good distance, he steps back from Michi and lets his chakra gather at his fingertips to spark against her hindquarters.

She takes off in a gallop, heading straight for the house. Sasuke lingers long enough to see a man come out with two young boys at his side at the sound of her galloping. Together, the three of them circle Michi and coax her towards them. She lets herself be guided into the stables, and finally, Sasuke turns away. Iwagakure is another three hundred miles north, and he can’t afford to linger like this in the Land of Earth.

Karin had given Sasuke several maps to help plot out the best route for him to take in his travels westward. She had been painstakingly detailed in this task, selecting the exact villages for Sasuke to stop in, the amount of time she thought it best for him to spend at each location to provide just enough proof of his aimless wandering. One of the maps is an illustration of the Land of Earth. On it, Karin has drawn three small circles just outside of Iwagakure. The lettering is so small that Sasuke has to squint to read the names of the towns:

Kitamuayama, Oe, and Mogami.

This was the best guess Karin could give about the last known whereabouts of Itachi. The information filtering out of the Land of Earth is rumor at best, purposefully distorted at worse. Be careful, she cautioned.

This could all be one elaborate trap, Sasuke knows, but there is no other information on where Itachi is. This is all he has. So Sasuke spreads the map out on the ground and taps the point of Jugo’s knife against each circle.

“Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” Sasuke mutters under his breath, “catch a tiger by the toe.”

His knife tip lands on Oe.

Sasuke pulls his rucksack and bedroll over his back and sheaths his knife at his waist. He walks.

Sasuke is camped thirty miles southwest of Oe when he senses a dulled chakra signature approaching him. He wakes with his Mangekyou tinged with chakra even as he summons backup.


The snake appears almost instantly, head raised in preparation to strike. He swivels his head towards the chakra stalking his way. “You were followed?” Daichi asks softly, his hiss bleeding away into the night.

Sasuke hasn’t even dared to light a fire at night, and he spends a few hours each day doubling back to remove any evidence of his trail and misdirect anyone who may be following. He’s been making his way so carefully across the rocky canyons of the Land of Earth that he hasn’t slept for longer than four hours at a time. It would be almost impossible for anyone to follow him. He doesn’t explain any of this to Daichi, just strongly projects his annoyance and indignation at him.

“Not followed, then,” Daichi amends, and stands guard while Sasuke rolls up his bedroll and ties his cloak around himself. It’s early November, and nights in the Land of Earth are almost as cold as they were in the desert. “Just tracked.”

“I could call Hideyoshi if you can’t handle it,” Sasuke offers, and is rewarded with Daichi's lightning-fast bite on his ankle. Daichi is not as poisonous as Kanaye or even his own twin, Hideyoshi, but he’s fast.

“You want me to scout?” Daichi asks, slithering a few feet away from Sasuke to hide in the grass.

Sasuke crouches low, focused on the tree line. He doesn’t want to draw his sword yet, because there’s a gibbous moon overheard and his katana will no doubt catch the light the minute he draws it. And besides, Sasuke isn’t even sure if he’ll need a sword for this encounter. The chakra signature is considerable, but nothing that poses a serious threat.

Sasuke may have reacted differently once, but that was before Senju Tobirama taught him taijutsu, and before Sasuke could summon dragons from the sky with the strength of his katon alone. It was before Kakashi gave him his Mangekyou.

“Let him come,” Sasuke says lightly. He waits patiently while he packs up camp. He breathes slowly and steadily as he goes about his task so that he can slip into a battle calm if need be.

Seventy yards and getting closer.

“The chakra,” Daichi says after a few moments. “It’s odd…”

“Odd how?”

Daichi is quiet for a few minutes longer. Fifty yards. The chakra signature pauses. “Muffled,” Daichi says after a moment. Sasuke lets his hand fall to his sword hilt.

Muffled, as in masked. As in:

Someone has cast themselves in a blood sigil so powerful that the user has diminished his presence in the world, becoming almost unrecognizable. There are only a few people who have that kind of knowledge. Sarutobi Hiruzen is the only one Sasuke knows who can cast that kind of ninjutsu with any efficiency; even Kakashi can’t hold it for long. But this chakra has been stalking closer to Sasuke for the better part of fifteen minutes now, and even under all the layers of its blood ward, the chakra is strong enough that it prickles against his skin. It’s a volatile, pulsatile heat in the far distance. Whoever it is has the knowledge to cloak their own chakra signature.

And they’ve snuck up on Sasuke.

Should I scout ahead? Daichi asks, knowing the exact moment in which Sasuke’s attention shifts from mild annoyance at being woken up to something more.

Sasuke shifts on the balls of his feet. Circle around behind him. Don’t engage.

Daichi slithers away with nothing more than a soft whisper of the grass parting.

Sasuke counts his breaths and waits. The chakra signature is still at fifty yards. It stays there for a few, long minutes, and with each passing moment, Sasuke’s mind replays what feels like a distant memory now:

In a barren corner of the Land of Rice Fields, hunting for his brother. He’d called Daichi for backup that night too. Daichi is the one who confirmed Yuuta’s original discovery. Two of your kin, he’d said, delighted, and Sasuke had watched from the shadows of the brush as Madara and Itachi had talked under the dim, waning moonlight.

Now, though, the chakra is almost unrecognizable.

Where are you, Daichi?

Not in position yet, Daichi communicates back. He is somewhere to Sasuke’s left, taking a wide, arcing loop to scout around the threat and make sure there are no other hidden surprises. The chakra signature is still stationary. Sasuke’s fingers curl around the hilt of his sword.

There’s a slight shift in the air around him, something that Sasuke can’t quite pinpoint. It’s nothing tangible, nothing but a quickening in his heartbeat, something primal and instinctive that makes Sasuke shift. He’s coming my way, Sasuke communicates to Daichi even though the chakra signature is still eerily still. Daichi projects his confusion back at him, but Sasuke tunes out Daichi’s words in favor of collecting himself.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine

He doesn’t finish his count before the chakra signature starts to move. It’s sudden, and within the span of a few breaths, the enemy has covered a third of the distance separating them. Fast.

Sasuke shifts his posture, angling his body sideways so that he can minimize the target he presents. Carefully, he relaxes the muscles in his back, his neck, his shoulders and fingers. He concentrates on his calves and eases the muscles there as well, letting his heels dig into the earth to ground him in his place.

He’s moving too fast, Daichi communicates, hurried. I can’t

Stand down, Sasuke orders, and performs the seal to dismiss Daichi before the snake can react. He draws his sword then. She is bright under the moonlight, and with each inch that Sasuke drags out of his sheath, it’s as if he's pulling out strips of silver. He lets the tip of his sword rest against the ground. The chakra feels stronger the closer it gets.

Twenty yards and moving closer. Fifteen, ten at most—

He hears it now: the soft snap and crackle of twigs, the muffled crunch of leaves giving way for the force behind this approach. The attacker veers suddenly to the right at the last moment, just skirting the tree line. Sasuke tracks him with his eyes, shifting his body only when the angle of attack becomes too oblique for him to face properly. He’s ready when the attacker breaks through the trees.

For one, disorienting moment, there is only the sound of their swords meeting midair. The attacker is wearing a face-cloth and clothes so black that they blend into his surroundings. He’s almost of Sasuke’s height, but just a few inches shorter and slightly narrower at the shoulders. He doesn’t have the same weight as Sasuke, none of the coiled muscles that store all of Sasuke’s aggressive chakra.

The attack is powerful enough, though, that Sasuke has to yield ground, letting his backwards momentum dispel some of the force. He twists out of the way, too fast for the next strike that comes down, but there’s a powerful kick aimed at his side that forces him to step back one, two, three full steps before he has the space to draw the hunting knife that Jugo gave him. He needs an advantage, and this is how he will carve it out—with two blades, each a different length. Kakashi taught him how.

He’s about to move forward with his counterattack when he realizes that the attacker has let his sword hang limply by his side—he concedes? Sasuke thinks stupidly. He was just getting started; the battle calm hasn't even overtaken him yet. Sasuke has put so much force into his back leg to propel himself forward that he stumbles in an effort to stop his attack from landing. He will not strike down an enemy who won’t defend himself, so Sasuke changes the angle of his attack at the very last moment, passing harmlessly by the man and skidding to a stop a few feet away.

He turns back to face the man again, ready with a question, but the words get stuck in his throat. He didn't notice it before because the moonlight had hidden the man’s features too long, the face-cloth pulled up so high that his eyes are barely visible. Now that the heat of their battle has abruptly ended, he can look the man in the eyes and see the truth for what it is:



Itachi tugs his face-cloth down and stares at Sasuke, eyes wide. Sasuke can’t remember the last time he caught Itachi off-guard. “What are you doing here?”

Sasuke gapes back at his brother. “Looking for you.”

Itachi lets the tip of his sword drop down to the ground. He’s exhausted, Sasuke realizes. There is no other explanation for the weariness in the set of his shoulders. “You found me.”

Sasuke takes a tentative step forward. Itachi’s grip on his sword tightens a fraction in response.

Sasuke rolls his eyes and sheaths his sword. “Time out.”

It takes a moment, but eventually, Itachi sheaths his sword as well. “I’d heard you were crossing the sands. Finding yourself while you slept your way across the Continent.”

Does everyone know? Sasuke wants to ask, but that is a fantastically stupid question. Of course everyone knows. If Itachi, hiding out in the very innards of the Land of Earth has heard about Sasuke’s meandering path westward—and apparently, all the women (and two men) he has slept with along the way—then surely, anyone else who is interested can find out the information easily.

“No,” Sasuke says, enunciating slowly. “I was coming here to find you. I left a trail leading into the Land of Wind.”

Itachi considers Sasuke carefully. “It was a good strategy. Well executed,” he says after a moment, and Sasuke can’t help the way he stands up a little straighter at the praise. “Now leave.”

The moment, apparently, wasn’t meant to last long. Itachi is already turning away. “Wait, Brother, just listen—”

“Look, Sasuke, if you’re not here to kill me, then the only thing you've accomplished is to waste my time. So unless—”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, I know about the Wildfire Executive,” Sasuke interrupts, and Itachi freezes.

He is utterly and completely still for a few long moments, in the way that only Itachi can be. There has always been an odd stillness about him as the gears in his brain click away. “Did the Hokage send you?”

“Didn’t you hear? I’m a free agent now.”

Itachi closes his eyes. Even in the darkness, Sasuke can see the steady rise and fall of his shoulders. “They weren’t just rumors.”

Itachi must think that the Hokage started the rumor so Sasuke had enough cover to pursue him. Sasuke doesn’t know how to explain to him the full truth of what happened, of why he left. Instead, he settles for a shrug. “I’m not too good at following orders.”

Itachi’s temper is immediate—he is an Uchiha, and for all the calm stillness he possesses, an Uchiha is always an Uchiha. “No,” he snarls. “You aren’t. You are such a little—” He ties his sword abruptly over his back, movements quick and sharp. “Stop interfering, Sasuke. Go back to your little road trip.”

It has been over ten years since Sasuke has been on the receiving end of Itachi’s temper; by the time Sasuke gets his thoughts together, Itachi is already disappearing into the tree line.

Sasuke grabs his rucksack, bedroll and ties his sword securely around his waist. He has to jog a bit to catch up with Itachi, and when he does, Itachi doesn’t even look at him. He keeps walking, so determined in his stride that his footsteps are making far too much noise.

“You’re going to alert any halfway decent shinobi if you keep stomping around in your little hissy fit.”

“I am not,” Itachi bites off, “having a hissy fit. Go away, Sasuke.”

Sasuke watches his brother in profile. His hair has been chopped off into the same short spikes that Sasuke has. He’s also sporting scruff. “Nice haircut.”

Itachi stops walking and rounds on Sasuke. “What is the point of you coming to find me? So now you know the truth. Did you want a gold star or—”

“Are you really looking for Senju Hashirama?” Sasuke interrupts before Itachi can launch into one of his lectures.

Itachi starts to walk again abruptly. Sasuke follows, wondering just how far he can push before Itachi’s temper snaps completely. He isn’t sure how to handle Itachi anymore. He knew once, but that was a decade ago and before the secrets and grief of their family separated them. It didn’t take long for Sasuke to figure out why Itachi had kept him in the dark about the Wildfire Executive. He was doing what he always does, being a big brother and protecting Sasuke—from the truth about their grandfather and uncle’s treason, from the truth that even Tsunade was able to identify with startling clarity: the Clan does come before country (Blood, Fugaku had taught them again and again, runs thicker than water.)

At the end of the day, the Uchihas would have fallen in line and betrayed their country if it meant protecting their kin. Itachi would have done anything to protect Sasuke from the ugly truth about their family’s ultimate treason, about why Shisui had died and why Uncle Kyoguku’s heart was so broken.

But now that Sasuke wants to help Itachi, he’s not sure what to do. He’s traveled thousands and thousands of miles and hasn’t even once considered what he would do once he found Itachi.

Eventually, they reach what must be Itachi’s camp by a slow-moving stream. There is a bedroll tucked up around the roots of a large tree. Itachi immediately goes to a water bottle that he has left by his bedroll and takes a deep drink. He hasn’t said anything in the past ten minutes, just walked with a blank expression on his face.

Fuck it, Sasuke thinks angrily. He doesn’t need a goddamn invitation. He sets down his bedroll and spreads it out a few feet from Itachi, angling it so that they split the difference of covering their perimeter.

This gets Itachi’s attention. “What are you doing?”

“We should sleep.”

Itachi throws down his canteen to the ground with force. “You’re not staying, Sasuke. Go away.”

Kanaye, Daichi, Hideyoshi, Fudo, Ishi.

The snakes appear simultaneously, and immediately, their focus hone in on Itachi. Fudo’s tail rattles. “You found him.”

Ishi’s hood fans out and then recedes. “What luck you have, boy. Your brother just walked right up to you.” 

Kanaye slithers away from Itachi, who is frozen and watching the snakes with all the focused intensity he reserves for enemies. “He tried to kill me once, you know. In Amegakure.”

Daichi hacks a laugh. “He should have finished the job.”

Sasuke steps in before they can start bickering. “You’ll keep lookout?”

Hideyoshi perks up. “I call last shift!”

The others grumble amongst themselves, but eventually, they settle into a shift schedule for lookout. Daichi has third shift, so he slithers close and settles by Sasuke’s head in a loose curl. Sasuke reaches out and scratches at his scales. “I dismissed you suddenly earlier.”

It’s the closest Sasuke will make to an apology, and Daichi—like all his snakes—accepts it easily. “It’s fine,” Daichi mutters and resettles his coil into something more comfortable. Ishi slides up the tree trunk and loops around one of the branches with a sigh. Sasuke senses Kanaye rooting around to find a good nook to hide in for the night while Fudo sets up for first watch further away. “You had it covered.”

“I did,” Sasuke agrees and glances at Itachi, who is staring up at Ishi with what looks like mild alarm. He switches to human tongue. “They’ll keep watch. We should sleep.”

Itachi sits down carefully on his bedroll. After a moment, he unties his sword from his back and rests it by his bedroll. “I thought it was just a rumor that you could speak their tongue.”

Daichi lifts his head. In broken human tongue he says, “His accent is deplorable. But we make do.”

Sasuke huffs a laugh and rolls onto his back. Ishi is already dozing overhead. “It’s my third language. Give me some credit.”

Itachi settles into his own bedroll. He shifts around a bit before finally settling. “You have to leave in the morning, Sasuke.”

Sasuke closes his eyes. “Sure thing, Brother.”

“I mean it.”

“I know you do.”


“Will everyone shut the fuck up and go to sleep?” Kanaye snarls in human tongue from somewhere inside the tree. He practices his human tongue with Sasuke so he is fluent enough to curse. He almost sounds human. “Some of us have a shift to take.”

Sasuke takes a deep breath. Ishi was right. What are the odds that Itachi would find him? Unbidden, a memory comes to him of the Nidaime sitting across Sasuke as they were winding down after a long day of training. The Nidaime was describing a battle he fought in on the banks of the Komo River, how the tide had shifted in his favor at the last minute and how they had beaten the enemy into submission as the sun was setting. Lucky break, Sasuke had said around a mouthful, and the Nidaime had laughed. You make your own luck, kid.

Not luck, then. Sasuke has crossed the entire Continent in search of his brother. He's gathered the intelligence he needed and was headed towards Oe. He would have found his brother sooner or later. It just happens to have been sooner. Still, that doesn’t mean he can get sloppy about this now. Knowing Itachi, he needs to have all his bases covered. Let me know if my brother tries to sneak off, he tells his snakes.

Can I bite him if he does? Kanaye sounds too eager at the prospect, but Sasuke pays it no mind. Instead, he closes his eyes and counts—backwards, starting at one hundred, breathing steadily and deeply between each number.

He falls asleep sometime around eighty-three.

Kanaye wakes him up by biting him on the ankle. Sasuke hisses a curse and struggles awake. “Can we go?” Daichi asks by way of hello. Hideyoshi cracks a yawn so wide his jaw unhinges entirely from the rest of his skull. His fangs are sharp glints in the morning light.

The sun is breaking over the horizon. Itachi is already up and breaking down camp. There is a modest fire with a tin can on it. Oats, from what Sasuke can tell, but he doesn’t know if the breakfast is intended for both of them. Itachi looks less tired compared to yesterday, though Sasuke doesn't put much stock in it. Itachi is the kind of man to write off internal bleeding as a flesh wound.

Sasuke grabs Kanaye and tries to yank him off his ankle. “Yeah, you can go—would you quit it, Kanaye?”

Kanaye lets go of Sasuke’s ankle and slithers away. “Lots of venom in that one. Call me for stupid guard duty again and I’ll send it straight into your fucking carotid.”

Fudo swivels his gaze towards Itachi, who has now paused in his task of gathering his rucksack to watch them. “You will be fine on your own with him.”

It’s not a question, but it’s the closest to one that he will ask. “I will be,” Sasuke replies.

The snakes disappear with soft pops, but Fudo lingers. He eyes Sasuke carefully, and Sasuke can feel him shuffling through Sasuke’s sluggish, early-morning thoughts. Finally, he withdraws his inquiry, eyes slitting with something like a smile. “He is your brother, Sasuke. And you are his,” he says finally. “Trust in that, if nothing else.”

Sasuke hauls himself to his feet to gather his belongings. The doubts from last night are still crowding his mind. He’s found Itachi. So now what? “We haven’t been brothers in a long while.”

Fudo scoffs, tail rattling a nonsensical rhythm. “Idiot human. You have always been brothers. Blood runs thick.”

He disappears without giving Sasuke a chance to respond. Sasuke stares at the spot where Fudo was just a few moments ago.

“Your snake bit you,” Itachi points out mildly, and settles on the grass by the small fire he's constructed. He leans over the flames to check on his meal, stirring it with a wooden spoon. It’s not just oats, Sasuke realizes, but some dried meat as well. He didn’t think to check his snares and traps last night, just followed Itachi blindly away from his own camp. He regrets it now, feeling as if he could hunt, gut, and eat an entire deer.

“His name is Kanaye,” Sasuke says, and starts gathering his bedroll into a tight package for him to carry. “He was angry I had him on guard duty.”

“Shouldn’t you—” Itachi gestures vaguely at Sasuke’s ankle where there are twin spots of red. There are ugly, black tracks spider-webbing outwards from the spot where Kanaye’s fangs sunk in.

“Their venom doesn’t work on me,” Sasuke explains, and pushes away the blood with a thumb. “I’m immune to most known snake venoms.”

“Most?” Itachi asks and gets to his feet.

“To all the breeds in my Clan, at least,” Sasuke says. He piles his packed rucksack and bedroll next to each other. “So what’s the game plan?”

Itachi’s Mangekyou whorls slowly. “I didn’t recognize your chakra last night. That’s why I attacked.”

The admission stings more than it should. They are brothers, and still, Itachi hadn’t recognized him. Sasuke knows Itachi’s chakra signature like the back of his own hand. Had it not been for that chakra muffling sigil, he would have been able to identify Itachi from a mile away.

“You looked pretty surprised.” Sasuke clears his throat. “So I figured as much.”

Itachi tugs up his sleeve and shows Sasuke the blood sigil on his skin. “It’s this sigil. It muffles my signature, but it also makes me more insensitive to someone else's chakra.”

So not because his own blood was unfamiliar to him, then. A sigil. Sasuke studies it carefully. Sarutobi had drawn out the sigil for him once in the sand, cautioning him against its use. It’s a chakra drain to maintain it, and sustaining it comes with a high price. What’s more, Itachi has done it wrong. No wonder he looks so tired.

Cautiously, Sasuke approaches Itachi and points at one of the arcing lines of blood on his skin. “You did it wrong.”

Itachi frowns. “No, I didn’t.”

“Yeah, you did,” Sasuke says and crouches close by Itachi to draw in the ground. He draws the sigil out with the tip of a kunai. “This is the right way to do it.”

Itachi’s response is immediate. “No, idiot—” He stops, abrupt, when he realizes that he’s in the wrong. Even with all the dirt and grime on his face, Sasuke can see the hint of a flush spreading on his cheeks. Itachi can probably count on his hands the number of times he’s been wrong. Sasuke can’t help himself; he grins.

“How do you know this sigil?” Itachi demands.

“Newsflash,” Sasuke says, wiping out the sigil with his boot. He could tell Itachi about the ghosts, or—“I’m actually good at my job.” Itachi scrubs at the blood on his hand, and just like that, his chakra blooms in the air around them, familiar and pulsing with life. He reaches for a kunai, but Sasuke stops him. “Don’t.”

Itachi looks up. “Why not?”

“It’s a chakra drain. You said yourself it muffles your senses,” Sasuke explains. “You decide what’s more important: staying undetected, or having your full faculties with you if you’re attacked. There’s a reason why they don’t teach this sigil.”

Itachi’s hand hovers over his kunai. “I’m hunting someone.”

“Senju Hashirama,” Sasuke says, and makes sure that his face betrays no emotion as the name leaves his tongue. He left Senju Hashirama in his wake when he left Konohagakure. He entrusted his hitai-ate to the man, and the last words he said to him were, You don’t have to live with anything. “But trust me. You’re not sneaking up on Senju Hashirama. Sigil or no.”

Itachi rolls his eyes and lets his hand drop from his kunai pouch. “I’m not actually hunting Senju Hashirama, idiot.”

Sasuke sits down on the ground and leans back on the heels of his hands. “Then who?”

Itachi reaches for his water bottle. “I’m hunting his clone.”

Sasuke looks heavenwards. Of course there’s some clone of Senju Hashirama running around out there. This is his life. Apparently, Madara is more like Orochimaru than Sasuke previously thought. Both of them are sick enough to perform a resurrection with a human sacrifice. “The Edo Tensei.”

“Not the Edo Tensei,” Itachi corrects and looks out over the stream. “Something else. I’m not sure. It’s not even Senju Hashirama. Just some…thing with his DNA.”

“Who then?”

“Zetsu,” Itachi spits, as if he hates the word.

Sasuke is well briefed on Akatsuki and all its members. Zetsu is one of the more inhuman ones—reportedly a cannibal, and with odd leaf flaps covering his face. As far as SCI can tell, the leaf flaps seem like organic matter; there are witnesses who reported seeing the flaps open and shut. The intel also suggested that he had some form of a split personality, but Shikamaru was less sure of the veracity of those reports. Not many people, it seemed, survived their encounters with Zetsu to provide solid intel. Most of it is heresay.

“What does Zetsu have to do with—”

“Could you just be quiet for ten minutes and eat your breakfast?” Itachi snaps, what little patience he has vanishing entirely.

Sasuke glances at the oats. “I don’t want to cut into your supplies.”

Itachi ignores him and pulls out a spare tin cup. He ladles half of his food into the cup and tops it off with two strips of bacon. Sasuke remembers all those times when the adults in the compound were away or busy and it fell on Itachi and Shisui to babysit him, the messy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that Itachi made when he came home from school because that was the extent of his culinary expertise. Shisui was the one who cut off the crust for Sasuke; later, they’d all go to the redwoods and see what kind of animals they could lure with the leftover crust as bait.

He is your brother, and you are his, Fudo said. Trust in that, if nothing else.

So Sasuke takes the offered food. He’s chewing the bacon thoughtfully—too tough by far, and the oats are really nothing more than mush at this point; as usual, Itachi has let it overcook—when Itachi pins him with his Mangekyou. “One word about the food,” Itachi grouses, “and you can cook your own goddamn meals.”

“Did you hear me complaining?”

“I could hear you thinking it,” Itachi says curtly. “We move out in twenty. You can clean the dishes.”

They spend the rest of breakfast in silence. Later, as Sasuke is washing out the dishes in the stream, he mutters under his breath, “It’s making oats. Not brain surgery—”

A kunai lands a mere centimeter from his left foot.

Their destination is not Oe, but Kitamuayama. Itachi sets a fast pace, so there isn’t much time to talk. They travel in a loose, fanned out formation, keeping abreast of each other by feel of their chakra alone. They don’t arrive until late evening, and they gather at the outskirts of the small town to consider their options.

“About eight hundred people, mostly farmers. Some very poorly trained guards. Civilians only,” Itachi says in a low voice, pointing at the palisades circling the village. There are fires along the perimeter, and Sasuke can see the occasional guard walking the border. Beyond that, there is little activity in the village except for the smoke rising from their chimneys and hearths. It’s a poor town with only a few stone houses; the rest are all thatch or mud. What interests Zetsu in a place like this is beyond Sasuke’s understanding of the situation. Itachi doesn’t seem to have any better ideas because he adds a moment later, “Not sure what he’s doing here, but…here he is.”

Itachi is entirely focused on the task at hand, so Sasuke holds off on the million questions cluttering in his head (Why are we here? What does Zetsu have to do with anything? What is going on?). It’s odd enough that Itachi is letting him tag along for the ride, and he doesn’t want to press his luck. Instead, he considers the town in front of him. If Zetsu is as dangerous as the reports suggest, their priority will be to make sure the civilians are clear of whatever happens if and when they engage him.

“Eliminate or extract?”

Itachi tilts his head at an angle. “Extract,” he answers. “But we may need to eliminate to get him to cooperate.”

Sasuke glances at Itachi. “We need to kill him to get him out alive?”

“He’s like Hidan, I think,” Itachi says, and it’s only now that Sasuke notices the odd pattern Itachi is tapping out on his thigh with his finger. He’s unsure of himself.

“Immortal?” Of course, Sasuke thinks. Not just a Senju Hashirama clone, but an immortal one. Fan-fucking-tastic.

“Not quiet,” Itachi says. “Hidan’s religion, Jashin, had these rituals. They made him…” Itachi makes a vague gesture. “Something to do with his soul not being able to pass, although I don’t know the specifics. Just that you couldn’t technically kill him.”

“So Zetsu is different from Hidan how?”

Itachi lets his knee drop to the ground to get more comfortable. They have been crouching low for the past fifteen minutes now, and Sasuke is starting to feel the burn in his calves. “It’s not a technicality with Zetsu,” Itachi answers after a moment. “I don’t think he can actually die because he was never alive to begin with. I don’t know what Madara did, but he made Zetsu. They’ve been gathering the tailed beasts, and I think Zetsu is involved in whatever comes next. I never had Madara’s full trust, so I don’t know the full details. But I’m pretty sure whatever the end game is, he needs Zetsu for it.”

Sasuke takes a moment to process all the information. In the end, all he can come up with is, “What the ever-loving fuck? Does Madara have nothing better to do with his time?”

Itachi’s lip curls into a half-smile. A dimple appears, and Sasuke remembers then in sudden clarity: the dimples of his mother’s smiles.

“Idle hands,” Itachi says, and the words are familiar too. Something their uncle Inabi would say whenever he came upon Sasuke or Shisui dozing on the grass under the sunlight.

“Devil’s workshop,” Sasuke finishes and has to look away from Itachi before the memory becomes too overwhelming. A decade, his brother has been away from home, carrying the memory and truth of their family alone. And all that time, Sasuke was chasing his misplaced hatred into a downward spiral, further and further away from his brother. Konohagakure has been quietly ticking away, chasing bits and pieces of intel against the enemy while Itachi has been circling the truth of the matter with the same determination and focus that he applies to everything. The end game, that’s what this is about.

Itachi has let him tag along on this task because that is his way of asking for help. He doesn’t say, I need backup because the man I’m hunting is not even human and can’t die. The most Itachi can bring himself to do is reluctantly tolerate Sasuke’s presence.

The least Sasuke can do now after all these years is to be at Itachi’s side. “So he’s not alive and we can’t kill him,” Sasuke says slowly. “What’s the plan then?”

Itachi pulls out a knife strapped to his leg. “The brain stem,” he says and grips the knife tight. “Sever it so he’s dysfunctional. It should make him more amenable to the extraction.”

“And let him regenerate when we want him functional?”

Itachi shrugs. “It should work in theory.”

Sasuke pulls out a kunai. “Ladies first.”

Itachi’s lips thin in a frown. “You’ve gotten more annoying with age.”

“Like a fine wine,” Sasuke agrees, and can’t help but give Itachi the most shit-eating grin he can manage. Itachi starts stalking towards the village walls without warning or waiting for Sasuke.

Sasuke follows.

They find Zetsu in the stables at the far end of the village. It takes them a while to find and trace his chakra. By the time they get there, Zetsu is waiting for them.

He is, if possible, even uglier in real life than the intel has suggested. There is an odd leaf-like thing on either side of his face, like a Venus flytrap—the leaf flaps witnesses had reported, Sasuke realizes. His skin is oddly colored, with his left side half-albino, and the right half so dark that it almost looks like charcoal. The yellow of his eyes is eerie. But what makes Sasuke’s skin crawl is the odd mismatch between the two sides of his face: the albino side is smiling while the darker side has a flat expression.

There is nothing human about him.

When Itachi and Sasuke enter the stables, Zetsu is waiting for them at the center of the building. He is wrapped in a rough blanket, something intended for the horses. His feet are bare. “Itachi, Itachi, Itachi,” he sing-songs. Around them, the horses whinny with fear. “We were waiting! We got so bored!”

“Zetsu,” Itachi says with an almost polite nod. He seems used to Zetsu’s odd, song-like speech. We, Zetsu said, but Sasuke doesn’t sense any other chakra signatures nearby. To be sure, Sasuke summons Ishi with a thought. The cobra appears a few feet behind Sasuke, blending easily into the hay scattered around the barn. The horses get louder in their panic at the appearance of the snake.

Sasuke reaches out to Ishi. Any enemies?

You’re alone, Ishi confirms.    

“And your brother,” Zetsu murmurs. The Venus traps around his face widen and then contract. So the intel is accurate, then; the flaps are part of his body. “Well. Well. Well. This is curious. We’d heard rumors about you, Sa-su-ke.”

Sasuke raises an eyebrow. “Please tell me you’re not naked under that. This’ll be so much more awkward if you are.”

Zetsu bares his teeth in an odd imitation of a grin. The black side of his face, though, stays flat. "Wit-ty,” he says, clipped. “For a half-spirit, at least. More than half now, though, we'd say. Three-quarters-spirit, perhaps."

Sasuke freezes. That's what Rin had called him once. Half-spirit. Half-human, half-something else. How does he know?

"You're barely human anymore, U-chi-ha Sa-su-ke," Zetsu sings, off-key and crooning the syllables. "Your soul reeks."

Sasuke falls into old habits. He always responds to danger in the same way: he smirks. “I clean up nice, though. "

"You're an abomination," Zetsu says. He licks at his teeth as he says the word. "You don't belong in this realm."

Sasuke eyes the man's leaf flaps. "And you do?"

"No, we don’t," Zetsu admits easily. The royal we, Sasuke thinks. Zetsu is insane.  

Zetsu continues to consider Sasuke carefully with his freakish gaze, as if peeling Sasuke apart layer by layer. The black side of Zetsu’s face shifts suddenly, coming to life like a resurrection. When he speaks, his voice is lower, more of a growl with none of the high-pitched, chirrupy tune from earlier. Not the royal we, then. We—because there are two of them. Two bodies in one, two halves of a whole. The albino half with its odd sing-song voice, and this darker side that holds Sasuke’s gaze as if he’s searching the back of Sasuke’s skull for the fine etchings of his thoughts. "You were there twice. The second time for a little over half a year, was it?"

Sasuke doesn't say anything, not sure how to respond to the question. Zetsu angles his head thoughtfully at Sasuke. "Eight months," he says slowly. "Two days, nine hours, forty minutes."

It’s hard for Sasuke to breathe. Next to him, Itachi’s posture shifts slightly. Sasuke doesn’t move his gaze from Zetsu.

How does he know?

He’s not human, Ishi answers, and through their connection, Sasuke can sense the beginning of Ishi’s concern. He’s…something else.

"Forty-two minutes," Sasuke corrects. He'd asked Rin the exact time afterwards. He needed to know how long he was there, to the second, because those moments, each and every single one of them, haunted him every night for months afterwards. Hearing Zetsu speak about it with such confidence is making his skin crawl. How does he know? Still, he doesn't want Zetsu to have the upper hand here. "And seventeen seconds."

"Forty-two minutes and seventeen seconds," Zetsu amends. "Those seventeen seconds before you finally made it out and took your first breath of fresh air––exquisite, wasn't it? The desperation of that moment."

Sasuke swallows on that old dread. It's not so close to the surface as it was once, but hearing Zetsu talk about it with such precision is bringing back old memories. "You've been there."

Zetsu tilts his head a fraction. "I was made there, Uchiha."

Sasuke flinches back; in the back of his mind, he feels Ishi’s own alarm ricochet and amplify his own.

Zetsu smiles. He looks triumphant. "You felt it, didn't you? That…presence in the darkness? Did it try to pull you down when you were there? Can you feel it still? That tug-tug-tugging in the middle of the night when you're asleep with that pretty little jinchuuruki in your arms. You must lie awake wondering what it is."

Sasuke’s Mangekyou is whorling. How does he know? He's forgotten much of that place, but Zetsu is dragging those memories back now.

It was Death, Ishi answers, forcefully pushing back against the mounting dread in Sasuke’s stomach. It came for you, and Rin would not yield. There is no monster in the dark, Sasuke. Only the end, and we must all face it.

"It is what ate those parts of your soul in that darkness, those parts that you so dearly miss now," Zetsu says in the silence that follows. "You might have crawled out of there, Uchiha, but it still reaches for you in the night. It doesn't like to leave a meal unfinished."

Sasuke lets his hand drop to his hilt. "When I die, I'll have my sword with me."

Zetsu sniggers. "With or without your sword, you won't get to your Great Hall. Your Gods cannot protect you, no matter how many sacrifices you make in their name. You and I? We go to a place reserved just for our kind. The abominations that nature did not intend. The half-spirits like you, and the purebreds like me. And that place where we are destined? You know that place. On your worst nights, you dream of it still."

Sasuke breathes deep. Count, he tells himself firmly. Count, count, count

He lies, Ishi insists. You can only enter that space with an animal spirit. No human belongs there. You face your death in a realm different than ours.

"An eternity," Zetsu promises. "An eternity in that place, Uchiha Sasuke. Now tell me. What would you do to avoid death knowing what I have told you now? What would you do to avoid that place?" He lets the question hang just a moment. "I can help you."

It's almost as if he's waiting to hear what Sasuke is willing to pay. He's selling something.

Maybe, Ishi ventures, slithering through the hay until he’s coiled by Sasuke’s feet. He rises and fans out to his full brilliance. Sasuke doesn’t have much to work with but gut instinct, but he ventures a guess. "Is that what Madara is doing? Avoiding that place?"

Zetsu's smile freezes, but he holds it firmly in place. Bingo, Sasuke thinks, and makes absolutely sure he doesn’t show his triumph too readily. "He found a way, yes," Zetsu says, hedging now. "Don't you want to know how?"

Sasuke grins. "He hasn't figured out shit. He can't avoid that place any more than you can."

Zetsu sneers, and impossibly, his face becomes even uglier. "You're coming with us—"

"No, I'm not," Sasuke bluffs. He forces himself to believe the words and fling them out with all the confidence he can muster. Zetsu cannot sense any weakness in his resolve. "I'm part human still. You're––well, you're something. Gods know what you are. And Madara is fully corrupted. He started off human, but there's nothing left in him now."

Zetsu bares his teeth in a snarl. "You're barely human yourself, Uchiha—"

"We can measure dicks all day long, Zetsu, but at the end of the day, I'm still more human than you or Madara will ever be," Sasuke says, overriding Zetus's voice. Zetsu presses his lips into a thin line and Sasuke grins, triumphant. He didn’t think he’d hit the truth by striking out so blindly. But he’s hit a nerve. "I might only be part human, but I'm human enough."

Zetsu opens his mount to say something else, but Sasuke beats him to it. "You’re coming with us, Zetsu.”

Zetsu smiles wryly. "Is that what you think?”

“That’s what I know,” Sasuke answers, and lets his shoulders relax. He takes a breath, feels his muscles relaxing entirely. He’s practiced the pose so many times, it’s just an easy exhale to angle his body and consider Zetsu. “Make this easy for yourself.”

Zetsu’s eyes narrow. “I’ve seen that technique before.”

Sasuke draws his sword. “Then you know how this will end.”

Zetsu’s hand shifts under the cover of his burlap blanket. A weapon, possibly. Or seals. Sasuke angles his head in consideration. Zetsu’s eyes flicker briefly to Itachi and then back to Sasuke. There is something ugly about his gaze. He looks angry. “And here I thought Senju Tobirama’s technique died with him. He’s found an heir in you, then.”

The battle calm is just at the edge of Sasuke’s conscience, so the fact that Zetsu knows about the ghosts does not disturb him as much as it probably would otherwise. The stillness is settling so deep into his muscles it's as if Sasuke can feel the shift of the motes in the air around him, can feel the warm breath of the horse in the stall next to him. “Is that who sent you?” Zetsu snarls. “Tobirama? Or was it Hashirama?”

Sasuke smiles, slow and easy. “Senju Hashirama sends you his regards,” he lies—just for the pleasure of seeing Zetsu freeze with fear, because what kind of fool would not pause at the Shodaime’s name, Senju Hashirama? In the north, they call him Demon’s Bane. In the songs, he is Lord of Lords, King of Kings. A demi-god, descended from the God of Thunder himself.

Zetsu lets the blanket drop. He’s naked but there is nothing human about him in his nakedness. Just a gnarled stump of a torso and a crude imitation of humanity. Now that he can see all of him, Sasuke realizes what Zetsu looks like: a tree.

“Have you learned your lessons, boy?” Zetsu snarls. “Let’s see the measure of the Senju Technique.”

“I’ve got this, Brother,” Sasuke says, even as he thinks, Dismissed, Ishi. He drops low into a fluid pose with his sword just as Ishi vanishes with a small pop. The calm envelops him, familiar as an embrace. He belongs in this space like no other.

He blurs.

Zetsu has just enough time to bring up his hands to form seals, but by then it’s too late. Sasuke is skidding past him on his knees, using the hay on the ground to propel himself forward. The sword slides neatly up along Zetsu’s side, and Saske keeps pushing despite Zetsu’s angry snarl until the sword tip emerges above Zetsu’s shoulder. Around them, the horses scream at the stench of the murky-brown blood that gushes out from the wound.

Never drop your sword in battle, Kakashi taught him. But this is no ordinary battle, so Sasuke lets go of his hilt. With one hand, he grabs his empty sword scabbard and with the other, he pulls out a kunai, just as he uses his momentum to lift to his feet. The Venus flaps around Zetsu’s head are already closing in protection, but not fast enough to stop Sasuke from wedging his scabbard between the flaps sideways, keeping them propped open.

The kunai slides easily into the vulnerable stretch of Zetsu’s neck. Sasuke steadies Zetsu with a hand around his jaw and angles the sword up and up until he feels the slight give of Zetsu’s spine. His body falls loose—Zetsu lets out a gurgled shout, scrabbling at his neck—but Sasuke holds him up with a single hand curled around his neck. He feels the slight twitch of Zetsu’s body, and shoves the kunai in to the hilt.

When Zetsu’s body goes completely still, Sasuke reaches down to draw his sword out of Zetsu’s side. The splutter of blood is grotesque in the musty, crowded space of the stables. The horses have fallen oddly silent now, but the whites of their eyes are still bright in the light. Sasuke lets Zetsu’s body drop to the floor.

Carefully—it was a gift, after all—Sasuke withdraws his scabbard. The wings around Zetsu’s face sag but don’t close entirely. Sasuke cleans his sword on the burlap blanket Zetsu had been using and sheaths his sword carefully. The albino side of Zetsu’s face is slack in death, but the black side is still awake. The golden orb of its eye swivels to consider Sasuke, though the rest of him is entirely still. Sasuke bends a fraction to answer Zetsu’s question:

“I learned my lessons well, Zetsu.”

The fog of the battle calm leaves him in increments, and it’s only now that he turns his attention back to Itachi, who is frozen and staring at Sasuke with wide eyes. There isn’t enough time to explain right now, so instead, Sasuke turns and considers the horses in the stalls. His eyes land on the calmest of them, a mare that rises to his height.

She shifts back in her stall, pawing at the ground, but after some encouragement, eventually yields. Her ears flatten over her skull when Sasuke hauls Zetsu’s body over her own, but he talks her through it, telling her, That’s a good girl, you’re going to be brave for this piece of shit, right? Be a sweetheart and stay still while I tie him up. We don’t want him slipping and braining himself. He doesn’t bother with stirrups, just threads the reins so that he can guide the horse out of her stall. She doesn’t flinch when Sasuke throws the burlap blanket over Zetsu’s body and ties it down as well; it’s obvious there’s a body underneath the covering, but at least Zetsu’s monstrosity isn’t fully visible.

She is reluctant, but follows as Sasuke coaxes her with even more gentle babble—I know. He’s naked and all up in your business, didn’t even buy you dinner, but let’s be honest here, girl like you, you’re probably used to that kind of attention from all kinds of horse’s asses, aren’t you?—as he starts readying his own horse. By now, Itachi has caught on and is saddling up a horse for himself. Sasuke ties the horse carrying Zetsu with his own. They pull up their face-cloths before exiting the building, because just outside, there is the sound of voices raised in concern.

They slip out the stables and find that the noise of the horses has drawn attention. Five men and four women are standing at a safe distance from the stable, holding a mixture of weapons: old swords, axes for chopping wood, hunting knifes, and some pitchforks.

“Pitchforks?” Sasuke calls out. “Really?”

“We don’t want trouble,” the leader calls out stoutly. “Just leave us—”

“We’re leaving, buddy,” Sasuke interrupts. “Step aside.”

The crowd parts for them, and Sasuke nudges his horse forward. Itachi follows at his side. They’re a few yards away from the crowd when Sasuke turns in his saddle to yell, “Look by the oak tree a few yards northwest of your gate’s entrance,” he instructs. For a town this poor, they can’t part with precious resources, let alone three well-bred horses. “Tell the owners of these horses 'thank you' and that they’ll find payment there.”

A woman steps forward. “You’re not welcome, you bastards!”

Sasuke can’t help himself: he laughs. When he takes off in a gallop, Itachi follows.

Itachi is quiet while Sasuke counts out a hefty sum of cash and leaves it under a rock by the oak tree as promised. He stays silent as they set off in a thunderous sound of hooves and head southwest. Any attempts of being subtle are outweighed by the need to get away and fast. They’re in the Land of Earth territory and their little encounter was loud enough to draw attention.

Itachi finally speaks when Sasuke calls out to ask which way they're headed:


Yuuta doesn’t sense a tail until they’re nearly at the border of the Land of Waterfall. “Sixty miles or so,” he says, holding himself completely still. The dull light of their fire casts his pale-brown scales into a brilliant gold; in that instant, he looks like Rin.

Sasuke rubs at his face. “Brother. Company.”

Itachi looks up sharply. They have been fleeing for two days now, and still, Itachi hasn’t said a word to him aside from Konohagakure. It’s not the silent treatment—by that definition, Itachi’s entire existence is one long and uninterrupted stretch of the silent treatment—but it’s as close to it as he will get. He keeps glancing at Sasuke when he thinks Sasuke isn’t paying attention, staring outright when Sasuke is turned away.

Sasuke only knows because Yuuta or one of the others will alert him to it with a mild, Your brother is watching you again. Sasuke constantly has one of the snakes accompanying them now as they make their escape, because their chakra-sensing abilities are much more fine-tuned. They can pick out humans from a distance of up to eighty miles, so Sasuke lets them curl around his neck or bicep as they ride across the endless plains of the Land of Earth.

They’ve just stopped for the night to let the horses rest, but now they have to keep moving. There is no shelter in these parts; there is just the limitless stretch of greenlands everywhere they look. Sasuke starts on the task of putting out the fire while Itachi breaks up camp. Sasuke checks to make sure that Zetsu’s body is securely tied in—the single golden eye tracks his movements—and confirms yet again that the kunai is still lodged into Zetsu’s brainstep.

They saddle their horses without any further discussions and set off again at a modest pace. The horses are tiring, but they won’t have a chance to change horses until they pass into the Land of Waterfall.

It’s late morning by the time the landscape around them shifts to something with more trees and brush. Itachi leads them off the path and into the lush foliage.

Are we in safe territory? Yuuta asks, coiling more tightly around Sasuke’s bicep.

Safe enough. It’s unlikely the Tsuchikage will bother to send soldiers into the Land of Waterfall for some stolen horses, Sasuke answers and dismounts when Itachi brings his horse to a slow trot. Itachi follows suit, and for a moment, they stand across from each other.

Itachi’s Mangekyou comes alive when he speaks. “Explain.”

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Itachi had heard enough in those stables. He’s very patient, Yuuta observes mildly. Holding off for so long before demanding answers.

Patience is one word for it. Or more likely, he’d heard Zetsu’s words and wondered exactly how different Sasuke was from Zetsu. Two nights ago, Itachi had flinched when Sasuke reached across the fire to pass him the water canteen.

You are brothers, Yuuta says sternly, picking up on Sasuke’s thoughts. You are blood. Trust him with the truth.

Sasuke glances over his shoulder in the direction they just came from. They don’t have much time to linger and hash this out, so he goes for the shortest possible explanation. He meets Itachi’s gaze when he answers. “I died twice. The second time was in Amegakure. My ninken, Rin, didn’t let my soul pass, and brought me back to life. She filled the missing parts of my soul with something from her world. So now I see dead people. Specifically, the dead Hokages. Can we keep moving now?”

The only indication of Itachi’s surprise is a slight widening of his eyes. Sasuke grips his horse’s reins so tightly in his hands, he can feel the leather digging into his skin. It’s hard to keep the anger out of his voice. “Or maybe you’re wondering if you need to shove a knife into my brainstem?”

Now, finally, the tension in Itachi’s shoulders breaks. “Don’t be an idiot,” he snaps, and starts walking. His horse follows dutifully. “Let’s go. It’s two thousand miles to Konoha.”

Blood runs thick, Sasuke tells himself. Trust Itachi to absorb this information without anything more than wide eyes.

He leads his and Zetsu’s horses behind Itachi. They walk quietly through the forest for a few hours. “Why Konohagakure?”

Itachi looks over his shoulder. “According to you and Zetsu, the real Senju Hashirama is hanging around still. Might as well go straight to the source.”

Sasuke tugs his cloak around himself more securely. It was early summer when he left. Winter is already in the air now. He had left Konoha thinking it would be the last he’d see of the City for years to come, but here he is, retracing his steps just a short few months after he left.

There’s a determined set to Itachi’s shoulders, which means he’s made up his mind and there is nothing Sasuke can say to change it. “You’re handling this news surprisingly well.”

Itachi doesn’t even bother to look at him. “You were always a weird kid, Sasuke.”

“Yeah, because you were the paragon of normalcy, Brother,” Sasuke grumbles under his breath, and feels Yuuta’s amusement in the back of his mind.

Up ahead, Itachi raises his free hand and salutes him with a single finger.

They exchange horses in a town three days later. Sasuke hangs back outside the town with Zetsu while Itachi makes the trade. He returns a few hours later with the horses, supplies, and a fresh shave.

“You showered?”

Itachi looks down at his new clothes. “Yes.”

Sasuke throws up his hands. “That’s not fucking fair!”

“You can go into town the next time we need supplies or fresh horses,” Itachi offers, diplomatic.

Sasuke narrows his eyes. “And when will that be?”

Itachi shrugs. “When we get there,” he says, calm as always.

Petulant, Sasuke makes no move to help Itachi with hauling Zetsu onto the third horse. He watches for a while before saying, “This isn’t going to work.” Itachi hm-s under his breath, acknowledging Sasuke but not responding to it in any way that counts. Sasuke presses his case. “We can’t roam about the countryside with a body out in the open like this.” Zetsu’s eye focuses on him. “For fuck’s sake, the man is naked and bleeding still.”

“We’ll be fine—”

“No, listen,” Sasuke insists, and this time, Itachi pauses in his task and turns to him. “I have an idea.”

Itachi hears out Sasuke’s idea quietly. When Sasuke finishes, Itachi pins him with a flat stare and says, “No.”

Sasuke turns over the idea in his head for the night. In the morning, he wakes up with a refined plan. “A coffin,” he says, triumphant, and Itachi looks up from his food. “Your coffin.” Sasuke grins. “People already know that I’m wandering about the countryside. How hard would it be for them to believe that I’m bringing your body back to Konohagakure for a proper burial?”

Itachi sets his food down. “So your genius plan is to build a coffin for Zetsu, stow him away, and travel with him openly in the countryside pretending it’s me in the coffin,” he repeats slowly.

“The best cover I ever had,” Sasuke insists, “was being in the open.”

Itachi narrows his eyes. He hasn’t rejected the idea completely yet, which means there is still a chance for Sasuke to sell this. “If I’m supposed to be in the coffin, what the hell do I actually do?” Itachi asks.

“Is your Mangekyou so damn weak you can’t use a bit of illusion to throw people?”

The insult hits home. Itachi’s chakra stirs. “I meant, what’s my cover, idiot? People will wonder who Uchiha Sasuke is traveling with, especially if he looks a lot like Uchiha Sasuke’s supposedly-dead brother.”

Sasuke considers this. “You can be Senju Shisui.”

“That’s your alias, and a stupid one,” Itachi snaps, getting fed up now. “When you came back from the dead after Amegakure, everyone knew exactly who you were.”

“Exactly,” Sasuke says. “You be me, I be you. Who’s counting? How many people this far out west actually know what I look like? Aside from the fact that I have red eyes and some tattoos? You have the eyes. As far as the tattoos, just keep your arms covered.” The only rumors that will spread will be that Uchiha Sasuke—Senju Shisui—is heading home with the body of his brother.

“Madara will be looking for us,” Itachi points out mildly.

Sasuke grins, feels the edge of the battle calm licking at his consciousness. He killed Madara once, and that was before he learned the Senju Technique and mastered Kakashi’s sword-fighting style. He did it alone. Now, Itachi will be by his side. “Let him find us,” he says. “Although, I’m willing to bet he won’t reveal himself, even for Zetsu. He probably knows we’re together again.” 

Itachi sits back at this as the logic of Sasuke’s argument sinks in. He glances at Zetsu, lying still on the other side of their fire. They have wrapped him up in a spare cloak, but his murky-brown blood is oozing through. Every few miles, they have to re-pad the injury to make sure he’s not dripping a trail that can be followed. As always, the black-half of Zetsu’s face is alert and watching them.

“Plus,” Sasuke mutters, “we don’t have to look at his creepy fucking face all the time.”

Itachi glances at Sasuke. “There is that,” he admits, and that’s when Sasuke knows he’s won the argument.

They put their plan into action in the next village they run into. It’s easy enough for Sasuke to saunter into the village and ask for a coffin. When the carpenter asks him why, Sasuke has an answer ready. “I need to take my brother home,” he says, and the carpenter’s face crumbles in sympathy. It takes him just a few short hours with Sasuke’s help to make a simple coffin out of poplar wood. Sasuke even helps the carpenter coat it with a stain to darken the color of the wood—and hide Zetsu’s blood.

Zetsu’s eye is hot with rage when they lower him into the coffin and start drawing in blood seals on the inside to prevent Zetsu from opening. They’ve tied the kunai into place using a strip of cloth, so it is unlikely Zetsu will escape—not with a knife more or less permanently wedged into his brainstep. “Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Sasuke assures him. “I’ll tuck you into bed every night.”

Acquiring a cart involves some negotiating, but in the end, they have all they need: a cart for the coffin, two horses, and enough supplies to last them to the next village. When they roll into the next village, Sasuke goes in first. He makes sure he is noticed, but not too obviously, and heads into the local tavern to book a room.

“We don’t have a single. But we have two queens,” the woman at the counter says, recovering quickly from the shock of Sasuke saying his name aloud.  

Sasuke puts down some money. “That’s fine.”

He’s two drinks in when Itachi ambles into the tavern, settling neatly into the back without drawing too much attention. With all the focus of the villagers on Sasuke, Itachi is barely noticed. Sasuke nurses his drink, eats a hefty meal for the first time in weeks, and then calls it a night. A few hours later, Itachi slips into the room after checking on the coffin. He sits on the empty bed across from Sasuke, looking thoughtful.

“That actually worked,” he says after a moment.

Sasuke gestures at the bed and then the door leading to their bathroom. “Soft beds to your right. Above, you will notice a roof,” he says. “And to your left, you will find plumbing. Enjoy your stay.”

Itachi falls onto his back with a sigh, pushing his hands out wide and taking a deep breath. A moment later, he closes his eyes. “I’ll admit this is better.”

“You’ll admit you had your head up your ass, and I was the one to extract it for you,” Sasuke corrects. “You’re welcome.”

He barely ducks out of the way when Itachi launches a pillow in his direction.

They don’t speak about it because that is what Uchihas do. When the Clan was over twenty strong with nearly a dozen active Sharingan users and more on the horizon, their Uchiha compound was always loud.

The Uchiha are like the fires they tend: bright, roaring with warmth, and with voracious appetites.

Sasuke learned his silences later in life.

They’d gotten the cops called on them once or twice because alcohol, fire-breathing shinobi, and the Uchiha temper are never a good mix. Sooner or later, someone would start a pissing contest and before long people were seeing just how good they were at setting things on fire—with their eyes blindfolded, from greater and greater distances, after downing an entire bottle of sake, or some other inane dare that Uncle Inabi and Uncle Yakumi came up with. It helped that Uncle Kyoguku was the KPD Captain.

Noise was such an issue that they had to apply for permits for their religious celebrations on the solstices. Yashiro would invite the few remaining families in the Village who still practiced the Old Religion, and in the center of the compound, the Sharingan users would dig a large pit all morning while the others prepared mountains of food. At sunset, surrounded by fires they’d lit around the Compound, they would make sacrifices—boars they hunted and cornered; meaty heifers that brayed their fear into the night as they were led into the pits; sheep that went eerily silent just before the swing of the blade, as if they knew exactly what their fate would be. Then, they’d roast the meats for hours and feast into the night.

These are some of Sasuke’s fondest memories. Uncle Kyoguku would let Sasuke sit on his shoulders so he could see all the action, and when all the men would whoop and cheer as the sacrifices were made to their gods—for courage in battle, for protection, for the chance to test their mettle in war—Sasuke would cheer with them. He grew up thinking that this would be his heritage, that he would one day be down in the pits helping his father and uncles draw the sacrifices in or maybe even swinging the ax himself. He grew up thinking that one day, he would teach his own sons how to hunt down a boar and lead it to the pit, how to swing the axe so that the spine of the animal is severed neatly and with mercy. 

When he was in Otogakure, he had been given the opportunity to make sacrifices to the gods—the Uchihas were more like the tribes up north than anyone else, and maybe that’s why Sasuke felt so at home in those lands—but he’d declined. It felt wrong sacrificing to the gods, doing something so joyful, when he would soon have his own brother’s blood on his hands.

Sasuke’s gods are lustful: for blood, for food, for sex, and for glory. But Sasuke has never had to consult a witch to know that no god of his would ever forgive the sin of fratricide.

But for all their raucous joy and the sheer volume and magnitude of their love, the Uchihas don’t speak.

“Speak,” Mikoto would encourage her children when her husband wasn’t looking and couldn’t reprimand her for teaching his sons anything but the Uchiha way. She’d say so whenever Itachi and Sasuke got into their fights, or if Sasuke chewed clean through his bottom lip just to keep from tears falling when his father had raised a hand in anger. “Speak your minds and your hearts.”

For all her attempts, Mikoto was never successful in this. Itachi and Sasuke swallowed their words, ate their hearts raw because that is what Uchihas do.

Now is no different. They travel the miles and don’t speak to each other.

They talk because they are brothers and talking to each other is easy. They talk about what Madara’s plan might be; the best routes to take; how long their supplies will last; whose turn it is to cook, hunt food, gather firewood, set up camp, check on the kunai in Zetsu’s neck keeping him immobile and the seals binding him to the coffin. Sometimes, Itachi will ask Sasuke questions about the Hokages—he was always a nerd, so he has read entire volumes on the Shodaime and textbooks on the Nidaime’s military strategy and genius—and Sasuke will answer as best as he can, always struggling to keep his emotions in check.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to share those memories, it’s just that he doesn’t know how to keep his answers neutral when the last words he said to the ghosts were so hurtful. The Nidaime had raised a hand in farewell to him, but he’d stood across from the man and said so many things he can never take back now. He hadn’t even said goodbye to them.

For all their words, they don’t speak to each other in any way that matters. They act as if they are brothers and just that, as if they exist in no other space but this odd little bubble of their journey with a corpse—they do not exist in the context of a family. They do not mention their parents. They always refer to Konoha by her full name, Konohagakure, as if she’s a foreign land, just another unknown stop in their journey. She is never home.

Things boil over in the fifth week of their journey in a midsized city called Naie about two hundred miles southwest of Kusagakure—and all because of an offhanded comment from Itachi.

They are checking into a fancy motel late in the night—fancy, at least, by their standards—when the woman behind the counter recognizes his name. She’s about Mrs. Miyake’s age and she has the same kind smile when she hands Sasuke his keys. “I’ll send supper up for you.”

It’s past midnight, and Itachi has been quietly irritated for the past five miles because Sasuke had told him to shove it, Sarutobi-sensei himself taught me this protective seal, I’m right and you’re wrong, Brother. No doubt the only thing Itachi wants to do is sulk in bed for the night. “No thank you, ma’am.”

The woman pushes the keys further across the counter, so Sasuke takes it. “It’s on the house, child,” she says, the lines of her face crinkled in a small smile. “I heard about your brother. I lost my own brother a few years ago. I know what grief can do, but you still need to eat. I’ll send up the food.”

Sasuke can’t say no to kindness like that, so he accepts with a mumbled, Thank you, ma’am, and retreats to his room. Itachi enters a few minutes later and, as predicted, works himself into a sulk. He has never been good at admitting that he’s wrong, especially if it’s against Sasuke or Shisui, even more so when it comes to ninjutsu and chakra theory. When the promised food arrives with a soft knock on the door, Itachi pins him with an angry glare and hides in the bathroom. Sasuke takes the offered food and tips the girl—no older than fourteen, looking sleep-mussed but still dipping to offer Sasuke a bow—enough money to cover the cost of the food. She blinks at the cash in her hands before muttering a, thank you, and skipping down the corridor, any trace of sleep gone in the blink of an eye.

Itachi enters the room and eyes the generous portions of food. “You ordered in?”

Sasuke places the food on the small table in the room and pulls out a seat. Itachi sits across from him. “The lady at the counter said it was on the house.”

Itachi opens one of the lids, eyes going bright when he sees a steaming dish of well-roasted lamb. It’s beyond generous, Sasuke knows, and regrets not tipping even more.


“She felt sorry that I had lost a brother,” Sasuke answers. Itachi smiles, pleased as always when their cover works so well to their advantage, but Sasuke remembers the woman’s voice when she had admitted her own loss. There’s nothing funny about this, he wants to say. He stares at the food, losing his appetite all of a sudden because he knows now that the woman will likely go to bed tonight thinking of her own brother and his death. Across the table, Itachi is digging into his food. “She lost her brother a few years ago,” Sasuke says quietly.

“You should pull the dead brother card more often,” Itachi offers.

Sasuke stares at him. “What?”

Itachi shrugs, focused entirely on his food. They hadn’t broken their journey for lunch or dinner that day because the cold was relentless and a chilly rain had begun to hound them. Traveling across the Continent in winter is never ideal; burdened as they are by a heavy cart and a coffin, it’s even worse. “If this is the treatment you get when people just think I’m dead,” Itachi says, absentminded as he contemplates what his second serving will be. He settles on another ladling of the chicken stew and rips apart a chunk of the fresh bread to dip. “Imagine the sympathy you’ll get when I actually am dead.”

Sasuke feels his thoughts come to a screeching halt at Itachi’s nonchalance. When, he’d said. Not if.

Itachi tilts his head like a bird. “You not eating?”

Sasuke feels acid burning in his throat, as if he could throw up, but his body needs fuel. “Yeah, I’m eating.” He sits forward and serves himself. They don’t talk much over dinner, and Sasuke, for once, is grateful for the silence between them.

The comment haunts him the next day, hounding his thoughts and not giving him any peace. When it’s his turn to lead, he takes it gratefully, even if it means that he has to give up his comfortable spot in the back of the cart dozing under the warmth of the tarp covering the coffin. It’s an unnecessary precaution this time of year, because the roads are so inhospitable that it’s unlikely they’ll run into any travelers, but it’s not a risk worth taking. If Madara is on their heels—and he might be, if he were to find out that Itachi has Zetsu—they need to be safe.

And besides, this way at least, one of them will have the chance to lie down and rest for a while. It’s a bit odd, sleeping next to a coffin, but they both got over the novelty of it a long time ago.

Thankfully, the roads around Kusagakure are well paved, but the weather is still miserable. Sasuke’s wolf-fur cloak is drenched from the rain; the bench of the cart is soaked through so even his ass is cold now. They’ve had rains for the past three days without a single reprieve.

He can’t find it in himself to complain, though. At least out here, the rain and wind can distract from the endless loop of his own thoughts. When, Itachi said, not if. Sasuke said the same words to Kakashi all those times, and the memory of those moments makes him grip the hilt of his sword to steady himself.

He’s two hours into his shift leading the horses when the rain abruptly dries and the sun comes out, sudden and vicious. Itachi pokes a head out from under the tarp and squints at the sun. “Finally.” When Sasuke doesn’t look over his shoulder at Itachi or make a comment, Itachi scoffs. “If you were so miserable about doing your shift in the rain—”

“I’m fine doing my shift,” Sasuke interrupts. His anger is just at the surface, and the insult in Itachi’s words—that he’s unprofessional, that he is the kind of soldier to complain about taking a shift in the rain—makes him grit his teeth so hard that a muscle in his jaw jumps.

“You don’t seem fine,” Itachi says mildly and stands in the back to drain the tarp of the small collections of water over the edge of the moving cart. 

The sudden shift in weight makes the cart lurch a bit and Sasuke finally snaps. “Do you have to do that now?”

Itachi pauses. “I don’t want to get wet.”

“It’s just a bit of fucking water, princess,” Sasuke snarls, knowing that he is stepping out of line. “Sit your ass down.”

Itachi’s eyes narrow. There is something dangerous about the way he’s watching Sasuke now. They are brothers, sure, but there is always a hierarchy. Itachi is older than Sasuke by five years; he was once designated as the future Clan Elder. He commands a certain level of respect, and there is a fine line in the sand that no one—not even Shisui—ever crossed.

Despite all their years apart, Itachi still expects this deference from him, and that makes Sasuke’s anger even more acute. “Excuse me?” Itachi says, deceptively mild.

Sasuke does the stupidest thing he could possibly do in this situation. He turns his back to Itachi and urges the horses into a faster pace. Their wheels are equipped with small metal spikes so they have traction against the snow and ice, but they add weight and make their journey unbearably noisy sometimes.

When Sasuke doesn’t answer, Itachi instructs in a clipped voice, “Whatever your problem is, Sasuke, sort it out now. I don’t have the time or patience to put up with your tantrums—”

Sasuke pulls the horses to such a sudden halt, he hears Itachi curse lightly under his breath when he's forced to steady himself. Sasuke is off the cart and stalking off into the tree line before Itachi has a chance to recover. The snowdrifts come up to his knees, so Sasuke uses his chakra and the bulk of his weight to push through.

Itachi raises his voice to be heard. “I don’t need you for this, Sasuke.”

Sasuke rounds on Itachi, hand curled around the hilt of his sword. “No, you don’t. So go right ahead. Head on home, Brother. Go get your fucking hero’s welcome, and your goddamn parade.”

“Hero’s welcome?” Itachi growls, voice like gravel now. He jumps off the cart and stalks towards Sasuke, kicking up snow as he pushes towards him. “You think that’s why I’m doing this?”

Sasuke throws up his hands. “I don’t know why you’re doing this! Who on the face of this fucking planet knows why you do anything you do?” Sasuke smacks his head as if just remembering something important. “Oh, I know what’s a great idea. I’ll just twiddle my fucking thumbs while my Kage orders me to stand by while some psychopath murders my family. You know what’s an even better idea? I’ll let my—”

“I did what I had to do,” Itachi hisses.

Sasuke talks over him. The snow acts like a muffler, eating the volume of Sasuke’s voice. “My little brother should not only survive, I’ll let him believe that I’m the one who did all the killing. Great job. Upstanding Brother of the Year award goes to, wait for it—”


“But no, wait for it,” Sasuke finishes. “The best part of this plan is the failsafe you have in place for yourself. I’ll let my own brother kill me, tie it all up with a neat fucking bow. Uchiha Itachi, exit stage left.” Sasuke heaves in a breath. “You selfish piece of shit.”

Itachi’s mouth is hanging open at the sheer barrage and viciousness of Sasuke’s words. In the silence that follows, Sasuke hears the distant crackle of a tree bursting from its frozen sap. “Grandfather was not open to reason,” Itachi says finally, voice pitched low. “Madara had poisoned Uncle Yakumi’s mind. He was going to start a war. They were going to unseal the demon from the jinchuuruki. Uncle Taro and the others weren’t going to turn on their own brother, so the entire Clan would have risen up against Konohagakure—”

“I know the reasoning behind the goddamn Wildfire Executive,” Sasuke interrupts. “Trust me. I heard it from the fucking source.”

“It was that,” Itachi says, “or the Village. It was that or the entire Country. Our Clan name. Our legacy. It’s easier to explain a single mad man butchering his kin than drag our family name through the mud like that. They would have died anyways. The Hokage would have given the order sooner or later. So I made a call, and I’m the one—” He pauses. “I’m the one who has to live with it every second of every minute of every hour of every day and week and month and year and decade,” he finishes in a rush. He takes a heaving breath, and then another.

“You don’t want to live with it, though,” Sasuke points out in the silence that follows. “You want to die. You want me to kill you.”

“Who else?” Itachi says, and his voice is loud now. “Hatake Kakashi’s Mangekyou couldn’t kill me—so who, Sasuke? What other Uchiha is left in the world?”

There’s a reason why the Wildfire Contingency called for an Uchiha to carry out the orders. A Mangekyou is best defeated by a Mangekyou; fighting fire with fire is what the Uchihas do. Itachi, ever the strategist, hedged his bets.

At his lowest moments—when Sasuke had pressed a kunai to that space between his ribs, or when he’d begged Rin to let him die—Sasuke wonders if he looked like Itachi does now. There is something hollow about him. He’s not like Sasuke was, not entirely, because Itachi isn’t actively seeking to die as Sasuke had been. This is more calculated; Itachi is just ensuring himself an exit so that he doesn’t have to live into old age with the burden he is carrying.

Every second of every minute of every hour.

Sasuke sees the clarity of Itachi’s logic now, the faith he has held constant even after all these years because Itachi hasn’t contemplated suicide, not like Sasuke did. He knows the punishment for it, the way suicide corrupts the soul so beyond recognition that even if he were to go to his death gripping his sword with both hands, he may never gain entry to the Great Hall. The hounds guarding the doors may not give him entry. Itachi is different from Sasuke because unlike Sasuke, he was always more mindful of the gods and the fate that had been written for all of them. He will accept no other death than one meted out in battle against an enemy he considers worthy. He will not seek this death until after he completes his duty—for Kage and Country, for his liege lord and his lands, for the oaths he swore and the oaths his ancestors swore to the dragons.

Itachi grips the hilt of his sword in a tight fist. “Who else could I ask to send me on my way, Sasuke?” He gestures at his surroundings. “Shisui isn’t here anymore. There’s no one left.”   

It’s the way Itachi always says Shisui’s name, as if it’s being ripped out from inside the cavernous space of his chest, bloody still with his grief. Every second of every minute of every hour, and Itachi had been alone for all of those moments. Sasuke at least had Kakashi. He had Sakura and Naruto, Jugo, Suigetsu, his unit. He had the Shodaime and the Nidaime.

He had his ninken.

Sasuke doesn’t have words of his own to counter Itachi’s logic, so he uses Rin’s instead. He draws on the same anger she must have felt when Sasuke had begged for release in front of her. “Kneel, then.”

Itachi’s surprise is genuine. “What?”

“Kneel.” Sasuke draws his sword. “I’ll end it for you.”

It takes a moment for Itachi’s surprise to morph into anger when he understands what Sasuke is offering. “How dare you—”

“This is how cowards die, Brother,” Sasuke interrupts calmly and takes a step forward. The hilt of his sword cuts a thin line in the snow piled up to his knees. “Kneel.”

Itachi’s Mangekyou is spinning with his chakra now; it is melting the snow around him. “Coward?”

Sasuke doesn’t react with his own chakra. “What’s the difference?” He remembers Rin saying the exact same words to him, not too long ago. “What’s the difference between seeking death as you do and slitting your own throat?” He doesn’t give Itachi a chance to answer. “I can tell you what the difference is. Nothing. There is no difference. I would know because I tried it both ways. When I was twelve, I held a kunai to my chest, right over my heart. I couldn’t go through with it, so I tried just about everything else to die.”

Itachi’s anger drops away in an instance at the admission. Sasuke keeps talking even though it feels as if he’s hollowing out his bones to harvest the marrow for Itachi to take. Anything—anything, he thinks—to make Itachi see. “I figured, on the one hand, I could be locked out of the Great Hall for fratricide. I wouldn’t get to see you again, or Shisui, or Uncle Kyoguku, or Uncle Inabi, or any of the others. I could do that. Or I could just find some unsuspecting motherfucker to do the honors for me. That way I could see you and Shisui and everyone else again. But then the years just went on and on. I was just getting so fucking tired of it because I couldn’t die!” Sasuke laughs, but it’s a dry sound with absolutely no warmth in it. “I kept trying to die. I nearly did twice, but Rin kept bringing me back, so I said, fuck it. What she giveth, she must be able to taketh away, so I summoned her and begged her to end it for me.”

Itachi is staring at him openly now, frozen in place. He doesn’t speak for a few long moments after Sasuke has finished talking. “Why would you—”

“Because,” Sasuke answers, swallowing on that burning in his throat. “It was either that. Or kill you.”

Itachi takes a breath. “It would be a lot easier if you just hated me for it, Sasuke.”

Sasuke keeps his eyes fixed on Itachi. He knows his eyes are wet—Fugaku would not approve, he knows, but Mikoto had told him, Speak. So he speaks, ignores the crack in his voice when he forms the words: “I don’t hate you for it, Brother. I never hated you. I never knew how.”

Itachi looks away from Sasuke then, staring resolutely at the cart. His chest is heaving even though Sasuke is the one who did most of the talking. He clears his throat once, twice, and then looks skywards. It takes a moment for Sasuke to recognize the wet sheen on Itachi’s cheeks, difficult to spot because even though Itachi shaved before setting off, there’s already the shadow of his scruff emphasizing the strong line of his jaw.

“I’m here, Brother,” Sasuke presses. He remembers the way Itachi had pressed a sword into Sasuke’s hand and held it tight for both of them, told him, Rest. His voice is hoarse from talking for so long and so loudly, but he pushes out the words anyways. “I’m right here.”

Finally, Itachi finds his voice and looks away from the clouds. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Sasuke promises.

Itachi clears his throat. “We should hit the road.” And just like that, he’s moved on.

Speak, Sasuke wills, but Itachi just turns and heads back to the cart. He settles on the bench, and when Sasuke begins to protest that he can finish his shift, he waves off Sasuke with a dismissive flick of his wrist. “I’m sick of my break.”

Sasuke settles in the back, wedged in the spot next to Zetsu’s coffin. They’ve set up a sleeping area of sorts, complete with a balled up shirt as a makeshift pillow and a bedroll. Sasuke starts to rearrange the tarp back into place after Itachi’s attempts to dry it out. He’s settling into the bedroll and pulling up the tarp when Itachi turns in his seat and leans back to lend him a hand, tugging the tarp up and over Zetsu’s coffin in one large tug.

Sasuke settles down with a sigh. He got no sleep the night before so he’s grateful for this chance at rest. They have hundreds of miles left to go. Itachi doesn’t secure the tarp close over his head immediately though, so Sasuke cracks open an eye and glares at him. “I’m trying to sleep here.”

Itachi considers Sasuke carefully for a moment. He bends at the waist. For a moment, Sasuke thinks he’s reaching for the water canteen, but instead, Itachi just leans down and—

Flicks a finger against Sasuke’s forehead.

He pulls the tarp over Sasuke’s head before Sasuke can react. “We split the difference on the extra hours I’m taking,” he says, voice sounding muffled now that the tarp is covering Sasuke.

Sasuke presses a hand against his forehead. Speak, Mikoto had said, and this is Itachi trying his best.

“Wake me up when it’s my turn.”

Itachi scoffs. “Oh, trust me, I will.”

They’re in Ajisawa, a border town at the edge of the Land of Waterfall, when Sasuke finally opens Naruto’s gift to him—the one he'd pressed into Sasuke's hand as he was leaving and said, For the road. If you want it.

Itachi is the first one to enter town, this time with Sasuke’s not-so-subtle Senju Shisui alias—and he has caught the eye of the barmaid. After their argument on the side of the road, they’ve fallen into something more familiar. Whatever tension they had between them is gone, and Sasuke didn't realize the full strain of it until it had slipped away entirely.

Now, they’re even comfortable enough around each other to agree to an odd, informal routine where whoever enters the town first has the night off—

To do anything. With anyone.

Sasuke has learned several things about his brother in the past weeks of travel. For one thing, his brother is straight. His tastes run towards pretty women with curves, bright eyes, and long, sweeping hair—the fact that their tastes are similar forced Sasuke to lay out two rules: No accidental swapping or sharing and Whoever sees them first gets dibs, both of which Itachi was more than happy to agree to.

Apparently, his brother only needs to look at women to get their attention. Sasuke knows how to woo a woman, but he has to put some effort into closing the deal. He has to at least talk to them. Itachi only has to look at them soulfully, give them a half-smile with a dimple, and then, just like that, he’s bagged them. Tonight, Sasuke watched with morbid fascination from across the room while Itachi caught the attention of a stunning woman, some otherworldly beauty with legs for miles and thick blonde hair wrapped up in a high ponytail that swung across her lovely hips with each step she took.

It’s awkward as all hell to see this aspect of his brother, but they adjust quickly to it. They fall into a routine around each other easily enough—from their bathroom ablutions so they don’t get in each other’s way, to the way they bed down for the night. Itachi even learns the names of Sasuke’s snakes, and starts offering a quiet Thank you to whoever is left out in the cold with Zetsu’s coffin to keep watch. Sasuke is fairly certain his snakes like his brother more than they like him at this point because Itachi has also learned all their favorite snacks—grapes for Kanaye, blueberries for Daichi, clementines for Hideyoshi, and strawberries for Yuuta—and has taken to sneaking them food every chance he gets. They’re teaching him snake tongue.

You are brothers, Fudo had said, and Sasuke sees it now, with every passing moment, just how thick their blood runs.

Itachi still isn’t back from wherever he is with the blonde woman (Legs-For-Miles, Sasuke christens her in his mind), so Sasuke takes the time to take inventory. He cleans and sharpens his sword and battle-ax, then moves to his kunai pouch. When he empties it onto the bed, the small pouch Naruto gave him tumbles out.

Sasuke stares at it for long enough that Hideyoshi stirs from his coil on the windowsill. He slithers up the bed to nose at it. He pecks through Sasuke’s memories to understand what the pouch means. “From Fox-child?”

“Yeah,” Sasuke mutters. He doesn’t understand how he has forgotten something like this. The drive to find his brother had been fierce, true, but there had been thousands and thousands of miles of slow solitude, weeks and months with nothing but the easy gait of Michi across the Continent. He hasn’t thought once—not a single time—to open Naruto’s gift.

It hasn’t even occurred to him.

“You were busy,” Hideyoshi dismisses, picking up on Sasuke’s thoughts. “Better late than never. Open it.”

The pouch is small and unsubstantial in Sasuke’s hands. The knot holding it close is tight, and it takes a moment for Sasuke to pry it loose. He empties it onto the bed, freezing when the present slides out.

It’s Naruto’s green pendant, the one that he always keeps around his neck. It’s on the same silver chain that Naruto wears. 

If you want it, Naruto told him. If you don’t, just mail it back.

Sasuke doesn’t know much about this necklace beyond the fact that Tsunade gave it to Naruto. He also knows that it is important to Naruto, important enough that he doesn’t leave his house without it. He has seen Naruto idly reach for it around his neck in the quieter moments, twisting the chain around his finger when he’s deep in thought, or tuck it carefully under his shirt when he’s training.

Sasuke touches it with just a tip of his finger.

Why would Naruto think he needs this? Or want it? Should he mail it back?

“Is it a weapon of some kind?” Hideyoshi asks, curling around Sasuke’s hand to nudge at the pendant with his head. His body gets tangled with the chain, but Sasuke doesn’t try to move him away. “Seems harmless. What does it do?”

Like his other snakes, Hideyoshi has not spent too long in the human world, so things like a toilet flushing make them curious; TVs are practically magic. “It’s not a weapon,” Sasuke explains. He doesn’t know the word in snake tongue so he uses the human word. “Jewelry.”

“Je-wel-ry,” Hideyoshi repeats in human tongue, tripping over the consonants. “What does it do?”

“Nothing.” Sasuke pushes at the pendant again. “Humans wear it for its beauty. This one goes around your neck.”

“All the easier to strangle you with,” Hideyoshi points out with a scoff. His curiosity is unrelenting, though, so there is another follow-up. “Why did he give it to you?”

Sasuke tugs at the pendant until Hideyoshi slides away. Something to remember Naruto by, maybe. But Sasuke doesn’t need a necklace for that. He only needs to look at the sky; he just needs to breathe deep. Always

Always, forever, Naruto.

Hideyoshi butts his head against the pendant, making it swing lightly in Sasuke’s grip. “So? Why did he give it to you?”

If you want it, Naruto had said, as if it was a choice for Sasuke to make, when all along, Sasuke has been helpless against Naruto, has forced himself to walk away again and again. Want what? “I don’t know why.”

Hideyoshi peers up at Sasuke, gaze unblinking. “You don’t seem happy.”

Sasuke tucks it back into the pouch and closes it shut. “I don’t know what I am,” he says, and goes back to his weapons.

A few hours later, Itachi slips into the room with a soft click.

Sasuke has already brushed his teeth and settled into his bed, so the lights are out and the room is dark. He hears Itachi taking a shower before he emerges with a gust of steam to settle into his own bed across the room. He heaves a sigh. “The coffin?”

“Secure,” Sasuke answers. “Daichi is on lookout tonight.”

Itachi shifts under the covers. “We’re losing time with this plan,” he points out. Every few nights, Itachi will make a comment on how they have been slowed down. Traveling with a coffin on a cart is forcing them to stick to well-paved roads instead of heading straight for Konohagakure. Every now and then, they have to stop at a village or town for supplies and maintain their cover.

Usually, when Itachi makes this comment, Sasuke puts an effort to defend his idea before Itachi concedes. Today, though, he finds that he doesn’t care. “Just go to sleep, Brother.”

The light on the table between their beds flicks on a moment later. Itachi has pushed himself up on one hand. Sasuke squints at the light and pulls the covers over his head. “What’s wrong?” When Sasuke doesn’t answer for a few long moments, Itachi takes the hint and turns off the light. “Suit yourself,” he mutters, irked, and then shifts around under the covers for a few moments before settling. His breathing evens out a few minutes later.

Sasuke stares up at the ceiling for so long his eyes start to sting from the strain of it. He pushes himself up in bed and finally yields—

The pendant is bright even in the darkness of the room. When Sasuke turns it over in his hands it catches the slim strip of moonlight coming through the window. If you want it.

The silver is cool against the skin around his neck, but the pendant itself is warm. He falls asleep with a hand curled around the gem.

By the time they cross over into the Land of Fire, it’s late winter , and the final, relentless storms from the north are passing south. “We could call in for backup,” Sasuke suggests when Itachi picks a wide, looping path around one of Konoha’s outpost garrison cities despite the storm gusting around them.

Itachi just pins him with a stare. “Or we could not be idiots.”

They don’t pull into a town until two weeks later when the snows force them off course. The tavern they walk into is filled with travelers, all seeking safety from the storm outside. Sasuke settles in a chair by the bar and breathes a sigh of relief.

The bartender comes to take Sasuke’s order quickly despite the rush. “What’ll it be for you, then?”

Sasuke is ordering when he senses Itachi enter. There aren’t too many seats in the place left, just a few empty spots at the bar. Itachi heads for one a few seats down from Sasuke, angled in such a way that they can stare directly at each other if they choose to. Sasuke keeps his eyes fixed on the bartender. “Whatever you have on tap for a pale ale.”

The bartender moves away to finish the order. Sasuke unfastens his wolf-fur cloak and lets it drape along the back of his chair to dry. Even his feet are tingling from the cold. Outside, he can sense Kanaye’s quiet fury at having been assigned guard duty on the coffin. They’ve covered the cart with the tarp, at least, so he’ll be protected from the worst of it. Still, Sasuke has to push away a pang of guilt at asking so much and so often from his snakes on this journey.

The bartender doesn’t return with his order. In his place is a woman: brunette, olive-skinned with a quick smile. She is statuesque, graceful in a way that makes Sasuke’s gaze linger. It’s easy to imagine cupping the swell of her breast, the curve of her hip, the round of her thigh. It was his turn to enter and establish their cover, so this is his night to do what he wants. Sasuke smiles. “Thank you…your name?”

The woman’s lip quirks up. “Akane. And if you are who I think you are, then no, thank you, shinobi.”

Sasuke places a hand over his heart, feigning hurt. He gives her a smile, the one that makes even Sakura blush. “I haven’t even introduced myself, Akane.”

Akane, though, seems unperturbed. “Oh, trust me, I know exactly who you are,” she says, and pushes Sasuke’s drink towards him. “Heard about your brother. This one’s on the house.”

The kindness catches Sasuke by surprise for long enough that he doesn’t get a chance to try again with Akane. She leaves to take care of some other customers, and when Sasuke’s gaze flickers over to Itachi, he finds that his brother is trying and failing to hide a smirk.

Sasuke scowls. His brother is just as big a whore as Sasuke is, but apparently, Sasuke is the one with the reputation. Somehow, he has managed to cockblock himself, just for the sheer crime of being himself.

He’s eating what is a surprisingly good meat stew—and fending off the curious glances and questions his neighbors are throwing his way—when Akane returns to refill his drink. “How are you finding the food?”

“Good,” Sasuke says honestly.

“Damn well better be,” she says. “I had that on the stove for three hours this morning.”

Sasuke looks down at the stew. “In that case, it’s very good.”

Akane throws back her head and laughs. His eyes track towards the lovely angle where her neck meets her shoulder, lower still to where the neckline of her blouse dips down—“Eyes up here, soldier.” Sasuke lets his gaze linger for a moment longer before meeting her gaze. She looks amused. “You are relentless.”

“Persistent,” Sasuke corrects, and doesn’t bother to hide the curl of his lips.

Akane scoffs, indicating Sasuke’s neck. “Oh, please. That’s not persistence, sunshine. That’s a wandering gaze if I’ve ever seen one.”

Sasuke glances down at his chest and realizes that at some point, Naruto’s pendant has fallen loose. “What’s her name?” Akane asks, not missing a beat as she dries the set of wet mugs she pulled out from under the counter. When Sasuke doesn’t answer, she switches tactics. “She waiting for you back home?”

All of his earlier mood disappears in an instant at the memory of Naruto. The heat in his gut from watching Akane move vanishes entirely. “No.”

There was an ending—whatever it is they had, they had ended it that night under the streetlight, just outside that bar. Sasuke looks up at the sky and is reminded of Naruto every day, but it had ended. He was walking away from Konoha and all that it held—even Naruto. He had made that decision and walked away.

What’s done is done, Sasuke tells himself firmly, and repeats, “No.”

Sasuke is suddenly very aware of the silence of those around him and Itachi’s eyes boring holes into his side. Akane sets down the mug carefully. There is something like pity in her eyes. “You break her heart or she break yours?”

“It wasn’t—” Sasuke catches himself and bites down on the rest of his sentence.

Akane leans across the counter and takes the pendant in her hand gently. Sasuke has to use all his willpower not to flinch back and hide it away. “I’m sure she was very beautiful,” she says after a moment, “to have broken your heart so.”

He, Sasuke wants to correct her, but he can’t form the words because she’s right—so many beautiful women and men, thousands of miles now, and still…

Always, always, Naruto.

“Is,” he corrects after a moment—can’t help himself, because this is Naruto, and he doesn’t want to listen to Akane talk about him as if he’s in the past tense, not when Naruto is so vibrant and staggeringly beautiful in every moment, in Sasuke’s memories and in Sasuke’s dreams. He wraps his hand carefully around Akane’s wrist to move her away from the pendant. “Is beautiful. Not was.”

Akane pulls back from Sasuke’s grip, gentle. “You sure she’s not waiting for you?” she asks, stacking the mugs along the counter. She indicates the necklace. “That’s not something someone gives if they don’t intend it as a promise of some kind.”

It ended. Sasuke is sure of it. The necklace could mean a million and one things, and none of it is: I’ll wait for you.

When Sasuke left, he had left everyone and everything.

Sasuke picks up his beer to take a drink, signaling and end to the conversation. When Akane just watches him patiently, he asks, “Now who’s being persistent?”

The line lands flat. “I’m sorry,” she says, and it’s the sincerity of her apology that makes Sasuke’s irritation at the intrusion disappear. Akane picks up another mug and returns to her task of drying. “What is she like?”

Sasuke moves the stew in his bowl around with his spoon. “He’s…” he trails off at the memory of it (the curve of Naruto’s quieter smiles, the texture of Naruto’s hair, the angle of his cheekbones, the elegant length of his neck, the soft press of Naruto’s lips against his, just that one time, when he’d named Sasuke, Coward.)

If you want it. Sasuke tucks the pendant securely under his shirt—presses a hand against his chest to hold it there for a moment, remembers the feel of Naruto’s hand in his, being close enough to hear Naruto say, I’m in love with you—before picking up his spoon again.

Akane watches him carefully. “I’d heard you set fire to Otogakure to go home to him once. I thought they were just rumors, just an overdone story about a mercenary and the Hokage’s godson.”

Sasuke manages to sound amused when he finds his voice. He tries his best to divert the topic. “Mercenary? Now that’s just rude.”

“I think I still have the wanted posters from when there was a bounty on your head,” Akane says with a laugh. “Obviously, you’re the mercenary in the story, Romeo. Which makes Uzumaki Naruto Juliet, I suppose.”

The name falls like a stone in still water; the men eating at the bar have all gone silent, eavesdropping. Itachi is eavesdropping, Sasuke realizes, and feels his ears burning with the knowledge.

Akane must not notice Sasuke’s discomfort, though, because she keeps talking. “I’d heard that your Juliet is very beautiful. From the Land of Whirpools, right?”

Sasuke glances up at this. Naruto is a household name across the country, if only because he is such a presence in Tsunade’s administration. The laws he helps pass affect the daily lives of everyone across the country. What Sasuke hadn't known, though, is that people know what he looks like. “How do you know that?”

Akane smiles. “My brother’s friend, Riku, went to Konohagakure once to petition the Hokage. All our wells were drying up two summers ago, and the governor was doing nothing, so the village elders sent Riku and a few of the other younger men all the way to the capital. The Hokage was too busy to talk to them, so they met with her junior councilors instead. Uzumaki Naruto was one of the Council members that heard his petition. Riku was quite taken with him.”

“Quite taken,” Sasuke repeats carefully, and Akane bursts out into laughter.

“Riku is happily married,” she emphasizes. She starts drying the mugs clean as she continues her story. “But a man’s bound to notice. Riku and the other boys who went on the trip kept going on about the gold of his hair and the blue of his eyes, and what a pure heart. Going on and on, and I thought, what a load of hogwash. A pretty face comes along, and they start thinking with their dicks; mucked up the whole point of the journey to the Capital.”

Akane tells Sasuke about how Naruto showed up in their village three months later with engineers. Such a skinny, pretty little thing, Akane says, but Naruto had gotten into the ditches with the construction crew and dug for two days until they hit water. The wells they have now are guaranteed to last a lifetime, she says. One of them is called the Uzumaki Reservoir.

The man next to Sasuke suddenly jumps into the conversation. “I heard they named a bridge after him a while back,” he volunteers.

“You hear that his hair is spun of gold, too?” Akane asks, good-natured, and the men seated at the bar laugh.

“They make them pretty out there in the Land of Whirlpools,” the man admits. “They say he’ll be Kage someday, probably after the Commander now.”

“Only natural,” a man two seats down pipes up. “Uzumaki Naruto’s father was Hokage in my father’s time. And he’s godson to the current one.”

“Imagine that,” the man next to Sasuke says with something like wonder in his voice. “A Kage’s son and a Kage’s godson coming down to dig some ditches because a few crops are going dry.”

Naruto is Jiraiya’s godson and Tsunade’s legal heir, but the mistake is an easy one to make. Sasuke turns back to his food, intent on finishing as quickly as he can so he can escape to the relative privacy of his room. The conversation shifts towards the politics in the capital, the men discussing Kakashi. A war-trained Commander becoming Kage, one of the men at the bars says. The last time we saw that happen was Senju Tobirama himself.

Sasuke reaches for his wallet before he can get dragged into another unwanted conversation. “I’ll close down my tab now.”

This time, Akane doesn’t say anything. Instead, she turns around to pull out the slip of sheet with Sasuke’s tab on it to tally up his total. Sasuke pushes the money towards her, and although he’s irked at the attention she’s drawn towards him, he makes sure to include a hefty tip. “I don’t need the change.”

He doesn’t wait for Akane’s response before he’s walking away from the bar. The entrance to the rooms is in the far back, and Sasuke takes the stairs two at a time. He slams into his room and stands there for a moment, breathing hard.

The bathroom, at least, is wide and clean. He strips down and lets hot water run down his shoulders and back for a long while. When the fog gets too heavy, he turns off the water and steps out into the bedroom.

Itachi is sitting on his bed, taking off his boots. He stays silent until Sasuke is settling down in his own bed, about to slip under the covers. “I hadn’t realized,” he says carefully, “that what they said about you two is true. I assumed they were just rumors or—”

“Can it,” Sasuke snarls, letting his Mangekyou come to life with a burst of chakra.

Itachi stares back at him, calm despite Sasuke’s mounting anger. His eyes track down very pointedly to the silver chain around his neck. “What happened?”

Sasuke wants to punch something. Preferably Itachi. But that would likely end in bloodshed. And besides, there are civilians downstairs. “Good night,” Sasuke bites off, and turns the sheets over for the night.

Itachi takes his time showering and getting ready for bed. He turns off the lights behind him and settles into his own bed quietly. “Zetsu’s secure,” he offers, checking off their daily ritual.

Sasuke turns onto his side to settle into sleep. It’s just a short four hundred miles to Konoha now. He’s traveled over four thousand miles in the past eight months, and he’ll be exactly where he started all over again.

Itachi is quiet for so long that Sasuke thinks he’s fallen asleep. But suddenly, Itachi clears his throat. “When Madara first assigned me to extract Naruto,” he begins, and Sasuke freezes. He still remembers the agonizing dread he'd felt when he realized Itachi had taken Naruto. “I could hear you running down the corridors, looking for him. I thought, I’m going to have to kill this idiot if he doesn’t stand down.”

Itachi’s story ends as abruptly as it started. “He was my teammate,” Sasuke says by way of explanation. Naruto didn’t hold the sway over Sasuke back then like he does now. This feeling—this feeling buried deep in his bones—grew over time. It grew and grew and grew until Sasuke couldn’t breathe around it anymore.

“If I was the reason that it didn’t work out for you two,” Itachi says into the quiet that follows. He sounds as if he’s straining for the words. “Because I lied to you about what happened and made you think you had to—”

“He wants a starter house with a yard. A summer wedding. Three, maybe four kids,” Sasuke interrupts, if only to put Itachi out of his misery. Leave it to Itachi to play the martyr, to blame this on himself too. He’s always been far too willing to bear the burden of the world, but at the end of the day, this lands squarely at Sasuke’s feet. “That’s why it didn’t work out.”

Itachi moves in his bed slightly, but Sasuke keeps his eyes resolutely closed. “That doesn’t sound half-bad.”

Sasuke shifts so that his back is to Itachi. Thankfully, Itachi doesn’t speak again for the rest of the night.

The miles bleed away after that. The closer they get to their destination, the more Itachi’s nerves start to show. It’s unnoticeable at first: he’s quicker to snap at Sasuke, more petulant about doing his share of the chores, and even snaps at Zetsu each time he cracks open the coffin to check on the knife and seals, even though, thus far, Sasuke has been the only one to acknowledge Zetsu with an overly cheerful, Morning, sunshine! And, Goodnight, sweet cheeks.

Sasuke doesn’t put two and two together until they pass the first mile marker.

KONOHAGAKURE it reads. 325 miles.

Itachi stares at it so intently that he turns in his seat to watch the sign pass by. Sasuke is sitting up in the back of the cart for this leg of the journey, carving small pieces of an apple with a kunai while the cart jostles along. “Is that what’s got your panties all twisted?”

“That phrase,” Itachi huffs, “is extremely sexist.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. He’s aware of the sexism of the comment because he's had both Sakura and Naruto in his life. “They’re not going to court-martial you, Brother. They’ll pin a fuckton of medals on your chest and then send us both out again to take out Madara once Kakashi figures out what the game plan is.”

Itachi shifts in his seat and hunches over the reins. “I don’t want medals.”

“Well, Tsunade likes to give them out,” Sasuke says. He knows, he has a Medal of Honor, but he doesn’t know what he did with it. It’s entirely possible that he donated it along with the rest of his surplus junk when he moved out of Mrs. Miyake’s. “Stop being a baby about it. It’s just Konoha.”

“I haven’t been back in a long time, Sasuke,” Itachi snaps. “I don’t even know what the streets look like.”

“So?” Sasuke takes a large slice of the apple into his mouth and chews with a satisfying crunch and burst of juice. “Get a map.”

“Shut up, Sasuke.” Itachi doesn’t stay silent long, though, because he turns in his seat to ask, hesitant, “So no one else can see the Hokage ghosts?”

“Nope.” Sasuke pops off the end of the word with relish and watches Itachi’s eyes narrow. “Don’t worry. I’ll make proper introductions.”

Itachi considers the offer. “We should stop at a town along the way to make ourselves presentable,” he determines.

Sasuke doesn’t censor himself. He laughs at Itachi’s formality. “Trust me. The ghosts don’t care.”

“Well, I do,” Itachi says primly, and turns back to the road.

Sasuke settles on his back and stares up at the blue sky that peeks out from between the trees every now and then. It’s March now, and although there’s still a slight chill in the air, it’s nice to be finally done with winter. So Sasuke ignores Itachi’s reprimand—Get under the tarp, it’s no time to start getting stupid when we’re so close—and watches the clouds drift by for the rest of the afternoon.

Eventually, even Itachi relaxes into the bench. He leans back to demand that Sasuke share slices of his second apple, asking, “So who won the basketball championships last time you were in the City?”

It’s almost nightfall before the laziness of their day is interrupted. Sasuke is explaining, in great detail, the fumbling idiocy of Konohagakure University’s basketball coach, and Itachi is agreeing with him, What kind of idiot places their point-forward—

High level chakra signatures. Four of them—ahead, directly in their path.

They switch immediately. This close to Konohagakure, no one with half a brain would believe that Itachi is Sasuke. Itachi pushes down his chakra until it’s nothing but a slow, humming buzz. Their chakras are so alike that it is easy for Itachi’s signature to be overwhelmed by Sasuke’s and be missed. Itachi pulls out two kunai, while Sasuke settles at the front of the cart.

“Enemies?” Itachi asks in a low voice.

“Can’t tell.” They’re too far, still. Twenty miles or so, and unfamiliar enough that the distance makes it difficult for Sasuke to identify.

“Are you sending your snakes to scout ahead?”

Sasuke takes a breath. There’s four of them, whoever they are, and he doesn’t want to risk his snakes on scouting out shinobi who are both powerful enough—and arrogant enough—to declare their presence so boldly. If it’s Madara, he’ll spot his snakes easily. And besides, Yuuta had said once that Madara could sense him somehow. “No,” Sasuke decides.

Itachi hm-s thoughtfully, and settles down low. Sasuke pulls the tarp over him and secures it just enough so it stays tight but not so much that it might impede any immediate move Itachi might need to make. Not that Sasuke can’t handle these four, but he’d rather not risk anything with Zetsu still in the coffin.

The distance between them shortens slowly but steadily, and yet, the four do not move. Sasuke moves his cloak so that he can easily reach the hilt of his sword. “These stupid motherfuckers,” he grumbles. “Don’t they know who I am?”

Itachi’s scoff is audible even from under the tarp. “Humility, meet Uchiha Sasuke.”

Sasuke ignores Itachi. He isn’t arrogant out of misplaced confidence. He’s arrogant because he has the track record to prove it. He is Hatake Kakashi’s student, and even though Naruto and Sakura share evenly in Kakashi’s legacy, Sasuke carries Kakashi’s sword. He wore Hatake Kakashi’s mask. The Nidaime Hokage himself trained Sasuke in the Senju Technique. He was forged in war and fire and death in Otogakure when most shinobi his age were still testing their mettle in one-on-one battles of middling B- and A-ranked missions. 

It’s the inconvenience of it that annoys Sasuke.

The annoyance starts to fall away, though, as they get closer. Fifteen miles out when something like recognition flits across Sasuke’s mind. He knows those signatures, but he can’t quite place them.

Eight miles out, he identifies them. “Konohagakure soldiers,” he declares.

Itachi isn’t convinced, paranoid bastard that he is. “I don’t know if we should trust shinobi just because they’re from Konohagakure, Sasuke. Slow down so—”

“We can trust these shinobi,” Sasuke interrupts, and leans forward into the wind.

They appear only in snapshots: just as Sasuke’s road dips low enough that he can see their silhouette over the horizon, or when the road curves just so that he can see the blaze of their fires. As they get closer, Sasuke can see that they’ve set up what has to be the most pathetic excuse for a roadblock that he has ever seen.

Kiba cups his hands around his mouth and yells, “Can you move any slower, Uchiha?

He can’t help the wide grin splitting across his face, and when they’re close enough, he stands up with the reins in his hand and yells out, “You call this a welcoming party, you miserable shits?”

Kiba whoops so loudly in joy that Akamaru picks up the cue and starts howling at the moon. The dog takes off in a dead sprint towards them and the horses start to panic. “Oi, Akamaru!” Kiba yells after the wolf-dog. “Hold up! You’re scaring the horses! Come back here!

Akamaru slows and takes a few bounding steps back, barking loudly still and wagging his tail. He trots a few steps back towards Kiba but doesn’t go all the way, making small circles back and forth to escort Sasuke’s cart all the way until they’re just a few feet away. Sasuke jumps off the cart; Kiba is pulling him into a hug immediately even as Akamaru pushes up against his side happily, tail wagging furiously.

Shikamaru hasn’t moved from his slouched position on the roadblock sign. He’s smoking a cigarette, and Neji is leaning up against the barricade next to him, watching Sasuke with barely a hint of emotion. Shino pulls Sasuke into a hug next, mercifully sparing Sasuke’s ear from Kiba’s overenthusiastic yells and happy welcomes.

“You can blame the Commander for the paltry roadblock,” Neji says, finally moving forward with an outstretched hand. They shake. They’re all wearing jounin vests, except for Neji who is in ANBU gear and wearing the Lieutenant armband. “He didn’t want to waste any more money on your sorry ass, Sharingan.”

Shikamaru stretches, yawning loudly. “Why did you take so damn long?”

Sasuke indicates the cart, and it’s now that their joy falls away. “I heard about your brother, Sasuke,” Kiba says, gripping Sasuke’s shoulder in a firm grip. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Shino clears his throat to get Sasuke’s attention. “We wanted to be here to be pallbearers.”

“Perimeter?” Sasuke asks, glancing around at the still forest around them. This late in the night, he can barely see beyond a few feet of the fires that the four have lit.

“Secure,” Shino answers, tilting his face into the sky. “Just us.”

Sasuke clears his throat. Shino’s bugs are thorough, and he’s always relied on him to establish a secure perimeter without any prying eyes or ears. He turns to the cart and raises his voice. “It’s clear.”

The tarp moves, and a movement later, Itachi swings over the side of the cart.

There is a very awkward moment of everyone staring at Itachi, and Itachi staring back at everyone else placidly.

Sasuke clears his throat. “Brother, this is my old ANBU unit.” He gestures at the four men individually as he identifies them. “Hyuga Neji. Nara Shikamaru. Inuzuka Kiba. Aburame Shino. Gentlemen, this is my brother, Itachi.”

Itachi glances around the slack-jawed men. “Nice to meet you,” he says, polite as always.

Shikamaru is the one to react first. He looks heavenwards and groans, letting out a steam of smoke from the last inhale of his cigarette. “So. Goddamn. Troublesome.”

Akamaru keeps circling Itachi curiously as he walks, making wide, looping tracks around him and occasionally moving close to sniff at the air around Itachi. Despite the interference, Itachi’s stride doesn’t change. He just walks at a steady pace ahead of the group, giving them privacy to hash things out and holding up the torch to lead the way.

Not that the privacy is doing much, because Kiba’s panicked voice is too-loud in the night air. Neji had suggested that they travel past the barricade before setting up camp, just to be on the safe side, and this is what they are doing now, traveling at such a late hour of the night with nothing but a few torches to light the way.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Kiba hisses in what he thinks is an approximation of a whisper. It’s a low shout on the best of days. “So there’s a not-dead dead guy—”

“I am so sick of immortal assholes,” Shikamaru grumbles from his perch on the cart. He was, of course, the first to volunteer to steer the cart. He’d apparently been walking for fucking years—Sasuke refrains from pointing out that Shikamaru is only a few hundred miles from Konohagakure, and Sasuke is the one who has literally traversed the width of the Continent and back again in the nine months it's been now since he first left Konoha.

Kiba eyes the tarp. “What is it with immortal motherfuckers and Akatsuki? Do they put up a sign? Wanted: Immortal psychopaths who like nailpolish. Well-adjusted humans need not apply.”

Shino glances at Itachi. “I am glad you made peace with your brother, Sasuke.”

“Oh, yeah! That’s awesome,” Kiba says, pausing for a moment to give Sasuke one of his blinding grins. It vanishes quickly though, because he remembers his original concern and gestures at the cart. “What the fuck! You carried a corpse across the Continent! This isn’t even your first time, Sasuke! You need to seek help! What is it with you and bringing back dead people to the Commander? You know who does that? Crazy people! And cats! Cats do that! They kill birds and then lay them out like utter fucking creepers for their owners—”

“Orochimaru was different. Cats are different. This is different, Kiba,” Shino says mildly. “What is the plan, Sasuke?”

“The plan,” Sasuke says firmly before the conversation can get out of hand. “Is to deliver the package back to Kakashi. We have more than two hundred miles to cover still.”

Neji clears his throat and raises his voice loud enough that Itachi can hear him up ahead. “We should make camp. Give the horses some rest.” He’s been oddly silent this entire time, but it’s to be expected. Uchiha Itachi is in their midst; for almost their entire professional lives, they have been conditioned to believe that Itachi is an enemy of the State. They don’t have shared blood to forget the past as easily as Sasuke has. Old habits, as they say, die hard.

Itachi pauses up ahead. He considers the suggestion before deciding and returning to join the group. He considers them for a moment before saying, “Inuzuka, firewood. Aburame, perimeter. Nara, you and I check the seals on Zetsu. Hyuga, water. Sasuke, set up camp.”

He pushes past the silent group and moves towards the back of the cart. Neji turns his milky-blue gaze to Sasuke and stares pointedly. He is clearly the highest-ranking officer in this group, but Itachi has barreled right over his authority without a moment’s pause. “Forgot to mention,” Sasuke says, by way of apology. “He’s a bossy son of a bitch.”

“Camp, Sasuke,” Itachi repeats, irked now that Sasuke is talking about him so obviously.

Sasuke rolls his eyes and starts on his task. Behind him, the others follow.

Neji’s stony silence doesn’t give way to anger until a few days later, when they’re just a day’s ride away from the City. Kiba is telling Sasuke excitedly about all that has happened in the past year—how they have all moved onto Jounin Forces, how Hiashi convinced Neji to stay on as Lieutenant, how Hinata had gotten a promotion and Naruto

Sasuke glances up from his bowl of food sharply at the name, and the mood around the fire shifts from easy comradery to something more strained. Itachi is leaning against a tree, set apart slightly from the group but still watching all their interactions carefully. He’s retreated into his usual silences around strangers, but he’s getting more and more comfortable with the other men, going so far as to play a game of chess with Shikamaru that involves nothing more than the two of them calling out spaces to each other. Bishop to B9 or Knight to F3. They rarely get to Check or Checkmate; the challenge is enough that Shikamaru’s usually reserved demeanor breaks and he spends hours mulling over his moves. Now and then, Itachi will throw a smile Shikamaru’s way and say, You sure about that move? And Shikamaru will dissolve into the closest thing to a fit that Sasuke can imagine him ever approaching.

Even Akamaru has taken a liking to Itachi and is now curled around him, snoring, while Itachi scratches behind his ears lazily. Which naturally means, Kiba likes him, and Shino follows soon thereafter. Neji is the only one who still views Itachi warily, but it likely has more to do with Itachi’s blatant disregard of protocol and the easy way he has assumed the position of authority in the group.

“And Naruto?” Sasuke prompts, ignoring Itachi’s sudden sharp interest.

Kiba loses his steam. “Uh, well, you know.” He clears his throat. “Seconds?”

The silence is so thick with what’s unspoken that Sasuke’s heartbeat picks up despite himself. He doesn’t bother with making it sound casual. “What about Naruto?” There is no answer; even Shino busies himself with his traveling pack in an attempt to avoid meeting Sasuke’s eyes. “If something’s wrong, just tell me now so—”

“So that you can fuck it up even worse?” Neji asks, mild. Sasuke pins Neji with a stare at the sudden venom in his voice.

“Excuse me?”

“Neji,” Shino says, voice pitched low, but Neji holds up a hand to ward off whatever reprimand Shino has to offer.

“I mean, the man asked, so he’s clearly concerned,” Neji says. “What a fucking hero.”

Sasuke sets down his bowl and spoon carefully. “Do we have a problem, Hyuga?”

Neji gets to his feet. “I’m getting more firewood.”

Sasuke gets to his feet as well. “Here we go,” Kiba breathes, and Akamaru stirs in his sleep.

Sasuke is very aware that he is no longer Neji’s CO because Neji does not hesitate to activate his Byakugan and stare down Sasuke. There is real anger in his gaze, the kind Sasuke has not seen in a while. “If Naruto is in some way hurt or—”

Don’t,” Neji snarls. “Don’t talk about him like you give a fuck when—”

Sasuke’s Mangekyou whorls to life with such force that the fire in the center of the group roars to life. Neji doesn’t flinch back at the sudden rush of heat, just holds Sasuke’s gaze across the campfire.

“Oh, that’s right, I forgot,” Neji hisses. “You’re the only one who’s allowed to hurt Naruto. When you do it, I guess it’s allowed, because he’s yours to hurt, isn’t he? God forbid any of us who actually have his back—”

“I’m warning you, Byakugan,” Sasuke interrupts calmly.

Neji’s hands drop into fists by his side. “Stay away from him,” Neji warns. “He’s one of my closest friends, Uchiha. If you hurt him any more than you already have, so help me God—”

Sasuke blurs. He has Neji pressed into the ground before he can react. A few years ago, his anger would have crippled him so much that he would have been evenly matched with Neji. But he’s stronger now, and the surprise on Neji’s face is worth it. “I warned you,” Sasuke says, voice casual.

“That’s it,” Kiba says. “Shikamaru, do you mind?” Sasuke’s limbs go stiff, and he’s trapped. He resists, but muscle by muscle, Shikamaru makes him submit and pull him away. Neji is suffering the same embarrassment, but his anger has hardened.

“I defended you when we first heard the stories,” Neji says. “I thought you were honorable—”

“That’s enough,” Kiba says, stepping into Neji’s space. He places both hands on Neji’s shoulders, blocking his view of Sasuke. “Now is not the time, Neji. We’ve got a task to finish.”

Neji’s eyes flicker towards the coffin. He chokes down on his own anger, chest heaving with the effort of it. The veins in his forehead recede slowly. “Let me go, Shikamaru.”

Shikamaru assesses the situation for a moment before releasing both of their shadows. Neji doesn’t wait a moment too long, just rounds on his heels and disappears into the forest.

Shino gets to his feet. “I will go find him,” he offers, and disappears.

Kiba looks heavenwards. “My big fucking mouth.”

Sasuke tracks Neji’s chakra until he's out of earshot. “Is Naruto okay?”

Shikamaru laughs. When Sasuke turns to stare at him, he puts up both hands in surrender. “I’m staying out of it.”

Kiba digs his heel into the muddy ground in front of him. The late March-snow has melted around their fire and all that’s left is a circle of dead grass and mud. “Honestly, Sasuke, you know I’ll always have your back but—”

“Is he or is he not okay?” Sasuke demands.

“—but you can be such a horse’s ass sometimes, you know?” Kiba finishes, staring Sasuke straight in the eyes. “Is Naruto okay? Are you fucking kidding me?”

Sasuke sits down angrily. “I’m allowed to ask, Inuzuka,” he says, leaning towards Kiba. “Whether or not you want to answer is—”

“No, actually, I’m not sure you’re allowed to ask anymore,” Kiba interrupts, chin tilted up in defiance. “Neji was out of line, sure, but he has a point.” He takes a breath. “But yeah, Naruto’s fine, I guess. You know, the moment he heard about your brother, he started asking the Hokage to come out with pallbearers so you wouldn’t have to be alone for the trip home. The idiot wanted to come himself, even though we’d been hearing for ages that you were hopping from one bed to another across the Continent, just living it up.”

“I was looking for my Brother, I wasn’t—”

“Oh come on, Sasuke. Even for you, it was pretty ridiculous, the sheer amount of fucking you did,” Kiba says, overriding Sasuke with his voice alone. “You just leave, Sasuke. We’re the ones who see what happens after.”

Sasuke clenches his jaw so hard he can feel the strain of it in the muscles of his neck. Kiba brings his gaze back down from the stars and pins Sasuke again. “You’re reckless with Naruto. You take him for granted, and you’re selfish about it. You’re downright cruel,” he says, and the words sting, even more so because it’s Kiba who is saying them.

“I’m not telling you to get on one knee to do right by Naruto. Clearly, that’s not what you want. That's not even what Naruto is expecting,” Kiba continues, unflinching in his sincerity. “But you nearly slept with one of his best friends, and that was even before you left. The minute you leave, you're fucking around. You weren't even subtle about it. You act like he's cheap, Sasuke. He never blamed you for it or for being who you are, but goddamn it, man, do you have to rub it in his face so much?”

The words sting, like the reopening of a sharp wound. Tenten, he realizes, because that's what she is: one of Naruto's closest friends. He'd spent the night at her place the day before he left, the very evening before he asked Naruto out for dinner. Sasuke begins to defend himself before he even realizes he’s doing it. “I never treated him like he was cheap—”

“Maybe not cheap, but you’ve never been kind,” Kiba says, loud, interrupting Sasuke again. “The least you could do is be kind to him.”

Sasuke can’t hold Kiba’s gaze anymore, so he stares at the fire instead. It’s an odd orange-blue now from his chakra, and he concentrates until it returns to its normal hue. The necklace is warm around his neck, and it takes all of his willpower not to reach for it now. “I didn’t know he was waiting for me to come home.”

Shikamaru laughs again, and this time when Sasuke looks at him, he doesn’t hold his silence. “Sasuke,” he says, words lazy even though his gaze is sharp. “Naruto is always waiting for you to come home to him.”

Just then, Neji and Shino return to camp. They’re carrying a few twigs. “Nice job with the firewood,” Kiba says, friendly and easygoing now that the moment is broken.

Sasuke gets to his feet. “Where are you going?” Kiba calls out.


Shikamaru falls onto his back with a groan. “We’re going to freeze to death at this rate.”

Sasuke walks for a hundred yards before his steps slow. He stands utterly still in the silence of the forest and finally pulls out the necklace. The green is bright in the darkness, as if it's emitting light instead of just reflecting it.

If you want it, Naruto told him. He knows now what that means, and still, he’s left unsure…

He tries imagining Naruto’s version of events: a house, a wedding, children—but all of it in Konohagakure and her redwoods, by the Naka River where he held vigil for Shisui with Itachi’s clammy grip around his wrist, the dragonstone etched with the names of his kin. He imagines building a future in that city, Naruto at his side (with his crystal-blue eyes, cupid’s bow lips, and tinkling laugh—every detail of him bringing solace to Sasuke), but in that very moment of imagining it—

Remembers waking up, day after day, with the sure knowledge that his brother is near (right here, Sasuke)—breathing deeply into a pillow or grumbling under his breath Gods be good, what I would do for a fresh cup of coffee

Remembers walking across the wide expanse of the Continent, with no other destination in mind than the horizon that lay ahead. The vivid clarity of sunrises and sunsets, the weightlessness of walking on sand dunes so bright it felt as if he was stepping, light-footed, across a solar flare—

Remembers gazing up at the stars, a cool breeze drifting down from the peaks of the Yoro Mountain and spreading across an endless stretch of rolling plains.

Sasuke tucks the necklace carefully under his shirt, and presses a hand against his chest to hold it close. He lets the feeling of the pendant digging into his skin hold him to the present and push away the memories of all those months journeying across the Continent, unchained and untamed. He forces himself to imagine a different path, because if he wants it, it’s his to have: a life, an entire lifetime with Naruto—

But he would be tethered and bound by Konohagakure, by her walls and her blood oaths.

For the first time in weeks, he feels the urge to turn westward again.

Chapter Text

The Village wall looms in the distance, and Itachi’s gaze never once dips to ground level. He is so fixated on the walls that he nearly trips over Akamaru, who only chuffs happily at him and butts his head into Itachi’s stomach, affectionate, when Itachi mumbles a sincere apology for his clumsiness.

Kiba is the one who puts Itachi at ease with a firm slap on his back. “Welcome home, Itachi.”

Itachi looks towards Konohagakure. “A few more miles to go.”

“Nearly there,” Kiba says with a kind smile, and keeps walking.

Sasuke falls back so that he’s walking in line with Neji. They’re protecting the rear for the next few miles, but thus far, Neji hasn’t even looked at him. Sasuke takes a breath and says the words he’s been chewing over in his mind. “You were right.” Neji glances at him quickly but doesn’t say anything. “About Naruto,” Sasuke elaborates. He hates every moment of this conversation, but he needs to push through.

Neji returns to his task of scanning the perimeter. Sasuke is about to write off the whole thing as wasted effort when Neji says, voice pitched low, “I was out of line to suggest that you are dishonorable.” He takes a breath and offers Sasuke a small smirk. “I still think you’re a fucking idiot, though.”

Sasuke doesn’t want to drag this argument on by countering, so he just lets the comment go.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” Neji says suddenly. When Sasuke turns to look at him, expectant, Neji offers, “I’m only authorized to say the words once we’re securely within the Village walls and a perimeter has been established.”

Sasuke knows orders are orders, so he doesn’t press for more details. A silence settles over the group—even Kiba doesn’t speak—and the last few miles pass by quickly, contracting in a way that makes it seem as if time is slipping by without Sasuke realizing. He glances ahead at Itachi, who has squared his shoulders and is walking—almost marching—up to the gates now. Thankfully, Akamaru is by his side, providing easy company.

Sasuke can sense the crackle and flare of Kakashi’s chakra. It is familiar, and despite all the thousands of miles and all that has transpired the night before—Neji’s anger and Kiba’s censure—Sasuke takes a deep breath and feels his chest expand with something like relief. This is what they were marching all those miles for, carrying Zetsu’s coffin.

When Sasuke and Itachi deposit Zetsu’s body at Kakashi’s feet, he will know what to do. Kakashi will call his men and women to arms, and they will go to war. They will win because Kakashi is a wartime Commander. Kakashi will lead his army, and when they march, they will lay waste to Madara and whatever middling force he will rise. They will end Madara, end this fight once and for all. It has gone on for too long. Senju Hashirama failed in stopping Madara. Senju Tobirama failed. Sarutobi Hiruzen and Namikaze Minato failed as well. Hatake Kakashi, though, will not.

Sasuke knows this because there is something primal and fierce about Kakashi’s chakra that crackles through the air even all these miles away. Itachi notices Kakashi’s chakra at the same time Sasuke does, and he stiffens, hand dropping involuntarily to his sword hilt before he remembers himself. The last time Itachi encountered him, Kakashi was already weakened from a previous battle and his Mangekyou was a slow-leeching parasite. Still, he held his own against Itachi. This is Kakashi at his full power.

Sasuke doesn’t realize he’s walking too fast and has fallen out of formation until Shikamaru calls out from his side of the cart, “Uchiha, the Boss isn’t going anywhere.”

“The Commander is waiting for you, actually,” Shino says, perched comfortably on the cart. It is his turn to take a break today, and he’s making the most of it: his white robe is draped carelessly over the bench, and his bugs have fanned out in a loose formation overhead. Four of them are perched comfortably on Sasuke’s shoulder.

Sasuke falls back into formation, impatient now to get back to the Village. When they get to the Western gate, there is a chuunin waiting for them. He salutes sharply to Neji. “Sir,” he says, curt, but his eyes are trained on Itachi. He looks pale. He recovers, though, and indicates the cart with the covered tarp. “I’ll need to check the contents—”

Sasuke steps forward to the front of the group with a low growl of impatience. He hears the bzzz of Shino’s bugs moving away from his impatience. “Step aside, soldier. Now.”

The chuunin stares at him with wide eyes, nearly tripping over himself to give the signal. The group spills into the Village; behind them, the gates close shut.

Now that he is inside the city, Sasuke’s impatience becomes even greater. It has taken far too long for them to cross the Continent; there can be no more delays. Sasuke has fallen into an odd, languid pace with Itachi, as if he was just on some road trip and not working against a ticking deadline. Now, though, he knows better.

There are over half a million souls in this Village. Madara has no concern for a single one.

It’s startlingly easy to slip into old habits. “Aburame, secure the package. Loop in Lieutenant Yamanaka for a secure facility in KPD, but no one else. Call in other Unit 3 members for guard duty if needed.”

Shino angles his head politely, so Sasuke turns to Shikamaru next. “Lock it down with SCI, Nara. I don’t want any information getting out of this city about my brother or the package. Round up that chuunin at the gate and keep a tight lid. If even the slightest bit of information gets out, I’m skinning your fucking hide. Work it out with Captain Nara. I don’t care for the details.”

Shikamaru takes a breath but keeps his peace. “Hyuga,” Sasuke continues. “Let Captain Hyuga know that we’ve arrived. Start a recall on all but essential ANBU back to the City. If Madara finds out that my brother is alive and that Zetsu is missing, he’s going to want information. I don’t want the men beyond the borders unless it’s vital.”

Sasuke looks over the team of men to make sure they’ve heard their orders. “Move out.” There’s the slightest bit of hesitation, enough for Sasuke’s chakra to coil. He doesn’t have an armband, but this is just—“Yes?”

“Sarge,” Kiba says, stepping forward. “Now that we’re back in the Village, I need to talk to you.”

Akamaru moves away from Sasuke with a whine at the flare of Sasuke’s chakra. He’s so used to having his orders obeyed that having them questioned now is making his Mangekyou quicken with anger.

“It’s urgent,” Kiba presses.

Sasuke tears his gaze away from Kiba and considers the others. “Anyone else?”

“No, sir,” Shino says neatly and takes off in the direction of KPD with the cart. Shikamaru and Neji break as well, but not before Neji gives Kiba a long, heavy look.

Sasuke rounds on his heels and heads for the Tower. Kiba falls into step beside him; Itachi follows closely behind. “Do that again, Inuzuka,” Sasuke says mildly, “and there will be consequences.”

Kiba clears his throat. “Technically, Sarge, you’re not actually my CO anymore so—” He falls silent when Sasuke’s Mangekyou spins a slow circle. “It’s really important. We need to establish a secure perimeter before I can tell you, though.” Akamaru whines in his throat. His ears are tucked flat against his head as if he’s trying to make himself as small a target as possible from Sasuke’s gaze.

Sasuke ignores Kiba in favor of turning to Itachi. “Stay close, Brother. If anyone attempts an arrest, don’t retaliate.”

Itachi raises an eyebrow. There’s a hint of a smirk on his face. “No kidding.”

Sasuke has to bite down on his anger. Itachi might be his elder, but he’s been away from the Village hierarchy for over a decade. “Only high command knows about the Wildfire Contingency. To the rest of the troops, you’re still an enemy they’ve been trained to hunt and kill for the past decade. What matters most right now is for you to get to Kakashi and make your report.”

Itachi eyes narrow in consideration. “To the Hokage, you mean.”

Sasuke steps away from Itachi. “I don’t have a Kage anymore.”

He starts performing the seals slowly until Itachi understands. They finish with the crane seal almost simultaneously, leaving behind Kiba and Akamaru. It takes three rounds of the jutsu for them to reach the Tower. No one stops Sasuke as he storms through the heavy double door and bounds up the wide stairways two steps at a time.

The West Wing of the Tower is familiar to Sasuke, and he navigates his way towards Kakashi without needing any directions. Kakashi isn’t in his office, but in the Senju Conference Room. Sasuke takes a left and falters only lightly when he senses that Neji and Shikamaru are already there. Along with an entire coterie of chakra signatures. He doesn’t bother to identify who or tally up the signatures because Yoshie is waiting outside the doors for him.

She smiles at Sasuke. “Welcome back, Sasuke.”

This is the second time he’s been greeted home by Yoshie on his way to Kakashi. It takes a moment for him to remember his manners. “Thank you, ma’am. Is he ready to see me?”

Yoshie smiles. “He was getting impatient waiting for you, actually,” she says, almost as familiar with Kakashi’s moods as much as Team 7. She’s been his secretary for nearly five years now, and she knows Sasuke well enough that she keeps a container of cookies on her desk for him. Her smile disappears a moment later, though, because Itachi pops into the space behind Sasuke. “That’s a strong family resemblance,” she mutters, sounding wondrous.

Sasuke makes the introductions, because if he doesn’t, Itachi will likely descend into one of his long lectures on manners. “Yoshie, this is my big brother, Itachi. Itachi, this is Yoshie, Kakashi’s personal aide.”

Yoshie grips the hand that Itachi holds out for a shake and holds his gaze when she says, “Welcome home, Itachi.”

Itachi goes still for a moment. He clears his throat before talking. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Yoshie sweeps the doors open with a bright smile. Inside, the conference room is packed: Tsunade, Jiraiya, all the Captains. (The details of everyone present don’t interest Sasuke, though, because he realizes a key absence: Naruto.)

Most of the people are standing, scattered about the room in loose circles, talking quietly. Tsunade, though, is sitting at the head of the table; to her left is Jiraiya. Kakashi is standing over Tsunade’s shoulder, bent at the waist to indicate something in front of Tsunade.

The room falls completely silent when they all realize that Itachi is in their midst.

The Yondaime glances over his shoulder from his seat, the one usually reserved for Kakashi to Tsunade’s right. His smile freezes when he spots Itachi, but Sasuke keeps his eyes focused on Kakashi. He’s made a fool of himself addressing the ghosts in front of an audience in the past; he won’t do it again in front of a larger audience.

The door slams open behind him, and Kiba rushes in, looking flushed. Even Akamaru is breathing heavily. No doubt, they’d sprinted across the Village to catch up. “Sasuke,” Kiba says in a hurried whisper. “Listen to me—”

Sasuke heads straight for Kakashi, leaving behind Itachi and Kiba by the door. Kakashi keeps his eyes focused on Itachi, but Sasuke starts talking before Kakashi can react. “You need to order them down,” he says, hurried. “There’s no point keeping the Wildfire Contingency a secret anymore—”

Jiraiya steps in before Sasuke can finish his argument. He sounds amused. “You telling the Commander of the Joint Forces what to do, Uchiha?”

It takes less than a heartbeat for Sasuke’s urgency to trip into anger. He rounds on Jiraiya, Mangekyou whorling. “Yes,” he answers, and holds Jiraiya’s gaze. “I’ll also tell you this. If anyone arrests my brother or lays a hand on him or disrespects his goddamn shadow, they will deal with me.”

Tsunade gets to her feet, cutting off Jiraiya’s response. “Welcome home, agent. Glad to see you’re well. I was worried I would never have the pleasure of meeting you. Or thanking you for your service.”

Itachi snaps to attention. “Ma’am.”

Tsunade’s smile is genuine. “We haven’t been properly introduced. My name is Senju Tsunade.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Itachi says, polished despite years of absence from the protocols of Konohagakure. His eyes are unnaturally wide, though, as if he’s shocked by Tsunade’s easy acknowledgement. It’s an odd reaction, but Sasuke doesn’t take much notice. Maybe he wasn’t prepared for such a large audience?

“At ease,” Tsunade says, and gestures at the table. “Take a seat, please.”

Itachi approaches the table cautiously, eyeing the spread of chairs to determine where would be most appropriate for him to sit. His gaze keeps darting back to the head of the table, flickering between one person and the next. Tsunade must sense his hesitation. She smiles. “Anywhere is fine, Itachi.”

Itachi pulls a chair and sits down stiffly. He keeps his eyes glued to Tsunade, who is watching Itachi carefully. Sasuke ignores everyone in favor of taking a step closer towards Kakashi to make his report. “You need to see something. Shino is securing it. Zetsu.”

Kakashi angles his head, interested now.

Sasuke continues. “My brother was hunting him down. He’s Senju Hashirama’s clone.”

Kakashi’s gaze flickers briefly over to Itachi. “That’s certainly interesting,” he says, mild as always. “Is Zetsu dead or alive?”

Sasuke glances at Itachi for a prompt. Itachi shrugs a shoulder, just a twitch of a motion. “Both?” Sasuke ventures. “Neither? There’s two of him in one body, and one half is dead, but the other isn’t. He’s immortal.”

Hiashi leans back heavily into his chair. “Of course he is.”

Kakashi hm-s under his breath as he connects the dots. As always, it doesn’t take him long. “So you used your brother’s death as a cover to transport Zetsu’s body.”

“Not bad, Uchiha. You have your moments,” the Yondaime says, grudging with the praise he gives Sasuke. “But what do you mean when you say he’s Senju-sama’s clone?”

Sasuke doesn’t look at the Yondaime, just stares resolutely at Kakashi, who is watching him with an amused crinkle of his one visible eye. “Minato-sensei asked you a question, Sasuke.”

Sasuke freezes. He still doesn’t dare to look at the Yondaime. “Who?”

“Minato-sensei,” Kakashi repeats slowly. “The Yondaime Hokage-sama. He asked you a question. You should answer him.”

Sasuke counts to ten and keeps his eyes fixed on Kakashi. This could be Kakashi testing him—he must have put the dots together—but Sasuke won’t make the same mistake twice. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Jiraiya groans into the silence that follows. “For fuck’s sake, Uchiha. The cat’s out of the bag.” He waves a hand to indicate the Yondaime. “Minato—sitting right there—asked you a question. Answer it.”

Sasuke still doesn’t quite trust that they’re telling the truth. He says, without looking away from Kakashi, “Brother?”

Itachi responds immediately, sounding strained, “I see him.”

And now, finally, Sasuke turns to meet the Yondaime’s gaze, who gets to his feet with one of his lopsided smiles. Sasuke sees it now that he’s focusing on the ghost, because he’s not the same odd-shimmery blue shade he had been. He’s—

Sasuke’s hand hits flesh and bone. The Yondaime doesn’t shake off Sasuke’s hand on his shoulder, just waits patiently while Sasuke moves his hand to the Yondaime’s bicep. He grips it hard for a moment, another, and then a third, frozen in shock. “I’m here,” the Yondaime says quietly, and it’s such a visceral reminder of that moment in Tsunade’s waiting room all those months ago, the Yondaime’s kindness just before Sasuke was about to step inside to learn the truth about the Nidaime and the Shodaime.

Carefully, Sasuke moves his hand down to the Yondaime’s forearm. It is solid. The cloth of his Kage robes feel as real as Sasuke’s own cloak. He presses a finger into the divot by the Yondaime’s wrist, feeling for a pulse. It’s silent.

“Edo Tensei,” he whispers and flinches back, dropping the Yondaime’s wrist. Orochimaru once cast the Edo Tensei. He taught Sasuke what is required to perform the technique: DNA from the body of the spirit being called forth, and a human sacrifice whose flesh is transformed to become the vessel of the summoned spirit.

Sasuke wants to hurl.

The nausea passes, though, replaced quickly with anger. He rounds on Tsunade and Jiraiya. Who else? Who else but another—

Sannin,” he snarls. The lights overhead flicker with his chakra and the building shakes, not enough to cause damage, but enough for Akamaru to whine in the back of his throat. “You insult him—his memory—” He’s incoherent with rage, words coming out as nothing more than a snarl, dipping in and out of the Northern dialect and snake tongue in his anger. His hand falls to the hilt of his sword, and his knuckles nearly creak from the pressure of holding it so tight as he collects the vocabulary to speak to the Sannin in a language they will understand. “You dishonor him with this. You disrespect him and his memory—his legacy—with this—” He drags in a breath, feels his throat closing on his anger. “This abomination. How dare you?

The Yondaime pulls him back with firm grip on his shoulder. “Ease up, Uchiha. Look at me. Look—” He forces Sasuke to face him with the strength of his grip alone. “Do I look like I’ve been summoned with an Edo Tensei?”

Sasuke stares at the Yondaime’s eyes and his skin. There is no coloring to his skin; he looks oddly flat. But there are no black, spider-web veins emanating from each of the major chakra junctions. His eyes are blue. Just to be sure, Sasuke snatches the Yondaime’s hands and stares at his nails. They don’t have that odd, yellow discoloration of the dead; none of the chipping that would otherwise be present. Instead, his nails are whole. Clean, neatly-trimmed. “The fuck?”

The Yondaime grins at him. “Let me guess. You didn’t give Kiba or Neji a chance to explain the situation to you.”

Sasuke’s mouth hangs open. He’s still not sure—how, what, why, how, how, how—but then all the thoughts in his mind come to a screeching halt, because he realizes: if the Yondaime is here, then…“The others?”

The Yondaime’s face softens with a kind smile. “The others are running late. They’ll be here in a while. If you want, you can wait for Tobirama-sensei and Hashirama-sama outside for privacy—”

The door slams open and the Nidaime barrels through, tugging absentmindedly on his Kage robes. “I’m late, I’m late, I know,” he says by way of hello, ignoring how every single person in the room has snapped to attention, even Tsunade and Jiraiya. “Brother and Hiruzen are running even later than me, so let’s get caffeinated and eat all the bagels in the land while—” He freezes when he sees Sasuke.

Sasuke is the one who looks away first. He stares at a spot on the floor, at the table, at the wall, and out the window, anywhere but the Nidaime’s unrelenting gaze. Monster , Sasuke had called him. What did I ever do to you to deserve that kind of punishment? He’s about to excuse himself when the Nidaime says, loud and sounding the same as he always does, “So now he’s shy.” Sasuke glances up sharply at this. The Nidaime is smiling. “You look like shit, Uchiha.”

Sasuke feels unsure of himself around the ghost like he has never felt before. Still, the Nidaime is trying to lighten the mood, so he will do the same. “Well, you’re a literal walking corpse, Senju, so I feel pretty fucking good by comparison.”

The Nidaime's laughter fills the room. He crosses the distance between them, but Sasuke stays frozen in his spot.

The Nidaime pulls Sasuke into a hug with a fierce grip, the thump-thump-thumping of his hands on his back familiar and comforting. He pulls Sasuke back by the shoulders, but his smile is hesitant now. “Listen. I should have said this a long fucking time ago, but I’m—”

“Don’t,” Sasuke says, rushing to interrupt the Nidaime before he can finish the word. He’s had thousands of miles to think about this, and in the end, Sasuke has decided on what felt most natural: Stay true. The Nidaime wrote the Wildfire Contingency, Sasuke knows, but he was also the man who taught Sasuke his technique. I would not hesitate, he once told Sasuke, to place my life in your hands.

“No, listen,” the Nidaime insists, still holding onto Sasuke by both his shoulders. “Listen, Sasuke—”

“No, you fucking listen. Just shut up and fucking listen, for once in your fucking life,” Sasuke interrupts harshly, speaking loud enough to override the Nidaime now. “Don’t.”

The Nidaime peers at Sasuke carefully. “So we’re okay?”

There’s a hesitation in his voice that doesn’t sit right. He is Senju Tobirama. Nothing less. Sasuke takes a deep breath and holds the Nidaime’s gaze steady. “Yeah. What else would we be?”

“We’re okay,” the Nidaime repeats, smiling now. There’s no question in his words, so Sasuke doesn’t bother suppressing his own grin.

This is relief, Sasuke realizes, the feeling of this wound finally healing. “I didn’t braid you a fucking friendship bracelet, if that’s what you’re waiting for.”

The Nidaime’s laugh is even louder and brighter than before. He pulls him back into a hug, still laughing, and this time, Sasuke hugs him back and eases into the familiar thump-thump-thump of the Nidaime’s hand slapping him on his back. When the Nidaime finally lets him go and steps back, Sasuke clears his throat and asks the question that’s clawing at his throat: “Where is he?”

The Nidaime doesn’t need clarification. “Brother’s on his way.”

Sasuke flinches. “I have to go and make sure Zetsu is—”

He doesn’t even have time to finish his excuse because the Nidaime throws a hand across Sasuke’s shoulder and pulls him close to his side, pinning him in place. He steers Sasuke straight towards Itachi. “Introduce us, why don’t you.”

Itachi gets to his feet so suddenly his chair topples over. “Sir,” he says, crisp. “Uchiha Itachi.”

The Nidaime glances at Sasuke, shaking him lightly. “See, that’s how you greet me,” he says, and turns his attention back to Itachi. Around them, people take their cues to return to their conversations. As if they’re used to seeing the ghosts, Sasuke realizes. This isn’t new. “We have a lot to talk about, agent. Come find me later.”

“Yes, sir,” Itachi says, and he looks star-struck, caught entirely off-guard in a way Sasuke has never seen him. “It would be an honor, sir.” A little stupidly, he adds again, “Sir.”

The Nidaime’s lip curls up into half a smile. He releases Sasuke to hold out a hand for Itachi to take. “I’m pretty sure the honor would be mine, but sure, have at it.” 

Itachi stares at the outstretched arm for a few moments too long. “You shake it, Brother,” Sasuke prompts, and this earns him a scowl from Itachi. He takes the Nidaime’s arm carefully and the Nidaime shakes it twice. When he withdraws his hand, he stares at his palm, as if it’s a foreign limb and not something attached to his own body.

The Nidaime hm-s under his breath. “I don’t understand why people keep doing that,” he mutters, and stares at his own hand, turning it over as if examining it for flaws. When he finds none, he holds it out for Sasuke to inspect. “Check it out. Do I feel dead?”

Sasuke rolls his eyes, but he shakes the Nidaime’s hand anyways to test the theory. “You are dead,” he points out. “But it feels fine to me.”

The Yondaime joins the conversation neatly with a grin. “At least people have stopped fainting, Tobirama-sensei.”

The Nidaime grins, all teeth. “They just can’t handle this beautiful face.”

Sasuke opens his mouth, ready with at least twenty different jokes he can make on the Nidaime’s beautiful face, but before he can say any of them, the Nidaime smacks him upside the head, and turns back to Itachi. “Minato here took it hard when he heard you might be dead

The Yondaime holds out a hand. This time, Itachi doesn’t need prompting. “Welcome home,” the Yondaime says. His smile is genuine. “Tobirama-sensei won’t say it, but he also took it hard. He wanted to order a full ceremonial burial and be a pallbearer for the ceremony. I convinced him to hold off to keep your cover intact.”

“What’s the point of a cover if you’re dead, is what I want to know. As if Madara hasn’t figured it out already by now,” the Nidaime says. Itachi’s mouth gapes open at the Nidaime’s gesture. A Kage, and that too the Nidaime Hokage, as a pallbearer.

Sasuke is the one to acknowledge the act. He turns to the Nidaime with a smile. “The dead can’t be pallbearers for other dead people, Senju. It’s unnatural.”

The Nidaime accepts the roundabout Thank you with a smile, but it’s strained. It’s the Nidaime’s orders that Itachi so blindly followed. But that’s not what Sasuke thinks of in that moment. Instead, he remembers standing vigil for Itachi with the Nidaime. He remembers the Nidaime’s voice when he had said, sounding raw and broken, When my brother died, it nearly killed me

Itachi keeps looking between the Nidaime and the Yondaime as if he can’t decide where to look, so the Yondaime takes pity on him and steers the conversation onto more neutral grounds. Sasuke tries more than once to get away from the Nidaime and make an exit before he has to face the Shodaime, but the ghost’s grip around his shoulders is firm. At one point, he manages to get out of the near-chokehold the Nidaime has him in, but he’s dragged back by the scruff of his shirt and a stern, Oh, no you don’t, you piece of shit, even as the Yondaime says, kinder than he’s ever been, “Uchiha, he’s been waiting for you to come home. He wants to see you.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t,” Sasuke mutters, and twists the Nidaime’s elbow at an angle, forcing him to yield his grip. He gets two feet away when the doors open.

The entire room snaps to attention again when the Shodaime enters, followed closely by Sarutobi. The silence in the room is deeper with the Shodaime there. Even Akamaru dips his head, bending at the knee as if he’s doing some kind of bow. Sasuke makes an aborted movement towards the Shodaime, but catches himself at the last second.

“At ease,” the Shodaime says, and the room relaxes just a fraction. The Shodaime’s eyes go straight to Itachi, and then to Sasuke. He has a small smile on his face—relief, Sasuke realizes, because everyone had believed their cover that Itachi had died.

Sasuke feels as if he should stand at attention, maybe say something, but the room is silent and he doesn’t know what to say. He’d called the Shodaime a liar (You don’t have to live with anything, he’d said), forced the Shodaime to release him from his oaths, and left without a single word. What can he possibly say now to make up for that?

The Shodaime’s shoulders move up and down with a deep breath. And then another. A third. Sasuke thinks that he should leave, but the Shodaime speaks, voice thick. “Welcome home, son.”

The relief is so overwhelming, Sasuke feels a breath rattle out of him.

Sasuke is the one to move, jerking out of his stupor and taking large strides to cross the distance between them. The Shodaime just holds out his arms.

He holds Sasuke tight when Sasuke reaches him, presses a careful hand on the back of his neck, and stands still. Sasuke closes his eyes and breathes in one shaky breath after another, feels something finally settle into place. He grips the fabric of the Shodaime’s robes in a fist, knows that he’s holding on too tight, but he can’t bring himself to care because the Shodaime is holding him back just as fiercely.

It takes a few moments, but Sasuke finally says the words rattling around his ribcage for all those thousands of miles, every time he thought of Konoha. “I should have counted to ten. I shouldn’t have said those things to you. I should have counted to ten before I—”

“There is nothing to apologize for,” the Shodaime assures him, pulling back to look Sasuke in the eyes. “You never have to apologize to me.”

Sasuke ducks his head, feeling his face get hot and swallowing on the lump in his throat. 

“I should be the one,” the Shodaime continues. He takes a breath. “I should be the one to say—”

“No, stop,” Sasuke interrupts hurriedly. He doesn’t know what to say so he mirrors the Shodaime—like he’s always done, because after years of silence, the Shodaime was the one who patiently taught him how to speak again, a call back and forth between them on their walks together as the Shodaime said a verse of poetry, and Sasuke would repeat it back (Keep a bower quiet for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams and quiet breathing, he said once in the quiet of the dawn, and Sasuke had taken a full minute to choke out the words in bits and pieces, imaging that kind of peace for himself—and for Itachi and Shisui and all the others—and aching for it).

Sasuke never felt embarrassed repeating after the Shodaime, no matter how long it took him to find the words, because the Shodaime had always had a quiet patience about him, a kindness that grounded Sasuke and made him feel secure (It is all right to take your time, Sasuke). Now, he does it again, staring at a spot over the ghost’s shoulder when he says the words aloud: “You don’t ever have to apologize to me, either.”

The Shodaime lets out a sudden, aborted laugh, almost a cough, and when Sasuke’s gaze flickers to his face, it’s to find that the Shodaime’s eyes are bright with tears. “You are home,” he says, voice thick. He clears his throat, but still, his voice is a bit unsteady. He holds Sasuke face with both his hands, “You are home now. All is well.”

All is well, Sasuke realizes. It finally is; he just needed to hear the Shodaime say the words aloud to believe it. "Okay."

The Shodaime presses a kiss to Sasuke's forehead (where he always placed a cold hand before after each one of Sasuke's nightmares, assuring him, Just a dream, son), and then pulls him into a hug again. This time, Sasuke relaxes into the embrace, feels the Shodaime press his lips against his hair, lingering, hears a murmured, All is well now. The Shodaime holds him close for a few moments longer, until Sasuke shrugs away, getting annoyed now.

“Yeah, all right,” he grumbles, taking a few steps back. “Moment’s over.”

The Shodaime throws his head back and laughs, belly-deep and loud. One of his large hands comes up to ruffle Sasuke’s hair, and Sasuke puts an appropriate amount of effort trying to shrug him away, because his hair is already a wild spiking mess, he doesn’t need to look any more like a crazed thug, thank you very much. “You should meet my brother,” Sasuke says, half-turning towards Itachi (who looks appropriately horrified, Sasuke thinks). Smirking, Sasuke adds, “He’s your number one fan, Shodaime. It’s a bit embarrassing.”

The Shodaime smiles. “I would be honored to meet your brother,” he says. “But, Sasuke…” He halts Sasuke with a hand on his elbow and says, “You cannot be so angry at him for so long.”

Him being Sarutobi, who Sasuke still hasn’t been able to look in the eyes, even though he’s standing just a few feet away from him. Sasuke looks over his shoulder at the Nidaime, who is standing in utter stillness while he waits for Sasuke’s decision. He looks at Itachi briefly. Itachi is watching him back with saucer-wide eyes. He was following orders, the Nidaime told him, and Sasuke understands that better than anyone else. His brother and Shisui had understood as well. They are Uchiha, born and bred to be warriors and soldiers.

If Kakashi had given him the order—

Sasuke takes a breath and holds it for a brief moment. Then, he turns to face Sarutobi. The wrinkles in his face are exactly the same as Sasuke remembers them when he’d woken up in Sarutobi’s office after the Clan’s massacre. You can cry if you want , he’d offered.

What is the point of all this anger, anyways? He’d traveled with it for thousands of miles. He can travel with it for a lifetime if he chooses to, but what would be the point?


Sarutobi offers him a small smile. “It’s good to see you again, Sasuke.”

There’s still hesitation in Sarutobi’s eyes, so Sasuke meets the man’s eyes. “You too, Sarutobi-sensei.”

The smile Sarutobi gives him is wide and genuine. His eyes are a lighter shade of brown with his relief and happiness. Out of habit, Sasuke dips his head in a bow to close the difference in height between them. Sarutobi’s hand lingers on his crown.  

The Shodaime’s hand on his shoulder is heavy and familiar in its weight, but there is no chill this time with the contact. “You promised me an introduction.”

When Sasuke approaches Itachi with the Shodaime at his side, Itachi’s eyes grow impossibly wider. The Shodaime holds out a hand in greeting, and Itachi—for what has to be the second time in his life—forgets his manners entirely and just stares, gob-smacked. When a moment passes and Itachi still doesn’t react, Sasuke prompts, “Brother?”

Itachi croaks, “I need to sit down.”

The Shodaime lowers his hand without missing a beat, and draws out a chair for Itachi. Itachi stays standing, staring between the chair and the Shodaime, as if he’s not sure which part of this is real. The Shodaime keeps smiling beatifically. “It is an honor to meet you, Itachi. I have heard so much about you from Sasuke. I never thought I would have the joy of meeting you in person, but I am so grateful that I do.”

Sasuke beams. An honor, the Shodaime said, to meet his big brother.

Itachi says again, “I need to sit down.”

He stays standing at attention.

The meeting was convened for Sasuke to make his report. Once SCI had pieced together that Sasuke had traveled nearly to the gates of Iwagakure to find his brother—after leaving a trail that disappeared into the deserts—they needed to move fast to contain the situation. But since Sasuke returned with Itachi, the focus shifts from the Land of Earth and Akatsuki to Itachi instead.

Itachi delivers his report, and it is pitch-perfect. He starts exactly where his last report left off—when he joined Akatsuki. He skips over vast stretches of time, listing bullet points of relevant information as it concerns Madara’s evolving role in the group. The majority of his report focuses on the work he did piecing together who and what Zetsu is. He starts with the clue of the Shodaime’s name he sent with Sasuke and the reason why—“I didn’t trust anyone else,” he says flatly. The clues are hidden, barely anything of significance. But Itachi is Itachi, and he had connected the dots together. The work he did while undercover is extensive, thorough, and so goddamn risky that Sasuke has to clench his hands into fists at how reckless Itachi has been in pursuit of the truth.

“Zetsu,” Itachi says, “is Senju Hashirama in some elemental way. I think Madara used his DNA, but for what purpose, I don’t know.”

Itachi’s explanations of Madara’s final plan, though, are still incomplete, and this is where his report dissolves into hazy speculation. “He’s collecting the demons. He wants to combine them somehow. I don’t know how he intends to do it or how Zetsu is involved. I couldn’t find out much else. By then Madara was starting to lose trust in me. He’d seen me fail, time and again, to obey his orders and kill my brother, and his suspicions were raised. I was never involved in the planning of the final plans.”

The silence that follows in the room is absolute. “Combine the demons,” Shikaku repeats after a few moments, his eyes closed in thought. He takes an audible breath before opening his eyes to look at Itachi again. “He said those words.”

This information is new to Sasuke. He leans forward in his seat to listen. “Yes, sir,” Itachi answers. “Verbatim.”

“But nothing else?” Hiashi presses. “No indication as to how.”

“Is it even possible, Hiruzen-sensei?” Jiraiya asks.

Sarutobi hm-s under his breath. “Not that I’m aware of.”

The memory returns to Sasuke like a sudden clap of thunder. He can hear the Shodaime’s quiet voice as he told him the story, the crunch of leaves under their feet and the slow crescendo of birds rising with the sun. “Shinju,” he breathes.

Ten-Tailed it was, the Shodaime had said, And it’s shadow plunged the world into darkness.

The Nidaime stares at the Shodaime, looking as if he's close to laughing but unsure of whether he should or not. “There’s no fucking way, Brother.”

The Shodaime is lost in thought, chin resting lightly on a loose fist. He looks as though he’s relaxing, but Sasuke knows the man’s expressions like he knows the back of his hand. He is worried.

“What’s Shinju, Hashirama-sama?” the Yondaime asks.

The Shodaime makes the smallest of movements, just a flick of one of his fingers towards Sasuke. He doesn’t want to be bothered with the explanation, so he has delegated the task. Sasuke knows that he is quieter than the Nidaime, but he’s always been open with Sasuke; it surprises him to see how reserved the Shodaime is, even though everyone is clearly deferring to his authority.

Sasuke takes his cue. “Once upon a time,” he begins, reciting the words the Shodaime once told him. Jiraiya shifts in his chair with a mutter under his breath about a fairytale , but Sasuke ignores him. “Princess Kaguya mastered chakra, the first to do so in the world. She conquered the Continent and held all the power close. But as the years passed, she realized that her sons, Hagoromo and Hamura, were becoming stronger. One day, they would contest her rule, and fearing that day, Princess Kaguya summoned a spirit from the other realm, so powerful that it nearly shattered the world. This spirit was Shinju.”

The Shodaime told Sasuke he found out about the Shinju during his research. He was searching for a way to stop the Demons from ruining the earth, and he found an ancient scroll, a third-hand account that had been passed down through generations. It was a series of letters between two high-level officials of the Otsutsuki Empire as they discussed the impending coronation of Otsutsuki Hagoromo. The conversation was about the murder of Princess Kaguya. Matricide.

Sasuke skips over the details about the source, just goes right to the story. “Otsutsuki Hagoromo, the Sage, defeated his power-hungry mother and the demon Shinju in battle with the help of Hamura, his brother. Hagoromo sealed the Shinju in his body. He extracted the chakra from the body, and then he split the chakra into nine tailed beasts.” One of them is in Naruto right now, Sasuke knows, but he doesn’t want to acknowledge this aloud. The last time Shinju roamed the world, there was utter and complete destruction.

Sarutobi looks at the Shodaime. “I’ve never heard this, Hashirama-sama.”

“It wasn’t mean to be heard,” the Nidaime answers.

“So let’s assume the story is true. The nine demons are manifestations of chakra, which is how we can seal them in humans,” the Yondaime says, slowly piecing together the parts of the story that Sasuke hasn’t even shared. “But this Shinju sounds corporeal. If the chakra are the Tailed Demons, then wouldn’t Madara still need a body to contain it?”

“Gedo,” the Nidaime answers. “The body is called the Gedo Statue.”

Hagoromo had sealed away the Gedo in the moon. It's nothing more than the exoskeleton of the Shinju. The chakra, he split into the nine Tailed Demons. In the end, Hagoromo was crowned Emperor despite the sin of matricide staining his hands. It was a necessary evil, the high-level officials concluded.

The Shodaime had told Sasuke the stories in the quiet of the redwoods before the sun rose. Sasuke listened to the stories and thought nothing of them. He assumed they were bedtime stories, but the Shodaime’s expression now makes him wonder if there is more to this.

“Where is this Gedo Statue?” Tsunade asks and looks directly at the Shodaime for an explanation.

The Shodaime doesn’t answer, just looks into the vague distance. He hasn’t said a single word since Itachi finished his report. Sasuke stares out the window. “Two hundred thousand, eight hundred fifty-five miles,” he mutters under his breath.

The Shodaime shifts his gaze to Sasuke. He raises an eyebrow. Explain.

“The distance to the moon,” Sasuke answers, and keeps his eyes fixed on the sky outside. Uncle Inabi had read Sasuke a bedtime story once, but it was more like a scientific book for children. Sasuke remembers sitting in Uncle Inabi’s lap and flipping the pages with both hands when his uncle indicated that he should. He can still remember the slight bend to Uncle Inabi’s broken index finger as he pointed to the words and read them aloud. Sasuke remembers the detail on one of those pages: the round orb of the moon, and underneath, a picture of an owl hooting out the interesting scientific fact about how far it is to reach it.

It’s not sunset yet, so there is still light visible. The city beyond is bustling with activity. The Gedo Statue is in the moon. That is what Madara needs.

The Shodaime follows Sasuke’s gaze out the window.

Madara needed the Shodaime’s DNA. There are one of two reasons for this. Revenge, which alone is motivation enough, but not enough to explain why Madara prizes Zetsu so much. Or it’s part of the process. But how?

A seal to undo what was done. Hagoromo performed a seal to extract Shinju’s chakra from its body, and then a second seal to split the chakra into nine. The Shodaime, of all the men who came before him, was able to tame the nine demons into their vessels. There is greatness in the Shodaime, Sasuke knows, but what if it’s more?

Kakashi is the one who comes up with an answer. “It’s a blood seal,” he says. “The Otsutsuki blood to cast it, and now Shodaime-sama’s blood to undo it. Theatrics aside, Senju-sama, Madara harvested your DNA and made Zetsu for something.”

And now, finally, for the first time in nearly half an hour, the Shodaime speaks. “Where is Zetsu?”

Ibiki clears his throat. “KPD building, sir. My Lieutenant, Yamanaka Ino, and Jounin Aburame Shino have secured its location.”

When the Shodaime stands, the entire room stands with him. “Lead the way, Captain.”

Ino is armed to the hilt and guarding the heavy metal door leading into the very basement of KPD. She already has her sai swords drawn, but when she sees Ibiki leading the large group of visitors—Hiashi, Shikaku, Tsunade, Jiraiya, Kakashi, as well as the four dead Kages and Sasuke, Itachi, Kiba and Akamaru—she sheaths her swords and stands at attention.

Sarutobi eyes the fresh ink of the wards drawn into the door. “You did well, Ino.”

Ino smiles at Sarutobi, and her eyes are warm with affection. “Thank you, Sarutobi-sensei,” she says, and opens the door for them.

Chouji, Hinata and Shino are inside. Hinata’s Byakugan is thrumming with life; all around the room are blood seals so thick with the intent to ward off unwanted trespassers that the air in the room is heavy with it. There is a bandage wrapped around both of Hinata’s wrists, soaked through already with her blood. Her skin is paler than usual, and Sasuke wonders just how much blood she shed to seal this room down with the full force of the Byakugan Clan seals.

Chouji is standing directly next to the coffin, and Shino is crouched, a hand pressed into the ground below him. There is a steady hum of his bugs in the air. All three of them stand at attention when the group walks into the room.

Sarutobi assesses Hinata’s work with a measured half-circle loop around the room until he comes up to stand by her side. “These are potent, Hinata. Well done.” He places a hand on her head. “Make sure to take care of your wounds, child.”

When he was alive, Sarutobi visited the Academy every month—the only Hokage to ever do so, Iruka told them—and spent an afternoon with the children. Sasuke remembers him reading stories before nap time during kindergarten, letting a chubby Chouji drool into his shoulder because Chouji was always the first one to pass out after a big meal. The grief after his death was palpable because he did this with everyone: he learned all the names, took the time out of his day to be kind to all those who followed his orders. No wonder, then, that the shinobi around the room—even Shikaku—are so affectionate in their answers when Sarutobi asks them a question. Even the line of Itachi’s shoulders had eased when Sarutobi addressed him during the meeting.

The Hokages—dead and alive—and Kakashi approach the coffin. Unthinking, Sasuke follows the Nidaime. Chouji steps back to make room, and they stand around the coffin.

“It’s a nice coffin,” the Nidaime remarks as Sasuke bends to the task of opening it.

“I helped make it,” Sasuke points out. “Got a discount for services rendered.”

The Nidaime laughs. “You’re a morbid piece of shit, you know that?”

Sasuke grins at the ghost. “Heads up. He’s an ugly ass mother—”

“Language, son,” the Shodaime warns, but it’s nothing more than a soft exhalation of air, an exasperated sigh with none of his usual irritation at Sasuke’s lack of manners.

“Motherlover. A lover of mothers. He has particular affection for his own,” Sasuke finishes primly, and is rewarded with one of the Shodaime’s quiet laughs. Sasuke grins—too wide, his face feels as if it’s going to split. He’s forgotten what it felt like to be in the Shodaime’s grounding presence and to share a laugh with the Nidaime. “Also, he’s buck-ass naked.”

The Nidaime rolls his eyes heavenwards. “Why are all the crazy ones always naked?”

“Not all the crazy ones. Your important bits are covered,” Sasuke points out, and the Nidaime cackles, even as Sarutobi dips his head to hide a chuckle of his own. The Yondaime is less subtle: he tries to hide his laugh with a cough. The Nidaime smacks him on the back, laughing still, and the Yondaime nearly pitches forward from the force of it.

“You need a hand with that?” the Yondaime asks, smirking, when Sasuke carefully starts to undo the tags that hold the lid shut.

Seals, Namikaze,” Sasuke enunciates with a roll of his eyes. “I know you’ve been dead for a while, so here’s a refresher. Seals are these things you draw in blood and ink to—”

“Shodaime-sama!” the Yondaime interrupts loudly, and points an accusatory finger at Sasuke. “With all due respect, sir, I will kill him!”

“Boy, that is enough,” the Shodaime warns Sasuke, before he can goad the Yondaime into his full anger like usual. Sasuke holds his tongue and gets to work. When the lid finally falls away, Zetsu’s eye rolls over and lands on the Shodaime with startling intensity. 

“What,” the Nidaime mutters, peering close, “the ever-loving shit am I looking at?”

“How is he still alive?” Sarutobi wonders, bending at the waist. “He’s not breathing.”

The Shodaime crosses his arms across his chest. “I would like words with Zetsu.”

Sasuke considers the logistics for a moment before deciding on a course of action. “Step back for a bit.”

The group around the coffin takes one step back, and Sasuke leans in to grip one of Zetsu’s Venus flytraps in one hand. “Pardon me,” he says, grinning, and pulls.

The sound of the leaves ripping off of Zetsu’s body is obscene in the quiet of the room. There is an immediate pulse of mud-brown blood; it smells like stale molasses. Zetsu’s eyes shift to stare directly at him. When Sasuke moves to the second one, the anger in Zetsu’s eyes hardens.

By the time he is pulling Zetsu’s body up into a sitting position, the Nidaime is frowning. “You traveled three thousand miles with this?”

“I felt like we made a deep bond,” Sasuke says conversationally, and holds Zetsu’s now-open head in his hands. Without the covering of his Venus flytraps, he realizes just how petite Zetsu is. Sasuke angles Zetsu’s head this way and that, feeling out for the spinal cord. He finds the cervical spine he’s looking for and rearranges his fingers around Zetsu’s face. It’s easy enough to break a neck; but to make it deliberate, to sever the spinal cord at the exact right level to achieve a desired effect is something entirely different. This is a trick he learned from Orochimaru.

The crack of Zetsu’s neck sounds like wood breaking. Sasuke grabs the hilt of the kunai. It’s wet with the slow drip of blood. There’s no guarantee this will work, and even if it does, Zetsu will no doubt regenerate soon after. “If he starts twitching, I’m going to have to cut the conversation short.”

The Shodaime makes a short, compact movement with his wrist, so Sasuke pulls the kunai out with a soft, squelching sound. Zetsu’s breath rasps in the air, as if he’s taking his final dying breath rather than the first one after half a year of suspended death. He stays motionless, though, because Sasuke was exact and everything below the neck is now immobilized. Sasuke wipes the kunai and his hands on the burlap sheet covering Zetsu, and props him up in the coffin before he returns to his spot next to the Nidaime. Zetsu’s eyes have shifted back on the Shodaime.

“Senju Hashirama,” the darker side of Zetsu’s face snarls. “In the corrupted flesh.”

Sasuke glances at the Shodaime. They still haven’t told him how they’ve summoned the ghosts. All he knows is that it’s not the Edo Tensei, but here is Zetsu, calling the Shodaime corrupted flesh. Sasuke pushes the thought aside and returns his concentration to Zetsu. If he moves, he will have to act fast.

The Shodaime watches Zetsu, calm as he always is. There is not a hint of emotion in his expression. But then again, Sasuke thinks. Then again, this is the man who looked across the battlefield at the fury of nine demons and tamed them—all nine of them.

Zetsu is the first one to crack. He swivels his gaze towards the Nidaime, and the hatred on his face is almost breathtaking. “Never thought you’d give up those secrets of yours, Tobirama. He fights like you.”

“He’s a quick study,” the Nidaime says easily. He lets his hand rest on his sword hilt. “Make this easy for yourself, Zetsu.”

Zetsu hacks a laugh, and a small stream of blood drips down on his chin. “This will end the way it was always meant to end, Tobirama. Whether it’s easy for me or not.”

When the Shodaime speaks, it’s sudden. His voice is the same measured pitch as always. “My blood for the Otsutsuki seal. How is that an equivalent trade?”

Zetsu looks at the Shodaime, a sly smile on his face. He can’t hold his own head up, and it hangs limply to one side. He has to pivot his eyes at wild angles to look from one person to the next. “Your inheritance isn’t as pure as you thought it was, Hashirama. Your ancestors weren’t as faithful as you were to your wife. The Otsutsuki and Senju Clans were…intimate once.”

“Why a clone of my brother?” the Nidaime asks. “Why not me?”

Zetsu’s lips twitch. “Your clone may have murdered Madara in his sleep. There was no such concern with Hashirama,” he points out, and his gaze swivels to consider the Shodaime. “A true friend indeed.”

“That leaves the Gedo,” the Shodaime continues. He tilts his head at an angle, considering. “Where is it?”

“You don’t know?” Zetsu counters, but there’s false bravado in his tone. So Madara doesn’t have it yet. “I know you know the stories, Hashirama. You discussed them with Madara, did you not?”

Of course, Sasuke thinks, of course the Shodaime shared his information with Madara. They were brothers in arms, in the trenches together when the world was cracking around them from the fury of the Tailed Demons.

“Stories are just that,” the Shodaime says. “I want the truth.”

Sasuke lets his focus drift to Zetsu’s face, neck, and shoulders. It’s been two minutes since he pulled the knife out of the back of his skull; he should be able to regenerate soon. “You know,” Zetsu says, and Sasuke is so focused on assessing the slackness of Zetsu’s fingers that he doesn’t realize Zetsu is talking to him. Sasuke glances at the Shodaime. Most of the time, Zetsu has kept his gaze fixated on him. Occasionally, he’s looked at the Nidaime, but that is the extent of his curiosity about the large crowd gathered around him. It’s odd that he’s looking at Sasuke now.

“The moon,” Sasuke answers, and knows immediately that it’s a stupid answer. It’s impossible, even for Madara. Two hundred thousand miles is not something that even he can cross, no matter how great his vengeance.

Zetsu shifts his gaze back to the Shodaime. “How much you and Mito yearned for a son, Hashirama,” he says, smiling broadly. “All those dead boys you buried.”

The Shodaime stands silently while Zetsu continues his taunting. He’s letting him talk, letting his arrogance run his mouth so that some useful information can be gleaned. It’s one of the oldest techniques in the book, but Sasuke isn’t sure how the Shodaime is maintaining his composure when Zetsu is talking about his boys. He hadn’t even known the Shodaime had any children beyond his one daughter. So Sasuke does the only thing he can do: he keeps his eyes fixed on Zetsu. He will give the Shodaime his privacy for this.

Zetsu, though, returns his attention to Sasuke. “Uchiha Sasuke,” he says. “Do you know the story of Uzumaki Mito?”

The Shodaime spoke of his wife fondly, but never at great length. Sasuke never pressed, because it was clear to him that even now, the Shodaime was in love with her and her memory. So when Zetsu names her, Uzumaki Mito, it makes him freeze. Naruto has her name.

“Senju Hashirama was traveling through the Land of Whirlpools on the hunt for the Two-Tailed Demon when he saw Uzumaki Mito from across the banks of Lake Tokachi. She was famous for her beauty, you see, for her bright hair and jewel eyes and that lovely grace of hers. You know what I mean, don’t you, Uchiha? You watch that pretty little jinchuuruki of yours closely enough—”

“Careful,” Sasuke interrupts. He can’t stand to have this thing talk about Naruto. It takes all his effort to keep his voice even, to stay as aloof from this whole conversation as the Shodaime has been, listening to Zetsu speak about his wife and sons.

Zetsu doesn’t retaliate. Instead, he returns to his story as if Sasuke hadn’t interrupted him at all. “Uzumaki Mito’s beauty made this famed warrior stop cold in his stride. It was a quick courtship. Senju Hashirama, after all, is not a man who hesitates to make his what he wants, and so their fabled love story began. She traveled with him to the Land of Fire, and she brought her two sisters with her. A trinity of lovely things, they were. And each of them with souls so large and wide they could contain the vast multitudes of a demon.”

Zetsu pauses a moment. When he speaks again, he says the words with relish. “But her womb. Such poison it held for her sons. She bled to death birthing that son of yours, didn’t she, Hashirama? Burying your wife and son at the same time—what was he? The third one? That must have stung.”

“You have my memories,” the Shodaime says, as if the discussion at hand doesn’t concern his wife and his buried sons.

Zetsu’s lips pull up, an ugly, wicked thing of a smile. “Every waking moment.”

The Shodaime watches Zetsu carefully. He holds himself with a heavy stillness, as if he commands each molecule of air around him by the sheer aura of his presence alone. Sasuke has only ever known the man in shades of translucent blue, a cool presence at his side to nag Sasuke to eat healthier, swear less, and assure him, Just a dream, son. Now, though, Sasuke looks at him and wonders: Were you born this way, or were you made into it?

Zetsu looks away from the Shodaime again—and who wouldn’t, Sasuke wonders. Who could ever hold the Shodaime’s gaze? Zetsu stares at Sasuke, eyes hard with anger. “After all that’s been said and done, after all those boys you buried, you look at Madara’s descendent, this half-spirit, and you call him son.”

It’s only then that Sasuke notices that Zetsu’s chin has lifted a fraction. The Shodaime is being polite about this, but Sasuke has no such compulsion. He learned well under Orochimaru. So Sasuke pulls out his kunai and drags Zetsu’s head up by his hair to face him. He’s regenerating already. “Where’s the Gedo, Zetsu?”

“Don’t you know?” Zetsu asks again and this time, his question makes Sasuke grip Zetsu’s hair tighter.

Zetsu has already told him where. Sasuke just hasn’t connected the dots.

I was made there, Zetsu told him. Sasuke has felt the rot of his soul under the rumble of a volcano and the weight of an ocean. He carved his brother’s name into the Dragon Stone and felt a gust of warm air in rejection because Itachi’s soul had not passed.

The Gedo is not in the moon. That’s just a story. It’s somewhere far more sinister.

Zetsu knows the instant Sasuke understands. “You know, Uchiha. You know in your bones. You know in your worst nightmares.”

Sasuke forces himself to keep his expression unchanging even as the dread of it is coiling in his belly. “I do.”

Zetsu bares his teeth in a grin. He twitches forward in a half-aborted motion, moving even closer to Sasuke to snarl. “You will pay for the insult I’ve suffered at your hand, Uchiha. When the world cracks open, and when the darkness falls, I will find you.”

Sasuke looks down at Zetsu and meets his gaze. “It’s a date. Don’t keep me waiting, sweetheart.”  

Zetsu strains his neck to look at the Shodaime. “Make sure you’re watching when I find your boy, Hashirama. You buried him once when he didn’t return from Amegakure, didn’t you? I give you my word; Uchiha’s death will be more permanent this time. I will make him suffer, and you will weep that he didn’t go quietly into the night like your other stillborn sons—”

“That is enough,” the Shodaime interrupts calmly. There has been no change in his expression, and despite how mild his voice is, Zetsu falls eerily quiet immediately. The Shodaime considers Zetsu for a few more moments. “He calls himself Tobi now.”

Zetsu grins. His eyes flicker to the Nidaime and then back. “Madara always did have a sense of humor.”

“I always hated when he called me Tobi,” the Nidaime growls.

Zetsu rolls his eyes. “Only my big brother calls me Tobi,” he says, mimicking the Nidaime’s unpolished growl, but making it sound far younger. “It’s either Tobirama, or it’s my fist in your throat.”

The Shodaime’s lips twitch up in a smile even as the Nidaime’s scowl deepens at the startlingly accurate imitation. “I cannot give you your death yet, Zetsu,” the Shodaime says.

Zetsu laughs, a dry, grating noise. “I assumed as much.”

“I want him secured, boy,” the Shodaime says, and pivots neatly on his heels. The Nidaime falls into step next to him, followed closely by the other ghosts. Tsunade, Kakashi, and the Captains follow, but not before Shikaku turns to say, “Agent Uchiha? If you don’t mind.” 

Itachi tilts his head politely. “Sir,” he says, and falls into step. He lingers before closing the door, holding Sasuke’s gaze steady. “Take care of this, Sasuke.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “No kidding, Brother,” he says, and makes sure to mimic Itachi’s earlier amusement when he’d told him those exact same words.

Itachi scowls, annoyed at Sasuke’s answer. The door snaps shut.

Sasuke stands behind Zetsu. He pulls out a kunai and grips Zetsu’s hair to steady him.

“I will remember this, Uchiha,” Zetsu warns him.

“You do that,” Sasuke comments mildly, and shoves the kunai in to the hilt. Zetsu’s body goes slack immediately. Sasuke looks around the room at the Hyuga Clan seals written in Hinata’s blood. They’re formidable, but he knows there’s a better way.

He turns to Shino, stretching overhead to relieve the kinks in his neck. He hasn’t slept on a good bed in a week. “Get me Shikamaru.” There’s a faint hum in the air and a line of bugs takes off from within the folds of Shino’s robes. “While you’re at it, get the others, too,” Sasuke orders, and a few more bugs take off, disappearing into the narrow space underneath the door.

Hinata clears her throat politely. “Are you saying my seals aren’t secure enough, Sasuke?”

Sasuke scrubs at the scruff on his face. He shaved two days ago, but it’s already starting to feel thick on his face. Wistfully, he thinks of the shower in Mrs. Miyake’s studio. “I’m saying there aren’t any seals as secure as the Nara Clan’s,” he says, as diplomatic as he can.

Kiba steps forward before Hinata can respond. He says, quiet, “Hinata, your wounds.”

Hinata gives him a weak smile and holds out her hands. The bandages are completely soaked through with blood. Shino goes about the job of rewrapping her bandages. “I have sent my ninken for Sakura. She will be here soon,” Shino says, head bent in concentration over Hinata’s wounds. Kiba puts an arm around her waist, holding her close enough that she can sag against him. The amount of blood she sacrificed is immense, Sasuke knows, but he has a job to do and he has to do it well. Even if it means undoing everything she’s done.

Ino opens the door a few moments later, leading Shikamaru, Neji, Lee, and Sakura into the room.

Sakura is dressed in scrubs and carrying a medic bag. When she spots Sasuke, her eyes go wide. She smiles at him, but it’s brief because she heads straight for Hinata, unzipping her bag even as she takes Hinata’s hands in hers. Hinata, what the hell, she grumbles, and gets to work.

Shikamaru whistles when he spots Zetsu. He ambles over casually, Neji and Lee close by his side. “Not what I was expecting,” he says and shoves his hands into his pockets. “You want me to secure him?”

“I have orders to contain him in the KPD building,” Ino says. “Will this room do?”

Shikamaru looks around the room with a thoughtful expression. “It'll do." He directs everyone in placing Zetsu’s body and securing the kunai into his brainstem with strips of cloth. He even insists that they bind Zetsu’s eyes shut, and then moves about the room, muttering under his breath while he cuts and re-cuts the pads of his fingers to draw blood and sketch the seals of his Clan into the stone walls. The shadows flicker and curl around him as he does, and within moments, Akamaru starts to whimper, nudging at Kiba to move away.

Shikamaru looks up from his crouch in one corner of the room. “You should all leave now.” The shadows are dripping down the walls like water towards Shikamaru, but it’s not like any darkness Sasuke has ever seen. There’s something absolute about the shadows that Shikamaru is calling forward—Sasuke thinks that if he were to step into this darkness, he may never return.

It reminds him of the place where he was remade. He can remember how bits of his soul had leeched away into the darkness there. 

Kiba leads the way out of the room, and they file out into the corridor beyond. When the door closes, there is absolute and utter stillness. Sakura stands next to Sasuke, threading her fingers with his, and together, they wait.

No one speaks until the door opens, and when it does, they all take a step back.

Shikamaru opens the door to oblivion, a negative space so profound that it feels as if all the air and and light in the corridor is being sucked in.

It’s instinct for Sasuke to push Sakura behind him, shielding her with the bulk of his body from the gaping hole that Shikamaru has created in time and space. There is nothing—absolutely nothing—behind him, just an empty space, Zetsu long gone. Sasuke feels as if he’s going to tip in, fall over the edge and back all the way down to—

Shikamaru closes the door shut, and the feeling passes. “He’s secure,” he says, and turns to Ino. “Lieutenant, I’d recommend that this section of KPD be quarantined. My father and I should be the only ones with access, for the sake of everyone involved.”

“Of course,” Ino says, and rounds neatly on her heels to lead the group out of the basements.

Sasuke takes a deep breath when they step outside into the fresh air. The others are doing the same, blinking up at the sunlight and taking slow, easy breaths. Shadow-Benders, Rin calls them, and Sasuke understands now the power that the Nara Clan possesses.

“What now?” Sakura asks, interrupting Sasuke’s careful consideration of Shikamaru, who is now deep in discussion with Shino. She still hasn’t let go of his hand, and now that they are in the sunlight, Sasuke tilts his face down to meet her gaze. Her eyes are as green as he remembers them, and there’s a block of her hair falling into her face. Home , the Shodaime said, and this is what this is. Before he can second guess himself, Sasuke reaches up to tuck the hair behind Sakura’s ear, sees that yes, she’s still wearing his mother’s earrings.

Sakura gives him a brilliant smile. “Welcome home, doofus,” she says, and stands on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. She wrinkles her nose when she pulls away. “You need to shave. And shower.”

Sasuke blinks at her, because yes, he knows he needs both those things, but it’s not as if he lives in the city anymore. And besides, he has no money left to even check himself into a motel. “Can I use your place?”

Sakura heaves a world-weary sigh. “One of these days,” she says, “I’ll stop having to take care of your sorry ass, Uchiha.”

Sasuke smirks. “Not today, though.”

“No,” Sakura agrees, and threads their fingers together more securely. “Not today.”

Lee’s clothes are far too small on Sasuke, so Sakura sends Lee out to grab some standard-issue jounin uniforms. “He’s an extra large,” she instructs him as he’s stepping out of the apartment—a new place. She lives with Lee now, apparently, but Sasuke had guessed as much the minute he walked in and saw a moss-green ottoman in one corner of the room. Lee kisses Sakura on the cheek before he steps outside, and then, it’s just the two of them.

Sakura rounds on Sasuke, who is sitting in nothing but a towel on her couch and dripping water all over her furniture. He’s shaved, given himself a buzz cut, and spent long enough enjoying Sakura’s shower that she interrupted him with a few bangs on the door and a warning to stop destroying the planet, Uchiha.

Before Sakura can say anything, Sasuke says, “I’m hungry.”

“Of course you are,” Sakura sighs, and heads into the kitchen. Sasuke lies down on the couch and listens to her cook. He doesn’t get up until Lee returns with an enthusiastic, “Sasuke, my dear friend! I bring you fresh underwear!”

There’s really nothing to say to that, so Sasuke just accepts the bags of clothes and disappears back into the bathroom to dress himself. When he steps outside again, he finds Sakura and Lee in the kitchen, moving easily around each other as they prepare food.

“He eats almost as much as Chouji,” Lee is commenting as he places all the food on the table.

“Almost,” Sasuke enunciates, and sits down to start eating. Sakura and Lee watch him while he decimates what has to be the entirety of their fridge and pantry in less than half the time it took for them to make the food. Sakura, he notices, has made as many of his favorites as she could. When he finishes eating, he sits back in his chair to brace himself for the shit-storm he knows is headed his way. Sakura doesn’t disappoint.

“Let me tell you the differential diagnosis,” she begins, “for people your age who acutely develop neurologic symptoms such as auditory and visual hallucinations.”

Of course this is what would anger her most—that Sasuke didn’t immediately come to her when he started seeing the ghosts. “They weren’t hallucinations.”

Sakura’s left eyebrow twitches.

Over the next two hours, Sasuke learns a great deal about neuroblastomas and other malignancies of the brain. Sakura also interrogates him, in great detail, about all that has happened since he started seeing the ghosts, going in chronological order until Sasuke debriefs her on every single important detail. Lee is the one who cuts her ranting short with an arm around her shoulder and a quiet, “Sakura, he just got back. Maybe he’d like to rest?”

“Rest?” Sakura growls. She cracks her knuckles. “I’ll show him rest—”

“I have to find my brother,” Sasuke says, grateful for Lee’s interruption. “And Kakashi.”

“We have a couch and a spare bedroom for you and your brother if you need it,” Sakura offers without skipping a beat. “Don’t even think about spending the night in a motel.”

Sasuke wants to point out that he and Itachi can’t afford a motel, but refrains himself. Instead, he just accepts Sakura’s generosity, and lets her pull him in for a lingering hug before he leaves. She tucks her head under Sasuke’s chin and sighs when Sasuke presses his face into her hair. “I’d tell you to see Naruto, but I don’t think you should,” she says.

It’s the first time she’s ever warned him away from Naruto, and it stings more than he cares to admit. But—Rule one. If Sakura tells him to stay away from Naruto, he will. “I know.”

Sakura pulls back with a hesitant smile. “Come by the hospital tomorrow. I want to give you a physical and run some tests. God knows what you picked up.”

Sasuke scowls, and very pointedly ignores Lee’s ill-concealed snigger. He’d used condoms every single time, but trust Sakura to look at him as if he’s an irresponsible idiot. “I was safe.”

“Yeah, we’ll see about that,” Sakura snaps, and pushes him out the door with a warning that if he isn’t at the hospital the next day, she’ll hunt him down herself.

He doesn’t go to Kakashi and Itachi immediately, even though he can sense Kakashi’s crackling chakra. His brother is in the Tower too, chakra signature suppressed into an understated hum. Still, his chakra thrums against Sasuke’s perception, familiar as his own. Instead, Sasuke takes a detour along the Naka River, following the river’s meandering curves until he’s standing at the bridge looking down at the Uchiha Clan shrine.

The paint of the building has been worn by time and weather into a dull, rusted red. The dragons curling along the archway leading to the steps don’t seem as fearsome as they used to. Sasuke doesn’t go inside, though, and instead heads to the Village gates. The chuunin on duty is stunned to see him—apparently, not everyone got the memo that he is back—but he lets him pass without any comment.

He picks a trail at random and runs. He keeps his pace slow enough that he doesn’t sweat, just feels the slow-rising rate of his pulse. After a few miles, he slows to a walk, looping around the wide berth of the trees. Every now and then, he drops down to a knee to consider a trail left by one of the forest animals, or reaches out a hand to press against the rough, familiar bark of the trees. He’s been away from the redwoods for a year, and everything seems new again.

When the sun starts to set, Sasuke loops back towards the Village. It’s the same chuunin on guard, and he salutes crisply. Technically, Sasuke isn’t Konohagakure shinobi anymore, and the chuunin doesn’t have to acknowledge him, let alone salute him. But Sasuke doesn’t bother correcting the man, just breathes deep and steps back into the Village.

This time, Sasuke heads straight for Itachi’s chakra signature in the Tower. Sasuke is expecting to find his brother in some conference room being grilled to death for further details on his mission, but after wandering around the Tower, he finally finds Itachi in the residence section—the private portion of the Hokage Tower that is reserved for the Hokage and their family.

It’s a large suite—complete with a fireplace with a seating area, a dining table by large bay windows, and a door on the side of the room leading to what looks like a large private bedroom. On the far side of the room there is a grand piano, set near massive windows overlooking the city beyond.

Itachi isn’t alone, but the group is not as large as before. Still, it’s an audience:

The Nidaime, Shodaime, and Yondaime, Tsunade, Jiraiya, Kakashi, and—


There’s no rhyme or reason to how everyone has settled around the table, which makes Sasuke wonder if he’s just walked in on an informal dinner. Naruto is sitting to the Yondaime’s right, and Kakashi is sitting to the Yondaime’s left, and both of them are leaning forward on the table as if they have been mid-sentence. Naruto is wearing his usual robes, but he’s brushed his hair for once so that the messy sweep of bangs that usually falls across his forehead is swept to one side. The glint of his earrings is more obvious this way, as is the sharp cut of his cheekbones. His face is entirely expressionless when Sasuke pushes through the large double-doors of the suite and comes to a dead halt at seeing him.

Sasuke drags his gaze away from Naruto—and it takes all his willpower to do so because he had looked at the sky every day for the past year and thought of nothing but the bright hue of Naruto’s eyes, had looked across the vast plains of the deserts and been reminded of that single moment when he’d felt the texture of Naruto’s hair between his fingers—and looks at Tsunade.

It takes a moment for him to dredge up the manners that his mother taught him. “I was just looking for my brother, Hokage-sama.” He pauses a beat and adds, just to be on the safe side, “Ma’am.”

Tsunade smiles, and there’s something like affection in her gaze. It catches Sasuke off-guard. “You found him, Sasuke. Come on in.”

Itachi is freshly showered and shaved, wearing standard jounin gear, although there is no vest on his shoulders. There is an empty plate of food in front of him, along with a glass of wine that is half full. Most of the people at the table have wine, although the Shodaime has opted for a coffee (they eat now? Sasuke wonders, but now is not the time or place to ask the question). He’s about to come up with an excuse and make his exit when the Shodaime halts him. “Jiraiya was worried you may have left again, but I assured him you were likely spending some time in the redwoods. Did you enjoy your run?”

Sasuke shrugs, face flushing from the combined scrutiny of everyone in the room. “It was fine.” They still stare at him, so Sasuke clears his throat. “Where’s Sarutobi-sensei?”

“He has a family, you know,” the Nidaime points out. He’s dressed down for the occasion: none of his Kage robes, just a long, white-sleeved shirt that strains against the width of his muscles. He considers Sasuke for moment. “What's wrong with you? Why are you acting so weird?”

Sasuke bites down on a response and keeps his peace. He’s familiar with the ghosts, but there’s an audience now. He feels suddenly out of place. Earlier, when he first saw them, the rush of emotions had been overwhelming and he’d forgotten everyone else around him. Now, though, he’s keenly aware of Jiraiya’s sharp gaze on him.

“You must be hungry,” the Shodaime says with a smile, talking right over Sasuke’s discomfort with practiced ease. This is how he always draws Sasuke out of his silences—endless kindness, patience, and a willingness to put up with Sasuke’s sullenness and anger without any judgement.

Also: bribes involving vast quantities of food.

The Shodaime gestures at an empty seat at the table next to the Nidaime. There’s plenty of food left on the table—which can only mean that Itachi was polite and didn’t eat his full; there’s no other explanation for leftovers whenever an Uchiha sits down to eat—so Sasuke leans over and snags the Nidaime’s empty plate before he starts to serve himself.

He eyes the decanter of wine. He doesn’t like the cloying sweetness of wine, and he doubts he’ll start liking it now. Sasuke opens his mouth to ask, but the Shodaime steps in neatly before he can get a sound out.

“No, you may not have a beer,” he says. Sasuke takes a breath to respond, but the Shodaime beats him to it again. “Not even if it is just one drink.” Sasuke scowls, but the Shodaime is ready again with another rebuttal. “No, I am not being unreasonable. You can survive one meal without alcohol.”

Sasuke glares at the Shodaime from across the table. He’s sitting next to Tsunade, and now, side-by-side in the flesh, the resemblance is uncanny. “I’m back for a goddamn minute and you’re already on my case about—”

“Those green things are called vegetables,” the Shodaime says, pointing at the salad bowl in the center of the table. “Eat them, please.”

The Shodaime’s favorite topics of conversation include: Sasuke’s eating habits, his drinking habits, his smoking habits, and his general level of hygiene and manners. In his quiet moments, he likes poetry and the arts. But when he’s feeling chatty, he likes to talk about Sasuke and his many vices, with some relevant tangents about plants and trees, and the vast diversity of the arboreal genus, and landscaping.

He looks chatty today.

Sasuke would rather gouge his own eyes out before sitting through another one of the Shodaime’s lectures on proper nutrition or a rambling discussion about the eastern art of Feng Shui. So for the sake of everyone at the table, he obeys and fills his plate with a hefty serving of vegetables. The Shodaime smiles, pleased.

Sasuke chews angrily on a clump of what amounts to grass with an occasional baby tomato and lump of cheese. He knows it's petty, but he’s not going to let the Shodaime have the last word on this. “This is disgusting.”

“I thought the vinaigrette was zesty,” the Nidaime comments thoughtfully.

Zesty? He reaches over to feel for a pulse at the Nidaime’s neck. The Nidaime stays still while Sasuke presses and prods into his flesh for the carotid, but his lips are twitching with a suppressed smile. The pulse is silent. Sasuke scowls as he pulls away. “What the fuck are you doing eating a zesty vinaigrette?”

The Nidaime grins at him, all teeth. “I don’t need to eat,” he explains. “I just want to.”

He remembers Rin’s curling hiss in his ear, When a spirit becomes too attached to this world or tries to stay longer than is asked, or needed—

The Nidaime’s chest, Sasuke notices, is completely still. “Not the Edo Tensei,” he repeats, just to be sure, pushing down the memory of Rin under a cool night sky telling him, The spirit becomes infected by the pettiness and ugliness of your world.

The Nidaime shoves at his face, pushing it back towards his food. “Quit worrying, and eat your goddamn vegetables before Brother starts up again.”

Sasuke can’t find his appetite though, because there’s something off about this whole situation. They don’t breathe, but they’re sitting around a dinner table as if they’ve been doing it for years. What if they change? What if their spirits become infected and they become unrecognizable or— “If not the Edo Tensei, then what?”

“Pakkun,” Kakashi answers politely.

Sasuke glances at those gathered around the table. It looks like a family gathering, but it’s not right. Sasuke knew the entire time he was with the ghosts how unnatural it all was, but at least they were spirits—they just woke up from their slumbers one morning, and the understanding was that one day, they would go back to sleep. But with bodies? Will they die? Will they need burials? How will everyone mourn? Before, it was contained with just him, and even then, he’s gotten attached—he knows how attached he’s gotten—but what about Kakashi? Will he have to bury his sensei a second time?

And Naruto—

He ignores everyone who is watching him eat with extreme interest and turns to the Shodaime. He holds the ghost’s gaze, unwavering. He doesn’t say anything, though, because there is a time and place, and besides—the Shodaime knows him well enough to know what Sasuke is leaving unsaid. The Shodaime heaves a weary sigh. “We will talk tomorrow.” He looks at the Yondaime. “All of us. With Pakkun.”

The Yondaime stares back, unflinching in his gaze. It is odd to see the Yondaime so defiant against the Shodaime, but a father’s love, Sasuke knows, is a tricky thing. Especially a father like the Yondaime, who looks at Naruto with such absolute longing. “What Zetsu said in the end,” the Yondaime says, and his gaze finally breaks away from the Shodaime’s face to look at Sasuke. “I’m assuming you know where the Gedo is?”

Above a cold void, below a fire, and in between —where no man should go, no soul should linger, where demons roam, waiting for the earth to crack open and the final battle to spill over and consume everything: gods and men and serpents and dragons. Sasuke’s hand drops to his sword at the thought.

Jiraiya clears his throat to get Sasuke’s attention. “Where?”

The Shodaime is the one who answers. How he puts together the dots to arrive at the correct answer, Sasuke doesn’t know, but he sounds mournful. “Where you came back from. Where Rin took you to bring you back to life.”

“You said you were in Hell,” Tsunade prompts quietly.

“That’s your religion’s word for it,” Sasuke says carefully. He closes his eyes against the memory: the press of the earth around him, the rumble of the ocean above, the darkness and the stench of mud and filth—

“Sasuke?” Itachi prompts, and because it’s his brother asking, Sasuke answers.

“First there was ice, frost, and fog,” Sasuke recites. “Above, a cold void. Below, fire. And in between, a demon. The demon mixed the north and south, and where the fire met the void, there was chakra. The demon made one of its kin, then, and nine more followed. Ten terrible demons they were, and they roamed this space in between until the final battles that’ll consume the gods and men, and the demons and the dragons. That’s where the Gedo is. In between.”

“It’s a story, Sasuke,” Itachi says in the quiet that follows. He recognizes the stories because he was right there with Sasuke, sprawled out on the cool grass while their grandfather told them about demons and dragons after a night of sacrifices and celebrations.

“That’s where I was, Brother,” Sasuke says, and Itachi closes his eyes at the confession. “Eight months, two days, nine hours, forty minutes and seventeen seconds.”

Itachi surprises Sasuke by speaking out of turn. “I put a sword in your hand, and I told you to go,” Itachi breathes, dipping his head with the memory. “I sent you to that place.”

“No,” Sasuke interrupts before Itachi can shoulder the burden—because that is what Itachi does. He put his body in between Fugaku’s anger and Sasuke, held Sasuke’s wrist, gentle, as he guided him into the redwoods and taught him how to snare a rabbit, how to kindle a fire, and twist his fingers so the shadows look like wolves and dragons. “You were sending me to the Great Hall,” Sasuke insists, and finally, Itachi meets his gaze. There’s a pinched look to his face, as if this conversation is physically hurting him. “And I would have gone on my way if Rin had let me.”

The Yondaime is the one who breaks the silence that follows. He places a hand on Itachi’s shoulder with a smile. “Your brother is a magnet for bad luck, Itachi. That’s not on you, trust me.”

Itachi only stares at a spot on the table.

Yondaime redirects his focus to Sasuke. “So this place is…in between? In between what? Worlds? Realms? Dimensions? What are we talking about here?”

Zetsu is from the very same place, which means—Itachi is the one who pieces it together. “Madara already knows where. Zetsu is from the same place. He said he was made there.”

“So where is it?” Hiashi demands. “You said you climbed out after you died, Sasuke. Where did you climb to?”

“A northeasterly island in the Land of Water,” Sasuke answers. “Twelve miles northwest from a village called Chubu. Under a willow tree.”

Tsunade gives Jiraiya a quick glance at this information. “Is it a door? Is that how it works?”

“It’s a hole in the ground,” Sasuke explains, and gestures with his hands to indicate the size. “It exists, and then it doesn’t. Something has to pass to open it.”

Naruto breaks his silence for the first time since Sasuke entered the room, and voices what is on everyone’s minds. “They’ve already captured four jinchuuruki.” He directs his comments to Tsunade primarily, but looks to Kakashi for backup. Now and then, his eyes flicker over to the Shodaime and Nidaime, but there’s a hesitation there. “Getting Zetsu to this…in between place. That’s the penultimate step for the vessel. He’s closing in.”

“Options, Kakashi,” Tsunade says.

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. He doesn’t move from his slouch as he answers Tsunade’s question. “First option, and the most obvious one, we retaliate immediately. Send out track-and-kill parties. Logistically feasible, but realistically thorny. Madara’s death is…not guaranteed with normal battle techniques. And we don’t know if he has a contingency that sets his plan in motion even if he isn’t the one to orchestrate it. Pein is still alive, as far as we know. More importantly, we’d be splitting our resources.”

Jiraiya moves his wine glass in slow circles on the wood of the table. “Naruto and the Village would be too exposed.”

“Tsunade-sama,” Itachi says, breaking protocol again and addressing the group at large. “If I may, I can go back into the field—”

“You’re staying put. That’s an order, Itachi,” Tsunade says firmly.

Sasuke eases his grip on his fork. For just the briefest moment, he thought Tsunade would say yes.

“So option two,” Kakashi continues without missing a beat. “We focus instead on the plan itself. He wants Naruto? Let’s lock Naruto down. He wants the Gedo? Let’s destroy it before he can get his hands on it. Strategically more sound, but logistically a nightmare. Securing Naruto isn’t difficult. It helps that Naruto can throw a punch.”

“Thanks Kakashi-sensei,” Naruto says, flushing a pretty pink at the compliment (Sasuke forces himself to look away, makes absolutely sure that he’s looking at Kakashi and no one else). “But how do we get the vessel?”

Kakashi holds up a finger. “Still working on that bit. I thought Sasuke might have thoughts on how we can get there.”

All eyes turn to him, so Sasuke answers truthfully; just because he knows where it is doesn’t mean he knows how to retrieve it. “I have no clue.”

The Yondaime perks up. “What if we killed you again, and sent you back to that place?”

Jiraiya raps his knuckles on the table. “I vote in favor of this plan, kiddo.”

The Yondaime grins. “I second it, Jiraiya-sensei.”

“You can’t second your own goddamn plan,” Sasuke snarls, but the Yondaime ignores him entirely. 

Tsunade is the one who puts an end to the Yondaime’s enthusiasm. “Minato,” she reprimands, and there are entire depths of affection in that single word. She’d watched him grow up under Jiraiya’s tutelage, Sasuke realizes, and it hits him again: all the ties that bind these ghosts to the living, the shared histories and the bonds of family stretching back and forth across generations.

The Yondaime gives her a lopsided smile. “It was just a suggestion, Tsunade-sensei.”

“I suggest a combined approach, ma’am,” Kakashi offers politely. “Secure our assets while simultaneously going on the offensive. Madara has time on his side. We don’t. We can’t sustain a never-ending war, so the best option is to strike once, strike hard, and—”

He stops, abrupt, without finishing the quote. No doubt, he’s just realized he’s sitting across the table from the man who originally spoke the words, and has then been cited in every textbook on military strategy since. The Nidaime grins at Kakashi. “It’s got a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”

Kakashi sits straighter in his chair. It takes a moment for Sasuke to recognize it, but then he does: this is Kakashi feeling shy. “Yes, sir.”

The Shodaime steps in neatly, sparing Kakashi any continued embarrassment. “It is getting late. I suggest we call it a night. We can return to this discussion at our morning intelligence briefing.”

When the Shodaime stands, everyone around the table follows suit. Kakashi stands at attention, as do Jiraiya, Tsunade, Itachi, and Naruto. It takes a moment for Sasuke to realize just how awkward it is to be the only one sitting at a table when everyone else is standing, so he hauls himself to his feet as well. He considers standing at attention—spreads his feet, squares his shoulders…and then abandons the idea, because fuck it. He didn’t break his oaths just so he can stand around saluting COs all over again.

In the end, he just shoves his hands into his pockets and scowls at the Shodaime.

The Shodaime arches an eyebrow at him, lips twitching. Sasuke speaks before the Shodaime can. “Not a word.” The Shodaime looks as if he’s going to talk anyways, so Sasuke holds up a finger. “Nope. Stop it.”

The Shodaime fakes a cough, but his mirth is evident anyways.

The Nidaime, on the other hand, bursts into laughter. “Did you just try to salute Brother? Is that what that flailing was about, Uchiha?”

The Yondaime starts laughing as well. On cue, Sasuke feels his neck get hot. The Shodaime speaks before Sasuke can reply. “Thank you, everyone. Have a good night,” he says with a chuckle, and everyone at the table finally pushes away. The Shodaime holds out an arm, and Sasuke steps into the embrace easily. The Shodaime's hug lingers, but Sasuke allows it. He even allows it when the Shodaime pulls back and pats him on the cheek lightly. “Get some rest, son.”

“I will,” Sasuke promises, and watches as the Shodaime is drawn into a conversation with Tsunade.

Naruto falls into step beside the Yondaime and Jiraiya, who throws an arm around Naruto’s shoulder and tucks him close. Sakura had told him to give Naruto his space, and he has (Gods know, he has, he’s been sitting across the table from Naruto for the past thirty minutes and looked at him just once), but now—

The Nidaime clasps him on the shoulder and leans close. “Give him space.”

“I wasn’t going to—”

“You were thinking about it,” the Nidaime mutters. “And I’m telling you, don’t. You don’t get to sleep your way across the Continent and expect Naruto to greet you with open arms the first night you’re back. And trust me, you really don’t want to get Minato started on this.”

Sasuke swallows on all the words crawling up his throat. “How does everyone know?”

The Nidaime looks at Sasuke oddly. “This world trades in secrets, kid.”

Sasuke starts walking towards the door with the rest of the group. Itachi has been waiting patiently for him while Sasuke was talking to the Nidaime, and he doesn’t want to make his brother wait any longer. “So why the fuck can no one keep a goddamn secret?”

Exactly,” the Nidaime says nonsensically, and thumps Sasuke on the back a few times. “Get some rest.”

Sasuke looks over his shoulder at the Shodaime, who is still in conversation with Kakashi and Tsunade. Kakashi is standing at ease: hands clasped behind his back, shoulders and spine rigid, eyes fixed on his CO. In all the time Sasuke has known Kakashi, he has never seen the man standing at ease, let alone standing at attention. Just in one day, though, he has seen Kakashi snap a crisp salute several times to the Shodaime and the Nidaime. 

“Get some sleep, kid,” the Nidaime prompts again, so Sasuke heads out the door with Itachi.

Itachi waits until they are outside the Hokage Tower before pulling out a slip of paper. He opens it and reads, “Fourteenth and Grand Ave. Highland Park. Apartment 2A.” He pulls out two sets of keys, one of which he hands to Sasuke. “Tsunade-sama’s valet gave it to me.”

“So, it's not a hotel room.”

“Doesn’t sound like it,” Itachi agrees. They walk slowly along the streets, taking an unnecessarily meandering loop through the City. Sasuke lets Itachi lead the way even though he’s tired and just wants to sleep. This is Itachi’s first night back in the City; no doubt, he wants to reacquaint himself with her.

The apartment building is an old house set on a hill overlooking the Naka River. It’s in a relatively quiet neighborhood, although it’s set close to the bars and restaurants of Uptown. They had even passed a café on their block with civilians and shinobi alike inside. There are two doors at the front of the house: 1A and 1B.

They both pause to take count of the chakra signatures within the building. “Spies?” Sasuke ventures.

Itachi rolls his eyes. “Neighbors, idiot.” They follow a stone path that is curving around the side of the house and through a low-set fence that creaks when Sasuke pushes it open. There are flower beds tucked up against the side of the house, and some metal patio seating. There is even a grill. “This is…domestic.”

“Fucking creepy is what it is,” Sasuke mutters under his breath, and climbs the wooden stairs. At the top is a door with a sign that is slightly crooked: 2A.

The first key Itachi tries doesn’t work, so he tries the second one on the key chain. Sasuke fumbles along the wall until he finds a switch. It’s a narrow mudroom with a small coat closet. Sasuke and Itachi can barely fit standing side-by-side. The second door opens much easier, and this time, Itachi leads the way and finds the light switch first.

The place is wide and welcoming. The upstairs apartment must take up the whole square footage of the two apartments below, Sasuke realizes, and feels encouraged by the fact that Tsunade hasn’t stuck them in some barracks. No doubt, this is to welcome Itachi home properly; she must have ordered for these arrangements earlier in the day. The kindness is above and beyond what a Hokage is obligated to do, and Sasuke finds some of his earlier reservations about Tsunade slipping away. They have never gotten along, but if she treats Itachi with this much respect and kindness, then she’s fine in Sasuke’s book.

There is already furniture in the living room: a couch, two armchairs, a coffee table. There is a spacious kitchen with an island that’s lined with barstools. The dining area is just off the kitchen and surrounded entirely by windows; there's a patio door leading to a balcony with a panoramic view of the Naka River, and beyond, the bustling center of Uptown.

There are three doors connecting to the living area: one to what is obviously a small, half-bathroom. The other two are closed shut.

Itachi glances at Sasuke. “Dibs on the master bedroom.”

Sasuke throws up his hands. “Oh, come on!”

“Called it,” Itachi says, sounding smug, and closes the door shut behind them.

Sasuke wakes up to the incessant ringing of the doorbell. He’s sprawled sideways on his bed, his right hand numb where it’s been trapped under his head. When he shifts, he grunts from the sensation of pins and needles working their way up and down his arm. The sun is streaming in through the open blinds of his windows, which he had been too stupid to close the night before. The clock on the night stand next to him shows 06:29. As Sasuke is watching the clock, a flap turns down and another minute passes: 06:30.

Itachi’s chakra is still in the apartment, dulled and steady the way it is when he sleeps. This can only mean that Itachi heard the doorbell ringing and dismissed it as Sasuke’s problem. Sasuke hauls himself out of bed. There is a genin at the front door. He looks barely ten, if Sasuke were to guess. Do they graduate them this young now? “What?”

The genin holds out a slip of paper with the Hokage’s seal on it. As an afterthought, he adds, “Sir.” 

Sasuke takes it and is about to tell the boy to wait so he can get his wallet and tip him properly, but the genin takes off down the steps and jumps over the low fence. Your loss, Sasuke thinks, and retreats into the warmth of the apartment. When he opens the note it’s to find it isn’t even for him. He pounds on Itachi’s door. “Hokage wants you at fourteen hundred hours.”

Inside, Itachi’s chakra shifts slightly. Sasuke slides the note under Itachi’s door and heads back to his room.

Itachi had gotten the master bedroom, but the only difference is in the size of the room and the fact that Itachi has some extra features: skylights, a walk-in closet, a table, and two armchairs by a low-set bookshelf. Sasuke’s came furnished with a comfortable queen-sized bed, a dresser and a single armchair by the window that overlooks the Naka River. The closet was equipped with standard-issue jounin uniform—including the vest—and even some KONOHA emblazoned sweatpants, and plain white t-shirts for nightwear.

Sasuke heads into the bathroom to start getting dressed for the day. He’s already up. Might as well.

By the time he emerges, Itachi is poking around in the kitchen, opening and closing cabinets. Sasuke heads for the fridge. Unsurprisingly, it’s stocked. “I can make eggs,” Sasuke offers, eyeing the available groceries. “There’s OJ.”

Itachi comes up to stand next to Sasuke. They both consider the contents of the fridge. “I am sick of your cooking.”

“I’m sick of yours,” Sasuke returns, but there’s no insult intended by either of them. They have eaten each other’s cooking day in, day out in the almost six months they traveled together. Granted, their produce was limited, but the idea of making and serving food is tiring. “I know a place. Fresh baked goods.”

Itachi eyes him warily. “I don’t have any money.”

“Neither do I, but this meal will be on the house,” Sasuke offers. Itachi looks skeptical about cashing in on someone’s generosity for a free meal, but he follows Sasuke anyways.

Mrs. Miyake’s store is closed so early in the morning, but there’s already smoke billowing out of her chimneys. Sasuke raps his knuckles on the glass front until the door opens with a jingle. “We’re closed. We don’t open until—” Mrs. Miyake stops when she sees Sasuke. Her surprise shifts quickly into a smile, and she swings her door wide open.

“Sasuke!” She holds out her hands widely, gesturing for Sasuke to approach. “You’re home!”

Sasuke can’t help but smile at her warm welcome and meets her halfway in a hug, nearly bending in half to account for the difference in height.

“Oh, let me look at you, let me look at you, child,” she says in a rush, and pulls back to hold Sasuke’s face in her hands. She squeezes Sasuke’s cheek and turns his face left and then right, inspecting him closely. “You’ve lost weight. And you’ve gotten taller.”

“Been on the road,” Sasuke offers by way of explanation, and moves aside to indicate Itachi. “Mrs. Miyake, this is my big brother, Itachi. Brother, this is Mrs. Miyake, my old landlord.”

Mrs. Miyake covers her mouth in surprise. “Look at you two,” she breathes, glancing between Sasuke and Itachi. She steps forward to tug Itachi further into the shop with a hand on his elbow. Itachi lets himself get manhandled, yielding to Mrs. Miyake’s enthusiasm and kindness.

As usual, Mrs. Miyake talks. A lot. She settles Itachi and Sasuke in her kitchen in the back and starts pulling together a meal for them both: freshly baked bread, homemade marmalade, a glass of milk for them both with the option of coffee if they want, and bustles about the kitchen planning something special to add to their plates—“Eggs and some bacon, now how’s that sound?”

“This is more than enough, ma’am,” Itachi says, politely trying to halt her madcap dash around the kitchen to get the ingredients together.

Mrs. Miyake pauses, but only long enough to look at Itachi and Sasuke. Her eyes are wet. “Look at you two, so polite. And such handsome boys! Your mother was a lucky woman.” She wipes at her eyes with the back of her hand, returning almost immediately to her usual boisterous self. “Don’t be silly, growing boys like you, of course you need more than some toast to get you started for the day—”

Mrs. Miyake fills Sasuke in on the new tenant, a student at the local university (not nearly as handy around the house or helpful as Sasuke was) her granddaughter, her daughter, the new business down the street, and how she’s increased her sales in the past year so much that she’s had to hire some staff. She doesn’t ask Sasuke or Itachi where they’ve been, but rather, where they are now. Sasuke describes the apartment they’ve been assigned—temporarily, he emphasizes—and Mrs. Miyake sniffs at the low standards but agrees that it’s best if they live together.

“Family,” she says sagely, “should stick together.”

Itachi glances up from his food and looks at Sasuke at the comment. He has shaved, cut his hair, and slept well. The circles under his eyes have improved, and there’s a slight pink to his nose from the cold outside. He looks young for the first time, twenty-three like he is without the haunted look of an older man. Sasuke has spent half a year with Itachi—and no one else—and he’s realizing now what that has meant for them.

Somewhere along the way, they have mended what was broken.

“Blood runs thick,” Itachi agrees, and offers Sasuke one of their mother’s dimpled smiles.

Itachi and Sasuke help Mrs. Miyake around the shop to repay her kindness. Mrs. Miyake protests, but it’s easy to override her and get to work. Sasuke helps restock her shelves, while Itachi cleans out her ovens. They sweep out the massive pantry together, slowly devouring a box of cookies that Mrs. Miyake sets out for them as snacks. Before they leave, Mrs. Miyake says, hurried, “I almost forgot, Sasuke! Follow me.”

She leads him to the basement. In the corner are the three boxes Sasuke had left out in the back to be recycled, donated, or trashed. “I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away, so I hired some young college boys to bring them down here for me,” Mrs. Miyake explains. She touches Sasuke’s elbow lightly. “I heard that you’re not a Konohagakure shinobi anymore, and that you travel around the Continent now. But this is your home, I think. Whether you return to it or not. I thought I could hold a piece of it for you whenever you needed it.”

Sasuke doesn’t have anything to say to that but thank you. So Itachi and Sasuke spend the next forty minutes hauling his three boxes back across the City to his new apartment. By the time they’re done, they’re hungry again, so they bang around the kitchen for snacks. The combined knowledge of their culinary skills produces messy, lopsided peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Around a particularly gooey mouthful, Sasuke points out, “Sakura said I should come in for a full med eval and get tested today.”

Itachi looks up at Sasuke with a scowl. “You weren’t safe?”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. Why, he wants to ask, does everyone assume he’s stupid enough to not use condoms. And besides, Itachi—like all Uchiha men with their voracious appetites—got around just as much as Sasuke on their travels. No one is tripping over themselves to ask if he needs STD screening.

“I was safe,” Sasuke says, enunciating slowly. “But just to be sure.” He pauses a beat to make sure Itachi understands what he’s implying—it’s not like he can say, Get tested, Brother, without prompting angerbut he doesn’t really need to. After their snack, Itachi falls into step next to him and they head to Konohagakure General Hospital together.

Mrs. Wakahisa, the triage nurse, is rendered speechless when she sees Sasuke and Itachi standing next to each other. “My Lord , look at you two,” she breathes, looking between them. She covers her mouth with a hand, but it’s not enough to hide her smile. She says the words that Mrs. Miyake said, sounding just as wondrous. “Look at you two handsome boys. Your mother was so blessed.”

Sasuke launches into the now-familiar introductions. Once he’s finished, Itachi offers Mrs. Wakahisa one of his dimpled smiles. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

Naturally, Mrs. Wakahisa is immediately charmed. She even gives Itachi two lollipops while they wait. (Sasuke only gets one; Itachi smirks at him, smug). Fifteen minutes later, Sasuke is being ushered into a clinic room, leaving behind Itachi who is deeply engaged with the latest issue of Home & Garden.

Sakura bursts into the clinic room almost immediately, her white coat billowing behind her. She says, “Strip. On the examining table.”

She conducts a thorough physical from head to toe, peering carefully into his eyes until Sasuke’s Mangekyou stings from the brightness of her penlight. The orbital chakra pathway examination alone takes a full twenty minutes, but Sasuke yields to Sakura’s thorough examinations and follows all her instructions as she makes him go through all the basic seals and observes his chakra spikes carefully. She’s filling up four tubes of blood—full STD screen, she explains—at the crook of his elbow when she says, casually, “Does your brother need a doctor?”

“He’s fine. It’s just a routine visit for him.”

Sakura heaves a sigh. “That’s not what I asked,” she repeats as if speaking to a particularly slow child. “You told me once that the Uchiha Clan had a single family physician. I’m telling you I know your bloodline.”

Sasuke stares at her. “It’s not just taking us on as patients,” he explains carefully. “It’s a blood oath to the Clan. You’d be bound by our Clan laws. It’s—”

“I know what it is,” Sakura interrupts him neatly. She holds his gaze steady. “The Sharingan needs proper medical attention, Sasuke. It degenerates too rapidly otherwise. Even Kakashi-sensei doesn’t take his appointments with me lightly. From what I understand, your brother spent the past decade undercover without any medical attention. He hasn’t received even the most routine eye examinations since he activated his Mangekyou, let alone adjustments to his orbital chakra pathways. It’s a miracle he isn’t blind yet.”

“It’s a blood oath,” Sasuke repeats, trying to make Sakura understand. “It’s permanent. My brother would become your Clan elder. You’d be an Uchiha in all but name, and that comes with responsibilities and allegiances. The laws will apply to your children and your children’s children. You can’t break from the oath.”

“You don’t want me to take the oath?” Sakura demands. She pulls away the last tube and presses down a Band-Aid where her needle had pierced skin. “You can just tell me if you don’t want me to take the oath. I won’t mind.” 

“You’re already my keep,” Sasuke says quietly, and Sakura goes entirely still. “I don’t need an oath for that. I’m not Clan Elder. I don’t even have the authority to take that oath. But my brother does, and he’ll demand it before he lets an outsider near his Mangekyou.”


Sasuke scrubs a hand over his face. “My Clan is…” He has to grope for the right words. “Uchiha Madara is related to me,” he says, switching tactics. “The last generation got murdered. I don’t know what’s in store for the next generation—if there’s even going to be one. All we do is go to war and bleed and die and fuck things up—”

Sakura leans forward to take Sasuke’s hand in both of hers, and this, finally, puts a halt to Sasuke’s words. She smiles brightly at him. “If your brother says no, he says no. But I want to ask. He’s your family, Sasuke. Which makes him mine.”

Sasuke’s eyes track towards the glint of diamond at her ears and the strip of silver hidden under the V of her scrubs. He realizes it only now: she’s already accepted everything about him, and still, she loves him unconditionally.

This is just a matter of formality at this point. “He might say no,” Sasuke warns, and starts tugging on his clothes.

Itachi is surprised when Sasuke steps into his examination room. Before he can say anything, Sasuke starts to talk. With each passing moment, Itachi gets progressively more still, but Sasuke pushes on, explaining why Itachi needs medical attention, and why Sakura should be allowed to take the oath. “She’s in my will, Brother. She’s—”

“I get it, Sasuke,” Itachi interrupts quietly. “She knows what it means?” When Sasuke nods, Itachi takes a breath. “All right, then.”

Sakura is waiting just outside the room when Sasuke steps outside. He holds the door open. Sakura squares her shoulders, and in that moment, she reminds Sasuke so much of the twelve year-old he first met—the stubborn set of her chin, the fierce look of determination—that he can’t help the twitch of his lips. “He’s a bit of an asshole sometimes,” he says, “but just ignore him.”

“I can hear you, Sasuke,” Itachi says loudly from inside, and now, finally, some of the tension in Sakura’s shoulder eases. She steps into the room and shuts the door behind her.

They don’t emerge until a full hour later, and by then, Sasuke has read every single available issue of Sports Illustrated in the waiting room. He’s flipping through The Economist with as much enthusiasm as he can muster when Sakura and Itachi walk out. Sakura is still talking; she looks angry.

Sasuke gets to his feet when they approach him. “Every day seems a bit excessive,” Itachi says carefully. “Are you sure that—”

Four partially blocked chakra pathways in the left eye, including your supraorbital, and both your ethmoidal pathways,” Sakura snaps, overriding Itachi entirely. “And two fully blocked in your right, including the inferior ophthalmic, which explains why you have a blind spot the size of Iwagakure. Did you not think that was worth getting medical attention for? Did you not think that maybe, the slow darkness creeping into your vision was worth getting help for—”

“Is he sick?” Sasuke asks, pressing forward to interrupt Sakura’s angry tirade. He has to swallow on that sour taste in his stomach, the sudden-rising panic that’s threatening to overwhelm him.

“He’s an idiot ,” Sakura hisses, and stabs a finger into Itachi’s chest between each word. Itachi stares at the spot where Sakura’s finger is pressing into his chest, looking confused. Sasuke realizes now that he should have warned Itachi about Sakura’s temper, but it’s too late now. Sakura’s chakra is already spiking dangerously. “This imbecile is nearly blind because—”

“Blind?” Sasuke breathes, and has to repeat the word to himself. Itachi is only twenty-three. For his Mangekyou to have degenerated so fast means that his Mangekyou is powerful, but it also means that he will likely face the rest of his lifetime without his vision, without—

“Almost blind,” Sakura corrects, sounding furious still. “Itachi, you stupid, stupid, piece of—”

“I am, technically,” Itachi points out mildly, “your Clan Elder.”

Sasuke goes still. Family, he realizes, looking at Sakura. That’s what they are now.

“Bite me,” Sakura growls, and ignores the way Itachi’s mouth flaps open at the disrespect. “We will meet every day for an hour. I’m going to reopen your chakra pathways and rehabilitate your Mangekyou to slow the degeneration. I swear if you miss even a single damn appointment, Itachi—” She fists Itachi’s shirt and tugs him down to eye-level to round off her threat. “I will personally hunt you down and cause you some permanent damage. Am I clear?”

“Crystal,” Itachi says, and Sakura shoves him away with a muttered curse. She stomps off, muttering under her breath about how many patients she still has to round on, how she’s stuck teaching stupid medical students who don’t know their heads from their asses, and of course, now she has to deal with not one, but two monumentally stupid Uchihas, what kind of family have I gotten myself into

Itachi waits until she’s rounded a corner before speaking. “She’s wearing Mom’s jewelry.”

“When I died in Amegakure, she inherited everything,” Sasuke explains. When he glances at Itachi, it’s to find that Itachi is trying and failing to suppress a smile. There are dimples in both his cheeks.

“She has a temper,” he points out, and now, finally, his smile breaks loose. “She’ll fit right in.”

Sasuke interrogates Itachi over lunch about his vision until Itachi snaps and slams out of the apartment to get to his appointment with the Hokage. Sasuke laces up for a long, winding run in the redwoods, breathing deep against his own anger at Itachi and mulling over what Itachi had revealed.

If Itachi closes his left eye and stares at a spot straight ahead, he can’t see anything in the lower half of his vision. He barely has any peripheral vision left on his right side, and his left eye is slowly blurring around the edges, narrowing in scope with each passing year. Every time Sasuke asked, Why didn’t you tell me? Itachi had gotten angrier and angrier.

The farther he runs, though, the more Sasuke’s anger fades away enough for him to understand. How would Itachi have even told him the truth? He would have had to admit the weakness of his own Mangekyou, how parasitic it had become without proper medical care. He couldn’t have trusted Madara to check on his Mangekyou, or any of the other Akatsuki members. Which means that Itachi had woken up one day with his Mangekyou burning in his skull, and swallowed on the fate that awaited him. He would have accepted his eventual blindness and death the way he accepts everything—orders to stand down and let his family be murdered by a madman; a decade away from home, haunting the shadows of the man who murdered his mother, but knowing he had to stay his hand because there was always a larger war to be won; a lifetime spent away from his only remaining kin and the certainty of a lonely death.

This is what Sakura swore allegiance to, Sasuke realizes. This family where children are born and raised to be only one thing—soldiers and warriors.

Sasuke comes to a slow stop nearly fifteen miles away from the Village, chest heaving from the punishing pace he’d set. When he looks over his shoulder, he can’t make out the Village walls anymore. The redwoods are too thick around him, the canopy rising up over three hundred feet in all directions around him.

He returns to the Village at a slower pace, and only because the afternoon heat is starting to die out and the Shodaime had promised him answers. By the time he stumbles past the chuunin on guard, his anger against Itachi is entirely gone. Instead, his chakra spikes and flares for an entirely different reason: Madara did this, he thinks with each step he takes towards Kakashi’s chakra signature in the Tower. He did this to my brother. He counts to ten again and again, and when he reaches the East Wing of the Tower, there’s nothing left of his roiling anger against Madara but a low-churning heat in his stomach.

Kakashi isn’t alone. Shikaku, Hiashi, and Itachi are with him. Yoshie makes Sasuke wait for a few minutes before indicating that Kakashi will see him. “He can take a break from his meeting,” she says, and sweeps Sasuke into Kakashi’s imposing offices.

The four men in the room are gathered around the large table to one side of Kakashi’s office, all nursing steaming cups of coffee. They’re hunched over a large map, a pot of coffee acting as a paperweight on one corner to keep the scroll unrolled. What draws Sasuke’s attention, though, is Itachi. He’s wearing a Lieutenant armband and jounin vest with a badge at his waist: SCI Lieutenant. In the Village hierarchy, he’s only a step below the ANBU Captain in the Chain of Command. Less than twenty-four hours in the Village, and he’d gotten a promotion already. Several promotions.

Typical, Sasuke thinks, and tries very hard not to roll his eyes.

Sasuke is tempted to snap to attention with so many eyes on him, but then he remembers he’s not a soldier in Kakashi’s armies anymore. Shikaku and Hiashi are not his superiors. Instead, he pushes his hands into his pockets and waits for Kakashi to acknowledge him.

Kakashi makes a Come here motion with a crook of two fingers. Sasuke crosses the distance and stands at the far end of the table. He can see now that the map is of the Land of Rice Fields. There are four large areas marked, indicating large swaths of the plains on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains. Kakashi indicates the map. “Tell me about these areas.”

It’s not a question. It’s an order.

Sasuke walks around the table to stand next to Kakashi—Hiashi moves aside helpfully to give him space—and considers the map. He sweeps a thumb over one of the locations. It’s not difficult to see why Kakashi is concerned with this land. “You think Madara is hiding out here?”

Itachi is the one who answers. “Madara liked to abandon Amegakure when under threat. His backup plan in the event the city wasn’t secure was the Land of Rice Fields. These were areas he talked about as potential rendezvous points if the group was ever splintered.”

Sasuke taps a finger at the edge of the table, considering the locations. He remembers Sarada and her determination to document the history of the Land of Rice Fields. The entire nation is an unknown. He doesn’t have an answer to Kakashi’s question—Should we look for Madara here?—but he can help shed some light. “This location here is Hozuki Tribe territory,” he explains, indicating one of the locations. “The Hozuki maintain strict control of their lands and don’t tolerate squatters. This area here are the hunting grounds of one of the lesser tribes, the Kamisunagawa. They’re not…friends of mine. I can’t speak to the other locations. The tribes move, and I’ve been away for too long.”

“Hozuki,” Hiashi says thoughtfully. “Rumors are they’re your allies.”

Sasuke has to bite down on a smile. He remembers Suigetsu’s fierce pride and battle joy. “Bloodthirsty motherfuckers,” he elaborates. “Good people.”

“We can start with the Kamisunagawa, then,” Shikaku presses. “Send out some teams.”

Sasuke dismisses Shikaku’s suggestion with a wave of his hand. “They’re not stupid enough to shelter my enemies.”

Itachi raises an eyebrow, looking amused. “You sure about that?”

Sasuke smiles, feels the touch of battle calm at the edges of his periphery. He’d left six of the Kamisunagawa dead on a battle-field once; he’s stronger now. He could lay them all to waste if they dared rise against him. “I’m sure. We’ve met before.”

“The Battle of the Rankoshi,” Itachi identifies with startling precision.

Hiashi takes a deep breath. “I’d heard about that.”

Sasuke inked himself with his dragon after his victory there: Sasuke, Suigetsu, Jugo, and forty-five of Orochimaru’s branded men. Sasuke had led them against seven of the smaller tribes united against Orochimaru. The battle lasted three days in the Rankoshi Valley, and the mud was so churned with bones and blood and the festering meat of dying men that it’s a fertile riot of flowers now. It was Sasuke’s first time as a battle commander, his first time in front of a battalion. He was fourteen. “Keeping tabs on my victories?”

“Keeping tabs on your body count,” Itachi corrects, Mangekyou a slow-pulsing heat in the room. Itachi’s eyes narrow with disapproval, daring Sasuke to challenge him publicly. Peace, that’s Itachi ’s end-game. World peace.

Sasuke is not like his brother. He has a million and one things he wants to say to Itachi’s reprimand, but apparently Itachi is still smarting from their argument this morning even if Sasuke has put it aside. Now is not the time for this quarrel. And besides, Itachi has the right to censure Sasuke wherever he wants. It’s his privilege as Elder—even in front of the senior commanders.

Sasuke does not have the same right, and he won’t undermine Itachi’s authority in front of strangers. He swallows on the hot churn of his chakra in his stomach and turns to Kakashi. “Do you have a minute?”

Kakashi looks amused. He raises an eyebrow as if to ask, Well?

Sasuke should ask the man in private. But Itachi’s insult is still a sharp sting, and he doesn’t have any patience anymore. “I need to talk to Pakkun.”

At this, Kakashi becomes entirely still. “How rude.”

Rude is putting it mildly. For one shinobi to ask another to speak to their ninken is beyond the pale. But the ghosts are walking around in the flesh, and Sasuke figures that this, if nothing else, is adequate reason to break etiquette. Pakkun was the only explanation he’d received when he asked about the ghosts’ presence in Konoha. There is more, he knows, and the Shodaime insisted on Pakkun’s presence for this conversation. So here he is, breaking nearly every rule in the book, asking another shinobi to summon ninken for him.

Kakashi settles his coffee cup very carefully on the table. “I assume you’ll want to have this conversation with my ninken in private?”

Sasuke pushes his hands into his pockets. The temperature in the room is dropping. “It won’t take long.”

Kakashi stares down Sasuke with such intensity that it makes Sasuke’s fingers itch for his weapons. He came here completely unarmed, though, for this very reason. So even though Kakashi watches him as if he’s considering the manifold ways to hand Sasuke his ass for stepping so far out of line, Sasuke holds his ground.

In the end, Kakashi’s reaction surprises Sasuke. Kakashi’s seals are quick and efficient. There’s nary a hitch of chakra before Pakkun is at their feet. He takes stock of his surroundings, and his button-black gaze settles immediately on Sasuke.

“Well, it’s about goddamn time, kid,” he grumbles, and his casual reprimand—as if Sasuke’s tardiness is the issue here—makes the tripwire of Sasuke’s already unstable anger flare.

“You’re going to give me that bullshit, Pakkun?” he snarls. “I’m gone for a few months, and I come back to find that you’ve broken every fucking rule in the book.”

“You were gone for nearly a year,” Pakkun corrects, trotting towards the door already. “And if we’re going to start talking about breaking rules, you’re not allowed to comment. Let’s go. Hashirama has waited for you to come home long enough.”

Sasuke follows, making sure not to meet Kakashi’s heavy gaze on him as he slips out of his office. Sasuke is expecting Pakkun to lead him somewhere private. Instead, he leads them across the building towards Tsunade’s offices. “Whatever you did to bring the ghosts back, you need to—”

“Be patient,” Pakkun warns in a low growl and doesn’t stop walking until they’re at the door leading to Tsunade’s office. He looks pointedly between the door and Sasuke. “It’s either that or I break down the door.”

Sasuke knocks once before opening the door. The ghosts are inside, along with Tsunade and Jiraiya.

The Yondaime is the one who speaks at the interruption. “Not now, Uchiha.”

“Now, Minato,” Pakkun insists and steps fully into the room. “We’ve delayed this long enough.”

The Nidaime pinches the bridge of his nose. “You really waste no time, do you, kid.”

Jiraiya twists in his seat to look at Sasuke. “We’re about to step into a meeting with the Captains, so if this can wait—”

“It cannot,” the Shodaime interrupts quietly. He looks to Tsunade with an apologetic smile. “Tsunade, this is highly presumptuous of me, but may we borrow your office?”

Tsunade gets to her feet. “Of course,” she answers, and although her voice is steady there is a question on her face.

Sasuke waits until the door closes behind them before speaking. “Not the Edo Tensei.”

“No,” Pakkun says. “I made them out of clay and bound their souls to the vessels.”

Orochimaru tried this technique once. It was one of his failed experiments; he could never make the process work. All that he could create were loose approximations of something humanoid. And unlike the ghosts, Orochimaru’s summons couldn’t maintain their forms. They would ooze into murkiness, their features dripping away, their eyeballs disappearing into the squelch of mud, and their vocal cords degenerating so all that was left was the odd, haunting moans that echoed throughout Otogakure. Sasuke used to pray on the nights when Orochimaru conducted these experiments; he’d grip his sword and stare into the darkness of the barracks and recite the names of his gods for protection. He could hear other men in the barracks doing the same, men promising sacrifices of boar and heifers just for the protection to survive the nightmares that Orochimaru had unleashed. “Why?”

And now, finally, Pakkun’s bravado disappears. “Kakashi kept asking,” he begins, and launches into a winding, looping explanation about how Tsunade had reacted after Sasuke left; how the captains all demanded explanations; how Pakkun’s blood oath is to Kakashi, first and foremost. How, Pakkun asks, how was I supposed to keep lying to Kakashi? “And Naruto,” Pakkun says, sounding wrecked. “He begged, Sasuke. He was crying. He wanted to see Minato so badly. How could I say no to him?”

“What’s wrong with that?” the Yondaime asks, voice brittle with grief. “What’s wrong with me seeing my child?”

“What’s dead,” the Nidaime answers, “should stay dead, Minato.”

Sarutobi places a hand on the Yondaime’s shoulder, trying to offer comfort. “I don’t know how I’ll say goodbye to Konohamaru and Asuma again,” he says, sounding even older than he looks. “But I know I have to. We all have to say our goodbyes—”

“I held him for ten minutes,” the Yondaime says, pushing away Sarutobi’s hand. His hands are balled into tight fists. “I held my baby boy for ten minutes before the world ended around me. I never asked for anything before this. And all that time with nobody but the Uchiha to see us. I would have given anything—I would have done anything—for just the chance to hold him again—”

“You’ve had the chance,” the Nidaime interrupts quietly. “How much longer? You keep asking for one more week and look at where we are now. It’s been five months, Minato.”

There are a million and one thoughts in Sasuke’s mind, but he keeps returning to the same memory:

Rin, under a cool night sky, telling him, If a spirit becomes too attached to this world, if it stays longer than is asked, or needed, it turns evil. It becomes infected by the pettiness and ugliness of your world.

The Yondaime looks to the Shodaime pleadingly. “He’s my baby boy—”

“Minato,” Sarutobi says, sounding devastated, and now, finally, the Yondaime’s grief yields in the face of reason.

“Madara is coming for him,” he bargains. “Let’s stay until we put an end to him, at least. So I can rest in peace knowing Naruto is safe.”

It’s a reasonable request; they’ve lingered in this realm through the mundane trivialities of Sasuke’s life. Now that Madara is approaching them, now that the very world might crack open, they are needed here more than ever.

“When it’s over, you have to leave,” Sasuke says. “If you stay too long, you’ll be unrecognizable. You’ll be infected with all the hate and pettiness of this world. That’s what happened to Shinju and the Tailed Demons. That’s what happens to spirits that stay too long in a realm that isn’t their own.”

The Yondaime takes a deep, shuddering breath. His eyes are wet. “Until it’s over then.”

“But if at any time before then, if there’s any reason,” Pakkun amends, pinning Sasuke with his heavy gaze. He doesn’t finish his sentence. He doesn’t need to.

Sasuke turns to the ghosts. “I won’t let your souls be corrupted. You’ll pass to the Great Hall in death, as you were in life. I’ll make sure of it, whether you want me to or not.”

The Shodaime takes a deep breath. “Thank you.”

Pakkun teaches him the technique in the depths of the redwoods, far from the Village walls. The Shodaime insisted that Sasuke learn right away, so Pakkun and Sasuke head north.

There is no undoing the jutsu, Pakkun explains. There is only completing it.

Pakkun had used clay to make his vessels for the ghosts. He had hardened the clay, and used the ghosts’ remains to bind their souls to the vessels. To complete the jutsu requires fire, but it is not a katon. It is something else, something like the firing of clay in a kiln. It takes Sasuke the better part of three hours because Pakkun’s instructions are limited to speaking out the sequence of seals for Sasuke to perform. He doesn’t let Sasuke complete the jutsu, always halting him just before the very final boar seal.

“Can’t you do this?” Sasuke asks after the ninth run.

Pakkun paws at the ground beneath him. “Hashirama wants you to learn,” he says, by way of explanation, and disappears. By the time Sasuke returns to the Village, it is late evening. He heads for the Tower and finds his way to the Shodaime.

The Shodaime and Nidaime are eating dinner with Kakashi, Tsunade, and Jiraiya. There are maps spread out on the dining table, along with stacks of manila folders with the SCI seal. The Nidaime is scrutinizing one of those files when Sasuke walks in. He puts down the folder with a sigh and leans back in his chair. There’s none of his usual boisterousness when he asks, “Done?”

“Yeah, done,” Sasuke confirms, and shoves his hands into his pockets so he can keep them still. I will have to burn them, he thinks. When the time comes, he will have to burn them. It doesn’t matter if the task at hand is complete—whether or not Madara is dead—the jutsu ends only one way. He will have to look them in the eyes and watch them burn. And it has to be Pakkun—or him. Because he is what he is: of both this realm and the other. No other human can complete the task. That’s why Orochimaru failed each time he attempted it.

The Shodaime sighs wearily and gets to his feet. He approaches Sasuke and places a hand on his shoulder. Sasuke pulls back angrily. “You do not have to do it, Sasuke.”

“You were the one who wanted me to.”

The Shodaime’s shoulders move up and down in a deep breath. “In my religion,” he says, voice pitched low, “the duty of burial falls to a man’s son.”

Sasuke feels all his resistance melt away then. He looks over the Shodaime’s shoulder at the Nidaime, who is watching them both silently. Tsunade and Kakashi are also watching openly, but Sasuke focuses his attention on the Nidaime. “What’s your book say?” Sasuke asks. He’d been bored in a hotel room a few years ago during his travels, and had slid open the nightstand to find the familiar book, leather-bound and looking worn from all the travelers who had read it before him. The words come back easily to Sasuke now. “By the sweat of your face, you will eat bread, till you return to the ground. Because from it you were taken.”

“For you are dust,” the Shodaime finishes. “And to dust you shall return.”

He has to ask, so he does. “Is it okay that I don’t follow your religion? For the rites?”

The Shodaime aims for a smile. “That is absolutely fine. I was hoping to keep a sword at hand as well.”

To gain entry, Sasuke realizes, to the Great Hall. Because that is where Sasuke will go in the end.

Sasuke stares at the tips of his muddied boots and swallows on that odd lump in his throat. The ghosts have been with him for so long, he still wakes up from his nightmares expecting the Shodaime’s cold touch on his forehead, his familiar voice reassuring him, Just a dream, son. The thought had never occurred to him, but now it does. Finishing Pakkun’s technique will banish them from this realm. They will be gone.

“Did I misunderstand your religion? Am I allowed?” the Shodaime asks quietly. “Unless you would rather I did not—”

“You’re allowed, anyone is,” Sasuke interrupts, and hates that his voice is thick. He doesn’t have to keep up appearances around the Shodaime, though, so he asks, “Will the Nidaime?”

“We both will,” the Shodaime promises, looking over his shoulder towards the Nidaime. They’re far enough away that the Nidaime can’t overhear, but he must know exactly what they’re talking about because he offers Sasuke a crooked smile from across the room. The Shodaime places a hand on Sasuke’s shoulder, drawing his attention back. “Everything will be all right.”

“I know,” Sasuke says, and blinks hard, trying to make the details of his shoes come into focus. His vision is getting blurry, and he feels young and stupid again, but this is the Shodaime and he’s never judged Sasuke for being just that.

For the second time, Sasuke steps forward before the Shodaime does. He puts his arms around the Shodaime to grip tight, closes his eyes against the image of the Nidaime watching him carefully, and hides the sting of his eyes in the Shodaime’s shoulder, breathing deep when the Shodaime’s hands come up to hold him close.

The Shodaime smells like the earth.

Chapter Text

The next day, Sasuke realizes that there is, very literally, nothing for him to do.

Sasuke wakes up at four in the morning to the sounds of Itachi banging around in the kitchen and stares at the ceiling. He doesn’t have clearance to sit in on any meetings where decisions are being made. Madara and Akatsuki are in the wind, so there is no lead for him to follow.

Even if he were to try and hunt them down, he can’t leave the Village—not with the ghosts haunting the Tower. He’d promised the Shodaime that he would make sure their souls passed uncorrupted into the other realm. He can’t keep that promise if he isn’t watching them.

Itachi is drinking a coffee while reading the news, an empty plate of breakfast in front of him when Sasuke enters the kitchen. There is enough breakfast for two, so Sasuke helps himself to a generous serving of eggs and sits down across from Itachi at the dining table. The table is loaded with Itachi’s gear for the day: his kunai pouch, arm band, sword, and smaller knives. His vest is thrown over one of the chairs. He’s clean-shaven, and his short, military-cut hair is in damp spikes.

If he’s having trouble integrating back into the city, he’s not showing it. Sasuke rehearses in his mind what he wants to say a few times, but it still comes out sounding awkward and halting. “You’re…okay to go back to work?”

Itachi glances up from his newspaper sharply. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Sasuke shoves another forkful of eggs into his mouth because the alternative is to blurt out the obvious: Because you’ve been undercover for longer than any other agent in the country. Because you had to watch your family be murdered. Because you spent over a decade with the murderer of your kin.

They had traveled for thousands of miles together, and it felt like they were suspended in a bubble for all those miles. Now, back in Konoha, the bubble has popped. Sasuke wants nothing more than to take Itachi away from this city, away from the politics of this place, away from all the memories it holds.

Speak, Sasuke reminds himself, and takes a deep breath. “There’s no rush for you to enlist again.”

Itachi scowls. “Why? Because I’m a delicate flower that needs—”

“Because I was fucked up in the head for years, and compared to you, I got the lucky end of the deal,” Sasuke interrupts, and watches as Itachi’s irritation falls away almost immediately. “If you want to take a minute before signing up to be on the front lines again, no one’s going to blame you.”

Itachi’s gaze shifts to a spot over Sasuke’s shoulder. He smooths out wrinkles in the newspaper absentmindedly as he says, “I don’t know how to do anything other than…” His fingers become still on the newspaper. It takes another moment for him to finish his sentence. “Other than be on the front lines.”

Sasuke distinctly remembers the celebrations in the Compound when Itachi was recruited to ANBU. He hadn’t even turned eleven, and while the adults drank through the night to celebrate, Itachi returned to his room by ten—for his bedtime.

This is what it means to be an Uchiha: looking at your brother across the table and realizing that he had no childhood, never even had a chance. He was given a sword when he was six and was sent out to follow orders and fight battles he did not understand by ten. Sasuke would give everything he has for a chance to protect Itachi—just once, because the gods know, Itachi has spent an entire lifetime protecting him. First from their father’s anger, and then from his Clan’s treachery, and now from Madara.

Itachi is still looking at a spot over Sasuke’s shoulder, not making eye-contact, so Sasuke does them both a favor and bends his head over his food. “You should settle into your skin and get your feet planted on the ground,” Sasuke says to the plate of eggs. He’s never been good with words; might as well use the Nidaime’s. “Everything else should come second.”

Itachi is quiet for long enough that Sasuke glances up briefly. He’s dragging a fork through a few scraps left on his plate, still not meeting Sasuke’s eyes. “You settled?”

“Getting there. Or trying to, at least.” Which is the truth of it. He sleeps better now, and when he wakes up, he never wonders, Why. He doesn’t feel so tired all the time, and he doesn’t feel that deep-seated ache anymore, the one that felt like it was sapping away at his marrow. But he had to face Rin across scorched earth and walk the breadth of the Continent to get settled. Itachi isn’t giving himself any time—he’s just soldiering on because that is who he is. “Dr. Ueno Nobuyuki.”

Itachi glances sharply up at the name. “Who?”

“He’s a shrink,” Sasuke says.

Itachi’s carefully neutral expression shifts into disbelief. “You went to a shrink?”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “Just once. Then I found out about the Wildfire Contingency and left the city, so I never went back, but—” He stops, abrupt, realizing that the conversation is going off on a tangent now. “It’s not the worst thing to ask for help, Brother. Do you have any fucking clue how amazing it feels to get a good night’s rest?”

Itachi considers Sasuke carefully for a moment before saying, carefully, “Ueno Nobuyuki.”

“He’s retired, but just ask Tsunade for a referral,” Sasuke says.

Itachi angles his head like a bird, considering. Sasuke knows the exact moment he makes up his mind to follow Sasuke’s advice, because he presses his lips into a thin line, hm-s under his breath, and picks up the newspaper again.

Sasuke returns to his food. Itachi clearly doesn’t want to extend the discussion. He’s chewing on a mouthful of eggs and staring out the window at the Naka River in the distance when Itachi says, “Do you need money?” Sasuke blinks away from the window to stare at Itachi, who is, once again, very carefully not making eye contact. “I have a paycheck now, and back pay from when I was undercover. I know you blew through all your savings on the journey. So I can—”

“I’m not a kid, Brother,” Sasuke interrupts.

Itachi folds the newspaper carefully. “You’re unemployed,” he points out. “And your skills are limited.”

“If that’s your passive-aggressive way of bringing up my lack of higher education,” Sasuke says, “you’re not being very passive about it.”

Itachi frowns. “The Clan set up college funds for all of us so we could—”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “I didn’t want to go to college anyways.”

Itachi gets to his feet with a sigh. He pulls out his wallet and throws down a handful of bills. Sasuke can’t help but notice his brother’s generosity. “I don’t care what you do, Sasuke. I have to get to work.”

“I’m not taking your goddamn money.”

Itachi tugs on his jounin vest with more force than is necessary and starts to arm himself. “Like I said,” he snaps. “I don’t care what you do.”

He doesn’t slam the door behind him, but it’s a near thing. Sasuke glares at the money for a few long moments, but he doesn’t take it.

The clock on the microwave reads 04:45. He has an entire day to himself, and absolutely no orders to follow, no paperwork to file, not even the prospect of a single mission to while away the hours. In the end, habit kicks in.

Mrs. Miyake kept all of Sasuke’s training gear, so he drags the equipment out to the Nidaime’s personal training grounds. They are as empty as the first time the Nidaime showed him the place. To one corner, Sasuke’s punching blocks are still standing erect. When Sasuke gets closer, he finds that the faded marking is still there. He’d been working with the Yondaime on speed training when he was last here.

Sasuke drops his bag and considers his surroundings. He’s used to the Nidaime’s constant presence for training now—coaching, more like, because the Nidaime was at his side at every single moment of it. Even Kakashi left Sasuke to his own devices for much of the time, but the Nidaime’s technique was so precise that he was forced to guide Sasuke through each inch of movement.

The Nidaime is a strategist, and so Sasuke’s training was planned down to the last detail: He wanted Sasuke at a specific weight and muscle-to-fat ratio to maximize the insulation effect of the muscle fibers around Sasuke’s extensive chakra pathways. He was relentless about the basics and focused on each muscle group in Sasuke’s body as something worth perfecting. He wanted Sasuke to think of his body as a weapon with its own strengths and weaknesses. Sasuke has bulk, weight, height, and expansive chakra pathways. He has a body built for war, armed with a sword and sword-fighting style from Kakashi. He learned the Nidaime’s combat technique, but his chakra has given him stamina and his Mangekyou has made him dangerous. What he lacks is speed—that same weight and height that gives him an advantage in taijutsu also slows him down, makes him a larger target for enemies—and his ninjutsu repertoire, although impressive given his Mangekyou, is not his strength.

He’s come a long way, but he can be better still. And while the Nidaime is no longer here to bark instructions, Sasuke doesn’t need him to be.

He is a Sharingan. He remembers.

Sasuke decides to check up on the ghosts on a Friday morning on one of his rest days. It’s been nearly two weeks, and he’s delayed the visit for as long as he can. Worst case scenario, he tells himself as he solemnly eats his way through three eggs scrambled with hefty servings of vegetables and cheese, I’ll kill them today.

“I’m coming with you to the Tower,” he announces. Itachi looks up from his breakfast. Sasuke has taken over the cooking because of the strict specifications of the Nidaime’s nutrition plan. Itachi grumbles about the utter lack of flavoring, but he’s put on some muscle as well, and he looks healthier. The bags under his eyes have disappeared entirely.

Now, they’ve fallen into a different kind of routine from their traveling days:

Sasuke will wake up at four, go for his run and return in time to make breakfast for the two of them. Itachi will emerge from his bedroom ready for the day, and they’ll share coffee and food, with Itachi providing as much detail as he is able to about his work. He’s spending more and more time in Jounin HQ or in the Tower coordinating intelligence and missions hunting for Madara. Sasuke doesn’t have clearance, so he only gets bits and pieces of information that Itachi feeds him. It’s odd for him to be so far out of the loop on this, but he figures that Kakashi or Itachi will eventually bring him into the fold when the time comes.

Sakura joins them for dinner most nights, because Itachi and Sakura’s schedules don’t allow for his medical therapy every day. They cook dinner together, the three of them moving around one another in the kitchen while Sakura orders them to chop this, grate that, measure out two cups of water—or with Itachi, to just do the dishes, for the love of God, because Itachi is an unmitigated disaster in the kitchen and he only needs to look twice at a pot of food for it to go sideways. After eating dinner at the table—no talk of work allowed, Sakura’s rules—and clean up in the kitchen, Itachi and Sakura start on their therapy. Itachi will sprawl out on the living room floor, Sakura sitting cross-legged by his head as she carefully works her chakra through his orbital pathways. Sakura talks throughout their therapy sessions, and as the days pass, Itachi’s voice occupies as much space in the conversation as Sakura’s. Eventually, their voices mingle, open and bright, filling the space of their apartment and invading all the quiet spaces of Sasuke’s mind.

Sasuke gives them the space for their sessions because Sakura is Clan now, and he wants her to learn Itachi the way Sasuke has over the years. He is a Clan Elder worth following, a brother worth loving. So he retreats to the patio with a chilled beer (and sometimes, if Sakura is distracted enough, a cigarette), and a book. More often than not, he finds himself reading poetry, revisiting some of the Shodaime’s favorites, and exploring new writers that the librarian starts to sneak into his pile of books whenever he spends his lunch break returning books and perusing new ones.

The three of them will stay up sometimes, decimating bowl after bowl of popcorn in front of the TV. “Oh my God,” Sakura breathes one day, “you don’t know about the Bachelor, Itachi.” And just like that, they start watching what has to be the single most ludicrous show on television in the history of the planet. (Somehow, Itachi gets sucked into it and Sasuke has no choice but to follow. They even start a betting pool among the three of them. Naturally, Sakura almost always wins.)

Sometimes, though, Itachi gets out of Jounin HQ early in the evening. On those nights, Sasuke and Itachi will “train” together. This usually involves a round of basketball on the street outside their apartment building. Sasuke had stumbled across a hoop that one of their neighbors had erected for their children one day, and after some haggling, they sell the hoop to Sasuke and Itachi to make use of; their children moved out long ago.

Sasuke and Itachi have never trained together, even when they were young. They’re too old now to play games in the redwoods, but basketball is a fair substitute. At least now the ball isn’t bigger than Sasuke, and he can actually participate instead of watching Shisui and Itachi from the sidelines.

Every few nights, Kiba or Neji will seek Sasuke and Itachi out for a drink with the other men. It’s easy to fall back into this routine as well—whiling away the hours while drinking endlessly. And just like Sakura, the men learn to accept Itachi’s stillness, inherent bossiness, and odd humor. Itachi makes Shikamaru laugh with elaborate puzzles and riddles, and listens seriously while Shino explains the exoskeletons of his ninken, asking pointed, respectful questions that leave Shino smiling brightly. He only blinks a few times at Lee’s exuberance when they first meet, but then returns it with a deadpan, “Such wondrous acquaintances we make in the springtime of our youth, Lee. It truly is a marvel,” which naturally has Lee signing up to be his Number One Fan since Itachi is So Very Cool and Hip. He pays for Chouji’s food when Chouji’s credit card maxes out one night, and sneaks fries and onion rings to Akamaru under the table. Kiba almost immediately signs onto the Itachi Fan Club, and sometimes invites Hana to their gathering (and Sasuke watches Itachi’s smile soften around the edges as Hana draws out his fondest memories of Shisui with her presence).

And still.

Sasuke doesn’t see Naruto again. They are separated by just a few short miles, but Sasuke felt closer to Naruto on the salt flats of the Land of Earth and the sand dunes of the Land of Wind than he does now. He looked up at the sky in the Land of Rice Fields and felt Naruto like an ache in his bones, because on the very edges of the Continent, his imagination had filled in the details—sitting across from Naruto for dinner, waking up with Naruto in his arms to hear him say, I’m in love with you.

But even with Naruto’s absence, the days seem almost enough. Clan, that is what he has found again, family, blood, kin—not two, but three now, Sakura fitting neatly into that gaping wound of everyone else’s absence and filling it with the sheer force of her loyalty and love alone. Some nights, Sasuke will look over at Itachi and Sakura paying serious attention to the TV, shushing each other in anticipation of who’s getting booted and who’s getting the rose, and remembers Naruto’s words:

If you want it.

Just two weeks in, and it feels like Sasuke could settle into this routine for the rest of his days. But then he remembers the rolling plains of the north, the crackle of a large fire under an open sky, the scent of fresh pine leaves and majesty of climbing the peak of a mountain. (He remembers the words of a poet he’d stumbled across while thumbing through a dusty bookshelf in the library: To seek a newer world, to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, until I die.)

It’s easy to settle into the familiar pattern of this life, but he can’t hide from the reality of the ghosts for much too long. Today, he will check on the ghosts, and he will hope against hope that the Shodaime and the Nidaime are themselves still.

“Are you going to talk to the Commander?” Itachi asks as he straps on his weapons. He ties the Lieutenant arm band with practiced ease now, and it strains across the width of his bicep as if it was meant to be there. Itachi is just Brother to Sasuke, but to anyone else who meets him, it’s apparent that he was born to wear badges and stripes of command.

“Not Kakashi, the ghosts,” Sasuke corrects, and straps on his sword and kunai pouch. Mrs. Miyake had kept most of his clothes, so he didn’t have to invest in a whole new wardrobe. At least it looks as if his growth spurts are finally slowing: he’s only gained an inch in height in the past year, so his clothes still fit. “They’re at the Tower?”

Itachi stares openly at Sasuke. His curiosity about Sasuke’s relationship with the ghosts has not receded, but he’s being polite for once and not demanding answers from Sasuke. “They’ve limited their movements to the Tower so word doesn’t spread of their return,” Itachi offers. 

Sasuke bites down on the words crawling up his throat. They shouldn’t even be here. But this is not a conversation to have with Itachi. It’s not a conversation to have with anyone except the ghosts themselves and Pakkun. They’ve been here for five months already; the fact that they’ve kept such a tight lid on their presence in the Village is a miracle unto itself.

Sasuke follows Itachi out the door. The workday start early for most shinobi, and the city is already bustling even this early in the morning. As they walk, Itachi launches into a disjointed lecture on the Mangekyou and ninjutsu. Apparently, he’s teaching Sakura katon techniques, and Sakura is working out the biology of the Mangekyou with him—we’ve never had such a skilled medic as part of our Clan, Itachi points out. Itachi can also see better now, and as they walk, he points out—a little unnecessarily—details along the way (The font of the street signs changes depending on whether it’s a blue sign or a green one, he observes at one point, sounding confused by the detail), and it’s almost as if they’re playing I spy again.

When they reach Jounin HQ, Itachi lingers for a moment. “Why do you need to talk to the ghosts?”

There’s no easy way to answer the question. Sasuke opts for the closest thing to the truth. “The Shodaime likes me to check in every now and then.” To make sure his spirit isn’t becoming corrupted, he doesn’t say. “The Nidaime, too.”

Itachi watches Sasuke carefully. “You never told me about Senju-sama.”

Sasuke frowns. He’d answered nearly every single one of Itachi’s questions about the ghosts on their trip back to Konoha. “Which Senju?”

“Both,” Itachi answers. A moment later, he adds, “You’re close with them. I didn't know you were so close with them.”

Sasuke looks towards the Hokage Monument. This close to downtown, they loom large. As always, Sasuke marvels at just how inaccurate the sculptors have been. They’ve somehow gotten every single one of the ghosts wrong. The Yondaime doesn’t have his usual easy smile, and Sarutobi’s silhouette doesn’t contain an ounce of his patience. There is none of the Shodaime’s kindness or the Nidaime’s warmth.

If he finds the spirits changed, it will fall to him to complete Pakkun’s jutsu and send them to their peace. When Sasuke doesn’t say anything for a long moment, Itachi breaks the silence. “They’ll be in the Tower,” he repeats, and disappears into Jounin HQ.

Sasuke retraces his steps to the suites where he found the Shodaime and Nidaime two weeks ago. The valet at the entrance is absolutely aghast that Sasuke would show up unannounced before seven in the morning, sir, I must insist

As predicted, the ghosts are awake already. The four of them are sitting around the dining table, which is laden with breakfast food. None of their plates have a trace of food on them, although all of their coffee cups are steaming. “You eat all three meals a day now?” Sasuke asks by way of good morning.

The Shodaime looks up from the newspaper he’s perusing with a smile. “No. We only eat when we have company. This is more of a formality. Tsunade insists.”

“I will not say no to a cup of coffee, though,” Sarutobi says, taking a languid inhale of the steam drifting upwards from his mug.

Sasuke takes the empty seat to the Shodaime’s left and across from the Nidaime, who is considering Sasuke carefully. It doesn’t take long for him to connect the dots. “You’ve been training!”

The Yondaime’s eyes narrow in consideration. “You’ve put on weight in just two weeks. Rapid progress, Uchiha.”

Sasuke snags the Shodaime’s empty plate and starts serving himself. He’s at two hundred and twenty-three pounds last he checked; his ideal weight is between two hundred and twenty-five and two hundred and thirty. He can afford a second breakfast. “It’s my day off.”

“So you came here,” the Shodaime says with a smile. He’s pleased.

Sasuke peels an orange and starts to separate the slices. He’s not sure how he’s going to explain the real reason for his visit. I’m here to make sure your spirits aren’t becoming evil is just ridiculous. He’s not even sure what he’s looking for. Pakkun was vague about the details.

“Day off?” the Nidaime grumbles, irked already. “What are you working on now?”

“Footwork,” Sasuke answers easily.

The Nidaime isn’t convinced. “You’ll be here at noon every day so I can assess just how much of a mess you’re making of my technique.”

Sasuke doesn’t take offense. He’s used to the man’s staggering overconfidence in his own abilities and disregard for the merit of those around him. To be fair, though, there’s a reason for the Nidaime’s hubris. It’s supported by fact. “I’m following what you taught me.”

The Nidaime rolls his eyes. “I didn’t teach you everything I know in eight weeks, punk. Noon tomorrow. We’ll spar for an hour. Start your days at four, and stick to the usual schedule.”

The usual schedule is a ten mile run, followed by stretches and warmups, and then strength training. At eight, Sasuke breaks for his breakfast, and then continues with taijutsu. At ten, it’s a snack, and then it’s either weapons training or ninjutsu on alternating days. Sasuke’s morning schedule with the Nidaime was so structured that he could go through the routine with his eyes closed.

“I’ll find you at noon,” Sasuke repeats, and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t keep down the excitement in his voice. He liked training with the Nidaime.

The Nidaime grins. “I’m going to wipe the floor with your ass, kid.”

The ghosts fall into one of their rambling conversations—driven largely by the Yondaime and Nidaime—while Sasuke munches through a second breakfast. It reminds Sasuke of all those weeks and months when they haunted Sasuke exclusively, inserting themselves into his life and nagging him about each and every aspect of it. He has been traveling for so long without their company that he’s surprised at just how easy it is for him to step back into old habits and while away the time in the ghosts’ company. The Shodaime eases Sasuke into the conversation, and gently coaxes him into sharing details about his time on the journey.

Sasuke is used to talking to the Shodaime alone—he sometimes even initiated conversations when they trained together in those early morning hours—but it’s almost as easy to talk to all four of the ghosts. He tells them about all the things he saw, the people he met, and the odd cultural clashes he encountered. He is telling them about the architecture in Kusagakure (“Statues of naked babies with wings, pissing water in the middle of the street, I kid you not,” he is saying to the ghosts’ booming laughter) when there is a sharp knock on the door.

The valet enters. “Your morning intelligence meeting, sir?”

The Shodaime waves his hand. “Thank you, Teshio. Send them in.”

Teshio sweeps the door wide open to reveal none other than the senior commanding officers—and Naruto. Tsunade leads the way, followed closely by Kakashi, Shikaku, Hiashi, Jiraiya, and an older man with bandages around his hands and right eye. Naruto and Itachi round off the group, and the door shuts behind them.

Naruto heads straight for the Yondaime, who is already getting to his feet. He says a quiet, “Hi, Dad.” and the Yondaime says, “Hey, kiddo,” and opens his arms wide for a hug from Naruto, who leans in easily and tucks his head under the Yondaime’s chin. The Yondaime plants a lingering kiss on Naruto’s crown, followed by a second, shorter kiss on his forehead. “You should have woken me up,” Naruto says, pulling back.

“You worked late last night. I wanted to let you sleep,” the Yondaime says, and pins Tsunade with a stern look. “You overwork him, Tsunade-sensei.”

Tsunade’s smile is genuine. “I actually can’t stop him from overworking,” she points out, and Jiraiya grumbles an agreement about how apples don’t fall far from the trees, and where does Minato think the boy got his workaholic tendencies?

Five months, Sasuke realizes. That’s how long they’ve been here. Itachi told him that the ghosts are in lockdown to keep their presence a secret from the public. But those who matter know. Five months, Sasuke thinks again. There is no hesitation in the way Naruto leans into the Yondaime’s side with a smile.

Sasuke glances at the Nidaime, who is leaning back in his chair to talk to Jiraiya. The Shodaime, for his part, is reaching up to grip Tsunade’s fingers gently when she places a hand on his shoulder. “Good morning, Grandfather.”

“Good morning, Tsunade,” the Shodaime responds, fond, and Tsunade moves away to take her seat at the other end of the table across from the Shodaime.

“I asked Lieutenant Uchiha to join us for these meetings from here on out,” Shikaku says to the Shodaime. “I thought that might be wise, sir, given his expertise.”

“It is,” the Shodaime agrees, and gestures with a hand for Itachi to take a seat. “Welcome, Lieutenant.”

“Sir,” Itachi says with a crisp salute, and stands a foot away from the seat he intends to take. It’s perfect protocol: Itachi cannot take a seat without his senior COs having done so.

“And I wanted Naruto to sit in on the intelligence briefings moving forward because the twerp's my point person for foreign policy and he'll be whipping votes in the Senate in case we need any changes to the military budget,” Tsunade says. “And also because I dislike taking notes.”

Naruto doesn’t respond except with a slight wrinkle of his nose. No doubt, Tsunade will hear an earful from him later. For now, though, he is a consummate professional—except, of course, when his father pulls him into a hug. A few years ago, Sasuke might have teased Naruto about such obvious pampering. He’s lost that right, though, even though he can still feel the warmth of Naruto’s pendant against his skin.

Once Tsunade has taken her seat, the other commanding officers sit down as well, filling in at the other end of the large table. They do it by order of rank: Tsunade is at the other head of the table; to her right is Kakashi and to her left Jiraiya. Shikaku sits down next to Kakashi’s right. Hiashi takes the seat next to Jiraiya with a smile directed at Sasuke.

The man with the bandages sits next to Sarutobi, and Itachi takes the last remaining seat next to Sasuke.

Sasuke takes that as his cue and gets to his feet. The Shodaime interrupts him before he can leave, though. “Sit down, Sasuke.”

Sasuke glances at the commanding officers in the room. They have the blank expressions of soldiers at ease. Even Kakashi’s face is blank. “I’m not Konoha shinobi anymore, Shodaime.”

The Shodaime dismisses Sasuke’s concern with a small wave of his hand. “Let us begin.”

Shikaku unrolls a large map of the Continent on the table and starts talking. He runs down on a brief summary of their most recent intelligence, and summarizes relevant jounin activity within and without the country borders. He’s interrupted every now and then with questions from everyone at the table—including Naruto, who asks pointed questions that show that he is obviously well-prepared for this meeting. Hiashi follows it up with a report of the activity of his own men.

The only people who doesn’t ask questions are the Shodaime and the man with the bandages. The Shodaime just rests his elbows on the arm of his chair, leans back, and listens.

From what Sasuke can understand, the decision has been made to pursue a combination of the two options Kakashi presented at the previous meeting. Hunt and track Madara with the possibility of an assassination; and explore the different possibilities on how to secure the Gedo somehow. Naruto is apparently in charge of the second task. He’s spending a lot of time in the libraries and archives with the Yondaime and Sarutobi, looking for clues on the original Otsutsuki Hagoromo seals.

What Sasuke understands after half an hour of debriefing, though, is that they have nothing. No leads.

War is a trial in patience, Orochimaru once told him, If you can’t outlast your enemy, at least make him impatient first. So this is what Konohagakure will do: Hurry the things they can do, and then wait. Meanwhile, somewhere in the far reaches of the Continent, Madara is lying in wait for all his pieces to fall into place.

Sasuke starts zoning out around the time Hiashi and Shikaku go into the nitty gritty details of balancing routine demands on the shinobi under their command with the larger issue of Madara and Akatsuki. It’s not that these details aren’t important. They are, if only because they concern the lives and wellbeing of Konohagakure shinobi. The logic behind the argument, though, is a waste of time.

Madara will not let himself be hunted down, not a second time. He’s too smart for it. He won’t be anywhere they look.

He had hoped that being freed from his oaths would mean being free from long, never-ending meetings. Apparently, he was wrong.

To pass the time, Sasuke goes over old battle formations in his head, rehearsing the lessons that the Nidaime had taught him about the strengths and benefits of attacking in oblique order rather than a double envelopment. He is so busy recreating the Battle of Cannae in his head—Hiashi and Jiraiya are now discussing the merits of sending ANBU into Amegakure—that he doesn’t catch himself in time to stop the jaw-cracking yawn.

Jiraiya looks thunderous. “Are we boring you, Uchiha?”

It’s instinct. “A bit, yeah.”

The Shodaime’s reprimand is immediate, sharp and layered with his disapproval.“Boy.”

Sasuke meets Jiraiya’s eyes. He counts to ten before he can find the words. He might have had drinks with Jiraiya, but old habits die hard. Still, the Shodaime is watching him, so Sasuke grits his teeth and says what needs to be said: “My apologies, Jiraiya-sama.”

Jiraiya looks surprised. So does Kakashi, whose one visible eye is wide. Even Tsunade is shell-shocked. Apparently, the only thing Sasuke had to do to catch Jiraiya off guard was to show some manners. “That’s fine?”

“If you are bored, Mr. Uchiha, you may excuse yourself,” the man with the bandages offers politely. There’s a dangerous edge to his tone, though, and it has Sasuke turning his full attention to the man. He’d ignored him so far because his chakra was so dormant. Sasuke had assumed he was a civilian. Now that he’s focusing, though, he senses a low thrum of chakra. Shinobi. The bandage over his right eye is so thick and broad that it covers most of his right cheek. He’s old—older than Sarutobi—but there’s a strength to his posture, a clarity to his gaze.

Something about his chakra—something odd about it—“Who are you, again?”

The man hold’s his gaze steady. “Shimura Danzo.”

Sasuke lets his Mangekyou whorl to life, chakra unspooling in his stomach. He knows the exact angle of this man’s signature, the way his script loops across a page—Wildfire Executive given greenlight by CO Sarutobi Hiruzen and CO Danzo Shimura.

Even without realizing it, Sasuke’s breathing evens out, and he feels the battle calm creeping in at the edges of his consciousness.

Itachi’s grip on his forearm is brief and light—just enough for Sasuke to drag his gaze away from Danzo. Itachi meets his gaze squarely and gives the briefest shakes of his head. Sasuke turns back to Danzo and forces his chakra back under control, letting his Mangekyou settle back down to its dormant state.

Danzo’s expression hasn’t changed a fraction, but even as he opens his mouth to respond to Sasuke, the Nidaime steps in with a grin. “I’m bored too, but that’s because I’m dead,” he says. The Shodaime mutters under his breath, Tobi, but the Nidaime continues undeterred. “Why are you bored, Uchiha?”

Sasuke tears his eyes away from Danzo, and focuses instead on the Nidaime. There is a reason the Nidaime asked him the question, so he answers truthfully. “This discussion is pointless.”

“We need to consider all our options,” Jiraiya counters neatly. “If Madara is in Amegakure—”

“He’s not in Amegakure,” Sasuke interrupts easily. “He’ll be nowhere you look.” Kakashi’s expression doesn’t change, which means he agrees with Sasuke. “Madara wants Konohagakure to waste resources sending out scouting parties. He let us transport Zetsu across the Continent back to Konohagakure, a neat little package with a message about the end of the world, just to see the City waste its resources following protocol. Which—”

Sasuke gestures at everyone gathered at the table with a sweep of his arms. “Ta-da,” he deadpans.

“Are you physically incapable of making a point without mouthing off to your superiors?” the Yondaime grumbles, but there’s no real heat to his question. He just sounds exasperated.

Sasuke makes a show of considering the Yondaime’s question. “I don’t know. Does the sun still rise in the east? Is that stick still up your—”

Sasuke, the Shodaime breathes, just as the Nidaime leans forward in his chair to pin the Yondaime with a grin to say, “You walked right into that one, Minato.”

“You kind of did, Namikaze,” Sasuke confirms, and can’t suppress his grin. “You feeling all right?”

The Yondaime’s lips twitch with a suppressed smile. “I haven’t had enough coffee yet, you delinquent. Don’t test me,” he counters. “Finish your thought. He’s not in Amegakure and not anywhere we look. Your proposal?”

“Invincibility lies in the defense,” Sasuke says, reciting one of the lessons that Kakashi taught him a long time ago. He meets Kakashi’s gaze as he finishes the sentence. “The possibility of victory in the attack.”

Kakashi angles his head. “Quoting my own words back to me, Uchiha?” he asks, mild. “Shows a distinct lack of creativity.”

“Madara is too intelligent to make a mistake this late in the game,” Itachi points out. “If he doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be.”

“And even if we find him,” Hiashi adds, “We don’t know how to kill him.”

The conversation moves along, but Sasuke doesn’t bother following along with it. A trial in patience, Orochimaru had told him in his odd, hissing drawl. They will never be able to outlast Madara’s patience; he’s waited for more than half a century already. So the alternative is—

Make your enemy impatient first.

Kakashi said he showed a lack of creativity, and Sasuke doesn’t intend to let that criticism go unanswered. “Draw him out,” Sasuke offers, interrupting Shikaku mid-sentence.

Kakashi’s eye crinkles with a smile, but Itachi is ready with criticism. “The idea is sound, but it won’t work,” he says. “Madara is…obstinate. There’s no bait tempting enough for him to make a mistake. Not so late in the game.”

The idea breaks through like a clap of thunder on a sunny sky, and only because Sasuke is sitting right next to it. The answer, he realizes, has been staring at them in the face the entire time. “Yeah, there is.”

The Nidaime is the one who catches on first. “Brother.”

The Shodaime turns to the Nidaime with a soft hm? under his breath.

“No, you, Brother,” the Nidaime says, laughing now. “You’re the bait.”

“And you, too, Nidaime. He hates your fucking guts. He’s not going to be able to resist,” Sasuke adds, sitting forward in his chair. The Shodaime’s expression is the same blank austerity that is on the Hokage Monument. “You know it’ll work.”

The Yondaime leans forward in his chair and raps his knuckles on the table. “Say we spread the rumors about Hashirama and Tobirama-sensei’s return. Say we let them both be seen. Say we even publicize it openly, maybe a press release,” he says carefully. “Would he be convinced, Itachi?”

Itachi doesn’t speak for a long moment. Sasuke can see the gears spinning in his mind. “It’s so implausible. At most, he’d write it off as the Edo Tensei, which he knows how to counter.”

Sasuke considers Itachi’s words carefully. “Unless he gets the information from a credible source,” he says, and as he speaks the words, the plan takes formation in his mind. Zetsu, Madara’s right-hand man, the lynchpin for his plans. “Like a certain creepy goatfucker in the KPD basement.”

The Shodaime heaves a sigh. “Sasuke.”

Sasuke makes sure his face is entirely blank. “My apologies, Shodaime-sama. I meant no insult to any goats.”

Across the table, the Nidaime bursts into laughter, and the Yondaime follows soon thereafter, with Jiraiya just a second behind. The Shodaime pinches the bridge of his nose, but not fast enough to hide the quirk of his smile.

In the end, they don’t arrive at a decision. Tsunade thanks her advisors for their input, and says she will announce her decision after more consideration. They still need to gather more intel and come up with a credible game plan for setting Zetsu free.

Danzo is the first to leave, bending at the waist to say something to Sarutobi that makes him chuckle. On his way out, he rests a hand on the Nidaime’s shoulder, with a murmured, “Tobirama-sensei. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

The Nidaime grins. “Sure thing, kid.” (Kid, Sasuke realizes, because even though Danzo looks old enough to be the Nidaime’s father, he was still the Nidaime’s student at one point.)

Danzo sweeps out of the room with a billow of his robes, even as everyone else is getting to their feet. They break into smaller groups, falling into lighter conversations now that the meeting is over—Itachi discussing details of SCI surveillance teams with Hiashi; Tsunade leaning across the table and drawing Sarutobi and the Yondaime into a different discussion entirely. Something about lockdown protocol for containing the Kyuubi in the event of a breach. Jiraiya leans forward in his chair to draw the Shodaime into a conversation, beginning his question with a respectful, Sir, if I may.

Sasuke gets to his feet to make an exit, because it’s either that or sit there and try not to stare at Naruto (the elegance of his wrist and fingers as he gathers paperwork into neat stacks, the affection in his smile when the Yondaime turns to him with a comment).

He’s nearly at the door when Kakashi steps neatly into step with him. He doesn’t speak until the doors close behind them. “You got a minute?”

Sasuke blinks at the man, caught off-guard by the question. Kakashi has only asked him for his time once before, and only to apologize for the Wildfire Contingency. Here he is doing it again, but Sasuke can’t think of a single reason that would make Kakashi behave this way.

Kakashi misunderstands his hesitation. “If you need to be somewhere—”

“I don’t,” Sasuke interrupts hurriedly before the moment can get any more awkward.

Kakashi jerks a thumb over his shoulder. “Let’s step outside.” He doesn’t say a single word as he leads them out of the building.

Sasuke almost laughs when Kakashi leads him to the smoking section of the Commons, clearing out the few smokers with a curt, Clear out. They settle on the same bench as the last time they were here, but this time, Kakashi is the one who draws out a cigarette pack. He even has a lighter. He takes a deep breath of a cigarette. “Don’t tell Sakura.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “She probably already knows, Hatake.”

“This goddamn job,” Kakashi mutters under his breath, and glares balefully at the cigarette in his hand. There’s stubble emphasizing the strong line of his jaw. Combined with his unruly hair buzzed down into short spikes, it makes him look younger, as if he’s just another jounin who didn’t get a good night’s sleep, couldn’t catch a break on his last mission, wanting nothing more than a smoke and a goddamn drink.

Sasuke stares out at the Tower. Naruto’s chakra is back to normal now. “Meditation helps.”

Kakashi stares openly at him. “Meditation.”

“It helps with the nicotine withdrawal,” Sasuke explains, flushing under Kakashi’s gaze. He can feel the tips of his ears burning because Kakashi’s mouth has dropped open. He doesn’t fight the urge to defend himself. “The Shodaime taught me.”

Kakashi leans back into the bench. “The Shodaime Hokage taught you meditation techniques to help you quit smoking,” he repeats slowly.

“He doesn’t like it when I smoke. Or drink, swear, or sleep around, or—” He stops, abrupt, realizing just how long this list could get. “He’s an uptight, puritanical pain in the fucking ass, but the meditation thing actually works.” He pauses a beat. “If you want to try it.”

Kakashi finally looks away from Sasuke and stares out towards the Tower. “I’m not the meditating type.”

“I’m not either,” Sasuke points out.

“Clearly,” Kakashi says with a quiet laugh, “you are.” He doesn’t give Sasuke a chance to respond because he switches topics entirely. “You and Shodaime-sama are close.”

Itachi had said the same exact thing only a few hours ago. This time, though, Sasuke responds. “I couldn’t tell you about the ghosts because—”

“Because you couldn’t,” Kakashi finishes neatly. He gives Sasuke a sidelong glance. “Guess we’re even now with the secrets.”

Sasuke takes a deep drag of his own cigarette, pilfered from Kakashi’s pack. It’s as even as they’ll ever get—Kakashi hiding the Wildfire Contingency, and Sasuke hiding the truth about the ghosts—but there’s something about the way Kakashi said the words that makes him pause. There’s nothing left to forgive, but he wonders if Kakashi needs to hear it again anyways. It reminds him a little of the Shodaime, always telling him, Everything will be all right. Sasuke always breathes deeper after hearing the words.

They smoke through an entire cigarette while Sasuke mulls over what to say. Kakashi holds out his cigarette pack, and Sasuke takes a second. He doesn’t speak until they light up. Even though he’s practiced the words in his head, it still sounds awkward when he says it aloud. “Maybe next time,” he ventures carefully, “we could just…not.”

Kakashi breathes out a cloud of smoke through pursed lips. “Not what?”

He’s said the words already, might as well push through it. “With the secrets,” Sasuke clarifies. “Next time, maybe we should just…not. Spare ourselves this—” He gestures between them, the awkwardness and space between them. “This shit-show.”

Kakashi’s eyebrow shoots up in surprise, and impossibly, he looks younger still with that expression. “Pick up some wisdom in your travels, Uchiha?”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “Your fucking rules only go so far, Hatake. Half of them don’t even make any goddamn sense,” he points out, and at this, Kakashi starts to laugh, and Sasuke can’t help himself—he joins in.

Once they’ve caught their breaths, they return to their cigarettes. But the silence that follows is heavy still. Kakashi is watching the Commons closely, taking such long breaks between each inhalation of his cigarette that he wastes most of it. When the silence stretches too long, Sasuke prompts, “I appreciate you sharing the cigarettes, but clearly, you have something else on your mind, Hatake.”

Kakashi takes a long breath of his cigarette and taps the ashes onto the ground carefully. “Tsunade-sama instructed me to offer you back your hitae-ate if you—”

“Hard pass,” Sasuke interrupts with a chuckle. He settles more comfortably into the bench. No wonder Kakashi was holding himself so stiffly. The conversation is not worth having, though, because Sasuke knows now the freedom of having no oaths. He may have retraced his steps back to Konohagakure, but he will not retrace his steps to his old life again. “And you can let her know my answer won’t change. Ever.”

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. He still doesn’t meet Sasuke’s gaze. “Your brother accepted a promotion as Lieutenant.”

Sasuke avoids having to reply immediately by take a deep breath of his cigarette. He lets out the smoke carefully. He still hasn’t talked to Itachi about this—about what they will do after Madara—he doesn’t want to talk to Kakashi about it either. “That’s his choice.”

And now, finally, Kakashi turns to look at him. “So you’ll be leaving again soon,” he says. There isn’t a hint of emotion in his words. “For Madara?”

Sasuke frowns. “I’m not leaving my brother.”

“So you’re staying,” Kakashi ventures carefully.

There’s no point trying to avoid this conversation. Kakashi seems intent on having it, although Sasuke isn’t sure why. “For now. Until we finish this.” Until Madara is in the ground. Until he lays the ghosts to rest. And then—

Where can he go? North? And if Itachi chooses to stay?

Sasuke pushes the thoughts aside firmly and holds Kakashi’s gaze steady. “Why are you asking?”

Kakashi’s shoulders move up and down with a deep breath. “I’m not your CO anymore, Sasuke. But I am the Commander of this Village still. I need to know if—”

“If I can be counted on as an asset,” Sasuke finishes neatly, and Kakashi looks almost relieved that Sasuke spared him the effort of finishing the sentence.

We’re even now with the secrets, Kakashi said earlier, and he’d held himself so carefully as he said the words. They are stuck in the memories of their failures, Sasuke realizes, picking at old wounds, watching each other bleed and hating themselves for it.

Kakashi will never forgive himself for any mistakes he makes—he still holds Obito’s death so raw and bloody in his heart, and he sees Obito in Sasuke, sees Hatake Sakumo in Sasuke, sees the sum of all the mistakes he couldn’t prevent, sees the lies of the Wildfire Executive writ large in all the silences between them.

The weight of these mistakes is so heavy now that he asks Sasuke for his time, prompts him with careful questions about whether he will stay or go, forfeits nearly a decade of Sasuke following his orders—his rules, each and every single one—and says, I’m not your CO anymore.

Kakashi will never cauterize the wounds he inflicts on himself, so Sasuke takes a breath and finds the words to do it for them both. “I didn’t travel over five thousand miles to end back at square one, Hatake,” he says. “Let’s just start on a clean slate.”

Kakashi’s lips curl in a small smile, the one that makes his gray eye crinkle. “A fountain of wisdom now, aren’t we, Uchiha?” Sasuke rolls his eyes, but before he can counter the man’s sarcasm, Kakashi presses forward. “And what should I tell Tsunade-sama? Do you plan on hunting down Madara independently since you’re still a free agent?”

It would be pointless to split their resources, not against someone like Madara. But that’s not the point, Sasuke knows, because Sakura and Naruto are right in their assessments: Kakashi is as emotionally stunted as he is, and if they don’t clear the air now, it will hang over them both. This is Kakashi unsure of himself, unsure of what is left between them with all that’s been said and done. They both thought they had said their goodbyes, but here they are again, smoking cigarettes and trying to pick up where they left off. “Tell her that I’m not following her orders,” Sasuke says. “But if you raise your banners, I’ll ride to battle.”

This time when Kakashi smiles, it reaches his eyes. “I could use an extra man in the ranks,” he says, mild, and the relief of the moment is almost overwhelming.

Still, Kakashi is trying to move the conversation to lighter grounds. The least Sasuke could do is oblige. “I’ll follow your orders, Hatake, but I'm not following your stupid fucking rules anymore.”

Kakashi huffs a laugh. “I think my rules have a nice flare to them.”

“Your rules are shit,” Sasuke counters neatly, and can’t help the quirk of his own lips. He never thought they’d ever get past all that’s behind them, but here they are now, cresting over the hill and finding that everything good is still intact. “You came up with rules twenty-seven through thirty-two while you were drunk. Always drink a whiskey neat? What the fuck is that shit? Sometimes you order it on the rocks so you don’t get hammered two drinks in.”

“I wasn’t drunk,” Kakashi says—lying through his teeth, the son of a bitch—and kicks his feet out. “I have to get to a meeting,” he says. He doesn’t move an inch.

They smoke the entire pack together lazily, faces tilted towards the sun while they watch clouds drift by.

The next morning, Sasuke officially becomes a mercenary.

Tsunade contracts him as a soldier for Konohagakure, and Tenten negotiates a paycheck for him as generous as the one he received as Lieutenant. He’s expected to sit in on meetings, train the troops for war readiness, and review the defenses of Konohagakure. He will report directly to Kakashi, Jiraiya, and Tsunade, and no one else. He’s given a choice of a team.

Naturally, he recruits Unit 3, all nine of them: Kiba, Neji, Shikamaru, Shino, Chouji, Lee, Ken, Tottori, and Jiro.

Overnight, Sasuke’s daily routine changes completely. He no longer has unlimited time to dedicate to training. Instead, he only has time for a morning run and an hour of taijutsu practice before he’s required to attend the morning intelligence briefings. He suffers through them patiently, and then spends all morning training the men of Konohagakure with Kiba and Akamaru. He starts with ANBU and jounin, falling into his old responsibilities as ANBU Lieutenant easily enough. He evaluates each and every single one of them by observing their sparring in pairs, in groups, and in formations. Then, he gets to work whipping them into shape. He is the student of both Hatake Kakashi and Senju Tobirama. He knows how to drill a squadron into battle-readiness.

He leaves the training of the chuunin to Lee and Jiro: Lee for taijutsu, and Jiro for weapons training. Jiro notifies him solemnly that on the first day of training, Lee ran a group of chuunin into the ground with his drills; nearly all of them required rehydration and medical attention in the ER. So Sasuke reassigns Kiba to watch over Lee’s overeager training regimen.

His afternoons are spent with Neji, Shikamaru, and Shino, poring over maps of Konohagakure and the Land of Fire, reviewing the defensive formations and protocols in place. When appropriate, he sends out Ken, Tottori and Chouji on missions to conduct surveillance and report back on the status of the far reaches of Konohagakure’s defensive lines.

The only break in his day is the hour sparring with the Nidaime. Since the Nidaime is still under house arrest, he commandeers the Hokage’s personal dojo in the Tower. There are strict orders about access to the dojo: no one except the dead Hokages and Sasuke, is allowed access. If anyone breaks the rule, they’ll have to speak to the Nidaime personally. Tsunade is generous in allowing Sasuke full access to her training rooms. Sasuke’s jaw drops when he first sees it: the arching ceilings, the packed clay ground, and rows of gleaming weapons laid out for display. The Nidaime also oversees the installation of mirrors along one wall.

The purpose of training, Sasuke knows, is not to repeat old lessons. It’s to build on them. He’s seen the Nidaime fight, so Sasuke knows that he is nowhere near mastery. He has made peace with that because he’s come to the understanding that he can train for an entire lifetime and still not reach the Nidaime’s mastery of fighting. What Sasuke doesn’t realize until a week into his training is that the Nidaime does not share his views.

He expects Sasuke to master his technique.

The Nidaime nitpicks each of Sasuke’s moves—from the angle of the crook of his elbow to the exact slope of his shoulders and the tempo of his breathing. He is relentless, driving Sasuke even harder than the first original eight weeks of training.

The hour of training leaves him sore, tired, and oftentimes frustrated—I can’t be you, he wants to say to the Nidaime, but for all the Nidaime’s infectious joy and informality outside of training, he does not tolerate any of Sasuke’s usual rebellions once their hour starts. Sasuke bites down on the words and pushes himself every hour of every day, making his morning routine more rigorous to accommodate the Nidaime’s new expectations and practicing the Nidaime’s lessons late into the afternoon. The Nidaime is ruthless as always, but he refrains from breaking bones. I don’t want to risk an injury so close to the finish line, the Nidaime explains when Sasuke comments on it.

The Nidaime even sends Sasuke home with homework. Every day, he gives Sasuke the name of a battle. Sasuke is expected to study it overnight and report back the next morning—the exact details of the battle, including formations and the numbers in each battalion, and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing battle commander’s strategy. He is also expected to devise a strategy of his own for the given scenario, from the perspective of both commanders.

War games, the Nidaime calls them, and these discussions occur in the time it takes them to walk to the dojos from the Senju Conference Room at the beginning of training, and the time it takes them to walk back to the suites where the Shodaime will be waiting to have lunch with Sasuke. Sasuke always meets the Nidaime outside the Senju Conference Room where the commanding officers meet for their strategy meetings—the war against Amegakure, Sasuke learns from Itachi, is still very much an option—and if the Nidaime is delayed in any way, he always adds time to the end of their training.

All told, the Nidaime spends an hour and a half with Sasuke every day to train. Sometimes, when Tsunade is available, the Nidaime will insist that she perform a physical examination and heal any of the many aches and pains in Sasuke’s muscles. Sasuke thinks this is overkill, but the Nidaime is as strict about this as he is with everything else. Sasuke doesn’t bother complaining about the odd treatment, because Tsunade is every bit the healer she is reputed to be: he feels better. Old wounds that he sustained under Kabuto and Orochimaru’s care vanish under her careful prodding. His right shoulder feels loose again, and his chakra feels more grounded.

Like Kakashi, though, the Nidaime’s patience is limited.

Sasuke hits a plateau in his second week of training, and the Nidaime forgets his own rule and gives Sasuke a beating that leaves Sasuke’s left eye quickly swelling shut and his mouth filled with blood.

The Nidaime’s annoyance is clear in the grim set on his face. “Don’t waste any more of my time until you’ve mastered the move.”

Sasuke bites down against the frustration crawling up his throat and keeps his peace while the Nidaime berates him ruthlessly for his mistakes. After three weeks, he feels stronger than he ever has. He’s at his heaviest, too, almost two hundred thirty pounds of sheer muscle. He’s been working on his speed and agility so that even with the added weight, it hasn’t slowed him down too much. His taijutsu is crisp, his ninjutsu is efficient, and his weapons handling has never been better.

Don’t waste any more of my time, the Nidaime repeats a second time, as if Sasuke has done nothing but dedicate himself entirely to his orders like he always does. The Nidaime storms out of the dojo, and after a few moments of miserable silence, Sasuke follows suit, heading straight for the hospital because he can’t see out of his eye anymore. Sakura sighs heavily when he finds her, but she doesn’t say anything and simply attends to the swelling of his eyelid. Even Itachi is stunned speechless when Sasuke limps home at the end of the night, but is diplomatic enough to shut up when Sasuke levels a glare at him.

But while Sasuke can stomach Sakura’s weary exasperation and Itachi’s wide-eyed stare, what he can’t stomach is the Shodaime’s still, startled look when he walks into the morning intelligence briefing the next day.

Sasuke feels his face get hot from the way people are openly staring at him. He knows he looks like a mess; the bruising has gotten more colorful overnight, and an entire side of his face looks as if it’s been pummeled in. When he chews, his neck hurts, and he can still feel a sharp pain in his shoulder where the Nidaime’s foot had made contact, forcing him to fall to his knees. Every time he blinks, his left eye stings from the effort of it. He arrived early enough that he should have avoided this spectacle, but the Shodaime and Yondaime have already gathered with Jiraiya, Tsunade, and Naruto. To make matters worse, the Shodaime immediately gets to his feet.

“With me,” he says, and Sasuke swallows his pride and walks past Jiraiya’s wide-eyed surprise and follows the Shodaime out onto the balcony.

The Shodaime shuts the large glass doors behind them, and Sasuke is grateful for this modicum of privacy because it gives him the space to say, “I’m fine.”

The Shodaime’s hands against his face are gentle as he tilts Sasuke’s face to the right and then the left as he inspects the damage more closely. “Anything broken?”

“No.” Sasuke yields to the Shodaime’s consideration of the bones around his eyes. “I’m fine.”

The Shodaime steps away with a sigh. “Does it hurt?”

Sakura is the only other person who ever bothers to ask Sasuke this question, but she does this so often it’s rote at this point: when she asks, he always answers on a scale of one to ten so she can note it in his chart. He remembers Mikoto asking him when he was little, but even then, the answer had always been the same: “No.”

The Shodaime’s shoulders sag. “Are you in pain?”

Sasuke stares at a spot on the Shodaime’s shoulder. “Sakura gave me painkillers,” he offers.  There is bruising all along his right flank, and a fist-shaped bruise on the lower edge of his right ribs that makes it hard for him to take a deep breath.

The Shodaime surprises him with his next question. “What is he teaching you?”

Sasuke shrugs and then regrets it a moment later because his right hand tingles with pain at the motion. “The usual. I was just sloppy.”

He swallows on the disappointment and anger crowding in his chest at having to admit it aloud. He will not complain. He has done nothing—nothing—but dedicate himself to the Nidaime’s training and his new job, but he needs to do more. He will do more, and he will not complain. He will not give the Nidaime another reason to dismiss him again. And there is shame, too, because he will have to face the men he trains later today with evidence of his own failures writ large on his face.

“He was impatient,” the Shodaime corrects quietly. He seems lost in thought for a moment before making up his mind. “I will expect you for lunch starting today, and every day thereafter.”

Sasuke scowls. “It’s not my battle calm,” he counters. He doesn’t need the Shodaime to teach him that anymore. It’s a matter of skill that’s lacking. 

The Shodaime shakes his head lightly. “Lunch,” he insists. He has a familiar look of determination on his face, so Sasuke concedes; there’s nothing he can do to change the Shodaime’s mind. “Did you take the painkillers Sakura gave you?”

Sasuke nods once, feeling his face get hot from the admission. The Shodaime takes a deep breath and says, “You can take the painkillers, Sasuke. It is all right. I will not tell him. Even if I did, he would not fault you for it.”

“Just don't tell him,” Sasuke says sharply, because the last thing he needs is the Nidaime to think that he’s not fit for training. Or worse, that he’s standing here and complaining to the Shodaime about it like a child. So Sasuke turns away, eager to take his seat before the Nidaime arrives and sees him having a private conversation with the Shodaime.

Thankfully, the Shodaime lets him go. Sasuke takes his usual seat and counts to ten—over and over again—because the day only gets worse after that. Shikaku stops mid-stride when he enters the room and sees Sasuke, and Sarutobi tuts in sympathy. 

The Nidaime only acknowledges him indirectly. He indicates Sasuke and gives Kakashi a lopsided smile. “Sorry about that.”

Kakashi is unperturbed, but only because Sasuke has ended up knocked out cold after their training sessions more than once. “I’ve done worse,” he says, mild as always. “He brings it out in you.”

Sasuke dredges up a grin, and feels the muscles in his face ache from it. “Part of my charm.”

“Your goddamn charm, all right,” the Nidaime begins with a chuckle, but he doesn’t get a chance to finish his sentence because Naruto speaks.

“Should we begin, Hokage-sama?” Naruto asks, words sharp. He’s staring resolutely at Tsunade, sitting up ramrod straight in his chair with perfect posture as always. Apparently, they may not be talking, but Naruto still responds the same way to the Nidaime beating the shit out of Sasuke as he does when Kakashi beats the shit out of him: with anger, which usually manifests itself with icy indifference towards Kakashi for a few long days. Apparently, he will give the Nidaime the same chilly treatment.


“Please,” the Shodaime agrees, and the meeting begins.

By the time lunch rolls around, Sasuke wants to do nothing more than lie down for a while. He takes two more painkillers and heads to the Tower for lunch with the Shodaime, hoping that maybe the Shodaime will give him some pointers. The Nidaime has refused to continue training him until he masters the move; the Shodaime might point him in the right direction.

But when he arrives for lunch, it’s to find that lunch means exactly that—lunch. There is a spread of food for Sasuke, and the Shodaime gestures for him to take a seat. He draws Sasuke into conversation while Sasuke eats: poetry, art, neoclassical literature, gardening, and memories from his younger days (We did not have electricity, the Shodaime says with a smile, and goes on to explain life in a world without light, how at the worst of the demon’s wrath, they had to ration kerosene and firewood). Sasuke tells the Shodaime about his journey—skipping the parts with the women. He tells him of the majestic peaks of Yoro Mountain, the willow trees in the Land of Waterfalls, the breathtaking expanse of the desert, and the unrelenting cruelty of the salt flats.

When Sasuke is full, the Shodaime gets to his feet and guides Sasuke to the far end of the suites towards the piano. He takes a seat on the bench and pats the space next to him.

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “I don’t know how to play, Shodaime-sama.”

The Shodaime’s smile makes his entire face brighter, deepening the crinkles around his eyes. “I know. Sit down.”

Sasuke is a Sharingan, so it is almost ridiculously easy for him to learn how to play the piano. Learning to read music takes longer, but the Shodaime is patient with him as he is with everything else. He extends their lunch hour and sends Sasuke home with sheets of music, and Sasuke spends the last moments before bed pouring over them. Once he learns to recognize the patterns, though, it’s a breeze. They fall into a new routine: a quick lunch followed by an hour or more of music. It’s no different than the times the Shodaime taught him poetry, and Sasuke doesn’t mind sitting through these lessons because the Shodaime has the same expression of peace and happiness he did whenever he was walking through the redwoods.

Sasuke’s technical skills are impeccable, but the Shodaime doesn’t seem fully pleased. Sasuke scowls at the sheets of music in front of him. They’re playing a song for a woman named Elise, and although the notes are precise, there’s something about the Shodaime’s expression that tells Sasuke he’s not there yet. “What the fuck am I doing wrong?”

“Language,” the Shodaime says. He taps a finger on the polished ivory of the keys without making a note. “Think about the battle calm, Sasuke,” he says after a moment. “Go there. It is the same joy.”

So Sasuke counts, gets into the posture the Shodaime taught him, and lets his fingers move. The Shodaime’s eyes light up with a smile at the end of the piece, and he pats Sasuke on the shoulder. “How about another piece?”

After two days of these piano lessons, the Shodaime turns to Sasuke with a question. “What do you think?”

Sasuke blinks at him. “About what?”

The Shodaime smiles. He taps the piano with a finger. “Do you like it?”

Sasuke shrugs. “It’s okay.”

The Shodaime is relentless as always. “Would you like to keep learning?”

“If you think it will help my training, I can—”

“Do you want to learn?” the Shodaime interrupts gently.

They’re sitting side-by-side on the bench, and there’s no escaping the moment, absolutely no way to distance himself from the Shodaime’s kind gaze. Sasuke stares at the piano and considers the question. “Why did you learn?”

“My mother taught me,” the Shodaime answers. “I liked it, so I kept playing whenever I could. Do you like it?”

Sasuke considers the black and white of the tiles in front of him. He presses three of the tiles down: G-flat major chord. The sound lingers just long enough for Sasuke to find the answer. “I like it.” 

“I can teach you, if you would like,” the Shodaime offers, and Sasuke nods once, quickly, still watching the tiles. The Shodaime presses a hand carefully to Sasuke’s uninjured shoulder. “We will break here for today. Go and get some rest.”

Sasuke gets to his feet. “I have to train the men,” he says. “And I have to master the move or the Nidaime will throw another shit-fit.”

The Shodaime takes a deep breath. “I will see you tomorrow,” he says. Sasuke throws a distracted, Sure, over his shoulder, and is nearly at the door when the Shodaime calls out, “Sasuke. I will see you tomorrow.”

Sasuke pushes open the door, but pauses at the entryway, half-in and half-out the room. “Yeah, I got it.” The Shodaime still doesn’t look convinced, so Sasuke adds—over-enunciating the syllables and consonants—“Tomorrow.”

The Shodaime takes such a deep breath that Sasuke can see the movement of his shoulders from across the room. “Good,” he says, almost to himself. “Go get some rest, son.”

But Sasuke doesn’t go home to get some rest. Instead, he returns to the Hokage’s dojo and stands in front of the mirror, considering the dimensions of his body. The errors he makes are minute, almost imperceptible. The height he raises his arm in defense, the width of his stance when he lands on his feet after recovering from the Nidaime’s attack. It’s not the basics, no. Sasuke has mastered those.

It’s the precision of his defense and the brutality of his attack. It’s how efficiently he breathes, and how well he maintains his upper hand against all odds. He fights with the battle calm, but there’s still something raw about it. It’s not as exact as Kakashi or the Nidaime.

He’s not there yet. But then, he remembers the feeling of sitting in front of the piano, how the calm takes over and he can call forth sounds from silence.

Count, Sasuke reminds himself, and stares at his reflection. Thus far, the Nidaime hasn’t specified the reason for the mirrors, but Sasuke thinks he might understand now. He knows what it is to settle within his skin; he’ll learn to watch himself, now, to judge the fit as an enemy might. The way he watches his fingers on the black and white tiles of a piano.

Master the move, the Nidaime had ordered.

Sasuke begins.

He’s in Neji’s offices in ANBU HQ listening to Shikamaru and Neji argue about the merits of bolstering the river-front defenses east of the city when Naruto finds him. They are at the end of their two-hour meeting, but as always, they’re lingering to talk over cartons of take-out dinner and beer that became too warm too long ago. Sasuke has not come to a decision on the eastern defenses, and he intends to hear out both sides of the argument before making a recommendation to Kakashi.

“Here, here, and here,” Neji is insisting, pointing to three spots on the large map they’ve pinned up on the far wall. “Weak points—”

“Not worth defending,” Shikamaru interrupts neatly. “We’re spreading ourselves too thin.”

Neji tugs off his gloves. He’s already taken off his armor and untied his sword, face mask, and weapons for this meeting. “We don’t know which direction the attack will come from—”

If there is an attack,” Shino points out. “Will Akatsuki risk another full-frontal attack? The last time they did, we defeated them. There is no way for Madara to recruit enough mercenaries to counter our numbers.”

Exactly,” Shikamaru says, turning to Sasuke to make his point. He launches into another defense of his points, but is interrupted with a crisp knock on the door.

Naruto cracks the door open just enough to peek inside. “Am I interrupting?”

Neji smiles warmly. “No, Naruto. We were done anyways,” he says, and Shikamaru grumbles under his breath about like hell we’re done, Im not done.

Like everyone else in the room, Sasuke assumes that Naruto is there to speak to Neji. He gets to his feet with Shikamaru and Shino. He gathers his empty take-out boxes, downs the last dregs of his beer, and throws his duffel bag across his shoulder—all the while making absolutely sure that he is not making eye contact with Naruto. “Tomorrow?” Neji asks, stretching overhead.

“Same time, same place,” Shikamaru says, leading the way out the door. He says an off-handed, See you later, Naruto, as they walk past. They’re at the door (Shikamaru asking Sasuke, You want to grab a drink or a smoke or something, to which Sasuke says, Yeah, sure while Shino intones, I will say yes to the drink, and no to the smoke. Kiba is likely free now, too), when Naruto says, suddenly, “Actually, I was looking for Sasuke.”

Everyone in the room freezes at once, looking at each other in the silence that follows. Shino is the one who breaks the moment. “Good night, then,” he says, and gives Sasuke a heavy, lingering look. For added effect, Shino tilts his head none-too-subtly at the door. Get out.

Sasuke takes the hint. “Let’s step outside,” he offers, and holds the door open for Naruto. The minute the door closes behind them, they hear three overlapping voices. Sasuke hears Neji say distinctly, Kiba is going to throw a hissy fit for missing this.

Sasuke flushes at Naruto’s arched brows. “They’re gossips.”

“No kidding,” Naruto says mildly, and leads Sasuke out of ANBU HQ. It’s just past the summer solstice, so even this late in the evening, there is light in the sky. Sasuke has no choice but to follow as Naruto leads them down the street towards the Commons. He counts to ten, counts his heartbeats, and counts each breath he takes, but it does nothing to stop the wild tangle of thoughts crowding his mind. He gropes for the right words to say—Speak, speak, say something, anything—but before he can work up the courage to do so, Naruto stops walking.

He’s led them into a quieter part of the Commons, stopping by a bench nestled under the arching branches of a flowering Cherry tree. Sasuke looks around at their surroundings, because it’s either that or stare stupidly at Naruto’s face: the cut of his cheekbones, the slight upward tilt to his almond eyes, or the way the setting sunlight dapples across his skin. He looks older, more exhausted. Sasuke had crossed the entire continent and thought he’d remembered the details, but he hadn’t. The reality of Naruto is always more vibrant than anything his imagination can conjure.

He only drags his gaze back towards Naruto when he clears his throat. “I ran into Sakura today.”

Sasuke waits for the follow-up. When none is forthcoming he says, “And?”

“She told me she’s helping Itachi with his eyes,” Naruto says. He pauses a moment, and then abruptly changes the topic. “She said that your—” He points to his own left eye, indicating Sasuke’s injury from the Nidaime’s training session. “Your eye is okay.”

“It’s fine,” Sasuke confirms, and shoves his hands into his pockets because his palms are starting to sweat now. “Looks worse than it is.”

Naruto presses his lips into a thin line. He doesn’t speak again for a few long moments, and when he does, his voice is pitched low. “She said you took the painkillers this time.”

So that’s what this is about, Sasuke realizes. Sakura told him about the painkillers, and Naruto is here to check on him because Sasuke almost never takes painkillers. He only took them this time because he thought he might need it to get through the first day after the injury. He hasn’t had to rely on them since, and he’ll likely flush the rest of the pills down the toilet later. But he doesn’t know how to say all of that to Naruto. Instead, he shrugs. “Just a few.”

Naruto takes a step back. “Good. I just—I just wanted to make sure. Shodaime-sama looked worried, so I—I just wanted to make sure,” he says, and takes another step back.

“The Shodaime always looks worried,” Sasuke dismisses, trying to find the words that might keep Naruto here for a moment longer.

Naruto offers him a wan smile. “Good. I guess—See you tomorrow at the intelligence brief, I guess.”

“Bright and early.” Surreal, Sasuke thinks. That’s what this conversation is. Surreal. As if they’re two acquaintances running into each other in the middle of the street, just colleagues who can’t exchange anything beyond small talk. Naruto is already walking away when Sasuke tries again, reaching for a last-ditch attempt. “Naruto, do you—” He freezes when Naruto turns to look at him again. “Ramen? Or a drink or something?”

It sounds pathetic now that he’s said the words aloud. What’s worse is that Naruto shakes his head. “I already ate,” he says apologetically. Surreal. “And I have an early morning, so—”

“Yeah, sure, of course,” Sasuke rushes, stumbling over the words now, and looking for an escape. He clears his throat. “Good night.”

Naruto turns to walk away a second time—and turns back a second time.

Sasuke feels his heartbeat pick up in a wild race. Maybe, just maybe, Naruto will break this awkwardness between them. Maybe he’ll say something, anything, to dispel this. Maybe, he thinks, just maybe

“Actually, this is awkward,” Naruto says, and twists a finger around the sash that’s holding his robes close. Yes, Sasuke thinks, awkward is one word for it, but before he can make a joke of it, Naruto keeps talking. “Could I—Could I have it back, please?” 

Sasuke is so caught off-guard he doesn’t even understand the question. “What?”

Naruto’s hand flutters up to his neck. Sasuke still doesn’t understand, so he clarifies, “The necklace.”

He responds before he can think twice. “But you gave it to me.” He hates himself the moment he says it. Kiba was right: he is reckless, and he is cruel. Now, he’s being downright petulant, refusing to return a gift that Naruto so generously gave him.

Naruto tries for a smile, but it falls flat. “It was actually a gift given to me by Tsunade,” he explains, and there’s a hint of something in his voice finally—a catch in his words. He clears his throat and presses forward. “She got it as a gift from her grandmother, Uzumaki Mito. And Uzumaki Mito got it as a gift from her husband, Senju Hashirama, on their wedding day. Tsunade gave it as a gift to her fiancé once, but he passed, so she gave it to me instead,” Naruto makes a vague gesture, cutting himself off from his own rambling explanation. “It just keeps getting passed from person to person, but I guess I don’t want to let go of it. I know it’s rude to ask for it back, but—”

“No, it’s not—of course, it’s yours,” Sasuke says, hurriedly, reaching for the necklace and pulling it free from under his shirt. He pulls it over his head, and crosses the distance between them to give it back to Naruto.

When he lets it drop into Naruto’s open palm, Naruto’s hands close in a fist over it. He holds it close with both hands, going completely still for a moment with what looks like relief. He tucks it behind his shirt carefully. “Thank you,” he says, and this time, when Naruto smiles at him, there’s something familiar in it. “You should put some ice on that, Uchiha.”

A few years ago, Naruto would have marched Sasuke back to his place and pressed an ice-pack to his face while he settled into a long, rambling lecture about all the ways Sasuke is a stupid, no-good bastard, what kind of worthless nincompoop would get himself beaten up like this anyways, don’t even get me started on how pathetic your defense is, Uchiha.

The words are out of his mouth before Sasuke can stop himself. “I fucked up, didn’t I?”

Naruto indicates a spot on Sasuke’s face where the bruising is the worst. “Clearly, you did,” he critiques. “Your never protect your right flank. It’s a weak spot because you’re too focused on pressing your left-handed advantage and—”

“I meant this,” Sasuke interrupts, and watches Naruto go still.

This being them. Naruto offers Sasuke a small smile. “No you didn’t,” he says quietly. They’re standing close enough now that he can pitch his voice at just a whisper and Sasuke can hear everything he says. “I did.”

Trust Naruto and his guilt complex to take on this burden as well. “I was the one who kept breaking your heart, Uzumaki,” Sasuke corrects, and Naruto’s lips twitch up in a wry smile at the words. He’d said the same exact words nearly a year ago to Sasuke: You keep breaking my heart, Sasuke, and Sasuke had been too stupid to realize the truth of it. Reckless. Reckless and cruel.

“I was the one who let it get broken,” Naruto points out gently. “Everyone kept telling me, and I didn’t listen. You told me, and I didn’t listen.”

“I told you what?”

Naruto takes a deep breath, and looks away from Sasuke. He stares at the bench a few feet away, talking almost to himself now. “You told me you didn’t want anything, and you wouldn’t stay here after it was all over. I just didn’t listen.” he says. He goes entirely still for a moment, and then continues, quieter still, “I just kept thinking that—I somehow convinced myself that if I just loved you enough, you would—One day, you would turn and see that I was waiting for you, and you’d—”

He stops abrupt.

You have no right, Neji told him, and Sasuke realizes now just how true his words had been. The words come tumbling out, and Sasuke doesn’t stop himself in time to rethink what he says. “Those women didn’t mean anything. And Tenten and I—I was drunk, and we didn’t even do anything. I just don’t think sometimes, and I know I can be a piece of shit, but I never meant to—”

“I know you didn’t mean to, Sasuke. It’s not your fault,” Naruto says, interrupting his rush of words. He finally looks away from the bench to face him. He offers Sasuke a smile. “I’m headstrong,” he says. “I can be pigheaded about things. But some things—I’m too old now to spin myself a fantasy, and convince myself I can make it real if I just try hard enough. I can’t keep believing in fairytales. I should know better. So Im the one who—” He gestures at the space between them. “This is on me.”

Sasuke can’t find his footing. It feels like the conversation is happening over his head, and he’s only watching it pass by. But he also knows that if he lets this conversation go by, he will never have a chance to remedy things. “I didn’t know what the necklace meant.”

Naruto laughs, not his usual loud, bright sound, but something quieter and subdued. “I’ve been dropping hints like bricks, Uchiha,” he says, once he catches his breath. “It just meant, if you wanted it…” He shrugs, trailing off. “It just meant…you know.”

“But I don’t know,” Sasuke says honestly.

Naruto smiles again. “It just meant, I loved you, you bastard.”

In that moment, Sasuke is reminded of Pein, pushing a kunai into his chest to the hilt. He remembers Pein digging it into his lungs, twisting it full circle as if trying to carve out his insides. He remembers choking on his breath, feeling the muscles stitching his rib cage together giving way. “And now?”

Naruto meets his gaze. “Now I don’t want to anymore.”

Thousands of miles, and not even his Sharingan could replicate the blue of Naruto’s eyes. It’s startling, just how crystal-sharp the color of his irises are, even from such distances. He is the most beautiful thing Sasuke has ever laid his eyes on. For all that has happened—for all the death and blood and mud and guts and shit that Sasuke has endured—the gods created Naruto and placed him in Sasuke’s path.

And now Naruto is trying to walk away.

Sasuke has always been selfish. He’s been selfish and reckless. He’s been cruel. He tries not to, but he can’t help but ask the question: “Why?”

“It’s okay, Sasuke,” Naruto says quietly, and offers Sasuke a hesitant smile. There isn’t an ounce of his usual brightness in the gesture; it’s nothing at all like the smiles Sasuke imagined and re-imagined all those miles across rolling plains, fast-moving streams, and tawny sand dunes. “It’s okay. We’ll be okay.”

Sasuke can’t help himself. He has to ask. “What does that mean?”

Naruto’s expression softens a fraction. “We’ll always be friends,” he says. “We’re just going through a rough patch now, but that’s on me. I just need some time to get over it. That’s all.”

“But I—”

Want this, I’m ready now to keep this, Sasuke means to say, but Naruto talks over him. “We will always be friends,” he repeats, firm, and Sasuke knows that this is Naruto convincing himself. I’ll be Kage one day, he said when he was seven, and he’s worked single-mindedly towards it. He’d dreamt a dream for them both: a summer wedding, a house, three to four kids, peace and solace at the end of all things. He’d believed it would be possible, and he waited, patient, for Sasuke, unerring in his loyalty and love. And now, he’s convincing himself out of that dream. Has convinced himself that his love is one-sided. “I just need some time and space to get over it, and we’ll be back to being friends. We’ll be okay.”

Just friends, is what Naruto is saying, because he might have loved Sasuke once, but he doesn’t want to anymore.

“I have to be at the Hill,” Naruto says. “I’ll see you around.”

There’s no promise in his words, though, and Sasuke knows without it being said that he will not see Naruto around—not unless they happen to be in the same room together, or unless they pass each other in the halls of the Tower or on the sidewalk. It’s just something strangers say to each other.

Naruto is a few feet away when he says loudly, Oh, as if he’d just remembered something. When he turns around to face Sasuke again, he’s smiling—

As if this whole conversation is an inside joke, something they can look back on and laugh about. Sasuke feels as if the earth is shifting under him. 

“You owe me, by the way,” Naruto calls out, raising his voice to be heard across the distance that separates them now. “I had to negotiate with Temari to make sure Gaara didn’t send out troops after that asinine message you sent him.”

Yori. He’d told his CO, and somehow, the story had filtered back to Naruto. “Just for future reference,” Naruto says, smiling still, “you actually don’t have any authority to talk to the Kazekage as a representative of this administration, let alone send him thinly veiled threats. Gaara wanted to put a bounty on your head, and I talked him out of it. You can still visit the Land of Wind next time you travel. So you’re welcome, you bastard.”

Naruto doesn’t wait for Sasuke’s response, just repeats, “See you around, Uchiha,” and turns neatly on his heels. It takes a while, but Sasuke finally understands the feeling in his gut for what it is. He’s always been the one to turn his back, so it takes a few heartbeats for him to pinpoint the moment for what it is:

Naruto, walking away. 

Chapter Text

The next morning, Shikaku announces that Madara has fully abandoned Amegakure. SCI agents and ANBU have been surveilling Amegakure, but they still don’t have surveillance from inside the city to confirm this information.

“I’ll send out a team,” Hiashi says, stepping in neatly. “We’ll have confirmation within the week.”

Jiraiya scowls at the reports he’s skimming. “A high-ranking team is probably a good bet, Hiashi. Madara might not be in the city, but other Akatsuki members might be,” he suggests. He turns to Tsunade with a grin. “I can go, Tsunade.”

Naruto perks up. “I can go with Jiraiya-sensei!”

The Yondaime’s response is immediate. He gives Naruto a frankly disbelieving look, and says, “The hell you are.”

Naruto gets that familiar look on his face that lets Sasuke know that the best thing to do here is to seek shelter, because there are no scientific instruments that can measure the exact decibels of his voice that’s how goddamn loud he gets. “Here we go,” Kakashi mutters, but before Naruto can unleash his considerable vocal prowess, Tsunade cuts in. “Neither of you are going anywhere,” she says, and keeps talking right over Jiraiya’s sputtering, Goddamnit, Tsunade, what did I ever do to you, and Naruto’s unconvincing argument: I will concede the point that I may be a target of interest to Akatsuki, Naruto begins—because although he’s still loud and bullheaded, he now has legal training—but it isn’t as if he hasn’t been on high-ranking missions before where people have wanted to kill him, and besides, just because he got kidnapped that once

“I apologize, Naruto. I had no intention of harming you,” Itachi mutters under his breath, and Naruto interrupts himself solemnly to give Itachi a brilliant smile.

“I know you didn’t,” he says, and even though the smile isn’t intended for him, it makes Sasuke’s gut clench to see such affection in Naruto’s expression. That was once mine, he thinks, and the loss of it feels so acute, as if he’s watching Naruto walk away from him right this moment.

Tsunade seizes the break in Naruto’s unrelenting argument and turns to her captains. “If Madara abandoned Amegakure with the intention of going into hiding for another few decades while he bides his time, I don’t intend to let him. I want to hear options for luring him out.”

Hiashi speaks up first. “If we were to use Zetsu as a messenger to Madara about Shodaime-sama’s return, we risk losing him entirely as an asset.”

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. “Naruto, you had some thoughts you shared with me yesterday. Feel free to share them with the Hokage now.”

Naruto doesn’t bat an eyelash at being placed under sudden scrutiny. “We’re operating under the assumption that Zetsu is the only option Madara has for undoing the seals of the Gedo,” he says, “But we have nothing that suggests that even a valid assumption to make. If it were, isn’t it likely that Madara would have spent considerable resources to retrieve Zetsu? He had months of the Uchiha brothers traveling openly across the Continent to track Zetsu down, but he didn’t. From all of Lieutenant Uchiha’s reports, it seems like he’s very cautious. Which makes me wonder if Madara wouldn’t have a contingency plan of some kind. He wouldn’t risk all his plans on a single, unpredictable player like Zetsu. Would you agree with that assessment, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir,” Itachi answers. “I agree we may be placing an outsized value on Zetsu’s importance.” His words are formal, but there’s a layer of warmth to his voice, a slight curl of his lips that Sasuke picks up on immediately. Two weeks tops, Sasuke thinks. Naruto and Itachi will be best friends before the end of the month because they’re cut from the same cloth of nerds who will take any opportunity to preach about world peace and the military industrial complex and how it’s a derivative of outsized emphasis on chakra, which not only stifles science and technology, but also engenders a differential power and class structure between chakra users and civilians. Sasuke has heard some variation of that lecture from both of them several times already. They even sound the same.

The Nidaime leans back in his chair with a groan. “Say we let Zetsu escape and take news of me and my brother back to Madara. I haven’t heard a good plan yet.”

The last sentence is directed almost entirely at Sasuke. The idea to use Zetsu as a lure originated with Sasuke, so he has to be the one to provide a feasible option. “We need to put on a show,” Sasuke answers. When Tsunade gestures at him as if to say, Go on, he continues laying out the plan. “The most realistic scenario would be me or my brother transporting him to a different location, letting ourselves get goaded into some kind of fight, and letting him get away. He hates us, and he’s proud. There is no way he won’t try to escape if given half a chance. Not after the humiliation we’ve put him through.”

“He might not fall for the trick and lead us to Madara with the news, though. He might just lead us in circles,” Shikaku points out.

It’s a valid point, but an easy one to counter. “We don’t need Zetsu to lead us to Madara. We need Madara to come to us.”

“It’s an option,” Danzo says diplomatically. “Hokage-sama, if I may—”

“No, you may not,” Tsunade interrupts. Her voice hasn’t changed in pitch or tone, but something about her gaze on Danzo is cold. Sasuke doesn’t know the politics of the Village but he’s been assuming that Tsunade tolerates Danzo’s presence in these meetings for a reason. Danzo was Sarutobi-sensei’s teammate, the Nidaime’s student. “I’ll remind you that this meeting is for military high command, and you are here to bear witness. Any objections you or the Senior Council might have can be brought up at a more appropriate time and place. The Senior Council meeting, for example.”

Naruto once told Sasuke that the Senior Council is technically a civilian branch of government. The members of the council are made up of all the Clan leaders of the Village—every Clan has a single representative, regardless of their size or importance or role in the founding of the Village—but they cede their membership and authority in the military. Their role is to act as a check and balance on the office of the Kage. Naruto often complains that the Senior Council is an outdated remnant of the old Clan governing structure; he’d much rather work with the Senate, which acts as a voice for the people and legislates over the vast lands of the country; or the Supreme Court, which interprets the law when needed. (If I had to redo my career, Naruto said once when he was just fifteen and sighing dreamily over his constitutional law textbook while they waited for Kakashi to show up for training, I’d work towards being appointed to the Supreme Court. Lifetime appointment, and a lifetime of writing legal briefs.)

But all of Naruto’s complaints about the Senior Council always circle back to Danzo—how he has consolidated too much power, how he controls an entire voting block that essentially determines how the Council will vote on any given topic, how he obstructs Tsunade at every turn, even for middling details on legislation that has nothing to do with his constituency. Sasuke always assumed Naruto’s complaints stemmed from his professional disagreements with Danzo, but the way Tsunade is staring him down now—and that too in front of the rest of her high command—reminds Sasuke of Danzo’s signature at the bottom of the Wildfire Executive, just beneath Sarutobi’s.

Danzo’s expression doesn’t shift a fraction under Tsunade’s polite reprimand. “Of course,” he says easily, and for added measure, dips his head a fraction, ceding the ground to Tsunade entirely.

Tsunade turns away from Danzo entirely, her sharp gaze shifting to Sasuke and Itachi instead. She taps the table with a finger in a slow beat, her lacquered nails making a steady clicking noise against the wood. “You or your brother will have to make it convincing,” she says. “I don’t want any collateral.”  

Like hell will he volunteer for such an embarrassing mission. Not only would Sasuke have to deal with Zetsu and his creepy pronouncements, he’ll have to pretend to lose to him. He’s an Uchiha; he has his pride. Itachi seems to have the exact same thoughts, because when they speak, it’s in unison: “My brother will do it.”

“What the shit,” Sasuke says, rounding on Itachi in his chair. “You do it.”

“I’m the older one,” Itachi snaps, sounding exactly as he did when he was eight because—apparently—Itachi can be surrounded by high command and still act like a little bitch. “And I say you’re doing it.”

“Who died and made you king?” Sasuke snarls.

Everyone, dipshit.”

They both freeze at Itachi’s comment.

Sasuke considers the moment, assessing the damage that Itachi’s words may have caused. It’s been over a decade, and while the hurt of their loss still feels fresh sometimes, they need to move on. They need to move forward. If they can only talk about it openly when one of them is on the brink of suicidal ideation, then they will never get past it. So Sasuke smirks at Itachi and makes absolutely sure his nonchalance is convincing. “Way too fucking soon, asshat.”

A dimple appears briefly on Itachi’s right cheek, but his relief at Sasuke’s answer quickly disappears in the face of more pressing matters at hand. “I’m Clan Elder so I don’t have to do these stupid things anymore. It’s beneath me. You’ll set Zetsu free.”

Beneath him? Itachi’s staggering overconfidence has always been annoying, but now, it’s downright rage-inducing. No wonder Shisui and Itachi got into fights so often; Itachi is an insufferable, smug piece of shit. “You can’t just keep pawning off shit you don’t want to do on me and Sakura! How is that fair?”

Itachi rolls his eyes at Sasuke with exaggerated care. “This isn’t a democracy, Sasuke. You and Sakura don’t get a vote.”

“I’m going to tell Sakura you said that,” Sasuke warns, and watches some of Itachi’s bravado disappear in the face of that threat.

Itachi’s Mangekyou spins two slow circles before coming to a stop. “Go ahead. She likes me better than you anyways, you teenage dumpster fire.”

Sakura calls Sasuke doofus and Itachi dum-dum, which is her way of expressing affection. Sasuke knows for a fact that Sakura loves them equally because Sakura told them so. She tells them repeatedly, because she says that Uchiha men need to frequently hear the words, I love you. She is convinced that otherwise, they will forget how to feel human emotion and dissolve into alcoholism and sex addiction.

Itachi use all the oratorical flourishes in the whole world to imply favoritism on Sakura’s part—teenage dumpster fire? Sasuke is almost nineteen now. He’s almost not a teenager anymore.

“Alright, let’s go, you little bitch,” Sasuke snarls, and holds out a fist. “Loser sets Zetsu free and does dishes for the next week.”

Itachi raises a fist as well. They’ve been performing this tradition since the moment Sasuke could speak. “I am going to beat your stupid ass.”

They close their eyes and pump their fists three times while muttering in unison, Rock, paper, scissors. When they open their eyes Sasuke can’t censor the involuntary hah that he lets out, triumphant: Itachi is holding up paper to Sasuke’s scissors.

“Don’t gloat, Sasuke, it was never a good look on you,” Itachi says with a scowl, looking all of sixteen in that moment. But he sounds even younger—the way he did when he was ten, and so supremely pissed off that he had to babysit Sasuke again instead of getting to stomp around the redwoods with Shisui.  

“Oh no!” Sasuke mock-gasps. “Is the losing loser who loses upset because he lost again?”

“I will punch you in your face,” Itachi promises darkly. “Repeatedly.”

“My face?” Sasuke asks seriously. He points at himself. “This face of victory? This rugged, classically handsome, victorious face?

Itachi closes his eyes, and very visibly takes two deep breaths. Then, he faces Tsunade with as much dignity as he can muster. “I will volunteer for the mission, Tsunade-sama.”

Sasuke grins at Tsunade and it feels as if his face is going to split in half. It’s so rare that he wins against Itachi. “My brother is a true servant to the country,” Sasuke says. He pats Itachi on the shoulder, but Itachi shrugs him away with a muttered curse and a spike of chakra that makes his Mangekyou whorl. Sasuke smiles at him beatifically. “What a champ.”

“I swear to all the gods, Sasuke,” Itachi snarls. “I will—”

“Boys, do I need to separate you two?” Tsunade asks, but there’s absolutely no heat to her words.

Itachi and Sasuke answer at the same time, because it’s not as if Mikoto hadn’t asked them the same question a million times before. “No, ma’am,” Sasuke says, cheerful, but Itachi’s response is mumbled under his breath, petulant, No, Tsunade-sama.   

Tsunade covers her mouth, but not fast enough to cover the twitch of her lips. Jiraiya doesn’t bother to hide his laughter at all. The Yondaime’s silent laughter lets loose, and before long, even Shikaku and Kakashi are laughing along. Sasuke gives Itachi the most shit-eating grin in his arsenal; it makes Itachi sulk even more, which Sasuke didn’t think was even possible.

The Shodaime gives Itachi an encouraging smile. “I can empathize, Itachi,” he says, and dips his chin in the Nidaime’s direction. “I wish I could say that it gets better with age, but it really does not.”

The Nidaime doesn’t even notice because he’s too busy trying not to fall out of his chair from his raucous laughter.  

Itachi takes a breath. “Yes, sir,” he grits out.

When Tsunade chooses to act, she does so quickly: Sasuke gets the green light to set Zetsu free. The details of how are left up to Itachi. They have to make a show of it to convince Zetsu that his escape is real for the information to filter back to Madara. Itachi and Shino are tasked with putting on the show.  

Sasuke waits to hear about the outcome of Itachi’s mission with Kakashi and the rest of high command in the Shodaime and Nidaime’s suites. They idle about the room, nursing tar-black coffee and ignoring the plates of food that Tsunade’s personal assistant has laid out.

Sasuke stares out the windows towards KPD. Zetsu will be transferred from the KPD basement to SCI Jounin HQ. Too many men, and Zetsu wouldn’t be able to justifiably make his escape; too few, and Zetsu would be capable of inflicting real damage when he breaks free. The mission is only for the distance of two city blocks, but it’s enough time for Zetsu to make his escape. The plan is for Itachi to let Zetsu goad him into an attack. In the confusion that follows, Shino and Itachi will fail to properly secure Zetsu. Then they need to create a situation that gives Zetsu the advantage he needs to make an escape, and they need to do so without incurring any serious damage themselves. It’s one thing to win a fight, Sasuke knows; it’s another to lose one on purpose without too much injury.

When Sasuke realizes he’s fidgeting with his kunai, he gets to his feet suddenly, startling Jiraiya who is sitting next to him. Everyone turns to stare at Sasuke, but Sarutobi is the only one to speak. His concern makes the wrinkles deepen even further around his eyes. “Is everything all right, Sasuke?”

“Fine,” Sasuke bites out, and heads to the balcony before he can get drawn into a conversation. The Shodaime is already there, enjoying a cup of coffee. “Waiting can be difficult,” he says when Sasuke leans against the railing next to him.

Sasuke mumbles, It’s not so bad.

There’s a pleasant night chill in the air, the darkness quiet around them except for the occasional sound that filters out from the streets below. From this distance and height, the street lamps are fuzzy halos of gold suspended in air. Sasuke takes a deep breath and counts to ten. With each number, he feels some of the tension in his shoulders ease.  

By the time he gets to eight, he’s ready to break the silence without tripping over his own anxiousness. “Fucking sucks you’re stuck in the Tower like this.”

The Shodaime chuckles, and for once, there isn’t a reprimand about language. “I am not of the living,” he points out quietly. “I should not be anywhere, Sasuke.”

Sasuke knows for a fact that the Shodaime loves the redwoods, loves every inch of those forests deeply. He raised his daughter among those trees, married his wife under the arching branches of the forest, led his people to safety from the wrath of the demons and waged a war that saved the entire Continent. He loves the plants and ferns and the trees, loves the sound of birds and the quiet chirrup of crickets in the early evening hours. He has been confined to the Tower—to these suites, the Hokage Office, and the Senju Conference room—for months now. Whenever Sasuke walks in for his lunch session, it’s always to find the Shodaime looking out the window towards the redwoods.

Sasuke glances at the Shodaime and finds that he has abandoned looking out over the Village and is instead watching Sasuke carefully. He looks old, Sasuke thinks, and the thought surprises him into stillness for a moment. He doesn’t assign age to the Shodaime, just a presence, but now that he looks carefully, he can see the grays in his hair and the crinkles around his eyes. “Maybe we can sneak you out sometime. You can walk around the redwoods again.”

The Shodaime smiles. “I would like that.”

The silence settles again for long enough that Sasuke can feel the flux of Itachi’s chakra signature somewhere in the streets below, sudden and sharp. He’s giving chase.

There’s no need to ever do anything but share silence with the Shodaime, but Sasuke finds himself talking, if only to distract himself from Itachi’s chakra signature. “I found this lake on my run two days ago. Didn’t even know it was there.”

“A lake?”

“Twenty-three miles out from the Eastern gate,” Sasuke says, and launches into a low-pitched explanation on how to get there: the trails he took, the missed turn that had him stumbling past a thicket of trees onto a lake so still and undisturbed that Sasuke wondered how he’d ever missed it. He’d been running the trails around the Village for years and years, and he’d somehow missed a lake.

It was blue and so pristine it reflected the trees. He’d watched the sun rise over the lake, burnishing the water from inky blue to the orange-blue hue of a campfire. It looked like a mirror, and after the sun had risen, Sasuke had stripped off his clothes and waded in to his waist and stood still enough for the water to settle around him again. He looked into the water and caught a reflection of himself so clear, he could see the patterns of his Mangekyou.

The water was cool, Sasuke tells the Shodaime, remembering the muted rush of it closing around him when he went under. He’d been late to work that day because he couldn’t bring himself to leave.

“A lake,” the Shodaime repeats, disbelieving. “What a thing to miss all these years.”

“It’s not big, so it’s easy to miss. But it’s deep.”

The Shodaime laughs. “The thing to do here is to send out a team to properly survey these lands.”

“They’ll go stomping around and make a tourist destination out of it,” Sasuke grumbles. He knows he sounds petulant, but he doesn’t care. After his swim, he’d made absolutely sure he’d left the place as undisturbed as he found it; he even used a branch with leaves to sweep out his footsteps, and carefully picked his way through the dense thicket of trees cloistered around the lake to preserve the privacy of the space.

The Shodaime gives Sasuke a sidelong glance. “I said that was the thing to do,” he points out, leaning closer to Sasuke so that their shoulders bump. He pitches his voice low, as if sharing a secret with Sasuke. “Not that we should do it.”

Sasuke grins. “They might never find it.”

The Shodaime straightens with a sigh. “Until someone does find it, let it be your place.”

“Yours, too,” Sasuke says, and feels foolish for saying it almost immediately. “I can show you where it is. You shouldn’t have to stay a prisoner in here.”

The Shodaime goes still. He looks tired, Sasuke thinks, but the Shodaime recovers a moment later. He pats Sasuke’s cheek with a big hand, and Sasuke submits to the gesture. It’s becoming something of a habit for the Shodaime: lingering hugs, a hand on his head to ruffle his hair when Sasuke makes a joke. Usually, Sasuke will make a show of looking annoyed or shrugging away—he’s never liked people touching him like this—but today, all Sasuke can think is, He looks old.

“I would like that,” the Shodaime agrees quietly, and pats Sasuke’s cheek once more, pressing his thumb gently on the scar over Sasuke’s cheek, the one Pein had cut so ruthlessly onto his face: from eyebrow down to his cheek, a mess of tissue that has healed into a jagged, uneven line. “Does it hurt, son?”

“No. Sakura said it missed my facial nerve by a few millimeters.” Sasuke has never been so thankful for his dumb luck because he has seen men with facial nerve injuries, and knows how it can linger for years.

“Good,” the Shodaime says, pulling away. “I worried that you hid the pain or—” He stops, abrupt, so unusual for a man of his eloquence that it makes Sasuke freeze. The Shodaime doesn’t finish his sentence no matter how long Sasuke waits.

Pakkun had told him that he should watch the ghosts for signs of change. If there is even a hint of their souls becoming corrupted, he promised Pakkun he would step in and finish the jutsu to banish the ghosts from this realm. True, the Shodaime is acting strangely, but he’s not becoming angry or twisted in any way. And neither are the other ghosts. If anything—

Sasuke glances over at Sarutobi and the Nidaime through the glass door of the balcony. Both the ghosts are in deep conversation with Jiraiya, Kakashi, and Tsunade. They’re smiling at something Jiraiya is saying. The Yondaime is removed from them, speaking with Hiashi and Shikaku easily the way he always does—friends from his childhood, classmates with him in the Academy. They graduated together, went on double dates with each other’s girlfriends and then their wives. They became fathers around the same time, and attended the baptisms of each other’s children. He has a hand around Naruto’s shoulder, hugging him to his side, absent-minded in his affection. Shikaku punches the Yondaime lightly on the arm, giving him a lopsided smile as he speaks, and the Yondaime rolls his eyes with exaggerated care, which makes all of them laugh. It looks like a normal gathering of friends, as if they are all living and breathing and laughing together, not mingling with ghosts and spirits from another realm.

“You should go inside, Shodaime,” Sasuke prompts, because maybe solitude is what’s making the Shodaime act this way. If he’s with the Nidaime and the others, it might help.

The Shodaime hm-s under his breath, and Sasuke knows for a fact that the ghost hadn’t heard him. The Shodaime is not the kind of man to give anything less than his complete attention to those around him. He is kind in that regard, someone who is generous with his consideration of everyone else. “Shodaime,” Sasuke repeats, and again the Shodaime doesn’t hear him. He’s still looking out into the distance, lost in his consideration of the lights of the city in the distance.

Is this it?

Maybe the soul doesn’t get corrupted like they show in the movies. Maybe it isn’t anger and dissatisfaction that corrupts the soul, but the lingering ache of love for those left behind. Maybe it’s sadness that changes a spirit into something unrecognizable. Sasuke knows that sadness intimately. He’d let it corrupt him to the very marrow once. Maybe the ghosts are all—

“Hashirama-sensei,” Sasuke tries, and now, finally, the Shodaime shifts his gaze to Sasuke.


He looks exhausted, Sasuke thinks, and remembers the bone-deep weariness that settled into his every breath and heartbeat. He doesn’t want to think that the Shodaime is feeling the same kind of weariness and sadness.

And if he is?  

The Shodaime is still waiting for him to speak, so Sasuke clears his throat. “I was just saying—”

There’s a sharp rap of knuckles on the glass: Hiashi, smiling at Sasuke and jerking a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the two new additions to their gathering: Itachi and Shino.

Itachi is talking, no doubt debriefing his COs. Even through the glass pane, Sasuke can sense Kakashi and Tsunade’s approval of his report.

“Shall we?” the Shodaime asks with a smile, leading the way back indoors. As he passes, he pats Sasuke on the back. It’s neither warm nor cold. Clay, that’s what the Shodaime is now. Made from earth, infused with something not of this world, his soul tethered to a likeness of his body when he was alive.

One day, Sasuke will have to burn him.

Count, he reminds himself, and follows the Shodaime when he gets to five.

They don’t leave the Tower until much later in the evening. Shino parts with Itachi at the entrance of the building, but not before Itachi clasps him on the shoulder and says, sincere, “Well done, Aburame. Go home and get some rest.”

“Sir,” Shino says, smiling, and disappears with a pop.

“Takeout?” Itachi asks the minute Shino is gone.

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “You trying to avoid doing dishes?”

Itachi ignores him. “I’m the one who just finished a mission, so I get to pick,” he announces, and sets off into the night with great determination. So late in the evening, in fact, that there isn’t much by way of option except for greasy bar food or even greasier takeout. Itachi stews over the menu of each place they pass, ruling out every establishment for one asinine reason or another.

After the fourth restaurant, Sasuke puts his foot down. Itachi complains the entire time they walk about how he should have final say in their choice of food for the night seeing as he had to carry out that truly asinine mission. Still, he shuts up the minute Sasuke pushes through the drapes at the entrance and announces his presence. “Teuchi?”

Teuchi, the owner, doesn’t immediately respond; he’s too busy gawking. “There’s two of you! Ayami, sweetheart! Come see this!”

Itachi flushes from the attention that Teuchi is drawing from the other customers already seated at the stand: three chuunins, and a civilian woman with an older man who appears to be her father. A moment later, Ayami, Teuchi’s daughter, steps out from the back. Her mouth drops open when she sees Itachi.

“Teuchi, Ayami, this is my big brother, Itachi,” Sasuke introduces, and Itachi steps forward to dutifully shake their hands. “Brother, this is Teuchi and his daughter, Ayami. They’re the owners.”

“Welcome to Ichiraku Ramen,” Teuchi says, solemnly shaking Itachi’s hand.

Ayami points at the blackboard menu with the day’s specials and menu. The chalk is faded after a long day, but it’s still Ayami’s rounded handwriting that Sasuke has come to expect after all these years. “First meal is on us,” she says cheerfully. “You’re practically family, seeing how much Sasuke spends here.”

Itachi raises an eyebrow at Sasuke. “Didn’t know you liked ramen that much.”

Before Sasuke can respond, Ayami says “Oh, not Sasuke. I mean how much he spends here for Naruto. It’s Naruto’s favorite spot.”

Itachi gives him a pointed look, but for once, he holds his peace. He scrutinizes the selection and then comes to a decision. “A chicken and a beef.”

Sasuke steps in to place his own order. “I’ll have those two as well.”

Teuchi smiles. “You’re hungry today, Master Sasuke. Do you want extra servings of chicken and beef in your orders?”

“Sounds good,” Sasuke says, resolutely ignoring the other customers who are openly staring now. He’s spent an entire lifetime ignoring people who gawk at the vast quantities of foods he eats, and now is no different.

“And you, Itachi? Extra serving of chicken and beef?” Teuchi asks, ringing up the charge. When Itachi says yes, Ayami disappears into the back to take care of their orders. Teuchi presses a few more buttons on his cash register. It makes a pleasant trilling sound, and Teuchi rips out the receipt. Sasuke pulls out his wallet. He’s counting out the bills, calculating out a tip large enough to cover the cost of the free meal that Teuchi offered, when there’s a crackle of familiar chakra and Naruto pushes through the drapes with a loud, I’m here!

Sasuke goes absolutely and utterly still, frozen mid-way to paying.

Ayami steps from the back of the restaurant. “You said half an hour, Naruto. I haven’t started on your order yet,” she says, but Naruto doesn’t pay her any attention. He’s frozen, staring at Sasuke. “I didn’t know you came here anymore.”

This is Naruto’s place. He’s only ever been here once or twice without Naruto in his entire time in Konohagakure; he hasn’t even let himself walk down this street since Naruto said, I don’t want to love you anymore, because he’s not sure he could ever eat a meal under the cheerful lanterns hanging overhead without being reminded of every single time he’s sat across the table from Naruto.

Sasuke feels his face get hot. “Not often.” He has to clear his throat to find his voice and words again. “I didn’t know you were going to be here tonight.”

“That’s not—I didn’t mean—You don’t have to—” Naruto makes a vague, awkward gesture in the air, and then settles on twisting the hem of his black, long-sleeve uniform shirt into a small knot between his fingers. He’s changed out of his Councilor robes and is now wearing navy-blue sweatpants that say JOUNIN in white lettering down the side, but his jounin vest is nowhere in sight. “You can eat here if you want. It’s not off limits or anything.”

Which implies that Sasuke thinks it’s off-limits for some reason (which he does, but he doesn’t want to admit that aloud.) So Sasuke rushes to say, “I know it’s not off-limits. I just didn’t want to…” He trails off, realizing that he has no direction in which to take that sentence. The silence drags for a few more agonizing moments.

“This is awkward,” Ayami says, which does absolutely nothing to dispel the moment.

And now, finally, Naruto startles out of the moment. He glares at Ayami until she takes her cue. “I’ll get on that order of yours,” she says, and vanishes.

“And I,” Teuchi announces with great deliberation, “I will go help my daughter.”

Which leaves Itachi, staring between Naruto and Sasuke with what looks like a combination of bewilderment and panic. Sasuke stares at Itachi, trying with all his might to convey, Do something, hoping against all hope, Itachi will start a conversation with Naruto so they can move past this moment. Or, even better, suggest that they eat elsewhere. He doesn’t even care that he’s already paid. He just wants to get the hell out of here, even if it means he doesn’t eat a single goddamn noodle. Of course, Itachi misinterprets entirely. “I’m going to step outside for a smoke,” he says, which is nonsensical because Itachi considers himself a nonsmoker—except when he bums a cigarette off Sasuke or Shikamaru or Kiba or Neji or any one of his subordinates.

Itachi is already walking away before Sasuke can stop him. Sasuke heaves a sigh. His brother doesn’t carry cigarettes, which means that he’ll likely end up standing outside like the utter idiot he is. Sasuke takes pity on him and calls out, “Brother.” He tosses his cigarette pack at Itachi, who snatches it mid-air, flushing when Naruto levels a flat stare at him.

“I forgot my cigarette pack at home earlier in the evening,” Itachi says by way of explanation. Sasuke resists the urge to cover his face because of course Itachi—the number one dork that he is—decides to offer an explanation for an obvious lie, which makes the whole thing so much worse. Naruto doesn’t look convinced, so Itachi keeps digging his hole, trying his best to sell the situation. “I mentioned this in passing to Sasuke just now, but then I forgot that I didn’t have my cigarette pack on me, which is why I almost walked out of here for a smoke without any, but Sasuke remembered I don’t have my cigarettes and so—”

“Itachi,” Naruto interrupts gently. “You don’t have to develop a nicotine addiction as an excuse to avoid this situation.”

“I’m trying to quit,” Itachi grits out, looking as if he’d rather chew and swallow an entire year’s supply of cigarette cartons than continue suffering this miserable experience. Sasuke feels a pang of sympathy for his brother, he really does, but at least it means he’s not on the receiving end of Naruto’s attention. Sasuke is not sure he has recovered any dignity after his earlier fumbling. “I actually do smoke.”

“Then maybe you should go do that?” Naruto prompts.

“Thank the gods,” Itachi breathes out, and slips out before Naruto can respond. Sasuke tracks his chakra as he stomps a few feet away from the kiosk; plenty of distance for Naruto and Sasuke to feel as if they have some privacy.

Which is ridiculous, Sasuke thinks, because they don’t need privacy.

Naruto lets the silence last long enough for the other customers to return to their meals and conversations. “Your brother is really—”

“An idiot,” Sasuke finishes.

“I was going to say sweet,” Naruto corrects with a smile. “He’s really kind. I like him.”

Sasuke shrugs, trying to stay nonchalant but instead feeling stiff in the dimensions of his own body. “Most people do.”

Naruto nods. He doesn’t let the silence linger for long. “I’m sorry.”

The apology is so unexpected that it takes a moment for Sasuke to process it. “For what?”

Naruto smiles. “I didn’t mean to imply that you couldn’t come here earlier.”

“I know you didn’t,” Sasuke answers, and it’s too quick to be anything but embarrassing. He rushes to find a better excuse. “You said you wanted space.”

Naruto seems as surprised by Sasuke’s answer as Sasuke is. “Sometimes,” he says. “But not always.”

Sasuke considers the merits of dragging on this conversation. There is plenty of time for it to go completely off the rails and end in a fight of some kind. But Naruto seems quieter these days around him, guarded and careful with his words in a way that he never has been before. Sasuke doesn’t know how to behave around him anymore, what distance to stand, how to hold himself, where to look or what to say. “I’m not good with…” Sasuke gestures at the space between them. “Social cues.”

Naruto laughs, bright and loud, eyes crinkling with it. Sasuke feels his own lips twitch, and while Naruto laughs, he lets his gaze linger, catalogues all the details about Naruto all over again in his mind. He looks taller and slimmer in these dark colored clothes, more graceful than usual. Sasuke wonders if he could put a single arm around Naruto’s waist and encircle him entirely. “An understatement for the ages, Uchiha,” Naruto says, once he’s caught his breath.

“You need to tell me when you need space. I won’t know otherwise because I’m not good with those cues,” Sasuke continues, because the gods as his witness, he will use his words and finish this sentence if it kills him. Naruto is staring at him with what seems like incomprehension, so Sasuke takes a breath and explains, “I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable. Or hurt you.” He makes a vague gesture. “I seem to do that often.”

Naruto’s expression becomes entirely still for a moment. Then, he offers Sasuke a lopsided smile. “Not as often as you think, and it goes both ways,” he says. “You should tell me too, if you want space.”

“I don’t need space,” Sasuke promises. He can’t imagine a world where he ever would want it.

Naruto ducks his head and makes a great show of smoothing down non-existent wrinkles in his shirt. “You know, of I all the things I imagined,” he says, “I never thought it would end up like this between us.”

There’s no point in trying to avoid the truth, not when the conversation already feels so surreal. “How’d you imagine it would end?”

Naruto sidesteps the question neatly. “How you imagined it ending, I’m guessing.”

Lawyers. Naruto has always been good with his words; after law school, it’s impossible to pin him down in any argument. “I never imagined it,” Sasuke points out, because he’s not clever with his words like Naruto. He doesn’t know diplomacy. He only knows how to hold his silence, and when forced to answer, he knows how to keep the truth to himself. But the Shodaime has taught him how to put together a sentence and speak his mind, so he will. “Never imagined us starting, so never got around to imagining us ending.”

Naruto arches an eyebrow. He looks amused. “So what was all that staring? Seemed to be doing a lot of imagining then.”

He knows what Naruto is implying—and he wouldn’t be wrong; Sasuke has an itemized list of all his fantasies of Naruto, categorized by location and position, and a separate list entirely that involves a full array of role playing. Naruto is trying to make light of the situation, move past it, but Sasuke doesn’t want that to be what Naruto walks away with. Sure, Sasuke stared, but it was more than just what Naruto seems to think.

“The Sharingan remembers movement, not static objects,” Sasuke explains carefully, and Naruto’s smile drops away in increments. He doesn’t seem to understand immediately, so Sasuke tries again. “I can’t remember the shape of your eyes or your eyelashes if I don’t see you blink, Uzumaki. You need to move for me to remember things. That’s how the Sharingan works. I needed a few seconds to commit the details to memory. That’s why I was staring, most of the time. Not because of…you know.”

“Why—” Naruto stops talking, abrupt. He takes a deep breath, shoulders moving up and down. “Why would you need to commit the details to memory?”

There’s an odd relief to be talking out loud about these things, Sasuke realizes. Maybe this is how they move past it. Naruto can tell him, I don’t want to love you anymore, and Sasuke can say, I needed to commit the details to memory. And then, when all the words have been said, Sasuke will relearn the exact distance he needs to stand from Naruto so that things between them can heal undisturbed. Maybe they will be friends again, the way they used to be.

“I figured that was all I’d get, so I wanted to get the details right,” Sasuke says with a shrug. Naruto is watching him with wide eyes still, so Sasuke adds, “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable by staring. Like I said, bad with social cues.”

Naruto exhales carefully. “You’re not so bad.”

Sasuke forces himself to look away from the glint of his piercings, bright in the lanterns hanging overhead. It’s these details he was hoping to avoid by coming to Ichiraku. He should have stayed away this evening, but he’d been hungry, and Itachi was being picky. Next time, he’ll just be patient. He’ll let Itachi scour the entire goddamn city if he wants.

They spend the rest of the wait in silence, Sasuke watching in the direction of Itachi’s chakra signature and counting to ten over and over again while Naruto sits at the counter and waits for his order. When Ayami hands Naruto his food, she widens her eyes at Naruto meaningfully, but he ignores it. He’s fumbling for his wallet, one-handed, when Sasuke steps in. “No, please, you don’t need to,” Naruto says, understanding Sasuke’s intentions immediately. “I just need to find—”

“I got it, Naruto,” Sasuke insists, feeling something clench in his gut at the idea that Naruto might insist on this formality between them. As if they’re strangers.

Thankfully, Naruto concedes. He doesn’t say anything else when Sasuke presses a generous amount of bills onto the counter. “I’ll get your order,” Ayami offers, and she gives Sasuke a small, encouraging smile as she’s walking back to the back of the shop. “It’ll be just a minute, Sasuke.”

Naruto clears his throat. “I should go,” he says, jerking a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the Tower. “Working dinner with Hinata.”

Sasuke can’t come up with something witty to say in response; he’s too busy noticing the way a block of Naruto’s hair has curled slightly; he must have just stepped out of the shower before coming here and didn’t have time to run his fingers through his hair the way he usually does. He keeps his hair short these days, with just enough length that he can still brush it away from his face in elegant sweeps. It only emphasizes the sharp cut of his cheekbones, the near-perfect symmetry of his face. Sasuke always thought that Naruto’s hair was a single shade of yellow, but the more he looks, the more he realizes that the sun has bleached some of Naruto’s hair into lighter shades of gold, while others remain deeper still.

Naruto’s confidence falters, his smile falling away slowly. “You’re staring again, Sasuke.”

Normally, Sasuke would try to find an excuse. But today, he only takes a careful step back. “Old habits,” he says. And because Naruto had asked him for space, he adds, “Sorry.”

“You didn’t have to—” Naruto stares at a spot on Sasuke’s chest. “You didn’t have to commit details to your memory. I was right there. I wasn’t going anywhere.”

“But I was going,” Sasuke points out. It’s such a careful, delicate dance they’re doing here, trying to extricate themselves from each other, make sense of what has been left in the destructive wake of Sasuke’s reckless decisions, one after another, breaking Naruto’s heart and faith in slow, painful increments. “And now, you are, I guess.”

Naruto doesn’t look away from that spot on Sasuke’s chest. “You must hate me.”

Sasuke can’t help himself: he laughs. It’s inane that he might hate Naruto for something, for anything. And now, finally, Naruto drags his gaze up to meet his eyes.

“The thing with old habits, Uzumaki, is that they’re hard to break,” Sasuke says, after he’s caught his breath. “There’s also this saying about old dogs and new tricks.”

“Wherein I’m the old habit, and you’re the old dog,” Naruto says with a tentative smile. He holds Sasuke’s gaze steady for few moments longer, and then takes a step back. “Thanks for the ramen.”  

Thanks, as if they’re strangers. Naruto has never thanked him for this before, and somehow, that single word sours all the memories of before—when Sasuke so easily stepped up to pay the way he always does; when Naruto indulged him, and only rolled his eyes whenever Sasuke insisted, I was raised with some manners, dead last. “Another old habit.”

Naruto’s smile reaches his eyes this time. He half-turns, pausing just long enough to offer, “Good night.”

Sasuke doesn’t know what to do with his hands, so he clasps them behind his back as if he were standing at ease. He clears his throat to find his voice because he’s realizing now that it’s not just a one-time thing. He’ll have to watch Naruto walk away from him again and again and again and again. “Good night.”

Itachi re-enters a few moments later, smelling like cigarette smoke. When Sasuke holds out a hand for his cigarette pack, Itachi places an empty carton in Sasuke’s palm.

“You smoked an entire pack?”

“I’m trying to quit,” Itachi intones, serious. He glances towards the stools at the counter. “We can ask them to pack it to go.”

“It’s fine,” Sasuke insists, and sits down before Itachi can make this situation worse. Ayami arrives with their order a few minutes later, but what surprises Sasuke is that Teuchi is close at her heels, holding a bottle of sake. He places two glasses in front of Itachi and Sasuke.

“I didn’t know you had a liquor license,” Sasuke says, watching Teuchi fill the glasses with expertise.

“I don’t,” Teuchi says, and settles the sake bottle in front of Sasuke with a smile. “I thought you could use a drink, though.”

“And let’s be honest,” Ayami adds, ignoring Sasuke muttered, Oh for fuck’s sake, everyone calm down. “We’re probably never going to see you in these parts of town again, Sasuke. I thought we could send off our best-paying customer with a bang.”

Which is the truth of it. He’s not going to be able to ever come back to this place without the reminder of Naruto saying, Thank you and Good night and walking away. Still, he lies, “I’ll be back. No need to be dramatic.”

“Liar,” Ayami says, gentle. “You don’t even like noodles.”

Which is also the truth.

Sasuke bends his head over his food, and starts to eat. Next to him, Itachi does the same. After a few bites, Itachi says, “It’s not bad.” He gives Sasuke a sidelong glance. “I can see why you like the food here.”

It’s Itachi’s way of giving Sasuke a graceful exit to the shit-show that just happened. “I told you,” Sasuke says, but there’s absolutely no conviction to his words. “The food’s good here.”

Between the two of them, they finish four orders of ramen and an entire bottle of sake without much effort at all.

The next morning, Sasuke receives the official order to ride out to Amegakure.

Tsunade’s instructions are clear, but it still takes a moment for her words to sink in. “Get back into the city, and confirm that Madara has abandoned the city. Take care of any Akatsuki that he’s left behind. If Madara has truly gone, see if there’s a trail for us to follow. You know the drill for this mission, but I don’t want you dying this time, am I clear?”

“Time to earn that paycheck of yours, Uchiha,” Jiraiya says gruffly.

Sasuke blinks blearily at Tsunade from across the table. “Today?”

“No, not—“ Tsunade’s eyes go wide with understanding. “Are you hungover?”

Sasuke takes a careful, careful sip of his coffee. There is a headache so intense rattling around his skull that it’s pounding down the full length of his spine at this point. “No.”

Itachi takes the opportunity to say something extremely unhelpful that makes him sound all of ten years old. “Can I go too?” He pauses a beat and adds with great dignity, “Hokage-sama.”

Tsunade considers Itachi and then Sasuke again, disbelieving. “Are you both hungover?”

“No, ma’am,” Itachi says, but it’s an obvious lie because Itachi looks like death warmed over. Neither of them had a chance to shave this morning; Itachi wore sunglasses on the walk to the Tower. Sasuke knows for a fact that if Itachi looks the way he does, he must look worse. Itachi clears his throat and tries his best at sounding dignified. It’s an exercise in futility. “Will I be going to Amegakure, Hokage-sama?”

The Shodaime answers before Tsunade. “No, you will not, Lieutenant,” he says, words clipped. “It is a basic premise of our strategy that at least one Sharingan will be manning the City walls. This is due to the fact that our highest priority at the moment is an extremely well-developed and powerful Sharingan user. Is that clear?”

Itachi’s expression crumbles at the Shodaime’s anger. Sasuke rolls his eyes heavenward. Of course, he’d take the Shodaime’s reprimand to heart. Itachi worships the Shodaime; when they were little, he used to get into fistfights with Shisui whenever they played Demons and Shinobi because Itachi always wanted to be Senju Hashirama. “He’s not mad at you, Brother, he’s just mad you’re drunk. Mostly, he’s mad at me for getting you drunk.”

“I am disappointed,” the Shodaime enunciates clearly, “In both of you.”

“He’s not, really,” Sasuke says, because Itachi looks ready to walk off a cliff. The Shodaime opens his mouth to disagree, but Sasuke ignores him and turns back to everyone else at the table. “When do I ship out?”

Kakashi, gods bless his soul, steps in before the Shodaime or Tsunade can let their anger truly get a hold of them. His one visible eye is crinkled in a smile. “Two days. Assemble a five-man team.”

Sasuke pinches the bridge of his nose and takes deep, soothing breaths. His tongue feels like sandpaper, and if he doesn’t get something for his headache, he’s fairly certain he’s not going to be able to walk to the training grounds, let alone ride out to Amegakure. Sasuke takes another breath before answering. He understands the importance of this mission, but it still feels like a waste of his time when Madara is anywhere but Amegakure. “Yes, sir.”

Tsunade shakes her head—despairing, almost, and rounds on her Captains. “Does anyone else want to add to this disgraceful display?”

The Captains in the room mutter, No, ma’am simultaneously. “You two look like shit,” the Nidaime says with a chuckle. “How much did you drink?”

Itachi glances miserably at Sasuke, but Sasuke doesn’t have an answer either. The last thing he remembers is Itachi declaring after their first post-dinner bar that they should find more sake, Sasuke, I’m sick of beer, and then there was a bar crawl of some kind. Sasuke remembers doing shots with Itachi. There was also a pin the tail on the donkey contest, which they both lost somehow. The night ended with both of them in a dive bar in the East End of the Village. Itachi disappeared with a woman at the bar who was out celebrating the successful completion of her graduate program’s qualifying examinations. Sasuke lingered long enough to start talking with a cute waitress, a brunette with a tattoo of small, delicate birds spanning across her right collarbone. The sting of Naruto walking away had still been so recent, and one thing led to another—

Sasuke digs the heel of his palms into his hands, trying to soothe the sting of his Mangekyou. This is the problem, Sasuke thinks, this right here. He’s stupid and careless and two drinks in, he invariably gets even more stupid and careless. He starts thinking with his dick, as Sakura likes to point out, and next thing Sasuke knows, everything has gone to shit. Just when Naruto was starting to talk to him again, Sasuke goes and sleeps with some woman he doesn’t even remember. Not that Naruto is open to starting anything again, but Sasuke has been trying his goddamn best to not be an utter and complete piece of shit to Naruto since he came back. Instead, he'd woken up in the women’s apartment at the crack of dawn and had to take a tram back home. But of course, he’d lost track of his keys sometime during the night, so he had to wait around by the front door until Itachi hauled his sorry ass from wherever he spent the night.

The Nidaime whistles, long and loud. “Must’ve been quite the night.”

Itachi rubs at the scruff on his face. The fact that he hasn’t even shaved this morning, means, by Itachi’s standards, that he’s close to death. “Yes, sir.”

The Shodaime takes a deep breath, and then another. Sasuke can almost hear the ghost counting. “I am very disappointed,” he pronounces seriously, “In both of you.”

Sasuke looks imploringly at the Shodaime, who looks as if he’s gearing up for one of his rants. “I won’t do it again,” he offers as sincerely as he can.

Sarutobi sets down his tobacco pipe on the table. “I have lost track of how many times you have made that promise, child.”

“Thirty-seven,” the Shodaime answers easily. “You have made that promise to me thirty-seven times. And you have broken it, thirty-seven times.”

“Technically,” Sasuke points out, “I never said the words, I promise.”

The Shodaime’s sharp gaze becomes flat with his anger and displeasure, all the muscles of his face becoming so still, he looks like the carving on the Hokage Monument. Sasuke has been on the receiving end of this look several times before, but it never ceases to make him want to take cover. There’s no risk of the Shodaime beating him up like the Nidaime or Kakashi. Instead, the Shodaime’s anger always manifests itself as a low-pitched discussion about his expectations for Sasuke, the hopes he has for the kind of man Sasuke will become. I am disappointed in you, he will say, and his words will be such a quiet baritone, Sasuke will feel the Shodaime’s disappointment in his bones. He almost wishes the Shodaime would just beat him up. But since that’s not going to happen—and because the Shodaime is still looking at him—he says, “I’m going to stop talking now.”

The Yondaime tuts under his breath. “You do that, Uchiha.”

Sasuke snaps his mouth shut with a click of his teeth and pays very careful attention to a spot on the table.

Akamaru is so displeased with the idea of going back to Amegakure for a clean-up job that he clamps his jaws around Sasuke’s shin to make his displeasure known. “We sneak in, look around, and sneak out,” Sasuke repeats, but Akamaru’s grip only tightens even further.

Shikamaru puts out his cigarette with such vehemence that small clouds of ash float up from the ashtray. They’ve gathered in Neji’s offices for this meeting because Sasuke doesn’t technically have an office anymore. “So it’s just the five of us on Madara’s tail?”

Sasuke carefully pries Akamaru off his leg, but the dog doesn’t move far. Instead, Akamaru sits by Sasuke’s feet and growls at him. Kakashi had given him a four-man team, and he’d picked the most obvious choices: Neji, Shino, Shikamaru, and Kiba with Akamaru as his usual plus one. He’d assumed they’d be willing to follow him back out to Amegakure, but now, Sasuke is wondering if he made a miscalculation. They had all barely survived their last mission to Amegakure; it is entirely understandable if they have reservations about going back. “It only takes five men to confirm if he’s actually abandoned Amegakure, and to see if he’s left a trail for us to follow,” Sasuke explains. He wants to give these men an out if they want it, so he adds, “I wanted to share the mission specifics with you before sharing it with the rest of the men and opening up the rosters for volunteers—”

“Shut up, Uchiha,” Neji grumbles. “We’re not saying we won’t. We’re just saying that shit tends to hit the fan on your missions. So maybe we should take more than five men.”

Sasuke makes sure he doesn’t look too relieved. For a moment—just for a moment—he was worried his Unit wouldn’t follow him. Now, he feels stupid for having doubted them.

“Shit won’t hit the fan,” Kiba says with great feeling, and entirely ignores the stare that Akamaru levels his way. Sasuke has learned over the years to interpret the volume of Akamaru’s bark, the enthusiasm of his tail wagging, and the precise angle of his ears—so he knows, for a fact, that Akamaru’s posture indicates, What the fuck, you stupid human.

Sasuke stares into the depths of his coffee and despairs, because Kiba and Shikamaru have launched into a heated argument about shit, fans, and one making the acquaintance of the other. Meanwhile, Akamaru has taken to angrily biting down on his shin again, although at this point, Sasuke doesn’t even know why Akamaru is angry with him.

“It is only surveillance, Akamaru,” Shino says, taking pity on Sasuke and prying Akamaru back with a hand around the wolf’s neck. “When do we leave?”

“Two days’ time,” Sasuke announces. When he gets to his feet, the rest of the men follow. “Pack light.”

“Shit,” Kiba repeats in a heated whisper, “will not hit the fan.”

Shikamaru scowls. “I will stab you in the eye if you don’t stop jinxing us, Inuzuka.”

Shino ignores them both and looks at Sasuke with his solemn gaze. “Sasuke, are you hungover?”

Sasuke looks heavenward, and wonders why in hell’s name he even bothered getting out of bed.

He goes home for a quick nap and wakes up, nearly giddy with relief to find that he doesn’t have a headache anymore. It’s still early enough in the afternoon that Sasuke tugs on an old T-shirt, pants, and laces up for his run.

The chuunin at the Eastern gate salutes him with a crisp, Good morning, Sarge. He’s younger than Sasuke, a brown-haired boy of no more than fourteen if Sasuke were to guess. Sasuke has tried and failed to make the troops stop saluting him or calling him Sarge, but the younger ones don’t seem to be getting the memo. So Sasuke only mutters, At ease, as he passes through the gate and steps outside the Village walls.

He has a mission the next morning, so Sasuke takes an easy, looping path for his run back to the lake. He breaks it up with frequent walks so his muscles don’t become overstrained, and it takes longer than the last time to find the hidden lake again. He nearly gets lost once, but then he finds his way back, and when he pushes through the thicket of trees, it’s to find that the lake is exactly as he left it.

It feels selfish to enjoy this space by himself, so Sasuke closes his eyes. Yuuta.

Yuuta appears with a soft pop. He takes in his surroundings quickly. “Well,” he says, and settles in a loose coil next to Sasuke on the slightly damp beach soil. Sasuke can feel the snake’s presence in his mind, sorting through memories. “Amegakure again?”

Sasuke hm-s under his breath, and draws his knees up to his chest. He loops a hand around his legs and watches the distant horizon, waiting for the sun to set. “Routine this time. I don’t expect to find Madara.”

Yuuta’s tongue flickers out. “What will you find, I wonder,” he mutters, almost to himself, and pillows his head on the coils of his body. He doesn’t move again until the sun settles just above the peek over the tree-line; with the dying glints of gold, Yuuta sways upright.

They watch the sunset together, quiet as the world comes to life around them with birds and crickets and frogs and all the other insects that come out at night, a low din of sound that can only be heard deep in the redwoods at twilight and nowhere else. Every now and then, Sasuke will hear the soft splash of water—a fish or a frog, Sasuke thinks, making its presence known in the shallow ends of the lake. It feels as if they’re in a pocket of the world removed from everything else, containing nothing but the flat, blue plane of water, filled to the brim with the golden heat of the sun even as the warmth is surely fading as steadily as the descending sun. It’s almost as if the redwoods around them are containing the fading rays of sunshine in this space.

When the sun has set fully, Yuuta slithers into the water for a swim, and Sasuke follows. He sheds his clothes haphazardly and walks into the water until it closes over his head. He stays there, suspended, tracking Yuuta’s movement going further and further into the water. Sasuke stays underwater until his lungs burn from it, and then floats back to the surface to lie out on his back and drift.

He stays long after the sky turns bright with stars, and then makes his way back to the Village in a slow jog. Yuuta stays with him until they reach the Eastern gate, and then drops to the ground just outside the metal gate that allows pedestrians to enter and exit the city. The chuunin from the afternoon is long gone; in his place is an older, higher-ranked chuunin for the night shift.

Sasuke assumes Yuuta will disappear, but the snake surprises him by breaking the silence they have shared for the past hours. “When I was young, my grandmother, Wazuka, told me a story.” Rin almost never talks about her mother; the only time he has heard Wazuka’s name was when Rin mentioned in passing that the Snake Clan was, by all standards, a small tribe. But they are ancient. Rin can trace her matrilineal lineage to eleven generations, but there the knowledge of her ancestry ends. First, there were dragons, she told Sasuke on a cool night after Sasuke crawled out of her nest that very first time. And then we were made, a bastard lineage of the dragons in the era before time. When it is time, Rin will make another daughter out of her chakra and clay; the first daughter had been murdered by Rin’s uncle; once the grief of that wound closes, Rin will set to the task of mothering an heir. That daughter will continue the tribe.

Sasuke crouches by Yuuta, ignoring the curious glances that the chuunin on guard is giving him. “What did she tell you?”

Yuuta angles his conical head. “The Shinju is not just a manifestation of the Nine Demons.”

Sasuke frowns. “Then what is it?”

Yuuta looks away from Sasuke towards the treeline. “Something ancient,” he says.

That isn’t much of an answer at all, so Sasuke tries again. “Does Rin know? Would Pakkun?”  

Yuuta shakes his head. Sasuke can sense the sharp edge of the snake’s impatience against his own consciousness. “No one knows, Sasuke. It comes from an era before time. That’s my point. You chase Madara, and you think it ends with him, but you’re chasing something far greater than that.”

Sasuke gets to his feet. The point is to catch Madara before he summons Shinju, and Sasuke intends to do just that. Still, it’s hard to ignore Yuuta’s unmistakable fear, the dread pushing itself into Sasuke’s consciousness even though Yuuta is as unmoving on the surface as always. He knows that the snake is not trying to infiltrate Sasuke’s mind with his own concerns; this is involuntary, the way Sasuke’s thoughts and feelings bleed over into their consciousness when he’s unable to control his own emotions. Yuuta’s fear amplifies in his mind, echoed by vague memories of a large, patterned boa constrictor silhouetted against the night sky, hissing a warning that Sasuke hears in his own mind, as if Wazuka were by his side, saying the words:

The earth cracked open, and from within that rift in time and space, the sky spilled forth.

Sasuke breathes against Yuuta’s memory. It takes a moment before he can find the words to try and dispel the moment. “Are you worried about me, Yuuta?”

The bite is so fast he doesn’t even see it. “Humans,” Yuuta snarls. “I’m surprised your kind hasn’t driven itself to extinction from sheer stupidity.” He vanishes with a pop before Sasuke can reply.

Later that night, Sasuke falls asleep to the image in his mind over and over again, borrowed directly from Yuuta’s memory: the dark- and light-brown patterning on Wazuka’s scales, her button-black gaze, the soothing lull of her words as she describes the end of the world, of a beast emerging from a tear in the very fabric of reality where the earth and the sky collapsed onto one another. Somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, though, Yuuta’s memory shifts into a dream.

In Sasuke’s dreams, something emerges from a crack in the earth, something so dark and with such weight it makes the earth shake. Sasuke looks to his left and sees a raven with red eyes that is also watching the crack in the earth, waiting with one wing spread out as if it’s about to take flight. Just beyond the raven is another figure, a woman with bone-white skin and hair as black as the raven’s feathers, with mismatched eyes: one blue and one gold.

She too is watching the chasm, so Sasuke turns to look. The thing emerges from the crack in the earth in flashes. He feels the rumble of its growl in his bones before he sees the thing: first the spreading, rugged wings, each with hooked claws at its tapered end. The right wing has an ugly tear in it, and the beast flaps the wings a few times to lift itself from that chasm in the snow-covered earth. A coiling tail, thick and powerful, appears next, grappling for purchase on the snow, leaving behind deep trenches of churned up mud and snow. It’s four-legged, but it crouches low to the ground like a large cat, each of its limbs tapering off into curved claws the same silvery metallic as Sasuke’s swords. It has a powerful neck, and the back of its body lined with faint scars. It’s facing away from Sasuke, but after a moment, it must realize his presence because it turns and Sasuke sees—

A row of teeth, glowing orange from the fire that the beast is swallowing on, flames licking out from the edges of its mouth to look like whiskers, its low growl becoming overlaid with a faint whining, higher and higher pitched, until it feels as if Sasuke’s eardrums will burst, and Sasuke knows in that moment that the beast will open its mouth and he will burn, but Sasuke can’t look away because the beast blinks and in an instant, Sasuke notices:

Two red irises in each eye with black patterning, swirling in opposing circles—

He gasps awake in the dark of his room, drenched in sweat, shaking as he pushes himself out of bed and takes step by unsteady step to the windows to push them open for some cool night air. But when he finally gets his sweaty palms to unlatch the window, all that blows through is a warm gust of wind.

A moment later, the night becomes still.

It’s an effort to pay attention in the morning briefing the next day. Sasuke keeps finding his mind drifting, and halfway through the meeting, he gives up all pretense of paying attention and stares at a spot on the desk, trying to clear his mind. Every time he blinks, he sees it again:

A woman, with mismatched eyes. A raven, with a wing spread out in anticipation of flight. And a chasm in the earth, a rip in time and space, the sky opening. And from within that rip a winged beast with claws like swords and a mouth bursting with flames, and eyes like

He nearly groans with relief when Tsunade calls the meeting to an end, but before he can make an escape to some solitude—and hopefully some sleep—Kakashi catches up to him with a quiet, Let’s go.

This time, Sasuke doesn’t need Kakashi to lead the way. It’s becoming something of a ritual now, so they walk side-by-side to the smoking section of the Commons. Kakashi doesn’t bother with please and thank you, just orders, “Clear out.”

Sasuke settles into the bench with a sigh, reaching into his back pocket for his cigarette. Kakashi settles at the opposite end of the bench and waits patiently for Sasuke to tap out cigarettes for them both. Kakashi doesn’t speak until they take a few deep breaths. “You look like shit, Uchiha.”

Sasuke rubs at his face. “Just need some sleep, that’s all.”

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. “Understandable,” he says, mild. “If I had another assignment to Amegakure, I’d lose some sleep too.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “Spare me the fucking—”

“Are we really going to pretend you don’t have clinical depression and a history of suicidal ideation?” Kakashi asks without skipping a beat. He gives Sasuke a sidelong glance. “That’s what your file says, at least according to a Dr. Ueno Nobuyuki. Dr. Haruno Sakura also signed off on that diagnosis.”

“A history of,” Sasuke enunciates, and Kakashi’s lips twitch. “Which means it’s in the past. Also, Sakura is my family’s physician. Her records of my evals are private. You shouldn’t have access to those.”

“This eval was before she became an Uchiha,” Kakashi counters neatly. “Speaking of which. My congratulations. To all three of you.”

Sasuke looks involuntarily towards Sakura’s crackling chakra signature. “Just congratulations? No comment?” When Kakashi doesn’t say anything, Sasuke looks back towards him. “It was probably not her smartest move becoming an Uchiha. It puts her on Madara’s hitlist.”

“We’re all on Madara’s hitlist,” Kakashi says with a chuckle. He taps the ash off from his cigarette carefully. “And it’s her choice to make.”

Sasuke glances towards the sky. There’s no clouds overhead, and the air is unrelentingly stifling and hot. It’s as if overnight, the winds stilled and the water was sucked out from the air. Even the leaves are hanging completely still on the trees around them. The silence stretches, and it takes a while for Sasuke to break it. Kakashi didn’t ask him here to offer congratulations for Sakura becoming an Uchiha. He’s treading lightly around the issue, but Sasuke is too tired to bother with such pleasantries. “Are you worried I’m not fit for the mission tomorrow?”

“I’m worried you’ll try to see it to the end,” Kakashi says easily.

Sasuke sighs. “I know my orders, Kakashi. I won’t pursue Madara or engage him. It’s just surveillance.”

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. “Good,” he says, and puts out the cigarette. It’s not even half-done.

Sasuke raises an eyebrow at Kakashi; the man has never wasted a cigarette before. “You in a rush?”

“I’m going somewhere with air conditioning,” Kakashi grumbles, and gets to his feet.

“You used to make me run laps when I complained about the heat,” Sasuke points out, and gets to his feet as well.

Kakashi levels a stare at Sasuke. “Genin,” he says, pointing a finger at Sasuke’s chest. He then points at himself. “Commander of the Joint Forces. I’m allowed to complain. You’re not.”

Sasuke falls into step next to Kakashi when he starts walking again. As they walk through the Commons, back to the Tower, Sasuke points out that Kakashi was only a jounin when he mercilessly made Sasuke run laps in the mid-afternoon heat, and although Sakura and Naruto complained endlessly as well, they never got the same punishment. Kakashi doesn’t even bother to defend himself, just says that Naruto and Sakura always knew when to apologize, and besides, Sasuke was—and is—an unvarnished, Category A piece of shit.

“Like teacher, like student. So what does that make you?” Sasuke says.

Kakashi’s eye crinkles with a smile. “It makes me Commander,” he says. Sasuke is about to counter, but Kakashi beats him to it, switching topics neatly. He stops walking abruptly under the shade of a tree to make his point. “Don’t pursue Madara. Just go into Amegakure, confirm if he’s there. If he’s still in Amegakure, don’t engage. If he’s not, figure out which direction he went, but don’t pursue. There’s a bigger war to be won.”

Sasuke clenches his hands into fists and forces himself to count to ten. He understands why Kakashi is putting him on a leash, but he still hates the feeling of it around his neck. “If I have a clean shot—”

“We do not engage with Madara on his turf,” Kakashi interrupts sternly. “We agitate him. We draw him out. We make him deviate from his strategy. And then we strike. The battle will be fought on my terms, not his. I don’t like repeating myself, soldier, and I don’t like my orders disobeyed.”

One, Sasuke tells himself firmly, and grinds through the next nine numbers in his mind. “Yes, sir.”

He’s expecting Kakashi to leave, but instead, Kakashi lingers, considering Sasuke carefully. “There’s a bigger war to be won, Sasuke,” he repeats, quieter now. “We can’t make mistakes, not with such high stakes.”

Sasuke remembers the distinct pattern of claw marks on the snow as the beast lifted itself from the tear in the earth. If he focuses, he can almost hear the low growl of the animal. “You’ll win the war, Kakashi.” If not you, he wants to ask, who else?

Kakashi looks towards the Tower, looming large at the far end of the Commons. “My mother once told me that ghosts weren’t real,” he says in a low murmur, almost as if he’s talking to himself.

“So did mine.”

Kakashi watches the Tower for a few heartbeats longer before returning his gaze to Sasuke. “End of the goddamn world,” Kakashi mutters, shaking his head in disbelief. A moment later, though, he snaps out of his reverie. He leaves with a nonchalant, Have fun in Amegakure.

Sasuke watches him go, finds himself remembering words that he’d forgotten long, long ago. Now, though, the memory comes back crystal clear: the uncomfortable motel mattress, the smooth leather cover and the weight of a book in his hands, how thin the pages were, how he had to angle the book towards the dim night lamp because the words were so small, layered in in two cramped columns.

I looked, and behold, an ashen horse, Sasuke thinks. And he who sat on it had the name Death.

The words haunt him throughout the day, and then follow him home to dinner, where they drive Sasuke to such distraction that he’s barely able to contribute to the conversation even though Sakura keeps trying. She had arrived earlier in the evening, loaded to the brim with groceries, announcing her plans for a good family dinner, so help me God, Itachi, if you burn anything tonight and ruin Sasuke’s meal before he heads back out to Amegakure again, I will hurt you.

The meal is extravagant even by Sakura’s standards, but Sasuke can barely taste the food. Still, between the two of them, Itachi and Sasuke decimate the entire spread. He lets Sakura fuss over him after dinner, letting her pack and repack his traveling bag. Even Itachi gets drawn into her obsessive compulsive need to arrange his medical emergency kit, and when Sakura begins to quiz Sasuke on each of the items in the medical pouch, Itachi reprimands Sasuke to pay attention, gods damn it, Sasuke, you’re useless when it comes to first aid. It’s unnecessary, but Sasuke doesn’t object because he knows what this is about: Sakura’s worry is obvious on her face. When it’s time for her to leave, Sasuke offers to walk her home, and for once, Sakura doesn’t object.

Instead, she threads their fingers together on the walk back, and presses close to his side. “You said goodbye to Kakashi-sensei?”

“I did.” Although Sasuke isn’t sure their conversation earlier in the day counts as a goodbye. Not that he and Kakashi need to say goodbye to each other. Besides, Sasuke thinks, it’s a routine mission.

“And the ghosts?” Sakura asks, looking up at him with green eyes that are bright even under the dim street lamps outside her apartment building. “Naruto and Kakashi-sensei say you’re very close with Shodaime-sama and Nidaime-sama. Even Tsunade mentioned it a few times.”

“It’s just surveillance, Sakura,” he says, and watches Sakura’s nose wrinkle with annoyance.

“I have higher clearance than you, Uchiha. I’m aware of the exact specifications of your mission,” she counters. “I’m just saying—”

“It’ll be fine,” Sasuke promises her, and when Sakura continues to scowl at him, Sasuke does the only thing that will work to end this conversation. He steps close and pulls Sakura into a hug, tucking his chin neatly over her head and feeling Sakura sigh into the embrace. They stand there for a moment, long enough that Sasuke dips his face into her hair and presses a kiss against her crown. This is family, he tells himself, and it rattles the breath out of him, the sheer force of the affection he feels towards her.

“You better come back in one piece,” Sakura threatens. Her voice is muffled against his chest. She pulls away from the hug and glares at Sasuke. “I’m getting so sick of healing you. I love you, but you’re the worst patient I’ve ever had the displeasure of healing.”

Sasuke tucks a lock of her hair behind her ear, just enough so that his mother’s ear rings are visible. Sakura’s expression softens then, and she stands on tip-toes to plant a kiss against his cheek. “Don’t be a doofus, Uchiha,” she warns, and then disappears into her apartment building.

He has an early morning tomorrow, but Sasuke still finds himself walking towards the Tower instead of back home. It’s not that Sakura’s words prompted him to seek out the ghosts, just that odd feeling in his stomach. He’s not the same lost, confused teenager as before, but he still feels a need to seek out the Shodaime’s council, tell him, I dreamed of a winged beast crawling out of a rift in the earth. He wants to ask the Shodaime: Does the Shinju have two red irises? Does it swallow on fire?

So late in the evening, the Tower is nearly emptied of its staff. There is only a handful of people left in the building, most of them watching for any emergency situations that might need immediate attention. Still, the place is crawling with the chakra signatures of the Secret Service. Sasuke is stopped at the front by the civilian guard whose job it is to sign in every single person who enters the building. Sasuke realizes only then that he doesn’t have a pass to enter the residence, let alone a legitimate reason to do so.

“My name is Uchiha,” he says, enunciating clearly. “Uchiha Sasuke.”

The man raises a bushy eyebrow at him, unimpressed. “And that’s supposed to mean something to me?”

Where in the actual fuck, Sasuke thinks, did this man come from? “You don’t know who I am?”

“I know who you are, sir,” the man says. His name tag says Nakajima Daiki. It’s an odd name, for an odd man, who has an odd accent. He’s built like a bulldog, and if he weren’t a civilian, Sasuke wonders just how impressive a soldier he would make with his heft and weight. Not to mention the fact that he is holding Sasuke’s gaze without batting an eyelash, even though Sasuke’s Mangekyou is whorling now with his anger. “I’m just asking you what the purpose of your visit is, and why you want access to the residence this late in the evening.”

“To see—” Sasuke catches himself at the last minute. If he says Senju Hashirama, no doubt, the man will call Secret Service to detain him, if only because he’ll sound like a lunatic. Instead he says, “I need to speak with the Hokage.”

“Not happening, good night,” Daiki says, and goes back to the book he’s reading. Sasuke catches a glimpse of the cover, which has large bold letters: The Vanishing Point, it reads, Post-War Economies of the West. Sasuke’s chakra spikes. All the lights around them flicker out in an instant. The man clears his throat in the darkness that follows. “Fix that, would you?”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Sasuke snarls, and lets his chakra flare dangerously again. The lights flicker back on.  

Daiki returns to his book, nonplussed. “Do I look like I’m kidding?” he deadpans. “Go talk to your CO, and if they determine that you need to talk to the Hokage, they can walk it up the chain of command. Have a good night.”

“I’m not military,” Sasuke bites out, and feels the temperature of the space climb steadily upward with his anger. The overhead lights flicker again. “I’m a military contractor.”

“All the more reason for you to not be here,” Daiki says, and flips a page.

Sasuke opens his mouth with a threat at the tip of his tongue, but just then, Naruto comes rushing down the corridor. He’s wearing oversized pajamas: a button up top and an even looser pair of pants that go well past his toes, both in the same shade of peach-orange. He looks ridiculous, but Sasuke still feels his mouth go dry because there’s a high flush to his cheeks and Sasuke can see the smooth line of his clavicle dipping into the folds of his shirt.

“I’m here, I’m here,” Naruto says, skidding to a halt by Daiki’s desk. “Sorry, Daiki, I forgot to leave his name on the guest list for the night.”

Daiki’s bushy eyebrows crawl up so high, they disappear under the mop of hair flopping down to cover his forehead. “Young man,” he says sternly. “Are you inviting this—” He gestures at Sasuke from head to toe. “As a guest for the night?”  

Sasuke blinks away from Naruto long enough to remember his earlier anger at the guard. “Who the fuck are you to—”

“It’s for work,” Naruto interrupts loudly. “Tsunade’s orders.” When Daiki’s expression doesn’t change, Naruto rushes to add, “Jiraiya knows about it. It’ll be a short visit.”

“It better be, young man. Your godfather will be hearing of it otherwise,” Daiki warns, and watches as Naruto fills out the guest list. After he’s finished signing his initials, Daiki checks his watch. “Sign in time is 21:07,” he announces, and taps the face of his wrist watch. Clearly, he will be timing Sasuke’s visit.  

Sasuke opens his mouth, ready with any number of things to say, but Naruto beats him to it with a loud, Thanks, Daiki, and drags Sasuke away by a firm grip on his elbow before Sasuke can even get a single word out. He waits until they round a corner before turning to face Sasuke. “What are you doing creating such a scene so late at night?”

“I wasn’t creating a scene.”

“You short-circuited the electricity with your chakra!” Naruto hisses in a loud whisper. “Do you not understand that my father has ordered Secret Service to place you under custody if you’re found lurking around the Tower outside of normal business hours?”

It takes a moment for Sasuke to connect the dots and remember the exact moment when the Yondaime said the words—but Sasuke didn’t think the ghost had been serious. The Yondaime has issued so many threats with such varied eloquence that Sasuke no longer keeps track of all the rules and laws the Yondaime has laid down for him to follow. “I thought he was joking.”

Naruto’s mouth flaps open and he stares incredulously at Sasuke. “You thought my father was joking about something that concerns me, his only child,” he says slowly. “You thought that my overprotective, doting father who literally broke the laws of the natural universe and forced his way back from the realm of the dead to see me again was joking about something to do with my safety and happiness. You thought he was joking.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “He threatens to kill me if I look at you too long, Uzumaki. I don’t think I need to take him seriously all the time.”

Naruto pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes with a deep breath. “Sasuke, for future reference, just take everything he says about me seriously.” When he opens his eyes again, he pins Sasuke with a stern gaze. “Please tell me you’re here to see the ghosts. That is the only way you’re walking out alive. Hand to God, my father has a sword ready. He will commit murder tonight if you don’t have a good reason to be here.”

“I need to see the Shodaime,” Sasuke announces, and tears his gaze away from Naruto to start walking up the stairs.

“Is everything all right?” Naruto asks, following Sasuke doggedly down the corridor.

“Everything’s fine,” Sasuke answers neatly, but Naruto halts him with a hand on his elbow, not allowing Sasuke to knock on the doors leading to the Shodaime and Nidaime’s rooms.

Naruto holds Sasuke’s gaze steady as he repeats the question. “Is everything all right, Sasuke?”

He doesn’t want to tell Naruto about his dream. It sounds nonsensical, and there is no one—not a single person—he trusts with these kinds of insane thoughts but his snakes and the Shodaime. Kakashi, maybe, if the man forced him. The Shodaime will listen to him without judgement, he will provide clarity, and he will settle that odd dread in his stomach that Yuuta’s words and memories have stirred. Instead, Sasuke gropes for the most feasible lie. “I'm shipping out for a mission tomorrow. I wanted to see him before I left, that's all.”

Naruto drops his hand with a quiet, Oh. He recovers from his surprise only a heartbeat later. “I need to sign you out again at the front desk. I can wait outside, or—”

“I’ll find you,” Sasuke interrupts. He doesn’t want to keep Naruto waiting, especially not when the Yondaime is ready with a sword somewhere in the building. “You should probably get back to Yondy. I’m guessing he’s throwing a shit-fit right now.”

Naruto purses his lips into a thin line. “That’s my father you’re talking about, you know.”

“I know,” Sasuke replies easily, “Your overprotective, doting father from the realm of the dead.”

Naruto rolls his eyes. “I’m at the north end of the residence,” he declares, and rounds on his heels without giving Sasuke any further directions on how to find him. Sasuke doesn’t let himself watch Naruto leave. Instead, he gives the most cursory of knocks on the doors leading to the Shodaime and Nidaime’s rooms before shouldering inside.

The Shodaime and the Nidaime are both at the seating arrangement at the far end of the room, closer to the fireplace. Tsunade is with them, and all three of them look up sharply at Sasuke’s sudden entrance.

Tsunade frowns, obviously concerned, but the Shodaime’s smile makes the wrinkles around his eyes deepen. “I was wondering when you would visit.”

“Sakura wanted to have a family dinner,” Sasuke says, and stays hovering at the doorway, feeling awkward under Tsunade’s scrutiny.

The Shodaime talks right over Sasuke’s discomfort, waving him in with a broad gesture of his hand. “The three of you cooked together?”

“Me and Sakura. Brother is only allowed to do the dishes and clean up,” Sasuke mutters, and settles uncomfortably in the space next to the Nidaime. He glances around at the scrolls and books covering nearly every available surface around them. Most of them are seals he doesn’t even recognize. “If you’re busy—”

“Please don’t leave,” the Nidaime begs him. “If I have to look through another book of seals, I’ll kill myself.”

“You’re already dead,” Sasuke points out reflexively.

The Nidaime rolls his head onto the back of the couch. “I’ll kill someone else then.”

“How about we call it a night,” Tsunade offers with a smile. She gets to her feet before Sasuke can say, No, ma’am, I can leave, and bids both the ghosts goodnight. Instead of her usual farewell, though—Sir or Hokage-sama—she leans at the waist to plant a kiss on the Nidaime’s cheek and says, “Good night, Pop-Pop.”

Pop-Pop? Sasuke ducks his face to hide his smile, but he still catches a glimpse of the Nidaime reaching up to cup Tsunade’s cheek with a smile. “Night, peanut.” The Shodaime does the same when Tsunade bends to kiss him good night, saying, I’ll see you in the morning, Grandfather—only he calls Tsunade sweetheart, and kisses her on the cheek as well, wishing her a good night, telling her, Sweet dreams, child.  

Sasuke feels as if he’s trespassing on something private, but Tsunade doesn’t seem to mind sharing the moment with him. Instead, she pins Sasuke with her gaze and says, stern, “I expect you back healthy and whole from Amegakure, Sasuke. I don’t intend to attend your funeral again.”

Sasuke feels his face flush under her gaze. They don’t like each other, that’s their thing, but here she is, sharing private moments with her family with Sasuke, looking at him with affection, telling him to come home safe. “Wasn’t planning on dying,” he says, trying to dispel the awkwardness.

“Good. I would be very unhappy if you do,” Tsunade says, and smiles at him again.

Which is too much, really. Sasuke has no idea how to handle situations like this, so falls back on old habits: he gives Tsunade his most rakish grin, the one that makes even Sakura blush, and says—purrs, really, with as much exaggeration as possible—“The last thing I want is for you to be unhappy, Tsunade-sama.”

This startles a bright laugh from Tsunade. “I knew your grandmother, punk.”

Sasuke grins at her. “You say that like it makes an iota of difference, ma’am.”

“I am right here,” the Shodaime points out, but his lips are twitching. Tsunade leaves after bidding the ghosts good night again, but not before she smacks Sasuke upside the head on her way out, muttering under her breath about how she should have listened to Kakashi a long, long time ago, You’re such a piece of shit, Uchiha.

Sasuke calls out to her retreating back, “An unvarnished, Category A piece of shit, ma’am,” and hears her tinkling laughter as she closes the door.

“She reminds me of Mito,” the Nidaime says under his breath. The Shodaime hm-s in agreement, and they both let their gazes linger on the closed door for a few moments.

The Shodaime sits back in his armchair, turning his full attention to Sasuke. “What is on your mind, Sasuke?”

It takes a few fumbling starts for Sasuke to get started. “The other day, I went for a run to that lake I told you about.”

The Nidaime frowns. “What lake?”

Sasuke takes a breath, frustrated now that the words seem to be escaping. Sometimes he thinks things, but when he tries to speak them, it comes out halting and awkward and nonsensical, as if after all the years of hoarding his silences, his mind is unwilling to let go of its old habits. He’s gotten better with the Shodaime’s help, he knows, but it’s still difficult some days. Old habits, he tells himself, and pushes forward. “The lake isn’t important. I summoned Yuuta, so he could go for a swim,” Sasuke corrects impatiently, and it’s a rush of words now, pushing against each other.

The ghosts listen patiently while Sasuke describes Yuuta’s memory, the one that he shared with Sasuke: Wakuza, hissing the warning to her grandson about the end of the world. He has to force himself to say the words, clench his hands into fists against that dread that Yuuta shared with him. Fear. He’s never felt his snakes’ fear before. He’s never known they were capable of it.

The earth cracked open, and from within that rift in time and space, the sky spilled forth, Sasuke whispers, and feels his heartbeat thunder. “I saw a pale woman with long dark hair. She had an eye of gold and an eye of blue. There was a raven, waiting to take flight. I don’t think those are from Yuuta’s memories, but it felt like a memory.”

Neither of the ghosts react immediately. Sasuke looks between them to try and read their expressions, but they’re both thoughtful, considering Sasuke’s rambling explanation seriously.

“The first time I saw a demon in its full form, I thought I was going to throw up or shit my pants or faint, or an improbable combination of all three,” the Nidaime says finally. Sasuke rolls his eyes, about to point out that even the idea of Senju Tobirama being afraid is so ridiculous that it’s not even worth making a joke out of it, but the Nidaime holds up a hand. “No, listen. I was fucking terrified. It ranks in the top ten worst goddamn moments in my life, and that list includes when my brother died. That’s how it felt looking at a demon across the battlefield.”

Sasuke frowns. “But you and the Shodaime conquered it—”

“No, we didn’t, not at first,” the Nidaime interrupts. “It destroyed nearly half our troops, and we retreated. For a while, all we did was go from one hiding place to another, trying to stay safe. We just turned tail and ran. We didn’t want to fight the battles we fought, Sasuke, we were forced to fight them. And we were terrified.”

The Shodaime tilts his head curiously, considering Sasuke for a few thoughtful moments. “You have never been afraid to ride into battle before, have you, Sasuke?”

Sasuke frowns. There are a hundred answers he can give immediately, but then he considers the question seriously. He’s never feared death because he spent most of his life looking for it. He doesn’t ache for death anymore, but he’s not sure he’s truly scared of dying, not when Shisui and Uncle Kyoguku are waiting for him on the other side to share a drink. The only real fear he ever lived with was dying without fulfilling his duties to his Clan. He was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to kill Itachi, and he was afraid of doing just that. He was afraid about going to the Great Hall and not finding his brother and his kin there; worse, he was afraid of being denied entry for the sin of fratricide. But none of those fears are comparable to the dread he felt listening to Yuuta and sharing Yuuta’s memory. He’s never woken up from a dream scared.

Sasuke shrugs. “Mostly I feel annoyed before battle.”  

The ghosts both burst out laughing, the Nidaime leaning into Sasuke even as he thumps Sasuke on the back, muttering under his breath, God damn, kid, just when I think you can’t surprise me anymore.

It takes them a long time to collect their breaths. “You are allowed to be afraid, Sasuke,” the Shodaime says finally, giving Sasuke one of his quiet smiles.

The Nidaime nods in agreement. “How else do you fucking know when you’re being brave?”

That explains the dream, Sasuke realizes. Not an omen or anything worth examining. Just a dream because he was afraid. And that’s fine. If Senju Hashirama and Senju Tobirama themselves felt fear, then there is nothing in this world that dictates that Sasuke has to be fearless. He just has to be brave, and he knows how to do that because bravery—he’s learned over the years—is a particular brand of stupidity in the heat of battle. According to Kakashi, he has that in spades.

So Sasuke gets to his feet with a sigh. “That’s me. Uchiha Sasuke. A profile in courage.”

“Yes,” the Shodaime says, missing the joke entirely. He gets to his feet as well. “You are.”

“Remember your training, Uchiha,” the Nidaime orders, which is as much a goodbye as the Nidaime will ever say, so Sasuke takes it.

The Shodaime walks Sasuke to the door, lingering long enough to pull Sasuke into a hug. “Get a good night’s rest, son,” he says, and pats Sasuke on the cheek three times. “I will see you when you return.” Sasuke is almost out of the room when the Shodaime calls out, “Sasuke. Be safe.”

Sasuke frowns. “Yeah, yeah, I get it,” he grumbles, and leaves before the Shodaime can get even more maudlin. All day, he’s had people behaving as if he’s walking to the gallows, and he’s sick of it.

He’s nearly at the foot of the stairs when he remembers that he has to find Naruto to make his exit past Daiki’s absurd vigilance. So he bounds up the stairs again, taking them two at the time, following Naruto’s chakra signature like a lure down an unfamiliar stretch of corridors. The north end of the residence is another dead-end like the Shodaime and Nidaime’s suites. Naruto’s chakra is tucked behind a heavy wooden door, mixed in with a few other chakra signatures. He recognizes Kakashi’s easily enough, but it takes a moment for him to place the other one: Jiraiya. When he knocks, the voices inside fall silent. A few moments later, Jiraiya opens the door to another set of suites, decorated much like the Shodaime and Nidaime’s. These rooms, though, don’t have a piano, and they’re only slightly smaller. It’s still far more opulent than any place Sasuke has ever spent the night.

“You make quite the entrance, Uchiha,” Jiraiya says, sweeping the door wide open to let him in. “Next time, try not to short circuit electricity to announce yourself.”

Sasuke takes only a few steps inside, and hovers at the exit. Everyone is gathered around the dining table, a board game laid out between them. Kakashi has a few cards in his hands, and he’s considering them seriously. He’s taken off his jounin vest, and his face cloth is nowhere in sight. There are four spots laid out, which can only mean that Jiraiya was also playing.

It’s such an odd scene it takes a moment for Sasuke to process it. He tears his eyes away from the game board and meets Jiraiya’s eyes. “The idiot at the front desk—”

“His name is Daiki,” Naruto interrupts, “and he’s a good man.”

Sasuke ignores Naruto’s comment. He won’t get drawn into a conversation about his manners or behavior. Like the Shodaime, Naruto likes to pester him about these things. “I need you to sign me out.”

“Don’t even think about cheating, Kakashi-sensei,” Naruto warns sternly.

“Now that’s just insulting,” Kakashi says, sounding mournful, and dutifully puts his cards face-down on the table.

Naruto gets to his feet. The Yondaime’s expression softens into a smile when Naruto instructs, Make sure Kakashi-sensei doesn’t cheat, Baba. He tracks Naruto’s movements to the door, watchful as always over Naruto’s every movement. Sasuke is about to follow Naruto out when the Yondaime calls his name: Sasuke.

Not Uchiha or Oi, delinquent. So Sasuke turns to him and waits.

“I’ll see you when you get back,” the Yondaime says carefully.

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “Not you too, Yondy. It’s just surveillance.”

The Yondaime concedes to Sasuke’s irritation with an easy smile. He doesn’t even make his usual fuss about the disrespect of Sasuke’s nickname for him. “Either way, I’ll be right here.”

Sasuke freezes, remembering that aching moment before he stepped into Tsunade’s rooms to find out about the Wildfire Contingency. I’ll be right here, he’d said then, because he’d been the only one not to know. He’d found out, and the moment he did, he’d offered, I’ll be right outside, if you need me. Sasuke has to take a deep breath against that memory, and watches as the Yondaime’s expression goes still; he must remember too. The Yondaime holds his gaze, smile changing from lopsided and joking to something quieter.

He never said thank you, Sasuke realizes, in the silence that follows. He’d been so blind with rage when he left, and consumed with the day-to-day since coming back that he never spoke to the Yondaime of that moment. The words are out of his mouth before he can tell himself there is a better place and time for this:

“Thank you.”

His voice comes out pitched low, but the Yondaime hears him. “Anytime, kid.” He takes such a deep breath that Sasuke can see the rise and fall of his shoulders from across the room. “Anytime.”

The ghost’s voice is quiet as well, and that’s how Sasuke knows they’re thinking of the exact same moment, suspended as they were at the doors leading to Tsunade’s offices, when the whole world felt as if it came crashing around Sasuke. It feels as if it was a lifetime ago, but Sasuke can remember the way the chair had hit the back of his knees when he took a step back, when he realized that the Shodaime had known, too. Throughout that meeting, Sasuke remembers glancing over his shoulder at the door, knowing that the Yondaime would keep his word and wait for him.

Sasuke straightens his posture—spreads his feet apart to ground himself, squares his shoulder, and tilts his chin up. “Sir.”

The Yondaime takes his cue. “Dismissed.” Sasuke sketches a crisp salute, and steps out into the corridor with Naruto close at his heels.

Naruto waits until they’ve rounded the corner before speaking. “Can I ask what that was about?”

“You can ask,” Sasuke says, and glances at Naruto just in time to catch his exasperated smile.

“I think Dad actually likes you,” Naruto says thoughtfully, bare feet soft against the long, expensive rug that lines the corridor. The hems of his pajama bottoms are dragging with each step, but Naruto pays it no mind.

Sasuke steps aside to let Naruto lead the way down the stairs. They’re narrow enough that they can’t both walk side by side. Naruto keeps glancing over his shoulder as he talks, extrapolating on all the reasons why, exactly, the Yondaime may or may not like Sasuke. On the one hand, he begins, and lists off an argument before pivoting on his own logic.

Sasuke listens, nodding in agreement at the appropriate moments even as he lets his mind wander. His focus is drawn almost entirely on a strip of skin visible just over the hem of Naruto’s collar. The collar is too wide on Naruto’s petite frame, looking even more ill-fitting since the shirt is sitting lopsided on Naruto’s shoulders. The color is truly atrocious by any stretch of the imagination; nobody with a decent pair of eyes would think to purchase the monstrosity, let alone wear it. But while Naruto has been trained to be a polished, impeccable counselor, he still comes home from work and changes into old sweat pants that are worn and comfortable, hideously colored pajamas, and shirts that are either too big or too small on him. It’s as if he doesn’t own a single pair of clothes that fit him properly in his quieter moments, but the minute he steps into his role as Counselor or soldier, all those private details about him get tucked away behind crisp kimono robes with creases sharp enough to cut, and ink-black face-cloths and jounin uniforms.

He’d spent months traveling imagining and re-imagining the details of Naruto’s smile or the exact fan of lashes fringing his almond-eyes. After Naruto said, I don’t want to love you anymore, he’d taught himself to not even think of those details. But now.

Now, Sasuke wants to reach out and adjust the shirt on Naruto’s shoulders. He pushes his hands into his pockets to make absolutely sure he doesn’t, and falls into step next to Naruto as they begin walking down the last stretch of corridor to where, no doubt, Daiki is waiting impatiently for Sasuke to check out.

“He does have elaborate fantasies of killing you, but I don’t think those have much merit. I’d say his overall impression of you is fairly positive” Naruto is saying, and Sasuke realizes he’s still carefully examining the Yondaime’s precise feelings towards Sasuke. He’s chewing on his bottom lip, deep in thought, and Sasuke’s gaze zeroes in on that detail again, remembers the press of Naruto’s lips against his, brief, in the pre-dawn light before Sasuke left for Amegakure for the first time.

Naruto seems unaware of Sasuke’s fixation because he says a cheerful hello to Daiki and bends to initial where Daiki points. Sasuke doesn’t leave immediately, though. He feels tethered to the spot by Naruto’s bright gaze. “Don’t you have a mission tomorrow, bastard? Or do you plan on standing here all night?”

“I’m going,” Sasuke says, and takes a step back. He doesn’t know what prompts him—maybe the monstrous peach of Naruto’s pajamas, or the way the clothes are too large and boxy on his frame. Or maybe it’s the way he had smiled at him earlier. It’s nonsensical, but Sasuke finds himself wanting to extend the moment anyways. “Early morning tomorrow.”

Naruto’s smile is hesitant. “Try not to die this time.”

“I’ll see you when I get back,” he says, even though the question rumbling deep in his chest is, Will you wait for me to come home?

Naruto nods. “All right.”

Sasuke clears his throat. Coward, Naruto named him once, a long time ago, when Sasuke was about to leave for Amegakure. He was a coward then, but now that he wants to be brave, he’s not sure if he’s allowed that liberty anymore. Time and space, that’s what Naruto wants. That’s what Sasuke will give him. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Naruto returns—because this is a thing they do now; they are polite and they wish each other Good night and Good morning and say Thank you and please. Naruto leaves, and Sasuke stays standing, watching him go until he rounds a corner and disappears entirely. It’s only then that he exhales.

Daiki rolls his eyes with great care. “You’re not very good at this.”

“No,” Sasuke admits, and breathes against that twist in his gut. Eventually, he will get used to this. “I’m not.”

Chapter Text

“This? This right here?” Shikamaru states in a harsh whisper. He gestures widely to indicate the drainage pipe. “This is shit hitting the fan.”

Sasuke scrubs at his beard, which is now out of control. They’ve been on the mission for nearly a week, and they still haven’t found their way into Amegakure. The original timeline had them returning to Konohagakure on the ninth day, but here they are, day six already, finding that yet another entrance point has been blocked off. Madara has plugged up every single potential entryway into the city with cement.

“There has to be some way in,” Shino mutters under his breath, eying the walls looming overhead. They’re threaded with sigils and explosives; there are archers, patrolling the walls back and forth like pendulums. Sasuke can sense their crackling chakra signatures, broadcasting their presence to ward off any would-be thieves and invaders.

“They’re draining water from their industrial plants somehow,” Neji says, pressing a hand flat against the cement plugging the drain they had scouted out.

“We’ve scouted the city perimeter at least a dozen times, Sasuke,” Kiba breathes. He is crouched by Akamaru’s side, scratching absently behind Akamaru’s ear. “There’s no way in through the pipes.”

“And the walls are not an option,” Shino adds, holding out an index finger. One of his bugs lands on his finger moments later. Shino has been sending his bugs out almost constantly, but they too have been unable to find any cracks in Amegakure’s armor.

“Short of walking through the front doors, we can’t—” Neji falls silent when Sasuke’s gaze swivels to him, Mangekyou whorling. “Uchiha,” he says, slowly, “we are not walking through the front doors.”

“Sure we are,” Sasuke says, because he spent his adolescence being exposed to Naruto and then Orochimaru and hairbrained schemes are actually in his DNA.

The plan, of course, is better in theory than in practice. First, they scout the inbound caravans of supplies, watching the guards at each of the city gates do thorough inspections. There is no way to hitch a ride on the caravans and sneak past inspections. They’ll need to create a distraction.

The men vote, unanimously, for Sasuke to be the distraction. “It’s your shit idea,” Neji snarls, “you do it.”

“Just set a few things on fire,” Kiba says encouragingly, which is how Sasuke ends up setting a caravan of crock pots on fire.

But it’s hard for crock pots to burn, and none of them are explosive, so he switches tactics and tries setting one of the city banners flapping overheard on fire instead. This, too, proves difficult. He concentrates his chakra with such intensity that it gives him a headache. The wind keeps destroying any progress he makes, so Sasuke decides, fuck it, and steps out from his hiding spot in the tree line and walks up to the caravan that is smoking lazily. There is a small group of soldiers clustered around the caravan, trying to calm down the merchant.

The point is to distract most of Amegakure’s defensive corp long enough for the others to scale one of the walls. A burning caravan of crockpots is not nearly enough to draw the attention of trained mercenaries.

It takes a moment for the guards to notice him. An arrow lands at his feet. “State your name!”

The original plan had called for a covert operation. “Best laid plans of mice and men,” Sasuke mutters, remembering one of the Shodaime’s favorite sayings, and unsheathes his sword. Almost immediately, three more arrows land within inches of his feet. Two more guards yell out the question, even as the others take cover behind the burning caravan. “State your name!”

They need a distraction. What bigger distraction than Sasuke walking up to the gates of the city and declaring war? Kakashi said they needed to agitate Madara; there is no better way for Sasuke to agitate the man than by coming back from the dead and breaching the walls of his own city.

“The name’s Uchiha,” Sasuke calls out. “Uchiha Sasuke.”

He blurs in an attack.

They don’t find Madara in the city. They find Zetsu.

He’s waiting for them in the city square, lounging by an impressive fountain that seems out of order. The fountain sculpture is a warrior astride a horse that is rearing back, mid charge. When they find Zetsu, he’s picking up coins from the bottom of the fountain and throwing it at the horse—aiming for the horse’s open mouth, and only rarely missing. He has a katana in a loose grip, its tip resting idly by his feet.

Shino draws a sword almost immediately. He turns to Sasuke and says solemnly, “Permission to neutralize him, sir. I feel that I should get this task, seeing as how I was explicitly told not to kill him in our last encounter.”

“Abu-ra-me Shi-no, we meet again,” Zetsu sings, and then his golden gaze switches to Sasuke. He’s entirely black now; his albino half is missing. There are no venus fly traps around him, and it makes him seem almost human, although there is clearly something wrong about his eyes, the pointed row of his teeth, and the dual hue of his skin. “Uchiha Sasuke. I was waiting for you.”

Sasuke sheaths his sword, even though the rest of the team is fanning out around Zetsu into an attack formation. “You have got to be fucking kidding me. Every time I turn around, I run into your ugly mug, Zetsu.”

Zetsu’s smile doesn’t abate. “I heard you announce yourself before attacking the city walls. That’s one thing you have in common with Madara. Your pride in your name.”

There is no liking or disliking being an Uchiha. You are , and you are who you are with pride. Madara has dragged the Uchiha name through the mud. For a few years, Sasuke did the same. But no more. Itachi is Clan Elder now, and the Uchiha will rise again.

Akamaru slowly circles Zetsu, fur rising on end. His low growl is barely audible, but Zetsu’s eyes track the wolf anyways. When Akamaru finishes a full circle, Kiba takes a careful step forward. “Speaking of Madara—”

“He’s not here,” Zetsu interrupts neatly. “He was never here. This was Pein’s domain. Not Madara’s.”

Shikamaru’s sai swords are at the ready, but his words are still the same drawl as always, almost as if he can’t be bothered to partake in the conversation because it’s too boring for him. “So why are you here?”

“I was waiting for you,” Zetsu announces, and uses his katana up to point at Sasuke. “Will you hear me out, Uchiha?”

Sasuke wipes at his face. He’s covered in blood after one particularly messy kill, and every time he blinks, he can feel the sticky clump of his eyelashes. He’d left a trail of dead bodies behind him, if only to make a statement, because he is in absolutely no goddamn mood to fend off idiot mercenaries who want to waste Sasuke’s time. When he’d blown through the southern wall, he stepped into the city in a billow of crackling chakra, making such a show of it that his chakra caused each building he passed to rumble and shake. After that, most of the mercenaries fled, although there are still a few chakra signatures that he can sense here and there. The rest of the team made good time sweeping in through the other entrances and establishing a perimeter, but the city is large and they don’t know the terrain very well. Sitting here and talking to Zetsu is a waste of everyone’s time.

There is no point to even racking up his confirmed kill count. Madara isn’t here. The soldiers he left behind are of no concern.

“You have a minute to talk,” Sasuke decides. “If I don’t hear anything interesting—”

“I was waiting,” Zetsu cuts him off sharply, “to help you.”

Kiba laughs, and keeps laughing until he’s bent over, clutching his stomach. Akamaru’s tongue rolls out with his amusement as well, and even Neji ducks his head to hide his low-pitched chuckles.

Sasuke smirks. “How kind.”

Zetsu ignores the laughter of the men surrounding him. “I wish to point you in the right direction in your pursuit of Madara. Clearly, Amegakure is a dead end.”

Shikamaru sheaths his sai swords. “And why do you want to help us?”  

“So that you may stop him, of course.” Zetsu grins.

“Again,” Shikamaru says. “Why?”

Zetsu angles his head thoughtfully. “Our interests have diverged,” he says after a moment. “It’s time that we both seek out new opportunities.”

Kiba frowns. “You’re going to have to do better than that shit explanation, Zetsu.”

Zetsu hums under his breath for a few moments while he gathers his thoughts. “Madara’s plans are…detrimental to my continued existence.”

“You mean he is aiming to kill you,” Shino clarifies.

“He’s aiming to kill everyone,” Zetsu points out with a chuckle. “It’s not death that I fear.”

I was made there, Sasuke remembers Zetsu saying once, and there was fear in his voice. It’s not death that Zetsu fears, it’s where he will be trapped for eternity after he dies. “You’re needed for the Gedo,” Sasuke ventures. “And that involves you returning where you came from.”

Zetsu’s lips press into a thin line. “He doesn’t need me to retrieve the Gedo.”

Akamaru begins his slow circle around Zetsu again, his claws scraping against the cobblestone. For this mission, Sasuke had debriefed his team on all that he’s learned from high command. They know about the Gedo now. They know about Shinju, and they know that they were sent here to help stop Shinju’s resurrection. When Akamaru circles too close to Zetsu, he takes a careful step sideways. Kiba advances another foot as he does. It’s a sound strategy—Akamaru is driving Zetsu towards Kiba’s sword, circling and circling menacingly until Zetsu has no choice but to face Kiba. If Zetsu makes the first move, Akamaru will attack from one side and Kiba the other. Shikamaru, Shino and Neji will step in if needed. Kiba’s voice is light even as his eyes track Zetsu’s movements carefully, waiting for an opportunity or reason to attack. “There’s another Senju clone?”

“There is more than one clone,” Zetsu confirms. So Naruto’s assessment had been right. Madara has backup plans. “He doesn’t need me to retrieve the Gedo. But once that rift is open—” He stops, abrupt. Fear, that is what Zetsu is trying to hide.

“It’ll come for you,” Sasuke finishes. That thing in the darkness. He’d felt it too, and the memory of it is enough to make Sasuke’s palms sweat.  

“It will come for you too, half-spirit,” Zetsu mutters. “If he opens that rift fully, you and I…we won’t be of here or there. We’ll be stuck in between. Eternal darkness, and nothing but the endless silence to swallow our screams.”

I am human, Sasuke tells himself forcefully, tries to remember Ishi’s conviction when he said the same thing to Sasuke. “What’s changed, Zetsu? This was always Madara’s plan.”

Zetsu shakes his head. “He knows of Hashirama and Tobirama’s return now. It’s made him more…reckless.” He angles his head thoughtfully. “Which, I suppose, was Hatake Kakashi’s plan all along. Well done. But tell your master that he should be careful what he wishes for. If Commander Hatake lures Madara into the open, he should be ready to spring the trap.”

Sasuke grips his sword. There’s a warning in Zetsu’s tone. “What is he planning, Zetsu?”

Zetsu smirks. “I will point you in its direction.”   

Neji crosses his arms across his chest, clearly unimpressed by the whole tenor of the conversation. “So you tell us where Madara is, and in return, we let you walk away?”

“I’m not even here,” Zetsu says, nonsensical, and turns his attention back to Sasuke. “So, Uchiha Sasuke. Would you like to hear what I have to say?”

“Sure, why not,” Sasuke says, and even as he speaks the words, he counts his heartbeat, lets the battle calm settle in.

“Go to your birthplace,” Zetsu says, and the answer forces Sasuke out of the calm. His heartbeat takes off in a wild thunder, and he hears, distantly, Kiba murmur, sounding devastated, He’s marching on Konoha, but Zetsu ignores him entirely. “Go to the place of your most binding oath. You will see what Madara has done.”

He starts to blur around the edges, almost as if his coloring is fading. “Transportation jutsu,” Neji calls out, but it’s too late, because a moment later, Zetsu vanishes. There isn’t a flare of chakra, nothing at all to suggest he was here in the first place. Not a transportation jutsu, then, because it’s unlike anything Sasuke has seen before. He crosses the space to where Zetsu had been a moment before and finds that there is a seal inked onto the ground that has caught fire and is slowly vanishing.

“What the fuck is this?” Kiba mutters, crouching low so he can observe the pattern of the seal. Kiba sniffs carefully around the edges of the seal and then scents the air.

“Not a transportation jutsu,” Neji amends. He sounds impressed despite himself.

Akamaru barks a few times, and Kiba translates. “He wasn’t here,” Kiba says. “Akamaru can’t catch a scent. It’s like he was just a—a projection of some kind?”

Neji tucks his kunai away. “Is he setting a trap for us?”

“What kind of trap is it to direct us back to Konoha?” Shino mutters.  

“Why is he even trying to help us, is what I want to know,” Kiba mutters under his breath. He’s still crouched over the seal as he copies it onto a small notepad the size of his palm, evidence for later assessment. He flips the page over, sketches a few more notes, even as the seal vanishes entirely. It leaves nothing behind but a soot-stained outline, and it’s only then that Kiba gets to his feet, pocketing his notepad and small pencil in his jounin vest.

“Self-preservation?” Neji ventures. “He’s understanding just how insane Madara is, and is ensuring his own survival at the end of this.”

“He’s been loyal to Madara until now,” Shino points out. “I think it is fair to assume Zetsu delivered Madara the message about the ghosts.”

“But fear is a very strong motivator,” Shikamaru says, finally breaking his silence. He holds Sasuke’s gaze steady. “Fear of death, especially. Fear of eternal darkness, even more so.” He pauses a beat and angles his head a fraction, gaze unwavering from Sasuke. “What was the place he was talking about, that eternal darkness and silence? Seemed like you knew what it was.”

First, Sasuke thinks, there was ice, frost, and fog. In his worst nightmares, he can almost feel the mud and shit between his fingers, the tug of his soul downwards. He imagines an eternity in that place, but his mind skitters away from the thought.

He hasn’t told his unit all the details, only that Madara is trying to summon the Gedo from another realm. He wonders if Shikamaru has somehow connected the dots regardless.

Kiba is the one who breaks the silence. “Could still be a trap,” he says. “But…”

He trails off, but he doesn’t have to finish his sentence for the others to understand. Trap or no, there is only one option for them. If Konohagakure is under attack—if there is even a possibility of attack—they have their orders.

Sasuke doesn’t have to give the order, just turns east. All five of them take off in a sprint, aiming south and east, towards Konohagakure.

They’re just a hundred miles from Konohagakure’s borders when the thought strikes Sasuke: he’s heading in the wrong direction.

They’re pushing themselves hard to make it back to the city, stopping only for a few hours of sleep a night. The men want to push themselves harder still to make better time, but they would be useless if they arrived in Konohagakure without any energy reserves; they need to be battle-ready when they reach their destination, so Sasuke has insisted they take a few hours of rest each night. He has summoned his snakes to keep lookout as they sleep, and wakes up when Ishi slithers over his wrist to wake him gently, communicating, The sun is rising .

Sasuke blinks open his eyes and sees Ishi turned east, his hood fanned out to its full brilliance. In the dim, predawn light, the patterning on the back of his hood looks almost like a third eye, watching Sasuke. “You will be worn out for battle if you keep up this pace,” Ishi hisses, still watching the eastern horizon. The sky is indigo-pink now; the sun is about to begin its ascent.

“I don’t want to get there too late,” Sasuke mutters. He knows he should wake the others, but they have a few more minutes. “Kakashi will hold the line.”

“He will,” Ishi agrees. “Konohagakure is his to defend. The Dog-Master’s oaths bind him to it. He will hold the line, or he will die trying.”

“We'll all die trying,” Sasuke mutters. He pushes himself up, scrubbing a hand over his scruff. They have two hundred more miles to cover, and he cannot afford to lose daylight. Akamaru stirs a few feet away, and lifts his head to assess his surroundings. As if on cue, Kiba shifts. The others start to move as well, stirring from their sleep without Sasuke having to say a single word.

Ishi looks away from the rising sun. He considers Sasuke carefully. “You shouldn’t.”

Sasuke is so busy checking the supplies in his rucksack—their mission had been delayed in Amegakure, and they were forced to stretch their rations for the mission—that he doesn’t understand Ishi’s comment at first. “What shouldn’t I do?”

“Die trying,” Ishi says, and his voice is tight with something like anger.

Sasuke pauses in his task and glances up sharply at the cobra. "Excuse me?”

Ishi folds his hood, tilting his face up. “You have no oath to Konohagakure,” he says. “You may have forgiven the Senju spirits, and you may have forgiven Dog-Master. You may have even forgiven the Chieftan for signing the orders against your Clan. That has always been your weakness, your unconditional loyalty. But remember this, Sasuke: Konohagakure does not deserve your loyalty. You owe her no oaths. Fight this battle, if you want, but Konoha is not a city worth dying for.”

Ishi’s anger is thick in the back of Sasuke’s mind. He doesn’t need to explain himself to his snakes, but if Ishi is still this angry about Konohagakure, then surely, his other snakes as well. He can’t ask them to serve for a cause they do not believe in. “The Sharingan stands sentinel, Ishi,” Sasuke says. Uncle Kyoguku taught the words to Kakashi, and Kakashi taught these words to him. Now, he says the words to Ishi. And no matter what has happened, it is still his birthplace. He grew up in Konoha; his fondest memories of his Clan are within those city walls. Birthplace, Zetsu had called it.

Ishi picks up on his last thought. “Being born in Konoha should not bind you to her,” he concedes. “It may be your birthplace, but Konohagakure does not hold your most binding oath.” He pauses a beat and holds Sasuke’s gaze steady. “And it never should, not ever again.”

It’s the conviction of Ishi’s words that snag Sasuke’s thoughts. It isn’t just anger that is percolating through their bond; Sasuke can feel the utter certainty of Ishi’s thoughts, pushing aside even his early-morning sluggishness and weariness from long days of travel and rationed food. Konohagakure cannot hold Sasuke’s most binding oath because Sasuke’s most binding is with Ishi. It is with Rin and his Snake Clan. The oath that binds them together is beyond blood and chakra; no oath that Sasuke takes will ever rival it.

“No, it cannot,” Ishi agrees, picking up on Sasuke’s thoughts again seamlessly. He recedes from Sasuke’s mind in increments. “Call Fudo or Hideyoshi for tonight. Kanaye and Daichi are unhappy for having to do guard duty again.”

A moment later, Ishi vanishes with a pop.

“Everything alright?” Neji asks.

Sasuke blinks away from where Ishi had been just a moment ago and sees that the rest of the unit is ready to go. He turns back to packing his rucksack, but can’t focus on the task at hand because Ishi’s words. Konohagakure does not hold your most binding oath, he’d said, and that was the truth of it.

Sasuke gets to his feet carefully and shoulders his rucksack. Kiba turns, as if ready to go, but then hesitates when Sasuke doesn’t given the order. “Sarge? We moving out or what?”

Sasuke turns east. There is a crescent of sun visible just over the horizon; Konohagakure lies in that direction, but Ishi had spoken the truth. And if that were the case—“To my birthplace,” Sasuke recites carefully. “To the place of my most binding oath.”

It’s an odd turn of words, odder still in the way Zetsu said it. He’d intended it for Sasuke, held Sasuke’s gaze.    

“Sasuke,” Shino prompts. “What is it?”

If the snakes hold his most binding oath, then his birthplace is—

“We’re going the wrong way,” Sasuke breathes, and turns north.

Akamaru paws at the ground, impatient. “This is the fastest route to Konoha, Sasuke,” Kiba says. “We’ll pass by one of the garrisons, so we can leave word there for the oncoming attack, and then—”

“Madara isn’t in Konohagakure.”

Shikamaru frowns. “Zetsu said to go home.”

Sasuke holds the man’s gaze steady. “Konohagakure isn’t my home.”

Shino is the one who breaks the silence that follows. “It might not be your home, Sasuke. But Zetsu said you should return to your most binding oath. I know you no longer have an oath to Konohagakure, but that is all our most binding oaths. Your ancestors made that oath—”

“My most binding oath isn’t to Konohagakure,” Sasuke interrupts quietly. “I have no oaths to Konoha anymore.”

He thinks of Rin’s careful coil around his body in the very depths of the earth while his bones and muscles and soul reknit themselves under her stubborn care. He thinks of her faith in him, and his faith in her, and to all his snakes, how they are one and the same.

“Fine, you don’t have any affection for Konohagakure anymore, but you were born there, weren’t you?” Neji demands, impatient now. “So can we please, for the love of God, get back to the City?”

Sasuke covers the tattoo of Rin on his neck and feels the steady beat of his pulse just below. He received life on an island in the Land of Water. Not once, but twice. Such was Rin’s love for him, such was the strength of the oaths they took to one another. “We should go north.”

Neji grits his teeth so hard a muscle in his neck jumps. “I will follow you anywhere, Sasuke, but you’re asking me to turn my back to Konohagakure when Madara might be marching on it right now. My sisters, my family, our friends. He could be marching on them right now.”

“Madara isn’t in Konohagakure,” Sasuke insists. “We need to go north, that’s where—”

Kiba cuts him off with a fierce whisper. “I trust you, Sasuke. Fuck, you know I trust you, I’d ride into any goddam battle if you give me the order. But Zetsu was talking in riddles, and I don’t want to leave this to chance.”

Sasuke looks around at the four men. They’re not saying they won’t follow him. They’re asking him not to give them the order.

Sasuke knows—he knows in his gut, in his marrow—that Zetsu was telling him to go north. He knows it’s foolish to listen to someone like Zetsu. For all he knows, he could be walking into a trap. But Zetsu implied that Shinju might not even be Madara’s endgame. There is something larger at play here, and he needs to find out. Madara left him a trail of breadcrumbs, and while that trail might lead to a trap, something in his gut tells him he should follow. He closes his eyes and remembers:

A snow-covered ground, and fissure in the earth. A winged beast shaking itself free. Four irises, spinning.

He counts to ten. “We split up,” he says, and Neji’s disappointment is obvious in the way his shoulders slump. Kiba rubs at his face, breathing deep as Sasuke continues to give orders. “The four of you return to Konohagakure. Neji, you’re in charge. I’ll head north, and report back when I can.”

“Sasuke,” Shino breathes. “If there was ever a time that Konohagakure needed you, it’s now. Whether or not you are oath-bound to Konoha, please—”

“Move out,” Sasuke interrupts, stern now, and the silence that follows is absolute.

Neji takes a step back. His expression is flat with his anger. “Let’s go,” he orders, and takes off into the tree-line. The others follow, casting final looks towards Sasuke before they set off. Sasuke remembers then:

They had split up the last time they returned from Amegakure.

Akamaru lingers long enough to approach Sasuke. He nudges his large head under Sasuke’s fingers, and Sasuke scratches between his ears. “Cover their trail, Akamaru.”

Akamaru’s golden gaze is bright. He nods, just once, and vanishes.

Sasuke turns north.

He sees the trail of refugees long before he reaches Hyogo. It’s a long line of people, looking worn out and carrying packs of varying sizes. Men, women, and children drawing carts, wheelbarrows, whatever they can carry. He walks past a girl of no more than twelve pulling an old man in a rickshaw; the left side of his face is wrapped with a dirty cloth that stained red. None of the civilians even make eye contact with him, just keep their heads low and keep walking. There are hundreds of them. Their combined procession has churned the path into mud.

He asks for information from a couple that has stopped to rest by the side of the road. It’s a woman and her husband, both middle-aged. The man watches Sasuke carefully as he approaches. “You’re going the wrong way,” he says by way of hello, and introduces himself as Kichida Hotaru, and his wife as Ayaka.

Sasuke introduces himself with the first name that comes to mind. “My name is Yuuta.”

Hotaru arches an eyebrow and very pointedly stares at the tattoos on Sasuke’s forearms. “Nice to meet you, Yuuta.”

Ayaka is staring at his tattoos as well. Sasuke ignores their looks. He doesn’t regret getting his tattoos—he likes them, and he might get another one soon enough—but he should have thought ahead about how conspicuous they would make him. “Where are all these people coming from?”

“We’re going inland because of the waves,” Hotaru says, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “They’ve destroyed the coastline.”

“They were a hundred feet tall,” Ayaka explains, groaning heavily as she gets to her feet again. She reaches for the sack she’s carrying, and Sasuke rushes forward to help her, assisting  her with settling it across her back. “The gods know how many men and women were lost at sea. It came out of nowhere last week.”

Sasuke looks down the road leading to Hyogo. It’s the biggest port-city in the Land of Rice Fields, and that’s where he will need to go if he intends to find a ship to the islands of the Land of Water. He’ll need to make his way to the easternmost tip of the sprawling archipelago that makes up the Land of water, all the way to Ikamame, the one and only port city on Yaeyama. From there, he needs to retrace his steps to that willow tree. He’d crawled out from a hole under that willow tree not once, but twice now; that’s where he’ll need to return. “Is Hyogo still standing?”

“Some of it,” Hotaru answers wearily. “I wouldn’t head that way if I were you. The city is in ruins.”

“I need to get to Ikamame. It’s a port city on the Yaeyama island,” Sasuke explains, and Hotaru and Ayaka exchange glances.

“Most of the eastern islands are destroyed,” Ayaka says, looking at Sasuke with pitying eyes. “I don’t know if there’s anything left for you to return to on Yaeyama.”

I looked, and behold, an ashen horse, Sasuke remembers, feeling his gut clench. And he who sat on it had the name Death.

“Thank you for the information, sir,” Sasuke says. He dips his head politely to acknowledge Ayaka. “Ma’am. Safe travels.”

He’s taken two steps, when Hotaru calls out, “Captain Uchiha, a moment.”

Captain Uchiha. It’s been years since he’s heard that title. He was a Captain in Orochimaru’s forces. As time went on, they began calling the platoon that Sasuke led the death-riders. Suigetsu even fashioned a flag for them, different from the Otogakure sigil that Orochimaru insisted on them hoisting whenever they marched. That was Orochimaru’s first mistake, Karin had once told him. He gave Sasuke eighty riders and assumed they would remain more loyal to him than the captain that led them from victory to victory.

Now that he hears the title again, Sasuke freezes, mid-stride.

Hotaru rummages around his bag and pulls out a small bundle. He unwraps it carefully to reveal a meager assortment of food: some chunks of bread, two apples, a few slices of cheese, and some strips of dried meat. “Here,” the man says, and holds out the bag. “Take some. There isn’t much food back there.”

Sasuke looks between Hotaru and Ayaka. Both of them are wearing worn clothes, looking so run down that it’s a miracle they’re still standing. He shakes his head. “I have food, but thank you,” he lies. He ran out of his rations for the mission days ago, but he cannot accept their generosity. He pauses a beat and adds, “If you find any trouble, just use my name. Say that you’re under my direct protection. Get to safety.”

Ayaka looks up at Sasuke with a smile. “The way they talk about you…” she murmurs to herself, searching Sasuke’s face carefully. She must find what she’s looking for because a moment later, she adds, “Stay safe, child.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sasuke says, and starts to walk again. On a normal day, it would be easier to take the road to Hyogo, but the train of people makes it hard for him to push his way through. What’s worse is having to walk past them without offering help.

Sasuke slips into the trees and picks his way through the dense forest towards Hyogo, keeping the road to his right at all times. It takes him two more days to reach Hyogo, and he finds that the man is right: the city is in ruins.

There are entire neighborhoods missing. The waves have reclaimed the land, knocking over trees and street signs and buildings. At the end of every street, there are large signs covered with pictures of the missing, and letters: Shizuka, one reads, I’ve taken the children to my mother’s. Come home to me when you can – K. There is another sign that reads in large letters, UNCLAIMED BODIES CAN BE FOUND IN THE TOWN SQUARE. Still, the city hasn’t been abandoned. There are groups of men and women digging their way through rubble; even the children have picked up shovels and buckets.

Sasuke climbs over an upturned horse cart and finds what is left of the docks. It’s still bustling with fisherman calling out to each other as they rebuild. There are already a row of boats, some a kaleidoscopic mix of different colors and nonsensical mixtures of lettering on the side. It takes a moment for Sasuke to realize that the fishermen are rebuilding boats from debris. He approaches a boat that is being loaded. There’s a woman with a clipboard watching the procession of material sternly, and Sasuke heads straight towards her.

This time, he makes sure his tattoos are completely covered. “Which way are you headed?”

“Supply run to the Ryuku Islands,” she says, and glances up from her clipboard. She’s younger than Sasuke imagined, just a few years older than Sakura if he were to guess. She’s wearing ripped pants, and her leather boots are covered with mud. Her hair is in a stern, high ponytail. “My crew is full.”

“I need to get to Ikamame,” Sasuke says, hoping beyond hope, because Yaeyama is one of the Ryuku Islands. It’s the most eastern one, but maybe he can convince her to take him all the way there. If she can’t, he’ll hop from one island to the other until he gets to his destination. If Zetsu is telling the truth, then Sasuke will find the answers he’s looking for under a willow tree. “I can pay.”

“I don’t need money,” the woman answers neatly. “I need to get her to the Ryuku Islands to supply the survivors. I need space so I can bring back the ones who need immediate medical help. I can’t afford to carry another warm body.”

Sasuke takes a breath. “It’s important.”

The woman turns back to her clipboard, checking off something when one of her men rolls by with three crates stacked on top of one another. “Everything’s important, mister,” she grumbles under her breath.

Fuck it. “The name is Uchiha,” he says, and the woman glances up sharply from her clipboard, eyes narrowed. “Uchiha Sasuke."

“A dozen men a day call themselves Uchiha Sasuke,” she counters evenly, even though the grip around her pen tightens to the point that her knuckles turn white.

Sasuke points at his Mangekyou. “You see a dozen men a day with these eyes?”

The woman’s eyes track down to the tattoo on Sasuke’s neck. She still looks unconvinced, so Sasuke tugs up the sleeve on his left hand. The first rune is covered, but the last two are clearly visible: War-forged. Death-blessed.

“I want no trouble,” the woman says.

Sasuke feels his lips twitch. He’s walking into the gaping maw of it all. He’s hunting Uchiha goddamn Madara, and he’s asking this woman for a lift. “Neither do I,” he lies.

The woman considers him carefully for a moment before coming to a decision. She stabs her pen at a stack of crates on the dock. “I don’t need your money. But you can make yourself useful and start loading those,” she orders. “I don’t care what you tell the other men, but you don’t call yourself Uchiha Sasuke, not while you’re on my ship. I’m Captain or Captain Biei to you. The First Mate is a grouchy son of a bitch. His name is Kenbuchi. You’ll know him when you see him. Get to work.”

Sasuke heaves a sigh. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

Most of Ikamame is standing; there isn’t nearly as much damage as in Hyogo or the other port cities they’ve stopped off in. Even Biei is impressed. She had agreed to extend her trip by a day so that she can drop off Sasuke at Ikamame, because her usual supply route doesn’t extend as far east as Yaeyama. It raised a few eyebrows among her crew, but she runs a tight ship, and they obeyed her orders without complaint.

“I expected it to be worse,” Biei mutters under her breath, scanning the approaching land.

Sasuke had too, because he found out from some of the other men and women in the crew that the waves began at the easternmost tip of the Ryuku Islands. By all accounts, the waves were first seen in Yaeyama, and gathered momentum as they swept past the rest of the islands and crashed into the eastern coastline of the Land of Rice Fields. Hyogo seems to have suffered some of the worst damage, but somehow, Ikamame seems to have survived mostly unscathed.

“This doesn’t make a lick of goddamn sense,” Kenbuchi scowls, chewing viciously on his tobacco. He’s almost always chewing tobacco or smoking it, but all that nicotine doesn’t seem to help settle his rattling nerves, not a single bit. He’s always scowling and always in a foul mood. Sasuke has learned to avoid him at all costs, even though he’s a good First Mate. The only one on the ship who seems to be able to make heads or tails of Kenbuchi’s sour mood is Biei—half his age, and less than half his size, but still able to silence him with just a look.

“No, it doesn’t,” Biei agrees. “But I suppose we can be grateful that there isn’t more damage.”

Kenbuchi agrees, launching into a now-familiar story that he tells everyone he comes across. His grandfather lived through the waves when he was a child, he begins. There was a bone-shattering earthquake a few minutes before the waves rose up, dark stormy clouds, and entire flocks of birds taking flight just before the worst of the ocean’s wrath.

“Sometimes,” Kenbuchi finishes mournfully. “The ocean just becomes angry. All we can do is weather her anger, and hope she calms.”

“What a bitch,” Biei mutters under her breath, and turns away to yell out orders, Kenbuchi close at her heels.

They dock without much fanfare. Biei shakes his hand goodbye. “Nice meeting you, Captain Uchiha.”

Sasuke smiles. He’d introduced himself as Nakagawa to the other crewmates; he hasn’t heard his real name in three days now. “Thanks for the help, Captain.”

“Don’t expect it again any time soon,” she says with a wry smile, and turns away. Sasuke lingers in Ikamame long enough to gather some supplies and heads off. The last time he made this trip, it had been in the dead of winter and he’d been wearing the borrowed clothes of a dead fisherman who was at least a head shorter and a hundred pounds lighter. His ill-fitting shoes had holes in them, and his socks were so thread worn by the end of a single day’s walk that he tossed them away. This time, though, he is prepared for the walk. It amazes him how much shorter the distances seems under a clear blue sky, when there’s nothing more than a slight, cool breeze blowing in from the ocean.

The longer he walks, the less sure he is of having followed Zetsu’s clue. He doesn’t sense anything out of the ordinary. He even finds the willow tree without any issues, although he makes looping circles around the tree to establish a secure perimeter and approaches cautiously.

It’s just a willow tree. He walks around the tree three times, prodding carefully at the ground to test for where the opening might be. There’s nothing, not a single goddamn thing to suggest anything out of the ordinary. A trap. Maybe to distract him from Konohagakure.

He clenches his fist and counts to ten, twice, before his thoughts can spiral out of control. This could be a trap, but it clearly isn’t—if Madara were lying in wait for him here, he would have attacked a long time ago. This could also be a dead-end, but he can’t walk away without making absolutely sure. Something in his gut is telling him that Zetsu was not leading him astray. He only has to remember the slow rise of the dragon out of that crack in the earth, the bone-deep dread that Yuuta was unable to conceal from him.

So Sasuke closes his eyes and summons the one being who would know more about this space than anyone else: Rin.

She appears a few feet to his left, and the moment she does, she freezes. “This is the last place I ever thought you’d be.”

“You and me both,” Sasuke mutters, and taps his forehead. “Rin, look.”

A moment later, he feels her presence in his mind, shuffling through his thoughts and memories and putting together the details that she has missed. “Zetsu thinks there’s more to Madara’s plans than Shinju?”

“I don’t know. He said, go where I was born, to where my most binding oaths were.” Sasuke gestures at his surroundings. “Here we are.”

“Here we are indeed,” Rin mutters under her breath, and makes her way slowly around the tree, pausing every now and then to inspect a clump of grass or overturn a stone. “I already looked,” Sasuke calls out when Rin is on the opposite side of the willow tree.

He feels her amusement in the back of his mind, like a tickle. “You didn’t look hard enough.”

Sasuke nearly trips over himself to join Rin on the other side of the willow tree. She looks pointedly at a patch of grass in front of her. Sasuke crouches on his heels. “I don’t see anything.”

“Idiot human,” Rin mutters, and swivels her head around in search of something. She finds it quickly enough: a large stone, which she patiently begins moving with her nose. She is deliberate about this, almost delicate in her movements. When she’s satisfied with the placement of the stone, she pulls back and nudges Sasuke gently with her body. “Watch.”

Sasuke stares at the stone. He stares and stares, and keeps staring. A full minute passes, and then a second. Sasuke settles on the grass more comfortably when his calves start to burn. Rin though, is patiently watching still. She could almost be confused for a statue in the light of the setting sun, but every now and then, her tongue flickers out and Sasuke can still see the slow rise and fall of each of her breaths. Sasuke leans his weight against her, and although she allows it, he hears in his mind her gentle reprimand: Patient.

Eleven minutes pass. Sasuke almost misses it entirely because he’s distracted by the lazy revolutions of a bee that seems very confused about where it is or what it’s doing. Rin’s hiss snaps him out of his reverie, and when Sasuke drags his attention back to the stone, it’s to find that it is sinking. It’s disappearing in increments, slowly sinking downwards, pulling with it blades of grass and twigs. It takes only a few seconds for the stone to disappear entirely; all that remains is a dark, jagged line in the ground, no more than a few inches wide. It’s easy to miss, almost as if someone took a twig and drew a line in the mud. But the loose earth around the edges is crumbling inwards , as if falling in somewhere.

“What the fuck,” Sasuke breathes, and startles as if to move closer.

Rin holds him back with the coil of her tail around his torso. “Be careful,” she warns. Sasuke crawls forwards slowly, feeling Rin’s coil around his torso tighten with each careful inch he takes. He cranes his neck to inspect the crack, and sees nothing beyond the dark line and crumbling earth. He’s about to withdraw, but then he feels—

A breeze, with a tangy, metallic scent that settles in the back of his throat as if he’s just swallowed on a mouthful of blood. He feels heat against his face, as if he’s putting his face too close to the embers of a fire.

“Is this what I came out of?”

“No,” Rin murmurs, and tugs Sasuke bodily away from the crack. “That leads somewhere else.”

Sasuke rubs at his face and feels the rough scratch of his beard against his palm. He hasn’t showered in days, hasn’t shaved in over two weeks. He hasn’t eaten anything more than dried meat, stale bread, and soggy fruits. He’s tired, and he’s at the edge of the world without a single damn clue but a crack in the earth. He can’t voice any single one of the questions cluttering his mind, but he pushes the two most important ones towards Rin, overlaying the questions with his frustration: What does Madara want? Where is the Gedo Statue?

Rin’s coil around Sasuke’s calf tightens. “I don’t know what Madara wants or where the Gedo is. What I do know is this.”

When she doesn’t finish her thought, Sasuke scratches lightly at the scales on her neck to get her attention again. “Rin, what do you know?”

“There are countless realms and countless dimensions,” Rin says, picking her words carefully. “You live in one, and I live in the other. The realm that I am from, the one that all the spirit animals are from, is connected to this one through the bonds of chakra and blood that we share with humans. The bonds create a passage for us to move along. I took you to one corner of my realm and hid you away from all the other spirit animals so that you could recover safely. There are millions, billions, an infinite number of other realms that I know nothing of. The tailed demons came from one of these realms, and they lingered so long, their spirits became corrupted with it. The Gedo is hidden in another one of these realms, where the Otsutsuki brothers left it. Do you understand?”

Sasuke tries to grasp the full meaning of Rin’s words, but finds that he’s only reaching at the edges of the universe that she’s describing. In the Academy, they talk about the axis of rotation of the earth, the speed of light, and the exact magnitude of gravity’s pull. They draw out parabolic curves on boards and use precise math to trace the path of an arrow. What Rin is talking about is beyond anything Sasuke can comprehend, even though he has lived through it. He spent almost nine months in another realm, and every moment had felt like death.

“So this thing—” Sasuke indicates the line in the mud, which is now emitting an odd whistle: the breeze is pushing through with greater force now, and Sasuke goes still, listening. But then, the breeze dies out. All is silent again. “This thing opens to another realm?”

“One of them,” Rin agrees, her golden eyes unflinching as she considers the mud before her. “It is a fissure. It cuts through time and space and connects your realm to another, although I don’t know which one.”

Sasuke stares incredulously at Rin. “Madara spent all his goddamn time trying to make this three-inch crack in the earth? The Gedo is going to crawl out of this? Is there any way we can just…plug it?”

Rin’s laughter is a lilting hiss in the quiet of the descending night. “I don’t know what Madara intends,” she says, voice pitched low now, as if she’s sharing a secret. “There are weak points in all the realms, places where time and space are flimsy enough that you can rip through and create a door. That is why you emerged both times from this place. And this might look small, Sasuke, but imagine the power it takes to push through across realms. It takes chakra. It takes blood. It takes an oath like the one we share. Whatever Madara is doing is powerful enough to create tears. He may not have intended for this particular tear to occur, but it did.”

Sasuke mulls over her words. “There was a tsunami here. You think the waves were because of the crack?”

Rin’s head swivels towards the ocean. She considers the horizon carefully, and although they are surrounded by trees, Sasuke can still smell the salt in the air. “You should get back to mainland,” she says after a few long moments. “The islands are not safe.”

Sasuke gets to his feet. “Madara? The Gedo?”

Rin shakes her head. “This crack will widen,” Rin says. “It is growing, slowly, and you should not be here when it does. It is not safe for humans. It is especially not safe for you. It will pull at you, and you know what it is to be trapped in a realm that is not your own.”

Sasuke grips his sword hilt. “There’s thousands of people on these islands—”

“You cannot save them all,” Rin interrupts sternly. “Staying here to evacuate the island is a waste of your time. The best thing you can do is get to safety, and stop Madara before he finishes whatever it is he is planning. Do you understand?”

He can’t argue with her logic. How would he get everyone off the island anyways? Rin knows the minute he understands because she nods her head once. “Take this news back to Senju Hashirama and the Dog-Master,” she instructs, sounding urgent now. She’s scared, Sasuke realizes, and it makes the breath rattle out of him. He's never known Rin to be scared. “The Dog-Master needs to assemble his army. Do not delay, Sasuke.”

“I won’t,” Sasuke promises, and Rin vanishes with a soft hitch of chakra. Sasuke stays utterly still, watching the line in the earth, counting his breaths and listening to the quiet, undisturbed chirp of crickets and buzzing insects around him. He feels the dread mounting in slow increments (a winged beast, with claws like swords, two roving irises in each eye colored like the red of dried blood). When the wind starts to whistle through the crack in the earth again, he rounds on his heels and takes off in a dead sprint.

Rin told him not to delay, to take the news to Kakashi and the Shodaime. But when Sasuke lands in Hyogo, he can’t bring himself to return to Konohagakure, not without making a detour first.

He has to find Karin. He has to warn her, so she can spread the word. He needs to give Jugo enough time to gather his people. Hyogo is the easternmost tip of Suigetsu’s territory; he needs to let Suigetsu know so he can get Megumi to safety. They need to prepare for war.

It takes him three days to travel north to Urausu, and when he gets there, Mrs. Oonishi asks him the same question that he intends to ask her:

“Where are Jugo and Suigetsu?” she demands, stepping aside to let Sasuke in. “Is Karin with you?”

Sasuke stares at her. “What are you talking about?”'

Comprehension dawns on Mrs. Oonishi’s face. “Gods be good,” she whispers under her breath. “They rode south to find you, and you rode north to find them.”

“Why did they ride south?”

Mrs. Oonishi looks at him with pitying eyes. “We’re at war, Sasuke. Jugo rode south with a party to find you. He needed to secure Konohagakure’s alliance. Uchiha Madara is in the Omine Valley.”

Sasuke looks heavenward. He has to close his eyes and count to ten because of course this happened. Kiba told him, Shikamaru told him, nearly every goddamn person told him. Whenever he goes on a mission to Amegakure, things go sideways.

“Shit,” he says. “Meet fan.”

The Omine Valley is a large swath of plains that dip and roll along the northwestern border of the Land of Rice Fields. They are bordered on three sides by mountains ridges: the Yoro on the east, the Gassan on the west, and the Northern Alps above. It’s a fertile land, but they say that the tailed demons waged wars in these valleys. The sky cracked with their chakra and thunder, and the earth trembled from their malice. Since the demons, there have been countless wars and battles. Entire armies have been decimated within the gentle cradle of the three sister mountains overlooking the Omine Valley. Tribes now only pass through the valley; no one calls it their own or makes camp on the lands—it’s inauspicious to tread on ground that has seen so much blood spilt.

Madara, apparently, has no such qualms.

He finds out over dinner that Karin was the one who found Madara. She had been following a lead when she sensed his chakra. Jugo gathered the tribes for a war council to elect a leader. If they were going to face Madara, he insisted they had to do it united, and for once, there was agreement.

“A hundred free tribes gathered,” Mrs. Oonishi says in nothing more than a whisper. “And they chose Lord Biratori Jugo.”

Sasuke takes a deep breath. He doesn’t know what to do with the feeling expanding in his chest. From the broken fields where he buried his murdered kin, from the very depths of Otogakure, Jugo has risen. His snakes call him True-heart.

“Jugo said that we need an alliance with Konohagakure to defeat Uchiha Madara,” Mrs. Oonishi continues. “He said that we needed an Uchiha to defeat another Uchiha, a Mangekyou to defeat a Mangekyou. The Commander Hatake Kakashi has a Mangekyou, and he has an army. We heard rumors that you and your brother were united again, that your Clan was whole again. So he went south to find you.”

Sasuke rubs a hand over his face. “I didn’t know. I was on a mission, and then I came here to find him.”

“They’re all in Konohagakure,” Mrs. Oonishi says. “Karin, Jugo, Suigetsu, Subaru, Inoue, and a few of the other tribal leaders. They went to parlay.”

“I’ll ride out first thing tomorrow,” Sasuke promises.

When he wakes up at the crack of dawn, Mrs. Oonishi is already awake and ready for him. She feeds him breakfast, and packs a generous bag of supplies for his journey home. She also has gifts for him. The entire north is now pulling together for this war, and she is receiving daily shipments of supplies for warriors who need it. She gives Sasuke a generous selection from her inventories, including clothes and armor. There are well-made shirts that he can wear under armor, pants, even new leather boots. She has two cloaks for him, one that is trimmed with ink-black wolf-fur, and new leather armor that is so well-made that it nearly makes Sasuke bounce on his heels with joy. She helps Sasuke strap it on, because adjusting the straps on new armor is always a job for two. She pulls the buckles tight, adjusting the one-sided, spiked brace over Sasuke’s right shoulder, so that it sits snug and can help shield his non-dominant hand while he’s wielding a sword.

Later, she takes him to the back shed and opens it to reveal an entire inventory of weaponry for him to peruse. He selects a jet-black shield, and three knives. The first he straps on a knife to his right calf. He adds two smaller ones onto his back, settling them perfectly between his shoulder-blades. They crisscross so he can reach both hands overhead and reach them to throw in one easy motion. He even stocks the weapons pouch on his thigh with fresh shuriken and newly-sharpened kunai.

After he steps back from his careful selection with a satisfied smile, Mrs. Oonishi arches an eyebrow. “I have seen children in candy stores less excited than you right now.”

Sasuke flushes. He may have gone overboard, sure, but it’s hard not to coo at a perfectly made set of throwing knives. He can’t wait to throw them, can’t wait for them to sink into a target like they were destined to. “I like weapons.”  

“Well, try to contain yourself for the next part,” Mrs. Oonishi warns, but it’s useless because Sasuke gasps aloud when she leads him to the stables in the tavern.

She’s a magnificent purebred of the north, long lines and such precise musculature that it’s as if she’s in motion even when standing. She’s a large horse, large enough to carry Sasuke’s height and weight, large enough to be able to charge into battle with Sasuke in full armor with a shield. Her coat is so inky-black that it blends into the pre-dawn sky, and when Sasuke runs a hand across her thick neck, she turns her head inquisitively to look at him, ears perking up.

Askuzai. There’s no mistaking her breed, not when they are so rare and so precious. The greatest of the horse breeds, the pride and joy of the Kesen tribe in the north. They are worth their weight in gold; he’s known tribes to ration food for their troops to keep their Askuzai well-fed.

There is no way Sasuke can afford such a beautiful creature. “I can’t, Mrs. Oonishi,” he breathes, and hates himself for saying the words, because he can feel the power of her muscles under his hand. He’s seen paintings and sculptures of great warriors riding into battle on horses such as these. “I can’t accept her.”

“You can, and you will,” Mrs. Oonishi says, stern. “She was given to me by a Kesen merchant who owed me a favor. But what will I do with her? Put her to work in the fields? That’s a dishonor to her. She’s meant for battle and for riding across the plains, Sasuke.”

Manners dictate that Sasuke should at least protest one more time, even for the show of it. But he can’t. “What’s her name?”

“Ozora,” Mrs. Oonishi answers, and Ozora’s ears flicker in recognition.

Sasuke ties his rucksack to the saddle and swings his leg over her. She only shifts a fraction to accommodate his weight.

Mrs. Oonishi smiles at him. “I always imagined you’d ride into battle this way,” she says, and steps back to consider him. She holds the iron hammer hanging around her neck in a fierce grip, and calls on the god of war to send Sasuke on his way:

“Victory in battle, or death,” she says in a fierce whisper.

Sasuke lets his hand drop to his shield, feels the strength of the wood and metal under his fingers. It’s his fate to die in battle—he will accept no other death, not in this lifetime—but it will not be in this battle against Madara.

“Victory in battle,” Sasuke agrees, and turns Ozora south.

It takes them only five days to cover the distance to Konohagakure. The chuunin guards on duty open the gates wide to let them through, and Sasuke leads her through the streets towards Kakashi’s crackling energy at the center of the City.

He’s used to drawing stares, but Ozora draws such slack-jawed reactions from those he passes that it feels as if he’s in a parade. Both civilians and military line the streets. Even though the sight of a mounted warrior is commonplace in a hidden village, Sasuke knows he looks decidedly out of place in his full northern battle gear. Word spreads ahead of him because when he reaches the Tower, there is a crowd waiting.

Even with so many people gathered, Sasuke’s gaze is drawn immediately to Suigetsu, who is dressed like a northerner as well. He stands out among all the men and women around him, draped in mink-trimmed cloak and with his silver hair pulled back in a high ponytail. There are silver rings on his fingers, and he looks every inch the lord that he is, one of the richest in the north, someone who commands the large swath of land from the Yoro Mountains to the eastern coast line. He’s striking on his most casual days, almost always the most handsome man in any room he walks into, but dressed as he is now, he sucks all the attention to himself.

It doesn’t hurt that he also has the loudest voice and the most dexterous facility with vulgarity of anyone that Sasuke has ever met. Sasuke still hasn’t dismounted before Suigetsu is yelling at him.

“Uchiha, you motherfucking son of a goddamn piece of goatshit,” Suigetsu shouts, stepping forward with a grin. “I got tired waiting for your sorry ass!”

Sasuke swings out of his saddle with a grin. “Hozuki, I’ve seen shit that’s dribbled out of a cow’s ass that looks better than you.”

Suigetsu bounds in for a hug, laughing loudly and thumping him on the back, shouting in his ear that Sasuke looks uglier than ever, gods be good, Uchiha, what did you do? Fall off a cliff, face-first? Sasuke finds himself laughing along with Suigetsu, gripping him fiercely. Suigetsu pulls back, and says, voice even louder, “Megumi says hello Uncle Sa-Sa, she would like you to come home so she may play Ninjas and Outlaws with you. She wanted me to give you a kiss for her, but you’re way too fucking ugly for me, so we’re going to skip that part. She loves you lots and lots, to the moon and back.”

Sasuke feels his heart clench. “She’s gotten bigger?”

“She knows the names of all the gods,” Suigetsu says, beaming. “She knows her numbers to twenty, too, although she counts fourteen three times in the middle because fourteen and fifteen confuse her and she can’t say seventeen yet.”

Sasuke grips Suigetsu’s shoulder. “I wish I could spend more time with her.”

“I know you do,” Suigetsu says easily, and steers Sasuke towards the Tower. “But first, we have work to do.”

Sasuke pauses long enough to unburden Ozora of the shield, which he straps onto his back, while Suigetsu moves forward to take his bag. Sasuke turns to one of the genins who is staring at him, gob-smacked and mouth hanging open. He startles when Sasuke addresses him. “Shut your mouth,” Sasuke orders, and the genin snaps his mouth closed with a click of teeth. Sasuke indicates Ozora, and rounds off a series of instructions: that she should get her own clean stall in the stables, fresh food and clean blankets and cool water; he doesn’t want stable hands interrupting her every two hours with loud noises and if he doesn’t brush her down with the utmost goddamn care, Sasuke will find him again.

He’s pampering Ozora, he knows, but after just the first few hours with her, he’s fallen in love. She’s aware of his affections, too, because she nuzzles her large head into his chest hello every morning, and whinnies when he presents her with an apple for a treat. The genin nods mutely, and rushes forward to obey. Suigetsu watches the genin lead Ozora away, parting the crowd as he goes. She draws lingering looks in her wake, and even Suigetsu sighs expansively. “I should have guessed Mrs. Oonishi would gift her to you. She always liked you best.”

“She likes Jugo best,” Sasuke corrects as they take the stairs to the towers. “I went to Urausu looking for Karin and the two of you, so I could warn you. Mrs. Oonishi told me that Madara was in the Omine Valley and that you’d ridden south to find me, so I came as soon as I could.”

Suigetsu’s stride falters, and he comes to a dead halt. He steps closer to Sasuke and switches entirely to the northern dialect, pitching his voice low. “Warn us about what? They told us you were on a surveillance mission looking for Madara. What did you find?”

Sasuke takes a deep breath. He tries to make sure his voice is steady, but he can still see in his mind the way the stone had dropped through that line in the ground. He can still taste the tang of the metallic air whistling through that chasm in the ground. His voice is no more than a whisper. “I found a crack in the world.”

Suigetsu’s face becomes still. “Megumi is east of the Yoro Mountains. Is she safe?”

It makes Sasuke’s gut coil with dread, something in his chest get tight with worry. Suigetsu looks as if he’s ready to move mountains, so Sasuke answers truthfully. “The crack is on Yaeyama. It caused some waves that destroyed Hyogo. You have to make sure she stays away from the coastlines. Get her into the Birchwood forests and hide her away there until the danger passes.”

Suigetsu presses his lips into a thin line, but his relief is obvious in the way the straight lines of his shoulders relax a fraction. “I’ll send a messenger out right away,” he says, and starts walking again. Sasuke falls neatly into step next to him.

Suigetsu seems to know his way around the Tower, and he explains this away by pointing out that the northerners have been in Konohagakure for nearly a week now, haggling and arguing over the details of their alliance.

Suigetsu fills him in as they walk. He explains to Sasuke how Madara’s mercenary army had moved silently into the Omine Valley, like a whisper of a breeze. Karin had followed lead after lead, relentless in her pursuit of rumors of ghost-armies that don’t sleep, eat, or speak, moving silently across the land and leaving only flattened grass and horse tracks. Her hunt led her to the crest of the Omine Valley, where she saw an army of nearly four thousand spread out across the valley. Madara, Pein and Akatsuki have taken over the Valley and all the towns and villages bordering it, with complete control of the water supplies and roads that lead into it. More men are arriving each day to join Madara’s ranks, though no one recognizes their banners or how they have breached the Land of Rice Field’s borders so easily. They number thirteen thousand now.

Konohagakure can send four thousand troops; Kakashi is readying the northern garrisons for war already. Jugo has a close to six thousand. They’re outnumbered.

“Why the Omine Valley?” Sasuke asks. There’s nothing in the valley, just endless fields of flowers that buzz constantly with insects. “There’s nothing there.”

“Nothing but bones and restless spirits,” Suigetsu agrees. “You need to tell Karin and Jugo what you found.”

They’re still drawing looks as they walk, with most Konohagakure shinobi coming to a dead halt to gape at Sasuke, but they both ignore everyone as they walk. Even in the north, the four of them always drew looks. Suigetsu was Kijin, the Demon’s Second Incarnation, so well-known on the battlefield that there are songs about how he kills in a blaze of starlight. Jugo was so famous for his ease with a battle-axe that enemies would start running before he walked onto the battlefield.

And Karin.

Karin was the promise of death when she appeared. Orochimaru never risked her in campaigns, so she only ever rode when there was a certainty of victory. When the battlements had been lowered and the bodies were being burned, Karin would walk through the field in search of those who were on the brink of death—enemies and allies alike. She would crouch by their bodies, bend her ear to their lips, and listen to their last requests. She would press a sword in their hands, and she would steady their weak grips with her own so that they would be sure to pass to the Great Hall. Later, she would fulfill each and every single one of their last requests—silver and gold to the loved ones left behind; final words of faith and loyalty to brothers, sisters, wives, and children; instructions on where their bodies should be burned, and where their ashes should be scattered.

She did this out of compassion. She did this because she trades in gratitude everlasting. Entire tribes have debts they can never repay Karin for the kindness and mercy she showed their fallen kin. And this is how she earned her name:

Widow because she was the last woman so many men saw before they took their last dying breath, because she held their gaze with such affection and care until their eyes went blank. Black, because despite her red hair and maroon-flecked irises, despite her ivory-white skin and blood-red lips, her presence on the battlefield only foretold death and darkness.

Sasuke realizes now that Suigetsu is leading him to Jugo and Karin. He stops walking, forcing Suigetsu to slow down as well. “I need to see Kakashi first.”

Suigetsu gives him a sharp look. Like Karin, he disapproves of Sasuke’s loyalty to Kakashi. But while Karin hates Kakashi for having secured Sasuke’s unerring allegiance, Suigetsu dislikes the idea of Sasuke beholden to anyone. You’re a northerner, he tells Sasuke over and over again. You were born to ride free.  

“Jugo and Karin are waiting for you,” he points out. “We all have, Sasuke. For nearly a week now.”

“And I’m here, Suigetsu,” Sasuke insists. Kakashi’s chakra is a crackling beacon in the East Wing, and he won’t go to Jugo or Karin before he sees Kakashi. He can’t. He’s been following Kakashi’s orders for far too long now, and even though Kakashi is no longer his CO, he feels Kakashi’s authority in his bones. “But I need to see Kakashi.”

Suigetsu sighs. “Karin won’t be happy.”

“She never is,” Sasuke agrees. “Not when it comes to this.”  

Suigetsu angles his head thoughtfully. “Are you happy with this?” There isn’t any accusation in his voice, just a gentle, probing question. “You don’t have any allegiances anymore, not a banner you ride under, no liege lord or men of your own to lead. I was told you were a military contractor now, Sasuke. That’s just a polite way of calling you a mercenary—”

“We’ll talk about this later,” Sasuke interrupts, rounding on his heels neatly. “I’ll meet up with you soon.”

He doesn’t wait for Suigetsu’s response, just sets off towards Kakashi’s chakra signature, coming from the direction of the residence. It’s a larger gathering than usual in the Shodaime’s suites, and it feels almost too crowded even though the room is spacious enough to accommodate everyone comfortably.

Ibiki has joined the other two Captains, even though his jurisdiction is strictly domestic. All three Captains have brought along their Lieutenants—Itachi, Neji, and Ino—and Kakashi has summoned Sakura, his right hand when he needs the logistical support the most. She’s wearing her Medic Corps Captain uniform, the strap around her arm a moss-green to signify who she is.

Danzo is here to represent the Senior Council, but Tsunade has also stacked the room with her aides: Jiraiya, Shizune as her Chief of Staff, Hinata, and—


Tsunade smiles when Sasuke meets her gaze. “Welcome back, Sasuke. I was starting to get worried.”

Sasuke searches for something intelligent to say in the face of Tsunade’s kindness. All he can come up with is: “Thanks.”

There are no empty seats at the table, especially since several extra chairs seem to have been procured for those already gathered, so Sasuke leans back against the side table laden with snacks, hitching himself up so that he’s half-sitting on it without resting his entire weight and toppling over the whole setting. Sasuke is fairly certain now that the Shodaime only orders this table of food to be placed for the sake of Sasuke and Itachi’s relentless appetite, although most of it is annoyingly healthy options. Today, there is a bowl of grapes, and he helps himself to a handful.

Danzo watches Sasuke carefully. “According to ANBU Lieutenant Hyuga, you felt the need to head north,” he says. He speaks in a deep rumble, words slow and thoughtful. “Based on the report, I am assuming you headed for your birthplace.” He pauses a beat and adds, “The place of your most binding oath. Where is that, I wonder?”

Sasuke chews on a grape and doesn’t rise to the bait. He knows what Danzo is implying about his loyalty; he just doesn’t care to answer it. “Not here,” he says, popping another grape into his mouth. He makes a show of chewing languidly, holding Danzo’s gaze steady. It’s not just the way his chakra grates on Sasuke’s nerves—something off about it, though Sasuke can’t place his finger on it—it’s the memory of Danzo’s signature on the bottom of Itachi’s report of the massacre. It’s the knowledge that Danzo had wanted to burn all the evidence that traced back to the Wildfire Contingency.

Danzo’s expression doesn’t shift. “So where did you go, I wonder?”   

Sasuke considers the merits of answering Danzo. The decision is an easy one to make. “Yeah,” Sasuke mutters, reaching for another handful of grapes. “I’m done talking to you.”

He looks away from Danzo entirely and focuses instead on Tsunade and Kakashi, neither of whom are bothering to acknowledge the obvious show of disrespect towards Danzo. Sasuke considers how he ought to break this news. He doesn’t want to explain his reasoning for going north to this audience. They will not understand, and he doesn’t like to talk about his bond with his snakes with anyone.

But there really is no protocol in place to talk about what he saw. “I have good news,” Sasuke begins, “and bad.”

Tsunade doesn’t skip a beat. “Bad news first.”

There’s no point in leading up to it. “I found a crack in the earth that tears through time and space and leads to a different realm. It caused waves that destroyed several of the Ryuku Islands in the Land of Water, and decimated most of Hyogo. I’m pretty sure Madara is the cause of it.”

Jiraiya leans carefully back in his chair. “What’s the good news?”

Sasuke has an answer ready. “The crack is three inches so far.”

Hiashi sighs so loudly it’s audible across the room. “No doubt, I’ll regret asking this, but how is that good news?”

Sasuke smirks. He’d almost forgotten the joy of making Hiashi despair over him in this way. If the world really is ending, he ought to take every opportunity he can get. “It could be four inches long, Captain. Or worse, five.”

Itachi barely manages to cover his laugh with a cough. He flushes when Hiashi mutters, “It’s genetic, then, the sense of humor.”   

“Yes, sir,” Itachi says, cheek dimpling with a barely-suppressed smile as he gives Sasuke a quick glance.

Sasuke grins at Itachi. Crazy runs in the family, Uncle Yakumi would say whenever he woke up after a particularly wild night of drinking and found a portion of the Compound smoldering from their drunken katons. Uncle Inabi would always agree, Batshit insane, the lot of us. Madara might be trying to end the world, but the dread Sasuke felt when he watched that stone fall into the crack falls away when he meets Itachi’s gaze. “Apparently, it’s the end of the world, and it’s three inches long already,” Sasuke says. He looks around the table in the silence that follows. There may have been better ways to break the news about the end of the world, but— fuck it. They’re batshit insane, the lot of them. “I mean, I know people say size doesn’t matter, but let’s be honest. It does.”  

Itachi’s smile breaks into a full grin this time, both cheeks dimpling fiercely from it. He dips his head to hide his amusement, shoulders shaking from silent laughter. He tries to cough again to conceal his laughter, but it comes out as a wheeze.

The Nidaime is the first to crack, and then, Jiraiya. This sets off Tsunade, who’s laughter is more like a cackle. She recovers a moment later—along with everyone else—when the Shodaime clears his throat.

Naruto wrinkles his nose, glaring at Sasuke from under the thick fan of his eyelashes. Even Shikaku had smirked, but trust Naruto not to find the humor in a well-timed dick joke. “Yes, of course, now is the most appropriate time to practice your stand-up routine, Uchiha. Because the end of the world is so funny.”

Sasuke’s attention is drawn once again. He gives Naruto a shrug, aiming for nonchalant but mostly failing because the reality of Naruto is always a shock to his senses. It takes a moment for him to find his words. “I was aiming for a smile.”

“Well, I don't find myself amused,” Naruto retorts hotly. There’s a flush high on his cheeks.

“Can’t fault a man for trying,” Sasuke counters, and doesn’t bother hiding his smirk when Naruto narrows his eyes in anger. Sakura can tease Sasuke all she wants for pulling Naruto’s pigtails but gods be good, Sasuke thinks, Naruto flushes such a pretty pink.

Naruto shoulders shift with a deep, audible breath. His chakra is sparking. "You are out of line, soldier."

Sasuke tries his utmost best to not stare, but Naruto is wearing the more formal version of his Counselor robes: rich white silk with the Konoha sigil embroidered on the back in elegant maroon lettering. He’s brushed his hair for the occasion, and there’s a flush high on his cheeks. He tilts his chin up, giving Sasuke a withering glare, but Sasuke is distracted by the way the movement reveals the lovely length of Naruto’s neck. 

Sasuke watches the flush on Naruto's cheek get brighter, and feels the heat coil in his belly at the sight. Gorgeous. "Apologies, Counselor."

“That's it. I am sitting right here, you delinquent,” Yondaime bellows.

Sasuke drags his gaze away from Naruto, and meets the Yondaime’s gaze. “Yes?”

The Yondaime turns to the Shodaime. “Shodaime-sama!” He points a finger in Sasuke’s direction. “With all due respect, sir, I will not stand for this insult any longer. This delinquent—yes, you, Uchiha, I’m talking about you, you good for nothing, sorry piece of shit—he ogles my son in front me. In front of my eyes! When I am right here!

It’s instinct to needle the Yondaime. He opens his mouth to say something, but Sarutobi interrupts him sternly. “Sasuke.”

The Yondaime is being restrained back into his seat by Jiraiya, but that’s nothing unusual, so Sasuke ignores the ghost. “Yes, Sarutobi-sensei.”

Sarutobi’s frown eases. “Start from the top, Sasuke. Tell us what you saw.”

Sasuke lays out his findings in an organized way, and when he’s finished, there’s utter silence around the table. The Nidaime is the first to break it. “It doesn’t change the timeline. He’s in the Omine Valley, so we go get him before he executes the rest of his plan, whatever it is.”

“Unless his plan is a battle in the Omine Valley,” Shikaku points out. He’s tapping an odd rhythm out on the table. “Either way, we have to meet him on the battlefield.”

“The issue is if we want him dead or alive,” Hiashi points out. “If he’s put into motion something that will keep going even after his death, we can’t afford to eliminate him just yet.”

“We need him alive,” the Shodaime says, sounding resigned now. “We need to bring Madara home. I need to speak to him.”

The Nidaime rubs a hand wearily across his face (tired, Sasuke thinks, even the Nidaime looks tired, and he’s always so vivid in his joy that it puts living men to shame). “This motherfucker.”

Tsunade turns her sharp gaze to Kakashi. “I want this done, Kakashi.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Kakashi answers neatly. His voice is a deadpan, as if there is no doubt, not even a chance for loss because he has said the words.

Sasuke is too busy observing the Shodaime that he doesn’t notice the conversation moving on. The Shodaime closes his eyes, and Sasuke watches the rise of his shoulders once, twice, and then a third time. Bring him home, because Madara was the Shodaime’s oldest and best friend. They went to war together to save the world, and then Madara betrayed him. But after all that has been said and done, the Shodaime still gives the order to bring Madara home.  

When the Shodaime opens his eyes again, his expression has smoothed out. He is himself, and he turns his attention back to Shikaku, who is now talking about capturing and returning Madara to Konohagakure safely.

“We sever the brainstem, like we did with Zetsu. Or we can break his neck to immobilize him without killing him as Sasuke did during Zetsu’s interrogation,” Itachi offers. “Either should work.”

Sasuke tears his gaze away from the Shodaime at the sound of his name, only to realize that the Yondaime is watching him carefully, eyebrows furrowed. He angles his head, and his intent is clear: What’s wrong?

Sasuke shakes his head slightly, turning his attention back to conversation at hand. Shikaku points out that they will need to reevaluate the Omine Valley battle plan entirely if the goal is to capture Madara, not kill him. Hiashi agrees, says something about fighting a war on two fronts if Madara intends to wreak havoc on the east with these natural disasters while he’s creating a sinkhole in the Omine Valley for them to throw troops into.

Tsunade puts an end to the back-and-forth. “We need to discuss this with Lord Biratori,” she says. “This is a different battle than we originally anticipated, but it’s not an insurmountable task. I intend to end this war, ladies and gentlemen. I intend to win it.”

Tsunade turns to Kakashi, offering him the space to add his thoughts. Kakashi has been quiet this entire time, and now, he jerks a thumb over to indicate Tsunade, and says, mild—bored almost—“What Tsunade-sama said.”

Even Itachi laughs, and just like that, the meeting ends. When the Shodaime gets to his feet, everyone follows suit. For a moment, there’s only the sound of chairs moving back, and the rush of fabric as everyone snaps to attention. “Thank you, everyone,” the Shodaime says with a polite dip of his head, and that’s the official end of the meeting.

Sasuke doesn’t immediately follow the others to join the northerners for lunch, even though he’s so hungry now he could hunt and eat an entire deer by himself. Instead, he approaches the Shodaime, interrupting a conversation he is having with Shikaku. Almost immediately, the Shodaime excuses himself from Shikaku, who takes his cue and leaves with the others. When he turns to Sasuke, his usual smile is in place, making the crows feet around his eyes become deeper.

“You are home,” he announces.

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “No kidding.”

“No kidding,” the Shodaime mimics with a laugh, copying Sasuke’s northern accent with startling precision. Sasuke frowns; he hadn’t even realized that his accent was so thick. But before he can ask the Shodaime about it, the Shodaime opens his arms wide. Sasuke steps into the hug, gripping the Shodaime’s Kage robes tightly. When the Shodaime pulls back, he’s frowning. “What is it?”

Sasuke could lie to the Shodaime, but it’s not worth the effort. He tries to arrange the words in his head ahead of time, but it still comes out stilted and jumbled. “You shouldn’t have to go through this again. He was your best friend.”

The Shodaime’s expression softens. “He was my best friend, and I was his. He was a good godfather to my daughter. He was a good Commander to his troops.  We were like brothers.” He pauses a beat and offers, “We were how you are with Jugo and Suigetsu. What is the northern word you use?”

“Blood-brothers,” Sasuke says, translating it into the southern dialect for the Shodaime. He says the word again in the northern tongue.

The Shodaime repeats it carefully in the northern tongue, says the word with the full weight it deserves. “He was a good man.”

Trust the Shodaime to look at a man like Madara and say, He was a good man. It makes Sasuke’s blood boil that Madara would ever betray the Shodaime’s faith. “He tried to kill you.”

The Shodaime takes a deep breath. “And I tried to kill him,” he admits. “Perhaps this is my chance to correct the mistakes I made. The mistakes that we both made.”

Sasuke spent an entire lifetime trying to kill Itachi, and he knows the loneliness and misery of such a task. He knows the bone-deep ache it can create. “You shouldn’t have to correct this mistake,” Sasuke points out. No one should have to live with that grief.

“I am not the one correcting it. I bear none of the true burden of this mistake,” the Shodaime insists. “It is Tsunade and Kakashi and their Captains. It is you and your brother. It is the troops that we are sending to the Omine valley. I failed. And in doing so, I failed this country. I failed you.”

The Wildfire Contingency. Of course, the Shodaime blames himself for that too. “That’s stupid,” Sasuke snaps, stepping away now because this conversation will be endless otherwise. The Shodaime’s guilt complex is almost as massive as Naruto’s. “You can’t blame yourself for Madara. That’s like blaming yourself for the plague.”

The Shodaime laughs, patting him on the cheek lightly. “Go eat. You must be hungry.”

Hungry is an understatement for what Sasuke feels. And he still has to see Jugo and Karin and the other northerners who are here. It will be good to share a meal with old friends. As he’s walking away, the Yondaime falls into step next to him, stepping so pointedly away from Naruto and Jiraiya, that they both take the hint and fall back to give Sasuke and the Yondaime space. Sarutobi falls into step on Sasuke’s left, so the two ghosts are flanking him.

The Yondaime pitches his voice low. “Everything all right?”

Sasuke swallows on all the doubts that are crawling through his head. He wants to hoard his fears, but if he can’t share them with the ghosts, then who else would he speak his mind to? “He looks tired. They both do.”

“Hashirama-sama fought this war his entire life, Sasuke,” Sarutobi says, halting him at the top of the stairs where they need to part ways. The rest of high command continues to take the stairs downstairs, heading for lunch with the northerners, but the ghosts need to return to their suites and hide their presence from outsiders. News of the dead walking amongst the living is too dangerous to spread; too many know of their existence as is. “Tobirama-sensei continued to fight in his lifetime, and he died thinking that he’d settled the matter. Now, it’s haunting this country again, a country they built with their bare hands. They are tired.”

“Kakashi will end it,” Sasuke promises, and grips his sword to make the oath. “Gods as my witness, my brother and I will end it. They won’t have to be tired anymore.”

The Yondaime’s lips quirk up in a smile. “We know,” he says, and grips Sasuke’s shoulder, tight, before letting his hand fall away.

Sarutobi smiles kindly. “Don’t let us keep you. Your friends have been looking forward to your return.” He turns away with the Yondaime, leaving Sasuke alone at the top of the staircase. Sasuke watches them round a corner towards their wing of the residence—Sarutobi talking quietly, and the Yondaime listening with the utmost deference.

Are you tired? he wants to ask them, but the moment has passed.   

When Sasuke finally tracks down Jugo’s chakra, it’s in the same direction as Kakashi. Lunch with the northerners is a joint event that includes the southerners, set in a part of the Tower that Sasuke has never seen. It’s a massive hall with arching ceilings and chandeliers that reflect the sunlight streaming through the large windows lining an entire side of the room. Beyond the windows is the rose garden, a resplendent background for the space. There are several long tables laid out with rich, creamy linen and perfectly polished utensils. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to where people are sitting, although there is a long table at the front of the room that is clearly intended for the highest-ranking people in the room, both northerners and southerners alike.

Even though Suigetsu is the one who spots him first—he interrupts the din of conversation in the room with a loud, Look who’s finally decided to join the motherfucking party—Karin is the first person he sees, the one that his gaze is drawn to even though the northerners all break out into cheers (Nohine calls out, Finally, the man’s here, and Inoue and Subaru take up the cheer.)

Karin is striking in her northern warrior vestments, draped from head to toe in shades of black, interrupted only by the deep oak-brown of the leather around her forearms. Her red hair has been braided intricately, and her eyes are lined with black, making her gaze sharper still. She has painted her lips a bright red, as if she has just pulled back from biting into a man’s jugular.

To her left is Jugo, and Sasuke feels his chest swelling when he sees Jugo, who is getting to his feet from his seat next to Tsunade and Kakashi. Jugo crosses the distance between them with a wide smile. He’s wearing a cloak trimmed lightly with grizzly bear fur, chest and forearms both wrapped with rich leather. At his waist, he has a battle axe and a broad sword, and he towers over everyone else around him, nearly six-five in height and with the heft to accompany it. In the tradition of the Biratori, he’s grown out his beard, and his hair has been shaved on the sides, but longer at the top and braided back. He looks like a warlord now, although there’s no mistaking it because he’s leading a contingency of northerners who fall into line behind him.

True-heart, Rin calls him, and that is what Jugo is. When Sasuke first arrived in Otogakure, Orochimaru had starved him as punishment for his tardiness. Jugo had shared his own meager food supplies even though he didn’t even know Sasuke’s name. Sasuke found out later that Jugo had been punished for his generosity. He was punished every time thereafter when he was loyal to Sasuke against Orochimaru’s wishes.

Sasuke moves before Jugo can reach him. He snaps back his cloak to reveal the hilt of his sword, bowing low at the waist even as he spreads out his right hand in a slow, graceful arc outwards. It’s a show of respect in the north, a sign of allegiance: yielding the hilt of his sword and dipping his gaze. The northerners fall immediately silent, their earlier enthusiasm giving way to the respect that this moment demands. He’d been forced to do it for Orochimaru, and Sasuke always counted his heartbeats to hold the pose, swallowing on his pride at the humiliation. This time, though, there is no humiliation, only pride. He bows lower than he ever has for Orochimaru, lower than he ever has for anyone, averts his gaze and names Jugo for who he is:

“Lord Biratori.”

Sasuke lifts from the bow and meets Jugo’s gaze. “Apologies for the delay, sire,” he says, and finds not an ounce of hesitation in speaking to Jugo with such deference. He fought in a war for five years for Orochimaru, and he’d hated every waking moment of it. He’d ridden under the banners of a man so corrupt and twisted that there was no longer even the shadow of honor left in him. Now, though, he feels the overwhelming rush of pride making his chest expand at seeing Jugo wearing the mantle that Orochimaru insulted.

Jugo crosses the final distance between them in three quick strides and pulls Sasuke into a fierce hug, which Sasuke returns. “Blood-brothers, always,” he whispers in Sasuke’s ear. When he pulls back he adds, “And don’t ever bow to me again. You look ridiculous doing it.”

“That was a one-time event,” Sasuke says, voice pitched low, even though the din in the room has gotten loud with conversation now. Suigetsu joins them at the doorway, turning his body so that they’re in a close huddle.

Jugo grips Sasuke’s shoulder tight. “Where have you been, Sasuke?”

“Yaeyama,” Sasuke answers. “I was tracking a lead.”

Suigetsu pitches his voice low. “I sent Futaba to get the children and older folk to the Birchwood forests,” he says.  

Jugo turns to Sasuke, eyes wide with fear. “Is Megumi—”

“She’s safe,” Sasuke interrupts. But for how long? Are any of them? He pushes aside his doubts firmly. “There were waves that destroyed most of the Ryuku Islands in the Land of Water last week. They reached Hyogo. The city has been decimated.”

Jugo nods, connecting the dots quickly. “Suigetsu received word about the damage done to his lands and people a few days after it happened. He sent some of his men to help with the rebuilding. You think that Madara—” He stops, abrupt, face becoming grim. “I’ll speak with the tribal council separately. It’ll cause panic if we announce it now.”

“They’ll start to panic if we keep whispering like gossiping crones here,” Suigetsu points out.

Sasuke glances around the room and takes stock of the tribes represented: the Kumatori, Betsukai, Suwanosejima, and Shinmoedake are here, representing the four largest tribes. Jugo has also brought with him representatives from tribes with strategic value, those who preside over mountain passes, bridges that arch across the widest of rivers, larger townships, and the grain belt that supplies the entire north with its food—the Yanaizu, Aizubange, Adatara, and Furudono. Sasuke recognizes most of the representatives of the larger tribes. He’s faced them in battle or fought alongside them. Those he doesn’t recognize, he identifies by the colors they are wearing, the exact tattoos on their face and the intricate braids in their beards and hair: Happo, Shimogo, and Hishiaizu, along with a few others.

Jugo turns back to the room, expression smoothing out into an easy smile. “The man knows his way with a sword, but unfortunately, he can’t read time,” he announces to the expectant northerners, and there’s another round of laughter. He speaks in the southern tongue, and Sasuke’s eyes track to the Konohagakure shinobi in the room. Jugo has always been courteous and respectful, and the northerners in the room take their cue from him. They all speak in the southern tongue, much of it broken and with thick accents.

Mishima of the Kesen tribe leans back in his chair and says in a loud voice that Sasuke likely overslept, isn’t that what he always does? Didn’t he show up late to the Battle for the Murata River, rushing to join the shield wall ten minutes past the blast of the horn, still lacing up his birches because he’d spent the night with the enemy’s daughter?

Namie suddenly yells, “You slept with my cousin, you motherfucker?”

Sasuke blinks lazily at Namie, feigning innocence even though Mishima got every single detail of that day right. “If we’re going to start calling each other names, let’s at least be accurate,” he responds. He’s always felt comfortable with the northerners, with their rollicking sense of humor and absolute disregard for the asinine pleasantries and etiquette that the south demands. He smirks at Namie. “It’s cousin fucker, thank you very much.”

Namie’s hand drops to his sword. “Oi, you whoring piece of—”

“My lords, my ladies,” Karin calls out, voice smooth like honey. She’s barely speaking over a husky whisper, but the laughter eases almost immediately. “If we were to make treaties based on who Lord Uchiha here has insulted with his prodigious appetite—” she pauses for the laughter “—we would never have allegiances or even a simple horse trade across this Continent.”

There is no choice but for the men in the room to look at her. She sucks the air in the room towards herself, commands each inch of space and draws attention so fully that it’s impossible not to notice the details of her body, the soothing lull of her voice that might remind a man of honeyed mead and the soft slide of sheets in bed. She looks like death, but her voice is a promise. Sasuke knows that this version of Karin is not meant for him. It’s meant for the strangers around her, the potential enemies she sees in this room. Once, a long time ago, she was still a teenager, awkward and growing into her beauty. But under Orochimaru’s toxic shadow, she turned inwards, taught herself to hoard her weaknesses and spin a web around her so tightly that no man would ever harm her or hers again. She has been defending the north since she was a teenager, married herself to the cause with such ferocity that she lured Orochimaru to his own death when she was barely seventeen.

“The horse trading can continue without issue,” Sasuke says. He places a hand over his heart and adds with exaggerated sincerity, “I give all of you my word, I have never fucked a horse.”

Inoue snorts water out of his nose, which makes the volume of laughter in the room get even louder. “Goats, though, he enjoys immensely,” Suigetsu points out, and even Sasuke has to laugh at that. Jugo is covering his face to hide his amusement, but it’s a worthless effort because his shoulders are shaking from it.

Jugo throws an arm around his shoulder, tugging him towards the tables at the far end. “Say hello to them,” he says under his breath, so Sasuke lets Jugo lead him around the room. The northerners all get to their feet and hold out hands for Sasuke to shake. He meets them halfway, gripping their forearms before moving into a one-armed hug, the way northerners greet allies and old friends. Inoue and Subaru approach him first, laughing, patting him on the back, asking him, Where the fuck have you been, Uchiha ? Despite his hunger, Sasuke ignores the food spread out in front of him. He’s grinning so wide it feels as if his face is going to split in two. He hasn’t seen Subaru and Inoue in years, although they spent some of the worst months together in Otogakure. They were always by Sasuke’s side throughout it all, and Karin still relies heavily on them. Jugo counts Subaru and Inoue among his closest circle of advisors. So Sasuke asks them questions about their women and children. He asks them how the quarry is on their lands and if the river beds are still rich with bounty.

Faced with the other men, Sasuke finds himself slipping into the northern language with relief. He asks them all the same questions he asked Inoue and Subaru: how are their families, their lands, their sons and daughters, and their women and men. There is news of newborn babies, elders who have passed, new hunting grounds as the tribes have moved across the plains. There are tribal representatives that Sasuke doesn’t know, but they know of him or know someone who knows him. For all its vast expanses, the North is small in many ways.

It takes them over twenty-five minutes to finally make their way up the room to the table at the front. Sasuke stands over Itachi’s shoulder and grips his shoulder lightly. There is no seat next to Itachi for him. “The fuck, Brother, you couldn’t save me a seat?”

“Your friends did,” Itachi says around a mouthful, and tilts his chin towards an empty seat across the table, immediately next to Karin. Someone has already set a plate so loaded with food, it’s nearly overflowing with it. Sasuke groans with relief.

Karin watches Sasuke sink into his chair carefully. “Find me a man to look at me the way you look at a plate of food,” she deadpans in the southern tongue, but there’s something strained about her smile, a tightness around her eyes and a rigid set to her shoulders.

He’d ridden to Urausu desperate to warn Karin about the end of the world, but she was already in Konohagakure, facing it down with her steely determination. According to Suigetsu, Karin was the one who pursued rumors of Madara’s army all the way to the Omine Valley, and she was the one who brought back the news to Jugo. She convinced the hundred free tribes of the north to gather, and she pressed for the election of a warlord.

It’s not fear that he sees—Karin doesn’t show fear, not anymore—but it’s the closest thing she’ll reveal. “I always look at you the way I look at food,” Sasuke promises, glancing around at the sudden, intent silence that has fallen at the table the moment Karin began to talk. Tsunade is watching her with a sharp gaze, and Kakashi’s gaze is no less intent.

“Don’t lie to me,” Karin warns, and switches topics neatly, acting as if she does not even notice how everyone is now eavesdropping openly on their conversation. “How bad is it in Hyogo?”

Sasuke looks at Suigetsu when he answers. Hyogo is his land. “Most of the port is destroyed. Hundreds dead. The refugees are going inland,” Sasuke says, speaking in the southern tongue because Jugo and Karin have set the example; it would be rude for him to speak in a language that Tsunade and Kakashi don’t understand, not when they’re sitting just two seats away. “More in the Ryuku Islands. No one knows how many were lost while out at sea. They locals have set up rescue efforts. A woman named Captain Biei is heading the supply runs. She's a good leader, Suigetsu.”

“I'll send her reinforcements to help with the search and rescue efforts,” Suigetsu says, leaning back in his chair. The line of his shoulders is stiff. “But with the war, I can't spare many men.”

Jugo holds Suigetsu’s gaze steady. “If you need your men to protect your lands, Suigetsu, I will understand if—”

“My lands won’t be safe as long as Madara is alive,” Suigetsu interrupts. “None of us are safe.”

“That’s our land he’s defiling with his festering rot. Those are our people,” Karin says, looking between Sasuke, Jugo, and Suigetsu. Her voice is sharp like a blade. “I will eat his heart raw.”

"So let's march to war and carve his heart out for a feast," Suigetsu says. He holds up his drink, and Jugo, Sasuke and Karin mimic him. “To the north. To home. To this war, and to hoping that this will be our last,” Suigetsu declares, but it’s not his usual boisterous toast. His voice sounds strained.

The rest of the northerners fall silent when they realize Suigetsu is offering a toast. Suigetsu looks surprised by the sudden attention on him. He doesn’t rise to the occasion like he usually does with his elaborate toasts that leave half the room wiping away tears from raucous laughter—how could he, Sasuke wonders, when his mind is so preoccupied with his daughter hundreds and hundreds of miles away. Suigetsu turns to Jugo with a frown. “Care to say a word, my lord?”

"All I do is talk these days,” Jugo murmurs. He gives Sasuke a small smile. “Your turn, Sasuke. Make it a good one. They’ve waited for you to get back.”  

Sasuke remembers Wazuka’s lilting hiss. The earth cracked open, he thinks, and the sky spilled forth. He imagines the northern plains vanishing into the earth, falling into open sky in another realm below. He raises his mug and holds Jugo’s gaze. They’d bled and watched their friends die for the north before. He fought with Jugo at his right and Suigetsu at his left. Sasuke turns in his seat to look at the northerners assembled. He’d fought against some, and he’d fought with the others. Five years, they fought in an endless, meaningless campaign. Just when peace has returned to the north, they need to ride again.

“Speech, Captain!” Inoue calls out, and Subaru picks up on the call, raising his voice over the low rumble of laughter in the room. “Speech!”

“Make it a good one, Captain!” Nohine calls out from a few tables over, and grins when Sasuke meets her eyes.

Sasuke flushes when all eyes turn to him. He’s given speeches to larger groups of men before, but that was always in the heat of war. This is different. It can’t just be a short, concise statement that ends with, Enjoy the food. There is a tradition he must follow. Out of habit, Sasuke looks over his shoulder—and realizes just how stupid that is because the Shodaime is solid and whole. He’s not a hidden presence by Sasuke’s side, guiding Sasuke with the words that need to be said.

Count, Sasuke reminds himself. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten

He raises his mug. “To the Birchwood forests,” he begins, and keeps his eyes locked on the far door to avoid looking at anyone. He’s not like Suigetsu; he can’t put together words with intent. He’s not even like Jugo, with his quiet confidence. But he is a Sharingan and he has his memories, so he draws on them. “To the majestic peaks of the Yoro at sunrise, and the still waters of the Ikeda at sunset. To the soothing breeze on the vast, rolling plains, and the company of friends under a cluttered, starry sky, under that green-blue veil of the northern lights.”

And under that lustrous sky, Sasuke paints himself a picture he’s never dared to imagine before: “To laying down our weapons, just for a while, for a moment of—” Serenity, the Shodaime said once, as they walked through the redwoods together, What do you think of that, Sasuke? Sasuke reaches for that feeling that makes his ribcage too tight from yearning, hears the sound of a piano in his mind as he grasps at the edges of that feeling— “Solace.”

He pauses and remembers the words the Shodaime taught him, the words he’s been saying to himself like a prayer (Keep a bower quiet for us, the Shodaime recited gently as they paused under the majestic shade of a redwood, and a sleep full of sweet dreams and quiet breathing. He’d looked away from the canopy overhead, at the sliver of blue sky and sunlight streaking through, to look at Sasuke with a smile. How does that sound to you, son? )

He has to close his eyes at the image, feels that ache in his bones for the wanting of it. He’s traveled thousands and thousands of miles. He’s found his brother. He’s found his Clan. Still, he hasn’t found that bower.

Where do I look now?

“To that quiet bower we seek,” Sasuke recites, and breathes deep. “And to that sleep full of sweet dreams and quiet breathing.”

He takes another deep breath and opens his eyes to find that Suigetsu’s eyes are bright, and his chest is heaving. Sasuke remembers Suigetsu carefully wrapping a cloth around Sasuke’s hand to tie his sword into place, and Sasuke returning the favor. At the worst of it, they were worried they wouldn’t be able to reach for their swords because the cold had been so relentless on the frontlines, it hurt just to move. He remembers Jugo double- and triple-checking the knots around their swords to make sure the swords wouldn’t slip free if they were cut down from their horses.

“To the north,” he promises, echoing Suigetsu’s words even as he holds Suigetsu’s gaze steady. 

There’s a wrenching moment of silence and Sasuke thinks he’s said all the wrong words—where, he wonders, is a quartet of voyeuristic Kages when you need them—but then Suigetsu whispers, voice thick, “To home, brother.”

Karin reaches for his hand on the table, and threads their fingers together (he remembers Karin doing the same as he drifted off into fitful sleep after his battles, after Orochimaru’s training sessions and punishments, remembers the strength of her conviction as she held vigil over him while he slept.) Sasuke turns his hand over so that they are holding hands, palm to palm, and she gives him a shaky smile, eyes bright.

A moment later, she blinks, and her gaze is hard again. She raises her glass and says loudly, “To home,” her voice like a whip, and on cue, the northerners in the crowd wipe at their eyes, blink away tears, and sit straighter in their chairs. She smiles at those assembled before her, the red gash of her mouth making her words sound even more lustful for blood. “And to all the sorry sons of bitches who think they can take it from us.”

When she glances at Jugo with a sharp grin, he picks up his glass. “To the sorry sons of bitches,” he declares.

The northerners all raise their glasses. They drink.

Lunch turns into an hour-long debrief on Jugo’s forces. Inoue, Subaru, Nohine, and Suttsu pull up their chairs to the head table to join in on the conversation, and before long, all the northerners have pulled up their chairs in an impromptu gathering so they can discuss numbers and forces and supply routes. They speak in the southern dialect out of respect for the southerners in the room. Tsunade, Kakashi, Jiraiya and some of the Captains chime in every now and then, even Itachi, but they yield the floor to the northerners because the battle field is in the north, and most of the fighting forces are northerners.

Sasuke slouches back in his chair and listens, speaking only when he has specific questions. He’s nitpicky, but this is how battle is waged and won, by knowing every single detail down to the number of horses they have for battle, and the number of horses they have to transport food and armaments. Jugo takes in the information quietly like he always does, only stepping in to settle arguments when necessary.

“If it’s winter, we’re fucked,” Suttsu points out, swearing in the northern dialect but picking the rest of his words carefully in the southern tongue. He’s only a few years older than Sasuke, and bears Orochimaru’s cursed seal. He was loyal when it counted most, and just as he’d left Otogakure, he told Sasuke that he would always have an ally in the Aizubange tribe and the magnificent fleet of ships they wield to keep command of the rivers that snake their way to the Northern Seas.

Sasuke tilts his head to consider the information. “The rivers in your lands freeze late November, don’t they, Suttsu?”

“Sometimes earlier,” Suttsu ventures. They’re already well into June. If they are to attack, they have to do it soon. “Once it does, there’s no way I can get supplies west to the Omine Valley.”

Kakashi clears his throat politely, and all attention turns to him. “What would a winter campaign look like for our battle field?”

The northerners look amongst each other, eyes wide. The Omine Valley is tucked into the northwestern most province of the Land of Rice Fields, so far north and west that the snows are relentless. The wind is worse. “If the drifts are high and the wind fierce, men can freeze to death walking from one end of the valley to the other,” Rausu says. He’s a Betsukai, and his people once claimed the valley as their own territory. “The snowfall is always heavy in the valley. The winds never die down. Even Captain Uchiha and his death-riders steered clear.”

Sasuke frowns at Rausu’s tone of voice—even Suigetsu stiffens in his seat next to Sasuke, violet eyes narrowing at Rausu with consideration. His words hadn’t been insulting, but it was close to it.

Ono speaks before either of them can say anything. “Nothing grows in the valley but the tall grass. There are no animals to hunt. Even the insects are quiet at night. It’s a place the gods abandoned,” Ono says, and every single northerner reaches for their sword hilts—along with Sasuke and Itachi.

Itachi’s grip loosens on his sword, but he doesn’t let go of it entirely. “That could be why he’s there.”

Karin raises an eyebrow. “He believes in the gods still?”

Itachi looks out the window, frowning. “He’s an Uchiha,” he says at last, and Sasuke breathes against the reminder. Uchiha Madara . They share blood. Itachi blinks away from the rose garden and holds Jugo’s gaze steady. “The Omine Valley is risky. There are mountains to the north, west, and east. He might have boxed himself into a corner, but he’s also forced us to attack from the South. This is the kind of strategist he is. He orchestrates impossible situations. But no matter all the disadvantages he faces, his enemies are almost guaranteed to be playing against worse odds.”

They lured him out, Sasuke realizes, but Madara is setting the trap.

Suigetsu looks grim. “We fought a winter campaign,” he points out. “We had victories.”

“Which we won with a steep price, and never so far north,” Inoue says with a sigh. “Whether we fight in the winter or in spring, we’re still outnumbered. Can Konohagakure spare more men?”

Kakashi hm-s under his breath. “We’re still operating under the assumption that Madara will eventually head south to attack Konohagakure. This city has always been his priority, and I intend to protect against it. I can send three thousand men. Four thousand if I move the warriors from the southern garrisons.”

“You need a thousand men to defend against pirates and bandits in your southern lands?” Karin asks, arching an eyebrow at Kakashi. She looks amused. “The rumors spoke such high praise of your battle prowess, Lord Commander Hatake. Surely, not all of it was a load of horseshit.”

She bites off the last word with flair. Karin, Jugo warns, but she pays him no mind, and neither does Kakashi. His eyes have been entirely focused on Karin the entire time she was talking, but now there’s a sharpening of his gaze, a heat in it, as if he’s considering the weapon he’ll choose against her. When he speaks, his voice is mild. “Organic, free-range shit from the happiest of horses in the valley. Only the best for you, Lady Widow.”

Sasuke is expecting Karin’s temper to flare at the round of laughter that follows, but instead, her lips curve up in a half-smile. For fuck’s sake, Sasuke thinks. At this rate, Karin and Kakashi will circle each other endlessly. They’re both bloodthirsty motherfuckers when it comes down to it.

Thankfully, Nohine speaks before the moment can stretch on. “If Sasuke raises his banners, the northern island tribes will ride. The Isoya and Abuta will answer the call,” Nohine says. She looks around the room to make her point. “The Furabira, Yoichi, and Yufutsu will too. That could be another three hundred men. They owe him a debt. And the Rebun—”

“The northern isles aren’t even of the free tribes,” Subaru interrupts. “They might trace their lineage to the Land of Rice Fields, but they left the mainland a long, long time ago.”

“And fuck the fucking Rebun,” Inoue snarls. “They have their mountains for protection, and they have the entire Rikubetsu Peninsula to roam. The world could end, and they won’t move.”

This sets off a loud clamor of voices. Some point out that the northern islands are not even really northerners, those cowardly motherfuckers, if they wanted to be part of this fight, they should have heeded the call to the tribal council to elect a warlord, but Nohine counters that it is not a matter of who is northern enough, they’re all free tribesmen and women. “We can’t sit here arguing over petty differences while an army gathers in the Omine Valley. Lord Biratori, I urge you to send a message to the northern isles. Tell them that Uchiha Sasuke rides with you. They might not answer the call of the tribal council. They might not even consider this war to be theirs. But they will ride to settle their debts to your blood-brother. They are honorable warriors.”

Jugo presses his hands flat against the table and gets to his feet. “I’ll make my decision by the end of the day,” he announces. He looks around the room with a wry smile. “This was intended as a time to break bread among friends and new allies. But apparently, you can’t gather twenty northerners without declaring war on someone.”

There’s a smattering of laughter. “We’ll reconvene in three hours,” Jugo orders. “This war will keep. For now, go outside. Step into the sunshine. Breathe some fresh air. Walk through the gardens. Enjoy this beautiful city.” He gives Tsunade a kind smile. “It’s a marvel of this continent.”

Tsunade returns the smile, and her genuine affection is obvious for anyone who bothers to look. Then again, Sasuke thinks, it’s hard not to love Jugo.

“Go on, go make a spectacle of yourselves,” Suigetsu announces with a grin, as the northerners get to their feet with even more chuckles and laughter. “But please try not to terrorize these gentile southerners. They don’t know what to do with you savage motherfuckers.”

Nohine rests her hand on Sasuke’s shoulder as she walks by, squeezing tight. Suigetsu watches the northerners leave the room, followed closely by the lower-ranking southern soldiers. He waits until the door closes behind them—leaving behind only Konohagakure high command—to ask, “I’m guessing you already made up your mind about the northern islands, Jugo?”

“Nohine is right. Send word, Suigetsu,” Jugo orders. “Tell them that the free tribes have gathered under the banner of the northern stars to march in this war, and that I lead this campaign of six thousand men and women. Tell them that Lord Commander Uchiha Sasuke, is calling in their debts. I want their best warriors, as many as they can spare.”

Sasuke startles from mindlessly pushing around a green pea around his plate with his fork tines. “The fuck? Why do I have to command?”

Suigetsu frowns. “That question is stupid even for you, Sasuke.”

You be Lord Commander, Hozuki, and see how you like the job,” Sasuke snarls. “Or put Nohine in charge. She’s a fantastic strategist, and she commands the respect of—”

“Are you going to make me ask you?” Jugo interrupts calmly, and almost immediately, Sasuke’s anger vanishes.  

Blood-brothers, always. Sasuke falls back into his chair and hisses a few choice curses in Snake Tongue, and then for added measures, switches to the northern tongue. He curses Jugo, Jugo’s ancestors, and the horses they all rode in on with such eloquence that when he’s finished, Suigetsu gives him a slow clap.

Jugo’s lips quirk up in a smile. “The next council meeting is in three hours. I want a strategy by then to share with Tsunade-sama and the Lord Commander Hatake Kakashi.”

“You’re dead to me,” Sasuke promises.

Jugo ignores him. “And your second, Sasuke?”

“Don’t,” Suigetsu snarls, sitting up in his chair, but it’s too late.

“Hozuki, you’re my second,” Sasuke says, and takes great pleasure in the way Suigetsu’s face falls. “I’ll take Nohine, Inoue and Subaru for captains.”

“And Betsukai Rausu,” Karin adds. When Sasuke says, No, she talks over him with an explanation. “There are a hundred tribes riding under Jugo’s and your banners, Sasuke. There must be a balance of leadership. The alliance will be strained otherwise. You’ve picked a captain from the largest tribes in from the north, east, and south. This is to your credit. But seeing as the battle front is in the west, I would advise you also select Rausu. ”

“He’s a pup,” Sasuke says. If he has to lead a goddamn army, he’ll do it without politics, thank you very much. And besides, he didn’t like Rausu’s tone from earlier. “I don’t have time to babysit.”

“He’s Betsukai Togichi’s first-born son, and he’s heir to the largest stretch of the plains west of the Yoro Mountain,” Karin interrupts, stern. “The Omine Valley was once their ancestral land. They’re almost as wealthy as the Hozuki, and they have pledged hundreds of warriors to this fight. And if none of this concerns you, then at least Lord Betsukai Togichi’s name should sound familiar, seeing as he defeated you not once, but twice.”

Itachi speaks up suddenly. "Twice?" He asks, frowning. His voice is pinched with something like anger. "You lost twice against the same enemy, Sasuke?"  

Suigetsu covers his face with both hands. His voice is muffled when he groans, “Please don’t get him started.”

Sasuke meets Itachi's gaze, Mangekyou whorling. “It was just two battles in a five-year war that I won.”

Itachi arches an eyebrow, and leans carefully back in his chair. A muscle jumps in his cheek; no doubt, Sasuke will be hearing about this later. Not that Sasuke can blame him; the insult of losing—twice, to the same enemy—is not something that an Uchiha will tolerate. If the Clan had been alive, he would have gotten a stern talking from all his uncles and aunts. Sasuke tries to swallow on all the words he wants to say. The best thing to do is move on from this conversation, but Itachi's disappointed gaze feels heavy. “I never even wanted Betsukai territory. Orochimaru’s pride forced me to ride into those battles, and it was his pride that made me lose them.”

“Of course,” Karin agrees soothingly.  

Sasuke bites his tongue and glares at Karin. He forces himself to count, but at four, he can’t help himself. He opens his mouth to speak his mind, but Jugo beats him to it. “Gods be good, Sasuke, I will not sit through this conversation with you again,” Jugo says, pushing away from the table. “You will take Betsukai Rausu as your Captain.”

Sasuke grits his teeth. “Yes, sire.”

Satisfied, Jugo turns and addresses Tsunade directly with an apologetic smile. “Tsunade-sama, you must excuse me. I know lunch was not intended as a war council, but—”

“Please, don’t apologize, Lord Biratori,” Tsunade interrupts with a smile. “We have a war to fight.”

“I will see you in three hours,” Jugo promises her with a smile. He gives Sasuke a sidelong glance. “Hopefully by then, my commander will have stopped sulking.” Sasuke opens his mouth to speak— sulking?— but Jugo holds up a hand. “I swear to all the gods, Sasuke, if you say flanking maneuver or troop surge one more time, I will punch you." 

When Sasuke speaks, it’s with exaggerated deference. “Yes, sire.”

Jugo levels a flat stare at Sasuke. “Excuse me, Tsunade-sama,” he says pointedly, and leaves after giving Tsunade and Kakashi a polite nod. He begins scolding Karin almost immediately as they start to walk away. “You couldn’t have made your point without reminding him of Togichi? He’s going to chew my ear off about this now. I won’t have a minute’s peace once he gets going—”

The door closes behind them, muffling Karin’s response. Sasuke and Suigetsu exchange glances. Suigetsu puts a finger up, his warning clear, so Sasuke offers, “I’ve said my piece.”

Suigetsu raises a single, silver brow. “You sure you’re done talking about it? It’s only been five years, Sasuke. If you want to stew about it for another five years and make it a nice round decade of bitching, you just say the word.”

“I’m done talking about it,” Sasuke promises, and watches Suigetsu’s shoulders slump with relief. But it’s an itch just under his skin. “Twenty men, and I could have held the line. That’s the last thing I’m going to say about—”

“That’s it,” Suigetsu snarls, pushing away from the table so violently that the chair topples over. He strides out the door, muttering curses under his breath that Sasuke can go fuck himself gently with a battle-axe, and once he’s done moaning and groaning about the goddamn Betsukai, he can come find Suigetsu, but he better put a lid on it, because gods be good, he’s had to listen to this for years now , even Megumi has heard it because you told it to her like it was some kind of bedtime story, she’s a toddler, you bastard

The door slams shut behind him, leaving silence. It feels odd now for Sasuke to be sitting at one table, alone with Konohagakure high command. The empty chairs of the northerners spread out in front of Sasuke’s table makes the space look like an abandoned classroom. Sasuke feels suddenly too small in this massive space, surrounded by fine silverware and staring down Konohagakure’s highest COs.

Kakashi’s eye crinkles in a smile. “Lord Commander,” he says. “I look forward to hearing your battle strategy in three hours.”

Sasuke gets to his feet with a groan. This goddamn day, he thinks, just will not end. “I’ll get on that,” he mutters, and turns to find Suigetsu and the others to convene a council and come up with a strategy of some kind. He’s a few feet away when he realizes he’d slipped up, and turns to face Tsunade. “Permission, ma’am.”

Tsunade considers him with a curious tilt to her head. “You don’t report to me anymore, Sasuke.”

Sasuke frowns. “Are you firing me? I know I split up the team and pursued Zetsu’s lead, but it was the right call.”

Tsunade’s lips twitch with a smile. “I’m not firing you,” she says carefully. “I’m just terminating your contract seeing as you’ve just gotten a much better job offer.”

Sasuke’s thoughts come to a halt. He’s not even a military contractor for Konohagakure anymore. Generations of Uchiha warriors in the Konohagakure military, and now Sasuke is firmly aligning his allegiance with the free tribes of the Land of Rice Fields. Even when he’d followed Orochimaru’s toxic lure north, the bargain had felt temporary. But now—

Sasuke looks to Itachi for direction, but Itachi’s expression is neutral. Sasuke isn’t sure what to do with the situation at hand, so he falls back on old habits: he stands at ease and stares at a spot over Tsunade’s shoulder. “Ma’am.”

Tsunade smiles. “Just this one last time, then,” she says. “Dismissed, Lord Commander Uchiha.”

Sasuke leaves. It isn’t until he’s leaving the Tower that he realizes how Tsunade and Kakashi had named him:

Lord Commander.

Chapter Text

Karin’s hatred for Kakashi has somehow gotten worse.

When Sasuke presents his war strategy to Kakashi with Suigetsu, she speaks up every now and then with biting, cutting remarks that makes Kakashi’s gray eye go flat with anger. She needles him endlessly, pressing for more troops, a more aggressive line of attack, greater commitment of supplies, and more importantly, Naruto.

“The jinchuuruki—”

“Who is right here,” Naruto points out for the third time, because Karin does not even deign to acknowledge anyone’s presence in the room except Tsunade and Kakashi. “I also have a name. It’s—”

“Should not be out on the frontlines,” Karin finishes neatly, talking right over Naruto as if he hadn’t even said a word. “You might as well give Madara a knife and ask him to cut your throat, Lord Commander Hatake. You can’t parade out the Nine-Tailed Demon in front of him and expect him to not take the bait.”

“Just Commander,” Kakashi says. His voice is mild, but there’s a dangerous edge to his tone, one that has Jiraiya glancing at him nervously. “We don’t have lords in our military.”

“No, just obedient dogs,” Karin agrees, leaning back in her chair. She tilts her chin up, and even though Kakashi is standing, it’s almost as if she’s looking down her nose at him. “Sit. Heel. Roll over.”

“Karin,” Jugo says, stepping in for a second time now. Every time Karin crosses the line, Jugo is there to place himself between her and Kakashi’s mounting impatience. “Please excuse her, Lord Commander, but she has a point. If Counselor Uzumaki is a primary target—”

“Just Commander,” Kakashi repeats. “And Naruto is a valuable asset. He’s a politician by trade, but he’s a soldier by training. He’s my subordinate, and I will ask that you respect my authority on this.”

Sasuke happens to agree with Karin and Jugo on this issue, but he holds his tongue. If he were to suggest in public that Kakashi bench Naruto—or worse, stow him away in a safe house somewhere in the south so that Madara would never find him—it would start a whole new argument. Even Jugo concedes the point with a polite dip of his head.

Besides, there are other details to discuss. Sasuke and Suigetsu field questions from the southerners about where, who, what, why, and how. Jugo, Karin, Suigetsu, Inoue, Subaru, and Nohine spent an hour with Sasuke coming up with a strategy, and then opened up the meeting to the other tribal leaders. After hearing their concerns, Jugo and Sasuke had taken another hour to themselves to come to a final decision. But since this is a joint venture—and because Sasuke is relying on Kakashi’s troops to counterbalance some of his weak spots—they now need to iron out the minutiae together.

Kakashi and Sasuke stand side-by-side at the head of the large conference table, moving small pieces of stone that Suigetsu had labeled with tribal sigils: black stones for troops, gray stones for cavalry, and white stones for archers. Sasuke pitches his voice low as he walks Kakashi through his thoughts, the way he used to when Kakashi was first teaching Sasuke how to think through a battle strategy. When Kakashi hm-s thoughtfully, Sasuke pauses, reassess the words he just said, and then tries to anticipate any weaknesses he may have missed. If he’s unable to come up with the problem himself, Kakashi steps in with a mild comment that identifies a problem that no one else in the room had seen, and offers a solution that is as unpredictable as it is ruthless.

What surprises Sasuke most is how infrequently Kakashi corrects him. When he was younger, it would be a slow conversation, but now, Kakashi agrees with him more often than not. It makes Sasuke stand up straighter and hold his chin high knowing that he can keep pace with Kakashi on something like battle strategy. He will not pretend to be Kakashi’s equal—he never will be—but he is at least grateful that he’s not embarrassing Kakashi in front of high command, especially as Jugo’s Commander.

Shikaku draws a finger along the three edges of the Omine Valley. “He has the Northern Alps in the north, guarding his back. He has the Gassan Mountains protecting his flank from the west. The Yoro Mountain is to his east. We can only approach from the south, and there’s no guarantee we can even make it across the Valley if the campaign drags on into the winter.”

Naruto is the one who offers the solution, and he does it almost off-handedly. “So why not approach him through the mountains?”

“The Gassan Alps are impenetrable,” Rausu says, sounding almost apologetic. “The rock formations there are unstable. A lot of silt. The men and horses will fall to their death.”

“And the Yoro turns into a canyon on the western edge when it faces the Omine Valley. It’s a straight cliff down,” Suigetsu adds.

Naruto looks around at the northerners. “And the Northern Alps?”

The Northern Alps are a jagged line of slate-gray mountains that are frozen throughout the year. They are the one and only defense between the Land of Rice Fields and the Rikubetsu Peninsula beyond, a land still so untamed that they belong to no nation. They are north of the northerners, so tied to the old way of living that they speak a dialect that is different from the one that the northerners use. The Rikubetsu Peninsula is a vast, unforgiving land of snow and ice, and the tribes in the north vanish into the white landscape. The only tribe in the Rikubetsu that maintains any contact with the south are the Rebun, a massive tribe that controls the only two passes that lead south: the Hiroo Pass in the east, and the Kasai Pass in the north.

Naruto leans forward and draws out a path along the eastern edge of the Omine Valley, through the Hiroo Pass, into the Rikubetsu Peninsula beyond. “Go into the Rikubetsu Peninsula through the Hiroo Pass, traverse north, and then come down the Kasai Pass. Surprise Madara from the rear.”

“Naruto, that’s—” Rausu’s southern dialect comes out halting as he tries to find the right words. “The Kasai Pass is controlled by the Rebun. Both passes to the Rikubetsu are controlled by the Rebun. They control trade that goes through these passes strictly. They’re not likely to allow an army to march through. And even if they allowed it, the mountain passes are miserable. No army can go through those passes and come out of the other side ready to fight.”

“So go ahead of time,” Naruto says. “Lie in wait.”

“You’re suggesting a small force of the army crosses north, waits out with an army in the Rikubetsu Peninsula, and then cross back through the Kasai Pass when it’s time for battle,” Hiashi repeats, sounding incredulous himself.

“Why not? In fact, recruit the Rebun to our cause. We need the numbers,” Naruto says. “Madara is camped out on their front porch. I’m sure the Rebun would like to help get rid of him.” He points to a large river that cuts through the middle of the peninsula, connecting the two sides of the Northern Ocean together. “You can sweeten the deal with an incentive. A trade route,” Naruto announces. “Right now, all ships have to travel around the Rikubetsu Peninsula. They carry tuna, mackerel, whale oil, practically half the seafaring goods from the Land of Water to the Land of Earth’s northern port cities. Tell the Rebun to open the Esashi River to allow ships to cut through the peninsula rather than around. It’ll cut down the journey by half. The Rebun can control the tariffs of ships passing through, the Land of Water will cut down on its export costs, and the Land of Earth will cut down on its import costs. Everyone wins.”

Naruto looks around the table in the silence that follows as everyone tries to follow his logic. “We keep talking about this war as if troops and cavalry are all the cards we have to play,” he says. “There’s ways around those limitations. Leverage.”

Sasuke has to duck his face to hide his smile. Leverage, Naruto says, as if it’s so obvious, when he’s just pulled another unexpected trick out of the hat like he always does. When the silence lingers, Naruto tries again. “It’ll work, Kakashi-sensei,” he promises earnestly. “The Land of Water and the Land of Earth were hemorrhaging money to maintain their trade routes. They have for centuries. If you cut the Rebun in on the deal, you’ve fixed three problems with one solution.” He gives Tsunade a quick smile. “Plus, Konohagakure gets the credit, so we can stack our cards the next time we sit down for talks with the Mizukage or the Tsuchikage.”

“And here I thought you were just a pretty face,” Karin purrs, and entirely ignores Naruto’s startled anger at her words.

Naruto doesn’t have time to respond, because Kakashi steps in, hm-ing under his breath. “Even if they don’t agree to join the fight, surprising Madara from the north is a strategy worth pursuing. At the very least, we should consider closing off the northern passes so Madara doesn’t have aid from the Rebun.”

Tsunade seems to agree. She shifts her gaze to Jugo. “Would negotiations work with the Rebun, Lord Biratori?”

Jugo yields the floor to Rausu again. “Your people are the Rebun’s closest neighbors in the north. Would they agree to this?”

Rausu presses his lips into a thin line while he assesses the question. He’s four years older than Sasuke, but he hasn’t fought in even half the battles that Sasuke has. Still, he is his father’s son, almost as good at strategy as Togichi. He commands the respect of his peers, and when he speaks, he considers his words carefully. “They might, sire. My father could help negotiate. They have a new leader who’s more cautious than the previous ones.”

“Rebun Ashoro is dead?” Nohine asks.

“He had two sons, Gojome and Onuma, but Gojome passed and Onuma married away into a different tribe and lives with his husband’s people in the north,” Rausu explains. “Ashoro’s other son-in-law has taken control.”

Karin looks up sharply. She seems surprised by this information, which makes Sasuke pause. There is almost no information in the north that Karin is not aware of. “Son-in-law? What happened to his daughter?”

“She passed in childbirth. Twins, from what I hear. Ashoro loved his son-in-law like his own,” Rausu says. “The man is a good leader, but he’s cautious. He’s been isolating the Rebun from the south over the years. He mostly sends representatives, and if he does need to meet for more important discussions, he will only meet with my father. Even I’m not allowed in the room.”

“We need an audience with him,” Naruto insists, looking at Rausu with his blue, blue eyes. “Is that possible?”

Rausu gives Naruto a lopsided smile, focus entirely on Naruto to the exclusion of the commanding officers and lords in the room. “For you? I’ll make it possible.”

Sasuke’s Mangekyou whorls to life. This Betsukai pup, Sasuke thinks, his battle calm creeping into the edges of his vision as ice settles in his veins.

This boy.  

Suigetsu grips his elbow firmly, stepping into his space to whisper in his ear, “Let it go. The insult only exists if you acknowledge it.”

Jugo picks up the cue immediately. “I want a more definitive answer, Rausu. Send a message with one of your hawk ninken to your father. Ask Togichi to negotiate with—what’s the Rebun leader’s name?”

Rausu is already turning away to obey Jugo, but pauses just long enough to answer Jugo’s question. “Obito, sire.”

Kakashi glances up sharply at the name, and Itachi goes entirely still. Even Sasuke is temporarily startled out of his anger, because Obito is such an uncommon name and Uchiha Obito died years ago, but.

But. There are other Uchiha, long presumed dead, still wandering this earth.

Sasuke never met Obito, but he thinks that he would like to. Kakashi holds his memory so dear, can barely look at Sasuke when he speaks Obito’s name. He spends so many hours on that hill, standing vigil for his best friend. Sasuke still remembers the way Itachi and Shisui used to talk about him (Uncle Obito, the one uncle that Sasuke never had the privilege of loving, the one who left Itachi his goggles before his last mission). He has vivid memories about Fugaku’s grief for Obito’s loss, how the entire Clan turned inward. If Madara is alive, then maybe—

It’s wishful thinking, Sasuke knows, but he’s not the only one having that thought. There is a pinched look around Itachi’s eyes, a measured tempo to his breathing. Kakashi, for his part, looks as if he’s carved out of stone. They smooth over their features almost immediately, though, because Rausu is still talking. “He’s not likely to respond, Lord Biratori. And even if he does, he’ll likely want to meet with you or the Lord Commander to finalize the negotiations. For something as big as this, he’ll demand to speak with you face-to-face.”

“Lay out our offer,” Jugo says. “Tell him that if he is amenable, Lord Commander Uchiha will meet with him.”  

“Yes, sire,” Rausu says, and his eyes track over to Naruto. He smiles again—the casual smile of a man whose intentions are clear, whose interest is so goddamn obvious it’s a miracle he’s not writing verses of poetry for Naruto at this very goddamn moment.

Rausu is a handsome man, with that nutmeg-brown hue to his skin that all the tribes in the west have, and he has light hazel eyes that go bright when he laughs. He’s clean-shaven like all the other Betsukai, and his long hair has been braided in the tradition of warriors in his clan. He’s the kind of man who draws attention wherever he goes, the kind of man who gets what he wants. Even the goddamn scar on his cheek looks decorative, as if he’d drawn it in to highlight the strong line of his jaw.

The motherfucker.

He’s gone before Sasuke can pummel that smug grin off his face. Tsunade gets to her feet with a sigh. “With or without the Rebun,” she announces, “we still have not finalized the attack from the south. Commanders?”

Kakashi draws a line on the map with the tip of his finger, just beyond the highest ridge overlooking the southern entrance to the Omine Valley. “We start here,” he begins.

The meeting continues for hours. They break for coffee and snacks, taking the opportunity to get up and stretch their feet. They cluster in smaller groups around the Senju Conference room while working through the food that Tsunade had ordered the kitchens to prepare.

Sasuke is working through his third sandwich and watching with great amusement while Karin and Kakashi spit insults at each other when he realizes—

More often than not, Kakashi and Karin are smiling.

He nearly chokes on a mouthful of food, and Suigetsu is right there, slapping him on the back. He leans towards Sasuke and follows Sasuke’s gaze towards Kakashi and Karin, who are standing by one of the windows, ignoring the plates of food they’re holding in favor of talking to each other. Sasuke overhears Karin say, If you think this is my first time in your city, Lord Commander, you’re sorely mistaken. Your defenses are pathetic. Kakashi holds himself so carefully it’s obvious that his anger is just beneath the surface.

But he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t do anything other than tilt his head and ask, And how did you like your previous visits to Konohagakure?

Sasuke knows in that moment—he knows—what Karin is doing. She is spinning her web around Kakashi. Karin is stunning, from the burnt-sugar timbre of her voice to the sinewy curves of her body. She demands attention and holds it. She dares to challenge Kakashi, flings back his authority in his face as if it is the least impressive thing she has ever encountered, and then presents herself like a challenge, like someone to be conquered.

And Kakashi—like any other man—is falling for the trick. Hook, line and sinker.

Suigetsu leans close to whisper in his ear, “They’re hate-fucking, aren’t they?”

“Kakashi knows better,” Sasuke counters.

Suigetsu only arches an eyebrow and returns to his food. Around a mouthful, he asks, “If negotiations with the Rebun are productive, you plan on leading the northern attack or the southern?”

It’s a working coffee break, so of course this question reignites conversation about the strategy. Even Karin and Kakashi abandon their spot by the window and settle at the table again. Sasuke listens to the arguments for and against his leading the northern attack, but before he can put an end to the endless conversation, Rausu speaks up from across the table. “Lord Commander, I can cross the Hiroo and Kasai passes. I’ve done it once before, and I’ve dealt with the Rebun all my life.”

He is sitting next to Naruto, leaning towards him, a casual tilt of his body that places him closer to Naruto than the situation warrants. Sasuke feels his heartbeat slow, the edges of his vision fading so that all he sees is Rausu, sitting across from the table. He could kill the man four different ways and he wouldn’t even have to draw his sword. “Is that so.”

Rausu hand drops to his hilt. “Lord Commander?”

Karin steps in, sounding languid as always, but Sasuke hears the edge to her tone. “The Lord Commander is impatient after a full day of talks,” she says, and for once, Sasuke doesn’t bristle at the characterization. “I’d venture we’re all a little weary.”

Nohine offers a bland smile at Karin’s attempts to keep the peace. “Lord Biratori, may I suggest we return to this tomorrow?”

“I agree,” Jugo says, seizing onto Nohine’s suggestion immediately. He breaks protocol entirely by getting to his feet, not even giving Tsunade the courtesy to say yes to the question he’s asking. “Tomorrow, Hokage-sama?”

Tsunade’s keen gaze lands on Sasuke, and then to Rausu. She smiles. “Of course, Lord Biratori. We’ve done enough for today.”

The clutter of chairs is loud in the room as people get to their feet and push away from the table. Jugo ambles over to Sasuke and places a hand on his shoulder, but it’s anything but a casual gesture. He keeps Sasuke rooted in his chair with the weight of his arm, leaning into the contact so that Sasuke knows to stay put. It makes Sasuke’s anger tighten, makes him feel as if he’s a disobedient dog that needs to be managed. The anger is made worse because Rausu dips his head to say, Have a good night, Naruto, smiling, lingering in his conversation with Naruto as they talk about the Rebun, about the possibility of a treaty that can extend diplomacy and trades across the peninsula.

The highest-ranking members of Konohagakure—Tsunade, Jiraiya, and Kakashi—linger out of respect because Jugo has yet to leave the room. As Rausu’s conversation with Naruto continues, Suigetsu steps into Sasuke’s line of sight, blocking them from Sasuke’s view entirely. He gives Sasuke a heavy look, making sure that Sasuke meets his gaze before shaking his head. He twists his fingers in their battle code, Stand down.  

Sasuke grits his teeth so hard that he feels a muscle in his cheek jump. He looks carefully away from Rausu, staring out of the window and counting with each breath he takes, fighting the tug of the battle calm with each inhale and exhale. In. Out. Jugo’s grip tightens on his shoulder.

Karin steps forward again. “Counselor Uzumaki,” she calls out, voice syrupy-sweet. “A moment, please.”

Rausu touches Naruto’s elbow lightly, says, Tomorrow, then, and disappears. Naruto turns to Karin, his face carefully blank. Karin doesn’t waste a moment. “I was told you were a lawyer and politician by trade, so I hope you won’t mind me giving you some advice as it pertains to the politics of our northern lands.”

“Karin,” Jugo warns, even as Suigetsu warns in the northern tongue, “Leave it, Karin.”

“I’d be much obliged for any advice,” Naruto says, voice flat with practiced politeness.

Karin smiles, but her expression is without any real humor or warmth. “It would be very helpful to the proceedings at large if you stopped batting your eyelashes at Rausu.”

Karin,” Jugo snarls, his anger bubbling over. He almost never loses his temper, even more so now that he’s a warlord. But Karin has a way of pushing boundaries, testing all the limits until she hits a nerve. Naruto is no different; she has found his weakness—his pride in his work, a career he built so carefully, working twice as hard to prove that he is more than a jinchuuriki, more than the legacy he bears as the son of a Kage, the student of a Commander and future Kage, the godson of a Sannin.

Excuse me?” Naruto snarls. He looks to Tsunade, but Tsunade has a blank look on her face as she watches Karin carefully.

Karin brushes aside Naruto’s anger with just a casual flick of her wrist. “Rausu is trespassing on another man’s property. He’s doing it in public, and you’re not discouraging him. We’re in a closed room now with allies, but if word gets out that Rausu—Betsukai Rausu of all people—stood too close to you without any consequences, Sasuke will be weakened. And if you weaken Sasuke, you weaken Jugo. I can’t allow that.”

Naruto’s chakra crackles dangerously, so vast and so powerful it fills up all the corners of the room. “I am no man’s property,” he bites out. “I am not a thing, or a vessel, or a jinchuuriki. I am—”

“You’re too pretty for your own good, and clearly, you grew up without a mother. Had she been alive, she would have taught you how a man might misunderstand a smile or a look. Rausu is enthralled, and you encourage his fantasies with your behavior, whether you intend to or not. You need to stop,” Karin interrupts, uncaring of Naruto’s anger now, or even Jiraiya’s shell-shocked stare at her brazenness. “Don’t embolden Rausu. He’s heir to the only man who presented any real challenge to Sasuke during the tribal wars.”

Suigetsu moves towards Karin with purpose, but she is unflinching as always. She keeps talking even though Suigetsu grips her upper arm, hard, and pulls her to her feet forcibly. “Men act like fools when they think they’re in love. For all your pride, Naruto, for better or for worse, rumors in the north are that you belong to Uchiha Sasuke. For the sake of the war, at least, act like it.”

“Get her out of here, Suigetsu,” Jugo growls, and now, finally, she steps away, walking towards the door as if it had been her idea all along. Suigetsu holds the door open for her, but she doesn’t immediately leave. Instead, she looks over her shoulder at Naruto with a smile, sugary sweet. “Just lie back and think about Kage and country, Counselor. Who knows, you might even enjoy it.”

Suigetsu pushes her out the room with the sheer bulk of his body, and slams the door shut behind them. The silence that falls in the room after the door closes is stifling even though Suigetsu’s raised voice can be heard just beyond the door. The sound of his words disappear as Suigetsu and Karin get further away. Naruto’s chakra is still a steady thrum, making the air buzz with static.

“Counselor Uzumaki, I apologize,” Jugo says, turning to Naruto. He dips his head in a bow. “She was out of line and—”

“Excuse me,” Naruto bites out, and slams out of the room in a billow of his cloaks.

Jugo gives Jiraiya a pleading look. “I’m sorry, Jiraiya-sama. She was—”

Tsunade holds up a hand, and Jugo falls silent. “Did the Betsukai vote for you in the tribal council?”

Sasuke glances up sharply. She is Senju Tsunade, her grandfather’s true heir. She is able to move past the insult of Karin’s actions to refocus on what’s important. The Betsukai own the lands immediately beyond the Omine Valley, and they’re the Rebun’s closest allies. They’ve pledged hundreds of warriors. They are crucial to this entire war effort, so Jugo included Rausu amongst his party to parlay with Konohagakure.

“Not in the first two rounds of voting because Togichi was also nominated,” Jugo says. “But he conceded to me in the last round and vouched for me.”

Kakashi leans casually against the wall. “Can we count on them?”

For something so important as a war council to be disrupted by something as asinine as—Drama, that’s what it is, Sasuke thinks, and hates himself for compromising Jugo’s command in this way. He will not give Jugo cause to defend his authority to strangers again. “Lord Biratori was elected unanimously,” he interrupts. His Mangekyou is whorling still with his chakra. “The hundred free tribes pledged their allegiance to him. They’ll honor that allegiance.”

Jugo places a hand on Sasuke’s shoulder again, settling him before Sasuke’s impatience can spin completely out of control. “I apologize for Karin’s insult to you and your keep, Jiraiya-sama. She can be…” He trails off, trying to find the proper words. In the end, he settles for the simplest explanation. “There is no authority over the Black Widow, not on this Continent. She tolerates none. She convinced the tribes to gather for a war council. She was only trying to protect me against politics—”

“I understand, Lord Biratori,” Jiraiya says, breaking the tension in the room with his easy forgiveness. “I lived through my godson’s adolescence. This isn’t the first time some idiot hot-head tripped over himself to get Naruto’s attention. There was no harm meant, and there was no harm done. Just high stakes, and as you said, politics.”

Jugo sighs. He seems relieved not to have to talk any more than he already has. “Thank you for understanding.”

Tsunade gives Jugo another smile. “Did you want us to stay, Lord Biratori, or did you want this space for yourself?”

Jugo looks around the room. Now that it has emptied out, it seems almost cavernous. “If you don’t mind?”

“Use it as long as you need,” Tsunade assures him, and leaves the room with Kakashi and Jiraiya flanking her on either side.

When they leave, Jugo folds himself into the chair next to Sasuke with a groan. He looks exhausted, and without an audience, he lets it show. He kicks out his feet, slouches into his chair and rubs at his face tiredly, as if he’s trying to rub out his weariness. “I’m impressed you didn’t slit Rausu’s throat.”

Sasuke shrugs. “Not my place.”

Jugo crosses his arms across his chest. “What happened between you two, Sasuke? You want to talk about it?”

Sasuke feels his Mangekyou make a slow rotation with his pulsing chakra. “I’d like to talk to you about the cavalry formations, sire.”

“Then, talk,” Jugo says, and pulls his chair closer to the table to get to work.

It’s another three hours before Sasuke finishes with Jugo. Suigetsu joins them after a while, and the three of them go through each detail obsessively, from where they’ll have the men form shield walls, to calculating the time it would take for a cart of grains to travel by land to the rear lines. They move pieces around the board over and over again until every time Sasuke blinks, he sees stones behind his eyelids. When the clock on the wall ticks past midnight, Jugo tells them both to go to sleep. “This will keep,” he says, so they part ways: Jugo and Suigetsu to their lodgings downtown reserved for diplomatic parties, and Sasuke—

Towards Naruto’s chakra.

He’s exhausted. He started his day thirty miles outside the walls of Konohagakure, and since reaching the Village, he’s been in meetings all day. He hasn’t had a moment’s peace. All he wants to do is crawl into bed, but the anger and hurt on Naruto’s face had been genuine. He won’t do Naruto the disservice of disrespecting him by not apologizing, not when Karin had so crassly told him, Lie back and think of Kage and Country . He has better manners than that.

So Sasuke counts to ten and stares at the heavy double-doors to the Yondaime’s suites. He could knock. But then the Yondaime would no doubt throw his ass in jail for daring to call on Naruto so late in the night. Instead, Sasuke closes his eyes and thinks, Hideyoshi.

The snake appears at his feet with a yawn so wide it nearly makes his lower jaw dislocate entirely. His fangs are sharp and bright in the tasteful overhead lighting. Sasuke crouches by Hideyoshi and says, “You’re going to hate me for this.”

Hideyoshi tilts his head curiously. His presence in Sasuke’s mind is familiar and comforting. When he puzzles together the reason for Sasuke’s summoning—as a messenger, of all things—his irritation is immediate. He doesn’t reprimand Sasuke, though, because out of all his snakes, Hideyoshi is the most patient. Also, he likes Naruto. “I do this for the Fox-Child, and for the insult he suffered at the hands of the Chakra-Hunter,” he declares. “Make sure you offer him the apology he deserves, Sasuke.”

Hideyoshi vanishes with a pop. Sasuke walks a few feet down the hallway. A full minute passes, and then a second. Five minutes in, Sasuke starts to pace. He’s contemplating knocking on the door and facing the Yondaime’s anger when the door opens and he hears Naruto’s voice, “—just some work in my office that I forgot, Dad. You should go to bed.”

The Yondaime’s voice is far more muffled coming from inside the suites. Naruto responds, “I won’t. I’ll be back soon,” and then, the door is closing.

Sasuke steps out from behind the pillar he’d been hiding behind in case the Yondaime stepped out. Naruto arches an eyebrow at him, and a moment later, Hideyoshi crawls out from the billowing folds of his pajamas and drops to the floor.

Naruto’s pajamas are striped today: a forest-green so bright that even Lee might hesitate to wear it, with citrus-orange stripes going up and down both his pants and shirt. It makes something clench in Sasuke’s stomach to see Naruto like this. The question is out of his mouth before he can help himself. “Where do you find these atrocities to wear, Uzumaki?”

Hideyoshi’s exasperation is bright in Sasuke’s mind. “You’re making this worse,” he warns in a low hiss, and then vanishes with a pop.

Sasuke takes a breath. “What Karin said earlier today—”

“I get it,” Naruto bites out. “I won’t bat my eyelashes at Betsukai Rausu anymore.”

“You can if you want,” Sasuke says, and hates himself for it. There’s an easy way out of this. He just needs to get the words out. “Not that you are. Batting your eyelashes, I mean.” Naruto’s frown is deepening, so Sasuke switches tactics. “I’m trying to apologize. Karin shouldn’t have spoken the way she did.”

“Well, she did,” Naruto deadpans. “Anything else you wanted to say, or can I go back to bed?”

Sasuke clenches his hands into fists, wishing in that moment for the Shodaime’s invisible presence at his shoulder to guide him through this. “I need to protect Jugo’s authority,” he says finally. “I can’t be a liability to him. It’s trivial and it’s insulting to you, but there’s rumors about us, and it can be seen as a sign of weakness or a challenge to me because of who Rausu is—”

Naruto holds up a hand. “I get it, Sasuke,” he repeats, but there’s less anger in his voice now. “We don’t need to talk about this anymore. And you don’t need to talk to Rausu. Or anyone, for that matter. I am capable of doing my goddamn job.”

Sasuke pushes his hands into his pockets, trying to find even footing in the conversation again. “I’m sorry about what Karin said to you. She shouldn’t have disrespected you in that way.”

Naruto shrugs, shifting from one foot to another. “I owe Lord Biratori an apology,” he says finally. “He was trying to be kind, and I was rude to him. If you could convey my apologies to him. I’ll do it myself, of course, but if you could tell him for me, too.”

Naruto and his goddamn guilt complex. “I’ll tell him.”

Naruto nods once, taking a step back. “Good night.”

Sasuke grits his teeth, forces himself to say the words. It’s the least he owes Naruto after all that’s been said and done. Sasuke has to spread his feet shoulder-width apart to ground himself. “If you want, I can ask Karin to spread news that we parted ways. There won’t be any fallout if people know that you don’t—” Love me anymore. “ That there’s nothing between us.”

Sasuke has never met any of Naruto’s boyfriends. Before he returned from Otogakure, he heard that Naruto had been seeing a jounin, but the relationship ended. Once, he’d walked in on Naruto with a chuunin on a mission, but that’s it. He doesn’t know how Naruto behaves around other men, or how he telegraphs his interest to someone. He tries to remember the precise curve of Naruto’s smile when he’d been talking to Rausu. He’d assumed that Naruto was just being polite, smiling with Rausu the way he does with everyone, but Sasuke has lost all rights to Naruto’s time and attention. The least he could do is step out of the way after all the damage that he has done.

Naruto is staring at him with an absolutely blank expression, so Sasuke takes a step back, desperate now to get away from Naruto’s stony silence. “Nevermind. I’ll go. Good night.”  

He rounds on his heels, cursing himself at his utter stupidity, and heads straight for the stairs. He takes them two at a time, and then at the bottom, gets so desperate to get out of the building that he lets his fingers fly into seals.

He lands outside in the Commons and spends a few moments just breathing in the fresh air, smelling the lush scent of blossoming cherry trees. Son of a bitch. He’d anticipated Naruto would move on eventually, but for him to return Rausu’s smile—a Betsukai, of all people—

“Thirty men,” Sasuke mutters to himself. If Orochimaru had given him thirty more men, he would have defeated the Betsukai. Maybe then, the sting of watching Naruto smile at Rausu would be lessened. “Thirty fucking men.”

He sets off in the direction of Suigetsu’s distinctive chakra in hopes of finding Karin with him. He’ll ask Karin to spread the rumors—the truth, for once—so that Naruto will not be judged so harshly for every move he makes. His hunt leads him to a large, elegant mansion overlooking Lake Mori. But Sasuke doesn’t go inside the building. He’s frozen under the streetlamp across the street because there’s another familiar chakra signature inside.


There is no reason for the Commander of Konohagakure’s Joint Forces to have any contact with foreign dignitaries outside of the Tower, certainly no reason for him to be at their lodgings so late in the evening.

Hook, line, and sinker, Hatake, you fucking idiot, Sasuke thinks, and rounds on his heels. His anger is so acute he doesn’t trust himself to do anything but go home. He can talk to Karin tomorrow about putting an end to those asinine rumors about him and Naruto.

And he’ll talk to Kakashi separately, tell him to stay away from Karin because he’s just a man and he doesn’t see the full danger of Karin, enthralled as he is.

Sasuke has never tried to guess at Karin’s actions or motivations, because she’s always ten steps ahead of everyone around her. Now, though, he finds his mind racing. She hates Kakashi, hates him almost as much as she hated Orochimaru. She’ll defeat Kakashi slowly, wrap a web around him so tight that he won’t know he’s caught until it’s too late. Orochimaru’s surprise at Karin’s treachery had been writ large in the widening of his eyes, the thin line of his lips—

Men act like fools, Sasuke reminds himself, when they think they’re in love.

He walks home slowly even though he’s so exhausted he could lie down on any one of the benches he passes and just fall right asleep. The cool air is soothing against his skin after an entire day spent indoors. In the apartment, Itachi’s chakra is a gentle lull, so Sasuke moves quietly through the apartment. He peels off his armor and spends a few cursory minutes under the shower. By the time he crawls into bed with a groan, it’s well past two in the morning.

He pulls the covers over himself and stares up at the ceiling in the darkness. Each time he closes his eyes, he sees Naruto’s smile for Rausu. For all he knows, there is nothing more than a short-lived flare of attraction between them. They’ve gotten to know each other over the past week; no doubt, they’ve become friends. Sasuke has tumbled into bed with people he’s known for a fraction of the time, within an hour even. He can live with Naruto choosing someone else, even if it’s just for a single night or maybe more. He can live with this.

He forces himself to imagine someone else—another man, faceless—who gets to fall asleep next to Naruto dressed in ridiculous pajamas of horrendous colors and patterns. He forces himself to hold that image in his mind (Naruto, in too-big pajamas of green and orange and peach; a man slipping into bed next to Naruto at the end of a long day for a night’s rest, and Naruto smiling—peace, solace, serenity at the end of all days). He forces himself to hold that image for a full count of ten.

He’s nearly breathless by the time he counts, Nine, ten, because the aching mix of anger and disappointment in his chest is so overwhelming that he has to exhale carefully against it. Sasuke knows he’s a good soldier. He always been good at practicing until he’s perfect. He’s learned Kakashi’s swordsmanship, and he’s learned the Nidaime’s taijutsu technique. If he can learn those, he can learn this. He will do this every night until the sting is bearable, until he can breathe through that ache in his gut.

Like fools, Sasuke thinks, and pulls the covers over his head to fall asleep.

Sasuke wakes up to an odd gathering of people in the kitchen: Itachi, Sakura, and Tenten.

Itachi and Sakura greet him with a chorus of: “Good morning, Lord Commander.”

Tenten’s greeting is much milder. “Uchiha. Welcome back.”

Sasuke says hello to Tenten, and greets Itachi with a middle finger. He then pretends to sit in the same seat Sakura is in. She shoves and kicks at him, shrieking with laughter (worth it every single time to make her laugh, Sasuke thinks, unable to hide his own smile), telling him get off her lap, you giant.

Sasuke stands up, frowning. “I didn’t see you there, Haruno,” he deadpans, and Sakura kicks at him again half-heartedly. When Sasuke takes the seat next to Sakura, she rewards him with a loud, smacking kiss against his cheek. “Welcome home, doofus. You want breakfast?”

“Have I ever said no to your cooking?” Sasuke asks, and Sakura gives him a blinding smile. She gets to her feet to put together breakfast for Sasuke and Itachi, who volunteers to consume a second breakfast and gets to his feet to help Sakura.  

Sasuke frowns at Tenten. “Not that I’m not happy to see you, but what are you doing here?”

“She’s our family lawyer,” Itachi says, and arrives a moment later with a mug of steaming coffee for Tenten. He offers her a dimpled smile, which Tenten returns with a smile of her own and a soft, Thank you.

Fuck’s sake, Sasuke thinks, because Itachi is a subdued man on most days, but he had just served Tenten coffee, unprompted, and smiled at her.

“And as your family lawyer,” Tenten says, turning back to Sasuke, nonchalant, almost as if Itachi flirting with her is an everyday occurrence. She draws out a thick manila folder from her handbag. She holds it out for Sasuke. There is page after page of dense paperwork. At the top is an application for Sakura to be officially registered as an Uchiha Clan member, with additional legal jargon that details how she is next-in-line after Itachi to take the Senior Council position reserved for the Uchiha Clan elder.

Sasuke breathes a sigh of relief, glad that he didn’t have to ask Itachi and Sakura for this—they must have known, though, that the last thing Sasuke wants is a tether to Konohagakure. He glances at Sakura and Itachi, who are working side-by-side, familiar and at ease with each other in the kitchen. He wants to say thank you to them for sparing him of this responsibility, but then he realizes just how unnecessary that is. They are family. They knew and they understood without Sasuke saying a single word on the matter.

There are stacks of pages dedicated to the start of a college fund for future Uchiha children, joint bank accounts for emergency funds, explicit instructions on inheritances, power of attorney for medical decisions, and even several documents on what to do with an Uchiha body in event that another Uchiha is unavailable to perform the proper rites. There are pages and pages and pages of documents—Itachi’s and Sakura's doing, Sasuke knows. They are two of the most obsessive people he knows; no doubt, they even enjoyed getting all the Clan's ducks in order.

Sasuke heaves a sigh. Apparently, while he was gone, Itachi had also hired a family lawyer. Who he enjoys flirting with.

Fan-fucking-tastic. “Do we have to do this now?”

Tenten smiles at him. “Rumors are it’s the end of the world. No better time to do this than right this moment.”

Sasuke wants to point out that if the world is ending, there really is no point in establishing a college fund for future Uchiha children. But Itachi is watching him with such intensity that it’s not worth the argument. He takes the pen she’s holding out for him and signs, initials, signs, initials, signs and initials on each page until it feels as if the words are blurring in front of him. When he’s finished, Tenten begins to double-check the paperwork.  

“Speaking of the end of the world, I’ve been thinking,” Sakura says from the kitchen. I’ve been thinking is always Sakura’s way of saying that she’s been obsessing, so Sasuke holds his peace. “Why would he end the world? Madara will end with it. It makes no sense.”

Sasuke glances at Tenten, who only arches an eyebrow at him. “I have clearance, Uchiha,” she says. “And I’ve heard this theory of hers already.”

“I’m saying it doesn’t make sense,” Sakura continues, talking more to herself as she chops vegetables with vigor and gestures with her knife to punctuate her words. “Why end the world, if you’ll end with it?”

“He’s insane,” Tenten points out. “It doesn’t have to make sense. I’ve tried two cases where the defendant took the insanity plea. That’s the definition of insanity. None of it has to make sense.”

“Yes, it does,” Sakura insists. The pan sizzles as Itachi adds the vegetables and eggs; at his side, Sakura starts to season absentmindedly. “I don’t think he’s clinically insane. He doesn’t fit the bill for any of the diagnoses. He doesn’t act like a paranoid schizophrenic.”

A few moments later, she sets a plate of food in front of Sasuke and Itachi, who settles to dig into his second meal of the day.

Sasuke takes a bite and sighs with satisfaction. “This is good.”

Sakura doesn’t even acknowledge the compliment. “He doesn’t sound like someone with a personality disorder. He sounds narcissistic, but that’s not unusual among high-level shinobi. There’s nothing to suggest that—”

“Are you profiling Madara?” Itachi asks around a mouthful.

“Someone ought to profile him, preferably an actual profiler at SCI,” Sakura grumbles under her breath. “The problem is that our strategy is only reactive. We’re not able to predict what he’s going to do, so we’re always two steps behind. We don’t even know what motivates him.”

“Revenge,” Tenten answers easily. “He wasn’t elected Kage so—”

“He’s not a child,” Sakura interrupts sternly. “Even the most petulant toddler will get over something like that. He’s been at this for over a century now. There’s a bigger prize at the end of this.”

“He never trusted me enough to tell me,” Itachi says. He chews carefully on a bite of eggs. “Tenten, are you sure you don’t want breakfast? Sakura is a good cook.”

Sasuke knows he’s staring, but he can’t help himself because Tenten turns to him with a smile again and says, “No, thank you, Itachi. Another time, maybe.”

“Another time,” Itachi promises, and gives Tenten a smile so wide Sasuke can’t classify it as anything but a grin. He can’t even remember the last time he saw his brother grinning at a girl.

Oh for the love of—“You’re fucking kidding me,” Sasuke grumbles. First Kakashi, and now Itachi. Before he can say anything, Sakura kicks him so viciously under the table that he curses. It’s all the confirmation he needs.

Tenten is the one who breaks the awkward silence that follows. “I should get going,” she announces.

“You have to leave?” Itachi asks. He doesn’t even bother to hide the fact that he is disappointed.

“I have a mission tonight, so I need to get all my casework done before I leave,” Tenten says, and sounds genuinely regretful about the whole prospect. She gives Itachi another smile—not her usual sharp smirk, but something softer, private. Itachi returns it with a small, lopsided smile of his own, his right cheek dimpling with it.

Sasuke feels embarrassed for them. He’s embarrassed for everyone because it’s almost like they’re trespassing on a private moment between Tenten and Itachi.

Itachi walks Tenten to the door, and Sasuke and Sakura both lean in their chairs to watch Itachi and Tenten linger in the doorway and dance around the most protracted, inane goodbye that Sasuke has ever seen. Sakura is nearly scrambling over Sasuke to get a good look, and Sasuke can’t blame her because their goodbye is truly absurd. Itachi says, I’ll see you when you get back , and Tenten reassures him it’s only a protective detail, Nothing I can’t handle , and Itachi says, Of course, I didn’t mean to imply you couldn’t, I only meant —which Tenten rushes to interrupt with, But I’ll see you when I get back?

“You will,” Itachi promises, and finally, the moment is over. The front door closes behind Tenten. Itachi stands still for a moment with his hand curled around the doorknob. By the time he turns around, Sakura and Sasuke are seated upright again: Sasuke is eating his food, and Sakura is perusing the day’s newspaper with perfect nonchalance—as if, just a moment ago, she hadn’t been climbing over Sasuke to better eavesdrop on Itachi and Tenten.

Itachi sits down and returns to his food serenely.

Sasuke can’t help himself. This isn’t Itachi’s casual interest; he’s seen that before, and that involves nothing more than small talk before he whisks the woman away to someplace more private. This is far more serious; this is Itachi with a crush. “Smooth, Brother. Real smooth.”

Itachi puts down his utensils with a loud clatter. His Mangekyou is whorling, but he’s blushing a furious shade of red. “You’re one to talk,” he snarls. “At least I don’t make an ass out of myself in front of high command like you do every time Naruto walks into a room.”

Sakura interrupts them before they can start an argument. “Could we please focus on the undead Mangekyou and the end of the world?” When she’s convinced that she has Itachi’s and Sasuke’s attention, Sakura sits back in her chair, chewing on her bottom lip the way she does when she’s stewing over a particularly stubborn puzzle. “How do you explain Zetsu’s actions?”

“Because he realized just how fucking insane Madara is, and he doesn’t want to get trapped in another realm when shit hits the fan,” Sasuke says. “The world is ending, Sakura. We stop Madara, we can stop Madara finding the Gedo and unleashing Shinju, and we can stop the apocalypse. That’s all there is to it.”

“No, it doesn’t make sense,” Sakura insists, tapping her finger in an off-kilter rhythm on the table. “We’re missing something.”

“Who knows,” Itachi offers. “Maybe his Mangekyou can sustain his body forever, even after the end of the world.”

Sakura’s finger stops moving on the table. She turns her gaze to Itachi, frowning. “What did you say?”

“He technically is immortal,” Itachi explains, too busy with his food to notice Sakura’s careful consideration of his words. Sasuke has seen this expression on Sakura’s face before, so he knows what it means. She’s close to figuring something out.

“No, no,” Sakura breathes, sitting forward in her chair. “What you said earlier—”

“Maybe his Mangekyou can sustain his body forever, even after the end of the world,” Sasuke parrots for Sakura’s benefit.

Sakura’s mouth drops open. “It’s eternal. It’s not a transplant. It’s one laid on top of another without issues of graft rejection because of the genetic similarities,” she breathes, sounding awed. She’s looking intently between Itachi and Sasuke, but there are too many disjointed sentences for them to follow her logic. “That’s why he murdered his own brother.”

“He’s a psychopath, Sakura,” Itachi points out. He’s gone stiff in his own chair. “He has no qualms killing his kin.”

“No, but there was a reason for it,” Sakura whispers and gets hurriedly to her feet. She heads straight for Itachi’s bedroom, throwing over her shoulder, “I need to go through the Clan scrolls in your room, Itachi—your turn to do dishes, Sasuke!” The door slams shut behind her.

Itachi frowns. “What’s gotten into her?”

Sasuke weighs his options. When Sakura is in one of her moods, there isn’t much to do but stay quiet and give her the space and time to solve the puzzle in her head. And besides, Sasuke doesn’t want to ruin his day contemplating the murder and bloodshed that has haunted his Clan since Madara was born into it. He started a cycle of death, and it has not stopped since. He doesn’t want Itachi to have the reminder of it so early in the morning; his brother has had that burden for long enough. For now, Sasuke wants Itachi to enjoy his damn eggs.

Sasuke takes a large bite of his food. It’s layered with cheese and vegetables and bits of bacon, so far out of his usual diet that it’s almost too decadent for Sasuke. “It’s the end of the world,” he says around a mouthful. “You really going to waste those eggs?”

A small furrow appears between Itachi’s eyebrows. “No,” he says, solemn, and gets back to the task of eating.

It’s more of the same in the war council. They talk endlessly, and within the hour, Sasuke’s mind is saturated with details. There’s a low thrum of a headache at the base of his skull, and it’s made worse because every time Karin and Kakashi get into another argument, he’s reminded of all the other asinine things he has to deal with: Kakashi and his idiocy, Karin’s motives, and—

Naruto, who is seamlessly drawing a firm line with Rausu. He’s only made mild adjustments in his behavior: he still smiles at Rausu, but his eyes drift away quickly; he lets Rausu stand close, but he turns his body away just a fraction. And when it’s time for their lunch break—there is an official gathering with some Konohagakure politicians to smooth the process of the treaty signing—Naruto eases into the space by Sasuke’s right. He leans close enough that Sasuke can feel the heat of his body. “Why call them a ghost-army?” Naruto asks in a low voice.

Sasuke takes a small, careful step sideways, trying to place distance between himself and Naruto. He knows what Naruto is trying to do; he’s trying to prove to Rausu and the other northerners that the rumors about them have merit. But this charade stings more than the careful indifference Naruto regards him with these days.

“They march through towns and don’t raid for food or supplies,” Sasuke explains, keeping his eyes glued to the map in front of him. “The farmers only know the army has marched through their fields the next day when they find their crops flattened.”

Naruto leans into his space again, and tilts his face up, forcing Sasuke to meet his gaze. “Are they actual ghosts?” he asks, voice pitched low so that it’s mostly a whisper.

Sasuke is unable to look away. The night before he’d laid awake in his bed and forced himself to imagine another man standing this close to Naruto. Now, with Naruto standing so near, it’s so easy for his mind to imagine himself with that right. Count, for fuck’s sake. Count.

“Seeing as you’re the resident expert on the supernatural,” Naruto continues. “What are we dealing with here?”

“Ghosts aren’t solid. They float through walls so they don’t make for very good soldiers,” Sasuke answers, and feels idiotic the moment he says the words.

Naruto smiles, and it’s the smile he gave Rausu the day before. But it’s not intended for him at all, just the audience around them.

Sasuke takes a jerking step away from Naruto, nearly running into Suigetsu at his side. “Excuse me, Counselor,” he says stiffly, and forces himself to walk out the room as calmly as he can manage. He walks and keeps walking and doesn’t stop until he’s staring at a set of familiar double doors.

He knocks just once before stepping inside. The Yondaime and Sarutobi are surprised to see him. They both have their sleeves rolled up and are drawing sigils in ink. The entire dining table is covered with large sheets of blank paper; there is an entire stack of used pages on the ground next to them.

“Don’t you have lunch with Tsunade and the northern delegation?” the Yondaime asks with a frown. There are smudges of ink on his left cheek. He’s stripped down to just his long-sleeves for this task, so he looks nothing like a Kage. He looks like a jounin, as young as Kakashi.

“Is everything all right, Sasuke?” Sarutobi asks, getting to his feet.

“Everything’s fine,” Sasuke mutters. “I just needed a break.” He walks carefully around the large dining table, observing the sigils. He doesn’t understand or recognize any of the runes incorporated into the seals. “What are you doing?”

“The Otsutsuki seal,” the Yondaime says with a groan. He rubs at his eyes with the heels of his palm. “I’ve been working on this for hours. How are the strategy sessions coming along?”

The strategy sessions are endless and mind-numbing. But there are six thousand men and women under his command now; Sasuke will do his job if it kills him. “They’re fine,” he says, and glances around the room. “Where are the others?”

“Hashirama-sama is meditating, and Tobirama-sensei is on the balcony,” Sarutobi answers, watching Sasuke with a frown.  

The Yondaime peers carefully at Sasuke’s face. “You sure everything’s fine?”

Your son doesn’t love me anymore, Sasuke thinks. But that’s not something he can say to Namikaze Minato. Instead, Sasuke repeats, “I just needed a break.” He heads for the balcony before Sarutobi or the Yondaime can press him for details.

The Nidaime is sitting on the ground, leaning against the railings. There are balcony chairs laid out under a table with an umbrella, but the Nidaime seems content where he is. His feet are stretched out in front of him as he reads from an old, worn book and smokes a cigar. But the detail that makes Sasuke frown is not the fact that the Nidaime is wearing dark-blue Konohagakure sweatpants and an undershirt and sunglasses, but that he’s barefoot.

The Nidaime glances at him with a grin. Even with the sunglasses, Sasuke can imagine the crinkles around his eyes. “Aren’t you supposed to be rubbing elbows with politicians right now?”

Jugo had threatened bodily harm on Sasuke if he didn’t show up for lunch because this is their last true gathering before the northern delegation heads back north. It’s an official event, the kind that required Sasuke to wear his full armor today. But lunch also involves making small talk with representatives from the Senior Council—and Danzo, that creepy motherfucker—along with Senators on important committees that control the budget for any war that Tsunade wants to wage. By all accounts, Sasuke should be posturing with Jugo to reassure the politicians of Konohagakure about the alliance and the war.

Sasuke eyes the patio furniture. He unbuckles his sword, battle-axe, and kunai pouch. He strips off most of his armor and lays it out carefully on the patio table until he’s wearing just his undershirt and pants. And then—why the fuck not—he takes off his shoes and socks so he’s barefoot too. The ground is warm under his feet.

The Nidaime gives him a wry smile when Sasuke settles next to him. He looks impossibly young with the sunglasses. Sasuke points to the Nidaime’s shades. “Where’d you get those?”

“Kid, I’m a founding father of this country,” the Nidaime says, giving him a toothy grin. “If I want sunglasses and a fruity alcoholic drink with a little umbrella in it, I get it.” For added effect, the Nidaime gestures at the row of empty cocktail glasses on the patio table. There are little umbrellas in each and every single one of them. He’s been at it for a while, it seems, although there’s nothing about the Nidaime to suggest he’s four drinks in.

Sasuke raises an eyebrow. “Having fun?”

The Nidaime shrugs. “I can’t get drunk.”

“So if you can’t get drunk and don’t need to drink, why drink?” Sasuke asks, and the Nidaime hm-s under his breath.

“They’ve made some advances in mixing cocktails since I died. Having electric-powered blenders has helped considerably,” he says. He studies Sasuke’s face for a moment before asking, “What’s wrong?”

“The job is shit,” Sasuke answers easily. He’s only ever led a small band of eighty men. Now, he has six thousand. Now, he has to stand in a room and pretend to be Hatake Kakashi’s equal. And why? Because he is Jugo’s blood-brother, and Jugo is his. “Fucking nepotism.”

“Don’t be stupid,” the Nidaime mutters under his breath. “You think my brother made me his commander because of nepotism?”

“The Shodaime made you his commander because you’re Senju Tobira—”

“For fuck’s sake, why do people always talk about me like I’m a goddamn fairy tale?” the Nidaime grumbles, shutting his book close with a snap. He looks at Sasuke, expression unreadable behind his sunglasses. “I was your age when my brother made me Commander. He trusted me to do the job and frankly, there was no one else stupid enough to go up against demons, so I stepped up to the fucking plate. Jugo trusts you, so you’ll do the same.”

“Orochimaru never trusted me with more than eighty men to command,” Sasuke points out. “If I asked for more, he always sent someone else to take over.”

“He probably thought you were too dangerous to give more than eighty men,” the Nidaime says easily. “And you were a fucking teenager, Sasuke. I wouldn’t trust you with more than eighty men, no matter how much of a boy wonder you are on the battlefield.”

Boy wonder? Sasuke ignores the insult and tries to make his point again. “That was just a few years ago. Eighty men half a decade ago, and six thousand now.”

The Nidaime dismisses his concern with a casual wave of his hand. “You weren’t properly trained back then. Throwing you into a war was one way of sharpening your skills, but you’ve got the proper instruction now. You are a born and bred warrior, kid. It’s in your blood. It’s your instinct.”

Sasuke stares at his hands. His calluses from wielding swords and kunai and shuriken are beyond redemption now, even though every now and then, Sakura will go through and shave off some of the dead skin carefully with a scalpel. He may have been born and raised in Konohagakure, but he spent the most important years of his life in the Land of Rice Fields, fighting a war. He was a child when he joined as a foot soldier, on the cusp of his teens; by the time he hit his first growth spurt, he was leading troops in battle and marching across the land. He grew up in a war. He got a foot taller, and a hundred pounds heavier. Mrs. Oonishi handed Sasuke his first drink after his first battle, and it was in Otogakure that he learned how to drink and keep drinking until the world got hazy and bearable. He got his first ink from a Yanaizu tattoo artist after he defeated the Kamisunagawa in open battle. He lost his virginity in the trenches to an Aizubange warrior. He doesn’t remember her name because he had been so roaring drunk that night. He learned to ride into war, found out that he was good at it, and just kept going because he wasn’t sure what else to do with himself—surely someone would kill him in battle, and put him out of his fucking misery.

No one did. What ended up happening was that Sasuke became intimately familiar with the grime and squalor of battle, the resistance of a body when he pushed a sword into it. When he dragged Orochimaru’s body back to Konohagakure, he was hoping to leave that body count behind.

And now?

“Jugo’s asking me to lead men who I fought against. I conquered their lands. I murdered their kin for no reason at all. I was just…following orders.” He was following Orochimaru, a man so perverted in his malice that there was nothing human left of him. “There was no honor in what I did.”

The Nidaime’s voice is quiet when he speaks. “It’s not murder when it’s on a battlefield, Sasuke. It’s the job.” He pauses a beat, and adds, voice quieter still, barely a whisper, “There isn’t always honor in war.”

“No,” Sasuke agrees. “I guess you just learn to live with what you’ve made of your name.”

The Nidaime jostles him lightly in the ribs with an elbow, drawing Sasuke’s attention back towards him. “My father gave me my name when I was born. It’s just a name. I made my legacy. You will too.”

“Is this your attempt at a pep talk?” Sasuke asks. The Nidaime is clear and precise when it comes to their training sessions, but sometimes, the man can talk in circles and make no sense at all.

The Nidaime smiles, but there’s something strained about it. “I sometimes think that if I met you before I wrote the Wildfire Contingency, the world might not be ending today.”  

Sasuke’s eyes track down to the Nidaime’s toes. It’s such an innocuous detail, but it draws his gaze. Senju Tobirama has toes. He’s heard the Nidaime wax poetic about the art of brewing beer, and that one time he got high as a kite and ended up eating through their entire food supply, and Brother was so pissed! But here sits the man—Senju Tobirama—saying, I made my legacy, while bouncing his bare feet to a nonsensical rhythm.

Sasuke stares at the scar running around the Nidaime’s right ankle when he asks the question. “You and the Shodaime are getting tired, aren’t you?”

The Nidaime’s foot goes still. He curls his toes, and then uncurls them again. “It’s that obvious?”

"To me, it is," Sasuke admits. Once, the Nidaime had promised Sasuke, You have us. Sasuke had begged Rin to kill him, and scorched an entire acre of earth in his desperation to die. Afterwards, the Nidaime had looked him in the eyes and promised him, We’ve got your back. So now, Sasuke holds the Nidaime’s gaze and asks, “Are you in pain?”

The Nidaime’s lips quirk up in a smile. “No,” he says, quiet. “Just tired.”

“Do you sleep?”

The Nidaime shakes his head lightly. “Something like sleeping,” he mutters, taking off his glasses to rub a hand over his face. “My mind wanders in this space between waking and sleeping, and I open my eyes thinking I can feel my heart beating in my chest.”

Sasuke takes a deep breath. “When Rin took me to that place to give me life, I was trapped in between realms. I spent a little over four months there the first time. Over eight months the second time.” The sun is slanting across the sky so that both Sasuke and the Nidaime are both directly in the path of its rays. Sasuke covers the tattoo of Rin on his neck instinctively. Stubborn, there’s no other word for her. She’d refused, time and again, to let him go on his way. Whatever happens with Madara, Rin cannot stand against his death a third time. “I can feel it sometimes. It’s in my bones. My soul’s been corrupted, and I can feel it.” The words come out as a whisper; it leaves Sasuke nearly breathless from admitting the truth of it. He’s never said it aloud, but he’s never kept a secret from the Nidaime before. He doesn’t intend to start now. “Is that happening to you?”

The Nidaime clenches his jaw so tight it makes a muscle in his cheek jump. He holds Sasuke’s gaze steady for a long moment, and then nods his head just once. “Brother, too, I think. But he doesn’t tell me.”

Sasuke has to swallow on the bile rising in his throat. He doesn’t want the Shodaime and the Nidaime to suffer through what he did. He doesn’t want the Yondaime and Sarutobi’s final waking memories to be of that sickening dread. They’re stuck between realms, as Sasuke had been for all those months. “You don’t have to stay,” Sasuke offers. “You and the Shodaime—”

“We have to,” the Nidaime interrupts quietly. “We should’ve put an end to Madara a long time ago. We failed. We have to correct our mistakes. Minato won’t leave until Naruto is safe, and Hiruzen won’t leave Minato behind, no matter how tired he gets.”

There’s no point arguing with the Nidaime, not when his face looks as if it’s carved out of stone. This is the Nidaime’s war, and even though he’s not in the war council or the battlefield, this is a fight he intends to finish. “After Madara, then,” he promises. He doesn’t finish his sentence. I will lay you down to sleep.

The Nidaime’s shoulders slump with obvious relief. “After Madara,” he agrees. He watches Sasuke’s face carefully for a few moments. “What will you do after this is over?”

Sasuke shrugs, but it feels stiff. “I think Brother wants to stay. He had me sign papers today about the line of succession for Clan Elder and college funds for the next generation. Sakura is definitely shacking up with Lee, and she's family now, so if she stays, that's even more reason for Brother to stay. Sakura and Itachi are probably going to start looking for property soon for the Clan. And now Brother’s flirting with Tenten. Who the fuck knows where that’s going—”

“I didn’t ask about Sakura or your brother, Sasuke,” the Nidaime interrupts quietly. He’s watching Sasuke with a small frown. “What are you going to do?”

Sasuke has gotten used to waking up every day and having his brother by his side—shuffling miserably out of his room and fumbling for his first cup of coffee; scowling at breakfast and asking why, in the name of all the gods above, can’t we have cheese, Sasuke? Eggs demand cheese; filling out his Sunday crossword puzzle with a pen because pencils are for losers who make mistakes; giving Sasuke a dimpled smile across the basketball court; settling into the couch next to Sasuke at the end of a long day and playing a round of rock, paper, scissors to decide who gets to pick the movie.

Itachi eats as if he’s working towards a heart attack at forty, as if the only relevant food groups are junk food, pastries, beer, and cheese on everything because he can’t cook for shit. Someone will have to make sure he eats a vegetable every now and then.

Sasuke could spend the rest of his life being Itachi’s brother and that would be enough. He can imagine Itachi getting old, with gray in his hair and crow’s feet around his eyes. He imagines Itachi with children, with grandchildren—peace and solace after a lifetime of war. That is all Sasuke wants for Itachi; he will fight to make sure Itachi has it. One day, his brother will settle into the role of Clan Elder as he was born to do—as Yashiro knew the moment Itachi blinked open his eyes and stared curiously at the world from the gentle cradle of Mikoto’s arms—and people will stand out of respect.

But Sasuke? Sasuke closes his eyes at the end of each day and still remembers walking towards the horizon across rolling plains and blistering sand dunes. He remembers sleeping under a blanket of stars and feeling a cool breeze drifting down from the mountainside, looking up at the sky and seeing—

Crystal-blue eyes fringed with thick lashes, and cupid’s bow lips curling into a soft smile, telling him, I love you.

“I don’t know,” Sasuke admits finally.

The Nidaime stretches out both his legs, crossing one over the other to get more comfortable. “What about Naruto?”

Sasuke can’t look at the Nidaime when he answers, so he doesn’t. He looks towards the Yondaime, visible through the glass doors leading to the balcony. He’s painting seals with a brush, Sarutobi at his right, the two of them talking earnestly. The Shodaime has joined them, and he’s watching the proceedings carefully. “He said he doesn’t want to love me anymore.”

The Nidaime lets the silence rest between them for a few moments. When he speaks again, his voice is back to being loud. “You know what you need?” Sasuke raises an eyebrow at the Nidaime because he knows the man well enough to recognize a rhetorical question. “A smoke,” the Nidaime says with great determination, and gets to his feet. Sasuke has no choice but to follow the Nidaime to the balcony furniture. The Nidaime reaches towards a small lacquered box on one of the chairs, hidden from view. He snaps open the box with a flourish and Sasuke can’t help but smile at what he sees inside: Cigars.

“You ever have one?” the Nidaime asks, and when Sasuke shakes his head, he talks Sasuke through the process. He tells Sasuke what to look for in a good cigar, how to store them to preserve the leaf, how to clip off the end, and how to light it with a match—none of your katon tricks, you hear. He shows Sasuke first how to breathe the cigar to life, eyes crinkling in approval when Sasuke replicates him perfectly. “Well?”

Sasuke breathes deeply. He’s so used to cheap cigarettes that the heft of the cigar in his fingers and the richness of the smoke is almost overwhelming. “You held out on me, Senju,” Sasuke points out. “You should’ve shared this gift with me sooner.”

The Nidaime leans against the balcony railing to look out at the Village. “I should have,” he admits. “If I don’t teach you how to smoke like a man, no one will.”

Sasuke has to concede to his logic. “Who taught you?”

“Senju Butsuma,” the Nidaime intones with exaggerated seriousness. At Sasuke’s confused expression, he clarifies, “My father. Brother doesn’t smoke much, and my younger brothers were young when they died, so it was just me to enjoy the small things in life.”

Sasuke tries not to stare at the Nidaime but mostly fails. He’d always assumed that the Shodaime and Nidaime were the only Senju siblings, but—younger brothers, the Nidaime said, too casually. He’s missing pieces.

Sasuke isn’t sure how he’s missed it all this time. He and Itachi are missing pieces too, the negative space contorting in the silence around them where Shisui should be but isn’t. Tomomi was still an idea, but with Sakura in their lives now, her absence is becoming more pronounced. With Sakura as a blueprint, Sasuke can imagine how a sister could have fit into both their lives.  

“How many were you?”

“Four. There were two after me,” the Nidaime answers. “Itama and Kawarama.”

I’m sorry is what most people say, Sasuke knows, but the grief of a brother lost can’t be countered with such trite words. Instead, Sasuke holds his peace and waits for the Nidaime to break the silence when he’s ready.

It’s a few more minutes before the Nidaime speaks again. He returns to the original bone he was picking, because the Nidaime is tenacious if nothing else, especially if it means avoiding talking about himself. “So it’s over with Naruto?”

“I fucked it up. It’s what it is now,” Sasuke admits. It makes something in his gut clench to admit it aloud, but he’s getting better at it now. He can learn to live with this. But still, the sting is still fresh. He takes another deep breath of the cigar and on the exhale, adds, “A fucking Betsukai, though.”

The Nidaime gives him a sidelong glance, so Sasuke tells the Nidaime about his two miserable campaigns against the Betsukai, about Betsukai Togichi, that wily son of a bitch, and now his son, Rausu, that pup. Thirty men, he tells the Nidaime, that’s all I needed to win. And now Betsukai goddamn Rausu is making Naruto smile. “It’s not my business,” Sasuke insists. “It’s not my place, but of all the goddamn people, Naruto smiles at Betsukai Rausu.”

“Naruto smiled at him,” the Nidaime deadpans.

“It was obvious to anyone who was looking what that motherfucker Betsukai was—”

“Naruto smiled at Rausu,” the Nidaime repeats. “For fuck’s sake, Sasuke, you’re going to have to sit through Naruto’s wedding one day. You can’t even watch him smile at another man? Get a grip, kid.”

“I’m not going to the wedding,” Sasuke snaps. 

The Nidaime scoffs as he looks away. “I did,” he mutters under his breath, gaze focusing on the far horizon where the wall rises to its full height, blocking the view of the redwoods beyond.

It takes a moment for Sasuke to connect the dots. It’s the careful way the Nidaime is holding himself, the way he’s staring off into the distance. I was a coward once, the Nidaime said, and Sasuke has always wondered what kind of woman could leave a man like Senju Tobirama look so brittle. “What was her name?”

The Nidaime closes his eyes and inhales, deep and steady. On the exhale, he says her name, careful, so very gentle, like the name itself is precious: “Naori.”

Sasuke goes absolutely still. He’s seen that name on the dragon stone. According to the Clan records, she died in old age after stepping into the position of Clan Elder once Uchiha Izuna passed. She was Izuna’s and Madara’s half-sister; Sasuke is a direct descendent of Uchiha Naori. It’s a unique name, but he still has to ask to make sure. “My great-great grandmother’s name was Naori.”

The Nidaime nods, still not making eye contact with Sasuke. He is scanning the horizon, but Sasuke wonders if he’s really seeing any of the details of the Village laid out below them. “Like I said, just a few different choices on my part and...who knows what this world would look like right now.”

Sasuke knows he should hold his silence, but he can’t, not when the Nidaime looks so brittle. “You made the choices you made given the circumstances you were in,” Sasuke argues, trying to lighten the weight the Nidaime is obviously carrying. He doesn’t say the specifics of the circumstances, though, because they are endless: who she was, who she was related to, what Madara did to the Shodaime, the war, the Wildfire Contingency. “You couldn’t be with her.”

“It’s not that I couldn’t. I didn’t,” the Nidaime corrects him gently. “I could have, but I didn’t. I chose not to. That’s the thing, Sasuke. It’s a goddamn choice. A man has to choose, and I didn’t.”

The Nidaime has never talked about something as personal as this. Over the months and years they’ve known each other, Sasuke has learned the Nidaime’s moods and his temper. He’s learned the Nidaime’s favorite songs, food, and books. He’s intimately familiar with all the Nidaime’s pet peeves—tardiness, disobedience, a kitchen without at least one decent bottle of whiskey—but never something personal like this. Sasuke can’t help himself. He asks, “Why not?”

“I was a coward,” the Nidaime answers. It’s not the first time he has said this. He’s said it to Sasuke over and over again, every time Sasuke hesitated to turn to Naruto. Don’t be a coward, he’d cajole, I was. “I watched her fall in love with another man, and then I watched her marry him. I went to the wedding. I had to. I thought, if I watch her walk down the aisle, I could finally learn to live with it, but—” The Nidaime’s hand clenches into a fist, and he stops talking. It’s a long moment before he gathers his thoughts again. “At least, I passed before she did.” He gestures widely to encompass the Village spread out before them. “Years fighting to keep all of this safe. What would be the point without her being in it?”

The words come tumbling out before Sasuke can stop himself. “How bad was it?” The Nidaime gives him a curious look, so Sasuke elaborates, “Watching her be with someone else.”

The Nidaime smiles. “That’s one thing I don’t have to teach you, kid,” he says, but there’s no humor in his voice. Sasuke regrets asking the question now, because the Nidaime’s earlier mirth has vanished entirely. Tired. He looks goddamn exhausted. “You’ll be fine, though,” the Nidaime promises, almost as if he’s talking to himself. “You ship out tomorrow?”

Sasuke has marched to war so often that he doesn’t stop to consider what the march tomorrow will mean. He will march north with Jugo and the other northerners and set up a new hidden village at the mouth of the Omine Valley to box Madara in. Kakashi will follow with his army, and they will finally attack. When they capture Madara alive, they will return him to Konohagakure and then…

Boar seal to finish, that’s what Pakkun told him.

“Yeah. We leave early tomorrow.”

“Make sure you diversify your attack sequences,” the Nidaime says thoughtfully. It’s a slight weakness in his defense. Not significant, but enough that it might lead to trouble against a certain caliber of opponents. Like Kakashi or Itachi. Or Madara. Sharingan users, all of them. “When you pivot on your left heel, watch how you overpronate. It could be leveraged against you to unbalance you.”

Sasuke is used to this level of instruction. The Nidaime is a perfectionist, and they are at a stage in their training that the Nidaime nitpicks the precise angle that his heel strikes the ground. Most days, Sasuke will absorb all the criticisms and work on them for their next training session. Today, though, he looks at the Nidaime and realizes—

There will be no more training sessions.

“—the issue isn’t precision. Your technique will constantly evolve, so there will be constant need for modifications,” the Nidaime is saying. He stops, abrupt, and frowns at Sasuke. “Something on my face?”

“No.” Sasuke can’t find the words to make light of the situation and point it out. He just stares at the Nidaime, and keeps staring, watching for the small movements of his body so he can capture the details: the precise hue of the tattoos on the man’s face, the furrow of his brows, the line of his jaw.

“The fuck, kid, quit staring,” the Nidaime grouses. “If something’s on my face, the polite thing to do is tell me about it.”

“I’m just zoning out,” Sasuke says, and the lie falls flat. The Nidaime gives him a lopsided smile, leaning into him lightly to jostle him with an elbow.

“Quit worrying, kid,” he offers. “You've got this.”  

The thing to do is move on from this conversation, but Sasuke can’t look away from the weariness in the Nidaime’s gaze. “I’ll end this quickly,” he promises.

The Nidaime carefully inspects his cigar, although there’s nothing to see there. “Make sure you do,” he says, voice just a low, rumbling whisper now. “Brother hasn’t been sleeping well. And Minato is…It’s getting hard for him. Hiruzen, too.”

Tired, all of them. “And you?”

“It’ll be worse when you’re off fighting the war. The waiting will be worse,” the Nidaime says, evading the question entirely. He straightens from his slouch against the balcony railings. In an instant, he’s just as unyielding as the carving on the mountain behind him. “We’re not used to sitting on the sidelines.”

“I’ll be back soon,” Sasuke promises. “I’ll be back with Madara, alive. We’ll end this.”

The Nidaime considers Sasuke carefully. “If you don’t want to do this, Pakkun will.”

He has had the ghosts by his side for so long that it’s instinct now to wake up from nightmares and seek out the Shodaime. He can sometimes feel the phantom press of the Shodaime’s hand against his forehead, hear his voice say, Just a dream, son. He hears the Nidaime’s voice in his head when he wakes up in the morning for his run;

To your feet, the Nidaime would say when Sasuke was at his worst and could barely open his eyes for his aching to just yield to his grief and lie down to never wake again. Rise, to your feet.

He owes them this. He will help them find their peace at the end of their long, weary years. He knows what it is to be trapped between realms, and he will ease them from that suffering. It is the least he can do. “And miss the chance to say that I killed Senju Tobirama?” he asks, giving the Nidaime a sharp grin. It feels as if his muscles are frozen in place; it almost hurts to smile. “Like hell.”

The Nidaime’s smile is sharp and bright as always. Sasuke lets his Mangekyou whorl to life so he can memorize it. “Now that’s just downright rude,” the Nidaime says with a laugh. He glances towards the other ghosts through the glass of the door. “Looks like Brother ordered food for you.”

Sasuke follows the Nidaime’s gaze and sees that the Shodaime has cleared off the dining table to make room for copious amounts of food. They both step back inside together, and for the first time in a long time, the five of them sit down for a meal. They watch him eat, and as always, they talk while they do, falling into a familiar, easy banter. When Sasuke finishes clearing off his plate, the ghosts linger instead of getting back to work. Tired, all of them, Sasuke realizes. He knows that weariness.

“Why are the northerners insisting on heading before Kakashi and his troops?” the Yondaime asks.

Sasuke leans forward to grab a handful of blueberries from the plate in the middle. No desserts in his nutrition plan means he relies almost entirely on berries for his sugar fix. “We need to set up Otogakure.”

Sarutobi looks unconvinced. “You intend to raise up an entire hidden village in just a few days?”

“Two days, at most,” Sasuke says with a shrug. “It’s the north. All the tribes are nomadic, so they’re used to it.”

Sarutobi hm-s under his breath. “It should be quite the sight to behold.”

“It will be,” Sasuke says. “The north is…” He trails off, trying and failing to find the right words.

The Shodaime smiles. “The north is?”

It takes a few stuttering attempts, but Sasuke eventually manages to tell them about the vast rolling plains, the swollen blue sky, the mountain peaks and the powerful rivers. The scent of pine on the breeze, he says, and explains to them the feeling of walking through the Birchwood forests as the seasons turn, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the crispness of the air. He even tells them about the jagged cliffs of the northern seas, the cold, relentless crash of waves, the sting of salt against his face when he crossed the strait to the northern isles. There are glaciers in the northern isles that are an aquamarine blue so clear it’s as if there are fairies holding lamps under the ice. A magic trick, he tells them, but not really, because he’d pressed a hand against the ice and stared deep into its depths and found nothing but the crystalline perfection of ice frozen into place, millennia ago. “And when the ice shifts, it’s like thunder cracking beneath your feet,” Sasuke says. “It’s just pure white snow, so bright it makes your eyes hurt, and you can’t even tell where the horizon meets the sky—”

He stops, realizing he’s been rambling. The others are all watching him quietly still, so he clears his throat and says, “The hidden village will be built quickly and efficiently.”

“The hell, kid,” the Nidaime murmurs under his breath. Sometime during Sasuke’s rambling, he had slumped forward to rest his chin on his forearms on the table to listen, but now, he straightens. “Where’d you learn to talk like that?”

“He always talked like that,” the Shodaime says quietly. “He just kept it to himself.”

The Yondaime gives the Shodaime a lopsided smile. “I guess you were right, Hashirama-sama. He has a poet in him after all.”  

Sasuke scowls. “I don’t have a fucking poet—”

“You should hear him play the piano,” the Shodaime says, and before Sasuke can protest, he’s parked in front of the instrument. When he just scowls at the piano keys, the Shodaime heaves a world-weary sigh and takes a seat next to him.

Sasuke watches him in profile, the movement of his fingers, the small smile he gets when he lets himself get lost in the music for a moment. He plays only for a few short minutes, and then turns to Sasuke. “If I am willing to play in public, you should be, too, Sasuke.”  

Normally, Sasuke would protest, but then he notices again the wrinkles around the Shodaime’s eyes, the whites in his hair. Sasuke turns his attention to the piano, and chooses one of the Shodaime’s favorite pieces. The Shodaime moves away from the piano entirely and sits next to the Nidaime on the couch while Sasuke continues to play.

When he’s finished with one piece, Sarutobi clears his throat and puts in a request for another, naming it by the composer and title. Sasuke plays that as well, and then plays a third, another one for the Shodaime, because it’s worth it to see him smile again.

When the final note lingers in the air, the Nidaime murmurs again, “The hell, kid.”

“I told you,” the Shodaime says.

“I assumed he would be good,” Sarutobi says quietly. “But it is an entirely different thing to hear him play, Hashirama-sama. A poet, indeed.”

Sasuke flushes. “It’s the Sharingan,” he says. “It memorizes movement, so it’s easy to learn instruments or, more importantly, weapons and taijutsu—”

“Don’t,” the Yondaime says, cutting into Sasuke’s explanation quietly. He gives Sasuke a small smile. “You’re good, Uchiha. You should keep at it.”

When we’re gone, is what he’s not saying, but Sasuke hears it nonetheless.  

“I will. I like playing,” Sasuke promises, holding the Shodaime's gaze steady. He’s rewarded with a smile.

Sasuke pushes away from the piano, and briefly drops back out onto the balcony to gather his gear before he heads for the door, pointing out that he should get back to work, which the ghosts agree is likely a good idea. He’s wasted away most of the afternoon already, when he had an endless list of things he should have been doing instead. He doesn’t regret spending the time the way he did, but he has to march tomorrow.

The Shodaime walks him to the door. “Did you pack for your march?”

“I will later tonight,” Sasuke answers, and lets his Mangekyou whorl to life just in time to memorize the Shodaime’s fond exasperation at his perpetual procrastination.

“I’ll be back soon,” Sasuke promises him—and the others, too, holding each of their gazes as he says the words. They have all gathered around the dining table again, pulling out the books and scrolls on the Otsutsuki seals from before. “It’ll be over soon.”

Sarutobi goes still. “That would be nice,” he says after a moment. He breathes out carefully, blowing out just a wispy stream of smoke from his pipe. “Perhaps, we should ask Kakashi to leave Pakkun here with us just in case.”

“I’ll talk to Kakashi,” the Yondaime offers. “Nothing wrong with being prepared just in case.”

Just in case their souls change and become corrupted. Just in case Sasuke doesn’t come back in time to give the Shodaime the burial he wants. He steps out of the door, and the Shodaime lingers in the doorway as always to see him off.

“I’ll be back soon,” Sasuke promises again. “You can look Madara in the eyes, and end this.”

“I will,” the Shodaime agrees. “Get some rest tonight, son.”

Sasuke had been planning on saying goodbye to the ghosts later in the evening, but he’s not sure he can do this twice. So he lingers. “You too, Shodaime.”

The Shodaime’s lips curl up in a smile. “I will try,” he promises, and holds out a single arm.

Sasuke steps into the embrace and grips the Shodaime’s robes tight. “Are you in pain?”

“No,” the Shodaime answers easily. "I am fine."

Liar. He knows it immediately, knows it in his bones, because the Shodaime goes still in his arms as he says the word. It’s the slightest tell, only noticeable because they’re embracing.

Sasuke tries another question, just to be sure. “Would you tell me if you were?”

The Shodaime puts a hand carefully to the back of Sasuke’s neck, holding him steady. “Yes, of course.”


Him and the Nidaime, the both of them, liars. They’ve lied to him before about far greater things; they can lie about this too. They aren’t just tired, they’re in pain, too.

Sasuke steps back, determined now. He will march. He will return. He will do it quickly. They do not deserve this prolonged misery. “I’ll see you when I get home.”

“You will,” the Shodaime promises. He holds Sasuke's shoulders, holding Sasuke still at arm’s length while he looks carefully at Sasuke. It takes a moment for Sasuke to recognize what the Shodaime is doing. Memorizing details.

Sasuke needs to make sure, so he steps back in for another hug. “I’ll see you when I get home, Hashirama-sensei,” he repeats, and holds the Shodaime close as he says the words.

“You will, son,” the Shodaime repeats. This time, Sasuke knows, it’s the truth. He pulls away before the sting in his eyes can overwhelm him entirely, and walks away.

The Betsukai rider arrives in the middle of the night. He thunders through the Northern gate, breaks every rule on the road to the Tower, and to top it off, spurs his horse up the steps of the Tower in a clatter of hooves, ignoring the increasingly hostile shouts from Secret Service to stand down, goddamn it, man, stand down. Instead, Togichi’s nephew, Rausu’s cousin and blood-brother, swings down into a sea of armed Jounin guards and bellows, My name is Betsukai Abira. Where is Lord Biratori?

Sasuke and Itachi hear of the dramatic arrival of Betsukai Abira from an irate Secret Service guard who marches Abira to Jugo and stiffly reports what has occurred to the Konohagakure high command gathered. They had both been awakened by a genin messenger from the Tower pounding on their door; they’d arrived at Tsunade’s offices just in time to hear the jounin’s report.

“Fuck you very much,” Abira says with a blinding grin when the jounin finishes talking, and Sasuke knows immediately that here, at last, is a Betsukai he likes.

“What’s the message, Abira?” Jugo demands, getting to his feet, hand resting casually on the head of his battle-axe at his belt. He towers in the room, and even though they’ve assembled in Tsunade’s offices for this occasion, he holds command firmly.

“His army’s grown, sire,” Abira announces flatly. “My men had been watching him over the Tomioka ridge as you commanded, and overnight, he’s added nearly eight hundred men. There wasn’t a single goddamn report of troop movement. We’d been watching every road into the Valley, and we didn’t see anything. Just like that—” he snaps his fingers. “There’s fourteen thousand men in that valley now.”  

Jugo glances at Sasuke, expression unchanging. But Sasuke notices the way his hand tightens around his battle-axe. “Did you have men watching the northern passes?” Sasuke asks.

“As if the Rebun would let us watch those passes,” Abira grumbles. He tugs angrily at the leather strap holding his cloak around his neck. Like his boots, it’s spattered with mud. He’s traveled hard and fast, but despite the dirt on his face it's clear that he's a Betsukai: strong-jawed, clear-eyed, and deep hue to his skin. Handsome, too, like Rausu.

Jugo picks up on Abira’s discomfort immediately. “Rest your feet, Betsukai,” he orders, and Abira groans his relief before heading for the empty spot on the couch next to Jiraiya. “Pardon,” he says, and sinks into the cushions, rolling his head back onto the couch, moaning in relief. “Motherfucker, I could marry this chair.”

“What colors were the men wearing?” Suigetsu demands. He’s lounging against the window sill on the far side of the room. He didn’t even have a chance to pull on all his clothes, just a short-sleeved undershirt that shows off the scars crisscrossing on his powerful forearms—Orochimaru’s souvenirs.

“No colors. Just black gear,” Abira explains, rubbing at his face. He’s a handsome man like Rausu, but the journey has clearly worn him thin. Even the indigo-blue tattoos on the left side of his face seem faded from his exhaustion.

Suigetsu gives Sasuke a quick glance. The troops came down through the northern passes; there’s no arguing that point anymore. Suigetsu asks the more relevant question. “Are the Rebun siding with Madara?”

“It’s not the Rebun. They wear white or gray, to blend with the snows,” Abira says, lifting his head from the couch. He looks around at the people gathered in the room. His gaze slides easily over Konohagakure’s high command, but he takes careful note of the northerners in the room, eyes lingering on Karin. “Where’s my cousin?”

“Rausu's on his way,” Karin answers easily. “You’re sure it’s not the Rebun?”

Abira shakes his head. “They might have come down through the northern passes, but it’s not Rebun troops. Those Rebun motherfuckers are loud and vicious. They sing their battle songs when they know they’re being watched by the enemy. These troops were quiet. Too quiet. And they were wearing black.”

Jugo heaves a breath. “Fourteen thousand men. Where is he getting this army from?”

Abira is the one who answers. “A ghost-army, sire. That’s what the rumors are. But I was counting their numbers, and I can tell you, they look solid to me.”

Sasuke glances towards Naruto who is chewing his bottom lip in thought while he watches Jugo. He’d said the same words the other day. But that can’t be, Sasuke thinks, because that would mean that Uchiha Madara has somehow raised an entire army of clones or zombies or some other supernatural clusterfuck. It’s unlikely, but if there is even a remote possibility—

Sasuke clears his throat, drawing Jugo’s attention to him. He dips his head politely because Abira is here and there is a hierarchy he must obey. Jugo’s authority has been given voluntarily by all the tribes; Sasuke will not do anything to cast that authority in doubt. “A moment, if you would, sire.”

“Excuse us, Tsunade-sama,” Jugo says, getting to his feet. “Nohine, Karin, take care of this.” He heads for the door even as Karin and Nohine dip their heads and acknowledge the command with a polite, Sire. Sasuke follows, pausing only long enough to make eye contact with Suigetsu and hold his gaze. Suigetsu understands immediately and falls into step next to Sasuke as they step outside.

The minute they’re alone in Tsunade’s waiting rooms, Suigetsu speaks. “On a scale of one to ten, one being Megumi has a cold, and ten being the end of the world, how would you rate the news you’re about to break to us?”

Jugo watches Sasuke solemnly. They have spent far too much time in the trenches together; of course they both immediately understood the gravity of the situation before Sasuke even says a word. “I can live with a five,” Jugo says. “A six, even.”

Sasuke doesn’t know how to say what needs to be said, or where to even start. He’s told them about the crack in the earth, but he hasn’t told them yet all that came before it. The best thing to do is to ease them into it. He can start with the easy news and then build up to the possible army of the undead.

Sasuke takes a deep breath, counts to ten, and says, “I see dead people.”

Suigetsu’s mouth flaps open. Jugo covers his face with both hands. “This feels like a five,” he says, voice sounding muffled from behind his hands. It makes something clench in Sasuke’s chest to know that Jugo and Suigetsu accept his words without hesitation, that they can hear something as asinine as I see dead people and just absorb the news without questioning it. “I can live with a five.”   

“Also,” Sasuke says, because there’s no place to march but onwards at this point, “There is a possibility that Madara actually has an army of the undead.”

“That definitely feels like a ten,” Suigetsu breathes. He recovers from his shock a split-second later. His voice ratchets up to its highest volume. “Uchiha goddamn Sasuke, you piece of motherfucking shit. I hate you so goddamn much, I might die from it.”

Abira complains endlessly and with great eloquence about his shit luck. “It’s so nice and warm here,” he yells, flailing his arms about to indicate his surroundings. It’s the crack of dawn, and they have assembled at the northern gate to march after a night of little sleep. Abira’s intelligence is concerning, but it doesn’t change anything except put a clock on their war plan. The longer they let Madara stew in the Omine Valley, the larger his army is getting. They must strike now.

Abira has the energy of a man who has just been jolted awake by a few volts of caffeine despite the hour of the day. Sasuke doesn’t blame him because the man just rode south and now he rides north again, with barely a few hours of respite. “I just got here!”

Inoue chews thoughtfully on his apple. “After a day, you’ll think it’s too warm, Abira.”

This only serves to set Abira off on another fit of flailing arms. “I want a vacation! I at least want a drink! A fruity, colorful drink! With a little umbrella in it! They drink those here, you know!”

Nohine leans forward in her saddle, smiling. She is striking in her war gear, dark hair pulled into a high ponytail which only accentuates the riveting angles of her face. She’s a tall woman, but astride her horse, she looms taller still. When Sasuke was young and fighting Orochimaru’s wars, he dreamed of taking Nohine to bed. She was far too smart to let him anywhere near her; Sasuke thinks that their friendship is stronger for it. “I’ll buy you a drink after the war, Abira,” she offers. “In fact, we’ll all buy you a drink after this is over.”

Abira jabs a finger at the congregation of northerners. “I will drink you motherfuckers dry,” he promises them.

“Abira,” Jugo warns, and Abira stalks over to his horse to begin saddling up. Jugo turns to Tsunade with a smile, and holds out his hand. “It was an honor, Hokage-sama.”

“The honor was mine,” Tsunade promises him. There’s an audience for this moment, so they both pitch their voices loud enough to be heard. Konohagakure high command has assembled for this send-off, along with a few key members of Senior Council and Congress. It’s a goddamn parade, and while Jugo and the northerners seemed confused for the necessity of such formalities, Jugo gamely accepted Tsunade’s heartfelt speech of thanks, well wishes on his journey, and promise to meet him on the battle-field. He even countered with a speech of his own, far shorter but infused with the kind of sincerity that only Jugo can convey. Even Hiashi had been beaming by the time Jugo finished talking about the future that he envisions, a north and a south united, a peace that outlasts all the centuries of strife that came before it.

Sasuke finishes adjusting the straps on Ozora’s saddle. She paws at the ground, impatient already in the early morning stillness. The northerners sit astride their mounts with the ease of a lifetime in the saddle. Sasuke learned how to ride in the north, but it’s still hard not to admire how Rausu swings onto his mare with one graceful motion and stills her with just a hand on her thick, powerful neck.

Karin mounts her horse and gives Sasuke an arch glance. “Go on, go say your goodbyes, Konoha.”

It’s clear who she’s referring to. Normally, Sasuke doesn’t respond to her taunts about his loyalty to Kakashi, but he doesn’t hold back this time. “Did you say your goodbyes?”

It’s petty and it’s childish, but Sasuke can’t find it in himself to care, not when Kakashi’s grey eye is focused almost entirely on her every move. He hasn’t looked away from her a single moment during their protracted farewell; he didn’t even look away from Karin when Jugo was speaking.

Why, he wants to ask her. You hate him so much, so why? He’s not even sure he wants to hear her answer. If it’s to place a careful crack in Kakashi’s defenses, he’ll be vulnerable for a lifetime. If it’s just to mock him, the insult will run deep. There is no good reason for Karin’s actions, and after a lifetime of following Kakashi’s orders, it stings Sasuke that Karin would do something so brazen.

Karin only smiles. “I’m sure your family would like to say their goodbyes,” she says, bypassing Sasuke’s insinuation entirely. She moves her horse away with a slight tug before Sasuke can respond, joining Inoue and Subaru like she usually does.

There is a time and place for this conversation with Karin, and now is not it. Now is the time to say goodbye to Sakura, because she had arrived to see him off like she always does. She’s wearing a jounin uniform, standing close to Itachi. She breaks away from the rest of the Konohagakure shinobi when Sasuke approaches her with his arms held out. She fits neatly into his arms, and Sasuke tucks his chin over her head, feeling his annoyance at Karin disappear entirely. “I’ll see you on the battlefield.”  

“You will,” Sakura promises him, voice muffled into his chest. She pulls back just enough to stand on her tiptoes and press two quick kisses to his cheek. “Don’t get impatient and start the war without us, doofus.”

When she pulls away, she falls back to her original spot next to Itachi. Sasuke doesn’t bother hiding his smile. Your family, Karin had said, and Sasuke remembers all those times Fugaku had told him, Blood runs thick. “Be good while I’m gone, Uchihas.”

“I’m always good,” Sakura counters primly.  

Itachi makes a face as if he’s tasted something sour. “Be good,” he says, mimicking an atrocious northern accent. “Says the only Uchiha here with a criminal record.”

It’s instinct. He can’t stay silent, not when Itachi is already scowling as if he’s swallowing on an entire lecture about Sasuke’s delinquencies. Sasuke holds out his arms. “I’ll miss you too, Brother. I think we should hug this out.”

Itachi’s Mangekyou whorls. “I haven’t had my coffee yet. Don’t push me.”

Sasuke takes a step forward, grinning so wide it makes his cheeks hurt. Sakura’s shoulders are shaking with silent laughter. “Bring it in, Bro. Show me some fraternal love.”

Itachi snarls, Why do you have to be so goddamn annoying, but it’s too late. Sasuke is taller than Itachi by a few inches and he weighs a considerable amount more. It’s not hard to bundle him in for a hug, thumping him on the back with gusto. “It’s not even five in the morning. How in blue fuck are you so goddamn annoying already?” Itachi asks in a grumble, but he puts his arms around Sasuke.

It’s the most lukewarm hug Sasuke has ever received, but he steps away from it with a grin anyways. “I’ll see you on the battlefield.”

“I really need coffee,” Itachi says in response, which is as much as a farewell as he will ever give.

Sasuke returns to Ozora, and swings into his saddle easily. Jugo is still saying his last-minute farewells to Kakashi, Tsunade, and Jiraiya—and Naruto. Sasuke looks quickly away before Naruto catches him looking. He won’t put Naruto on the spot by dragging out a stilted, polite farewell; it’s better to just spare them both of that. Instead, he busies himself with checking the straps holding his weapons onto Ozora’s saddle until he senses Jugo mounting his own horse a few feet away.

The northerners fall silent immediately, so all that remains is the sound of the horses in the quiet of the early morning: their hooves on the packed earth, the occasional snort or whinny, the sound of men and women settling into their saddles. Ahead, the village gates are open wide enough to let the twenty riders pass through. Sasuke looks towards the thick cluster of redwood forests.

And beyond, he thinks, is the north.

Jugo gives Sasuke a lopsided smile. When Sasuke rode with his eighty men, he outranked Jugo. It was his authority to give the signal to ride. This time, Sasuke dips his head, conceding authority entirely. “Sire.”

Jugo spurs his horse to the front of the formation, smiling at Tsunade as he moves past her. Sasuke follows just a few paces behind, and Suigetsu falls into place next to him. Suigetsu grins at Sasuke, leaning over in his saddle with a fist held out. Sasuke meets him halfway, bumping fists like they sometimes do. For good luck, for cheer, for no reason at all.

Jugo holds up a hand, glancing just briefly over his shoulder. “We ride!” His voice is loud, a boom in the quiet of the morning, and Sasuke feels the call deep in his bones. Jugo drops his hand to give the signal to ride. “North!”

Sasuke joins the others in calling back, “North!”

They thunder out of the gates, kicking up dust and making the earth shake.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It makes Sasuke’s stomach churn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No need,” Sasuke bites out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiba says, loudly, “What the fuck.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarada grips her fork tightly. “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He owes Jugo better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarada nods. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarada’s entire body heaves with a sob.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Attack,” Kakashi orders.

Ten. Sasuke blurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sasuke nods. “They’re trapped.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This kid. “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’ll be over soon,” Yonabaru says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The war has begun.

Chapter Text

Orochimaru had carved Otogakure into the crevices of the earth. He hid like a coward. There was never any sunshine. There was barely any fresh air.

Jugo has built Otogakure under the swollen blue skies. Even surrounded by wooden stake walls and towers, Otogakure seems open and wide, as if too great to be contained. There is a large hall at the center of the village, made of timber, where the tribal leader can gather. Clustered around the hall are tents of varying sizes, arranged concentrically and draped with the colors and sigils of the tribes they represent. Jugo’s banners of the brown grizzly against a white flag is flapping in the wind, raised over the great hall. On the second-largest tent is the Hozuki banner: a golden mountain lion stalking the green slopes of a mountain. Sasuke spots the Betsukai hawk, and the Kesen stallion. The banners with Inoue’s Suwanosejima twin spears and the crossing rivers of the Subaru’s Shinmoedake are both flying close next to each other. 

Konohagakure’s forces have been laid out in neat rows to the south of Otogakure. Jiraiya, Hiashi, and Shikaku are somewhere in that cluster of tents, along with a handful of senior jounin Kakashi picked to lead the men and women: Asuma, Genma, Kurenai, and Gai. He had sent his captains ahead of him while he stayed by Sasuke’s side for Itachi’s vigil; Sasuke wonders how much that cost them, but there is no time for regret now.

A hundred free tribes are lying in wait at the mouth of the Omine Valley, waiting to march. It’s a massive gathering of northerners. Seven hundred, Sasuke thinks, looking out over the multitude spread in front of him. With Kakashi’s five hundred, there are nearly twelve hundred soldiers in Otogakure.

Otogakure is burning when Sasuke first lays eyes on her. The greatest damage has been done to the Konohagakure tents. Most are on fire. From this distance, Sasuke can see and feel the spark of chakra as some of the troops use jutsus to quell the flames, but most are already getting into formation to face an enemy.

“Two hundred enemy foot soldiers on the field already, with seventy-five cavalry. They arrived in formation from the north,” Takamaru reports. He’s perched on Abira’s forearm, talons digging into Abira’s leather forearm braces. He is a large hawk and no doubt weighs a considerable amount, but Abira is still as a statue while he holds his arm aloft for Takamaru. He’d summoned the hawk to scout the battlefield as soon as they got the scout’s report, and the hawk has been circling the battlefield since. “There are more troops just beyond those two hills in the east and west. Otogakure is surrounded on all three sides. Two hundred foot soldiers in each direction, and two hundred cavalry distributed evenly.”

Jugo has also sent a scout to report to Sasuke, a Hishiazu warrior named Aso who fills in the gaps that Takamaru does not know. Madara’s troops attacked in the dead of the morning, according to Aso. They had arrived out of nowhere, silent and deadly. They had killed all the men who had been stationed as lookouts and outposts as they moved. Not a single guard dog or horse had made a sound at their approach.

Most of the mounted warriors in Kakashi’s platoon had spurred their horses forward to arrive as quickly as possible to Jugo’s aid. Sasuke has twenty-five death riders. Kakashi has twenty of his cavalry, including all nine of Sasuke’s of Unit 3 members, Naruto, Sakura, Ino, Tenten, Hinata, Lee, and Jiraiya. They have all lined up on the crest of a hill overlooking Otogakure just below them.

Sasuke looks out over the battlefield below. The open stretch of land east of Otogakure is streaked with blood. Otogakure warriors have lined up in a shield wall on the east and west, waiting for an assault, even though there is no enemy there. To the north, he can see Jugo’s shield wall holding fast against the enemy that has already arrived, but there is too much chaos to make out much else.

The death-riders are jittery with the need to jump into the fray, but Sasuke needs to assess the field before he can charge in head-first. “A lot of blood on that battlefield.”

“It’s the horses, my lord,” Aso says. He looks grim. “His men slaughtered over fifty of our horses, and nearly a hundred cattle head and sheep. The enemy sent in a unit of troops under cover of night. They had butchering all night long in the stables and fields, but the animals didn’t make a noise. They got to the guards as well without the dogs alerting us to their presence. One of the stable-hands got away long enough to alert us to their presence just before dawn.”

It’s an odd detail, one that makes even Karin stare at the messenger with something like incomprehension. They slaughtered fifty horses and their food supplies—without the animals making any noise? A scared horse will rouse even a dead man from his sleep, and fear spreads fast through a herd. But somehow, they slaughtered scores without any resistance. 

Sasuke turns back to the battlefield. The only thing worth focusing on is the next relevant question. “The shield walls?”

“Lord Biratori and Lord Suigetsu are holding fast on the northern line, sire,” Aso answers crisply. He’s covered in soot and mud. There’s a long gash on his arm visible through a cut in his leather braces and crusted with blood. “Inoue and Subaru have mounted a shield wall facing east in anticipation of the next line of attack with the Betsukai. Captain Nara and Captain Hiashi are holding the western front. But the enemy is only attacking from the north so far. You can’t see them from here, but they’re lined up just beyond those ridges. We don’t know why they’re waiting.”

Karin looks sharply at Sasuke with a frown. “Waiting for us?”  

Itachi stands up in his stirrups to get a better view, Mangekyou whorling slowly as he considers the landscape. “Waiting for the right moment.”

Sasuke watches the field for a few moments longer, considering his options with care even though he can see the death-riders in his periphery moving forward a few paces before turning back to rejoin the line, jittery with anticipation of the fight that lies ahead. If it’s a trap, it’s an odd gamble. Madara had sent eight hundred troops. Too few troops to overwhelm Otogakure’s troops, and too many to carry out any covert, targeted attacks. It’s a show of force to sow fear into Otogakure: Look what I have doneeight hundred men as an opening move.

But as far as opening moves go, Sasuke thinks this one is weak. The man wants to have the pomp and circumstances of a showy victory, but the attack would have been more effective if Madara wasn’t so cautious. They are surrounded on three sides, but Madara has only attacked from the north. The most logical thing would be for him to push from one direction, wait for the troops to all converge on that point and then close around from both sides in a pincer.

“He’s using very traditional tactics, Brother,” Sasuke points out. “I was expecting more flair for someone so batshit fucking insane.”

Itachi huffs a wry laugh. “He’s always been a fan of the classics.”

They teach academy students how to defend against a pincer attack; there only a few ways to do it effectively. But Madara must know this. They will have to outmaneuver him. Sasuke has the advantage of higher ground and the ability to attack the enemy’s flank. But if Sasuke steps into the fray, the pincer will close on both sides of him. He could attack the troops lying in wait, but the horses would be worn out from skirting around the landscape to reach the enemy. And by then, they will be ready for him. He doesn’t have the numbers either.

“Commander, we’re weak on the western side,” Itachi points, turning to Kakashi. “Konoha troops can’t fight with a fire at their back and the enemy at their front.”

Shikamaru offers his own assessment. He’s not nearly as high-ranking as Itachi, but there is no denying his strategic mind and Kakashi listens with care while he talks. “If he’s going to form the pincer on the east and western sides, we should try and break through the north to give ourselves an opening,” he points out. “We can’t fight on all sides. He can overwhelm us.”

“We have to fight on all sides, there’s no way to escape that eventuality,” Naruto points out. “We could split the troops in anticipation of that. Half to the west, and half to the north.”

Sakura chimes in with agreement. “At least we’ll be more evenly distributed so one flank doesn’t give way to the enemy.”

They are all valid points. Kakashi leans forward onto the pommel of his saddle and pins Sasuke with his mismatched gaze. “What’s your plan, Lord Commander?”

Sasuke starts to tug off his cloak. If Madara wants a showy battle, Sasuke will give it to him. After years fighting in the tribal wars, Sasuke has learned how to overwhelm his enemies. “The point isn’t to withstand the pincer,” he says, starting to untie the gear from Ozora’s saddle. He lets the bedroll and rucksack drop to the ground haphazardly. Then, he starts to untie his weapons and strap them onto his body, starting with his sword to his waist. He shrugs on the leather holster that holds the double throwing knives in the middle of his back, and checks that the knives at his shin, thigh, and right forearm are properly tied. Around him, the death-riders are going through similar motions, preparing for the charge.

Sasuke lets his shield drop to the ground as well. He needs to travel light and fast for the charge he is about to make. “The point is to make sure the pincer never closes in around us.”

“Double-sided cavalry attacks?” Itachi guesses with an arched eyebrow. “That’s a bit...extravagant.”

Sasuke grins. “I’m a man of fine tastes, what can I say.”

Itachi shakes his head, left cheek dimpling now with his half-smile. Sasuke realizes then that this is the first time he has ridden into battle with his brother. He can’t help but share in Itachi’s  joy at the moment. “So what’s the plan? You don’t have the numbers to do a double-sided cavalry attacks.”

Sasuke speaks to Yonabaru directly, although