In contrast with the frigid weather of Iron Country, this new country is warm, and humid. Vivid green moss and vines cover every rock and tree creating an alien sort of feeling. Naruto wraps his arms around himself, unease settling into his blood. But after two days of nearly nonstop travelling, and only leaving the samurai behind half a day earlier, he’s eager to get it over with.
Kabuto steps out in front of the rest of the group holding his arms outward and smiling.
“Welcome to Otogakure.”
A confused hush falls over the small crowd of Konoha ninja. Naruto scratches at the back of his blond head, squinting while he looks around.
“Uh...where’s the village dattebayo ?”
“Hm? Oh, that’s right-”
Kabuto performs a few quick hand signs, then touches his fingers to the ground for a brief moment.
For a few seconds, nothing happens.
The ground rumbles beneath them. Someone curses; a few stumble. The earth shifts violently upward, revealing a heavy stone door that opens up to a steep, dark staircase.
Kabuto gestures toward it with his head.
“You didn’t think Oto was like any other village you could just walk into, did you?” he asks, with a raised eyebrow. “Orochimaru-sama has to be more careful than that.”
He lays a hand in the center of the door; there’s the muffled sound of chains rattling. Then, with a shriek, the door opens.
“It’ll be right this way, if you don’t mind. And as for you-”
Rather than merely controlling Itachi’s movements, Kabuto seizes him roughly by the arm. When he speaks, his voice is low, anger boiling just beneath the surface.
“-We’ve got something to talk about.”
Itachi doesn't reply, not that Kabuto was keen on hearing one anyway.
He waves the ragtag group of runaways down the seemingly endless staircase. Naruto holds his breath and follows with the rest. He picks up his pace to fall into step just behind Jiraiya and Tsunade. The footsteps of a hundred or so people echo off the stone walls, creating an almost deafening roar.
He feels his cheeks grow warm.
“-Thanks for stickin’ with me, you guys. It really means a lot.”
“Don’t mention it,” Jiraiya answers, putting on his best attempt at a smile, though the way he keeps his arms firmly folded betrays his anxiety.
Tsunade maintains her silence. Her brown eyes are focused straight ahead, her nails biting into the sides of her arms. Both Naruto and Jiraiya know that look- it’s the look she gets when the wheels in her head are turning frantically. They also know better than to try to break her concentration, until she finally speaks.
“I’m gonna find that Uchiha,” she says, absentmindedly stroking the crow still perched obediently on her shoulder. “And tell him I’ve got his eye.”
“Yeah. Sounds like a plan.”
Jiraiya hangs back for the split second he needs for Naruto to catch up to him, letting Tsunade go on ahead. He puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder and gives it a comforting squeeze.
“Hey, I didn’t say anything before, but what you did back there was pretty gutsy. I’m proud of you.”
The flush in Naruto’s face deepens at the praise. He raises a hand to his forehead like he wants to fiddle with his headband, only to be abruptly reminded that it’s not there anymore.
“...What’re we gonna do now?” he asks, in a soft voice.
“What we gotta do,” Jiraiya answers, matter-of-factly. “Whatever that’s gonna be.”
Naruto nods, uncertainty written in the crease of his brow.
“Take care of yourself, alright? I’ve gotta...I’ve got something I need to do.”
Before Naruto can protest, Jiraiya has vanished into the crowd.
The boy nearly jumps out of his skin and narrowly avoids falling down the last few steps.
“H-Hinata! Where’d you come from dattebayo ?!”
“Um, I came with everyone else,” Hinata answers. The way Naruto turns beet red lets her know he’d taken her remark to be teasing.
“I-I didn’t mean it like that!” She stammers, tripping over her words to wipe the wounded expression off his face.
“No...it’s fine dattebayo . I’m glad you’re okay. That makes me happy.”
It’s Hinata’s turn to grow bright red.
“...N-Naruto-kun...about what I said- w-when Pain attacked-”
Naruto freezes in his tracks.
“...Because I love you.”
(Of course he remembers. How could he ever forget?)
“I-I meant every word of it. I...I hope you believe that.”
The boy pulls at the back of his neck, clearing his throat, blue eyes darting wildly around the room.
“I uh- Hinata I-”
He pulls a face.
“...I believe you. And Hinata I…”
Uncertainly, he reaches out to take her hand. Hinata lets out a small, startled squeak.
“I knew I could count on you to stick with me dattebayo. Cause you always have.”
Hinata nods, and smiles reassuringly at him.
“No matter what happens next, I’ll be here with you. I promise.”
He squeezes her hand tightly, willing himself not to feel afraid.
Sakura approaches anxiously, tucking a stray lock of pink hair behind her ear for the sake of having something to do with her hands. Sasuke doesn't speak, but he tilts his head in a way that lets her know he’s listening. An improvement, considering he’s spent the last week avoiding her like the plague.
Sakura’s mouth feels dry- she swallows, and takes a deep breath to steady her nerves. When she reaches out to touch his arm, he goes rigid but doesn't pull away from her.
“Sasuke-kun, I know this is hard for you-”
“-You don’t know anything.”
There’s the slightest tremor in Sasuke’s voice. His skin has the barest tinge of green to it, like he’s about to be ill. He pulls away from her and stalks off, desperate to maintain his composure.
“-Just leave me alone.”
Sasuke picks up his pace, making it clear that he doesn't want Sakura to follow- though of course, she follows anyway, unwilling to let him go off alone in such a state.
“Sasuke-kun, please just listen to me-”
“I said leave me alone!”
Sasuke rounds a corner to try to get away from her; neither of them notice the chatter that comes within earshot when he does so.
“Sasuke please- ”
“-How many times do I have to…”
Sasuke’s next turn takes him into a large communal area; his voice trails off when they’re greeted by a sea of people, perched on every flat surface- beaten up, bruised and bandaged, each bearing the Uchiha clan crest on their backs.
Their frantic murmuring dies abruptly, the second they notice his presence.
Sasuke blinks in surprise, too stunned to say anything. What little color there is in his face drains away, leaving him gray and looking ready to faint.
After maybe thirty seconds of silence, an elderly Uchiha man stands up. He approaches Sasuke, his heavily lined face an inscrutable mask. Sakura raises a hand to protect him-
-The old may grasps Sasuke’s shoulders, stern expression melting into a warm smile.
(Sakura didn’t know Uchiha faces were capable of such an expression.)
“...You look just like your mother,” the man says, his rough voice softened by an overwhelming fondness.
Sasuke can’t even summon the will to resist when he’s pulled into a tight hug.
“You brave boy. We’re so glad to have you back.”
Sasuke makes a noise somewhere between a gasp and a whimper that catches in his throat.
“Hey, don’t hog him, Jurei! We wanna see him too!”
Sakura finds herself shoved out of the way, separated from Sasuke by a wall of excited Uchiha.
“Jurei is right- he’s got Mikoto’s face-”
“He’s sturdy though- strong just like his old man-”
“-Oh my, what pretty eyes-”
“-Still hasn’t learned to brush his hair though- he was always so fussy about that- drove his poor mother crazy…”
Confusion keeps Sakura rooted to the spot. She’s never seen so many Uchiha in one place; let alone so many happy Uchiha. They continue to obliviously gush over Sasuke, while he remains rigid, still as a stone statue.
“Sasuke, dear? Are you alright?”
An elderly woman reaches out to brush his hair out of his face- only for Sasuke to swat her hand away taking a stumbling step backward and finally manages to choke out a single word.
“ Stop !”
The others look at Sasuke in concern; he clutches at his throat, drawing sharp, ragged gasps like breathing is hurting him. His dark eyes are so wide they might burst out of his skull.
He grips the sides of his head, shutting his eyes tight like he can block out the feelings welling up inside him.
“I-it’s not- you’re not-”
The rest of his sentence morphs into a hoarse groan.
He takes another step backward, trips over his own two feet, and falls; Sakura catches him before he can hit the cold stone floor. His entire body is wracked with violent tremors.
“...I think he needs some space right now,” she offers, though saying it makes her feel rather pathetic. The others comply, however, backing off to give the boy some much needed room to breathe. He draws a few great,shaking breaths in an effort to compose himself.
“...Where are my mother and father?” Sasuke finally mumbles, so quiet he’s almost not heard.
“They’re alright- I think they’re talking things over with the other clan heads,” someone answers.
Sasuke forces himself to support his own weight once more, though he sways ominously on the spot.
“I need to talk to them.”
“They’ll be out to see you soon, I’m sure-”
“-I need to talk to them now .”
He stalks off in search of his parents- Sakura hurries to follow after him, grabbing his wrist so he can’t leave her sight.
-and they nearly run headfirst into a familiar face. A little beat up and more than a little weary, but here and alive.
Sakura breaks out into a grin. Iruka, notably, does not return the gesture.
“I’m so glad you’re alright!” Sakura breathes. “I’m sure Naruto is worried sick about you!”
The man grimaces, and draws a deep breath. Sakura doesn't pick up on that right away.
“Hey, you haven’t seen my mom and dad anywhere, have you? Did they make it out okay? I’m sure they left with everyone else- did they make it here safely?”
Iruka’s frown deepens; Sakura’s smile falls. She tightens her grip on Sasuke’s wrist without thinking.
“Sakura,” Iruka says, his voice hoarse. “Your mom and dad…”
“They...they didn’t stay, did they?”
He trails off, heaves another sigh, scratching at a deep gash on his cheek.
“...I’m really sorry to be the one to tell you- your mom and dad are dead.”
Jiraiya steps carefully over the threshold to Orochimaru’s bedroom, like he were wary there might be a trap set (though of course, that’s silly...probably).
Seated in front of a vanity mirror, Orochimaru continues quietly preening as though he didn’t notice the new arrival. He gathers his hair in deft fingers, binding it up in a glossy braid down the side of his head, humming a tune that sounds oddly familiar (though Jiraiya can’t remember the name). He’s dressed in the same pitch-black attire his shadow clone had worn to his declaration of war.
Jiraiya clears his throat, unsure what exactly he wants to say.
“...I’m glad you’re okay,” he says, carefully.
A brief silence before Orochimaru replies.
“Same for you, Jiraiya.”
Flat. Matter-of-fact. Emotionless. Jiraiya wonders if he’s somehow already managed to offend Orochimaru.
He lets his eyes wander to the bed, along the silk sheets and overstuffed pillows that adorn it. Anything so he doesn't have to look at his old friend.
“So. It’s really coming down to this, huh? War, I mean.”
“It seems so.”
His hands curl into fists. Orochimaru ties off the end of his braid with a black ribbon, to match the rest of his clothing. Standing up, he still opts to look at Jiraiya’s reflection, rather than at the man himself.
“Maru, I-” Jiraiya swallows his emotions down, trying to keep himself calm in front of his friend.
“...I wish I’d known, Orochimaru. I’m so sorry, I-”
Orochimaru presses a thin finger to painted lips, shushing him softly.
“There was nothing you could have done,” he says, his voice stained with something painful. “You weren’t supposed to know.”
Jiraiya clenches his teeth.
“But I know now. I’m here now. So what can I do? How can I help?”
The corners of Orochimaru’s mouth pull downward. He reaches up to toy with a loose lock of his hair.
“Is that a question you really want answered?”
“If I didn’t want the answer I wouldn’t have asked!”
Finally, Orochimaru turns to face Jiraiya properly. Eyes narrow, he takes a few calculated steps toward the man.
“You still want to help me? Even now, knowing everything?”
The menacing tone of his voice makes Jiraiya hesitate.
“...Yeah,” he finally answers.
Without warning, Orochimaru is far too close to be comfortable. A wicked flame dances in those gold eyes, burning into the core of Jiraiya’s being.
“Help me burn this world to the ground.”
Orochimaru’s voice is sweet, crooning, practically purring. Delicate hands reach up to cradle Jiraiya’s face, touching him as gently as though he were some priceless porcelain artifact. His voice and his touch raise goosebumps on Jiraiya’s skin, send shivers up his spine and cause a shudder he can’t repress.
“Let me tear everything down. Let me build a throne from the bones of the dead in the ashes of the place we’d once called home. Let me rip this world apart and tear out its heart and bathe in its blood until I’ve washed away the past and found my comfort. Can you do that for me, old friend?”
Ice takes the place of blood in Jiraiya’s veins, and for a handful of frantic heartbeats he can’t move. Finally, though, he manages to lift his arms up and takes Orochimaru’s hands in his, pulling them away from his face.
(He can’t help but notice how his hands utterly dwarf Orochimaru’s.)
The rational part of him knows this is absolutely insane. That he should probably pull away, tell Orochimaru he’s lost his mind. But he finds himself stuck, mesmerized by the fire in those hypnotic gold eyes.
“...Whatever it takes,” he says. “Whatever you need. I’ll do it.”
Orochimaru nuzzles the crook of Jiraiya’s neck, a laugh rumbling deep in his chest.
“I’m glad to hear it.”
Jiraiya squeezes Orochimaru’s hands tight, like he’s afraid Orochimaru will run away if he lets go. He feels Orochimaru press his lips against the bite mark he’d left behind, feels Orochimaru smirk against his skin, and suddenly finds himself dizzy.
“Come with me, old friend,” Orochimaru urges. “We’ve got a meeting with our Daimyo.”
“You’re a part of Otogakure now. My Daimyo is yours as well. So-”
Still keeping their hands connected, Orochimaru pulls back, gesturing toward the open door with his head.
Tsume bears her teeth at Fugaku, a feral glint in her eyes, bent protectively over one of the many cots crowding the room, clutching at a motionless, pale hand. When Fugaku steps closer, he realizes it’s her daughter.
“The hell do you think happened?” she growls. “Everything went to hell after you left, and now nobody knows if my daughter’s gonna wake up!”
“But I mean- how did-”
“How do you think, Fugaku?! Most of the village was against us- what chance did we have?!”
“...Calm down, Tsume.”
Both their heads snap in the direction of Hiashi’s voice.
In the farthest cot away from them, Hiashi laboriously pulls himself into a sitting position. Crimson-soaked bandages cover the place where his right arm would normally be, but notably isn’t. Huddled beside him is his younger daughter, a thick layer of gauze covering the entire left side of her face, caught in a fitful sleep.
“Things got just a bit out of hand,” Hiashi replies, in what surely amounts to the understatement of the century. “Outnumbered and all that- kekkai genkai doesn't fix everything, y’know?”
Fugaku runs a hand through his hair, not quite able to believe what he’s seeing. While he’s struggling to process his emotions, Mikoto pokes her head in the doorway, mouth pressed into a grim line.
Mikoto’s voice is so soft it almost isn’t heard over the pained groaning of the injured.
Tsume glances back at Hana’s unconscious form
“Tsume, your son…”
That gets the other woman’s full attention.
“Is he hurt?!”
“No, not him…”
With a grimace, Mikoto motions her to follow. When Fugaku tries to come as well, Mikoto pushes him away.
“You’d best stay here,” she advises.
“-Just stay with Hana for a bit, okay?”
Fugaku frowns, but relents. He nods his understanding, and stays behind.
“Mikoto, what’s going on ?” Tsume demands, joining Mikoto in a half-run down the cavernous stone hallway. “What happened to Kiba?”
“Like I said, nothing to him, ” Mikoto answers. “But-”
She leads her friend to another area, to a secluded alcove far away from everyone else. It’s then that Tsume notices the blood staining her hands.
When they enter the lonely little area, Mikoto speaks up, her voice soft and gentle.
“Kiba? Honey, I found your mother-”
All she receives in response is a low, miserable groan.
The two women bend down to peer into the secluded nook the boy has sheltered himself in, the deep red torchlight finally brings him into view.
Kiba is huddled up on the floor, a mass of filthy, matted, bloody fur gathered up in his arms. His face buried in Akamaru’s side, the pained sounds he makes are muffled.
Akamaru doesn't make a sound. Doesn't move.
“Oh my god-”
Tsume gets down on her knees, embracing her son and his dog regardless of the blood and the grime.
“Kiba, I’m so sorry.”