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In the Blood

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In The Blood


It is in my honest opinion that the Uchiha clan has produced some of the finest shinobi and kunoichi that I have ever known. And I know that it will doubtless continue to produce men and women of exceptional caliber, so long as the clan exists.

- Senju Hashirama, in a letter to the 123rd Daimyo of the Land of Fire; May 19th, Akiharu 29 (109 BU)


I have no idea what you see in those guys.

- Senju Tobirama, in a memo to his brother; August 8th, Akiharu 29 (109 BU)


ACT 1

SHADOW


"I'm through." This was the first thing Sasuke said, upon entering. "That's it, I've had it. I am not handling these brats any longer."

This was the third time Naruto had heard him say those words since becoming Hokage, and for the third time, Naruto frowned and asked, "What's wrong with them?"

"They're just... terrible. Awful. Incompetent. Shall I continue? I could go on for hours." Sasuke sighed instead, pacing around Naruto's office, not even waiting for a reply. "Honestly. I can't handle them any longer. I'm through. This is a terrible idea. It's always been a terrible idea. Why do I keep doing this?"

Because your wife keeps talking to Sakura, and she keeps telling me that it'd be good for you, Naruto thought, but said nothing, instead standing, searching for, and finding the files on this particular batch of students. He flipped through the papers. "These guys were assigned to you only three days ago..." None of Sasuke's students tended to last more than a day, much less three. Odd. Naruto looked up. "Did you do the bell test?"

"Yes."

"And did they pass?"

A pause. "...yes. But only barely." The annoyance in his voice returned in an instant. "I asked for the best, I always ask for the best."

Tired eyes looked over the paper, and records of test scores and grade placements in the single digits were what they saw. First, third, fourth in their classes, never below the top five in any rank. "Sasuke, these are the best. They're top in their class, y'know. I even had Sakura make sure when I chose them."

"Then, please, explain to me why I find myself so disappointed," Sasuke continued. Naruto could hear his foot tapping on the floor. "Honestly, I'm waiting."

He put the files down and looked at his best friend with as severe a look as he could muster. "Sasuke, they passed the test, didn't they?"

"I don't care. I'm not interested." He had his arms crossed, and his red eyes were narrowed. As always.

"Just... explain to me what went wrong this time, okay?" Naruto said, managing a slight smile.

"One of them fainted before I could even introduce myself."

Naruto chuckled, almost nervously, almost knowingly. "Well, uh, maybe she was just a little nervous? First day of class, y'know."

"He."

"Oh." He frowned and thought this over for a moment. "Well, either way. Was he okay?"

"Of course he was fine. Took us five minutes to wake him up, and after that he was quaking like a leaf," said Sasuke. "I told him he should just go home, but no, it was 'I'm f-fine, I s-s-swear.'" He scoffed, starting another loop around the office. "Didn't say a word after that. Unlike the other one."

"Chatterbox, huh." Naruto was looking through the files again, though he wasn't really reading them. Three students, three photographs; two boys and a girl.

"Thinks I'm some sort of idol," was the half-grumbled reply.

Naruto glanced upward to see Sasuke glaring at him a bit more than usual, tapping his foot again. "That meaning...?"

"I was given a basket of tomatoes," Sasuke replied, "as a 'welcome gift.' And then I was offered a backrub. Apparently," he added, after a brief pause, "I look tense."

Naruto wondered, for a moment, if Sasuke still had as many female fans as he'd had when he was younger. If this was any indication… Pff, tomatoes. He struggled to turn his smile into something more like comfort, rather than amusement. "So'd you let her give you one?"

Sasuke didn't even reply, just glaring.

"Well, I dunno... Maybe she was just trying to make a good impression," Naruto continued. "I mean, I guess you're still pretty popular with the ladies, and you know how girls that age can be, y'know?"

"The girl was the one who gave me the least trouble."

Naruto paused, took a quick glance at the files again, and the photographs. He guessed that the boy that didn't look like the camera was going to eat him was the one that Sasuke was talking about.

Well, the world had shown him stranger things.

"It still doesn't sound that bad," Naruto said, putting the files down again. "And besides, man, they passed the bell test. That's huge, y'know."

"The bell test is nothing more than a diagnostic tool. It means nothing," Sasuke said.

"Well there's a reason, like, everyone uses it, y'know," Naruto replied.

"You do know that only Kakashi-sensei used it, don't you?"

Naruto opened his mouth to say something, paused, closed it, then began to speak. "Well we use it, too." Sasuke rolled his eyes and resumed pacing, as if that didn't answer everything. "Well none of your other students passed it, y'know. Didn't you send them all back to the academy?" Naruto continued.

"I did."

"So just take these guys in, I don't think it would be fair to send them back after getting this far, y'know." Naruto leaned forward on his desk and laced his fingers together, shrugging thoughtfully.

"I never said I was sending these three back to the academy. I'm merely requesting that you give them another teacher and leave me to my own business. I have enough on my plate already."

Naruto smirked. "So they're not that bad, then? Worth another shot?"

Sasuke stopped his pacing, not looking at Naruto. "...I'm too busy to handle them."

"And what, exactly, is keeping you busy?"

"That is between me and my clan." His Sharingan spun in annoyance, or intimidation.

Naruto sighed. Of course. He always did the whole eye-spinny-thingy whenever his family came up. "That's not the issue, Sasuke. Look, obviously, you think they have potential. Why not train them yourself? You can't be that busy, y'know."

"Trust me. I am."

And that was where Naruto found himself in a hard spot, a promise and a favor repeating in the back of his mind.

("Do it for her, Naruto. And their kids. They're overwhelmed and they could seriously use a break.")

"Well, that's not an issue. You can make time."

Sasuke stood there for several seconds, looking like he could annihilate a small fleet with his discontent.

"I'm saying that I'm not gonna let you just dump these kids, Sasuke," Naruto continued. "Give them a chance before you go off and request another teacher 'n whatever, y'know? You're just being dramatic."

A pause. "Dramatic. Really."

Well, Naruto wasn't going to deny it. "Look, even Kakashi-sensei didn't like us when we first met. But, well, that turned out all right!" And Naruto smiled, laughing, leaning back in his chair with his hands behind his head. "I'm sure these guys are all right, too, you just gotta give 'em a chance. Maybe you should start by taking them on a mission. Learning on the job and all that, y'know?"

Sasuke's eyebrow twitched slightly.

"Just hear me out." Naruto stood, opened a drawer, sorted around for a moment, and produced a scroll, unrolling it on his desk. He looked up to see that, fortunately, Sasuke was still in the room, standing stock-still, arms crossed. At least he wasn't pacing, though his stare was almost as bad.

Naruto read over the scroll. "Here we go. This village up in the Land of Rice got hit pretty bad by a landslide a while back, they're asking for people to help them rebuild. I was gonna send out Yamato but… I've been sending that guy on enough missions these days, y'know. He needs some time at home with his kid."

"Oh, so you're saying I can't have time with my family?"

("Just anything to keep him out of the house. Please.")

Naruto sighed and fixed his mouth to the side of his face. He'd made a promise. "Come on, Sasuke. It should be really simple, a perfect first mission for your team."

"They're not my team."

"These documents and your Hokage say otherwise." Naruto smiled a little smile, folding up the scroll and holding it out over his desk. "You leave in two days."

Sasuke glared, took the scroll, and left without another word. Naruto could practically see the scorch marks in his wake.


Sasuke was greeted by Karai when he came home. She'd been getting better at not assaulting him with hugs like she did when she was younger, and instead bowed, politely, as was expected of her, after sprinting down the hallway. "Welcome home, Father! Didja have a good day?"

"Where's your mother?" Sasuke asked, instead.

"Oh, she's cookin' dinner," Karai said, bouncing on the balls of her feet, hands clasped behind her back. "You get what you needed t'get done all done an' stuff?"

Even though Sasuke didn't respond, sitting to take off his shoes, she continued, more enthusiasm leaking into her words. "So I'm awful excited, Father, 'cos Masao-sensei said that we're gonna go on our very first mission tomorrow! We're gonna be pickin' up walnuts an' stuff. It sounds like a lotta fun!"

Walnuts. The things they made children do these days, when it would be so much more worthwhile for them to spar, learn practical skills. Sasuke stood and walked down the hallway, his youngest daughter in his wake, still talking, though he no longer really heard her.

He could smell frying rice from the kitchen, and he opened the sliding door, stepping inside.

Inou, his third son, sat at the kitchen table. Upon Sasuke's entrance he shifted his position, crossing his arms and looking out the window, dark hair falling over his right eye. The rings he wore around his neck scraped against the table's surface.

"Oh hi, honey, you home?" His wife was hacking at some rice and vegetables in a wok with a spoon. She was wearing a lavender apron that day. "I'm making fried rice and beef stir fry, I hope that's okay. Making use of those lovely tomatoes you brought home the other day."

"Mm."

She went back to her cooking. "So how'd it go with Naruto?"

"It went. He's making me go on a mission with the genin in two days." He felt the scroll in his pocket, but didn't feel like taking it out, much less reading it again. It had been long since memorized, anyways. "I have to 'give them a try,' apparently."

There was a subtle rise in her shoulders as she breathed in. It was good news. To her, at least. "Well that'll be exciting, won't it?"

"It's a waste of my time."

"Oh come on, Sasuke. I keep telling you that you should try teaching a little genin team." She flipped the rice around in the wok, and it sizzled and hissed. "It'll be a good experience."

"I think it's much more worthwhile to train my actual children, thank you very much." Sasuke looked at Inou, whose eyes snapped from his father to the window again. "And what have you been doing today? Just sitting around?"

"Chouko-chan an' Shikake-chan an' I had a mission today," he replied, adjusting himself in his chair. "I just got home…"

"What sort of mission?"

"Just a mission. C-rank." He glanced at his father and then back out the window in an unconvincing display of dismissal. Sasuke's expression was not one of approval. "It wasn't just an errand, Dad, it was a bodyguard thing."

"Oh? Was there a skirmish?"

"Well, no, but I did get to use this technique I've been working on…"

"What sort of technique?"

A slight shrug. "I… I used it for surveillance, to scan the area an' make sure we weren't gonna be ambushed or anything."

Sasuke sighed. Surveillance. Inou was better than that. "When was the last time you practiced throwing kunai? Your long-range attacks could use some work." He crossed his arms, staring the boy down from across the table. "Since you never seem to get any practice in on-mission."

Inou looked up with something resembling guilt, folding his arms tighter into each other. "I get a lotta practice in, Dad. An' Grampa said that I'm really good at the Mind Disruption technique, even better than when he was my-"

"Don't even start with that, that's not a true offensive technique. You need to work on skills that'll actually be useful in battle. The Mind Disruption technique is useless unless you have backup. Besides," he added, "no son of mine will ever be reduced to surveillance work."

His wife had begun looking over her shoulder again at them as she cooked, a slightly worried expression on her face. Karai remained in the doorway, saying nothing.

"But, Dad…" Inou said weakly.

"Go outside and practice throwing kunai until dinner's ready."

Inou opened his mouth as if to protest, and then he sighed, knowing better. "Okay..."

He stood quickly, and would have made it out had Sasuke not caught a glimpse of something as he moved towards the door. "What are you hiding?"

His hands shot behind his back. "I'm not hiding anything."

"Oh, really." Sasuke reached over and pulled a thin book from out of his hands before he could leave the kitchen. The cover was a sickening shade of pink, with an illustration of doe-eyed young men and women on it, and he scowled. Inou's shoulders fell. Karai got out of the way. Bracing for impact.

"Comic books? Comic books, Inou? I can't believe this. I cannot believe this." He held the thing up and looked Inou in the eye. The boy didn't look back at him. "What have I told you about these?"

"It's not… mine, I'm just… holding onto it for Chouko-chan…"

"Don't lie to me," Sasuke continued. "These things are a waste of time. How many times have I told you this?"

Inou didn't respond. Sasuke flipped through the pages as if trying to prove a point, but snapped the book shut halfway through. "Honestly, Inou. I keep catching you doing this. Are you trying to disappoint me?"

His wife made a half-hearted attempt. "Sasuke, it's just a book. There's no need to be so harsh."

"You stay out of this," Sasuke told her.

So she did, and went back to her cooking.

Sasuke went back to Inou. "If you're going to be sitting around and reading all day, can't you at least read something useful?"

"I don't sit around and read all day, Dad, I told you, I had a mission-"

"That's not answering my question. What have you read lately that was worth anything?"

Inou didn't respond.

"Inou, I'm waiting for an answer."

"…been reading this book about using psychology in interrogations, some Yamanaka clan technique scrolls, an' I found this really cool study on Two-Mind Syndrome…"

"What's that?"

Inou looked up suddenly, confusion and a strange sort of hope in his expression. "Two-Mind Syndrome…?"

Sasuke sighed. Inou, while book-smart, was not always head-smart. "I'm not asking about that. You were mumbling, I couldn't hear you."

"Oh…"

Sasuke didn't feel like arguing any more. He held the book up again. "If I catch you reading these things again, there will be consequences."

"I know."

"Now go outside and train until dinner's ready."

For a moment, Inou gave his mother a pained glance. She didn't acknowledge him, and he sighed, defeated. "Okay, Dad."

He left the kitchen, slouching with discontent.

"Mom, can I help with the dinner at all…?" Karai had returned to the doorframe.

"Umm... start chopping the tomatoes, sweetie. Large chunks," her mother replied. "For the stir-fry." There was an uncomfortable silence as Karai went to get the cutting board. His wife looked over her shoulder again, eyebrows tilted upward. "Sasuke, maybe you should get something to drink...?"

"Where's Takeru?"

She sighed. "He's probably at the training grounds, Sasuke."

Sasuke smiled slightly. His second-oldest, Takeru never disappointed. "I'll go check on him, then."

"And before you ask," she added, before her husband could exit the kitchen, "I got a letter from Hajime today, he said he won't be back for a few days yet. And Nadeshiko-"

Sasuke left the kitchen, not letting her finish, tossing Inou's comic book on the kitchen table as he went. He didn't want his mood to be darkened any further. Takeru - his bright one - would help so much with that.

Karai asked her mother a question, once her father was gone, as she chopped tomatoes a few feet away. She sent the words directly from her mind, just in case. Should I have told Father that it was really my book?

It probably would have made things worse, honey. I know it's not really yours. But you're a good girl for thinking to do that.

Karai was very good with a knife, chopping the tomatoes quickly. I just feel bad for Inou. I should've told him that I heard Father coming home.

He'll be fine, Karai. Your father's just in a bad mood.

Karai finished with the tomatoes, eventually, but she stared at the cutting board for a long while after she was done, a helpless look in her eyes.

Ino glanced at her daughter, giving her as reassuring a smile as she could manage. None of this was new.

Just keep your head down. He'll calm down by dinnertime. We'll be fine, and so will Inou.

-/-

Sasuke woke up the next day in something of a bad mood, rubbing his eyes and scowling in the early morning light. One day until the mission, and he had to tell his... students what was going on. As much as they could qualify as such. They were nothing but a trial run, he told himself. He'd just send them back after the mission. So he could at least say he tried. Naruto would stop bothering him after that, he was sure of it.

How was he even going to contact them, anyways? He figured he'd start at the academy. See if they were there, or something.

The house was quiet when he left an hour later, Karai gone on her frivolous walnut mission and his other children busy with their own teams and jobs. He didn't bother putting on his green flak jacket, seeing no real use for it. It was just a temporary thing. Not like it was required, anyways. Jounin had no real uniform; hell, Yuuhi Kurenai's child was out there, running around in little more than cargo pants and a few strips of cloth for a shirt, as a matter of fact. The way people went about things those days.

Ino saw him out with leftovers tied into a bento box and a dry kiss on the cheek, as usual.

In the end, he had to resort to phone calls. Unfortunately.

Except in the case of Senritsu Go'on. The fainting boy. "Apparently, his family doesn't have a telephone," the school records secretary said, scratching at the skin of her temple when she went to look up the numbers. "We can contact his mother at her workplace, though; that might get the message through, Uchiha-san."

"Just do whatever," Sasuke replied, with a sigh, and went to go make the other phone calls.

The other boy, Houkan Kyou, was at the academy within five minutes of Sasuke's call, gasping and out of breath but grinning like a fool. His shirt was half-tucked in and his forehead protector was slipping over his eyes, having been hastily tied onto his head. "I came as... soon as you... called, Sasuke-sensei...!"

Sasuke rolled his eyes, unable to really say anything else. Kyou leaned against the wall, still panting.

"You know, you really didn't have to run here," Sasuke said, after a minute or two had gone by with the boy still breathing heavily. "I said to meet by noon so I could discuss some things with you and your teammates. That's in an hour."

"Oh, but it's... a good thing to be early!" Kyou replied, swallowing halfway through his words. "Promptness is a good thing, don't you know."

"Promptness means that you show up exactly when you are called," Sasuke said. He crossed his arms. "When I say come at noon, come at noon."

"Oh! I get it now, Sensei! I'll try to be more punctual from here on out, then." He grinned, and reached up to adjust his forehead protector, which had fallen over the bridge of his nose again.

Sasuke wondered, for a while, about who the boy reminded him of, kneading his temples as Kyou jabbered on about what Sasuke-sensei could possibly want to talk to them about, if it was a mission, it is a mission isn't it, oh goodness what kind of mission could it be, he couldn't wait, finally, a mission with the great Uchiha Sasuke, on and on and on.

He sent the boy to wait in the hallway for his classmates when he began asking about Naruto and "war stories," after all, Sasuke certainly had many fascinating stories to tell didn't he after all he was a great war hero and surely a significant player in the history of Konoha and he was the head of the Uchiha clan and all, wasn't he?

Kyou was more than happy to leave, on Sasuke's command. It afforded Sasuke a blessed silence, and time to think. And, most importantly, time enough to calm down and not want to hit something any more.

He had a vague idea about who Kyou reminded him of by the time the other two, Namigata Sunao and Senritsu Go'on, showed up, roughly around the same time. Minus the otherworldly eyebrows and caterpillar-green jumpsuit, Kyou was a dead ringer for Sakura's husband, Lee. Personality-wise, anyways; they didn't resemble each other at all, in terms of appearance. Kyou's hair was messy, brown, and coarse, and his eyes were ovals, pale-irised.

Likewise, Lee wasn't nearly as annoying as Kyou. Lee, at least, had some restraint.

"So what did you need to talk to us about, Sensei?" Sunao, the girl, asked. She leaned casually against a desk with her ankles crossed over each other.

"It's a mission, I know-" Kyou began, but Sasuke cut him off with a sharp wave of the arm before he could continue.

"Let me explain. We haven't been together long, and I haven't really... gotten a feel for your skills. Strengths, weaknesses." Despite the fact that the papers they had given him about the team clearly outlined everything, courtesy of years of academy observation and training. But Sasuke didn't know what else to say that sounded decent. "So we're going on a mission tomorrow."

"I knew it was a miss-"

"Please be quiet," Sasuke snapped, holding up his hand again before Kyou could go off on another ramble about oh, of course, Sasuke-sensei, he'll be quiet from here on out, anything for you, blah blah shut up. "Yes, it is a mission. We'll be heading up to the Land of Rice tomorrow for a volunteer job, helping rebuild some houses."

The boy named Go'on, with his black, fear-filled eyes, shivered visibly. His hands were already clasped at his collar bone, almost as if in prayer. Sasuke noticed, and spoke, cutting over Kyou's enthusiastic babble. "Oh, what is it, it's not like we're going to be engaging in combat," he said, putting a hand on his hip. Go'on shook his head. Even his mouth was shaking. "Then what's the matter?"

"The La-Land of Rice... That's where Oro… Orochimaru used to live, right...?"

Orochimaru. Sasuke paused. "...that's no longer an issue, it's been years since any Sound ninja have lived there," he said. "There's nothing to worry about, it's almost entirely a civilian nation now."

"Almost...?" Go'on gulped.

"I don't mean it literally." The boy still looked like he was about to faint, like he had done on the first day, all the color drained out of his brown ash-colored face. "Look, you seriously don't need to worry about anything, okay?" Sasuke said, harsh eyes paired with half-comforting words. "Besides, if anything happens out there then it's my duty as your sensei to protect you." For the time being, anyways.

Go'on continued to shiver, before Sunao stood away from the desk to rest a hand on his arm. "Just trust Sensei, okay?" Her smile was far more reassuring than Sasuke's red, certain eyes.

"Yeah! Sasuke-sensei is the best, one of the greatest ninja in Konoha, don't you know! He'd totally wipe the floor with any sort of ninja that would dare challenge him!" Kyou added, making fists out of his hands. "Especially Sound nin. Don't you know? We've got nothing to worry about."

Go'on still shivered, but at least his twitching mouth was pulled into something like a smile now. Sunao took her hand off his arm.

Sasuke continued. "So, anyways. We leave tomorrow at nine AM. And don't arrive any earlier, you understand?" he said, staring pointedly at Kyou, who nodded eagerly. "We're to meet at the village gates. We'll be going on foot."

"What, we're not taking a transport up there?" Sunao said.

"No, we'll be traveling by foot."

(In the years following the war, a system of rail-based transports had been subsequently planned, commissioned, invented, and built, connecting first the capital cities of the Five Great Nations, and from there the capitals of the smaller countries, and so on, and so forth. They'd become something of a necessity in recent times, what with the civilian population rising, and the ninja population shrinking.)

(Sasuke, however, still insisted on traveling the old-fashioned way.)

"Well, that's fair, I suppose," she said.

"Yeah, great stamina training!" Kyou added.

Sasuke sighed, rubbing his temples. "So I trust you already know what to pack? We won't be there longer than maybe two weeks; the journey up shouldn't be more than a day or so."

"Of course, Sasuke-sensei! Basic camping and survival skills were covered in our academy classes," Kyou said, smiling widely. His forehead protector was beginning to slip again from all his nodding. "I'll be sure to pack exactly the right amount."

"I'm sure you will," Sasuke grumbled. "The rest will be covered when we get there. It'll be good stamina training, lifting lumber and the like. So, to get ready, we'll be doing some preparations, preliminary training. It should take up most of the afternoon. I'll give you the evening to pack and rest."

"Yes! Actual training! So are we gonna start with a more taijutsu-friendly approach, or ninjutsu?" Kyou clapped his hands together, but stopped when Sasuke glared at him, though he couldn't extinguish that crazed, over-enthusiastic smile of his. "Just lead the way, Sensei!"

Sunao shrugged half-heartedly as Sasuke left the classroom with a heavy sigh, Kyou tagging along behind him like a baby duck, chattering on about how many laps they were going to run, how many pushups, sets and things like that, right, Sensei?

Go'on remained inside the classroom, hands held tightly together. Sunao paused for a moment, head tilted, dark brown hair falling over her shoulder.

"Hey, you gonna be okay? It's only a little harsher than academy training," she said. He was trembling, badly. "You're not gonna pass out, are you?"

Go'on shook his head vigorously. "No, no, I'll be fine. It's just... I've never really been outside of Konoha and I'm kinda... Well, the things I've heard about..."

The poor thing looked like he was going to cry, and, having very little idea about what else to do, Sunao reached out and put her hand on his shoulder. "Come on, let's go catch up," she said, with as gentle a tone as she could manage. "You can just ask Sensei if you need to take a break, okay? And if you want, I can ask him for you, okay?" It was a voice she used with her younger siblings and cousins, a well-practiced one. Just anything to calm him down.

"No, no, it's fine..." Go'on said, managing another crooked smile. He was still shivering slightly. "I can handle... it." He pulled away from her and continued onward and out of the classroom, hearing Sasuke's annoyed voice down the hallway calling for them. But he took his time, and he kept his eyes to the floor.

Really, the further back he was from Sasuke-sensei, the less he had to see those red eyes that he had heard all the stories about, the better.

Those eyes terrified him.

-/-

The village of Tamina was in shambles, to put it kindly. But Sasuke had never been happier to rest anywhere in his life.

Nearly two days of travel with Kyou and he had only barely gotten the boy to shut up about anything. The best he could do was ignore, ignore, ignore and hope that for every conversation Kyou attempted with him, he'd deflect to the other two after a while, which happened with a comforting accuracy.

This wouldn't have been nearly as bad if it weren't for Go'on's tendency to lag behind and need to rest far more frequently than his teammates, no matter how many times Sasuke told him to man up and hurry up. They would have gotten to the village by early afternoon the day after setting out, but because of him, night was falling when they finally arrived, the sun half-set behind the collapsed hill rising above Tamina. Remnants of houses stuck out of it like broken bones. By then, everyone was tired, and hungry.

And Sasuke was not in a good mood. Obviously.

He kept himself sane by saying that once they got to the village he'd be able to get a good night's sleep alone, and then the mission would keep the boy out of his hair.

And afterwards? He was someone else's problem.

This was mostly an issue with Kyou. Well, and Go'on had made them late, so there was some anger directed towards him as well. And Sunao...

Well, one out of three wasn't enough, Sasuke figured. Much easier to swap out three students than just two.

In the distance, they heard a bell ringing out, and over the hill the glow of lanterns began to gather. The villagers greeted them with faces of dirty worry, and gratitude, illuminated yellow by the half-light.

And that was when Sasuke first saw it.

There was a shadow of something familiar in the crowd. Sasuke narrowed his eyes as they got closer, trying to figure out just what, exactly, it was. It had disappeared by the time they got within speaking distance of the crowd, but his mind was still elsewhere.

What was…?

"Thank you so much for coming to help us, Konoha-nin," an older man said, from the front of the crowd—the elder, Sasuke quickly remembered, from the informational scroll. He snapped back to the situation at hand. "I trust the journey over was pleasant?"

"We had a lovely time, the scenery was so nice and I've never been to the Land of Rice before but-"

"My team is very tired and we are in need of a place to set up camp," Sasuke said, nudging Kyou and bringing at least a temporary halt to his rambling. "Since I doubt there's anywhere else for us to stay."

The village elder shrunk back, tapping his calloused fingers together. "Normally, yes, I'd have you lodged in my home, but..."

"We don't want to be a bother," Sasuke said, in a tone that said, "Don't waste our time."

"Of course, of course... Well you could probably settle down near the edge of the forest, there hasn't been much damage there. Of course you'll have somewhere nicer to stay once the rebuilding starts and-"

"Just show us where it is," Sasuke said, tacking on a half-felt "Thank you," to the end, eyes locked on the elder. He'd been avoiding eye contact until then, not exactly fearing intimidation, but wanting to avoid the use of it as much as possible.

And his eyes had been searching the crowd, for that thing he had seen.

The elder simply nodded hurriedly and asked a handful of people near the front with him to escort Sasuke's team.

Kyou thanked them the entire way, after Sunao managed a mild thank-you of her own. Go'on stayed silent, shivering in the evening heat, eyes to the muddy ground.

Sasuke looked over his shoulder at the crowd, which had begun to disperse behind them.

A flicker, there was something in there, shoved out of sight in an instant, lost into the mass of people shuffling away. His mind stayed with the crowd long after they had moved out of sight, images he was trying to process clicking through his mind like shaky camera footage.

What was that…?

"We'll bring you some dinner soon, you must have had a long day," a woman said, and suddenly there he was at the forest's edge. The genin had started to unpack their things. How long had he been standing there...? "We don't have much to offer, but we hope it's appreciated."

"More than appreciated! I'm so hungry I could eat a-"

"That's fine. Thank you," Sasuke said. He began to take off his backpack, and when they did not leave, his eyes met theirs.

Hint taken, the villagers glanced at each other, nodded, and went on their way down the road back to the ruins.

Sasuke's so-called team continued making their arrangements, setting up tents, and the sun set.

Sasuke still had no idea what it was, exactly, he had seen there, back in the village. Though by the time a woman and her two children came by with a pot of rice and a lantern each, respectively, he had decided that it was nothing to worry about.

Just a shadow, nothing more.

The meal really wasn't much, but it was good. And there was something to be said about rice from the country - really from The Country - that just made any other rice pale in comparison. There was a richness, a freshness to the flavor that you couldn't get really anywhere else.

Sasuke knew the taste well, bitter memories included.

People said that smells had the strongest ties to memory.

He never thought he'd be thinking it, but he was almost glad that Kyou was talking at him almost non-stop during the meal, as it gave him something else to be annoyed at.

In all honesty, he hadn't really made the mental connection about where he was and what he had once done there, over two, almost three decades before. He'd folded those memories away, tucked them somewhere, and that had been that, not wanting, not needing to deal with it any more.

Land was just land, what was in the past was in the past. There had been treaties, and amnesty.

(Summoned memories were harder to get rid of. They threatened to unfold themselves. He could already hear that hollow laughter at the back of his head, the touch of those cold, white hands.)

He nudged Kyou aside again and filled his bowl with more rice from the pot over the fire ("Oh, sorry, Sasuke-sensei, was I in the way? I hope I'm leaving enough rice for you, I think it's only fair that you get more, you're our teacher after all, you know?"), waiting for the distractions of the next day.

He woke from a dream about red eyes and a voice he hadn't heard in years, but that was nothing unusual.

(Sasuke only ever dreamed of things he had seen before, heard before.)

The things required of them in Tamina were perfect for beginners. Simple, hard work. Hauling felled trees, raising walls, retrieving things lost in the earth.

Sasuke had to admit it: the genin had their flaws, but they worked hard, and without question. The villagers seemed to like Kyou enough, in his enthusiasm, doing all and anything he was asked and with terrific speed. Sunao was more stoic, but at least she did not complain nor shy away from the more difficult tasks.

Go'on made himself hard to find, though Sasuke once discovered him crouched at the base of a tree, breathing heavily, covered in sweat, his forehead pressed against the trunk.

"Just taking a… break, Sensei…" he had gasped. "I'll be back in a minute, I promise… I just need to…"

Luckily, he didn't faint.

Sasuke was needed for most of the difficult matters. Putting the mountain back where it belonged. Child's play, that.

He tried not to notice when people pointed and stared at his red eyes, but his eyes kept him from missing anything. And, true, people were still kind enough, bringing them refreshments, just like the other workers. Though some acted shyly, hesitantly, or just outright avoided him.

Well, it was to be expected. Some people just wouldn't let bygones be bygones, as Sasuke did.

They returned to their camp when the sun set, to bathe in the lake about a half-mile away and then eat some dinner.

But when they were on their way back…

There, in a face caught for just a half-second, wrapped in a blanket by a fire, before turning over in sleep.

What was that there…?

They ate rice around their plain fire, under the stars. "Amazing how many you can see out in the country, isn't it?" Kyou said, after pointing out several constellations. "The city just swallows up the rest of the sky normally. I read somewhere that it's 'cos of light pollution. Weird term, right? I think it's so nice to see so much, don't you agree, Sasuke-sensei?"

Sasuke said nothing, but at least Sunao told him that she thought they were nice.

He could have sworn…

It was nothing.

He did not dream, that night.

The third day was cloudy, and without shadows.

The third night, they were relocated to the elder's house, which had been finished in the morning, after the hill had been moved and the foundations for the other houses laid. His wife made them tea, and it was hot and sweet.

Go'on managed to not only spill his tea but also drop and shatter the cup it had come in, afterwards going to bed early, his dark hair in his eyes. Nobody said anything about it in the morning. Sasuke's reasoning was that, if he had said something, the boy would probably have a heart attack or snap or something, and he didn't want to have that on his hands. He was twitchy enough as it was.

He didn't feel terribly sorry for the kid, but…

It was the fourth day, and the village was starting to look like itself again. People were sleeping under roofs, instead of around fires.

There was talk of maybe a celebration, once all was said and done. And once-mistrustful glances, Sasuke found, had been replaced with nods while passing in the road and subtle words of thanks.

He was almost enjoying himself, of all things.

Kyou's energy was almost tolerable when channeled into productive uses, and Sunao and Go'on more than pulled their weight. They would probably be done by the end of the week, a good four or five days before schedule. Sasuke was careful not to tell them this, lest a stray compliment erupt into another episode of hero-worship from Kyou. They continued to do their work.

Of course, there were things Sasuke would honestly rather do.

He doubted that Inou had been keeping up on his exercises; it seemed like the boy needed constant reminders, else he'd be reading all day or otherwise wasting his time.

Like Nadeshiko.

Though Sasuke had long since given up on her.

And at least she was a chuunin.

(Well. At least, she used to be.)

The next round of exams was coming up in a few months, and Inou had already failed twice.

Not again.

They enjoyed real baths, that night, after going home early. And the elder's wife chattered on excitedly about maybe treating Sasuke to some warmed rice wine later in the evening, she was so glad it hadn't been damaged in the landslide. "Managed to get it out of the house before it hit. A lucky thing, that!"

Yes, he was almost enjoying himself, wanting to go home and listening to Kyou jabber away to Sunao about something or another.

But it was on that fourth night that the flickering thing finally moved out of the shadows.

And Sasuke saw his brother's face again for the first time in years.

Chapter Text

The boy glanced to the side and shifted his weight from one leg to another as his mother ladled rice porridge into Sunao's bowl.

Just like Itachi had always done, when he was trying to avoid saying something.

Sasuke couldn't take his eyes off of him. And his arrival had been so quiet, so understated.

Even though he had seen, beforehand, in the village, in the shadows…

He was just another village boy, accompanying another village woman with a meal for the Konoha-nin.

But those eyes, that face, his eyes.

Sasuke wondered if, perhaps, his own eyes were playing tricks on him.

A thousand images of his brother flashed through his mind, superimposing themselves on the boy's face. With the years melted away, the expression shifted from anger to anxiousness, the match was undeniable.

It was impossible. But Sasuke's eyes never lied.

But Itachi had been dead for 27 years. And this boy, he couldn't have been much older than ten, eleven…

"Something the matter?" The boy's mother, a woman with brown hair in a rope-like braid over her shoulder, was staring at Sasuke worriedly. And the boy's eyes met his for just the briefest of moments, before shifting to the floor in something like awkwardness or fear.

Sasuke closed his eyes, folding up the memories.

"Nothing. Thank you," he said. He cleared his throat, and dipped his spoon into his own bowl of porridge. There was a moment of quiet as the woman finished serving them, and put the lid back on the cast-iron pot. Kyou was already eating, too polite (or preoccupied) to pollute the air with his mouth full.

He heard the fire crackling in the elder's hearth, built just a few days before. He heard Go'on's spoon rattling against his bowl as he ate.

He heard the boy saying nothing. And he wondered if, maybe, his voice matched his eyes. If maybe he was only seeing things.

(But his eyes didn't lie. Why would he think his ears were any better?)

And then Sasuke found himself hurling words into the air. "If… you don't pardon my asking. May I have your names?"

"Excuse me?" The village woman's round eyes widened, her words halfway through an astonished chuckle.

"Your names. Please. So I might tell the elder how much I enjoyed your… rice." Sasuke could hardly believe what he was saying. The rice wasn't even that special. But, anything to…

Why did he feel so desperate? The woman replied before he could answer his own question.

"Well… gosh, I don't think there's much special about our rice. I mean, it's all from the same fields as everyone else." She laughed, blushing slightly as she pushed her braid behind her shoulders.

The boy just shifted his weight again, from one foot to the next. Eyes to the floor.

Kyou spoke next, between swallows. "Well maybe you're just a really good cook, ma'am! I really like it, myself!"

The woman blushed even harder, and she laughed. "Well, thank you very much, then! It's nothing but rice porridge, mind, but…"

"Then, so I might recommend this rice porridge to the elder," Sasuke continued, Kyou eagerly going back to his meal, "your names?"

"Oh, well, I'm Satoko. Honbo Satoko. And this is my son, Yakata." She nodded slightly, efficiently, pot still in hand.

"Hello," the boy, Yakata, said, with Itachi's voice.

The voice was lighter, younger, and yet it seemed like it had been only yesterday since Sasuke had last heard it.

"Thank you, Satoko. I shall give my compliments to the elder, when I next see him." He nodded slightly, barely smiling, just enough to dismiss her.

She left, the boy Yakata with her.

Sasuke, of course, didn't give her name to the elder when he came by to check on them and to bid them a good night, later that evening. Nor did he say anything to his wife, when she poured him a small cup of warm wine and thanked him, again, for his and his team's services.

But that face, that voice, that name invaded Sasuke's own thoughts for hours.

Surely it was just a coincidence.

An utter coincidence that he had just met a boy with the same face, the same eyes, the same everything as Itachi.

And Sasuke's eyes never lied.

What did it mean? He turned over in bed, scowling.

"Hello." That was all Yakata - that was his name, Yakata - had said. Enough to convince him.

…convince him of what, exactly? That, somehow, this boy was Itachi?

He turned over in bed again, onto his back, and he stared at the new ceiling.

It was impossible, for a number of reasons.

For one, Itachi was dead. That was undeniable, there was no arguing that.

…and even if he were still alive, Yakata was so young. No older than his own genin. Itachi would have been… forty-seven, forty-eight years old, if he were still alive.

…too young to be Itachi's child, if he had been born before then, horrifying and strange as that thought was.

Unless he was still alive.

…which he wasn't.

…and reincarnation was just stupid.

Sasuke turned onto his other side and scowled in the darkness, eyes spinning.

There had to have been an explanation for this. Everything could be explained.

…though what could possibly explain that?

The sun rose, and Sasuke was still not satisfied, the same handful of questions needlessly repeating in his mind. He didn't remember falling asleep.

His team rose later in the morning and stretched and ate the elder's wife's breakfast, and went down into the village to do what was asked of them.

Except for Sasuke.

He was following Yakata.

He'd been following the boy all morning.

Yakata was just there, in the town, when the genin were helping assemble more houses, making sure everything was accounted for. His team could take care of themselves, they were competent enough.

Sasuke watched him get tugged around by some boys - friends? Little scuffle-kneed children with messy hair like him. They played with slingshots, pestering some village girls, laughing. The girls shot glances at them, and the boys shot pebbles back.

Yakata, however, did not shoot girls, though the girls shot him looks well enough. He didn't even have a slingshot on his person, mainly hanging back, hesitantly, his eyes always elsewhere. But when a slingshot was forced into his hands, an ultimatum barked at him, he shot the trees, instead. And even then, it was reluctantly, as if he didn't wish to harm even unfeeling branches.

He had the best shot, Yakata. They used little stones and they aimed at the high branches, and even when they dared each other to shoot higher, at smaller targets, he always seemed to hit them, without fail.

But his eyes were downcast, he'd always resist when they pressured him to participate further, shoving him around.

"No, guys, come, come on, st-stop it…" he'd say, with Itachi's voice. But they'd keep making him show off - "C'mon, witch-boy!" - until they got bored, or ran out of trees, Sasuke couldn't tell.

They got onigiri from their mothers - that had been Itachi's favorite food, hadn't it? - and ate them and got rice all over their faces.

All but him, that boy, Yakata, who ate politely, cleanly, and licked the rice off his fingers when all was said and done. He sat apart from them and made no attempts at conversation.

Sasuke did not ever follow him home.

The observation continued for two more days.

Two more days of Kyou's blathering at night, two more days of Go'on's shivering, two more days of Sunao's sighs and reassuring words.

Two more nights of dreams where Itachi seemed to draw nearer and nearer to him, his voice louder and louder.

The village seemed to grow and come more and more alive, though very little of it was due to any of Sasuke's actions. There was the occasional chore here, the occasional favor there, but the houses rose and rose and rose and he did not remember touching a one.

And with every passing day, with every second more that he saw of the boy, the more he believed, the more he knew who he was.

And then, one day, Yakata walked into the forest in the afternoon, removing himself from the tangle of children that seemed so much dirtier than he was.

And Sasuke followed. He took to the trees, keeping to the shadows, almost afraid that the slightest sound would make him disappear.

Catching glimpses of those eyes. His eyes.

Itachi's eyes.

And then, there were words.

"I, I know you're there."

The boy had spoken.

Sasuke held his breath. Eyes fixed.

The boy Yakata looked up and around, searching. "You're, you're that ninja, aren't you? You're, you're that man. With the, with the red eyes."

That man with the red eyes.

How was it possible that a voice could sound so different, and yet entirely familiar?

"I… I've seen you around the village. You, you know, um. Helping rebuild, and…" His face was tilted away from Sasuke's; he was talking to an empty tree. "You, you and your students, I, I, I know you have three, right? You've… you've all done a very good job." He stared at his sandals, and shifted his weight, once, twice. "So, thank you! From, from me. And, uh, my, my family, I guess…"

Sasuke said nothing, did nothing but marvel, breathe, observe.

"My, my name's Yakata, by the way! Um."

Sasuke's chest rose and fell.

"But I, I think I, I told you that already, or, uh, at least, I, I think my mama did…"

She had. Sasuke remembered.

"But, anyways, I, I, don't, um. I, I don't think I know your name…"

I'm Sasuke. Uchiha Sasuke. You know me, he wanted to say. You're supposed to know me.

The boy looked up again, looked around, eyes filled with worry. "Look, I, I, I know you're… I know you're listening! I know you're there. I, I saw you. I've, I've seen you. In, in the village."

And Sasuke had been trying so hard to stay out of sight. Was it really that-

"W-why are you following me?"

Sasuke's breath caught in his throat. The only sound was the rustle of the leaves, the wind.

Say nothing, do nothing, or he'll leave, and it will be all over.

"I, I mean, I, I knew you were always, um. Always just, just a few steps away…" A shift in weight from one foot to the next. "I didn't… I didn't want to say anything, because, um…" He looked at the sky, clasping his hands behind his back, and he groaned very, very softly. "I, I, I just don't know! Did I… d-did I do something wrong? I, I, I, mean, Papa told me to st-stay away from you, or…" he continued, then trailed off, looking at his feet again. "I, I'm sorry, I was trying to stay out of the way, but, if, if there was something I did..."

That's not it, Sasuke wanted to say. That's not it at all. Don't apologize. Your father's wrong, you don't need to stay away.

"Or, maybe…" The boy walked in a half a circle, and then back, almost talking to himself now. "Well, if, if, if it's not my fault, then… Then, there must be a reason why you keep, um. F-following me…"

It's because of who you are.

"I, I, I just didn't know if, if I was just, um. Imagining things or not… So, so that's why, why I went into the woods, you see? To, to, to see if you'd really f-follow me here. And, and you did. So, um…" Fingers ran through his black hair. "Ugh, what do I do? I, I don't, I don't even know if you're listening…"

But I am listening.

"M-maybe I thought you'd… you'd talk to me, or something? And, and tell me what was going on? Um. Who are you? I don't… I don't even know your name."

Say nothing.

And the boy said nothing.

And then, this.

"Wait… maybe you're my…?"

And he stopped talking, stopped pacing, ten year old eyes blinking in frustration as the question ended itself before it could be fully asked.

And in Sasuke's mind a million possibilities began to blossom.

Wait what? Maybe what? Maybe he was his what? What did he mean?

What did any of it mean?

But Sasuke said nothing. Waiting. Listening. Barely breathing.

"I, I, I just want to know why you're following me. C-can you, um, can you come down from there and just… just talk to me?"

And it was in that instant that the boy looked him right into the eyes.

With his brother's eyes.

"Please?"

Itachi's eyes.

And then Kyou was yelling for him and the moment was just.

Gone.

"Sasuke-sensei! Sasuke-sensei! Come quick, come quick!" Sasuke could hear him gasping from so far off. He must have been running for a while. Like always. Hadn't Sasuke told him that he didn't need to run everywhere…?

The boy, Yakata, his brother - he knew this, somehow, he just knew this - turned his head in that graceful way, searching for the sound.

Damn it, damn it, damn it.

Sasuke leaped away, leaving nothing behind but his anger in the trees.

Gone.

"Sasuke-sensei, I need you, this is serious-"

Kyou bumped into Sasuke's chest, and after regaining his balance, looked at his teacher expectantly, shoulders rising and falling with heavy breaths.

"I'm here. What do you want?" And how dare you, Sasuke wanted to add. But he said nothing.

"It's Go'on-kun! He… he's, I don't know, I just need your help and…!" Kyou gasped and reached for his forehead protector, which had fallen over his eyes. "There's something wrong with him!"

Great. If it was a problem, and it wasn't Kyou, it was Go'on. Sasuke sighed. How dare they. "Where is he."

Kyou took a few more deep breaths, before tying off his forehead protector. "Just… follow me, okay, Sensei? I'll take you there." He held out a hand, as if he could lead Sasuke that way.

"Just hurry."

The sooner they got this resolved, the better.

(Why did that have to happen just then? Why?)

And they ran.

He hoped his brother would stay put.

He doubted it.

A small crowd had gathered at the edge of the forest, nearer to the village. Sunao was making an admirable effort at calming people and keeping them away from… whatever it was that was happening.

The point of interest, as it turned out, was a tree. The tree was tall, an old pine, forty, maybe fifty feet tall. And at the very top, there was Go'on, shivering, clinging for dear life, head tucked into his chest.

"Oh, I would love to hear the story behind this," Sasuke said, crossing his arms. "Sunao, what happened here?"

"I don't know, he was getting really nervous about something and he looked like he was gonna throw up and - ow, please! - the next thing I knew, he was up there and Kyou-kun went to get you." A villager shoved her aside, trying to get a look at the spectacle. "Sir, please, I don't think that's helping…"

Sasuke sighed, kneading the skin between his eyes. This was what was so important? More important than him?

"Let me take care of this. Both of you, pay attention."

Kyou's eyes snapped open in an instant, from where he was gasping nearby, hands on his knees. Sunao craned her neck, and even the villagers seemed to have quieted down a little, now that Sasuke was involved. They seemed to find him strangely fascinating, compelling, and would gather at the smallest thing he did, be it transporting several tons of earth up the mountain to making fire without any sort of match. Civilians. It was to be expected.

Chakra concentrated in his feet, Sasuke dashed up the tree. Might as well make this a learning opportunity, he figured. Lemons out of lemonade.

And hadn't Kakashi-sensei taught them how to do this during that mission out it the Land of Waves…?

Ah. Memories.

He ran. And when Sasuke was where Go'on was, he scowled. "What are you doing," he said.

Go'on lifted his head for a brief moment, and his eyes met Sasuke's. He dissolved into a string of incoherent, stuttered vowels, clinging to the tree even harder, eyes shut tight.

Oh, this was going to be lovely to deal with. And he had such better things to do.

"Look, just calm down. Are you scared?" Go'on shook his head. A pause. And then a great deal of terrified nodding. Wonderful. "Okay, okay. I'm going to get you down from here." Sasuke held out an arm for Go'on to take. Quickly, now.

"No! No, just… just let me stay up here for a little while longer. Okay?" He clung more tightly to the tree, cheek pressed against the bark. "Okay..?"

"You know that I'm just going to stay up here with you until you decide to come down," Sasuke said.

"…that's fine…" Go'on's voice was very, very soft.

Sasuke sighed again, and yelled down to his other students, "I'm gonna stay up here with him!"

"You sure you don't need our help, Sensei?" Kyou yelled back.

"Just go already!" Sasuke replied, and settled down on a more comfortable branch, eyes on Go'on. Within minutes, the two remaining genin had scattered all but the most curious of onlookers, Sunao staying behind to shoo away any incoming rubberneckers, Kyou heading back to the village proper. Well, he couldn't fault those two.

And Go'on was still up in the tree, not saying a word.

Well, he did say one thing: "…I'd really appreciate it if… if you didn't stare at me like that, S-Sensei…" That was about five minutes in, and Sasuke had obeyed.

It gave him a lot of time to think.

He was very quickly angry at Kyou again. And then back at Go'on (another glare from Sasuke, there - the boy had his eyes closed very tightly, so he didn't notice). Since, if he hadn't gone and freaked out and climbed up the tree or whatever, they wouldn't be here.

And he'd still be in the forest. Observing, again. Maybe talking to him.

Though he had no idea what he would say.

Never mind the fact that if Sasuke hadn't been out chasing shadows, then maybe Go'on might not have panicked, or whatever had happened. Or maybe he still would have! It didn't matter now.

What mattered now was Itachi.

…no, no, what had he said his name was?

Yakata. Where was Yakata? Was he still in the forest, waiting for him? No, probably in the village, somewhere.

…who was he, really?

It's Itachi, obviously, of course, why are you thinking otherwise? A tiny voice at the back of his head was insisting, tinny and persistent. It's him.

And then, another voice. Flatter, more rational: How in the world is that even possible? Stop thinking strange things. It's just a coincidence. You're smarter than this.

(He'd been having this argument with himself for days.)

That was just a coincidence?

Okay, so maybe it was. Somehow.

…right.

His eyes and his mind kept insisting otherwise. And that face, it was his face. And his eyes, nobody else had those eyes. How could it not be Itachi?

Sasuke didn't want to have to list the reasons. Again. But he did, anyways.

He was too young, only ten years old (definitely ten, he looked ten). If, somehow, he had been born before Itachi's passing, then he would be older than Sasuke's oldest son, Hajime; at least twenty-seven. And if Itachi had, somehow, had a child of his own, who'd had a child… Yakata was too old, in that case.

But if Itachi were still alive…

Itachi would be…

…no, that possibility was worse than that flimsy idea of reincarnation.

Itachi had died before Sasuke's own eyes. That was why Sasuke had these eyes, now. His brother's eyes were now his own, and they had been for years.

…but what if, somehow…?

Yakata had said something about his father telling him to stay away from Sasuke. "Or…" Else. No other words could come after such a statement.

Stay away from Sasuke, or else.

Yakata had said, "Wait… maybe, you're my…?"

Surely there was some reason for this? Surely he meant to ask something?

He meant something. This meant something.

Most villagers were polite, offering things, being too helpful. Or avoiding gazes and words, but not outright everything.

And hadn't Sasuke not seen the boy's father yet, when he had met or at least seen practically everyone else…? He would have noticed anyone even remotely resembling the boy.

The mother did not resemble him, with her brown hair, with her round eyes. But the father, the hidden man…

Maybe it had been for the boy's own good. The boy's father had told him to stay away from Sasuke. Or else. Why wouldn't he?

And maybe, just maybe…

"Maybe you're my papa's brother?" He could hear the boy's hesitant little voice in his mind completing the sentence.

Sasuke didn't know how or why, but… Itachi was still alive, somehow. Somehow! And Yakata was living proof.

After all, what else could it have been?

Sasuke had to do something. But what? He didn't even know what he would say to Itachi. Not now, not after everything that had happened.

What would he say?

It was only Go'on's slight movement from above that wrested him from his thoughts. "I think… I'm okay now, Sensei."

"Oh. That's good, Go'on. Wonderful." A million thoughts bloomed into a billion, clinging to the only rational explanation he had. Nothing else fit. He'd been too eager, projecting the wrong face onto someone who was only half-related. The resemblance was just so strong, though.

The words Itachi and Son and Nephew didn't fit together. They couldn't.

But here, maybe, somehow, maybe…

His heart felt so light, beating so fast, felt so hot, felt so…

"Sensei, are you… okay?" Go'on was hanging, almost upside-down, from an adjacent branch. The sun was setting, and it cast a golden glow on his skin, making it look darker than it already was. "I'm sorry, I… didn't mean for this to happen, I just…"

Sasuke shook his head, back to reality, back to this matter. First things first. Couldn't let excitement get in the way of things. "You can apologize when we get down. Here." He offered his arm. "I'll help you. Grab on."

"Nah, that's okay, Sensei. I can get down just fine."

Go'on's smile was like one of those creatures you saw only in nature magazines, but never in the wild. It was quick and it was timid, and it disappeared very quickly.

And, in seconds, Go'on was on the ground, having swung and dropped and jumped effortlessly between branches, like he had been born to do it. A far cry from the shivery little child from the days before, dropping tools and teacups and making a general fool of himself. The one who couldn't possibly have scored best in weapons use and taijutsu.

(Yes, Sasuke had read the reports given to him. He just found them hard to believe.)

Well, huh.

And a pressing little question that had been patiently waiting its turn in Sasuke's mind finally got his attention, braving the ideas that were crowding his thoughts of families and reunions and impossible circumstances and what would he ask.

How had Go'on even gotten up there in the first place? It was a tall tree, and the branches, especially near the top, were few and far between.

His mind was grounded as suddenly as Go'on was, neatly tucking away the excitement and the everything else, for later. How had he done it, anyways?

Sasuke made his way back to earth to find Sunao asking Go'on if he was okay, and what had been the matter, and did he need anything?

"You can explain yourself on our way back to the elder's house, Go'on," Sasuke said, crossing his arms.

Go'on began shivering again, hands shoved in his pockets, shoulders high. "Y-yes, Sensei…"

Go'on's explanation did not meet Sasuke's approval, but the boy certainly tried. He couldn't articulate what, exactly, had frightened him so, despite Sunao's gentle pressings. Half-words came out that resembled "too many people" and "staring at me" and "mean looks" and "kept talking" and "said I was sorry" and, over and over, "felt sick, felt really sick."

However, he made one thing incredibly clear.

"I just felt more comfortable up there than down here," he explained, shrugging. "It really did calm me down, honest…"

Sasuke sighed. "Either way. How did you get up there, however?"

There was Go'on's rare smile again. "I like climbing trees."

"That doesn't answer my question." Sasuke's eyes were on him again. The smile fluttered away.

"…well, I… I dunno, Sensei. I just reached for branches an' I pulled myself up, I, I guess." He shrugged again. "M'sorry, I must have caused a lot of trouble."

"You didn't cause much trouble," Sasuke said, nothing in his tone to indicate sincerity, though he was technically telling the truth. "I'm actually a little impressed, Go'on. That was a difficult tree to climb. When we get back to Konoha, you'll have to show me how you did it." Since, really, he was curious.

It wouldn't hurt, Sasuke figured. He could keep the team a little while longer. They were… surprisingly more competent than he had originally thought, and it made him just ever so vaguely pleased.

And besides, he always made time for his family.

All he had to do was take care of the genin, first. Get their training out of the way. Work with them during the day, and tend to his clan at night. It'd be difficult, but somehow he found himself not minding this idea, terribly.

And maybe that night, he'd be able to…

"I… don't know so much about that, Sensei," Go'on said, after a short while. They reached the elder's house, and Sasuke opened the door to let his students inside. "I, I mean, I could certainly try…"

"You can do it," Sasuke said. It was a command, and not encouragement. "Besides, if you can't do it - which I'm sure won't be the case - I'll still teach you how I climbed the tree."

"With the chakra in the base of your feet, right? I think I remember hearing something about that."

Sunao, with the best test scores overall and the best general chakra manipulation. That, he had been able to believe.

"That's right. It's an invaluable ninja skill and the sooner you learn it, the better," Sasuke said. "It won't be too hard for you, right?"

"No! 'course not…" Go'on said, suddenly and loudly. He bit his lip, afterward.

Sasuke found himself half-sighing, half-laughing. "What are you, Kyou? Get inside already."

Go'on, managing a smile, entered the house with Sunao, who smiled too, relieved.

"You two rest up. I'll be in the village if you need me," Sasuke said, from the doorway, not bothering to take his shoes off.

"Oh, well, they're celebrating down there, so it'll be really busy!" Sunao said. "We finally got all the work done."

Had they really? Sasuke only vaguely remembered this. Then again…

"Go have some fun or something, then," Sasuke said, managing a faintly discernable smile. "I won't stop you."

"No, thanks…" Go'on was taking off his sandals.

"Why not, Go'on-kun?" Sunao asked.

Go'on gulped. "Too many…" He was shivering again.

And her eyes snapped widely open, pieces falling into place. "Oh… Oh! Oh, I'm sorry… I'll stay in with you, if you want," she said.

"No, that's fine… Go have fun," Go'on said. "I'll be fine on my own."

"You sure? I worry about you."

Sasuke smirked as he let them continue talking in the foyer, listening to their voices fade out of earshot.

So maybe he was getting a little fond of them. So what?

The good mood only deepened when he thought of what he had to do. The thoughts unwrapped themselves, finally, filling him with that white, hot excitement.

It had to be true.

He'd find someone, ask about Yakata and his family - Honbo, right? That was the name he was using - and where they lived now.

He hadn't followed the boy home, not once.

And then, maybe, just maybe…

He'd see Itachi again, and not just the little half-shadow that was his son, Yakata.

Sasuke had been too eager, but this, this had to be true. It was the only thing that made a remote ounce of sense.

It couldn't hurt.

He'd really see his brother again.

But, as he walked, he found himself in the woods again, in the trees, watching Yakata look at him with his father's eyes.

He didn't know what he would say. He didn't know what he could say.

Not to him.

Chapter Text

Oh, the Honbo family? Wasn't their house put over there?

Why, yes it was.

You did such a wonderful job, shinobi-san. We're so very grateful.

Village women all seemed to look the same. But Sasuke thanked them, as was expected of him, and he heard them titter away towards the fires and the wine and the dancing.

He wouldn't be out of the house for something like this. Not without his eyes.

Unless, somehow, he still had…?

How was that even possible?

Sasuke supposed that he would find out on his own, in due time.

Goodness, and Sasuke had thought that Yakata was his brother… What had gotten into him? That was blatantly impossible, for just so many reasons. Though the resemblance was just uncanny. But there were explanations for that.

He found the Honbo house. He didn't remember helping to build it - probably the work of one of his students - and he knocked softly on the door.

He could hardly believe what he was doing, but.

But maybe, just…

Yakata answered the door, and his black, familiar eyes widened. "Sasuke-san?"

Sasuke said nothing, red eyes blinking once, twice. Where had he heard…?

Yakata shrunk back. "Oh, I'm, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I, I, I just heard your student calling for you, and…" So he had remembered. Yakata stopped, fidgeted, stared at his feet, then back at Sasuke. "Why, why, why are you here?"

"Is your father home, Yakata? I wanted to meet with him." And Sasuke was almost smiling, what in the world had gotten into him?

He didn't tell himself to not get his hopes up, to prepare for disappointment, because this was the only thing that made sense. Nothing else could explain what his eyes could not deny.

Itachi was alive. And there was Yakata, the proof. Nothing else made sense.

His breath caught in his throat, like it had in the forest, when Yakata said, "Papa's not… he, he, he's not home right now."

"Where is he?"

"I-in the village."

"Where in the village?"

"I, I, I don't know."

"When will he be back?"

"Later." Yakata looked up at Sasuke with his father's eyes, almost fearfully. "Wh-why do you want to, to talk to him?"

What could he say? "Let's just say that there are some things I've been wanting to ask him." That was vague enough, and true enough.

"Oh," Yakata said.

"Yakata, who's that at the door?" His mother arrived, peering above Yakata's shoulder, the woman named Satoko. Itachi's… wife? She was younger than Sasuke expected, now that he thought about it.

"Satoko-san," Sasuke said, nodding. He could at least be polite. He was even using honorifics. "I was asking to see if your husband was home."

"Oh, he just stepped out for a moment. He should be home soon, though," she replied, nodding back, then tilting her head at him. "What did you need from him?"

"Just to ask a few questions," Sasuke said again, "if it's not too much trouble."

He still didn't know what he would ask.

"Well he shouldn't take long. Would you like to come in and wait for him? I just made some tea."

The least he could do was accept her politeness. "I appreciate it. Thank you."

"Yakata, please show our guest in," Satoko said, disappearing into the house.

"Call me Sasuke," Sasuke told her.

"Ah." Her face shifted, so slightly, at his insistence. "Then please show Sasuke-san in, Yakata."

Yakata stepped aside, keeping his eyes on Sasuke as he took off his shoes, then entered the wooden house.

The handiwork was much better than he was expecting. Guided by a carpenter, made by his genin. They had done a good job, everyone was saying this.

"Just a moment," Satoko said, waving her hand. "I'll go get the teacups. Yakata, find Sasuke-san a seat, please."

Leaving Sasuke and Yakata alone in the main room.

Yakata brought him a cushion, and even though it was somewhat dirty, Sasuke sat down on it.

Silence.

"Um."

Yakata.

"If, if, if you don't mind me asking. What, what, what do you want to, to ask my papa?"

What did Sasuke want to ask Itachi?

"A lot of things."

"Oh." The boy was sitting, now, neatly, formally, perfectly, on the floor. He'd been taught well. "Things about… about me?" he said, after a while.

Sasuke had a lot of things he wanted to ask about Yakata. "I suppose there are some things I want to ask him about you."

Yakata's hands held each other very tightly. "Oh."

They sat across from each other, keeping their words captive, wondering why the tea was taking so long.

Sasuke lost control, for a moment. "Is he good to you? Your father, I mean."

Why did he ask that, why did he ask that? Was that the only way he could ask about Itachi?

"…yeah. I, I like him. Mama, too."

Why did he say that?

"…so I, I, I guess this means… you're… you're him, aren't you," Yakata said.

The words stuck in the air and got into Sasuke's throat, and he couldn't say anything.

"Since... since I, I look a lot like, like you, I guess." He glanced to the side, but he was still talking. "That's… that's why you, you were following me, wasn't it."

You look like me because you look like him, Sasuke thought. It's in your blood.

Still feeling like if he said anything now, did anything now, that the boy would be gone.

But the boy was not his brother, he was just the proof.

"I, I just didn't, I didn't think… you'd actually come. H-here, I mean. Um." He looked at Sasuke, and didn't say anything more.

"Well I'm here, now, aren't I?"

He almost had to clear his throat, feeling like he'd broken through a crust of the unspoken.

Really, what else could he say?

Yakata's smile was small, but nervous, full of apprehension, like his voice.

Sasuke wanted to tell him to stop smiling like that, because there was nothing to be nervous over, but Satoko came by with the teacups, finally.

"Apologies for the wait. It wasn't quite ready yet." She put the cups on a tray, with the teapot. They were mismatched, but merchants and packages of goodwill from nearby villages had been slowly replacing what had been lost, so one had to take what one could get. She poured tea into one of the cups and handed it to Sasuke. "Here you go."

Sasuke held the teacup in his hands, but didn't drink from it.

"Yakata, dear, don't stare," she whispered, sitting down beside him. Sasuke still heard her. Yakata lowered his eyes. "So, uh, Sasuke-san. You were the one that enjoyed my rice porridge so much, weren't you?"

"Mm."

"Told the elder, didn't you?"

"Mm."

"I wonder, should I make something special for him, or is what I made for you what you liked so much?"

"I don't have an opinion."

Yakata wasn't staring, but Sasuke was. He couldn't see Satoko's expression.

"I… hope my Yakata wasn't bothering you too much," she added, after a while, resistance in her voice.

"He wasn't."

All Sasuke felt like doing was waiting. So he did. The tea cooled in his hands.

The door slid open, behind him.

He held his breath.

"I'm back."

Whose voice was that?

"Welcome home. We have a guest, dear," Satoko said, standing, going to greet him. "Sasuke-san, the ninja from Konoha."

There was no answer from the foyer.

"The grown one," she added, quietly, from behind; and then, much quieter: "The one with those eyes."

"…what does he want?"

"To talk to you."

Whose voice was that? Who was she talking to? Who was that sighing there?

"Just be polite and see what he wants."

Did they really think he couldn't hear them?

Sasuke could hear their footsteps coming closer. He could hear his heart beating in his ears.

Itachi was standing right behind him.

He closed his eyes.

What would he say? What should he say?

The seconds passed like years.

And then, the words came. "It's been a long time," Sasuke said.

"…has it really?"

Who was that?

The footsteps traveled around beside him, before him.

Sasuke took a breath.

And opened his eyes.

…where was Itachi?

There was Satoko, his wife; there was Yakata, his son.

But who was that man sitting there? And where was Itachi?

"…no, really, have we met?" the man said.

He had a square jaw and brown hair and brown eyes. He was younger than Itachi, younger than Sasuke.

"…who are you?" The words were lifeless as they fell out of Sasuke's mouth.

"Well, my name's Honbo Gishi; my wife told me that you're Sasuke-san, from Konoha, yes?"

Sasuke didn't answer.

"Is there something I can do for you, Sasuke-san?"

Yakata stared at his knees. He looked nothing like his mother. He looked nothing like his father. Sasuke could see that, plainly.

But he looked like Itachi.

It had to be true. Nothing else could explain this. It had to be.

And Sasuke's eyes never lied to him.

But what could explain the two pairs of unfamiliar eyes, staring at him there, the air growing thicker and thicker? The one pair he knew refusing to look at him?

And all of this in that land where he had once been the prize of a snake, a land he tried to forget. That he had forgotten, once.

Gishi - not Itachi not Itachi - asked him something again, but Sasuke couldn't really hear him.

Something something mistaken for someone something no.

It was like a bad dream.

No.

A nightmare. All of this.

The man who was asking him what was going on, the woman with the tea that was growing cold that looked worried, so worried.

Yakata, that mirror image. That shadow. That boy with his brother's eyes.

Where was Itachi?

He had to be here.

But he had been dead for so long. Sasuke had seen him die. And his eyes never lied to him.

Why was this happening? Why was this happening? Why was this happening?

Where was Itachi?

(Itachi wasn't there.)

Sasuke couldn't even remember what he had said to excuse himself, but he just needed to get out of that house.

He took his shoes, and he left.

(Quietly, Yakata apologized, hating himself.)

-/-

The elder's house was silent when Sasuke entered, the fire in the hearth down to glowing embers.

That boy's face swam in his mind. Superimposed, a perfect fit, those eyes, those very same eyes…

No. No, no, no.

It was a coincidence. That, more than anything else, more than anything else, proved that. It was just a coincidence.

Itachi was dead. He had been dead for 27 years. And that was where the story ended. His eyes were with Sasuke, and that was where they stayed.

Sasuke was not tired, but he felt like he just needed to sleep.

He couldn't.

He sat up, he held his forehead in his hands.

He got up, he paced.

Wishful thinking. Was that what it had been? No, no, no, wishful thinking was "Gee, wouldn't it be nice if Itachi were still around?"

Wishful thinking was "Gosh, I wish I could just talk to my brother and tell him all the things I never got to say."

Wishful thinking was not "My brother's still alive, oh, and he's happily married with a wife and kid out in the Land of Rice!"

Sasuke was talking to himself, now, walking in wide circles around the elder's living room.

(There was nobody else in the house. Good.)

What the hell was wrong with him? He didn't miss Itachi that badly, did he?

Well of course he missed Itachi, ever since he had found out about the truth. But everything that had happened in Tamina, in the Honbo house; this little nightmare, this little cataclysm. What was it in the first place?

That, that was what he was concerned about. Was that - this, whatever that was - even missing Itachi?

To think that some random farm boy - no, not the boy, his father - had been him? However impossible that fact was? Why had he been so eager to accept that this was - had been - whatever - the truth?

There was a table, and Sasuke had an urge to kick it, to destroy it.

There, and gone. He couldn't bring attention to himself here, he didn't want to have to explain himself in the morning.

Damn it.

He loved his brother, certainly. Not a day went by that he was not thankful for his countless sacrifices. But to miss him enough to want him back? No, that wasn't wrong, that was a common thing.

(Sasuke, a grown man, with children of his own, still missed his mother.)

But… but to actually convince himself that he had come back or, or hadn't even died in the first place, though? To have those, those…

delusions?

Damn it, damn it, damn it.

Sasuke stopped to hold his forehead, his fingers clenching, his eyes spinning furiously. That's what it was, wasn't it. Not wishful thinking, just delusions and coincidence.

He felt disgusted. His head hurt.

He wanted to leave. To just… pack up everything and return to Konoha, to his clan. His living clan.

He had five children. Hajime, Takeru, Nadeshiko, Inou, Karai. A clan. None of them were nearly as talented as Itachi - as Sasuke himself, even - had been.

Hajime was average.

Takeru, he was proud of, and for good reason.

Nadeshiko was…

A pause. A scowl.

His greatest disappointment.

Inou had failed the chuunin exams twice already.

And Karai was too young for him to tell, but she disappointed nearly as much as Inou did, unmotivated and ordinary as she was.

They were Uchihas, but they were flawed, in a way. Incomplete. There was always something wrong with them.

…was that really a reason to miss Itachi? Itachi, who had been…

…perfect.

Great.

Why was he still thinking about that?

Fine.

He was done thinking about it. He would fold up his little nightmare and never think about…

Those eyes, Yakata, his—

When he said never he meant never.

Damn it!

Really. That was it. He would just forget about it, like he had forgotten about everything else that had ever happened. And he would go home.

They were done with their mission, weren't they? They could leave whenever they wanted to.

Oh. Yeah. "They." He still had his three students to keep track of.

Where the hell were they?

Sasuke figured he'd see them in the morning, anyways. He felt tired, and he was going to bed. Really, this time.

He and his students would return to Konoha in the morning. They would rest, and then resume training.

(Some small part of him really did wonder how Go'on had climbed the tree, wanting to record it with his Sharingan.)

And he would forget that he had ever had those thoughts in the first place.

Embarrassing. He was better than this. He had better things to do.

He would take care of it in the morning.

He'd take care of it in the.

Morning.

He dreamed of Itachi, that night, and Yakata.

It was a nightmare.

-/-

Kyou was, in fact, in the village, listening with rapt attention as an older boy told him and a bunch of the other youngsters stories about the Riverman, who came out of, duh, the rivers at night, searching for the man who had made him out of mud and dust and bones, seeking eternal rest.

"No, no, no, you got it all wrong. He's searching for his master, who said he'd come back someday," one child said, hugging his knees, trying not to show his fear. "An' he wasn't made by nobody, he's just waiting for his master."

"And how would you know that?" said the older boy, who knew everything.

"Cos I've seen 'im. I heard 'im say it himself."

And everyone called him out on it and okay, okay, fine, so he hadn't seen the Riverman, his little knees knocking together as they shivered.

But they were still wrong about the thing about him looking for the guy who made him, he said. Nobody believed any of that, though.

And then Kyou, master of stories, devourer of history and fiction alike, who didn't care where the real ended and the fantastic began, said that he had a story to tell.

About the Woman of the Woods. From where he was from. She was at least ten times scarier than the Riverman.

None of them believed him.

So he told them about her.

About how she was an abductor of children, and how she would seal them into trees without a moment's hesitation.

Kyou and his stories were very popular, for the rest of the night, and he was more than glad to tell them.

He was a smart boy, and he knew a million stories. He knew about the Sage of the Six Paths and the Hokages and the heroes of the Great Ninja Wars and the Sannin and the jinchuuriki and just everything. He knew stories about everything from before the Founding of the Hidden Villages to whatever new gossip the women who came by to have their clothes mended by his father had to share.

And Sasuke-sensei, the stories he could tell about him.

He collected stories like most people collected stamps, or coins. But coin collectors never spent their coins. Stamp collectors never used their stamps. Kyou shared his stories as often and as easily as he collected them.

By the time he was through, practically everyone knew about the Woman, some even claiming that she lived in the woods right outside the village, that there were trees where, if you put your ear up to them, you could still hear the screaming of the children inside.

They were wrong, of course, but that was the nature of stories. They changed.

The Woman only lived in Konoha, everyone knew that, and in one forest and one forest alone: Training Ground Number 44. The Forest of Death. That is why she was what older people called an urban legend, and what younger people simply called a legend.

Sunao was among the women, asking about recipes, and they were more than willing to share. She was a smart girl, she learned by watching and by listening. And she wanted to bring something back from the Land of Rice that she could use at home.

Practicality! It was her favorite word, after all. Well, technically, it was just "Practical," but what was the big difference?

Yeah, she had favorite words. She also made lists in her head about people she wanted to spar with - she had always wanted to see what it would be like to fight an Aburame - and her favorite foods. And least favorite foods. And not just hers, but her family's, her friends'. She'd been the one to tell Kyou that Sasuke's favorite food was tomatoes, after all, when he'd pulled her aside in the hallway the afternoon they'd been assigned to a team together.

That stuff was more important, especially when you had a five year old tugging at your shirt asking for a snack when you were busy cooking and could only reach for something within a three foot radius and he'd burst into tears if there wasn't even the slightest trace of strawberry in it. She just didn't understand her step-brother sometimes, but then again, he was five.

Whatever. She had a lot of time to think to herself when cooking breakfast and dinner for her siblings. She found ways to keep herself entertained when the rest of the world was so very boring.

That was the good part of all of it, really. When the world was so boring, it was so easy to find little pieces of happiness.

Her siblings had to cook for themselves for the first time in forever, since she was gone on this mission. She was worried about them, but at the same time, she knew they'd be fine. It had to happen eventually.

And then there was Go'on, who was still in the elder's house.

He heard every word that Sasuke said, after opening the door with an almost murderous intent, talking so loudly to himself that Go'on could hear him, even from the loft where he and his teammates slept.

He wondered who Itachi was.

He was a smart boy, and he figured it out very quickly. And he felt a supreme sadness, for Sasuke, for his children, for the poor soul that had been mistaken for his brother, whoever he was.

At least, he felt this way once Sasuke had finally gone to sleep, mumbling, "In the morning, deal with it… in the morning…"

When he was still awake, when he was stomping around and speaking like a man possessed, Go'on was terrified.

He had told Sunao to go on ahead, to have fun, that he would go to bed early.

He'd rather face a million crowds, a million faces of hatred and accusation, a million possible former Sound ninja than this.

If he had known that this, that this would happen…

His mother had told him, as a child, that Sasuke had once been a monster. She knew this because she had seen it herself, as a girl. That there were times when he used to get a fire in his eyes, when his skin became mottled with a black uncleanness like flames.

He wasn't a monster any more, of course. At least, not on the outside.

Go'on felt terrible for thinking such things.

And then he thought of his mother, eyes closed tightly, as he held his legs and listened and prayed that he would not be found, under his blankets.

He hated sleeping in that house, in that loft. He hated it, he hated not being able to see the sky. He hadn't been able to sleep properly, since moving to the elder's house.

With Sasuke there, with Sasuke ranting like that, he didn't know if he'd be able to fall asleep, not ever, oh, no, not ever.

He wanted to be in a tree. He would be safe in a tree. The tree would protect him against those red, hateful, pained, painful eyes.

He imagined that the darkness of the ceiling was the sky. And he managed to fall asleep before Sunao and Kyou came home with the elder and his wife, dreaming of that great forest he loved so much, his mother's arms around him, like branches.

In the morning, they began on their way back to Konoha, after warm but baffled thanks from the elder and what small payment accompanied the rice and lodgings.

"So early, though?" the elder said, still in his pajamas, rubbing his eyes. "The sun hasn't even risen."

"We need to make quick time," Sasuke said. "I hope you understand." And the elder said he did.

"Take care, loves. And thank you, again," said the elder's wife. And she gave each of the children a kiss on the forehead, for protection.

There were no shadows in the darkness. And the village of Tamina was already out of sight by the time the sun rose.

Good riddance.

And Sasuke thought of that village no more.

Already, his thoughts were on other things. How had Go'on climbed up that tree? And had Inou been keeping up on his training? He doubted it. The way he had to hound that boy, really, it was pitiful.

"Since we left so early, Sensei, we should be back in Konoha by tomorrow morning, correct?" That was Kyou, again. His voice sounded hopeful.

"We'll be home by nightfall." Sasuke began to run. "Keep up."

And they did. And they were.

They had done a good job. Even Sasuke had said it, so it must have been true.

Though this, by no means, meant that they were allowed to slack off.

Kyou had his hands on his knees. "Not at all… Sensei…!" Kyou had habit for running everywhere, but habit alone didn't keep him from gasping for air with a wild grin on his face.

"When are we going to meet… again…?" Sunao had made them lunch on the way there, an incredible lunch of rice that seemed practically bursting with energy.

"Take a break. Two days. We'll meet again on Monday."

"…thank you, Sensei." Go'on was not even winded. Funny, given how he had caused them so much trouble on the way up.

So, they parted. And each of them went home, to waiting mothers and fathers, exhausted and glad; Kyou full of stories, Sunao full of recipes, Go'on full of relief.

Except for Sasuke, who had to report to Naruto first. He was full of annoyance. Just more things keeping him from home.

He slammed the payment from the village elder onto his desk, after barging in without announcing himself, along the sacks of rice that came with the money. "We're on a break until Monday, so don't give us any missions until then, you got me?"

Naruto grinned. "I told you so, y'know."

"Oh shut up."

And Sasuke went home.

When his wife told him that he was home early, she almost sounded disappointed. She had already set the table, only made enough for her and the kids. Hajime was home after such a long time on his mission, so she had made his favorite, soba noodles. She didn't expect Sasuke back until…

"Well, I'm here now, aren't I?" Sasuke said. He was hungry.

He didn't have to say any more, because she sighed and said she'd see what she could do. They didn't have to set an extra place for him, though. Nadeshiko got up from where she had been reading, waiting at the table, long hair over her shoulders like an old woman's shawl, saying she would get something to eat on her own. She left without another word.

Ten years, and Sasuke still couldn't stand the sight of her. Not after what she had done. He considered himself lucky that she so willingly rid herself from his presence, and so often; a redeeming feature, he told himself, without humor. But he didn't like to dwell on those things too much.

He talked to Takeru all evening, smiling, asking him questions, having questions asked of him, the rest of the family eating in silence.

Well, except when Takeru reminded him to ask about Inou's training: "Still working on those… techniques of yours, little brother?"

Sasuke had to make sure that it wasn't just him fiddling around with Yamanaka arts or anything like that, those wastes of time and talent.

But Inou had been training. Proper training, too, that strengthened the body. Practical skills, for Uchiha techniques. And Sasuke told him to keep it up, since the chuunin exams were coming up sooner than he thought, and he couldn't risk failure this time around.

And Inou had said he would, and then he excused himself from the dinner table. Karai followed him.

And then Sasuke took a bath, rested his aching muscles.

And then he went to sleep beside Ino's thin body, an unmoving, distant mass in his bed that was already there when he settled in for the night.

And he did not dream of anything.

And it was good.

-/-

When the Honbo family went to the elder in the morning, the old man could do nothing else but say that Sasuke-san had left with his students long before they had arrived.

What had they wanted to ask of him?

"Well, Yakata?"

Yakata apologized for wasting their time, and asked to go back home.

Please.

Chapter Text

Saw the strangest thing in Kumo, by the way. I saw this kid pass me by on the street and I could have sworn I had seen him before. Wasn't until I got back to the hotel that it hit me - he reminded me of Zabuza. Must have been the face. Didn't have any eyebrows, that's not exactly common.

You remember him, don't you? Momochi Zabuza, he was one of the Swordsmen. They used to call him the Demon. He died about 30 years ago, I think. Tough guy, hell of a glare.

Wouldn't be surprised if you forgot, though. Most people don't even remember him any more, much less know who he was - I only do because he hired me for that coup. I wouldn't forget that , I got locked up for it until Terumi became Mizukage. You remember that, at least, don't you?

Feels so long ago now, doesn't it? What with the new government, especially. They barely even talk about the Bloody Mist in history books any more, just the bloodline genocide. That propaganda bullshit. Kids don't know anything about the past these days.

I guess I'm just getting old. Not nostalgic, just old. My eyes aren't what they used to be.

- Hibai Sammi, from a letter to a comrade in the Land of Mist; June, 22 AU


ACT 2

ECHO


Chapter 4 - Spotlight Shift


Karai couldn't control herself, when Sasuke returned home from training the genin that day. She hugged him tightly, shouting, "Father!" and rubbing her face into his flak jacket.

He laid a hand on her back, before prying the girl off of him. "Karai."

She bit her lip. What had he told her about such things? "I'm sorry, Father, it's just… I'm so happy right now!" she said. And only part of it was due to his arrival back home.

(Even though the house had been so mercifully quiet in his absence, like it always was.)

"Mm. Did something happen while I was away?" Sasuke asked. Oh, she nodded so enthusiastically. "Well, what is it?"

She grinned so hard, bubbling with happiness, as if she might burst from it. "Masao-sensei said that my team an' I could take part in the chuunin exams!"

Sasuke already knew. "Oh. I thought something else had happened."

As it happened, he had just returned from telling his team the exact same news.

Naruto had called all of the actively-teaching jounin together just the day before to announce that the chuunin exams were to occur in about a month, and that if anyone had any considerations in mind then now would be the time to put them in, so they could spend the weeks getting their students trained up and prepared.

The chuunin exams were structured much like they had always been. A written exam. An elimination round with scrolls in the Forest of Death. And a tournament.

(Inou didn't get through the Forest the first time. It was the preliminaries that got him, the second. But the Akimichi girl got promoted to chuunin that year.)

The big differences in the exam those days was in how the written exam was handled - since, well, they had a different chief examiner every few years - and in the additional time in between the announcement of the exams and the actual exams, for preparation. Naruto believed in proper warning, and also, it took longer to get answers back from the other countries about which genin teams they were sending and stuff. It was good to have a little leeway, y'know? Kept things friendly.

Plus, the tournaments were damn enormous events, now. Though not nearly as many hidden villages participated in the exams these days - Cloud and Mist and Stone had been far more cooperative in recent years, in fact - the ninja that did participate were broadly supported. And with that support came Kages, and with those Kages came bodyguards and families and countless civilians, come to cheer on their best and brightest.

And there was also that jinchuuriki meet-up reunion thing that Naruto liked to have around the time of the tournament, but those guys could more than take care of themselves.

Regardless of all of that, Sasuke had only to think for a moment, when Naruto called him and the only other sensei of a first-year genin team forward - wasn't that one of Naruto's old students? Masa-something, a young man that was Hajime's age. Sasuke couldn't remember his name, even though he more than remembered the name of the girl on that team.

Murasaki. The one that unsettled even Sasuke, with her whisper voice and sick mind. He ran into her a disturbingly frequent amount; he'd forgotten how many times he'd had to chase her out of the Uchiha Memorial, where she was most certainly not welcome. But she kept coming back, she always kept coming back, with her messages from the voices that she said she heard, with her lies.

Even though Sakura told him to be understanding, she was unwell.

(At least she had stopped coming by the main house, asking for…)

But back to the matter at hand.

Naruto had a pleased smile on his face, seeing Sasuke there. Yes, there were only two jounin teaching first-year genin. All the other students had been sent back, for further training.

Hm. So they had been the best.

And Sasuke smiled, slightly, and pledged on the name of his clan that all three of his students were ready to make an attempt at the exams.

Their competence had surprised him, but then again, they had been under his care for quite a while, at that point. If they hadn't improved at all, then he would be truly disappointed.

Naruto's student, the young man with gold-coin eyes, swore on his clan, the Akirame, that his three students were also ready for the chuunin exams.

So he was Karai's sensei, Sasuke realized. Karai was one of the six that had remained. Good girl.

Sasuke's team had reacted as expected, when he told them the news the next morning: overenthusiastic utter glee, a shivering but gently confident smile, and closed eyes paired with a knowingly pleased expression. Though, predictable as they were, they still managed to surprise him sometimes. Usually in pleasant ways.

Kyou memorized things quickly, never repeating his mistakes. He'd even managed to cut down on his gossip and chattering, once Sasuke learned to stop ignoring him and just say when he was talking too much. He found himself even asking Kyou things, now. Since, really, he seemed to know just about everything, at times. Even Sasuke had learned a few new things from him. Who knew?

Sunao had some of the best chakra control he had ever seen, and remarkable patience, not just with learning, but with her teammates. More often than not, she'd be the first to master a new technique, and instead of standing off to the side and fiddling about like Sasuke expected most girls her age to do, she'd go off and help whichever of her teammates Sasuke wasn't working with, to make sure that they were getting it, too.

And… the way that Go'on moved. It left Sasuke speechless, recording every movement he could with his Sharingan. That boy could run.

Sasuke was impressed by his students, almost proud of them, but he would never really admit it aloud.

He put his hand on Karai's head, back in the foyer of his home. She had been saying something about no, no, it was the chuunin exams she was talking about, wasn't that just exciting?

"I expected nothing less of you," he told her. "Hopefully, I'll see both you and your brother promoted to chuunin this time." He didn't have to specify which. "I don't want to be disappointed."

All Karai did was nod, smiling, giggling, savoring his approval.

(She could feel bad for Inou later.)

"Speaking of which," Sasuke continued, "where is he?"

(Inou was making himself invisible in his room, having heard his father come home.)

"He's off with his team," Karai said.

"Mm." Sasuke sat down, and he began taking off his shoes. He'd given a sharp glance to Inou's sensei, the day before. And Inou's team had been nominated, as expected, for the exams themselves.

"So nice to see you home so soon, Father."

And Sasuke smiled. "Does it really seem like I'm home that early?" he asked.

"You tell me. You're usually so busy training those students of yours. They must be improving, if you feel it appropriate to give them a break."

Sasuke undid the strap on his second shoe, thoughtfully, taking his time. "Improved enough to participate in the chuunin exams this year," he said, and looked over his shoulder at Takeru, who stood with a hand on his hip, smiling as well. "I thought it would be nice to give them an afternoon off to tell their families."

"Oh, wow, really, Father?" Karai said.

"That's a surprise," Takeru said.

"Why a surprise?" Sasuke stood, and began walking down the hall with his son. "They've been making excellent progress."

He didn't really notice that Karai was lingering in the foyer.

(She already knew her father couldn't hear her.)

"Well, it's just kids these days. Graduating so late," Takeru said. He glanced, ever so briefly, at Karai, the oldest graduate in the family, at the age of eleven. "You'd think that if they took that long to graduate they'd take even more time to train further."

Takeru was nineteen years old. He had graduated from the academy when he was eight.

"Don't be so sure of that," Sasuke said, chuckling slightly. "Not everyone's nearly as talented as you, Takeru."

Never mind the fact that Hajime had graduated when he was ten, Inou at the same age, seven years later.

(And Sasuke when he was twelve, all those years ago.)

Nadeshiko didn't count.

"Ah, I suppose it's true…" Takeru said, sighing dramatically. Sasuke chuckled. "Though, Father, I wouldn't get your hopes up too terribly. They'll probably fail the first time around."

"We'll just have to see," Sasuke replied. "I won't be too heartbroken if that's what comes to pass, though."

Though he wouldn't be terribly astonished if at least one his students passed, during those exams, and became a chuunin. They had a way of surprising him.

"Just means they didn't try hard enough, eh, Father?" said Takeru.

Takeru, who had passed the chuunin exams on his first try, when he was eleven.

Sasuke nodded, in agreement. And the two of them were at the end of the hallway, near the sliding door the led to the courtyard. It was open slightly, letting a breeze through. Ino was putting up laundry.

"Up for a little sparring, then, Father?" Takeru's smile was so much like Sasuke's, full of ambition.

"Of course, son. Any time."

Together, they walked to the training ground.


Halfway across the city, at the gates, there was a boy with red hair and a rucksack. His clothes were simple, made of plain cloth, a belted robe and a pair of trousers. He was yelling for assistance.

Well, not exactly assistance, but he sure was yelling for something.

And he had a very loud voice.

The two guards on duty didn't quite know what to make of it.

"What did you say you wanted, again?" said the younger of the two, a man with sheepish black eyes and sheepish black hair named Yamada.

"Like I said, where do I go to become a ninja?" the boy said, again. "There's gotta be someone I can talk to, yeah?"

The two guards looked at each other again. "I… still don't know what you want, kid," said Yamada, rubbing the back of his head almost apologetically.

"You idiot, he's probably talking about the chuunin exams," whispered the other, smacking his partner on the back.

"Ouch! Sorry…"

The other guard, named Hatsumoto, addressed the boy in a louder voice. "The chuunin exams don't start for a few weeks." The memo had just come in, and Hatsumoto had memorized it. Yamada still flubbed at times. "Besides, which hidden village are you from, anyways?"

"Hidden village? What? My village isn't hidden. That is not what I meant." The boy sighed, groaned, rolled his eyes. "Look, who's the boss around here? You guys have, like, a Hokage, yeah?"

"Uh… yeah," said Yamada.

"So take me to see him already! Since you guys are pretty much no help whatsoever."

The guards looked at each other. Again. "Well, I dunno," said Yamada. "Y'think we should let him in and see what the Nanadaime has to say?"

Hatsumoto smacked him again, this time on the back of the head. "Idiot. The Hokage's busy. We can send a message to him if you really need to but otherwise you're just gonna have to wait," he told the boy.

"Then who the heck is gonna help me out here?" the boy said. He dropped his rucksack on the ground and crossed his arms, narrowing his eyes and scowling. "Look, I traveled all this way, and I'm not gonna be turned away without getting somewhere, yeah?"

"We… never said we were gonna turn you away," said Yamada. He was rubbing the back of his head again. "We just wanna find out what you need."

"How many times do I have to say it?" the boy said, waving his arms for emphasis. "I want to be a ninja!"

Yamada blinked. "Wait, so you're a civilian?"

Hatsumoto smacked him on the back of the head again, hissing, "Idiot. If he's not here for the chuunin exams, then, of course he's a civilian." Back to the boy. "Listen, how old are you?"

"I turned sixteen in April."

His voice was awfully high. "Your real age, kid."

"I told you, I'm sixteen." He sighed. "So I'm small for my age, yeah? Big freaking deal."

Yamada was convinced, and Hatsumoto wasn't. But they continued anyways. "Your parents know you're here?" Hatsumoto said.

"Uh, yeah. I wouldn't be here if they didn't."

"Sure. And… why do you want to become a ninja, kid?" said Hatsumoto, crossing his arms and leaning back into his seat. He was a lean man, and his nose was set into his face like a knife stuck into a cutting board.

"So I can achieve my greatest dream. Duh," said the boy, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I saved up enough money to move to Konoha an' start my training. So here I am, yeah? So where do I go? You can answer that, can't you?"

"You… want me to take him to the academy?" Yamada offered, after exchanging glances with Hatsumoto. He was newer than Hatsumoto, and only by a little bit, but he was not terribly afraid to show it.

"No, idiot, you stay here, I'm taking him to the records office so we can get him registered as a student or something. You have to do that first. Since it sounds like you plan on staying here for a while," he said, standing, looking at the boy critically. "You do have papers on you, right?"

"…'course I have papers. I'm not an idiot," said the boy, thinking for a moment, then scoffing. He grabbed his rucksack, light in his dark blue eyes. "Well come on, let's go already, yeah?"

"I'll hold down the fort, then," Yamada said, smiling. "Good luck!"

The boy was practically skipping as Hatsumoto led him toward the center of the city.


"So my dad sat me down about a month ago, an' he said, 'Son, you're old enough to decide things for yourself. And your brother' - his name's Hiroyuki, by the way, he's my older brother - 'is already taking over the farm, so what do you want to do?'"

The boy, who had identified himself as Hanamura Yukio, was telling his life story to Hatsumoto as they walked together to the records office.

"And, well, I had always dreamed of being a ninja or something, yeah? I played with toy shuriken and things when I was little, read all the stories about the legendary warriors. Y'know, that kinda stuff. So I was, like, 'Well, Dad, there's that ninja village a few days journey away from here. I wanna go live there and be trained to be a ninja.' And we argued about that for a while, but then he said, 'Okay, I understand.' So then he wrote me a letter for you guys and gave me some money to tide me over to go with my savings and then I went and left! So here I am."

"…you talk fast, kid," was Hatsumoto's conclusion.

"I get that a lot, yeah," was Yukio's reply.

There had indeed been a letter, written in a carefully sloppy hand, summarized thusly: "I place my son, Hanamura Yukio, in the care of Konohagakure as he undergoes training to become a ninja." It was woefully scanty by Hatsumoto's standards, but when dealing with bumpkins, you had to take what you could get. The government would accept it, at any rate.

"So, like, after we go through here and I get registered and stuff, what do I do?" Yukio asked.

"Well, generally, we'll get you checked out at the academy too. Do some diagnostic tests, see your skill level. You… do know the basics of ninjutsu at least, right?" Yukio thought for a moment, then uneasily shook his head. Hatsumoto sighed. "Well, whatever. And you will need a place to stay. Anyone you know who lives here?"

"Not… really."

"Well, you'll have to rent an apartment or get a hotel room or something, then. You said you had money. How much?"

Yukio's eyes slid to the side, staring at the wall. "That's none of your business."

"We can't have you sleeping on the streets, kid. How much."

"…enough. Okay?" Yukio rolled his eyes. Hatsumoto did also. Wow, this kid.

They had almost reached the record office when there was a voice down the hallway, behind them.

"He-ey! Matsumoto-san!"

Hatsumoto stopped in his tracks. "That's Hatsumoto, sir." He didn't bother looking back, as Naruto was by his side within a few moments, dressed in his usual orange track jacket and holding a pair of thin books in his hands.

"Oh, sorry, man. I keep messing it up. Anyways - who's this?" He blinked a few times at Yukio, who blinked back.

"Hanamura Yukio, sir. An immigrant from…?" The boy hadn't really specified yet.

"The Land of Rice," Yukio completed, a vaguely suspicious look on his face.

"Ohh. The Land of Rice," Naruto echoed. Man, when was the last time he had heard - oh! When Sasuke had come back from that mission with his genin team. Man, those guys were always together, these days. It really warmed his heart. And Ino seemed so happy about it, too. And Sakura wasn't bothering him about it, either! Totally great, on all accounts. "That's cool."

There was a moment of silence. And then, from Hatsumoto: "You needed something, sir?"

"Oh, yeah! I have a favor to ask of you, can you spare a moment?" Naruto continued, grinning. "I can't seem to find Andou-kun anywhere."

"I'm in the middle of something, sir," Hatsumoto replied.

"Yeah? Like?"

"…I'm escorting Hanamura-san to the records office so he can be registered as a student, sir." And he had a tough enough time with Yamada.

"Oh! I can do that for you, y'know," Naruto replied, with a sunny smile. "Trade roles?"

Hatsumoto considered this for a second. "What did you need me to do, sir?"

"Just take these books over to Kenji-kun, down at the hospital? They're a present from his sister, I ran into her just now on her way out but I don't have any time to get them to him myself." He held up the books; they looked like comics, and they had pictures of a woman on the cover with green spots all over her face like mold, or moss.

Well, it was preferable to having to deal with paperwork. "Sure, though… which Kenji, sir?"

"Haruno Kenji, who else?" A pause. "You know, the one that works at the hospital," Naruto added. He waved his other hand for emphasis, wa-ay up high. "The tall guy, y'know?"

Ah, yes. Him. "I'll take care of it, sir," Hatsumoto said, taking the books from his Hokage and going on his way. Yes, much more preferable.

Yukio and Naruto stood in the hallway together for a while, in silence, before either of them spoke.

As it happened, their words were simultaneous and identical: "So who are you, again?"

Naruto was the one who recovered first, after the two of them lapsed into giggles. "Oh, well, I'm Naruto. Uzumaki Naruto. And your name's Yukio, right?"

Yukio nodded. "Yup. Hanamura Yukio. Nice to meet you, Uzumaki-san."

"I could say the same about you, Hanamura-kun."

"Pff, okay, first off? You don't need to call me Hanamura-kun. I was gonna tell that other guy off but he just seemed like such a stick in the mud," the boy said. "It makes me sound like I'm some weird… important guy. Call me Yukio, yeah?"

"Well then you can just call me Naruto, y'know? Even though I guess I am a weird important guy of sorts."

Yukio grinned, and so did Naruto, and they agreed to it simultaneously. They both thought it was hilarious.

"So," Yukio said, finally, "you that guy's boss or something?"

"So-omething like that," Naruto replied, laughing. "Hey, so you're moving here from the Land of Rice, huh?"

"So-omething like that," Yukio replied, smirking. "I was being taken to get registered or something."

"Ah, yeah, we should probably do that. Here, this way!" Naruto said, and pointed down the hallway toward the records office. "So, uh, why are you moving out here, anyways?"

And Yukio told him the whole story, with his brother and his father and how he just "wanted to be a freakin' ninja, yeah?" And Naruto nodded and listened with crossed arms and laughed at his enthusiasm, and the boy filled out papers, and showed the nice lady behind the counter the letter from his father, and paid for his processing fees with wrinkled bills from his pocket, and stood aside to get his photo taken. Cheese!

When he was all done, Naruto got an idea. "Oh, yeah, I can have this approved right here!" he said, pounding his fist into his hand. "Y'think I could use a red pen or something instead of a stamp?"

The records attendant behind the desk blinked. "I… do have a red pen on me, but don't you think you should wait and use your official seal, sir?" she said. "It won't take long for the paperwork to get to your office." Not with Andou around, goodness could that boy skedaddle.

"Na-ah, I only use that seal 'cos it's faster than writing my name all the time, y'know," Naruto said, and laughed. "C'mon, hand it over."

The attendant thought for a moment, shrugged, and handed him the pen, shoving the papers across the desk at him. "Whatever you say, sir."

Naruto wrote his signature quickly and roughly, and underlined it after the fact, as if to prove a point. "Well, Yukio-kun? You are now, officially, a citizen of Konohagakure. Welcome!"

"Technically, he's something of a ward of the state, sir, since he's under twenty," the attendant corrected. "This is only a student visa, besides…."

"Eh, you're still a citizen to me!" Naruto said, hugging Yukio warmly around the shoulder. "We should head to the academy next, I think. I kinda wanna see what you got, y'know!"

"Hell yes!" said Yukio, clenching his fist. "Man, I am so excited!"

"I'll get this filed away for you, sir," said the attendant, taking the papers back with something like a shy smile. Typical Hokage…

"Thanks!" Naruto said, giving her a thumbs up, and really meaning it, too. "C'mon, let's go!"

The Hokage and the boy sprinted out together, toward the academy, steps in near-perfect sync.


It should not be found terribly surprising that, by the end of the night, Naruto had volunteered to take Yukio into his home until further notice.

Well, at least until he found his own place to live. Whichever came first.

The diagnostic test at the academy went by swiftly, after finding a chuunin with the time and experience to administer the test in the first place. Yukio surprised everyone with a loose yet forceful natural fighting style. Of sorts. Well, whatever the heck it was.

He also had, as the chuunin examiner so eloquently put it, "Shit-loads of chakra." Yukio was very proud of this, once he had it explained to him.

He still had literally no experience in ninjutsu and anything else requiring chakra control, but, well, he would probably take quickly to it. They'd find a teacher for him within the next few days, to which Naruto and Yukio both responded with a hearty "All RIGHT!"

That was about when Yukio finally noticed that everyone was calling Naruto "sir" and stuff, not just the guys at the record office, and he asked what was up with that, anyways.

And that was how Yukio found out that Naruto was the Hokage. The Hokage. Like, the boss.

Which was, instantly, the Coolest Thing Ever. The actual Hokage. The head honcho. The BOSS. Basically, a pretty cool guy. One of those weird, important types.

And that was when Naruto laughed and declared Yukio the bee's knees, and high fives were exchanged, and then Naruto decided to show Yukio the city.

Never mind the fact that he was supposed to be "too busy." He'd be able to catch up on his paperwork at home, that was a given. This was Important.

And somehow, while walking together, somewhere past the Hyuuga compound, the conversation was brought to living situations. Yukio was alone, underage and without a guardian, and the city would be able to find an apartment for him, if he wanted to wait a night or two. Naruto refused to let him stay in a hotel. "That'd just be rude, y'know?"

And besides, he didn't really mind the prospect of acting as Yukio's guardian until further notice. The kid was really growing on him, and despite having truly known him for only a few hours, it felt as if they had known each other since he was very small.

Yukio did not mind this at all.

Which is what brought the two of them to Naruto's house. It wouldn't be for more than a day or two, but it was the least he could do to help out such a great kid, in so many words.

Yukio's eyes were not exactly wide, but darting, up and down, left and right, taking in every detail as Naruto opened the door for him.

So that was the kind of house a Hokage lived in.

(It was nothing like home.)

"You can put your shoes anywhere," Naruto said, kicking his own off in the foyer and turning on the light.

"Oh, thanks! Again, haha," Yukio replied. He bent over and started taking off one of his sandals, carefully, holding the shoe in his hand.

Naruto stared. "Why so formal?"

Yukio blinked, shoe in his palm. "Formal?"

"With the shoes. You're my guest, y'know. My house is yours! You can just kick 'em off, I won't care."

Yukio was silent, thinking. Then, a little smile bloomed on his face, like a paper flower in a bowl of water. He straightened up, put his shoe back on, and then kicked them both off unceremoniously, like Naruto had done.

Naruto laughed so hard he had to wipe the tears out of his eyes. "Oh, man, I didn't mean literally, y'know!"

"I know. I just felt like it. Your house is mine, yeah?" Yukio said, and adjusted his rucksack on his shoulder, smirking. "I'm lettin' loose."

"Pff. I guess you are! C'mon, let's head to the kitchen," Naruto said, and stepped out of the foyer, down the hallway. "I'm really feelin' like some dinner right about now."

"Oh, dinner?" Yukio said, following behind, eyes on every detail that passed. "Well, I am a little hungry… but you shouldn't waste your money on me. That's too much."

"Hey, now! Where are your manners?" Naruto continued, turning the lights on in the kitchen. It was clean, save for a few bowls in the sink, and an odor of broth that seemed to linger in the air almost tangibly. "C'mon, lemme get you something. Part of your welcome package, y'know?" He laughed and opened the fridge, and peered around experimentally, eyes narrowed. There was very little in there, aside from maybe a questionably fresh carton of milk and lunch meats. Uhh… "What are you in the mood for?"

Please don't ask for something homemade, ple-ease don't.

"I'm not picky. I can eat just about anything, yeah?" Yukio replied, grinning.

"Well, great! Let's get ramen, then." Naruto slammed the fridge door shut, and clapped his hands together, smiling widely. "Y'wanna drop your stuff off before we go? I could show you the rest of the city, when we're done, y'know."

"Uh… sure! Sounds awesome!" Yukio said, blinking. "Where can I…?"

"Here, over here." Naruto gestured with his hand, walking out of the kitchen and down another hallway. "I got a guest room, but I hardly use it. You can stay there." He turned the light on and let Yukio walk in.

It was a plain room, no-frills, with a bed, a chair, the usual. "Sorry if it smells weird or anything." As a matter of fact, it smelled very nice. At least, to Yukio. To Naruto, it just smelled strange, foreign and feminine. "It's… usually my daughter who stays here. She's left some stuff behind. Hope it's not too girly." There were dolls on the dresser, floral prints on the walls.

"It's fine." Yukio dropped his bag on the chair. "You have a daughter? Does she not live with you?"

"Well, sorta," Naruto replied. He scratched the back of his head, laughing once, twice. "It's… complicated. She lives in another country. With her mom, y'know."

"No, I… don't know." Yukio blinked once, twice. "Did you guys separate or…?"

"Nah, it's not that, we were never really together…" Naruto was looking at the ceiling. "Well, we were together but not in that way, y'know. It's all politics and stuff. I only see her, like, every now and then." He laughed. "'Cos I made a promise, y'know… Yeah…"

Yukio shrugged. He'd seen stranger families, stranger situations.

They stood in silence, for a while, in the girl's room, with the dolls and the floral prints from the Land of Demons.

"…so we were gonna get some ramen, yeah?" Yukio said.

"Yeah! We totally were," Naruto replied.

Together, they left.

Though Yukio tried to steal Naruto's shoes on the way out.

"Your shoes are my shoes too, yeah?"

His feet were almost the exact same size as Naruto's, and his smile was incredibly big.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 - Prism Spectrum


Chouko was working a shift at Ichiraku when they got there, and she greeted them extremely warmly, halfway through adjusting her handkerchief. She'd only been working there only maybe a month and was already a master at every variety served. It had been the exact same situation at her last job, the curry shop. And the hibachi place.

Then again, half of her family was made up of cooking-nin. She considered it extra training.

"Hokage-sama! Welcome! Same as usual tonight?" She had a soft face and a very soft smile, just like her father, but a loud, spicy voice, and hips that went on for forever.

"Well, we're gonna have to take an extra order. By the way, Yukio-kun? This is Akimichi Chouko. She's a… family friend," Naruto said, gesturing towards the girl. "Chouko-chan, this is Hanamura Yukio. He just moved here, an' I'm showing him around the city, y'know."

Yukio bowed, quickly, with a smile. "It's nice to meet you."

"Aww, well look at you! Welcome to Konoha, I suppose!" She laughed. "So what can I get for you, sweetheart?"

"Order whatever you want, I'm paying," Naruto said, sitting down, winking.

Yukio stared. Ichiraku wasn't exactly known for having a small selection of noodles.

"Uhh…" Another moment. "…uhhh…"

"You want me to come back…?" Chouko asked.

"…salt ramen! Just salt ramen, yeah," said Yukio.

"Sounds good, honey. I'll be right on it." She disappeared further into the booth, shrouded by steam. "One salt ramen and one Hokage Special!" Somewhere in the back of the booth, there was a shouted reply.

"…you can sit down, y'know," Naruto said.

Yukio hadn't really noticed that he was still standing. "Oh! Right. Hehe." He sat, and fidgeted for a moment, humming slightly. "This a good place to eat, yeah?"

"Yeah, totally! I've been going here for ages." Naruto tilted his head, humming a little to himself. "It's a great place."

They sat together in silence, listening to the sounds of ramen being prepared.

"So, uh!"

They were talking at the same time again, and they laughed at the same time as well.

"Oh, you first. Please," Yukio said.

"Oh, sure. Well, y'didn't talk much about it back at the records office, but… what brings you here to Konoha, again?"

What, Naruto couldn't remember stuff like that so easily. He frequently needed multiple memos on the more pressing issues brought to his attention, to ensure that he'd absorb the information eventually. And, most of the time, it worked like a charm. Most of the time.

Yukio tilted his head. "Sure I did, I talked plenty about it."

"Well you sure talked about how you got here. But I dunno if I caught exactly why," Naruto said, waving his hand around a little. "So what's your story?"

"Already told you. My brother Hiroyuki got put in charge of the farm, my dad said I could do what I wanted, so I came here to be a ninja. So I can achieve my dream, yeah?" Yukio said. He looked at the counter, then back at Naruto. "Why you making me repeat myself? I say something wrong…?"

Why did he look so anxious? Naruto could feel fear leaking out of him.

"No, no! You're fine, you're fine. Just… curious about you, y'know?" Naruto said.

Yukio shrugged. Eyes back to the counter, his fear fading so slightly away.

Quiet, mixed with the sound of the city, the preparation of noodles.

"So what's your story, Naruto-san?"

Naruto blinked. "Huh?"

"Well you've made me tell my story, it's only fair I get yours, yeah?" Yukio said. He was smiling, mischief in his blue eyes. "And you even made me repeat myself, I think I deserve something in return, yeah."

"Haha! Well, gee, where do I start…? Like, from the very beginning? 'Cos that would take forever, y'know," Naruto said. "Where do you want me to start?"

"Well… you're the Hokage, yeah?"

"Yeah."

"So what's up with that?"

"What do you mean, 'What's up with that?'"

Yukio leaned against the counter, propping up his head on his palm. "Well, what's a Hokage do, really? You, like, the boss around here? Or are you more like a daimyo or something?"

Naruto laughed, waving his hand dismissively. "No, no, the Land of Fire already has a daimyo, y'know."

"Well, duh, I knew that," said Yukio. "You were doing paperwork and stuff back there, and something with books, or something, so what else do you do? And how'd you become Hokage anyway, yeah?"

"Oh, well, that's an easier question." He cleared his throat. "Well, see, I got chosen to be Hokage 'bout ten years ago."

"Chosen? Weird," said Yukio.

"Hey, lemme finish, y'know?" Naruto said.

"Fine, fine." Yukio stuck out his tongue, slumping a little more. "So you got chosen, yeah?"

"Yeah. And before me, there was Kakashi-sensei. And before him was Tsunade-baasan. And before her was my dad, and before him was-"

"Wa-ait, wait, wait. Your dad was Hokage too?" Naruto nodded. "…okay, now that just doesn't make sense."

Naruto blinked, tilting his head, resting it on the flat of his hand. "Why doesn't it make sense?"

"Well, if your dad was once Hokage, then shouldn't you have come, like, right after him?" Yukio narrowed his eyes, frowning, as if deep in thought.

"No, actually-"

"Wait, wa-ait." Yukio took his head off his hand and pinched his chin, crossing one leg over the other. Very deep in thought. "…you call your own brother and sister sensei and baasan? …man, your family is weird."

Naruto's laugh started as a snort, then a chuckle, and then a full-on attack.

"What's so funny?" Yukio's eyes snapped open for a moment, then shut even tighter than before. "What'd I say?"

"Kakashi-sensei… my brother… pfffff…." He waved his hand dismissively, when Yukio folded his arms, squinting even harder. "No-o, no, no. Where did you get that idea?"

Yukio shrugged. He unfolded his arms, and laced his fingers around his knee. He looked at the ceiling. "Well, I thought that you were chosen by your family to be the next Hokage after your brother and sister failed or died or something. I mean, that's how it works for ninja stuff, yeah?"

"No-ot here, it doesn't," Naruto said, shaking his head, still fighting off the last of his laughter. The heck did he mean by that? "I mean, sure, the first two Hokage were brothers, and Tsunade-baa is related to them, and then there's my dad and me, but it's not a given or anything, y'know?"

"Oh. So it was just a coincidence?" Yukio unfolded his legs, wrapping his feet around the base of the stool instead. He thinned his lips, in process.

"Sorta, I guess? The Hokage is chosen based on skill and stuff. I didn't even know he was my dad until I was, like, sixteen." He laughed once, sighed once, shoulders rising and falling. "Ah, now that was pretty strange…"

"Strange how?"

"Eh." Boy, what to say to that? Um. "He… passed away after I was born. I didn't really ever get to meet him."

Two pairs of blue eyes focused on the counter.

"Oh… I'm sorry."

Unexpectedly, Naruto found himself laughing. "Hey, hey, what are you apologizing for? It's not your fault, y'know. And I did get to meet him, once."

Woah, where had that come from?

Yukio's mouth dropped, wrinkling with thought. "…okay, now there is no way I can figure out that happening."

Yeah, not in a million years. There was a reason why he tended not to talk about that sort of stuff with non-jinchuuriki. Other people just had the hardest time understanding that those sorts of things happened, sharing a mind with another. Or more than one mind, in Naruto's rare case.

Naruto told himself to think quick, and did.

"…as a baby, y'know? I mean, he was there when I was born."

"…oh. Ha. Haha. That's funny, yeah." Yukio's laugh was dry, though there was still a note of sourness in that voice for some reason.

And Naruto found himself wondering why he had even decided to bring that up in the first place.

No, seriously, why had he?

"So when was that," Yukio asked, smirking, "like a hundred years ago?"

"I'm forty-three this October, y'know!" Naruto laughed, in return, already putting his worries out of his mind.

"Well it's better that you were made Hokage as an old fart, rather than a freakin' baby, yeah?" Yukio leaned back again, glancing to the side, smile sliding up over more and more of his face. "Wouldn't want no baby in charge."

"Oh yeah? Well, when I gotta pick a new Hokage, maybe I will choose a baby, just 'cos I can."

He didn't even know what they were going on about anymore, but he didn't care. They were laughing in unison, and things were good.

Not long after, there was the ramen, served with a honeyed smile and a wink from Chouko. The Hokage Special, a massive bowl of miso ramen with a healthy serving of pork cutlet floating in the broth. And, for Yukio, salt ramen.

"Thanks for the food!"

As the two of them broke their chopsticks, neither of them managed to split cleanly.


If there was one thing about Yukio that was readily apparent, aside from the fact that he could talk a mile a minute when prompted, it was that he ate nearly as fast as he talked.

Naruto was barely a quarter of the way through his bowl when Yukio had finished his noodles. "More, please!"

"Woah. Hey, kid, slow down, y'know?" Naruto said. "The booth's not gonna go anywhere."

Still, Chouko was there, with her exquisite ears. "Another bowl of salt ramen, sugar?"

"No, salt ramen, not sugar ramen," Yukio said, making a face as Chouko took his bowl, the silver rings on her thick hand shining in the steam. "Sugar ramen would taste weird, yeah?"

Chouko laughed. "Oh goodness me, aren't you something. Another bowl of salt ramen, for you, then."

When it was brought to him, he had it inhaled in less than a few minutes. Naruto was still only halfway through his bowl.

It was maybe after his fourth bowl that the ramen really started to hit him. His eyes were dull, glazed-over, and his mouth hung open slightly.

"I think maybe you shouldn't have eaten so fast, y'know," Naruto said, finishing off his own bowl. "You gonna be okay?"

"Ugh… That was so… good," Yukio replied, before falling over onto the counter, resting his head on his arms. "Haven't had anything that good to eat in… ages…" He closed his eyes, sighing happily. "I think today's been a good day, yeah?"

Naruto looked at him fondly, head tilting slightly. And, not quite knowing the reason why, he put his hand on the boy's back and gently patted the space between his shoulders, like he used to do when Andou and Kurunari were younger, when they fell asleep in his lap.

Red hair fell and parted over his neck; the skin was marked with little red spots like freckles, and Naruto squinted, trying to place where he had seen something similar to them before. He was interrupted before he could get a better look at them.

"Now, what in the world is this here?"

It was a man in a mask with a tired expression on his face, half-buried in a book, standing behind them.

Naruto's face lit up, instantly, and his hand jumped off of Yukio's back. "Oh, hey! Kakashi-sensei! What are you doing here?"

"Back from watching Kotoji." Even his voice sounded tired, like his eye.

"Like always. Why was it this time?" Naruto said. He craned his neck, almost looking backwards, as he spoke.

The man named Kakashi sighed. "Yamato didn't elaborate."

"Ahh. Okay. Well, it was fun, I hope?"

"Yeah. It was fun."

Yukio sighed again, shifting his head deeper into his arms. Kakashi noticed. "So who's the kid?"

"Ah, Kakashi-sensei, this is Hanamura Yukio-kun, he just moved here. I'm sorta acting as guardian for him, so I took him out to dinner." He nodded as he spoke, and tapped Yukio on the shoulder. "Hey, hey, wake up, a little."

"Mwuh? Oh, hello. S'nice to meet you," Yukio said, waving his fingers.

"Yukio, huh," said Kakashi, and tilted his head experimentally, as if trying to recall something.

As it happened, Yukio was doing much of the same thing, trying to remember where he had heard the name before. Kakashi had a bandage wrapped over his left eye. He spoke before Kakashi could say something else. "…Naruto-san's brother, yeah?"

Kakashi's one exposed eyebrow went shooting towards the center of his forehead. "Excuse me?"

Naruto began laughing. "No, no. This is my old sensei, Yukio-kun. And, as a matter of fact," he added, almost prideful, "the Hokage that came before me."

Kakashi sighed. "Naruto, please."

"…but I thought you were dead…?" Yukio said. He narrowed his eyes, like there was light shining in them, as half-remembered words floated to his head and jumbled together. "You a ghost or sommin'?"

Kakashi's eye widened. "What in the world?" he said, looking at Naruto.

"Pfff… No, Yukio-kun, he is not a ghost." Naruto managed to smile a little, trying to collect his own thoughts, before Yukio's face twisted itself into a grimace again. He moaned, holding his stomach. "Hey, are you okay?"

"Think I ate too much," Yukio managed to mumble.

Naruto sighed, laughed. "Now you say it. It's fine, we can head home soon, y'know."

"I still wanna know why he thought I was dead, Naruto," Kakashi said, half serious, half humorous. He had folded his book over one finger, head still tilted curiously.

"Confused you with another, uh. Hokage. I guess?" Naruto said. He shrugged. "That's what we were talking about, before." He paused, searching for words. The ones he found tasted bitter, but he used them anyways. "You know… My dad."

"Ah. I see."

In reality, Kakashi was only slightly interested in the Hokage talk.

(Generally, he tried to keep his retirement as quiet as possible. Though his face on the cliff-side made that hard, sometimes.)

What was preoccupying him more was the boy, Yukio. His face was painfully familiar, but Kakashi could not recall where he had seen it before.

"Ahhh, my stomach hurts," Yukio said, sliding off the stool. "Shoulda stopped at three…"

"We're probably gonna head home," Naruto said. "Sorry I couldn't introduce you two more, y'know? I'm sure we'll see each other later."

"No, no, it's fine. I'm just heading home myself, thought to check here and see if you were around first, though," Kakashi replied. His eye rested on the boy again, who was leaning against the wall of the ramen stand. "Next time, maybe you shouldn't…"

Where had he seen that face before?"

"…overdo it so much. With the ramen, I mean."

"Thanks for the advice," Yukio said, some of the strength returning in his voice. He moaned slightly. "Ugh, okay, false alarm… But I really gotta go."

"Go where?" Naruto said.

"To the bathroom, yeah?"

Naruto laughed. "Okay, okay, I'll get you home," he said, and took out his wallet (simple, brown, no-frills - a gift from Kakeru to replace his ailing frog-purse) to pay for the ramen. He left the money on the counter. "Seeya, Kakashi-sensei."

"Bye." His wave was friendly, but strangely hollow, in a way, as he watched the two of them leave.

That boy's face was far too familiar.

Kakashi went home feeling uneasy, but it abated after a while.


"You okay in there?"

Naruto was standing outside of the bathroom.

"Stop talking to me while I poop!"

Yukio had been in there for about a half an hour.

Naruto couldn't help but laugh. "Well okay, I just wanna make sure you're not, like, gonna die, y'know?"

"You can't die from crap!"

He laughed again. "Call if you need anything," he said, and wandered a bit further down the hallway.

Night had since most definitely fallen, and the lights were on, the darkness of the city outside. Naruto's bedroom was down the hallway, and so was the guest room that was now Yukio's, for the time being.

For some reason, he just couldn't bring himself to stray too far from the bathroom door. He was worried about the kid. Yeah, yeah, you couldn't die from poop. But still.

At the end of the hallway was the table where Naruto kept a few photographs. He didn't like putting them on the walls, because he was utterly useless with a hammer and nails and it wasn't the adult thing to do, to tape them to the wall like he used to do with his posters, so he just let them collect on the surfaces of his house.

He had almost three decades worth of photos, and one from outside of that time, but all in all he hadn't amassed more than a handful of snapshots, a handful of memories. But there was a thing that people said about quality over quantity, and he loved his photos like he loved the people in them.

The most recent jinchuuriki meet-up photos were there, the rest stored in albums that Sachiko, the two-tails, made for everyone and updated out of the kindness of her heart, every time they met, the dear that she was.

There were ten people in each of them, their heights changing, shifting. Some individuals disappearing, others taking their place. Gaara, Bee, and Naruto were the only constants; the others - Morizuru, Sachiko, Yuu, Kakeru, Kemuri, Kurunari, Tonbo - hadn't been around for nearly that long. Kurunari was the oldest, at twenty-one. He had lasted the longest.

Naruto had a few pictures of him and Kurunari, that white-haired boy with the six-tails sealed into him, together, when they were both younger. Kurunari had gotten so tall lately, but once he hadn't even reached Naruto's waist, Naruto's shoulder. Now it was Naruto who came up to his shoulder, funnily enough. But his smile was still the same, a smirk of a thing that barely matched his painfully shy demeanor.

There was that picture from when they had finally brought Sasuke back, and everyone was bruised and bandaged and horribly broken, but still grinning like idiots. Even Sasuke had a ghost of a smile on his face, though his eyes were bandaged, though bruises were growing on his arms, though he'd be in the hospital for weeks afterward.

Which was why Naruto liked that photo so much.

"That's that Kakashi guy we saw earlier, yeah?"

Yukio had gotten back from the bathroom, and was pointing to a photo. In it, Kakashi slept on a couch, book covering the bottom of his face, a dark-haired baby likewise sleeping on his chest, face away from the camera; little red freckles dotted the folds of skin on the back of his neck. The afternoon streamed over them from a window above the couch.

(Yamato had given Naruto the photo a few years ago, after reporting in from a mission, laughing. "I found them like this when I came home, isn't that precious?" Naruto totally agreed.)

"Oh! Yeah, that's Kakashi-sensei," Naruto said. "You okay?"

"I'm fine, I feel a lot better," Yukio said, and tilted his head, taking in the photo a bit more closely. "Whose kid is that? His?"

"No, no, it's Yamato-san's," Naruto replied, smiling. "His name's Kotoji. Cutest kid, he's about three, four years old now?"

"Huh. Yamato. That his wife or something…?"

Naruto had to clamp his hand over his mouth to keep his laughter from getting too bad. "Nah, nah, not his… pff, wife…" He shook his head, toning it down for Yukio's sleepy, perplexed expression. "They're just friends. Kakashi-sensei's practically Kotoji-kun's second dad, though. It's kinda funny, really."

Yukio shrugged. "Cute kid." He yawned.

"Tired, huh?" Naruto asked.

"Yeah."

"Well you can go to bed whenever, I'm gonna be up for a while longer," Naruto said. He put his hands in his pockets, instead of on Yukio's shoulder. "You can take a bath too, if y'want. You know where the bathroom is."

"Nah, I think I'll pass. Thanks, though." Yukio had that look in his eyes that kids got when they were a lot more tired than they really were. "Really, I can't believe my luck, yeah? Housed by the boss of the city… Don't wanna be a bother, though…"

"I wouldn't have you if I didn't like you, y'know," Naruto said.

Yukio ambled towards, and then lingered in the doorway of the girl's room, slight smile on his face.

"G'night, Yukio-kun," Naruto said.

"G'night, Naruto-san," Yukio said, and left.

Naruto stayed for only a moment longer, before heading to his own room, keeping the light on in the hallway.

He kept many photographs, but in his room, there were only three, on his bedside table.

The first was of his team, him and Sasuke and Sakura and Kakashi-sensei, when they were younger. A photo they all owned a copy of.

The second was of him with his own genin, Shusuke and Masao and Murasaki, from when Shusuke was still alive.

And the third was a photo of his parents.

He had found it when he had moved into the house, more than ten years before, hidden behind a bookshelf, wrinkled and forgotten. It was blurry and out of focus. He had put it in a frame, but he could still see the creases behind the glass.

In the foreground, a quarter of a woman's face, a blue eye, red hair parted to the side, a perplexed expression. He could practically hear his mother saying, "How do I work this thing, again?"

In the background, his father, nothing but a smile, a soft aura of blond hair. Naruto couldn't hear his voice nearly as well.

He stayed awake for about an hour doing some paperwork he had picked up on the way home from Andou, who had graciously sorted it all into stuff he could do from home - literal homework, which is what they called it, almost like a joke. Which, in a way, it was, a little thing they shared that made them laugh.

He read some reports about the preparations for the upcoming chuunin exams; a memo from Ibiki about some crime syndicate causing a stink over their missing daughter in the Land of Silk, so be careful; progress reports on the seal therapy in the hospital; stuff from the field agents on the project; y'know, boring stuff like that. And, then, he went to bed.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 - Display Matrix


Yukio was still living in Naruto's house, a few days later. In fact, June had passed into July, and he was still there, leaving in the morning for his training, and returning in the evening to go out to dinner with the Hokage, once he was done with his work for the day. It was as if he had always been there, after a while.

He had been assigned a sensei on the third day, after, on the second day, there proved to be a decided lack of teachers who could spare the time (or patience) for a sixteen-year-old newbie, all busy with their own genin or academy-level classes.

Naruto went to Shikamaru about this, afterwards. Why he did this was anyone's guess. Yeah, Shikamaru was his advisor for just about everything when Iruka was occupied, but still.

Shikamaru, of course, sighed when he heard the request. "You want me to what?"

"Yukio-kun needs someone to train him, 'cos there's nobody at the academy that can do anything," Naruto explained. "It won't be that hard."

Shikamaru sighed. Naruto had even bothered to visit him in his home, and on a Sunday, too… That was his day off, damn it. How bothersome. "I don't have time, Naruto," he said.

"C'mon, it'll be easy. He's really smart. No effort at all, y'know?"

"I don't feel like teaching anyone right now, thanks," Shikamaru replied, sighing. Again.

"But he needs a teacher!"

"Man, calm down already. Why's this kid so important, anyways? You're getting all worked up."

And Naruto stopped, and thought for a moment.

There was a strange, jingling sort of noise in the air, there in Shikamaru's living room.

Why was it so important that Yukio receive training?

"So I can achieve my dream, yeah?"

Everything else he just couldn't articulate.

"It's his dream, y'know," Naruto said. And there was that inspirational gleam in his eye, whenever he talked about stuff like that. "And as Hokage, it's my duty to help him reach that dream."

A fourth sigh. No use arguing against that logic… "Look, I'd help you if I could, but I just don't have the time. Shikake's keeping me busy as hell, and don't even get me started on all the trouble I get from Temari."

From the couch, a hand rose and fell. "Sup."

Shikamaru glared sharply at the space it left behind. She'd been there the whole time? Of course…

Shikake was fourteen years old, and had developed a lethal sense of sarcasm instead of the usual obsession with boys that most girls her age seemed to have.

(Shikamaru blamed her mother for making her so difficult to handle. Temari blamed her father for making her such a smartass.)

"Well then who the heck, man?" Naruto continued, forcing Shikamaru's eyes back to him.

"…why are you asking me? You're the Hokage, you have other people you can talk to about this."

"But I already asked everyone."

"Even Masao?"

Describing Masao as a pinch hitter was a both a gross understatement and an insult to his character. He was the temp of temps, the sub of subs, the king of the caller-in-sick. And now, mysteriously, he was the sensei of a genin team for some reason. There was a story behind that, but Naruto didn't have it just yet.

"Yeah, even Masao-kun, but he's gotta train his guys for the chuunin exams and he just can't do it." Naruto had his face screwed up, meaning he was either confused or concentrating. Or both. "Come on, Shikamaru, help me out."

"You should ask Benio-neesan." Shikake spoke, hanging backwards off the couch. She had a little knife or a kunai or something in her hands, attached to a chain that was wrapped around her right wrist. She was playing with it idly. So that's where the weird jingling sound had been coming from. "She shouldn't be too busy."

Oh yeah. Benio.

Benio was Kurenai's kid, a tall, strange woman that was beautifully dangerous, with a sharp nose and even sharper eyes. Naruto liked her a lot, to the point where he was half-considering naming her the next Hokage, once all was said and done, if only because she was the only jounin over twenty that came across as level-headed enough for the position. A weak reason, sure, but Naruto didn't really have anyone else in mind.

No, he hadn't forgotten about Konohamaru, but that guy… had different priorities, it seemed Not that Naruto had a problem with any of the things he did, and he thought that Yoh-chan was the sweetest thing, really, but he just didn't seem that interested in running a village, was all. He was practically living in the Land of Earth those days, anyways.

Either way, Benio would be a good person to ask about this. She was a jounin, but not attached to any sort of permanent project, like the Seal Rehabilitation Team, or ANBU or the academy. Why hadn't he thought of her before?

"Cool. I'll go ask her, then!" Naruto said, and was out in an instant with a bright, quick thank-you. Shikamaru stood in the doorway stiffly, watching him leave.

"Yo-ou're welcome," Shikake said, after a moment, in a mock sing-song. And then she disappeared again, messing with that thing on the chain, whatever it was. She was always playing with little things like that.

For the sixth time, Shikamaru sighed.

The things he had to put up with.

Benio, as it turned out, was more than happy to begin the lessons with Yukio. She showed up at the door of her apartment when Naruto came to ask her, sleepy, short hair in her eyes, in boxers and a wife-beater. She agreed to start with him on Monday almost immediately, now if the Hokage would please excuse her, and she closed the door and went back to whatever sort of guest one had over while one was still in one's underwear. Naruto could hear her apologizing as he walked away.

Man, the way that Yukio's eyes lit up when Naruto told him the news.

And Benio rather liked him, which helped things considerably. Though, embarrassingly enough, she had thought that Yukio was a girl at first, and was halfway through complimenting him on his lovely red hair before he said anything about it.

"Oh, I'm sorry! I am so sorry," Benio said, covering her painted mouth with her hands. "I promise, I won't make that mistake again, Yukio-kun."

"…uh, sure… Let's… just start training, then, yeah?" Yukio said, his face as red as his beautiful hair.

So what if he was kinda small for his age, yeah?

(Even though he was only a hair shorter than Naruto was. But Naruto was already on the shorter side.)

So what if he had a girly face?

(Though if Yukio's hair were any longer, then it'd be so much more embarrassingly obvious.)

Benio apologized again. Really, if she had offended him…

But she hadn't, not really.

So they got on with it.

He learned far better than anyone had ever expected.

"I hardly know where to start with him," Benio told Naruto, one particular evening, about a week later. "It's like he knows everything already, or he knew it once, and I'm just reminding him of how it all works. Oh, I don't know, I'm bad with words."

Naruto just shrugged, smiling, and listened to Yukio recount his progress in the evenings when he came home, and they were both in the house.

Well, one night, he wasn't in the house. He was on the roof.

"I think I'm getting the hang of this ninja stuff," he said, with a grin.

"Get down from there, you," Naruto said, echoing his smile.

It was only natural that the rumors started spreading almost immediately.

After all, when they weren't training or working or otherwise busy, Naruto and Yukio were together. Eating ramen, laughing, smiling like they were sharing some private joke.

The prevailing theory was that Yukio was the result of some sort of tryst out in the Land of Rice between the Hokage and some country woman, and that Yukio had somehow found out and come back to Konoha for… whatever reason it was that he would come back to Konoha. To get to know his dad, maybe? To blackmail him? Whispers and half-reasonable assumptions were swapped like snacks at lunchtime.

Naruto had no real children of his own. No, the child he had over in the Land of Demons with that priestess didn't count, as she was a purely political creature.

So, to make up for it, Naruto instead made himself a family of friends, and the children of friends.

The current generation of jinchuuriki, for example. They practically were Naruto's family, from the way he went about treating them. He'd made it his personal mission, once all the tailed beasts were rounded up and returned to the countries they belonged to, to ensure that the children they were sealed into were given the love and respect that they deserved. Nobody could really argue with that.

Boy, did that ever work out well. It still wasn't easy, being one of those rare nine (especially for Kemuri, that poor thing), but Naruto made it easier. One could bet money on him always being there shortly after a sealing, with a hug and a genuine reassurance that everything would be okay from there on out.

Well, except for Morizuru. But that guy was a special case. And Naruto still kinda liked him, anyways, despite what he was. Er, used to be.

…yeah, it was kind of weird, talking about Morizuru. Which is why he was a special case.

Though there was Hyuuga Andou, the young son of Hinata, who refused to say anything about who the boy's father was.

The public smiled smugly, telling themselves that they knew better, despite her firmly-pressed lips. It was so obvious, what was going on between them.

(Though certain parties also suspected Kiba, or even Shino as the father. But Hinata certainly wasn't saying, and neither were they.)

Andou was fourteen-going-on-fifteen years old, with dark hair and pale eyes and a great love, a great hunger for order and bureaucracy. Even though he had the Byakugan, and, as a result, flawless vision, he just seemed to be the type who would wear glasses, and his bangs were cut sharply and cleanly.

When he was younger, he would often play in Naruto's office, sorting paperwork. Surprisingly, he did something of a better job at organizing everything than most of the staff, which Naruto found hilarious and endearing, and left Kakashi wondering, "Where was this kid when I was Hokage?"

He was now an intern at the Hokage Manor, to no ones' surprise. And Naruto utterly doted on him, often eating lunch with him in the break room. He and Yukio were introduced on his fourth day in Konoha. Andou had to leave early, but he assured Naruto, later, when delivering the usual pile of homework, that he found Yukio very charming, before pointing out that Ibiki had sent out another memo about that crime family, the Taki Syndicate, so it was probably important.

One could go on for hours about him and his students, and how deeply he had grieved for Shusuke, when he passed. And how worried he had been, when Murasaki very nearly followed in his wake. And she never really was the same, never was really quite there after that, but that just seemed to make Naruto love her all the more. And maybe that was why she wasn't as messed-up as she could have been, some people speculated.

Maybe that was why she had made such an upset at her chuunin exam debut the following year, with that technique of hers.

Even if she tended to just wander around in graveyards and the Uchiha Memorial, these days, but still.

And this was saying nothing about the hundreds of children at the academy who adored their Hokage, whenever he came by to visit and make the occasional speech - well, if you could call them speeches - about how precious friends were and the power of love and how everyone was very special and a genius in their own way.

Naruto was very good at giving those speeches, not so much because he was particularly good at oratory, but because he was always sincere. And, hey, it had been working for him, and the majority of the world, lately.

Logically, Yukio fit right into the formula. A young boy, full of potential and fire, with a similar personality to Naruto's… Of course he'd be "adopted" in no time at all, into Naruto's little family.

But, see, it was the whole "similar personality" thing that was fueling those rumors. Among other things.

Because it would be a stretch to say that any of the current jinchuuriki resembled Naruto at all, except maybe Tonbo, the bug-catcher girl with the beetle inside of her. And Andou was all order and planning, while Naruto was all spontaneity and chaos. And Murasaki was sleepy and strange, and Masao was careful and constant, and Shusuke…

Well, Shusuke had been similar, too. But not as much as Yukio was.

And Shusuke had had black eyes, black hair, an angular chin. Yukio had a round face and red hair, and blue eyes like a cat's, or a fox's.

And Shusuke didn't end his questions strangely, yeah? Just like Naruto always seemed to end his sentences in his own way, y'know?

And good lord, all that ramen.

And the two of them had connected over literally a handful of hours, practically no time at all, with no pretense, no introduction, just a chance meeting in the hallway.

It couldn't have been a coincidence.

Which was why the rumors were spreading, instead of confining themselves to the usual corner of gossipy housewives, who were always tittering on about forbidden babies and illicit romances. And even the most level-headed of individuals were starting to wonder what was really going on.

Chief among them, of all people, was Sakura.

She just didn't understand it. She had borne witness on more than one occasion to Naruto's astonishingly quick friend-making skills, but this was something of a new record, attaching himself to a person so very quickly. He'd taken the boy into his own home on his first night in Konoha, for goodness' sakes!

And she was more than a little suspicious of the uncanny resemblance thing. And she hadn't even believed it, at first! She had to seek the boy out, see him for herself, before she could draw any conclusions.

…damn, if he didn't look a lot like Naruto.

But, see, that was the thing that didn't make any sense.

If there was one thing she knew about Naruto, it was that he was a genius at friendship, but an absolute imbecile at love. Seriously, the guy would not know romance if it punched him in the face.

Which it had, repeatedly.

…but that was another matter entirely.

No, the thing was, it hadn't been as noticeable when he was younger, but as he had gotten older, it just was more, and more, and more pronounced. It started to get really obvious after Sasuke and Ino had gotten married all of a sudden, and then Lee went and tried to propose to her in that ridiculous manner, and then it seemed like just about everyone was getting married.

Even Ten Ten and - of all people - Sai had settled down. Together. No, seriously. Though those two were a… strange case. Sakura had been in their house, once. It felt like a museum: very clean and very cold and very full of art. It surprised her very little that they didn't have children.

Though, there were exceptions. Kiba was still perpetually single and ridiculously grumpy about it, but still hopeful that he'd be as successful at finding a mate as Akamaru (and his many, many, many progeny) had been. And the situation with Shikamaru and Temari was… complicated, to put it politely.

Nobody knew what the hell about Shino, but somehow, he had managed to reproduce.

And Chouji had taken his sweet time, as well, but eventually settled down with a woman named Chun, who was a cooking-nin with a heart as big as his was and a head of height over him, to boot. It was a curious and wonderful trick of fate, as well, that her much-younger brother, Haruhi, had come to meet Benio.

"Wouldn't that be something," Chouji had once said, to Sakura, with a warm chuckle. "I'd have Asuma-sensei's daughter as my sister-in-law, if they got married."

But Haruhi and Benio had been together for three years with no signs of marriage.

(Rumors said the only reason why they weren't already hitched, despite their living together and obvious devotion, was something to do with Haruhi's birth certificate, or some other legal knot, but those were just rumors, anyways.)

But, the fact remained. When everyone else was off making families and having children, Naruto was still single, smiling like always, apparently quite content with his situation.

And when Hinata had Andou, and when those rumors took off that it had been due to Naruto fooling around with her, Sakura had gotten to the point where she could just about dismiss them without a second thought.

…just about.

Because, for one, she had never seen a half-Hyuuga with a Byakugan, and Andou had the beautiful, unsettling pale eyes of his mother's clan, undeniably.

…then again, she had never seen a half-Hyuuga period. They just… didn't seem to exist, within that clan.

Which supported the second, lesser piece of evidence: that it would never be allowed, otherwise, a little half-Naruto-half-Hinata child. She just got the feeling that the Hyuuga elders would ever so strongly object to letting Hinata marry - much less have children with - someone from outside the clan.

Even Neji had married a Hyuuga woman, a quiet soul from the Branch family whose name Sakura could never remember. And Sakura had thought, for sure, that he'd have chosen otherwise, especially given the things she had heard about him, over the years. But there it was.

And then there was the fact that Naruto just seemed so oblivious to the fact that Hinata liked him so much.

(Even though her admiration became quieter and quieter, as years went by, as the two of them grew slightly closer, through his work, through her son.)

That almost made it less cruel, less heartbreaking. Almost. But all the more confusing, in a way.

When Shion and the dignitaries from the Land of Demons came with their suggestion, since they hadn't yet found an heir for their priestess (nudge, nudge), for a more physical sign of a union between the two countries (hint, hint), and since Naruto had so graciously promised to help make this possible (yeah, you) they had to rely on a (ahem) "sample" provided by Naruto to produce the child, because he just didn't seem to understand that you had to have sex to make babies.

…okay, so maybe that was a slight exaggeration. He was more than aware of where babies came from. And he was more than happy to help make the baby, but he just… wasn't willing to go through the usual motions in making it. Which he apologized for, but refused to back down from.

Which was kind of funny, really, considering that sexy jutsu of his.

…then again, the things that Konohamaru had done with it, in the years following, made that initial creation seem absolutely tame in comparison, much less the rumors of the things he had come up with that people hadn't really seen. Rumors from foreign countries he had visited, especially the Land of Earth. Sakura had never seen anything personally, but…

Konohamaru had just been acting oddly in general, those past few years. Going off on foreign missions that Naruto couldn't remember assigning, hanging out in the lobbies of love hotels and… certain bars, always claiming "research" when approached, scribbled notes from "interviews" in a memo pad in his pocket. He had even spent a year or two in an energetic semi-internship at the hospital, mainly in the OB-GYN ward. Sakura had allowed it, because he didn't seem to have any… bad intentions, when he asked her about it - and besides, what was there to peep at in an obstetrics ward? - and because he had turned out to be an eager study and an excellent nurse overall, by the end of it.

And then there was the time, five years previous, when he had just completely dropped off the map for months and months, and it had Naruto just worried as hell.

And then there he was again; he just showed up one winter morning at Kurenai's house with little Yoh in his arms, saying she was his daughter and he wanted everyone to meet her. Happy as everyone was to see him again, it was undeniably strange.

And it was suspicious as all heck when people asked him where he had been and he just said "Somewhere;" why he stayed bundled up in heavy clothes, even though they had the heat on; why, when asked about who Yoh's mother was, he simply replied "It's… complicated," with a dramatic flip of the voice.

The rumors that people made up afterwards about him and about Yoh made shivers run up Sakura's spine. That sort of stuff was impossible. Even with a sexy-no-jutsu.

(And besides, after Sakura insisted on performing a check-up on Konohamaru and Yoh to make sure they were healthy after having been missing for so long, the only thing she could walk away saying was that Yoh was a perfectly healthy baby girl, and Konohamaru was a perfectly healthy adult male.)

…yeah, back to Naruto.

Some people said that Naruto was so unwilling to, ahem, be with the priestess, Shion, because he was saving himself for Sakura. Which just made her laugh because, by the time the whole thing happened, she had long since been married to Lee, Sakari was almost three years old, and Kenji was well on his way. What was there to save for?

Others - mostly younger girls - said it was because he was saving himself for Sasuke.

…Sakura wondered where in the world those ideas came from. Ahem.

And others still, a vast majority, in fact, said it was because he was saving himself for Hinata. Just in case.

This, Sakura could almost believe, and it absolutely broke her heart.

(Hinata, unlike her widowed sister, had never even been engaged.)

All of it just made Sakura feel so sad for Hinata, for so many different reasons, when she sat back and thought about it. Especially on the darker nights, after long days at the hospital, when she could think of nothing but her work, when she started thinking in terms of injuries and genes, when she started wondering if the Byakugan was a dominant or a recessive trait. The Hyuuga clan certainly wasn't letting them do any research on it, citing clan secrets, and there were laws that protected those secrets, so all she could do was speculate.

And if those genes were recessive, if those pale eyes could only belong to a child born from two Hyuuga and two Hyuuga alone…

Goodness, then she certainly didn't blame Hinata for wanting to keep her mouth shut, if that was the case. If any of that was the case.

Poor thing.

It almost seemed happier, in a bitter, synthetic sort of way, having that wordless possibility of Naruto as the father of her son.

And for those who knew better, the way he seemed to keep himself for her, waiting for a day that would never come.

And then Sakura would just start worrying about Ino, when she began to think about Hinata's sadness, and she'd just draw closer to Lee, across the bed from her, feeling his warmth, just incredibly thankful.

…so, clearly, it just didn't make sense. Naruto was just downright incapable of fathering children - after all, what else could it be?

But Sakura was pretty good with likenesses - and she had seen Naruto's own daughter, and she looked almost less like Naruto than Yukio did - and Yukio was just suspicious. All of this was.

Still, she wasn't the best. So she went to get the best, to try and clear some things up before she had to do anything drastic.

Because, obviously, talking to Naruto wouldn't change a damn thing. He'd just get confused and flustered—deliberately or not, she didn't think she'd be able to tell, when it came to this.

So, instead, she went to Sasuke.


Sasuke, of all things, was actually being sociable and easy to find, those days. Which baffled and delighted Sakura, in that order.

She knew that giving him a team of genin to train was a good idea. It just took a little time. And Ino seemed so cheerful lately, in a way, with him out of the house so much. That was more than worth the wait, seeing her, her kids in such a better way. Especially with the chuunin exams coming up.

She sought him out around lunchtime, taking a break from her shift at the hospital. She found him treating his students to rice bowls at a restaurant near the training grounds, all but him looking slightly fatigued, sweat making their skin glow.

"Fancy seeing you here, Sakura," Sasuke said, without looking at her.

"Oh, hi there, Chief Medical Officer, ma'am!" Kyou added, waving at her. He had rice on his face. "What brings you here?"

Sakura waved back, an awkward laugh escaping for a moment. She knew Kyou through his father, a tailor with a permanent smile, who made or altered most of her family's clothes. Which was something of a necessity, given how very small Sakari was, and how very tall Kenji was, and how very useless Sakura was with a needle.

(Not to mention the fact that the green legacy unitard had to have come from somewhere. Guy was still incredible friends with Kyou's grandfather, the originator of the piece.)

"Sasuke, can I talk to you for a second, privately?" she asked.

"I'm eating. What is it."

Sociable, yes. Polite, hardly. "Just a favor I want to ask of you."

"You can ask me now, can't you?"

She looked at the three young faces that were, by now, staring at her curiously, cautiously, eagerly. For some reason, she just didn't feel comfortable asking for this in front of them. "Just come over here, it won't take more than a minute."

"More than a minute? I don't have much time to spare."

"We're on a very strict training schedule, ma'am," Kyou added, nodding.

Sakura sighed. Did he have to be such a child about this? "Look, it's about Naruto. You can spare a minute for him, right?" She could say at least that much.

Sasuke finally looked at her. "What about Naruto?"

"Look, just come with me, okay?" she said. She put her hands on her hips, her stance strong. "I don't exactly have all the time in the world, either. I have to be back at the hospital in twenty minutes."

He sighed and set his chopsticks down. "Lead the way."

So, she did. Just a few feet away, out of earshot of his students, but close enough so he could keep an eye on them.

"So, what's this about Naruto?" he said. He stood with his weight on one foot, tapping the other in his obvious impatience.

"Well, it's not so much about him as it is about that kid he's taken in lately. Hanamura Yukio, that red-haired boy," she said.

"Ah, yes. That boy. I've seen him around," Sasuke said. "Naruto's certainly attached to him." Every word was saturated with dry disapproval.

"Yeah, I know," Sakura said. "So you've heard the things that people have been saying about him, right?"

Sasuke's eyebrows knit together, his mouth tightening. "You didn't pull me aside just to gossip, did you?"

Sakura rolled her eyes. "Please, what do you take me for?" She crossed her arms, presently, glaring at him. "What I mean to say is, have you heard the rumors that Yukio-kun is his son or something?"

"Well, of course. That's everywhere."

"Okay, good."

There was a moment of silence, and she blew a bang out of her face.

"…again, did you pull me aside simply to gossip?" Sasuke said, glancing at his students, who were still hard at work, eating. "Because I could care less about any of this."

"Ugh, no, that's not it," Sakura said. Why was it that she was always so tongue-tied around him? What was she, thirteen? "Okay, fine, listen, can you just… do a facial comparison for me?"

Sasuke blinked, slowly. "A what."

"I know what your eyes can do, so do you suppose you could compare their features, give me… a rough percentage of resemblance?" She waved her hands around, spreading her fingers wide as she tried to explain herself. "You know, between Yukio-kun and Naruto. It'd help more than you probably think."

And then Sasuke laughed at her. His laugh was hard and cold. "You honestly think that's reliable?"

She glowered, taking a few deep breaths. Easy, Sakura. "Well, yes, considering you have that whole photographic memory and such," she said.

"Resemblance is entirely subjective. What my eyes see makes no difference," he said. There was something like a growing darkness in his voice that she was almost familiar with. It worried and frustrated her. "The boy may look like him, but it's probably no more than a coincidence."

A pause. "A coincidence? Honestly? You call that a coincidence?"

She saw something like a shadow fall over his face. "A coincidence makes the most sense," he said. "Besides, do you honestly think that Naruto would go off and have some illegitimate child with a woman out in the country?"

Sakura had been telling herself the answer to this question all day. "No, obviously, but Sasuke, I just want to see-"

His eyes spun, red and full of anger. "Then it's just a coincidence."

She gulped.

Regained her composure.

What was his problem?

The question remained rhetorical and unvoiced.

"Regardless," she continued, green eyes hardening, "even if Yukio-kun isn't his son, there's the possibility that maybe he's… some sort of… distant relative." Her words came slowly, as if she were dragging them towards herself, away from him. "That's worth looking into, isn't it?"

"Then what do you need me for?" Sasuke said. "You have tests for that sort of thing, don't you?"

"Well… I wanted to see if I wasn't imagining things," Sakura replied. "You've got the best eyes in Konoha, Sasuke. I just wanted to make one last check. I mean," she added, hastily, almost insincerely, "it's medically unethical to do tests without a reason."

He sighed. "I honestly do not understand you sometimes." He stood there for a few moments. "Are we done here?"

She sighed, too. "Yeah, we're done."

"Mm." Sasuke put his hands in his pockets, and swiveled on his heels, walking back to his students. "Oh, by the way," he said, throwing his voice over his shoulder, but not moving his head, "do tell me how those blood tests of yours go."

Sakura had to count to ten. Breathe in, breathe out.

She didn't reply, instead returning to the hospital, making a mental note to visit Naruto later in the evening, so she could catch them both together.

Silently, Sasuke returned to his own table.

"So what was that all about, Sensei?" Sunao asked, slice of beef dangling from her chopsticks. "Something wrong?"

Sasuke did not answer, instead picking up his own chopsticks, and carefully, disaffectedly, returning to his lunch.

A number echoed and repeated endlessly in his mind.

Fifty percent, fifty percent, fifty percent.

And he'd been trying so hard to keep thoughts like that from poisoning his mind.

At least it was Naruto's issue.

Not his.


"So what did you say this was for, again?" Naruto said, as Sakura swabbed the inside of his arm with rubbing alcohol.

"Just following a hunch," Sakura said, carefully speaking, carefully preparing the vial to collect the blood in. Yukio watched, eyes wide.

"What sorta hunch?"

She paused and, instead of replying, stuck the needle into his arm. "Ow, hey! At least give me a little warning, y'know!"

"Quit being such a baby," Sakura replied, sighing, watching the blood flow into the little glass container. "I'm just going to be testing yours and Yukio-kun's blood for certain substances." She removed the vial, filled a second one, and after removing the tourniquet from his arm put a piece of gauze on the hole she had left in Naruto's arm, though she knew it'd be gone in seconds. Force of habit. "Okay, Yukio-kun, your turn."

"What sorta substances?" Naruto said, narrowing his eyes, tilting his head. "Like, germs and stuff?"

"…no, not germs. Goodness, Naruto, how long has it been since you've gotten sick?" Sakura said, and wrapped the tourniquet around Yukio's arm. Naruto shrugged, honestly not remembering.

"So what else can you test blood for?" Yukio said, chewing on his bottom lip.

"Oh, lots of things. Making sure your cells are healthy in general; chakra saturation, in some cases." Genetics; paternity, too, but she didn't want to mention any of that just yet. Sakura looked into Yukio's eyes, but he refused to look back. Man, they looked like Naruto's. "You've had blood drawn before, right?"

"Uh… yeah, like, a few times," he replied. He glanced downward. "You think I'm sick, or something?"

"No, no, I think you're perfectly healthy," Sakura said. The application of alcohol. "There's just gonna be a little poke, okay?"

Yukio nodded, with his eyes closed. She was very gentle. She took the vial, the needle, and collected his blood in it. She filled two more - just in case - before removing the tourniquet, the needle. "There we go, all done." The application of gauze, a bandage. "Thank you, Yukio-kun."

He nodded, opening his eyes, shrugging once her hands were off him. No big deal.

"So, lemme get this straight," Naruto said. His expression hadn't really changed. "You're gonna test our blood for chakra stuff?"

"Well, and some other things," Sakura said.

"What sorta things?"

There were times when Yukio sounded astonishingly like Naruto.

"Listen, it's nothing for you to worry about," Sakura said, giving him a soft smile. "Really. It's a routine test, I've been meaning to do it for a while."

What, she really had.

He shrugged, and she tucked the vials away into the case she had brought them in.

"So you be sure to tell me what the heck the results are, y'know?" Naruto said.

He'd asked a lot more nicely than Sasuke had. "Well, yeah. Of course I'll tell you." And besides, no matter what the results were, they'd be worth talking to him about after the fact. "It'll take a few days."

"That's fine. Oh, you going?"

Sakura, picking up her bag, slinging it over her shoulder, nodded. "Yep. See you later, you two."

And she left, the answers to all of her questions safely packed away, waiting to be decoded. She could hardly wait.

No more sleepless nights, no more silly rumors.

Yukio didn't feel like going out to dinner, that night. But he and Naruto managed to amuse themselves with a spectacular failure of a meal, one that burned and crackled in more ways than one. It tasted horrible, but at least it was fun to make.

Yukio helped, but he ended up burning most of the stuff Naruto told him to handle. "Sorry, I'm not really good at this… I guess only girls are really good at cooking, yeah?" was his explanation.

"Oh, what's that? Only girls are good at cooking?" Naruto said, grinning. "That's not very fair, is it? And for the record, I don't think my cooking's that bad, y'know..."

They laughed, though Yukio's was more out of relief, rather than humor.

He was actually something of a decent cook, even though he stayed well out of the kitchen at home.

But cooking was still for girls.

Chapter Text

Author's Note:

Shion, the priestess mentioned in the last chapter and the mother of Naruto's weird political-daughter-thing is from the first Shippuden movie. At the end of it Naruto made a promise that he'd help provide her an heir when the time came. I guess they made good on that promise.

Just in case anyone was wondering.

Please enjoy this next chapter. Thank you!
- Rii


Chapter 7 - Red Beacon


It took three days for the blood to be processed.

This is what happened on the first day.

Inou woke up at 5 AM to train by himself, when the sun was just starting to rise and the ground was still wet around his toes.

Nadeshiko had gotten up earlier, when it was still dark, to make him breakfast and then leave the house, keeping it out for him without a word or any other indication that any of this was her doing.

Inou supposed that his mother had made it for him the night before. She knew how hard he worked.

Sasuke didn't notice any of it, since Inou had long since eaten it and cleaned up by the time he was awake.

Sasuke left the house at 7 AM, but Inou left the house much earlier.

(Inou didn't meet with his team until 10 AM, at Shikake's insistence, but he kept himself busy in his own way until then.)

Yukio left the house at 9 AM, after eating breakfast with Naruto, both of them still in their pajamas, hair sticking out at all angles.

"I'm gonna be a little busy next week, kiddo. You think you can manage on your own for a while?" Benio told him, when they met for training, shortly afterward. And Yukio had narrowed his eyes and asked her why, so she explained for him.

Benio had been asked, a while back, to serve as the second chief examiner for the chuunin exams, to oversee the elimination round that went on in the Forest of Death, which she was more than happy to do. Though she'd be happier if they'd just send her a letter or something - seriously, if anyone ever wanted to tell her something, they always managed to somehow catch her right as she was settling down to do something else. But, no, she had to report in person. Oh well.

She'd been doing it for the past few years, anyways, and thoroughly enjoyed it every time. Of course, she wasn't a mean person, but there was just something so cute about seeing the first-time participants squirm in fear, looking up at the trees in Training Ground Number 44 with visions of death in their heads as she handed them the consent forms. But it was all okay. The Forest, she told them, was what you made of it.

Heck, when she was a little squirt of a thing, participating in the exams herself, she went in without fear, scoffing at the stories of spooks and spirits that the older students told her, no doubt to psych her out. That was probably due to Shikamaru-sensei, this confidence of hers. He didn't really believe in ghosts, and neither did she.

(The Will of Fire was another thing entirely, but that stayed out of the discussion.)

But… despite all her confidence, when she went into that forest, she always felt like someone, something was watching her. But she gulped and ignored it, and soldiered on.

(She still felt it, to an extent, even now, as a proctor. That watchful, watching presence.)

(…she liked to think that it was just the giant leeches making her think that. Holy damn, those were scary.)

It wouldn't be weird to say that it almost felt like forest had allowed her to pass, because she showed no fear.

Well, and also because her team worked together and kicked a ton of ass, and so did she, and they weren't complete idiots, of course. You couldn't get through the Forest with courage alone. Guts only got you so far. You had to have skill, too. And teamwork.

Plus, there was a tendency for people who abandoned their teammates to be found, pretty early on into the exams, knocked senseless or nursing a bad poison-moss rash. Or both.

Basically? Bad things happened to people that didn't stick together.

(Though there hadn't been a single genin casualty in the Forest for decades. Just losses of consciousness and direction.)

(The same could not be said of the tournament, but that was for another time.)

The fear thing certainly worked as an excellent metaphor, though! So it was what she told the nervous hopefuls going in, and it was what she told Yukio. All of it, the teamwork thing included. That was just important, okay? Even though Yukio didn't have a team of his own, it was important.

His thoughts? "Neat."

Benio laughed. "Maybe next year I'll be seeing you in those exams."

"You wanna bet on it, Sensei?" Yukio replied, grinning.

(If he even lasted that long.)

One thing that Yukio was really good at was hiding just how nervous he really felt about things. But Benio didn't really know this.

What Benio did know was that his aim with a shuriken was already so good that every seven or eight out of ten thrown would hit the targets set up in the training field. And after only two weeks. Benio was pretty impressed. And she didn't even need to mention his taijutsu skills. She still had no idea where that had come from.

He still had no idea what the hell about anything to do with chakra, but seriously, everyone had trouble with that at first. They'd tackle that later. But the less technical aspects, the strikes and the stances and hand signs, he retained like a second language.

All throughout the afternoon, foreign teams, the little triplets of genin that came with their teachers, poured into Konoha. The paperwork that came with processing their arrivals was overwhelming.

Andou, naturally, was overjoyed by the challenge.

And at sometime between 3 and 4 PM, a strange assortment of individuals arrived at the gates of Konoha; ten, fifteen men in traditional clothing with swords and stony looks on their faces. They had an urgent message to deliver, a request from the head of the Taki syndicate himself: Boss Tensho. The way they said his name, it was clear he was important.

Despite attempts to redirect them by the chuunin posted at the gates, they demanded to speak to the Hokage directly, so that their message might be delivered and the proper actions taken afterward.

They left this statement unvoiced, but one could hear from the steel on their backs and in their eyes the words, "Or else."

Naruto was summoned immediately, and he had the Taki syndicate's representatives sent to his office, so he might help them out.

There'd been a memo about this, hadn't there. Oh dear.

The leader of the band introduced himself as Nobuhiro of the Inaba clan, and explained that he was acting on behalf of the Taki family, and that was where the conversation on his background ended, as far as he was concerned. He had a scar over his right upper lip, like a harelip; the skin was puckered and left his teeth exposed in a near-permanent snarl. Naruto tried not to look at it.

"So here's the story, Hokage," he said, roughly, quickly. "My boss's daughter, Lady Kiine, ran away from home recently, an' we got reason to believe that she's stayin' somewhere in Konoha. You heard anything about this?"

"Huh, really?" Naruto said, and set his eyebrows low, his face growing as stony as the bodyguard's. "No, I've heard nothing about this. When do you think she got here?"

"She ran off about a month ago, an' lemme tell you, we've been running around like chickens with their heads cut off tryin' to find her," Nobuhiro replied. He was playing with a pretty little knife in a black and white lacquer case, sheathing and unsheathing it. Slide, click. Slide, click. "Considering how long it took for us to get here, an' according to the stuff from our… inside sources, she probably got here 'bout two, three weeks ago."

Naruto's eyes narrowed as he looked around at the rest of the guards in their office, carrying identical swords, identical scowls.

Well, except for one individual, a boy, maybe fourteen years old, standing behind Nobuhiro's chair. He wore dusky purple robes, and he held a sword, a stunning piece of work in a white sheath, very tightly, with pale hands. His eyes were downcast, and his dark hair fell into his face.

He seemed very out of place, like a flower growing out of a pile of boulders. Something about him struck Naruto as vaguely familiar, but he couldn't quite place why.

"Sounds pretty serious," Naruto said, nodding, lacing his fingers together on his desk, taking his eyes away from the boy with the sword and back onto the scar on Nobuhiro's face that he was trying not to look at. "So what can I, uh, do for you?"

"Well, we'd rather not rely on the help of ninjas," Nobuhiro said, scarred lip curling, almost in disgust, as he spoke, "but given where we are right now, we ain't got a choice. So we gotta ask for your help. Desperate times call for desperate measures, y'know what I mean?"

Naruto tilted his head a little, mouth lowering. Uh, okay? "Sure, sure. So, what is it I can do to help you? I mean, we're kinda busy on account of the chuunin exams but-"

"What you can do to help us is find my Boss Tensho's daughter as quickly an' as painlessly as possible, you get me?" Slide, click.

"…sure, I totally understand that." And Naruto smiled because, hey, as painlessly as possible, right? "D'you have any photographs of her, or distinctive features we should look for? I can have a memo sent out and-"

"Yeah, s'amatter of fact, I do. Yuki, hand it over."

Silence. Slide, click.

"Yuki. Hand it over."

The boy standing behind Nobuhiro shifted the sword to one hand, dug into his robes, and produced a photograph, handing it to him. There was resistance in the exchange, the boy holding onto it tightly with his fingers, and Nobuhiro glancing at him for a moment with anger, before sliding it across the desk to Naruto.

It was a color photograph, a formal portrait of a girl of maybe fifteen, sixteen years of age, with red hair falling over her shoulders, held away from her face by gold combs. The kimono she wore was obviously expensive, all gold thread and embroidery the color of autumn leaves. Her blue eyes were harsh and almost intimidating, beautifully dangerous, her lips painted a deep and blood-like color.

Naruto tilted his head this way, that way, as he looked at the photo.

…huh.

"I'll have copies made of this and distributed to our staff around the city. We'll all be on the lookout for her by this evening, don't worry," Naruto said, picking up the photograph. "There any more details you can add? To make the search easier."

"She's got a buncha freckles on the back of her neck. And a scar on her left shoulder. That's about it," Nobuhiro said.

"Freckles on the neck, scar on the shoulder, got it. I'll have that included," Naruto said. There was a stack of sticky notes on his desk, and he peeled one off and stuck it to the photograph after writing "freckles on back of neck, scar on shoulder." "You're actually kinda lucky, y'know! We got guys all around doing surveillance work 'cos of the exams and-"

"There anything else you can do for us, Hokage?" Slide, click.

"Honestly, this is about all I can do. I'm sorry, I wish there was more. Plus you guys are still out there lookin' for… uhh…"

"Lady Kiine." Slide, click.

The boy with the sword's hands tightened their grip.

"Ah, sure, sorry. Lady Kiine, right." Naruto nodded, committing the name to memory. Hopefully. He smiled. "We'll be doing our best, Nobuhiro-san!"

"Yeah, you'd better," Nobuhiro said, and got up. "We'll be checkin' in with you tomorrow, after we do some diggin' of our own. C'mon, boys, let's go."

And they did.

Though the boy with the sword glanced at Naruto, for a moment, before leaving. He had brown, brown eyes, and his face was hauntingly beautiful.

(It serves to be said that any other person would have mistaken the boy for a girl, at this point. But Naruto just knew otherwise, though he couldn't quite place why or how he knew. Call it a hunch.)

Their eyes met for only a moment, and he was just as quickly there and gone, ducking behind Nobuhiro and his posse.

Naruto glanced at the photograph on his desk again, blue eyes meeting blue eyes.

He shivered from the déjà vu, not quite identifying what had caused it, the photograph or the boy.

By 5 PM, copies had been made of the photograph of Taki Kiine, and distributed amongst the Konoha staff, proctors and teachers and guards alike.

Andou confirmed that, yes there had been a memo about the Taki syndicate. Three, in fact, since the initial reports of Kiine's going missing.

Crap, had there really?

Yes, really.

Crap.

Naruto could only remember two. Sort of.

…crap.

By 6 PM, complaints were already coming in about the Taki syndicate's representatives.

The thugs - always described as thugs or goons or hooligans, by the people making the complaints - were being a nuisance, snooping around and being generally antagonistic to the chuunin guards around the city, refusing to answer any sort of questions. Heck, the closest things they gave to straight answers were akin to "We're lookin' for Boss Tensho's daughter, what have you done lately?"

They were freeloading food, saying they'd "pay for it later." They were scaring away business from other shops, by hanging about with nothing better to do, "on surveillance."

And, as one concerned mother reported, they were corrupting the children.

"'Yer in a useless profession, kid.'" Her impression was a bit exaggerated, but Naruto managed to keep himself from laughing. "Can you believe that? Saying that to my child? He's eight!"

The terrified eight year old in the useless profession peered out from between his mother's arms, looking more frightened at the prospect of losing oxygen from her grip on him than the prospect of continuing in a career with no future.

Naruto comforted her, like he did with all the others, and assured her that he'd do something about it when he met with Nobuhiro-of-the-Inaba-clan in the morning.

Sasuke got home at 7 PM, after training with his team, meeting with Takeru along the way; he had been away on a mission of his own all day.

("Surveillance work, Father, can you believe it? I'm better than this.")

Inou went home at 8 PM, after training with his. He had lost his breath, and spent most of the evening trying to find it. Takeru kept shooting him glances across the table, when they convened for dinner, as if his efforts disgusted him.

Karai was waiting at home for them, with her mother, helping prepare the fried tofu for most of the evening, talking to her without words, practicing, worrying about Inou. If she could find his breath for him, she gladly would. She'd asked to be excused from training with her team early, so she could help out at home, and her sensei said he understood and let her go.

Hajime had gone out for the night.

Nadeshiko was somewhere.

Naruto didn't go home until well after 10 PM.

He entered the house, ready to apologize, when he saw that Yukio was asleep at the kitchen table, two empty instant ramen containers on the table, a third half-filled with cold, congealing noodles. His broken chopsticks were still in his hands.

Naruto's smile was tired, but it was genuine for the first time in hours. He walked over to the boy, reaching out a hand to rouse him, before noticing something odd.

There, on the back of his neck - what was that? A ring of mottled red marks, like someone had bitten him there.

It looked… familiar. But where had he seen it?

Sleeping on the couch, afternoon sun falling over their…

Wait, hadn't someone said something about…

Yukio stirred awake before Naruto could fully recall. "Mmwhassgoinon…?" he mumbled.

"You didn't have to wait up for me, y'know. You tired?" Naruto asked, smiling again.

"Mmyeah." He sat up, rubbing his eyes, yawning. "Training went long…"

"I understand. You go get your sleep, okay?" Naruto said.

"Mmkay," said Yukio, and stumbled a little as he tried to get up. Naruto caught him.

"Think you'll be okay?" There were no words in the reply. "All right, all right, c'mere."

Together, the boy and the Hokage went down the hallway, and into Yukio's room.

Yes, it really was his room, now, wasn't it? There was his rucksack, on the chair. That was his bed. The room no longer really smelled of the girl it used to occasionally belong to. It smelled, in a strange way, like him.

Yukio sat down on the bed and tucked himself into the sheets without taking his clothes off. "G'night…"

Naruto smiled. "Night, Yukio."

Naruto had no homework that night, though he could not sleep for quite a while, his mind swimming with images and half-remembered things.

Especially faces.

From the bedside table, he could almost hear his mother's voice in the dark.

"How do I work this thing, again?"

But for some reason, she spoke with Yukio's voice.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8 - Shutter Requests


It took three days for the blood to be processed.

This is what happened on the second day.

Inou woke up at 5 AM, again.

Nadeshiko was up earlier, again.

In fact, it was much the same as it had been the day before.

Though Naruto got up earlier than usual, after the sunrise. Yukio was still sleeping, so Naruto left a note on the fridge explaining the situation - chuunin exam preparations, talks with the guys from the Taki syndicate, so busy, so busy - and apologizing for not being able to eat breakfast with him, like usual.

He took extra care in reading the initial reports when he got to the Manor. No sign of Kiine, yet. No good.

When Nobuhiro arrived with his men, later in the morning, Naruto went to meet with him immediately. Nobuhiro's expression hadn't changed, either, still wearing that permanent, unintentional snarl.

"It's been a day, Hokage. Where's Lady Kiine." Sli-ide. Click.

Naruto had read all the reports very, very carefully. "There's been no sign of her in the village, yet. I'm sorry, Nobuhiro-san, we're trying all we can-"

"No, no, see, if you were tryin' all you could, then you'd drop everything and you'd be scourin' the place for her, no questions asked." Nobuhiro was leaning forward now, his pretty little knife clamped in his hand. His fingers had square tips and big knuckles. "You guys ain't pulling your weight."

Naruto had a smile on his face, but it was a nervous one, a defense mechanism. "Honestly, Nobuhiro-san, we're doing as best we can with what we have at the moment. But the chuunin exams are coming up and-"

"I don't care about no chuunin exams." Nobuhiro rolled his eyes. And then, in a much lower growl, "Honestly. Ninjas." He spat the word out as if they were poisoning his mouth.

"Hey, hey, I'm serious, here," Naruto said. He managed to squeeze out a few laughs. "We're honestly trying our best. It's not just our village participating in these exams, though, we have guests coming in from several countries, and they've all gotta be taken care of, y'know? Any other time, I'd give you my… complete and total attention, but right now-"

"Oh, sure. I bet, I just bet," Nobuhiro said. He was still leaning forward, brown eyes focused beneath thumb-thick brows. "Though I bet you'd be so much more cooperative if we were from a ninja village, huh?"

Naruto wasn't smiling anymore. "Nobuhiro-san, I promise. Where you're from or who you are makes no difference to me. We'll find Lady Kiine. I swear on my honor as Hokage, y'know." He put his hand on his heart, looking the man into his eyes. "It just might take a while. And I'm gonna need your help."

The eyes that stared back at him were not welcoming, nor were they cooperative, not by any definition.

"We've been helpin' ourselves just fine, thanks very much," Nobuhiro said. "Like I said, I wanted this done as quickly an' as painlessly as possible."

"And we've been trying as best we can to get this done as quickly and as painlessly as possible, Nobuhiro-san. Please trust me, y'know?"

"Oh, I trust you enough." That pretty little knife slid out of its case and shone a beautiful silver when Nobuhiro held it up to the light. "I just don't wanna have to resort to... coercion, is all. What with you being so very helpful to us, Hokage."

Naruto was behind him in an instant, Nobuhiro's knife in his hand.

There was no denying what Nobuhiro had wanted to do with it, not with that anger fanning out from behind him like a cobra's hood.

And, just as suddenly, there was a blade, inches from Naruto's throat. It was held with both hands by the boy in purple, his hair a black curtain that framed his face, almost covering his eyes.

"Please step away from my brother, sir."

His grip on the sword was strong, and the blade did not even waver. There was a pattern of rabbits painted on the handle. His voice was like a girl's voice, young and high, and there was no anger or hatred in it. Only fear, and sadness.

Naruto found himself smiling again. He stepped away, sliding the pretty little knife back into its case. Click.

"Nobuhiro-san, I don't think you'll need to use this, y'know," he said, gently, passing the knife over Nobuhiro's shoulder. "But, hey, it's your knife. So I'll just give it back, so long as you promise not to use it. Sound fair?"

Nobuhiro grimaced, in pain, in scorn, and he took the knife from Naruto's hand very quickly. He grumbled, "Yuki, put that away."

The boy did, sheathing the blade gracefully, beautifully, wordlessly. His eyes returned to the floor.

"Mark my words, Hokage," Nobuhiro said, shaking the closed knife at Naruto as he leaned forward in his chair. Naruto returned to his desk, face fixed. Painless, pleasant smile. "If you don't help us find her, then so help me…"

"Seriously, you have nothing to worry about." Ah, there were a few laughs, light, reassuring. Almost real. "We'll have better luck today. There's no need to resort to threats, y'know."

And Naruto was almost right. Nobuhiro left with his men, his brother with the white sword, and left Naruto alone for quite a while. Enough time to settle a few more complaints - hardly anything he could do there - review preparations for the chuunin exams - things seemed to be going smoothly on that front, minus the Taki shenanigans - blah, blah… Oh!

There was a letter from Kurunari. Andou must have stuck that in there, to cheer him up.

Naruto read the letter with a wide smile that slid comfortably over his face, one that wasn't painted or forced into place. That kid, honestly. He was such a nice guy; a bit of a pushover, really. And so shy, even with his fellow jinchuuriki! Naruto joked that he didn't have a spine because he had a slug sealed up inside him, and Kurunari would just laugh nervously, big shoulders hunched, and say, no, that wasn't true…

And his letters were beautiful things. Naruto's were rough, but friendly - even his official reports read something like actual conversations from him, more than anything. But Kurunari's letters read like pages from a novel, all sparse prose and precise detail.

He was about halfway through the third page when there was a knock on the door. "C'mon in!" Naruto said.

The door opened. "Hokage-sama? I hope I'm not troubling you..."

It was that light voice, and it was full of fear, and uncertainty.

Naruto looked up, and he saw the boy that it belonged to The one who had handled that sword so beautifully, but he wasn't carrying it now, having tucked it into the red-purple belt of his uniform. His hair was dark, and it brushed his shoulders, the corners of his eyes.

"I'd… like a word with you, sir, if you have the time," he said.

A sort of shiver ran up Naruto's spine, the sort he got when he was just a little too cold. And it wasn't even that cold in the room. What the heck.

"Sure, sure, I've got time," he said. He put down Kurunari's letter and gestured toward the chairs in front of his desk, where Nobuhiro had been sitting just a few hours previous. "You're… um…?"

"Yuki, sir. Of the Inaba clan. Nobuhiro is my elder brother." And he bowed very low and very formally before sitting, removing the sword and placing it beneath the chair as he did so. Naruto couldn't help but bow a little in return at the display. "I'm… very sorry for my actions this morning. I didn't want to hurt you, honestly…" And he bowed again, in his chair, pale hands folded in his lap. "I ask that you please forgive me."

"No, no, it's fine! You didn't even touch me," Naruto said, laughing, waving his hand. He knew that the boy was sincere. "So Nobuhiro's your brother?'

"Yes, sir."

They both had brown eyes, and dark hair, but otherwise Yuki looked nothing like him, much less acted like him. Nobuhiro's face was hard, with high cheekbones like cliff faces. Yuki's features were round, and very soft, like water-polished stones. Even their words were from different worlds.

"Never would have guessed," Naruto said. "You guys don't resemble each other very much… if you don't mind me saying, y'know."

"No, I don't really mind," Yuki said, softly, looking up. His eyes were clear and, for a moment, Naruto saw something in them that he could have sworn he had seen once before, a long time ago. "But family is more than just blood, sir."

Naruto shivered. Again. Man, what was that? "You got a point, there, haha! Still, your brother's not nearly as polite as you are. I'm really trying my best with him."

"Oh, I know you are. And I apologize for his behavior, sir," Yuki said. Another little half-bow in the chair. "He's not… terribly fond of ninja..."

"Yeah, I can see that. What's with that?" Naruto said. "I mean," he added, before Yuki could say anything, "if it's something you'd rather not talk about then, hey, I understand. We've all been through some tough times in the past, y'know?" He smiled reassuringly, to punctuate the sentence.

"No, no, it's not that." Yuki waved his little hand dismissively. "I'm sorry, but all I can do is to ask that you be… patient, with my brother."

"I can do that," Naruto said. He grinned. "Easy."

"…and, if you know where Master Kiine is, then please tell her to flee, immediately."

Naruto blinked. "Huh?"

"Master Kiine. I know that she's here in Konoha, and if my brother finds her, then… Then… Oh, I don't want that… I already feel bad enough for allowing this all to happen, and she'd be so mad at me now if…"

The words came pouring out, and the more there were, the closer Yuki seemed to tears. Oh, jeez.

"Hey, hey, calm down, calm down. Just take a deep breath, okay?" Naruto said, reaching his hand across the desk. "Let's just slow down. This is about Master… Kiine?"

"Oh, no, um." Yuki sniffed. "Force of habit. I apologize." He swallowed, nodded. "I meant Lady Kiine."

"Right, so, um… what about her do you want to talk about?" Naruto said. Yuki remained quiet. "Well, uh, first off, how do you know her? She's a friend of yours, I'm guessing?"

"I am her bodyguard and personal valet, sir." He said it softly, as if he were ashamed by the fact.

"Oh. Um. Gosh," Naruto said. He scratched the skin behind his ears. "Wow, you must be really worried about her, then."

"…very much so, sir." He gulped again, swallowing his words. "It's… all my fault that this happened."

"Your fault that she ran away?" He nodded. "Why, how so? What happened?" Naruto was resting his head on the top of his hands, now, listening intently.

"I couldn't… Well, the thing is…" Yuki looked out the window, sucking on his lips. "Well she came up with this idea, and I let her, I just let her go, and I shouldn't… I'm just… I'm just an absolute failure… And the only reason she went to Konoha is..." He couldn't say any more, his throat starting to barricade itself with his held-in tears. "Just… if you know where she is, please tell her to leave, to run as far as she can. My brother will give up the search in a few days, he'll leave you all alone. I just… I don't want to see her hurt…"

Naruto didn't quite know what to say. In truth, he was still somewhat trying to process what in the world was going on in the first place.

He went on something like auto-pilot, picking out things he'd heard and stringing them together, comfortingly, until he could get more answers. He was good at that. "Yuki-san, I'm sure your brother won't hurt Lady Kiine. He wants her home safe as much as you do, and I want to make that sure she's safe, too, y'know."

"That's not what I…" But Yuki didn't say any more, instead standing and bowing quickly after picking up his sword, hiding his face behind his hair. "Thank you for your time, Hokage-sama, but I believe I'll be going now."

"Hey, if there's anything more you wanna talk about… I mean, I wanna help, y'know?" Naruto said, as Yuki was leaving, moving too quickly for any other protest. The boy paused, facing the door, frozen.

"Then please, help her. Because I failed, sir."

Yuki said one more thing, before leaving.

"Oh, and… just to clarify, I… am a boy," he said, awkwardly, still not turning to look at Naruto.

"I… never said you weren't?" Naruto replied. Really, why had Yuki thought…?

(Where had he heard something like that before?)

Yuki paused for only a moment more before departing, leaving Naruto alone, Kurunari's letter still half-read on his desk.

Long after he had finished the letter, gone back to paperwork, after meeting with a few more people, Naruto was still thinking about why in the world the boy had come to talk to him.

"Then please, help her. Because I failed, sir."

The hair on his arms was still standing slightly on end, like he had just seen a ghost.


"Kakashi-san, please, it's just going to be for a couple of hours."

Yamato was asking Kakashi to babysit Kotoji. Again.

"Yamato, I honestly marvel at how very busy you seem to be, these days."

"It's an emergency. I swear. Not like last time."

"You said last time was an emergency, too."

"Well, excuse me for being the only man in Konoha with a Wood Release. I was the only one they could call."

It was a lie and Kakashi knew it, but then again, Kotoji was three, and could hardly be considered a man. He made flowers burst out of the wall whenever he so much as giggled slightly. Which he did. Frequently. He was just a damn happy kid.

Which was nice, because when he was angry, it was even worse, even with Yamato keeping it under control. He had to remove all the potted plants from his house, when this started happening, after a hanging basket of ivy nearly took over his kitchen one afternoon.

And it was forbidden to talk about when he had to extend this to the neighbors. Kakashi thought it was funny until he had to deal with it himself.

"You're excused."

There was a bit of silence on the other end of the line. Then: "In any case, I only got the call from Haruhi-kun like ten minutes ago."

Kakashi didn't answer, not recognizing the name. Yamato'd fill him in.

"He was a student of mine, you probably don't know him."

Exactly.

"Ah, yes. From when Iruka told you to give teaching a try? Ha. Ha. That was interesting."

"Okay, seriously, knock it off."

A quiet giggling from the background. Kakashi shifted the phone to his other ear to scratch his arm. Yamato continued.

"Anyways. Haruhi-kun's freaking out because Benio-chan's freaking out about something, I don't know what, and he's just asking for my help because everyone's busy with the chuunin exams and I have some time off for once."

Kakashi could hear Kotoji squealing, and Yamato telling him, laughter in his voice, to please be quiet, Daddy was on the phone.

"And I'm a little tied up right now, so could you please…?"

"Yamato, I can't keep doing this. I'm not gonna raise your kid for you."

If he had a ryou for every time he'd said that...

"I know, Kakashi-san, I'm sorry. But you know how it is."

"No, I don't know."

"Oh, come on. Please, Kakashi-san."

"I'm busy."

"You're retired!"

"And? I have a lot of things to do."

"Like what?"

"There's a lot of reading I've been meaning to do."

"That's all you do, Kakashi-san."

"Well, I was very busy as Hokage, and I didn't have much time to read. So I'm catching up on it now. Allow an old man his pleasures, won't you?"

"You're not old, Kakashi-san, you're only fifty-seven."

"And you're fifty-three with a three year old. You are just raring with youth, aren't you."

"…did you really have to say that, senpai?"

"…you do know how much I hate it when you call me that, don't you?"

"Yes. Senpai."

Kakashi could practically see him smirking on the other end there. And he sighed. They'd had this conversation a million times, and he knew when it was coming to a close.

"…how long do you need me for."

"Just a couple of hours. It's almost time for Kotoji's nap, anyways. I can try and put him down so he'll be asleep by the time you get here."

"You owe me, Yamato."

"I know, senpai. I owe you a lot."

Kakashi found himself smiling, behind his mask. "I'll be there in a few minutes. And stop calling me senpai."

He swore, that was how Yamato won every argument. Every single one.

Kotoji was a pretty agreeable kid, anyways. Slept like a log, and was well-behaved… for a three year old. Which meant that he went to the potty like a big boy and mostly knew what not to touch in his father's house, though that didn't stop him from making a mess of Kakashi's things. He'd forgotten how many books he had to replace due to Kotoji's utter fascination with ripping out their pages and making things out of them. Usually more flowers.

But, hey. Books were books. Just stories in bindings. They were replaceable.

(Though his first-edition set of the Icha Icha novels, autographed by Jiraiya himself? Those he kept very much at home.)

Speaking of stories, there was a damn interesting one behind how Kotoji had come to be.

It wasn't a story that people told each other much, those days, though it certainly got around when it had initially happened. But no matter when or where it was told, there was always one section that was skipped over, only really noticeable by people who knew the whole truth.

The reasons, once heard, were obvious.

So what had happened was that, apparently, while up on a mission in the Land of Lightning, Yamato and the rest of the guys on his team had gotten a little bit carried away, as it were, following the successful completion of their mission.

About a year later, a deeply-tanned, heftily-built woman with a put-upon expression and offensively pink hair was at Konoha's gates, asking for a guy with wood powers. "It's kind of fucking urgent, so would you get a move on?" she said.

Her lipstick was banana-yellow and even though she was clearly a civilian - if her looks weren't enough, her chakra-level was near-zero - she was kind of scaring the chuunin on duty, and since there was only really one guy with wood powers that fit her description, Yamato was summoned immediately.

The first thing she said was "Ignore the baby."

It was kind of hard not to, considering that she was holding it there on the couch in front of Yamato, and the fact that the blanket it was wrapped in was lime green.

What was this about…?

"D'you remember a girl up in the Land of Lightning?"

She'd have to be more specific.

"Her name was Yukarin. Runa Yukarin?"

No, that… didn't ring any bells.

"She had black hair. Kinda thick. Liked to wear it in pom-poms. Y'know, pigtails."

…sounded kinda familiar.

"She danced at a club called Kirin-Mi."

Oh! He knew that club. He and his buddies went there all the time whenever they were in the area. Well, Yamato always reluctantly, but…

"Pff. You would. But you don't remember her? Wow, how typical."

No, no no, of course he remembered her! Now he remembered her. She was a sweet girl. Sweet girl.

Silence.

…out of curiosity, why was she asking?

"Well, that your little one night stand with her? Resulted in a kid. This kid, as a matter of fact."

Yamato had no idea what to say to that.

"Yep. You can stop ignoring him, now."

The baby was still sleeping, tan-skinned, dark hair, little hand pressed up against his face. Yamato swallowed.

"Oh yeah, and she's dead, by the way. His mom, that is."

The banana-lipped woman continued, as Yamato blinked in horrified silence. One of the chuunin in the room ran to get Naruto.

(That was about where people tended to skip over the story, to get to the punch line, dark as it was.)

(But not here.)

"She bled to death, after he was born. Called it a prolapse or something. There was nothing they could really do."

Oh no, oh no...

"Oh, yeah. I'm her best friend, by the way. And I kind of fucking hate your guts for that, let's just get that out of the way, okay?"

He was sorry, he was so sorry…

"Yeah you'd better be. She told me to find you, you know, before she died, so you could take care of the kid. I mean, she kinda doesn't have any family to take care of him. They kinda disowned her. I'm pretty much the only family she has. Fuck. Had."

Oh, no, that's…

"Oh, spare me. Here."

She held the baby surprisingly tenderly for a woman with such a cold, insincere tone.

"Take him. He's yours, now, okay?"

Yamato took him without a second word. His arms were shaking.

Oh, wow, he was just so sorry

This was his son?

"Yeah. His name's Kotoji."

Kotoji.

Tears were beginning to well up in Yamato's eyes. Everyone else present started to feel more than a little embarrassed and ashamed and, well, sad for him.

"This must be overwhelming, but y'know what? I don't fucking care, okay? I've busted my ass in trying to find you, and this is way more than a little unfair."

Yamato said nothing.

"She was gonna keep him, y'know. Get her life together. Settle down, move to Kumo, get a real job, okay. 'Cos she lost hers, when they found out she was knocked up. I was gonna help her, too, okay? She was gonna start all over again. Give the kid a good life, okay?"

There was something in her voice, like a bramble caught in her throat. Yamato nodded.

"She wanted him to be a ninja, even. A ninja! Shit, Yuka, after all that…"

Yamato said nothing. Thick tears were coming out of his eyes, and he rubbed them away with the back of one hand, cradling the baby with the other.

"You asshole. You mother fucking asshole. I'm never gonna forgive you, okay? I'm never gonna fucking forgive you, you hear me? You hear me?"

Yamato's eyes were closed.

"Answer me, damn it!"

A chuunin stepped forward, cautiously, prepared to restrain her.

Her makeup ran down her face in two rivers of candy-like color.

…Yamato didn't expect her to forgive him.

"Well… well, good! 'Cos I won't, okay? I'm gonna hate you until the day I die, you fucking..." She sniffed, loudly. "Damn it, and she didn't even know your name! Because you're obviously not really named Yamato, I know how you ninjas fucking work, okay… Fake names every time you…"

Yamato shuddered, wiped his tears away again.

"I'm just… I can't even…"

She was sobbing, now. Almost as hard as Yamato was.

"You'd… you'd better take good care of him, okay? Or so help me…!"

She swallowed, and tried to close her mouth, but couldn't, her yellow lips pursing only in the middle.

…Yamato promised that he would. And that Kotoji would grow up to be a ninja, and a good one, too.

The banana-lipped woman stood there, mouth quivering, eyes whipping from the child, to the man who now held him.

"If you g-go back on your promise. I'm gonna fuh-fucking kill you, okay? I'm gonna come back and… and…"

Yamato said that he understood.

"If anything… anything happens to him…!"

Nothing would happen to him.

"…just… take care of him. Take care of him, okay?"

She was long gone before Naruto could arrive and ask what in the world was going on.

Nobody ever got her name.

Yamato never used a different name, after that. Not even on missions.

(This was where the story resumed, the space in between usually filled with jokes about how Yamato'd gotten in trouble with a fierce ganguro from up north, and how hilarious that was because, come on, ganguro. People still dressed like that? Leave it to Yamato to go for a girl like that, ha ha ha.)

Yamato was utterly terrified.

Luckily, he had a lot of help. People were surprisingly willing to help a fifty-year-old newly-made single father, once the news got around.

Naruto probably had something to do with it. He had connections, and infectious compassion.

A crib and formula and diapers were donated, and baby clothes, too - quite a lot from Ino, since she wasn't going to be using them again anytime soon, thank you very much, which led to some confusion when people sometimes saw Yamato walking around with the baby bearing a large red-and-white Uchiha fan on his back.

(Sasuke was a little miffed about this, but Ino was in charge of such things, and she had the final say on where her children's clothes were donated.)

("Could have at least taken the damn emblem off, he's not even a part of my clan.")

"He's not an Uchiha, he's just my son," Yamato would say, whenever people asked about this. His smile grew more and more genuine, the more he said it.

Man, did he ever love that kid.

And once he got the hang of it, he wasn't too bad a father, either.

The only thing that got in the way was, well, duty. Being the only user of the Wood Release in the world made him something of a high-demand sort of guy.

Before Kotoji could even crawl, he'd be scrambling to find babysitters for him, due to last-minute missions and laws that forbade the use of any sort of bunshin as babysitters - what did they mean, it counted as willful abandonment? And Naruto tried to be understanding and only assign the most pressing matters to him, but things still happened that required his skills, and with a worrying frequency.

Kakashi was, initially, the last resort. And if it weren't for the fact that Kotoji liked him so much, he would have stayed that way.

It had started out innocently enough. When he was very small, and very fussy, he would only stop crying when in either his father's arms, or Kakashi's, no matter what the situation. Naruto was deeply hurt by this, and by that he meant it wasn't that big a deal, haha, but it was still there. Things like that.

But pretty soon, it became readily apparent that, if Daddy wasn't home and somebody else had to watch him, it had to be Kakashi. What luck that Kakashi was retired, and thus so very available to watch the boy when needed?

Yeah, he was well-behaved for a three-year-old, but he was also about as rational as a three-year-old, too.

Kakashi liked to tell himself that it was a huge pain to deal with. He was a former Hokage, for pity's sake. He didn't need to be treated like this, stuck with babysitting duty, time after time. But every time Yamato called him, he almost never turned him down.

He liked to tell himself that he resented when people called him Kotoji's Second Daddy, or, worse, Kaka-Mama - thank you so very much, Konohamaru, you are definitely one to talk - but… he just couldn't bring himself to feel truly angry about any of it, so the feelings weren't really genuine.

Even when Yamato was late in coming home, leaving Kakashi exhausted from dealing with the little ball of energy. Even when Kotoji, right after learning how to walk, started making everything - from the mold on the cheese in the fridge, to the window planter from the apartment next door - start to grow uncontrollably, which lead to a great many, notable fiascoes. Even when he could be alone, reading, saying he was enjoying his retirement.

…well, this was enjoyable in a sense, too.

Besides, there was just something… he couldn't find the words to describe. But he tried.

There was something in seeing Kotoji's face light up with a gap-toothed grin when he came in the door that just reminded him of when things were simpler, in a way. When things weren't healing, weren't even that broken. He had a smile like new beginnings, and it made Kakashi…

No, Kakashi absolutely wasn't smiling about that. He was looking forward to getting some reading done.

Kotoji would probably asleep by the time he got to Yamato's house, giving him a lot of time to himself. That's how it usually was, those days. At least, how Yamato tried to have it. He knew how inconvenient this was to Kakashi.

And Kakashi appreciated that.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 - Flash Signals


"Hey, you! Jounin-brat. Where's the heck's your sensei?"

Kakashi was thirteen years old, cooling his feet in the river. He had his shoes arranged neatly beside him, left foot, right foot.

It was one of those hot, blue-sky days, a July day. Minato-sensei had given him the afternoon off.

He didn't turn back to look at her, but he knew that she was there, at the top of the hill. Kakashi pretended that he didn't notice her and leaned back, splashing his feet, knocking them against the concrete river bank.

"Don't act like you can't hear me. I know you can, you little twerp."

Kakashi didn't reply. He started to whistle.

He felt a foot on his back. "Tell me where he is or I'm kicking you in the river, yeah?"

"You wouldn't do that."

"Ah! He speaks. What, you want me to try?"

"No. You wouldn't be able to."

And Kakashi demonstrated why, a second later, disappearing in a moment and reappearing behind her. His feet were still wet.

And all she could do was laugh. "Man, I just can't get anything past you, huh, kid?"

Kakashi shrugged, glancing sideways, perfectly nonchalant. "Whatever."

She crossed her arms over her belly, her mouth fixed sorta sideways. She didn't bother turning around, instead looking down at him over her shoulder. "So, again. Since I got your attention, yeah? Where's your sensei?"

"I dunno."

Minato-sensei was in his office, of course. Taking care of some Things.

"Don't give me that, kid, I know that you know. Just tell me, yeah?"

Kakashi looked the other way, with his one uncovered eye.

"He doesn't want to be bothered."

"Pff. Really, now."

"Yeah."

"And how do you know that, yeah?"

"Because he told me."

She rolled her eyes. "Uh-huh." She wasn't leaving. "I still wanna know where he is."

Kakashi returned to the riverbank, sat down, carefully, dipped his feet back into in the water. "Ask someone else. He still doesn't wanna be bothered."

She scoffed. "You're concerned about me bothering him? I'm the mother of his freakin' kid, yeah? I get to bother him. Since I'm bothered twenty-four-seven by this little octopus in my stomach, yeah?"

Kakashi was whistling again.

Next thing he knew, she was sitting next to him. It took her quite an effort, and she rested her hand on her stomach, sighing deeply as she took off her sandals, right foot, left foot. She let them fall where they lay.

"Kid, when you're outta here, I swear. First thing I'm gonna do is, like, a million backflips, yeah? You're makin' it hard to move."

Kakashi didn't look at her.

"…look, kid, I understand if you don't like me."

Kakashi was already well-informed of her frankness. He hadn't yet experienced it personally, and he found himself tensing up from it.

"Why wouldn't I like you?"

"Well I'm kinda stealing your sensei away from you, kid. Even I'd hate me, if I were in your shoes."

She was sitting to his right. So she could see if he was looking at her.

He still wasn't.

"What makes you think I think that?"

Her red hair burned in his peripheral vision.

"Just a hunch. I know how close the two of you are."

"He's just my sensei, it's no big deal."

She laughed. Kakashi always thought it was strange, how she laughed without covering her mouth, like a man did.

"No big… pff, you are such a kid. You try not to act like it, but you are, yeah?"

Kakashi wasn't a kid. But he didn't say this.

"You wanna know a secret?"

Not particularly. So he didn't say anything.

She continued anyways.

"Minato's kinda scared of having less time with you, too. The guy worries about you a freakin' lot, yeah?"

Kakashi looked at his feet, so he wouldn't have to look at her. She was probably smiling.

"Really, he talks to me all the time about how you're gonna get on, what with the baby keeping us busy," she added. "I mean, you're a jounin and everything. That's pretty impressive. But he still worries."

Did he really worry that much? His sensei?

The sting of losing Obito was still as fresh as the scar over his left eye.

"I really couldn't care less. I'll be fine."

"Right. And I'm gonna lose all of my baby weight."

She laughed, but it didn't last very long.

"…there's nothing wrong with those kinds of feelings, Kakashi."

Did she have to use his name? Like that, like she knew him so well?

He almost preferred being called a kid.

"Plus… he told me about your dad. And he worries about that, too, yeah."

He had to look at her, for that. "What does my dad have to do with anything?"

Her face had an almost foreign softness to it, in her smile, her dark blue eyes. "He knows how much you miss him."

Kakashi glared at her.

The things he wanted to say.

But he said nothing.

"Really, this is less about me and more about you, I guess. I suppose I've been leading you on, yeah?"

Nothing. He looked at his feet again. Hers were uncomfortably close to his, in the water.

"Honestly, I'm a little worried about you, too. Because," she added, managing to laugh - how could she laugh so easily? "if you're not okay, then Minato's not okay, and I'm not okay with that. Yeah?"

He had no idea why he wasn't just leaving.

His shoes were neatly set beside him. Left foot, right foot.

"If I'm confusing you or annoying you or whatever, that's fine. I don't expect you to start liking me all of a sudden, if at all, yeah."

There was a sort of unspoken expectation in her words, but Kakashi couldn't tell if they were her expectations or his.

"I kinda don't know what I'm even doing here, at this point. I really am looking for Minato, yeah, but I've been thinking about this a lot, lately, and I just wanted to let you know."

Nothing.

"Just know that… I'm not trying to steal him away from you. I know how much you need him. I'm not trying to take him away. I want you to be happy too, yeah? This kinda stuff is hard to deal with. I know how hard it's been for you."

She'd said that already. She didn't need to say it.

He didn't need to hear it.

"Just wanted to let you to know that, yeah?"

Sure.

She grunted a little as she hauled herself to her feet. It took a while. "Hup. Well. I guess I'll go ask someone else about this, yeah?"

"Ask Rin. She'll know."

Kakashi didn't know where Rin was.

She was quiet, for a while. He could hear her putting her shoes back on, right foot, left foot, starting back up the hill.

Then, suddenly, from behind him, this:

"For telling me that, I'm not gonna kick you in the river."

He didn't see her at all again, for the rest of the day.

Which was a relief, because he didn't want her to witness the confused smile in his good eye, the mess of his face struggling with that summer's emotions.


Kakashi'd had a lot of dreams like that, lately. He had no idea why.

It had been a long time since he'd had a dream that wasn't just a re-run of a memory, though. A very long time.

It was Yamato that woke him up from that particular memory, of the blue-sky river summer, the burning red hair.

Kakashi had fallen asleep on the couch, halfway through a book. This is how babysitting with Kotoji tapered off, a lot of the time, especially at night.

"Where's Kotoji? He hasn't gotten into anything, has he?" Kakashi asked. His reflexes woke him up at the slightest sound, but with Kotoji, you had to keep on your toes.

"Nah, he's still sleeping. I wasn't gone for very long." Yamato spoke very softly. He sounded tired.

Kakashi felt like he'd been asleep for far longer. He rubbed his eye. "Mm. So how'd it go with…"

"Haruhi-kun? It went well enough."

Kakashi yawned. "What were you helping with, anyways?" Yamato had rushed out so quickly that he hadn't given much of a reason for his departure, but this was nothing new.

"Well, Benio-chan's student didn't show up for training this morning. You know, that Hanamura boy, with the red hair."

Red hair…

Kakashi remembered him, and his frustrating familiarity, his closeness with Naruto. He had no idea what to make of the rumors claiming that the boy was his son. He supposed maybe there was some truth to them, though he couldn't quite articulate why.

"So you went looking for him?" Kakashi said.

"Yeah, she started to get really worried when a few hours went by and he still didn't show. He wasn't even at Naruto's house, when we went to go check."

"Oh, jeez. Naruto must be worried too, then. Did you go talk to him?"

"Of course. But he's just seriously bogged down with those Taki… guys." Yamato's face wrinkled. "You know, the ones with the swords. You've seen them around."

"Oh, yeah. I've seen them."

"Yeah. I get the feeling that Naruto's going to have to find that Taki Kiine girl, though, first and foremost. Wherever she is. We have practically the entire staff looking for her, it's absolutely ridiculous."

"Probably. It must be torture for him, you've seen how he is with that boy."

"Yes." Yamato's eyes were half-closed, his expression thoughtful. "The look on his face was just heartbreaking, Kakashi-san. Poor guy's just overwhelmed. Especially with the chuunin exams so soon." He looked up at Kakashi, who was getting up off the couch. "Was it ever this bad for you?"

"Hm?"

"As Hokage, I mean."

Kakashi thought for a moment, searching his memory.

His tenure as Hokage was a long and a lonely stretch of time, a period of resettling, a lukewarm age. Days of endless paperwork and picking up the pieces left behind by the Akatsuki and the war. It had its own pressures, its own set of stresses and circumstances.

Unlike Naruto, however, Kakashi didn't have a family, in those days. Blood or otherwise. This absence was both comforting, a lack of pain, and isolating, a constant reminder of it.

He couldn't really compare it to his current situation, his new life of gap-toothed smiles and books reborn as flowers, and old, familiar conversations.

"I don't know, really."

Yamato was quiet for a moment, breathing softly, in and out.

"I'll be heading home, now, unless you need me for anything," Kakashi continued, holding his book in his hand, keeping his place with his finger.

"Nah, you're good. Thanks a lot, Kakashi-san."

"Any time, Yamato."

And Kakashi was gone, lost in his book, looking at the words, but not really reading them. Force of habit.

But then he saw something in a face on the way home, out of the corner of his eye. It was enough to make him stop in his tracks, enough to freeze his blood.

There was a group of those Taki representatives shuffling about outside of a storefront; a big fellow, two medium-sized, and one very, very small.

It was the small one that caught his attention, and his face, especially his face.

It took only a moment for the memory to come rushing to the forefront of his mind. An old memory, and a violent one, of a face much like that one.

Blood-stained, eyes blank, dead, but defiant, almost happy.

Kakashi almost had to check to see that there wasn't blood on his arms, that it was a book he held in his hand and not the remains of a human heart.

They made eye contact, for just a moment. The boy had the face of a martyr and brown, living eyes.

Kakashi averted his gaze first, but he knew that the boy was still looking at him.

He had to make himself some tea when he got home, but his hands were shaking almost too badly to hold the cup.

It was like he had seen a ghost; that was the best way to put it. He didn't talk about it with other people, but that was how he would say it if he had to.

This happened, from time to time. He'd catch a glimpse of something and things would just come rushing back. Sometimes years would go by between incidents, but they still happened. Like that eager, dusky-skinned Cloud nin with the small black eyes but no eyebrows to match them. He'd seen that face at many chuunin exams, in years gone by. He'd already gotten used to the white-haired Kurunari, whom Naruto adored so much, enough to disregard his hermit's smile.

The things his eye had seen would give most people nightmares.

Kakashi had suffered from them, quietly, for quite a while now.

He tried to think of Kotoji's smile, and slowly, his hands began to stop shaking.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10 - Luna Moth


Shikake decided to go home, after Inou passed out for the second time during training. "Seriously, dude, it is not worth keeping this up if we have to keep waking him up like this. Wasn't yesterday like this, too?"

Chouko, wringing out a cloth, glared at her teammate, and dabbed Inou's forehead again. "Inou-kun is trying very hard, Shikake-chan. Please be a little understanding."

"Yeah, but there's a difference between 'trying hard' and 'trying hard to kill yourself.' I'm freakin' out of here."

And Chouko sighed and waited for Inou to come to.

"I'm fine," he said, when she asked him if he was okay. His eyes were almost closed, like it hurt to even be awake. "I feel a lot better, honest. Let's get back to work."

He could barely stand, skinny shoulders shuddering, but his eyes were hard and determined.

So they had continued, because he wanted to.

But when his knees buckled and he ran to go throw up in the bushes, Chouko finally put her foot down, softly. "Inou-kun, sweetheart, are you okay?"

"M'fine, m'fine. M'totally fine." He spit on the ground, his eyes watering from some unidentifiable mix of emotion. "Just… need to rest for a bit…"

She rubbed his back for him, feeling his muscles tense, holding his hair and his necklace of three silver rings out of the way. When he was done, she offered him her handkerchief, but he refused to use it.

"Don't wanna get it dirty… M'fine, let's just keep going, I feel better now."

She wiped his face off for him anyways. "I think we should call it a day," she told him.

He paused, for a moment. Then, he asked, "What time is it."

"I don't know."

"What time is it."

Chouko sighed, took her hands off of him. "I'll go check."

It was 5:32 PM, according to the clock in the nearby park. They'd been training together for a little over seven hours, minus breaks, of course. Even for ninja standards, and even though Inou couldn't stand to work on Uchiha techniques and physical jutsu for more than an hour at a time and had to space them out with Yamanaka techniques (which he hated and hated and hated), it was absolutely ludicrous, especially given how hard Inou was working compared to Chouko or (especially) Shikake.

But Inou was operating under an entirely different set of rules.

(Counting his morning exercises, his rooftop scans, had been training for almost ten hours. But he told neither of the girls this. Or his father.)

(His father wouldn't believe him, anyways.)

"We can keep going. We can. Another hour, I can make it."

He was still sniffling, trying to wipe his ugly tears away. He didn't want to touch the vomit left on his shirt.

His knees and his hands were shaking, badly.

"I'm taking you home," Chouko said.

"No, no, I can't go home, not yet."

"Inou-kun…"

"Dad doesn't get home until seven. I can't be home before then."

"Then we'll rest up and leave after then. He won't know the difference."

"Yeah, he will... He knew, last time…"

Chouko picked him up like a father picks up a sleeping child with her big, soft arms, and began carrying him home. He was too weak to really resist.

As they were walking, she marveled at how very light he really was. The only thing that really made her aware of his presence in her arms was the fact that he was shaking so badly.

His mother gasped when Chouko knocked on the front door and asked to be let in, putting Inou down and supporting him with his arm over her shoulders. "My goodness, Inou! What happened to you?"

"M'fine, Mom, I swear…"

"He got sick during training, Ino-san." Chouko sounded apologetic. "I thought to bring him home."

"Well come inside, both of you," his mother said.

"Mom, I'm fine," Inou said. Chouko set him down on the foyer step, and despite his words, he started taking off his shoes, but he couldn't get a strong enough grip on them to get them off entirely.

"Oh, Inou, honestly. Here." His mother knelt down and took them off herself, like she had done when he was little. His face flushed. "Look at you, you're a mess… What in the world happened?"

"Nothing."

"He threw up, Ino-san."

"Chouko-chan!"

"I'm not going to lie to your mom, Inou-kun." Chouko held her elbows, biting her lip, and looked at his mother. "He fainted during training today and yesterday, too. From exhaustion, not-"

"Shut up, Chouko-chan…" Inou's shoulders rose. "It was only for a few minutes, anyways…"

His mother set his shoes aside and sighed. "Inou, I told you not to exert yourself so much, it's not good for you."

"Well, then, what else am I supposed to do?" He stared at his bare feet, not wanting to get up. "Gotta try my hardest."

His mother sighed. "Let's just get some food in you, it'll make you feel better. Thank you, Chouko-chan. Say hi to your father for me."

"Will do, Ino-san," Chouko said. "Feel better, Inou-kun."

"Thanks."

She left. Inou still didn't feel like standing up.

After a while, his mother sat down beside him, hands folded neatly in her lap as she looked at him. His hair fell over his right eye, just like hers did. "Your father's not going to be home for another hour, Inou, at least. I'm not going to make you wait for him."

"I might as well," he mumbled. "Show how sorry I am for skipping out on training. Since this means so little to me, obviously..."

"Inou, that's not true. You can't help that you got sick."

"Yeah, but he'll still find some way to blame me."

"Inou."

"What? It's true. If I had more stamina I wouldn't have fainted. And if I'd trained harder I'd have more stamina."

She sighed. "Inou, please."

"And Takeru wouldn't throw up like a weakling after training all day." He looked like he was either going to cry or scream. Or both.

(He refused to admit to himself that, maybe, his weakness here was due to the fact that he had tried to work on Uchiha techniques for more than two hours.)

(What a disappointment he was. He was supposed to be able to handle this.)

(Yamanaka techniques didn't do this to him. He could scan minds for hours without feeling tired at all.)

(What was wrong with him.)

His mother sat there, staring at her hands. She was quiet for a long time. Then, she said, "Takeru isn't perfect, Inou. And it's not your fault. You probably just ate something that didn't agree with you."

Inou didn't answer.

She put her hand on his back. "Come on, let's go inside. I'll make you something to eat, and then you can take a nice bath. That'll have you feeling a lot better."

"I guess," Inou said. He finally got up, though his knees still felt like water. His head hurt.

"I'll tell your father that you're coming down with something, and that you were such a trooper for lasting so long," she continued, walking down the hallway with him to the kitchen. "You've just been working yourself to the bone. You need some time to rest."

He couldn't bring himself to smile, but still, he said, "Thanks, Mom."

Nadeshiko was actually home, sitting at the kitchen table; though she was silent, her presence was heavy, like an omen or a stain. She looked up from her book as they entered.

"Take your shirt off, so I can wash it," his mother said, so Inou did, and she left to go put it in the laundry room. He lingered awkwardly in the doorway, arms folded over his chest, feeling the cold rings around his neck against his skin.

He tried not to look at Nadeshiko.

She asked him a question. "You feeling okay, little brother?"

Inou didn't respond.

He didn't hate his sister, but he still felt unwilling to talk to her, sometimes. A sort of revulsion by association.

Nadeshiko blinked her large, feather-lashed eyes once, twice, before going back to her reading. Inou caught a glimpse of it as he pretended to look out the window behind her. Black and white and grey print. A graphic novel, one he didn't recognize.

Nadeshiko loved to read. There were, in fact, three bookcases in her room, each nearly filled to capacity. The first, closest to her desk, held her books on botany, gardening, flower-arrangement. It wasn't terribly filled, so it was also where she displayed her handiwork, beautiful arrangements of ikebana, in the space of books. The second held her novels, her encyclopedias. And the third was devoted almost entirely to manga, art books, light novels. Everything was arranged alphabetically, and very, very neatly. Everything had a place.

Most girls her age preferred reading things like romances; the typical boy-meets-girl-meets-boy-meets-whoever plots, with gauzy art and enormous, sparkling eyes on every page. Either that, or screwball comedies. Family dramas. Harem-like wish-fulfillment. A million variations on the themes.

Nadeshiko's library was inhabited by the stories of a warrior telemarketer, who only wished to live a simple life; a wandering baker, whose bread changed lives; a doctor with a patchwork face who treated any patient that came her way, be they man or monster. The only volumes she owned that were even remotely typical of a girl her age were from a series called No. It concerned the life of a young actress trying to make it in the world of traditional theater, despite being a woman. The art was beautiful and it was by far Inou's favorite. He had no idea which ones she liked most, though.

When he was younger, Inou liked to go into her room and read them himself, when she was out of the house, which was mercifully often. He'd sit on her bed, burying himself into her pillows, losing himself for a few hours at a time in those strange stories, surrounded by the smell of the flowers in the shelves and the marigolds in her window planter, until either she or his father came home, whichever happened first.

After Sasuke caught him there, the first (and the last) time, he started stealing them from her room, one volume at a time, and reading them where he could, hoping that she, that his father wouldn't notice.

If she did, Inou didn't know, and he told himself he didn't care.

Being like her was a sin.

He didn't even like reading all that much, anyways. Really. Especially not the girly books that Nadeshiko liked so much.

He had no idea why he still did these things.

But he did, and he just continued to disappoint, like he had been born to do it.

His mother returned with a new shirt for him to wear, black, long-sleeved, and he put it on. He didn't stop shivering. "What do you want to eat?" she asked him.

"I don't care."

"I'll make you some soup, then. "

It was quiet as she turned the gas on for the stove, and started heating up some broth in a pot. She looked over her shoulder. "For goodness sakes, Inou, sit down!"

He didn't want to sit at the table. Not with her there.

"I'll get out of the way if you don't need my help."

Nadeshiko had closed her book and gracefully gotten up, her eyes closed. Her hair was very long, and it brushed the table surface as she stood.

"Nadeshiko, you don't need to do that," his mother said.

"He'll be home soon. I don't want to make things worse."

Her words were painful, true, and inarguable. She went upstairs, leaving her book on the table.

Inou waited until he heard the door of her bedroom close before sitting down. He slumped over the table, resting his head on his arms.

"Oh, honey. You just take it easy, okay?" he heard his mother say.

He didn't respond. His mother began chopping some green onions.

His eyes drifted over to the book Nadeshiko had left on the table. It had a green cover, and he weakly slid it toward himself with his hand.

He almost had to laugh when he saw the title: "Hokage!" with an illustration of the Hokage Mountain on it in colored pencil. Having nothing else to do, he flipped it open and began to read.

It was obviously for children, the art style simple and eye-catching, with furigana beside even the simplest of kanji - seriously, like you needed to know how to pronounce "Hokage"? He managed to smile a little as he turned the page.

The history presented by the book was almost hilariously simplified. But, then again, it was for kids. Kids didn't want to hear about the politics and the ethics and the ambiguous morality of real history. They wanted to hear about how Senju Hashirama had battled it out with Uchiha Madara in what was now the Valley of the End. You know, Good Guys Versus Bad Guys. Clean-cut, black and white. And, above all else, really cool.

Inou turned the page. Simplistic structure, really, but it was entertaining, which he supposed was the point. There were seven sections, one for each Hokage, with their contributions to history - only the important stuff, though, the cool stuff. The memorable stuff. The First Hokage founded the village; the Second organized it; the Third took up the mantle not once, but twice, to preserve it; the Fourth sacrificed himself for it; the Fifth protected it; the Sixth rebuilt it; the Seventh made it flourish. You learned those things early as a kid, when you were in school. They quizzed you on those sorts of things.

(And Inou always got perfect scores on his quizzes. He remembered everything he read.)

(But all his father would ever tell him was "You should have higher grades in the physical arts. Go out and train.")

He turned the page, ignoring the mild ache that budded in his temple with his thoughts. There were more things to laugh about. The Day of Pain, for example, the most devastating act of terrorism against any one city in the world? The damage was depicted in a series of cartoon houses with bandages drawn on them, and the most cheerful exclamation that "Thanks to the work of the Fifth, and the future Sixth and Seventh Hokages, very few people got hurt, and the village got to work rebuilding right away."

No mention at all of the death toll of that day. With such extensive damage, there had to have been hundreds of losses. Inou had seen photographs, in books, at the library, when he was trying to stay out of the house. (Those books, curiously, made no mention of a death toll, either.)

But this was a book for children. Inou started to wonder why Nadeshiko had even been reading this. Then again, he didn't know what kinds of things she liked, really.

He turned the page. He could smell the soup cooking. He was feeling a lot better.

The book made mention of all sorts of people who'd helped the Hokages along the way, through the years. Naturally, the Sannin were mentioned - students of the Third, comrades of the Fifth. Teachers to the Fourth and, later, Seventh. That seemed to be a recurring trend here, teachers.

(Ishi-sensei was nothing special. He was largely absent, those days, leaving Chouko in charge of things, but he still had enough presence to nominate them for the chuunin exams that year.)

Inou turned the page when he saw his father's name mentioned near the end of the book, in the chapter about the Seventh Hokage. He didn't want to see how they treated the Fourth War.

(The book all but skipped over the Uchiha Massacre, the stories his father had told him about the martyr that was his late uncle.)

"The Hokage is a very important title, given only to the strongest ninja of Konoha," the book declared, with an illustration of all seven Hokages in a row, smiling, wearing the same clothes. "But any ninja can become Hokage! Maybe even you!"

Somehow, Inou doubted this.

He heard the front door slide open. He held his breath. "Mom, m'sorry I'm so late! I had to help with - you started dinner already?"

He exhaled. It was just Karai. She took off her shoes with lightning speed. "I'm just making some soup for Inou, I won't be starting dinner for a while, yet," his mother called to her, down the hallway.

"Inou's home? When did he get home? Dad's not home, too, is he?" Her breath quickened, and she zoomed down the hallway in a whirlwind of worry, gasping when she reached the doorframe.

"No, Karai, your father isn't home," their mother said, patiently, stirring the soup. "Calm down, everything's okay. Inou's home early because he got sick during training."

Inou shoved the Hokage book aside and put his head on his arms again. "I'm fine, Karai," he told his sister.

The clock on the kitchen wall said 6:27. He'd spent almost twenty minutes on the stupid book. Lost track of time. It had only been a kid's book.

He didn't even like reading all that much.

His headache started to come back.

"You're sick? Oh, no, are you feeling okay…?" Karai wandered over to him and put her hand on his forehead. He squirmed away.

"Hey, get off, will you? I said I'm fine," Inou said, and rearranged his arms so that he didn't have to look at her.

"Inou, be nice to your sister, she's just a little worried about you. And why don't you start chopping up some vegetables for me, Karai?" their mother said. "It'll make things go by faster." She turned the stove off, and poured the soup into a bowl for Inou, and placed it in front of him. "There, this should make you feel a lot better."

Inou stared at the bowl for a while, before reluctantly eating. He didn't feel hungry. It smelled good, and it was warm and that was nice, but he just didn't… feel like eating.

He ate anyways. Karai talked to their mother about what they were making for dinner. And then she talked to him.

Are you sure you're okay, bro?

Karai loved talking to him without talking. He almost regretted teaching her how to do it, years before, when he was eight and she was five. He had only done it because he had no one else to practice with. Their mother was always busy, Hajime was always busy, Nadeshiko was… what she was.

And his father and Takeru were both out of the question.

Karai was the only real option.

Butt out, I'm fine.

Is that your book? Dad's coming home soon, you should probably hide it.

I know that, stop bothering me. It's not my book, anyways.

Okay. I'm sorry, Inou.

He sipped spitefully at his soup, not really tasting it. It wasn't really helping.

Do you want me to take it for you? Dad will probably believe me if I say it's mine.

"Shut up," he said, quietly.

Their mother looked over her shoulder. Karai paused for a moment, and then resumed her work.

He felt like he was going to be sick.

He slammed his spoon down, loudly. "I'm gonna go take a bath," he said, and got out of the kitchen before either of them could respond.

His stomach calmed down by the time he made it to the bathroom, and he got undressed, and spent a very long time washing his hair. He hated the smell of the shampoo that his father and brothers used, but he used it anyways, because he always seemed to get a lecture when he tried anything remotely flowery, even though he preferred it. The smell made him woozy. Everything was starting to ache.

"You spend so much time on your hair already, it's embarrassing."

His father wasn't even home, but he could still hear that criticism in his head. He stepped into the bath, trying to ease the hurt.

His father came home with Takeru, while Inou was in the bath. As usual. Inou closed his eyes and imagined that he was dissolving into the water.

The conversation was muffled through the steam and the distance from the bathroom and the kitchen, but he caught bits and pieces.

His father asked about him. His mother covered for him, and so did Karai.

His father didn't believe it, and his mother asked, what, did she have to show him his shirt? He was honestly sick.

Inou dipped his head below the water, not wanting to hear any more.

He had to surface, had to breathe, after a while.

They were still talking about him. His father was shouting.

He kept his ears below the water for what felt like an eternity, not bothering to try and listen for any more.

He slid down, further and further, into the bath, until only his nose, his eyes, his knees were the only things kept dry, and cold.

His whole body relaxed. The hurt started to go away.

And, suddenly, he was dreaming.

The Forest of Death. That was where he'd fallen, two years before.

The day had been hot and humid and his shirt was clinging to his chest and his hair was a mess and he was thirsty and tired and he just wanted to go home but he couldn't.

He'd told Shikake and Chouko that he'd go on ahead and scout for another scroll for them, Shikake called him a moron and he said that he wasn't, he'd go and get it and then they'd be all done, they'd be fine, so he went ahead to go scout for another scroll, he'd be back before they knew it.

They could depend on him, and he was gone before they could miss him.

It had been nearly a day and a night and he was starting to really get scared. He wanted to find somewhere to hide, to maybe possess the mind of a bird and look for Shikake and Chouko, wherever they were, but he was scared that maybe someone would find his body and do something to it while he was out of it, and that scared him the most. He needed a spotter; that, or the world's greatest hiding place.

…yeah, right.

He hated this. He hated that he needed to depend on others. He could do this by himself. He had to do this by himself.

…no, he couldn't. He was twelve years old and he had no idea what the heck he was doing, the only thing he could really fall back on were either his mind or Shikake and Chouko and he couldn't find them and there was the snap of a branch and he grabbed a kunai and he held his breath and he found somewhere to hide.

There was a team passing through. Three genin, older than him, from… Cloud, by the looks of it. A girl with hair like spun sugar and a boy with greasy black hair and a much older boy, gangly, eyebrowless. Did they have a scroll? They had a scroll, they had to have at least one, they were still all together.

He listened. They were talking about… having both scrolls, they were making their way to the tower.

They had both scrolls.

This was his chance, this was it, this was his chance.

Inou followed them, he followed them for a long time, from the trees. Very quietly, waiting for the right time.

They stopped to take a break. He observed very carefully, which one had the Heaven scroll - that one.

Arms out, chakra focused and suddenly he was looking through a new pair of eyes and he excused himself and said he had to use the bathroom and he took the scroll and he was gonna bring it back to his body and he'd bring it back to Shikake and Chouko and there was something by his body and he froze.

It was a strange thing. Crouched and tiny, child-sized, with enormous, enormous black eyes. It was poking at Inou's body experimentally worriedly and Inou froze and what was that, what was that.

There had been rumors, stories, of things that lived in the woods, a woman, the Woman, and they had told everyone not to believe in them, they were just stories, there had been investigations into these things, but what was that thing, maybe it was just another ninja from another country, but he couldn't see a forehead protector, and Inou climbed up the tree but he couldn't shout at it because then the Cloud nin would hear and then it would be ruined, he'd be doomed, for sure.

He reached his body and the child-thing was already climbing further up the tree, away from him, with incredible speed, unnatural. The thing could climb, oh, wow, no, it could run. Inou's hands were shaking. He could feel it watching him with those enormous, enormous eyes but it was leaving him alone so he ignored it, it was nothing, and he put the Heaven - oh no.

No, no, no.

He'd grabbed the Earth scroll, no, no, how could he, he was so stupid, this was, no, and there were those eyes still watching him, watching him, and he just had to go down and just act like nothing had happened and then release control and act like nothing had happened and just get out of there and try and find Shikake and Chouko and pray that they'd found a scroll of their own, he'd find a way to find them. He left the Earth scroll with his body, just in case, just in case, y'know, he needed it.

He was such an idiot. Stupid, stupid, stupid, he got back to where the Cloud nin were gathered and said he'd done his business and then he released control and he heard, from away in the trees, his buddy, the eyebrowless, asking whoa hey you okay man?

The big eyes were looking back at him again and Inou almost yelped what was that thing?

Would have yelped had he not fallen out of the tree and onto his back and there were spots in front of his eyes and he couldn't breathe he couldn't breathe they had heard him fall for certain oh no he was doomed he was just so doomed he was dead he was dead no, no, no.

"You stay in there any longer, you're just going to make yourself more sick."

That was his father's voice, wasn't it.

Inou opened his eyes.

And there was his father, standing above him. He didn't look worried or concerned or particularly anything, he was just staring.

How long had he been asleep? Inou's fingers felt wrinkled.

"Fall asleep in the bath, did you?" his father asked.

Inou sat up, drawing his knees to his chest. He never took his necklace off, and he felt the rings against his legs.

He'd received them as a genin, and his father, of course, had had a huge argument with his mother about the matter.

Inou was their Yamanaka heir, because there had to be one and for some reason it just couldn't be Takeru. But Sasuke refused to let him get his ears pierced.

"Do you want him to look like a girl, Ino?" he had said.

Wearing them around his neck was a compromise. Though Inou personally wouldn't have minded if they had pierced his ears. He thought that, maybe, it'd look nice.

Maybe if he became a chuunin he'd finally have it done.

…no, when he became a chuunin. He (or his mother) would be able to persuade his father about it. It was stupid, but he wanted to have a say in something, have a sign that he'd actually done something worth noting.

Chouko had already had it done, anyways, when she became a chuunin.

(When she had first become a genin, she had, in solidarity, decided to wear a set of rings on her hand, while having the traditional rings in her ears at the same time, so Inou wouldn't feel so out of place. It was the first sign, to him, that they'd actually be good friends.)

(Shikake hadn't even bothered.)

"I'm getting out soon," Inou said.

His father stared at him for a moment more, and then left the bathroom. "I don't want to see this happen again."

He shut the door behind him.

Inou dipped his head under the water again and stayed there until he felt like he was going to pass out.

His family had eaten dinner in the meantime, but he wasn't hungry. He went to his room instead and put on his pajamas, and opened a book on chakra-concentration techniques that he'd gotten from the library, and began to read.

He didn't even like reading but it was too late and he was too exhausted to train, but too humiliated to sleep, but he had to do something useful.

He didn't even like reading.

When he woke up a few hours later, there were wet marks on the pages that had not been there when he'd started reading, and a blanket on his back. The light was still on, to maintain an illusion of busy-ness.

He did not sleep well that night, after that.

As it happened, he was not alone.

In her bedroom across the hallway, Karai kept herself awake by reading scrolls on shuriken techniques, waiting for Inou's light to turn off.

In his kitchen, Kakashi nursed a fresh nightmare and poured himself another cup of tea, trying not to think of the Land of Waves.

In a hotel room paid for with threatening words and glances, Yuki sat awake at the foot of his bed in the room he shared with his brother, and he prayed for Kiine's safety.

In a city street, Benio called for Yukio, again. Her hair was wet from perspiration and worry. Haruhi had long ago gone home, saying he'd make dinner and wait for her to return. That was three hours ago.

In his office, Naruto sat and waited and tried very hard not to worry about Yukio - but how could he not? Even Benio and her boyfriend and Yamato couldn't find him, and they were all jounin. It was like he had disappeared off of the face of the earth. And Kiine was still missing, and the men from the Taki syndicate had come back in the evening about that, after Yamato came back to report that nothing had been found and he had to go home. Naruto had just smiled and borne it and said that they were doing as much as they could, just waiting for them to leave. He told Andou to go home after a while, but Naruto stayed. Benio was still out there, so there was hope. There was still hope. They'd find Yukio. And Kiine, too.

In an alley behind a restaurant, Yukio gasped for breath, staying as concealed as possible, making use of those last three weeks of training, compounded with years learning about stealth and hiding and making oneself unseen, waiting for an opportunity to escape. Eyes on the gate.

She had to run.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 - Slight Illumination


It took three days for the blood to be processed.

This is what happened on the third day.

At around 3 or 4 in the morning a boy was caught trying to sneak out via the village gate, and he was raising a terrible fuss, so they held him at the guard station until they could figure out just who he belonged to.

In the holding cell nearby there were two other men, and a woman. The woman was there for getting into a fight with her boyfriend, which she loudly refuted at any chance as being "fuckin' unfair, 'cos he totally deserved it;" one of the men had had too much to drink and was currently asleep, drooling on the floor; the other man was from the Taki syndicate, and he'd pulled a sword on a bar owner who happened to be a retired jounin and would not tolerate any of this crap in his establishment. The underling that was with him at the time had been allowed to go get Nobuhiro, so he could bail him out. He still hadn't arrived, but that didn't stop the guy from asking about him every five seconds.

The boy sat very quietly in his chair next to the guard's desk, trying not to look any of them in the eye. He left his bag on the floor.

He was very quickly identified as Hanamura Yukio, and someone ran to get the Hokage and Yuuhi Benio. When asked what he had been up to, he didn't respond.

In the time that it took for the message to get there, the drunken man had awoken, wobbled to his knees, and thrown up in the toilet in the corner; the woman had yelled at him for it; the man from the Taki syndicate had stopped yelling for his underling and started yelling at Yukio.

"…hey! Hey, kid! Don't I know you from somewhere?"

Yukio kept his eyes forward. He shook his head, as if shaking off a shiver. He didn't reply.

The man moved forward, crouched like he was holding a sword, even though they'd taken it away from him. He was bald, and his robes were a faded red-purple, like a bruise. "No, no, could swear I know you from somewhere. …the hell do I know you from?"

"I don't know. Stop bothering me," Yukio said. His voice was hoarser than usual.

"Please be quiet, sir," the chuunin guard added, flatly.

"Shut the fuck up. An' don't give me no lip, kid. I'm just tryin' to - wait, wait, you're one of us, ain't you?" The bald man was in the cell because he had drawn his sword when the owner of the bar he'd been drinking at demanded payment for his extensive order of refreshments. He was still reeling from both the drinks and the ass-kicking the man had given him. "Izzat how I know you?"

Yukio didn't say anything. He clenched his fists.

"No, wait, only guys with red hair are the Boss and… hey, wait."

"Is the Naruto-san here yet?" Yukio said.

"Show me the back of your neck, kid."

"He should be here soon," said the chuunin guard. He yawned. "Just hold tight."

"I said, show me your neck." The bald man was drawing closer to the bars of the holding cell, and Yukio kept his eyes fiercely focused on his hands.

"Leave the kid alone, you dick," the woman said. Though the fight was long since over, she still had some spark left in her for provocation.

"The fuck did you say?"

She smirked, behind her smeared mascara. There was a wad of tissue in her nose, and the blood was turning brown. "Just told you to leave the kid alone. You dick."

"If you weren't a lady," he said, shaking an alcohol-loosed finger at her, already forgetting about Yukio, "I'd punch your face in."

"How lucky for me," she replied. She knew she'd have a black eye in the morning, and she was proud of it. "Wouldn't matter, anyways. Already got my face punched in once for the night."

"Please be quiet," the guard said again. The door to the holding station opened.

"Honda, ya moron, what kinda idiot thing did you get yourself in trouble with this time."

Nobuhiro had arrived, unshaven, his robe hastily put on, knife shoved under his belt. Yuki was still rubbing his eyes, barely awake, a smattering of other syndicate members behind them for support.

"Oh, Nobuhiro, I been waitin' for forever," the bald man, Honda, said. "It's these damn ninjas, they-"

"Save it. You can explain yourself later." Nobuhiro glared at the chuunin guard. "Well, you gonna let him out or what?"

Yukio's eyes widened. His knuckles turned white. He kept his head down.

(As it happened, Yuki did the same.)

"Technically, charges weren't pressed, so I'm allowed to release him," the guard said, carefully. "Though if action is sought later…"

"Well, it won't be, so I'd appreciate it if you let my friend outta there, thanks very much," said Nobuhiro.

The guard sighed, getting his keys.

"M'real thankful to ya, Nobu," Honda said. "Honestly, the way people run things 'round here."

"From what I heard, you got drunk an' pulled your sword on a ninja," said Nobuhiro. "So it's less a case of them bein' assholes an' more a case of you being a dumbass."

Honda's face, already rosy from wine, flushed even further and he mumbled something resembling an apology. The woman in the cell with him scoffed. There was tired laughter from behind Nobuhiro, but not beside him. He noticed this.

"…Yuki, what's the matter."

Yuki tried very, very hard not to look to his left. "Nothing, brother. I'm just tired."

Nobuhiro noticed anyways.

He narrowed his eyes, rubbed them, as the guard let Honda out. "Who's the kid?" he asked.

"A guest of the Hokage," was the reply. The guard shut the cell door behind him.

"Thought he looked familiar." Honda was stumbling a little.

Nobuhiro scowled, searching Yukio's face. His eyebrows lifted.

"Can't be…"

"No," Yuki said, softly. "Please, no."

That was when Naruto decided to show up. "Yukio, where were you?"

He shoved past Nobuhiro, parting the sea of thugs without much effort. Yukio didn't say a thing, rooted to the chair, even when Naruto knelt to eye level with him, worried expression and everything.

"What the - the hell are you doing here?" Nobuhiro said, eyes blinking from the jostling.

"Seriously, are you okay?" Naruto continued. "Where were you? You had me an' Benio-chan worried sick!"

"Hokage, what are you doing here?"

Naruto finally noticed. "Nobuhiro-san?" He stood. "I could ask the same for you, y'know."

"I'm pickin' up one of my guys, what are you doing?" Nobuhiro said. Honda stumbled back into the fray, but he wasn't given his sword back. "It's four in the damn morning."

"I'm here on personal business," Naruto said. His face hardened into something like a smile. "Nothing for you to worry about, y'know?"

"Personal business? Personal business? The hell does that even mean?"

Yuki was beginning to regret that he wasn't holding his brother's knife, in addition to his own sword.

"A friend of mine went missing, an' I'm here to pick him up, now that he's been found," Naruto said, glancing at Yukio and back. Yukio remained frozen. "We were searching for him all day yesterday and-"

Nobuhiro didn't even let him finish. "What, so you'll drop fuckin' everything for one of your own, an' you find 'em within a day, but you can't even find a single girl who's been missing for at least a month?" He reached for his sword, in its black case. "I cannot believe the disrespect I am seein' here."

"Brother, calm down, please…" Yuki said, quietly, holding onto his sleeve. "They'll find-"

"Nobuhiro-san, we have our entire staff looking for Lady Kiine, y'know? It's not like we haven't been trying!" Naruto could feel that anger radiating out of Nobuhiro, hot and dangerous. "There were only three people looking for Yukio, and they-"

"Whole staff, huh? Whole staff? Gah, it's a wonder I even thought I could even trust you," Nobuhiro said. "If three people can find some snot-nosed punk after a day then your 'whole staff' shoulda found Lady Kiine in a couple-a minutes!"

"Well, you haven't found her either, Nobuhiro-san. We're having as difficult a time as you." Naruto was made of stone, but he couldn't help himself.

"That's it." Nobuhiro had his knife in his hand and he was holding it sideways. It was a very sharp knife.

Naruto's muscles tensed.

"Stop it, Nobuhiro. Please, put down your weapon."

Yukio was standing.

"Who the—who said that?"

Yuki wanted to disappear.

"It's me, Nobu. You found me. So you can stop, now."

It was Kiine, her red hair cut short, dressed in the clothes of a commoner boy. There was cold fire in her blue eyes. "I'll say it again… Please, just… put the knife down. I don't want you to fight this man."

"L-Lady Kiine…" Nobuhiro's hand fell. The room buzzed, with words, with surprise, with worry.

Naruto didn't know what to say, or to think.

From the back, Honda slurred, "I knew you looked familiar…" He was leaning on his underling's shoulder. Nobody had given him his sword back yet.

Everything began playing out like a film, or a television show, where Naruto was just observing, where he was just a viewer.

"Lady Kiine, where in the world have you been?" Nobuhiro continued.

"Here. The Hokage's been keeping me as his guest."

"Keepin' you as a… guest? You mean you knew she was here?" Nobuhiro said, glaring at Naruto. His face turned red.

Kiine spoke before Naruto could explain, but he doubted he'd have been able to say anything. His throat felt thick. "No, Nobuhiro, he didn't. Don't blame him for any of this." Her voice sounded different; there was no playfulness in it, no light. It was dark, and unnaturally soft. "Put away your knife, please."

Nobuhiro did. Click. The men behind him tittered and buzzed and mumbled.

Naruto couldn't speak. In hindsight it was painfully obvious. Right under his nose.

"But… how, I mean, we were lookin' for you everywhere…" All of Nobuhiro's anger seemed to have disappeared, replaced by a chilling sheet of worry. "How the hell could he not have noticed you if you were staying with him?"

Naruto asked himself the very same thing.

"I was very careful. Obviously, I've been in disguise, using a false name. There was nothing to suggest that I was who I am until you started looking for me here." She gave a cold, hateful glance in Yuki's direction. "I didn't want to be found."

Naruto saw Yuki mumble something, but he did not speak.

"I'm sure that Papa's very mad at me," Kiine continued, quietly. She looked at her feet.

"Lady Kiine, he's furious. You've caused him an enormous amount of trouble." The worry sounded strange, coming out of Nobuhiro's mouth, but it was genuine.

"The Hakaza family's askin' questions, too," someone said, from the back. He was quickly and harshly told to shut up.

Naruto had a million questions, and he could have asked them, here. But the words just wouldn't come. The mysteries remained mysteries.

"…I'm sorry for all of this, Nobu." Kiine sighed, tired, defeated. "Let's just go home; I don't want this to get any more out of hand. Too much trouble's been caused already on my behalf."

She bent down, gracefully, and picked the rucksack off the ground. She turned to Naruto.

"I can't… thank you enough for your hospitality, Hokage-sama. You've treated me very well, and I apologize for any trouble my family's caused you. We'll be leaving now. Immediately." She shot a glance at Nobuhiro, who shot a glance at the rest of the men, who began to rustle and shift in anticipation. Yuki stood very still, his hands clasped together. "I promise, we won't trouble you anymore."

She spoke to him like a stranger, like a dignitary, like his daughter.

"Sure, I'm glad I could… have been of service, y'know…"

Everything just felt so wrong. A few minutes ago, this was Yukio. Hanamura Yukio. This kid still was Yukio. Right?

But… Yukio was a farmer's son. Benio's student. Naruto's friend. Yukio didn't call him Hokage-sama, he called Naruto… Naruto, he called him by his name. Just like he called Yukio by his.

"Otherwise it'd sound like I was some weird important guy, yeah?"

He couldn't imagine Kiine saying this, even though, even though…

Yukio wasn't… this cold, unfamiliar girl. The change was so sudden, and shockingly noticeable. Why didn't he see it before?

Naruto struggled for words and almost forgot that he was supposed to be the Hokage, there. "I just… don't understand why you didn't tell me who you were right off the bat, y'know…?" he said. "I mean, y'could have saved us a lot of trouble…"

She took a very long time to answer, pursing her lips, chewing on her thoughts. "…I had my reasons," she finally said, her voice sterile. "I'm sorry for lying to you about my identity." Kiine bowed, slightly. "Again, thank you for treating me so well, regardless."

But it was his duty as Hokage, he couldn't let his feelings get in the way of these things.

The Taki syndicate had found who they were looking for, had reclaimed what they had lost, and there was no reason for them to stay any longer.

He didn't want Yukio to go, but Kiine had to leave. The representatives of the syndicate had been causing so much trouble, anyways; the village had been plagued by their presence.

He wondered, again, why he hadn't noticed, why he hadn't noticed.

He managed a smile, he tried to warm it up at least a little. "It was really great having you around, though, y'know? You should… come visit again, sometime."

Kiine barely smiled back. "I… had a good time, but… I doubt we'll ever meet again. I'm sorry."

Naruto tried to tell himself that it was okay, but he just… couldn't.

He didn't want her to go. But here she was, leaving.

Kiine turned to face her father's men. "Come on, Nobu. I want to go home."

Nobuhiro put his enormous arm around her, and they began to leave the room, together.

"…thank you for your assistance," he growled, before barking at the rest of the men to pack up, get the rest of the guys, and get going.

Yuki was the last to leave, staying as far away from Kiine as possible. His mouth was drawn tight. He was rubbing his eyes as he closed the door to the guard house behind him.

A very, very long time passed.

"…send the word out that Taki Kiine's been found. I'm going home," Naruto told the guard on duty, who stood behind his desk, more than a little overwhelmed.

"Sir, I, I can't leave my post," he replied.

"Oh. Uh. I'll take care of it, then," Naruto said. He left.

The word was indeed sent out.

But Naruto didn't really go home, staying at the Hokage Manor instead.

Benio, when told, had nothing to really say about the whole ordeal. Naruto told her to get back to Haruhi, she needed her rest. He'd be fine. Reluctantly, she obeyed.

Haruhi didn't wake her up to tell her he was making breakfast, a few hours later, preferring to let her sleep. He knew how much she hated being bothered.

The drunken man in the holding cell, now sober, wandered off at sunrise without so much as a memory for his trouble, though he was nursing a horrid headache.

The woman's boyfriend came to pick her up too, apologizing, a bandage over his broken nose, his arm in a sling. "I forgive you, ya asshole," she told him, and grinned, her bruises aching with her smile. "Besides, you are never gonna believe what I saw while you were out getting stitched-up."

Nadeshiko made breakfast for Inou, and left the house as the sun was rising. Ino found it there on the kitchen counter a few hours later, when she woke up to make food for everyone else, Inou still asleep. She didn't say anything about it, heating it up and setting it out with all the rest of the food in the morning.

By 8 AM, word was starting to get around.

Inou woke up late, panicked and feverish, and his mother insisted after he came downstairs, half-dressed and delirious, that he sleep in and take a break from training for the day, no matter what he or Sasuke had to say on the matter.

He tried not to sleep, but he couldn't help himself.

By noon, practically everyone knew about Kiine.

Hanamura Yukio, that red-haired boy? You know, the one they all thought was the Hokage's son? Yeah, were they ever wrong about that. Not only a girl, disguised as a boy, but a crime family princess at that! You know, that Taki Kiine that everyone was saying to look out for.

Boy, if that wasn't sensational.

Sakura's thoughts on the matter? "Freaking figures."

She heard the whole story from an intern when she started her shift at the hospital, in the early morning.

"Freaking. Figures," she said again. And Sasuke had said it had all been a coincidence.

He came to revel in his victory, later that afternoon. "Blood tests come in yet?" he said, almost casually. He'd caught her at her table in the hospital cafeteria at lunch.

Sakura wanted to punch him.

"No, not yet," she said, instead. She was dissecting the bento lunch Kenji had made for her with an almost murderous intent. The octopus-weenies didn't even stand a chance.

"I told you it was just a coincidence."

Sakura wanted to punch him hard.

"I know you told me that," she said, and glared at him. He was smiling, slightly. "What, happy you were right?"

"No, just amused to see you still believe in rumors like this. You should see the look on your face."

Sakura wanted to punch Sasuke halfway across the city.

"Don't you have anything better to do?" she said.

"Not terribly. I told my students to go find themselves some lunch. We're meeting up later."

"Then you'd best get back to them, hmm?" She gave him a sarcastic smile.

"Guess I will. And anyways, you know what they say. Fool me once…"

She rolled her eyes. "Just go already."

So he did.

She sighed deeply, eyes returning to the bento, long since destroyed. There was a sort of ache in her chest, something like guilt or worry.

Ino was a much stronger woman than she was, if she could put up with that every day.

…even with Sasuke out of the house so much, Sakura still worried. So, so much.

Kenji found her in the late afternoon, poking his head into the clinic, where she was checking the breathing of a four year old who was probably just coming down with a slight cold, but it was still worth making sure about. "Hey, Mom?"

She looked over her shoulder. "Ah, Kenji. I'm a little busy right now, can it wait?"

"Yeah, it can wait. I'll just be outside. It's something you probably wanna see soon, though. 'Kay?"

Sakura's eyebrows shifted higher, lower. "Sure, I'll be right out, as soon as I'm finished here."

The child she was examining couldn't stop staring at Kenji, eyes wide, mouth hanging slightly open.

…well, considering Kenji, who wouldn't? The boy was only eighteen, but he was nearly seven feet tall - where in the world had that come from? - and he always had to duck when he came through a door-frame. He had a face made of sharp, intimidating angles, and a mouth full of very white teeth.

Inside, however, he was all fluff and sunshine, and his black eyes, much like his father's, were warm. He smiled at the child and waved his hand at him. "My mom's gonna take good care of you! There's nothing to worry about, little guy."

The child giggled, and sniffled a little bit. Kenji left, and Sakura continued the examination. It was just a slight cold, as suspected.

"So what is it you needed to show me, Kenji?" she asked, after seeing the mother and son off with some good advice and a reassuring smile. She closed the door to the examination room behind her.

"Well, those blood tests you ordered a few days ago finally came back," he said. He was holding a manila folder, and Sakura must have made a face because he immediately added, "I know, I know, I heard the whole story, but Suiko-chan at the labs said you'll still want to take a look at these."

"Why's that?"

"Just... look at them, she said."

So Sakura did.

She asked Kenji, after the initial reading, "Are you sure this is the right report?"

"Absolutely." Kenji stood very patiently, holding his elbows with his hands.

She read over the results again, not sure if she should smile or wrinkle her forehead in more confusion.

"…Kenji, did you read this?"

Kenji shrugged. "Only sorta. I'm not that interested in these things, Mom."

"Of course, of course." Her voice was distant, her mind already processing the raw data, coming to conclusions.

Then, suddenly, it hit her.

She decided that maybe it was more worth it to smile.

"…can you go tell someone that I'll be heading off for a little bit?" She closed the folder.

"'Course, Mom. Why's that, though?"

"I think Naruto is really going to want to see these."

Coincidence her ass.

She was going to punch Sasuke to the moon.

But she had to talk to Naruto first.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12 - Phosphorescence Trail


Andou told Sakura that Naruto hadn't left his office since arriving in the early morning - he hadn't left since Andou had come in for work, at any rate, and Andou always came in very early. There'd been advisers in to see him, accountants, frustrated citizens - the usual.

"Those men from the Taki syndicate didn't even leave any payment for our services in helping with Kiine-san, or much of anything else, for that matter. That's a big problem…" he said, thoughtfully. He adjusted the papers in his arms. "There are a lot of people mad at him for just letting them leave like that."

"Oh… wow," Sakura said. That was how badly this was all affecting him? Naruto wasn't book-smart, but he was by no means stupid. He knew how to run his village. Though he was very much prone to charity cases - usually dealt with personally, because that was just the kind of guy Naruto was - but he always made sure payment was given where payment was due.

"Yes. All of these papers? IOU's," Andou explained. He shifted them again. "Well, most of them, anyways… I've got to organize them, put them in a binder, at least; maybe make a spreadsheet to keep track of which business got stiffed where; and there's also the investigations we gotta do on which claims are legitimate or not…"

"Andou-kun, can you get a message in to him, at least?" Sakura asked, before he could wander off, his white eyes shining with numbers and order. She could feel her foot tapping uncontrollably. "At least tell him that I want to talk to him soon. It's kind of urgent."

Andou smiled. If he wore glasses, this was where he'd adjust them, needlessly, smiling over the tops of the frames. "You don't need to ask me. He'll see you no matter what, Sakura-san."

Andou was a very truthful young man.

When Sakura entered Naruto's office, Andou opened the door for her. Naruto was sitting with his hands folded together on the desk, head down, shoulders hunched. He looked tired, and there were papers everywhere.

"Hey," she said, quietly. Andou closed the door behind her. "You feeling all right?"

"Huh?" He looked up. His eyes were half-closed. "Oh, hi, Sakura. What are you doing here?"

She took a breath, in, and out. "I need to talk to you about something," she said. "About Yuki - um - I mean, Kiine-san." She was still getting used to calling the girl by her real name. Everyone was.

She saw something harden in his eyes. "Oh."

"Is it… okay if I ask you a few things first? I mean, I get that you're a little stressed," she said.

"Stressed? Me? Nah, I'm fine," he said. His laugh sounded more like a sigh. "What did you wanna talk to me about?"

Sakura stepped forward, took a seat in the chair across from his desk. "Do you remember when I took some blood samples from you and… Kiine-san, a few days ago?"

He narrowed his eyes, struggling to remember. "Sorta. It was for… chakra-stuff, right?"

Good enough. "Well, not just that. One of the tests I conducted was…" Come on, Sakura, man up! "It was for… paternity."

Silence and narrowed eyes. It took a moment for her to realize that it was less him being angry at her and more him simply not understanding what the heck she was going on about. Probably.

"I wanted to see if you two were related, Naruto. Like… father and child."

Naruto blinked a few times. "…but why did you wanna do that?"

"There were just rumors going around, I wanted to…" Prove a point? She could practically hear Sasuke's voice in her head. "…clear up some things."

"…seriously, though, why did you think I was her dad?"

What, it wasn't obvious? "Look, never mind. The fact is that I had tests done, okay?"

"Okay." Naruto thought for a moment. "So… is this what you wanted to talk to me about? 'cos… well, I'm not Kiine-san's dad, and she just went home this morn-"

"I'm not done yet, Naruto," Sakura said. She groaned slightly. How in the world was she going to explain this…? "Well, see, normally I'd have just not told you about this."

"Why's that?"

"If you two weren't related," she explained, "then I wouldn't have even brought this up to you."

There was a moment of thought, internal processing.

"…wait, but… I just said that I'm not her dad or anything, y'know." Naruto was making a strange face, like somebody had just told him to perform long division while juggling. "At least, I don't think I am… And anyways, I didn't even know her before she came to Konoha. How in the…"

There was an opening here, and Sakura seized it before she could think too hard on what he'd just said. "Well, see… technically, Naruto, you aren't her dad. Not even remotely."

A pause.

"…huh?"

"All things considered, it's genetically more likely that she's your mom, rather than your daughter," Sakura continued. "That's how unlikely it is."

A long pause.

"…okay, I'm confused. Kiine-san's my… mom?"

Sakura sighed. "No, no, she's not your mom, Naruto."

"Then why'd you say she was?"

"I never said that, I was just trying to make a point!" Sakura said. "Can you just listen for a moment? I'm trying to tell you how those blood tests turned out!"

"Okay, okay… Just don't go sayin' stuff like that, y'know?" Naruto seemed just so suddenly more awake, leaning forward. "I mean, it's kind of impossible for Kiine-san to be my mom, that's just weird…"

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Sakura said. "I'll get to the point."

Naruto nodded once, twice. "Okay, tell me."

"See… okay. We tested your blood, and the funny thing is that you have enough genes in common with each other to be definitely related." She added, after a moment, seeing his eyes beginning to narrow in confusion, "Genes are like these things in your blood that determine things like… what you look like, or your chakra type. You get half from your mom and half from your dad."

"Huh." Naruto thought on this for a moment. "So these… gene things. You said there are enough for us to be… related?"

"Yeah, we found enough matches."

More thinking. "But… you just said that there's no way I could be her dad."

"Mhm, which is what made it so confusing at first."

"Well, how d'you mean that?" Naruto said. "I mean, I'm not her dad, so…"

"Well, I was getting to that. See, we looked into these other things, called mitochondria? They're…" She could see Naruto's eyes narrowing even further. "Okay, we'll say that they're like genes, too, but you only get them from your mom," Sakura explained. She opened the folder, looked over the papers again, as if to remind herself what they meant. "You and Kiine-san had the same mitochondria."

Naruto thought about this for a while. "But if you only get them from your mom… But how does that even?"

"Well, there's a lot of ways this can happen, Naruto," Sakura said. "For example… if you were her mom, then you'd have the same mitochondria."

Naruto stared at her for a moment, and then laughed, mightily. "Okay, Sakura, get serious with me here."

Come to think of it… "Well, hey, you said that you didn't know if you were her dad or not…"

"But I'm not her dad. Pff, you said so yourself…"

"But you're not her mom, either, right?"

Naruto just laughed at her.

Well excuse her for wanting to get a confirmation!

why the hell were you thinking that was even a possibility, anyways…? Kiine is just flat-out not descended from him. End of story.

(Sakura really did wonder sometimes.)

"Okay, okay. Something that's not blatantly impossible, then," she said. Naruto was still sort of laughing at her, but they both managed to sort of compose themselves. "Well, if you two were siblings, too, you'd have the same mitochondria. Even half-siblings, if you had the same mother."

He fell silent. The look on his face was sort of hurt, sort of confused.

"…okay, so I know that's impossible, too…" Sakura said, averting her eyes for a moment. "But… say your mother had a sister, and she had kids, then you guys would all have the same mitochondria. Heck, anyone from your mother's family that's female probably has the same…"

Naruto's face had frozen. Sort of hurt, sort of confused.

"…you see what I'm getting at?" Sakura said, softly.

Naruto didn't say anything.

"It means that… considering the genes you share, and the mitochondria, then maybe… she's from your clan, Naruto. That maybe you have… family, living somewhere."

Real family, she almost wanted to add. Why did she think that, though?

Isn't it obvious?

She left this unvoiced.

There was something like a smile on his face, now. "So that's why you wanted to talk to me about this?" he said again, after a while.

She nodded. "Yeah. I mean, that's… kind of something important to know, I guess?"

"Kind of important? Kind of?" His sort-of smile grew into something more real, and he was starting to laugh, in short bursts. "Well if I've… got a clan somewhere, y'know… That's what this means, huh? Really?"

"Well, I'm going to have to look into the matter a little more, but… yeah." Sakura was smiling, now, the same smile she'd had when she first realized what the results meant. "That's what the tests are pointing to."

He laughed through his teeth and held his forehead. "Wow, I… I almost can't believe this, y'know…"

"I almost couldn't believe it either, at first!" Sakura added, managing a laugh of her own. "I mean, what a coincidence, right? That someone from your own clan is in something like the, uh… Taki syndicate…" She fidgeted, not looking at Naruto. "But more importantly! That Kiine-san came here, totally by chance, and that we had this done, right? So now we know!"

"…it means that I'll probably have to invite her back, huh," Naruto said, quietly.

Sakura's voice had a strange, uncomfortable laugh in it. "Naruto, where'd that come from?"

"Well, if she's part of my clan, then this means I should call her and her family back to talk with me, right?" Naruto said. His eyes were very wide. "Y'know, because she's from my family an' all. I almost have to, y'know?"

"Well by all means, I think you should call the Taki… family back, to talk about this clan business," Sakura said, "but shouldn't you focus more on… well, the payment they owe us? First and foremost?" How could she forget, with that huge pile of papers that Andou was holding?

And Naruto needed to reminded of things, sometimes. You know, memos. Sometimes multiple ones.

His eyes fell. "Oh. Yeah. That. Huh, I really should get on that, but they only left this morning…" He put his hand on his chin, thinking. "I dunno if it'd be the best idea to go chasing after them now, I mean, the chuunin exams are in a few days, y'know…"

No, Naruto wasn't stupid. He knew how to run a village. "I'm sure you'll figure out a good way of dealing with it. Just don't get too stressed about it right now, okay?" Sakura said.

"Stressed? Me? Nah, I'm fine!" Naruto said, and grinned again. His laugh sounded real. "Sakura, I just found out I got family somewhere. And that Kiine-chan is a part of it. It's… some of the best news I've heard all day, y'know?"

"Well, I'm still gonna do some tests, just to make sure this is really what we're dealing with here, but…" Sakura was smiling, again. "It really is wonderful news, Naruto. I know… how close the two of you were. I bet she'll be really happy to find out!"

"After the chuunin exams, though," Naruto said, nodding; strangely, his smile remained on his mouth, but it was utterly gone out of his eyes. "Thanks for, uh… talking to me about this!"

"Yeah, it's no problem!" She started getting out of her chair, when she noticed that his expression had fallen. "What's wrong?"

"…nothin'. Keep in touch, y'know!" And he was smiling again, a plastic smile.

Sakura waved as she left, feeling relieved, surprised, and slightly worried. What had that frown been about?

(And why wasn't he happier about this, anyways? She'd have thought that surely…)

Oh, never mind. She had to get to the hospital.

She started laughing on her way down the road. The more she thought about it, the more fantastic it seemed.

What a coincidence. What a fantastic coincidence.

A coincidence that someone like Kiine would turn out to be someone like that. That there were still Uzumakis - other Uzumakis - out there.

She couldn't stop grinning. Whether it was over a confused sort of happiness for Naruto or a satisfied victory over Sasuke's skepticism, she didn't know.

Oh, and speaking of Sasuke. Speaking. Of. Sasuke.

There he was.

Sakura's smile grew, if such a thing was even possible. She walked up to him casually, where he was leaning against a wall near one of the training grounds she passed on the way to the hospital, watching as Kyou sparred with the other boy in their team, the girl officiating, in a way.

"Fancy seeing you here," she said.

"Mm." His only other acknowledgement of her was a glance in her direction.

"So I went ahead and got those blood tests done," she told him, and held the folder up. "You know, on your suggestion."

He raised an eyebrow, but he didn't look at her. "Oh, really."

"Yes, really. The results were really pretty interesting."

A slight scoff, but it was a defensive sort of dismissal. "Interesting how?"

"Taki Kiine's an Uzumaki."

Sasuke finally looked at her, and his eyes were ever so slightly wider. "You don't mean."

"Well Naruto's not her father, you at least got that right," Sakura continued, smirking. "But they're from the same clan. On his mother's side."

"…really." There was a darkness in Sasuke's face, one that she had seen a few days ago, when she first suggested the possibility of them being related.

"Yes, really. Fantastic coincidence, isn't it? That this is how it all turned out," she said.

"Yes. Quite the coincidence." He wasn't looking at her any more, instead observing his students. The boy with the dark hair struck another, soft blow to Kyou. "I'm sure Naruto's very excited about this."

"He's pretty excited. It should make the negotiations with the Taki clan go more smoothly, now that we have this link."

"Mm."

Kyou was losing.

"So… I suppose this is a lesson to you, Sasuke!" she added. "Don't go dismissing rumors right off the bat. There's sometimes some truth to them!" She folded her arms, shifting her weight from one foot to the next.

He was trying so hard not to show how he really felt, but she could see it, plain as day.

He said nothing.

She couldn't resist. "Oh, you should see the look on your face," she told him, almost imitating his own, dry laugh. "And anyways, you know what they say. Fool me once…"

"I've had enough," he said, and left the wall. "Kyou, your punches are sloppy! Tighten them, know where you are going to strike!"

His walk was a quick and an angry one.

Satisfied in her revenge, Sakura left as well, and returned to the hospital.

"Suiko-chan, can you get me those blood samples from Taki Kiine? They should be labeled under Hanamura Yukio," she said, entering the lab, the blood test results under one arm. She put a pair of rubber gloves on, having already gotten her coat from the hook in the locker room.

And the samples were fetched, one vial's worth of blood left. Sakura had to be careful, but then again, she wasn't Chief Medical Officer for nothing.

She had a Hunch, see. And given how things had turned out so far, she knew better than to try and deny it.

In genetics testing, everything was uniform. Genes were genes, no matter who their owners were or where they came from.

Looking at blood under a microscope, however? There were certain things you could look for that really identified someone, in a pinch, when you didn't have time to do a full analysis. You cut into an Aburame, for example, and they'd bleed bugs.

…okay, so maybe not that extreme. A better example might be something like a unique sort of cell in the blood that hyper-efficiently converted sugars into chakra. You found them only in Akimichi clan members, and they were enormous, those cells, incredibly hard to miss, and only an Akimichi, with their enlarged blood vessels, could even have them without dying of some sort of blockage. Things like that. They were the sort of things that were published in medical books and field guides, and were often used to establish clan lineage before the advent of genetic testing. Long-established clans tended to have those sorts of things in the blood.

Naruto was no real exception. Sakura'd had a lot of experience looking at his cells, and she knew how to identify them. They were unusual, undeniably so. With him, it was… a resilience of the cells, a toughness, a…

…okay, so she didn't know how the heck else to describe it, because "like they looked like they were made of rubber or something" sounded horribly unprofessional. But his cells were unique, that was for sure, incredibly resilient. And she knew what made them unique, and that was the most important thing.

His daughter had the same cells, too, so she knew it wasn't due to outside circumstances, or the nine-tails.

She took out a dropper and sandwiched a tiny drop of Kiine's blood between two slides and a drop of dyeing agent, and placed the slide under a microscope so she could take a look.

Another grin began growing on her face when she immediately recognized those rubbery cells. Uzumaki cells. Yes, confirmable, absolutely.

But… what were those?

She adjusted the focus on the microscope, narrowed her eyes. One weird little blood cell - no, there were a few others - what? - that just didn't fit. They were… rubbery, but not as much as the others, and slightly… discolored? She squinted some more, trying to figure out just what was going on.

It took a while for her to notice, but eventually, she did.

The handful of off-colored cells there, the ones that seemed so slightly out of place, were glowing. Faintly, ever so faintly, but they were.

It was more than just a residual glow, the hallmark of frequent chakra use; it was the sign of a cell charged with chakra that was slowly ebbing out, from lack of control.

She tried again with another drop of blood, on another slide. And a third, with a different dyeing agent, just to make sure it wasn't just the result of a contamination, somewhere.

No, in every instance, those cells were there.

It startled her, for a moment. Because she knew only one other person with cells like these.

Karin. The only other known living Uzumaki.

But, see, none of that made sense. Sakura had analyzed Karin's blood enough, during and after the war.

Karin's blood was pretty damn unique, if Sakura had to put it that way. There was a strange property to its cells that just seemed to hoard chakra away, until, well, she… released it. In that way that she did. Or… otherwise… well, Sakura never bothered to really ask, it was her technique…

And in any case, when it was discovered that she and Naruto were from the same clan, Sakura had taken blood samples and done a comparison, much like she was doing now.

The cells were nothing alike; every cell in Karin's blood glowed with a radiance lent to it by the chakra that Sakura had never seen before. And Karin admitted, with a half-hearted, defeated sort of shrug, that she'd been "messed-with so much" that she didn't know if her cells were at all "normal" any more, for someone from her clan. "Either that or I've just been an abnormality from the start. A mutation."

And Sakura must have sighed or given her some sort of sad little glance, then, because Karin just glared over her glasses there and went, "Oh, don't give me that. I'm not looking for pity, okay? I'm just stating the facts."

When Naruto's daughter was born, Sakura tested her blood as well, and it was confirmed just how abnormal Karin was, but Karin, again, really did not care, when Sakura wrote to her about the results. She didn't even use the last name that belonged to her, remaining unattached, clanless.

That was just the kind of person Karin was. She looked her past, shrugged, and went "Whatever."

In fact, she was the one to lead the expedition into Orochimaru's abandoned labs and prison complexes to retrieve the remains of his research, once the war was over, since she knew where each of them were and how to explore them without getting killed by the traps. "Developed them with Sasori's help," she explained. "True story."

And her research in developing the Curse Seal Suppression Vaccine - the Seal Rehabilitation Team called them CV's - was unspeakably useful. And dozens of individuals had her to thank for a much better way of life.

Still, some parts of the past she just insisted on holding onto. "Believe it or not, he was a genius. Questionable as his experiments were, I refuse to see his work destroyed, okay?" she had said, after it was suggested that Orochimaru's notes on human experimentation be burned, among other things. "Besides, we'd know nothing about anatomy if it hadn't been for the first daring souls to cut into corpses and see what they looked like inside."

Karin had very red eyes, and they were almost as intimidating as Sasuke's, when she wanted them to be.

"Fortune favors the bold," she had said.

They let Karin keep the originals, after copies were made and stored away into heavily-classified sections of the Konoha archives.

She did make use of them, though rarely. And when she did, the results were always wonderful, beneficial, like the CV's; those wouldn't have even existed, had it not been for those research materials. It was making a good thing out of so much bad.

(Thank goodness.)

They were kept under lock and key, otherwise.

In the meantime, she had set up a clinic on the eastern coast of the continent, in the Land of Waves. Sakura consulted her occasionally, by mail, on more vexing medical matters, but Karin tended to keep in closer contact with the Seal Rehabilitation Team, and helped develop new strains of CV's when resistances began popping up here and there.

Sakura packed the slides of blood away into little sterile, plastic holders, and she had Suiko put the original vial put back into cold storage.

Then, she began writing a letter.

Karin,

Enclosed are slides of blood taken from a 16-year-old female I examined recently. I found some abnormal cells that seemed very similar to yours when I was performing some tests, and I thought to see what you think of them.

I'm enclosing a copy of the results of the tests I performed on her blood, to see if they're of any use to you, as well.

Hope that you are well, and get back to me soon.

- Sakura

She had copies made of the blood test results, and after crossing out "Hanamura Yukio" and replacing it with "Taki Kiine," and correcting the sex on the form. Sakura wondered, for a moment, just how accurate the form really was any more, but given that Kiine was gone, there was nothing she could really do about it. It was accurate enough for the time being.

Sakura had the package sent out via Courier Nin. The courier assured her that it'd arrive in the Land of Waves by the next afternoon, at the latest, before leaving with a jaunty little salute.

She decided not to tell Naruto about it, until Karin wrote back.

Then, Sakura went home.

Kenji and Lee had started dinner without her, since Sakari was out in the field - curry tonight, again? She couldn't help but laugh - but they had just enough set aside for her, kept warm, and waiting.

"You are just in time, my darling!" Lee told her, with his sparkle-smile. He was still wearing the yellow apron he always cooked in as he sat at the table with Kenji, and he got up to meet her, and give her a hug. "I am very glad that you are home."

And Sakura smiled, and hugged him back. "Me too."

Chapter Text

Chapter 13 - Held Candle


Sasuke did not go home, after training with the genin. Nor did he let his family know that he would not be home.

He had somewhere to be, first.

There was a building near the back of the Uchiha memorial grounds where all of the old family records were kept, where the Nakano Shrine used to be. The records had managed to survive the Day of Pain, thank goodness, because they were largely underground. Just like all the other records.

And while technically part of a "memorial," it was still owned by Sasuke, and thus private property, kept far apart from the official archives of Konoha. It wasn't like they would be read and understood by most people, anyways. Uchiha records were written with a deliberately tiny hand, half of the time, easiest-deciphered by Sharingan and Sharingan alone.

Scrolls of genealogies were kept there. Records of births, and deaths. Weddings, the rare separation.

Sasuke wasn't all that interested in that, tonight. He was searching for possibilities.

Exiled. Imprisoned. On a religious pilgrimage. Just flat-out missing. His eyes were hungry for those words as he opened scroll after scroll and whipped through the words at incredible speeds, and abandoned the records just as quickly when they yielded nothing for him to take.

Just a coincidence, how could it have been just a coincidence.

He didn't even know why he was doing this in the first place. It was foolish, it was stupid, it made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

And yet, here he was. Frantically searching for any sort of chance that Yakata, that shadow-boy, was maybe, was maybe…

Not Itachi's, but… some other unknown relative's child.

After all, what were the chances of some random Uzumaki showing up, practically on Naruto's doorstep? The resemblance had been so strong that even Sasuke had shoved aside all of his preconceptions and almost believed that they had been father and child. Almost. For a while. And never aloud.

Who was to say there weren't other Uchihas somewhere?

Maybe that was fueling all this madness.

He tried not to think too hard on the matter as he opened another scroll, the paper unfurling with a dry whine. Focusing on the words.

So far, most of the records had been for people who had died long before he had been born. People who were old when his father was a boy.

He had laughed bitterly when he saw a scroll labeled "Notice of Exile: Uchiha Madara." He didn't bother opening it.

He finally managed to stumble into the present, the dates within a reasonable time. The names began to look familiar, and he checked each and every one.

There was a list in his mind, and he compared every name he found to it. For every match, he crossed the name out with a large, imaginary black line.

It started to get dark out. He got a candle, and lit it, even though his night vision was excellent.

(But Sasuke didn't trust his eyes much any more, and he wanted as much certainty as he could find.)

He didn't know what time it was when he finally finished going through every scroll. And every name had ended up being crossed-out, in the list in his mind.

The Uchiha clan was very efficient in the keeping of records on its members, and his brother had been just as efficient in his eradication of them.

There were even reports, from shortly after the massacre, of a great-aunt of living as a nun in the northwestern Land of Fire being found murdered in her abbey. A third-cousin living as a vagrant found with his eyes gouged out in the Land of Rivers. A handful of stories, official Konoha reports in the thick binder of records on every victim, accounting for all of the distant others, picked off in the days following the Massacre. Too close together to be a coincidence.

Sasuke had little doubt as to who was responsible for those.

He threw down the final scroll and rubbed his face with his hands.

Every single one. Not even a remote possibility. And he had thought, for a moment, that maybe some distant exile from centuries in the past had remained unaccounted for, Uchiha genetics surfacing again after dormant generations. But no, everything was accounted for. An Uchiha was an Uchiha, and nobody could escape. Nobody wanted to escape, it seemed like.

There was no possibility that Yakata was…

Delusional. Sasuke knew he was just. Delusional.

Why did Sakura have to say that, putting those thoughts in his head.

It had been months. Months since he'd last had those thoughts. He'd folded all of that away and tried to forget.

He started to put the scrolls away. Haphazardly, without much order, the way he had found them.

Damn it, damn it, damn it.

He was better than this.

Really, was he that easily-swayed by a single coincidence? That was all it was. Coincidence. All of it. All of…

"…all this time, and you still feel that way…?"

There was a voice above ground, coming closer. It was soft and almost childlike, and he recognized it immediately.

He grit his teeth.

Her.

He threw the rest of the scrolls to the side, not bothering to put them away properly. He blew his candle out and went out to deal with her.

"…that's fascinating, really. Though it must be very difficult, all things considered…"

"Murasaki."

Sasuke stood directly in her path, and the woman stopped there. Her eyes looked closed, from where he was standing, like always.

She tilted her head slightly, after a few seconds. "…oh, did he really call me by my name? That's very interesting," she said.

He ignored her. "I have told you, time and time again, that you are forbidden on my clan's property."

"…I know, Sasuke-san. But they requested I meet with you tonight. I hope you understand."

He clenched his fists, a flood of new anger coursing through his body.

In the strange symbol-language that Murasaki used, "they" meant his family.

He started to forget about the boy.

"Leave," he said. He knew better than to get wrapped up in acknowledging her "ability," because then she would never go.

("It's harmful to humor her," Sakura had even told him, "even though it's just a… coping mechanism.")

(That had been ten years ago, and Murasaki was far from "healed.")

There was always a strange sort of disconnect between replies, when talking to Murasaki, a period of… thinking, or processing, before every reply.

It took her several seconds, after Sasuke spoke, to change her expression from sleepy peacefulness to some sort of drowsy worry. "…please do not get terribly mad at me, Sasuke-san. I am only trying to help."

"Did you not hear me the first time? Get out of here," Sasuke said again. "You are not helping anyone."

There was the usual pause as she processed this. "…would you rather they have no way of contacting you?"

He grabbed her arm, and he held it very, very tightly. "Enough. Leave. Now."

She didn't even squirm as his grip intensified. "…if that is what you wish, then I will leave. I am very sorry I could not stay longer, I hope everyone understands."

There she was again, talking to herself. Sasuke let go of her, sighing, and she brushed off the front of her fog-colored robe. She dressed like an old woman, and her hair was very long and very dark.

She suddenly smiled. "…now, now, I'm not going to say that, that is very rude," she said.

Sasuke glared at her, Sharingan blazing. He crossed his arms. She didn't seem affected.

"…all right, I'll try and tell him that, at least." She was still talking. "Sasuke-san, they want you to know that they're very excited for your son Inou in the upcoming chuunin exams. They all wish him the best, and hope that he will not shame the clan this time around with another failure."

Sasuke's eyes quieted.

"…that is what they wanted me to tell you, the most." A pause. She tilted her head, as if listening for something. "…oh, and some support for little Karai, but especially Inou. They know much of a disappointment he is to you sometimes. Doesn't act like an Uchiha at all, that's what someone is saying..."

It was at times like these that Sasuke almost believed Murasaki.

Almost.

He knew better now than to believe her strange little tricks, her sweet little words. She wasn't well in the head. Anything that rang particularly true was just a coincidence.

(Besides, wouldn't she have been able to contact Itachi if she really could speak to the dead?)

He grabbed her arm again and walked with her to the gate. He yanked at first, but he found her keeping pace, not resisting.

"If I catch you here again, I won't be nearly as kind," Sasuke said, letting go with a push.

She stumbled for a moment, but her face remained placid, sleepy. "…I cannot deny when help is asked of me, Sasuke-san. Please understand."

She always gave those same, frustratingly vague answers. And she always kept coming back. It was too much effort to try and get rid of her for good, because he knew, he knew, it wouldn't matter, no matter how much he threatened, no matter how many times it happened. It was easiest to just ignore her, in the end, which is exactly what Sasuke did then.

He turned his back on her and began on his way down the road, leaving her standing in the cooling summer air, by the gate.

"…is there anything more that you want?" she asked.

But nothing more was wanted.


Inou closed the door to his bedroom behind him and sighed, tired, relieved. He'd just been in the bathroom - and he'd been waiting, patiently, to go and use it, so that his mother or Karai wouldn't fuss over him if they caught a glimpse of him.

He hated how they did that. "Oh, Inou, are you feeling better?" "Oh, Inou, did you have a good nap?"

He got back under the covers, and the sheets were still very warm. He'd get better on his own.

So far, he'd done a good job of staying out of their way. He'd napped, most of the day. His mother brought him lunch, and medicine, in the afternoon, and he ate it in bed. He dozed some more. Read a fair amount.

And when he started feeling a little better, he sat up and prepared to work on his technique.

He had started developing it about a year or so before. It was born from a comment of his father's, actually, during an argument in which Inou was trying to justify his training in the Yamanaka arts, when he could be so much more well-trained in proper, Uchiha techniques.

(In reality, Inou wasn't much suited for the techniques of his father's family. He was better at subtle techniques, tricks in chakra control, the arts of the mind. His mother's arts. None of this flashy stuff to do with fireballs and blades. Those left him exhausted. But he had to learn them, anyways.)

"Really. 'It's for surveillance.' Good enough," his father had said, with a scoff. "But is there anything remotely useful you can learn that doesn't require you to faint like a woman every time you use it?"

His mother had glared at her husband there, but she didn't say anything.

Now, Inou knew just about every trick in the book. Mind Disruption, which let you remotely control the body - Inou was already very good at that, but he didn't like using it, finding it brutish and rough, impractical. And the Mind Switch, which let you take over a body entirely - one of the first things he had learned how to do, and master. And Mind Reading. Which was almost second nature to him, really, but he didn't get to use it often.

None of them were "practical" enough. Mind Disruption was an offensive(-ish) technique, but it had little to no use in surveillance work. Mind Switch was useless unless you had backup - that most poisonous, offensive word, backup. And Mind Reading was absolutely out of the question, unless you had a lot of time on your hands - and, again, with the backup.

Inou didn't have an answer that night, but it did give him an idea as he curled up under his sheets and tried not to bring attention to himself.

He'd develop something useful. Something useful enough.

He practiced, first, by seeing how far out he could extend a packet of chakra, the same principle behind the Mind Disruption and Switch techniques, without losing control. He usually did this in his bedroom, alone, so he'd be able to fall back onto his mattress if he if he lost consciousness. Which he did, frequently, in the beginning.

Next came developing the control itself. It was going to be difficult - he'd have to not only stay conscious, but also get a hold on the target's thought centers and thought centers alone, not their motor centers. It was so much easier just to grab the whole brain, or just the parts that controlled the body, but those were indelicate methods.

And besides, grabbing the whole brain meant devoting your whole control to it, and as a result losing control of your own body - the trademark fainting of the Mind Switch technique. And controlling just the motor centers meant that you were still conscious, but your own body was rather frozen from the concentration - the weakness of the Mind Disruption.

No, Inou just wanted to hear the thoughts. Which was where his experience with Mind Reading came in. He knew which parts of the brain to aim for, what he could reach his chakra into and pull things out of. But he didn't need the deep concentration of memory-scanning, no, that wasn't what he was interested in.

All he needed were the surface thoughts.

In theory, it'd work perfectly. Maintaining a strong enough link to get into just the surface thoughts and short-term memory - in essence, telepathy. But not the internal-dialogue sort of telepathy that could be shared between Yamanaka clan members. Inou was thinking real, honest-to-goodness mind-reading telepathy, that could work on anyone.

(Like the kind of stuff in Nadeshiko's comics.)

In theory, anyways.

Inou had nobody to practice with, but he tried, all the same. There was a tree outside his window, and birds liked to roost there. He practiced on them, first.

Birds didn't possess much, in terms of thoughts. But he'd practiced possessing animals before, with the Mind Switch technique. And they had smaller brains, anyways. It made things easier.

The birds helped. And, later, a little stray cat that showed up in the autumn; a black cat, with white paws. It liked to hang out on the roof, outside of Nadeshiko's room, though it was quick to leave whenever his father came home.

It liked to move in circles around the roof, lazily, as if on patrol. And Inou managed to figure out how to stay focused on a large, moving target before it disappeared, in the winter.

(Strangely enough, it reappeared in the spring, just a little fatter, just a little more reluctant to remove itself from near Nadeshiko's windowsill and her planter of marigolds.)

(The thoughts of cats were not much more fascinating than birds. Mostly feelings of contentment and superiority, and satisfaction upon the acquirement of foodstuffs.)

Inou found that he was able to get the best hold on a target if he held his hands palm-out, ring fingers and middle fingers touching, the space between them forming a diamond for the chakra to focus and pass through. It felt weird - it probably looked really stupid to others, Inou thought - but it worked.

His first human target was Chouko, who had smiled almost uncomfortably when he asked her if he could try out a new technique on her.

"Okay, so, what do you want me to do?" she said, laughter in her voice. "Is it a physical technique?"

"No, just stand right where you are," Inou said.

And he held his hands out in the stupid-diamond pattern that stretched his fingers uncomfortably but always worked with the birds, and the cat.

He concentrated his chakra, and out it went.

supposed to be happening? He's just standing there like he's doing one of those techniques with the mind body switching for Our Formation, goodness he looks like he's concentrating so hard, his face is so adorable when he's concentrating like that, he'd get mad if I told him that, what is he even doing anyways?

"You think I look adorable when I'm concentrating?" Inou said, with a laugh and a wild grin, gasping for air, after he released the technique.

Chouko turned bright red, and then giggled and demanded an explanation.

After Inou told her what had just happened, and a further demonstration of his abilities - how did he know she was thinking of chocolate-covered pretzels? - she gave him a hug and a congratulation that was nearly as warm as she was.

All Shikake gave him was a dry glance and a warning. "Before you even ask. I am not letting you probe my mind. Like, ever."

Inou was too happy to really give her anything more than a nod.

Then Ishi-sensei asked him who had taught him the technique; surely one of his family members? He'd known many Yamanakas, but he'd never seen anything quite like that before.

And Inou stopped for a while and thought.

"Yeah, it's a pretty advanced technique," was what he said.

Confirming it would be lying.

And nobody would believe him if he'd said that he'd made it up himself.

He began to push himself, in his practice. Whenever his team went out to lunch together, or something similar, he'd always excuse himself and walk a distance away, and try to hear Chouko's thoughts and memories from further and further distances. She was fine with it, for the most part. "How else are you gonna get practice? Go right ahead." As per her request, he never practiced on Shikake.

That was how Inou found out that he could hear the thoughts of many, if he directed the pulse in a certain way. It was a weird sort of feeling, like suddenly flipping through every channel in a television, every channel a mind. It had first happened while he was trying to get a hold of Chouko's mind, down the street, and a woman had walked by, in the path, and Inou suddenly found himself bombarded with thoughts of a baby shower and she hadn't gotten a gift yet and then he was back in Chouko's mind as the woman walked out of the way.

A few tries later confirmed it. He could even redirect targets, with practice, shifting them from person to person, or just doing a slow, general sweep until he found something worth looking more deeply into.

Oh, this technique was useful.

And, on missions? It was incredibly useful. Absolutely. He didn't need anyone to back him up, even. He could disengage it at any time. He didn't faint. He just needed to concentrate.

He was able to scan the area for hidden persons. Get intel from civilians, from hostiles. He seemed to find a new use for it on every mission.

This was the skill that would make him a chuunin.

He was unable to really practice it since the chuunin exams began looming, and with them the descent of his father's most-watchful eye upon his training. But he managed to keep improving while on missions, while making enough effort at conventional training while at home to keep his father pleased.

(And, in the early mornings, before he met with Shikake and Chouko for training together, he'd sit on the roofs of the city and listen to the thoughts of people waking up, knowing he was wonderfully alone.)

It was an incredible skill. He knew this. He knew this.

But for however much he knew how useful, how practical it was, he could never bring himself to show his father how it worked.

He didn't know why. Maybe it was the suggestion of rejection that kept him from saying anything; either rejection of the idea that Inou had the ingenuity to create such a technique, or rejection of the technique altogether.

He could practically hear his father's voice. "Oh, so you can read minds. So, tell me. How is that useful, beyond being a neat little parlor trick?"

He could come up with a million answers, but he had no idea which ones his father would want to hear.

And so Inou devoted his weak body in the daytime to the things he knew his father wanted to see. The things his father could see. Tangible proof of effort.

Even though Inou had slaved for nearly a year and a half over his technique, there was nothing to really show for it.

And besides, his father was such a skeptic.

Inou had heard the terrible things he had to say about that Murasaki woman, the sick one, who said she could talk to ghosts.

(And the things his father left unvoiced were even worse, even stronger, even more hateful, even more pained.)

(Inou was inclined to believe that she really had such abilities, though it was more out of pity and commiseration than any sort of true belief. She was crazy, after all. Everyone knew that.)

Mind-reading? Honestly? What a joke.

Maybe that was why Inou was trying so hard. At… everything, really. This was His Year. The year he'd become a chuunin, finally. And maybe he'd find a way to prove to his father that he wasn't such a weakling, dependent on everyone.

He'd find a way to show him his technique.

So even though his headache really hadn't gone away yet, Inou got out from under the covers and sat against his pillows. He made the diamond-sign with his fingers, and concentrated his chakra.

Maybe the new technique would be working today.

The new technique was… experimental. He had a hard time controlling it. But he couldn't help but try and develop it, to see if it would even work. He couldn't help himself. Inou's ambition was a quiet, but insistent sort of thing.

(A little voice in his head told him that he shouldn't exert himself, he was sick, for goodness' sake, but he ignored it.)

He moved his hands, still in the diamond-sign, in front of his face, and he slowly began to move them apart. The chakra near his hands began to spread as well, and he could feel it stretching out. Like blowing a bubble, it's like blowing a bubble, he told himself. Concentrating.

His headache started to intensify, but he ignored it.

This technique was like a radio scanner; that was the best way he could put it. He could scan for thoughts with his current technique, but it was so… slow. This was - when it worked - so much quicker. It gave him a more generalized feel for the thoughts in the nearby area, flipping through his mind without much control, but at an incredible speed.

(It was exhilarating, when he first tried this in the early morning hours. He felt like a king of rooftops and dreams.)

The only real problem was transitioning from this split-second scan, thoughts flooding into his mind, to his usual technique, allowing him to hold onto the thoughts instead of finding them zipping out of his grasp just as things were getting interesting.

He figured he'd work on that later. Had to get the basics done first.

He spread the chakra, thinner, and bigger. He could feel his heart beating in his eyes.

Then, finally-

-visit Shusuke again on Saturday, I haven't - hasn't left his room in hours, I should go check on-

Yes, yes, yes! There it was! In his excitement, his concentration slipped. The thoughts grew quieter. He flooded his hands with chakra, a bigger bubble, a stronger bubble.

-probably faking it for sympathy, what a - Sasuke's been gone for a while, I shouldn't probably ask him where he - honestly I'm worried maybe I should just try and talk to-

He knew these thoughts. They sounded like the people they belonged to. More chakra.

(His head felt like it was going to explode.)

-really who even does that - wonder where Father is-

Inou pushed himself further, further. He could go further. He could do better.

He felt something warm on his face, over his lips.

-the way you worry about that boy, honestly, it's more than just a little sad, it-

He lost control there. His head finally exploded. He collapsed against the pillows.

But that last voice. He did not recognize that last voice, a rough, polite voice. And he knew that his house was too far removed from anything resembling a neighborhood for him to have reached into someone else's home.

What was that?

Something about that fact left him incredibly unsettled. He tried not to think terribly hard about it.

When he finally got control of his limbs again, he noticed that his nose had started bleeding. He'd been out for so long, in fact, that it had started to run down the side of his face and onto his pillow, into his mouth.

"Oh crap!" he said softly, and pinched his nose, out of bed in an instant. Blood got all over his fingertips, his palms. He could taste it, and smell it, and it made him feel sick.

He had to get to the bathroom. Again. He prayed nobody would see him.

He ran into Takeru on the way.

And Takeru just tilted his head and almost smiled, not letting him pass. "What happened to your face?" He sounded like he was laughing.

"Godda nodebleed, ged oudda da way, Dageru," Inou replied, trying to shove his way forward. Come on, the bathroom was just a few feet away… Why did it have to be Takeru…?

"A nosebleed? What from?"

Inou didn't respond, trying to shove past him again. He was still too weak for much of anything, though. His lips felt disgustingly sticky.

"You aren't taking time off from training for anything questionable, now, are you?" Takeru widened his normally narrow, smug-looking eyes in mock surprise. They reminded Inou of Shikake. "For shame, little brother."

"Cud id oud, Dageru! Lebbe go clead ub!"

Takeru wasn't much taller than him, but he looked for all the world like a giant to Inou, there. Standing there, condescending, as usual.

"Fine, then. But I don't really believe you. I bet you're hiding something."

Inou could settle for that. He had nothing to hide, and he told Takeru this. His brother finally let him pass, and Inou went to the bathroom and washed his face.

"Mo-other! Inou got blood all over his pillow!" Takeru was in his room, like he'd promised. Probably looking for… some sort of magazine or something equally embarrassing or incriminating. The sort of thing you'd find in Hajime's room, with his hidden pinups and questionable magazines under the mattress; not in Inou's room.

Inou didn't even like girls, not that way. He'd read some of Hajime's mattress-books in a fit of relapse a few years before (from when he was still too scared to even glance at Nadeshiko's door, after he had gotten caught there), and he wondered what all the fuss was about, more than anything. It was boring at best, disgusting at worst. Nothing he'd want to keep hidden under his pillows.

(Inou hid comic anthologies under his mattress, but they were never kept there for long. What if he was caught? Again?)

But Takeru was his older brother, and he showed he cared by antagonizing Inou at every instance. Inou preferred Hajime's distance, personally.

"Wha-at? Inou, what happened?" His mother was coming up the stairs, accompanied by a flurry of smaller steps.

He came out of the bathroom, drying his face with a towel, and there was Karai, looking like she was close to tears or something, his mother at the end of the hall, looking mildly concerned.

Karai cared too much.

When they asked him about what had happened, he just said that it was because his nose had gotten dried-out from all the sneezing, or something.

And then his father came home, and he was in a bad mood, so they had a quiet dinner. Inou had gotten out of his pajamas before his arrival. He had gotten blood all over them. He wouldn't have kept them on, anyways.

"Recover soon," was the only thing his father said to him that night, from across from the dinner table. It could have been a lot worse.

Inou had all but forgotten about the strange voice he'd heard, earlier in the evening. But something still stayed with him that left him feeling jumpy and hollow inside, especially as he tried to get to sleep. He told himself that it was just because he was sick, convincing himself to doze off, not bothering to practice again.

The chuunin exams were that Friday. He'd still have time to work on it.


Karin's reply arrived on a Wednesday.

Sakura,

Got to be kidding me. Taki in Konoha? Big trouble, likely.

Hozuki and I both dealt with Taki clan before. He does work for them occasionally. I know them through Sensei.

Boss Kuni asked Sensei to treat daughter, Mikan, about 30 years back. Uterine cancer, incredibly advanced. Very young, very unfortunate.

Boss Kuni tried other doctors. Went to Sensei as last resort. Sensei asked for new body as payment. Boss Kuni agreed, no questions asked. Anything to save Mikan. Devoted father, heartless otherwise. Sensei liked him.

Sensei brought me to assist. Used my blood as part of treatment. Possible explanation for cells in Kiine's blood, if Mikan were still fertile. Treatment was effective, not perfect.

Still wouldn't explain Uzumaki heredity. Know for a fact Mikan is not Uzumaki, neither is husband, Boss Tensho.

Highly suspicious. Will look into this further. Send you information from archives if possible.

Would come to Konoha if not weighted down. Apologies.

Word of warning: do not bring this up to Taki. Boss Tensho very touchy on subject of family. Worse when ninja are involved.

Stay out of Taki's way. More trouble than worth. Lay low.

Regards to your Sakari. Sweet girl.

- Karin

Sakura had to read the letter a couple of times before she felt like she really understood what it was saying. Notes from Karin were always like this. Terse, but precise. The language of a scientist with very little time to spare.

(It always struck her as more than a little unnerving that she referred to Orochimaru, in those letters, as Sensei. Just Sensei. Always.)

Sakura pushed a bang behind her ear as she processed all the information.

It was uncomfortable information, about uncomfortable things - the Taki syndicate, Orochimaru, cancer - then again, that was Karin, for you. Frank and direct. Unblinking.

Somehow, though, none of it surprised her. A crime syndicate going to Orochimaru for cancer treatment? Goodness.

Then again, 30 years ago, Sakura doubted anyone was even remotely skilled enough to treat the more advanced stages of cancer, except for maybe Tsunade.

And 30 years ago, Tsunade was still living at the bottom of a bottle, surrounded by gambling debts.

…it still felt questionable to Sakura. Especially the whole asking for a body as payment thing. That… that didn't surprise her.

The way Karin had put it made it seem like Kiine's mother - Mikan, that seemed to be her name - wasn't even capable of having children. Did that mean… Kiine was adopted? That did nothing to explain Karin's cells in her blood, though. And Karin probably knew this.

So maybe Mikan had somehow become fertile again? But, how? And she wasn't an Uzumaki, but Kiine still was; that stood to be explained…

Karin was right, it was suspicious. Very suspicious. But Sakura didn't know what in the world it could mean.

Maybe Karin did. Or would, eventually.

Sakura decided not to tell Naruto about this, not yet.

At least until Karin got back to her again.

Chapter Text

INTERLUDE

BIG RED


Kiine had a lot of explaining to do.

She sat outside her father's meeting room, shoved into a kimono, gold combs forced into what was left of her hair, eyes shut tight in frustration. She sucked in her breath, trying to gather the words in her mind, for when he would inevitably call her in.

It had been her idea. All her idea. It really was, in… most senses of the word.

Well, okay, so Yuki had helped. A lot. But she didn't want to think about him right now.

It was all her father's fault, at the end of the day, anyways. It was his fault entirely.

Everything went wrong on the day he had called her to him with that smile on his face. She had almost expected good news.

Well he certainly thought it was good news.

"I've decided to give your hand in marriage to the son of Boss Shin of the Hakaza clan as a gesture of unity and goodwill between our families."

She didn't remember him saying much else, but she did remember her own lack of a smile as she nodded, gracefully, and thanked him for telling her the news.

Inside, she was screaming.

She was being married off? As a… as a gesture of unity? And goodwill? What the hell was she, some sort of peace offering?

It was wrong for so, so many reasons.

She was only sixteen! Well, okay, almost seventeen, but still! That was way too young to get married. Way too young!

(She'd known people who'd been betrothed at far younger, though. It wasn't unusual. …but that didn't make it right! And she never thought that it would happen to her.)

And who was she getting married to, anyways? Did she not even have a say in the guy she had to spend the rest of her life with? She had nobody in mind now, 'course, but what if somebody came along that just… knocked her off her feet or something? That wouldn't be exactly fair, would it?

(Hadn't her mother had a choice, anyways? That was the only reason why she was married to her father, was because she'd had a choice.)

Her fiancé, apparently, was some kid named Kou. Son of Shin, the Boss of the Hakaza clan. He was the same age as her. Kiine had met his father before, several times, here and there, but she had never met Kou.

It was a political marriage.

See, the Taki clan controlled almost the entirety of the eastern coast's grey and black and all-shades-in-between market, and the visible sign of this control was the prevalence of what were called Curiosity Shops. You couldn't throw a rock in the eastern lands without hitting a Taki Curiosity Shop. They were as prevalent as the gambling dens of the Saigoro clan, as common as the brothels of Hanamachi clan.

Anyone going in and requesting the services of a Curiosity Shop knew exactly what was being sold in there.

Beautiful smoking pipes from the Land of Water.

(You could buy the herbs to use it with in the room downstairs, if you asked nicely and knew when to give a tip.)

The silk that gave the Land of Silk its name.

(The Taki clan was proud of its silk. Monopolies took generations to create, didn't you know.)

Swords from the Land of Iron. Custom-made.

(Most of them stolen from dunderheaded samurai. The swords used by the clan themselves were made on commission, never stolen.)

You could find anything you wanted in a Taki Curiosity Shop, if you had enough money.

Well, almost everything.

This was where the Hakaza clan came in.

The Hakaza had their fingers thoroughly entrenched in the western mountains, with their own chain of Curiosity Shops dotted across the range and the northern lands.

They sold a great many different things.

Modern art; paintings and sculpture from the Land of Rock.

(Many of them forgeries. Most of them real. All of them stolen in one way or another.)

Rare books and bootlegs of banned films from the Land of Lightning.

(You certainly weren't going to find that raunchy unofficial adaptation of Icha Icha Tactics in the Land of Fire.)

Questionable and dangerous looking medical(?) instruments from the Land of Rice.

(If it had more than three blades on it then you got treated to tea while discussing price with the shop owner.)

Yes, you could find anything you wanted at a Hakaza Curiosity Shop, if you had enough money.

Well, almost anything.

That was where the marriage came in.

Now, Kiine knew most of those things already because she liked to sit in on the meetings her father had with his underlings, his accountants, the guys that ran the shops themselves. Her father had been letting her do it since before she could remember, never turning her away when she began asking to join in instead of wandering in all haphazardly, like she had done as a toddler.

She used to sit on his lap in those accidental days, while he discussed who to off and who to cut, where to spend and what to steal. Now, whenever she showed up, with a shy, practiced, downward glance, she sat behind him and listened intently, taking it all in and actually paying attention, but never speaking. She wasn't expected to speak, not at her age, not in her position.

Eventually she tried making suggestions, after the meetings were over - because they always laughed at or ignored her when she first spoke up, during meetings. Her father would laugh at her, too - but warmly, not mockingly - and say "Lemme think about it, honey." He'd then kiss her on the forehead and send her on her way. She always glowed with satisfaction whenever a suggestion of hers made it into the next day's discussions, which began to happen with more and more frequency. She learned how to be careful with her words, and timing.

So there had been talks, for a long while, of a union or some other sort of arrangement between the Hakaza and the Taki clans, so that there would be a greater amount of goods offered over a much wider area. And Kiine thought it was a very smart idea, overall, both economically and socially.

Alone, both of the clans were highly influential. But together? Well, the very thought of such a thing sent a shiver up Kiine's spine, a little smile taking root across her face. And she thought about how such a union would be made. Through peace treaties? Exchanges of men and sake, surely?

No, her father had decided to marry her off, instead. As a gesture of goodwill. And she thought he knew better.

After all, what was it he used to say, whenever people complained and asked why he allowed her to be in the room with them when he was doing business?

"Oh, come on, she's not hurtin' anyone. B'sides, she needs to learn how things are run around here," he'd say, with a warm, doting smile. "For when she's grown up."

She used to think that he meant that she'd be Boss one day, maybe. If she kept up the good work.

After all, what was it he used to say when she used to hug him and squeal that she was gonna be a Boss when she grew up, just like him?

"Whatever you want, Kiine," he said.

Now she knew that he meant.

"When she's grown up." That just meant "when she's married and supporting her own husband in the business."

"Whatever you want." In hindsight, his old, familiar comfort seemed like a vague dismissal.

Was that really the only reason he'd allowed all of that? Any of that? Because he didn't take her seriously?

It wasn't like Kiine had ever expected to become Boss of her family someday. She never, ever expected it. Families like hers, like the Hakaza, like the Saigoro and Hanamachi and every other clan were made up of men linked not by blood but by brotherhood, and merit. It was rare that the title of Boss was passed down from father to son, much less father to daughter.

Though, her grandfather had been the previous Boss, that was true. But he had named her father his successor, a red-haired, unaffiliated youth, full of ambition and new ideas. The fact that he had married Kiine's mother, a Boss's daughter, had absolutely nothing to do with it. Children of Bosses were very, very seldom made Boss themselves, and their spouses had even less of a chance. They lived comfortably and were cared for by the clan after their parents stepped down, but that was where it ended.

(Well, unless the previous Boss was an asshole, then they and their family would be tossed right out by the new Boss. But that didn't happen much.)

Kiine's father had been chosen for his skill alone. And her parents had married out of love. And it was real love, too. Kiine thought that was cool.

Along with that, there hadn't been much of a precedent for female Bosses, either. Though the ones that had been in place? Holy crap. Kiine's role model was Boss Kanna, who, over a hundred years ago, chased away some big shot ninja clan leader that was bothering her with nothing but her katana in one hand and a frying pan in her other.

"So a sword isn't a woman's weapon, huh?" she was said to have shouted after him. "You know what is a woman's weapon? Fans are for women! So don't try to come back and fight me with one until you grow a pair of tits, you fire-breathing little bitch!"

Boss Kanna was awesome.

So no, Kiine didn't expect to be named Boss someday, because of her blood, because of her sex. But that didn't deter her. That just meant that she had to work harder to reach her goal.

She was going to be effective, whip-smart, intimidating, worthy of respect and power. Just like her father.

No, better than her father.

Because she would never marry off her daughter to some clan for the sake of symbolism. It wasn't even about politics any more. There was nothing to even gain by them marrying. It wasn't like they were truly "heirs" to their respective clans. It was a useless gesture. It was symbolic.

It was unfair.

Kiine would never do that. She was too smart for that.

But if she was somebody's wife, she doubted she'd ever even have the slip of a chance she knew she had now. She'd be stuck, glued there, forever.

And there was nothing she could do.

And that was about where she broke down into sobbing tears, unable to come up with any more words.

All of this had been directed at Yuki, who sat on the floor of her bedroom and listened, patiently, as she paced and yelled and screamed and eventually sat down in exhaustion. He ran his cool hand over her back as her tears collected in her palms.

"It's okay, sir… It'll be okay…"

He stayed with her until she stopped crying, and once she was certain that her eyes weren't red any more, she sent him away so she could get ready for bed. She refused to have anyone help her.

She thought over the situation further while curled up under the futon.

Like hell she could go to her father and say she didn't want to do it. She could certainly try, but he'd probably just laugh at her, at best, and scold her, at worst, depending on his mood. Going to Hakaza Shin wouldn't be much better, she supposed, either. She was sure he was as stubborn as her father - from what she knew about him, he definitely was, despite his relaxed and elegant way of speaking. And hadn't he come up with this plan with her father?

And putting her head down and just letting this happen to her was surrender. She couldn't do it.

She tried to tell herself that maybe it wouldn't be so bad. That maybe, even with this happening, she still had a chance of being a Boss.

She couldn't kid herself. Her dream was dead.

She was stuck. But she had to do something.

Might as well do something drastic.

Her only option was to run.

"But why would you want to do that, sir?" Yuki said, when she told him her intentions. They were in her room and he was brushing her hair, the day already over, her mood significantly calmer. She'd been ranting at him for a good hour or two already.

Yuki loved her hair, falling over her back in a curtain of red that went to her waist, so she let him take care of it, most of the time. She herself could really not care less about it, though. At least someone liked it.

"You already said yourself that it probably wouldn't be so bad if you went along with it," he continued. "And I'm sure that Kou-san isn't all that bad a person."

"No, see, Yuki, it's the principle of the thing, yeah?" Kiine explained. She looked at him sitting behind her in the mirror. "I mean, I'm sure he's a totally nice guy. As nice as guys can be with dads like his and mine, anyway…" Which meant that he was a garden-variety smug asshole, at best. She frowned.

"Don't say things like that, sir. I think that you are certainly very nice," Yuki told her.

She only barely smiled back. "I just can't help but feel that I'm nothing more than a bargaining chip or something in this whole deal, yeah?" she continued. "I mean, seriously, I think the Hakaza clan is great. Papa gets along with their head like freakin' nothing else. I want our clans to be united. So how come they gotta do this? I'm sure there's other ways, yeah?"

"I… don't know, sir," Yuki said. He pulled the brush down her hair again.

"So that's why I gotta run away," Kiine said, seeing nothing else to say. "I gotta escape from this stupid stuff before it's too late, yeah? Since I'm totally screwed over already."

"Well, I suppose that's a fair enough reason, sir," Yuki said. "But…"

She looked over her shoulder at him. "But what?"

He put the brush down. "But where will you go?" he said. "And, more importantly, how are you going to live and not expect to be caught, sir? This isn't like one of our usual… adventures. Running away is very long-term…"

And Kiine thought about that for a while.

"Yeah? And so's marriage," she said. "I'll figure it out." Her father had told her that she wasn't going to meet Kou for a while yet, and that the actual marriage wouldn't be for at least a year, if not longer. But just because it was so far away didn't mean that it wasn't going to happen eventually.

And she thought about it for a good long while. Days went by.

It was only after hearing her father commiserating with the owner of a Curiosity Shop whose shipping lines were plagued by ninja interference that she got an idea.

Ninjas. Of course.

The closest ninja village in the Land of Silk was Kuwabaragakure, the Village Hidden in the Mulberry Field. But that was too close-by, and besides, the city if you could even call it a city - was too small, and her father knew the guys in charge there well enough (and they feared him enough to listen to him and generally do what he said) that she wouldn't stand a chance if she went and ran away there.

The better option was, of course, Konohagakure. It was a bit out of the way, and an enormous city, at that. The largest in the Land of Fire. Kuwabara was nothing in comparison to its size.

They'd never find her there.

And there was just something supremely exciting about the prospect of maybe becoming a ninja in the process, or at least learning a few new tricks.

Kiine was already a pretty fantastic fighter. She had Yuki to thank for that.

Technically, she wasn't supposed to know how to fight. She was expected to know how to defend herself, yes, but largely with words, instead of fists.

And, technically, Kiine was amazing at that, too. She could bargain and barter and intimidate as well as any other hoodlum, and have the strength to back it up. She knew this. She snuck out of the house with Yuki on weeknights to practice in the nearby village, which of course boasted a Curiosity Shop and a number of other, smaller, dirtier establishments.

She began this practice when she was maybe nine or ten years old, making a point at getting in good with the local child gangs and delinquents - where her father and Nobuhiro both had gotten their starts - and taking even greater care to mask her connection to her family.

"I don't want no suck-ups," she told Yuki. "If someone's gonna respect me, it's gonna be for me, yeah?"

She and Yuki came to be known as Big Red and Little Blue, in time, and cleaner folks began to grow wary around tomboys with red hair and freckles on the backs of their necks, especially if they had dark-haired prettyboys with them.

(That was how she had gotten the scar on her left shoulder, when she got into a fight with a gang leader at least twice her age. Like her victory, she wore it like a badge of honor.)

(Her father never took permanent action for any of this once he caught word, however. "Let her have her fun, playing gangster," he would say, chuckling. "She's got Yuki-kun to protect her, anyways.")

(Her mother, meanwhile, was the one who quietly left pots of healing ointment and fresh bandages just inside the door of Kiine's bedroom, winking at her at breakfast.)

The only reason she even knew what the heck about fighting was because, when Yuki began his training, when he began that process of becoming a true Inaba bodyguard, she had insisted that he teach her everything he learned after the fact, clearing the space in her bedroom every evening after dinner so they could spar.

"I mean, what if we're separated and you're not there to protect me, yeah?" she explained. "I gotta be able to defend myself."

How could Yuki argue with that?

Besides, he was very new to the whole being-a-bodyguard thing at the time. There were still a lot of things he was trying to get right. He had a bad habit of misinterpretation, of being observant in all the wrong areas.

Like, when he was a child, still discovering etiquette through observation, he learned quickly by watching his brother to call everyone either Sir or Master. So when he met with Kiine for dinner that evening, after learning this, when he was four and she was six, he told her he was "Very pleased to see you, Master Kiine, sir."

Everyone laughed at him, but Kiine laughed the hardest.

(Yuki always thought it was so strange, the way she laughed. She didn't cover her mouth, like other girls did. That was the second thing he had noticed about her, after her hair. But it was the first thing he had really liked.)

She told his brother - he was only twenty-four, at the time - that it was okay, that Yuki shouldn't be corrected, and the names stuck. They were really best friends ever since. Nobody was surprised at all when, a year later, her father suggested to Nobuhiro that Yuki become her personal bodyguard. He was going to become a bodyguard anyways, given who his brother was, but his closeness with Kiine would be a true advantage to him.

Yuki also needed someone to practice with. So he taught her.

Even at the age of seven, Kiine was very persuasive when she wanted to be. And she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up.

Oh did the servants ever throw a fit the first time they found Kiine wrestling with Yuki on the floor, her hands on his shoulders, hair falling in his face.

"I started it," Yuki explained, after she got off of him. "I think I learned my lesson. Ow."

They were much sneakier from there on out, Kiine remaining always one step behind him in skill. At least, with fighting. Because no matter how much she tried, however long she practiced, Kiine could never, ever match or even come close to his skill with a blade.

But she could punch like a bulldog when he couldn't, so it all evened out in the end, really.

So, yes, Kiine could fight. And so could ninjas. And ninjas, Kiine knew, were badass. Really great fighters. Really.

…that was about all she knew about ninjas, really.

That, and the fact that her father hated them. Hated them. And Nobuhiro, too. Everything else that Kiine knew about ninjas, especially ninjas from Konoha, came from their rants.

Like the fact that they were so damn obsessed with bloodlines and clans. Ninja clans were all about that blood purity stuff, knowing whose son was whose, passing down power to only their children. At least, that's what she had heard from her father, and Nobuhiro, and all the rest.

Really, she wondered what the big deal was most of the time, both with the hatred and the bloodline thing. An opinion they had (and one that Kiine shared, in a way) was that it didn't matter who was descended from whom, so long as the family was kept together. Hell, there was a reason why the Taki clan had survived for as long as it had, for generations and generations, with maybe only a handful of Bosses related by blood in between. That was because they picked the strongest guys to lead them. That was how they had stayed together.

Kiine couldn't think for too much longer on the matter, it was just getting her mad.

She didn't need to know much about ninjas, anyways. She'd learn. Cultural immersion, wasn't it? Yeah.

And besides, she felt almost a sick satisfaction, imagining running away to a ninja village, especially one her father hated so much, to live among the blood-obsessed freaks without any sense of honor.

There was only really one other thing that she knew about ninjas: Only the guys were got to do the cool stuff. All of the ninja she'd ever heard of that were worth anything, the guys that made the news and the history books, were men. All of the ninja that her father dealt with from Kuwabara were male, too.

And, well, Kiine needed a disguise, didn't she? She was used to sneaking out and hiding her hair underneath a hat - for practical reasons; beyond being a disguise, long hair was a serious weakness in a fight - but this plan would require something a little more… permanent.

Yuki looked like he was going to burst into tears, when she told him about all of this. "But sir," he pleaded. "You don't have to do that, honestly."

"Hey, it'll help, yeah?" Kiine said. She ran her fingers through a section of hair, lazily, wondering how it'd feel to cut it all off. "Even if they did track me all the way to Konoha, they wouldn't be looking for a boy. They'd be looking for a girl."

Yuki paused, thinking, pursing his lips. "…even if you did cut off all of your hair, do you think you'd be able to live as a boy for very long?"

"Pff. Are you kidding? I'm more of a boy than you are, Yuki," Kiine said.

Yuki's face turned bright red. He didn't say anything.

"Besides, it's not like I have any boobs I need to hide, yeah?" she added, patting her meager bust with spicy laugh. "I think it'll be easy. I mean, I know how guys work yeah?"

"If you say so, sir," Yuki said.

(He'd silently agreed to help her the moment he knew she was really going to go through with this whole business of running away, and she knew it.)

They started working on a plan.

They decided early on for Kiine to go alone, even though Yuki felt uneasy about not being there to protect her and make sure that things went along smoothly. He was her bodyguard, after all, even if she didn't really need his physical protection.

"Look, if I just leave and you cover for me, I have a better chance," she said. "If both you and me go, things are gonna look suspicious. They won't think I'm really running away if you're with me. They won't take it seriously. Besides, you gotta cover for me, Yuki. It's your job, yeah?"

Yes, it was his job.

They developed a cover story, created a name, an identity for her. "I'll say I got a brother named Hiroyuki. C'mon, it's sorta true," she added, writing it down in a notebook in katakana one afternoon. "Nobuhiro, Yuki, Hiroyuki. Both of you guys. You're like brothers to me, yeah? It'll be easier to remember if anyone asks."

And Yuki had already gotten very flustered over her choice of an alias.

"Like I said, it's easy to remember. I gotta get used to it, yeah?" she added. She smiled. "You're easy to remember, Yuki."

He didn't have anything to say to that.

Her mood improved the more they worked. No doubt her father thought it was because she was warming up to the idea of the marriage.

Hell no.

On the night that Kiine was to leave, route planned, fake letter written, food and clothing and money packed in a rucksack stolen from a storage room, Yuki took out the knife he always kept on his person, concealed in his sleeve, and cut off all of that beautiful red hair he loved so much.

"Man. That looks good," Kiine said, looking in the mirror and shaking her head, feeling the newfound lightness around her ears. "Real manly."

Yuki just held the red bunches of hair in his hands, his face slightly sad. He hid them under a tatami mat, later, so he could get rid of them when nobody was around.

They had already set the plan into motion, as he had left dinner early that night, saying he felt drowsy. He waited in his room until 1 AM, and then went to go get Kiine ready.

They both knew about the hidden exits in the garden of the family's mansion, they knew where the guards were posted and where their patrols led, and they both knew how to move without being heard. It came with practice, which both of them had had plenty of.

She gave him a hug, when she said goodbye. His forehead against her cheek felt cold, like his skin always did, even in the evening heat. She paused when she noticed that he was shaking a little. "Hey, hey, it's not like we're never gonna see each other again, yeah?" she said. "Yuki, don't cry… I'll be back, I promise. After all of this dies down."

The plan was for her to be gone long enough for negotiations with the Hakaza clan to break down, at least enough for the marriage to be called off. If she could avoid capture for at least a year, she figured she'd be okay. And then she'd come back, rocking some new ninja moves, and she'd be back on the road to becoming Boss. After getting back in her father's good graces, but she supposed that she would figure that out when the time came.

That was the hope.

Both of them tried not to believe that they would never see each other again.

Worst case scenario, they'd find her out, and she'd spend the rest of her life on the run.

Second-worst case scenario, she'd never be caught, but she'd never be able to return, not knowing if the marriage had been called off yet. Or if she'd been disowned.

(But Yuki was used to sacrificing his happiness for Kiine's sake. That was what she wanted, and he knew she'd never be happy again if she didn't do this, if she didn't take this chance. He had hope, and so did she.)

He hugged her back. "Good luck, sir."

And then she was gone.

The plan was, when he woke up in the morning, late, for him to conclude with panicked breaths that she must have drugged his tea at dinner, so that he wouldn't interfere when she slipped out in the middle of the night. His room was, after all, right next to hers. He'd have heard if she had gotten up, normally.

Kiine had no idea if the plan would work, but she trusted him to get the job done.

(They believed him, even though, that day, only his tears and his worry were real.)

She reached Konoha on the fourth day of travel. It hadn't been a terribly difficult journey. In fact, it was actually pretty fun; camping out, cooking over a fire. She had enough money for a few months in a city, on her own, so she didn't waste it by eating out in the villages on the way there. She knew she had to make it last.

Konoha was a lot bigger than she had thought it would be. And its ninjas were even less like she had expected.

Especially the Hokage.

Even now, kneeling and miserably thinking all of it over, Kiine couldn't quite believe that any of the things that she'd experienced in Konoha had actually, really happened. Accepting her so easily as Hanamura Yukio, and through chance and circumstance becoming the personal guest, the friend - could she still really call herself a friend of his? - of the Hokage. The Hokage! That was the closest thing to a Boss that ninjas had. Heck, they were even chosen like Bosses were chosen, appointed on skill, and not decided by blood.

Which just made Kiine wonder more about why her father ranted and complained so much about the way that ninjas went about things. Where was that blood-obsession she had heard so much about? Where was that heartless cruelty?

Naruto, the freakin' Hokage, was probably the least ninja-ish ninja Kiine had ever met, if she went by what she'd grown up hearing. And she had been introduced to a lot of ninja during her stay. He was just… so friendly, so funny. She felt comfortable around him, not fearful. She couldn't imagine him killing anyone, much less fighting anyone. He was just too nice.

And, well, Kiine's father was nice enough, in private. He was a very loving man. Even now, angry as she was at him, she couldn't bring herself to hate him. He stupid, he was misguided, and he was making a huge mistake by trying to marry her off, but he was her father, and she still loved him.

But Kiine was still very, very aware of what her father did for his work.

(And Kiine's hands weren't necessarily very clean, either.)

But Naruto? He was like that all the time, that smiley goof, both in the office where he did his work, and at home. He was the Hokage, a ninja Boss. How did that even figure out? He didn't even ask her to pay him back for the innumerable times he took her out to dinner, either in money or favors. That's what her father would have done. If he were leading her family's clan, Naruto wouldn't have lasted for a moment.

Somehow, though? He was running a village. A ninja village, and a rather large one, at that. And had been doing so for ten years, and still held in high esteem by the many, many people who lived there. Weren't ninja supposed to be, she didn't know… even more intimidating, to stay in charge for so long?

The disconnect was even more intense, given that the most ninja-like ninja that Kiine had met was probably Benio-sensei, and that was only because she kicked ridiculous amounts of ass and commanded a lot of respect, even though she wasn't even that mean. And she was a woman! This absolutely amazed Kiine. But weren't the only good ninjas guy ninjas? She had asked Benio-sensei this, after a few lessons, and Benio had just laughed at her.

"No, of course not," she replied. "What gave you that impression? Gender has nothing to do with being a good ninja, Yukio-kun."

Kiine couldn't really find an answer. And, after a while, she just started accepting things, because she was just being proven wrong in every other sense.

Benio, she had found, was ridiculously and strangely supportive of her role as a boy, telling her how strong she was and such. Which was strange and, at the same time, kind of comforting, though it did sort of make her wonder why she was that way in the first place.

Why in the world did her father and Nobuhiro hate ninjas so much? The ones she had met were nice guys, for the most part.

Man, especially Naruto. And he was the Hokage.

…she really missed him.

And goodness, did she ever feel bad for him for… getting him involved with her family like that. He didn't deserve that. He had been nothing but good to her.

And there'd probably be nothing but trouble for him, and Benio-sensei, and just everyone else in Konoha from there on out. Her father would probably just… harass them and everything, since he was a Konoha-nin and he hated Konoha-nin and… and…

Damn it, why did she have to get caught?

It was… it was Yuki's fault. Undeniably. He was the only one that knew where she had gone, the one who was supposed to cover for her.

She didn't feel like talking to him. At all.

She knew it was his fault. What difference did it make, what he had to say to her? He'd just apologize to her, anyways, and… and…

Kiine told herself not to cry. She couldn't cry. She had kept herself from crying for this long, and she could hold it in there, too. She had a lot to explain to her father, she couldn't get upset now and ruin her composure. If she wanted him to take her seriously, she couldn't be upset.

She had kept herself composed when they'd caught her at the gates and held her in that little guard station, even though she was absolutely furious at herself. She thought she'd have been able to run, she had to run - what else was she supposed to do when she saw that note on the fridge in the morning? "Meeting with Taki," with the exact same kanji of her family's name? So she hadn't been seeing things and she just had to leave Konoha.

She'd have been able to explain to Naruto, she was certain. Somehow. He'd believe her, he was just so nice, and…

But Honda had been there. She knew him, an underling of Nobuhiro's with a hot temper and a hell of a left hook. He had recognized her immediately - red hair, freckles on the back of her neck, but no dark-haired Yuki at her side this time - but she thought that maybe she'd be able to keep him from saying anything, that Naruto would take her away before he could do anything, and…

But then Nobuhiro showed up and, well.

That happened.

The journey home took four days, and on the fourth day she was pulled into her mother's vast silk arms and kept there for a very, very long time.

And now she was here.

Shoved back into her daughter's role, spikes of guilt and worry and regret and anger forced into her heart, she sat in front of her father's meeting room and let her breath hiss out from between her teeth.

She had a lot of explaining to do.

But she would not tell her father hardly any of this.

Chapter Text

The most common variations in the stories about the Woman of the Woods involve a young girl participating in the chuunin exams being killed or left to die by her teammates during the second part of the exams, in the "Forest of Death." The girl's ghost now haunts the training grounds, punishing those who forsake their teammates by sealing them into trees, and, in more benevolent interpretations, rewarding those who stay united and help one another by parting the forest and making their journey easier.

The Woman herself is usually described as having long, dark hair, frequently appearing by descending from the treetops, or making her presence known by manipulating the branches of trees around her, and sometimes in controlling the surrounding wildlife, as well. More modern variations describe the Woman as a less human-looking creature, smaller in size, with large eyes.

The most well-known versions of the story most likely began as propaganda pieces, to encourage teamwork in the chuunin exams through scare tactics and word of mouth. The earliest recorded tales, however, seem to have sprung up in reaction to the sudden regrowth of the Forest in the wake of the Day of Pain, now known to be the result of chakra-enriched soil, attributed to the First Hokage and his Wood Release.

- Excerpt from the chapter "Konohagakure" from the book Understanding Urban Legends, written by Kuchisake Sadako


ACT 3

FOREST


Chapter 15 - First Steps


The chuunin exams began on a Friday.

It was a cloudy day, sort of miserable-ish. But nothing could dampen the excitement.

Inou's consent form sat on his desk, already-signed by him, his father, his mother. It had been sitting there, staring at him, for hours, as he tried to fall asleep the night before.

He was feeling much better. He was feeling almost confident.

His father had even almost smiled - that was a smile, wasn't it? - when he had said that he was going to go to bed early, so he'd be at his best for the exams.

"Do whatever you need," his father had said, before turning his back on Inou.

When he woke up, there was also a bouquet of flowers on the desk. Small, understated; more of a gathering than a bouquet, really. There were daphne flowers in it.

He knew what they meant, and he ignored them, getting dressed and pulling his necklace over his collar and brushing his hair.

He felt good.

Everyone was at the table for breakfast. Even Hajime. Even Nadeshiko.

"Good day for a chuunin exam, isn't it?" his father said, after putting down his bowl of miso soup. "Hope everyone is well rested and ready to go."

Yes, their father was almost smiling, that morning.

Sasuke had to leave early, a requirement from the academy. Inou and Karai left around 2 to meet with their teams.

"Good luck you two!" their mother had called, from the doorway. "I'll be rooting you on!"

"Good luck," their oldest brother, Hajime, said. He looked tired, and uneasy, but he managed a smile.

"Don't die," Takeru said, smiling, smugly, as usual. "Oh yeah, and good luck, I guess," he added, after a dirty look from their mother.

Nadeshiko didn't say anything, only waving at them from the doorway with the rest, a gentle smile on her face, as if a word from out of her mouth would curse them with identical failure.

(She had left an arrangement of flowers on Karai's desk, too. It was the same as Inou's, but with a spray of foxglove instead of daphne flowers.)

Karai gave Inou a hug when she saw her two classmates, Sanji and Usui, in the distance, down the street they had promised to meet at. "Good luck, Inou."

"Yeah. Same," Inou managed. He didn't hug her back.

He went to go find Shikake and Chouko.

"So what's our plan for the written part, huh?" Shikake said. She was sitting, cross-legged, against a tree, hands behind her neck. "Since we got the Forest of Death pretty much covered from last year."

"Well, they change the rules almost every year…" Chouko said. She put her finger on her uppermost chin; she'd painted her nails a deep red. "But it's the same basic principle - information-gathering."

"I think I can handle this," Inou said. The two of them looked at him - Chouko slightly worried, Shikake clearly skeptical. "No, seriously. I can do a thought-scan, see where the plant is, and get all the answers from them if I don't know them already. Then I'll possess you two and write down the correct answers on your papers."

"You think you'd be able to do that without getting caught?" Chouko said.

Inou smiled. "Are you kidding? Of course I can. I've been working on this."

He'd been planning for ages.

"Well, you can do that if you want. I got somethin' of my own that I'm gonna use for gathering info," Shikake said.

"Oh? And what's that?" Chouko said.

Shikake smiled. A smile that clearly said, "Nice try, but here's where it's really at." Inou's stomach sank lower and lower. It reminded him of Takeru.

She produced a little device from out of that short-sleeved jacket of hers, a little mirror, with loops and knobs on the corners. "Oldie but a goodie. I can install this on the ceiling before the test and remotely manipulate it with chakra threads to get a look at just about anyone in the surrounding area. I can manipulate it so you guys can see - install multiple ones, if you can't. Won't take much effort."

…that was it? Inou frowned, almost glaring at her.

"That's… nice, Shikake-chan. But I think we're better off sticking with Inou-kun's plan," Chouko said, winking at Inou. "Sound good?"

"Whatever," Shikake said. She put the mirror away, and Inou's stomach finally returned to its proper place, his nerves realigning.

It sounded great.

And it worked perfectly.


Go'on was still shaking when the woman in the grey uniform with the pigtails in her hair - Moegi, that was her name, Examiner Moegi = smiled, dryly, and told them that they had passed the first test. Really, it had been an effort to even keep the letters in his answers on the sheet coherent. The grip on his pencil was very firm.

He'd balked at the questions, at first. And then, when it became apparent that he was supposed to cheat? He became even more nervous.

Go'on didn't like cheating people. He didn't like it, but sometimes he had to. He was better at keeping secrets than stealing them, though.

Luckily, he had Kyou and Sunao on his team, and he was so relieved by this fact. Kyou was intimidating in his enthusiasm but it was only because wanted to help, always because he wanted to help. And Sunao was so much more understated, so patient. They helped him so much, in so many ways.

Go'on didn't feel like he gave back to them nearly as much, but none of them made a big deal about it, and neither did Sasuke-sensei, so he left it alone.

Sunao got Go'on's attention about midway through the test by tapping her pencil twice, heavily but quickly, like how you'd say his name. Go-On. And once she knew that she had gotten his attention, she compared her answers with him like the way one played a game of charades. Tap, pause; tap, pause; tap-tap-tap, pause. First question; first word; three syllables.

Kyou, listening nearby, caught on quickly enough, because he was tapping along with them about halfway through.

They were never caught. And by the end of the test, Go'on had his paper filled with what most of them felt was correct information.

Oh, it was over now? Thank goodness.

There was a new woman at the front of the examination room, now, with bright red lipstick and short, wavy hair. She had a nose you could cut paper with. "I'm Yuuhi Benio, Second Chief Examining Officer," she said. "You're all coming with me for the next part of the test, so let's get going, okay?"

Go'on took a deep breath in, and out. He stood up, and went to go be with his teammates.

"Thanks for your help, Sunao-chan…" he said softly, as he followed her and the rest of the passing students out of the examination room. "That was really clever, what you came up with."

"Really, you think so?" she said. Her oval-shaped face was low with thought. "I suppose it was clever, since it worked. But it was so simple, I was afraid we'd get caught…"

"But we weren't…" said Go'on.

Sunao laughed. "No, I guess we weren't! And besides, I guess we were a lot more subtle than some other people. Did you notice? The girl beside me was using a mirror on the ceiling to look at other peoples' tests."

"Really, huh?" said Go'on.

"Yes. Seemed so convoluted…" she said. "I wonder how she got it up there?"

"Well, I think what you came up with was wonderful, Sunao-chan! Great work!" said Kyou. He had his fists balled up in front of his chest. His forehead protector was tied on properly, for once. "All of us did great work, I think! We won as a team. That was the whole point, wasn't it?"

"Yeah…" Go'on said. "I guess it… was, really."

All that talk about team points totals and penalties seemed like a distant memory, now. They got outside, and a wave of fresh energy came over him. He always felt better outdoors, rather than indoors.

Kyou kept talking, almost the entire way. And a few people glanced and glared at him, which prompted Sunao to tell him to tone it down once or twice.

"Where are we going?" one kid asked, eventually. A younger kid. A few of the older participants scoffed and smirked and laughed. Examiner Benio simply smiled.

"You'll see," she said.

Go'on almost didn't want to see. His nerves were already all kinds of shot from the written test, and what he'd had to do. He wondered if he was even doing the right thing.

But Sasuke-sensei had said that he felt they were ready for the chuunin exams. "I believe in your abilities. You are all very talented," he had told them.

Sasuke-sensei, while terrifying, while strict, was almost never wrong. And he was an incredible teacher.

(Go'on had almost forgotten his mother's stories about him, even. He had been a monster, yes. Once. But not any more.)

So Go'on went along with it. He talked to his mother about it the month before, and had gotten her signature on the consent form. And she'd just smiled when he told her he felt nervous, and unsure about his sensei's judgment.

"You'll do just fine, Go'on. I know you will," she had told him. "You should trust your sensei. I know you can do it, at any rate."

He trusted his mother more than he trusted Sasuke-sensei, most of the time. To hear support from both of them meant an almost one-hundred-percent approval rating, in his eyes.

But he still had doubts. Then again, Go'on always had doubts. Sasuke-sensei was working on getting rid of them.

(Nobody had ever told Go'on that he was really talented, before. Above-average, yes. Special, yes. But never talented.)

His thoughts returned to the prospect of the second test. It had to be worse than the first. It wasn't wrong to get worried.

He was sure he'd get by fine, with the help of Kyou and Sunao. And he'd pitch in where he could, where he could help. Oh, but what kind of test would they make him do? He squirmed and fidgeted and shivered. He shoved his hands in his pockets to try and keep still.

"Here we are," Examiner Benio finally said.

Go'on wondered, for a moment, if there had been some kind of mistake.

And then he remembered. In his nervousness, he must have forgotten.

"This is the site of the second exam. Training Ground Number Forty-Four. A.K.A., the Forest of Death." Examiner Benio's voice was laced with playful, harmless malevolence. "It's a survival exercise. And I guarantee, right here and now, that fewer than half of you are going to pass his round."

Pangs of worry shot through the crowd, and Benio began to explain the rules, the business with scrolls and five-day time limits.

"Whoa, they're actually sending us here? To the Forest of Death?" Kyou said to Sunao, eyes wide, as the explanation continued. He grabbed her shoulder to try and get her attention. "Oh man, Sunao-chan, y'think we'll actually get to meet the Woman of the Woods?"

"Hey, hey, what was that you said back there?" Examiner Benio said. Kyou glanced around shyly as a crowd full of eyes all turned to stare at him. Benio shook her head, sighing, smiling. "It is my official duty as Examiner to inform you that we've conducted thorough examinations of the area, and concluded that no Woman has ever been found in there, and that none of you are gonna be turned into trees." Her words were flat, obviously rehearsed. "So rest easy! You've got more to worry about in there than some sorta ghost. Like bears. And giant tigers." She paused. "Oh, and heat-seeking giant forest leeches. Those guys are the worst."

"H-heat seeking giant forest leeches…?" Kyou said. His forehead protector slipped over his pale eyebrows, as the crowd lost interest in him, tittering as they worried over the leeches as well. "I've never read about those…"

"They're really nothing to worry about. You can usually avoid their nests by just listening closely. They make pretty identifiable squishy noises. But… if they get on you, just tickle them in the middle of their backs. They pop right off…"

Go'on was smiling.

Kyou and Sunao stared at him.

"So… you've dealt with them before, Go'on-kun?" Kyou said.

"I… I, um… Well, sorta. I know a lot about… bugs and stuff, I guess…" Go'on replied. He scratched the back of his neck, losing the confidence of only moments before. "I dunno…"

"Three consent forms for one scroll, so all of you'd better sign up if you don't wanna fail!" Benio called out. Papers were being handed from student to student.

"Well, you are pretty outdoorsy," Sunao said, smiling warmly. She took three consent forms and handed one other each to her teammates. "Maybe you should lead our team for this round, Go'on? Since I guess I took charge last time…"

"Yeah, that sounds like a great idea! I mean, I don't know anything about giant leeches n' stuff…" Kyou adjusted his headband again, and took a pencil that was handed to him to sign the paper against his knee. "I think it would be best for the team!"

"Well, if you guys think so… then, okay!" Go'on said. He managed to smile again. His mouth wasn't shaking. "I mean, usually you guys are the ones helping me out, but here…"

"You can help us right back!" Sunao said.

"Yeah! Let's all try our best," Kyou added. "As a team, you know?"

Together, the three of them went to turn in their consent forms, and were given a scroll with the kanji for Earth written on it. They were then escorted to a chained-up gate.

"Now… I know you're the leader, Go'on-kun, but might I make a suggestion?" Sunao said, as they were waiting.

"Go ahead," Go'on replied.

"Well, we have five days to get a Heaven scroll and meet at the tower in the center of the Forest. I think we should start off slowly, and get our bearings first," she said, thoughtfully. She was holding her elbow with one hand, cradling the side of her face with another. "I mean, we don't wanna burn ourselves out, you know?"

Go'on actually laughed.

Kyou and Sunao stared at him. Go'on never laughed. At least, not like that.

"Don't worry about the time limit. We're… going to be fine. I think…" Go'on said. "All you guys need to do is keep up with me. We'll… be done before the end of the day."

The sureness felt almost foreign to his teammates, as he smiled and looked at the gate, anticipating when they'd be released.

"Is it just me," Kyou whispered to Sunao, hand to her ear, "or does Go'on-kun seem really excited about this?"

Sunao just shrugged.

Well, Go'on did like trees a whole lot. And whenever she managed to get small talk out of him - which was about as easy as getting conversation out of a shy toddler - it was always over nature-ey things. Plants and animals and bugs and stuff. Those were just the things that Go'on cared about.

So, scary and strange and intimidating as it all was (even to her), this was his element. Naturally, he'd feel more comfortable here than her or Kyou.

A signal went out, and the gates were unlocked. Simultaneously, twenty-three ninja teams were sent out into the forest.

"Follow me," Go'on commanded. And he leaped up and into the trees, and he ran.

He was in his native element, here. The Forest was like a home to him.

Chapter Text

Chapter 16 - Second Opinions


When Sasuke entered the teacher's lounge to wait for his genin to finish with the written exam, everyone in the room looked up to stare at him. He hadn't even come in particularly late. And there were others that came in after him, and everyone looked up to see them enter, too; but the way they looked at Sasuke made him feel… unwelcome. Like he was an uninvited guest, a party-crasher.

He couldn't help but feel out of place, but he ignored it, and went to go sit by himself in the corner, on a couch. Nobody asked to join him.

What, he had every right to be there. He was a teacher, after all. Why were they staring? Fear? He wasn't even making eye contact with any of them.

Either way, it wasn't worth thinking about.

(Especially not the fact that this wasn't his first time here.)

(But he wasn't thinking about that.)

So began the waiting. It was interesting, really, seeing things from this perspective. Normally he'd be at home or on a mission when these things were going on, and he'd receive the news after the fact. But here, he'd be getting it all immediately.

Which was rather nice, all things considered, since he doubted there were any other teaching jounin with three separate parties in the exams to worry about.

The room was largely silent for the hour allotted for the written exam, except for the occasional proctor stepping in and announcing teams that had just been disqualified. The teachers of the offending teams would then leave, shortly thereafter.

It almost felt like they were getting tested, Sasuke mused, as he sat against the back of a sofa and sighed. Yes, it really was like a test on them. A test of how well they had taught their students. If they didn't fail, it meant that they hadn't failed as teachers, really, either.

Sasuke waited for the names of his genin to be called, but they never were. Hooray.

(He was proud of them.)

His children passed, as well.

(As was expected of them.)

After all that was said and done, like students on a field trip, the passing teachers paraded down to a building near the border of the Forest of Death and proceeded to hang the hell out.

Cigarettes were passed around. Someone offered to go buy snacks and canned drinks, and there were takers. The stiff atmosphere all but disappeared.

It felt strange to Sasuke, unfamiliar. He made it to the building - apparently it had no real use beyond storing records, but the nearby proximity made it easy for the proctors to contact the teachers about developments in the Forest - by just following along and pretending that he knew what was going on. Doubtless he wasn't alone there.

He took the time to people-watch, from the back of the room, by the window. Get an idea of what his students, his children were up against. At least, against the people he recognized. And Sasuke knew a lot of people.

He already recognized Shitsume Ishi, Inou's teacher, the man with the uncertain features. He was leaning against a wall, shoulders hunched, black eyes to the ceiling. Sasuke gave him only a passing glance, before letting him disappear into the crowd.

Mist-nin, Sand-nin, Sand-nin, Cloud-nin, Leaf-nin - oh, that was Inuzuka Mimi, Kiba's niece, wasn't it - Cloud-nin…

Sasuke frowned. He hardly recognized anyone in the room. Many of them were from foreign countries. They all tended to gather around each other, talking to only each other. Though the Cloud-nin (and, of course, the Leaf-nin) seemed friendlier in comparison, the occasional lone agent socializing with other groups freely. And all of them looked so young, barely any of them over 30, by his estimation.

He looked out the window, ignoring that persistent feeling that he was very, very out of place.

What. He had every right to be there.

"Uchiha Sasuke?"

He glanced sideways, and a young man with eyes like gold coins stood there, hands in his pockets. Straw-colored hair fell over his shoulders. He looked vaguely familiar.

"Hm?" Sasuke said.

"Just thought I'd introduce myself. I'm your daughter's sensei, Akirame Masao." He nodded slightly, in place of a bow. "We've met a few times, but I don't think we've ever really talked."

"I know you," Sasuke said. He glanced at Masao, eyes passing over him, head to toe. He wore conservative clothing; blue pants, white shirt layered over blue beneath his flak jacket. His forehead protector was a bandanna. "You're one of Naruto's old students, aren't you?"

"That's right. I'm surprised you remember," Masao said.

"Tch. How could I forget?" Sasuke looked out the window, severely. "That teammate of yours, Murasaki, has given me more than her fair share of trouble through the years, I'll have you know. I caught her trespassing on my property again just a few nights ago, actually."

"Oh, Murasaki…" Masao sighed and his eyes rolled toward the ceiling, miserably. The way he said her name made it sound like he was physically in pain. "She doesn't mean you or anyone in your family any harm, Uchiha-san, you have to understand. She's just… not well."

("He doesn't act much like an Uchiha, that's what someone is saying…")

"I've been putting up with this for too long to be understanding, thank you," Sasuke said, glaring at Masao, Sharingan spinning.

"Apologies, apologies," Masao said, sighing again. He dropped his head, avoiding eye contact. "If I could make her leave you alone, I could."

"Hm. Either way," Sasuke said. Moving on. "So you're Karai's sensei, then?" Masao nodded. "I hope she hasn't been giving you too much trouble."

"Oh, not at all. She's really incredibly bright, an absolute pleasure to teach," Masao said. He smiled slightly. "It's hard to get her to really let loose, though."

"Let loose? Ah. Well, that's not surprising. Karai's not terribly motivated," Sasuke said. He looked out the window again.

"Not terribly…? Surely, you're kidding," said Masao, managing a laugh, though it died when he saw that Sasuke's expression hadn't changed. "No, no, she's a very hard worker, I think. What makes you say that she isn't motivated?"

"If she had any sort of motivation then she'd have become a genin much earlier, I think," said Sasuke. "Eleven isn't so bad an age, however. And she must be doing well enough, if you thought to nominate her for the chuunin exams so early, as well."

Masao was silent for a moment, pursing his lips as he thought. "Well, um. From what I've encountered, Uchiha-san, your daughter is very talented. She's just very reluctant to… show off? I guess that's how you could put it."

"Hm."

(Girls weren't meant to be show-offs at any rate, Sasuke felt. It wasn't much of a positive trait, besides.)

"Either way. She's very eager to please, very smart," Masao continued. "I think she'll go very far, if I can get her to open up a bit more. The chuunin exams will be a good experience for her, I think."

"Indeed, indeed," Sasuke said. "Becoming a chuunin might force her to show some initiative for once, I think."

"Becoming a chuunin? You mean you expect her to pass?" Masao said.

Sasuke looked at him. "And you don't?"

"Well, eventually. Maybe in another year or two, but certainly not this year."

Sasuke glared at him. "She will be a chuunin this year."

Masao did nothing but blink, slowly, for a few seconds. "Look, Uchiha-san… There's wishful thinking, and then there's being realistic," he said. He looked like he was halfway between a smile and a scowl, his face drawn into a tense line. "She's only eleven. I personally didn't become a chuunin until I was-"

"My son Takeru became a chuunin when he was eleven, Akirame. Don't tell me that I'm being unrealistic."

Sasuke's eyes were very, very cold.

(Nadeshiko didn't count.)

Masao squirmed, but he managed to compose himself. He frowned. "Uchiha-san, I'm just saying that you shouldn't be too disappointed in Karai-chan if she fails the first time around. I certainly hope for her success, but I don't think that a failure would be necessarily bad for her, either. Especially not in the chuunin exams. A failure is still a very good experience!"

"Akirame, in my house, a failure is a failure," Sasuke said, with something that might have been a smirk in a past life. "The purpose of the chuunin exam is to become a chuunin, after all. Not to 'have a good experience.' Isn't it?"

Inou's two previous failures had certainly not been "good experiences," in Sasuke's eyes. Everyone else had passed the first time around.

Masao didn't say anything, for a while. He eventually changed the subject. "So you have students of your own participating in the exams this year, I take it?" he asked Sasuke. "Since you're here now."

"Ah, yes. Kyou, Sunao, and Go'on. They've surprised me, this year," Sasuke said. He looked out the window again, his phantom smirk softened into a smile. "So I thought it might be good to test them in the exams this year, see how far they'd get."

Masao made a noise that might have been a laugh, but was more like a choke. "To see how far they'd get?"

Sasuke looked at him, as if annoyed to be interrupted in his looking out the window. "Of course. Might as well. If they can manage this year, then I'll be very pleasantly surprised. But I'm not expecting much."

"But you just said…" Masao looked lost.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "Just said what."

"You just said that you expected your daughter to pass this year. Karai-chan."

"…yes, and?"

"But you're also saying you put your students through the exams to see how far they'd get. Do you not expect them to pass?"

"Of course not." Sasuke waved his hand, as if batting the ridiculous notion away. "They're only twelve. They're quite exceptional, but I'm not sure if they're quite chuunin material yet. Go'on, especially, he's far too timid."

Masao's mouth hung slightly open. Then, he said, "So you expect your daughter to become a chuunin this year, but not your own students?"

"You have quite a way with words, Akirame," Sasuke said, "though it's not just my daughter. My son Inou has failed twice already. I don't see why he can't pass this year, either."

Masao's eyes almost trembled as he searched for a response. "How can you think that way?"

Sasuke's eyes were hard and certain. "Think what way."

"Well, Karai-chan is an excellent kunoichi, and I really think she's something special, compared to my other two students. But I highly doubt she's any more or less skilled than anyone on your team. So shouldn't you feel the same way for her as you feel for them?" Masao said. He sounded almost ill, almost angry. "Shouldn't it be okay to not expect her to pass?"

Sasuke's eyes filled with fire. "I expect my children to live up to their name as Uchihas, and that does not allow for failure, Akirame. Please understand," he added, in a poisonous echo.

("They know how disappointing he is to you, sometimes.")

Masao's gold-coin eyes dulled, and his eyebrows lowered. "I see," he said.

(And in that moment, he wondered how in the world his sensei could ever speak so highly of a man like Sasuke.)

(And in the moment afterward, he wondered why in the world Karai would want to hold her obvious talents back, with such a man as her own father.)

And in the moment after that that a door opened and a grey-uniformed proctor burst into the room, completely out of breath. "U-Uchiha Sasuke!"

Sasuke and Masao both turned to look at him, along with practically everyone else in the room. "Yes?" Sasuke said. "What is it?"

"It's your students! They've…!"

Sasuke stood away from the wall and approached the proctor, who was gulping down air with enormous gasps. He had light brown hair and he wore glasses attached to a chain, and they dangled from his neck, having fallen off his face as he held his knees. "What happened, did one of them get injured?"

"No! Quite the… opposite!" He swallowed, and looked up at Sasuke with an incredulous grin. "You're not going to believe this, but they're already at the tower!"

The room fell completely silent.

"…what," Sasuke said.

"It's incredible! They've completely shattered all of the previous speed records. And with both scrolls in hand, too!" the proctor continued. He finally stood up straight, and put his glasses back on. "Almost thirty-seven minutes flat. And barely a scratch on any of them!"

"…you're kidding," Sasuke said.

"Absolutely not, Uchiha-san. It's a new record. And nobody's been able to touch the previous record of ninety-seven minutes, and that was set almost thirty years ago!" Glancing at the handful of Sand jounin nearby, he added, "And that record was set by the current Kazekage, if you can believe it."

The room began to buzz.

"…so, what do you want me to do?" Sasuke said.

"Well, you can come with me to the tower, if you want," the proctor said. "It's up to you. You technically aren't required to come to the tower for another four days, but your students will be staying there until the testing period is up."

Sasuke thought about it, for a moment.

Almost thirty-seven minutes flat. Better than even Gaara.

"I'll go with you," Sasuke said. "Thank you for coming and getting me."

"It's no problem!" the proctor replied, and turned to exit, Sasuke following, in return.

The young Leaf-nin that had offered to buy snacks for everyone was very perplexed when she returned a few minutes later to find everyone loudly speculating and gossiping and did-you-hear-that and I-can't-believe-it and on and on and on.

Everyone, that is, except for Shitsume Ishi, who was only there on obligation. Who only waited, patiently, and worried.

And, now, Masao. Who had just gotten his first glimpse into a world usually reserved for a family of seven.

And for good reason.


"That was amazing, Go'on-kun, absolutely amazing!"

Kyou's compliments, so much like a waterfall, were torrential and evidently never-ceasing.

Go'on's face was flushed an even deeper reddish-brown. "Kyou-kun, stop it, I didn't do anything special…"

"Are you kidding? You took down a freakin' bear!"

"I did not. She - it didn't even wanna hurt us in the first place, okay?" He glanced at the floor, fingers folded into each other. "Stop making such a big deal about it…"

"It was a freakin' huge bear, Go'on-kun! SERIOUSLY!"

"Kyou-kun, stop it, you're embarrassing him," Sunao said, unable to really stifle her giggles.

It really had been a freakin' huge bear. But from the way Go'on had approached it she'd have thought that it was just an unusually hairy large-ish person having a bad-ish day. Or an old, big, familiar dog, that just had a tendency to bite people when provoked.

How in the heck did that even?

(And that didn't even cover the way in which Go'on guided them through the forest, past the nests of giant leeches, past the giant centipede dens, past everything that plagued nearly every other genin that had entered since the forest's creation. But Sunao was very much unaware of this.)

Really, was that part of the test supposed to be that easy? It was almost pleasant. The sky was still overcast but there was a strange sort of peace in the forest, in the distant rustle of leaves and the cry of poor unfortunates discovering that yes, there were indeed giant tigers within this woods. And bears, too. Oh my.

That was how they'd gotten their second scroll, really. They had come across a trio of Sand-nin cornered by said freakin' huge bear, scared out of their wits, as they had never seen a bear before in their lives, and had no idea what to do about it.

That was where Go'on came in. He told Kyou and Sunao to stand back, to stay in the tall branches of a tree, and provide backup if called-for.

Sunao told him he that was crazy, that they should just keep moving. They had only been in the forest for… ten, twenty minutes at least. She wasn't keeping count, but it hadn't been very long at all.

Go'on told her to trust him. He was the leader… wasn't he?

And he was. So they did.

Go'on didn't even try to fight the thing. He just… went up to it and climbed onto its back, his thin body stretching like a spider's, as he grabbed a hold of its fur and climbed upward. The bear swiped at the burden until Go'on reached its head and flung his arms around the back of it, as if he were hugging it.

That was where the bear began to completely ignore the Sand-nin and started to… roar? Growl? Whatever it was doing, it sounded happy, even trotting (trotting?) around the clearing a few times, Go'on hanging on for… no, that wasn't for dear life. He was just hanging on.

Even from high up in the trees, Kyou and Sunao could clearly see that Go'on was enjoying himself, too. Incredible as it seemed.

He dropped off of the bear's back and said something to the Sand-nin, who stammered something in reply. There was a terrified exchange, though most of the fear was on the Sand-nin's part, and eventually they held out something for Go'on to take. Go'on took it. And then the Sand-nin got out of there.

After the bear wandered off (it almost looked like Go'on was saying goodbye to it, from up there), Go'on called them down, waving his arms, grinning.

"She was just angry 'cos her den's nearby and she didn't want 'em near her babies," he explained, very matter-of-factly. "Though… well, they're almost grown, now, haha, so I think maybe she's overreacting…"

Kyou's eyes were practically popping out of his skull. "You can talk to bears?" he said.

Go'on's mouth snapped shut, his big eyes growing even wider. "No! I can't talk to bears! People can't talk to animals…" He chewed on his bottom lip. "I saw her den nearby, from the trees. And bear cubs are usually almost adolescents by this time of year, so… that's what just I guessed was going on…" He rubbed the back of his head. "S'what I… told those Sand ninja, anyways…"

"What was that they gave you, after you talked to them?" Sunao asked.

Go'on smiled a little, and held it out. "Well, they had a Heaven scroll. Said we could have it, if we wanted it. Said they'd get their own pair of scrolls later. …I mean, there's still five days left, but, well…"

(And, really, what else can you do when a kid's standing across from you with a HUGE FREAKIN' BEAR standing beside him like some sorta bodyguard? What the hell was up with Leaf-nin?)

"Oh my goodness! Go'on-kun, you know what that means? We did it!" Kyou said. He hugged Go'on, there, squeezing him tightly and twirling him around. "We gotta get to the tower!"

"Ow, hey! Let go!" And Kyou let go, still grinning with a smile that looked like it was going to stretch his face in two. "Well… I guess that's what we have to do now, huh…?" Go'on said, looking at the Heaven scroll with a sort of gleeful, unexpectedly happy look on his face. "Well… we should get a move on, then!"

He tucked the Heaven scroll into the pouch on his belt, and leaped into the trees again. Sunao and Kyou followed.

They were at the tower within ten minutes. And they opened the sealed door at the base, and opened both scrolls, and were greeted by an absolutely astonished proctor.

Which was what brought them here.

Kyou still wouldn't stop talking about all of it.

Really, was that it? Was it supposed to be that easy? Go'on had taken down a freakin' huge bear for goodness' sakes!

"Kyou-kun, it was more of a hug than a takedown," Sunao said, nudging him on the shoulder. "C'mon, stop talking about it, already."

When they were told about the previous speed record, they looked amongst each other and giggled and smiled and Kyou started going on and on about the Kazekage, oh man really, the Kazekage, they had done better than the Kazekage?

Boy, Sasuke-sensei wasn't ever going to believe this.

They were escorted to the upper levels by the proctor, and intercepted by Benio along the way. She was out of breath from sprinting the entire way to the tower, once the news had gotten out. "So you guys are the ones!" she said. "Wow, congratulations, all of you!"

"Thanks, ma'am!" Kyou said.

"Thank you," Sunao said.

"Thanks…" Go'on said.

"If you don't mind my asking, um, what do we do now?" Sunao continued, when Benio didn't add anything further. "Since, well, we finished kinda early."

"Thirty-seven minutes! A full hour before the Kazekage!" Kyou chirped in.

"Well, we're gonna keep you here until time runs out," Benio said. She started walking down the hall, so the proctor and genin followed. "Don't worry, we got places for you guys to sleep and shower and everything. So, really, the main thing is keepin' you guys busy! We can have things brought from home for you, if you want, but we can't let you guys leave just yet. That okay?"

"That's fine! I'll just need some clothes to sleep in, maybe a book, I've been in the middle of this wonderful book-"

"I'll probably just need some pajamas and things," Sunao said.

"I don't need anything, thanks…" Go'on said.

Benio smiled. "Well, just let me or any of the other proctors know what you guys need, we'll be glad to get it for you. Oh, and, by the way," she added, stopping and turning to face them full-on, "we've contacted your sensei. I hear he's on his way to meet with you. I'm sure he's very proud of you."

None of them said anything to this, but they all smiled.

Sasuke was at the tower within about 15 minutes, and the three of them collected themselves to go meet with him.

"So you've beaten Gaara's record, huh?" was the first thing he said to them, facing them with his arms crossed.

They didn't respond, faces full of mixed but uneasy excitement, unsure of what he wanted to hear.

And then Sasuke smiled, genuinely and warmly. His smile was even rarer than Go'on's, like a sighting of some maybe-fictional construct, or a ghost.

"Good work, all of you. I am very, very proud."

It was then that they knew that it was okay to smile back.

"So, tell me," he continued. "How did you get through so fast?"

"Well, there was this bear," Kyou began, but Sunao cut him off.

"I think we should let Go'on-kun tell him," she said. "After all, you were our leader for this section, weren't you?" And she smiled at him, tilting her head.

"…well, there was a bear…" Go'on began, and he started to tell Sasuke everything.


Inou made it to the tower in the late evening. His maximum range with the slow-mode thought-scan was nearly 500 feet, so he and Shikake and Chouko would stop occasionally to let him search for trios in the area with Earth scrolls.

Funny, how it worked out like that. The last two tests they had started out with Earth scrolls. And now, here they were, looking for them.

Shikake nudged Chouko, not terribly gently, during one of their stops. "Why do we have to let him do this? It's just stroking his ego, letting him use that stupid technique twice in a row," she said. "We'd have an easier time if I just let him possess one of my puppets so he could scout ahead. I prepared my favorite, I know he can use it." She opened her jacket and took out a scroll from an inner pocket.

Chouko shushed her, pushing the hand and the scroll back. "If he used one of your puppets then one of us would have to watch his body. He's got a much greater range with this technique, anyways," she said, whispering. "He knows what he's doing." Shikake just rolled her eyes.

Inou heard it all, and ignored it, and continued with his scan.

They found a qualifying team by mid-afternoon, and beat the tar out of them after tracking them for a short while. It was a cakewalk - they'd been through the forest twice already, and Chouko was already a chuunin. Earth scroll in hand, they reached the tower without much more effort, avoiding scalpers and other hangers-on.

To Inou's surprise, Sasuke was already at the tower, eating dinner with his students in the canteen. Inou made no effort to sit with him, though they made eye contact once, and only once.

Sasuke gave him a nod, and nothing more.

(What it meant was, "As I expected of you.")

(What Inou wished it meant was, "I'm proud of you." But he knew better. His father wouldn't be proud of him, not yet.)

Sasuke decided to stay in the tower for the rest of the night, at least until Karai made it to the tower herself, as he knew she would.

The genin made their requests after dinner. Kyou had a massive encyclopedia-ish book brought to him, with a change of impressively-folded clothes, a note from his father attached to them with a safety pin, overflowing with love and encouragement, for him and his team both.

Sunao didn't ask for much. Just a change of clothes, her comb, her toothbrush. The chuunin who delivered them came back with stories and about a million reports of greetings from her siblings, and it made her smile.

Go'on made a very unusual request.

"What do you mean, you want to sleep outside?" Benio asked, tilting her head when he tugged on her sleeve. "You mean, like, on the roof?"

"No, in the Forest…"

She made a very strange face. "I… Well, certainly it's allowed, but I don't think that's necessarily the safest thing, Go'on-kun."

Why did he look so sad? Certainly a lot of genin were sleeping in the Forest tonight, but not by choice. Who would want to sleep there?

"Well, I dunno… I just don't sleep well in places like these, is all…" Go'on explained. He stared at his feet. "I'm used to sleeping outdoors…"

"If you want to sleep outside, well, I guess you can get a sleeping bag and stay on the roof of the tower…?" Benio said. "We don't wanna lose track of you now that you've gone and made it this far. Okay?"

Go'on shrugged. "Okay."

He said that he went to go sleep on the roof that night, and that was certainly where they found him in the morning. But there was dirt under his nails, at breakfast, and moss. He went to go clean himself up, after Sasuke pointed it out to him and asked him why he had such dirty hands at breakfast.

Karai showed up early that morning with her own team, bright smile on her dirt-smudged face, both scrolls in hand.

Satisfied with this, Sasuke went home.

"I'll be back soon," he told his students. "Stay rested. There may be preliminaries. You need to be at your best."

Karai made an effort to say hello to him, at least, before he left.

"Excellent work, Karai. Just as I expected of you," he told her. He didn't need to tell Inou anything.

And then he went home.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17 - Third Times


There were preliminaries, in the end. Of the twenty-three teams that had gone into the Forest, only nine made it through. Four from Leaf, two from Sand, and one each from Mist, Stone, and Cloud. Nine teams, twenty-seven students.

Benio kneaded the skin between her eyes, at this. "These preliminaries are going to last forever," she sighed, the final count confirmed, once the 120 hours were up. "I swear, kids these days are getting way too good at this."

(It was really a curious phenomenon, this. The number of ninjas applying to become chuunin was at an all-time low, most children from ninja villages choosing to be promoted to genin and not pursue any further education. It was far more attractive to live a peaceful life like a civilian than to live by the ninja code, especially in the smaller countries.)

(In a strange sort of reaction to the increasing culture of demilitarization, the genin that did choose to train further worked harder to improve themselves than many generations before them, on account of the passion they had to want to improve themselves In the first place.)

(Either that, or because they were forced to.)

Luckily, this surplus of students wasn't really Benio's problem; it was the Third Chief Commanding Officer's. But she still wanted to stick around and watch. She especially wanted to see how that little team of Sasuke's would do, the ones that had shattered the speed record. More or less everyone did.

All the students, their nine senseis, and the Hokage were gathered in the largest hall with the Third Chief Examining officer, a Hyuuga man named Hakkou. Naruto poised his hand for a high five when he entered, while they were waiting for the students to arrive, and asked what the brace on his right arm was for, when he was rejected.

"Just a sprained wrist, I'm fine," was his laughed reply, so Naruto laughed too. Hakkou was only thirty-two, but his hair was already prematurely white. He had a bandage on his cheek, as well.

Sasuke stood with his hands behind his back, a neutral expression on his face, Naruto noticed. They said nothing to each other.

Once everyone was in the chamber, Naruto gave a neat little speech about the nature of friendship and international alliances - how useful, that each of the teams were from one of the Five Great Nations - and, as always, encouraged them to do their best, and that it was great honor to even make it this far. That there was no shame in failure.

Reactions were mixed when Hakkou explained that the preliminaries and subsequent tournament were based on individual merit, and that a lone failure would not doom one's teammates. Sighs of relief. Increases of worry. Bursts of confidence, born from the shackles of teamwork getting cast aside.

The eliminations began immediately. Chouko dropped out, once Hakkou gave the okay. She was already a chuunin, so there was no need for her to continue.

"Good luck, you two," she said, giving a reassuring pat on the back to both of her teammates.

"Like I need luck," Shikake said, with her dry, usual smirk. "I've got it covered."

"Thanks, Chouko-chan," Inou told her. He couldn't bring himself to smile. His father was watching.

With Chouko out of the ranks, the total was down to twenty-six. Thirteen pairs. It was still too much. Nobody else volunteered to drop out.

Until the first match was announced. Senritsu Go'on, of Konoha, versus Yamori, of Suna.

Yamori bowed out without question. "It's the freaking bear guy!" he explained to his teammates, after leaving the ring. "I don't stand a chance!"

The two remaining genin in his team just sighed at him. (And prayed, with varying degrees of intensity, they wouldn't have the same, terrible luck.)

As it happened, none of them had to battle Go'on. The genin he was paired against from Iwa, later on, wasn't nearly as lucky, however.

"How in the heck can anyone move that fast?" his defeated opponent gasped, holding his bruised sides. He received no answers.

Go'on just smiled shyly, rubbing his sore knuckles as he sat back down to watch the rest of proceedings, receiving a pat on the back from Sasuke.

Kyou got knocked out fairly early on by a Kumo ninja. Just like Sasuke had warned, he still didn't know where he was punching.

"I'm sorry, I disappointed you all…" he said to his teammates, his sensei, left eye swelling up, blood drying beneath his nose, when he finally came to.

"I'm not disappointed in you," Sasuke told him. "You did an excellent job."

"There's always next time," Sunao added, with a smile, and Kyou smiled back, feeling a lot better.

A few more matches happened, none of them terribly interesting. Mist versus Leaf, Leaf winning. Sand versus Stone, Sand winning. Kyou began to doze, face already cleaned-off, leaning against Go'on's shoulder there on the sidelines. His forehead protector felt cool against his swollen eye.

Things got interesting when it was Sunao's turn, paired against Aburame Shida, a kunoichi, eyes concealed by dark glasses, hair pulled into bushy braids. The fight ended in a tie, Shida drained of the chakra needed to feed her beetles, Sunao drained of the strength needed to attack and defend with the string of kunai on a wire that she had been favoring lately.

"No regrets," she said, managing to laugh, once it was all over. "Always wanted to fight an Aburame, anyways…" Now her only problem was coming up with another person she wanted to fight, now that she'd had this experience.

Inou and Karai both made quick work of their matches. Sasuke stopped paying attention after their successes, the rest of the genin picking each other off or otherwise dropping out.

In the end, there were eight left.

From Leaf, Nara Shikake, Senritsu Go'on, and the Uchiha siblings, Inou and Karai.

From Sand, a young man named Garyuu, who eyed his opposition with black eyes, tapping his nails against each other, running his tongue over his teeth behind his lips.

From Mist, a young woman named Natsuhaze Hari. There were beads in her hair and needles in her sleeves, and behind the high collar of her sweater there were thin scars like stitch marks over her mouth.

From Cloud, a boy named Ichii. He wore a winner's smile, his hair somehow impeccable and pale, his forehead protector a badge of honor, tied to his arm.

From Stone, a youth named Chouso with clay-caked palms, brown hair pulled into a high knot, bangs falling over the left eye.

The air in the ring was warm, still smelling of sweat and blood and metal.

The real tournament would begin in September, well over a month away. Naruto congratulated them all on their hard work, both winners and not-winners, and had the eight of them draw numbers from out of a box, to decide the upcoming matches.

Uchiha Inou versus Senritsu Go'on.

Nara Shikake versus Chouso of Stone.

Uchiha Karai versus Garyuu of Sand.

Ichii of Cloud versus Natsuhaze Hari.

The participants were encouraged to train hard and prepare as well as they could over the coming month, and when he gave the word, Hakkou declared the preliminaries over.

Everyone went home.

Karai had wanted to accompany her teammates out of the Forest, with Masao-sensei. Sanji and Usui had both been defeated quickly in the preliminaries and, more than anything, she wanted to apologize to them for making them look bad. Her match had been an absolute cinch of a thing, over and done very quickly. Compared to her, they must have looked like absolute fools. In any other circumstance, she'd have helped them, or held back, but…

"You will be going home with your brother and me," her father said, instead. "Come along."

Her father was there.

So, she had no choice but to follow. To give it her all. She'd apologize to her team later. She'd feel bad for them now. That was only fair.

Inou wasn't smiling, but Karai could see how excited he was.

You did a really good job, brother.

He didn't respond, but she didn't plan on saying any more, anyways.

The Forest was very dark and very still as the jounin senseis and chuunin proctors cleared the path and began leading the teams out and away. Kyou and Sunao tagged along ahead of Sasuke and his family, and received smiles and words of encouragement when they finally left the Forest, before they both went home.

"You made it very far. You'll do better next time. Get your rest."

So they did.

(Sasuke almost never said these kinds of things to his children.)

(At least, not to Inou and Karai, not yet.)

(But certainly to Takeru.)

When Kyou finally returned to his house, going up a flight of stairs to the room she shared above the shop with his father, he was greeted with a warm, sleepy hug after the lights got turned on. His father did not even ask if he had made it to the finals or not. "Look at those battle scars! I bet there's a story behind this," he said, touching his forehead with his son's and smiling, arms around his shoulders. "You wanna tell me about it?"

"Dad, is that even a question?" Kyou replied, holding his book and his clothes with both arms, his grin a clownish parody from all of the swelling.

He felt happy to be home.

Sunao was tackled by, in this order exactly, her four year old little brother, her seven year old little brother, her six year old little step-sister, and her exasperated stepmother, home for the first time in weeks. They'd been utterly unable to sleep, kept awake by smuggled candies and general excitement. "Leave Sunao alone, she must be exhausted!" she said, prying little arms away, left and right.

"Nah, I'm all right," Sunao replied. The hugs and the chatter and the everything was a better medicine to her than any sort of bandage, right now. She went into the kitchen to find the rest of the family waiting for her, around the kitchen table, some of the kids waking up, their heads resting on their arms. The rest were all on the couch. The credits of a movie were running on the television.

She felt relieved that the house was still in one piece.

Go'on didn't go home for a while, instead choosing to stay behind and talk to the Hokage about, well, things. Really, it was more the Hokage's idea than his, mostly because Go'on opted not to follow Sasuke out of the tower and the Forest immediately after the preliminaries, like everyone else did.

"You're turning into something of a legend, y'know?" the Hokage said, cheerfully, with that grin of his that even Go'on knew well. Every child that had spent any time at the academy knew that grin. "Since I hear you were the one that led your team through the Forest."

"Yeah, I… guess I did…" Go'on replied. "Dunno if I'm much of a legend, though…"

"Well you're impressive enough to make Gaara write a letter back to me. Like, immediately. That's something," the Hokage said. He laughed. "Since I had to write and tell him something when I heard about how fast you guys were, y'know?"

Gaara? The Gaara? The Kazekage? "Wh-what did he say…?"

"Not much, honestly. Mostly wondering how the heck ya did it," the Hokage replied. His grin softened, and he blinked. "How did you do it, anyways?"

And Go'on just shrugged, not really knowing how to answer. "I just… did, I guess…"

He went home when the Hokage did.

And his mother was very, very proud of him.

He felt safe, in his home.

It was late when the Uchihas returned to their own home, well past midnight. The lights in the house were still on.

Only Ino was still awake, it seemed, and she went to greet them in the hallway when they came in. "Well, how'd it go?" she asked. She was smiling, but it was a lesser smile, tinted with the preparation of sympathy.

"They both made it to the tournament finals," Sasuke replied. He didn't sound pleased. He began taking off his shoes.

The caution in her smile all but melted away, replaced by relief. She almost started to cry. "I knew you could do it," she said, stepping forward to embrace her two children, who were still standing.

"Don't coddle them," Sasuke said. He stood, and began heading down the hallway. "It's only going to get harder from here on out."

She didn't respond, but she held them more tightly, almost protectively.

"I'm going to go take a bath," Sasuke continued, and left. She heard him close the bathroom door behind him, from further down the hallway.

She let go of her children in the quiet that resulted.

"Inou, Karai, I am very proud of you. And I'm sure… your father is, too," she told them, holding them by their shoulders and smiling. "Even if he doesn't really show it." Her face fell slightly when she found that neither of them were looking at her, eyes to the floor in opposite directions. "…Inou, what's wrong?" she asked.

"…I'm fine, Mom. Just… tired," he replied.

"Oh, well, I bet you are," Ino said, smiling again. "Why don't you two go get some sleep? You must be exhausted."

No response. Ino took a breath in, and out, reforming her smile, taking out the false edge that her sense of obligation gave it.

"Tell you what. Tomorrow, I'll let you do anything you want. No matter what your father says," she said. There was a spark of rebellion in her eyes, and her voice. "Sleep in, watch TV, have candy for breakfast… whatever you want. I'll even make your favorite sushi for dinner."

"Can you make crunchy rolls, Mom?" Karai asked, finally looking up, finally smiling like usual.

"Any kind of sushi you want," Ino replied. Karai giggled. "I'll even get fancy tuna for you, Inou, I know how much you like that. That sound good?"

"…I'm gonna go to bed," Inou said, breaking away from his mother's grip on his shoulder and kicking his shoes off. He shuffled up the stairs.

"Mom, it sounds great," Karai said, holding her mother's arm almost reassuringly. "Thank you so much."

The door to Inou's bedroom slammed shut. Ino gave Karai a hug. "You're welcome, honey. You deserve it."

In his room, Inou flopped on the bed, his head hurting, feeling incredibly dirty. He wanted to wash his hair.

He wondered, miserably, why he wasn't happier. Why he wasn't happier.

"It's only going to get harder from here on out."

Oh. That was why. Of course.

He didn't even try to think about his opponent. Senritsu Go'on. In his exhaustion, he name sounded only vaguely familiar.

He fell asleep with his clothes still on.

It hurt to be home.

The next day, as promised, their mother let them sleep in. Inou still woke up habitually early, after the sunrise, but he stayed in bed, awake, waiting. He wouldn't leave unless his father made him. He ended up falling asleep again, when the house remained silent, not a person coming up the stairs for him. He changed into his pajamas, first, but he didn't take off his necklace.

He finally left his room in the afternoon to take a bath. He had his wet hair combed behind his ears, after when he entered the kitchen; the air smelled like rice and breakfast, and his mother was humming softly at the sink as she dried dishes. She turned around to look at him as he entered.

(Ino always thought he looked so handsome with his hair out of his eyes. He was the one that looked the most like his father, she always felt, with his sharp eyes and features. But she never told him this.)

(Takeru didn't look like Sasuke at all.)

"Did you sleep well?" she asked him. He didn't say anything, sitting at the table, leaning back in his chair. "What can I make you for lunch?"

"Whatever, I don't really care," he said.

"Well, luckily for you I have some rice left over from breakfast. I'll make you some onigiri," she replied. "I'll put okaka tuna in it, I have some in the fridge, I think."

"…thanks, Mom."

She opened the fridge. "You're welcome, honey."

Karai came downstairs, shortly afterward. She was dressed in a clean purple frock, but her hair was unruly as ever: straight in the front, sticking out everywhere in the back. She had bathed the night before, after her father. "Oh, Mom, you're making onigiri!" she said.

"You want some?'

"No, but thanks, though," she said. "Where's Dad?"

"He's out." Ino shut the fridge, and set the pot of leftover rice and the okaka on the counter. "He won't be joining us for dinner tonight."

"Why?"

Ino paused. "He said he had other plans."

(From an argument the night before: "What in the hell is worth celebrating? They aren't chuunin yet, this is not worth celebrating. This is not worth celebrating!")

(Sasuke had a habit of leaving whenever Ino put her foot down, really put her foot down. Going on walks, instead of giving her the satisfaction of a surrender.)

(The way that he yelled at her, at his children, ensured that this was a very rare occurrence, however.)

"Figures," Inou said. A strand of wet, black hair fell into his face, but he didn't bother pushing it back into place.

"So, I was thinking of making sushi for dinner tonight. That's what you wanted, yes?" Ino continued. She scooped rice out of the pot and began to shape it with her hands. "I know how much you like fancy tuna, Inou, would you like me to go to the store and get some?"

"I don't care," he said.

Ino stayed silent, shaping the onigiri, putting the okaka in it. "Then I'll do that. And Karai, I know you like crunchy rolls, yes? Hm, if Hajime decides to actually be home for once, I could maybe make those cream cheese rolls he likes so much…"

Nadeshiko didn't like fish, not very much. But Ino figured she'd maybe make something like a sesame or a sweet tofu roll, for her.

And Takeru, well. Chances were that he was going to be with Sasuke or a lady friend, that night, but Ino would make him something plain, in case he stayed home. His tastes were far simpler than his personality let on.

"Can I help you make any of it, Mom?" Karai asked. She had gone to the pantry, and had opened a bag of rice crackers.

"Oh, no, no, honey, let me handle it," Ino replied. She finished one onigiri, and began another. "You just relax, today. You deserve it."

"Okay, if you say so…" Karai stuck a rice cracker in her mouth; she started towards the hallway. "N'gonna go wa' tee-bee, wanna gome wif, meesan?"

Inou didn't respond. He looked out the window, nonchalantly.

"Inou, why don't you go join your sister?" Ino said.

"Hey, you said I could do whatever I want today, right?" he said, glaring at his mother for a moment, then looking back out the window. "I don't wanna watch TV."

"Inou…"

Karai bit the cracker in half, and chewed. "S'okay, I'm just gonna watch some cartoons or somethin'. You don't have to join me," she said, smiling. "I missed a lotta stuff 'cos of the exams! Gotta catch up, y'know…"

At least Karai could smile about it. She left.

Ino finished making the onigiri and put them in front of Inou at the table. "Well, eat up. "

He stopped slumping in his chair, sat up, and ate slowly, self-consciously, even though he was hungry beyond words. Ino began cleaning up.

The muffled sound of the television came drifting down the hallway, and with it came Nadeshiko. "You made onigiri?" she said, standing in the doorway.

Ino sighed. "I just put the rice away… Do you want me to make you some? I think I have enough left for one or two more."

"No, no, it's okay, you don't need to do that for me," Nadeshiko said. "I'm still full from breakfast."

Inou had stopped eating. The rice felt cold and sticky in his hands. He stared at the table.

"So, I'm thinking of making sushi for dinner tonight," Ino continued. "Nadeshiko, what do you want me to make you?"

"Oh. It's been a while since I've had sweet tofu sushi, but I know how long it takes you to make…" Nadeshiko held her elbow with one hand, holding her chin with the other.

"That's no trouble at all. I'm already making crunchy rolls and fancy tuna sushi, it's not like I'm expecting this to be over and done in a moment," Ino replied, laughing. "I'll make you sweet tofu sushi."

Nadeshiko paused, for a moment. "Fancy tuna…? We have fancy tuna?"

"No, no. I was going to go to the store and pick some up after I finished here."

"Let me do it for you. I'm not doing anything today," Nadeshiko said, tilting her head, her curtain of black hair falling slightly sideways.

"Nadeshiko, you don't have to…"

"No, really. What do you need for tonight?"

The onigiri crumbled between Inou's fingers. He put it down and went to go join Karai in the living room as his mother began forming a grocery list with Nadeshiko.

His older sister was gone when he went to retrieve his lunch, ten minutes later, since he was still hungry. Thank goodness.

He was even more grateful that she hadn't brought up the chuunin exams, or even addressed him while there in the kitchen. That would have been awful.

He ate the rest of his lunch in the living room, Karai munching away at her rice crackers. She had on a movie, one he recalled liking as a kid. It wasn't so bad.

They ate sushi, that night, without their father, or Takeru. But Hajime decided to be home and eat with them, and he did enjoy the cream cheese rolls his mother had made for him. He congratulated Inou and Karai tiredly, with his sigh-like voice. "Hope that Dad isn't too hard on you, from here on out."

Normally, Ino would have told him to not say such things. But Sasuke was not there, and neither was Takeru. They weren't around to hear it, or do anything about it.

It didn't make either of them feel much better, however. Even when he was gone, when there was actually a sort of peace in the house, their father was still there, to them. Especially to Inou, who always seemed to hear his voice in his absence.

But at least their mother seemed happier.

Chapter Text

INTERLUDE

SIX TALES


This is the story of Kurunari the orphan.

He was an unwanted child, to begin with. Left in the care of the most capable hands of the staff of Federal Orphanage no. 90. He was three months old, at the time.

If he had been a newborn then, perhaps, the circumstances might have been a bit more understandable. But he was already sleeping through the night, and he slept soundly, too. But he was an ugly baby, with white hair like an old man.

To abandon a child so late, surely something must have happened. But the question was never answered.

Like all baby orphans, he was raised in a cradle made of painted wire and a cheap mattress, and fed rationed formula. And he had a healthy appetite, which was bad news for the orphanage. Healthy appetites meant hungry babies later in the evening, which was only a nuisance for the other children trying to sleep.

Kurunari's looks did not help him much, nor his hefty size. He was fine baby and a plump toddler and a fat, ugly child, with peach-colored skin and paper-cut eyes that looked like they'd been gouged into his face with a pair of scissors.

Maybe that was why they chose him. Because it was clear from the start that he stood very little chance at adoption, and was hardy besides.

Hardiness was key.

He did not remember when it was, exactly, that the Mizukage's personal secretary, Mizuno, arrived at the orphanage. What he did remember was the whistle of the hall matron and her barking voice ordering them to line up at the feet of their beds. Boys (and, probably, girls - they slept in separate halls) were then picked and somewhat shoved out of the room. Kurunari recognized which ones were being chosen: the kids with the special blood. This sort of thing happened a lot, where the special kids would get singled out for things without explanation, and then very suddenly returned.

For a while, it was very quiet. There were whispers. Was this an inspection? Those happened on occasion, but they were almost always precluded by intense scrubbing of faces and adjustment of clothing.

And then Mizuno entered.

Kurunari's first impressions of her was that it almost looked like she was made of glass, but not in the way that glass is delicate, but in the way that it can cut very painfully and very deeply when broken, and has a tendency of getting into wounds. She had very closely-cut black hair and she wore frame-less spectacles, behind which her very, very black eyes slid here and there.

Every now and then she would reach out and take a boy by the chin and turn his face this way and that, pressing hard into his cheeks with her fingers. Sometimes she would ask questions, about age, about health, which the matron would answer.

Kurunari made her pause. And she kept returning to him, after appraising other boys down the line, like he was something she was considering purchasing, but was still having thoughts about.

She chose him, eventually, with a point of a finger and a decisive, "This one."

"Kurunari-kun, ma'am?" the accompanying matron said.

"Yes, he will do. Does he have many belongings?"

"Just his uniform, ma'am."

Kurunari was four-almost-five years old, still too young to have the under-bed-under-floor hordes that older boys had.

"Then I'll take him as he is."

And Mizuno held out her hand. Her nails were very well-kept.

"Come with me, boy. We're going to the capital. You're going to meet the Mizukage."

Kurunari was too excited and frightened to even speak. But then again, he did not speak often.

He belonged to the government from that day forward.


This is the story of Kurunari the vessel.

He hadn't really been told in advance what they would be doing to him, nor why they were doing this to him in the first place.

He, of course, found all of this out later.

The previous vessel for the six-tailed slug was fading fast. But he had been a moody, reluctant boy to begin with; a youth named Hideaki, with hair more like moss than anything human.

The problem with him, mainly, was his attitude. Or his age. Or the amount that they'd told him in advance about the sealing. Any of those could have been a factor in his body's rejection of the slug.

Either way, he was useless now, and they needed another.

That was Kurunari.

He was not told much. He was just given a meeting with the Mizukage - and he remembered her in those days as a smiling woman with red-brilliant hair, who patted his head and told him how very adorable he was - and new clothes and a nice room in the capital city of Kirigakure, and a whole host of strange people that were always poking in and out of his room, that tucked him in at night, like the matrons had done.

Truthfully, he did not remember much of the sealing. They had him sedated for it, and he woke up in a hospital afterward.

Every sealing method came with its own set of side-effects. Many of them dependent on the nature of the beast being sealed, but also with how the beast was being sealed in the first place.

The vessels of the five-tailed dolphin horse, for example, always, always fell victim to horrible burns and blisters on account of the creature's habitation. They were painful and they were disgusting to look at, and so very, very unfortunate. The one-tailed shukaku's vessels always suffered from cruel insomnia; et cetera, et cetera.

Kurunari, for several weeks after the sealing, was prone to bouts of nausea that ended with him expelling great amounts of translucent green-blue slime from his mouth, tasteless stuff, but with an awful odor that attracted scolding, especially from Mizuno.

She was what they later called his handler, and the source of most of this harshness.

There were also times when Kurunari's body would grow very cold, and his skin would get sticky and ruin his clothes, mostly pajamas. More scolding for that, too.

And then there were also the times where he was so weak he felt like his legs had turned into cooked noodles, which, wonderfully, did not cause him to be scolded that badly. And all the hours of ceaseless, belch-chattering from the six-tails itself, once it came out of the daze that accompanied the transfer into a new vessel. It was a rude creature, and its words made Kurunari feel uncomfortable.

Though they later became something of a comfort, a defense against the world, a coach in the corner.

Well, that voice, and Naruto.


This is the story of Kurunari's friend.

One of the first things that Naruto told Kurunari, after assuring him that everything would be all right, that the pain would end, was that they would be friends.

There was almost a twenty year age difference between them, but the way he said it, with the sunshine in his mouth, it was utterly undeniable. They would be friends. And they were.

Naruto was one of his first visitors in the hospital, after the sealing. Actually, unless his memory was just playing tricks on him, he was the first visitor he had in the hospital. He was there when he woke up after the sealing, in a chair at his bedside.

Later, Kurunari discovered that this was par the course for Naruto. Whenever there was another sealing that needed to be done - and they happened with less and less frequency as the years went on, but they still happened - Naruto was always there.

It was a bit of a sad thought when Kurunari was old enough to make the connection between this ritual and his predecessor. To meet Kurunari, a replacement, so soon after the loss of Hideaki - and surely they must have been friends, too - must have been torture for Naruto's bright heart, but Kurunari's memory of his face betrayed nothing, nor did any twitch of expression that followed Kurunari's questions on the subject.

"It's always sad to lose people you love," Naruto explained, "but I think that it's so wonderful to make new friends, too, y'know? Please don't worry about this, Kurunari-kun, it'll only make you feel sick."

It really was a gift, Kurunari thought, the way that Naruto so confidently said things like that, and how it always soothed his stomach and his worries.

Also a gift was the unconditional support that fell out of his smile and his words, support that infused Kurunari's limbs with an incredible, wonderful lightness, that convinced his inner voice that he really could do anything.

It was Naruto that taught him not to fear the slug in his spine, but to approach it as a roommate, a possible friend, or at least a comrade.

"You're the guy running the show here, y'know?" he said, during one of his visits. It had come in the wake of several excruciatingly embarrassing episodes that left Kurunari slimy and cold and very ashamed, because the slug was scaring him too badly, demanding to be let out, calling him a miserable cuss of a kid, and many other unmentionable things. Mizuno had made an appeal to the Mizukage, and Naruto had come running.

(This was not the first time such an appeal had been made.)

"This is your body, Kurunari-kun. The slug's only there 'cos you're letting it live there. You're in charge. Don't let it boss you around."

Much as these words filled Kurunari with confidence, he still needed help. And Naruto was more than pleased to provide it. They went over exercises for when he felt like he was losing control, mantras and chants for him to use and focus on during the bad times.

"This is my body and I'm not okay with this," was the one that stuck the most, mostly because it was simple and Kurunari could manage to remember it in more flustered states, even though it sounded clumsy to the ear, in his opinion. He'd have preferred something… more sophisticated, more powerful, and he expressed this embarrassment to Naruto on another visit.

And Naruto just laughed. "It's not all about being fancy, y'know!" he said. "What matters is that it works for you, that's what's most important. Okay?"

That helped a great deal.

(It hadn't helped Hideaki, who had given up well in advance, convinced that it was all useless, that maybe the slug was right.)

And when, on those dark nights alone in his chosen, patrolled residence, the slug would go on and on about how it would be better off if he just died and let his burden free, how much easier it would be for the both of them, 'cos golly, kid, it's fucken cramped in here, Kurunari would put his hands on his ears and mumble, "No, this is my body and I'm not okay with this, I'm not okay with this, just leave me alone..."

And maybe it was them merely getting more used to each other, maybe it was the slug gaining some humanity because it had been stuck in Kurunari for far longer than any of its other vessels, maybe because as Kurunari got older he was pressured to learn how to harness the slug's power for his own and his failures in doing so resulted in glass-slicing punishments from Mizuno , maybe a whole bunch of things.

But the slug began to cooperate. Even apologize sometimes on Kurunari's behalf

"Kid, I think you tried hard enough. That was mean, what she said. That's a right bitch of a mom y'got there."

That was the slug's first gift, and all Kurunari could manage through his held-in tears was that she wasn't really his mother.

"Well, just sayin'," the slug replied.

Slowly, yes, they became friends, in a stretched sense of the word. But not allies. Kurunari couldn't fight with it. He was only brave enough to reject its intrusion into his thoughts, but not to dare reach forward and ask to also be paid back in kind for sharing the space.

That was the problem. To Mizuno, and the Mizukage, it was unacceptable, and quite punishable.

Naruto tried to help with this, but some things simply couldn't be worked through, and one of them was Kurunari's cowardice.

He was an anomaly.

But at least he wasn't alone.


This is the story of Kurunari and the jinchuuriki.

There were eight others, besides him. He learned this fact through Naruto, during one of their first meetings. The fact alone that Naruto was like him, that he was grown up and living with a sickening, intruding force inside of him as well was hope to him, that he'd be able to get through this.

Learning that there were more was an even greater comfort. He met them once he was well enough to travel, well enough to go out in public and ensure that he wouldn't be an embarrassment to his country, in Mizuno's own words. It took a few years.

Morizuru was one of the first he met, and one of the first to really last. And though he was rude and crass in a sleepy, almost drunken sort of matter, they sort of grew on each other as time went on.

Morizuru truly fascinated Kurunari, from the very start. His handler, a far kinder-seeming man than Mizuno named Kankuro, explained that he was a living puppet, and that the one-tailed shukaku had been sealed into him, after much trial and error.

What Kurunari discovered later, which only fascinated him more, was that Morizuru's body had been fashioned out of a human corpse, or something similar, and that all other, wooden puppets before him had failed. It made Kurunari wonder what difference the material of the body had made in getting the shukaku to "stick." The remnants of a soul, perhaps? Or some other, bloodier reason?

(Truly, the only reason that Sasori's self-made masterpiece was eventually tried as a vessel, despite Kankuro's fears that the process would destroy the priceless piece like all of the other puppets they had tried, was because Gaara did not. Ever. Want anyone to suffer as he had.)

(And as far as anyone was aware, Morizuru wasn't suffering. His greatest pain was the annoyance he had toward his handlers and the freedom he was not allowed, and the lack of trust directed toward him because of his nature. Though it was all understandable.)

(Though he got better as time went on. Kankuro was a fair, almost parental figure to him.)

Sachiko was another of the early ones, and Kakeru. And Kurunari had felt some sort of solidarity with Kakeru, as neither of them enjoyed the attention that Sachiko gave them.

Kakeru disliked the monkey jokes. He was a stoic boy from the start, and he hated any intimation that he at all resembled his beast, thank you very much. Sachiko still tried them, I what she said were attempts at making Kakeru feel more comfortable with his situation.

"I'm fine enough with my situation, thank you," he would reply, his severe eyebrows lowering.

(This was perhaps one of the reasons why Kakeru had managed to gain control over his tailed beast so quickly and so easily. He was not whatever was inside him, and every action, every thought made this fact very clear. The monkey stood no chance against his psyche. He was a truly rare case.)

Kurunari disliked Sachiko because she was a girl, plain and simple. It hadn't been so bad when he was younger, but time told him that one had to be very careful with women, lest they harm you, and badly. Her kindness, her perkiness, all of it was probably a carefully-produced act that hid a mind full of very sharp teeth.

As they got older and he got to know her better, Kurunari tried to move past this assumption, because Sachiko really did mean well, despite her lack of respect for boundaries. To his shame, however, his fear kept his conversations with her short and full of stammers.

All of the other women in his life were kind enough in public, but vicious behind closed doors. And they had done nothing but punish him and hurt him, and most always rightly so. Who was to say that others wouldn't do the same?

Women commanded extra extra extra care, or Kurunari was just hurting himself further.

(Sachiko, as it happened, had had an extraordinarily smooth transition, partly because the nekomata had been quite well-tamed by its previous vessel, and because Sachiko had confronted it without fear and taken her place with a pink assurance that she wouldn't be the same as Nii, but she would certainly try to live up to her legacy.)

Kemuri joined them late, mostly because all previous vessels of the five-tails had expectedly short lifespans and were usually too ill to travel. And even then, Kemuri's health was always poor, their limbs wrapped in bandages, a full, blank mask over their face, the only thing left uncovered being their black hair, falling to their knees in two, thick braids.

"Only thing left of me that's beautiful," Kemuri would say, with a voice far older than their years, and from the way it was kept and carefully-combed, it was richly apparent how much Kemuri valued this fact.

Kemuri Kurunari didn't have much of an issue with, though their dour attitude was a bit of a barrier in getting to know them. He was still careful around them, even though it wasn't apparent if they were male or female on account of the bandages and mask, and Kemuri had a tendency of sulking away and remaining moody for quite a while if the subject of their gender even came up - and Kakeru and Sachiko made it clear, with varying degrees of kindness, that it wasn't really that important to know, anyways.

Sachiko was their only real friend, despite Kakeru being from the same country as them.

Bee was intimidating, even more-so than Sachiko, which was why Kurunari was even more reluctant to talk around the man than with most women.

Those were the oldest ones. Yuu and Tonbo were new additions.

Kurunari had actually known the previous vessels of those beasts, the three-tails especially. He had known many vessels, not just because of their shared nationalities and ownerships, but because there was such a high rate for rejection.

He had known only one other vessel for the seven-tailed horn-beetle. His name had been Kagero, and he had had dark skin and dark blue hair, and he had been very quiet. He resented his state, privately, and he and Kurunari had shared another sort of kinship.

His government had wanted him to learn how to fight, when he'd much rather stay indoors and read. Kurunari was rather the same, and they shared many quiet hours together over stories and commiseration.

But one year, Kagero didn't turn up at their biannual meeting, and Kurunari got the news that he had passed away not terribly long before.

It hit him strangely, and bluntly. Kurunari was almost grown, at the time, a lad of eighteen. Kagero had been fifteen. There were things that Kurunari understood now that he hadn't when he was younger.

It was an echo of a situation. He found himself thinking of Naruto.

Naruto, who had met and re-met so many vessels in his time. He was one of the oldest.

But Kurunari didn't find himself wanting comfort. Truly, he felt almost happy for Kagero, finally freed of his burden. Almost excited to meet his replacement.

And his replacement was Tonbo. And she was a girl, but she did not scare Kurunari. Well, she had, initially, a kneejerk reaction. But she quickly brought those walls down with a battering ram of shared interests.

All things that crawled and crept and flew fascinated her, slime-producers and silk-makers and thousand-legged all. She'd integrated with her beast in record timing, because, to her, it was the ultimate honor, the ultimate prize.

"I ended up catchin' me the biggest bug of 'em all," she confided to Kurunari, with excitement, during one of their meetings. "I'm the queen."

Her passion for all insects was well-known before the sealing. She was chosen on Naruto's recommendation, on a theory that, maybe, vessels in the future should be willing to take on their burdens and be made fully aware of the trials ahead.

If Tonbo was any indication, this theory had quite a bit of weight. Much like many of Naruto's other theories.

The Mist gave it a try by conditioning their next vessel to look forward to their sealing with a bright mind and honorable words.

That was Yuu. The perfect result of Mist's breeding programs.

But there was still Kurunari, and he had Naruto, still, and Tonbo, and slightly Kakeru, and his slug.

He wasn't alone.


This is the story of Kurunari the useless.

Compared to Yuu, anyways. Yuu was perfect. He was small, but so perfect.

His father, they said, had a gift, that he was able to control the three-tails remotely, with his mind alone. His companion was a woman from whose hands crystals grew.

Very rare gifts. And such gifts were very much appreciated in the Land of Mist. The both of them were tracked down and offered very generous sums of money to assist in a valiant effort of restoring what the previous, monstrous Mizukage had taken away from them.

Neither of them refused, because of the money, because of the mission.

There were many others like them. Kurunari saw them, often, in Mizuno's office, waiting to be seen by the Mizukage.

He also saw them in the hospitals, sometimes. For his monthly checkups.

The crystal woman was in there frequently, over the years, for the removal of children, seeming each time to be thinner and paler, her skin straining to contain the burdens forced upon her. Like so many other women in the city hospital, conscripted into the restoration effort.

He rarely saw the men, with the exception of a very finely-featured individual, with red eyes and hair the color of certain seashells. His health was evidently very delicate.

No, Kurunari rarely saw the men. But he saw what they created.

Yuu was his father's sixth child, and the fourth vessel used overall. The girls were deemed too precious by the Mizukage and raised separately.

The most tragic thing about it all was the fact that they all looked so similar, with their green hair and lavender eyes and barely-staggered ages. It was like they were interchangeable, which was definitely how it felt to Kurunari like they were being treated.

Yuu was the perfect vessel. The success of the group.

Mizuno made no effort at disguising how much more pleased she was by him.

"He's a child and he's so eager to learn how to fight already. You're so much older than him. Why aren't you the same? What if something were to happen to our country, and you were called to its defense? We'd be practically doomed. Useless boy."

"Well, that was harsh and unfair. Did someone stick a hot coal up her ass?" the slug said.

Kurunari quietly asked for it not to say anything more.

He really was pretty useless. Yes, he was a healthy, viable vessel, but he was a coward and, even if he were able to muster the bravery, he was a clumsy, unskilled fighter. He was just dead weight overall. The only reason he was still alive was because it'd be so much trouble finding another vessel and raising it. Mizuno had all but told him this to his face, that his only worth was because he didn't make nearly as much trouble as he had used to.

Though they had other plans in mind. When he turned twenty, they asked for him to consider looking for an heir.

"In case something happened to you, goodness knows what, though," Mizuno explained. "So they can be raised near you to gain familiarity with you and be transitioned easily to receive the six-tails once it's gone from you."

It had been Bee's idea. And he had already chosen an heir, a girl after his own name. She scared Kurunari as much as her father did.

But Naruto hadn't yet chosen an heir, and neither did Kurunari. He told Mizuno to choose anyone she wanted, which was probably what she wanted.

He was an awful role model, anyways. No one to raise a child around.

"I don't think you need to worry 'bout that any time soon, kiddo," the slug told him, in the wake of his decision. "I mean, if you never get into a fight, then that means you'll live longer than they'll expect. That'll be a real stick up their collective butts, I think. Besides, you're prob'ly the best vessel I ever had, so, I kinda want you to stick around. Just sayin'."

The slug was a friend of his, if you stretched the definition enough.


This is the story of Kurunari's family, and the other things he loved.

It became apparent to Kurunari that Naruto's bond with him was a fair bit stronger than his bond with any of the other jinchuuriki. Well, not counting Gaara the honorary, and Bee. Those two were his comrades, and he greeted them with hugs full of shared experiences, and their dinner talk reflected this.

He couldn't speak for the other jinchuuriki, naturally. How Naruto treated them outside of their usual meetings was unknown to him.

But how he treated them when they were all together, well. That, he could compare.

And as far as Kurunari knew, he was the only one with whom Naruto kept up any sort of regular correspondence, everyone else talking to him only semi-regularly, by letter or by phone.

(Again, Bee and Gaara were exceptions. They were comrades, old friends.)

But there were other things, and they held more weight, as far as Kurunari was concerned.

It was Naruto that had first encouraged him to write. As a child, he hadn't been allowed many toys, neither by the folks at the orphanage, nor by Mizuno. Though pen and paper and crayons he had been allowed, and with them he gave physical form to the little stories that helped him escape, when he felt like not existing for a while. And they were strange, twisty things, full of things that lurked in the dark that sought to do harm to even darker, twistier people.

Naruto had asked to read them during one of his visits, during which Kurunari hadn't bothered to clean up his room and there were still papers full of writing about, and something in them had delighted him, apparently, because he returned the next visit with a book.

"A really good friend of mine wrote this book, and it's inspired a lot of people," Naruto said. "Maybe it'll inspire you, y'know!"

The book was called The Tale of the Gutsy Ninja, and Kurunari was eleven when he read it.

He liked it. The language was simple, but not in a bad way, and he often found himself so drawn into the action that he could imagine the scenes in the book quite clearly. Story-wise, it was also simple. But not in a bad way. Yes, it was… cliché, in many areas, but it was still very moving and exhilarating in many others.

But, interestingly enough, Kurunari found himself most fascinated by the author. His name was Jiraiya, and there was a photograph of him on the back page sleeve.

He could have been Kurunari's father; they had the same square jaw and big nose, and little eyes, and though he was young in the photograph, he had white hair. He seemed far handsomer than Kurunari, however, and his smile was full of confidence.

Naruto had said that he had been a friend of his, too. And, Kurunari had noticed, Naruto himself shared a name with the main character, which was very interesting.

Kurunari asked about all of these things during their next visit, in the meantime reading the book again, and again. And he managed to get the question in, at a table in his residence, piles of paper with his own writing neatly set off to the side.

"Jiraiya-sensei was my teacher," Naruto explained, smiling. "He was also a great ninja, but he told me all the time that, if he had the option, he'd just drop it all and write forever. He was still writing when he was training me, y'know. I miss him a lot." His voice slipped, with those last words.

"Miss him?" Kurunari said.

"He… passed away when I was maybe sixteen or so. Right before the war started, y'know," Naruto explained. His blue eyes darkened further, despite the silk-smile on his face.

(And Kurunari was suddenly and painfully reminded of an expression much like that one, but far darker and far more painful.)

(Naruto had worn it during their previous meet-up, in the summer. Something had happened at the chuunin exams, something very bad, and Naruto had only been able to manage one further meeting with the jinchuuriki after it happened before retreating to his offices with a written apology saying that he wasn't feeling very well.)

(He looked so broken and not-himself in that instance that Gaara asked him if he really wanted to be there, if he would rather be resting, and followed him out of the room when Naruto excused himself, with a cracked smile that was leaking tears.)

"Oh," Kurunari said. He squirmed in his seat. "I'm sorry…"

"Hell are you apologizing for?" the slug said.

"What are you apologizing for?" Naruto said. "There's nothing wrong with asking, y'know." His smile, now warm, was genuine reassurance, though Kurunari still felt somewhat angry at himself for asking about such things.

"Not like you coulda known, kid, seriously, chin up," the slug said.

"So… did he write the book while you were training together?" Kurunari asked, feeling like moving on would improve his mood.

"Nah, Gutsy Ninja was just his first. He wrote a bunch more after that," Naruto said. His smile suddenly widened. "Did you know, though, I was actually named after that guy?"

"Wow!" said Kurunari, with widened eyes. "I thought he named the main character after you."

This made Naruto laugh. "No, no, no. Him and my dad were actually really tight - he was my dad's teacher, too, did you know? - and that's where my name came from - that book. Cool story, right?"

"Yeah, that's really something…" Kurunari replied. He fidgeted again. "Um…"

"What's up?" Naruto said.

"Well, it's just, I'm wondering, did this Jiraiya man ever have children of his own?" he asked.

(Because that resemblance. Kurunari was young, and even with his strange changeling-relative theory almost invalidated by now knowing the time of Jiraiya's death, it was far too insistent for him to let go of.)

(He had even sent out a letter to the orphanage about it, asking if there was any information available about his parents, or who had even just left him there. And the matron's answer - and it had come quickly, because he had used the official government stationary and bird messengers - revealed that Kurunari had been left in their care by a nervous-looking young man with white hair that had refused to answer many questions and left very quickly, promising to never return. The only thing he left behind was Kurunari's name.)

(Kurunari didn't get in trouble for this. He had learned, over the years, that there were ways to avoid Mizuno's attentions.)

(It helped the uneasiness that came with the increased belief that, yes, he really was related to this Jiraiya man, somehow.)

"Eh, not that I know of," Naruto replied. "Though Jiraiya-sensei was real friendly with ladies. I mean, there's a reason why I used to call him ero-sennin when he was still around."

"…ero… sennin?" Kurunari said.

"Yeah, like, pervy sage," Naruto explained. "'Cos he was a sage, it was certified and everything, an' he was also kinda, well, pervy! Man, there like were a ton of times where he'd go out an' come back late at night with women, but nothin' ever happened while I was there. Probably 'cos I was so young, haha. So, I dunno, always a possibility." Naruto rested his chin on one of his hands, eyes closing as he thought. "It'd be weird if that were true and I suddenly met one of 'em, I think. But cool, y'know?"

"Oh, yeah, I'm sure…" Kurunari said.

Naruto finally seemed to notice his discomfort. "What, something bothering you about that?" he asked.

"Oh, no, no, not at all," he replied, waving a hand in polite dismissal. "I was just wondering."

And Naruto just tilted his head, waiting for the next thing to say.

Kurunari provided it. "So what did he, um, write after Gutsy Ninja, then…? I'd love to read more of his work."

"I… think that you're best off reading that stuff when you're older, Kurunari-kun," Naruto replied, with almost nervous, but mostly amused laughter. "He went on to write some raunchy stuff after that. It's good, y'know, he got a lot of fans for it, but it's definitely for adults."

"Doesn't sound so bad," the slug said, with a gurgling chuckle.

The uncomfortable feeling in Kurunari's stomach increased. "Ah…"

"Maybe when you're older, I'll lend you some copies," Naruto said, brightly. "Though if you lose interest, that's no big deal. I kinda only sorta liked 'em, myself. Gutsy Ninja's definitely my favorite."

After which, they talked some more about Kurunari's writing. He had a new story idea, about a human child kidnapped and raised by sea demons, and escaping to find that the demons had left an evil version of himself in his real family's custody. Naruto seemed to like it, but then again, Naruto seemed to like all of his stories.

After he left, Kurunari went to go learn more about Jiraiya. Kirigakure had a wonderful library, after all, a very clean, square building. One of the few places Mizuno felt was a good place for Kurunari to spend his free time.

He wasn't able to find any of his books, not even The Tale of the Gutsy Ninja. Then again, he wasn't really expecting to.

(The Kirigakure library had a tendency of keeping "irrelevant" material out.)

(Kurunari did, eventually, manage to read the Icha Icha series. He didn't like them, though he supposed he understood the… appeal. Even if it wasn't for him.)

History books, however - the good ones, the ones that Kurunari knew were real - had much to say about the man.

Words like Sannin and war hero were used; a great deal of talk about his achievements in long-settled wars. More photographs, of him and two others: a man with captivatingly strange eyes and a hard smile, and a beautiful woman that seemed like she'd be more at home as a face on a propaganda poster. And in reading more about her, about how she was later a Hokage, Kurunari got the distinct impression that she'd probably have scared him witless, if he had known her.

And the other man, well. He was fascinating in the way that mad scientists were fascinating, with his seeming lack of morals and restraint. He seemed like a terrific protagonist for a story, Kurunari thought, if he weren't real. Especially with that face of his.

But of all things, the man Jiraiya's accomplishments in balancing writing and war were inspiring. Naruto had encouraged him, but Jiraiya had really caused him to move forward.

Naturally, Mizuno disapproved. Because Kurunari had to train. Slough off his clumsiness and uselessness.

"What good are you to the country if you're just sitting about and writing ghost stories all day? Put that silly dream out of your head."

He tried not to let it bother him, and he continued to write, stories of slimy things, with tentacles and glittering pustule-eyes.

When he felt it was safe enough, he shared them with Tonbo, as well as Naruto. And she liked them more than he did.

"Make one about a bug creature human monster guy!" she exploded, during one discussion. "That would be so awesome."

And after he got her to elaborate on the concept - namely, she wanted a story about a person turning into a giant bug, or the other way around - Kurunari did write it for her, as a ninth birthday gift. And she loved it.

For Kurunari's twentieth birthday, Naruto had surprised him by introducing him to a representative from the publishing house that had put out Jiraiya's stories, during some down time during the winter chuunin exams. The meeting could have gone horribly, and it would have soured his mood considerably more, the morning being filled with the business of heirs and the usual passive-aggressive lectures on how much less he was worth than Yuu (though the slug's commentary had attempted to inject some relief into him).

But while Kurunari's stories were "not exactly the sort of thing we usually publish," the representative instead arranged for a meeting with a sister publishing house, that specialized in pulpier, squishier stories. And things led to other things, and Kurunari's stories were arranged into a collection and released in the Land of Fire. Sales were slow, but optimistic, but it wasn't like Kurunari cared much about that.

He'd done at least a little. That was nice.

Though the representative had left him with one thing, before leaving that initial meeting. "You're a dead ringer for Jiraiya, I gotta say. You sure you're not related?"

"I'm… well, I'm too young to be his son," Kurunari admitted, quietly. His face felt a little hot. "Not sure about anything else…"

"Grandson, then?"

"…always a possibility, I guess. Um."

Even if that was what it was - and even all those years later, the possibility wouldn't leave him alone, almost haunting him with the inspiration it provided - it didn't make that much of a difference.

Except on the nights when he thought that maybe Naruto was just being so nice to him because of this. Treating him so preciously because he was the only thing left of a beloved sensei.

…but then he thought about Naruto and figured it really didn't matter. Because that was Naruto. His family without blood.

It didn't matter who Kurunari was or wasn't. Naruto was still kind to him, and that was what mattered.

(He didn't even feel like he was being brash, thinking this way. It was just the truth.)

Chapter Text

I honestly don't know why I don't feel more satisfied. I thought, for a while, that maybe it's my new body interfering with my work. Though I'm in perfect health, honestly, and I feel better than I ever have before. Well, the dysphoria remains, yes, but I'll get over it.

Maybe, now that I've finally achieved this - agelessness, a body I truly feel I deserve - everything pales in comparison.

Though that's just silly talk, all of it. Why did I set out on this expedition in the first place? To learn everything.

These are but stepping stones in my journey of knowing.

What next, what next?

Curse seal experiments are going well. I haven't been able to up the 10% survival rate, I'm afraid, but progress is sometimes so very slow. I can't alter genes that extensively just yet, but I'm sure going to try, if I must.

Besides, there are far more useful things I could alter genes for than to ensure survival for a seal and a couple of enzymes.

Some promising stuff happening out in my Tamina labs, regarding that. They're still having miscarriage problems with the surrogates and I can't decide whether it's the fault of the fetuses or the women, so I've ordered them to split the experiments into groups to see if it's more effective to modify the genes of the fetuses more, or to do something to the surrogates to ensure a more complete gestation.

But I know we're getting somewhere. I have faith in my little darlings.

- An excerpt from the personal reports of Orochimaru, circa 4 BU


ACT 4

FOUND


Chapter 19 - Outstretched Hand


A package arrived for Sakura the day after the chuunin exams ended, delivered to the hospital. It was from Karin.

The cardboard box, wrapped in brown paper, held a modest stack of papers, all organized with metal clips and packed together, neatly. Sakura glanced at the cover sheets of the reports, photocopies of beautiful script, but forced her eyes to the letter before she could proceed too far.

The letter, compared to her first one, was short.

Sakura,

Did a little digging. Criteria: Experiments utilizing my blood; Uzumaki clan; Taki clan, etc.

Found very concerning things. Unsettling. Included.

Expanded search also to unfinished projects. Speculation and failures. Found more, included only relevant reports.

Suspect the work of another re: Taki Kiine. Sensei had more than one disciple. Not just Kabuto.

Interpret reports however you wish. Will continue searching archives. Analyzing current texts.

Avoid contact with Taki until certain of anything.

- Karin

Sakura had to stop to take a break after only a few minutes of reading, to regain her composure, to remember just, exactly, whose personal reports and notes she was reading.

(Orochimaru had astonishingly beautiful handwriting for a man, for a scientist.)

She set the reports aside until her shift was over, letting the familiar order and chaos of medicine soothe her mind. She brought them home, where she knew she'd be calmer, where she knew she'd be able to concentrate more. Lee left her alone, only bringing her a cup of coffee when she set the papers down on the table and said it was important.

It was a wise decision. The initial shock of the authorship of the papers wore off with the time she had spent working, allowing Sakura to get to the heart of the matter, and concentrate on what was actually being presented.

There was a complete and full report on the treatment of Taki Mikan's uterine cancer, from about thirty years previous. There were drawn diagrams and black and white photographs of her abdomen split open in surgery and a day-by-day analysis of the treatment, described in almost loving detail.

Here and there Sakura saw little asides from the otherwise professional, standard report. "The poor dear is so very concerned about one day being able to have her own children," one said, "but it's going to be difficult to keep the uterus intact after all of this, much less her ovaries. But I can try; I know how important such a dream can be, and if it's possible, I'll keep it alive for her."

The surprisingly caring statements left Sakura with a strange, twisted feeling in her stomach that only went away when the language returned to being cold and clinical, the things she could actually picture Orochimaru writing with that white hand of his.

Curiously, the handwriting in the report almost seemed to deteriorate, as if it were becoming harder and harder for Orochimaru to hold his pen as the treatment continued. At one point - after the completion of the treatment, mainly in the post-operative reports - it changed entirely to another hand, a blocky, vaguely familiar one, before returning to his usual loopy, girlish scrawl.

There were other reports, with far less savory contents. She read about cultures of organs, growing entire beating hearts, lungs, intestinal tracts and ovaries from next to nothing, nurtured by Karin's blood, in jars.

(The process by which Karin's blood had even become the way it was did not have any documentation. But Sakura noticed that Orochimaru always detailed drawing her blood with hypodermic needles and storing it very carefully, like it was a precious thing. He seemed to have stockpiled it, kept in cold storage. Given its many uses, Sakura was not surprised.)

(It also made her wonder just how desperate Karin had to be, just how devoted she must have been to allow Sasuke to bite her so many times, simply to heal. Sakura had seen her scars, and they had made her shudder.)

Written down, like afterthoughts, in the reports of organ cultures were little pipe dreams on maybe someday producing whole bodies from nothing more than a scrap of DNA from a sample of hair, or blood.

"Would that not be something? One could even revive the dead, if one wished; if not in consciousness, at least in body. My research into the Impure World summoning technique takes care of both criteria, however. The technique is a difficult study, but if the Second Hokage could manage, then there is no reason I cannot, either." Beneath that note, in an almost sad sort of scribble: "But neither is a true resurrection. The former sacrifices the mind, the memories, the personality; the latter, the body, foregoing true flesh and blood for immortal dust and ashes. Why can I not have both?"

In another report, from years later, Orochimaru experimented with implanting modified fetuses into surrogate mothers, but none of the creations thrived, even with infusions and medicines made with Karin's blood. It was declared an abandoned project in an irritated-feeling scratching near the bottom of the reports. "Far easier to work with newborns. Far easier. Fetuses are too fragile. Unfortunate, really. Such potential. But one cannot ignore what works. I'll return the girls to the normal breeding program in the meantime."

(Surprisingly, it troubled Sakura far less to read those disturbing little details than the occasional traces of humanity that popped up, here and there. It was far easier for her mind to digest.)

It was late evening by the time she was finished with the reports, in their entirety. She hadn't touched her coffee, her stomach too unsettled for her to even consider tasting it. Lee had long since gone to bed, but he'd left the lights on in the kitchen for her.

She did not sleep well that night, her mind whirling with analysis and conflicting portraits of the old snake as a man, as a monster, which she tried to push to the back of her consciousness so she could focus on the matter at hand.

It was undeniably clear that Mikan was infertile. Done, that was it, that was the end of it. Even Sakura could concede with Orochimaru in saying that while the girl would live, the damage had been done. "Such a pity, such a pity," he had said. And she had to agree.

The mystery of Kiine, with her Uzumaki blood, persisted. Even with the possibility that she was willfully adopted, nothing yet explained the Karin-like cells, either.

For a moment, Sakura considered the possibility that she was some sort of modified child, or a clone of an Uzumaki, or something like that, but she disregarded the ideas almost as soon as she conceived them. Those were failures of projects, never more than just dreams or disappointment.

But then a phrase from Karin's letter drifted to her mind.

Suspect the work of another re: Taki Kiine. Sensei had more than one disciple. Not just Kabuto.

She remembered the trouble that Kabuto had given them during the Fourth War. She remembered the mindless clones, the monsters of medicine and poison he had created as weapons for Tobi's army.

Maybe he wasn't the only one? Maybe there was someone, someone else, still operating out there?

Maybe Orochimaru was still alive?

…no, that was impossible. He was dead. Orochimaru was dead. Sakura had heard somewhere that he'd been sealed away, forever. For good.

It had to be someone else. If anyone else was responsible for this, anyways. If anyone had continued Orochimaru's research.

There had to be an explanation for all of this.

Somewhere between 3 and 4 AM, to the sound of her husband snoring softly, Sakura came to a conclusion.

So far, her only contact into this world of Orochimaru's research, the dark world of the Sound, was Karin. Who, as far as Sakura could tell, impersonal and clinical as her letters were, was as disturbed as she herself was by these recent turn of events. And she was already looking for more information, no doubt. Sakura would be doing much of the same, in her situation.

But it wasn't like Karin lived next door. She was separated from Sakura by at least a day's worth of mail, and telephone calls were next to useless with such things.

There was, however, someone who lived not terribly far from Sakura, who could offer a second opinion on all of this. Who had, surely, very interesting opinions on the matter he could share.

The next morning, she was going to go to Sasuke, and see what he made of all this. After all, hadn't he lived with Orochimaru for three years?

(Hadn't he fought against them, for a while, in that war?)

Surely he'd have picked some things up. Surely he must have learned some things. He at least had an informed opinion.

She'd have to be careful, she knew. Sasuke was sensitive about the past, though she suspected he was probably in a good mood, given his children's success in the chuunin exams thus far. So maybe it would be easier than she thought.

Yes, she would go seek out Sasuke in the morning.

Satisfied, she closed her eyes and allowed herself to sleep, until the alarm clock she shared with Lee went off. The hospital required her to wake up relatively early, but later than the sunrise at any rate, unless there was an emergency. Lee didn't wake up until she did, finding his own time to jog and exercise, adjusting his schedule with hers, so there were no conflicts. Lee was just that sort of person.

After breakfast (and after dumping the now ludicrously-cold cup of coffee she had left on the table into the sink - she'd forgotten about it entirely), Sakura called in to say she'd be a little late, and had Kenji relay the message as well, just to make sure.

She stopped by Ino's house next, the reports tucked into her satchel. She was stopped, momentarily, by Ino's expression. "Hey, are you okay?"

"What? Oh, I'm fine," Ino replied. She rubbed her eye with her fingers. She hadn't put on all of her makeup yet, and she looked pale, almost sick, without it. "What's going on, Sakura?"

"Where's Sasuke? I want to talk to him," Sakura said.

"Oh. Sasuke. He's… training with Go'on-kun today, I think." Ino folded her arms over her apron. "That's what he's been up to, lately, spending the days with him and the nights with Inou and Karai."

"How are they doing?" Sakura asked.

"They're… fine. Just fine," Ino replied. A fake little smile was stamped on her face.

Sakura knew it too well. She put her hand on Ino's arm. "Ino, is everything okay?"

"We're fine, Sakura. You don't need to worry about my family, goodness, we can handle ourselves," Ino said, a taste of sharpness in her voice, batting away Sakura's hand. "He's just upping the training for them and we're all a little exhausted, is all."

"I don't see why you should be tired too, if it's just them being trained…"

"Huh?"

"Nothing, nothing." Sakura put on a false little smile of her own, waving the hand that had been on Ino's arm dismissively. "So, do you know where I can find him?"

"Probably the family training ground. You know, near the Compound. Memorial. You know where," Ino said.

"Ah, yeah. I know it."

"Why do you want to talk to him?" Ino said. "You know he might not be feeling cooperative, you know how he is."

"Oh, I just wanted him to look at some things. If he's not up for it I was going to schedule a better time," Sakura replied. She patted her satchel. "I know how he can be, Ino, I've known him as long as you, you know."

"Mm, I suppose…" Ino said. There was a shadow of sarcasm in her voice.

(But Sakura wasn't his wife. She was.)

"Well, hopefully he won't give you too much trouble," Ino continued, "he's kind of been on edge lately..."

"Has he been bad to you because of that?" Sakura asked, suddenly.

"What in the world is that supposed to mean?" Ino said. She almost gasped. "Sakura, Sasuke is perfectly good to me. He's just stressed right now. It's understandable."

Sakura fixed her mouth sideways. This happened, sometimes. When she overstepped boundaries, when Ino got so mildly outraged like this. "I just worry, sometimes. He's got a bad temper."

Ino sighed. "You think I don't know that…?" She didn't give Sakura a chance to answer. "Anyways, you should probably go and find him."

"Okay. Thanks for the tip."

"Sure, sure. Bye, now."

Sakura went down the road feeling more than a little unsettled. Ino almost never went out without all of her makeup on.

She had to deal with Sasuke first, however. This was more important. She could talk to Ino, alone, later.

Just like she had said, he was at the old training ground with the dark-haired boy on his team, the one with the big eyes. Senritsu Go'on - practically everyone knew his name, now. The name of the kid that had gotten through the Forest of Death in record timing, the one that couldn't be touched, even in battle.

He and Sasuke were sparring. At least, that's what it looked like. The boy moved at incredible speeds, dodging attacks, pulling off remarkable acrobatics in the air, leaping off rooftops and against walls - yet his breath remained even, even over the course of several minutes, when even Sakura would have felt fatigued.

She waited until they were done to clear her throat and clap slowly. "Very impressive!" she said.

"Go'on, take a five minute break," Sasuke said, and approached Sakura. "Here to watch, are you?"

"No, no, I just have something for you to look at."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. "Oh? What is it this time?"

"I received some things from Karin, I'd like for you to look at them. See what you can make of them," Sakura said. She kept her hand on her satchel, but didn't open it.

"Karin…?" He said her name like it was foreign to him, then shook his head. "What kinds of things?"

"Reports."

"What kind of reports? You're being incredibly vague." His voice became slightly rough.

"They're reports by Orochimaru," Sakura said quickly. She cleared her throat, afterward. "I wanted you to take a look at them."

"And why would you want me to do that." He glared at her.

Sakura bolstered herself. "Well, for a bunch of reasons, Sasuke. You lived with him for three years. You know how he worked. Maybe you can offer a bit more detail on some of the things he wrote in here, since Karin just handed them to me as-is. I don't know. Just give them a once-over, at least, will you?" She rolled her eyes, a little. "Shouldn't take you very long to do that, with those eyes of yours…"

"Don't give me that," Sasuke said. He sighed. "Okay, fine. Hand them over. I'll give them a look, even though I don't know why you keep coming to me with these stupid little inconsequential things…."

"It's not stupid and it's not inconsequential," Sakura said, and she took the reports out of her satchel and handed them to him. "For your information, it might help us with the situation with the Taki syndicate."

"…sure," Sasuke said, a shadow of sarcasm in his voice. He began to read. His speed was incredible, taking only seconds to thoroughly scan each page. Sakura was caught by surprise when he handed the papers back to her, little more than a minute later. "There, I read them. Now, what was I supposed to be looking for…?"

"You mean you're done?"

"You said yourself it wouldn't take very long for me to do." He shoved his hands in his pockets. His voice almost quavered. "Well, what was I supposed to look for?"

"Well…" Gosh, where to start? She tripped over her thoughts and grabbed for the first thing she could think of. "In the reports on Taki Mikan's treatment, I didn't recognize the handwriting about-"

"That's Karin's handwriting."

Sakura blinked. "Karin…? But why would-"

"His condition was declining and he dictated to her when he was ill until he recovered. An idiot could figure that out." He glanced at Go'on, who was sitting against a wall, staring at the sky, a small smile on his face. "Is that all?"

"So it was definitely his handwriting, otherwise?"

Sasuke scoffed. "All of that and you doubted who really wrote it?"

"I just wanted to make sure!" Sakura started putting the papers back into her satchel, knowing that Sasuke had doubtlessly memorized them already. "Goodness. I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

"Hm. So… tell me, why did she send you these reports in the first place?"

Sakura noticed that he had suddenly stiffened, though his eyes darted this way and that, but never at her. "It's mostly to do with Taki Kiine. We suspect something unusual is going on with her, and her family. And by 'we' I mean me and Karin, I mean. She's investigating this as well."

"Unusual how?"

"The fact that she's an Uzumaki but the rest of her family isn't, for one?" Sakura said. She would have said more, had Sasuke's expression not become so worrisome that she almost found herself reaching out to him, to calm him. "Hey, what's the matter?"

He pulled away from her hand as if it were made of hot metal. "Nothing. It's nothing. So she thinks Orochimaru had something to do with it, does she."

"Well… no, but… maybe someone that served under him. Possibly. We don't know." She felt the ache of frustration in her chest at being unable to really get out what she meant to say, what she meant to truly say. It was like this a lot, with Sasuke, no matter how mundane the subject. "Was there anyone besides Kabuto that could have carried on his work…?"

Sasuke didn't respond. Then, before Sakura could reply, he said, "Only Karin."

And Sakura knew that Karin's work had gone nowhere near the reaches of Orochimaru's cold ambitions. "So that leaves us at a dead end, then."

"Not exactly. Could be anyone, really. He had a lot of supporters. A lot of wardens, assistants," Sasuke said. His voice sounded detached, now, and flat. "But none of them were terribly bright, really. I doubt any of them could carry on his work in such a way. Especially if…"

Sakura tilted her head. Sasuke's eyes were trembling. He was pacing. "If…?"

"Nothing. Just… conjecture from what you showed me. I doubt we're seeing the whole picture."

"And what is this conjecture?"

"If it's incorrect then it's worthless," Sasuke said sharply, finally looking at her, stopping his pacing. "These are only a few reports out of… what, thousands, no doubt. I never read many, but I knew where they were."

"Well… maybe a little speculation might get us on the right track," Sakura said. Her smile was thin. "I mean, Karin and I are completely without a clue…"

"At least you both are doctors. You know what you're talking about." Sasuke turned his back on her, and returned to Go'on. "Break time's over, let's continue with our training, Go'on."

"Sasuke, what did you think was…?"

"It's nothing. Thank you for showing me those," Sasuke said, quickly, not even looking over his shoulder. "Resuming where we left off. Your evasion is excellent but you need to get on the offensive, Go'on. Come at me."

After standing there for a few moments, Sakura gave a goodbye that she wasn't sure if Sasuke had heard or not, and she returned to the hospital, and her normal duties, wondering what in the world he had been thinking of.

Chapter Text

Chapter 20 - Bitten Tongue


Sasuke had to send Go'on home shortly after Sakura left. He felt too distracted to even properly spar with his own student.

His mind overloaded with speculation and suspicion and stupidity and what the hell was he thinking?

It was just like before. Just like everything else. Just like everything. Else. He was just stringing things together in a twisted hope. Giving meaning to unrelated incidences, separated by years. He was just imagining things.

These same old damn delusions.

But he couldn't help it. The facts, in their proximity to each other, separated only by paper, were given a seeming sort of coherence, and it etched a delicious possibility in his mind.

Organ cultures - fantasies of full bodies grown from scraps of hair - no, no. None of these were related to the other.

But he remembered the horrors of Kabuto's work. Flash-grown, mindless…

It was possible. He knew it was possible. Possible that, maybe, somehow, someone out there had continued Orochimaru's - Kabuto's research to the point where…

Sasuke had to stop himself before he could continue this… insane string of thoughts. He rounded a corner and onto a familiar path, one that wound through all his old haunts, past all the echoes of the buildings of his childhood, past the dock and the artificial lake. He favored it over all other paths, especially when he needed to work out any frustration.

Hadn't he been tortured by this enough? He almost wanted to blame Sakura for this - she'd been the one to come to him about that damn Uzumaki - no, not Uzumaki, Taki, Taki, Taki Kiine. The one that had resurrected this mess in his mind after months of peace. That damn red-headed girl. Sakura had been the one to bring it to his attention and do those damn blood tests. It proved nothing. It proved nothing! And it might have stayed that way if she hadn't gone and rubbed it into his face and then just… just…

And now Karin. Karin and these… reports, these totally unrelated reports about body doubles and cloning and now he was thinking of Yakata and his brother's face and what if someone had brought his brother back from the dead and now his name was…

No. No, no, no.

Why. Why was he even thinking this?

Who would even be responsible for such a thing in the first place? Barring Orochimaru coming back from the dead - or even Kabuto - there was nobody capable of anything like that. You would… need labs and things, and assistants, and…

You'd need the knowledge. That was what was tripping him up. And beyond those two, the only person with that knowledge was Karin. And she kept it hidden away, under lock and key and the belligerent insistence that it never be used for anything more than good. And she had done good with it, that was undeniable.

His oldest, Hajime, was a member of that team that worked with the curse seal test subjects, the ones that used her vaccines, and Sasuke had half-heard things about her clinic and the advances in medicine that she was responsible for. Sasuke had a cursory knowledge of these things, it was true, but it had been decades since he'd actually spoken to the woman.

Maybe… it would be right to talk to her about this. Maybe she could tell him something.

Maybe he'd actually be able to get some damn peace of mind over this. Clear up all of this nonsense. Surely she'd know if there was anybody else who could have possibly done something like this. Surely she'd know if there wasn't anyone.

…and why would anyone, much less a disciple of Orochimaru, want to bring back his brother? Sasuke could think of a million reasons why he would, but…

…why was he even thinking about these things still?

Sasuke had reached the dock, without really noticing how long it had taken, and he sat down at its edge and stared out over the water.

Yes, this was something he needed to do. The last link in this chain of insanity and irrationality and…

…really, who was he kidding? There was something going on here.

…with Taki Kiine, at least. Yes. Only with her.

By talking with Karin, he'd be helping to solve another piece of the puzzle. Clear up something at least.

(He'd be able to find out if Yakata was… unrelated or whatever or. Whatever he was.)

At any rate, he'd be able to help Sakura a little. The sooner they solved this the sooner she'd stop… bothering him.

(He didn't stop for a moment to consider that, maybe, Sakura should have been the one doing this.)

Peace of mind. Some damn peace of mind, for once.

The surface of the lake was very still, and familiar.

(And maybe, just maybe, just… probably not.)

Probably not.

He stood up on the dock and the water rippled from the movement, slightly. He began back down the path, to the gate of the compound.

(He missed, by mere minutes and mere feet, a wandering Murasaki, who had with her well-wishes and words of congratulation. Which was probably for the best, for all of the parties involved.)

"I'm going on a short trip to the Land of Waves, to visit Karin," he told Naruto, entering his office, as usual, without knocking. "Just thought I'd let you know."

"Well, this is sudden. Why are you doing that?" Naruto asked, halfway between a laugh and a narrow, confused glance.

(And it was in that moment that, yes, it finally occurred to Sasuke that maybe it should have been Sakura doing all of this.)

"…favor to Sakura. But don't tell her I'm doing this, I don't know if anything will come of it," he said. "Understand?"

"Haha, sure, Sasuke. But…" Naruto leaned forward at his desk, fixing his mouth into a corner of his face. "I thought you were dead-set on nothing but training these days, y'know? Since you-"

"I think that my children and Go'on can handle themselves for a few days, thank you," Sasuke interrupted, though he only half-meant it. But he could make such sacrifices for something like this.

Naruto shrugged. "Hey, your call. I won't tell you how to train them, y'know."

"You shouldn't," Sasuke said, and left.

He left a note for Go'on at the academy, on the way home, with a mild suggestion of a training regimen and a promise of a return in a few days.

He announced his trip to his family at dinner, that night. He didn't mention Karin. "I won't be more than a few days, but I expect for you two to keep up with your training," he told Inou and Karai, who sat across from him at the table. "You understand?"

"Sure, Dad…" said Inou, sighing.

"Yep, sure! Masao-sensei's been giving me lots of extra work, it's gonna help a whole lot," said Karai, smiling.

"What's with the attitude, little bro?" said Takeru, when Sasuke didn't.

Inou didn't respond, disappearing slightly into his meal.

Their mother just sighed, picking at the dinner she had made.

(Praying there wouldn't be another argument, not like the night before.)

Nadeshiko wasn't present, but Hajime was, reluctantly, in an uncomfortable space between missions. He stayed out of it.

Sasuke couldn't sleep that night, after his bath. He lay in his bed with his hands beneath his head and he stared at the ceiling and thought of what he would do. What he had to do. The pages and pages of reports and speculation and everything flipped through his mind. He could practically feel the paper in his fingers, again.

He couldn't even stop himself from thinking about all of this any more, not with him finally deciding to do something about it.

Supposing it all was connected. Supposing there was someone still out there, doing these unnatural things.

Maybe Karin wouldn't know. He almost hoped she wouldn't. Or maybe she would. Then what?

He hoped the most, in fact, for a flat-out denial. To be told, told, that, no, this wasn't possible. That, no, his brother hadn't been brought back from the dead. There was no reason for that even to have occurred. There was no love for Itachi in Sound, after all.

He wanted to be woken up, really. To be shaken out of these dreams and fantasies and just all the rest.

(He wanted, the most, to forget about Yakata. But that seemed about as easy as forgetting about his brother, the man he seemed to be a shadow of.)

But he'd probably be proven wrong. Somewhere.

There was still that damn Uzu-Taki. Taki. Taki. Damn it, why could he never get it right? It was just a damn name.

Someone was behind her. Someone was responsible for her existence. Sasuke had read the reports on the cancer and her mother and he knew when something was blatantly impossible. Kiine's existence called everything into question. It was the little stab of pain that made him question whether or not it was all a dream - because, truly, there was no pain in dreams, was there?

And besides, why would anyone, Orochimaru or otherwise, want to bring back an Uzumaki female? Itachi, at least, had the Sharingan. Just like Sasuke had. And Orochimaru had coveted those eyes more than anything.

It answered nothing, but it made even less sense than the other option.

Kiine's existence called everything into question. And Sasuke needed an answer. Any sort of answer. No matter what Karin knew or didn't know. Whatever happened over there with her would happen.

He managed to get some sleep.

(Quietly, the day became July 24th. Sasuke had been forty-three years old for twenty-four hours.)

(He hadn't celebrated a birthday in years.)

He left in the morning from a quiet house, given the usual farewell, the obligatory kiss.

The voyage took him little more than an afternoon, and the harshness of the noonday heat was already beginning to fade away when he arrived in the town where Karin had established her clinic, Ryokyo. It was a little coastal town that he had to look up on a map and memorize the location of. Quaint.

Sasuke found himself almost feeling nostalgic as he went along down the street, savoring the lack of attention he was receiving. The Land of Waves was one rooted deeply in his past. His first real skirmish had occurred there, hadn't it? On that bridge with the obnoxious name. There had been a boy with throwing needles, in a mask. A man with a sword that had - didn't Suigetsu have that sword now? Sasuke didn't know. He hadn't even thought of Suigetsu in ages.

He supposed it was appropriate. It was a day for confronting the past, in a sense.

…nostalgic and poetic. Sasuke didn't know what seemed to have gotten into him.

The clinic was a modest building, interestingly enough, with little to differentiate it from the rest of the more traditionally-made buildings in the town beyond a sign advertising its services. Its size was impressive, however, especially given that, apparently, Karin was running it entirely by herself, both in terms of employment and funding.

She'd certainly done well for herself, Sasuke thought, and opened the sliding door.

There was a foyer, like any other home, at the mouth of a hallway filled with closed screen doors, except for a room to the right immediately near the foyer, whose door was left slightly open. Slippers were arranged neatly on the step for guests to use. None of the pairs matched each other. On the floor there were two pairs of shoes left behind: a pair of women's flats, and a pair of rough wooden sandals.

There was a sign on the right-hand wall, written in big red letters: "The doctor is IN. Please wait in the first room on the right to be seen." The "IN" was on a separate piece of wood that could be turned over for when, obviously, Karin was not around.

Sasuke took his shoes off and did as the sign told him, choosing a pair of light blue house slippers and taking a seat in the waiting room.

He did not have to wait long. He heard a voice coming down the hallway, a familiar one.

"I'll get that prescription for you ready by tonight, Ryouzai-san. And if you don't think you can come by to pick it up then I'm sure I can have my boy drop it off at your house, okay?"

Yes, that was definitely Karin. But who was "her boy?" An assistant, maybe?

Then, there was an older voice, dry and crackling, like autumn leaves. "Oh, he doesn't need to do that. I think I can manage."

"Oh, I know, I know. Now remember, extra rest. And don't be afraid to nag that husband of yours to wait on you, okay?"

"Like you need to tell me!" There was a shuffling, and the clack of wooden sandals, and women's laughter. "Take care, dearie."

"You too, Ryouzai-san."

The door to the clinic opened, and closed.

Sasuke waited, wondering why he was feeling a hollow pang of nervousness in his stomach.

"I know you're there, Sasuke. You don't have to stay in the waiting room, okay?"

Sasuke breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth. He stood, and exited.

Karin waited for him there in the foyer, a hand on her hip. She suddenly laughed. "Oh and look at you, you even put the slippers on…"

Sasuke found himself more than a little put-upon, for a number of reasons.

The first reason was the slipper comment. "It's the polite thing to do, would you rather I go around in my shoes? Barefoot?" he asked, even though he never really wore slippers elsewhere.

"Not at all. You just never struck me as the type to care too much about these things," Karin replied.

That was the second reason. Sasuke didn't respond to that.

The third reason was her, specifically. Her face had only aged minimally, mostly around the eyes, and her hair was only a little shorter, but still the same cut, the same vivid shade of red. That had remained much as he had last remembered, but time had not been kind to the rest of her body.

Her skin was flabby, pale and unhealthy in nearly every sense of the word. Her stomach and her thighs were especially bloated; she was rather pear-shaped, now, and the zipped-up, long-sleeved tunic she wore did nothing to hide it.

Sasuke tried not to stare.

(He also, subconsciously, tried not to compare her to Ino, who despite five children had lost only her youthful curves and become a bonier sort of creature in the process.)

"Well, come in, already. I assume you're here for a reason," she said, beckoning to him with a curt wave of her hand. "People like you don't just show up out of nowhere just to say hello."

"Hm," he said, and followed her. She led him through the hallway of sliding doors and into a kitchen near the back, where she pulled out a chair for him at the table and gestured toward it.

"Well, go on, I'm not going to make you stand, okay?" she said, pursing her lips slightly. "Are you thirsty?"

"Not terribly."

"Fine, then, I'll just get you a glass of water or something. Don't have time for tea," she said, and walked into the kitchen proper. Sasuke sat, putting down his bag and ignoring the growing, foreign pangs of awkwardness. Karin reached into a cupboard with a small "Oof!" and retrieved two glasses, and she filled them with water from a pitcher on the counter. She set them down on the table and sat down, with a small amount of difficulty, in her own chair.

"So," she said. "How have you been?"

"Well enough," he replied, automatically. He didn't acknowledge his glass. "Busy."

"Is that so? I hear about you from your son from time to time, you know, but he never really goes into detail. What's his name… Hajime?"

"Yes, Hajime," Sasuke said. His eyes narrowed. "What has he told you about me?"

"Not much, to be honest. Whenever he and the rest of the Seal Team come by they never last more than an afternoon. They're just there to pick up fresh vaccines when it's on their schedule, okay. I mostly hear that you've been busy, a few things about your other kids, your wife." She paused, resting her chin on her hand. "How is she, by the way? Your wife, I mean. I can't seem to remember her name."

"She's fine," Sasuke said, stiffly, and said no more.

"Mm." Another pause. "How many kids have you two had, anyways? I can never seem to keep track."

"Five." Much as he wanted to say he had only four, it was the truth.

"Five, wow…" Karin said, flatly. She exhaled quickly in what was almost a scoff, almost a laugh, but not quite one or the other. "Hm. Not bad. I bet they keep your hands full."

"I suppose you could say that," Sasuke said.

"Mm."

There was silence, for a while. And despite the many things Sasuke had to say, the obligation of small talk had an unusually strong hold on him, here, keeping him from bringing up the Uzumaki and Yakata, and he couldn't quite identify why. Perhaps it was the fact that they hadn't seen each other in years, a relative of the forced politeness that came from dealing with strangers. Maybe it came from their past with each other.

(He had never apologized for anything he had done to her, not once. But this was not unique to her.)

He didn't know.

"How have you been?" he finally asked, after clearing his throat. He still hadn't taken a sip from his glass. "You look… well."

She looked fat, and sick.

Karin laughed at this, and Sasuke narrowed his eyes. "Sasuke, of all the people I have ever known, you are by far the worst liar."

His eyes narrowed further. "What's that supposed to mean."

She rolled her own eyes from behind her plum-colored glasses. "I look 'well?' Honestly? I look like shit, Sasuke. Don't deny it, okay?"

He didn't, but he didn't confirm it, either, saying instead, "So you haven't been well?"

"Don't even get me started." She sighed, and continued anyways. "I don't think I've ever felt sicker in my life. Hopefully I'll be feeling better once the little one arrives."

He blinked a few times. "The… little one?"

"Well, yes. Goodness, has it ever been giving me trouble. I nearly miscarried a few weeks ago…"

There were many ways in which one could interpret Sasuke's resulting silence. Even Sasuke himself wasn't sure what it meant.

Karin interpreted it in her own way. "Don't tell me you didn't notice," she said, a sort of incredulous smile on her face. It faded, quickly, into a tired sort of admittance. "Well, I don't blame you. I'm definitely not as thin as I used to be, okay…"

Sasuke could feel his face growing slightly warmer. He avoided eye contact. "…congratulations, then," he mumbled.

"Now what is that supposed to mean?" she said, this time with a real laugh.

"Isn't that what you're supposed to say when you learn things like this?" he replied.

"Hm! I suppose so," Karin replied. "Thank you, Sasuke."

"Mm."

"Kind of surprising, though, isn't it? I just turned forty-three and I'm only just now having a kid I can call my own." She sighed, leaning back in her chair and resting a hand on her stomach. "Sure started late, didn't I."

"I wouldn't know," Sasuke said.

(Hajime had been born only two months after his twenty-first birthday.)

"So, is it a boy or a girl?" he found himself asking. "Do you know?"

"Oh, I was hoping for a girl. But I already checked, okay. It's a boy." She sighed again, resignedly. "Can't have everything you want, I suppose."

"Yeah, I… guess you can't." He reached for his glass in a gesture of nonchalance. "So who's the father."

"Why do you care?" she asked. Her voice was soft, almost amused, rather than bitter, or offended.

"…just wondering." He took a sip.

(A part of him really did wonder what kind of person would have settled down with her at that age, in such a state.)

"It's nobody you know, anyways," she continued. "Surprising as it may seem, I do have something of a social life here, okay?"

(…someone extremely desperate, no doubt.)

"I'm not surprised, actually," Sasuke said. "You seem to have done well for yourself here."

"You think? I like to tell myself that, surely," Karin replied. "I've made a difference in this town and with the curse seal victims, at least. Poor things."

"Hm." He put his glass down, but he didn't take his hand off of it.

She was quiet for a moment longer, rubbing the top of her stomach slightly. It was a soft roundness, rather than the tight flesh that Sasuke remembered from when Ino had been expecting his children. Is that why he hadn't noticed, at first?

(Then again, Karin looked just plain fat, no matter how you sliced it. So it could have been anything.)

"So, why are you here, Sasuke?" she said, after a while, looking at him with a sideways glance.

He let go of his glass and laced his fingers together in front of his face. "I read the reports that you sent Sakura. Regarding Taki Kiine."

Karin sighed. "So she showed them to you, did she?" she said. He nodded. "Why'd she do that?"

"I don't know. Something about checking details," he said. "Maybe she thought I could give her some more information. Since, well." He cleared his throat, but tried not to show it. "So I thought to come and see what you thought about all of this. As a favor to her."

"Well, that's awfully nice of you," Karin said. "She didn't ask or anything?"

Sasuke didn't reply.

"Well, believe me, I'm as confused by all of this as the next person, okay?" Karin continued. "I don't even know how in the world Taki Kiine exists, nor do I know why she has blood cells like mine."

"Like yours?"

Karin nodded. "Apparently. Sakura sent me samples of Taki Kiine's blood so I could see for myself, even, and there it was." She reached over to take her glass, and drank from it. Nearly half of the water was gone by the time she put it back down. "It's bizarre, really. And it's more or less the only thing that's got me stuck in this whole mess, okay. I could have dismissed her as maybe some Uzumaki survivor adopted by the Taki clan - they're very big on adoption, you see. But those cells? That was something."

Sasuke nodded, uneasily. "Makes sense."

"So that's why I sent her those reports," she continued. "They all used my blood somewhere or another. That was the only lead I could think of, when I went to go look for reports to send her. I'm still looking for more, really, in my spare time, okay? Tell me," she said, "has Sakura come up with any theories of her own?"

So that was the real connection, Sasuke thought. Strange how he didn't notice before - but then again, how was he supposed to know?

"Not that she's told me," he said. He had his own theories, but his delusions didn't help in making them seem any more viable than something Karin or Sakura could come up with. "So, do you think that any of these experiments have anything to do with Taki Kiine?"

"Maybe… I haven't checked everything, yet, but these seemed the most promising from my first searches," she said.

"Then, this is this all you found?"

"No, no, I found others, but I only sent the relevant material. I mean, really, I don't think recipes for medicines that kept Orochimaru's body alive that happened to use my blood were terribly relevant, okay? Growing an entire uterus in a jar, though? That's a bit better, I think."

"Sure…" Sasuke swallowed, gathering the nerves he knew he had. "But who do you think is behind all of this?"

Karin looked at him over her glasses, her face incredibly still. "What do you mean, 'behind all of this'?" she asked.

"Well, someone's got to be responsible for Taki Kiine existing. Someone… for all intents and purposes, made her," Sasuke said. "So, the question is, who did?"

"I have absolutely no idea," Karin said. She crossed her arms, frowning slightly. "That's what I'm trying to find out here, okay?"

"What, by just digging through reports and things? What good is that going to do?" Sasuke felt the pressure of anger growing in his chest. "It'll just get us more confused."

"Well, if I have an idea about how she came to be, whether it's because someone restored Taki Mikan's uterus or if she-"

"That changes nothing, don't you understand?" Sasuke's fist rattled the table, and his shoulders rose and fell with his quickened breaths. "It doesn't matter how it happened, we need to know who's responsible!"

Karin's face remained flat, unfazed. "You're awfully upset about all of this, Sasuke."

He didn't respond. He managed to slow his breaths, but he failed to keep Yakata out of his mind. He took what he could get.

She continued. "I'm just saying that, if I figure out how this was possible, then I might be able to… get a better idea of who could have done it, okay? I knew the medical staff at the labs better than you, I'm sure. I knew their specialties."

"Right. Sure," Sasuke said. He drummed his fingers on the table. "Then, tell me, do you have anyone in mind, as of right now?"

Her mouth pinched in at the center. "I don't."

"Really."

"Honestly. So far, I can't come to any real conclusions, okay? I have no clues."

"Really."

"Would you stop looking at me like that," she said, glancing sideways. Her shoulders rose, and Sasuke stared at the table. "And I'm sorry, Sasuke, but it's not like this is something I can do full-time, okay? Any other time I'd do a full search of all my archives, but right now I have patients and, more importantly, myself to take care of," she added.

"Mm."

"But from the way things are looking there's nobody I can suspect right now." She paused. "Well, maybe Sanshi. She had a talent with fetuses, she might have done something with this research... But I know she's dead." Another pause. Her voice was very, very cold when she said, "And there's… one other option, but I don't even want to consider it…"

"What, you can't mean Orochimaru?" He looked up from the table. Karin had stopped crossing her arms and had her hands on her belly again. She didn't say anything, nor give any other indication of a reply. "But he's gone, why would you-"

"Mom, I'm home!"

There was a voice coming from the entrance of the house and it froze Sasuke's anger and sent it shooting into the pit of his stomach.

Who was that?

"They finished rehearsal early so I got out early too! So I went to the store and - Mom, where are you?"

Who was that?

"I'm in the kitchen!" Karin replied, her voice brightening suddenly, but clearly artificially. Sasuke noticed her muscles tensing, but he found that the voice preoccupied him more.

The door to the kitchen slid open and a young man walked in, no older than maybe twenty-three or twenty-four. He was wearing black pants and a white t-shirt, and he carried a plastic bag with him. His skin was the same color as the shirt; he had black hair that fell to his chin, and bangs that covered his face to the nose, concealing his eyes.

The young man leaned in and kissed Karin on the side of her forehead. "Hi, Mom. So, I went to the store to pick up a few things, since I had some extra time. Got some okonomiyaki sauce, since I knew we were running low…"

"You are such a sweetheart, thank you," Karin said. The young man smiled back at her. His mouth looked like it had been cut into his face. "You didn't have to do that."

"Yeah, but, well, it's your favorite," he said, and laughed slightly.

Sasuke found himself almost shuddering, recognizing that laughter, that deep, guttural, joyless thing.

The young man seemed, suddenly, to notice Sasuke. "And who is this?" he asked.

"Oh, well. Um. Ooda, this is Uchiha Sasuke, he's… an old acquaintance of mine," Karin said, after clearing her throat. "Sasuke, this is… Ooda. My son."

"Oh! It's very nice to meet you," Karin's son (Karin's son?) Ooda said, bowing awkwardly. He paused when he rose, and Sasuke could see, through bangs that would have otherwise hidden them, chemical-yellow eyes staring into his, angular and snake-like, bordered by thorns of purple.

He couldn't bring himself to say anything. He looked at Karin, whose face contained supreme discomfort, packaged in a smile.

"If… you don't mind me asking, Uchiha-san, are your eyes always like that?" he heard Ooda say, tilting his head slightly. "I've never seen truly red eyes like that before. It's..." And his voice grew soft there, disgustingly, disturbingly, familiarly soft. "...actually very beautiful."

"Ooda, please! Don't embarrass our guest…" Karin said, before Sasuke could even do a thing. She batted at Ooda's nearby arm, her smile growing more strained, and Ooda's knife-cut mouth twisted into a sheepish smile of his own.

"Sorry, I didn't mean it…"

Sasuke felt bile and anger rising in his throat.

"So, will Uchiha-san be staying for dinner?" Ooda asked.

"I think I'll be staying for a while," Sasuke said, just barely, "but I don't know for how long." He looked at Karin again, and there was a pained knowingness in her eyes. She nodded, slightly.

There was an explanation for this, for this "son" of hers. He knew it, he just knew it.

There had to be an explanation for this.

"Why don't you make us… something to eat anyways, Ooda? Something small, okay?" Karin said. "I'm not too hungry, though I haven't had much of a lunch yet."

Ooda's mouth dropped; even with bangs concealing them, Sasuke saw something like worry enter those awful eyes. "Mom, what have I told you, you have to eat."

In any other situation, Sasuke would have scoffed slightly - why would he worry about her not eating? - but not here. All he could do was watch, paralyzed as Ooda put his ice-white hand on Karin's stomach.

"You have to take care of yourself. Not just for you, but for the little one. Okay? Did you take your medicine either…?" Karin sighed in reply. "Mom…"

"I had three patients in a row come by, I had no time, okay?" she said. "But I took my medicine at least, goodness…"

"And you wonder why I never want to leave you alone…" Ooda sighed, shaking his head, and he stood up. He was very tall. "Well, I'll make you something. Is there anything you'd like to eat, Uchiha-san?"

"…no," Sasuke managed to reply.

"Then, I'll see what I can do." He smiled, so naturally, but it looked like it had been carefully learned, to Sasuke. He couldn't see such a warm thing on such a face as being anything else.

"We'll be in the living room, okay?" Karin announced, and started getting out of her chair. Ooda helped her stand, and supported her as she got her balance back. "Ooda, honestly! I'm fine." He set his mouth sideways in reply and went to set his plastic bag on the counter, and began taking things out of it. "Come on, Sasuke, this way," Karin said. She sounded very, very tired.

Sasuke followed, starving for answers, his chest burning with rekindled anger.

He had no idea how any of this was possible.

But Karin had to know.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21 - Frozen Teeth


Once they were alone, Karin spoke first.

"Let me explain."

Sasuke exploded.

"Explain? Explain? How the hell can you explain that?" He fought to keep his voice down, just in case that thing in the kitchen could hear him.

"Sasuke, please calm down."

"Oh, like hell I'm calming down. That was… that was…!"

He couldn't even bring himself to say the name now.

It was the nightmare all over again. But she said she had an explanation so there was, there was…

Karin just sat there, calmly, her eyes focused, intense, and pained.

"Okay. Fine. Explain," Sasuke said, after a while. His breaths were heavy and his mind was whirling with thoughts but he could concentrate. This meant she knew something, and he had to listen.

"Okay." She took a breath in and out. "Man, and it had to be you who found out about him first, okay… Funny how life works out that way, huh…"

Sasuke didn't respond.

"I guess I'll start at the beginning, then." Another breath, in, and out. "Pretty obviously, Ooda isn't my biological son. He's adopted, okay?"

"So it didn't come from you, then? That's a relief," Sasuke said.

(Truthfully, though, some small part of him felt slightly relieved for reasons he didn't feel like voicing to himself, out of shock and disgust and just no.)

Karin glared at him for a moment, sighing after another, shaking her head.

(She knew better than to expect an apology from Sasuke. She kept one hand pressed against the warmth of her stomach, as if to comfort herself, or what now grew within her.)

Eventually, she continued. "I took him in… well over twenty years ago. After I'd set up my clinic here. You know, after we finished clearing out most of the labs." Her eyes were downcast with recollection. "It was winter. The solstice, I remember. It was after I'd closed down for the night, and I was sleeping. But sometimes there are emergencies at night and I heard a knock on the door and it woke me up, okay. And this was late at night; maybe three, four in the morning. So I went to go answer the door and I… felt a very familiar chakra right behind it, and I ran because… But he was gone by the time I got there."

"'He' being…?"

She nodded. "Exactly who you think. I'd know that chakra anywhere, okay."

Sasuke clenched his teeth, but kept his mouth closed.

"Honestly, I was scared as hell - from the way that his chakra had disappeared I figured it had to have been a bunshin or something, and I couldn't feel his chakra anywhere else in the town, or outside it or… anywhere. And then…" And there her eyes softened, and she looked up. "…there was Ooda, just sleeping, like there was nothing wrong. He'd been left behind, like…" She laughed, slightly, bitterly, and lowered her eyes. "Like some sort of foundling child from out of a story or something. In a basket, with a note."

"A note."

"I know it's hard to believe, but it's the truth, okay?" She closed her eyes, and recited: "'My dearest Karin, this child's name is Ooda. I trust you to take care of him until I return.' That was what it said. It was in his handwriting."

"Do you still have it?"

"What, are you kidding?" Her eyes opened. "I burned it as soon as I could. What if someone found it?"

"Hm." Sasuke shifted his weight where he sat, trying to make it look like he wasn't squirming. "And, obviously, you didn't tell anyone."

"Of course not!" she snapped. "What, do you think I could just waltz back to Konoha and say 'Oh, I think Orochimaru left this baby that looks like him on my doorstep and he told me to take care of it until he comes back from wherever he is. Here, take it!'? They'd have… killed him." Her face fell. "I couldn't allow that, not to an innocent child, okay…?"

"You don't know that they'd have killed it," Sasuke interrupted. "You still should have at least told someone that… he had… contacted you. That he said he was coming back."

"Okay, first off? I doubt anyone would have believed me, at the time."

"I think that… you'd have pretty telling evidence on your hands, in all honesty," Sasuke said.

"Which brings me to my second point: telling someone would involve having to explain how I knew. And that'd involve telling them about Ooda."

For a brief moment, there was anger in her eyes. Karin could be very intimidating if she wanted to be, even to Sasuke.

"I couldn't. Take. That risk, okay?"

Something like a gross parody of a laugh scratched its way across his throat, like a defense mechanism. "Even though it meant that Orochimaru was probably still alive, but nobody was doing a thing about it?"

"Well, what else was I supposed to do? I was… nineteen, I was scared, okay? I thought I'd left that life behind and… there it was, just… catching up with me."

She smiled slightly, resignedly, a familiar smile, as easily applied to her ruined life as her ruined body.

"I guess I'm still more loyal to him than I think. Then and now. Even though… even though I told myself that… if Ooda turned out… strangely, or if anything more happened with Orochimaru then I'd speak up immediately. Tell the proper authorities. But at the same time, I didn't want to send anyone on any wild goose chases or anything, because that would only get me in trouble, so I stayed quiet until I could be more certain."

"And I take it that nothing ended up happening."

"No, he hasn't contacted me since leaving Ooda behind. And Ooda… well, he…" Karin sighed, again. "It's been hell, honestly. I couldn't sleep easily for years, wondering if he… would really come back. Not to mention if Ooda turned out…" She didn't say anything more.

Sasuke was quiet, for a while. Then, he said, "So you just… took it in and raised it as your…"

"My son," she said, because he couldn't. "He. Not it. Is my son, Sasuke."

Sasuke held the words in his throat for a while. "…so what is it-" Karin's glare was unfittingly punishing. "…he, then," he said, finally, "Orochimaru's child? Another vessel?"

"No, no, no. None of that. Ooda, he's…" She looked at her hands, and then back at Sasuke. "He's a perfect genetic duplicate. A clone," she replied. There was something in her voice like sad wonder. "I did tests on him, when he was little. He has the same fingerprints, the same blood type, the same DNA, even. I tested it all against the old profiles that… he left behind. I don't know how he happened, but… there he is."

The same… face, the same eyes, the same mannerisms, the same…

"Does… he know?" Sasuke asked, quietly.

"…heavens, no. I haven't even told him a thing about… well, him. I think he's better off not knowing…" She held her lips tightly together for a while, thinking. "I've wanted a normal life for him, more than anything."

"More than anything, huh."

"Absolutely." Karin looked at him with clear, hard red eyes. "I wanted to give him a life that… that Orochimaru didn't. Couldn't have. And it hasn't been easy, not in the least. He was teased so much for his eyes and his skin, when he was a boy, just for starters. And he's always got his hair in his face, now, no matter what tell him to do with it otherwise." She looked down, again. "He's so shy, it's like pulling teeth to get him out of the house. Twenty-three years old and he's never even been on a single date with a boy or a girl."

Sasuke choked, slightly. "Why do you assume… boy first?"

Karin gave him a very strange look. "You lived with Orochimaru for three years, surely you noticed something," she said. "I'm just trying to stay open-minded, since so much has carried over already, okay…?"

Sasuke's silence meant many things.

"Still," Karin continued, before his embarrassment could grow, "Ooda isn't… much at all like him. Sure, there are times when… when he looks at me and I could swear I've seen that expression before. When he laughs and I know that he used to laugh like that, too. But he's a good boy, he has a good heart." She tilted her head slightly, gently. "In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he wanted to settle down someday with a wife, and children. That's something I'd never expect of Orochimaru, but Ooda…"

There was a silence, for a while. Sasuke ended it. "So do you think there are… others like him, out there?"

"What do you mean by that? That there are other Oodas out there? It's… certainly possible," Karin said. She shivered, for a moment. "Again, I haven't heard a word from Orochimaru since he left Ooda with me, so he could be dead, now, for all I know, okay? Then again, I have no idea how he was even alive enough to even create Ooda in the first place…"

"No, no, I didn't mean that," Sasuke interrupted. He gathered his breath, thinking of those eyes, that boy, everything. "I meant, do you think he's made clones of… other people?"

Karin was quiet, for a while. "…what do you mean by that?"

"Well, I can imagine why he'd want to make a clone of himself. After all, knowing him…" He had to pause. "But… do you think he'd want to bring anyone else back?"

"…Sasuke, where are you going with this?" she asked.

He breathed in.

And out.

And said, "A few months ago, on a mission in the Land of Rice, I met a boy that looked… exactly like my brother. I thought I was… imagining things, for the longest time, but now I'm starting to wonder if maybe…"

Even with all of this evidence, even with this spawn of the snake shoved in his face, even with all of this, he still couldn't voice the possibility to himself.

Too much had been wrong so far.

And yet, maybe, somehow, maybe…

"…that maybe…?" Karin's face was confused for a moment, and then, "Oh, you don't mean…" She held her hand to her mouth. "Are you sure?" she said, very, very quietly.

"I could never. Ever forget my brother's face. Not with my eyes."

"No, I suppose you couldn't," she said. Her voice was still soft. "How… how old was he?"

"Ten, maybe eleven. Young. But I could still tell it was him."

"I'm sure." Karin ran her hand over the curve of her stomach as she thought, before it came to rest on her side after a time. Her face tightened with some sort of discomfort.

"So, that's what I meant. When I asked if you thought there might be others," Sasuke said, after that. "Because of what I saw."

He wondered, for a while, why his heart was beating so rapidly. He wondered why Karin had started breathing so quickly, too, all of a sudden.

"That could mean… anything," she said. She swallowed. "What was that boy's name, did you catch it? The one that looked like your brother."

"Yakata."

"Yakata…" She said the name slowly, as if committing it to memory. "I need to go write this down, okay?" she said, and braced herself against the table as she stood up. "I'll be right back, don't go anywhere."

"I won't."

And then she was gone.

And there Sasuke sat alone, his thoughts racing.

She hadn't said it was a coincidence. She had… accepted it, she had believed it. Maybe it wasn't so crazy, then?

Maybe someone. Maybe Orochimaru - he was still alive, he had somehow come back, too, he had - had brought Itachi back?

Yakata was Itachi. Revived. It was possible. It was… maybe, maybe even probable.

…what was he going to do about this?

"Pardon?"

Ooda, Karin's son, had appeared in the room eyes slightly wide behind his dense black bangs. He set down a teapot on a pad in the middle of the table.

When had he come in?

"Nothing. Just talking to myself," Sasuke said.

"Ah. Pardon me, then…" Ooda put down a pair of cups. "By the way, do you know where my mom went?"

Sasuke almost didn't shiver, that time, hearing that voice saying those words. "She said she went to go get something."

"Ah, I see, I see." Ooda picked up the teapot again, and poured tea into one of the cups. "I decided to make sandwiches, by the way. I hope you don't mind."

"That's fine."

"Do you like sugar or anything in your tea? I could bring some over," Ooda said, after pouring some into the other cup, presumably Sasuke's. "Mom doesn't like much in hers, but…"

"No, no, it's… fine," Sasuke said, staring at his knee afterwards. Ooda's movements, graceful and fluid and almost feminine, were unsettlingly familiar to him. It was better not to look.

At least, husky and rough though his voice was, Ooda didn't speak much like a woman.

"…I'm sorry, I don't mean to pry at all, but... how exactly do you know my mom?" Ooda asked, after a while of silence. Sasuke looked up and saw him standing near the door with his head slightly bowed, a small tray under his arm. "You look like you're a ninja, but I don't want to make any assumptions."

"…we used to work for the same person, let's just say," Sasuke said, after a while. He almost had to laugh, when he thought about it for a moment, considering who Ooda was. But his face remained still.

"Ah, I see… Well, then, I'll just leave it at that," he said, and smiled, so naturally, so unfittingly. "I'll be back with the sandwiches in a bit."

He left. Karin came back, afterward, with a notebook, and sat down before noticing, "Where did the tea come from?"

"Ooda."

"Oh, I see."

"We talked a little," Sasuke said. "He asked how I knew you."

Karin rolled her eyes, sighing. "Oh, Ooda… What did you tell him? And I apologize for the thing he said about your eyes, by the way, he sometimes does things like that. He's just endlessly curious about people, okay? I didn't think he'd actually ask you about them, though. Or how we know each other."

"It's fine," Sasuke lied. "And I told him that we used to work for the same person. That's all I could say. Since you haven't told him about Orochimaru, after all."

Karin gave him an uneasy smile. "Well, thank you, okay? I appreciate that."

"Don't mention it."

She took a pen from out of the spiral binding of the notebook, and opened it about midway, leafing past pages of her blocky handwriting. "So, can you tell me more about this boy you saw? What was his name again?"

"Yakata." A pause. "Honbo Yakata."

She wrote down something. Sasuke could have read it, if he wanted to, but he didn't, his mind staying focused on the boy's face in his mind.

"Where did you see him, exactly? You said it was in the Land of Rice, but…"

"A farming village. Tamina, it was called."

Karin's mouth tightened, and she scoffed, slightly. "Tamina… That name sounds familiar. I think… we had a lab near there. A breeding facility." A shiver in miniature ran up Sasuke's spine. "So, where, exactly, did you see…" She looked at the paper, and back. "Yakata?"

Ooda came in with the sandwiches, before Sasuke could answer. "Oh, I hope I'm not interrupting something," he said. He held the plate in his hands up a little. "Uh, I made sandwiches!"

"Oh, thank you. You can just leave them on the table; we're a little busy, Ooda," Karin told him, with a small smile. She covered the notebook, subtly, with her hand. Ooda nodded and did as she said. They were small sandwiches, cut into triangles and arranged in stacks.

"I'm gonna be up in my room if you need me," he said, as he was heading out. "And promise me you'll eat at least one, Mom."

"Go on, Ooda," Karin said, and he left, smiling. She waited a while before continuing. "He'll probably be up there for a while. You were saying?"

And Sasuke began to tell her everything.

The words came freely, finally, after the memories they were describing had been pent up and repeated and replayed and not shared for months and months and months. Karin's hand darted quickly over the paper, making quick bullet points of statements, collecting only the raw material in Sasuke's words, as she had long ago been trained to do.

(There was a lot he didn't mention. His shame, his anger, his foolishness, he all kept away from the heart of the matter.)

It was only when he started feeling relief, after she had filled three pages with bullet points, after she had asked him if he had seen any other children in the village of Tamina that he had found familiar, and he had said that he hadn't. That he knew only Yakata's face. Only after all of that, he finally asked, "Why do you want to know all of this?"

"I have a theory," she responded, laying the pen down on her notebook. "I don't like it, and I hope, I sincerely hope that I'm not right, but I'm starting to think that this might be related to our problems with Taki Kiine."

A pause. "…I don't understand," Sasuke said.

"I'd have to gather more data to make any solid assumptions. But I'm thinking…" And she paused there, and lowered her head, for a moment. "Orochimaru might have made them. Ooda from… himself; Yakata, from your brother; and Kiine from… some Uzumaki, I don't know. And I don't know how, or why, or anything else, really. But it's the only thing that makes any sense, in my mind, right now, okay? Crazy and… wrong as it all is."

It chilled Sasuke's blood, to hear those words coming from someone else. "But… that's what makes the most sense. Isn't it?" he said. "And besides, you know more about this than me."

She laughed, once, baffled. "What makes you think that?"

He pressed his lips together, thinking, his eyes drifting sideways. "You're the scientist. You actually know these things are possible. You can stay… rational about these things."

"What does that even mean…?" she asked, after a while. "I mean, just because I'm a doctor-"

"Nothing. Just… forget it," he said. He squeezed the insecurity out of his voice, so it was at its usual strength when he asked, "So what are we going to do?"

"We?" Karin barely held in a giggle, before sealing it into her mouth with her hand a moment later. "Well, I'm certainly going to be rummaging through the archives a bit more, that's for sure. See if I can find us a lead. I wouldn't dare approach the Taki family myself for information, though. I know better than that, okay? I'm in no condition to do much traveling, anyways." She looked at Sasuke, a second later. "...what are you going to do, Sasuke?" she said.

What was he going to do?

"I want to see Yakata again. And," he added quickly, "get some more answers from his family, now that I know all of this. For you, I mean."

Karin took a deep breath inward. "You'd have to be very careful, if you did that," she said. "In how you asked questions, in how you treated him, even. I'd avoid even mentioning this… clone theory we have. To either him, or his parents. We're not sure of anything yet, okay?"

"I know that," Sasuke said.

"You have to remember, Sasuke…" And she looked at him there, intensity and what was almost sadness in her eyes. "Yakata, if he is what we think he is, isn't Itachi. Just like Ooda isn't Orochimaru. Even if it he's really and truly a clone, he's bound to be a very different person."

Sasuke looked away from her. All he could think about was just the similarities. The grace, the glances, everything that made Yakata who he was.

"…you understand, Sasuke?" she asked.

"Yes, yes," he said, knowing she would stop asking if he said it.

(She knew it was a half-lie, but she knew it wouldn't make any difference, calling him out on it there.)

"So, then, what?" she continued. "After you meet with him again."

"Well, obviously, I'll tell you what I learn from them," he said. He crossed his arms. "And then I'll have to go home. I have children to train. I can't be kept long."

"And you won't want to see him again?"

He paused, there. "I don't know," he said.

(That was the truth.)

"Well, keep me posted, regardless. Okay?" Karin said. "Since I suppose this involves the both of us, now."

"Yeah. I guess it does."

"And… thank you. For telling me about that boy, Yakata, okay?" she added. She smiled at him, a real smile, but a small one. "If you hadn't told me about him then I wouldn't have come up with this theory. Maybe I'll actually figure out what's going on with Taki Kiine, at this rate! I don't know."

"Mm."

"But… you do realize what this means," she said. "If all of these things really are connected. Ooda and the Taki and Yakata. There might be more. For all we know, there probably are. We don't know what we're getting into, okay?"

"I suppose we don't. We'll just have to find out," Sasuke said. His head felt light, detached. "I think I'll be leaving, now. I don't see what else we can talk about." He began to stand.

"Sasuke, wait," Karin said. He paused, one knee risen, one on the floor. "Please, promise me you… won't tell anyone about Ooda. I've worked so hard to give him a normal, quiet life. I don't think that anyone outside of the village knows that he even exists. Hell, I've been sending him to his room whenever I know the Seal Team's coming to visit since…" She swallowed. "I don't want it to be ruined; for me, but especially for him, okay?" There was genuine distress in her voice. Her throat sounded closed-up. "Please, you have to understand. Don't tell anyone, okay?"

Sasuke thought for a moment, and then stood. It was the least he could do for her. "I won't."

Karin breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh, thank you. Really, you have no idea how much this means to us."

He grabbed his bag. "I can imagine." He headed for the door.

"Oh, and Sasuke?" He turned around to look at her, kneeling at the table, one hand on her belly, the other on her notebook. "Take some sandwiches with you, otherwise Ooda will think I haven't eaten any." She was smirking, though the joke was on her, and not him.

Sasuke waited for a moment, then approached the low table again and took two halves. "I don't like sandwiches much, but I could use something to eat," he said. "Take care."

She stayed sitting as he left the clinic, tracking his dark chakra as he paused in the foyer, left the entrance, and walked out of the village and out of her range.

She was eating a sandwich half of her own when Ooda finally came back downstairs. "So I finally got you to eat," he said, smiling. "How is it? I kinda threw it together."

It was some sort of vegetable butter with cucumbers, and it tasted very fresh. "It's not bad. But maybe add a bit more to them, next time. Okay?"

"Sure, sure. Did Sasuke enjoy them? I wasn't sure what he'd like, so I went with something safe, you know?"

"I'm sure he liked them too. He took some with him when he left, in fact."

"Really! I'm glad." Ooda smiled. "When did he leave?"

"A while back. By the way," Karin added, idly, peeling off a loose bit of crust from the sandwich, "I need to go make a prescription for Ryouzai-san soon, you think you can deliver that to her house when I'm done making it?"

"Sure, if you want me to," he said. "How's she doing?"

"Ryouzai-san? She's doing better."

"That's good to hear."

"Mhmm."

Ooda settled himself across the table from her. Karin had long since closed the notebook, put the pen back in the spirals.

Then, "By the way?"

"Yeah?"

"Whatever were you and Sasuke talking about?" He added, when Karin didn't reply immediately, "I just heard him shouting from down the hallway and it got me a bit worried. Are things all right between you two?"

Karin took a very, very long time to say anything.

There were times when that voice was ever so much like his.

But, eventually, she did, suppressing the fear in her throat.

She couldn't tell him everything.

Not him.

Chapter Text

Chapter 22 - White Wing


Sasuke was already calculating distances in his mind when he left the clinic. If he departed immediately from Karin's village he'd reach Tamina by the evening. That wasn't so much time.

His heart was beating so quickly, quickly, quickly.

How long had it been since he'd last seen Yakata? The mission had been in April. It was July now. April-May-June-July. That was three, almost four months. That hadn't been so long, had it? And yet, it seemed like it had been forever.

Did Yakata even remember him?

Oh, why did he even care? He basically had been told, to his face, that it was possible. That Yakata was, Yakata was…

No. Calm down. He had things to ask, he had things he needed to know.

He made a list of things to ask in his head as he went along.

He realized, when he settled down to rest somewhere on the border of the Lands of Silk and Rice, that he had far too many questions.

No, he didn't need to know what Yakata's favorite food was. No, he didn't need to know how many friends he had. He didn't need to know any of those million other things. That was all secondary. He had to be rational about this.

(Besides, Yakata's favorite food was probably rice balls, or cabbage. He probably hated steak. He probably had a few friends. Hadn't that been what those boys had been, when he had last been in the village? He had friends, there was nothing to worry about there.)

By the time he saw the hills in which Tamina was nestled, he had narrowed his queries down to two or three opening questions, and he figured, if the conversation continued, that he would just go on from there.

How had Yakata come to be their son? Was he adopted, or did his mother give birth to him?

Did he have the Sharingan?

That would be good enough to start.

Tamina was cleaner than he had remembered. Then again, he supposed that three months of being lived-in all anew would do that to a place. One would never have guessed that there had been a landslide there, that everything there was freshly-built.

It wasn't quite dark, but the sun was starting to set - just like how it had been when he had first arrived. But there were no lanterns, no dirty faces to greet him here. He wasn't paid much mind as he went through the streets, familiar in a faint, residual way, memorized unconsciously.

He knew where the Honbo house was.

He walked past the elder's house, where he and his students had once stayed. A pair of passing women nudged each other and whispered something he couldn't hear, though he could guess what it was they were discussing. Their tone was suspicious, after all.

His heartbeat was thick in his ears as he saw the house. He approached it.

He repeated his questions in his mind. To remind himself what was important here, what he needed to ask.

How had Yakata become their son?

Did he have the Sharingan?

He held his breath.

And knocked.

There was a rustling sort of clatter within. "Who could that be?" That was Yakata's mother's voice. Sasuke could remember her name - Satoko, he knew that.

"I'll go get it."

Yakata's voice.

Sasuke kept his face as still as he could. He held his mouth in a hard line that was neither a smile, nor a scowl.

When Yakata opened the door, and saw who was standing there, he gasped. "…Sa-Sa-Sasuke-san?" he said, softly. His eyes were wide, and full of fear.

He had remembered Sasuke's name. And Sasuke remembered his.

"Yakata, are your parents at home?" Sasuke said.

Yakata didn't answer. His hair was longer, Sasuke noticed.

"Please, I just want to talk," Sasuke continued, when he received no answer.

"You, you, you, you shouldn't have come back," Yakata said, a sudden anger in his voice. "If, if, if you were just… if you were just going to leave anyways then… then you shouldn't have come back!"

"Yakata, who's there?" That was his father's voice.

Yakata didn't answer. His head whipped over his shoulder, and then back at Sasuke. "Wha-wha-what do you… what do you want?"

"Yakata, who's there?" his father said again.

"I just… want to talk. To your parents," Sasuke said. He could feel his mouth stretching at the corners, drawing itself into a thinner line.

"Yakata!" There were footsteps, and then there was Yakata's father, Gishi, standing behind him, all brown skin and brown eyes and astonishment on his face. "What are you doing here?" he asked. He spoke like his son did.

"I wanted to talk to you," Sasuke said. "About Yakata."

"Talk to… me? After just leaving like that? Well. This is unexpected." Gishi did not sound pleased.

"I know that this is unexpected and I'm sure that I'm… unwelcome," Sasuke said. "But, please, just allow me… ten minutes with you."

There was such a fear in Yakata's eyes.

Gishi took a very long time to answer. "…fine. Ten minutes. Come in," he finally said.

Yakata disappeared.

They had, apparently, been in the middle of a meal. Yakata's mother, still wearing that rough, rope-like braid, had a bowl of rice in her hand. She gasped when Sasuke entered. "What is he doing here…?" she said.

"He wants to talk to us. About Yakata," Gishi said. "Go on, shinobi. Sit." He'd left off the honorifics this time, Sasuke noticed.

"About Yakata? What about Yakata…?"

"I just have a few questions," Sasuke said.

How had he come to be their son?

Did he have the Sharingan?

"You seemed to have a few questions when you came to visit last time, but you just ran out all of a sudden," Satoko said. She put down her bowl of rice and glared at him. "Why?"

"I… have my reasons. It's complicated. But things have changed," Sasuke said. "Please, just allow me this time, I can explain myself later. Trust me."

"Ask your questions," Gishi said. He sat, cross-legged, across from Sasuke, ignoring his food.

Yakata was nowhere to be found.

Sasuke almost didn't want him there. Maybe it was for the better.

"I need to ask you… Is… Yakata your son? Biologically, I mean."

Already, he was deviating from his plan. He clenched his fists, trying not to show his frustration.

But Satoko and Gishi glanced at each other, something Sasuke found curious. Satoko's chest rose and fell. "Can I ask you a question in return, then…?" she said.

Sasuke tilted his head, slightly. "I… suppose?"

"Are… you Yakata's father, then?"

The words hit him harder than he had ever thought words were capable of. His own words slipped and stuttered as they shot out of his mouth. "E-excuse me?"

"Satoko!" Gishi said.

"Well, I had to ask! Especially because Yakata was just so convinced…" She bowed her head, staring at her lap. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice hard. "I shouldn't have said anything."

"Why did you think I was…?" Sasuke said. He paused, and thought. "…so this means he isn't your child?"

"No," Gishi said. The anger in his voice had softened, but his expression had not changed. "He isn't."

"I had a feeling," Sasuke said. "He… doesn't resemble either of you much at all."

"But you two, he was convinced you were…" Satoko said, but couldn't finish. Sasuke found that her eyes were suddenly brimming with tears. "Do you have any idea how much pain you've caused him?"

"Satoko, calm down," Gishi said.

"Pain? How did I…?"

"When you first showed up, Yakata was convinced, convinced, that his real father had come back!" She sniffed, but tried to quiet herself with her sleeve. "And the way that you just followed him around like that… You're a sick, sick man!"

"Satoko, don't say things like that."

It took a while for Sasuke to process. Yakata thought that he…?

"So just tell me now! Are you his father or aren't you?" Satoko said. She was yelling. Wherever he was, Yakata could probably hear her. Sasuke didn't doubt that she knew this.

"…I'm… I'm not his father," he said. "But…"

"But what?" Satoko said. "Why have you come back? Why would you do something like this to him?"

Gishi took his place her side. He had his arms around his wife, who covered her face in her hands and began to openly sob. "Satoko, it's okay…" He looked up at Sasuke, eyes burning. "Why did you come back?" he asked.

"…I needed to ask how Yakata came to be your son. Did… someone leave him with you, or did you-?"

"Yes!" Satoko cried out. She sniffed, wiping her tears away with her sleeve. The fabric was turning dark. "We… I can't have any children, and we prayed and then one day he came and gave us…" There was another sob. "He thought it was you."

A cold weight fell into Sasuke's stomach. "He? Who's…?"

"We never got a good look at his face," Gishi said. His voice was level and even with recollection. "He was wearing a black cloak, had everything covered up. Just came to our house in the dead of night and he had Yakata with him."

"He told us he, he came from where we came from, and he told us to take care of him until he c-came back," Satoko sniffed. "Said he'd… he'd do something to us if we didn't… Just told his name was… name was Yakata and he gave him to us and then he just left…"

"Yakata always knew he was adopted. It's… not an uncommon thing in these parts. And… because you two looked so similar, when you showed up and started following him around, he thought, well…" A shade of anger entered Gishi's face again. "Why did you have to come back? Why are you even here?"

"…listen, I'll leave if this is a bad time. I'm making you upset," Sasuke said. He already began shifting his position, to move.

He'd had a plan, he was there to ask two questions.

One of the questions had been answered. It was so easy to ask the second, and yet…

And yet he had a hysterical woman on his hands and an angry husband and Yakata was nowhere and they all hated him, they absolutely did.

Everything was going wrong. It wasn't the right time, none of it was right.

But then Gishi, said, demanded, "No, just… answer my question." The farmer's stare was intense and full of months, maybe years of frustration. "You came back for a reason. Tell me that reason."

He couldn't say it.

Why would he say such a thing?

Their son was his brother.

They didn't know anything, they didn't… He couldn't say that!

Gishi's stare was increasing in intensity. "Well, come on, shinobi! Answer me!"

He knew that Yakata was watching, from somewhere. Listening, like Sasuke had done from the trees.

And not quite knowing where it had come from, Sasuke said it. "I'm… not Yakata's father. I'm his…" He swallowed. "I'm his uncle," he said. "My… late brother, that's who his father is. I never thought he'd left behind any children, but when I first saw Yakata the resemblance was so strong, I just couldn't…"

"Your brother…?" Gishi's voice was suddenly rather hollow. "That's what you think…?"

Sasuke swallowed, again. They couldn't have known Itachi. Itachi was dead. He could say this.

And, after all, couldn't Yakata be considered something like a son? That had been what he had first thought, hadn't it?

"They look exactly the same. Trust me, I never forget a face," Sasuke said. "I thought I was… deluding myself, for the longest time. Hah, I even… I even I thought that maybe my brother was still alive. That you were my brother." He nodded his head toward Gishi. "That's why I ran, the first time, because you weren't and I didn't want to make a fool of myself." Even though he clearly, clearly, clearly had. "But after I left, something happened that changed my mind, and now I'm… convinced. He is my brother's son."

"Your nephew…?" Satoko said. She was starting to calm down, just a little. Her sobs were devolving into gentle weeps. "Oh, heavens…"

"It wasn't my intention to cause any pain," Sasuke continued. His voice had gotten soft, unexpectedly. Comfort was a foreign thing to him and it felt strange, coming out of his mouth. "In all honesty this… probably could have been cleared up if I had just bothered to stay and explain myself."

Hindsight was twenty-twenty, after all. Wasn't it?

"That's my fault. And this revelation was very recent, I should perhaps have sent a letter or something… But I got…" He looked at his lap. "...a little excited."

Well if that wasn't the understatement of the century. Sasuke's heart was beating at speeds he rarely felt outside of battle.

"Just how recent?" Gishi said.

And Sasuke thought. Quickly.

"My wife… found some letters of his, when she was cleaning the house. About a week ago. There were mentions of… a lover. A child. It all added up. I was confused and scared and… excited. And when I saw Yakata's name, near the later entries, I just… I had to come back. I left the house so quickly that I forgot to bring them with me…"

It amazed himself, how easy it was to construct the lie. How easy it was to cover his tracks, to piece together the holes.

"It's just… for three months, I just thought it was a coincidence," Sasuke continued. "Now I don't know what to think. I hardly know what to do. I'm only here on a… whim. I'm acting irrationally, I'm…" And he shut himself up there because he felt his throat tightening and he clenched his fists together ever-tighter to keep his emotions in.

Somehow, it seemed to help. "I guess I should apologize to you, then," Gishi said. Satoko seemed to have burst into a fresh batch of tears. "You have to understand, though, Yakata was just so upset over this. We didn't know what to do."

"And my actions didn't help," Sasuke said. But really, who was to blame? "Whatever he had to go through, I'm certain that some part of it is my fault."

"He thought his real father had come back. But when you left, when you left…" Satoko's voice was muffled by her sleeves. "So he's dead, he's dead, isn't he…"

"He passed on quite a few years ago. It was… it was very sudden. So to find out he'd left behind a child…" Sasuke actually started to believe his words. "Yakata's… all I have left of him, I suppose."

That, yes, was the truth. Yakata was the only thing left of Itachi. He was Itachi.

"This must be hard for you," Gishi said.

"I imagine it's not terribly easy for you, either," Sasuke replied, dryly.

"Oh, heavens…" Satoko said again.

"I'm still… not entirely sure about all of this," Sasuke said. "Though… though there's one thing that would… prove it. That he's my brother's son, more than anything else."

He had come to ask two questions. The first had been answered already.

Satoko sniffed. Her eyes were dark brown and rimmed with red. "What is it?"

"Have his eyes ever turned red, like mine? Under stress, or fear?" Sasuke asked. He pointed to his left eye, for emphasis.

"No, I can't say I've ever seen that happen to him," Gishi said. "Why, is that something…?"

"It's a trait within my family's clan," Sasuke said, "called the Sharingan. It's a very, very unique talent, and an enormous gift to have. If Yakata were truly from my and my brother's clan, then surely it would have manifested by now."

"No, his eyes have never looked like yours," Satoko said. "Not ever… Would they always be red, if that were the case?"

"No, no, it's only temporary. Something you can turn on and off," Sasuke said. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, they were black. "Like this, you see."

"Oh, I… I see…" Satoko said. She sniffed.

"So what does this Sharingan… do?" Gishi asked. He'd moved slightly away from his wife, his face filling with a sort of empty curiosity.

"It… lets you see things that others can't… normally see," Sasuke said, returning his eyes to the red he much preferred. He picked his words carefully, remembering who he was talking to. These were civilians, not ninja. "You can memorize things in an instant. Notice things that other people don't notice."

"That's just like him…" Satoko said, softly.

Sasuke's eyes widened slightly. "Just like who…?"

"And he's so smart, he learns things just right away…"

"Who…?" Sasuke said, though he had a feeling she was talking about…

"Yakata, he says he can tell what the weather's going to be like, just by watching the clouds," she continued. She held her fingers in themselves with a weak grip. "And he was the one who… he knew when the landslide was going to happen." A tear rolled down her cheek again and she wiped it away with her already soaked sleeve. "From the way the mountain looked. He said it looked different and we had to leave and…"

"People around here call him a… witch-boy," Gishi continued, as Satoko began to weep again. He put a hand on her back, resignedly, and his face tightened, as if the words physically pained him to say. "And the… kids in the village tease him so much. It's been hard for all of us. He's just smart, he can't explain how he knows these things."

He sounded, to Sasuke, like a genius. Like the genius he knew he was.

(Though to hear that he'd predicted the landslide sent a chill through his bones.)

"It's not… unusual for Uchiha clan members to have exceptional observation, even before their Sharingan manifests. Keen observation, intelligence, all run in the family. And my brother, well…" Sasuke almost had to smile, there. "People have said he was the greatest genius my clan's ever produced. So I'm… I'm not surprised that Yakata's the same."

"A genius…" Satoko said.

"So he should have these eyes by now?" Gishi said.

"My brother had his Sharingan activated by the age of eight. How old is Yakata now…?"

"Ten. He was… given to us in January but he was already a few months old by then…" Satoko said.

(None of Sasuke's children had developed the Sharingan yet. Even Hajime, twenty-one years old, almost twenty-two, an ANBU and everything, had eyes that remained as black as anything. But Sasuke was patient, even with his fears that their Yamanaka blood would… delay their development, somehow.)

(But his children would develop the Sharingan.)

"Well, I'm sure it should be soon," Sasuke said. "The Sharingan's, uh, not the only way to tell if he's part of the family, of course."

"What, what is it?" Gishi said. He leaned forward.

"…a blood test, naturally," Sasuke said. His voice was forced-flat.

He had suddenly gotten an idea.

"Oh, one of those…" Gishi said, in a way that suggested that he didn't know a blood test from a math test. "Yes, that would definitely prove it."

"And… just, pardon me for asking, but I want to make sure," Sasuke said. His heart began beating even faster. "I'm wondering if… maybe I could take Yakata back home with me, not only to have the tests done, but to have him trained a little in the ninja arts, as well."

"What?" Satoko said. Her hands clasped themselves over her chest. "A ninja? Oh, heavens, why would you… But for how long, how long would you keep him?"

She hadn't even said no. Sasuke tried not to smile, and he tried even harder not to panic. "Yakata… no doubt has enormous amounts of untapped potential."

"We need him for the harvest," Gishi said, in a tone that allowed no dissent against it.

"Then I'd… return him by then. And I promise, I'd care for him as if he were my own. He's my brother's... only son, Gishi-san." The desperation in his voice was… strange to hear, from his perspective. Stranger still, he found himself adding, "I haven't told you this, but… apart from him, and my children, he's the only living member my clan has left. I have to take care of whatever we have."

"Oh, that's awful," Satoko said, after a while. "Gishi, should we…?"

Gishi's expression was hard, and skeptical. "I'm wary of this, Uchiha-san," he said. So he'd finally decided to stop calling him "shinobi;" that was a good sign. "Taking him to have blood tests done I can understand, but training him to be a ninja…?"

"I'm just thinking of the potential he has," Sasuke said. "My brother was a genius, and from what I've heard, much of that had to have been passed on to him. Not just anyone could predict a landslide from the shape of the land alone."

Gishi thought on this for a very long time, not saying anything. Sasuke squirmed.

"…besides, I'll only train Yakata if he wants it," he added, softly. "But please understand, this is probably best for him."

The house was quiet, in the wake of the offer, save for the crackle of the fire and Satoko's muffled sniffles.

The strain of being so polite almost hurt. He could easily have demanded to take Yakata by force. Why was he being so careful?

And then he remembered what Karin had said and became even more self-conscious. "You'll have to be careful, in how you talk to him, how you treat him."

Sasuke was being careful. And he wasn't mentioning her theory, not in the slightest.

"…if you need to think about it then I'll leave and come back in the morning. I need to be home soon, but I'll give you as much time as I can afford," he said, as he began to stand. "I understand that this is a lot to process. Really, I'm… trying to figure out what's going on, myself."

"Thank you, we'll… we'll talk to Yakata about it," Gishi said. He didn't stop Sasuke as he began to move away.

"Thank you, thank you," said Satoko. "For telling us about this."

"It's… what I needed to do," Sasuke said, over his shoulder. "I'll be back in the morning."

He left. Yakata remained in the shadows the entire time, not even emerging to watch him go.

Sasuke made camp at the forest's edge that night and barely managed to sleep, marveling at what he had just done.

He had deceived those people, basically. But what harm was done? It was as close to the truth as he could afford, and even he could believe in it, to some extent.

Yakata was… more like Itachi's son, than Itachi. But he was still Itachi, wasn't he? He was still Itachi.

But why had he come up with that plan, to take him to Konoha? Why did he even want to do that in the first place?

Obviously, he could have blood drawn and tested and everything. Probably have some of it sent to Karin - he'd promised her that he'd keep her posted, after all, and this was all very, very valuable information to her too, no doubt. To prove, without a doubt, that Yakata was who he was.

But then, what? To offer to train him as a ninja? Where had that come from?

In the back of his mind, he heard Karin's voice, again. "I wanted to give him a life that Orochimaru didn't. Couldn't have."

He could do the same for Yakata. Honing those innate talents of his in a world where he wasn't the puppet of twisted, broken, militant elders. A world where one's superiors didn't order you to kill your own family. A world of peace, an environment that fostered supreme growth.

(And weakness and uselessness and sloth and Sasuke didn't want to mar his thoughts with all his current frustrations with the present educational system. They were far too soft on children in that day and age, and it disgusted him. Children - especially his children - had so much more potential than that.)

He could give Yakata a life as a ninja that Itachi could never have dreamed of having. That's where that had come from, hadn't it? He felt a warmth in his chest, at this realization.

If Yakata wanted it.

And the warmth was gone.

But… who didn't want to be a ninja? To a child it would be an adventure, yes?

Karai was eleven years old, almost the same age as Yakata. Her head always in the clouds, making every mundane little thing a quest, a journey. Surely Yakata had some of that same sense of excitement?

It was only until their harvest, at least. Two, three months at most. It wouldn't be permanent.

Yakata would say yes. And everything would go right.

Sasuke slept soundly, after that realization, holding fast to his beautiful delusions and his dreams and waking with the sunrise and the crow of roosters.

He ate breakfast slowly, taking his time. And, when he thought he was ready, he began on his way back to the house.

Chapter Text

Chapter 23 - Pupil Reflection


Yakata stayed in his room and thought for a very, very long time, after talking everything over with his parents.

Well, technically, it wasn't his room. He shared it with his parents, who were sleeping, now, a few feet away from him. His mama had gone to bed early, his papa joining her after cleaning up, when she could not.

There was a lot for him to process.

He'd listened to the entire conversation they'd had with Sasuke through the crack where the door slid open, on his knees. He had tried not to be heard. He doubted he was. He had watched his mama cry and his papa yell.

Yakata had expected Sasuke to say that he wasn't his father. He just knew, after he had left, after Yakata had beaten himself up for days after Sasuke's departure for his silly dreams, that it wasn't the truth.

If Sasuke had really been his father, then he'd have stayed.

Yakata didn't expect to learn about Sasuke's brother. And the fact that he was dead. And the man who was really his father.

Yakata held onto his knees and listened intently from that moment onward, grabbing any information about the man that he could.

It wouldn't be lying to say that Yakata had always been curious about where he had come from. His parents were very frank with him about his origins, but the fact that he was adopted didn't matter so much to him. He loved his parents, more than anything else. And a lot of the other kids in the village and nearby lived with parents who weren't their own, that wasn't unusual or anything at all.

But some small part of him had always wondered what kind of a person his mother, his father had been. Why they'd left him with his real parents, even, and with such a warning, and that promise to come back.

A lot of the time those things occurred when a family was unable to provide for another child in the house. And sometimes a kid just got orphaned, that couldn't be helped. There were always childless couples with open arms, or those who were unable to have their own children with many already taken in.

(And even with Yakata's warnings, there had been some victims in the landslide. Mostly the skeptics. The Takeda family, a few houses away, had taken in the Sato family's child, now that his parents were gone. It was tragic, but these things happened, and children needed to be cared for.)

It was the fact that his father and not his mother had left him with his parents that interested him quite a bit. Maybe his mother had died in childbirth, or run off somewhere, and his father couldn't provide for Yakata by himself? Or… something like that. Yakata wasn't very good at speculating about it.

(Though he'd certainly dreamed and fantasized - well, not fantasized, but...)

(After all, hadn't his father promised to come back...?)

Besides, he loved his parents. He didn't want for anything else. It wasn't like there was a better life out there for him - he had a hard life, but it was a good life, and he was happy. Even when people whispered about him for the things he said about the weather and the crops.

(And when they didn't whisper.)

Yakata… didn't have special powers, he just… saw things, and he knew they were going to happen based on what he saw. He could tell by the color of a rice shoot if it was going to thrive or not, long before many others would. He knew that there was a thunderstorm coming if the clouds swelled big and enormous, like soap suds or tufts of wool, he knew when it would produce hail, or just rain.

But he was still curious.

He pulled the facts about his father out of the air as Sasuke spoke them and hoarded them away in his mind.

His father had been… a ninja, probably, like Sasuke. A genius - a genius? Wow… And he had to have been somewhat secretive, if Sasuke himself hadn't even found out about Yakata until just now, through letters.

He wondered, slightly, about what type of woman his mother had been. Probably a subtle, sophisticated lady, to communicate by letters. Or maybe someone cold and elegant…

When Sasuke mentioned the Sharingan, Yakata paused, and thought for a moment. He'd never been told he had red eyes, and his parents certainly didn't say anything about it… Did his father have red eyes like Sasuke's, then?

Sasuke didn't say anything more on the matter, however.

(A long time after the conversation, when there was still oil left in the lamp on the floor, Yakata got out his mama's round makeup mirror and looked very, very carefully at his own, black eyes. He couldn't imagine how they could possibly be considered red in any sense of the word. He added the mystery to the enormous list of things he wanted to ask, eventually.)

He wondered what Sasuke meant, when he said he was the last of his clan.

But most of all, he wondered if it would be the right thing to follow him and go be trained as a ninja.

Yakata had only a slight idea about what ninjas did. He knew that they were hired for manual labor and hard tasks and fetching items and things like that—that was how he had met Sasuke anyways, right? And he'd met others before - there was that man named Hozuki and his little boy, a child a bit younger than Yakata; they were drifters who came by about once a month to see if there were any jobs they could do around town, and there usually were. They were strange people, Yakata thought; the elder of the two had sharp teeth that looked more like fangs than anything else, and his purple eyes were restless and mistrusting, despite the honest work that he did.

Most of the other ninja who came into the town were hired to help with the harvest if the crop was particularly large, or if hands were particularly scarce. Or, in a particularly magnificent instance: when Aoshi, the miller in the next village over, needed help finding the perfect gift to impress the woman he wanted to marry, he hired a ninja to help. That was… interesting.

(They never did see that woman again. Apparently, the ninja was an acceptable enough gift to her.)

But regardless. Ninja, overall, seemed to be helpful people. And, when Yakata sat down with his parents to talk about it (after his mama stopped crying, after his papa coaxed him out of the bedroom), he stated, fairly early on, that he wanted to go with Sasuke.

"Yakata, we've hardly even talked about this," his mama said. "Are you sure you want to make this decision right now?"

Yakata nodded. "I, I, I think it'd be good for me to receive some of this, this training," he said. "Ninjas are… helpful people, right? Maybe I'll… I'll have learned some new skills by the time I come back! So… so I can help with the harvest. Since… well, the things I, I can do to help don't… don't amount to much."

"Yakata, don't say things like that," his mama said. She bit her lip. "You help more than you realize. You're a good boy."

Yakata didn't say anything.

"Yakata, if that's what you want to do then we'll be right behind you on it," his papa said. "I'm just a little worried, this is all so sudden."

"Yeah, I, I know it's… sudden." Yakata looked down, for a moment, before looking at his parents again. "But, but Sasuke-san has to go home soon, and I don't, I don't have much time to think about it. Um. I, I think… I still think it's a good idea."

"You're such a good boy," his mama said, again. She sounded like she was going to cry, again. Yakata got up and went over, and he hugged her very tightly.

"Mama, don't cry…" he said. "This… it, it, it'll be a good thing, okay?" His mama didn't reply, just holding him even tighter.

They didn't discuss his desire to learn more about his father much at all, or the blood tests that Sasuke wanted to have done. They were things that were already out on the table, in a sense. Things they already knew.

Besides, those weren't the reasons why Yakata was leaving for so long. If it was only for that, he'd be there and back in an instant. He was leaving to be trained, until the harvest.

They all agreed to sleep on it, but Yakata's mind was more than set.

This would be a good thing, in every sense of the word. Ninjas were helpful people, weren't they? He'd learn to do something actually useful, something nobody else could do. Something that would help everyone, for certain.

(And… maybe people would actually appreciate him for it.)

(He'd fit in, here. In this new role.)

(With this new, temporary family.)

(Maybe.)

He couldn't start packing just yet. His parents were still sleeping; he didn't want to wake them up by taking his clothes out of the bureau and packing them away for the journey ahead. He would be gone until the harvest - how many clothes would he need? He couldn't take up much space.

He thought.

Doubtless he'd be able to wash his clothes while he was away at Sasuke's house. And his mother washed clothes every week or so, to save soap. They didn't have many clothes. One week's worth of clothes was at least seven shirts, plus maybe one or two more, just in case. And only a few pairs of pants, his shoes…

He thought about how much it would weigh. He thought about what else he wanted to bring, from home. He knew exactly what he needed by the time he finally nestled under his futon, blowing out the lamp, and it gave him a sort of peace of mind.

He didn't dream.

It took him a while to wake up, in the morning, long after the roosters began to crow, on account of his staying up so late. His parents' futons were already empty and folded in the corner, and he could smell breakfast cooking. He rubbed his eyes and left the bedroom, yawning.

He and his parents talked, a little, after saying good morning. "Sa-Sasuke-san isn't, isn't here yet?" Yakata said.

"No, not yet," said his papa. He paused, and added, "Are you still going to go through with this?"

"Mm. I, I think… I think it's the right thing to do," Yakata replied.

His mama was quiet as she stirred the rice porridge, dumping a spoonful of spices into it. "Would you have believed this was even possible, yesterday?" she said, after a while. "That he'd come back with all of this… news and ninja business."

Yakata and his papa had to admit that they wouldn't have. But fate was a strange thing, and a wonderful thing, as well.

Yakata still had his family, but he'd be learning about another, now, and gaining skills that he was sure would be more of a help than his witch-predictions, his weather and mountains and shoot-colors.

Sasuke came back when Yakata was helping his mama clean the dishes. His papa had declared that he would stay home until all of this was negotiated properly.

(And besides, he wanted to be there to bid his son farewell. But he didn't dare voice this. He was a hard man and he'd gone through too much in his life to show or admit any sort of weakness.)

Yakata found himself smiling when he saw that shape in the doorway, of that man with the red eyes and the perpetually cross expression.

His uncle?

The words didn't seem to fit, not yet.

(But Yakata was already trying to force them into his world, in a way.)

"I take it you all have had time to talk this over," Sasuke said, after he had been invited in, and his shoes had been taken off.

"We did," Yakata's papa said. They were all sitting down, him and Sasuke and Yakata and his mama. The air was very still.

"And?" Sasuke said.

Yakata's papa glanced at him.

"I've, I've, I've decided to, um. To come with you. To be trained," Yakata said. He looked right into Sasuke's red eyes, unaware of how scared or happy he really appeared. He tried, badly, not to stutter. "Un-until the harvest, anyways..."

That was the first time Yakata could ever remember seeing Sasuke smile so warmly. It lasted for only a second, but it was still there.

(It was even warmer than that thin, long-lasting smile that he had been wearing three months before, on that night of illusions and miscommunication.)

"You're making a good decision," Sasuke said, nodding, his face shifting back into its usual grimness. "Are you ready to leave, then?"

"No, no, we were waiting for you to get back first!" Yakata's mama said, waving her hand. "We'll get Yakata packed right away."

"Hm." Sasuke crossed his arms. "I had expected you to be ready."

"Sasuke-san, um. I won't, I won't take very long, I already know what I need," Yakata said.

Sasuke's expression softened. "…fine, then. I'll just wait here for you."

"Come on, Yakata, let's get your things…" his mama said, and the two of them retreated to the bedroom. Yakata had already laid out the ten shirts, the five pairs of shorts and pants, the underwear, by the time she had found his papa's traveling bag.

"Yakata, is that really enough?" she said, putting her fingers on her lips as she looked it all over. "You're going to be gone for…"

"It's enough if I, if I wash my clothes at least… at least once a week," Yakata replied, brightly. He ran the numbers, the weights, over in his head again in an instant. "And, and, and I'm sure I'll be able to do that."

"And the book, Yakata?"

He felt his face grow slightly warm. "Well, it's my favorite… I, I want something to read while I'm… while I'm there."

It was one of the few books he actually owned, a gift from his ninth birthday. All the other books he had ever read came from the school, a building of many rooms and sliding doors that was a half hour's walk out from the village. Yakata had read them all a million times over, even the boring farmer's almanacs, even the picture books.

Yakata had gone to school, once, years ago, but he left once he had learned to read and do math, and that was that. That's how it was with most kids, that was just all you needed to know.

(Though most kids weren't finished by the age of six. Yakata was a fast learner, and it wouldn't be a stretch to say that he could read and write better than his parents.)

Besides, the most practical skills were learned in the field. Every kid knew how to help tend the fields, to pull up the young rice shoots at just the right time, to cull the ones that weren't thriving. Every kid knew how to feed chickens, and to pluck chickens.

A few kids that were Yakata's age were also being taken on as apprentices to tradesmen and artisans in the village, in neighboring villages.

This was something of an apprenticeship, this ninja training, now that Yakata thought about it. He didn't know if he was much-suited for any other trades, really.

If he liked it, maybe he'd stay a little longer…?

"Yakata, are you listening to me?" his mama said.

He was. She'd already started putting his clothes into the bag. Despite her protests he managed to convince her that, yes, he had enough clothes. (She still snuck another pair of underwear in, which he noticed but said nothing about.) They put the book on top, and after she told him to wait, she added a small silk pouch with frayed gold tassels to the package.

"For protection," she said. She sniffed. "Oh, Yakata, be careful out there…"

Yakata held his mama, again, until she let go. It took a while.

Once she was certain that she was presentable, they left the bedroom. Sasuke and his papa were talking about something, but Sasuke stopped mid-sentence when he saw Yakata.

"Are we ready?" he said.

Yakata nodded, but his mama said, "Oh, just a moment!" She scurried to a corner of the room and Sasuke scowled. Yakata noticed him roll his eyes. But she was quick, and she handed Yakata a little bundle wrapped in twine and paper. "It's lunch. You'll want something to eat on the way over, I'm sure…"

"Thanks, Mama," Yakata said, and he put it into his pack.

"We'll be going on foot, you know," Sasuke said. "It's a long journey, but it'd be longer if we tried to take a transport. I'm sure you can handle it."

Yakata nodded again, this time with a smile. "Yeah, I'm sure…!"

His papa was standing, now, and so was Sasuke. He put his hand on Yakata's shoulder, as Sasuke went to go put his shoes on. "Be careful out there, Yakata. And put everything into your training."

"I will, Papa." Yakata was heading for the door as well, now. His parents followed.

"And write to me as much as you can," his mama said. She was already wiping at her eyes again.

"I will, Mama," he said. He held her hand for a moment, before going to get his shoes on. Sasuke was waiting at the door.

She pulled him into one last hug, before he left. "I love you. My sweet, sweet boy…"

"I, I love you too, Mama," he said. He felt tears stinging the edges of his eyes. He wiped them on her shoulder as she pulled him in closer, and wiped his arm against his face for good measure when it was all over.

Sasuke waited at the door, arms folded.

And Yakata stepped over the foyer and out near the door.

"Take care of our son for us," Yakata heard his papa say, from behind them.

"I promise that I will," Sasuke said.

And they left.

Chapter Text

Chapter 24 - Ankle Memory


Sasuke and Yakata walked in silence for the longest time, passing out of the village, over the hills and into the forest beyond the village's borders.

It was strange, then, that the first thing Yakata found himself asking was, "The Woman of the Woods… She, she, she doesn't… really exist, does she?"

Sasuke looked over his shoulder at him, eyebrows tangled in confusion. "Excuse me?"

"Well, it's just… some, some stories got around after y-you and your, um. Students stayed here," Yakata continued. He looked sideways, at the passing trunks, as he talked. "'course, I don't, I don't think she lives here, like, like some of the other guys were saying, but, um… Does she… does she really live in Konoha?"

Sasuke's chuckle was a strange thing to hear. "No, it's just an urban legend," he said. "You shouldn't believe in things like that, much less be afraid of them."

"Ah…" Yakata said. He didn't look at Sasuke after that, not for a fair amount of time.

(Why did he have to bring that up? He resolved to be more careful in conversation from there on out. Stupid, stupid…)

Nothing more was said for a good long while. The land soon started looking unfamiliar, they began passing villages, in the distance and up close, that Yakata did not know. Sasuke's pace was steady, and quick, for a walk. But Yakata was able to keep up.

Eventually, they decided to stop for something to eat. Yakata suggested that he maybe eat the package from his mother, but Sasuke stopped him. "There's a restaurant not five minutes away from here. You can eat that later, when we have to stop for dinner. We are going to have to camp out tonight, you know. Won't reach Konoha until tomorrow evening, at this pace."

"Oh, I… I didn't bring anything to, to sleep out in, I'm, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," Yakata said. "I should have thought of that…"

Sasuke sighed, loudly. He closed his eyes, then opened them again. "That's… okay. You can use my kit."

"Oh, no, I, I couldn't-"

"I'm used to it. You can use my kit," Sasuke said, again. It was an order, not a suggestion.

Yakata took a breath in and held it there for a moment, before exhaling. "Okay, if you… if you say so."

The restaurant was a little isolated sort of thing on the outskirts of a town, by the side of the road. The old woman who ran the place seated them and gave them menus, and told them she could take their orders any time.

"Order anything you want," Sasuke said, once again, like a command.

Yakata didn't know what to get. "There's, um. Wow, lots of choices…"

"Well, just pick one, okay? Don't worry about cost," Sasuke said.

"I wasn't… well, okay," Yakata said. So many of the dishes had strange, exotic names. Empress Chicken? What in the world was that? He wondered why they couldn't all have simple names, like Beef and Broccoli. Only, Yakata didn't really like beef, so… "I'll get the cabbage with… ginger? That, that comes with rice, right?"

Sasuke's eyebrow rose. "Just that?"

"Well, I do like cabbage, so… Wh-why are you smiling, Sasuke-san?"

Sasuke shook his head, almost laughing. "Nothing, nothing… it's just, that was his favorite food, cabbage."

Yakata blinked. Sasuke waved the old woman over, from where she was shuffling near another set of tables. "Who?"

"Your… father, of course," Sasuke said, and addressed the woman, handing the menus over. "A cabbage with ginger, and a vegetable stir fry."

"Right away," she said, in a voice like a creaking door, and shuffled off with the menus in hand.

"That… that really was his… favorite food?" Yakata said. He found himself sitting up a little more.

"As far as I can remember," Sasuke said. "Well, that and rice balls. He kind of had simple tastes, my brother."

A pinched little smile began to grow on Yakata's face, and his shoulders rose with it. "Gosh!" The smile faded slightly as a thought occurred to him. "…what… what was his, his name, anyways? My father. I, I don't think you, um. Ever told me…"

"His name?" Sasuke looked at his hands for a surprisingly long while. "Itachi. His name was Itachi."

"Itachi." That was his father's name. Itachi. "…c-can I, um. Can I ask you about him at all?"

Sasuke made a noise that wasn't really a laugh, but wasn't much of anything else, either. "Of course you can ask about him." There was a thoughtful expression on his face, suddenly. "No… reason why you can't." And it was gone. "What do you want to know?"

Yakata had come up with so many questions, sitting alone the night before, and yet he found himself struggling for them, now that he had the opportunity.

He decided on, "Well… what… what kind of a person was he?"

"What kind of a person?" Sasuke's eyes were surprisingly narrow.

"Yeah, like… um." How could he clarify…? "What, what was he… like? His, his personality?" Yakata said.

"Oh. That's what you meant," Sasuke said. He nodded, and looked at his hands again, fingers laced together. "Your father was… a very quiet person. He liked to keep to himself, most of the time. But he was very kind, at the same time, even if it didn't always seem that way."

Quiet, liked to keep to himself, and kind. Yakata sealed the facts away into his mind, adding them to the faceless portrait he was creating. "Did he… did he have any hobbies or anything? What, what did he, um. Like to do?"

Sasuke was quiet for a while. His head shifted with subtle movements as he thought, and his eyebrows knit together and slightly upward. "…I'm not terribly sure," he finally said. "I can only remember him just training, all the time, when he wasn't with me or at work. He didn't have much time for hobbies."

"Oh, I see…" Yakata said. He dug around for another question. "So did… did you two get along well, then, or, or were you sorta… sorta distant?"

Sasuke was still looking at his hands. His red eyes grew even softer. "I suppose… you could say that we got along. Though I was always the annoying one, always trying to get his attention. He was my older brother, you see. Five years older. I really looked up to him."

"S-sounds like it," Yakata said, when Sasuke didn't say anything for a while.

"He was so patient with me; I almost can't believe it, in hindsight." Sasuke continued. The corners of his mouth twitched upward. "His… work just had him busy, a lot of the time."

"Wha-what did he do? For, for work, I mean." Yakata sat up, very straight, in his chair. He had one hand folded on top of the other, on the table.

"He was a ninja. Naturally. Just like the rest of my family," Sasuke said. "He was…" A dry, laugh-like thing escaped from his lips, like the noise he'd made when Yakata had first asked a question of him. "He was a very high-ranking ninja in the village. One of the greatest they'd ever had."

"Wow, really?"

"Yeah, really."

"What… what sorta stuff did he do?"

Sasuke paused for a long while, his eyebrows low. Yakata opened his mouth to apologize, before Sasuke said, "He did… the things that other people didn't want to do. The most difficult missions. That was just the kind of person he was, Itachi." Another twinge-smile. "He always put others before himself."

Patient, skilled, selfless. The portrait increased in detail, but it still didn't have a face.

"I guess that makes sense, then," Sasuke continued. "No matter how busy he was, he always made at least a little time for me. Even if it meant, hah." The smile grew.

"What? What's so… so funny?" Yakata asked.

Sasuke had his hand at his mouth now, covering his smile. "I was just reminded, whenever I was bothering him to play with me or something, and he didn't have the time, he'd call me over. Like this, you see." He took the hand and waved it, palm-inward, towards himself. "And when I was right in front of him, he'd…"

But Sasuke pulled his hand back from where it had been drawing nearer and nearer to Yakata's face. He stared at it with an expression that Yakata couldn't quite read.

(Could grief be that shameful-looking?)

"What? Wha-what would he do…?" Yakata said softly. He leaned forward.

"…sorry. Maybe next time." Sasuke's voice was incredibly quiet, and coated with a strange bitterness.

"Huh? Oh, uh, okay," Yakata said, blinking. "If, if, if you… if you don't wanna… t-talk about it now then, um…"

Quite suddenly, Sasuke was laughing, just as quietly as he had been speaking. "No, no, that's just what he used to tell me," he said. "When he poked me on the forehead. See, like this." And with two fingers he reached out and gently pressed the middle of Yakata's brow. His hand crumpled into a fist of loose fingers as it fell away. "That was how he told me he was… sorry, I suppose. For being too busy."

Yakata rubbed the space where his fingers had been, closing one eye. "F-funny way of… saying you're sorry…"

Sasuke's laughter was even louder, this time. And because it was louder, Yakata finally noticed how it almost sounded like he was crying, at the same time.

"Sounds like he… like he really cared about you," Yakata said, smiling as he put his hands back down on the table. "I mean, I'm, I'm… I'm sure he cared about you, since you two were, um. Brothers, I guess…"

"He did," Sasuke said, simply, softly. "I don't think I ever realized how much he cared, though, until… after he was gone." He narrowed his eyes, and his mouth twitched, again, but this time into a frown. "I wish I could have thanked him, just once, before it was all over. For everything he did for me."

"I'm… I'm sure he knows that, that you're thankful, though," Yakata said. Sasuke looked up suddenly, his expression tilting into mild confusion. "You know, wherever he is… If… if he was as good a person as, as, as you say he was, then he's… he's bound to be somewhere nice."

Yakata believed in mountain gods and rice gods and a Riverman and a world where, if you did well in life, you'd be rewarded in death. Though he wasn't sure, yet, what sort of reward that really was.

The priest in the temple where they prayed on New Year's Day said that a rebirth into a better life was one's reward. The monk with the shaved head that had passed through the village a few months before said that there was a divine world where good souls came to rest at the end of their lives, where they could watch over their loved ones in comfort and bliss until they were reunited. Yakata wasn't sure which one was right, but they both sounded rather pleasant to him.

(Sasuke couldn't remember ever being more grateful for tea being brought to a table, with apologies from the old woman for it being so late. He didn't know how much more he could bear.)

The conversation turned to Sasuke's own family, after their meals were delivered, a while later. Yakata handled his chopsticks with a rough precision, bundling the leaves of cabbage, the rice together. He never spoke with food in his mouth.

"So, um, what about the, the rest of your family, Sasuke-san?" he asked, after chewing, swallowing. "Do, do you have any, um. Children?"

"Ah. Yes, I do."

"How many?"

"Five."

Yakata took another bundle of cabbage leaves, eyes widening. "Wow, you, you have a lot of children, Sasuke-san."

"Is that really so much?" Sasuke said. He took another bite of his stir-fry instead of smiling.

"Well, I, I know people with, um. Large families," Yakata said. "I can just imagine, they're… they're probably a real handful. Well, if, if, if they're young, anyways…"

"Oh, most of them are nearly grown. But, they've always been very well-behaved." A stiff sort of pride entered Sasuke's voice. "They are Uchihas, after all."

"Oh, well…" Yakata said, not exactly sure what that meant. Uchiha, that was the name of Sasuke's clan, wasn't it? Itachi, his father's clan, too.

Yakata's clan, too?

…he decided to think about it later. "So you said they're… they're mostly grown? Is there anyone that, that, that's around my age?"

Sasuke finished chewing. "Yes, my youngest daughter, Karai. She's eleven."

"Oh, I… I see. I hope we'll get along, then," Yakata said. Then again, Yakata knew that most people would at least tolerate him, if he stayed quiet enough. "Wha-wha-what's she like?"

"She's very…" Sasuke frowned as he sifted around for words. "…cheerful," he decided. "She gets along with just about anyone, so you don't have to worry about her not liking you."

"Oh, well, that's… that's good," Yakata said, remembering, Karai, cheerful, friendly, eleven. Another portrait. "You said she's the, the youngest." He got another bunch of cabbage leaves with his chopsticks. "Who are the, the other four?"

"Well Inou is the next-youngest. He's fourteen. Nadeshiko is… eighteen. Takeru, my second son, is nineteen, almost twenty. And Hajime is twenty-one." He gathered a bunch of noodles and carrot together. "Don't know how much you'll be seeing of them, but I'll have them come home to meet you when we arrive tomorrow night."

Yakata swallowed. "Wow, that's… that's really nice of you. Thanks, Sasuke-san, I, I, I can't wait to meet all of them," he said, and smiled. "And your wife, too. I bet she's… I bet she's really nice."

"She's a good woman," Sasuke replied, emptily, and went back to his food.

There wasn't much more conversation in the restaurant, and they were back on the road after Sasuke paid for their meals.

Yakata asked, when they stopped to rest their feet in a small village just beyond the border of the Land of Fire, the sun beginning to set, how he would get letters to his parents, if he wanted to write. Sasuke said there were methods, and that was that.

He opened his package of rice balls and ate them. Sasuke got his own dinner from a street vendor, not terribly far away.

"You'd think for something this expensive it'd have been a little bit better," he said, but bit into his stick of grilled chicken anyways. He offered some to Yakata, later, but Yakata refused, saying he was full enough. He licked the rice off of his fingers when he was done, like always.

(There were other vendors, further up the road, but Sasuke didn't even think about visiting them. He didn't want to let Yakata out of his sight.)

They traveled on long after it had gotten dark, and Yakata found it hard to see more than a few feet in front of him. Sasuke, however, moved forward confidently, without hesitation. "How, how, how can you see without a torch?" Yakata asked him, eventually.

"Sharingan," Sasuke replied, and that was that. There was almost disappointment in his voice.

Yakata tried to keep up, but he was starting to get tired. Sasuke was going too fast, and there were times when he was almost out of sight, fading into the darkness.

It was when Yakata reached forward and grabbed onto the hem of Sasuke's shirt that Sasuke finally stopped. He turned around. "You're tired, aren't you."

Yakata rubbed his eyes. "A little… I, I, I mean, if… if we have to go further…"

"We'll camp out here," Sasuke said. "Follow me, and don't get lost."

"Mm." Yakata's face was uneasy, his eyes heavy. He tripped over his feet a little as he walked.

Sasuke's hand held his wrist very tightly. "Come on, it won't be very far." He pulled insistently. Yakata rubbed his eyes again as he went, still only half-seeing things in the darkness.

Eventually, they stopped. Sasuke led Yakata to a tree, and Yakata slumped against it, yawning widely. He saw, faintly, Sasuke pulling branches down from trees and picking them up off the ground, piling them up over stones.

Then, Sasuke began breathing fire and Yakata's eyes snapped open. Sasuke's face was illuminated a strange and intense yellow, which diminished when the fire was lit and crackling on the ground. He had taken off his pack, and was now bent over it, fiddling with something attached it.

"How did… how did you do that?" Yakata said, eventually.

"Hm?" He was undoing the buckles on the top.

"That… how, how, how can you breathe… fire?" Yakata said. "Is that a ninja thing?"

"Oh, it's an Uchiha family technique," Sasuke said. "The fireball jutsu."

"Wow…" Yakata curled into himself where he sat, holding his knees. "Are you… are you going to teach me how to do that?"

"If you can handle it, eventually. Though… if you are your… father's son, it shouldn't be too difficult for you." Sasuke had taken his bedroll off the top of his pack, and tossed it Yakata's way. "Here, for you."

The bedroll hit Yakata in the stomach, and he wrapped his arms around it. "Oh, are, are, are you sure…? I mean, it's, it's yours, and…"

"It's late, you should get some rest," Sasuke interrupted. "And why are you stuttering like that? There's nothing to be afraid of."

Yakata took a very long time to answer, trying to sharpen his words. "I, I… I'm not afraid… I'm… I'm just…" He yawned, closing his eyes tightly, trying to concentrate. It didn't help. "But wh-what about you…?"

"I'll be fine. It's not like I'm not used to this," he said. He sat down beside his pack and rubbed his palm against one of his eyes.

Yakata held the bedroll for a moment, his feet scratching against the dirt of the ground as they extended. "I'm just not… I'm not sure about this, okay?"

"Not sure? I thought you said that you wanted to come to Konoha with me." The fire cast frightening, flickering shadows across Sasuke's face. There were dark shadows under his eyes, though the eyes themselves were… strangely saddened, from what Yakata could see.

"Oh, no, no, no, I, I mean, um… I do want that." And he really did. "I'm just… I, I, I'm just not sure if I should, should, should be using, um. This. I mean, it's, it's yours and…"

Sasuke sighed, loudly. He closed his eyes and began to stand. "Look, if it's that big a deal then I'll just find an inn for us. I don't… want for you to be uncomfortable."

"No, no, please, please, don't… don't do that," Yakata said. "You, you, you don't need to do that. It, it's fine, I just… don't want to be an inconvenience, is all…"

Sasuke was quiet for a moment. He sat back down. "You aren't an inconvenience to me. If you were, I wouldn't be doing this," he said. "I want you to sleep comfortably, okay? I'll be fine."

Yakata held the bedroll for a while longer, looking into the fire, thinking. He took off his own pack and set it aside, before untying the rope that held the bedroll together and rolling it out at the base of the tree. He took off his shoes and placed them neatly next to the pack, and wiggled under the blanket, using his arm as a pillow.

He could see Sasuke smiling, slightly, from where he was sitting. His hair was in his eyes, and Yakata could not read them.

"…Sasuke-san?" he said, softly.

"Mm."

"Thanks."

"Don't mention it." A pause. "Goodnight, Yakata."

"Goodnight."

Yakata fell into a warm, dark, dreamless sleep.

He woke up feeling very stiff, and he tilted his head this way and that, trying to work out the kinks. Sasuke had built another fire from the ashes of the first, he noticed, once he had all of the sleep out of his eyes, and he was boiling water in an aluminum kettle.

"All I have is instant noodles on me. We'll stop somewhere nicer for lunch," he said, and tossed Yakata one of the containers. "Hope you don't mind."

"Oh, not… not at all," Yakata said. He set the noodles on top of his pack and began putting the bedroll back together, and was finished before Sasuke could say he didn't have to do that. "I need to pull my weight. It's… it's the least I can do…"

Sasuke smiled, slightly, his mouth pulling up towards one side of his face. "You are too good."

They ate their breakfast in silence, for the most part, and continued on their way.

"We're making good time," Sasuke said, when they were eating lunch together at a dango stand, since there wasn't "anything nicer" in the area, according to him, and Yakata was hungry (though he hadn't said a thing about it). "We're farther than I expected. At this rate, we'll be in Konoha in time for dinner. I'll have my wife make you something good to eat."

"Oh, that'll… that'll be nice," Yakata replied. "I'd like that!"

"Then we'll make that a priority," Sasuke said. "Come on, eat up. I don't want for us to lose our pace."

"Oh, uh, okay!" Yakata said, and tried, as politely as possible, to finish his current stick of dango without making it look like he was stuffing his face. Sasuke noticed.

"I didn't mean for you rush," Sasuke said, with a disapproving half-laugh. "Take your time eating. We'll be fine."

Yakata swallowed the half-chewed dango, coughing afterwards, and reaching for his tea, looking very sheepish indeed. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry…"

Curiously, they found things to talk about after lunch, though it was mostly Sasuke doing the talking, which was the strangest thing. "We'll focus on getting you settled in tonight. I'll take you around the city tomorrow, to get you acquainted with the place. There's a few people that I want you to meet, too," he said.

"Oh, like who?"

"Mostly friends of mine. One of them is a doctor, she'll be doing your blood tests," he said. Sasuke's face suddenly darkened. "Yakata, if… anyone looks at you strangely while we're in Konoha, just… remember to disregard it."

"Wh-why do you say that?" Yakata said. He felt a strange weight in his stomach, suddenly. Why was that…?

(Would people still be staring at him there, in that new city?)

"…never mind. Don't worry about it," Sasuke said, and didn't mention it again.

Yakata worried about it all afternoon. He could think of a million reasons why people would look at him strangely. He was an outsider and, admittedly, a strange choice in traveling companion for someone like Sasuke.

Maybe it was because of his father? He didn't know what Itachi had looked like, but if there was a strong enough resemblance then that would certainly get people to stare…

(Certainly not the reasons why he was stared at, back home.)

He tried to focus on that being the possibility, and not any of the other ones, the ones that made him feel even more awkward and insecure than he was feeling already. Even though Sasuke was nice enough to him, already, and trying to make him feel welcome. At least, that was what it felt like…

Yakata hummed to keep his mind distracted, instead.

"What is that?" Sasuke asked him, after a while. "That you're humming."

Yakata stopped mid-melody. "Oh, um. It's… it's a folk song. My, my mama likes to sing it."

"Does it have words?"

"No, I don't… I don't think so…" Yakata said.

(Partially lying. It was a love song.)

"Well, either way. Keep going." Sasuke looked over his shoulder, ghost-smile on his face. "We could use a little cheer."

So Yakata continued to hum, quietly.

"It's very nice," Sasuke said when he finished. "Do you know any others?"

"Oh, um. I, I, I know a few others, but, um…" Yakata held his arms with his hands, glancing sideways.

Sasuke looked over his shoulder again, and then back. "It's okay, you don't have to sing any more. I enjoyed it, anyways."

Yakata didn't say anything. He didn't even hum again.

Sasuke noticed. "I didn't mean to embarrass you," he said.

"No, no, you didn't… It's okay," Yakata said, his eyes still on his feet. "It, it, it was just kinda, um. I don't know..."

"Well, I enjoyed it."

"Ah…"

Yakata still didn't hum, after that.

Surprisingly, though, Sasuke did.

It was a strange, atonal sort of thing, with a melody that went in places where melodies didn't seem want to go naturally, but went anyways. Yakata couldn't tell if it was deliberate or not, the notes quavering just enough to suggest tone-deafness, but their placement seeming far too deliberate to be sheer musical inability.

"What were you humming just now?" Yakata finally asked, long after it was over.

"A song from my village. My clan, actually." He didn't look at Yakata over his shoulder, this time. "I can't remember the words, but I think it's a love song."

Yakata's face burned. "Oh, I, uh… I, I, I see. It's… well I've, I've never heard anything like it, but..."

"You don't have to compliment me, I'm not that good of a singer," Sasuke said. Yakata could see, just barely, that his face was almost as red.

He felt, for a moment, rather bad, for having embarrassed Sasuke that badly, at his expense.

But when he saw the smile on Sasuke's face, creeping over the edge of his profile, he started feeling a lot better.

He began to hum a harvest song, and when he was finished, Sasuke asked him about it, but he didn't ask about the words. Sasuke attempted another song of his own, afterwards, and Yakata had to follow up with a song of his own, it was only fair.

And that was how they came back to Konoha, as the sun was setting, humming, a call-and-response, with smiles on both of their faces.

(The guard Yamada, who saw them enter through the gates, was faintly terrified. He knew Sasuke well enough through reputation and the occasional encounter, and while he couldn't say he knew the man personally, there was one thing he knew for certain: Sasuke almost never smiled like that.)

(It took him minutes after the fact to realize that there had even been a boy with him.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 25 - Blurred Vision


Yakata had never thought of his house as small. There wasn't much to compare it to, anyways. The only person in the village with a bigger house was the elder, really, and that was because, well, he was the elder. Of course he got a bigger house.

Houses just generally remained the same shape and size in his village, for convenience and such, and this did not change after the landslide. Yakata's house, just like everyone else's house, had a big main room, with a hearth, and two (or three, if you had wood and skill or something to give to the carpenter) side rooms, separated by sliding wooden doors. Of course, bigger families expanded their houses with the addition of children, normally, but not by much.

And then there were buildings like the school house and the temple, which were supposed to be big.

And then there was Sasuke's house. It was enormous.

Yakata tried hard not to stare as Sasuke opened the front gate and led him in. Still, he couldn't help himself. "This is… this is where you live?"

"Well, of course," Sasuke said. "You expected something different?"

Yakata didn't reply. He was already feeling a bit overwhelmed, after having to fill out a visitor's form at some official-looking building near the center of the city. People were staring at him already.

"Don't worry, they're staring at me, not you," Sasuke had said, in a vague sort of reassurance. Yakata had no idea how Sasuke knew this, but it felt better to trust him.

Sasuke told him to take his shoes off in the foyer, and put down his pack on the floor. "Ino! I'm back!"

"I'm in the living room!" a female voice said.

"Leave your bag on the ground, we'll come back for it later," Sasuke said, so Yakata did so, placing it next to his shoes. They went down the hallway together, and Sasuke opened a sliding door to their left, where the tinny sounds of dramatic speech were seeping into the air.

A skinny, yellow-haired woman in a purple dress sat at a low table in front of a couch, watching a large television and eating from a bowl of rice crackers. Yakata had seen televisions before, but there wasn't much of a use for them out in the country, since they were so expensive, and they required so much electricity to use. Most people just had radios, if anything.

She didn't look at Sasuke as she talked. "How'd your trip go?"

"Splendidly."

"What'd you do out there?"

"What I needed to."

She sighed. "Anything more specific? You kind of ran off without much explana…" She finally turned to look at them. Her eyes were strange and beautiful, Yakata noticed, a glass-like green, without any black to them. "…Sasuke, who is that?"

"This is Yakata," Sasuke said. He put his hand behind Yakata's back. "Yakata, this is my wife, Ino."

"It's… it's nice to meet you, ma'am," Yakata said, bowing, to be polite.

Ino's mouth was shaking, slightly. "Sasuke, who is that?"

"He's exactly who you think he is," Sasuke said.

"Sasuke, what does that-"

"He's going to be staying with us until the end of the summer."

Ino's mouth stretched wide. She breathed in and out through her nose, then, said, "When was this decided?" She turned the television off when it began to laugh, glaring at it, punching the button on the remote with her thumb.

"I arranged it with his parents. I'm going to be training him until the harvest."

"Training…?" Ino began to stand.

"By the way, have Inou and Karai been keeping up with their training?"

"Sasuke, answer my question, please!" Ino said.

"You answer mine, first." Sasuke's eyes narrowed.

Ino pressed her lips together again. They were painted a subtle pink-tan. "They've been training very hard, Sasuke."

"Are they out training, now?"

"Well, yes, but-"

"And Takeru and Hajime, where are they?"

"I don't… know, they both mentioned having things to do-"

"Well, call them all home. And cook something good for dinner tonight, something special."

"Sasuke, but - can you at least tell me why? And you haven't told me a thing about that boy!"

"His name is Yakata. Not 'that boy.'" Sasuke rolled his eyes. "And the dinner's for him. I want to introduce him to everyone."

Yakata's eyes kept darting between the two of them, through the entire exchange. Sasuke's hard face, then Ino's thin, baffled one, then back to Sasuke.

Then he remembered: she was the one that had discovered his father's letters, hadn't she? Was that why she looked so surprised? It seemed the most likely option.

"Just… where did you find him?" she asked, after closing her eyes, taking a deep breath in, and out, and then opening them. Her body seemed suddenly smaller.

"I'll explain everything later. Now, make sure the children are all home for dinner, I know you're able to do that," Sasuke said.

"Of course, Sasuke…" she said, softly, and looked at Yakata. There was understandable confusion in her eyes. "Er, Yakata, was it…?"

"Yes, ma'am," Yakata said.

He saw her stiffen. Her thin shoulders rose, slightly. "…what would you like me to make you for dinner?" She was suddenly smiling, and it almost scared Yakata, how quickly she had put the expression on her face.

"Oh, I, I, I don't mind, ma'am, you can, um. You, you can make anything you want, I guess…" Yakata said. He almost couldn't look at her without cold awkwardness settling into his stomach. "I'm, I'm not picky, really…"

Ino's smile fell, very, very slightly. "Of course... I'll make… stir fry, then, that usually serves a lot of people."

"I had stir fry yesterday," Sasuke said.

"Well, Sasuke, was there any way for me to know that?" Ino said. She put one hand on her forehead, and the other one on her hip.

"Actually, if, if it's more convenient for you, that's, that, that's fine with me…" Yakata said.

There was a pause. "Fine, then, we'll have stir-fry," Sasuke said. He began to leave. "Come on, Yakata. I'll show you the old compound, since this'll take a while. It's not too far away."

"Oh, uh, okay," Yakata said. He followed quickly behind, only getting another glance of Sasuke's wife, who held her elbows and pursed her lips, watching them leave.

The old compound, or whatever it was that Sasuke called it, was a short walk away from the house. There was a very big wall around it, and a gate, though there wasn't much behind it. Above the gate was a strange insignia in faded paint, a circle, half-red, half-white. "So, so what is this place?" Yakata said.

"It's where I grew up," Sasuke replied. He put his hands in his pockets, looking up at the gate. "Nobody lives here anymore, though."

"Wh-why's that?" Yakata said.

Sasuke didn't say anything.

Then, Yakata saw a sign, by the gate. "UCHIHA MEMORIAL: These grounds, the former site of the Uchiha clan's compound, stand as a memorial to the lives lost on the night of October 23th, Akiwa 37 (8 BU). May such atrocities never occur again."

And then, Yakata remembered something that Sasuke had said, something about how he and his children and Yakata were the only things left of the Uchiha clan.

He decided not to ask about it again, feeling incredibly unsettled. "So, so, um what… what did you want to, to, show me here?" he said, instead.

"I just thought it'd be nice to show you where… your father and I grew up," Sasuke said. "There's a lot to see here."

"Oh, okay, then. L-lead the way, I guess!" Yakata said.

So Sasuke did.

As they went along, Sasuke talked; about how that used to be the bakery, how that used to be his mother's cousin's house, that was his great-uncle's house, that was where he used to go and get his clothes repaired.

"There's something to be said about Uchiha handiwork," Sasuke said, proudly, wistfully. "There's something in the stitches that other tailors just can't replicate."

"I see…" Yakata said, because replies were necessary things in instances like this.

Yakata's replies became smaller and smaller, the more Sasuke showed him of the compound. The way that Sasuke talked about the places they were visiting made it seem like they were grand monuments, or the homes of wonderful people that you'd have to be crazy not to love.

But there weren't any buildings. Anywhere. Just dry earth and weeds, and rubble, here and there.

The ghosts of houses, maybe. But Yakata couldn't see them. The people who used to live there were just as gone.

"And this was where my house was," Sasuke was suddenly saying, pointing to another empty space. It was large, and barren. Just like the rest of the compound.

But Yakata found it suddenly hard to breathe. His chest felt tight, his hair was standing on end.

He couldn't say anything. He couldn't move.

And he felt very, very cold.

"…Yakata, what's wrong," Sasuke said. He bent down, slightly. "Are you okay?"

Yakata tried to swallow. He shook his head.

Sasuke put a hand on his back. "Calm down. You're fine." It was almost a comfort, but mostly a command.

"I, I, I, I just… I, I don't feel good here…" Yakata managed to choke out. His breaths were deep. His jaw rattled.

Sasuke was quiet for a while. His hand felt strange on Yakata's back. He could almost feel Sasuke's fingers trembling, too - or was that just his own trembling? "Let's go somewhere else. I'll show you my favorite place."

"O-okay," Yakata said. And he went along with Sasuke's arm on his shoulder, pushed toward their destination, as the chills slowly began to fade away.

By the time they made it to the lake, he could breathe again.

"Here," Sasuke said, walking out onto the dock ahead of him. He had finally taken his hand off of Yakata's back. "I used to come here to think when I was younger, when I needed to clear my mind. Still do, really."

"It, it's pretty…" Yakata said, and he really meant it. It was the only thing there that didn't make him feel supremely uncomfortable. The sky was just beginning to turn a yellowish-gold, and it made the surface of the water shine like polished stone, or glass.

Sasuke sat down at the edge of the dock, cross-legged, and motioned for Yakata to do the same. "I think it might be a good idea to just slow down a bit. We're both a little tired."

Yakata just nodded, and sat. His head tilted sideways, his shoulders slumping. He felt his shirt sticking to his back - had he really been sweating that much?

For a while, there was a silence, and calmness.

And then there was the woman's voice, a high-pitched, breathy yell, as if she were extraordinarily winded. "…please, please, calm down! They're gone! …is that him?"

Yakata had no idea that anyone could get to their feet and dash out of sight as fast as Sasuke did a moment later. Yakata's hair rustled in the wind he left behind.

By the time Yakata got to his feet he saw Sasuke yelling at a woman with long black hair a bit away from the dock. He couldn't quite hear what they were saying, but the words "Leave us be!" and "Enough!" were loud enough to make it Yakata's way. They were Sasuke's words.

An instant later, Sasuke was at Yakata's side, and he had his hand in a grip on Yakata's wrist. "We're leaving," he said. He walked very quickly, avoiding the black-haired woman, who just stood where she had stopped, a sleepy, befuddled look on her face.

"Wh-what happened? Who… who was that?" Yakata asked. Sasuke was pulling at him, and he pulled hard. It almost hurt.

"Her name," Sasuke said, "is Murasaki. If you ever run into her, don't listen to a word she says. She is sick in the head and she hates our clan and she speaks only lies. Stay. Away. From her."

Yakata had never heard anyone sound so angry.

He promised he would stay away.

"And another thing, Yakata."

"Yes?" Sasuke's grip was tight.

"Do not ask or even talk about your father to anyone but me, do you understand?"

The cold feeling in Yakata's stomach returned. "Wh-why not?"

"…my wife and children didn't know him very well, when he was still alive. If you asked about him they'd just get confused. I want to save you the embarrassment."

Sasuke's grip was very strong, and there was absolutely no kindness in his voice. Yakata's chest felt cold, and tight.

(But what about everyone else…?)

He promised he would do that, too.

They went back to Sasuke's home. Yakata's wrist was a little sore, and he rubbed it after Sasuke let go, once they had reached the gate.

Some of his family seemed to have manifested while they were gone. As they were taking off their shoes, a girl in a pale green blouse came down the stairs. Her black hair fell over her shoulders and well past her waist, to her knees. She had the most beautiful eyes Yakata had ever seen, half-closed, with heavy lashes. He couldn't tell where the black ended in them and the color began.

They were gone in an instant, however, as she turned back and started walking up the stairs again, before she could even reach the floor.

Sasuke's eyes were narrowed.

"Who, who was that?" Yakata said.

Sasuke didn't answer.

Yakata went over a handful of names again in his mind. Five children, two of them female. The one named Karai was eleven, around his age. So she must have been…

"Nadeshiko? That, that was… that was Nadeshiko, wasn't it?"

Sasuke still didn't look at him, but he stopped taking his shoes off for a moment. "Yes," he said, very quietly, as if speaking any louder would break something. "It was." He continued on with his shoes, pulling them off forcefully.

Yakata could smell cooking meat, now, faintly, and sesame oil.

"You're a mess. You should go take a bath. I'll show you where the bathroom is," Sasuke said. His voice was low and flat.

Yakata couldn't disagree. So Sasuke showed him where the bathroom was and left him to his own devices.

For reasons he could not quite process, strange tears started leaking out of Yakata's eyes about halfway through the bath, after he managed to figure out which shampoo was which and rinsing out his hair. They were thick tears, and quiet ones.

He figured he was just homesick, as he wiped them away with the back of his hand; the tears ceased as suddenly as they had come.

(Though some part of him, oh, some part of him, was wondering if he was really making the right decision.)

(Why was Sasuke in such a bad mood, he wondered? Was it because of him?)

(And even in the warmth of the bath he could still remember that chill he had felt in front of Sasuke's old home, the place where he was not meant to be, he just knew it.)

When he was finished, while drying his hair with a towel, he found that fresh clothes from his pack had been left out for him; the dirty ones he'd been wearing had disappeared. Confused at first, he smiled a little and put them on, some warmth returning to his chest.

Maybe this wouldn't be so bad.

Chapter Text

Chapter 26 - Stretched Tendons


Sasuke's wife was still cooking when Yakata left the bathroom; he cleared his throat, and she turned around to look at him. She gasped slightly. "Oh, goodness! You startled me."

"Oh, I'm, I'm sorry…" Yakata said. "I, I didn't… I didn't mean it, ma'am."

She didn't respond, at first, though she gave him a half-worried, half-kind look. "It's okay." She went back to her cooking. "I'm almost finished cooking your dinner. And… you don't have to call me 'ma'am,' you can just call me… Ino-san."

"Oh. Okay! Then, then thank you very much, Ino-san!" Yakata said. He bowed, quickly. "For, for dinner, I mean. And, um. The, the fresh clothes, I, I really appreciate it."

"Clothes? What clothes?" She looked over her shoulder again.

"Didn't… didn't you leave fresh clothes out for me, after my bath?" Yakata said.

Ino shook her head. "No, I've been here in the kitchen the entire time."

Yakata blinked. "Oh, then… then who did?"

"Who knows," Ino said, and went back to cooking.

Yakata, not quite sure what else to do, hung awkwardly about in the doorway, watching her cook, smelling the wonderful smells. It was a rice-and-vegetable smell, and the sizzle of the pan and the oil was almost a comfort for him to hear.

Every now and then Ino would look back over her shoulder at Yakata and a strange squirmy smile would wiggle on her face, but always ever after an odd look that wasn't quite disgust, wasn't quite fear, but was decidedly uncomfortable. She always returned to her cooking quicker and quicker each time.

The entrance of a young girl took him completely by surprise, then, since he was so focused on wondering about her discomfort. There was dirt all over her face and her violet dress, and her hair was sticking out in every direction - like Sasuke's, but more wild. Process of elimination told Yakata that it was Karai. "You called, Mom?" she said.

"Set the table for me, dear - but wash your hands first, for heaven's sake!" Ino said, as Yakata tilted his head - he couldn't remember Ino calling for anyone. "And have an extra place set. For, um, Yakata-kun."

"Yakata? Who's - oh! Are you Yakata?" Karai said. She brushed the dirt off her dress and smiled widely. Her eyes were big and very, very black. "I'm Karai!"

"Oh! N-nice to meet you!" Yakata said, smiling crookedly as she held out her hand. He shook it. Her skin felt dusty.

"You're a friend of Dad's, right?" Karai continued. "Mom told me. I thought you'd be older."

"Oh, oh, well, I, I, um…"

"Karai, the table, please," Ino said.

"Okay, okay!" Karai said, and she quickly washed her hands in the kitchen sink. She then pulled some plates out of a cupboard. The stack looked heavy, especially considering how short she was, but she handled them like they were almost nothing.

She had set down three of them when Yakata asked, "When, when did your mom call down for you? I, I didn't… I didn't hear anything."

"Didn't hear anyth - oh! Oh, well, it's a clan thing," Karai said, cheerfully, setting down another plate.

"A, a clan thing? Like, like how you can breathe fire?" Yakata said. He had his mental notebook out again.

"Huh, what?" Karai looked at him, cradling the remaining four plates in her arms. "Breathing fire?"

"Your, your father showed me, when we made a fire on the way over…"

"Ohh! That's, uh, an Uchiha clan art. Telepathy is a Yamanaka art."

"…wha-what's tele-pathy?" Yakata asked. "Is it, is it like… finding a… path with a television?"

Karai had an infectious giggle that squeaked and sparkled. "No, no! It's… kinda like talking, only you don't use your mouth. You use your mind instead!" she said.

"How, how in the world do you do that?"

Karai shrugged. The plates rattled. "I 'unno! I just can. It's a Yamanaka thing."

"Karai, the dishes," Ino said.

"Sorry, sorry."

"Yamanaka?" Yakata said.

She put down another plate. "Mom's clan. It specializes in mind jutsu."

"Oh," Yakata said. "So… so could you, uh… talk to… talk to me using this tele-pathy thing?"

"Well yeah, but that's super advanced stuff," she replied. "Way beyond what I'm capable of. Sorry."

"No, no, it, it, it's okay," Yakata said. "It just, it sounds awfully neat."

"Yeah, y'think so? There's a whole lot else you can do with it," Karai said. She put down the final plate.

"Oh?"

"Five minutes to dinner, Karai, you should at least wash your face before we eat," Ino said, looking over her shoulder. She turned the stove off.

"I know, I know," Karai said. Even her dismissals were strangely melodic. "I'll tell you more about it later, 'kay, Yakata-kun?"

"Sure! Thank you," Yakata said.

"You're-wel-come!" Karai bounced out of the room. Yakata could hear her run up the stairs and slam a door behind her. And he smiled, half from Sasuke being right - she was cheerful! - and half from his sheepish admiration of the mind-talking thing. He had a feeling he'd like her.

"Ow! Damn it, where did I put my oven mitt…?" Ino sucked on her thumb as she set the pan back down on the stove.

"Um, Ino-san. Can, can, can I help with anything?" Yakata asked.

She stared at him, for a moment, before sliding another awkward smile on her face, taking her thumb out of her mouth. "No, no, you don't need to worry about anything," she said. "I'm fine."

"Oh, okay… Well… well, if you, if you do need me…" Yakata said. "I, I mean, just… just because I'm a guest doesn't mean I don't, don't want to help…"

Ino laughed, quickly, and opened a drawer, taking out an oven mitt. "If you… do want to help, can you reach down into that drawer, over there? There's a dish I need."

"Oh, uh. This one?" Yakata opened the cupboard, pointing to a large, white dish inside.

"Yes, just put it on the counter for me."

"Okay." The dish made a hard thump on the counter as Yakata set it down. With a careful turn of the hand Ino poured the stir-fry into it; it sent up large clouds of sesame and vegetable steam, and Yakata almost had to close his eyes, it smelled so good.

"Stir fry? Honestly? I expected something a bit more impressive for a guest of Father's."

A young man entered the kitchen; he was dressed in a black, high-collared shirt, just like Sasuke's. He had narrow, lazy-looking eyes, and a hard smirk on his face.

"He asked for it specifically, Takeru," Ino said. She didn't look at him, putting the dish on the table.

"Father, or the guest?" Takeru said. He crossed his arms, leaning against the doorframe. "Ah, never mind. So where is he, then, this Yakata?"

"That, that's, um. That's me, actually…" Yakata said. He waved his hand and bowed, slightly. "You… you must be, um. Takeru-san, right…?"

Takeru blinked once, twice. His smile didn't leave. "You're Yakata?"

"Yes…"

"Takeru, don't be rude."

"I'm not being rude, Mother, I just expected someone a little…" He glanced at Yakata, toe to head, his smile dropping for only a moment. "…different."

"Takeru."

Yakata felt his face growing hot. He looked at his feet, shifting his weight from one to the next.

"I didn't mean anything negative by it."

Yakata saw Ino rolling her eyes when he finally looked up.

"S'dinner ready yet?" A taller man entered, behind Takeru. He had shadows around his very dark eyes, and his clothes were well-made, and simple.

"I just put it out, Hajime, we're just about ready," Ino said.

"Ah, good. I'm a little hungry." He passed Takeru and went to sit at the table, lacing his fingers together and resting his nose on the surface they made. He didn't acknowledge Yakata.

"Well, at least it'll taste good," Takeru said. He sat on the other side of the table, leaning back in his chair like it was a throne. He glanced at Yakata again, smirked, and then looked away.

"You can sit down if you want, Yakata-kun," Ino told him. She was scooping lumps of rice from a rice cooker into glass bowls, now.

"Um, where… where should I sit…?"

"Anywhere you want, though Sasuke always sits at the head of the table," Ino said, filling a third bowl. "I usually take the other end…"

"You can sit next to me if you want, actually," Takeru said. His voice sounded strangely amicable. "I wouldn't mind getting to know you a little better."

Since he had received no other offers, Yakata shrugged and said "Oh, o-okay, then…" He took the seat directly beside Takeru and sat with his hands in his lap, stiffly.

There was quiet, for a while. Takeru didn't say a thing, just looking over Yakata out of the corner of his eye. Yakata was too nervous, too embarrassed to ask any questions of his own.

Then Sasuke came back into the kitchen. He seemed satisfied, a slight smile on his face. "Ah, so you two are home already? Where's everyone else?"

"Karai's washing her face," Ino said.

"And Inou?"

Ino paused, tilting her head upward with her eyes closed, her serving paddle poised on top of the bowl of rice. "…I don't know, he's not responding."

Sasuke sighed. "That boy. Well, if he's late for dinner it's his own damn fault. Ah, Yakata!" He smiled wider - why was he suddenly so happy again? "Getting to know everyone already, I see?"

"Well, I, I guess…"

"Hopefully we'll get to know you as well, yes?" Takeru said, tilting his head. "I really am curious about you. Wherever did you meet Father?"

"We'll talk about that in time," Sasuke said. He pulled out his chair at the head of the table, to Takeru's left. "How was your day, son?"

"Boring. Did you know? I got asked out by that Ayako girl again. You know, that vice-captain from ANBU?" Takeru had his arms crossed, hands up near his shoulders. "Hajime, don't you know her?"

Hajime just shrugged, his eyes betraying nothing.

"Remind me again, who is she?" said Sasuke.

"That ninny with the green hair. She's always drawing, it's a small wonder she made it into ANBU." Takeru shook his head. "She sent me a portrait, this time, can you believe it?"

"What did she send you last time?"

"Nothing. She just asked me out." Takeru sighed. "I did share a coffee with her this afternoon, for her time, since she went and asked twice. But there's nothing in that head of hers. I was disappointed, but at least she enjoyed herself, it seemed."

"That's a shame," Sasuke said.

"I suppose it is, but honestly, though, I have no time for girls like her." Takeru leaned back in his chair again, waving his hands for emphasis. "With their heads in the clouds. No grasp on reality whatsoever. I was almost glad when Mother called me home for dinner."

"Well, that's good, Takeru. You should be careful about who you spend your time with," Sasuke said.

Hajime unlaced his hands and reached for a pair of chopsticks from the container in the center of the table. From the stairs down the hallway there came a series of rapid thumps.

"We started dinner yet?" Karai came into the kitchen. Her face and her arms were clean, and she was wearing a different dress, Yakata noticed. "Oh, hi, Father!"

"Karai," said Sasuke, nodding.

"I'm just putting the rice out," Ino said. She put the lid on the rice cooker.

"Oh, I'll help!"

"No, you sit down," Ino said, pointedly. "I can handle it."

So Karai did, shrugging with a smile, pulling out the chair beside Yakata's. "You don't mind if I sit here?" she said.

"Oh, no, not… not at all!" Yakata said. He found himself smiling back.

Ino started putting out the bowls of rice at each place at the table. Karai fidgeted in her seat, her hands in her lap, like Yakata, though her posture wasn't nearly as stiff. Takeru got his own chopsticks, Yakata following afterward, seeing that it was the thing to do. Karai refrained.

Nadeshiko entered, silently, her only acknowledgement of the rest of the table a simple nod as she took a seat beside Hajime, directly across from Yakata. She took her chopsticks and set them, neatly, above her plate. She didn't look at Yakata, even though he gave her a shy glance.

Ino put out the final bowl of rice, and finished setting the table by putting out a teapot, then taking her place at the other end of the table.

Sasuke cleared his throat, after a while. "Well, thanks for the food," he said, clapping his hands together.

"Sasuke, Inou isn't home yet," Ino whispered.

"And whose fault is that?" Sasuke replied. He reached into the dish of stir-fry and began choosing vegetables and meat with his chopsticks to put on his plate.

"…thanks for the food," Ino said reluctantly, and the rest of the family echoed her, beginning to eat.

Karai, Yakata noticed, refused to even touch her rice. "Are, are you not hungry…?" he asked her.

"Oh, no, I figured I'd let everyone else get their portions first," she replied, almost in a whisper, with a sunny smile. "Wanna make sure there's enough left over for-"

Sasuke cleared his throat, and she quieted herself, taking a sip from her water glass instead. Yakata went back to eating.

Inou arrived a few minutes later, a bit out of breath. He had a hunk of tissue stuffed into his nose, and there was blood on it. His clothes were very dirty. "Sorry I'm late…" he said.

"About time," Takeru said quietly, helping himself to another portion of food.

"Where were you, Inou?" Sasuke said. "You're filthy."

"I was training. Sorry, I didn't have time to clean up on the way over."

"Oh, I see." Sasuke nodded a few times, slightly, as he considered this. "Well, then, I suppose that's an acceptable excuse. Sit down, the food's still hot."

"Mm." Inou took the final seat at the table after washing his hands, next to his mother and Nadeshiko. He began serving himself.

"My! It's been a while since we've had such a full table," Ino said, holding up her chopsticks and smiling optimistically. "And when was the last time we had guests over for a nice casual dinner like this? Not counting all those times Naruto's come over… Oh, either way. Tea, anyone?" There were a few takers, and Ino got up and poured it for the ones who had asked.

Sasuke cleared his throat again, a short while later. "So, I'm sure you all have noticed that we have a guest."

"It's rather obvious, Father," Takeru said, with a slight chuckle. "Are you finally going to introduce us?"

Yakata looked at Sasuke, awkwardly, as if waiting for a prompt. Sasuke put down his chopsticks and wiped the sides of his mouth, needlessly. "Everyone, this is Honbo Yakata. He's going to be staying with us for the summer while I train him."

"For the summer, huh? That's exciting!" Karai said. She'd finally started serving herself, now that Inou had some food on his plate.

"Training? Don't you already have three students?" Takeru said.

"I'm just focusing on training Go'on right now, Takeru. And Yakata's an exception," said Sasuke. "I'll have enough time for Go'on on the side. Besides," he added, "I get the feeling that Yakata's going to be something of a fast learner." He sent a smile in Yakata's direction, and Yakata vaguely smiled back, then into his rice.

"So, Yakata-kun, how did you come to meet my husband?" Ino asked, all smiles, except in her voice, which sounded ever-so-slightly strained.

"Well, um, it, it was…"

"I first met him on-mission with my genin team, a few months ago," Sasuke interrupted. "I went out to get him after thinking over what I saw while I was there. I thought he had the potential to be a great ninja, so I talked to his parents, and we're doing a trial run here."

Yakata felt words gathering in his throat as Takeru and Sasuke talked on about potential and such, and what exactly it was he'd seen. They weren't even mentioning his father. But then again, what was it Sasuke had said? "They didn't know him well, they'd only get confused," he had said.

But surely he'd have said something by now? Surely that'd have been the first thing he'd mention?

But Yakata trusted Sasuke. Maybe he was just waiting.

So Yakata didn't mention his father, and he sat there and ate as they talked about him, but not to him.

And then Nadeshiko spoke. "Where is Yakata-kun going to stay in the house?" she asked. Her voice was very soft, but at the same time very flat.

It seemed to knock the conversation that her father and brother were having violently off-course, as both of them turned to look at her with narrowed eyes. Sasuke's glare intensified for a moment, afterward, though she hadn't even been looking at him when she spoke.

"I was thinking of having Yakata share a room with Inou," he said, after clearing his throat again. His harsh expression remained.

Inou, who, like Hajime, had been focusing more on eating than participating in the conversation, whipped his head up and at his father. "Wait, why my room?"

"You and Yakata are similar in age, I thought it fitting," Sasuke replied.

"But…"

"But what."

"But it's my room," Inou said. Yakata could only see one of his eyes, from the way his hair fell into his face, but the look he shot at Yakata was, for a moment, surprisingly like one Sasuke's own angry expressions. It was unnerving.

"Um, I, I don't, I don't want to be a bother…" Yakata said, his voice squeaking slightly. "I mean, if… if you don't want me, um. In your room, I'm, I'm, I'm sure I can find somewhere else to-"

"And Yakata is our guest. The guest's needs come before your own, Inou," Sasuke said, sharply. "Wouldn't you want to be treated the same if you were a guest in someone else's house?"

"Re-re-re-really, I, I don't need to-"

"He doesn't even want to stay in my room!" Inou said, looking at his father again - so at least he had been listening to Yakata.

"I don't want to make Yakata uncomfortable," Sasuke said, stiffly.

"I can… I can sleep just about anywhere, it's, it, it's, um. Fuh-fuh-fuh-fine, really…" Yakata replied.

"He can use my room," Hajime said. His voice, Yakata thought, through his growing anxiousness, was remarkably like Sasuke's. "I'm out of town half the time because of work, anyways. I don't care if he uses it."

"And where will you sleep when you are in town?" Sasuke said. His eyebrows had lowered, and his mouth had fixed itself into a stern line.

Hajime smiled very, very slightly. "I'll just stay at someone else's house," he said. "I have friends."

"That sounds like a lovely idea! Thank you, Hajime," Ino said. She sounded like she meant it, for once. "Sasuke, what do you say?"

"He should be with his family when he's at home," Sasuke grumbled.

"Oh, nonsense," Ino said. She waved her hand dismissively. "Hajime, you can take care of yourself, can't you? You're an adult, for heaven's sake…"

"Yeah, I'll be fine," Hajime said.

"If, if, if that's okay with, with everyone else then I'm, I'm, I'm, uh, okay with it too, I guess…" Yakata said.

"Then it's settled. Yakata-kun can stay in Hajime's room," Ino said, brightly, clapping her hands together. "Wonderful! Glad we got that settled."

Sasuke rolled his eyes and, strangely, went back to eating.

"So, Yakata-kun, what sorta stuff you like to do?" Karai asked, nudging him on the shoulder.

"Huh? Stuff?"

"Yeah, like, you got any hobbies?"

"Oh, well, um… I, I, I like reading, I, I guess?" Yakata said.

Across the table, Nadeshiko smiled ever so, ever so slightly. Inou rolled his eyes.

"Really? What's your favorite book?" Karai said.

"Duh-dunno if… if I have a favorite, I mean, I, I like a lot of books," Yakata said. "Though… though I, I did bring one home with me, I got it, um, for, for my birthday and I've read it over'n over again I, I dunno how many times."

"So I guess that one's your favorite!" said Karai, with a bubble-laugh. "What's it called?"

"Well, it's, it's a book of, um. Folk tales 'n stuff," Yakata said. "Like, a whole… a whole bunch of them. So there's not really a title, just… just 'Folktales of the World.'"

"Sounds really cool! Can I read it sometime?"

Yakata shrugged. "Sure, I, I guess so."

"Karai, let Yakata eat," Sasuke said, out of nowhere.

"'kay," Karai replied, slightly deflated. She went back to her rice.

Yakata couldn't help but frown slightly. He'd been enjoying the conversation, really, it wasn't distracting him from his meal at all or anything…

"Uh, if… if I let you borrow my book, you, you gotta tell me more about those Yamanaka things," Yakata whispered, with a slight smile. "Y'know, the um. The tele-pathy."

"That won't be necessary," Sasuke said, before Karai could speak. "You won't need to learn any of those."

"Oh, I'm, I'm sorry, I was just… I was just curious, is all. Karai-chan was just, um. Just telling me about them earlier today and-"

"Very thoughtful of you, Karai. Thank you," Sasuke said. "Why don't you and Yakata talk about Uchiha techniques next time?"

"Sure, I can do that," said Karai. She thoughtfully dangled a bell pepper slice from her chopsticks for a moment before eating it.

Yakata almost asked why Sasuke was so angry at Karai - what else could he be, with an expression like that?

Almost. But something told him that it wouldn't be right to pry, so he stayed quiet.

Hajime left the table first. "I'll go pack my things," he said, taking his plate with him and putting it in the sink.

"And I expect you'll be leaving, right afterward?" Sasuke said. His voice was spiteful, as were his eyes.

"Probably."

"Hm." Sasuke sipped his tea.

Hajime wasn't gone long before Nadeshiko left, herself, without a single word. Hajime left the house shortly afterward, with an uncharacteristically energetic wave - even Yakata, who had known him for all of an evening, found his speech and expressions otherwise perpetually sluggish, almost disconnected, like his soul was hovering somewhere just outside of his body.

Inou left after him. "I need to take a bath," he said.

"You should," Sasuke replied. "After all that training, you should get cleaned off. Price you have to pay for actually putting in effort, hm?" He glanced at Karai afterwards, with her clean face and her clean dress. She smiled back in mock-embarrassment.

Inou didn't say anything, though he nodded, and disappeared into the bathroom.

"Yakata-kun, do you need any help getting moved into Hajime's room?" Karai asked him, afterward. "'Cos I'm all done, so if you are too…"

"That's very nice of you, Karai, volunteering to help," Ino said. Karai just smiled.

"I'd… I'd like that a lot, thank you," Yakata said. "I'm… I'm done eating too, so, do, do I just put my dish in the sink…?"

"Yes, I'll take care of all the washing," Ino said.

"Okay," Yakata said. Following Karai, he put his dishes in the sink, and went to get his bag in the foyer.

"Don't waste his time, Karai," Sasuke said after them. Karai didn't answer, just smiling.

Hajime's room was at the very end of the second-floor hallway, Karai told him. "That's Inou's room, the first one on the left. Nadeshiko's is next door. Mine's that one, across from Inou's; Takeru's is next to mine, and that's the second bathroom. Mom 'n Dad sleep downstairs," she explained further.

"Oh, I see…" Yakata said.

She giggled. "C'mon, let's get you set up." She walked with Yakata to Hajime's room, and opened the door.

It was a plain room, sparse, with nothing but a few ink paintings on the walls to suggest that it belonged to anyone. The bed, one of the biggest that Yakata had ever seen, was neatly-made, with grey and black sheets.

"Gosh, this is… this is really nice, thank you…" he said.

"Why are you thanking me?" Karai said. "You should be thanking Hajime, this is his room. Remember? Mine's down-"

"It's the room across from Inou-san's, I remember. Next to… next to Takeru-san's."

She blinked a few times, with her huge, black eyes. She grinned. "You learn quick!"

"I, I guess…" he replied. His face felt hot.

(Generally, people didn't respond as well to him answering questions so quickly.)

"So, where you wanna put your stuff?" she asked, shortly afterward.

Yakata put his pack on the wooden floor and squatted beside it. It made a soft thump. "Um, well, I, I don't… I don't wanna use his drawers, that'd be rude. I guess I can, um. Just keep everything in my pack for now."

"Oh, I'm sure my brother won't mind, but okay!" Karai said. She sat down on the bed, kicking her legs against the mattress. "Whatever works for you. I mean, sometimes it's easier to keep everything in one place, right?"

"I suppose…"

"Do you need any help, Karai?" Nadeshiko had suddenly appeared in the doorway.

"Nah, I think we're good here!" Karai said, and laughed. "Unless you think we need help, Yakata-kun."

Yakata shook his head. "I'm… I'm fine, thank you."

Yakata had never seen such sad eyes. "Let me know if you need me, then," Nadeshiko said. "You know where I am."

"Thanks, sis!" Karai said, as she left.

There was quiet, for a while. Yakata stood. "Hey, Karai-chan?"

"Yeah?"

"That… that was your, your sister, um. Nadeshiko, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, that was her," Karai said. Her voice, naturally cheery as it was, sounded oddly detached. "Why d'you ask, were you guys not introduced?"

"Well, not… not really, but that's, that's not why I'm, um. Asking."

"Not surprised…" She leaned back on the bed, propping herself up with her arms. "Why were you asking?"

Yakata shrugged. "I, I was just wondering if… if she was okay, she looked kinda sad… Did something happen? I, I, I don't mean to pry, I'm just… just a little concerned…"

"Oh. Well. She's always like that," Karai said. Her ever-present smile faded, slightly. "She's okay, though, you don't need to worry about her."

"But why's she so sad, then…?" Yakata said. He added, in a whisper, as if afraid that someone was listening in, "Is it… is it because of Sasuke-san? He… he seemed kinda mad at her. I mean, that's, that's just what it looked like, I, I, I don't mean to make assumptions…"

Yakata remembered the way his voice had hardened when talking about her, to her. He remembered how quickly she had left his sight when he had first arrived at the Uchiha house.

Karai didn't answer, for a while. "She an' Dad have never really gotten along. It's always been like that," she finally said. "You don't have to worry about it. It's normal."

(It hadn't always been like that, but Karai was too young to remember otherwise.)

Yakata didn't say anything.

Her smile snapped back on her face in an instant. "Hey, but she's really nice, though! I'm sure she's gonna like you a lot," she said, leaning over and propping herself up with her elbows on her knees, her hands under her chin. "Don't worry if it doesn't look like it. She's just kinda quiet. She likes to keep to herself, mostly."

Yakata found himself unexpectedly smiling, though his stomach twisted and jumped at the same time.

(Why did he get the feeling he had heard those words before?)

"B'sides, I like you a bunch already, Yakata-kun. An' I'm sure everyone else will too. I mean," she said, "if Dad thinks you got promise an' stuff then you can't be all bad!"

"Oh! Well, I, um. I like you too!" Yakata said, and laughed. His laugh was not nearly as infectious or as bright as Karai's, but it still made her smile even more widely.

"Well! Lemme know if you need me or anything. I'm gonna be downstairs," Karai said. She got off the bed.

"Okay, thank you," Yakata said.

And then he was alone. Sasuke came in to check on him later, when he didn't leave the room. "Feeling all right?" he asked, from the door.

Yakata had been lying on Hajime's bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking with his hands behind his head. Karai had turned the lights on when they had entered together, and he hadn't bothered to turn them off. He sat up suddenly when he heard Sasuke's voice. "Oh! Yeah, I'm, I'm fine…"

"You seemed tense at dinner," Sasuke said

"Tense? Well, I, I, I guess I was, um. Feeling a little awkward…"

Sasuke smiled slightly. "I suppose that's to be expected. You'll get to know everyone soon. Takeru seemed to like you," he added, his smile growing wider.

"Ah, and Karai-chan and I were, um. Talking earlier, too," Yakata replied. "I like her a lot."

"Hm, well. You two are close in age," Sasuke said, sliding into his usual, neutrally-disapproving face again. "Anyways, you'd best get some sleep. It's an early morning for us tomorrow."

"Oh?" Yakata thought, for a moment. "Oh! Because… because you, you said you were going to, um. Take me around the, the city, get those blood tests done..."

"Exactly," Sasuke said. "You need your rest, don't want to have to cut it off early. Lots of people to meet."

"Yeah…"

"So, goodnight."

"Oh, um. Goodnight, Sasuke-san."

Sasuke left, turning off the light as he went, closing the door behind him.

Yakata lay back down on top of the covers, after a while. Thinking, processing everything.

There was so much he'd learned that day, so many people he'd met already.

Ino, Sasuke's wife, with the strange looks and the sudden smiles.

Murasaki, dark-haired and sleepy-eyed and sick in the head. The woman who only spoke lies.

Karai, the youngest, energetic and helpful and almost his age.

Takeru, who didn't look much like Sasuke but acted like him, with the sarcastic voice.

Hajime, who was the oldest, and very tired, and absent.

Inou, the dirty one, fourteen years old, who glared like his father did.

Nadeshiko, who kept to herself, who didn't get along with Sasuke, who was supposed to be nice and very quiet.

And then Sasuke. Whose moods seemed to shift with the blowing of the wind. He'd been kind to Yakata, but distant, detached, awkward. Annoyed sometimes, before coming home - never angry.

His anger scared Yakata. But he'd never gotten angry at Yakata. Just at Murasaki. At Nadeshiko. He already was beginning to think that he'd be okay - his moods on the road had all had meanings, so surely his anger had similar justifications.

But if Nadeshiko was as nice as Karai had said, and from what Yakata himself had seen, then why did Sasuke hate her so much?

He figured he'd find out, soon enough. But it wasn't really his place to ask.

He then thought of writing a letter to his mother, at the nearly-barren desk on the other side of the room. But it was only the first day, he reasoned. There wouldn't be much to write about. And he was tired, besides. He'd wait a few more days, at least, and then write her. To let her know he was okay.

He'd been missing her a lot, since the land began growing unfamiliar. And he was sure she missed him too. She'd be glad to hear from him.

Still in his clean clothes, Yakata grabbed the covers and bundled himself under them, and went to bed.

He was fast asleep by the time the shouting began, downstairs.

Chapter Text

Chapter 27 - Severed Nerve


Ino and Sasuke were having a discussion. Yes, that was what they always called them. Discussions were neat little things where two adults could stand across from each other and tear each other to pieces with words, usually one-sidedly. Sasuke always on the attack, Ino always on the defense. Their discussions usually had to do with their children, but tonight, it was different.

Tonight, they were discussing Yakata. And it was Ino who was on the offensive, not Sasuke.

She was finishing up with the dishes, the rest of the children all in their rooms, when Sasuke came downstairs. "Yakata's gone to sleep," he said.

"Oh. Really," she replied. She scrubbed at the pan with her sponge with a rough intensity.

"Yes. I'm taking him around the city tomorrow."

"Oh. That's nice," Ino said.

Sasuke frowned, lowering his eyebrows. "You seem oddly fine with this," he said. "I expected more hysterics out of you."

She dropped the sponge. "Hysterics?" she said. "Out of me?"

"You looked like you were going to scream when I came home with him." Sasuke said, flatly, just stating the facts. He sat down at the table.

"Well, that's because I was, Sasuke. But I held myself in because I didn't want to embarrass you."

"Awfully kind of you."

"Oh don't give me that." She turned around to face him, and she folded her skinny arms. Her hands were still wet and they left spots on her apron. "You told me you'd explain everything. So I calmed down. And now I want an explanation."

"I gave one at dinner."

"Oh, come on. I don't believe that 'potential' story for a moment, Sasuke," Ino said. She started gathering her anger, to reinforce her voice. "Who is that boy? Really?"

"His name is not 'that boy;' it's Yakata," Sasuke said. "Do I have to keep remin-"

"No! No, you do not have to keep reminding me, I know his name," Ino snapped. She sighed, rolling her eyes. "Who is he? I'm suspicious, Sasuke."

Sasuke laughed, once, humorlessly. "Suspicious. You're suspicious?"

"Well, why wouldn't I be, Sasuke?" Ino said. "You go off on some trip without any warning and then you come back with some strange kid. I want an explanation, Sasuke! Why is he here?"

"He's here because I'm training him."

"Answer my damn question, Sasuke!" She pulled her arms violently away from each other. Drops of water fell to the floor.

"I did."

"You did not! Why is he here?" she said again.

Sasuke sighed. He shook his head. As usual. He always treated her like she was a child, unable to come to any conclusions on her own, but she had long since gotten used to it.

"Fine, I'll tell you," he said.

He didn't say anything, for a while. Ino folded her arms. "Sasuke, I'm waiting."

Sasuke glared at her, and then closed his eyes, taking a breath in, and out. "Yakata is my brother."

"…the hell does that mean?" Ino said, after a few moments of facial contortion. "Wait, you mean your parents had - but I thought they-"

"No, no, it's not like that," Sasuke said, almost annoyed, his face wrinkling. "He's… Itachi."

"Itachi…? But he's… he's dead, Sasuke. Even I know that," she added, sourly, in her hushed disbelief. Because, clearly, she knew nothing.

"You think I don't know that? For heaven's sake, Ino," Sasuke said, sneering. Poison was gathering in his voice. "He… he's like… a reincarnation. A clone."

"You're not making any sense." Ino's voice was soft. She was shaking her head, slowly, from side to side.

"Well, excuse me for failing to explain the situation properly, Ino!" One of Sasuke's eyes twitched. "It's not exactly a simple thing!"

"I should say! What do you mean, he's a reincarnation or whatever?" Ino said.

Sasuke waved his hand around near his head as he struggled for words. "It's… someone, somewhere, somehow brought Itachi back. They grew him and gave him to a family and that's… Yakata."

Ino gave something like a nervous laugh. "You're not making any sense."

"You said that already," Sasuke said. "It's not easy to explain. What are you not understanding, anyways?"

"What am I not understanding?" Ino said. She gestured inarticulately. "I just don't see how someone like you could believe something as… as crazy as that!"

"Don't tell me that it's crazy," Sasuke said. It was a command, not even remotely rhetorical. "I've been suffering over this for months."

Ino's voice fell into her throat, and was very quiet when she managed to speak again. "Months? What in the world are you talking about?"

"I met Yakata on my first mission with my genin. That was the truth." He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms, his voice smoothing slightly, as he returned to the facts. "You know how he looks just like Itachi? I had no idea what the hell that meant. I thought I was…" He swallowed, grimacing, as if the words tasted bitter to him. "I thought it was just a coincidence until I went to talk to Karin."

"Wait, wait, Karin? When did you go talk to Karin?" Ino said. There was less rage in her voice and more curiosity. She began approaching him, moving away from the sink and closer to the table.

Sasuke sighed, shaking his head, again. He got up and out of his chair, and he began to pace around the kitchen. "See, this is why I didn't say anything," he said. "I knew you were just going to lose your temper and make assumptions, like you always do."

"Like I always…?" Ino scoffed. "Give me a little credit, Sasuke!"

"Credit given."

"Oh, shut up. When did you see Karin?"

"Just a few days ago. It's what I left so suddenly for."

Once again, Ino struggled for words. She raised her hands and dropped them against her lap. "Why the didn't you just tell me…?" she finally said, softly, sincerely, desperately.

"I know how you are," Sasuke grumbled. He almost looked like he was pouting. "You'd probably think I was sneaking off and having an… affair with her or something."

Ino actually laughed at this. "You're joking. You're joking, right?"

"No, I'm not. What's so funny," he said. His eyes hardened.

She managed to control herself, for a moment. "Why would I think that… you, of all people, were having an affair, just because you were going off to see another woman for something?" she said. She laughed again. "Wow. I am… honestly amazed, Sasuke."

Sasuke shoved his hands into his pockets and didn't look at her. "I thought you'd make a fuss. It was better not to say anything."

"No, you should have told me."

"Well, I can't rightly change that now, can I!" he said, shouting suddenly, as he locked eyes with her. "The fact remains that I went, and I talked to Karin and she convinced me about Yakata! Okay?"

"Quiet down, do you want people to hear?" Ino hissed, much quieter, as she glanced sideways, at the window, at the hallway, but not at him, not at him. "Okay, so you went to see Karin! Big deal! Why did you go to her in the first place?"

"Favor to Sakura." His voice was clipped, reluctant.

She scoffed again. "Oh, really."

"I'm not going to be lying about everything, Ino!" he snapped. His voice rose again.

"Okay, okay, fine! So you did it for Sakura!" said Ino. "Shh, come on, be quiet! So, what does Yakata have to do with this?"

"I told her about him and she said that…" He swallowed, and said, very quickly, "that Orochimaru might have brought Itachi back, and that Yakata was the result."

"What?"

"Keep it down!" Sasuke hissed. "For heaven's sake, you were the one concerned about making noise! Do you want people to hear?" he added, in a high-pitched hiss of an imitation.

Ino seethed. She crossed her arms again, pursing her lips, tightly. "What did she mean by that?" she said, lowly. "Orochimaru? How did… how did she even come to that conclusion?"

Sasuke paused. "She found reports," he said, after a while.

"Reports." Ino didn't trust his tone for a moment.

"Yes. Reports," he replied, insistently. "You know, this isn't just about Yakata. That Taki Kiine girl, she's involved in this too."

Her mind reached for facts and grabbed rumors. She spoke before she could fully process the information, because otherwise… "Taki… what?"

"I told you, it's not easy to explain! Go ask Sakura about it sometime, I don't know!" he said. "I'm going to talk to her tomorrow too, you know, since that's why I left in the first place. And we're going to have some blood tests done on Yakata. To prove it. That he's really Itachi."

"What are you even talking about, anymore?" Ino said, her voice faint, her head reeling.

"Maybe you'd know if you actually paid attention to things," Sasuke said. His voice was curt and cruel.

"Don't insult me! You're darting around the subject, I can barely understand a thing!" Ino said. "And stand still, for heaven's sake!"

Sasuke stood still. He glared at her, Sharingan spinning. "What's so hard to understand, Ino," he said.

She had to look away. She had to. "I just can't understand how that bo-" She stopped herself. Paused. Catching herself, before he could. "Yakata can be your brother. In any sense of the word."

Sasuke sighed. "Honestly, if you took one moment to just step outside of yourself and think for once then I think you'd understand."

Her voice rose, but she couldn't help herself. "I'd understand better if you actually slowed down and told me what was going on!"

"I. Already. Have!" His voice sounded louder than it really was. She flinched with every word. "Yakata's my brother! He is Itachi! He was brought back from the dead, and now he's here!"

"But…" Ino stammered. "But, how… how is that even possible!"

Sasuke sputtered with rage for a moment. "I don't… know!" he shouted. Ino's shoulders rose; she held herself as if she were cold. "Damn it, I don't know, okay? It just… happened!" His voice quieted. "It… it just happened. I don't know how, but it did, and he's here."

She still couldn't look at him. "You don't need to shout. I'm sorry. I'm just… confused." She paused, thinking, collecting memories. "So is it… really him, in there? Your brother, I mean."

Sasuke paused at this, for a while. She risked looking up at him, and found that his eyes had quieted, as had his expression.

"Sasuke, answer my question. I'm just trying to understa-"

"He was reborn. Raised by different people, has different memories. But he's still Itachi," Sasuke said. He had started pacing again. "I know it. And once we have the blood tests done I'll have proof."

Ino just nodded. "…okay. If that's what it is, then that's… what it is."

He stood still, glared at her. "You don't believe me. You think it's all bullshit, don't you?"

"Well, it… is a little hard to believe, Sasuke." She attempted to smile. Anything to keep his voice down. "I mean, it sounds like something… out of a fairy tale, or-"

"Well, just believe it then, all right? It's the truth!" Sasuke was shouting again. "Whether it's… believable or not! Strange things happen and-"

"Shh, Sasuke, please, please, calm down," Ino said. She had raised her hands, now, defensively, waving them in slight, downward movements, as if she could coax his rising temper down with her palms alone. "I guess I'll have to accept that these things happen. Okay. Calm down, you don't have to get so angry…"

"I wouldn't be so angry if you weren't so thick about all of this," Sasuke said. He didn't look at her as he spoke.

"Sasuke, I'm not…!" And she plucked the anger out of her voice before it could grow any further. "Okay, you know what? Fine. I'm being thick about this. I'm sorry," she said. She sighed, she breathed in and out, she counted to ten. "So does… Yakata know? About this whole him-being-your-brother thing, I mean I'm supposing he does, if he's here…"

Sasuke didn't answer.

"…Sasuke, he does know, doesn't he?"

"Well, that's…" He looked at the floor. "I had to tell his parents something to get him to come with me, so…"

Ino's face began to crease again, from comfort into frustration. "What did you tell them, Sasuke?"

Sasuke didn't answer.

"Sasuke, you have to tell me, you know!"

He hunched his shoulders, looking out the window, now. He folded his arms. "They… think that Itachi is his… father."

Ino didn't even have to do the math. "You lied to them!"

"It was the only thing I could say!"

"You lied to them, Sasuke!"

"Well, what else could I have told them? Given how well you're taking this I highly fucking doubt that they'd react just as well! And you're a damn jounin, Ino, these are country…" His hands grabbed for the words in the air. "…bumpkins! If you're having trouble understanding the concept then how the hell do you expect me to have explained it to them?"

Ino breathed in, sharply, through her nose. "Be that as it may," she said, "you still lied to them. Is this what you told Yakata, then? That your dead brother was his father?" Sasuke nodded, once, still looking out the window. "Oh, I ought to hit you. That was… that was incredibly stupid!"

Sasuke looked up. The air suddenly felt very, very hot.

"Don't you dare threaten me. I am your husband. You do not speak to me this way."

Ino had to turn her back on him, that time. She bit the nail on her pinky finger, for lack of a better comfort, praying he that he wouldn't command her to look at him.

He didn't.

It took her a while to work up the courage to even speak, gathering it, breath by deep breath. "It's unfair to Yakata, Sasuke. It's a lie, and if he ever found out-"

"He won't find out."

"How can you be so sure?" Her voice wavered.

"He won't. Find out."

She laughed. Nervously. "So that's how it's going to be, then. You're going to just keep lying to him, for as long as he's here?"

"It might as well be the truth," Sasuke said. "He might as well be Itachi's son. It makes no difference."

"You still-"

"Not another word about what I told him."

Her mouth remained open, dead words still on her tongue.

"You understand that this means you cannot speak a word about when Itachi died, don't you?" he said.

She didn't answer.

"Ino. Look at me."

She had to obey. She kept her head down, only barely looking back at him, from the top of her eyes. "And what am I supposed to tell him if he asks?"

"Lie, then. And tell me what you said afterward." She didn't respond. "What, you're not above that, are you?" He tilted his head backwards and slightly to the side, his red eyes full of contempt. It was an expression she knew far too well.

(It was a face that Takeru seemed to wear nearly constantly, but it had long since stopped scaring her. She learned to live with it.)

(Just like everything else.)

Her fear transformed instantly into fury. "I can't rightly lie to a child about something like that!" she said.

"Then pray he doesn't bring it up," Sasuke said. "I already told him not to bring his father up around others."

A laugh escaped from Ino's mouth. "And you don't expect he'll get suspicious at all?"

"He's an obedient boy."

She lowered her head, shaking it. "I can't believe I'm hearing this…"

"If you have a problem with it, then take comfort in the fact that he's only here until the end of the summer," Sasuke said, without any sort of comfort. "He'll get over his curiosity about Itachi soon enough, anyways. He knows when to stop asking questions."

Ino just shook her head again. "Why is he even here, Sasuke?" she said, when she finally managed to look up at him again.

He looked at her as if she'd asked him why the sky was blue. "He's Itachi. I couldn't just… leave him out in the middle of nowhere, not with those skills he has," Sasuke said. He walked toward the sink. "Imagine, if I had just let all that potential go to waste…!"

"So, you're basically training him because you think he'll be as good as your brother."

"He will be as good as my brother. He is my brother, Ino, how many times do I have to say it?" He turned around, glaring, once again.

Ino held her hands together in front of her. They were dry, now. "But is this what he wants?"

There was a pause, and it was very small, but Ino noticed.

"…why the hell are you even asking? Of course he does." He faced the sink, again. "I wouldn't have done this if he didn't want to go in the first place. I offered, and he accepted. That's why he's here."

Somehow, Ino didn't believe this. But it was late and she had dishes to finish washing, and she was too tired to make more of an effort. "Okay. I still think it's unfair, how you lied to him."

"I didn't lie to him."

She shrugged. It had been a pitiful attempt at getting the last word in, anyways. "…whatever you say, Sasuke."

Sasuke was quiet, for a while, not even acknowledging that the argument was over. He always did this, lingering about with his hands in his pockets, just pacing, almost drinking in the meaningless victory, seasoning it, on occasion, with more words.

"So, just remember," he finally said. Ino had been waiting for it. "Don't bring up Itachi. Only let me talk about him."

"Of course, Sasuke." He wasn't even looking at her. She was trying not to, but failing.

"And if Yakata asks?"

"Just make something up, I know. Can I get back to the dishes now?"

He gave her a very severe glance. "I'm not done talking."

"Oh, really? Because I thought that we were," she replied, sharply. She tried to move forward, but he stepped in the way.

"No, we are not done until I say so."

She rolled her eyes. "Cut it out. Why are you being such a child about this?"

"You're calling me a child? Me? Ha. Haha."

Ino didn't say anything, quietly breathing, her eyebrows low.

"You're the one who overreacted, I'm being a perfectly calm and rational human being about this," he continued.

Oh, that was it.

"Then why were you the one that was shouting so fucking much?" she hissed. Her face was inches from his. His expression did not waver. "People can hear!"

She looked away, feeling bitter, bitter words building in her mouth.

She could either spit and be attacked, or swallow and feel sick for the rest of the night.

She felt sick enough as it was. She didn't know how much more she could take.

She chose to spit.

"For someone so obsessed about family you sure don't care much about public appearances..."

And then his hand was on her arm and it was twisting very hard. She closed her eyes, feeling the pain.

"Not. Another. Word," he said. "How dare you speak about my clan this way. I am insulted."

His clan.

His clan.

(That was how he had proposed to her, twenty-two years before. Would she help rebuild his clan, he had asked.)

(Sometimes, when things got really bad between them, she found herself lying awake at night, wondering why in the world she had accepted.)

And then there were footsteps coming down the stairs and he let go and sat down at the table and she went to the sink and everything was.

Normal.

It was Takeru. He blinked, sleepily. "What's going on?" he said. "I heard people talking."

"Nothing. Your mother and I were just having a discussion," Sasuke said.

"Oh? What about?"

Ino knew better than to speak.

(Her arm hurt her arm hurt her arm hurt.)

"Yakata. His long-term situation. Nothing that concerns you, son," Sasuke replied. He couldn't manage a smile.

"Oh. I see," Takeru said. "I just heard a bit of a commotion. Wondering if everything was all right."

"Everything's fine, Takeru," Ino said. "What are you doing up, anyways?"

"Just couldn't sleep, I guess," Takeru replied, casually. He yawned. "I came down for a glass of water."

"Couldn't you have gotten one from upstairs…?" Ino said.

"Oh, the water up there is disgusting. I don't want to have to drink out of the cup that everyone else gargles with, are you crazy, Mother?" Takeru looked at her as if she had asked why the grass was green, his expression laced with a smirk.

"Well, get your glass of water and head back upstairs," Sasuke said. "Don't stay up too late."

"Oh, I'll be sure to get my eight hours in, Father. Don't worry about me."

Ino didn't move as Takeru got a glass from an upper cupboard and filled it with water from a pitcher in the fridge. He drank from it, slowly. Sasuke didn't say anything. He put the glass in the sink, when he was finished, by his mother's motionless hands.

"Well, then. Goodnight," Takeru said.

"Goodnight, son," Sasuke said.

"Goodnight," said Ino.

And then Takeru was back up the stairs. They heard him close the door to his bedroom.

They were quiet for a good long while, afterwards.

Of course, Sasuke was the first to speak. "So remember what I said."

"Yes, Sasuke."

"Don't mention Itachi."

"Mhm."

"And if he asks?"

"Make something up and tell you afterward."

"He's only here until the end of the summer."

"Yes, Sasuke, I know."

"Good. I'm going to bed. Early morning tomorrow. Taking Yakata around the city, he's very excited. Having those blood tests done, too."

She couldn't help herself. "So you're going to tell other people about him."

"Of course. I have to. You didn't think I would?"

She didn't say anything.

"This is more than just me and him. There's other things to consider and-"

"Fine. I understand." She reached for her sponge, suddenly. "I'm going to finish the dishes."

"Mm."

He stood.

"Hopefully they'll understand the situation better than you," he said.

She had her back turned, so she couldn't see if he was looking at her or not. She doubted he was.

And he left.

Her arm still hurt. She managed to ease the pain a little with the application of chakra.

She did not start crying because of her arm, oh, no. That was nothing - and, besides, it wasn't like Sasuke had hit her, or even raised his hand against her. He was a good man, he'd never really hurt any of them.

(Hadn't she been the one to threaten him, anyways? That's what had caused this.)

No, she cried because she was terrified, more than anything else, that someone had heard. Anyone.

The children were sleeping just one floor above. Even with all of their doors closed - and she always told them to close their doors at night, "To keep things looking neat," she had told them - their voices muffled, certain tones, certain volumes still managed to make it through. She was certain. She knew how acoustics in a house worked.

And her children were ninjas, like her. Light sleepers. They heard things.

(She could never forget the look that Inou had given her when he was four years old, rubbing his eyes, clutching a blanket, on the night that everything ended for Nadeshiko. The look of scared confusion, when he asked why Daddy had been yelling so loudly. Had something happened?)

And when other people heard things, rumors got around. People talked.

And Ino did not want to be That Woman.

(She did not want to be her mother.)

And oh, if Yakata had heard a thing that either of them had said. She didn't know what she could say to him.

She didn't know what Sasuke would say to him, more importantly. And that scared her the most.

None of this was like him. He wasn't prone to irrationality. He was - hadn't he said this? - a perfectly calm and rational human being.

She just didn't understand. She just… didn't understand. No matter how hard she tried to wrap her mind around the facts there were just gaps in the logic that eluded her, endlessly. There were unanswered questions and theories about Orochimaru, and the whole idea that Sasuke seemed to have in his mind, that this b - Yakata, that Yakata was Itachi, that she couldn't understand. She tried to. Oh, she tried to. But it just didn't make sense.

None of it made sense.

But, as she had learned, from many, many years of practice, that it was far better to just keep her head down and pretend that she knew what was happening.

It made sense to Sasuke, so it made sense to her. This - Yakata was Itachi, but he thought he was Itachi's son. So long as she was careful, that wouldn't cause any problems. Fine, she would be fine with this.

All the rest she would leave for Sasuke to figure out. And if she figured it out as well, then, well.

Besides, Sasuke was being responsible. He was going to tell other people about this, wasn't he? He didn't tell her who, but she had an idea - Sakura, and because of Orochimaru, would he maybe tell Naruto? And Karin, she didn't know how much they'd talked about, or what they had…

(She had never, not for a moment, suspected Sasuke of an affair. Never, in twenty-two, almost twenty-three years of marriage, did she even think him capable of such a thing. She knew him too well to think otherwise.)

She hoped that he knew what he was - no, she didn't hope. She knew.

She sniffed, wiping away her tears with the back of her hand, trying to force herself into composure.

No, she hoped. She hoped he knew what he was doing.

She couldn't be certain. Not here, not now.

Her eyes were dry by the time she had finished the dishes, scrubbing them, drying them, putting them away in the cupboards. She went down the hallway to their bedroom and got undressed and dressed, very quietly, in the darkness. Sasuke was already asleep.

She couldn't even bring herself to close her eyes for more than a few seconds, so she just stared at the ceiling and thought.

And prayed that nobody had heard them.

Chapter Text

Chapter 28 - Familiar Blood


Sasuke asked Yakata to wait outside while he went to talk with Sakura in her office, after briefly, briefly introducing them.

Sakura's eyes were still wide when he came back inside. He waited for her to say something. She didn't. "Well?"

"Well… well what?" she stammered, leaning against the back of her desk, barely standing.

"Surely you've got something to say about all of this."

"Well, of course I do, but…"

"But what?"

"I'm still kind of trying to process this, Sasuke! Give me a moment, will you?"

"Hm."

Sakura rubbed her hand over the top of her forehead, pushing back her bangs. They fell back into place. "That… that's Itachi's clone?"

"More or less," Sasuke replied.

"How in the… Where did you find him?"

"Land of Rice. But I didn't think to bring him here until after I talked to Karin, she changed my mind."

"You went to Karin? When?"

Sasuke sighed. And he had expected her to at least ask different questions than Ino had.

Well, he had to get it out of the way. "A few days ago. After you showed me those reports I… thought to check on some facts with her."

"Really!"

"Don't sound so surprised," he said. "I'd known about Yakata for a few months, but the reports you showed me convinced me that maybe my theories weren't so… unrealistic."

"Known about him?"

"I ran into him but I dismissed his appearance as nothing more than a coincidence, may we move on, now?" he said. He had his arms folded, his foot tapping.

"You seem oddly impatient," Sakura said, an awkward laugh slipping into her voice. "What were your theories, anyways?"

"I don't see how that's important, now that we know what's going on."

"Know what's - but what is going on?" Sakura asked. "You just told me that he's your brother's clone, how is that even possible?"

"Karin suspects that Orochimaru has something to do with it," Sasuke said, detaching his voice as he looked at the ceiling. "Reviving him, I mean."

"Wait, what?"

"That's just her theory," Sasuke said, still keeping his tone detached. "But it's the only lead we have. Since, well, Kabuto's been taken care of, we know that for sure. But the last we heard about what became of, well, Orochimaru himself has been…"

Sealed into a spirit sword. Even in his mind, even though he had seen it happen with his own eyes, it still sounded stupid to Sasuke.

"…inconclusive."

"Well, it's… a theory," Sakura said. She shivered, slightly, he noticed. "But why would she think that?"

He had promised not to tell anyone about Ooda.

"She found some diary entries that suggested… things. Reports and things. She said she'd be sending you more information as she found it," he said.

"I… see," Sakura said. "Well… Regardless of whether… Orochimaru is involved or not - completely disregarding how in the world he's even involved in the first place-"

"That's not the important thing, here," Sasuke said.

Sakura tightened her expression. "Yes, I know. The important thing is… how in the world did… Yakata get here?"

"I brought him with me to Konoha, naturally, what sort of a question is that."

Sakura sighed. "No, I didn't mean that. I mean… how was he made? I mean, wow, he…"

"Some sort of… regeneration. Technique. I don't know, I'm not a scientist," Sasuke said. "Grown in a tube or something. Why are you even asking me, anyways?" he continued, finally looking at her with a sour expression. "It's not like I know."

Sakura shrugged. "No, I guess you don't…" She took a heavy breath. "So you just found him?"

"Yes. Strange twist of fate, isn't it? Marvelous coincidence, yes?"

She sighed a little. "I suppose so."

"So, I want you to do some blood tests," Sasuke said, without any change in tone.

"Huh? Why…?"

Sasuke sighed. "Isn't it obvious? I want to make sure."

"Make sure of what?" Sakura said.

"Must I explain everything?" Sasuke said. He shook his head, slowly. "I want to make sure that he's truly Itachi. Just one final test. And… well, Karin had another theory, that maybe he might be connected with Taki Kiine. So maybe there's a way you could test that too, see if that's viable either."

The shock finally seemed to wear off. "Oh, that's - you're right!" Sakura said. She clasped her hands together. "I don't know what could test for - well, I do have an idea but… oh, I should really do that."

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "I thought that'd be the first thing you'd think to do."

"Well, it's not every day that things like this happen, you know," Sakura said, putting one hand on her hip, the other on her chin, as she thought. "Goodness, Sasuke, if this isn't an enormous stroke of luck."

"Stroke of luck, is it?"

"Dunno what else to call it. You finding… Yakata, and all that. Say," Sakura continued, finally stepping away from her desk, "does he know?"

"Know what." He paused. "Oh. No, he doesn't."

She thought for a moment. "…how in the world did you get him here, anyways? You had to have told his parents something."

Did all women have to ask the same questions? Sasuke sighed again. "He's adopted. So I told his parents that I believed him to be…" A pause. "…a member of the clan. And that I wanted to have tests done to make sure."

Because Ino had reacted so well to the truth, and given Sakura's reactions thus far…

"Hm. I suppose that works," Sakura said. "Well, we should probably have that blood drawn. I'm already short on time as it is. Did you want me to test it against Itachi's DNA profile or…?"

"Yes, whatever you need to do."

"Right, right."

(Truthfully, she was probably keeping some poor soul in the waiting room for far too long, but Yakata's appearance had startled her far too much to presently care. She'd apologize later.)

"You know," she said, right before leaving, "I really was wondering about what Ino was talking about."

Sasuke's vaguely good mood lessened. "When did you talk to Ino? What did she say?"

"…why so defensive, Sasuke?" Sakura said, darkly. She looked at him with narrowed eyes. "She just called me in a panic, yesterday. Something about you coming home with some strange child and you wouldn't tell her why. I'm guessing she was talking about Yakata-kun?"

He should have guessed. "Yes. What else did she say?"

"Not much else. She just mostly had to vent her frustration, but I couldn't stay long," Sakura said.

(She made a mental note to give Ino another call, soon. At least. She had to.)

(She couldn't even begin to imagine how Ino was handling all this. Inou and Karai in the chuunin exams, and now this?)

"Hm."

She opened the door. Yakata was still there, standing thoughtfully against the wall with his hands behind his back. Sakura almost instinctively avoided looking at his eyes, as he turned to face them, when the door opened.

"We're going to go have some blood drawn, Yakata," Sasuke said.

"Oh, okay."

"I hope we didn't keep you waiting long," he continued.

"No, I, I, I didn't… I didn't really notice."

"Okay." Sasuke cleared his throat. "Well, Sakura?"

(Goodness, did Yakata ever look like Itachi.)

"Right this way, come on," she said, nodding, leading them to the labs. She walked ahead of them, resisting the urges to look back at Yakata.

She drew his blood quickly, after getting the supplies from the lab and filling out the necessary paperwork, to Sasuke's annoyance.

"Do we really," he said.

"Yes, we really," she replied. "This is my hospital, and I refuse to see it out of order. Now, how tall are you, Yakata-kun?"

"Hmph," Sasuke said, and Yakata answered.

He hardly flinched when she drew his blood. "Keep that on for at least ten minutes, now," she told Yakata, wrapping his arm in gauze; a moment later, she pulled Sasuke aside, a good few paces away. "Sasuke, I'll get back to you later today on the initial results," she whispered, "though we won't be able to get the full DNA analysis done for a couple of days. But we have your brother's…" Her eyes drifted to Yakata's face; he was looking at her with dark - jarringly, not red - expectant eyes. She looked away. "…records on hand, so we'll be able to do the comparison pretty quickly."

"That's fine," Sasuke replied.

"And, um, Sasuke?"

"What."

"Are you going to tell Naruto about this?"

"About what, Yakata?"

"Well, and the whole…" Sakura looked over her shoulder, to see if Yakata was listening - why was she even checking? - and saw the boy just standing there, looking off at something, but not them. "…theory Karin has about Orochimaru being behind this."

"…it's just a theory. Rather baseless, really, but we don't have anything else. I don't think it's worth saying anything about," Sasuke said. "I don't think unnecessary panic will do anyone any good. Even in Naruto's hands."

"Right, right… Though, Sasuke?"

"What." His voice was a quiet growl.

"If… that hypothesis is proven correct, about Yakata-kun and Taki Kiine being connected, should I tell Naruto? Just on that alone."

"…whatever you want to do. Just try not to stir up trouble," Sasuke said. There was an edge of impatience to his voice.

"…I'll write to Karin about it, at any rate," Sakura said. Yakata was now looking at them, curiously, blinking with heavily-lashed eyes. Sakura couldn't stare at them for more than a moment at a time without feeling intensely uncomfortable.

"Anyways." Sasuke cleared his throat, his voice returning to its normal volume. "We have a lot to do. If you can't contact me in the evening just send me a note or something."

"Sure," said Sakura. She watched as he returned to Yakata's side, saying something about a tour and training. Yakata looked over his shoulder at her as they left, before Sasuke got his attention again, pulling his eyes away from Sakura. And she noticed, for the briefest of moments, the unusual amount of birthmarks he seemed to have on the back of his neck.

She forced herself to keep her concentration, to keep the shock from coming back.

Well, it was a little hard to believe. But she had a job to do. She swallowed and went back to the little vials of Yakata's blood that she'd left on one of the counters in the lab, and had two of them put into storage, along with his records. The third she took to a microscope.

Standard procedure: Droplet of blood, dyed, sandwiched between two slides.

She saw Uchiha cells.

Her breath caught in her throat.

And Karin's.


Sakura had figured out her angle on how to present this information to Naruto by the end of the day, only after separating her brain into seemingly two different layers of thought. She did have a surgery to do that day - two, in fact, though one was just a glorified bone-setting, nothing she couldn't handle. She had to be able to concentrate, so she did. It came easily to her, for some reason. But she supposed it came with the territory.

(Because, seriously, she was just that awesome.)

The first idea that she threw out was using this information as blackmail against the Taki syndicate. First off, why the heck would she even do that? Second off, how could any of it be used as blackmail in the first place? That was why she threw the idea out first. Got the ball rolling.

The ideas that followed weren't much better. Threaten to expose their connection to Orochimaru? No, that was still blackmail, and it'd just get them mad. Bring up the fact that their daughter was more than likely not theirs, biologically? Eh. And the Uzumaki connection? A start, but not terribly helpful.

Besides, she remembered Karin's warning. Keep that fact away from the Taki family. They wouldn't take kindly to it, most likely. Neither she nor Sakura understood the connection much, anyways.

Sakura found herself growing frustrated, the more she thought. Why the hell was everything some sort of variation on blackmail? She didn't understand her own brain sometimes.

But the fact remained, it had been at least two weeks since the incident with Taki Kiine, and with the first round of the chuunin exams over and the majority of the foreign guests gone for their month of training, people were starting to buzz and fuss again, Sakura was sure. She didn't hang about the Hokage Manor very much, but she had a good ear for gossip and a good feel for what sorts of things were going on in Konoha.

Something had to be done; doubtless Naruto was already thinking about it, himself.

(And she could imagine, very, very well how much he probably missed Kiine.)

And she really wanted to help, besides.

So she thought harder.

The best solution, she found, didn't even involve this new knowledge at all. Which was absolute bullshit, but there you go.

She went to the Hokage Manor, after clocking out and making sure that the folks who worked the night shift were all set up, ready to go, shuffling about and doing their rounds as needed. Andou said hello to her and said that Naruto was alone in his office, so she could just go right up and see him.

The door was halfway open already, so she pushed it open completely, gently, upon entering. "Knock-knock," she said.

Naruto was at his desk, an open binder full of papers in front of him, his forehead in his hand. He'd been obviously concentrating, and he looked tired. "Oh, hey there," he said, looking up.

"You doing all right? You look a little ragged," Sakura said.

"Nah, I'm fine. What's up?" He put down his reading and smiled at her, slightly.

"Not much. I was just thinking, Naruto."

"Uh-huh?" he said. "What about?"

"Well." She exhaled. "I know I'm not an advisor of yours, so if this is unwarranted, then…"

"Oh come on, Sakura, you are totally one of my advisors, y'know," Naruto replied, grinning. "What do you wanna advise me on?"

She inhaled. "Well, now that the first part of the chuunin exams are over, I'm thinking that maybe it's about time you got back to the, er, Taki syndicate about settling all of those debts they owe us. I mean," she added, quickly, "people are starting to talk again."

"Oh yeah! I've been thinkin' about that, actually," Naruto said.

Her eyes widened, slightly. "Have you?"

"Yeah! Though all this thinking is kinda making my head hurt, y'know, haha," he said. He closed the binder and held it up. "Andou-kun put this together for me, it's all the reports to do with the Taki guys. Debts and complaints and stuff, y'know."

"Wow, you two are really on the ball, then," Sakura said. She was quiet, for a moment. "So… what's your plan?"

Naruto blinked. "My plan?"

"Yeah, I mean, if you started thinking about this already on your own."

"Well…" Naruto's smile lessened, and he laughed, once, awkwardly. "I only started on this this afternoon, and that's only 'cos Andou-kun left this on my desk for me after we finished filing all the missions for the day."

"Oh. Well." Ah, she should have known.

"What did you wanna do?" Naruto said, suddenly. His eyes brightened, and he straightened his back. "I wanna hear your idea!"

"Oh, um. My idea?"

"Yeah, you had one, didn't you?"

"Well, yeah, I did."

"So what was it?"

The best idea didn't even have to do with what they'd just learned about Yakata. It wasn't even a new idea, it was just a reminder, more than anything. Total bullshit, the little voice in her head said, but. "Well, it's the same as what I suggested a few weeks ago," she said. "Writing a letter, planning a meeting. Negotiations. You know, now that you have the time."

"Oh yeah! You said that after, um." He thought.

"After I came to you about Kiine," she said, almost reluctantly, after a while.

His expression softened. "Oh, yeah… I remember now. You told me to hold on 'cos of the chuunin exams. That was a good idea, y'know."

"Yep, I guess it was," she said.

"Well, okay! Negotiations. I could come up with something for that." Naruto tapped his chin, looking up. "Maybe I should invite them back over…?"

"What, why would you do that?"

"Well… hm. Buncha reasons, I guess," he replied. "I mean, it'd be convenient, y'know?"

"For you, maybe, but for them…?"

"You never know! Maybe they'd like being invited over for something." His grin was wide and very bright.

Sakura sighed, finding herself laughing, for some reason. "Well, whatever you want to do. Though maybe it might be better to suggest a middle ground?"

"Like… meeting in one place?"

"Yeah."

"Huh. Maybe…" He had his eyes closed, thinking intently already.

Well, at least he was going to get a start on things. "I guess I'll be heading out, then," Sakura said. "Just… one thing, before I go?"

He opened his eyes, then blinked. "Yeah, what is it?"

"I'd leave out… the Uzumaki blood thing, for now, in whatever you decide to say to them." Her smile shriveled into a corner of her mouth. "I mean, we don't know the full story yet. We don't want to step on any toes. Misunderstandings or… whatever."

"Oh." And his eyes dulled. His face suddenly wrinkled. "Wait… what Uzumaki thing?"

Sakura blinked. "…the things I found out about Kiine?" she hazarded. "Her being an Uzumaki, I mean?"

The change in his eyes, from dull to glazed-over, was astonishingly noticeable. The sudden smile that accompanied the change was similarly shiny, in a vinyl sort of sense . "Ohh, that. Hadn't even thought of that. Yeah, I think I'll be able to… not mention it, I mean, if I forgot already…" He laughed, quickly, and for a much longer time than Sakura had been expecting.

She could have sworn that a fact like that would be remembered, even by him. "Yeah, uh, sure…?" she said. "Naruto, are you okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," he replied. He smiled with his mouth closed. "Just fine."

"…no, seriously, are you okay?"

He shrugged, still smiling. "I'm fine. And I ought to get to work on this, hm? You said you were going somewhere, y'know? Right?"

And Sakura just stood there, knowing, in some small, familiar part of her mind, that that was the most she was going to get out of him. His smile was a seal, one that she wasn't going to crack any time soon. "…well, just take care of yourself, okay?"

"'course I will, y'know," he said. He waved at her. "Seeya."

She waved back, loosely. "Bye."

"Wait, hey, Sakura!"

She turned around, halfway out the door. "What is it?"

"Has Sasuke talked to you today about anything?" There was a bit more energy in his eyes, for some reason. It felt forced.

Sakura didn't notice terribly much, however, because she felt like a stone had suddenly fallen into her stomach. "…yes, he did. Why do you ask?" she said.

"Well, 'cos he just showed up in my office earlier today and he had this weird kid with him," Naruto continued. His face creased, eyes narrowing. "What was his name… Yaka-taka?"

"Yakata, I think…"

"Oh. Oh! So he introduced you, too?"

All Sakura could do was shrug. "Yeah, sorta…"

"So, what'd he tell you?" He went on before Sakura could really reply. "'Cos he was just like, 'Oh, Naruto, I want you to meet this kid!' and I was all 'Oh, okay, cool, hi!' And then he left and now I'm just confused." His face narrowed, almost into a pout.

"Well… he didn't tell me much of anything..." Sakura said.

(Knowing Sasuke, and knowing Naruto, Sasuke probably didn't say a thing about the Itachi-link to Naruto - and she didn't want to risk Sasuke's wrath by saying something now.)

"Weird," Naruto said. He shrugged. "Ah well. Just wanted to see if he'd told you anything."

"What would he tell me and not you?" Sakura asked. A necessary smile inched its way, uncomfortably, onto her face.

Naruto shrugged again. "Hey, also? Is it just me? Or… did that kid really look a lot like..." And he looked up and he looked down, and he shook his head. "Nah, never mind. Man." He sighed. "Sasuke's been acting weird lately. I wonder what's wrong?"

"I have no idea," Sakura said, shaking her head slightly. She turned around. "Either way, I'm heading out."

"Okay. Bye," Naruto replied.

And once she was gone, she went home and she tried not to worry, like she always did. Even though there was just so much to worry about.

Naruto was the Hokage, and he knew what he was doing, when it came to the city; and Ino was a stronger woman than her.

Oh, Ino.

Sakura had a phone call to make.

(And once she was gone, Naruto's face fell again, and he ran his fingers through his bangs and grimaced. He flipped through the binder that Andou had given him. He knew what he had to do. It wouldn't be difficult. He was the Hokage, after all.)

(But he wasn't sure if it was right for him to see Kiine again.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 29 - Paper Cut


It took three days for Yakata's blood test results to come back.

Sakura waited until the results came in before writing a word to Karin. They were three days of awful anxiety and sleepless nights.

She did not see Sasuke out with Yakata much at all after that first day, interestingly enough. Rather, Sasuke spent most of the days with his student, Go'on, the boy with the big eyes, the one who had caused such an upset in the preliminaries. They were training for the chuunin exams, naturally. His other students, the girl and Kyou, she saw here and there, doing small chores about the city. Somehow, she was not surprised.

She didn't know where the Itachi-boy - Yakata - was, nor where he was being kept during the day, if Sasuke was out at the time. His and Ino's house, she assumed. Was that where they were doing their training, at night?

She tried to stay optimistic, despite the stories she had heard, despite the things that sometimes squirmed out of conversations with Ino that she desperately, understandably tried to keep under wraps, and denied to Sakura not seconds after speaking them.

Sakura's phone call on that first evening didn't go much of anywhere. Ino had told her, annoyedly, that she was fine ("Why do you keep asking that? You're so nosy sometimes, Sakura, honestly…") and that the family was still getting used to Yakata. But they were all adapting well.

"He already knows where everything's kept in the kitchen. Always wanting to help…" And Ino's voice had trailed off there, in a tone that suggested distaste. Sakura could practically hear her lip curling. "Training with Sasuke's going… well for him, too."

(What Ino didn't tell Sakura was that Yakata had bruises on his knuckles already.)

And Sakura said that okay, well, as long as things were going all right and that was more or less where the conversation ended, Ino hanging up after a brief, catty, critical farewell.

It was true, however, that Yakata was adjusting well. Sasuke had gone back to training Go'on the day after his arrival in their home, yes, but he devoted the evenings to the boy, taking him to the family training ground and teaching him the basics.

(This afforded Inou and Karai a shockingly large amount of freedom. He was no longer drilling them on their training techniques in the evening, no longer even interrogating them at mealtimes about it. Ino wished she could be happier.)

(But Takeru was finding himself ignored at breakfasts and dinners, the only times he tended to see his father those days. And it did not please him in the least.)

(Ino noticed. Sasuke didn't.)

It was not only an education in the ninja arts that Yakata was receiving; he was learning about his family, as well. His real family.

"That's your father," Sasuke had said, pointing to Itachi. They were sitting together with a framed photograph on the floor in his and Ino's bedroom, having finished their training for the day, and eaten their dinner. The dishes were done. Ino was in the living room, watching television, the children all elsewhere.

(Ino had many pictures of her children in scrapbooks and frames, but there was otherwise very little photographic documentation of the clan, especially prior to the massacre. Uchihas found little use for cameras. Understandably.)

Yakata had tilted his head slightly, looking at the picture. Two young boys were in it, with a man, and a woman. They were all dressed in black; painted on the wall behind him was that same red-and-white emblem, the one he had seen over the gate. "That's… that's him?" he said.

"Yes, that's him. And that's me, right beside him." Itachi was ten, in the photograph, Yakata's age; Sasuke was five.

"Wow. He… he looks just… like me," Yakata said. His voice was hushed, and the features on his face seemed to slow down as he took in every detail.

"Yeah, he really does," Sasuke replied. "You can imagine why I was so surprised when I first saw you." He closed his mouth, laughing slightly through his nose.

"Yeah, I bet…" Yakata began turning his head the other way. A strange, small smile began to grow on his face. "And, and that little kid next to him, that's… that's really you?"

"Sure is."

"You… you look a lot different now," Yakata said. He began to giggle.

"Well, of course I look different, I'm not a kid anymore," Sasuke said, with a half-felt roll of the eyes. He was smiling a little, now.

"Right, o-of course…" said Yakata.

(He wanted to say that he thought Sasuke looked a lot happier as a kid, but he felt that it wouldn't be the right thing to do.)

"And, and… and those people are your… parents?" he asked, pointing to them, the man, the woman.

"Yes, your… grandparents." Sasuke sounded like he was about to cough, but he didn't.

"Wha-what were their… names?"

"My mother was named Mikoto. And… Fugaku, that's my father." Sasuke didn't point at them as he said their names, haltingly.

"Mikoto and Fugaku… Um, what were… what were they like?" Yakata asked.

Sasuke thought on it for a while. "My father, Fugaku… was head of the clan," he said. "He was… strict. But he had… a lot of responsibilities, so of course he'd be a little…"

"…a little what?" Yakata said, quietly.

"…tense," Sasuke decided on. He cleared his throat a little. "And my mother was a very good woman. She would have liked you, I think."

The strange little smile returned to Yakata's face. "You… you really think so?"

(Even though his mother had told Sasuke that whenever she and his father were alone together, all they talked about was him. And, even all those years later, Sasuke still remembered that she had told him this, that she had told him that they talked about Sasuke, not Itachi, their…)

"Yes," Sasuke replied, "I think she would have liked you very much."

(Yakata was an innocent, after all.)

"Gosh…" said Yakata. He fidgeted a little where he sat. "Say, um. Sasuke-san?"

"Mm?"

"Did, did, did you, um. Did you know my mother at all…?"

Sasuke's face grew stony. "I'm afraid I didn't know her. I didn't recognize her name in... any of my brother's letters."

"Oh…" Yakata looked downward, back at the photo.

(Sasuke hadn't let him see the letters. "There are things in them not fit for children's eyes." Yakata supposed that was fair.)

He suddenly snapped to Sasuke. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to, um. P-put you on the spot or anything…"

"No, no, don't apologize," Sasuke said. There was an artificial, attempted sort of comfort in his voice. "You didn't know that I didn't know."

"Sure…" Yakata looked at the photograph again, his mouth pressed tightly, sheepishly.

The expression made Sasuke surprisingly uncomfortable. He pushed the photograph towards Yakata, and began to get up off the floor. "Here, you can keep this if you want to," he said. "Put it in Hajime's room or something."

"Gosh, you, you mean it…?" Yakata said.

"I have no real use for it, so why not?" Sasuke said. "I'm also going to bed now. You should think about it, yourself." He was completely standing by then.

"Oh, sure…"

"So, goodnight?"

"Yeah. Goodnight, Sasuke-san."

Yakata ended up putting the photograph on the desk, next to the flower arrangement that had mysteriously appeared there the evening after his arrival into the Uchiha house, accompanied by a book: "Ghost Stories from the Land of Water," by someone named Mizuno Kurunari. He had no idea where either of them had come from, so he asked Karai about it when she came home later that evening, when they were setting the table together.

"Oh, those must be from Nadeshiko…" she had replied. "She likes doing things like that, making flower arrangements."

And Yakata smiled at that and said, quietly, during dinner: "Thank you for the flowers, Nadeshiko-san, and the book."

"What flowers," Sasuke replied, glaring.

Takeru smirked.

Nadeshiko kept her eyes on her food.

Yakata stammered something that sounded like nothing.

But after dinner, when Yakata was helping Ino clean the dishes, she brushed past him and he heard a bare whisper of a voice.

"You're welcome."

It made him smile, and he turned around to look at her but she was already gone by the time he did.

Nadeshiko was like a ghost in the house to him, always flitting out of sight, remaining silent and composed at dinner, the only time he ever saw her clearly. She was, Yakata figured, like a spider, or a wild animal. A phrase that his mama had told him came to mind: "They're more scared of you than you are of them."

Though Yakata had no idea why Nadeshiko would be afraid of him - especially with the gifts she had given him.

(Though the book of ghost stories she had given him had been truly something frightening—but he doubted she had intended to actually scare him.)

Then again, he had no idea why Sasuke didn't like her, either. The Uchiha house was just full of mysteries.

He did plan on writing to his mama, eventually. But by the third night his hands were too weak from his training with Sasuke to even hold a pen with enough strength to keep the hiragana readable. Sasuke had him punching things, and throwing things, and he was understanding how to do it, and Sasuke was telling him what a good job he was doing, but it was still tough for him to learn. His legs ached from learning how to jump high.

But there was more kindness about. Ino had gotten him a fork and a spoon after he found he was having a difficult time with the chopsticks, which proved to be a bit of an improvement, especially given how embarrassing it had been to have them clattering to the table surface all the time.

Takeru had scoffed, once, but only once; Sasuke had scolded him about it, slightly.

Well, it wasn't much of a scold. It was just one word: "Takeru."

But the tone said everything. It left Yakata rather speechless.

(And, in all honesty, it surprised everyone else, but for vastly different reasons.)

(Especially Takeru.)

It was on that fourth afternoon that the test results came in, and because Sakura was far too busy to see him herself, she had an intern seek Sasuke out to give him a note.

It said: "100% match." Nothing else.

Sasuke took the note and crumpled it in his fist. "Tell her I said thanks," he told the intern, who nodded, gasping for breath, before dashing back to the hospital.

In the evening, privately, Sasuke told Yakata that it had been confirmed. "Itachi was really your father," he said.

Yakata was rather without words, but he nodded and smiled. His hands still shook too badly when he held a pen to be of any use, so he promised himself to write to his mother as soon as they had healed, to tell her the news.

(Sasuke didn't bother telling Ino. Her hysterics from a few nights previous were still fresh in his mind, enough to make him scowl when he thought about it.)

Sakura, meanwhile, was compiling another package for Karin, with new samples and the results and a very befuddled letter. What do you think this means about Taki Kiine, then? she had written, near the bottom.

Karin, as it happened, wrote two replies.

One was sent to Sakura, admitting that she was as perplexed as Sakura was, and was worried besides. There was another promise of further archive-searching, this time for anything to do with Itachi, and a request for any information about Taki Kiine's and Yakata's physical conditions.

The other was sent to Sasuke. It was much shorter.

You brought him to Konoha? What were you thinking ?

Sakura sent blood samples, blood test results. Mentioned Itachi. What did you tell her?

What did you tell Yakata ?

Found my cells in Yakata's too. Clear link. Worrisome.

Reply quickly by hawk.

- Karin

Sasuke stashed the letter away, told Ino it was none of her business what the letter was about, and replied to it once he was alone.

He wrote his reply on the back of Karin's letter.

Yakata wanted to come to Konoha with me. I'm training him as a ninja. His request. He's very talented.

Technically, none of it was a lie.

He doesn't know he's Itachi. I told Sakura, however. I figured you'd both benefit from further research. We're in this together, aren't we?

Well, they were, weren't they?

You should be grateful to me, you know.

He left it unsigned, and sent it back to her in the morning with a messenger hawk, as per her request.

Her reply came the next evening.

Yakata is not Itachi.

What else did you tell Sakura? Did you tell her about Ooda?

Don't tell me to be grateful.

Sasuke's reply was only three sentences long.

I haven't told anyone about Ooda. Don't worry.

PS: Are your cells in Ooda's blood too?

Her reply, written in shaky lettering a few days later:

They are.

Sasuke did not tell Sakura any of this.


Naruto, as it happened, was writing a message of his own.

It was for the Taki clan, and Kiine, and he had it sent out after reading it over once, twice, three times; giving it to Andou to read and edit; rewriting it, reading it again; giving it to Andou again, and then finally feeling pleased enough, convinced enough that it was all a good idea.

He sent it away with the fastest hawk he could hire, and received two replies a few days later.

Kiine, it turned out, had had a very, very busy week.

Chapter Text

Dear Boss Tensho,

I’m Uzumaki Naruto, seventh Hokage of Konoha.

A representative from your clan and a few of your other men visited my village about a month ago about your daughter Kiine, as I’m sure you know.

Things didn’t really end off on the right foot, I’m afraid.  At least, from my perspective.  There was a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding and a whole lot of other bad things and I really do want to apologize if any of it’s my fault.

I do want to make clear, though, that my time with your daughter was nothing but a good memory, that she was a model guest, and an excellent sort-of ninja besides, since she was able to convince me she was someone else entirely for almost a full month.  That’s pretty impressive no matter how you slice it, I think.

And I do want to assure you that I took only the best care of her while she was here, like any other citizen.  I’m sure she’d tell you the same but you don’t have to ask if you don’t want to.  Though if she disagrees I guess that’s my fault for being a bad host.

I do want to try and make it up to you for all of this trouble, though.  I can’t imagine how much of an inconvenience this whole deal must have been for you, and how worried it must have made you.

Starting in early September my village is hosting the international chuunin exam finals.  It’s a tournament for young ninjas to prove themselves and a lot of people from all over the world come to watch.  And not just ninjas, we get a lot of daimyo visitors and celebrities and such, too.

I would like to invite you and your family to come and see!  Of course I’ll have lodging and good seats and food provided for you all, I would really just like for you to have a good time.  I would also like to see Kiine again and personally apologize to you and her both, and anyone else with grievances, but hospitality first.  I’d love to meet the rest of your family, regardless, I’m sure they’re all super charming. 

If at all possible, too, I’d like to discuss the issue of the debts your men have left with us, at least in hiring many of our staff to search for Kiine.

Get back to me however you can.  I really would like making amends in this way, since it’s probably a lot more fun than just plain meeting somewhere and negotiating things, but I understand if you don’t want to talk to me right away.  I can wait, but I think we have to meet eventually.

Yours most respectfully,

Uzumaki Naruto
Seventh Hokage of Konoha

- Dated August 3rd, 27 AU

-///-

ACT 5

UNINVITED

-///-

On the day that the Hakaza clan was to visit the Taki compound, a Saturday, Yuki didn’t show up for breakfast.  This was rather unlike him; even though he, understandably, wanted to distance himself from Kiine, he still sat behind her at all meals, with his knife in his sleeve, and ate quietly on his own, ready to protect her at any instance.

(She hadn’t spoken a word to him since coming home.  She hadn’t said much to anyone, really, except her father and her mother.  Understandably.)

Nobuhiro had to wait until after Tensho had finished his own breakfast and left the dining room; he had expected to wait longer had Tensho not said to him, in the hallway, “I noticed that Yuki-kun wasn’t in his usual place.  Where is he?”

“I dunno,” Nobuhiro said.  But he had an idea.

Tensho stopped, and Nobuhiro had to stop with him.  He looked up at Nobuhiro.  Tensho was not a short man; rather, Nobuhiro was just very tall.  “You should go look for him.”

Nobuhiro tried to conceal a grimace.  “Boss, it’s fine-”

Tensho smiled at him.  “Don’t worry about it.  He’s your little brother.  Go find him, I can handle myself for a while.”  He pushed Nobuhiro forward.  “Go on!

Nobuhiro bowed, after a moment, smiling very slightly.  “Thanks, Boss!”

And Tensho laughed, there, at the formality.  But it was a requirement.  Even though they were best friends, he was still the Boss.

(But the fact that Nobuhiro could hardly do a thing without Tensho’s say-so had always been the case, ever since they were kids.)

It was a few maids, who were rushing about earnestly and cleaning everything, who told Nobuhiro that Yuki hadn’t left his room since the night before, now excuse them, pardon them, coming through.  That was as good a lead as Nobuhiro needed, so he went on to his brother’s room, his head swirling with worry.

But when Nobuhiro noticed that the air in the hallway was beginning to feel cold, his worry increased, dropping into his stomach.  Oh, no.  He moved quicker.

He was shivering by the time he was in front of Yuki’s door.  His teeth rattled in his jaw.  “Yuki!”

There was no response.

He said it, louder, “Yuki!  Are you in there?”

“Go away.”

He touched the door, and even the wood felt cold.  “Yuki, what are you doing in there?”

“Go away, brother.”

“Why weren’t you at breakfast?”

“I wasn’t hungry.”

It was a lie and Nobuhiro knew it.  He took his hand off the door to rub his arms with both hands again, trying to put some more warmth into them.  “Yuki, I know that you’re upset, but you need to come out of there.”

“The Hakaza clan is visiting today, Yuki.” 

“I know.”

“Y’need to be there for Lady Kiine.”

Yuki didn’t say anything, after that.  Nobuhiro put his hand on the door again.  The wood was incredibly cold.

“Yuki, I’m coming in.”

No response.

Nobuhiro tried to open the door, but he found resistance in sliding it sideways.  Once more, his stomach dropped.  Oh, this was bad.

But Nobuhiro was a strong man, and he wrenched the door open.  There was a horrible crackling noise as it slid, and the rough crunch of wood against frost.

Yuki was sitting in the middle of his room, his knees drawn up to his chest.  He was dressed, already, his hair brushed and smooth.  He’d folded his futon into the corner of the room. 


  1. Shattered bits of ice were all over the floor from where Nobuhiro had forced the door open, cracking the seal of ice that Yuki had made over it.

(This was not the first time that this had happened.)

“Oh, Yuki…” Nobuhiro said, and walked across the room to him.  The tatami mats creaked from the uncharacteristic stiffness.  “C’mon.”

“I don’t want to leave,” Yuki said, quietly.  He shifted his eyes sideways.  “Just leave me alone.”

Nobuhiro drew his mouth tightly across his face.  He could feel the cold on his exposed teeth.  He crouched down, to his knees, and kept his limbs close to each other, trying not to shiver.  “Yuki, you can’t do this.  Not today.  The Hakaza clan’s gonna be here tonight.  We’re gonna need you.”

“I’m not needed.  Just find someone else.” 

“Yes, you are.”  Nobuhiro tried to smile, but couldn’t, not entirely.  Yuki wasn’t even looking at him.  “Lady Kiine needs her bodyguard.”

“She doesn’t need me.”  And Yuki closed his eyes, there, his voice very, very soft.  “Not after what I did…”

Nobuhiro put his hand on his little brother’s back, and even his clothes felt cold to the touch.  “What you did was the right thing to do, little bro,” he said.  “We’d pro’bly still be looking for Lady Kiine if it hadn’t been for you.”

Yuki just tried to curl up further into himself, closing his eyes tightly.  “Leave me alone,” he said again.  His voice squeaked with incoming tears.

“No.”

Yuki’s hands on his knees tightened.  Nobuhiro could see every tendon tense up under his pale, pale skin.  “Leave me alone,” he said again.

“I’m not gonna leave you alone, Yuki.  C’mon, we only have a few hours.  We can’t have you doing this.”

“Doing what.”  Yuki’s voice was muffled.  He was speaking to his legs, his eyes pressed on his knees.

“Y’know what I’m talking about.”

“No.”

Nobuhiro sighed.  He noticed, suddenly, that he could see his breath; the air, however, didn’t feel as cold, probably from the anger and impatience he could feel growing in his stomach.  “Look, Yuki, I know you’re upset, but y’can’t let that get in the way of your duties.”

“I’m not.  My duty is to protect Master Kiine,” Yuki replied, to his legs. 

Nobuhiro could feel his worry shifting, moving upward and into his chest.  “Y’can’t go protecting Lady Kiine from here, little bro.”

“She won’t need my protection if she doesn’t go,” Yuki mumbled.  “So why am I needed?  She doesn’t wanna go.  I know she doesn’t.”

“Yuki, what are you-” But then it hit him, and Nobuhiro grimaced from the realization.  “Oh, so that’s what this is about…”  Nobuhiro shifted his position, and put his big hand on Yuki’s chin, turning his brother’s face toward his. 

Yuki didn’t say anything.  His eyes slipped downwards.  There were tears on his cheeks, and they were frozen.

“I know you’re worried about Lady Kiine’s happiness, Yuki.  But… this is what’s gotta happen,” Nobuhiro said.  His hot annoyance softened into a warm sympathy.  “You can’t do nothin’ but protect her.”

“She doesn’t even want to do it…” Yuki sniffled.

Yuki was a very small creature, and he almost disappeared into Nobuhiro’s arms when his brother pulled him into an awkward, necessary hug.  “Yuki, it’s gonna be okay.  Okay?  Lady Kiine’s gonna be just fine.  She’s a tough kid, an’ so are you.”

Yuki said something that sounded like a disagreement, but it was too covered up in tears and Nobuhiro’s sleeves to be words. 

They had to take care of the ice, afterwards, when Yuki stopped crying and pulled out of Nobuhiro’s embrace. 

(This was not the first time that this had happened.)

These things just happened, from time to time.  Ever since Yuki was very small, strange things occurred around him.  Whenever he got excited or especially upset, the air would get cold; frost would start to gather on the windows.  Drinks would freeze in their cups.  And one day, during a family trip to the beaches of the eastern coast, he was found entertaining Kiine in the privacy of a small cave by hovering globes of water around in the air.  Nobuhiro remembered how beautiful it had looked, like spheres of blown glass floating about, before they fell apart in the shock of Yuki being discovered.

(He also remembered how bright Yuki’s eyes had been, on that day, bright with pride and an enormous happiness.)

Yuki was not keen on letting others know about those strange abilities of his.  And, really, only a handful of people knew about them; Nobuhiro knew, of course, as did Kiine and, naturally, Tensho.  But the extent of Kiine’s knowledge was probably limited to the things that Yuki did to amuse her, and Tensho likewise—though Tensho had shown an interest in seeing how Yuki could possibly twist the talent into a use for the clan.  Yuki was reluctant to actively train the gift, however, preferring to tend to his blade.  And Tensho didn’t push the matter, which suited everyone involved.

Nobuhiro, as it happened, did not have anything within him resembling Yuki’s gift.  He could manipulate men and women alike, and he could twist many situations into his favor when things got sticky, but he could not use water and ice the way that Yuki did. 

There were others in the clan that had similar gifts; one of the chief accountants, for instance, a fellow with hair the color of an apple peel from the Land of Water named Ringo.  Ringo could spit acid that burned through walls and floors, if he wanted, and he was pretty well-known for it.

“Why the heck d’you wanna be in accounting, with a thing like that?” Nobuhiro had once asked him, years before, during a shared meal.  “I mean, think about how much damage you could do with that!”

“Hey, s’not like I wanna use it,” Ringo had replied.  He had very, very small eyes, and they shifted this way and that when he talked, as if he were looking for eavesdroppers.  “Where I came from, you could get killed for sommin like that.  S’why I left.”

And Nobuhiro had just nodded, half-understanding, half-confused.

“Besides,” Ringo had added, “ya gotta play your cards right.  I’m small potatoes compared t’guys like you an’ Boss Tensho.  But accountants?” He gave a very dry hack of a laugh.  “They’re small potatoes compared to me.  An’ I’m smart enough to make it in with them, so.”

Nobuhiro supposed that Ringo had a point there.  And nobody got books written and turned in to Tensho faster than Ringo’s boys.  And that was why Tensho liked him.

There were others like Ringo, in the clan, although Ringo was the only acid-spitter.  There had also been a man, come all the way from the Land of Earth, who had taken up employment as the head guard of the Taki compound when Nobuhiro was still a boy, running with Tensho and the child-gangs.  His name was Benkei, and he had growths all over his face that looked like scales, or barnacles, and hands that looked like they had been made of glue and boulders.  And those hands hit hard.  Nobuhiro knew from personal experience, as did Tensho—but Tensho’s bruises were far fewer, because he was faster and he had Nobuhiro to cover for him.

Tensho had decided to keep the man in his employment when he became Boss, but Benkei had since grown old, and now his son was the head guard, mothered by the maid that had brought Benkei his meals, eventually staying in the guard house with him for longer and longer periods of time.  He had his father’s hands and his mother’s eyes, but none of their private gentleness.

And then there had been the woman who could bend her limbs like rubber in almost any direction, a gift from the Hanamachi clan after the resolution of a particularly nasty dispute.  Tensho refused to use her as a concubine (though he didn’t tell the Hanamachi clan head, a proud and smoky-eyed madam, this—that was why she had been given to him, after all, and he didn’t want to stir up another row for no reason by outright rejecting a gift), but he kept her around because of how good a masseuse she was, and because Mikan was not a jealous woman.  Nobuhiro didn’t see her much, though the way that she looked at him when they were in the same room together rather gave him the creeps.  He didn’t think eyes could ever look that empty.


  1. Even Ringo, who had an uncanny way of advising the traffickers in the Land of Water on how to avoid the ninja there, when making their shipments.

But sometimes, Nobuhiro couldn’t help but think about where Yuki’s gifts had come from.  Certainly not from his clan, the Inaba clan—Nobuhiro didn’t even have a last name, before coming into the service of the Boss Kuni.

But more importantly, it was because Yuki had been given to him.

He would never forget the day.  December; the morning had been crisp, the snow piled around the Taki complex a glassy white, the sky an eviscerating blue.  The world looked like a painting.

Children were, on occasion, left at the Taki compound’s gates, though it wasn’t exactly common.  Anonymous things, left for a variety of reasons.  And they were usually taken care of in one way or another.

Yuki, however, had come with a note, and a name.  And it had mentioned Nobuhiro specifically. 

Even now, years and years after the fact, Nobuhiro could remember the words and the delicate, feminine handwriting on that piece of paper, without even having to dig it out and read it himself.

Nobuhiro-san,

This child’s name is Yuki.  He needs a home, and I know that you can give him a good one.

I doubt he’ll ever be able to replace your sister, and I apologize for that.  But, please, care for him with as much love as you had for her. 

I will be watching.

It was left unsigned, but Nobuhiro had no doubts as to whom the author was.

Tensho had to listen to his worries and his nervous rants for the longest time, after that morning.

(Ever since they were very small, Nobuhiro could hardly do anything without Tensho’s say-so, and both of them knew it.)

Nobuhiro refused to turn the child away, but the baby’s origins had him worried.  Worried and scared and everything that a proper Inaba bodyguard couldn’t be.

(But he was only twenty, for fuck’s sake, but he had gone through a lot, but he was tough, but he didn’t know if he could handle this.)

“Just calm down, Nobu,” Tensho had said.  They were alone, and Mikan was minding the child for them, because she thought he was adorable and she wasn’t going to allow such a precious thing to go unloved, no sir.

(And, of all the people Tensho could never say “No” to, his wife was the most persuasive.)

He sent this!” said Nobuhiro.

“Nobu you can’t…”  And Tensho’s face puckered, there, his lips tightening.  “Y’can’t be sure of that.”

“Who else knew about what happened to Yukiko, Tensho?!” Nobuhiro replied, in an explosion of a phrase.  “Who else would apologize?!  It’s him, it’s that fuckin’ snake, he’s behind this!”

“Calm down, Nobu!”  Tensho had a tone of voice that could not be denied.

And Nobuhiro calmed down.  A little.

“I just don’t know if I can… do this, in good conscience,” he continued, his voice softer.  He started to look for his knife.  “I mean, c’mon, who else would…”

Tensho breathed, deeply, and there were painful memories in his breath, and his ambitions and the origins of his drive.  “Nobu, I know how much he hurt you.  He hurt me, too.”  He added, lowly, “You can… never trust a ninja.”

“No, no, never.”  Nobuhiro had found his knife.  Slide, click.  “Never.”

“But he was left for you, Nobu,” Tensho said.  He watched Nobuhiro pace with a vaguely angry expression.  “Fuckin’… twisted ‘apology’ though it may be, it’s still an apology.”

Click.  “An apology?!

Tensho shrugged grumpily.  “Maybe that’s what it is.  I mean, he said it himself in that letter…”

And Nobuhiro had to think on this for a while, his mind shaking with memories.  He held the lacquer case of his knife very, very tightly.  “Why would he… but you know what he did…”

“Look, Nobu.”  And suddenly Tensho was using his Business Voice, and Nobuhiro could do nothing but listen.  “What happened to you an’ to Yukiko was wrong.  But you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth.  Besides…”  And his voice got very thoughtful, losing its edge.  He lowered his eyes.  “If it were possible I’d have ‘em find the guy that left the kid here, but the guard guys’re tellin’ me that he just disappeared after setting the baby there.  Fucker just melted into the ground or something.  Couldn’t track him even if we wanted…”

“…s’not like I wanna… chase after the guy,” Nobuhiro said, haltingly, after a while.  “But seriously!  Why would he give me a baby…”

“Why are you askin’ me?” Tensho said.  Strangely, he laughed, but it was a hard and a humorless laugh.  “I don’t know how the fuck ninja operate.  Maybe they use babies as collateral all the time.  Y’know, like how it is in the folk tales?  ‘I’ll take your firstborn son...’”

Nobuhiro had to smile a little there, though bitterly, his scar stretching with his mouth.  He’d had it for several years, then, but it was always something of an uncomfortable sensation.  He took comfort in the intimidation it lent to his face, however.

“All I’m sayin’, Nobu, is that, yeah, it’s fucked-up.  But maybe this kid isn’t a bad thing for you.  I’d take care of it.  B’sides,” he added, “didn’t he say that he’d be watching?”

“You sayin’ we should let some ninja asshole boss us around?” Nobuhiro said.  He had his knife unsheathed, and his smile was real, but dangerous.

“He-ell no, Nobu.”  Tensho laughed, again, and he put on a dangerous smile of his own.  “We’re gonna fuck up his expectations an’ raise a hell of a kid is what we’re gonna do.”

Nobuhiro laughed.  A little. 

“C’mon, Nobu.  You gotta be the bigger guy in this situation.  Be tough.  Fuck the past,” Tensho was saying.  And he started to say other things and Nobuhiro was hearing them but not really processing them at all.  An overwhelming sense of helplessness and weakness and sadness began to fall over him like a blanket.

He started thinking of Yukiko, the beautiful and the dark-haired and the kind, who had once been his world, who had once been the reason for every stupid risk, for every broken nose, for the scar on his lip.  It had all been for her.

Was the baby, this “Yuki,” really to apologize for what had happened to her?

He couldn’t imagine that the snake-faced ninja bastard had an ounce of remorse in his body.

But there was that baby, and Tensho telling him to take care of it.

And there were Nobuhiro’s unspoken thoughts, his suspicions that Tensho’s unusually soft stance on the matter had to do with Mikan.  She wouldn’t even be alive if it hadn’t been for…

But there were some boundaries that even Nobuhiro wouldn’t cross, and that would be one of them.

(But those thoughts would stay with Nobuhiro for years and years.)

And so it was with a well-concealed reluctance that Nobuhiro came to be Yuki’s older brother.  “What, you’re not gonna say he’s your kid?” Tensho had said.  “I mean, hell, you’re almost as old as I was when Mikan brought Kiine home.”

(Mikan was almost six years older than Tensho.  But that wasn’t much of an issue to either of them.)

“Nope.  He’s my brother,” Nobuhiro had said, defiantly, holding the child with big, protective arms. 

“Whatever you wanna say, man,” Tensho had replied, laughing.  “You’re old enough to be his dad, though.”

“Am not.”

And he really wasn’t.  Nobuhiro had been terrified, since he was very small, of becoming a father at a young age, always intending to wait until he was living in comfort and had everything else provided for before having kids, so he took great care with the sorts of women he associated himself with, and always took the proper precautions when things got, ahem, serious.

Calling Yuki his brother softened the blow, in a way.

(Yuki also put something of a damper on his nights off, when he was younger, but Nobuhiro found himself not minding this, terribly.  Even all those years later.)

(Even though Nobuhiro hadn’t kept a girlfriend, much less been with a woman in any… meaningful way in years.  He minded this, but he didn’t show it.)

(He wasn’t alone. That was what mattered most.)

But it was also because, while Yuki could never replace Yukiko, his sister, his lost one, he still took her place, in a way. 

Though now it was Nobuhiro who was the elder, and not the other way around.

And he took care of that boy as well as he could.

Though, in the early days, Mikan was almost as much a part of Yuki’s life as Nobuhiro was.  She was a soft woman, even back then, cooing over him and overseeing his care whenever Nobuhiro was off taking care of business with her husband. Feeding him, changing his diapers, letting Kiine hold him.  But he always slept in Nobuhiro’s room at night, and once he was old enough to walk and talk and not require constant attention, he would never be too far from Nobuhiro’s sight, following him around like a duckling or a kitten.  He was Nobuhiro’s brother, not her son, and she knew that.

(And Yuki, truthfully, had no memories of these early years with Mikan, with Kiine.  But the familiarity with them, especially with Kiine, certainly helped with matters when he got older, when Kiine claimed him as her best friend.  They held an innate sort of comfort for him that he could never really put into words.)

Nobuhiro thought it only a little strange—after all, didn’t she have a daughter of her own to cuddle and love?  But Mikan just loved children, it seemed, so he just accepted it, never really needing to have to draw the line anywhere.

He appreciated her help, anyways; Nobuhiro was hopelessly awkward when it came to the business of baby care.  That was Yukiko’s job, that was Mikan’s job.  He learned out of necessity, but he always did his duties clumsily, unlike them.

And then Yuki got older and Nobuhiro found strange and worrying thoughts arising.

Nobuhiro didn’t know that a child—a boy, no less!—could ever possess such delicate features.  Careful, beautiful hands; a mouth like a doll’s; gentle eyes.  They were features better suited on a toy, or a girl, at least.

But Yuki had them.

And as much as Nobuhiro tried to keep such thoughts away from his mind, he couldn’t help but think that the boy looked like Yukiko.

The letter had told him that Yuki couldn’t replace his sister— I doubt he’ll ever be able to replace your sister, the exact words—and Nobuhiro found himself wondering why in the world it had been phrased that way.

I doubt he’ll ever be able to replace your sister.

If he was Yukiko’s…

But when his gift began to manifest, those thoughts began to disappear.  A little.  Nobuhiro could not do the things that Yuki did, and even with the snow in her name, Yukiko couldn’t, either.

But then Nobuhiro began to imagine that perhaps there had been a man with ice in his blood and cold hands like Yuki’s and that he and his sister had…

And he’d have to stop thinking because he’d find himself growing far too angry to think straight, and Nobuhiro had other things to do.

Even now, watching Yuki reluctantly stand and brush the frost off of his pants, Nobuhiro found himself seeing her in him—and he’d have to remind himself that he was just projecting, just seeing things.

(The thoughts were going away, but they weren’t completely gone.  Not yet.)

“C’mon, Yuki.  Make this all go away, we can’t have anyone see,” he reminded the boy, his only brother (his maybe-nephew).  It wouldn’t take long, Yuki could just make all the ice disappear, like he always did.

He had a gift, but few people knew of it.  Yuki did not like to use it, often.  Nobuhiro didn’t discourage it, but he didn’t encourage it, either.

Because people still talked.  And Nobuhiro still had fears about where Yuki had come from.

(Because something that was known but never spoken was that these blood-gifts, Ringo’s acid and Benkei’s body and the rubber-woman, always came from ninja-lands.)

(And you could never trust ninja.  Never, ever.)

(But if you left that world for the Taki family, then you were welcomed with open arms.  As Tensho had told Nobuhiro, once before, many times before, “Fuck the past.”  If they hated the ninja world enough to leave it, then they were fine allies as far as Tensho was concerned.)

(Nobuhiro doubted that he’d ever be able to consider Yuki’s father an ally, if his theories were correct.)

There was a defeated expression on Yuki’s face as he held out his hands and, slowly, removed the ice from everything with a wave of his wrists, leaving nothing behind to indicate that it had even existed.  All of the moisture was pulled out of the tatami, the paper walls, leaving them as dry as they had been before his depression had set in.

“…I’m sorry,” he said, quietly, after it was all over.  He lowered his head, his hair falling over his shoulders.

“Don’t apologize, little bro.  It’s nothing,” Nobuhiro assured him.  The air was finally warm, again, and he wasn’t shivering any more.  He put an arm around his brother.  “C’mon, we feeling better?”

Yuki took a long while to answer, but Nobuhiro gave him the time.  He couldn’t really blame the poor kid, and he could only imagine how bad it had been for a while.

He was a snitch, after all.  An accidental one, but a snitch nonetheless. 

(A maid found a lock of Kiine’s hair in his room while cleaning it, and he had to explain himself.  He hadn’t gotten rid of it all.)

(He could have honestly come up with a better story, but everything ended up coming out, and he was on his way to Konoha with Nobuhiro by that afternoon.)

And those types weren’t exactly looked kindly-upon by folks like Nobuhiro, like Tensho.  And even with all of their comforts, their words of thanks, he still was what he was.

“…I’m feeling fine,” Yuki finally said.

Nobuhiro knew he wasn’t.  But life was tough, and the day was too important to be soft.

“Good, good.  Now c’mon with me, we got a lot of preparin’ to do.”  He began heading out of Yuki’s room, his hand around his brother’s back.  “I’ll… keep you away from Lady Kiine until you really gotta be there, okay?” he added, awkwardly, once the door was closed behind them.

“…thanks, brother,” Yuki replied.

“…hey, don’t mention it,” Nobuhiro said, tossing a casual air in his voice to disguise his other feelings.

He also meant it literally.

Chapter Text

Yuki had read, once or twice, about a thing called love at first sight. Some literary thing where, supposedly, the world stopped—or began spinning, it varied from book to book, story to story—when you first laid eyes on the person you were going to spend the rest of your life with.

When he first laid eyes on Hakaza Kou, Yuki began to wonder if such a thing as hate at first sight existed. Because the world sure felt like it was spinning, but his head was throbbing with anger as soon as the boy made himself known.

The Hakaza clan had arrived in the evening, and Yuki had gone with Nobuhiro and Boss Tensho to greet them. Kiine and Lady Mikan were there, as well, standing opposite of all the men in the hall, dressed in their best kimonos.

Kiine had not asked for Yuki's help in getting her prepared, and he had not volunteered his services. She hated him. He didn't want to make her suffer any more. Though some part of him wanted her to call him to her, so she could yell at him, hurt him, make him pay for all the pain he had caused her. He certainly deserved to suffer. She didn't.

(He thought she looked absolutely lovely, though. Even with her beloved hair cut short, they still managed to shape it and comb it into a beautiful style that suited her.)

Hakaza Shin was a very pale man made of sharp angles, cheekbones like Nobuhiro's and sharp yellow eyes and slicked-back black hair. He was dressed in blacks and whites, and his shoulders were very broad.

"Boss Tensho! Thank you for receiving us on such short notice!" He bowed, first, and then shook Boss Tensho's hand. His nails were well cared-for. "Really, I can't thank you enough."

"Well, you were the one that came up with the idea," Boss Tensho said, and both of them laughed. "I just agreed with you, that this meeting should occur sooner, instead've later."

"Oh, yes," Boss Shin said. "Much better, sooner."

There was a moment of silence, sacrificed so that neither of them would say anything about Kiine's disappearance, which was what the meeting had been about in the first place. Hurry up the engagement, before something else could happen.

"Now where is that fantastic girl of yours?" Boss Shin finally said, clapping his thin hands together. "It's been forever since I've seen her."

"Kiine," Boss Tensho said. Mikan had been holding Kiine's hand, but Kiine pulled away from it to bow to both of the men.

"Boss Shin," she said. Her voice was clipped and falsely perky. Yuki could feel her annoyance, and it stabbed him in the gut. He tried to keep his eyes off of her, keeping his hands on his sword.

"Ah! As pretty as your mother," Boss Shin said.

"Oh, come on," Mikan said. Her impeccably-painted lips, a shiny red, curled into a smile, her round cheeks blushing just the right amount.

(Mostly because there was absolutely no reason for anyone to believe that Kiine resembled either her, or Tensho.)

(Then again, people always made assumptions.)

Boss Shin then gestured behind him, and a very young boy was pushed forward. He had blue hair that curled inward and toward his potato-shaped nose, and he wore a sheepish expression and well-made clothes of grey and blue.

"My son, Kou," Boss Shin said, almost clearing his throat in the middle of his words.

"A pleasure to meet you all…" Kou said. His voice was very quiet, lessening in volume with every word.

Kou had a round face, and if Yuki had not been told otherwise, he would have mistaken the boy for maybe only eleven or twelve, even though he was almost Kiine's age. His eyes were a clear, glassy yellow, like his father's, but they were round instead of sharp, and they still didn't suit his face; they looked like marbles shoved into a wad of clay, or dough.

Hate at first sight. Yuki glanced sideways and he could see Kiine breathing through her nose as she tried not to look at him.

(What he didn't notice was that Kou was trying just as hard not to look at her, either.)

Boss Tensho then invited them in, father and son and associates, for dinner. "Excellent timing, we just finished getting the dining room ready."

"I can't wait," Boss Shin replied. They walked, side-by-side, together, flanked by their bodyguards. Mikan followed—Shin had no wife, Yuki didn't know why. And Kiine and Kou came behind them, and then Yuki, and Kou's bodyguard, a much larger man with an eye-patch that sneered at Yuki, once, as if to say "Are you kidding me?" and paid him no other mind.

Yuki sat behind Kiine in the dining room, as usual. And Kou sat beside her. Not as usual.

He began thinking of something she'd told him, on that night when she had poured out everything to him, all of her hatred and fear about the situation. "I'm sure he's a totally nice guy," she had said. "As nice as guys can be with dads like his and mine, anyway."

(Strange, how Yuki had once been willing to give Kou the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was at least a decent person. For some reason, it seemed so much more difficult to feel that way, now. Not after what had happened.)

The kitchen had gone above and beyond in creating an excellent feast for the first night of the Hakaza clan's stay. Meat dishes, vegetables, soups, served in beautifully-crafted courses. The Taki clan had an excellent kitchen, after all. They could afford the best.

A toast was raised during the second course, by Boss Tensho. He sat beside Boss Shin, like an equal, at the head of the vast dining room, Taki clansmen and Hakaza clansmen lined up, sitting on the floor, backs to the wall. "To the union of our two families!" he said.

"Here here!" Boss Shin replied, and the two of them clinked their sake cups, and drank to their families' good fortune, and so did everyone else.

Yuki just thought of Kiine as he sipped gingerly at his small cup of sake. "I can't help but feel like I'm nothing but a bargaining chip to them," she had said.

He didn't have much of an appetite, that evening, so Yuki concentrated mostly on watching Kiine, and worrying, and feeling awful while the Bosses and the bodyguards and everyone else began to talk.

And he hated Kou for existing. If only he hadn't said anything. Yuki couldn't apologize enough. He'd ruined her life. And now this jerk was going to make it worse.

"I'm really sorry about all of this…"

Kou was speaking. Yuki looked at him for the first time in a while, his mouth slightly open. Why was he apologizing?

"…what are you apologizing for?" Kiine, herself, said, primly. She didn't look at him.

"You probably don't really want to be here. I can tell. You hate me already. Frankly," Kou added, "I don't blame you…" He was looking at his lap, so Yuki couldn't see much more of his face. "I'm just really sorry you have to go through with this."

Those weren't the words of a bad person. Not even remotely. Yuki's mind floundered.

He listened, leaning forward slightly. His heart began to beat faster.

"…I don't… hate you," Kiine replied, grumbling as much as the situation could allow. She turned her head, slightly, toward him. "It's my papa that's at fault, not you."

"Well, I suppose that's true… It's my father's fault too…" Kou replied. "I didn't exactly ask for this, you know..."

"Yeah? Well, me neither." Kiine raised her chin, sighing. Her voice lost a little bit of the artificial softness she put on for guests. "I just got told that we were going to get married and that was that."

"Makes you feel kinda helpless, huh…"

She looked at him fully, there, and Yuki did as well.

"I mean, they're not even giving us a choice. didn't even get a choice. I feel like… I don't know, like I'm not even a person in this whole matter. Don't know if you feel the same way, but…" And Kou's voice trailed off again, and he poked at the blob of wasabi on the side of his plate. "I just can't imagine how awful you must feel. I'm really, very sorry…"

Yuki didn't understand.

And then Kiine said, sharply, "Listen, stop apologizing. It's not your fault, yeah?"

She was speaking like how she normally spoke, and it astonished Yuki. She never lost her composure like that around guests. Not even when she had gotten caught, back in Konoha. She had stayed in her role the entire time.

Kou turned to face her, fully, for the first time. His glass-marble eyes were wide with shock.

Yuki saw Kiine's expression soften, slightly. "So you feel bad about this, too, huh?"

Kou nodded, with a strange reluctance. "I don't know who to feel worse for, you or Dad or me."

"Why the heck would you feel bad for your dad, yeah?" Kiine asked, narrowing her eyes, her mouth tilting sideways in an expression of confusion that Yuki knew all too well. "I mean, come on. Neither of us would be here if it weren't for him."

Kou blushed. He looked at his lap, again. "He had to get me into an arranged marriage to get me a girlfriend, how pathetic is that…"

And Kiine laughed. But it wasn't a cruel laugh—and Yuki knew when she was being cruel. She was honestly amused—sympathetic, of all things. "Aww, man, you can't be serious, yeah…?"

Kou still didn't look at her. "I'm not exactly boyfriend material," he said, with a slight veneer of bitterness on his words. "Much less husband material… I'm sorry."

Behind him, the bodyguard with the eye-patch scoffed slightly, but he was smiling. Yuki looked at him only for a moment, before diverting his attention back to Kou and Kiine

"Bull. I don't believe you. Not for a moment."

Why was Kiine smiling?

"And stop apologizing!" she added, when he finally looked at her. "None of this is your fault, how many times do I have to tell you? I know that none of this is your fault, yeah?"

"Sorry for apologizing…" Kou said, quietly.

She laughed, harder than she had before. Yuki's head felt almost hollow.

"So what, exactly, makes you 'not-boyfriend material'?" she asked. There was a subtle playfulness in her voice, almost mocking, but not quite. "If it's because you don't like girls or anything then I don't care about that. I mean, that'd definitely be a reason to not wanna get married, yeah?"

Kou made a sound that was something like a sneeze or a cough, and he gave Kiine a strange, surprised look. The eye-patch guard was chuckling, now, quietly.

(Contrary to his appearance and Kiine's occasional teasing, Yuki very much liked girls.)

"No! No, no, I'm not like…!" And Kou was looking at his lap again. "I like girls a lot! I mean, um… Oh, jeez…"

"Hey, hey, no need to get so flustered, I didn't really mean it," Kiine said.

Kou shook his head. "No, no, it's… Well, I am kind of a wuss, so... Dad tells me all the time."

He had to have been lying. Nobody would lay themselves that bare so early on. Yuki knew people, and he knew how they worked. He'd been taught very, very well. His suspicions grew, and the hatred in his stomach stewed and fermented even further.

"Oh, come on. Really?" Kiine said. She leaned forward, tilting her head at him.

Yuki felt a vague comfort in her words. She didn't believe him, either.

"Yeah, I mean… I can't use a sword." A pause. "No, strike that. I can't fightperiod," Kou said, his voice rising slightly in volume, gaining strength with his sarcasm. "I'm a coward, I give up way too easily on stuff… I can't even disagree with anyone. 'No better than a yes-man,' Dad always says." He exhaled, loudly. "I'm sorry, this is really awkward, me going on like this, I should probably shut up…"

It was awkward for Yuki, for sure. He wished that Kou would just be quiet and eat, and leave Kiine alone. He was causing her enough pain as it was.

But Kiine tilted her head the other way, and she said, "No, no, it's okay. It's just… you can't be serious, you can't even fight?"

"Yeah, some heir to the clan am," Kou replied, with a bitter exhale of a laugh. "I feel bad killing spiders, can you believe that?"

And suddenly Kiine was smiling even wider. "Spiders are cool. But it's still kinda wimpy that you don't wanna kill even a bug, yeah."

"Yeah…" Kou began poking at his food again. He was quiet, for a while.

Kiine went back to eating, to Yuki's relief.

And then Kou was talking again. "Y'know, you think I could've done something about this, given my status. But I can't even abuse that," he said.

Yuki gripped his chopsticks even tighter. Why was he still going?

"Okay, now why are you saying this?" Kiine said. She held her bowl of rice delicately, like she was supposed to.

"Well, I'm the only son my dad's got. He's banking everything on me—no other guys in mind to take over, see. I got a lot of power. I could've asked for another bride but I couldn't even do that." He stopped himself suddenly and looked at Kiine with a very distressed face. "That's not to say that I don't think you're perfectly lovely, Kiine-san! I just think it'd be a little fairer to you is all…!"

She started laughing again, and put down her rice bowl. "Why are you trying so hard to be so nice to me, yeah?" she said.

Yuki's thoughts exactly. He narrowed his eyes.

"Because I could have done something about this…" Kou said, quietly. He didn't lower his eyes, this time. "It's unfair to you, and it's my fault. I'm sorry."

"Why do you keep saying that? I told you to stop," Kiine said. She frowned, a little. "We both know that neither of us are at fault, here, okay? It's our stupid dads."

"I still could have done something about it," said Kou. He looked at his food.

"Y'know, even if you had done something, I doubt it would've made much of a difference, yeah," Kiine said, flatly. She reached for her tea. "So stop beating yourself up for it."

Yuki's heart ached at how disappointed she sounded, and how much he knew he was at fault here.

"What do you mean by that…?" said Kou.

"Look, you know what kind of people our parents are, I'm sure," Kiine said. She put down her teacup, almost slamming it. A hard edge entered her voice. "Do you really think they're the type of people to give up once they get an idea in their heads?"

Yuki already knew the answer. He watched Kou think, waiting for his response.

"…I suppose you have a point," Kou said. His marble eyes glossed over with something that Yuki couldn't quite identify, but it looked like disappointment too.

"…besides, I already tried to do something, and that worked out freakin' beautifully," Kiine said, very quietly.

For the first time in days, she looked at Yuki.

Yuki had to close his eyes and bow his head, slightly, apologizing, apologizing.

"…what did you try to do?" Kou said. His voice was hushed.

Yuki still had his eyes closed.

"I… dressed up like a guy and ran away to a ninja village," Kiine replied. Her voice was mixed with an unsavory blend of pride and embarrassment. Yuki could tell. "I had to cut my hair to do it. Hard to believe now, but it used to be down to my waist, yeah."

"No way."

Why was there such reverence in his voice? What was this, more sucking up?

"Yeah, way," Kiine replied, with vague sarcasm. "But they caught me after a few weeks and dragged me home."

"That… man. I wish I had the balls to do that."

Yuki had to open his eyes for that, because Kiine had started to laugh again, in a sort of disbelief. "Balls? To do what, yeah?" she managed to say, between her giggles.

"Well, to do anything, but mainly to do something as… as extreme as running away!" Kou said. He had an enormous smile on his face. His voice quieted again. "You really dressed up as a guy?"

"Eh, it wasn't that big a deal…" Kiine shrugged, looking away from him. "I mean, I'm used to passing for a guy, it helps in sneaking out of the house."

"You sneak out of the house?"

Kiine blinked. She looked at him, blue eyes wide. "Well yeah, don't you ever?"

"Oh no, never," Kou said. He shook his head. "I kinda… like staying inside."

"Wow, you really are sheltered," Kiine said. Kou's face turned slightly red. "Hey, maybe while you're here, I should sneak you out. Though…"

"Oh, you don't have to—though what?" Kou caught himself mid-sentence, blinking.

Kiine smirked at him, giggling through her teeth. "You'd stand out an awful lot, with those clothes of yours. I mean, Yuki attracts enough attention, with that face of his."

"Oh! Um, I, well, I…" Yuki's face felt uncharacteristically hot. He tried not to look at Kou, who continued to be flustered as he asked, "Um, who's Yuki?"

"Oh, Yuki's my bodyguard. And he's pretty much my partner in crime, yeah," Kiine said. She jerked her thumb backwards at Yuki, her smile lessened, but still present. "That guy back there. Say hi, Yuki."

"Huh…? Ah! Hello there," Kou said. He bowed, quickly, awkwardly, from where he sat. "It's nice to meet you."

"Likewise," Yuki said. It was all he could manage, keeping his chin low, his expression as blank as possible. Kiine still wasn't smiling, but at least she didn't look angry at him.

"I'm… really sorry, Yuki-san, but I honestly thought you were a girl, at first," Kou continued, with an uncomfortable smile.

"Yeah, he gets that a lot," Kiine said, laughing. Yuki said nothing.

(At least Kou didn't say anything about it right away, like most people did.)

"Um, well, this is Shankusu, he's my bodyguard," Kou added, gesturing towards the eye-patch man. "We've never sneaked out or anything, but…"

"A pleasure to meet you, Lady Kiine," Shankusu said, chuckling, bowing a little, himself. His voice and his laugh were low and growly, the obvious product of years of some sort of smoking, Yuki could tell.

"Strange name you got there," Kiine replied, with a charming smirk.

"It's pretty fancy, I'll admit," Shankusu replied.

"Shankusu speaks Amerikan! Um." Kou ran his hand through his bangs, self-consciously. "Dunno why I said that, but..."

"Haha, well, that's cool, I guess," Kiine replied. "Hey, Shankusu-san, can you say something for me?"

"In Amerikan?" Shankusu said.

"Yeah, go for it," Kiine said.

Shankusu cleared his throat, and said, "サンキュウベリイマチイ。"

Kiine clapped her hands a few times, nodding, smiling. "Very impressive, yeah. Where'd you learn that?"

"I spent a few years on a few ships in the Northern waters," Shankusu replied, casually. "How I lost my eye."

"Oh yeah? Wow, that's cool," Kiine said. She suddenly put on a strange, posh air, in reaching for her tea. "You know, Yuki's got a few tricks of his own. Don't you, Yuki?"

Yuki nodded, slightly. He did.

"Really? Like what?" Kou asked. He leaned forward, eagerly, round little lips open slightly. Shankusu had a similarly interested look on his face, though it was tainted with skepticism, his eyebrows and his smile uneven.

"Why dontcha show him something, Yuki?" Kiine said. She looked over her shoulder at him. Her face was neutral, now, but there was expectation in her eyes.

Anything for her. Even if it was for him.

Yuki made himself feel better by telling himself that doing something would be showing up this invader and his companion, with the tumbling words.

"What would you like me to do, Master Kiine?" he said, voice perfectly measured, a solemn smile on his face.

"Go ahead and freeze something," Kiine said. Ah, yes, there was a tiny smile, in the corners of her mouth.

"Freeze…?" Kou said.

Yuki was not fond of showing off. But this would be a treat. "Hand me your soup, Kou-san, if there's any left," Yuki said. Kou did. It was still slightly warm.

Yuki made sure that it wouldn't be the case for very long. He concentrated, imagining his hands growing colder, imagining that coldness extending past his hands and into the bowl, into the liquid.

He handed the soup back to Kou, still wearing that smile. Kou nearly dropped it from how cold the glass was, fumbling it with his fingers. "It's cold!" he said. He managed to get a grip on the bowl and began tilting it sideways. "No, it's… frozen!" His eyes blinked in amazement. "How did you do that?"

"Yuki can just do things like that," Kiine said, almost proudly. She gave him another glance before attending to Kou again, who was holding the bowl nearly entirely upside-down, examining the contents.

"Wow, and the tofu's been frozen too…! That's really remarkable," he said. There was true appreciation in his voice, to Yuki's surprise. "Really, how did you do it?"

"He just does, yeah?" Kiine replied. "I dunno how it works."

Yuki didn't mind too terribly when she spoke for him.

"That's really something…" said Kou.

"So what else can you do with that little trick of yours, child?" Shankusu said. His soup was still warm, and he sipped it with thick lips that looked like they had been carved out of flesh. "Make it snow indoors? Give someone frostbite?"

Yuki glanced at him, sharply, sideways. "There are many things I can do, but I prefer to only do them when I need to, Shankusu-san," he said.

"Barring parlor tricks for your young mistress?" Shankusu said.

"Shankusu, please, be poli—AAH!"

It was such a shame that Kou's bowl had been upside down when its contents suddenly unfroze. But the liquid within it was still very cold.

In an instant a multitude of eyes were upon their little side of the dining room. Shankusu's eye wide, lunging for Kou; Kiine's halfway closed between a laugh and a gasp; Kou sputtering, soup getting into his eyes and all over his fine clothing; Yuki, closing his eyes, lessening his smile into an enigma. For Kiine's sake.

"What's going on over there?" Boss Tensho said. Shankusu was already at work wiping off Kou's face with his napkin.

"Kou? Son?" said Boss Shin. His bodyguard, Hikawa, was likewise leaning sideways, worry on his leather-like face.

"Hey, are you okay?" Kiine was off of her seat, leaning over with a smile on her face that was in a losing battle with a worried expression. "What happened?"

Yuki's smile shrank. Why wasn't she laughing? Even thought it was an accident—it really was an accident—he'd have thought that she'd surely…

"Pfuh! I'm fine, I'm fine!" Kou said, waving across the dining room to his father; Shin was already half risen, though Boss Tensho wasn't. "I guess I was a little careless with the soup! Don't know what was doing…"

Boss Shin shook his head disapprovingly, but he was smiling, and he sat back down. He went back to conversing with his bodyguard, whose eyes wrinkled with a returning smile of his own.

"Careless with the soup? The hell does that even mean, yeah?" Kiine said. She was inches away from him, now. She was laughing, now.

"Well, I suppose that even if something's frozen, then I shouldn't go tilting it upside down. I don't think it was quite frozen solid!" Kou kept one eye closed as Shankusu continued his rub-down with the napkin. "Ow, Shankusu, I think I'm fine…"

(But it had been frozen solid, only moments before.)

"We'll have to get you into new clothes," Shankusu replied, gruffly. "Your father will insist on it."

"Oh, it's not so bad…" Kou sighed. "But yeah, you're right…"

"Your dad's pretty big on appearances, huh?" Kiine said, glancing at Boss Shin, gesturing at him with her hand. If Kou's clothing was well-made, Shin's was absolutely spectacular. The fabric almost shimmered when the light hit it at the right angle, from the silver thread embroidered into the pattern of snakes on the sleeves and shoulders.

(She was still sitting so close to him, why was she so close to him?)

"You should see the wardrobe they packed…" Kou replied, softly.

"Oh come on, it can't be that bad, yeah," Kiine said.

"Oh, trust me. It's bad."

"Prove it."

Kou inhaled, exhaled, his cheeks turning pinks. Shankusu returned to his post, folding the soiled napkin and putting it to the side of his food tray. He glared at Yuki, very choice words in his eye, but he didn't say them.

Yuki kept his head down.

"Well, for starters," Kou said, "I have three different robes for each day of the week, and then all the extras, just in case…"

Kiine had to stifle a laugh. "How many is that, yeah?"

"I didn't count…"

"I have to see this," Kiine said.

Yuki didn't eat as they continued their conversation, completely ignoring him. He didn't really hear what they were saying, anyways, too well-folded into his own thoughts to notice much of anything else.

Kou hadn't even thought to blame Yuki for a thing. He hadn't even mentioned him, blaming himself, even.

…it was all an act. Clearly, all an act, to get on Kiine's good side. What else could it be? The sons of people like Boss Shin were not nice people.

(Kiine was the exception to the rule.)

How could any person be so cruel? Yuki thought. And more importantly, what was he really like…?

This Hakaza Kou was smarter than he thought.

And Yuki hated him.

And as the evening wore on Yuki tried to think of ways to make his heart hurt less, even with the fact that Kiine was now sitting so close to Kou, that she had shifted her food tray to be nearer to him, so that they could talk more.

(And at the end of the dining hall, Tensho leaned over to Shin with a smile. "Would you look at that," he told his ally, watching his daughter laugh. "I think it's a good sign." And Shin had to agree, watching Kou smile more and more widely.)

(But Yuki's expression worried Nobuhiro. It was an expression that meant that things were about to get very cold, and very soon.)

Chapter Text

Kiine actually summoned for Yuki at the end of the second night, after a day filled with him seeing her only at meals, silently eating behind her. Seated next to that boy.

She'd been with Kou for almost the entire afternoon, overseen only by Shankusu, who was apparently enough of a presence to protect them both.

(In his defense, Shankusu was an enormous man made of knotted muscles and cracked knuckles. He carried a short sword with a broad, curved blade on him, the sort that bandits in the Land of Wind liked to use. Kiine marveled at it when she first saw it, and he let her hold it when she asked.)

Yuki kept himself occupied enough throughout the day, nursing his anger and transmuting it into worry, which felt so much more acceptable an emotion to have. Anger was best hoarded away and channeled into the blade, not wasted in hours of idleness.

It also felt less guilty to worry, in a sense.

Yuki entered Kiine's bedroom to find her laying on her stomach on top of her futon, her face on her forearms. She didn't turn to look at him when he entered, just kicking her legs in the air. He didn't say anything, at first, lingering in front of the door, sitting on his knees, his head slightly bowed. It was strange, then, that she almost looked surprised to see him when she finally addressed him. Her eyes widened, slightly. "Oh, Yuki. You're here!"

"You did ask for me, Master Kiine…" Yuki said, quietly. "What do you need of me, sir?"

Kiine shrugged. The motion was awkward and strange, from her position on her belly. "I dunno. I guess I wanted to talk, yeah?" she said. "I've been kinda… avoiding you since I got home."

Yuki didn't say anything, not wanting to hurt her feelings.

She rolled over and sat up on the futon. She was wearing in a looser dress, now, less restrictive than a kimono, and she sat cross-legged, her hands on her ankles. She was looking at Yuki, however, and her eyes were locked with his. "…I wanted to say I'm sorry, Yuki. 'cos it's not your fault, what happened in Konoha," she said.

He felt a strange seizing-up in his stomach. "You don't need to apologize for anything, sir. And it is my fault…" he said. "I don't deserve an apology."

"It is not your fault. I know what happened, Yuki, your brother told me the whole story."

The fact that he didn't know this hit Yuki hard. "When did you…?

"A couple days ago. I wanted to find out what had really happened."

"Oh…"

Why hadn't she just asked him herself…?

He answered his own question a few moments later, and it made his cheeks flush to realize that he'd probably just apologize without giving her much information—much as he wished he could remain cold and emotionless and perfect, doing everything she asked without mishap.

Then again, if he could do that, then they wouldn't be in their predicament in the first place.

(To some extent, Kiine knew this, too.)

"You don't deserve to be treated like this," she continued. "I mean, it's not like you sold me out on purpose, yeah..."

Oh, but it felt like it. It couldn't have felt like anything else, to Yuki. "I still sold you out, sir. I'm sorry…"

Kiine was quiet, for a while. She looked at her feet, her mouth twisting towards her nose. "I should at least apologize for being so mean to you lately, yeah?" she said.

"You haven't been mean to me at all, sir." It was a lack of meanness, more than anything. And Yuki had felt like he had deserved it, every bit.

(Why did he have to keep that hair? Couldn't he have hidden it better, at least?)

Kiine sighed—she was giving up. It was probably for the best, Yuki felt, because it was no use trying to apologize to him, and even he knew it.

"Never mind, then, I guess…" she said. She didn't say anything more, adjusting her position where she sat.

"Is there… anything else you wish of me, sir?" said Yuki, hoping for an affirmative.

It was a half-hearted reply. "We could just talk, yeah?" she said. "What did you do today?"

"Me? Oh, um." Yuki found himself somewhat taken aback. The question felt strange to him, mostly because he hadn't been asked it much; at least, not by Kiine. He supposed that it was because they were together so often that she had no reason to ask it in the first place, because of course she would know what he had been up to.

(A small voice in the back of his head told him that he wasn't important enough for Kiine to ask questions of, but it was a very small voice, and hard to hear.)

(He blamed the strange new distance instead.)

He blinked a few times before replying, "I practiced with my sword in the dojo, sir."

"Oh, that musta been fun," Kiine said, with the same tone of voice that someone might use to say, "I went to the dentist's today."

"It was a good use of my time, I suppose…" Yuki said. Not the most exciting way to spend an afternoon, but it was the truth. He found himself sitting in silence again and, swallowing his discomfort, he said, "I was told that you spent the afternoon with Hakaza Kou-san. I hope it was not terribly uncomfortable for you, sir."

Kiine's expression surprised him. "Uncomfortable? Why would you say that?" she said.

He tried not to think about the day before. "Well, given the circumstances, sir…" Yuki said. "I was just worried that you would not be treated well, is all, especially given that I was not there to accompany you…"

Kiine narrowed her eyes, her mouth. "They treated me just fine, Yuki, Shankusu-san and Kou-kun both. What are you talking about?"

Oh, no, he already had her calling him Kou-kun. "I just have my… worries about that Hakaza Kou-san," Yuki said, softly. He didn't want to get her angry, he didn't want to go dragging up things that she didn't want brought up.

"What sorts of worries?"

He remembered the things she had said, when she was crying to him, alone, the things she had said to his face in the mirror. "I just have my doubts about his character, Master Kiine. Given his background and everything… You said so yourself," he said. "Families like yours and his don't produce the nicest people."

Her expression was unreadable. "So you're saying that I'm not nice, Yuki? Yeah?"

"No! No, Master Kiine, you're very nice." Yuki's head lowered, slightly, in shame. She'd asked that question before, he knew. "It's just… others I'm not so sure of…"

She sighed, and moved towards him, and when she stopped her knees were touching his knees. Yuki could hardly breathe. "Kou-kun's actually kinda nice, Yuki. You don't have to worry about him, I think."

"Nice?"

"Yeah. He's nice. Kind of a wimp, yeah, but he's fun to talk to."

What in the world had they talked about? Yuki wanted to know. But, instead, all he said was, "Oh, I see."

"Yeah, he's a lot different than I expected," Kiine continued. She leaned back, propping herself up with her arms, smiling slightly. "He's kinda cute, actually! The things he likes to do, I mean," she added, quickly. She cleared her throat. "Not his… Um. He likes baking."

"Baking, huh…" Yuki said, unable to muster even a slight amount of sincerity. Kiine didn't seem to notice.

"Yeah, he said he was gonna try an' make me something while he was here, and I told him that would be great, yeah?" she continued. "I wanna see if he's as good as he says he is. Though, hah, he kept saying he wasn't that good, meaning he's either absolutely awful, or really good. One or the other, yeah."

"I'm sure it'll be very interesting, sir," Yuki said.

"Yeah, I'm sure. And, just between you an' me?" she said, leaning forward now, glancing from side to side. Yuki could already guess what she was going to ask. "I honestly think that we gotta take this guy out somewhere. And soon. Serious shut-in, yeah." A beautiful smile that suited her began to grow on her face as she leaned in closer, her nose only inches from his. Yes, she had asked what he had expected. "You think you could help sneak us out maybe later tonight or tomorrow?"

Yuki clenched his fists. His fingers felt cold. "I… don't think that would be a good idea, sir…" he said, his head lowering further and further with each word.

"Why not?" Kiine said.

Oh, there were a million reasons, swimming and milling about in his mind like angry fish. He reached and managed to find an acceptable one. "You've only been home for so long, sir. If you were to sneak out again and you got caught, your father would be furious, I think…" he said.

"Oh, come on. We won't get caught, yeah," she said. There was such confidence in her voice.

Yuki didn't say anything. He pursed his lips.

"…c'mon, Yuki, honestly," she continued. "We won't get caught. Especially not if you're with me. And Kou really needs to get out, I mean-"

"Why do you want to bring him?" The words shot out of Yuki like pressurized water, and he almost clapped his hands over his mouth, after the fact. He stared at Kiine, instead, with brown, distressed eyes. His breaths came quickly, strangely.

"…well, I dunno, I just think it'd be a nice thing to do," Kiine said. She shrugged, but only slightly.

"But… you shouldn't sneak out, sir…!" he said. His voice squeaked. "I don't want you to get in trouble again!"

"We're not gonna get in trouble, Yuki. Stop being such a worrywart, okay?" she said, laughter bubbling up in her voice. "You're coming with, remember? It'll be just like old times."

(But the old times had been just him and her, however reluctantly he had chosen to come along. But Kou was, Kou was…)

(…unwelcome.)

The angry fish-thoughts stirred, violently. "I just don't think it's a very good idea at all, sir," he said. His voice was thin as it tried to press through his throat. "There's too much risk, it's not the right time, and with him there…!"

Kiine started really laughing, there. "Why are you still so worried about Kou-kun? He's absolutely harmless," she said. "Really, I think you two would get along, yeah? I'll ask Shankusu to let you replace him tomorrow afternoon. We're gonna eat lunch out in the garden, again, it was really nice when we did it today."

What was he doing to her? "Somehow I doubt this, sir…" he managed.

"Oh c'mon, Yuki, you'll never know until you talk to him yourself, yeah," Kiine said. She put a hand on his shoulder. He couldn't bring himself to move away at all. "He's a pretty good guy."

Yuki didn't say anything, just feeling her warm little hand on him.

"So when we go out tonight, or whatever, I was thinking of lending Kou some of your clothes, because it'd be kinda suspicious and freakin' impractical with his current wardrobe," Kiine said, when she took her hand off of Yuki's shoulder, and leaned back on her arms again. "I have no idea if they'll fit him, though, since you're small, but he's kinda shorter and pudgier than you, I think. Man, that kid is a sharp dresser, though, did you see what he was wearing at breakfast? Wow."

She didn't notice that she was talking to herself, at this point. Yuki closed his eyes.

"Either way, it'll be nice to see everyone again. And, hey, I won't have to wear a hat this time!" she continued, pleasantly. "Cos my hair's all short, now. Plus I think it'll be easier to fight with, since there's nothing to grab any more…"

"I wonder why that is, sir." The sarcasm felt strange and dry on his tongue.

Kiine finally noticed. "Yuki, what's that supposed to mean?"

"Do you not remember why you had to leave in the first place, sir? Why you had to cut off your hair and go?" He didn't want to open his eyes. They felt hot and awful. "It's because of him, you did all of that to get away from him, and now you want to sneak out with him? I don't understand!"

Kiine stammered, slightly. "That was… before I knew him, Yuki, and I wasn't running away from him, exactly, it was…" And her voice dropped off there; he heard her go "Hm," and then "Well..." And then, she said, "I still don't wanna get married to him, Yuki, and… neither does he. We're both in the same boat, you know. He got forced into it just as much as I did."

Lies, lies, they had to be lies. Yuki could feel tears leaking out from between his eyelashes. "How can you be sure, sir…?"

"How can I be—he told me himself, okay?" Kiine said. There was a sudden defensiveness in her voice. "We spent hours last night just talking about how much our dads suck, Yuki. He's almost got it worse off than me! Did you know that his dad wants him to be the next Boss? He doesn't even want to be Boss. And you know how much I…" She paused. She inhaled, exhaled, angrily. "Man, talk about freakin' unfair, yeah!"

Oh, it was all so very unfair. And he knew, he knew so very, very well, about Kiine's dreams.

"Neither of us want this," she continued. "Maybe if we… work together, we can stop it. I mean he's a nice guy, Yuki. I actually kinda… like him."

The pause in her words grabbed at his throat and didn't let go.

"But not like him, like him. I don't wanna marry him," she said. "I mean, hell, Yuki. I'm not gonna just give up here to become the wife of a Boss. I won't accept it."

And all he could do was nod in assent. A tear began making its way down his cheek.

And she asked, "Hey, Yuki, are you okay?"

He felt her hand on his knee.

He nodded further, and wiped his eyes, his cheek, with the back of his hand. He kept them closed. He sniffed, subtly. "I'm perfectly fine, sir. Do you need me for anything else…?" His voice was high from the strain of keeping a sob from falling out of his mouth.

At once, he prayed for a command, and a dismissal.

"…naw, you can go, Yuki. I'll see you at dinner, yeah?" she said.

Yuki nodded. He rose. "O-of course, sir. Thank you…"

He opened his eyes just enough to see Kiine looking up at him with concern and worry and she couldn't see him like this. He was her best friend, but he was also her bodyguard, and he had to be strong.

(Not like the night when she had left, when she had held him and oh how he had wished, to his endless shame, for that moment never to end.)

(And even after everything he had done for her, after everything he had done, he had still ruined it for her.)

(He couldn't imagine that she still didn't hate him. This snap back to "normal" was too sudden, and Kou only worsened the matter for him.)

And he took his leave, waiting until he was far enough away to cover his mouth with his hand, to capture whatever tried to escape.

On one hand he was incredibly, enormously relieved that Kiine was still going to fight. That she hadn't been… completely seduced by that boy with those insincere yellow eyes. He didn't want the marriage either? Maybe… he was just saying that, to get her sympathy—but what good would that do him in the long run? If he really wanted the marriage then surely he wouldn't say anything like that.

And who wouldn't want to be Boss? It baffled Yuki.

(And what did she think was so great about him, anyways? He was nice? He was a good baker? That was all?)

He barricaded himself in his room and held his knees as he thought.

(He didn't feel the air growing colder. Even in the dead of winter, he never really felt the cold.)

(Kiine, in the room beside him, did.)

He didn't trust Hakaza Kou. He didn't trust a thing about him.

He was left undisturbed until dinner, when he removed the traces of his worry from the walls and went to sit behind Kiine, as usual. She offered to have him join her and Kou after the meal for some conversation, and she had winked at him, too; but Yuki had to refuse. She said she understood. "Later, then. Tomorrow?"

"If you want to, sir," Yuki had replied. He glanced at Kou, once, whose face was glossed over with a vague sort of worry; but he did not give the boy another look.

Yuki was left alone that evening. He stayed in the practice hall until the late hours of the night, tying back his hair, swinging his blade, hearing the hiss of the air cut by the metal, each swing more desperate, more angry, more real than the last.

Hakaza Kou was an invader. And Yuki knew he that could adapt to his presence, eventually—he was already relieved by what seemed like Kou's good intentions.

But because Yuki could not deny his gut feeling, he kept one possibility still alive in his mind.

Eradication.

(When they had settled down into private conversation together, later that night, Kou asked Kiine if Yuki didn't like him.)

(Kiine assured him that Yuki didn't not-like him, he was just… getting used to Kou being around.)

Chapter Text

Kou felt like he was intruding on something when he requested a private audience with Boss Tensho—then again, he was inclined to feel like he was intruding on everything, given the world he lived in. Even when his father invited him to join in.

Kou didn't exactly… fit in with that sort of thing. And he knew it. And he wished his father knew but, well. He didn't really seem to.

But he had to because, well, he had to.

It had been a casual sort of request. He had to ask Shankusu to go and ask in his place, because he felt too nervous to ask himself. Just a "Would it be all right if you and I spoke in private later?" sort of thing. Not terribly important or anything, at least, Kou didn't think so. And the reply had come back in the positive, to Kou's relief, Boss Tensho saying that he'd be happy to meet with Kou after dinner.

"You seem pleased, Young Master," Shankusu had said, seeing Kou's smile upon his affirmation. "What do you want to talk to Boss Tensho about, anyways?"

"Just… things," Kou had replied, already looking forward to telling Kiine the news.

Kiine, naturally, just straight-up asked his father to speak with her, and, naturally, he had agreed as well. Kou's stomach did a little somersault when she told him about it.

(Her confidence secretly amazed him and made him feel that much worse about his own lack of it. Though he wasn't very good at all at concealing this amazement, or his lack of confidence.)

They had already planned out what they were going to say to their fathers; truthfully, they'd arranged the plan just the afternoon before, sitting in the garden and talking over lunch. Yuki was there; Kiine, Kou noticed, seemed to be so much more at ease when he was around, rather than when Shankusu was acting as their guardian. She tended to be quieter in Shankusu's presence, letting Kou talk more. But with Yuki she talked with astonishing speed, letting her full, warm radiance out.

It suited Kou. He felt comfortable around Shankusu, whom he had known since he was maybe five or six, after his previous bodyguard left the service of his family for reasons he could either not remember or understand due to being so young at the time. Shankusu understood him and listened to him when he had problems with a tired, familiar sort of look on his face, because it always seemed like Kou was having the same problems, and Kou knew it and would apologize and Shankusu would just laugh because they were always the same old apologies, as well.

Plus, while Shankusu gently pushed Kou to at least try to practice in the dojo or do something manlier than read about how to make macaroons in a recipe book, he didn't disagree when Kou asked if he could have access to the kitchens to do some experimentation, or when he said he wanted to learn how to knit. And Kou appreciated that, more than anything.

He supposed Kiine must have had the same sort of relationship with Yuki—certainly, he didn't know how long they had known each other, but it was that same ease that fell about her when she was just with him and Kou that he found familiar. And he really thought that she was at her best when she was so enthusiastic and energetic and cheerful.

…mind, while Kou found her amazing and admirable and he couldn't deny that he liked her as a person, he didn't like her, like her. And they were both opposed to the marriage.

…even if he did eventually develop feelings for her, it would probably not go anywhere, he'd think to himself. He didn't want to be unfair to her.

(He didn't tell this to Shankusu.)

And, besides, Kou was just the sort of person that was always a friend, never anything more. He just knew that was the case. His dad had tried introducing him to too many girls for it not to be true.

(This, he told Shankusu.)

But it was because they were opposed to the marriage that they'd come up with this plan. And Kiine had done most of the planning and most of the talking, Kou only occasionally piping in with feedback. She was clever, Kiine, and shrewd, and she gave orders naturally. Kou, strangely enough, felt happy to follow them, for the most part. When she said that maybe they'd have success by speaking to each other's fathers, rather than their own.

"It's whining when we go to our own old men, and they'll just keep on treating us like babies if we do that. But if we talk to 'em like adults and handle this on our own, then maybe they'll take us seriously, yeah?" she had said, on one of those conversations where it was only him and her and Yuki—they never discussed business in front of Shankusu. And all Kou could do was nod and agree with her, and smile.

Yuki did not smile nor say much of anything throughout the entire conversation, only replying to agree with Kiine when she asked questions of him. He had a high voice, like a girl's, but there was none of a girl's playfulness or gentleness in it, whenever Kou heard him speak.

He generally avoided looking at Kou. And Kou, once he figured it out, tried to avoid looking at him, so he wouldn't make Yuki uncomfortable in return.

Even though Kiine said otherwise, he got the definite feeling that her bodyguard didn't like him at all. And while he didn't quite understand why (he certainly had a few, insubstantial theories), Kou just accepted it and did what he could to avoid conflict. Some people just didn't like you, and there was nothing you could do about it, really.

…it was a trait that his father did not look kindly upon. "Kou, son, you can't back down from anything; you know that, right?" he would say. "There's nothing to gain in just letting people walk all over you in the name of not wanting to cause trouble. You can't go without causing at least a little trouble in your life."

And because he didn't want to cause trouble, Kou just nodded and told his father that he'd try to avoid such behavior in the future.

It was strange, in a way, how Kiine inspired—no, commanded him to step forward and take this risk by talking to her father. "It'll be fine, making an effort is totally fine for starters, yeah," she had assured him, when doubts began to arise on how effective his arguments would be.

He felt comfortable, following her orders. Really, Kou was most comfortable when following the commands of anyone, really, not just with Kiine. Other people in general had better ideas of what they were doing than he ever could. What he lacked in confidence he made up for in trust, and he had more than enough trust in Kiine, despite having known her for only a few days. She just… knew what she was doing.

And she had a true and an honest belief that she and Kou, if they worked together, would be able to get the marriage called off.

But no matter what confidence she managed to instill in him, Kou still had jitters of the worst kind when he stood with Shankusu in front of Boss Tensho's meeting room the evening after his initial request. Though he and Kiine had come up with what they wanted to say, though everything was planned, he still had the feeling that he would mess up and ruin it all for the both of them.

(Strangely, he found himself wishing for her to be there. But she wasn't—and, more importantly, she couldn't.)

Boss Tensho smiled at him when he came in. His bodyguard, a man with a scar on his lip—his name escaped Kou at the moment—sat behind him with a neutral expression on his face. "Kou-kun, so nice to see you. What can I do for you?"

"Um, well… First, would you mind terribly if we dismissed our bodyguards?" Kou said. Just as Kiine had told him to say.

Boss Tensho's red eyebrows rose and fell. "Why's that?"

"It's, um. A little embarrassing, and I'd prefer it if we spoke alone, thank you…" Kou replied. Just as Kiine had told him to say (though a bit more hesitantly than he would have preferred).

Boss Tensho seemed to understand, though Kou couldn't imagine how. "Nobu, wait outside, okay? I'll call if I need you."

"You too, Shankusu. I'll be fine, I promise," Kou added. Shankusu patted him on the shoulder before leaving. Boss Tensho's bodyguard closed the door behind him.

"Come a little closer, so I can hear you better," Boss Tensho said, beckoning to Kou with his hand. Kou reluctantly stepped forward. He remained standing. "So, what is it you wanted to talk to me about?"

"It's…" Kou swallowed. "It's your daughter, Boss Tensho."

"Kiine?" Boss Tensho had a strange half-smile on his face, and he laughed a strange half-laugh. "What about her?"

"Well, as you probably, uh, know, she and I have been spending a lot of time together recently…" Kou said.

"Yes, and?" Boss Tensho said, when Kou did not continue.

Kou swallowed again. He could hear Kiine's voice in his mind: Don't worry about it, just do it, yeah!

"This is… in no way against you or my father, sir, but… I'm sorry, I just can't marry her."

Boss Tensho's face hadn't changed its expression much. It was unreadably half-amused, half-something else. "And why is that, Kou-kun?"

She'd known he would ask. "Well I found her… charming, at first. But she's really starting to… get on my nerves." He tripped over the truths and sped past the lies. He didn't know if Boss Tensho would notice.

A scoff. "Get on your nerves, does she?"

"A bit. She just… well, she talks a lot, she's crude, and crass, and so…" He searched for a word, because the list that Kiine had given him, vast as it was, hadn't exactly made a home in his mind.

(But all he could think of were nice things, when it came to her.)

(So he settled for that, and reversed it for his purposes.)

"…inelegant. I just don't really like her, sir," Kou said. He fidgeted with true nervousness. "I don't think we'd be a good match."

Boss Tensho just shook his head, there. Smiling. "Oh, Kou-kun. My daughter? A talker though she may be, she ain't at all crude or crass."

"Well… maybe she's a different person in private…" Kou said, softly. She certainly seemed to have two sides to her, from what he'd seen so far. The quiet, cool public image, and the raging fire that was her at her truest.

Boss Tensho just kept on smiling. "What do you really not like about her, Kou-kun?"

Kou had to think, hard. "…she makes fun of me," he said.

Boss Tensho's eyes were surprisingly knowing. "But she's never truly insulted you, has she?"

"Well, no, but…" And Kou stopped, trying not to wince. "No, actually, yes, she has insulted me. And my father. She isn't nice to me at all, Boss Tensho."

"What's she said about your father?" Boss Tensho's eyes narrowed very, very slightly.

"That he, um…" Kou thought. "That he's a fool who doesn't know what he's doing. She says that neither he nor I should be here. She wants us to leave."

"Tell it to me like you mean it, boy," Boss Tensho said.

Kou blinked. "…excuse me?"

"I don't believe you for a moment. If you need to lie to get someone on your side then y'need to sound like you mean it, you got me?" Boss Tensho continued. He sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. "Siddown, Kou-kun. Let's have a little talk, shall we?"

An awful, familiar sensation began to rise in Kou's chest, spreading to his shoulders, his arms. "Oh, no, I don't think we need to. I'm sorry, forget I said anything." He began to turn, to leave.

"Kou-kun, siddown. No need to be nervous, I'm not mad at you or anything," Boss Tensho said. There was a playful sort of tease in his voice, a familiar tone, though the one that Kou knew was lighter, higher. "Come over here, we're just gonna talk. Man to man. Okay?"

Kou was always better at obeying others than following his own bad ideas. He sat down in front of Boss Tensho.

"I'm guessin' that my daughter sent you here," Boss Tensho said.

"No, she didn't-"

"Your dad's told me a lot about you, Kou-kun," Boss Tensho continued, anyways. "Says you got the brain of a Boss but the heart of a lackey. And I'm guessin' your dad knows you pretty damn well, Kou-kun."

His father had told him that more than once. "Yeah, I suppose he does…"

"And I know my daughter. She's a bossy girl. You should see how she directs Yuki-kun around." A dry little laugh came out of his mouth. "Scares me a little, sometimes, how persuasive she can be. Just like her mother…"

"Persuasive…?" Kou said.

"Oh yeah. She could get that little guy to do just about anything for her. It's gotten him in a fair amount've trouble from time to time," Boss Tensho said. He shook his head, slightly, pulling his lips together beneath his mustache. "Point is, I wouldn't be surprised if she got to you, too. 'specially given what your dad's told me."

"That's not… true, I'm here because I want to be here, not because she told me to come here," Kou said. It was a half-truth, and it bolstered his voice just that much.

It was enough to make Boss Tensho tilt his head, slightly, his eyebrows lowering critically. "A little better, but you're better off just givin' it a rest, okay?" There was comfort in his voice, his eyebrows lifting as he spoke. "She told you to come an' talk to me. I know. So stop tryin' to tell me otherwise."

Kou lowered his head, admitting, "It was her idea, but I'm here because I agreed with her, not because she's forcing me to…"

"Ah, finally something that I can believe," Boss Tensho said. He breathed out, through his nose. "This is really about your marriage, innit."

"Well, sort of, I mean…" Kou said, but he found himself floundering for words; Tensho had hit the nail right on the head.

"I may be old, Kou-kun, but I'm not ignorant, an' I'm not stupid," Boss Tensho said. "Kiine hasn't been taking this situation well an' I almost expected her to turn you against me eventually, or at least try, if you two didn't hit it off."

"Oh…" There was a strange sort of squirming in Kou's gut there, and he wondered what it meant. It was out of place, whatever it was, and neither terribly uncomfortable nor terribly pleasant.

"Really, your dad an' I were really hoping you'd at least get along a little," Boss Tensho continued. "I mean, it seemed like you two were hittin' it off just fine, to us. Are things really that bad between you two?"

"No, not… really," Kou said. "It's just that, well…"

"Well, what?"

Kiine hadn't told him a thing about what to say if it came to this; in her confidence, she had assumed that if Kou bad-mouthed her enough that he'd at least piss off her dad a little, or at least convince him that he just didn't like her.

(She didn't count on Kou having such a good heart. But he couldn't have helped that)

He grabbed for words and figured that the truth would serve his purpose well enough. "I just think it's kinda unfair, sir. To her and to me."

And Boss Tensho paused for a moment. "Is that so."

Kou nodded. "I mean, it'd probably come to this for me, 'cos I'm so hopeless when it comes to girls and I'm gonna need a wife someday, but…" He closed his eyes, and opened them. "Kiine-chan, I think she deserves to have a choice. Because I know she can do better than me. She shouldn't have to settle so soon."

And then Boss Tensho laughed. "Kou-kun, I think that's the most honest thing you've said to me all day."

Kou squirmed and looked away. His stomach was doing acrobatics somewhere in his chest.

"You honestly think she can do better than you, huh?" Boss Tensho continued.

"A whole lot better," Kou replied, nodding vigorously. "Really, I'm kinda embarrassed, in all honesty… I mean, I understand why this is happening and all, but, again, I just don't think it's fair. For her, at least. I mean, I'm sure I'd be just fine if it were any other circumstance, but, just…" He inhaled, and lowered his eyes as the breath escaped him. "Well, I knew from the moment I saw her that she didn't want anything to do with me… Even if I had to be given a bride, I'd want one that actually wanted to get married, I think…"

Boss Tensho took a long time to reply. "…man, your dad was right, you are a strange kid," he said.

Kou began to seriously regret what he had just said.

(Even though he had meant every word. Especially the bit about him being absolutely fine with the idea of an arranged marriage. Kou had long since accepted that he'd probably have to rely on one in the future, but he at least wanted one or both parties to be willing to the idea.)

(In a perfect world, Kou would have been able to ask for a bride when he felt ready and been able to pick a girl who was equally interested in marrying him, even if it was only for his money, or his power. He knew he wasn't much of a catch in the looks department, doughy as he was.)

(But he hadn't asked. And neither had Kiine.)

(Somehow, it felt more unfair to her, no matter how he looked at it.)

"I get that you kids are having a tough time. But your dad and I both think that it's what's best for our clans, and for the both of you," Boss Tensho said, after rubbing his thumb and forefinger around his chin, ruffling his beard for a time. "You know how much I worry about my daughter sometimes? She's got a bad habit've sneaking out at night an' doing heaven knows what. Visiting gambling dens, clubs, things like that."

The feeling in Kou's stomach intensified. He still had no idea what it meant, but he had no time to think.

"I haven't been too worried 'cos she's got Yuki-kun with her, but I can only trust that boy so much," Boss Tensho said. He sighed. "There's a lotta mean fuckers out in the world, Kou-kun. An' I thought that it was only a matter of time before she picked up one of 'em as a boyfriend. I've been lucky so far, but suppose I wasn't? Suppose he hurt her, or did somethin' to her?"

Kou saw Boss Tensho's hands tightening their grip. A layer of discomfort draped itself over his stomach, but he wasn't sure where it came from: from Tensho's strange and vulnerable honesty, or from Kou's own inability to accept the idea that Kiine would even waste two seconds on a guy that mistreated her? He couldn't even imagine it.

"There's only so much I can do, as her father. I worry," Boss Tensho said. "I wanna make sure she's taken care of, Kou-kun. That she's in the hands of someone I can trust. An' I trust your dad, an' I trust you." And his voice got surprisingly soft. It hardly suited him. "You understand, Kou-kun? She can't get much better than a guy like you. She needs a guy like you. Because her other choices ain't nearly as good."

Kou couldn't help but nod, his discomfort intensifying to an almost unbearable degree. Thousands of conflicting concepts and words swam in his head, competing for space.

"So don't let her boss you around. She'll warm up to the idea, an' she'll warm up to you, if she hasn't already. You got a responsibility, y'know?" A warm smile spread across Boss Tensho's face, but Kou did not find it terribly reassuring, as he was sure it was meant to be. "Wedding won't be for a while, so you'll have plenty of time. Besides, I like you, kid. Stay strong for me."

Kou swallowed again as he nodded, again. "A-absolutely, sir," he replied.

Boss Tensho didn't say anything for a while. And when he finally did, he preceded it with a clearing of his throat. "That was a pretty good talk, I think. You got anything more you wanna say to me, Kou-kun?" he said. Kou shook his head. "Well, then. I'll see you at breakfast tomorrow."

And Kou just nodded and bowed and thanked Boss Tensho for his time and got out of there as quickly as he could.

"How'd it go? Whatever you did in there," Shankusu asked, once they were far enough away.

(He had respectfully not listened in to their conversation, and neither had Nobuhiro. Both of them knew that if they were meant to hear it then they'd be told about it after the fact, after all.)

"It… went fine," Kou replied, truthfully unable to really say what had happened in there.

He found himself feeling strangely weighted down by the overwhelming feeling that he'd utterly failed at what Kiine had told him to do. But there was a new insistence, now, that he had a responsibility to keep the engagement together, that she didn't know what she was doing, because this was all for her own good.

…but it felt wrong, this weight, this new role. Because Kiine did seem to know what she was doing, mostly. Her confidence, her ability was undeniable. And Kou was sure that at least her meeting with his father had gone well. They had that going for them, at least. Maybe they still had a chance.

(But she needed a guy like him, and nobody else, and there was a different feeling in his stomach, a squirm of discomfort rather than…)

Kou spent the night mostly awake, thinking all of it over. His dreams, when they eventually came, were pastel-colored and soft and formless.

Kiine leaned in to whisper to him at breakfast: "How'd it go?" She seemed cheerful enough, smiling, at least.

"I'll tell you after breakfast," Kou decided, and didn't say much of anything else for the meal. He tried to ignore Boss Tensho smiling at him, almost expectantly, from across the room, and his father leaning in to whisper things into his ear.

He had to ask Yuki to leave, when he and Kiine managed to find a room together in the compound that wasn't occupied. He was going to need confidence, and Yuki's icy presence (sometimes literally—Kou swore that the air was somehow colder around him, sometimes, but he had only a vague idea why) would do nothing to aid it.

(Even though Kiine had offered for them to use her room, Kou stammered that he didn't want to do that, so they settled for one of the many rooms in the main house for displaying art. This particular room held swords in polished wood stands.)

"So how'd it go with you and my dad?" she asked again, leaning in expectantly. She had her hands on her blue silk lap, and a smile on her face.

"…tell me how it went with my dad, first," Kou said. He kept his eyes on her hands.

"No, you first. I've been dying to know, yeah?" she said.

Kou couldn't really resist. "I don't think it went well at all…" he admitted.

"…what makes you say that?"

"He kinda didn't take me at all seriously when I said all those things about you, for starters…"

Kiine scoffed. "Yeah, I had a feeling… But, hey, at least you tried, yeah? What else?"

Somehow, Kou was not comforted. "Well then he asked me why I was here and he knew you put me up to this."

Her silence lasted for an age. "What, you feel like I am puttin' you up to this?" she said. There was a dangerous color of anger in her voice.

"No, no, not at all! That's just what he said…" Kou replied, shaking his head. "I'm doing this because… I think that this marriage is… unfair to you, and that's what I told him, but…"

"But, what?" she said, like her father.

"But then he started telling me all this stuff about how I shouldn't feel bad and how he's just worried about you and that it's because he doesn't want you go get hurt." It didn't even make sense to Kou, the way he'd phrased it, so he tacked on an "I suppose" to the end.

Kiine scoffed, there, and loudly. "Oh, that is just typical, yeah," she said. "Let me guess, he told me that he needed you to 'take care of me,' didn't he?" Kou couldn't help but nod. "That's just… oh, that's just…" She sighed again. "Why am I even surprised…?"

"I don't… know?" Kou said, when she didn't say anything further. "I'm… guessing you've heard him say this before?"

"He probably gave you the same lecture he gave me when came back from Konoha," Kiine said, sarcastically. "About how there's bad people out there and he wants me taken care of by good people." She scoffed again. "Like I need to be taken care of… And assholes are not my type, yeah!"

(Truthfully, Kiine vastly preferred men who were less assertive than she was. There was a reason why she and Yuki got along so well.)

(And Kou.)

Kou found himself more than a little shocked at how right she seemed to be. "It… sounds pretty similar to what he told me…" he said.

Kiine shook her head. "Well just don't listen to anything he says, yeah?" she told him.

Kou twisted her words into a command, and he found himself feeling just a little bit better about his failure, for some reason. His stomach twisted this way and that.

"…so, um. How did it go with my dad?" Kou asked, after suppressing his smile.

"Went pretty well, I think," Kiine said, casually. She leaned back, balancing on her hands, lolling her head about her shoulders. "Dunno if we really got much of anywhere. Your dad really knows how to change a subject, yeah."

"Yeah, that sounds like him…" Kou said. His father was incredibly fond of gossip, as well, and when the two were combined, you could hardly get anything through to him.

"I think I managed to get something in to him," she continued, "'bout how I wanted to choose my husband and stuff, but he just laughed at me all patronizing-like and said that I could keep a concubine or somethin' if you really didn't live up to my expectations."

Kou cupped his forehead in his hand, running his fingers through his bangs. "Did he really say that…"

"More or less. I told him that he was full of crap, though, so don't worry," Kiine said, leaning forward, a surprisingly kind smile on her face. "Even if we did get married, I wouldn't do somethin' like that to you, yeah? You're too nice." She patted him on the shoulder as she said this, and Kou peeked at her from between the fingers on his face, an uncontrollable smile budding on his mouth.

"Well, thanks…" he said.

"…kinda funny, really…" she said, when she took her hand off of him, when she returned to leaning on her hands again. "The other stuff he said to me. It… kinda reminded me of my papa an' the stuff he'd say."

Kou had taken his hands off of his face, as well. "How so?" he asked.

"There was a lotta talk about 'take care of my son' an' stuff," Kiine said. Her tone was detached, airy. "Said he worries that you'll never have another chance. I said that you totally had your pick of the girls," she added, with a hard sheen of sudden confidence. "I mean, with your status, you could have a girlfriend delivered to your house any time you wanted, yeah?"

"Somehow I doubt this…" Kou said, his smile growing sheepish. He knew he was blushing.

(And he knew she was right, again.)

"Eh, I guess not. But really," Kiine continued. "It's just, the way he was talking about you, it made me wonder who was really the bride in this thing, yeah?"

Kou wanted to cover his face, again, but he didn't. "How so…" he asked again, but more quietly, this time.

"He talked to me like I was a groom takin' you into my family or somethin', I dunno," Kiine replied. The detached tone returned to her voice. Her eyes remained lazily fixed at some point on the ceiling. "That he wanted you to have a wife that'd take care of you or… something. I dunno." She sat up and shrugged. "That's just what it sounded like, 'specially the way he phrased it."

"Ah, I see…"

"Yeah, so that's what happened," said Kiine. She crossed her legs, there, and rested her arms on her thighs. "Dunno how much help did, but… at least we made an effort, yeah?"

"Yeah, at least there's that…" Kou replied.

They were quiet together, for a while.

"…so what are we gonna do now?" Kou finally asked.

Kiine shrugged again. "Stick to our guns, I guess. We've both said what we wanted to say."

(This was, on both sides, somewhat of a lie. But she wasn't going to admit that, and neither was Kou.)

"And just sit tight, right?"

"Yeah."

Kiine suggested that maybe they go do something together, after a good minute or two went by without either of them saying anything, and Kou could do nothing but agree.

"You said you were gonna try baking something for me, yeah? So come on, are you all talk and no show, or the real deal?" she said, playfully, lifting him up off the ground by his arm.

"Well, I'm told I can bake a mean cream puff," Kou replied, an uncharacteristically sharp grin on his face. It faded in an instant. "But I mean, if cream puffs aren't your thing then I can make something else. I can make... crepes, cookies, muffins…"

Kiine's laughter quieted him. "I've never had cream puffs before," she said. "Let's see how they are, yeah? Kitchen's this way. I can get you what you need."

Yuki was still waiting, obediently, outside the door, and he followed them silently as they walked together to the kitchen.

Kou hardly noticed that he'd wrapped his arm around Kiine's, nor that the strange squirming sensation in his stomach, the not-quite-uncomfortable-not-quite-pleasant one, had returned, and it had not abated since Kiine had started smiling again.

(Kiine, in all honesty, didn't notice much, herself, nor the fact that she hadn't stopped smiling since she'd asked Kou to do something with her.)

(Yuki kept his face emotionless and tried not to notice any of these facts.)

(He hadn't been nearly as tactful as his brother or Shankusu, listening to their entire exchange, and attempting to process it as he aided them in the kitchen, bringing them ingredients and putting on a vague air of enjoyment.)

The cream puffs turned out wonderfully, anyways.

Chapter Text


"Here he comes, th'whirlwind master, he's our answer for disaster…"

"Fuzan."

"Flash 'o orange, he outta sight, he super tight, turns day t'night…"

"Fuzan."

"Who else he gonna be, 'dis Uz-u-ma-ki… Na-Na-Na, somethin' somethin'…"

"Fuzan! You even listening?"

The captain was saying something, Fuzan finally noticed, so he tilted his head sideways and said, "Yeah, what?"

"Again with the rhymes…? You have to pay better attention."

"I was payin' attention," Fuzan said.

The captain, Omoi, wasn't terribly old, but he had deep creases beneath his eyes from his constant worrying. He gave Fuzan a tired look. "Then tell me what I was just saying."

Fuzan couldn't. "…sorry, Captain," he said, lowering his head.

Captain Omoi sighed. "It's okay now, Fuzan, but suppose I was issuing orders, and you didn't hear me, so you went in the wrong direction and got captured by an enemy? And then-"

"I know, I know, m'sorry, okay?" Fuzan said, before his captain could continue. He crossed his arms, avoiding the stares he was certainly getting. "…so what were you sayin'?"

"We were just going over our roles for this mission. You remember when it begins, don't you?"

"Oh-one-hundred hours, I r'member that," Fuzan said, nodding. "I'm on th'team that's capturing the target, right?" he added, smiling and looking up a little, recalling vague words from before they had left Kumogakure.

"…no, you're on surveillance, Fuzan," said Captain Omoi, "with the rest of your team. Sairi and I will be doin' the actual extraction."

Fuzan stayed silent, looking down again, and decidedly away from his team. Captain Omoi took out a small layout diagram of the complex and began pointing at it as he spoke, holding a flashlight above it. The light was red, to keep from drawing attention.

"You're gonna be posted at the north wall; Akari an' Kurai from your team are gonna be at the east and west; Namakura from Sairi's team is gonna take the south entrance an' monitoring the activities of the guards. Kanji's our eye in the sky, he's gonna stay up here and keep tabs on the situation, give us a heads up if anyone unexpected turns up. An' Sairi and I are gonna be infiltrating the complex together. If you need help, that's where we'll all be."

"I won't need help if m'just posted on surveillance…" Fuzan said, quietly.

"Well, y'never know," said Captain Omoi, folding up the diagram. "What if your radio shorts out an' you're unable to contact us and you don't know where someone is, so you go running around wildly through the complex and you get caught and-"

"Okay, okay, Captain, I get it!" said Fuzan. "I'll remember where everyone is. Not like the mission's gonna take very long, anyways…"

"Nope. Should be quick and easy," Sairi said. She had her hands on her hips and her lip-glossed smile was confident; small earrings like fish scales flashed from the sides of her face. "It's the negotiations that come afterwards that're gonna be difficult. But we'll leave that for the Captain an' Raikage."

"Sairi's right. Should be a routine extraction. So, then…"

"…extraction, reaction, transaction…" Fuzan mumbled to himself. The word had been said several times already, but there was something in the rhythm of how Omoi had said it just then that clicked in his brain and set him off, practicing rhymes. It was a technique he had learned to help with freestyling, and he did it everywhere, where most people would just daydream. "Class-action, corr-action… Pfft, correction..."

"…in a half-hour. Is that clear?" Captain Omoi said. He turned off his flashlight.

"Yeah," Fuzan said, with everyone else. And he huddled together with his team in the hills above the compound as the waiting began again.

It was very dark. The seven of them had been waiting for several hours already, however, since arriving in the hills above the Taki complex in the early afternoon. The Hakaza clan had left their complex quite a few days earlier, and they had been followed the entire way by Sairi's team, who sent word back via messenger hawk that they had made it. Captain Omoi and Fuzan's team came later, to execute the plan.

It had been known for a while that the Hakaza clan was planning on meeting with their brother-clan over a marriage or a union of some sort. And while plans were drafted to have an ambush occur while they were traveling, it was decided that it would be far safer to attack while in the home of the other clan. They'd have a false sense of security, there, most likely; more guards, yes, but with looser standards than those held at their main house. There would be confusion over layouts to exploit, and miscommunication as well. Lots of good things—for Cloud, not for the Hakaza clan, at least.

But the Hakaza clan had been causing a lot of grief in the Land of Lightning, lately. The Cloud nin were pissed off by them, and the daimyo was certainly irked by the amount of counterfeit and illicit goods that were passing through his land, and all of them were doing as much as they could to stop it. The post-war small-time crooks that had sprung up here and there could be dealt with easily enough, but it was the long-established clans that had managed to survive—and even grow larger, in some areas—that were proving to be the most difficult to deal with.

Particularly the Hakaza clan. Something had to be done about them.

It was a lucky thing that there had been a new Raikage for several years now; had A the One-Armed been in charge of the operation he would have likely called for a bloodbath to end Cloud's troubles.

But Rotsuki, the new Raikage, was a different man. He was laid-back, almost lazy in his speech and voice, but it hid a keen mind with a sharp intellect. He knew very well that long-standing clans like the Hakaza couldn't be fully eradicated. They had allies that would most-likely come to their aid if needed, or avenge them if they were destroyed or harmed too badly.

"So we'll negotiate," he had said, when putting the plan together. "We'll get their attention, first, and then we'll negotiate."

And that was exactly what they had come there to do. Get their attention, and clear the path for negotiations of some sort.

As for how they were going to get the Hakaza clan's attention, well.

The ninja of Kumogakure had a long and illustrious tradition of kidnapping people and holding them hostage. Particularly girls, or the children of the influential.

The Taki clan, who were hosting the Hakaza clan, did have a daughter. And while it would have been convenient—and people certainly had a way of panicking when girls were kidnapped, as opposed to boys, which is why they were almost always the norm—it was unlikely that her abduction would have the clout that they were looking for.

So they were going to kidnap Hakaza Shin's son, Kou.

Funnily enough, according to initial research, Kou was a quiet, effeminate, sensitive boy, and would most likely not put up much of a fight, especially if all went as planned and he was still mostly asleep upon first strike. So the small fears that the younger students, Akari and Kurai, had were quelled and lessened quite a bit.

Fuzan, of course, was not afraid so much of Kou fighting back, but of him just messing up in general. But that was nothing new. Much as he wished he wasn't, Fuzan was undeniably underwhelming and unskilled, and not much of a presence as a person. When people weren't calling him "browless wonder" and "fanboy" they were calling him Fuzai no Fuzan; "Not-There Fuzan." Because, really, the way he acted sometimes, it was like his brain really was missing.

Besides, he was just a slow learner. He had to admit it. He'd started his ninja training at 13, after all. Extremely late.

It hadn't really been his fault. He was a country boy, raised miles away from Kumogakure. His early years were filled with learning how to drive cattle and plow wheat fields, not on how to throw shuriken or use chakra. And, in all honesty, he'd probably still be there.

If it hadn't been for the comic books.

Fuzan had first encountered them when he was young, after finding a mid-issue of Choujin-man left behind in the classroom, without an owner. He kept it in his bag when he couldn't find the initial owner, since most of the other kids had gone home, and read it, alone, in his room. It was confusing, at first, but he found himself reading it a second, a third, a fourth time. Choujin-man, Fuzan eventually figured, was a great ninja hero, a courageous and brave warrior from the moon, unallied with any nation, as strong as ten men all put together.

Fuzan couldn't quite explain why he was so drawn to the concept of Choujin-man. Trying to put his thoughts into words always led to the distillation of his thoughts into a single exclamation: "He's just so cool!"

(Though it serves to be said that there was a small amount of unconscious attraction in how Fuzan saw his past lining up with the ninja hero's. Choujin-man had been found as a child by simple farming folk. The same thing had happened to Fuzan, who'd been taken in by the farmers who were now his parents when a baby had been found on the steps of the town center with a note that had his name and a plea for him to be cared for.)

(It would be foolish to assume that there wasn't even the slightest bit of a changeling fantasy at work in Fuzan's mind, some part of him wishing that he'd develop superpowers at the age of thirteen, and learn how to breathe frost and fire.)

(Unfortunately for Fuzan, that didn't happen.)

It was all he could talk about at school the next day—and it was then that he discovered the owner of the book, a kid named Ken, who had been looking for the issue and was glad that Fuzan brought it back.

"It's just so cool, man!" Fuzan had said, his smile wide. "You got more?"

Ken had more. And he invited Fuzan to his house, since he seemed so keen on reading them. "Choujin-man is cool, I guess," Ken had said, on the way there, "but Kakuidori? He's really cool."

"…who's that?" Fuzan had asked.

When they got to Ken's house, he learned.

It was the start of an obsession. Ken got an allowance from his parents, like most kids, and he bought his comics from the general store that was about a half-hour's walk from his and Fuzan's houses. He'd been collecting the comics for a year or two, when Fuzan met him, and had amassed a sizeable library that he kept in boxes in his room.

"I always get Kakuidori, an' Shonen Gumo, for sure. Choujin-man if I read it an' it's good," Ken had explained, spreading them out for Fuzan to see. "The Magnificent Four is okay too, I guess, but it got kinda boring after a while."

"What's that about?" Fuzan had asked.

"Stuff," Ken replied. "C'mon, lemme tell you about Kakuidori." He set down another stack of comics, grinning. "Kakuidori never kills. But he always gets th'job done."

Ken was right. Kakuidori was cool. But it was Choujin-man that stuck with Fuzan the most. He couldn't quite explain why, but there was just something about him that appealed to Fuzan more than the wise-cracking Shonen Gumo, the dark justice of Kakuidori.

Eventually, Ken just packed up all of his issues of Choujin-man and gave them to Fuzan. "You borrow them so much already, it's only fair," he said. "Dunno why you like him so much, but whatever."

Fuzan was incredibly grateful. And he soon began adding to his borrowed collection, making the trek down to the general store every month to pay the 10 ryou that it cost to buy his issues, and maybe a chocolate bar to go with them.

His interests began to spread out further than Ken's collection; there was more to read than the clever, witty dialogues that Ken preferred, Fuzan found.

Fuzan liked the clear-cut, the triumph of good over evil. He liked knowing that the good guy was always gonna beat the bad guy. He liked knowing that it was possible.

Now, Fuzan didn't have a bad life, not by any accounts. The worst that things ever got were when ruffians came through the town to stir up trouble, but they were usually chased off with pitchforks and Old Man Kamaji, who had a thing for riding bulls.

And, well, there was also that guy with the huge sword strapped to his back that came into town about once a month to do nothing but drink as much water as he could, ask around for work, and leave. He didn't cause much trouble, but you couldn't really trust a guy that carried around a blade that was bigger than he was.

But Fuzan's parents had a radio and he heard about troubles in other countries, and it worried him. Not because it was happening to him in particular, but because it was happening in the first place.

It was Choujin-man that inspired Fuzan to become a ninja. Well, him, and the sister of a girl named Hinagiku, who came home from Kumogakure unexpectedly to celebrate the New Year with her family. Fuzan had never heard of her—well, he knew that Hinagiku, a classmate one year his junior, had a sister, and that she was away, but that was where the knowledge ended—but her arrival back into the main town caused an enormous stir. She wore a white sort of vest over her winter coat, and a triumphant sort of smile on her face.

"Where was your sister, anyways?" Fuzan asked Hinagiku, when he saw her in the hallway the next day—the holiday wasn't to start for a few more days, as far as the school was concerned.

"Oh, she's a chuunin in Kumogakure. She sends money home," Hinagiku replied, casually. She walked quickly, her honey-colored pigtails flapping behind her. "She left home to train when she was my age an' now she's off doing this."

Fuzan gasped. "What's a chuunin?" he said, his voice hushed.

Hinagiku smirked at him. "A ninja, you idiot."

"A ninja? Like Choujin-man?" he asked, much more loudly.

Her laugh was very dry, and she began moving away. "Whatever, nerd." And she was gone without another word, into her classroom.

Fuzan asked around, with his usual over-enthusiasm, after that. And he learned that, yes, you could become a ninja, if you went to Kumogakure.

"But not like Choujin-man, he's just a comic character," Ken had told him. Ken had been leaning towards darker stories in the years that had passed, no longer impressed by the squeaky clean world presented in heroes like him. "Real ninjas can't do all the stuff he can. They're not as cool."

"Yeah, so? It's still really awesome," Fuzan replied, indignantly, crossing his arms.

"What-ever, Fuzan," Ken had replied, rolling his eyes and returning to his notebook of scribbles.

Of course, Fuzan didn't act on these dreams immediately. He was eleven when Hinagiku's sister came home, and he was thirteen when he finally left home for Kumogakure on his own.

(Unfortunately—or, perhaps, fortunately—Fuzan did not develop any powers upon his thirteenth birthday. But he wasn't terribly disappointed at that point.)

His parents had wanted him to think on it. "Fuzan, being a ninja… is a serious job," his father had told him, when they sat down to talk about it after dinner, once. "It takes a lot of hard work."

"I can handle hard work."

"You might get hurt, Fuzan," his mother had said.

"I can handle that too! C'mon, mom, pops, it's what I really wanna do…" He pulled the skin that was his lack of eyebrows together in the most pathetic look he could muster.

His father had sighed, shaking his head. He was a lean man, and his face was dotted with freckles. "Fuzan, why do you really want to do this?"

Fuzan found he couldn't really answer. "…be… cause it's… cool?" he said, quietly, trying not to look at his father.

Another sigh. "Fuzan, if you're really serious about doing something like this, y'have to have a good reason for leaving, okay?" He managed a sort of comforting smile that failed to comfort Fuzan in any way whatsoever. "Come up with that and then we'll talk."

His mother, brown hands still wrinkled from the washing, her wavy hair tied behind her, gave Fuzan a gentle pat on the back when he started sniffing in frustration. "There, there, it's nothing to get upset about. Your father has a point," she said. "We're just worried about you, baby. We don't want you going off and making decisions without thinking about them."

"S'not that," Fuzan admitted.

"Then what is it that's got you so upset?"

"S'cos I couldn't think of a good enough reason…"

"Oh, baby, it's okay…" his mother said, pulling him towards her with one arm. "If this is something you really wanna do then you'll find your reason."

Fuzan didn't find his reason immediately. It discouraged him, certainly—wasn't "it was cool" a good enough reason as any? Because Fuzan wanted to be cool. He was un-cool, a nerd, and he knew it. He was scrawny and funny-looking, and that wasn't going to change any time soon.

…but that wasn't a good enough reason in his dad's eyes, he figured. And no matter how much he thought, he couldn't really think of anything beyond that wanting to be cool, that want for… not respect, but acknowledgement.

Months went by. Winter melted into spring, spring burned into summer. School ended, and everyone went back to working the fields—things ran differently in the country, where the school year began in September and ended in May. Fuzan still went to the general store every month, but he found himself just reading the comics instead of buying them, no longer really enjoying them. They were cool—but cool wasn't a good enough reason for liking them—wanting to be like them—wasn't it?

One issue changed that. Choujin-man, issue number 184. August. Years later, and Fuzan would still remembered the specifics.

Story-wise, it was nothing too spectacular. Typical plot: Choujin-man speeding in to save the day from a villainous defective ninja that sought to do harm to the common people. It was clean-cut, over and done in twenty pages.

But one page changed everything. The villain, a hollow-cheeked greaseball with a pointed nose, had been tied up and was being carried away by Choujin-man, who was going to have him brought to the proper authorities, his fellow ninja.

"I don't get it!" he had screeched—and Fuzan could tell that he was screeching, because the speech bubbles were jagged, agitated—"Why do you persist, Choujin-man? You know that stopping me won't help anything! There will always be another out there causing trouble!"

"I know," Choujin-man had replied, his square jaw set, face unchanged.

"So why do you even try, when you know it's no use?"

"Because if I don't, who will? The world needs protecting, or else it will fall into chaos."

The villain had scoffed there, slung over Choujin-man's broad shoulders, still daring to show contempt while in such a humiliating state. "And what if you should fall?"

And Choujin-man had smiled over his shoulder there. "Because I know that there will always be people out there who will do what must be done. And I am one of them," he had said. "But I want to ensure that they live happily and don't have to carry my burden."

Fuzan bought the issue, and read it a dozen times over when he got home in slight awe.

Nowhere in his vast collection was there any indication of such intentions. So far as Fuzan knew, Choujin-man had to fight the bad guys because that was just what he did. Because he was who he was. He was Choujin-man!

But here he was, saying why he fought the bad guys. Because he had to, yes, but also because otherwise, other people would get hurt trying to do what he could do.

It was more than cool. It was… beautiful, awe-inspiring, noble to Fuzan. Now that was a reason.

…the question was, could Fuzan use it?

…he doubted it. He was a farm kid, and hardy, but stringy. He could run fast, but not far. He didn't feel that he could really protect people, much less help them much. He could help his parents, but every kid helped their parents; that was nothing special.

(And underneath it all, "being cool" was still his chief motivation, above all others.)

It was depressing, in a way. Finding this reason but nowhere closer to justifying his dream.

…was that what it was? A dream? Fuzan had never really had any other ambitions—he had pretty much accepted that he'd stay, working the farm, for the rest of his life, getting married—though he had no idea to whom, but he supposed he'd have to—having kids and supporting his parents when they got old. He'd never wanted to escape, he saw no need to.

So, then, what else could it be? Why was he so caught on that concept? Not because it was 'cool,' no, because it was…

…noble.

That was what he told his parents, after thinking it over for many nights, during a summer dinner. "I'm serious about this. I want to help people. I can't do much now, but I think… I'll be able to," he said. He found his throat closing up a little, to his surprise—he didn't expect to be getting that emotional. He was twelve, for heaven's sake. He wasn't supposed to cry.

But his father was smiling, and he put a freckled arm on his son's shoulder. "If you really want to go, I'll send a letter out so we can learn more about getting you in the ninja academy in Kumo. You're paying for your trip over, so start saving up!"

Fuzan was twelve years old and he wasn't supposed to cry, but he did anyways, out of happiness and relief.


Chapter Text


It took almost a year for Fuzan to save up the money for the journey up to Kumogakure. It was money earned through his allowance, and doing odd jobs in town, and only buying the comics that really impressed him. He sharpened his tastes, but he always kept his true intentions in his heart.

They managed to secure a ride on a trader's cart up to Kumo in the summer of his thirteenth year. Fuzan carried his clothes and his money and his last lunch from his mother with him, and Choujin-man, issue number 184. He had the page that held his justifications dog-eared, the edge of the paper slightly worn from so much use. He did not read the rest terribly much.

There had been a long correspondence between his father and the ninja academy in Kumo. There was concern over Fuzan's age—thirteen years old and lacking any ninja training would put him at a serious disadvantage with the other students his age, but his father and Fuzan both said that they didn't care.

"I'm not afraid of hard work, or humiliation," Fuzan had said, and he had not been lying.

He had a hard time sticking to his story when they placed him in a class of five-year-olds. But he learned quickly and with extreme enthusiasm—and, most importantly, he laughed at himself when the rest of the kids would giggle at his awkward, gangly body sticking out like a sore thumb in the classroom of smaller children. He knew he stood out, duh. But he was there for a reason, un-cool as the situation was, initially.

Through a complicated series of negotiations that he could never quite understand, he came to live with a distant aunt of his or… something, that was the most he could come to grasp about the situation. It wasn't terribly important; what was important was that she was going to be putting up with Fuzan for as long as he stayed in the academy, and after that, he was on his own.

"You'll start earning money once you become a genin, whenever that will be," she had said. Her name was Tsukubane, and she had wavy hair and heavy eyes, so Fuzan assumed that she was related to his mother somehow. "So you'll be able to afford your own place."

This sounded perfectly reasonable to Fuzan. He was more than happy to share a room with his possible-aunt's young son, a boy of about seven or eight years named Ichii that took to calling him "big bro!" almost immediately. Her husband was absent in the way that some husbands were. Weeks would go by without Fuzan seeing his face, only knowing he was around from his cigarettes in the ashtray, his half-eaten breakfasts and folded newspaper on the table.

"Work hard at school, both of you," Tsukubane told them, during Fuzan's first meal with them. She was a ninja, a jounin, Ichii had told Fuzan, so she was out of the house a lot.

"But I know how to take care of myself," Ichii said, with a shiny-shiny smile. "I'm responsible."

And he certainly was, Fuzan thought. The two of them would walk to school together and part ways at the gates. Ichii was already two grades ahead of Fuzan, but Fuzan didn't mind terribly. He had a long way to go, and he knew it. But he was there for a reason, and that reason was noble.

This was difficult, obviously. But, Kumogakure was even more amazing than he could ever have imagined, and that softened the blow significantly.

Once he had gotten over his shock and amazement at the sheer size of the place and the enormous buildings within it, he discovered a glorious world of rap and hip-hop, the music that seemed to make up the very heartbeat of the city. Almost anywhere he went in the city he'd be sure to find some kid with a boombox making their way down the street with a spring in their step, or a breakdancer on a street corner, spinning wildly on the surface of a broken-down cardboard box. They were strange things, bizarre things that Fuzan could not even have imagined alone. And yet, there they were, and they had their pull on his heart almost immediately.

He also discovered graphic novels in Kumo, and manga. His general store back home had only ever stocked the cheapest, most popular, accessible comic titles, the ones that would get the old owner the biggest profit. Fuzan had spent an entire afternoon just staring at the wall of titles during his first visit to a bookstore on one of his days off, after asking Ichii where he could buy comics. He'd only occasionally take one down to read the summary on the back, before putting it back and reaching for another—he didn't have nearly enough time to read them all, much less in full.

He found himself coming back, afternoon after afternoon, to browse the comics section of the bookstore. He only stopped after the owner of the place tapped him on the shoulder to ask him if he was going to buy anything, for all of the browsing he did.

"Well, the thing is, sir… I don't have much money on me, so I wanna make sure I only buy the good stuff, see," Fuzan had replied.

"Punk-ass kid, you're wastin' my time," the owner muttered, ushering him to the door. "Look, down th'street 'bout three more blocks there's a manga café, you can read all the comics you want there for like 30 ryou, a'ight? Read 'em there, buy 'em here."

"…what's a manga café?" Fuzan had asked. He didn't get an answer, so he had to find out for himself.

And that was how he found himself spending the rest of his afternoons after class, reading back issues of old comics and graphic novels with well-thumbed covers, a melon soda or two with him in his booth. Naturally he set enough time aside for studying and practice—he was in Kumogakure, in Tsukubane's home for a reason, and he wouldn't—couldn't—forget that. But there was always time for his other passions.

Ichii, he later learned, also had a subscription to a magazine called Lightning Jump—the concept of having multiple series in one publication utterly amazed Fuzan—and he was a good enough kid to lend his copies to Fuzan once he was done with them.

Another thing that Fuzan discovered in Kumogakure were the real heroes.

The Raikage was the first one he had heard of, and the jinchuuriki, Killer Bee. The very idea of a jinchuuriki, their bodies the vessels for much greater, fiercer powers, fascinated Fuzan to no end. It was like something out of a manga, but it was real. There was also Sachiko, Cloud's other jinchuuriki, the cat child—astonishingly, she was almost as old as Fuzan. Fuzan actually caught glimpses of her, from time to time, a swift form of blue and trailing sleeves that went screaming through the streets of Kumogakure in a joyous quickness. Bee, on the other hand, was a distant but a public figure, being the brother of the former Raikage and a celebrity of sorts besides. He was seen but not approachable, in a whole other social strata. But Fuzan was happy to merely admire from afar.

(Until he actually met the guy. Bee got him to relax a little bit, after that. Then again, Bee could get just about anyone to relax.)

Fuzan thought exceedingly highly of both of them, but it was the jinchuuriki of Konoha, Uzumaki Naruto, who impressed him the most. Everything about him was beyond cool, and when Fuzan caught any sight of him during visits to Konoha, he could hardly contain himself.

(Kurai and Akari had long since gotten used to Fuzan's little outbursts of hero-worship. Kurai merely tolerated it, while Akari thought it amusing how such an older boy could act like such a child over such things.)

(Though Fuzan had loved comics for far longer, he became known widely first for being a hopeless fanboy of the jinchuuriki.)

All of this—the hip-hop, the manga, the jinchuuriki—eventually came together into a cohesive whole in Fuzan's life.

Most of this had to do with BB.

But that was another story.

In another story, Fuzan was progressing well in his training; by the end of his first semester at the academy it was decided that he'd be moved up a grade and put on a more condensed curriculum, and a similar decision was made the semester after. Things after that started to get… difficult, to say the least.

Chakra and its use was Fuzan's downfall. He just didn't get it—and his teachers tried to comfort him by saying that chakra-use was the most difficult thing for people to learn, especially if they were learning it late, but it still frustrated him a little. He did well with everything else, with the sparring and projectile weaponry and such. But chakra use was foreign to him. He'd spend hours trying to gather the stuff in his hands, like he had been directed to do, but he could never seem to figure it out.

And… then he met BB.

(Fuzan would smile uncontrollably just from thinking about her.)

But that was, again, another story.

He eventually progressed enough, with her help, to be promoted to genin at the age of fifteen. His teammates, the girl Akari and the boy Kurai, were nearly five years younger than he was, but he didn't mind. They got along well, for the most part.

He eventually got his own place, a crappy little one-room apartment with dirt-cheap rent, and it worked well enough for him, allowing him enough money left over for his comics and manga collection, and the money he sent home to his parents every month. He always brought a little bit more with him when he visited for New Years, as well.

(His graphic novel collection began in that year. It was a fungus of a thing, growing slowly, but steadily. Fuzan's collection, three years later, filled up almost two large cardboard boxes completely. He had no space for a bookshelf.)

When he was sixteen, he and his (twelve-year-old) teammates traveled all the way to Konoha, to participate in the chuunin exams for the first time.

The second time, they managed to get two extra Earth scrolls, after fighting tooth and nail for a Heaven; the other Earth scroll had been stolen from a girly Leaf nin that had somehow possessed Kurai's mind, and then fallen out of a tree and knocked himself out in escaping They progressed to the tournament, that year.

Fuzan didn't stand a chance, but Akari did.

The winter after that, it was Kurai's turn.

The fourth time was the charm. And when the Raikage, Rotsuki, handed that glorious white vest over to Fuzan, once they were back in Kumo, he had to hold back his tears. Nope, he wouldn't be crying. It wasn't cool to cry.

(Some things were okay to reject, because they weren't cool. It was acceptable.)

Akari and Kurai had become chuunin long before he had. He felt jealous and a little humiliated by this fact, but he didn't care too much, in the end. Because he knew he'd get there eventually. He knew.

And he was helping people. To say that Fuzan loved his job would be like saying fire was hot, or rain was wet. It was what he had come all this way to do, and now he was doing it.

Of course, Fuzan wasn't nearly as noble as Choujin-man. Choujin-man was humble, and he hated drawing attention to himself.

Fuzan, on the other hand, loved attention. He volunteered for everything. He always wanted to lead his team—and why shouldn't he at least make an effort? He wanted people to know he was willing to help. He wanted people to know that he was helping.

But the fact remained. Fuzan just wasn't that skilled. He was talented with sharp knives and sharp rhymes, but just average at everything else.

Which was why he was assigned to surveillance instead of going in with Captain Omoi and getting all the action done.

He told himself that it was still an important thing, this grunt work and surveillance. Someone had to do it—just like someone always had to shovel pig poop back at home, just like someone always had to help scrub graffiti off the city walls. He was doing what had to be done. And wasn't that noble?

…yeah, that was… noble.

Fuzan just wished, sometimes, that he'd get the big jobs once in a while. Certainly, things got more exciting when he became a chuunin and he started doing missions with Akari and Kurai and everyone again. But it was all covert, no glory or anything.

Now, the chuunin exams, with the tournament, where Fuzan got to give his all in one-on-one combat, his favorite swords gleaming in the Konoha sun, with everyone watching, with Uzumaki Naruto, with BB watching… that was glorious.

…but that was only really helping himself, wasn't it?

…yeah, that was.

But that was okay! To show off every once in a while, that wasn't so bad. Yeah, that wasn't so bad.

Nineteen years old, a chuunin for less than a year, Fuzan smiled and assured himself, again. Yeah, that wasn't so bad. He deserved to show off once in a while.

It was five minutes to 1 AM. Everyone had their watches synchronized. Everyone was ready to go.

And when the time came, the teams went down in groups of two, leaping over the wall of the compound—civilian buildings were embarrassingly easy to infiltrate, with their lack of chakra-sensing devices of any kind. Fuzan and Kurai went around one side of the main house, Akari and Namakura around the other. Once their positions were confirmed over radio, Omoi and Sairi went in, Kanji keeping his constant watch from their base in the hills.

Fuzan knew that it wouldn't take very long for the operation to begin and end. But waiting for that end seemed to last an age.

There was very little chatter on the radio—a good sign. But it made everything else awfully dull.

In the vacuum of activity, Fuzan practiced his rhymes again.

"…sharp like a blade, harsh like a… wave? Crashin', smashin' up yo' life, Na-Na-Na-Na…"

(It was a lucky thing that Fuzan had left his beloved second-hand cassette player behind, because otherwise he might not have heard the footsteps coming up beside him.)

Fuzan dodged the incoming sword blade and flipped over the edge of the outer platform that he was sitting on, crouching, reaching for one of the three short blades strapped to his back.

In any other circumstance, he'd have the intruder disabled, knocked-out for a couple of hours, and he'd have his team radioed and informed of what had happened, and nothing more would probably come of it.

But his opponent was much smaller than him. And much quicker.

Fuzan was on his stomach in about two seconds. "Explain yourself, quickly, or I'll cut you," his attacker said, quietly. A girl. Fuzan didn't answer. He felt the sharp edge of metal against his neck, and he gulped.

"N-n-nothing, I'm just…" He was pinned down too firmly to do more than squirm. He had his arms pressed together at the wrist by one knee, with a very small, very forceful little foot on the small of his back.

"Just what."

He gulped again, and said, to his inevitable embarrassment, "…please get off me…?"

"Not for a moment, ninja. Yes, I know what you are," she added, a moment later. "I saw that plate on your forehead. Why are you here?"

And Fuzan struggled with that question, truthfully, because whatever he said would just get him in more trouble.

…hell, he was already caught. He'd be in deep with Captain Omoi if he had to be rescued—and he could imagine how much that would mess up the rest of the mission. And, shit, he didn't want to be rescued.

(Besides, he couldn't have reached the button to turn on the microphone of his radio, even if he wanted to.)

The foot pressed more insistently on his back. "Speak up, ninja. Are you here to harm my master?"

So Fuzan did what he had to do. Captain Omoi and Sairi could take care of a little more trouble, if that was what resulted.

"…is your master… Hakaza Kou?" he replied.

"…no."

"Then m'not here to hurt your master, now could you… please get your foot off my back, it's… kinda hard to breathe…" Fuzan squeaked. Man did he ever sound stupid.

And yet, to his surprise, a second later, there was no longer a foot on his back, a knee on his wrists, a blade at his neck. He sat up, breathing deeply, rubbing his forearms.

The girl with the sword stood above him, all five or so feet of her, and she glared at him. She'd taken all three of Fuzan's blades without him noticing, and they were tucked into the belt of her robe.

"Damn, chika, you are something," Fuzan said, quietly, as he looked up at her.

Her face, or as much as Fuzan could see, was surprisingly delicate, framed by dark hair that fell just over her shoulders; she wrinkled her nose in what was either disgust or confusion. "What do you intend to do to Hakaza Kou, ninja?" she said, in response.

Again, Fuzan fumbled with the question.

In hindsight, he would wonder why, at that point, he didn't just run—but then he would think further, and there were several factors against him there. Mostly to do with the girl. She was quicker than him, she had more swords than him, and she had clearly demonstrated that she was more than capable of overpowering him. He doubted she would hesitate again if he tried something.

So, he said, "We're… not gonna kill him or anything…"

"You didn't answer my question." The girl handled her own sword as if it weighed nothing, and she ran her pale fingers along the flat edge of the blade with a strange delicacy. "Also, 'we'?"

Oh damn it. "I meant me."

She didn't look convinced. "What do you and your comrades intend to do?" she said. "If you aren't going to kill him, that is."

Fuzan prayed that he wouldn't have to explain himself for this later, wincing severely. "Kidnapping."

The girl's expression hadn't changed much when he looked up again, the only addition the strange sort of half smile. "You're going to kidnap him?"

"Yes, only, I don't think we will now, since you went and caught me," Fuzan grumbled. He marveled at his idiocy—he was a damn chuunin, for heaven's sake—yeah, true, he hadn't anticipated the girl's skill, but this was just damn amateurish behavior, what he was doing. He started to think of Captain Omoi, and almost as if on reflex, he started thinking like him as well, and then, "I suppose you're going to take me in and try to stop us now, aren't you? Capture me and-"

"No. Carry on, do as you wish," the girl replied. To his amazement, she sheathed her sword and pulled Fuzan's own swords out of her belt, and handed them to him, one by one, handle-first. "I certainly won't do a thing to stop you. So long as you promise not to harm my master."

"…no kidding?" Fuzan said. His voice seemed to have gone somewhere distant in the astonishing forever that seemed to pass in the time it took for him to put his swords back on his back.

"Well, it's not my duty to protect Hakaza Kou. My duty is to protect my own master. At any cost," she replied. There was a coldness, a stiffness, a cruelness in her otherwise soft sort of voice. "That boy is none of my concern."

Fuzan shivered. He pulled himself off the ground, uneasily. "S-sure thing, chika."

"So, go, now. Attempt whatever you wish. I shall remain uninvolved."

Fuzan knew he was panicking, because you weren't supposed to get goose pimples in the middle of summer. He clenched his jaw, trying to keep his teeth from rattling. He began to back away. Her dark, dark eyes stayed on him the entire time. She kept a hand on the white handle of her sword.

And then Fuzan got out of there and began on his way to Kurai's post, because he sure as hell wasn't staying on the northern wall. Not after that.

His heart was beating insanely fast, and his head felt light, hollow. He was almost dizzy.

He asked himself several times what the hell had just happened, but he found he couldn't quite answer.

The only thing he knew for certain was that crime syndicates were damn fierce, if that girl was any indication. Chika was scary.

To his relief—and in a stroke of luck—the radio crackled with Sairi's voice that Hakaza Kou had been successfully captured, and that an immediate exit was the next course of action. Kurai would think nothing of it if Fuzan caught up with him a little more quickly than usual.

They exited in groups of two, the way they had come. Akari and Namakura first, Fuzan and Kurai second, and Omoi and Sairi and—drugged into a sleep and slung over Omoi's shoulder—the limp body of Hakaza Kou.

They kept moving, silently, after meeting up with Kanji; avoiding detection, until they came to the predetermined safe-house a few miles away, a busted-up shack of a place that Omoi had set up on the journey over. They'd be bringing Kou to the Land of Lightning in the day afterward, and sending out their ransom from there. But everyone needed rest.

Especially Fuzan. "You okay, there? Something the matter?" Sairi asked him, when they were bedding down for the morning, with the sunrise.

Fuzan, apparently, was still shivering. "Just a little, uh, jazzed up still from th'mission, yeah," he replied. He held his arms tightly with his hands, to reduce his shakes.

"Adrenaline rush, huh? Don't blame you. We had a close call," Sairi replied. She was taking off her earrings, presently, casually. "Almost got seen! These guys are light sleepers."

"Yeah, I'll say…" Fuzan replied, uneasily. She didn't even look at him strangely for the comment, but he mentally punched himself in the stomach for it.

If anyone found out. He couldn't let anyone find out.

Man, he'd acted like such a moron! He was better than that, wasn't he?

But he couldn't help that he'd gotten caught, could he?

…yeah, he could have helped that. And that part sucked the most.

Even though that girl—that weird, scary girl—had come out of nowhere. He hadn't expected such skill out of someone so small—and out of a civilian, no less. Yeah, the guys from crime syndicates were tough, but they were brutish, not subtle. Not like she had been.

Damn, she must have gotten him into a hold in two, three seconds flat! Fuzan couldn't help but be impressed, despite his humiliation. But it was a private humiliation, at least. That wasn't so bad.

Because nobody knew. (So far.)

Because the mission was a success. (So far.)

Because there was Hakaza Kou, lumpy-faced and still in his pajamas, tied up and drugged in the corner of the shack where they were all sleeping. Kanji, as always, remained on alert on the roof. Watching. Spotting for them all.

There were still ransoms to be sent out, of course, negotiations to be had.

Fuzan, understandably, did not rest well that night, his thoughts too frayed for him to even rhyme himself to sleep.

If anybody found out.

But nobody would find out.

Nobody.

He'd be cool.


Chapter Text


A letter arrived by hawk at the Taki complex a day and a half later. The bird stayed long enough to drop the canister in which its message was contained, soaring off immediately afterward.

It carried the seal of the Land of Lightning, and the Village Hidden in the Clouds.

This is what it said:

Boss Shin of the Hakaza Clan:

We have your son.

If you wish to have him returned to you, then arrange to meet with my ambassadors in Sekiraun Valley for negotiations, in three days' time or less. They shall be the ones to receive you.

Bring whatever assistance you need.

If negotiations go well, we shall return him to you, unharmed.

If negotiations do not go well, or if you fail to meet with them in three days' time, then you shall never see him again.

I eagerly await your choice of action.

Rotsuki

Fifth Raikage of Kumogakure

Needless to say, there were many reactions to this.

Shin, of all people, wanted to go forward with the negotiations, peacefully and without much resistance.

Tensho asked him if he was fucking insane. And not nearly as politely, either.

"These are ninja we are talking about! You honestly, honestly fuckin' think that you can negotiate with them?"

Shin's face looked like it was a mask pulled too tightly over his bones. "What are my other options, Boss Tensho?" he said, again. "I think we should just see what they want to discuss in the first place."

"Oh what the hell do you think they want to discuss?" Tensho said. "These are negotiations. You know what that means to ninjas? It means they take what's yours and leave you barely anything else. We can't stand for that."

"You don't know that for sure," said Shin.

"Oh bull shit, I know how ninja operate," Tensho replied.

"And you think that I don't?" Shin's voice became hard for just a moment, and it was enough to make Tensho pause. "Business for me in the Land of Lightning has been utterly miserable because of them, don't you know." His voice reverted back to its usual state; he began chewing on his thumb, nervously. "I don't get nearly as much trouble from those Stone fellows. Maybe it's because my father and that old Kage were on good terms…"

"Well whatever it is," Tensho said, impatiently, "I still say we don't negotiate. We can't back down."

"Negotiating is not backing down, Boss Tensho," said Shin. "Think of it as doing business. If you want to do business with someone you don't just march in and make demands, otherwise nothing will get done. The fact that these are… ninja we're dealing with changes nothing."

"They fucking took your son," Tensho said, after thinking, breathing heavily.

"…that doesn't change anything, either," Shin said. "I want Kou home safely, and for that to happen then I have to be careful. Besides," he added, softly, dangerously, "this matter does not concern you. Kou is my son, not yours."

"And my soon to be son-in-law. I wanna make sure the kid's safe too," Tensho replied.

For the first time in hours, a thin, tight smile snaked its way up over Shin's face. "I appreciate the concern, Boss Tensho. I really do. But let me handle this matter on my own."

"Well you know I got your back," Tensho said, after a while. "If you need my help, my guys' help, anything, I'll do it."

"Oh, who said I didn't want your help?" said Shin. "They said I could bring whatever assistance I wanted. And, well, our clans are united, now, aren't they?"

Tensho's smile, unlike Shin's, was rough and wide, and it showed teeth. "How many guys you need?"

They made plans to leave that afternoon, Shin and Tensho both, and their bodyguards, Hikawa and Nobuhiro, and multitudes of support.

Kiine was not allowed to go with them. "But why not, Papa?" she said, when he finally told her their plan, after she caught him in a hallway, his footsteps heavy and deliberate.

"Kiine, my sweet one, I don't want anything to happen to you," he said, stopping, turning, holding her shoulders. "You need to stay home."

"Come on!" Her expression, pouty though it was, was filled with true anger and concern. "I wanna go with! I wanna help!"

"Help how, honey?"

Kiine seethed. "How do you think, Papa? I can fight!"

He shook his head, managing a smile, despite his stress and nature. "Oh, Kiine. What can you do that one've my guys can't? You're too precious to me. Stay home."

The grip on her arms tightened. She wiggled out of it before he could pull her into a hug.

He turned around and kept walking. "Well screw me being precious," Kiine continued, grumbling, following along behind him. "I'm worried about Kou, yeah? I wanna help get him back!"

(Tensho's smile was unseen by her, but she knew it was there, and she sighed at it.)

"Just let me and Boss Shin take care of it, we'll get him home. HONDA!" he suddenly barked, seeing the bald man rounding the corner. "You figured out if the Hozuki's in town yet? He should be."

The Hozuki was a drifter; not much older than her father, but he had silver hair like an old man, and teeth that were either filed down to points or just naturally that way, Kiine could never decide. He came by about once a month to ask for work. He was reasonable in his prices and he had an enormous sword that he wielded with considerable skill.

When Kiine was about six or seven years old, he came into the possession of a child that looked astonishingly like he did. The boy was named Shingetsu, and he had a gift for finding people and a habit of cheerfully calling Kiine "Kii-neesan!" whenever he caught sight of her.

The best part about all of that, the Hozuki and his boy both, was that they were unaffiliated with any nation, city, or clan (beyond, seemingly, their own), and would do whatever asked, if they were paid well enough. Tensho liked them.

"They're sayin' that he's been seen not fifty miles away, sir!" Honda said, running to his boss's side, his breath quickening.

"Good. I want him with us when we head to Sekiraun," Tensho said.

"Yes, Boss!" And Honda was gone.

Kiine was still there. She swallowed, her face pinching together. "Papa, please, listen to me. I'm right here, I'm offering to help rescue my damn fiancé, why the hell are you turning me down?"

She had used the F-word. Her father stopped in his tracks again, and when he turned to face her with a warm smile, Kiine had to make an effort not to groan in disappointment.

"We'll get Kou home safely, Kiine," he said. He pulled her into a hug, and though it was warm, it was uncomfortable. "I won't let this get between you two lovebirds. He'll be back before you know it."

Kiine did not hug him back, nor did she move, immediately, when her father took his hands off her and charged down the hallway, issuing more orders.

It was her mother who found her, later, as she stomped down the compound, muttering to herself about the unfairness of it all. Mikan was a larger woman, and she took up a fair amount of the corridor when she wanted to. "Kiine, dear, what's the matter?" She paused. "Never mind, you don't need to answer that. I know what's wrong."

"Mama, I'm fine," Kiine said.

"Sure you are, honey. Come on, let's talk about this." She put her hand on Kiine's back, but Kiine didn't budge. "Kiine."

"I'm fine, Mama," Kiine said, again.

"Oh, sure, dear, you're totally fine with the fact that your father isn't letting you go with him." Kiine's shoulders rose with her embarrassment. "Word gets around, darling. Come on, let's talk about it. Walk with me."

"…okay." Kiine took her mother's arm as they went down the hallway together, and away from the chaotic mess of the main hallways.

(Mikan did not have a bodyguard. She insisted upon it.)

"Now, honey," Mikan said, once things quieted enough. "I'm sure that you're worried about Kou-kun."

"Well yeah, 'course I am," Kiine replied. "He got freakin' kidnapped, yeah?"

"Mm. So of course it's only natural that you want to help." Mikan's face was sweetly sympathetic, her head tilted slightly.

"Well yeah! Duh! Of course I wanna help, it's just that Papa's so… so…!"

"Frustrating?"

"Yeah!" Kiine's hands exploded in front of her face before folding themselves in front of her waist like usual. "He won't listen to me at all! I know I can help, yeah? This is just so freakin' typical…"

"There, there, honey." Mikan's hand moved from Kiine's back to her shoulder, though Kiine shrugged it off. "I understand."

"Sure you do…"

"Ohhh, believe me. I do." Mikan's face hardened into a smirk. "What, you don't think I know how stubborn your papa can be?"

Kiine tried to hide her smile. "At least he sorta listens to you…"

"Oh, not always." She sighed. "Listen, Kiine, I know your papa's being absolutely pig -headed right now, but he's only doing it because he's concerned about you. He doesn't want anything bad to happen to you." Her voice got suddenly very quiet. "certainly don't want that…"

"…well yeah, Mama, I get that," Kiine said. "I wouldn't want anything to happen to me neither." Her hands clenched themselves into fists again. "But I know that I'll be fine, I can handle myself! He's treating me like a baby, yeah."

"Just be a little understanding, Kiine."

"Screw being understanding. Papa's being stupid. He has no idea how much help I could be." Kiine sighed, deeply, angrily. "Just… freakin' typical. Won't even bother to listen…"

Mikan's smile softened, and she shook her head. "That's just how he is, Kiine. Once your papa gets his mind set on something it's very hard to get him out of it."

Kiine didn't say anything, frowning even more deeply.

"…and you, my dear, are the exact same way. Once you want to do something, nothing can stop you from doing it. I'd think that you running away like you did is some indication of that."

Kiine looked up at her mother, there, her face squirming with confusion, though she kept walking. "Mama, what's that supposed to mean?"

"Oh, nothing, nothing. Just talking to myself," Mikan said, lightly. Kiine noticed, suddenly, that they were approaching the wing of the house that held her bedroom.

(And Yuki's.)

"I'll leave you alone, Kiine. Your father's leaving after dinner, though we won't be doing anything fancy." She took her hand off her daughter's back and gave her a knowing smile. "He's leaving me in charge of the house in his absence. Naturally. By the way," she added, "I haven't seen Yuki since breakfast; do you suppose he went back to his room?"

All Kiine could do was shrug, a crooked smile growing on her face as she resisted the urge to give her mother a hug.

"Well, either way. Feeling better, now?"

"Way better, Mama."

"Well, good. I knew that talking things out would help a bit." She tilted her head slightly as she turned to leave, the pearls in her ears shining as she did so. "Stay strong for me, honey."

A grin, a nod. "I will, Mama."

Mikan left, and Kiine went to go find Yuki. A half-formed plan began blooming in her mind. She'd get Yuki, they'd sneak out, maybe use Shingetsu to find Kou—he had a talent for finding people, after all, no doubt her father would be using him similarly—and she'd go and she'd get Kou back, yes, that was how it was going to be.

The air was incredibly cold around his room. Kiine had noticed it before, when trying to sleep the previous night—but she blamed that on stress, rather than temperature.

She knocked on the frame of the sliding door. It creaked against her knuckles. "Yuki! Hey, Yuki, you in there? I know you're there, yeah? Come on out, I gotta talk to you! I got a plan!"

There wasn't a response. Kiine could see her breath.

"Yuki! Come on, you're in there, aren't you? Speak to me, man!" Kiine's knuckles began to feel cold, as well as her fingers. "If you don't say anything I'm gonna come in anyways!"

Again, there was no response.

So Kiine tried to get in. It took considerable effort, the door sticking and resisting every effort she made at sliding it open.

In the end, she resorted to busting it down with her shoulder, like she had learned to do from Yuki himself—a technique that got you where you needed to go.

She was surprised by two things: by the amount of effort it took to break down the door in the first place, and the sheer amount of ice that fell to the floor from the wall that she had burst through. It made sounds like glass as it tinkled and shattered on the hard floor.

Yuki, however, was far more important in her mind at that moment, and she went over to him in the corner of his room, where he was leaned up against his futon, curled into a tight ball, arms gripping his knees. "Yuki, what's going on? What's with all the ice?" she said.

He didn't reply, instead curling tighter into himself, his back convulsing once—was he… crying?

"Yuki, what's the matter?" Kiine said. "Are you okay?" She heard a ragged breath in, and out—a sob. Yeah, he was crying. Nope, he wasn't okay. "Dude, what's the matter?"

"It's all my fault…" Yuki moaned.

"All your fault…?" Kiine was kneeling down beside him, now, but she did not touch him. The floor felt cold under her knees. "What's your fault?"

Another shudder, another sob-like breath. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry…"

"Yuki, c'mon, what happened? Tell me." Her command was softened by her concern.

"Please go away, I'm sorry, please…"

"Yuki, I'm not going anywhere. I need you."

That got him to look up. The whites of his eyes were rosy, and Kiine could see his sleeves were darkened a deeper purple by tears. "You… what?"

"I need you to help me," Kiine replied. "So tell me what's going on so I can tell you what's going on, yeah?"

He looked at his knees again, his mouth twisting into the precursor of a sob. "You shouldn't ask me for help, I'll just ruin everything…"

"You will not, Yuki, you're my main man, yeah?" Kiine said. She smiled, but she could feel her lips quivering from the sheer cold of the room. "What's going on? Why are you so upset?"

"…I can't tell you."

"Oh come on, you tell me everything else, yeah?"

Yuki's face disappeared into his knees. "I can't tell you, I can't, this is just all my fault…"

"What's your fault, Yuki?" No answer. "Damn it, will you just answer me already?" A pause. "Wait, this doesn't… have anything to do with Kou, does it?"

Kiine had never seen Yuki look more terrified, his head whipping away from his knees, his eyes locking with hers. "How did you know, oh no, did someone find out? Oh, no, no, I'm dead, I'm dead!" His fingers clawed at his forehead and Kiine saw, to her horror, crystals of ice beginning to form around him, a barrier between him and her.

She pulled them away as fast as they were appearing. "Yuki, calm down! What happened with you and…" Another pulled-away piece of ice. "You and Kou?"

"This is all my fault, this is all my fault."

"Yuki, come on!"

"I'm so sorry, Master, I'm so sorry, I only did it because I wanted to help you!"

Kiine paused, her breathing heavy from the effort. "Help me? Yuki, what did you do?"

"When the ninja came for Kou I should have just… just tied him up and brought him to the guards, I didn't think he'd actually take him and…"

It took a moment for Kiine to process, hurried and muffled as Yuki's voice was behind his hands, behind the ice, which had managed to creep up between them. "…you mean you saw one of the guys that did this?" she said.

He nodded, frantically. "I had him and I let him go, what was I thinking?" Yuki continued. "I'm so stupid, I'm so stupid, Master, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry!"

"Will you stop apologizing? Just tell me, did you see the guy that took Kou?" A pause. "What did he look like?" Kiine suddenly said.

"Why does that matter, he's gone now…"

"Because I'm going out to rescue Kou, Yuki, and I need your help," Kiine replied. "I can't do it without you. My mama's gonna cover for us; I know it, she's in charge of the house tonight and—why are you crying now?"

"Why do you want my help? This is my fault! Don't you see?" Yuki's voice, high and hysterical, was almost incoherent through his tears. "I let him take Kou! It's my fault!"

"Yuki, you can't help that if you couldn't stop the guy," Kiine said.

"I stopped him, Master, but I let him go because…" His words dissolved into tears.

"Because…?"

"Because I thought that if they took him then they'd call off the wedding or something, but I didn't think it would actually work, I thought he'd get caught or he wouldn't do it but he did and now all this happened…! I-I didn't know they'd hold him for ransom or anything! I'm so stupid, I'm so stupid!"

Kiine sat there, for a while, just listening to Yuki as he cried behind the ice wall, her eyes wide. "…Yuki," she finally said, "what did you do? Why didn't you…?"

"…I don't want you to get hurt, sir. Not by people like… like them."

It took Kiine a while to reduce her anger an acceptable amount, with several deep breaths.

Well, and shattering the wall of ice between her and Yuki certainly helped, busting it open with her shoulder, just as she had done the door. Because there was somewhere she needed to go.

It hurt. "Oww, criminy, Yuki, that was thick." She sucked her breath in through her teeth, holding her sore shoulder. Yuki stared at her, his breaths coming quickly, like hiccups, almost on reflex. "Look, what you did was… incredibly stupid, and if my papa found out he'd probably kill you. But I won't tell him, because honestly? I don't care. Because we gotta get Kou back, that's what I care about."

"That's not…" His eyes fell.

She grabbed his chin and forced his face towards hers. "Yuki, look at me! We got work to do, yeah? This is really, really important! Come on, man up!"

"…no, please, just… just let your dad take care of it…" Yuki was trying everything not to look at her. "We can't cause more trouble, it'll just-"

Kiine slapped him, there, taking her hand off his chin and winding up hard. "Shut up and listen to me, Yuki!" she yelled. "I! Need! You! You and nobody else!"

Yuki was understandably speechless, holding his cheek with his hand, his mouth shaking.

"I need your support! You're my second-in-freakin'-command, yeah?" she continued, loudly, the hand that slapped him clenched into a trembling fist. "I need to do something and Papa is not letting me! I can do it alone, but I need your help to make sure it'll work!"

That was when Yuki lost his temper, and Kiine barely had enough time to jerk her hand away as a sheet of ice materialized between her and him. It grazed her palm, and when she held her fingers, they felt sore and cold.

"Just leave me alone!" he yelled. His voice cracked. "You don't need my help! Go rescue your stupid… boyfriend by yourself, since you care about him so much!"

And Kiine just sat there, gasping, holding her hand, watching her breath in the air, her reflection in the mirror-like ice. She was not shivering.

(Hot tears welled up in the corners of her eyes.)

And then she left for her room, to prepare, without another word.

The Hozuki was found and brought to the house, later that afternoon. Kiine could tell because there was suddenly a great demand for beverages to be brought to the foyer. The negotiations with him doubtlessly began shortly afterwards.

Dinner that night was not at all extravagant, as her mother had said. In fact, her meal—fish, soup, rice—was brought to her room in the evening by an apologetic servant. "I'm sorry, milady, but this is all we can manage, with everyone leaving so suddenly."

"Don't worry about it," Kiine told her, and meant it.

(The air had grown much warmer, she had noticed, since more people began scurrying near Yuki's room. But it was still incredibly cold for the 28th of July.)

Her father and Boss Shin and Nobuhiro and everyone else left in a hurry after their meals.

And once they were out of sight, Kiine followed them. She'd gotten dressed in light clothes, suitable for movement, and tucked a knife into her belt.

(The guards did nothing to stop her.)

None of her father's men noticed her as she followed them. She made sure of that.

(She didn't make the same mistakes she had made back in Konoha.)

(And neither did Yuki.)


Chapter Text


The band of clansmen on the way to Sekiraun stopped to rest a while after the sun went down, making camp with tents and fires. What few Hakaza members were able to volunteer their services mingled freely with the Taki. The Hozuki and his boy slept apart from them, Kiine noticed. She wasn't surprised.

Kiine herself stayed well away from them, to get her rest. She wouldn't be able to do much of anything if she was sleep-deprived. She fell asleep turning her plan over in her mind, sitting up against a tree, her knife in her hand. She'd find a way to pull Shingetsu aside when they reached Sekiraun, use him to help get an idea of where Kou was, and just… make it up from there...

(This seemed so much easier to do with Yuki's involvement factored in. But she'd be able to do it alone, she knew she'd be able to.)

It was just a matter of taking things one step at a time. Getting Shingetsu alone, she'd figure that out… when she got there… too…

What she didn't count on was Shingetsu finding her, first. "Hey, Kii-neesan, what are you doin', sleepin' all the way over here?"

It was a very lucky thing that Shingetsu could turn himself into water, because otherwise he'd have ended up with a very nasty scratch across his arms, or rather worse. "What are you doing, you scared me, yeah?" Kiine replied, gasping. She put her knife away into her belt.

"Well I just sensed your chakra an' I was wondering why you were sleepin' over here when it's so much warmer by the fires," he replied, with hushed sincerity. He held his hands together beneath his baggy white cloak. "It din' look too comfortable over here neither."

"I'm fine, yeah. It's okay, little guy," Kiine said. "I'm, uh." She'd make it up as she went along. "I'm here to help!"

"Then why aren't you over there with ev'ryone else?"

"…that's 'cos I'm part of a surprise attack. If someone were, uh, following us and they saw me with them then it wouldn't be much of a surprise, yeah," Kiine replied.

"Ooh." Shingetsu leaned in very close to her. His eyes, an unsettling shade of purple—kinda creepy, in Kiine's opinion, but she wasn't one to judge—were wide open. "That's super secret, innit."

"You know it," Kiine replied. She was smiling. "So you can't tell anyone that I'm here, got it?"

Shingetsu nodded eagerly. "I promise! I won't tell anyone, not even Daddy."

"Awesome, kiddo." Kiine reached up and ruffled Shingetsu's pale hair, and he giggled in response.

"So, uh, Kii-neesan?"

"Yeah?"

"Is Yu-niisan a part-a the plan too?"

Kiine looked sideways, pursing her lips. Yuki… "Well, he was supposed to be, but-"

"'Cos I won't tell nobody 'bout him, neither. I mean, if that's why he's hidin' all the way over there…"

"…wait, what?"

"Well, I can sense him hidin' all the way over there." Shingetsu pointed somewhere in the darkness, but with purpose. "He's part of the surprise attack, too?"

"…Shingetsu-kun, can you take me to where he is? I gotta talk to him about something," Kiine said.

"Ohh, sure, Kii-neesan! Anything for you." Even in the darkness, Shingetsu's smile was very warm. "It's kinda hard to see at night, innit."

"Yeah, it is," Kiine replied. Her eyes narrowed. The little boy held out his hand for her and she took it, and he brought her to a small clump of bushes several yards away. "Hey, Yuki. You can come out, now; we found you."

Even in the darkness, Kiine could clearly see the regret on Yuki's face. "I'm sorry, Master, I couldn't help myself," he said. He had his sword with him, tied to his belt. The white sheath almost seemed to glow in what little moonlight was present.

"Yuki, it's fine," Kiine said. She almost had to shake her head—she should have seen it coming. "You don't have to apologize; and for heaven's sake, please don't start crying on me again, it's embarrassing…"

Yuki sniffed. "Of course, Master."

"You gotta keep yourself together for me, yeah? We got business to get done." Kiine's voice was suddenly brighter; bolstered, maybe, by a strange sort of confidence. She was smiling.

Yuki rubbed his eyes and, to her relief, smiled—a little smile—back at her. "Of course, sir. So what's the plan?"

"Well, Shingetsu-kun here's a part of it, for starters," Kiine said.

Shingetsu gasped. "I'm a part of the plan? The secret plan?"

"Yeah, kiddo. We need you to help us find Kou."

"Ohhh, I knew that already," Shingetsu replied. He nodded. "Tensho-san talked to me 'bout lettin' him know where Kou-san's bein' kept when we get there an' stuff. I mean, he's kinda really far away right now an' I dunno where he is, but I can let you guys know too once I do know. That's part of the plan too, right?"

Kiine was surprised that she wasn't exploding from the strength of her smile. "Shingetsu-kun, that would be awesome. If you can just… sneak on over to us once you get the chance tomorrow, that'd be great."

Shingetsu smiled in reply, though his face fell a little after a moment of thought. "Well I can try, but Daddy might not let me get very far from him. I mean, he's sleepin' now, but… Can't you come to me? That'd be a lot easier…"

"No, Shingetsu-kun. We gotta stay secret, remember?" Kiine said. "We won't be very far away, we'll just be… hidden."

"Well… okay, I'll try," Shingetsu said, with a nod. "I'll be able to find you guys easy, cos your chakra's a lot like mine!"

"Sure, whatever works!" Kiine said, nodding back at him, smiling. "I believe in you, little guy."

"Thanks, Kii-neesan!" He yawned. "I'm gonna go, now, f'that's okay, I'm kinda really sleepy…"

"Sure, just remember…"

"I won't tell nobody," Shingetsu replied, and he zipped his mouth shut with his fingers. "Good luck, Kii-neesan, Yu-niisan!" He left them alone with a cheerful wave of the hand.

"…Yuki, you're not just gonna stay quiet forever, are you?" Kiine asked, once the boy was gone.

"N-no, sir, I was just listening…" he said. He clasped his hands together a little tighter. He still wasn't looking at her.

Kiine sighed. "C'mere. I think we ought-a have a talk."

The shame and pain on Yuki's face increased. "Well, of course, you ought to let me in on the rest of the plan, I suppose..."

Kiine put her arm around his back, tightly. "Well, yeah, we'll talk about that. But… I wanna see what's up with you first, okay? C'mere, let's siddown."

Yuki didn't say anything, nor did he resist as Kiine led him to a tree near the bushes, and sat them both down.

"…so… I know we weren't… in the best of moods when we saw each other last," Kiine began, after breathing deeply. "And I'm sorry for losing my temper at you, okay? I shouldn't've been so mean. I was just kinda panicked."

Yuki began shaking his head. "No, no, no, no, I was the one that lost it, I'm sorry, sir, I'm so sorry…" His head sank nearer to his knees, but Kiine's hand on his back kept it from melting into them.

"No more apologizing, Yuki," Kiine said. "Okay? Whatever you did, I forgive you. It can't be all your fault, anyways…"

Yuki didn't respond to this. He swallowed, with difficulty, trying his hardest not to cry.

"I mean… okay, I admit, I'm still a little confused about what happened," Kiine continued, when he didn't. "I mean… what, you saw a ninja on the night Kou was kidnapped, yeah? And you let him go?" Yuki nodded, once, slightly. "Well, it was just one guy, yeah? I checked with the guards, and they said they saw a buncha guys. Couldn't've been just that one who did it."

"…please stop trying to make me feel better, sir… You don't need to..." Yuki said.

"Well I'm not exactly gonna let you keep blaming yourself for this forever, yeah?" Kiine said. "It's not all your fault! That's it! That's where we're gonna leave it, yeah?"

Yuki nodded, again, but he didn't say anything.

(Kiine heard a sob, and it made her stomach sink.)

(She didn't ask him if he was crying, this time.)

(And instead, breathed in, and out, and took her hand off of his back.)

"…you know, I don't blame you for letting that one guy go, though," she said, quietly.

"Why would you not blame me…?" She could barely hear Yuki's voice.

"…well, it's more that… I don't blame you for being jealous, Yuki."

He actually laughed, there, a sputtering cough of a thing. "Why would I be… jealous?"

"Well… ever since Kou came by we've been together, like… all the time, yeah? It used to be just you an' me; plus this whole… marriage thing… They're taking away the time I used to have with you." She took another breath, a deep one. "Almost feels like Kou's replacing you, yeah?"

"I don't think that's the case, sir…" Yuki replied. Kiine saw him wipe one of his eyes with his palm.

"…even if that isn't the case, Yuki, I know you're upset. And… and it's okay to be upset, yeah?" she said. "If I were in your shoes I'd be mad as hell too. And… confused and just… Yuki, just don't blame yourself, okay? It's okay."

She put her hand on his back again as he sunk into his knees, again. "I was just trying to help…"

"I know you were, Yuki. And it was stupid, what you did, but-"

"I just don't want them to take you away…"

She paused, there. "…take me away? What do you-"

"That's why I did it. If you… if you got married to Kou they'd take you to the Hakaza compound and I'd never see you again and…"

Kiine hugged him, there, an awkward hug that strained her back and arms. His clothes felt cold. "Yuki…"

"I couldn't allow that, I didn't want to see you hurt or…" He gasped, a sob. "I'm sorry, Master, I'm really sorry…"

"It's okay. You don't… have to worry about that, okay? Yuki, you go where I go; you know that, right?" Kiine said. She took the arm that wasn't around his back and reached for a nearby hand, and she held it very tightly. "You're my right hand man! And my best friend, besides, yeah? Closer than a brother. Even if they had to drag me, kickin' an screamin' to the Hakaza compound, you'd sure as hell be comin' with me."

This didn't seem to comfort Yuki much. He didn't hold her hand back, his cold little fingers limp in her grasp.

"…and I just wanna let you know, Yuki. Kou's great, he's nice, but he is absolutely nothing compared to you. You're special to me, man. I mean, how long have we known each other?"

She could feel his hand tighten within hers. "I don't know, since before I can remember."

"Yeah, see? Exactly that. And how long have I known Kou? Maybe a couple-a days?"

He didn't say anything, but it was a comfortable silence. His grip tightened.

"We're stuck with each other, Yuki. Whether you like it or not. We're part of a pair. And nobody's ever gonna replace you in my eyes. No matter what Kou and his stupid dad try to do, yeah?"

It was too dark for her to see if he was smiling or not, but she had a feeling that he was.

"…so y'feelin' better?" Kiine asked. "Convinced I don't hate you?" she added, with a smirk.

"Master, don't say things like that." He rubbed his eyes. He sniffed. "I still think that you don't deserve this at all..."

"Yeah, I know, I know. None of us do," Kiine said, softly. "Neither Kou nor I deserve this… stupid marriage whatever, but he didn't deserve to be kidnapped, either. That's even worse, yeah."

"Yeah…"

"But, hey. At least the kidnapping we can do something about, yeah?" she said. She managed to brighten her tone as she took her hands off of him, smiling. "Which might help us with our other problem."

"Or it might not…"

Her minor smile fell. "Well, yeah, that's always… a possibility… But let's not think about that right now, okay?" She punched Yuki, softly, on the shoulder. "Don't be such a pessimist, it's bad for morale, yeah."

"Sorry…" He rubbed his arm and—ah! That was definitely a smile. "Though, uh… whose morale are we concerned about, sir?"

"Yours and mine. Duh. So, hey, now that we got this talk thing out of the way, didn't you say you wanted to hear about my plan?" Kiine said. She adjusted herself so that she was squatting directly in front of him, now, her hands on her knees like a monkey. "Since you're totally a part of it, again."

…ah, that was definitely a laugh. A small, small laugh, but a laugh. "Absolutely. What's your plan, sir…?"

Kiine only had a rough idea about what to do, but she told him anyways.

(Mainly, she was making it up as she went along. For his sake.)

(Yuki had a slight feeling that this was what she was doing, but it didn't bother him in the slightest.)

(He trusted her.)

"Well, I'm gonna go get some sleep," she concluded, standing up. "You stay where you are, it'll be better in case one of us gets caught. I won't rat you out if you won't."

Yuki's response was hesitant. Kiine's guts squirmed.

(And they'd almost forgotten about what had happened back in Konoha, too…)

"You have my word, sir," Yuki said, eventually, looking up at her. There was reluctance in his expression. "Though, uh…"

"'Though, uh,' what?" Kiine said.

"…I think we'd have to worry more about Shingetsu-kun giving us away than anything, sir."

(And she had almost forgotten about that little guy, too, given the emotional turmoil of the evening. Then again, that was what Yuki was for. He thought for when she forgot.)

"…well, hey. If he ruins it, we both go down together. We're a pair, yeah? Like I said." She gave him a wink, a smile in the darkness. "We won't get caught, anyways."

The reluctance melted into a little smile. "Of course not. Goodnight, sir."

"Goodnight, Yuki. Get some rest. We'll be feeling better in the morning."

She stepped away.

"Of course, sir."

Kiine left him, quietly, returning to her post, and sitting down to get her sleep.

She rested easily, filled with jitters, but relief, and confidence.

She had Yuki. This would make things so much easier.

(And Yuki had Kiine.)

Together, separately, they waited for the morning.

(And when it came, Yuki felt just that much more at ease.)


Chapter Text


It took Shingetsu a fair amount of time to find the pair once the negotiations had begun in Sekiraun the following afternoon. There were guards about, after all, both ninja and clansmen, keeping watch out for interference from either side as Shin and Tensho discussed with the Raikage's representatives.

The meeting was taking place in an abandoned residence; a summer home, riverside, near a waterfall. This kept sound from traveling.

Kou was not being kept there, but Shingetsu informed Shin of this well before they had even arrived. Kou was elsewhere, guarded by Cloud ninja, a fact which Shin brought up to the representatives near the start of negotiations.

"Your son will be brought to you if things go well, Boss Shin. Rest assured, he's in good condition and will be kept in good condition until his return to you," was the smooth reply from the ninja, who kept a lollipop in his mouth and moved it around with an unfitting satisfaction.

(Shin didn't like his face, and the feeling was mutual.)

But Shingetsu confirmed, with a nod of his head, that Kou was indeed well, wherever he was. His father, sitting nearby, sneered at everyone else as he sucked at his water bottle, his enormous sword in his lap, like a musical instrument.

Shingetsu excused himself once the grown-ups began talking with words he knew, vaguely, but had little interest in. "I gotta go potty," he whispered to his father.

"You went this morning, after breakfast."

"Yeah but I gotta go again," Shingetsu insisted. He squirmed where he sat, for emphasis.

His father squirmed, likewise, but more out of discomfort than a similar call of nature. "Can't you hold it? I don't trust you with people like this around."

"Daddy, come on, nobody can hurt me," Shingetsu whined, quietly. "I promise, I'll be quick."

A grumble. "Promise you'll be quick?"

Shingetsu grinned. "Promise."

"Fine. Don't make any noise," his father told him.

Shingetsu was already melting himself into a puddle, before his father could even finish, and he slithered out past the feet and knees of the men in the building, outside, and towards the bright and familiar chakras of Kiine and Yuki.

"I told Daddy I was usin' the potty so I gotta be quick," he told them, first and foremost.

"That's, uh, fine," Kiine said. "You didn't tell anyone you were meeting us, though, right?"

"Nope, I didn't tell nobody," Shingetsu said, shaking his head. "I just told Shin-san where they were keepin' Kou-san, cos he asked. Cos that's part of the plan, right?"

"Yep, yep. All part of the plan," Kiine said.

Shingetsu's smile was wide, and very pleased. "Okay, so, you gotta know where Kou-san is too, right?" he said. "For the secret mission I mean."

"Yes, exactly," Kiine said. She and Yuki had been waiting in a wooded area near the river, together, since everyone had gone inside the residence that afternoon. "Where are they keeping him? In that house?"

"No, far away." Shingetsu closed his eyes, concentrating. "Maybe five, six miles away. That direction." He held out his arm, pointing to the general area past the far riverbank. "It's him an' five others I dunno, prob'ly ninja. They got lotsa chakra, so."

"Shouldn't be that big of a deal," Kiine said, glancing at Yuki, who nodded back. "Can you tell us anything more?"

"Uh…" Shingetsu opened, then closed his eyes again, thinking. "Well, I can't sense nobody else out that way, so it should be pretty easy to find 'em. Otherwise…" He closed his eyes even tighter.

"Don't strain yourself, little guy, that's enough for us," Kiine said, patting him on the shoulder. "I can't thank you enough."

Shingetsu, surprisingly, started pouting, when he opened his odd, wide eyes. "I just wish I could come with you guys."

"We'll be fine on our own. Besides, you already did your job. And you did a good job of it, too," Kiine said. "Right, Yuki?"

"A very good job, Shingetsu-kun," Yuki added, nodding.

The little boy grinned. "Really? I'm glad!"

"Yeah, really," Kiine replied. "Now, you should prob'ly get back to your daddy, yeah? Yuki and I got a job to do."

Shingetsu nodded, once, fiercely. "Uh-HUH. Good luck getting' Kou-san back, you guys!"

"We will, little guy. Promise," Kiine said. She gave him a wink, and she received one in return. Shingetsu waved just once more before melting into a puddle and disappearing.

("That was quick," his father told him, upon his return.)

("I just had to go a little," Shingetsu said, giggling with private triumph at having helped, and anticipation and excitement.)

Yuki and Kiine were already on their way towards Kou, following the line of Shingetsu's arm. It was a mad dash for high ground, first, so they could scout out any possible hiding places, and plan further from there.

"Five miles… if we run, that's like a half hour!" Kiine said, almost shouting. They'd found a hill, eventually, upriver from the waterfall. The water was loud. "But we shouldn't rush ourselves much, right? We got a while."

"Of course, sir!" Yuki said, scanning the wide plain before them. "Ah, look! You see that?"

Kiine drew closer, tilting her head. "See what, Yuki?"

"There! On the base of that bluff, there!" He pointed, and she struggled to follow his hand with her eyes. "It looks like a house."

Kiine squinted. There was… something. "Looks like a hole," she said.

"Probably is! Cut into the cliff face, something like that. Harder to surround," Yuki said. He straightened his back. "Smart. It's worth a look."

Kiine breathed, deeply. "Ah, yeah! Worth a look. So c'mon, yeah?"

She was already running for it by the time Yuki could respond. He couldn't help but grin, just a little.

It took less than a half hour to approach.

(Kiine, he had noticed, had gotten faster.)

(He could keep up.)

There wasn't much cover on the way there, so they decided, while they still had a bit of tree cover, to take a sideways route and hug the bluff that the house was carved into. "People always look out, but never sideways," Kiine shared, and Yuki had to agree.

And once they were close enough, they stopped, again, to catch their breaths, and formulate a plan.

They could see the house, now, plainly. It was little more than a glorified cave, from close-up; there were wooden supports at the entrance, and windows and things that made it clearly a manmade construct, rather than a natural thing, but little else.

"One entrance, one exit," Kiine observed. "Well. That could work out either really well or really badly, yeah."

"Let's just say it'll work in our favor, sir," Yuki said.

Kiine had to laugh at the strange, courageous smile on his face. "Since when were you so optimistic?"

"I am taking our morale into consideration, sir."

Kiine laughed, again. "Well good job so far, Yuki." His smile in return warmed her heart. "Okay, so how can we use that to our advantage? Hm." She thought, crossing her arms, tilting her head, her eyes closing. "One way out… means that once they're out, they're out. How d'you think we could lure 'em out, Yuki?"

Yuki's smile widened. "I think I have an idea, sir."

It was a very good idea.

Yuki and Kiine knelt together near the entrance of the place a short while later, and Yuki was lacing the structure with ice, with coldness. Kiine held her arms and rubbed them as the air grew colder, and colder.

"I'm sorry, sir, just a little longer," Yuki whispered.

"Just keep it up," Kiine replied. "Just drive 'em out."

And Yuki kept it up.

Complaints began to arise from within, and as they grew in volume, Kiine's grin increased in intensity.

"The hell is going on? Why is it so cold?" A female voice, sweet, but hard.

"It's in the middle of damn July." A male voice, nasal, whineish.

"Oy, Fuzan! What's going on out there?" Another male voice, older.

No response.

"Fuzan!"

Nothing.

"Oh for the love of… Akari-chan, go see what in the world he's doing, he's supposed to be on surveillance. I'm on break…"

"Fine, fine, Kanji-kun, just settle down…" The sweet voice moved closer and closer. "Brr… Fuzan-kun! Hey, Fuzan, where are you? What's going on out here?"

"Stay where you are, Yuki," Kiine said.

And she bounded forward, tackling the girl as she emerged, pinning her to the ground. She found a boulder in her hold a moment afterward, the girl gasping nearby.

"What in the world?" she said.

Kiine leaped at her again, not bothering with subtlety.

(Anything to raise attention, and get them outside.)

"It's an ambush!" the sweet-voiced girl said, wriggling out of Kiine's grip again, but only barely. "I need backup!"

There was another ninja coming out of the house; male, dark-haired.

"Yuki, quit it with the ice-stuff and get 'em!" Kiine yelled, wrestling with her own ninja. She was reaching for her knife, barely unsheathing it in time to counteract the sudden appearance of a kunai knife in the hand of her opponent.

"Right, sir!"

Yuki had his sword in hands and was onto the dark-haired ninja before Kiine could even blink.

"Fuzan, get over here!" the girl shouted again. She darted away from Kiine, but Kiine followed, their blades making sparks as they clashed.

There was another voice. "M'sorry, m'sorry, I was busy!" Its owner was jumping down the side of the bluff, quickly approaching ground. "Akari-chan, what's going-"

"Shut up and help us take care of the—intruders!" the dark-haired ninja called out, barely dodging a slash from Yuki.

Kiine's knife flew out of her hand, grabbed at the handle and whipped away in a second.

One second later: Kiine brought the girl to one of her knees, twisting the arm that held her kunai into a painful hold. The girl groaned in pain, and shrieked, "Namakura, radio in! Contact the Captain!"

"Crap!" Kiine thought quickly; in a moment, she had the girl pulled into another hold, a sleeper. She'd be unconscious, no longer a threat, shortly. "Yuki, can you handle yourself out here? I'm heading in!"

Yuki seemed rather preoccupied.

"Yuki!"

Yuki was staring at the newcomer with angry shock. And he said only one thing before charging forward in a cold fury: "YOU!"

The target of his attack gulped.

"Oh, crap."

He dodged.

Yuki screamed. "You worthless sack of excrement!" Forward. "You ruined EVERYTHING!" Slash.

Dodge. "The hell did I do, chika?"

"Yuki!" Kiine yelled.

"I'll be fine!" Coldness. Pure coldness. "Go in and take care of the rest!"

The girl in Kiine's arms fell limp, and Kiine dropped her.

She found herself dealing with the other ninja, the dark-haired one. He didn't put up much of a fight—rather, he spent more time avoiding Kiine's attacks than anything.

He threw a smoke bomb, and when it dissipated, Kiine saw him fleeing, a pair of fingers at his ear—a radio!

"Oh no you don't!" Kiine sucked in her breath, anger burning in her chest.

He was getting away.

She had to do something?

What could she do?

She struggled to remember.

…what was it Benio-sensei had taught her? A simple technique to use in place of a smoke bomb, for diversions. A sphere of chakra, light, that would burst and explode and blind.

(Kiine had barely ever mastered it.)

What were those hand signs?

(Kiine was desperate and reaching for skills like tools in a badly-organized toolbox.)

Kiine's fingers tangled into each other, slowly, deliberately, as chakra flooded into her hands and made them feel warm.

She was side-by-side with the ninja, almost.

Her hands felt hot.

And she thrust them out in front of her, in his direction.

What manifested was not the expected ball of chakra, but rather, two heavy-looking chains, with spikes on every link.

Kiine figured that she would take what she could get.

She closed her fingers around the chains—they felt only barely solid, and yet, just solid enough—and she whipped them forward and towards the fleeing ninja. They seemed almost to follow where her mind wanted them to go, wrapping around his arms, his legs. He tripped and tumbled, heavily, to the ground.

The chains in her hands removed themselves from her palms, wrapping around him further, remaining as solid as they needed to be.

"The hell kind of ninjutsu is this?" The ninja coughed from the dust and his lost breath.

Kiine just shrugged. Mistakes worked best when you just rolled with them.

"Stay where you are, and don't even think of radioing your little buddies, yeah," she told him.

He didn't respond, just squirming, groaning, loathing.

She ran back to the house.

The girl, thankfully, was still unconscious.

And Yuki seemed to have made quick work of his opponent.

Presently, he was frozen to a wall, a terrified expression on his face. And Yuki was glaring at him, sword pointed at his throat.

(His expression, angry, cold, satisfied, furious, almost scared her, as she got close enough to see it.)

"Yuki, you okay over here?" she called, as she approached him.

"Perfectly fine, sir." He didn't look at her.

Kiine peered at the guy on the wall. "Jeez, Yuki, what'd you do to him?"

"Broke his arm, then ensured he wouldn't be moving further," Yuki replied. "He's all right, all things considered."

"Well, okay, then. I'm gonna need you to back me up, now that you're finished hereNow I'm going in, yeah." She swallowed as she caught her breath. "Anyone come out while I was out taking care of that guy?"

"No, sir." Eyes still on the terrified, eyebrowless boy frozen to the rock wall.

"All right, then, let's make it quick." Kiine began looking for her knife, and found it on the ground near the unconscious girl.

"Wh-wh-who are you people?" The boy frozen to the wall was shuddering, badly.

Yuki's expression didn't change.

Kiine wiped her knife off on her pant leg, removing the dirt, and she sheathed it, putting it back where it belonged on her person.

"Son," she said, standing close to him, looking up at him with angry, confident, defiant eyes, "I'm the future Boss of the Taki clan, Taki Kiine. That's who I am, yeah." She turned way. "C'mon, Yuki."

(She couldn't help herself.)

(Neither could Yuki, smiling slightly, following behind. That was his master.)

"How many more left to go?" Kiine whispered, on their way in.

"Shingetsu-kun said there was Kou-san and five others. That's three down."

"Two to go." Kiine readied her knife.

Kou's keepers were an over-tired surveillance ninja and a chuunin of no consequence, both of whom were more than a little nervous when they completely lost radio contact with Kurai, who was ordered by the main base to gather backup.

They didn't stand a chance.

Yuki worked at getting their radios off of their unconscious bodies as Kiine tried rousing Kou, cutting the ropes around his hands and feet with her knife. He was still dressed in his pajamas, and his hair was tangled from lack of washing.

"Kou… Kou, c'mon, man, wake up." She put her hands on his face. His eyes were half-open; he moaned slightly, but did not respond further. "I think they drugged him with something, Yuki."

"Wouldn't be surprised, sir," Yuki said. One of the radios came loose, and he tucked it into his robe. He began working on the other.

"It'll just make him harder to carry." Kiine paused. "Oh well. We should get back, before these guys wake up, yeah."

"Agreed, sir," Yuki said. The earpiece of the radio in his hand suddenly burst with sound. Tinny noise exploded forth, and he handled it with faint confusion. "Uh…?"

Kiine frowned, slightly, before smirking. "Hand it over," she said, and Yuki did so. She put the earpiece to her ear.

"Kurai, respond! Namakura? What's going on up there? How many confirmed hostiles?"

She pressed the button that, probably, turned on the microphone. "Who is this?" she said. "You the guys that took Kou?"

A bewildered, tiny silence. "Who is this?"

"The one that currently has your damn hostage is what," Kiine said. "We've taken out your pathetic excuse for a guard squad whatever and we're headin' back with Kou, yeah. So be freakin' prepared and call off whatever the hell sorta backup you were sending out. You'd just be causing more trouble."

"Taken out—who is this?" The voice on the radio was quiet, a staticky hiss. "Did the Hakaza clan send you?"

"You could say that," Kiine said. "Anyways. If this means you guys gotta halt negotiations 'til we get there, go ahead. Just know we have Kou. Oh and, uh," she added, remembering what she'd left outside, "we got a guy frozen to the front of your base, just a little forewarning."

There wasn't a response that time around, so she tossed the radio to Yuki and picked Kou up into her arms. He was heavy, but nothing she couldn't handle.

"Keep an eye on that radio, take care of it if they call us back," Kiine said. Yuki nodded. "It'll take a bit longer, now that we have Kou."

"Nothing we can't handle, though, sir," Yuki replied.

Kiine grinned. "Yeah. Nothing we can't handle."

As they went on their way, Kiine noticed, to her delight, that the greasy, dark-haired ninja she had gotten with the chains was still restrained.

"Good boy," she said, and they went on their way.

(She still had no idea what the hell had happened. She figured it was just an accidental weapons summon—Benio had told her about those.)

(What Kiine was unaware of was that you had to own the weapon in the first place in order to summon it.)

It was when they were making their way up the hill near the waterfall that Kou finally managed to scrape together an ounce of consciousness. Kiine noticed, from the way he was squirming in her arms, and she stopped. "Hey, you feeling okay?"

Kou looked up at her with tired, yellow eyes, his arms still floppy over his torso. "I'm not… dreaming, am I...?" he said, softly.

"Haha, nope, you sure aren't," Kiine replied. "Think you can walk?"

Kou thought. He felt sick, and weak. He shook his head.

"Then just hold tight, we're gonna be home free in just a bit," Kiine said. She adjusted him in her arms, holding him tighter, and began moving away.

"You saved me…" Kou said, softly.

Kiine didn't reply, only smiling. But it was all he needed to see.

Kou's head slumped sideways, it being an effort to keep it upright; he could see Yuki running beside her. He glanced at Kou, once, but there was no hatred in his eyes. There wasn't much of anything, really, but none of it was malevolent.

Kou's body relaxed, relieved, despite not fully understanding his situation. Something just told him that things were all right.

(And Kiine was smiling.)

The band was greeted by a small mob of clansmen and ninja both as they exited the forest at the base of the waterfall. Loudly.

Tensho and Shin were, naturally, outside in an instant, as Kiine walked toward the residence, bypassing the welcome party.

(So were Omoi and Sairi, who were incredibly perplexed about the recent series of events, not to mention incredibly worried.)

Few of them could believe their eyes. Tensho was the one that really spoke first. "Kiine?"

"'sup, Papa?" Kiine said, with a smile brighter than a bar of gold.

"What are you doing here? I thought I told you-"

"Kou! Son! Oh my goodness, are you okay?" Shin interrupted his anger with panicked relief, running toward his son in Kiine's arms. Kiine didn't put him down, his limbs too weak to support him if he were to try and stand.

"Hi, Dad…" Kou replied. His smile was almost sleepy, mostly exhausted.

"What did they do to you, oh my dear boy I'm so sorry-" He suddenly stopped his fussing, noticing, "Kiine-chan, did you…?"

"She rescued me, Dad. …her and Yuki-san," Kou said.

Shin's eyebrows rose. He gasped, he grinned. "Oh, you marvelous girl!" he said, and put his arms around Kou's back, around Kiine's arms, as if he could embrace them both. "I never knew!"

"Boss Shin!" The captain of the ninja was speaking, the one with the lollipop. "Do you have any explanation for this?"

"Hey, hey. Talk to me, not him," Kiine said, loudly, authoritatively, before anyone else could answer. Quieter: "Boss Shin, here." She shifted Kou from her arms into his, and she approached the ninja. "I'm the one responsible."

The ninja captain tilted his head as he looked her over. His partner, the pig-tailed woman with the flashy earrings, was quick to point out, "You're Boss Tensho's daughter."

"Sure am." Kiine crossed her arms. "An' before you ask, no, I am not acting on behalf of him, yeah? I'm here on my own terms."

"Your own terms, huh." The captain put his hands in his pockets, shifting his lollipop from one side of his mouth to the other.

(Tensho watched everything, silently.)

"Yeah. You guys kidnapped my fiancé and I don't really think that's cool," Kiine said. "I mean, really. Why the heck d'you need a hostage if you just wanna negotiate? Could-a just asked us to meet with you if you had beef."

The pig-tailed woman scoffed. "And how old are you, young lady?"

"Sixteen. And that's kinda away from the freakin' point, yeah?" Kiine said. She herself sighed, as the pig-tailed woman shrunk back, slightly, nipped before she could retort. "Listen, I got past your guards and I took your hostage from you. You lost your bargaining chip, but I wanna hear what the heck your negotiations were over in the first place, yeah? I wanna be caught up. Maybe we can still reach a resolution here."

"Kiine, that is not your place-" Tensho began, but he was stopped by a sharp glance from both his daughter—and Shin.

"No, Tensho-san. Kiine-chan's clearly shown initiative here, and she's done so much already that I think it's only fair if she's allowed this too," he said. He'd passed Kou off to his leather-skinned bodyguard, Hikawa, who had appeared shortly after his exit from the house. (Nobuhiro, presently, was with Yuki, whose expression had softened into an unnatural mix of pride and embarrassment.) "That is, if our most gracious hosts are all right with this, as well?"

The captain and his partner looked at each other, at their backup. "Taki Kiine-san, then?" the captain said. "Come inside with us, an' we'll continue our negotiations with your involvement."

"Sounds good to me," Kiine said. She glanced back at her father with an unrestrained smile.

(All he could do was lower his head, accepting the situation as best he could, fencing in his frustration and anger.)

"Oh, by the way, you might wanna send some folks over to that base where you were keepin' Kou, yeah? Me an' Yuki kinda left your guys in a bad state," she added, as she began following them inside. "Not that we had a choice, yeah. We stole their radios, too. You want those back?"

"We'll… figure that out when we get inside," the captain said, nodding towards a small squadron nearby, who immediately got the hint and shot off to check on the guards.

(Shingetsu was more than a little excited, upon Kiine's appearance in the negotiation room. "The mission was a success, right?")

(All Kiine could do was smile and ruffle his hair as she passed.)

(Shingetsu grinned. And it was all because he had helped. It was clearly the best thing ever.)


Chapter Text


The end result of one further day of negotiations was a ceasefire, of sorts. A promise to not bother each other, at least, until further negotiations could be planned.

Kiine had put it casually, but eloquently. "We're stepping on each other's toes and neither of us can make much change; especially with attitudes like this, yeah? So let's just take a break from each other and come back together when we're in better moods. And no hostages this time."

Given that the negotiations prior to Kiine's involvement had been at an annoying standstill, with lots of barely-restrained shouting and plenty of passive-aggressive pot shots, this didn't seem like such a bad idea.

The Hakaza clan agreed to halt their trade routes in the Land of Lightning—temporarily, mind—but not shut down their businesses, in exchange for a pause in ninja agitation, until both sides agreed to meet again. The Taki clan made no promises, but very little of the dealings had to do with them in the first place.

Kou took a while to recover fully from the sedatives they'd been keeping him on, even though a Cloud medic nin treated him (in the full and watchful presence of both his father and his father's bodyguard and his own bodyguard) and had him on his feet again by the time the clans and the ninjas parted ways a day or two later. Tensho promised Shin further treatment from the family doctor, for when they got home.

"Can't trust ninjas, Boss Shin. Even with this stuff."

Shin only agreed for Kou's sake.

Kou, meanwhile, was hardly ever out of Kiine's sight, when she wasn't in with the ninjas and discussing things with them. "You'd better make a full as hell recovery, man, okay?" she told him.

(She was holding his hand.)

"I'll try my best…" Kou said.

(Yuki was watching, eyes downcast, reminding himself.)

"However did you do that?" Shin asked Kiine, later, enthusiastically, happily. "Not only in bringing my boy back to me—but the way you handled those ninjas. Both in battle and in the negotiations, I am impressed!"

Kiine shrugged. "Well, the negotiations… I just tried to think from their perspective is all, yeah," she said. "B'sides, getting Kou back was the easy part."

"You are surprising me, girl! I feel so excited to be your father-in-law—though, if you want to call me 'Dad' already, well, I certainly wouldn't mind that."

(As far as anyone knew, the wedding was not off. Not remotely.)

(Kiine tried not to think about it.)

(Tensho tried not to think too hard about his own situation, similarly. The anger and the pride and the risk of angering Shin was far too great.)

When the time came for the groups to part ways, the Hozuki hesitated. "My son and I have already done our jobs," he said. "An' you paid in advance, so there's no reason for me to come back with you. I'll come back in a month if you need me for anything else."

From the way he was sucking at his straw, as if his water were made of contempt, and the fact that Shingetsu was already saying his goodbyes to Kiine and Yuki, he left little room for argument. Tensho let him be.

The separation and return home happened with little other incident. Mikan greeted them with relief and the suggestion of some sort of celebration.

"Your boys will like it. It'll look good," she told her husband, once the two of them got a moment alone.

"You organize it," Tensho replied. He rubbed his eyes.

He felt Mikan's soft hands on his back. "Something the matter?"

He told her about Kiine.

All she did was smile, softly, and say the things he wanted to hear. Words of, oh, how she was worried too, once she noticed that their daughter was missing, but how she knew Kiine could take care of herself. Telling him that his anger was understandable, telling him that he should be patient and see the positive in the situation.

(And, inside, feeling the strongest pride for her daughter.)

(That was her girl.)

And once she had calmed Tensho down with soft words and soft touches and soft kisses, she left him to rest in their room while she got everything ready.

Oh, was there ever a party.

And in the hungover, raucous morning, a letter arrived from Konoha.

"Are you serious, more ninja shit…" Tensho rubbed his temples from the annoyance and his headache.

The courier-nin, standing in the dining hall, shifted his eyebrows awkwardly. "I could always deliver my message at a later time if this is not convenient. But all messages must be delivered, sir. It is my duty."

"Who's it from?" Mikan asked.

"The Hokage of Konoha, ma'am."

"Sounds important, Tensho. Want me to hold onto it for you?" she offered.

Tensho groaned noncommittally. Mikan took it, and sent the courier-nin on his way.

"Who the hell even let that guy in anyways," he grumbled, returning to his omelet.

(The courier let himself in, actually, after being refused at the gates, repeatedly. The mail must always be delivered.)

(Also, he was a ninja. What else was to be expected?)

Mikan brought up the letter to Tensho during lunch, when he was feeling better. She told him she hadn't read it.

(She had.)

Shin craned his neck, from beside Tensho. "What is that thing, anyways? From the Hokage? Whatever would he want with you?" he asked, craning his neck, narrowing his sharp, snake-like eyes.

Tensho just groaned, again, reading over the scroll, slowly. "He wants me to attend these… exams he's hosting. Chuunin. In September."

Shin's thin, black eyebrows rose. "The chuunin exams, you mean?"

"What, you know what the hell it is?"

"Oh, it's like a tournament. Marvelous sport, really," Shin continued. "Great way to scout out mercenary power, too; my father used to take me, when I was small, and let me watch while he decided which country to hire from that year."

Tensho's mouth opened, slightly, in addition to his eyebrows knitting closer together. "Wait, you mean to say-"

"What, not all ninja are like those pesky Cloud fellows. I've hired from the Land of Earth many times. Delightful people, really; you ought to talk with them. Big on art. You ever heard of some fellow named Deibara? Daidara? Oh, whatever it was." Shin's hands fluttered as he talked. "He was big when we were children, years ago."

Tensho exhaled, head reeling. "Boss Shin, c'mon."

"Fine, fine," Shin said. He reached out a hand. "Here, let me have a look at that letter." He took it from Tensho before he could resist, squinting his eyes. "Hikawa, darling, my reading glasses."

(Tensho tried not to say anything whenever Shin said things like that, or whenever he noticed gazes or touches lingering too long to be accidental. What other Bosses did in their private lives was none of his business.)

(Unless they were making it his business.)

Shin's reading glasses were square and blue-framed, matching the color palette of his outfit that day. He read quickly. "What's this about debts, Boss Tensho?" he said. "Mind, it's perhaps none of my business, but."

"It is none of your business," Tensho said. He felt Mikan's hand on his hand and his temper cooled just that little bit.

"Hm, well." Shin adjusted his glasses, cleared his throat. "Whoever this Hokage fellow is—I haven't met him, myself—he certainly seems amicable. Better than that… despicable Raikage." He shook his head as if a shiver were going up his spine. "Goodness."

"Never met the guy neither," Tensho said. "You met him for me, didn't you, Nobu?"

From behind him: "Yeah, he seemed okay."

(The running-away was still off-limits in conversation.)

"Seems awfully fond of Kiine, this Hokage. He invited her to the exams himself there at the bottom. Did she, ah, meet him during her time in Konoha?"

(Or so Tensho thought.)

"I wouldn't know," Tensho said, lowly.

"Why don't I ask her? Kiine-chan!" Shin took off his glasses and raised his hand, beckoning toward her. "Come over here, I want to ask you something."

"Boss Shin, the hell are you…!" Mikan's hand moved from his hand to his shoulder, a soft restraint.

Kiine, sitting across the room with Kou, with Yuki, looked up, stood up, and sat before Boss Shin. "What is it?" she said.

"What do you make of this, dear?" Shin handed the letter over to Kiine.

Another hand on Tensho's shoulder. His teeth ground against his teeth.

Kiine's blue, fox eyes darted over the paper, quickly. A smile began growing on her face, blossoming into a gasp as she reached the end. "Did Naruto-san send this to you, Papa?" she said. She held the letter in her lap as she turned to face him.

Tensho didn't respond. Mikan's right hand moved down his back, slowly, and then back up.

A rough, sharp, small chuckle escaped from Shin's mouth. "You two are on a first name basis, are you?"

Kiine's eyes fell. "Well, that's what he insisted on when I met him… Didn't let me call him Uzumaki-san or anything, yeah." Her voice was small, unfittingly sheepish. She cleared her throat. "At any rate." She looked over the letter again, to avoid looking at anyone else.

Then, she paused, narrowed her eyes. She looked up at her father. "Papa, what's this line about 'debts' about?"

Tensho shifted away from Mikan's touch. "I don't know and I don't care."

"Papa… Nobu, then? What's all this about?"

From behind Tensho, Nobuhiro squirmed slightly. "We… mighta left some… outstanding debts from our time there. But I just figured we didn't… need to… pay." His chin lowered, further and further, the more he spoke.

Kiine's face folded up from frustration. "Nobu, are you serious? We should probably take care of them. It's unfair not to."

"Depends on what kinda debts they are," Tensho added, sharply, gruffly. "If it's somethin' stupid then we can handle it later."

"And if it's something not stupid?" Kiine rounded back.

Tensho's eyes, burnt brown, fixed themselves on Kiine. "Watch your tone, young lady."

"Boss Tensho, please, don't be unreasonable," Shin said, waving a hand, his face pinched. "It's a fine and dandy thing to be on the owed end of a debt, but if you owe someone anything then you ought to take care of that as soon as possible."

"Yeah, see?" Kiine added. "Papa, honestly…"

Mikan's hand was on Tensho's again. He exhaled, deeply. "Y'make a good point, Boss Shin," he said. "Nobu, you an' me can discuss this later an' figure out what's going on."

"You really should talk to Naru—I mean, Hokage-san, though, too. I mean, there might be some stuff looked over, or forgotten, yeah," Kiine said.

"I'm not gonna get swindled by some ninja, Kiine," Tensho said. "They'd probably just rack up some imaginary shit we didn't do."

"Naruto-san wouldn't do that!"

"And how do you know that."

"How do I… I just do, okay? He's a good person! He invited us to the freakin' chuunin exams, yeah? Spent only one sentence asking us about the debts, even!" She held up the letter for emphasis.

Tensho snatched it away. "That's not enough to make me trust him."

"You've never even met him!" Kiine's voice rose.

"I don't need to." Tensho's voice sharpened.

"You're not even going to try?"

"You have no place telling me what to do."

"Yeah? And who says you do, either?"

Mikan had both of her hands on Tensho's shoulders.

The servants in the small, personal dining room were starting to stare.

"Both of you, both of you. Please calm down," said Shin. He had both of his hands raised. "Let's not get upset over this. Kiine-chan, would you absolutely vouch for this Hokage fellow's character?"

"Absolutely." Her eyes were full of honest, earnest fire. "I'd trust that guy with my life, yeah."

"Well, then. From that, and the generous invitation in that letter—not to mention how friendly he sounds—I'd be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and meet with him about this… situation." Shin tilted his head, almost sweetly.

"…I appreciate the advice, Boss Shin, but this is my business," Tensho said, his head lowered, eyes burning below red eyebrows. "Not yours."

Shin paused. The sweetness in his expression hardened. "My, now if that isn't interesting, hearing that from the other side."

"Hearing what."

"Isn't that what I said to you, just a few days ago? When my dear Kou was… well, I needn't elaborate. The point is." He shifted his position. "Given this… union between our clans, I feel this matter involves me just as much as it involves you."

"I appreciate the help," Tensho said, slowly, deliberately, "but this don't have anything to do with you."

"…actually, um." A nervous laugh nearly entered Kiine's voice. "See, the thing is, these chuunin exams are international, yeah? Naru…to-san told me about how it works, yeah. It's an opportunity for all the Kages—y'know, the ninja leaders—to meet an' discuss stuff with people."

"…and your point is, Kiine?" Tensho said.

"Well… it'd give us an opportunity to meet with that Raikage guy in person. Square away stuff with him 'bout the trade routes and what happened with Kou, with no middlemen to mess things up." A pause. Kiine glanced at Shin, at her father. "dunno, I just thought that might be a good thing for us."

Shin was the first to speak. "What a novel idea! Two birds with one stone, isn't that what it is?"

"Yeah! I mean, if I went along with you guys, I'm sure I could talk to Naruto-san an' arrange something for you with his help, Boss Shin." Kiine continued, quietly. "I mean, if you let me come along…"

"Kiine-chan, dear, why wouldn't we bring you?" said Shin. "Not after everything you've done so far." His face creased with his laughter and his smile. "Besides, you were asked for by name. I wouldn't want to risk angering our host."

Tensho was not smiling. He stood. "Boss Shin, y'mind s