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Sasuke's No Good Very Bad Teammates

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Sasuke Uchiha was going insane. Or rather, his teammates were. He couldn't think of another explanation for their sudden – and incredibly jarring – shift in personality.

As if they hadn't been bad enough when their team had been assigned: Naruto loud and annoying and at the very bottom of their class, Sakura shy but no less irritating with her childish crush on him. Both of them had just been destined to slow him down, to hold him back from reaching his goal.

But now?

Sasuke glared at them, leaning against a tree near their usual meeting place. They'd been waiting for Kakashi for an hour now, and so far there'd been no whining about their lazy teacher, no bantering from either of them, and no attempt at a conversation from a blushing Sakura. No stuttering and blushing from Sakura, period.

In fact, there had been no conversation at all. Nothing but oddly gloomy looks, both of his teammates avoiding eye contact with everyone.

"Hey, moron."

Naruto looked up from his place on the ground, a startled look on his face. "Eh?"

"Aren't you gonna, you know." Sasuke made a vague hand gesture. "Complain about Kakashi-sensei being late?"

"Oh. Yeah. Totally, what a douche."

Sasuke frowned at the half-hearted attempt. What was wrong with that idiot? He'd have to try harder. "I learned a new technique, you know. I'll kick your butt easily next time we spar."

"That's nice, Sasuke."

Naruto wasn't even looking at him. Time to go all out.

"Hey, Sakura. Did you notice how p-pretty Ino's hair looked today?" He nearly choked on the sentence. But there was no way she wouldn't react to that.

"Oh yeah," Sakura said, absentmindedly. "Really pretty."

What.

Sasuke scowled. What was going on?!

Not that he missed Naruto's weird drive to be better than him – their "rivalry", whatever – or even worse, Sakura's crush. But this couldn't be normal.

He gave up, resigning himself to wait in silence with his sullen teammates. Had something happened to them? Why were they acting so weird, all of a sudden?

His only consolation was that Kakashi had noticed, too. How could he not? It was impossible to miss when at times both of them seemed like completely different people, especially with those weird looks they kept sending them. They nearly looked mournful.

One time after another of their missions (Or rather chores. D-ranks did not deserve to be called 'missions'.) Kakashi cornered him, asking if he knew something.

"Did something happen? Between the three of you?"

Sasuke could only shrug. "Not that I know of. They just started being weird, that's all."

Kakashi had looked into the distance thoughtfully, telling Sasuke to come straight to him if he found out more.

It reached a whole new level of crazy when Sasuke had two insane conversations with each of them on the same day.

"Hey, Sasuke!" Naruto said, grinning and more cheerful than he had been in days. Maybe Sasuke was imagining it, but something about his smile felt off. "You still spend most of your time brooding, right?"

"B-Brooding?!"

"Yeah, and like, planning out your revenge and stuff. Is that still a thing?"

Sasuke could feel heat pulsing through his body. How dare he? "It's none of your business, moron! Don't talk about things you don't understand!"

Naruto's smile fell for a second, quickly enough that Sasuke nearly missed it. This time it definitely looked forced. "Right. Yeah. Sorry 'bout that, just wanted to make sure."

Make sure about what? Naruto wasn't making any sense! Sasuke stared after him, more than a little perplexed.

Naruto turned around one last time. "Right, uhh… Say, does Sakura seem kind of different to you?"

Sasuke turned around and stalked away.

His next conversation with Sakura was strikingly similar, and no less insane.

"So um, Sasuke. You still think this team is a waste of time, don't you?"

Sasuke stared at her.

"Come on, just answer!"

"I've got better things to do than dragging deadweight with me." The answer had slipped from Sasuke's tongue automatically. It was just the way he felt.

Sakura chuckled, a brittle, hollow sound. "Yeah, that's what I thought."

What was it with his team lately? They knew perfectly well how he felt about them.

Sakura had one more thing to add. "Is it just me, or is Naruto a lot less hyperactive lately?"

Sasuke didn't bother to answer her, either.

It was after their next training session that Sakura and Naruto broke their mutual avoidance and unspoken vow of silence with each other, and even though he had complained about their behavior before, he wasn't sure if this was any better.

"Hey, Naruto." Sakura's voice was odd, strained and yet fond in a way she had never been when talking to Naruto. "I'm sorry for every time I called you annoying. You're not. Annoying, I mean."

"Huh?" Naruto sounded as startled as Sasuke felt. "Where's this coming from?"

"O-Oh! It's nothing." Sakura sounded flustered. "I just thought. With us being a team now, I thought we should try to get along, you know?"

"Right. Because of the team, yeah." Was that disappointment? "Oh! And I'm sorry for asking you out even though you never wanted to."

"Don't worry about it!"

They looked at each other awkwardly, and then left in opposite directions. Sasuke didn't move, watching the whole thing incredulously.

A few days passed, and dare Sasuke say it, things started to normalize between them. Sort of. Naruto was still not interested in competing with him over anything, and Sakura had not regained her interest in dating him, but at least they were talking instead of shooting around wistful looks.

Of course Sasuke didn't miss either the rivalry or the crush – of course not! – but he still felt unbalanced. Like their dynamic had shifted, and he didn't know why.

By the time they were about to receive their next D-rank, Sasuke had nearly tricked himself into thinking their team could work out. Of course, Sakura and Naruto decided then that they could not go a single day without being weird.

The mission room was louder than usual, a man arguing about needing well-trained escorts with a shinobi trying to tell him that his request was a C-rank at best. Their own mission, meanwhile, was another garden chore.

"Um, Naruto?" Sakura said as Sasuke was already on his way out of the room. "Aren't you gonna say something?"

Naruto stared at her, and Sakura went on with gritted teeth. "I thought you were sick of all the D-ranks?"

"O-Oh!" Naruto's eyes widened, sweat collecting on his forehead. "I was, but. Um. B-Being on a team showed me just how important it is to learn to work as a team and not get ahead of myself. Y-Yeah."

"B-But-!" Sakura looked close to panicking. "Well, I'm sick of them! Can't we get a C-rank instead? In fact," she said, moving closer to the previously arguing elderly man, linking their arms under his disbelieving stare, "why don't we take on this one?"

"NO! Don't give us a C-rank!"

"Yeah," the man agreed. "Don't bother with those-"

"Naruto!" The shouting had drawn in the attention of every single person in the room. "What about the mission? People- Um. Our client! Our client needs our help, we can't abandon them. Him!"

"Don't worry, it'll sort itself out! Soon. While we're still here. In the village." Naruto coughed awkwardly. "Maybe overnight."

Sakura fumed. "What are you even talking about?"

"I don't know, what are you talking about?"

Nobody paid attention to the client, who was still trying to protest.

"We're not ready! What if something happens?"

Sakura murmured under her breath, and Sasuke nearly missed it. "Well better it happens to us, than-"

"What was that?" Kakashi chimed in.

"Nothing! I just really think we're ready. We can do it, right Sasuke?"

"Oh, that's dirty," Naruto whispered under his breath, but Sasuke ignored him. This was their chance to rise higher than the stupid D-ranks!

"Yeah. We're ready."

"Doesn't my opinion count for anything?!"

Their client went ignored as their D-rank mission was exchanged for a C-rank, Kakashi simply having accepted his fate of having two insane students under his wing.

Sasuke didn't care. This next mission would bring him closer to becoming a real shinobi, to become stronger and to reach his ambition. He smirked, indulging in the feeling of coming one step closer to beating Itachi.

Not even his crazy teammates could ruin this for him.

Chapter Text

 

A few hours into their mission and Sasuke started to regret his decision to press for a C-rank. Or, more specifically, for this particular C-rank. As if his weirdly acting teammates weren’t enough, now he also had to bear their irritatingly grumpy client, who didn’t let them forget for even a second that he had expected “real shinobi”, not “bratty little kids who had never even left their village before”.

 

It was too bad that in the shinobi world, strangling a client tended to be frowned upon.

 

Sasuke didn’t know why the guy thought he needed “real shinobi” in the first place. So far their trip had been uneventful, and it was beyond him what anyone would want to achieve by attacking some old bridge builder.

 

A bush next to the road rustled, and a white rabbit jumped out.

 

“I gotta pee!” Naruto yelled, closely followed by a “Me too!” from Sakura. Both of them dashed away, leaving Kakashi and Sasuke alone with their client and sharing a glance. He found comfort in Kakashi’s long-suffering expression, since it was proof that it was them who were crazy, not Sasuke.

 

“Well. Some subordinates you got there.” Sasuke grit his teeth at the mocking tone. “I knew from the start–”

 

“Quiet.”

 

“I mean, it’s not like they would have even made a dif–”

 

Down!

 

Sasuke acted on instinct. A handful fabric, a painful thud and he and their client were lying on the ground. His breath came fast and heavy, his teacher’s command sharp in his ears.

 

A giant sword had sunken into the tree behind them.

 

“Sasuke?”

 

His heart was threatening to jump out of his chest. His eyes were wide, struggling to take in the situation.

 

Kakashi stood between them and the sword (how had he moved so quickly?), shielding them from the man standing on its handle. The lower half of the man’s face was covered by bandages, his forehead protector spotting a scratch through its symbol. Missing nin , his sluggish mind offered, remembering the detail from the academy.

 

“Sasuke!”

 

“F-Fine!” he said, answering belatedly. “I’m fine.”

 

“What an honor.” The voice sounded mocking. “The Copy Ninja in the flesh. Kakashi of the Sharingan.”

 

Sharingan? What?!

 

“Zabuza Momochi, if I’m not mistaken?” Kakashi’s voice was pleasant, like he was making small talk rather than facing an opponent. “You built yourself quite the reputation yourself.”

 

Zabuza laughed, rugged and gruff. “Hand over the old man, and you won’t have to face me.”

 

“Ahh. I’m afraid that’s going to be a problem. Sasuke,” Kakashi said, raising his hand to his forehead protector. What was he doing? “Grab Tazuna-san and look for Sakura and Naruto. Stay put.”

 

Objection bubbled up in his throat, but then his eyes landed on their opponent. Something about Zabuza sent chills down Sasuke’s spine, icy needles of sweat glistening on his forehead. He could feel it. He was way, way out of his depth.

 

Tazuna was gaping at Zabuza, finally robbed for words, and Sasuke had to drag at his sleeve to get his attention.

 

“Now, we can’t have that,” Zabuza said, and stood in front of them in the blink of an eye.

 

Sasuke blocked the first hit on reflex. A kunai to his left, a kick from below. Sasuke jumped back, dragging Tazuna with him. A slicing pain in his arm, and he realized he hadn’t managed to dodge completely.

 

“Sasuke! Go!” Two Kakashis were in front of him and Sasuke’s thoughts were too scrambled and sluggish to make sense of it. One of them pushed him backwards, nearly making him fall, and it was enough to get him moving again.

 

He grabbed Tazuna, running into the trees without a glance back. The old man was silent, the only noise his own panting and the fighting noises from behind them.

 

He’d been useless back there. He hadn’t been able to do anything. Sasuke clenched his fists, angry at himself. He should have attacked, should have done something! Instead he had frozen and left his teacher behind to fight for his life.

 

There was yelling somewhere up front. He changed direction, running towards it until he found a clearing. The sight greeting him made him freeze in his tracks.

 

Naruto dangled from a tree, bound in rope from head to toe. On the other side of the clearing, Sakura was bound to a tree with ninja wire, explosives placed all around her. Neither of them was trying to escape, too busy yelling at each other.

 

“–was trying to ambush them, what do you think?!”

 

“Well, so was I! How should I have known?”

 

“It’s too dangerous, Naruto! What if you’d gotten hurt?!”

 

“What if I had gotten hurt? What if you’d gotten hurt!”

 

Sasuke didn’t trust his voice, so he burst out of the trees and cut the rope binding Naruto without comment. His clueless teammate fell to the ground with a yelp, and Sasuke was halfway through freeing Sakura when he leaped up.

 

“Sasuke?! What are you doing here?”

 

“You’re bleeding!” The alarm in Sakura’s voice made him look at his arm. It was a scratch, nothing more. He ignored it.

 

“We were attacked. Kakashi-sensei told us to protect Tazuna-san and stay put.”

 

“Right,” Naruto said. “Of course.”

 

They exchanged glances.

 

Five minutes later they stormed out of the forest ready to charge, and Sasuke was glad that this once they were all on the same page.

 

Until they realized that the fight was over. Trees all around were carved or unrooted, craters and furrows stamped into the ground around the battlefield. Zabuza was nowhere to be seen. There was only Kakashi, forehead protector in place and bloody scratches and tears in his uniform betraying the intensity of the battle.

 

Sasuke realized for the first time how strong Kakashi was. He felt stupid. The three of them would have only gotten in the way and made their teacher’s victory more complicated.

 

“I told you to stay put,” he said, scolding them with a look. He was still breathing heavily.

 

“Right, about that,” Naruto started, one hand behind his head and a sheepish grin in place.

 

“Nevertheless,” Kakashi cut him off, “Sasuke. You followed orders and got Tazuna-san out of harm’s way. Good job. You two on the other hand.” He frowned at Sakura and Naruto. “You ran off right before your team needed you. Both of you. What were you thinking?”

 

Sakura bit her lip, eyes dropping to the ground. “I’m sorry, Sensei.”

 

“Sorry,” Naruto echoed, and he sounded like he meant it.

 

By the time they arrived at Tazuna’s house Sasuke was exhausted, the adrenaline rush long faded. He didn’t pay attention to the introductions or to the conversation at the dinner table, gladly sinking into the blankets Tazuna and his family had offered them afterwards.

 

He was woken at night by a ruffling noise next to him, where Naruto was sleeping. Or supposed to be sleeping. Sasuke kept his eyes shut, ignoring his teammate as he seemed to get up and no , he’d had enough for the day, he did not care and would not be dragged into whatever Naruto was up to this time.

 

He nearly managed to fall back to sleep when he heard it again. From the other room. Where he knew for sure Sakura was sleeping.

 

Nope. No way. He would not open his eyes. He refused to care.

 

Sasuke turned around and resolutely went back to sleep.

 

Morning came around and all that remained was the nagging feeling that something had slipped from his mind, quickly overshadowed by Kakashi’s announcement that they would go into the forest for some training.

 

“Learning to utilize chakra properly is essential for aspiring shinobi. In order for it to become second nature to you, we’re going to do a little exercise.”

 

“An exercise?” Sakura stifled a yawn, dark bags under half-lidded eyes. Had she not slept well? Naruto didn’t look better, either.

 

“Yes,” Kakashi said cheerfully. “We’re going to climb trees.”

 

Sasuke frowned at him, wondering if he’d misheard. “Climbing trees? How’s that going to help us in a fight?”

 

“It’s going to help you practice your chakra flow. Watch this.” He proceeded to walk up a tree, demonstrating how to use chakra to stick to its bark. It made sense to Sasuke: it wouldn’t work with too little or too much chakra, so it was the perfect exercise to learn balancing chakra flow.

 

“I have to talk to Tazuna-san some more. I’ll come back later. Have fun!” He waved and disappeared in a puff of smoke.

 

Fine, then. Sasuke looked up at the nearest tree, his next obstacle to becoming a stronger shinobi. He put his foot on the bark, letting chakra flow into the sole of his foot until he felt it stick. He managed three wobbly steps before he slipped and fell to the ground with a thud.

 

He leaped up, scowling.

 

This was harder than it looked.

 

“Go a few steps back and try–” Sakura broke of with a deep yawn. “Try running from there.”

 

Sasuke whirled around and stared. He was the only one following Kakashi’s orders. His teammates were sprawled in the grass, leaning against tree trunks and clearly doing nothing to overcome the challenge their teacher had left them with. Naruto looked like he might have fallen asleep.

 

“Aren’t you gonna do what Kakashi-sensei told us to?”

 

“R-Riiiight,” Sakura said, another yawn drawing out the word. “Naruto. Naruto come on, you need to do the exercise.”

 

Naruto didn’t stir. Sasuke could hear him snoring.

 

“Naruto…” Sakura trailed off, falling back against her own trunk and eyes drooping.

 

Sasuke was left staring incredulously. Fine. It wasn’t Sasuke’s fault if they didn’t take their training seriously. This only confirmed his conviction that their so called “team” was a complete waste of time.

 

What could both of them have done that left them this exhausted, anyway? Not that he really cared.

 

Sasuke left his lazy teammates sleeping in the grass and kept practicing his treewalking.

 

Besides their training, the next few days passed uneventfully. To Sasuke’s utter shock, both Sakura and Naruto climbed their trees effortlessly when Kakashi asked them to – something he himself had not managed after hours of training. How had the two dead weights done it without putting in any effort whatsoever?

 

It made Sasuke furious and motivated him to train morning to night, non-stop until somebody forced him to call it a day. There was no way he was falling behind those two. No. Way.

 

Sasuke trained, his teammates lazed around and the bridge was built, and soon it was time for them to return to Konoha.

 

“That’s odd,” Kakashi said on their last day, uncharacteristically serious for once. “Someone seemed very determined to stop this bridge from being build. Why did they give up after all?”

 

“I don’t know, Sensei. Maybe whoever was in charge had a… change of heart.” Sakura gave a sunny smile that made Sasuke shudder.

 

“Yeah,” Naruto said. “Or maybe his lackeys weren’t as loyal as he thought they were.” He grinned innocently, and Sasuke didn’t bother to ask what they meant by that.

 

Kakashi shot both of his students looks, the special kind, the mixture of puzzlement and wariness that only Sakura and Naruto earned, but let it go.

 

For Sasuke it was yet another addition to his growing lists of reasons why something had to be seriously wrong with his teammates.


 

Chapter Text

Sasuke felt his eye twitching. He counted to ten, taking a deep breath.

 

“Why don't we hang out with Ino and her team?”

 

“Eh, I don't know.”

 

His teammates were ridiculous.

 

“Come on, Naruto, it'll be fun! They'd like you, trust me!”

 

“I don't feel like it. Let’s do something else.”

 

Completely and utterly ridiculous.

 

“Oh, I know! I could come over to your place and help out a bit. I could teach you how to cook.”

 

“I know how to cook! Why wouldn't I?”

 

“I mean real cooking, not just ramen.”

 

They’d been going in circles for ages now, trying to come up with something to do after training. If they wanted to spend time together so badly, why didn't they just do it? What did it matter what they did? They kept talking past each other.

 

It was like watching a bunch of kittens, clumsy and stumbling around each other awkwardly.

 

“How about we go train some more?”

 

“But we just did that!”

 

“Yeah, but we can do more! I can help! Don't you want to become a stronger shinobi?”

 

“Becoming stronger isn't everything, Naruto. Come on, we could make friends with Team 10! Shikamaru and Chōji are super nice, and Ino isn't as much of a prick as she wants you to think.”

 

“But Sakura–”

 

And on it went. Ridiculous and absolutely frustrating to listen to. Sasuke had enough of it. “Just invite them to have dinner at your place. You can show him how to cook then!”

 

There was silence, both of his teammates staring at him.

 

“That’s… actually a good idea,” Sakura said, looking at him wide-eyed. “Thank you, Sasuke.”

 

“Hn.” He crossed his arms, turning to head home. He should have left ages ago, but listening to those two dancing around each other had been painful. “You were getting on my nerves.”

 

“Wait! Sasuke!” Naruto yelled after him. “Don't you want to come too?”

 

As if he wanted to spend more time with his crazy teammates. Sasuke ignored him and kept walking.

 

The biggest incident by far happened just a few days later, its aftermath witnessed by the entire village. And while Sasuke had no proof, he just knew Sakura and Naruto had something to do with it. They had to.

 

It all began with a shady old guy with bandages around his head and covering one eye. Sasuke felt like he knew him from somewhere, but he wasn’t sure. He saw Naruto talking to him, casually on the streets and forgettable if it was anyone but Naruto. Because Naruto didn’t interact with adults, excluding Iruka and Kakashi, unless he was being scolded for some prank he pulled.

 

Even then, he still didn’t think much of it at first. But Naruto started to disappear for long periods of time. Always after training or missions, always when Kakashi and Sakura were elsewhere. He knew, because more than once Sakura asked him if he’d seen Naruto anywhere. She obviously didn’t know what he was up to, either.

 

Sasuke caught him once, looking around suspiciously as if to make sure nobody was following him. “Naruto?”

 

“A-Ah! Sasuke! Sorry, but I don’t have any time right now. Training, you know.”

 

Sasuke frowned. “But we already finished for today.”

 

“Oh yeah. Not with Kakashi.”

 

“Wait. You’re training with somebody else?”

 

There was that grin again. Like Naruto knew something that he didn’t. “Let’s just say that somebody is really interested in my… skills.”

 

How Sasuke hated that grin. And please, what skills could Naruto possibly be talking about? Maybe Naruto had been quick to pull off Kakashi’s chakra exercise (Sasuke was not still salty about being the last of their team to master it. He wasn’t.), but they were still genin. What special skill could Naruto have that would be of interest for somebody other than their genin instructor?

 

It was only a bit later, walking with Sakura in the evening that he saw the shady old guy again. He was walking with the Third, leaving the Hokage’s office, and Sasuke remembered. He even forgot his efforts to ignore his teammate. “Isn’t that the council guy? Next to Hokage-sama?”

 

“Hmm?” Sakura looked over, surprised to hear him initiate a conversation.

 

“I saw him with Naruto once. Didn’t remember until now who–”

 

“With Danzō?! ” Sakura gaped at him, eyes wide with… was that panic? “Oh no, he won’t!”

 

With that she dashed away, leaving Sasuke feeling like he’d made a horrible mistake.

 

The next day Konoha woke up to an uproar. Literally. Noises had dragged Sasuke out of his sleep deep at night, and only the ANBU dashing past his window stopped him from investigating himself. This looked serious.

 

His assumption was proven right in the morning, on his walk towards their usual meeting place. Konoha was a mess. He stared at the craters that had opened overnight, blocked by fences and ANBU. Even from his viewpoint he could see the tunnels underneath, and if the rumors flying around were true, those weren’t the only revelation by far.

 

“They say a stranger uncovered the hideout by punching straight through. They fought Danzō one on one!”

 

“–incredible, Danzō is said to be an elite shinobi. What strength–”

 

“–you hear? Danzō is supposed to have the Sharingan! Stole it back before the massacre happened, they say–”

 

“–that freakish arm of his. How was he even allowed on the council?”

 

“–disappeared as soon as the ANBU came. That’s right, left Danzō behind just in time to be shipped off to interrogation.”

 

He let the snippets of gossip wash over him, paying more attention than he’d want to admit.

 

The only thing everybody seemed to agree on was that Danzō had been arrested and nobody quite knew what to do with him.

 

Sasuke meanwhile took great care not to think about the mysterious stranger too much, and kept going to their usual training ground. He arrived just in time to walk in on a conversation between his teammates.

 

Or rather an argument, from the sound of it.

 

“–didn’t know! I thought Danzō had gotten to you. How could I have known that you’re... well, you!

 

“It’s called infiltration, duh! And you ruined it!”

 

“It worked out, didn’t it?”

 

There was a moment of silence. Sakura and Naruto looked at each other like they were seeing each other for the first time.

 

“I can’t believe it’s you! Why didn’t you say anything?”

 

“I thought you were acting differently because I was acting differently! Why didn’t you say anything?”

 

“...Same here. Does that mean–?” Naruto paused, and it sounded like he was afraid to form the next sentence. “What about Sasuke?”

 

Sakura looked at the ground. “No. I asked him before. Sort of.”

 

A sigh. “Yeah, me too. Guess we’re on our own then.”

 

And alright, that was about as much weirdness as Sasuke could handle. He turned around, not faltering in his steps once. He would just tell them he’d been sick or something.

 

Sasuke knew it was getting ridiculous. He couldn’t keep avoiding them like this for much longer, and he knew he should talk to someone about their insane – and worrying – behavior. But not yet.

 

Sasuke left, leaving his teammates behind and doing his best to ignore the gigantic crater in the middle of Konoha.


 

Chapter Text

Naruto and Sakura became best friends overnight. Whatever had happened the day before (He was not going to think about it. He did not care.), it somehow caused yet another complete shift in personality for the two. The only difference was that it showed solely in the way they acted towards each other.

 

Gone were the awkward attempts at bonding, gone the insecurity in addressing each other. The two of them could barely be seen apart, always hanging out, always training or doing something together.

 

They still tried to drag Sasuke into their “team-bonding” regularly, but Sasuke couldn’t help but feel like he was intruding.

 

It didn’t make any sense! Nobody got this close to someone so quickly, especially not if they hated them before.

 

The worst, by far, were the inexplicable references and inside jokes – and how they had inside jokes when they’d been friends for only a few days, he would never know. It seemed like they barely needed a word to communicate, and when they talked, most it sounded like nonsense. His only consolation was that Kakashi was suffering with him.

 

Naruto commented on the next D-rank they received, hunting down the demon cat for the third time in a row, with the words: “It’s moments like these that I wonder if I should have just let Pain do his thing.”

 

Sakura – her hair freshly cut short, and Sasuke had thought she kept it long to impress boys – snorted, and Kakashi and he glanced at each other. With every look of suffering that they shared, Sasuke appreciated Kakashi a bit more.

 

A fleeting glance at Naruto showed that he was wearing stud earrings close to the ones Sasuke had seen on Team 10 before. Because apparently, their personality switch alone was not enough for his teammates.

 

One day Naruto acted like he had a stomach ache, rubbing over it with his hand and grimacing.

 

“Naruto, are you alright?” Kakashi asked, pausing mid-sentence while explaining a new training exercise.

 

“Hmm? Oh yeah.” Apparently the pain wasn’t bad enough to avoid his I-know-something-that-you-don’t look. “My roommate is just a bit cranky today.”

 

What did that have to do with anything? Besides, Naruto was living alone. To his utter dismay, when Sasuke glanced up at Kakashi for his usual sanity check, his teacher wasn’t looking. He was staring at Naruto with what was nearly alarm.

 

What Sasuke hated the most was being dragged into their jokes against his will. Most of the time he could at least pretend to ignore their childish giggling and knowing glances. But other times?

 

Naruto took a bathroom break from training, leaving with a smirk at Sakura and the words, “Don’t let him pull a Sasuke while I’m gone.”

 

Sasuke felt his eye twitch. “What?”

 

“Don’t worry, Sasuke.” Sakura put a consoling hand on his shoulders. “I won’t let you do it this time.”

 

“Let me do what?!

 

Sasuke felt his patience fading with every day that he spend with his team and knew for sure that he was reaching his limit. It came as a surprise when Kakashi cracked first.

 

“Naruto. Sakura. Would you mind staying behind for a bit? We need to talk.”

 

Sasuke hesitated. This could be it. Was Kakashi finally putting an end to this madness? Was he finally going to discover his teammates’ secret? It was about time, but Sasuke didn’t want to be left out. He was part of the team, too, so why was he send away?

 

Kakashi waited and Sasuke had no choice but to leave, fuming the entire way home.

 

He couldn’t wait to reach the training grounds the next day, impatient to maybe, possibly get behind the mystery that was Naruto and Sakura. However the conversation with Kakashi might have ended, they had to be planning to let him in on it as well. Right? If Kakashi was in on their secret now, they couldn’t be planning to leave him in the dark. Could they?

 

Impatient as he was, Sasuke had set off to their meeting place early and had expected to be the first. Because of that he was left gaping when not only someone else was waiting, it was Kakashi. Their incredibly lazy teacher Kakashi, who could not be bothered to show up for training until at least two or three hours had passed.

 

“Um. Sensei? What are you doing here?”

 

“Hmm? Training is starting soon, isn’t it?” Kakashi’s eye closed in a cheerful smile, acting as if nothing about his presence was out of the ordinary. Something felt off.

 

“But–” Sasuke cut himself off, not willing to argue about something as stupid as this. Instead he asked the question that had been burning on his tongue since Kakashi had pulled his teammates aside the other day. “Did you find out what’s wrong with Naruto and Sakura?”

 

Kakashi’s eye twitched. “Nothing is wrong with them.”

 

“What?!” Sasuke stared at his teacher. “I thought you confronted them yesterday! What about their weird behavior? Their instant friendship? The inside jokes?

 

“Really now, Sasuke. You want me to do something about their friendship? That’s not nice.”

 

“I– No! That’s not the point!” Sasuke couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He’d thought he and Kakashi were allies! They’d had a bond!


“Unless you have something solid to be concerned about, I suggest you let it go, Sasuke. Just trust me on this.”

 

“Trust you on what?” called a voice from behind.

 

Sasuke whirled around to see his teammates crossing the bridge over the small river. From the corner of his eye he saw Kakashi tense, and looking back at him he could see how strained his expression had become. He stared at his students like he had never seen them before.


No, that wasn’t right. He was staring at them like he knew something about them that he hadn’t before. Something big. Sasuke clenched his fists, frowning at all three of them. Kakashi knew , and he was going to leave him in the dark.

 

“Sasuke? Are you alright?” Sakura said in a tone appropriate for a five-year-old. Her patient smile was wobbly and it wasn’t long until Sasuke realized she was holding in laughter. He scowled deeper.

 

“Aww, don’t be like that, Sasuke,” Naruto said. “You won’t go rogue over this, will you?”

 

Sakura hit Naruto on the arm, making him cry out. “Naruto. Don’t be like that.”

 

“I didn’t start it!”

 

“Please,” Kakashi said. “How about we just start our training?” Sasuke couldn’t believe his ears. Kakashi sounded nervous. Kakashi, a jōnin instructor with years of experience under his belt was talking to his genin students and sounded nervous.

 

Naruto and Sakura shared a glance. Naruto grinned.

 

“Naruto, don’t–”

 

“Sure thing. As you wish. Rokudaime.” He said the last word slowly as if savoring the moment, not taking his eyes off Kakashi once. Next to him, Sakura groaned.

 

What was that even supposed to mean? Kakashi was as far away from being Hokage material as one could get. Besides, there’ve only had four Hokage so far, not five and certainly not six. The comment was stupid.

 

But one glance at Kakashi and Sasuke wasn’t so sure anymore. He had paled to a worrying degree, looking faint and horrified. He only stopped staring at Naruto to look at Sakura instead, eyes wide in disbelief.

 

Whatever he wanted her to do, he was disappointed. Sakura shrugged helplessly, grinning sheepishly as if that made it better. Kakashi turned around wordlessly and they had no choice but to follow.

 

Sasuke glared at his teammates. Less because they had broken their teacher and more because he still didn’t know how or why!

 

Naruto, that bastard, had the nerve to grin at him. “What is it, Sasuke? Snake got your tongue?”

 

Sakura pressed her hand on her mouth in an attempt to hold back her laughter.

 

Sasuke followed behind them, surrendering to his fate. This was so much worse than before.


 

 

Chapter Text

 

Sasuke was staring. He had arrived late to their meeting place, and everybody else was already there. Everybody, in this case, meant his team plus two additional people he had never seen before in his life.

 

“What.” His eyes zoomed in on Naruto and Sakura, because of course they had to be behind it. Naruto grinned at him cheerfully, while Sakura was sitting on the ground, her face buried in one hand and radiating exasperation. Maybe this time it was just Naruto’s fault.

 

Was his hair longer than usual? Sasuke could have sworn it had grown, falling into Naruto’s eyes and forcing him to tug it behind his ears constantly.

 

“Alright,” one of the strangers said, a guy with brown hair and weird eyes. “Now that your teammate’s here, would you please tell me what I’m doing here?”

 

“I’d like to know as well,” the other one agreed. He was younger, maybe a bit older than Sasuke was and incredibly pale. “I’m supposed to be in rehabilitation right now.”

 

Rehabi– What?! “Who are you?!”

 

“So glad you asked!” Naruto grinned, pushing past Kakashi and putting a hand on each of the strangers’ shoulders. Kakashi let it happen with a long-suffering glance. Sasuke’s eyes were drawn to Naruto’s hands, his nails painted in a purple that looked horrible in combination with his orange clothes. One glance at Sakura’s hand – still hiding her face – showed the same shade of nail polish. The two of them were taking this whole ‘best friends forever’ thing a bit too far, in Sasuke’s opinion.

 

“This is Yamato! Or Tenzō, or whatever else he’s going with right now. He’s an ANBU.”

 

“How did you-?!”

 

“And this,” Naruto went on, ignoring ‘Yamato’s’ shocked exclamation, “is Sai. He’s also an ANBU, but he was part of a super secret underground organization that operated without the Hokage’s knowledge until somebody got his superior arrested.”

 

“It’s true,” ‘Sai’ said, an oddly fake looking smile on his face and entirely unfazed by Sasuke and Yamato’s alarmed expressions. “Except that I hadn’t been assigned a name so far. I quite like ‘Sai’.”

 

“That’s great,” Yamato interrupted. “But that does not answer my question. What are we doing here?”

 

“Weeell,” Naruto said, drawing out the word and grinning cheerfully. Sasuke had a bad feeling about this. “We’re bringing Team 7 back together-”

 

Naruto, ” Sakura hissed, not looking up.

 

“We're expanding Team 7!” Naruto said without missing a beat.

 

“And don't drag me into this! This one’s entirely on you.”

 

I'm expanding Team 7. Geez, Sakura, I thought we were in this together!”

 

“Now, wait a second!” Yamato gaped at the two of them, sending a look to Kakashi that screamed ‘Help!’ All he got in reply was a look of pity, Kakashi – for some reason – not putting a stop to what his crazy teammates were planning now. Or Naruto, in this case.

 

Sai did not react at all. He was completely at ease, sporting that weird plastered smile of his and acting like nothing about this situation was odd.

 

“What are you on about?” Sasuke was not amused. Why would Naruto try to recruit two random people into their complete team?

 

“Come on, Sasuke! You’ll like Sai! He’s even more emotionally constipated than you.”

 

Sasuke’s eye was twitching.

 

“Is that a compliment?” Sai asked, turning pages in a book he was holding. “It doesn’t say anything about being constipated…”

 

“Senpai. Kakashi-senpai. What’s happening.” Yamato looked close to desperate by now, alternating between wary looks towards the crazy genin who’d brought him here and help-seeking ones towards Kakashi. Who he apparently knew well enough to call him ‘senpai’.

 

Sasuke decided to jump ship before it got any weirder. “No. I’m not doing this. Absolutely not.” He turned, stomping off the training grounds. Or attempted to. An arm slung around his shoulders, dragging him back with surprising strength.

 

“Sasuke! You can’t leave, we’re about to welcome our new team members!”

 

“No, you’re not!” Yamato yelled, exasperated. “This is crazy! Senpai, why are you playing along with this?!”

 

Kakashi heaved a sigh, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else but here. “I have to agree on this. Think about it, Naruto. You’re all still genin–” Naruto tried to interfere but Kakashi spoke over him. “ Technically, you’re still genin. A newly appointed genin team always has four members, no additional students and definitely not more than one jōnin teacher.”

 

“But Sensei!” Naruto yelled. Was he trying to use puppy eyes on Kakashi? “Our team won’t be complete!” His hair fell back into his eyes and he had to tug it back again.

 

“For goodness sake,” Sakura muttered, reaching into her pocket and pulling out… hair clips? “Here. I told you to bring some.” That last part was uttered quietly enough that only Sasuke and Naruto could hear it.

 

Naruto took them with a grin and clipped his hair back. “Thanks, Sakura!”

 

“Hey, Nutcase,” Sai said, addressing Naruto with a smile like he hadn’t just insulted him. “Why are you so determined about making us join? If you want to have a bigger team, you could have asked other people.”

 

“But I don’t want to make the team bigger! I want you to join. That’s different.” Naruto nodded as if that explained everything. “Also, why Nutcase?!”

 

“You want… me?” Sai sounded genuinely confused, the first real sign of emotion.

 

Naruto continued in a soft tone Sasuke didn’t know he was capable of. “I know you won’t understand at this point, but we genuinely want you to be our teammate. We’d be thrilled to have you, and it would be the perfect alternative for rehabilitation! Think about it, what better way to learn social skills than to join a team?”

 

“Naruto,” Kakashi chimed in. “I’m sorry, but it’s not an option.” He paused and heaved a sigh like he couldn’t believe his next words himself. “Yamato isn’t assigned any long-term missions. He could take on Sai as an apprentice.”

 

“Excuse me–?!” Kakashi ignored Yamato’s indignant yell.

 

“It’ll have the same benefit on his reintegration and if you insist we can have joined training from time to time.”

 

Sakura leaped to her feet. “I told you there were other ways!”

 

“But it’s not the same!” Naruto pouted, entering a staring contest with Sakura. He looked away first, crossing his arms. “Fine.”

 

“Don’t I get a say in this?” Yamato threw up his hands in exasperation. All he got in reply was a consoling hand on his shoulder from Kakashi.

 

“Just don’t fight it. Don’t.”

 

In Sasuke’s opinion, Yamato should be glad. They were talking about his teammates here and all things considered he had still gotten away from it mildly. Sasuke frowned, noting that Sai was staring at Sakura.

 

Sakura had noticed, too. “What is it?”

 

Sai’s smile widened and Sasuke nearly wanted to tell him to cut it out. It looked incredibly fake. “Nothing, Sakura.”

 

Sakura raised an eyebrow. “No nickname for me?”

 

“My book says it’s not advisable to use nicknames for your social superiors.”

 

“What?!” Naruto yelled. “I’m a nutcase and Sakura is your ‘social superior’? How come?!”

 

Sai’s expression froze, his eyes resting on Sakura in a blank stare. “There were witnesses.”

 

“Witnesses?” Naruto asked, frowning. “Witnesses for wha– Oh. OH!”

 

Sakura chuckled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ve never heard of me before. Isn’t that right , Sai?” Her grin showed too many teeth.

 

If possible, Sai got even paler. “Of course, Sakura-senpai.”

 

“Now it's ‘senpai’?” Naruto whined. “This isn’t fair, you’re cheating, Sakura! Hey, hey, Sai! What’s Sasuke then?”

 

Sai turned to look at him and Sasuke tried not to squirm under his critical glance.

 

“Boring,” Sai decided. “Nutcase, Boring and… Sakura.”

 

Naruto burst out laughing and Sakura grinned self-satisfied while Kakashi tried to ignore all of them and Yamato seemed to have an existential crisis in the background. All things considered, Sasuke wasn’t sure if he should be offended or pleased. On a team with two lunatics, maybe ‘boring’ wasn't so bad.


 

Chapter Text



With the utter craziness that had been his life thanks to his teammates, more than once Sasuke found himself wondering how much better he’d be off without them. What would a normal life with a normal genin team look like? Even better, one without a team at all? No craziness, no weird behavior or annoying inside jokes. Nothing to hold him back, just himself and his ambition to become stronger than Him . The thought alone was heavenly!

 

It was because of that that Sasuke had the urge to rub his eyes and check for a genjutsu when he and his teammates actually saw eye to eye for once.

 

“What?!” Naruto yelled, glaring at their teacher. Naruto being loud and irritating was in and of itself nothing out of the ordinary. It was, however, that Sakura and Sasuke were glaring alongside him.

 

“You heard me,” Kakashi said, entirely unmoved. “I’m not recommending you. And without recommendation, you won’t be able to join the chūnin exams.”

 

“But Sensei!” Naruto was gaping, disbelief and betrayal in his voice. Alright, maybe he was taking the whole thing a bit too seriously. Sasuke was angry too, but Naruto was acting like Kakashi had stabbed him in the back.

 

“Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura said, frowning. “Don’t you remember what we talked about? We have to be there.”

 

“It’s because I remember that I won’t let you.”

 

“But–”

 

“In fact, I’d have thought you’d agree with me. Don’t you think it would be best to,” Kakashi cleared his throat, his eyes flashing to Sasuke, “keep away from snakes for the time being?”

 

Sasuke gaped, cold betrayal coursing through his body. He couldn’t believe Kakashi was doing it too! He was being kept out again, kept in the dark about something his entire team knew about. Kakashi was supposed to be his ally: why was he siding with them now? It wasn’t fair!

 

“Kakashi-sensei, please! You have to trust us on this. It’ll be really bad if we’re not there during the exams!”

 

“Naruto is right. We can take care of ourselves. Let’s just talk about this–”

 

“You three are staying put.” Kakashi looked at each of them, uncharacteristically strict. “And that’s final.”

 

He went as far as to put them under house arrest. A shinobi was assigned to watch them on the day that the exam took place, keeping them practically imprisoned in an empty room of the academy.


The worst part about it: both other genin teams of their academy class had been recommended, giving them the opportunity for a promotion and leaving Team 7 behind in the dust. Sasuke hadn’t stopped scowling the entire day, seething about the lost opportunity.

 

It nearly made him miss Naruto speaking up for the first time since they’d been confined to their glorified prison cell, whispering to Sakura. “You think it’s time?”

 

Sakura checked the watch at the classroom wall. She too kept her voice low. “Just about, I’d say.”

 

Naruto nodded, flashing Sasuke a grin. “Sasuke, do what you want but don’t blame us for whatever happens. ‘kay?”

 

“What–?!” But Naruto had already leaped up, staggering to the front of the classroom where their babysitter was. Sasuke hadn’t cared enough to remember his name.

 

Naruto gave a very convincing miserable moan, leaning on the front desk for support. “Shinobi-san… I-I’m not feeling so good…” Sasuke watched in disbelief as his teammate proceeded to fake-faint.

 

“Uzumaki?! Uzumaki, can you hear me?” The shinobi dropped to the ground next to Naruto, checking his breathing. Sasuke couldn’t make out what happened next, but the shinobi fell silent, sitting on the ground bonelessly and eyes fixed on the wall.

 

Sasuke stared, not sure what had happened or what he should do.

 

“Alright, alright, hurry!” A second Naruto leaped from the previously empty row behind them, making Sasuke nearly jump out of his skin. “I’m crap at genjutsu, that won’t hold for long! Go, go!”

 

Sakura dashed across the room to the window, picking its lock with what looked like a hairpin. Sasuke wasn’t stupid. He recognized what was going on. It was dumb and unnecessary, as the exam had already started and it wasn’t like they could just pretend to be participants. He wouldn’t gain anything from this.

 

Sasuke made his decision in a split second, jumping after Sakura. Naruto’s yell of “Shadow Clone Technique!” sounded in his ears and what were shadow clones even supposed to be? Not that he didn’t have more pressing matters to think about.

 

“Heh, told you he wouldn’t be able to resist,” Naruto said as soon as he caught up with them.

 

Sakura sighed but didn’t look surprised. “This is a horrible idea.”

 

“You try telling him to stay put. See how that turns out.”

 

“We could have thought of something better–”

 

“Stop talking like I’m not here,” Sasuke snapped, glaring straight ahead. He was tired of being treated like air. Tired of being left out. This only proved what he’d always thought: Their so called “team” was nothing but a waste of time and, as it turned out, a gigantic joke on his expense. He’d had enough.

 

There was silence, and Sasuke considered leaving his teammates to do whatever they planned on doing and going home. He didn’t belong to them.

 

“I’m sorry, Sasuke,” Sakura said, slowing down to be on level with him. “I didn’t realize we were going overboard.”

 

“Yeah,” Naruto agreed. “You’re part of our team, too. I’m sorry if we haven’t acted like it.”

 

“Hn.” Sasuke scowled. “I don’t care about our team.”

 

Naruto and Sakura shared a glance. “Yeah,” Sakura said, “and we haven’t really done anything to fix that.” Fix? There was nothing to fix, and they would never resemble a functional team! “But we will. Right after this is over.”

 

Questions burned on Sasuke’s tongue, but all of them were wiped away as he saw their destination. The Forest of Death looked as dark and as wild as its name suggested, blocked off by a large metal fence. Sasuke had heard stories about it when he was younger, meant to scare off children with gruesome examples.

 

Realization dawned and Sasuke’s eyes widened. “Are they doing the exam in there?”

 

“Yup,” Naruto said with a cheerful grin, “but that’s not why we’re here. Well. Not really. Kind of?”

 

Sakura ignored him, flashing hand signs and transforming into a plain looking kunoichi in a chūnin vest, swapping her short pink hair for a long, brown ponytail. “They’ll notice a bunch of kids immediately,” she said with a glance towards Sasuke, her voice deeper than before. “Chūnin proctors are less suspicious.”

 

“And if we do get caught, at least they won’t see our faces while we run away,” Naruto added, copying Sakura. Literally.

 

"Um. Naruto?" Sasuke looked pointedly at Naruto’s long hair and feminine features, wondering why he’d chosen a female disguise. His Sexy Technique was hardly anything new, but this was a serious situation. And Naruto was wearing clothes.

 

Naruto shrugged, oddly brusque considering it was Naruto . "I feel like it."

 

Naruto and Sakura waited, looking at Sasuke weirdly strained. He decided to play along quickly and was relieved when they immediately relaxed. When had this become his life?

 

He heaved a sigh, forming the hand signs and didn’t even bother to ask how long they’d planned the whole thing. Why was he going along with it? He didn’t have a reason to be here.

 

Nevertheless, Sasuke found himself following his teammates over the fence and through the forest, leaping from tree to tree and listening for any disturbance. The other genin had to be in here somewhere. What would they do if they stumbled across one of the teams?

 

Naruto froze in his tracks and Sasuke nearly crashed into him. The idiot’s eyes were wide, his head cocked and brows furrowed as if he was listening – or sensing? – for something.

 

“Did you find him?” Sakura asked.

 

“Leaking killing intent everywhere,” Naruto said, his feminine voice somehow familiar and odd sounding at the same time. How he managed a sentence like that with such a beaming grin on his face was beyond Sasuke. “See you later!”

 

Sasuke couldn’t react in time and Naruto dashed off, leaving him and Sakura behind. He stared after him. “Where is he going?”

 

Sakura leaped off in the opposite direction and Sasuke had no choice but to follow. “Oh, just making a friend.” She smiled like that sentence answered everything.

 

“Is it the one with killing intent?”

 

“Don’t worry. That’s not nearly enough to stop Naruto. If sh-” Sakura’s sentence cut off in a cough. “If he wants to make a friend, he’s getting a friend.”

 

It spoke volumes about Sasuke’s past experience with them that he didn’t feel in the least surprised. “And where are we going?”

 

“Oh.” Sakura flashed him a knowing smile. “Just looking for someone. You’ll see.”

 

“Hn.” Damn teammates. Damn secrecy.

 

Leaves rustled in the distance and Sakura stopped, Sasuke not far behind. That hadn’t sounded like an animal. “Sasuke,” Sakura whispered, “stay here. Wait for me.”


Protest was on the tip of his tongue, but Sakura was already gone. Who did she think she was?! It was bad enough that they were on the same team, but now she acted like she was his superior? What gave her the right to give him orders?

 

Sasuke scowled, heading off by himself. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do in the forest, but he’d think of something. Anything would be better than to take orders from his deadweight teammate.

 

“Well, isn’t that a surprise.”

 

Sasuke jumped, barely keeping hold of his tree branch. A woman materialized out of thin air, pale skin and long black hair and a smile that sent chills down Sasuke’s spine. He didn’t recognize the symbol on her forehead protector.

 

“But what a pleasant surprise it is. Uchiha Sasuke. What is it that they call you…” Her roaming eyes prickled uncomfortably on his skin. Sasuke felt like he was being dissected by her gaze alone. “Ahh. The Last Uchiha. You can’t imagine how disappointed I was when I heard whispers that you would not compete.”

 

She stepped closer and Sasuke wanted to run, wanted to flee, to get away from this woman who set off alarm bells in his head but he was frozen. His legs wouldn’t move, and his eyes were stuck on the bark at her feet. The sheer thought of looking into her eyes made him feel nauseous. His Henge was gone. When had he dropped it?


“Wh-Who are you?” His voice was small and shaky. The voice of a child, not a shinobi. He forced away the tremor, and his question came a bit sharper. “What do you want?”

 

“Why, I just want to talk.” Her voice was slick as oil, her lips stretched in a smile that showed too many teeth. “I’ve heard about you, Sasuke. And I am… interested.”


“Sasuke!” Sakura’s voice snapped him out of his stupor and he watched her leap over through the tree branches. “Sorry I took so long. You should have waited!”

 

“Stay back!” Sasuke yelled, the only coherent thought he could muster being to keep Sakura away . “S-She’s too strong! I’ve never– N-Never–” The trembling was back.

 

Sasuke was reminded of the other time he’d been hopelessly outclassed against another shinobi. It was the same bloodlust and intent to kill that froze up his body and made him want to vomit. It was like facing his brother all over again. They couldn’t fight this person.

 

Sakura didn’t listen. She landed a few feet away from him, facing the woman with a grim look on her face. “Orochimaru.”

 

“Is she a friend of yours?” The woman – Orochimaru? Was she even female? – wouldn’t stop smiling. “And I had so hoped to get a moment with you alone. There’s so much to disc–”

 

Sakura leaped forwards and punched Orochimaru in the face.

 

Sasuke was left gaping. Had she just–? Had Sakura just–?

 

Cracks had formed in the bark of the tree Orochimaru had crashed into and her – no, his – head snapped to the side with Sakura’s punch. The skin on his face had ripped, revealing snake-like eyes widened in shock and even paler skin, bruises already forming. He raised one hand to his cheek like he wasn’t sure what had just happened.

 

“Why, you–” His eyes narrowed, eying Sakura with a calculating gaze. “And who might you be?”

 

“Haruno Sakura,” she said with a sunny smile, contrasting her furrowed brows. “Genin of Konoha, at your service.”

 

“Genin? Don’t make me laugh.” Orochimaru’s mouth twisted back into a smile. “Tell me, girl. What is it that you want?”

 

“Oh, I got what I came for.” Sakura flexed her hand, the one she had punched Orochimaru with. “As for what happens next… I’m open for suggestions.” Her smile sent chills down Sasuke’s spine as she clenched her hands to fists, taking on a fighting stance.

 

“Interesting,” Orochimaru murmured, Sasuke all but forgotten. “Why don’t we have a little chat, Haruno Sakura?”

 

Sakura’s response was to fling herself forward, punching the tree Orochimaru was occupying and forcing him to dodge. The tree split in half and Sasuke’s eyes almost bulged out of his skull.

 

“I don’t know, Orochimaru-sama.” Sakura’s voice was sickly sweet, the honorific mocking. “Talking tends to be so boring, doesn’t it?” She took another leap, chasing after Orochimaru who retreated further back into the forest.

 

Sasuke barely paid attention. His thoughts kept circling back to Sakura – weak, ordinary Sakura who had cared more about her appearance than her skills until recently – punching a full-grown tree hard enough to shatter it.

 

He saw Orochimaru’s head snap to the side and followed his gaze to see Kakashi rushing towards them through the tree branches. “Sasuke! Sakura!”

 

“What a shame,” Orochimaru said, his mouth twisted in distaste, “but that’s my cue. I’ll see you again.” It sounded like a threat.

 

Sakura’s entire body tensed and Sasuke thought she’d chase after him. “Can’t wait,” she muttered instead, relaxing.

 

“Sasuke!” Kakashi was by his side in an instant and, for some inexplicable reason, tugged down the collar of his shirt, checking his neck.

 

“What are you–” He was about to slap his hand away but Kakashi already let go.


“Oh thank goodness.” He deflated visibly, leaning against the nearest tree trunk as if he couldn’t carry his own weight. “Sakura! What did I tell you?”

 

“My bad, Kakashi-sensei.” Sakura didn’t sound apologetic in the slightest. “But I told you before, I had a date. It would have been so impolite not to show up.” Behind her the shattered remains of the tree trunk continued to fall apart.

 

Kakashi had seen it too, staring stoically without moving. He muttered something along the lines of, “too old for this”, before turning to Sakura again. “What about Naruto?”

 

“Still on his own date. Should be done–”

 

“Hey, Sakura!”

 

“–right about now.”

 

“Oh, hey, Kakashi-sensei! Hey Sasuke.” Just like Sakura, Naruto – still wearing his Henge – didn’t seem concerned at all that their teacher had caught them disobeying his orders in quite a spectacular fashion. In fact, beside the greeting he didn’t acknowledge Kakashi at all, simply asking Sakura, “You done?”

 

Sakura nodded towards the shattered remains of the tree, flexing her arm with an unnerving grin. “I got what I came for. You?”

 

“You bet!” Naruto’s smile was wide and sunny, radiating warmth.

 

“Could we please talk about how all three of you are currently in the Forest of Death without permission or acceptable reason?” To Sasuke’s surprise, Kakashi’s voice sounded long-suffering rather than angry, his eyes conveying with astonishing clarity that he questioned how he’d gotten into this situation in the first place as well as what he had done to deserve such punishment. Sasuke could relate.

“Are you gonna tell on us?” Naruto wasn’t particularly worried. He sounded curious, if anything.

 

Kakashi heaved a sigh, his shoulders slumping in defeat and looking at his students with a blank stare. “Just come with me. I have an idea.”

 


 

Chapter Text

 

Kakashi’s plan, as it turned out, was to march them to the building at the center of the forest as if they had every right to be there. Sakura had to remind Naruto to drop his Henge (“Naruto.” “Hmm?” “You’re still a girl.”), but with that out of the way, Kakashi put on a facade that looked half cheerful, half careless – which was impressive, considering he had looked close to a mental breakdown only minutes ago.

 

When the guards questioned their presence in the forest he simply said, “Oh, I brought them here. They were so disappointed that they couldn’t participate. I thought I’d let my cute little students at least watch their friends.” He gave them a cheerful smile and Sakura and Naruto joined it, beaming so disgustingly innocent and childish, Sasuke wanted to gag. If only they knew.

 

At this point, Sasuke paid only half attention to what was going on, too busy internally freaking out. He had just faced someone Itachi’s caliber, had felt the bloodlust pouring off of him. He hadn’t needed to fight this Orochimaru; Sasuke had just known that he was out of his league. Insanely, ridiculously out of his league.


And Sakura had punched him. She’d punched him in the face, into a tree and mocked him like it was nothing.

 

The events kept replaying in his head and Sasuke tried to find some kind of explanation for it. He must have imagined it. Yes, that must be it. Orochimaru, whoever he was, had just been another genin trying to give him a scare. That was the only explanation for Sakura of all people getting the better of him.

 

But then, why had Kakashi sounded so worried? And where had the killing intent come from? Sasuke could still feel the terror residing deep within his bones, the fear in his gut, shaking him to his very core. He couldn’t have imagined that. But what other explanation was there?

 

All the other genin had arrived at the building by now, cheerfully welcomed by Naruto and Sakura. Neither of them seemed upset about being left out, in fact, neither of them seemed in the least interested in competing themselves. Sasuke wanted to shake them and demand to know what was wrong with them.

 

“Hey, Ino!” Sakura yelled, striding over to Team 10.

 

Ino halted her efforts to steal her teammate’s bag of chips, doing a double take as she recognized Sakura. “Eh? What are you doing here? I thought your team wasn’t recommended for the exam?”

 

“We weren’t. Our dear sensei brought us here so we could watch. Isn’t that sweet of him?” Behind them, leaning against a wall and buried in his book, Kakashi made a noise of great suffering.

 

Ino smirked, crossing her arms tauntingly. “Well, we’re about to have one-on-one fights. Take a good look. Maybe you can learn something and make the cut next time. Of course, I might be a chūnin by then already.”

 

Sakura didn’t look bothered in the slightest, giving Ino a beaming smile. “Fingers crossed! I’ll cheer for you!”

 

Ino’s smirk faltered, her eyes widening in surprise. “You will? Um. Th-Thanks?”


“You too, Chōji. Shikamaru.” Sakura clasped Ino on the shoulder, and Ino was too startled to do anything against it. “Good luck. You’ll do great!”

 

Sasuke soaked in Ino’s confusion, glad that for once someone else was on the receiving end of his teammates’ insanity. He would take what he could get.

 

“Hey, hey! Sasuke, Sakura! Come on, they’re about to start. Let’s hurry so we’ll get good seats!”

 

Sasuke didn’t remark that there were hardly enough people to fill up the arena, and he let himself be dragged along without comment. He was starting to learn that the easiest way to handle his team was to simply go along with whatever they did.

 

He didn’t pay much attention to the fights. He wasn’t participating, so why would he care? Some of Konoha’s genin won, some of them lost.

 

He found mild interest in the Suna nin, their fighting styles significantly different from any he had seen before. Besides, he had heard rumors when they’d arrived, rumors that suggested that the youngest, the redhead, was a bit too enthusiastic with his sand.

 

The rumor proved true when he went up against a kunoichi from a village Sasuke had never heard of. He didn’t let her get in a single hit and immobilized her effortlessly. He raised his hand, about to clench it and – from the looks of it – crush her limbs in a gruesome and painful way that would certainly leave permanent injuries.

 

“Hey, Gaara!” Next to him Naruto grinned at the Suna nin – Gaara – and flashed a thumbs up. Was he encouraging him?! What was wrong with him?!

 

Down in the arena Gaara frowned and, making his siblings gasp, let the referee end the match by simply keeping his opponent immobilized.

 

“Nice job,” Sakura said, leaning on the railing without taking her eyes off of the fighting area.

 

“Thanks,” Naruto said, grinning.

 

“His seal?”

 

“All good.”

 

“Nice.”

 

They went back to watch the remaining fights, and Sasuke didn’t bother to ask.

 

A few days later it was announced that the Kazekage had disappeared without a trace and the Suna nin withdrew from the competition in order to return to their home village. Naruto shared a cheerful goodbye – or rather an ‘until we meet again’ – with Gaara, earning a shy smile from him that made his sister beam in pride.

 

Temari herself hugged Sakura goodbye (the siblings had spent too much time in his presence for Sasuke to not have learned their names) and Kankurō had a hard time getting away from a bunch of Konoha kids, who, despite Kankurō doing his best to act grumpy and mean, had gotten attached to the puppeteer.


Kakashi oversaw the spectacle with a grumbled “building inter-village relations that diplomats have failed at for years” and watched in exasperation as Sakura and Naruto high-fived with the Suna nin leaving the village borders.

 

Later that day Naruto and Sakura had invited themselves into his apartment – again – bringing enough things to make it clear that they planned to stay the night. This, too, was a habit that had started after the exams. When asked about it Sakura had simply said, “Well, you wouldn’t accept invitations to our places, so we just have to come to yours.”

 

It was annoying and frustrating and there was nothing Sasuke could do to stop them. Really. He’d tried. Instead of doing what normal people would do – leaving him alone when he obviously did not care for their company – they settled down close to wherever Sasuke was currently ignoring them to clean their weapons, paint each other’s nails or sometimes waste hours gossiping.

 

The only thing he could do to temporarily rid himself of them was to take bathroom breaks unnecessarily often, at least one freedom that they granted him. His teammates were so irritating.

 

It was on one such bathroom break that he walked past a window and saw movement outside. He hesitated, not sure if he had imagined it. Curiosity won out, and Sasuke opened the window, jumping on the windowsill and peeking outside.

 

“Hello, Sasuke.” Sitting on the tree next to his house was a teenager with gray hair. Sasuke recognized him vaguely as one of the genin who had participated in the chūnin exams.

 

“Who are you and what do you want?” His foul mood showed, but Sasuke didn’t care.

 

The teenager raised an eyebrow at him, but smiled in what might have been a reassuring expression. Sasuke was too agitated to care. “My name is Kabuto, and I come with a proposal. My master has seen your potential. He sent me to offer you his help, a place as his apprentice.”

 

That got Sasuke’s attention. Whoever Kabuto’s master was, he had seen his potential? More so, he wanted to teach him?

 

“We can help you, Sasuke. You have the chance to become stronger, to fulfill your ambition! Orochimaru-sama can help you reach your full potential.”

 

This might be his chance. Sasuke already knew that he wouldn’t rise half as quickly as he wanted to with his team. They were holding him back, so maybe an apprenticeship was the better sol–

 

“Wait. Did you say Orochimaru?” Sasuke’s mind flashed back to Sakura punching him in the face. “Yeah, no thanks.”

 

Sasuke slammed the window in Kabuto’s face with a resolute bang, rejoining Naruto and Sakura as they took apart his kitchen in an attempt to cook dinner. Somebody had to show them how it was done. So troublesome.

Chapter Text

 

Sakura and Naruto kept forcing Sasuke to spend time with them. He had been cornered into slumber parties, coerced into restaurant visits and dragged along whenever they’d decided to hang out with the other teams. The slumber parties, to his great mortification, not only saw him dragged into the nail-painting himself, they also sometimes involved involuntary lessons in make-up from both of his teammates. It was irritating and cut into the time he spent training immensely.

 

If his resistance got weaker over time, that was solely because Sasuke was getting tired of his protests being ignored. It wasn’t because he was starting to enjoy their company. Not at all.

 

The weirdest part by far was that the more time he spend with them, the less he was bothered by their odd know-it-all behavior. Well, maybe he wasn’t “less bothered” so much as he learned to appreciate the moments that other people – not him – suffered from their antics.

 

Even the Hokage himself was not spared. They met him one day on their way through Konoha, accompanied by an old woman. “Hello, Naruto,” he said, pausing in his steps with a smile. “And what are you and your friends up to?”

 

Naruto stuck out the flowers he was carrying. “Just visiting my parents.”

 

The woman gasped and the Hokage’s eyes widened comically. Sasuke didn’t know what the big deal was. Admittedly, he’d been surprised as well the first time Naruto had asked to visit the memorial stone, but that was mostly because he’d never seen him do it before. It wasn’t that weird of a thing.

 

The Hokage had recovered enough to answer. “Y-Your parents, you say?”

 

“Yeah.” Mischief twinkled in Naruto’s eyes and Sasuke knew to lean back and enjoy the show. “You know,” Naruto said, sending an exaggeratedly wistful glance to the Hokage monument. “I just have this feeling that my dad is still watching over me.”

 

The woman gaped, her mouth wide open. The Hokage was more dignified, but had paled to a worrying degree.

 

“Hokage-sama,” Sakura said with a worried tone. It proved how much time Sasuke had spent with them that he could see the hidden amusement behind her mask. “Are you alright?” Then, to rub it in, she added, “Was it something Naruto said?”

 

The Hokage excused himself, and he’d just disappeared around a corner when Naruto and Sakura burst out laughing. Sasuke allowed himself a smirk. He had to admit, people’s reactions to his teammates were hilarious. As long as it was someone other than himself, of course.

 

Regarding training, his teammates at least weren’t completely useless. Additionally to all the ridiculous “team-bonding” they insisted on, they also met up regularly outside of their official training sessions. Sometimes it was just the three of them, sometimes they were with the other teams, and sometimes, just as promised, they met up with Kakashi, Yamato and Sai for their joint sessions. Despite Yamato’s long-suffering reluctance and Sai’s inability to act like a normal human being, he couldn’t even say he minded that much.

 

But even though things were starting to look up, Sasuke couldn’t shake the feeling that his teammates were humoring him every time they were training with just the three of them. But that was absurd. Yes, there had been the incident with the tree-climbing exercise, but that couldn’t mean much. Orochimaru had been nothing but a fraud, and by now Sasuke was convinced that the image of Sakura shattering the tree had been grossly exaggerated by his adrenaline-flooded mind.

 

He had nearly started to believe all of that, when their most recent training session was interrupted in a quite spectacular manner.

 

They were outside of Konoha’s borders, just out of eyeshot of the village gates. It had proven ridiculously easy to sneak in and out of the village – for some reason, Naruto and Sakura always knew exactly where to find a blind spot in the guards’ rounds – and it wasn’t the first time they had decided to train here instead of risking curious eyes on one of the training grounds.

 

Sasuke was up against Naruto, after he had finally managed to persuade both of them to a spar. He didn’t know why they were so reluctant about it, since it was clearly the easiest way to train and to get stronger.

 

Naruto’s hair was longer again, and at this point Sasuke was sure that he was using a Henge to cheat. There was no way it could grow so quickly naturally.

 

Additionally, if it weren’t for the torture that had been his teammates’ crash course in make-up, Sasuke wouldn’t have noticed the eyeliner Naruto was wearing. To Sasuke’s horror, he could even identify the particular brand .

 

It was then, the two of them exchanging blows at the edge of the forest, that Sasuke saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Against his better judgement, he turned his attention away from Naruto.

 

He froze, paying for the moment of distraction by getting his legs swiped out from under him. Sasuke barely noticed landing on the ground, his stare fixed on the road.

 

“Hah! I win!” Naruto yelled, thrusting one fist in the air victoriously. “What was that, Sasuke? Usually you’re not that easy to beat.”

 

Sasuke barely heard him over the ringing in his ears. He all but tuned his teammates out, attention focused solely on Itachi. His brother who he hadn’t seen in years, who looked in his direction standing next to a stranger. Who had killed his parents and his entire clan.

 

Naruto was talking again. “Oh shit.”

 

“...Yup.” Sakura said.

 

“I totally forgot about that.”

 

“Yup.”

 

“D’you think talking would work?”

 

“Normally? No. But since it’s you… Maybe?”


Naruto heaved a deep sigh. “Alright, so–”

 

Sasuke snapped out of his stupor, rushing towards his brother with a battle cry. “ITACHI!”

 

“Aaaand it’s too late.”

 

“Oh well.”

 

Subconsciously, Sasuke was aware of his teammates running after him, but he ignored them. Blood rushed in his ears and hate burned in his veins. This was his moment. This was what he’d been waiting for.

 

He took a kunai and lunged at Itachi, aiming for his eye socket. He sliced thin air and Itachi grabbed him from behind, blocking his kick and tossing him away with taunting ease. Sasuke landed on his feet and charged again.

 

The freak to Itachi’s right, a tall man with blue skin and sharp teeth, laughed. “He has spirit. Is this your brother, then?”

 

Itachi didn’t answer, kicking Sasuke in the stomach. “You’re still so weak, little brother.”

 

Sasuke wanted to scream. He leaped to his feet, but two blurs rushed in front of him and positioned themselves between him, Itachi and the stranger. An icy fist clenched around his heart, terror coursing through his veins. Itachi had already taken his family and his entire clan from him. At this rate, his team would be next.

 

“What do you think you’re doing?!” Sasuke yelled, clenching his fists so hard that they trembled. “This isn’t about you!”

 

Naruto didn’t look at him. “You sure about that?”

 

Sasuke wanted to open his mouth to yell some more – what did that idiot even mean by that?! – but Itachi wasn’t looking at him. Why wasn’t he looking at him? His brother’s eyes were fixed on–

 

Of course. Naruto. Even his homicidal brother was more interested in his teammates than him.

 

“Kisame,” Itachi said without taking his eyes off Naruto.

 

His partner, ‘Kisame’, hummed. “It’s him.”

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Sasuke could see Naruto flinch. How odd – he’d been so calm about everything up until this moment.

 

Sasuke would later blame the adrenaline clouding his mind. He forgot that he had been about to ram a kunai into Itachi’s eye socket and that both he and his partner were S-ranked missing nin. All he could think about was that his brother was here because of Naruto and not him. “What do you even want with Naruto?! What’s so special about him?!”

 

Naruto chuckled nervously. “Right, Sasuke. About that…”

 

“We’re not here for him,” Itachi said. “We’re here for what is sealed inside of him.”

 

Inside of him? Sasuke stared at his brother. He was about to yell at him to make more sense, but Naruto spoke up.

 

“Look, don’t freak out, but…” Naruto took a deep breath and spat out his next sentence fast enough to make it difficult to understand. “I may or may not have the nine-tailed demon fox sealed inside me.”

 

There was a pause.

 

“What.”

 

“The nine-tailed demon fox. Kurama. Kind of a big deal, attacked the village twelve years ago, you know. They, er… he’s sealed inside of me. I’m a jinchūriki.”

 

His brother was still right in front of him, otherwise Sasuke would have turned around and stormed off into the village. Or else curled up on the ground. He couldn’t handle much more of this.

 

“Soo,” Naruto said in a tone that was probably meant to be soothing and reassuring, “now that you know that, there’s no reason to freak out about what happens next.”

 

Sasuke didn’t have the energy to acknowledge that sentence. He stood in disbelieving horror as Naruto was enveloped by red chakra, foul and repulsive and pressing down on him with its bestial aura. Naruto’s gritted teeth showed long, curved canines, and his eyes turned crimson with slitted pupils. He crouched down, his hands distorting into claws.

 

Naruto’s voice, once he spoke, came as a growl. “Sakura?”

 

“Yeah!”

 

Before he knew what was happening his teammates leaped forward in a burst of chakra. Naruto threw himself at Kisame and Sakura… Sakura charged straight at Itachi. Sasuke’s eyes threatened to budge out of his skull.

 

He was paralysed, staring at the fight going on right in front of his eyes. Naruto and Sakura – the dead last and the booksmart civilian girl – were battling Uchiha Itachi and his partner – genin against S-ranked missing nin – and were still alive.

 

He could accept that they were more capable than he had originally thought. He could get over them being more talented than him in chakra control. It was no big deal that Sakura had beaten a no-name fraud like Orochimaru, and maybe, possibly, Sasuke could even learn to live with the fact that she had, in fact, the ability to shatter trees with a single punch.

 

But in no version of reality had his genin teammates any right whatsoever to be able to hold their own against his big brother.

 

“Sasuke!” Kakashi’s voice called out to him from somewhere behind him. He couldn’t tear his eyes away to look at him.

 

“Sasuke, come on!” Arms wrapped around him, scooping him up like he was a little child, and Sasuke didn’t understand how Kakashi didn’t react to the fight going on right there!

 

“But– Itachi, he’s– Why aren’t–” Sasuke realized that Kakashi was carrying him away. “NO!” He struggled to be let go, but ended up being held up by the neck like an unruly kitten. In any other situation, Sasuke would have died from the mortification. “Let go! I have to go back, my brother is there!”

 

“I know. Which is why we’re not going back.”

 

Sasuke gaped. How could he stay so calm?! “Are you just going to let Naruto and Sakura fight?! Itachi killed my entire clan!

 

“I know.” Kakashi looked at him with pained eyes. “You have to trust me on this. They’ll be fine, but you’re in danger.”

 

If looks could kill, Kakashi would have dropped dead minutes ago. “Let me go. Right now.”

 

“I’m sorry, Sasuke.”

 

“You don’t have to be sorry if you just–” Sasuke realized too late that Kakashi wasn’t apologizing for holding him back. The blunt side of a kunai rammed into his skull and everything went black.

 


 

“That went well!”

 

Well? ” Kakashi’s voice sounded on the edge of a breakdown. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you permanently traumatized Sasuke! What were you thinking?!”

 

“What do you think we should have done? Present myself to them willingly?” There was a pause. “Actually…”

 

Sakura chimed in with a thoughtful voice. “You could have gone undercover–”

 

“–in the Akatsuki! Aww, that would have been awesome. Maybe it’s not too late!”

 

“I thought they wanted to kill you?” Kakashi said.

 

“Oh, right.”

 

Sasuke chose that moment to open his eyes and found his teammates and his teacher sitting around him. Naruto was sprawled out next to him on the bed he was currently occupying. Sasuke nearly threw him off when he shot straight upwards.

 

“What did you do?!”

 

“Sasuke,” Kakashi said, “Calm down. You have to understand–”

 

“I SWORE REVENGE! I HAVE TO DEFEAT ITACHI!”

 

From all the things Naruto could have said to that, he chose the exact wrong one. “Well, you could ask Sakura to lend a hand with that.”

 

The image of Sakura exchanging blows with his brother shot into his mind. “Get out.”

 

“Aww, come on, Sasuke. We didn’t mean–”

 

“GET OUT!”

 

For once in their lives, Naruto and Sakura recognized a losing battle when they saw it. They left.

 


 

The next day Naruto and Sakura tried to approach him during a walk through Konoha.

 

Sasuke turned on his heel and stalked away from them before they could even open their mouths.

 


 

A few days later they waited for him in front of his apartment, carrying everything Sasuke by now recognized as their sleepover gear.

 

Sasuke stormed past them without sparing them a glance.

 


 

They invited him to dinner, sporting cheery grins that did a bad job of hiding their anxiousness.

 

Sasuke slammed his door in their faces.

 


 

Sasuke needed time to process that his teammates were too far beyond him for him to catch up to them any time soon. Rage burned in his chest at being the weakest in their team. Denial made him punch the walls in his apartment, disbelief at Naruto and Sakura being far, ridiculously far, out of reach. Hopelessness made it hard to get out of bed for days. How could he ever hope to defeat Itachi like this?

 

Two weeks after the incident Sasuke woke up feeling less miserable than he had since meeting Itachi again. He felt a calm inside of him, acceptance burying the negative emotions that had plagued him ever since.

 

His teammates outclassed him. That was fine. He could live with that.

 

Sasuke took a guess where they would spend their time without him and before he could second guess his actions, he found himself in front of Naruto’s apartment door. They answered after his second knock, Naruto yanking open the door and Sakura peering over his shoulder.

 

“Sasuke?!” Naruto looked at him stunned. He was back to his short hair and had discarded his earrings, and if Sasuke did not have more important things on his mind, he would have wondered why Naruto seemed to have trouble settling on a look.

 

Sasuke eyed both of them, the teammates he would have gladly ditched only weeks prior. He swallowed down his pride and a soothing warmth spread through his chest.

 

He made sure to meet Naruto’s eyes, did the same with Sakura and clenched his fists.

 

“Train me!” he said and met the stunned eyes of his teammates with a look of determination.


 

Chapter Text

 

“So you use chakra to enhance your muscles?”

 

“Essentially, yes.” Sakura tossed the kunai into the air, letting Sasuke catch it. “It’s not as easy as it sounds. You need some really advanced chakra control for it.”

 

Sasuke whirled the kunai around his finger before throwing it back. “I can practice.” The kunai passed between them a few more times, almost lazily flying through the air.

 

“How about a sword?”

 

Sasuke paused, the kunai in his hand. “A sword?”

 

“Yeah,” Sakura said, nudging him until he threw the kunai back in the air. “I know you’re betting on your Sharingan, but it’s good to have another skill to fall back on.”

 

Sasuke frowned at that. He knew Sakura hadn’t done it on purpose, but he felt irritation at the reminder that he still hadn’t developed his Sharingan. Itachi had had his for years at this age. Why was it taking him so long?

 

Although, a sword didn’t sound like that bad of an idea.

 

Sakura straightened up from her lying position, snatching the kunai out of the air in one fluid motion. “Where is he? He said it’d only take a few minutes.”

 

“Hn.”

 

They’d spent the majority of their time waiting in Naruto's apartment like this, laid out on Naruto's crappy pull-out couch, Sasuke’s head at Sakura’s feet and tossing one of Sakura’s kunai between them to pass the time. Not that Sasuke was getting bored, with Sakura finally doing some explaining and both of them brainstorming about Sasuke’s training regime.

 

But Sakura was right: Naruto had already taken far too long on his run for take out.

 

As if summoned by their thoughts, Naruto chose that moment to swing in through the window like the door wasn’t a few feet to his left.

 

“Guys, guys,” he said, dropping down on the couch and forcing Sasuke to sit up to make space. “You won’t believe this!”

 

“What, the reason you didn’t bring any food?” Sakura raised an eyebrow and Naruto’s face fell.

 

“Oh. I forgot.”

 

“You forgot? That was the reason you went out in the first place!”

 

Sasuke crossed his arms. “Idiot.”

 

“Guys!” Naruto whined, throwing up his hands in exasperation. “I got distracted, alright? Just hear me out!”

 

“Spit it out. And then you’re going back.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, fine. So, I just overheard Kakashi and Kurenai, who heard it from Asuma, who heard it from gramps–”

 

“Overheard or listened in?” Sakura asked.

 

Naruto paused at that. “What’s the difference?”

 

“Did it involve a Transformation, Camouflage or any other kind of technique?”

 

Naruto gave a shameless shrug. “I listened in on Kakashi and Kurenai, and you won’t believe what the old man did!”

 

“Oh?” Sakura said, finally showing interest. “Do tell.”

 

“Sasuke, you remember that guy in the forest, right? Orochimaru?”

 

“That weakling?” Sasuke stole a glance to Sakura’s fists. At least he knew now how she had managed to put such strength behind her punches.

 

For some reason, his answer made Naruto snort and Sakura hide a grin behind her hand. “Yeah,” Naruto said, “that guy. Anyway, after what happened during the exam, apparently gramps decided that he’s been too lenient with his old students.”

 

“Did he now? So what did he do?” Sakura’s grin widened in anticipation. Sasuke was stuck on the “old students” part – Orochimaru had been one of the Third’s students?

 

“He sent a message to Tsunade. Told her that either she returns to the village, or he has no choice but to declare her a missing nin.”

 

“Missing nin?” Sakura’s words trailed off into giggles. “Tsunade… an enemy of Konoha…”

 

“Tsunade, as in Senju Tsunade? The medic?” Sasuke had heard of her before. So she had been a student of the Hokage, too?

 

Naruto hummed in confirmation. “She left the village a few years ago and decided that she would never come back.”

 

“Well? How long has it been since he sent the message?” Sakura asked. “Do they have an answer yet?”

 

“They do.”

 

“Well, tell us! What did it say?”

 

Naruto’s grin was gleeful and entirely unsympathetic. “She dared him to try to drag her back. And to screw himself. In some very creative ways.”

 

Sakura was shaking with laughter, but Sasuke felt like he was missing the point. He waited until their laughter had run out. “What’s so funny about that?”

 

“Well… It’s not,” Sakura said. “Not really. It’s just,” she shared a look with Naruto, “the Sandaime wanted to strengthen Konoha’s power by bringing one of his strongest shinobi back under his command. By threatening her, mind you. And instead–”

“Instead,” Naruto went on, “he achieved the exact opposite. He has no choice but to go through with it and make her a missing nin now.”

 

“Accidentally.” Sakura couldn’t suppress a few more giggles. “He accidentally declared Tsunade a missing nin.”

 

That set Naruto off again. In the time it took both of them to calm down, Sasuke changed position so that all three of them sat cross-legged, facing each other. It was quiet after their laughter died down, and how about that? Without Sasuke noticing they had passed the point where silence between the three of them was uncomfortable.

 

Sakura was the next to speak up. “I kinda miss her.”

 

Sasuke arched an eyebrow. “You miss her?”

 

“I mean, I missed the opportunity to get to know her,” she corrected without missing a beat. “Before she’s declared a missing nin.”

 

“Yeah,” Naruto said, dragging out the word. “That would be great. Get out of the village for a bit. Visit Tsunade.”

 

There was a moment of silence.

 

Naruto straightened up with a wide-eyed, uncharacteristically serious stare. “Well why not?” He looked at Sakura, holding her glance, then did the same with Sasuke. Sasuke had the feeling that this wasn’t just about Tsunade anymore. “We're not part of the Chūnin Exam anymore, and it’s not like we really need a promotion in the first place. We can train by ourselves just fine. We have no reason to stay in the village all the time.”

 

Sasuke turned his head to look at Sakura. He wasn’t quite sure what he hoped to find. An incredulous stare? Hysterical laughter? He was not surprised when what he saw instead was a look of contemplation.

 

“People won’t be happy.” It sounded more thoughtful than like actual protest.

 

“So? It’s not like we won’t come back. Who’s gonna stop us?” Naruto’s eyes sparkled and Sakura’s expression brightened up slowly as the possibilities of that new revelation began to sink in.

 

Sasuke felt excitement burning in his chest, slight apprehension and the thrill of doing something forbidden. They were practically talking about abandoning the village. Although, what had the village ever done for him? For any of them?

 

Besides, he couldn’t help but to revel in the sensation of being included in their plans. For once they had not even hesitated, hadn’t even thought of keeping this a secret from him as well. It felt far better than it had any right to.

 

Sasuke stole a glance at both of his teammates, and found that he didn’t mind their decision. The realization left him dizzy, and even more so the certainty that he did not care. He would follow Naruto and Sakura, and he would choose them over Konoha any day.


 

Chapter Text

 

Leaving behind their home village was – who would have thought – a bit more complicated than it had sounded when Naruto had first brought it up. Although for entirely different reasons than Sasuke would have expected.

 

“I forgot something!” Naruto announced and interrupted their planning session. Luckily, not even Sakura and Naruto were reckless enough to run away on a whim, and they’d spent most of the day preparing for their minor act of treason. “We have to stay until after the last task of the Chūnin Exam.”

 

Sasuke cocked an eyebrow at him. “Why?”

 

Naruto hesitated and Sasuke narrowed his eyes in warning. While his teammates had started to involve him more and more, sometimes they still slipped up and stumbled upon topics they – for some reason – still would not share with Sasuke.

 

Eventually, Naruto caved. “There’s this boy one year above us. Hyūga Neji. There’s something I have to take care of before we leave.”

 

“Why the exam?” Sakura asked. “You’re not participating.”

 

“... Shit. You’re right.”

 

“What would participating have changed?” Sasuke asked.

 

“I would’ve beaten him up.”

 

“It’s how he makes friends,” Sakura said with a teasing smile.

 

Sasuke arched an unimpressed eyebrow. “... By beating them up.”

 

“Remember Gaara? From the sand siblings?” Naruto asked.

 

“Yeah?”

 

Naruto gave him a self-satisfied smile, nodding in a way that said ‘There you have it.’ Sasuke leaned back, deciding to let it go. Naruto made friends by beating them up. Sure, why not.

 

“So?” Sakura asked, stretching her arms. They hadn’t moved in hours, too engrossed in their planning. “What are you gonna do?”

 

Naruto shrugged. “I’ll improvise.”

 

Improvising, as it turned out, meant breaking into the Hyūga compound in broad daylight and interrupting Neji during his training. The older boy was engrossed beating up a training dummy, a look of utter concentration on his face.

 

However, it was not distraction enough for them to surprise him. “How did you get in, and what do you want?” he asked, not even sparing them a glance. Sasuke’s lips thinned. He seemed incredibly arrogant. What did Naruto want with him?

 

Naruto stepped forward and Sasuke felt Sakura’s hand on his arm, holding him back. “Leave it to Naruto,” she whispered. “He knows what he’s doing.”

 

“You’re preparing for the Chūnin Exams, right?” Naruto stepped closer to Neji with a sunny smile. “Care for a sparring partner?”

 

Neji huffed out a breath, eying Naruto dismissively. “Your team wasn’t even recommended for the Chūnin Exams. Don’t be absurd.”

 

Sasuke felt heat rising up in his body and took a step forwards. He wasn’t even sure who exactly he planned to defend: himself, Naruto or his team in general. Sakura laid a calming hand on his shoulder. “Ignore him. Just let Naruto do his thing.”

 

Sasuke squirmed, but obeyed. He didn’t like the feeling of leaving everything to his teammates.

 

It didn’t take Naruto long until he had persuaded Neji to a spar – although it was obvious that Neji didn’t expect a challenge. “Byakugan,” he called out, and Sasuke watched with interest as veins thickened around his eyes.

 

He had heard about the Hyūga’s technique before: a Bloodline Limit rumored to even surpass the Sharingan in its prowess. Sasuke very much doubted that, but for there to be rumors in the first place, the Byakugan had to be somewhat useful.

 

Neji lunged forwards, his hands glowing and eyes narrowed in concentration. Considering that he didn’t take Naruto seriously, he was probably planning to finish the fight with a single blow.

 

Sasuke lost sight of Naruto, and he reappeared behind Neji, getting in a few jabs before Neji managed to block. Sasuke frowned and leaned closer to Sakura. “Those punches were nothing. Did he even use chakra?”

 

“Didn’t look like it,” Sakura said cheerfully.

 

Neji frowned, pausing. He started a new attack, aiming for Naruto’s chest only to change direction and target his limbs instead. Again, Naruto dodged his attacks, using the small window of opportunity by hitting Neji harmlessly.

 

Sasuke was starting to see what he was doing. Naruto wasn’t trying to hurt Neji or even to win the fight. He was dodging and getting in hits to prove to Neji that he could.

 

Neji had noticed too, and his mouth twisted into a snarl. His movement grew sharper, his attacks more ruthless and soon his hands were glowing streaks, moving too quickly to follow. Even so, Naruto continued to dodge and continued to fight back. Not fighting Neji seriously just made the confrontation more insulting.

 

Only a few minutes into the spar, Neji cried out in frustration. He was gasping for breath while Naruto looked as calm as when they had started. Neji hadn’t managed to get in a single hit. “Why are you here?!” he yelled.

 

“To prove something to you,” Naruto said, following Neji’s example and relaxing out of his fighting stance. “I’m not going to pretend like I have no unfair advantages as a shinobi.” He snorted. “In fact, I’d probably never have graduated if it wasn’t for my mom’s huge chakra reserves. But what I used right now? That was just taijutsu. Just what your teammate, Lee, uses too.”

 

Neji grit his teeth, still panting from their spar. Naruto wasn’t finished.

 

“That means I beat you only with what I learned through hard work.”

 

“What do you want?! What do you hope to achieve by coming here?!”

 

“I wanted to show you that you shouldn’t look down on others, no matter their background or their privilege. And yeah,” Naruto continued before Neji could interrupt him, “I know that’s rich, telling that to a member of the Hyūga‘s side branch.”

 

That made Neji pause. “You know of our clan system.”

 

“I do. And it’s wrong. But looking down on others the way you do right now… That’s not going to change anything.” He smiled, letting optimism light up his expression. “But it will. Change, I mean.”

 

Neji snarled. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

 

Naruto’s smile dampened, but he clung to it. “I think I do. You’ll soon find out, but we three? We’re not really fond of Konoha the way it is now. We’ll make sure that things change, even if it may take us a while.”

 

Neji scowled at them. “You’re insane. You’re talking about dismantling a system as old as the shinobi world.”

 

“Sounds like a challenge,” Sakura chimed in, smirking. She had apparently recognized that Naruto was finished. They didn’t stay for longer after that, leaving behind a bitterly scowling Neji. Sasuke didn’t see how they had changed anything about his behavior.

 

“What exactly were you trying to do?”

 

“I got him thinking.” Naruto flashed him a smile. “That’s enough for now.”

 

It was only later that Sasuke realized that he hadn’t protested about Naruto including him in his little speech. He supposed that meant he was fighting to dismantle the current shinobi hierarchy now.

 

He also supposed that he ought to be more bothered by that than he was.

 


 

They ended up bickering over whether or not to tell Kakashi about their little field trip.

 

Naruto, for once, was adamantly against leaving without notifying him first. “We can’t just not tell him. He’ll be worried sick!”

 

Sasuke shrugged. “He’ll get over it.”

 

“He doesn’t deserve that!”

 

“... You’re right.” Sakura paused. “But he’ll try to stop us if we tell him,” she pointed out.

 

Naruto broke out into a grin. “I have an idea.”

 


 

“You what.

 

“Sorry, Sensei. But we made our decision.”

 

“But– You can’t– You’re genin! ” Kakashi stared at them with growing horror, his visible eye pleading with one of them to get to their senses. He was disappointed.

 

“Genin who held off two S-ranked missing nin,” Sakura pointed out. Sasuke’s eye twitched at the reminder.

 

“But–” Kakashi was struggling to find the right words. “What are you going to tell the Hokage?”

 

“Riiiiight… About that.” Naruto let his voice trail off, ending in a sheepish grin. All that followed was horrified silence.

 

“You’re not going to tell him,” Kakashi said.

 

Nobody answered.

 

“You want me to tell him. To cover for you.”

 

Silence. Kakashi rubbed at his eyes, muttered what sounded like “How did I deserve this.” Sasuke couldn’t help but to feel a tiny spark of satisfaction about seeing him so agitated. It was petty, but he had refused to tell Sasuke the truth about his teammates once he’d found out. He struggled to find it within himself to feel bad for Kakashi.

 

Naruto on the other hand winced. “I’m sorry, Kakashi-sensei. Really. But there's so much beyond Konoha.”

 

“We’ll come back,” Sakura promised. “We just have to take care of some things.”

 

Kakashi looked at them pained. “What if I stop you? I could tell the Hokage right now. Even if you make it out, you’ll have ANBU on your tails.”

 

Sasuke and his teammates shared a glance. They looked back at Kakashi.

 

He closed his eye as if in deep pain. “What did you do?”

 

Naruto and Sakura took a leap and threw themselves at Kakashi in a hug. Sasuke felt a hand at his collar, and before he realized what was happening he was dragged into it, too.

 

“Thank you for everything,” Naruto said. “Take care, we’ll see you soon!”

 

Kakashi didn’t return the hug, but he didn’t shy away from it, either. Although that may have been out of shock, resignation or plain defeat. “What did you do?!”

 

The three clones disintegrated and halfway across the country, Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke paused as their clones’ memories merged with their own. They shared a glance before they kept on going.

 

Sasuke breathed in the cold air, wind ruffling through his hair as they leaped through the trees, one of his teammates at each of his sides. A smile tugged at his lips, hidden from their sight. The air smelled like freedom.


 

Chapter Text

For Sasuke, who had never left his home village for anything other than the Wave Mission, the first few hours of their journey were filled with a mixture of anxiousness about leaving behind everything that he had ever known and euphoria.

 

Even through the excitement Sasuke could tell that Naruto was being uncharacteristically silent.

 

“S-So, Sasuke,” he started, the most recent of his attempts to start a conversation. Like all the times before it, the words wilted on his tongue before Naruto managed to form a sentence, and he ended with a lame, “We should go for dango in the next village, how about it?”

 

Sasuke raised an eyebrow at the half hearted change in topic. He hadn’t seen Naruto this nervous since the time he had confessed about being a jinchūriki – except back then, Itachi had provided a superb distraction that had somewhat softened the blow.

 

Sasuke had nearly expected Sakura to lose her patience by now and “encourage” Naruto to go on. Because naturally, she knew what this was about. Instead, she kept alternating between worried and supportive glances, and went so far as to grab Naruto’s wrist to squeeze it reassuringly.

 

This had to be serious.

 

“Naruto.” Sasuke had to fight to keep the impatience out of his voice. “What’s wrong?”

 

Naruto bit his lip and looked away. It had to be really serious then. Sasuke actually started to get worried.

 

“There’s… something I need to tell you,” Naruto said. “And I don’t want this to change anything between us, or mess up our friendship, or… I don’t want this to make things complicated.”

 

Sakura looked like she wanted to say something, but Naruto barreled on. “I would have told you sooner, but with the village, and Kakashi and everybody else…” Naruto trailed off. “Sakura knows, and I honestly wasn’t even subtle about it, so I’d kinda hoped you’d bring it up yourself. Spare me,” he laughed nervously, making a general hand gesture, “all this.”

 

Sasuke swallowed, preparing himself for… whatever it was Naruto fought with himself to speak out loud. “Just tell me.”

 

After all of that, the conversation ended rather anticlimactically. In the grand scheme of things, Naruto being a girl from time to time was far less strange than… literally everything else about him. Or sometimes, as it turned out, her. Overall, it was no time at all until Sasuke had accepted the revelation and moved on with his life.

 

Naruto, meanwhile, seemed to have prepared for a worse reaction and gave him a wide, beaming smile that showed just how relieved he was. Or she? Sasuke should probably make him (Her? Them?) clarify.

 

“So,” he said, awkwardly trying to come up with a way to phrase the question. “What do I call you?”

 

... Probably not like that.

 

“Erm. Naruto?” Naruto raised an eyebrow at him, missing Sasuke’s intent.

 

“No, I mean…” He trailed of, frustrated.

 

“You mean how you should address him?” Sakura guessed, and Sasuke could have hugged her. He wouldn’t. They forced enough physical contact on him as it was.

 

“Oh! I’m a boy now. It switches, depending on how I feel.” Naruto shrugged. “You’ll see. And if not, I’ll correct you.” And that was that.

 

They had not travelled for long when Naruto spoke up again. “Huh. You know what? Let’s make a little detour.” He didn’t wait for an answer before he changed directions, forcing Sakura and Sasuke to follow.

 

“Naruto!” Sakura protested. “I thought we were going to look for Tsunade. The reports clearly said that she was last seen in Kusa.”

 

“I know, and we will! Right after we meet up with someone.”

 

“Who?”

 

Naruto flashed them a grin. “You’ll see.”

 

Sakura grumbled but gave up trying to fight Naruto. She, as well as Sasuke, could tell that Naruto had made up his mind and that it was a lost cause. Sakura turned to Sasuke, and he hurried to look away like he hadn’t followed the exchange gleefully.

 

He wasn’t fast enough.

 

“Oh, you’re loving this, aren’t you?”

 

Sasuke didn’t answer and let the slight curve of his mouth speak for itself. Sakura let out a huff, but Sasuke could hear the humor in there.

 

The “little detour” ended up taking nearly a week – and half of that time was spent hiking through the desert. Sakura had quickly realized where their journey was taking them, and had luckily decided to share the information with Sasuke.

 

It did little for his bad mood. Sasuke was used to trees and shade, not this blazing hellscape. The thought that people were actually living here was mind-blowing. How were Sakura and Naruto taking it so well? He didn’t even want to think about having to go all the way back.

 

All things considered, Sasuke’s first week outside of Konoha had been far less exciting and a lot more sweaty than he had imagined. He let out a breath of relief when they finally stood in front of Suna’s gates.

 

Its closed gates.

 

“Heeeello!” Sasuke winced as Naruto – standing right next to him – yelled up at the guards. “We’re here to see Gaara!”

 

“Suna does not receive visitors at the moment,” one of the guards replied.

 

Naruto gaped up in disbelief. “What?! What do you mean you don’t receive visitors?”

 

Sakura laid a hand on Naruto’s arm. “You’re going at it the wrong way.” She raised her voice, addressing the guards herself. “We are representatives of Konoha and wish to see the Kazekage!”

 

There was a moment of silence. “Suna does not receive visitors at the moment. Go home.”

 

Sakura’s victorious expression faltered. “Well. This is annoying.”

 

“And what are we supposed to do now?” Sasuke asked. The heat was getting on his nerves, and it showed.

 

“I mean.” Naruto let his gaze wander over Suna’s defenses. “We can always sneak in.”

 

“Let’s keep that in mind, and let’s also consider our options that don’t involve causing a political incident with one of the Big Five Nations,” Sakura said.

 

Naruto shrugged. “I’m just saying.”

 

There was a pause. Sasuke was the one who spoke next. “You’re here for Gaara, right? Can’t you contact him somehow?” Anything that would get them out of this heat. Sasuke could feel sweat running down his back. Gross.

 

Naruto stared at him and Sakura groaned.

 

“... Huh.”

 

“Duh. It’s so easy!”

 

Sasuke raised an eyebrow, prompting Naruto to explain.

 

“Gaara is a jinchūriki, too. I can just contact him through our shared mindscape!” He grinned. “I hadn’t done it before, so it slipped my mind.”

 

“But if you hadn’t done it before, how–”

 

“G-Guests!” A shaky voice called down to them. “Y-You may now e-enter!”

 

The gate opened, and Sakura and Sasuke and gave Naruto a look. He raised his hands. “It wasn’t me!”

 

It was Gaara who welcomed them at the other side of the gate, guards stationed around him with just a bit too much distance between them. None of them looked happy to be there.

 

“I could feel you coming. Welcome.”

 

“Gaara!” Naruto broke out in a grin and dashed forward to bury Gaara in a hug. Gaara’s arms were slack at his sides like he didn’t know what to do with them, and sand twitched around him restlessly, but not interfering. His guards looked ready to faint, staring at the display with badly hidden terror.

 

Naruto either did not notice, or did not care. “How have you been? How’s Suna?”

 

The two of them started walking, and Sasuke and Sakura followed.

 

“Recovering. Losing the Kazekage – Father – has left us vulnerable. You have to excuse our guards. They are under strict order to turn away visitors unless told otherwise.”

 

Anxious glances followed them as they walked, the villagers freezing at the sight of them or hurrying away. Going by Naruto’s expression, he noticed, too. “And how are you?”

 

Gaara took on a troubled expression. “I am… learning.”

 

“Sakura!”

 

Sasuke turned to see the older sand siblings approaching. Temari beamed and went in for a hug with Sakura, intentionally or unintentionally acting like Naruto and Sasuke did not exist. Naruto was still talking to Gaara, which left Sasuke with Kankurō.

 

“Uchiha.”

 

Sasuke let out a huff. “Kankurō.”

 

They settled into an awkward silence as their siblings and/or teammates socialized.

 

“It’s so nice to see you!” Sakura said. “How have you been?”

 

Temari groaned. “Sitting through one council meeting after the other. If I have to spend one more hour with wrinkly old men who respect the table cloth more than they respect me, I will cut someone.”

 

Sakura smirked. “Want to lose some tension in a spar?”

 

Please.

 

To Sasuke’s horror, not only were Sakura and Temari heading off to what was assumably a soon to be former training ground, but Gaara and Naruto were walking away, as well. He didn’t want to be left alone with Kankurō! He wasn’t social like them.

 

“Naruto!” he barked out, sending his teammate a glare that said ‘don’t you dare leave me alone here’.

 

“Huh? Oh,” Naruto looked at Kankurō. “You guys have weapon shops here, right?”

 

“Of course we do,” Kankurō stared at him in a mixture of disbelief and indignation. “How could we not?”

 

“Cool! Can you take Sasuke and get someone to help him pick out a sword? He’d like to learn.”

 

“I could find an instructor to teach him the basics,” Gaara offered.

 

“Wait!” Sasuke interrupted. How was this all decided without him?! “Aren’t you gonna teach me?”

 

“Eh?” Naruto stared at him. “I can’t sword fight. Neither can Sakura.”

 

That left Sasuke speechless. He didn’t even know why, but he had just assumed… He had probably gotten too used to the idea that his teammates were able to do anything.

 

“Kankurō?” Naruto asked, dragging a long suffering sigh out of the sand nin.

 

“Fine. Let’s go.”

 

Sasuke sent one last dirty glance at Naruto and got a cheerful thumbs up in return. Sakura had already disappeared, off to obliterate foreign property, and Kankurō had resigned himself to serve as Sasuke’s tour guide for the day.

 

If Sasuke got a proper sword out of it, then perhaps he could even forgive his teammates for ditching him.

 


 

Chapter Text

They ended up staying in Suna for several days.

 

Sasuke spent his time in the desert village alternating between spending time with the sand siblings – forced on him by his teammates who wouldn’t accept him ducking out on the bonding – and learning the basics of sword fighting. It was those lessons that made the trip worth it despite everything else. The instructor Gaara had lent him was strict, but she made sure that Sasuke picked up the basics quickly.

 

Time passed. Suna’s elders learned to view Sakura and Temari with a mixture of terror and reverence, and the villagers were made to question their fear of Gaara once they had seen him zooming across the village on his sand cloud with the wildy giggling menace that was Naruto holding onto him.

 

All too soon several weeks had passed and his teammates decided to travel on.

 

“There is something I wanted to tell you,” Gaara said to Naruto on the evening that they were scheduled to leave. “I have been able to change because of you. You’ve inspired me. And–”

 

“And now you’re going to become Kazekage?” Naruto interrupted with a knowing smile. It quickly faltered with Gaara’s next words.

 

“Kazekage? Why would I want that?”

 

“E-Eh.” Naruto shared a clueless look with Sakura, who shrugged in response. “Because I inspired you? And because I want to become Hokage?”

 

Gaara blinked. “You do?”

 

Naruto stared at him in disbelief, but Sasuke thought about it. It was true: once upon a time, Naruto hadn’t stopped declaring his ambition wherever he went and to whoever would – or wouldn’t – listen. But recently? Sasuke couldn’t remember the last time Naruto had even brought it up.

 

Naruto seemed to have come to the same conclusion. “... Huh. Guess I forgot to mention it.”

 

Gaara was far too young to become Kazekage, anyway. Sasuke didn’t know any other kage, but if they were the same as the Sandaime, they had to be ancient.


“Well, what then?” Naruto asked.

 

“I want to prove to my village that I am more than the monster sealed inside of me. And I want to help other jinchūriki, the same way that you have helped me.” Gaara smiled, and it was the first time Sasuke had seen him do so as easily as now.

 

“Come with us then!” Naruto beamed at Gaara, his eyes sparkling in excitement. “We can find them. Together!”

 

Gaara’s smile grew fond. “Some other time, perhaps. I cannot leave my village while it is missing a leader.”

 

Naruto’s smile dimmed, but didn’t fade. He didn't look surprised. “We’ll meet again, then.”

 

“We will.”

 

“Take care,” Sakura said next to him and broke away from her hug with Temari. “And the next time the council gives you problems, just remember what I showed you.” She flexed her pinky of all things, and Sasuke decided then and there that he did not want to know any details.

 

Temari’s feral grin only cemented that decision. “You bet.”

 

Sasuke had already turned away and steeled himself for the long journey through the desert, when Kankurō of all people made him pause.

 

“Oi, Uchiha.”

 

“Hn.”

 

Kankurō nodded towards the sword resting at Sasuke’s side. “Take care of it. It’s one of Suna’s best handiwork.”

 

Sasuke paused, shifting the unfamiliar weight. It felt awkward and heavy, and would continue to do so until Sasuke got used to it. He shared a nod with Kankurō and finally, they were off.

 

“Hey, Sasuke.” Naruto poked his elbow as soon as they were out of earshot. Sasuke suppressed the urge to slap his hand away. One of them had to be the mature one. “So, did you finally make friends? Did you? Did you?”

 

“I knew you could do it!” Sakura added, exaggerated pride in her voice that – to his horror – made heat rise up in Sasuke’s cheeks.

 

“S-Shut up!”

 

“Aww, Sasuke. Don’t be like that,” Naruto said. “Making friends is a good thing. You should try it some more.”

 

“Unless, of course, we’re all that you need, and you want to spend all your time with us instead.” Sakura gave him a gentle shove, and Sasuke didn’t deign to answer her.

 

Otherwise he might have been forced to admit that Sakura was not completely wrong.

 


 

Two weeks later and back in acceptable climate conditions, Team 7 entered a village only to find two blurs flying past them, chased by a group of people.

 

“Catch them! Those filthy gamblers still owe me money!”

 

Yells of agreement followed that declaration and Naruto straightened up. “Shit! That’s them, let’s go, go, go!

 

Sasuke followed Naruto’s order on instinct. The two figures had nearly run out of sight already, and he followed his teammates more than he followed them. The civilians were quickly left behind and Sasuke struggled to keep up, forcing his legs to carry him faster, faster.

 

Naruto’s pigtails swayed with her movement, and even though Sasuke had had several days to get used to the sight – Naruto having changed just after a week had passed since Suna – he still found himself caught off guard from time to time.

 

“Wait!” Naruto yelled just as they entered the forest. The higher pitch of her voice was no less loud and obnoxious than it had been before. “We’re from Konoha, we don’t want to–”

 

The two figures disappeared in a blur and Sakura groaned.

 

“Nice job, Naruto.”

 

Naruto at least had the decency to sound sheepish. “I forgot, okay?”

 

“You forgot that it’s Tsunade we’re running after? She hated Konoha even before she became a missing nin, of course she bailed!”

 

“Moron,” Sasuke muttered more out of habit than anything. It wasn’t like he was invested in meeting Tsunade himself, despite it being the reason they had left the village in the first place.

 

Naruto came to a halt at a clearing, looking around perplexed. “Huh? I could’ve sworn they went–” She yelped as a kunai missed her barely, drawing a shallow red line over her cheek.

 

“Alright, blondie.”

 

A woman stepped out of the trees, and if Naruto and Sakura had not told him about her unusually youthful appearance, Sasuke would not have recognized her as one of the Sannin.

 

Her face was twisted in a deep scowl. “Who are you, and what do you…” She broke off and gaped. At her side, a woman who must have been Shizune joined her. “How old are you?”

 

Naruto gave them a sunny smile. “We’re genin.”

 

“Fresh out of the academy,” Sakura joined in. “It’s nice to meet you, Tsunade-sama.”

 

Just like that, the scowl was back on her face. “You’re not trying to tell me that Sarutobi sent little kids after me, are you?”

 

“Nah. We’re here on our own,” Naruto said.

 

Sakura feigned a thoughtful expression. “I suppose we kind of deserted the village.”

 

“Just a bit. Does that make us missing nin, too?”

 

“Bit too late to think about that now,” Sasuke added.

 

The scowl had fallen off of Tsunade’s face, leaving only blatant disbelief. Her companion wasn’t faring much better. “But,” Tsunade said, her gaze wandering from one of them to the other. “You’re like, nine.”

 

“Twelve,” Sakura corrected. “And it’s not like there’s an age requirement.”

 

“What do you want?!”

 

“We just wanted to meet you,” Sakura said in shamelessly faked earnesty. They could not fool Sasuke anymore. “You’re famous, Tsunade-sama.”

 

“Yeah! Everybody knows about the badass Konoha nin, said to be the strongest kunoichi who ever lived.”

 

“And the most talented medic,” Sakura added, overdoing the flattery by miles. Considering it was them, that was probably the intention. “You’re easily the coolest of the Sannin.”

 

“Weeeell,” Naruto started, and grunted as Sakura’s elbow hit her in the side. “Y-Yeah! Totally the coolest.”

 

Tsunade, unsurprisingly, was not buying it. Neither was her companion, although Shizune tried to let them down easily in a tone that sounded appropriate for children half their age.

 

“N-Now,” she said with a strained smile, “that is incredibly sweet of you, but I’m afraid Tsunade-sama and I are preoccupied wi–”

 

“Cut the bullshit, brats. What do you really want?”

 

“T-Tsunade-sama,” Shizune started scandalized, but Naruto interrupted her before she could go on.

 

“Heh, busted.” Her smile was entirely unapologetic, but dimmed from its over the top cheerfulness. “Actually, I was hoping you could tell me some stories about my dad. My name is Uzumaki Naruto. My father was the Yondaime, Namikaze Minato.”

 

Wait. What?

 


 

Chapter Text

Sasuke was not above admitting that he was staring.

 

Not at Naruto; the impact of the most recent revelation was already beginning to fade. It was starting to become increasingly more difficult to bring himself to care about the “shocking” details Sasuke learned about her, seeing as there seemed to be a new one every other day.

 

Naruto had the Nine-Tails sealed inside of her? Alright. She was able to hold off an S-ranked missing nin and have fun while doing it? Why not. She had gained Suna’s favor by beating up their jinchūriki and befriending him as a result? Old news.

 

Finding out that her father was the Fourth Hokage was just another in a long row of revelations that Sasuke could not bring himself to feel surprised over anymore. This was his life now.

 

Tsunade on the other hand? Tsunade was awesome.

 

They found themselves sitting inside of the nearest pub, Tsunade having decided that she was not sober enough for this conversation, especially after a run-in with the only civilian who had managed to follow them all the way into the forest.

 

Shizune’s protests had not swayed Tsunade. “Oh, give it a rest. They decided to leave behind their home village at the ripe old age of twelve. They might be incredibly stupid, but if they made it this far, they can handle a goddamn pub.”

So now Sasuke was staring. He was sitting next to his teammates and Tsunade, and could not take his eyes off the woman who he no longer doubted to be one of the legendary Sannin.

 

He hadn’t even fully registered what he was doing before he heard himself say, “ Teach me.

 

“Wh-What?!” Sakura gaped at him with an expression that bordered on indignation. “No way, she’s teaching me!”

 

“Um, Sakura,” Naruto said. “She doesn’t exactly need to teach you. Remember?”

 

“But Tsunade’s my teacher!”

 

“I’m nobody’s teacher, brats!” Tsunade’s shout effectively broke up their scramble. “Where’d you get that moronic idea?!”

 

“Why do you wanna learn healing techniques at all, Sasuke?” Naruto asked.

 

Sasuke stared at Naruto in disbelief. Wasn’t it obvious? “The civilian,” he said. “Tsunade listed all of the bones of his body she planned to break in alphabetical order and exactly how many of his motor functions he would be unable to regain.” Not that it had gotten that far. The guy had fainted on the spot.

 

“Still,” Naruto said. “I just didn’t think you’d want to become a medic.”

 

Sasuke turned, looking ahead thoughtfully. He didn’t exactly want to become a medic, not really. He’d already picked up – from a few stray conversations here and there – that Sakura was adept at healing techniques herself. One of the reasons Sasuke was so eager to learn sword fighting, was that he would have something for himself. Something his teammates were not already good at.

 

So no, he did not want to be an additional medic next to Sakura. However, it sounded very interesting to learn how to break people and put them back together.

 

While Tsunade seemed to be content drinking and ignoring all of them, Shizune watched them with thinly veiled suspicion.

 

“Why are you here? Really?”

 

Sakura and Naruto shared a glance, and Sakura dropped the playful, mildly teasing tone that the pair had perfected over the last few weeks. “You both deserted Konoha yourselves. You must have had reasons.” She paused. “A shinobi village… It can be suffocating to live in. The way shinobi grow up, are trained and expected to give their lives for a village that perhaps doesn’t deserve to stay the way it is right now.”    

 

Tsunade snorted. “Do you even know how ridiculous that sounds, coming from a brat who’s stepped foot out of her home village for the first time in her life?” She took a swing from her glass and slammed it back on the counter. “Makes it all the more mind-boggling that you’re right.”

 

“Why do you think so?” Shizune asked instead. “Those are strong opinions.”

 

“I’m a jinchūriki,” Naruto said, “and Sasuke is the last surviving Uchiha beside his brother. Go figure.”

 

Sasuke barely twitched at the reminder. They had met Itachi head-on, and he wasn’t about to break down just because he was mentioned in a conversation.

 

“That’s funny,” Tsunade said and actually looked like she was giving Naruto her full attention for once. “Because last time I checked, Konoha’s jinchūriki was a boy. Minato had a son.”

 

“That’s me,” Naruto said with a cheerful smile. “Sometimes. Other times I’m his daughter.”

 

Shizune hummed in contemplation. “Does that mean you keep up a Henge the entire time?”

 

“Well, yeah,” Naruto said, tugging at one of her pigtails. “At least as a girl.”

 

Sasuke sent her a look. Now that she’d brought it up: “Isn’t that exhausting to keep up?”

 

Tsunade huffed a laugh. “She’s an Uzumaki. If there’s one thing she doesn’t need to worry about, it’s chakra.”

 

“Is she right then?” Shizune asked. “Did you know her father?”

 

There was a pause where Tsunade stared straight ahead, twirling the glass in her hand. She set it down again with a sigh. “Not closely. But yeah, I knew him,” she admitted. “Of course I did. He was Jiraiya’s student.”

 

Naruto nodded as if that wasn’t news to her. “You left Konoha when he was still a teenager. Didn’t you?”

 

Tsunade narrowed her eyes, but nodded. “Look kid, I don't know what you want me to tell you. Apparently you already know the basics, and it’s not like I hung around him a lot.”

 

Naruto shrugged. “Can’t blame me for trying. It’s not like there’s anyone in the village willing to tell me about him. Them,” she corrected, “Mom, too.”

 

“I’d tell you to hunt down Jiraiya, but even I don’t know where he’s lurking around.” Tsunade paused, then added, drily, “Then again, you somehow managed to track down us.

 

“We’re just that great,” Sakura chirped while Naruto took on a thoughtful expression. She caught Sakura’s gaze, and then Sasuke’s.

 

“I mean. We don’t really have any plans besides this, do we?”

 

“Don’t look at me,” Sasuke said. “I haven’t had a say in anything since we became a team.”

 

“You’re being dramatic,” Sakura said, shoving his arm playfully. Sasuke knew that it was playfully only because he was still standing instead of hugging the wall.

 

“We know Konoha, and we already visited Suna,” Naruto said. “Why not make the set whole?”

 

“And visit the rest of the Five Nations?” Sakura asked.

 

“And the villages in between,” Naruto finished, already breaking out in a grin. “Just imagine all the people we’ll be able to meet!”

 

Sakura turned to look at him. “What do you think, Sasuke?”

 

He thought about it. So far, their trip had been… surprisingly fun. Only weeks prior Sasuke would have never believed that he would enjoy being on a team in the slightest – especially not with these two. And yet, here he was.

 

Additionally, he was learning more than he ever had in the academy. It was like Sakura and Naruto knew his strengths and weaknesses better than he did, like they knew exactly how to teach him best. And they were they reason he had started to learn sword fighting.

 

Besides, they were right. As they were now, Konoha had nothing to offer to them.

 

He shrugged. “I’m up for it.”

 

Naruto thrust one hand in the air victoriously. Her grin was ridiculously wide, radiating happiness. “Yes! This is gonna be the best, you guys!”

 

“There’s a lot we haven’t seen so far,” Sakura agreed. “Should be exciting.” She flexed her muscles with a grin, and Sasuke felt a pang of sympathy for whoever Sakura was planning to “meet” on their travels.

 

“Go on then,” Tsunade said, waving at them dismissively. “Go see the world. Have fun. And don’t bother sending us a postcard.”

 

“B-But,” Shizune protested. “Shouldn’t we be trying to discourage this?”

 

“Why should we? If they fail they won’t be our problem anymore. And if they succeed, they’ll come out of it one hell of a powerful team.” Tsunade shrugged. “Either way, doesn’t matter as long as I don’t have to deal with them again.”

 

“Aww,” Sakura said, an unnerving smile on her face. “It’s adorable how you think you'll be rid of us just like that.”

 

Tsunade’s glass slammed on the counter with a bang. “What?!”

 

“You’re stuck with us,” Naruto said, putting her arms behind her head with a gleeful smile. “We’ll come back and tell you aaall about our travels.”

 

Tsunade’s scowl could have turned milk sour. “Listen here, brats–”

 

“After all, we’re family. ” Naruto was enjoying herself entirely too much. “Your grandma was an Uzumaki, wasn’t she? So, we’re related.”

 

“I-I mean–” Tsunade’s eyes widened comically.

 

“Since, you know, my mom was an Uzumaki.”

 

Huh. That explained her last name, Sasuke supposed. He had wondered about the lack of “Namikaze”, once he’d found out about Naruto’s father.

 

Naruto wasn’t done, gleefully ignoring the way Tsunade grew paler and paler with every word. “So, do I call you granny or auntie or cousin? Cause you know, I’m not really sure.”

 

Tsunade sputtered in disbelief. “You don’t get to call me any of those!”

 

Naruto shared a glance with Sakura, forcing down her grin to nod in mock-seriousness. “Granny it is.”

 

Suicidal teammates or not, Sasuke found that he actually looked forward to their plans. A trip through the Elemental Nations was bound to be interesting.

 

That was, Sasuke thought as he watched Shizune physical restrain Tsunade to keep her from pounding a smug Naruto, if his teammates managed not to get dismembered by a furious Sannin before they could get on their way.


 

Chapter Text

They walked in silence as Kumo disappeared from sight behind them. The atmosphere between them was strained, Naruto and Sasuke pointently not looking at Sakura. She didn’t even have the decency to look guilty.

 

Naruto was the first to give in. “You just couldn’t help yourself, could you?”

 

“He challenged me,” Sakura said, crossing her arms.

 

“We are banned from Kumo for life,” Sasuke said.

 

“Do you know how much less of Kumo there is than there was before?” Naruto, his hair short and Henge dropped, frowned. “And you made Killer B cry, Sakura! You made him cry!”

 

He challenged me!”  Sakura repeated, as if that justified anything. “What did you expect me to do, refuse?”

 

Yes! ” Naruto threw up his hands in exasperation. “That way we would still be allowed to come back. How am I supposed to visit him now? He’s my friend!”

 

“Everyone’s your friend,” Sasuke muttered.  

 

He still hadn’t quite recovered from the… experience , that Killer B had been. Whatever Sasuke had expected from a jinchūriki after meeting Naruto and Gaara, it had not been that . The atrocious rap and bad rhymes played on loop in his ears whenever he didn’t distract himself quickly enough.

 

“It’s not my fault he doesn’t know his limits,” Sakura said.

 

“You’re thirteen! And tiny! With pink hair! How could he have possibly known that it would end in a gigantic crater?”

 

Sakura let out a huff. “I warned him.”

 

“You provoked him,” Sasuke corrected.

 

“Same difference. Look, I don’t know what you want from me. It’s too late now, isn’t it?”

 

Naruto pouted. “We didn’t even get to stay the night. And Sasuke could have learned a lot from Killer B.”

 

An icy shudder travelled over Sasuke’s spine. The rap haunted him. “I’m good.” Besides, he could do without a fighting style that used a ridiculous amount of seven blades . Where did Naruto even find these people?

 

“Stop dwelling on the past,” Sakura said, throwing one arm each over their shoulders in what might have been a placating gesture. Naruto huffed and Sasuke rolled his eyes, but neither of them tried to shake her off. They knew better than that.

 


 

The downside to camping outside was that not one of them was a morning person. Sasuke suppressed a grumble as he dragged himself out of his sleeping bag, shivering at the chilly morning air. He peeked through half-lidded eyes at his just as grumpy looking teammates.

 

Somehow, Sakura had already managed to dress herself. “Naruto,” she said, breaking off into a huge yawn. “Want me to do your nails?”

 

Naruto groaned, flopping over and facing away from Sakura. “‘s okay.”

 

Sasuke noted the deeper voice and the relatively short hair. Naruto had worn nail polish before as a boy, so it was better to double check.

 

Sakura seemed to have the same thought, and asked, “Still a boy?”

 

There was no answer, just a distracted humming sound. Naruto had straightened up, but didn’t face either of them. Sasuke shared a look with Sakura. “Naruto?”

 

“Eh? Oh, yeah.” He didn’t look at them, staring off into the distance instead.

 

Sakura raised an eyebrow. “Are you alright?”

 

Naruto looked up and gave them a bright grin. “We gotta make another pitstop.”

 

Naruto’s connection to other jinchūriki, as Sasuke found out, only worked within a certain distance. He could not communicate with all of them at all times, but he immediately realized when one of them came within range.

 

Which was how they found themselves discussing their approach – or rather, how Sasuke found himself listening to Sakura and Naruto bicker. Sakura was all for a frontal assault – because of course she was – while Naruto insisted that they could solve the issue diplomatically.

 

“You don’t know how they’ll react,” Sakura said. “For all we know, they might immediately attack. It would be far easier if we had the moment of surprise on our side.”

 

“We won’t know until we try,” Naruto insisted, sporting the kind of earnesty that Sasuke would instinctively distrust coming from anyone but Naruto. “And what if she doesn't want to leave? We gotta ask her, first.”

 

“I agree with Sakura,” Sasuke said. “Why would they listen to us?”

 

From what Naruto and Sakura had told him, jinchūriki were widely hated within their communities – and hadn’t that been an eye opener – but also considered a huge asset. The irony of that was not lost on Sasuke. The point was: Sasuke doubted that the jinchūriki’s escorts (Her team? Her companions?) would welcome them with open arms to take away their asset.

 

Naruto admitted defeat with a huff. “Fine. Let’s compromise.”

 

A compromise, as proven a few minutes later, meant using an approach no one was happy with.

 

“You owe me for this,” Sakura muttered, and Sasuke silently agreed.

 

“Pssht! We’re nearly within range.” Naruto gestured for them to follow him. “Come on, what we discussed!”

 

Sakura heaved a sigh, expressing their discontentment for the both of them. Sasuke’s hand hovered over the storage seal that held his sword. He was itching to try it out in a real fight, and had not been happy about the part of the plan that forbade him from using it.

 

Their forehead protectors were carefully hidden from sight, and Naruto’s whiskers covered under a Henge, “just in case”.

 

They brushed through the undergrowth far louder than they were used to. It didn’t take long for them to stumble over their targets: Three shinobi, one of them a teenager with green hair and orange eyes who Sasuke suspected to be Fū.

 

Just according to their plan, Naruto blended into the background while Sakura took the lead.

 

“S-Shinobi-san!” she choked out, her voice pitched in a frightened, incredibly childish way. She sounded years younger than she actually was. “I’m so glad! I thought we… I-I thought…” She broke off in a muffled sob and Sasuke was impressed against his will. She was good at this.

 

Fū stepped forward with a kind, if slightly alarmed, smile. “It’s alright! We can help you, what’s wrong?” She tensed and whirled around to face Naruto, and Sakura hurriedly went on to capture her companions’ attention.


“Really? You can help us?” She directed puppy eyes to the stoic shinobi. “We’re apprentices to our local healer. He took us into the forest to collect herbs, but we’ve heard noises. We’ve had problems with bandits lately, so he told us to hide, b-but… But…” Sakura sniffled pathetically, and Sasuke wanted to roll his eyes. “W-We got lost. We don’t know how to get back to our village.”

 

Sakura decided to dial up the ‘scared little children’ front by taking Sasuke’s hand. His first instinct was to swat it away, but he let it happen at her warning squeeze. He tried to warp the scowl creeping onto his face into something resembling fright instead.

 

Damn Naruto.

 

At least their performance seemed to work somewhat, as the two shinobi were busy arguing about what to do with them.

 

“We don’t have time for this,” one of them growled. “We’re late as it is, we can’t afford any more detours.”

 

“We can’t just leave them alone,” the other argued, although he sounded reluctant about it. “Look at them, they’ll starve out here.”

 

Yeah, right. Sasuke had to suppress a snort.

 

“It’s not part of our job to help random little kids. They’ll find their way back.”

 

“They’re civilians. ” He said the word like it was an insult. “Besides, do you really think Fū–” He frowned, and Sasuke suppressed a curse. They’d used up their time.

 

The shinobi turned to Fū. “You’ve been quiet. Don’t you have anything to say?”

 

Fū flinched, her eyes widened as if caught doing something forbidden. Naruto had moved and stood far too close to her.

 

“What are you doing?” the first shinobi yelled, and grabbed for a kunai.

 

Sasuke twitched with the urge to retrieve his weapon, but followed their plan. They had to wait for Fū’s decision.

 

“It’s your choice, Fū,” Naruto said, completely at ease and not bothering to keep up their front anymore.

 

“We’re going,” the second shinobi decided, and grabbed for Fū’s arm roughly. “Right now.”

 

“Alright!” Fū shook off the grip forcefully, and retreated a few steps. “Alright, I want to come with you!”

 

Finally. Sasuke unsealed his sword as Fū yelled, “But don’t hurt them!” He faltered, but obeyed. Fine then.

 

Changing tactics, he rammed the blunt side of his sword into one of the shinobi’s gut, strengthening his blow with chakra the way Sakura had taught him. His opponent dropped with a grunt.

 

A glance showed that Sakura had taken care of the other one, and Fū hovered around them anxiously. “Oh! Oh, this was a bad idea… What am I going to do...”

 

“They’ll be fine,” Sakura assured her. “They’ll wake up soon.”

 

“I know, that’s not what I mean! I’ll be declared a missing nin, they’ll look for me. But oh, you’re a jinchūriki!” Fū turned to Naruto with a bright grin, and Sasuke blinked at the sudden mood swing. “That’s so amazing! I’ve never met another one before.”

 

“I have,” Naruto said, beaming just as widely. “Two, in fact. My name’s Naruto. Maybe Chōmei told you, but I’ve got Kurama, the Nine-Tails, sealed inside of me.”

 

“You know their names!” If Fū’s smile grew any brighter, Sasuke knew for sure it would start to blind him. “Chōmei is really excited. Why are you here? Don’t you have a village? Where are you going?”

 

Sasuke felt his eye twitch. Fū was far too energetic for his liking. He’d already gotten used to Naruto, but the two of them together? They sounded exhausting to be around.

 

“We’re from Konoha,” Sakura said. “But at the moment we’re travelling.”

 

“You can do that?” Fū’s eyes went wide. “You can just leave your village and come back? They let you do that?”

 

“I mean,” Naruto rubbed his neck with a sheepish smile. “They didn’t stop us?”

 

“Because we didn’t let them,” Sasuke muttered.

 

“That’s amazing,” Fū said, her smile dropping. “Taki would never let me. I don’t know if I could come back if I leave now.”

 

“But I thought you didn’t like it there?” Naruto asked. “Why would you want to come back?”

 

Fū fidgeted uncomfortably. “It’s… not that bad…” She didn’t sound convincing in the slightest. “But being on the run all of the time… Having no village to return to…” She frowned.

 

Sakura hummed thoughtfully, but Naruto lightened up. “Oh, I know! Why don’t we just bring you back to Konoha?”

 

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure about that?”

 

Naruto, apparently, did not see the issue of bringing a foreign jinchūriki back into their home village. He waved a hand dismissively. “Sure I am. It’ll be fine.”

 

Sasuke could almost hear the ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ and decided to hold his tongue. Whatever was about to happen, he could say with a clear consciences that it was completely and utterly Naruto’s fault.

 


 

 

Chapter Text

Two days into their journey and Sasuke's eye had permanently started to twitch. He barely reacted as something wet made contact with his head, prompting a cry of triumph from Fū.

 

“Hah!” Naruto yelled, nearly choking from laughter. “Nailed it!”

 

Sakura hid a smirk. Badly. “I-It suits you, Sasuke.”

 

Sasuke ruffled his hair, not sinking low enough to answer them. His hair and clothes would never be the same again.

 

“Where did you even get glitter?”

 

Five days in and they nearly lost half of their travelling party out of sheer stupidity.

 

“Hey. Do you think the bijū mindscape still works if one of us is unconscious?”

 

“... Huh. Interesting.”

 

“What do you– Put that down!

 

Seven days in and Sasuke started to reevaluate his opinion of Itachi as a homicidal lunatic. He was starting to relate.

 

“... Sasuke. Why are you sharpening your sword and looking at Fū like that?”

 

When they finally, at last reached Konoha, Sasuke was just about ready to sob in relief. He would gladly face all of the consequences of their several weeks long field trip if only he could escape the terror that followed Naruto and Fū’s boredom.

 

Despite her bubbly and outgoing personality, Fū was older than them by several years and a more than capable shinobi. Because of this it proved no challenge whatsoever to sneak back into Konoha and all the way into Naruto’s apartment.

 

“It’s kinda small,” Naruto said as soon as they’d entered through the window, “but we’ll manage.”

 

From the sounds of it, Naruto had already decided that all of them would spend the night at his place. Sasuke couldn’t even pretend to be surprised, and he didn’t react beyond raising an irritated eyebrow. If he was honest with himself, going back to his own empty apartment didn’t sound particularly tempting anyway.

 

It was late, and they’d pulled an all nighter in their attempt to reach the village by the end of the day. Even Naruto and Fū were running out of energy, so it didn’t take long for them to find themselves in a blanket pile on the ground – neither Naruto’s bed nor his couch had been big enough for all four of them.

 

Knowing that both Sakura and he were light sleepers, Sasuke trusted that he would wake immediately should they get visitors, and surrendered to sleep easily.

 


 

The next day, it was Kakashi who found them. A very upset, very frantic Kakashi. “I-It’s you…”

 

Naruto blinked at him sleepily, but Sakura beamed. “Kakashi-sensei! We’re back!”

 

“It’s you,” Kakashi repeated, still not moving from his place on the windowsill. “You’re alright.”

 

Naruto winced, and even Sasuke felt a tad guilty. “Of course we are. You didn't honestly think we’d let something happen, did you?”

 

“Oh, I don't know,” Kakashi said, his voice tight and his shoulders tense. “You three all on your own, doing who knows what outside of the village? How could I possibly think something might happen to you?” Sakura grimaced, but Kakashi wasn’t finished. “Do you know how close I was to coming after you?”

 

“You’re more than welcome to join us,” Sakura said.

 

“That’s not what I– Wait.” Kakashi’s eye widened. “Does that mean you’re planning to do it again?

 

An awkward silence followed. Sakura, Naruto and Sasuke shared a glance.

 

“Um. K-Kinda?” Naruto said. “Look, Kakashi-sensei–”

 

“Do you have any idea how long it took to convince the Hokage not to send someone after you?! Do you know what people have been saying?! What they’re going to say, knowing you’ll come and go as you please? This isn’t a game, you three!”

 

“I know.” Naruto’s tone had grown solemn, and Sasuke found himself paying close attention. “Believe it or not, we’re not doing this for fun.”

 

“Well, not only ,” Sakura muttered, not loud enough to interrupt Naruto.

 

“There’s so much more out there, outside of the village borders,” Naruto continued. “Our perspective is so limited if we spend all of our time in a single village. Getting to know other places, other people and forming bonds – don’t you think that’s worth following?”

 

“That’s what missions are for,” Kakashi said, but it sounded weak even to Sasuke’s ears. Kakashi had never looked this exasperated, this tired.

 

Sakura shrugged. “That’s not enough. I’m sorry, but we’re not willing to wait years for any form of independence from the village.”

 

Kakashi sighed, dragging his hand over his face. “Why did you come back in the first place?”

 

“Right!” Naruto’s face lit up in a bright grin. He grabbed behind him without looking, dragging Fū in Kakashi’s field of vision. “Kakashi-sensei, this is Fū. She’s a jinchūriki and she’ll live here from now on.”

 

If Kakashi had been distressed before, it was no comparison to what he felt now. His eye widened comically and his next words came as an incredulous stutter. “Jinchūriki– She– What?!”

 

“Hello, Kakashi-san.” Fū bowed deeply, her smile as beaming as Naruto’s was. “My name is Fū, and it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

 

“You’ll make sure the council doesn’t try to pull anything, right?” Sakura asked, and, not waiting for an answer, “Thanks, Kakashi-sensei!”

 

What followed was their first group hug in weeks, Kakashi returning their embrace after a few seconds of awkward tension. “You’re going to be the death of me,” he muttered, but tightened his hold around them regardless.

 


 

The next day, Naruto and Sasuke accompanied Sakura on her search for Ino. They found her in a spar with Tenten, one of her teammates – Neji – keeping busy with a light workout next to them. All of them interrupted what they were doing as soon as they saw the four of them approach.

 

“Sakura,” Ino shouted, dodging the tantō Tenten had jabbed in her distraction without even looking. “You’re back! Everyone’s been in a frenzy while you were gone, you know?”

 

“We’re not here permanently,” Sakura said. “We kinda came back to drop off a friend of ours.” She nudged Fū’s shoulder, prompting a wave and a cheerful, “I’m Fū, nice to meet you.”

 

Ino raised an eyebrow, looking Fū up and down. “A friend? Am I sensing a story there?”

 

“Maybe,” Sakura smirked. “I’ll tell you over lunch. My treat.”

 

“You better. Fū, Tenten, are you gonna–”

 

“Is that a chain sickle?! ” Fū’s voice was practically vibrating, and she dashed over to Tenten’s side, where a variety of weapons was laid out carefully.

 

“Yeah!” Tenten said, beaming at the enthusiasm. “It’s a new batch, Ino’s been helping me try them out. Do you wanna take a look?”

 

Fū squealed, and soon the two girls were engulfed in a discussion – and physical demonstration – of Tenten’s favorite past time. Seeing as Sasuke thought of most human interaction as exhausting at best and as a waste of time at worst, it was beyond him how a person could make friends as quickly and effortlessly as Fū did.

 

Ino didn’t seem particularly bothered. “Guess it’s just us then.”

 

“What, you’re not inviting us?” Naruto asked, dialing up the offense to eleven.

 

“Not a chance,” Ino gave back. “Girls only.”

 

“Well, about that–”

 

“Naruto,” Sakura growled and Naruto made the healthy decision and threw up his hands in surrender.

 

“Nevermind. Have fun. At least try to keep a low profile.”

 

That left the two of them with Neji. While Sasuke wasn’t particularly thrilled about it, he had to admit that Neji seemed different from before. He hadn’t drawn attention to himself up to this point, and instead of a glare, they were met with a look of wariness and contemplation. Besides, Sasuke was fairly sure that the old Neji wouldn’t have “wasted” his freetime with one of his teammates.

 

“Hey, Neji!” Naruto called, his voice cheerful like he hadn’t humiliated Neji on their last encounter. “How have you been?”

 

Predictably, Neji didn’t immediately answer. His posture was rigid, and quite frankly Sasuke was surprised that he hadn’t left as soon as they’d come close. Slowly, he relaxed. “I’ve made chūnin,” he said, reserved but not quite unfriendly.

 

“Woah, really?” Naruto said. “That’s amazing!”

 

“Congrats,” Sasuke muttered. He almost expected a spark of envy, but surprisingly, it didn’t come. Sasuke knew that he was making progress in leaps and bounds, and he didn’t need a promotion to prove it to himself.

 

“What do you plan on doing now?” Naruto asked.

 

Something flickered over Neji’s face, too quick for Sasuke to recognize. His jaw tensed and it took him another moment to answer. “I… don’t know.”

 

Naruto hummed noncommittal. “Well, you have loads of time to decide.”

 

“I suppose not everyone has their mind set on a dream by the time they’re teenagers.” What would have been a jab at Naruto’s ambition weeks prior, now sounded like a simple observation.

 

Naruto shrugged. Missing the old enthusiasm about the topic, he said, “It’s not a bad dream.”

 

“It’s difficult,” Neji said.

 

“Many dreams are.” Naruto hesitated, then added, “So is changing the system.”

 

They didn’t need Naruto to elaborated to know what he was talking about. Sasuke observed Neji carefully, but he didn’t react beyond the barest narrowing of his eyes. He was too collected for that.

 

“Still,” Naruto went on, “you don’t have to become Hokage to make a difference. Although,” Naruto paused, giving Neji a sunny smile. “I bet you’d make a great one.”

 

Neji blinked, genuinely surprised. He was saved from having to come up with an answer by Tenten.

 

“Hey, Sasuke. Fū said you picked up sword fighting while you were gone?”

 

Sasuke raised an eyebrow, wordlessly nudging the sword at his side.

 

“Cool.” Tenten pulled out a sword of her own, a playful glint in her eyes. With her nearly manic smile, it looked dangerous. “Show me what you’ve got.”

 

Sasuke didn’t hesitate long before drawing his sword. “Fine.”

 

As ways to spend their vacation in Konoha went, this one was at least going to be interesting.

 


 

The next few days passed in an elaborate game of hide and seek. They took the time to catch up with the other rookies – even the ones that Sasuke had never exchanged a single word with before – as well as with Kakashi, who had quickly accepted his fate with only minor complaints and the occasional existential crisis. Fū made friends faster than Sasuke was able to keep up with, and he didn’t doubt that by the end of the week she’d have a small army of aspiring shinobi on her side, making it difficult for Konoha to kick her out like it was nothing.

 

And, every few days – or hours, if they were unlucky – they hid from the ANBU who were sent to fetch them for the Hokage. Their friends (‘friends’, in Naruto and Sakura’s eyes, included every single villager roughly their age and quite a lot of others, whether those people agreed or not) proved surprisingly useful at helping them stay under the radar. Incredibly, an entire week passed and the only adult they interacted with was Kakashi – and Gai, who didn’t count because he had joined their game of hide and seek with almost disturbing enthusiasm.

 

“What a creative and energetic way of training both wits and agility! Lee! We too shall join their training regime and go without being caught for ten days! If not, we will climb the Hokage’s monument a hundred times with one hand!”

 

“Yosh! Gai-sensei!”

 

Naruto and Sakura hadn’t had the heart to tell them that the lack of interest the ANBU had in them would make the ‘training’ quite pointless. Sasuke just hadn’t cared enough.

 

But finally, on the morning that would start their second week hiding out in Konoha, Shikamaru walked up to them carelessly, but with purpose.

 

“Just so you know, Ino wanted me to tell you that Hinata told her that Kiba saw the Hokage coming this way. Apparently he looked quite serious.”

 

The information didn’t come as a surprise, and since they had sealed and carried around their belongings for days, they needed no time whatsoever to be ready to go.

 

“Guess that’s our cue then,” Naruto said, sharing a glance with Sasuke and Sakura.

 

“Give Ino a hug from me, will you?” Sakura asked. “And tell the others goodbye, too.”

 

Shikamaru shrugged, his hands buried in his pockets. “Sure, whatever.” He turned away, and only stopped once to mutter, “Don’t get killed out there, you hear?” Then he was gone, and the three of them were alone with Fū.

 

“Will you be fine?” Naruto asked, turning to his fellow jinchūriki. “It’s not too late to change your mind.”

 

But Fū beamed at him, not a shimmer of uncertainty on her face. “I love it here!” They accepted her decision without protest.

 

“Take care,” Sakura said, and Naruto hugged her goodbye. Sasuke simply nodded, and then the three of them were on their way.

 

They’d nearly made it out when a call of “They’re over there!” made them freeze in their tracks, tensing and falling into fighting stances. They were prepared to fight their way out, if they had to.

 

They soon realized that all the shinobi were heading in the wrong direction, herded by a gray-haired shinobi with a mask. Kakashi’s eye flickered in their direction once and his face tightened. They shared a nod of understanding, and he leaped away.

 

Outside of the village borders they found a goofy looking satchel with dog prints on it, containing provisions, expensive looking storage scrolls for equipment and three carefully tucked away copies of Team 7’s graduation picture.

 


 

Chapter Text

With three of the five big villages out of the way, their next destination was Iwa. By now Sasuke was used to the huge distances they left behind on a daily basis, and the longer they spent travelling, the more difficult it was to think back on the time when Konoha had been all he’d ever known.

 

With all the minor villages in between, each of the stops on their journey was a unique experience. The people they met, the villages they saw – Konoha was only a tiny part of the world, and with every passing day Sasuke felt more incredulous about ever having thought of it as the norm.

 

Naruto and Sakura were right: No matter what they had left behind, it was worth it.

 

Sasuke stepped back from his place at the window, letting one last glance wander over the place they’d chosen to spend the night. The village was a tiny, closed off thing, inhabited by people who spoke their own, local dialect and did not know what shinobi were. They hadn’t yet decided how long they wanted to stay, but it would most likely be their last stop before Iwa.

 

Naruto and Sakura had left for the local bathhouse for a "girls night out", but since the bathhouse was right across the street – and because Sasuke knew his teammates – he wasn't surprised to be snatched out of his thoughts by a commotion. Loud voices sounded from outside the door, one of them deep and definitely male.

 

Sasuke snatched up his sword and ripped open the door to potentially jump to his teammates' aid.

 

"–get off me, you crazy brat!"

 

"No way," Sakura said, scowling and dragging along an old and dorky looking man with them. He didn't seem to struggle much despite his loud protests, but was rubbing one side of his face. A light bruise already started blooming on it. "You're coming with us."

 

"Oh great," the old guy said, his eyes falling on Sasuke. “There's another one. How many of you are there?"

 

"Who's he?" Sasuke asked, gesturing towards the man with his sword.

 

"Someone with no concept of the word privacy," Naruto said. She seemed far less agitated than Sakura. In fact, her expression looked more exasperated than angry. The hair of both girls was still damp, so they must have come straight out of the bathhouse.

 

"You have no idea what you're talking about," the man – rather the pervert, if Sasuke understood Naruto correctly – huffed, shaking off Sakura's hand. She let go because he no longer seemed like he planned to make a run for it. "You've interrupted a delicate stealth operation, you know? Of the utmost importance, in fact–”

 

"Save it," Naruto said. "You can pull that kind of stunt on civilians, not on us."

 

At once, the man's curiosity perked up. "Oh, not civilians, huh?" His mouth pulled into what might have been meant as a charming grin, but looked more unnerving than anything. He looked straight at Naruto when he said, "So you've got even more going for you than just your looks, sweet-cheeks."

 

Sasuke had the sudden urge to punch the guy in the face. The only reason he didn't was that he felt like Naruto should have that honor herself.

 

Except Naruto wasn't moving. She stared at the man with a slack-jawed, horrified expression. "Ew! Ew ew ew, no way! Take that back, old man!"

 

The man let out an offended huff. "No need to act so insulted. I go for more mature women, anyway."

 

"Please stop talking," Naruto said. Her hands hovered at her sides like she had to suppress the urge to press them over her ears. "This is so much worse than before."

 

Sakura took a step towards the creep. "Do you want me to–”

 

"Wait," Naruto said, holding her back with one arm. "Let's just. Talk this out."

 

The man ignored them. His brows had furrowed and he leaned closer towards Naruto, taking in her appearance. "Are you from some kind of clan? Those markings, they're... They look familiar."

 

"They better!" Naruto frowned, touching her whisker marks.

 

The man’s frown grew deeper. "No, it can’t be. I've seen those before. The only person who should have them lives far away from here. Are you trying to trick me?"

 

"Good to know that you came to see me as a baby at least once," Naruto said drily. She pulled up her shirt to reveal her belly, and a touch of chakra made her jinchūriki seal flare up.

 

The man paled.

 

"That seal..." He reached out to touch it, running his chakra through it when Naruto didn't protest. It swirled under his touch, ink strokes unraveling and reforming in patterns that went over Sasuke's head.

 

"It's real. But that means..." His head snapped upwards and he looked at Naruto with newfound incredulity. "What's your name? What village are you from?"

 

"Konoha," Sakura said simply, crossing her arms.

 

"And my name's Naruto. You should know it," Naruto added, her lip tugged upwards in a half-smile. "You're the one who came up with it."

 

Sasuke blinked. "He did?"

 

"He's my godfather," she said, her smile growing. "His name's Jiraiya. My parents picked the name from a book that he wrote."

 

"You shouldn't know about that," the old ma– Jiraiya whispered, his eyes wide and fixed on Naruto. "Naruto... You look like him. The hair color, your eyes... You're definitely Minato's son. But why do you... Why are you looking like that? Is this a disguise?"

 

"It's a Henge," Naruto said, "but it's still all me. I'm his daughter, not his son. At least for now."

 

Jiraiya frowned, but didn't try to protest. "That means... And I almost..." His eyes widened, and his face lost the last bit of color it'd had left. "At the bathhouse. I almost–”

 

He let out a noise that sounded suspiciously close to a whimper and buried his head in his hands. The only words Sasuke managed to make out from the frantic mumbling that followed were "forgive me".

 

"What's he doing?" he said, taking a step closer towards his teammates.

 

Naruto hummed, watching the miserable, slumped figure that was her godfather. "Probably praying to my parents so they won't haunt him from the afterlife."

 

"Nevermind that!" Jiraiya yelled, leaping upwards as if a switch had been flipped and pointing an accusing finger at them. "What are you doing out here?! Where's your jōnin sensei? Are you even old enough to have graduated yet?"

 

"Of course we graduated," Sakura said.

 

"Here! See?" Naruto beamed, pushing Sakura aside and thrusting their graduation picture in Jiraiya's face.

 

Sasuke wanted to roll his eyes at her enthusiasm, but decided against it. It would have felt somewhat insincere seeing as he kept his own copy of the picture carefully tucked away at his side.

 

Jiraiya fumbled with the paper when Naruto let go, trying not to let it fall. "Kakashi," he said once he got a good look at it. His voice softened. "Kakashi is your teacher?"

 

"Maybe not quite voluntarily," Sakura admitted. "We're pretty sure the Third made him do it."

 

"Doesn't matter," Naruto said. "We're growing on him anyway."

 

"We're very lovable," Sakura deadpanned.

 

"I see," Jiraiya said. Sasuke related to his hesitant, somewhat alarmed expression on a personal level. "Where is he? I'd like to have word with him, myself."

 

"Um,” Naruto said, sheepishly tugging at a strand of her hair. “That could be an issue.”

 

"An issue? An issue how?" Jiraiya frowned. "Where is he?"

 

"In Konoha," Sasuke said, deciding that there was no gentle way to break the news. Better to get it over with quickly and deal with it the way they always did.

 

"What do you mean in Konoha?" Jiraiya said, his voice – predictably – rising in volume. "He can't be in Konoha. You're almost all the way to Iwa, why isn't he with you?!"

 

Naruto winced. "Well. You see, funny thing–”

 

"We ditched him," Sasuke interrupted, making it easy for all of them. His lip twitched upwards at the glare Naruto sent him, almost making him ruin his calm, emotionless expression.

 

"We didn't ditch him," she said, raising her hands to placate an incredulous looking Jiraiya. "We just– We kind of–”

 

"Sasuke's right," Sakura said. "We ditched him."

 

Naruto let out a deep, defeated sigh. "You two are the worst."

 

"B-But," Jiraiya spluttered. "What are you doing here? You should be in Konoha, training. Or on missions with your jōnin sensei. With Kakashi!"

 

"Yeah," Sakura said, drawing out the word. "We kind of decided we'd rather do other things."

 

"Don't get us wrong," Naruto added, "Kakashi's the best. But how else are we supposed to meet other jinchūriki?”

 

"Or make friends in other villages?"

 

"Or get to know the Tsunade?"

 

"Wait," Jiraiya said, interrupting Naruto and Sakura. "You met Tsunade?"

 

"You know her?" Sasuke asked.

 

"Know her?" Jiraiya snorted. "We were on the same genin team."

 

"No you weren't," Sasuke said, frowning. "Tsunade is one of the three legendary Sannin."

 

"That's right," Jiraiya said, puffing out his chest. "Tell me, have you ever heard of The Great Jiraiya-sama, sealmaster and Sage of Mount–”

 

"No," Sasuke interrupted.

 

Jiraiya's little speech spluttered to a halt. "W-What?"

 

"No," Sasuke repeated, ignoring the choked off noises his teammates made. "Should I?" Tsunade was a Sannin and she was Tsunade . This random old guy Sakura and Naruto had caught peeking in a bathhouse wanted to claim that he was one of them? No way.

 

"A-Anyway," Naruto said, shaking with what might have been suppressed laughter. "What are you doing here anyway, old man?"

 

"Besides being creepy in bathhouses," Sakura muttered.

 

"If you must know," Jiraiya said, raising his voice as if to overcompensate for the indignity he had suffered, "I've been following rumors of missing nin in the area.”

 

Sakura’s hum sounded just a bit too interested. “Missing nin? Do they have a connection to Konoha?”

 

“Yeah,” Naruto said. “You wouldn’t have a reason to investigate if they didn’t pose a threat to Konoha. Not this far away from the village.”

“Woah,” Jiraiya said, his browns pulling into a frown. “Hold your horses. If I knew whether they were threat or not, I wouldn’t be following rumors, would I? And why are you so interested in this, anyway? If anything, you three are going to go straight back to the village.”

 

Sasuke, Sakura and Naruto shared a glance.

 

“Mhm.”

 

“Yeah, sure.”

 

“Obviously.”

 

Jiraiya narrowed his eyes. “I don’t like your tone. Didn’t Tsunade say anything about you three coming here?”

 

Sakura snorted. “Please. She’s almost hoping something will happen to us, just so she won’t have to deal with us anymore.”

 

“Sucks to be her.” Naruto shrugged. “We’re too tough to go out without a bang.”

 

Jiraiya stared. “I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.”

 

“But Jiraiya-sensei,” Naruto said, puffing up her chest like she was offended. Simultaneously, Sakura said, “We would never .”

 

“Okay, that’s it,” Jiraiya decided, planting himself at the center of their room with the clear intention to stay. “We’re going back to Konoha tomorrow. Together. If I don’t make sure to drop you off safely, Kakashi will have my hide.”

 

Sasuke suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. If he’d learned one thing from the time he’d spent with his team so far, it was that neither of them took well to being treated like children. If he didn’t already dislike Jiraiya, he might have even felt bad for him.

 

“We’re so lucky,” Sakura deadpanned. “Whatever would we have done without you?”

 

Jiraiya huffed at her tone of voice, but clearly didn’t take her seriously. Perhaps if he’d paid more attention, he would have noticed her twitching mouth that betrayed the smirk she was trying to hide. Or he might have seen the odd twinkle in Naruto’s eyes that usually meant another villager was about to fall victim to one of her pranks.

 

Had Jiraiya wasted just a single moment to think of them as more than a trio of disobeying, particular lucky brats, he might have even noticed Sasuke’s expression shifting into one of subtle, but genuine glee.

 


 

Sasuke shivered, waiting for his teammates in a dark niche of the forest. He’d left the village far behind, and the night was foggy and moonless – perfect for a quick and subtle getaway.

 

They had split up and sneaked out of the room of their inn separately to lay a multitude of false trails before making a run for it. Their planning had happened almost nonverbally – seeing as Jiraiya had refused to leave them alone – and Sasuke couldn’t help but feel smug about the way their teamwork had developed.

 

He paused at the thought. Not even two years ago, he would have hated himself for even considering something as useless as the value of teamwork.

 

Naruto’s beacon of chakra tore him out of his thoughts. It stood out ridiculously and made Sasuke wonder why they’d made the effort to lay false trails in the first place.

 

“Alright guys,” Naruto said, Sakura materialising at her side almost instantly. “We gotta hurry. Jiraiya shouldn’t come after us for another hour or so, but we can’t be sure.”

 

“I know,” Sasuke said, somewhat annoyed. Obviously. After all, he was the one who had taken care of the old man.

 

Naruto halted in her tracks. “What do you mean, you know?”

 

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. “Because I’m the one who put the herbs in his tea? You told me to take care of him.” Well, Naruto had signed it. With hand signs that they had not learned in the academy. Still, Sasuke was fairly sure he’d gotten the gist of it.

 

Naruto blinked, seemingly disagreeing. “No, I told you that I’d take care of him. I put a seal under his futon that would put him under.”

 

There was a pause.


“Um,” Sakura said. “I thought he fell asleep on his own and hit some of his chakra points to make sure he wouldn’t wake up.”

 

There was a pause.

 

“We didn’t just put Jiraiya in a coma, did we?” Naruto asked.

 

Sakura made a gesture as if to swat away her worries. “Of course not. He’s a Sannin. He’ll be fine.”

 

“He is?” Sasuke said, only mildly interested. He’d been so convinced that Jiraiya had made it all up to sound more impressive.

 

“He’s been through worse. He’ll be fine.”

 

Sasuke shrugged. If Sakura said so.

 

They walked in silence for a while.

 

“Did anyone check if his airways were free before we left?”

 

As one, they froze in their tracks. They shared a glance.

 

“He’ll be fine.”

 

“Hmh.”

 

“Course he will.”

 


 

Chapter Text

There wasn’t much of a question what they would do next. Jiraiya had let it slip that there were missing nin in the area, so what else were they going to do but investigate?

 

After all, they couldn’t have known that said missing nin – or at least one of them – was somebody they'd already met. Or rather, somebody Sasuke had met.

 

It was too late to try anything stealthy. The taller of the pair, the man with a massive sword and bandages wrapped around his head – Zabuza – had already seen them. And, seeing as he gestured for his companion to come to a halt, he must have recognized Sasuke.

 

"Look out!" he hissed, proud of himself when his voice wavered only ever so slightly. His hand had found the handle of his sword without him realizing it. "The guy with the sword – he's the one Kakashi fought on the Wave mission!"

 

It wasn’t an encounter Sasuke was likely to forget any time soon. The thought alone forced him to relive the crushing weight of blood lust pressing down on him, made him feel the paralyzing effect it'd had on his body.

 

He'd like to think that time and experience had hardened him, and that put into the situation a second time, he wouldn't be as useless as he had been then. But even so, the sensation was edged into his mind, and wasn’t about to fade. It had been his first confrontation with a proper, merciless killer.  

 

Sasuke would have told his teammates all of that. He would have let them know just who it was they were dealing with, what dire of a situation they were in.

 

They beat him to the punch and said, simultaneously, "I know."

 

Sasuke closed his eyes and willed himself to have patience. "How could you know that?" Both of them had been conveniently absent during the fight, and Zabuza had not made a second appearance. As far as he knew, neither of the two should have ever laid eyes on him.

 

Nevertheless, Sasuke found that surprise would not come.

 

"Konoha," Zabuza called as if it was their name. There was no animosity in his voice, and no trace of the killing intent that had rendered Sasuke useless the first time around. "What are you doing here?"

 

Sakura blinked and Sasuke did a double take at the genuine confusion on her face. "You recognize us?"

 

"Never seen you before in my life.” Zabuza’s voice was gravelly and rough. "Just your teammates."

 

"Right," Sakura said, looking at Sasuke. "I forgot. You were with Kakashi-sensei and Tazuna-san when he attacked." She turned to Naruto and raised an eyebrow. "What's your excuse?"

 

"I pulled a Naruto on them," Naruto said, dead-serious and with the audacity to use her own name as a verb.

 

The sentence seemed to make perfect sense to Sakura, because she let out a groan. "Of course you befriended them back then. What else?"

 

"Duh," Naruto gave back. "Why did you think we didn't have to fight them again?"

 

"I thought it was me taking out Gato and his goons."

 

Naruto blinked. "Oh. I completely forgot about him."

 

"Stop," Sasuke said, a demand more than anything. "The Wave mission. Are you saying we didn't have to fight because of you?"

 

"Well. There was a bit of fighting involved," Naruto said. "Just not for you and Kakashi-sensei. Or the villagers."

 

"And you didn't know about Sakura?" Sasuke swayed incredulous eyes towards Sakura. "Or you about Naruto?"

 

Naruto cringed under his gaze. "We weren't exactly... close then?"

 

How was this Sasuke's life? He was almost glad when Zabuza spoke up and served as a wonderful distraction.

 

"You’re all nuts,” Zabuza said bluntly. Sasuke couldn’t even blame him. Or try to come up with any sort of defense in favor of his team. "And we have better things to do. Come on, Haku."

 

And, for the first time, Sasuke paid closer attention to Zabuza's companion.

 

They – she? They had long hair and delicate, feminine features, although Sasuke wasn't as ready to make assumptions as he would have been a few months ago – blended into the background next to Zabuza's massive, intimidating presence. Sasuke was inclined to believe that it said more about their power level than a gigantic sword ever could.

 

"Hello, Naruto-kun," they said, their face lighting up in a bright smile. "I like your hair."

 

"Thanks, Haku!" Naruto beamed back just as brightly.

 

Zabuza grumbled under his breath, taking a closer look at Naruto as well. "What is it with ninja brats and long hair?"

 

Naruto shrugged. "It's pretty. But I'm also a girl right now."

 

Zabuza raised an eyebrow. "'Right now'?"

 

"I might not be tomorrow. We'll see."

 

Zabuza let out a huff, turning his back to pick up the pace. Behind his back, a smiling Haku gestured for them to follow. "Whatever you say, Konoha."

 

"So, what are you guys up to?" Naruto said, easily falling into step with the two S-ranked missing nin. Sasuke granted himself a moment to question his life choices before shrugging internally and following along. "Not terrorizing any more villagers, I hope."

 

Zabuza let out a huff. "Nah. There are better ways to earn money."

 

"We have been collecting bounties from bandits and other missing nin," Haku said, smiling far too sweetly for someone who's been taking on high ranked criminals on a daily basis.

 

"So you've been cleaning up the villages around here?" Sakura said. "That's sweet of you."

 

"Don't say it like we're doing something nice," Zabuza scowled. "We're doing it for the money. End of story."

 

"What about that corrupt village elder in the last town, Zabuza-san?" Haku said, an innocently sunny smile on his lips. “He didn’t have a bounty.”

 

Zabuza pretended not to hear him. As well as the muffled snickering from Naruto and Sakura that followed.

 

Sasuke had to seriously reevaluate his impression of Zabuza. Standing in between him and the person he wanted to kill was an entirely different experience than trailing after him as Zabuza's charge (or whoever else Haku was) and Sasuke's teammates continued to tease him.

 

"Right," Naruto said at one point, interrupting her chat with Haku. “Before I forget, you should be careful. We knew to find you here from Jiraiya, so other people might be onto you, too. I mean, the missing nin he mentioned, that’s gotta be you, right?”

 

Zabuza shrugged. "Could be. Not necessarily.”


“Are you saying there’s more?”

 

“We did meet that slimy guy not long ago. One of yours.”

 

Sakura and Naruto shared a glance. “You mean…?”

 

“Zabuza-san is talking about Orochimaru.” Haku tilted his head. “Do you know him?”

 

“You could say that,” Sakura said. Her mouth twisted into a grin. “Orochimaru is in the area, huh?”

“Him and that gray haired brat of his,” Zabuza said. “No idea what they’re up to. It doesn’t concern us.”

“Maybe not you,” Sakura said. “But we’ve got some business left open.”

 

“Do you mean that guy from the Chūnin exams?” Sasuke asked, his mind flashing back to that day. It felt like such a long time ago. “With the glasses?”

 

“His name’s Kabuto,” Naruto said with a nod. “He’s working for Orochimaru. Pretty loyal, and far more dangerous than he looks.”

 

Huh. How about that? “He tried to recruit me.”

 

Naruto’s and Sakura’s necks snapped towards him so quickly, Sasuke was surprised they didn’t tear anything.

 

“He did?!”

 

“When?!”

 

Sasuke blinked, not used to such a violent reaction from his teammates. One part of him wanted to savour the moment. Another, bigger part had already lead him to open his mouth and reassure them.

 

“Some time after the second exam.” Sasuke frowned, thinking back more closely. “We were at my place. You guys were messing up the Yakitori. I went to the bathroom, and when I came back he was sitting in front of my window.”

 

Naruto and Sakura shared an alarmed glance. “How didn’t we notice?” Sakura muttered, but Naruto shushed her with an impatient hand gesture. “And then?”

 

Sasuke shrugged. “He offered me a place to train and to study. Somewhere to ‘reach my full potential’.”

 

Naruto leaned closer, her shoulders as tense as if Sasuke was still about to make the decision. “And? Come on, Sasuke!”

 

“I’m here, aren’t I?” Sasuke frowned, crossing his arms. Something about his teammates’ reaction made him feel defensive. “He dropped Orochimaru’s name. I slammed the window in his face. That’s it. I haven’t heard from either of them since.”

 

There was a moment of silence.

 

“You…? You slammed the window…?” Naruto stood gaping while Sakura’s face broke out into grin. Then, the oddest thing happened. Naruto rushed forward and closed her arms around Sasuke, something that sounded like relieved laughter escaping her. “Never change, Sasuke.”

 

Sasuke, unprepared for the sudden emotional outburst, didn’t struggle. He patted Naruto’s shoulder awkwardly until she let him go and beamed. “I’m glad you’re here. Did I ever tell you that?”

 

“Me too.” Sakura smiled, just a few paces further away. “Our team wouldn’t be a team without you.”

 

“... Okay,” Sasuke said, his frown deepening. Where was all this… sincerity, coming from? “You too, I guess.”

 

Zabuza’s gravelly voice cut through the silence that followed and destroyed the moment. If that was, indeed, something that they’d been having. “Feel free to have all the little heart to hearts that you’d like. But have them without us. We’ve wasted enough time already.”

 

“Oh!” Naruto said, jumping at the change of topic like she’d remembered something important. “Say, are you heading towards Kiri soon?”

 

Zabuza raised an eyebrow. “Why do you think we have these?” he asked, adjusting his hitai ate. It showed Kiri’s symbol of raindrops, cut through the middle by a sharp, narrow line. “I’ve left my village behind. Both of us have. Why should we go back?”

 

“I don’t know,” Naruto said, and somehow made it sound like a challenge. “Why would you go back?”

 

Zabuza held his gaze. Naruto stared back. Then, to Sasuke’s surprise, Zabuza looked away, first. “Some day, perhaps. We wouldn’t stand a chance, now.”

 

Sasuke threw Sakura a glance.

 

“Kiri is fighting a civil war,” Sakura explained, quietly. She didn’t get the chance to say more, as Naruto kept talking.

 

“We were travelling that direction anyway,” she said to Zabuza. “Why don’t we team up? We don’t have to do anything, we’ll just take a look. We can go in disguise.”

 

Zabuza hesitated.

 

“Wait,” Sakura said. “What about Orochimaru?”

 

“Oh, right!” Naruto frowned, tapping her fingers on her collarbone as if thinking it all through. “Okay, how about this. You guys go ahead towards Kiri, and we’ll go take care of Orochimaru real quick. We’ll join up with you once we’re done.”

 

“Once you’re done,” Zabuza deadpanned. “With a Sannin.”

 

“They will be fine,” Haku said. Sasuke wondered when exactly his team had gained his trust to such a degree.

 

Zabuza paused, then shrugged. “It’s your funeral. Do what you want.”

 

“We’ll find you afterwards,” Naruto promised, and shared one last smile with Haku. In the blink of an eye, both of them were gone.

 

“So,” Sakura said, seeking out Naruto’s, then Sasuke’s glance. “Orochimaru?”

 

“Orochimaru,” Naruto agreed, her smile drawing a determined line in her face.

 

Sasuke hesitated. He barely knew anything about the guy, besides that he was, apparently, the missing member of Jiraiya’s and Tsunade’s team. “Tell me what you know about him on the way,” he decided, “and I’m in.”

 

With three villages and two of the Sannin out of the way, why shouldn’t they complete the set?

 




Chapter Text

The fight was beyond anything Sasuke had ever experienced.

 

He’d learned a lot about their target during the time it’d taken them to find him – including why Naruto and Sakura wanted to hunt him down in the first place. They’d described Orochimaru as a mad scientist who’d been chased out of Konoha because they’d found out about his horrific human experimentation – and were proven right only minutes into the fight.

 

Orochimaru fought with corpses like they were tools. Glassy, lifeless eyes followed their every move, torn out of death by a madman who thought he had the right to use them to do his bidding. It made Sasuke’s stomach rebel with nausea.

 

“Fascinating, aren’t they?” Orochimaru said, a revolting smile on his face as he displayed his creations. “Konoha’s first two Hokage. You should be honored.”

 

Sasuke had never seen Naruto and Sakura this grim before. They didn’t move a muscle at Orochimaru’s taunts and met his sickening, inhuman eyes with twin glares. They were not planning to pull their punches today.

 

“It is a shame that I had to suppress their personalities,” Orochimaru went on, “but you left me no choice. I had to be thorough.”

 

“You’re afraid they’d break their binding if you let them think for themselves,” Naruto said, all play and jest gone from her voice. She’d tied back her hair in a tight braid in preparation for what was about to come. “You know that they’re stronger than you.”

 

“They would be lifeless dust without me,” Orochimaru argued.

 

“Anything would be better than this.”

 

“Enough talking.” Sakura was missing the excited spark her eyes usually held before battle. “You’re going to regret ever crawling out of your cave.”

 

“Yeah,” Naruto said. “You’ve gone too far, this time.”

 

“Oh?” Orochimaru arched an eyebrow. “And what do a couple of genin care about the kind of techniques I develop? Moral superiority is such an annoying –”

 

“Who cares about that?” Naruto interrupted. “You tried to take Sasuke, you creep!”

 

Orochimaru blinked. So did Sasuke. Naruto felt passionate about many things, but there’d never been quite this sort of heat behind her words before.

 

“A minor gamble,” Orochimaru said, recovering from the unexpected turn. “Nothing more. I would have taken him on as a student, had he wished. An opportunity few are granted,” his glance twitched to Sasuke and bored into his eyes like ice daggers, “and one that is not carelessly refused.”

 

Naruto actively growled at that. Sakura didn’t; she was too busy pulling her fist out of the crater that had cracked open where Orochimaru had stood only seconds before.

 

“You’re going to regret that,” Orochimaru promised. His threat somewhat lost its weight by his ruffled looks and the fact that he had dodged by leaping up the nearest tree.

 

"Kabuto," Orochimaru said, and Sasuke's eyes widened in recognition at the gray-haired figure that bled out of the shadows to stand by Orochimaru's side.

 

"Orochimaru-sama."

 

"Take care of Sasuke," Orochimaru said. Sasuke tried not to squirm under his gaze. "We no longer have use for him. Well," a smirk split his lips, too wide and contradicting his cold, emotionless eyes. "We have no use for most of him."

 

"Over my dead body," Naruto muttered, and, as if a dam had broken, the fight was on.

 

Sakura’s fists brimmed with chakra as she threw herself at the corpses while Sasuke charged at Kabuto. It didn’t take him more than a few blows to realize that the teenager was good. He moved too quickly to hit, and if it hadn’t been for Naruto alternating between fighting Orochimaru and preventing Sasuke from being sliced open by Kabuto, it would have been over only seconds into the battle.

 

Sasuke grit his teeth, realizing he was more of a hindrance than help. All of his improvement, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough by far. The only reason they weren’t dead yet was that Orochimaru seemed more interested in watching the fight rather than actually joining.

 

“He hasn’t awakened his Sharingan,” Kabuto noted after another exchange of blows, surveying Sasuke with clinical interest.

 

Orochimaru paused. “He hasn’t?” His eyes found Sasuke’s for several tense, uncomfortable heartbeats. Then they slid away in disinterest. “What a disappointment.”

 

The words felt like a gush of ice water hitting Sasuke’s face.

 

“Look out!” Naruto swept in front of him to block a couple of senbon aimed at his throat. “Sasuke, concentrate!”

 

Sasuke ignored the ringing in his ears, gripped his sword tighter and charged. He hadn’t thought about his clan’s bloodline limit for such a long time – and he didn’t have the time to think about it now.

 

“Naruto,” Sakura shouted from somewhere to their left. “It’s no use! The kage won’t die.” Blood trickled down her cheek in a lazy flow. Her clothes were torn in several places, hiding more wounds.

 

Sasuke felt his limbs starting to grow heavy, and he wondered if Sakura felt the same.

 

Next to him, Naruto’s expression tightened in a frown. She looked at the kage, then at Orochimaru. He was still watching, looking almost eager to watch their next move. Like he was humoring children.

 

They didn’t stand a chance as long as they didn’t have the manpower to spare against Orochimaru.

 

“Sakura,” Naruto yelled, “let’s switch!”

 

Sakura nodded. In the blink of an eye she was at Sasuke’s side, and Naruto rushed towards the kage in her stead.

 

“Hold your sword a bit lower,” Sakura said as they charged at Kabuto together. They dealt a few hits, then retreated.

 

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. “You know nothing about swords.”

 

Sakura let out a huff. “I know some things.”

 

“Like?”

 

“... Like how to break them with a punch?”

 

“You’re not punching mine.” Sasuke pointedly angled his sword away from her.

 

Sakura snorted. “I wasn’t going to. Kankurō would kill me.”

 

Sasuke felt a smile play around his lips. “He would try.”

 

“D’you think Temari would avenge me?” Sakura’s face took on a dreamy quality. Suddenly all the time they’d spent in Suna made a lot more sense.

 

“She might,” Sasuke offered, but he wasn’t given the chance to say more before Kabuto’s attack forced them to pay attention again.

 

For a while, that was. It was somewhat difficult to concentrate properly when he kept stealing glances at Naruto. Who was dancing around the kage, dodging attacks while wagging around an ink brush. "... What is she doing?"

 

Sakura spared a glance as well, and smirked. "Do you remember what we learned about fuinjutsu at the academy?"

 

"It wasn't much."

 

"No, it wasn't. You haven't seen anything of what fuinjutsu can really do. Although," she paused, ducking under Kabuto's punch and barely missing his sternum in return, "this doesn't look like any of her flashy techniques. You might have to wait for the next time."

 

"You talk a lot," Kabuto said, and, as if to prove his point, almost caved in Sasuke's head with a well aimed chakra-infused blow.

 

Sakura shrugged as well as she could while throwing another punch. "As long as it's working."

 

"Working?" Kabuto raised an eyebrow. "For what?"

 

"Distracting you."

 

As if on cue, they heard an enraged "What are you doing?!" from Orochimaru.

 

Sakura leaped between him and Naruto before he could stop her – from smearing ink on the corpses, from the looks of it. Which, going by Orochimaru’s reaction, seemed to equal a personal insult grave enough to warrant being taken apart by Orochimaru himself.

 

But before he could attempt to get past Sakura – possibly by killing her, if his murderous glance was anything to go by – several things happened in quick succession as Naruto finished her last ink stroke: the corpses dropped like marionettes whose strings had been cut, Orochimaru let out a furious snarl, and Kabuto rushed forward with the intent to finish off Sakura while she was still distracted.

 

He didn’t spare a glance at Sasuke. Ignoring the spark of irritation at being so blatantly dismissed as unimportant, Sasuke did the first thing that came to mind. He rushed forward to swing his sword at Kabuto’s turned back, slicing through clothing and skin and flesh before Kabuto hissed and swerved to the side to dodge. Straight into Sakura’s fist to be pummeled into the ground before he could do so much as blink.

 

“Yes! Nice one, Sasuke.” Sakura grinned, her eyes sparkling with thrilled adrenaline. It made something warm and unmistakably pleased settle in Sasuke’s chest.

 

“That was a mistake,” Orochimaru spat. If his eyes had seemed inhuman before, it was no comparison to now. They dripped viciousness and contempt, spewed bloodlust like poison and gleamed with thinly veiled mania. The changes didn’t stop there. His body warped, gaining in length, losing its form and his skin bristled and peeled until it looked more like scales.

 

Sasuke knew that it was time to be alarmed when even Sakura took a step back. “Naruto!” she yelled, her eyes fixed on the freakshow in front of them and her arm stuck out to push Sasuke with her as she edged backwards. “He’s doing something!”

 

“What in the–” Naruto’s voice – pitched an octave too high – cut off as she sprung into action.

 

Her movements were fast enough to blur, her ink brush even faster than it had been for the kage. Orochimaru’s body writhed and contorted and bulged, taking on an otherworldly form with a mixture of snarls and hissing, snapping for Naruto as she did whatever it was that she did.

 

You will regret ever having stood in my way ,” Orochimaru spat with a voice that barely sounded human anymore. “ You will wish that–

 

There was an anticlimactic poof as Naruto dropped to the ground and Orochimaru disappeared. For a moment, Sasuke wasn’t sure what had happened.

 

Then his eyes fell on the scroll clutched tightly in Naruto’s hand.

 

At first, none of them spoke.

 

“... You sealed him,” Sakura said, her voice high with disbelief.

 

“Yup.”

 

“You sealed a living being in a scroll.”

 

“Yup.”

 

There was silence. All three of them stared at the scroll.

 

Somewhat awkwardly, Sakura spoke up again. “Will he… be alright?”

 

Sasuke had never heard of something alive being stored in a storage seal before. From the looks of it, neither had Naruto or Sakura.

“I have no idea,” Naruto admitted, shrugging helplessly.

 

“So what, do we bring him back to Konoha now?”

 

Naruto hesitated. “We kind of planned to go to Kiri, didn’t we?”

 

“Can’t we just leave him?” Sasuke said. “You know. In the scroll?”

 

Their eyes went back to the scroll.

 

“I mean,” Naruto said, slowly. “If he was fine right after the sealing, he will be in a few weeks. Storage scrolls work like stasis seals.”

 

“And if he’s not–”

 

“Problem solved,” Sasuke said, finishing Sakura’s sentence. He shrugged when two equally startled glances swayed his way. It wasn’t like anyone was going to complain about them taking out a known criminal and fugitive.

 

Well, maybe someone was going to complain. Sasuke had almost forgotten about Kabuto until the formless heap on the ground stirred, evidently waking up from his minor involuntary slumber. The three of them arranged themselves in a circle around the teenager, crowding him in.

 

“Soo,” Naruto started, drawing out the word unnecessarily, “what are we going to do with him?”

 

In their midst, Kabuto stiffened but didn’t make a sound.

 

“It would solve a lot of problems if we took him out of the picture.”

 

Sasuke raised an eyebrow, stealing a glance at Sakura. Her willingness to start a fight was nothing new. The icy quality of her voice and utter lack of compassion as she talked about killing someone in cold blood, however, was.

 

“What? No way!” Naruto gave Sakura an almost scandalized look. “He’s an orphan, Sakura!”

 

Sasuke failed to see what that had to do with anything.

 

“So what?” Sakura frowned. “It doesn’t make up for everything he’s done under Orochimaru’s thumb. In fact, it doesn’t make up for anything.”


“I’m just saying, we could give him a chance. He can open an orphanage or something, help him redeem himself.”

 

Sakura rolled her eyes. “If we’d go around offering forgiveness and a redemption to everybody who’s had a sad childhood, we wouldn’t be doing anything else.”

 

Naruto crossed her arms with an unimpressed frown. “I don’t see a problem with that. Besides, you didn’t seem to have a problem with Zabuza and Haku.”

 

“That– But– That’s completely different!” Sakura bristled at the accusation. “Besides, I wasn’t even there for that. You’d already done your thing by the time I found out.”

 

“Then let me do my thing here! What could possibly go wrong?”

 

Sakura let out a groan. “You did not just say that.”

 

Sasuke felt Kabuto’s stare prickling on his skin. “Orochimaru-sama,” he said, soft enough to only be audible for Sasuke. “Where–?”

 

Sasuke gestured to the scroll in Naruto’s hands. Kabuto’s eyes widened in a mixture of horror and disbelief. Sasuke offered an unsympathetic shrug and turned back to his teammates.

 

“Why don’t you try bonding with him?” Naruto asked. “You’re both medics, there’s gotta be loads for you to talk about.”

 

Sakura’s glare was unforgiving. “You know what? That sounds like a splendid idea. We could talk about the audacity of calling that perversion of ethics ‘medical jutsu’.”

 

“Sakura,” Naruto whined, sounding like a petulant child. “Don’t be like that.”

 

“It’s not like he’d want to come, anyway.” Sakura’s head whisked around to Kabuto, making him startle at the sudden attention. “Right? You don’t want to come back to Konoha, do you?”

 

“You totally should!” Naruto chimed in before Kabuto could so much as take a breath. “We already– I mean, Danzō was gotten rid of.”

 

“Enthusiastically,” Sakura muttered.

 

“You can like, help run the orphanage or something. Or… Oh! You could hang out with Tsunade instead. She’s a medic, too.”

 

“What,” Sakura said.

 

“Yeah! He’s already been with one Sannin, why not give him to another one?”

 

“B-But–” Sakura spluttered. “You can’t just give people to people, Naruto!”

 

“Oh yeah? Then what about Fū?”

 

“Oh please. That was completely different.”

 

“Different how?”

 

“Well first of all, we ‘gave’ her to Konoha. And that’s a place. And besides, she wanted to go there.”

 

“Wait a second,” Naruto paused, scrutinizing Sakura out of narrowed, suspicious eyes. “Are you jealous because Tsunade might end up liking Kabuto better?”

 

“What?! No!” Sakura crossed her arms in a way that looked just a tad defensive. “I just think it’s a really bad idea to involve Tsunade. She’s not gonna like this at all.”

 

“So what?” Naruto snorted. “It’s not like that ever stopped us before.”

 

“Is this… normal?” Kabuto said slowly, his voice lowered so that only Sasuke could hear him. He couldn’t blame him, seeing as the other two members of Sasuke’s team were busy discussing his foreseeable future like Kabuto wasn’t even there.

 

“Sadly, it is.” Sasuke threw Kabuto a look that borders on pitying. “You should just give up.”

 

“I think I’ll take my chances,” Kabuto said, made a lunge for the scroll still held in Naruto’s hands and attempted to escape.

 


 

Needless to say, Kabuto did not succeed.

 

Had it gone Sakura’s way, he would have found himself on the wrong side of a storage seal alongside with his master, but sadly (or luckily, depending on the perspective), Naruto vetoed that idea vehemently. And since she was the only one capable of actually drawing the seal, her word was final, and Kabuto remained unsealed and (relatively) unharmed.

 

Considering the direction they were travelling, Sasuke wasn’t sure which option he’d have prefered personally.

 


 

A few villages over, they did not stick around to await Tsunade’s reaction to the bound and gagged present they’d left her.

 

Kabuto had no choice in the matter, and Sasuke found himself throwing one last, sympathetic glance behind them, before shrugging the whole thing off and following his teammates on their way to Kiri.

 


 

 

Chapter Text

Sasuke stared at the ceiling of their latest inn, trying to ignore the nagging words that had refused to leave him alone ever since Orochimaru had uttered them. He could be lucky that his teammates weren’t there. If they’d see the scowl painted on his face, they would refuse to leave him alone until he told them what was bothering him.

 

How was Sasuke supposed to continue on like nothing had happened? As Orochimaru had reminded him, the Sharingan was supposed to be his ultimate trump in battle. It was his birthright. So why hadn’t he activated it yet? There’d been no lack of life threatening, adrenaline inducing situations since they’d left Konoha – some of them even prior to that.

 

There was no way he simply didn’t have it, was there? Even though it was supposed to be rare among the Uchiha, Sasuke had to have it. Both of his parents had developed it. Itachi had developed his at the age of eight. So how was it that Sasuke, with thirteen years and plenty of fighting experience, still hadn’t gotten even a glimpse of it?

Sasuke deepened his scowl, rubbing at his eyes as if he could encourage them to change color just like that.

 

It wasn’t fair. Naruto was a jinchūriki and had an insane amount of chakra as a result. Sakura was a natural at chakra control, and she had honed her talent to excel not only at medical techniques, but also to reach her by now typical level of brute strength.

 

Where did that leave Sasuke?

 

The door of the inn burst open to rip him out of his thoughts and revealed a disheveled, out-of breath Naruto.

 

“So,” Naruto started, ruffling his hair and leaning back against the closed door as he tried to get his breathing under control. “Um. You know how this was supposed to be a scouting mission?”

 

Sasuke raised his eyebrow. They had, indeed, decided to keep a low profile during their stay in Kiri, if only to collect as much information as they could without getting into the middle of the violent civil war that raged.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Yeah, that... didn’t exactly work out.”

 

Sasuke couldn’t say that he was surprised. At all. “Okay. And?”

 

“... I may or may not have gotten us involved in a political coup.”

 

Sasuke blinked.

 

“We’re overthrowing the Mizukage,” Naruto said.

 

Sasuke blinked, again. Then he shrugged and grasped for the travelling bag that stood prepared next to his bed. “Okay.”

 

“Huh.” Naruto paused. “I kind of expected more questions. Or concerns. Anything, really.”

 

Another shrug. “It’s fine. When do we start?”

 

“Uh. So you’re… cool with that? Just like that?”

 

Sasuke gave Naruto a flat look. “Didn’t you say that the current Mizukage is a bloodline exterminator?”

 

“I mean… Yeah? Yes. There was definitely some genocide involved, at one point or another.”

 

“Exactly.” Sasuke sheathed his sword. “More than enough reason to teach him a lesson.”

 

Besides, Sasuke wasn’t in the mood to spend more time thinking about the Sharingan – or lack thereof – when he couldn’t change it, anyway. He could worry about it later. For now, a major political incident in one of their enemy villages sounded like exactly the right activity to lose some tension and forget all about his unawakened blood lime limit. At least for now.

 

Naruto looked like he wanted to say something else, but decided against it. “Fair enough. Come on, the others are already waiting.”

 


 

Sasuke had thought that by saying 'the others', Naruto had, in fact, meant Sakura, Zabuza and Haku. That assumption, however, turned out to be rather false.

 

‘The others', instead, referred to a large chunk of Kiri’s population hiding in what looked like the slums of the Water Country.

 

"What is this place?" Sasuke asked, taking in the pale, dirtied faces they passed on their way through the hideout.

 

"It's the Resistance," Naruto said. He kept his voice low in an oddly solemn way. "They're the ones the Mizukage is trying to wipe out. Those that openly oppose his rule. Many of them barely escaped with their lives."

 

Something heavy settled in Sasuke's chest. He didn't ask more questions, but tried to take in as much as he could on their way to the center of the hideout: the scrawny, ragged frames of children half their age rummaging through garbage. The whispered conversations, subdued voices speaking as if they’d prefer not to be heard. The stench of people and sweat and waste, of too many people sharing the same space for far too long.

 

Sasuke wasn't entirely sure why, but he felt like it was the least he owed to the people living here. He didn't want to turn a blind eye.

 

If he was being honest with himself, he’d known that they wouldn’t stay uninvolved the second they’d stepped foot over the border of the country. If he hadn’t, it would have only taken a glimpse of the people here to teach him better. They wouldn’t leave, not without helping. That wasn’t who his teammates were.

 

It wasn’t who Sasuke was, either.

 

Sakura sat together with a small group of people, talking to a tall woman with auburn hair. Both of them fell silent as soon as they noticed Sasuke and Naruto approaching.

 

"He's your third member?" the woman asked, looking Sasuke over once. Her eyes paused on the Uchiha crest displayed on his shirt, but she didn't comment.

 

Despite several more pairs of eyes appraising him, nobody seemed to raise an eyebrow at their presence. Perhaps Naruto and Sakura had somehow convinced them that they weren’t to be underestimated, but it was still odd. Sasuke was used to being treated as children by the people they met.

 

Sasuke turned his head and saw a child half their age practicing a kunai technique they hadn't learned until their last year in the academy.

 

Then again, perhaps this was the difference between a momentarily peaceful country like Konoha and a war-torn one like Kiri. Age stopped mattering in the face of desperation and war.

 

"This is Sasuke." Naruto briefly touched Sasuke's shoulder. "Sasuke, this is Mei. She's the leader of the Resistance."

 

"We have no leader," Mei said, a light frown on her face. "Not in the way you think. And he's not changing anything I told you. I'm not going to send any of my people on a suicide mission with you."

 

"No leader?" Naruto said. "Why’s everybody listening to you then?"

 

"They listen to me because they trust my judgement." Mei raised her chin proudly. "They listen because they trust me, not because of some title I've given myself."

 

Zabuza let out a grunt. "Not the worst person they could have chosen."

 

Seeing as it was Zabuza, he might as well have pledged his undying loyalty to her then and there.

 

"In any case," Sakura said, addressing the second part of what Mei had said, "we'll be fine. If you stick to what we agreed on, this will all be over soon."

 

It would seem that all of the planning had been done without Sasuke’s presence. For once, he was more than alright with that. Naruto wouldn’t have fetched him if he’d intended to keep him away from the conflict, and as long as he got to fight side by side with his team, Sasuke didn’t much care for strategy or politics.

 

Mei didn't look like she entirely believed what Sakura had said, but she nodded. "We will cause a distraction and stand ready in case that you succeed. Nothing less and nothing more."

 

"That's plenty." Sakura smirked, her eyes sparkling in that confident, cheerful way that showed she was itching for the fight to come, rather than dreading it.

 

"What about you?" Naruto asked, looking at Zabuza and Haku.

 

Sasuke hadn't realized before, but the two were locked in a staring match, communicating in a way that words could never achieve. Whatever they'd been discussing, the matter looked settled as they broke eye contact. Sasuke couldn't help but think that Haku looked unmistakably smug.

 

"We'll come with you," Zabuza said, and besides the occasional twitching below his eyes, there was no indication that betrayed that the idea had been anyone's but his.

 

"Are you sure?" Mei asked. She wasn't trying very hard to pretend like she didn't expect all of them to die a violent and gruesome death. "A shame. I would have welcomed you with open arms."

 

She'd said 'I' and not 'we' as in ‘the resistance’, which made Sasuke question whether her motivations were entirely of strategic nature. Mei's overly appreciative glance that clung to Zabuza's physique for the entire time it took them to disappear into the crowd was a clue as well.

 

Sasuke simply wished he hadn't seen Zabuza's far too pleased expression in response. He could have lived happily without that particular mental image.

 


 

"Oh yeah, Sasuke," Naruto said. "Wait a moment."

 

Sasuke raised an eyebrow with a pointed glance towards their surroundings. Naruto couldn't have picked a worse time or place, considering they were seconds away from bursting into the Mizukage's chambers and completing their mission.

 

"What?"

 

"We're not actually going to kill the Mizukage–”

 

Sasuke's brows dropped into a frown.

 

“–we just said that to get the Resistance to help."

 

"What are we going to do then?"

 

"Change his mind."

 

"We will what?!" Sasuke hissed, his frown darkening into a scowl "Did you forget what he's done?!"

 

Sasuke thought he'd gotten used to Naruto's habit of befriending anyone they came across. The thing was: even though that group included at least two missing nin already, he'd thought there was a line. Surely, a genocidal dictator did not deserve the benefit of the doubt – and definitely not Naruto's friendship, nor a second chance.

 

"He's a jinchūriki, Sasuke!" Naruto said, and he had the gall to add nothing more, as if the single fact made up for everything else they had told him earlier. As if his mere status as a jinchūriki meant they were supposed to ignore everything else about him.

 

Sakura seemed to have similar thoughts, and she frowned. "That’s not why we’re sparing him. We have reason to believe that he's not acting out of his own choice."

 

"Yeah," Naruto said, somewhat lamely. "That, too."

 

Sasuke paused. "What do you mean? Why wouldn't he be acting out of his own choice?" And, more importantly: "Why didn't you say anything before?"

 

"I swear, we didn't know before," Sakura said.

 

"Do you remember how our – that is, Fū and mine – mindscape works?" Naruto's expression took on a concerned quality. "Well, I only got close enough to contact him today. But there was something weird about it... Like his thoughts were all dulled and slowed down. Like wading through glue. I could feel it, just through that tiny connection."

 

"So you think he's being brainwashed." Why couldn't anything that involved their team ever be simple? He sighed. "Fine. Let's just get this over with."

 

Sasuke was already getting tired of Kiri, and he sincerely hoped that they wouldn't have to step foot in the village again in the foreseeable future.

 

Considering that they were about to dethrone their current leader and possibly uncover a conspiracy – all the while gaining more friends and allies out of it than should be realistically possible – Sasuke wasn’t holding out much hope.

 


 

Sasuke was the first person to enter the Mizukage's chamber. He made sure of that.

 

"You," he called, pointing his sword at the only person inhabiting the room. At first glance they looked more like a child than a ruler, although their regal posture and cruel eyes took care of that false assumption immediately. "Either you give up and turn over a new leaf voluntarily, or he's gonna make you." With that, he jerked his head towards Naruto.

 

The Mizukage met his gaze with eyes that didn't look impressed in the slightest. Good. Sasuke had been itching for a fight the entire time they'd been stuck in this nightmare of a country. He'd unlock his Sharingan one way or another, and if it meant throwing himself into danger – graciously provided in form of a genocidal, potentially brainwashed dictator of a Mizukage – headfirst and without second thoughts? So be it.

 

With the gleam of his blade in front of him and his teammates hot on his tails, Sasuke charged.

 


 

 

Chapter Text

To say that Sasuke was in a foul mood would be a frankly offensive understatement.

 

The last time he'd felt this way had been just after Itachi and his partner had infiltrated the village, those cursed, blasted days where he'd done his best to avoid his teammates and taken the time to process their frustratingly superior skill set.

 

They’d taken care of the Mizukage alright – although seeing as the fight had only lasted until Naruto snapped him out of whatever brainwashing he’d been put under, Sasuke could hardly count it as a fair win.

 

More importantly, with that issue out of the way it had become far more difficult to ignore his other, Sharingan-related problem.

 

Even a confrontation with a genocidal jinchūriki kage – brainwashed or not – hadn't been enough to push him over the edge and let him develop his bloodline limit. Sasuke was frantically trying to come up with something he hadn’t yet tried so he wouldn't have to accept the fact that he was an Uchiha – the last Uchiha – without his famed bloodline limit.

 

"Sasuke?" Sakura's voice snapped him out of his brooding – ahem, pondering – thoughts. "You alright there?"

 

Sasuke was currently supposed to study his body’s chakra flow with Sakura. He didn't have to be a master in medical techniques to recognize how poorly he was doing.

 

Sasuke clenched his jaw and pushed himself to his feet. "I'm gonna ask Zabuza for a spar." He failed to make his voice sound anything other than moody and curt.

 

He itched to somehow let off steam. Preferably in a way that didn't make him let out his frustration at Sakura or Naruto.

 

To his surprise, Sakura didn't complain or question him. She rose to her feet next to him. "Good idea. I was getting tired of practicing, anyway."

 

Sasuke refrained from calling her out on that bold-faced lie.

 


 

As Sasuke's swordplay improved, Zabuza's reluctance to train him faltered. Sasuke learned more in those few weeks than he ever remembered having learned before, sparring against Zabuza, Haku, his teammates and different other Kiri shinobi – most memorably, Mei.

 

"It truly is a shame that you're Konoha nin," she sighed at the end of their most recent session.

 

Sasuke's clothing was smoking and he was covered in scorch marks. Mei's hair looked slightly less perfect than it had when they'd started.

 

"Are you quite certain you're not interested in defecting?"

 

She was saying it like they weren't already halfway to becoming missing nin. Still, for some inexplicable reason, Sasuke felt a surge of defensiveness at the thought of discarding their proudly displayed Konoha headbands.

 

"We're sure." Sasuke sheathed his sword and tried to figure out why the thought of leaving behind the village he didn't care for sent such a spark of reluctance through him.

 

"Sorry, Mei." Sakura gave an unapologetic grin. "But there's people we'd like to go back to."

 

Oh, right. It was probably that.

 

"Nevertheless," Yugara’s voice made them tense despite themselves, "you will always be welcome in Kiri."

 

Sasuke didn’t know if he’d been different before his brainwashing, but Yagura was not a talkative person. They often found him sitting in silence or wandering the village, assessing his sins with haunted, bloodshot eyes. Years of manipulation had taken their toll on him.

 

"... He's right," Mei said. "No matter who becomes the new kage, we will make sure that they will keep a place for you whenever you wish it."

 

Sasuke felt a spark burning pleasantly in his chest. Naruto beamed. "Thank you, you two. The invitation goes both ways."

 

Sasuke decided not to point out that strictly speaking, Naruto did not have the power to make a promise like that. Seeing as they'd settled in one jinchūriki in Konoha already, the point he'd make would be rather weak.

 

"You're welcome, too," Naruto added, glancing at their sparring partners– their accomplices– fine, their friends. Despite their role in Kiri's liberation and having more than earned a place in their old home village, both of them looked restless and jittery like they were itching to pack their belongings and keep on travelling.

 

Sasuke doubted that they would stay for long after his own team had left. Their habits from years spent as missing nin wouldn’t disappear overnight.

 

"Just come visit whenever you want."

 

Zabuza raised an eyebrow. "How will we know if you’re there?"

 

"You won't." Sakura shrugged. "Just make yourself at home. If somebody asks, tell them we invited you."

 

"... Maybe prepare to make a run for it, quickly." Naruto ruffled a hand through his hair. "Our friends are awesome, you'll get along great. But the rest of the village didn't exactly approve of our... our..."

 

"Vacation," Sakura suggested.

 

"Defection," Sasuke corrected.

 

"Excursion," Naruto said, settling the matter by sheer power of getting in the last word and sounding convincing while doing so.

 

"... We'll think about it," Zabuza said. Seeing as he merely let out a huff at Haku's beaming expression, Sasuke felt it safe to say that it was as close to a 'See you again, soon' as Zabuza would get.

 

Just as it seemed like they were going to leave for real, Zabuza turned around one last time to look straight at Sasuke. "I can admit that you've improved a lot in the short time we've been here."

 

A warm feeling spread through Sasuke's chest. He'd been just about to mourn the missing nin's departure and wondered how long it would be until their paths crossed again.

 

Over his shoulder, Zabuza called, "Especially considering that you haven't been using your clan technique."

 

The feeling in his chest shriveled down so quickly that Sasuke couldn't be certain it had been there at all. On second thought, he was glad that they would stay out of each other's way for some time. He'd been getting tired of the duo, anyway.

 


 

Sasuke couldn't stop his teammates from catching on forever. He tried his best to ignore his bad mood and act normally, he genuinely did. Unfortunately for him, both Naruto and Sakura knew him far better than they had any right to do.

 

"Sasuke..." Sakura hesitated. She shared a look with Naruto that made Sasuke's scowl deepen. "It doesn't matter to us if you've got the Sharingan or not."

 

"Maybe it shouldn't matter to you, either." The concern practically oozed off of Naruto's expression. "I mean, just look at how far you've come. Keep going as you are now, and you'll be one of Konoha's best swordsmen before you even graduate to Chūnin."

 

"Agreed. What does it matter if you're missing some dumb bloodline limit? Naruto and I don't have one, and we're still pretty strong."

 

"We're awesome," Naruto said.

 

"The point is," Sakura said, the corner of her mouth twitching upwards, "you don't need it, Sasuke. Stop worrying, you'll be able to achieve amazing things without it."

 

What his teammates said made a lot of sense. But it didn't matter, not really. They didn’t understand.

 

Sasuke's urge to activate the Sharingan wasn't about being more powerful. Well, maybe some part of it was. Maybe it used to be, back when the only goal in Sasuke's mind had been to hunt down Itachi and get his revenge over his murdered family.

 

But that wasn't all of it, not anymore. Sasuke would never admit to anyone other than himself that Naruto and Sakura had helped him feel again. They’d shown him what it felt like to care for someone deeply enough to want to spend the rest of his life with them. They’d dug out all of the emotions he hadn’t been capable of feeling ever since Itachi had buried them under grief, anger and hate.

 

Perhaps all these years, Sasuke had been obsessed over the wrong aspect of the massacre. He should have focused less on his thirst for revenge and more on his grief. He should have focused on processing what it meant to lose everybody he’d ever cared for.

 

Beyond rows of empty, burnt houses and tarnished memories, there wasn’t anything left that connected Sasuke to his family. Nothing, except an ability that stubbornly refused to become part of his life.

 

"It's my legacy," he said, quietly. "It's my family's power. It's my parents' power."

 

It was his brother's power, too. Sasuke found that somehow, the fact mattered a lot less to him than it might have once had.

 

His eyes dropped to the ground and Sasuke's voice got even quieter. "It would be the only thing left of my clan."

 

Sasuke tried to ignore the squeamish feeling in his stomach during the pause that followed. He felt vulnerable, like he had exposed a part of himself he never had before. Like he had offered trust that up until now he hadn't realized he was able to give.

 

Sasuke wasn't surprised when arms closed around him and a warm hand positioned itself on his shoulder. The comfort felt more for his teammates' sake than his own, but Sasuke let it happen regardless.

 

"Give it some more time," Naruto said, sharing a glance with Sakura. "It's not too late to activate it, yet."

 


 

Sasuke should have known that his teammates would manage to find the most absurd, insane way imaginable of trying to help him. Admittedly, he wasn't exactly sure what a normal person would have done. Speak out their support? Offer a shoulder to cry on? Feel sorry for him? No thank you.

 

Luckily – or unluckily – for Sasuke, neither Sakura nor Naruto could count as normal in any perceivable way. Their way of helping him consisted of trying to jog his stress response by artificially creating a traumatic experience.

 

It might have actually worked, had Sakura taken the lead and kept Naruto far, far away.

 

“Sasuke!” Naruto's cry was ear-numbingly loud and panicked. Sasuke felt his heart rate spike and his muscles tense in response. “It’s horrible , come quick!”

 

Sasuke felt adrenaline pump in his veins as he caught sight of Sakura’s limp, lifeless body.

 

He hadn't so much as reached for a weapon when Naruto ruined it by bursting into tears. "Why her?! Why Sakura?!" He threw himself over Sakura's body with big, ugly sobs that rocked his entire body.

 

Sasuke stood frozen, watching the scene unfold with growing disbelief.

 

"She had so much more to live for! Who could have done such a cruel thing?! Oh, it should have been me!"

 

Sasuke couldn't squash the urge to look left and right in the misguided attempt to find someone else witnessing what was going on right in front of him. "Um. Naruto–”

 

Naruto shot upwards as if electrocuted, going from devastated to furious in a single motion. "I will avenge you, Sakura! Whoever has done this will pay!"

 

There was a beat of silence. Naruto stole a glance at Sasuke.

 

"... Right? Sasuke? Don't you, you know. Want to avenge our teammate?"

 

Sasuke didn't answer. He took a glance at the ground at his feet, picked up a pebble and tossed it at Sakura's head.

 

She shot upwards with a cry. "Ouch! Sasuke!" She scowled, rubbing her forehead where Sasuke's pebble had hit.

 

Sasuke glared at her. "Don't ever do that again." He turned without sparing either of his teammates another glance.

 

"I told you it wouldn't work," Naruto muttered as Sasuke walked.

 

"Maybe it would have if you hadn't been such an idiot about it! I'd almost forgotten what a terrible actor you are."

 

"Excuse me?! You probably moved, that’s what gave it away.”

 

Their bickering faded as Sasuke retreated further into the forest. He couldn't even say that he was particularly angry. His exasperation was far too all-consuming for that.

 


 

Sakura's 'death experience' had made Sasuke suspicious. He now knew what his teammates were up to and he knew them far too well to hope that one single failed attempt would be enough to discourage them.

 

The point was: Sasuke knew for sure that they would try again. So when Naruto burst out of the forest chased by a generic looking missing nin Sasuke had never seen before, Sasuke decided to bide his time. He waited.

 

"No! Please!" Naruto cried, barely managing to block his opponent's merciless attacks. It almost made Sasuke spring into action despite his earlier decision – if it wasn't for the fact that Sasuke had seen Naruto take out far more skilled enemies before.

 

"I don’t know why you’re doing this," Naruto continued frantically. "Let's talk about this! Let's– No, please– No! "

 

Naruto's pleads cut off with a gurgle as a kunai pierced his throat. He swayed on the tree branch he was standing, one hand grasped around his wound in disbelief. Then he fell.

 

The missing nin locked straight at Sasuke before heading off into the forest. With the next blink of his eyes, they were gone from sight.

 

Sasuke walked up to where Naruto had landed on the forest ground and nudged him with his foot. And did it again.

 

Sasuke was just about to leave and go to find Sakura (assuming she was quite finished running through the forest with a borrowed face) when Naruto's head popped up. He squinted at Sasuke.

 

"Seriously? Nothing?” He pinned Sasuke with an outraged glare. “Do I mean that little to you?!"

 

"You didn't use any shadow clones," Sasuke said.

 

Naruto blinked.

 

"You always use shadow clones."

 

Naruto's mouth opened, then closed.

 

Sasuke considered laying a condescending hand on Naruto's shoulder to rub it in but decided against it.

 


 

Sasuke drew the line when he returned from checking the perimeters of their camping side and found himself standing opposite of his brother.

 

Sasuke froze, his feet rooted to the ground and his muscles so tense that his body felt like it was about to burst. He stared. Itachi stared back.

 

Or rather, 'Itachi' stared back.

 

"Give it a rest!" Sasuke snapped, tearing himself out of his stupor as fury, hate and – most confounding of all – sorrow flooded his chest in an overwhelming wave of emotions.

 

Somewhere beside him, Naruto fell out of a nearby tree.

 

"Wh-What?!" He spit out a few leaves as he frantically rubbed away dirt from his face. "No, that's actually your brother!"

 

"Look," Sasuke forced out through clenched teeth, "I know you mean well. I don't care if this is one of your shadow clones, Sakura or another friend of yours, and I also don't care whose idea it was. Enough is enough."

 

He turned to face his 'brother' while ignoring Naruto's unintelligible sputtering. From a purely superficial standpoint, they'd done an astounding job, Sasuke had to admit. This was exactly what Itachi had looked like on that day in Konoha.

 

They'd almost nailed his expression. A single blink of surprise gave him away. Itachi would not have allowed himself even that small show of weakness.

 

'Itachi' quickly collected himself. "Foolish little brother. This proves how much distance still lies between–”

 

"Whatever." Sasuke didn't deign to give fake-Itachi even a single more glance. Once he managed to press down the turmoil raging on behind his rib cage, he might even come to appreciate the creativity Naruto and Sakura mustered in order to help him achieve the next level of his training.

 

Behind him, Sasuke heard Naruto heaving a sigh. "You tried."

 


 

In the end, it wasn't his teammates who made the difference. Sasuke managed to achieve his goal all on his own, without either of the other two even present. All feeling of triumph he should have felt at unlocking his Sharingan evaporated through the sheer silliness of how it had happened. 


As far as "life-threatening" situations went, tripping over a root and falling into a hole had to be the most pathetic Sasuke could have accidentally chosen.

 

He was almost prepared to go on with his life without ever using it and pretending like he had never unlocked it just to make sure that Naruto and Sakura would never, ever find out about it.

 

This (admittedly short-sighted) plan went out of the window when he walked in on his teammates discussing their next plan of action.

 

“– else can we try?" Naruto picked at random pebbles on the ground and tossed them at various convenient targets. "Even Itachi didn't work! He despises Itachi!"

 

"We should probably do something about that, soon," Sakura muttered.

 

"Do you know how long it took me to get him?!" Naruto continued, ignoring her. "There's far better stuff I could have been doing with my time."

 

Mentally, Sasuke had to agree. There were plenty of other things Naruto could have done rather than practicing to impersonate his crazy brother. Like leaving Sasuke in peace. Or minding his own business.

 

"We could pretend like somebody brainwashed us like they did Yagura and attack him until he doesn't have a choice but to develop it," Sakura suggested.

 

"Hmm, maybe. Or maybe I could convince Kurama to go on a rampage for a little while? There's no way he wouldn't react to that."

 

"How many S-ranks do we know in the area? Shouldn't be hard to dig up one he hasn't met so far.

 

"Or maybe–”

 

Sasuke decided then and there that it was in his own best interest to stop their brainstorming before somebody – namely him – got genuinely hurt in the process of his teammates trying to lend him a hand. "Don't bother," he said, stepping out from where he'd been listening to their conversation with growing alarm.

 

Naruto flinched in surprise. "Sasuke!" His eyes were widened in an almost comically guilty looking way. "Did you, um. Did you hear any of that?"

 

Sasuke let his unimpressed glare speak for itself.

 

"... We were just kidding?" Naruto tried, sabotaging his own attempt of talking himself out of the situation by raising his sentence in a question.

 

Beside him, Sakura let out a groan.

 

"Don't bother," Sasuke repeated. He found that he suddenly couldn't look his teammates in the eyes. "You don't need to."

 

"You can't give up, Sasuke." Sakura frowned, half concerned and half stubborn. "This is important to you. We won't stop trying just because–”

 

"You don't need to bother anymore," Sasuke clarified, his eyes firmly glued to the bark of a nearby tree.

 

The meaning of his sentence took a few seconds to sink in. When it did, it was met with all the enthusiasm and excitement that Sasuke had been refused to feel himself.

 

"Wha– You did it?!" Naruto's face lit up in a beam. "You got your Sharingan?"

 

"That's amazing, Sasuke! Congrats!" Sakura gave him a friendly shoulder clasp that might possibly leave a bruise. "How'd you do it?"

 

"Yeah, what happened? Did you stumble over some bandits?"

 

"Or another missing-nin?"

 

"Itachi didn't come back, did he?"

 

"Oh! Did you go back to that shady inn from yesterday? I knew I recognized that one guy from his bounty poster."

 

Two equally curious sets of eyes locked onto him with an expectant gaze, waiting for some grand, nerve-wrecking adventure. Sasuke pressed his lips together and did the one thing he managed to think of doing. He turned around and walked away.

 

"What the–?! Sasuke! Where are you going?"

 

"Tell us what happened! Come on!"

 

Sasuke resolutely ignored them. This was a secret he would take to his grave.

 


 

Sasuke caved and told them everything on the very same day. Naruto was so busy laughing that he didn't see the kunai coming until it grazed his cheek and took a strand of his hair with it.

 

On the bright side, Sasuke would have plenty of opportunity (and motivation) to experiment thoroughly with his bloodline limit the next time Naruto was reckless enough to agree to spar with him.

 


 

Chapter Text

Some time after their adventure in Kiri, Team 7's dynamic started to change. As Sasuke's fighting prowess grew, his team stopped sticking as closely together as they had done up until now. They no longer shied away from travelling on their own now and again, even for longer trips. Sasuke realized that the only reason they hadn't done so before was because Naruto and Sakura hadn't trusted him to take care of himself.

 

Sasuke was secretly glad that he'd had the time to outgrow that phase before figuring it out. He doubted his younger self would have dealt well realizing that not only was he unable to compete with his teammates, but they also felt the need to act as his glorified babysitters for their adventures outside of the village.

 

"There's a B-ranked bounty sitting in the pub one village over," were Naruto's words of greeting after reunited with them after a week long solo trip. Her hair was braided in a tight, efficient knot and her clothes were caked with mud – among other things.

 

Not only were short periods spent by themselves doing wonders for stealth operations, they also kept up a far more pleasant team dynamic by not spending each and every minute of their life breathing the same air.

 

"Oh?" Sakura hummed in contemplation. "We could use the money. We almost used up the reward for clearing up that one trading route." She threw a glance at Sasuke. "What do you think?"

 

Sasuke shrugged, gathering up the few things he didn't already have sealed away. "Sure."

 

The occasional distance between them only served to make them grow closer as a team. It was the trust of allowing each other to go their separate path from time to time coupled with the conviction that the other two would be there as quickly as they could, should one of them find themselves in danger too big to handle on their own.

 

It felt like a safety net without being constricting. Sasuke no longer felt smothered by his teammate’s superior strength, nor by their condescending behavior towards him, seeing as they’d snapped out of it well before they’d left for their journey.

 

Things were going pretty well. They were going great.

 

Naruto's shout of "Look out!" snapped him out of his sentimental thoughts and made him duck purely out of reflex.

 

Sasuke narrowly avoided the fate of the tree behind him that fell apart cut in slices. A jump onto the nearest tree branch and Sasuke caught his first glance of their opponent: a young woman with blonde hair and long, claw-like fingernails.

 

Had she just almost sliced Sasuke with those? Had he almost died by fingernails ?!

 

"Huh," the woman said, straightening out of her fighting stance and slowly retracting her nails. "You're not my pursuers." She took a leap onto the tree opposite of Sasuke's, casually as if she hadn't tried taking his head off mere seconds ago.

 

Naruto jumped onto the same branch Sasuke was standing on. "No way," she muttered, her eyes wide and fixed on the mystery woman. "It can't be."

 

"Sorry about that," mystery woman said, not sounding apologetic in the slightest. "I thought you were the hunter nin whose leader I took out yesterday. They were annoyingly persistent."

 

"Don't worry about it!" Naruto broke out into a beam and made a hand gesture as if to swat her worries away.

 

Sasuke found this rather curious, seeing as he had been the one to almost die, and not Naruto.

 

Sakura, too, seemed to have reservations. "Naruto," she said, a small frown on her face. "Is that–?"

 

"Nii Yugito," Naruto finished without taking her eyes off of the no longer mystery woman. "She's the second of Kumo's jinchūriki."

 

"Wait." Yugito's brows dropped into a thoughtful frown. "You guys seem familiar..."

 

"My name's Uzumaki Naruto and I've got Kurama, the Nine-Tails, sealed inside of me," Naruto rattled down without stopping to take a breath. "You've got crazy strong mental defenses, you know? I didn't feel you coming closer at all. Hey, do you want to come to Konoha with us? It's gonna be great, you won't be treated like a monster anymore!"

 

"... No," Yugito deadpanned, not moving a muscle. "I'm fine. Aren't you the kids who blew up my village?"

 

"Technically that was Sakura." Naruto ignored Sakura's indignant sputtering. "But more importantly, why don't you want to come? I promise it'll be amazing, Konoha is great about its jinchūriki. At least it’s starting to. It definitely will be, in about a year or so.”

 

"What are you even talking about?" Yugito gave her a look as if she seriously doubted Naruto's sanity. "I'm doing fine in Kumo. Why wouldn't I?"

 

"Um." Naruto frowned in puzzlement. "Aren't people afraid of you? Or hate you for your power? Or believe you're an actual demon, rather than that you're keeping it safely sealed away?"

 

"Did you think that's how I'm treated?" Yugito pierced them with a disbelieving glare.

 

"K-Kinda?" Naruto tilted her head. "I mean, in Konoha it's taken me almost–”

 

Yugito cut her off with a huff. "Typical Konoha. You always think you have the moral high ground above all other villages."

 

"Doesn't your village kidnap children–?”

 

"We rescue them, excuse me." Yugito crossed her arms defensively. "It's not our fault other villages can't take proper care of their people."

 

Sasuke decided not to touch that statement with a ten-foot pole. So did, apparently, Sakura and Naruto.

 

"I guess it makes sense," Sakura said, slowly. "B is treated pretty well in Kumo. I kind of thought it was because of his relation to the Kage."

 

"Konoha isn't that bad." Naruto seemed to rethink her sentence. "I mean okay, it's kind of bad. But it makes for some great character-building. Just look how well I turned out." Naruto nodded to herself, then looked towards Sakura and Sasuke in expectation.

 

The pause that followed was just a tad too long.

 

"Yeah! Duh, of course."

 

"... Hmh."

 

Privately, Sasuke thought that there were healthier ways to shape someone into a good person than by forcing them to become outgoing and kind through a childhood of neglect.

 

"Well," Yugito said in a tone that sounded final. She was already turning away, seemingly having lost interest in the conversation. "Seeing as you were clearly mistaken, I'll be going now."

 

"W-Wait!" Naruto scrambled to block her path in time. "You don't have to come with us to Konoha. But don't you want to hang out for a bit?"

 

"Not really."

 

"But why?" Naruto sounded like she struggled with the mere concept. "You don't get to meet another jinchūriki every day."

 

"You keep saying it like that." Yugito frowned. "Like being both jinchūriki automatically means that we're connected. Why?"

 

"Because we are," Naruto insisted. "Even not counting our shared life experience – which, alright, isn't so shared after all," she backtracked with one pointed glance from Yugito. "But at the very least, the bijū consider themselves siblings. Doesn't that make us the same?"

 

Yugito huffed. "I don't think so."

 

"We even share a mindscape to communicate," Naruto continued. "... Or we would. If you didn't block yourself off."

 

"Look, kid." Yugito let out a sigh. "I know you probably mean well. But there's worlds between us. We're from different villages. We were raised differently. Come on, I'm more than twice your age. Do you really think there's all that much we'd be able to relate to?"

 

Quietly, Sasuke had to agree. Meeting Yugito was different than meeting an excitable, cheerful Fū. He didn't think Naruto would get what she wanted to out of this conversation. He wasn't sure why she insisted on continuing to try regardless.

 

"Just give it a chance," she said, taking a step towards Yugito when she tried to sidestep Naruto, yet again. "Just wait, it's gonna be fun. How about you come join us? We were just on our way to snatch up a B-ranked bounty, if you want you could–”

 

Yugito froze and Naruto almost fell off of their tree in surprise. "You weren't heading south, were you?"

 

Sakura blinked. "Yeah? There's this group of bandits one village over. Shouldn't be much of a challenge, but the reward–”

 

Yugito schooled her expression into one of neutral stoicism. Sasuke's mind raced with possibilities at the sudden shift in mood. Were the bandits more dangerous than the bounty poster suggested? Were they part of something bigger? Or was Yugito simply underestimating them, like so many others had before her?

 

Naruto seemed to have the same thoughts. Her expression had gotten more serious with the change in atmosphere. "Is there something we should know about–”

 

Yugito disappeared in a puff of smoke.

 

Sasuke blinked. Naruto's eyes widened. Sakura spluttered in indignation. "She's making a run for it!"

 

"I'm sure she has a good reaso–”

 

"She's trying to steal our bounty!"

 

"I mean, it's not really ours, and I think she knew about it before hearing it from–”

 

"In her dreams," Sasuke muttered. As one, Sakura and he bolted after her. If Naruto wanted them to share the reward, she'd better be close behind them.

 


 

The combined forces of Team 7 and an adult jinchūriki blew through the sleepy town of Tōmae like a whirlwind, left its only pub in shambles, its inhabitants in turmoil and freed it of the group of bandits that had begun to establish their base.

 

Seeing as Yugito had been equally involved as they were, they reluctantly agreed to share the bounty. They also collectively left Tōmae when a trembling mayor thanked them for their help, took half of the bounty for damage repairs and also asked them to never set foot into the village again, thank you very much.

 


 

"I guess I can see that you only wanted to help," Yugito admitted far, far away from Tōmae and somewhat more willing to travel by their side, now that they'd taken on a band of criminals together. "It's kind of sweet. Also unnecessary."

 

"It's too bad you're not coming with us." Naruto sighed, walking with her arms crossed behind her head. She grunted as Sakura's elbow connected with her side. "O-Of course, it's far better to hear that you're happy in Kumo. Obviously."

 

Yugito huffed a laugh, shaking her head. They walked in surprisingly comfortable silence. "Who knows? Maybe I'll come visit.”

 

Naruto's head perked up. "Right now? You're coming along, after all?"

 

Sasuke rolled his eyes at the genuinely hopeful note in Naruto's voice. Sometimes he wondered how such an optimistic, cheerful person could also be one of the strongest Sasuke knew.

 

"No," Yugito disputed dryly. "Not right now."

 

"Then why are you still going the same direction we are?" Sakura raised an eyebrow. "I thought you wanted to separate at the first opportunity."

 

"I'm escorting you."

 

Sakura snorted. "Escorting? Seriously?"

 

"Did you already forget our fight back then?" Naruto's voice raised with disbelief. "We don't need protection."

 

"It's not for protection." Yugito cast them a glance from the side. "I'm making sure you're crossing the nearest border."

 

"The nearest border? But why–?"

 

"In the exact opposite direction of Kumo."

 

Sasuke and his team digested that information. Naruto let out a groan while Sakura muttered, "I'm never going to live this down."

 

Still, they didn't protest. Neither did Sasuke. It wasn't like they'd been planning to head back to Kumo, anyway, so if it made Yugito feel better to make sure they stayed far away from her home village? Sasuke could bear the additional travel companion for that long.

 


 

They'd been travelling for a while when another commotion made Yugito disappear into the tree canopy and out of sight without a word. Sasuke and his team followed closely. They'd stuck together for this long, they'd be able to do so for one more potential fight.

 

They waited in breathless silence for a first glimpse at the strangers.

 

"Hey," Naruto called out loudly, making all three of them wince at the volume. "It's you guys!" She jumped out of the trees and onto the forest ground where a familiar looking genin team and their jōnin teacher stood frozen in a defensive formation.

 

Seeing as Naruto had already given them away, Yugito slid out of her hiding place and threw an exasperated look at the Konoha headbands all four of them were wearing. "Great. Even more brats I have to make sure don't get anywhere near Kumo."

 

Sakura and Sasuke soon followed Naruto's lead and jumped down to land opposite of their fellow rookie team.

 

Team 8 had changed since the last time they'd seen them. All three of them had grown by a few inches, and Kiba's dog was by far not small enough to fit comfortably on Kiba's head. Somehow, the two of them made it work despite that.

 

"Hey! Long time no see," Kiba called, his voice cheerful and his lips pulled into a grin. His dog gave a bark that almost sounded like a greeting. Kiba sent all three of them a fleeting glance before his eyes landed on Naruto and gave her a once over. "Huh. I guess that jinchūriki girl wasn't talking bull, after all."

 

The last time they had visited Konoha, Naruto hadn't changed into her feminine appearance. Her lips tightened for a split second, but beyond that she didn't openly show whether she was upset at Fū for spreading the truth about her. Most likely, Fū hadn't known that Naruto had not yet gotten around to it herself.

 

"H-Hello, Naruto-kun." Hinata gave Naruto a hesitant smile. "It's n-nice to see you again."

 

"You too, Hinata," Naruto said, her smile growing. "You look great."

 

Hinata's face turned a rather interested shade of red, although she neither cowered nor tried to hide, as Sasuke had half expected her to do.

 

He was certain that Naruto hadn't gotten around to give her a pep talk before they'd left. Although certainly capable of it, she couldn't have been the reason for Hinata's (minor) boost in confidence. Sasuke supposed that maybe, there'd been no better way for Naruto to help Hinata than by giving her some distance and the opportunity to focus on herself, rather than anyone else.

 

Team 8's jōnin teacher – Kurenai – looked far less thrilled to have run into them by chance. Her face was set in a neutral, carefully emotionless mask. "I couldn't quite believe Kakashi when he told us that you three were doing fine on your own."

 

Considering the amount of concern and worry Kakashi had practically oozed upon their last visit in Konoha, Sasuke was somewhat impressed that he still managed to put up a carefree, confident act in front of everybody else.

 

"What can I say," Sakura said, tilting her head and closing her eyes in an endearing smile. "He trained us well."

 

"You look stronger," Shino chimed in, his voice muffled as he spoke into the hem of his jacket. "Why? Because you look more comfortable as a team."

 

"We are," Naruto admitted easily without letting her smile dim. "I guess we just needed a bit time to grow used to each other."

 

That was putting it mildly. Sasuke could vividly remember the days he couldn't have cared less about his team.

 

Kiba seemed to have the same thought and proceeded to give Sasuke a – presumably – friendly punch on the arm. "Even you, Sasuke?"

 

Sasuke gave Kiba a glare and resolutely refused to rub the aching spot on his arm. "For the most part."

 

"Mind if we tag along?" Naruto said, taking on a hopeful expression. "We don't really have any other plans, might as well help with whatever mission you're doing right now."

 

Kiba's lip pulled into a smirk. "Sounds like the perfect opportunity for some sparring."

"I'd l-love that," Hinata agreed.

 

Shino didn't say anything, but nodded. All three of them turned to look at their teacher expectantly, waiting for a decision.

 

Kurenai hesitated. "You realize that I will have to take you back with me, once we're done?"

 

Naruto paused to share a glance with Sasuke and Sakura, silently asking whether they felt up for another visit in Konoha. Sasuke shrugged. He didn't particularly mind either way.

 

"Sure," Naruto said, turning back to Kurenai. "We could use a few days off."

 

Kurenai's brows tightened. "That's not what I–”

 

"Get your bugs away from me," Yugito interrupted, drawing attention to herself by walking past Shino in a wide arch. "If they land on me, they die."

 

Shino didn't twitch a muscle. Kiba broke out into a frown on his behalf. "If you don't like insects, that's fine. No reason to be needlessly aggressive about it."

 

"No," Yugito said, "I was being literal. My chakra is poisonous."

 

Kurenai decided to not so subtly nudge her students away from her and pinned Yugito with a wary frown. "And who might you be?"

 

"Nii Yugito. I'm one of Kumo's jinchūriki." She nudged the headband currently bound around her upper arm.

 

Kurenai stiffened at the revelation. "And what is your connection to one of our genin teams?"

 

"We're friends," Naruto chimed in happily.

 

"I'm making sure they're not coming back to my village," Yugito deadpanned.

 

"B-Back?" Hinata's eyes widened in surprise.

 

"Woah, you were all the way to Kumo?" Kiba's expression half awe, half jealousy. "We've barely even left Fire Country so far."

 

Kurenai's expression had taken on an alarmed quality. "What were you doing in Kumo?"

 

"You mean besides causing property damage?" Yugito muttered.

 

Naruto pretended like she hadn't heard her. "We just visited. Made some friends, had some training." She shrugged. "The usual."

 

"They also got themselves kicked out," Yugito added mercilessly. "Permanently."

 

"She's exaggerating." Sakura swatted her hand. "They'll have forgotten all about it before you know it.”

 

"I wouldn't bet on it," Yugito said. "My people do not forgive easily."

 

Kurenai made an odd sound from the back of her throat.

 

Yugito narrowed her eyes. "Was there something you’d like to say?"

 

"Nothing at all. I believe you." Kurenai pointedly looked ahead. "So, Yugito-san. Where is the rest of your team?"

 

Something about the way she said it made Sasuke stiffen. It this was supposed to be small-talk, it felt like the stiffest, most thinly veiled kind he had ever heard. Kurenai's tone of voice would have fit better into an interrogation chamber.

 

If Yugito noticed, she did not give a single sign of it. "Currently on a solo mission. Kumo nin aren't as attached at the hip as Konoha nin are. We can take care of ourselves."

 

Kurenai momentarily stiffened. She forced a smile onto her face. "I see. I suppose your focus lays some place other than teamwork. Not everybody is made to form life-long, family-like bonds like our shinobi are."

 

Yugito's eyes narrowed.

 

Naruto started to sweat. She looked back and forth between the two women frantically. "U-Uh. Are you guys hungry? I'm starving. We should go grab something in the next village we reach."  

 

Seeing as Yugito and Kurenai did not break their heated, competitive glare for even a second, Sasuke felt justified doubting whether they would even reach the next village in one piece.

 


 

Chapter Text

The closer they came to Konoha, the bigger the chance to run into yet another person they knew – or several. Yugito, realizing the same, tried separating herself from their group once they'd almost reached the border of Fire Country. It was only Naruto's stubbornness that kept her reluctantly stuck in a conversation with them. 

 

"Fū’s in Konoha, with us," she said, counting the two of them off with her fingers. "B's in Kumo with you, and Gaara – he's got Shukaku, the One-Tail – is well and in Suna."

 

"Also Yagura," Sakura added from the side. "We've met him in Kiri."

 

"Right." Naruto nodded without missing a beat. "That makes six. Do you know any of the other three?"

 

"It's not like I've been looking," Yugito said, her arms crossed defensively. Finally, she admitted, "I've met Utakata. Six-Tails. We clashed during a mission a few years ago."

 

"We should all meet up, you know," Naruto said. "Not right now, but some time later. All nine of us, just to hang out for a bit."

 

Sasuke approved of the idea only if he got to watch the reaction of whoever was given the honor of hosting all nine of the demon containers in their village. Looking at Kurenai, Sasuke might already have a rather good impression. 

 

In stark contrast to his teacher, Kiba looked thrilled rather than horrified. "I can't believe this is your life." 

 

"There are people ahead of us," Shino announced, his head tilted as if listening to something only he could hear. 

 

"S-Strangers?" Hinata asked. 

 

"Konoha," Shino corrected. "Why? Because my bugs are able to recognize their chakra."

 

"Great," Yugito said, crossing her arms and taking a step away from their group. "This is as far as I'm going." 

 

"You sure?" Naruto asked, the attempt half-hearted at best. "It's not too late to change your mind." 

 

"No." Yugito's voice was determined, but not unkind. She hesitated, then added, "Take care."

 

"You too." Naruto gave Yugito one last, radiant smile. "Let's meet again!"

 

"As long as it isn't anywhere near Kumo," Yugito muttered. She nodded towards Sakura and Sasuke, and she was gone in the blink of an eye.

 

Kiba whistled loudly. "You got some interesting friends there."

 

Sasuke supposed that was one way of putting it.

 

"Hey," Naruto chimed in, eyes directed forward and a smirk on her lips. It would appear that she had caught sight of the Konoha nin ahead of them – and had recognized them. "You guys wanna meet the unofficial other members of Team 7?"

 


 

Sasuke had warmed up to Yamato and Sai considerably since Naruto's and Kakashi's compromise about treating them like honorary members of their team. In his defense, he hadn't been ready to acknowledge even Naruto and Sakura as his teammates back then. How could anyone have expected him to accept two more people he'd never met before that point?

 

By now Sasuke was far more willing to accept their presence as yet another unquestionable constant in his life that wasn't worth struggling against. 

 

So, when they burst out of the trees to find Yamato and Sai in the company of a horde of teenagers of varying age and gender, Sasuke was met with mild curiosity rather than outright rejection.

 

No one of Team 8 seemed surprised at the company Yamato and Sai kept, and Kurenai didn't hesitate as she recognized her chance to push the responsibility of them over to somebody else.

 

"We picked them up somewhere near the border," she explained curtly. "We haven't technically finished our mission yet. You're going to make sure they get to Konoha in one piece, right?"

 

Yamato's eyes widened in surprise at the sudden ambush. "The border– What– Wait just a minute!"

 

"See you back at the village," Kiba said, giving them a cheerful wave before going after his teacher. 

 

"G-Goodbye, Naruto-kun."

 

"We will meet again, as soon as all of us arrive." 

 

Hinata and Shino followed in their wake, and all too soon Yamato had been mercilessly left behind. His expression of gaping disbelief quickly morphed into one of resignation.

 

At his side, Sai sunk into a low bow. "Sakura-senpai."

 

Right. Sasuke had almost forgotten about this particular oddity of the other teenager. 

 

At the sound of Sakura's name, hushed muttering broke out among the group of teenagers, and more than a dozen pairs of eyes found their way to fixate on her. 

 

Sakura blinked at the sudden surge of attention. Next to her, Naruto muttered, "Oh boy."

 

Yamato threw a look around the group but seemed to decide that he didn’t actually want to know any details. "We didn't expect to see you again so soon," he commented, his forced neutrality betraying what he thought of their self-inflicted exile from the village. 

 

"Team 8 asked us to stick around," Naruto said with a shrug. "Besides, it was time to come home for a bit. We've got tons of new stories to tell!"

 

The beam on her face was quickly replaced by puzzlement as Sai stepped into her personal space to scrutinize her with a blank stare. 

 

"Um. Hey, Sai. You alright there?"

 

"You look girly," Sai noted, his hand twitching as if only just stopping himself from reaching out to tug on her braid. "You must have messed up your Henge on a mission. You should practice more."

 

Yamato pulled out a small notebook with a sigh. "I guess you didn't technically insult him. Still, you were far too blunt, so no full points." 

 

Sai blinked with a glance at Yamato. He turned back to Naruto with a wide, still somewhat fake looking smile. "Let's train together. I can help you work on your Henge."

 

"He offered his help," one of the other teenagers piped up at Yamato's side. 

 

"'Being helpful to fellow shinobi', that's five points," another chimed in. 

 

Yamato seemed to fight a losing battle warding off a headache. 

 

"... You're keeping points?" Sasuke asked, trying badly not to sound too incredulous. 

 

Yamato made an odd gesture, one that looked like he couldn't decide whether to wring his hands or cross his arms. "They've gotta learn somehow," he protested, an unmistakably defensive note to his voice. 

 

Sasuke let his eyes stray over the unusual group before them. The oldest of the shinobi looked a few years older than Sai. The youngest was a child that couldn't have been older than six. A few wore emotionless masks while others reminded him of Sai in the way that the emotions they displayed looked sculpted and fake. 

 

"Who are these people?" 

 

"Remember what we told you about Sai?" Naruto asked rather than answering outright. 

 

Sasuke strained his memory. It had been a long time since he'd first met their "extended team", not to mention that he'd been bombarded with a ridiculous influx of new, crazy information on a daily basis back then.

 

"You said that joining a team would have been the perfect therapy for him," he settled on, picking out one of the details he did remember. 

 

There might have also been something about a secret shadow organization? He wasn't actually sure how much of it he remembered correctly, seeing as his younger self had been more likely to tune out his teammates' rambling, rather than listen to them. 

 

"It was," Sai agreed. "My apprenticeship with Yamato has helped me greatly to see past the harmful, isolating and borderline tyrannical ideals passed onto me during my training with Danzō."

 

The last part sounded like Sai had recited it word for word. 

 

"'Reflecting upon our past with a healthy and objective outlook'," a lanky girl with colorful ribbons tied into her braids perked up. "That's twenty points."

 

Yamato had already whipped out his notebook and scribbled into it with an approving nod. "Good one, Sai."

 

"Are all of you former Root, then?" Naruto peered through the approximately twenty faces with an expression close to awe. 

 

"All of those willing to see past their initial teachings and turn over a new leaf," Yamato corrected. He attempted to hide a blush as Naruto beamed at him and muttered, "Somebody had to take them under their wing."

 

"Are you going to drop the Henge?" Sai asked, seemingly unwilling to let the matter go. "You're clearly not on a mission anymore."

 

"Yeah, no. I know I'm not." Naruto somehow managed not to look annoyed. Sasuke suspected that it was less because of the comments, and more because Sai was the one uttering them. "It's not supposed to be for a mission."

 

"You're wearing it... on purpose?" Sai asked, an almost puzzled looking expression on his face. Seeing as he'd had trouble emitting anything other than fake-politeness before, Sasuke thought it was a rather big improvement. 

 

"Yup." Naruto popped the 'p' sound. "I'm a girl right now. This is just what I look like, for the moment."

 

There was a pause as Sai digested this information. He turned, sharing a glance with a couple of former Root operatives. One of them gave him an encouraging, enthusiastic nod. 

 

Sai turned back to Naruto with a smile. "The shape of your face doesn't look quite as ridiculous with long hair."

 

"That was a compliment," the same root member blurted out. "Ten points."

 

Yamato didn't make a move to reach for his notebook. "That's... No. No, I'm not giving any points for that."

 

"He gave a compliment," another one insisted. "That's ten points."

 

"That's not– I'm not counting that as a compliment. Look, we need to hold a discussion about what makes a compliment a compliment."

 

"I thought we were going to learn about boundaries and personal space, next."

 

Yamato was spared an answer as a little girl popped out of the trees ahead of them. "There's another shinobi approaching!"

 

"An enemy?" The girl with the colorful ribbons sounded just a little too enthusiastic at the prospect. 

 

"A Konoha shinobi," the little girl corrected. "It's Jiraiya-sama, of the Sannin."

 

Several groans of disappointment filled the air that Yamato pointedly ignored.

 

"Crap," Naruto said, sharing a wide-eyed, alarmed glance with her teammates. 

 

"Let's hide." Sakura's expression was grim as she made the suggestion. "At least until we know what he wants."

 

Sasuke didn't quite get the urgency in her voice. He was sure that if it came to a fight, the three of them would have an easy time escaping and making a run for it. Perhaps Sakura simply wanted to spare Naruto a fight with her godfather. 

 

"You heard her," ribbon girl barked, and before Sasuke realized what was happening, several of the teenagers had ushered them into a hideout that had been dug in between tree roots, covered it with dirt and leaves and shuffled themselves and their equipment right in front of the small gap that was left open to allow them to look out. 

 

None of the Root members looked the least bit guilty or like they'd seen anyone suspicious merely seconds prior. Sasuke was sure that by the time Jiraiya showed up less than a minute later, not so much as a trampled leaf was left to suggest their spontaneous visit. 

 

"Yamato!" was Jiraiya's word of greeting as he burst into the clearing. "I'm so glad I finally found you."

 

"Oh?" Yamato kept his expression carefully neutral. "I'm glad to hear it, Jiraiya-sama. I will do my best to be helpful in any way that I can." 

 

Sasuke was certain that nobody else had picked up on the stiff undertone that Yamato's words carried. He only hoped that it was caused by Yamato's resignation at having to lie to Jiraiya, and not a willingness to rat them out as soon as Jiraiya asked his questions.

 

Jiraiya for his part looked worse than during their first meeting. His clothes were ruffled, his hair looked even messier than usual and deep shadows and wrinkles painted exhaustion on his face. He looked like he hadn't gotten a night's sleep in a long time.

 

"It's about Kakashi's team," Jiraiya went on, his words all but jumbled in his hurry to get them out. "Team 7. Kakashi wouldn't tell me anything, but I've met them outside of the village – the three of them, all on their own!" His voice raised in near hysteria. 

 

Yamato's eyes twitched towards them in a venomous, accusing glance. He jerked his head in a gesture that clearly said 'Come out here, or so help me.' Team 7 resolutely ignored him. 

 

"They're so young!” Jiraiya went on, oblivious to their exchange. “The academy isn't training them for this sort of thing, not anymore. They'll get themselves killed out there!"

 

"I'm sure they're fine," Yamato pressed out through clenched teeth. "If they were here themselves," he sent them a more blatant, more furious glance, "they would be telling you not to worry so much."

 

"Not to worry?!" Jiraiya started pacing back and forth restlessly. Sasuke was fairly sure that they could thank his sleep deprivation and general agitation that he hadn't realized their presence yet. 

 

"My godson – goddaughter, whatever, I don't even know at this point – is out there gallivanting all over the place with her team and playing make pretend as missing nin! My contacts are telling the most ridiculous stories, and I haven't gotten any closer to finding them! They might already be dead for all I know, and Kakashi refuses to tell me anything!"

 

Next to him, Sasuke heard Naruto gulp. Barely audible, Sakura hissed, "Don't you dare, Uzumaki."

 

"Yamato, please." All the fight seemed to drain out of Jiraiya and left only pure exhaustion behind. "If you know anything, anything at all about where they might be, tell me. I let them slip away from me once, I don't know what I'd do if I found out that they–”

 

"Oh, for the love of–” Yamato whirled around and pinned them with a strict, mildly creepy glare. How did he even make his eyes do... that? "If you don't come out right now, so help me–”

 

"Fine, fine! Geez."

 

Sakura let out a deep, long-suffering groan while Naruto was already exiting their hiding place sporting a sheepishly guilty looking grin. Sasuke allowed himself to sigh internally, biding a quick, uneventful trip to Konoha goodbye, and followed. 

 

"It's you," Jiraiya said, wide eyes pinned on them in disbelief. Loudly, he added, "You're here!"

 

"Surprise?" Naruto tried, spreading out her arms as though this had all gone according to their plan. She grunted as Jiraiya wrapped her into a tight, almost desperate looking hug. 

 

"Thank the Sage you're alright," he murmured, ending the hug by putting his hands on Naruto's shoulders and pushing her at arms-length. He gave her a once over, presumably checking for injuries. "I was so worried! Disappearing on me like that, what were you even thinking?!"

 

Jiraiya turned away long enough to look over Sasuke and Sakura as well, although luckily he didn't try to hug them. Sasuke's boundaries were well defined, and he had no reservations about enforcing them through whatever means necessary. 

 

Naruto actually pouted at Jiraiya's words. It made her look younger than she was – or perhaps it made her look her actual age, when usually she looked much older. "You were being patronizing. You just up and decided we were in over our heads without actually knowing us."

 

"Just let it go, Naruto," Sakura pressed out through clenched teeth. 

 

Sasuke blinked, throwing her a startled glance. Sakura of all people told them to let go and to not hold a grudge? Sakura?

 

He paused as he finally realized her intent. While Jiraiya was busy trying to coddle them, perhaps he wouldn't think back and remember their collective, if accidental assassination attempt. 

 

"It's alright, old man," Naruto said, seemingly going along with Sakura's will and laying a comforting hand on Jiraiya's arm. "We already decided we'd be coming back to the village. You can... escort us, if you want."

 

If Jiraiya picked up on the forced quality of her last sentence, he didn't comment on it. Sasuke strongly suspected that by now he was willing to let most of their antics slide, if only he could manage to bring them back to Konoha in one piece.

 

Sasuke suppressed the urge to roll his eyes when Jiraiya all but deflated in relief. "I'm so glad I found you. There are so many other things I need to take care of, it's unbelievable what's been going on in the Five Nations recently. You back in Konoha is at least one thing I don't have to worry about anymore."

 

"Oh? What sort of things?"

 

Naruto's question sounded innocent enough, and evidently Jiraiya was too absorbed in his own thoughts to make an effort to censor himself.

 

"Oh, it's nothing you need to worry about. Kumo's been acting ridiculously hostile towards outsiders, even for them. Kiri's civil war seems to have come to an end. I'm not even sure what's going on in Ame right now, and Orochimaru... Who knows what he's up to. None of my contacts have heard anything about him, he must be scheming something." 

 

Jiraiya had started muttering under his breath about halfway through, but Sasuke didn't doubt that both of his teammates had gotten every word of it. Sasuke very carefully did not turn to share a glance with them. 

 

"Anyway," Jiraiya said, raising his voice as he turned his attention back to them, "It really doesn't matter. I'll take care of it once I've dropped you off."

 

Sasuke didn't think he imagined the sudden stiffness of his teammates. Sakura half whispered, half hissed, "Naruto. Just give it to him."

 

"Are you sure? I don't know if–”

 

"Just give it to him. Get it over with."

 

"Give what to me?" Jiraiya's frown was one of puzzlement more than it was suspicious. It spoke volumes about just how little he knew them.

 

Naruto hesitated. Then she pulled out an innocent looking, familiar scroll. "It's a gift for you," she said, thrusting the scroll into Jiraiya's arms as though it was going to bite her. "Here you go. You're welcome, no need to thank us." 

 

She grabbed one arm from Sakura and one from Sasuke to pull them along as though they wouldn’t be able to find their way to Konoha without her. "Old man, don't open that scroll until we're safely in Konoha. Let's go, I can't wait to get back."

 

They'd only managed to speed-walk a couple of steps before they heard the telltale sound of a storage scroll being activated. 

 

Naruto gulped. Not a heartbeat later, Jiraiya cried out in surprise. 

 

"We're gonna go on ahead!" Naruto yelled, and the three of them made a run for it without a glance at the jōnin instructor, former Root operatives or the two Sannin they left behind. 

 


 

 

Chapter Text

A human body was not meant to be sealed inside of a scroll intended to store objects. Orochimaru’s unfortunate fate had made this exceedingly clear. Konoha’s reaction to this development ranged from clinical interest to brazen satisfaction, seeing just who’d had the misfortune of serving as a test subject in this discovery.

 

Orochimaru’s history of using people in his unethical experiments was lost to very few people. Needless to say, nobody was quite willing to offer false sympathies to him.

 

"What's going to happen to him now?" Sakura peered into the cell that contained the disgraced Sannin with morbid curiosity. 

 

Orochimaru's gaze twitched around aimlessly, a haunted look clouding his eyes. Apart from the occasional shudder that rocked his body, he didn't move a muscle. Escape seemed to be the furthest thought on his mind. 

 

"I dunno." Naruto frowned, the corner of her mouth tugging downwards. "I didn't think fuinjutsu would do this to a person. Not my kind."

 

"To be fair, Orochimaru didn't exactly give you the choice to think it through." There was no trace of sympathy in Sakura's voice. "Look at the bright side: if he stays this way, he won't be able to hurt anyone."

 

"Can't we try to help him get better? No, hear me out," Naruto raised her hands defensively as Sakura bristled in outrage. "All those kids from Root are getting a second chance, right? Why not him?"

 

Sasuke was assaulted by the sudden image of Orochimaru mingling with the group of teenagers they had met. 

 

"What do you say?"

 

"I... apologize."

 

"For?"

 

"For attempting to use your body as a mindless puppet in my scheme to gain power and immortality."

 

Sasuke had to snort at the mental image of Yamato raising his thumb and scribbling down ten points for a well made apology. 

 

Sakura sent him a glance from the side, but didn't question him. To Naruto, she said, "He's getting nothing he doesn't deserve. Let's just forget about him and offer second chances for those who actually deserve them."

 

Naruto clearly didn't agree with her but seemed to let it go in favor of keeping the peace. 

 

Sakura, similarly unwilling to go on about such an unpleasant subject, said, "So. What do you wanna do first?"

 

They'd began falling into an easy routine every time they returned to Konoha in between their trips. They'd spend their time catching up with their friends, stocking up on supplies and staying well out of reach of the ANBU that were sent to bring them to the Hokage.

 

Curiously, the latter had gotten more and more rare the longer they went on living their lives pointedly ignoring the Hokage. 

 

Naruto made a noise at the back of her throat, tugging at the front of her shirt. "Go ahead without me. I gotta go change, first. Might as well pay a visit to my apartment while I’m at it."

 

"Change-change, or–”

 

"Yeah." Naruto grimaced. "Let Kakashi-sensei know if you see him. I won't be long."

 

While Naruto "changing" could be as easy as her – well, as of now him – dropping his Henge, it wouldn't take care of his femininely cut clothes or the pins in his ears. He could, of course, simply put another Henge on top of them, but Naruto preferred to limit the technique to his body. Shopping trips with Sakura would become quite pointless, if he simply henged his clothes whenever he felt like it.

 

"Come on then," Sakura said once Naruto had set off. "Let's see who's here." 

 

Sasuke took this to mean ‘let's see who of our fellow rookies we can find to hang out with and/or who of the adults are there to torment’. Sakura didn’t have to ask him twice.

 

Startled looks and heated whispers followed them on their way through the village, although nobody tried to stop and talk to them. Sasuke wondered what they were saying. Was their team known as a band of good-for-nothing wanderers? Did people think they were reckless and naive? Sasuke wouldn’t be surprised if at least some people felt jealous of their adventures. 

 

He was also certain that there were those people who didn't care what they did, as long as it meant keeping the demon container away from the village. 

 

They were able to hear the sparring far before they caught sight of the training ground. Sasuke knew neither of the two opponents well, although he knew that Chōji was friends with Shikamaru. Rock Lee, on the other hand, was far too loud and energetic to not know him at least in passing.

 

While the two of them sparred (urged on by Lee's enthusiastic cries of encouragement), Shikamaru sat close to them, leaning against a tree and attempting not to fall asleep. 

 

Going by the layers of sweat and shallow injuries covering the fighters, the spar had been going on for a while. 

 

"Oh hey! Team 7's back!" 

 

Chōji’s shout made Lee halt in his tracks and Shikamaru peel open an eye. He let out a grunt that might have been meant as a greeting and went right back to dozing.

 

"Sakura-san! Sasuke-san! Welcome back." Lee beamed at them, dropping out of his fighting stance. "I've been hoping to see you again, soon. If you do not mind, I would like to test my abilities against yours!"

 

"It would be interesting to see the techniques you picked up on your travels," Chōji agreed. Both he and Lee seemed to have forgotten about their own spar entirely. 

 

Sasuke was about to step forward and take the offer – he wouldn't let the opportunity to test his abilities on someone new pass – but Sakura seemed to have different plans.

 

"Maybe later," she said, her eyes wandering over the cuts and bruises on the two rookies with an inappropriate thrilled gleam. "This is perfect!"

 

"Uh–” Chōji made a noise of surprise as Sakura took his arm and dragged him down beside her. She patted the patch of grass in front of her and sent Sasuke an expectant glance. 

 

"Come on. This is the perfect opportunity to practice your healing techniques." She turned to look at Lee. "You're next, Lee! Sasuke's going to take care of those injuries in no time."

 

Sasuke sent Sakura a glare. Nevertheless, he settled in a comfortable position and forced himself not to hesitate as he grabbed Chōji’s arm. 

 

There was no reason for him to feel self-conscious about his skills. Sakura had taught him exactly how it was done, and the technique wasn't even that difficult. Sasuke's expression pulled into a scowl as he told himself that the nervous fluttering in his chest was as stupid as it was useless. 

 

He allowed himself a deep breath to help focus his chakra, and he had to swallow down a sigh of relief when the skin around Chōji’s cuts actually started to knit back together. 

 

Chōji ohhh'd in amazement. "That's awesome, Sasuke! How long have you been learning medical techniques?"

 

"Since meeting Tsunade." Sasuke kept his answer curt as he needed to focus on the healing. Basic as the technique was, it required concentration and impeccable chakra control. 

 

No wonder Naruto was a hopeless case.

 

Sasuke's concentration was put to the test yet again when a familiar figure materialized on the training grounds close to them. "So sorry that I'm late. I found a lost kitten and had to return it to its–” Kakashi trailed off as he spotted their group. His eyes widened. 

 

"Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura's mouth pulled into a grin. "I didn't think you'd find us this quickly. I guess word must have gotten–”

 

"You're back," Kakashi interrupted, his prior carelessness vanished into thin air. "Did Jiraiya actually find you?"

 

"I mean, kind of," Sakura said. "But hold on. If you didn't come to find us, why are you here?"

 

"Oh, Kakashi-sensei offered to oversee some of our sparring matches." Chōji gave them a sunny smile. "He's been lots of help."

 

"What, did you find someone to replace us with while we were gone?" Sakura punched Kakashi's arm playfully. She ignored his grumbling as he rubbed the spot on his arm, and she said to Chōji, "Don't go around stealing our teacher, you hear?"

 

"Sasuke," Kakashi said, his eyes wide and his voice startled. "Are you healing right now?"

 

Sasuke tore his hands away from Chōji’s arm as though it had burned him. The soft chakra glow around his hands vanished. 

 

Chōji didn't seem to be bothered at having his healing session abruptly cut short. Sasuke had almost finished, anyway. "Thanks, Sasuke!" He traced the smooth patch of skin and pulled his sleeve back over it. "You're really good at this, you know?"

 

To his utter mortification, Sasuke felt heat rise up in his face under Kakashi's surprised stare. 

 

Sakura sneaked up from behind and threw her arms around his upper body. "He's put in a lot of effort. It's really starting to pay off." 

 

Sasuke's cheeks flushed darker. 

 

Naruto earned the spot of Sasuke's favorite teammate by showing up at exactly the right time, drawing the attention to himself and sparing Sasuke the burden of having to come up with an answer. 

 

"Hey, guys! Look who I ran into!"

 

Neji trailed behind him looking reserved but not like he was being dragged along against his will. 

 

"Oh! Kakashi-sensei!" As soon as Naruto's eyes fell on their teacher, he propelled himself forward to bury Kakashi in a hug. "You won't believe who we've met, this time."

 

Kakashi hummed, patting Naruto's back half-heartedly. "Do I even want to know?"

 

"I will listen, gladly!" Lee threw them an intense gaze that suggested he was close to whipping out a notebook to take notes. "I'm sure your adventures will be incredibly informative and an inspiration to work even harder on becoming stronger!"

 

"Do you guys wanna listen, too?" Naruto asked with a smile. "Chōji? Neji?"

 

"I'd love to," Chōji said, returning Naruto's cheerful expression. 

 

Neji hesitated. He managed not to sound curt or even impolite when he said, "No, thank you. I was actually looking for Kakashi-sensei."

 

Naruto's brows shot up in surprise. He mouthed the word ‘Kakashi-sensei’ with an expression of puzzled disbelief. Shaking his head as though shaking off the confusion he said, “Wait, I thought you were going to ask someone for advice?”

 

Neji frowned at him as though he was being particularly dense. “Yes.”

 

It took Naruto another beat to understand his meaning. “Wait, you’re asking him for advice?!”

 

Kakashi sent Naruto an exasperated glare. Heaving a sigh, he turned to Neji. “Oh? What’s the matter?”

 

Neji's eyes flickered over to their group as though considering whether he wanted to hold this conversation in their presence. He let out a sigh as he came to a decision and turned back to Kakashi. 

 

He kept his voice quiet, but Sasuke could still understand him. "Do you remember what we talked about before?" 

 

Kakashi paused, his expression gaining in intensity. "Yes. I do." 

 

Neji bit his lip in an uncharacteristically hesitant way. 

 

"Is it about what you decided on?" Kakashi asked. "Did you change your mind? Because there wouldn't be any shame in that." More quietly, he added, "It's a difficult goal to reach for a single person."

 

"No. I still want to do it." Neji averted his eyes so he no longer looked at Kakashi – or any of the others. "I just... I'm not sure whether it is possible. For someone in my... position."

 

Sasuke wondered if they were talking about the seal his clan had placed on him. He didn't ask; it wasn't his conversation to hold, and he wasn't entirely certain whether Naruto had been supposed to tell him about the hierarchy of the Hyūga clan in the first place.

 

“It will be more difficult for you than it might be for others,” Kakashi agreed. “But things like these – your past, your family, prejudice – it’s something people are able to overcome. Just take a look at m–”

 

Kakashi cut himself off with a cough and Sasuke had the feeling that they would never find out what he had been about to say. Because when he started to talk again, he was most definitely not picking up where he had left off. 

 

“Take, for example… Anko!”

 

“... Anko,” Neji repeated, doubt clear in his voice. 

 

“That’s right,” Kakashi said, as though he wasn’t clinging onto the very first deflection he had gotten his hands on. “Anko. Her past with Orochimaru means that many people despise her for the skills she has. And, erm. Well, she was given a seal against her will, too. She had to work harder than others to be acknowledged by even a fraction of Konoha’s shinobi.”

 

Kakashi looked rather pleased at himself for his last second improvisation – not to mention relieved. 

 

While Sasuke was looking right through him, Neji’s gaze had gone distant in thoughtfulness. 

 

"I see," he said eventually, nodding to himself as though he had come to a decision. Looking up at Kakashi he said, "Thank you for the advice, Kakashi-sensei. I think I know what my next course of action should be." 

 

He gave a curt bow and left as quickly as he had come. 

 

"... Kakashi-sensei," Sakura said after a moment of silence. "I was joking, you know. You didn't actually replace us, did you?" She didn't quite manage to keep her tone joking this time around.

 

Kakashi sent her a look that seemed to be gauging whether she was being serious or not. "I'm... I didn't... I'm not replacing you, Sakura. Where did you get that idea?"

 

Sakura threw a significant glance towards Chōji and Lee – who seemed to have decided to give them some distance and retreated further into the training grounds. "You're training the other rookies. You're giving advice. You're... you're teaching them!"

 

"No offence, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto said, "you know we love you. But since when have you enjoyed being a teacher? Or being around children?"

 

Even though it was Naruto saying it, and even though he was using a joking undertone, Sasuke found the words oddly harsh. That didn’t take away from the truth in them. In retrospect, Sasuke could easily admit that Kakashi had most likely expected them to fail back during that first test. 

 

He may have grown fond of them over time, but he had not wanted to be a teacher before becoming theirs. 

 

Something unreadable flickered over Kakashi's face, and his expression tightened. He looked away in a move that almost succeeded in looking casual. "This is why," he said quietly. 

 

“What?” Naruto's smile fell off his face. "Look, I'm sorry if that came across wrong. I wasn't really being serious."

 

"No, you're right." Kakashi looked into the distance, his hands deeply buried in his pockets. "I didn't want to be a teacher when Hokage-sama asked me too. I didn't think I'd ever find a team that would meet my expectations. I guess I didn't exactly do a good job hiding that, back then."

 

Naruto's eyes had widened in alarm. "Kakashi-sensei, you don't need to–”

 

"The village clearly did wrong by you, you know?" Kakashi interrupted. "It must have really messed up to make all three of you want to leave so badly." More quietly, he added, "I know I did."

 

Sakura took a hesitant step towards Kakashi. She chewed on her bottom lip, and her brows were knit into a hesitant frown. "That's why you're helping them with everything," she said, realization in her voice. "You're making sure they're happy here. So that they feel at home in Konoha."

 

There was a pause. Kakashi didn't deny it. 

 

"We do, too, you know?" Naruto matched the subdued tone of the other two. "This is still our home. Nothing about our travels changed that."

 

"Of all the reasons we left," Sakura continued, "you were never one of them."

 

Kakashi laughed. It was an ugly sound, filled with disbelief and self-deprecation. "Clearly, I didn't do enough."

 

Sasuke had been shifting on his feet uncomfortably for the entirety of the heart-to-heart the rest of his team was having. All the sincerity was making his stomach churn. Not to mention the guilt.


Sasuke had limits, and he decided that he had reached one of them several minutes ago.

 

With that in mind, Sasuke pulled out one of their storage seals and activated it to make a small bundle materialized in his hand. 

 

He thrust it into Kakashi's arms with a scowl and a muttered, "For you," crossing his arms immediately after.

 

"Oh, that's right!" The cheer in Naruto's voice sounded too stiff to be casual. "We brought gifts!" 

 

Sakura rolled her eyes as Naruto frantically patted his pockets in search for another storage seal. "Let him open Sasuke's first, idiot."

 

"I-It's not from me!" Sasuke's scowl deepened as he felt color rush into his cheeks. "It's from us. I just happened to carry it."

 

"You guys..."

 

Kakashi's tone of voice immediately activated Sasuke's fight or flight reflex, and he felt a hand dig into the back of his shirt to keep him from leaving behind what was threatening to become another sentimental moment of bonding and sappiness.

 

He didn't remember whose idea the photo album had been. He just knew that it had started with Sakura's half joking remark of sending postcards to the village in order to keep track of their progress through the Five Nations. Naruto, obviously, had taken her at her word, and soon they had (reluctantly, in Sasuke's case) begun taking pictures of themselves in the villages they visited and with the people they met. 

 

Putting them together as a gift for Kakashi had just been the next logical step. 

 

Kakashi's eyes went soft as he turned pages and took in their adventures. He gave a startled laugh at a particularly goofy, unflattering picture of Naruto (courtesy of Sasuke). He shook his head in a disbelieving, soft motion as he saw a group picture that, among others, included the Mizukage and the missing nin they had fought against on their Wave mission. 

 

"We left loads of space at the back, so you can put more pictures in after our next trip," Sakura pointed out helpfully. 

 

"You're unbelievable," Kakashi said, and Sasuke determinedly ignored the husky quality to his voice and the shine in his eye. 

 

"Alright, open mine, next!" Naruto all but yelled. He didn’t wait for Kakashi’s confirmation before depositing another scroll into their teacher’s arms and activating it.

 

Kakashi grunted, almost stumbling under the weight of the gigantic ornamental sword that materialized in his arms.

 

"We got it as a reward from this noble we helped out. D'you like it?”

 

"... It's certainly... something," Kakashi said dryly. He heaved the sword into his arms so he could hold onto it properly. "Thank you, Naruto."

 

"We'll always come back, you know?" Sakura said, just when Sasuke had dared to hope that they had finished with the emotional vulnerability for the day. 

 

"Yeah," Naruto agreed, his voice lowered from his over the top cheer to a soft, genuine tone. "If not for the village, we would always come back for you."

 

Sasuke didn't say anything, but crossed his arms and gave a curt nod. 

 

Maybe Sasuke wasn't the type to declare his feelings for everybody to hear like his teammates were. But he also wasn't going to deny their words when they were so obviously right.

 


 

Chapter Text

Their days in Konoha passed quickly. Sasuke felt like they were hanging out with different people every single day, catching up on what had happened while they were gone and telling stories in return. 

 

More of the rookies had made chūnin by now, and while none of them had yet been promoted to jōnin, it was clear that several were already eyeing the title. 

 

Fū had somehow managed to be accepted as a proper Konoha nin and sported her own hitai-ate – while also wearing and refusing to exchange her old one, much to the grievance of the shinobi in charge.

 

People other than the rookies had begun to adapt to their whims. Team 10's teacher – Asuma – spotted them on their way to meet up with friends. He froze – perhaps contemplating whether to follow his duty as a shinobi and betray them to the Hokage – before lighting himself a cigarette and turning the other way. 

 

All things considered, their visits had become more and more pleasant every time they returned. Sasuke had never had more contact with the other rookies than now. Nobody ever underestimated him – underestimated them – and there was never a shortage of enthusiastic sparring partners. Kakashi seemed to neglect his duties (whatever those currently were) and spent time with them more often than he ever had before. 

 

Sasuke could almost imagine what it would be like to return to the village permanently and only leave for missions. Almost.

 

"Guys! You won't believe who showed up for a visit!"

 

Sasuke barely looked up from where he was sharpening his sword. Naruto had sported the same sort of enthusiasm when Team 8 had come back from their mission, and again when their old client and his brat of a grandson had come visiting them from Wave. His excitement slowly but surely started to lose its meaning. 

 

"Oh?" Sakura decided to indulge their teammate, but didn't put down her novel. "Don't tell me Zabuza and Haku already took you up on the offer."

 

"Eh, they'll do soon enough." Naruto shrugged. "Nah, Itachi and Kisame came over for some tea! It's about time, too."

 

Sasuke stared at his teammate, his brows dropping into a frown. "What are you doing?"

 

"Hm? What do you mean?"

 

"I developed my Sharingan ages ago. You know that. Why are you trying to shock me?"

 

"I know you did." Naruto spoke in the sort of voice that suggested Sasuke was the one not making any sense, not Naruto. "I tried helping you develop it by bringing him over to our campsite, remember? I told him he could come over to Konoha whenever he felt like it, afterwards."

 

Sasuke felt his brain short-circuiting. His teammates carried on as though nothing had happened. 

 

"Is that a good idea?" Sakura asked, sporting a frown of her own. 

 

"Why wouldn't it be?"

 

Sakura raised an eyebrow. "Naruto. He helped to kill almost his entire clan the last time he was here."

 

"Well, yeah. But he had some very good reasons? Besides, the past is the past, and he–”

 

"If you say one more word," Sasuke whispered, pressing out the words through clenched teeth, "I will punch you."

 

Naruto blinked. "Sasuke, look–”

 

"No."

 

The single word was enough to make both Naruto and Sakura fall silent immediately. Only a deep seated trust in them prevented Sasuke from grabbing his sword and running off to search the village for his crazy brother. 

 

Sasuke closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "What is he doing here?" His words came out stilted and tense. "How could you have possibly thought it would be a good idea to invite the murderer of my family into our home?"

 

There was a heavy, pregnant pause. 

 

Naruto's expression fell. "... I'm sorry, Sasuke. I... didn't think of that. At all." He was no longer able to look Sasuke in the eyes. "There's... some things about the massacre you weren't told, back then." 

 

He paused. Sasuke hated the tension between them, but wasn't willing to break the silence himself. He needed to hear this. He needed to understand. 

 

"We thought it would be better if you got to talk to your brother, rather than learn it from us. At this point we kind of," he cringed, "forgot that hasn't happened yet."

 

"You don't have to, though," Sakura said, wearing a deeply earnest expression. "If you don't want to see him, that's fine. We'll tell you everything right here, right now. After that, you can still decide what you want to do."

 

Sasuke mulled those words over in his head. He'd barely thought about his brother at all these last few weeks, and he had been... happy. Content. He didn't know if he was willing to risk all of that in order to rip open this old wound. 

 

More than that, he knew that he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he turned his back right now. He wasn't the type of person to live in blessed, carefree obliviousness. Not voluntarily. 

 

Sasuke clenched his fists and looked his teammates in the eye. He slowly let go of his sword and settled back down. 

 

The tension between them was almost unbearable. "Alright. Talk."

 


 

Sasuke had imagined a reunion with his brother many, many times. He had fantasized about carving out the eyes that had caused him so much pain. He had dreamed of cutting Itachi down with his blade the same way Itachi had cut down their parents and the rest of their clan. In all of his fantasies, he had been the one to end his brother's life, and rightfully so.

 

In reality – and one educational history lesson about their home village and a vermin called Danzō later – the reunion went nothing like he had imagined.

 

Sasuke's fingers itched to take up his sword or even just a kunai. Anything even remotely sharp or dangerous would do. But he kept to their agreement, even once he laid eyes on his brother. 

 

"Itachi," he said, not quite managing to keep the growl out of his voice. 

 

Itachi stood next to the same missing nin who had accompanied him trying to kidnap Naruto, the one who looked like a shark. Itachi looked uncomfortably stiff, standing in a remote place of what was no longer his home village, and he chose not to look Sasuke in the eye. 

 

"Sasuke," he said, making Sasuke wonder if he'd decided not to call him ‘little brother’ on purpose. "You look... well."

 

Sasuke suppressed the urge to let out a derisive snort. "You look like you've spent the last few years playing missing nin."

 

Itachi blinked. Sasuke couldn't quite believe he had taken the facial cue as proof that Naruto had impersonated his brother back then.

 

Itachi might not have worn his emotions on his sleeves like other people did, but he was far from the blank, emotionless slate Sasuke had imagined. Puzzlement was reflected in his eyes, faint disbelief and the almost painful awkwardness that came out of spending several years away from his home.

 

"I... am glad to see you alive," Itachi said, the pause preceding the sentence hanging awkwardly in the air. 

 

Behind Itachi, the shark-man shook his head in an oddly human looking gesture of exasperation. Sasuke could relate to the sentiment. He stared at his brother.

 

"It wasn't thanks to you," he said bluntly, shaking off the stupor at seeing his brother... like this. 

 

"... Yes," Itachi said, "I... suppose that, seeing what happened the last time we saw each other–”

 

"Do you mean the time you killed our entire clan, including our parents," on orders, apparently, but still, "or the time you tried kidnapping my teammate and taunting me into becoming stronger to kill you?" 

 

"I... had been referring to the former, but–”

 

"Oh, I'm listening," Sasuke interrupted, suddenly intent on snapping his brother out of whatever state he was in. Sasuke didn't want him to be polite. He didn't want him to sound hesitant and awkward. Sasuke wanted him to snap back. He wanted to let off steam in a shouting match. 

 

He wanted to address the years of hatred and loathing between them, because how else was he supposed to deal with them?

 

"Do tell me about back then. Like how you could have possibly thought slaughtering an entire clan was the only solution to..." To whatever had been happening back then. Sasuke still didn’t know more than the basics. 

 

"Sasuke," Naruto chimed in, his voice wary and sounding as though he wanted to put a stop to the conversation then and there. "Don't be so hard on him. He was young, and–”

 

"He was our age," Sasuke corrected, throwing Naruto a glare. "Don't try to make excuses for him."

 

He didn't want his teammates to jump to Itachi's defense, either. He wanted Itachi to do that himself. He wanted to see anything other than blind acceptance, this odd willingness to take everything Sasuke was hurling at his head. Why wouldn't Itachi defend himself?!

 

"I'm all ears," he said, directing his glare back to his brother. "Why did you do it?"

 

Itachi took a long time to answer. Sasuke barely managed to muster the patience to hold his silence and let Itachi collect his thoughts. 

 

“I… did not have a reason.”

 

“Yes, you did.” Sasuke’s anger rose up tenfold. “You must have. Nobody goes around deciding to kill people without a reason. Maybe it wasn't a good one. Maybe it wasn't a reasonable one. But you better have had a reason for murdering our family, because if my friends are wrong and you only did it for the fun of it–”

 

Sasuke's voice faltered and he did not care to hide it. His eyes were prickling, his throat closing up with frustration and half-forgotten hatred. "I want to hear you say it. Why did you do it? How could you?"

 

Sasuke wanted to tear out his hair when Itachi said nothing in return. His aimless eyes gave him a careless, aloof expression, although Sasuke was starting to realize that it was less out of disinterest and more out of sheer inability to hold a proper conversation with Sasuke. 

 

Sasuke pressed down his anger by taking a deep breath. This was fine. His brother was acting nothing like he had expected, but it was fine. Their conversation most likely wouldn't end in a ruthless duel to the death, which was a bummer, but Sasuke was flexible. He would adapt to this... development, just like he had adapted to everything else life (and his teammates) had thrown at him during the past year.

 

"This wasn't a good idea," Naruto muttered, watching the brothers with an expression that was half wary, half anxious. "Maybe we should postpone and–”

 

"If you need more time," Sasuke interrupted, addressing Itachi and ignoring Naruto entirely, "that's fine."

 

Itachi's eyes widened almost imperceptibly. "... What?"

 

Sasuke tried to keep his mouth from pulling into a sneer, but only half succeeded. "Just... take your time. Emotions are... hard." He wasn't going to keep watching his brother fumble his way through their semi-forced heart to heart. Sasuke had better things to do than that. 

 

"Maybe you should... talk to someone about this. Someone else," Sasuke clarified hurriedly when Itachi's eyes widened further. "It might help."

 

"... Yes," Sakura said after a beat of silence, staring at Sasuke with wide eyes. "It might. Sasuke's right."

 

Sasuke wanted to bristle at the incredulous quality of her voice, but found that he couldn't. If anybody had told him he would be giving emotional advice to anyone, not to mention his brother, only the day prior, he would have proclaimed them crazier than his team. 

 

Next to them, the shark man – Kisame, that’s what Naruto had called him – gave a shrug. "I've been trying to do some poking," he said, following the conversation with an amused gaze. "But you know how it is."

 

"Yeah," Naruto agreed, his eyes travelling to Sasuke. "It takes time."

 

"I can't believe I'm saying this to Itachi of all people," Sakura muttered, and, raising her voice, "but there's this program a couple of friends have put together."

 

"Oh!" Naruto's eyes lit up with enthusiasm. "That's right! We've got this great rehabilitation program going on right now. It might really help you!" 

 

Itachi looked like somebody had hit him over the head. "I... am not certain that is either necessary or advisable–”

 

"Oh?" Kisame raised an eyebrow, and Sasuke couldn't quite tell whether it was meant to look mocking or not. "How interesting. Do tell us more."

 

Itachi watched blankly as Kisame threw him a grin and pointedly followed Naruto and Sakura. Sasuke pretended not to notice when Itachi stole a glance at him as well, and both brothers followed the odd procession with plenty of space left between them.

 

Stares followed them on their way through the village, freezing as though they'd been struck by lightning as they caught sight of Itachi. Not one of them was brave enough to actually confront the murderer of one of Konoha's formerly strongest clans. 

 

They ran into Yamato only steps away from the village gates, his flock of semi-redeemed Root agents trailing behind him.

 

"Yamato," Sakura called before he had the chance to spot them and make a strategic retreat. "We were just looking for you."

 

"... You were?" Yamato's voice dripped with wariness and he threw a glance over his shoulder as though checking whether all of his wards were still present. "Whatever it is, can't it wait? We were actually about to–”

 

"Leave for your next session? Perfect." Naruto made to grab for Itachi's arm but missed as Itachi took the barest step back. "We've brought a new member for you!"

 

Yamato's eyes – up until now narrowed in suspicion – threatened to bulge out of their sockets as they came to rest on Sasuke's brother. "I-Itachi?!"

 

Itachi hesitated, and he gave a stiff bow. "Yamato-senpai."

 

"Woah, wait," Naruto looked back and forth between the two. "You two know each other?"

 

"... For a time, Itachi and I were assigned the same ANBU squad. What is he– What are you doing here?" Yamato looked as though he was half expecting ANBU to swarm them and take Itachi for interrogation any second now. 

 

Naruto, meanwhile, took in the new information with a beam. "That's perfect! He's here for one of your therapy sessions."

 

"I am not actually–”

 

"He is," Sakura, Sasuke and Kisame said, Sasuke just a little too forcefully to seem rational. He narrowed his eyes at his brother and repeated, almost as a threat, "He is."

 

If this was what it took for Sasuke to hold an actual conversation with his brother – one where he could curse and rage and have Itachi react and defend himself, rather than take all the bottled up emotions Sasuke threw at him – if that’s what it took, Sasuke would drag Itachi to each and every therapy session Yamato was hosting, whether either of them wanted to or not.