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Flip The Coin

Chapter Text

Something had happened.

Something bad. Not bad enough that the civilians were informed, but bad enough that even they somehow caught a whiff of it, whispering worriedly between themselves on street corners and in the shops.

Naruto wasn’t quite sure what it was. Someone was dead, but that was hardly noteworthy. They had been killed – better, but not that uncommon yet.

Not that he really cared. He was just bored, and trying to eavesdrop on the jounin was always good training. It also provided him with a lot of information and stories he thought might be of use someday, if only to get back at the nastier ones.

Soon he would start the Academy, at long last, and that would at least provide him with some entertainment and a place to be, things to do during the day. There was only so many hours a day he could train on his own in the forest and his pranks demanded less and less time and effort with how he had perfected them over the years. In the Academy he would learn to be a proper ninja, to get stronger, and once he was strong enough he wouldn’t be bothered by anyone anymore. For that, he was willing to sit through any number of boring lessons.

Speaking of the Academy, it was possible that Something had happened there. It was mentioned several times, although… No, not the place. The Someone.

An Academy teacher.

The name Umino Iruka only conjured a very vague image in Naruto’s mind, from passing by the Academy when the classes were done for the day. A man with a vertical scar on the bridge of his nose and a friendly smile. Well, a friendly smile for his students and their parents. Certainly not for Naruto.

The teacher had died. Had been killed.

What seemed to be really important though was the How and the Who. Naruto kept walking quietly the corridors of the Hokage Tower, slow enough that he could catch words of the whispered conversation around him but with enough purpose that he wouldn’t look like he was wandering and draw attention on himself. He still got some nasty looks, but they had to think he was here for a reason, whatever it was. Practicing this move day after day had paid off – half of the shinobis working at the Tower were convinced he had an actual reason to be there so often, instead of him just being nosy.

He had to find some joy somewhere.

The name Danzo was dropped off so low it was barely audible, not far from the Hokage’s office, by two jounins with grave expressions on their face. This one, Naruto knew, and he knew the face to go with it too, even if he had never dealt with the man directly. Naruto avoided him like the plague, partly because he was always looking like he wanted to talk to him when they happened to cross path, and mostly because he was terribly creepy. Not physically – ninjas hiding half or all of their faces and bodies and wearing weird clothes and weird objects were less than a curiosity in Konoha, and Naruto had grown up surrounded by people who looked way scarier than they actually were. But that Danzo guy, oh, he was a creep for real. Naruto hated to feel his look on himself. It always gave him the urge to hide away, to remove himself from that field of vision, to get out of reach. The man was supposed to be an elder of the council, from what Naruto had gathered, and also managed a lot of shady things it always felt best left alone.

It wasn’t Danzo who had killed the teacher, but he was responsible somehow.

The Danzo wouldn’t be seen around the village anymore is what Naruto got out of this. Good riddance. If he had caused the death of another shinobi without a good reason, it was understandable. Somehow, it felt like it was more than that though. It wasn’t just about the death of the teacher.

What Danzo did…

Naruto heard that several times. What Danzo did. And it wasn’t about the teacher. It was bigger, on the longer run. Things that had been unearthed, either by the teacher or by his death. Or maybe that’s the reason why he was dead? There were a few people looking sad when saying his name. He seemed well known and well loved around the Hokage Tower.

Naruto couldn’t relate.

After a third tour, he started to feel the eyes on him get suspicious, so he decided to finish up his visit by the Hokage’s office, to see if the old man’s mood and company could tell him more about what had happened. And if he could get an extra allowance this month to buy some more kunai at the weapon shop. That was the initial purpose of his visit.

The doors to the office were open, and even if the two jounins standing guard leveled him a disapproving look, they didn’t try to stop him when he stepped into the room.

The old man was sitting at his desk. Naruto’s steps faltered, because the man looked ten years older than the last time Naruto had seen him. The wrinkles on his face were deeper, the weariness in his expression, in his whole posture, heavy enough that Naruto could see them plain as day. The man barely glanced at him, and okay, Naruto had expected him to still be mad about his latest stunt at the fish market the week before, but it was more than that. The old man’s face didn’t budge, didn’t even try for a smile.

Maybe Something was worse than Naruto had thought.

“What is it, Naruto?” the old man asked, his tone clearly conveying now wasn’t a time for being rude or wasting his time. Naruto opened his mouth but was interrupted by a jounin rushing into the office and almost stepping on Naruto in his haste, who sidestepped him just in time with a long practice of avoiding hurried adults for whom he was just too small and unworthy to take notice of.

“Hokage-sama, yet another report. Among the children that were taken, there was…”

The old man raised a hand to silence the jounin and turned a pointed stare at Naruto, who had hoped to be forgotten long enough to catch some more information.

“Naruto. Leave. Don’t come back before…”

The old man got lost in thought for a moment, considering.

“…Before I visit you.”

Both men waited patiently until Naruto had cleared the room. He heard the Hokage extend the command to his guards so that they knew he wasn’t to be allowed in anymore.

Whatever. It didn’t matter. He could find other ways to occupy himself and other shinobi to stalk and spy on. He didn’t care much about those matters anyway. So what if that Danzo was out of the picture? That sounded like good news as far as he was concerned. Especially if there were… kidnapped children involved? He always knew this man was nasty.

As for the Academy teacher…

Well, it was certainly sad. Probably.

Naruto didn’t care much though. He had to go train, to become strong. Strong people didn’t fear death.

.

Something had happened, of that Sasuke was certain, but he had no idea what and no one would tell him anything.

Just because he was a kid didn’t mean he was an idiot. He caught on some things. Like how stressed his father had been lately, and how Itachi worked more and more and spent less and less time at home, even if he wasn’t on a mission. He caught on things being whispered around in the Uchiha district, how worried the adults looked sometimes.

That was nothing though compared to the chaos of this day. His father had been running around between the Hokage Tower and the Uchiha district since dawn, face screwed up into a worried frown, and his mother, although she hadn’t said it is so many words, had advised him not to get too far from the house.

But the most obvious sign was Itachi. Because Itachi actually looked affected too. For real. He was following their father, which was shocking in and on itself, since their relationship had been strained for months now, and that they hadn’t been seen sharing a space anymore that was strictly necessary – or imposed by their mother who would never stand by either of them eating in another room to avoid the tension of the dinner table.

Sasuke learned that one of the Academy teachers had died in mysterious circumstances. Itachi knew him, but he hadn’t been taught by him when he was at the Academy, and Sasuke doubted that was what made his stoic older brother so shaken up. Not that he looked shaken up. In fact for most people he probably looked as aloof and calm as ever. But Sasuke could see it and judging by the frown on his mother’s face, she could too. Itachi was upset, and Sasuke didn’t know why.

He went to see Shisui, since he was about the only one who didn’t treat Sasuke as a bothering kid, but even he was surprisingly tight-lipped this time. He looked sad too, and Sasuke couldn’t decide, between him and Itachi, on who the expression felt the most alien.

“You’re too young to be involved in all this,” he said, but when Sasuke started to protest, he got a dark look on his face and said, more serious than Sasuke had ever heard him be, “it’s a lucky thing, Sasuke.”

Frustrated, Sasuke went back home and sulked in his room for a while, until his mother called him down for dinner. Nothing of importance was discussed at the table – nothing was discussed at all, really – and Itachi followed their father in his office once they were done. They closed the door tightly behind them and his mother stopped him from approaching the room. She was apologetic but firm in the command that he was to leave this alone for now. He would be told when the time was right.

From experience, Sasuke knew it could be in literal years, but it’s not like he could do anything about it, so he decided to let it go for now.

Whatever it was that had happened, it didn’t seem inherently bad. There was no immediate danger, no sense of panic. On the contrary, Sasuke was surprised to notice subtle changes in the days and weeks that followed, that didn’t look much, but that he couldn’t help connect for some reasons. He had never realized how truly tense the residents of the Uchiha district were until it started to loosen bit by bit. He started to see more and more Uchiha in the streets outside of their own district, and even more surprising, to see non-Uchiha walking their own. They didn’t discuss it properly with the other kids, but they all got the feeling that an unspoken ban had been lifted. They went to play on the square next to the Academy and the feeling of being unwelcomed that had always clung to him when he was out of the Uchiha district was dimed out by a wild margin.

This was nothing though compared to the biggest change of them all – Itachi and their father started talking to each other again.

Like, talking for real. And spend time together too. Sasuke went back home several times to find them sitting in the garden, deep in conversation, or even, and he had to do a double take on that one, training together. Sasuke wasn’t sure it had ever happened in his lifetime, not since he was old enough to remember anyway.

It was a good thing, really, it was. His mother looked happier too, and she announced one day at dinner that she was going back to the shinobi forces as a jounin sensei. Sasuke had never even known she was one. Itachi took less and less mission outside the village, spending more and more time at the Hokage Tower and with the Intelligence. His father too spent a lot more time out, mostly with other clan heads, as far as Sasuke could tell. It was frustrating because he didn’t know what had prompted all those changes, but they weren’t bad changes, so he didn’t want to complain.

Except if his father had been a little more focused on Itachi than Sasuke before, it was nothing compared to how things were now.

Sasuke understood on some level that something bad had happened, or could have happened, and that Itachi had gone through something they needed to work out. And he had always known, always accepted that Itachi was simply better than him, more worthy of attention. It didn’t sting so much because his brother was better than anyone really. It looked like their father didn’t intend to let him to his own device anymore. He got involved in his training again, in his life in general.

Sasuke didn’t think his father could be any less involved in his life, but oh, how wrong he was.

Itachi and their father had mended whatever rift there was between them. And Sasuke had all but disappeared from their sight in the process.

They both promised to be there for his first day at the Academy, and made it as far as the gate to the Uchiha district before a chunin hurried toward them, telling them that they were needed urgently at the Hokage’s office. They both apologized before leaving Sasuke alone with his mother.

It was fine. Sasuke knew he had nothing on the village’s politics in their eyes. As it should have been, really. They were discussing important matters with important people, Sasuke’s first day at the Academy was meaningless in comparison.

He would have to be Hokage to hope to get their attention.

Huh. Now that was an idea.

Chapter Text

“Don’t come back before I visit you.”

Famous last words. Naruto hadn’t seen the old man in over a year.

It was probably petty of him to take the command so literally when he had never bothered to listen to anything the old man told him. He didn’t care. It was better this way, actually.

Whatever the details of that Thing that had happened, it was huge. It was easily seen in the way the masked shinobi that were supposed to keep an eye on him all but disappeared in the following weeks, obviously busy with more important matters. He still received his monthly allowance, albeit not exactly on time, but that was the extent of how involved in his life the old man and his shinobis became.

It was really better this way. Naruto was free to roam around the village and the forest without the constant presence of his guards on his back, or worse, their stern command for him to go back home when he had stayed out too long for their taste.

The only problem was it also meant he could no longer ask when he was short on money. Fortunately, this was easily solved by the latest skill he had decided to work on – pickpocketing. Giving that he was very likely to get thrown out or beaten when walking down the market anyway, he had decided that he might as well get something out of it. It was going pretty well. The few times he had been caught, the villagers had been strangely reluctant to actually go against him, and he’d slipped past their grasp before they could call the police.

He was seriously starting to consider this as his main career path, because the Academy, as it turned out, was B O R I N G.

Not only that though – it was disappointing in every way. Naruto had been excited to finally get proper reading and writing lessons – his meager knowledge from the orphanage drastically lacking for anything harder than deciphering a restaurant menu – but if they did indeed have lessons, it was clear that they were supposed to be for strengthening their level, not building it from scratch. All the kids around him could already read the textbooks and scrolls with ease, having been taught by various family members or mentors. Naruto did his best to follow, but he kept mixing everything, and it’s not the teachers that were going to be any help.

Speaking of the teachers, they were all assholes without fail. Naruto was used to being shunned for no reason, but it was one thing for a woman at the shop to cast him dirty looks from behind a counter, and it was another entirely to be targeted at every turn by a teacher in a class full of rowdy kids. No matter what happened and even if he was napping on his desk, he was always accused of every single misdeed in the classroom and sent out several times a day, which made it quite hard to follow any lesson. It was either that or being ignored completely, to the point where his turn was skipped during individual exercise, and he wasn’t paired with anyone during training.

To top it all, if the kids weren’t as outward hostile as the civilians were, or quietly disapproving like the shinobi, none of them looked like they wanted to befriend him either. They already had their friends, they groups and cliques, and he was made to feel like an outsider in every aspect of the Academy life.

Skipping class wasn’t going to make it any better, but going wouldn’t either. So Naruto had taken to go to the market instead, and to keep training on his own. He spied on the older shinobi working through their routine on the training grounds and did his best to copy them, but he lacked an actual adversary, instead of a tree or a wooden dummy.

Basically, everything sucked, if not harder, then the same amount as it did before.

“Shouldn’t you be going to class?”

Naruto shrugged as the old Teuchi put a ramen bowl in front of him. Naruto felt no remorse paying for it with the wallet of a mean old hag who had insisted she wanted to buy the last of the apples of the fruit merchant just when Naruto was eyeing them, the whole twenty of them. She had been mortified to have the man pack them all, only to be unable to locate her money.

“In a minute,” Naruto said, slurping loudly at his noodles. Old Teuchi was the one and only person in the entire village that didn’t treat Naruto like a chewing gum sticking to the sole of his shoe. Well, as long as Naruto paid for his meals, anyway.

“It’s important to go to class,” the old man insisted. Naruto didn’t answer. What could he say? How could he explain how awful it made him feel, to be alone in a room fool of kids his age, to be told constantly he was stupid, incompetent, insolent and troublesome? He wanted to learn, he did. But no one wanted him to.

The old Teuchi had been heartbroken by the death of that Academy teacher a few months back. He kept saying Konoha had lost one of its very best teachers, and Naruto couldn't help but wonder if it was true, if that man was really that good, good enough that he would have taught even Naruto, who was too dumb to even learn to read properly. He would never know, so it was pointless to imagine. But imagining ways his life would turn a little better was all he had sometimes.

Since he didn’t want to be lectured again, Naruto promised he would go to the Academy that afternoon. They had taijutsu practice after an hour on the history of the shinobi world, and he would actually get to beat up some of the other kids.

Naruto was decent at taijutsu, if only because he trained his body enough that he had more brute force than most of his classmates. What he lacked was proper practice at hand to hand combat, since all he knew he had learned by spying on older shinobis training, but he had never actually sparred with another person. The kids of his class made for poor opponents. Naruto had to hold on, actually, if he didn’t want to seriously injure one of them and get punished for his aggressiveness. Weak, the whole of them.

Except when it came to the Uchiha kid.

Uchiha Sasuke was the target to take down in taijutsu lessons. Not only was he stupidly fast and agile, he was also super efficient, never wasting a move, and usually laid Naruto down in five moves or less. He wasn’t even smug about it, just indifferent, like it was routine for him. To be fair, it kind of was, and at least Naruto did hold for five moves (or less), whereas others didn’t last even one. But it was still infuriating.

He was also the only one that Naruto could actually improve with, since none of the other put up a decent fight or even tried to. Being as diligent as he was, Sasuke didn’t have the other kids’ tendency to just pick another partner when paired off with Naruto because they knew the teacher wouldn’t care. Not that it mattered since they were all useless in a fight.

“Are you alright?” Sasuke asked, like the bastard he was, going as far as extending his hand to help Naruto up. Naruto had half a mind to swat it away, but he was well aware of what trouble any offense done to “Sasuke-kun” would bring down on him, courtesy of his gaggle of fangirls. Sasuke put him up to his feet before turning away, ready to move on to the next pairing.

Naruto wasn’t though. As much as he hated getting his ass handed to him, Sasuke was indeed the best of the class. Naruto wanted to get strong – it was the only reason why he hadn’t abandoned the Academy entirely. Sasuke was the strongest, therefore Naruto had to beat him, and then he would have gotten a little closer to his goal.

“Let’s go again.”

Sasuke raised a skeptical eyebrow, but Mizuki didn’t look like he gave a damn about what they were doing, busy as he was chewing one of the girls out, probably over a minor and unimportant mistake. Mizuki had to have the award for worse teacher of that goddamn school, and that was without taking into account how poorly he treated Naruto in particular. The man was nice enough, at first glance, but all had grown to quietly despise him. He was creepily praising and pampering to the clan kids and put down anyone else with a friendly smile. Naruto had seen even Sasuke, of all people, get tensed at his stupid comments.

Honestly, Naruto found his power of annoyance to be pretty mild compared to the insults he had received before. What really sucked was his tendency to systematically throw Naruto out after five minutes of class. Not that his lectures were interesting, but well… Naruto had to pass his classes somehow.

“…Fine,” Sasuke said eventually, falling back in position. Most of the kids had abandoned practice since their teacher didn’t look like has going to pay attention to any of them any time soon, but Naruto didn’t want to let go now. He wanted to punch someone, and dammit, he would.

The sole advantage Naruto had over Sasuke was that picking up all kind of moves from a wide variety of people had made his own fighting style unpredictable. Sasuke’s style was more complex and advanced than the Academy standard, but very academic still, and not all that diversified. Naruto had been slowly learning all his moves, and he intended to make good use of it.

He held on for six moves. The next time, seven. Sasuke was growing more serious and more into it, and it was probably the first time Naruto was seeing him kind of enjoying himself. Naruto didn’t get his appeal to the girls – the boy was gloomy and boring, never seen having any fun at all.

He was vaguely aware they were starting to draw attention from the rest of the class, but they were eight moves in and now wasn’t the time to lose his concentration.

That was without taking freaking Mizuki into account.

“Very good, Sasuke,” they heard from the side. “I see training with your brother is paying off.”

Sasuke’s sudden misstep and missed hit were so surprising and out of place that Naruto almost didn’t manage to take advantage of it. Spur of the moment moves where his forte though. He grabbed the fist that had missed him by a wide range and used it to pull Sasuke toward him, up over his back, and land him flat on the floor.

Boy did that feel good.

“NARUTO.”

For two hot seconds.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Mizuki asked. It was so out of place even the other kids exchanged puzzled looks, at a loss too as to what Naruto had done wrong exactly. They were used to it though, used to the randomness of Naruto’s punishment, and they didn’t question it. They didn’t care.

“It’s called sparring sensei. Maybe you’ve heard of it,” he answered mildly. The man was easy to piss off, and if he was sent out, he wasn’t actually skipping class, right?

“Sasuke, are you alright?” the teacher asked. Naruto was pleased to see that Sasuke was already on his feet and ready to go again, and that he was trying to kill their teacher by the sole force of his glare. He didn’t answer and Naruto turned away, ready to fall back into position.

“Get out of here Naruto. You’re dismissed.”

They both turned incredulous look at the man who launched into a lecture about reckless violence – in freaking hand-to-hand combat. Naruto felt the familiar heat of his anger rise from the pit of his stomach, the tension spreading in his muscles as he tensed all over, ready to snap. He wanted nothing more than to jump that moron and bite his fucking nose off, but he couldn’t afford that kind of trouble now that the old man had completely lost interest in his fate.

Naruto was sure he didn’t know yet just how bad he could be treated, and he was in no hurry to find out.

So he kept it all tightly lock inside and cast a last hateful look at their smug teacher before exiting the Academy, anxious to find a post in one of the training ground he could beat up to dust.

He was past caring anyway. Or well, it was more like he was actually in a state of constant anger that meant he wasn’t as prone to outburst as he once was. It’s not that he never lost his cool, it’s that he never had it in the first place.

What the day had proved though, was that sparing with Sasuke had to become a thing. It was stimulating in a way few things were in his life – and it felt like he was getting somewhere at last. It was the first step. Beating the best student of his class. Then the best of his rank, then the best of any rank. Then the best of the village. The best in the world. And then…

Then there would be no one left to bother him.

.

“I see training with your brother is paying off.”

There was no way Mizuki wasn’t doing this on purpose. No way. Had Sasuke been sparring with anyone else, he would have been convinced it was just their teacher’s tactic to destabilize him. But why would he do that for Naruto? He hated the boy. Everyone did, for some reason.

Granted, his classmates hated Mizuki even more.

“I see training with your brother is paying off.”

In what universe. Sasuke was lucky if he saw Itachi long enough for them to exchange “hellos” these days. If anything, it proved that the “missions” had always been a bullshit excuse. Itachi was no longer part of ANBU, and he was even less at home than before.

It was even more than that though. Sasuke was absolutely convinced that Itachi was avoiding him.

His mother kept telling him it was just an impression, but he wasn’t stupid. Itachi couldn’t get out of a room fast enough when Sasuke entered it. Sometimes he stared at him and it looked like he wanted to talk, to say something, but he never did. Instead he turned away and disappeared.

They had not trained together for months. Sasuke was busting his ass off all on his own, thank you very much – and with Shisui sometimes, who took pity on him. He was no longer in ANBU either. Sasuke still didn’t know what that was all about.

And the worst thing was, for how little Itachi was in his life now, he was still there constantly. Mizuki was the worse but he was far from the only one. None of their teachers could resist making the comparison. All. The. Time. “You’re very good at this, just like Itachi!”. "I remember when your brother learned this." "I would have thought you’d get a grasp at this sooner seeing how your brother…”

His classmates were in this too. Half of the girls fawning over him were just doing it by proxy, like their sisters with Itachi before them, or hoping to get closer to the real deal. "Your brother is so cool. You’re so lucky. How is he like?"

Like a ghost was how he was.

Sasuke didn’t especially like the Academy. He went through the motion, doing what was asked of him and keeping to himself. He had been trained in the Uchiha’s way from a young age and most of the things they studied at school, he'd known them for at least a few years. Sometimes he had a hard time understanding how his classmates could fell at such basic things, but then he remembered the stern voice of his mother telling him that he was privileged among them and that it was never an excuse to be condescending.

He didn’t feel like he was in the wrong though, when he saw half of them focusing more on the latest manga, game, or flower arrangement than on their training and study. Most of them didn’t seem to care much about being good shinobi, to the point where he wondered what they were doing here exactly.

He hadn’t made any friends. He hung out with the other Uchiha kids, or he stayed on his own. He didn’t have time for friends anyway – he had to train if he ever wanted to be a blip on his father and his brother’s radar one day.

He was supposed to walk back home, but he was angry and frustrated and his mother would ask him “are you alright?” and if he said yes she’d know he was lying and if he said no he’d have to tell her why.

Walking in circles seemed like a much better idea.

“Oï, Sasuke!”

If people would just leave him alone.

Naruto fell into step with him, unconcerned with his murderous expression.

“What do you want?”

“I need us to train together.”

Sasuke stopped in his track to cast an incredulous look at his classmate to whom he had literally never spoken to before today. The boy was dead serious.

“What.”

"I need to get stronger and that won't happen by sparring with a tree. And you're the best in our class so it has to be you."

Sasuke was. He was the best of their year, but it hardly seemed to matter. Sasuke could best the entire Konoha shinobi force, he would still be second best.

“Why don’t you ask Itachi?” he spat, fed up with this discussion already. Naruto was a troublemaker with no friends, a permanent scowl and the worst grades out of them all. Sasuke had zero interest in training with him.

That was, until the next sentence that came out of his mouth.

“Who the hell is Itachi? Why would I ask him? Is he better than you?”

Naruto started to look mildly worried at how long it took Sasuke to produce an answer. It was just a lot to take in, since never before in his life had someone not known the name Uchiha Itachi.

“You… don’t know who Itachi is?”

"Sorry, I don't know every last loser of that village.”

Sasuke held back a snort but felt obligated to defend his brother. “He’s the best shinobi of the Uchiha clan, a prodigy. He was the youngest one ever to make it jounin. He…”

“You know what, that’s great. You two should get married. But will you train with me or not?”

This was beyond surreal.

“What?”

“Are you dense? I doubt mister super jounin will want to be caught within a mile radius of my vicinity, so let’s say I’m stuck with you yeah? Are you in or not? We’ll see about beating that guy later.”

“Beating… Itachi?”

“Yeah. Isn’t that the point of the strong ones?”

Sasuke was vaguely aware that Naruto was a training freak obsessed with getting stronger, and dismissive of absolutely everything else. He didn’t care about making friends, didn’t care about being nice, and he annoyed the hell out of most of the adults around them.

Including his own parents.

It was perfect.

“You know what. I’m in.”

Naruto’s eyes open wide, clearly not expecting this turn of event.

“You are?”

“Yeah. Let’s do this.”

He had no idea what he was getting himself into, but that was part of the appeal. It was something that he would do all on his own. No clan, no parents, no brother, something for himself, that he needed no one’s opinion to decide.

“Awesome.”

Naruto grinned. Sasuke smiled back.

Chapter Text

On one hand, it made Sasuke feel horribly terrible that it took so long for anyone at home to discover this new development. On the other hand, the more time passed, the more it meant he would be justified in being pissed off once they finally confronted him about it.

In the meantime, he trained with Naruto.

He honestly thought it would be a walk in the park. Naruto had strength, sure, but he had zero technic or finesse, and all his hits seemed to be lucky ones. Sasuke just had to be more serious than usual and it would be fine.

It took Naruto laying him flat on his back after one minute for him to review this judgment.

It hadn’t occurred to him that if he himself was holding back in academic training, so was Naruto. Sasuke was making an effort not to use the most advanced moves he knew, which were unfair to his undertrained classmates. Naruto was making an effort not to throw his sparring partners across the field, apparently.

He was ruthless. Sasuke was kind of used to going easy during training because, well. It was training. Naruto didn’t even apologize though, for making him bite the dust so hard he bit himself for real and spat blood for their entire sparring session. He wasn’t there to do this the easy way, apparently.

His mother had frowned the first few times at his ruined clothes and bruised face, but Sasuke could adapt quickly. And as Naruto learned to be less of an unruly brut, Sasuke learned to fight for real. 

Naruto observed older shinobis train all the time – Sasuke had no idea when he actually went home – and brought new moves and technics to try during their sparring. Sasuke was reluctant to include foreign moves in his own styles, but Naruto didn’t have such qualms. After months of this, he was still 100% unpredictable and kept Sasuke constantly on his toes.

Sasuke had to admit it wasn’t so bad.

He had suggested they trained on ninjutsu and chakra control too, while they were at it, but Naruto had declined, claiming he already had someone else for that. Sasuke had a hard time believing it, for Naruto was always on his own. There was just Haruno Sakura who had been sticking to him for no reason the past few weeks, but they didn’t seem to even talk to each other. Sasuke and Naruto still didn’t interact at the Academy either. In fact, outside from the training field they favored, often empty because too far away from the heart of the village and half hidden in the trees, they didn’t even acknowledge each other’s presence. At first it was both their doing, but as time passed, Sasuke began to entertain the idea of befriending the other boy for real, if only because they spent so much time together.

Naruto was impermeable to the idea though. He just wasn’t interested. Anyone approaching him at school or in the streets got a snarl and a menacing glare. Sasuke was special in the sense that Naruto was civil to him during training, but that was it.

Oh, well. If Naruto didn’t want to be friends, Sasuke wasn’t going to insist.

Except if his father told him not to.

He was late again. It happened more and more as Sasuke’s stamina improved. Naruto was never the one to call off training expect on laundry day, because he was tireless, and he was greatly annoyed by the limits of Sasuke’s body.

They had practiced grab-and-throw moves as Naruto called it and Sasuke was sore all over for being tossed against the hard-packed dirt again and again. His pain tolerance was also increasing – Shisui had commented a few weeks ago that he was “much less of a crybaby lately”. He guessed it was meant as a sort of compliment.

“I’m home,” he called once the front door was closed behind him, fully expecting to get nothing in return. His mother was on a mission with her genin team and not due back before the next day. As for the other residents of the house, who knew. Not Sasuke.

As it was, he was very surprised to see his father emerged from the kitchen with a scowl firmly in place, the one that guaranteed Sasuke was in for a lecture.

“We need to talk Sasuke. Come.”

His mother was sitting at the table, Itachi too, which told him it wasn’t about just being late for dinner. In fact dinner wasn’t even set. His mother was still in her jounin uniform – freshly back, he guessed.

“Is there a problem?” he asked, even if he could imagine where this was going. Indeed his father wasted no time cutting through the heart of the issue.

“You’ve been training with Uzumaki Naruto,” he stated. Sasuke nodded. No use in denying it.

“This ends today, Sasuke. I don’t want you to see that boy anymore.”

Oh. Oh.

It wasn’t so long ago, Sasuke thought bleakly, that he would have agreed without even uttering a word. He wanted nothing more than to please his father and that included never disobeying, never stepping out of line.

But this had been going on for months. Months. He’d met with Naruto almost every single school day. They weren’t advertising it but they weren’t making a big secret out of it either.

And now, out of the blue, his father wanted to forbid it?

No way.

“Why?” he asked, anger already rising. He never used to be angry before. He didn’t really like it.

“Because I said so. That boy is bad news and a bad influence and I don’t want you to mix up with him.”

The thing was, Sasuke was tongue-tied in front of his father. His anger and frustrating were boiling inside of him but he didn’t know what to do, what to say. Didn’t know how to outright defy him.

“He’s not! And-and we’re helping each other out. What is wrong with that?”

“You don’t need him to train.”

“Who am I supposed to ask?”

That, at least, gave his father a pause. Sasuke saw Itachi stiffen out of the corner of his eyes, but he said nothing. He never did.

“I made great progress training with him. I-I’m not gonna stop!”

The look of his father was priceless. Sasuke was sweating nervously, but he didn’t take it back.

“Yes,” his father growled carefully, “you are.”

“N-no I’m not,” Sasuke muttered, much less assured now. He wanted this conversation to be over. Why was it such a big deal suddenly? Naruto wasn’t a poster child but he wasn’t a criminal either. This was absurd, unfair.

“Yes you are!”

“No, he’s not.”

They all turned toward his mother.

She had been silent until then, as she usually was. It was their father who held the authority, who made this kind of decisions. They may argue privately about it, but she always deferred to him in the end.

Sasuke felt instantly forgotten as his parents glared at each other. There was a world unsaid between them, things he couldn’t begin to comprehend. He exchanged a quick glance with Itachi who seemed just as puzzled as he was. Small comfort.

“We’ve talked about this, Mikoto,” their father said in a warning tone.

“You’ve talked about it, and I didn’t say a thing. But I’m not going to stand by it any longer. This is wrong, has been from the start, and I know I can’t do anything about it, but I’ll be damned if I stop him too.”

Sasuke had never seen her like this. Her face was hardened by anger and… grief? She seemed so resentful, so hurt. He had no idea what they were talking about.

“We’ll talk about this later.”

It was their father’s way of cutting the discussion short, and meant they had to abide by whatever he had said last and probably never actually discuss it again. Except she didn’t follow suit this time.

“We will. But in the meantime, Sasuke,” she turned toward him, instantly losing some of her hardness to smile at him. “It would make me very happy, if you were to befriend Naruto.”

Their father started to protest. Sasuke only nodded dumbly and, seeing that they were about to get serious about that argument, elected to exit the room as fast as he could.

Itachi got the same idea and they bumped into each other in the corridor. Itachi was always on his side even when he said nothing and Sasuke knew he had interceded in his favor to their father many times, but it would have been nice to have some actual support for once. All he wanted was for them to talk again. He didn’t know where it went, their bond, the things they used to share.

He didn’t know what he had done wrong.

“What should I do?” he asked, hoping that Itachi wouldn’t turn away this time. That he’d say something, anything.

He took his time, as he always did. He was careful with words like they scared him. Sasuke could understand that – he didn’t trust words either.

“You should do what you want, Sasuke.”

And it could have sounded dismissive but coming from Itachi, it was a huge deal. Sasuke had the nagging feeling that he had never seen Itachi do something he actually wanted to do his whole life. He always looked so pained by everything, forced to do, forced to be. No wonder he was exhausted all the time.

“Won’t you train with me?” Sasuke asked, both challenging and a little desperate. No matter that Naruto was kind of fun and no matter his mother’s blessing – if Itachi said he wanted to train with him, Sasuke would ditch the blonde in a heartbeat.

But his brother’s face soured like he had bitten on a lemon and he shook his head.

“I’d rather not.”

And that hurt. There was not even an explanation, no excuse. At least it was clear. He simply didn’t want to.

Sasuke blinked back tears and went straight to his room.

He was planning to sulk there and skip dinner, but they didn’t even have dinner that night.

.

Naruto expected that kind of talk much sooner. He’d been waiting for months for the ball to drop, for Sasuke telling him that his parents, for whatever reasons, didn’t want them to hang out anymore. It had happened with every kid he ever had the slightest interactions with – including when it was just him being bullied.

The two teenagers waiting for him at their usual training ground where unfamiliar to him but it wasn’t hard to guess who they were. Dark eyes, dark hair, dark clothes, white skin, the only splash of color being the blood red of the fan on their back. They were obviously related to Sasuke, and most likely here to tell him not to approach him ever again. They were also early. He wondered if they were just planning on waiting around like idiots or if they knew he would ditch class and be here sooner than he was supposed to.

“Hi. Can I help you?”

One had long hair tied in a low ponytail and looked bored and boring. The other was more open and cheerful, and he was the one to answer.

“Hello. You’re Naruto, right? I’m Sasuke’s cousin Shisui, and this is his brother Itachi.”

Ha. So that was the famous Itachi Sasuke couldn’t shut up about. Be it to rage or praise him, Sasuke referred to the other boy at least once a day – or Itachi was referred to Sasuke by whoever. It was hilarious to watch.

“Cool. What do you want?”

The training ground was remote, it was part of its appeal, but it had no appeal to Naruto now. They could do whatever they wanted to him. No one would come looking. No one would care.

“We know you’ve been training with Sasuke a lot, lately, so we just wanted to… get acquainted.”

At least the boy wasn’t trying to look convincing. Naruto didn’t read him as a threat, but shinobis were good at looking friendly while planning a murder.

“You should know that our parents disapprove of this,” the brother said in a deep, even voice.

“Their father disapproves,” the cousin corrected, smile still in place. “But Sasuke is free, right?”

The question was aimed more at the other Uchiha than at Naruto.

“Should I care?” Naruto challenged, fed up already. The brother didn’t like it.

“If you care about him,” he answered. Naruto snarled. Sasuke wasn’t his friends. They were sparring partners and it was already more of a connection than he had ever had with anyone, than he ever wanted, and that didn’t mean he had to braid him friendship bracelets. Sasuke’s parents weren’t his problem.

Naruto had lied, when he’d say he didn’t know who Uchiha Itachi was, that first time he’d talked to Sasuke. Well, not exactly lied – he didn’t know who he was, but he had heard his name before. Shisui’s too. Just because he was no longer welcome at the Hokage tower didn’t mean he had given up on his spying habits. He’d never went as far as peeking at official documents and meetings, but he didn’t need to. Shinobis were so nosy, and chatty. Had he cared about their secrets at all, he would have made a report to the old man about their dramatic lack of discipline and discretion.

He didn’t care though. And he had no scruple using what he’d learned.

“Wait, Itachi and Shisui, it rings a bell now… You were friends with Danzo, right?”

He still knew next to nothing about that whole affair, but he knew at least that, even if of course “friends” wasn’t the right word at all. They seemed to agree, for they both tensed, face falling into matching expressions of wariness and resentment.

“You know nothing about us,” Itachi said through gritted teeth. He was right. Naruto wasn’t about to tell him that. The boy looked ready to attack and Naruto couldn’t help but match his posture. He was never smart enough to know when to shut up, when to lay low. Better to fight, even if he lost, than to surrender.

“You wish. Leave me the hell alone. If Sasuke wants to ditch me, he can do it all on his own.”

For some reasons this loosened the cousin somehow. He put a hand on Itachi’s shoulder, and it spoke volume about their closeness that the other teen relaxed immediately. They exchanged a meaningful look, charged with unsaid understandings.

Naruto wanted to punch them.

“There’s no need to be aggressive,” Shisui said after a pause. “He can do what he wants indeed, and he told that to his father actually.”

Naruto faltered, caught off guard

“He… did?”

“Hm hm. We just wanted you to know that things were kind of tensed. Because he probably won’t tell you himself. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a great thing personally.  As long as you two get along, we don’t have a problem with you.”

But they would at Naruto’s first misstep. The threat was clear as day, although they probably had no idea what they were supposed to be wary for when it came to the blonde.

It’s not like he knew himself.

“Do you know why?” he asked, unable to stop himself. “Why they don’t want this,” he added at their puzzled expression. They crossed gaze again.

“No,” Itachi admitted. Naruto rolled his eyes. They were useless, to top it all.

“Seriously though. What do you know? About us,” the cousin asked, grave despite his open expression. Naruto shrugged.

“Nothing more,” he assured them. It was almost the truth. “You should leave. Sasuke will be here soon.”

“Right.” Shisui turned to leave but he had to grab his cousin’s sleeve to make him move too. Itachi was staring at him with an intensity that was beyond uncomfortable. Naruto held his gaze all the same.

Sasuke reached the training ground a mere five minutes after they were gone. Naruto debated keeping the encounter from him for two whole seconds before deciding that there was no reason he was the only one in a sour mood.

“You didn’t tell me that super-jounin was your brother.”

Sasuke never looked especially joyful, but it was funny to see that he could always get gloomier.

“You met him?”

“He came to warn me about your parents. Something you want to share?”

Naruto would deny to the day he died how badly he wanted to hear Sasuke actually say it.

“No. It’s none of your business.”

It was music to his ears.

“That’s what I told them.”

“Forget about it then. So, where were we?”

For all that he complained about his parents Sasuke was very much a mama’s boy. It felt significant somehow that he was actively going against their will by being here with Naruto. And even if that was the appeal for the other boy, even if he was just looking for some rebellion, it was still nice. To not be alone, just for a little while.

.

“You do know, right? What’s up with the boy.”

Itachi shrugged. Shisui sighed heavily. It had become his mission in life to manage to drag Itachi out of the pit of gloom and despair he had crawled in, but it wasn’t for today, obviously. Danzo was long gone, never to return again, and their clan was safe. But it wasn’t thanks to them, and it didn’t do anything to alleviate the weight on Itachi’s mind.

“I think I do,” Itachi conceded after a few more steps.

“I guess it makes sense they wouldn’t want them to become friends,” Shisui pondered aloud. He had his doubts too. It had never been said in so many words, but Shisui was good at letting his ears wander, and shinobis were terrible gossips.

“Maybe so,” Itachi said. “None of us has any right to determine who’s the monster though.”

Shisui didn’t answer, but he couldn’t disagree. The boy looked like an insufferable brat, but he was also a freaking child. Not that it meant much of anything of course, there was no such thing as innocence to be protected for the village. They were shinobis first and maybe people second, or maybe not even that.

That’s how it had been for them anyway. But he was convinced it didn’t have to be for those who were to come, for the kids growing up right now, for Sasuke, who was so cute and kind of hilarious with his childish tantrums and his fierce will to one-up everyone else. Shisui loved that brat, and he would do his damn best to protect him from this fucked up world.

“I guess we’ll just keep an eye on them both,” he concluded. Itachi nodded. Keeping an eye on Sasuke was pretty much his sole activity in life, besides brooding. He still wasn’t talking to his little brother though.

Shisui sighed again. They still had a long, long way to go.

.

“Why did you go to Naruto?”

Itachi didn’t jump – Sasuke had yet to manage to take his brother off guard – but he still turned a surprised gaze to Sasuke who had just barged into his room unannounced. He set down his brush carefully and turned away from the scroll he was filling with his neat handwriting.

“I just wanted to meet him. I was curious, that’s all.”

“If you were curious about my life, you could ask me about it.”

He didn’t know what had possessed him to be so blunt all of the sudden. Maybe he was still high on his sparring with Naruto that never failed to pump him up. He’d dropped the subject quickly with the other boy because he didn’t want him to know how he was affected by this. It had been nice that Naruto didn’t know Itachi, even in passing, because Sasuke could rant about him all he wanted without getting a disapproving or offended look. Not that Naruto was offended by much.

Just before they had parted though, Naruto had told him, casual and unbothered, “I’m kinda mad at you for suggesting I train with him. He looks like the dullest guy ever.”

It was pretty mean and entirely untrue. Sasuke had snorted all the same. He didn’t like being this petty, didn’t like resenting Itachi this way. But Itachi had taken the time to stalk his friend while he couldn’t be bothered to say two words to him.

“What have I done?” he asked through gritted teeth. His fists were closed, nails digging into his palms as he bit his lips to keep more words from spilling out. He was shaking with pent-up frustration. He just wanted to know.

“It’s not… It’s not like that, Sasuke. It’s not your fault.”

“What is it then?”

“I can’t tell you.”

Sasuke threw his arms in the air, fed up with that same song he’d heard a million times before.

“Whatever,” he mumbled and made to leave the room, determined not to speak to his brother ever again. It was Itachi who spoke though.

“I’m sorry, Sasuke.”

It gave him a pause. Not so much the words as the tone, and the look on his face when he turned back toward his brother. Whatever it was he was talking about, it was more than the distance he kept between them, more than bothering his friend behind his back. Itachi was sorry and Sasuke didn’t even know about what. It was stupid.

“I… I just miss you.”

Sasuke felt the blush creep up his cheeks as he found a sudden interest in his socks. The left one had a hole in it – he would have to bring it to his mother so that she could mend it. Or maybe he’d do it himself. She’d been teaching him, saying it was a good skill to have. She didn’t go on that much extended missions but she too wasn’t as much at home as she used to.

Sasuke felt lonely.

“I’ll… try my best to change that,” Itachi said lamely. He seemed to found it a great ordeal, but Sasuke wasn’t asking for the moon.

“Leave Naruto alone though,” he warned. “He’s my friend.”

That made Itachi smile for some reasons.

“I will.”

Sasuke nodded and left the room, feeling a little better but still very much annoyed, and decided mending socks was as good a way as any to distract himself from his stupid family.

.

The next day, Sasuke was first at the training ground, which was unusual. Naruto strolled him a few minutes later, supremely unconcerned.

But most importantly, not alone.

“Yo, Sasuke. This is Sakura. Sakura, Sasuke.”

“We’re in the same class, idiot. We already know each other.”

It was something of an overstatement – Sasuke wouldn’t have bet his life on having spoken to the girl even once before. She used to be more feisty and loud before the Academy, when she was friend with Yamanaka Ino, but she went unnoticed nowadays. Sasuke’s eyes flicked involuntarily to her chopped hair and the clean scare running from her left cheek to the side of her skull, cutting her ear neatly in half. She looked away.

“Yeah, yeah, alright mister sociable. Sakura here has been helping me with ninjutsu, but it turns out she sucks massively at taijutsu. Like, it’s shameful really. And since you’re still too weak to go for more than a few hours, I figured an extra would keep us running, even such a bad one.”

Sasuke waited a bit, just in case this was a joke on the boy’s part, but for all his devil-may-care attitude, hands up behind his head and bored expression on his face, he was serious. Sasuke expected Sakura to take offense on the way he talked about her, but she didn’t say a thing. Despite avoiding eye contact, she looked determined, and she even found her voice when she bowed and gave out a low “thank you for having me” to the both of them.

“We are?” Sasuke couldn’t help asking, skeptic.

“Yeah, we are,” Naruto confirmed. They glared at each other for a while until Naruto sighed. “It’s gonna be great, Sas’. It’s about time you make some respectable friends yeah? And by that I mean friends you can be seen out in public with.”

Sasuke’s eyes widened, surprised enough that he didn’t pick on the absurd nickname. Was this… about his parents? It’s true that Sasuke taking on a project such as training an average shinobi into something more would sit better with his father, but it didn’t matter to him. He didn’t want to please his father.

Then again, it guaranteed his life to be easier.

He looked at the girl. There was nothing remarkable about Haruno Sakura. She was the daughter of two low-level shinobis and was pretty low-level herself, especially since she seemed to care more about being pretty than training. But a few weeks before, she had disappeared from class for days with no explanation except a "Sakura is sick" from one of the teachers. When she returned, her hair was gone, she had that scar, and she couldn’t be found more than two meters away from Naruto anymore.

No one knew what happened to her, although the rumors were running wild. Sasuke hadn’t cared much. It’s not like she had become friend with Naruto. More like he was tolerating her – she sat beside him in class and stuck close to him during breaks. They didn’t talk or interact much in any way, but more importantly, Sasuke supposed, no one talked to or approach them. Not just Naruto but Sakura as well, by extension. She had been bullied heavily since the beginning of the school year, with no one stepping in to help and no teacher to care.

Naruto was a powerful deterrent. If he had been bullied when they were younger, it had stopped when he started punching back, and later hurling kids who were mean at him across the field.

From Sakura’s perspective, Sasuke could see the boy’s appeal.

“…Fine,” he agreed eventually, with the distinct impression that he didn’t have much of a choice anyway. Naruto gave him an easy smile – he knew from the start how it was going to end. It was frustrating how often he got what he wanted by the sheer force of his power of annoyance.

“Awesome. Sakura, get in first. And I’m warning you, neither blood nor tears are a good reason to stop a fight. If you want out you’d better be dying.”

Again, where Sasuke expected the girl to protest or chicken out, she only nodded seriously. She wasn’t paying attention to Sasuke at all – her eyes were on Naruto like he was the one who would grant all her wishes.

If she wished to get stronger, it wasn’t entirely untrue. Sasuke could understand. He wanted to get stronger too.

Well. Why not, then.

Chapter Text

Sakura didn’t know people could be so cruel.

She didn’t know they’d be so cruel for no reason.

Sakura, in many many ways, was average. Average looking girl with average parents of average class leading an average life. There had never been anything remarkable about her, good or bad. She was pretty good at school, but Mizuki sensei said it’s just because she was a good bookworm, not because she was smart or anything. She picked up on thing at a speed above average, but that was all.

Average girl with average complexes about her face, her big forehead that others mock like they could have mocked any other aspect of her. She’d made friend with Ino who was far from average, who was beautiful and strong and cool, and who lifted Sakura above her average status just by being friends with her.

And then she’d gotten an average crush.

Sasuke was pretty, far prettier than any of the other boys. He was also more mature, mainly because he stayed silent instead of making crude joked and inappropriate comments all day long. He was nice and polite to all, including her. One day she’d seen him at the market with his older brother, and she’d seen him smile like he never did with the other kids, happy and soft, unrestrained. Sasuke was soft. That’s what she liked about him.

She’d decided she’d be in love with him then. It made her feel warm and hopeful. It was a very nice feeling.

She had no idea what it would bring down on her.

She lost Ino’s friendship. At first she thought it was just a phase. They had fought before, had given each other the cold shoulder, but they always made up after a few days. Not this time though. Ino was serious about that rivalry thing, and Sakura followed suit, and then discovered that all of her other friends were in fact Ino’s friends. She started the Academy alone and alone she remained.

It wasn’t so bad. She studied and daydreamed about Sasuke addressing her in class so that she wouldn’t be so alone anymore. It wasn’t so bad until it started.

She didn’t know people could be cruel for no reason.

There was a reason of course. Several, in fact, depending on the day. She was too arrogant with her good grades and good answers in class. Too arrogant to be after Sasuke with how ugly and average she was (because she could be both those things, apparently). She had a big forehead, she had too pink hair, she had no friend, she was okay with having no friend. There were reasons, and at the same time, there weren’t. It could have been anything. It’s not what mattered.

What mattered is that the girls in her class started to call her names. Then they stole her things, her lunch, her homework. Then they tripped her up in the corridor or beat her during training.

The teachers said nothing, looked away or told her that “adversity builds character”. The other kids said nothing because they didn’t care.

Ino said nothing, and that hurt the most maybe, even if she never participated, even if she was never the one to pull her hair and spill ink on her clothes. She said nothing and that hurt the most.

But it was okay. It would pass. School wouldn’t last forever. Maybe Sasuke would sweep in to save the day, to protect her. She was pretty good at ignoring all of this, at enduring until it went away. They were just mean and stupid, she wasn’t about to care, it wasn’t so bad. She wasn’t the only victim, no one had it easy at school. It didn’t matter. She built up huge fantasies in her head where she got strong and beat every single one of them, or became so good and successful they all fawned over her and begged for her forgiveness, and it was enough, because what did she care about them.

Until one day she discovered just how cruel, exactly, people could be.

It had been a good day. She had been left alone, mostly, and she’d been paired up with Sasuke for genjutsu practice. She could break out of most jutsu easily, and their teacher had praised her since she was running against an Uchiha and they were notoriously very good at genjutsu. Sasuke had even nodded to her at the end of the class, like to acknowledge her skill.

So it had been a very good day.

She was walking home after class, playing it back in her head, wondering what she could do to get that nod again, that look, to exist in his eyes. They were paired up more and more by skill level and affinities, so she rarely ended up with him. He was slightly better than her in ninjutsu and worlds better in taijutsu.

Maybe she needed to train more. She didn’t want to look all bulky and unfeminine, but rumor had it that Sasuke liked strong kunoichi… Besides, being strong could be nice, if only to get some peace.

“You’re getting way too confident, ugly.”

Sakura was yanked out of her own head to realize she was surrounded by several of her classmates in a small, empty side street.

Fear spiked instantly but she tried to reign it in. They weren’t going to hurt her, not really.

They weren’t.

“What do you want?” she asked, far more defiant than she actually felt. There was no way out of the street. There were two girls in front of her and three at her back. She was trapped.

“We saw you getting cozy with Sasuke today,” Kara said. She was the chief of the little band, and as such, her chief tormentor. She was taller and stronger than Sakura.

“We were just practicing,” she tried to defend, already knowing it was pointless. It wasn’t about that. “Let me go.”

“Don’t get cocky!”

She didn’t want to anger them further but she couldn’t not roll her eyes. How was she getting cocky? She just wanted to leave!

“You think you’re pretty enough to get his attention?” Sasaki asked, taking a step forward. Sakura took a step back, only to feel the other three closing in on her.

“No I don’t,” she answered without thinking. It was the truth. She knew she wasn’t pretty enough, wasn’t pretty at all. She dreamed, but she was aware it would never come to be. Sasuke would never notice her. Why would he? She was unremarkable.

Why wasn’t she unremarkable to them too? She just wanted to be left alone.

“That’s right, you’re not,” Sasaki said after a hesitation, caught off guard by Sakura’s blunt declaration.

“You’ve been growing your hair out for him right?”

Sakura didn’t answer. It had been told at some point that Sasuke preferred girls with long hair. Now that she thought about it, she was very skeptical about how the girl who had started that rumor could have possibly gotten that information, since every single one of them had yet to successfully hold a conversation with the boy.

She had followed it anyway. She liked her hair, despite everything, she liked its color and how it flowed in waves, brushing against her back, and she liked to take care of it. She liked her mother braiding them or running her hand through them too. Having someone else doing it would be nice, surely.

“Leave me alone,” she said weakly. Fear was rising inside of her, wild and uncontrollable. The girls were getting closer and the look in their eyes scared her. She was hyper-aware of how alone she was in that street, how there was no one around to see what was happening. No one to stop it.

“Shorter hair would suit you better, Sakura,” Kara said.

She pulled a kunai from her bag.

Time seemed to stop on its track. There was a short second suspended in time and space where nothing happened, nothing moved. The next few minutes played very fast in Sakura’s head, but she didn’t manage to make sense of them, to understand. It wasn’t possible. They wouldn’t hurt her.

People weren’t that cruel.

The others hesitated, but not for long. Kara ordered, “grab her”, and they did.

Sakura only started to struggle weakly when hands closed around her arms and neck, but there were four of them and one of her. A kick at the back of her knees sent her to the ground. The kunai got closer to her head.

“What are you doing? What are you doing? Stop, stop, stop!”

Nothing happened. She tried to move but her body was paralyzed by fear and shock, her mind refusing to face what was playing before her eyes. There was nothing she could do, and no one would come.

Kara grabbed a handful of her hear and cut through the mass.

The tug of the blade, not sharp enough to slice in one motion, was what got her out of her trance. She started trashing in earnest, screaming, anything she could do to stop it, stop it all, to make them disappear. Kara cursed, the grips hardened. Sakura kept trying to get away, seized by panic, unable to “stay still” like they were asking her too. Kara’s grip on her hair didn’t relent though. She cut again, again, again.

Then, two things happen at the very same time.

Someone screamed “what the hell are you doing you psycho?”. And Sakura, tugging hard enough to feel hair get ripped out of her skull, sent her head straight toward the kunai still in Kara’s hand.

The next few moments were a blur, because she was in shock, and because there was blood running down her face and into her eyes, making the world a literal blur. Until finally, the fighting stopped and silence returned to the scene as her tormentors ran off in the distance promising retribution.

“You know where to find me,” the boy who had come to her aid said. Because yeah, it was a boy, and even a boy she knew.

“N-Naruto? Is that you?”

“You need medical care. Come on.”

He pulled her to her feet, an arm hooked around her elbow, both to stir her and to support her. Her legs were wobbly and for a moment she wasn’t confident she would be able to walk, but he pulled mercilessly and she stumbled behind him without much of a choice.

“It’s doesn’t seem too bad, it just bleeds a lot. But you’ll have a scar.”

A scar. She brought a hand to her head. Her cheek was bleeding and starting to hurt badly. Most of her hair was gone.

The tears came only then.

“Come on,” Naruto repeated, uncomfortable. She bawled her eyes out all the way to Konoha’s hospital, the salt of her tears stinging as they ran into the cut. Sakura could taste blood – she realized with mild horror that the blade had pierced the flesh all the way through her mouth. An adult addressed them at some point. The words parted the fog clouding her head a little.

“Oh my, what happened? Naruto, what did you do?”

Sakura blinked around the tears and blood crowding her eyes. She recognized the man as one of their teachers.

“She needs help,” was all Naruto said, before letting go of her arm. She almost reached out. She didn’t want him to go.

“Stay here Naruto! You have explanations to give!”

“It… it wasn’t him,” she said, finally founding her voice. “He helped me. It was…”

She might as well have been talking to a wall. Naruto didn’t listen and ran away. The chunin sighed, cursing after him, before he seemed to remember Sakura’s presence and stirred her toward the hospital.

She felt numb, completely out of it. The man talked to a nurse but she didn’t get a word of what they were saying. She heard Naruto’s name – she wanted to tell them again, wanted to say it was Kara and her crew and that Naruto had saved her, but her throat was hoarse and they didn’t seem interested in what she had to say. The nurse stitched the cut on her cheek with uncaring moves. She patched kids up all the time, teens and adults too, who hurt themselves in training, cut flesh and broke bones in mock fights.

It was all routine to her.

“For your ear I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do. Sorry, Sakura.”

The nurse tapped gauze to her face and told her her parents were on the way, before leaving her alone in the consultation room.

She couldn’t have said how much time passed, how long she stayed in that room with her thoughts and the pain radiating from the left side of her face. Eventually, her mother burst through the door with panic on her face and the beginning of tears in her eyes, her father following more stoically but no less worried. They wrapped her in a hug, murmuring reassurance. Sakura heard none of it.

.

She hated the pain. She hated it. She hated that there was nothing to do against it, that it was impossible to fight, that the painkillers killed nothing at all. Her skin itched and tugged and burnt, and she could do nothing but stay still and bear it.

She was excused from school for a whole week, which only added hurt to injury in her eyes. She could picture how the other kids were talking, gossiping, speculating. What they would say once she returned.

Her mother had cut the rest of her hair – better to get rid of it all that to leave the pitiful strands she had left. Her mother told her they would grow back in no time.

Sakura wasn’t sure she would let it.

The day before she was due back to school, she went back to the hospital to have the wound checked and stitches removed. She had avoided mirrors when her mother was changing the dressing. She didn’t want to see.

“The scar will resorb in time,” the nurse assured. She was talking to her mother, not to her, probably because of the look on her face as she stared at Sakura. She wasn’t making eye contact – she was looking at the side of her face.

A voice in Sakura’s head told her she better get used to it.

She went straight to her room when they got back home, refusing to talk to her parents. She heard her mother’s worried voice, her father’s angry tone. “Can’t they do anything?” She closed the door firmly.

She sat down in the middle of the room, facing her full-length mirror but looking at the side, trying to find the strength somewhere to look, to face herself. She had never felt so alone as she did at that moment. She had no friend to turn to, no one to tell her it would be all right, it wasn’t so bad, it didn’t matter. The little hole in her chest she associated with the place Ino used to fill ached more than it usually did. She missed her friend all the time, but never as much as she did now. She doubted the teachers had told the class about her ordeal, Ino had no idea what had happened, except if Naruto had gossiped.

She was sure he hadn’t. Naruto didn’t talk to anyone and no one talked to him. He was a savage, barely civilized, snarling and snapping like a wild animal at everyone approaching him, doing his damn best to never be close to anyone.

He had still come to her aid. He didn’t have to do that, there was no reason to put himself on the line like that. They had never interacted properly except when she mocked him with the others, a common practice everybody indulged into in their class.

She promised herself she would never do that again.

She still didn’t look in the mirror.

She didn’t understand why it had happened. What had she done, to deserve this, what was so wrong with her that others would wish her harm so badly. What had possibly gone through those girls' heads to go through with it. This wasn’t pushing someone into a puddle or stomping their snack. This was…

Sakura made eye contact with her reflection.

With long hair, it would have been barely noticeable probably, especially face front. But she didn’t have long hair. She had no hair at all – her pink strand where now barely five centimeters long, so short that they didn’t even fall back and were sticking awkwardly at all angles. Leaving her face completely exposed – her massive forehead, her&washed out eyes, and a swollen red line starting close to the corner of her mouth and climbing her face up to her ear. The shell of which was cut in the middle, a little triangle of light shining through where flesh should have been.

She had never been beautiful, but now, she was ugly for sure.

There was nothing to do to hide it, except start wearing a mask or a high collar like Shino. It almost felt worth the change of wardrobe – how could she go to school like this, how could she face the others? She was disfigured. And it wasn’t even a glorious scar, something she would have gotten in battle, something that proved her strength, the fit she had accomplished.

No, it only served as a reminder that she was too weak to protect herself.

“Are you alright, Sakura?” her mother asked from the other side of the door. Sakura closed her eyes tight to escape her reflection and to keep the tears in. She was sick of crying – it gave her a headache, it was exhausting and gross. It didn’t help in any way.

And it hurt, when salty water ran down her tender scar. This was her life now.

“Yes, I’m fine.”

Her mother didn’t call her up on the lie.

.

She had to look straight ahead. Not let her eyes wander. She couldn’t keep her eyes on the ground and risk bumping into something or someone, even if she really wanted to. She used to keep her eyes on the ground, and let her hair fall in front of her face and hide her from the world.

It would be useless now. The longest strand of hair she had left barely reached her eyebrows, the rest brushed the top of her forehead. There was no hiding.

She could feel the other students’ eyes on her like a physical weight, their whispers following her around, wrapping around her head like snakes. She kept walking toward the classroom, posture rigid and gaze unwavering, determined not to make eye contact with anyone.

She usually arrived earlier than this, but she had hoped coming in as late as possible would cut the amount of time people would talk among themselves or worse, walk up to her. But it also meant the classroom was almost full when she reached it.

Silence fell on her gathered classmates who stared at her openly, not bothering to be discreet in any way. She did all she could not to look at any of them, but when she tried to make it to her usual seat, she caught, out of the corner of her eyes, the girl that was sitting right behind her in class.

Kara.

Sakura didn’t think. She took an abrupt turn and sat down at the closest seat available, several rows away from the girl. She looked up subtly, to see who she had sat next to.

It was Naruto.

For a breathless moment she was terrified he was going to tell her off. He had been known to scare other kids away when he wasn’t in the mood to have anyone in his close proximity – it wasn’t rare that their classmates bumped elbows four at one table instead of three, because he was alone at his own.

They stared at each other for an eternity of a few seconds. His eyes traveled deliberately to the side of her face before going back to hers, a slight frown breaking the bored indifference of his expression. She couldn’t begin to imagine what he was thinking, what he was looking for. Eventually, he turned away without a word, settling his head on his crossed arms, ready to take a nap. Sakura let out a relieved breath.

She should have moved as soon as she could. The next period, or after the morning break, of for lunch. But she was terrified beyond measures of coming face to face with Kara and her goons, so she stayed right where she was.

Because, and it became clear immediately, they surely weren’t to approach her. Not as long as she stayed there. They weren’t going to approach him.

She wanted to thank him. For stepping in, for helping her. But it was hard to talk to him. He so rarely seemed to want it. Lunch break was coming to an end and she was building up the courage to open her mouth, but just when she was finally resolute, Mizuki-sensei entered the room.

“Naruto. Come with me.”

He looked friendly enough, he always did. Sakura couldn’t buy it though. The man creeped her out despite how nice she was, she couldn’t bring herself to trust him. She couldn’t believe he wished any of them any good.

The kids whispered as Naruto sighed and got up to follow the teacher out of the room, while Daikoku-sensei entered for their theory lesson.

Sakura just had the time to catch a glimpse of her parents on the other side of the door.

She jumped to her feet, only to realize that the class was starting. The teacher cast her a puzzled look.

“Sakura, is there a problem?”

She almost gave up then. She almost sat back down and let it go. She could just ignore the empty seat at her side, forget about it, wash her hands off of Naruto's fate like everyone else did. But she couldn’t. She didn’t know why. She just couldn't.

“I need to go.”

“Do you feel bad?”

“I need to go.”

She bolted out of the classroom.

On a guess, she headed straight to the teacher’s lounge, and walked in on Mizuki screaming his lungs out at Naruto, while her parents watched from the side in uncomfortable silence.

It occurred to her, as she barged into the room and started yelling to leave him alone, that it wasn’t his fault, that it was the first time in her whole life she was standing up to an adult. Or to anyone really.

Naruto looked unconcerned by Mizuki’s temper, but the look on his face when he spotted her and understood what she was doing here was one of pure astonishment, and probably the most expressive thing she had ever seen on his face. Her parents tried to step in. She didn’t listen.

“There’s no need to cover for him, Sakura.”

“I’m not! I told you, it wasn’t him! It was Kara!”

“Now, now, that’s a bold accusation to make, Sakura…”

She was tensed all over, tears of frustration building up behind her eyes.

“What won’t you listen to me?” she screamed. She was at a complete loss as to what was happening here. She had seen who it was, it had happened to her. How could there possibly be any doubt? Why wouldn’t they believe her?

"Sakura, come on. Calm down. It's okay," her mother said, trying to be soothing. It only raised Sakura's hackles up. How could she say that? How could she stand idle and do nothing?

“It’s not!”

“Sakura.”

She turned a surprised look toward Naruto. She didn’t expect him to say anything at all. His voice was firm, commanding. He looked angry, like he always did, but she didn’t feel it was directed at her, when his eyes bore into hers.

“Kara won’t be punished.”

She was vaguely aware that Mizuki answered something to that, something about Naruto not having to spew lies or to try to confuse her. She didn’t listen. His eyes were fixed on her and she didn’t look away. He was trying to tell her something, to make her understand.

She did.

Kara was an Uchiha. From a minor branch, but an Uchiha nonetheless, she never failed to remind it at every turn, to everyone. Same went for her friends, who were from various prestigious clans too. Not heirs or major branches, but still ranking higher than Sakura and her family by a wild margin. And than Naruto by even more.

Naruto just shrugged, as she was losing her mind. Was that it? Was that how it was going to be? Naruto was always blamed for everything, she knew, but this wasn’t a stupid prank, this wasn’t spilled ink or stolen goods. This was her face, changed forever, an attack five on one outside of school for no reason, this was serious.

Wasn’t it?

Naruto just shrugged, and she understood it wasn’t.

Her mother stirred her away as Mizuki resumed yelling. Sakura followed numbly, eyes fixed on the boy the entire time. He remained stoic, almost unconcerned, but his shoulders were tensed and his fists tightly closed.

And the look on his face. The hatred, the rage.

Her parents shut the door on the boy getting unjustly punished for their daughter getting knifed by someone else.

“It wasn’t him,” Sakura said again, despaired. “Why are you doing this? It wasn’t him.”

“Sakura… It’s okay. Forget about it.”

“Forget?”

Sakura felt like she was seeing her mother for the first time. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing, what was happening.

“They won’t be punished. They did this to me, and nothing will happen to them. Naruto saved me, and he’ll take the blame. And I should just…”

She choked on it, unable to say it. Her mother shook her head but didn’t say a thing. Her father didn’t either.

Sakura didn’t know people could be so cruel. She didn’t know they could be such cowards either.

Sakura had just learned a very bitter lesson.

.

The next day, it’s with determination that she walked into class and sat down next to Naruto. He raised an eyebrow but said nothing, just looked at her, waiting.

“I didn’t get to thank you,” she said with a small voice, both because she didn’t want the others to hear and because he was terribly intimidating. “For saving me. And I’m sorry, I’m so sorry it went that way. If I’d just…”

“Forget about it. That’s just how things are. It’s doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does!”

All eyes turned on them, surprised at the outburst. She hunched her shoulders, feeling blood rushing to her face.

“Yes, it does,” she repeated quietly. He studied her with an unreadable expression before shrugging.

“Whatever.”

She didn’t understand how he could stay so calm, so unbothered. But then again, maybe he wasn’t. That fury she had seen on his face the previous day, maybe it was just buried deep because there was nothing he could do about it. They were powerless in this world. There was nothing they could do.

“How can I repay you?”

He frowned at her, wary. She wondered if there was anyone in his life he trusted, anyone he could let his guard down around. She had never given much thoughts about him before but now it’s all she could think about. Had he had a parent to look after him, to at least soften the blow, to seek justice for him… But he was alone. No one cared about him, no one would fight for him.

And still, still, he had fought for her.

“I don’t need nothing from you,” he said, and there was a threat in his voice, a warning.

“There as to be something. Anything.”

Maybe that wasn’t a very clever thing to offer to the crazy guy who scared half the class, she thought distantly.

“Drop it Sakura.”

He had growled, and she found it wiser to let it go for now, but she would find a way to thank him, whatever it was and whether he disagreed or not.

Something quite fascinating happened then. His expression softened, lost some of its edges, and for the first time he looked like a regular boy, like just another kid. He scratched at the marks on his cheek. He was… embarrassed.

“You don’t need to repay me. It was enough, what you did yesterday. It was… I could be the one to thank you. For that.”

For a second she didn’t see what he was talking about, but then it hit her.

She had stood up to the adults, for him. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, it should have been completely mundane, for her to tell the truth and defend him because he had done nothing wrong. But it wasn’t.

No one had ever defended him before. No one had ever stepped him to lay blame where it should be laid. They were all too happy to have a designated scapegoat that meant they could get away with anything, and those who disagreed stayed silent anyway.

“It… It was nothing,” she said lamely.

“It wasn’t.”

She didn’t argue. His gaze was still as intense, scrutinizing.

“Besides…” He lifted a hand and gently poked at her cheek, a hair away from her scar. His thumb came to rest at the curve of her jaw, and he tipped her head lightly to have a better look. His touch lingered, and she saw pain on his face that wasn’t his own, but hers, that he reflected like he was feeling it just as deeply.

“I could have gotten there sooner.”

She felt like crying. She fought it hard – she couldn’t cry in class.

“You could have gotten there later too. Or not at all. I’m grateful.”

And she was. Things had happened the way they had. They would never know what could have gone differently. She tried to focus on what amount of luck she had had into this, not to have lost an eye, not to be have been left abandoned in the street when the deed was done, to be found hours later by a passerby or to have to make her way back on her own, scared and ashamed.

He took his hand back, no longer looking at her. She made to stand up, to go back to her usual seat, even if the thought made it hard to swallow around the lump in her throat. But she would have to eventually. She would have to face them. To stand up alone.

Were they even sorry about what they had done? Kara, Sasaki and the others, did they regret it in any way? She had no idea. Why would they though? They would suffer no consequences, no one would know, or care. What would prevent them from doing it again?

Next time, she wouldn’t be so helpless, she vowed. Next time…

“You can stay here. If you want to.”

She froze. She was almost out of her seat already, awkwardly half standing, but the proposition caught her so off guard she couldn’t move. His cheek was resting in his palm, his eyes half-lidded, the picture of boredom and detachment, but it was there, the red on his cheek, the slight hesitation.

It was stupid of her to realize it now, but Naruto was, after all, just another kid.

“Okay.”

She sat back down. The teacher entered.

Things were like that, from then on.

.

“You know what? There is something you can do for me.”

“Really? What?”

“Teach me chakra control.”

Chapter Text

It was just… so very hard. To fight this.

Rationally, there were plenty of reasons why he should have been. Fighting this. Naruto hadn’t spent the first ten years of his life completely on his own to start relying on other people now. It was dangerous, precarious. They could pull the rug from under his feet at any time. They (or their parents, families, teachers, mentors, Hokage) could decide one day that enough was enough, that hanging around Naruto was just no good, and not talk to him or approach him ever again.

It had happened before.

He hated himself a little for not fighting it anyway.

He’d fallen for it so many times. When he was younger he’d done countless pointless actions and challenges, agreed to the dumbest errands and the worst pranks, with the hope that it would finally get him accepted by someone. He’d swore to himself many times that he would stop falling for it, but the appeal was too strong.

Until that one time when trying to retrieve a trophy of battle in the forest had nearly gotten him killed by enemy shinobi, and the boys who had sent him to his death had laughed it out while some chunin told him off for being so reckless.

Naruto had stopped after that. Stopped trying to make friends, stopped trying to get any positive attention. He’d decided that he would just get strong and fight anyone who tried to hurt him. It had worked out well.

With Sasuke and Sakura it was more insidious. He needed someone to help him train, he wasn’t getting a mentor anytime soon so his dumb classmates had to do.

The problem was they were so damn nice about it.

He thought Sakura would quit upon realizing that his problem with ninjutsu ran far deeper than just some lack of practice, but it was the opposite. She was now passionate about figuring out what the hell was wrong with his chakra control. He could tell she needed something to focus on, other than herself. He was too desperate for her to actually find out why he couldn’t perform the most basic technics to call her out on it.

As for Sasuke… Naruto couldn’t believe it at first, but Sasuke was… was trying to become his friend.

Not at the Academy of course. Sakura was still the only one who approached him, and they didn’t even share a word or even a look. He didn’t mind acting as a protective shield to her – it made it easier to deal with it actually, assuming that she stayed by his side because she needed something out of him, and not because… something else.

So at the Academy Sasuke was as aloof as ever to the both of them. Naruto wasn’t sure he cared all that much about school hierarchy and social convenience. It’s more that Sasuke’s social interaction quota was very low. Hanging out with people without a specific purpose was too much for him.

Also, Sakura didn’t want to be seen anywhere near him so. There was that.

What was Naruto supposed to make of the fact that Sasuke kept inviting him to get a snack after their training then? That he bought sweets and drinks for the both of them – the three of them now, often enough – without question, without ever commenting on the fact that he had to because the shop owners refused to serve Naruto? Sasuke was a boy of very few words, maybe even fewer words than Naruto, but his actions meant a lot.

Meant too much.

Naruto should have been fighting this. But it was so hard.

Because it was so freaking nice.

Even if it was only for a few hours between the end of class and dinnertime, even if it was in a remote location with no one around because they had to sort of keep it a secret, even if no one else knew, even if they ignored each other the rest of the time… For those few hours, Naruto wasn’t on his own. He wasn’t getting insulted or mocked, he didn’t have to keep all his hackles up. He knew it was bad, that he couldn’t get used to it, that it was dangerous for him, but he was helpless to fight it.

He just wanted to enjoy it. Just for a little while. While it lasted. They would get tired of him eventually. They would make other friends, who were nicer and who they could actually invite to their home, could be seen with without getting dirty looks and unsubtle warnings.

A few days ago, Ino had entered the classroom and walked up to Kara. She had grabbed the girl’s bag and tapped an explosive tag to it before hurling the thing out the window. The scandalized scream of Kara had been covered the sound by the tag exploding, shredding her possessions to pieces. She’d made to take it out on Ino, but Ino was easily the scariest girl of their whole year. She’d look Kara dead in the eye – “careful”, she’d said, “I know what you did”. And then she had pointedly sat next to Sakura on their desk, glaring Kara and her friends to death the whole time, who hadn’t dare do or say anything.

Sakura looked less depressed and gloomy since then. It was good thing. The two girls still weren’t talking, but it was only a question of time. Everyday Naruto expected them to have move out of his table and rejoined the regular world. It hadn’t happened yet, but it would soon, once the ongoing war between the various groups died down and they remembered that they could always unite in their common dismissal of Naruto.

They didn’t need him. And he didn’t need them either. He didn’t need anyone.

.

At first, Sasuke didn’t like Sakura.

She wasn’t annoying or mean or anything, but she was… always there. He honestly thought she would drop out after three sessions, but he had underestimated her endurance and determination. She came, days after days, weeks after weeks, to get her ass handed to her for hours on end. Sometimes she broke down and got angry, started to yell or cry, but Naruto remained unfazed. He waited in silence until she calmed down, and she was ready to go again when she did.

She was even starting not to suck so hard.

So she was always there, and he couldn’t explain to himself what was so bad about it. It gave him someone to talk to that wouldn’t rudely ignore him, and that wouldn’t try to break his bones with every hit when they spared.

Puzzled, he had taken the issue to his mother.

Turned out he was jealous.

It was embarrassing, but she had a point. Sasuke liked the idea of being Naruto’s only friend, of being the only one with the privilege to approach him without getting his head bit off. He recognized though, that it was selfish and not very nice. His mother encouraged him to see it from the other boy’s perspective – he now had two friends, where he had zero a few months ago.

So how much as it annoyed him that Naruto’s attention was now split in two, Sasuke admitted that it wasn’t so bad.

It didn’t help though that Naruto knew about what had happened to Sakura, and he didn’t. He had gathered that the blond was even involved in some (good?) way, but Sakura remained stubbornly tight-lipped about it, and Naruto, it wasn’t even worth asking him anything. Whatever had happened, it had created a closeness between them that Sasuke felt excluded from.

But he wasn’t a kid anymore. He wasn’t about to get petty or upset by something so stupid. They could have their secrets if they wanted. He was happy Naruto had someone else who was nice to him, he was.

Even if they got to spend time with each other at school, while Sasuke was still kept at a distance. Surprisingly, it was Sakura who seemed the most wary of being seen in Sasuke’s vicinity, even if she hadn’t said it in so many words. Sasuke didn’t like to think about why that was. He was aware of that strange competition for his attention and feelings that went on between some of the girls of their class. It made him beyond uncomfortable but it’s not like he could do anything about it.

Sakura was among those who had a crush on him, or so he thought. It surely didn’t look like it now. She had been different, since her "accident". 

He would really need to find out about what that was someday.

Since he had decided not to make an enemy out of her, she had become a little more open during their little training sessions. They had bonded over one thing in particular – the quest for finding a way to teach basic jutsu to Naruto.

They trained in all fields now that it was the three of them, and they couldn’t explain why Naruto had such a hard time with it. He knew the drill, wasn’t too bad at molding chakra, but his jutsu always failed mid-process for some reasons. It drove Sakura crazy and she had robbed Sasuke into fixing this. She knew more than him about the theory – way more, it was absurd how much – but he was the only one who had actual shinobi experience around him. He had been tasked with the mission to hook someone he knew over the problem.

The thing was, he wasn’t sure who would be willing to help. His father was still sulking about Sasuke befriending Naruto, and he wouldn’t add fuel to the fire by asking his mother to get involved. As for Itachi… Sasuke wasn’t sure if he could handle Itachi helping Naruto train when he still refused to give Sasuke a hand.

Maybe he could ask Shisui? He wasn’t sure his cousin was so fond of Naruto though… the blond had a certain talent for getting under people’s skin. Now that he thought about it, Shisui did too. He wasn’t sure it was a common point that would make them friends though.

He was there in his reflection when he got back home from the Academy – no training today, Naruto needed to go grocery shopping since he had just received his monthly allowance. Another thing that Sasuke didn’t think about, because of how unreasonably angry it made him. Especially seeing that he wanted nothing more than to invite Naruto to his house, so that he would get to eat something else than instant meals, but his parents had forbidden it.

Well, not exactly.

“We can’t,” his mother had said. Like they had no say on the matter. Like it was out of their control.

What even.

He was distracted from working himself up by the echo of light laughter ringing through the house. It was weird in itself – the ambiance at home was still pretty chilly weeks after his parents’ argument over his friendship with Naruto. Sasuke was aware the issue ran much deeper than him hanging out with a youth offender to be, and he had promised himself to investigate it in time.

He followed the sound to the kitchen, where he had the pleasant surprise of finding his mother, Itachi, and most importantly…

“Izumi!”

“Hey, Sasuke! I was getting desperate of seeing your cute little face. It’s been a while!”

She got up to smother him in a hug despite his protest, laughing heartily at his weak escape attempts.

“It’s true we haven’t seen much of you lately…” he said, taking a seat around the table. His mother put a fresh cup of tea in front of him with a smile. She seemed happy, and Sasuke couldn’t only be grateful for Izumi’s presence.

“I know, I know, I’ve been busy since I made chunin! I go on a lot of missions with Anko.”

“Ah, yeah, I heard,” his mother said. “She’s treating you alright?”

“Well, she’s ruthless, that’s for sure. But she’s so cool! And strong. And she likes to have all-girl teams for her infiltration missions, it’s pretty nice. She’s requested me personally a couple of times!”

Izumi beamed with pride. She could – she had only been a chunin for a few months, and she had already caught the eyes of a jounin.

“An all-girl team… That must be nice.”

“Mom!”

“What? I’m surrounded by boys all day here, it sounds like a dream!”

Izumi laughed as Sasuke pouted. His mother smiled warmly and ruffled his hair even as he tried to dodge.

“I’m happy for you, Izumi,” she said after she was done ruining his hair. “And proud. I’m sure your father would be too.”

The girl ducked her head, a light blush reddening her cheeks.

“Thank you, Mikoto.”

She seemed sad for a second, lost in painful memories, but she recovered quickly to focus on Sasuke.

“What about you, little brat? How is it going at the Academy?”

“I’m not a brat!”

“Oh, you sure are!”

He grumbled that she was always making fun of him, but he told her about his study nonetheless. He liked her a lot and he had missed her for real – compared to all their other relatives, she was the most open and friendly. She was very warm, much more than the other Uchiha, even more than his mother. When she asked about him, she always seemed interested for real, she asked for details and made helpful comments. She was one of the only people in the world that didn’t make him feel like he was Itachi’s brother, despite them being friends first.

“Ah, yes, I’ve heard about that Naruto. A little troublemaker, right?”

“He’s not that bad!” Sasuke exclaimed. Her eyes widened in surprise and he looked away, embarrassed by the outburst.

“I didn’t mean it in a bad way. Sorry,” she said easily. That was another thing he liked about her – she was patient and caring, and she rarely got angry. She had an understanding of people he couldn’t hope to get and had rarely seen in others too.

“I’m… Sorry too. It’s just… people say a lot of mean things about him, but they're wrong. He’s not that bad. He’s just… lonely.”

It all came down to this in the end. It wasn’t that hard to get. Naruto didn’t know what to do with people. He was even worse at it than Sasuke, than Itachi even. He was always wary, always assuming the worst of the ones who approached him. Sadly, they often proved him right.

“Are you two friends then?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’d like to be but…”

“He doesn’t want to?”

“That’s not it. Maybe he does. But he’s…”

“He’s scared.”

He looked at his mother, before nodding. Yeah, that made sense. Every time he enjoyed himself a little, every time he relaxed a bit with Sasuke and Sakura, he always tensed up after a moment, worried like they were going to suddenly lash out.

“Say, Sakura… do you think Naruto is our friend?” he had asked the girl a few days before, as they watched him storm off right after congratulating her for a good hit.

“I think he’s our friend,” she’d said, “but we’re not his.” Her parents refused that she invited the boy to their house too. When she had announced it to them, confused and apologetic, he had shrugged, careless, with a “told ya” that had given Sasuke the urge to punch a tree.

"He doesn't want friends," Sasuke confirmed. "He says it all the time. But at the same time…"

Naruto got that look on his face sometimes when they were together. A little awed, a little disbelieving. Once Sasuke had taken his face into his hands to check for injuries because he’d hit him hard with his feet, and Naruto had looked… So lost. He’d frozen completely under his touch and Sasuke had seen fear in his eyes, for just a second. Fear of his hands, so close to his face, of that sudden proximity. Sasuke had honestly thought he was going to cry.

He’d discovered quickly that friendly touches always had the same effect. The same element of surprise, of novelty.

It sucked. It sucked massively.

“If he’s always been on his own, it’s normal that he tries to keep you at bay,” Izumi said. “Keep trying, okay? Don’t give up on him.”

She cast a furtive look at Itachi, who was following the conversation in silence. Sasuke nodded seriously.

“I won’t.”

She gave him a warm smile he couldn’t help but respond to. She always made him feel better about things in general.

“Oh! Say, Izumi, do you think you could help us some times?”

“With what?”

“Naruto’s having trouble with ninjutsu and we can’t figure out why. Maybe you could give us a hand? You’re good at ninjutsu. And you have the Sharingan. Maybe you’ll see something.”

Izumi exchanged a loaded gaze with his mother, and for a second he was convinced she was going to refuse for whatever flimsy reason she would come up with. But after a silent conversation conveyed through looks only, she nodded.

“Why not, if he’s on board. I shouldn’t be going on missions for a while so…”

“Really? Thank you!”

Sasuke saw Itachi tense up by his side, but he ignored him. It was his fault, if they didn’t hang out together anymore. Sasuke didn’t have to feel bad about it, or about asking someone else’s help.

“I’d better go now,” Izumi said after gulping the rest of her tea.

“Don’t you want to stay for dinner?”

“Thank you Mikoto, but my mother will surely cry if I try to dine out for the next three weeks, at least.”

“She just misses you,” his mother said, indulgent. “Another time? Both of you are welcome here.”

Izumi’s smile dimmed a little as she nodded. Sasuke knew that it wasn’t exactly true – Izumi’s mother had left the Uchiha clan to marry an outsider, and even if they both bore the Uchiha name and lived in the Uchiha district since the man’s death, they still endured a form of rejection from the rest of the clan, who had not forgiven the offense.

Sasuke thought it was super stupid.

“Sasuke, go wash up. Dinner will be ready soon.”

“Yeah, yeah. Bye Izumi! I’ll see you soon, right?”

“You bet, little brat! We’ll found a moment, promise. Goodbye!”

.

“Izumi, wait!”

She stopped on her track in the middle of the road and Itachi loosened a bit. He didn’t know why he had been afraid she would ignore him. Maybe because she kind of had, the whole time she was at their home, they had barely talked.

“What’s up, Itachi?”

“I was just… wondering how you were. It’s been a while,” he said lamely. He was only now realizing that she usually was the one to carry the conversation between them. He didn’t have to scramble for words like this.

“I know, I know, I’m sorry. I really was busy. I wanted to make a good impression so I took up a lot of missions. I train a lot with some of the girls too.”

Izumi was far more sociable than the rest of the clan, she had friends outside of the Uchiha, and trained with others too. Itachi knew part of it was due to the clan’s dismissal of her family, but she never seemed to hold a grudge over it. She had simply found support elsewhere.

The silence stretched between them, awkward and uncomfortable. Itachi felt off balance, unhinged. Izumi was supposed to be one of the very few people he could actually interact with, but it was all going wrong tonight.

“Are you… mad at me?” he tried, at a loss.

“Not… especially. I just… I figured out a lot of things, since I became a chunin,” she said.

“Can I… Can you tell me?” he tried, when she didn’t look like she was going to elaborate. She pursed her lips, gathering her thoughts.

“You remember that time we visited Shinko at the tea shop? She said she quit being a ninja because it was no use, seeing how strong you already were despite being younger.”

He grimaced but nodded. He had hoped it wasn’t about that. He had suggested she followed the same example then, so that she would stay safe. She didn’t need to be a ninja, to risk her life. She had been so mad at him, and he knew things had changed between them ever since.

After that he had been caught up in the nightmare with Danzo, and they had never really mended that bridge.

“Well, she was wrong. And I couldn’t articulate it back then, but I can now. So…”

She inhaled deeply, like she was about to give a speech she had rehearsed a million time.

“Being a chunin, going on real missions, I realized that I simply didn’t need to be as strong as you. Not now, and not ever. It’s… it’s no use. I’m not the strongest, I’m not the weakest either. But I still get it done. I still complete my mission. We were sent to rescue the daughter of the chief of a tiny, poor village deep in fire country. She was six years old. They scraped up all the money they could to offer our services, so that we would take her back from the bandits that had kidnapped her, because the village could no longer pay some stupid taxes they had made up… So we went, and we saved her. We beat up those guys, made it clear that the village was under our protection and that they’d better not return. And Anko… she said we had taken too long, that the mission should have been wrapped up much sooner, so she cut the price by half. The guy at the Mission Assignment Desk was livid, but what could he do?”

She was animated and smiling as she told her story, like he hadn’t seen her in a long time.

“They were so happy, those people. They thanked us again and again, it was almost embarrassing. And that’s… that’s why I became a shinobi. That’s why I train. So I don’t have super jutsu and I didn’t graduate first of my class but… But it really doesn’t matter. I was still able to protect my teammates, to carry our mission and save that girl. And I know that it won’t always be like that. We have much less glorious jobs, and sometimes we don’t get there in time. But… But I’m happy with that. This is what I want to do, where I want to be. And since you can’t understand that…”

“I can.”

She cast him a dubious look, where he could still see the hurt he had caused her, that day at the teashop, by suggesting she gave up on her dream, since she was never going to be that good.

She was right though. Itachi was strong, a prodigy, the strongest of his generation… and he had still been powerless, faced with his clan’s rebellious tendencies, faced with forces and influences he couldn’t handle, faced with Danzo’s implacable power. It had been no use at all.

Izumi would have fared better than him. She would have been able to sway the others, or to alert someone, to do something.

“You’re right. Being the best, it’s… It’s useless.”

She frowned.

“Did something happen, Itachi?”

She didn’t know. No one did. Only Shisui, his parents, and some of the higher-ups, the Hokage and the other clan leaders. But the others didn’t know. They didn’t know how close they had come to a complete disaster, to a terrible end.

They didn’t know that Itachi was a traitor and a monster.

He said nothing. And still she took a step forward, still she wrapped her arms around his shoulders to pull him into a hug, like she understood anyway. He stayed still, arms hanging limply, barely able to move his head so that he could rest his forehead on her shoulder.

“It’s true I was pretty mad at you,” she whispered in his ear, “but we are still friends, Itachi. I care about you. I’m not giving up on you.”

Just like she had told Sasuke. Itachi knew he was hard to deal with, hard to befriend, hard to love. He would have understood, if she did give up on him, it would have been fair. But he desperately, selfishly didn’t want her to.

“I’m sorry,” he said, hoping she would believe him, hoping she could tell he was sincere, and not just saying what he supposed the other wanted to hear, like he often did. It was easier than to try and understand people. But he had to be better, if he didn’t want her to turn her back on him.

“It’s okay, silly. Just remember… It’s a pretty freeing thought, you know. To realize that you don’t have to be the absolute best. You don’t have to win it all, you don’t have to… carry it all yourself. You’re not alone, Itachi. Ours isn’t a lonely life. We have friends and teammates, people who have our back. If there is something you can’t do, or don’t want to… You can rely on others. You’re… You can be free.”

Could he, really? When he was only realizing now how much he wasn’t? He had never felt like he was acting in spite of himself, like he was being forced to do things. It’s not that he didn’t want to be in Anbu, to train so hard. The thing was, he had no idea what he did, or did not want. He had always just… gone with the flow.

“You’re not in Anbu anymore, right?" she asked, releasing him so that they could face each other. He nodded. Another decision that had been out of his control, even if that one, he could say for sure he agreed with. It was just too ambiguous, after having played the double spy for months. And… well, Itachi was indeed skilled enough to be in Anbu. But for the first time he had questioned whether or not that meant he had to be.

For now he was in a bit of a standby situation. Shisui and him, there weren't many people left who trusted them. They didn’t really trust themselves either.

The break wasn’t so bad.

“You should think about what you want to do, Itachi. What you really want, you.”

She knew he had no idea. He had hinted at it before, but it was shameful to admit. It should have been obvious, right? Everyone else seemed to know what they wanted out of life, where they were going. Everyone else seemed to know what he was supposed to want too.

“Whatever it is, you’ll always have my support.”

It was nice to hear, because whatever it was, Itachi had the very strong feeling that it wouldn’t please a lot of people. His father first and foremost.

“Thank you, Izumi. And… and congratulations, for your promotion. I don’t think I ever got to tell you.”

She beamed and hit him playfully on the shoulder, blushing lightly.

“Thank you, you dork.”

Itachi smiled. It felt good.

.

“Who’s that?” Naruto spat out, when Sasuke arrived at the training field with an unknown girl in tow. Another Uchiha, he bet, despite the brown hair, if only because Sasuke only hung out with his clan.

The boy glared at him.

“Hi, I’m Uchiha Izumi. I’m a friend of Sasuke, and he asked for my help with ninjutsu training. It’s nice to meet you.”

Thrown off balance, Naruto forgot to scold or snarl at her. She had a friendly smile and a casual, open demeanor, that didn’t look faked at all – or she was really, really good.

“You sure you’re an Uchiha, with a smile like that?” he asked, not with as much heat as he wanted. Sasuke glared harder. She only laughed.

“I’m half Uchiha, so I was spared the gloom. You must be Naruto! I heard you weren’t shy with words.”

“I bet that’s not all you heard,” he snapped, annoyed by her good mood and good humor.

“True. I also heard you were useless at ninjutsu, but that Sakura right here was pretty good. It’s Sakura, right?”

Naruto sputtered, indignant, but Izumi ignored him to smile at Sakura, who reddened under the praise.

“Sasuke! Why did you bring her here you sucker?”

“You’re the one who sucks! We need help, deal with it!”

“Sasuke!” Izumi called him out, both hand on her hips. “I told you you had to ask him about it first!”

Sasuke mumbled something unintelligible into his big collar, arms crossed in a defensive position. When he wanted, he could hide almost all his face in it, which was great to escape unwanted conversations. She hooked a finger into the fabric to bring it down, exposing him.

“Well?”

“He would’ve said no!”

“It was his right,” she sighed. “Well, sorry Naruto, that little brat doesn’t have any manners. Now that I’m here though, why don’t we try to figure out a better training program for you?”

Naruto was dumbstruck and at a loss as to how to react. Everything in her behavior screamed taming technics, trying to be cool and pretending she was on his side. The thing was, he couldn’t say for certain that it was a strategy. She was ruffling Sasuke’s hair harshly as a punishment under his half-hearted protestations – it was obvious he had great affection for her. Sakura was won over already.

Naruto was not on board with that thing of adding more people to his circle. Not at all. Two was too much already.

“Don’t worry, I won’t bother you long,” Izumi said, as if to answer his deepest worries. “I’m in between mission now, but I do have a life.”

“What life? Hanging out with Itachi? You’re better off here,” Sasuke grumbled.

“Don’t talk about your brother like that. He had it rough, and he is my friend.”

“Yeah, yeah…”

“I can still leave, Naruto. If you want.”

Right then, Naruto was convinced it was the truth. She would leave, if he asked. She wouldn’t even be mad about it. She was giving him the choice for real, not trying to guilt trip him or anything.

Unlike those two idiots, one making puppy, watery eyes, the other scowling angrily, daring him to send her away. They were the worst.

“Whatever,” he said with a dismissive wave. The girl let out a bright, easy laugh.

“Cool. Let’s get started then!”

It was humiliating enough to produce half-dead clone after botched transformation in front of Sasuke and Sakura, but under the scrutinizing gaze of a chunin from Sasuke’s family, it was ten times worse, and he actually managed to summon what had to be the worst clone of the history of the world. She didn’t laugh though, nor did she mock or sighed or shook her head. She observed carefully, with great concentration.

“Do it again?” she asked. He snarled at her, but complied.

This time the clone didn’t even reach physical form before blowing off in a puff of smoke. Naruto closed his fists tightly, face burning with shame. All of their classmates, and even younger kids, were able to produce at least one clone, that could stand on their own, even if on wobbly legs. Why couldn’t he do it? What was wrong with him?

“Do you mind if I use the Sharingan to watch you?" she asked. He shrugged, uncaring, but Sakura pitched in, bright-eyed.

“You can use the Sharingan?”

“She was the youngest person of the clan to ever activate it,” Sasuke answered, proud enough for two. The girl smiled, red dusting her cheeks as she confirmed.

“Even before super jounin?” Naruto asked.

“Is that how you call Itachi?” she laughed, amused. “Yes, before him too.”

Sasuke was nodding by her side, like her managing to one-up Itachi had something to do with him. He had probably been desperate to manage that same fit, but Naruto knew he couldn’t use his family’s dojutsu yet.

“Go ahead then, super chunin,” he said. She closed her eyes with an exasperated sigh that was also… kind of fond? Naruto couldn’t help but be curious.

Her eyelids opened on blood red irises, pierced with three dots triangulating her pupils, and Naruto howled.

In the next moment he was at the other side of the training field, heart beating rapidly, all his senses on high alert. Even then he could still see it though, the bleeding red fixated on him, and he wanted it gone. He wanted it to look away.

“Don’t look at me!” he screamed. He sounded more desperate than threatening but he was just… scared. He was scared beyond measure, and he had no idea why.

“Don’t look at me, don’t look at me!”

The red disappeared.

The three of them rushed toward him, Izumi staying at a safe distance as Sasuke pulled him to his feet. Naruto kept his eyes fixated on the ground, still shaking slightly.

He was battling an overwhelming desire to deck Izumi in the face.

It made no sense, but just thinking about the swirling spirals of those red eyes made him want to set everything on fire. It was a primal fear he couldn’t identify, couldn’t trace back to any rational source.

“We’ll keep the eyes out from now on, okay?” Izumi said, not unkindly, even if she looked worried. Naruto wanted to disappear. As if he wasn’t enough of a freak, what had possessed him to react like that?

“Are you alright?” Sakura asked, her big eyes even wider with concern, matching the expression of Sasuke’s face. Why couldn’t they just mock him like a normal person? Instead of… caring. For him.

He hated it.

So he did the only sensible thing to do. He shrugged off their hands from his shoulders, and he ran away.

Chapter Text

“How did training with Izumi go?”

Mikoto had wanted to wait for Sasuke to broach the subject on his own, but whatever had happened, it had made him broody and sullen. Which wasn’t that worrying in itself – it was his reaction to most things, including the smallest inconvenience or things that weren’t even bad.

She felt a bit guilty about how eager she was to hear from Naruto through him, but it was all she had to get close to the other boy. She had learned to live with the rage and grief that caused her, but lately she had been thinking that maybe she shouldn’t have.

She should have fought this more. She should have banged her hand on the table, demand the boy’s guardianship and not let go until she had it. But things were so tense at that moment and she had put her family and her clan first. By the time she had realized no one else was going to step in, that everyone had turned their back on Kushina and Minato’s son, it was too late.

“It was fine,” her boy mumbled, picking at his rice without eating. She never imagined he would become so moody growing up, but she knew it was vastly due to abrupt changes in their life that he had had to endure without understanding them. He was young to detach himself from them like this. She didn’t want to admit to herself how maybe that was a good thing.

“Really? Was she able to help?”

“Hm. She says Naruto’s probably too stored up with chakra to use it properly. Like, he has a lot of it, way more than any of us, so the Academy training doesn’t work for him.”

She hid a smile – she had been the one to put Izumi on that line of thoughts. The girl had asked for advice before going out to help them. Mikoto had told her that regarding Naruto’s lineage and the reputation of his clan, it was the most likely explanation. Kushina had struggled with it all the same, unable to perform very low-level jutsu because she didn't have control refined enough to use so little chakra.

Izumi had asked if that would be the explanation, and not “Naruto’s condition”, as she had put it.

It angered Mikoto so much. Izumi wasn’t supposed to know, but it was probably the worst kept secret of the whole village, which was saying something, because badly kept secrets, they had plenty. Mikoto had comforted herself with the knowledge that Naruto wouldn’t suffer the consequences of the Kyuubi sealed inside him, but she had been terribly mistaken. It was an open secret that wasn’t secret at all. Only the youngest didn’t know, and still knew to stay clear of him, thanks to their parents. It was handled casually, without care, despite the prime reason for it being kept under the radar being Naruto’s safety.

But who cared about that? Half the village hated his guts and wanted him dead. The other half would look away if that happened.

“Are you okay mom?”

She snapped back into the present to address the concerned looks Itachi was throwing at her. He knew too, she was sure. With all the confidential information he had been privy to, it was an illusion to assume this wasn’t among the pile.

He had still encouraged Sasuke to stick to Naruto’s side if he wanted to. She was grateful for it. Itachi was old enough when the Kyuubi had attacked to remember some of it.

Now that she thought about it, Izumi was too. Her father had died protecting his family that night, she had awakened her Sharingan out of sheer fear and anguish. And yet, she had agreed to help Naruto.

Why were those unfinished kids better than all the adults around them? Mikoto was ashamed of her generation, of their close-mindedness and cruelty.

Damn, what would Kushina think of them. Think of her.

“I’m fine, sorry.”

Fugaku stayed silent, face hidden in his bowl. Her victory over the matter of Naruto and Sasuke’s friendship tasted bitter on her tongue because of how unwilling he was to forgive her about it. It was her own fault, really. She had never gone against him, never pitched in in any way. She thought she had to leave the politics to him, focused as she was on raising their kids.

But in a life like theirs, the two were irremediably linked. Proof enough, Itachi had…

She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply. Now wasn’t the time to think about that again.

“There’s… There is something,” Sasuke said, putting his bowl down. He cast a furtive glance at his father and oh, the animosity brewing their promised some spectacular fights once Sasuke was a teenager. She hadn’t pegged him for the one who would rebel against them, but now that she was seeing it building up, it seemed inevitable. Fugaku hadn’t drilled the clan’s values and interests into Sasuke like he had with Itachi. Something he surely regretting now.

“Something did happen. And it’s… I can’t explain. But it feels important. I don’t want you to get mad though. It’s not Naruto’s fault. He did nothing wrong.”

“What is it Sasuke?” Fugaku asked, impatient, opening his mouth for the first time this evening. Oh how he exasperated her these days with his all-powerful patriarch act. The sooner he realized his days of absolute control over their family were over, the better it would be for everyone. For her, but also for Sasuke, and his relationship with his father. Itachi was still too shaken to put up much of a fight, but Sasuke was gearing up to fight back his father at every turn, and he would do it just to be contradictory if Fugaku didn’t start to be more reasonable.

The bad part of her, the one that would have made Kushina laugh, couldn’t wait to see it.

“Naruto is… Naruto is afraid of the Sharingan.”

All thought about laughing deserted Mikoto’s head.

“Izumi tried to look and he… I don’t know. He freaked out. And it’s weird, because he’d never seen it before. He said it. And it’s not like he just thought it was creepy or anything, he really… He was really scared for real.”

People being uncomfortable when faced with dojutsu was nothing new. This was something else entirely.

She made eye contact with Fugaku, and for once they were on the same page. She could see the same gears turning in his brain, the same worry in his eyes.

The same fear.

“Did he… say why?” Fugaku asked, making a good effort to hide his turmoil and impatience.

“No. He ran away. But he asked her not to look at him.”

Sasuke seemed shaken by this too. Mikoto could understand – the Sharingan was the pride of their clan, the thing all their kids looked forward to as they grew up. That Naruto would be wary of it had to upset him greatly, especially if he didn’t know why.

“You did good by telling us, Sasuke,” she said gently. “He’s not in trouble and we’re not mad, don’t worry.”

“But why would that be? You didn’t see him mom. He was… He was so defensive. Like Izumi was going to hurt him.”

Itachi was silent and stoic by her side, but he was staring at his father with unblinking eyes, studying him carefully.

“I don’t know, Sasuke,” she said, and Itachi looked at her then.

And he knew it was a lie.

But how was it possible, that the boy could feel it? How close the fox had to be to the surface, that he could transmit the danger of the Sharingan to his host? And really, fear? Kushina had never manifested such a thing. Sure, the Uchiha were technically able to control any creature, including the tailed beasts, but apart from Madara, no one had ever actually done it.

Right?

“You’ll just have to be mindful of using it around him,” she said, trying to reassure him. Sasuke pouted.

“I don’t have anything to use anyway…” he mumbled, sulking. She smiled fondly. Acquiring the Sharingan was a competitive race for all the children of the clan. Sasuke wasn’t late by any mean, but he was already older than Itachi when he had awoken his, and that was enough to make him bitter.

She was a bit worried about that competition between them, especially since Fugaku, despite all her nagging, made no effort to temper it. He thought it was good for Sasuke to have Itachi as a goal to reach, but it wasn’t like Itachi had gotten as far as he had just by hard work and strong will. He was gifted, more than anyone, and it was a blessing as much as a curse. There was no point in Sasuke comparing himself to his older brother.

And given what had happened, she wasn’t so keen on the idea of Sasuke following his footsteps either.

They finished dinner quickly, Sasuke bolting despite his father's protestations. Instead of disappearing too, to his room or to the study as usual, Itachi lingered in the kitchen.

“Isn’t it strange? That he would manifest that fear?” he asked Fugaku bluntly. He was slowly, slowly growing more confident in his voice and his opinion, something her husband had a hard time handling.

“It is,” Fugaku admitted reluctantly, probably regretting not being able to avoid the subject entirely. Itachi wasn’t supposed to know about that either, but well. Was it such an open secret that he didn’t feel the need to pretend he wasn’t in on it? It was depressing.

“Maybe we should look into it,” Itachi pressed. She knew what he wanted his father to say.

“We will.”

Itachi stared at him, insistent, unblinking. She waited with impatience, to see if Fugaku was going to concede, to take that step toward him.

"We will… with the others' help," he finally conceded. It was like pulling a tooth, but Itachi seemed satisfied, as he disappeared from the room a moment later.

“Will you?” she asked, harsher than she intended.

“The next Clan Heads meeting is next week. We’ll talk about it then.”

She nodded. She would make sure of it. She would be there too.

.

Izumi was a genius. It had to be it, it had to be. The more Sakura looked into it, the more she was convinced the girl had been spot on about Naruto. It would explain everything really, why he seemed to have the handle on the theory but still failed all his ninjutsu, even why he could still perform Transformation. An excess of chakra wasn't a problem for this one since the chakra looped around the body of the caster. With every other technic, the amount of chakra poured in was determinant to the result.

It had to be it, but she didn’t know how to confirm it.

They had to know how much was “a lot”, exactly. How much chakra could Naruto yield, how much more than them? There were devices that could measure up that kind of things, but nothing available to academy students.

She had discussed it with Sasuke, who was by far the most resourceful of them, but he didn’t seem confident in his ability to convince someone in his family to hand him sensitive equipment no question asked. And it that case, questions asked would probably make it worse, if he had to admit he needed it for Naruto of all people… But maybe Izumi could help? Izumi was amazing.

If they solved this, it would be a win. Having too much chakra could barely be considered an issue. Sakura could teach Naruto to be more restrictive in his chakra use, and then…

Then he wouldn’t need her any longer.

She shook her head to get rid of that line of thought. She genuinely wanted to help him, and she would be happy she had, regardless of what came after.

Deep in thought, she had walked all the way to the Academy without even noticing. Most of the gut-wrenching anxiety that had made going to school a torture for the first few weeks after The Incident had receded, both because Naruto had been acting as an unofficial bodyguard and because recently… Ino had kind of assumed the role too.

Sakura didn’t know what to make of it. They still didn’t really talk? But Ino often sat next to Sakura, so that she was sandwiched between the two blondest and scariest students of their class.

It’s not that Ino was giving the cold shoulders to the other girls of the class, or even just ignoring them. She was downright hostile, picking up fights with Kara and her band on a regular basis, ever since the day she had blown up Kara’s bag like a psycho. It made little sense to Sakura, but Ino had always been prone to sudden whims and abrupt mood swings. Sakura was just glad they were sort of hanging out again.

It was early – the classroom was mostly empty. Sakura spotted Sasuke keeping to himself in his corner of the room, and she managed to reply to his slight nod but made no move to approach him. She could tell he wouldn’t have minded them talking to each other at school – even suspected he was kind of jealous she got to talk to Naruto, even if Naruto said a maximum of five words on his best days – but she couldn’t help being afraid of Sasuke.

Well, not of him, but of what them being seen interacting in the smallest way would bring down on her. Sakura was getting steadily stronger by virtue of Naruto beating the shit out of her on a regular basis, and keeping a consistent training which was the only way to go about getting better really, but she was nowhere near strong enough to defend herself yet. And there wouldn’t always be a blond to stand between herself and the meanest of their classmates.

Besides… who was to say which side Sasuke would take in the matter? Between Kara and her? Kara was an Uchiha and if Sasuke wasn’t as vocal as her about the pride that fact brought him, it was still an integrant part of his personality and values. If he knew what they’d done to Sakura, what would he say?

She didn’t want to find out.

She sat down next to Naruto, who was sleeping at his usual desk. She didn’t know when he went home and when he slept. He was always there when she arrived, always staying at the training ground after she left. Always bruised and battered, his clothes dirty, bag under his eyes, but eyes always sharp, alert.

He led a life she couldn't fathom or understand, and it made her sad, sometimes. There was nothing she could do about it though.

The day passed slowly, with Naruto barely lifting his head from his arms the whole time. She had been pestering him about studying more, to no avail – Naruto wanted to be stronger, but she was starting to wonder if he had any interest in being an actual ninja. A few months ago, she was kind of the same. She had entered the Academy mostly on Ino’s impulse. Her parents were chunin, but they weren’t especially keen on her following that path. They said they wanted her to do whatever she wanted – she thought they didn’t really care either way.

But she wanted to be a ninja. For real. She wanted to be someone people could rely on, she wanted to be able to protect herself and others, to be useful to the village and contribute to its safety. Those were new feelings, which had grown the more she learned about the shinobi way, the more she learned about the hardships of this world.

When she was a shinobi, she would make sure no kids were treated badly. Not like she had been, and not like Naruto was either. But Naruto was dead right on one point – you had to be strong to have any power.

With that in mind, she resolved to go train with the boys today too, even if she usually didn’t go three days in a row. Her stamina was improving though, and she had to manage somehow. They managed to train every day, and she wanted to too. She didn’t want to lag behind anymore.

Ino held her back though, when class ended and she made to leave for the training ground.

“Wait, Sakura. I need to talk to you about something.”

Puzzled, Sakura followed Ino out of the classroom and down a few corridors, until they found an area that was relatively empty. Sakura couldn’t help being nervous about finding herself alone with someone else like this. She touched a finger to her scar – it no longer itched or tugged, but she could feel it stretch when she smiled or ate, and she could never really forget about it. If only because people’s gaze around her were constantly drawn to it one moment or another.

“What do you want?” she said, somewhat defiant despite her wavering confidence.

“I have something for you,” Ino said. She rummaged in her bag until she found what she was looking for – a stack of paper held together by a thick red string tied around it like a bow around a gift. She handed it to a puzzled Sakura, who had to read the tag attached to the string to understand what it was.

Her eyes widened and she looked back at Ino fast enough for her neck to crack.

“What…”

“I heard you talking about it. With Naruto.”

This was insane. Sakura knew about Ino’s talented habit of eavesdropping on every and all conversations, but she was almost certain they had never actively discussed that subject at school. She frowned, not liking what that could mean, but Ino didn’t look phased.

“Just take it,” the blond girl said, impatient.

“How did you even get this?”

Ino frowned, debating whether or not she was going to answer, before sighing at Sakura’s stubborn expression.

“You know about Sai right? In our class.”

Sakura nodded, although she had never so much as spoken to the new boy. Granted, not much had – Ino was maybe the only one who had had any contact with him at all.

He had appeared in the middle of the previous year, from literally nowhere. He wasn’t from another village, he wasn’t from anywhere, they didn’t know who his family was. He was just there. Mizuki had said he was going to be a part of their class from then on, and his older brother, Shin, was joining the next level. The boy was the most quiet Sakura had ever seen – and that included Naruto, Sasuke, and even Shino. He answered to any question by a soft smile that said nothing at all, and spent all his free time with his brother, who seemed more chatty, but just as wary about engaging with any other students.

They went to and back from school with Ino. Sakura didn’t know what that was about.

Sai was very mysterious, and looked like Sasuke a little, which had sparked a strong interest in him from the class’s girls. For a while. However, he was also slightly creepy and made others uncomfortable with his unblinking gaze and plastic smile. They had soon let it go.

“He’s… He can… get a lot of things.”

Sakura knew from Ino's expression that she would say nothing more. It spelled trouble in big letters and Sakura wanted no part in it. Ino had a knack for getting involved with weird, shady things around the village. Sakura thought it was due to her father’s status – he was the head of the Konoha’s Intelligence, and Ino’s actions were a result both of his particular training, and of her obsessive desire to manage to go behind his back. This was a big deal for her, to know things he didn’t, and she could get very far to achieve that.

“Okay. Okay,” Sakura relented. She couldn’t refuse it – they needed it. There was something, though…

“But why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do that for me? For us?”

They hadn’t talked in ages, they weren’t friends anymore, and Ino and Naruto had a weird sort of hateful rivalry going on, probably because they were competing for the “most threatening kid of the class” spot. There was no lost love between them, that was for sure.

Instead of answering, Ino took a step forward and raised a hand. Sakura couldn’t help but flinch and Ino’ expression turned thunderous, but she didn’t interrupt her gesture. She rested gentler fingers on the side of Sakura’s face, right under her scar.

“It’s my way of thanking him. I know he was there, when I wasn’t.”

Sakura was frozen in place, completely thrown off balance by the rage and the regrets she could see on Ino’s face. Ino had blown up Kara’s bag. No one knew why, she had said nothing about it. Well, Shikamaru and Choji knew, probably, but it’s not like they were going to talk either.

Did that mean…

Was that… for her?

“You need to get stronger, Sakura,” Ino said with a hard tone, but it wasn’t nearly as biting or mocking as how she used to say it, back when they hung out and she would outdo Sakura in absolutely everything.

“I know. I will.”

She put the stack of papers in her bag, careful to hide it under the rest of her things, just in case. Ino took her hand away, turned around, and left.

.

“Come on, come on! You’re getting sloppy!”

Sasuke would have yelled back that it was Naruto who was being exceptionally vindictive today, but he didn’t have enough focus and lung capacity while they were sparing like this. He’d been backed into mostly defending because Naruto was more ruthless than ever, almost enraged. He had jumped Sasuke as soon as he’d set foot on the training ground and had been attacking relentlessly, apparently determined to pummel Sasuke into the ground.

Ever since their session with Izumi, Naruto was being harsh and vicious, more so than usual. He had refused for the subject to be broached in any way, apart from refusing to see the eyes again. Sasuke had a feeling that he didn’t want to explain why because he didn’t really know himself.

“Hey boys!”

Sasuke was distracted by Sakura’s loud call – Naruto wasn’t. His focus would have been admirable if it wasn’t downright creepy, because Sasuke was convinced someone could have been murdered in the goriest way ten meters away and the blond wouldn’t have noticed.

As it was, Sasuke was distracted and Naruto wasn’t, and Sasuke received Naruto’s foot square in the jaw.

He rolled in the dirt, face sore and pride wounded, and Sakura rushed to his side. Naruto surely didn’t.

“Dammit Naruto! I told you to calm down during sparing!”

That was also new. As she was recovering from the trauma of her ordeal – that Sasuke still had no idea about dammit – Sakura had been getting increasingly more confident, during those sessions at least. At school she was the same, so quiet and withdrawn she could as well have been a piece of furniture, but with them she was emboldened by the knowledge that she was probably the only one who could be of any help regarding the Naruto situation.

Sasuke blamed Izumi, while recognizing that it had started before the troublesome chunin had crashed their practice. She had made it worse though, because she had praised Sakura for her excellent chakra control, and claimed that it was better than Sasuke’s, and maybe even hers.

Boy, what hadn’t she said.

Sakura was now officially better than both Naruto and Sasuke at something ninja-related, and that was enough to tip her definitely in the “we’re equals and therefore I can call yell at you all I want” pit.

“Pff. If he can’t take it, I might as well find myself a new rival.”

Sasuke tripped on his feet on his way to getting up and almost crashed into Sakura.

Naruto looked as bored and uninterested as ever, while Sasuke’s blood was boiling. There was no way. No way.

“You’d better not,” he growled, menacing. Naruto only shrugged.

“Don’t lag behind then,” he shot back. They glared at each other until Sakura stepped in between them with a heavy sigh that was getting more and more frequent too, and that looked like the one his mother’s made when she said “I’m surrounded by idiots”.

“Stop it, both of you. We have more important things to discuss!”

They complied reluctantly and focused on what she was presenting them.

A stack of paper. Groundbreaking.

“Huh, Sakura…”

“Geez, you guys know nothing about anything,” she said dramatically. He could tell she was proud to be holding the cards for once, to know something they didn’t.

She ought to get used to it by now. There were lots she knew and they didn’t.

“It’s chakra paper!” she explained excitedly. “There are different types. Some are for determining your element. These are for getting a rough estimation of your reserves.”

They frowned at the blank, ordinary piece of papers. The tag attached read “Chakra Measuring Paper”, which was pretty self-explanatory.

"Where did you get that?" Sasuke asked with a frown. It had been his job to somehow get his hands on something like this. The girl looked sideways and said "I, huh, have my ways" in the least convincing manner possible.

“How does it work?” Naruto asked. He usually tried to hide how curious he naturally was, how eager he was to learn about all and everything. The rare times he paid attention in class, he looked enraptured, up until he got kicked out for one reason or another.

“I’m… not entirely sure. I think you’re supposed to…”

“Hey trouble kids! What are you up to?”

The three of them jumped out of their skin and bumped into each other under Shisui’s earthy laugh, while Izumi smiled sympathetically and Itachi didn’t react in any way.

“Nothing! What are you doing here?”

“Relax cousin. Can’t we just visit you and your friends?”

“No!”

Sasuke fought down the beginning of a blush. They were so embarrassing! Why couldn’t they leave them alone?

“Is that chakra paper?”

Sakura was frozen in place, looking like a wild animal watching kunai come to its face, as Itachi pointed to the stack she was holding hard enough to fold it. Itachi didn’t seem to notice the effect he was having on her, but Izumi did.

“Step back, Itachi! You’re scaring the girl with your gloomy face.”

It occurred to Sasuke that Sakura had never met his brother, nor his cousin, and that he would have very much liked to keep that from happening.

“Kids are wild these days. What are you doing with this?” Shisui asked, his usual lazy smile in place.

“Nothing! Please leave.”

“Oh, so you don’t need help with that?”

Sasuke opened his mouth, but they did, indeed, need help, didn’t they. He snapped his mouth shut and buried inside his collar, Shisui laughing yet again.

Peeking above the fabric, Sasuke cast a worried glance at Naruto, who hadn’t said a word since the intruders’ arrival. He was eyeing them warily, alternating between the three of them like he couldn’t decide which one he was supposed to worry about the most. Sasuke wished he didn’t worry at all.

“It’s pretty simple,” Izumi said, and with an engaging smile, she pried a paper out of Sakura’s hands. Sakura glanced at Sasuke’s briefly, looking for support, and he nodded slightly. It’s not like they were going to let it go anyway.

“You just hold it, and pour some chakra into it. Like this,” Izumi said. A second later, blue light shone briefly between her hands, and they peered curiously at the paper. The sheets were squared, about the size of a weapon pouch, but the one she was holding, instead of being blank, was now sporting an irregular circle the size of a plum in the middle.

“Here you go! There’s probably a chart or something to measure it properly, but mostly you do it by comparison. Come on, try it,” she told Sakura. The girl hesitantly took out another sheet and repeated the process.

The circle was much smaller this time, barely half the size of Izumi’s, but it was perfect. Sakura looked down, shoulders hunched, looking embarrassed, before Shisui took a look.

“Well, girl, your control is off the chart!”

Sakura looked up just enough to cross his gaze before nose-diving immediately. She was probably trying to hide behind her hair like she used to, but she didn’t have enough to do that. They were growing back, slowly. She often played with the short strands with a thoughtful expression on her face.

“Those papers tell about chakra reserve, but also the level of chakra control,” Izumi explained. “See, my circle is much more uneven, because my chakra is not so stable. That’s impressive, Sakura.”

Sakura’s blush spread all the way to her ears.

“Give, give! I want to try too!” Shisui exclaimed, ever childish. He made Sakura jump when he took three sheets out of her hand.

“Come on, Itachi, I want to see who has it best. You two Sasuke!”

Sasuke took the sheet reluctantly, both excited and anxious to find out what it would reveal. What if his reserves were terribly low, or his control super wobbly? He would have much rather do this with just his two friends, or even on his own. Not one to be outdone though, he imitated his elders and gave a small burst of chakra to the sheet.

His circle was smaller than Izumi’s, but not that much. It was pretty uneven though, almost wavy like a very badly drawn flower.

“Ouch, Sasuke, you’ll catch up to me soon if I’m not careful…” Izumi said with a smile. Sasuke couldn’t help but blush too, and that made Sakura relax a little somehow. He pouted.

He didn’t want to look at Itachi’s paper, but… he wanted to.

Shisui’s was the biggest and barely more even than Sasuke’s own. It was the size of a big apple, and Itachi’s… a smaller apple, but precise and neat. More than twice as big as Sasuke’s.

“I have more reserve and you have more control. No surprise here,” Shisui said. Itachi nodded, already disregarding the paper.

“Does it change a lot of things?” Sasuke couldn’t help but ask. That was two distinct areas to work on, he thought.

“It matters, yes. Itachi and I, I guess we’re roughly the same in term of stamina, because I have more chakra, but since I don’t use it so well, I spend more than he would for the same jutsu. Chakra control amount to the chakra you lose when you perform ninjutsu. Between you and Sakura, she would need much less than you to make a clone, for example, so she could make more with less. Since she doesn’t have much, it makes a huge difference.”

Sasuke frowned, thoughtful. That made sense, and matched what he remembered from class. Sakura was nodding eagerly, probably familiar with all that already. That nerd.

Sasuke caught Naruto’s gaze then. He looked supremely uncomfortable, but also very curious, as he eyed the stack in Sakura’s hands, smaller now than it was a few minutes ago. He didn’t want to talk though, probably didn’t want to bring the attention on himself. He was standing by Sakura’s side, as far as possible from the Uchihas of the party, all four of them.

Sasuke couldn’t have that. Naruto could be wary of his dumb relatives all he wanted, but he had no reason nor right to be wary of him.

So he crossed the group as casually as he could and took another sheet without making eye contact with Sakura. He handed it to Naruto without a word.

Naruto glanced at the others, but they were either oblivious or smart enough to pretend like they weren’t paying attention. He finally took the paper, repeating the exercise they had all partaken into.

Nothing happened.

His frowned deepen – it was crazy how it was always possible, just when Sasuke thought it couldn’t possibly get worse – and blue chakra danced at his fingertips, but still the paper remained blank. Sasuke cast a distressed look back at Izumi – Naruto was getting frustrated, and Sasuke didn’t want him to be disappointed or angry.

Naruto was bad at chakra control, but he couldn’t be that bad, that he couldn’t activate a device they used on toddlers. Izumi took a few steps toward them, but stopped when Naruto snarled at her, daring her to approach. The sheet was crinkling in his too hard grip.

“Huh, I think…”

The full force of Naruto’s glare killed Sakura’s words in her throat, so she just pointed at a corner of the sheet.

There was a single line, cutting the corner in a minuscule triangle.

“What the…”

“Just a minute,” Itachi said, cutting off Naruto’s profanity. He reached into his weapon pouch and took out a brush and an ink stone, before hanging a hand toward Sakura.

“Can I?” he asked as an afterthought after she flinched slightly. She gave a small nod, and he took four sheets that he laid on the dirt, as to form a bigger square. He drew four small ink signs between each sheet – when he picked them up again, they were sticking into a big one like he had just glued them together.

“Try again,” he said to Naruto. The boy eyed him for a long, uncomfortable moment, before taking the sheet with two fingers. Chakra sparked.

If Sasuke’s circle was wobbly, this one was so jaded and irregular “circle” was too generous of a term for it.

But most importantly, it was now obvious why it hadn’t shown on the single sheet.

It was too big to fit on there.

They stared at the shape the size of a dinner plate in complete astonishment. Naruto’s eyes were wide and his lips pinched, brows furrowed in confusion.

There was nothing to be confused about though.

“Well,” Izumi said after a while, dragging the “e”. “I guess it’s a definite yes for the “more chakra than the norm” theory, Naruto.”

.

“It’s crazy,” Izumi said for maybe the tenth time since they had left the kids to their own device at their training ground. The Naruto boy was shaken and Sasuke had glared at them hard enough Shisui thought he was going to pop out a Sharingan right there and then. The girl Sakura had seemed on fire, vibrating out of her skin with excitement, now that she knew how to tackle her friend’s chakra problem. What a nerd.

“Not but really… It’s crazy!”

“We know it is, Izumi,” Itachi said blankly, and it was hard to know if he was mocking her or agreeing earnestly. It was always hard to tell with him. Depending on your take on the matter, he had either never made fun of anyone in his life ever, or was the worst asshole known to man. Shisui was still reserving his judgment.

“Do you think it has to do with… You know.”

She trailed off, casting them uncertain glances as they walked back to the Uchiha district. She was testing to see if they knew what she was talking about, probably. Since none of them were supposed to know.

“I don’t think so. I think it’s on him,” Shisui answered. Naruto wasn’t supposed to be able to tap into the demon’s chakra so easily, and honestly, a tailed beast would have drawn a circle the size of the freaking village, no?

“I’ll ask my parents,” Itachi said. Izumi raised an eyebrow in Shisui’s direction, in a classic “what the hell” expression. It’s true that the last time Izumi had properly interacted with Itachi before their fight, his cousin was barely in speaking term with his father. Shisui wondered what Itachi had told the girl, but he also knew that she wouldn’t pry, and could still offer comfort.

She was a beacon of warmth and sanity in the gloomy Uchiha clan.

“They’re cute though," she said, completely changing the subject.

“What?”

“The three of them. It’s nice to see Sasuke with kids his age.”

The declaration was subtle, but unmistakable. The kids had her support – Naruto and his relationship with Sasuke included. She looked at her friends sideways, waiting for their reaction.

“It is nice,” Itachi confirmed. Izumi rolled her eyes at his complete lack of enthusiasm, but she was smiling too. Shisui nodded at her, and wasn’t it cool, for once, that they were all on the same page.

.

“Okay, Naruto. Imagine… Like, the jutsu we perform at school. Let’s take the clone technic. Imagine that exercise is actually filling a glass of water.”

Sakura had been thinking hard on her analogies and she wasn’t about to let them go to waste. The two boys were listening to her intently, matching frown of confused concentration on their face. She held back a sigh. This was going to be long.

“So, the exercise is filling a glass of water – water being chakra. All of us, we have like… a gourd of water, and we have to fill the glass. Some are more clumsy than other so they spill more or less water on the side, but generally speaking we can all do it.”

This was a great analogy, cause it also explained why very young kids, lacking the strength and coordination, couldn’t do it. She was the best.

“Okay. I get it, I guess,” Naruto grumbled, probably vexed by the “all can do it” part. She was coming to it though.

“Well in that example, it’s like we all had a gourd and you had… I don’t know. Like, a barrel.”

Their frowned deepened. She chuckled.

“You have a barrel of water to fill a glass. And you’ve been taught to fill it like with a gourd – by tipping it over and targeting the glass. Except it’s like, impossible, with a barrel. Either you can’t even tip it at all, or you tip it and there’s water everywhere but in the glass.”

She paused a little for dramatics.

“And that’s why you can’t perform ninjutsu. You can’t fill the glass.”

It took a few seconds, and then matching expressions of sudden illumination lit up the boys’ face.

“I get it!” Naruto explained. “Sakura, you’re smart.”

Sasuke nodded silently, reluctantly impressed. Sakura blushed a little.

“Huh, so, next question. How do you fill a glass of water with a barrel?”

They thought about it long and hard before Sasuke answered, “you just scoop water with the glass.”

“Yes! And that’s actually… Okay there’s probably some technical term or something, but that’s actually a method of chakra molding. Instead of pouring you chakra into you jutsu, it’s the jutsu that taps into your reserve. And we’d have to do research and stuff but it’s… like, legit. It’s a thing!”

They were probably a bit weirded out by her excitement, but she couldn’t control it. They had figured it out! They could do something about that issue! It wasn’t an issue anymore!

She could help Naruto!

“You could also pierce the barrel.”

“Huh?”

“You could pierce the barrel,” Naruto repeated, mumbling like when he wasn’t sure about being right. “You know, you make a hole at the bottom and the water just flow out. Then you’d need a cork I guess but…”

She was glad to see the analogy had worked so well. She thought about it. That would amount to accessing a continuous flow of chakra, steady and strong until it ran out. On a gourd, it would be absurd, since it would be empty in seconds, but with a barrel…

There was something she was sure, that required that kind of technics. Vast amounts of chakra and a steady feed…

“Ha!” she exclaimed. “That’s Fuinjutsu!”

“Sealing?” Sasuke asked. Naruto looked lost. She nodded.

“We don’t study it at the Academy cause it’s so chakra consuming. I don’t think much people use it at all… But you’d be great at it Naruto!”

He raised his eyebrows, looking both skeptic and enthusiastic, and like he didn't want to showcase either. Sakura was getting good at reading his moods though.

“You think?”

“Yes! Control doesn’t have to be that precise for sealing, since it’s mostly a question of pouring enough chakra into it. What matters the most are the signs and the drawings.”

And chakra control could be improved on, of course, but so could dexterity. More easily, even.

“That’s… good,” he said, not looking especially impressed. It was fine though. He was slow to get worked up, but once there, he would stay on. Sakura just had to actually show him, they just had to have him accomplish it just once, and he would be on board.

For now, she was excited enough for the both of them.

.

“I want you to train me.”

Both Shisui and Itachi raised their heads from the mission reports they were reviewing. They weren’t sent on active missions lately, but that didn’t mean they were on vacation.

Itachi sighed, uncomfortable.

“Sasuke, I told you…”

“No. I don’t care about… whatever it is that you won’t tell me, whatever it is that you feel bad about. I’m not asking as your little brother. You are the most powerful member of the Uchiha clan and I need, I need to get stronger.”

There was a fire in Sasuke’s eyes that was rarely seen on his grumpy little brother. Itachi stared at him in silence for a while, surprised by this sudden rage.

“Why?” he asked eventually

Sasuke pinched his lips. He was tensed all over, ready for a fight, ready to insist and argue until Itachi caved. When had his brother become so forceful? He used to be just as passive and obedient as Itachi himself.

As much a pain as it was, Itachi couldn’t see it as a bad change.

“I can’t let Naruto beat me.”

It could have been misplaced pride, except it wasn’t, was it? “Why?” Itachi asked again, wondering if Sasuke actually knew, if he would be able to put it into words.

“He’s… he’ll get stronger every day, and if he gets stronger than me, he’ll… We’re not friends enough yet. He’ll leave me behind, and I won’t let that happen.”

Naruto was probably the first person of which Sasuke had the full attention, barely split with their girl friend. But Sasuke wasn’t in competition with Sakura, so he could tolerate it.

Itachi had often wished he wasn’t born as he was. Gifted, as they said, a rare genius. Among the many torments it had brought him, the inferiority complex and resentment it had cultivated in Sasuke was one of the worsts, especially seeing how Itachi had no idea how to fight them. There had to be a lot of siblings that got along just fine despite one being better than the other.

“And if I want to be Hokage, I have to anyway,” Sasuke added as an afterthought, but one he had carefully pondered. Sasuke didn’t mention it that often, but often enough. Their father was convinced it was a childish whim – Itachi wasn’t so sure.

Itachi looked at Shisui. For a moment they stared at each other and Itachi was comforted by the fact that his cousin knew exactly what he was thinking about. He wasn’t sure he had made himself very clear, when he had tried to explain to him why he was so reluctant to spend time with Sasuke these days, but Shisui understood Itachi probably better than even Itachi did.

Mostly, Itachi was afraid of the influence he could have on Sasuke. Sasuke wished to be like him, and Itachi couldn’t think of a worse thing.

“How about this, Sasuke,” Shisui stepped in, a savior as always. “You’ll split your training between Itachi and I. Two teachers are better than one, right?”

Sasuke frowned, deep in thought, looking on all account like he was about to perform open-heart surgery. Finally, he sighed dramatically.

“Fine,” he said, crossing his arms on his torso to appear firm probably. “But Shisui, you have to hold Itachi to it. I count on you!”

“I’ll kick his ass if I have to cousin, I promise.”

That seemed to finally satisfy Sasuke, who exited the living room looking as pleased as could be.

“Your brother is fucking adorable,” Shisui commented with a laugh. His face soften into an indulgent smile when he caught Itachi’s sullen expression.

“It’s going to be fine, Itachi. I think it’s a good thing.”

“What if…”

“Nothing will happen to him. You won’t transmit him some sort of angst disease of whatever it is you’re worried about.”

“But…”

“Itachi.”

Shisui’s tone had hardened and Itachi willed himself to stay silent, despite the protestation bubbling on his lips.

“We can’t stay back forever. We have to move on now.”

It seemed so easy for him. Itachi was starting to feel he had been cheated, this entire time.

Everyone around seemed to be actually stronger than him.

The only thing Itachi could do for now was follow their lead. Shisui, Izumi… even Sasuke.

“Alright.”

Shisui smiled, at least. That was always nice.

Chapter Text

Fugaku remembered it all too clearly. It kept looping in his head, over and over. It kept him up at night.

A chunin had burst into his office to hand him a quick report explaining that a teacher from the Academy had been killed by Danzo’s men after bringing sensitive information to the Hokage, and by sensitive he meant decades of illegal missions, child snatching and warmongering.

The very next moment, Itachi had walked into his office, and he was in tears.

Itachi, in tears. Fugaku hadn’t seen his oldest son cry since he was five years old probably. Shisui was following close behind, white as a sheet, eyes dry but shining.

“Dad…” Itachi had said. Third shock. That had also been gone for years.

And then Itachi had told him about Danzo, about Anbu, about being a spy and about how their plot for overthrowing the Hokage was well known up above. About what was intended to be done about it.

The next moment, it was Hyuuga Hiashi who marched up into the room.

“What the hell, Fugaku?”

This time he could count in decades the last occurrence of the man being so familiar with him. And Fugaku, world crashing down around him, had blurted out, “the Uchiha have been planning a coup, and Danzo has been plotting to wipe us all out.”

The only thing Hiashi had to say to that was “I should have known walking in here that things could get even worse than they already were.”

Fugaku had been so sure, so sure that the other clan heads would side with the Hokage. None of them had lifted a finger when the Uchiha had been humiliated and ostracized publicly, Fugaku had assumed they were all too happy to see his clan fall, to see them put in their place like they had always wanted. It had never even occurred to him to seek their support, to make his case to them before deciding no one would be on their side.

Hiashi, and the others too, had things to say to that. They had been mad at Fugaku, of course, for wanting to bring war back to their doorstep instead of taking his grievance to them, for assuming they would be deaf to his pleas. But it was nothing compared to the wrath they held against Danzo, and, as time passed and the stories unfurled, against the Sandaime. Nothing compared to their sense of betrayal when they discovered that Danzo’s – and the Hokage’s to some extent they still didn’t fully know – solution to a dissident clan trying to stir trouble was to have them all murdered. Potentially by one of their own children.

At that point most of them were already on the warpath. Inoichi and Shibi, notably, after rescuing Yamanaka Fu and Aburame Torune from Danzo’s Roots, children of their own they had reluctantly let go, only to find out their supposed special training was getting brainwashed in the bottom of a cave. There were dozen more children, some thought dead for years, a lot of them snatched during the chaos brought by the Kyuubi’s attack.

That’s what Danzo had been up to then.

There was no way the Hokage didn’t know. No way he didn’t at least suspect. He had either been absurdly blind or purposefully obtuse – both were crimes that couldn’t just be swept under the rug.

Two years now they had been having these meetings regularly, diving back into issues they had left unattended for decades, no longer able to trust their leaders, be it the Hokage or his old councilors. There was no one to take the old Sandaime’s place for now, and they couldn’t afford to appear leaderless in front of the other villages, so they had to maintain the status quo. The Sandaime remained in place, his image intact to the general population. There were no other options, for now.

The various ninja clans of Konoha had never had such good relationships. As terrible as all the events leading to this had been, this part was… surprisingly nice.

Where had it gone, all these years? They used to be friends, all of them. They had gone to the Academy together, had been teammates, had fought side by side. They had sworn, once upon a time, as only young and foolish teens could, that they wouldn’t fall into the same trap their parents had. That they wouldn’t cross out their friendship, wouldn’t put their clan before everything else, wouldn’t ever end up pitching against each other.

Every day they were rediscovering the magnitude with which they had failed this.

But here they were now.

Holding those meetings at the Hokage tower seemed wrong somehow, even if it was the administration center, so they did it in the Nara district, for the sole reason that they were the only one to have a table big enough for them all. Especially since their number had slowly grown.

Mikoto, first. “I’m coming with you,” she had said the very first time, and it wasn’t always, but sometimes at least Fugaku knew not to argue with his wife. It bothered him, but he had figured she would keep to herself and see that there was no need for her there, and not come back.

Ha. Right.

As soon as she had stepped in the room Shikaku had made some comments about what she was doing here. “If you don’t like it, you can fuck right off, Shikaku. And I’m inviting Yoshino, next time.”

Shikaku had shut his damn mouth, and both their wives were around the table the next time. Shibi’s wife came when he couldn’t – although Fugaku wasn’t sure that was actually his wife. The Aburame weren’t big on marriage, or on monogamy for that matter. But she was his son’s mother and his second in command, and held the same power he did. Tsume had been bringing his daughter Hana for a few months now, as she would take the lead of the clan in a few years, and Tsume wanted to start preparing her as soon as possible.

If not for their subject of conversation, this would have felt very domestic indeed.

They had discussed Hokage succession, again, and came up short on solutions, again. Fugaku had almost, almost gave up on bringing up the Naruto case.

One scalding look from Mikoto, and he was explaining to his fellow clan leaders Naruto’s seemingly troubled relationship with the Uchiha’s dojutsu.

“Why do you find it so concerning?” Shikaku asked when he was done. Fugaku took his time to answer. Maybe he shouldn’t have. Maybe they were worrying over nothing. But he couldn’t let it go – it was a mix of a gut feeling, Mikoto’s own worries, and the still burning shame of such issues he had overlooked before, that had nearly lead all he knew and loved to ruins.

“You know how the Uchiha clan was accused of having brought the Beast down onto the village,” Fugaku started. He saw them frown in annoyance, unwilling to argue about this again.

“No one ever took it seriously,” Tsume said. She hadn’t, probably, and most hadn’t either, but it would be a lie to say no one had bought into the theory.

“We did,” Mikoto intervened, cutting through their murmurs.

“We took it very seriously,” Fugaku went on. “We actually accounted for the whereabouts of all the active Sharingan users at the time. It wasn’t… that unreasonable a claim. The Clan had nothing to do with it, but not everyone follows the wishes of their clan."

They all nodded somberly, having all dealt with their fair share of internal struggles.

“I supposed you found nothing,” Inoichi said to pick up the thread.

“No. At the time we concluded none of us committed that terrible betrayal. However…”

He was bearing the full weight of their attention now. Everyone had more or less accepted the fact that the Beast had fallen upon them by the whim of fate, and nothing more. They had come to term with the random cruelty of that day, with the Kyuubi breaking free despite the precaution taken for Kushina to give birth to her son. The beast freed, it had attacked, and that was the end of it.

“We’ve come to believe that there might be… someone, out of the village, in possession of the Sharingan.”

The admission was humiliating to say the least. The Uchiha had always prided themselves of the perfect grasp they had over their dojutsu. Never stolen or fallen into enemies' hands, like the Byakugan. The only bump in their track record was the eye of Hatake Kakashi, but it still remained in the confine of the village.

“A rogue Uchiha?” Hiashi asked.

“Or a thief,” Fugaku retorted, even if he wasn’t sure which one would be worse. A thief was more likely, because they hadn’t had any deserters in decades, but who knew?

“What put you on that track then?” Shikaku asked, never one to lose focus. Fugaku exchanged a look with Mikoto who nodded slightly, determined.

"Itachi was approached by a man. In regard to… Well. You know."

He couldn’t say it. He could barely fathom in on his best days, there was no way he could just acknowledge it out loud. That it had only remained in the realm of distant possibility didn’t change a thing. Danzo had asked it of his son. He had actually asked him.

It was a good thing the man was far away from them now.

They nodded, sporting matching expression of horror and resentment on their face for just a second. They were all thinking the same thing – it could have been my clan, my family, my child. Granted, none of them had a history quite as shaky as the Uchiha’s with the village, but it was delusional to think Danzo would have stopped there. He hadn’t hesitated to snatch clan kids, to have important people from other villages murdered, to plan the extermination of an entire clan. Where would he have stopped?

“The man offered… help. He didn’t reveal his name or identity but… The Sharingan doesn’t need to be activated to be detected.”

And Itachi was paranoid enough by then that he had looked for it with his own, just in case.

“Itachi could only say for sure the man had a powerful dojutsu.”

“And his interest in him is enough to make a leap as to what dojutsu exactly,” Inoichi concluded.

“Kushina never displayed any fear of the Sharingan,” Mikoto said. “But we can imagine Naruto would if… the fox’s experience of it is more recent. With a Sharingan out there…”

“It becomes plausible.”

Plausible, alarming, and life-changing. It would mean it wasn’t fate, it wasn’t bad luck, it wasn’t the wrath of a god.

It was deliberate.

“Why bring that up now, Fugaku? If you’ve suspected it for so long,” Chouza asked, with a surprising lack of reproach in his voice. Fugaku considered getting out of this one, spinning a quick excuse. It was a reflex at this point, he was used to lying by default, to never be outright and honest about anything.

He muzzled the urge as he felt Mikoto’s eyes bore a hole into his skull from his side.

“I wouldn’t have,” he said bluntly. “We’ve been investigating the matter for a long time and are no closer to solving it, but I would rather keep it an Uchiha’s business still, even if additional resources would be welcomed. It was… our failure,” he said through gritted teeth, “whether as Uchiha, or as the Konoha police force, if there was someone indeed who infiltrated the village to subdue the Kyuubi, we failed to prevent it, and we should be the ones to right that wrong. But…”

He wasn’t a fan of that honesty policy. It complicated interactions that a quick lie would have easily smoothed over, and it made him look bad more often than not. He felt vulnerable, exposed, and like he was giving ammunition to the people listening.

But Fugaku remembered it all too clearly. It kept looping in his head, over and over. It kept him up at night.

Itachi’s crying face, the horror of a fate that had been narrowly avoided, out of sheer dumb luck.

“But Itachi asked me to,” he admitted.

It should have been a bad thing to admit. Something that could be used against him, that made him appear weak. He didn’t keep the truth close to his chest, never to be shared, out of vindication or pleasure – he honestly thought it was the best thing to do. To protect himself and his own.

Except the other clan heads around the table didn’t show mockery or disdain, nor calculation or threat. If anything, they looked pleasantly surprised, that of all he could have said, this was what he was going for.

He wondered if they believed him or just appreciated he would choose such an excuse, wasn’t sure which one would please them the most – and which he would find less offensive. But Fugaku was forced to admit something he had refused to see for so long.

The people around that table weren’t his enemies.

“We will look into it then,” Yoshino summarized, unfazed. “And keep a close eye on the boy. But I believe your son is ahead of us on the matter, isn’t he?”

Fugaku didn’t have to turn around to picture his wife snickering and trying badly to hide it. She shouldn’t have been so careless on the matter. Just because their friends had made no comment over Sasuke and Naruto’s friendship didn’t make it any better an idea than it was. The ground was too shifty under their feet still, and they had just openly confessed that an Uchiha behind the Kyuubi’s attack was a possibility. Naruto was a danger even without factoring in the power he could yield.

Now wasn’t the time to pick up that particular fight though.

“He is. And Itachi’s watching them.”

“How is Itachi anyway?” Inoichi asked. He often did. He had insisted for a long time that Itachi saw one the therapists specializing in shinobi and their trauma at the Konoha hospital, but Itachi had always refused. Fugaku had been of a mind to make him go anyway, and it had resulted in a few frustrating sessions where Itachi had stayed silent as a tombstone despite the therapist’s best efforts. Inoichi had reasoned that the boy would go on his own term when he felt the need. Shisui had agreed without a fuss, at least. There was no telling what good it did him though – despite his easy demeanor, Shisui was guarded, opening up only to Itachi, or so Fugaku assumed.

He had to restrain himself from just requesting answers from them, or ordering them to deal with what had happened. He had a feeling they wouldn’t obey anyway. Not anymore.

Besides, Mikoto would probably behead him.

“We’re not sure,” she answered in his place, traces of concern in her otherwise steady voice. “He seems to hold it together, but it’s not like he’s sharing much with us.”

That was another thing that had surprised Fugaku greatly – the overwhelming sympathy Itachi had received from those in the known, seeing that, at the bottom of it, he had come very close to becoming a traitor to the village, and to weaken it greatly. But if none of them were particularly good at recognizing children for what they were – children – they were still all better than him.

Itachi was thirteen years old then. Thirteen.

“What about the kids, Inoichi?” Mikoto asked, as much out of genuine concern as to change the subject, Fugaku presumed. Inoichi sighed and exchanged a heavy glance with Shibi.

“Torune and Fu are doing fine, all things considered, along with most of those who were returned to their family. Kids are resilient. As for those others…”

“The orphans, right? The ones you took in,” Hiashi asked. Fugaku couldn’t decide if there was reprobation in his voice. He had never been able to tell if he just naturally looked and sounded judgmental – that’s why he was so infuriating.

“Shin and Sai, although those names were only assigned to them once for mission purposes. We couldn’t find anything in Danzo’s files that would give an inkling to their background and family. They’re not causing any troubles. I would say the issue is quite the opposite.”

In front of the others’ questioning expression, Inoichi sighed again.

“For all intent and purposes, they are fully formed Anbu soldiers despite their age. A lifetime of conditioning isn’t that easily shaken.”

Fugaku was among the dispatched jounin who had raided the Root headquarter the first time after Danzo’s arrest. The resistance they had found there had been incomprehensible – the older members were enraged, pushed into a fanatical frenzy by the downfall of their leader, despite it being legitimate. Most had had to be incapacitated – a few had been killed.

And then there were the children.

Sitting on bunk beds in a common dormitory, waiting for their fate calmly. The boy that would later call himself Shin was standing in the middle of the room, protecting the one that would call himself Sai. He had looked at Fugaku with quiet resolve as he asked “are you going to kill us, sir?”

He seemed fully expectant to hear an affirmative.

They didn’t look scared. They didn’t look anything, blank faces and still postures. Fugaku was sure they would have fought to the death though, had they been pushed to.

“To be honest, I don’t really know what’s going on with them. It’s… Well. Ino has been having much more success than me at breaking through them. It’s better than nothing, so I’m leaving it to her right now.”

The way he was saying it, he didn’t have much of a choice. Fugaku was unfamiliar with the offspring of the various clans, but even he had heard about Yamanaka Ino’s notorious reputation for mischief of the highest level, far from the harmless shenanigans regular kids got up to.

Had he felt like he could have any say in this, Fugaku would have probably advised Sasuke to stay away from her. But seeing how the boy had been acting up lately, it would only encourage him to befriend her.

Kids were exhausting.

“It doesn’t help that we can’t seem to convince them that Danzo isn’t coming back. They just can’t fully believe it. Frankly, I don’t blame them.”

It was by far the heaviest weight on the clans’ relationship with the Hokage right now. After everything that had happened, everything that Danzo had been accused of… The Sandaime had refused to have him executed.

So many had been killed for far less. Treason was the worst possible crime in the shinobi world, and that Danzo fancied himself the most loyal of them all, acting solely for the village’s interest, did nothing to alleviate the weight of his crimes.

The Hokage was protecting him, even now, and none could forgive him for it.

Danzo had been sent to an isolated location deep into the fire country, effectively imprisoned, but still alive and well, and still able to talk. To reach out. Would it have been so hard to at least cut off his tongue? The symbolism would have been great too, after the lengths they had had to go to have him remove the seals that bound his subordinates’ voice.

None of them felt safe from his influence and meddling. How could the Sandaime not see that? Danzo was still a threat. He would be as long as he was alive.

“Well, on that cheery note, I think we can call off that meeting for the day,” Shikaku exclaimed with his usual gruffness. If Hiashi always sounded pedantic, Shikaku always sounded annoyed, and it was impossible to tell at what. Fugaku would have appreciated a little formality for once, but he knew not to expect anything resembling protocol from his fellow clan leaders.

They all packed their notes, chattering amicably. Fugaku made plans to meet with Inoichi at the Intelligence division to talk at length about the rogue Uchiha case. Inuzuka Hana approached him just as Mikoto and him were taking their leave.

“Are you going back to the headquarter, Uchiha-san?” she asked pleasantly, always polite. He exchanged a brief look with Mikoto, who nodded.

“I am. You can walk with me.”

The girl smiled and fell into step with him. Mikoto took the direction of the training ground to meet with her genin team, and Fugaku and Hana started to make their way to the Konoha Police Headquarter.

It was so strange, how they got used to everything, even changed they were convinced would never truly set in. When it had been suggested that a step toward the reintegration of the Uchiha clan in the village could be to end their exclusive hold on the police force, most of them had protested, although they had complained about it being a mean of confining the clan to the village before. But they had made the most of that assignment and they took great pride in being the force that protected Konoha within its walls. The Anbu for outside threats, the Konoha police for inside ones, and the rest of the ninja force to carry on missions for the reputation and prosperity of the village.

Except it meant everyone was wary of them and their power to meddle and snoop around people’s business. And the fact that they could cover up whatever they wanted, including a traitor in their rank. Those who didn’t think the clan as a whole was responsible for the Kyuubi thought it had at least hidden the traitor, because how come the police of police had let that slip? Fugaku didn’t know either. It was their greatest failure.

Well, that, and the entire operating of Root. Years, years of Danzo’s shinobi carrying unauthorized missions, taking out those he thought were threats to the village or himself, kidnapping children. And they had never suspected a thing. Those kids’ life ruined, it was on Fugaku and his fellow clansmen. They should have put a stop to it, but they were busy enough trying to battle off the villagers growing mistrust.

Mistrust due partly to their inability to find those children.

Sage, what a mess. Fugaku had been forced to admit fresh blood within their ranks was a necessity, but had asked that in turn that his clan would no longer be restrained either.

So, no more Uchiha excluded from the administration, and no more non-Uchiha excluded from the police force.

It had caused outrage, at first, but no one batted an eye now, as Hana entered the building on his heels. Refusing changes wasn’t an option. They had to move forward now.

But seriously, why couldn’t they cut off Danzo’s head.

.

“Ino!”

Sakura felt her face redden immediately and she cursed herself for getting overwhelmed by something so simple as calling out a sort of friend in the middle of the corridor. It’s just, these days it felt like she wasn’t ever using her voice a school. She wasn’t even answering the teachers’ questions anymore – every time she wanted to raise her hand, she thought of all the comments she had received about how she was an arrogant bookworm who thought she was smarter than everyone else because she always knew the answers to everything, and she kept her hand down. Mizuki had called her out on it one day after class, saying that it was weird they weren’t hearing her during lessons anymore, and Sakura had felt a wave of rage and bitterness rise inside of her, a strong feeling impossible to stifle down that was showing more and more often lately. He knew what had happened, he knew what the others thought of her. He had to know why she was scared to display her good academics. And yet he had phrased it like it was too bad, a disappointment really, and why was it that way?

She hated his guts.

Anyway, she was quiet at school, and when she talked she felt like her voice carried all across the room, all across the entire building, that everyone could hear her, and nobody liked it.

In practice, only Ino stopped in her track and turned, instead of following Shikamaru and Choji outside for recess. Sakura waited for the corridor to empty out. Soon enough, they were alone.

“Do you want something?” Ino asked, not unkindly despite her rough tone. Now that Sakura handled Naruto on a regular basis, even Ino’s grumpy demeanor appeared nice and refreshing in comparison.

“I wanted to thank you for the paper. And… huh, you mentioned you could acquire… other things. If need be.”

For some reason, this seemed to please Ino, who relaxed and took a step to get closer to Sakura, a conspiratorial smile on her face.

“Need you some more illegal material, Sakura?” she said mischievously. Sakura blushed.

“It’s not… illegal. Just, huh…”

“Relax. Just tell me what you need.”

“I need some sort of resource on sealing. Scrolls, books… to learn the basics, something like that.”

Ino stared at her with enough intensity that Sakura squirmed a little, feeling exposed.

“I’ll ask Sai,” Ino finally agreed. “But you need to give him something in return.”

“What, like… he asks for payment?”

“He doesn’t ask,” Ino said. Her expression had darkened, her mouth set in an upset fold. “Whatever is asked of him, he will do it.”

She seemed greatly distressed by the fact.

“We’re trying to break him out of it though, hence the reward. Anything you want, but you’ll have to trade it with him in person.”

It had been a while since Sakura hadn’t been caught in Ino’s weird schemes, she had forgotten the utter oddity of her ways. Their classmates who feared her had no idea they should have actually feared her more.

“…Okay.”

“Cool.”

Ino walked off with a light strut and without a care in the world, as if they hadn’t just discussed a shady deal like some petty criminals in a back alley.

Sakura chuckled helplessly. What was even her life.

.

“Alright. This should be… simple.”

Naruto raised a skeptical eyebrow at Sakura, who had been studying the scroll for a good twenty minutes and seemed no closer to deciphering it. She had refused once again to say where she had gotten it, but Naruto had anticipated this time – he had been stalking her for a few days, and was now reasonably certain that that Sai weirdo from their class dealt shinobi material against baked goods. A terrible deal really, since Naruto had tasted Sakura’s cookies before, but the results were the same – here they were with a scroll on Base Sealing.

According to Sakura, anyway.

Naruto couldn’t decipher any of the scroll. He could only recognize what was written instruction and what was actual seals to reproduce, and that was about it.

“What is it supposed to do?” Sasuke asked, brows furrowed, and Naruto took great comfort in the fact that Sasuke could read, and still looked about as lost as Naruto felt.

“It’s a simple charging seal. To store up chakra. It’s entry level, so it’s only for one jutsu. You put chakra in, so you can use it later, when you’re all run out I guess. Huh. This is just the storing part though, there’s nothing on how you’re supposed to release it…”

“What the point then…” Sasuke mumbled. He had made no secret of what he thought, personally, on sealing. He wanted to spar, not waste time on an art he would make no use of, or something. He was less available lately, seen a lot with his two annoying relatives – not that Naruto cared. Naruto knew how to rile him up anyway – a simple comment about how he was just afraid he couldn’t do it, and Sasuke was on board to try it with them.

“Quit whining! Okay, take the scroll and try to… draw that.”

Naruto had never been particularly good at drawing or calligraphy – he could barely write his own name. But copying the seal wasn’t that hard. In fact, it was pretty easy – there was a symmetry there, a pattern, that made the design obvious once he’d studied it long enough. Even the kanjis scattered around the circles and at the end of the various branches made more sense to him than they ever had. They had a reason to be there. Their meaning was obvious. The ink smeared a little, but it was simple enough to work it into the symbols, and it was barely visible once he was done.

He looked at the final product and found… something didn’t add up. He couldn’t have said why, but he didn’t like it. He checked on the scroll again, but he has made no mistake. Still, something felt off.

Without thinking, he added just a few extra lines under some of the branches that formed a sort of sun around the blank space in the middle where he supposed the sealing would take place. Now, that was better. Not perfect yet, but better.

He looked up to glance at the other’s scroll. Sasuke’s was the worst by far, all wobbly and uneven. Sasuke had extraordinary steady and sure hands for throwing weapons, but it looked like it didn’t extend to handling a brush. Sakura’s was better, but Naruto didn’t like it for some reasons. He almost said something, but refrained – what did he know about this anyway? Hers was probably better, he just couldn’t see it.

“Alright, and then…”

They glanced together at the hand signs drawn hastily at the bottom of the scroll.

“There’s not much of an instruction, you just… Send chakra at it? And that final sign is to complete the sealing.”

Sasuke was the best at mudras, able to do them faster than everyone in their class, but this wasn’t a combat situation or even a combat techniques. There was no rush. Naruto formed the signs carefully, satisfied that the combination felt natural, flowing. There had been something on mudra theory the other day in class, about how certain pattern would feel easier to handle than others depending on chakra affinity, but Naruto wasn’t paying much attention then. Since he had no idea how much chakra he was supposed to use, he just called up whatever came to him, but contrary to Sakura and Sasuke who slapped their hands on the paper as soon as their sings were done, he paused, hands joined in the tiger sign.

Let it come up. Let it be.

Just as his two companions flopped back with defeated sighs, Naruto pressed his hands on the paper. There was an indication on the scroll about where they were supposed to go, but he hadn’t looked, so he just put them where he thought would work best. The signs would guide the chakra anyway, that’s what they were there for. He felt it rush out – he didn’t have to control it. He just had to stop the flow, whenever he wanted.

When he felt like it was enough, he cut the flow and lifted his hands, only to clap them together immediately. It felt final that way. The jutsu fell away – in the circle that was once blank now stood the “chakra” kanjis written in a lighter color than the ink spread around it.

Naruto turns to the others, only to see theirs were still blank, and that they were looking at his scrolls with no little envy.

“Huh,” Sasuke commented helpfully.

.

Sasuke remembered clearly the first time he had tried the Katon jutsu. He had been disappointed then because his father had, but at the time, he remembered how easy it had been to just make the signs and call up the fire. Despite his father’s feeble explanations, he had managed it on the first time, albeit on a ridiculously small scale. Ninjutsu had always come easily to him, but this was different. This felt natural.

He had been reminded, a bit, when Naruto had tried to explain to them how he had managed to make that seal work. Despite their best effort, neither Sasuke nor Sakura had been able to. It wasn’t that bad – Sasuke had no interest in seals, a chakra consuming and complicated art, and having Naruto manage it on the very first try while his two friends couldn’t figure it out could have been frustrating but it was… nice, instead. He had been happy, even he’d tried to hide it. Sasuke was content with that.

However, Naruto wasn’t the prime example Sasuke had of innate talent. That award, of course, went to Itachi, who had never struggled at anything in his life, to whom everything came effortlessly.

Sasuke remembered his first Katon now, in the middle of training with his brother and cousin, because shortly after, as he complained to his mother about none of the other kids at school being any good at ninjutsu which was easy, right?, she had explained to him how things that came easy for him wouldn’t come so easy to others. That being able to understand that, and to reach through to the ones who couldn’t figure things out as fast as he did, it was what would make him truly great at his skill. He had understood, vaguely, that she was talking about the talent of teaching others. It was hard indeed, as proven by his attempt to teach ninjutsu to Naruto, and by… well. What was happening right now.

His mother had said that genius often made for terrible teachers, and she was right.

It’s not that Itachi was mean about it, or too severe or anything like this. But he was utterly incapable of explaining anything clearly.

Sasuke supposed that it made sense – he didn’t have to think about it. He had barely needed to learn those things himself, they had been minimally explained to him before he could reproduce them on the spot.

Which led to his current level of frustration.

“No, not like that.”

How then?”

“…Not like that.”

Sasuke threw his arms up. This was pointless. Itachi couldn’t impart any of his wisdom, it was beyond him. Sasuke would have been tempted to think he was doing it on purpose, if not for the confused and slightly distressed look growing on Itachi’s face as he failed to explain himself to his brother. Sasuke cast a helpless look at Shisui, looking greatly amused by what he was watching.

“You’re rushing Sasuke. Being able to form signs quickly is a good skill, but only if they’re still flawless. This is a much more advanced jutsu than the simple fireball. You can’t be sloppy in any way.”

Itachi was sporting a puzzled expression that belonged on Sasuke’s face, not his. Itachi was supposed to know these things. Supposed to know what he was doing.

But maybe he just… wasn’t.

“Thanks, Shisui,” Itachi said. Shisui grinned.

“What would you do without me, I wonder.”

Sasuke had always assumed that Itachi treated Shisui differently than… well, than the rest of the entire world, because he saw something in him, something that had made them friends beyond their blood connection, something that set Shisui apart. He was starting to understand it was the other way around.

It’s Shisui who treated Itachi differently. Not from how he treated the others, but from how the others treated Itachi. His talent was well-advertised in the village – everyone was always a little awed over the Uchiha prodigy. Even his classmates, people his age, even people he had never met before. They were respectful and full of praise, but also a little distant, like they didn’t feel like they could actually approach him. There were those who tried to gain his attention and his favors. There were those who openly despised him.

And then there was Shisui, of whom the first distinct memory Sasuke had was him tugging Itachi's ponytail lose to bind to kunais together in a failed attempt to invent a new kind of weapon that had resulted in a broken window and a very long lecture.

Shisui had always treated him like a friend. He wasn’t envious or jealous, even when there were some to whisper behind their back that he must have been bitter, for Itachi was younger but better than him already. But Shisui had no care for any of this.

“It’s… It’s normal not to make it on the first try,” Itachi tried lamely. Sasuke shrugged.

“Tss, thanks, I know that.”

Shisui clicked his tongue with a frown, to Sasuke’s puzzlement. Itachi looked upset.

“No but, really, I… I know that. I wasn’t expecting to. I just need to keep practicing,” he added for good measure. He was annoyed at the way they relaxed – did they really think he was such a brat? He wasn’t an idiot. He knew learning jutsu took time, for the vast majority of people. Itachi was the exception, not the rule.

Sasuke truly didn’t care about that, no more than Shisui did. It wasn’t Itachi being the best at everything that bothered him. His brother was like he was – it was a good thing. He was strong, he could protect himself and protect others, he was respected. Those were good things.

The anger Sasuke had over this wasn’t toward Itachi. He was plenty angry at Itachi, but not about that. It’s the others that enraged him. If Sasuke wanted to beat Itachi, it wasn’t so that he would get to be stronger than him. It was just so that he too would be seen, finally. Would be recognized.

“What?” he asked angrily at their open surprise.

“We would have thought you’d be more upset about this,” Shisui said calmly, honest as ever. Sasuke focused back on repeating the mudras to avoid their gaze.

“What does it matter,” he mumbled. “I’ll get it eventually. When you use a jutsu in battle, no one’s gonna point a finger and say “yeah but it took him two years to learn it!”. They’ll say “aaaah” and “it burns” and then they’ll die.”

Sasuke was broken out of his concentration by a sound. A weird, ridiculous sound, the kind people made when a laugh was startled out of them and they didn’t have time to stifle it entirely, a dirty mix between a groan and sneeze.

Itachi was snickering into his collar.

Sasuke wasn’t sure why it gave him a pause. Maybe because it was hard to conjure up the image of Itachi laughing. Maybe because here they were, the three of them in that clearing, training together and now laughing too.

Truth be told, Sasuke had never cared that much about training with Itachi. But it was the only way that maybe Itachi would agree to hang out, since he was always so busy. Sasuke just wanted them to spend time together.

Well, now, he really needed to train. But this was nice all the same.

“We underestimated you, Sasuke. Sorry,” Shisui said, and his tone was mocking but gentle too, very fond. Itachi’s smile faded away, as it often did. Sasuke wondered was dark thoughts plagued him to the point that he couldn’t be content for more than a few moments.

Maybe he’d ask, one day.

“So, like that?” Sasuke asked again, intent on making the most of that session.

“Huh, no, not like that.”

“How then?”

“…Not like that.”

Shisui’s laugh rung clearly through the woods.

.

“Yo.”

Sai raised his head from his notebook to see who was suddenly blocking the sun. It was a boy. Blond. From his class. Sai searched his memory for a second.

Uzumaki Naruto. Person of interest, but the reason why was classified. Terrible student, known not to be very friendly.

Addressing him, apparently.

“Hello.”

Shin and Ino, sitting on each side of him on the bench, tensed visibly as they interrupted their conversation to assess the newcomer. They said nothing though.

“I need you to teach me,” Naruto said. Sai was going to ask what, but saw that Naruto was pointing at his notebook, where he had been drawing absentmindedly, small animals running around the pages as he waited for recess to be over and class to resume. They had so much leisure time now, it was exhausting. He didn’t get how people came up constantly with ways to fill their time, with how much they had. 

“Why?”

"Learning seals. Need to be better with a brush," Naruto said curtly, seemingly fed up with the conversation already. Low tolerance for social interactions? At least with strangers. Spent enough time with Uchiha Sasuke and Haruno Sakura, could be labeled as friends. Never seen talking all that much though. Sai could relate.

“I see.”

Sai was going to agree, since he had no reason not to, but Ino cleared her throat loudly by his side, and he cast her a long, puzzled look, trying to decipher what she was trying to tell him. After a while she just sighed, exasperated.

“And what will he get in return?” she asked Naruto. Ah, that was that. He was supposed to ask, but he always forgot, because he didn’t care. He didn’t need nor want anything. What was the point?

“I’m not paying you,” Naruto replied immediately, like the mere suggestion offended him.

“Thank you,” Sai answered. Money was yet another issue he could go without for now. It confused him to the highest level. Just owning things made his head hurt.

Naruto frowned.

“You could teach me something,” Sai offered, struck with inspiration. That would placate Ino, wouldn’t it? Sai was interested in learning things. It seemed to be all he was doing beside drawing, ever since they had been placed in the Yamanaka’s care, and he was okay with continuing on that path for now.

“Well. I guess I could.”

“Could you? Is there anything you can do?” Ino asked. She was more aggressive than necessary – Sai took it to mean they had history together. Ex-partners maybe? Ino talked a lot about love and boys, even if she wasn’t seen often in the company of one or the other, present company notwithstanding.

Naruto glared at her, either vexed or hurt, it was hard to tell.

“I can teach you to pickpocket,” Naruto said after a moment of reflection.

“What? That’s out of the question!”

Sai turned toward Shin this time – it was annoying this habit him and Ino had to bracket him, it meant he couldn’t look at both at the same time.

“Why not?” Sai asked.

“It’s a good skill to have,” Ino admitted. “Are you any good though?”

“Was I ever arrested? That’s your answer.”

“It’s really not.”

“It’s not the question!” Shin said again, louder this time, flustered at the way he was being ignored. “Sai is not learning to pickpocket!"

Sai shrugged. He didn’t care either way but if Shin was against it, then he wouldn’t.

“Anything else?” he asked politely. The teacher would be calling them one moment or another, and he wanted that conversation to be over. Naruto managed to look even sourer, if possible, before sighing in defeat over whatever debate he was having in his head.

“What about how to cook?”

Ino scoffed.

“You can cook?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“I’ve seen your bento.”

“I’ve been taking care of myself for ten years out of ten so yes, I know how to cook.”

For some reasons, Sai expected an insult at the end of that sentence. Aware that he had the power to stop all this noise, he nodded.

“I agree.”

Ino seemed ready to protest, but Shin most likely did something to stop her – Sai still couldn’t look at both at the same time – because she let it go, her mouth clicking shut on a mean grimace.

“Great,” Naruto said without looking like he found any of this particularly great. “See you after class.”

And without waiting for an answer, he was gone.

“Cool,” Sai said as he believed kids were supposed to, to no one in particular. Ino still disagreed.

Chapter Text

“Is Shibi married to Kiyoko?”

Mikoto couldn’t help the light laugh that shook her shoulders – she glanced away from the vegetables she was cutting on the counter to look at her husband, staring off in the distance, mission reports open but forgotten on the table in front of him.

“What’s so funny?”

“I could tell something was bothering you, but really, that was it?”

He frowned, never one to appreciate being teased. He used to be more fun. Or did he? Maybe she just used to be less so.

“It may have occurred to me that I know very little of the current… personal affairs of our various… associates.”

The word “friends” would make his mouth melt, probably. She sighed, both exasperated and fond. It was always funny and mildly unsettling to see that Fugaku, for all his responsibilities and status, could be as immature and petty as a teenager.

“No, he’s not. The Aburame raise their children collectively, and they’re light on their attachment to lineage. Shibi and Kiyoko’s son Shino – he’s in Sasuke’s class by the way – is next in line for the succession for now, but it’s more a question of age and timing than legacy. Maybe it will go to someone else.”

“Huh.”

Fugaku took a sip of his tea, thoughtful, and Mikoto knew to expect more questions. What would he do without her, she wondered.

“What about Inoichi?”

“He never married either, although he and Ino’s mother lived together for a while. They were close friends and he wanted a child, but she wasn’t interested in the sedentary lifestyle. She's a traveling spy – she's not often seen in the village.”

“He stopped at Ino,” Fugaku said, more as a personal reflection than a question. Mikoto answered anyway.

“Historically, the Yamanaka have had more female leaders than male ones. Their women can pass down the family name as well as the men, and be trained in their technics. So yeah, he stopped at Ino.”

It was an issue they had avoided, and she was both glad and guilty about it. She would have loved a daughter equally to her sons, but what about him? The Uchiha were debatably the worst on that particular subject.  

Fugaku didn’t catch the bite in her tone and not for the first time, she regretted bitterly the years she had spent keeping herself quiet, unwilling to make any noise, to stir any trouble. If he was deaf to her voice today, she had only herself to blame.

And could only count on herself to fix it.

“Is he single then?”

“Not exactly. He has this… thing, going on. With Shikaku and Yoshino.”

It was always satisfying to hear bewildered silence where an answer should have been. She set her knife down and turned around, not resisting the need to see the expression on his face.

“Wh-What?”

“It’s been a few years. Why do you think he’s always there when we dine at the Nara’s?”

“I just assumed they were close friends.”

“Well, they are.”

She couldn’t say she understood it either, except maybe she did, a little. They had all been quick to marry and have children, because it’s what was expected of them and there was an urgency then that only war could bring, to get on with those things before it was too late. They were older now though, relatively at peace and free from their elders’ grasp, for the most part. Willing to live their life as they wanted, at least a little. Ready to fight for it too.

She had reconnected with her friends from outside the clan, and it was a bitter comfort to see that they were all struggling with their family life, one way or another. Yoshino had been unhappy for a long time, and for a while her marriage had been on shaky ground. Shikaku was far from a stellar husband, but it’s not like he had changed over the years. He had always been this way – she had wrongly assumed he would evolve in her sense. That new arrangement seemed to suit them though.

Mikoto too had made similar mistakes, to convince herself that the things that upset her in her relationship would ease with time, that she would be content, eventually. How foolish young women could be.

“You never mentioned any of it to me,” he accused. She rolled her eyes. As if she was responsible for keeping him updated on their circle’s love lives.

“Who’s the chief of police here? Besides, they don’t advertise it, but they’re not exactly subtle either. And you can be a bit… traditional, on those matters. There was no reason for me to bring it up.”

He grimaced, and he knew that wasn’t the word she wanted to use. It was a skill she had mastered over years of navigating political conflicts – the art of being somewhat insulting without saying anything outright offensive. He could tell she meant a far less neutral term than “traditional”, so even her not saying it didn’t soothe the sting. He loved when she used it on other people – they used to go through boring get-togethers this way, by faking politeness and subtly riling up everyone around them without them being able to pinpoint what made them so infuriating.

He didn’t like when it was turned against him though.

“Why are you being like this? Ever since… You’ve changed,” he said. The accusation in his tone would have rushed her into an apology, once upon a time, but a lot had happened since then, and he didn’t hold that much authority over her anymore. She did feel bad for him, a bit. In the wave of brutal changes that had crashed over them, it distressed him that he couldn’t even hold on to what they were.

“You’re wrong. I changed before, when I married you and I just… chose to let it go. I put so much effort into being more proper, into swallowing down my every word. I thought it was the right thing to do. That I had to focus on being a good mother and a good wife, and leave all the fighting to you, be it on the battlefield or in a council room. And look where it led us."

“Nothing of what happened was your fault.”

“Of course it was, Fugaku. It was my fault, and yours,” she accused plainly. It was a long time coming, really. They had had to put up a united front, for the sake of the clan and their children, during the abrupt transition brought by Danzo’s downfall, but things were settling down now and he needed to understand they were not going back to how they used to be. “All the times I failed to stand up to you, all the times you didn’t listen to me… We should have seen something, Fugaku. We should have noticed. We were so caught up in that little roleplay, the clan head and his devoted wife and their two perfect children… None of it was any truth. And we are not going back to the way it was. I’m not going to stop. You need to accept that.”

Despite everything, she still wanted for them to overcome this together, as a team, as a family. They were freer and bolder once when they were young, and she refused to believe it had just gone away.

He didn’t answer anything, but for him, it was a good sign. It meant he was using his brain, meant he was considering. It was rare that they managed to conclude a conversation in one-go – Fugaku was terminally incapable of making a decision on the spot.

The front door opened and two pairs of footsteps shuffled into the house – the other reason why their talks were often interrupted before they could meet their end. Itachi and Sasuke tumbled into the kitchen, in good enough spirit it seemed. Itachi caught on the heavy air around his parents immediately, while Sasuke remained oblivious, his only concern being how fast dinner would be ready.

“I’ll help,” Itachi offered, already washing his hands and reaching for the remaining vegetables.

“I’ll leave you to it,” Fugaku said in turn, rising from his seat. Mikoto caught Sasuke sneaking unsubtle glances at his father, and tried to draw Fugaku’s attention on it, to no avail. Her husband could be so dense, it was unbelievable.

Finally, he seemed to catch on, because he turned toward his youngest.

“Do you… want to show me what you’ve learned, Sasuke?”

Sasuke, who had been growing angry at himself lately for still chasing after his father’s approval, did his best to accept in what he probably believed was a nonchalant way. It worked on Fugaku, so it was all fine. It would most likely end in yet another argument between the two, since Sasuke didn’t hesitate now to call his father out on his harshness and lack of interest. Mikoto left them to it though – they had to work things out on their own.

She found herself alone with Itachi, which wasn’t bad either, even if she feared she would yet again fail to reach through to him.

“Did your training go well?” she asked, hoping to at least ease him into small talk. She was desperate for any information he would give her about how he was feeling, how he was doing.

“Yes. Sasuke is a good student.”

“Was Shisui with you?”

She felt it immediately. A subtle but unmistakable change in the atmosphere of the room, in Itachi’s posture. He put down the knife he was handling and set both of his hands on the counter.

“Yes. Don’t worry, I don’t train Sasuke on my own.”

Her eyes widened and she let go of her own bowl.

“That’s not what I…”

“Why aren’t you mad at me?”

He was facing away from her. His shoulders and back were contracted in a painful looking line.

“About what?” she asked, although she knew where this was going.

“You should be mad. You should…”

“You did what you thought was right, Itachi. It’s your right to be at odds with the wills of the clan. Even if it means going behind our back."

“That’s not it.”

She had a feeling it wasn’t. Fugaku and Itachi had talked at length, if not about their feelings, at least about their vision, their diverging opinion on right and wrong, on priorities and sacrifices. She wasn’t sure they understood each other, but at least Fugaku and her knew what had gone through Itachi's mind, knew the reasoning behind him spying on the clan, reporting their every action. "I don't want a war!" Itachi had yelled, the first night they had had that conversation. Mikoto had never heard him yell before. “I don’t want a war,” he’d said again quietly, and really, that’s all there was to it. Itachi was scared of war and would have done anything to prevent it.

And in that case, “anything”, she believed, was an awful lot.

“I would have done it,” he whispered, as much a confession as a realization. “I would have done it, mom.”

Definitely giving up on dinner making, she marched to him and put gentle hands on his shoulders, making him turn around so that they could face each other. He avoided her gaze – his eyes were shining.

“He said… he said we’d all be slaughtered anyway, and that others would die in the fights too. He said that if I… that Sasuke would be spared. That way, it would be just me. I would be the one to… No one else would… I was going to do it.”

He was shaking. She stayed silent, lest she startled him out of his confession.

He had never shared those details with them.

“He really had me believe it was the only way.”

Itachi didn’t say Danzo’s name aloud.

“I believed him. I didn’t think about anything else.”

“It wasn’t your role to find a solution to this, Itachi. You should never have had to be involved in the first place.”

“But I was. And I… Mom, why aren’t you mad? I was going to. I was.”

“You can’t know that.”

“I do. I’m sure. I’m… I’m…”

“No.”

The sudden firmness of her tone startled him into silence. He looked young suddenly, far younger than he was, younger than they tended to see him. He looked at her like a kid could look at his mother, when he hoped she could answer his doubts, soothe his worry.

“You’re not. You didn’t do it, Itachi. Be it thanks to luck, fate, anything, you didn’t do it. We will never know what could have happened. Maybe you would have, yes. Maybe we would have had to stop you.”

The thought made her sick. She went on.

“Maybe the others would have changed their mind, maybe someone would have discovered everything, maybe you wouldn’t have been able to go through with it. We can never know, so it doesn’t matter. You didn’t do it, Itachi. We don’t blame people for crimes they could have committed.”

“Don’t we?”

Naruto’s sullen face flashed through her mind. She inhaled deeply, trying to steady herself.

“I’m not mad at you. Because I don’t want to. It does scare me to know the extremes you could have been pushed to, it does anger and sadden me how close we came to that tragedy. We can only be grateful it didn’t come to pass.”

“But it’s in who I am now. I can never… I’m that kind of person. I can’t escape it.”

She couldn’t deny it. Maybe he was. It didn’t help that the following event had proved him and Danzo’s wrong – they had managed to solve that conflict another way, if only because the shock of what was going on behind the scene had made the Uchiha realize that they weren’t the only ones being wronged in the current situation.

Itachi has the proof that his choice wasn’t the right one. And that he had been spared from actually making it didn’t erase the weight of it from his mind.

“You’ll just have to make amend then. Do better. Make sure nothing of the sort ever happens again. It didn’t happen, Itachi. This world doesn’t exist. You’re here now, with us. We’re all here.”

Her hands were cradling his face. His fingers closed around her wrists, his only concession to their physical distance.

“I hate myself,” he confessed in a breath. It pierced straight through her heart but she remained steady, unshaken.

“I know.”

Unable to stand it anymore, she closed the distance between them and wrapped him in her arm. He was almost taller than her – he folded on himself to hide into her embrace, shoulders shaking with dry sobs.

“I’m sorry mom. I’m sorry.”

He repeated it again and again, as she answered time and time again, “it’s alright, it’s alright”. It wasn’t really, but what was she supposed to say?

Of course, because Fugaku always had awful timing, it was the moment he chose to come back to the kitchen, Sasuke in tow. It was a testament to how bad Itachi was feeling that he didn’t move from her embrace. Fugaku stood shell-shocked, struggling as he usually was with processing any emotions, his or others. Fortunately for all of them, Sasuke seemed to have developed some sensitivity from who knew where. She certainly didn’t credit any of his family members for it.

“What’s happening? Is Itachi alright?” he asked, face and voice heavy with concern, as he jumped around them to try and spot his brother’s face. Itachi straightened up slowly, rubbing a furtive hand on his eyes.

“I’m okay, Sasuke, don’t worry.”

“You know, if you don’t want to tell me, you can just… tell me that. There’s no need to lie.”

Itachi’s expression was comical, and Mikoto couldn’t stifle her laugh, especially after the loaded conversation they had just finished.

“I’m… not so fine. But I will be,” Itachi amended. Sasuke nodded, satisfied.

“Although, maybe I… need some help,” Itachi added after a pause, with a meaningful look at his mother.

“We’ll take it up to Inoichi,” she answered easily, knowing he would be more comfortable going through the man instead of knocking at the psychology department’s door on his own. Itachi liked him, and trusted him marginally more than others of similar rank and position. Fugaku looked like he wanted to ask something, but he didn’t, which was commendable – every time he understood he was in over his head and had best to stand back and keep silent was a win in her book.

“Can we eat now though?” Sasuke asked. She scolded him lightly for his impatience, but he looked pleased with himself, as Itachi had relaxed a little, promising it would be ready soon. Mikoto pondered that her youngest was smarter than they gave him credit for.

.

“Ino. Can you come out? I want to talk to you.”

Sasuke tried to play it cool but the sudden silence of the classroom made him nervous. Why were those idiots looking at him like this? It wasn’t that extraordinary that he would need to speak with a fellow classmate.

Several girls giggled and whispered to themselves, but Ino silenced them with a scalding look. Sasuke was a little jealous – his still needed some work. She got up from her desk gracefully, looking supremely unconcerned and like she was doing him a huge favor by accepting.

“Lead the way,” she said haughtily. Sasuke fought to keep an eye roll in check. He needed her cooperation.

They had just a few minutes between classes so most of the students had stayed put – the corridor was empty. They walked a few steps away from the door, if only to escape wandering eyes and ears.

Now that he was facing with her, Sasuke grew nervous again. He didn’t like to expose himself like that, didn’t want to know what conclusion she would draw about him. It was worse because it was Ino, who he always felt had mind-reading abilities or something, and who was also the worst gossip, and not in a harmless “everyone must know what I know” way. More in a “I weaponized knowledge and won’t hesitate to blackmail you” way.

But surely, she would know, so…

“Alright,” she said in a bored tone just as he was opening his mouth. “I’ll go out with you.”

He abruptly closed it. What the hell was she talking about? He fought off an embarrassed flush and, panicking, he blurted out the first thing that situation inspired him.

“No thanks.”

Her expression of careful disinterest slipping into incredulous surprise clued him into thinking that wasn’t the right thing to say.

“I mean, that’s not what I meant to ask.”

“Oh.”

She quickly composed back her haughty posture, and the flash of hurt he thought he saw on her face immediately morphed into anger.

“Are you serious? Why would you call me outside like that then?”

“To ask you something else! What’s your problem really?”

“What’s my… Forget about it. Sage, boys are so stupid…

She raised a commanding hand to prevent him from answering to that. He hid a grimace into his collar – she was so damn rude.

“What do you want then?”

Sasuke hesitated. The conversation was off to a rocky start, it didn’t bode well for his chances to get an answer. But now that they had gone through that terribly embarrassing endeavor, he wasn’t going to back out without getting what he actually wanted.

“It’s about Sakura.”

She grimaced.

“If you want me to ask her out for you…”

“Will you stop it? I’m not asking anybody out dammit!”

The outburst startled her and she lost a bit of her reserve. She crossed her arms on her chest, going almost businesslike in her expression, and gestured with her chin for him to go on.

“I figured maybe you knew. About what happened to her.”

He made a vague gesture toward his right cheek. Her posture changed entirely once she understood what he was talking about, and she hunched a little, defensive.

“I do.”

He hoped his annoyance didn’t show on his face. Was he the only one who had no clue?

“Would you tell me?”

“No way.”

In insight, he should have seen this coming.

“Why?”

“If you don’t know, it’s because she doesn’t want you to, and I’m not going to step over that. If you really want to know, just ask her.”

“I have!”

“Have you?”

Had he? Maybe not is so many words. She was skittish around the subject and he couldn’t just… ask. Could he?

He didn’t know why he couldn’t let it go. He had been thinking more and more about it lately – maybe because he had too much alone time on his hand. It was getting difficult to get a hold on both Naruto and Sakura these days. Sakura, because she was mending things with Ino – Sasuke supposed so anyway, because Ino’s particular brand of friendship eluded him if he was honest. And Naruto because he stayed at the Academy after school to train his calligraphy with that Sai guy. Sasuke had spied on them once, and it had been the most boring thing ever. They had barely exchanged a word, focused on their brush dancing on the scrolls, with Sai occasionally nodding and Naruto looking up to copy him. They were probably enjoying themselves, stupidly enough.

During training itself, now that Naruto was slowly but surely getting the hang of the Academy standard ninjutsu, he spent a lot of time buried in his fuinjutsu scrolls. Sakura had called it right – not only was he a natural, most importantly, he actually enjoyed it. Maybe more than taijutsu.

Sasuke was making his own legwork diving into the signature jutsu of his clans, and he had to admit he also missed their shared training sessions more and more. But Itachi was in the mood lately and Sasuke wanted to make the most of it before he became distant again for whatever reason.

He could call it what it was – he missed their little get-togethers, and he couldn’t help but feel like, if there was ever a choice to make, Sakura and Naruto would keep hanging out together, and leave him behind. After all, he was the only one who didn’t know…

“Good talk,” Ino said, biting, cutting through his wandering thoughts. Sasuke followed her back in the classroom, where she yet again cut all gossip with a searing glare. Sasuke was reluctantly impressed.

.

Ino had warned her that he would probably ask. Sakura was still unprepared.

“Why… Why do you want to know?”

They were on cleanup duty for the day, so Sasuke had seized the opportunity. She kept her eyes firmly trained on the chalkboard she was wiping up, tracking his movements by sound as he moved around the classroom to collect the trash.

“The others do,” he said petulantly.

“I didn’t tell them. Naruto was there and Ino… knows things.”

She had no better way to put it. Maybe she had overheard Kara or an adult talk about it. Maybe she had just happened to be snooping around at that moment, be it in the street or at the hospital. Sakura hoped it wasn’t that – hoped Ino hadn’t seen, and done nothing.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said weakly. It was a half lie. The main issue here was that she didn’t want to talk about it with him.

“I just want to know.”

“But why? Why does it matter? It’s… it’s done now. I’m over it.”

Another lie, and a transparent one at that. She didn’t have to turn around to feel his skeptical look on her. She resisted the urge to touch her scar.

Her hair wasn’t growing back. She had gone to Ino’s house the previous weekend and asked her to cut them into something resembling an intentional cut. She couldn’t see herself asking her mother, to cut it or to take her to the hairdresser. She didn’t think she would understand, her who had been telling her daughter for months now that she wasn’t to worry, that they would grow back in no time.

She didn’t want them to. They would stay gone.

Naruto had said she looked like Uchiha Shisui. It’s true they had the same haircut, sort of. Well, there was worse lookalike to have. Everyone was attractive in the Uchiha clan.

“It’s stupid,” Sasuke mumbled.

“What?” she asked, defensive. What is so surprising that she wanted to keep it to herself? But he didn’t get the harshness of her tone, because he wasn’t talking about her.

“I just… It’s stupid but I want to know who it was. So that I don’t become friend with them.”

Sakura stopped wiping the board.

She made great efforts to turn around and look at the boy. He was still tossing pieces of paper and candy wrapping into the bin, carefully avoiding to have her in his line of sight.

This was one of the sweetest things anyone had ever said to her.

She never felt like he particularly cared about her presence. He wasn’t as hostile as he had been at first, but it’s not like they had grown close or anything. Well, it wasn’t, wasn't it? Except she would have been hard-pressed to say what it looked like when he did care about someone, save from the few interactions she had seen him have with his family. He wasn’t very demonstrative, and he didn’t have that many friends.

Naruto and her, namely. They were friends.

If they were friends, maybe she could tell him and he wouldn’t be mad at her. She had the sudden urge to find out what he would say, to put it to the test. She felt the echo of the warm feeling that used to fill her when she looked at him and talked to him. She knew him better now than she ever did back then, and he had done nothing that justified she should love him less.

“Alright. Alright.”

She had never retold the event in so many words before. It was unpleasant, but it was also cathartic. It was long enough ago that she felt a little detached from it – mainly because she was confident it wouldn’t happen again now. On their last taijutsu lesson she had requested to be paired up with Kara, and she had nailed her to the ground in less than a minute. Kara had tried and tried, but she had barely landed any punches – and the ones that landed were weak, they couldn’t hurt her. Kara had nothing on Naruto, or even Sasuke.

And now Kara had nothing on her either.

She spoke and she watched Sasuke’s face change, going from curious to confused to a blank expression she couldn’t decipher. She was playing idly with the sponge to occupy her hand – he was completely still, standing a few feet away between the tables, the setting sun playing ominous shadows on his face and body, on the room around them.

When she was done, she felt tired and spent, but content too. It was out there now. From then on, it wouldn’t be so hard to talk about this.

He stayed silent for a terribly long, unnerving moment, enough that she considered running out of the classroom, confident that he wouldn’t react fast enough to catch her. He spoke just when she was starting to stretch her legs.

“That’s terrible.”

She could have laughed at his tone, awkward and emotionless, had he been trying to empathize with anyone else. As it was, she didn’t really feel like laughing.

“That’s just… yeah.” She couldn’t find anything more to say.

In the end, they didn’t say anything at all. They wrapped up and left the Academy without adding a single word, not even a goodbye, and the good feeling she had had about this vanished as she raced home to go cry in her pillow.

.

“Dad! DAD!”

“What is it Sasuke, what’s happening? Are you hurt, what’s going on?”

“We need to talk right now.”

.

Was it not for her mother's tone of voice, Sakura would have probably ignored her call to "come downstairs immediately". She wasn’t nearly done sulking for the night, as she kept coming up with scenarios more terrible than the other as to what Sasuke was up to right now. Maybe he was never going to talk to her again. Maybe he was going to tell everyone so that they could mock her. Maybe he was going to have her arrested for dragging the Uchiha name in the dirt.

She knew she wasn’t making a lot of sense, but she had no control over her senseless fear. Why hadn’t he say something? Why hadn’t she asked?

The panic she could hear in her mother’s scream – that strangely echoed her own – pushed her to get out of her bed and drag herself downstairs where the front door was open. She had just heard the bell ring – maybe it was a visitor for her?

The police, here to take her out?

She climbed down the stairs and for a split second her heart stopped, because it was the police. Specifically, it was Sasuke’s father. Sasuke was there too, along with another couple of Uchiha she didn’t recognize.

And Kara.

It was too late to turn back. She was tempted to anyway.

“Huh, Hi. Hello! Hello, I’m… hi.”

Uchiha Fugaku was a stern looking man who had reverse dimple under his mouth, caused by non-smiling she imagined. He wasn’t in his uniform but in a traditional kimono, as were the two other adults that Sakura could only assume were Kara’s parents.

What was happening.

Her mother seemed at least as freaked out as she was, while the Uchiha party was perfectly composed, serious expression on their serious face. Sasuke didn’t look at her, emulating his father’s solemnity. She wished he would clue her in as to what was going on.

“Hello, Sakura. I’m Sasuke’s father, but I’m here as the head of the Uchiha clan,” the man said, nodding at Sakura before quickly going back to addressing her mother, who was not so subtly gripping the doorframe for support. “It has come to my attention that your daughter has suffered a great offense from one of our children."

He gestured at Kara without looking at her. Sakura had never seen her looking so down and self-conscious, head hanging low and shoulders hunched. She barely raised her head to cast a panicked look around her before staring back at her shoes.

“It’s… yes?” Sakura’s mother said weakly. Her father wasn’t home to provide moral support, and Sakura wasn’t going to be much help either.

“I don’t know how that event was handled exactly,” the man continued, unaware of the trouble he was causing or choosing to ignore it, “but from what Kara told us, the fault lies entirely on her and her friends. We don’t condone that kind of behavior in any way, and they will be severely punished. In the meantime, we hope you will accept our much sincere apologies, even if we’re aware of how late they are, and how little they weigh in light of what happened.”

Sakura was still in the process of putting that sentence back into the right order when all five of the Uchiha standing at her doorstep… bowed, in synch and all.

Her mother blushed furiously, losing what little composure she had left, as she tried to get them to stand back up. When it looked like it wasn’t happening though, she turned toward Sakura, as if her daughter was going to be any help.

Her gaze though, as it often did, fell onto her right cheek.

She took a few deep breaths and stood a little straighter, facing the party with renewed dignity. She gave a small bow of her own.

“We’re… grateful for you coming here today.” Another furtive look at Sakura. She gave the smallest nod. “We accept your apology.”

That thankfully made them straighten up.

“Please believe that we take this kind of matter very seriously. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us in the future. Thank you for your time.”

And with that, they were finally gone.

Barely a minute later, as Sakura and her mother were still standing dumbfounded in the entryway, Sakura’s father came rushing through the door.

“Was that Uchiha Fugaku I just saw exit our house?”

Her mother burst into hysterical laughter.

.

Fugaku stared at the red spiral tapped to the door for an absurdly long time.

Naruto had worked it into his clothes too. Fugaku had no idea what the boy thought his connection was to the design, and he didn’t know why he was so hung up on that insignificant detail.

But here it was, that red spiral, coincidently marking the territory of the last remaining member of the Uzumaki clan. It was the first time Fugaku came near it, although he had known where the jinchuuriki lived from the start, of course.

In a building exclusively inhabited with shinobis. In a flat on his own. He had knowledge of this, but he had never given it a single thought until now. He had never even addressed the boy.

Why did it matter all of the sudden?

He knocked on the door.

There was some shuffling on the other side and the sound of the lock turning, but the door opened just a smidge, blue eyes peering through the crack, widening when they saw him.

They had never met, but the boy obviously knew who he was.

“What do you want?” he said, aggression failing to cover his wariness.

“I just need to talk to you. You’re not in trouble,” Fugaku added as an afterthought. There was a long pause, before the boy finally decided to open the door enough that Fugaku could see him in full – just enough though, that his body filled the open space, blocking the entry.

It was somewhat hard to remember that Naruto was the same age as Sasuke, even a little younger. His face was set in a hard scowl, eyes full of mistrust and simmering rage. He was tensed as a bowstring, ready to lash out. Fugaku had planned to put in a little formality, but he found it wiser to just cut through the heart of the matter, lest he wanted to see the door being closed in his face.

“You were wrongly accused of harming Haruno Sakura,” he said bluntly, and got the small satisfaction of seeing surprise open a crack in the boy’s guarded up demeanor. He recovered quickly though.

“And what of it?”

It was Fugaku’s turned to be caught off guard. What of it indeed? Sasuke had insisted that his friend got excuses too. Fugaku had been more concerned with the fact that all parties involved in that incident had been convinced that the Uchiha would side with the guilty no question asked because she was one of their own. It was exactly the reputation they were trying to shake off.

But he cared very little about what the jinchuuriki thought of his clan.

Sasuke didn’t though. Fugaku was surprised at the boy’s strong sense of justice. His outrage had been real, and would have been just as strong, Fugaku was sure, had the people involved not been his friends. Naruto hadn’t been punished, since the teacher that had handled the affair was seemingly well aware that he wasn’t actually responsible – something else they would have to look into. That Mizuki had very little going for him, according to Sasuke’s report. But as it was, Naruto being wronged in the matter had little to do with them, and of little consequences. Sasuke had still insisted that Fugaku apologized to him also.

Fugaku couldn’t deny he was curious about the boy, curious enough that he had agreed.

“You shouldn’t have been. On behalf of my clan, I'm sorry you took the fall for Uchiha Kara.”

The boy shrugged, indifferent. Fugaku felt his temper rise.

“You could have said something,” he added, determined to engage with him somehow.

“To who?” Naruto shot back immediately.

“To us, for a start.”

“Yeah, right,” the boy scoffed. Fugaku had about zero experience with badly raised children, and had to make great effort to keep his temper in check. He raised a hand to rack it through his hair, a tic betraying his thinning patience that he had never managed to get rid of.

He froze mid-gesture though when the boy tensed suddenly, taking a slight step back to fall into a defensive position.

It crossed his face only for a second – Fugaku still saw it clearly.

The boy was afraid of him.

The boy was afraid of him, there was no going around it. Fugaku wondered in what respect. Because he was an Uchiha? The chief of police? A stranger? An adult? Was he afraid he would get mad, yell, hit him? Whichever it was, the fact remained. The jinchuuriki of the nine-tailed fox, the host of one of the most dangerous beasts of their world, that tiny receptacle of evil and chaos, was afraid of him.

The boy fought against himself to appear more relaxed, likely upset at having revealed himself like this.

“Will that be all, sir?” he asked, failing to sound as detached as he was aiming for, eager for this conversation to be over. To escape Fugaku and his gaze, to retreat to the safety of his apartment.

“He’s a boy,” Mikoto kept repeating when they were arguing about this. “He’s just a boy.”

Staring at him, Fugaku, for the first time, understood what she was saying. He had been thinking that Sasuke and the other kids didn’t see Naruto in that light simply because they didn’t know the truth. But Itachi, Shisui, even Izumi, they did know, and they still talked about him as a bratty, insufferable kid.

As just a boy.

“Why do you treat him like this?” Sasuke had asked angrily when Fugaku had dared to suggest there was no need to make things right by him. “He’s done nothing wrong.”

Did Naruto perceive his animosity, even though they had never met? Did he just live on the assumption that the people he met wished him no good?

Because despite it being their first meeting, just as Naruto was afraid of Fugaku, Fugaku was afraid of Naruto.

Afraid of the power he could unleash, the destruction he could cause, afraid of what getting close to him in any way could bring upon his family and clan.

But his first instinct upon seeing the boy flinched away from him had been to think “why are you afraid, you have no reason to.”

Didn’t he, though? Fugaku had heard, in passing, that the boy had been treated unfairly before. He’d dismissed it for more pressing concern, assuming that those claims were likely exaggerated.

The Haruno family had been wary too. They’d seen Fugaku as a threat, they’d been scared of what he was going to do. It was an unpleasant feeling, to be feared when he shouldn’t have been.

A feeling Naruto had to be very familiar with. Did he also think when people flinched away from him, “why are you afraid? You have no reason to.”

“He’s done nothing wrong.”

He really hadn’t. And yet, and yet.

“Yes, that is all. The ones at fault will receive punishment.”

“Great. Thanks or… whatever. Goodbye.”

As the door swung shut, Fugaku was seized by the absurd need to stop it, to reach out to the boy and make him understand that he was being sincere, that what had happened was wrong, that he shouldn’t have been put through this.

He didn’t though. He turned away and left.

Why be so concerned about this all of the sudden? Maybe because of Itachi. Of the leniency his boy had received from other, leniency he wasn’t able to grand to himself. Him and the countless kids victim of Danzo’s schemes, no one was thinking about blaming them for their crimes.

They were “just kids”.

It would be a simple matter, he pondered on his way home, to task the shinobis of the police force patrolling the streets with the additional mission of keeping an eye out for the boy, to ensure that he wasn’t treated unfairly. It should have been a given, probably, but stating it plainly wouldn’t hurt.

They were meant to protect all in the village. No exceptions.

.

“Sakura? Can I come in?”

Sakura grunted an assessment and her mother opened her bedroom door with cautious care. At least now she actually waited for her to say yes before barging in. Sakura stood up from where she lied spread up on her bed, staring at the ceiling as she thought back on the very weird day she had just had.

“How are you feeling?”

Her mother still had that same air of concern about her, that she had had just after Sakura had been hurt. She wished she would have snapped out of it by now, because Sakura was fine, or trying to be, and this wasn’t helping.

“I’m okay.”

Her mother narrowed her eyes, trying to spot the lie. There wasn’t any though, not this time. She was okay, for real. Not so much because she had gotten an apology – although it was nice. Not even to have discovered that the Uchiha clan wasn’t as selfish as they were portrayed to be – not all of them anyway.

But Sasuke… She had told him her story, and the first thing he had done was to seek justice for her.

She couldn’t say she was all too happy about the way he had gone about it. It’s not like she had asked him to keep to himself, it was only implied. She could only hope he wasn’t the one who had suggested that ambush at her house. That part of the Uchiha’s reputation wasn’t a lie it seemed, they did have a flair for the dramatic and a love of formalities.

She had been worrying about nothing. She actually felt a little guilty about it – she had pictured him in the worst possible light, and he had gone the exact opposite way.

He had rushed home and spilled to the head of his clan himself.

Granted, it was his own father, but still. He had not hesitated for a second.

“Did you… want something?” Sakura asked after the silence had stretched enough to feel stilted and awkward.

“I… guess I wanted to apologize too.”

She sat down on the bed so that they were eye to eye, but she didn’t look at Sakura directly.

“Your father and I… We’re sorry. About how we went about this.”

“Mom…”

“You were right to be angry at us. And I realize it’s… kind of hypocritical, to say that only now that we know for sure we could have said something sooner. But still… we did the wrong choice. And we’re sorry.”

They had, hadn’t they? And yes, now they knew for sure, that there was no use to make nice with her bullies just because they were Uchihas, that they should have spoken up from the start. It was satisfying, in a way. But not as much as she thought it would be.

“Okay,” she said, for lack of better words. Her mother left it at it.

The next day, Sakura marched to Sasuke right there in the middle of the classroom, under all their classmates’ eyes. “That was embarrassing for everyone involved,” she said. “But… Thank you. I mean it.”

“You’re welcome,” he answered, relaxing a little, and she smiled at the thought that he might have been a bit worried about her reaction.

She meant to retell the events to Naruto, but he didn’t show up at all.

.

“SASUKE!”

That was all the warning Sasuke got before being tackled to the ground by an enraged Naruto.

He got back on his feet quickly, only to block in extremis several kicks and punches in quick succession.

“What the hell Naruto?”

“I’m gonna have your head you bastard!”

Naruto wasn’t at school the whole day and Sasuke had come to the training ground fully expecting to train on his own. It looked like Naruto had other ideas. He kept attacking, with more force and intent than he’d ever had. Sasuke barely registered Sakura arriving at the training ground and shouting in alarm, immediately picking up that something was wrong.

“Don’t you ever,” Naruto growled, his fist flying toward Sasuke’s face who blocked it with both hands, “ever send adults to my door again!”

“That’s what this is about?” Sasuke exclaimed, trying for a kick. Naruto freed his fist from his grip to jump backward, his feet barely touching the ground before he jumped again to avoid Sasuke’s sweeping foot. Naruto fall back right on top of him – Sasuke blocked and pushed him back, but Naruto was already charging again.

“What the hell were you thinking? Why did you do that?”

Naruto’s fury, far from distracting him, fueled his aggressiveness and fighting prowess. Sasuke was losing ground, unable – unwilling – to get as serious as Naruto was.

“I just wanted to… I wanted to help! It shouldn’t have happened this way. You shouldn’t have…”

“I don’t need your help. I don’t want it!”

He’d known there was a possibility that Naruto wouldn’t like it, but it didn’t matter. Sasuke hadn’t reported back what Sakura had told him to his father just out of vindication or righteous anger. No one could escape consequences and judgment, and injustice had to be corrected, the truth had to be out. Sakura had implied, even if she had been unwilling to get into the details, that they had said nothing and left the story as it was because they didn’t believe anyone would care, or worse, that it would ultimately turn against them. And that was wrong.

His father was always saying they had to honor the Uchiha name, and that was the way to do it.

“I did what I had to do! What’s your problem anyway? What happened that was so terrible?”

Had his father done, said something? He’d insisted on going alone, and Sasuke knew his father wasn’t exactly fond of Naruto.

The other boy didn’t answer. He was still just as aggressive while Sasuke was getting tired of this meaningless fight. Couldn’t they just talk like normal people? Besides, he really didn’t appreciate Naruto slowly taking the upper hand.

Putting several steps between them, Sasuke’s hands went through familiar mudras as he collected chakra in his chest. Naruto would know to keep away from it, but the fire would hopefully snap him out of his fury.

“Katon! Fireball Jutsu!”

He blew through his looped fingers as hard as he could. His training was paying off – his range and firepower had improved greatly. So much, in fact, that he worried for a second that Naruto wouldn’t be able to get out of the way fast enough after all.

Except something very different happened.

The fireball shrunk suddenly, like it was being inhaled. Sasuke watched with utter disbelief as it kept getting smaller and smaller, until it was gone entirely.

On the other side stood Naruto, scroll opened in front of him. Sasuke recognized the chakra storing seal drawn on the paper. In the center of the circle appeared the Fire kanji in blood red ink.

Silence fell onto the training ground.

Naruto looked at the scroll, at least as surprised as Sasuke about this turn of event. Then, slowly, a smug grin spread over his face, and it’s with confidence and disdain that he looked up at Sasuke, still frozen a few meters away.

“Keep your family away from me,” he spat out. The next moment, he was gone.

Sakura and Sasuke were left alone at the training ground, staring after him.

What use is storing chakra if you can’t use it again, he’d asked Naruto like an idiot, annoyed at seeing him drawing that stupid seal again and again and being unable to divert his attention from it. Naruto hadn’t answered, but of course he’d find something. Crafty didn’t begin to describe how resourceful Naruto could be. Another reason why sealing, an art requiring improvisation and creation, suited him so well.

“He’s… gotten better,” Sakura stated uselessly. Sasuke didn’t bother answering. He was busy trying to rein in on his raging emotions, split between wanting to run after Naruto, to punch something, to lie down on the floor and not get back up, and to scream to the top of his lung.

He did nothing.

Izumi had joined Sasuke’s last training sessions with his brother and cousin, and she’d asked, “why does it matter so much to you?”

He’d tried to explain it to her, to them, but he wasn’t even sure about it himself. Why did it matter so much that Naruto stayed focus on him, that Sasuke remained within his reach? There were other kids his age that could have been his rival, that he could have wanted to fight and beat, but Sasuke didn’t care about the others.

Naruto was special. Naruto had chosen him without any care about his family name, his brother or his reputation, just moved by the desire to beat him specifically. Naruto was the first, and Sasuke didn’t need another one.

Besides, there was a fear, spread out through his mind and hovering over their every interaction, that if Sasuke let go, just the slightest, Naruto would slip through his fingers and vanish into thin air.

He wouldn’t let that happen.

“He’ll be back,” he said, showing more confidence than he really felt. “Let’s train, Sakura.”

She nodded, solemn, and maybe she understood, Sasuke thought. Maybe she felt too that they had to get stronger, if they wanted to hold on to him.

Chapter Text

Sasuke barged into his house and stomped his way straight to his bedroom. It was in that kind of moments he regretted they lived in a traditional house – having to unroll the futon before face planting into it took a lot out of the dramatic effect. He buried his face in his pillow and held his breath for a moment, trying to calm himself down.

Sparring with Sakura had done very little to rid himself of his pent-up frustration, even if she really was getting good at this. They’d lingered longer than usual, but Naruto hadn’t come back.

He was just so… Maddening. Sasuke didn’t get him at all. It didn’t help that it was impossible to have a straightforward conversation with him. He was so damn infuriating.

That was it. Next time they saw each other, Sasuke would corner him and wouldn’t let him go until he knew exactly what was going on with him.

It was easier said than done though, because Naruto became very hard to catch in the following days. He barely showed up to class and didn’t come to the training ground – Sakura had no more luck than Sasuke at getting a hold on him. Sasuke was getting restless and increasingly annoyed, unable to focus on anything else than that idiot and his crazy avoidance technics.

Naruto couldn’t stay mad forever, right? He couldn’t just… stop being there. He wasn’t stronger than Sasuke yet. He couldn’t just walk away.

Stuck on those thoughts looping in his brain, when Sasuke spotted Naruto in the Academy courtyard, ready to disappear as he always did, all his focus turned toward not letting that happen at any cost.

Shisui had been teaching him the basics of the body flicker. Sasuke’s range was laughable and he wasn’t nearly fast enough yet to trick anyone in combat. He was, however, fast enough to land in Naruto’s face before he got a chance to make a run for it.

His surprise was worth the wave of nausea that hit Sasuke full-force – today wasn’t the day he would be able to use that technic more than once. There were a number of things Sasuke wanted to say to the other boy, but as usual, once he was there, they all deserted him. He could only remember one.

“Fight me.”

Naruto’s face scrunched up into an angry scowl, but Sasuke knew he wouldn’t back out from the challenge. He surely wanted to, but he wouldn’t. Naruto knew how to rile him up alright, but Sasuke could give just as good as he got.

“Fight me loser.”

“I’m gonna kick your ass,” Naruto bit back.

They would see about that.

They made their way to their training ground casting dirty looks at each other. Sasuke had trouble remembering what they were supposed to fight about and why he was so angry. He found it didn’t matter now. If they fought, he would win, and then he would feel better.

The memory of the sealing scroll was fresh in his mind and he tried to subtly assess the other boy. There were a number of places he could hide scrolls on his body – his weapon pouch, the large pocket of his short-sleeved hoodie, under said hoodie too, front or back, in his shorts… In theory, he could cancel dozens of ninjutsu that way.

Had he not been a victim of that technic, Sasuke would have been excited about it.

He would just have to be clever about it. He was faster than Naruto, even if Naruto had better instinct and spatial awareness. They would see which one could surprise the other.

It didn’t matter either way, because Sasuke couldn’t lose. He didn’t know why he was overcome by the confused certitude that if he lost today, he would lose Naruto for good. Naruto was always looking for an excuse to back out of their friendship, to put his distance between them.

Sasuke wasn’t about to let that happen.

The training ground was deserted as always. Lost as it was in the woods, far away from the village’s noise and agitation, it was easy to believe they were alone in the world, that it was only the two of them. Sasuke fell into position – Naruto did the same. His face was set in grim determination and intense focus.

This was real. A real fight with real stakes. Sasuke couldn’t help but feel excited.

They jumped at the same time.

Kunais clashed between them. Sasuke ducked, throwing Naruto off balance and trying to kick his legs from under him. Naruto used his momentum to keep going forward though and he jumped over Sasuke, landing with a roll. They were immediately back at each other’s throats, and it occurred to Sasuke, very briefly, that they could get hurt for real this time. The thought was fleeting, chases away by the next ones – dodge, block, stop a blade with his own.

He blocked a kick with both arms crossed in front of his chest but couldn’t keep the force of it from sending him several steps back. He jumped up, landing on a sturdy branch in one of the trees lining the training field. Naruto was closing in already. Sasuke threw a handful of shuriken that were sure to distract them – his visions accuracy wasn’t that great, or he was just bad at interceptions. Either way, it gave Sasuke enough time to go through his mudra.

“Katon! Fireball Jutsu!”

Surprised, Naruto didn’t have time to put out a scroll and had to jump back to avoid the roaring fire. Sasuke took the opportunity to go back to the ground and, rounding the fireball Naruto was still focused on, he managed to catch him from his side before he got noticed.

Naruto flew back from the kick to his side, crashing painfully on the ground. Sasuke kept moving forward, to press his advantage and get a few punches in. He drew his arm back, aiming for Naruto’s face, still kneeling on the ground.

Naruto moved, but not to block – to unroll the scroll he had in hand. He caught Sasuke’s fist with it. Sasuke didn’t have time to see what was on it, but it became clear enough when he felt some of his chakra being pulled out of him, vanishing in the paper.

“Fuinjutsu, Vacum Seal,” Naruto said with a grin. Sasuke rolled his eyes. What a stupid pun.

He swung his other fist. Naruto blocked it easily, but it made him let go of the scroll, freeing Sasuke who jumped back, assessing. He wasn’t that depleted because the seal wasn’t that big yet, but the change was still noticeable in him.

What a terrible technique, he thought, watching Naruto carefully store the scroll in his pouch. How many more did he have?

Sasuke kept his distance for a while, focusing on throwing blades and ninjutsu. He had the advantage from a distance since Naruto was good at neither of those. He managed to catch a couple of fireball in his scrolls but one caught him off guard, carving a nasty burn on the exposed skin of his arm. He didn’t cry out though, barely reacted. Somehow he was getting faster and sharper, and Sasuke felt the weight of his intense focus on it, heavy and unpleasant.

Sick of getting attacked from afar, Naruto took it upon himself to close the distance Sasuke was trying to maintain between them. He was reckless and Sasuke hesitated more than once, feeling that Naruto had no intention to dodge or back off. A kunai embedded itself into his shoulder – he didn’t stop running toward Sasuke, bent in half and baring his teeth, and slammed into him full force.

He ended up straddling Sasuke. He bypassed kunais for his bare fist. He wasn’t holding back at all. Blood flood Sasuke’s mouth and he wondered then, for the first time, if Naruto really wanted to hurt him. He thought he saw a flicker of red in the blue of his friend’s eyes.

As a last resort, he waited for Naruto to draw his arm back again and heaved himself up, slamming their forehead together. The aim was off – he had probably hurt himself just as much as Naruto, but at least it made the other boy loosen a bit and Sasuke could get out of his grip and disappear behind a tree.

He used the short respite to catch his breath and shake off his dizziness. Naruto didn’t come after him – he wasn’t moving, standing in the middle of the training field, looking like he, too, was gathering his thoughts. Sasuke got out of his hiding spot and marched back toward him. Naruto didn’t attack. He was staring and Sasuke couldn’t for the life of him decipher his expression, figure out what was going on inside his head.

Sasuke fell back into position. Naruto did the same.

It wasn’t over yet.

Sasuke was getting tired though, physically, but also tired of the fight in general. It wasn’t doing them any good. Instead of calming down, Naruto was getting increasingly worked up and aggressive, and Sasuke didn’t appreciate the fight in the slightest, now that he felt Naruto was trying to hurt him, just like he was trying to hurt Naruto.

It wasn’t what he wanted, it wasn’t supposed to be about that. He wanted to stop the fight.

Easier said than done though, with Naruto.

“Getting tired, Sas’?” Naruto taunted. Sasuke had no illusion that between the two of them Naruto would never be the one to tire out first. He had ripped out the kunai from his shoulder (to throw it back in Sasuke’s face) and it was barely hindering his movement.

Sasuke was split between being impressed and horrified.

They had reverted back to mostly taijutsu. Well, Sasuke had, and Naruto didn’t have much more in term of offensive move.

Sasuke couldn’t just call out the fight. He had to win if he wanted it to stop, but how?

I don’t want to lose. I don’t want to lose him. I need to be stronger.

Another hit dodged, another blocked, another landing in his stomach. He used the momentum to back down, Naruto chasing after him, relentless, merciless.

Stronger. Stronger. I need more power. I need to win.

He wasn’t fast enough to see them all coming. Naruto wasn’t either, but Naruto had a far higher pain tolerance and resistance to injury. Sasuke had seen him walk off hits that would have laid most people down.

He didn’t want to lose. He didn’t want Naruto to have an excuse to leave him behind.

I need to win. I need to win. I need to win.

His thoughts didn’t have time to fully form before they were chased away by the next, as he fought back more on instinct than anything. He was past the pain in his muscles and limbs, past strategizing, past thinking altogether.

Kick, punch, duck, dodge, block, hit. Find the opening, find the crack, push back. His mind was going into overdrive.

I need to win. I need to win. I need to win. I need to win. I need to…

Suddenly, Naruto slowed down.

His movements became slightly more sluggish, less random. Predictable. Sasuke blocked the next hit easily, and the next one too, seeing with perfect clarity where it was aiming for. He saw an opening in Naruto’s guard, he saw that the way he was gearing up for his next move would left it wide open.

He kicked him in the chest, hard.

Naruto hit the ground and rolled back a few meters. He sat down before Sasuke could even worry about him, but he didn’t get back up. Sasuke was distracted by the sharpness of his movements, the colors of his clothes and face and of the ground below him and the leaves behind him, all the things he could see.

There was something in his eyes. Apart from a building ache just behind his eyeballs, there was something…

It hit him like a tone of brick.

His eyes.

Naruto was still sitting on the ground, looking bitter. There was nothing friendly in his smile or voice when he talked next.

“I guess that makes you a real Uchiha then, Sas’.”

Sasuke had just awakened his Sharingan.

.

He went home in a daze. Naruto had run away, again, but Sasuke had a hard time focusing on that for now, busy as he was looking at his hands like he had never seen them before. In a way, he hadn’t.

His Sharingan was still active. It was a little silly, but he didn’t want to switch it off, in case he couldn’t call it back once he was home. He wanted to make sure he could show it to his family. He walked with his head down, not really wanting to draw attention on him before he was back to the Uchiha district. Just his hands were more than enough wonderment anyway.

It was liked he had imagined it, except it wasn’t at all. It had been described to him often – Sasuke didn’t count the number of times he had asked a long-suffering Itachi to walk him through it, to tell him again what it was like, to see the world through the Sharingan.

At first, it could almost feel like nothing was different. The world was the same but it was also… more. It was sharper and brighter, more in focus, wider and clearer, more vivid. He wriggled his fingers and he could see the muscles at play, the skin stretching and folding, and around them he could see the air move, disturbed, see himself move through it, interact with the world around him.

It was awesome.

A little scary too, if he was being honest, which was the reason why he was hurrying home, eager to be safe behind closed door to explore his newfound ability in peace. The slightest movement kept catching his eyes – the rustling of leaves, a curtain waving around in the evening air. The people passing him by on the streets seemed both absurdly agitated and weirdly sluggish, almost twitching. He had to fight the urge to stare after them.

His pain and injuries were forgotten already. He would ache all over the next day and need to meditate some to build back his chakra reserve, but those thoughts were so distant they could as well have been out of his brain.

What about pain, what about damages? He had the Sharingan.

After what felt like a small eternity, he finally passed the door to his house. His mother was fresh back from the day's training with her team, taking off her flak jacket and headband in the entryway. She greeted him absentmindedly, without looking. He felt silly, waiting like an idiot on the doorstep for her to look at him.

“Huh, mom…”

“What is it? Do you… Oh!”

It was easy to spot when she finally noticed.

“Oh my… Sasuke! You… Sasuke!”

He had about zero time to brace himself before she was burying him into a hug.

“Congratulations honey! What happened, tell me! Wait, no, don’t, save it for when your father and brother… Fugaku? FUGAKU!”

Sasuke could only stare in confusion and mild awe at his mother waving around wildly, both because the world still had that strange halting quality to it, and because he couldn’t remember ever seeing her so expressive in her joy and excitement.

Footsteps thundered around the house and his father appeared at the end of the corridor, having mistaken said excitement for fear, judging by his panicked expression.

“What is it? What’s going on?”

His mother turning up her hands in Sasuke’s direction was all the answer he got. Sasuke fought not to look down – it would defeat the purpose entirely. He endured his father's stare for an unnervingly long time before the man finally noticed what he was supposed to.

If seeing his mother fret over him was jarring enough, the startled smile that took over his father’s face was downright scary.

“This is… congratulations Sasuke. This is great news.”

Sasuke lost the battle against his rising blush, feeling it overtake his whole face, and against the urge to look down at his feet. As it was, he didn’t notice his father had come closer, until his own feet entered his field of vision.

“Look at me, Sasuke.”

He obeyed, and his newly awakened Sharingan plunged into the much older and trained one of his father. Strong hands came to cup his face, the touch assessing but gentle too, as it titled his head upward.

Sasuke had seen the Sharingan before, of course, but it was nothing like what he was seeing now. It was deep, going on and on the further Sasuke looked, an entire universe laying there between their eyes, like two mirrors set in front of each other. Just as he was getting dizzy from vertigo, his father blinked, and the red was gone.

He was smiling.

“I’m proud of you, Sasuke.”

Sasuke looked sideways this time, blinking furiously. The front door opened in his back, a good enough distraction. His head was starting to hurt quite badly but he didn’t want it to stop yet. His eyes fell on Itachi’s tired face.

They stared at each other as surprise cracked Itachi’s solemn expression. Before he could say a word though, Shisui and Izumi appeared in his back with similar squeals of glee.

“Baby cousin! You’re finally all grown up!”

At least those reactions were easier to deal with. Sasuke bore with a lot of grumbling Shisui ruffling his hair roughly and Izumi hugging him hard, smacking a kiss on his cheek that had him redden even more.

He couldn’t help turning back to Itachi though, as they started talking excitedly with his mother. His movement was aborted by Itachi poking his forehead. Before he could protest though, Itachi’s hand landed gently on his head.

“Congratulation, Sasuke.”

He had never seen such a soft expression on Itachi’s face. His eyes were stinging again, probably because of the strain the dojutsu were putting them under.

“You should let it go for now,” Fugaku warned in his back. “No need to drain your chakra in vain.”

He obeyed reluctantly, if only because he was getting tired indeed. The world seemed very dull compared to what he had just experienced, and he was already looking forward to seeing it through the Sharingan again.

Later though.

“Tell us then, what happened? What triggered it?” Izumi asked.

Sasuke blushed again. The Sharingan could be awakened by a strong emotion of any kind, and the storied varied widely from one person to another. He didn’t know why he was embarrassed by his, and why he wasn’t so keen on sharing it.

“Were you fighting?” his mother inquired, noticing his poor state now that she wasn’t focused on his eyes.

“I was fighting Naruto and… I just didn’t want to lose. If I lost, he would have stopped training with me though… I just really wanted to win.”

He could still feel the sensation expanding in his chest, this urgency filling his whole being. He had formulated a wish. And it had been granted.

“I see,” his father said, tone and face indecipherable. Sasuke frowned. He wasn’t interested in their opinion of it. Personally, he thought it was not too bad a story.

“How did he react?” his mother asked with no small amount of concern. Sasuke shrugged. He didn’t know for sure, and he was a bit scared to find out. It was the only thing putting a damper on his enthusiasm.

He didn’t want Naruto to fear him.

Izumi clapped her hand together, breaking the soured mood and bringing the focus back to her.

“When should we celebrate then?” Izumi she asked. She was as excited as if she was the one who had activated her Sharingan for the first time.

Oh. Oh, he had forgotten about that.

It was a bit of a tradition to have some sort of celebration to mark the awakening of a Sharingan among the youth, and it was a universally hated affair by said youth. It was embarrassing and boring, and Sasuke would have tried to talk his family out of it, if he thought he had any chance of succeeding.

He peered at his father, the only one he could hope would temper all the excitement, but was utterly betrayed when all he said was “I can take a day off at the end of the week.”

A day off. His father.

“Perfect!” his mother said, cheers back. “I’ll make the announcement. Sasuke, you can invite some friends to the district if you want.”

He stared at her, the softness of her face when she smiled like this, the creases at the corner of his eyes that he had never noticed before. It was a big deal she was offering, because even if the Uchiha district had never been officially closed off to outsiders, and even if they had been more open these past few months than ever before in Sasuke’s life, it was still unheard of for non-Uchiha to just wander in the district, except to conduct official business. Those who could be seen in their streets were longtime friends and teammates, people who had been invited at some point.

It was a big deal and he should have been glad. He had to ask though.

“Can I invite Naruto?”

It was pointless maybe, because there was a chance Naruto wouldn’t ever want to have anything to do with him anymore. The thought hurt and he resolved not to think about it before he could ask the boy face to face.

They all exchanged uncomfortable looks that gave him a weird sense of vindictive satisfaction. He wasn’t about to let them forget about him – whether they remained friends or not.

“It… would be unwise, Sasuke,” his father eventually answered, as predicted.

“Then no.”

He could have invited Sakura, but it didn’t feel right if Naruto couldn’t be there. She would understand. He would have invited anyone really, their entire class even, if it meant Naruto could come too.

They kept making plans without needing much of his input. He let his mind wander, drink it all in.

He had the freaking Sharingan.

.

Naruto had run away, again. He was doing that a lot lately, and he couldn’t say that he liked it.

Even worse, he was hiding now. He would have denied it if confronted, would have said he was just busy or something, but he tried to be honest with himself at least, so to himself he could admit he was plain hiding.

He had been skipping the Academy for three days now, as well as their little training sessions. It was good for his finances at least – he was getting really good at that pickpocket thing. He had ditched Sai with the lamest excuse possible, but it’s not like the boy cared one way or another. Nothing ever fazed him – it was very boring.

He kept far away from the Academy and tried to tell himself he didn’t miss the others.

It wasn’t working.

He wasn’t mad anymore, maybe hadn’t really been in the first place. Well, he was pissed at Sasuke for sending freaking Head of the police force Uchiha Fugaku, his only sort-of-friend’s father who didn’t like that they were friends at his door, but he was probably even more pissed that… Sasuke had done it on his behalf. His and Sakura’s. Why? Why did he care? Naruto had been wrongly punished countless times before. It wasn’t supposed to matter.

But Sasuke cared, and now his father did too. Naruto really didn’t need that kind of complications in his life.

He didn’t need Sasuke. Didn’t need his care and his friendship and his help, he didn’t need him at all.

He had told himself that if he beat the other boy, he would move on. He would find someone else to train with him, someone who wouldn’t want to befriend him, hopefully. So he should have been mad, that Sasuke had chosen just that moment to up the ante and pop his clan dojutsu, to jump ahead all of the sudden, leaving Naruto far behind.

He should have been mad. Instead, he had been…

Relieved?

Maybe he simply didn’t want to give up on this.

Was it so wrong of him? He hated how that made him feel to be away now, to be on his own. He used to be good at this. He didn’t care, before.

He had thought seeing the Sharingan on Sasuke’s face would maybe be enough of a deterrent, would be the final push that made him walk away. But even if he still shivered just thinking about the red eyes…

It was Sasuke. It’s not like he was a threat.

He didn’t mind, if it was Sasuke looking at him.

Naruto was wandering the streets – not skipping this time, they didn’t have class today. He had fought and lost against the urge to go outside and walk, slowly but surely, toward the Uchiha district. It was all those gossips’ fault, really. He had heard it mentioned in passing – the Uchiha were celebrating a new Sharingan user in their ranks.

It’s true that it had to be joyous news for them. Sasuke was probably elated, or as elated as that broody head could be. Naruto was curious about it. Curious at the boy with his family, at the inner working of his clan. Those were all things completely unknown to him. His parents had to be proud. They had to be happy, all of them. 

Naruto wondered at Sasuke’s happy face.

He stopped in his track though, as soon as the arch marking the entry of their district came into view.

He observed, safely hidden behind a tree, the comings and goings of their clan members, and others too. From here it was hard to confirm there was something noteworthy going on inside – partly because he had never been around that area before and had no idea what it looked like on a regular day.

It’s not like he could find out, anyway.

It’s not like he was allowed in there.

“I can bring Sasuke out here, if you want.”

Naruto jumped and hit his head hard against the trunk of the tree. Raising his head while rubbing at the upcoming bruise, he saw Uchiha Itachi looking down at him from a high branch, sitting there all casual like it was a common thing to do.

“I’m just passing by,” Naruto retorted, cringing at his lack of conviction. Who would believe such a blatant lie?

“Still,” Itachi said, going with it anyway. He stood up on his branch, ready to do just that.

“Don’t.”

“I think I’ll do it.”

“I’ll be gone by the time you come back.”

Naruto always had to wrestle himself into holding that man’s gaze. His eyes, he didn’t like to have them on him at all. Itachi stared for a long moment before shrugging.

“Still.”

In a flurry of leaves, he was gone, leaving Naruto to curse after him.

He wasn’t there to see Sasuke. He didn’t care either way.

He stepped out of the tree’s shadow, eager to get back home and lock himself in his room for the rest of the year.

.

Sasuke knew that his clan had a reputation for being quite uptight and not much fun. He couldn’t deny it without being obtuse, and he couldn’t defend it either, because frankly, he was grateful for it. Especially now.

He wouldn’t have survived a proper party like he knew some other clans organized for their celebrations. This was mortifying and exhausting enough as it was.

It couldn’t be called a party by any sense of the term anyway, but it was always done more or less this way. They had taken up residence in their temple's courtyard with food and drinks, and people wandered in and out to offer their congratulations and praise before going about their day or hanging around to catch up with each other. The ones that stayed the longest were kids and teenagers, on the promise of free food. Sasuke didn’t have much to do except stand there and bear the attention.

The younger kids were watching him with awed and envious expression, and he remembered standing exactly in their place and wondering why the star of the show looked so sullen, when they had just received what they were all wishing for.

He knew, now. Who would be happy to stand around all day while half the clan visited them to pinch their cheek and pat their head? The elders were fawning, the adults, bragging. The kids his age oscillated between creepy admiration and open jealousy, and Sasuke just really wanted it to be over.

At the end of the day, his father would take him to the temple and put his name in the register of the Sharingan users. He would have a small lecture about the inner working of the dojutsu – he was excited to maybe be entrusted with some secrets only red eyes got to hear. He would also get a few lessons in the upcoming days so that he could learn to call up his Sharingan at will.

His mother looked happy, at least. It had been a long time since he had seen her this social, chatting away with other women of the clan. Things were still tensed at home – never for the same reason it seemed, but there was always something. Between his mother and father arguing or Itachi feeling bad, it seemed like they couldn’t catch a break.

His father was discussing probably important things in a corner of the courtyard with some of the clan’s higher-ups, but every now and then he looked in Sasuke’s direction and his face lost a bit of his harshness.

All in all, it wasn’t that bad.

He popped a dumpling into his mouth, satisfied that the number of visitors was slowly trickling down. Izumi bid him farewell with another hug – she was leaving on a mission that very night. She passed Itachi on her way out and slammed him hard on the back with a grin and some quip he couldn’t hear from there. He was always amazed at the ease she could display around his somber brother, whom even adults had a hard time addressing.

He had been confused as to why she was so excited for today’s ordeal, way more than him, until his mother had reminded him that Izumi’s own Sharingan had awakened on the day of the Kyuubi attack, after she had watched her father died. There had been no celebration for her.

Itachi marched over to him with the ghost of a smile on his face. Izumi truly was a genius.

“Thought you’d want to know that Naruto is lurking at the district doors,” he said casually once Sasuke was within hearing range.

“What? Really?”

“Hm.”

The news chased away any lethargy this day had grown into Sasuke’s mind. Why was Naruto here? Was it a coincidence? What did he want?

Sasuke looked alternatively at his mother and father, biting his lips. He wasn’t supposed to leave just yet but…

“I’ll cover for you,” Itachi said around a dango stick.

He wasn’t looking at Sasuke, and now wasn’t the day Sasuke would understand what went through his brother’s head – he had already bolted toward the exit.

He only stopped running when he came into view of the gate, and crossed the last meters on a more measured, nonchalant stroll, hoping Naruto wouldn’t notice he was out of breath and starting to sweat.

He looked around casually, trying not to seem too eager. For a moment he saw nothing, and thought that maybe Naruto had left, maybe they had missed each other.

“Hi Sas’!”

Sasuke squealed.

“What the… You did it on purpose!” he accused. Naruto had come up behind him, and had probably been hiding behind a pillar just for the sake of startling him.

“And what if I did?” he asked all smug, pleased with himself.

Sasuke pouted and was about to snap back. Only then did he remembered they were still supposed to be fighting.

Naruto seemed to recall too, because his face grew more sullen.

“I was just passing by,” he said to his shoes more than to Sasuke. “Thought I’d say hello. I… didn’t congratulate you. For the eyes.”

“…Thanks,” Sasuke answered, even if he still hadn’t. Naruto was digging in the dusty floor with his shoe, hands deep in his short pockets, uncomfortable but still here. Sasuke had to say something. He opened his mouth even he still didn’t know what, but Naruto beat him to it.

“Show me.”

He was looking straight at Sasuke now, with an intensity that managed to urge him to look away and pine his gaze at the same time.

“Show me your eyes.”

Seeing how the last times had gone, Sasuke wasn’t really on board. There was no denying Naruto anything though. Sasuke closed his eyes on black. They opened on red.

Naruto’s face scrunched up and he squinted, but he didn’t close his eyes or look away. He even took a step forward, scrutinizing. There was a quality to him Sasuke had seen with no other – the Sharingan couldn’t distinguish chakra precisely like the Byakugan did, but it could still see it, in a way, a tinted veil over a person, just a whisper of something hidden. Naruto’s wasn’t subtle in any way – he looked brighter like this, like a beacon, anchoring Sasuke’s gaze who couldn’t have looked away if he wanted to.

And then he couldn’t, period, because Naruto had brought his hands up to his face.

He rested his fingers under Sasuke’s eyes, barely putting pressure but nailing him right there with no hope to escape. Sasuke could barely breathe. He had no idea what Naruto was looking for in his eyes, what is it he wanted to see. He hoped he would find it though, find it and like it and not push him away.

His blue eyes were deeper like this too, something stirring at the bottom of his gaze, hidden, imprisoned but still there, still within reach.

Sasuke felt like he could have tumble right through it.

Naruto stepped back though, taking his hands back with him, and the moment was gone. Sasuke let the Sharingan fall away, and waited, somewhat anxious, for Naruto’s verdict.

Naruto put his hands back in his pocket, recovered his careless demeanor. It was with professional disinterest that he spoke next.

“I guess they’re pretty cool.”

And Sasuke, who couldn’t just go with it, couldn’t deal with anything that had happened and anything he was feeling right now, answered with a smirk, “I think you mean they’re awesome.”

Somehow it was the right thing to say though. Naruto’s face broke into a wide grin and he finally relaxed a smidge, found some of his confidence back. Sasuke preferred it this way. This was familiar enough.

Of course this was the moment someone chose to interrupt them and raise all his hackles up again.

“So this is where you’ve been, Sasuke.”

Thinking about it though, it was better for his mother to arrive now rather than just a few moments ago. Now that would have been awkward.

“I was just saying hello,” he muttered. She couldn’t blame him. They had been the ones to refuse Naruto entry.

“It’s fine,” she dismissed. “Naruto, right? I’m Uchiha Mikoto, Sasuke’s mother. It’s nice to meet you.”

Caught off guard by being addressed like this – adults usually ignored him – Naruto forgot to be his typical rude self.

“Nice to meet you,” he grumbled.

“We’ve heard a lot about you,” she said. Naruto tensed up, waiting for a scold, but Sasuke knew what she was going to say, and it was much worse.

“Sasuke talks about you all the time.”

He hid his face behind his hand, mortified. Did she have to say that, really? It’s not like he could deny it, not without lying anyway, but still.

“Mom…”

“What? I’m glad you two are friends, that’s all.”

Sasuke looked away from Naruto, convinced that would be the sentence to snap him out of his daze and brought his mean streak back up.

Because surely, he wouldn’t stand for anyone calling them “friends”.

Instead of denying it though, he let out a small, very small, “are you?” that had Sasuke looking back at him. He was staring at his mother, defiant, challenging her to stand by her words.

“Yes. I am.”

He assessed her for a long time, trying to decide whether he would believe her or not. Sasuke found himself holding his breath.

“Alright.”

That was all she got before he lost interest in her entirely and turned toward Sasuke who couldn’t decide if he ought to be offended or not, on her behalf or even his.

“I’ll go now. See you at training.”

Sasuke was unsettled enough that he didn’t catch up immediately. Naruto had already turned away when Sasuke called back, “I’ll be there! And I’ll kick your ass!”

His mother’s scolding was worth Naruto’s laugh echoing away.

.

It had been a very long time since Naruto had wanted to run away.

He used to think about it a lot. He had even made a couple of half-hearted attempts. He would pack a bag thinking he would go camping in the forest for a few days, with the underlying possibility that maybe he would just keep walking and walking, and eventually the village would be far behind him, and he would be free.

He’d never been far enough to get the edge of the village in his sight though. There was always a shinobi or another very conveniently getting in his way, asking him what he was doing this far into the woods and that really, he should turn around, for whatever reason.

He didn’t know if they would really have stopped him. He had never tried to make a real break for it, because he was afraid to find out.

He fantasized about it a lot though. He imagined he would walk and walk, until everything was unfamiliar, until no one around could recognize him. Surely there had to be somewhere in this world where he was unknown, where people didn’t already have an opinion of him even though he had never met them before.

Maybe there would even be people who wouldn’t mind befriending him.

He tried to picture what those places could look like. Fishing villages by the shore, facing the sea, the long expanse of the desert, a city lost in the jungle, a city covered in snow. He had seen a lot of maps but he still had trouble wrapping his mind around just how big the world was.

Surely, surely, there had to be a point on those maps that was better than here.

But Naruto hadn't thought about those little points in a long, long time.

The realization was both unnerving and soothing, in a way. Konoha had never had any appeal to him before. There wasn’t a single thing he liked about the place, a single good memory he could place in its streets. No friendly faces, no beloved places.

Nothing to tie him here – if not actual ties. Nothing to keep him from leaving.

And then, he’d asked Sasuke to be his rival.

It was strange and confusing how he couldn’t make up his mind, about whether he regretted it or not. He didn’t like that Sasuke, and Sakura, had made him forget about why he wanted to get stronger. His goal was to be free. But free from what? Free from this place and those people, but he was trapped now by their friendship too, by how nice it was to stand next to them.

Did he want to be free of this?

He wanted to be free, but being loved didn’t sound so bad either.

Was it possible then? For him to find a place here, to be content with his fate? He didn’t need to be liked by everyone, he didn’t care to have all the friends. One person would be enough. If he could be sure that they wouldn’t leave him alone, then it would be worth it, wouldn’t it? To give up on freedom.

He didn’t have the answer. For now, he could only resolve to enjoy this, maybe even try to work for it a little harder. He had pushed and pushed and still Sasuke had remained stubbornly determined to stay there right in front of him, never out of sight, impossible to ignore. He still had marks on his face from their fights days after, that made Naruto feel guilty and bad even if Sasuke hadn’t blamed him in any way. Naruto always forgot that strangely, people seemed to take much longer than him to heal up from their injuries. He was already as good as knew the next day, nothing left but a dull ached in his shoulder where the kunai had struck.

Sasuke’s lip was still split and his hand bandaged, and still he chased after Naruto, demanded his time and attention.

Maybe that meant that he was here to stay.

It sure was nice, to exist in someone else’s world. He was almost starting to have some hope.

 

(He should have known better. He should have known better. Known that it wouldn’t last. Known that this wasn’t for him.

Should have known, that there was a reason why he had no right to love.)

.

The paper burnt in his hand as soon as he’d finished reading it. Mizuki hissed, annoyed, as he failed to let it go on time. He blew on his fingers as he watched the ashes scatter on the ground.

He needed to make his move soon. Lord Orochimaru was getting impatient, and himself was feeling the tide turning on him. Parents starting to ask around, to question their children. He wouldn’t be able to hold his position for long.

It was for the best, really. He was sick of this place, sick of these brats, sick of playing the nice teacher.

One stolen scroll and he would be back in Lord Orochimaru’s good grace, allowed to go back to his side.

And Mizuki knew just what monster boy to get help from.

Chapter Text

School had been kind of hellish lately.

It wasn’t that unusual, except Naruto couldn’t figure out what had brought this up. It sucked because other aspects of his life were going pretty well. Sakura had gotten over her hesitations toward Sasuke and was now open to interacting with him at school. By extension, so was Naruto. It had shifted subtly but significantly the dynamic of their class’s microcosm – Naruto was left in peace, now that he was in the good grace of both Ino and Sasuke in the eyes of the others.

He had even started to pay more attention in class thanks to Sakura’s nagging. She liked to explain things, blabbering on and on about a subject or another, and it should have been annoying but it was the only way Naruto had to actually follow what they were being taught. She babbled about the reading material and he discreetly drunk her every word. She was pretty like this, since she forgot to care about people watching. It was nice.

Things were fine with Sasuke too – they had even resumed training. That moron had tried to tell him that he would forego the use of his Sharingan, if it made Naruto uncomfortable. What an idiot. Naruto had no interest in beating him with a disadvantage. It was true it still made him feel kind of queasy, but he just had to remind himself that it was Sasuke, and to avoid eye contact while it was on – which was for the best anyway, since he wasn’t keen on falling into one of the Uchiha’s fame ninjutsu. They had had a brief but heated argument over whether or not genjutsu was a coward move. They had settled on agreeing that there was no such thing, there were only winning or losing moves, but that it was still a bastard move. Apart from that, it was fine, if incredibly frustrating, now that most of his tactics were no longer effective, useless under the red light of the Sharingan. But well, he had to know what he was up against, if he was to beat super-jounin one day, as per their plan. The resolve had made Sasuke laugh. That was nice too.

So things should have been good, but the teachers had inexplicably been much more hostile to him in the past few weeks. He would have dismissed it if it was only one of them – adults taking out their sadness and frustration on him were nothing new – but they were ganging up this time. The only one who escaped the trend was Mizuki, who was even being extra nice and complacent. It didn’t sit well with Naruto either. Mizuki was probably the worst of them all, and him being good was nothing but suspicious.

Once upon a time, he would have just skipped school until things blew off, but now he had to account for Sakura’s scolding. He had no idea where that sudden interest in his education came from, but she was taking it very seriously. And somehow, he didn’t like disappointing her.

So he went to school and endured. It didn’t help – or maybe it did ? – that slowly, Sakura, then Sasuke, and even some others like Shikamaru, began to defend him in class. When he was being sent out for no reason, when he was being wrongly accused in someone else’s place, he no longer bore it alone with no support. They didn't stand up outright for him, but they made little remarks, pointed out that he had done nothing wrong. Naruto hated it, both because it was embarrassing and pointless, and because of the warmth it spread through his chest, all the way down to his bones.  

Still, he was on edge, and so when Mizuki came to find him on his usual spot on the roof one afternoon after class, he was instantly on guard.

“Hello Naruto. How are you?”

Naruto couldn’t figure out that man. He was convinced deep down he was just an asshole who hated children with a passion, so he didn’t get why he was a teacher, and why no one else saw that there maybe was a problem with that.

Even when he was being all nice and acting concerned, Naruto couldn’t help but distrust him.

“Fine,” he said curtly.

“Things have been tough at school right? I’m sorry about that.”

Yeah, right.

“What do you want?”

Mizuki’s smile didn’t waver but there was no missing the clenching of his jaw.

“I’m just concerned, that’s all. I figured I could give you some advice. To help you out.”

“I don’t need your help.”

It was easy to eat at the man’s patience. He must have been more determined than usual though, because he kept on his act.

“Seriously though. I noticed you had a hard time with ninjutsu. Wouldn’t you want to get your hand on something that could truly help you out?”

Naruto refrained from saying that it was supposed to be the man’s job. He had pretty much given up on ninjutsu anyway. He was confident now that he would be able to perform the ones required for graduation, so he was much more on board for studying fuinjutsu, which was easier and cooler and all around better in every aspect.

He wasn’t about to say that to Mizuki though.

“I guess,” he said mildly. He was curious despite himself. What game was the man playing at?

“I could tell you how to get your hand on a scroll. Something that contains a truly good method for people who are struggling, like you.”

The offer would have been tempting if Naruto thought he could trust it in any way.

“Really?”

“Yes. You could catch up to the other. You could even get some recognition.”

Now that was what definitely broke the deal for him. If he doubted Mizuku was sincere before then, he was sure now.

Because they both knew that nothing, no amount of power and talent, would ever get him any recognition around here.

“Sorry, Mizuki-sensei. You’re going to have to raise the stake.”

The change was instantaneous, almost scary. Mizuki lost all his fake cheers and plastic smile, and Naruto felt like he was seeing him for the first time as he really was.

“What do you want then brat?”

Naruto found it kind of refreshing.

“There’s nothing you can give me.”

And he wanted nothing from this man.

Mizuki smiled then, a mean, self-satisfied smile, that had Naruto recoil slightly, wary.

“I think there is.”

Naruto raised an eyebrow but said nothing, waiting. He regretted not standing up when the man had first arrived. Sitting here at the top of the water tank, he felt vulnerable, exposed.

“If you get me what I want,” Mizuki said, with an air of conspiracy, “I’ll tell you a secret.”

Naruto scoffed.

“What secret?”

“Well, your secret. I’ll tell you about your life. I'll tell you why it is that everyone treats you this way. I'll tell you everything."

Giving the satisfaction on Mizuki’s face, Naruto could only assume the effect of his words were plain visible on his own face. Naruto hated it had this power on him, but Mizuki had struck a chord. It was one of the few things Naruto wanted – to know, at last, the reason behind the village’s hatred of him, to know why his life was at it was.

It wasn’t the first time people came to him with dubious requests like this, convinced for some reasons that he would be on board with whatever shady business they wanted him on. None had ever offered him anything he wanted or needed though.

But this, this…

“Go on.”

.

Naruto waited for the streets to empty out, the shops closing for the night and people ushering home to their family. It was the best time of day to wander around Konoha – when there was no one else out to bother him.

The Hokage Tower would take more time to quiet down, since there were always people coming and going, crisis to take care of, messages to relay. The last one to leave was always the Hokage, when he didn't just sleep right there in his office. Naruto waited for a lull in the area’s activity and snuck inside the building.

He didn’t know if he was still persona non grata – he hadn’t entered the Tower for years. Better not to be seen though, it was a habit more than anything. If he wasn’t seen or heard, if no one knew he was here, he could move freely.

He could escape the unbearable weight of their attention.

It had been a while but it was still just as easy going up the floors unnoticed. There were not many people left to wander the corridors and he knew this building by heart. He made quick work of reaching the Hokage floor, all the way to the top. The library was situated a few doors down the Hokage’s office, with just one chunin to stand guard according to Mizuki, and a seal easy enough to break. Naruto had played dumb when the man had explained briefly what a lock seal was and how to go through it. He wasn’t about to advertise his dabbling into fuinjutsu.

He approached the library door, and walked right past it.

The Hokage was sitting at his desk, as predicted. Did he ever get up at all? Maybe he actually lived there. Maybe he had fused with the chair and could only move by rolling it around.

“Hi, old man.”

He didn’t seem particularly happy to see him, but then again, he never seemed happy about anything. He looked so old, much older than in Naruto’s memories, old and weak and useless.

“Naruto. To what do I owe your visit?”

Naruto took his time, building up his effect. The jounin standing next to the desk, that he had interrupted in the middle of a mission report, was looking at him with a mix of resentment and wariness. He had small, round sunglasses that made him look very suspicious, even creepy. Naruto ignored him entirely.

“I just wanted to inform you that Mizuki-sensei is a criminal and a traitor.”

That, at the very least, caught their attention for good.

“What are you talking about?”

“He just tried to bribe me into stealing some forbidden scroll from your library.”

The jounin started to protest, outraged. The Hokage silenced him with a raised hand.

“This is a serious accusation, Naruto. Do you have proof of what you’re saying?”

The boy rolled his eyes. He knew for sure that, had he brought that same accusation to anyone in his class, any kids at the Academy, they would all have said “it figures” with a shrug. He also knew no one in the higher places cared about them and had any idea just how truly terrible a teacher Mizuki was. So it wasn’t surprising, but it was annoying all the same.

“He talked me through infiltrating the place. He even gave me this.”

Naruto pretended like he didn’t see the adults flinch when he reached inside his pouch and got two pieces of paper out.

“Seal breakers. For the door and the protections on the scrolls.”

Sunglasses took them for closer examination before nodding once to the Hokage. The old man made a sound and three ninjas with white animal masks appeared in the office, one knee respectfully on the ground.

“What is it, Hokage-sama?”

“Find Mizuki. Bring him here. Be warned, he may be dangerous.”

The one in the middle, a man with silver hair, nodded once, and they were gone again. Naruto breathed out a relieved sigh. He didn’t like the masked ninjas – they made him uncomfortable, with their concealed face and the quiet threat they carried with them. Often he had seen one of them watch him from afar, and he was sure way more often he hadn’t seen them, as they left food and clothes in his apartment or simply spied on him. Since the Hokage’s gaze had shifted away from him – and since he had started trapping his door and windows against intruders – he didn’t see them so often. He still knew to be wary of them. They were no ordinary shinobis, for ordinary shinobis had no use for covering their face. More than not knowing their identity, what was most unsettling was not being able to read their face. Did those people even have feelings? It was impossible to tell.

Another jounin entered the room, a young man with a bandana and a senbon between his teeth. He had a casual, unhurried demeanor, despite walking fast enough that he missed Naruto entirely.

“Hokage-sama, what is happening? We heard…”

That very second, one of the masked shinobi from earlier, a woman with purple hair, popped back into the room through the open window.

“Mizuki resisted arrest. He’s on the run.”

The Hokage, still sitting at his desk, still motionless, hands crossed in front of his face, took a short moment of reflection before addressing the senbon guy.

“Genma, pass the message to all available jounin and chunin. Tono Mizuki is suspected of theft and treason, and is currently on the run. All efforts must be directed into catching him. Go.”

The man’s eyes caught on Naruto’s while he was exiting the desk. He faltered, just barely, but didn’t stop, and was soon gone, as well as the masked woman.

“As for you, Naruto,” the old man said, “you’re dismissed. We’ll sort this through. Go home.”

“What?” he exclaimed. He marched on to the desk and slammed his hands on the wood, displacing some papers. “I want to be part of it! That bastard…”

“Go home!” the Hokage thundered without moving a muscle. Out of the corner of his eye Naruto saw Sunglasses tense up ever so slightly.

“Tsk. Whatever.”

He made a show of storming out of the office with a flurry and took a few steps in the corridor, to make sure he was out of view, before producing what he had snatched from the desk.

Was he that good a thief, or were they just bad observers? He didn’t know which one would please him the most.

He had taken back the seals given by Mizuki.

The Tower wasn’t quiet in any way now, shinobis running the corridors in a hurry, passing messages and reporting on the tracking of the Academy teacher. Naruto didn’t care about that though. Mizuki was already out of his mind.

He had been tempted by the offer. Really tempted. But he had decided just a few weeks ago to try to move forward in that village, despite everything. He had no use for the knowledge of the village’s hatred anymore – he was sure it was something stupid. People hated each other for the most petty things. His leading theory was he was bearing the crimes of his parents, who had probably been traitors or even foreign nins, enemies. After all, no one in the village bore the Uzumaki name, and no one looked like him in any way either.

It didn’t matter now. Sasuke and Sakura didn’t care about that. So he wouldn’t either.

However, the opportunity was just too good to pass up. Everyone was busy, and even the chunin guarding the library had deserted their station to go after Mizuki.

One seal to put over the one laid across the door, and he could sneak inside. One seal to neutralize the alarm guarding the row of dusty shelves covered in scrolls and books, and he could pick up whichever he wanted.

It was just too easy.

The man had given him clear instruction as to what scroll to take, but as Naruto set to find it, it occurred to him that he didn’t need that one in particular. It was supposed to be full of powerful ninjutsus, but Naruto sucked at ninjutsu, he hated it, and he didn’t see that changing anytime soon, scroll or not.

But really, what definitely made up his mind was his eyes catching on a familiar red spiral, decorating a big scroll propped up against a shelf in a corner of the room.

Naruto approached it carefully, aware that some of those things could contain dangerous and volatile jutsus. He took the scroll with some difficulties – it was the size of one of his legs. The red spiral was painted at each extremity and on the sealing tag that closed the paper. And under it, hand-painted in wide, bold strokes, was some of the only kanjis he could decipher. The ones that spelled out “fuinjutsu”.

There were noises and voices outside. He strapped the scroll to his back and put his hoodie back above it, before taking back the breaking seals and sneaking out of the room.

.

The scroll was better than anything he could have hoped for.

He couldn’t read the instructions, but once again, it didn’t matter much. The seals were easy to identify and he could speculate from there with the drawings and symbols written all over the paper. He was grateful for whoever had designed those scrolls and decided that the person learning from it had to be able to follow its instructions even without any reading abilities.

The red spiral was drawn everywhere in the scroll, in the corners, between seals, in the decorative borders. He didn't know what it meant. It had been tapped to his door for as long as he could remember, and he had decided to make it his own long before discovering it was actually stitched to every ninja uniforms in the village. No matter. The sign was his, and they were the ones borrowing it. Did anyone else had it on their door? No. Proof.

He had found himself a quiet corner of the forest to escape the frenzy of the search for Mizuki. How hard was it for the whole of the shinobi force to catch a single Academy teacher? It didn’t concern him anyway. He was focused on the first seal of the scroll. From what he understood, it was an offensive seal, to be laid on the chest of an opponent during a fight, if he interpreted correctly the little drawings at the bottom. He didn’t recognize any of the symbols associated with chakra sealing, like on his other scroll – it had to be something else. Or not.

He felt though that it wasn’t harmless in any way. Maybe it was a good thing he didn’t have anyone to test it on.

Firing a seal directly from his palm was different from activating one drawn on paper, but he had several hours in front of him and nothing better to do. The heart of it was the same, anyway. It’s just that the circle wasn’t explicit like on paper. It was formed by his five fingers that he spent a long time wriggling around, trying to get them to crook in the right shape.

Firing the seal wasn’t hard. Like the other and unlike ninjutsu, he didn’t need refined control of the quantity, just a general direction. The hardest part was the timing. If precision wasn’t needed in the flow of chakra, it was essential in all the other aspects of sealing – be it the painted symbols or the position of his hand.

He could feel the seal taking form despite having to lay it a tree. There was no sign indicating that it worked in any way, but he knew he was getting close.

The ruffling of leaves interrupted his practice.

He fell quiet and motionless, all his senses on high alert. Someone was coming. He hastily rolled the scroll and strapped it to his back, but thought better of it. He had been practicing the storing seal shinobis used to conceal weapons and other objects in scrolls, and he found it very handy. He got a small scroll from his pouch and unrolled it past the traditional storing spot for kunais and shuriken, until he found a blank one. The person, whoever it was, was getting closer.

"Enclosing!"

The stolen fuinjutsu lesson disappeared in a puff of smoke. Naruto put the storing scroll back into his pouch and sat at the foot of the nearest tree, intent on looking as innocent as possible to what was probably one of the shinobis out on the manhunt checking out the area.

He wasn’t so far off, he realized when the person in question landed in a branch above his head. They were part of the manhunt indeed.

The very man hunted.

“Hello there, Mizuki-sensei.”

Naruto regretted deeply having sat down in such a vulnerable position.

“You fucking… you sold me out, you rat!”

The man looked exhausted and out of his mind with rage. Naruto almost expected foam to start bubbling at the corner of his mouth. He got up casually and took a few steps away, ear straining to hear the man’s movement.

“I wouldn’t say “sold”. I got nothing in return.”

Alright, maybe provoking the chunin that was already after his blood wasn’t the smartest move. Mizuki let out a piercing cry of rage – so much for being discreet – and lunged himself at Naruto who jumped back on impulse.

A good impulse, because Mizuki had two kunais out, and the look in his eyes made Naruto shiver.

He wasn’t really out for his blood though. Was he?

“I can’t believe you went to the Hokage you fucking brat! I’m going to fucking murder you!”

“You should have raised up the stake!” Naruto yelled back before dunking into the trees. He had to escape that crazy bastard. It was sort of a chance that half the village was already after him – surely someone would stumble upon them. Maybe Naruto would even be congratulated for his capture or something.

“Isn’t it what you wanted? Knowing where it comes from, their hatred for you? Knowing why your life has always been so miserable?”

Mizuki sounded focused enough despite his anger. Maybe making others suffer was therapeutic for him. Naruto clenched his teeth and regretted running around the trees meant he couldn’t plug his ear shut. It was the first time he heard it acknowledged so bluntly. The very few times he had tried to broach the subject with the Hokage or another teacher, his concerns had been quickly dismissed, and he had been made to believe that he was imagining all this. Playing martyr.

“What would it change? I don’t care! If people are assholes…”

“Or but they’re not, Naruto. Do you think that’s it? That they’re just mean and you’re a victim? Tell me, monster boy, didn’t it ever occurred to you that they had a very good reason indeed?”

Naruto stopped in the next clearing and Mizuki didn’t come closer. He was up on a branch, looking down at Naruto, delight obvious on his face.

What a sick bastard.

Naruto had heard it before. Monster boy. Beast. Abomination. But it was just things people said. It didn't mean anything.

“Fuck you,” he said weakly.

Mizuki’s features softened. He crouched on his branch like he was bored suddenly.

“You know, I really was going to be honest about it with you. And to let you peek into that scroll too. Why on earth would you turn that down?”

“I don’t fret with traitors,” Naruto spat out.

Mizuki’s eyes widened for a second, before he burst out into an ugly laugh.

“What, is that what this is about? Loyalty to the village? What has that village ever done for you, monster boy, that you would have the urge to defend it?”

Naruto stayed silent. He wasn’t about to spill his inner struggle to that man, but it wasn’t about the village, not really. It was maybe about loyalty though. He had no interest in helping people who would turn against their own, break their promises. Loyalty was important, no? Be it to the village or… something else. A person, an idea. A purpose. A dream. Was Mizuki loyal to something too? Who knew.

And maybe it was also about people seeking help from children, disregarding the consequences it would bring upon their head.

About seeking his help, and being convinced it would be granted.

Why? Mizuki hated him, and it was mutual. He could have asked anyone else. Well, maybe not anyone, but any other no-name kids from the Academy, desperate for attention and recognition, and one that didn’t despise him so openly.

So why?

“Why did you ask me anyway?” Naruto asked, curious despite himself, despite not really wanting to know the answer. Mizuki laughed again.

“I figured the monster boy wouldn’t refuse such an opportunity.”

“Stop calling me that.”

“What, monster boy? But it’s…”

“Stop it!”

“It’s only the truth though.”

He had to leave. Now. Where was everybody? What were those garbage jounins doing, why hadn’t they caught up to them already? He wanted to leave this place. He didn’t want to hear anything. He didn’t want to know.

With any brain faculty left, he would have known it was a stupid idea to turn his back to his opponent to run away. As it was, it only occurred to him when a kunai pierced his hoodie and shirt and embedded itself under his shoulder blade. He cried out and stumbled, but he didn’t stop.

He wasn’t running fast enough though. Not fast enough to escape that voice.

"Tell me, Naruto, how do you think it's possible to kill a Tailed Beast?"

Naruto almost tripped, caught off guard by the sudden change in topic.

“Answer, it’s not. It can’t be killed, not by men anyway. The only way to stop it is to seal it you see. But not seal it into an object or a scroll, no, that would be a waste, wouldn’t it? Such power, it has to be available at some point, even if it’s so very hard to control. So it’s better to seal it into a human.”

Shut up, he pleaded silently. Shut up, shut up, I don’t want to know, I don’t want to know.

“And newborns are the best because they don’t have a will to oppose the invasion of the Beast. An adult would fight against it, even unconsciously. But a child…”

Mizuki jumped from his branch straight on Naruto, his two feet colliding painfully with his back. Naruto met the harsh ground with brutal force, putting in extremis his hands in front of his face to avoid breaking his nose and all his teeth on some rocks. Dizzy from the shock, he still managed to take advantage of Mizuki losing his balance to turn on his back. The man was already on him though.

“Tell me, Naruto. Don’t you know anyone that happened to be a newborn on the night Kyuubi was defeated?”

Naruto screamed.

Mizuki laughed. He had a knee pressed on Naruto’s chest to keep him from getting up. He straightened up, kunai high in hand, ready to strike.

Naruto, mind running in overdrive and seized with panic, grappled at the first thing he could think of.

The last thing he had learned.

The seal came easily to his hand. He could barely move, but he could move enough that, when Mizuki struck down, he could slam his palm against the man’s heart.

Naruto cried out again. His attack had shifted the angle slightly and Mizuki’s kunai had missed his own heart, but it still plunged deep into his shoulder. Mizuki straightened back up, ready to strike again, to finish him off.

But he didn’t. He had left his kunai where it was to grip at his chest, above his heart. He choked on a breath, eyes wide with panic.

“You… You bastard… what did you…”

He collapsed on top of Naruto, trying to bring a hand around his throat, in vain. It was over in only a few seconds. His body went limp, his face froze in a horrible grimace of pain and chock. For a long moment, nothing moved, no sound was heard. Naruto stayed frozen in place, barely breathing, indifferent to his pain, to the steady flow of his blood, to everything other than the weight pinning him down.

Mizuki was dead.

.

Contrary to what everyone – his teachers – believed, Naruto was a fast learner.

He was a fast learner when he was actually taught something. As a result, he was self-taught in most of the areas of his life. There was one thing in particular, that he had learned late in life but very quickly.

Up until the first few weeks of his Academy days, Naruto had had solely his own experience to rely on when it came to illnesses and injuries. Meaning, illnesses weren’t a thing, except after eating food gone bad, and injuries, no matter which, were a minor inconvenience most of the time. He had been patching himself up forever. He had once tumbled down a rocky patch in the forest and scrapped his legs enough that the bone was showing, but he had just bandaged it and it was fine after a few days. Same when another time when he had missed a branch and crashed on the ground. After carefully putting out the piece of wood sticking out of his side, it had healed in no time.

Naruto thought it was just how things went.

So he had been very confused when, during their first-ever throwing practice, he had accidentally planted a shuriken deep in Hyugaa Hinata’s arm thanks to his terrible aim, and she had immediately starting bawling while everyone around them stopped dead in their track and the teacher started fussing hysterically.

She had been excused from school that day and the next, and she had sported a thick bandage on her arm for an entire month.

An entire freaking month.

Naruto had been yelled out by the teacher and someone he assumed was from the girl’s clan – same eyes – and he had understood that it was serious.

He had kept a close eye on his classmates from then on, and he had learned his lesson. He had discovered it was yet another thing that set him apart from the rest of them. They were brought down by the smallest of injuries. They were sensitive to pain and wary of damaging their body. They needed weeks to heal from things he didn’t need to concern himself with for more than a few days. They were horrified when things like embedded kunais and broken limbs happened, and he had taught himself to follow their lead, to pace himself on their absurdly weak bodies. It was one little thing he could control, so that he didn’t stick out even more.

Not that it had helped all that much.

When they had started sparring with Sasuke, he was constantly on the lookout for an incident of the sort. There were blows he knew Sasuke wouldn’t just bounce from, things that would put him out of commission when Naruto would just walk it off.

He’d learned on his own, like everything else. Learned that it would freak people out if they saw him walk with open wounds and bleed all over his clothes. Learned that things he could endure would kill anyone else. Learned to hide it.

So the first thing he did, once he had recovered some parody of calm, once he had crawled from under Mizuki’s lifeless body, was to rip the kunai out of his shoulder, and bandaged his wounds. He took off his sleeveless hoodie and tied it around his waist, in a way that would hide most of the bloodstains.

It was already the color of blood anyway. All the blood was his own, except from one tiny little stain where Mizuki had coughed it out before dying. Naruto had never really thought about the practicality of the color before. He just liked it. All his clothes were like that. Blood red, bright red. Or black. Neither happy nor sad, neither bold nor bland.

Sometimes he actually forgot about the bloodstains. He often got injured. He wasn’t careful enough to protect his own body. He had never learned that one, since the wounds closed easily, and since he didn’t care for the pain.

He bandaged his wounds, mechanically, without looking at the lifeless corpse, avoiding its unseeing eyes, its distorted mouth.

Of course it’s only then, that someone did find them.

“Naruto.”

He raised his eyes to the newcomer. It was the senbon guy. He recognized him from earlier, from the Hokage’s office, but he didn’t otherwise know him. Why were they always addressing him as if they knew him? Even if they did, couldn’t they at least pretend? He’d heard the old man call him Genma, but that wasn’t a reason for him to start addressing him with it, right?

Couldn't they at least pretend not to know who he was.

What he was.

Oh hell. Oh hell.

“What happened? Are you alright?”

“’m fine.”

Another shinobi arrived a second later, a strict looking man with an impressive scar running from the bridge of his nose and spreading onto his cheek like roots. He went directly to the motionless form of Mizuki still lying on the ground.

“He’s dead,” he said in a breathe, both incredulous and already accusing.

“Yeah, no shit.”

“What happened?”

Naruto focused on the senbon one, who looked less angry than the other. There was no doubt in his mind that the next word that would come out of his mouth would be a lie though. Even if he hadn’t been desperate to hide the secret of the sealing he had stolen and learned, even if it had been something else…

In other circumstances, maybe he would have told them. He had only defended himself after all. The man was a known criminal and death would have been his punishment anyway. Killing an enemy, a traitor, was nothing uncommon for them shinobis.

But Naruto wasn’t a shinobi, wasn’t he? He wasn’t an aspiring one either. He wasn’t even a child.

He wasn’t human.

Maybe he would have told them, had he not just realized why it was that he was always punished so much harsher than the others, why he couldn’t get away with things everybody else did. Would they believe it was self-defense? From him?

From the monster?

He was feeling sick.

“I don’t know. He just collapsed.”

He wondered if the seal would leave any mark. If it was well thought out, he guessed not.

“Looks like a heart attack,” the other man said, still skeptical. Naruto avoided both their gaze.

“Did he attack you?”

A shrug.

“Are you hurt?”

Another shrug.

“Naruto…”

“Stop saying my name.”

He didn’t need to look at the man to picture the surprise on his face.

“We’ve never met before. Stop saying it.”

Why didn’t he just called him monster boy to be done with it. Or that other one that he had never truly registered because it was the one that made the less sense, that he thought was the least attached to him.

Demon Fox.

Ha.

“Let’s go back to the Hokage Tower,” the senbon man said. His partner hauled up Mizuki’s body on his back. Naruto almost expected him to move again, to come back.

He’d never realized death was so finale. So brutal. Here one second, gone the next.

Gone by his hand.

He wondered what he was supposed to feel.

“I don’t suppose you’ll let me go home,” he mumbled without conviction, without any venom. He was so tired all of the sudden. He wanted to sleep. Sleep, and not wake up.

“You’re coming with us,” Senbon said as an answer. Naruto wanted to believe he at least looked apologetic about it, but it was probably just wishful thinking.

.

One of their teachers – he didn’t remember which one – had come into the classroom one morning looking sullen and gloomy, and he had announced bluntly that one of their classmates had died.

A freak accident, or maybe she was sick? He didn’t recall. He didn’t even know her name, they had never talked and he didn’t care much. The class had been shaken though, and even he had felt a little bad about it, because it was… just weird. Kids weren’t supposed to die, right? Death was for the old ones.

He remembered distinctly though that the very first reaction of most of them had been disbelief. Several kids had chuckled nervously, urged their teacher not to joke like that. It had taken a few minutes for the truth to really set in, for him to convince them that he wasn’t joking in the slightest. Naruto had found it strange. How in hell would a teacher lie about something like this? And still, there had been a girl, who was very close to the one who had died, and who had refused to believe it. She had simply refused. The truth didn’t hold a candle to what she wanted to believe, to what she desperately wish to be true.

Despite all evidence, she had kept that up for days.

Naruto was in the Hokage's office and he wondered if the Hokage knew about that girl and her friend. About not wanting to see the truth, no matter the proofs, no matter what. Then again, he certainly did. Naruto had heard lots about Danzo after all.

That’s why he decided he would ask. He could stay silent if he wanted to. He could deny everything and go back to his life. He could make up his own truth. But what was the point in that? The girl had broken down, eventually. Danzo had been found out and the Hokage was in disgrace, even if they were pretending he wasn’t. The truth always came out, eventually.

There were other people in the room. The senbon guy and his teammate. Sunglasses.

Sasuke’s father. Shikamaru’s too. And wasn’t that a Hyuuga?

“So you say he just collapsed? You didn’t see anything else.”

“I was trying not to get impaled. Sorry if I didn’t pay much attention to the rest.”

What did they hope he would say? That he had ripped out his heart in cold blood or something? Why did it matter anyway. The traitor was dead. End of story.

At least it looked like they hadn’t noticed about the missing scroll. Naruto didn’t want to think about it. About what would have happened, had he tried that seal on anyone else.

About how he still wanted to learn in spite of it.

The Hokage stayed silent like he always did, for an absurd long time that made everyone ill-at-ease and restless.

“Very well. You can go then.”

The other adults had stayed quiet but it was obvious they weren't mere observers. They could have objected if they wanted to. They didn’t. He was free to go. Free to run back and not ask.

But what was the point in that.

“Old man.”

“What?”

It was hard to remember that the man had looked at him somehow fondly once upon a time. Naruto had thought maybe he had one ally in him, but the Hokage had quickly lost interest in his fate. His eyes were cold now, cold and tired, dead already.

“Mizuki said something to me.”

“Huh? What was it?”

The others’ attention sharpened. But Naruto stayed focus on the man. If he didn’t want to give him a straight answer, Naruto would have to read it on his face, in his eyes. He inhaled deeply. No turning back.

“Is it true that I’m the demon fox?”

He instantly got his answer.

He didn’t pay attention from them on. Not to those who protested, not to their air of quiet shock. He saw without seeing it the pained expression of the old man. Why? Naruto was the one in pain.

Or was he? What was the point of being a monster if he couldn’t escape hurting.

So that was it. That was the answer. He was a demon. He had killed hundreds of people in the village ten years ago. And he could still kill more. Hadn't he just done that? Was that where this power was coming from, the sealing? He was a monster.

All those years they had hated him, and they had been right.

He had promised himself he would stop running away, but really, right now there was nothing else he could do.

He could lose jounin in the streets of Konoha. He had done it before. He took full advantage of the small respite he got where everyone in the room stayed stupidly frozen, before they realized what was happening. Second manhunt of the day. But he wasn’t as stupid as Mizuki.

He just had to run away. He had to run away from this place. He had never realized how much he still hoped to find his own peace here, to carve a corner for himself. He thought they would forget about him eventually, forget about what crimes had been put on his head before he was even born. It would have passed eventually. He would have found his place. He would have been happy here. He still had hope.

He had been so stupid.

He had to leave, he had to leave right now. To get far away from here. What if he could really be dangerous still? What if the beast was let loose? He didn't want to hurt anyone. He didn't want to kill.

What if Sasuke found out?

What if they fought someday and Naruto slipped, what if Sasuke knew, what if he was hurt? What if he lost control in class and killed another kid? Why had they never told him about it, told him that he was a danger to be around?

But hadn’t they? He’d been told time and time again that he wasn’t to befriend anyone, that he couldn’t be loved. He should have listened. They had been right all along.

He had to leave, now. Leave this place and found a hole in the ground he could crawl up in a die, because it was over. There was no hope for him anymore. He would never be home here, he would never be home anywhere. He would never be loved. How could he face Sasuke and Sakura again, now that he knew what he knew? They would have never have befriended him, had they known. They would have stayed away like their parents had told them to.

He had to leave and not come back. Leave and be free of this mess. Free of the pain he could cause and the pain that could be caused to him. Wouldn’t it be a blessing to be alone out there? To hide forever, away from everything? Maybe he would stop thinking. Maybe he would truly become a beast and stop thinking, stop feeling.

Naruto ran and ran, deeper and deeper into the forest, barely looking where he was going, indifferent to the branches tearing at his clothes and skin, his feet bumping harshly on the uneven ground. His lungs were burning, his wounds screaming. He didn’t stop.

He wouldn’t stop. Not until he was in an entirely different world. Not until he was someone else.

Or maybe just until a tree branch grew in his path and tripped him to the ground.

Caught up in the momentum, he rolled around for several meters, rocks and sticks digging at his skin. His mind was in shambles, he couldn't register what had just happened. Had that tree grown just right then? Was that even possible?

Only then did he noticed them.

Two for now, but more would come. Masked. One had silver hair – he had seen him earlier. The other, unknown. When he signed some more mudras, another branch sprouted out of nowhere, right in Naruto’s direction.

He jumped purely on instinct.

“Naruto, calm down!” Silver hair urged. His mask was painted with a dog face, hiding his expression – it was impossible to know if he really felt the urgency that could be heard in his voice.

Not that Naruto cared.

“Let me go, let me got, let me go!” he screamed, hysterical, as the branches wrapped around his arms. He trashed and kicked and only managed to make them tighter, tight enough to be painful. He wasn’t about to stop though.

“LET ME GO!”

“We can’t do that Naruto, please…”

“I don’t want to stay here! Let me go!”

Was he crying? It felt like he was, but he couldn’t be sure. He heard more than felt something break in one of his arms. The other man, the one with a ca mask who could grow the trees, let out a distressed groan and the grip weakened just a smidge.

“Naruto, you’ll hurt yourself.”

“I don’t care!”

“Naruto…”

“STOP SAYING MY NAME.”

He wasn’t Naruto. He wasn’t anyone. He wasn’t even there. Where was he?

Where was he? It was dark, and damp. It smelled terrible.

I want to break free, it said.

Me too, me too.

I want to break free.

Me too, me too!

For one, maybe two exhilarating seconds, Naruto burst out with power. He was flooded with chakra that was foreign to him, bright red and burning, setting fire to his vein and to his whole mind. He didn’t care. It was power. Strong enough to break, strong enough to fight.

Strong enough to break free.

For one, maybe two exhilarating seconds, Naruto hoped.

And then a paper seal was slapped to his forehead, and all was dark.

.

Ironic, it said. But not very funny.

Naruto opened his eyes. Or well, he tried too. His eyelids were as heavy as lead. His whole body hurt. Not just muscles from harsh training or a strain from injury, but a bone-deep pain all throughout his body, pinning him to the ground as surely as if he'd been in chains. 

He tried to move. He heard something rattled.

Oh. It wasn’t the pain.

He managed to sit up. He managed to open his eyes and for a second he panicked because he couldn’t see a thing, but it was just dark, there was a single candle burning in a corner somewhere. He couldn’t see much, but he could see enough.

The heavy metal circling his wrists and ankles, enough.

The chain attached to it, crawling on the ground to their anchor in the raw stonewall, enough.

And the bars cutting through the air, setting him apart from the rest of the world, enough.

Caged.

Naruto screamed.

Chapter Text

Maybe that’s how life was going to be from then on.

It made sense that they would imprison him. He was a dangerous monster after all. But why, why hadn’t they done that sooner then? Or even right from the start? Was it so that he could enjoy life a little, until it was too risky to let him out? Or was it a form of punishment, of torture, for all the lives lost because of him?

Was he going to stay in that cell forever?

No way. No way. They had no right, no right. It wasn’t his fault, if he was this way. He didn’t ask for this. He had tried to leave this place, to keep it safe. Why stop him if it was to cage him? Why not let him go?

He didn’t remember much of what had happened. There were the two masks in the wood and then… Had they knocked him out? So that they could throw him in there? He had never sustained any injury that put him out more than a few minutes. What had they done to him? There had been a paper seal… How long had he been unconscious?

He pulled at his chains, again. He hit the ground and the walls he could reach, again. He felt weak and sluggish still despite having been awake for hours now. His wounds had been dressed properly at some point, but they were mostly gone already. And yet, his strength was spilling out of him.

Would no one ever come to visit him? Was he looking at what the rest of his life would be like?

He wondered what the others would say. He wondered if Sasuke would look for him.

But then he remembered that Sasuke could never know about him. So maybe it was okay like this. He left only good memories, or well, not too bad ones. They would forget about him soon enough, as he wasted away here.

The sound of footsteps echoing against the bare stone interrupted his spiraling thoughts.

He crawled toward the bars to get a better view, but the chains were too short for him to reach them. The warm hallow of a moving torch came closer and closer, slowly invading the cage with light. He squinted, trying to see who was there beyond the light.

“I’m sorry, Naruto.”

He slumped back, defeated. The old Hokage. It figured.

“Let me out of here.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

He wanted to sound angry, to sound menacing, and he hated how his voice was just weak, pleading. He sounded like a whiny child. But he was so scared and lost and he didn’t understand why this was all happening to him, why he had to go through this. What had he done to deserve it?

Oh, that’s right. He had done plenty indeed.

“This won’t last, Naruto. It’s only a precaution.”

“A precaution?”

“The seal needed to be reinforced. It’s for your own good.”

Mizuki’s voice was echoing around in his mind. “The only way to stop it is to seal it.”

He wrapped his arms around his knees in a vain attempt to provide himself with some warmth and comfort.

“Why can’t I go if it’s done?”

“We need to make sure… It could still be weakened. We need to make sure.”

So it was possible to break the seal. To let the Beast lose. That was absurd. Even with his very limited knowledge on seals, he knew that they could be made as sturdy and unbreakable as one wanted, provided one had some talent.

Maybe that was the issue.

“How-how would we know?”

He was tired and cold, and hungry too. It drove him crazy to look through the bars, to have them standing there in his field of vision, unmovable. To have the certitude that he couldn't go anywhere. Caged. Trapped.

“It depends on you, Naruto.”

“What?”

“It’s… tied to your will. You are the one who weakened the seal. You are the one who can strengthen or weaken it even further.”

He had this vague memory, of a strange looking place, of a deep, scary voice.

Of a door. Bars just like those ones. And beyond them…

“I’ll do it. If I do it you’ll let me go, right?”

The long pause didn’t bode well for him.

“You can’t leave the village, Naruto.”

His blood turned to ice.

He didn’t know what it was, but there was something in the man’s voice, something that told him this was different from all the time he had been told that before, or had been told he couldn’t do something period. It wasn’t “you can’t, it’s dangerous” or “you can’t, it’s too hard for you”, “you can’t, it’s frowned upon”, “you can’t, you’ll hurt yourself or someone else.”

It was different. “You can’t, because it’s forbidden to you. You are not allowed. And you will never be.”

“Why the hell not,” he spat out. Anger was bringing back some fire inside of him, some alertness and warmth. It felt good.

“I wish it had gone differently. You weren’t supposed to learn about this until much later, when you were ready to hear it. But what is done is done. I don’t know how much Mizuki told you, I’ll go straight to the heart of it.”

Despite his words, the old man took the time to take out and lit his pipe, like they were just chatting over tea and not on each side of a damn prison wall. Anger turned white hot inside Naruto’s head.

“It is true that the Nine-Tailed Fox was sealed inside of you on the day of your birth. It was the only way to save the village from annihilation. It that sense, you saved us all, Naruto.”

“Yeah, right.”

The man pretended he hadn’t heard him.

“That power lives inside you now. It is enormous, more so than you could imagine. And as such, it’s is a great weapon.”

There was a pause. The old man was waiting for his words to sink in, but they wouldn’t. Naruto refused it, refused to hear them. It couldn’t be it. It couldn’t…

“This is why this has been kept a secret. You understand, don’t you? If words got out about you… A lot of people would want to get their hands on you Naruto. Outside the village, we wouldn’t be able to protect you.”

Protect him? Really? That was it? What was it that Mizuki had said… “Such power has to be available…”

So he was in prison after all. Even if they unlocked the chains, opened the door to his cell, he was never getting out of here. He was never leaving that place.

He would never be free.

The anger reached its boiling point, invading his mind and body, ready to lash out. Before it though, he felt the life being sucked out of him like juice from a juice box, leaving him squeezed out and empty.

“What…”

“This place was designed to keep very strong shinobis in. Using chakra is ill-advised in that kind of situation.”

Naruto felt the burning of hot tears sting at his eyes, and he ducked his head between his knees so that the old man wouldn’t see.

Why couldn’t they just kill him and be done with it.

“I’m truly sorry, Naruto.”

“Y-yeah, right…”

The Hokage sighed deeply.

“As long as you don’t come to term with this… We can’t let you go. It’s for your own safety, Naruto.”

Naruto howled, enraged and heartbroken, and had the bleak satisfaction of seeing the man take a step back. He trashed against his chains, only to feel them drain him again – he kept going anyway.

“Naruto, stop it. You’ll hurt yourself.”

The old man sounded worried – a whole lot of good it did now, for his to care about Naruto. Now, when he was chained like a criminal, an animal, now that they had stolen his future away from him. Naruto snarled and tugged again as hard as he could, until the chains fought back, and, depleted and despaired, he passed out.

.

It was the Great Itachi Affair all over again.

No one would tell Sasuke anything about what was going on. It didn't seem to be the matter of the whole village like it had been back then, but it was of much more significance for him this time.

Because Naruto was missing.

It was only two days, and maybe in other circumstances Sasuke would have thought nothing of it. But both his parents had stormed off in the middle of dinner two nights ago, and his class had been informed the next day that Mizuki-sensei had unfortunately died of a heart attack during the night.

Naruto had been gone since then.

His mother was out of her mind with anger. The previous night he had had to give up on sleep because she had yelled after his father for hours, getting him worked up enough that he had started to yell too. He couldn't make out what they were saying – Itachi was sleeping in his room so that he could keep an eye on him and make sure he didn’t eavesdrop. He seemed worried too. Sasuke was pissed.

He couldn’t help but worry, but they would tell him right? If something had happened to his friend. They wouldn’t just keep it from him.

Would they?

.

He was back there again.

So he hadn’t imagined this place. It looked like some sewers, damp and dark, unpleasant. He was ankle-deep in murky water but he didn’t feel it on his skin. He didn’t feel his own body.

“Where am I?”

He was alone down there. He had wandered the corridors for a while, afraid of getting lost in this maze and yet unable to just stand still, to stay where he was. He’d stumbled quickly back in that room. The one with the prison bars.

There was something behind it.

On the lock where keyhole should have been, there was a seal. A simple sheet of paper taped between the two panels, the “seal” kanji painted on it. It was anything but simple though, he could tell.

The paper was slightly dented in the middle, like the door had open just a smidge and ripped the border.

I want to be free, it said. He remembered that. Remembered that voice.

“Me too”, he answered on instinct, because it was the truth, back then and now too.

But you can’t. You’re too weak.

“Well, seems like you can’t either, so maybe you’re weak.”

There was a laugh. Or was it a snarl? It was terrifying. But Naruto knew he was right. Knew that the seal wouldn’t break, the gate wouldn’t open. He was somewhat safe on this side of the barrier. Safe from that at least.

I could make you strong.

The rush of red chakra in his vein, the sheer power, he wanted to feel it again. He wanted to be strong. But…

“I don’t need your help.”

Are you sure about that?

“I don’t want it then.”

It moved behind its bars. The cage was enormous, but it was small for what it was supposed to contain. Naruto couldn’t help but take a step forward…

Five massive claws sprung out between the bars, nearly impaling him. He fell back on his butt in a splash of water as the thing laughed.

You will.

In the darkness beyond the bars, two red eyes opened to focus on him. He could make out faintly the rest of the face, the vibrant orange fur, the massive body.

The vague shape of a giant fox.

You will.

.

“Nothing?”

Ino shook her head, frustration obvious in her tensed shoulders and closed fists, and Sakura tried to hide her disappointment for her sake. It had been a long shot, with how tightly the adults were about the whole issue, and Ino had already done more than Sakura could hope for.

“The ones I heard talking all say that Naruto is just very sick, and I think they believe it. Whatever it is, they don’t know.”

It wasn’t even about it being absurd – Naruto didn’t get sick, Naruto could recover from a cracked skull in a matter of days. It could have been it still, could have been poisoning or anything of the sort. But Sasuke looked so worried, and he said something was going on, and Sakura believed him. If Naruto was just sick, why couldn’t they see him? Why would no one just tell them that directly, and tell them what was wrong with him exactly, keep them in the loop?

Again, could have been nothing. If it was anyone but Naruto. Because Naruto was special. No one knew in what way, but it didn’t change the fact.

“Thanks, Ino.”

“For what? I couldn’t find anything.”

She looked upset. She prided herself on her ability to dig up anything about what happened around the village, including confidential matters that she really had no business knowing about. It was a blow to her self-esteem, to be beaten by something that should have been a mundane issue.

It only served to prove that something very suspicious was going on.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Ino added after a while. Sakura stared at her, surprised. Ino wasn’t really one for comfort. She pouted, but she said it again. “He’ll be back in no time. Don’t you worry.”

She didn’t seem very convinced, and yet she had to be right, right? People, kids didn’t just disappear like this. Naruto had to be somewhere.

She couldn’t help it though.

“It’s just… You know how… How people aren’t… always so nice to him. And I can’t help but think…”

She sniffled, mortified that her tears were getting the better of her now. She didn't want to cry, there was no point, it wouldn't help in any way. And yet tears gathered up in her eyes, her throat tightened around a sob.

“That… that maybe no one would care. If he…”

That right there was her real fear. Maybe they couldn’t find out about anything because the adults themselves didn’t know. And maybe they didn’t care. Who would look for Naruto if he disappeared? Who would care about his fate? Wouldn’t they be happy, on the contrary, to be rid of the trouble kid?

Ino slammed both her hands on Sakura’s shoulders, hard enough to make her waver. Her gaze was fierce – Sakura couldn’t look away.

“That’s not true.”

“What?”

“You care. Sasuke does too. And even… even me, okay? And freaking Sai, of all people. We’d care. We’ll find out. Don’t you worry.”

Stupidly enough, that’s what got the dam to broke. Sakura sniffled loudly and panic crossed Ino’s face, but she didn’t let go. She didn’t close the distance between them either. It didn’t matter. She was keeping Sakura upright, keeping her on her feet. It was enough for now.

.

Was the thought his, or was it the demon whispering into his ear? He was having trouble dissociating the two. The idea came anyway, unbidden and unwelcome, as he was contemplating the perspective of a life bound to the walls of the village.

I would be free of that village, if the village didn’t exist.

“No!”

He had exhausted himself trying to get free of his shackles and now he couldn’t wake up anymore. He had to wait for his body to recover some measure of strength, and in the meantime, he was stuck down there with the fox.

“I won’t let you harm them! I’ll stop you.”

Why? Why protect this place, these people? What have they done to deserve your loyalty?

“Nothing. I’m not loyal to them.”

The village could burn to ashes. He didn’t care.

But Sasuke did. Sasuke loved this place. His whole family was here, his friends. Naruto wouldn’t let any harm come to them.

Friends?

“I won’t let you,” Naruto said again, stubborn. The fox was right, Naruto was weak and useless, and that power could grant him his freedom. But at what cost?

He still had something here. Something small maybe, but still. He had Sasuke and Sakura, and he would let no harm come to them. That choice at least was easy to make, even if it meant letting go of his only shot at freedom.

He could feel murderous intent, hatred far greater than his own, spilling out from the cage and into the water. Maybe it wasn’t even water. Maybe that was it, it was these dark and terrible thoughts trying to reach him, to drown him out. But Naruto had never wished death upon anyone. That’s not what he wanted, not what he was after, and he wouldn’t let the fox poison him like this.

He laid a hand on the paper seal, just like Itachi had done to stick the chakra sheets together. The memory left him queasy, unbalanced. it seemed so surreal, so far away from him. What was going on outside? How long had he been stuck here? There was no window in the cell, no source of light other than the flickering candles in the corridor, no sense of time.

Where they still waiting for him?

When he took his hand back the sheet was whole once again, the tear gone. The fox roared. Naruto woke up.

.

“We’ll find a solution, Mikoto. We’re working on it.”

“When? How long do you plan on leaving him in that cell? I swear if it was up to me…”

“Well it’s not.”

“Maybe it should.”

They held onto each other’s gaze, none of them willing to back out and look away first. Fugaku’s patience was rapidly dwindling, and he tried to remember when things had started to go so wrong in their life. Even this was put to question now – his leadership of their clan. It had never been before. Fugaku’s father was the clan head before him and he has raised his oldest son to take his place one day. Mikoto’s own father was his second in command – their marriage had made sense. They would have kids and their eldest would in turn inherit the clan, and that was it.

Except Mikoto didn’t like that anymore, and she wasn’t the only one starting to question it. It was the women, mostly. Working themselves up over their place in the clan, what more they could do, displeased with their fate all of the sudden. Plus there was the increasing concern about Itachi. Fugaku had never worried because Itachi was the best shinobi the clan had produced in a long time, and he thought his leadership would never be doubted by the others.

It hadn’t. Not by them, anyway.

Time passed and Itachi was still only a desk jounin. He wasn’t back on active duty. He wasn’t back on regular training.

He didn’t look like that path appealed to him in any way anymore.

“Would you have us free him without condition? Without guarantees?”

“Yes.”

He rolled his eyes. He knew she was dead serious and yet he couldn’t help but see it as a provocation.

“Naruto is not a criminal. He has done nothing warranting that punishment.”

“Don’t be so naïve! If he’s in there, it’s because he’s dangerous, to all of us!”

“And since when do we lock up those of us who are a threat, huh? Did we lock up Itachi?”

He closed his mouth, shocked, expecting her to take the words back. She didn’t, despite the pain it brought her. She wasn’t going to pull her punches.

“What if Naruto loses control and levels the whole village, Mikoto? What then?”

Once again he thought she would back down, would finally see reason. Instead her gaze only hardened, and he didn't recognize the harsh expression on her face, a rage bordering on hatred that looked out of place on her gentle features.

“Then we will only have gotten what was coming for us.”

.

“Please let me out. I’ll be good, I swear. I won’t try to run away anymore. Please.”

“I want to, Naruto. I want to believe you. But it’s not so simple.”

In a way, Naruto was impressed. He had always considered the old Hokage as being too nice, too soft to be the village leader. To discover how wrong he had been left a bitter taste in his mouth. The Hokage was unyielding, unmoved by his pleas and his threats, firm in his resolve even in front of a whining child. Then again, it had to help that he probably didn’t see Naruto as a child at all. Why be emotional over a demon?

The man was right to doubt him anyway. He would have said anything to get out of here. But was he really ready to swear off his freedom? To agree to his own captivity?

“We’re looking into a solution. So that what happened in the woods won’t happen again.”

Naruto nodded, even if he didn’t know what that was exactly. Was it the power that had leaked out, the red chakra that had brought fear into the two masked ones? Or just that he had tried to escape?

At least they didn’t intend to leave him here forever. Small mercies.

“I know you’re eager to go out… And you’re friends are waiting for you,” the Sandaime said, trying to sound encouraging.

Naruto hadn’t asked, and he didn’t want to know. He hated that he wished for both equally – that they didn't care about his fate, going about their lives, proving once and for all that he had to forget about them. And that they worried, that they were looking for him, because he wanted them to miss him, to miss him as much as he missed them. It would only be fair.

He hadn’t asked though because he didn’t want the Hokage to know about them. That was too great a weakness in the man’s hands. Too late for that, it seemed.

“They’re worried, of course,” he went on. “They want to know what happened to you.”

Naruto didn’t have the time to feel relief or annoyance before he was hit full force with a sense of impending doom. He leaned forward on instinct, even if his movements were still very much restricted.

“You didn’t tell them, right? You won’t tell them about me?”

The panic made his body react just like the anger and he could already feel the chains working against him. He willed himself to calm down, shoving down all his emotions behind a wall where they couldn’t bother him, couldn’t get him into trouble.

“They can’t know. They can’t know.”

“Calm down Naruto. Of course no one will them. I told you it had to remain a secret. For the safety of all, and for yours too.”

Deep, deep down, Naruto knew that was a lie. Because they all knew. All the adults anyway. They all knew to treat him like the threat he was, they all knew to stay clear of him. Even their kids knew that, the only difference was that they didn’t know why exactly.

Sasuke had still approached him because he didn’t know. If he heard about it too…

“Unless there’s a good reason, they won’t be put in the confidence.”

Naruto heard that as the threat it was.

It was fine. Great, even.

“If… If you swear that they won’t know, then I’ll stay put. I promise. I’ll never give you any reason to tell them.”

He was showing all his cards now. No one was supposed to know that he cared about them that much, that they had such power over him. That they could sway him away from his own goals.

But if he was trapped here forever, he needed at least this. And he would have to learn to live with the rest. If he had only this…

The old man studied his face for a long time, assessing his determination, his honesty. In the dim light, his immobility made him look like a statue, with only eyes to show for the life inside of him, like a soul trapped in a body of rock.

Naruto shoved down the rage, like he shoved down everything else.

What was the point in feelings, really. He would have much rather have been numb to everything. That way he could have listened to the demon’s voice, and then…

No. No. Not that. Never. Even if he didn’t have feelings, he didn’t want others to feel bad because of him either. The pain he would cause would become his own. And he had more than enough to go by already.

“I believe you, Naruto.”

Naruto sighed deeply, relieved. But the man turned away and left without another word, and Naruto was crushed by the sheer helplessness of one's fate being entirely out of one's control.

How do you like that, brat.

.

“Will you do it then, Shisui?”

Had he not made his decision already, Shisui would have surely done it now, faced with Mikoto’s steady but pleading look. She was making admirable efforts to appear calm and open, to make him feel like the decision was his, that he was free to refuse.

As if he could refuse such a heartfelt plea.

He had already decided anyway.

“Of course I will.”

With just as much control, she just let out a slow sigh of relief that barely moved her face. At her side, Fugaku sat crossed armed and sullen, expression set in stone. Shisui had no idea what he was thinking, but if he had agreed to this, he had to approve to some extent. He wasn’t a man whose hand could be forced.

Or was he? Mikoto had been grilling him hard…

“We can go now, if it’s okay with you," she said pleasantly, again making a terrific job at keeping any impatience out of her voice and face. He nodded. They all stood up from the kitchen table where their tea had gone cold, untouched. Out of the corner of his eyes, Shisui saw a flickering movement disappear behind the wall. It figured.

“Just a second, I’ll be right out.”

Sure enough, Sasuke was standing a few feet away from the door, trying to look innocent.

“You’re not fooling anyone,” Shisui said gently. He wasn’t so bad at faking cheer, but Sasuke saw right through it.

“Are you alright?” he asked. His concern was cute. Sometimes Shisui had a hard time remembering how young he was exactly. How old too, by their fucked-up standards.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Is this about…”

Sasuke bit his lips. It’s not that he couldn’t ask – more that he couldn’t get an answer. He asked anyway.

“Is this about Naruto?”

Shisui should have denied it, but what was the point? Besides, he wasn’t too fond of lying to children.

“Yes.”

“Is he alright?”

“…He will be.”

Shisui tried to look convinced. In truth, he didn’t know.

“Okay. Okay.”

Shisui was surprised that the boy wasn’t assaulting him with questions, but it seemed Sasuke had learned his own share of patience and to bid his time. He had looked so worried these past few days, so lost. He was probably past caring about the details – he just wanted to see his friend again. To know he was okay.

Shisui ruffled his hair but couldn’t bring himself to be as harsh about it as he would usually be.

“It’s gonna be fine, Sasuke.”

Shisui turned away before the boy could see the lie.

He followed Mikoto and Fugaku out of the district, all the way to the Hokage Tower. They didn’t enter it though – they aimed for the next building, the one that hosted parts of the Archive, the Intelligence and Interrogation department… And the ninja prison.

Morino Ibiki was waiting for them in the entryway, as scary and serious as ever. He looked displeased too.

“You’re supposed to go alone,” he said gruffly. Ha, so that was that. This place was his own little kingdom, and he was upset about hosting a guest that he couldn’t approach himself, that he could do nothing about. He explained the way to Shisui and led him to a narrow staircase that plunged down into the lower levels, carved out of the ground.

“Maybe it would be better if… if there’s no one around when we come back up,” Shisui said offhandedly. He didn’t wait to see if they would heed his suggestion.

He ignored the first few doors, knowing he had to go to the very last level. It couldn't even be called that. The stairs ended abruptly on the hard-packed earth, and behind a low stone arch, there was a single space cut in half by metal bars.

And behind the bars, there was Naruto.

As always, Shisui hadn't be given much detail, but he didn't need it. He could piece it back together just fine. The simple fact that they had asked him, of all people, was enough to paint the bigger picture – if it was true that any Sharingan could, in theory, grant control over the Tailed Beasts, in practice no one in the Uchiha clan knew how to manage such a feat.

Shisui was a special case though. Shisui had a Mangekyou Sharingan, and a very peculiar one.

He could control anyone he wanted just fine.

“Hello, Naruto.”

He had whispered, and still his voice was obscenely loud in the silent cave, piercing through the still air like a spear. The boy was sitting in a tight ball as far from the bars as possible, head buried between his knees, arms wrapped around it. He made no indication he had heard Shisui, or even noticed his presence.

The key slid easily in the lock but it took several tries to turn it. Naruto still didn’t move, even when Shisui stepped inside the cell, kneeled in front of him. He went for the ankle rings first. The key was also a seal breaker, and he felt it disperse as the shackle cracked open.

“Naruto… Naruto, come on. Give me your hands.”

Shisui wasn’t acknowledged in any way, but Naruto didn’t resist when the older boy pried his arm away from his knees gently. The last chain clattered on the ground.

“Naruto…”

“Don’t look at me.”

His voice was hoarse, probably from screaming. He hadn’t moved a muscle.

“Please. Don’t look at me.”

And Shisui had known that. He’d known Naruto would ask and he’d known he would agree. It was ironic, because they didn’t know how wrong they had been to ask Shisui, how pointless it was.

Because he wouldn’t call on the Sharingan. No way.

“I won’t. I won’t, I promise.”

Naruto raised his head then, to look directly into the black of Shisui’s eyes. They held gaze for a long, breathless moment. Shisuis forced himself to remain steady, like Mikoto had, to look strong and reassuring and not as distressed as he felt.

Finally, after an eternity, Naruto finally unfolded, his joints cracking painfully as he stretched his tightly coiled body.

“Let’s go,” Shisui said once he was up. Naruto was staring at the ground, and they made their way back up in complete silence.

Shisui was grateful to see that the first floor had been deserted like he had suggested. Even the street in front of the building was empty. The sky was grey, but it wouldn’t rain. It would have been appropriate though.

Shisui didn’t know how to broach the next subject, how to tell Naruto what had been decided for him. He grasped at the first thing he could think of saying.

“Sasuke has been looking for you.”

It didn’t have the intended effect. Naruto finally raised his eyes from the ground, but it was to cast a panicked look at Shisui. His eyes widened in fear and his face contorted in an awful expression of pain and anguish Shisui had a hard time not looking away from. He cursed himself for his lack of tact

“Don’t tell him,” Naruto whispered, pleading. “Don’t tell him anything.”

“I won’t. I won’t.”

“Don’t tell them.”

“I won’t.”

Naruto was supposed to have slept most of the time spent down there – the only thing that had remotely placate Mikoto enough to dissuade her from blowing up the prison herself – but the dark bags under his eyes told a different story. He was shivering even if the air wasn’t so cold, and he looked like he wanted nothing more than to sleep for a hundred years.

Shisui could relate. Unfortunately for both of them, it wasn’t going to happen.

“I want to go home,” Naruto whined. It was strange to hear him sound like an actual kid for once.

Too bad Shisui had to be the one to steal the kid’s lollipop.

“You can’t.”

Master of tact, that’s what he was.

Naruto looked seconds away from spontaneous combustion.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! It’s… it’s the condition for you… wandering around. You can’t be left unsupervised so… You’re coming with me. Like. To my place.”

At least it was absurd enough that for a moment, Naruto forgot to be angry, too busy processing the level of bullshit he was currently dealing with.

“What?” he said weakly. Shisui could see he was already resigned to his fate though. He didn’t even try to argue any further. He just looked away – because he was angry, probably, not to hide tears or anything – and his shoulders sagged in complete defeat.

“Whatever. It’s whatever. I don’t care.”

Shisui hated this.

The questions would come later, probably. He hoped. The boy wouldn't stay so apathetic for long, right? He would be back to himself in no time and he would make Shisui’s life miserable, as was his right. His duty, even.

“They don’t know anything, right? They don’t know about me,” Naruto asked again.

“No. they’ve been told you were sick, nothing else.”

He exhaled a sigh of relief, although he still looked shaken.

“Cool. Cool. That’s cool.”

Shisui had feared it would be like that. That Naruto would want to hide, keep it a secret. It would only serve to deepen the breach between him and the others – maybe it was even his purpose. And it was wrong.

Now wasn’t the time to touch on that subject, but it would have to be soon. Or they would lose the boy for good.

"What about you?" Naruto asked as they kept walking toward the Uchiha district. His eyes were firmly trained on the ground, determined not to see anything, or anyone.

“What about me?”

“Do you know? About… About what I am. And what’s I’ve done.”

“I do,” Shisui said, trying to sound calm and firm, careful to rid his voice of anything that could sound like fear or disgust. He thought Naruto would ask more – ask what he knew exactly, what he thought of it.

The boy kept silent. All the way to the Uchiha district, to Shisui’s modest house. It wasn’t inside the district, but just out, facing the outer wall. A feeble rebellion from his part – moving out of the family house after his mother had died, and leaving the district. He had hoped Itachi would eventually dare to follow and move into the spare room. He had thought that would be for him that he would have to move all the junk he had accumulated there. Instead, it was for Naruto that he had hastily cleaned it up to turn it into a bedroom.

Naruto knew nothing of that though, since he didn’t ask. He unrolled the futon, shed most of his clothes, and disappeared under the covers without a word or a look toward Shisui.

“I’ll be downstairs,” the older boy said lamely, at a loss as to how he could help, what he could do. Resigned, he exited the room, hoping some sleep would bring back some fight into Naruto’s abused mind.

He would find something. Shisui hadn’t agreed to this for Fugaku or the Hokage or any of the other ones in charge who thought the boy had to be watched at all time, who feared him staying here and him vanishing equally.

He had agreed fro Naruto and no one else. He would do it for him, for the same reason Mikoto had pushed for this even if she couldn’t like it all that much. Even if she knew how reluctant he was to use Kotoamatsukami, which he did his best to keep hidden. He had agreed, not so that he could monitor Naruto, but so that Naruto wouldn’t be left on his own after all this, left to go through it alone, to make sense of it himself, without support or help.

So that he wouldn’t be another discarded child.

.

"I want to know," Sasuke said, as serious and firm as a ten-year-old could be, "why the hell would Naruto go live with Shisui out of the blue.”

“Language, Sasuke!” Fugaku growled, a hair away from snapping. The look Sasuke threw at his father made Mikoto wonder if she was going to hear him say the word “fuck” for the first time. That it would be a “fuck you” to his father wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest.

Instead, Sasuke, who occasionally knew how to pick his battle, looked away from the fuming man and settled to stare at nothing at all. His fists were closed on his folded legs and he was sitting straight and rigid on the tatami. By his side, Itachi was just as tensed, eyes flickering between his parents, kneeling in from of him, and brother, by his side. “Them” against “us”.

“What,” Sasuke tried again, breathe short in his efforts to remain calm, “happened. To my friend.”

“It doesn’t concern you.”

“Of for f…”

“Sasuke!”

Itachi had been quicker than her. Or maybe she had had no intention of stopping her youngest from disrespecting his father in a way that would have guaranteed some broken paper rice door. Sasuke wasn’t throwing a childish tantrum, and she believed he was fully aware of the consequence of his words and actions.

Itachi disliked violence though, be it physical or verbal. He always chose de-escalation. And Sasuke listened to Itachi on all things.

“It is true that something serious happened,” Itachi said, voice calm and even, ignoring Fugaku’s noise of protestation. “And the fact that you can’t be told what is out of our control. You are well aware that Naruto is a special case, and that there are things about him you don’t know. You can insist all you want, but you should know that he also requested that you and your other friends were kept out of this.”

Sasuke was drinking his brother’s words, expression a careful neutral despite the questions that were no doubt swarming in his mind.

“Regardless of what you know, he needs you right now. It’s possible that he’ll reject you, and he’ll try to pull away, but he will need you all the same. You are his friend, right?”

Sasuke nodded seriously.

“Can you wait then? If he wants to share it with you, he will. But if he doesn’t, what will you do?”

Sasuke mulled this over, a deep frown on his young face making something churn in Mikoto’s guts. No matter what they did, the children ended up caught up with it anyway. She managed to convey to Fugaku to stay silent. He obeyed, reluctantly, but still.

“It doesn’t matter. I’ll help in whatever way I can,” Sasuke said eventually. She was proud to see he had understood the lesson – obviously, he still wanted answers, and maybe he would still look for them. But he wouldn’t let it show.

“Then do your best for things to go back to normal. There’s nothing to worry about for now. I promise.”

Her two boys looked at each other, communicating silently in a language she had no hope to decipher. They shared something parents couldn’t intrude in, no matter how much they wanted to. In the end, it was always them against the rest of the world, and for kids, parents composed a vast portion of it.

They turned back to face their parents. Sasuke bowed without making eye contact with either of them.

“I’m sorry for my insistence.”

Fugaku at least didn’t have the gale to look pleased by this.

“You can both go,” he dismissed, defeated. She had a strange sense of foreboding, about what their future relationship with their sons would be like.

.

The things he had on him when he had been stopped in the woods were already at Shisui’s, and the sealing scroll was still there in his weapon pouch, untouched.

No one had found out then.

Sitting cross-legged on the futon, Naruto stared at the palm of his hands, his five fingers crooked to form a circle. Such a simple, easy thing to do, power the seal, lay in on the opponent’s chest, and then…

The heart stopped. It just stopped. And they were gone.

The technique had a name, probably, but Naruto couldn’t read it. He would call it the Heartbreaker Sealing Technique. Seemed appropriate.

Buried deep in his psyche, the fox laughed hard enough to rattle the bars of its cage.

Chapter Text

What was Naruto supposed to do now?

How was he supposed to bear the look of all those people, now that he knew why they stared him down like that? And the look of the kids who didn’t know, who he was deceiving, endangering by his mere presence?

Was it right of him to keep training, to keep trying to become stronger? What devastation would he bring if he lost it like back then in the woods, if there was no one to stop him?

What, what was he supposed to do?

“Why you?”

Shisui took the time to finish filling both their bowl with steaming fried rice before sitting down in front of Naruto across the table. He had all but dragged the young boy out of bed, pushed him in the shower mercilessly and forced some of his own clothes down on him while he washed Naruto’s. They still smelled like the cell.

“Why me what?”

“Why is it you. That has to look after me.”

It didn’t make much sense to him. Shouldn’t it have been someone higher ranked or more powerful? Shisui was plenty talented probably, but he was also under twenty.

“Ah… Well out of all the Uchiha, it was the least… politically sensitive choice, let’s put it that way. I don’t have much status inside the clan, and not much ambition either.”

"Why did it have to be an Uchiha?"

That was the real question, and the one Shisui had tried to dodge. Naruto stared at him, unblinking. Would he tell him the truth? Or would he lie, like all the others? Naruto wouldn’t have faulted him for it. He found it amazing enough that the older boy could even stand to be in his presence, to have him in his house, knowing what he knew.

“The Sharingan grants control over the Beast,” Shisui said simply.

He went back to eating while Naruto choked on his rice.

“Wh-What?”

“I imagine that’s why it makes you so skittish. I have… a special form of it. Which is what qualifies me as your guardian.”

Or guard. Jailer.

Naruto looked away then, unable to bear his gaze even when it remained black. The panic he had felt faced with Izumi’s Sharingan felt sharper now, taking the form and shape of the chains that had weighed him down in the cell, restricting his movements, draining his power.

He had to put his bowl down. He was shaking badly, and he was losing his breath as if he has been running for a hundred miles. They could control him. If he looked in Shisui’s eyes, he would be at his mercy. Helpless.

Forced to do their binding. To destroy. To kill. No way to fight it. No way to break free.

“Naruto. Naruto, look at me.”

Hands on his cheeks, guiding his face. He closed his eyes tightly.

“Naruto, please.”

“No, no. Don’t look at me. Please, please…”

“Naruto. Open your eyes.”

Was he crying again? Maybe. Shisui’s voice was gentle but firm, very close. It wasn’t commanding. Maybe this didn’t work without eye contact. Small mercy.

“Come on, hey. Open your eyes. See for yourself.”

They stayed like this for an absurdly long time, Naruto sitting on the ground, Shisui kneeling in front of him, cupping his face, waiting. Naruto gulping useless mouthfuls of air, and Shisui very still in front of him, steady as a wall, steady enough to grab onto. Naruto thought he would give up, start to yell or storm off, but he didn't move or said another word. His hold was loose on his face. Naruto could have escaped if he wanted.

Eventually, he opened his eyes.

The black gaze of Shisui was trained on him, focused and steady.

“I won’t use it on you. You won’t ever see it. I promise, Naruto. You are safe here, with me.”

“Wh-Why? Why would you do that?”

“You’re not a prisoner. And I won’t treat you like one.”

“What if I…”

“I trust you.”

Naruto’s breathe disappeared all over again, punched out of him by the absolute certitude in Shisui’s voice.

“I know I won’t ever have to do that to you. I trust you. You are free, Naruto. You are.”

It was a lie.

“I trust you, and I hope you’ll trust me. You have my words. Never.”

That one though. That one maybe was true.

.
Kakashi had been the one to carry Naruto’s unconscious body back to the village.

He was so light, so small. It was hard to believe he was ten already – he was short for his age, probably underfed. One would have given him eight years under his belt at most, especially when he was asleep, his face relaxed and his eyes closed.
When they were open, it was hard not to give him twenty years more.

Kakashi had carried him through the woods, all the way to the Hokage’s office. It was crowded with the high-ranked of the village and they didn’t want the boy out of their sight, so he had ended up perched awkwardly on the Hokage’s desk with Naruto in his arm. The seal was still sticking to his forehead – as long as it was, he wouldn’t wake up.

Some thought it wasn’t such a bad alternative.

He had not participated in the discussion, despite all he wanted to say. Despite his outrage at some of their words, his gratitude for others, he had not said a thing, he had stayed silent. Between the clan heads, the tokubetsu jounins, the senior officials, all with a word to put in and a thought to give, he had simply listened and rocked slightly the sleeping boy in his arms, knowing full well he wasn’t sleeping. Had he been asleep, surely all those people debating his fate loudly would have woken him up. But he was kept under by the seal, and so he hadn’t stirred.

Kakashi had been the one to carry him down to the cell.

“It’s temporary,” the Hokage had said. “It won’t last. Just the time for us to find a solution.”

It wasn’t any consolation when Kakashi had been the one to close the chains around the boy’s limbs.

It was necessary, and he knew it. In the forest Tenzo and he had barely reacted fast enough to stop the demon from making an appearance. There had been no warning, no transition – in an instant, the Beast was there with them, threatening everything and everyone around. They had no idea how Naruto would be when he would wake up, who they would face. If he would have regained control over the Nine-Tails.

If he would even want to.

Kakashi had been the one to lock the door of the cell.

It wasn’t the worse thing he had done in his life. He had locked up or delivered to prison plenty of people. Never children, but that only depended on the definition of the term. He had fought and killed shinobis who were Naruto’s age. He had fought and nearly died when he was his age too.

This was different though. Naruto wasn’t a shinobi, he wasn’t a soldier. No matter how one looked at it, he was nothing else but a victim. And he was the one being chained.

Being punished.

And Kakashi was the one to do it.

Kakashi had stayed far away from Naruto, but he had observed him a lot. He had seen him with Fugaku’s youngest son, with the pink-haired girl. He didn’t seem to be doing so bad. He wasn’t as alone as he used to be, he was interacting more with his classmates. Kakashi had been convincing himself that he was fine staying out of the boy’s path. Kakashi was bad news to anyone he befriended – it was better this way. Naruto didn’t need help, he didn’t need anything from him.

He had been a freaking fool.

The portrait painted by the Uchiha, by Fugaku and Mikoto, and by Itachi and Shisui, who were the only people among those involved in Naruto’s future who had as much as talked to him in the past few years, had nothing to do with was he had made up in his head. They described an angry child, at war with the entire world, eager for freedom and independence, unwilling to let anyone in. He was wild and aggressive, feral at times, quick to lash out, wary about everyone. The two kids, Sasuke and Sakura, and a few others of their grades, were the only one who could hope to approach him without getting their head bitten off, and even that wasn’t always a given. Naruto was bitter and lonely. He was miserable.

Kakashi had seen nothing of it.

Or he had just… squinted his eyes. Looked away. He hadn’t decided to keep his distances because he had seen he wasn’t needed. He had decided, and then he had looked for the excuse, the justification.

They all had. They all had come up with their own reasons, all had constructed their story carefully, so that they could reject the blame if it ever laid on them, like a game. Pass it on to the next one over.

But the others had no obligation towards the boy. Not like Kakashi had. Naruto was Minato and Kushina’s son, their treasure. And Kakashi had abandoned him. Worse than that, he’d all but turned against him. Became his persecutor.

He had failed him, and them, completely.

“Please,” he said, breaking the heavy silence blanketing the Hokage’s office, “please don’t ever ask anything like that of me again.”

The Sandaime didn’t raise his eyes from the report he was reading, but Kakashi had been part of his personal guard for years now, and he could tell when the man was actually focusing on the task at hand, and when he was failing at it. He had been staring at the same page forever, and had accomplished pretty much nothing at all since the beginning of the day.

He still kept silent for a while longer, before giving up and letting go of the report. He rested his forehead against his crossed hands, elbows on his desk, his usual meditative pose. His face was carved into deep lines of worries and guilt. He had always looked so much more lively and strong that would be expected for someone his age, but in the past few years it was as if time had decided to catch up on him. It wasn’t about fighting skills – no one questioned the fact that the old shinobi could still lay down most of them flat on their ass in a fight.

But being a good fighter and being a good leader wasn’t always linked. Maybe they should have thought of that before.

“I think you should retire from Anbu, Kakashi.”

Ah, the man loved to drop bombshells like that.

More often than not, Kakashi was grateful for the mask. He liked it for the exact reason why most people didn’t – it hid his face, his emotions, his feelings. Granted, he never showed much of his face anyway, but there were times where he pondered the merits of never taking his Anbu mask off anymore. People would forget what his face looked like, and he even that he had one. That he was human. That he had feelings at all.
The mask hid his shock, his hurt too. Had he failed his Hokage so badly that he would want to retire him? It was stupid of him to be upset, while he had been the one to all but request it just a minute ago. What good was an Anbu who wouldn’t follow orders?

"It should have happened way sooner. No one is supposed to wear the mask for so long. Besides, the boy is going to need a teacher soon."

Kakashi couldn’t hold back a quiet gasp.

“Surely you don’t mean…”

“Who else would you put in charge of his genin team, Kakashi?”

There were about a billion candidates more suited to it, that would do a far better job. Guy sprung to mind, Kurenai too. Even that jerk Asuma would be a better choice than Kakashi.

And yet.

Hadn’t Kakashi done enough running away?

It was his chance to make things right by Naruto. The boy was far gone already, full of hatred and resentment. But he wasn’t yet lost to them.

“I will do as you wish, Hokage-sama.”

“I know you will.”

There was something like bitterness in his Hokage’s voice.

.

Fresh out of his bath, standing naked in front of the full-length mirror, Naruto was staring at his reflection.

He avoided his face, since he couldn’t help but look for tells, like the events of the past few days could somewhat show. He had taken to wonder about every little thing – which of his features were a demon mark? His blonde hair, the bright blue of his eyes? His whiskers had to be, for sure.

He didn’t look. Instead, he focused on his belly.

Specifically on the massive seal that sat right there.

He had figured that the seal had to show, somewhere on his body, for seals couldn’t be hidden, not at all time anyway. They left a trace even after they were gone – on that matter, he hoped nothing would be found on Mizuki’s heart. But there was no seal expert in Konoha.

He had had to concentrate pretty hard on his chakra flow for the seal to show up. And now, here it was.

It looked nothing like the few he had already seen. He could speculate over its complexity and power, over the quantity of chakra and energy poured into it so that it would work. For all intents and purposes, it was a giant lock on a set of chains. Biding the fox to his body, and not letting go.

He wanted to claw it out of his skin.

And yet, he found it beautiful in a way. An intricate work, stable and efficient. A job well done. By who? Who then had the talent and skill, the power to do such a thing? Where were they now? Dead, gone? Why had they done it?

Why him?

“Naruto! We have a visitor.”

Naruto rolled his eyes at Shisui’s cheery voice. The older boy was unbearable with his good mood and good humor. Naruto had no intention of indulging in Shisui’s attempts at cheering him up. What could he possibly do to help? What did he know of what was happening in Naruto’s mind?

Naruto had seen no one else but him since being moved here a few days ago. For the most part he had stayed in the small bedroom allocated to him, lying on the futon and staring at the ceiling. Shisui brought food – sometimes he ate it, mostly he didn’t.

Shisui asked him what he wanted to do, if he needed anything. A nice sentiment, but Naruto had no idea.

He got dressed – some of his clothes had mysteriously appeared in the room the day before, because no one had any qualm about raiding his apartment while he wasn’t there, apparently. He debated briefly just ignoring the other boy and going back to lie down in his room.

“Don’t think of skipping on us and hide back in your room!” came Shisui’s voice downstairs, teasing but promising retribution all the same. He would carry Naruto downstairs if he had too, that was certain. Better not risk it.

He hoped it wasn’t an adult. He hoped it wasn’t any of his friends either. In fact, he hoped it was just thin air, or at worst someone he didn’t know at all, and most importantly, who didn’t know him.

Instead, it was Uchiha Izumi.

She reacted much faster than Naruto, and even Shisui. Maybe she was anticipating his reaction. He didn’t even have the time to turn around that she was by his side. The hand she landed on his shoulder was light, and he could have broken away from her hold if he had wanted to, could have run away and hide like he wanted to.

Instead he was rooted to the spot. It was so gentle, that hand, without pressure or command. It occurred to him that maybe he had assumed wrong, and she didn’t know. How else could he explain this? Had she known, surely…

“Don’t… don’t you know? About me.”

It was the question haunting him now, that would cling to him when he decided to step back into the world. Who knew, around him, in the people who looked at him, the ones he passed in the streets. Who was aware of his secret?

“I do.”

It wasn’t possible. She couldn’t.

He let her guide him to the small backyard, let her sit him down on the patio. Shisui was hovering behind them, eyeing the scene worriedly. Her hand was still on Naruto’s shoulder.

“How are you, Naruto? I heard about what happened. That must have been terrible. I’m sorry you had to go through this.”

He shrugged. No one had asked and he hadn’t thought about it. He preferred not to. The urgency of running for his life, that visceral fear of dying, and the feeling of stealing the life out of another… those were better forgotten. As was the eternity he had spent in the cage. A day was a thousand year in the making when he didn’t know if he would ever walk free. He was the bars when he closed his eyes, felt the weight bearing down on his wrists and ankles.

How do you like that, brat?

Forget, he willed himself, ignoring the barb. Forget.

“Aren’t you mad at me?”

He couldn’t help but ask. Maybe he just liked to make himself suffer. She looked surprised though, the questioning tilt of her head disrupting some hair that came rushing down her shoulder. They were dirty, as were her face and hands. She was still in her chunin uniform – fresh back from training then, or even a mission. And she had come here straight away.

“Why? It wasn’t your fault, was it?”

Was she being dense on purpose, so that they wouldn’t talk about? But Naruto was never one to make anything easier.

“I killed your father.”

Even that didn’t seem to shake her up, to make her realize who was sitting next to her. Her face hardened.

“No you didn’t.”

“Didn’t he…”

“He died on the night of the Kyuubi attack, yes. The Beast killed him, or caused his death anyway.”

“Then…”

“Naruto, would you look at me, please?”

He complied, against everything in him that told him to just get the hell out of there. It’s not like there was anywhere he could go though.

She put her other hand on his shoulder and squeezed lightly, just so that he could feel it. He couldn’t help but lean into the touch.

“The Kyuubi’s crimes are not your own. I don’t care what people say, they are not. Never was a prison guard accused of the crimes of the ones under his watch, and you shouldn’t be either. You’re not the Kyuubi, Naruto. You’re just a bratty kid. You’re not a demon.”

“That’s not true.”

“Naruto…”

“Isn’t it exactly how it is? How it happened? I received the weight of it, all of it. I bore the consequences. All their hatred, all their anger and pain… That’s what was sealed inside me. That’s what I am.”

He wasn’t a child in the world’s eyes. He wasn’t a person.

How could they be so sure that he wasn’t the Beast anyway? Maybe he was. Maybe he was its human incarnation. How would he know? He had never been just Naruto.

Naruto didn’t exist.

Don’t be so pretentious. You’re not me.

And that damn fox who wouldn’t shut up.

“It doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to be what they want to be, or to play the role they want you to play. You can choose who you are. And stand by it.”

Izumi looked pointedly at Shisui, who shuffled clumsily to sit on Naruto’s other side.

“You’re not on your own,” he said with a smile, softer than his usual confident smirk.

Naruto wasn’t sure it mattered anymore.

.

“He’s not fine. At all,” Izumi sighed as soon as they regrouped with Itachi at the dango shop. She sat down by his side and stole a sweet from his plate, but she couldn’t even bring herself to look smug about it, and she munched on it unhappily. Itachi didn’t protest.

“No shit,” Shisui deadpanned. They had had to leave the house so that they could talk without being overheard by the very subject of their conversation. Since Naruto still refused to go out and see anyone. He was due back in school in a few days, and Shisui had no idea what he was supposed to do if the boy simply refused to go. They had been left to their own devices of course, as soon as the village had dumped Naruto into his care.

As always, there was no one to help in any way.

He was being unfair to Mikoto, who had stopped by with foods and some of Sasuke’s old clothes for the boy, but hadn’t stepped into Shisui’s house despite her forlorn look to the first floor where he was holed up in. Shisui hadn’t been lying when he had said that he was the best candidate for the job, both because of his Sharingan, and because of his lack of political weight. The elders were skittish enough over the monster boy being in such close quarters with the Uchiha clan. Mikoto still had to tread carefully, even if her patience for such bullshit was very obviously dwindling.

“He looks tired,” Izumi added, mostly to herself.

“He doesn’t sleep well,” Shisui answered anyway, because he needed to share that with someone. Someone who would care.

“Nightmares?” Itachi enquired, signifying that he was also joining the conversation. Until proven otherwise, Shisui tended to assume he wasn’t, that they were just sharing space. Itachi’s mind was often far away from his body.

“He says it’s nothing unusual, that he has them all the time but… I listened. I think he dreams of the cage.”

Naruto slept with the door and the window open despite the chilly night air. Shisui had noticed he even left the bathroom door slightly open when he was inside. Izumi’s face soured and she pushed the plate back to Itachi. He didn’t seem interested in it either.

“Did you heard him talk?”

“Not… exactly. Not in his sleep. He… talks. I heard him say it plainly. “I see the bars.” Like he was confiding in someone.”

"It's common behavior for victims of isolation and social ostracization.”

Itachi had a knack for deadpanning facts like that.

“He doesn’t feel like he can tell anyone, but it helps to say it anyway,” Itachi elaborated, vaguely embarrassed by the sudden focus on his rambling.

Therapy was doing him some good, that was for sure.

“That sucks,” Izumi said, for lack of anything better to say. Shisui hummed in agreement.

“What did Kakashi said?” Itachi asked next. Their mentor had cornered Shisui after one of the meetings at the Hokage office they had been forced to attend as “insiders” of Naruto’s life. Shisui didn’t mind telling them what he knew, but he found it astonishing that it was the best they got. That there was no one else to ask.

“He wanted to know if I was sure about it, if I was going to be okay, stuff like that. He asked if I could keep him informed about Naruto’s wellbeing. I think he felt guilty about what happened.”

“He’s always had an interest in him,” Itachi commented, pensive.

Kakashi often asked, off-handedly, about Sasuke and his friend, when he met with them around the village, seemingly at random. He and Itachi were very close, closer maybe since they had left Anbu, while Shisui was more reluctant. Kakashi had been quick to apologize for not seeing anything and not helping with the Danzo affair, and too quick, in Shisui’s eyes, to take the blame for it. Distributing guilty tickets wasn’t the point, to him anyway. That was more Itachi’s forte – he hogged all the tickets to himself. That’s why he and Kakashi got along so well, even if they had to fight for the tickets sometimes probably.

“Maybe, but he never showed it to the one who’s concerned.”

What did they all have with the silently watching from afar, really. Another thing Kakashi and Itachi shared – Itachi had pulled a similar stunt with Sasuke, convinced it was for the best. How could staying away and not say a word be for the best, how could it solve anything between two people? It was the most basic communication lesson. In order to work, communication had to happen first.

Shisui believed Kakashi to be genuine in his worry and concern, but when Shisui had suggested Kakashi just dropped by and saw for himself, he had received a flat not for an answer, a claim that it wouldn’t be well received. Shisui had wanted to say Kakashi wasn’t the judge of that, but Naruto was skittish enough already, that Shisui wasn’t going to try to force stranger into his company if said stranger didn’t even want to put in the effort either.

“Thanks for earlier by the way,” he said to Izumi. “I thought it would help. You’re better at this than me.”

“What do you mean? You did great.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“He was up and about, and even talking. That’s more than I expected you know.”

Shisui shook his head dismissively, embarrassed by the praise.

“I tried my best,” he said lamely.

“Why?”

His eyes snapped back to Itachi, surprised.

“Why what?”

“Why did you? Why agree to this?”

Itachi was as impassive as ever, his cold eyes trained on Shisui. His tells were almost unnoticeable – the subtle folding of his mouth, a barely there tightness around his eyes. Shisui wondered if you could ever remain a good shinobi to those who knew you the best. Wondered if Itachi still had the capacity to hide things from him.

“You could have refused,” he continued, mistaking Shisui’s silence for confusion. “If you had wanted to.”

There weren't any judgment or reproach in his voice. He was just trying to understand, as he often did lately. It could make him appear callous and unfeeling, to those who didn’t know him, when it was the opposite really.

Izumi looked curious too. She too wondered, but she hadn't dared ask. Itachi wasn't aware enough of the weight of his own words to be concerned with that.

“I could have said no,” Shisuis agreed. He had thought about it – it was such a big responsibility, especially since he had no intention of acting as a prison guard. “But then, they would have asked someone else. Who would have probably said no too. Ask enough people and they would have given up, decided that he could be left on his own after all, as long as there were Anbu watching him from afar or something. They would have sent him home alone, and that would have been the end of it.”

The politics of the matter were sensitive enough that no high-ranked could be asked, and the lower shinobis wouldn’t want to approach the matter within a hundred miles.

“We would have all forgotten about it and move on. But not him.”

It was easy to see that Naruto was adrift. He didn’t know who he was anymore, and what to do.

Shisui could relate to that. And Itachi could too.

“Do you remember?” he asked Itachi. “After it… all went down, what everyone said? They said “you should have come to me.” “You should have told us.” “I was on your side.” “I would have listened, would have helped.” They said it like it was obvious. Your parents and the other Uchiha leaders, the clan heads, the Hokage… And we even agreed after a while. That we could have, that we should have. It’s easy to say now, now that we know how it turned out.”

He wasn’t aware of how much Itachi had told Izumi about that whole mess. Enough, judging by the look of understanding on her face. If not the details then the generals, how they had found themselves cornered and alone, seeing no way out, no one to turn to.

“But if we didn’t, back then, then it couldn’t have been that obvious. There’s a reason why we didn’t ask for help. Why we kept it all to ourselves. Because no one ever told us… No one ever told us that. Clearly, without detour. “You can trust me. I’m on your side. Whatever it is, I can help you through it.” They all fancy it to be such a given, all think they are above any doubt… But the truth is, nothing is ever obvious, as long as it’s not said aloud. Especially for us shinobis. Those things are useless if they are kept quiet.”

He took a sip of Itachi’s tea, hoping they would interrupt him, say something, anything. They didn’t. He went on.

“And they think they’re on Naruto’s side too. They are, some of them. And they would have said, “I can’t help, but it’s fine, because he can come to me, if he needs to.” But how is he supposed to know that? I agreed because… I wanted to do it, for real. I wanted him to know without a doubt, that he had even one person in his corner for sure. Isn’t that what adults are supposed to do for kids? We’ve been told enough that we weren’t kids anymore so… He won’t be left to his own device like we were. I won’t let that happen.”

Only when his voice faded away did he realize that he had gotten carried away, and he ducked his head, blushing, embarrassed by the way his two friends were staring at him. He hadn’t meant to get so lyrical, and he felt self-conscious about his ambition. Wasn’t that pretentious of him, to think he could do better than everyone else? But that's why he was angry at Kakashi, who had decided he couldn't help without even trying. Shisui wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t turn his back on the angry kid.

Neither Itachi nor Izumi mocked him in any way. Izumi smiled proudly, and Itachi kind of smiled too, soft and subdued, a sight that was slowly becoming familiar.

“You will make a great teacher, Shisui,” was all he said as an answer. Shisui looked away, trying and failing to hide a smile of his own. He had told only Itachi about it, had made no formal demand yet. He was scared of being denied, but the more time passed, the more he was convinced this is what he wanted to do. This was the only thing that made sense for him.

“Do you think he will believe you?” Izumi enquired with a worried tone.

“I don’t know. Maybe not, not anytime soon. But I hope it’ll make a difference, someday.”

“It will,” Itachi said. “…As it would have for us.”

“It will,” Izumi confirmed, confident. “You know we’ll help, right? We’ll be right there beside you.”

“We don’t make such a bad team,” Itachi added, pensive. He said that with such a serious face, like he had pondered over the question in great details. Who knew, maybe he had.

“That we do!” Izumi laughed, slamming a hand on his back. The dango stick between his teeth flew straight out of his mouth and into his tea.

“Gross! I was drinking that!”

“It’s my tea.”

“Yeah, go buy your own!”

“Izumi, you were drinking that too.”

“Huh. True.”

The shop owner was starting to look at them dirty anyway, seeing that they had purchased a single tea a single set of dango sticks for three. Shisui got up to order more tea and more dango, after Izumi’s dramatic plea that she was a poor chunin on a poor chunin budget and that Shisui was the responsible adult here. Itachi had the gale to laugh, that traitor.

Shisui wondered why life couldn’t be easy like that all the time.

.

Hiruzen looked at each of the clan head standing in front of them, one by one.

For all of them he could call up a memory of a time they barely reached his waist, he could still see them running through the streets, laughing carelessly, or coming back from the battlefield, grim and bloody, haunted. He had seen them all grow, become stronger and stronger, build their family and nurture their clan.

Here they stood now, a united front, a vision he had always hoped for, that was more than welcome.

Even if they were united against him.

“We believe it would be for the best, Hokage-sama,” Shibi said with his ever-calm voice and composed attitude. He was as neutral as they came in the dynamics between clans. They used to have Shikaku address him for such matters, but he was deemed too close to the Hokage’s power now, and he himself was reconsidering his position in their government.

It was all changing, and Hiruzen would have been a fool to say it wasn’t for the best.

Not that he wasn’t a fool anyway.

“I agree.”

It was satisfying to see he could still surprise them. They had already dismissed him as an old inconvenience, but he would keep his seat as long as no one suitable came up for replacement.

Which they were already thinking about, apparently.

“You do?” Fugaku asked, skeptical. He had always been the wariest of Hiruzen, understandably so, but it was reasoned now, practical. They had all grown.  It was good to see them like this, with both the village and their owns interests at heart, trying to build something together instead of each looking for the most profit on behalf of their clan.

The tangibility of one of those clan’s annihilation could have that kind of consequences, he pondered.

As he often did, Hiruzen’s thoughts drifted back to Danzo. How convinced he was to always act in the interest of the village, how much more prone he was to “the means justify the end” than Hiruzen had ever been. Hiruzen had not approved of most of his friends’ action.

But he had never seriously tried to stop him either.

The worst thing about uncovering Danzo’s many schemes was to realize how much of those Hiruzen already suspected. The questionable methods of Root, being for training or recruiting, the summary way he had dealt with anyone he deemed a threat to their safety.

His encouraging of Orochimaru’s experiments.

None of them he had lived up to in the end. When the time had come to be held accountable for his actions, he had either denied or tried to downplay it, invoking the village, always. The sacrifice of the few.

Hiruzen couldn’t help but notice that Danzo himself was never the one to be sacrificed.

He shifted his head slightly, just to catch a glimpse of a cat mask out of the corner of his eyes. Both Kakashi and Tenzo were here in his back, silent guards over that difficult conversation. He wondered what they were thinking about. He wondered if Tenzo resented him, like Kakashi did, even if he tried to deny it. Tenzo would follow Kakashi out of Anbu, it was practically a given. Whoever came after Hiruzen would have to build up their own entourage of trusted allies.

Hopefully they would do a better job at it than Hiruzen, but he wasn’t naïve enough to believe they would be spared the kind of terrible decisions that had led to where he stood today. Even Minato had been fully aware of that.

“I do,” Hiruzen confirmed, coming back to the present where they were still hanging on to his every word. Amazingly enough, they still retained some respect for him. More than he deserved, at any rate.

“So if we do bring a worthy successor,” Tsume stated, liking things to be laid out on the table as clearly as possible, “you will step down.”

“I will.”

They couldn’t understand how much of a relief it would be, granted it was someone he could trust with the village’s future. There weren’t many, and most of those people were either dead, absent or missing, but he trusted they wouldn’t make any hasty decision. Hiruzen had done his time. More than his time, really.

They turned away then, not without a last salute. Hiruzen dismissed the two Anbus – they would only be standing outside the window, but it was an illusion of privacy he could deal with.

As always, he couldn’t help but remember he shouldn’t have been the one to be sitting in this chair at all.

Minato stared at him from his portrait, unblinking, still as death. Thinking about what could have been was an exercise in futility, and yet Hiruzen couldn’t help but indulge. Minato was supposed to be better than all the others, better than him, on all account. He would have united the clans much sooner. He had the unparalleled advantage of not being from any of those either, and not being a Senju, who had had a hold on the village from the very start. He had a knack for politics, no matter what his detractors said about his brash nature. His emotions were his strength, not his weakness – he empathized with all, allies and enemies alike, and he could bring about compromises that could resolve the most dire situation.

He was young. Full of passion. More in tune with their world than old Hiruzen who was from an age long gone.

He wouldn’t have treated the jinchuuriki this way either.

Hiruzen could tell himself all he wanted that he had had no choice but to restrain Naruto, that the boy was a very real threat to the safety of the village, that one outburst could bring down all they had built in these past few years. He had had no choice – but he had been the one to let the situation come to this in the first place. Naruto’s distrust and anger were on him, as was everything else. He had naively believed that the boy would be fine, would make friends and grow up like any child. He had turned his eyes away from the matter – faced with the overwhelming scope of Danzo’s crimes, it had seemed unreasonable to focus on the one child. 

He had thought that someone else would step in. But wasn’t that what everybody thought? Leave it to someone else? Someone else hadn’t come. No one had.

Jinchuurikis truly were the power of human sacrifice. It wasn’t just their body, offered as a prison to the Tailed Beast. It was their whole life, their very humanity stripped down from them, peace built on the ruins of their future. Receptacle of the hate and fear the Tailed Beast elicited in people, as well as of the Beasts themselves, suffering so that others could thrive.

Why was it this way?

Why couldn’t they do better by those who had received such a burden? But people were all too happy to have an outlet to their grief. How easy it was to have Naruto to blame, instead of a nameless calamity they couldn’t see or reach, instead of the tantrum of a fate they had no control over.

If it was even fate at all. He had heard about the Uchiha looking for one of their own, gone rogue and turned against them. What supreme irony would it be if the fox wasn’t responsible either.

Things were as they were now. The past couldn’t be changed. Naruto’s look when he had recognized Hiruzen behind the bars of his cage wasn’t the first child’s desperate face that would haunt him for the rest of his days.

He couldn’t even reasonably affirm that it would be the last.

.

It doesn’t have to be that way”, she had said. “You don’t have to be what they want to be, or to play the role they want you to play. You can choose who you are and stand by it”, she had said, with such determination, such fierceness.

Izumi was born half-in, half-out of the snobbish Uchiha clan, and she was a girl. Not a winning starter pack. She was still an accomplished chunin at 14, soon to be promoted, or so Sasuke had said, pleased as punch. It was easier for him to relate to her, hard-working and headstrong, than to his brother, who was so unlike him. Naruto understood what his friend was in her, why he liked her so much. She was proud and unyielding, and no one could tell her what to do, who to be.

She didn’t get the point though. Naruto had said that he was the demon, at least in everybody’s eyes.

He had not said that he didn’t like it.

His goal wasn’t to be liked, it had never been. He didn’t care about what they thought of him, he didn’t care for being feared and hated. As long as they left him in peace, what did it matter what they all thought?

All he wished for was to be free. As a demon or as something else, it didn’t matter. He couldn’t change how they saw him. It was on them, not him. Their problem.

And Izumi willing to put up with him, that was her problem too. Surely she had known, before coming to find them at the training ground to give them a hand. Shisui too. They had approached him without fear.

He wasn’t going to try to change their mind. He didn’t understand it, so he just had to accept it and move on. He wouldn’t rely on it anyway. In the end, his goal was the same as it always had been. He had to get strong, strong enough that he could leave this place behind someday, no matter how long it took. Since they kept him here for his own safety, then he had to become so strong that nothing, no one outside the village could harm him. Then they would let him go.

And by the time he could do that, his friends would be strong too, and they would be able to protect themselves. He could leave without regrets.

At least now he knew where he stood. He would no longer wait and hope for any form of recognition and acknowledgment, for anything coming from the village. Now that he had the certitude it would never come, he could let go of these stupid wishes. It was a relief in a sense.

What mattered now was that no one ever found out. No one more. Among his generation, nobody knew about him, and he would make his damn hardest to keep it that way. He would never lose control again like he had in the woods, he would never use this power in any way. As far as he was concerned, it didn’t exist. He wouldn’t listen to the fox and let it seduce him to its side. Nothing had to change. Life sucked just as hard as it had before, which was what he had always expected of it.

Naruto didn’t care. He didn’t need them, their acceptance and their support. He had made do just fine without it and he would keep doing it the same. Nothing had changed, in the end. His life didn’t have to change in any way.

It was all fine.

“Are you going to be alright tomorrow?”

Naruto groaned a non-committal sound back and had the small satisfaction of witnessing Shisui trying very hard not to roll his eyes in exasperation. Naruto was actually losing his mind over the perspective of going back to the Academy the next day, and Shisui was the only one around to receive the expression of his worries.

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“I don’t need a fucking babysitter.”

Another aborted eye-roll, another short exhale of air through his nose and brief moment of clenching teeth. This was fun.

“You’re so badly behaved.”

“Yeah, sorry. No one raised me.”

Shisui really didn’t deserve that, but then again, those who deserved the burn of one’s anger were rarely there to take it – that’s why they deserved it in the first place.

“The orphan boy excuse can only take you so far you know.”

Naruto snorted, surprised, and choked on a mouthful of ramen.

“That’s pretty mean,” he said around a cough.

“I know, I’m terrible.”

Despite his obvious frustration, Shisui was keeping his cool, no close to anger in any way. He treated Naruto as the annoying brat he was, nothing more.

It was destabilizing, but it would have been a lie to say it was unpleasant.

“Are you going to tell your friends?”

If only he could quit it with the serious questions.

“No.”

“I think you should.”

“No way.”

“They wouldn’t mind, you know. You could…”

“I said no!”

His hand hitting the table disrupted their bowl, making a mess on the old damaged wood.

“Alright,” Shisui agreed, unfazed. “But I think you’re wrong.”

Naruto swept the table quickly before hiding back into his bowl.

“I don’t care what you think.”

That was kind of a lie.

.

Silence fell on the classroom as soon as Naruto walked in.

He had intended to arrive much earlier, but he had underestimated the time needed to walk to the Academy from the Uchiha district. He had thought he’d left early enough to avoid Sasuke on the way, only to find the boy already there when he arrived. All faces turned toward him. He did his best to ignore them.

Sakura didn’t though, and she scrambled to her feet to run to him as soon as she spotted him by the door. For a horrifying second, he thought she was going to try and hug him, but she stopped at an acceptable distance, a wide smile on her face that folded her scar in half.

“You’re finally back! I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

He shrugged, embarrassed. Did she have to be so blunt about it? It had only been a week. It’s not like they could have missed him or anything.

“Must have been pretty sick indeed,” Ino drawled at Sakura’s side, casually leaning against her friend, an arm propped on her shoulder.

“I guess,” Naruto said warily. What did she know? She was always so damn noisy, always meddling. Would she tell, if she had heard? He didn’t feel like building up a lie onto that, especially not to counter her. If they started to ask too many questions, he would just leave.

Now was as good a time as any to wonder if Shisui would scold him for skipping classes. That would be crazy.

They didn’t ask though. Sakura shot Ino a warning look and the girl shrugged but went back to her seat without another word. Naruto couldn’t do the same – Sasuke had taken her place, right there in front of him.

“Are you alright then?” he asked.

It wasn’t concern, in his voice and on his face. They couldn’t care that much.

He didn’t want them to.

“Yeah, of course.”

“You sure?”

“I’m telling you! You don’t have to worry about me.”

Sasuke crossed his arms, displeased.

“I’ll worry about you if I want to.”

What was Naruto supposed to answer to that?

Thankfully, nothing, because Daikoku interrupted them to send them to their seat so that he could begin the lesson.

It was fine. Naruto could do it, easy. Nothing had to change. Nobody knew anything.

He had almost managed to convince himself of that, until class ended and the teacher told them to stay put.

“Just a minute, everyone. I have information to pass down to you, concerning Mizuki.”

Naruto’s blood turned to ice in his veins.

“It has been unearthed that Mizuki was very likely working against the best interest of the village. You are the ones who have had the most contact with him. If there is anything that comes to mind regarding this matter, something that happened that you found odd or suspicious about him, you should take it up to one of the teachers. We are trying to evaluate the scope of his actions, and your help is needed.”

Daikoku didn’t look at Naruto once. It still felt like there was a spotlight cast on him. The room erupted into indiscreet whispers as soon he was done, speculating about what Mizuki could have done, what they could say.

“I guess he has been sabotaging us from the start then,” Shikamaru said casually to Choji in Naruto’s back.

“Yeah, that makes sense,” Choji answered, otherwise unconcerned. Mizuki’s particular brand of terrible teaching had been a given for so long, no one seemed moved by the confirmation that he was most likely doing it on purpose. No one would miss him either.

Did that make a difference to what he had done?

Sasuke cornered him at the end of the day, just as he was going to elope.

“You don’t want to train?”

“Sorry, I have a lesson planned with Sai.”

He was pretty sure Sasuke didn’t believe him and tried not to feel too guilty about his hurt expression. Naruto just didn’t feel ready to face him. He didn’t know what to say. It was so strange, because nothing had happened for him. Apart from Naruto vanishing for a week, things were the same in Sasuke’s world that they had been a week ago, while Naruto’s had been torn apart, left in shambles. It felt alien to be there now, to act as if nothing was amiss.

It was good though. Back to normal.

“If you want to talk about it,” Sasuke said, eyes boring into Naruto’s, refusing to let go, “I’m here. To listen. I can help”

Naruto considered it. For a wild moment he was on the verge of the precipice, of spilling everything. Of asking Sasuke to reassure him, to tell him everything was okay, things could be salvaged, that they would be alright.

But despite all the things Naruto was willing to risk, ready to lose, this, this one, he just couldn’t.

So he lied.

“I’m fine,” he said, taking a step back from that urge, shutting it out. Feeling that he would never have the courage to reach out for it again. Seeing disappointment on Sasuke’s face, fleeting but unmistakable, before he agreed, before he stepped back too. The moment was lost.

Naruto would never tell.

.

Sasuke watched Naruto’s retreating back, screaming and raging in his head, begging him to turn around, to change his mind. Tell me what’s wrong, he wanted to yell to his face, tell me what happened, tell me how I can help. I’ll do anything. Please don’t shut me out. Don’t go away.

He said nothing at all.

.

“We didn’t have a lesson planned,” Sai deadpanned when he opened his door. He still let Naruto in.

Sai lived with his brother Shin above the Yamanaka flower shop. A way of asserting they were under the clan’s protection and tutelage, even if they didn’t live in the main compound with the rest of them, by their request. Naruto could understand – who would want to go live into a foreign clan out of the blue? He kind of had, but what he wanted irrelevant.

The flat was small, but nice enough, full of sunlight throughout the day and nicely set up. The walls were covered in Sai’s painting – Shin insisted to hang most of them.

In a corner, there was a small calligraphy, three kanjis clumsily arranged together. “Na-ru-to”, one of his own works. It was strange, because Shin didn’t seem to like him very much, even if he never said anything. He had still hung that one up next to Sai’s name, and his own, done in much nicer brushwork by their residential artist.

Other people’s feelings and thoughts remained a mystery to Naruto. As much, he supposed, as they did to Sai.

“You didn’t have a lesson planned,” Shin remarked upon seeing him, a hint of reproach in his voice. Sai dismissed it though, and Shin followed suit with a sigh. He tended to let Sai be.

“Well, I have some errands to run so… yeah, I’ll leave you to it.”

He was either considerate enough to leave them the apartment for their little sessions of knowledge-exchange, or he wasn’t comfortable sharing Naruto’s space. It didn’t matter either way. The result was the same – he was out of their hair, and Naruto could breathe easier.

“What did you plan on making?” Sai asked, walking to the little kitchen in a corner of the main room. Naruto set the grocery bag he had in hand on the table.

“I was thinking something sweet. Matcha rolls.”

“I’m not much for sweets.”

“…Me neither. But most people are.”

“I see. Food is usually an appreciated gift.”

Naruto nodded without commenting. He hadn’t really thought this through – he just needed an excuse to come, and an impromptu cooking lesson was one as good as any.

They fell into it easily. Sai did as asked, always with manic precision and an abundance of questions as to how, exactly, he was supposed to perform the simplest task. "How precise does the measurement have to be, what do you mean "liquid but not too liquid", is it bad if I put three pinches instead of two”… Naruto had yet to drill into him that this wasn’t poison making and that it didn’t matter all that much. He kept his calm and answered as best as he could, and when he snapped, Sai just looked at him blankly, waiting for him to calm down. Which he did quickly enough – anger died out fast when there was nothing to fuel it.

“Seriously… I said gradually, not one grain at the time!”

“How many then?”

“How… you’re having me on right? I know you know we don’t count the freaking grain of sugar.”

This was Sai’s way of trying to be funny. Most of the time it flew over people’s head because they couldn’t tell the difference between his genuine confusion and him deliberately playing the ignorant fool. Naruto liked to imagine it was also a way of getting back at people who had often complained about how he didn’t know anything about nothing, how he couldn’t perform the most basic tasks. He had seen a teacher try to explain to Sai five times in a row how to fasten his weapon pouch properly, which Sai knew how to do perfectly well. Naruto kind of envied him his impassivity, to be able to pull such pranks.

To be able to hide his emotions so well, because he wasn’t stupid enough to believe Sai just didn’t have any. That wasn’t possible anyway. He knew – he had tried.

He lost track of time, engrossed in an activity that had always brought him solace, if only for a little while. It never lasted long enough though. Soon enough the cake was baking in the oven, the cream was done, and he had nothing to occupy his hands and mind anymore.

“Was there something you wanted to ask me,” Sai asked with his usual way of putting zero intonation in his questions. It made him sound like he already knew the answers, which in turn made people more inclined to spill. Whether he did it on purpose or not, it was pretty effective.

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to ask now.”

“I’m not sure.”

That was the extent to which Sai would go to obtain an answer. If Naruto stayed silent, he wouldn’t ask further. Both because he didn’t feel like insisting, and because he didn’t care, probably.

Naruto took a steadying breath

“You’ve killed people before,” he said. “Haven’t you?”

If Sai was surprised by this line of questioning, he didn’t let it show, like he didn’t let anything show as a rule. Some kids had laughed at him for not having any functioning muscle in his face, as they had said. He had stared at them until they had been too uncomfortable and ran away.

Naruto wasn’t supposed to know about his brother and him and where they had come from, but Naruto had had a mind once to dispute Ino’s title of best informant of their year, and he had an easier time sneaking into the Hokage Tower.

“Yes.”

“How many?”

“I don’t know. Several.”

Sai seemed unfazed. Figuring he would stop answering if he wanted to put an end to the conversation, Naruto went on.

“How did that make you feel?”

Sai took a long, long time to answer.

The rumors of the busy street filtered through the gaping window. The shimmying of the bell that hung above the door of the flower shop carried all the way into the apartment, an uneven rhythm of soft jingling, before the door closing cut the exchange of greetings at the shop counter. All so very mundane, peaceful and bland.

So close, and yet so far away. Untouchable.

“I don’t know. Nothing in particular, I think. I was following orders. Or I was trying not to get killed.”

“Were they all shinobis?”

“No. I am, though.”

That justified it, or at least that was supposed to. Shinobis obeyed orders. Shinobis had a right to kill.

“What did it make you feel.”

Yeah, tell us little boy, what did it make you feel?

Naruto his a grimace behind his messy hair. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t tune it out, not fully. He didn’t know if it was a change in the seal, or if it was just because he was aware of that presence now, locked up at the back of his head. It wouldn’t leave him be.

Sai didn’t look otherwise perturbed, and Naruto figured he didn’t know. He just assumed, assumed that was where Naruto’s questions were stemming from. That right there was what made it a good choice to ask him – his inability to be surprised by anything. And to judge in any way.

"I'm not sure. I didn't mean to, but I don't really regret it either.”

“Why did you do it.”

That, at least, was a simple enough question.

“I didn’t want to die.”

“Fair enough. What’s the problem then.”

“I feel like I should feel bad.”

“And you feel bad because you don’t.”

“Put that way, it sounds pretty stupid. But, you know, I’ve always heard it said that killing someone was a terrible thing and that… it changed you as a person but…”

Had he not learned what he had, he wouldn’t have been so disturbed by his lack of emotional response over Mizuki’s death. He couldn’t help but wonder now.

Was it because he wasn’t exactly human? Was it because he was damaged somehow? Unable to feel what others did?

Was he just heartless?

Why are you trying to put all your faults on me?

Naruto growled, frustrated.

I don’t take pleasure in death either.

It sounded almost… hurt.

“I don’t know if that’s what they say,” Sai answered, oblivious to Naruto’s internal warfare. “But it’s pretty hypocritical of them. We are raised to kill, after all.”

He wasn’t wrong. Maybe it had been truer for him than for the rest of them, but it was still true in the end. Wasn’t that where they were all heading, eventually? There was no such thing as a white shinobi. Eventually, they would all be covered in blood.

“In all probability, you will kill again. It's a good thing not to be too torn up over it.”

“You’re so depressing, Sai.”

“Am I.”

The oven shimmed in, bringing them back to the present, to more earthly concerns. They spread the cream on the cake, rolled it, cut it into slices. It didn’t look so bad. Such a small thing, but it made Naruto feel a little better.

“I’ll take half.”

“I thought you didn’t like it.”

“It’s not for me.”

He hoped Shisui did like sweets.

“Thank you,” Naruto mumbled on the doorstep, looking away from Sai’s blank face.

“You were the one to teach today.”

Naruto chuckled. Often enough it didn’t change a thing if Sai was serious or not. An easy way of handling him was assuming he never was.

“Thank you for letting me teach you then. See you later.”

“Goodbye.”

Naruto ran down the narrow staircase, feeling restless after their loaded conversation. He was ready to start running his way back to Shisui’s place when Sai’s voice stopped him from the window.

“Naruto!”

“What?”

“It’s a good thing. That’s you’re alive.”

It was such an odd thing to say. Especially with such disinterest. Naruto wasn’t sure it was true, but…

“You too,” he answered, though it didn’t make much sense. Sai nodded solemnly, and maybe it did, a little.

Even if it was hard to believe.

 

Chapter Text

“I’m really sorry, Sasuke.”

“It’s okay. It’s fine. Don’ worry about it, Izumi.”

Izumi smiled, impossibly fond, and ruffled the boy’s hair gently. He grumbled a bit but didn’t protest – despite his reassurance, she knew he was disappointed.

But Sasuke had grown quite a bit in the past few years, and he wouldn’t protest or complain. She wasn’t sure it was such a good thing that he had grown so serious, so understanding of their circumstances as shinobis that forced them away from their family and friends, from their home and village. It was a lesson they all had to learn though, sooner or later. Besides, she had a feeling it was more than that. Sasuke had eyes on bigger goals, he didn’t stop at such small inconveniences now.

“How long will you be gone?” he asked after a few steps. They were walking back from the training ground where she had come fetch him – she wanted it to be just the two of them, to break the news to him and him alone.  His pouting expression brought another smile to her face – he was still a child, at least a little. It made her feel warm and loved, that he cared about her like that, that he would miss her when she was gone. She would miss him too.

“I don’t know. At least a few months. I don’t have much information. It’s a very important mission, and it’s confidential.”

“Really? Should you be telling me then?”

She had honestly no idea. It was so secret that even she didn’t know what they would be doing exactly. Anko had been given this special assignment to be carried out quietly, and she had requested Izumi as her assistant. They were going to travel a lot, only the two of them. From what Izumi understood, they were looking for someone, but she didn’t know who.

She couldn’t tell him any of that, but she could still say something to cheer him up a bit.

“Only because it’s you, but don’t go repeat it, okay?”

It startled a small smile out of him, before he nodded seriously, never one to take anything lightly.

“And you’re leaving soon?”

“At the end of the week. That’s why I won’t be able to be there… Your graduation exam is just next month, right?”

“Hm.”

He wasn’t as excited as he once would have been about graduating from the Academy and into the shinobi forces. His ambition had grown quite a bit, and making genin was a minor milestone in his path.

There was something else he surely was looking forward to.

“You’ll get your genin team then. Are you excited?”

He wasn’t as enthusiastic as she expected. He just shrugged, face set in a displeased frown.

“What is it Sasuke? Are you worried you won’t get paired up with your friends?”

“It’s not that.”

It had been one of her and her classmates’ biggest concerns, she recalled, when graduation had started to loom over them. They had no idea how the teams were formed exactly, and everyone was speculating, hoping, fearing the outcome of the repartition. The first genin team was a big deal, and often gave birth to lifelong bonds and friendships. She knew a few adults around her that still had a close relationship with their genin teammates and instructor – when they were still alive.

Sasuke’s situation was a little different though. There were a few associations that were a given, with no suspense whatsoever – the Ino-Shika-Cho trio, or how the Aburame and the Inuzuka were almost always put together. His future team wasn’t really a secret either, but not for the same reason.

“I know they’ll put us together. It’s not like they have a choice,” he said, a little bitter.

She didn’t know if he had been told explicitly, or if he had just caught up on his own. In any case, he was right.

There was no way Naruto would be put with anyone other than Uchiha Sasuke and Haruno Sakura, on account of any other combination being a recipe for disaster. Naruto had not settled down in the slightest since the whole ordeal with Mizuki. He was just as closed off and aggressive, if more, at times.

“Are you and Naruto still fighting?”

Sasuke’s expression soured.

“We’re not… fighting. At least, I don’t think we are.”

His frustration was obvious, and heartbreaking. No matter what he did, Naruto simply refused to let anyone in, keeping his friends at arm’s length. Sasuke had merits for sticking to him despite everything – another kid would have given up a long time ago. Naruto wasn’t outright dismissive or distant, and it was worse, in a way. Izumi had witnessed it enough to know the pattern by now. They trained and spent time together, like in the early days of their friendship, and both seemed content with that, but then Naruto would snap, like he was suddenly remembering that he didn’t want that after all. Usually it was because Sasuke had crossed some invisible boundaries that no one had been able to map out – if he suggested they went to his house, they did a certain activity together, if he said a certain thing. Naruto would shut down, retreat within himself, with no hope to be reached. Sometimes it lasted only a few hours – sometimes it went on for days.

She knew for a fact that Shisui had similar issues. One step forward, three steps back. It wasn’t for lack of trying or goodwill, not from their part anyway.

It was Naruto. He simply refused. It was his will working against everyone’s attempt at breaking through him. He didn’t want to get closer to anyone than he already was. He didn’t want to be soothed, to be tamed. Didn’t want those bonds to get any deeper.

Shisui at least knew where it stemmed from and what he was up against. But Naruto had stubbornly refused to share anything with his friends, even the closest ones, and as a result Sasuke and Sakura were still in the dark about their friend's true nature and abilities. The rift it created between them was unbreachable as long as Naruto remained secretive. Sasuke knew something was up with him, but he had no idea what it was, and it drove him crazy.

“I don’t know how to help him,” Sasuke confessed.

What could she answer to that? No one knew. Sasuke and Naruto had been getting into fights more and more lately, the only way they could express their frustration at each other, their impossibility to communicate frankly. Sasuke was hurt that Naruto didn’t trust him with whatever it was that was going on with him.

And Naruto was terrified of him knowing.

Despite their best efforts and reassurance, there was nothing they had been able to do to alleviate that fear. Naruto wouldn’t budge. He himself hated what he was, hated the demon and its receptacle in equal measures, and he couldn’t fathom anyone thinking differently.

They walked all the way to his house without much more talking. She popped in just long enough to greet Mikoto but refused her offer for a drink or a snack – she had things to do and stuff to pack before her mission. Time with her mother to spend too.

"I'll come to say goodbye before I leave," she promised Sasuke on his doorstep. He still looked down, and she didn't like to see him like this. She ruffled his hair again.

“You’ll figure it out, Sasuke,” she promised reassuringly. He nodded.

She was confident he would try his damn hardest at least.

.

“I’ll be waiting outside with Itachi. You can join us after you’ve received your headbands,” Shisui said as he tried to get the rice cooker to cooperate with him. Naruto always felt guilty when he saw Shisui pester after the old thing – it was working fine enough before Naruto had hit it hard one day out of frustration.

“How can you be so sure I’ll get it anyway.”

“Why wouldn’t you? Your grades are fine, and you can perform all the standards jutsu without trouble.”

Naruto huffed, annoyed as he always was by Shisui’s heartfelt answers when Naruto was just trying to rile him up. That man was so very hard to anger, it wasn’t even funny.

“Right.”

“Aren’t you happy to be done with the Academy? I remember it, it couldn’t have ended fast enough.”

“I guess.”

The rice cooker gave a reluctant beep and complied with Shisui’s plea. He went back to sit at the kitchen table in front of Naruto.

“If it’s so terrible to graduate, you can just stay in another semester.”

“What? No way!”

“Then what’s the issue?”

It was too late to pretend nothing was wrong. Naruto wasn’t as good as he would have wanted at hiding his feelings, not from the Uchiha anyway. And after almost two years of living under the same roof, Shisui was fluent in his tells.

That didn’t mean he had gotten any luckier at getting Naruto to talk.

Before starting the Academy, Naruto had been excited about it. After starting, he had been excited for it to be over and to become a genin to get the hell out of there.

Now he was wondering why he had ever gotten in at all.

He was not interested in being a ninja. He had thought that ninja meant training, fighting and getting stronger, which was his main goal in life. Now he understood though that being a ninja meant, first and foremost, serving the village.

He would be a genin soon, and for what? To do pointless missions helping old hags around the village? To take people’s money in exchange for doing shits for them? Naruto already had a livelihood – stealing it from others. And the village paid Shisui to look after him anyway.

He would get a jounin instructor, but he didn’t need that either. Training with Sasuke and Sakura was more than enough, since Sasuke did have proper teachers already and shared what he knew with his friends. Naruto had all but given up on ninjutsu more advanced than the Academy basics to focus on fuinjutsu, and no one in the village could help with that – because no one was any good at it, and because no one knew and it would stay that way. Who would be their instructor anyway? Naruto knew most of the jounin sensei and they all more or less sucked.

Why was he even becoming a ninja?

The others didn’t question that in any way. The sons and daughters of powerful clans had never even imagined doing anything else, and the civilian kids who were still there by the time graduation rolled around didn’t wonder either. They couldn’t envision another life – civilians and shinobis lived in completely different worlds that rarely met beyond childhood.

Not that he could go there either. Civilian life was all but closed off to him.

He had no future in this place.

Shisui would try to dispute this if he told him, and Naruto wasn’t in the mood for a fight. He didn’t answer.

“What about your team? Surely that’s not so bad.”

The team was the other problem.

If he was put with anyone other than Sasuke and Sakura, he would just quit and be done with it. That would be the simplest solution actually, the easiest.

He doubted it would happen though. Because the village wanted him to become a good little shinobi. And Naruto’s will didn’t matter in any way against the will of the village.

The “Will of Fire”, they called it. Destructive and all-consuming. Sparing nothing and no one in its path. The village above all else, always the village, the village, the village.

Why did they all care so much about that damn place.

“It’s not fair to them to end up stuck with me.”

If he was in a team with Sasuke and Sakura, he wouldn't be able to just quit on them. Despite his resolve not to get too attached, he had never managed to really go through with it, cut all ties. He didn't want them to hate him, even if he tried to achieve it, sometimes. It would have been for the best, he knew, to stay away, but was it so wrong of him to cling to that one, small good thing he still had? Most days, he couldn't answer. As a result, he was terrible to them both, and they didn't deserve to have that follow them after the Academy as well.

“You know they’ll be elated to keep your little trio intact.”

He did know. It made it worse in a way. Why couldn’t they just give up on him, since he didn’t have the nerve to do it himself. That would solve it.

"The higher you climb, the freer you'll be, Naruto. In a year tops your team will be sent on missions outside the village, you'll get to…"

“Shut up!”

Practiced in the exercise, Shisui lifted up both their glasses as Naruto slammed his hand on the table, preventing them from tipping off.

“That won’t be like that for me! You know it! They told me I couldn’t leave the village. They’re not going to send me on any goddamn mission!”

It wouldn’t be long before Sasuke and Sakura questioned this. They would wonder why all their friends got to travel the land and see the world while their team stayed on patrol duty at the outer wall or something. What would they tell them then? They would run out of excuses soon enough, and then…

Or their team would be split up. The both of them out there with their instructor, and Naruto staying behind, chained to the village. What was the point of a team then?

“It doesn’t have to be like that, Naruto,” Shisui said calmly. He always had an answer, to everything, always opposed rationality and compromise to Naruto’s abrasive thoughts. “Things can change. You’ve done well these past few months, and you’ll keep getting stronger. We’ll plead your case again. It doesn’t have to be like that. It doesn’t have to go the worst possible way every time.”

Naruto couldn’t deal with Shisui’s faith in him. He didn’t know where it came from and why it was. It made no sense whatsoever.

And still, Naruto wanted so badly to believe him. Even when he encouraged him to just talk to Sasuke and Sakura about the demon, assuring him that all would be fine, Naruto wanted to believe it, to trust that he was right.

But the risk was too high. If he was wrong… Naruto had nothing else in this world. Absolutely nothing. If he didn’t have them…

It was too high a risk.

“Maybe,” he conceded grudgingly. Shisui didn’t insist. He was used to Naruto never agreeing with him.

There was one thing though, one thing that could make it all a little easier.

“Say, Shisui…”

“Hm?”

“Is it… Can you… Can it be you, with us?”

“What?”

“Can’t you… can’t you be our instructor?”

It wasn’t official but Naruto had heard Shisui talk about it with Sasuke’s mother during one of her visits. Shisui wanted to be a teacher – he would be a good one, Naruto believed. He was never telling him that though.

“That’s… you’re not supposed to know about that,” Shisui sighed without any heat. He sounded fond, more often than not, when he talked to Naruto. Even when he was annoyed. It was very strange.

“Sorry, Naru-boy, I’m still being formed. I’m actually going to teach at the Academy for a while, I won’t get my first team until next year.”

“Oh.”

Naruto tried hard to hide his disappointment. He didn’t think he succeeded very well.

“I’m sure you’ll get someone great though!” Shisui said to cheer him up, a bit sheepish. Naruto shrugged. Whoever they were, they wouldn’t be as cool as him.

Naruto was never ever telling him that either.

.

“Do you have everything you need? Are you sure you don’t need an extra snack? Aren’t you going to be cold? What about…”

“Moooom, stop it, it’s fine! Come on, I’m going to be late!”

Sakura batted her mother’s hands away, eager to escape her fretting. She was way more stressed out than Sakura was and she was starting to stress her out too. It was only a lame exam, a formality. The results were a given.

At the end of the day, she would come back home a Konoha genin, her headband firmly tied around her head. She was more excited than anxious.

“Alright, alright, I’ll stop…”

“Sakura? You’re not gone yet?”

“I would be if mom would let me!” she answered her dad with a dramatic sigh, but not much heat. Her mother had always been a worrier, they weren’t going to change her now.

“I’m leaving now.”

“Sakura!”

Sakura kept an eye-roll in, intrigued by her mother's sudden seriousness. She turned to face both her parents standing under the porch, looking at her.

“We’re… we haven’t always been… as supportive as we should have. But we’re very proud of you, Sakura.”

As a reflex, she raised a hand to her cheek. The scar had faded away a great deal, but it was still visible, still pulling a little at the corner of her mouth and the skin under her eye, making her face a little asymmetrical, a little weird. She didn’t mind all that much. Many shinobis had scars, on their face or elsewhere, and the older she’d get, the less peculiar hers would be. She was used to it by now, the feature as normal as her nose or her big forehead. Neither good nor bad, just… there.

Her parents didn’t stare at it so much anymore either. Funnily enough, the short hair had been harder for them to get used to. She liked them that way. They were barely long enough for her to gather them in a small ponytail at the base of her skull if she wanted to. They stuck in all direction despite her best effort to tame them. Ino said it looked stylish though.

“Thank you, mom, dad.”

They didn’t go as far as a hug, but the sentiment was there. She was happy they had finally come to accept her choices in life, and to believe she could stand by them. She smiled at them one last time before hurrying out of the front yard and into the lively street. It wouldn’t do to be late on her graduation day.

“What took you so long?” Ino asked once she spotted Sakura rushing toward their usual meeting spot.

“Sorry, sorry. Just my parents getting emotional,” she said with a grimace.

“Don’t complain, at least your parents give a shit.”

“They give too much.”

“Better than not at all.”

Sakura pondered whether or not to ask. When she was upset, Ino was either eager to spill or would get mat about being questioned, and there wasn't any pattern to it. She usually liked to rant about her father though.

“What happened?” Sakura asked, decided to give it a try.

“Bad enough that he forgot. But then he didn’t even own up to it. He said he did remember, but that he just thought it wasn’t such a big deal, because I was supposed to have more ambition than this. He said he’d be there when I make jounin commander.”

“That… sucks.”

“The worst thing is he thinks he’s actually being encouraging. That he’s just pushing me for more. One, I can push myself, thank you very much. And two, I didn’t ask him to throw a freaking celebration party or something. It just wanted him to give one shit about my life. My mom is lost fuck-knows where in Water Country on a top-secret assignment and she still managed to have a message sent to me. It was two days early but what the hell, that’s fucking sweet. Fuck.”

Ino had discovered the fine art of swearing about a year ago and she was practicing at every opportunity – most noticeably, to piss off her father, who swore just as much and had probably taught her all she knew, and didn’t like it in the least. There was a lot of yelling going on between them as a general rule – nowadays, a week couldn’t go by without Ino crawling through Sakura’s bedroom window right after dinner time, worked up and shaking with pent up anger, ready to punch her way through a wall. If it wasn’t too late they snuck out to go trade punches in a small yard nearby. Otherwise, she simply laid face first on the bed while Sakura read aloud whatever it was she was reading. It didn’t matter. Ino said her voice was soothing.

They often ended up falling asleep side by side on her narrow bed, after talking and venting well into the night. Sakura felt guilty about how much she enjoyed those nights – she didn’t want to be thankful for Ino’s terrible relationship with her father.

“Do you want to come by after school? My mom will be plenty proud for the two of us.”

Ino shrugged, always needing to be a little difficult.

“Don’t you want to hang out with the boys?”

Sakura looked out in the distance, more bothered by the question that she would have liked.

“It’s not that I wouldn’t want to,” she said. “I’ll invite them too actually, but I’m not sure Naruto will agree.”

“Still being difficult huh. Men are such a bother.”

Sakura chuckled. Ino was saying that to cheer her up, dramatic tone and all – even if she stood by that sentiment. They both knew though that the issue with Naruto didn’t stem from the propensity of the boys their age to act like stupid idiots. She wished it was that simple.

“You sound like Shikamaru,” she teased to change the subject. Ino rolled her eyes with a dramatic groan.

“Don’t talk to me about him. I’ll soon be stuck with him and Choji days in and days out, I don’t need to take a head-start on that.”

Ino had mixed feelings about the inevitability of the Ino-Shika-Cho formation. Shikamaru and Choji were more than happy to be on the same team of course, but they also agreed that it was a bit contrived, and really no fun.

Sakura was similarly a little disappointed they didn’t get to experience the excitement and anticipation of what their genin team would be, like the rest of their class. Shikamaru’s father had visited her family a few weeks ago, to ask her parents and herself what they thought of her being paired up with Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki Naruto. Her parents had known better than to interfere, and she had agreed, of course.

She could have been on any team. Sasuke too. But not Naruto.

She was a bit apprehensive of how that was going to turn out, if she was being honest. She was getting tired of Sasuke and Naruto head-butting – and of head-butting with the blonde boy herself. If she was honest, she would recognize that the latter happened more often actually. Sasuke had way more patience than her regarding Naruto’s moodiness.

“Oh, where is Sai by the way?”

He usually joined on their morning walk since he lived right outside the Yamanaka estate.

“He’s not coming,” Ino said, aiming for casual and only coming off uncomfortable and defensive.

“What? Why? Is he not graduating?”

“He already has the rank.”

Sakura almost asked, but ultimately chose against it. Ino was touchy on the subject of Sai and Shin, and what she knew about their origins. Insisting was a sure way of angering her.

The Academy was in shambles when they arrived, with all the students of their year, plus the ones trying the exam again gathered in the yard, waiting outside the building before being shuffled in for the written tests. They were used for ranking more than anything else – technical knowledge wasn’t really the most valued things in future shinobis. For some unfathomable reasons.

It was a drag, since they weren’t allowed to exit the room before everyone was done. Sakura was sitting at the back of the class and she busied herself during the last hour by observing her classmates. Shikamaru was also done, napping on his crossed arms and drooling on his test. Some were writing frantically or pulling their hair, like Kiba, while others like Shino or Hinata calmly put down their answers one by one. Sasuke was proofing his answers for the third time, changing minor, inconsequential details like the freaky perfectionist he was.

As for Naruto, he was done too, looking at the ceiling, arms crossed behind his head. From where she was, she couldn’t see if it was because he had already answered all the questions – or none of them.

“How did it go?” she asked once they were released, catching up to him in the yard.

“Don’t worry,” he answered, “I didn’t waste your efforts.”

She wanted to protest – that’s not what she had meant. But it’s true she was worried he would sabotage himself. She trusted he didn’t want to stay behind at the Academy – she didn’t trust he wanted to move forward though. They had studied a lot together because he wanted to keep his grades at least passable, “so that Shisui would stop nagging at me,” or so he said. She just wanted to help.

Sasuke, coming to join them, shook his head at her, urging her to let it go. She didn’t understand how he was so chill about Naruto’s constant antagonism. She still complied, knowing he was more reasonable than her, at any rate.

They chatted their lunch break away, careful to stay clear of any topic of the slightest importance. They were good at this by now, knew the extensive list of subjects to avoid, of allusions not to make, about Naruto, Naruto’s home life, Naruto’s trouble, Naruto’s past and future, Naruto’s wishes and thoughts. It was easier to avoid it than to get lost in sterile confrontations, but it still drove Sakura up the wall that they were so determined to pretend like there wasn’t a problem in sight.

A good thing the next trial of the day was taijutsu.

Sakura would have been hard pressed to say which one she was worrying the least about. After almost four years of regular training with Naruto and Sasuke, and even if they had met up less frequently lately, she was ahead of most of her classmates at hand-to-hand combat. She couldn’t beat either of the two boys, yet. She could go toe-to-toe with them though, for long periods of brutal fighting.

As fate would have it – or just their teachers' usual lack of insight – she ended up facing Uchiha Kara for the test. It was weird how little she felt toward the girl. Sakura was a little taller than her now, and more muscular. Kara was a good fighter – Sakura was just better, by a margin. The spar was over quickly. She offered a hand to the girl, still on the ground. Kara took it reluctantly and was quick to let it go, fading back into the crowd without a word.

Sakura was fine with never crossing path with her ever again.

Sasuke went up against Shikamaru. The lazy boy’s parents had no doubt grilled him about doing slightly more than the bare minimum for once, because it was the first time Sakura saw him put up an actual fight, and he turned out to be decent at taijutsu, even if Sasuke still beat him easily.

Naruto was fighting Hinata.

Sakura hated the worried looks on the others’ face, how the instructor hesitated quite obviously to switch them with somebody else. Naruto still had the same reputation of an aggressive troublemaker, and Hinata was considered weak-willed and weak period. They honestly believed he would hurt her, and on purpose nonetheless.

What right did they have to speculate about him? She knew him. She was the one he had beaten up hundreds of time on the training ground. She was the one who could affirm he was never one to hurt on purpose, to pull up more than the other could handle, to try and assert his superiority. Even when anger got the best of him, when he was tensed and upset and more brutal than usual, he never crossed that line. As surprising as it sounded, he was a good teacher. Ruthless, yes, but efficient, useful. Which was more than could be said about most of their teachers at the Academy.

She considered stepping in when it looked like the instructor was really going to call it off. It was Hinata who cut all doubts. By starting the fight herself.

Out of all of them, she was the one with the cleanest taijutsu style, and the most elegant, better than Sasuke even. She lacked decisiveness though, intent, but Naruto wouldn’t take advantage of that. He didn’t go easy on her but he didn’t go all out either. He let her have her chance, adapted around her style so that the fight could last, so that they could both… enjoy it, in a way. She grew bolder as the match went on, managing to truly bring him into it. It was clearly the best fight of the day.

It ended when he slipped through her guard and punched her in the chest, sending her to the ground. He didn’t rush to his aid, and she got up on her own. They both had the faintest smile on their face when they bowed to close the fight.

“Did he had to hit her so hard?” Sakura heard whispered displeasingly behind her back. The smiles disappeared. She prayed for patience and fortitude, remembering that she would soon be out of there. They went back inside for their last test. Ninjutsu.

.

His friends were too good, Naruto pondered. They didn’t have to worry about themselves, so they could focus all their worry on him.

It was so stupid of him to be mad that they were scared he would botch his tests on purpose, since he had considered very seriously doing exactly that. He didn’t want them to think that, even if it was true. What even.

At least, it was almost over. Taijutsu was out of the way and had even turned out to be a little fun – who would have thought Hyuuga Hinata had it in her. Ninjutsu wouldn’t take long. Pop two clones out, and bam, done, they got their headband and could go home newly dubbed into the shinobi order. Great.

He had actually had a little bout of panic a few weeks earlier when he had realized that it had been months since he had attempted ninjutsu in any way. He had all but given up on it, especially since he had salvaged Sai’s attempt to cook a proper dinner for his brother’s birthday, and that Sai had repaid him by digging up fuinjutsu scrolls from who knew were. Naruto still wasn’t through with the small collection. The process was painfully slow and complex, but rewarding. His repertoire was slowly growing.

Needless to say, he didn’t have time for stupid ninjutsu.

“Uzumaki Naruto.”

He was the last one. He came to stand in front of the class, brought his hands together. Two copies of himself popped out of thin air, looking as bored and fed up as him. He dismissed them quickly enough, ready to cash in and go home.

“Wait.”

“What?”

“Do it again.”

He glared a nasty glare at the man sitting next to Daikoku. He recognized him – Creepy sunglasses. Naruto had never gotten around to learn his name. Not that he cared.

“Why?”

“Do it again.”

Sighing, but eager to be done, Naruto complied, bringing forth two more clones that bowed an exaggerated salute at the man before disappearing again.

“Are we good now?”

“One more time please.”

Naruto flexed his hands, shook his arms, trying to get rid of the building tension. Breathe in, breathe out. He had promised Shisui he would do better in the anger department. That he would try at least, even if everyone was doing their damn hardest to be as aggravating as could be.

He only managed the one clone, because he was focused on relaxing and the fox was laughing and because he was trying and failing not to be transported back to the night of Mizuki’s death, that man was there, Naruto had stolen back the unlocking seals from under his nose and was he still there when he had been brought back unconscious, and…

“Can you do only one?”

Naruto was going to murder him.

“Is there a problem sensei?”

Ino’s honeyed voice thankfully snapped him out of his own head. She was smiling, the way she did when she was obviously lying but knowing the other couldn’t prove it, or when she wanted to convey a threat. Sakura was glaring at the instructor by her side, arms crossed, looking pissed.

“Are we all gonna have to take the test again? Because I have places to be right after that.”

“No, that won’t be…”

“Oh, so everything is fine, right?”

“Well…”

“Did he pass the test, or not?”

It was Sasuke this time, as calm and pleasant as if he was enquiring about their homework for the next day.

The man couldn’t just say no.

He handed the last headband on the table to Naruto without a word. His eyes were hidden, but that did little to hide his feelings on the matter. Naruto took it with the largest smile he could muster

“Thank you very much sir.”

The man’s anger was motivation enough not to throw it immediately into the trash.

“Well, congratulations everyone!” Daikoku exclaimed with too much enthusiasm. “You all passed! We’ll meet again tomorrow morning to give you your ranking and team assignment. Dismissed!”

They wasted no time running out of the door.

Shisui was there, as he had said, with Itachi, and, more surprising, both of Sasuke’s parents. Sasuke made a show of sulking and cursing, embarrassed, but he still picked up pace to reach them. Naruto followed unhurriedly, not wanting to appear too eager.

Sasuke had tied the headband around his forehead, but it irked at Naruto to do the same. He didn’t want to. He saw Ino wearing hers around her neck and resolved to imitate her – he pulled at the collar of his sweatshirt and pushed back the hood to tie the band as loosely as he could around his neck, not wanting to feel it. The weight on his chest wasn’t that unpleasant.

He ignored Sasuke’s family as best as he could, going straight to Shisui.

“Ta-da,” he said, uncomfortable. He was still riled up about that asshole and his attempt at… at what, humiliating him? Failing him? It was so pointless, so unnecessary.

“Congratulations,” Shisui said with a smile, ruffling his hair as was his annoying habit. 

“Did something happened?” he asked after a moment, and really, Shisui had no business being so damn clairvoyant about Naruto’s mood.

“It was nothing,” he said quickly. Of course it had to catch Sasuke’s ear.

“Actually…”

“I said it was nothing!”

“Ebisu-sensei had him retake the test three times, even if he did fine from the start,” Sasuke spilled, glaring back at Naruto just as fiercely as Naruto was at him. He never knew when to leave things alone.

Sasuke’s parents exchange a look and Uchiha senior looked around, trying to spot the instructor. Naruto looked away. He had no interest in seeing Uchiha Fugaku defend him or whatever.

“You did fine then? How high will you rank?” Shisui asked to distract him. He only got a shrug as an answer. It’s not like Naruto cared.

“Are you coming back with us?” Mikoto asked them both. Shisui answered first.

“If it’s no bother. What do you think, Naruto?”

Now, he could say no, if he really wanted to. For all his pestering, Shisui rarely insisted if Naruto truly didn’t want to do something. He didn’t have to – he looked at him with his stupid smile, open and indulgent, ready to call it off if Naruto so wished.

But Shisui would want to be with them for this, and Sasuke would want them there too. What was Naruto supposed to do against that?

“I don’t care,” he said, as much a blessing as he could give. They stopped by Sakura’s family to ask if they wanted to come as well – they politely declined. Lucky her.

“Tomorrow,” Sakura said, because maybe tomorrow they would have cause for celebration between the three of them.

They pushed through the crowd and Naruto tuned out the whispers around him with practiced ease. “Why did they let him graduate”, “does he have to be a shinobi”, “he shouldn’t be here”, blah blah blah. It didn’t affect him as much as it used to. If anything, it bothered the Uchiha around him more than himself. He let them to their glare and elbow blows – he didn’t concern himself with these people anymore.

He had been horribly uncomfortable the first time he had visited Sasuke’s house with Shisui, and it was still just as unpleasant now. Shisui’s house was bearable because it was just the two of them, and had not been occupied for long, but here, everything screamed family, memories, life. The pictures and the scattered belongings, the wear of the furniture, the shoes lined up behind the door. He was a stranger in this place, an intruder. A part of his friend’s life he could never be included in.

It wasn’t so bad when Sakura was here, because she was as uncomfortable as he was, albeit for different reasons. Status mostly, a residual shame from her clan-less background. She kept trying to be extra polite and often failed, to Uchiha Mikoto’s great amusement. Fugaku didn’t show up in those – rare – occasions

They opened the doors to the backyard and spilled into the well-kept garden, having collected a few other members of the Uchiha clan along the way. Naruto kept to his corner, waiting for the appropriate time to beat a hasty retreat.

“Is everything alright, Naruto?”

He accepted the glass of ice tea Mikoto was handing to him and nodded, knowing it wouldn’t be enough to satisfy her. She always tried to talk to him, despite his reluctance.

“Do you want something to eat?”

“I’m fine.”

He sipped at his drink as they watched in silence the other guests mingle. Sasuke and Itachi were sharing one of their weird, half silent conversations, where they only formulated one-word sentences and interrogative noises and still managed to get their point across somehow. Fugaku was talking with an older woman Naruto didn’t know, while Shisui stuffed his mouth with takoyaki.

He could feel Mikoto wanted to say something, but he wasn’t inclined to give her a hand. He had a feeling he wouldn’t like it.

“Your parents would be proud, Naruto.”

Bingo.

“What does it matter, what the dead think.”

The topic of his parents held no appeal to him whatsoever. More and more he was just convinced that they simply didn’t want to raise the demon fox and had opted out of that ride before getting stuck on it. Cowardly, but understandable.

“Well,” she went on without missing a beat, “I’m proud of you then.”

He gulped the rest of his glass to hide his surprise, thrown off balance by the blunt confession. He didn’t understand her interest in him. He was just friend to her son. She didn’t have to be so nice.

She managed to put him at ease, not as well as Shisui did, but still better than all the other adults in his life. He had a question to ask, and he figured she wasn’t the worst person to ask it to.

“What’s the point anyway? To be a shinobi.”

He didn't get it. Why did they all choose to risk their lives, why choose such a grim path? Nothing forced them too. Well, a lot of them were bound by family obligations and the like, but still. “For the good of the village” wasn’t good enough for him. No one was that selfless. There had to be something else.

“Isn’t there anything you want to protect?” she asked in lieu of an answer.

“Is that the reason?”

“That’s one of them, I believe.”

She had her family and her clan. Her village too. Naruto looked at Sasuke, politely nodding to the old woman’s ramblings, trying not to look too bored. He caught Naruto staring and rolled his eyes, like to say “what can we do?” or maybe “help, come rescue me.”

“They don’t need my protection,” he finally answered. The few things worth protecting in this world, they didn’t need him.

They would go on the same, if he was no longer there. They would be just fine.

“You still want to.”

“Since when is anything about what I want?” he asked bitterly. He regretted it immediately – he was usually better at keeping these feelings hidden. But as time passed, he felt like his future was narrowing down to a path that was more and more restricted, set in stone. A life that didn’t need him to play out. A life he didn’t want but could do nothing to change, to escape.

“It won’t always be this way, Naruto”.

They were always saying that. He had no idea where they found such certitudes.

.

“Team 7. Haruno Sakura, Uchiha Sasuke, Uzumaki Naruto.”

Naruto had been wrong – it was such a damn relief. They were sitting at the same table and they exchanged winning smiles, pleased as if they hadn’t been expecting it. He didn’t know what was in store for their future, but he knew their presence would make it a little more bearable. He couldn’t picture being in a team with anyone else. All the other kids were scared of him, or at least uncomfortable in his presence and it would have been two against one at all times. Three, if one counted their jounin instructor. Speaking of which…

“You’ll go to classroom 5 to wait for your team supervisor. Now, team 8…"

Shisui had tried to pacify him, told him it would be fine, that they wouldn’t put just anyone in charge of his team. It wasn’t as reassuring as he thought it was. He didn’t need another personal guardian. Besides, this was Sasuke and Sakura’s team too. He wanted someone who wouldn’t discriminate between them. Who would treat them all equally.

Repartition wrapped up and they went to wait for mysterious jounin. Despite what Shisui had said, Naruto couldn’t help but wish for him to walk through the door. It would be ideal – the three of them knew him, he liked the three of them. He knew almost everything about Naruto, and Sasuke for that matter. Sakura had a weird crush on him since he had started to teach her genjutsu. Really, it would have been great.

He tried not to think about all the candidates that wouldn’t be that great. The jounin that had arrested him last month with a hand in a woman’s purse, for example. All those who had dropped on him by surprise while he was strolling the woods. The ones who left the ramen stand when he arrived.

That made for a lot of people.

“I hope it’s a woman,” Sakura sighed by his side. She was fiddling with the knot of her headband, trying to tighten it so that it wouldn’t slip on her forehead – she wore it on the top of her head, tied at the base of her skull, a few wild strands of hair poking out from under the blue fabric.

“Maybe it is. There are a few,” Sasuke commented from where he was leaning over a desk with a good view on the door, arms crossed, expectant. They had been waiting for a while – they were starting to get impatient.

A female instructor wouldn’t be that bad indeed. He tried to remember what Mikoto’s genin team was up to these days. Were they already deemed good to go for the chunin exam? Maybe that would be awkward for Sasuke to be under his mother’s command but…

This line of thought was interrupted by the door sliding open.

.

He wasn’t late. He really wasn’t. He had arrived at the Academy early, even. But then he had stood outside in the corridor like an idiot for the better part of an hour, trying to calm his nerves.

It was ridiculous. He was a grown ass man who had been in plenty of dangerous, stressful or embarrassing situations, and he should have been able to handle meeting a trio of babies barely out of the Academy. It wasn't even the first time he was doing this, but the third. The first two had gone well, this part of it anyway. That he had then sent them all back to the Academy was irrelevant. They weren’t good enough.

Kakashi was aware that no such thing could happen this time. But it wasn’t what made him hesitate.

He should have listened to Shisui and meet Naruto much sooner. It was crazy – and pretty embarrassing – how many times he reflected that he should have listened to the Uchiha. First, it meant that cheerful jokester Shisui was more insightful than him, and second, it also meant that he never learned his damn lesson.

He should have befriended Naruto before. It would have made this first introduction to the team a walk in the park. But Kakashi had been too cowardly to try it – too scared to be rejected like most of the adults in Naruto’s life were. It felt like he stood a better chance like this. He was there to teach them after all. Kakashi remembered his excitement at his first team assignment, the deference he felt for his jounin instructor.

Surely it wouldn’t go so badly.

Besides, Naruto had heard of him at least a little, from Shisui and Itachi, even if they had never met face to face. He wasn't a complete stranger. Kakashi knew Sasuke well already, and the girl, Sakura, seemed decent enough. She was friends with both of them for a start, which was a feat, according to what the Uchiha said.

Resolute, Kakashi opened the door.

“Hi, brats! I’m…”

That’s about as far as he went.

Naruto jumped to his feet as if he’d been shocked. The next second he was crouching on the desk in front of Sakura, kunai in hand and honest-to-gods snarling, teeth bared and face folded into an angry scowl.

“Naruto, what is it?” Sasuke exclaimed worriedly, as startled as the others. Naruto didn’t pay him any mind, didn’t shift his focus away from Kakashi, still barely a step into the room.

“It’s you,” he growled. “I recognize you.”

.

“Naruto. Naruto, it’s alright. Calm down.”

The boy didn't budge, didn't relax in any way, didn't tear his eyes away from the jounin still standing shell-shocked by the door. Sasuke could tell he had at least a fraction of Naruto's attention though.

“Everything is fine. This is Hatake Kakashi. He’s not a threat.”

He kept his voice as calm and cool as he could, kept close but didn’t touch, knowing it would only make Naruto jump. He was getting good at this. It happened from time to time – he had stopped questioning why exactly. Often when Sasuke activated his Sharingan without notice, but also if Naruto was surprised by someone he didn’t know well, or, most memorably, when a jerk from a year above them had pranked them by locking them into the classroom. Naruto had freaked out, and been ready to demolish the door, the wall even, or jump out of the window.

He listened to Sasuke’s voice though. As long as Sasuke could reach him, they could make it through.

“He means no harm, I promise. I know him. I know him.”

It worked a little, enough that Naruto stopped looking like he was going to implode, but not enough that he snapped out of it. Sakura was rigid and tense behind him, slowly sitting up from her chair, knowing not to make any sudden movements.

“It’s fine, Naruto,” she insisted, soothing. “Everything is fine.”

Kakashi at least had the sense not to try to step in and make everything worse.

Sasuke decided to up his arguments. He knew what worked on the other boy.

“He’s a friend of Shisui. Shisui knows him. They’re friends.”

Finally, finally Naruto broke eye contact to turn toward Sasuke, wary but responsive at least.

“They are?”

Now really wasn’t the time for Sasuke to get jealous of his cousin.

“Yes. You can ask him yourself when you see him. They were together in Anbu.”

Naruto grimaced – that was a misstep. Was that the issue then? Naruto wasn’t fond of any type of authority, but he had it out for the special ops in particular.

“They were teammates,” Sasuke amended. “And they’re good friends. Shisui trusts him. I promise.”

Naruto nodded and slowly, slowly uncoiled himself from his defensive position, standing up on the desk. He took the time to glare down at Kakashi from up there before jumping off to join them back on the ground, eyes never leaving the man.

“Do you… know each other then?” Sakura asked uneasily, Naruto’s mistrust catching fast.

“I guess we don’t,” Naruto mumbled. He looked hurt and angry, and Sasuke had absolutely no idea why.

“Why did it have to be you?” he asked, more to himself than the jounin, voice small and resigned, like he sounded when he wanted to convey his “life can’t help but suck” philosophy.

“To be honest, I didn’t think you would recognize me,” Kakashi answered, disappointment and dejection visible even if almost all of his face was covered up.

“Instinct,” Naruto shot back. There was something more behind it, something he was telling to the man only. Something that made Sasuke categorize Kakashi immediately, under the label “people in the known”. The world was divided neatly, between those who knew what was going on with Naruto, and those who didn’t. Sasuke was of the later, to his eternal frustration. And now, it looked like Kakashi was of the former, which only made it worse.

Seeing how Naruto was glaring at him, Sasuke wasn’t about to get jealous of that one though.

“Well, I was going to have us introduce ourselves a bit, but I guess we’ve done enough team-bonding for today. I’ll see you tomorrow at training ground 10, at 6 o’clock sharp. Don’t be late!”

“You don’t be late!” Sasuke screamed after him, but the man was already gone in a puff of smoke. He huffed, irritated.

“Let’s go,” Sakura sighed after a moment where they stared dumbly at the spot where their teacher used to be, trying to determine if it could have gone any worse than that. Naruto stayed stubbornly silent as was his habit. Sakura parted way with them after a silent exchange with Sasuke who promised to deliver their friend safely to Shisui’s door. Naruto disappeared inside the house without a word, and Sasuke walked the rest of the way to his own house in bitter contemplation.

“Hello Sasuke! How did it go?” his mother asked cheerfully from the living room where she was repairing some clothes roughed up by training. She must have seen something on his face, because she abandoned her work to join him in the entranceway, expression folded with concern.

“What happened?”

Sasuke was on the verge of telling her, eager to spill, to explain and vent his frustration and confusion. But he remembered then that she was as responsible of this as Kakashi was, as they all were. They knew why Naruto was this way, why he was even more solitary and antisocial than when they were younger, why he was frightened by the things that frightened him, that shouldn’t have but did. They knew, and no one would tell Sasuke, no one would let him help.

She would sympathize and tell him to hang in there, but she wouldn’t actually help, and today Sasuke was especially resentful of that.

“Forget about it,” he muttered, shoving past her. He walked straight to his room without heeding her calls and face crashed on his futon, that he hadn’t taken the time to roll that morning. A prophetic instinct, probably.

.

Shisui had had a good feeling about this, that had carried him through a boring but exhausting day of going through the Academy’s lesson materials – it was dramatic how much he had forgotten about all that. He was barely ten years out of school and he couldn’t remember a single thing.

Usually, worrying about Naruto always monopolized a part of his brain, but he had managed to shrink it up this time because he had a good feeling about this. Being in a proper, recognized team with Sasuke and Sakura would do good to Naruto who occasionally worried about their friendship affecting the two kids’ place in the village, or about them suddenly abandoning him on the spot one day. He trusted Kakashi not to fuck it up – Shisui believed he was serious about this, like he rarely was.

So Shisui had a good feeling about this, to the point where he was humming to himself as he made his way home, eager to hear what the boy had to say about his first day as a genin.

All the lights were out, but the front door was unlocked. Shisui slipped inside, on guard but not overly worried. The house was booby-trapped to the best of Shisui and
Naruto’s combines abilities, and then had been copiously insulted enough time by jounins and friends trying to drop by to know it was effective.

“Naruto?” he called. The boy’s shoes were in the entryway, but he got no answer.

He was starting to worry for a different reason now.

He got up the stairs, up to Naruto’s bedroom. The door being closed all the way could mean only two things – either Naruto wasn’t here, or something was very, very wrong.

“Naruto?” he called again, knocking on the door.

“Go away.”

Damn. Second option it was.

“What’s wrong?”

“I said go away!”

“Not until you tell me what’s wrong:”

He expected to have much more bargaining to do and was surprised by the door sliding open only a second later, Naruto’s sullen face appearing in the crack.

“Is it true you know Kakashi?” Naruto asked, voice and expression blank. He was avoiding eye contact, eyes fixed on Shisui’s shin.

“Yes. He’s a friend of mine,” Shisui answered uneasily, wondering what that was about. He had mentioned the name a couple of time no doubt, but Naruto had never met him, despite Shisui’s insistence.

“Did you know he was going to be our team instructor?”

“Yes, he told me. I thought it wasn’t a bad idea? He’s a good guy.”

“Did you know he was the one to drag me back from the wood back then?”

Shisui's mind blanked out for a second before tumbling into blind panic.

Damn shit, they had fucked up so bad.

“I… I did, yes,” he said through gritted teeth, refusing to lie to the boy even if it would have been for the best. Naruto was a living lie detector anyway, and he took very badly to people trying to deceive him.

The flash of hurt on his face was unmistakable, before he recovered his careful expression of disinterest that certainly did not fool Shisui.

“Did you think I wouldn’t remember? That I wouldn’t know? Or did you just think it didn’t matter?”

It hadn’t even crossed their mind that Naruto would know. He had come face to face with Kakashi for one minute tops, at night in the woods while he was on the verge of a breakdown, and Kakashi had his mask. More than making him unrecognizable, it also dissociated him from his identity – they didn’t think of themselves as the person they were, when they were under their Anbu mask. The codenames were more than just military strategy, they were the second skin they put on, and Anbu members weren’t ever called out on their actions when they were out of the mask, to the point where they gave their report and were tried for their misdeeds in the mask too. What they did in Anbu didn’t exist out there in the open. An unspoken rule they all upheld.

One that Naruto had no reason to know or care about.

Naruto wasn’t a sensor, he wasn’t in his right mind at the time, and it could have been anyone retrieving him from his escape attempt. Shisui wasn’t aware of the full extent of Kakashi’s and the village’s motivation for putting him in charge of that particular team – only that Kakashi wanted to do this, which was extraordinary enough for Shisui to put his trust in it. His involvement in that night’s event had seemed irrelevant, to all of them.

Shisui had never felt so damn stupid in his whole life.

“Naruto…”

The door slammed shut in his face.

Fucking shit.

Chapter Text

Naruto had always had this instinct, since he was a child. He knew, somehow, when people were bad news.

It was more than a hard-learned skill, because it was wasn't like he could decipher some subtle signs, back up his judgment in any way. He just knew. He had been leery of Mizuki from the very start, from the very first time he had seen him at school, all sweet smile and nice act. He couldn't explain it, but there was something in this man, something twisted and dark, that no cheer could hide, not to him. He knew on sight who to avoid, people who would be sure to treat him badly. It was another one of those things he had thought was the norm for the longest time, before he had heard some girls of his class fawn over “Mizuki-sensei” and how cool he was. His classmates had been so much slower on the uptake, and he had realized it was another abnormality.

Like most abnormalities in his life, he now knew who to blame it for.

He was starting to discern what came from the fox and what didn’t. And this unease he sometimes felt when crossing path with someone seemingly innocuous, it came from that corner of his mind that wasn’t his own.

Bad. Mean. Evil.

Not that it made the fox uneasy. It seemed to enjoy it well enough. Naruto was the one who was made to feel uncomfortable, and it really was something he could have done without. He didn’t need further proof that people sucked.

But it was also an instinct he couldn’t deny or reject. He had come to rely on it without meaning too, especially since he had discovered the fox’s presence and became aware of the way it was influencing his life and thoughts. He counted on it to tell him who to stay clear off, who not to trust.

It had stayed silent on the jounin instructor.

There was distaste, of course, but it came from both of them, at the memory of the seal slapped on Naruto’s forehead, how they had been helpless to fight against slumber. But even then, in the disjointed memories Naruto had of that night, he could recall no malice, no reason to believe the man was out for him. Not then, and not the previous day either, when he had strolled into the classroom without a care in the world. At the very least, he knew that the man didn’t outright hate him.

The thing was, shinobis didn’t need feelings to make an enemy out of someone.

He didn’t know how he had recognized him on the spot, where the certitude of his identity had come from. He could just feel it, as he felt the particular flavor of people’s mind and feelings around him. It wasn’t about chakra, like a sensor, it wasn’t anything he could describe. He had just known.

They had been convinced he wouldn’t, and he regretted they had been wrong.

Did everything had to go so bad every single time. Couldn’t it had been someone else, anyone. Or could he had just not identified the man. Maybe it would have come out sooner or later, but it’s not like Naruto planned on getting attached to the jounin. He would have been better off not knowing.

He always had to ruin everything though.

He had freaked out in front of his friends with no explanation, again. They probably wouldn’t ask about it, used by now to keep going as if nothing had happened, knowing Naruto would lie to them or stay silent, as always. They would still add it to the growing pile of proofs that they were stuck in a team with a basket case. It wasn’t fair to them. None of it was.

Naruto didn’t want to get out of bed.

Shisui knocked on the door.

“Naruto? Are you awake?”

“No.”

“Sasuke is here. He came to fetch you for your team meeting.”

Naruto could hear the hesitancy and unease in Shisui’s voice. It was so unfair. He didn’t want Shisui to feel bad, especially because of him, but he was so hurt that no one had thought it a distasteful idea to put in charge of his team a man that had all but thrown him in jail once. Why couldn’t his feelings be taken into consideration just once?

He knew he was probably making a fuss out of nothing. Shinobis’ alliances were shifting, ever changing. Allies turned enemies and enemies turned allies, and Kakashi was only following orders, probably. Naruto just had to get over it, suck it up and move on.

Same old, same old.

“Are you… are you going?”

Naruto hadn’t decided before the question was out there in the open, but really, it’s not like he had much of a choice.

“Yeah. I’ll be right out.”

There was a pause where Shisui stayed at the other side of the door, and Naruto waited for him to add something, but then his footsteps retreated in the corridors and trailed off down the stairs. Naruto sighed. The day was already ruined, and it was five in the morning.

He got dressed quickly, hooked his undershirt around his thumbs, put on his usual red hoodie. He had a few more clothes, courtesy of the Uchiha that inexplicably concerned themselves with his fate, but he always came back to the same outfit. It felt like armor at this point, familiar enough that everybody was used to it, knew to spot him in the dark red and black.

Besides, he wasn’t going to dress like a freaking Uchiha.

He couldn’t bring himself to break the heavy silence that fell onto the kitchen when he walked in a few minutes later. Shisui looked like he wanted to say something again, and again he refrained, gulping down his words with a mouthful of tea.

“Let’s go,” Sasuke said without much intent, sitting up to move toward the door. Naruto felt like saying something too when Shisui looked at him above the rim of his cup, looking lost and unsure like he rarely did.

Nothing came though, and Naruto exited the house without so much as a goodbye.

He fell into step with Sasuke as they walked the silent, dormant streets. They crossed only the few wandering patrols that largely ignored them. The sun was only half out, the street lamps still burning. It felt like they were strolling a ghost town.

Like with Shisui, Naruto could hear in the silence between them that there was something Sasuke wanted to say. Naruto couldn’t help him – he didn’t know where they stood and he had no idea what Sasuke thought.

He trusted that the other boy would find it in himself to open his mouth eventually. Sasuke wasn’t a coward.

“Say, Naruto, do you want me to leave you alone?”

“We’re going to the same place.”

Sasuke huffed, already irritated. Naruto was good like that.

“Not right now. I mean in general.”

“Huh?”

“Do you want me to stay away from you?”

It was like Naruto’s mind had been punched right out of him. He could only ask a weak “what?”, deprived of any deeper brain function.

“You know, I always assumed you didn’t… really want to push us away. That I had to keep trying to reach out. But I’ve been thinking lately… You’re always saying how little what you want matters, and I don't want to factor into that. So if you really want me to leave you alone, if you really don't want us to be friends…"

It made no sense (except it did) and Naruto was losing his mind.

“I’ll do it. If that’s what you want. I’ll respect it.”

And that absolute idiot looked so hurt by this, so very much not on board with the idea. He would still do it, Naruto knew. He would do as his friend asked.

Naruto couldn't think, let alone talk. His mind was going in circles, following a single line of thought.

Don’t. Don’t do it. Please, please, don’t do it. Don’t leave me. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please, don’t. Don’t give up on me.

He stayed stupidly silent.

“Hi guys.”

He didn’t jump in surprise, but it was a near thing. It was Sakura, joining them just a few streets away from the training ground. She picked up on the heavy mood immediately.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, less inclined than the two boys to sweep her concerns under the rug.

“Nothing,” Sasuke answered without the slightest hope of convincing her. She rolled her eye.

“Whatever.”

Naruto’s mind was still reeling. Was that it? Was it the final straw for Sasuke, was he really giving up on Naruto? It would have been his right, really. He should have done it before.

Naruto still didn’t want him to. He didn’t. This wasn’t what he wanted at all. He didn’t know how to say it, how to show it, how to act so that they could see, but he liked being their friend. He liked that they liked him. He didn’t want it to stop.

But what right did he have to ask for that?

.

Given Kakashi’s reputation, Sasuke expected to endure hours of awkward silence and simmering resentment, and he was immensely grateful when the man decided to break habits and arrived barely an hour late. Sakura still raved about it, as much to make him feel bad as to evacuate some tension, since she had worked herself up with frustration at the boys’ silence since they had arrived at training ground 10. Kakashi apologized vaguely, fake cheer firmly in place.

Sasuke was just grateful he had decided to cut down on the pointless waiting.

What had possessed him to broach the subject so bluntly with Naruto, and so early in the morning? As if it was the right time. But the question had been eating away at Sasuke for so long, it just had to get out.

He wanted to know if he had been wrong to insist.

He wanted to know if Naruto hated him.

“Alright!” Kakashi exclaimed, making them jump. “Moving on, kids. You’re stuck with me I’m afraid.”

“Wait,” Sakura said, not one to let it go so easily. “Naruto, is it alright?”

“What?”

“I’m sure we can get someone else, if we ask.”

Now that was blunt. Kakashi didn’t argue, but he was surprised enough to lose the fake smile – the one they could extrapolate from his one visible eye anyway. At times Sakura could be even worse than Naruto at sugarcoating.

Naruto shrugged, careless, as if he hadn’t had a full-blown freak out just the day before at the mere sight of the man.

“Nah, I’m fine.”

Sakura rolled her eye. She hated what she called Naruto’s martyr tendency, when he refused something even if it would make his life easier, even if people had offered, even if it wasn’t any inconvenience, simply because he liked to make it harder for himself, or so she said.

“Go on then, sensei,” she said to the jounin. Giving her tone, she could have been the one who outranked him.

Sasuke was surrounded by ill-mannered savages.

“Too kind of you. Alright, on for a little test, kiddos. Let’s see if this team stands a chance of working out.”

“And what if it doesn’t?” Sasuke asked, not sure he liked where this was going.

“Then I can send you back to the Academy’s benches.”

Naruto scoffed.

“You can always try.”

They were off to a fantastic start.

“But first, why don’t you tell me a little about yourself,” Kakashi said, casual as if the air around them wasn’t heavy enough they could feel it on their skin.

“You’ve known me since birth,” Sasuke grumbled, too restless and unnerved to indulge the man.

“I’ll start,” he answered as if he hadn’t heard. “I’m Hatake Kakashi. I like dogs, and I don’t like waking up early. Or at all. My main hobby is reading…”

Sasuke could see one of the books from that erotic series he read all the time peeking out of his chest pocket. He rolled his eyes.

“And my long-term goal is to make good shinobis out of you insufferable brats.”

Naruto huffed and Sakura stuck her tongue at the man – a good reaction, all things considered. Sasuke wished he could have been more enthusiastic about the whole affair. He did like Kakashi, who was cool and strong and didn’t treat Sasuke like a kid. But he wanted Naruto to have a good time for a change, and it didn’t look like it was going to happen with that man.

“I’m Haruno Sakura,” the girl went next, willing to put in an effort too. “I like to win fights and I don’t like being told I can’t do things. I guess my hobby is studying. And training. And hanging out with Ino. And my goal… is to beat Naruto in a fight.”

She was far better at this than Kakashi. That brought Naruto back to them immediately, as he stared at the girl who bore his gaze, unyielding. He eventually looked away, but not before the smallest nod. An acknowledgment. He would hold her up to this.

“I’m Uchiha Sasuke,” Sasuke sighed, since he had to. “I like training with my friends or my brother and I don’t like injustice. I spent most of my free time training. And I want to be Hokage.”

He was careful to look straight ahead, uninterested in Kakashi’s reaction and unwilling to witness Naruto’s again. More and more, he just gave up on trying to understand Naruto’s thought process. He had decided that the blond taking offense at Sasuke’s ambition was his own problem.

“Really? What does your father have to say to that?” Kakashi teased, amused. Sasuke wasn’t.

“That’s completely irrelevant.”

Kakashi didn’t insist.

“What about you?” he asked Naruto, not subtle in the least. If they wanted this to have any chance to work, he was going to have to learn how to handle the blonde very fast.

“Uzumaki Naruto. I like to be alone and I hate people. I want to be the strongest person alive.”

“And why is that?”

Naruto crossed Kakashi’s gaze for the first time since his arrival.

“So that I can be free.”

The jounin had nothing to answer to that.

“Cool. Well I think that’ll be enough for the presentation. Now for the fun part. Attack me.”

The abrupt change of tone startled them. Sakura crossed her arm, unsettled.

“What?”

“If you’re serious about becoming shinobis, then show me.”

Sasuke and Sakura fell into position. Naruto didn’t.

“I don’t want to become a shinobi,” he deadpanned, hands in his hoodie’s front pocket, the perfect picture of complete disinterest.

Why did he have to be so damn infuriating.

In an instant Kakashi was in front of him, his fist flying fast toward Naruto’s head who barely blocked it with his forearms. The impact made him take two steps back.

“If you’re serious about becoming stronger then,” Kakashi said casually. “You’ll have to beat me.”

Naruto wasn’t one to resist a challenge.

“We’ll be done here if one of you manage to land a hit on me,” Kakashi said before taking his book out. He was infuriating too. Naruto and he had that in common at least.

They dispersed, taking cover into the woods around the training ground. Sasuke only had Shisui and Itachi as a reference for how strong jounin-level shinobis could be, and he had never gone very far when fighting against either of them. He'd have to be clever about it.

Sakura strayed deeper into the trees, no doubt wanting to set up a trap, her favorites. A passion she shared with Naruto on occasions – fortunately, they preferred to turn it against experienced shinobis, to raise the stakes as they said, rather than on an unsuspecting Sasuke. Generally speaking.

Naruto was nowhere to be found.

And coming out of his thoughts, Sasuke realized Kakashi wasn’t either.

He cursed after himself for getting distracted, frantically looking for the older man who was no longer standing in the empty field. Where had he…

“Boo!”

Sasuke did not startle.

Kakashi tried to trap him in his hold, kunai in hand. Sasuke was just fast enough to duck and avoid it. If he was taken hostage and forced to go out a kunai under his throat, he would die of embarrassment, never to show his face around the village again. Sasuke was the best student of their year, and he wouldn’t have his friends rescue him like a damsel in distress.

He jumped down from the tree he was hiding in, Kakashi on his heels. Just when he thought he was out of reach, he was brutally thrown back toward the man. Wires, around his torso and arms. So Kakashi had managed to catch him after all.

The man pulled at the cable until Sasuke’s back slammed against a tree. He was effectively trapped.

"I'll come back when I've dealt with your two friends," Kakashi said cheerily before puffing away. Despite knowing it was a stupid test, the words racked chills through Sasuke's entire body. He didn't ever want to hear anything like that, even as make-believe.

He had to protect them.

The wires were cutting through his skin, efficiently reminding him not to struggle too much against them. Fortunately, Kakashi had made quick, basic work of it, and he could wriggle a hand toward his weapon pouch. Sasuke preferred to think it was the man underestimating him or being sloppy, instead of him deliberately leaving his student with a way out.

Then again, he couldn’t know that Sasuke was very fond of those wires himself, and that on his mother’s advice, he was always carrying both a reserve of those and a way of cutting them. “Knowing how to counter your own moves,” she said, “is what give you the upper hand against someone who uses the same.”

The process was frustratingly slow – damn, those things were sharp – but he managed to reach into his weapon pouch and get the fire seal out. It would melt the wire – and the skin of his fingers, if he wasn’t careful.

Sasuke was just getting himself free when he heard a scream, a curse, and an obnoxious laugh. A second later, Kakashi came barreling from where he had run out a few minutes before, Sakura hot on his heels, looking disheveled and way too into this.

He thought she would breeze past him and ignore him, but she stopped at his level to catch her breath, hands on her knees.

“He’s too much for us,” she stated.

“That’s to be expected,” he replied, caustic. One-day-old genins weren’t going to take down a jounin that easily, especially that one particular jounin.

“About Kakashi… He’s like, really good. Even for jounin standards.”

“Yeah, I know. When I told my parents yesterday they were like “the Hatake Kakashi”? They said he was a genius and everything. He just looks lame to me.”

Sakura didn’t take easily to people Naruto didn’t like.

“We need to be smart about it. Where’s Naruto?”

She pulled a face.

"Around here somewhere."

They would just have to do this without him.

“One hit can’t be that hard,” Sakura declared, determined.

She was kind of wrong.

The man was clearly enjoying himself and at this rate, he would run both of them to the ground without breaking a sweat. It wasn’t just because they weren’t good enough. They weren’t used to fighting together, not just the two of them.

What the hell was Naruto doing? Was he giving up on this? Leaving them to their own devices?

Sakura winced at yet another powerful blow barely blocked by her weaker guard. She was getting too worked up, and it made her impulsive, less observant.

They would end up seriously hurt if they didn’t do something about it.

Busy worrying about the girl, Sasuke failed to avoid the next kick connecting painfully with his stomach, sending him reeling back. It distracted Sakura in turn who received the next one and ended up on the ground next to him, groaning and cursing.

He grimaced in advance when he saw her take a deep inhale, fully acquainted by now with her lung capacity, especially when she was angry.

“NARUTO! Get your ass out here right now or I swear to all the gods of this freaking land I will…”

“Alright, alright, geez. You guy can’t do anything without me.”

He had appeared out of nowhere right by their side, casual and relaxed.

She punched him in the stomach for good measure.

“Please pretend you give one single shit about this,” she demanded before facing back toward Kakashi, who was still enjoying his book, completely unbothered.

Sasuke felt like cursing too.

It wasn’t the first time all three of them were ganging up against the same person. It was one of Shisui’s favorite training exercise, because as they got older and better at this, it became good practice for himself too, even if his body flicker turned it into a frustrating affair. Apart from the very basics of substitution and clone techniques, Sasuke was the only one who could bring ninjutsu on the table when it came to fighting. Sakura’s strong suit was in ambush and strategy. Naruto had his fuinjutsu, but he had long since stopped sharing his progress with them, and he rarely used more than the chakra sealing technique in battle.

They were, on the other hand, all very skilled at taijutsu.

Something was off that day though, and it took only a moment for Sasuke to understand what – Naruto was usually at the forefront of their attack formation, harassing their opponents relentlessly, attracting on him their sole focus, which gave room for the other two to take them by surprise.

Naruto was strangely reluctant today, putting the barest effort into the fight and standing behind more than anything. It was obvious enough that Sakura, fed up, pushed him toward the man at some point, either to force him to get into it or to at least to use him as a distraction, figuring he was just being difficult, as per his habit.

Kakashi reached inside his pouch – for a shuriken maybe, or just for a snack, who knew – but it stopped Naruto dead in his track. He took a hasty step backward and crashed into Sakura, sending them both on their ass.

It dawned on Sasuke that Naruto wasn’t being lazy.

He was afraid.

Sakura caught it too, but as it was often the case, what filled Sasuke with sadness and dread converted straight to anger in her mind.

“Alright, I’ve had it.”

Before Naruto could get back on his feet, she crowded his space, kneeling in front of him, and grabbed the front of his hoodie to bring their face close enough that they had to cross eyes for their gaze to meet.

“What’s wrong with you, you idiot?”

He stayed stubbornly silent, mouth pinched into a displeased line.

“We’re not goofing around anymore, Naruto! We’re a team whether you like it or not. We have to rely on each other!”

“I don’t ask you to trust me!” he yelled back. He struggled weakly, but she didn’t budge, and he wasn’t worked up enough to fight her properly. Yet.

“We already do, dumbass! I’m asking you to trust us!”

Sasuke wanted to tell her to stop, to not put it out there so bluntly. But even if she was more vocal about it, he was just as done as she was with that uneasy status-quo that had them walking on eggshells around Naruto. He trusted she would drive the point across better than him – because she was better at yelling in people’s face, and that was the only thing that seemed to work with their hardheaded friend.

“We need to have each other’s back now. I don’t care what it is that you’re so scared of, what you think will happen that you have to be so careful about. We’re here too. We won’t let anything get to you. That old guy?” she intoned, gesturing toward Kakashi with her head, ignoring his weak offended protest, “he’s no threat to you. Not as long as we’re here. So stop it with the “I’m alone against the world” act. You’re not. You’ll never be.”

She had been shaking him more and more as she got more heated up, meeting no resistance in the other boy who simply listened, limped as a ragdoll.

“Will you come after me?” he asked quietly, the whisper of a plea. “If they take me away.”

She scoffed and got up, held out a hand to help him back to his feet.

“We’ll never stop looking for you.”

She squeezed his hand tightly before letting it go. He turned toward their instructor, pointing at his pouch.

“You have more of those, don’t you? Those papers.”

“Yes,” Kakashi answered without detour, looking like he at least knew what Naruto was talking about. Sasuke refrained from asking, having long practiced saving himself the frustration of questions asked but never answered. Naruto addressed him and Sakura next.

“Don’t let him pull a seal on me,” he requested, and Sasuke didn’t ask. He didn’t need to.

“You can count on it,” he agreed simply. He didn’t need to know to give Naruto confirmation.

Sasuke would do whatever he asked.

“Okay,” Naruto said, shaking his head as of to wake himself up. “Okay.”

“Do I have a say in this?” Kakashi asked from above his book. His distracted air was artificial of course – he had been following the scene closely.

“No,” the three of them deadpanned as one, before falling back into position

“We’re gonna kick your ass,” Naruto promised, before launching forward.

And really, there was no denying it, despite all the issues they had and the things they didn’t say, despite the anger and annoyance and reproach they could have for each other, they still made a damn good team.

Feeling his luck turn, Kakashi jumped backward to put distance between them. Fire chased after him, for Sasuke had gotten really good at the fireball jutsu. He could even direct it to some extent. It worked great with Naruto, because Naruto lacked the basic common sense of being afraid of fire for some reason, and liked to chase right after it to deck their opponent while they least expected it. Sasuke didn’t like that technique much, since he had burnt off Naruto’s hair, clothes and skin more than once, but Naruto got mad if Sasuke refused to do it, and what the hell, Sasuke wasn’t his mom after all. No matter what Sakura said.

Kakashi managed to substitute before Naruto could crash his fist into his cheek – he only punched a log. Sakura was on the lookout though, and she spotted the man easily a few meters away, just by the tree line. Kakashi formed the mudra to burst out a fireball of his own and give himself time to hide again – that was without counting on Naruto’s favorite and most annoying move. He got a scroll out of his hoodie.

The fire was sucked in in a few seconds.

"That's cheating," Kakashi deadpanned from his perch on a tree branch.

“There’s no such thing,” Naruto answered with a grin. He was enjoying himself at least.

“Where did you learn to do that?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Naruto taunted, hiding the scroll back on his body. The number of those he could carry was insane – or he was just very good at pretending they were different, and he actually unrolled the same one each time at different spots. Sasuke couldn’t figure it out. Naruto’s finger work was a sight to behold – Sasuke had seen him lift Shisui's wallet from his pocket enough time to know that.

Fortunately, he had something that made it far easier to track Naruto’s movements – or anyone’s.

It never got old, the shimmering tint the world took under the eyes of the Sharingan. It had been hard at first to get used to it, especially in combat – seeing was good, if one was fast enough to react to it. Itachi and Shisui had trained him hard on the use of the eyes in combat situation. How to spot what was important and dismiss what wasn’t, how not to miss a detail but not be distracted by pointless information either. His stamina had improved too, and as long as he didn’t go for genjutsu, he could keep it up for an honorable amount of time.

Kakashi whistled when he crossed Sasuke’s red gaze, and when Sasuke avoided easily the same blow he had barely blocked a few minutes ago. Something caught his gaze, just at the corner of his eyes. Sakura holding up a hand, and Naruto passing her…

He had to get out of the way.

He crouched and jump forward, almost in Kakashi’s legs, breathing past him with the added bonus of throwing him off balance. Kakashi turned with him, expecting an attack from behind, but it wasn’t Sasuke he should have been worrying about. Coming from above, Sakura opened Naruto’s scroll in front of him, practically in his face.

“Release!”

The fireball exploded out of the paper. Kakashi body-flickered out of the way with a little “phew” – a corner of his book was fuming. He didn’t have time to play around, Naruto was already on him. They exchanged a few blows, Kakashi aimed a fist square at Naruto’s face…

Ha. Sasuke had been wrong. This was without a doubt Naruto’s worse move.

The fist landed perfectly, crashed on his nose. His head flew sideways, he tumbled toward the floor, seemingly knocked out. It always worked, either because his opponent got worried for a split second, or just because a well-placed hit had them relax just a smidge.

His genius idea was, instead of avoiding the blow, moving just enough that it looked real – and painful – but didn’t actually put him out. And then…

Here it was. Instead of landing on the floor as anyone receiving that kind of hit would have, he threw his hands forward, transferred his weight to spin his body, and sent his foot flying toward Kakashi’s chest.

The man didn’t move fast enough to avoid the kick fully. It connected with just enough force to have him take a step back. Naruto rolled on the ground before springing back to his feet. His nose was dripping blood into his feral grin.

“One hit,” he said, triumphant.

.

He had decided not to put them through the bell test, both because he really didn’t need to antagonize them anymore after their disastrous first encounter, and because he hoped it was a lesson they had learned already.

The whole point of the bell test was to evaluate the kids’ concept of teamwork and their understanding of the trials they would soon withstand as shinobis. Kakashi had had no qualm about failing his two previous teams, not just because they hadn’t been able to simply consult one another for one second before jumping him, but mostly because the point hadn’t been made, even when they had found themselves either tied to a post or eating in front of a starving teammate, even when he had explained to them, afterward, why it was wrong to put orders before their wellbeing. It's not that they hadn't understood – they had plain disagreed. The mission comes first, they had said. My teammates would understand.

Kids would say that, he pondered. Kids who didn’t know any better. He had been exactly the same. So convinced that it was an easy choice to do, that it was obvious. Determined never to hesitate on the matter, never to stray as his father had.

What the bell test asked of them was to reflect on that. Truly, deeply. To understand the strength that could come from their mutual trust, from them staying together no matter what. It wasn’t out of naïve feelings, of believing that you could always save everyone, that things turned out fine for those who stayed true to their beliefs.

How could you explain to children that sometimes it was those very beliefs that would let them down? That they had to think hard about what they could live with, and what they couldn’t? That they had to agree to it, to voice it aloud, if they hoped their team to survive the trials shinobis went through in this world? It was too late to ask those questions in the heat of conflict, when the choice had to be made right on the spot, when death was the consequences of their decisions.

Of course, sending that new iteration of team 7 back to the Academy was out of the question. First, because if he dared fail Uchiha Fugaku’s son, he would hear about it until the end of time, but mostly because Naruto would never go with it. And they had to seriously start taking into account what the boy wanted and felt, if they didn’t want to end up with a missing jinchuuriki.

He had to consider the boy’s feelings, if he ever hoped to salvage the relationship he didn’t have with his late teacher’s son.

Kakashi would have still been able to fail them though, had they shown signs of being too self-centered to be part of a team. But he had had an inkling that that, at least, wouldn’t be a problem.

He had been right. It had to happen sometimes.

“I told you to stop doing that!” Sakura scolded Naruto as she fussed over him, trying to stop the blood pouring out of the boy’s nose. Even if he had pulled out from that punch, it had still connected hard. His disregard for his own safety was something they would need to work on, if only for the team’s peace of mind. He had a feeling it was hard to make Naruto do anything he didn’t want to.

“And I told you to leave me alone,” he grumbled, batting her hands away only to have her come back at it with renewed determination. Sasuke was eyeing the scene with a resignation that only came with experience.

They knew each other well.

“See? It stopped bleeding. Quit it.”

“You cut your nose open. Why do you always have to do that…”

“It worked, didn’t it?”

“What would you say if your friends tried to pull the same move?” Kakashi asked, cutting in. The way Naruto tensed up when he addressed him, it hurt like a slap to the face, but Kakashi would just have to suck it up until the boy trusted him enough that he would be so wary. Kakashi deserved it anyway.

“They wouldn’t. They’re too weak.”

“Hey!” both kids exclaimed. Naruto stuck his tongue at them.

“They could still try. Seeing that it “works”.”

“No!” Naruto protested, grimacing.

“Then you can understand why they don’t like when you do it,” Kakashi concluded. Naruto pouted and grumbled but didn’t argue further, avoiding Sasuke and Sakura’s smug looks.

“Here,” Kakashi said, reaching into his pouch. Naruto frowned, on guard, but his expression melted into one of dumb surprise when Kakashi slapped a band-aid on the bridge of his nose.

"Staying safe is also a courtesy to your teammates," he chided, knowing that was a lesson that would need to be revisited – many times, probably. Naruto was going to argue, but was put to silence by a searing glare from his two friends.

“You did good, kids,” he told them, because they had. They shrugged and looked away, playing the unaffected.

Usually that would be the moment where Kakashi opt out of it. They were obviously still uneasy with him, Naruto mostly, but the two others too, by pure emulation. He could have given up. He had almost done it, the day before, as soon as he had exited the classroom, had almost run to the Hokage and to say it was a mistake, that he wasn’t up for it after all, that they had to find someone else. But first, there wasn’t anyone else, and second, that would have meant giving up on Naruto for good. And he couldn’t have that. Shisui kept telling him that late, or in that case very, very late, was better than not at all. And Kakashi was twelve years late with a strong handicap, but dammit, he was going to pull it off.

“I think that calls for celebrations. I’m treating you to ramen.”

It was hilarious how they tried to pretend they didn’t care all that much.

“You went to Shisui, didn’t you,” Sasuke asked, suspicious.

“You will never know.”

“I could just ask him.”

“But where is the fun in that?”

Sasuke huffed around a small smile. They turned around, eager to cash in on a proposition he was sure to regret very soon, but before there was something he needed to do.

“Wait. Naruto. I’d like to talk to you.”

There was no denying they would make a great team, with the way they consulted each other silently, with raised eyebrows and head bobbing, before Naruto nodded.

“We’ll wait,” Sakura said firmly. Kakashi didn’t have the benefice of having known her beforehand like with Sasuke, and she was clearly siding with Naruto on her opinion of him. It didn’t bother him all that much – it was better they be on their guard.

And he couldn’t forget that they had been betrayed by a teacher before.

They took a few steps away, just enough not to hear what would be said, but close so that they could jump in no doubt, if need be.

"What do you want?" Naruto asked bluntly. Aggressivity seemed to be his default defense mechanism, be it to hide unease, confusion, or fear.

“I wanted to apologize.”

That got him the boy’s attention now. He went on.

“We should have taken your feelings into consideration when assigning the team leaders. I can’t go into details as to why I was chosen for the job, but I want to make it clear that I’m not here to monitor you or reign you in. Sakura was right though – if you ask for it, I’ll be switched with someone else.”

That was more or less a lie, although he would do his best to make it happen, if Naruto so wished. Kakashi remembered all too well the frustration of never being taken seriously as a child, of his feelings being dismissed and disregarded, because he was young, he didn’t know any better, he would get over it. The powerlessness he had felt then, it was real, and it had clung to him for a long time. He could do better by those kids. He had to.

“You all seem to forget I’m well practiced in the art of sucking it up,” Naruto answered lightly, almost jokingly.

He was dead serious though, and he was also right. Most of his life had been decided without his consent or opinion, and he had been told often enough that they didn’t matter, and he just had to deal with it.

"That doesn't mean it always has to be this way," Kakashi declared firmly.

Naruto clearly didn’t believe him.

“It’s fine. Sasuke likes you,” Naruto said as an answer. “Shisui too. And I…”

He bit his lips, and Kakashi wondered what he didn’t want to say. “And I like them”? “Trust them”?. Something that was too much, too revealing to say aloud.

“Another will be the same anyway,” Naruto concluded, and that wasn’t very encouraging. They were all interchangeable in his eyes. Be it Kakashi or someone else, he would take it all the same.

It had been a long time since Kakashi hadn’t felt the urge to fight for something.

“You don’t know. Maybe I’ll turn out to be the best jounin sensei of the whole place,” he challenged lightly. It worked, at least a little – Naruto scoffed, a hint of amusement worming its way into his gloomy expression.

“Or the worst,” he deadpanned.

“We’ll have to wait and see.”

He seemed content with that. There was more Kakashi would have wanted to say, but he was aware his position was still precarious, and he could see the two others getting agitated out of the corner of his eyes. Naruto stopped him though, before he could turn around and join them.

“I lied, earlier.”

He was gripping at the fabric of his sweatshirt, on his belly. Looking down, face unreadable.

“About what?”

“If you have the mean to stop me, you should use it. If you ever need to.”

Kakashi's mind jumped to the seal in his pouch. Tenzo would most likely be around the team often too – Kakashi could only be grateful that they had decided to introduce him to the team later on. No doubt Naruto would recognize him as well. But they couldn’t just ignore the threat of Naruto’s seal cracking up.

“I’m sure it won’t come to that,” Kakashi said reassuringly, even if he had honestly no idea.

“What do you even know,” Naruto retorted, and Kakashi was reminded that all in all, he was first and foremost an insolent brat.

This was going to be fun.

They walked back to the two other kids, only to find them chatting with a newcomer.

“Hello, Kakashi!” Inuzuka Hana said brightly. “Hello, Naruto. I was asked to make the round and take the new teams’ picture,” she explained, waving her camera around for emphasis. Sakura was already fixing her hair. Naruto rolled his eyes.

The girl’s three dogs were running around yapping, as carefree and playful as they were focused and deadly in a fight. The contrast was always a little jarring but then again, it was the same with the shinobis, wasn’t it? They easily made the switch. Easily became weapons.

“Do we have to?”

“Don’t be difficult!” the girl chided, hooking an arm into his to drag him closer. She was smiling, more relaxed now that he was. Kakashi wondered where those feelings came from, both her admiration and her protectiveness of the other boy, who wasn’t making any effort to win either. Sasuke went to stand on his other side.

“I’m not going to run away,” Naruto protested.

“We wouldn’t put it past you,” Sakura retorted lightly.

“Hey!” Naruto protested. It was covered by the click of the camera. “Hey!” he exclaimed again when he realized he wasn’t even looking at the lens. Hana took another one for good measure, laughing at their antics.

“I think you’re good to go.”

“Thanks, Hana.”

“Will we get our own?” Sakura asked, very on board with the idea.

“Of course, it’s a bit of a tradition. It will be a few days at most. I’ll let you know!”

She bid them farewell, the dogs at her heels, in a hurry to catch team 8 before they wrapped up for the day. Kakashi took his team to Ichiraku – alright so it was a Shisui suggestion, but he would have come up with it on his own. Really.

“Hello and welcome to… Oh, Naruto!”

“Hi old man. How are you doing?”

“Ah, Sakura and Sasuke too! Well, you know me, I’m always fine. What can I get you kids?”

Kakashi was aware that a vast portion of the shinobi force had a tab at Ichiraku and that the man was known to be open and friendly with everyone, and yet it was still surprising to see Naruto be at ease like this. The kids sat down at the counter, well acquainted with the place.

“The usual for me old man. Extra meat, because our sensei is paying,” Naruto said, mischievous, smirking at Kakashi as the two others made similar requests.

“Kakashi, you’re treating the kids?”

“I guess I am.”

“I hope he’s being good to you,” the old man said to the children. “Or you take it to me, right?”

“What can you do, Teuchi?” Sakura asked around a laugh, delighting in the man’s antics.

“I’m not sure I can take him in a fight…” Teuchi said, faking to be pensive. “But I can refuse to serve him. Or only give him cold soup.”

“A most horrible fate,” Kakashi said with a dramatic sigh. “I guess I’ll have to be a good teacher then.”

He made sure to make eye contact with the three of them, willing to convince them he was very serious about this. Teuchi rewarded that resolution with a steaming bowl of noodles.

.

“What do you think then, Naruto?” Sakura asked once they were back in the street, and Kakashi had made his goodbyes, promising “even more fun” for the next day.

At the early days of their relationship – and for a long time after that – when Sakura was a bit lost, still hurting from being attacked and not knowing what to do with herself, she had often deferred to Naruto’s decisions. She followed him around, did as he told. It was annoying and incomprehensible, but harmless. If she wanted to believe he had any kind of wisdom to impart to her, it was her problem.

He couldn’t tell when it had shifted to… this. Now when she asked for his opinions and thoughts, it wasn’t to emulate, wasn’t because she had none of her own.

She genuinely cared. She wanted to know. It was important to her, how he was feeling and what he thought.

Somehow it was even weirder.

No doubt she had her very own opinion made over the jounin instructor, but she wanted to hear what Naruto had to say about it. Wanted to know if she would have to play buffer or to be wary, if she could let her guard down or not.

Basically, she was looking out for him.

He could have told her off – he didn’t need her care or protection. But needing it or not, it was comforting all the same.

“I guess he’s alright,” he said reluctantly.

The man was no threat, at least, and Naruto saw no deceiving in him when he had pulled him aside to apologize. They were shinobis now after all, he had to make do with that kind of situation. The truth was, any jounin, any chunin, anyone in the village could have been the one to put him down, that night or any other. It’s not like the man was special in that regards. It looked like he wouldn’t be the worst possible outcome either – at least it didn’t seem like he hated Naruto’s guts.

“You sure?”

If she didn’t usually call him out for lying about his feelings, she always made sure he knew she saw straight to the bullshit. She wasn’t as perceptive as she thought – yet. More and more she could indeed see through him, to his growing displeasure.

“Yeah. It’ll be fine. Hey, who knows. Maybe we’ll even have some fun.”

She kept her scrutinizing gaze on him for a little while longer before deciding he was being sincere. She smiled, pleased, and punched both Sasuke and him on the arm, playful and smiling, which was the best look for her.

“We definitely will!”

It sounded like a promise.

She waved at them before taking off as Naruto and Sasuke took the way back to the Uchiha district. Their morning conversation seemed so far away, and yet it was all Naruto could think of.

Surely Sasuke had to know, right? But Shisui was always saying it was bad to assume people knew things without being told. More often than not, they actually didn’t.

It’s just that Naruto wasn’t sure he would be able to say it.

They came into view of Shisui’s house without having uttered a single word.

“Good night,” Sasuke said without stopping as Naruto slowed down in front of the house. For some reasons Naruto couldn’t stand the vision of his retreating back.

“Wait!”

With how fast Sasuke spun around, he was most likely waiting for it. Hoping for it maybe. Sasuke had been bold enough to talk first, that morning, and now it was Naruto’s turn.

“I know I’m not… I know it’s not easy. With me. But please, just… Don’t give up on me just yet.”

He could do better by his friends. They had nothing to do with his pain and anger, on the contrary. They didn’t deserve him to cause them further trouble. He could do better. He could be worthy of their care.

Sasuke’s anticipating expression morphed into a solemn, determined one.

“As long as you don’t ask me to,” he said, tone set like he was expressing the most absolute of truth, “I’m not going away.”

It sounded like a promise too.

.

Shisui jumped to his feet as soon as the front door opened, failing miserably at not looking like he had been anxiously waiting for Naruto’s return since the minute he had left.

“Welcome home!” he exclaimed, high-pitched, cursing his traitor voice. Naruto gave him the same weird look he always did at the familiar greeting.

“Hi.”

“How… how did it go?” Shisui asked after an awkward pause.

Naruto took the time to take off his shoes, unhook his weapon pouch that he put on the shelf next to Shisui’s. He looked pensive, so Shisui didn’t press.

“…It was okay,” Naruto finally answered, decisive.

“Listen, Naruto, I’m…”

“It’s fine.”

“No. It’s not. I’m sorry.”

Naruto’s eyes flickered to the stairs as he contemplated bolting like he usually did. This time though, he decided to stay.

“It… it did hurt. And I wished you’d think about it before. But I… I just don’t want to be mad at you.”

The boy looked tired, drained. It was crazy how he was basically tireless when it came to physical exertion, capable of training and sparing for hours on end without displaying any sign of tiredness, but emotional endeavors left him depleted and exhausted. He felt so much, so hard, even if he tried to hide it. And he never seemed to catch a break.

“Alright then,” Shisui said, willing to leave it as it was if it was what Naruto wanted, even if he would have preferred they talked about it properly, even if he wanted to apologize again.

He would just have to do better.

“I don’t have anything to do this afternoon,” he added when it looked like Naruto was going to retreat in his room to sulk. “Wanna bake something?”

The boy failed to hide how he perked up at that and Shisui could comfort himself with the thought that this, at least, still worked.

.

They all got their picture, a few days later. A moment fixed in time of them laughing and pouting, with their friends and teammates, framed and hanged on a wall or set up on a shelf, so that it could be seen and remembered. To someday bring comfort and joy, or motivation and nostalgia, or regrets, anguish, pain. Or maybe a mix of all that.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Oy, Kakashi! Over there!”

The outburst got Gai dirty looks from the other patrons within reach of his booming voice – so, the whole bar – but that wasn’t something his friend had the capacity to concern himself with. Kakashi made his way across the room toward the corner where the owner had shoved his friends in, hoping to mitigate their circle of disturbance probably.

They came here often enough. Kakashi had gotten closer to the other jounin instructors since he was one himself, prompting relentless teasing from Tenzo who pretended to be amazed at Kakashi managing to score six entire friends in total.

That’s why he wasn’t invited to hang out with them.

“Hi guys,” he greeted, sliding next to Gai, who pouted if they weren’t sitting together on the same bench. “What did I miss?”

“Asuma was just telling us how his team managed to fail a D-rank mission. Again,” Kurenai supplied with way too much glee for someone exposing their friend’s misery.

“Are we playing “who has it worse” again?” Kakashi asked while gesturing for the waiter to bring another round of beer.

“I win because my kids do it on purpose,” Asuma declared to the bottom of his empty glass.

“I don’t know, I feel like that’s better than them being actually bad enough to fail a D-rank.”

“You say that because you haven’t lived it.”

On paper, there was no reason for team 10 to be worse than any other team. On the contrary, if the Ino-Shika-Cho formation was maintained, it wasn’t only because of the close ties of the three clans, but also because it was a damn effective combination.

Unfortunately, that didn’t transfer to unruly teenagers.

“Ino’s constantly out for blood for one reason or another, and Shikamaru put all his efforts into making as little effort as possible. I know how that sounds, but trust me, it’s accurate. There’s only Choji to play nice, but it’s not like he has any authority on them…”

“Maybe they’d do better on a real mission,” Kurenai pondered. It was a common enough problem among genins who tired very quickly of rescuing cats and raking leaves.

“As they are now, I wouldn’t recommend them for painting a goddamn wall, let alone carry any significant task.”

Despite his penchant for the dramatics, Asuma’s concerns were real. Teams that blew up before they could take off happened more often than they would have liked, and these kids’ status made it all the more complicated.

“I’m gonna lay it down as it is to them. If they don’t start playing along, they’ll be sent back to the Academy benches.”

The threat wasn’t made lightly.

“What about you, Kurenai?” Kakashi asked to shift the focus. The woman took a long sip of her beer before sighing heavily.

“Shino’s taciturn nature and Kiba’s brash one, I can deal with. I have before. It’s Hinata I’m worried about.”

“She’s not strong enough?” he asked, remembering the rumors about the Hyuuga heir. Kurenai scoffed.

“Are you kidding me? It’s the opposite. She can’t be stopped. She’s training herself to an early grave. I know the pressure those clan kids are under, but this is ridiculous. She’s closed off and almost non-verbal, and she has no regards for her own well-being. And I do mean none,” Kurenai insisted, distressed. Gai and she exchanged a loaded look – they both had Hyuuga shaped issues to deal with.

“You’re being awfully silent,” Kakashi said to Gai, thrown off balance by his boisterous friend being so withdrawn. He seemed lost in thoughts, and not pleasant ones. He was still staring at Kurenai when he answered.

“I might have to call for the disbanding of my team.”

The three other jounins gasped, taken aback.

“Wait, really?” Asuma called, disbelieving.

“What happened?” Kurenai asked, concerned. She rested a hand on Gai’s across the table, a silent comfort.

“I’ve had my share of troubled kids too,” he answered, “but Neji is something else entirely. He’s out of control, and I can’t reach out to him. He doesn’t want me too.”

“Yeah, but…”

“He broke three of Lee’s ribs yesterday.”

Kurenai brought her other hand to her mouth, eyes wide. Asuma cursed and crushed his cigarette in the ashtray, only to light up another one in the same movement.

“I can’t put it on training gone wrong. He’s aware of his own strength, his level of control over his abilities is to be praised. Lee riled him up as he always does – he’s the only one that can elicit any emotion out of the boy. Not good ones though. He inflicted that blow deliberately.”

They all knew Gai had a soft spot for Lee, in whom he saw so much of himself. But he was also strongly attached to the other two – he always got so invested in these kids. Too much, maybe.

“I’m supposed to enter them to the chunin exam soon, but that would be irresponsible of me. The exam is supposed to be taken as a team, and as it stands now, they’re not one. At all.”

A heavy silence blanketed their table for a while, as they all considered the consequences of his words. He was the one to break it by banging both his fists on the table, disrupting the thankfully half-empty glasses and snacks.

“But I’m not giving up on them! We still have some time. I can break through their thick skull.”

It was a lucky thing that he was the one who had inherited that particular team. He would do his hardest for them.

“I guess I’m the one who is better off then,” Kakashi remarked, to stir them toward lighter topics.

“Really? It’s going good with the golden trio?”

“Well. You know how as instructors we’re, you know, the higher authority? How kids try so hard to prove themselves to us? More often than not, I feel like I’m the one who has to prove himself to them.”

On that matter, each kid was as bad as the next. Naruto made a point of being as difficult as possible, discussing his every order or simple advice, quite obviously out of pure spite. Sasuke was both annoyed at this and enabling it, because “Shisui does it differently” or “Itachi said it’s not like that” and “in the Uchiha clan…”. It was hard to tell if he was genuine or just as much of a little shit as his friend. As for Sakura, she was apparently practicing her future career of general inspector of the administration, questioning and criticizing his every action.

On top of that, they were so damn demanding. It was absurd for kids to be so particular about the ways they wanted to be trained to beat up others. “We did taijutsu yesterday, let’s practice chakra control, no, not like that sensei, teach us how to throw while running sensei, sensei, are you already tired we’ve only been trying to beat you up for six hours straight”.

Monsters, all three of them.

“At least you’re getting somewhere.”

“Yeah, if I stay on track they might grant me the chunin rank…” he grumbled. “What is up with kids these days.”

The question, innocuous, was more loaded than it should have been. It was worrying indeed, both case by case, and because it was so spread out. There was always the few odd trouble kids from year to year, but so many at the same time, it started to look like a pattern.

Some had been pointing fingers at the Academy.

It was largely unsupervised, left to the discretion of the chunin and jounin in charge of the kids’ education. The village had more pressing matters to deal with, and that had resulted in those kids being taught by a man that was apparently working for freaking Orochimaru for years and years. It had also come to light that a lot of shinobis seemed to see the Academy as an easy way to take a break from active duty. Shisui was always raging these days after most of his colleagues who couldn’t be bothered to take it seriously.

There had been very few teachers who had actually been fully committed to the job. In fact, Kakashi could only think of one.

Iruka’s death was still hard to accept, after all these years. It was so abnormal, so unfair. It should never have happened. He was so damn young, barely a year into his teaching position and already determined to change it all, to do better. 

Danzo had been rooted out at the cost of the young man’s life. They hadn’t realized what value it really had then.

“I think we need more drinks,” Kurenai declared to put an end to their gloomy silence. It was accepted heartily. Gai immediately challenged Kakashi to a drinking contest, and training would be hell the next day, but Kakashi didn’t even think of refusing.

The kids would just have to deal with his hangover and get off his back for one damn morning.

.

There was nothing Ino could do about that anger.

It was directionless, shapeless. She couldn’t even put it into words, and she didn’t know who to blame it for. There was no one she could take it out on. She could only stew in her indignation.

“You said flower arrangement was relaxing,” Sai said by her side, voice as flat and unconcerned at ever, “but you don’t look very relaxed.”

She let out a long sigh and put down the poor flower she had been absently crushing into her hands. People found Sai’s apparent lack of involvement and care to be off-putting, but it was perfect to her. How could one stay mad when faced with such calm, such unemotional pragmatism? She couldn’t go as far as to praise Sai’s extreme rationalization of everything in his life, including his and other’s feelings, but she couldn’t deny she found solace into it sometimes.

“Sorry. You’re right, it doesn’t seem to be working today.”

She should have known it wouldn’t – she usually got into it when she needed to calm down or take her mind off of what was reeling her up, but since her mind couldn’t pinpoint what it was that made her feel so restless exactly, there was no steering it away from it either.

“Do you want to talk about it.”

It was sweet of him to offer, seeing how awkward emotional sharing could be for him. And she wanted to. It was about him, after all.

“Why didn’t you come to graduation?” she asked, knowing she would only confuse him. But it was the starting point.

“They said I didn’t have to,” he answered, puzzled, as expected, by this line of questioning.

“But didn’t you want to?” she insisted. She could never take her anger out on Sai. He wouldn’t have understand and maybe wouldn’t even have registered it, and she couldn’t do that to him.

He kept weaving two long pieces of ribbon for a while, pensive.

“I guess it would have been nice,” he concluded.

She wanted to break the table in half.

She had explained it to all of her friends, and all of those they interacted with, one by one. That it wasn’t natural for him to make his own choices and voice his own opinions. That he would agree to any suggestion, abide by any request. He was better at it now, and he knew not to do things simply because he was asked to. But still, she had told them time and time again – Shikamaru and Choji, who hung out with them the most, Shino and Sakura then, and even Naruto, and Sasuke by association. Ask for what he wants. Then ask again. Truly ask, until you see the gears turning into his brain, wait for it, a few minutes, an hour if you have to. It wasn’t true that he was fine with whatever, that he didn’t mind either way. It wasn’t.

He was just still in the process of being taught that he could choose. That he could have feelings, that he could express them.

All the kids had gotten the memo.

And then that stupid fucking teacher had barreled in, and what had he said? “Oh, Sai, you’re already a chunin technically. You don’t have to pass the test.”

And what was Sai was supposed to say? “Maybe, but I’d like to anyway”? As if he was going to. Sai still couldn’t say, after half a decade, what his favorite food was, and if he liked Ino’s company or not. 

So of course he had just answered “okay” and later framed it as “I decided not to go.”

Fucking fuck.

The whole point of Sai and Shin being put into the Academy, instead of being integrated to the shinobi force like their rank could dictate it to, was that so they could have a chance at integrating their generation, have a shot at a regular childhood. And what had that moron of a teacher done? Sidelined Sai at the last minute. Shin had passed the freaking genin exam, because that was what the other kids did, that’s all.

At the time she had thought they had decided not to let Sai pass with them for some reasons. Angering enough. But it wasn’t even that. She should have asked him herself, should have done that job she had been doing for years now. Ask him “are you sure? You don’t want to come? Be with the others?”

People didn’t talk but they noticed all the same. Bad enough that he wouldn’t be put on a team like the rest of them, but why offer him to skip the graduation? Seriously, what was the point? To have one less kid to deal with?

“Why didn’t you say so then?”

“I don’t know. Is that why you’re mad.”

“I’m not mad at you.”

She was mad at the world at large. It was an old feeling. Ino had been spying on adults and listening in to their secrets for as long as she could remember, and she had never liked much what she heard. She had her team now, but they were wasting their time on stupid missions and boring training and she couldn’t stand it. She wanted to do more.

She wanted things to change.

.

“Here’s your share, kids.”

“Wow, thanks, that’s great.”

Naruto found it quite fascinating how much emotion Kakashi managed to convey with only one eye visible. The subtility of his level of aggravation at Naruto’s insolence where all displayed by that single eye and eyebrow. Really, it was a feat.

The man deposited the few bills in each of their hands and they pocketed it without further comments. Of course, repairing and repainting a fence couldn’t pay all that much, but he was convinced that an actual professional would have charged way more.

Genins were just convenient cheap labor, it seemed.

Sakura said something about spending all her fortune on ice-cream with Ino and took off – Kakashi was already gone in smoke who knew where.

Sasuke and Naruto didn’t really have any other friend, so they hung out together in the busy streets. Sasuke avoided strolling through the Uchiha district if he could, miffed by all the people that would stop to greet him and chat with him. And, well, Naruto wasn’t exactly welcome there.

“Do you have news about Izumi?” Naruto asked as they watched the fish lazily swim around in their tank behind the window of a fancy restaurant.

“She’s still in Fire Country, according to my mother. Of course she didn’t say where exactly, but she seemed to be having fun.”

“I bet.”

Izumi would be traveling the five great nations for the foreseeable future with Mitarashi Anko – who was, as far as Naruto knew, the only interesting jounin in the whole village.

He was very jealous.

“What about your father?”

Sasuke’s mouth turned down into a displeased frown. Sasuke had said nothing in that regard but he was clearly upset with his father’s prolonged absence – vastly because he didn’t know what it was about or where he was. The man had taken off in the middle of the night a few weeks earlier, and news had been scarce ever since.

“My mother says he’s fine.”

They had to go home eventually, even if Naruto really didn’t want to. As a last resort, he suggested Sasuke came with him. The look his friend gave him told him he wasn’t being smooth in the least, but he just didn’t want to face it alone.

As planned, Shisui’s house was a bit crowded when they made it there. Shisui was here, Itachi too. There was also Kakashi, and another man Naruto’s had never seen before.

Or well, he had never seen his face.

“Ah, welcome home, Naruto! Hi Sasuke,” Shisui said with a forced smile, still so bad at hiding his worries. “I… don’t think you know Tenzo.”

Shisui had warned him, quite bluntly, about that other friend he wanted Naruto to meet. The second man from the forest. He’d said it would avoid further unpleasant surprises. Naruto could get behind the idea, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

“Tree guy,” he greeted, remembering how the branches had sprung up around him.

The man – younger than Kakashi, about Shisui’s age probably – smiled the long-suffering smile of someone who had been given that particular unfaltering nickname a million times. Naruto was officially adopting it then.

“Nice to meet you,” Sasuke said by his sides, traces of annoyance in his voice at being left out of yet another conversation.

“Yeah, same,” Naruto added for good measure, even if it wasn’t particularly true. The situation made him antsy – between Kakashi and that Tenzo guy, plus Itachi and his creepy stare, and Shisui looking at him closely from the side…

“Okay, that was nice, we’re going to my room,” he declared bluntly, gripping Sasuke’s wrist to drag him after him up the stairs.

“You could stay around a bit!” Shisui protested without much conviction.

“We see enough of y’all all day long!” Naruto retorted just before slamming the door to his room, cutting back whatever argument Shisui had up next. Sasuke snorted and Naruto grinned at him – his comeback always made his friend snicker into his collar.

They read comic books and ate out of Naruto’s secret stash of snacks until Itachi came to fetch his little brother for dinner. The house was thankfully deserted when Naruto went downstairs to help out with their own dinner.

“That didn’t go so bad,” Shisui said cheerfully, already busy cutting vegetables, more relaxed seeing that Naruto hadn’t blown up upon meeting the tree guy.

“I can behave you know,” he grumbled.

“I do.”

Shisui gave him a winning smile. Naruto huffed, annoyed.

“Oh, before I forget…”

He reached into his hoodie for the mission’s money.

“Here.”

“Naruto, I told you…”

“Just take it!”

Shisui huffed and sighed and rolled his eyes, but he relented eventually, and took the meager salary of the day’s work from Naruto’s hand. It was an ongoing subject of quarrel ever since Naruto had started to get paid – albeit very poorly – for his missions. Since he was basically free-loading on Shisui’s ass – and since the man categorically refused to take pick-pocketed money – Naruto had resolved to give him his shinobi pay, as compensation. He knew the village paid Shisui in some way to look after his charge, but seeing what he was allotted as a child, he couldn’t imagine it was a lot. Shisui didn’t go on missions nowadays, since he was teaching at the Academy. That couldn’t be very well paid either.

Shisui, being the obnoxious idiot he was, didn’t actually take the money. He put it all in a big jar on one of the higher shelves of the kitchen – one he could access easily, but Naruto could not. He had tapped a piece of paper on it that read “The “Naruto is being stubborn” jar”.

Shisui was just the worse.

Naruto would miss it though, when it ended.

“Say, Shisui.”

“What? Do you need me to give you an excuse to go knock at Sasuke’s door again? Maybe we’re out of eggs…”

“That’s not… that was only once! Urg, whatever.”

“Sorry, sorry. What is it?”

Naruto considered pushing back the conversation, again, like he had been doing for weeks now. He kept expecting Shisui to bring it up, but it looked like it wasn’t going to happen.

“I was just wondering when you wanted me to go.”

“What? Go where?”

“Well… I don’t know yet. But, to leave, I mean. Leave this place.”

Naruto huffed at Shisui’s dumb expression. Why did he have to be so slow.

“The Hokage said I could go back to live on my own when I made genin.”

Shisui sliced through his finger instead of the carrot.

“Fucking shit!”

The next few minutes of chaos consisted solely of them both running around the kitchen trying to find something to stop the blood, make a bandage, and clean up the mess. A few minutes later they were back in the exact same position – except Naruto was the one slicing up the carrots while Shisui was only allowed to mix the eggs.

“I can be gone whenever. It’s not like I have much to pack.”

“There’s… no rush.”

Naruto shrugged. He didn’t care either way. He just wanted to have a heads up. His old apartment had probably gone to someone else, right? He had retrieved the few things worth retrieving there ages ago. He would need to go back to the shinobi district – as an orphan genin he would receive some help to pay for rent and food, until he was a chunin and got better-paying missions.

It would be weird, to go back to live alone, but he could deal. It was the natural state of things for him. This was always supposed to be temporary. It had seemed so distant when the Hokage had given him that deadline, but time had passed quickly after all. At the time he couldn’t wait for it to be over, irked by the constant presence of another person so close to him, enraged that he was being watched like a prisoner in his own living space.

But now…

It didn’t matter anyway. Things were as they were.

“I need maybe a week. To find something.”

“…Okay.”

If Shisui wasn’t pushing him out of the door, he at least had the time to look for a decent place. He dreaded having to ask the Administration for help, but who would rent him anything without outside approval? This was going to be hell.

So, life.

.

“What are you going to do then?” Kakashi asked instead of like, answering that very question. Shisui had made a quick retelling of his conversation with Naruto a few days ago, and seeing how silent and pensive Kakashi had seemed, he thought he was going to give him some actual advice.

Ha. Kakashi, advice. Even if he decided to pull one out of his ass, Shisui wasn’t sure it would be wise to listen to it.

“I don’t know. I’m waiting for inspiration.”

“You mean you wrote to Izumi, right?” Tenzo asked lightly like the little shit he was. Shisui grimaced, but didn’t deny it. He was spot on.

“What else can I do? Naruto’s been bitching about going back to having his own place from the very start. He had kind of dropped it lately, so I wasn’t worrying about it anymore, but it was always meant to end like this.”

“Is that why we’re hanging around the Hokage Tower like weirdos?”

“Their answer is due today. Hayate told me he’d bring me the message out if it came.”

Shisui pulled a face at Tenzo who was good at subtly inferring through facial cues alone how done he was with his friends’ stupidity. As if he was one to talk, seriously.

“What’s the matter anyway?” he asked, weirdly serious for once.

“What?”

“Do you want him to stay?”

“I told you, he…”

“That’s not what I’m asking.”

Shisui looked away, unsure. They were sitting on one of the benches lining the street in front of the Hokage Tower, near the Academy. They got a few glimpses at kids running laps around the yard, their screams and laughs carrying all the way to the three jounins. Shisui was due back in class soon and losing hope that Izumi’s answer would arrive before he had to leave.

Despite what Naruto still thought, Shisui had never been unwilling to take him in, not ever. He was on board from the start, but he was aware back then that it was only temporary, just to support the boy while he went through processing life-changing revelations about his past and future.

But the truth was, Shisui liked having him around. Seeing him come a little more out of his shell day after day was direct proof that things could change, things could improve, that Shisui could help, could truly make a difference. His life was nicer and funnier with the infuriating boy around to steal his weapons and take over cooking with the most dramatic sigh because Shisui was “useless and a damn menace”. Which wasn’t even true and more often than not, they ended up cooking together, side by side in their small kitchen.

And it was nice.

Shisui had always wanted siblings.

And maybe he had hoped Naruto would think so too. Enough that he wouldn’t want to leave anymore. Shisui didn’t like the idea of the boy being all alone again, of not being able to check out on him, to look after him.

It didn’t feel right to say it though. Naruto had been forced to come live with Shisui in the first place. It stood to reason that he didn’t want it to go on more than it had to.

“That’s irrelevant,” he answered, albeit not very convincingly. That seemed to be his two friends’ opinion too, judging by their expression.

“Well, let’s see what your most intelligent friend has to say about it,” Kakashi said, pointing at the tower’s entrance. Hayate was strolling toward them, a paper in hand.

“Here you go,” he said, dumping the message into Shisui’s waiting hand. “Don’t forget what you owe me,” he added nonchalantly but with an underlying threat before rushing back inside, no doubt worried about falling behind on sorting through the numerous messages the Tower received constantly. Rumor had that in the Message Room of the Aviary, that oversaw all communications within and outside of the village, a five-minute delay at the beginning of the day was a five-hour one by the end of it.

“What did that cost you?” Kakashi asked, amused.

“I have to get him a date with Yugao,” Shisui answered with how much dignity as he could. He unrolled the message eagerly. He had been lucky enough that Hayate was willing to send his letter to Izumi and Anko with their next batch of mission pointers. He couldn’t send her anything himself, since he didn’t know where she was exactly.  

The message was short, but straight to the point. Kakashi laughed after reading it above Shisui’s shoulders.

“She’s not wrong,” he said when Shisui pocketed the message. He had to think about this properly.

“I’ll have to think about this. Properly.”

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Tenzo commented. Shisui shoved him off the bench.

“How are things going on with the team anyway?” he asked Kakashi, ignoring Tenzo’s grumbling as he dusted off his dirty clothes. Kakashi sighed.

“I guess it’s not so bad, seeing how we started.”

“I was wondering… you’ve had the few D-rank missions already right? You should jump level pretty soon with the kids.”

“I guess. Why?”

Shisui’s gaze trailed off toward the Hokage Tower, to the third floor where the Assignment desk handed off missions and collected reports, then up, up to where their leader ruled over the land, decided their fate. He had seen very little of the Hokage in the last few years. He felt uncomfortable in his presence, thrown off-balance by feelings of resentment and mistrust that always caught him off guard, since he was so good at ignoring them the rest of the time. He had no interest in being bitter and vengeful, but he knew he could never fully trust the old man again.

But trusting him or not, seeing him or not, the man still had a firm hold on their life.

“I think it would do them good, if you could get a mission outside the village.”

Both his friends took on matching expressions of unease and puzzlement. He knew how it sounded. He wanted to make his case anyway.

“It can be the most boring, uninteresting mission possible, but… If Naruto could get out, it would show him that his future is… not as closed off as he thinks it is. They can’t seriously plan on keeping him inside the walls forever.”

He knew it wasn’t true as he was saying it. They could very much do that. They could decide Naruto was never to cross the gates of Konohagakure, they could even choose to restrain his movements even more.

But they didn’t have to. They could also take the other road. Trust him. Treat him like a freaking human being. Why was it so damn hard.

“Do you think it would be wise?” Tenzo asked. Shisui refrained from snapping at him – he had the right to ask, even if Shisui wished he hadn’t.

“It could be inconsequential,” Shisui eluded. “There is plenty of in-and-out missions that would pose no problem to any team. It’s just… just for the gesture. So that he knows.”

“Knows what?”

“That things can get better. That there’s hope here for him still.”

Shisui was the one who lived with the boy. He was the one who saw him bury his pain and heartache deeper and deeper as time passed so that no one could see it, and still be unable to escape it, to forget. The way he talked sometimes… Shisui knew Naruto didn’t believe any of what he had been told, even if he nodded along. He considered himself a monster. A prisoner, a weapon. He had no hope for anything to go his way, anything to change.

He often looked longingly at the sky, at the distant mountains behind the tree lines, and there was so little, so little keeping him here with them, keeping him from just shutting off completely and retreating into himself, so little that tied him to this world.

Without hope, the boy would waste away.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Shisui looked back at Kakashi, surprised to have him agree so easily.

“You will?”

“I’d like him to be happier too,” Kakashi said simply. Tenzo didn’t make further comment and Shisui chose to take it as a form of agreement. Tenzo was no stranger to this after all. To being seen as a useful asset more than an actual person. To being kept close and protected, not because he was loved, or cared for, but because the village couldn’t afford to lose his abilities.

Kakashi had been the one to get him out of that spot. And maybe he could do the same with Naruto.

“Thanks,” Shisui said lamely, a little choked up. He was very much not used to have things go his way.

“Do you need to leave now?”

“I still have some time.”

“Good, because there’s something else I wanted to ask you about.”

“Huh? What is it?”

“Where did Naruto learn fuinjutsu?”

.

As expected, Shisui didn’t know. And if Shisui didn’t know, Kakashi had little hope to find anyone who did. Well, there were Sasuke and Sakura, but they would never tell him, and would probably get mad at him for even asking.

It was stupid to wish the three of them were less of a team. It would have been fine if they were being a team with him. Ha, it would take some work.

So the mystery remained. Kakashi had played it off during their first spar so as to not spook the boy, while he was actually freaking out just a little inside. Naruto had completed that sealing jutsu so effortlessly, and in such a way that it could be thrown back into his opponent’s face immediately. There were premade scrolls that did that, but they weren’t available to the odd genins, and he was reasonably certain it wasn’t what Naruto had displayed anyway.

He hadn’t asked the boy about it, hadn’t tried to pry, but he was pretty sure the scroll was hand painted.

Had it been anyone else, Kakashi would have simply dismissed it as a gift from a family member, an heirloom. When it came to Naruto though, whose closest relationship with a responsible adult was the barely-adult who had been put in charge of his surveillance, it was impossible.

And of course, Kakashi was biased because it was Naruto. As in Uzumaki Naruto, son of Uzumaki Kushina, heirs – and last survivors – of the fuinjustu masters Uzumaki clan.

Kakashi was certain no one knew about it, because if one did, everyone would. There was no fuinjutsu master in Konoha, and there weren’t much anywhere else either. They were a prize, and not an ability that would be nurtured in silence, without the village knowing, had any other shinobi been involved in this.

Which led to the only possible conclusion that Naruto had learned it on his own.

It made sense, except for how it didn’t. How had he figured it out alone? The boy was far from being an academic genius and didn’t look like he liked studying all that much. And that was without touching the matter of where he would have found resources on sealing.

But if there was no Uzumaki left in the land, and for a long time now, their abilities were still praised years later, still remembered with equal admiration and fear. It was their bottomless chakra reserve that predisposed them to that art, but there had to be some natural talent at play.

Kakashi remembered well what power Kushina could yield.

He would have to keep a close look on it. He doubted Naruto knew only the one sealing jutsu. He could only help out with it if the boy decided to trust him with his secret, and that wasn’t happening right now.

Shisui had the right idea about how to change that though.

Kakashi walked into the Tower after his friend had gone back to his classroom and Tenzo was off to do his own Tenzo things. Shisui was obviously having a blast teaching the kids, it was a warming sight, after years of insecurity and doubts about his worth and his place in their world. He would put some life back into the school, succeed where others had failed to reach out to these kids.

Maybe he would manage to teach them more valuable lessons than how to die well.

Kakashi knocked on the open door of the Hokage office, more to signal his presence than to ask permission to enter. He nodded imperceptibly to the two Anbus standing guard by the window. Yugao and Kage nodded back ever so slightly. Kakashi had been scared of his fellow Anbu’s reaction when he had told them he was putting down the mask for good. He’d thought they would resent him somehow. He’d been wrong, of course, so as not to break habits. He remembered Yugao, laying a gentle hand on his arm, saying “would you resent us, if we left?”

She was always the most sensible one.

“Oh, hello, Kakashi. Was there something you wanted?”

It still felt strange, a bit alien, to have not one but two or three pairs of eyes falling on him when he walked into that office. The Hokage was never seen alone in there anymore. There was always one or two clan heads or other higher-ups there with him, sorting through paper works, discussing in soft – or not so soft – voices about current affairs. Kakashi made a point not to involve himself in the political struggles ragging among the Administration because he didn’t feel any threat, be it to the village or to his Hokage, in the way things were slowly changing.

He knew the old man would welcome the end of his reign, putting down the burden of the hat. He couldn’t really blame him.

But he would have preferred it was someone other than Uchiha Fugaku and Hyuuga Hiashi in the office with him.

He thought Fugaku was still out of town – the Uchihas were gone a lot lately, quiet missions out of the village that didn’t seem to tie into anything gossiped among the shinobi forces. Kakashi wasn’t overly concerned by this – Shisui and Itachi were relaxed enough about the whole thing, and Kakashi had decided to trust the new understanding that had the various clans and factions share information and decision making nowadays.

It could only be a mishap in schedule or some inevitable crisis that had those two working there at the same time though. Kakashi didn’t have anything against either of them, but together they were a handful, and made everything more difficult than it should have been. And they wouldn’t be the most on board with his request.

Ah, well. He wasn’t a very lucky person, as a rule.

He exposed the situation thoroughly, insisting on the team progresses and potential, trying to appear like he was addressing all three of them, even if in all honesty, it was the Hokage’s approval he was looking for. The Sandaime still had the authority to enforce his decisions. Kakashi couldn’t deny that having everyone in agreement would be nice too though.

“Do you think it’s wise?” Fugaku asked, with much more skepticism than Tenzo an hour ago, and eliciting much more defensiveness from Kakashi. Fugaku never seemed to like him much, but Kakashi couldn’t forget that he had been the one to ultimately rule in favor of Kakashi keeping his gifted Sharingan, as respect for the dying wish of one of their own. The more Kakashi had learned about the man and his clan afterward, the more he had understood that it had been anything but an obvious choice.

The man could prove difficult though, if Kakashi wasn’t convincing enough.

“Yes,” he answered firmly. “I think they’re qualified, and I also believe it would be a good thing both for their relationship as a team and their individual development.”

“I am not convinced,” Hiashi said from the other side of the table, and Kakashi truly hoped it was out of legitimate concern, and not just to be contradictory. He had never been an active participant in a Council meeting, but he had watched over many of those as Anbu, and the amount of pettiness and bad faith he had witnessed then among the most powerful shinobis of the village made it hard to trust their objectivity – and decisions.

“I’m in favor,” the Hokage weighed in, holding Kakashi’s gaze with an inscrutable expression. Kakashi turned toward Fugaku, who was studying him too.

Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that he was the one hearing this after all. Because Uchiha Fugaku, if he was known to be an intransigent, strong-headed leader, was also known to be very fond of his sons.

Probably against his will, he had been exposed to Naruto as well. And he had to know quite a lot about him through Sasuke’s gaze. As he stared at Kakashi, pondering over his answer, Kakashi saw him as a father more than a clan head, for the first time maybe in all the time he had known the man.

Quite possibly, as Itachi had reported, Mikoto was seriously rubbing off on him.

“I agree too,” he finally said. He didn’t look away from Kakashi, even as Hiashi huffed, displeased.

“Very well,” the Hyuuga said eventually.

“We’ll find something,” Fugaku added. Kakashi assumed it would be the most boring, uneventful mission they could dig up, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t the point. And it was the first of, hopefully, many. If it went well, if they came back safely, there was a chance they would agree to more. It was in the interest of the village too – the team couldn’t be sidelined, seeing its potential. The kids had to learn.

“Thank you.”

“In the meantime, there are plenty more D-rank missions for your team to complete,” the Hokage said, amused. Surely he remembered what trying to contain unruly genins could be like.

.

“This has got to be the most boring one we’ve done yet,” Naruto complained as they made their way to their mission’s location.

“Naruto! Show some respect!” Sakura exclaimed, punching him on the shoulder without force. She could talk, she didn’t fool him – he had seen the look on her face when they had gotten their mission order at the Assignment Desk.

They were on clean up duty. And not just any clean-up duty. Cemetery clean-up duty.

What a way to spend the day.

Actually, they had probably done worse – chasing crazy runaway cats around or working for people that couldn’t hold their contempt for Naruto in check for one freaking hour didn’t rank that high. But hanging around decaying corpses all day wasn’t really appealing either.

Despite the early hour, there were already a few people strolling between the neat ranges of tombstones. Kakashi walked up to a man in a horrendous bowl cut and green jumpsuit, seemingly out on a morning jog, that had stopped by one of the stones. The man looked oddly cheerful for someone visiting a dead acquaintance, but Naruto was well aware that it could be faked easily.

He had never come to the cemetery in broad daylight, only at night, where he went when he had heard kids at the Academy say they would come there to test their courage. He dressed up and scared them for life – petty but harmless revenge over those who used to trip him in the corridors.

It was more intimidating during the day somehow. The proximity of death and its inevitability were on display now that he could decipher the names and dates on the stones. A lot of graves had fresh flowers and small offerings scattered around them, proof that there were still people thinking about the ones lying below.

They worked in silence, their usual chattering quieted by the solemnity of the place. They mowed the lawn, tore off weeds as best as they could, and cleaned up the tarnished marble of the tombstones. Naruto tried not to focus on the names – it wasn’t hard, since he didn’t know how to read most of the characters anyway, let alone how to pronounce the words they spelled.

There was one name, however, that caught his gaze immediately.

Kakashi was reading his book at the other end of the cemetery and Sakura and Sasuke were a few tombs ahead of him in their row. No one was paying attention to him. Naruto kneeled over the stone, running his fingers on the carved kanjis, incredulous.

He didn’t know the first name, but the last name, he knew very well.

It was his own.

Naruto had never met a single person that bore the Uzumaki name, never heard or seen it mentioned in any way. But there was no doubt. If there was one word he could read, it was his own name.

The three katakana attached to it formed what he believed was a female name.

Ku-shi-na.

And the date below, was his own birthday. The date of the Kyuubi attack.

Naruto’s head was spinning. Was it possible? A woman dead the day of his birth, the only one in the village bearing his name… The old man had always been tight-lipped about anything concerning his parents. No matter how many times Naruto asked, begged for any scrap of information, the Hokage wouldn’t even tell him if they were alive or dead. Well he had said they were dead, dead for this village, but Naruto couldn’t trust anything coming from the man.

Whoever that woman was, she had to be related to him in some way. Had to be… part of his family? He’d half assumed Uzumaki was a made up name, that that was the reason why he was the only one. But there was another right there, buried in the ground.

Did it mean they were others?

Some that were still alive?

“Naruto!”

He snapped back to the present hard enough to get whiplash. Sakura was waving at him, urging him to hurry so they could get out of there. Naruto nodded hastily, mind still reeling. He quickly grabbed a pencil and a piece of paper from his weapon pouch to mark down the name, and hurried to catch up with the two others who were almost done with their row. He heard none of Sakura’s scolding, entirely taken up with what he had just discovered.

He had stopped very early thinking about his family, to spare himself unnecessary heartache. All he knew was that they weren’t there, he was alone, and it was unlikely to change – what good did it do to imagine a mother, a father, an uncle or a lost sibling walking through the door one day and sweeping him away? It was never going to happen.

But he had also never had any tangible proof of their existence until today.

Who was that woman? What happened to her? She had been killed by the Fox probably, like so many others. All the tombs of the area he was cleaning had the same date of death written at the bottom.

He worked faster while still trying to spot maybe another “Uzumaki” carved in the stone. He found none, but it hardly mattered. One was enough. One was a world away from zero.

Naruto hadn’t come out of nowhere. His name wasn’t solely his own, it was connected to other people somewhere. Even his first name, someone had given it to him, and for the first time he could imagine it hadn’t been chosen at random by some bureaucrats eating ramen while choosing names for orphan babies. Maybe it had been chosen with purpose.

Maybe he really was Uzumaki Naruto.

“What took you so long?” Sakura asked, displeased, when he finally joined them at the end of the rows, in front of that big, ugly statue of a flame that overlooked the whole cemetery. Kakashi was staring too, expectant. Naruto wasn’t about to tell them, the discovery was his and his alone. Besides, what would the man know about his family? And if he did know anything, chances were he would be as dismissive as the Hokage, as intent on him giving up on these interrogations, forgetting about that curiosity.

Which he had managed to do until now, but suddenly he was burning with questions again. Except he knew not to ask them aloud.

“I was just distracted. So, are we done for the day?”

“Not quite,” Kakashi answered, snuffing out Naruto’s hopes to go investigate in peace. “We still have those to take care of, and then we’ll have one last stop.”

Kakashi was pointing at the three graves in his back, at the foot of the statue. Sakura mumbled a sarcastic “we?” that went unanswered as they went to investigate.

Those were more decorated and more elaborate than the ones they had just cleaned up, and Naruto quickly understood why.

“They are the former Hokage’s graves, right?” Sasuke said as they leaned over the stones to get a closer look. Kakashi hummed a confirmation. Naruto turned around briefly to glance at the four faces carved into the mountain that overlooked the village, like silent guardians watching over them at all times. He had gotten into trouble more than once for damaging the faces with paint and graffiti, and people had always seemed angrier then than when he just tagged random walls and buildings. “Have you no respect?” they would ask. Naruto didn’t bother to answer that.

He didn’t know much about the history of the village. The only Hokage whose fate he had some knowledge of was the last.

The Fourth Hokage’s stone also bore his own birth date.

“The Yondaime wasn’t Hokage for long, was he?” Sakura asked as she studied his grave. Naruto greeted his teeth. Of all the things they could have talked about…

“No. He died defeating the Nine-Tailed Fox,” Kakashi answered. At least he had the decency to look uncomfortable as he looked at Naruto. Naruto looked away. He wanted to get out of there.

“They say he was the best ninja of his generation. A genius”, Sasuke added, obviously impressed.

“If he was so good, he wouldn’t have died.”

Naruto bit his lips, regretting having said it aloud. He avoided all their gaze and walked away to the first grave, busying himself with its maintenance. He didn’t need to be reminded that in addition to all those graves in the cemetery, including the one of… the woman, he was also responsible for the death of the village’s beloved Fourth Hokage. The youngest one to be given the title, and the youngest one to have died with it. What a genius indeed.

They got to work, although those were probably the most well-kept graves of the whole place, and it didn’t last long. There were a lot of flowers there too, paper charms, sake bottle, all kind of offerings stacked neatly in front of the tombstones. Naruto felt like kicking into the piles like a petty child. He refrained.

He didn’t have the right to be angry at the guy for dying like an idiot and leaving Naruto with the guilt of it. The man was a “hero”. A dead one, but a hero nonetheless.

“Alright kids! Almost done,” Kakashi exclaimed a few minutes later, from where he was reading his weird book again. If this was what work as a jounin was like, Naruto understood why shinobis wanted to climb ranks as fast as possible.

They followed their teacher to the Training Ground Three. Or rather, a spot next to it, a patch of low grass near the tree line. In the middle stood a big slab of stone, high enough that Naruto could rest his elbows on it. It was carved with dozens of names, neatly arranged in a long list.

There were flowers in front of that one too.

“Is it another grave?” Sakura asked, circling the stone. It was set on a circular base that weed was slowly overtaking – the reason why they were here no doubt.

“Not exactly,” Kakashi said, sounding a little less joyful and careless than usual.

“It’s a memorial stone,” Sasuke piped, staring at the rows of names. "For shinobis who died serving the village.”

“You’ve been here before?” the teacher asked, curious.

“…Both my mother and father have friends here. Shisui and Itachi too.”

Naruto scanned the stone rapidly. He thought he could make out the characters of the Uchiha name. He didn’t find the Uzumaki one again, but there was a different monument up the cliff above the Hokage Tower dedicated to the victims of the Nine-tails.

He would check it later. Maybe the woman would be there too. He was scared to find out he had misread the name, or simply imagined the whole thing. But if he found it again…

“There’s so many of them,” Sakura commented, strangely solemn.

“What’s the point of dying for that place.”

The heavy silent dropping on them like lead and the three pairs of shocked stare aimed at Naruto informed him that he had voiced aloud a thought he should have kept to himself.

“They died to protect it,” Sasuke said, puzzled and a little patronizing, like he didn’t get why this even needed explaining. “And everyone in it.”

“Surely not everyone,” Naruto deadpanned.

“That’s not the point!”

“What is so great about “the village” that you all want to die for it? What’s so great about dying?”

How was it glorious, how was it worthy of praise. How could they all live with themselves knowing others had to die so that they could have what they had.

Naruto couldn’t imagine anyone dying for him. Couldn’t accept it.

“Everyone has the urge to protect their home and the people they love,” Kakashi said with a measured tone. Naruto couldn’t decide if the tightness in his voice hid anger, grief or something else. He didn’t know why the topic made him so angry, why he felt the urge to argue about it.

He wondered if the woman in the grave had died like this – because she had fought instead of fleeing, because she had tried to protect something.

Wondered if people of his family had died to protect him. Him.

“A fine job they’re doing now that they’re fucking dead.

“Naruto!”

That was Sakura’s warning tone. Her “be careful what you’re going to say next” tone. Whatever. He didn’t expect he would understand where they were coming from.

He had no love for that village.

“Naruto,” Kakashi said, patient. “When you throw yourself in front of a sword meant at your friend, or when you push your teammate out of the way of falling rocks, or when you keep your mouth shut as you’re being tortured for information that will put the rest of your team and your home in danger, do you understand that it’s not ideology that drives you?”

“So what you’re saying is that loyalty isn’t a real thing.”

“What I’m saying is that you can’t always keep up the emotionless front. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

Damn that headband and that mask, it was impossible to read the man’s face.

“Wouldn’t it be easier if we didn’t love other people then.”

“Probably. There are even some who manage it. You can as long as you don’t mind being alone.”

Naruto grimaced, annoyed at the smug tone of the man who wasn’t supposed to know how much Naruto actually minded that. Or maybe it was just generally speaking.

“No one wants to die, Naruto. But sometimes the alternative just seems worse.”

It was a bold assumption from the man, Naruto thought, that no one wanted to die. That one he didn’t voice aloud though.

“I won’t ever let anyone die for me.”

“That’s not for you to decide,” Sasuke retorted. They exchanged heated glares, Sasuke getting as pissed as Naruto felt.

“Don’t you ever dare.”

Neither wanted to look away, and it could have lasted a while, if Sakura hadn’t stepped in with a sigh, pushing both of them toward the stone.

“How about no one dies, you idiots. Come on, get to work, I want to go get lunch, I’m starving.”

Just like that, the tension was broken, the moment was over. The three of them kneeled by the stone to get rid of the weed. The silence was still awkward, but mostly because they were all lost in their own thoughts. Kakashi was reading a few feet away, face hidden by his book. Naruto kept sneaking glances at the names, wondering who among them were the man’s friends, or Shisui’s, who still had people crying over them, bringing flowers here. Were they angry these people, at the sacrifices made, or were they proud, were they accepting, or revengeful.

He wondered who would come to put flowers on his grave when he was gone.

They ate their bento there, near the memorial, chatting up about inconsequential things like the previous conversation had never happened. Naruto was upset at Sasuke’s words, because throwing himself in front of upcoming danger was exactly the kind of stupid shit that stupid Uchiha would do. Naruto hated the idea of them caring enough that they would think of putting themselves at risk for him. He decided it didn’t matter though, because if he was strong enough, no one would ever need to save or protect him. If anything, he would be the one to keep them from harm.

Contrary to all of them, it didn’t matter if he died.

They went to collect their money at the Assignment desk, and instead of giving them their next mission order, the chunin in charge told them that the Hokage wanted to talk to them.

Sasuke’s father was there in the Hokage office, as well as Shikamaru’s. The old Hokage looked like he was in a good mood. Naruto couldn’t help but think of the spot between the second and the fourth Hokage’s grave.

Naruto wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying – they were talking about the missions team 7 had completed and their accomplishments, or maybe something else entirely. His attention was caught again by a newcomer entering the office and exclaiming loudly, “you mean it’s those babies who are going to escort me?”

Naruto startled, forgot to be offended as he tuned back into what was being said. “trained genins are more than equipped for C-rank missions of that nature,” one of the adults said. The stranger only shrugged. It was an old man, with a straw hat, glasses and a big grey mustache. Naruto was certain he had never seen him in the village.

“This is Tazuna,” the Hokage said. “He’s your next mission. He requested an escort to go back to his own village.”

Naruto’s eyes widened. What did it mean, “his own village”? Surely it couldn’t be…

Kakashi turned around to face them, smiling under his mask.

“Pack your bag kids. We’re off to Wave Country.”

Chapter Text

It was a bit surreal. To be packing a bag.

Naruto felt silly for being mystified by such a mundane thing, but there was something new and exciting about the process of selecting the most useful items and packing them neatly, one after the other, into his backpack.

It was actually Shisui’s backpack – the man had lent it to Naruto, claiming that the only one he owned, old and battered, wouldn’t make the cut. In fact, Shisui had more or less gifted it to Naruto, because “it’s not like I’m going anywhere nowadays”.

Naruto still couldn’t believe it was happening. He had never left the village to go to a hot spring on a family vacation, or to visit relatives, he hadn’t even gone with the class to the few field trips they had taken to the nearest towns, for a flimsy reason or another that he hadn’t questioned at the time. And now he was going out on a real mission. Beyond the village’s borders. Beyond the country borders even, just a bridge over it, but still. He was going to travel with his friends, see new places, meet new people. Strangers. Strangers to him as he would be stranger to them. He couldn’t think of a better thing.

The only black spot on the whole affair was that he would have to come back. And he didn’t even know where exactly. He had decided now was as good a time as any to get out of Shisui’s hair – he had tidied up his room neatly, put his things in order. When they were back from Wave Country, he would move into his own place.

He said as much to Shisui over breakfast.

“Did you find a place?” the Uchiha asked, skeptical.

“Yes,” Naruto half lied. He had put in a formal request to the administration – surely there would be something by the time they returned.

“I see.”

Naruto didn’t know what to do of the heavy tension in the air, didn’t know why Shisui looked upset all of the sudden. Should he have moved before leaving? He had half the mind to apologize about it, but Shisui spoke first.

“I don’t know why it’s always so hard for people to follow their own advice,” he said with a dramatic sigh, to Naruto’s puzzlement.

“What?”

“I’m always telling you, and Itachi and Sasuke, and the kids in class, how important it is to voice out your feelings and speak your mind clearly, and here I am, doing exactly not that.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You don’t have to leave this place.”

Naruto frowned, suddenly miffed. Were they going back on their words? He had done nothing bad that he still needed to be watched over.

“I can’t leave?”

“That’s not what I say. I mean you don’t have to. As in you can stay, if you'd like."

Shisui stared at Naruto for a second, as if to judge the impact of his words, and it probably wasn’t to his liking, because he went on.

“As in I’d like you to stay.”

Naruto’s eyes widened, but he was no closer to knowing what to say to that. What was Shisui talking about? It made no sense.

“You are allowed to get your own place, if that’s what you want. You’re free to choose. But know that would you want to, I’d be more than happy to have you stay here, with me.”

“Wh-why?”

Naruto hated how his voice was trembling, how his fists were closing and opening on empty air, how he didn’t know what to do with himself. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Shisui shrugged, sheepish.

“I like to have you around. That’s all.”

Naruto looked desperately for a ploy, for a sign that this was a lie, that Shisui was just trying to keep him here out of obligations or because he didn’t trust Naruto on his own after all. But there was nothing of that on Shisui’s face.

From that very first day, Shisui had never lied to him.

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” the man went on, mistaking Naruto’s major freak out for confusion. “I didn’t want you to think that I wanted to chain you here, and I figured it was rich coming from me, since you were placed here against your will. But, well… Things changed. And I wanted it to be clear. In case you… Just so that you’d know.”

Shisui couldn’t know about his doubts and regrets, about how deep down he had wished for those exact words. He couldn’t. Naruto didn’t know himself.

“Plus Izumi said she would kick my ass if I didn’t spell it out for you so…”

“Izumi?”

Shisui got up to retrieve a letter on a shelf near the entrance. He handed it to Naruto, who did his best to decipher at least its general meaning. He got enough to redden and look away.

“I don’t… that’s not… I mean, I wasn’t…”

“I know you weren’t going to ask. That’s why I’m the one who’s offering.”

Naruto was distressed, panicking. He didn’t like that one bit. He didn’t like his feelings being so transparent to the ones around him. Besides, it made no sense, it wasn’t possible. Why, why would Shisui choose to let him stay if he could get rid of him? What did he gain from this, what was the point?

“Naruto, calm down. You don’t need to decide just now. You have the few upcoming days to think about it, alright? Just… I’m serious about this. Try not to doubt me too much. If you can.”

Naruto didn’t understand how Shisui was doing that. Anyone else would have been disappointed and hurt by his lack of trust, by how much he questioned their every move. But Shisui just looked genuine, hopeful. Truly, honestly wishing for Naruto to believe him.

Naruto had no idea if he could.

At a loss for words, he simply stood up from the kitchen table and grabbed his backpack, mumbling a vague “I have to go or I’ll be late” that had him wince at his own lack of conviction. Shisui nodded, indulgent. Always so understanding, so patient.

He spoke only when Naruto was past the threshold.

“Naruto!”

The boy turned around, to look at Shisui framed by the open door, struck by a sense of deja-vu so strong it made him a bit dizzy.

He had seen that exact same scene play out many times. One leaving, the other staying. Parents saying goodbye to children, wife to husband, friend to that other friend that had come to visit, that was welcome here.

“Have a safe trip. And know that whatever you decide, my door will always be open to you. This is your home too. You will always be welcome here.”

Naruto felt himself choke up on an onslaught of unfamiliar emotions, threatening to swallow him all. Panicking at his shortening breath and the traitorous tears that wanted to spill out of his eyes, he spun around and bolted.

He ran all the way to the meeting point.

.

Shisui, my incredibly stupid friend, Naruto most certainly believes you’ve been waiting with bated breath to kick him out of your house from day one. He’s a fucking twelve-year-old you dumbass he doesn’t WANT to live alone!

Tell him he can do whatever he wants, including staying with you, and if you want him to stay, tell him that too. Tell him in that many words, asshole. Don’t fuck it up. Sage. So stupid.

Love you.

Izumi.

.

“You have everything you need?”

“I think so, yes. I’m all set.”

“Do you want me to accompany you?”

His mother laughed at his horrified expression – she had probably done it on purpose. Sasuke pouted and readjusted his backpack, eager to get going.

“Wait a minute, let me look at you. Fugaku, Itachi! Come say bye to Sasuke!”

The boy rolled his eyes but stayed still and bore the attention. Both men came to join them in front of the house. Itachi poked Sasuke’s forehead with a soft smile as their father looked him up and down before giving a subtle nod of approval.

“Be careful out there, Sasuke. And take care of your friends.”

Caught off guard by the odd advice and sudden seriousness, Sasuke could only nod dumbly before leaving with a final goodbye. He didn't know why they made such a big deal out of it, it's not like he was leaving the village for the first time, and there was nothing exciting or prestigious about accompanying an old man home. He guessed it was symbolic – first C-rank, and first mission that had a slightly more impactful goal than pleasing random citizens.

Long-practiced in the art of Not Asking, Sasuke didn’t question Naruto about his gloomy and slightly panicked expression when he met him at the meeting point near the North Gate. Sakura joined them a few minutes later and only got an unconvincing “yeah yeah” to her “are you alright” question, since she hadn’t learned that lesson yet. Between his father and his brother, Sasuke had the management of that frustration down to an art form even before meeting Naruto.

Kakashi was the last one to arrive, with the old man, Tazuna. Sakura kept her scolding at Kakashi for being late to a minimum, probably for the sake of the stranger, and because the sun was barely out and she was still half-asleep. They promptly departed.

After a few feet though, Sasuke realized Naruto wasn't following them. Turning around, he saw the other boy still standing at the gate, just behind the line that symbolized the limit of the village. Naruto took a deep breath, and slowly, with deliberate movements, crossed the line to find himself standing on the other side.

Sasuke had never seen that expression on his face.

He was smiling, not a full-blown smile, it barely showed on his mouth, but his eyes were shining so bright, an expression of awe, of wonderment.

Somehow, Sasuke didn’t like it.

To make matters worse, Naruto’s mood kept improving with each step they took away from the village. He was walking at the front, peering curiously at the forest around them. It was the same old boring forest they had in Konoha, but Naruto stared at it like there were snacks growing on the trees.

Sasuke knew Naruto had never left the village before, but he couldn’t remember being that excited about his own first trip outside the walls. Granted, he couldn’t remember it period. They were visiting his father, who was staying on a long observation mission in a small town near the border. His mother liked to embarrass him recalling how he had cried the entire way there, from the moment they had stepped out of the village to the moment they had reached his father. And again on the way back.

Sasuke was quite the weeper as a toddler, to his everlasting mortification.

“So why were you in Konoha, mister?” Sakura asked. She seemed to be in a talkative mood now that she was more awake. She often was, and maybe for once she wouldn’t be the only one.

“Believe me, if I could have spared the trip, I would have.”

Sasuke didn’t like that man very much.

“I needed to sort some administrative shit. You know we’re building a bridge right? To connect my country to the mainland. Well the mainland is the Fire Country in this case, so we had to ask permission very nicely.”

It looked like Sakura had decided to be diplomatic today, because she didn’t take offense at the snappy, dismissive tone. She was curious enough to look past it.

“Isn’t it something to take to the Fire Lord?”

“We did. I was here about the border control issue. There will be a frontier post, and it’s your shinobis that will control it.”

“You don’t seem too happy about that,” Kakashi remarked lightly, proving once again that his book was merely a prop for him to look uninterested in his surroundings. No doubt that a lot of people had been fooled by his careless attitude. Sasuke recognized it was a good tactic, but did it have to be such bad literature? Shisui had a few volumes in his library, that Sasuke had made the mistake of skimming through one day.

Grown-ups were disgusting.

“No offense guys, but I’m not super fond of shinobis.”

Sasuke and Naruto reacted at the exact same time. Yes offense, Sasuke let out a displeased “What?”, just as Naruto exclaimed, joyful, “Haha, me neither!”

Sasuke glared at him, incredulous.

“What?” the other said, provocative, as he put his hands behind his head, the picture of carelessness. Sasuke felt the urge to deck him.

“What do you mean you don’t like shinobis?”

“I mean that I don’t like them?”

Why?

Naruto lost a bit of his carefully crafted disinterest. Something passed on his face, far darker, but it was gone in an instant. He just shrugged. Sasuke was halfway through closing the distance between them, still figuring out if he was going to shake him like a tree or get in his face to demand an answer, when Kakashi interrupted, stepping deftly in his path as he resumed their conversation with the old man.

“And what about you?”

The man looked between them before shrugging, deciding he didn’t care.

“I don’t know what shinobis do around here…”

“Protect and serve,” Sasuke answered automatically. The man scoffed.

“Is that so? Well, that may be true, for you. But where I come from, when we see this,” he said, tapping at Sasuke’s headband on his forehead, “we don’t expect anyone to do any serving and protecting.”

Sasuke clicked his tongue and moved away, annoyed at the proximity, the touch, and the words. He really didn’t like that man.

“Wave Country is remote, and weak,” the man went on. “That always brings in the same kind of crowd.”

“Missing-nins?” Kakashi asked. The man scoffed.

“Not only.”

The accusation in his voice wasn’t nice to hear, and they quickly moved to other topics. The man only lost his sour, biting demeanor when he talked about his bridge – he had great hopes in it, for the future of his country. Sakura asked him questions about the work and technic, with her usual ability to be interested in literally any subject, as they kept walking the hard-packed road, less and less sheltered by trees as they got closer to the sea. They ate a light lunch by the road before they resumed walking – they would reach the coast by the end of the afternoon, if everything went without a hitch.

It didn’t.

Sasuke was walking by Naruto’s side, arguing with him over the merits of team formations versus solo missions. Unsurprisingly, Uzumaki I-don’t-need-nobody Naruto thought that shinobis working on their own would both lower their death rate and the amount of time they had to grieve for other people. Sasuke didn’t know how to explain to him that people didn’t just choose not to get attached to others. Everyone he knew had lost friends and teammates time and time again, and it didn’t stop them from still being part of it all.

“Maybe it’s just worth the pain!” he exclaimed, fed-up with Naruto’s stubborn disagreement. “Would you rather… I don’t know, would you rather we had never become friends?”

Naruto looked at him with wide, panicked eyes. But he didn’t answer. Sasuke waited, a little desperate, for the other boy to deny it. It never came.

He was going to storm off – to the other side of the road – or protest or maybe even curse a little, but he was cut off by the abrupt change in Naruto’s demeanor. His face hardened in concern as he stopped dead in his track. Sasuke didn’t have time to ask what was wrong.

“Someone’s coming!”

The next moment, wires were wrapping around their teacher’s body. There was a sickening noise.

He was shredded to pieces.

It felt like Sasuke stopped thinking altogether. They weren’t in any defense or combat formation, there were two assailants, and they were heading straight for the old man Tazuna. Sakura was the closest, she moved in front of him, kunai in hand. They were so far away… Sasuke threw a shuriken that pinned down the enemies’ deadly chains to a nearby tree. It gave him just enough time to regroup with Sakura.

That’s when the two strangers decided to change strategy.

“The kids first then,” one of them said. They let go of the chains and flickered away, reappearing a second later behind Naruto. Murder in their eyes. Ready to strike.

Naruto was so small, compared to them. His hands were empty – no weapon, no scroll, nothing. He barely had the time to turn around to face his opponents before their blades were coming down on him, and there was no way, no way Sasuke would reach him in time.

Naruto raised both his hands.

“Fuinjutsu. Heartbreaker Seal.”

The two men collapsed on the floor, just as Kakashi popped up by Naruto’s side. It was useless though. They weren’t moving. The fight was over.

Kakashi crouched down to check on them.

“Dead.”

.

It was a risky bet. Naruto had seldom trained on that seal since he had first used it, unable, despite his better judgment, to test it on the forest animals that were so inexplicably fond of him. He mostly trained deep in the woods where no one would bother him, and he always crossed path with deer, rabbits and nesting birds that just looked at him with disinterest before carrying on with their business, when they weren’t straight out approaching him, curious and unworried. 

The foxes, in particular, always hung out around his spot.

It would have been easy to get his hands on one of them to test the seal. He had thought about it often, especially when staring at a red fox that was staring right back, so alike the one that plagued his dreams. His nightmares. But he couldn’t do it.

He couldn't pretend using the seal was a conscious, thought-out move. It felt almost like a reflex. The weapons bearing down on him, no chance of escape… His mind had just gone to the most immediate solution, the one it was familiar with. The one that had worked before.

And now he had killed again.

He felt very little toward the fact itself. Ninjas fought and if they lost, they died. That’s how it worked.

But he really didn’t want to face his friends now. Kakashi got up to stare at him, incredulous.

“Naruto, how did you…”

“Sensei, are you alright?” Sakura exclaimed, joining them in an instant, concern written all over her face.

“Ha, yeah, don’t worry Sakura. I knew they were coming – I was prepared.”

Sakura’s face did a curious thing then – it looked like a smile, but her eyes spelled fury.

“What do you mean you knew?”

“I noticed puddles of water on the road a little while ago. Seeing that it didn’t rain in days...”

“And why the HELL didn’t you say anything!” she exploded, cutting him off mid-sentence.  Naruto had not heard her scream so loud since that time where she had caught a man trying peer into the changing rooms at the clothes store. Kakashi was taken aback by her sudden rage.

"I needed to know who they were after," he said after a pause. That didn't calm her in the slightest.

“And you couldn’t have just… make a sign or… or… use code? Instead of just… keeping it to yourself! What the hell! We could have… we… you…”

Anger and worry overflowing, Sakura burst into tears.

She ostensibly turned her back on their stunned teacher to face Naruto. Her eyes were spilling big, ugly tears, her face all scrunched up as she sniffled.

“Naruto… Are you… are you okay?”

He had to avert his gaze, he just couldn’t bear to see it. See her like this, scared and worried, see her in tears, in distress and in pain, as she checked him for injuries.

“That-that was very scary. Are you okay?” she asked again. He shrugged, trying to shake her off, but she didn’t budge. She was cradling his bleeding hand gently – he had cut himself on one of the men’s armor plate. She took out antiseptic and bandages from her pouch to tend to the cut.

“You can look away,” she said when she was done and his head was still turned to the side, eyes far off in the distance, “but just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean I won’t be there worrying about you all the same.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

“That’s not up to you.”

She let go of his hand and wiped off her face, looking like she had regained a bit of her composure – as much as she could with a snotty nose and wet eyelashes.

“What do we do now?” she asked Kakashi with a biting tone, still pissed at him it seemed. Recognizing a lost cause when he saw one, the man bypassed the apologies and focused on the old man instead.

“I think you owe us an explanation, Tazuna. These men were after you.”

“Who else,” Sakura mumbled. Kakashi’s eyes met Naruto’s ever so briefly. Naruto promptly looked away, message received loud and clear.

Kakashi had to know if it was him they were after.

“They were,” Tazuna confirmed. The brief struggle had made him lose a bit of his confidence. He looked grave now, and worried. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. But…”

"An escort with threats of foreign nins attack is B-ranked, with a vastly different price on it,” Kakashi declared simply. The man frowned, displeased, but he didn’t deny it.

“They are a lot of people who don’t want that bridge to be completed,” Tazuna confessed, cornered. “Powerful people too.”

“Like who?”

“Have you heard of Gato?”

Naruto listened with only half an ear their story of gangster-run islands and political conflicts. That country was dominated by crime and fear – the bridge, a hope, a way out. Important enough to the old man that he would risk his life traveling back and forth between Fire and Wave country, but not enough that he would pay the price of his safety.

Or well, maybe he simply didn’t have that money. And what did ninja do for people who couldn’t pay? Naruto wasn’t sure, but Tazuna had been sure enough that he had said nothing. Better an outnumbered guard that no guard at all.

“I’m not sure it’s safe for us to keep going.”

That brought Naruto right back in.

“What? We can’t turn around!”

“Naruto, this team is not equipped to deal with this kind of threat. We can’t just…”

“We did fine, didn’t we? We dealt with it!”

"There's no telling what kind of forces will be sent our way next time."

“We’ll deal with that too!”

“Naruto…”

They couldn’t go back. Not yet. It had been less than a day. Who knew when they would be sent out again? Who knew when he would be able to leave the village again? Wouldn’t they be blamed for the mission failing? Wouldn’t they be punished?

“Come on, please. We’re… we’re close, right? It makes no sense to go back now.”

He didn’t want to beg, didn’t want to make a scene, but above all, he didn’t want to turn around.

“Whatever you decide, I’m moving forward. My country needs me,” the old man said, with a strangely disinterested tone for such a loaded declaration. “I don’t know if I’ll make it or not but… Ah, that doesn’t concern you anyway.”

“We can’t just let that old guy alone right?” Naruto said, jumping on the man’s guilt-trip strategy. The other two stayed silent, indecisive. Kakashi turned toward them next.

“What do you think, Sakura, Sasuke?”

They didn’t expect to be consulted, and Naruto huffed in annoyance. If he hadn’t protested, Kakashi would have never asked for their opinion.

“I’m not sure it’s a good idea…” Sakura said hesitantly, clearly torn. It was her turn to avoid Naruto’s accusing glare. “Who’s to say if we’ll be good enough next time?”

“And who’s to say if there’ll even be a next time?” Naruto countered. “Come on, guys…”

“Sasuke?” Kakashi asked. Sasuke pondered it for a little while.

“I don’t think we should let Tazuna go alone.”

Kakashi let out a heavy sigh, shoulders sagging like he was receiving the weight of the world on it. He quickly recovered though.

“Alright. We’ll keep going. On one condition. Naruto.”

“What?”

“Tell me how you killed these two men.”

Naruto recoiled at the fact being exposed so bluntly, out there in the open. There was no emotion attached to the statement, nothing like reproach or pride, just the cold hard truth of Naruto taking a life again. Two.

“Does it matter?”

He didn’t want to talk about it with Kakashi, or anyone. He didn’t want the village to get involved in this.

“It matters to me. And it matters to you, if you don’t want to go back to Konoha immediately.”

The man drove a hard bargain. Naruto thought he would have broken the authority card a lot sooner, seeing how insufferable Naruto had been sure to be with him. He was hard to rile up though, nothing seemed to faze him, he didn’t care.

He was serious now, despite the light tone. He wasn’t going to let go.

“I sealed their heart.”

There was no better way of putting it. Not sealed in the sense of putting it away in a scroll, but the other main attribute of sealing was the restriction of movements in the broadest sense of the term. The Heartbreaker was a cage.

A cage around the heart.

“How?”

“With a seal.”

Kakashi huffed, patience dwindling. Naruto wasn’t going to make it easy for him.

“Where did you learn to do that?”

“In a scroll.”

It was better to go back to the village now than to admit he had stolen a forbidden scroll from the Hokage’s library. As for the others he had, acquired over the years by Ino and Sai, he wasn’t sure where they came from, but he could guess it wasn’t the bookstore. He wouldn’t say anything that would get them in trouble.

“You never showed that one to us,” Sasuke remarked.

“Yeah, can’t imagine why.”

Sasuke’s face scrunched up in a displeased frown. Lately, Naruto often found himself regretting his own words right after they left his mouth. But he never took them back.

Kakashi sighed again, dramatic and defeated, to little effect. Naruto wasn’t about to feel bad for him.

“Very well, we’ll sort that out later. The mission is still on then.”

“Hum, sensei… What are we going to do with…”

Sakura didn’t finish her sentence, just pointed at the two dead shinobis still lying in the dirt a few feet away. Naruto had kind of forgotten about them.

“Ah, you’re right. One moment.”

Naruto tried to look uninterested as Kakashi unrolled a storage scroll on the ground next to the corpses. It was the standard one they could get at the armory. Naruto didn’t like those, they were ugly, unrefined, and he much preferred his own. Still, he observed Kakashi’s hand seals, how he performed the sealing. Those scrolls were chakra infused, so as not to deplete too much of the user’s reserve – another thing to dislike about them. Naruto didn’t need to put chakra in his seals in advance. He had plenty to go on the spot.

“See, boy?” Tazuna said to Sasuke, pointing at the stranger’s faces. “Shinobis.”

Naruto hadn’t even noticed the headbands.

“Chunins from Kiri,” Kakashi said matter-of-factly before completing the seal. The two bodies disappeared in a puff of smoke.

It made sense in a way. People hired shinobis to protect them, because other people hired other shinobis to kill them.

Huh. Maybe it didn’t make sense at all.

Sour and upset, Sasuke didn’t say a word.

Kakashi wrote something in a blank space near the seal before rolling back the scroll. Instead of putting it away though, he got another one out. Naruto looked at Sakura – she didn’t need him to ask. “Summoning,” she told him, as Kakashi bit at his finger, drawing blood, and before slamming his hand on the paper. When the smoke cleared, there was a dog sitting there, with a Konoha headband.

It was one of the funniest things Naruto had ever seen.

“Bring that back to the village,” Kakashi told the dog, giving it the scroll. The animal promptly took off – they watched it run between the trees until it was out of sight.

“We’re all set,” Kakashi declared. “Let’s go.”

Not in the mood for discussion, they resumed walking in silence.

Unwilling to delay the group any further or worse, to have them stop and change their mind, Naruto said nothing. But his hand was burning. And he wasn’t feeling so good.

.

The boat was waiting as promised at a small deck near the main road. Tazuna seemed to know the man handling it, a certain Kaji – Kakashi decided to go with it. Small mercy, none of the kids seemed prone to seasickness, even if Naruto looked a bit nauseous. The fog made it hard to see where they were going – it made the apparition of the bridge even more spectacular.

“Look, look!” Sakura exclaimed, immediately quieted sharply by the sailor.

Kakashi had seen his fair share of the world at large, and even he was impressed. He had never seen a bridge so big, and never one that jumped across the sea. Tazuna smiled proudly, explaining in a low voice where they were at in the construction and what they would do next.

All this trouble, for that bridge. People could really find any possible excuse to go to war.

The man sailing the boat was nervous and jumpy. He couldn’t wait to get rid of them. Tazuna seemed to find it normal, expected even, which said a lot about the state of that place. The weather wasn’t much better on the island, foggy and humid, less than ideal given the situation, but they were almost there, surely nothing would…

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

“Get down!”

He had to give it to his kids, they had amazing reflexes. Even Naruto, who still looked out of it, dropped to the ground in an instant. Kakashi kicked Tazuna in the knee and crouched down himself to avoid the flying sword coming to cut them in half.

And as the owner of that sword made his grand entrance, Kakashi wondered, not for the first time, what he had done in a past life to deserve such luck. The man looked exactly like his picture in the Bingo Book – the bottom of his face bandaged, the top wrapped in his headband… Kakashi couldn’t help but notice that despite being known as a deserter, the Kiri symbol on it wasn’t crossed out as was the tradition. But Kiri shinobis always had a strange definition of loyalty.

Kakashi moved to stand in front of the kids, warning them with one look that now wasn’t the time to play hero.

“Momochi Zabuza.”

"No wonder those worms couldn't manage to kill off that old fuck. Escorted by Hatake Kakashi himself, huh?”

“It seems both our reputations precede us.”

Being famous was really a hindrance when it came to missions, Kakashi though wearily.

“Let’s put them to the test,” the man said, gleeful.

Kakashi didn’t have it in him to panic. No matter the situation, staying cool and levelheaded could make the difference between life and death. The freak-out came later. When he had made it back home, when he knew his team – or what was left of it – was as safe as could be, when there was nothing more he could do to help and fix things, that’s when he lost all composure, that’s when he allowed himself a short break down. Even that was controlled though, almost timed-up – there was always something more important to focus on.

Right now, all that mattered was to protect his team.

As he reached for his headband, Kakashi just then remembered that he hadn’t warned the kids about that. Yet another problem to deal with. Later.

.

Something was wrong, very wrong. Naruto was hot, so hot, sweating profusely under his clothes, and there was a dull ache slowly spreading from his injured hand to his entire body. His vision was a bit blurry. He heard a laugh.

You’re lucky such a pesky thing can’t kill us. But this should be fun.

Naruto shook his head. He had been getting increasingly confused as the boat made its way across the sea, and now he couldn’t make sense of anything anymore. He had to focus though. The murder intent pouring out of the newcomer in waves spelled big trouble, as did Kakashi looking more serious than they had ever seen him.

Their teacher also had… A Sharingan? Apparently? But it wasn’t the time for that either. Naruto had to…

It’s true you’ve never been seriously injured before. Or sick. Or well, poisoned…

“What’s happening?” he asked weakly, disoriented.

“We’re under attack is what is happening,” Sasuke hissed between his teeth. He was tensed as a bowstring, keeping a white-knuckled grip on the kunai he had in hands. Sakura looked scared out of her mind, but she had her guard up too, even if she was shaking.

But Naruto… Naruto was seeing a cage.

“Why am I here… What…”

The fox sported the widest grin. Its claws were jutting out of the bars, just a hair away from Naruto’s still form.

It looked like they were edging closer.

Let me out. Come on. Let me out.

Naruto really didn’t feel good.

He was jolted back to the present by Sasuke throwing him to the ground as Kakashi blocked the enemy’s sword, the men now standing right there somehow.

“What are you doing you moron! Snap out of it!” Sasuke yelled in his face, howling Naruto back to his feet. That’s right, they were under attack. Someone very strong. They had to fight. Or they would die.

I could help. There’s nothing you can do on your own.

He couldn’t tune it out, no matter how hard he tried. He had gotten good at closing off that part of his mind over the years, but right now it just wouldn’t go away. His thoughts were too blurry, weak and confused. He was exhausted.

If you are weakened, the fox said, joy obvious in its thunderous voice, then so is what keeps us apart, you and I.

The claws were now taking up the whole space in front of the cell. Red, thick chakra was pouring out in strands. Naruto couldn't contain it.

He got a flash of Kakashi imprisoned in water, Sasuke coughing up blood and Sakura standing in front of him and Tazuna, holding on a kunai like a lifeline, trembling all over. 

I need to help them, he thought, they’re in trouble, I need to…

“Naruto! Don’t just stand there!”

Let me help. Let me out.

Shut up, shut up!

They’re going to die if you don’t do something.

“NARUTO!”

Sakura had moved, the enemy chasing after her. Or was it a clone? The other one was holding Kakashi in that water prison. The clone hit her, hard, she cried out, and Naruto couldn’t move, his body didn’t respond to him.

“Katon! Fireball Jutsu!”

Sasuke had really ranked up that jutsu.

The enemy had no choice but to let go of Kakashi’s prison if he didn’t want to be burnt to a crisp. They came face to face. The fog still made it hard to see what was happening. The fog, and the red chakra that seemed to flood Naruto’s vision from inside.

Let me out. Let me out. Let me out. Let me out.

He felt like he was drowning. Or maybe it was just the sudden stream of water that swept over the field out of nowhere. It had the merit of pulling Naruto out of his trance a little – and to put their enemy out of commission, as Naruto noticed when he could somewhat focus on what was happening right in front of him.

Before Kakashi could deal him the final blow, someone else took care of it.

Naruto raised an incredulous gaze at the newcomer standing on a branch nearby, and not because he sounded as young as they were, and not because of the disinterest with which he had ended that man’s life.

But because he felt…

Naruto spaces out again, and they were both gone. The next moment, Sasuke was on him, looking pissed.

“What was that Naruto? What were you doing?”

Anger flared up inside of him. He didn’t know why, didn’t know where from – it was unjustified, unneeded. Sasuke was right to be mad at him. And yet, when he grabbed the front of his hoodie, Naruto’s hand closed around his wrist with way more force than necessary.

But he was just so angry. Properly enraged, mad with fury.

I wish I could kill them all.

He barely registered Sasuke flinching in pain, vaguely heard Sakura call him out. He was just so damn angry. The cage was overflowing and he wanted to…

A hand slammed down on his shoulders.

“Naruto. Calm down.”

It was Kakashi’s voice, right next to his ear. Naruto snapped back to himself. He let go of Sasuke’s arm – they both took a step back, confused. Naruto felt something in his hand – glancing down, he saw his nails lose the sharp edges of…claws? Sasuke’s arm was bleeding, five punctures wounds aligned neatly on his pale skin.

He looked very confused. And hurt.

Naruto was very close to throwing up.

Kakashi's hand was still firm on his shoulder. Naruto remembered the sealing tag to put him under – he forced a shuddering breath inside of his body. Forced the chakra to retreat. He was more lucid now. The fox laughed, even if it looked pissed. The claws retreated, both in his mind and on his body.

Naruto wanted to say something, but his throat was closed tightly around his voice, his mind blank of what he could possibly say. He was doing his hardest to keep his growing panic at bay – he was scared of losing grip again.

What was that? What had just happened? Those emotions, this anger… they weren’t his. He had never known the fox could get so close to the surface. Could wrestle with Naruto for the control of his body. Could he actually do it? Could Naruto lose his will to the fox? Knowing he had to stay calm at all cost didn’t help actually staying calm, at all.

Kakashi suddenly collapsing didn’t help either.

"Ah, sorry. I might have overdone it," the man said casually while lying face down on the ground. Tazuna grumbled but took it upon himself to see the man safely to his house, and they decided without concertation that questions and explanations would come later.

They followed the man through the trees, the patch of swampy waters, and as they got closer to the town, the rickety wooden houses scattered around the shabby streets. No one paid them any mind, except for the occasional half-smile at Tazuna and wary looks at the people accompanying him. The silence was heavy on the group and Naruto could feel the weight of his two friends’ gaze scrutinizing him, full of questions and reproach. Naruto’s eyes stayed firmly trained on the ground, trying not to see Sakura limping and the blood on Sasuke’s face and clothes.

The fox was quiet once more, but Naruto could almost feel its satisfaction.

.

“What is wrong with you? You just… You froze! What’s your problem, Naruto?”

“I didn’t freeze! I was…”

Naruto’s mouth clicked shut as he swallowed back whatever it was that he wanted to say. Kakashi honestly thought they would get to the screaming match sooner, but as good shinobis they had waited until they were relatively safe and set under Tazuna’s roof with their wounds tended to before going for it.

Commendable, but still annoying.

“Oh yeah? What happened then?”

Naruto pinched his lips, torn between telling Sasuke off and admitting something he didn’t want to admit.

“You froze! You didn’t help!” Sasuke accused again. “You didn’t… we could have...”

Died. They could have died. They were all very aware of that. Kakashi didn’t intervene. He had to know too, what had happened with Naruto, why he had been unable to join the fight. It couldn’t be out of fear – he didn’t seem to have much, and he had done just fine against their first attackers.

It had been a long, long day.

Sakura, who had been silent until now, noticed something then.

“What is it with your hand?”

The bandage she had tied around the boy’s palm earlier was mostly gone. Naruto held it out in front of him. The cut had been fairly deep a few hours ago, but it was gone now, vanished.

His hand was still red and swollen as if it was infected.

He didn’t look overly surprised by it, and would have even dismissed it without Sakura’s pointed look. He failed to hide his discomfort as he attempted a careless shrug.

“I think there was poison.”

Kakashi was getting tired of the whiplash.

“What?” Sakura shrieked. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“I just didn’t notice.”

Kakashi stopped listening then, busy praying for the sweet release of unconsciousness, so that he wouldn’t have to deal with any of that.

The Kiri nins’ weapons had been dripping with poison, and ninja poison wasn’t something one could just walk off. Had Naruto touched it by accident? Kakashi should have checked. No wonder the boy had looked so out of it on the boat and after.

Well, he hadn’t done so bad, considering he should have been fucking dead.

Kakashi needed to sleep for a year.

“And you’re good now?” Sasuke asked, incredulous, having a hard time processing the conversation and deciding which emotion he could focus on. Kakashi could relate.

“I guess.”

They could only be grateful then. For what gave Naruto his resistance.

What a fucked up day it was.

Robbed of the outlet for his turmoil and anger, Sasuke huffed and went to sit in a corner of the room, Naruto going the opposite way, putting as much distance as they could between them without leaving the room altogether. Sakura stayed in the middle, at a loss too, gaze bouncing worriedly between her two friends.

“Was he that dangerous? That man,” she asked, as much out of a need to know as to change the subject. She had cried again on the way to the house, but she was calmer now. She would need to toughen up fast.

“The ninjas of Kiri are known to be ruthless and terribly resilient,” Kakashi answered, sitting up on the futon despite Tazuna’s daughter’s protest, “and they’re the ones who dubbed him the Demon of the Hidden Mist. Had I known it was the kind of opponents we were going to face, I would have made us turn back immediately.”

He needed to convey to them the gravity of the situation. He doubted Gato had more soldiers of that caliber under his thumb, but there was no way to know for sure.

“What do we do then?” she asked. No doubt that her answer would be “let’s go home immediately”. She would be right.

“In my current state, I wouldn’t be able to fight anyone. It’s too risky to take the road right now. So we'll stay here for a few days. Even if Zabuza is dead…”

“Is he though?” Naruto piped from his corner. “That boy… the one that took the man’s body. He wasn’t… He had no intention of killing anyone.”

Naruto was looking out the window, even if with the thick fog, there was little to be seen of the outside world. He was ostensibly avoiding their eyes, as he often did.

Kakashi sighed. He had been worrying about that too – he didn’t want to think about how little sense it made that the hunter had taken the body away instead of burning it to ashes right there and then, and how needles like his could have easily simulated death without actually causing it. The boy was dangerous, dangerous enough that in their state the team wouldn’t have been able to fight him off. It’s not like they had any choice but to let him go. Still, Kakashi had been careless.

“What makes you say that?” he asked. Naruto just shrugged. Weirdly enough, the two kids didn’t ask their friend further questions, seemingly taking his words at faith value. Yet another thing Kakashi was left out of. Naruto had also been able to sense their very first enemies coming. Sensor? Or something else entirely?

A question for another time. Speaking of which…

“You have a Sharingan,” Sasuke said, failing to keep the accusation from his voice. He had no doubt been mulling over that discovery. In his corner, Naruto tensed up, but kept gazing at the fogged up sky.

“I do.”

“How?”

Kakashi had heard that same outrage before in the voice of the boy’s fellow clan members. A lot of them still resented him for it, but he could hardly bring himself to care. He had plenty of hatred for it himself that others’ just felt irrelevant.

“It was gifted to me. By a teammate.”

“Why would he…”

“He was dying.”

Sasuke swallowed back his words, and most of his anger was snuffed out as he took the measure of what that implied.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, self-conscious of his own indignation.

“Is that the reason why you got assigned to our team?” Naruto asked next. He sounded lost, not exactly there with them. They would have to discuss what had happened earlier at some point. Kakashi wasn’t looking forward to it.

“No. It’s not.”

Whether he believed him or not, Naruto didn’t insist.

“We have to be prepared for the eventuality of Zabuza being very much alive.”

Kakashi stayed silent for a moment, letting them digest that information. They had been shaken up by the fight, for various reasons. They had found themselves in the position of having to rescue him, of carrying the fate of their group on their shoulders. They had experienced what it felt like to have their decisions meaning life or death for them and their friends. Even if he knew it was inevitable, Kakashi would have wanted to spare them that lesson for a little while longer. So much for the easy and mundane first mission.

“What are we going to do?” Sakura asked once more. It was her default coping strategy – she needed to know there was something to be done, some kind of plan. She looked at him and she needed to be reassured that he knew what he was doing.

A good thing then, that he was so good at bullshitting his way through this kind of situation.

“You need to train. And we need to talk strategy.”

Said confidently enough, any suggestion could be well-received, no matter how wobbly.

“I’m also sending a message to the village. They’ll send back up our way, alright?”

She nodded decisively, looking more like her usual brash self. He couldn’t summon one of his nin-dogs or a messenger bird in his state – it would have to be the old fashion way. Kakashi turned to Tazuna, who had been listening quietly to the exchanges, arms crossed and face closed off, but before he could ask him, they were interrupted by the front door opening on a small boy that was greeted with three very on edge genins kunais in hand. The boy scowled in distaste.

“Inari! Where have you been! Everyone, this is my grandson Inari. Inari, these are the ninjas that escorted me here. Say hi.”

The boy didn’t share his grandfather’s good mood, and he cast them the exact same mistrustful look they had received from the few villagers they had passed in the streets.

“Tazuna,” Kakashi said before they got distracted by other matters, “can you arrange to have a letter sent to Konoha?”

The man was patting his grandson’s head with a smile, but his expression lost its warmth when he addressed Kakashi.

“I can. However…”

Their eyes met. Kakashi sighed.

“If reinforcement comes, it will only be in the interest of our own extraction. They won’t interfere in your country’s business. You have my words.”

Sasuke chose that moment to join back in.

“Why not?” he asked, puzzled. “Why couldn’t we help?”

“We can’t just barge in here Sasuke, not if the Wave Lord didn’t ask us too. This is not our country.”

“But those people need help, don’t they? We can’t just…”

“And who would pay for that?” Inari suddenly exploded. Sasuke frowned, annoyed, but the boy kept going. “We have no money! Gato has it all! So no one will help us!”

Sasuke obviously wanted to argue with that. He looked at Kakashi, like he expected him to say something, to rebuff it.

Kakashi could do no such thing. The state of the country couldn’t be a secret to the neighboring nations. Gato had the whole island under his control, but he was still maintaining trades with the rest of the world, and their government had made no call for help.

Without a substantial reward, there was no reason for any third party to get involved here.

However, Kakashi had seen Sasuke’s burst of righteous anger and his inflexible sense of justice at play more than once by now, and he knew there was no way he could make the boy understand that, let alone accept it.

“Why don’t you just kill that man?”

Sometimes Kakashi was convinced Naruto did it on purpose.

“No one can kill Gato!” the child exclaimed, getting worked up over an issue that probably plagued everyone in this place.

“Why not? He’s just a man.”

“He’s… he’s got power, and money! He controls everything around here!”

“That won’t matter if he’s dead.”

It was hard to tell if Naruto was being genuine, or just a little shit – it was always hard to tell with him. Inari choked up on frustrated tears, too upset to articulate an answer. Overwhelmed, he just stormed off and disappeared upstairs.

“You really are kids,” Tazuna deadpanned in a way that clearly didn’t mean to convey a compliment. Sasuke huffed. Sakura rolled her eyes. Naruto just shrugged, unconcerned.

That about summed it up.

Dinner was a quiet, stilted affair, followed by an uneventful but restless night. The kids turned and tossed all night, scared awake by the slightest noise, and Kakashi himself had the hardest time putting in some rest despite his exhaustion, harassed by the certitude that they weren’t safe here. He assumed Gato wouldn’t try anything against Tazuna in his own house, if he had any interest in maintaining the illusion of legality over the whole affair, but that wouldn't hold him back forever. They were in over their head – the kids couldn't be caught up in this. This country was a drop of blood away from civil war, and Kakashi had a very personal opinion of the age at which people had to discover the horrors of open conflicts, which was never years old. They needed to get the hell out of this mess.

In the meantime though, all he could do was keep preparing them as best as he could.

He found himself facing three tired but determined kids the next day in a clearing not far from Tazuna’s house. They didn’t complain about the lack of sleep – or food, which was scarce around there, and even more for a family unexpectedly hosting four guests. Tsunami, Tazuna’s daughter, had said nothing of it, grateful that they hadn’t abandoned her father on the road and willing to repay them for it, but that didn’t make it any better.

They really needed to get out.

“Alright then, team 7, we’re now gonna go back on some basics. Today’s lesson in on chakra control. The refined sort.”

He made a quick demonstration of climbing a tree up and down, chakra sticking his feet to the wood.

“Until now you’ve only learned to mould chakra for specific technics, but you need a better understanding of your own reserve and limitation. It will help you both perform the jutsu you already know more efficiently and with less chakra waste, but also learn new ones quicker. Come on, give it a try. If you do good on tree climbing I’ll show you how to walk on water.”

They nodded, full of determination.

He expected Sasuke to be the best at it, being the one with the most training and, as far as he could tell, the one who could actually perform decent ninjutsu. The boy got up a few steps, higher than the average first try, while Naruto was unsurprisingly lower. His disregard for ninjutsu was as much a cause as a consequence of his lack of chakra control, Kakashi supposed. If he was getting proficient with seals, he had probably all but ditched the subject.

As for Sakura…

“Well. That wasn’t so hard.”

Kakashi was a little ashamed of the moment of confusion that followed, where he didn’t even think of looking up. But sure enough, there she was, sitting casually on a high branch, smiling proudly.

“How come you’re always the best at this?” Naruto said without bite.

“Maybe I’m just better than you,” she retorted before going back down.

“We’ll see about that,” Sasuke mumbled, face set in a determined scowl. Sakura chuckled.

Kakashi expected all three of them to compete against each other, to be upset at their lack of success, for Sakura to ditch them, for the boys to be jealous. “Alright then, come here, I’ll show you,” Sakura said instead. Sasuke and Naruto came to stand in front of her obediently and listened with rapt interest at her explanations. Kakashi was completely forgotten.

He had to fight against memories trying to superpose themselves to that scene, of a laughing girl, a competitive Uchiha and a broody, damaged kid inexplicably getting along despite that kid’s best efforts at keeping his distance. But it wasn’t them. They weren’t at war now, they wouldn’t know the same fate.

He wouldn’t let any harm come to them.

“Can I leave you to it then? I’m going to check on Tazuna,” Kakashi suggested, as much because he was useless here as because he had an urge to get away, to clear his head. He wasn’t prepared for that feeling of crushing responsibility that came with overseeing a genin team. They relied on him to tell them what to do, to keep them safe. Damn, he had to get that message to the village.

“Sensei, wait.”

Looking back, he saw Naruto jogging to catch up with him, his two friends still busy with training but keeping an eye on him all the same.

“What is…”

“If I die,” Naruto cut bluntly, “will the demon die too?”

Kakashi hesitated, caught off guard by that line of questioning.

“Yes.”

Kakashi wasn’t going to volunteer information on the matter, but he couldn’t lie to him either. Shisui had made it very clear, with the underlying threat his tone always carried nowadays when he talked about Naruto. Shisui had made which side he was on pretty clear – he would show no mercy to those who hurt Naruto, voluntarily or not, be they his friends or not. Kakashi was convinced neither Shisui nor Naruto were aware of it.

“He said… He said it wouldn’t kill me. The poison.”

Kakashi found it wiser not to answer to that, instead of opening a whole new world of complication that was implied here. Since when were they in contact? And to what extent?

“Is it possible that it… that it takes control of me? That it escapes my grip?"

“…Yes.”

For a second Naruto looked like he had been punched in the guts and this, this was the exact reason why Kakashi would have preferred to lie about it. But Naruto had to know, he had to be aware of that possibility. They were in the dark as to what could trigger it, they just knew now that him being weakened seemed to be part of it at least. It was honestly an issue Kakashi had hoped they wouldn’t have to deal with. No such luck.

“A-alright.”

There was more to discuss, but Naruto and that sixth sense that had him feel serious conversations coming from a mile away wasted no time to bolt, regrouping with his friends in record time. Kakashi was dead on his feet and done with the world at large – he decided that this could wait at least for the length of a power nap.

.

“Another message for Konoha?” Kaji asked, skeptical. Tazuna waved off his concern with a laugh.

“Just more boring administrative details. Can you arrange to have it delivered?”

“Of course. You can count on me!”

It had always been Kaji’s role, transporting the village’s people and messages from land to island and island to land. It was also his father’s duty, and his father before him. They had never failed it.

He stopped his boat midway, far enough from both shores that no one would see him. He reached into his bag and started to sort through the messages and letters. He made two piles – the ones that carried inconsequential, boring news, and the rest.

The ones that asked for help, money, or that just tried to give a faithful account of what was going on in his country. The ones addressed to the ninja of Konoha, requesting immediate backup.

He dumped that pile into the sea, as he always did, since Gato’s men had visited his house with bats and knives one day and asked to speak to the one who was responsible for most of the communication with the land, now that the Gato Company had seized control of the Aviary.

They had come back the day before and made it very clear they knew who had smuggled Tazuna back in the country. His body hurt all over. The only reason why they hadn't killed him was that they didn't want to raise suspicions about Gato being very much aware of all that happened on the island.

Kaji wouldn’t risk the slightest disobedience ever again.

He sailed away without looking back, as the letters disappeared into the sea.

.

“Okay I’d rank this one… eighth. No, no. Seventh. Because the waitress is cute.”

Anko had been sure to say within hearing range of said waitress. The girl blushed. Anko let out a boisterous laugh and popped another dango in her mouth while scribbling on her list, where she was in the process of ranking all the dango shops they had visited since the beginning of their journey.

They found distractions where they could.

Izumi was busy writing to her mother. They only sent out words on their whereabouts once or twice a month, so instead of back and forth letters, Izumi wrote a few words daily, to be sent to her family and friends back home when she had the chance.

Anko never wrote anything, expect a few taunts at some other jounins from the village that she trusted the ones in charge of the messages to pass down. “Tell Guy I saw a woman today who had even thicker eyebrows than he does” or “tell Kakashi he’s a nerd”. She had no family left that Izumi knew of. She was tight-lipped about herself as a rule, seldom sharing anything personal. It made Izumi a little self-conscious about how much of her life she constantly spilled to the other woman, but Anko always seemed to find her retelling of young Uchihas mischief hilarious, so it wasn’t so bad.

After almost three months though, Izumi was running out of things to say.

She was grateful and proud to have been chosen for this mission, and she had enjoyed immensely discovering so many different cities and people, and getting to know her senpai a little better. But she could admit to herself that the trip was starting to wear her down. She still had only a vague idea of whom they were looking for – “an important woman” – and she didn’t even know if they were making any progress on that. Their itinerary looked pretty random to her, Anko following some instructions she wasn’t aware of, from hot springs to party towns to animal sanctuaries. All she knew was that they needed to convince that woman to go back to Konoha with them, and that they were the ones assigned to this mission because one, they were women, and two, Anko had something that would sway her somehow. When Izumi had asked about herself, Anko had trapped her in a headlock and ruffled her hair mercilessly, saying “well, you, it’s because you’re my favorite chunin!”

It was nice to hear, but now Izumi knew why Sasuke hated that so much.

She couldn’t help but hope they would find their mysterious woman soon. She missed her home and her people. She wanted to know how Sasuke and his friends were doing – Shisui’s call for help wasn’t to reassure her. It was frustrating not to be there to help and support them, but she had her duty to fulfill. She hoped, but she wouldn’t complain.

“Let’s go, Izumi,” Anko called as she popped the last dango into her mouth. She winked heavily at the blushing waitress, but they left without another word. Despite her flirting and how much she liked to eat and drink, Anko always stayed very goal-oriented, never indulging too much despite how little they had to do at times. They had visited many drinking parlors and gambling houses – the mystery woman natural habitat, apparently – but Anko had never gotten lost into it. Her reputation of an impulsive, wild woman without restraint or respect was pretty unjustified. Izumi knew that before, but it was different to see it at play when they were so far away from home and where most shinobis would have jumped on the opportunity to be a little less serious than they ought to be. When Izumi had clumsily questioned her about it, Anko had only said “I can’t afford the luxury of being less than exemplary”. Izumi had no idea what that meant. “I think you’re pretty great,” she had answered. Anko had looked surprised, but pleased enough that Izumi believed it had been the right thing to say.

They were heading to yet another gambling house. If they didn’t find anything, they would move to the next town over, just behind the border with Wind Country. Izumi was busy revising the inventory of their supply in her mind, wondering if they needed to take a last trip to the market before they left, when Anko slammed a hand on her chest to make her back out into a narrow alley, suddenly on high alert.

Anko brought a finger to her lips, so Izumi stayed quiet. She could hear voices from the main street getting closer and closer, two women if she had to guess, one significantly younger than the other, and one significantly drunker.

Anko walked out of the alleyway just as the voices were about to pass them up, Izumi on her heels.

They found themselves facing the two talking women. Izumi’s eyes barely flicked toward the youngest one, glued as they were to the other. Even with her gaze clouded and cheeks reddened by alcohol, she cut an impressive figure, charismatic and powerful.

And above all, well known.

Izumi was frozen in surprise, dumbstruck, as she was hit hard in the face by the startling realization that the “important woman” they had been chasing after was none other than…

“Tsunade-hime,” Anko said respectfully. “We’ve been looking for you.”

Chapter Text

Anko warned her in a hushed tone – “whatever you hear in there, try not to act too surprised.”

Izumi didn’t think she could look anymore dumbstruck that she already was, so with some luck the two women would think it was her resting expression. They had made their way to Tsunade’s – freaking Tsunade oh sage and paths – inn, and they sat at a small table in the common room. Tsunade ordered sake to the reception, despite her already inebriated state and the disapproving look of the young woman who was with her – Shizune, she had said.

“I supposed you know why we’re here,” Anko said once they had their glasses full. Izumi had declined, knowing her mother would skin her alive is she knew she was drinking – and she would know, one way or another. Shizune refused too. They were facing each other, clearly byproducts of whatever it was that was happening here. Izumi couldn’t think of a better place to be though. She was shaking with excitement.

“I would have heard of it if the old man had kicked the bucket,” Tsunade slurred. There was anger simmering right below her disinterested façade, like she resented them for even being here.

“You’re right, he’s not dead. But as soon as suitable replacement comes forward, the Sandaime will cede his place.”

So that’s what Anko’s warning had been about. Izumi did her best to hide her shock, even if with how little attention was paid to her, it didn’t matter all that much.

Was that the reason why they were here? To bring back Tsunade so that… So that she could take the Hokage’s seat?

It was true that the Sandaime was getting old. Technically, he had already been replaced once. Izumi had vague, faded images of the Yondaime in her mind, of his bright smile and bright hair, running around the village and waving at kids in the street. She had a lot more memories of the old Sandaime and his friendly demeanor, but she was aware his position was... precarious now. This wasn't a bad idea, she thought. She tried to imagine the blonde woman in his place, sitting at his office, wearing his hat. It was hard right now because she wasn’t… really presentable, but it was Tsunade. Legendary Sanin Tsunade, the best kunoichi the village had ever seen, the best medic-nin, the strongest woman in the world. Every little girl aspiring to become ninjas looked up to her, the one that had risen above all – and specifically, above all men. Izumi could see her, commanding the village, being carved into the mountain, giving them a new direction, new goals. She could imagine…

“Good luck with finding someone foolish enough to take his place.”

The fantasy came crashing down.

She was defying Anko, making it clear that she knew that’s why they had come to her – and that she wouldn’t do it. Izumi refrained from opening her mouth, even if she was burning with questions. Why not? Why not come back? Why had she even left in the first place? The details were more than hazy. Frankly, Izumi hadn’t even been convinced she was alive until just an hour ago.

“Konoha needs you,” Anko said with a measured tone. Izumi could hear the anger in her voice though, could see it in her frown, in the weird, feral smile she had when she was truly mad.

Tsunade downed her glass in one gulp, filled it and downed it again. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve.

“Little girl,” she said, staring Anko down with all the force coiled inside of her. “Konoha can go to hell.”

Both Shizune and Izumi reacted with the same speed and precision – they sprung to their feet and threw an arm in front of their mentor to keep them from jumping at each other’s throat. Izumi hoped Anko wouldn’t be too mad at her – she hated when Izumi stepped in to stop her. She tended to pick fights with everyone and their mother, never letting the slightest disrespect fly. She especially liked to beat up shitty men.

Izumi had rarely seen her like this though – truly angry, on a very deep, personal level. And not only angry. She looked…

Izumi would have said that she looked hurt.

“Now that we’ve got you, you’re not going anywhere,” she spat in Tsunade’s face. “I will take you back to the village, whatever it takes.”

“Do your worse, little girl,” Tsunade shot back.

Anko snarled at her before storming out of the inn. Izumi made hasty goodbyes, bowing several times at the two women – Shizune was the only one to bow back, equally flustered. Izumi had to run to catch up with Anko’s long strides.

Her mentor broke her own rule for the first time that night, and drunk her weight in alcohol at the bar of their own inn. It was far from being a party though. She got increasingly somber and withdrawn as the night went on, snapping aggressively at everyone who so much as breathed in her direction, and when Izumi dragged her to their room, she looked more defeated than Izumi thought she would ever see her. Anko didn’t do despair and self-pity. She was a force of nature, always going forward, always motivated. But in the end, no one could be cheerful all the time.

“The great Sanins,” she was mumbling. “Great Sanins my ass. Great cowards is what they are. Fucking assholes. But we’ll get ‘em. You’ll seeee.”

“Just a few steps further, Anko…”

“You know what? They don’t deserve the village. They don’t deserve us.”

Izumi wrestled with the woman’s clothes and managed to make her drink some water before putting her to bed. She kept repeating that – “they don’t deserve the village and they don’t deserve us”, like a mantra.

It changed only once, as she was on the brink of sleep.

“He doesn’t deserve me.”

Izumi thought Anko was out of it, but she suddenly grabbed her wrist, lighting fast and way too strong for someone so drunk. Izumi yelped as Anko stared at her, unblinking, her eyes glowing in the moonlight.

“He didn’t deserve me. I’m awesome. I am.”

Izumi was confident Anko wasn’t really aware of what she was saying, and that she wouldn’t remember any of that came morning. She put her hand on top of the vice grip Anko had on her wrist.

“You are. You really are. Even more than Tsunade.”

Anko scoffed, but she let go, and finally passed out.

Izumi lied down on her own futon, but she had a hard time falling asleep. Dear everyone, she wrote in her head, you won’t believe what fuckery happened here.

.

It was among those things that you kind of knew, in theory, but it did nothing to alleviate the shock of actually witnessing it.

Sakura was aware on some abstract, intellectual level, that the Fire Country was a prosperous nation, and that Konoha was too. She was aware that it wasn’t the case for every country and village. She was aware that not everybody lived like she did. She had had history lessons, they had studied wars and crisis, famines, invasions, darker times and darker places. She had heard about all that.

But Sakura was also twelve years old and it was already hard for her to picture how her orphan friend lived, it was hard to relate to his constant (illegal) quest for money, and so it was safe to say she had never wasted much thoughts on what was happening even further away from her, in the rest of the world.

So no amount of hard facts and figures she knew – and she knew plenty – could have prepared her to the experience of walking the streets of the main town of Wave Country.

It wasn’t the occasional beggar, it wasn’t nice and less nice neighborhoods – it was everything, everywhere. The stores were empty, sad looking vegetables rotting away at the bottom of lone boxes, clothing racks holding one or two items maximum, if any at all. Everyone looked tired, grim. The women didn’t wear make-up, the kids didn’t wear shoes. It was misery, plain and simple, everywhere she turned her gaze.

She couldn’t help but look. Sasuke had opted for the other option – he kept his eyes firmly trained on the ground. His shoulders were tensed, his face folded in an angry scowl. She swore she could feel his anger steaming out of him. They were following Tazuna around town, having volunteered to help with grocery shopping. Some help did the man need – there wasn’t enough to buy in town that he would need an extra pair of hand to carry it.

There was nothing she could say to comfort her friend. It was weird, because Sasuke was the second heir of the Uchiha clan, he had to know about political struggles and diplomacy, far more than she did. But maybe that was the issue. He had seen it at play many times, and had expressed his frustration at these machinations more than once. Because he was left out of it, sure, but also because he simply didn’t understand them.

She wouldn’t have thought that he would be so affected though. It’s true he was always one to help out, be it his friends, classmates, or the people from his clan. The Uchiha had a strong sense of community. As far as she could tell though, they didn’t extend it to the rest of the village like he did. And most importantly, where they were known to be cunning and moves by ulterior motives. Maybe this was just old prejudice speaking, but the fact remained that he was at odds with his clan most of the times.

He had told them once, very seriously, that he was considered a sociable one among them. The way he had said it, she couldn’t have told if it was supposed to be an insult or a compliment.

It was so funny to her – Sasuke, sociable. Well, it was always a question of perspective. Compared to his relatives, or even to Naruto, he could indeed qualify. That probably made her the friendliest person in the entire world.

Speaking of their least sociable friend, she wondered what he was doing right now. He had refused to come to town with them, claiming he needed to train some more, to catch up with them. He probably just wanted to spend some time alone. She expected it to come sooner, actually – he always retreated to his own company after a while, worn down quickly by interpersonal interactions.

She couldn’t deny they hadn’t insisted as much as they could have, and she had an inkling as to why that was.

“Hey, Sasuke…”

She was interrupted by a hand on her thigh.

If warding off creepy men counted as fighting, she had practiced her skills more in these situations than in an actual ninja context. As it was, her reflexes were on point – she spun around and kicked the man blindly, not bothering to find out who he was and what he was trying to do. He kissed the ground with a painful thud.

Several wallets and wandering bills spilled out of his vest. Somehow, knowing that he was after her money rather than herself didn’t make anything better.

“Let’s move,” Sasuke growled. No one had batted an eye. This was commonplace around here.

A few kids came up to them, hands open, begging for some spare. They tended to gravitate around her, deeming her a safer bet than her scary looking friend, but Sasuke was the one to drop sweets and coins into their waiting hands. They scattered the next instant without a thank you, as if they were afraid he would take back his offerings.

They told Tazuna they would stay out a little while longer, when he suggested going back to his house. He narrowed his eyes at them, suspicious – they couldn’t really make a convincing case of wanting to see more of that awful town. He didn’t ask though.

They half-heartedly looked for a decent-looking café or food court, but in the end they settled for eating their own snacks under a tree, just on the outskirt of the village. It took them a while to get to talking – she always had a hard time addressing him. She still carried that lingering awkwardness when he was concerned, because he was still that cool, better-than-the-rest guy, and she still wasn’t sure, exactly, what he thought of her.

But they needed to talk about this.

“What do you think it was?” he said eventually, once they were out of food and the sun was starting to set, warning them that they would have to head back soon. He lifted his arm, showcasing the five round wounds on his pale skin, made by five sharp claws, a couple of days earlier.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. She was at a loss. Naruto had seemed so strange, so unlike himself. He was often moody and even rude, but he had never, ever tried to hurt any of them. His anger was often directionless – he took it out on training post or laps around the village. This wasn’t like him at all.

And the claws? Damn, what was that about.

“He didn’t look like himself,” Sasuke said. She hummed.

They hadn’t asked Kakashi, knowing full well he would say nothing, as nothing was ever said on that particular matter.

“I was thinking maybe it has to do with… You know. All that stuff. With Naruto,” she said clumsily. They had never broached that subject so broadly. It was something they were both aware of but didn’t discuss, because there wasn’t much to say. There was something with Naruto. They didn’t know what. It didn’t go much further than that.

He cast her an assessing look like he was debating whether or not to ask his next question.

“Doesn’t… Doesn’t Ino know something? About that?”

She couldn’t help but chuckle as his pouting expression. He didn’t like asking things to Ino, and he liked it even less than in their little world, asking things to Ino was inevitable. Everyone knew it. Not many liked it, but not many could escape it either.

Her smile melted with a sigh.

“No. The adults talk about him a lot, but she could never make out why exactly. He’s just… special.”

And probably not in the way Sakura or Sasuke thought he was.

“Could it be a jutsu?” Sasuke asked.

"I've never heard of anything like that but… well. There is weirder stuff out there.”

“Maybe he’s like… half-cat or something.”

“What? That makes no sense!”

“Why not? It would explain the whiskers!”

 They snickered, relaxing a little. It felt nice, after the tension of the past few days.

“We’ll have to investigate,” he said, very serious. She nodded. It felt important somehow that they knew what was going on with Naruto, if only so that they could be prepared.

“I wish he would just… tell us,” she sighed, wistful. They wouldn’t be where they were now if Naruto could just trust them with this.

“Hm.”

He got up and lent her a hand to help her back to her feet as well. They marched back to Tazuna’s house with renewed determination – they would find out what was going on, and they would help their friend.

Whether he liked it or not.

.

“The boy. It’s Naruto, right? Uzumaki Naruto?” Tazuna asked.

Kakashi was so surprised at being addressed by the man, for a moment he didn’t realize the question was for him. Tazuna had been working in silence, mood darkening as workers came to announce him that they had to quit, that they couldn’t handle de pressure anymore, bailing out one by one. The first day, there were at least twenty men working on the bridge. Now they were less than ten.

“Yes.”

Tazuna hummed to himself as he kept methodically hammering in the nails that held the handrail in place. For a man his age, his strength and endurance were remarkable. He was a force of nature.

“You know, there used to be shinobis around here. Good ones, I mean. In my father’s youth, Wave Country was under the protection of a hidden village.”

“Really?” Kakashi asked, curious. It wasn’t Konoha for sure. “Kiri?”

“Uzushio.”

Tazuna stopped his work so that he could look straight at Kakashi, maybe to gauge his reaction.

“We don’t talk about it much anymore. There’s no need to dwell on the past. But the boy’s name rung a bell. They were from there, weren't they? That clan."

Sadly enough, Kakashi probably didn’t know a lot more than the old man about it. The story wasn’t taught much, he didn’t really know why. He had seen Kushina get sad or angry more than once about how her clan and their destroyed homeland had been forgotten so easily by the world in general and by Konoha in particular, with which they were supposed to be close allies.

“He doesn’t know about it,” Kakashi said, as much a diversion as a warning.

“Why not?”

Kakashi didn’t have an answer to that. He had been wondering at it lately. The identity of his parents had been kept a secret for his own safety, but he had still been gifted with his mother’s name. Kakashi was grateful for it, but if he was allowed to be an Uzumaki, what difference did it made to know from which one he descended exactly? He understood why it had to be hidden from the rest of the world.

But why from him?

“You know what,” Kakashi said with a dry laugh. “I have no idea.”

Tazuna frowned but didn’t insist, probably thinking he was being mocked. He didn’t let go of the subject though.

“What about his parents?”

“Dead. Both of them.”

“They were good people, those Uzumakis, or so my father said. We flourished under their protection. Maybe knowing that would do good to that brat. He’s an awful child.”

Kakashi resisted the urge to jump to Naruto’s defense – in a strange way, Tazuna was looking after the boy. Besides, Naruto was kind of terrible, especially to strangers. Especially if one didn’t know him.

Maybe Tazuna was right. Maybe Kakashi could tell him. About his parents, his inheritance, about where he came from. Every day the silence he kept over Minato and Kushina and what they had meant to him weighed heavier and heavier on his mind. It felt like betrayal, to have them ignored like this, like they had never been in his life, like they had never existed. Kakashi had loads of memory to share, and their son could only benefit from them. They could do good for once, these memories, instead of being painful.

“Maybe you’re right.”

.

This forest was very different from the ones he was used too. The trees and plants weren’t the same, but above all it was the whole atmosphere that was unfamiliar. Wave country was very humid, swampy and clouded, and that forest felt more like a jungle than anything.

Naruto was walking aimlessly through the tall trees. The canopy was thick, and seeing how the sun was already shy around there, it felt like the forest was constantly on the brink of darkness, stuck in a surreal twilight, or dawn. It was alive with the sounds of insect, birds and small animals wandering around the bushes – Naruto felt both alone and surrounded, at ease.

He had been in thorough need of some solitude.

The rift that had always existed between him and the others felt more palpable than ever. It was due partly to Sasuke and Sakura’s sudden unwillingness to ignore it any longer – it permeated all of their interactions, this sensation of them always being on the verge of asking, of trying to jump the gap.

Sometimes Naruto thought he would reach out to help them cross. Sometimes he thought he would push them back. He couldn’t make up his mind, and it scared him that their relationship could be redefined just depending on what mood he was in when they would finally crack and speak up. He had hoped to clear his mind a little, but it was proving difficult now that there was nothing to distract him from his spiraling thoughts.

That is, until he stumbled upon someone else.

There was a girl kneeling in the middle of a clearing, picking up herbs and flowers to fill a basket. He wasn’t being stealthy – she raised her head at his approach and gave him a small smile before going back to her task.

He could have kept going, ignore her. But he felt a weird pull toward the stranger, curiosity and attraction making him hesitate at the edge of the clearing.

“Are you lost?”

He startled. Her voice was deeper than he would have guessed. She looked at him expectantly, waiting for an answer.

“No. I’m just wandering around.”

He took a few steps, deciding to give it a go now that she had made the decision for him. He sat down on the ground, not too close, but enough that he could follow the precise movements of her hands, could study her face. Soft, gentle. She was kind of pretty.

“What is that for?” he asked, unnerved by the silence.

“Medicine.”

“Do you make them yourself?”

“Hm. Healing creams, mostly. My friend was hurt. I need to tend to him.”

Naruto was welcome for the distraction of that mysterious stranger, and he grappled at something to say to keep them going a while longer.

“Isn’t it dangerous for a girl to be out there on her own?”

Her eyes widened before she laughed, low and subdued.

"I can't defend myself just fine. Besides, I'm not a girl."

Naruto blushed, embarrassed. The other didn’t look offended though.

“Sorry.”

“I don’t mind. I’m Haku.”

“Naruto.”

“Aren’t you a shinobi, Naruto?”

Haku was pointing at the Konoha headband resting around his neck. Naruto tended to flatten it under the collar of his hoodie, so that it wasn’t so ostentatious. He was, but he didn’t like people identifying him as such at first glance.

It beat being recognized as the Demon Fox on sight, but not by much.

“Yeah.”

“So you must know girls that are very strong too.”

“They’re not girls. Or boys. They’re shinobis,” he said without thinking. Haku seemed startled by his biting tone.

“Is that a bad thing?”

Naruto wondered if that’s how he had made it sound. At a loss, he just shrugged.

“Do you want to help me out?” Haku asked, electing to change the course of the encounter entirely.

“Why not,” Naruto agreed without thinking. It’s not like he had better things to do anyway.

They worked in silence for a while, Naruto following Haku’s instructions, trying to emulate the delicate movements of the other teen. He wasn’t so bad with plants – he had a few of them, and he was the one to tend to Shisui’s small garden, even if they grew nothing more than a few flowers and aromatic plants. Thinking about Shisui brought back their last conversation to the forefront of his mind. He hadn’t really had the opportunity to go back on it, with the chaos of the last few days. There was too much going on right now.

“Are you alright?” Haku asked when they took a break, sharing some water.

“I’m just… thinking.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Sitting there between the flowers, under the protection of the trees, Naruto felt strangely sheltered, at peace. Reasonably certain that there was no threat around for now. There was something about that Haku, Naruto couldn’t explain it. He felt close to that complete stranger, like they were linked somehow. The other didn’t know him, had no expectations over Naruto and what he would choose to share, and Naruto didn’t have much to lose there, wouldn’t care about Haku’s judgment. He was overwhelmed by the turmoil of his emotions, feeling isolated from the world at large, and he needed to talk about it somehow, to let it out.

"I don't know why I'm alive."

He was seized with panic in an instant, mortified at having let that drop so bluntly. Haku didn't look taken aback though, not even a little. Didn’t laugh, or looked at him weirdly, shrugged it off.

Instead, that stranger, about whom Naruto knew nothing about, answered with a wistful tone, full of sorrow and compassion, “ah. I understand.”

Somehow Naruto had no doubt that it was true.

“By all means, it would make more sense if I was dead, and yet…”

“Do you think we need a reason? Maybe we’re just alive, and that’s it.”

Haku didn’t look any more convinced by this than Naruto did.

“No. If we’re alive, it’s just because the ones who have power over us haven’t killed us yet.”

“Maybe they just couldn’t do it,” Haku said. Naruto perceived sadness in that quiet voice, and maybe longing. “Or maybe they just love you.”

Naruto scoffed at that, and Haku smiled too, knowing that it was unlikely. They wouldn’t be wondering, if that was the case, they would be doubting like this.

“Maybe they need you.”

Naruto folded his knees up to rest his chin on top, wrapping his arms around his legs, a parody of comfort against that unpleasant truth.

“It’s nice,” Haku went on, “being needed by someone.”

“Is it though?”

“You don’t think so?”

“I don’t want to help them.”

They were both being as vague as could be, and yet there was an understanding between them. Haku was about his age and it looked like they didn’t lead the same kind of life at all, Naruto would usually have trouble connecting with people like this, and yet….

“Do you?” he asked.

“What?”

“Do you want to help them?”

Haku reflected on it for a while.

“Yes. I’m grateful for the life they’ve given me.”

“I’m not.”

Maybe there laid the heart of the issue.

“Isn’t there someone? Someone you’re grateful for?”

Naruto’s mind jumped to Shisui framed by the door – “you will always be welcome here – to Sakura – “you’re not alone. You’ll never be” – to Sasuke – “I’m not going away”. He was grateful, but he was also bitter, because he had no proof whatsoever, that his life wouldn’t be easier if they were just… not there. Colder and lonelier, yes, but easier.

He was tired of his feelings. He was tired of feeling period.

“Maybe. But they don’t need me.”

They had their families, their lifelong friends, emotional support, love. Naruto didn’t bring much to the table beside troubles and worries.

“If only I was stronger, then I could be free.”

“But you would be alone.”

“I’d rather be alone than chained.”

“Really?”

The tone suggested Haku disagreed.

“You get used to it,” Naruto said, even if he wasn’t sure it was true. Haku smiled.

“Do you? I guess you’re stronger than me then.”

Naruto unfolded and straightened up to look at Haku, who was just staring at him now, indulgent, compassionate. The other teen shifted closer until their knees were touching, raised a hand slowly, up, up, until it rested lightly on Naruto’s face, cupping his cheek.

“I’m sure you’ll find it. The reason.”

The quiet moment stretched into infinity as they stared at each other. Even if the feelings they shared were so grim, their understanding so depressing, Naruto still felt content, satisfied. He wasn’t looking for comfort or a solution – this was enough.

Haku took the hand back eventually and got back up.

“I should get going.”

Naruto nodded dumbly, still a little mystified by the whole encounter.

“I… hope your friend will be alright,” he said, for lack of a better idea. A strange, strained smile passed on Haku’s face.

"Don't worry. He will. Goodbye then, Naruto. I'm sure we'll meet again."

“That… would be nice,” Naruto said without thinking. Haku gave him the same weird, pained smile, but didn’t add anything, and soon disappeared between the trees.

Naruto didn’t move for a while, trying to wrap himself in the lingering feelings of that weird meeting, wondering at some point if he hadn’t just imagined the whole thing. It left a bittersweet taste in his mouth. He wondered why living had to be so damn hard.

.

Just before dinner, Kakashi told them, “we leave tomorrow night.”

It would be their fifth and last day on the island, and honestly Sakura couldn’t wait for it to be over and done with. She wanted to go home, she wanted to leave that gloomy town with its gloomy people, she wanted to be back to safety, relieved of the fear that wouldn’t let her rest since they had been attacked on the road. She wanted things to go back to normal.

Kakashi had said nothing of the fact that they hadn’t heard from Konoha at all. If not backups, they should at least have received an answer of some sort by now. She tried to reassure herself with the idea that he would tell them if there was cause for worry, even if experience had proven that he maybe wouldn’t.

“We’re just going to leave? Just like this?” Sasuke accused. Kakashi answered with a firm “yes”. It wasn’t up for debate. They couldn’t help these people.

They had dinner again with Tazuna and his family. Each meal Sakura felt more and more guilty for the food they wolfed down, exhausted and famished by their intensive training. Tsunami assured them it was fine, and it was true that her family was better off than most of the others, but having money didn’t mean a thing when there was simply no food to buy.

If the woman was agreeable, it wasn’t the case of her son, who glared daggers at Naruto and Sasuke filling their bowls again. They had seen very little of him in the last few days – he avoided being in the same room as them if he could help it. Tazuna had told them about the boy’s adoptive father, about his brutal death and how it had killed how little the island had of courage left. What could they do, if the best of them was eliminated so easily? They had all stopped trying after that.

Except the ones working on the bridge.

“Come on, hurry up, I want to train some more,” Naruto said, mouth full. Sakura clicked her tongue at him and his terrible manners and got a cheeky grin in answer. He was hopeless.

“Why do you even train so much?”

They all turned toward Inari, surprised to hear him talk when he had spent all the other meals locked into obstinate silence. He looked upset.

“To get stronger,” Naruto deadpanned, disdainful. He didn’t like the kid, that much was obvious.

“Why? It won’t change a thing! You can’t beat these men, you can’t…”

“Don’t you dare tell me what I can and cannot do! What do you think I care about this place?”

The boy’s eyes widened as the others gasped. Sasuke looked on the verge of saying something, Kakashi too, but Naruto went on, relentless.

“I want to get stronger, and I will. I’ll get stronger so that no one can stop me, be it these assholes or anyone else. And so that I won’t die, you moron. Who would want to stay weak and helpless all their life?”

“You say that like it’s… like it’s so easy! Weak people can’t just become strong!”

“Well not if they sit on their ass whining all day long they can’t!”

“You don’t know what happened here! You know nothing about us!” Inari yelled.

“I don’t care! What does it have to do with anything? Suffering doesn’t mean you get a pass. Do you think it’s over? Do you think you were hurt enough that you can know just wallow in self-pity? Because it's never over. Your life will continue to suck and you will keep getting shit. And if you do nothing about it you can shut your mouth and stop complaining!"

“Naruto!” Sakura exclaimed, shocked by the venom in his voice.

“What? The old man and his friends, they’re building his bridge, they’re not doing nothing. And what does this one does besides crying? Kids don't get a pass, no one does!"

He was so worked up over this, completely beside himself with anger. Inari was struck silent, looking small and helpless in face of Naruto’s wrath.

“That’s enough, Naruto,” Kakashi said firmly. Naruto huffed, disdainful, before leaving the table without another word. Inari did the same, albeit in the opposite direction.

“Well, that went well,” Tazuna commented to the bottom of his sake glass. Tsunami rolled her eyes and went to comfort her son. Sakura wanted to join Naruto, to provide comfort too, but he would no doubt reject her attempts at reaching out. He didn’t like to have his feelings on display, preferring to hide altogether when he couldn’t hide them inside of him. She exchanged a look with Sasuke and saw that they were on the same page. They would try to reach out later, when he was calmer. Even if it was doomed to fail, they couldn’t just not try at all.

They scattered around after that to get ready for bed, and as she was changing into her night clothes in the bathroom, Sakura discovered that this mission had decided to suck all the way to the end. There was blood in her underwear.

It was a minor inconvenience, in the grand scheme of things, and yet it almost brought her to tears. At least, since she had started having her periods only a few months ago and it was still pretty erratic, her mother had made sure to pack her some products “just in case”. But still, she felt terribly alone suddenly – she didn’t want to have to deal with this on top of everything.

Especially seeing that she wasn’t at home. Her mother wasn’t here, or her aunt, or Ino. Instead, she was stuck with her boy friends and her boy teacher, and Sakura wasn’t among the lucky women who could get her periods go unnoticed. She didn’t get that many mood swings – no more than usual anyway – but every time her first day had been plagued with mild to terrible period cramps, and seeing how karma was acting lately, she was almost certain her body wouldn’t choose that month to be complacent.

The idea of having to say it aloud to her team filled her with dread. As if on cue, it was the moment Tsunami chose to knock on the bathroom door, asking if she needed anything. Sakura slid the door open just enough that she could talk to the other woman, even if she couldn't meet her eyes.

"I-I need you to tell something to my sensei. Please."

She finished getting ready for bed, trying not to think about the woman announcing her predicament to the jounin. This was so embarrassing – she would probably be bed-ridden the next day, and Naruto and Sasuke would go watch the bridge without her. Would they think she was lazing around? That she was being a huge baby?  She had suffered through training with bruised bones and upset stomach, but period cramps were something else entirely, especially without medicine to get her through it. She shuddered just thinking about it.

All wasn’t lost though, because when she went back to the room they shared, careful to ignore Kakashi’s pointed gaze, Tsunami had a cup of herbal tea ready for her. She said it would help, and that she would give her some more in the morning. Sakura was already feeling sick, but it could have been solely from anticipation, as far as she knew.

When morning came and she couldn’t unfold from her fetal position without whining like a kicked puppy, that wasn’t anticipation for sure.

“Sakura? Are you alright?” Naruto called from above, curious to see her still rolled up in her blankets while they were all bustling around getting ready.

“Sakura isn’t feeling well,” Kakashi said from the other side of the room. “She’ll stay here this morning, she’ll join us later.”

“Really? What is it? Did you eat something bad?”

He sounded concerned.

“We all ate the same stuff,” Sasuke remarked, joining in the guessing game. Sakura groaned, both from pain and embarrassment. Why did boys have to be like that.

“Let’s go,” Kakashi ordered firmly. Just when she thought she had escaped the worst of it, she heard Sasuke whisper to Naruto, "I think it's that girl thing". And Naruto to let out an "oooooh” of great revelation. They kept ushering between themselves, too low for her to hear, mercifully. She had no wish to know what they thought “that girl thing” was exactly.

“We’ll see you later then, Sakura. Get well soon,” Kakashi said awkwardly. Silence soon fell back on the house, to her relief. She just wanted to sleep until it was over, but she had to at least go to the bathroom and drink something.

She stayed bundled up in her blankets all morning as Tsunami went about her chores around the house. Her tea did wonders – the pain was manageable, and even the nausea was kept at bay. Sakura would have to ask her what was in there. The woman had also given her a heating pad filled with rice to press to her stomach, and after a few hours, Sakura was confident that she would be able to regroup with her team soon. She didn’t like the feeling of being left behind, even if it made sense of course. She wanted to be with them.

Inari helped his mother around, while shunning Sakura as obviously as he could. Bored and restless, Sakura took it upon herself to sharpen her weapons, the soothing, repetitive task allowing her mind to wander.

She was lost in a complex fantasy where she traveled the world to rescue people in need and ended up breaking an unknown curse on Naruto that slowly turned him into a beast, when the wooden wall behind her exploded into pieces.

.

It was very weird – and frankly a bit scary – how fast their mind could change track. On the way to the bridge Sasuke had been arguing with Naruto over how much blood it was possible to lose before passing out and dying. The blonde’s estimations were way off tracks. Kakashi had assured them that Sakura would be better in no time, and Sasuke was boosted by the perspective of going back to Konoha soon. Everything suggested that this would be a boring, uneventful day.

It only took a moment, of seeing the workers lying down on the unfinished bridge, bloody and battered, of Tazuna rushing toward one of them, of hearing the poor man try to force a warning passed his throat. Every mundane thought left Sasuke's mind – gone the trip back home, gone the plans for the day, gone his friends’ troubles. Only one thing remained – they were under attack. They were going to fight.

Sasuke couldn’t separate fear from excitement, worry from anticipation. The rush had been so spectacular, right after the masked man had taken Zabuza’s body away, Sasuke had felt light-headed for a while. Now they were going to fight again, and they would win for good this time.

Speaking of which, he was there, the one with the mask, standing by Zabuza’s side. Kakashi had been right about that. He had deceived them indeed.

Sasuke itched to fight him.

It was Naruto who took the lead though.

“I’ll take that one,” he said, stepping forward, kunai in hand. His face was set in stone, undecipherable, and there was an intensity to him that Sasuke had never seen before. He had half a mind to protest, but Kakashi stopped him.

“We’ll have more than enough to do with that one, Sasuke,” his teacher said with a smile that didn’t really had its place here. “Don’t let your emotions got to your head. This isn’t personal.”

Sasuke nodded wordlessly, a bit ashamed of his eagerness. Kakashi was right, this wasn’t training, they weren’t here to have a good time. He had to focus.

“You’re very confident, considering the brat froze like a deer in front of a hunter the last time we met,” Zabuza taunted as Naruto and the other teen seized each other up. The mask was the one to initiate – Naruto blocked a powerful blow, retaliated, only to be blocked in return, and the pair move further down the bridge as they kept exchanging hits and kicks without either one managing to take the upper hand.

“We’ll see,” Kakashi said lightly. Sasuke could only assume his careless attitude was a mean to throw the enemy off, to irritate them. It worked on him anyway – seeing his teacher joke and smile in this situation was jarring. But they had fought Zabuza before and Sasuke had seen then that for all his act, Kakashi was well-deserving of his reputation. He would take this fight as seriously as the last.

“Are you ready, Sasuke? We need to protect Tazuna, and to beat the Demon of the Hidden Mist for good. Good?”

Sasuke took out a kunai and put his guard up, fully focused now on their adversary.

“Good.”

.

Sakura was thrown to the ground, and she didn’t get up. Laying as still as a dead body, she tried to assess what was happening and who had barged into the house like this. She hadn’t let go of the kunai she was sharpening – she had nicked herself on the arm with it and was bleeding steadily on the old wooden floor. She felt an absurd pang of guilt for it, as Tsunami had cleaned it up just a few hours ago.

There were two men. They talked about taking the woman with them, as a hostage. Probably Gato’s men – she would be a good mean of pressure against Tazuna. It looked like Gato had decided to up the ante, and it would no doubt result in all these people being killed.

Sakura had to do something.

She heard Inari tumble into the room, Tsunami threatened to kill herself if they touched him.

“And what about this one?”

Sakura kept a death grip on her instinct to bolt out of there right then. They had no reason to take her alive. She focused all she had on what was happening around her. She heard the tell-tale sound of a sword sliding out of its sheath, and footsteps approach her carefully. She stayed still. Another step, another one…

The man above her was even nice enough to let out a loud “that’ll be one kill at least!” before bringing down his sword.

Sakura rolled on her back and kicked his legs from under his body. Taken completely off guard, the man staggered forward.

She caught him with her own blade.

She had to let go of the kunai buried deep in his stomach, and, unable to locate the rest of her weapons, she fell back on the first thing that came into her sight – his sword.

The second man was already on her, but he was slow, compared to her, and she was small, compared to him. She ducked a sweep of his sword that would have cut her head clean off her body. He was too close for her to wield the sword properly – she wasn’t used to fighting with blades this long.

But at least samurai blades were only sharp on one side, and the man was bare-chested – which was pretty stupid, now that she thought about it. She put the sword horizontally in front of her, the tip against her open palm, and jumped straight toward the man’s stomach.

This sword was a terrible one, and it didn’t go far when it connected with the unprotected skin, but then she pulled it to the side as hard as she could, and that more efficiently cut it open. The men fell to his knees, both hands trying to hold the wound closed with little success. His height was easier to deal with like this – Sakura kicked him in the head.

It clearly wasn’t her own blood that would be the hardest to clean up, she thought distantly.

She needed to make sure both men were out of commission, and if there weren't any other coming their way, but she felt dizzy all of the sudden. She doubled over as her cramps came back full force now that there wasn't enough adrenaline running in her body to keep them at bay. Her arm was hurting too, the cut stretch open by the fight. Most of the blood on her hand wasn't her own though. She retched a few times.

“Sakura, are you alright?”

Kneeling on the floor, folded in half, her forehead resting on the wood, Sakura took a few deep breaths, wrestling her body back under her control. Others would surely come, here or for Tazuna. She needed to bring these people to safety and to join her team. She couldn’t stay here.

“I’m okay, I’m okay. I’m sorry, I’m gonna… I’m gonna need more of that tea, ma'am,” she said weakly, her voice breaking on a strangled sob. Sage, this hurt so bad. She didn’t want to move at all.

But she had to.

When she felt confident enough that she wasn’t going to throw up her entire stomach, she sat back on her heels, teeth grinding together to keep a pained groaned in. Tsunami shuffled back in with the tea, that Sakura gulped down in record time. Just the heat soothed her a little, and her mind cleared ever so slightly.

“I need to tend to that,” she said, pointing to her bleeding arm. Tsunami had already brought first aid supplies back from the kitchen. She was crying silently without any sob or hiccup, and she set to task with steady hands. Inari was sitting balled up in a corner, sniffling.

“Are you both okay?” Sakura enquired after a while, as Tsunami finished wrapping her arm tightly.

“We are. Thanks to you.”

“You need to warn the rest of the village. Regroup. You’ll be less vulnerable together. I need to go.”

“What?” Inari shrieked from his corned. “Where?”

“My friends are most likely in trouble. I have to help them.”

“But… but you’re hurt! And… and these guys… They’re strong. And there will be more of them. And…”

“I can’t just stay here. I need to be with my friends. It’s not… it has nothing to do with… with being strong enough, or not. I want us to be together, and to go back home at the end of the day, and know that we did our best, that we had each other’s back, and that we made it. I can’t leave them on their own.”

And I don’t want to be left behind, she thought. She needed to be where they were. That’s where her place was.

“You’ll be alright?” she asked Tsunami. The woman wiped her face and nodded firmly.

“Be careful.”

“I will.”

The first few steps were the worst. After that, it was just a matter of keeping the momentum on. She took the direction of the bridge.

She still had the sword.

.

One of those annoying needles pierced through Naruto wrist, hindering on the movements of his left hand. He was covered in small cuts from the ones that the masked teen kept waving around, determined to, slowly but surely, ruin Naruto's clothes (and skin).

And still, still Naruto couldn’t bring himself to get fully into the fight.

It was the same as before – that man didn’t want to kill him. He didn’t even want to fight. Naruto didn’t understand how he could be so devoid of murder intent while attempting to literally murder him. Or was he, really? He was strong, stronger probably than Naruto was, but he wasn’t fully in it either.

Naruto couldn’t help but wonder why they were even fighting.

It wasn't their problem if Tazuna died, it wasn't their problem what happened to this place, right? So why? Naruto didn’t want to fight this one, and he certainly didn’t want to kill him.

Time to try another seal.

Sasuke notoriously hated that one, but he hated every seal anyway. He found them supremely unfair. Naruto maintained he was just sour that the couldn't master any.

Naruto blocked a kunai with his weakened hand, his arm shuddering and almost giving in under the force of the impact. He grabbed the teen's arm with his other hand, just above his elbow, fingers digging into pale, tender skin.

"Fuinjutsu. Phantom Limb Seal."

When he let go, his opponent's right arm fell to the side, as if paralyzed.

He had gotten better at controlling the range of its effect, since the very first time where they had lived an hour of intense panic during which Sasuke had lost the use of his right leg completely. Naruto had kept assuring him it would wear off, while having a major freak out over the possibility that it wouldn't. Sasuke had regained control of his leg eventually, and Naruto had developed a counterseal.

Not that he needed that one here. The masked man was one arm down. That put a huge advantage on Naruto's side.

Or so he thought, until the guy started making hand seals with only one hand.

Dammit.

The water that covered the ground suddenly rose into deadly ice needles that rushed toward Naruto. He cursed, jumped out of the way. Some needles followed him, scratching his skin and adding a dozen more tiny wounds to his body. At this rate, he would soon have the practical answer to his debate with Sasuke over blood loss and unconsciousness.

Having only one arm of use was still a hindrance to the other boy, even if he was as dexterous with his non-dominant hand. Naruto managed to get a good punch in, but he was the one to hurt himself on the mask, which was far harder and sturdier than he would have thought. Still, his opponent stumbled backward, and Naruto took the opportunity to kick him hard in the stomach, sending him to the ground a few meters away.

The boy got up, but instead of charging back in, he stepped back even further and raised his valid hand to form seals.

Naruto ran, intent on stopping him before he could complete it, but he was stopped dead in his track by the masked teen speaking up for the first time since the beginning of their fight.

"I'm sorry, Naruto."

It made so obvious sense suddenly, Naruto wondered how he hadn't get it before.

He knew that voice.

“Ice Release, Crystal Ice Mirrors!”

This very moment, a hand gripped his shoulder.

.

It occurred to Sasuke, as he deviated yet another shower of shuriken coming his way, that he had never had a real fight until now.

He had fought plenty of course. He had fought all the members of his family, he had fought all his friends, he had fought most of his classmates. But it was training. No matter how brutal it was, no matter how willing they were to create real mission conditions, they were still his family, his friends, his classmates. He knew that they wouldn’t seriously try to kill him, as they knew he wouldn’t seriously try to kill them.

That string of shuriken was one he had dodged a hundred times, but they hadn’t been thrown with the intention of teaching him how to escape them. This time, they had been thrown fully intended to embed themselves into his body.

It made a world of difference. His emotions were running high, and he felt simultaneously more stressed out and more focused than ever before in his life. The man, Zabuza, had fallen silent since he had made that mist descend over them, and if Kakashi couldn't use his Sharingan in these conditions, it was worse for Sasuke, who had been told more than once that he relied too heavily on his sight, dojutsu or not. The Sharingan allowed him to react fast enough to things piercing the mist barely a meter away from his face, but he knew that it was possible to do that even without sight. Proof enough, Zabuza had his eyes closed, and he was dominating the fight completely. To make matters worse, Sasuke could barely hear Naruto’s fight anymore, and it worried him. He wanted to go help him, to do something, but he had to protect Tazuna. Kakashi had said he had a way to find Zabuza in the mist, and Sasuke hadn’t seen him since.

The tension and the unknown were driving him crazy. What was happening out there?

His ears picked on a new, foreign sound. Another pair of feet hitting the damp ground, coming toward him. Reinforcement? They seemed to be headed straight toward him. A few meters more…

Sasuke spun around on one leg, ready to strike.

Sakura shrieked and blocked his kunai with a bloody sword.

“Sakura! What the… I could have killed you!”

“I didn’t see you!”

He put down his arm and took a shaky breath. They were lucky she had good reflexes – and a freaking sword of all things.

“Where did you find this? What happened to you?” he asked, noticing the bandages and blood on her arms.

“Some men came to the house. Your family is fine,” she added to Tazuna.

“And you?”

“I’ll live,” she said, stubborn. She was swaying on her feet, obviously exhausted, but in that instant Sasuke was convinced she wouldn’t fall, no matter what happened.

“I need to go help Naruto. Can you stay here?”

“I’ll watch over him. Go.”

“Kids…” Tazuna tried to intercede weakly. Sasuke didn’t even wait for him to utter another sound. He ran through the fog toward where Naruto and the masked teen had disappeared, trying to make as little sound as he could while listening for the rumor of their fight. The fog quickly unraveled the further he got from Zabuza, and soon enough he was able to make out Naruto’s silhouette on the bridge. His opponent was staying a few meters away, far enough that Sasuke could approach safely. He was about to call out Naruto’s name, a hand on his shoulder, when…

“Ice Release, Crystal Ice Mirrors!”

“What the… what are you doing here?”

“I came to help!”

“I don’t need your…”

“Now really isn’t the time for you to fight.”

In a few seconds, they found themselves trapped in a prison of… ice? Ice panels, on all sides. The masked man was outside the structure – Sasuke thought he was going to step in, but instead he disappeared in one of the ice blocks, only to reappear, multiplied, on each one of them.

Huh.

“What the hell is that,” Naruto mumbled, clearly not expecting an answer. The purpose of the techniques became clear soon enough – they were at their opponent’s mercy, as he crossed the space at inhumane speed, needles deadly set on skinning them alive one piece at a time.

Sasuke tried a fireball, with no success – his fire wasn’t strong enough against such a powerful jutsu. They were effectively trapped in there.

Sasuke turned the full force of his Sharingan into trying to piece out the man’s movement. He needed to see.

Naruto, for his part, wasn’t being of much use – he kept trying to punch the glass or pass through the cracks between the panel. Each time the enemy was there to kick him back in. After a particularly violent punch, Sasuke heard a sickening crack. Naruto had broken his hand on the ice.

“Naruto, stop that! Obviously it’s not going to work!”

He wasn’t listening. Sasuke didn’t understand why he was acting so stupidly all of the sudden. He wasn’t the most brilliant strategist, but he usually fought smarter than that. Sasuke marched toward him, determined to stop this nonsense. He grabbed Naruto’s shoulder, forced him to turn around.

Whatever he was expecting, it certainly wasn’t this. He would have been hard pressed to say which one was more shocking between the two – that the blue of his eyes had given way to blood red, or that he was crying.

“Let me out.”

He wasn’t looking at Sasuke. He wasn’t looking at anything.

“Let me out.”

Tears were spilling out of his eyes, rolling onto his cheeks, but he didn’t look like he had noticed. He didn’t look like he was there at all.

“I’m sorry, Naruto,” came the voice of their enemy. “I can’t do that.”

“Let me out, let me out!”

Naruto was getting increasingly agitated, edging closer and closer to properly enraged. Sasuke was at a loss as is friend kept screaming and begging, breaking down right in front of him.

“Naruto…”

Focused solely on the other boy, Sasuke noticed too late the masked man charging Naruto, needle ready to strike. Without thinking, he shoved Naruto out of the way, receiving the full weight of the other man’s body. The air was punched out of his lung – he rolled away on the ground, disoriented, and for a moment he lost reign over his body, lying limply on the cold ground, as he tried to regain a sense of what was happening around him, blinded by pain and confusion. There was a needle in his neck. He struggled to take a breath in, trying to fight off panic when his vision began to sway, his limbs refused to move. The man would come back any second. He had to get up, had to…

Something exploded.

.

The Demon’s chakra ripped through the air, tinting the world a bright, bloody red.

 

Chapter Text

Naruto opened his eyes, and he saw a cage. 

He saw bars cutting the world in uneven shreds, a world he could no longer be part of. It was on one side of the bars, and he was on the other. He would always be. He couldn’t get out. He was trapped.  

Naruto woke up in the middle of the night and felt the walls close around him, Naruto heard the sound of a key turning into a lock and he forgot how to breathe. 

Naruto tried to escape the ice, and he couldn’t. He was trapped, again. Caged, again. 

“Let me out.” 

Let me out.  

“Let me out!” 

Let me out!  

No!  

I can help. Let me out. I’ll help you.  

No, no!  

We’ll stay trapped here if you don’t let me!  

Naruto punched the ice again. A bone broke. He didn’t feel it. 

He had to get out, or it would be the fox who did. The demon was howling and shaking its cage, screaming inside his mind, and Naruto’s grip on his own sanity was so tenuous, and he was so mad, and scared, and desperate. He had to get out, he had to get out before… 

Sasuke pushed him. Haku – because it was Haku, Haku from the forest, so nice and sweet, so familiar somehow, without a face but still the same – slammed into Sasuke,  stabbing a needle in his throat. Sasuke crashed on the ground. 

For a split second, Sasuke didn’t move. 

A split second was all it took. 

He didn’t want to say that he had underestimated Zabuza, but he definitely had. 

Kakashi had been warned before that his confidence would cause him trouble someday, and he wished the prophecy had chosen a fight with lower stakes to manifest itself. He still had his dog summons, and he had spilled enough blood onto Zabuza’s blades that they would be able to locate the man, but he couldn’t say the tactic was refined, or even sound. Because there was actually a lot of blood involved, and the longer this fight ran, the more disadvantaged he was.  

His hearing was far from being good enough to compensate for his lack of sight – another thing he had been warned he relied too much upon. He had made the same remark to Sasuke, and really, were teachers fated to give advice they failed to follow? 

“This is becoming quite boring, Kakashi,” Zabuza’s voice said through the fog. “Why don’t we get this over with?” 

Kakashi heard something, somewhere in his back and… 

Shit. The other two.  

Sasuke could handle himself, but he wouldn’t hold long against the man. Kakashi rushed back blindly. That damn fog was such a pain.  

He spotted the tall silhouette of Tazuna, and next to him was… 

It wasn’t Sasuke. It was Sakura.  

She was making too much noise, asking what was going on, where was everyone. Kakashi picked up the pace, but Zabuza had a length on him. He was already on them. 

Kakashi wouldn’t reach them in time. He wouldn’t reach them in time. 

Zabuza raised his sword above his head, brought it down right on Sakura’s frozen form, set to split her skull in half.  

The sword went through her head. 

It went through her body. It planted itself in the ground, making concrete fly. 

She was unharmed. She hadn’t moved. 

Her image wavered. 

The next second she and Tazuna were standing just a few steps back, far enough that the sword had missed them completely, but close enough that Sakura could take advantage of Zabuza’s surprise to jump him. 

He avoided her blade, but not without having to let go of his own sword still embedded into the concrete. Kakashi didn’t leave him enough time to disappear back into the mist. He smeared blood on his scroll, slammed it to the ground. 

“Summoning! Doton, Tracking Fang Technique!” 

His dogs made quick work of immobilizing the man. 

Damn, Kakashi was getting too old for this.

“Are you alright, Sakura?” he asked when he reached the girl. She was shaking, but her grip was firm on the sword she had in hand. Where did it come from and what was she doing here, he would find out later. 

“Y-yeah. Yeah, I’m good.” 

“That genjutsu was very good, Sakura.” 

“I just… I can make it just on a very short distance but…” 

“But it was enough. You did well.” 

Later too the lecture on how she could have spared a heart attack to her old, weary professor. He couldn’t believe she had pulled off such a neat trick – the mist had helped to reinforce her illusion while hiding the real persons standing behind. She had added sound to the mix to make sure Zabuza would fall for it, and he had.  

“I’ll take care of it from here. Go assist Sasuke and Naruto, will you?” 

She nodded and disappeared into the fog, Tazuna on her heels. 

“Looks like the kids aren’t that bad, don’t you think?” he asked Zabuza, who was covered in ninken. The fact that the man was even standing was amazing. They were both pretty banged up, but Zabuza was the one who could no longer move. 

"I guess, yeah. For cannon fodder." 

Kakashi frowned. He didn’t want to drag this longer than it needed to. Zabuza needed to be put down – because he was a major threat to several villages, but also because as long as he was alive, Kakashi couldn’t take his team safely back home, and right now, it was his only priority. 

“This won’t be their fate,” he declared, as he concentrated chakra into his palm. 

“You’re way too attached to these kids of yours, Kakashi. It will cost you one day.” 

“I don’t believe in a heart of stone.” 

“That’s why Konoha shinobi are so fucking weak. Always running after their friends. Ruled by their feelings.” 

“Aren’t you attached to your kid?” 

Zabuza scoffed. 

“Haku served me well, but I’ll find another one, if I have too.” 

“You won’t have the chance.” 

He wouldn’t be able to use the technique more than once, but once was all it took. 

Just when he was about to complete the jutsu, a wave of malevolent chakra washed over them.

Kakashi recognized it immediately. For a wild second of blind panic, he thought the seal had failed. But it wasn’t broken. Just… loosened, somehow. 

It lasted only a few seconds. Calm fell back on the bridge, but it wasn’t reassuring in the least. Zabuza raised his head, listening. 

Whatever he heard, it brought a drastic change in his demeanor. He seemed to grow bigger all of the sudden, possessed by renewed strength. 

“You know what, Kakashi? I think I lied.” 

He ducked and leaped forward, shaking the dogs off him, their hold weakened by the change of chakra in the air. He bypassed Kakashi to get to his sword.  

He was going after the kids. 

“Fucking shit.” 

Kakashi dashed after him. 

This wasn’t Naruto. 

Sasuke was sure of it. That boy with growing fangs and sharp claws, with red eyes and the slit pupils of a cat, with red chakra pouring out his body, it couldn’t be Naruto. Not the Naruto he knew, his friend, moody and brash and so endearing to him, who tried so hard not to care and did anyway, he wasn’t there, in the inhumane cry that tore itself out of his lungs, in the brute, devastating strength that blew the ice panels to pieces where nothing had been able to so much as scratch them before. 

This couldn’t be Naruto, because Naruto didn’t scare Sasuke. 

Their enemy was as taken aback as he was, and there was nothing he could do against that kind of power. The thing that had taken Naruto’s shape and form punched him hard enough to send him flying, and by the time the teen had gotten back to his feet, not-Naruto was already on him, readying a fist, and… 

There was a sound. 

Sasuke registered the sound before the images. The sound was easier to piece out, conveyed with much more clarity what had just happened. A sickening, wet crunch, skin tearing, bones breaking, flesh being torn apart. 

He heard footsteps in his back, heard Sakura calling out his name. He got back on his feet despite his dizziness and intercepted her before she could get closer. 

“Where’s Naruto?” she asked, distressed. Wordlessly, Sasuke turned toward their friend. 

The red chakra was receding. Naruto seemed to come back to himself. He stared at the man in front of him, incredulous. They had the time to exchange a few words, before he withdrew his arm – the other dropped to the ground. Naruto looked around him, disoriented and confused, eyeing with increasing panic the blood covering his arm and chest, the still body on the ground. 

He finally spotted Sasuke and Sakura where they were standing a few meters away, staring at him with disbelief. Sakura was in Sasuke’s back, and Sasuke felt the urge to thrust his arm out to stop her from moving, from approaching the other boy. Naruto’s eyes were blue again – they were wide and unfocused, shining with upcoming tears. He opened his mouth, probably to ask what was going on, but he didn’t manage to let out a sound. He took step toward them. 

And then, something happened. Or well, Sasuke did something. It wasn’t conscious, purely a reflex, out of shock, and fear, and confusion, but he did it nonetheless, something so small and so terrible, something he would come to regret bitterly. 

Naruto took a step forward.  And Sasuke, Sasuke took a step back. 

The smallest step, but Naruto noticed. Sasuke knew he noticed, because he stopped dead in his tracks. His eyes widened even more, and for a second he wore his broken heart on his face and Sasuke received the full force of his pain, of his life-old sorrow and misery. 

The next moment, it was gone. As was everything else. The shock and puzzlement were wiped out of his face. He stood up straight, his face closed off entirely. His eyes devoid of any feelings. 

Sasuke couldn’t tear his eyes away, he couldn’t move at all. He needed to though. He needed to comfort his friend, reassure him, to tell him it was fine, it was okay, everything was fine. He didn’t. He stayed rooted to the spot. 

Eventually, Naruto looked away. Turned away, from them both. 

When Naruto woke up, it was to the beautiful face of Haku, ashy and deformed by agony, coughing up blood in his face. 

The next thing he saw, looking down, was his own arm buried above the elbow into Haku’s chest. 

He wished he could go back to sleep then, wished he could close his eyes and wake up in another place, at another time. But grief and sorrow didn’t bring out the fox like anger did. It was nowhere to be found, locked back in its prison, leaving Naruto on his own to face what they had done. 

“Why are you… Why is it you? Why are you here?” 

Haku smiled, fucking smiled, all bloody and dying

“What would you do… Naruto… what would you do, for the first… the first one that didn’t think you were a monster?” 

Naruto choked up on a strangled sob, tears burning his eyes, blurring his vision. He blinked furiously. He wanted to see Haku’s face. 

“I’m sure...” 

It was difficult for Haku to speak, because there was a hole down there were a heart should have been. 

“I’m sure you’ll find it. The reason.” 

And then, easily and without any more of a fuss, Haku died. 

Naruto had to push with his other hand to get his arm out. The body dropped to the ground, lifeless and still. Blood and flesh clung to Naruto’s clothes and skin, and he felt sick, his stomach turning on him, gripped by nausea. He was panting, unable to bring air into his lungs, his throat knotted around a sob that wouldn’t come out. Terrified, Naruto looked around him frantically, trying to make sense of where he was, of what was happening. 

He finally noticed Sasuke and Sakura standing there, staring at him. 

Right, they could help. They would know what was going on and what to do. Naruto was so lost, he just needed to know, for them to tell him, he needed to make sense of these things that weren’t making sense at all. 

Naruto took a step forward. 

And then, he saw. The fear, on their face, in their eyes, in the step Sasuke took backward, away from him.  

Away. From him. 

It all came crashing down. 

Of course, of course. It was clear now. How could he forget? Naruto was a monster. And now, his two friends knew. Sasuke had seen him. They knew. 

Naruto turned their back on them, so that he wouldn’t see their face, so that they wouldn’t see his. 

How foolish he had been, to think he could hide forever. How terrible of him not to tell them, not to warn them, of what they were getting into, of the danger he represented. He had been wrong. And this is what he got for it. 

Fear in their eyes. Fear, of him. 

There was a scream. 

Animal, chilling, full of wrath and sorrow, and then fast, heavy footsteps on the bridge, flying right toward Naruto. After a moment he realized the scream was saying Haku’s name. 

Zabuza broke through the mist, wild eyes set on his prey. Naruto thought about ducking, about stepping back or lifting a kunai to stand between his head and the sword swinging fast in his direction. 

He didn’t move. 

It all happened in a blur. Suddenly Kakashi was here, between Naruto and Zabuza. The world was illuminated with blinding white light, filled with the chirping of a thousand birds. 

“Chidori!” 

The lightning was coming from Kakashi’s own hand – it opened a gaping hole in Zabuza’s chest. 

Silence fell back on the bridge.  

Zabuza was staring right at Naruto, eyes alive with a storm of emotions that made Naruto dizzy. “I’m grateful,” Haku had said, “for the life they have given me.” 

He wondered if he would have been that devoted to someone, for giving him a purpose in life. Was it love? It had to be, for them to die for one another like this. Zabuza stared at him and Naruto couldn’t look away. Here was another monster, right before his eyes, an abomination, that everybody wanted dead. 

He looked very sad. 

“Ha,” he exhaled, what would have been a laugh if he wasn’t on the verge of dying. “I see why Haku was so fond of you.” 

Naruto suffered a horrible sense of déjà vu as Kakashi drew his arm back and the man sagged to the floor, right by his companion’s side. 

“Ninjas don’t have emotion, they say…” Zabuza muttered, managing to move his arm just enough to brush Haku’s hand. They would have been looking at each other, if their eyes could still see anything. “No emotion my ass. Damn, we’re such… such fools. Such…” 

The man fell silent. He was dead. 

They were dead. Life had deserted both their bodies, never to return. Gone from this world, forever silent and still. 

This was all so absurd.  

Why. Why were they dead. What was the point, what had it accomplished. Why did people fight. What were they doing here. 

“Are you okay, Naruto?” 

Kakashi’s voice seemed to be coming from far, far away. Naruto didn’t want to hear it again, so he forced himself to look away from the two corpses and to his teacher’s face, drab with concern and exhaustion.  

“You know what your problem is, sensei? You’re always either too early or too late.” 

Kakashi would never know for sure, would never have the absolute certitude, that Naruto wasn’t going to move.  

The boy looked away like he couldn’t bear to look at Kakashi anymore. Or couldn’t bear to be looked at. He avoided his friends’ gaze too, looked down at the ground. 

Until he spotted it. 

A few steps away, Naruto crouched down to pick up the mask worn by Zabuza’s companion, shaken off during the fight. Kakashi could only speculate about what had happened, based on how much blood covered Naruto’s body and the chakra that had burst out back then, heavy and dark and unmistakable. For whatever reason, Naruto had lost control. He had killed the other teen. 

And Sasuke and Sakura had most likely been there. 

Naruto stood back up and lifted the mask to his face. He tied the red ribbons behind his head. When the turned back to them, his face was gone from sight. 

“Naruto…” Sakura pleaded, taking a step forward. She crossed the distance between them, but when she raised her hands to reach out, to check for her teammate’s injury, Naruto stepped back. He didn’t go as far as to swat her hands away, but he avoided her touch neatly. She let out a wounded sound, distressed. 

The day wasn’t over though. 

There was a commotion from each side of the bridge. On one side, a group of mercenaries armed to the teeth, led by a short man in a suit. On the other side, dozens of villagers, armed too, with what they were able to find, farm tools and kitchen knives. Tazuna’s daughter and grandson were among them.  

They all looked ready to fight it out. 

“I see you’ve gotten rid of the Demon,” the man in the suit said with a satisfied smile. “That’s one problem that took care of itself it seems. Thank you for that.” 

Kakashi assumed this was the infamous Gato – the way the villagers were looking at him sure suggested it. Disaster was coming to them fast. It would be a bloodbath if this devolved into a fight, but they couldn’t just leave this place to its fate, not after all that had happened. The kids wouldn’t stand for it.  

If Naruto fought again in his state though, there was no telling what would happen. Kakashi was far from being in top form, and if he couldn’t stop the boy… 

“There, there, there, people. I would advise against trying to defy me. No one will blame me for crushing down a mutinous rebellion. I’ll have you all killed,” Gato continued. It was hard to say if he was as confident as he sounded – the villagers were poorly armed, but there was a number of them, and they didn’t look like they were going to step back. 

A conclusion Gato seemed to reach too, because he turned to the Konoha ninja then. 

“Hey, you? What would you say about working for me? I’ll pay you. I’ll even put in some extra for killing these two?” he said confidently, pointing at the Kiri ninjas on the ground. “What do you…” 

From behind Kakashi, a kunai flew through the air, a shimmer in the dim light he barely registered before it was buried into Gato’s neck. 

Kakashi didn’t waste time watching the outcome of that particular hit – the man was already dead. He spun around to face his team, the three fucking children that were getting sick over an eating contest the day before and embarrassed over periods this morning, and were now avoiding his gaze, looking down or to the side, faces closed off, unreadable. 

“Who…” 

Kakashi didn’t bother to finish the question. The message was clear in their rigid posture, in their fleeting gaze. He would never get an answer. 

He was so unbelievably tired all of the sudden. 

Gato’s men hesitated, but they didn’t look like they would leave without a push. Kakashi had enough chakra to burst out a few dozen clones. Added to the angry villagers screaming at their face, the mercenaries, who were nothing but worthless criminals, beat a hasty retreat, leaving their dead leader behind, abandoning the fight.  

Just like that, it was all over. 

Kakashi felt depleted, completely dried out of any force and will. He had a hard time wrapping his head around how spectacularly bad things had turned out. It was barely conceivable, it didn’t make sense.  

He didn’t think he still had it in him to be angry at how unfair the world could be sometimes. 

“Kakashi…” Tazuna began when he reached the ninja, but he didn’t go any further, didn’t find anything to say.  

“Your people will be fine now, I hope. We will rest a bit, and we will be on our way.” 

The old man nodded, somber. 

“We will bury them,” he said, pointing at Kakashi’s back. Naruto was sitting near the boy – Haku? He was folded up tight, arms wrapped firmly around his knees. He had his back to Kakashi, but the red ribbons were a stark contrast against his blonde hair – he was still wearing the mask. 

Kakashi hated that he knew exactly why. 

He still missed his sometimes. Especially when his emotions were running high, when he couldn’t keep them as hidden as he would have wanted. Gai had always hated it – always asked him to remove it, it was the first thing he asked, when they met and Kakashi was fresh from duty, still in his Anbu gears, but most importantly, his Anbu mindset, this other person that had a much easier life than he did. Gai hated it – always he clicked his tongue and lifted the mask, gentle but suffering no protest. “Why do you need to take it off?” Kakashi had asked, once. “You know it’s me.” 

Gai had looked sad then, like he did sometimes when they were alone and he saw something in Kakashi that he himself couldn’t decipher. “No,” he had answered. “No, I don’t.” 

It made sense. Kakashi didn’t really know who he was either back then. 

But who would do that for Naruto? Who would he trust enough to let the mask slip? He was so guarded, alone in the crowd. Had anyone ever seen him cry? 

“Come on, Sakura, Sasuke, Naruto. We’re leaving.” 

They glared at him, incredulous and hurt, wondering how he could set them back in motion so casually, when all they wanted to do was experience the full unraveling of their raging emotions in peace. But it was a luxury they didn’t have. It would have to wait until they were back home. Maybe shinobi couldn’t truly suppress their emotions, but they still had to keep them at bay, ignore them as long as the mission was not over, as long as they could still put them in danger. 

They didn’t say a word as they went back to Tazuna’s house, or what was left of it. Kakashi would have had them departing immediately, if he believed the kids could take more than two steps without collapsing. They needed to rest. 

They cleaned up as best as they could, tended to their many wounds, changed their bloody clothes to cleaner ones, even if it would take far more than that to wash off their reddened hands. The silence was like a physical force between them, thick and oppressive, as effective as if they were underwater, where they couldn’t have spoken even if they had wanted too. They ignored the hole in the living room and as they gathered their things, packed their bags. Kakashi sent them to rest in the room they occupied. They didn’t complain. They didn’t say a thing. 

He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep, and he wondered if they would. 

He busied himself with helping Tazuna’s family cleaning up the house, once they were back from the village celebrating their newfound freedom. He spent the night on the dock, looking at the stars. Maybe he dozed off. He had unpleasant dreams. 

The kids didn’t emerge until the next morning. They ate breakfast without much enthusiasm, quiet and grim.  

Naruto was still wearing the mask. 

Kakashi saw no reason to delay their departure. He made their goodbyes to the family – Sakura and Sasuke made the effort too. Inari planted his feet in front of Naruto, just as they were taking the way to the docks. 

“I will fight,” he said firmly, voice and face set in determination. They stared at each other for a long while. The boy seemed unbothered by the mask – maybe he was too young to rely that much on expressions he didn’t understand anyway. Maybe it was even easier for him to talk to Naruto that way. 

He didn’t get an answer, but he didn’t seem to be waiting for one. Freed from Gato’s oppression, the country would maybe rise from its ashes – as long as they didn’t fall under yet another wannabe dictator. 

Selfishly, Kakashi realized he didn’t exactly care. 

They took the boat again. The bridge was still a few weeks away from completion, but nothing would stop it now. The next time they came to this place, it would probably be very different from what it was now. If they ever came back. Tazuna told them to. Kakashi said maybe they would, but it felt like lying. 

The kids held on all the way across the sea, and a few minutes into the road, once they were sure they were alone, that Wave Country was truly behind them. 

It was Sakura who spoke first, as usual. She was quite possibly the bravest of the three. 

“You have to tell us what it was. What happened.” 

He almost denied, or played dumb, just in case she would let it go, in case she was unable to voice it properly. But there was a good chance she wouldn’t be, and he didn’t want to disappoint them even more. The trust they had in him was frayed enough, damaged enough. 

He cast a look at Naruto, to see if he would stop him. The mask was still down, so Naruto looked at him, but it was impossible to tell what he thought. Kakashi understood his old friend’s frustration now – that mask was infuriating. Kakashi needed to see Naruto’s face, he needed to see the damage, see how bad a shape he was in. 

He needed to see the blue of his eyes. 

He figured the boy would intervene if he didn’t want the story to be spilled. It was too late anyway, wasn’t it? Both Sakura and Sasuke had seen, first hand, what Naruto was, and what he was capable of. 

Kakashi wouldn’t lie to them any further. 

“The Nine-Tailed Fox was defeated on the night of his attack on Konoha, by the Fourth Hokage. Defeated, not killed. No man can kill such a Beast. So he was sealed away. In a child.” 

A baby, barely a few hours old, and already the fate of their entire village on his shoulders – in his belly. A fate sealed as was sealed the Demon inside his tiny body. A fate that was exposed today for his friends to see.  

“Wh-what?” 

“This is what you saw. The manifestation of its will. Its chakra and power.” 

Its ability to invade Naruto’s mind, take over his body. A terrible possibility they would need to look into.

Sasuke and Sakura stared at the back of their quiet friend, walking a few steps ahead like he didn’t have a care in the world for what they were saying. They didn’t ask anything else. There was so much more to discuss, to explain, but they stayed silent as they walked the way back home. It was just a week ago that Naruto had begged Kakashi on that very road to keep going, not to turn back, because he was so eager to see the outside world, to be free of the constraints of the village’s walls, even for just a little while. Had Kakashi made the wrong choice then? Should they have turned back? Naruto would have hated him, but that would have been better than where they were at now, right? 

What if, what if. 

Shisui opened his front door, intent on going to the store to stock up his worryingly empty shelves, and almost tripped on the dog standing right behind it. 

“Pakkun? What the fuck are you… I almost stepped on you!” 

It took only a few seconds for Shisui to catch on with the program and work out that Kakashi’s number one dog’s presence at his doorstep was more worrying than annoying. 

“What is it?” 

“Team 7 is on its way back. Kakashi sent me ahead. To warn you.” 

“Is Naruto alright?” 

Tenzo had been mocking him constantly for the past few days, for what he said was his “obvious mothering freak out”. Shisui had maintained he wasn’t that worried, until even Itachi had caught up on it and started to make fun of it too – and for Itachi to catch up on things, they had to be pretty obvious indeed.  

Fuck it all but yes, yes, he was worried, and it looked like he had had the right idea. 

“Is he hurt?” 

“Not physically.” 

Shisui cursed.  

He was left to wait out the hours in anxious anticipation, once the dog had summed up to him the events of Wave Country. He still had grocery shopping to do, maybe he should have warned someone else, or gone to meet the team on the way. But he didn’t want to move. He wouldn’t be able to put his mind into any task, and he certainly wasn’t the one who would report the mess of that mission to the Administration. He would leave that to Kakashi – hoping the man would be selective of what he was going to share. 

Shisui could only wait. He had to wait for Naruto to come home. He couldn’t risk not being there when the boy was back. So he tidied up the kitchen and sorted out the laundry, trying to focus on chakra movement around him, even if he wasn’t that good at it. 

Good or not, he immediately picked on Naruto’s presence outside the house. 

He was standing in the street, a few steps away from the door, and, as Kakashi had warned him, he was wearing a mask. 

White, oval, flat, with red swirls curling at the base, and with the Kiri symbol unmistakable on the forehead. He looked like a ghost, or an apparition, silent and motionless in the declining light of the day. A flickering presence that would vanish at the first misstep. 

“Come on in then,” Shisui said simply, trying to sound more collected and confident than he felt. He was scared Naruto wouldn’t enter. That he would run away, disappear, become a spirit haunting these streets, impossible to catch. Shisui went to prepare some tea, both to busy his hands and to give out an impression of normalcy, even if this was anything but. He heard the front door creak open, footsteps inside the kitchen. He forced himself to stay focused on the task at hand. 

When he turned back, here was Naruto, standing motionless in the middle of the room, the still face of his mask turned to Shisui, creepy and unsettling. Shisui took a deep breath, and a step forward. 

Another, another, until he was standing in front of Naruto. Slowly, slowly, as careful as if he was trying to catch a bird or diffuse a trap, he lifted his hands to Naruto’s face, scared out of his mind that he was going to snap and run away. His left hand came to rest at the shin of the mask, the other reached back, to the red knot, tugging to loosen the ribbon. 

Gently, gently, he lifted the mask away from Naruto’s face. 

Naruto was staring at him, his blue eyes wide and shining, unblinking. For a moment they didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t even breathe it seemed, time stopped as they both waited to see what was going to happen, how this was going to play out. Shisui was the one to break the silence. He couldn’t bear it. He had to tell him. 

“I’m so glad you’re back home, Naruto,” he said softly, trying to convey somehow how very serious he was, how relieved he was that the boy was here in front of him, more or less unharmed. 

Naruto’s breath hitched. He opened his mouth. 

“I…” 

He had never looked so young, so vulnerable. Never looked the scared child he actually was in the end, that was always hidden away, buried under his armor. 

“I’m…” 

One choked sob, two.  

Naruto dissolved into tears. 

He was the one to close the distance between them, to mash his face into Shisui’s shirt and grip at the fabric with desperate strength, like he was holding onto the wall of a great pit, the ground gone beneath his feet, seconds away from the fall. He wasn’t silent, nor restrained – he was whining like a toddler, loud in the stilted air. He was bawling his eyes out. 

It felt like he would never stop.  

Shisui lost the battle against his own tears but managed to keep the sobs at bay, as he wrapped his arms around the small boy, as he hunched over to rest his face in his hair, to try and take him whole, shield him from the entire world. And Naruto just cried, and cried, and cried. 

“Sasuke? Can I come in?” 

The boy was lying face down on his futon. He emitted a grunt muffled by his pillow, letting his brother decide if it was a yes or a no. Itachi opted for a yes and went to kneel by his side. 

“The parents got a sense that your mission in Wave Country went awry, but they couldn’t get much information. They asked me to collect data. Are you alright?” 

Instead of answering, Sasuke rolled around to face Itachi. He buried his face in his thigh, curled on himself against him. Surprised, Itachi waited a little, to see if he was going to roll away just as fast, but he didn’t look like he wanted to move. Itachi rested a tentative hand in his brother's hair, intent on providing comfort, even if he didn’t know how, or for what.  

“Itachi… Did you know about Naruto? About what… what he is, for real?” 

Now that was an uncomfortable question. Itachi sighed. He didn’t want to lie. 

“I…yes. Yes, I knew.” 

He expected it to be the reason Sasuke was upset, that maybe he was mad, now that he understood people around him – including his family – most likely knew and said nothing. Sasuke didn’t get angry though. He just curled up tighter. 

“I did something. Something bad.” 

All they knew was that their nice, walk-in-the-park C-ranked mission had turned into an A one really fast. Kakashi had refused to share anything about it with Fugaku, arguing that it was up to Sasuke to tell them. Kakashi was all for that letting kids make their own decision thing – especially when it could get him out of unpleasant situations.  

“What happened?” Itachi nudged gently, running his hand in the dirty hair. Sasuke had face planted on his futon a few hours ago, right after coming back, and had not moved since. 

“I’m not scared of him. I’m not. Who would be scared of stupid Naruto? I was just surprised. At that moment, maybe… I just didn’t understand. But I would never… I didn’t mean to be scared.” 

“Sasuke, what…” 

“I took a step back,” he said whispered, low and ashamed. “I took a step back. He needed help, and I… I…” 

Itachi realized, a little bewildered, that Sasuke was crying. 

He was trembling under his hand, silent tears spilling out of his eyes, sliding down onto the futon. He wasn’t trying to hold them back or wipe them away. Sasuke didn’t cry as much as he did as a kid, but tears were still a common side effect of his anger or frustration. 

Itachi would have been hard pressed though, to name the last time he had seen Sasuke cry out of distress, out of sadness. He was more easily angry than sad, and he didn’t like to be shown comfort, as all Uchiha. 

He was crying now though. And he was seeking comfort. 

Itachi didn’t know what to do, much less what to say. He couldn’t think of anything that woudn’t be a lie. He couldn’t say things like “things will be fine” or “you’ll be okay”, because what did he know? Naruto had been scared his friends would reject him, and even if it was only for a moment, that was exactly what had happened. Would he hear an apology, an explanation, now that he had been proven right, that he could justify to himself his hesitations, his determination to keep his distances? 

“It's not your fault,” he said lamely, trusting that this, at least, was not a lie.

“I don’t want him to hate me.” 

“He won’t,” He didn't dare to tell Sasuke that the more likely outcome was just Naruto hating himself even more. All the times Sasuke had asked and be denied an answer, all the times Kakashi and Shisui had discussed the merits of bypassing the village and Naruto’s wishes and just tell him anyway, to spare them exactly that kind of dramatic revelation, but had ultimately decided against it… Because they had managed to convince themselves somehow that it would stay under wrap, that there wouldn’t ever be a reason for Naruto’s friends to find out. 

Once more, they had been wrong. 

She had gotten as far as putting a hand on the door handle, before turning away. 

She couldn’t imagine facing her parents now. She couldn’t fathom telling them what had happened, what they had done, her friends and herself. She couldn’t picture what they would say, how they would react, but she was sure it wouldn’t make her feel better in any way. 

So Sakura turned away. 

Sneaking into the Haruno house was far easier than sneaking into the Yamanaka’s. Ino had had to give her a crash course to show her how to climb onto the roof of the flower shop and use the nearest tree to reach her bedroom window. She hoped the girl was actually at home. She didn’t want to go back. 

She landed quietly on Ino’s small balcony, determined to sleep there if she didn’t get an answer. It wouldn’t come to that though – Ino opened her window only seconds after Sakura had tapped lightly on the glass. 

Ino took one look at her, and she knew. That’s why Sakura had come, that’s what she wanted. Ino didn’t start to fret and panic, didn’t try to comfort her. She stepped away to let her in and guided her to sit on her bed, before going to rummage into her closet, to find her night clothes she handed over without a word. Sakura changed quickly, feeling calmer already, surrounded by the comforting presence of her friend. 

“I take it the mission didn’t go so well,” Ino said lightly, picking up some nail care supply before settling next to Sakura. She took Sakura’s hand in hers and set to the task, removing chipped polish she had applied herself there just a week ago, filing the damaged nails. She didn’t comment the blood she had to scrap off of them.  

The tears came easily, after a while. She didn’t comment that either. Sakura cried ugly tears that she couldn’t stop no matter how hard she tried, covering her face in snot and salty water. She tried to wipe it with her free hand, and when Ino needed that one they switched so that she could try to wipe it with the other. At some point Ino needed both, to massage some lotion into them, and so Sakura had to surrender them, and somehow that calmed her down, quieted her sobs as the flow dried out. 

“It was awful,” she said after a while, where Ino was done with her ministrations, but still holding her hands firmly. “It was supposed to be easy but it… it wasn’t. It wasn’t easy at all.” 

They had been attacked, they had almost died. She had killed two men. They had witnessed misery and hopelessness like she had never imagined, they had seen greed and cruelty, a bleak, terrible world of selfishness and death.  

“It was supposed to be easy…” 

She knew it was foolish to hold on to that. Being a ninja wasn’t easy, going on missions wasn’t easy. But she realized now how abysmal was the gap between knowing something and experiencing it. Would have things been different, had they known what they were in for? It felt like nothing could have prepared them for that. 

And Naruto… 

“I’m going to need your help.” 

“For what?” 

“We find out… something. It’s about Naruto. And I need to know more. I need to.” 

She needed to understand what was going on, for it all to make sense. Because Naruto hosting a demon made sense, and at the same time it made no sense at all. It was supposed to explain things, but it just asked even more questions. 

“I’ll help you. Don’t worry. But first, sleep.” 

“I’m not…” 

Her own body betrayed her before she could spew that lie – she let out a huge yawn, overcome suddenly by a bone-deep exhaustion that made her sway a little. Ino rolled her eyes with a smile and pushed Sakura down gently, so that they were both lying on the girl’s bed. It was still early, before dinnertime, but eating was a no-go right now, as was moving in fact.  

She would feel better the next day, she knew. Her head would be clearer and she would have found back some control over her emotions. She could go home and reassure her parents, she could figure out what to do next. 

For now she would just sleep, secure in the knowledge that Ino was right there by her side, that she had her back. 

“Thank you.” 

“Anything.” 

She thought she would have trouble falling asleep, but barely a minute later, she was out. 

“How is he?” 

“What do you think?” 

Ah. Anger it was. Kakashi was expecting it, but it was still an odd sight. Shisui rarely gave in to rage, it just wasn’t in his nature.  

What a shitty achievement to add into Kakashi’s book. 

“What the hell happened? What the fuck, Kakashi?” 

“Please calm down, and I’ll tell you.” 

“Calm down? Calm… Have you seen him? Have you seen… Fuck!” 

Shisui paced the length of the small kitchen a few more times, before collapsing into the chair facing Kakashi. 

“Shouldn’t we go elsewhere?” 

“Don’t worry about that. He won’t come out of his room. Or his bed, for that matter.” 

It had been two days since their return. 

“You should have turned tail as soon as it started to go downhill,” Shisui said, accusing. “Why did you keep going?” 

“Why do you think? Do I need to remind you that it was your idea to give Naruto a chance to get out of the village?” 

“You really don’t!” 

Shisui wasn’t only angry at Kakashi. He was also angry at himself. 

“Dammit… why can’t things just… go well, just once? This was supposed to be good for them,” Shisui said, voice wavering.  

“We couldn’t have known,” Kakashi said, not quite believing he was the one playing the “you’re not at fault” card. Shisui seemed equally mystified. “It was just…terrible luck.” 

“With all the bad luck we’ve been accumulating, we should start shitting gold very soon.” 

Kakashi snorted, a dry, joyless laugh. He would have loved to believe that these things evened out, that they would indeed be repaid someday, somehow, for all the shit life threw at them. 

He didn’t. Everything pointed at the more likely outcome that things would continue to be just that bad. He only dared to hope they wouldn’t get worse

“I sent words for us to get back up,” Kakashi said, feeling the need to justify himself, to prove to Shisui that he hadn’t been careless, that he had tried. “It never came through.” 

“Yeah, because why would anything go our way…” Shisui deadpanned. “I’m sorry,” he added, sheepish. “I don’t mean to blame you, it’s just…” 

“I was responsible for this mission and this team. I’m responsible for how it turned out too.” 

The commander had not failed to remind him of that. His decisions would be examined, his report too, but it was nothing he hadn’t shouldered before.  

Maybe he ought to be grateful that this wasn’t even in the top 5 of the worst missions he had carried through. After all, no one in his team had died. 

“What now then?” 

“I managed to get us a week off duty, for the kids to recover.” 

“Really?” 

Kakashi knew what Shisui was asking. He wanted to know what had happened exactly, but mostly he wanted to know what of it Kakashi had told their superiors, what had made it into his report.  

What kind of repercussion they had to expect. 

“Hm hm. I told them about our encounters with the ninjas of Kiri, how the kids had to fight… They didn’t suffer any major injuries, but they didn’t get out of there scratch free either.” 

“And what about… what did they say about, you know…” 

At a loss for words, Shisui made a ridiculous gesture of claws with his hands, like a bad imitation of an angry cat. Kakashi snorted – he really couldn’t help it. He was scared of what had happened and what could happen still, scared of what Naruto could do and what could be done to him, and here was Shisui, mimicking a freaking cat instead of just naming the Demon. 

It was comforting to know that Naruto had him, at the very least. 

“I didn’t tell them.” 

“Really? Nothing?” 

“I told them that the fights got heated, I told them about the death toll. But… We need to… understand this, before alerting the village. They… don’t need to know just yet.” 

“Why?” 

Shisui looked suspicious, and Kakashi couldn’t blame him. He had earned his reputation of always following orders, of his never wavering loyalty and devotion to his duty, to the completion of his mission. He had never lied on a report, never tried to sugarcoat, minimize or embellish his failures or his successes. 

He had never disobeyed an order. 

But this whole story had affected him too, more than he had let on.  

Maybe because Zabuza was his age, and Haku was about Naruto’s, and Kakashi had seen himself in them, for the briefest moment. Zabuza who had fled the shortcomings of his village, vowing to come back and right its wrongs, and Haku, rejected and abandoned for the power he was born with and couldn’t escape. He wondered what pushed shinobis to betrayal, what order was too much to bear, when they decided to draw the line. What would have pushed him , to turn his back on it all, to take Naruto with him and go look for a better future for them both. Had he gotten close to him as he should have, had he witnessed his childhood and how the village treated him, would it have made him snap? Would he have made that choice? 

And would it have been a good or a bad thing? 

What did it take, for shinobis suddenly putting a single person above their duty. Kakashi thought about his father. 

It wasn’t a conscious, thought-out decision he had made before going into the Hokage’s office for his report. He hadn’t decided outright that he would lie, at least by omission, to spare Naruto the scrutiny and added suspicion that the news of the Demon’s power spilling out would bring upon him. He hadn’t openly weighed in his mind the village’s will against the boy’s wellbeing. 

But at the moment, he had made the choice anyway. He would never put Naruto in a cage again. He wouldn’t let him be treated like the monster he thought he was. 

“I guess I chose to be on his side.” 

Shisui pinched his lips and his eyebrow dipped low, making him look very angry, but meaning, from Kakashi’s experience, that he was just trying not to cry.  

“You’re such an idiot,” he sighed fondly. 

“Shuddup.” 

“Sakura? You friend Sasuke is at the door. He came to see you.” 

In her surprise, Sakura forgot to be annoyed at her mother for not knocking at her bedroom door. She hadn’t seen any of her teammates in three days, expect Kakashi, who had swung by to tell her that they had a week off, and that their next meeting would only be after the weekend. She had been worried about what he would tell her parents, but he had been exactly as vague as she wanted him to. Not without weighing a pointing look on her though, that had to mean something like “I won’t tell them, but you should”. 

She knew she had to, but it was harder than it seemed. She wasn’t at ease with them trying to comfort her, and she didn’t want them to worry about her, to think she was in over her head. She knew what they would say – are you sure you want to continue? Do you think it’s wise you stay on that team? She didn’t want to hear it. She wasn’t giving up on anything, not the ninja way, and certainly not her team.  

She didn’t see them and what they could do or say bringing her any sort of comfort. 

Sasuke was indeed waiting at the door, having probably refused to enter. A wise move – her mom would have grilled him with questions and made everything awkward, especially seeing that he was already pretty awkward himself. He wasn’t at ease with strangers, especially adults. 

“Hi, Sasuke. What’s up?” 

She cringed – it felt so weird to be this casual, seeing how things had gone the last time they were together. The team had parted with only stilted goodbyes as soon as they had crossed into the village’s ground, after hours of silent walking and heavy tension. A tension that was still alive and well. 

“I need you to come with me,” he blurted out as an answer. “If…. You’re not busy?” he amended after a short pause. “It’s important.” 

She nodded. 

“Mom, I’m going out!” 

“Will you be back for dinner?” 

She cast a questioning look at the boy. He shrugged. 

“Probably!” 

Her mother grumbled something about “never knowing who ate where in this damn house,” but Sakura was already out the door. 

“Let’s go then.” 

She followed Sasuke through the village, quickly recognizing the way to the Uchiha district. He looked to be in an even less talkative mood than usual, if it was possible. She didn’t dare ask. 

They were soon reaching his own house. 

“My parents are not here,” he said as he was taking off his shoes in the entryway. She mimicked him and followed him in. They didn’t go to his room – he knocked on a door she had never crossed before. 

“Come in.” 

It was his brother’s room. 

Uchiha Itachi was reading by the paper-rice door that led to the garden. Sakura bowed hastily with a shy “hello”, always intimidated by the stoic man. He greeted her with a soft expression – he never smiled. 

“Can we do it now then?” Sasuke asked. 

“Yes. We can.” 

He gestured for them to sit on the floor side by side, as he settled in front of them. 

“Huh, Sasuke, what…” 

Only then did it occurred to Sasuke that he hadn’t told her what they were doing here exactly. 

“I… I asked Itachi to tell me more. About Naruto. I figured you should be here too.” 

He squirmed under her incredulous glare. 

“What?” he asked, defensive. 

“Nothing, that’s just… Th-thank you.” 

She would probably never understand how he worked, but it wasn’t so bad, if they had each other’s back anyway. 

They turned to Itachi in the same movement, ready for the show. He looked a little miffed, but he didn’t back out. 

“Alright. Keep in mind that I’ll be telling you things that are… mostly known by the generation above yours, and some that are not so spread out. All in all, just… this is for your own understanding of this situation.” 

“We won’t spill,” Sasuke said seriously, and a little impatient, as if to say “now get on with it.” Itachi gave an indulgent nod, looking fond. 

Sometimes Sakura regretted being an only child. 

"Twelve years ago, the Nine-Tailed Fox attacked Konoha. We don't know why and to what purpose, but it wreaked great destruction on the village and killed many.” 

That, they knew. It was taught at length in school and most of them had lost family members in the ordeal. There was a commemoration every year. 

“The Fourth Hokage was the one who managed to defeat it, but he didn’t kill the Beast. You have to understand, the Kyuubi isn’t… just a large animal. It is infused with chakra, like…” 

“Like a summon right?” Sakura said. “Some of them are considered royalties, or even minor deities.” 

“Something like that, yes,” Itachi confirmed blankly. She fought off an embarrassed blush – she needed to stop interrupting. “But much more powerful. He couldn’t be killed, not even brought down. But…” 

“He could be sealed,” Sasuke whispered. Itachi nodded. 

“A good seal, if it’s powerful enough, can’t be fought off or broken, no matter the strength of who, or what, gets sealed into it. To be honest I don’t know… How it happened exactly, or why. But the Fourth Hokage had the chance to seal the Beast, and so, he did. It cost him his life – you can imagine how much chakra such a seal would require.” 

“Why Naruto though? Why not an adult, anyone else?” 

“I don’t know. But such a sealing technique is probably more efficient on a newborn, despite the toll it could have on their body.” 

“Why?” 

Itachi frowned, thinking his words over. 

“I imagine a young child wouldn’t have… fight it off, like an adult might have.” 

That was a terrible way of putting it. 

“Why… why didn’t we know about this?” Sasuke asked, a hint of anger in his voice. 

“It was agreed that it would be kept under wrap to protect him. You’ve seen that… the power of the demon could be used.” 

Meaning Naruto could have been taken, for that chakra that lived inside of him. Sakura shuddered. 

“And it was… there was a hope that if it wasn’t openly known, the prejudice Naruto faced wouldn’t be as… pronounced.” 

“Wait.” 

Sakura cast a look at Sasuke – he was tensed and tightly coiled, looking ready to snap. His face was folded into a complicated mix of confusion and anger. 

“Wait. Is that… is that the reason why… is that why people have always been… like that? With him?” 

Itachi looked surprised by the question. 

“Well, yes. Yes, that’s the reason. People… People always saw the fox in him. And so…” 

Itachi was cut off by Sasuke springing to his feet. He started pacing the room, agitated, brimming with restless energy. 

“Wait. Wait. You mean that’s it? That’s why. That’s why he got all that… all that crap, all these years. That’s… Because people thought he was… What, a demon? Because they thought he was a monster?” 

“Yes.” 

Sasuke kept pacing, increasingly faster and louder, as Sakura sat very still on the tatami, trying to wrap her head around what they were hearing. She wasn’t having much more luck than Sasuke though. 

“That’s… that’s…” 

“That’s awful,” she stated in his place. He stopped moving to look at her, and they had an understanding here, she felt, as their eyes met across the room. 

“That’s dumb.” 

“That’s absurd.” 

“That’s terrible.” 

“That sucks .” 

“I don’t understand.” 

Sasuke nodded, and he came back to sit by her side, to face Itachi once again, because he was the only one who could make sense of it, who could explain. 

“I don’t understand,” Sakura said again. “Before… the other day, the demon never made an appearance. Right? Naruto never did anything wrong. He’s not… he’s not dangerous. He’s not bad .” 

"I guess there was a part of fear in it," Itachi said. "But it was mostly… resentment. A lot of people died by the fox's doing." 

“But what does it have to do with Naruto ?” Sasuke shot back, voice rising as he was losing his temper. Itachi was taken aback by their vindication and confusion.  

“I don’t… People needed to lay the blame somewhere, I imagine.” 

Sasuke snorted, full of disdain, like he did so well to shot down people being arrogant or hurtful at school, that expression of pure contempt he had for those he found distasteful and unpleasant. She should have been used by now to him being angry and outraged on other’s behalf – she hadn’t forgotten who had brought Kara and her parents apologizing to her front door. Sasuke had little tolerance for the excuse of emotions and feelings. Or for any excuse really. If people were wrong, they were wrong.  

And in this case, people were very, very wrong. 

Was it why her parents had been so against her befriending Naruto? Her uncle, her father’s brother, and his wife had died the night the Kyuubi attack. But Sasuke was right, what did it have to do with Naruto? He was a day old! He had done nothing wrong.  

All the teachers’ scorn, all the parents’ contempt, all the whispers and dirty looks, and that was the reason? They had wondered for so long, had put together theories and possibilities, but they had never come close to the truth.  

Because it couldn’t be so… So terribly stupid. People just couldn’t be so mean. 

Except that they could, it seemed. 

“Did he always knew? Naruto,” she asked. 

“No. He found out only a couple of years ago.” 

She couldn’t decide what was worse, being scorned without knowing why, or being scorned for such a meaningless reason.  

“Why did he never want to tell us?” Sasuke asked. He was calmer now, but not really calm. Sakura had the impression that neither Itachi nor Sasuke – nor her, indeed – wanted the answer to that question. 

She still said it. 

“He believes them.” 

She had done a good job at keeping the tears at bay until now, but she was on the verge of losing that particular battle.  

“He thinks he’s… and he must have thought that we…” 

He thought they would be the same. Scared, the same, hateful, the same. That they would act like all those who knew. 

She hadn't understood, back then on the bridge, why Naruto had stopped, why it was such a big deal, that they had been scared. Because surely, he had to know. He had to know they wouldn’t be like that, he had to know… 

But he didn’t. He didn’t. 

Sasuke took her hand, clumsy and awkward, as his sole tentative to comfort her, as she cried silently, cursing the weakness of her eyes that could never hold anything in. 

“We’ll fix this,” he said firmly, suffering no argument. He squeezed her hand and she squeezed back. She wiped her face. She nodded. 

Why did you do that?  

He had found that if he concentrated hard enough, he could make the water disappear from the prison, so that he could sit on the floor without getting soaked through. It was absurd because he wasn’t really getting wet, but the sensation was there, and it was unpleasant. 

Especially seeing how much time he passed in front of the fox’s cage. 

He wasn’t sleeping – at least he didn’t think he was. He was on his futon in Shisui’s house – he couldn’t bring himself to get up. 

We needed to get out. We needed to fight.  

But why did you kill Haku ?  

We needed to beat them.  

But why did they have to die?   

The fox snarled. Naruto couldn’t look away from his hands – they were blood free, and yet it was like he could still feel it, the warm, thick blood running down his skin, soaking his clothes. The stains barely showed on his black undershirt and the dark red of his hoodie – he had thrown them out all the same. 

Why are you so upset?  

They could have lived. But because of us, they’re dead.   

They were your enemies.  

It doesn’t matter. And were they, anyway? We had no reason to fight. Beside other people wanting us to.  

It was dawning on him that he would be ordered to kill again someday. And he wouldn’t have the right to ask why. There would be no reason for it. He understood killing in order not to be killed, but Haku didn’t want to kill him. Naruto was sure of that. It could have ended differently. They could have not fight. 

They could have become friends, maybe. They were the same. 

They wouldn’t be dead, have you not been there. This is your fault!  

You would be dead instead.  

Naruto shrugged. That didn’t move him much. 

Your little friend would be dead too.  

He shivered. That, he didn’t want. It was what had pushed him over the edge, what had driven him to call upon the fox after all. For a moment Sasuke hadn’t moved and Naruto had thought… 

Why do you care so much. They were just people. There are plenty more of those.  

The disgust was obvious in the fox’s voice. 

Do you not know about love?  

The fox was displeased with the question. It figured he wouldn’t know, he was a demon after all. Naruto didn’t know much about it either. 

Maybe they would n’t have died, if you didn’t love your friends so much.  

It was said with a snarl, almost like a laugh, mocking. But Naruto couldn’t help but think that the fox wasn’t wrong. 

He had always been scared of getting hurt, if he let people in, but he had failed to imagine that he would be the one to hurt them, or others, because of it. People died on missions all the time. What if it went even worse next time? What if he lost it entirely? Would he lose control, would he lose his mind, would the fox take over? He couldn’t let that happen. 

You know , there’s a simple solution.  

What?  

You could just let me go.  

Naruto snorted. 

No.  

Why not?  

If I free you from here, you will attack Konoha again. You will kill many people.  

At least the fox didn’t have the gal to deny it. 

What do you care? You hate this place.  

That doesn’t mean I want it gone. Why do you want to destroy it anyway ?  

I hate this place too. It’s their fault, if I’m stuck here. I want revenge. Don’t you want that too? For what they did to you? We could get it together. We could make them pay. 

Naruto shook his head. 

I don’t care for revenge. I don’t understand it. What I want is to be free. Once I’m free of this place, what do I care what happens to it? I just have to be strong enough that they can’t hold me here. 

They’ll kill you then, if you don’t destroy them first. 

I’ll be stronger than that too. Strong enough that there is nothing they can do. This is my revenge. That they’ll be powerless to stop me. 

The fox laughed, cutting and disdainful. 

You think you can do that? You? On your own? 

No. Not on my own.  

Oh?  

It was foolish of m e to think I could keep you at bay. I won’t ever let you take over like this again. I will control your power. I know I will need it.  

You sound awfully confident, brat  

Naruto shrugged again. It’s not like he had a choice. He wouldn’t ever be able to sleep at night again if he didn’t gain the certitude that he could wrestle the control of his body and mind from the fox if need be. He would never know peace, if he knew that he could open his eyes on dead bodies piled up around him, of unfathomable destruction brought down upon them because he wasn’t strong enough to fight off the demon. The next time he used that power, it would be on his own term. 

We’ll see about that, little receptacle.  

Naruto opened his eyes on his little room in Shisui’s house. In the end, this is where he had come back. He could admit, at least to himself, that he didn’t want to leave this place. Besides, it was probably better that he didn’t stay on his own. Just in case. 

They had been right to want someone to watch him. 

He got up, tidied up a bit. The mist clouding his thoughts was slowly dissipating. He couldn’t keep wallowing in self-pity. He had things to do. 

He deliberately did not think about Sasuke and Sakura. He couldn’t afford to be distracted anymore. They couldn’t be his priority. He had to achieve control over the demon at all cost, and it’s not by letting them gain even more power over his emotions that that would happen. 

They had to stay away from him. He wouldn’t be able to bear their proximity. How could he let them approach him? He could kill them in an instant, he could lose his mind completely, snap, and just kill them dead on the spot. Or everyone around them, if they were hurt, if they were in danger. 

The fox was right. Love was bad for him. 

Better to stand on his own. It would be easier, safer, and he was prepared for it. He would handle it. It would all be fine. He had been weak, but it wouldn’t happen again. He wouldn’t cry anymore. 

He couldn’t quite register that they knew now, and he couldn’t remember why it had ever been hidden. Why hadn’t it been out from the start, since so many people seemed to know anyway? What had been the point of pretending? It would have spared him many turmoil, if it had just been common knowledge. He wouldn’t have hoped that he could blend in, be like the rest. Not saying anything had been a mistake. He couldn’t escape this, couldn’t hide it.  

Better to embrace it already. 

Naruto grabbed Haku’s mask, got out his sharpest shuriken, and set to work. 

When Sakura arrived at the meeting point, Kakashi was already there. For a second she wondered if she had misunderstood the time and was several hours late, but Sasuke was making his way over there too. So it was just their teacher being on time – early, even. 

Proof that things were not normal. 

Sasuke looked angry, bitter – the exact same he had been when they had parted after hearing Itachi. Her parents had been confused over her sudden moodiness and quiet deamenor – she couldn’t just confront them about all this, but she couldn’t bring herself to act as if nothing was wrong either. She wondered if he was the same for him, or if he had, instead, had that fight with his parents. 

Naruto joined them before she had a chance to ask. 

“Hi guys. What’s up?” 

The mundane, somewhat cheerful greeting took all three of them off guard. 

“Nothing much,” Sakura said hesitantly, the first one to recover. “What about you?” 

“You know me. I’m always fine.” 

She had imagined several ways this would play out, but that one, she hadn’t seen it coming. 

Naruto was going to act as if nothing had happened. 

“Naruto,” Sasuke said, not on board with that plan at all, “I wanted to say…” 

“Don’t worry about it.” 

“I’m sorry.” 

“It’s fine.” 

“No, it’s…” 

“It’s fine. Come on, forget about that. I get it y’know. It doesn’t matter.” 

Sasuke disagreed. 

“We have to talk about it.” 

“We certainly don’t,” Naruto said forcefully, losing calm and patience fast. Sakura wanted to shake him, to get into his face and force him to open up to them, to say something, anything.  

“Don’t be like that,” she said, sounding more pleading than forceful. They just wanted to help. Why couldn’t he see that? 

“I don’t want to talk about it.” 

“Naruto…” 

“No.” 

“We can…” 

Naruto turned away. 

Sakura hadn’t noticed – the ribbon was hidden by the long strands of his hair, and the mask was tied flat against the side of his skull. He turned and they were faced with its blank, sinister expression. 

“Naruto!” Sasuke growled, frustrated.   

“Just let it go,” Naruto said, stubborn. 

How could he say that? How could he dismiss the issue, while he was so obviously affected by it still, as they all were? 

“Let’s move then,” Kakashi sighed. She rolled her eyes. Of course they couldn’t count on him to fight at least for two whole seconds. He said people couldn’t be forced to talk if they didn’t want to, but all she heard was that he couldn’t be bothered to insist. 

Sakura marched up to Naruto, determined to confront him whether he liked it or not. 

That’s when she noticed the mark. 

She grabbed Sasuke’s arm and tapped her forehead, before pointing at their friend. He followed her gaze to the mask resting in Naruto’s hair.  

The four waves of the Kiri symbol were gone. Or well, not gone, but they had been carved into another symbol, a clumsy pair of kanji engraved on the mask’s forehead. 

It spelled “Monster”. 

Her arm dropped back at her side, and Naruto kept walking. He was just there, a few steps ahead, but in that moment, he felt miles away. 

Out of their reach. 

Chapter Text

“Why do they want to get rid of the old man anyway.”

It was Tsunade who had cracked and spoken first. A meaningless victory, but a victory all the same – seeing how frustrating the last few days had been, Izumi would take it.

It was the third night in a row that she and Shizune sat on the side while Anko and Tsunade tried to drink each other under the table, or to simply kill each other in the most undignified way possible, who knew. Anko's strategy was to be wear the woman down by constantly being in her face. It was very efficient because Anko could be very intimidating when she wanted to be, and no one liked to go about their business in life with a crazy looking woman licking a kunai two feet behind at all times. They were drinking at the inn because no bar in town wanted to serve them anymore, and it looked like Tsunade had finally decided to at least hear them out.

Small steps.

"Shit happened,” Anko deadpanned, triumph badly hidden in her smug tone. “He lost the trust of the clans. It was their decision, but he agreed."

"When are the clan ever happy..."

"It was different this time."

"How so?"

"Shimura Danzo was arrested and tried for treason, conspiracy and murder. He was exiled."

For the first time since their arrival, Tsunade seemed to lose a bit of her composure, and Izumi was a bit ashamed of how satisfying it was. Shizune looked worried, but Izumi had found out it was a constant state of being for that woman. The name rung a bell to them both, at least.

Tsunade didn't let that move her for long though.

"About time. Is it supposed to be surprising?"

"We don't know to what extent the Hokage was aware of his doings. But it wasn't zero."

"No shit."

She seemed so unbothered by it, by the news that the Sandaime had turned a blind eye on off the books assassination, sometimes carried against their own people. It was as if...

"This is how it works. Always have been. I don't get why it's such a big deal."

Izumi supposed there was a measure of defiance in her words, of provocation, since she was just as intent as Anko at winning the obnoxious game. But she was certain her cynicism wasn't fake, not entirely.

She was older than all of them. She had lived longer, had seen much more. Did that mean she knew what she was talking about?

Did that mean she was right?

"It was different this time," Anko said through gritted teeth. Her temper rose easily and Tsunade had caught on that quickly. She was playing her.

"How so?"

Anko frowned, and she cast a furtive look at Izumi, who didn't even try to pretend she wasn't listening to their every word. Shizune was doing a better job of it, but only barely – if they weren't going to be sent away, they couldn't be blamed for eavesdropping.

She understood Anko's hesitations. She decided she would put an end to it herself.

"He was caught planning the removal of the Uchiha clan."

Three pairs of eyes focused on her and she fought not to squirm or blush. This was a serious conversation, and she didn't want to be dismissed.

Shizune spoke for the first time that evening.

"The removal as in..."

"Death, to all of them. At least, that's what I understood."

Izumi's eyes stayed trained on Anko.

"You knew?"

"I... Yes. Uchiha Mikoto told me about it. She's... she's Itachi's mother. I'm not supposed to be in the confidence so..."

She had talked a lot about her clan to Anko, these past few weeks, and she had had an inkling that Anko was aware of it too, in the bitterness she sported on her face sometimes, in the way she asked details like she couldn't quite believe what she heard. The prejudice against the clan ran deep, deeper than Izumi had thought. Deep enough that at some point, some people had deemed it safe enough to wipe them all out, because in all likelihood, no one would throw much of a fuss over their disappearance.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Tsunade asked, anger in her voice at being left out, at not having all the answers this time. Anko gestured for Izumi to go on.

"It is... a complicated matter. Years in the making. But the gist of it is that the Uchiha clan had grown... discontented, with the way they were treated. Believing the whole village against them, they started to plan a takeover. The clan had spies among them – the Hokage heard of it. And..."

She fought down a sudden onslaught of emotions, the exact ones that had gripped her all those months ago when Mikoto had finally agreed to tell her about what had happened. There was rage, and fear, resentment and sorrow. She still couldn't quite wrap her head around the future they had avoided, around what could have happened to them.

Around what Itachi could have done.

“There’s no way to be sure,” she said stubbornly. “We can’t know for sure. But Danzo had his solution to the problem.”

“This was five years ago,” Anko chipped in. “Everyone’s been busy dealing with the aftermath, and now, they want to move on for good.”

Izumi had heard about Danzo of course, the subject came up regularly, even years after the facts, because there were still repercussions rippling out to this day. Sometimes it was hard to believe he could have been responsible for so much, for so long. Izumi had never felt overly concerned by this story though – the man had been dealt with, his misdeed uncovered and fixed to the best of their abilities.

But her curiosity had gotten the best of her. She wanted to know.

She almost regretted asking, as, she was sure, Mikoto regretted telling her.

"The Third would have never stood for that," Tsunade said firmly, involved for the first time since they had met her.

“It’s not our understanding of that situation,” Anko shot back, smiling like a shark. She was taking some measure of joy in the confusion and shock of the older woman. She seemed to have a very personal grievance against her, which was weird, because Tsunade had left Konoha before she was even born or something.

“And you didn’t get a civil war out of that,” Tsunade said, not really a question, but disbelieving still.

“People are adamant to avoid war at all cost these days. Go figure,” Anko said drily. She was old enough to have known the last days of the previous one – Izumi had heard enough about war to want to it gone too, and she had never been in one.

“Still you came after me, little Uchiha girl,” Tsunade said to Izumi. “Do you think I’ll be better? Do you still trust any of this?”

Now wasn’t the time to admit she had had no idea that was what they were doing until a few days ago. She had been a bit moody about it, but Anko had snapped her out of it quickly. She had apologized in a very roundabout way about hiding it to her, citing confidentiality and safety measures she didn’t seem to like very much. Getting worked up at regulation and orders wouldn’t get them anywhere – for now.

“I was… mad,” she admitted instead. “And bitter, and sad. But despite the problems we face and all the things I’m not happy with… It’s still our village. It’s the only one we got. Everyone I know and care about lives there. So I want to trust it. I want to trust that things can get better. Maybe you'll do it, maybe you won't. If you won't, we'll try something else."

If they all geared up toward change, surely it would have to come, eventually. Things had already shifted in the Uchiha clan, small things, but they were there. And if her prideful clan could reflect upon their way, then the rest of the village could too. They could make it so that they could trust each other, everyone, and trust that there wasn’t a force within their own village working against them.

“What if they were all gone?”

“What?”

“These people you care about. What if they were no longer there?”

Izumi frowned, puzzled.

“Well the village wouldn’t be there anymore then.”

She had been told that she cared too much, too easily. She failed to see how it was such a bad thing. She had a lot of friends, and she loved her clan despite its flaws. The village, it was them. She would protect them all.

“How old are you, Uchiha girl?”

“I’m 16. And my name is Izumi. Ma’am.”

A good thing Tsunade didn’t seem to be overly attached to protocol and formalities. She stared at Izumi for a long, uncomfortable moment, before taking another swing from her bottle. She got up abruptly.

“I’m going to sleep. ‘Night.”

And just like that, she was gone. Anko spluttered in indignation and almost went after her, but she stormed off instead, barking about going out for a walk.

Izumi found herself alone with Shizune.

“I’m sorry about all the troubles we’re causing you,” the woman said after a short silence, with an embarrassed half-laugh. “It’s… not an easy situation.”

Izumi was starting to see that.

“Excuse me, maybe it’s too forward of me but… hum… If I asked you why… Why Tsunade-hime left the village… Would you tell me?”

The woman stared longingly at the corridor where her companion had disappeared into. Izumi couldn’t quite get a read on their relationship – Shizune seemed all at once a helper, a caretaker, a friend and an apprentice. The affection she had for the older woman was real, in any case.

“She used to be like you, I believe. Determined to fight for what she loved. But… It was taken from her. All of it.”

Izumi leaned forward above the table as Shizune’s voice dropped low, derailed by grief and sorrow.

“War raged for the majority of her life. Her parents died in battle when she was quite young, and she raised her brother alone. They were very close. But he was a ninja, and he died.”

It was more shocking somehow, with Shizune’s bland enunciation of the facts. It was an act though – her emotions were far from mild.

“She had a lover then, whom she loved very much, and who loved her. But he too was a ninja, and he, too, died of it.”

Shizune filled a small glass with sake to down it in one go, looking so dejected Izumi regretted to have asked at all. She went on though.

“You have to understand that for Tsunade… It’s not a foreign power, outsides forces that were responsible for their death. You know about the Great Wars, right?”

“Yes, of course.”

“You must have learned who were the parties involved, how long it lasted. But do you know why it even started? Why it ended? Why they fought?”

“I… There are… reasons. Economic and political and… and we were attacked so…”

“Right. We were attacked, so we had to retaliate. If you asked the opposite side, they would give you the same answer.”

The bitterness in her voice contrasted starkly with her gentle demeanor.

“She could never get over the idea that… they didn’t have to die. It achieved nothing. It wasn’t heroic or meaningful. They weren’t protecting anyone, as you said. They were sent to war and war killed them. And that’s… that’s everybody’s fault. Everybody’s responsibility. The wars could have ended sooner. There could have been another way. You talked about what happened to your clan… You were lucky, that things turned out the way they did. They often don’t.”

One day when they were very young, Itachi had come back from a trip outside the village with his father. He looked exhausted and haunted, and he hadn’t spoken for three days. She was sitting with him on the pier when he had finally broken his silence.

“Let’s never go to war, Izumi.”

From what she understood, starting a war was never the problem. It was easy. It was so easy that it felt they were constantly on the verge of it, no matter what they did, that they had to actively fight against wars starting, at all times.

Ending them though…

Mikoto had been angry at the village, when she had told Izumi about that story, but she was angry at the clan too. “Why would they want to bring war to us,” she had lamented, to herself more than to Izumi. A coup would have certainly resulted in many deaths and chaos.

“I think she came to the conclusion that things would never change. That anyone she got attached to in the village was bound to disappear the same way her brother and lover did. That it was as meaningless as it was unavoidable.”

“But it’s not!”

Shizune startled at the outburst.

“It’s not!” Izumi went on. “It doesn’t have to be. We can find another way. We don’t have to always fight. We can change things!”

“You said you wanted to protect your people, right? Don’t you think…”

“That doesn’t mean we have to fight. That doesn’t mean we have to kill each other. We can… There are other ways! I don’t…. I don’t believe…”

She choked up on frustrated tears. She refused to believe open conflict was the only way to solve things. No matter the tension with the other countries, if everyone was on the same page, if everyone wanted peace, then surely they could achieve it. Who wanted to go to war? It made no sense to her.

“You’re really young,” came a drowsy voice by the door. They looked up to see Tsunade leaning against the wall, back from wherever she had disappeared to.

“You think you can pull this off? You think that’s how it works?”

“At least I’m willing to try!”

She gasped and put a hand on her mouth, shocked by her own vindication. She couldn’t go around talking to Tsunade like that. But it was so damn frustrating, all these people that always started by “it can’t be done”, and so didn’t do anything.

“That doesn’t mean you’ll make it.”

“If we try, maybe we’ll fail. But if we don’t, we surely will.”

She would let no one tell her that things couldn’t change. That they couldn’t improve, that it couldn’t be done. Not even Legendary Sanin Tsunade

“Is that so.”

The woman grabbed the bottle still sitting on the table, and disappeared again.

“I should probably go,” Izumi sighed. She felt both drained and hyped up by the conversation – she wanted to sleep, but doubted she would be able to.

Shizune rested a light hand on her arm, just as she was about to go. She caught her gaze and stared at her, and despite her soft face and soft voice, the determination and will that shone in her eyes just then proved she was far from passive.

“Don’t give up,” she whispered, a plea, a wish maybe.

“I-I won’t,” Izumi promised clumsily, even if there wasn’t much she could do in this case. She was just, after all, the 16-year-old tagalong chunin being very rude to someone much more important and higher ranked than her. That bit, she wouldn’t mention in her letters.

Anko was already there when she went back to their own room – they had moved into the same inn to keep an eye on Tsunade. Anko was smoking on the balcony, eyes lost on the star-filled sky. She came back inside when she heard Izumi.

“I had no idea you knew about this. You hid it well.”

It was hard to tell if it was a reproach.

“I’m sorry. I’m not supposed to know, I was told…”

"Don't sweat it. I hid things from you too – it's only fair."

Izumi accepted the settlement as it was.

“He doesn’t know, right? Your friend, Itachi. He doesn’t know you’ve heard the whole story.”

“No. No, he doesn’t. He made me understand bad things had happened, but he thinks that’s all I know, and I didn’t tell him otherwise.”

“Why not?”

Izumi took the time to change into her nightclothes and tidy up her things a bit, trying to decide how to answer that.

“If I… If he knew that I know, it would never be the same between us again. He would feel terrible, and I would too. I don’t… I would be angry. I would yell, I would shame him, and accuse him, and hurt him, and what would it accomplish? I wouldn’t feel better about it. He certainly wouldn’t either. It’s better like this. I want us to be able to move on. In the end he… didn’t do it. I can live with that.”

Maybe a time would come when they were both at peace enough with this story that she could open up to him about it. But it was still too raw, too fresh. Her rage was blind and aimless, too big to be expressed for now. And the air of despair and guilt Itachi carried with him constantly, she knew where they came from, and she had no interest in adding to it. She didn’t want him to think he was a monster in her eyes, the one he was in his own. Whether she believed it or not was irrelevant – what mattered was what he was aware of.

It was the same with Naruto, she pondered. No matter what people thought of him, they should have known to keep it under wrap, to hide it. It was worse in a way because Itachi had actual things to blame himself – and be blamed – for, albeit hypothetical. Naruto was stranger to the crimes he was accused of. And still no one had ever bothered to keep their feelings about it to themselves.

They didn’t believe in sparing others from pain, it seemed.

“What about the rest of the clan? They were at fault too.”

She didn’t get if Anko was trying to anger or hurt her, or if she was just playing devil’s advocate, as she often did. Izumi knew her fair share of people who hurt others when they hurt themselves – she could easily look past it.

“I don't think about it. It's not like I could speak up against any of it. Not yet, anyway."

All these old men holding the reins and making decisions, they wouldn’t be here forever. The Uchiha clan, the whole village, it would be theirs someday, her and her friends’.

Izumi could be patient.

“You’re such a good girl, Izumi. It’s kind of annoying,” Anko said, more fond than biting.

“You’re a good person too,” she answered, disliking the air of defeat in her mentor’s voice and posture.

“I’m really not.”

.

The thing was, Tsunade had no idea who she would fight for.

Konoha’s people deserved a leader that cared about them, right? And she didn’t know if she had that in her. At the end of the day, she simply wasn’t altruistic enough.

She was too selfish. She had been told many times.

She was always of a mind to say, “surely somebody else can take care of it”. But that girl, Izumi, she didn’t see that at all. Something had to be done, and so she believed she had to be the one to do it. She was right that it was the best way of seeing anything accomplished. But if she was alone in this, it was already lost, and if she wasn’t, then others could step up. She didn’t have to do it.

She didn’t have to get hurt.

Tsunade was like her, once, but putting herself in the first line every time had brought her nothing but pain and heartache. And had accomplished nothing in return. She had yet to see any proof that fighting for something ever worked out.

She had also stopped trying a long time ago.

“Alright, so the old man is out,” Tsunade summed up to the bottom of her glass. “I still don’t get what this has to do with me.”

Mitarashi Anko had a fiery temperament and very little patience in store – the efforts she put up to keep her cool were admirable. The woman and her little Uchiha shadow had ruined yet another gambling night for Tsunade – Anko scared every man she stared at long enough, and while Tsunade could respect that quality in a woman, right now she wasn’t enjoying it at all.

"There has to be someone else. Did Konoha spur nothing but average people since I've been gone? What about, let’s see… ah, Sakumo? He was a good one.”

Anko frowned deeply, something far darker than her earlier annoyance crossing her face.

“Hatake Sakumo committed suicide after his handling of a high-level mission brought him dishonor and shame.”

Tsunade should have stayed more in tune with Konoha’s news, like Shizune had always berated her to.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Mentioning the Sarutobi clan or the Uchiha would be bad taste in this situation, I suppose,” she went on. “How about…”

You are one of the three legendary Sannin,” Anko said through gritted teeth, very obviously trying to keep a grip on her temper. ”You’re one of the most powerful shinobi of the village, of the world. And you have legitimacy to the position, both political and historical.”

“Well, in case it has escaped you, in “three legendary Sanin,” there is “three”. Why don’t you ask Jiraiya? Don’t they all say that old perv’ was always stronger than me?”

“…Jiraiya-sama is a valuable spy to the village,” Anko answered, though she didn’t look so sure of herself. “And he doesn’t have your status.”

“Or talent." Tsunade couldn't help the jab, even if he wasn't even here to hear it. He would refuse the offer point blank, that was for sure. Seemed like he had managed to make himself indispensable in something, so that he had a way out of the job. A better plan than just wandering around hoping to be forgotten, she had to give it to him.

“What about Orochimaru?”

This time, both Shizune and the Uchiha girl completely failed to foresee, and prevent, Anko from jumping her. In an instant she had leaped across the table, knocking Tsunade’s chair back as she gipped the collar of her haori.

“How dare you? How dare you suggest that? Have you followed nothing of what happened in the village? Did you… Did you care so little?”

Tsunade grabbed the girl’s wrist, squeezing just enough to make her let go of her grip, but despite the pain, Anko didn’t budge. For a loaded moment Tsunade thought she was truly going to try to fight her. It was Izumi, laying a hand on her shoulder and pleading with her to let go, that eventually did it. Anko got up and went back to her chair, methodically shoving her anger back inside her body, locked where it couldn’t escape.

Tsunade got up too, picked up her chair. “What did he do now?” she asked, knowing she had failed to sound as disinterested as she wanted to. Anko’s temper flared again but she made an effort to reign it in, waving a hand at Izumi to dismiss her concern.

“Orochimaru has been a wanted missing-nin for almost ten years now.”

There was a sort of vindictive pleasure on her face at the shock that undoubtedly colored Tsunade’s face.

She really should have stayed more in tune with Konoha’s news.

“What happened,” she demanded with a growl, not interested in playing the girl anymore. Their roles were reversed now though. Anko had all the cards.

“I can’t believe you didn’t know,” she said. “He always looked so down when he talked about you. He missed you. And you didn’t give a shit.”

“What. Happened.”

The girl’s frown deepened, but she wasn’t in the mood for games anymore either. She looked bitter and sad, full of resentment.

“He took his experimentations too far. There were orphan children involved, pretty gruesome, lots of deaths. The Sandaime confronted him when he found out, but he failed to stop him.”

At her side, Shizune gasped, but Tsunade didn’t react in any way. She didn’t know how to. Surprised didn’t begin to cover how she felt right now – Orochimaru was strange and he stood apart from the rest of them, but he wasn’t…

Was he?

“What’s it to you?” Tsunade asked as a diversion. Anko's personal feelings in this were obvious. She pinched her lips, ready to deny it, but eventually changed course with a heavy sigh. She cast an unreadable look at Izumi before answering.

“Orochimaru was my mentor.”

There was bitterness, for sure, rage too. But mostly, she looked sad, defeated. Old feelings, but still there, vivid, brought to the surface in no time.

“I never thought he would take a student,” Tsunade remarked, trying to imagine it, how Anko must have been as a child, what would have drawn Orochimaru to her.

“I’m special that way.”

Tsunade hadn’t seen Orochimaru in more than twenty years. Somewhere in her mind she imagined he was just where she had left him, carrying on his solo spying missions, working at the Research Centre and doing his nerd shit, but she had never thought about it further than that.

For all intent and purposes, she had stayed the exact same for two decades, never moving forward in any way, and she had just assumed they would be the same.

“How could this… Why did no one saw anything? Stopped him?”

“Like who? His friends?”

The jab made Tsunade flinch. Orochimaru had this in him, always had. It was as if he didn’t operate under the same rules as the rest of the world. He had a hard time understanding compassion and altruism, but he was willing to be taught. To be told what was right and what wasn’t, what was acceptable, why that girl had slapped him when he was just “telling the truth”, why this death made these people cry while they were indifferent to others. “You all need each other,” Hiruzen always said, and Tsunade would roll her eyes because surely they would do just fine on their own.

“It turned out that his researches were actually Danzo-sanctioned,” Anko went on. “Nothing is ever truly secret in the village, is it? There’s always someone in the known.”

Tsunade would always ask why. "Why do you study all the time, why all those researches, what are you looking for?" And Orochimaru would answer, "I just want to know". And in that pursuit, no one could stop him. He used to know though. If Tsunade told him it was wrong, he used to listen.

But Tsunade was long gone from the village. Jiraiya too, it seemed, and that left Orochimaru on this own. Free to do as he pleased, with no one to keep him in check.

Hiruzen had been there though. Their teacher knew him well. What was he doing? Leaving fucking Danzo to oversee him? How could this end in anything else than a huge disaster?

If she chose to go back to Konoha now, it would be with no friends left whatsoever, and with the duty to pursue and neutralize one of them.

A sweet deal indeed.

“Is that why they sent you?” she asked. “As his former student? Was that supposed to sway me somehow?”

Anko barked out a laugh.

"Don't be daft. They sent me because they didn’t mind sparing me for months on end, unlike many other jounins."

Tsunade could imagine being Orochimaru’s students bringing scrutiny and criticism upon the girl, even before his desertion. His mentorship must have made her lonely, or was it because she was lonely that he had taken her in?

At Anko’s side, Izumi frowned and pinched her lips, displeased with what she was hearing. This one wouldn’t care, probably, about who Anko’s mentor was, about what the village had against her. A good kid.

“Izumi, could you go get us some more sake?” Anko asked the chunin. She seemed to take the request as what it was – a cheap way of sending her away – but she obeyed without complaints. Anko waited for her to be out of hearing range before turning back to Tsunade.

“Listen. You don’t believe in anything, that’s fine. Frankly, I don’t either. But that kid” – she pointed a thumb at the bar where Izumi was arguing with the innkeeper – “she still has it in her. They don’t deserve to have it like the previous generations did. They don’t have to. We owe them… We owe them something better.”

“Sounds to me like you believe it alright,” Tsunade answered, aiming to tease, but just sounding fond. Sage, those people and their grand ideals. Why was hope so difficult to kill off of good.

“He talked about you, sometimes. I think he always hoped you’d come back. There weren’t many people he had a good opinion of.”

“Given what you’ve just told me, I don’t think Orochimaru’s seal of approval is such a good argument.”

Anko recoiled, hurt. Her animosity toward Tsunade made sense in the light of those events. Lonely kids didn't have the luxury to choose to whom their affection held onto.

“You think it’s my fault, if he turned out this way. You think I could have stopped him.”

Anko's expression hardened even more, but it only made her look more vulnerable, young and easily hurt still.

“I have no illusion, over the kind of person he is. And still I wish… I wish things had gone differently.”

“I’m sorry. For what you’ve been through.”

Very soon, the moment had passed. Anko shook her head, dismissing her regrets and melancholia, going back to business. Tsunade was starting to like that one.

“Forget about it. We’ll deal with him, in time. I won’t let him… I’ll deal with him.”

Was she angrier at being abandoned than at his terrible actions, Tsunade wondered. Konoha had a knack to raise kids with twisted morals. But still, Anko would do the right thing, she believed. Badly raised, and yet they still managed to turn out alright, somehow. Some of them at least.

“It’s now that we can do something,” Anko said, eyes shining with unshakable determination. “There’s no one else, Tsunade-hime. It has to be you.”

Now that wasn’t true. If she refused to come, they would find someone else, they would find a way. They would maybe do good, even.

Or they would fuck shit up even more.

Just like Tsunade could. But at the very least… If she didn’t go now, what would she learn, the next time they sought her out? That Jiraiya was dead, that Orochimaru had attacked the village, that clans had been eradicated for disagreeing with whoever was in charge?

These were things she could prevent.

But to go back to that place. To walk these streets again. To face the same bullshit hierarchy, the same hard headed fools, to fight her way through every decision again, to go through what both her grandfather, her great uncle and her mentor had gone through, a position she had never envied, not for one hot second.

And that she had never considered accessible to her anyway. Her name didn’t mean shit. As if they were ever going to carve a woman’s face into the mountain.

Orochimaru’s face wouldn’t have ever been an option either, now that she thought about it. He was too cold and calculating, too in favor of the end justifying the means, any means. Out of the three of them, Jiraiya would have been the first choice, despite being the one who least wanted it. He was still the first choice now, probably, except she somewhat appeared easier to convince.

That idiot would make a terrible Kage anyway.

Tsunade turned to the side to meet Shizune’s eyes. She didn’t need to ask her opinion on this – Shizune missed Konoha, and she believed in Tsunade, for some unfathomable reason. Her choice was obvious.

And yet she would follow. She would bend to Tsunade’s will.

“Here’s your drink,” Izumi said as seriously as if she was delivering a diplomatic letter, putting the bottle on the table. Tsunade grabbed it and took a long, long swig of it.

She couldn’t believe she was seriously considering this.

“Dammit all to hell,” she spat, slamming the bottle back on the table. Why did she still care? After all these years, she thought she was finally free of those pesky feelings, she thought she would be able to turn her back from it all for good, to finally stop caring.

She looked at Uchiha Izumi, who could very well have been dead by now, killed by her own village. How had they come to this? What was going on there?

Only one way to find out. But it was so daunting, so terribly scary. She wasn't the woman they thought she was, not anymore. Would she really help in any way, or would she only make things worse?

Time to make a choice.

.

“You must be happy, Izumi. We’re going back to Konoha,” Anko said on the way back to the inn.

Izumi hesitated. She was happy to go back home, to see her family and her friends again.

But it felt wrong to say that when Anko was so obviously not.

The first time Izumi had come home with the most exciting news of her life – that she had been selected by Mitarashi Anko herself to be a part of her special investigation squad – Izumi’s mother had been far less happy than she should have been. Izumi remembered her disapproving frown, her wary tone. “Really? You’re going to work with that woman?”

Izumi had always dismissed it as unfounded prejudices – Anko was outspoken and brash, rubbing everyone the wrong way, unapologetic about who she was. Izumi knew it was more than enough for her to be disliked.

But this was something else entirely. The very few times Izumi had heard the name Orochimaru, it had never been followed by anything nice.

She remembered Anko’s bitter face. “I can’t afford the luxury of being less than exemplary”. The whispers that followed her around the village. That one girl from Izumi’s year that had refused to be part of her team.

She was trying to dig up all she had ever learned about the Sannin from her memory, but it wasn’t much. Were they supposed to be very close? When did they all leave, and why? Well, she knew a bit more on that now. It made sense that the village didn’t advertise the betrayal of one of their most powerful and renown shinobi. But people had to know.

Izumi was very familiar with Naruto's struggles. It wasn't that far-fetched to imagine his fate befalling some other people who were also guilty in the eyes of the crowd, no matter what they had actually done.

And just like with Naruto, Izumi couldn’t just ignore it.

“You are my favorite jounin,” she blurted out.

Anko stopped in her track, dumbfounded, and Izumi came to stand in front of her. She could barely make out her expression in the dim night light of the street.

“I’m proud you chose me for this, and I’m happy to be here, with you.”

She didn’t say “I’m happy still, despite this”, but she trusted Anko would know.

“You’re really too good, Izumi,” Anko chided, a little annoyed and a little awed.

“But you like me anyway?”

She didn’t mean to phrase that as a question. She blushed as Anko grinned wildly, before she dropped an arm on Izumi’s shoulder to mess with her hair.

“Of course I do. You’re my favorite chunin after all.”

.

“Next step after climbing trees is walking on water,” Kakashi declared when he arrived at the meeting point. It was a secluded part of the river, not as easily accessible as the most popular bathing spots, and surrounded by trees and rocks. Kakashi was an hour late – things were going back to normal, it seemed.

Ha. As if.

Kakashi had more or less let it transpired that Naruto skipping on team training or missions wasn’t an option, and since the last thing he wanted was to have the village even more on his back than it already was, Naruto had no choice but to obey.

Problem was, training had taken a nightmarish turn lately, but it's not like he could explain that to Kakashi.

“The principle is the same, but the precision needed isn’t. Besides, the goal is to be able to carry on a fight while changing grounds and environment, so you have to learn to maintain it with every part of your body and no matter the conditions. Alright, let’s begin.”

The three of them joined their hands, closed their eyes, and concentrated on their chakra flow before taking a tentative step on the flowing water. Or tried to, in Naruto’s case, because…

A sudden flare of foreign chakra made him lose the feeble grasp he had on his own.

He lost balance and crashed into the cold water.

Oops.

That damn fox wouldn’t leave him in peace.

It was determined to hinder any and all of his progress. When the seal was stable and firmly closed, there was only so much chakra that could filter through it, but with Naruto’s poor control, it was enough to disrupt everything. Naruto had even been looking into the seal, into ways to tighten it, but it was way more advanced than anything he knew, and the scrolls he had were either useless on the matter or too complicated for him to decipher.

And the fox kept laughing.

“You’re alright, Naruto?”

“Fine,” he said through gritted teeth, ignoring the hand Sakura was thrusting his way. She huffed, displeased. He ignored her.

She was already standing perfectly fine on the water, of course, and she walked away with no trouble at all to practice taijutsu moves right there in the middle of the river.

Naruto cursed while he got back up. Sasuke already had the hang of it too, even if he looked far less steady on his feet that their third teammates. But he would manage it soon enough.

He didn’t have a fox mocking him and poking at his chakra system.

“Stay focused, Naruto,” Kakashi advised from where he was sitting on the bank. He wasn’t reading his book or napping – his eyes were trained on the genins, attentive.

Keeping watch on Naruto, maybe.

He was right though – getting worked up would only give the fox more leeway. He had had no choice but to take up meditation, admittedly the most boring occupation in the world. It helped though, it couldn’t be denied. Shisui shared similar thoughts on the matter – dull but necessary – so they sat on the deck behind the house in the evening or early before breakfast, and they spent some times together in silence, trying to find calm and serenity, to balance things up. It never lasted long, but it still helped.

And Shisui spending time with him was always nice. Even when they said nothing.

Ignoring his soggy clothes and the cold sipping into his skin, he closed his eyes and tried to find it again, that peace and that level of control over himself that he so sorely needed. He fought to keep his grip firm over the chakra concentrating in his feet. The calmer he was, the easier it was to push the fox back down.

He tried again, several times, crushing down firmly any feelings of irritation. After a couple of hours Sasuke and Sakura had moved on to spar on the surface of the water, while he exhaled a small sigh of relief as he managed to reach the middle of the river.

You really have low standards.

Shut the fuck up.

His concentration was tenuous at best, and any distraction would send it flying out the window.

Sakura jumped back to avoid an upcoming kick and tumbled into Naruto. He lost his grip immediately and sunk into the water.

It wasn’t deep, but it was cold, and the surprise and annoyance made his temper flare. He struggled to climb back up on the surface, spluttering and coughing.

“Dammit! Can’t you…”

Oh, you called?

Naruto shut down his rising anger immediately.

It was his lot in life now, to be scared of his own emotions. He raised his head once he felt enough in control of the laughing fox, only to see Kakashi had gotten up and was staring at him intently. Sakura looked guilty, hesitating by his side to help him up or not. Behind her, Sasuke was observing him too, face unreadable.

He knew he couldn’t afford to get angry, or excited or scared. Last time he had lashed out, Haku had died, while it had been the last thing he wanted. He knew the fox would make no difference, wouldn’t bother to spare those around him.

Why do you do that?

You’ll either get strong enough to go against me. Or I’ll eventually wear you down enough to break free. It’s your deal, not mine.

Naruto should have kept his fucking mouth shut.

“I think that’s enough for today,” Kakashi called out. They walked back to solid ground, good mood forgotten. Naruto wanted to scream. Did the fox had to ruin everyone’s day.

“Same time here tomorrow, kids. Let’s get something to eat.”

“Actually,” Sakura cut in, hesitant, “there’s something I wanted to talk to you about, sensei. If it’s okay with you.”

“Oh? Yeah, go on.”

“Hum, well…”

She cast a pointed look at Naruto and Sasuke.

“We’re gone,” Naruto declared, when it appeared that Sasuke wasn’t taking the hint. He was spacing out, and was confused enough that he didn’t protest when Naruto dragged him away.

They went back to the main districts together, and Naruto only realized that he had followed Sasuke to the takoyaki stand when they were already in line. It was such a habit, they always went for food after training, he hadn’t even thought about parting ways. He considered doing it now, but Sasuke would probably be sad, or mad, and Naruto didn’t want to make a scene. He could indulge, couldn’t he? Not getting closer didn’t have to mean completely pulling away. They were just having some food. No big deal.

Or so he thought, until it was their turn.

.

Of course he had noticed before, many times. It was impossible not to. It had always bothered him, but now that he knew why it was, it made him furious.

It was so obvious, blatant, so damn rude. The man handling the takoyaki stand raised his head to greet them, and as soon as he spotted Naruto, his smile vanished, his face hardened. His son, who was watching the grilling goods next to him, elbowed him in the ribs without discretion, and they shared a hushed, heated conversation, waving their spatulas around. Meanwhile, Naruto and Sasuke just stood there like idiots, as the people in line behind them started grumbling in low voices.

“Forget it,” Naruto said. He reached up.

He slid the mask on his face.

He was always wearing it, on the side, and he was always just a hair away from putting it on. To escape a conversation, to hide his face and emotions, to not be seen anymore. To defy, also, when he turned it to the passersby, the inscription on the forehead clear and bold, for everyone to see. It was impossible to know what he thought then, what he felt. Sasuke hated it.

Naruto walked away. The crowd parted to let him pass. From where Sasuke stood, watching his retreating back, it almost looked like it was out of respect. But Sasuke only had to see their faces.

He hated that too.

This anger, there was nothing he could do with it. He couldn’t yell at the shopkeeper, at these people, he couldn’t slam his fist in the wooden shack, he couldn’t express it in any way. It drove him crazy. He wanted to rage and rant, to tell them that this was not okay, to ask them why.

Instead he clenched his fists in his pockets and went home gritting his teeth.

Itachi had told him it would be better to keep this to himself for the time being – Kakashi had sort of hinted at it too in that way he had to say things while saying absolutely nothing at all. Sasuke had told his parents a very brief summary of their mission in Wave Country, unwilling to share the details of their failures and shortcomings. He had no doubt whatever had made it into Kakashi's report, his father had to know, but he hadn't asked, so Sasuke could only assume that particular detail wasn’t mentioned.

How ironic, to keep secret the fact that that secret wasn’t so secret anymore. Everybody knew – or at least, a lot of people did. The game was to pretend like they didn’t, while stating quite obviously that they did.

It was insane.

Sasuke carried his quiet outrage all the way through his training session with Itachi – who had the good taste not to ask – and into the evening. He sat quietly at the dinner table, pushing his vegetables around as his mother talked about her genin team and his father asked Itachi about what he planned on doing now, again. So normal, so mundane. Familiar, familial. Happy.

Itachi had told him not to say anything, but he must have known Sasuke wouldn’t listen.

It was just too hard, to pretend like everything was the same, when nothing was. Wherever he looked, whoever he talked to, whatever he did, it was all he could think about.

The people around him were bullies and liars. Naruto was sad and bitter and angry at life, and when Sasuke looked around him, all he saw was people who were responsible for it.

"Is something wrong, Sasuke?" his mother asked, concerned by his silence and his sullen mood.

“It’s your fault,” he answered.

Itachi should have known Sasuke wouldn’t listen.

“Huh, what…”

“It’s your fault if Naruto is the way he is. If he’s unhappy and lonely. It’s your fault. You did this to him.”

“Sasuke,” his father called, firm and authoritative. “What are you talking about?”

“I know about the Demon Fox.”

Silence dropped onto the table at once, the scene freezing like time had stopped, as they stared at him in shock and disbelief.

“How?” his mother asked, distressed.

“He told me,” Sasuke lied. He didn’t leave them time to divert the conversation on that particular point. “It just came out. I can’t believe, all this time… I can’t believe that’s why. That’s why you didn’t want us to be friends. He’s… He’s… It’s all your fault.”

“Sasuke,” his father growled, a warning, but Sasuke was on the roll now and he wasn’t going to stop.

“No. No. After all you told me, after everything… How can you be fine with it? How is… how is it honorable, and just and right, to be so unfair? To treat him this way? I always thought… That there was something, some kind of reason but it’s…”

“It’s more complicated than you think, Sasuke.”

“Oh yeah? Tell me then, please. Absolutely no one has ever been kind to Naruto ever, and everyone thinks it’s normal. Tell me w-why.”

His voice broke off on an aborted sob. He struggled against angry tears, not wanting to show such blatant weakness. It just felt like his emotions were spilling out of him, too big to be contained. He was overwhelmed.

Naruto had been on the verge of bursting too, earlier on the river, but he had shoved it down hard. He always looked on edge now. Always looked scared.

It wasn’t fair.

His father stared him down with a stony face and Sasuke knew he wasn’t going to answer. He turned towards his mother, hoping she would say something, anything, to soothe his anguish, to justify all this.

“It’s… It is complicated, Sasuke…”

He jumped on his feet and stormed out of the dining room. He heard his father call out his name, angrily telling him to come back, but for the first time, he didn’t listen. He marched on, until he could slam shut his bedroom door, and he didn’t come out again.

.

“He’s right,” Mikoto said through gritted teeth as Fugaku fumed by her side.

“He’s a child,” he answered.

“Only when what he says bothers you,” she shot back. For him of all people, to use that argument. Itachi excused himself with a slight bow, face sullen.

“I don’t want to discuss this,” Fugaku said, stubborn. She sighed as she piled up the plates, the clinking of the ceramics offensive in the heavy air.

“You won’t always be able to escape it.”

.

“Hey, Hayate, wait up, wait! I need a favor.”

“Aren’t you guys tired of always owing me things?”

“Don’t act like you haven’t been dying to benefit from Shisui’s matchmaker skills. I know he got you that date.”

“Irrelevant. What do you want?”

Kakashi stepped to the side dramatically and Sakura, who had been hiding behind him up until then, found herself suddenly face to face with a jounin a little younger than her instructor, who wore his ninja headband as a bandana and had worrying bags under his eyes. He eyed her blankly, waiting for an explanation that wasn’t coming, because Kakashi loved to embarrass his genin.

“Hayate, this is Haruno Sakura, one of the genin from my team. Sakura, Gekko Hayate. He’s a friend of mine.”

“Don’t get too confident.”

The rebuttal was broken off by a wet cough that the man covered with his hand. His voice was low and raspy, without much inflection or emotion. He didn’t look too good. It wasn’t very reassuring.

“It’s… It’s nice to meet you, sir.”

For some reasons, that made Kakashi laugh, as the man’s eyes widened in surprise.

“…You too. You can call me Hayate.”

Could she? Doubtful. She nodded.

“Sakura here asked me to be trained in kenjutsu.”

She blushed, caught off guard by Kakashi broaching the subject so bluntly. At least he was the one talking – it had been hard enough voicing it out to him, she would never have been able to ask a stranger.

“Is that so? But she just made genin, didn’t she?”

“She had excellent chakra control and she breathed through the basic techniques. I admit my hands may be a bit… full, with the rest of my team, and they don’t have the same progress at all. Besides, you’re the best the village has to offer in term of kenjutsu teacher. I’m rubbish at it.”

Hayate arched an eyebrow, either at the blatant flattery, or the fact that Kakashi most certainly wasn’t “rubbish” at anything.

“You get it,” he said, waving off the other man’s doubts with a dismissive hand. “She also has a decent level in taijutsu, and she’s a dedicated student. She won’t waste your time.”

Sakura was all but burning up in embarrassment now, at the praises and the scrutiny. She knew Kakashi was trying to convince the other man, but it was still nice to hear him being so flattering – she’d ever dare say a little proud.

Even when he was trying to get rid of her. She understood that she couldn’t get private teaching during their team training, that it was too specific a request and needed to be handled separately, but she wasn’t clear on the reason why he couldn’t do it, apart from the fact that maybe he just…

Didn’t want to.

Sakura really wanted this though. She needed this.

“Why do you want to be trained in sword-wielding then?”

She was a little out of it and she needed a second to register the question was for her. She stammered a bit around her words, blood still rising to her cheeks, but she answered nonetheless.

“I like it. We had a mission. I just had a chance and… You can do something, with a sword. You can’t be helpless. You can protect others. It’s not like the rest. I don’t have a lot of chakra, and I’m not very strong, but I want to fight. And to… to end fights too.”

Kakashi was sending all three of them to do a mandatory psych exam, because of what had happened in Wave Country. She had killed two men – she would have to talk about it. He had asked how she was feeling, if she was affected, and she was, but she wasn’t losing sleep over it either. She had talked about it with Ino, because she was the only one she felt comfortable having that discussion with, and they had agreed that it was just a part of their life. She hadn’t attacked with the intention to kill the two mercenaries at Tazuna’s house, but she had felt relieved, once they were dead. She hadn’t needed to worry about them anymore after that.

“Plus, you can scare people with a sword,” she added quickly, unwilling to linger on the matter.

“I don’t think she’ll settle for a tanto,” Kakashi laughed, “that’s why I brought her to you.”

Hayate observed her for a moment longer, assessing, and she did her best to bear his judgment without squirming.

“Yugao will like her,” he said eventually. It sounded like a good thing, if the small smile softening his face was anything to go by.

“Right? It could even be your first date. Joint training. That’s romantic.”

“Kakashi. Please shut the fuck up.”

“Hayate, language! Think of the kids.”

Hayate and Sakura rolled their eyes in perfect synch.

“See,” Kakashi said, “you’re getting along already.”

.

Training was cut short the next day, because Sakura was training with someone else, and Kakashi had “things to do”. Sasuke cast a puzzled look at Naruto gathering his things too.

“You’re leaving?”

“Why would I stay.”

“We could train some more.”

Naruto shrugged, indifferent.

“I have my own training to do.”

“Do it another time. Stay here. Spar with me.”

“I don’t want to.”

“We can…”

“I don’t want to spend time with you.”

Sasuke’s mouth stayed hanging but he didn’t find a word to say. Naruto shuffled around, ill-at-ease. Often he looked like he regretted the words that had crossed his lips, but never did he try to take them back.

“Why not?”

“I don’t… have the time. I have other things to do.”

“Like what?”

Naruto huffed, exasperation rising as Sasuke kept pressing. He wouldn’t let go though. Things couldn’t go on like that. He didn’t want them to.

“Things. Leave it.”

“No.”

Naruto was destabilized by his sudden insistence. He was used to Sasuke giving up after a few tries – Sasuke didn’t like to be forceful. It didn’t matter much if Naruto wasn’t in the mood, there was always next time.

But now, things were different. Now time passing was distance growing between the two of them. Naruto would take no more step forward. If Sasuke stayed put, he would only keep getting further and further away.

The other boy turned around to leave. Sasuke went to stand in front of him.

“Let me go.”

“No.”

“What the hell Sasuke? What do you want?”

“I just want to help.”

“I don’t need your help. What do you think you can do for me?”

No answer came to his mind. There had to be something… But he couldn’t think of it.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Naruto spat like he had proven a point somehow. He had proven shit. He tried to sidestep him. Sasuke moved too, getting closer. They stood almost chest to chest, in each other’s face. Naruto’s eyes were burning with fury.

“You can’t fix this, Sasuke. There is nothing you can do. This is how things are, and you can’t change them. You can’t change me.”

“I don’t want to.”

Naruto huffed a disbelieving laugh. He took another step forward, menacing, all but breathing in Sasuke’s air. Sasuke had learned his lesson though. He didn’t budge. Naruto grabbed his collar, pulling him in.

“Leave me alone.”

“No.”

“Sasuke!”

Naruto tried to shove him away, but Sasuke grabbed his wrists to keep his balance. It didn’t work – they both tumbled backward, Sasuke’s back hitting the rocky ground hard enough to knock his breath out of him, as Naruto crashed on top of him.

Naruto grabbed his collar again, lifting him up to bring them face to face. He was furious, and he was trying to be intimidating, hoping to scare Sasuke away, but all Sasuke could see was that split second right after he had come back to himself on the bridge, the unfathomable depth of his grief and loneliness, and nothing could erase it from his mind.

“What’s wrong with you?” Naruto yelled to his face. “Why can’t you just let it go?”

“I don’t want to,” Sasuke gritted.

Something occurred to Naruto then. He sat back on his heels, freeing Sasuke's legs from under him. He looked serious and resolute and that made Sasuke fear was he was going to say next.

“You said you would stay away. If I asked.”

Sasuke's heart skip a beat before picking up the pace, as his own words echoed in his memories.

He had said that, hadn’t he?

“Well then…”

“Don’t do that.”

“I’m asking. Leave me alone, Sasuke.”

And to be sure Sasuke couldn't argue any further, to put an end to that conversation without confronting it in any way, because he was a coward and he had to know he was wrong, Naruto slid the mask on his face again.

He wouldn’t talk anymore. For all intent and purposes, he was already gone. Sasuke had the urge to smash the damn thing to pieces, because he needed to see Naruto’s face, and to hear his voice, and to know he was here, he was alright.

But he had said that. He had said he would respect his wishes. Naruto couldn’t hope to convince him that he truly thought he would be better off on his own, but wasn’t assuming to know better about his own feelings exactly the problem?

Would it be better if he complied then?

If he stayed away?

Hm. No.

Chapter Text

Naruto used to be good at this.

He had done it for years, most of his life really. Going to school on his own, training on his own, eating on his own. Going for days at ends not exchanging a single word with another human being – let alone physical contact. He couldn’t even say he had suffered from this solitude as a child, because it was all he knew. He felt envy and jealousy for the proximity and warmth he saw in other, but it was a pain that was dull, ever-present but manageable, something he had accepted as an inevitability. Something he didn’t know, therefore couldn’t miss.

He used to be good at this.

Now he couldn’t bear it.

He no longer went to eat snacks with Sasuke and Sakura after, he slipped away as soon as they were done with training or some stupid, useless mission. He no longer hung out with them when they had nothing to do. He barely talked to Shisui, let alone any of the other people that gravitated around his house. It shouldn’t have been so hard, but it was, it was.

It was so absurd. To be missing his friends.

Sasuke constantly looked on the verge of talking, of reaching out, but he didn’t. Sakura didn’t either, even if for her it was more out of anger, he believed. She didn’t understand, and what she didn’t understand made her mad.

Naruto shouldn’t have cared so much. He had far more important things to focus on, first and foremost find a way of taming the beast, of learning control. He couldn’t afford to be so distracted.

Knowing that didn’t help. Nothing did.

To make matters worse, the frustration it caused didn’t work in his favor at all. The fox had taken up to mock him constantly, ridiculing his desperate attempts at keeping the distance between him and his friends.

Naruto was almost starting to agree with it. It would have been easier to feel nothing at all.

Shisui was worried about him, which was irksome too. He hadn’t said that in so many words of course, but he didn’t have to. Naruto knew him, and he knew what it meant when he did that face, when he constantly asked what Naruto wanted to eat and what were his plans for the day. Naruto had stopped seeing those as measures of control or surveillance. Shisui was just…

Fretting.

Naruto would never get used to it.

He had decided to stay, in the end. He was still pondering over it, but living with Shisui definitely had its perks.

Most notably, since Naruto was supposed to be under his supervision – understand surveillance – the number of shinobis tagging his ass anytime he took a step out of the village’s residential areas had dropped to a round zero. He didn’t know if they expected Shisui to keep him under house arrest or if they had just decided the Uchiha knowing about his comings and goings was enough but in the end, it meant that Naruto was relatively free to wander the village’s land – as long as he didn’t cross the wall, of course.

Shisui wasn’t interesting in monitoring his every move. Naruto didn’t even lie anymore, didn’t say he was going to train with Sasuke or study with Sakura or paint with Sai. He said “I’m going to the forest” and Shisui knew not to expect him back until dinnertime, or even breakfast the next day, when Naruto ended up sleeping under the trees and the starry sky.

Naruto went to the woods to practice fuuinjutsu in peace, or just to be alone. He went to the most remote areas, where he had the least chances of crossing path with another living soul. A human one anyway.

He had stopped being weirded out by the wildlife’s inexplicable fondness for him. The deer randomly straying into the clearing he was practicing in to eat grass and hang out five meters away from him, the occasional birds landing onto his scrolls and picking at his snacks, or even nesting into his unruly hair while he was meditating.

He had been woken up from a nap one day by a small red fox getting cozy on his chest. Dislodged by his living mattress sitting up abruptly, the thing had only leveled a haughty glare at him, outraged, it seemed, not to have been allowed to sleep in peace.

Is this your doing? he had asked the other fox, the one that napped inside, not out.

That bastard had only laughed.

It was worse since he had become something of an unwilling protector of these creatures. The foxes could only be found deep in the woods, in the most secluded places, and Naruto had found out that it was because while other animals were generally left alone in the forest, it wasn’t the case for the foxes. Villagers hunted down the occasional deer, rabbits or wild boars for festivals and holidays, but the foxes…

He had stumbled upon two men trying to catch one with a kunai one day. The small, scrawny thing was trapped by the trees and their fast throwing, they were dragging it out. When he had asked what they were doing, they had said that seeing a fox was a bad omen, but that killing it would bring them good fortune.

They had both taken a paralysis seal to the nape of their neck.

Since then, the foxes always came to him. They laid down on the dead leaves at the foot of the nearest tree and slept or judged silently Naruto’s attempts at sealing. They came with friends, or family – how could Naruto know – and they generally ignored his presence, but if he moved, they followed.

Naruto was past wondering at this point.

They left him in peace at least, something none of the humans he knew were capable of doing, which put all the animals above them in his book. These creatures welcomed him here for some reasons, trusted him in a way they didn’t trust other humans. He didn’t know what that said about him and his own humanity, but he couldn’t see it as a bad thing.

So Naruto went to the woods. He had his favorite clearing, in which he was steadily building stacks of weapons (stolen) and snacks (also stolen).

A sanctuary, of sorts.

He was making good progress with his seals, which alleviated some of the frustration brought by his standstill over the demon fox problem. He had an inkling that maybe the seal had been weakened by the outbursts in Wave Country. Damaged somehow, enough that he had trouble shutting the fox down now, enough that it was always there, hovering at the border of his mind. He had been timidly looking for seals that resembled the one he had on his stomach, but he was reluctant to get into it properly.

If he messed it up… He couldn’t risk weakening the seal even further, or worse, break it for good.

He couldn’t risk unleashing the Beast on Konoha. Again.

I don’t see why that would be so bad.

He didn’t even bother answering anymore.

There was something else he had been willing to work on ever since Wave Country. He had had to ask Shikamaru, again, not just because he was the smartest people to whom he could talk, but mainly because Shikamaru had no care in the world about anything. If he found it weird that Naruto came to him at random to ask for kanjis, he couldn’t be bothered to question it or care in any way. Naruto wasn’t worried about being reported.

Besides, asking the boy for kanjis like “Summoning” wasn’t too suspicious since it wasn’t something they had ever been taught in class. Sure, he had raised an eyebrow at Naruto needing to be taught how to write “Fox”, but again, Shikamaru didn’t have it in him to get curious about it. A wonderful quality, in Naruto’s opinion.

With the right kanji in hand, it hadn’t been hard to find the corresponding seal again in Kakashi’s scroll, lifted from his pouch during training a few days before. Some ninja they were, all those easily robbed jounin. At least Shisui was starting to get better at spotting Naruto’s wandering fingers. Naruto should have been teaching classes, honestly.

He had copied down the seal on one of his own scrolls, making a few adjustments here and there, just so that it was a bit more pleasing to the eye. Most of the seals he had encountered were kind of ugly – except the ones in the scrolls marked with the red spiral, which were the best by far. He had replaced the dog kanji with the fox one everywhere he had recognized it – his practice of fuuinjutsu was pretty experimental, generally speaking. A good thing he had so much chakra to waste.

He had gathered that blood was required for summons. The only thing he missed was the hand seals.

At the time he hadn’t been paying much attention to what Kakashi was doing, and he was paying it now. Was is the Boar first? Or the Dog? He was pretty sure the last one was the Ram. Did Kakashi have to make his hand signs so fast?

He tried several combinations, with no success. There was no way to know if he was messing up the hand signs, the seal itself, or anything else. Fuuinjutsu, he had found, was way more complex and intricate than most other ninja arts. It could work in a lot of different ways, and could fail in just as many, with no way to know for sure why.

“Summoning! Oh come on!”

The scroll remained stubbornly blank. The young fox that was grooming its fur a few feet away looked up mockingly, as if to underline the fact that it couldn’t be bothered to travel that small distance to pop up on the seal. Naruto glared at it, to no effect.

He formed the signs again, but before he could slam another attempt on the scroll, a noise behind him made the fox scrambled away and himself jump on his feet, alert.

“It’s Boar-Dog-Bird-Monkey-Ram, if you must know. But you’ll get nowhere without a contract.”

It was a woman. Middle-aged, blonde, tall and muscular, with an angry frown on her face, swaying slightly probably thanks to the bottle clutched in one of her hands. He had never seen her before.

“I didn’t think I’d find someone here. I used to come to be alone, and train in peace,” she said, making a gesture that englobed the small clearing.

“Find yourself another spot,” he shot back, defensive. He wouldn’t let go of this place without a fight. It was his favorite on account of him being the only one knowing it. Or so he thought.

“Oh, don’t worry, I will,” she deadpanned, not looking particularly pleased about it. She took a long swing from her bottle, before letting out an inelegant sigh and wiping her mouth with the sleeve of her green haori.

She leaned against a tree trunk with a  roan. Naruto didn’t think she was that much impaired by her drunken state though. He didn’t approach her.

“So yeah, a contract,” she said, falling back on their previous topic of conversation. “Otherwise anyone could summon any animal at all time. That would be a pain.”

“What kind of contract?”

“Somethin’ like a pact. So that they will come to your aid. You have to give them something in return. Can be anything, chakra, protection, your soul after you die… Be careful to read the contract first. Animals can be rightful bastards.”

With these words, she bit down on her thumb and signed so fast he couldn’t even decipher it, her hands a blur as they went through the combination. She slammed her hands on the ground and there appeared…

“A slug?” he scoffed. It was quite big, about the size of one of his scrolls, but it was a damn slug, white and slimy. The woman barked out an ugly laugh.

“Yeah, a slug. Don’t underestimate it. In fact, don’t underestimate things in general, brat. Think about it, if I went through the trouble of contracting with them, it has to be for a reason.”

That made sense, but he couldn’t think of a single one.

“So… oh, foxes? Never seen fox summons before. But anything goes, I guess.”

She was leaning over his hand-drawn scroll spread on the ground, poking at it with interest. Naruto rolled all of them quickly to hid them back in his hoodie, out of view.

“I didn’t know they taught seals in Konoha now,” she slurred.

“They don’t,” he answered warily. He didn’t know whether to be careful about that woman or not. She wasn’t threatening, but he could tell she was powerful, far more than her youthful appearance and rude demeanor let on.

“Yeah, it figured. Why would they start doing anything sensible.”

He let out an involuntary scoff. She took another sip out of her bottle.

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “I get it. You’re the demon fox boy, aren’t you?”

Naruto tensed up all over again. She wasn’t wearing a headband – was she not a shinobi? It seemed unlikely. And she looked like she knew Konoha. But he had never seen her before.

“Is it the whiskers that give it away?” he asked lightly, even if he had a death grip on the chakra sealing scroll in his pocket. She barked a humorless laugh that caught him off guard.

“Ha, no. These have nothing to do with it. I’ve seen ‘em before y’know. But Izumi talked a lot about you.”

In his surprise, Naruto forgot to be careful.

“You know her? Is she back?”

“Hm hm. Completed her mission veeery well. Look. I’m here.”

He knew Izumi had been looking for someone. Was that this woman? Six months on the road to bring back a drunken hag?

They were interrupted by a distant voice breaking the whispers of the forest. Screaming.

“Tsunade-hime! Tsunade-hime, where are you?”

The stranger cursed.

“Dammit, already? I need to up my game it seems.”

“Go away.”

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“Excuse me?”

“Get out of here! I don’t want them to find this place!” Naruto said, too panicked to sound as firm as he would have wanted to. She grinned.

“Only if you let me come back here.”

“This is my spot!”

“I was here first.”

“If it was a hundred years ago, it doesn’t count!”

Her eyes twitched and she crossed her arms on her chest, not decided to move. Naruto listened worriedly at the voice getting closer.

“Alright fine, fine! We’ll… we'll share. But only if you teach me summons."

“Deal, baby boy.”

They even shook on it, and she offered him her bottle. He grimaced, disgusted by the smell. She let out a booming laugh before drinking some and turning around, ready to meet whoever it was that was looking for her.

“Who the hell are you anyway?”

He thought maybe he had heard the name Tsunade before, but he couldn’t remember where. She fixed her brown eyes on him, way too intense and focused for someone seemingly half-drunk, and for a moment she looked both incredibly angry and impossibly sad, looked like she wanted nothing more than to lay down on the floor and never get up, or turn around running and never stop.

For a moment, Naruto felt very close to her.

It broke off when she grinned, without any trace of joy.

“My name’s Tsunade, brat. And I’m the new boss of this dump.”

.

There was a light knock on his bedroom door, and despite Sasuke appreciating the effort of not barging in without warning, he was busy sulking over Naruto and wasn’t in the mood for company.

“Go away, Itachi.”

He groaned as the door slid open anyway, but it wasn’t Itachi standing behind it.

“Well is that a way of welcoming a retuning shinobi…”

“Izumi!”

He was up and tumbling over her fast enough she barely had the time to brace herself, before he was slamming into her, crushing her into a brief hug before taking a step back to look at her.

“I didn’t know you were back today,” he said, while trying to look for injuries or any sign that things had gone awry while she was away. She only looked a bit tired, but otherwise, she was unharmed.

“I know, it wasn’t scheduled. I came back this morning and scared my mother to death, and now I came to greet your family. I only crossed path with your father though.”

At least he had let her in, Sasuke thought.

“My mother is training her team, and Itachi is… around, I think. I’m not sure.”

“Well, at least you’re here,” she said with a smile. “How are you?”

Sasuke opened his mouth. It was a simple enough question. It wasn’t even a real one. Just a conversation opener, the one everyone said all the time. He just had to say he was fine. Even if he wasn’t. But he was. Wasn’t he?

“Sasuke?”

“We went on a mission and it went really bad.”

She sat him down on his bedroom floor, and he told her everything. Everything he hadn’t told his parents, Itachi, Shisui, and the medic-nin that had assessed them a few days ago and deemed them all fine and good to go. He didn’t even pause to wonder if she knew about Naruto, if it was a good idea to tell her. Surely she did, and even if she didn’t… Izumi wouldn’t judge. She would be good about this.

She would know what to do.

So he told her how scared he had been and how bad he felt now, how Naruto didn’t talk to them anymore, how he hid behind that awful mask and grew more distant every day.

“And there’s also…”

He activated his Sharingan, to show her.

“Did you gain it during your fight?”

“I think so, yeah. I didn’t… really noticed.”

In fact, he hadn’t even known he had manifested a second tomoe in both of his eyes until days after their return, when he had been studying his Sharingan in the bathroom mirror. Most likely, it had sprung to life when he was trapped in the ice prison with Naruto, trying to keep up with Haku’s movements.

He hadn’t told anyone. He didn’t feel like bragging about it. He would have rather have a first level Sharingan still, if it meant they hadn’t gone through this.

“You’ll need specific training to get used to the additional strain on your chakra system, and to adjust to your new reaction time.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“But you haven’t told anyone.”

He shrugged. Having to get into details about what had actually happened in Wave Country would be as bad as bearing his parents’ enthusiasm about his developing Sharingan. He didn’t want to deal with either.

“I don’t like this. I don’t like… I don’t like things to change.”

“You can’t help it. Change is inevitable.”

“I know that, it’s not… I want things to change. Some things. But I want it to be because I decided it. Because I made it happen. I don’t… I can’t control anything. I don’t have any power.”

He could have learned about Naruto’s condition in any number of way. Someone should have chosen to tell him. He could have reached the next stage of his Sharingan through steady training, instead of during a fight for his life that had resulted in Naruto being deeply hurt, even if he had not been injured. There were still so many things his family didn’t tell him, and so many things he didn’t know. He hated that feeling, of being helpless, of only being carried away by the flow, unable to act, to do anything. Naruto had pulled the rug from under him, he was the one who could decide, Sasuke could only watch.

He hated it.

“I can’t do anything.”

“Yes you can. You can, Sasuke. Naruto… he may look like he knows what he’s doing and what he wants, more than you do, but he’s not. He does need help, just like you do, just like anyone else.”

“He doesn’t want my help.”

“Then you have to figure out what he needs.”

Sasuke blinked away his Sharingan before focusing back on Izumi and her gentle smile. She was rubbing his back, he hadn’t even noticed. It was nice.

“You have to find something you can give to him, something he can’t get on his own. What do you think he wants, right now?”

“Apart from being left alone?”

"Being left alone isn't his goal. Why does he want that?"

“Because he… he’s scared.”

“Of what?”

“Losing control.”

He looked numb, these days, Naruto. He was no longer angry at everything or excited about anything. He kept it all on lock, carefully hidden. He only looked scared.

“What you have to do,” Izumi said, “is make it so that he can’t refuse your help.”

For all that he didn’t want to make friends and approach people in general, Naruto had no qualm about asking others for what he needed. He had done so with Sasuke, years ago, to get stronger, and with Sakura too. He had done so with Sai, and Ino, because they were the only ones who could get him what he wanted.

Back then Sasuke was the best student in their class. That’s why Naruto had approached him in the first place. Because Sasuke could help him. And it didn’t matter if that’s all it was at first, because Sasuke could do the rest of the way. He had managed to become his friend, despite his reluctance. He could break through Naruto, once more, he could make himself impossible to ignore.

He had let Naruto down on the bridge. He had been unable to help, to be there when his friend needed him. So now Naruto thought he could do without him. And that wouldn’t do.

“You’re really good at this, Izumi,” he said, grateful and a little awed. She beamed.

“I do my best!”

Lost in thought, Sasuke couldn’t shake the feeling that he was forgetting something essential. He looked around him, trying to trace back the thread of his thoughts, before it dawned on him.

“I’m sorry, Izumi, I didn’t even ask you… How did your mission go? What were you even doing?”

Her smile tightened a little. She let out a nervous chuckle.

“Well, you see…”

.

“Tsunade-sama, please, please quit it on the disappearing act. At least for the first few days? Please.”

What could Tsunade do, faced with these pleading eyes? She was lucky Shizune was largely unaware of how efficient her whining was on her mentor. It was a weapon Tsunade wasn’t eager to put in the young woman’s hands.

“I just wanted to have a look around. This place has changed quite a bit.”

“Everyone is waiting for you.”

Tsunade rolled her eyes but followed obediently Shizune sprinting to the Hokage Tower. Half a day they were here and Tsunade was done already. She wanted to go lie down in the woods and stay there until the local fauna was so used to her presence they would nest on her chest and eat her hair.

“Today or tomorrow, what does it change? I’m here now. Stuck for good. I’m not going anywhere.”

There would be plenty of meetings, she trusted. She would miss plenty and still attend plenty more – she wasn’t so keen on taking a head start.

“You have to introduce yourself,” Shizune berated, as she would a reluctant teenager, a habit Tsunade didn’t call her out on because she found it endlessly amusing. “Besides… The Sandaime asked to see you.”

That darkened her mood for good.

Her mind was in shamble – she didn’t know what to feel. She was happy and eager to see him, she had always been fond of him and he had taken good care of her and her brother when they had no one. But if she was back now, forced away from her self-imposed exile, it was to fix his mistakes, it was because he had failed. He was her mentor, her teacher. Seeing him so fallible… The only thing she could have maybe leaned on, gone. She was utterly alone in this.

“Tsunade-sama, please, hurry up!”

Well. Not quite. Despite the stress, despite her worries, Shizune was happy to be back, it was obvious. Strange, because she had even less attachment to the village than Tsunade had – she was so young when they had left, and she had never expressed any regret, anything she missed and wished to go back to.

Homesickness was the strangest thing. And very badly named. Tsunade was the homesick one – she was home, and it made her sick.

She was submerged by memories, of wandering these streets, of times long gone. They were different of course, barely recognizable at times, but there was no mistake possible. It was the same place.

They went up the stairs toward the Hokage’s office and she was six again, running around the corridors, getting reprimanded by the chunin working the assignment desk. Nawaki was here – his legs were too small, he couldn’t keep up. Tsunade went back to haul him up on her back so that he wouldn’t miss a thing. She was already stronger than most.

Or she was a little older, fourteen and pissed at another boring mission at the border. She was dragging both Orochimaru and Jiraiya behind her, so that they could go whine to her great uncle for more exciting missions.

War was at the door. But she didn't know that yet.

Or she was even older, and she was dreading yet another unproductive meeting about limited resources and bad news from the battlefield. But at least Dan would be there. He would sit by her side and support her claims – or make them for her, if it was another women-shouldn’t-talk-about-war day. She wanted that stupid meeting to be over already, so that they could go to her place and cuddle under her covers.

Or she was walking the corridors dressed all in black, mourning. Which time? Her parents, her brother, her lover, her friends? There had been so many. Sometimes there were joint funerals, six for the price of one. Sometimes there was none at all. People went missing, and eight months later someone raised their head from their paperwork and pondered aloud, “I wondered what happened to…”

She was twenty-nine, and she was leaving this place for good, never to return.

“Tsunade-sama?”

She was fifty-four. She was back. She was becoming Hokage.

“Sorry. I got lost in thought for a second.”

Tsunade felt guilty about the amount of worrying Shizune did over her. The girl was frowning as usual, forehead creased, wrinkled before its time. She would have liked to believe Shizune would get some peace, now that she no longer had to look after Tsunade, but that would have been a lie. Tsunade didn’t want her to leave her side, but most importantly, Shizune wouldn’t budge.

Not yet. One day, maybe.

“Are you alright?”

“Can I ask you a favor?”

Shizune squinted, confused, but she nodded.

“All those years you’ve called me Tsunade-sama, when there was really no use and no one else did. Now that it’s all they’ll be doing, would you finally take to calling me Tsunade? Please?”

In other circumstances, Shizune would have argued – they had had this discussion before, many times. Things were different now though. Things were changing.

“I’ll… I’ll try. Tsunade.”

Just another thing to get used to.

“Okay. Let’s do this.”

They had arrived at the last floor. The corridor ended on the open doors of the Hokage office. Even from the other side she could see all heads turning toward the stairs, impatient, trying to get a look. Turning on her heels and marching right out wasn’t an option, she knew. And yet, what a nice idea to entertain, even for just a second.

The thing was, when you were running away, you could never stop. If you stopped, even just a second, it was over. She had been running for more than twenty years, but as soon as she had just considered slowing down, turning back, it was already over. She could no longer run.

So she marched on and entered the office, careful to look much more confident and in control than what she felt. It was an instinct that came to her easily – being taken seriously was hard enough. If she looked like she doubted herself, it was a lost cause.

“Good afternoon everyone. Sorry for the delay.”

She didn’t offer an explanation or further excuse, and they grumbled but didn’t comment.

“Welcome back, Tsunade.”

Her old teacher was still sitting behind his desk. It seemed impossible to believe that she would soon have to think about it as her own. That this would soon be her office. Her mess.

She nodded respectfully, but now wasn’t the time for heartfelt reunions. Not with such an audience.

She took her time to look at each of them. They were young, in her eyes at least. In their late thirties, most of them, looking serious and invested like this truly mattered. She recognized the Uchiha, the Hyuuga, the Nara… and this one, he looked familiar too. Sakumo’s son, maybe? Anko had mentioned him. She was here too, probably kept waiting after delivering her report. She didn’t look too pleased about that. Akimichi, Yamanaka, Aburame, Inuzuka – the only woman among the clan head. Ah, well, one was better than none at all. There were even younger faces behind them, jounin in their uniform, and further behind, the impassible Anbu masks fixed on her.

They were young too, those under the masks – she didn’t need to see their face to know that. The boy in the forest had had a mask too, tied to the side of his head. For a moment she had thought it was from the Anbu, and she had been angry, but it wasn’t.

A meager comfort – that kanji on the forehead…

She had the feeling she would keep making unpleasant discoveries for the weeks, maybe months to come.

She was displeased to see old Homura and Koharu sitting in a corner, assessing her openly. After the fiasco with Danzo, she would have thought the old council in enough disgrace that she wouldn’t have to deal with them at all. All wasn’t lost though – from the configuration of the room, from where everyone was standing, form their withdrawn position on the chessboard, she could infer that they weren’t the ones holding the cards right now. That was one good news, at least.

There was a bit of a shuffle among the clan heads, when the Yamanaka seemingly pushed the Nara to speak up despite the man’s reluctance. They were young indeed. Most of them were barely genin when she had left, their face vaguely rang a bell, but she would have been hard-pressed to put a name on any of them.

“Tsunade-sama, I trust that you know why we’ve asked of you to come back,” the Nara said, cutting right down to it. She appreciated his lack of manners – unlike some of his colleagues, judging by their expression. She nodded.

“And… Do you accept?”

It didn’t sound like a formality – they were genuinely wondering. They didn’t know her, so they couldn’t know that her being here was answer enough, that she wouldn’t have made them the courtesy of coming back to refuse the offer.

She still had a way out. She could still say no. Turn away. Forget about all this.

She looked at Anko, her sulking face, the impatient rhythm she was tapping with her foot, anxious to get out of there. She looked at Sakumo’s son and his absent father. She looked at each clan head, reluctantly hanging on to her every word, wishing for changes, for things to go their way for once. She thought about Izumi, cheerful and full of hope, about her family and friends she had kept blabbering about the whole way back to Konoha.

She thought about the boy in the forest. His resemblance with Nawaki was uncanny – expect Nawaki had never worn such an expression of defiance and bitterness on his face.

“I do.”

Tsunade was officially done with running.

.

Training wrapped up in the same dull, depressing mood it had these past few days. Kakashi could act as if nothing was amiss all he wanted – it did nothing to alleviate the tension between Sasuke and Naruto, and between Naruto and the world at large. Sasuke supposed that the man was as much at a loss as Sakura and himself in ways of breaking through Naruto’s thick skull, but Kakashi was their teacher. He was supposed to be better than them. He was supposed to know how to handle this.

“What happened between you two?” Sakura asked for the umpteenth time. Sasuke once again opted for a shrug in lieu of an actual answer, angering her again and further degrading the team mood.

She raised an expectant eyebrow at him, fed up with being kept out of the loop.

“He’s an idiot and a coward,” he said, loud enough to be heard by the other boy. Naruto huffed and puffed but didn’t retort. Sakura huffed too, irritated. Sasuke didn’t have a better explanation for her though. That was, in essence, what had happened. Naruto being an idiot and a coward, and Sasuke failing, again, to snap him out of it.

They had spent the day weeding grass and washing shop windows, back on the dullest missions that were genin’s lot in life. There was no telling when they would be sent out on a real mission again – Sasuke was split between being upset and relieved. Having a repeat of the Wave Country mission wasn’t exactly what they needed right now.

Not that this was much better. The days passed and nothing changed. Sasuke and Naruto didn’t address each other in any way. Sakura made meager attempts at engaging with them both before giving up in exasperation, Kakashi tried to lift their spirit to no avail. Sasuke’s mood only worsened as the days passed and Naruto made it clear that he was very serious about his claim from that time by the river. It was absurd, to be missing his moody complaints and his dry mocking of everything they saw or did. Sasuke wasn’t much of a talker, and he would have said that Naruto wasn’t either, and yet this silence, it usually wasn’t there between them.

Sasuke was starting to feel threatened by the possibility of truly losing Naruto’s friendship, and he didn’t like that one bit.

The thing was, at the end of the day, Naruto was his best friend. He was his best friend out of the two whole friends he had, and the idea of losing him filled him with dread and anguish.

He thought maybe Naruto felt the same, but by confronting him, Sasuke took the risk to discover he didn’t. He wouldn’t run away from this though, no matter how scared he was. He wanted to know, and he wanted Naruto to know too, to be sure, to say it aloud.

He was surprised by Sakura’s lack of insistence, but soon understood where it came from – Ino was speed walking toward them, trying and failing to look detached instead of excited.

“Hello, Ino,” Kakashi greeted with an amused smile, surely because he knew what her answer would be. It didn’t fail – she squinted at him, suspicious, and only offered a stilted “hi” in return. Ino was openly hostile to anyone above the age of twenty, sparing no one her rude demeanor, including important people or her own jounin instructor. Sasuke wouldn’t have been able to get away with half the things she pulled off, but her father’s constant reprimand meant little to her.

Sasuke found her equally infuriating and inspiring. Kinda like Naruto.

Her face morphed into an excited smile as soon as she looked away from Kakashi and back at Sakura.

“I took care of everything, we can go today!” she whispered with an air of great conspiracy.

“Really?” Sakura asked, looking very pleased. Ino confirmed with a nod, pride shining through her smug expression.

“Sasuke, Naruto, you should come with us!” Sakura exclaimed, overly enthusiastic. Ino didn’t look so eager, but she didn’t protest. As far as she was concerned, Sakura could do whatever she pleased, ask whatever she wanted. Ino would work to grant it to her.

“Where?” Sasuke asked, curious despite himself.

“I got my father to take me with him to meet that woman,” Ino said, pleased as punch. “The one who is going to be the Rokudaime.”

“You’re not supposed to know about that yet…” Kakashi chided without much conviction. There had been no official statement, and yet Sasuke doubted there was anyone in the village who didn’t know about princess Tsunade and the reason for her return to the village.

“Are you in?” Ino asked, ignoring the jounin.

Naruto answered first.

"I'm not going to the Hokage Tower if I don't have to. Besides, I've met her already."

His expression of complete boredom couldn’t quite hide his satisfaction at his friend’s gaping faces. 

“When?” Ino demanded, incredulous and pissed off at him getting the honor first. The woman was all everyone was talking about, but no one had even gotten a glimpse of her, except those allowed into the Hokage office. The genin knew who she was, of course – the stuff of legend – but that only made them more eager to meet her in person.

“In the woods. Chance meeting.”

With the amount of time Naruto spent there, it was actually believable.

“Urg, fine. Sasuke?”

“I’ll pass too.”

It was his turn to be gaped at. Of course, he also wanted to meet princess Tsunade – if only to assess the competition. If her reign was even half as long as the Third’s, she would be the one he would receive the Hokage seat from. But she wasn’t going anywhere, he would have plenty of other chances to meet her. It could wait.

Talking to Naruto, however, couldn’t.

“You’re no fun,” Ino said dramatically. “Whatever then, your loss. Sakura, let’s go!”

The girl cast a wary look between Naruto and Sasuke. He nodded at her, trying to convey some sort of reassurance, although he wasn’t that confident himself. There was a non-negligible possibility that this would blow up in his face. It was a risk that had to be taken.

Sakura left with Ino, the two girls chattering with obvious excitement. They shared a level of intimacy and complicity that Sasuke couldn’t help but feel envious of. He didn’t see himself ever sharing that kind of bond with anyone.

Kakashi departed too, no doubt to drink alcohol with the other jounin instructors, so that they could complain about their genin. Naruto made to leave too.

Sasuke stopped him, planting himself in front of him.

“Fight me.”

.

Naruto had a feeling Sasuke would try something again. He was still startled by his bluntness.

Sasuke was not interested in being subtle anymore – or in simply ignoring things until they went away, like Naruto did all the time. Why, why couldn’t he just let it go?

“Fight me.”

“No.”

Naruto tried to sidestep him – of course Sasuke didn’t let him. But this time, instead of dancing around the subject, instead of trying to talk again, Sasuke directly jumped to the next step.

He punched Naruto.

Or well, he tried to. Naruto had no choice but to block, and to hit back, just because. They exchanged a few more hits – it was ridiculous how easily they could fall into it. Fighting with Sasuke wasn’t ever painful or unpleasant, even when he didn’t want it. It felt more like dancing maybe, something they did together, not one against the other.

It didn’t change the fact that he didn’t want to.

“I’m not in the fucking mood, Sasuke, stop it!”

“No.”

He should have been able to just walk away. But that’s not how it worked. Besides, Sasuke wouldn’t let him.

If he had to knock him out to get his peace, then so be it.

The problem was, Sasuke was familiar with most of his tricks by now. He knew all the seals he used in sparring, and he even knew about his favorite moves and combinations. Granted, the reverse was also true, even more so because Sasuke was more predictable than Naruto, not as good at improvisation. That didn’t mean he was easy to beat.

“Sasuke!”

Inevitably, Naruto was getting angry. And inevitably…

What a brat. Want some help with this?

He tried to stomp down his rising unrest, but it made him lose focus on the fight. He wasn’t used to trying to reign in on his emotions while fighting. It was among the few moments where he could uncoil, let go.

But not anymore. He had to stay calm, had to.

Sasuke was making that hard though, fighting dirty, making sure to be as infuriating as possible. He brought out the Sharingan when Naruto puffed out some extra shuriken from a scroll, and the red eyes never failed to make him feel uneasy.

“Sasuke, stop it!”

“Why?”

“Because I…”

They had moved closer to the tree line. He attempted to focus on his chakra flow, to climb one and put distance between Sasuke and him, but unlike sealing, which he could do in his sleep, practicing this kind of control, even on such a small level, was only fueling the fox’s ploy.

Red chakra slipped through the crack, mixed with his own. He lost his footing and crashed on the ground, hard. It only added to his growing rage.

“I can’t… You have to leave me alone. I don’t…”

He couldn’t say it. “I don’t want to lose it, I don’t want to hurt you.” He didn’t want to say it aloud.

Didn’t want to admit how scared he was.

“Yes, you can.”

“What?”

Sasuke’s fist broke through Naruto’s guard, making him stumble several steps backward.

“You can control it. You have to, right? That’s what we’re doing.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Isn’t that what you want?”

Naruto frowned.

“That’s none of your business.”

“Yes it is.”

“Why?”

“I’ll help you with it.”

They had good practice of bantering while they fought, and they were barely out of breath. Focusing on Sasuke's voice and nonsense helped Naruto to tune the fox out.

“I don’t need your help!”

“Oh, so you’ll make it on your own then? How do you plan on doing that?”

Of course, trying to keep himself in check on his own wasn’t so smart, but it was still better than the alternative of having anyone else help him with it. Because what if he lost it? What if he slipped? There were good reasons why he trained as deep in the forest as he could. Had it been up to him, he would have trained a thousand miles away.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about! Didn’t you see? You saw what I did! I don’t want to…”

“You won’t.”

That certitude in Sasuke’s voice was grating on his nerves.

“You won’t, Naruto. I won’t let you.”

“What?”

“I’ll stop you. Next time, I’ll stop you.”

That gave Naruto a pause. They landed back on their feet and stared at each other for a moment. With the Sharingan, it felt like Sasuke could burrow into his very soul, get into his head.

Naruto wondered if he could see the fox chilling in there.

“You can’t.”

“I will. I’ll train too. I’m stronger than you.”

Naruto scoffed. The nerves.

“No you’re not.”

“Really? Prove it then.”

He wanted to. But he couldn’t. If he got too excited, or too worked up, or…

“Don’t be so scared.”

Naruto snarled.

“I’m not scared!”

“Sure you are.”

Naruto was the one to kick the fight back into motion, jumping Sasuke in hope he could make him shut his stupid mouth and wipe the smugness from his stupid face. Sasuke was expecting him though. They exchanged more hits, staying on taijutsu for now. It worked best when they were in that state – Naruto surely didn’t have enough brain power available for any more advanced move.

Sasuke did – he didn’t get overwhelmed like Naruto, he could stay functioning no matter the stress. But he was matching Naruto’s state of mind, just like Naruto did when the other boy wasn’t in the mood for getting punched and fell back on ninjutsu.

This was nothing like a real fight.

Nothing like Wave Country.

“What can you even do?” Naruto spat out, intent on being hurtful if that was what it took to shake Sasuke off.

“I don’t know yet. We’ll figure something out.”

“Why?”

“I’m not leaving you to fight this alone.”

Why?”

Sasuke fell back into his standard guard. Naruto knew why he was keeping the fight going – it was the surest way of keeping them both into that conversation. Naruto wanted to walk away, but he couldn’t just give up now. Besides, Sasuke would come after him. If he wanted to leave, he had to put an end to the fight. Either by beating Sasuke or…

By surrendering.

“We’re friends.”

Why did they always say that like it meant anything. It was the same in the movies – “because I’m your friend”, “because I love you”. What did it even mean? Why was it so important?

Sasuke’s hands flew into the hand signs of his fireball technique – Naruto could only identify it because he had seen it countless times. Otherwise, Sasuke was signing too fast for the seals to be easily identifiable.

He was getting better.

Naruto jumped sideway – the fire followed him. He cracked out a scroll, determined to suck it in, but the fire changed course at the last moment. Up until recently, Sasuke could only change its general direction. Now he had such control over it that he could have made it into an art show.

“Katon! Fire Dragon Jutsu!”

The head of the fireball took the shape of a great dragon, its long, sinuous body curling into the air, chasing after Naruto. He didn’t have any ninjutsu to counter it. But he had seals Sasuke had never seen before.

Sasuke had the fire dragon chase after him because he believed Naruto was running the training ground at random. He wasn’t though. He was drawing a very specific pattern, running up to specific points. Dropping a hand on the ground as if he needed the support to take the sharp turn that helped him escaped the dragon. Dropping a hand on the peaks of a five-point seal.

He ran back to the middle of the pattern. Sasuke wasn’t caught in it, which was preferable, since Naruto wasn’t exactly sure what it could do to an actual person. He slammed the final seal on the ground.

The dragon vanished, chakra sucked in the ground by the large seal. Gone in an instant.

Sasuke didn’t take the time to be surprised. He stepped forward to drop back into Naruto's space, but… 

“Don’t!”

Sasuke staggered as soon as he put a foot into the seal. Naruto sped toward him and shoved him backward, hard, so that he was no longer caught in its influence.

So that’s what it did to people. He would have to think back on its intensity if he didn’t want to kill both his enemies and his teammates from chakra exhaustion.

He went to check on Sasuke, but that bastard had already recovered, and he tackled Naruto to the ground. This time he was the one to pin him down, to keep him from getting back up. And unlike Naruto the previous time, he had no intention of running away.

“You’ll never be strong enough to fight that thing,” Naruto said, a little angry and a little pleading, maybe.

“Isn’t that what you’re trying to do? Why couldn’t I do it, if you could?”

“It’s not the same! I have to. I have to or…”

“If you can do it, I will too. I’m serious. I’ll stop you, Naruto. And if you can’t do it, I will still. I won’t let you down.”

“There’s no way…”

“I'm going to be the next Hokage! Do you think I can't handle your sorry ass?"

Naruto pushed Sasuke back until he was sitting on his heels. He sat up to face his friend. Sasuke looked dead serious, determined, but angry too, frustrated. That made two of them.

He wasn’t… entirely wrong though.

What if Sasuke could stop him? When Naruto couldn’t stop himself? Of course, Kakashi could too, and anyone with these paper seals. He ought to steal one and see what they were made of. Just in case.

But if it was Sasuke, it was different. Because if it was Sasuke who had this power, if Sasuke could go against the fox taking over his mind, then it was okay.

If it was Sasuke, Naruto wouldn’t have to worry about waking up in a cage.

How?

How what?

How can you trust that he won’t do it? Why is he different?

Naruto couldn’t answer that.

I just do. I trust him.

It had never occurred to him how true that was.

“Naruto?”

Coming back to himself, he saw Sasuke was staring at him, brows furrowed, looking worried. He didn’t know what it looked like from the outside, when he got lost into talking with the demon. It was probably very weird.

“It’s not what you think,” he said, because if they tried this, Sasuke had to know. Naruto had to tell him. It would be a good test. It would tell him everything he needed to know about how Sasuke truly felt about it.

“What?”

“It’s not… I am scared of losing control, it’s true. But more than that… I’m scared of giving in.”

Sasuke’s confusion only increased. Naruto looked away, itching to slide the mask on, to hide his face. He knew they hated it. He knew they would have smashed it to pieces had it been an option, and he knew they didn’t understand why he felt the need to hide behind it.

They couldn’t understand. It wasn’t about hiding, not really. Not from them anyway.

But when he had the mask on, it felt like he wasn’t exactly there anymore. He wasn’t exactly himself either. What he could hide from were his own thoughts and emotions. He wasn’t part of the world then.

Actually, he was back in that clearing, in the middle of Wave Country’s lush forest. It was peaceful and calm, and Haku was there, smiling softly, quiet but supportive all the same. He could even hide from the fox, that way. He could turn his back on it, keep its voice out, keep everything out.

Now wasn’t the time for hiding though. As scary as it was, he had to stay in plain sight. He had to face Sasuke.

"I didn't lose to him, back then. The Kyuubi… it didn’t take over.”

“Then what…”

“I asked him to come.”

They probably looked a little silly, sitting in the middle of the training ground, disheveled and out of breath. Sasuke was very still, his eyes riveted to Naruto’s, intense and unwavering. The red had faded away, but he didn’t look any less focused. The black was just as deep, just as mesmerizing.

“I wanted to get out of the ice, and you… I needed to get us out. So I let him come.”

That one, terrifying second when he had thought that maybe that was it, maybe Sasuke was dead, it had been all it took for him to surrender, to let the demon take the lead. Naruto would have done anything then, to get revenge, to inflict the pain he was feeling. Even letting the Nine-Tails out. Even killing them all.

That was what truly scared him. People would die, it was inevitable. People would get injured and killed in front of him. He didn’t trust himself to fight it then, to resist.

And if he didn’t trust himself, his only option was to trust someone else.

“You… You can talk to it?”

"It is in my mind."

Sasuke gaped at him, dumbstruck.

“I thought… I thought it was like a wild animal. I didn’t think it could talk.

That was a fair point. Naruto had been talking with the fox ever since he had discovered its presence, so it had never seemed that odd to him. But in the stories and history, nothing had ever hinted that the Nine-tails was anything more than a feral beast.

Turns out it was a feral beast that was, in bonus, super annoying.

You’re the annoying one.

“It’s my fault,” Naruto said, because Sasuke looked confused but not angry or scared as he should have, he didn’t seem to get it, didn’t understand. “It’ my fault, if it came out. It’s my fault if Haku died.”

He didn’t expect anyone else to give two fucks about the death of the teenager, but Naruto could think of nothing else. He longed to be back to that moment in the woods, to hear Haku’s voice and see that beautiful, androgynous face again, smiling softly, looking sad but at peace, content. But he had killed Haku, with his bare hands.

Sasuke nodded seriously, as if to show he was hearing it, was taking in the weight of Naruto’s words. But he didn’t draw back and he didn’t leave. He stayed right where he was, and just as determined.

“We’ll know now. We’ll figure something out, and we’ll know what to do. It won’t happen again.”

Sasuke wasn’t much interested in being reasonable. He just said this stuff, and he believed it. Maybe it was arrogance, or stupidity, or sheer stubbornness, but he just had absolute faith in the fact that what he wished for would come to pass. Failure wasn’t ever an option. Things had to go this way. They just had to.

For Naruto, who couldn’t believe anything could ever work in his favor, it was extraordinary.

He had to test it though. Just a little more. Just to be sure.

“Didn’t I told you to leave me alone? ”

And he had almost meant it too.

Sasuke’s eyes narrowed, he looked lost in thought for a moment. The skin on his left cheek was starting to darken and swell from an earlier kick. There was also a bit of blood at the corner of his mouth, and the usual red, dry patches that appeared around his lips when he breathed his fire techniques for too long.

Naruto couldn’t look away.

“I know. And I will. If you ask again, I will, I promise. But that doesn’t mean I‘ll give up on you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’ll still be there. I’ll still watch your back, and I’ll still work so that you don’t have to be scared anymore. I told you I wasn’t going anywhere – even if you are. If you turn back, you’ll see me. I’ll be there, I will.”

Naruto was convinced he could bring Sasuke to abandon him for good. He had ideas as to where he could push and press, an instinct on what he could say that would truly cut deep, that would really hurt him, enough maybe that he would finally give up. He could do it, if he wanted to.

“No matter what?”

“Hm.”

Sasuke didn’t believe he could. Sasuke thought they would be friends forever.

Naruto had to battle the urge to find out who was right.

Sasuke rolled his eyes, getting impatient.

“If it’s so hard for you to believe, just tell yourself I do it out of concern for… other people. Someone has to watch you, since you’re so dangerous. I’m only doing my duty.”

Sasuke thought it was laughable. To Naruto, it was a much better an explanation.

Either way, that’s what they could say, if people ever asked. It was more logical. It was easier to swallow. Sasuke was just too dumb to see it.

“You can’t tell anyone. About what I told you.”

“The Nine-Tail talking to you?”

“Yeah. I’m serious. You can’t tell. Not to Itachi or Shisui, not to Izumi, not to your parents, certainly not to Kakashi, or anyone else. Alright? They can’t know.”

If it came out that he could summon the thing at will, that he could chat with it and that they could influence each other, they would put him back in the cage for good. They would fear him even more.

“What about Sakura?”

There was a form of accusation in Sasuke’s voice. Naruto pondered about it.

“…I’ll tell her. Not you.”

Sasuke didn’t look convinced – for good reasons. But Sakura would ask questions, she would want to get into this in depths, and Naruto couldn’t handle it right now, her curiosity, her urge to study and understand. She wasn’t scared enough for his taste. Sasuke would be more cautious. And he wouldn’t want to talk as much.

“Alright. I won’t tell.”

Still, Naruto could refuse. He could reject Sasuke once again and keep going as he had, keep trying to figure things out on his own. A part of him kept insisting it would be the smarter move, that involving Sasuke was a terrible idea, both because they risked injuring him seriously this time, and because giving him that kind of power over Naruto was properly terrifying.

But on the other hand…

It really was no fun. Being alone.

And if he failed and no one was there to catch him in time, he would blame himself forever. It would be selfish to refuse the offer. He needed to know someone else could step in.

He needed to know, if he ever hoped to sleep again.

“Okay then.”

Sasuke startled.

“Really?”

“Yeah. Let’s do this, Sasuke.”

And maybe, maybe he had another reason for agreeing.

The crease of worry splitting Sasuke’s forehead in half smoothed over, he relaxed at last with an audible sigh, and he even smiled a little, relieved, content, determination shining in his dark eyes as he held Naruto’s gaze, promising that they would, indeed, do it.

And Naruto couldn't regret his choice then. Because he had another, simpler reason.

Maybe, for once, Naruto just wanted to please his friend.

.

The single thing that was fortunate in this situation, and the only thing standing between Tsunade and the sweet release of being on the run, was that most of the clan heads and jounin she had to deal with seemed to, amazingly enough, maintain a vague semblance of social and family life.

Oh, she had no doubt they would spend the night in the Hokage office if they could. But between husbands and wives, kids and colleagues, friends and relatives, it was rare for any of them to linger past dinnertime. They obviously weren’t very pleased about it, but seemed to mutually hold each other to it. If the Nara wanted to stay, there was always the Akimichi or the Yamanaka to push him out the door. Yamanaka Inoichi had even ushered in his own brat earlier, paired with another girl with bright pink hair, who were just "dying to meet princess Tsunade”. Both of them were thoroughly enthralled by Tsunade’s mere presence.

Cute kids.

The Hyuuga and the Uchiha were stuck between competing for most stable household and most invested councilor – she could play them both on that string if she wanted some peace.

The jounin took turn reminding their fellow shinobi to go home and sleep.

It was subtle, but they simply took care of each other. At the end of the day, the one who went home the last was the Hokage himself.

There was no one coming to collect him. She had gathered that his wife had died on the night of the Nine-Tails’ attack, and his relationships with both his kids were rather tensed. He even had a grandson, an angry little thing that wreaked havoc in the village and had jounin chasing after him at all times. Whether to make his absent grandfather's life harder, to gain his attention or to shake the weight of his name off of him was anyone’s guess. She knew from experience it would most likely get worse before it got better.

So Hiruzen didn’t go home, and she didn’t either.

She couldn’t fall asleep before midnight and she tried to walk the streets only when they were empty, wary of meeting people, known or not. For now, she and Shizune slept in the apartments meant for foreign guests, close to the Hokage Tower. She didn’t want to think about settling down anywhere just yet.

All this made for long, awkward evenings of shared labor in the office. Hiruzen wanted to put all affairs in order before stepping down, and was walking her steadily through the duties she would have to uphold. Even if, she expected, there would be some changes to this, with how involved the clan heads wanted to be now. She didn’t mind, on the contrary.

Less work for her.

He was explaining diplomatic relationships and ongoing commercial trades to her, but they had yet to just talk. Talk for real, about personal matters, feelings and all that shit. Tsunade was more than fifty – she didn’t like it, but she was aware talking things out was a necessity.

Before, she would have expected him to launch the conversation. He was the teacher, it was his job. But they were both adults now, and she no longer knew what she could hope from him.

She couldn’t focus on what he was saying, something serious and boring, while they had so much to discuss. When she had so many questions.

“What happened to Orochimaru?”

That was the other reason why it was a bad idea for her to be starting any kind of important talk.

He stopped mid-sentence and finally looked at her properly. She realized their gaze had barely crossed since her arrival.

“What happened with him? And with Jiraiya? Why aren’t they here?”

Somehow she hadn’t truly believed her friends wouldn’t be in Konoha until she had been faced with that harsh reality. They were both gone. She was alone.

“Jiraiya is a spymaster now. He has his network to maintain, he’s always on the road.”

“Why?”

“I think after the war he wanted to keep moving. He could never have contented himself with a more administrative position and… well, neither of them was interested in building up another team.”

She didn’t want to believe their friendship had not survived her departure. And yet…

“Then he was chasing after Orochimaru. And then, when that failed, he took to keep an eye on him, as well as any other outside threats. You know we suspect foul play in the Kyuubi’s attack.”

It was all so factual, emotionless. That didn’t tell her anything about what could have gone through Jiraiya’s mind, what he was thinking, why he was doing this.

“And Orochimaru then? Why isn’t he here?”

Why did you let him go?

Hiruzen had the good taste to at least look guilty.

“I should have kept a closer look on him,” he admitted.

“You think? You knew he was like this. You knew he had to be watched.”

“Don’t you think I had many other preoccupations at the time, Tsunade?”

“Don’t take that tone with me. I am not a child anymore. I am not your student.”

“You will always be. All three of you.”

She huffed, displeased – because he was right. She still addressed him as such, she could never take to calling him Hokage-sama. He would remain Sarutobi-sensei. There was no changing that.

“Alright. Why didn’t you form someone else then?”

His face hardened but he didn’t answer.

“Why is there no one else to succeed you? If we were all a lost cause – and we were – why didn’t you train someone else? Why does it have to be me?”

“I always wanted one of you to take on the hat.”

“But we didn’t want to!”

He raised an eyebrow at the outburst and she made an effort to calm herself. How she hated those people who thought raising your voice meant losing the argument. She had a loud voice, dammit. And she had emotions, like normal people did.

It had always seemed so unfair to her. Had Hiruzen formed this particular team with that goal in mind? If so, what had he seen in them, to believe it was a good idea? And if not, why was it supposed to befall them then? She knew it had always been somewhat expected of her to at least want to become Hokage, just because of her family. But she didn’t want it. She was not caring enough and selfless enough to be a good leader. She just wasn’t interested. And neither were her two friends.

“Orochimaru did,” he countered calmly. She scoffed.

“Oh really? He did? Orochimaru? “I have more fingers than people I can stand” Orochimaru? “All Hidden Villages are the same” Orochimaru? What would he had even done with that? Why would he have cared?”

“I’m not the one you ought to ask that.”

“I don’t need to ask. I know. Orochimaru wasn’t after your seat. He may have hungered for power, but he had no interest in ruling.”

“Being Hokage would have allowed him to act as he pleased.”

“From what I heard, it was already the case.”

Had the old man not lost two thoughts about it? Being Hokage would have driven Orochimaru mad as much as Jiraiya. It was one of the most ridiculous claims she had heard.

“He just wanted to know he could do it. Just like with everything else. He wanted to be considered for the job at least, nothing more.”

“You don’t know that. You weren’t there, Tsunade.”

“I know him.”

Maybe they had only been a trio of idiot kids in his eyes, but her two teammates were among the people who counted the most in her life. Always together, the three of them, always one against the world. And she knew them. She knew them, as she knew herself.

“What he wanted was no more than what he always asked of us.”

“And what was that?”

“A reason to stay.”

She had lost count of how many times he had asked, especially when they were away in foreign countries. “Why don’t we just leave? Why are we going back?”

Always they would have to find an answer for him. “It is our duty. We swore to it. They need us back then.”

Eventually though, the one that worked was always the same.

“We need you.”

He had never felt like he belonged in Konoha. By many aspects, he didn’t. But he belonged with them. It was enough.

Until they weren’t there anymore.

How ironic, that he had ended up being the one who stayed the longest. War and loss had driven her out of Konoha, disgusted by how meaningless it all was, but it had worked just fine for him. He maybe even liked it better this way.

Comforted in the knowledge that things like morals and justice were pretty damn flexible after all.

Tsunade had skimmed through the report of his activities. It was sickening, dreadful… and all authorized officially by Root, all overseen by Danzo himself. Orochimaru must have been delighted to be endorsed by the – second – highest authority of the village.

After all, “we’re just following orders” had been a favorite of his. When orders went his way. He would have said he was just obeying. And to shinobi in general but to him especially, whose sense of compassion and morality was all but nonexistent, it was absolution.

She was convinced he didn’t even think he was doing anything wrong. It was authorized, so it was fine. That’s how he operated.

Then, of course, Danzo had jumped ship, denied it all, as soon as they had been found out. Orochimaru had been told that no, after all, it wasn’t good at all. And no way was he going to stay and face consequences he had thought himself safe from.

Dumb fucking idiots.

“And that shit with the Uchiha then? What the hell, sensei?”

He frowned at her language but mercifully didn’t reprimand her.

“Things got out of hand,” he said lamely, looking back at his papers, as if she was going to let him escape that particular topic.

“Yeah, no shit.”

“Don’t think for a second that you’re above this, Tsunade. You will have similar choices to make, sooner than you think.”

“I won’t choose this.”

He grimaced, pained.

“It wouldn’t have come to pass.”

“Are you sure about this?”

The others seemed pretty convinced Danzo would have seen his plan to completion. Hiruzen was the only one who still believed it was some kind of misunderstanding. How was it possible to have a blind spot this big?

She wondered then how big hers was, when her old teammates were concerned. Were they all doomed to make similar mistakes?

A world of good did teamwork do to them. Maybe they ought to reflect on that.

He smiled at her, and she knew the conversation was over. He wouldn’t discuss that with her. Maybe it was for the best. What more was there to say? There was no changing the past.

“I do wish the circumstances were different. But I’m happy to see you, Tsunade.”

She couldn’t bring herself to return the sentiment. They had all believed she would be back eventually. That it was just a phase, that she would get over it.

They didn’t understand – she had been fully committed to never stepping a foot in Konoha ever again, until the day she died. Did he think she had finally seen reason? That she had finally changed her mind?

She hadn’t.

She wished he could have been able to provide comfort, to soothe her torment like he used to. But that, like many things, was long gone.

“You should have trained someone else.”

He sighed his “why are my students so stubborn” sigh, but he didn’t try to deny it.