Entropy Of What Once Was Strong
Part One: Lost
The tiles on the wall were covered in childish doodles and Yamato couldn't help it but stop dead and stare at the wobbly patterns, wondering how things ended up this way.
Just two decades ago, this place was something that kept him up at night, a nightmarish laboratory well hidden from the world, where terrible experiments took place.
It wasn't the only one; it was actually horrible to learn how many places like this existed, hidden through the entire Elemental Nations. They knew about maybe half of them.
True, most of them were abandoned years ago, but still. Their very existence was horrific.
Their very existence was also the only thing that kept what was left of the people alive.
Yamato had spend literal years observing this place from afar.
He entered in on rare occasions, to creep through the wide, sterile-clean corridors filled with sharp, artificial light.
Back then, he was looking for traces of evil.
For people who were not supposed to be here, for the wrong sort of equipment being on, for any source of activity that wasn't being sanctioned by Konoha or the Rice Daimyo, hoped that there would be something, that Orochimaru would trip at some point and that would be the end of it, but the moment never came.
What came were other people, looking for a shelter when the world turned into a death trap and Orochimaru simply stepped aside, letting them in.
And then he made a step of his own and handed over the access to every other of his hideouts.
Yamato suspected it was more spite than something that came from the goodness of Orochimaru's heart but at this point, it really didn't matter.
So, there were traces of crayons covering the walls and the floor and the once suspiciously empty rooms were now filled with sleeping bags and blankets, the labs were transformed into kitchens, medbays and workshops.
Orochimaru himself was sitting on the table in what now was a storage room, legs crossed, ridiculously rich, pearl white hanfu spread on the wooden surface around him, shining with golden and pale pink pattern of flowers and rice sheaf's.
He was engrossed in a thick pile of papers; from where Yamato was standing it was mostly numbers and sets of few signs every line.
"Can you grow mushrooms with Mokuton?"
The sudden question didn't surprise him too much - Orochimaru started using him as a soundboard long before things went horribly wrong and it was awfully convenient for both of them.
It allowed Yamato to know exactly what was happening and to see it happening along with having an opportunity to ask as many question as he needed to understand what Orochimaru was up to.
Or to stop him before he got into anything that could end up troublesome for Konoha.
"Mokuton grows plants. Mushrooms are not plants, so no, I can't."
"Ah, a shame," Orochimaru pouted at the papers in his hands.
"What do you even need mushrooms for?"
"They're a fast source of proteins," Orochimaru said and handed him over the pile of papers. "See here, were taking in another group in today..."
"We have rations for months," Yamato pointed out.
"And then what?" Orochimaru quirked an eyebrow. "I don't want to touch any of the military rations, they have the longest shelf life and don't need a freezer."
"So, your solution is growing your own protein powder."
"I have a stupid amount of gelatin left over from when I was creating the mold-resistant rice for the daimyo," Orochimaru continued.
"What, no desserts during the tea time?" Yamato chuckled.
Tea time was probably the best idea Orochimaru had in his entire life - it gave a bunch of scared, sad people something to look forward to each day.
Just a cup of weak tea, a plate of sweetened gelatinous goop and the shinobi were spared from restraining overwhelmed civilians.
"Have you seen how much of it is still left?"
"Alright, worst case scenario we'll end up surviving on yello," Yamato put the documents on the table. "How long it's going to take anyway?"
"Sasuke found a place that should work," Orochimaru replied. "So I assume a scouting party is going to move out in the next few days. Most of the things are sealed and boxed just in case..."
"You're saying it's still weeks away?" Yamato guessed.
Orochimaru nodded and shifted, so he could see both Yamato and the documents.
"We have enough food for about a month, if we exclude the military rations and other thing with long shelf life I want to save for later,” He continued, fingers running over the paper surface, pointing at the numbers. “If Karin or Yamanaka return early with the Suna and Iwa groups it's going to be much less."
"I think we can stretch it a bit further."
"We are not cutting ration sizes,"Orochimaru cut him out. "The morale is already hanging on a treat."
"I'm sure people are going to understand."
Orochimaru rolled his eyes.
"Which one of us put together a hidden village again?" he asked. "What we have here is a group of strangers forced to live in each other pockets. You give them less food and they'll start fight each other over every scrap."
"You have a pretty low opinion on humans."
"It's called experience."
"Alright, alright!" Yamato raised his hands in defeat. "If we move the supplies from to the training room I can use the storages to grow some plants. Is watercress good enough?"
Orochimaru wrinkled his nose.
"Now you're just ridiculous."
Orochimaru looked like he was ready to argue back, but he was cut off by a short alarm signal.
"Sounds like we have a visitor!" Orochimaru slid off the table. "That's... to early for either one of our groups."
Before the sentence was even finished he left the room, hurrying through the narrow corridors.
"I still can't believe you used seals to make a doorbell," Yamato shook his head, following the sannin close by.
He wanted to know who found the hideout. Had a mission of one of their sensors gone wrong? It was hard to imagine anything else, since not many people knew where to even start looking for it. Unless they were told.
"I did it because I could, obviously."
Yamato rolled his eyes.
They've walked in on a chaotic mess of people screaming over each other, both children and adults, crowding the corridor near the entrance and not moving in any logical fashion.
Yamato looked around, trying to figure out which group was it, but no one looked familiar. No one, safe for-
He jumped forward, just in the right moment to break the man's fall and save him from face planting into the tiles.
Screaming around them intensified.
"How did you...?"
Yamato was sure Ibiki died months ago; the ANBU Headquarters were localized on top of the Hokage Mountain and the stone faces of the village leaders was the first thing the enemy decided to turn into rubble after showing up.
There was literally nothing left of it in a matter of minutes and the morale of people felt apart just as easily.
"We've bumped into Yamanaka," Morino Ibiki sounded like he was coughing the words instead of speaking. His lips were parched and cracking, but he was real, gloriously and amazingly alive. "When we were scavenging in the ruins."
If not for the fact Yamato was holding the man, he wouldn’t be able to hear a word in the noise that surrounded them.
Not that he would pay any attention to it anyway; Yamato was trained in lip reading and had a nosy habit of reading the hushed conversations happening on the opposite side of the room. Or further - for years he was observing Orochimaru without being allowed to make any sort of a contact and he needed to know what the man was doing somehow.
"She told you about this place," Yamato finished for him. "We though... I was sure you're dead."
"Surprise," Morino's scarred face twisted in a smile.
A pang of killing intent cut through the noise like a sharp blade.
"Enough of the screaming!" Orochimaru's voice filled the silence. "You all are going to follow me to he medical facilities and you are going to do so in orderly fashion!"
For one reason or another, it worked like a charm and the people - dirty, tired children and even more exhausted adults followed him like a bunch of ducklings.
"Huh," Morino raised his eyebrows.
"Come on, we're going too," Yamato maneuvered himself under his arm and pulled him up. "You sure look like you need some medical attention."
"Or else what, is Orochimaru going back to practice his crowd control skills on us?"
"Yep. That," Yamato nodded. "Come on, we'll get you all nice and patched before tea time."
It was a slow walk. Morino was leaning onto him heavily, his strength exhausted by the last ditch of an attempt to find a shelter.
"I thought everyone was dead," he said. "But then I've literally dug that Cloud nin from under the rubble. And then there was the samurai woman and a bunch of kids, so I've started to hope. But damn, it sucked."
"I can see that," Yamato nodded. "At this point the only people that venture out of this place are sensors."
"So, we're just sitting ducks here?" Morino chuckled grimly.
"It's not that bad," he patted Morino on the shoulder and earned himself a painful groan.
When they finally entered the Medbay, the ragtag group of survivors were already well cared for by Sakura and two Suigetsu's, while Orochimaru swapped between barking orders and taking blood samples.
"...Since when this guy is a medic?" Morino asked, pointing at Suigetsu.
"Since I've spent fifteen years bored out of my mind, surrounded by mad scientists!" came the cheerful answer.
"What?" Suigetsu shrugged. "I'm telling the truth, this bullshit goes in like osmosis. Ugh, see? Weird words again!"
Orochimaru rolled his eyes in an overly theatrical manner.
"Morino! It's really you!" Sakura walked so fast towards them it was almost a jog, eyes wide open in wonder.
Her hands were already glowing green with healing chakra, moving up and down as she used a diagnostic jutsu.
“Captain, help me get him on the bed!” she ordered without making any sort of a pause. “You’re dehydrated and malnourished, but we can solve that one easily. Was there any medic in your group at any point? Because I really don’t like how that broken bone healed…”
Yamato slowly backed away, letting Sakura do whatever needed to be done.
The place was already crowded without him and someone needed to visit the kitchen and tell the guys on the kitchen duty to prepare food for twenty more people.
"You have tea," Morino said, looking at the cup in his hand with disbelief. "You people really thought it was the thing to go and grab when it was time to run for your life?"
It was probably ages since the man had a chance to get any tea. Weeks, since the group had a warm meal, considering how people sobbed into their rice porridge.
Morino was going to be stuck in bed for the next few days, so Yamato decided to deliver his meal personally, using the relative intimacy of the medbay to learn some more about how the man survived.
He didn’t expect the first question coming from the man be about the tea.
Yamato kept his faces neutral, despite feeling guilt squeezing his stomach; they were living in here, comfortable and warm, with enough food for everyone and silly unnecessary goods like tea and desserts while other people - people he knew - barely survived, lacking everything.
"No one was going out just to scavenge some tea out of the ruins," Yamato rolled his eyes, deciding it was safer to concentrate on something silly. "The Rice Daimyo was... a bit peculiar when it came to gifts."
"So what, only the special few are getting it?" Morino suspiciously narrowed his eyes, probably ready to get up and hand over the cup to someone else.
"No, when I said peculiar I mean we probably have more tea in here than anything else," Yamato shook his head.
"So it's fancy tea for everyone?"
"I have no idea what sort of a tea is it. You want to know, you need to go and hunt down Orochimaru."
"Oh," Morino blinked. "So the gossip was right!"
"...why is this the thing that people care about?"
"Do you know how many people made bets?"
Yamato groaned painfully, covering face with his hands.
"Why would you even made bets about something like that?"
"For an ANBU, you were always such a good kid," Morino chuckled and finally took a sip of his tea. "Huh. Tastes sort of like roasted sunflower seeds."
"I have no idea, tastes like tea for me," Yamato shrugged. He never managed to understand what exactly made people so excited about tea and why there was need to have so many of different kinds of it. But if they were enjoying it...
"You probably should rest," he said, standing up. "And I probably should get out before Sakura chases me out for disrupting your rest."
"You're going to keep following the guy?"
"Force of habit," Yamato shrugged.
He wasn’t lying, even if his reasoning changed; once he felt like he had to keep an eye on Orochimaru out of fear the man would do something horrible while unsupervised. Now it was just one of the few things that were still familiar.
Eighteen hours later the ground shook violently and the seals blazed in alarm.
Yamato jumped up to his feet, blinking away the confusion. He leaned against one of the walls to keep his balance and felt the vibrations going through them, one after another, almost like heartbeat.
He cursed, because this was definitely not an earthquake.
In few quick steps he grabbed the scroll filled with the few personal items he managed to save from Konoha but didn’t dare to open even once during the months spend in the hideout and rushed out of the room.
People were already outside, bewilded and looking around with eyes filled with fear, tracing the shapes of the protective seals on the walls.
The walls around them shook again.
There were already cracks in the ceiling and lines crawling all the way down the walls, with sand and dust seeping down to the ground, obscuring vision.
Wouldn't be long, though, Yamato thought grimly.
No matter how well hidden they were, how many seals were obscuring the complex and reinforcing the structure, it still could take only so much damage before falling down on their heads.
"Admit it, you were followed!" someone shouted loud enough to be heard over the rest of the noise filling the corridors. "If not for you, we would be safe!"
"How dare you!"
"Everything was fine but then you showed up! Leading them straight o our doorstep!"
It was the samurai woman who showed up with Morino, surrounded by a ring of people. They were getting more and more aggressive with their accusation and she looked like she was about to reach for her sword.
"Hey! We don't need bloodshed!" Yamato shouted. "We knew this could happen!"
His voice drowned in all the noise.
Yamato grit his teeth and put his hands together in a seal, ready to separate the crowd.
The killing intent cut through the panicked people like a knife, overwhelming and powerful.
It felt like something wrapped itself around his neck and squeezed.
But at least it was the familiar kid of noose.
"There's no need to panic," Orochimaru said loudly, a warning noticeable in the tone of his voice. "And I would appreciate you to follow the plan that was set up months ago."
His killing intent was still buzzing in the air, keeping people still and paralyzed.
"You are going to leave in orderly fashion," Orochimaru continued. "First the medic nin and sensors, then civilians and children."
"We don't have everything sealed up yet," Suigetsu said. "We could-"
"Oh please," Orochimaru rolled his eyes. "are you going to risk your life because you forgot to pack your slippers?"
"The top levels are already overrun," Orochimaru cut it. "We'll have to make do with what's already here because I'm not letting anyone get anywhere near the seals."
"No, you couldn't. Now stop arguing and go do your part or we all die. chop chop!" Orochimaru clapped his hands
Yamato half-expected the man to go through the portal the moment Sasuke opened it, but Orochimaru stood by the doors, arms closed on his chest, eyes glaring at the overwhelmed group of people.
The training room was the only place in the base big enough for all the complicated sealing work to fit in.
The floors in the rooms above were also covered in protective seals, turning the place into a fortress inside of a fortress.
Sasuke was already standing ready by the archway that was going to serve as the doorway, a packet of chakra pills in hand.
"Is everyone here?" Yamato shouted, looking around.
He was trying to make a headcount on his own, but having a confirmation... He needed to have a confirmation, because the thought of locking someone out was freezing his blood over.
"What about mom?"
"She and Karin knew this was a possibility," Sakura said softly, voice too calm for it to be real. "They have all the sealing work memorized and can write it down wherever they are."
"We really don't have a choice," she repeated.
"Your mom is the smartest person I know," Sai put his hand on the shoulder of the boy. "And she's definitely going to scream a lot at both of us if we stay here for too long."
"Right," Inojin sniffed. "But if...if she's not-!"
The ground, the whole building shook with a thunderous growl.
"Are the upper levels clear or not?!" Yamato barked, losing patience. "Who's a sensor?!"
"Clear!" came the answer somewhere from the crowd.
He clapped his hands together, wooden branches and roots shooting towards the entrance and tying themselves in complicated knots, filling the corridors.
He could hear the unnatural hum coming from behind when Sasuke activated the portal with his sharingan.
The seals came to life, blue shine travelling through the lines, filling the room with light.
"Sensors! Form a line and go!" Orochimaru was somewhere nearby. "I want all the Genins on the seals!"
"I can help!" Sakura offered.
"No you can't, you're the best healer and you punch hard," Orochimaru cut her out. "Grab someone wounded and get out of here!"
"He's right!" Yamato shouted. "We need you at your best out there!"
She grit her teeth and then bit her lip hard enough to drew blood but finally, nodded.
"Healers and wounded! Form a line!"
“How long do we have?” he asked quietly when he was sure they wouldn’t be accidentally overheard.
“Not long,” Orochimaru whispered back. “I… I don’t think it’s just Zetsu knocking on our doors.”
Suddenly, everything was violently shaking. A spiderweb of cracks travelled up the wall, reaching towards the sealing pattern.
Yamato gasped in terror and launched himself forward.
If these break…
If the seals were going to break there would be nothing but Sasuke charging the portal. He wouldn’t be able to keep it going for more than few more seconds and there were still so many people here-
"Oh dear," Orochimaru is already there, both hands on the seal, chakra seeping through to reinforce it, eyes wide.
"I can-" Yamato started.
"Oh please," Orochimaru said. "If I let go of this for even a second, we all die."
He snorted humorlessly.
"That's actually pretty damn funny, all things considered. Don't you agree?"
"You won't be able to keep it up long on your own."
"Then hurry up and get out of here," Orochimaru hissed.
There was no time to hesitate.
Orochimaru was saving them all even if he stepped in the role because of such a dumb thing as reacting on the autopilot.
And all Yamato could do at this point was to step through the portal.
So he did just that.
Yamato knew what to expect, they all did but words were nothing compared to the reality.
It felt cold, when he stepped through the portal. Cold and disorienting, like he was cut away from anything that was real and left floating in absolute nothing.
But a blink of an eye later there was a hard ground under his feet and he was surrounded by noise - dozens and dozens of people talking, screaming, panicking, overwhelmed by the surrounding darkness and the air that smelled wrong.
The portal was the only source of light, filling the chamber - a cave? It smelled like wet stone and ground and like water from deep wells - filling the place with flickering shadows.
He wobbled away, because he didn't want to crowd the portal and block the path for the few that were still on the other side, joining in the rows of distressed people, none of them able to look away from what was their world just a few minutes ago..
There was a yelp, voice too familiar to not recognize, somehow cutting through all the noise. He turned around - he needed to see the portal, he needed to be able to tell how many people were still in danger.
Luckily, just a few and Sasuke was already taking first tentative steps back and Orochimaru was still holding the seals intact.
A small mewl came from the side and Yamato caught a movement with a corner of his eye.
It was Mitsuki, reaching towards the portal, held in place by his brother, both boys staring at the lone person on the other side.
And Orochimaru looked back too, Yamato caught the sharp, yellow color of his eyes, contrasting vividly with the cool blue light of the cave.
Yamato licked his lips, not daring to look away.
Sasuke moved again, stepped forward, the ground in front of him stained red and the portal distorted, the very center of it swirling like a whirlpool.
A thunderous crack announced the seals breaking, the window to the another world filled the cavern with blazing, blinding light of an explosion and through the fire, Yamato could see something moving, launching itself forward.
He instantly set his hands in the right seal, ready to fight back.
Before the thing managed to reach him, the portal blinked away in the same moment when Sasuke dropped onto his knees with a pained groan.
And he wasn’t alone.
Orochimaru looked at Sasuke with his eyes open wide with surprise, hair and robes wildly waving on the last gust of wind from the dying world..
Then darkness swallowed everything.