“Absolutely fascinating . . . do you realize, approximately half of his body has been reconstructed using Hashirama Senju’s cells? Fifty-three percent, if you want to be precise.”
“I don’t really care whose cells they are. They could be the fucking Tsuchikage’s and I wouldn’t care.”
He knew that voice.
“Of course you don’t.”
“Sensei. Sensei, I think he’s waking up.”
“Ah, of course. Another dose, I think.”
“Would you please stop bringing contaminants into my laboratory?”
“It’s food. What if he wakes up and he’s hungry?”
“Then I will send Anko to buy food.”
“She’s nine. She’d probably buy him sweets or fried food. And shouldn’t you have other genin?”
“Ah, yes. Them. They showed little promise.”
A warm, gentle touch.
“Hey, Kakashi, it’s okay . . . Orochimaru, can I give him more painkillers now?”
“Yes. His last dosage was eight hours ago.”
“And then Rin tried to punch a tree—she does that now, it’s pretty cool—only I guess she used way, way too much chakra, and the tree exploded everywhere! Kushina laughed so hard I thought she was gonna be sick. So we decided maybe we should stick to just walking up trees for now, because Rin only blows them up a tiny bit that way.”
“If you insist on staying, be quiet.”
“Uh, right, sorry. Orochimaru.”
“That’s Orochimaru-sama to you.”
“Heh. Right. Um, is Kakashi supposed to look all angry like that?”
“He has been listening to you blather on for several hours. I suspect he may also be in need of additional medication. Anko.”
“Got it, sensei.”
“I can do that, you know.”
“You will not lay so much as a finger on my equipment. Anko will handle it.”
Kakashi opened his eyes.
Or, he tried to, and failed upon finding his eyelids had stuck together. He reached up to scrub at his eyes, only for his arm to fail to move. He tried the other, and although it was slow to respond, managed to rub at his eyes enough that they were able to open.
He blinked, for a moment certain something was wrong with his vision because everything was white.
“You’re awake,” a familiar voice rasped.
Kakashi looked to the side, grateful to find that there wasn’t anything wrong with his vision—it was just that he was in Orochimaru’s laboratory, and everything except for Orochimaru’s hair and eyes was white. “Hold still,” Orochimaru instructed. “I have tests I want to run now that you are awake. Move when I tell you. You may want to displace that boy.”
Kakashi looked at his other arm and found the reason why he hadn’t been able to move it. Obito was holding his hand, and his head was resting on top of their clasped hands.
“He has been here day and night, whenever your insufferable father was not,” Orochimaru muttered. “Move your left arm.”
Kakashi did. “How long have I been here?”
“Fifteen days,” Orochimaru said. “Narumi-san brought you here.”
Kakashi had vague memories of that, he thought. Of Narumi bursting into the place Zetsu had taken him, of Narumi carrying him away. Nothing, after that, except for vague snippets of things that may or may not have happened.
“Move your right arm.”
Kakashi attempted to extract his hand from under Obito’s face without waking him up, moving as slowly and carefully as possible. Obito, however, had apparently become less of a heavy sleeper since Kakashi had been—dead? asleep?—gone, and opened his eyes the moment Kakashi pulled their hands apart.
“Whazzat?” he mumbled, and then shot to his feet so quickly he nearly knocked over the IV beside the bed. “Kakashi! You’re awake.”
His hands went to Kakashi’s shoulders, holding tight, as Obito leaned down to peer into his face. “Are you okay? You’re not in pain, are you? Tsunade said that if Orochimaru is mean to you I have to tell her, and then she’ll beat him up. Are you hungry? Your dad made soup. A lot of soup, actually, I think he was going kind of crazy.”
Obito gasped. “Your dad! I have to tell him.” He looked around wildly, still holding onto Kakashi’s shoulders.
“Move your left leg,” Orochimaru said.
“Right, I’ll have Noodles get him,” Obito decided, and raised his hand to his mouth.
“No summoning in my laboratory,” Orochimaru said.
Obito gaped at him. Kakashi realized, suddenly, that he had missed all of Obito’s ridiculous and over-the-top faces, even if they did make his stomach squirm uncomfortably. “You summon snakes all the time!”
“Snakes are intelligent, wise creatures,” Orochimaru said. “Your mongrels are a menace.”
“Wolves,” Obito said, and raised his thumb to his mouth.
“Anko will go,” Orochimaru said.
“Do I have to?” a girl said from outside the laboratory.
“Yes. Move your right leg,” Orochimaru said.
Kakashi did so, as the girl sighed heavily. Moments later, a door opened and closed. “I am hungry,” he said to Obito.
Obito beamed. It made his stomach hurt, and not just because of the hunger. “Here. It’s kind of cold, because Orochimaru said I’m not allowed to use his bunsen burners anymore, but it’s pretty good either way.”
Kakashi sipped at the soup, not expecting much, only to be surprised. “Oh.”
“It’s your favorite, right? Miso soup and eggplant? Trust you to have such boring, old-man tastes, Bakashi,” Obito said.
Kakashi looked at him for a few moments. Obito was smiling, like he couldn’t help but smile when looking at Kakashi, like he was really, genuinely happy.
The whole time, Madara had been telling Kakashi about how the world was terrible and broken, and on one hand, he knew it was true. The life of a shinobi was cruel. There were countless times in his life that his father had almost died, or he had almost died. On the other hand, there was Obito. Bright and smiling even when, as far as Kakashi could see, he didn’t have any reason to be.
“I met Madara Uchiha,” he said.
Obito blinked at him. “Oh, cool,” he said. “Wait—what? Madara Uchiha as in, that Madara Uchiha? He’s dead though, right? Holy shit, are you dead?”
“Kakashi is alive,” Orochimaru said. “Wiggle your fingers.”
Kakashi wiggled his fingers, and then his toes for good measure. “Fingers!” Orochimaru said crossly.
Kakashi wiggled his fingers.
Orochimaru made a noise that could only be described as ‘intrigued’ and started to adjust a variety of dials and buttons.
“Madara Uchiha, as in that Madara Uchiha. He survived by attaching himself to a tree,” Kakashi said. “I think.”
He had been either unconscious or in incredible pain for the majority of the time.
“Wouldn’t he be super old?” Obito said, wrinkling his nose.
Kakashi nodded sagely. “Super, super old.”
And Obito—Obito laughed, and threw his arms around Kakashi to pull him into a hug.
Obito had never, ever hugged him before. In fact, Kakashi was fairly certain the only person who had ever hugged him was his father.
Kakashi’s cheeks felt uncomfortably warm; he hoped his injuries weren’t infected.
“Stop that. You are raising his heartbeat and interfering with the data,” Orochimaru said.
“Stuff your data,” Obito said, and didn’t stop hugging Kakashi.
Kakashi, slowly, reached around and hugged Obito back. It was nice to touch someone that wasn’t one of Madara’s creepy Zetsu things.
He jerked away as the door burst open, this time to admit his father. “Dad,” he said, not bothering to hide the relief that overtook him.
Sakumo visibly breathed a sigh of relief. “Kakashi.”
In a heartbeat, Kakashi found himself gathered up in his father’s arms, held against his chest like he was a little kid again. Sakumo smoothed a hand over his hair, too wild and too long, and kissed Kakashi’s forehead where his headband should have been. “You’re safe,” he said. “I’ve got you.”
Kakashi buried his face in his father’s shirt. He smelled like wolves and dirt and the maple tree in front of the house. “You’re really here?” he said.
Madara had invented countless genjutsu to make Kakashi lose hope, created countless scenarios where Kakashi had been taken home only to wake up and find himself back in the cave, but none of them had felt like this.
“I’m really here,” Sakumo said. “And so are you.”
They stayed like that for several long moments, until Orochimaru said, “As far as my tests show, he should be well enough to leave. I want him back for more tests next week. If his condition worsens bring him to me immediately. Now get out of my laboratory.”
“We’re going, we’re going,” Sakumo said. “Kakashi, can you walk?”
Kakashi slung his legs over the side of the bed and stood. The leg that Madara had replaced still felt strange to walk on, like it wasn’t really part of him. He had to focus to move it the way he wanted to, but he could move. He took a few steps, and then nodded. “I can walk,” he said.
Sakumo didn’t ask him if he was sure, just gathered up a few things that Kakashi hadn’t noticed before, with Obito’s help. Obito gathered up the food, while Sakumo bundled up Kakashi’s blankets and Tobi. Kakashi couldn’t believe Sakumo had brought Tobi—he really hoped Obito hadn’t noticed that he still kept a stuffed dog. The thought of Obito knowing that was too mortifying to contemplate, so he returned his focus to walking out the door without forgetting to move the leg Madara had given him.
Behind him, Sakumo and Obito talked quietly, something about noodles and rice. Kakashi wanted to listen in—he didn’t remember them being so close, before—but trying to eavesdrop made him forget to move the new leg and almost sent him careening into a vegetable stand. Kakashi tuned them out and instead focused on moving one foot in front of the other.
He’d never been to Orochimaru’s laboratory, so he hadn’t known how far away it was from his house. Kakashi just kept moving, even though each step took more and more of his concentration, until he was so focused that he didn’t notice the fruit stand right in front of him and nearly walked straight into it.
“Whoa there!” Sakumo exclaimed, halting Kakashi with a hand on his shoulder. Kakashi tried very hard not to wobble, but had the feeling he wasn’t entirely successful, judging by Sakumo’s concerned frown.
Sakumo held out the blankets to Obito. “Obito, can you take these?”
“Sure thing,” Obito said, and shifted the bags of food to one hand so he could take the blankets with the other. Obito plucked Tobi from the top of the pile and tucked him into the top of his jacket, leaving him looking like one of those Inuzuka kids who carried their ninken puppies like that.
His arms free, Sakumo turned around so that his back was to Kakashi. “Hop on,” he said.
“I don’t need a piggy-back ride,” Kakashi said.
“Come on,” Sakumo cajoled. “You love piggy-back rides!”
Kakashi’s face burned. “Dad,” he groaned. “When I was three, maybe.”
“I distinctly remember a certain chuunin getting so tired after his first time training with his team that he asked me for a piggy-back ride home,” Sakumo teased.
Obito laughed. Kakashi was going to die .
Just to get his dad to stop talking already, he wrapped his arms around the man’s neck and let Sakumo hoist him up. It was a toss-up between what was more embarrassing: being carried like a little kid when he was already a jounin, or Obito carrying around Kakashi’s stuffed animal.
It was kind of nice to not have to concentrate on moving his arm and leg properly, though; he was free to focus on Sakumo and Obito’s conversation.
“It’s okay, Shishou,” Obito said. “I’ll train with Kogane’s squad.”
“If you’re sure,” Sakumo said. “You’re more than welcome to come by. I’m sure Kakashi would appreciate some company his own age.”
Kakashi wasn’t entirely sure why he would need or want company his own age, especially since he was going to start training as soon as he got home. He’d spent too long lying around already, and he had to get used to fighting with his new limbs as soon as possible. The war wasn’t going to end just because he felt a little under the weather.
Kakashi rested his cheek against Sakumo’s shoulder and started to plan. Once they arrived at home, he would organize his supplies and see what he needed to restock. Then he would train, starting with warmups and simple exercises and working his way up to more complicated maneuvers. Maybe Gai would be willing to assist him—Gai was always willing to do boring exercises in the name of a challenge. Once he was satisfied with his performance on the simpler tasks, maybe Obito would join in. Kakashi had to admit he was curious about what Obito had done in his time away, especially since he had called Sakumo ‘shishou.’
Kakashi planned, and the next thing he knew he was being lowered into his bed and blankets were being arranged over him.
“Get some rest,” Sakumo said.
Kakashi tried to push himself up. “I need to . . .”
“Oh, just go to sleep, Bakashi,” Obito said, as he set down Tobi next to Kakashi’s pillow. “No one’s going to run off and defeat Iwa without you.”
Kakashi’s arm gave out beneath him, and he flopped onto the bed with an irritated huff. Sakumo turned out the lights, gave him one last, long look, as if making sure he wasn’t going anywhere, and left the room.
Obito stayed, fidgeting in place. “I, uh, still have your tanto,” he said. “If you want it back.”
Kakashi closed his eye. “Keep it,” he said. “It was a gift. Don’t you know it’s rude to return gifts? You really are a one-of-a-kind idiot.”
Obito sniffed, and made a sound that might have been a laugh if he wasn’t trying not to cry. “Look who’s talking, Bakashi.”
“Shut up and let me sleep,” Kakashi said.
He peeked through his eyelashes as Obito’s footsteps retreated. Obito walked to the door, then hesitated. “I really am glad you’re back,” he said quietly. “Team Seven wasn’t the same without you.”
The door closed. Kakashi rolled over, hugged Tobi to his chest, and smothered his smile in his pillow.
In the days that came, Kakashi spent most of his time rebuilding his body’s strength and learning to use his new limbs as natural parts of his body. Gai was overjoyed to see him—he actually burst into tears when Kakashi said hello—and eagerly participated in Kakashi’s training.
As for Obito, Kakashi actually saw more of him than he had initially expected. When he had given Obito the tanto, he had expected his father would teach Obito how to use it, that it would give his father something to focus on. He hadn’t expected his father to take Obito on as a student, much less that he would have Obito sign the wolf summoning scroll. It seemed like Obito was at his house every other day, meeting his father before they went off to train. He joined them for dinner almost every day of the week, and Kakashi often came home from training with Gai to find his father teaching Obito how to cook.
Rin, on the other hand, he saw much less of than he had expected. While he was asleep, she had apparently undergone meetings with the various seal masters in the village—Minato, Jiraiya, and Kushina. The seal had been deemed safe, but that left Rin struggling to control the sudden influx of chakra. Most of the time she was off training with Kushina, trying to get a handle on controlling both her chakra and the demon inside her. Rin wasn’t allowed to leave the village at the moment, for fears that Kiri would attempt to kidnap her, but when Kogane’s squad went on missions inside the village, she often accompanied them. With Minato still out of the village on missions, there was no one to bring Team Seven back together on missions. Kushina did her best to bring them together for dinner now and then, but oftentimes Kakashi went days without seeing Rin.
Between training and regaining his strength, Kakashi spent a surprising amount of time with Orochimaru, who had taken an intense interest in Kakashi’s new limbs. He spent an inordinate amount of time sitting on a lab table, a variety of instruments attached to him, occasionally moving his arm and leg or channeling chakra through the limbs.
“Absolutely fascinating,” Orochimaru said, as he examined the spot where Kakashi’s body blended with the parts Madara had made to replace the crushed half of his body. “Your body has almost completely accepted the Hashirama cells as part of your body.”
“What does that mean?” Kakashi asked.
Orochimaru looked at him, scientific curiosity clear in his eyes. “That is what we must find out.”
The next day, Orochimaru gave him a pot of dirt. “There is a seed there,” he said. “Make it grow.”
Kakashi eyed the pot of dirt. “The Wood Release uses earth and water chakra, doesn’t it?”
“Correct,” Orochimaru said. “I assume you are capable of using both. The seal used for Wood Release is Snake.”
Kakashi focused on the pot of dirt and molded his chakra. Earth and water didn’t come naturally to him, but he was capable of using them.
The pot of dirt turned to mud. “Fascinating,” Orochimaru said again, as he stared at his machines. He produced another pot of dirt. “Again, if you would.”
Kakashi molded his chakra in different ways, using different ratios of earth and water chakra, and each time ended up with different consistencies of mud. “What are your machines telling you? What do they do?” he asked, as they waited for Anko to go to the store and bring them more pots of dirt.
Orochimaru gave him a brief overview of his instruments, which somehow still managed to include several words Kakashi had never heard before. Orochimaru, when asked for a more detailed explanation, instead handed him several massive texts and a variety of scrolls as thick and long as his forearm.
Kakashi read, and slowly but surely, he learned what each instrument attached to him did, and what the readings Orochimaru took meant. He hadn’t paid much attention to the more scientific side of the ninja arts before, but he learned quickly. Orochimaru’s research was surprisingly interesting. He was researching several ninjutsu, and indeed knew more than anyone else in the village, except perhaps the Hokage. He had invented several of his own techniques, and showed them to Kakashi when he expressed interest. He experimented with seals, although he didn’t consider himself a master of the art, and only knew enough to suit his purposes. What those were, Kakashi wasn’t entirely sure—Orochimaru was working on several projects that he refused to tell Kakashi anything about. Kakashi suspected Orochimaru was part of ANBU, and did research for them.
Orochimaru also knew how to summon snakes, as did Anko—the two of them frequently used smaller snakes to send messages to each other when Anko was running errands or training elsewhere.
“Don’t anger her. She is incredibly venomous,” Orochimaru warned, as Kakashi let a snake as thin as his smallest finger slither across his hand.
“Don’t you have the antidote?” Kakashi asked.
“I have no need for it. I am immune to all the venoms my snakes produced,” Orochimaru said.
“Useful,” Kakashi said. “How did you do that?”
Orochimaru stabbed him with a needle.
Kakashi jerked away, too slowly to fend him off—Orochimaru was surprisingly fast when he wanted to be, and Kakashi’s reflexes weren’t nearly where they used to be. “What was that?”
“Building up your immunity,” Orochimaru said, and went back to his work as if nothing had happened.
Kakashi shrugged it off and went back to work on his pot of dirt. Half an hour later, he threw up all over Orochimaru’s floor.
Orochimaru handed him a bucket. “If you must throw up, do so in something easy to clean.”
“What did you give me?” Kakashi gasped as he bent over the bucket.
“Just a little venom. You’ll be fine,” Orochimaru said.
Kakashi ended up staying in the laboratory overnight, too overcome with nausea and fever to make the trip home. He had vague impressions of a quiet, but angry conversation between Orochimaru and Sakumo, and in the morning woke to a warm bowl of miso soup with eggplant and a plate of grilled fish, unusual because Orochimaru was strict about having food in his lab.
“Your father,” Orochimaru said with a grimace, “. . . insisted.”
Orochimaru’s eye was noticeably bruised. Kakashi decided not to draw attention to it. “Thank you,” he said, and gulped down the soup.
Orochimaru didn’t give him another dose of the venom for a few days, and when he did it was noticeably smaller. Kakashi felt a bit queasy, but was well enough to head home when it was time for dinner. Orochimaru never dismissed him, and the lab was never closed as far as Kakashi could tell. To be honest, he wasn’t entirely certain Orochimaru had a home outside of the lab, as the man was there and working no matter when Kakashi arrived. He once went to the lab at three in the morning, just to see, and Orochimaru was there in his lab coat, as he had been when Kakashi had left that evening.
Anko, who was active and a little too loud and rambunctious for Kakashi to particularly enjoy spending time with her, made it into a sort of game. They took turns attempting to find a time when Orochimaru wasn’t in the lab, excluding times when he was on a mission or had been summoned away by the Hokage. So far, they had had no success; Kakashi was fairly certain the man had sent snakes to spy on them, so that he would always know when they were headed to the lab and could arrive there before they did.
Snakes, Kakashi was quickly discovering, were incredibly useful. They could be small enough to go unnoticed by all but the most attentive shinobi, and could easily sneak into inaccessible areas. They made excellent spies, and could also be used for surprise attacks or assassinations. Almost all of Orochimaru’s snakes were incredibly venomous, which was useful both if you sent them to attack someone directly and if you harvested their venom and used it in other ways. They could both send and receive messages. The larger snakes, which Orochimaru had never summoned for Kakashi to see, were deadly in battle, easily capable of crushing an entire apartment block.
“And much more intelligent than those mongrels of your father’s,” Orochimaru muttered. “Running through my laboratory, knocking over my equipment, destroying my experiments, eating my snakes . . .”
“They’re kind of cute,” Kakashi mused, raising his hand up to his face to examine the blunt nose and smiling mouth of the snake draped over his hand.
“They are intelligent and wise creatures,” Orochimaru said snootily.
Kakashi scratched the snake under the chin, and it swayed back and forth happily.
They were super cute.
Anko, who had her feet up on a desk and was tearing her way through a massive pile of dango, added, “They’re cute.”
“ Wise and intelligent ,” Orochimaru hissed. Both of them wisely and intelligently decided not to continue the discussion.
Anko returned to her pile of dango, and Kakashi returned to his pot of dirt. Surprisingly, it had yet to become mud. Unsurprisingly, it had yet to become a pot of plant rather than a pot of dirt.
Kakashi sighed, closed his eye, and focused on the seed planted in the dirt once again.
“Holy shit!” Anko squawked.
Kakashi opened his eyes, and saw not mud, but a small, green stalk. “I . . . did it,” he said.
Orochimaru was buried in his machines, muttering under his breath. “Absolutely incredible,” he said. “Very well done, Kakashi-kun.”
“You did the mokuton!” Anko cheered, nearly knocking over her pile of dango in her glee.
A small smile tugged at the corner of his lip. “Yeah,” he said, as he stared down at the small sprout in the middle of the pot. “I did.”
“Do it again,” Anko urged.
“Yes, do,” Orochimaru said, and handed him another pot.
Now that he knew how he was meant to mold his chakra, it was easier, and only a few moments later a small, green plant pushed out of the dirt. He fed it more chakra, urging it to grow, until he was holding not a sprout but a very young sapling.
He made the plants grow until he felt faint from chakra exhaustion, and collapsed into bed the moment he arrived home, only waking up to gulp down the soup Obito waved under his nose.
The next day, when he went to Orochimaru’s lab at the arranged time, Orochimaru was not busy with his research, but was waiting for him by the door. “Come,” he said, striding past Kakashi. “We will be working outside today.”
Anko was waiting for them by the equipment, which had been moved into a clearing behind the lab. Kakashi hooked himself up, with some assistance from Anko, while Orochimaru checked the equipment and finished setting up.
“Now, grow a tree,” Orochimaru said.
Kakashi looked at the ground dubiously. All the times before he had started with a seed and simply urged it to grow; he wasn’t sure if the same process would work to create a tree from scratch.
But now that he had done it once, it was like second nature; he reached out to the ground with his chakra, rooting a little ball of earth and water chakra into the ground. The chakra spread its roots down into the ground and shot up into the air, a tree growing from where there had been only dirt moments before.
Orochimaru made him keep going until his chakra was exhausted and they sat in a small grove of trees, each of them in a slightly different stage of growth. By that time, Anko had long since run off to do her own training with the other genin who were ostensibly on her team, although Kakashi had never met them.
“I have gathered more data in these past weeks than I have since I started this research,” Orochimaru said. “As such, I would like to offer you these. I would appreciate further opportunities to study your abilities in action.”
Kakashi accepted the stack of papers Orochimaru handed him—apprenticeship papers. He picked up the pen and signed his name. “I guess that means I get to call you Shishou,” he said.
“If you want to be fed to Manda,” Orochimaru said.
Kakashi was pretty sure he was kidding. Maybe. He handed the papers back once he’d signed them all; Orochimaru accepted them and handed him a scroll in return. He opened it to reveal a list of names and fingerprints, with the most recent being Anko’s. He pricked his thumb and used the blood to sign his name and fingerprints. He’d seen his father perform summonings countless times, had even mimicked him as a child, so Kakashi flashed through the signs and slammed his hand against the ground without a second thought.
“Kuchiyose no Jutsu!”
When the cloud of smoke cleared, three snakes sat on the ground in front of him, coiled together so that it was hard to tell where one began and another ended.
Their tongues flicked out as they rose up and met his eyes.
Kakashi bowed his head. “My name is Kakashi Hatake. Nice to meet you.”
“Sage,” hissed one, with spiky, yellow scales that turned to brown at the tips.
“Basil,” hissed the second, which Kakashi thought was black until it shifted and he noticed that its scales had a rainbow sheen.
“Thyme,” hissed the third, which was grey, with a brown vertical stripe and horizontal bands of black all down its body.
“Please take care of me,” he said.
The snakes hissed happily. “How polite,” Sage said.
The other two disappeared in a puff of smoke, but Sage slithered over to him and coiled around his arm. “I will remain with you,” the snake said.
He helped Orochimaru return the equipment to the lab, and then bid the man goodnight and headed home.
“Sage,” he said, as he walked, “can you go back to the lab and tell me when Orochimaru leaves?”
“I will,” Sage said, and the snake slithered down to the ground and was quickly out of sight.
He didn’t expect to see Sage again until the early hours of the morning, but to his surprise the snake returned just as he was opening the gate to his house. “What happened?”
“Orochimaru left the laboratory as I approached,” Sage reported. “He went to a large building and met a woman who smelled of medicines and slugs.”
Kakashi smiled to himself. Of course—Orochimaru left when Kakashi and Anko were both out eating dinner, and not likely to return for some time. He likely only returned when his snakes sent word that Kakashi or Anko were approaching the lab.
The next day, Kakashi and Anko came prepared. They left the laboratory in the evening, as usual, but waited nearby until Thyme brought word that Orochimaru had left. They gave him five minutes, then returned to the laboratory and settled in to wait.
It took ten minutes for Orochimaru to return to the lab.
Anko gave him an exaggerated pout. “Sensei, where were you? We’ve been waiting forever!”
Kakashi nodded sagely. “It’s irresponsible to leave the lab for so long, Shishou.”
Orochimaru gave them a look that said he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be amused or turn them into snake food. Anko grinned unrepentantly, and even Kakashi couldn’t help but smirk a little.
“What do you want?” Orochimaru asked.
“My father is busy,” Kakashi said, which was only a little bit of a lie. Sakumo was, in fact, busy teaching Obito how to make katsudon.
“My father is also busy,” Anko said, which was a complete lie.
Orochimaru knew it, too. “You’re an orphan,” he said drily.
Anko widened her eyes and pouted harder. “I’m hungry, sensei.”
“If I feed you, will you stop attempting to sneak into my laboratory at all hours of the night?” Orochimaru said.
Kakashi and Anko exchanged glances. “So long as you feed us, we will stop attempting to sneak into your laboratory,” Kakashi said.
Orochimaru narrowed his eyes. Kakashi stared back.
“You may spend no more than 100 ryo,” Orochimaru said.
Nagato should have known.
He should have known that Hanzo couldn’t be trusted. And now Konan was in danger—still screaming at him to leave, didn’t she know he couldn’t do that—and he’d been told to kill Yahiko to save her.
He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t let Konan die—but he couldn’t kill Yahiko either.
He stared down at the kunai. The tip of it shook along with his hand.
He looked up at Hanzo and the shinobi from Konoha standing next to him. The sight of that symbol made that cursed hatred boil up inside of him. Of course Konoha would be behind this; they knew that they profited from the war. Why would they ever want an end to war?
“Nagato. Kill me.”
Nagato looked at Yahiko in shock. Of course he couldn’t kill Yahiko. He would rather die himself.
His blood rushed in his ears.
“No, don’t do it!” Konan. He couldn’t let Konan die.
“You had better hurry. Unless you wa—gah!”
Nagato jerked his head up to look at Hanzo—had Konan managed to escape?
Konan wasn’t in Hanzo’s grip anymore, that was for sure. Instead she was slung over the shoulder of a woman with blond hair in a long ponytail. Her face was hidden from view behind a fox mask, like the kind they sold at festival stalls, and she wore a standard, black shinobi uniform that could have been from any village.
“Mwahaha!” she cackled. “The Fox Goddess has captured the princess!”
They all stared at her. Even Hanzo seemed shocked by her appearance.
“Danzo!” she exclaimed, pointing a finger at the man standing beside Hanzo. “What would the Hokage think about this?”
“He knows,” Danzo said.
She jabbed her thumb towards the ground. “Pull the other one, old man!”
Danzo signaled the ANBU behind him, and they dashed at the woman. In a flash, she was gone.
“Yo! Nagato!” Nagato spun around to find the woman standing in a tree behind them, still holding Konan over one shoulder. As his eyes met the eyes of her fox mask, she saluted him.
Yahiko glanced at him. “You know this lady?”
Nagato could only shake his head. He had never seen her in his life.
The fox mask grinned at him. “You better hurry if you want your princess back!”
With that, she was off again, leaping into the trees. Yahiko surged forwards, running after her without a second thought for Hanzo and Danzo, and Nagato followed him. In the distance, he could see the fox woman running along the ground and leaping from tree to tree, never stopping.
He was gasping for breath, his clothing soaked in sweat, by the time he and Yahiko ran into a clearing to find themselves face-to-mask with the stranger. Both he and Yahiko fell into offensive stances, ready to fight, only for the stranger to bend down and led Konan down. Konan ran to them and threw her arms around them.
A puff of smoke erupted from the stranger, obscuring their vision. Nagato expected the woman to be gone when it cleared, but instead he found himself staring at a man with blue eyes and short blond hair, a fox mask pulled to the side.
He grinned at them. “Sorry, sorry! I didn’t want to lie to you or anything, but it’d be a pain if Danzo realized who I was.”
“Who are you?” Yahiko demanded; he was still on edge after their meeting with the strange, plant-like creature that had approached them out of the blue. “What do you want?”
“Nothing at all!” the man declared.
Yahiko glowered at him. “Everyone wants something. Especially people from villages like yours.”
Nagato’s eyes landed on the man’s headband, which had previously been hidden beneath the fox mask. For a moment, he thought it was a Konoha symbol, but then he realized the point was missing. The man was from Uzushio—almost as bad as Konoha, really, for all that Uzushio was a small village like Ame. It was counted among the Six Great Shinobi Villages for a reason.
“I’m just a fan of Akatsuki’s work,” the man said. “You want to bring peace to the world, right?”
“And let me guess, you have a great way for us to bring peace,” Yahiko said.
“Nope, I have no better ideas than you,” the man said. “I’m just saving the people important to me, and the people important to the people to me, and the people important to them. And hopefully they’ll save some people too.”
“Some people would say that’s a foolish way of bringing peace,” Yahiko said.
“Some people would say that what you’re doing is foolish too,” the man said. “But we’re gonna keep doing it, right? Because . . . if any kind of peace exists, I’ll grab hold of it and never let go.”
Nagato’s eyes widened. “Jiraiya-sensei’s book?”
The man rubbed the back of his head, smiling sheepishly. “What can I say? He’s a friend of mine. And if you guys died, it’d make him really sad. And I think that if you guys stick to the right path, you really can bring peace to the world. Anyways, uh, that’s all I really had to say. Don’t trust Hanzo or Danzo. They’re bad news. And take care of each other!”
Before any of them could stop him, he ran off, using shadow clones to confuse the trail.
Yahiko took a deep breath.
Even Nagato was surprised that he had spoken; as Yahiko’s eyes met his, however, he knew what he had to say. “Don’t ever ask me to kill you again. And Konan. Don’t ever tell us to leave you behind.”
Konan nodded, a tremulous smile on her lips. After a moment, the corners of Yahiko’s mouth turned up as well. “Got it. So, time to plan our next steps. We need a new hideout—a better hideout—and we need to deal with Hanzo, once and for all.”
Konan and Nagato nodded as Yahiko continued talking, laying out his ideas for their feedback.
Anyone would say that it was foolish to face down Hanzo the Salamander, especially when he had Konoha’s special forces at his back. But no matter how foolish it was, Nagato wouldn’t stop pursuing peace.