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Now comes the Sun, to tarnish in the sky

Chapter Text

I've never really liked who I am when it's down to the wire; ruthless, logical, and most of all, furiously biased. The kind of person who can write off someone else in need to prioritize those I love, that's who I am.

The helplessness, the logic, the reasoning, and the cold fear of my knowledge in the wrong hands? Ultimately excuses, because I made a choice. I chose to let more than 200 people die rather than risk my family falling with them. I weighed their lives and found them lacking to possible consequences of acting.

The Uchiha clan wasn't made up of just shinobi. Civilians, elderly, women, children, infants, all of them were murdered along with their fighting forces. It was important to remember that.

I made a choice, and I will never let anyone say I didn't. No one gets to cheapen the weight of my decision, or diminish the price of it. And the guilt of my choice nearly ate me alive.

So, I put that side of me to the side, safely discarded into the shadows, and did my best to make that calculated sacrifice worthwhile. Though really, I’ll admit that I also tried to forget about the massacre. It had to be a distant tragedy, because I couldn't afford to act incorrectly.

But I had resolved that, if I was going to live in the stead of all those people, I was going to do my best to make a future for the village they were killed for. It was duty, atonement, and the only way to live with myself. It helped that most of the kids, my peers, were easy to want to help. I knew their potential, knew their value, and most of them were good kids growing into good people.

The sticking point…was Sasuke. There were some days I could barely stand to be in the same room as him after my choice. And then he was made my teammate.

How do you exist in constant, close proximity to something that feels like it's digging through your rib-cage to tear out your heart? The answer is that you learn to love it. You learn to love your family, your twin, your friends, your sensei, and your teammate. You love the things that hurt you and make them your strength.

I put my team first in my oaths. I did every damn thing I could to shackle him to me, to Naruto, to Kakashi. Social activities, training, encouragement, bonding; I did it all because I loved these people, and every tiny step he took gave me hope.

We…just didn't have enough time. I didn't have enough time, not enough to figure out the right combination to bind him to us so firmly he could resist the Snake in the garden. And I knew, from the moment he woke up and haloed in putrid chakra, the end was coming.

But I still struggled against it.

I planned, plotted, and manipulated Sasuke as much as possible. I told him it was poison, that it was hurting him. I got Hinata and Shino to put a stopgap on the leaking seal, got him to admit he could think more clearly with the blocking. I told Kakashi, who took Sasuke for emergency sealing.

Scurrying like a trapped rat throughout the entire thing, and for nothing. It was almost like Neji might have been onto something with his Fate nonsense, because Sasuke followed his manga script perfectly. He used the seal. He didn't bond with the team, but took excessive interest in Naruto. The dominos kept falling, and I scrambled for a way to cheat the system.

I'd already gently brought up my concerns to Kakashi before the Forest. It was obvious for anyone with eyes that Sasuke was a little too brittle, and that he was entirely alienated from the idea of "team." It was even more alarming that the very idea of Naruto or myself improving faster than Sasuke himself could just… infuriate him to the point of mania. Were we supposed to cripple ourselves just to keep his mental state a tiny bit more even?

The gentle route had gotten me little but Kakashi paying more attention to Sasuke, which did make him act less alarmingly but did nothing else. So now, I didn't hold my punches. I made it formal, called Sasuke's psychological state into question now that he had lost every tiny bit of progress and was worsening. When it didn't get me results, I went and filed my concerns at the Tower. And when that did not get me results, I went to Psych and made an appointment to make a personal report.

I thought I might be able to change things, make it even a little better. I hoped and I prayed and I worked my ass off to try and make it worthwhile. But maybe I should have started with myself first, to truly be more like the Shikako I tried to be. Less selfish, less biased, and less willing to do anything for someone I loved.

I still found myself with Sasuke's clothing, sewing seals into the lining. Each stitch felt like I was digging a grave out with my bare hands. I'm just not sure whose grave it was.

 


 

I find out in a courtroom, whose grave I dug with hand and needle. Ours; a shared grave for me, for Sasuke, and the thing Orochimaru made of Sasuke's corpse.

But I can't lay down with my dead teammate and his murderer though, no matter how much my heart screamed. The world is still set to burn for a madman, and there is so little time. Maybe my hands can't make a future for the dead, or for the people I love.

But I can dig a grave.

Chapter Text

I feel cold as I stand alone in the Hokage's office. There is no one here to be my backup, or my support, but the aftermath of my hearing had shown me that this was my new reality.

Tsunade looks tired as she stares at me, but she kindly doesn't linger over the places where my teammates should be, "I am afraid that no matter how you were driven to this, the situation has become untenable. I don't know exactly who leaked the details of your hearing, but it is now known to the wider population of Konoha's forces."

I nod redundantly, because the shinobi gossip mill was not to be underestimated. I had known before being summoned in here that the news had settled in, and the reactions had been…illuminating.

"And since you are the only remaining genin of Team Seven," Tsunade said with an exhausted bluntness, "Your opportunities for advancement will be slim to none with how your reputation is ruined. No team will trust you as a teammate for the Chunin Exams, which leaves us with Councilman Shimura's petition to give you a field promotion to chunin."

The taste of bile, sour and sickly, floods my tongue as that news hit me. It is a struggle to contain the urge to be sick on the floor, desperate to purge this news, but I do it. The whiteness of my face, however, can't be concealed.

"I thought you might react like that, considering your testimony and actions."

I did not flinch at the mention of it, because I would not be ashamed that a few tears slipped from my eyes in my hearing. Shinobi stoicism had been given its dues by the fact I had kept going, even when I had to watch their faces show their condemnation and horror.

"However, it frankly is your only option. And despite all this, I'm loathe to let you rot as a genin. After this promotion, I will assign you a number of out-village milkruns. Give this a chance to die down, and then I will assess how best to deploy you."

ANBU, I think is what she was considering. It was likely one of the few places where I could continue to progress due to its anonymity, and frankly I would be for it. Danzo is the complicating factor however, he and ROOT. His petition for my promotion indicates interest (which is alarming,) and his advocacy for my actions indicates he sees me as a kindred soul of a sort (which is horrifying.)

"Now, Nara. Do you have any protests about this? First and only chance."

I gave Tsunade a blank look at the unexpected offer, which only got me a blank look in return. I hadn't expected this, even less than the offer from Danzo. She was offering me a chance to bow out, as gracefully as I could. Hell, she might even try to spin it so public opinion shifted from fear and judgement to pity.

But, then again, if I put myself in her place… It makes sense. I had killed the thing wearing Sasuke's body to ensure Naruto lived. Naruto had torn her out of her drunken grieving, forced her to care, and Orochimaru had been her traitorous and murderous teammate. Part gratitude for saving someone she loved, and part sympathetic pity because she knew the pain I did… if not the precise shade of guilt.

This is why Konoha had loved her and will love her even more as Hokage, I think with something approaching appreciation. Tsunade cares, and she tries to make things better for those who are hurt.

It's just, no matter how much I long to take her up on her offer…I have miles and miles to go before I can sleep.

"Thank you Hokage-sama, but I wish to continue serving." I say as evenly as I could, but I wonder if Tsunade knows that she has just earned my loyalty in a way Hiruzen never could have. Odds are good she does, and hopefully that will soothe her concerns about my willingness to deal with Danzo without being forced to.

"Fine, just remember you made the choice."

I stomp on the urge to laugh at her wording. It's inappropriate, and I know it will come out mad and won't ever stop.

"Here's your first mission then…"

Well, she had apparently meant the milkrun comment.

Ferret hunting couldn't be too different from Tora hunting, even without my team.

Chapter Text

I hadn't realized until I was a day away from Konoha, perfectly alone, just how much worse being around people was now. The whispers, the unquiet mutterings, the distrust and judgement… I had thought Konoha hated traitors, but perhaps Hashirama had engendered a weakness to traitorous Uchiha in this culture.

But Ino had always been willing to burn friendships in the name of Sasuke, so maybe Hashirama wasn't necessarily at fault.

The poisonous thoughts jolted me out of rhythm, forcing me to pause on a tree instead of continuing on. Had I really just thought of Ino like that? When I know damn well exactly what I did?

A chuckle escaped me, and it sounded like a death rattle. I had taken the edges of myself out of my shadows for my sewing, but I hadn't thought I would become so petty with them. Ino was a child (a friend) but I didn't have the time to coddle a child anymore; not even myself. The end of my second childhood had come and gone, leaving me here.

Shaking my head at myself, I resumed moving. Tsunade wouldn't be very amused if I dawdled without a good reason. And recriminations and grief weren't good reasons.

Kawara-gai was a small town, close to the border to the Land of Rivers. And by small, I meant small for this world. I honestly considered avoiding the town entirely until I realized this was a forming habit I needed to nip in the bud. Immediately.

I couldn't let myself get used to avoiding human interaction and contact. What social skills I did have wouldn't survive the atrophy. Missions, covers, and the eventual doom looming over everyone's head, all of them required that I didn't become incapable of speaking to a human who might judge me.

So, decision made, I made it to Kawara-gai proper in the late morning and set about inquiring after the very particular ferret I needed. Something about my appearance or manner unnerved the townspeople, but I didn't look dangerous like an adult kunoichi would. I likely took too much time on this very simple information gathering, but the alternate reason meant it was time well spent as I forced myself to stop shying away from the people.

I finally had a moment of luck as I worked my way out to the out-lying farms, a reluctant farmer had slowly admitted he might have seen my errant ferret an hour ago. He pointed out where he had seen it, and after I thanked him, I got to making a search grid of the area.

It takes most of an hour by myself, but I do find the ferret. The creature had caught a rabbit and was feasting on it, which meant it wasn't running about and making my job more difficult. As a shadow user, it's as easy as breathing to catch it in my shadow and paralyze it. I then unsealed a pet carrier and stuck it inside, even though it was fairly friendly once the shock wore off; I wasn't in the mood to take chances with the ferret.

That humming…I had no idea what it was, but it was irritating. It was almost like it was a song inside my head, if the song was one sung by tectonic movements. Hopefully it wasn't tinnitus, or some other health issue.

With the target captured, I set my eyes towards Mizugiwa in the Land of Rivers. Supposedly even smaller than Kawara-gai, everything said this would be an excellent opportunity to just…breathe. To run, run fast and far and away from Konoha and everything inside it.

I could even almost pretend Sasuke was here, racing me again.

 


 

Running at shinobi speeds, racing a ghost, meant it didn’t take long to begin approaching the outskirts of Mizugiwa. The landscape was hilly and steep, possibly making this area the foothills of a mountain chain…Or old shinobi terraforming. It was an interesting question for another, safer time, on how you could go about discovering whether or not your surroundings were natural or the result of old, massive-scale jutsu use.

Right now though, it wasn’t safe enough to get mired in the question. The lands I was now cautiously moving though were terraced with rice paddies, lush and green with crops. The paddies were well cared for, showing no long-term signs of abandonment. That means there should have been at least someone working them.

I took to the trees, giving up my run to start running reconnaissance. I approached the village in a spiraling pattern, slowly working my way to the target while keeping alert. It made me uneasy that there were no obvious signs of anything of anything wrong. There was only the silence, the lack of people sounds. The constant humming had quieted too, which was a worry all of its own.

When I reached the village, I realized why it was so quiet in the middle of the day.

The place had been incinerated. There were blackened and cracked charcoal frames where houses had been, mounds of rubble, and no sign of life. I frowned as I saw the first crater carved into the ground, with the corresponding dirt thrown everywhere nearby. It would have been simple, if tragic, so long as there hadn’t been such obvious signs of shinobi activity.

I turned over the facts in my mind as I walked further into the destroyed town. The Land of Rivers had its own shinobi village, but there was little reason for them to destroy something in their country. The Land of Rivers was also a buffer country to Fire and Wind, which…Didn’t rule us or Suna out. Even if I didn’t believe Tsunade would order her shinobi to do this, which I didn’t, it sure as hell wouldn’t make sense to then send me out on a milkrun to the place we destroyed. Suna I couldn’t speak for, but there was Danzo to consider.

ROOT obviously still ran its own missions. Who knows what value this destruction could have to Danzo?

There was also the incredibly horrifying interest he had taken in me. This mission had come straight from Tsunade, but…Danzo had his ways to get around Tsunade if he really wanted to. Could this be a test for me? If so, what was he looking for?

The ferret’s movement in the cage secured to my back broke me from rapidly darkening thoughts.

Too many questions, not enough data, I thought dully as I began to make a closer inspection for bodies. Jutsu fire might have cremated any, but it was unlikely it completely incinerated the skeleton; it would be a waste of chakra to make the fire that hot. Some cautious poking at the ash sites of former houses revealed nothing, and a check of the burned wood still standing revealed the fire had been very recent. The wood was warm enough to heat my hand, but not burn it.

Now for the million-dollar question. Did I, or did I not, continue to investigate?

Prudence said no, that this was too fishy and I was too leery of a possible connection to ROOT. And on the other hand, by the time the native shinobi heard about this, there would be no trail left. There was also the argument that if this was ROOT, taking initiative and not acting in perfect accordance to regulations might help to curb Danzo’s interest. 

I wasn’t sure if I should be ashamed that the idea of possibly discouraging Danzo settled it for me.

“Logically, I can’t complete my mission because the client is missing. The village I was supposed to meet them in was burnt down. No bodies were discovered in the ruins, or blood splatters, which suggests the villagers were captured instead of slaughtered. Takigakure is also our ally, and they won’t get here in time for pursuit of the culprits. It makes sense to gather further information to determine how I should handle this.”

The ferret squeaked within the carrier, and I ignored how talking to yourself wasn’t a sign of stability. It would be a sufficient answer for Tsunade, despite how unimpressed she’s likely to be, and hopefully be far too independent for Danzo. I flinched as the humming returned to its usual volume, but nothing else came of it.

“But first, I should take care of you.” I said to the ferret this time, “Can’t return my mission objective to the client if its dead. Not without a much better reason than ‘I forgot to give it water.’ ”

Chapter Text

After the ferret was cared for, and allowed outside the cage for a short bathroom break while I kept an eye on it, I pulled off my backpack and pulled out a storage scroll.

It was times like these that I realized how much I had relied on the versatility of the Shadow Clones. I could have tried to send a message back to Konoha, or Taki, if I could use it. I could have set them to patrolling, and seeking out the culprits’ tracks. Shadow Clone jutsu was one that was rapidly shooting up on my priority list to learn, especially since the master of it likely wouldn’t be helping me again.

I didn’t have any workaround for the massive logistics gap of no clone jutsu, and I didn’t have any Summons to substitute for a Konoha hawk. Teammates were another thing I didn’t have, which meant I had no fallback. If I was going to be a solo scout, I was going to have to be prepared. I was also going to need to fall back on the more…traditional views of shinobi, instead of the frontline tactics my team had been trained for.

It was lucky I had already proven to be moderately talented at traditional shinobi tactics.

I consulted my inventory, and made a note to myself I needed to get a more expansive storage system. Fifty explosive tags, twenty knockout tags, ten paralysis tags, three spools of wire, and two replacement units of kunai and shuriken. For a milkrun this sort of inventory was completely over the top, but it was suddenly paltry when I might be dealing with Orochimaru.

The thought had unfortunately occurred to me while dealing with the ferret, that I did know of someone who could have a use for captured villagers. Human experimentation was one of Orochimaru’s calling cards after all.

On the not explicitly weaponized side of my inventory, I had an assortment of things. Enough rations to see me well fed for two weeks, a month if I stretched it. Spare clothing and replacement gear, along with an overly robust trauma medkit. And most importantly, a large jar of ink and over one hundred blank tags.

It was funny how I had originally thought I was acting paranoid to pack this much. I’m glad I did now, because it means I’ve enough to make traps like I had in the Forrest of Death.

I shuffled my equipment around, kitting myself out for extended combat. Once I felt comfortable, I rolled the scroll back up and stowed it away again. With the ferret in hand, I began to look for tracks. It was more luck than anything that let me pick up the direction of the culprits. The slight trail made by their feet hadn’t been erased by rain yet, and it led me towards the direction of the canyon.

I kept my eyes and senses strained for any sign of the enemy while I made my way in that direction, which was made more difficult by the humming. It was very hard to put aside. Something about it was attention grabbing, even without giving me a slight headache. I concentrated more firmly on ignoring it, which helped a little.

It was quick work to scout the canyon area, even with sticking to Kakashi’s evasion drills. There was very little vegetation to work with, so I stuck to the sides as much as I could. It was turning up nothing until I saw a far away glinting of metal. I doubled down on my stealth techniques, and quickly popped up to the top of the canyon wall to set down the animal carrier. No matter how strangely quiet the ferret was I wasn’t risking it giving me away. So long as I survived, I could come back for it.

With that, I picked up a steady lope towards the glinting. I could sense nothing odd beyond the ongoing humming, which made the sight all the more eerie when I dropped to my stomach to observe them. Under a light henge to appear as a naturally occurring outcropping of rock, it was incredibly bizarre to watch someone who appeared to be a knight of some sort. And it was definitely much closer to a European knight than anything I had ever seen since my rebirth. Samurai armor didn’t really have that sort of solid sheet plating, and their helmets were designed differently.

The other four appeared to be following the knight’s commands, and they were bizarre in their own way too. From my position, I could make out no visual difference between the four. It went beyond uniform standardization, since I could see no differences in height, body shape, or even behavior.

The entire squad was suspicious, and were obviously not shinobi. I had no idea if they were the culprits, but I felt that an odd group like this being so close to the abduction site made for good odds that they were. A moment passed as I considered how lethal I was willing to try and make my traps.

It would take too much time to execute a very complicated one. I didn’t want to let the group escape if I wasn’t forced to, because infiltrating a stronghold on my lonesome sounds horribly risky. Simplest trap would be to repeat the Chunin Exam explosion, but that denied questioning and ran the risk of alerting anyone nearby.

Time was running out. I’d have to risk killing some of them then, though I’d try to keep the knight alive. He looked unique, which implied he had the importance to be allowed it when the followers were so identical.

I carefully moved away from the edge, only disengaging my henge once the sudden disappearance wouldn’t be noticed by the squad on the ground. I kept away from the edge of the canyon till human sight wouldn’t be able to pick up on my movements. Once I was safe from anyone but a Hyuuga, I then ran down to the bottom of the canyon to begin picking out a trap site.

It was lucky for me that the canyon didn’t have any branching corridors for a very long stretch. There was no chance the unit could slip by me, so long as they didn’t try scaling the walls. With that lucky break, I was able to pinpoint a staging area.

It was relatively narrow, and the ground was littered with boulders. Still no tress or tall vegetation to hide in, but I could compensate. I pulled out a spool of wire and a stack of tags, before deciding I wouldn’t try for the decapitation maneuver. It was too risky I’d kill the knight with it. With that decided, I got to work.

It took me no more than ten minutes to complete the traps, and I laid down a False Surroundings genjutsu. I’d need to find some way to thank– I flinched as I remembered there was no way I could thank Naruto for being an inspiration.

I pushed away all the feelings that reminder brought roaring back. There was no time for that. Calmness settled back over me with the shunted emotions locked away, and I waited for the squad.

Chapter Text

It went better than expected. Much better than I expected really, since they walked into my traps like civilians. Maybe they were very bad at genjutsu? I was no Kurenai after all.

I finished tying up the remaining identical squad member to regulation, before slapping a tag on them. One had stumbled into an explosion tag that had been meant to drive them into a non-lethal trap, which left me with four enemies. Though it was likely it would shortly be three, since one of the identical ones had nearly amputated an arm trying to free themselves of a wire trap.

I gave the trio of identical people a dubious look. Their sameness was really, really alarming in the “odds of it being Orochimaru are increasing” way. He was the only person on the continent, I believe, that would have the capacity to figure out cloning. But I didn’t think Orochimaru would bother with genital mutilation, or removing sexual attributes all together. The tightness of their gear, along with my pat-down to check for weapons, had revealed that quite handily.

Actually, thinking about it, I hadn’t seen a seem to their clothing. On a hunch, I ran my hand along an arm and scratched at the line that delineated clothing from skin.

“Huh.”

The clothing was fused into their flesh. An odd choice, and not one Orochimaru had ever displayed before. I moved and ran my hands over the helmet, looking for a release I didn’t expect to find. I frowned as my expectation was confirmed, which was another point against my kneejerk “Orochimaru” accusation.

“Clones maybe… Or homunculi.” I whispered to myself, thinking of a different anime. I lifted the possible-homunculus’s head to get a clear view of their face in order to compare it to the others and-

Sasuke

I froze, breath trapped in my chest as my hands tightened convulsively on the homunculus’ face. I closed my eyes for a moment to center myself, and opened them as I carefully exhaled. I’d seen him in place of the homunculus when I met their red eyes. Alive, Sharingan lazily spinning, and raising his eyebrows at me as if to ask what I was doing.

“What have you done to me?” A voice rasped behind me, and I pushed my grief away. Releasing the homunculus and turning around revealed that the knight had regained consciousness.

“Who are you? Who do you work for?” I asked instead of telling him the obvious.

The knight was silent for a long moment, before replying bitingly “My name is Temujin.”

So, he had a name. Another mark of individuality when partnered up with interchangeable homunculi. Was he one of them, but just…Higher ranked maybe?

Acting on that thought, I moved closer and carefully reached out to remove his helmet. Unlike the others, I had no difficulty removing it at all. I put it to the side with the rest of the purloined gear and weaponry, and turned to take in his appearance.

It was lucky I had been braced to see red eyes this time, because I was able to stifle the reaction before it happened. But unlike the others, his eyes were closer to Kurenai’s. A ring circled the pupil, and while the shade of red was off, it really did remind me of the genjutsu mistress.

“Temujin, who do you work for? What is your,” I paused for a fraction of a beat as I tried to find the word I wanted. Interrogation wasn’t something I had been trained for, and I had a feeling it was slightly obvious. “Mission?”

The blonde kept his face blank as he stared at me, and I felt a spike of irritation as the humming seemed to increase in volume the longer he did. “How did you capture us? We saw nothing.” He finally replied, completely ignoring my questions.

But his reply was a bit informative on its own. The man had chakra, and knew how to use it to some degree. I had gathered that piece of information as he tried to react to my traps before he was knocked unconscious. Yet to not know of genjutsu enough to suspect it?

I think that settles the Orochimaru theory, I thought before saying “Where are you from?”

When Temujin continued to stare blankly, I turned and gave closer inspection to the items I’d pulled off them. I wasn’t aiming to play power games with my captive, but I did need to make efficient use of my time. Eventually someone would notice Temujin had been detained, and come looking. If it happened to unnerve him, all the better.

The spiked maces were unusual, but not interesting. I couldn’t tell if there was anything different about their make or composition, so I passed over them quickly. The gloves I had taken from Temujin were plated, and had been jointed to avoid hampering movement. I didn’t know if we had something similar in Konoha, so I pulled off my backpack and placed them inside.

Technically, I told myself, it wasn’t stealing; it was war booty. I took a moment to appreciate Konoha’s rigorous desensitizing programs, and then move onto inspecting his unusually thick bracer. I was impressed to find the thickness was due to it having a retractable shield, and I put that in my backpack too.

“Did you have something to do with the razed village a short distance from here?”

I asked idly as I picked up his sword, which was just as bizarre to see now as when I had taken it off of him. The sword wasn’t a katana, but a double-edged European broadsword. Double edging was exceedingly rare in the Elemental Countries, though I had no idea why. Not even Zabuza’s Kubikiri Bocho had a double edge, which I had thought it would since it was so large.

It was almost too fancy for fieldwork, considering the large gemstone affixed to the hilt.

But something about the stone bugged me the longer I looked at it. It had a very consistent color, with no impurities or distortions I could see. It also didn’t seem to have been faceted, which was very odd considering how clear it looked. I tapped it firmly with reinforcement to test the hardness, and a pure, soaring note rang from the stone. The note joined the humming, no, the music on the edge of my hearing, and I felt a prickle on the back of my neck.

I turned my head to look over my shoulder, and found Temujin and the conscious homunculus staring at me. “That was a signal, wasn’t it.” I didn’t ask, but stated my suspicion.

“Almost certainly.” Temujin said blandly, with a hint of dryness.  

“Hmm.”

I considered my situation. I could take the sword, and deprive Temujin of his main weapon. However, if it was trackable, I was better off destroying it. Too bad I didn’t have the time to do so properly.

I could at least make it a little harder for them however.

I picked up the sword, and tapped into my chakra before hurling it into the air. It spun rapidly, and soon the metal glinting was out of sight. Temujin finally broke his blank façade to look furious, but it was too little too late. Time was up.

I palmed a kunai, debating on whether or not I wanted to do this, but before I could make up my mind, I felt a vibration beneath my feet. Earthquakes weren’t supposed to happen in this part of the continent, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t. I had a bad feeling however, considering I had just accidentally set off a signal to whoever Temujin reported to.

Reluctantly, I put my kunai away and flickered over to knock Temujin onto his front. He landed with a grunt, facing away from the homunculi, and I got to work. I removed every tag on them, and removed the remaining ones from my traps. If he didn’t know about something as basic as genjutsu, I didn’t want to give away my seal tags.

Once that was complete, I bolted and repeated my earlier setup. No one looked up after all. Now, to see what the hell I’d summoned.

Chapter Text

I stared at the absolutely massive vehicle, completely stunned. It was huge, actually bigger than the canyon, and straight out of a steampunk novel. And calling it a vehicle was misleading, because it didn’t look like a vehicle. It looked like a mobile fortress, one tough enough to bulldoze through any part of the canyon that got in its way.

I had been to the Land of Snow, which was probably one of the most technologically advanced countries at the moment. They didn’t have the kind of technology to make this, which really made me wonder where the hell they’d come from.

It came to a halt a good distance away from where I believe the sword had eventually landed, and roughly fifteen minutes later a squad arrived. The squad was mostly made up of homunculi, and was led by a woman. She had Temujin’s sword in hand, and wore armor similar to Temujin’s. The armor was colored differently, but I couldn’t help but stare at the breastplate with breasts.

Every kunoichi I’d ever met would have gone naked before wearing something that would do the exact opposite of protecting your torso. I couldn’t begin to understand why the woman would wear it instead of getting a chest plate like Temujin’s.

She seemed to find Temujin’s dilemma quite funny, judging by the way she was laughing. She leered at him after she stopped, saying something before cutting the wire away with Temujin’s own sword. He got up without assistance, saying something to her before reaching out his hand. She seemed to mock him about something, before handing him his sword.

They started heading towards the mobile fortress after their exchange, and the homunculi picked up their destroyed comrades before following after them. I waited until they were out of range of human sight before dismissing my henge, and got up. I eyed the fortress for a moment longer before I made the decision to retrieve my objective. There was no way they could hide the thing, and it didn’t move faster than a shinobi could run. 

 


 

The carrier was where I had left it, and the ferret was still inside. It squeaked at me as I picked the carrier up, and I was glad to see it hadn’t escaped. Or died somehow. I keep expecting one or the other with how my mission is going, and it’s a nice surprise to keep finding the ferret safe.

It probably needed to do ferret business however, since I’d kept the thing in a carrier for so long.

I could feel the vibrations of the fortress’ movements under the sole of my sandals as I began looking for a nice rabbit for the ferret. They were taking no precautions to try and hide the fortress, and I presume they’ve also been helping themselves to the local civilian population. I have no idea how Konoha hasn’t already heard about it, let alone Takigakure, with how completely unsubtle the machine is.

I found a nice rabbit before the vibrations faded from perception, and quickly tossed it in the cage for the ferret. I’d wrung its neck, but the ferret went wild like the rabbit was still alive. Not a quiet eater I guess?

I sat down and put the carrier next to me as the ferret ate, slinging off my backpack. I pulled out the plunder and my storage scroll, and set about securing my acquisitions. Once they were sealed away, I retrieved a bottle of water and a couple ration bars for myself. It wasn’t fine dining, but I’d been exercising enough that hunger gave the rations almost a savory flavor.

I chewed mechanically as I considered my situation. The mission was probably B rank by now, and I was a genin on her lonesome. In theory I’ve stretched plausibility to the breaking point. Any further, and I’ll definitely be getting…Actually, I don’t know. Would this net me a demerit, or would it be put down as psychological?

Danzo’s pushing me for chunin promotion however, and Tsunade will approve it. Chunin have to make executive decisions in the field. As a potential chunin, I think I should track that fortress and see if I can’t sneak inside. There’s no commanding officer to countermand my suggestion, so, the motion passes I guess.

It didn’t take much effort at all to find the fortress after Ferret and I finished. I’d even taken the time to clean out the carrier while Ferret ran about taking care of its business. One shadow jutsu had it back in the cage without a long chase, and I was on my way.

The rest of the day was very boring as I followed the fortress from a safe distance. I even had the time to take breaks, since it didn’t move very fast for shinobi. It moved until sunset, where it ground to a halt. The homunculi exited from the fortress once it came to a complete stop, and started to mechanically set up a perimeter. They also cleared the surrounding area, which made it obvious when other homunculi came from different directions.

How much destruction had those returning squads wrecked? Had they finally alerted Taki? If so, backup would be nice.

I waited for half an hour after the returning squads reentered the fortress, and sighed when it was apparent that there was no one hot on their trail. How they were managing to move about without being accosted by shinobi was baffling, considering how they neither hid nor could detect nearby ninja; I knew they likely didn’t have any sensing methods since no one had come to deal with me.

I squinted at the fortress as the humming, which had nearly become a background ache I could ignore, escalated. My head felt like a tuning fork and Tsunade was going to give me such an unimpressed look when I reported the issue to her. I’d deal with it later, however.

I had a fortress to infiltrate.

I considered trying the main doors, but I knew that there was unlikely to be any important information on the levels where people actually worked. Despite my gung-ho attitude, I was still aware this wasn’t my specialty. The odds weren’t in my favor of getting out without ever being seen, so I probably needed to sacrifice potentially sabotaging the fortress.

The very ostentatious and impractical balconies looked more promising. Powerful people liked to keep all their goodies close at hand, while being able to show them off to their minions.

Ferret squeaked at me, and I turned to look at its shining eyes. “What? Want to be my lookout?”

It squeaked again, almost as if answering in affirmation.

“Well, I was going to leave you here anyways, so, that works."

Chapter Text

After I situated Ferret for an extended time alone, by placing a hastily made bowl of water in the carrier, I made sure the carrier was along my escape route. If things went south, I wanted to give myself every chance to grab Ferret on the run. I’d kept it alive this long, so I really didn’t want to have to abandon it.

There was also the fact it was still my actual mission objective.

“Be good and stay quiet.”

I blinked. Did Ferret actually nod, or was the humming getting to me?

I decided to ignore the slowly arising question of how intelligent ferrets could be. I had places to be, people to spy on. The night wasn’t getting any younger.

I waited until I spotted a gap in the homunculus patrol, and sprang forwards with chakra boosted speed. Keeping silent wasn’t an issue when I combined my extensive use of Cat’s Foot with chakra, but there were a few close calls. Even with the darkness aiding me there were just too many homunculi. Close only counted with horseshoes and explosions though, so I did make it to the fortress walls.

Unlike the appearance from a distance, the walls weren’t smooth. They were ridged with columns, sections, and piping. This was a good thing though. Chakra made handholds unnecessary, but running up the walls was extremely noticeable. The old-fashioned style of wall crawling was the better option in this infiltration, and chakra would help there too.

I scurried up the wall like a gecko, on all fours and as close to the surface as possible. My hair was standing on end with nerves as I did so, even as no alarm sounded. I was all I had to rely on, and if I got caught it would be difficult to escape. No backup, no clones, no summons, and explosions were dangerous in enclosed spaces.

With these comforting thoughts I made my way up. I spotted something that I hoped wasn’t a landing pad at roughly three fourths of the way up, but I pressed on. At the top was my most promising target. It was the balcony I had spotted earlier, with large paneled doors that opened directly into the fortress

I strained my senses, looking to see if there wasn’t anyone inside. When I confirmed that I could see no one and sensed no chakra, I hauled myself onto the balcony and crawled to the door.

The doors were locked, which I had almost not been expecting with how little they cared for discretion. However, this wasn’t much of an issue even for a genin like me. They had been careless enough to install a poor lock.

It only took a minute before I was stowing my lockpicks away, and I carefully opened the door enough to scrape through. Once I was clear, I just as carefully closed it to not-quite-closed. It’d fool any quick glace this way, and be ready when I needed to leave.

I darted quickly through the hallway, keeping every sense strained for a hint of occupants. The main room I came across was very large and quite empty. It appeared to be some sort of meeting room, one meant to impress. There was no visible wear I could see, and the floors – they looked to be marble, the kind you’d expect Daimyo to use in their palaces – were polished to the point I could see a faint reflection of myself.

I moved through the room swiftly since there wasn’t anything of import, though I nearly did a double take when I saw the dais against the wall.

A throne room. Or an audience chamber. This is just great.

I had a feeling whoever was running the show around here had some very grand ideas about ruling. This whole room was one massive statement in regards to whatever plans they had.

But there wasn’t anything in this grand waste of space beyond the accidental insights. I exited it quickly, emerging into the corridor beyond it. The change in décor was sharp, complete utilitarian austerity contrasting with the previous opulence.

The corridor was plain metal, with clean, functional lines. It looked like something from my previous life, and it was almost alien after so long among Konoha’s wood and stone. There was no one nearby, and it struck me as odd as I moved. Did they not have a guard rotation in this area of the fortress?

I came across stairs, and while I noted them for later use if I had the time, I ignored them in favor of further exploring this area. I found cupboards, a smaller audience room, and what I suspected was some sort of observatory. None of those had anything useful, so I moved on until I discovered a living room with a linked bedroom. I spent a while investigating both, not sure what I should be looking for. There wasn’t much of note that I could see, though I suspect a shinobi trained for infiltration would have gotten much more out of this than I did.

Both rooms were furnished lavishly, with expensive materials. The wardrobe had ornate, ceremonial looking robes that looked to be enough to feed a village for half a year. I could find no trace of weaponry or armor, nor any of the detritus of either. And despite this obviously being the Daimyo-King’s rooms, there was no documents, letters, or anything of real use.

I quickly checked I had put everything back where it had originally been left, and then went back to my exploration. Not too far away from the rooms, I found what appeared to be a study.

It appeared to be like any office belonging to an official. An enormous desk, a table piled with messy papers, bookshelves full of literature, and expensive artwork hung from the walls. A second look at the contents of the room caught my eye however, and I moved inside.

The papers didn’t look to be paperwork, they were dirty and crumpled instead of pristine. The artwork was more of a huge, aged paper with what appeared to be hand drawn, fading ink. It was under a glass cover, and colored dots were pressed onto the glass above the paper.

The paper looked familiar, but to my frustration I couldn’t think of whatever was on the tip of my tongue. It added to the faint ache the noise was giving me, so I irritably turned to the papers.

The papers were damaged on closer look, so I carefully shifted through them with the smallest amount of touching I could get away with. They were a strange collection. Newspapers were mixed in with pamphlets, maps–

Oh.

I eased the map out and spread it, moving over to compare it to the aged paper on the wall. So this is what I had recognized on some level. The paper was a map, a very, very old map. The coastline was incorrect, possibly due to how old this map might be, and the countries outlined weren’t any I was familiar with.

I compared the dots on the old map with my rumpled current one. That was River Country, where we were. I then noticed they had marked Wind Country too, and I bit my lip in thought. Did the different colors have meaning? Had this force attacked Wind, or were they about to?

And even more pressing was why were they using this map. It was old to the point it didn’t even have the right coastline. Hell, how had they even found this ancient map?

I could tell that there was definitely a search pattern at work. The attacks weren’t random, and they weren’t about stealing human resources. But what was the interest in that area? There weren’t any Hidden Villages that close to the coastline, and there just wasn’t much here.

With the map’s answers exhausted for the moment, I moved to the desk. There was a single book on the surface, leather bound and ancient looking. This was the kind of book that should be under a glass case, kept away from light and handled by trained professionals. I fought back a cringe as I carefully lifted the cover, trying not to think of the oils on my skin, and hoped this book was as important as it looked.

The Book of Gelel was written in heavy, ornate writing. I felt a spot of cold along my back, like someone was leaning over my shoulder to look, and I whipped around with a kunai in hand–

But there was no one there.

I waited a long moment, but nothing happened. I stowed my kunai mechanically and returned to the book. There wasn’t any time to waste, so I started skimming as I gingerly turned the pages. Most of my attention was on my surroundings after that bizarre scare, so I’d be aware if there was someone in the vicinity. I nearly gave up on the book when the initial content was what appeared to be a royal family tree and some sort of trade agreement, but then I turned a page.

The same map was here in the book, exactly like the one on the wall. And the more pages I turned, the more maps I found. There were close ups of provinces and towns, making an entire landscape that had almost no resemblance to the one I knew.

Four words sent my mind spinning at the implications: The Empire of Gelel.

Was this a relic from before the Elemental Nations? Or perhaps a copy of one?

Everyone knew there once was an empire that spanned the whole continent in the days before the Sage of Six Paths had beat something resembling civilization into the wilderness. Ruins and abandoned cities across the Elemental Nations proved its existence, even if the details were vanishingly few. I had researched it when I ran across the first mention, because it had opened the possibility that this world was somehow the future of the one I’d left behind. The possibility was quickly disproven however; there were too many fundamental differences for it to be true.

I had been strangely relieved when I concluded that. I might have lost everything, but at least this way meant it wasn’t long since dust beneath my feet.

But if this book wasn’t a fake, it was utterly priceless. It could fill in so many gaps in the historical narrative if it was real. Yet, there was no reason for these people to be running rampant if it was just a book. Unless it contained some sort of treasure map…

I paged on, hoping there’d be something that would help to clarify their purpose. Something did, but it wasn’t what I expected nor what I think they were looking for. I found math, pages of extremely complex math. It looked close to chakra conversion equations, or, proto-fuinjutsu. It was far beyond my grasp, and I wondered at it as I flipped through. Just what was this?

But time was up, I could sense approaching people. They were at the stairs, which meant they could go down, but it was an alarm bell that I needed to get a move on. I considered the book on the desk. It looked important, which meant I should take it. However, if it was important it would be missed.

Technically, Konoha frowned on stealing. If it was for a mission, it was fine. Or if it was to bring intelligence back to Konoha, that was fine too. Weapons and gear taken off enemies was fine as well, so long as you reported them. But outside of those kinds of situations, Konoha tried very hard to make its shinobi reluctant to steal.

The incoming chakra signatures bypassed the personal rooms, turning towards the study. I made my choice, and gently placed the book in my backpack before darting out of the study. I ran up the wall and laid myself flat out on the ceiling, layering a False Surroundings genjutsu over myself to better conceal myself. The duo was coming closer, and they would have to pass right under me.

I felt a chill along spine, and flexed my hands. The metal was chill to the touch, and I hoped it would keep my palms from sweating too much.

I wondered at my luck when I saw it was the Daimyo-King, wearing the same ornate robes that were in the wardrobe, and a woman in armor. She wasn’t the same one who had rescued Temujin, so this one was likely more important. She still had the same baffling breast armor as the other woman however.

“What do you think of Temujin’s tale?” He asked without halting his stride.

“Farfetched,” She growled in reply, “Lying to cover his failure is more likely Haido-sama.”

The newly named Haido chuckled. It reminded me of Hiruzen, and I instantly felt discomforted at the comparison. “I don’t think lying to me has ever crossed Temujin’s mind. He is far too loyal.”

The woman scoffed, “It could cause trouble if it’s true,” She reluctantly conceded. “And it might explain why we haven’t heard from Ranke’s fleet. But we haven’t run into anyone else who could attack completely unseen.”

The word fleet brought to mind the dots along the coastline of Wind Country. The numbers implied with that word were very worrying.

“I suppose it was too much to hope they remained primitive and uncivilized in our absence,” Haido said, opening the study door. “Still, we have seen very little to foster the idea they are a true threat to our plans. The attacker only threw Temujin’s sword away, despite activating the Stone.” He paused, and turned to look at the woman who had faltered a few steps back.

“Is there a problem, Fugai?”

Fugai turned slowly, tilting her head, and from my spot on the ceiling I could just see the flare of her nostrils. A scent tracker was the last thing I needed, and I redoubled my efforts to keep my breathing shallow and quiet. Blocking scent was an extremely difficult thing, harder than any other sense. And there was no method to eliminate a scent trail once it was laid.

But I was lucky, and Fugai said “No, Haido-sama, there’s nothing.”

I dropped to the floor the moment the door closed, spending chakra to push myself to my fastest speed. I had only a few moments, perhaps half a minute, before they’d notice the conspicuous lack of book. I was exiting the throne room when I could distantly hear the study door slam open, followed by the heavy metal clatter of Fugai’s footsteps. Then the alarm went off as I was diving through the doors, across the balcony and gliding down the building. I stuck to the metal just enough to control my descent, so it was almost like I was gliding like a water-bug, but I jerked myself to a halt when I tried looking for a landing point. Homunculi were all over the place.

I considered my options, and the fact I would like to retrieve Ferret. I had very few unfortunately, except for a wild idea I already felt reckless for considering. River Country was heavily mountainous, which meant that there was always likely to be a cliff nearby. I checked my memory of where the fortress had stopped, and fished out a kunai and a length of ninja wire.

Let’s hope this works.

 


 

“Come along Ferret, scent trackers wait for no one.”

“Squeak!”

Chapter Text

I ran until the strange humming that accompanied the Daimyo-King’s forces quieted to the small background whisper it had first been. I ran along cliff walls, took to treetops, ran along the surface of rivers, and used every trick I could think of to throw off a scent tracker. My clothing was also sacrificed for the cause.

I had reasoned that due to the heavy workout and length of time in them, my clothes would be heavily saturated with my scent. Since I had a spare set of clothes, I could actually act on this idea without risking the chance of running around half-naked. So, I had stripped at a tranquil river a good half hour away from where I last heard any humming from the enemy. After I had put on my spare clothes, I took a piece of deadwood and set my shirt on it before pushing it into the slow running river.

If I was lucky, Fugai would eventually take the wrong trail on something. If I was very lucky, she’d do it more than once. But I had to take my situation realistically, as well as my usual luck. Team Seven did not get lucky breaks unless it was to trip us into even more danger.

I kept doing this at every large river I found that led in a direction that was roughly different that the others. Once I was out of clothes to use, I gave it another half hour of running before I found a nice mountainous perch to rest on. I wasn’t sure if they were capable of shinobi physical feats yet, so hopefully the time they’d need to leap up here would be just enough. Ideally, I’d have enough time to use the terrain to get away from Fugai if she somehow caught up.

I let Ferret out of its cage, letting it run about the cliff-side to take care of its business. I was a bit impressed when I saw it pull out a snake from a burrow I hadn’t seen, and it broke the snake’s spine with a shaking motion. Once it was happily eating its catch, I took out the book for a bit of research. I chewed on a ration bar as I held a hand illuminated by chakra over the pages, looking for mention of stones.

Haido the Daimyo-King had mentioned that I had activated “the Stone” in Temujin’s sword, which could only be that gemstone I’d flicked. It had emitted that chakra soundwave, which Temujin had indirectly confirmed he had heard. Chakra reactive materials were rare and expensive so far as I knew, which could fulfill the idea that this was a “treasure hunt” on their part.

Reading however, was slow going. The print was old, faded, and the pages were delicate. A good deal of what I learned was guesses and logical assumption, since the wording and grammar was archaic. With a keyword in mind – stones, possibly stones of Gelel – the search started yielding more results. And it told me I had been absolutely right to take this book.

The stones were what the Gelel had used for practically every part of life, using them like batteries. I could see several chapters devoted to how they were used in agriculture, engineering, medicine, and more. A large swath of pages was dedicated on step by step instructions for how to create them. The book had the details on how create a Gelel mine, how to mine the stones, how to cut them for whatever purpose, and how to treat them.

If I had the time and resources, with this book, I could start my own from scratch. Unfortunately, this was apparently something that would likely take over a decade just to get even the meanest stone. And that was assuming I had all the resources to actually form the mine, which I didn’t. You’d need to be a Daimyo to have everything needed.

I had to wonder how the Empire had fallen. Just going off this book, there was so much knowledge and power in the name Gelel. What could have taken down a continent spanning empire then? Internal fighting?

I couldn’t remember if anyone had noted signs of fighting or strife in the ruins, but it had been so long that any signs might have been erased. Yet if it hadn’t been internal or external pressure, the only thing I could think of was… A plague. Something comparable to the Bubonic Plague hitting medieval Europe. And since the Gelel Empire had been quite advanced according to my new book, the plague would have had to been untreatable by conventional methods and fast acting.

I felt a shiver go down my spine as I thought of a chakra-resistant disease equivalent to antibiotic-resistant diseases from my old life. Or even one that fed on chakra. I then carefully put that thought in the corner of my mind, never to revisit it.

I had enough nightmares of the idea of putting shinobi anywhere near nuclear fusion.

But I now knew why they’d come here. They wanted the mine, and the location hadn’t been written down anywhere inside the book. I took out the current-day map I had absently brought along with the book and marked down the locations of attack I’d seen on the glass case. After comparing them to the ones in the book, I knew they were working along the main trade routes.

It was a logical decision, since the stones would have been a major export. It’s likely one I would have made in the Daimyo-King’s place. I wasn’t sure that it was the correct decision though. If they had taken such pains to never record the mine’s location, I doubt it would be close to the trade routes.

Luckily for me, I didn’t need to actually find a long-lost mine. I just had to prevent the Daimyo-King from making any progress.

 


 

I ran through the night after my rest. There was no time to spare for sleep, and I had no one to watch my back. With a scent tracker undoubtedly hunting me it wasn’t safe to stop for the night.

It was lucky I had mostly been resting while waiting for nightfall. If I hadn’t, I doubt I could have kept it up. As it was, I was starting to push myself over my normal limits. I hadn’t expended much chakra with jutsu use, but continuous reinforcement and enhancement took its toll.

I passed the border into Wind with no issue, and without any hunter squads within my range. My initial hope was to sense either a patrolling squad or an outpost, so I could inform Suna exactly what a lone Konoha shinobi was doing in their desert. Unfortunately, it looked like there was neither of those in range.

I took stock of my state, and of Ferret’s. I was tired, not quite exhausted, but definitely not worthy of being in a pitched fight on my lonesome. Ferret was fine, though I took the moment to slip it more water. Hydration was important in a desert.

Since I’d already come this far, I decided to continue onto the attack sites on the map. Tsunade was going to…probably understand. Hopefully.

Wind’s coastline was densely populated, with shipping ports, fishing villages, and all other seafaring businesses. The capital of Wind was along the coast as well, if not within range of the planned attacks. Something the size of a fleet could deal a crippling blow to the country.

If they hadn’t attacked yet, there was no way I was going to allow it to be sprung on Wind without warning. We still had much, much bigger fish to fry in a few years, and that meant Suna needed to exist. There would be no Sunagakure if the country got rolled by the Daimyo-King.

And that was unacceptable.

 

 

Chapter Text

The sun was edging past dawn when I was finally in sight of the first village. I welcomed the rising temperature for the moment, as the desert was quite cold at night. It was just too bad that the temperature was going to keep rising; I would need to spend even more chakra on temperature regulation when it did.

I slowed my lope to a halt on a high cliff, taking a moment to get a picture of the situation. I could spot damage along the beach, large marks that said shinobi had been fighting with large scale jutsu. However, I didn’t see any of the massive steampunk vehicles that would mark where the Daimyo-King’s homunculi had set up a base. They hadn’t taken the beach then.

“So, I didn’t get here before they started.” I muttered to Ferret, “But at least we’re not going into a firefight. I should find where the Suna shinobi are, before that changes.”

“Squeak!”

I resumed my lope towards the village after giving myself and Ferret some water. As I got closer, I could make out more details. There was a huge metal ship that clearly had been built by the Daimyo-King out in the water. It looked to be a very slow mover, and too big to come much closer to the shore. Eventually it would run aground, and I doubted it would be anything less than a major undertaking to get it unstuck after that.

I was within kunai throwing range of the village when a familiar face appeared in an instant. The Bodyflicker had obviously been used to get that effect, but I was impressed to see Kankurou could do it with his puppet.

“Yo.” I waved my free hand at the puppet, feeling a bit awkward.

There hadn’t really been a chance to interact with the Sand Siblings in the aftermath, except for the one time I had stalked Gaara in order to pass along my warning. I’d had to leave immediately after I did so, since I needed to get back to my hospital room before someone got the idea I was trying to run before the hearing.

“ ‘Yo?’ Seriously? Are you trying to play the ‘just passing through and stopped to say hi’ card?”

I shrugged, “Sorta? I wasn’t supposed to be in Wind country, but I ran across these invaders on my mission. I came to warn you about the invasion, but it looks like they got here first.”

The puppet cocked its head to the side, as if it was considering me.

“What the hell kind of luck do you have?”

“I wouldn’t call this luck.” I said drily, and the puppet shrugged at me.

“Right, so, Nara. Since we’re technically being invaded and you could be a spy, I need some identification.”

“Um, I’m guessing you don’t want my ID card.”

“No shit. I’ll take the quote you said to us in the forest.”

Was it just the tiredness and faint headache talking, or did Kankurou sound slightly anticipatory?

“The quality of mercy is not strained.”

The puppet sagged slightly, as if trying to mimic relaxed body language before Kankurou’s voice came again.

“Good to know you’re not one of those guys then. But where’s your team? Konoha always travels in packs.”

I tried not to stiffen; I really did. But I was tired and not expecting the question.

“I wasn’t given one for the mission.”

“Well. Shit. Follow Karasu then, Nara. We’ll talk inside.”

 


 

It was surprising to find all three of the Sand Siblings had been deployed to this area, but I was relieved to find they treated me no differently. Not that there had been much interaction to compare to. But still. It was relaxing to not need to be on my guard for an emotional attack.

Temari greeted me with “You’re several days late Nara,” as I stepped inside the building. I placed the pet carrier on the ground, and took a seat in a chair before replying. “My mission was in the Land of Rivers, and I ran through the night to get here.”

She hummed as she looked at me sharply, but I knew I looked pretty rough. Temari gave me a little nod before Kankurou interrupted her before she could talk.

“What’s with the ferret?”

“My mission. I was to catch and return Ferret to its owner. The village we were supposed to meet up in was one the invaders razed.”

He gave me a strange look before looking at Ferret again, “Huh.”

“First thing’s first, I need to inform you I might have a tail.”

Gaara spoke up for the first time since I had walked in, “Pursuers?”

I shrugged, and tiredly gave a rundown of Fugai before switching back to giving them a complete summary. No one looked very happy, but they didn’t seem to be angry with me.

“Damn. Hope you don’t get in trouble for this Nara. We thought this might be Mist in the beginning, but it didn’t fit.”

I shook my head, and didn’t address his concern for me.

“They’re not from the Elemental Nations. They came here looking for the mine that produces the Stones of Gelel. The stones are powerful, and I think they might be using them to power their vehicles along with their gear.”

I took out my current map, and spread it across a table for everyone to see. Sand settled along the edges of the map, holding it flat despite the crumpling it had. I gave Gaara a quick, tired smile before starting to point out the spots I’d marked.

“They’re working off an ancient map; it didn’t even have the right coastlines for the continent. However, the map showed an old trade route through here,” I pointed to where major cities must have been once.

Temari leaned over the table, frowning in thought as she tapped the areas I’d marked. “That’s where they attacked.”

“Yes, or where they were planning to attack. I was only able to confirm a few locations, but the fortress was moving along this direction,” I traced a path for them to see, “So it likely started at this end. But I don’t think the mine was on the trade route, even if that’s where they’re searching.”

I couldn’t assume Haido was an idiot. He had been able to set up this army, and get them to cross the ocean on his say so. So, I knew there was a logic behind his plans, even if I instinctively disagreed.

“Given the landmarks…I think it’s actually somewhere in this area.” I circled an area with my finger, only for Kankurou to instantly say “There’s nothing there. That’s the Dead Wastes.”

I gave him a confused look and he elaborated with a shrug. “It’s what it sounds like. The area is completely dead. No water, and no shelter to be had. Nothing will grow there and nothing lives there. They even say if you leave a corpse in the Wastes, it won’t even rot.”

“Odd.” I said with a frown. Did he mean the body would mummify? But that shouldn’t be odd to desert natives. “No one’s investigated that?”

Temari shook her head, but looked thoughtful. “It’s avoided.”

I considered it, and was about to suggest that we try to put together a team to try and find the mine, but I froze as the humming in the back of my mind began to grow louder. Much louder. I turned towards the desert, and said “Remember how I said I might have a scent tracker on my tail?”

Kankurou groaned, “Seriously?”

The humming was beginning to sound almost like music.

“Yes. I think we should alert the rest of your shinobi.”

Gaara stood up from his seat by the seaward facing window, and looked at me calmly as he said roughly “Will you be able to fight?”

I took stock of myself, before nodding. “Yes. I’m tired, but so long as I’m working with my team, I’m good.”

Gaara’s black expression cracked, showing…something. It seemed soft and surprised before it returned to blankness.

“You’ll join our squad until this is resolved then,” He seemed to hesitate for a split second but it could have been my imagination. “Shikako.”

 

Chapter Text

With my warning, Gaara and Temari quickly marshaled the Suna shinobi in the village. Temari sent one unit to watch the beach in case the fleet decided to try and flank us by making landfall, while Gaara ordered the other two to prepare themselves to make a pincer trap for Fugai. Our unit consisted of myself and the Sand Siblings, and we made ourselves an obvious target by standing just before the village.

I had no experience with working with Suna shinobi, but it didn’t matter much when they positioned themselves in a logical manner. We utilized a modified diamond formation, with Gaara at the front to break the incoming wave, Temari and I positioned behind him at an angle, and Kankurou was far to the back to puppet Karasu. The only moment of clashing was to ask Temari to switch sides, so I could be better positioned to make use of the sun for my jutsu.

There was only a few moments of waiting before I heard an piecing howl, and then compressed air hit us. Gaara took most of the blast with his sand, and only a tiny potion of it clipped me. It was much worse than pure wind should have done, vertigo assailing me in a familiar manner. The attack had to be a sound blast then, and I felt unease grip me as I saw Gaara’s sand vibrating visibly.

I knew some of his current weaknesses thanks to my foreknowledge, but I had no idea if sound was one of them. Had he ever had to fight a shinobi who used soundwaves like Dosu had?

I shoved that line of thought to the side, for when I wasn’t in battle. The vertigo was awful to the point I had to close my eyes and fight to keep from vomiting, so I tried to rely on my chakra sense. The noises of the Daimyo-King’s forces were loud, and I could orient myself to them with too much ease to be comfortable with. I aimed at a homunculus with a kunai, aiming higher in hopes I’d find the point where the chest plate didn’t cover the neck. It didn’t bounce off metal, but I could hear it glancingly hit something by the change in its sound.

“Where is it?!” Fugai roared, and I opened my eyes to find her much more bedraggled than myself. Her hair was much wilder, and I could see drying trails of sweat on her face.

There was no telling if she was talking about the mine or the book. There wasn’t a reason to think we would know about the mine, but perhaps my spying and capture of Temujin had been more alarming than I thought. However, I had a strong suspicion it was really about the book. The book was just too useful, and had too much knowledge to let it go.

No one answered Fugai. The Suna shinobi sprung out of their hiding spots, picking off the homunculi squads Fugai had brought with ruthless precision. My squad didn’t have the time to keep an eye on the others as Fugai let out another head-splitting howl, but I noted on my peripheral they were having difficulty putting the homunculi down for the count. They wound up harrying them away from our fight, picking to deny Fugai any aid if they couldn’t quite kill them.

I only reacted thanks to a sudden cold sensation, she was so fast. I was then busy ducking underneath a fist powered by enormous momentum, trying to get away from Fugai as Gaara wrestled with his sand. A blast of wind knocked Fugai away from me, and Karasu appeared to spit needles at Fugai. She didn’t bother to dodge the needles, which was either stupid or worrying, and grimaced as she howled “You thought you could hide from me with those tricks? You brats, let’s see this ‘power’ then!”

I felt the earth buckle under my feet as this blast came, and I cursed as I had to dodge the fast flying rocks that the attack had knocked loose. Wind and sand came at Fugai, but she avoided both in a burst of impressive speed. I dropped back, letting the Sand Siblings attack her in well-coordinated waves of sand, wind, and puppet. We needed to pin her down and prevent those howls. She was too fast for Temari and Kankurou, and her sound was disrupting Gaara’s control too much.

It was the perfect job for a Nara.

I quickly assessed the area and the shadows, watching as my squad harassed her. Was it me, or was she slowing down a little? I nearly smiled as I noticed it. Whatever Kankurou had coated his needles in, they weren’t something she could totally shrug off.

“Why do you even want the Stones?” I gambled, hoping she was open to actually bantering. It wasn’t my style to talk during battle, but for this… “What about them could be worth coming all this way?”

She stilled, laughed mockingly as I held my hands in the rat seal. “You don’t know anything brat. They’re the foundation for our utopia. With them, no one can oppose us.”

Shadow Possession complete, I thought as I quickly clamped both hands across my face and shut my jaw.

Temari didn’t hesitate, and a dozen wind sickles came shrieking to slice Fugai nearly to pieces. I grunted as the feedback hit me, but I held the jutsu. Fugai gave a muffled scream, unable to use her sound attack without blasting apart her own hands, and blood poured out of her.

I was almost ready to release my hold on her when the music began to rapidly crescendo. Shadows surged across Fugai’s body, and I could feel alien feedback as her body began to twitch and contort.

There was no way I could open my mouth while fighting to keep Fugai’s shut, but Gaara didn’t need me to tell him what to do. As Fugai’s muscles visibly moved and bulged beneath her skin, wounds healing with extreme rapidity, sand flew at her like a wave on the ocean. I could see the transformation complete just before the sand crashed against her and I had to stop myself from gaping.

When had there been werewolves in Naruto?!

But before I could recover from the shock or the sand crushed her entirely, Fugai pulled a desperate move. She howled, even as I struggled to keep her still and her mouth shut. Even muffled, and likely destroying her muzzle, it was like being tossed into a hell of physical sound to accompany the strange music I could hear speeding up its tempo.

Her reckless move was just enough to save her life. Her legs had been crushed into things that looked like bloody, overcooked noodles, and her ribcage was a gruesome sight. Fugai’s mouth leaked blood through her lips where destroyed fangs jutted out, and her eyes looked absolutely insane with pain.

I was forced to finally release my hold on Fugai, feeling drained even as I tried desperately not to fall to the ground and vomit. I couldn’t see what had happened to the other Suna shinobi, but I could see Temari was struggling to get up. Gaara was flat on the ground, having been too close to the epicenter of the howl. I could just see blood on his neck, so his eardrums must have exploded. No wonder he couldn’t stand up.

I shook and swayed as I moved to Fugai, because I could already see her regeneration was starting to sluggishly kick in. Brokenly, she wheezed at me, “Kill…kill you…”

That was very bad news. There was no way she should be able to talk after that backlash. Her regeneration looked to be able to prioritize, or it was even more efficient than Gaara’s. It was possible she was effectively immortal, able to regenerate even from a complete Sand Coffin.

I had to kill her before she wore even Gaara out with continuous regeneration.

“Why fight so hard for him?” I grit out as I got closer.

“Never…understand!”

Would a beheading do it? Or would I need to completely destroy the head? Even if it didn’t, it should buy more time.

“Try.”

If I could find the power source– Wait. Power source? Could it be?

I listened intently as I watched her sluggish regeneration. Yes, I think the song was coming from her. It must have been what transformed her as well.

I knew the sound was linked to Gelel, to the Stones, and I had read how they had been able to power so many different things. Was it farfetched to think it was fueling this transformation?

“Haido…sama…will make…”

I formed the rat seal again, not bothering to hide it as I could hear cracks coming from her bones trying to reset themselves. My shadow swept over her carefully, feeling her legs, torso, and arms. There was no reaction until my shadow touched her throat, and a note similar to the one Temujin’s sword had given rang out.

I smiled and dismissed my shadow.

“What…!”

I ignored her alarm, lurching forwards and grasped her neck. Fear crawled across her canine face as I carefully explored her neck. There were no signs of it I could feel physically, so I dug into my faltering pool of chakra and quickly did a diagnostic jutsu on her throat. It came back negative as well, like the Stone wasn’t there. But I could feel it react to my chakra itself, and I now knew exactly where it was.

“You have two choices. You can surrender to Suna. Or you may not, and I will remove it.”

I could see Karasu at the edge of my vision, and I could very faintly hear the soft hiss of sand. It was building underneath her, yet neither of my squadmates moved to kill her.

“Never!” She yipped, and I could hear the Stone’s song trying to marshal itself as a spot of light lit her throat from the inside. “I won’t be powerless again–!”

I didn’t hesitate. A kunai was in my hand in a flash, and I tore open her throat and plucked the stone from it.

Fugai could only stare at me in absolute terror as her body lost hold of its transformation, and her regeneration came to a complete halt. Within moments she was dead.

The Stone was cool and dry, singing in my hand despite the fact it should be covered in blood. “All that, for this?” I asked no one, but Temari answered anyways. “It looks worthless.”

I looked away from the Stone, happy to find all the Sand Siblings were on their feet. Kankurou was giving Fugai’s body a wary look, and Temari looked drained. Gaara however, was staring at me.

“How did you know?” He asked a little too loud; Shukaku must not be done completely then.

“I can sense them.”

Kankurou gave a low whistle, turning to look at me with an appreciative look. “Convenient.”

Gaara looked blankly at me still, but Temari spoke first. “Not bad for a Konoha kunoichi. Didn’t get in our way at all.”

Was that a backhanded compliment? Or was she saying we had good teamwork?

I shrugged, too tired to try and navigate it. “Your tactics made sense.”

Kankurou’s expression was the only one that didn’t go blank at that. He just cackled at me instead, “Oh man, you’re just hilarious Nara.”

“You can call me Shikako.”

He shrugged Karasu onto his back and just snickered at me some more. “We’ll see.”

Chapter Text

After Fugai was dealt with, we moved on to help the other Suna squads. No one had died, but there had been a few unlucky injuries while they learned that the homunculi wouldn’t die by a mere slit throat. Due to this they had wound up corralling them, choosing to expend as little energy as possible until Gaara showed up.

The homunculi put up as much resistance as anyone else caught in a Sand Coffin did: none.

“At least we know completely crushing them does the trick. Gaara, try only crushing certain parts of the next batch. Hopefully we won’t need you to put them down permanently.”

Gaara hadn’t blinked at Temari’s words, and my tired mind thought it sounded reasonable. If you had to completely crush the entire body at once, then only Gaara was up for the job. While I’m sure some of the Suna shinobi assembled here had a jutsu tucked away that could do something similarly devastating, it wouldn’t be something they could do without exhausting themselves.

The results were mixed in the end. The only way to kill the homunculi, besides crushing it into paste, was to completely remove the head. It would quickly die after that. Completely destroying the head instantly killed it, but the Suna shinobi all agreed that it would be easier on them to simply behead the things.

However, the upcoming fight wouldn’t involve me. I’d worn myself too thin and my chakra was only a small trickle. Exhaustion of both kinds were just around the corner. A soldier pill could make me ready, but it would be even worse after the effects wore off. This upcoming fight wasn’t a major one, not now that Suna was well informed. There was no reason to force myself, and I’d wind up being a liability if it dragged on too long.

I needed rest, and I quietly told my squad that once we returned to the village.

“Glad that someone around here knows their limits. Temari and I were going to suggest you get some rest if you didn’t bring it up.” Kankurou said with a smirk, painting a new set of needles with an unknown liquid as Temari tended to her fan.

“After we deal with the fleet, we will discuss our plan.” Gaara rasped, eyes locked on Ferret. I’d let it out of its cage for the moment, but it would be going back inside when I was ready to collapse on the small bed they’d pointed out to me.

“Sounds good. Right, I need to ask if you have a hawk that can fly to Konoha around here. If I can, I need to let Tsunade-sama know I’m not dead.”

Or a traitor, but I like to think that Tsunade would be reluctant to see me as willingly defecting.

“We have a few for our Village, but all the ones trained to fly to yours are in Suna.” Temari admitted easily, putting her fan away.

“Do you think you-?”

“Can we spare one to get one sent out here? Shit, I’d normally say no, but you did run through the night for us.”

I gave Kankuruo my best doe eyes, not hiding my exhaustion as I did. If I could get that hawk…

“Put those away! It’s so creepy to see you looking like that after I’ve seen you in action.”

How rude. I batted my eyes at him for that remark.

“Kankurou.”

The puppeteer sighed dramatically at Gaara but I saw no tension in him. I felt a spot of genuine pleasure for Gaara at that, which almost surprised me. These days I was cold when I wasn’t raging, and sometimes it felt like I had snuffed out all light in my heart. Positive emotion, unmarred by something else, wasn’t something I’d had recently.

I couldn’t say if I was relieved to know I could feel this way even now, or if I was bitter to find I wasn’t entirely heartless yet. It was like I had become lost in a nighttime blizzard, only to look up and see the stars were still there. Were they comforting to the lost, or did they mock me?

My attention was forced to turn outwards again as Kankurou began to speak again.

“We’re due to send a hawk to Suna anyways. Requesting that the reply message brings a Konoha hawk with our report is more than doable.”

I thanked them, but I was quickly shooed off to my bed.

“You look like you’re about to fall asleep Nara. Gaara’ll put your ferret up when we’re leaving, so go get some sleep.”

I didn’t argue with Temari, happily going to my bed. Since there was no telling how the situation was going to play out, I didn’t remove my clothes or sandals. I   only took enough time to arrange my things so they wouldn’t disturb me as I slept, before climbing onto the bed.

It took only a few minutes to pass out once I stopped fighting my exhaustion.

 


 

When I woke up, it was blisteringly hot. Staccato bursts of music toyed with my senses, and were what woke me, but there was no one too close for comfort.

Strangely, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss as I laid on the bed. I’d been dreaming, but it was rapidly fading from my memory. It was strange how the dream was slipping from me when they usually were so clear.

All I could recall was that it was nighttime. We were beneath the forest canopy, and shadows danced as we sat by a campfire. I couldn’t remember who was there with me, but we leaned on each other as my hand was held by their cool one. We didn’t speak, but I felt comforted.

It was a good dream, peaceful. So why did it make my eyes water to wake up?

Chapter Text

I spent a moment getting ahold of myself before I got out of bed. The Shinobi Handbook had a point regarding ‘not showing your tears,’ at least while out in the field. Tears were signs of compromised emotions and would both alert the enemy to a psychological fault line as well as hurt team morale.

I couldn’t afford to hurt whatever credibility I had with Suna for several reasons. The more immediate one was that I was going to try and persuade my squad that we should try to find the mine, instead of them remaining here to guard the coast.

Cleaning myself was my next step. There was no shower, but I wasn’t going to use one anyways. Removing my clothing and gear at this point, while there was an ongoing fight, was just asking for bad luck. Unscented wet wipes were removed for bathing, while a bit of dry shampoo was used to make my hair feel less disgusting.

I was already looking forward to a real bath.

Once I no longer smelled ripe enough to make a dog cringe, I checked on Ferret. Gaara had proven to be just as careful as promised. Ferret was calm in its cage, with a small cup of water and one with small bits of jerky.

“Squeak squeak.”

“You do look well cared for. Hopefully we’ll find my client in the end, and you can go home.”

 Ferret might be a ferret, but it didn’t make me any less reluctant to deprive someone of a home. I’d lost mine once, and my new one was growing more difficult; I wouldn’t wish that grief on someone without good reason.

“Squeak!”

I patted the cage before I went outside to survey the ongoing battle. I was well rested now and ready to fight if need be. I’d be recovering from pushing myself like that for a couple more days, of course, but I was at my peak barring that.

It was heartening to see I was very much not needed.

I have been lucky enough to never see Konoha shinobi at work in a proper battlefield, but I suspect it would be something like this. Suna shinobi are efficient in their tactics and economical in their movement, with a pragmatism that shuns any showboating. There is no banter, just the sounds of combat as they aim to behead the homunculi. I suspect that Suna’s well known current issues with their budget, and thus the manpower they can field, has shaped their squad formations but I am not the true strategist of my family. If there are any significant differences to their tactics, I cannot see them.

To see Gaara however, is nothing like any other Suna shinobi. Rational and in control of himself, Gaara resembles nothing so much as a force of nature. Here in the desert he is only a few steps away from being a god. It is awe-inspiring in the older sense of the word, where someone would urge me to “Fear not.”

The beach is Gaara’s to command, rising and falling like a stormy sea. I watch it surge to block a volley of fire from the ship, then attract bolts of lightning while Gaara remains calmly in place. Unassailable, unmovable, and unstoppable. This is what he saw Gaara would become. This what made the Yondaime Kazekage frightened of a small child to the point he attempted repeated assassinations.

And Gaara is only going to grow much, much stronger.

It likely says a lot that I do not feel any fear at the sight, but rather a thrill of satisfaction. That strength and power is my ally, and works with me. My gamble of mercy was proven to be the correct choice.

Despite the lightning user’s increasing frequency of attack, I saw sand reach out to the ship. The shoreline extended over the waves and began to drag the ship closer, like a giant pulling a toy boat into its hands. I could very faintly hear the screech of metal as the boat was beached on a large outcropping of seaside rocks, before Gaara’s sand began to rip the hull of the boat off its frame. The ship would never be seaworthy again if Gaara had his way, which drew the lightning user out.

As the background sound of Gelel was overtaken by a bold solo, I guessed the lightning user was the one Fugai and her Daimyo-King had mentioned: Ranke. The stone implantation wasn’t something lightly done, if I went by my observations of the makeup of their forces, and only the unique, high ranked combatants seemed to have a name.

Lightning cascaded down on Gaara as the solo song began to crescendo, surging in a similar way Fugai’s had before her transformation. When the light cleared, a dome of glassed sand covered where Gaara had been standing. Another bolt of lightning shattered it, and then a tsunami of sand surged out of the ocean and crashed down on Ranke. I could hear the song beginning to increase its tempo, ramping itself for even more volume, when the sand retracted into the sea and the song cut out abruptly.

An underwater Sand Coffin? I wonder if my deluge scrolls had something with that development.

The mop-up was swift after Ranke was dead. Without the ship to worry about, Gaara was now free to turn his attention to the remaining homunculi. Faint notes winked out one by one as the sand surged. I had to wonder, was it good or bad I was getting better at sensing the Gelel sound? My headaches were decreasing but it only seemed to make me more susceptible to becoming entranced.

I put my questions for now, as Kankurou bounded into view with Karasu strapped to his back.

He stopped in front of me with a grin, “Yo, Nara, did we get too loud for you?”

“I needed to wake up anyways.”

Kankurou shrugged at that, apparently having his own opinion on the matter. “Yeah, so you just hung out and watched us work then.”

“I don’t think jumping into a fight where I’m neither expected or needed is a good idea.” I said bluntly, watching as his grin twitched a little higher before he decided to give up on prodding at me.

“Smart. And if you want to know about the hawk, we should be getting it soon.”

I nodded at that. “Thanks. Do you think Temari and Gaara will be available soon? I have a…” I floundered for a nice way to put ‘I want to convince you to follow my lead,’ and didn’t find one. “…A suggestion.”

Kankurou gave me a look before snorting. “I now feel ridiculous for ever thinking you could have been an infiltrator. That hurt me Nara, right here.”

I frowned at him as he dramatically placed his hand over his heart. “Rude.” But I couldn’t get angry when I’d been cringing over the word choice too.

Sometimes I had to wonder if Kankurou was always like this, or if I was just getting special treatment.

 


 

I have no idea how I did it, but I somehow convinced them to follow my plan of finding the mine first. They even brought another Suna squad with us.

“Are the metaphors just a thing, or something you pull out when you get nervous?”

I ignored Kankurou.

“She is a Konoha kunoichi. Everyone from there seems to have that one fire metaphor Kankurou.”

I ignored Temari as well.

“But how did Gaara get it without any more explanations? He got it on the first time.”

I grumbled to myself, wondering if this counted as bullying. Hopefully my next hawk to Tsunade, about this portion of my outing, wouldn’t have her send me back for remedial training.

“Kankurou.”

Gaara was the only person on my side in this desert. Even if I have no idea how Kankurou got enough out of that one word to have a facial journey.

I tried paying more attention to the landscape as the siblings started bickering, but I couldn’t see anything that stood out to me. Maybe I needed to have spent more time in the deserts to see a difference between the Dead Wastes and the open desert.

The bickering died off the further we went, and the squad led by Chizuru drew closer. A sense of tension seemed to fall over the Suna shinobi that began to spread to me as well. A cold sensation traced along my ribs, and I resisted a twitch.

Something was wrong. It had to be for them to be so uneasy, but I couldn’t spot anything until I noticed how it felt to breathe.

There was no chakra in the air.

Natural chakra had little variation in volume when I compared the outer desert to any rural place in Fire. The fact that this place was somehow utterly devoid of it, to the point I knew I would have never experienced breathing issues in this area? It was disturbing.

And more importantly, it was unnatural. Something had to be causing this, and that idea prompted me to try something.

I tried my chakra light on the lowest possible concentration, just enough to make a little candle flame on my fingers. My squad drew closer to me, observing just as I did as my chakra began to peel off my hand. It faded into the atmosphere, giving me the tiniest impression of ambient chakra before it was sucked away.

“Interesting, and alarming.” I said as I cut the chakra light, tucking everything back under my skin.

Temari scoffed, “I’d say more alarming than anything. Your chakra was sucked away.”

“Shikako. Can you find the mine?”

Gaara’s abrupt question knocked us all into silence. I looked at him, noting how there was a small furrow in his brow as his eyes followed the other squad. Was he worried about this development? Or was he noting how Yua, Chizuru’s sword specialist, was complaining how their lungs hurt?

“Yes. I’ve already shared that I can sense the Gelel stones, and the mine will be full of them.”

“You will take the lead then. Restructure the squads Temari.”

The blonde nodding, and walked over to Chizuru for a rapid conversation. When she came back to us, and the squads repositioned themselves so that I took point, I wondered how I was going to explain taking command of Suna shinobi to Tsunade.

Without getting slapped with something that sounded like “treason.”

Chapter Text

The Wastes were oddly flat after running across a desert. There was more bare rock here than sand, and all the more treacherous for it. Cracks could reach down into the rock to split into valleys or crevices, and an unwary explorer might go off a cliff edge. Nemuri had nearly found that out the hard way when she placed her foot down on a crack that crumbled away to reveal a deep hole.

Something about the topography of the area reminded me of the portion of Land of Rivers I’d skulked about in. It almost looked like the area had been subject to water erosion once, despite the utter lack of liquid now.

My thoughts on the matter quickly came to an end, when I began to hear the first quiet notes of Gelel. I stopped in the middle of my run, hearing the rest of the squad halt behind me, and concentrated on it. I had to make sure it wasn’t coming from behind us, as in pursuit, and thus would lead us in the wrong direction. After confirming that it was ahead of us, I informed everyone.

“I’ve picked it up now. Gaara, maybe a quick break for everyone before we continue?”

I suggested it after a quick calculation of how long since we had been active since our last break for rest and water, and the redhead nodded silently at me. Chizuru’s squad broke off from mine at his agreement, quickly pulling out canteens as they picked up an argument I’d been hearing about every time we stopped. I knew it somehow involved a cactus, some sort of dance, and Koga badly playing a flute, but I still couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

It only got weirder the more I listened, so I turned to the pet carrier I still hauled. Ferret was oddly unbothered by the extreme heat of Wind, not displaying any sort of panting or discomfort. I didn’t stint on its water and snacks however, because it was far too dangerous to risk heat stroke this far from a veterinarian.

“Hey, I gotta ask you Nara; why the hell did you drag the ferret along?”

I looked up from giving Ferret its tin of water, to find Kankurou giving me a puzzled look. It was a good question. They had offered to keep Ferret for me in the village while we went to the Dead Wastes, where I could pick it up once we returned. But I hadn’t even really considered taking them up on it.

“It is my mission objective. I can’t just leave it behind.” I deflected, uncertain of the answer myself. I just knew I felt uneasy about leaving it behind.

He gave me a flat look before he deadpanned, “That is a shitty answer Nara.”

I shrugged and looked away from the puppeteer. I didn’t have a better answer than that, and I didn’t want to admit aloud I couldn’t bring myself to leave Ferret.

“Kankurou, since you’re so idle, help me with this joint here. Something’s caught in it and I can’t get it out.” Temari groused with almost perfect timing, messing with her battle fan. Kankurou groaned as he started walking over, fingers already pulling out specialized tools.

“Why me? I know you have the tools on you.”

“Your delicate fingers are better for this.”

They broke into the squabbling that was becoming familiar, and I relaxed from the tension that had snuck up on me. Ferret only needed a little more fussing before it was done, but when I looked up again, I found Gaara watching me. Or maybe it was better to say observing, because there was something contemplative in his face.

He blinked at me as I returned the stare. It felt deliberate, oddly enough.

“Shikako.”

I walked over to his spot on a protruding rock, somehow understanding it was an invitation. I wondered at it only for a moment, before I had to stomp on a flinch as it occurred to me that I had already gained a lot of experience in interpreting such terse speech patterns.

“Gaara?” I took a seat next to him on the sun warmed rock before looking at his face again. His blank face was as impressive as always, yet I never could say for certain if it wasn’t just due to his habitual use of Sand Armor.

He was silent for a few moments before he rasped out, “Are you operational?”

I could hear something being alluded to. Or maybe being referenced, judging by how Temari and Kankurou missed a beat in their sniping before carrying on.

However, I couldn’t tease out whatever hint I was missing, so I had to address his words literally. “Yes, I’m operational Gaara.”

“We depart then. Chizuru, formation.”

I nodded to Gaara at the order, picking up Ferret’s carrier and resuming my place as our lead tracker. We followed the sounds I heard growing stronger, clearer. Every meter covered seemed to find new nuances of Gelel sound to hear. It was to the point where I could swear that if I stopped and listened long enough, I would be able to write down the musical notation for this grand symphony that was being slowly revealed to me.

But despite my concerns, I knew we had the location when I could hear Gelel so loudly that it made my bones ring with each note.

“It’s here, somewhere.” I told my squad, after a quick jaunt to see if it would intensify any further beyond this part of the area. Gaara nodded before quietly commanding everyone to “Be still.”

He then crouched and placed his hands flat on the ground. Within a heartbeat, all the sand in the area rose in the air to waltz about him in strange patterns. It almost looked like pixie dust in the sunlight, winking gold as the light caught on the grains.

After a couple of minutes, he stood back up and said lowly, “I will assume the lead now.”

I didn’t argue with him, and quickly moved to take my spot as Temari and Kankurou shuffled around. He immediately took off once we were ready, seeming to know exactly which route to take. He led us down into the treacherous terrain with unnatural certainty, though sometimes it was very interesting to try and traverse the terrain.

We found ourselves standing before two giant stone slabs in short order. They looked to have been placed there purposefully, to make the area beyond virtually inaccessible, but I could see several structures beyond them. The structures were partly collapsed, showing a great deal of weathering as well as being submerged in piles of sand, but it was undeniable they were manmade.

There had been a certain hesitance to go further. All of us were shinobi, and so we naturally suspected there would be an array of traps left behind to silence any plunderers. However, we had Gaara. He created what I thought to be a Sand Clone, or a pure demonstration of his chakra control over sand, and sent it walking ahead like a clueless civilian.

Nothing happened to it, so Gaara dismissed it and we cautiously forged ahead.

Whatever I had expected, it hadn’t been what I got. In the complex it was clean and pristine, like it had only been abandoned hours before. No sand was to be found in this wide-open hub, and with how every available surface was heavily decorated there should have been some stuck in the grooves. From the hub it was easy to spot the branching corridors that lead further in, but no one made a move towards them yet. We were all busy observing what we’d already found.

There were interior columns with luxurious carving, mosaics across the floor, and the walls were decorated with ornate pictures telling a story. It reminded me of temples, or palace; the wealthiest of their kind, observing by the precision, detail, and vibrancy of the colors. And the most disturbing aspect was the perfect lighting inside this complex. I could spot no torches or electrical outlets, and there were no holes in the ceiling to let in natural light. What should have shrouded this place in darkness had no effect; it was like midday in here.

I soon wandered over to one of the columns, idly taking a closer look at the carvings as I also worked on filtering Gelel out. It had been loud before we entered, but this place seemed to amplify the sounds like the acoustics of Gelel had been part of their building plan.

Perhaps it had been.

I touched my fingers to the column, wanting to physically trace out the carvings that were nagging at me, and then squawked in alarm. Ferret also gave out a high-pitched screech in its cage as I did, but I was more concerned with the column. It was sucking my chakra right out of my body!

I yanked my hand away and jumped back as my heart pounded at the fright, only to find a bristling squad of Suna shinobi quickly flanking me. Everyone had their weapons trained at the column as I forced out in shocked comprehension, “It- It’s a seal. Everything is a seal…”

That’s what had been bugging me about the carvings. It was part of this titanic seal.

“Nara, explain.”

“I don’t know what it’s doing, but it can pull the chakra right out of your body if you touch your skin to it. It must be why there’s no chakra in the Dead Wastes…It’s all coming here.”

Temari looked just as disturbed as someone should be on hearing there was a giant active seal, but it slid away under a veneer of professionalism.

“But not until you physically touched it, right?”

I pointed out, “If it was any stronger, we all would have felt it the moment we were inside. Or when we first set our soles on the floor. So, we’re as safe as we can be… I think.”

“If this is up for debate, I say we don’t stay in the cursed, chakra-stealing temple.”

Ultimately, we all knew the decision would lay with Gaara. But I could tell Chizuru’s squad agreed with Kankurou.

“We need to map the area. And know if our ninjutsu is possible.”

I blanched as my mind followed that line of thought. If Gaara couldn’t use his sand…

His siblings caught on even quicker than I had, already giving orders and organizing quick and dirty testing. Ninjutsu, genjutsu, and Temari even pulled out summoning jutsu, each was given a verification. The results were disheartening.

None of us could see chakra, but no one spotted any notable chakra decay in the ninjutsu they used. It was just that if it touched any part of the complex, it would immediately get swallowed up. Area genjutsu was completely off the table, as were my seal tags. I didn’t dare to risk activating my shadow with these results, and I could already feel that the constraints made everyone uneasy about future combat.

At least Gaara’s sand was able to work with only a little resistance. Apparently, something about bijuu tainted sand slowed the drain, at least to the point that he wouldn’t need to be overly concerned with hitting the walls with his sand. He just couldn’t do it often in a fight.

After we had concluded our quick testing, Gaara split us all up. Two pairs, one from each squad, were chosen to scout out the corridors. The remaining four were to go outside and begin setting up a defensible camp. Gaara and I were the outside pair for our squad, so it was pretty easy to arrange some of the loose boulders to give our tents a barrier.

We were done quickly, and as I was contemplating letting Ferret out for a while, Koga and Nemuri volunteered to scout the surrounding area. Gaara agreed with a nod, and for the first time, I was alone with him.

A weight slowly settled into the air as Gaara remained silent. I told myself I must be imagining it, when he rasped out.

“Shikako. Why?”

I felt a burst of cold along my spine even as I hoped I was wrong. I took my time, getting up to sit down next to Gaara, and watching Ferret as it dozed in its cage. I didn’t want to hear what was coming. I wanted things to stay as they were.

“Why what?”

At this close, I could hear him breathe while he thought. It was steady, without the rasp of his voice.

“I want to understand. Why me?”

It was now my turn to breathe in and out. My lungs ached from my tension just as much as the chakra-less air.

“…I don’t want to talk about it.” I admitted it carefully, almost ashamed of my honesty.

He took a long time to consider my words, and it…was nice that he was considering my request so seriously. Despite apparently being fully aware of what I had done. That sort of consideration was rare for me now.

He came to a decision, and I could see him soften his posture before he very quietly said, “Please.”

I felt cold at his answer. But I couldn’t keep my mouth sealed at his ‘please.’

“I told you I wouldn’t give you a third chance. I gave Sasuke a lot more than just three.”

Once I started talking, it was like piercing an infected wound. Puss and pain leaked everywhere, making a mess.

“In the Forest, Orochimaru forced a Cursed Seal on Sasuke. It was full of Orochimaru’s chakra, and I don’t know what else. But his chakra was constantly invading Sasuke’s chakra system.”

 I didn’t know if Gaara had already known about this, or if this was spilling secrets to a rival country’s shinobi. I really couldn’t care less at the moment.

“Our chakra is made up of the physical and mental, and it reflects us. Affect it, and you’ll affect the owner; change them. Sasuke was different after Orochimaru’s chakra began to invade him.

I felt like I was back in Konoha, reporting to my tribunal as I heard my voice off in the distance. I couldn’t recognize my voice as I spoke. It was dead, hollowed out.

“I had known for a while that the Sharingan could be evolved. It requires the user to kill their best friend, but I never thought Sasuke would do that to Naruto. Before the Seal he had been willing to die for Naruto, and give up his goal of vengeance to see him live. But after the Seal…he started to fixate on Naruto, and psychologically backslid.”

Ferret jumped into my lap, a warm, furry tube of affection that snuggled into my stomach. I pet its soft fur. How did it get out of the cage?

“I kept hoping that someone, anyone would help me. That they’d help Sasuke. After Itachi, I thought people would listen when I made reports about his stability. But no one did. So, I kept going up the chain, trying to get someone to listen. The only thing I didn’t do was march into the Hokage’s office to report it face to face.

“I took steps, once I realized no one would help us. The explosive seals were supposed to be a redundancy. I didn’t think I’d ever have to use them. I had enough knock out tags to take down an elite jounin, maybe higher. I only planned to subdue him if he snapped.

“The whole rescue operation, I could have activated the tags. I waited until I saw him aiming a Chidori at Naruto’s heart. And when the knockout tags didn’t work, I ran out of mercy. I couldn’t let whatever was using my teammate’s body to kill Naruto, because Sasuke would never have tried to kill our teammate.

“I saved the only teammate I could, and he–” I still couldn’t say it. I couldn’t say Naruto couldn’t forgive me, had abandoned me.

I breathed in and I let it out. Almost there Shikako. “Gaara. I gave you a second chance because I didn’t want to kill you, and because I was strong enough to have the ability to be merciful. I had the choice and I made it. I no longer had a choice with Sasuke. That is why.”

Ferret chirred under my unsteady hands as I pet it. I felt numb as I waited for his reaction.

It took minutes to arrive, and Gaara’s voice was even softer as he said. “I’m sorry for your loss. Thank you for telling me.”

My heart hurt at his words, and I could feel my eyes watering as I asked “Why?”

“…I was in a similar situation once.” He said slowly, voice almost a whisper. “You cared enough to fight for him, until he forced you to fight against him. Any Suna shinobi would tell you that you did the right thing by putting down a dangerous rogue before it hurt anyone else.”

It felt like being crushed in one of his Sand Coffins to hear it.

Maybe that’s why it slipped out.

“Gaara… I miss Sasuke.”