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Chapter Text

The butterfly effect has been exemplified in a million walks of life, but in this one, it comes into play when Umino Iruka waits at home.

A war is raging outside. A nine-tailed demon fox is swinging his tails and crushing buildings and ninja alike, stomping and roaring like a furious bull.

After hours of warfare, the fox is sealed into a tiny blonde boy, and the Hokage and his wife fall dead.

All details appear to be the same.

In another walk of life, Umino Iruka was an orphan.

But today, his parents come home.

"...Uchiha Satsuki, and Uzumaki Naruto."

Naruto launched up from his seat, expression contorted with indignation. "Iruka-sensei!"

Iruka looked at him exasperatedly. "Yes, Naruto. I know you and Satsuki don't get along. That's the point."

Naruto could have ripped that desk out of the wall and thrown it at Iruka's face that very second. How he hated Iruka. Probably more than Satsuki.

"But Shikamaru and Chouji are together! And Inori and Koji! No one else is with someone they don't like!"

His teacher pinned him with a cold look. "Please sit down, Naruto."

He definitely hated Iruka more than Satsuki.

Iruka finished reading out the project pairings, and the bell went. He left for break with a nod, leaving the children in the classroom to discuss their research projects.

"Aa! Naruto!"

Naruto's head shot up from its slumped state on the desk, shooting a wide grin at Sakura. Her angry face didn't bode well for him, likely, but he tried to keep up the guise nonetheless.

"Ah, Sakura-chan! Good mornin-"

Impressively, Sakura completely ignored Naruto. "Satsuki-san! Do you want to be partners? We can swap... since, y'know..."

The implied comment stung. Naruto huffed, turning his gaze to the front of the classroom and settling his chin on his folded arms. "Yeah, well, I didn't want to be with her either."

Satsuki shot him a cold look from his side. "Like I wanted to be paired up with you, dead last."

"Shut up!"

"Idiot! Who do you think you're talking to?!"

Lunch came. Satsuki and Naruto both ate alone.

Satsuki had sat down first, and as it were, next to her was the last seat – then again, there was a seat by Takeshi. Naruto had a brief debate with himself, but then he remembered that time when Takeshi had followed him home and laughed at his apartment – now he didn't like her, but Satsuki would never do that -

He sat down next to her. She didn't respond.

"Naruto! What are you doing?!"

Ah, now he knew who the other seat had been for.

"Sakura-chan," he grinned, attempting to remain cheerful but-

"You're not sitting next to Satsuki-san!"

And with that, he found Sakura pushing onto his seat in a surprisingly skillful way that pushed him right out of it.

"Satsuki-san-" Sakura sang, moving her seat closer to the Uchiha.

"Stand up."

Sakura blinked. "What? But Satsuki-san-"

Satsuki didn't even turn her gaze to Sakura as she said it, chin settled on the bridge of her fingers as she stared forward, unmoving. "Stand up. Naruto got there first."

Before, she'd not been sure she'd heard, but it was certain now; Sakura was sure Satsuki had said that. She laughed nervously, eyes flitting about the room as she scratched the side of her face nervously. "B-But, uh... Satsuki-san... Naruto's, you know – why would you want to-"

The dark-haired girl finally turned to Sakura, and she wished she'd not spoken. Satsuki's dark eyes made her feel as though she was looking into a very deep and empty pit.

"You're annoying."

"Hey! Don't talk to Sakura-chan like that!" Naruto cried, launching himself up at the speed of light and pointing an accusatory finger at Satsuki. The girl looked back at him with an expression that could have froze the sun.


Naruto's fury flared like an oxygen-fueled blaze.

"Don't call me that!" He grabbed Satsuki's collar, and she coldly- uncaringly (oh, how that infuriated him!) grabbed his in turn, his eyes angry but hers lightly disfigured from an expression of mild irritation – Naruto imagined it to be the expression you might make at an unwanted fly. "Don't try and help me like you're better than me, you bastard!"

Satsuki gave him a cold stare, the only indication that she'd even heard him a displeased turn of the lips.

It only served to make him angrier, and Naruto hooked her collar towards him, gritting his teeth. "You act like you're so much better than everyone!" His face was too close.

Satsuki's lip curled cockily. "Hn. I'm definitely better than you, dead last."

Naruto slugged her across the face, and the class fell into uproar.

Satsuki's jaw still ached when she turned up to the academy the next morning, and there was an ugly purple bruise to prove it.

Today, Sakura came in before Naruto, but sat by Takeshi instead. For a moment, she had stared tentatively at the seat, shooting Satsuki an apologetic ('-hah-') smile before pulling a seat up by Takeshi and twisting her fingers in her lap.

No one else even tried to sit by Satsuki today.

Until Naruto arrived late, and he sat beside Satsuki in silence. His face was swollen too, his right knuckles bruised more than his left, but his swelling was lesser. Satsuki could have sworn she had hit him harder than that.

Naruto didn't even bother to look at her today.

Not that she cared.

"In this research project, each pair will be studying a figure of significance in Konoha."

"Like Hokage-ojii-chan?" Naruto yawned, fingers tapping on the desk.

Iruka gave him a stony look. "If you want to show that kind of disrespect to our Hokage, stand outside."

"But he is old-"

"-and you are bottom of the class, Naruto. Pay attention." Iruka didn't even look up from his papers, but the comment was harsh. The slump of Naruto's shoulders made it seem like he was reeling from the impact. The classroom resounded from the muffled chuckles and snorts. Naruto muttered something half-heartedly bitter to himself, and then his head turned to the window.

"As I was saying..."

Naruto blatantly ignored him, finger tracing a figure of eight on the desk. It encroached onto her sector of the desk too much for her complete comfort.

For some reason, Satsuki ignored it instead of slamming her fist down on his fingers. They still didn't speak for two weeks.

"I don't want one."

She hated them. Every single one that had come and gone. They'd tried to teach her how to behave like a lady, ikebana ("-because flower arranging is very proper for a kunoichi, you know?"), how to cook foods she'd never eat ('-for the inevitable future when I become a housewife, cooking for my shinobi husband-'), how to dress her 'curves'-

"Satsuki, you know we've got to assign another."

"I don't want one," she stressed, her eyes glinting dangerously and her hands clenching at her sides. Her posture was straight and forced. "I can cook, and I can clean. I managed as a kid. I'll manage now."

-not that she had any; her body was slim and lithe and devoid of any unnecessary fat, her hips a barely visible gradient, and her chest as flat as it'd ever be. Curves. Hah.

The Third sighed, his eyes peering over the steeple of his intertwined hands. "As much as a child, I respected your request to be left alone, upon your genin exam growing closer, it'd be much easier if someone was at home to help you with your training and perform the menial chores so your training can be more efficient."

Satsuki knew it had something to do with her dropping grades.

"My grade dropped because I was paired with Uzumaki Naruto."

The Third's eyebrows rose. "Hm?"

"My grade dropped because of him," Satsuki reiterated, her fingernails digging into her palm. "The boy is insufferable to work with. So I refused."

"You refused?"


"You allowed yourself to get a score of zero because of him?"

The young Uchiha simply scowled in response, and Hiruzen sighed, closing his eyes.

"Satsuki. I can't excuse your grades because of that. I know Naruto well, and he's a perfectly friendly young boy. As a ninja, you'll have to go on missions-"

"Then you'll know to never put me on a team with him," Satsuki interrupted. "He is an obnoxious idiot."

"Teamwork is important, Satsuki." Sarutobi's tone left no room for a counter-argument. "Uzumaki Naruto or not. I'll be sending Yumiko over tonight."

Satsuki's mood visibly darkened, her eyebrows knotting her face into a furious glare. Her lips thinned, and she turned around, her hair cutting through the air as she did.

"Feel free. I won't be opening the door tonight."

"I don't want one!"

He hated them. Passionately. There was no one except the Hokage himself that Naruto would trust in his home, cooking his food and cleaning. The last time a guardian had been assigned, Naruto had been somehow both isolated and betrayed.

She had promised to pick him up one day, and he had told all of his friends (could he call them that?) about how he was going to get picked up, too. One by one, everyone had left; Chouji picked up by his plump mother, Shikamaru piggy-backed home by his look-alike dad. In the end, Naruto had been ashamed and alone.

When she attempted to return, Naruto had barricaded the door shut, and never let another one of those nannies, carers - whatever they were - into his apartment.

"Naruto, we've got to assign one. I'm sorry."

"Nuh-uh! I do – not – want – one!" For emphasis, Naruto made a large cross with his arms. "You know what the other ones were like, Ojii-chan!"

Sarutobi did.

"That said, Naruto, the state of your grades is worse than ever before. It's best that you focus your time and energy onto improving them, rather than cooking, cleaning... you know the like. As per your request, I stopped assigning them, but-"

Naruto grabbed tufts of his blonde hair and pulled, yelling. "It's all Satsuki's fault!"

Sarutobi's eyebrows raised, and he drew from his pipe. 'Great.' "Oh?"

"She's the reason I failed that stupid joint project! She is so- so- argh!" Naruto pulled at his hair in frustration, looking to all the world as if he was going to kick the Hokage's desk off right there. "She just drives me crazy! She acts like she's better than me all the time! I don't care if she's a girl or not, I just want to beat the crap out of her!"

The Hokage sighed, a hazy plume of thick smoke spreading out onto the ceiling. "That doesn't mean you should, Naruto."

"If you met her-"

"I spoke to her just before, Naruto. She's just as unwilling to have a temporary caregiver as you are."

Naruto often forgot that Satsuki was also an orphan. He huffed. "Yeah, well, why're you doin' it then?"

"I had a feeling you'd be unwilling," Sarutobi murmured, one hand shuffling through papers on his desk. "I was going to offer you two remedial classes-"


"-but I've spoken to Iruka, and he says that the best course of action is that you redo the project, so this doesn't look quite so bad on your official scores."

Naruto groaned.

"Over this coming holiday, Iruka has requested you and Satsuki work together for two weeks, just like the allotted time for the original project. If you fail it, you two resit the year."


The Third Hokage smiled. "Appreciate this chance you've been given, Naruto. You'd better go tell Satsuki-"

"That fucking bastard Iruka! I'm gonna to give him hell-!"

Sarutobi regarded Naruto with a stern look, but the boy's fury left him oblivious. The Hokage looked at his work for a moment, signing off a document fluidly. "You can get started today." He didn't look up.

The young boy mumbled something.

"What is it, Naruto?"


Sarutobi blinked.

"What's her address?"

With a wrinkled smile, Hiruzen wrote down Satsuki's address, and sent Naruto on his way.

The sun was setting beautifully over the Hokage tower, and the haphazard shadows cast about Satsuki's windowsill like a silhouette dance.

She was so much more tired than she should have been, and Satsuki found herself spooning tea leaves into a pot. The taste was bitter and too strong, a tinge of sweetness behind the overpowering scent.

The young Uchiha lay on top of her duvet, placing the teacup onto the end table. She stared out of the window for a moment before picking up her book, opening it to the bookmark and letting the slip of paper slide out of the pages. She took a sip of the tea.


Satsuki almost let her teacup clatter to the floor.

"Satsuki, you bastard, open the goddamn-"

After composing herself and knotting her face into an acceptably ferocious scowl, Satsuki yanked the door open so hard that Naruto almost fell to her feet from the force he'd been banging on it with. She gritted her teeth.

'Why the hell do you know where I live?' "What do you want?"

"Hokage-ojii-chan told me to come here."

Satsuki hated Naruto, and she hated ambiguity just as much. "Naruto-!"

To her further displeasure, the blond pushed past her into her apartment. "We gotta redo that stupid project for Iruka-sensei, otherwise we fail."

Satsuki closed her eyes, invisible steam pouring out of her every crevice. 'Failure is not an option. I have to become a ninja, soon, now – to kill him. I can't fail. Even if it means working with this idiot.'

"Oi, what's with the-"

She heard the colossal crash of her bookcase toppling forward onto a young boy, and resisted the urge to give up on her revenge.

"Do you even know how to take care of plants?"

"Hn." Satsuki turned her nose up at the boy, nonchalantly – because she really didn't care! - but took careful note of how he was handling the plant. It was... strange.

Uzumaki Naruto was impolite and clumsy, and completely unrefined. He had no manners, and not an ounce of discipline in his body. But the moment the two had finished clearing up the bookcase, Naruto had taken the potted plant that Satsuki had bought on the spur of the moment and was... doing something that could be described as tending to it.

Satsuki didn't even know what to do upon the sight of the boy tracing the veins of the leaves, testing the soil with his fingertips, examining the undersides of the leaves; she hadn't imagined the boy had the capability to be careful within him.

"The soils not fertile any more. You got any... dunno, fruit skins? Stuff like that?"

As much as she didn't want to listen to a dead last, the plant did look sick, and she did like that plant.

Ten minutes later, and they were arguing again.

"Tomatoes? They're vegetables!"

"They're fruit, usuratonkachi."

"Agh- don't call me that! Get something else!"

"So like- you know."


"Well... what are they?"

Silence. Eyebrow raise.

"I'm asking, okay?!"

"I don't know what you mean."

"What are they?"

"What's what?"

"One of those... things. Everyone but me knows!"

Satsuki blinked.

"Come on! Tell me the secret!"

"What are you on about, dead last?"

"What's a catra?!"

It was a while until Satsuki managed to sit Naruto down with some appropriate books, and keep his attention for long enough to explain the project.

"We're studying the Fourth Hokage."

Naruto's eyes widened in recognition, and he nodded, rocking back and forth on his crossed legs. "The yellow one, right?"

"Yes. The yellow one."

"No need to be such a bastard about it-"

"Why do you call me that?"

Satsuki knew the answer before it came. 'You act like a boy' or 'You've got a chest like a boy'.

Naruto blinked. "Because you're a bastard!"

That was the first thing Satsuki liked about Naruto.

Chapter Text

"These books aren't enough."



"No." Naruto was whining again, and Satsuki resisted the urge to uppercut him. "They're fine. No more books."

Satsuki gave Naruto a cold glare, gaze flicking back to her work. Naruto found himself mesmerised by the way she leafed through the pages. She looked up at him, slamming the book shut and sliding it on top of a badly-balanced book tower. "These aren't specific enough," she said.

"Why does it matter?"

Satsuki didn't respond. She was awkwardly positioned, half kneeling but mostly lying down; one arm held a textbook flat on the floor, and the other wrote fluidly in a notebook, the paper held down by an elbow.

Naruto frowned, standing up and stretching. The day had grown late.

"Ah! The view out of your window is amazing!"

And it was.

Satsuki's room looked onto the main square of Konoha and the Hokage building, and the sky above it. Evening had fallen, and the lanterns from the shop below gave the view a singed orange glow. The sun beamed over angular pipes and tanks of the Konoha rooftops, a half-complete jigsaw silhouette casting over the windowsill. Satsuki didn't say anything.

"Don't you like it?"

She didn't look up from her work. "Get some more sources."


Satsuki didn't say anything, and Naruto turned, looking at her. She had a strange grace, and he couldn't figure out where it came from. Even amongst scattered paper and books, elbow pressed on the corner of a book with pen and paper in hand and hair half pulled up into a bun, she retained an eloquence that made every mistake seem intended. He cast his gaze away quickly.

"Do you have any cup ramen?"

She looked up, eyes flat and black. Naruto didn't feel certain she was looking at him.

"No," she said, unwinding herself from the mess of documents and folders like a coiling snake. Satsuki didn't knock a single thing out of place, even amidst the precarious mess.

"I'm going to Ichiraku then-"

"I'm making tea."

Naruto blinked. "What?"

Satsuki stood up, brushing strands of dark hair behind her ear and brushing past Naruto like a stranger. "I'm making tea," she repeated, reaching the cooker and turning on the gas.


Satsuki stopped, settling the pan on the hob before stilling her movements. After a few seconds, she turned her head slightly, regarding Naruto on the edge of her peripheral vision.


The food was much nicer than Naruto had expected.

Not that he knew what he'd expected, anyway. But it was nice; it had been a rice bowl, but with eggs and meats and vegetables. He hated vegetables, and carefully picked around them; but on the off occasion he accidentally swallowed one, he didn't gag.

The air was heavy. Naruto hurriedly grabbed his chopsticks from their upright position in the bowl and left them beside it. "Uh-" he began. "...thanks."

Satsuki didn't respond, standing up and taking both bowls to the sink. Naruto watched her walk, her silhouette passing by the window for a second.

"Do you want some tea?" she said.

"Uh- I dunno, I..."

He heard the faint noise of water pouring.

"How do you like it?" she asked. Naruto felt like it was more a demand.

"I dunno. I don't really drink tea..."

She stirred the tea, the quiet noise of tapping porcelain resounding through the kitchen.

Naruto didn't really get why everyone liked Satsuki. She wasn't more popular than she was universally admired; she was pretty in an almost boyish way, with little lips and cold eyes. She had her hair out, not too long but not too short; boys and girls alike loved her. Sakura was a prime example – a girl that loved Satsuki, her refrigerator attitude, wasn't attracted to her more than she wanted to be her.

He didn't know whether Satsuki was being cold now because that was her permanent state, or whether it was because he was here.

She set a rippling cup of tea down, and Naruto drank it hastily. The taste was sweet. "How did you make it?"

She didn't respond.

"'Cause... it's nice. Thanks..."

Naruto stared out the window. The sky was a soft array of colours now, the sun tucked away behind buildings and walls. He found himself counting birds, settling his chin on his folded arms.

Satsuki picked up her tea and bowls, soaping them in the sink with a sponge. She couldn't say for herself why she was being so accommodating, but she supposed that there was a lot at stake.

He was staring out the window, the blonde of his hair indistinguishable in his silhouette. She stopped running the water, drying her hands and approaching the table.

"Don't come tomorrow. I'll be out training-"

Naruto was asleep.

Satsuki blinked, leaning over to inspect his face. He was drooling.

She poked his cheek lightly. He didn't move, and she rolled her eyes.

Later on, Satsuki found herself tucking a blanket around his shoulders, and carefully sliding a pillow beneath his head.

She drew the curtains, dressing into her pyjamas quickly. She read in the light of a book lamp until early hours, but Naruto did not move.

The tea was left to get cold.


Satsuki awoke to the noise of a cup smashing and a chair toppling over. Her apartment was a single room, and she looked over with blurry vision to see Naruto rushing about confusedly. She groaned quietly, climbing out of bed.

"Sorry- uh, I didn't realise I slept here the whole night, I'm sorry, I really have to go-"

"Clean that crap up before you go," Satsuki said, rubbing her head and running her fingers through her hair. She stumbled over, careful to avoid the shards of porcelain. She wiped sleep from her eyes, grabbing a flannel from the sink and wiping the floor.

"No need to be such an ass," Naruto grumbled. "I have to go now, why didn't you wake me up?"

"I tried." 'I didn't really.'

"Did you really?"

"Yes." 'No.'

Naruto wiped his hands, checking his pockets for his keys. "I've gotta go- gotta water my plants! Speaking of which, bastard-"

-he was running out the door now-

"-have you named yours, yet?"

"Why would I name a plant, idiot?"

The door closed.

Satsuki found herself placing the plant on the balcony, to bask in the morning sunshine.

'Naruto. I'll call it Naruto.'

Satsuki's training wasn't that productive, that day.

She hated using the training grounds and she'd dare not touch the Uchiha private grounds for fear of the memories – so she preferred to train in the woods.

That day, Satsuki placed the targets just as he did, and flung kunai like her life depended on it. The timing was never right. She could never get that blind spot. There had been one occasion when she had, and it had felt fake; it had felt like a fluke. Sure enough, Satsuki had never hit it again.

After practicing her taijutsu against the hardest target she could find – a tree – Satsuki returned home, allowing herself the reprieve of buying fresh tomatoes on the way home. In her greed, she opened the packet on the way up the stairs to her apartment, sinking her teeth into the plump red skin. Juice leaked down her chin.

"Where have you been all day?"

Satsuki almost dropped her tomato. Naruto was sat on the step to her apartment, looking bored with a folder on his lap. His grin was impish and wide.

"I was training."

He waved the response off as though he'd never asked. "You won't believe what I got!" he grinned, shaking the folder in her face. Satsuki ignored him, turning her key in the door and stepping over him.

Satsuki was not going to ask what he got, but it took more than that to deter Naruto.

"I was rooting around the Hokage's office," he began. "And I grabbed a file on the Fourth Hokage from his library-thing! It's so thick, look, see?" Naruto made a point of showing Satsuki the width of the file. It was undeniably thick with paper.

"That's probably illegal." It definitely was.

Naruto laughed. "Yeah, whatever! The old man probably knows it was me. If it was that bad, I'd already be in trouble. I've been here all day!"

Satsuki sighed.

"Whatever. Remember to put it back after."

They became quickly engrossed in work again, and Satsuki found that Naruto had a strange talent for visual work.

"So, uh- let's make a time-line! Let's do it like that! Like, Minato is born. Minato does this. Blah blah, Minato dies."

Naruto began taking the little dated notes of Minato's life, and placing them on a rough timeline. Oddly, and very, very slowly, Satsuki began to see the time-line take form. Naruto insisted on taking some of the photos in the folder, and putting them on too.

The first time Satsuki had taken out a photo, the realisation hit her, and she'd near jumped.

The Fourth Hokage was the spitting image of Uzumaki Naruto.

But the more she thought about it, the more the resemblance fell apart before her eyes; the eyes were a different shape, Naruto's cheeks fuller, Naruto's jaw rounder, his smile wider. The Fourth Hokage was also of an impressive height.

And aside from the physical aspect, Naruto was Naruto, and he was the Fourth Hokage, equipped with the status as a legendary hero and a flee-on-sight order. They couldn't be more different.

Satsuki found herself laughing at her own stupidity.

The next day, Satsuki woke up peacefully, and alone. Her plant, Naruto, looked happier, almost. She watered it, and the water pooled in the valleys of the leaves, dripping down slowly to ration the water. She decided that the plant was too clever for its name.

Naruto arrived later that day, and he came with a large piece of card. They spent the day writing on it, pinning pictures and writing events. It was detailed, and Satsuki did all of the writing at Naruto's demand. She understood why, when she saw Naruto's atrocious scrawling of his name on the back.

That night, Naruto brought cup ramen, and Satsuki made herself onigiri. She wasn't hungry.

The next three days continued similarly, until, at the end of the third day, it was complete. They asked the Third Hokage if they could give the project to Iruka the next day, and he said yes. Naruto and Sasuke were given Iruka's address, and Naruto wailed about how they would manage to get the large piece of card down the stairs.

"Let's throw it out the window."

Satsuki gave Naruto a glare.

"Come on. This is really long, and we're just going to bend it!"

She twitched. "I'm not throwing it out of the window."

"It's easier!"


Naruto pouted, clutching the edges of the card. "But we worked so hard! I don't want to bend it!"

"Don't screw up then, usuratonkachi."

He didn't, but it was a close call as they exited the stairwell, the card becoming jammed to the point where it appeared as though bending it was the only way through (but with some wiggling, it was very carefully managed). Once the hardest part was finished, they both awkwardly manoeuvred through the masses of people, trying to reach an unknown address by asking unwilling strangers about street names and districts.

Eventually, they reached Iruka's home. The grass was well groomed, the hedges trimmed and tiny flowers not-quite-wild peering through the metal fences like shy children.

They knocked, and Iruka smiled slightly at seeing their massive board (less so at seeing Naruto). After explanation, he agreed to view the presentation in his front garden.

With a sharp look from Satsuki, Naruto began.

"Namikaze Minato was born in a fishing village at the edge of the Land of Fire; the village of Kufuchi. His father was a fisherman, but since the fishing industry was being taken over by governmental ships, he sent Minato, with plenty of money, to live with a relative in Konoha, and to send money home once he started doing missions.

"At the age of ten, Minato graduated the academy and became a genin. He was said to be a genius, the kind that comes only once a generation."

Satsuki began then, unfolding a photo on the board that depicted Minato on a team, with a white haired man standing over them laughing.

p>"Minato was assigned into a genin team, taught by their sensei Jiraiya, one of the legendary Sannin. After the unfortunate deaths of his teammates, Jiraiya took Minato under his personal wing. He quickly became jounin, and was assigned a genin team himself.

"During the Third Shinobi World War, Minato lost two of his genin; one of whom was killed at the Kannabi bridge, in Kusagakure. Later on in the mission which brought them there, he killed over one thousand shinobi using his trademark jutsu, the technique that had earned him the title 'Konoha's Yellow Flash'. The jutsu entails quick movement via classified high-level fuuinjutsu. Minato's amazing speed and skill with it meant that many praised him as the fastest man alive. He was a genius."

Naruto quickly unfolded a weathered picture of a three-pronged kunai on the board, and continued.

"At the age of 28, Minato was nominated as Hokage, but his reign was short. The Kyuubi attacked the village, causing uproar. Minato protected the village with his life, sealing the Kyuubi away into the Shinigami using the Shiki Fujin, and he was condemned to have to fight the demon for eternity in the stomach of the Shinigami. For his sacrifice, he is regarded as one of the greatest heroes the village has ever produced.

"At the time of his death, Minato was five foot ten, and was well-known for his laid-back nature. He enjoyed reading, and was said to have dreamt of being Hokage since he was in the academy."

Satsuki unveiled a picture of a young Minato; very young indeed, grinning widely amongst his classmates, under a tree. The picture was badly taken.

Iruka applauded, smiling widely and commending them both on the excellent job. Naruto beamed, but Satsuki expressed little more than indifference (yet, he could see a tiny smirk playing on her lips).

"You've both attained the highest mark for this. The presentation was excellent, the info was accurate and it was read clearly, concisely, and chronologically. You'll be able to progress to next year. Well done, you two. I wasn't sure if you'd get along."

"Me neither," Naruto said.

They left, Iruka kindly offering to put the piece of card away somewhere. Just as Satsuki prepared to turn the corner, Naruto grabbed her arm.

"Hey! Where're ya goin'?"

"Home," she said.

"No, let's go buy some stuff! Let's celebrate, since we got an amazing grade!"

Satsuki blinked, but submitted, allowing herself to be dragged along. They reached a dingy convenience store, the woman at the counter looking bored. The sign read the hours for a Friday as seven until six. She noted the time; it was close to six.

The bell above the door rang as they walked in, Naruto lazily hooking his hands around the back of his head as he walked. "Let's get sweets."

She didn't say anything.

"Okay, okay. So we need... chocolate. Obviously. What type?"


"Yeah, all of them. I know. I was just checking."

The one-sided conversation continued for five or so minutes, and Naruto ended up with a bag bulging with chocolate and sweets. He was bouncing on the balls of his feet as they queued, two old ladies in front of them dropping their money at every possible opportunity.

After what seemed like an eternity, they reached the till- but just as they set the stuff down, the woman left the key in the till and went into the back of the shop wordlessly. For a moment, Satsuki waited.

"Excuse me?" she said, after a few moments more. The cashier came back out, now donned in a coat with her bag. She gave Satsuki a smile that made her feel ill.

"We were just closing up now, honey." Her expression was masking a badly-disguised disgust, or something alike to it.

Satsuki checked the time again. Ten to six.

"But you're not closed yet."

Naruto tugged on her arm. "It's fine, okay. Let's just go home."

"I'm afraid we are, sweetheart."

Satsuki found her tone escalating. "No, it's not. It's ten to six."

"We're finished for the day," the cashier reiterated, smile wrinkled and entirely dishonest.

"No, you finish at six. It's ten to."

The cashier shrugged, adjusting her bag. "We leave ten minutes early sometimes," she said, her face twisting into a jargon version of apologetic.

No matter what she said, Satsuki knew well when an act had been done out of spite and little more. Naruto's insisting grip on her arm persisted.

With a final scowl, Satsuki hooked the bag off the desk and headed for the door.

"Oi, you can't just take that-!"

"Oh really?" Satsuki sneered. "But I've paid for it."

The cashier frowned. "No you haven't-"

With a sweeping, strong movement, Satsuki lashed several coins and a note onto the floor. The woman looked at her, mouth agape, and the Uchiha simply shrugged in response.

"Yes, I have."

With that, Satsuki turned out of the shop, a slack-jawed Naruto in tow.

"You know, it wasn't that important-"

"Shut up."

For once, Naruto listened, and they walked in silence, the rustling of the plastic bag the only noise passing between them. Satsuki shifted the bag's weight to her elbow.

"She was being rude," she said.

"You didn't need to cause a scene," Naruto bit back. "We could have just gone somewhere else."

Satsuki didn't respond.

The walk home was silent, and though it hadn't been discussed, her feet led her to her own apartment, and she walked in, looking briefly at the plant and then placing the bag on the table beside the couch.

"Well, since we argued so much for some stupid sweets, they'd better taste nice..."

She sat beside him for a while, and after halting the all-consuming stream of food to his mouth, he gave her a strange look.

"Aren't you going to have some?"

Satsuki looked away for a moment.

"Huh? Why not?"

"I don't like sweets."

Naruto blinked. "How can you not like sweets?! And why'd you yell at that lady if you didn't even want any?!"

Satsuki snorted. She didn't answer.

Chapter Text

Naruto spent the rest of his holiday living a loose schedule that varied between eating, sleeping, and training. On the Thursday, he had briefly considered contacting Satsuki for something else to do, but reminded himself that now she wasn't obliged to spend time with him, she would just kick him out of her apartment.

Or, she wouldn't be in. Though, for all training she did, he never saw her in the Training Grounds.

The Genin exam arrived too quickly, and the night before, as though he was sensing his fear, Mizuki invited Naruto out for ramen. The gesture was a welcome one.

The beef was wonderful and succulent, the noodles salty and perfect. Naruto couldn't fully appreciate the taste.

"How are you, Naruto?"

Slurping up one last noodle, Naruto grinned. "Great, Mizuki-sensei! The food's amazing! Thanks!"

He knew that wasn't really what Mizuki had meant. Naruto did his best to avoid letting on.

Mizuki smiled, eating a smaller bowl of noodles himself – slower. Their slurping was in unison, and Naruto ordered another bowl. Mizuki smiled into his food at Naruto's unprecedented eating speed, but said nothing.

"Are you prepared for your exam, Naruto?"

'As prepared as I can be...' "Yeah! Stop worrying, Mizuki-sensei. Are you prepared?"

His teacher laughed, the smile natural on his face. They ate for a while in silence, but the air was not thick.

"Naruto, if you're worried about your exam..."

Naruto sighed, pushing away his last bowl and cradling his stomach. "I... I dunno, Mizuki-sensei. I try, and I try, but I can't get the Bunshin down... I've tried for so long."

"I could teach you?" Mizuki offered, but Naruto shook his head.

"We only have one night... it's fine. I'm just gonna hope that the Bunshin technique doesn't come up!"

Naruto was laughing, but the sound screamed of emptiness. Mizuki gave him a sad look.

"Stupid. Don't leave it so last minute, next time."

'Didn't you want to ask me?'

"You're stupid, Mizuki-sensei!" Naruto huffed, staring into his food and folding his arms.

"Naruto... if you're struggling with chakra control, then tonight, I'll try and help you-"

"Really?! You're the best, Mizuki-sensei!"

"-only for a while, okay? Not too late! Oi!"

"Make me a bunshin."

Naruto hated bunshins, and his face fell. Mizuki laughed heartily, ruffling his hair and smiling.

"There's no need to look so miserable, Naruto."

"But there is," he whined. "I can't do this. I hate bunshins and I can't do them. It's not possible!"

"Why?" Mizuki asked.

Naruto pouted, pulling hands rigidly to his sides with a frustrated expression. "I don't know! But I can't! That's all there is to it!"

For the best part of an hour, Mizuki prodded about Naruto's hand, demanding he summon chakra and then stop; and then he came to a conclusion.

"You've got a humongous amount of chakra, Naruto. Huge."

Naruto blinked.

"Really? That's good, right?"

Mizuki smiled. "Yes, it is," he said. "But it means that using a tiny bit for something like the Bunshin no Jutsu is harder. Here, Naruto. I'll teach you something."

"Ooh! Ooh! Is it- is it cool? Like, a super cool jutsu?"

"Have you ever climbed a tree, Naruto?"

Hours later, Naruto had ascended to the first branch; his extremities ached- everywhere ached, his head span.. He'd done it – climbed a tree without his hands! Using chakra alone. His cheeks hurt from his smile. His smile that Mizuk was proud of him. Naruto had never felt so invigorated as when he had looked back at Mizuki to see his hopeful smile – no, proud! Encouraging and kind; Naruto had never felt so happy.

Naruto had never known the sensation of falling so well as then; after a few steps, he'd either repel himself from the bark, or slip down it. Most of the time, he was repelled; he'd never felt something so strange as being launched through the air every time he attempted to scale the tree.

The accomplishment warmed his heart, but not so much as Mizuki's pride. The way he ruffled his hair, pulling him to his chest and laughing heartily.

His Bunshin only looked a little less dead, but he tried to ignore that.

Naruto prayed with all his might that it would be anything but the Bunshin no Jutsu. He had resigned himself to the fact that it was physically impossible to produce one that wasn't pale or lifeless, but he had significantly improved them after honing his chakra control the night before.

He had all but mastered the henge and kawarimi; but Naruto stood by his word. The bunshin wasn't possible. Naruto tried, and failed every time. At first, he'd asked help from other students, who had tried to help. But Naruto had known that their problems with the technique hadn't been the same, as Mizuki had proven. Naruto had too much chakra. It was near impossible for him to siphon off a tiny amount for the Bunshin no Jutsu.

He entered the academy with a heart of lead.

"Today, the genin test will be on the bunshin."

Naruto pushed down vomit.

After everyone settled down, Iruka called students in one by one. Naruto stole a glance at Satsuki; her expression was bored. He imitated it. He was not nervous.

"Uzumaki Naruto, into the testing room."

He was nervous as hell.

Naruto walked in, quietly, past his classmates – their gazes burned his back, their laughing sniggers and whispers burned his ears – and into the practice room.

He barely heard Iruka's request for three clones. Mizuki, at his side, smiled at him.

Naruto undoubtedly and entirely preferred Mizuki.

He tried; very honestly, he did. Naruto summoned as little chakra as he could, trying to form a bunshin, but it was like a pale, washed out balloon, collapsing the floor slowly but surely. The failure stung.

"I'm very sorry, Naruto, but..."

Naruto didn't care. He bit his lip, pushing back tears.

"Iruka... don't you think we should let him pass?"

Naruto blinked, bringing his gaze up from the floor. Mizuki had a gentle expression on his face.

"He did create one bunshin, to be fair," Mizuki said, half-smiling.

Naruto's heart became lighter, just for a moment.

Iruka sighed deeply. "Mizuki, you know I can't pass him for that. It's not even a decent bunshin. I'm sorry, Naruto, but you fail."

On his way out, Naruto tried to forget the sharp but welcoming gleam of the headbands on the table.

Satsuki saw Naruto leave the classroom, looking defeated and tearful.

She wanted to go up and yell at him. Yell at him for not trying hard enough, yell at him for not becoming a ninja.

But she didn't understand why she wanted to. So Satsuki didn't say anything at all.

Naruto had found himself, legs swinging, looking onto the village with Mizuki at his side.

"You know, Iruka didn't pass you because he wants you to be strong," Mizuki said.

The boy winced, biting the inside of his cheek.

"I mean it, Naruto." Mizuki leant back, wind brushing white strands of hair out of his face. "Being a ninja's hard, you know? Iruka doesn't want you to go into the ninja world unprepared. Neither do I."

Naruto cast his gaze downwards. "I know, but I really wanted to graduate this time."

"Well, I guess I have no choice but to tell you..."

An Oiroke no Jutsu later, Naruto was in the middle of the forest, a huge scroll laying in front of him.


He whipped his head around, and then smiled. "Mizuki-sensei!"

Mizuki strolled towards him, expression soft. He knelt down slightly, ruffling Naruto's hair. "How are you doing?"

"Great, Mizuki-sensei! I can finally do the Bunshin technique!" Naruto said, grinning widely. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

Mizuki blinked, rubbing his eyes to see if he had double-vision as he looked around. The area was truly filled to the brim with orange, and he smiled.

"Naruto," he said. "That's... that's amazing! That jutsu..."

'That jutsu is an S-Rank...! Most jounin can only create three at most... but this kid... there's thousands!'

Naruto grinned, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. "Thanks, Mizuki-sensei!"

Mizuki smiled back, before his expression turned serious. "Naruto," he said. "I have to tell you the truth."

"What is it?"

Mizuki brushed his hair behind his ear. "I'm leaving this village tonight."

Naruto blinked. "Wha- why?"

"The truth is, Naruto... long ago, the Fourth Hokage sealed the Kyuubi away. But it was too powerful to destroy. Instead... he sealed it inside of you."

The young boy blinked, and then his jaw went slack, eyes widening. "M-Me? Inside of me? The... the Kyuubi?!"

"Yes." Mizuki stopped for a moment. "I'm... I'm sorry for all those years. Those years of people hating you for something you're not. Some people blame you for what the Kyuubi did."

"B-But! B-But I'd never-"

"I know."

Naruto's expression was tearful, and Mizuki shook his head, ruffling Naruto's hair once again.

"To tell the truth," Mizuki began, "I once hated you, too. I couldn't see past what was inside of you. But one day... I came to see it. You were just a child... everyone mistreated you. You never understood why... you had no love, no care. You were so alone.

"This village only wants you for the power within you. But they mistreat you... and tonight, I am escaping. And I want you to come with me."

"W... Where to?"

"Orochimaru-sama. He is a scientist, who long escaped Konoha himself. A genius. And I believe that within his village, you would be treated as not only a human being, but maybe a prince! Within Orochimaru-sama's territory, power is everything. That jutsu you just performed... it's the sign of a truly powerful shinobi, Naruto."

Mizuki's expression made Naruto feel warm like he never had.

'Does he really believe in me?'

"Come with me... this village is just holding you back! I would have escaped alone... but I don't want you to stay here, Naruto. All these years of abuse and terror... don't you want to escape?"

Naruto's heart pounded like a drum in his ears.

"Mizuki-sensei, I-"

In the years to come, Naruto would never forget the noise of lightning meeting flesh.

With a fast and brutal cut of light, Mizuki's chest was pierced by a gloved hand, shredded alveoli spattering Naruto's face as Mizuki took a wheezing gasp through his mangled lung.

His heart spluttered, his lungs coughed, and with a final, wet rasp, Mizuki's legs trembled and he slid off the man's arm like a sword from a sheath.

Even when the chunks of gore had been removed, Naruto could not clean himself of that day. He could not clean his eyes of the ANBU mask, he could not clean his lips of the shredded cells, nor his nose and tongue of the stench of death.

And he could never clean his heart of Mizuki, the man who'd cared, and never, ever, of his bloody corpse.

Chapter Text

"Uzumaki Naruto, Haruno Sakura, and Uchiha Satsuki."

Sakura was fairly sure Satsuki would at least be a little more willing to be around her after they had been assigned onto a team together.

The girl was walking, hands in pockets-

"S-Satsuki-san? Uh, good morning! Or, is it afternoon? I'm not too su..."

Satsuki paused in her walk. "What?"

"U-Um... pardon?"

Satsuki turned her head, looking at Sakura with a blank expression. "What is it?" she asked.

"Well," Sakura said, holding a bag to her side rigidly. "I was thinking... we could have lunch? Y'know, since we're gonna be on a team and all!" She scratched the side of her face.

Satsuki faced forward again, and then she turned her whole body to face Sakura. She closed her eyes, as though in exasperation.

Sakura had very honestly expected her to at least say something.

With nothing more than a brush of arms, Satsuki walked straight past Sakura and back the way she'd came.

"Sakura-chan! Do you want to sit together for lunch-"

"No! Get out of my way, idiot!"

And Sakura walked straight past Naruto and back the way she'd came.

Naruto saw the brief but certain glint of tears in her eyes.


Satsuki didn't say anything, not even when Naruto slumped down next to her. She reached for a riceball.

"Why did you make Sakura-chan cry?" Naruto said. The words felt weak and empty to her; like Naruto didn't really care at all.

Satsuki didn't look at him. "I didn't say anything to her."

Naruto believed her – she was telling the truth - and she ate beside him in silence. His stomach rumbled, and he turned to her, laughing sheepishly and rubbing the back of his head-

She offered a riceball with an outheld hand. "Here."

Naruto took it delightedly, smiling and thanking her, and took a bite-

"Eurgh! The hell's that?!"

"Not ramen."

"It's disgusting!"

"I didn't prepare it for you."

"You like that?!"

Later, Naruto returned home, and Satsuki went shopping.

"Good afternoon, Mizuki-sensei..."

He made himself as comfortable as he could amongst a field of buried dead, but Naruto had always been scared of ghosts. His hand brushed against the cold marble of a grave, and he pulled it back quick.

Naruto bit his lip.

"I... climbed over the gate to get here. Apparently the graveyard closes at four. But, no-one'll care! I've done worse, right, Mizuki-sensei?"

Naruto wanted to talk to him.

'You shouldn't have! How did the assignments go?'

"I... like my new team, I think. Sakura-chan's on a team with me! It's like a dream come true!"

'Being a ninja isn't a joke! You can't be messing around with the girl you like. At least it's not someone you don't like, though, right?'

Naruto rolled his eyes and groaned, remembering Satsuki. "But I do have Satsuki on my team. She's... alright, though. Recently."

'That's good. I'm sure things could have gone worse, right? You guys used to argue like cat and dog, but you could've gotten put with Takashi!'

"She... Satsuki's really... I don't know, sensei. She can be mean, but she even offered me some of her lunch today. I forgot mine."

'Are you hungry?'

In his mind's eye, Mizuki smiled.

"So... everything's fine, I guess..."

'Let's go out for ramen. My treat!'

With that, Naruto let hot tears spill out.

'I want to see you again... Mizuki-sensei...!'

The next day, Naruto arrived quietly, but amongst the chatter of students, it wasn't particularly noticeable.

One by one, jounin came by to pick up their new genin teams; after an hour, Iruka checked the roster ("-your jounin sensei is... oh.") and made an excuse to leave soon after. Two hours later, they were still waiting. Naruto had taken to napping on the desk, and Satsuki could tell at a glance that Sakura was agitated.

Soon, the sliding door pulled open, and a man with grey hair and one quarter of visible face peaked through.


"Yo?" Sakura seethed, hands on her hips. "You're three hours late!"

"Oh. I simply got lost on the road of life..."

Satsuki raised an eyebrow.

Sakura gritted her teeth.

Naruto had a spontaneous sleeping spasm. He kicked the desk, before falling back into a comfortable position atop the desk.

The man brought his hand to his chin. "My first impression of you all..."

"...well, you're all very aggressive. Except the sleeping one. Meet me on the roof in five minutes."

He was late again.

Still stretching, Naruto blinked when Kakashi finally arrived. "Late again? How did you get lost on your way to the roof?"

Kakashi smiled. "A black cat crossed my path, so I had to take the long way around."

Naruto nodded absent-mindedly, and Sakura found that proof enough that the boy was in a daze. She wondered what the long way around could even be.

Their sensei coughed, and smiled. "So, introduce yourselves! Your likes, dislikes, hobbies, dreams... that kind of thing." His expression was uncomfortably cheerful.

"What about you?" Satsuki said bluntly.


"We don't know anything about you," she said again.

Kakashi nodded in understanding, his smile sympathetic beneath the cotton of his mask. "Yes, yes, of course. Well, I'm Hatake Kakashi. I have many likes and dislikes... I don't have a dream. I have a few hobbies..."

Naruto folded his arms. "We only found out your name!"

Kakashi smiled. "You can go first," he said.

"I'm Uzumaki Naruto!" he said, grinning widely. "I like ramen! I don't like the three minutes it takes for the ramen to cook! My hobbies... I like... gardening, I guess... and my dream, is..."

Mizuki's voice rang in his head.

'-this village is just holding you back! I would have escaped alone... but I don't want you to stay here, Naruto. All these years of abuse and terror... don't you want to escape?'

Naruto cast his gaze to the ground, eyes unseeing.

'Do I really... want to be Hokage...?'

Satsuki's eyes widened, and her breath caught in her throat. She schooled her expression back into one of nonchalance.

"To be Hokage."

Naruto looked up, blinking in surprise.

Satsuki said it again. "To be Hokage." She flicked her gaze towards him. "That's what you're always going on about, isn't it? Being Hokage."

Naruto took a deep breath, laughing awkwardly. "Yeah," he said, his cheerful demeanour reasserting itself. "I suppose. I want to be the best Hokage there ever was! Better than any that came before!"

But even then, the lapse in personality had put Satsuki on edge, and the steeple of her hands tightened.

"I see," Kakashi said. "And you next." His finger motioned towards Sakura, and she blushed, smiling.

"I'm Haruno Sakura! I like dango... and I don't like Naruto! My hobbies are... reading, and my dream is..."

'To be Satsuki's friend?' she thought. 'That sounds pathetic...'

She coughed, and smiled confidently. "My dream is to be a kunoichi worthy of Satsuki-san's acknowledgement!"

Sakura internally fist pumped. 'SHANNARO! Did that sound cool, or what?!'

Satsuki, however, did not even blink at the declaration.

"Do we only like food, here?" Kakashi pondered, before nodding at Satsuki. "And now you."

Satsuki closed her eyes, and Naruto could only take the fierce coldness of her face as a sign of rage.

"I'm Uchiha Satsuki. I have plenty of dislikes. I don't particularly like anything-"

"Tomatoes," Naruto said.

Kakashi looked at Naruto with a blank look, and the boy rubbed the back of his head with an awkward grin.

"I mean! You like tomatoes, right? You don't really eat anything else!"

Satsuki bristled at the comment, and continued unhindered.

"I don't have any hobbies. I don't have a dream- it's an ambition."

Kakashi felt his heart go cold. 'Just as expected...'

"To kill a certain man, and restore my clan."

Naruto and Sakura in turn both looked at Satsuki with a horrified awe.

'To kill...?!' Sakura thought. 'That's... that's so much more mature than what I said, but...'

'To kill someone!? Jeez! I was right! Satsuki is totally off her cake!'

Kakashi nodded. "I see." And then he turned back to the group, smiling. "You're... a diverse group. You're the first two-thirds female cell I've seen in a long time, you know! But... will you be prepared for the test?"

His expression was mock-contemplative, and Satsuki felt anger welling in her chest.

Naruto's heart sank to the pit of his stomach, but he tried to hold up his smile. "Wh...What test?"

His teacher smiled. "The one that sends back two-thirds of the passing students! Did you not hear?"

"Wh-What?! No way!" Sakura declared, stumbling over her words in her horror. 'No! There can't be..! I can't fail now!'

"I'm sure there is. You guys mustn't be in the information loop, you know? But! I'll give you some exclusive information!"

Naruto and Sakura leaned forward, completely at attention. Satsuki didn't even look at the man, but her posture was as alert as ever.

Kakashi leaned forward, speaking in a happy whisper.

"No one's ever passed my test! Training Grounds, at five tomorrow!"

"In the morning?!"

"When else?" Kakashi's smile was making Naruto fear for his life.

"And don't eat breakfast! Or... you'll throw up!"

Satsuki and Naruto walked home together, their homes on roughly the same route. Naruto didn't know if Sakura's was, too, but her presence was welcome to him anyway.

"Oh! Just a minute, okay? I need to go buy some incense!"

Sakura blinked. 'Has someone died...? Maybe that was why he wasn't so annoying today...'

Naruto held a finger up for them to wait, and hurried into a shop. Satsuki leaned against a wall, looking blankly ahead, and Sakura leaned identically next to her.

After a moment's silence, Sakura couldn't take it. "How do you put up with him?"

"Hm?" Satsuki turned her head to Sakura.

"Naruto," Sakura said. "I can't stand him! How do you put up with him? He's so annoying!"

She felt almost guilty for the outburst, and she hurried to correct herself, laughing awkwardly. "Well, I mean... we're gonna have to be on a team for a long time, so..."

Satsuki looked as though she hadn't heard Sakura, staring straight forward. Just as Sakura was about to pretend she hadn't said anything at all, the Uchiha responded.

"Yeah. He is annoying."

Sakura blinked at the unexpected response, then waited for her to continue.

She didn't.

'Well... that didn't answer anything.'

"-oi! Let's go home now, sorry to keep you guys waiting!"

Naruto bounded towards them, grinning widely with a packet of incense in hand.

They walked for a short while, crossing the main market with little conversation at all. Naruto was speaking, but it was more like background noise to Sakura than anything at all.

His stomach rumbled loudly, and Satsuki rolled her eyes.

Naruto groaned, rubbing his belly. "Yeah... sorry. I don't think I can afford anything right now anyway..."-he felt for his wallet forlornly-"so let's just go home."

They walked for a moment, before Sakura heard the rustle of clothing and saw something green pass from Satsuki's hand to Naruto. It almost hit him in the head, and the catch was clumsy.

"Oi! That almost hit me, you assho-"

"Just eat it."


Naruto took a look at the green ball in his hand; it was an apple, spherical and juicy looking. He'd always been of the opinion that apples were one of the more tolerable fruits. He looked at Satsuki, and smiled widely.


Sakura frowned. 'If he annoys her too, why is she so... strangely nice to him...?'

Naruto smiled harder when he remembered that Satsuki didn't eat apples.

As they reached a corner, the three of them split off into separate roads.

"Satsuki-san... see you tomorrow, right? Good luck!" Sakura smiled, waving enthusiastically.

Satsuki nodded, giving Naruto a nod in turn as she turned down her street and steadily walked away.

"Bye, Sakura-chan! I hope we pass this test tomorrow!"

Naruto hadn't expected anything like what he got.

"Yeah," Sakura smiled, bowing politely. "Good luck, Naruto. We'll have fun being on a team together if we pass this test, so... let's try our best!"

His heart skipped a beat, and he blushed. "Hah... yeah! See you, Sakura-chan!"

And with that, Naruto left for the graveyard with a smile so wide it hurt his cheeks.


'How did everything go?'

"We're... gonna have to do a test to actually become genin. It sounds hard, and I'm not sure I can do it, but..."

Naruto took a deep breath. "I'm not sure about Sakura-chan yet, but... Satsuki..."

'See? I told you!'

"Satsuki's..." Naruto paused, smiling. "Satsuki's... not as bad as I thought she was. Maybe... maybe we can even be friends."

He lit the incense, the thin smoke pirouetting upwards. The smell permeated through the natural smell of the graveyard like poison in a glass of sake.

Naruto imagined the rotting corpse below him, how stupid it was that he imagined the man speaking to him now. But it was therapeutic, made him feel better... that was what Mizuki would have wanted, surely.

(Naruto tried to convince himself.)

"I'm not gonna come here so much after today. I'll come... talk to you for a bit sometimes, but... you can probably see what I'm doing anyways, you know? I'm probably wasting my time. So... wish me luck, Mizuki-sensei!"

Before he left, Naruto buried the bitten down apple core in the ground above Mizuki's grave.

"A... sign of my first friendship... and an offering to you, I guess."

He took a deep breath, leaving the graveyard with his eyes facing straight forward. Naruto dared not look at the countless headstones of people he would never meet.

The gates were open as he left, this time.

"See ya, Mizuki-sensei."

A tuft of paper white daffodils waved him goodbye.

Chapter Text

The morning was cold, and Satsuki felt on the verge of vomiting.

They all arrived at the Training Grounds simultaneously, sans Kakashi.

"Good morning, Satsuki-san," Sakura said, bags under her eyes. Her smile resembled the forced grin of a corpse, but Satsuki nodded at her anyway.

"Ugh..." Naruto said, groaning and sitting down against his bag. "If Kakashi is late again today...!"

Satsuki hoped he wouldn't be.

He was.

Three hours later, Kakashi arrived with an entirely disinterested expression. He waved cheerfully. "Yo."

Satsuki supposed she'd be cheerful if she'd had three hours more sleep, too.

"You're late!" Naruto and Sakura shouted in unison, identical expressions of rage on their faces.

Kakashi shrugged, smiling and putting his hands up as though to admit defeat. "I had to run around the village fifteen times to defeat a green beast."


Kakashi dangled two bells in front of them, and they jingled.

"These," he said, "are your ticket to being a shinobi."

He tied them to his belt. "Take them from me, and you get to become a ninja. Don't? And you get sent back to the academy. And you get to be tied to a log while I eat food." Kakashi smiled. "I hope you ate breakfast."

Naruto stomped his feet, furious. "But you told us not to eat any!"

Satsuki felt awfully stupid for having listened. Her hand wandered subconsciously to her stomach.

"Well, maybe you three cute genin ought to think for yourselves," Kakashi said. He reached for the timer, winding a knob at the back and pressing down on the top. "You have until noon. Fight me like you intend to kill me, or you'll do no damage at all, I assure you."

"But, sensei..." Sakura said, looking nervous. "What if we hurt you?"

Kakashi just laughed at her, and Satsuki saw Naruto tense and run forward like a hare.

"As if I'm gonna lose out on being a ninja now!"

And with a roar, Naruto lunged forward, kunai clutched in one hand-

And with a blink, Kakashi had that very same kunai pointed at the back of Naruto's very own neck. He smiled.

"I haven't even said go yet."

Satsuki felt herself go cold.

"But you two would do well to take from Naruto's example... come at me with the intent to kill. Now..."

Kakashi released Naruto's hand from his grip, and walked into the centre of the clearing.


Within a millisecond, Sakura and Satsuki had hidden within the trees, but Kakashi looked entirely unconcerned. Naruto was bemused.

"Aren't you... I dunno, gonna chase after them?"

The man shrugged, and reached into his pouch. Naruto steadied himself, eyeing his bag carefully as he rooted through it.

'Kunai... shuriken... or something else... I don't know what to expect from this guy...!'

With a sleek motion, Kakashi pulled out a small orange book.

Naruto blinked.

"Wait. What? You're reading!?"

Kakashi didn't look up.

"Why are you reading!?"

He still didn't look up, but turned a page. "To find out what happens, of course."

Naruto clenched his fists.

'Is this guy... taking me that lightly?' he thought, but he grinned, and formed a handsign. From the branches, Satsuki frowned.

'What is Naruto doing?'

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

The clearing became filled with Narutos, and Satsuki blinked. 'I suppose... if they're just illusions...'

"Kage Bunshin," Kakashi mused, and his tone sounded a tad surprised. "And so many. How reckless... but I'm impressed. Solid clones."

With a simultaneous war-cry, the Narutos drove forward, and at that moment Satsuki finally understood there was no way she could win against this man.

Naruto was not as graceful or strategic as Satsuki, though he was more powerful; but strategy and grace weren't necessary when there were fifty of you.

Kakashi, with one arm occupied and his eyes glued firmly to the book, span and kicked and blocked and wiped out each and every ninja that Naruto had to offer, and with a final punch to the gut he sent the original Naruto flying.

'This guy, even without looking, can do that...?! We've... we've got no chance...!' Sakura thought, eyes wide.

After a moment of looking at Naruto, leaning against the tree to her right, Satsuki closed her eyes. This plan was the stupidest she'd had yet. 'He must be having an influence on me...' she thought tiredly.

"Naruto," she whispered. His head jerked up to see her in the branches.

"What?" he said loudly, and Satsuki resisted the urge to put her head in her hands.

'Idiot...' she cringed, but flicked her head in order to motion Naruto up into the trees. Thankfully, the boy seemed to get it, but Satsuki didn't stick around to find out.

'Kakashi probably knows where I am now... I've gotta move fast.'

She stopped on a distant branch, and turned to Naruto.

"There's no way we're going to beat him," she said in a low voice. "We've got to team up."

"Are you kidding? There's only two bells! If we team up, it won't be fair on Sakura-chan!"

Now, that was true. Satsuki bit her lip, but her expression was unmoved. "This whole thing isn't fair. He's a jounin, and we'll only win together."

"You can't just leave her out." Naruto pouted and folded his arms.

"Then she can team up with us too."

"There are only two bells, bastard!" Naruto emphasised this point by holding up two fingers.

"Then we'll pick at the end who gets them," Satsuki said, gritting her teeth.

Naruto looked torn. "We'll just end up arguing! It won't be fair. Someone who tried hard might not get one..."

"It's better than no-one getting a bell!"

"I can hear you two, you know."

Naruto fell out of the tree, and Satsuki bent over backwards to avoid the swipe of Kakashi's arm. She propelled herself off a branch with a push of her arms, and landed in the clearing beside Naruto.

"You find Sakura, and I'll try to hold him off for a while."

Satsuki left no room for argument, and she was grateful when Naruto gave her a nod before jumping into the trees. 'Thank God, he can at least listen to instructions...'

"Sakura-chaaaaan! Where are you hiding?"

Satsuki almost choked on her own saliva.

Kakashi approached Satsuki with a nonchalant expression.

"You know teaming up is against the rules," he said after a long pause.

"You never said so."

Kakashi shrugged. "I suppose you're right." He snapped his book shut, and tucked it into his pouch. "But I'm eager to see the Uchiha's famous Gliding Edge taijutsu style. Don't let me down."

'How did he...?!'

As eager as she was to fight someone worthy fighting, Satsuki was beginning to have her doubts. If he already knew of her Gliding Edge style...

"I've seen it myself," Kakashi said. "But to fight it must be quite a different experience. And as the last female Uchiha, you must be the last person in the world who knows it."

'Last female Uchiha,' she thought. 'Last Uchiha altogether... except for Itachi.'

Satsuki didn't say anything, expression darkening as she settled into the first stance of the Gliding Edge with a scowl. Kakashi didn't even come towards her.

She kept her eyes firmly on him. 'This isn't designed for offence, but... if he won't come to me...'

With a graceful spin of her body, she launched a barrage of shuriken at Kakashi. The man jumped easily over them, and Satsuki quickly launched another, jumping backwards and bouncing off of her hands onto a branch. She glared, and threw herself through the air with her arms at her sides.

Kakashi's eyes widened at the direct attack, but he caught her by her shoulders.

'Hah.' Satsuki smirked.

She hooked her leg around the back of his neck, and clamped around his throat tightly, bending over backwards to touch the bells-

Kakashi pushed his fingers into a pressure point at the back of Satsuki's thigh, and threw her off of him. She skidded through the dust, narrowing her eyes.

He didn't look the slightest bit fazed.

Satsuki stood straight and bent her back; she poised one leg slightly outwards on the ground, and with every ounce of grace she had in her body, she began to spin.

After a few moments, the clearing was filled with a thick coat of dust.

'Naruto... you'd better know what you're doing!'

"Over here!"

Kakashi was very suddenly barraged with a mass of Narutos, dog-piling him until it became apparent that they were hugging a log.

"Even working together, you three really aren't cutting it," Kakashi said, reaching for his book.

"Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu!"

And out of the dust, came an immense fireball.

Naruto blinked, and jumped back into the trees, and Kakashi jumped to the side of the fireball, the edge of the flames skimming his pants. He made some sort of affirmative noise at the assault, but looked around for a moment.

"Where is Saku-"

He very suddenly became aware of the smell of burning paper, and the floor beneath him exploded.

Naruto cheered loudly, until the chunks of burnt wood hit the floor, and Sakura, Satsuki and Naruto found themselves being tightly bound together by a length of ninja wire.


They hit each other with a monstrous amount of force, and collapsed to the ground. Kakashi walked over, dusting off his pants.

"You three are pathetic," he said, and his tone was so cold that Satsuki could feel Naruto stiffen against her back. "That fireball set off the exploding tags in the ground. I'd be impressed... but you haven't even managed to land a scratch on me."

He knelt down in front of them. "I won't send you back to the academy. You three..."

For a split second, the three relaxed-

"...should give up on being ninja!"

Naruto's outcry came first. "What?!"

"You three lack any talent whatsoever," Kakashi said, voice cold. "Sakura took no part in whatever plan you executed, and you three were completely uncoordinated. Satsuki was the only one who showed any potential, but even she met her downfall by not asking Sakura for help."

Kakashi looked at them, and spoke with a harsh tone. "You are assigned as a three-man cell for a reason. This exercise was about teamwork from the beginning."

"Teamwork?" Sakura said. "But you only have two bells!"

Kakashi turned his gaze to her. "With the intention of splitting you three up. If any of you had bothered to put the team first, you'd have succeeded!"

Sakura's jaw closed.

"But Kakashi-sensei, you don't get it!" Naruto said angrily. "Sakura-chan came up with that plan, and she implanted those exploding tags in the ground when Satsuki created that dust cloud!"

Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "Even a tactician needs basic fighting skills, and Sakura has none."

After some awkward movements, Sakura found herself tied against the post.

Their teacher walked towards the strange, carved gem in the middle of the Training Grounds. "Written on this stone, are the names of heroes." Kakashi had his hands in his pockets.

Naruto grinned, and nodded. "Heroes! Now that's cool. What kinda heroes, Kakashi-sensei?"

"Dead ones."

Naruto quieted. The three of them shied away from looking at Kakashi's back, uncomfortable weights settling in their stomachs.

"On this stone are the names of my closest friends," he said, reaching a finger out to trace the engravings.

There was a long silence, and for a moment, Satsuki felt a twinge of pity for the man. He turned around.

"I've decided to give you three one last chance," Kakashi said. "In the afternoon, you will have three hours to get the bells from me. But first, Naruto and Satsuki eat lunch. Sakura doesn't get any. Feed her, and face disqualification."

Sakura's face dropped.

Kakashi disappeared in a swirl of leaves, and Naruto looked left, right, and behind before holding his lunchbox out to Sakura.

She blinked, before panicking. "Naruto, you can't do that! Kakashi-sensei said we couldn't!"

"So what?" Satsuki intercepted. "He's not around. If you don't eat something, you won't be any good."


"C'mon," Naruto said. "We've gotta be quick or he'll get back here."

Sakura pushed down a smile. 'Even Satsuki is helping me...!'

"My hands are kinda..."

"I'll feed you, Sakura-chan!"

"Nuh-uh! No way!"

Satsuki ended up feeding her.

There was a bang and a swirl of smoke-

"You guys-"

The three of them reeled back.


Chapter Text

"I'm sick of these stupid D-rank missions! I want a C-rank!"

Iruka sighed. "Naruto-"

The week had been filled with an array of mediocre missions, and Satsuki's ears rang from Naruto's complaints. She was beginning to worry about the effects on her hearing.

"No! No more getting the Daimyo's wife's cat! I don't wanna!"

"Naruto-" Iruka said, expression irritated.

"Well," the Hokage said. "Okay."

Team 7 blinked.

"We just received a C-rank, actually."

"What, like protecting a beautiful princess!? Or-"

The Hokage coughed. "Tazuna-san..."

A short man with a straw hat peered through the door, face red with drink.

"He's a bridge builder from the Land of Waves," the Hokage said. "You're required to take him back, and protect him from bandits and the like."

"What, so I'm being taken by a couple of princesses and a midget?" the bridge builder hiccuped, sake in hand with a strange look at the Hokage. "Can these kids really protect me?"

Naruto began howling incoherently at the man, Kakashi holding him by his head.

"Are these ninja insufficient, Tazuna-san?" the Hokage asked, and it wasn't more a question than a challenge. Tazuna gulped.

"In any case," Kakashi said, "I am coming as well. So don't worry."

Tazuna grumbled, tipping his hat.

The day was blisteringly hot, and Naruto's attitude was as exhausting as ever. For some reason, every single bush was immensely interesting to him.

Satsuki felt uneasy. Very, very uneasy.

She couldn't really pinpoint why, either. The fear was stupid and childish, and she crushed it.


She jumped.

"Uh... Satsuki-san?" Sakura said, hands behind her back. "Have you ever left Konoha before?"

Satsuki paused, and nodded.

"Oh," Sakura said, laughing awkwardly. "I haven't... but its not that different here. Just lots of trees, I guess..."

Satsuki was quiet, hands tucked in her pockets. "I was young," she said. "I can't remember it."


They walked in silence, the air heavy.

"I just wanted to say thank you," Sakura blurted out.

Satsuki raised an eyebrow, and the other girl giggled.

"Well..." Sakura began. "I wouldn't have passed the test if you hadn't had the idea to work together... so I kinda owe it to you..."

"Naruto was the one who made us all work together," Satsuki said. "I wouldn't have asked you, otherwise."

Sakura blinked, and her jaw opened and closed like a fish. After a moment, she blushed and looked at her feet.

"A-Ah... I guess that figures," Sakura said, shuffling her bag awkwardly on her shoulders. "He probably wanted to ask me on a date, or something..."

"It was nice of him."

Sakura looked up, confused. "Eh?"

Satsuki didn't look at her. "Naruto refused the opportunity to get a bell so you could have a chance at getting one."

The road looked so long to her; all she could see was the very, very distant curve of the path ahead.

"Ugh..." Sakura said, and Satsuki twitched. "I mean... its nice and all, but I just wish Naruto would take a hint."

Satsuki finally looked Sakura in the eyes, and said, "I wish you would, too."

And Sakura was left staring at Satsuki's back with a gobsmacked expression on her face.


Sakura froze, and so did Naruto, eyes widening at the two black figures, and in the very same moment, Satsuki lunged.

The two encircled them, running forward with enraged expressions, and Satsuki jumped, graceful and precise as she kicked them simultaneously. With a flick of her wrist, she nailed the chains between them to the tree.

"But what about Kakashi-sense-"


Satsuki could have rolled her eyes.

"Eh?! But- but you-" Naruto stuttered, jaw slack, until he turned to see Kakashi's bloody remains – only to find chunks of wood scattered across the clearing.

Kakashi shrugged. "I was testing how you would react in a dangerous situation. These two men were the Demon Brothers... high level ninja."

Tazuna stiffened beside Sakura.

Their teacher turned a stern eye to the tipsy man, and he shaded his eyes with his hat.

"Tazuna-san," Kakashi said, "Why would high level ninja be after you? You reported this mission as a C-rank. Nothing but bandits at most."

"I..." Tazuna took a shaky breath. "Our country is small. We have no shinobi force. And the ocean trade... our only trade, as an island, is being monopolised by a fearful man." His voice lowered, and his shoulders hunched. "Gatou."

Kakashi blinked.

"Gatou? Kakashi-sensei, who's Gatou?" Naruto said.

"A big-name businessman. And you're saying he's sucking the money out of your country?"

Tazuna nodded. "I... I couldn't afford anything more than C-rank. But I am building the bridge that will end Gatou's reign of tyranny... he fears it. I am bound to be assassinated if you leave now...!"

Naruto struggled to keep his shaking under control.

'That... those two ninja... they were- I couldn't even move, but Satsuki just... took them out all on her own!'

He looked at her. Her expression was casual, and she caught his gaze, smirking.

"Hurt, scaredy-cat?"

Naruto gritted his teeth, glaring angrily at her, before Kakashi caught his attention.

"Naruto, your cut will have to be treated in the village. Those blades they used were dipped in poison," he said. "We will have to turn back either way."

The boy looked at his team, and gritted his teeth. 'So, is that it...? I'm holding everyone back...? Like hell...!'

Naruto plunged a kunai into his hand.

"I swear by this cut on my hand," he said, "that I won't hold anyone back, and that I won't give up. And I never go back on my word...!"

Satsuki suppressed a smile.

"Good idea, but now you're probably going to bleed to death."

"Eh?! Really?!" Naruto howled, clutching his hand.

Satsuki twitched.

'Nope. He's definitely still an idiot...'

The journey continued uneventfully but anxiously all at once; Kakashi seemed slightly on edge, as did Sakura and Tazuna. But Naruto, predictably, had taken Satsuki's victory as an insult to him, and was now making it his duty to protect them.

Or to seem cool.

As Naruto glared at Satsuki and attacked small rabbits, she was beginning to think the latter was the case.

"Get down!"

A massive blade swung above their heads and embedded itself in a tree within an instant, and Satsuki's blood ran cold as the man stood on its hilt met her gaze.

"We're going to be climbing trees."

"Kakashi-sensei, I know how to climb a tree!"

"Ah..." Kakashi put on a false-perplexed expression. "But can you do it without using your hands?"

Kakashi hauled himself up the tree, crutches and all, and Naruto fist-pumped ecstatically, bouncing on the heels on his feet.

"Yes! Something I can finally do!"

And with a fair degree of astonishment, Satsuki watched as Naruto ran up the tree, hands on his hips as he grinned down at her.

Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "Well done, Naruto."

'Where did he learn something like that...?'

Their teacher looked down at them, walking down the tree. "As you can see, Naruto already understands this exercise. By infusing chakra into your feet, you stick your feet to the tree."

Satsuki lifted her foot to the tree, and found herself hopping to regain balance as she was repelled from the bark.

"Too much, and you're thrown away from the bark... too little, and you won't stick. It may take you a while to get the hang of it-"


As Sakura waved from her perch upon a branch, Satsuki finally felt the crushingly embarrassing feeling of being the dead last.

The sun beat down on Satsuki like her mother's stern voice had when she was young, and she awoke groggily.

"Are you alright?"

She jerked away, blinking at the strange girl who had such a soft expression. Worry knotted itself on the girl's eyebrows, and she asked Satsuki again. "Miss, are you alright?"

Satsuki blinked, forcing her vision to focus, before nodding dumbly.

The girl smiled. "I'm glad. But why would you sleep in a place like this?"

Satsuki yawned, looking around at the trees and the warm grass beneath her. 'Ah. I fell asleep after all that training...'

She sat up, rolling the kinks out of her shoulders and neck.

"I was training."

The girl smiled. "Ah... are you a shinobi?"

Satsuki nodded, taking note of her kimono, and of the woven basket beside her. The girl noticed her wandering gaze, and smiled.

"I was here to collect herbs. A loved one is sick... these herbs relieve fever. Why are you training, then?"

The Uchiha thinned her lips. The sun was blinding.

"To get stronger."

The girl beside him nodded.

"But for what purpose do you become stronger?" Her head tilted. "Is there anyone who is precious to you?"

Satsuki blinked, turning to the girl sat beside her.


The girl turned, hair brushing the edges of her face. "Someone to protect."

Satsuki scoffed, and the other girl's face changed a little. "Do you not have anyone like that, then?"

"I don't want anyone like that," Satsuki said, speaking as though the words stung her lips.

Now, the girl wasn't saying anything at all, and Satsuki found herself speaking instead.

"My only purpose is to avenge the deaths of my family. Nothing else."

For a moment, it seemed as though Satsuki's coldness had silenced the girl, until she sighed and looked at Satsuki with eyes that stirred emotion in her.

It was almost as though she understood.

"How sad."


"Like you'd know," Satsuki spat.

The girl turned her sad – her sad, sad gaze – away from Satsuki. "I suppose not. But death is always sad." The girl's eyes closed. "I'm sorry for your loss."

Satsuki couldn't bear to look at her.

"It was a long time ago," she said.

The girl said nothing, staring at her knees, until she broke the silence. "I lost my family at a young age," she said. "I was lost for a long time. I had no purpose... a street urchin, simply trying to eat and drink.

"I found someone... I began to love someone. We are... we are strongest when we protect those precious to us."

"Do you truly have no one?"

"They would just be a liability," Satsuki said, anger bubbling in her voice like an unattended stove.


"Because I have an ambition, and I can't let anyone get in my way. I have to kill my brother – no matter what." Satsuki resisted the urge to attack the girl. She was seething.

The girl closed her eyes. "That isn't true. With others, you are truly strong."

"He told me to hate him, to attain power to kill him... and I will. Others will just hold me back."

"If he had done such an evil to you, why would you still listen to him?"

Satsuki couldn't help but admire the softness of the girl's voice, even as she spewed atrocities.

"Do you still value what he has to say, as a brother?"

"Is it perhaps, that you maybe still love him? Despite his crimes?" the girl asked, and her face was the picture of innocence, but all Satsuki could see was red.

She held back her fists.

"I will kill Itachi. You," Satsuki said, the words tasting of poison, "could never understand."

She stood up, unsteady on her feet, and turned to leave the wood.

"Oi! Satsuki!" Naruto's orange tinge lit up the trees like a wildfire. "Who's the pretty girl you were talkin' to? And where've you been all night?"



"And sir," the girl called after them, "I'm a boy."


'That's it... if Naruto attacks from the outside...!'


Satsuki twitched, and Naruto grinned.

"I came in here to save you!"

After a moments searching, Satsuki could find no words.

'Fucking idiot...!'

"You... You...!" Satsuki said, mouth opening and closing. "You're such an idiot! Why didn't you stay outside?!"

"Hey! I was just trying to help!" Naruto huffed, and Satsuki took a deep breath.

'I can't kill him. I can't kill him.' Satsuki directed her attention to the glinting ice mirrors about them. 'I've gotta take care of this guy first...!'

"You two will die here."

The glow of the mirrors blinded Satsuki, and she was riddled with senbon and thrown to the ground beside Naruto. Every movement burned, and Satsuki's body gave out beneath her weight.

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

"Stop it-!" Satsuki cried.

The clones leapt, and in the same instant, disappeared. Naruto flew back with an agonised cry, and Satsuki winced.

'There's... there's no way we can keep this up...!' she thought, looking at the icy reflections of Haku.

"Ugh... you think you're so great..." Naruto groaned, sitting up, senbon pointing out of his shoulder. "I won't lose here! I... I have a dream! To become Hokage and be acknowledged by my village, and I won't die before I see it!"

Satsuki watched Naruto stand up with a strange sort of awe.

"I too, have a dream," said the masked reflection. "I must make my precious one's dream come true. For that... I will become a shinobi, and kill off my emotions. Like you, I will die before my dream fails...!"

"I won't lose to you!" Naruto yelled. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"


In seconds, Naruto was thrown back down again, bloodier than ever this time, but Satsuki had seen – for a split second –

'That movement...!'

Naruto did it again, and Satsuki found it once more; a trail, the lithe form of Haku, moving from mirror to mirror at such a speed-

'Even if I can see it... that's no help now...!'

"Naruto," she breathed, her voice strained. "Can you do that once more?"

"Of course I can, bastard," Naruto said, smirking, but Satsuki saw how his posture faltered, his laboured breathing – 'He's too much of an idiot to admit it, but he won't last much longer...'

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

And Satsuki swept her foot through the water, kicking it into the air, and – 'there it is!' - the water was repelled by Haku's movement, bouncing with every movement.

'If I time it right-'

Satsuki saw her enter a mirror, and lifted her fingers to her mouth.

"Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu!"

Haku veered closely out of the way of the fireball, the edges of his clothes singed. The barrage of attacks stopped, and Naruto slumped to the floor.

"Shit," Satsuki said, turning to the boy. He was crumpled on the floor. "Naruto, get up!"

"Just... just a sec, asshole..."

Haku narrowed his eyes. 'I have to take this opportunity. That girl is tracking my movements... I can't afford to let this battle continue. It must end here...!'

He launched a barrage of senbon at Satsuki, carefully aimed-

Satsuki picked up a senbon from beneath her, and carefully, awkwardly, and just barely deflected all of them. Her breathing was heavy.

"Naruto! Get up! I can't cover for you any longer!" she yelled. Naruto looked at her, but his gaze was hazy and unfocused.

"I will... bastard..." Naruto whispered, but in the same moment, he collapsed backwards.

Satsuki's heart sank.

"Your friend won't be getting back up," Haku said. "This fight is over for you."

'She can't read my movements... surely. The human eye is not fast enough... this blow will be the last.'

Satsuki picked Naruto up, and jumped out of the way.

'How is she...?!' Haku thought. 'But- is that...'

And in both of Satsuki's eyes, lay Sharingan.

Satsuki smirked.

"Even with those eyes," Haku said, "how much longer can you manage like this? You're tiring quickly."

Satsuki glared, but her muscles were screaming. 'It's true... I can't keep this up...'

"Like... hell...!"

Satsuki turned to see Naruto rising like a corpse from the dead. His grin was wide, but stained with blood.

"C'mon, Satsuki," Naruto said, and Satsuki could see- she could see how every limb quivered, how even his smile trembled with that pain. "We've gotta... take this guy out."

Haku's eyes narrowed, and he was ruthless with every barrage – Naruto was inadequate, even standing, the girl pulling him out the way, pushing him, even picking him up when need be- he was not a partner, but a liability, and now, Haku could see she was tiring-

Satsuki collapsed to one knee.


"Naruto," she breathed. "Naruto, I'm... I'm..."

She fell to her side, eyes shut.

"This is the end," Haku whispered, tone quiet and sad as it echoed through the domes. The senbon came, and Naruto saw-

'No! No- not Satsuki!'

With a grunt of pain, Satsuki hauled herself up.

Every movement pushed a senbon further into her, the wounds leaking with blood. Her vision was failing her, and her chakra was near gone, but after waiting a few dazed moments, her shaky double vision cleared.

She saw the injured, damaged body of Haku lying on the icy ground.

"You did it!" she breathed, eyes wide with disbelief and shock but pure elation, "Naru-"

The wet, half-gag half-cough noise reverberated off every mirror, the splash of blood thick and gruesome on the ground. Naruto's legs were shaking, but he turned back to Satsuki with a pained and slow movement. His smile stole Satsuki's breath.

"You look... you look stupid..."

"You," she whispered. Senbon protruded from his neck like sticks of incense.

"You... protected me..."

The blaring orange of Naruto bounced off every mirror in a world of cold blue and white.

"You're awake... good..."

His voice was hoarse and sore with pain, but she could hear the laughter in it.

He looked away from her. "Stop being... being a wimp..."

His breathing was so heavy.

"I never asked you," she said. There was so much blood beneath Naruto. "I never asked you to do this! Why didn't you just... just stay the hell out of this!? I... I hate you!"

All she could hear was her heartbeat, now, banging in the midst of mirrors and mist.

(Naruto remembered the time when Satsuki lashed out at a cashier.)

"You know, it wasn't that important-"

"Shut up."

"-why'd you yell at that lady if you didn't even want any?!"

"You just don't get it. I..." Naruto said, shaking on his feet. "I don't care... whether you asked..."

Naruto crumpled, and Satsuki found herself grabbing him by those senbon-ridden arms with her senbon-ridden own and they were both so hurt but why did he look like he was going to-

"Hokage..." he said. "I always wanted to be... Hokage, but I guess it isn't so... so important now, huh...?"

Satsuki had never seen him smile like that. It was a quiet smile.

"I thought..." he coughed. "I thought that was the most... important thing to me, but..."

'Don't say things like that...!'

Satsuki tried to speak, but all that came out was air that fell away like water and blood.

Blood gurgled from his throat like a spluttering fountain. A splatter of blood stained Satsuki's cheek.

"Promise me..." Naruto choked out, "Promise me you won't lose to this loser... and that you won't... die..."

Naruto's hand was reaching upwards.

"I promise," she whispered. "Promise me, too." Satsuki's voice was choked. "Promise me you won't die."

Naruto exhaled, smiling a bloody grin. "I promise. And Uzumaki Naruto... never goes back on his word."

Satsuki nodded, her breath hitching as his eyes shut and his body relaxed in her arms.

His smile slipped away from his lips as he died.


She settled her head in the nook of his neck, breathing in shakily.

'He still smells of... of fucking ramen and soil...!'

She couldn't look at his face any more. Her eyes stung.

'How can he... how could this...?!'

"Naruto," Satsuki whispered, her vision clouding. "Naruto, you liar...!"

She laid Naruto's body gently on the ground. Satsuki tried her hardest not to look at that unsmiling face. Haku stood up.

"He ran into a trap for someone he cared about," the boy said. "He was... a true shinobi. He gave up his life for a friend. His death is a noble one."

"Naruto had a future," Satsuki said, kneeling and looking upwards, searching for a glimpse of the blue sky.

Satsuki gritted her teeth. "Naruto... Naruto had dreams...!"

"You took everything from him...! He wasn't just a shinobi, and he wasn't noble... he was Uzumaki Naruto!"

"I'm sorry," Haku said. "For the sake of my dream... one of us must die here. Your friend made a noble sacrifice for you. If you die here... will you be able to face him in the afterlife?"

"Don't talk about him," Satsuki said, "Like you have the right."

It stank of blood.

"Don't talk about Naruto. Don't you dare...!"

She brought her gaze to the slits of the mask.

"You aren't going where Naruto's going," Satsuki said, and her mouth formed into a twisted smile. She walked.

Haku said nothing at all, taking up a twisted stance with a handful of senbon. He moved-

"But I promise you this-"

He ran forward, closer-

"-You will die today!"

And three tomoe swirled in each eye.

Chapter Text

'Those eyes… she's not the same as she was earlier. I can't take any more risks…'

Haku held the senbon to eye-level, watching Satsuki carefully. The girl smirked.

"With these eyes," she said, "I can see your every movement. It's only a matter of time, now…"

The malice in each word sent a shiver up Haku's spine.

He switched from mirror to mirror, firing quickly, but she dodged faster; no, that wasn't it - she wasn't any faster. She was more efficient; every move Satsuki made was quicker, each route she made ideal, conserving her energy with every duck and jump and dodge.

Each single barrage of senbon Haku sent was evaded, and perfectly so.

'My chakra… I'm too close to running out...'

He stopped, eyeing her carefully through the mask. She smirked, breathing heavily.

"Don't you see?" she said, smirking. "Revenge… revenge has brought me this beautiful, delicious power. And with it, I will erase you!"

Haku's lips thinned.

"So you may believe…"

Haku ran once more, but this time, he observed more than he attacked.

And now he saw: Satsuki was watching him.

She was running, diving, dodging, carefully avoiding her friend's corpse, but more than anything, she was watching him. She was watching his every step, and she was calculating.

This instilled a great sense of fear into him.

'Is she identifying how I fight? What exactly does she plan to do…?'

Haku truly had no idea, until it happened.

There came a single, gross miscalculation; a situation he had noticed due to the subtlety with which she set it up.

He had allowed her to stray too far from him, too far indeed; minutely, with an expertly-executed maneuver, Satsuki had become far too near to one of the mirrors.

Haku had noticed, and dived across-

To which Satsuki sent a horridly forceful foot into his stomach at close range, sending him smashing into the mirror behind him.

Haku winced, sitting up. Blood gathered in his mouth, spilling down his chin.

"Futile," Haku said, and so it was; he melded back into the mirror quickly, with Satsuki within the dome all the same.

Even as everything seemed fine - even though the setback was minor, and he was quickly melding back into his ice mirrors - Haku felt a great, unerring sense of unease as Satsuki smirked. The turn of her lips was not a pleasant one.

She ran.

It took every ounce of Haku's effort to try and catch her, and he did not. Although Zabuza had told Haku, once or twice, of the sheer prestige of an Uchiha eye, it meant very little to him; even as he had observed Kakashi, it had not seemed so superior.

But now, Haku understood; the Sharingan, its precise eyesight and copying - were all efficiency. A wonderful, and fantastically useful efficiency.

She was not faster than Haku, oh no. But she was efficient. There was no mistake in what she did, because there was no mistake in what she expected to come.

After ten minutes of horribly tense evasion and attack, Haku's chakra reached its limit. The mirrors collapsed.

The weapon master's shop smelled strongly of sawdust and metal, and a bespectacled man sat at the desk with a welding mask that sat oddly over his glasses.

Satsuki frowned. Her mother was chatting animatedly with the man, but Satsuki could only find the situation immensely uncomfortable. She didn't like it here, and she made that obvious to her mother by tugging on the material on the elbow of her cardigan.

"Mother," she said, quietly. "Mother, are we done?"

The week previous, Satsuki had been dragged to this shop, and forced to stretch her hands into awkward and strange positions whilst a man with a measuring tape wiggled his way around her hand. It had been unpleasant, and she was hoping something similar wouldn't happen, but the situation was risky. She needed to leave; Satsuki considered spontaneously bursting into tears, but although Mikoto was gentle, she had her doubts that her mother would excuse her for something so stupid.

"Satsuki, behave. The man has prepared something e specially for you!"

'Oh,' Satsuki thought, regarding at the slightly tipsy looking man. 'Oh no.'

The man nodded at her, and stood up, disappearing into the back of the shop. Satsuki's anticipation built for a moment, until he came out with a large wooden box, sealed with golden clasps. It was much cleaner than her current environment, and he set it down on his desk, turning it to Satsuki with a gentle smile.

"Go on," her mother urged kindly with a hand on her shoulder. "Open it."

Satsuki undid the clasps awkwardly, and opened the box slowly. When she saw the contents, she couldn't help but gasp.

There lay two fans, carefully overlaying one another in a bed of soft, burgundy velvet. They were black, emblazoned with the Uchiha symbol, with untainted metal spokes of a clear, reflective silver.

She picked them up tentatively, and the carefully lacquered wooden outer cover settled into Satsuki's palm perfectly. Satsuki gaped, and at her mother's expectant look, she began to clasp the fan, splaying it out again with a deliberate motion.

She had never felt something so natural to her.

"As an Uchiha kunoichi," she said, "Tessenjutsu is our greatest strength, passed from generation to generation. After seeing you playing with my own tessen fans, I decided it was time that I commissioned your own."

Even after her mother was long gone, Satsuki trained with tessen fans; they were the pivotal point of the Gliding Edge style. They became her pride, and so, not even for her academy bell test, nor her first C-rank mission, had she brought them. They were a gift, to her.

Her outlook on this soon changed.

In Haku's stupor, Satsuki took the opportunity to reach down, and root for two adequately-sized shards of ice from the shattered mirrors.

No such shards came, but awkwardly shaped and somewhat disproportionate ones did.

Satsuki knew she was pushing her boundaries of skill by using a non-collapsable substitute for fans; let alone ones that weren't sizably comparable to her regular fans of choice.

Haku was breathing heavily behind his mask as he regained his senses, vision wavering as he attempted to steady himself.

Satsuki knew there was no chance she could pull out any more ninjutsu.

The two of them settled into a careful stance, and there was an unspoken decision.


"Gliding Edge," Satsuki said. She never broke her gaze, and her body contorted into a delicately balanced pose, with the shards splaying out from her palms.

"First Stance."

'Those shards... she's incorporated them into her taijutsu style perfectly, as though she is substituting for a pair of fans...'

"Tessenjutsu," Haku said, and Satsuki's eyes narrowed.

"When handled carefully, an uchiwa has the power to both rekindle a flame... and to smother it," Satsuki said, her voice even.

Satsuki held the two shards carefully, the two makeshift weapons grazing the thin flesh of her wrists. She smirked.

"So allow me to show you the true power," Satsuki said, "of an Uchiha kunoichi."

The style of the Gliding Edge was a difficult one, that was trained into the Uchiha women from an early age; the grace it required became obvious in every mannerism of an Uchiha woman. The ability to use momentum to expend less energy; careful, graceful, and precise.

The key was to allow the fans to become an extension of that elegance, and Satsuki wished more than anything at that moment that she had brought those fans.

That had been a mistake, and she was paying for it.

Satsuki had no more room for mistakes, and she ran forward.

Haku held longer, thicker senbon in either hand, parrying the deadly edge of an ice shard as Satsuki brought it around in a perfect curve.

The momentum of the spin swung Satsuki's balance to the side, and she crouched, bringing her arms around in a quick spin to hack at Haku's legs; Haku moved out of the way quickly, the sharp edge nicking the cotton of his clothing.

Satsuki quickly launched herself up, running forward with the two shards poised in front of her, and her movement was too quick for Haku to respond to as he staggered on his feet from the quick dodge of Satsuki's low swipe before-

Haku plunged the senbon into the shards, Satsuki pressing the two pieces closer to each side of his jaw, until Haku crowbarred the two shards into the air and out of Satsuki's grip. The success was tainted with the dry heaving that accompanied Satsuki's leg as the girl used his gut as leverage to flip over backwards and away from him.

Satsuki reached for two kunai, and in one swift movement, launched them at Haku.

Haku jumped, but the movement wasn't sufficient; they implanted themselves deeply into his left shin. He faltered.

Haku reached for his senbon, jumping backwards and launching a barrage at them at Satsuki. She did not even move, using the flat edge of the shards to negate every single one. Haku bit his lip.

'She's fast... just as fast as me, without those ice mirrors, but it's obvious that she can track my movements faster than she can dodge them... and with my legs damaged like this, there's no way I can keep up with that... I have to do something!'

Haku winced, picking the kunai out of his leg and jumping backwards. He was running the risk of bleeding out, and Satsuki noticed.

"Do you plan on dying here?"

"I wouldn't plan for it," Haku said, "But I will do whatever I have to as a tool."

Satsuki scoffed, settling into a twisted pose. "A tool?" she sneered. "What a sad existence. Living as an instrument of someone else's desires..."

Haku's legs were dripping with blood, but he jumped back, sending a flurry of senbon Satsuki's direction as he did.

"Are you truly that different? Shinobi are tools of a village... I am the tool of a man. You, especially, should know..."

'What is he trying to say...?!' Satsuki thought, angering quickly.

"I am the tool of my own intentions," Satsuki hissed, lunging for Haku, and the red of her eyes struck fear into his heart.

'Those eyes... is she even seeing me...?!'

Satsuki was too fast, and Haku saw the recognition of his strike before it came, even though she was not fast enough to evade it. As his senbon threatened to pierce through another shard, Satsuki brought the ice shard down to scrape along Haku's arm; Haku plunged the senbon into the girl's shoulder, and her arm loosened and dropped one shard. The victory was short-lived, as Satsuki unleashed a full-frontal assault.

Haku was mesmerised slightly by the style; it was brute force disguised as beauty.

'You'd fall in love with it before you realised you were dead...'

Satsuki parried Haku's senbon with the her forearm pressing against Haku's, swiping the shard in her other hand across Haku's stomach. The boy leaned backwards and jarred himself out of the girl's grip, attempting to kick Satsuki's jaw as he flipped over backwards.

The move backfired as Satsuki dodged easily, bringing the shard around with a momentous force that cut a significant amount of Haku's hair and left a gash in his mask.

The hair hadn't had time to fall to the ground when Satsuki stood on her hands and brought her legs around to collide with the side of Haku's head.

The hit launched Haku a few metres, his blood leaving a smudged trail.

Through a hazy double vision, Haku began to panic at Satsuki's approaching form.

'At this rate... Satsuki will escape, and Zabuza-sama will...'

Haku stood up, staggering on his feet, and he knew that Satsuki could have killed him in that instant. Whether she did not in order to prolong his suffering, or out of pity, he would never know.

"For Zabuza-sama... for the sake of his dreams… I cannot die here…!"


Haku looked at the young girl. Her expression was contorted with fury.

"Don't expect to see tomorrow," Satsuki said, "when Naruto won't."

Haku smiled beneath his mask.

"True strength... comes about for those we care about. Your will to avenge, and my will to protect..." he said, clasping senbon between each finger, "...are both manifestations of love."

Satsuki scowled, and poised her leg at a 180 degree angle.

"Gliding Edge," she said. "Second Stance."

And with a deafening bang, Satsuki's foot hit the floor.

'A chakra trick… clever. She amplified the noise...'

He was awakened from his stunned stupor by an elbow to the kidney and the heel of Satsuki's foot being slammed into the back of his knee. She quickly pushed down on his shoulder, sending him to the floor before her knee was rammed into the small of his back. Haku spat blood.


"Naruto is finally smiling," Satsuki said, and her mouth was twisting into a smile. "Naruto is finally smiling!"

Her laugh shook him to his core.

How many times had Haku seen this? The insane delusions of the grieving…?

"Not like his corpse! Naruto is finally laughing again!" Satsuki howled, laughing hysterically. She doubled over, eyes filling with tears of hysteria. "Laughing! Laughing! LAUGHING!"

Haku took this opportunity to stumble away from the girl, her laughs echoing far in the mist.

Satsuki's laughs began to wash away into mild chuckles, and she looked up, Sharingan spinning wildly and grinning.

"Your death is so close I can taste it," she breathed, "and it is wonderful."

And then Satsuki's mouth was at his ear, plunging a shard of ice towards the base of his back. Her whisper was warm in his ear.


With an abrupt movement, Haku felt several things.

She felt the interference of Zabuza at her back, as he grabbed the Satsuki's slender wrist and swung her, with impressive force, elsewhere.

Then came the interception of Kakashi, quickly engaging with Zabuza, and Haku turned around to see the conflict in his eyes.

This had been with unclear reason until a second later.

Zabuza had made a decision.

Satsuki had forcefully kicked, with every ounce of her strength, the pile of ice shards towards Haku, and had fully expected the boy to die.

Of all variations Satsuki had expected, she had not accounted for the possibility of Zabuza, the Demon of the Mist, jumping in front of the mass of shards.

Silence reigned, and then, after a moment - with nothing but a gurgle - Zabuza collapsed.


The whisper was empty sounding, and Satsuki had not heard Haku refer to his master without any kind of honorific.

"Zabuza," Haku repeated, crawling slowly towards the man. "Zabuza. Zabuza."

"Haku," the man said, his voice weak. He sounded like he was going to say more, but nothing came.

"Zabuza," Haku said. "You fool."

Zabuza coughed. The sound made Satsuki cringe.

"You're a fool," Zabuza said. "Working for a washed out demon like me…"

"I'm no fool! Zabuza… Zabuza-sama, we have to- we'll break the deal, with Gatou, I'll escape and heal you-"

"Shut up, Haku. That's enough."

Zabuza sounded tired; weary.

"Why?" Haku said, choking with the thousands of things he was trying to push out at once. "Why would you- I'm just a tool to you, Zabuza-sama! For a tool, why would you-"

"Is that how you saw it?" Zabuza said, voice straining. "For a ninja, Haku, you were always so gullible."

The bridge was quiet, and though opportunity certainly presented itself, Satsuki herself knew - and knew through the quiet, unchallenging posture of Kakashi - that to attack now was simply not right.

"You were too kind," Zabuza said. "Too kind for killing. I'm… I'm sorry for that. I have… a lifetime of apologies to make to you… worst of all, letting your dreams rely on a man like me…"

"I made that choice, Zabuza-sama," Haku whispered.

"The good in this world comes through the young. The brutal practices of that Mizukage… making young children kill one another… even as I killed anyone and everyone for money, in my mind was that belief. It doesn't atone for my sins, but…

"I'm sorry for this, Haku," Zabuza said, eyes shutting. "For all of the things I made you do. Each time, I told you to kill your heart… but you were just too gentle for that. One, final thing…"


"Take that stupid mask off… there is no shame in your tears."

Zabuza passed away.

"Zabuza," Haku whispered. "Zabuza."

With a choked cry, Haku lay his head on Zabuza's chest and sobbed.

The act was pitiful; tears that fell silently, the tears of a boy without purpose. Satsuki had willed herself not to look away, but there came a point.

"What did you…" Haku said, the words not quiet but a whisper all the same. "What did you expect me to do with this worthless life of mine, Zabuza-sama…?"

Haku clasped the sides of his head, stumbling to his feet with an uncertainty of balance.

Kakashi watched with bated breath, poised to strike. The boy had his head in his hands, fingers pressed tightly to his flesh with tufts of hair clenched in between.

His quivering, unstable rage quieted, and Haku slowly pulled away his mask, and dropped it to the floor.

Satsuki froze.

"It was you," she said. "You! In the woods!"

Haku was silent.

Satsuki felt rage bubbling inside of her, and she clenched her fists. "If you have dreams of protecting those you love… how could you possibly…!? How could you possibly have done this?! If you understand that, then…!"

"My dreams," Haku said, "were Zabuza's dreams. My hopes were Zabuza's hopes. I lived for the purpose of serving him… and without him, I…"

"Living for the purpose of serving someone else's desires," Satsuki said, boiling with anger, "is ridiculous."

"Is that not what you have done?"

Satsuki stopped.

"Is that not what you have done," Haku said, "by living your life in hatred, as your brother asked? By living your life in a search for power? Are you not serving the desires of someone else, as a tool? And even then… your existence is reliant on vengeance. Reliant on an empty justice…"

"Empty justice," Satsuki said, her voice low. "Empty justice?! You killed Naruto! He did nothing but dream of being acknowledged! He was naive and stupid and he pissed me off, but you took away his hopes and dreams! Don't call this an empty justice…!"

Haku was quiet for a moment, and then he closed his eyes, head tilted towards the sky as though he were searching for stars behind his eyelids.

"But what would Naruto say? Would he thank you?"

And then, Satsuki had no more words for Haku.

"You told me in the woods that day," Haku said, "that you had no one worthy of protecting. That you didn't need anyone like that, that bonds like that would only hold you back. And yet…

"It seems as though, had it not been for Naruto's intervention, you would be dead."

Satsuki didn't say anything.

"Ahh! You useless bastards."

The ninja flicked their attention to the end of the bridge, and out stepped - with a platoon of mercenaries at his back - a short man, with thick black glasses, and a disgusting grin.

"With all the things I'd heard about you two, I thought you could polish off a decrepit old man," he snorted, "But that's not the case, eh?"

Kakashi narrowed his eyes. "Gatou."

"And you two were expensive, you know!" Gatou said, stepping forward with a reliance on his cane. "Figured I'd finish both of off to replenish my funds, you know what I'm saying? But looks like half the job is done!"

Haku stood from his master's body, and turned to Gatou.

"I have one final gift to you, ninja of Konoha... on one condition." His voice was as cold as his ice.

"What?" Satsuki whispered, and her heart went cold as Haku turned his face to her and opened his eyes.

His eyes were formed of an entire, unseeing, illustrious ice, with not iris nor pupil to speak of; pure, untainted ice, in the sockets of Haku's skull-

"Forge your own path," he said. "And find dreams."

A cackle resounded from Gatou's mouth, and Satsuki scowled.

"Dreams! Pretty words for a mercenary!" Gatou said, talking between his snorts. "I won't waste a second on a brat like you now that demon is dead. Harmless, isn't he?"

The jibes were followed by the stout man poking at Zabuza's eyelids with his walking stick, pushing aside the skin to expose the unseeing eyes behind.

Satsuki's face tightened with anger, and she stepped forward purposefully, but was stopped by the silent, motionless stance of Haku.

"My final favour to you all," Haku said, stepping forward with a posture that spoke volumes more than his monotone voice, "is to rid this world of this wretched man."

Satsuki, without thinking, stepped back, and Gatou too stumbled backwards.

"What are you saying, brat...?! Those eyes of yours- g-get him! Demon child!"

Gatou stumbled through his crowd of henchmen, towards the half-constructed edge of the bridge.

"Satsuki-san," Sakura said. "The ocean is...!"

And so, Satsuki looked.

The ocean itself, from the bridge to the radius surrounding it, was freezing, a spiderweb-like network of ice forming from the piers beneath the bridge outwards, the landscape coating in a reflective grey. The falling snow thickened.

There was an affirmative cry amongst the mercenary ranks, their weapons lifting to the sky, and they began forward.

Satsuki felt the shaking of the bridge as there was a sharp, cutting noise and the scraping of crumbling brick.

In the most beautifully disgusting show of murder Satsuki would ever bear witness to, a twisted spire of ice pierced through the bridge and through Gatou, launching through his corpse and spraying body parts and blood over the bridge.

His glasses, and his finger, landed in front of Sakura, staining her ankle with a splash of red.

She threw up.

The mercenaries stilled, their faces dripping with blood, before attempting to run.

Satsuki's hands shook first, and then she found herself on her knees, dry heaving, eyes straining as she vomited.

Haku fell down, and the bridge was quiet.


The noise was barely audible, and wiping her mouth, Satsuki responded. The fear permeated her voice.


"Zabuza-sama," Haku croaked, "Please. Let me see him..."

Her nodding was slow and hesitant, and Satsuki lifted Haku and set him beside Zabuza's corpse. He was light.

The snowfall was slow and gentle as Haku turned to Zabuza's peaceful form, with outstretched, icy fingers.

"Dreaming... do you dream, even in death, Zabuza-sama? And of what...?"

Satsuki headed to Naruto with a body full of holes, and a heart full of lead.

The mist had cleared, and where Naruto lay, not snow nor blood had tread. The snowfall had stopped short of him, as had the bloodshed; he lay in a bed of ice.

Satsuki walked by his side, and her knees trembled as she knelt down beside him.

Satsuki did not cry.

"Do not cry. He led his life as an admirable shinobi, and he died as one."

Fugaku's voice was stern, and Satsuki scrubbed at her tears with the sleeve of her black dress, swallowing a hiccup and trying to blink back tears.

Itachi's presence was empty and unmoving beside her. Satsuki had had half a mind to be indignant at how he ignored her every word, until she had seen the first and only tear fall.

The day was uncomfortable; storm clouds had lingered overhead continuously, threatening rain and never spilling. When the end of the day had come, and Shisui had been firmly under dirt, Mikoto had took her daughter aside.

"It's okay to cry," she said.

Satsuki did not cry.

Satsuki felt her gut twist when she looked at Naruto. He had not moved an inch.

The hope that he would have was terribly, and illogically, pathetic.

"Liar," she said. Satsuki leaned forward, burying her head in the folds of his orange jacket. It was so cold, and the scent of everything that was Naruto had been stained by blood and the icy air.

"You stupid liar…"

And for a brief moment, she wanted to cry. She wanted tears to come, she wanted to sob; just to prove to herself, to Naruto's dead and empty corpse, that she cared, because only now-

Only now did she see that she had, and it was just so wrong when she saw those things she had said to Haku. That she had said there was no one worth protecting, because-

-because Naruto had cared enough to die for her.

He'd had dreams, and Satsuki had always thought them stupid, irrational and brash, just like she had Naruto, but somewhere along the way had came that spark of-

"I swear by the cut on this hand that I won't hold anyone back, and that I won't give up. And I never go back on my word…!"


She had believed in Naruto, and yet, the tears would not come.

The corpse beneath her groaned.


Satsuki started, launching back off of Naruto with wide eyes.

To her complete and utter amazement-

"My… fuck, my back…"

-Uzumaki Naruto-

"Ow… ow, ow ow…"

-was rising from the dead.

Satsuki's words caught in her throat as Naruto's bright blue eyes met hers. He blinked, before grinning widely.

His laughter resounded across the whole bridge.

"Heh-heh! I fooled you, huh?" Naruto said, laughing and sticking his tongue out at Satsuki. "It's what you get for doubting the word of Uzumaki Naruto!"

Satsuki was speechless.

"You're…" Satsuki whispered, the words refusing to come.

"Uh… Satsuki…?"

Satsuki could only describe the sensation as being dropped from a cliff, only to find Heaven below.

"You idiot," she said, words catching in her throat. "Trying to play off something like that…! And… And I still hate you!"

As she looked at Naruto's smile and open - gloriously, gloriously seeing! - blue eyes, Satsuki choked, let out a sob, and began to cry.

And so came the tale of the Great Naruto Bridge.

The bridge that brought the Land of Waves to prosperity was both strong and reliable; just like the ninja who had fought valiantly for it, who had brought the people of that country to believe in the power of unity. And so, it was named after that knuckleheaded ninja.

A fair distance across the bridge, there comes a spot that sends travellers and tradesmen into confusion; no matter what the weather, there is a stretch on this bridge that is thick with mist, and constant, unceasing snowfall.

The tale speaks of a spectre of Ice and a spectre of Mist, who protect the bridge and those who pass by upon it, by misleading those with evil intentions and casting them overboard and allowing a clear path to those with only good in mind.

The unspoken tale speaks of two mercenaries, who died together with nothing more than a young ninja to carry away the tale of their lives and dreams.

The less romantic part of that tale speaks of their pathetic deaths, of how a boy pledged himself to a selfish man, but the better part of that tale speaks of how their tales lived on.

Indeed, their tales lived on, carving the strange, uncertain, and certainly wrong future.

Because those tales, whilst wonderful, and heart-wrenchingly inspirational, were supposed to ascertain the future of a brash young boy, and yet these words had only reached the ears of a cold young girl.

But that was how it went, and so, the future went with it.

Chapter Text

The first day, Satsuki is anxious.

"You're late!"

"Maa, well, I was- oh, where's Naruto?"

"I don't know. He never turned up…"

"Well. He must be sick. Let's continue…"

The second day, Sakura is anxious.

"You're late!"

"Maa, well, I was- what, is he sick again?"

"I guess…"

"Hm. I'd expect him to be exhausted after that trip… it's best if we check up on him, but today, we've been summoned..."

The third day, Kakashi is anxious.

"You're late!"


"Yeah… I guess he must be really sick. Can we go check on him, Kakashi-sensei?"

"That'd be best."

Knock. Knock.

"Naruto?" Kakashi said.

There were a couple of light footsteps, and the jiggling of a faulty lock, before the door opened.

"Hi," Naruto said. His voice was rough.

He looked awful.

It wasn't in a sickly fashion, Satsuki noted; his skin was the same shade of light brown, and his nails were white and healthy looking. But he looked generally unkempt, with dark bags under his eyes and a distant look in his eyes.

There was a stirring of worry in her chest.

"Where've you been the past two days?" Sakura said, and Satsuki found herself surprised at the gentleness in her voice.

Naruto brought a hand up to scratch the side of his head. He looked down.

"I… I haven't been feeling too great," he said, a laugh in his voice. Satsuki felt as though it was an obligation.

"Haven't you gone to the hospital?" Sakura asked.

Naruto was quiet for a moment, and he didn't look any of them in the eye. One hand pulled at the material on the side of his pants.

"It's not like that," he said, after a moment's thought. "I just…"

"If you're feeling sick, you should go to the hospital," Sakura said, folding her arms. "Staying at home won't make you better. Have you been sleeping?"

Satsuki yearned to say something.

Before their eyes, Naruto's expression and posture reformed itself. He laughed, scratching the back of his head.

"Don't worry about me! I'll be fine!"

Even as Naruto gave them a big smile, and Sakura tried to smile reassuringly back, Satsuki couldn't help but feel a heavy weight settle in the pit of her stomach as they left.

After they had been assigned a simple D-rank, Kakashi apologised and excused himself for the day.

Satsuki's inkling of worry became a dark, permanent blotch on her psyche.

"What is it, Kakashi?"

Kakashi tucked his book into his pocket.

"Hokage-sama, I am beginning to think that the A rank mission has taken its toll on Naruto."

The Third paused in his calligraphic writings, eyeing Kakashi suspiciously below the tip of his hat. "What do you mean?"

"Naruto took two days leave. I thought he may been ill, or exhausted, but upon visiting him," Kakashi said, expression serious, "Well, Hokage-sama, I'm sure you read the mission report. I think it was a bit severe. After all, the majority of ninja are eased into higher-level missions."

There was a moment of quiet.

"I see," the Hokage said, a plume of smoke leaking from his lips. He stood. "The psychiatric assessment after that incident with his teacher was to be expected, what with that child's resilience..."

Kakashi said nothing. Sarutobi sighed.

"What would you recommend, Kakashi? As his sensei?"

"The situation is delicate," he said.

"Personally," Sarutobi said, "Don't you think it would be better if you saw to it? Perhaps Naruto does not say so much, but I believe you've left a lasting impression on him."

Kakashi nodded, bowing respectfully. "And if Naruto requires further days leave-"

"Paid for," the Third said. "After all, it is hardly his fault that Team 7 got an A-rank. Dismissed."

"Satsuki. Sakura."

The two genin looked up, one curious and the other irritated.

"Let's go for barbeque. On me."

"Eh? Really?"

Kakashi turned over a piece of meat on the grill, and it spat viciously in response.

"Sensei?" Sakura said. "What's the deal?"

"'The deal'?"

Satsuki raised an eyebrow. "Why have we come out for barbeque?"

"-on you?" Sakura finished, crossing her arms and looking suspiciously at Kakashi.

"Don't you like barbeque? Do you want ramen?"

Sakura and Satsuki both gave Kakashi a narrowing look, and the man shrugged.

"Talking over food is best."

"Is this about Naruto?" Satsuki said.

The sound of sizzling fat filled the silence.

"Perhaps," Kakashi said, and Sakura ate a small chunk of beef, and swallowed it with an anxious expression.

"He didn't seem like himself," she said. "And Naruto wouldn't miss a mission, even if he was sick…"

Kakashi shoveled three pieces of beef onto the grill, and Satsuki selected one tentatively.

"Being a shinobi has a great mental toll on some people. It's a hard business."

Satsuki stopped, and Sakura blinked.

"Sensei, is Naruto…?"

Kakashi picked two perfectly cooked pieces on Satsuki and Sakura's plates.

"I'm not certain," Kakashi said. "But it seems likely."

Satsuki stared at a small fat bubble popping in a river of grease.

"Naruto?" she said quietly.

'Naruto? Why Naruto?'

"It seems more like a moderate case of PTSD. But don't jump to conclusions. Naruto might just have the flu, you know."

Poking at the edge of her beef, the fat sloshed onto the plate in a tiny waterfall of gloopy oil. Satsuki's appetite dripped away with it.

Satsuki's walk home to her apartment followed much of Naruto's, and she physically steered herself the other way.

She reached her apartment without incident, stepping in and stripping off to get into the shower. The water was cold and welcome.

When she got out, the apartment was just as she had left it. Clean. Everything where it should have been; the bookshelves perfect, the bedcovers untouched, and Satsuki, half-dressed, made herself sweet tea.

Satsuki sat on her bed for a moment more, expecting to hear an obnoxious idiot banging her door down with 'Hokage's orders!'. Her heart sank when nothing came, and every second was more reluctant than the last as she urged herself to get up.

'Maybe he'll come now. Maybe he'll come now. Maybe he'll come now.'

It took an immense force to stand herself up, and Satsuki walked clumsily, hot tea spilling over her fingers, to the balcony. Crisp, wilted leaves littered the table outside.

Her plant was dying.

Satsuki cleared up the leaves, crushing them, tucking them beneath the soil, and then she cut up the old soft apples that she never would have eaten anyway, tucking them in the dryness of the soil, sprinkling the plant with water that caught in its leaves.

She set the table further out, the leaves barely catching the evening sun.

When Satsuki went back in, she sat herself at her empty table with paper and ink and attempted to write a letter. She tried once, twice, three times before giving up.

When Naruto managed to stop staring at the ceiling, he sat himself at his dusty table with paper and pen and attempted to write a letter. He tried, once, twice, ten times before giving up.


The door opened awkwardly, and Naruto smiled brightly.

Sakura noted that he looked a little worse, and his smile looked painful.


"Hi," she said. "Can I come in?"

Naruto's feet shuffled awkwardly on the wooden floor, and he allowed the door to gape. Sakura stepped in.

The apartment was messy, and Sakura navigated her way through strewn clothing and ramen pots to the dusty kitchen table with a wrinkled nose. She pulled the chair out, sitting down, and she noted that as dead as Naruto and his apartment looked, his various plants were very much alive.

Sakura coughed awkwardly as Naruto sat down beside her, and she tested the surface of a leaf with her fingers.

"I didn't think you were the kind to keep plants, when I met you," she said, tracing the layer of waxy cuticle on the leaf.

Naruto laughed, rubbing the back of his head, but didn't say anything. The apartment felt empty without the echoes of Naruto's obnoxious opinion, but Sakura didn't prod him any further.

"But," she said, "When I look at you now… I guess you're that kinda guy."

"Yeah?" he said. "Satsuki didn't think so either."


"Yeah… when I told her how to take care of them, she looked confused. But I love plants," he said.

"Huh," Sakura said, letting the leaf slip from her grip and the stem settle back into its vertical stasis. "It's funny… you and Satsuki…"

"What is?"

Sakura looked at a tiny, unopened bud.

"I guess," she said, "I just… when did you two become friends?"

"Friends?" Naruto said. His voice had a tone that made Sakura want to wake him up from this lethargic sleep-walking that he was passing off as sickness.

"You and Satsuki are friends," she said. "I… I dunno. I look at you, and… you two are always at each other's throats, but…."

"Friends," Naruto said again. "If… me and Satsuki are friends, then, Sakura-chan…"

Sakura pouted, folding her arms, but a smile was testing at the edges of her lips. "Maybe we're friends, too."

Naruto was quiet for a moment.


Sakura broke away from her reluctance and smiled brightly at Naruto. "Yeah! We're friends, right? Being on a team has made you a little less annoying, and…"

The way Naruto hung on her every word, with eyes that were so blue and childish, made her heart beat faster.

"I dunno," she said, folding her arms and casting her head towards the window to hide the faint colour of a blush, "Maybe, when we fought Zabuza, and you and Satsuki made that plan… I guess you were kind of…"

The blush intensified slightly, and Sakura coughed.

"I guess you were kind of cool," she said.

Naruto's expression lit up, and his smile made Sakura feel warm from the pits of her chest to her cheekbones.

"Does that mean we can go on a date-"

"No! Stop getting the wrong idea, idiot! And besides, I've eaten!"

"But Sakura-chan-!"

Satsuki walked up the steps with a heavy bag.

It smelled strongly of salt and miso. She pictured Naruto's apartment in her head as she reached the right floor, walking along and counting the numbers carefully.

His door was worn, painted an off shade of green. She reached to knock-

"Come on, Sakura-chan!"

"No, I don't care if I have to sew the cover myself! That couch is ugly!"

"It matches my door-"

"Your door is ugly too!"


Satsuki heard the smile in Naruto's voice.

She rapped on the door with strength, and it opened stiffly to reveal Naruto smiling brightly.

"Satsuki- that smell!" he said, grinning and stepping forward. "Ramen?!"

Satsuki held the bag out to Naruto, and the boy inhaled deeply, grinning widely, before he opened the door behind him with his foot.

"Are you gonna come in too? Sakura's here!"


"But-" he protested, eyebrows knotted. Satsuki looked away.

"I have somewhere to be," she said.

Satsuki put her hands in her pockets, turned around, and walked straight back the way she came.

Naruto blinked.

"Uh- bye, Satsuki-san!" Sakura called after her, rushing to the door to see Satsuki's retreating back.

Satsuki said nothing, but once Naruto's door had clicked shut and she had began descending the stairs, she realised she was clenching her fists.

"Jeez, something was up with her…"

"I'm sure she's just worried about you," Sakura said. "She brought you ramen, after all."

Naruto drew up a chair, placing the bag on the table and grabbing some chopsticks. "Well," he said, pouting sullenly, "She could have just stayed."

As he unwrapped the parcel, he realised there were two bowls.

"She got me two?"

One was filled with miso ramen, and the other was similar. Fresh tomato was cut all throughout the dish.

Naruto rubbed the back of his head. "Well, I don't even like tomatoes… do you want that one, Sakura-chan?"

Sakura looked at the tomatoes, sitting atop the noodles and resting against the side of the bowl.

Her heart sank.

"No," she said, thinking of Satsuki's strange expression as she had handed Naruto the noodles. "I'll pass."

"Naruto. Good to see you."

"Yeah, Kakashi-sensei!"

Kakashi passed the three of them sheets.

"What're these, Kakashi-sensei?"

"I've entered you three for the chuunin exams."

Chapter Text

Satsuki walked slowly, tucking the paper into her pocket, and hesitantly, Sakura walked behind.

The silence permeated the air.

"So… Satsuki-san," Sakura said, hands fumbling behind her back. "What are you going to do?"

Satsuki walked, not sparing Sakura a glance. "Isn't it obvious?"

Sakura's stomach dropped. 'I knew it...'

"Well, uh," Sakura said, fiddling with her hair. "I… I don't really have any idea… what we're, y'know, up against.."

"It doesn't matter," Satsuki said. "We're strong enough, and there's no point doing these D-rank missions any more. I have to become stronger."

"Stronger?" Sakura repeated.

'To kill… a certain man.'

"That thing you said," the girl said, fidgeting with an awkward smile as she avoided Satsuki's gaze. "Killing, is… so…"

"We aren't children any more," Satsuki said.

"...yeah, you're right."

Sakura walked slowly behind Satsuki, searching for words, until they came to a crossroads, and wordlessly, without even a pathetic goodbye, Sakura diverged paths.


She turned, and Satsuki had walked no further, turning her head to the side to look at Sakura.

"Do you want to train with me?"

Sakura's mouth opened and closed like a fish, and she blinked.

"What- uh," she stuttered, "like, now?"

Satsuki raised an eyebrow.

Sakura wondered whether she'd heard her right.

"Uh- yeah! Sure! Uh… lead the way…"

"Oh, so this is where you train?"

The clearing wasn't perfectly spacious, but Sakura supposed that was a more realistic scenario anyway. She disguised a stumble over a tree root as a strangely-footed spin. Satsuki walked ahead of her.

"Free from distractions," Satsuki said, walking to the middle of the grounds. Her body morphed into something snakelike in its grace, and a shiver ran up Sakura's spine.

Satsuki met her eyes.

"Come at me."

Sakura hesitated for a moment, unsure in her words and her movements, until she remembered the weakness in thoughts like that (perhaps, in that moment, she'd be dead) and she ran at Satsuki fists flying.

With a single, well-timed push, Sakura was sent flying into the ground, chin first, and her eyes stung with tears.

"Try again."

Sakura stood up, running forward, only to be elbowed in the back and sent crumpling to her knees.

The humiliation came once, twice, thrice more, until Satsuki gave her a cold look that made Sakura feel like curling up on herself and disappearing.

"This was a mistake."

Sakura felt tears threatening to spill at the edges of her eyes. "What was?"

Satsuki looked down on her, turning on the balls of her feet, but with a cold, empty look over her shoulder before she did. "Trying to train a mediocre kunoichi like you."


Sakura's heart fell to her feet.

'Sure… I'm pretty weak and pathetic, but… am I really…?'

Satsuki's feet padded softly on the grass, the sound becoming more distant with every step.

Sakura gritted her teeth.


And for the life of her, Satsuki had not - not one bit! - expected the fist that came hurtling towards her jaw. So, really, no one could blame her when she dumbly let it hit her, and lay on the ground with spinning vision and a tang in her mouth.

And even with the taste of blood on her tongue, stars in her eyes, and a resounding ringing in her head, nothing could stop Satsuki from smiling at Sakura.

"You hit hard," Satsuki said, a smile curling the edges of her lips. "Let's go again."

The straight-down burn of midday sun beamed down on Naruto.

His knuckles stung from the grazes and splinters, a sticky half-pus half-blood mess stringing the gaps between his fingers. It was the result of what he'd called training, but what was closer to angrily punching a post.

Naruto arrived at the gates.

Although he'd promised himself and Mizuki he would not return here, he figured that the Chuunin exams qualified as a special occasion.

He found the grave, and knelt down gently.

"Tohru Mizuki"

The name stirred the noise of wheezing lungs, the feeling of clumped tissue resting on his lips, the strike of demonic lightning-

Naruto calmed his breath.

The chuunin exam entry forms lay below him, held down in the light breeze beneath his knees. Chuunin. The title that would bring him a step closer to Hokage, to better missions, to respect from the villagers.

To, supposedly, all that he'd ever wanted.

Naruto leaned forwards, resting his forehead on the top of the grave, his breath misting along the reflective stone.

The tuft of dandelions from so long ago had sprouted, from its seeds, tens of plants, all letting free waves of fluffy white in the gusts of wind.

The chuunin exam form pinned below his knees rustled in the breeze.

Naruto closed his eyes. The gravestone was cold on his forehead.

"Who is Orochimaru…?"

Satsuki awoke with a vision of tears fresh in her mind.

She checked the time - it was three o'clock - and settled back into sleep.

When she awoke handily at six in the morning, the image of Itachi's tears had imprinted themselves onto Satsuki's eyes.

She turned the light on, seeing the uncanny red of her Sharingan in uncomfortable clarity.

Those tears - wherever she looked, they followed her.

That image, pervading image, of Itachi, walking away, with that same Sharingan, the same blood-stained hands, all so similar, and yet-

(Had she seen this before?)

-the single, lone tear, that slipped down his cheek, was something Satsuki instinctively rejected.

She traced her image in that mirror, the soft curve of her jawline, so different from Itachi, those eyes, so different from Itachi, that dull black hair, so different from Itachi, because Satsuki was different from Itachi in every single way-

-he couldn't have been crying-

Satsuki squeezed her eyes shut, attempting to will away her Sharingan and the burning image of lies that it lay on the inside of her eyelids.


Her Sharingan wouldn't even deactivate - that was no good.

(But, what if-)

Satsuki's stomach convulsed at the unbidden thought. The idea of her brother crying, of the vile and disgusting man who she loath to share blood with, daring to shed tears at the vicious slaughter he laid upon her - their! - family - the idea alone made Satsuki wretch.

(But, what if Itachi was-)

Murderer, S-rank missing nin, Uchiha Itachi - the man who would surely, certainly die by her hands, was the furthest creature from regret and tears.

(But, what if Itachi was- maybe, just maybe-)

Satsuki vomited.

(But what if Itachi was innocent?)

Satsuki, bile dripping from her lips, slammed her hand into the bathroom mirror with colossal force. Tiny shards reigned on her bare feet, blood running in organised streams down the tiles of her bathroom.

Tears fell.

When Sakura and Naruto also turned up to hand in their forms for the Chuunin exams, Satsuki couldn't help but feel relieved.

"You think you can become a chuunin?" Satsuki said, smirking at Naruto, and to her relief, the boy flared up like an agitated firecracker.

"Hell yeah I can! I'm not sure about you, you bastard!"

"Come on, you two! This is an important time, you know!"

And even through the dull stinging of her palm from the morning, Satsuki felt immersed in familiarity.

'This feeling… these two...'

"Yeah, well, she started it! Bastard!"

"That's not even the right insult, you idiot!"

Satsuki tucked her hands in her pockets. 'They're… precious to me. And…'

"What is the right insult for a bastard like her, anyways?!"

"You could just not say anything!"

The painful image of Naruto's blank, dead expression sliced into her-

"You just don't get it. I… I don't care whether you asked…"

Satsuki clenched her fists.

'...I can't lose anything that precious to me ever again. Itachi… you killed everyone I ever loved.'

Satsuki closed her eyes, the faint and familiar bickering between Sakura and Naruto distant and warm.

'And now, I'm unsure why you did what you did, but… it doesn't matter to me anymore.'

"But Sakura-chan-!"

"Just stop, you idiot! You're making a scene!"

"But you just called me an idiot!"

"That's-! That's different, okay?!"

'Naruto… Sakura… they're too important to me. I won't let you keep me isolated any longer. I will protect them, and that… that is a promise.'

"Naruto, Sakura," Satsuki said, and the two stilled.


"Let's go," she said, smirking at the two of them. Naruto grinned widely back, and Sakura smiled brightly.


"Typical Konoha nin. Cowards."

"What did you just say?!"

Sakura planted a hand firmly onto Naruto's forearm, eye twitching but giving him a warning glance. "Naruto, they aren't worth a fight," she bit out through gritted teeth.

"Cowards?!" Naruto fumed, lunging forward in Sakura's grip. "I'll show them coward-!"

"You're from Suna," Satsuki said, stepping forward with a hand resting on her fans. "Who are you to call us cowards? I'd like to see you in a fight."

The boy smeared in face paint smirked. "Go ahead."

The room perked up, ninja peering over at those who'd managed to instantly start a fight. The air instantly became alive with rowdy mumbling.

"Temari. Kankurou."

The two Sand nin froze up.

"Gaara," Temari said, her words slipping from her lips as though she were shivering. "We were just-"

"Shut up, or I'll kill you after I kill these," the boy said, unmoving.

Satsuki was momentarily mesmerised by the swirling movement of sand.


The sand went from a harmless beauty to a condensed fist in a split second, clasping Naruto's throat and tightening, lifting him legs sprawling into the air as he clawed uselessly at the iron grip.

Sakura turned on Gaara, running for him with an expression of fury-

A solid mound of sand-come-rock slammed into her gut, sending her hurtling backwards into Satsuki and then sending the both of them hurtling through an empty table.

Temari turned to Gaara, an expression of worry (fear?) twisting her features as she tried to reason with him. "Gaara, you know what father said-"


The flying green kick was one that Gaara's sand only just caught, the entirety of Gaara's sand pulling towards the point of collision. Naruto collapsed to the floor, Satsuki unpicking herself from the splintered wood to run to his heaving form.


The boy donned in an adventurous green outfit held the attention of almost everyone, as he stared down Gaara without a single shred of fear. His fingers goaded Gaara forward, his expression unforgiving.

"I, Rock Lee, shall be your opponent."

"Sorry, but I don't think so," a booming voice said, tone dripping with sarcasm.

Everyone turned to see a man with a cut jaw and a grin made of sadistic intent.

"I'm Morino Ibiki, and I'll be your examiner for the written test."

The exam progressed with Naruto getting progressively more anxious with every question, Sakura getting more anxious with every time Naruto looked blankly at his paper, and Satsuki cheating shamelessly all throughout.

By the end, Naruto had decided to bank everything on the final question, and when it came, his heart shook his ribs like a taiko drum.

"Now, let me tell you about the rules unique to Question 10. The first one is… you may choose whether to do this question or not. But… should you choose not to, you get a score of 0. In other words, you and your teammates fail."

The room hummed with confused conversation, and anxious anticipation, until Ibiki spoke again.

"Let me finish. However, should you choose to receive the 10th question, and answer the question wrong…"

Satsuki's grip on her pencil tightened.

" will not be able to take the Chuunin exams ever again."

The uproar amongst the candidates was a dull rushing noise in Satsuki's head.

'That sort of rule… is that even allowed…!?'

Satsuki felt her heart pounding in her chest, and she looked to her teammates. Naruto's shoulders were shaking, his head looking to the desk, and Sakura was staring at him, hand tentatively reaching upwards-


Morino Ibiki gave Satsuki a skeptical look.

"The title of genin can't hold me back more than the title of chuunin can push me forward," Satsuki said, staring Ibiki in the eyes. "I'll become stronger no matter what you say, so give up this charade and ask us the tenth question."

The room stilled, Sakura's hand lowering limply to the table, and Naruto turning around to look at her with an incredulous look in his eyes.

Ibiki raised an eyebrow.

The rapid flow of candidates out of the exam room stopped, and the panic simmered down to leave only an electric tension. Unsure gazes had become certain, hands folded and looking straight at Ibiki.

It was time.

"Well," Ibiki said, lip twitching with the beginnings of a smirk. "If that's the last of you, then…"

Team 7 simultaneously stiffened.

"Everyone in this room passes."

Chapter Text

Satsuki couldn't help but feel slightly overwhelmed at the sheer height of the trees before her. They stretched far higher than anything in the village, and the wire walls alone made her uneasy with the warnings wired onto them. The canopy of the thick-trunked trees was so thick that it may as well have been a ceiling.

'Forty-Fourth Training Ground'

"Four," Naruto said, face dropping. "Too many fours… we're going to die…"

Satsuki rolled her eyes, and hit Naruto gently on the back of the head. "Shut up, idiot."

"Hmph! Don't tell me the name Forest of Death doesn't make you a little scared!"

Sakura huffed. "You two had better not argue!" she said. "I won't be able to deal with five days of your bickering."

"Satsuki's just tryna be a hard-ass!" Naruto said, but it didn't take much to see that he was trying to reassure himself more than anyone else. "It does look scary, right, Sakura-chan?"

"I dunno about that…"

'Sakura-chan too…?'

"Well, uh, I was just testing you to see if you'd agree. Nothing about this is scary, not after that guy we had for the written test! He was scarier! I'm Uzumaki Naruto! I can take this!"

Naruto was a bad liar at best, but this was possibly some of his worst work. He wasn't good at going into his own bathroom at night, let alone a large forest filled with poisonous, over-sized, and carnivorous organisms.

"We've got a scroll of Earth," Satsuki said. "When we go in, we've got to get a scroll of Heaven as soon as possible."

Naruto waited for the true meat of Satsuki's plan to shine through.

"And then we run."

His stomach dropped.

"Is that our plan?" he said, the hesitation in his voice showing.

"Do you have a better one, Naruto?" Sakura said warningly, folding her arms.

Naruto looked at the colossal trees, huge gates, and heard the worryingly loud tapping of a centipede's legs.

"Uh… no," he said. "Sounds good."

The three of them ran like there was a demon hot on their heels.

Although Sakura had been informed of the over-sized animals and worryingly high fatality rate in the Forest of Death, nothing prepared her for the sight of a skull peeking out from underneath the trunk of a tree.

Her breath quickened, her palms sweating, and Sakura swallowed nervously as they ran forward.

'Don't think about it. Gotta move, Sakura. Can't think. Move. Don't think. Move.'

They jumped from tree to tree, scroll safe in Satsuki's pocket, hands and feet and bodies pushing off with strength and energy from every branch they hit, until, after half an hour, Sakura spoke.

"If we carry on like this," she said, heaving for breath, "I'll be exhausted…"

Satsuki nodded. "Let's stop and plan for a moment."

Although they stopped in a small clearing to relax, Sakura was very aware of how on end Satsuki appeared to be; her eyes scanned the surroundings quickly, calculating before she spoke.

Naruto shrugged. "We haven't seen anyone yet," he said. "That's good, right?"

Neither of them responded immediately, with Satsuki looking anxious before she spoke. Her eyes flitted to the dark of the wood that light could not penetrate.

"We should make a password-" she began.

The ears of Team 7 prickled up.

"What's that...?" Sakura whispered, when with a mighty kick and dive, Naruto pushed her out of the way. Satsuki jumped backwards.

With a deafening crunch of branches, a colossal snake divided Team 7.

"I'll distract him!" Satsuki yelled over the hissing of the serpent. "You two get to higher ground! There might be enemies!"

Naruto's heart sank, and he yelled over his shoulder.

"You better get your ass back here soon, Satsuki!"

With that, Satsuki lured the snake - which even the mere image of made Naruto metaphorically quake in his boots - deeper in the forest.

"I'm back."

Satsuki's voice rang out through the forest, and Naruto and Sakura turned.

She emerged from the leaf canopy, dirty from a scuffle.

"Satsuki-san," Sakura said, smiling with relief. "Are you alright? You look a bit…"

"Nothing much," Satsuki said. "Just a bit of a challenge. So what's our next move?"

Naruto twitched, eyeing Satsuki suspiciously.

"Naruto-san?" Satsuki said, and the moment the honorific slipped past his lips, she knew her mistake.

She barely dodged the kunai that sailed toward her head.

"You little genin are far more… intuitive than I thought," Satsuki said, and the way her voice was filled with slippery malice made Naruto's hair stand on end.

With a puff, the transformation faded, and left behind a woman with a wet grin.

"You," Naruto said, thinking hard. "Wait- you're the one who caught the kunai the examiner threw!"

"So sharp," she said, smiling unpleasantly. "My name is… Orochimaru."

Naruto's heart froze in his chest, and in spite of the fear that made his bones quiver, he hauled himself to his feet.

"Orochimaru," he breathed. "You! You're Orochimaru!?"

Sakura whipped her head around to look at Naruto, eyes wide.

"Naruto, you know this guy?!"

Naruto, with trembling knees and shaking hands, stood forward. Sakura stared at him, the sheer insanity that Naruto was even able to stand before this man shaking her to the very core.

"Tohru Mizuki!" Naruto said, his voice a shaky yell. His tone was desperate. "You remember him, right?!"

Sakura's eyes widened, and Orochimaru's smirk widened behind his corpse white fingers.

"Oh, that one?" he said, cold yellow eyes vicious. "That weakling didn't even manage to make it to me. Failures like that are simply worthless."

"Weakling?" Naruto whispered. "Failures?"

Sakura gritted her teeth, feeling the reality of the situation bearing down on her. Naruto couldn't shoot his mouth off, not now.

"Mizuki-sensei… Mizuki-sensei died for you! A weakling… a failure…?! Mizuki-sensei wouldn't have failed to get to you if it wasn't for me! He stayed behind for me!"

Orochimaru didn't do anything except allow a curl of the lip, and Sakura felt a heavy weight settle in her stomach at how his eyes traced Naruto's every move.

"And that he is why he is dead. That is weak," Orochimaru hissed. "Someone who allows themselves to be tied down by bonds can never ascend to true power."

Naruto was quiet, closing his eyes, and for a moment, Orochimaru thought the boy had cracked. He opened his eyes.

"You're wrong," Naruto said, his expression defiant. "You're wrong! Someone like Mizuki-sensei, with the courage to risk their life for my happiness, understands strength far more than someone like you!"

Orochimaru was quiet for a moment, before his lips curled upwards. To Sakura's silent horror, he began to cackle, hysteria rising before he began roaring with laughter.

"Kukuku… hehehehe... aha- ahahaha!"

A wave of killing intent hit the two of them, and Naruto felt, instantaneously, what it felt like to die beneath an opponent far stronger than him.

Sakura vomited.

Orochimaru's laughing mellowed out to a low chuckle, and he moved towards them slowly, steps echoing through the quiet of the clearing.

Even through the overwhelming fear, Naruto had the sense to glare at him, stepping back with awkwardly stiff legs that refused to move.

"Hatred like yours," Orochimaru said, the 's' sliding past his lips like venom, "is just ripe for the picking."

And with that, he lunged.

Naruto grabbed Sakura, jumping up to higher ground.

"Sakura-chan," he said urgently, grabbing her by the shoulders. "C'mon, we've gotta find Satsuki! We need to get past this guy!"

Sakura shook her head, shaking violently in Naruto's hold.

"Naruto, he's out of our league," she said, voice quivering. "We're already dead."

"Once you give up, that's when you're already dead! Get it together! If you stand up now, we might just make it out of here alive!"

Sakura looked up at him - Naruto, dead last, telling her to get her shit together, and instantly, completely, knew that she had to stand up. She closed her eyes, taking a deep and shuddering breath.

'SHANNARO! If I got this damn far, I'm not gonna get taken out now!'

Sakura pulled herself to her feet. "You're right," she said. "But we've got to hope Satsuki will manage alone. If we focusing on going after her, Orochimaru will just kill us from behind. If she's trusting us to manage here, then we've got to trust her, too."

"Uchiha Satsuki," Orochimaru said, the grating tone of his voice echoing from every tree. "The Uchiha with those blessed eyes…"

Naruto was seconds away from retaliating bitingly when Sakura slapped her hand firmly over his mouth. He gritted his teeth, desperately trying not to respond to the goading comment.

"I have a plan," she whispered. "So listen carefully."


Sakura came sprinting down the tree bark, and threw a kunai directly down.

Her running speed, along with the force of her throw and gravity, allowed her kunai to soar forward; Orochimaru was barely fast enough, a clump of his hair floating down to the branch as he jumped backwards.

"Is that boy too cowardly to even face me?" Orochimaru sneered, tongue snaking about his lips. "How pathetic. Meanwhile that Uchiha girl is fighting for her life… that, or she's already dead."

"Shut up!"

And Naruto's leg came crashing down onto the branch where Orochimaru had stood milliseconds before.

He looked at Sakura, and she nodded.

Sakura ran to Orochimaru's left side, kunai wielded close to her body. The man lunged for her, and in an instant she was replaced with a log, coming for him further to the left. Orochimaru read her obvious movements as the kunai sliced through the air towards him-

and then abruptly her leg made strong contact with the back of Orochimaru's knee.

Satsuki's voice from their training rang in her head.

"Feign your movements. People may take you lightly because you're a girl, and they'll fall for it. Take advantage of that. Show them what you're really made of."

Although the hit wasn't nearly the strongest Orochimaru had felt or even seen, it was surprising, unexpected, his balance shaking for a moment-

Sakura and Naruto jumped, and the branch blew up in a flurry of red.

They landed on the branch above, waiting for the explosive smoke to clear, and Naruto smiled at Sakura.

"Nice job," he said, and she nodded, breathing heavily more from adrenaline than the fight itself. The smoke cleared-

Naruto's shadow clones had done a fine job, planting explosive tags beneath the branch they had been stood on whilst Sakura distracted him. It had been nicely done, and Naruto had come along from the other direction, shepherding Orochimaru carefully, until Sakura's foot connected.

He couldn't say he was sure this man was dead - not with how above them he seemed - but surely, even slightly, he'd be incapacitated-


Naruto and Sakura's eyes widened at the sight that met them.

The man's flesh had been burned and melted altogether, but whereas Naruto had expected to see raw red skin, it was nothing like it; the flesh, like thin white paper, was singed and burned and was peeling away to reveal a fresh layer.

"You children are just so interesting," Orochimaru smirked, and with a flourish, he tore the rest of his face away.

Sakura shrieked, and in spite of a moment of intense fear, Naruto cried out.

In an imperfect unison, kunai rained down on Orochimaru.

The first kunai he met with deflected from his forehead protector, slicing a clear line through it, and the second he caught in his teeth. The third he caught between his little finger and ring finger, the fourth he deflected with the handle of the third; the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth passed by in such a flurry of delicate movement that even without words and without assault, the message became glaringly clear:

'You cannot win.'

And in the seconds at the end, with Orochimaru holding kunai on every limb, Naruto thought, for a brief moment, that an angel had come.

A beacon of bright, warm light came down, slowly and then faster and faster, approaching, and then consuming Orochimaru in a hellfire.

Even when it turned out to be a well-placed Katon jutsu shooting down some ninja wire, Naruto figured it was a saviour all the same.

"Yo," Satsuki said.

Naruto looked up at her, skin marred with dirt and hair stuck to his face.

"Yo," he grinned.

"Take the U formation," Satsuki said. "I'm going first. You know what to do."

Naruto winced, but bit his lip. "Dammit, Satsuki, I hope you know what you're doing."

"If you're the one who sent that snake after me," Satsuki said, walking forward and pulling out her fans from her belt, "then I'm sure you'll be glad to know that it suffered before I cut it into pieces."

"You Uchiha are so cocky," Orochimaru said, the smell of burning human flesh getting stronger as she neared him. Even his sclera were red and singed, and peeling away like crumbling paper.

Satsuki gritted her teeth.

"This is so very convenient," Orochimaru said, expression dark. "I came here for you, little Uchiha. But I think I may play around with you for a little while longer. You and your team are… far more interesting than I thought."

'Specifically… that boy…'

"Play around?" Naruto said angrily. "Stop talking shit like we didn't leave a mark on you! People like you just piss me off!"

Satsuki opened her fans wide, and affixed her fingers to their edges before diving forward.

Of all things Satsuki had to show for herself, her grace was the one thing that was unprecedented. Her ability to dance about every strong hit of the enemy, and even when hit, to direct damage elsewhere to make the collision non-lethal.

But as Satsuki leaned under a sweeping roundhouse kick, she felt herself faced with someone just as - no, more graceful than her; someone faster and stronger than her to boot.

Orochimaru leaned back to avoid the edge of her fan, kicking upwards with a force that would have broke her jaw had she not pushed the kick to the side with the edge of her right tessen fan. He sprang on his hands, no sooner standing than he was running towards her with eyes so intent and filled with evil she sank to her knees right there.

Naruto launched in from the left, kunai in hand, and when he tried to make contact, Orochimaru grabbed his fists and threw him to the side. In the opening he left, Satsuki slashed at Orochimaru's under arm with the tip of her fan.

And yet, together with Naruto, Satsuki was not just grace. Her and Naruto were two parts of the brawn required to make a man perfect; she was the everlasting dance, and he was the force, the punch behind a fist.

As Naruto landed on the side of a tree from Orochimaru's throw, he cursed.

"Tajuu Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

Hundreds of Kage Bunshin filled the trees around them, and Sakura looked at Naruto. They nodded in affirmation, and in the blur of orange, they disappeared.

But then, what was Naruto without Sakura? He was a force without direction, which was surely nothing at all.

Her whole life, Satsuki had been called 'genius' and 'prodigy' by her teachers, her peers, and her family. But as she watched Orochimaru's movements, swift and strong and perfect, she finally understood what those words really meant.

To take down classmates in a single move as a child was impressive.

To take on a hundred men with taijutsu alone was insane.

Orochimaru's tongue wrapped around the neck of a Kage Bunshin, and he flung it against a crowd of orange. As they puffed out of existence, Orochimaru smirked.

"Kukuku," he snickered, eyeing Sakura's still form, expression contorted with strong thought until she eyed Orochimaru's murderous gaze. "Why would you leave yourself so open, little girl?"

In a second that Satsuki couldn't possibly hope to keep up with, Orochimaru withdrew his sword, and extended it instantaneously to pierce through Sakura's throat.

The gruesome moment where Satsuki saw the gaping windpipe as it leaked with fresh blood was destroyed by the small puff of smoke as Sakura disappeared.

Orochimaru's eyes widened, and Naruto landed a punch on the man's jaw that sent him reeling.

Team 7 was like a machine; if they were to be a sword, Satsuki was the slice and Naruto was the swing and Sakura was the consciousness that had mind to move at all, and against an opponent with a careful and perfect balance of genius, grace and power, the three of them finally understood Kakashi's words.

Three ninja without teamwork were three ninja, but together they could be something else.

"Naruto-kun," he said, voice sending shivers up Satsuki's spine, "how you surprise me."

The next punch Naruto threw was caught by a quick and unmistaken palm. Orochimaru ran for Satsuki.

Satsuki bent to avoid his punch, and jumped and spun to avoid his kick, skidding across the unsteady surface of the bark. He launched himself forwards again, the force of the punch that Satsuki misfired slamming into the trunk and sending down a soft rain of leaves.

Naruto came in from the right, throwing kunai that restricted Orochimaru's movement severely, leaving the man to block Satsuki's incoming fan with his forearm. Orochimaru leg hooked around the back of hers, closing on her knee with a force that made her bones groan under the pressure.

Orochimaru spied Naruto coming from his right, and with a painful force, jumped onto his hands, dragging Satsuki up with him, and propelling his legs forwards with a force that sent Satsuki careening into the trunk of the tree.

In a single moment, Orochimaru lunged forward, drawing his sword and heading for Satsuki. His mouth was curled up deviously.

'Now… son of Minato, what will you do?'

"Don't touch her!"

Naruto's fist and self came hurtling towards Orochimaru, so fast, quick, bound to collide-

And then his world became a mass of metal clanging, ringing, and dizziness he could not escape, with Satsuki's scream resounding in between.

Sakura felt her hair stand on end and her body convulse as Satsuki's pained cry resounded through the trees.

The sword, with a sickening severing of muscle, slipped through her arm and pushed through the tree, and with the other hand, Orochimaru had extended his fist with a strong punch and hit Naruto straight in his forehead protector.

The collision had sent Naruto reeling, the force of his run and the force of Orochimaru's stasis throwing him off his feet and onto the branch below.

Sakura, feeling her heart ache as Orochimaru approached Naruto, ran for Satsuki.

"What a foolish little boy," Orochimaru said. "The three of you… even combined, I didn't need a shred of ninjutsu. How weak... pathetic."

Naruto was dizzy and unbalanced, but pushed against the surface of the branch to pull himself further away. His eyes were unfocused from the resounding concussion.

Through the unrelenting pain of being pinned to a tree by her flesh, Satsuki screamed.

"Naruto! Get up, you loser!"

Sakura bit her lip so hard a trail of blood leaked down her chin. "Satsuki-san, stay still! You'll bleed out!"

Satsuki reached out to Sakura with her remaining hand, and grabbed the girl by the collar. "Get the hell off me and go save him!"

Sakura's heart pounded in her ears. 'Satsuki-san - I'm sorry. I'm not as brave as you.'

Orochimaru leaned down, face close with Naruto's.

"You say pretty things about protecting people," he said, "But in the end… you couldn't save anyone. Not even yourself."

Naruto's head reeled, trying to form words but spitting up blood instead.


"If I go anywhere, you'll die," Sakura whispered. "I'll die."


Sakura put her hands over her ears.

"I don't want to die here!" Sakura screamed. "I'm not brave enough to go around saving people like you! I don't want to die here! I don't! I'm not suicidal! If I try to save Naruto, I'll die, no-one will save you, and we'll all die here!"

Satsuki spat in Sakura's face.

"You're pathetic, Sakura," Satsuki said, voice choking and face contorted with rage. "Naruto would do it for you."

She grabbed the sword by its flat edge, fingers trembling.

Orochimaru's lips brushed Naruto's ears.

"Get off me," Naruto said, voice raspy and the words barely making it past his lips.

Orochimaru laughed.

"Hatred like yours," Orochimaru said, sitting up and grinning widely, "I'd hoped that Satsuki-chan would have something like this for me… but you've just turned out to be so promising, Naruto-kun. How could I resist?"

The Sword of Kusanagi clattered to the branch floor, and blood spilled anew onto the bark as Satsuki yanked the blade out of her arm and ran.


With that, Orochimaru's teeth sunk into Naruto's stomach, and his scream sent canopy leaves swaying down to the dark, invisible bottom of the forest floor.

Chapter Text

Sakura undid the knot and released the pressure on the wound, and Satsuki hissed, expression tense with acute pain.

"I'm going to pull the last layer off now," Sakura said, looking up at her.

Satsuki nodded, her knuckles turning white.

Sakura peeled the fabric away, and the sight made her stomach turn. She had roughly and tightly wrapped the wound to staunch the blood flow whilst she tried to lay Naruto down, and now as she undid it she regretted her lack of attention. The wound had left a jagged fleshy outlook from where Satsuki had ripped the sword from her flesh. A thick gunge pushed through the chunks of tissue, platelets and blood mixing to make uncomfortable pink.

From what Sakura could tell, Orochimaru had not intended to kill her. Her arm did not appear broken, and the blood flow was under control.

Sakura looked up to Satsuki. The girl was biting her lip, tears pooling in her tightly closed eyes. She was shaking.

"I'm almost done," she said, slowly peeling away the bandage, and Satsuki gasped. It came off slowly, Satsuki's breathing heavy as the bandage finally peeled off of her skin.

Sakura reached into her bag, and brought out a small bottle.

"This'll sting," she said, and rubbed some alcohol from her pack on the wound. Satsuki visibly winced, but didn't say anything.

Sakura unrolled some fresh bandages on the wound, tight but not tight enough to stop blood flow to Satsuki's arm, and tied it roughly.

"Lie down," Sakura said, and she cleared a space behind the girl, trying to lie her down comfortably next to Naruto.

"Thank you," Satsuki said, delirious with pain.

Satsuki turned her head to Naruto. He was sweating, visibly shaking, eyebrows knotted as though deep in the throes of an argument.

Her expression tightened, and she closed her eyes tightly.

"Goddammit, Naruto," she said. "He'll be fine. He's Naruto. He could never be anything else."

Sakura nodded, diverting her gaze from Naruto's pained form.

"Of course," she said, biting her lip. "Naruto'll be fine."

"I won't sleep."

The wood was dark, night having settled a choking blanket of sky over Sakura that should have reminded her of the open night beyond; instead, the darkness enveloped her, every rustling leaf suspicious and every distant figure an enemy. The stronger fear than that was sleep, the sleep that pulled at her eyelids and clouded her senses.

Sakura dug her nails into her knees, the pain barely rousing her from an almost slumber. She looked to the side.

Naruto lay on one side, Satsuki on the other. Satsuki's arm was wrapped in bandages, fresh white material that she'd replaced just an hour ago stained with a deep red. Sakura was not keen to rewrap her arm; they had limited resources here, with no way to obtain more bandages without ransacking another team's supplies, and Sakura knew there was no chance of that.

And the pain. Sakura knew Satsuki to be stubborn, refusing to show emotion or weakness, but when she touched that arm, peeling fresh material from the skin, Satsuki bit her lip to stop from screaming and wept.

It shook Sakura.

"I won't sleep," she said, staring at Naruto's pained form. "I won't sleep."

He was no better, but there was something horribly, horribly eerie about it. Naruto was not gravely injured, or didn't appear so; all there was was a strange patterned seal on his stomach, three tomoe on top of a swirl, glowing bright as though it were red hot. And his expression was disturbed; as though trapped in a fitful nightmare.

Her voice quivered in her mantra.

"I won't sleep."

The underbrush rustled, and Sakura flinched.

A face of a man attached to the squirming body of a snake crept from the undergrowth and let a slick tongue trace its lips. Its voice sent shivers down Sakura's spine.

"Won't you, Sa-ku-ra?"

She was awoken by her own cry of fear.

The night moved, and Sakura's heartbeat rang in her ears.

"Who's there?!"

The world was empty.

It wasn't. Naruto was in fact, surrounded by people; with faces contorted by prejudice and hatred. It felt the same as being alone. He would have preferred it.

But in the distance, he could make someone else out. Someone distinct from the vaguely similar and hateful faces.

"I hate it…"

Naruto blinked, looking to make out the figure.

It was him. A younger him, at that, in a top and shorts with his hands clutched to his face. Tears dripped down, and Naruto, even from this distance, could hear the hitch of his breathing as he cried.

The distance between them somehow grew smaller, and Naruto could see the younger boy with greater clarity.

"I hate it," the boy said again, voice a distraught whisper. "I hate being on my own."

Naruto tried to speak, but found himself voiceless.

The boy sank to his knees.

"What did I ever do?" the boy said, his tone rising with hysteria and distress. "I've never hurt anyone…!"

The hateful whispers around them grew, the insults and jibes barely recognisable, but the disgust in their tones clear. The boy scrubbed at his eyes with the back of his hands, and his tone grew quiet.

"Hand over your scroll," the girl said, voice cold and expression colder.

Sakura flinched, knees shaking as she stood before Naruto and Satsuki resting forms. The hand that held the kunai in front of her was trembling.

'If I don't stand up here… then…!'

"Are you deaf?" she said sneeringly, stepping forward with her hands outstretched. She spoke demandingly. "Hand over the scroll, you stupid girl."

Sakura, moving her head mere inches, looked at Satsuki's pained expression. Her voice rang out fresh in her head.

'You hit hard. Let's go again.'

Sakura dug the balls of her feet into the dirt, and smirked.

"Come get it, then, you bitch!"

"I've never had anyone," the boy said. "I've never had parents. I've never had friends. I've always been alone…"

In a near instant, the boy before him grew older, childhood fat thinning out to leave a thinner boy clad in an orange jumpsuit. His expression was bitter.

"I had nothing to do with the Kyuubi inside of me," he said, voice low. "I was hated for something that wasn't my fault. Labelled as the demon inside of me… wouldn't a real demon just… kill them all? A real demon wouldn't have let them isolate me all those years… a real demon wouldn't have let them do what they did to me."

The boy reached up to his jaw, and dug his nails into his flesh, peeling away the flesh of his jaw and then his lips to reveal a snake like tongue and grin as he smiled.

"Let's show them what a real demon does."

Naruto stepped back, horrified and defiant. "D-Don't say shit like that with my face! I'd never think anything like that! I've never wanted to hurt the villagers for what they've done to me-!"


Naruto stiffened.

"Mizuki-sensei was a traitor to your village… the very same village that killed him for trying to help you. The only man to ever care for you… it's hard to call him traitor, isn't it?"

Naruto's blood ran cold.

'Who is this guy…?!'

"I want to leave Konoha, I want revenge on the people who took Mizuki-sensei from me… I want to be powerful… I want people to fear me and respect me," the imposter before him said with a smirk of satisfaction on his lips. His tongue enunciated every word with a tone dripping with arrogant pride.

Naruto's lips trembled, stuttering angrily with words he couldn't even find. The boy before him chuckled darkly. "Those are your true thoughts, aren't they…?"

"S-Shut up!" Naruto said, gritting his teeth and advancing upon the boy with fists clenched. "Lying like that, putting words in my mouth… you piss me off!"

Oddly, the closer he attempted to walk, the further the boy appeared.

"I know full well you aren't so disillusioned that you could ever truly lie to yourself. You may behind a smile of lies, but you know I'm speaking the truth." The pseudo-Naruto smiled widely, with eyes that sparkled gleefully. "Naruto-kun… Orochimaru has a gift for us. Power."

"I don't want anything like that," he said, trembling. "I don't want power, and especially not from you!"

"A traitor in the eyes of your village, and he was killed for his crimes," the boy continued. Naruto could only describe the tone as parasitic in its timbre. "But the tale doesn't go quite like that for you, now, does it? He could have escaped, but he lost his life begging you to come with him. He lost his life trying to bring you to a better life."

"Sh-Shut up! Those… that's not what I-!"

"He was a traitor, certainly," the young boy said, slippery and smooth. "But can he ever be just a traitor to you? He was the only one who told you the truth. The only one who tried to help you. Your only friend…"

"I have friends now," Naruto said, "I don't need power! I don't need anything like that! And especially not from scum like Orochimaru!"

The young boy before him laughed. The noise was sickening in its delirium and hysteria, before it simmered down to leave only a smirk.

"Oh," he said, voice sliding past Naruto's eardrums, "But he's powerful. Power takes, power gives, and power reigns. And power, as you'll soon learn, is a very, very intoxicating thing… Naruto-kun."

Sakura moved her eyes to Rock Lee's unconscious form, and her chest tightened.

'Even he… with that move, even he's down. What chance do I really have against these guys?'

A forceful yank of her hair from behind sent waves of pain through Sakura's scalp, and she looked behind her with a snarl of anger to see the girl of the team with her hands firmly tangled in Sakura's hair and her face bearing an unkind smile.

"You seem so proud of this hair of yours," she sneered, ragging it closer to her. "A kunoichi shouldn't spend so much time on her looks."

("Satsuki-san thinks long hair is pretty!")

Sakura could see Naruto and Satsuki from where she was knelt, pained in their expressions.

'God… all I've been doing all this time… just watching their back, or standing at the sidelines. Thinking, Satsuki is so strong! Or, maybe Naruto's not as much of an idiot as I'd thought… when I don't have the right to say anything until I stand up on my own.'

"No wonder you're such a failure," Kin said, her laugh malicious, and Sakura closed her eyes.

'Satsuki… Naruto… I'm sorry. I've been such a useless teammate up until now…'

She reached into her pocket slowly, drawing out a kunai imperceptibly and strengthening her grip on its handle.

'I won't just stand and watch your backs anymore…!'

"Maybe," Sakura said, teeth gritted, "you should stop underestimating me!"

When Kin went flying backwards, hands filled with tresses of pink hair, Sakura felt that in the truest sense of the word, a weight had been lifted.

The clearing burst with blood red chakra, and the enemy and Sakura's allies alike flinched in fear.

Sakura became wide-eyed.

'This chakra…! The intent to kill is so strong… who could this possibly...?!'


The air stilled, and though Sakura recognised the voice well, her blood ran cold. Her head turned.

Naruto stood in the clearing, a red hot pattern of wave-like swirls stretching up the jutting shapes of his collarbone and encroaching onto his jaw, burning waves licking up to touch Naruto's unnatural grin. They turned black, as though cooled.

"Naruto," she whispered, knuckles whitening.

'God… no, this can't be him! Not with chakra like this…!'

"Sakura," he said again, and his voice was unmistakable. "Are you hurt?"

Sakura couldn't force words past her throat, and the whole clearing, enemy and ally alike, was still.

"He's alive," Zaku whispered, voice stricken with shock. "How the fuck did he…!?"

Naruto moved a step closer.

"Sakura," he said again, and his voice sent chills down Sakura's back. "You're hurt, aren't you?"

When he moved again, Sakura resisted the urge to up and run under his hungry regard.

Naruto looked her dead in the eyes, and her stomach turned.

"Who did this to you?"

His eyes were blood red, and slit like a feline.

"I did," sneered Zaku.

Naruto's regard snapped from Sakura's to Zaku's, and Sakura, for the smallest moment, felt an ounce of sympathy for the Sound ninja; because whatever look Zaku received, made him stop in his tracks and freeze in fear.

In a moment Sakura couldn't possibly hope to keep up with, Naruto was driving his knee into Zaku's gut and sending him careening into a tree back-first, then grabbing him by his collar and lashing him onto the ground.

Naruto pressed his foot into the centre of Zaku's ribs, and the boy coughed blood, scrabbling with his hands at Naruto's ankles frantically. His breath was heaving.

"You seem so proud of yourself," Naruto noted absent-mindedly. "Yelling about what you've done."

He reached down, grabbing Zaku's hands and pinning them above his head. As Naruto took his foot off his chest, Zaku heaved for breath, gasping in grateful gulps of air, before he screamed them out of his lungs seconds later as Naruto crushed his fingers with the very same foot.

Naruto reached down, smile unpleasant as he hooked two fingers onto Zaku's lower teeth and used his other hand to push against the top half of Zaku's mouth. The boy began writhing, screaming-

Zaku's jaw snapped, and his shriek of agony made Sakura choke back a scream of fear, squeezing her eyes shut.

"No way," she whispered to herself. "No way is this Naruto...!"

Naruto turned to the young Sound ninja quivering against the trunk of a tree, and pinned her down with his gaze. "You're next."

Kin let out a small scream, scrambling to escape when Naruto grabbed her by both shoulders and slammed her against the bark.

Sakura watched, morbidly fascinated as she began to shake her head.

'That smile… that cruelty…' she thought, trembling, 'is nothing like Naruto!'

"Long hair," Naruto mused. "Funny, what happened to Sakura's?"

Kin was whimpering in his grip as Naruto grabbed a fistful of her hair, and she began crying out and begging.

"I didn't- she did it! I didn't cut it off, I didn't do it, I didn't, oh god please let go-"

Naruto laughed, and placed his foot on her shoulder.

"An eye for an eye."

He began to pull her by her hair, the roots ripping out clumps of skin and leaving fresh red blood to stream down her head in rivulets. Her scream pushed Sakura over the edge, and she stumbled to her feet with tears in her eyes.


Sakura cracked him in the side of the jaw, and he tumbled to the ground, Kin scrambling from his grip to her teammate Dosu.

He turned towards her, with a shocked glint in his eye and blood on his lip, and she looked back at him with eyes filled with desperation.

"Please," she said, choking on her words. "Just stop it!"

With unbidden relief, Sakura watched as the seal that had consumed him receded and disappeared like globules of red hot lava trailing down his neck. He fell to his knees, unmoving and blank in his stare.

The ninja Dosu looked at them both with an expression that told of fear, and lay down their scroll with shaking fingers. "Please… please take this scroll. Spare our lives, and you won't see us again. You're too strong."

Neither of them responded, and Dosu held Kin supportively, who was choking back screams of agony, and moved to open-mouthed, swinging-jawed Zaku, who was doing the same, and ran.

Naruto looked down to his orange jacket, dyed red in splashes, and his hands found his way to the wet patches. His fingers quivered against the blood-stained zip of his jacket.

"This blood," he said. "I'm not hurt anywhere."

Sakura fell to her knees and wrapped her arms around Naruto, burying her head in his shoulder and trembling with the onslaught of tears. Her breathing hitched, and she spoke in a whisper.

"I know."

Chapter Text

Satsuki awoke to the overpowering stench of wildlife that masked the faintest scent of ramen. Her second intake of breath was stained with the scent of miso. She opened her eyes, blinking out the blurred vision and wincing at the bright orange fabric her face was currently buried in.

"You awake, bastard?"

She yawned, the tight knot of sleepiness strong and alluring in her chest. That was Naruto's voice, she noted, and then she realised her legs were in his arms, her arms slung over his shoulders. He was carrying her, and she frowned. "Usuratonkachi," she said. "I can walk."

"I'm not taking any chances with that wound of yours, Satsuki-san," Sakura intercepted from their right firmly. "The river isn't far now. See?"

Satsuki followed her pointing finger to a faintly glimmering strip of water in the distance, flashing amongst the moving trees.

"Provided there are no enemies there, we'll get you cleaned up, we'll fill up our canteens, and we'll get washed," Sakura said.

"Hell yeah!" Naruto said, and although Satsuki couldn't see his grin, she rolled her eyes anyway. "I'm so-ooo thirsty, you know, Sakura-chan. I forgot to even fill up my canteen..."

"You're such an idiot, sometimes, Naruto," Sakura said, rolling her eyes. "Either way, we're nearly there, Satsuki-san." Her expression turned somewhat worrisome. "But you know what they say about water."

Naruto blinked. ""

"That's where the animals gather to drink."

Satsuki could feel the shudder of Naruto's nervous gulp from on his back.

"L-Like, those animals? The huge ones!? They're gonna be there-!?"

Satsuki slapped a hand to Naruto's mouth.

"Idiot," she said quietly, eyes flitting to the forest around them. "You're too loud."

"C'mon, we're here," Sakura said, landing on a branch, and Satsuki noticed Naruto's particularly long evaluation of the area before he dropped down to the grass besides the river. Satsuki climbed off his back with as much dignity as she could muster, which wasn't much.

"Y'know, I totally expected you to weigh like, a million tons," Naruto said, cracking his back. "But I could barely tell you were there. But that's probably just because I'm super strong."

Satsuki flicked him in the side of the head. "Hurry up."

Naruto huffed, rubbing his temple and walking to the side of the river. "Still a bastard."

They settled down for a moment, Sakura having already filled up her canteen and taken off her shoes. She stood in the river, and sighed happily, reaching down to cup her hands with the fresh water to drink and wash away the smudges of dirt and blood on her face.

Naruto caught himself staring at her happy smile, and quickly dragged his gaze away, undoing his jacket and taking off the top underneath. Satsuki eyed him cautiously.

"What are you doing?"

"Duh, I'm washing. I stink. So do you."

Satsuki blinked, before shrugging and reaching for the hem of her top.


They both looked up, to see Sakura looking horrified.

"Satsuki-san!" she said, eyes silently urging Satsuki, but the girl just raised an eyebrow.


Sakura pointed at Naruto, looking at Satsuki as though she was meant to be in on something, but the Uchiha found herself yet still bewildered.

"Satsuki-san, he's a guy!" she said.

Satsuki rolled her eyes.

"I was aware, Sakura."

"So... so what are you doing?! You can't just get undressed in front of a guy!"

"Why?" Satsuki said. "I don't know if you've noticed Sakura, but you said we didn't have much time here."

Sakura looked back and forth from Satsuki and Naruto, her expression incredulous. "I... we're girls! He's a guy!" With an exasperated look, Sakura turned on Naruto with her arms folded and her expression stern. "Leave!"

"What?! But I haven't done anything! And I need to get-"

"You can get washed when we're done," Sakura said, her tone leaving no room for argument. "Now go. And no peeking!"

"But I-"

Sakura shot him a look, and Naruto turned and walked to the outskirts of the trees.

Satsuki rolled her eyes, and lifted her top off, kicking off her shoes and pulling off her shorts before climbing into the river. Sakura looked away, somewhat embarrassed at her own shyness, before pulling off her dress and the short leggings underneath.

Satsuki cleaned herself, unwrapping her chest to wash properly beneath, and Sakura noted that she was as flat-chested as ever, thin and elegant and slightly muscled.


"Uh," Sakura said, blinking herself out of her stupor and blushing profusely. "U-Um, what?"

Satsuki hauled herself onto the riverbank, leaning over to douse her hair with fresh sparkling water and running her fingers through the thick black hair, she leaned up to look at Sakura.

"You're not a coward," she said, twisting water from her hair.

Sakura blinked, before leaning over to douse her hair in the water as well. It was shorter now, and the jagged ends brought back moments of horror. Satsuki's hair was much longer than hers, now.

"I am," Sakura said, scooping up handfuls of water to rub into her scalp. The water stung and soothed it simultaneously.

Satsuki looked at her with an unreadable expression as she stood up and climbed out of the river, grabbing her clothes. Sakura couldn't help but admire the sheen of her white flesh against the grime of the forest. "I'd say you're more of a leader," she said, pulling on her shorts.

She held a hand out to Sakura.

"So is that an apology then?" Sakura said, smiling cheekily.

Satsuki's eyebrow twitched.

The girl knee deep in the river smiled a little, taking Satsuki's outstretched hand before she decided to retract it and climbing onto the riverbank.

"Are you two done yet?!"

"No! And you'd better not be peeking!"

Naruto ended up getting washed in the river whilst the other two planned; apparently it was acceptable for a boy to be in his shorts in front of girls, but not the other way around. Satsuki took note, and questioned Sakura, but her response was simply "Well, I mean, guys are always topless, right?"

"So, we have both scrolls," Sakura said, patting her bag. "The last team we fought left us the Scroll of Heaven to match our Scroll of Earth."

Satsuki frowned.

"You did that on your own?" she asked. "Or was that when Naruto woke up?"

"I was going to die for sure before Naruto woke up," Sakura said, and her tone changed. "But I can't say for sure whether it was truly him that beat them..."

"What do you mean by that?" Satsuki said, her voice low and demanding, and Sakura held herself back from babbling nonsense as she might've done weeks ago.

"When he woke up, he was so much stronger than the Sound ninja," Sakura said, her voice shaking. "He tortured them for hurting me... and his body was covered with a horrible black pattern. He felt nothing like Naruto... he felt terrifying. They left us their scroll in return for mercy. At that point, I'd managed to calm him down, but..."

Satsuki's expression betrayed little, but her white knuckles and tense shoulders read of rage.

"That mark that Orochimaru left on his stomach..."

A fair few metres to their side, Naruto bathed, water washing away stains of blood to leave fresh healed skin behind. He scrubbed it from beneath his nails, and crusted away the dried flakes of it from his palms. The feeling of dirtiness never left him, but he took it upon himself to quickly wash his jacket. The bloodstains took a fair bit of rubbing and scratching to remove, but he'd rather the aching fingertips than Satsuki's searching gaze.

He rung out the material, and hung it on a nearby branch. Satsuki and Sakura's conversation was as distant as the world around them.

"Catch fish?! But we don't have anything to catch them with!"

"Improvise! That's how you became a ninja, right?"

Naruto physically recoiled from the comment.


"Sakura-chan... you're so mean..."

"The tower is just over there," Satsuki said. "We should be able to make it there by tomorrow at least."

"That's pretty fast," Sakura said. "Maybe there won't be many teams there... hopefully we won't get into a fight on the way."

"As long as we're quiet, there shouldn't be a problem."

"I'm going to take the first night shift," Sakura said. "Naruto?"

"I want the big fish," he blurted out, and the two looked at him with raised eyebrows.


"The fish," he said, eyeing the three fish impaled over the flames. "I want the big one."

Sakura sighed.

Three sets of bones picked dry lay beside charred wood and stirring embers, curling ribcages still warm and chipped by keen teeth.

Sakura had been put to bed by a firm Satsuki, who had insisted on taking the first watch of the night, and Sakura had put up little of a fight and had passed out in seconds on her bed roll with her legs sprawled and hair in her mouth.

Naruto was lying down, close to the fire, fingers outstretched to the flames and eyes blank.

Satsuki had moved, legs crossed beside the fire, stoking the embers with a stick and a kunai hanging heavily on the fingers of her other hand.

"Sorry," Naruto said suddenly, and Satsuki turned to him. His eyes were focused on the centre of the flames, and his irises lit up with strong orange life.

His face was looking so much more weary recently. Although Satsuki liked to think that Naruto was invincible in his resilience, day by day his mortality was painted out to her in blood-stained letters; the mortality of his body and the mortality of his mind.

"For what?" she asked, and he closed his eyes and leaned back with a smile that read of a different boy.

"For letting you get hurt like that," he said. "It's my fault."

"Of course it's not," Satsuki snapped back at him, and he opened his eyes to look at her. She glared. "It's nothing to do with you. And I definitely don't need you taking care of me. You can barely manage yourself."

Naruto looked at her. The fire crackled like twigs snapping underfoot.

"I suppose," he said with that same smile. "Maybe it's your fault for being such a loser then."

"Like you can talk, dead last," she said dryly, and Naruto stuck his tongue out.

"Bastard," he said. He curled his index finger into the curve up to his thumb, peering through the tiny hole up to the stars peering through the canopy.

Satsuki couldn't help but looking up. The stars, distant from the light of the village, were bright and windingly dense with the stripes of cloudy white space. She wondered what Naruto saw.

He unwound his fingers, lifting his hand in front of his face and puppeting with the shadows. "Well then, it's your responsibility to not get hurt," he said. "So don't."

'Why can't Naruto just be Naruto? Why do I have to care that he's not all he appears?' she thought.

(Satsuki knew why. It had started the day he had overturned her expectations by tending to her houseplant, and the end was nowhere in sight.)

'Why do I want to know about him so badly?'

"What about you?" she said. "What's with that mark Orochimaru left on you?"

His fingers twitched, and froze in front of his face.

"It's fine."

Satsuki lifted the thick stick to stoke the fire. Scraps of ash flittered upwards and sizzled into dust.

'It's not. You always say that. It's not fine. You're not fine.'

"It's your responsibility to not get hurt," she said, looking at him intently, and he chuckled, the sound genuine and soothing in her ears. He leaned back, grinning cockily.

"Right. Or what?"

She snorted.

"I'll beat the shit out of you."

Naruto laughed loudly, and Satsuki smiled.

He stopped talking then, and fell asleep fast. The embers died out.

Chapter Text

The return to the tower occurred without significant incident. It took them a minute or two to figure out the puzzle within, opening the scrolls and successfully completing the exam. Upon entering the tower, they entered a seated waiting area, filled with chairs, not so many genin and chuunin seated peacefully at desks in the corner.

Naruto lead the group, legs swinging and hands tucked behind his head. A chuunin with white hair pinned behind his ears appeared.

"Team 7 of Konoha, correct?" he asked, eyes directly on the clipboard. They nodded in affirmation. "Right. Do you have any significantly debilitating injuries to report?"

"Yeah!" Naruto said quickly, pulling Satsuki forward by her good arm. The man looked Satsuki up and down.


She pulled up her sleeve, revealing scuffed and bloodied bandages. "I was stabbed through the arm."

"Straight through?"

Satsuki nodded. The man grunted, adjusting his hair.

"Well," he said. "Just come over here for a moment."

She followed him over to the desks of chuunin in the corner, and Naruto smiled brightly at Sakura, motioning to a line of free seats. "Let's go here while we wait for her. See, Sakura-chan? Satsuki's arm is gonna be fine, and so are we!" He fell limply onto a chair, stretching out his limbs before exhaling deeply. "I'd say we got off pretty easy. They said a ton of genin die in there, right?"

Sakura smiled, her eyes wandering to his gut.

"I'm super tired," he said, yawning, before leaning back in his seat and slamming his feet on the table. "What time is it?"

She looked around warily. The bang had stirred the few genin in the hall slightly, but not much. The three genin from Suna, however, remained attentive, turning to look at them.

"Will you stop that?" Sakura hissed. "We've just got here, and you're already drawing attention!"

"Ah, it's Satsuki," Naruto said, her comment bouncing off of him. "Oi! Over here!"

Satsuki sat down next to Naruto, and with a small sigh Sakura seated herself too.

"Is your arm alright, Satsuki-san?" she asked. "No issues at all?"

Satsuki shook her head. "It's just sore."

The girl turned her attention to the genin in the hall, and narrowed her eyes at the three from Suna, who kept turning their heads.

"Those three are here too."

Sakura bit her lip, her eyes flitting from Satsuki's challenging gaze to their obstinate stares. "Kinda, uh, scary," she said. "Especially that Gaara guy, with those eyes."

Naruto folded his arms behind his head. "What, the one with the big black eyes? He looks like a panda or something."

Satsuki acknowledged Sakura giving Naruto a whack around the head from the corner of her eye, but kept her gaze firmly trained on the three other genin.

'They keep turning to look at us. If it wouldn't be seen as a challenge, I'd activate my Sharingan to read their lips…'

"They look strong."

Sakura looked over at them apprehensively. "Yeah," she said. "They're one of the first teams here, too… and they don't even look scuffed. We almost died…"

"Hey," Naruto whined, "didn't they say like, showers and stuff? And food? Because I want showers and food."

"We should probably ask the chuunin."

Naruto stood up, stretching his hands above his head and cracking his knuckles. "Alright! Let's go."

As they walked, Satsuki couldn't help but note that Gaara's gaze followed Naruto the entire way.

"Close your eyes!"

"Eh?! Why?! I'm not gonna look, I promise-"

"I said," Sakura said, "close your eyes! I'm a girl, you're a guy."

Grumbling under his breath, Naruto did, folding his arms with a sullen expression.

Sakura stepped out of the bathroom, uneven wet hair stuck to her jaw and neck, and a towel wrapped tightly around her. "Satsuki-san," she said, her smile warm and her cheeks red, "it's your turn!"

Satsuki moved to walk past her, towel in hand, when she stopped abruptly, looking at Sakura's hair.

Sakura itched the side of her face, looking anywhere but the other girl. "Uh… what is it?"

Satsuki looked at her a moment more before she continued past her.

"Shorter hair suits you."

Sakura turned around quickly, confused and clutching her towel tightly. "But I- don't you like- I always thought-"

There was a click as Satsuki closed the door.

Sakura blinked, before she felt a smile curl onto her lips, and she walked into the room with a stride.

Naruto intercepted quickly, eyes still squeezed shut. "Yeah, yeah! Sakura-chan, your hair looks super nice short!"

"Shut up," Sakura said. "And don't peek, you pervert!"

"I didn't!" Naruto whined. "Hurry up!"

Sakura rolled her eyes, peeling the towel from her form and pulling on her top.

"You have so little patience, you know."

The shower's water was hot. Satsuki tenderly rubbed at her arm, the water at her feet running pink. She turned around, leaning back to allow her hair to feel the full brunt of the hot water, and she ran her fingers through it, unpicking leaves and twigs. The dirt, sweat and blood that buried itself in every crevice of her body washed out slowly and refreshingly, and after using the supplied soap and shampoo, Satsuki rubbed at her face and turned off the water.

Climbing out, Satsuki dried herself off, before rubbing away the fog in the mirror to look at herself.

She grit her teeth.

What with breasts so small, and with her being so thin, her hair straight, wet and stuck to her skin - she was the spitting image of that man. She reached for her weapons bag, never removing her eyes from her boyish form, her wet fingers wrapping firmly about a kunai. Satsuki pulled a strand of her hair taut with one hand and with the other-

There was a loud slap.

"What's your problem?! Don't just get naked in front of me like that!"

"Why's it- I was just trying to get changed!"

"It's disgusting! I don't want to see you naked!"

"I wasn't naked!"

Satsuki rolled her eyes, and caught herself smirking in the mirror. The hair slipped from her wet fingers.

She slipped the kunai back into her pack. 'I don't look much like him at all.'

Sakura yawned.

"We should go to bed soon," she said, fixing her hair in the mirror. "How many beds are in here?"

"There's a couple of futons, and a pile of blankets and stuff," Naruto said. "Dibs on the one by the radiator."

"No," Satsuki said. "I'm lying there."


Sakura eyed Satsuki from the corner of her vision. 'Satsuki-san is really good at making it sound like she's got a solid reason for everything…' Her eyebrow twitched. 'But…'

"Because I'm cold."

Naruto stepped towards Satsuki, gritting his teeth angrily and pointing an accusatory finger at her. "You bastard, we're all cold! This room is really draughty!"

'Damn right, Naruto!'

"A shame," Satsuki said, tucking herself up under the blanket of the furthermost futon, facing the radiator. Naruto launched himself over to her, grabbing her by the shoulder.



After a moment more of Naruto jabbing his index finger into Satsuki's side, he growled before grabbing a fistful of her hair and pulling, and in a split-second Satsuki's hand shot from under the blanket and grabbed a fistful of his. In seconds they were face to face, scowling.

Sakura sighed, climbing in under the covers and snuggling in as close as she could get to the radiator. Her contact with Naruto was strange, but she was so cold her mind didn't dwell on it. She smiled, nudging in closer. 'Ah… he's so warm!'

"Let go, moron."

Naruto's face moved in closer. "Not until you let go of mine!"

"Let go first."


Satsuki rolled her eyes before closing them. "Fine."

Her grip on his hair tightened, and Naruto winced. "F-Fine! I'll just hold onto your hair forever then!"

"Is someone going to turn off the lights?" Sakura asked.

When neither of them responded, she huffed, before deciding getting up to turn them off was too much of a pain and she was tired enough to fall asleep either way.

"Rookie Team 7 of Konoha, please."

A man with dark hair swept to one side of his head smirked at Kakashi, rifling through a very thick file. "You don't have to tell me twice, Kakashi-senpai. It's quite the tale that you passed a team." His words faded into a snicker. "Poor bastards."

Kakashi flicked over another page. "I wouldn't quite say that, Yomi-kun," he said. "But they're an interesting bunch."

"So I hear. A two-girl team, as well. I haven't seen one of those in a while." His finger trailed down a long list of applicants, many with heavy black marker crossed over their names. "So how are they coming along?"

There was a pause. "Interestingly."

Yomi snickered. "Well, that doesn't sound promising."

Kakashi sighed, turning yet another page. "They're all exceptionally skilled," he said, "and exceptionally flawed. With proper teamwork, they could be the best ninja this village has ever seen."

"Provided you don't fuck them over yourself," Yomi said, before laughing. "That's a pretty big boast to make, but I guess everything about you is a little extreme, isn't it, Kakashi-senpai?"

Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "Now what exactly do you mean by that?"

Yomi waved off the comment with his free hand. "Kidding, kidding. But that's all provided you earn their respect… let's just hope no-one tells them about that one time with the chickens and Uchiha Fugaku."

Kakashi's finger froze as he moved to turn the page.

"Yes," he said. "Let's hope."

Yomi flicked through two more pages, before finally looking up to smile at Kakashi. "There we go. They're in room 64," Yomi said, passing him a key. "You know, Kakashi, there're already too many genin filtering through… they reckon we might have to hold preliminary matches. And no helping them too much! You're here on special permissions."

Kakashi tucked the key into his pocket, waving over his shoulder carelessly. "Of course, of course."

It had gone unsaid, but Kakashi knew that Orochimaru's appearance in the forest was hardly secret now. And what with the Uchiha prodigy on his team, his pupils would be primary targets. The knowledge that they were even alive had come as news that let him release a held breath.

'I'll have to ask them about any suspicious encounters.'

He reached the door, sliding the key into the metal lock and turning. The door slid open, the light was on-


He was met with the three of them, bundled up by the radiator; Naruto's arm was slung over Satsuki, Satsuki's arm over Naruto, and Sakura was squidged up tightly in the mass of blankets.

Their faces were the image of contentment.

He blinked, before letting a small smile creep onto his lips.

'And here's me thinking they mightn't get along…'

Kakashi flicked off the light switch, before closing the door quietly behind him.

'…I guess it can wait until tomorrow.'

Naruto awoke from his sleep to the sound of booming thunder.

Sakura, beside him, shrieked, and Satsuki, to the other side of him, gracefully launched herself up and smacked her head into the radiator.

"S-Sensei!" Sakura said, clasping her chest and trying to calm her breathing. "What the hell was all that about?!"

"Kakashi-sensei?!" Naruto sputtered between gasps for breath.

Satsuki said nothing, rubbing at her head with a scowl that demanded explanation.

Kakashi shrugged in response, casting away his genjutsu, whipping out his favourite book and becoming quickly engrossed. "You were all sleeping when I got here, so…"

After a moment's pause, he coughed. "Aside from a congratulations on getting through to the third stage, I have some questions to ask you three about what exactly happened in the Forest of Death. And I also have some information for you."

The three of them stared back at him sleepily and angrily. Kakashi held up a bag, smiling.

"I also have breakfast."

Grumbling slightly, the genin peeled themselves from their futons and stretched, sitting at the small table. Sakura had her head in her arms, and Satsuki too looked as though she was barely awake. Naruto was, debatably, still asleep.

Kakashi placed down the bag on the table. "There have been several incidents in the Forest of Death-"

It took him a moment to realise that his students were entirely not listening, rooting in the bag. Naruto took a sudden deep breath, and breathed out with a smile.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto said, grin wide. "That smell… how did you know?!"

Kakashi smiled. "Yes. Since our Team 7 introduction was all about your favourite foods, and seeing as you've all managed to come this far in the chuunin exams…"

Sakura withdrew a large box, opening it to reveal assorted dango and sauce, whereas Satsuki to her left pulled out a paper bag of large, fresh tomatoes. Naruto drew out a take-out bowl of ramen, and with a barely suppressed squeal, began to unwrap it.

"Before you have those, though," Kakashi said, "I have some proper food." He withdrew boxed lunches, and Satsuki and Sakura took them, muttering thanks.

"Wait for me, ramen," Naruto said mournfully, taking the box from Kakashi.

The genin began eating.

"I'm going to have to ask you a few questions," Kakashi said.

The three of them nodded, and Kakashi closed his book.

"The first - and most important - is… did you encounter anyone you'd consider strange in the Forest of Death?"

A cold air settled in the room, and the three genin froze. Kakashi's stomach turned.

Sakura, onigiri in hand, put it into her boxed lunch before looking to her teammates for confirmation. She began with a stutter.


Kakashi nodded. "Strange."

Sakura opened her mouth to speak, but stuttered again, looking to Naruto and Satsuki. Naruto's fists clenched.

"Hell yeah we did!" he said. "There was this guy with snakes and shit! He was obviously not a genin, and he has this tongue, oh man it was fucking weird-"

Sakura's gaze flitted nervously. "And… and he left a mark on Naruto."

Kakashi's eyes narrowed.

'I hope that's not what it sounds like.' "A mark?"

Satsuki interrupted. "He bit Naruto on the stomach." Her hands were shaking.

"And he was in so much pain, he was screaming," Sakura said, "he slept for so long, like a day or something, he was so sick. And when he woke up… he wasn't himself. He was covered in black marks, and…"

Kakashi noted Naruto's confident and fiery gaze turn away from him.

Sakura took a deep breath, and her voice was considerably quieter. "Naruto… Naruto protected me. But he didn't just protect me… he- he tortured them. It wasn't… it wasn't anything like Naruto! There was this horrible chakra, and…"

Kakashi could see tears welling in her eyes, and he tucked his book away. "Still up to the same old tricks I see, Orochimaru…" he muttered.

His team was visibly shaken. Kakashi knew personally that Orochimaru had the capability to do that to grown jounin. Rookie genin had no chance of turning out unscathed.

'But my question is… why didn't he go for Satsuki?' Kakashi thought. 'She must have been his original target in these exams. But I can't imagine the horrors that Orochimaru would commit with a Kyuubi…'

Kakashi straightened up. "Naruto," he said. "Come with me. We're going to do something about that seal."

Naruto's ashamed expression lightened into a relieved one. "Really?" he said. "Wait- what about my ramen?"

Kakashi started heading for the door. "If you can eat and walk, bring it with you."

Naruto stuck his tongue out, grabbing the take-out bowl from the table and walking after him. "Sure I can!"

Kakashi stopped short of the door, turning to Satsuki and Sakura. "Stay here," he said. "Eat up and prepare. If we make good time, we should be back in an hour or so. I'll tell you more about what I think the third exam might be then."

Satsuki and Sakura nodded, and Kakashi exited with a wave.

The moment the door clicked, a shriek resounded.


"I said if you can eat and walk. But obviously…"

The voices faded away into incoherent echoes.

Satsuki looked at her food, the whole thing somehow unappetising now.

"Has your arm healed well?" Sakura asked.

"It's still sore," Satsuki said, "but I can move it normally."

Sakura paused, rubbing her shoulder with one hand.

"I see…"

Satsuki couldn't help but note how Sakura shook, how her lip was tightly bitten between her teeth. She opened her mouth, closed it, and then tried again.

"Sakura," she said, the words struggling past her lips, "Are you alright?"

Satsuki found herself hugged tightly by the girl, her wet eyes pressed into her shoulder as she sobbed. It was uncomfortable, but Satsuki put her arms around the girl and waited.

"Can't you write any faster?"

"Of course I can," Kakashi said, sliding a brush carefully over white paper. "I could go faster, do it wrong, and blow a hole in your stomach or poison you. In fact, it's more appealing with every minute."

Naruto shifted, grumbling under his breath. "Fine, whatever. I was just saying." He paused. "So who exactly is this Orochimaru guy?"

Kakashi didn't hesitate when he said, "Absolute trash."


Kakashi dipped his brush in ink once again. "One of Konoha's legendary Sannin, Kage-like in skill, strength, and mind. Orochimaru in particular was a genius."

"Konoha's? But…"

"But he had an insatiable thirst for knowledge," Kakashi said. "He sought out immortality. In Konoha's underground, he ran experiments on animals, which quickly became humans. Babies, prostitutes, orphans…"

"Stop, stop," Naruto said quickly, a wave of nausea passing over him. He shook his head in an attempt to rid himself of the image. "That's… horrible. So he got caught?"

"Yes. And exiled, naturally," Kakashi said. "To think, he was in the running to be Hokage. It just goes to show evil can look like you or me. And once again… he's crawled right in beneath our noses, and he's wreaking havoc."

The room fell quiet with the slick-dry noise of calligraphy.

"So he's pretty dangerous."

"You couldn't imagine," Kakashi said. He was reaching the end of a line. "Actually, this seal he left on you, has been left similarly on your examiner, Mitarashi Anko." His wrist turned gracefully. "I believe the survival rate is 1 in 10, so congratulations!"

Naruto paled.

"And we're done!" Kakashi said cheerfully, standing up and dusting himself off. "Now sit still. It might hurt."

"What the-"

"We're home!"

Sakura had little time to turn her head before Naruto had launched himself onto the pile of blankets on the futon.

"Ack- get off me, you moron!"

"Eeeh? Satsuki, is that you? No wonder the blankets felt so bony…"

"Get off!"

"Okay, I'm sorry, I'm sorry-!"

Kakashi whistled to catch their attention.

"Alright, you two," he said. "Listen up."

The two stopped fighting, looking somewhat ruffled as they stood up. Kakashi clapped his hands together and looked pleased.

"Now. I suspect the upcoming exam may be a set of one-on-one matches," he said. "If all goes well, you will be released late tomorrow and have a long break to prepare for them."

Naruto laughed gleefully. "So all I have to do is beat Satsuki in a final, or something? Hehe! Easy win!"

"If you don't fall over your own feet and knock yourself out first," Satsuki said, and Naruto shook a fist at her, opening his mouth but closing it at Kakashi's raised eyebrow.

"If you two are quite finished," Kakashi said. "Now… those matches will be pre-determined. A couple of things to be aware of… killing is not advised, but not prohibited. You might be hesitant to kill another candidate, but they won't necessarily hesitate as well. Remember that."

Sakura gulped. 'Whaaaat?! Is that what kids from other villages are like?! I'd never do such a thing…!'

"Another point you brought up, Naruto," he said. "Winning doesn't mean you'll become a chuunin. Someone who loses may gain the title, and someone who wins may not. Basically… this is more about showing what you can do than trying to get the opponent down. That's your goal, too, though, because if you lose you mightn't get enough opportunity to show what you can do."

"But it seems like a bit too many genin are passing through the Forest this year, so chances are there will be a set of preliminary matches to narrow it down. They'll be late tomorrow, so all you can really do until then is use this chance to rest and recuperate."

"And finally," he said, "Naruto. That seal I've put on you holds back the full might of the Cursed Seal. But it will only hold it back as much as you want it to." Kakashi stare was a serious one. "If your will to resist falters, it will take hold."

Naruto nodded, his hand shaking with the tightness of his grip.

"Now," Kakashi said. "Who wants to play cards?"


Naruto eyed Satsuki like prey.


Sakura watched as Naruto slid his cards over to Kakashi, and sighed mournfully. "Eeeeh?" she said. "Satsuki-san is so good at this game…"

Kakashi pushed the pile at the centre of the table toward Satsuki's rapidly growing stack of chips. Naruto's and Sakura's piles were quickly dwindling.

"It's because her eyes are scary," Naruto muttered, pulling the two cards Kakashi sent his way toward him.

"You would say that," Satsuki said. "Having not won a single round."

Naruto slammed his fist on the table, the piles of chips shaking precariously. "Shut up! Just you wait. I'll beat you at this one!"

Satsuki rolled her eyes, lifting her cards to look before placing them back. Naruto growled, leaning over and pointing an accusatory finger.

"See? See?! No matter what she really has, her face doesn't change from the standard cocky bastard expression! She doesn't have to bluff! That's her automatic face!"

Kakashi eyed Satsuki with a small smile. 'Naruto is right, but the worst was playing against Itachi… of all the Uchiha, he had the scariest poker face. And he was a shameless cheater, too.'

"Just because I don't wear my heart on my sleeve like some."

Naruto growled, standing up and slamming both hands on the table. "I don't know what that means, but I know it was meant to insult me, you prick!"

Satsuki rose similarly, scowling at Naruto.

"Come on you two," Sakura said, standing up between them. "I'm getting kinda sick of this…"

"You think you're so much better than me, huh?!" Naruto said, grabbing Satsuki's collar and yanking it towards him. "Well, let's go!"

Satsuki smirked cockily, pulling him by his collar as well. "I could take you on with one hand."

Sakura's eyebrow twitched, and she gritted her teeth, grabbing them both by the back of their collars and shoving them apart. "Shannaro! Sit the fuck down, both of you!"

There was a loud buzz, a click, and the room was plunged into darkness. There was a bang, the sound of the table hitting the floor, and a chorus of tapping as chips flew from the table and onto the floor. Someone screamed.

"What the-"

"A chip hit me in my eye, dammit! Who knocked over the damn table-!"

There was a brief silence, filled only with the sound of rattling chips.

"It appears there has been a power outage," Kakashi added helpfully, scaring Sakura with his proximity to her. She could see nothing, which wasn't helped by the fact that a chip had hit her in the eye.

"Naruto…" Satsuki growled.

Naruto laughed awkwardly. "Uh, what?"

"…did you scream?"

"No!" Naruto said quickly. "That must have been Sakura-chan-"


Naruto's tone turned begging. "Kakashi-sensei?"

"I'm afraid not."


"I don't like the dark, okay?" Naruto snapped. "I said it!"

"I didn't know boys could scream that high," Sakura said.

Satsuki snorted. "You're such a baby."

"Do you think you can get away with saying that just because it's dark?!" Naruto said, reaching out to grab Satsuki's collar but instead firmly pulling Sakura's nose.


"Calm down, all of you," Kakashi said, grinning playfully beneath his mask. "It's just a power outage. You'd think there'd been a murder in the dark, you know?"

"D-Don't say that, Kakashi-sensei!"

Satsuki rolled her eyes. "How old are you?"

A knocking resounded throughout the room, and the three genin froze.

"Oh god," Naruto whispered. "It's the murderer. We're going to die."

"Shut up, moron."

"Come in!" Kakashi's tone was cheerful.

The door swung open.

"Uh, hello?" Naruto squeaked. "Hello? Oh god, spare me. I'm not even a chuunin yet."

There was a pause, and then a cough.

"Security here," a low voice rumbled. "We just came to tell you that the power outage isn't anything to worry about, but it might be out until the morning. Thanks for your understanding!"

"Anytime!" Kakashi called back. The door clicked shut again, and he saw Sakura swing for Naruto's head, only to miss entirely. Her stumble was badly disguised.

"Naruto, you are such a baby! How are we ever going to get promoted when you're scared of the dark?!"

"I'm not scared of the dark!" Naruto said, sputtering indignantly. "Besides, Satsuki and Kakashi-sensei are acting all cool, when they probably have their Sharingan on or something! Right?!"


Naruto blinked. "Well, w-whatever! I can so deal with the dark. All night!"

There was a silence, before Sakura giggled.

"…let's tell ghost stories."

"Huuuuh?" Naruto said. 'Is Sakura-chan into that kind of stuff…?'

Sakura grinned, rubbing her hands together. "Yeah! If you wanna prove that you aren't scared of the dark, even one tiny bit, then let's tell ghost stories!"

Naruto wasn't sure whether all eyes were actually on him, but it certainly felt like it.

"H-Hell yeah!"


"I think I have one about an empty house...?" Sakura offered weakly.

There was a moment's silence, and then a sigh.

"I have one."

Naruto turned his head to the direction of Satsuki's voice. "Eh? You? Telling ghost stories?"

"Just one," she said. 'My brother would often tell it to me on request, but in the end, I'd keep him up all night for fear of demons...'

"Okay! Well, tell us that one. We'll get comfortable, first." Sakura turned to Kakashi, or where his voice had come from last. "Are you staying, Kakashi-sensei?"

"I think I'll take my leave," Kakashi said. "It's rather late. But I'll see you all tomorrow morning… don't stay up too late."

"I'll sleep like a log, Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto declared. "No ghost story will keep me up."

"If you say so, Naruto," Kakashi said. "Sleep well, you three."

There was a chorus of goodbyes as the door clicked shut. Naruto shivered from a breeze, and they settled down clumsily on the futons, tugging a blanket between them. When Satsuki began speaking, her words bled through the darkness.

"Below Fire Country, lies a cluster of islands cloaked in deep mist. In a particular patch of the ocean, abnormal heat under the water causes massive whirlpools. The tiny nation surrounded by these was a village called Uzushiogakure," Satsuki said. "But these shinobi were renowned for their powerful chakra and longevity, and so the village, and its people, were destroyed."

"I thought the academy history lessons were over," Naruto groaned. Sakura batted him around the head and shushed him before smiling encouragingly through the dark at Satsuki, though she doubted the girl could see.

"It's said, however, that the island holds a dark secret in its history of bloodshed. When reports that an invasion of massive proportions was coming reached the village, Uzushiogakure still had little chance of survival. They were doomed for destruction.

"But it is said that, to preserve their ancient techniques, the adults of that village, after sending the children away on the last of their boats, gathered together and decided that the Awakage, the strongest shinobi of that village, should be the one to survive and pass on their legacy; and so in his skull, was sealed their consciousnesses.

"But this was too much for the Awakage. In his ears rang the whispering of hundreds of dead men and women. Seek revenge! Why should you be the one to survive? Wouldn't you be better off dead? Kill them! Kill them all!

"It is said that when these invaders arrived, they were faced with what they could only describe as a Red Demon. He tore himself from the underbrush, the bracken of roses leaving bright red scratches in his flesh, mad from the chanting of a thousand souls, and with hair like a bloody red spider."

"The entire invading force was found dead, their necks purple, and their eyes red from burst vessels as they'd strained for their last breaths. The only clue to their deaths lay around a single ninja's neck…"

Naruto sat agitated in the silence.

"What? What?! What is it?!" Naruto urged, leaning over.

Sakura's breath was bated, but the silence went on. She blinked.

"S-Satsuki-san, don't tell me you mean to leave it there! We're Team 7! Don't you care about us?!"

"...a single, tightly wound, red hair.

"No-one knows what happened to the Red Demon, and the island is abandoned, with the waters hard to navigate and a thick fog that clouds the island from view. Uzushiogakure is still empty today, and search parties report nothing. But some say that in the watery depths of that water lies a tomb, and in it, immortalised, the Red Demon, locked in an almost eternal sleep. But at just the right moment, he will awaken…"

Her eyes began glowing a bright red.

" the dark of night time, in your sleep, he'll wind his long red hair around your neck-"

"Stopstopstop! Stop that right now," Naruto said, shaking his head with his hands over his ears. "That is not funny! And turn off your Sharingan, you bastard, you scared me!"

"Who's idea was it to tell scary stories?" Sakura said, her voice cutting through a long silence.


Sakura blinked. "Wh-Oh, yeah..."

Naruto groaned, letting his head fall into a pillow. His voice was muffled. "Sakura-chan… you're so mean," he said. "I'm not gonna sleep a wink…"

"Satsuki-san told the story! And you said you weren't even scared of them!"

"Hey, hey, Satsuki," Naruto said, a note of fear in his voice, "is it a true story?"

Satsuki leant back onto her blankets. 'I would always beg him to tell me that story. And now, the Red Demon, avenging those he lost… reminds me of myself.'

"There's no way," Sakura said, rolling her eyes at Naruto. "It's just a kid's tale."

"No," Satsuki said. "It's true."

The two of them blinked, and Sakura opened her mouth before Satsuki spoke.

"A member of our clan was supposedly sent afterwards," Satsuki said. "To investigate why trade had stopped."

"All of it?" Sakura said, disbelieving.

Satsuki opened her mouth. "My brother-"

'-wouldn't lie.'

She closed it, abruptly turning away from them with a twisting feeling in her gut. The two didn't press the matter when she stopped.

"Well… it's been blown out of proportion, right?" Naruto said, his tone giggling and panicky. "Ack, I wish the lights weren't still out…"

"We should go to bed," Sakura said, and Satsuki to her right agreed.

They curled up beneath the blankets, slightly more spaced apart this time. As Satsuki moved to make herself comfortable, Naruto poked her in her side. She frowned.

"You know," he said, "you're like, really good at storytelling, Satsuki."

Satsuki blinked once, twice, before her cheeks flushed pink in the darkness.

"…shut up. Something as stupid as that isn't a talent."

"Whatever," Naruto said. Satsuki could hear him smiling.

'That's it, isn't it?' Satsuki thought, her face still hot. 'When I get all embarrassed like this… when I look at Naruto…'

His eyes were closed, but his hands knotted in the blankets.

'I'm reminded so strongly of family that it hurts.'

There was a long moment.

"I can't sleep," Naruto said, his voice a whine.

Satsuki took in a breath quietly, breathing out through her nose and blinking back tears. Her voice shook. "Try harder, idiot."

There was another long silence, and then a whisper. "Is Sakura-chan asleep?"

A loud snore came from her side. Satsuki inconspicuously rubbed the wetness from her face with the blanket.



"I've got something to show you. C'mon, get up!"


"No, c'mon. It's like, urgent."

"Naruto, it's-"

"-time to go!" Naruto hooked her by her arm and pulled her upwards.

"Be careful of Sakura," she scolded, creeping past the sleeping girl.

"Yeah, yeah I know."

They opened and closed the door gently, Naruto pulling Satsuki along all the while.

Satsuki rubbed her arms, bristling at the cold outside of their heated room. "This had better be important."

Naruto shot her a smile that she could just about see. "It is! Promise." He grabbed her by the arm and pulled.

"Oi-! Be careful!"

Naruto's hands fumbled along the walls until he found a sign that, upon leaning forward earnestly to read, depicted stairs and various room numbers. "Ah, c'mon."

"Where are we going?"

"Up a couple more stairs, I think-"

Naruto tripped roughly, Satsuki catching him by the arm. She gave him a glare, her eyebrow twitching as he regained his balance.

"The fact that you're meant to be a shinobi is just embarrassing."

Naruto stuck out his tongue.

"Yeah, well- you too, prick," he said. When met with no more stairs, he stood at the top, looking both ways and seeming to be contemplating a decision. Satsuki folded her arms.

"Now what?"

"We find more stairs."

Satsuki looked at him, her face stoic with a hint of mild exasperation. Naruto either didn't notice or ignored it, fumbling along the walls with his hands and squinted eyes.

"Here… here? Oi, Satsuki what does this door say?"

Her Sharingan burst into a flower of red in her eye. "No entry."

Naruto grinned. "Exactly the one we want."

Satsuki did a double take when she saw Naruto withdraw bent pieces of metal and tuck them inside of the keyhole of the lock. His fingers moved them delicately.

"The hell are you doing?"

Naruto didn't even turn to look at her. "What does it look like, bastard?"

There was a loud clink, and Satsuki heard a victorious 'yes' from Naruto's mouth before the door swung open. She blinked.

"The security here is terrible."

"A lot of places are like that," Naruto said. "And besides. I'd be more bothered about all the genin killing each other."

Satsuki rolled her eyes, but followed him up the stairwell. It was narrower and the air was thick with dirt and dust, and at the top was a small metal ladder which smelled strongly of ferrous rust. Naruto stepped on its bottom step and thrust his hand upwards to open the trapdoor with a bang. Moonlight poured down on them like liquid silver.

As Naruto climbed up, Satsuki caught sight of the night sky above, and lost her breath. In the midst of forest, far away from even Konoha, her Sharingan ablaze, the stars were unlike anything she had ever seen, the cold white of moonlight painting even the peeling paint of the walls as crashing white waves.

She climbed up, raising an eyebrow at Naruto.

"So, what? This was urgent?"

He shrugged. "Not sure about that. I just had a feeling it would be really nice out here," he said, smiling into the distance. "And it is, right? The whole town must be in a blackout, because all I can see for miles and miles is the moonlight."

Satsuki looked around, before moving to sit down beside Naruto. She shivered.

"Are you cold? Take my jacket," he said, already unzipping it. "I'm too hot, y'know!"

"I don't want your jacket."

"I don't care!" he said, pulling it off and throwing it at her. "Put it on!"

Satsuki rolled her eyes, but conceded, putting the jacket around her shoulders. It was warm, orange, and smelled strongly of home.

"You are such an idiot," she said, a smile tugging at her lips. "Dragging me out here for something like this."

Naruto grinned, rubbing the back of his head. In the moonlight, all Satsuki could see was the soft glint of his eyes, and the side of his head cast in cold light. The sight of Naruto, the night sky and trees as far as the eye could see was a sight that stole Satsuki's breath. Her heart hammered in her chest.

"Well," he said, "it's pretty. And the trees look nice, too, you know? We mightn't ever get a chance to see the Forest of Death like this again!"


Naruto grinned at her, a smile that took up his face in dimples, teeth and sunshine amongst stars. "You don't need a reason for everything, you know!"

Satsuki's eyes paused on Naruto's face for a moment, before she leaned back onto her hands and looked at the stars.

'That's true,' Naruto thought, staring at her for an unassailable moment, 'But I guess I brought you up here, because in the end, even though you really do piss me off…'

Naruto could feel his smile slipping.

'…hearing you cry like that is just unbearable.'

"Naruto. Look."

He followed Satsuki's gaze to the sky and was met with a flickering pinprick of gold, that moved slowly before speeding quickly across the sky and disappearing. The incision it made across the night made Naruto think the sky would split into two.

"A shooting star!" he breathed excitedly.

Satsuki was mesmerised.

"So, did you make a wish?!"

"A wish?"

"A wish, a wish!" Naruto urged, tugging at her sleeve with a grin. "C'mon, Satsuki! It's probably not too late!"

Satsuki turned from his excited expression, snorting. "You're such a child."

Naruto leaned forward, indignant. "Whaaat? But Satsuki, it's a shooting star! A once in a lifetime thing, you know?!"

"What difference does it make?"

Naruto gaped in his outrage.

'Well,' Satsuki thought, smirking slightly at Naruto's angry stutters, 'I suppose if I were to make a wish…'

"Shooting stars are sacred! Don't you get it?! If you don't make a wish, then-"

"Then what?"

"Something bad will happen! I know it!"

'…the two of us, staying like this forever... wouldn't be so bad.'

Chapter Text

The morning passed with little event, the three of them leaving quietly after stretching and collecting their things. The hall was cold and uncomfortable compared to the huddle of blankets beside the radiator. A man with a persistent cough explained the rules in a drawling monotone, before there was a loud series of beeps, and then two names.

"Uzumaki Naruto," he said, "versus Hyuuga Neji."

Naruto blinked. "Eh? Who?"

Kakashi frowned beneath his mask. 'Hyuuga Neji… one of Gai's students. Top graduating rookie of last year. Naruto may struggle.'

"Hyuuga," Satsuki muttered to herself.

"Heheh!" Naruto grinned. "This should be no problem!"

"A word of advice," Kakashi said. "The Hyuuga rely on close combat, so don't get caught too close."

Naruto's expression faltered for a moment. "Yeah, yeah, whatever, Kakashi-sensei."

'Naruto's going to regret this…'

"If you lose here, you're never going to be on my level," Satsuki said, eyeing Naruto cockily out of the corner of her eye.

"Hmph-! Just you wait, okay?! I'm gonna beat your ass one day!"

"But not now," Kakashi added, putting an encouraging hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Good luck, Naruto," Sakura said.

Naruto smiled, a blush on his cheeks. "Sakura-chan!"

He turned to the crowd, holding onto the railing and leaning over to look for whoever was heading down before spotting a boy with long hair and eyes milky white. "Eh- is that him?"

Satsuki frowned. "Those eyes…"

"Almost as scary as yours, Satsuki," Naruto said. Satsuki flicked him in the side of the head.

"Just shut up and get down there before you get disqualified."

"Yeah, yeah," Naruto muttered, halting himself over the railing and landing with a thud on his feet. The boy was in the centre of the arena, weight on one leg with his arms folded.

Satsuki scowled. 'He's not taking it seriously at all… but this guy looks seriously out of his league. Especially with a bloodline. Naruto's going to have to be careful-'

"Oi! White eyes! What're you standing around for?! Get on with it!"

'-never mind.'

The boy snorted. "The proctor hasn't initiated the match yet," he said. "Well, they do say the empty can rattles the most."

Naruto blinked. "Wait, what?"

Neji opened his eyes and smirked. "What I mean is, losers like you who talk big are the ones who have the least to offer. In other words, you're a weakling." He finally moved his arms and legs from that pose, shifting them into a strange one with palms facing forward. "I'll be done with you in a matter of seconds."

Naruto stared for a moment, jaw gaping, and his expression switching from pure indignation to unbridled anger. His fists clenched, and he snapped his gaze to the proctor.

"Get on with the announcing!" Naruto said, cracking his knuckles. "I've gotta teach this prick a lesson!"

The proctor looked at them. "Ehem. Yes…"

Naruto pushed back his shoulders and put a leg forward.


He launched himself forward, dust gusting past his feet.

"Get here, you bastard-!" Naruto yelled, cocking back a fist.

"As you wish."

With a smirk, Neji pushed aside Naruto's punch by the wrist and slammed a palm into his exposed shoulder, sending Naruto careening backwards off balance. Ducking beneath Naruto's arms, he drew back another arm to push a chakra-infused palm into Naruto's gut.

Naruto wretched, eyes straining and mouth tasting distinctly of blood as he fell forward.

Neji pulled back and drew his leg up before slamming it down onto Naruto's back. The crack, which Naruto identified as a rib, was audible.

He looked up to see Neji through a blurry double-vision, standing back and admiring his handiwork.

"As I said. A matter of seconds." Neji turned to the proctor, sounding bored. "May it end here?"

"Dammit. You prick…"

Naruto pushed himself up, leaning on his legs before staggering to both legs. His rib left a stinging, sharp pain in his chest.

"Still standing," Neji said, tone either speculative or interested.

Naruto winced. 'Damn, that was stupid. Kakashi-sensei told me not to go for close-combat, and I still ran in straight for it. I'm paying for it now, though… he pissed me off too easily.'

"You know, you remind me of my cousin Hinata," he said. "Wasn't she in your graduating class?"

"Huh? Hinata?" Naruto said, blinking. "What about her?"

"Nothing," he said. "She was just a failure that refused to accept her fate. Learn from her example, and stay down. It's easier that way."

Without a moment more to spare, Neji sprinted in, hands outstretched, and Naruto quickly threw himself to the side, his reaction slowed somewhat by the sting of pain in his chest. The fluorescent blue of Neji's palm rushed from his left, and he jumped backwards, barely dodging a hit as he put some considerable distance between the two of them. Naruto frowned.

'His hands… he's not hitting me hard, but those hits… there's something special about it. It must be his bloodline… I've gotta stay out of the way of that.'

"Hinata was always nice to me," Naruto said. "And she was never a failure! I hate people like you - people who are always trying to tell me what I can and can't do! I can see it in the way you look at me!"

Naruto gritted his teeth, firming his stance and making a handsign.

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

Neji frowned at the clones encircling him. "Kage Bunshin?"

With a cacophony of battle cries, the clones converged on Neji.

The boy reacted immediately, his body curling like a leaf at the edges to move to the left. He bent past the assault of one clone, grabbing him by the arm and spinning his momentum into another. One by one, he finished off the clones, each movement calculated perfectly, before at the perfect moment, his surroundings enshrouded in the smoke of dispelled clones-

"Take this!"

-Naruto and a couple of his clones threw a barrage of kunai at Neji's back.

As the smoke cleared, his heart sank.

On each finger lay a kunai, all caught cleanly through the ring at their bases. Neji gave him a look that made his blood boil.

"A shame," he said.

Naruto clenched his fists, gritting his teeth.

Sakura turned to Kakashi. "How did Neji see all of those so perfectly? There was smoke, and he was facing the other way!"

"The Byakugan," Kakashi said. "That boys dojutsu allows him almost 360 degree vision. There's no possibility of sneak attacks."

"Almost," Satsuki said. Kakashi raised an eyebrow at the smile that twitched at the edge of her lips. "Naruto can do it."

"As you can see," Neji smirked, "I have the perfect vision. There's no way you can get an attack past me."

'Man… this guy… just who the hell does he think he is?!'

"Cocky bastards like you just piss me off…!" Naruto yelled, feeling a brief stirring in his stomach like ice. He felt his blood like fire and ice altogether and the disgusting lick of Orochimaru's chakra welling in his gut.

'The Kyuubi's power doesn't compare to mine,' Orochimaru drawled, deep in the recesses of his mind. 'And when they come together...'

Naruto bit his lip, clenching his fists and keeping his gaze firmly locked on Neji.

'I'll use an inch of this power,' Naruto thought. 'Just this once… to teach this bastard a lesson.'

Naruto advanced on Neji with a speed the Hyuuga hadn't seen once in this whole fight.

Neji pulled to his right, stunned by the single-second turn around, but Naruto caught him out by changing his direction and roundhousing him in his spin.

The boy was flung back, catching his balance after the blow. Naruto intercepted.

Naruto, who had at some point become three - grabbed him by his collar and kneed him in the jaw, the other kicking him by his gut straight into the air - and the third, at a speed he'd hardly seen, jumped into the air, grabbed him by his hair, and slammed him front-first into the ground.

There was the scraping of debris and the settling of dust, before a coughing filled the arena. Neji, arms trembling, was pulling himself up from the mess of cracked tiles and dust, bleeding from the mouth with a scowl.

The blond grinned, breathing heavily. He could feel the last bits of that cursed chakra flitering away.

"You haven't won yet," Neji hissed, spitting blood, before launching himself up and dispelling the clone on his back in the blink of an eye.

Naruto's rib troubled him for one vital moment, and he was locked into Neji's hits.

'I didn't even see him-!'

Naruto didn't have to see the boy to feel his fingers press into point after point after point until it was countless pains all over his body that he couldn't see nor counter.

Satsuki rushed to the railing.

"What the hell is going on, Kakashi?"

"The sixty four palms," Kakashi said, eyes wide. "A main branch only technique…"

Sakura's expression turned worried. "Sixty four palms? What's that?"

"A technique that can cut off all chakra. And if this kid hits the one above the heart…"

Kakashi's expression hardened.

"Naruto could die."

Sakura gasped, clasping her hands to her mouth.

"Sixty four palms!"

The final hit launched Naruto backwards with a mighty buzzing smack. His landing was quiet, then marred with loud, wet coughing.

Neji's hands were red, perhaps with Naruto's blood or his own; his chin was stained too, and he was breathing heavily, his stance wobbling. His smirk remained.

"You see," he said, "Fate is an unchangeable thing. There's no possibility of someone like you changing it… you are a failure, as my cousin Hinata is… and I am a prodigy, as that Uchiha girl is. Those who are born to succeed… succeed."

Naruto's arms trembled with the effort to push himself up, before his elbows gave in and he hit the floor again with a grunt.

Satsuki gritted her teeth.

"Is Naruto going to lose?" Sakura said. "If he doesn't give up now… and that other guy tries to finish him off, then…!"

Kakashi didn't respond, and Satsuki clenched her hands on the metal of the railing, before calling out.


Naruto turned his head to look at Satsuki, and she pinned him with a glare.

"Pick up your game, you loser!"

The coughing turned into a wretching for a moment, before Naruto cleared his throat. There was a scraping noise, as Naruto pulled his knee to his chest, putting his weight on his right leg. It collapsed from beneath him, sending him falling to the floor again. His body shook from exhaustion.

"I don't need you telling me what to do, Satsuki," Naruto said, voice hoarse. "So keep quiet and let me finish this…!"

He could feel the cracked rib pushing at his flesh.

'My chakra…'

His eyes widened.

'I can't… my chakra is…'

Neji laughed breathlessly. "I disabled your tenketsu," he said. "You won't be able to summon any chakra at all."

Naruto glared defiantly, desperately trying to summon up more-

'Do you require my power?'

The tone made Naruto sick, and for a moment, he thought of the awesome speed and power leant by the tiniest fraction of that chakra, until he remembered the flickers of fear in Sakura's eyes.

"No," he whispered. "I don't want any more of that disgusting power of yours…"

Neji's tone was smug.

"Won't you stand down?"

There was a heavy silence.

"If we clash again, I will win," Neji said again.

Naruto gritted his teeth, turning his head to look up at the Hyuuga. The boy stepped towards Naruto, the footsteps echoing. There was an exhaustion in his posture; he was just as tired as Naruto.

"You are just so full of shit," Naruto bit out, his body screaming with each movement he tried to make. "What the hell would you know about fate?"

Neji's stare hardened. "And what would you know about me, Uzumaki Naruto?"

Naruto chuckled.

"Quite frankly, absolutely jack shit."

His body trembled with his efforts to move.

"But I know what it's like to be a loser. I worked my ass off… every single day… and someone like you comes up and tells me that it's my fate to never succeed?"

Naruto felt his wrists wobbling as he tried to push himself upwards.

"No matter how long I train, no matter how much I try, I can never be anything at all?"

Neji didn't respond, and Naruto felt himself tense with frustration. "Hinata always worked hard too! Prodigies like you get a nice easy shortcut… even if Hinata is a loser, I respect her!"

His wrists collapsed beneath him, and he cried out with the pain. Naruto could feel Neji's piteous gaze on him, and it pained him more than any wound. He gritted his teeth.

"Geniuses like you will never know how… how humiliating it is to be this way! And the courage it takes to stand up again…!"

The Hyuuga was silent for a moment.

"But nothing changes," he murmured.

Neji's tone rose up a notch.

"No matter how noble you think yourself, the reality remains the same!"

Naruto scowled.

"Relying on being a genius might get you this far, but if you keep leaving it all to fate, you'll never improve. Take credit for what you've done… take credit for your mistakes… and work hard…! I've lived by that…!"

"And yet you're grovelling at my feet. What does that say to you?"

Naruto looked up at him with eyes defiant.

"I may be a loser, but I'm not a coward who blames it all on fate. Hinata may not be as good as you, but she is sure as hell trying!"

"That's what you don't get," Neji snapped. "Trying just isn't good enough!"

Naruto's lip twitched.

"I've had enough shit from people like you," Naruto hissed, and drew out a kunai from under his chest with a painful yank of his arm, and plunged it down.

"So just cut it out!"

The blade went straight through Neji's foot and into the floor.

The boy roared with the pain, lurching down to grab Naruto. He rolled painfully away from Neji's grab, pulling at the boy's ankle and sending him crashing down to the ground. The blade awkwardly came out of the floor at an angle and twisted in the wound.

Neji's head slammed down not a foot away from his.

With not a moment to spare, the blond swung back his right fist and slugged him in the jaw, pushing off the ground with a creak of his bones and leaning over Neji to hold him by the collar.

His breathing was heavy, and Neji was shaking from the pain and exhaustion. Naruto smiled through his pained gasps.

"I won't give up," he said, "and I won't go back on my word. That's my ninja way. So stop asking, asshole."

There was a deafening silence, Sakura's hand over her mouth, Satsuki wide-eyed, and then-

"Uzumaki Naruto wins."

Chapter Text

After being briefly patched up, Naruto ascended the stairs with a limp, sore and worn out. Sakura smiled, clapping excitedly.

"Naruto! You did it!" she said. "You know, for a moment. I just didn't think you'd manage it, but then…!"

"You were alright, usuratonkachi."

"Gee, thanks, you prick."

"Now, now, children…"

The proctor coughed, and the computer whirred for a couple stalling moments, before it came to rest on two fated names. The proctor spoke, but Naruto did not hear him. The screen read:

Sabaku no Gaara vs Hyuuga Hinata

There was the brief buzzing of conversation that Naruto could barely make out, and then he looked to his right, and saw Hinata, meek and quiet and everything soft, walking towards the stairs. He all but ran to her.

Hinata turned her head, cheeks flushing at the sight of Naruto's gentle smile.

"A-Ah! Naruto-kun," she stuttered. "I-I, um…"

Her index fingers tapped together as her gaze shifted to various points on the floor. Her cheeks were a bright red.

"T-Thank you for standing up for me," she said. "I-I…"

Naruto rubbed the back of his head with a smile. "It's alright, you know? Your cousin is an asshole, but I was just telling him the truth!"

She smiled, cheeks flushed.

"T-Thank you, Naruto-kun."

"Anyway," he said, "what I really came to tell you was that, well…"

'Please, God, don't go down there. He'll kill you. He'll rip you to shreds in seconds. He's a maniac. A psycho. A murderer. Hinata, please, for me, don't.'

Naruto gave her a bright white smile, and a thumbs up.

"You can do it!"

The girl stepped back, blinking, before she smiled and nodded fervently, a renewed strength in her tone.

"Y-Yes! Thank you!"

As Hinata turned to make her way down to the stadium in little elegant steps to the red-haired demon below, Satsuki glanced at the white-knuckled, quivering fists at Naruto's side.

His eyes followed Hinata until the very last step.

Gaara's flitting gaze was unsettling. Naruto could see it trailing after Hinata, and somehow the swirling of sand about Gaara's back reminded him of the impatient tapping of a foot.

(Naruto did know those eyes.)


(Perhaps that was why he was so scared for her.)

Gaara did not move, and Hinata waited for a moment, in a defensive stance, before springing out of it to run forward with hands alight-

Gaara's sand snapped forward like a serpent and clasped her by the throat.

Her gargle resounded as it tightened, before it bent, swung, and released her to send her flying into the wall. Her back cracked on contact with the wall, and she peeled away from the concrete and fell to her knees, spitting blood.

Wiping her mouth and steadying her shaky knees to stand, Hinata narrowed her eyes, took a deep breath, and ran to the left. The sand was on her tail immediately, before it returned to float around Gaara.

'Protection,' she observed. 'He uses it mainly as protection...'

She began to move again, slower, withdrawing shuriken from her pouch and launching them at Gaara. They hit his sand shield - something she'd expected - but she watched as they were sucked into the sand itself, before being spat back at a barely visible speed. Hinata barely made the dodge, a shuriken nicking her shoulder.

In the moment of pain afterwards, Gaara's sand was above her, coming downwards before she changed her fall forwards into a speedy roll out of the way. It crashed into the spot where she had been and cracked the floor tiles.

Hinata shuddered.

She stood up properly, a kunai held in an ice-pick stance, when the rippling dome that swayed around Gaara let loose a mass of sand shuriken. Hinata quickly dodged the majority but had to slice through one with a kunai. 'It's tough,' she thought, 'but not impossible to break through. At least, these aren't.'

As she ran along the perimeter of the wall, Gaara still situated at the centre, he sent more sand shuriken, cornering her like a lamb with careful throws. Hinata activated her Byakugan.

'They're reinforced with chakra,' Hinata thought as she dodged and parried hits, 'that explains why they're so hard to break through...'

The practice soon became exhausting, and Hinata altered the range for a moment, moving forward and then quickly back. 'This distance is less risky, but I have to get up close.'

Hinata rolled beneath another barrage of sand shuriken, jumping when they collapsed and coalesced on the floor into a hand that attempted to grab at her foot. She began to advance, running towards him and quickly dodging a wave of sand that moved to envelop her.

Gaara looked at her, bored, and the sand swirling forwards offensively to her drew back to encircle his form. She frowned.

"How boring."

He closed his eyes, and Hinata smiled slightly.

'This is my chance!'

She pushed her right palm forward -

Only to be met with the sand once again. Hinata blinked, stepping back.

"His sand moves independently of what he can see?"

The wall of sand formed a spike just beyond her fingers, and shot out abruptly. Hinata leaned back, the spike skimming her arm and leaving a long, shallow cut. The opening was obvious, and the sand grabbed her by the arm and lashed her to the other side of the arena.

Hinata's back slammed against the wall, and she saw stars.

'He's playing with me,' she realised. 'He could have easily killed me with that hit.'

She stood up, gasping at the pain and activating her Byakugan once again, and stopping.

Where she had struck Gaara's sand, there was a small pile of sand on the floor. She could see that - compared to the rest of the sand - it had almost no chakra in it. Viewing it for a moment, Hinata saw it glow in the view of the Byakugan.

'The chakra is what moves the sand,' she realised. 'And if that's the case...'

Gaara opened his eyes, and a swarm of sand shuriken headed straight for her still form.

'I might just be able to win.'

"One palm!"

She contacted a chakra-infused palm with the bullet. It shuddered to a stop, paused, before drifting down to the ground in a softly sifting pile of sand.

Gaara's eyes narrowed, the incoming bullets returning to the cloud around him. She allowed herself a victorious twitch of the lips.

But even now, she could see the chakra leaking to the sand bullet she'd left as a pile on the floor. Hinata knew she was at a disadvantage. She didn't have the advantage of anatomical knowledge, nor did she have the advantage of speed. There could be no breaks in either of those palm strikes.

And she had only hope that the chakra regenerated at a pace slow enough for her to secure a safe win.

Hinata settled herself into the stance of the gentle fist, palms forward, when she rushed to Gaara.

'The chakra is gathering,' she realised, before swallowing dryly and diving to her side. It wasn't fast enough. 'No… it's going to-!'

Hinata was reminded of the difference in speed alone as Gaara's sand abruptly separated, grabbing her from behind and gaining a tight grip on her chest.

She gasped, momentarily winded, before she brought both palms to the binding and nullified the chakra in the sand, sliding out of its grip as it sifted onto the floor.

Hinata kept her eyes locked on Gaara; he was staring at her.

"You're slow," he said. "And weak. You are almost certain to lose."

Hinata gritted her teeth.

"So why do you continue to fight?"

Her heart stuttered in her chest. With Naruto's eyes on her, she was terrified, and yet when she spoke, she spoke with more conviction than she'd ever had in her life.

"B-Because giving up now," she said, "would be going back on everything I've ever resolved to believe! I-I won't give up, and I won't go back on my word! That's my ninja way!"

Gaara's sand rippled ominously about his form.

"Foolish words that I've heard before."

Hinata watched as Gaara's gourd crumbled into sand as well, joining the cloud. She bit her lip.

"It's not foolish," she said. "I-If I didn't stand up for what I b-believe in, then-then I wouldnt be a n-ninja w-worthy of respect!"


Gaara grinned.

"Y-Yes! I…" Hinata took a deep breath. "I want to b-be a ninja worthy of N-N-Naruto-kun's respect! S-So I can't… I can't just give up! I'll p-prove that I'm not… that I can win!"

Gaara's smile was sickly.

"How pathetic."

His sand lunged for her, and she barely dodged. It slammed into the wall, leaving a cloud of dust behind, and removed itself from the cracked stones before rushing for her again. Hinata composed herself and rolled quickly. The boy's eyes followed her.

'He's focusing his attacks on brute force. He's serious. I'm in trouble.'

Hinata's broken rib sent a wave of pain through her left side as she landed. Her movement halted as she wobbled on her feet.

Gaara smirked, and she was cloaked in darkness.

She gasped at the sudden black, before attempting to move her arms and legs and finding them paralysed.

"This is the end for you."

Her eyes widened. "He's trapped me in his sand...!"

"Die painfully," he said gleefully. "Sand Coffin."

Sakura, at Naruto's side, gasped and covered her mouth. His eyes widened.


The sand did not crush Hinata into pulp. He waited a moment with bated breath, before the sand slowly began dropping to the floor. Bit by bit, it slowly drifted away, until Hinata landed on the floor heaving for breath.

Sakura exhaled deeply, turning to Kakashi. "What did she do?"

Their sensei shrugged.

"It seems she used that same nullification technique she used earlier," he said. "The Hyuuga are renowned for their control over each and every tenketsu."

"You never told me that before I fought that Neji guy," Naruto grumbled.

"You rushed off, and you would have hardly listened anyway."

Naruto pulled a tongue at Kakashi, before turning back to the match.

Gaara was visibly shocked by the turn of events, and Hinata took advantage of that, rushing forward with her fists blue with chakra. The most of his sand lay in a useless lump behind Hinata, and she ran straight forward for a direct attack.

"That's not going to work," muttered Satsuki.

Hinata's palm met first with a small wall of sand. It crumbled before her palm, and she quickly lunged forward once more, the sand protecting him once more and joining the small pile on the floor.

She watched the worry on Gaara's face fester, before, with a victorious grin, Hinata advanced forward with a step.

His sand instinctively rushed to grab her knee, and she slammed her palm straight through it, and carried on.

The blow to his gut sent him skidding across the floor, and Naruto grinned.

"Man," he said, "Hinata's kinda cool, isn't she?"

Satsuki rolled her eyes.

Hinata pulled back her palm, alight with chakra-

"It's over!"

-and ran.


Her hand shook, quivering, hovering over that tiny tenketsu in the heart. The strike of victory, withheld by the mere millimetres between her fingers and that hit - why couldn't she reach?

Her legs weren't working. She tried to reach forward, and was rewarded with a sudden shock of pain. Hinata gasped.

She looked to Gaara to see his lashes stained with red as bright as his hair. Her heartbeat thrummed in her ears, and then all of a sudden she was horribly aware of a hot, thick warmth sliding over her abdomen.

As she looked further down, Hinata was met with that small pile of sand she had deactivated first from the wall. She understood now; that pile that had formed the Sand Coffin had returned to Gaara's ultimate defense, but this small pile had taken too long for that. Rather, it had regained chakra and movement just in time to-

("Hinata," he said, lips barely meeting. "Hinata. Hinata.")

impale her, straight through the gut

Hinata could feel the warm-wet stickiness of blood seeping through her toes. She couldn't breathe. Couldn't make any noise at all.

She felt cold.

Gaara's eyes followed the dripping of blood so intently that Hinata thought he might have opened his mouth and licked it off the floor.

'Naruto-kun... I thought I was always watching over you, but this time...'

Her knees buckled.


'...your eyes were on me, weren't they?'

The world was distant now. Footsteps, yelling.

He was holding her hand, now, and it was the moment she'd dreamt of if only she could feel that touch a little bit more. She tried to memorise the feel of his skin.

Someone was putting a stretcher beside her.

'I can't hear you.' Hinata tried to squeeze his hand. She couldn't even tell if she'd managed to. 'I can't hear anything.'

Hinata's cheeks were wet now. If she was crying, she couldn't feel her tears. She was lifted onto the stretcher; someone was moving beside her.


It felt like she had tuned into an irrelevant radio broadcast, filled with words and uproar and events and she was just the listener, but now she wanted to speak.

"I'm fine," she said. "I'll be fine."

She couldn't make anything of the noises that came from their lips. Were they speaking the same tongue? Could they understand her words?

"I won't give up now," she said, clasping his hand. "I won't die here…"

Naruto's voice hit her like the final bounce of a distant echo.


His voice was desperate.

"So don't worry," she said. "I won't give up… I won't go back on my word… because that's my ninja…"


Hinata died.

Chapter Text

Naruto's hands were slick with injury.

(A shame it wasn't his.)

He couldn't hear the room buzzing with chatting beyond the roar of his heartbeat in his ears. He could, however, feel Neji's gaze wearing through him.

"This is your fault."

Hinata's corpse was being stretchered out by medical ninja. Still on his knees, Naruto didn't pull his gaze away from the sight, only to feel himself pulled up by the collar to face Neji. The boy held him up with one fist, and cocked back the other.

"This is your fault!"

Naruto's jaw cracked under Neji's knuckles, and his vision flashed white with pain. Neji was crying, face twisted with anger, and Naruto looked back at him, saying nothing beneath the Hyuuga's searching gaze.

Neji choked back a frustrated sob, gritting his teeth before lashing Naruto onto the ground and running through the doors.

Gaara, on the other end of the arena, was walking calmly to the stairs to the mezzanine, and Naruto heard every single step.

But he couldn't tear his eyes from his hands, red with Hinata's blood. For a moment he was glad for it, and then the panic set in.

The world blackened.

After Kakashi had knocked out a hysterical Naruto, and Hinata's corpse had been cleared away, Sakura really couldn't say the mood alleviated. She herself was stuck in horrified shock.

The matches passed from there on in a daze, even Satsuki appearing distracted during her fight - which only turned out favourable likely because of her inexperienced opponent, Yoroi.

Sakura scraped a victory past Chouji, whose brute force had been easily manipulated into a loss with some traps, along with some very unremarkable genjutsu that had allowed Sakura to get behind him and deliver a finishing blow to the back of his head with the handle of her kunai.

Kakashi arrived at the end, after the matchups had been announced: Sakura couldn't say she listened much, but she did hear one pair:

"Uzumaki Naruto versus Sabaku no Gaara."

Her skin prickled at the thought. She pushed it aside to address Kakashi, employing a familiar sullenness so she could ignore the forever-echo of skin pierced.

"You didn't even see our matches!"

"It couldn't be helped. My apologies. But you got through, I see?" Kakashi said, turning a page. "Well done."

The two girls frowned, before Satsuki reached out to speak.

"...Kakashi." She stepped forward. "Naruto is-"

"In safe hands," Kakashi interrupted, snapping his book shut and smiling at them. Sakura felt her stomach drop with the unease of lies.

"Don't worry," he continued. "Now. I had a feeling you two would pass. Satsuki, you'll be trained by me."

The girl grunted. He turned to Sakura.

"I've got you someone special. You'll be meeting your new sensei at the bridge, tomorrow at 9."

"Thanks, Kakashi-sensei." Sakura tried to smile, but found the expression falling off her face and her fingers fumbling. "But what about Naruto?"

"Well," Kakashi said, "I've put him in the hands of… someone else. He'll be fine. But for now, focus on your own training. And well done on passing, both of you."

They nodded, but Sakura saw the subtle dissatisfaction written all over Satsuki's face.

Kakashi nodded in Satsuki's direction. "We'll meet at 9 at the Training Grounds. Don't be late."

Satsuki's eyebrow twitched, and Kakashi disappeared in swirl of leaves. They began making their way out. The hall had emptied.

Sakura cleared her throat and addressed Satsuki with a tone of concern.


The girl looked up at her side, hands in pockets.

"The matchups. Naruto's with Gaara."

The Uchiha looked down.


There was an unsettling silence, and Sakura looked at the grey ceiling.

"I'm scared for him," she said. "Hinata's dead, and- you know, she died… just like that. And so horribly… we all went to school together, you know? I just…"

Satsuki's bowed her head slightly, shading her eyes.

"Naruto won't lose to Gaara," Satsuki said. "But I'm scared for him too."

Sakura blinked.

The Uchiha leaned back a bit, giving Sakura a sidelong glance. "I can't picture Naruto killing someone."

"He's changing," Sakura said, a strange tone to her voice. "He's changing but… sometimes he's so normal I can't even tell."

Satsuki nodded, the unnamed emotion passing between them without words.

"Satsuki-san," she said. "Do you want to come for tea?"

"I'm going to see Naruto."

She blinked. "But Satsuki-san, Kakashi-sensei said-"

"I know what he said."

Sakura stopped, and Satsuki's expression softened.

"But maybe another time," she said. Sakura's cheeks tinted pink.

"Yeah, sure. I'll see you soon, Satsuki-san," she smiled, bowing a little and giving her a small wave. "Tell Naruto I hope he gets well."

Satsuki acknowledged it with a tilt of her head, and a smile that curled the edge of her lips.


It didn't take long for Sakura's footsteps to be joined by others.

"Oi! Forehead!"

She turned, to Ino, who settled to her pace at her side. "Hiya, Ino."

The girl was smiling. It was a familiar and comfortable company to Sakura.

"It's been a long exam," Ino said, stretching and yawning. "I'm super glad to have a break."


Ino dug her finger into Sakura's shoulder, bustling up to her side with a contagious smile. "How've you been forehead? Do you wanna go for some tea? Man, I'm kinda scared for Shikamaru, you know. He's too lazy to be going up against guys like that, you know?"

Sakura felt a shiver run up her spine, and she gave Ino a hesitant look. "That Gaara boy?"

"Yeah," Ino said. "I think he's the number one reason I'm glad I didn't get through. It makes me feel better about losing like that, at least…"

The air weighted down with the unspoken mention of death, before Ino stopped in her steps and teetered on the balls of her feet, turning to Sakura with a reassuring smile. "Come on, forehead. Let's go for tea."


Satsuki could have rolled her eyes when Kakashi's apartment door wasn't even locked. Naruto was tucked up in his bed.

'Figures. He's so unprofessional...'

"Ah, Satsuki."

Satsuki jumped slightly, and gave Kakashi a scowl.

"I see he's in good hands," she said, a bitter edge to her voice. "I could have been anyone."

"Ah, but it was you."

She twitched.

"Now," he said, "I did tell you not to come here."

"You told me he was safe. What do you call this?"

"Fewer people are more highly regarded than me in Konoha, Satsuki. And you'll find that there are ANBU posted all over the village anyway. We're high security right now. Now, if you'd just step back and-"

"I'm staying," Satsuki said coldly, "until he wakes up."

Kakashi sighed, running a hand through his hair. He was dressed more casually than usual.

"This is my apartment, you know. Breaking and entering-"

"You left the door open."

"-trespassing, then. Whatever you want to call it, if I ask you to leave, you should leave."

Satsuki gave Kakashi a look that sent a chill down his spine.

"I'm staying."

Kakashi knew better than to argue. He sighed, shrugging, before turning to walk into his kitchen.

"Suit yourself."

After an hour of waiting, Naruto was yet to stir, and when Satsuki returned from a venture to her apartment for tea, he was gone.


"Yes?" he said from the couch.

"Naruto's gone."

He popped his head around the door frame. "Oh. I see."

She gave him a scowl, but suspected he was immune.

"Where is he?"

Kakashi walked back into his kitchen, a sing-song tone to his voice. "How should I know?"

Satsuki growled, took a deep breath, and stomped out of the apartment. The rest of her day was spent thinking and searching to no avail until the late night.

Kakashi, on the other hand, knew well that feeling of dull grief. Naruto looked too exhausted, tired of life at the tender age of twelve. Satsuki was too concerned, too pushy to be of any real help.

But then again, he supposed, those two were rather different to he and Obito. Kakashi had always hated Obito in his youth; or so he had liked to think.

The teashop was cold and humid all at once, with steam that crept along the ceiling like ghosts. Sakura ordered hojicha, and Ino tamaryokucha. They sat down at a table by the window.

"How's your team?" Ino said, her tone mischievous. She had always been too good at distracting Sakura from reality. "Naruto still annoying?"

Sakura rolled her eyes, and looked at the window for a moment.

"He's kinda alright."

"Eh?" Ino said. "That guy? Not annoying you at all? He'd drive me up the wall!"

"Well, yeah. I don't think he'd be Naruto if he didn't. He's just… good-intentioned. I can tolerate him most of the time if I bear that in mind."

Ino looked at Sakura for a moment, before shrugging it off and checking her cuticles. "Well, Satsuki? I can imagine she's as cold as ever. Just as perfect, too…"

"Satsuki-san's interesting."


"Like, weird. She's really cold, but I think she's got a real soft spot for Naruto."

"What, like, she likes him?" Ino said, incredulous. "Satsuki?"

Sakura hummed thoughtfully. "I think it's kinda hard to explain. Maybe she does, but it sounds kinda weird to me."

Ino nodded. "Tell me about it! After all, she's like a celebrity. Breaking the hearts of both girls and boys. When you've got the pick of the village, are you really gonna go for a guy like him?"

Sakura hummed, tapping her fingers on the desk, before she came to rest her jaw on the palm of her hand.

"It could be that way though," she said after a moment. "And Naruto has a really big softspot for her, too."

Ino just blinked at her.

"I don't think it's that simple for him," Sakura reasoned. "Those two are special. When they're arguing, I feel like there's something else going on there."

When Ino raised an eyebrow of disbelief, Sakura pushed on with a sigh.

"Like, I don't know whether it's romantic, but… they always catch on to each other. They're really in sync, for one, but… I just think there's a lot more to Naruto than him not liking Satsuki and him liking me. And on his own, he really isn't such a loud and obnoxious guy."

Ino paused before her face faded into a wink and a smile, leaning over the table.

"You like him then, forehead?"

"That's not how it is," Sakura said, frowning. "He's just nice. And he always protects us."

Ino shrugged, before smiling slightly. "Well. Maybe that's how it goes. After all, lazy-ass and fat-ass respectively have turned out to be a whole lot more than I could have imagined too. And after all… Naruto beat Neji. That was surprising."

The tea arrived, served by a young girl with her hair tied back with white cloth. They thanked her.

"But," Ino said, testing the tea for a moment before drawing back sharply at the heat, "it's a lot harder than I expected. Not that I thought it would be fun…"

The other girl nodded.

"Being a ninja, you mean?"

Ino hummed in affirmation. Sakura sighed.

"Yeah. It's just a bit…"

Ino nodded, taking a sip of hers and settling it back on the table. She pulled a strand of hair behind her ear. "Not what I expected. Not what any of us expected, though, I think."

She looked out the window; the hustle and bustle of busy traders with street stands continued.

"No one expected Hinata to…" she whispered, before shaking her head. "I can't believe it. That could of been any of us, but… Hinata is…"

"Naruto's devastated," Sakura said quietly. "He really feels like it was all his fault."

There was a thick silence between the two, before Ino snorted derisively into her tea.

"Maybe it was," Ino muttered. "Hinata should have just forfeited. What idiot gives someone hope against an opponent like that?"

Sakura gaped for a moment, indignant.

"Naruto couldn't have possibly known!" she snapped. "What are you saying?"

Ino stared into her tea.

"I know," she said. "I'm sorry. I just can't believe it. I didn't mean to say that."

"He's tearing himself apart anyway," Sakura said, sighing. "Don't let him catch you saying that. He'll never forgive himself."

"I know. Sorry."

The training grounds were wide and windy. Satsuki bristled at the cold.

There were three posts ahead of her, and a small boy slamming his fists and feet into the centre one with all his might. She could hear the painful hit of bone on wood, and the powerful cries of the boy doing it. It was dark, perhaps after midnight, and she could see barely anything of him.

After a minute, he stopped, his heaves for air inaudible for the breathy wind. He laid flat on the floor, and she could make out his hands over his face. Satsuki walked over.

"Morning, Satsuki."

She stopped at his side, saying nothing. The stench of blood filled the air. He chuckled, the noise fading into his heavy breaths.

"Sit down for a sec," he said, and she did.

She couldn't see Naruto's face, covered by his cut and splintered fingers. Blood trickled from them. Satsuki frowned.

"What have you been doing?" she said with a note of anger, taking her hand gently from his face and activating her Sharingan to see the open wounds in the dark. It brought the cuts into a bloody red focus; many of the wounds were open and weeping. Satsuki turned to him. "And why are you here at this hour?"

Naruto opened an eye to look at her, taking his other hand from his face and holding it up in the moonlight. His face was mirthless, despite the remnants of a grin on his lips.

"I needed to train," he said. "I can't sleep."

Satsuki knew the sting of loss.

(More so the loss borne of weakness.)

She took her attention to his hand.

"This will hurt. Don't move."

She plucked a large splinter from his ring finger, and he winced. It stopped bleeding almost immediately, and with a moment's wonder she moved onto smaller splinters embedded in the back of his hand. Naruto hissed.

It continued for a short while until Naruto spoke.

"I didn't have parents. Or anyone."

Satsuki carried on. He knew she was listening.

"So I always wondered what losing someone was like," he said. "I always thought it would be… not cool, but… they'd die a hero, in my arms, happy, telling me everything I needed to know. Like in the stories, you know?"

She pulled out a particularly large splinter among the shimmering pearls of blood.

"Hinata. She was so convinced she wouldn't die. She was so sure." His tone trembled. He opened his mouth, only managed to push out air before it turned into a choked sob. "Is that what we're like before we die? Grovelling? Pitiful? Why is death so- so incomplete?"

Satsuki hesitated, before digging the nail of her index finger into a tender wound to pull out a deeply embedded shred of wood. She stopped. Naruto's hand was warm and wet with pus and blood. The words clogged the back of her throat, and she gripped his hand for a brief moment.

"I don't know," she said.

Naruto's breath hitched, and he whispered to her.

"Does anybody know?" he said. "I don't know what I'm talking about, Satsuki, but I feel like I can't breathe."

Satsuki pinched the raw skin on the back of his hand tightly, and Naruto gasped.

"Bastard, what the hell are you-"

Satsuki wove her fingers into Naruto's.

"See?" she said. "You're breathing."

But funnily enough, for a moment, Naruto was breathless.

Chapter Text

Konoha was quiet. The streets were empty, bar the market men fixing their stands and salesmen clucking their throats for a day of advertisement. In the corners of the street were huddles of women.

Naruto walked.

"Did you hear? He-"

"...that poor girl…"

"The heiress, too..."

His hand stung. He kept his eyes trained on the cobbles beneath his feet until the streets narrowed into alleys, the chatter simmering into fizz.

He looked up; the cemetery gates were ajar, and Naruto passed through, coming to stand at Mizuki's grave.

There was a sprout at its base. It wavered in a breeze, but remained grounded. With that, Naruto knelt, withdrawing two sticks of incense and sparking a lighter at their ends. He stood them up and closed his eyes.

The silence was uncanny. Naruto stuttered.

"An apple tree is growing. Did you like apples, Mizuki-sensei?"

Silence. Naruto adjusted his crossed legs, and sighed, laughing at the edges of the sound.

"To be honest, when I grow them myself, they're always sour," Naruto said, becoming quieter. "So it wouldn't be so bad if it died, right?"

It was a cloudy day, and the plant, a miserable gray, said nothing.

"And it's not due to bear apples for years, either," he said. "Kinda useless, huh?"

The air was chilling him slowly, crawling up his fibia and nesting in his tendons. Shivering, Naruto bent a blade of grass beneath his thumb, and bit his lip.

"It's the same thing, right?" he said, looking away. "So why can't I be with you again?"

Hugging his knees to his chest then, an hour passed. Naruto made to stand.

"Uzumaki Naruto."

He froze, joints stuck.

"There is a protectiveness over the bodies of those whom you love. I can't kick them or punch them. And yet people bury the bodies deep underground."

Naruto was still. He could hear the sand shape-shifting like the gossip of ill spirits.

Gaara came closer.

"I know you're wondering. I can smell it." His breath was like a cold stroke on his cheek. "So I'll tell you."

Naruto's teeth chattered. Gaara spoke softer.

"Tin, it was like," he said. "Copper, and warmer than you'd expect."

Gaara was whispering now.

"It's alright to accept what you see, Uzumaki Naruto." A smile. "Those people with those looks. You know. You do know. I know you know, Uzumaki Naruto."

"Leave, Gaara."

The boy behind him faltered, and then Naruto spoke louder.


Gaara seemed to seethe for a small moment, hesitating, before he snickered.

"That's right," he said. "Pretending it's not real is the first step, right? Deluding yourself."

The quirk in his tone twisted into a bitterness. "But the truth is that none of this is worth anything at all. The only thing that is worth anything is you. Me. Us. We are two of a kind. I had never seen those eyes on anyone else before."

"Gaara," Naruto said, voice shaking, "Leave."

"So I have advice for you, Uzumaki Naruto. No one else in this wretched world will ever give you the truth, so treasure it."

The wind kicked up, and Naruto heard the battering movement of nature, and a deafening whistle.

"Live for yourself." said Gaara. "Love only yourself. Crush all that questions your existence, and you shall be certain."

Gaara breathed out, and placed a hand on Naruto's shoulder.

"But you, and your existence, question me. Do you know what that means, Naruto?"

Naruto was still.

"I must erase you. I shall erase you."

Naruto felt his fingers trembling.

"Eyes must be silenced." Gaara pushed down onto the top of Naruto's head as he got to his feet. "Lips must be shut."

Moving to leave, Gaara pulled out a tiny clump of hairs from Naruto's scalp, and chuckled as they scattered from his open palm.

"I won't leave enough of you for a grave."

As his footsteps faded away, Naruto fell backwards, onto the grass. His head hit the grass with a blunt thump.

His skin crawled, and his thinner limbs curled in on himself like a dying spider.

"I won't let you touch me," Naruto said. "Never again."

"You know when you said you were going to become a ninja, me and your mother didn't really think you'd pass."

Sakura picked at her eggs.

"Alright," she said. "That's great. I passed. And now I'm in the chuunin exams."

He brought the sides of the paper together to pull it apart again to another page. "We're ninja too, you know. Being chuunin isn't easy. That's why we retired. It's dangerous you know, and they say there's another war on the way..."

"The wars are over, Dad."

"That's what they always say."


"What we're saying, Sakura," her mother said, "is that it's important you know what you're getting into. And we're not saying you can't do it, but-"

"But you are," Sakura said. "You're saying I can't do it."

Her mother bit her cheek, clearing up the cutlery. "That's not the problem. What we're worried about is if you can do it."

Sakura stood up, pushing her chair back and taking her plate to the sink. She set it on the draining board.

"I'm going to do it. I'll see you later."

She walked past the two of them, took her bag by the door, slipped on her shoes and left.

Mebuki rolled her eyes, sending the father a sidelong glare.

"Do you have to be so blunt about these things?"

"Everything's blunt to Sakura," Kizashi said, not taking his eyes off the paper. "She's not stupid. Sidling around the subject just aggravates her. She can take the hint. You know that treating her like a little girl disrespects how far she's come."

"She is a little girl, Kizashi." Mebuki folded her arms and turned to him. "And what sort of little girl makes a good ninja? You know that rule: know your enemy and know yourself-"

"And in one hundred battles you shall never be in peril," Kizashi said, closing and folding his newspaper. "Yes, I know."

Mebuki raised an eyebrow. "And?"

"I'm not certain of it, but I think maybe Sakura knows what she's doing."

"And you trust her enough to allow her to risk her life for that?"

"Not really, no."

Sakura's mother sighed. "I thought we got married. You're at least meant to take my side in arguments."

"Darling, I said in sickness and in health. Arguments are a whole other matter."

The day began with a man called Ebisu, and after a turn of events, ended with a man called Jiraiya, who was white-haired, old, and seemingly far too interested in breasts to be of much use. The day was spent training to stand on water.

Although Naruto had his doubts, after a day of hard work, Naruto began to see something wise and worn about the man.

They had settled into a cliff-side hot springs. Naruto looked over onto the stretch of canopy.

"Hey, ero-sennin."



Naruto rolled his eyes.


"What is it, my aspiring student?" said Jiraiya, and Naruto groaned.

"Can't I just say ero-sennin?"

"It's no easier, you little brat," he grumbled. "You're just trying to cause me trouble. You'd better not say that around any pretty girls."

"Yeah, alright, whatever," Naruto said, waving him off. "Anyway, ero-sennin, I have a question."

"I just said-" Jiraiya said, leaning back and reaching to pour himself a small cup of sake. "Whatever. What's your question?"

"When you say things are for the village, you're not talking about like… the buildings itself, right?"

Jiraiya blinked. "Well, of course not."

"So what's everyone talking about?" Naruto said, leaning towards Jiraiya. "For the sake of Konoha, and stuff. I mean, sure. We've got some nice shops. But there's nothing that great about this place, right?"

The sage didn't answer. Naruto cupped water in his hands and rubbed it into his scalp.

"Ero-sennin, why did you become a ninja?"

Jiraiya leant back, and there was a silence.

"It's a hard question to answer now," he said, "All these years on. But I suppose I saw something of worth in being a ninja. I thought the Hokage were cool, for one. And then, the reason I carried on being a shinobi… I found this village worth protecting in the end, too."

Naruto didn't say anything.

Jiraiya raised an eyebrow. "Why? What do you think being a shinobi is about, kid?"

"I… dunno," Naruto said. "In the past… if being Hokage meant being a ninja, I decided I'd be a ninja. There wasn't too much else to it. That, and being a ninja looked pretty cool too, I guess."

Jiraiya snorted. "And why did you want to be Hokage?"

Naruto paused, burying his head in his arms.


Jiraiya frowned.

"So what now? Why are you bothering with these exams, then?"

"That's what I don't know. I was just asking. I wanted to be Hokage, but that's not it anymore. Bit by bit, it gets harder to carry on with this. And I don't even know why I am. If no one else does, why the hell are people dying for a cause they don't understand, in such… such stupid, pointless ways?"

"More people than you think are probably doing it for the sake of others," he mused. "People become ninja for other people too. Just not in a heroic way. To impress your dad, maybe. Or to kill someone who's done an injustice against someone you love. It's not always to protect the greater good. But it's often for the sake of others."

Naruto was silent.

"For instance, a lot of ninja fight for the safety of their relatives, friends and family. The new generation. The future."

"The future?"

"Ninja believe the Will of Fire burns in the new generation. With every generation we come closer to a peaceful world."

Jiraiya paused. Naruto, in his head, likened him to a lumbering and wise elephant.

"We ninja do what we do for a cause," he said. "We fight for our village, or for our friends, or for peace. A ninja who fights without a cause becomes nothing. No, it's not always other people. But it's something."

"And if the cause is myself?"

"If that's a good enough cause, then fine." Jiraiya sat against the rocks. "A cause like yourself wasn't enough for me. After all, only by comparing ourselves to others can we understand ourselves. Even the village, at a point, didn't seem so great."

"What convinced you, huh? All the pretty women, or something?"

Jiraiya smiled, a cocky half grin that wore decades and memories in its creases.

"Something better than any woman."

Naruto scoffed. "Don't believe you."

Jiraiya laughed.

"I did some travelling. It took time… but I saw something wrong in the world of ninja. Our economy is built on grudges and bloodshed." Jiraiya cupped the water in his hands and brought it to his face. "I saw the possibility for a world where we could come to understand one another."


Jiraiya stilled. "Peace, Naruto."

The young boy looked at Jiraiya with a raised eyebrow. "Peace? That's what you value more than women, ero-sennin? Seriously? But you seem to put more time into chasing women than you do to world-peace..."

Jiraiya smiled to himself, but it was an expression without mirth. He brought his gaze to the stars.

"People spend years chasing those that have hurt them. They spend years digging into old wounds in search of something that can undo the pain. No one steps back to wear the scars proudly. We spend years believing that the dead deserve peace."

Naruto snorted, and there was a turn in his mood.

"Don't they?" he said, looking to Jiraiya with a sneer. "Don't the dead deserve peace? You expect those who've lost someone to forgive and forget?"


"What kind of world do you think this is?"

Jiraiya looked at Naruto, tired.

"The dead are already at peace," he said. "The people who deserve peace are us. The living, forever strung in a cycle of vengeance."

"Like I believe that," Naruto snapped, his voice bending upwards. "You think a world can run on forgiveness? On kindness? You really think that everyone is going to think like that - that everyone can understand each other that way - and that it would last?"

Naruto's voice echoed along the rock face, but Jiraiya did not answer.

When he opened his mouth to prod his teacher, the man spoke.

"What brought this on? The Hyuuga girl?"

Naruto flinched. "So you knew she was involved, huh?"

There was an accusation there. Jiraiya's eyes narrowed.

"Don't make assumptions. The death of an important Hyuuga heir gets around, and now, you're asking all these questions. Not hard to piece together what happened from that."

Jiraiya poured another cup of sake.

"I have lost as you have lost," he said. "More so. More loss than someone like you could ever imagine."

"Does that mean this doesn't hurt?"

Jiraiya looked at him, and Naruto couldn't meet his eye, his voice trembling.

"I just want to avenge Hinata's death. I just to make him pay," he said. "I just want to be strong! So I- So I don't ever have to see that again…!"

The sage sighed with a sour curl of his lips, and closed his eyes.

"Revenge festers in the wounds of the grieving and the hurt and drives you mad before you die." He drank the sake. "A death that leaves you unrecognisable to everyone who loves you."

Naruto let out a mirthless laugh, and turned from Jiraiya to look into the night.

"So what you're really telling me it's wrong for me to look for a justice. Any justice."

"You think killing someone will give you that justice? You really think justice can even be found in a world like this?" Jiraiya motioned to his forehead with his thumb. "When we put on those headbands, we resigned ourselves to a life of economical murder. We forfeited our morality. And you talk about justice, like it's anything to a ninja."

Naruto didn't move and Jiraiya took a long sip of his sake, his lips smacking off the brim with a satisfied 'ah'. He leant backwards, staring into the sky.

"I didn't say anything about killing someone," said Naruto sharply.

"You didn't have to. Revenge is vile, Naruto. It turns you away from who you are and those who love you."

Naruto choked, half-laughing, half-suffering.

"Then I guess I don't have anything to lose, right?"

It fell quiet.

"Someone will care, Naruto," Jiraiya said. "Whether you want them to or not."

Naruto snorted. "You're acting like I don't want people to care. Like this is so much fun."

"Are you giving them the opportunity?"

"I have a purpose to find." Naruto buried his head in his arms. "Wherever it is. But for now, I want this. I was too weak to do anything then, I was too weak to do anything afterwards, but I will be strong enough, and I will win."

Jiraiya leaned back, breathing out in that thick silence.

"And you think that girl would have wanted this for you?" Jiraiya asked, tone low. "A reality like this?"

Naruto curled in on himself, his voice splitting and splintering like a twig. "What does it matter? It's just me now. If Hinata wanted to tell me what to do, she should have survived."

After hours of burning her fingertips, Satsuki allowed her back to lean against a tree and her legs slip out from beneath her. Her breathing began to steady, and Kakashi sat down beside her.

"Good work for today," he said. Satsuki pushed down a smile.

"Thanks, geezer."

"That's an awful thing to say. You know it's just the hair."

Satsuki didn't respond.

"I'm still in my twenties!" Kakashi said. "And even if I wasn't, I would be a silver fox."

The birds tweeted, and Kakashi sighed.

"We'll be moving onto more elemental training tomorrow. Are you ready?"

Satsuki shot him a look from the side.

"I know, I know."

Satsuki leant back onto the bark, the knots digging into her back.


"What is it?"

"Naruto," she said. "What do you think of him?"

"Naruto?" Kakashi hummed. "Well, he's an individual. Unique."

She looked at Kakashi again, and the man shrugged.

"It's hard to analyse someone like Naruto. And don't you think trying to figure him out like that feels a bit wrong? People aren't there to be analysed."

"I'm not analysing him." Satsuki said. "He's been acting strange."

"Grief does strange things to people. Don't judge them on something like that."

"It's not just that, and you know it."

Kakashi turned the page.

"And you, Satsuki?"

She stiffened, but he continued.

"Are you to judge Naruto's clamoring for revenge?"

"Like that's comparable at all," Satsuki hissed. "Naruto is-"

"A human like any other. With loss, like any other. I don't want that for Naruto either, but those in glass houses should not throw stones."

She hesitated, gritting her teeth. "It's not the same thing."

"Isn't it?" Kakashi said, looking at her. "What makes you an exception, Satsuki?"

Satsuki stopped, clenching her fists. The noon was loud with birdsong.

"You know this isn't right," she said. "Not for Naruto."

Sakura waited at the bridge that morning.

She listened to the rush of water below the planks. The trees mumbled, garbled whispers carrying across the frothing sibilance of the Naka river.

She plastered on a smile, thought of Ino- ('You've got a cute smile, you know, Sakura. If it can cheer up everyone else, why not you?') -and reassured herself.

"What do you like in the mornings?"

Sakura shrieked, tripped, and toppled into the water.

Mitarashi Anko roared with laughter, stood on the wooden railing of the bridge, and screamed.

"A wake up call, bitch! The Training Grounds in 10! If you're still wet I'll make you regret it!"

Sakura turned up at the Training Grounds ten minutes later, ringing out her hair with a fervor and hating Kakashi.

"Oh, you came. That's a start."

Sakura frowned, trying to find her sensei. The woman appeared at her side, and she jumped.

"Stop that!"

Anko blinked. "Oh. I was kidding about the being wet thing, by the way. I thought it would be funny but now I'm kinda impressed."

Sakura scowled. Her skin crawled with the damp.

"Right," Anko said, dusting off her pants. "So. Let's clear up a few things."

"I didn't plan on being a sensei. That's why I'm a tokubetsu jonin. But the payoff was good, so I bent to Kakashi just this once."

"I don't bother with weaklings. I've heard good things about you, and to get this far, I imagine you've got some skill on you. I'm going to put my faith in that. If you're not, you'll be crushed besides. But, for your own sake, don't waste my time. Understand?"

"Y-Yes, Anko-sensei."

"Good. Now, I've got a rundown from your teacher. I hear you're quite intelligent."


"Nothing to be ashamed of. I myself excel more theoretically than I do physically. There is a reason humans have managed to survive in the face of demons taller than mountains." Anko tapped her skull, winking. "It's our minds. Likewise, we are the true weapons of the battlefield."

She paused, her face overcome with unreadable emotion, before she spoke again with conviction.

"I heard you encountered Orochimaru."

Sakura shuddered at the memory.

"He's a demon of a man, in mind and soul. And a genius, no less. But he taught me, once upon a time, using these."

Anko brought up some long and thin needles, poising them between her index finger and thumb. Sakura almost winced.

"Now, they look bendy, and kinda weak," Anko went on. "Let me tell you that they're not."

"Do I throw them?"

"When you get good enough, yes. Until then? Your best bet is to get these babies and dig em straight in - not too deep, or you'll end up leaving them behind - and rake them through the skin. Get the right spot, and you could end up tearing a few muscles, an artery, some nerves... let me tell you, they're just as good as a kunai, and with a mind like yours, a hell of a lot more lethal."

Anko whipped them down her sleeve.

"But first," she said, "you're going to have to learn about kyusho."


"Yes. Pressure points. Kyushojutsu. The death touch. The art of finding vital points and striking them."

Sakura frowned.

"Let me guess," Anko said, exasperated. "You're used to seeing brute strength win each battle. And then you've got those who are born to a special family, that name branded on their foreheads like it's their goddamn golden ticket to victory. I don't believe in that bullshit. Clever girls like you win. You read their moves, you study every damn muscle, you dodge, and you take them out with a vital point strike."

The woman put her right leg forward, lowering herself into a defensive stance.

"So, to begin, come at me with the intention to hit me below my jawline, behind my ear or straight into my eyes." Anko held up her index and middle fingers. "Just with your fingers."


"Think dirty-fighting, yeah?"

Sakura blinked.


"Yeah, you know. Brutal. Immoral. Like flashing your boob at a cashier for an extra packet of noodles."

Sakura choked.

Satsuki had settled down to bed. There came a knock.


Her heart didn't sink when it wasn't Naruto, but floundered in her chest. The nostalgia struck her.

Sakura looked tired and an inch desperate, mucky with a bag on her shoulder.


"Satsuki-san," Sakura said, dipping her head until the Uchiha raised an impatient eyebrow. "S-Sorry, I, uh - I need somewhere to stay. Uh- not for long, you know, just… maybe one night, or two, I just…"

The girl frowned. "Why, what is it?"

Sakura looked away from Satsuki. "Just my parents, you know? I…"

'Yeah,' Satsuki thought. 'Must be hard having people at home waiting for you.'

Sakura shrunk away. "But you know, if you- if I'm intruding, or you need to be somewhere, then I'll just… you know."

Biting her cheek, Satsuki tried to remember the arguments between her parents, and stood straighter.

"No," she said, stepping aside. "Come in."

Sakura breathed out, laying her bag by the door and pulling off her shoes.

"Sit down," Satsuki said, drifting towards the kitchen unit. "I'll make some tea."

Sakura smiled and nodded.

The water simmered. Satsuki took two cups and dishes down from the cupboards and set about preparing the leaves. "Did something happen?"

"I-yeah… kind of. My parents are really kind of angry that I came home from the Chuunin exams so injured. They're trying to make me quit as a ninja."

Satsuki scooped the leaves into each cup. "And?"


She tapped the spoon against the rim. "Why don't you?"

Sakura leaned forward, her eyes wide.



There was a pause.

"I-" Sakura said, "Because I'm a ninja. I'm halfway through the Chuunin exams, too!"

"And that's good enough?"

Sakura was silent.

The kettle boiled. The Uchiha poured the water with a lilt in her wrist. "As a child, I was always interested in following in the footsteps of my father. It was a career I entered because of my family.

"Going against your family as a child is odd," Satsuki said, stirring the tea, "but not bad."

Sakura looked towards Satsuki.

"Didn't you ever think about why you did it?"

"Well… Ino was becoming a ninja." Sakura stared into her tea. "And I liked Ino. That's why I carried on with it… but why I started? I… liked the look of it."

Satsuki frowned.

"I liked the look of being a kunoichi," Sakura said. "Everyone loved that I was such a delicate, girly kid, with pink hair… and I still like doing my makeup and dressing up. But I wanted to be more than that. I wanted to show everyone else that I didn't have to be just pretty or just girly. Fighting looked scary, but - but I wanted to do it."

The Uchiha took the two cups of tea by the dish. She set a cup in front of Sakura. The girl nodded in appreciation, and Satsuki sat down in front of her, putting her hand beneath her cup and taking a short sip.

"A bit of a stupid reason to get yourself killed," Satsuki said. Sakura shriveled beneath her regard. "What about now?"

"I don't know."

The evening was dull; her tea caught the faint glimmer of the miserable sky. Sakura ran her thumbnail along the rim.

"I just know I don't want to give up over something so stupid," she said, quiet. "But now - with you and Naruto so far ahead of me - I just know I can't give up. Because if something happened, and I couldn't protect you all because I'd given up on this stupid dream of mine…"

She looked down.

"I'd just rather have some extra wasted ninja training than give up at this point," Sakura said. "Do you get what I mean?"

Satsuki didn't respond. Her tea swayed in the porcelain.

"I don't think it's a waste," she said after a long moment. "You'll be great, Sakura."

"You think?"


The funeral was a cold and grey affair.

It took place in the Hyuuga grounds, a week after Hinata's death. The Rookie 9 and their teachers were at the very back of the service, each pew lined with white all-seeing eyes. The mood was somber and firm; it reminded Satsuki of the service held for Shisui, the only Uchiha funeral she had attended.

A surprising amount of older Hyuuga spent more time glaring at the non-Hyuuga children than they did heads bowed mourning, but Satsuki found herself unsurprised. Shino was quiet and hunched; Kiba wept openly, his dog whining like the whistling of a sad wind.

All throughout, Naruto was very, very quiet.

Satsuki came home late, and Sakura was waiting on her bed. The Uchiha set water on the stove and began to get changed.

"I don't want to leave my door open for you again, Sakura."

Sakura tore her eyes from the book and up at Satsuki. The water came to a boil. She felt shame crawl red on her face.

"I-I'm sorry," said Sakura, clambering off of Satsuki's bedcovers and reaching for her bag. "I didn't mean to inconvenience you like that-"


Satsuki rolled her eyes, and Sakura barely caught the object that came soaring straight at her oversized forehead. She looked at the item and blinked.

"It's a copy of my key," Satsuki said. "Don't lose it."

The afternoon drew to a close.

Naruto didn't bother going to see Jiraiya. The man would be occupied at this hour.

Hinata had been buried just outside of the Hyuuga complex.

When he arrived, the headstone was covered in white lilies. Naruto knelt and lifted the label buried in the mound of petals.

The picture on it was unlike the one Team 7 had gotten done during their D-rank missions.

The man lifted his head from the black curtain of the camera.

"No good. You two, closer."

Kakashi frowned. "Satsuki. Naruto."

"But she smells."

"Maybe that's because you pushed me in cow shit."

"Just stand closer together, you two. Sakura, you're doing a great job."

"...thanks, sensei."

When Naruto shifted a minute amount, holding his nose, Kakashi sighed.

"This is the last time I'm going to ask you two."

"He won't move."

"Do you want to stand next to her, Kakashi-sensei?!"

The cameraman shot them an exasperated look, and Satsuki growled, yanking Naruto over to her with a handful of his hair.

"Agh- what do you think you're doing, you bastard-?!"

"Stay still and stop whining."

"Get off! You're hurting me!"

"Just take the damn photo."

Sakura had been smiling. Satsuki was pulling Naruto toward her with an irritated look, and Naruto was visibly yelping. They both looked angry, and Kakashi looked somewhat exhausted, but it was the best photo, because at least in that one Naruto and Satsuki looked a little bit like they were laughing.

Team 8 looked better. Kurenai was smiling behind all of them, pulling them into her embrace. Kiba was at the right, making a peace sign with one hand and drawing Hinata into the centre of the photo with his other. Shino had his hands in his pockets on the left but was smiling, the quirk of his lips visible only barely above his collar. Hinata was centred, blushing with her hands clasped to her front. There were no gaps between them.

On the back, in impeccable calligraphy, was written:

'Your smile, even now, brightens up the world's darkest corners.

It hurts to say farewell. Goodbye, Hinata.

- Team 8'

Below it were three signatures. Kiba's name was written in an illegible, grieving scrawl.

He reached into the small box of incense and sparked the lighter. Blowing the flames out, a wisp of smoke spun into the wind.

The long moment passed quickly, and with a blurry glance to the picture of Hinata smiling, Naruto left with his hands in his pockets.

Neji stood beside the gates. Naruto kept his gaze low. The Hyuuga spoke just as Naruto thought he'd gotten past.

"What are you doing here?"

Naruto lifted his head. "I was just paying my respects."

There was no response. He turned.

"For someone who hated Hinata," he said, "you were pretty upset when she died."

He waited for an outburst, or a punch, but Neji did nothing. Naruto could smell grass, and the cloying scent of smoke.

"It's hard to say what Hinata was to me." Neji put his hands in his pockets. "A channel for my hatred. She was a symbol of the Hyuuga's darker past. It was easy to beat her down. Gratifying, even."

Naruto was silent. Neji turned away from him.

"Tch. The fight she put up was pathetic. She's gone to me now."

In the distance, he could hear the low-tone grumble of everyday life. It was far off.

"You cried for her," said Naruto.

Neji opened his mouth, the beginning of unspoken words staccato. His breath hitched as he closed his eyes.

He walked into the graveyard with a slow, stolid pace. The Hyuuga's voice simmered with a certain menace.

"Don't think for a moment that I have forgiven you, Uzumaki Naruto."

Neji hated him.

"A man who lives how you do ends up dead," he sneered. "Your luck won't last. And I'll be glad to see it."

But then Neji stopped, and turned back to Naruto. His empty white gaze stared straight through him.

"If you're sorry," Neji said, "make amends. But forget about making them with me."

Chapter Text

It was with a silent agreement that Satsuki and Naruto began training together.

He was in her clearing of the woods. When she arrived, it was with some sort of mutual nod that they pounced, knives on fans.

Neither of them won the first time. They both settled in the dust, breathing heavily, and left together in a tired walk late at night.

Satsuki came home tired and wounded.

The exhaustion was down to Kakashi, who took unusual pleasure in pushing Satsuki to the limits of her chakra manipulation.

She was wounded because of Naruto, who had hit her harder with every strike. Today, he had nicked her arm with a kunai; the cut was deep.

Sakura was here again, but that wasn't so bad.

The young girl was lying on her front on the bed, poring over a magazine.

Satsuki began unpacking her gear.

"Hey, Satsuki-san-"

Satsuki looked up.

"Do you know Miyamoto Koichi?"

Satsuki frowned, shaking her head. Sakura turned the magazine towards her and pointed at a boy, with pretty, feminine features, bright red hair, and very dark eyes. He was topless, muscled, and for some reason, oily. Sakura looked very enthusiastic about that.

"Isn't he just so-"

She cut off with a quiet squeal, drawing her finger along the printed line of his jaw. "He's just so pretty, Satsuki-san! Haven't you seen him in the media? He's so big right now!"

Satsuki pulled off her shoes and then her socks, running a hand through her her hair and bringing both hands to scrape it back into a ponytail.

"I don't read the newspapers," Satsuki said. She grabbed a hair tie from her nightstand.

Sakura rolled her eyes. "It's not just the newspapers, Satsuki-san! He's seriously everywhere. Have you been living under a rock?"

Satsuki didn't respond, winding the band around her ponytail twice before she tightened it and kicked her shoes aside.

"It says here he's from Iwa," Sakura went on, "and that he's a professional enka singer-

Satsuki raised an eyebrow, reaching down to the hem of her shirt and pulling it over her head. "He's not a shinobi?"

Sakura paused. She drew her gaze from Satsuki quickly.

"Well, not everyone likes the idea of being a shinobi, Satsuki-san."

Satsuki tossed aside her shirt into a pile of crumpled clothing. "Why bother wasting your time to become strong if you have no purpose in it? What a waste."

Sakura hummed, turning the page to eye the bending angle of his waist. "Perhaps you're looking into it too much. He's just nice to look at, you know? It doesn't always have to be about ninja. Strength. You know. Some people want a different life to that… and that's alright, isn't it?"

Satsuki frowned and reached for a white nightgown; her feet were bare as she moved towards the balcony.

"I just don't understand," Satsuki said with difficulty, her hands clasped on the plastic handle of the sliding door.


"I don't understand what there could be in a life without that."

Sakura didn't look at Satsuki.

"Maybe you should try, then, Satsuki-san," she said. "There's more to life than being a strong ninja, I think. At least, I hope so."

Satsuki slid the door shut behind her.

The night was loud with drinking. An erubescent glow poured through the bars of the railing and onto her feet.

She pulled up a chair to the table, and took a look at her plant. The leaves curled at their edges, brown and frail.

She saw a nub-like bud forming, green tipped with crimson.

Satsuki brought a shaking, pale thumb to touch the tightly wound spire.

'Fantasy,' she thought. 'Sakura's stuck in a fantasy.'

Regardless, Satsuki did not read scrolls into the early hours, and instead pulled her chair up to the edge of the balcony and looked out until Sakura fell asleep. She took the couch.

Satsuki sometimes wondered why Sakura was clean when she saw her lounging on her bed at home.

Sakura did, however, leave earlier than Satsuki, which meant that Sakura likely got a shower, but left the bathroom spotless. It didn't really feel like she was living with anyone else at all, if it were not for the background noise of turning pages.

This day, though, Sakura was in her mirror with a stubby pencil that she was sticking in her eye. Satsuki watched with a degree of morbid fascination.

"You'd look so beautiful with some eyeliner, Satsuki-san," Sakura said. Her mouth contorted into an 'o' as she pulled her eyelids. "Not that you don't look nice already. You know, Ino was convinced you wore makeup, but I wasn't."

Satsuki snorted. "I've never owned any makeup at all."

"I so knew it," Sakura said, before she leant back and offered Satsuki the small charcoal liner. "Do you want to try it, Satsuki-san?"

The Uchiha watched for a moment longer, before she closed her eyes and began pulling her hair up into a bun.

"I don't want to stick that into my eyes. It doesn't look worth it."

Sakura twitched.

"I hope you're not trying to insult my looks, Satsuki-san," Sakura muttered, coming back to the mirror and bringing the crayon to her waterline. "Even if you don't bother with makeup, why not something else?"

"What are you trying to do, Sakura?"

Sakura caught her cornea, and winced.

"I think you need a hobby."

Satsuki blinked. "Excuse me?"

"All you think about is being a ninja. Even if you don't get tired of it now, you will one day. Why don't you do pottery or something?"


"Okay, so… painting?"

"I am not an artist."

"Fine, fine," Sakura said, one hand holding her hair up and the other fumbling for a clip on the stand. "Have you ever considered juggling?"

Satsuki scowled.

Sakura sighed, shoving a pin into her hair. "Sewing?"

Satsuki froze.

Sakura eyed her through the mirror, blinking. "Do you like sewing?"

The Uchiha coughed and looked to the side. "I've never sewn."

"Do you want to?"

"...I guess."

Sakura clapped her hands together before grabbing Satsuki's wrist and pulling her towards the door.

"That sounds great. Let's get the stuff now!"

"Sakura, it's late-"

"Come on!"

Sakura guided Satsuki through the various stitches. Sakura was not in and of herself in any way exceptional, but she knew what she was doing.

Tentative, Satsuki cut out a piece of black material, bought some string, and then a few reels of gold and red. She began sewing.

Satsuki was, however, impressively awful.

"Sakura. What the hell do I do?"

There was a large knot in the previous stitches. Satsuki didn't know how she had missed it. There were too many stitches and they were too small.

"This is what a seam ripper is for."

Satsuki came as close to gaping as Sakura imagined she'd see in her lifetime.

"You're going to rip out all of the stitches I just did?" she said, eyes glued to the pattern. "All of them?"

Sakura lifted the material.

"That's sewing, Satsuki-san."

Satsuki watched as Sakura plucked and snapped each and every strand.

Her fists shook in her lap. Sakura looked at her warily.

"Satsuki-san? Are you alright? It doesn't have to be sewing, you know-"

"It's fine," she bit out. "I'll do it."

Mikoto dug a pin into a fold of loose fabric on Satsuki's dress. It was a wedding soon. Satsuki didn't know whose.

"Mother, how can you sew so well?" Satsuki asked. "It looks hard."

Mikoto winked at her, a needle in her mouth as she adjusted the material. She took it out with a light laugh. "I like to think of myself as the unsung hero of the Uchiha clan, Satsuki. After all, who do you think is sewing all the emblems on?"

"You're seeing Naruto, now, right?"

Satsuki froze.


"I just thought you would be," Sakura said, blowing a strand of hair out of her face. "Training with him, I mean. You come back later some days, and you're always-"

A pause.


Satsuki opened her wardrobe, undressing. Sakura knew by now that Satsuki was brisk about this kind of thing. She got dressed into comfortable clothing, made herself tea, and sat down all in the space of two minutes.

"Sometimes," Satsuki said.

Sakura hummed appreciatively, taking the magazine and rolling onto her back to hold it above her.

"Then, Satsuki-san, invite him out for dinner next time you see him. And Kakashi-sensei, too. We can all go out together."

Satsuki sat on her couch, cradling a cup of tea with a smirk.

"Do you miss him?"

Sakura didn't miss a beat. "Not one bit."

This fight ended with Naruto catching Satsuki off guard and punching her to the ground with a horde of shadow clones. The humiliation bit, but she knew she was exhausted and off-form, and she held herself back from throwing him a sucker punch post-spar.

In the dust afterwards, Naruto settled beside her.

"Naruto," she said. "Sakura asked if you want to come out with us for dinner."

He looked at her.

"As Team 7," she reiterated. "I've invited Kakashi."


Satsuki nodded, and Naruto shifted for a moment, looking away from her.

"Okay," he said. "Is it Ichiraku Ramen?"


"Where is it?"

"Not Ichiraku Ramen."

"You are such a bastard."

They ate at a fancy-esque restaurant that Sakura picked. The tables were worn but clean, and the lighting was a warm red that made Satsuki drowsy.

"Where's Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto said, tapping the table. "Is he gonna be late again?"

Satsuki rolled her eyes.

"What do you think, Naruto?" Sakura sighed. "In any case, let's just order without him."

Naruto ordered ramen, and although Satsuki and Sakura both objected, the order ended up sliding by with minor protest. Sakura ordered red bean soup, and Satsuki ordered rice with chicken.

Sakura seemed pleased at the atmosphere, leaning over to Naruto and smiling.

"So," she said, "How's your training coming along?"

He perked up, bringing his hands up to the back of his head with a smile.

"Okay, I guess," he said, grinning. "I've been working super hard at some super cool training! You're gonna be so impressed, Sakura-chan, for real!"

Sakura looked at the bags beneath Naruto's eyes and wondered of that hard work.

"But my sensei is this old pervert guy," he went on, "and did you know he writes Kakashi-sensei's books?"


"Yeah, and Sakura-chan, he is just such a weirdo…"

The conversation became a distant buzz to Satsuki. She could see only the excitement on Naruto's face, a forward enthusiasm as he babbled to Sakura. It was fast and continuous with no break for thought.

'Maybe that's the point,' she thought.

"-Satsuki, what's your training been like?"

She snapped out of her daze, blinking at Naruto and Sakura who had at some point turned their attentions to her. Satsuki felt a cocky quirk come to her lips, and she snorted derisively in Naruto's direction.

"I'm going to beat you either way," she said, "so why does it matter?"

Naruto, as sure as the wind, twitched and lunged out of his chair.

"You prick, why do you always have to say that stuff with a-"

Sakura shot them both a stern look, and they separated. Naruto moved on quickly to prod at Sakura with a cheeky grin.

"Hey, hey! Sakura-chan, what's your training been about?"

Sakura closed her eyes and flicked her hair over her shoulder. "I cannot divulge that information."

"Wait, what? Sakura-chaaaan!"

She opened her eyes and winked, giggling.

"Well, you never know, Naruto," she said, giving him a sidelong look. "I could be going up against you, and I wouldn't want you know exactly what I can do, right?"

"You're planning to beat me up?! Sakura-chan, you're so mean!"

Satsuki sighed. "We're ninja, you idiot."

"But I always thought, since Sakura-chan loves me-!"

"Oh, shut up, Naruto! This is about getting promoted, remember?!"

"But love is meant to withstand all trials!"

"Yo! Sorry I'm late-"

"Shut up!" the three roared.

Kakashi pulled out his chair and sat down before he opened his book to a bookmarked page. Team 7 stilled. Sakura's eyebrow twitched.

"Sensei," she said.

"Yes, my inquisitive student?"

She breathed in deeply through her nose.

"You do know that we've already ordered, right?"

"Of course."

"And we're still going to make you pay your part of the bill."

Kakashi hummed.

"In that case," he said, motioning over a waitress, "I'll just make a small order then. Miss, can I have your finest pinot noir?"

The waitress nodded, and then came back with a bottle that she opened with caution and poured even with even more; the three of them watched carefully as Kakashi lifted the glass. Naruto's eyes narrowed.

'Almost at his lips-!'

He smelled the wine.

"Ah," he said. "There is nothing like the scent of fine wine. Wouldn't you say?"

Naruto twitched, fuming.

"Are you actually going to drink it, Kakashi-sensei?"

Kakashi shrugged, removing his book from his pocket and opening it once again.

"When I feel like it."

After a moment of prolonged tension, Sakura breathed out and turned to Naruto.

"You look thinner."

Naruto laughed.

"Aren't you going to say about how cool I am, Sakura-chan?" he said, a laugh in his tone that bent into a plea. "And that I look so much stronger and more badass?"

Sakura's half-laugh half-sigh was half-hearted, and she looked away. "Sure. You just… I just, well- you can't run on no energy, you know, Naruto. So don't go trying it, okay?"

"I know, I know, Sakura-chan! I've been eating fine. I've just been working hard too. You'll see!"

Their food came - 'Kakashi-sensei's glass is half full - when the hell did he-?!' - and they ate in comfortable silence. Naruto slurped, however.

Although the boy finished first, Satsuki supposed it served as testament to just how skewed his eating habits must have been, because he didn't order a second bowl, let alone the usual seven.

He pushed aside his bowl and put his jaw on his fist.

"Sakura-chan," Naruto mumbled, sounding a bit teary, "are you really not going to tell us about your training?"

Sakura laughed. "Naruto, there's no need to be so sad. I just want it to be a surprise, okay?"

Naruto sniffed. Satsuki pushed him on the shoulder.

"Shut up, idiot. Tell us about your training, then."

"Well, there's," Naruto said. He stopped. "Well- I, okay, so - let me think. It's like. Okay. Uh… well, there's normal training. Which is just learning better taijutsu I guess, and how to be faster, and just getting stronger in general. But now I'm doing all this… whooshy shit."

There was a silence. Sakura leaned forward, incredulous.

"Whooshy shit?"

"Uh…" Naruto took a moment to think. "-yeah. Whooshy shit."

Satsuki put her head in her hands.

"Fascinating," said Kakashi. "Truly."

"I don't know what the technique is called yet, but I've just started learning that. And it is going to be so cool, just you wait."

"Oh, I know it," Satsuki said. "Whooshy style: Whooshy Shit no Jutsu."

"Did you just make a joke?"

The night ended on a mixed note.

On one hand, everything went relatively well. However, it turned out that Kakashi's bottle of wine, which he had somehow managed to finish alone - which meant that the quiet giggles at his fine literature got far, far louder ('Or was he doing that just to embarrass us?') - had cost more than the entirety of their meals put together.

Somehow, the affair still ended up with Naruto and Satsuki punching each other on the floor. They were promptly thrown out, and probably black-listed.

Satsuki glared at the de-stitched material once again.

She had seen Sakura demonstrate this stitch so many times.

But then she would just screw it up and then it would knot on the back or it would twist and - it just wouldn't work. Satsuki knew she could just activate her Sharingan, copy the stitch with that same motion of her hands, as she had watched Sakura do with a sly flare of her eyes.

She lifted the needle as Sakura had done, looping through the material-

Satsuki shook with anger, and cut away the beginnings of the copy-cat stitch.

She wouldn't. Not this time.

With resolve, Satsuki started again.

The fight between Satsuki and Naruto began in silence as always, but with a tangible tension.

Naruto lunged forwards. There had never been any holding back before, but now she could feel an intent. In his every swing and hit, the earth seemed to rattle with his effort.

She frowned.

And when Satsuki landed a blow, hard, on Naruto's neck with the flat side of her fan, Naruto burst into red.

He didn't bleed, nor did he burn, but he lunged for her, hands like claws that tore out and forward and through the flesh of her forearm and stopped short of her throat.

It faded there.

The moment was still, with her, arm sopping wet with blood that drained into the soil, and Naruto, clasping her by the wound with fingers ready to crush her throat.

Jerking away from her, he stepped back once, twice, and ran.

Satsuki bandaged herself alone.

When Satsuki returned home, Sakura didn't say anything at all for a while.

She went about her daily routine.

"I think I should go home today."

Satsuki didn't know how she felt about that.

"I see."

"I told my parents where I was going, but," Sakura said, her voice sounding strained, "They're probably so worried. And… I don't know."

Satsuki stirred the tea. She didn't feel like tea today. She didn't feel like anything today. "You miss them?"

Sakura was quiet.

"Maybe. It's hard to tell."

The girl turned over on the bed.

"But that's just… I mean, I'm- not- I…"

Satsuki heard a sigh.

"I dunno how I'm going to face them," Sakura admitted, bringing her forearm up to cover her eyes.

Satsuki felt her own forearm stinging beneath the bandages. She tied up her hair, and then made a decision.

"Do you want me to come with you?" she said.

Sakura turned to her, eyes wide, and then she smiled broadly.

"If that's alright," Sakura said, beaming.

'Not really,' Satsuki thought. 'But how many other people has she suckered in with that smile?'

Sakura's parents were strange. Her mother in particular was kind and overbearing.

'Is that what family is?' Satsuki thought. 'I can't remember.'

When they opened the door to Sakura, there were a lot of tears and mumbled things that made Satsuki step back and look away.

Sakura pulled back from her father and turned to bow to Satsuki.

"Thank you for everything, Satsuki-san."

Satsuki shook her head.

"No," she said. "Thank you, Sakura."

The young girl stopped, looking up at Satsuki.

"It was…" Satsuki said. "I'm… glad to have had you. You were no trouble."

Sakura blinked, and then smiled, red-faced.

Sakura's mother stepped out the door, and took Satsuki by the hand.

"Satsuki-san?" she asked.

"Yes," she said. "Nice to meet you, Haruno-san."

The woman smiled in turn.

"Just call me Mebuki. Thank you for taking care of Sakura," she said carefully. "I… I am not sure how I feel about it now, but maybe it was best Sakura left the house."

"Sakura taught me a lot," Satsuki said. "There's nothing to thank me for."

Sakura giggled, and Mebuki raised an eyebrow.

"Is that so?"


She quickly caught the key hurtling towards her, and looked at it. Satsuki frowned, and tossed it back. Sakura protested.

"Oi, Satsuki-"

"Keep it," Satsuki said. "It'll save you bothering me by knocking."

The young girl pocketed it with a sulking look, and Sakura's father, laughing, lead her into the house.

Mebuki, her eyes following her daughter as she left, then turned and took Satsuki by her hands, leaning down.

"I have faith in Sakura as a shinobi," she said, and then she hesitated. "Truly. But I want to ask you one last thing, Satsuki-san."

The woman ducked her head and closed her eyes.

"Take care of our Sakura," she said. "Please keep her safe."

Satsuki looked at Mebuki for a moment., and paused for a single moment until she gave her a resolute nod.

"I promise."

The training of Team 7, from there on, continued without significant incident.

Naruto did not appear to Satsuki for the rest of the month. Each night the spot was empty; he trained with Jiraiya, and when he was not training with Jiraiya, he exercised until his hands and feet bled.

On the final eve, Naruto channeled chakra into his palm, and focused.

He was frightened.

There was a humming. An unusual, unforeseen bending in his chakra-

"Oi, kid. When are you going to leave so I can go home and get some sleep?"

"Whenever you stop going after women 30 years younger than you."

"Hmph. I'll have you know I appreciate all women. Come on, kid."

"I'll turn into a girl if you help me just this once."


Satsuki reached the final handhold of victory, her palms cutting against the craggy rock of the cliffside.

"Do you think you're ready then?" Kakashi asked.

Satsuki smirked. "As I'll ever be."

Her teacher hummed for a moment. "Are you sure about that?"

Satsuki frowned.


Kakashi kicked Satsuki off of the cliff. Regularly raising your heart rate, Kakashi remembered, was meant to be very good for one's health, after all.

Anko had put Sakura through a decent amount of training through genjutsu - which was almost completely necessary, considering that the techniques in question were undoubtedly lethal on an actual human, but necessary to practice until absolute precision - but today was the day she would test it on Anko herself.

Said woman was now lifeless, and Sakura was beginning to panic.

"Anko-sensei? Anko-sensei, this really isn't funny- fuck, she is so dead. How do you hide a body in a village full of fucking n-"

Anko jumped out, grinning -


- and knocked Sakura to the ground.

There was a silence.

Punching Sakura in the head had seemed funny at the time, but Anko also had a tendency to forget that people could die from that kind of thing, because no one really seemed to.

She frowned, stepping closer, and nudged Sakura with her foot.

"Oh." She scratched her head. "Man. Well, I… shit."

Chapter Text

At Sakura's side, Satsuki was silent.

Sakura knew her as anger, or bite, but now, Satsuki was unmoving, hunched over the rail and staring across the dust of the battlefield.

Amongst the combatants, prepared and quiet in the waiting area, there was a boy with red hair and dark circles around his eyes. Sakura bit her lip, and tucked her hair behind her ear. She felt for a needle, and was relieved at its point.

The stadium bubbled with energy; they were in the shade, but it was a scorching day.

There was a gap between Sakura and Satsuki where Naruto was not, and spying her gaze, the girl from Suna snickered. Sakura couldn't hold back.


Temari scoffed, and stretched her arms above her head, smiling. "Oh, nothing." She checked her nails. "Your friend isn't here yet. Sure he's coming?"

Sakura glowered. Temari carried on.

"But you know, anyone would be scared of facing Gaara," Temari said, leaning back and looking as though she was pushing down a laugh. "I wouldn't blame him for running away."

"Naruto hasn't run away."

The waiting area fell into silence Satsuki's cold and certain tone. She stood upright, putting her hands in her pockets and turning to Temari with those dark eyes.

"And how do you know that?" Temari said with a sneer.

She stood slightly taller than Satsuki, but Sakura could swear that she shriveled under that gaze all the same.

"I'm certain," said Satsuki. "Naruto will be here."

Temari looked a moment longer, scoffed, but said nothing else. She stepped back and turned to the stadium, looking at the slowly filling stands. Sakura sighed.

'But that's what you get for talking shit about Naruto in front of Satsuki-san,' Sakura thought. 'I learned that the hard way...'

The stadium began to simmer into a quiet buzz, and the proctor unfolded the examination sheet. Gaara turned from the group, and began to walk, slowly, down the steps behind them. Sakura turned to watch him descend into the dark stairwell, but Satsuki didn't move.

"Satsuki-san, there's no need to worry, as you said." Sakura gave her a small smile. "Naruto is-"

"I know, Sakura." Satsuki pulled one of her fans clipped to her belt, and splayed it wide, running her fingers over the metal-spined spokes.

'Then why is she worrying?' Sakura thought. 'I've never seen her like this before...'

As Satsuki ran her fingers over the material of her fan, Sakura eyed the white scar that peered from beneath her arm protectors. It was long, and came to a point. She frowned, and made a move to speak, when the voice of the proctor rumbled through the stadium. The audience fell silent.

"Uzumaki Naruto," the man said, looking down to the board and then up again. "And Sabaku no Gaara."

Satsuki's fan snapped shut.

Gaara's voice, though Sakura could not see him, came from beneath her.

"Here," he said. His footsteps were slow and evenly spaced.

The proctor looked around again.

"Has anyone seen Uzumaki Naruto?" he said again.

Sakura put her head in her hands. "Ugh... why does Naruto manage to screw up everything? He'll be so upset if he misses this match, too..."

Satsuki, her fingers poised on the hard lacquer of her fan, was still.

At her side, Temari's lips curled unkindly and she opened her mouth-


Sakura groaned, and Satsuki flinched.

In a great gust of light and leaves, Naruto, with one palm outstretched and his open jacket flailing in a fierce wind, appeared in the centre of the arena with a wide and manic grin.

Laughing, he winked and put up a thumbs up.

"Sorry I'm late!"

Pulling up a breath, Sakura pushed forward into a fury, grabbing the rail with both hands. "You idiot! You almost missed your match, do you know that?!"

"Sorry, sorry, Sakura-chan! Ero-sennin was teaching me how to do that cool entrance thing! But it's totally cool, right?"

She heard some kind of wildly excited noise from the stands, and looked to see some old man with white hair looking offended and proud all at once.

And then Naruto settled, his excitement fading into something else, and he put his hands in his pockets. Gaara folded his arms and trained his eyes upon Naruto.

Sakura leant back from the rail, anger falling from her mouth.

The proctor raised an eyebrow, and stepped back a few paces.

Satsuki, at her side, clipped her fan to her belt, her hands forming a bridge beneath her jaw.

The stadium was commanded to silence by the tangible stare shared between the two. Sakura watched with dread weighing her every blink.

'Totally cool… isn't the right word for any of this.'


Naruto blurred forwards.

Gaara saw him, and remained steadfast. Naruto drew back, eyes locked on the sand.

Gritting his teeth and digging his heels into the dirt, he threw himself to the right and hit the ground running, pouring every ounce of momentum into his legs to throw himself out of Gaara's line of sight.

Then he turned and pulled himself to that wall of sand that moved like ink in water, and slung a fist at it. It slammed to the point of impact and shuddered with the momentum of Naruto's punch, but Gaara, behind it, was still.

With a scream of muscle and air, Naruto dug his knuckles in further, lowered his centre of mass, and slammed the hard edge of his leg into the wall.

It caught the hit but this time, he came closer to Gaara. Satisfaction webbed itself in the veins of his chest.

"Yes," he whispered, a soft sound that almost masked the shifting of forming sand. A blade poised to shoot from the wall.

Naruto pressed his free hand to the floor and threw his mass over it, spinning just barely away from the edge that threatened his flesh. He set his feet in the ground, and then shot to the right.

The defense moved like a reflection of Naruto at first, and he focused on his legs moving in front of each other.

It wasn't fast enough, and Naruto gritted his teeth.

'Faster,' he thought, powering chakra to his legs. 'I've got to go faster.'

Power poured from every step, so much so that a dust was beginning to cover the two of them, and Naruto looked to the ultimate defense.

It was lagging. With a smirk, Naruto breathed deeply and brought his fingers together.

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu."

The sound was lost in the air, but a clone appeared at his side, and then another, and then another. There was a swarm of clones, running in unison around Gaara. The dust that had formed a mist now formed a cloudy fog, and resounded with the buzz of a hundred footsteps.

Naruto narrowed his gaze, and they converged.

Gaara's ultimate defense countered every strike, pulling from one spot to the other and shuddering from the impact, sand crumbling down from the force. Gaara, staring at the blurs of orange assailing his defense, did not move.

One by one, they withdrew, but then one by one they returned; again, and again, and again. More clones appeared.

Gaara had complete faith in his ultimate defense, but struggled to see through the blur of clones.

Like the parting of an ocean, in one smooth motion, Naruto launched forward, pressing something large, loud, and blue into the sand.

The sand concealed him from sight, catching the attack effortlessly. Gaara heard the whir of air and chakra, the sinking of sand beneath the pressure, but didn't speak.

Then there was a crack.

The sand cracked again, and then again. The soft cushion turned into a bed of stone, and in a cacophony of sand, chakra, and fury-


-the defense broke.

Naruto saw Gaara's chest split, crack and spurt blood. It filtered through the Rasengan and sprayed onto both of their faces, droplets hanging in Naruto's eyelashes and the scent of it assailing his nostrils.

The blue in his hand faded, and looking at Gaara, half-dead and wheezing, Naruto saw the mania in his eyes for a split second before the sand lurched and grabbed Naruto tightly by the wrist.

'Rough,' Naruto thought. 'Motherly.'

Gaara's sand pulled back and then launched him with a twang. Seeing the wall instantaneously, he hit it. Something broke.

His collision was that of stone and bone, and he slid down from the destruction to the ground, the concussive force doubling his vision. Blinking through the white, Naruto cursed.

The crowd were mumbling, their excitement distant in his daze.

Through his stupor, Naruto looked up and rolled out of the way. The sand fist connected with the wall and dissolved; Naruto stumbled back, his senses reeling. The movement sent a strike of pain from the peak of his back to his right foot. Naruto hissed.

Naruto collapsed to his knees. Before him was a wavering bed of sand, and Gaara stood atop it, looking down on him with an indistinguishable look through his gasps for air.

"It was nice while it lasted," Gaara said, chuckling and clutching the wound on his chest. It was bubbling with sand. "But that doesn't matter."

Gaara's sand leaked from the platform beneath him and slithered along the floor, coiling around his neck, the sibilant movement of sand a lullaby in his ear.

"It's still my win."

The python twisted. Gaara snapped Naruto's neck, and the world fell away into blood.

The stadium bristled with the presence of death.

Sakura and Satsuki were motionless, silent, Sakura with tears budding in the corners of her eyes and Satsuki caught in a dead scream. The proctor's mouth was open.

But then something moved.

Sakura stepped back, unsteadied, hands clasped to her mouth and wide-eyed.

"Satsuki-san," she whispered, breath coming in gasps, "What- What's that?"

Satsuki stepped back from the rail. The scar on her arm tingled, and then stung.

Naruto's body had slumped over into a crouch, with great white hooks piercing through his flesh, curling around him and cradling his torso. Sharp, right-angled bones emerged from his sides, white strung together by muscle and flesh.

From the small of his back came a long, white bone tail, straight as a plank, before it cracked once, twice, three, four many times and strung itself together with tendons that plaited through the bone. Languid, it pulled itself from the ground, and curled up into itself, above Naruto's head.

And his flesh was as black as tar.

Satsuki's stomach twisted.

"It looks like a scorpion," she whispered, words barely making it past her lips.

Gaara fell to his knees. Shaking, he covered his ears with his hands, and began muttering to himself.

Temari and Kankurou stiffened and looked to each other. Temari sighed, and then laughed. It was a noise without any real mirth, but Sakura and Satsuki's gazes snapped to her.

"Looks like you Konoha ninja have your own little monster as well."

The scorpion, unsettled, moved forward with the mechanical tapping of legs in the dirt, and steam spilled from its mouth like froth. It leaned forward, towards Gaara, curling into himself, and stepped back.

There was a moment of silence.

Satsuki's eyes widened, and then the arena, once stilled with the quiet presence of a predator, rattled with laughter, and the roar of invasion.

"Mother is happy to see you, Kyuubi!"

Gaara exploded in a mass of chakra, enemy ninja leapt from the shadows of the stands, Temari and Kankurou converged upon Satsuki, and in the presence of mass hysteria, war and demons, it was not a stretch to say that all hell broke loose.


The world shook, blurred, and then focused. Ino was above her, hands on shoulders, face fading into relief.

"Good," she said. "Sakura, did you see where Satsuki-"

A jolt of fear possessed Sakura by her heart, and she jerked to her feet, stumbling over the unconscious persons behind her and scanning their faces.

"Satsuki-san," she whispered, and then her voice raised. "It was- It was those ninja from Suna-"

"Suna?" Ino repeated, and Sakura's eyes widened. She clutched her chest, scrambling to her feet in a panic.

"They've taken her," she said. "Ino, they've taken Satsuki-san!"

Ino slapped her hand over Satsuki's mouth and pushed her by her shoulders to the ground, looking out onto the stadium. Sakura could hear the clang of metal above her.

"Listen," Ino said. "Konoha's being invaded. Most people fell into the genjutsu, but for those that didn't, there are ninja out there that want us dead. Get that, forehead?"

Sakura shrunk back, shaking.

"What I'm trying to tell you is we've got to be careful," Ino whispered. She looked through the rails onto the battlefield.

"I have a feeling Gaara was part of the plan to invade Konoha," she said. "And – I don't know what the hell is wrong with Naruto, but Gaara's interested in him the most. If I get Naruto out of the village, Gaara will get out of here too."

Sakura looked at up at her. She was trembling.

"But what about Satsuki?" she whispered. "If we leave her, then- who knows what they're going to do to her?"

"You need to get to Naruto when I lead him out the village," Ino said. "And make sure Gaara goes down."

"I don't have a chance against him!" Sakura said, rising in a panic. "He'll kill us both-!"

Ino looked at her with a grim smile.

"I know you're worried," she said. "About yourself and Satsuki-san... but the whole village is at stake. I'm going to use my possession technique." She brushed herself off, preparing to stand.

"Whatever Naruto's become isn't human," Sakura said, focusing blankly on the bony creature that circled the dusty ground.

Ino gritted her teeth. "Then I'll find the human in him and drag it out," she said. "You've got to go after them once I get them out of the village, Sakura."

Sakura stopped, looking at Ino. "Why are you being like this all of a sudden, Ino? When did you start to..."

Ino looked at her for a prolonged moment, but then shook her head.

"So many questions. Just use that big brain of yours and do what I say," she said. "I'm leaving it to you, forehead."

"Ino, I-!"

Ino collapsed.

Ino had received plenty of training on the average human labyrinth.

Naruto, as it turned out, was not the average human.

She was in an apartment. It was overrun with plants. It looked lived in, and yet overtaken by nature. The floor sparkled, the air stank of detergent, the bed was unmade. The tap was running.

It was small, somewhat old, but homey and uncanny in its cleanliness.

As far as Ino could tell, the puzzle element of every human mind as it represented itself to intruders – was missing.

She swallowed her fear, and made her way to the window. It was staring out onto an empty blue sky. Opening the window, Ino leaned out.

There was nothing but sky that stretched from top to bottom. But she could see windows below her. This was a tower.

'Alright. I'll find some stairs, then.'

Ino went into the kitchen, the bedroom, and the bathroom. There were no stairs.

There was a long corridor, that seemed to lead to the front door. She could even see the door as she walked down it, but when she reached it, it was somehow just smooth wall.

'Then this is the puzzle,' she thought. 'Finding my way down.'

The apartment smelled strongly of plants, of life, and was generally pleasant, if strange.

Drawers and the like were empty, however. By the bed, Ino saw a photo frame.

It seemed to be a picture of Team 7; but only Sakura was on the photograph.

A coldness went through her then, but she shook it off easily, and went to look around.

When Ino turned off the light, she found a door, like the door she had seen at the end of the hallway, but lying vertically on the floor.

Ino frowned, and opened it. She could only see floor, similar, planked floor: she went down.

It was the same apartment.

This time, the apartment was messier; but the bed was made. There were some things on the floor, general disorder, the drawers were full. Outside, there was a bright sunset that poured over the room and blinded her.

'What a strange guy,' Ino thought.

The apartment smelled strongly of tea, but Ino couldn't even find a kettle.

This apartment was also warmer than the one above.

But in the drawers were nothing of note; they were absolutely brimming with things, but not actually anything at all. Nothing personal.

There was no hint as to what she should do; the only thing she could note was that the team photo, this time, only had Satsuki, who was pulling the hair of some unseen silhouette.

The sunset continued to cast long shadows from Naruto's table onto his floor. Sighing, Ino closed the curtains.

There was a door again, this time, behind the curtains where the window had been.

Unsettled, Ino parted the curtains again and stepped through.

It was an apartment once more, but this time Ino was consumed with an absolute sense of dread the moment she stepped through the door.

The apartment stank. The stench was utterly unbearable, and she found herself pushing down vomit, but also tears.

She was in the hall. Some kind of animal carcass was nailed to the door.

'What is this kid hiding inside of him?' Ino thought, stepping backwards and stumbling away.

Ino became very suddenly aware of her bare feet. She was sure she'd had shoes on in the second floor.

The kitchen door was already open, and it smelled of blood. But as Ino inspected, there was none; the window revealed an unbearably bright daylight, which poured out but did not make it into the hall. The windows that had been in the hall previously were gone.

The drawers were empty. One was filled with water.

She decided to check the bathroom next.

The windows were gone here, too; she peered through the darkness, and tentatively made her way in, waiting for her eyes to adjust.

There was an arm in the sink, a fox head in the toilet.

Ino gasped, and clutched her chest with one hand and clamped onto her nose with the other. She saw some sort of figure in the shower, and reached for the door.

Something on the doorknob was soft.

Ino screamed, yanking the door open and slamming it behind her, wiping her hands fervently on her top.

She felt sick. Physically sick; her stomach was turning, her heart was throbbing. There was an alien feeling that wasn't hers permeating the entire floor.

"Got to get out," she muttered, wiping away tears and shaking her head. She walked across the hall, feeling a tremble in her every step.

She stood in front of the bedroom door for a long time, and held her hand on the lock. That soft thing she could not see through the darkness tickled her fingers again. Her heart was thrumming.

She could hear a banging, somewhere, but then complete silence.

Ino took the doorknob and clasped it, sweaty hands hindering the twist of her wrist. With some jiggling of the lock, the door opened.

The bedroom was quiet, and there didn't seem to be much wrong. In here, the windows were gone, just like the bathroom and the hall. She walked forward, but was hit by a sharp pain.

She gasped and lifted her foot up: glass. She'd stood on glass, and now her foot was bleeding. The shard fell out of her skin and shattered.

Squinting through the darkness, Ino leaned down, and felt for the small outline she could see.

It was the picture of Team 7, she realised. Or at least the frame of it; the picture was gone.

The smell of blood hit her then. It was too overwhelming to be her foot, she realised. And then there was the smell of decay.

Standing up, limping, Ino looked away from the direction of the smell and checked the drawers. Empty.

The confrontation became inevitable. She walked, feeling her toes moving with the slickness between them, to the bed. The smell was so overpowering it stuck to her tongue. Through the darkness, she managed to see someone in the bed.

Ino felt fear welling in her gut.

'The light,' she thought. 'I need to see who it is.' Stumbling over, glass scraping her foot, she scrabbled at the light switch before it finally buzzed into brightness.

The windows were back, as though they were never gone. As she walked forward a few paces, she clasped her hands to her mouth.

It was Mizuki, in the bed, their teacher from back in the academy. The bed was soaked with his blood. She reached to pull back the covers, but retracted her hands the moment she felt the wetness of the material.

"It's my fault," she said, tears collecting in her eyes, and then she jerked back from the bed. The emotion slipped away from her. She ran from the room, feeling pain shoot up her leg. The door still wasn't there.

'The bathroom,' she thought. 'I'll just check the bathroom.'

Stepping backwards, Ino walked out and into the bathroom. She looked for the light switch.

When she got it on, she wished she hadn't.

The arm had long nails, and pale skin.

What she had thought was a figure in the shower was simply blood on the walls, about the height and width of a person. The drain was clogged with the stuff; peering closer, Ino realised it must be hair, but it was dyed red. She couldn't tell whose it might have been.

She turned around.

The doorknob was wrapped with Hinata's hair, and Ino took a moment before she realised it was her who was screaming.

She swung the door open and looked down the hall. The door was there; the animal carcass was on the floor.

Stepping over it with her eyes blurred by tears, she yanked the door open once again and ran.

Ino stopped.

The fourth apartment was bare, stripped of all furniture.

The windows were here again; it was night, the dark night sky, moonless and starless, stretched from the top to the bottom of everything Ino could see. The floors were bare, she couldn't smell anything out of the ordinary, and there weren't even any lights to turn on, this time.

The closer she looked at the walls, the more she realised they were covered in newspaper.

But not only that, if Ino stepped back, there were images beneath it.

Satsuki, Mizuki, Sakura, Hinata and Kakashi.

Her body shivered in the cold, and Ino felt her breath quickening.

'They're all looking at me.'

She tried to blink back tears, falling to the ground and trying to cover herself. She buried her face in between her knees.

'Stop looking at me.'

Ino began to cry.

She was frightened. No mind had ever been like this. She had never been trained for anything like this at all.

'Is this really you, Naruto? These overwhelming feelings of loneliness...'

Ino felt herself gasping for air, trying to find herself in the great long silence.

Unnerved, Ino moved to leave the bedroom, but cut herself on the doorknob.

Looking down, she realised the doorknob was gone, and a knife was in its place.

Wincing and wiping the blood on her clothing, Ino reached out again and turned the blade by its flat edges.

There wasn't a door, no matter how far back she stood in the hall.

She went to the kitchen, and turned this handle carefully as well. Empty.

In the bathroom, however, when she opened the door, this one was not so empty.

Where the toilet had been, there was now a gaping hole in the floor, the edges of it smeared with dried blood. Ino stood at its edge tentatively.

The windows were sealed tight, she realised, even going so far as to try the ones in the other rooms. They would not open. When she barraged the glass, not only did it not break, it felt far more like stone.

No matter what she tried, no door appeared.

Ino walked back into the bathroom. The hole was still there, gaping. Kneeling at its side, there was no noise. Nothing. It was complete and utter blackness below.

"Hello?" she said quietly. There was an echo.

'It sounds so deep,' Ino thought. 'If I jump down there… then...'

Staring down into that darkness, Ino felt weighted with sudden emotion, so strong that her elbows shook at the sides of the abyss.

'I have to do it.'

'I have no choice.'

'There's no way I can carry on like this.'

'If I don't...'

Ino fell down.

The wind in Sakura's ears was deafening.

Although Ino appeared to have gained some control over Naruto, it was not quite there yet.

After all, Sakura did not have to follow Naruto, but simply the destruction he left in his wake. Gaara was close behind, the both of them wreaking havoc and leaving behind a trail of broken trees and singed plants.

She choked back a lump in her throat.

'Ino… is she going to be alright? And Satsuki-san… oh god, how the hell is she going to make it out alive? Is this really the right thing to do?'

She could hear a carnal scream up ahead.

'Am I trading Satsuki-san's life for the safety of the village? And if I did, would that be the right thing to do?'

She coughed, and blinked back tears. "No," she said, clenching her fists. "That doesn't matter, because Satsuki-san's not going to die."

Sakura drew closer, and saw now that Naruto had drawn to a stop, and was circling Gaara with his grotesque walk.

Gaara was becoming more and more unrecognisable by the minute. Half his body was being festered on by a lumpy monstrosity of sand; he was heaving for breath in the middle of the makeshift clearing.

Sakura imagined that Ino was coming closer and closer to having a grip on Naruto's psyche, or however the technique functioned. Naruto was no longer attacking, and had drawn to a stop at a reasonable distance from the village.

She crossed her fingers, and as though her prayers were answered, Naruto's transformation began to fade.

The extra limbs didn't meld back into him, but simply snapped off and crumbled to the floor. Sakura felt sick at the thought.

Gaara, sneering, saw the body fading from him, and before Sakura could reach out to him, cradled him in a hammock of sand that siphoned into a chrysalis.

Gaara laughed, saliva spilling from his half-monster mouth.

"I've already won the battle against this one," he said, chuckling. "It doesn't matter if he dies, right?"

He was watching her carefully, and she stepped forward, never breaking her gaze.

The sand lifted Naruto, who began to claw and cough at the grip, and plastered him to a tree. Gaara smirked.

"If you want to see that boy alive," he said, "Kill me."

Sakura gritted her teeth and slipped senbon beneath her fingers. "You don't have to tell me twice!" She dived off to her right and sprinted to the left.

'Weak spot,' Sakura thought. 'But this is no regular human body… most of it is reinforced with sand...'

Running along the branch, Sakura dodged the swing of Gaara's large fist of sand, and ducked below it, firing herself like a bullet towards the human side of his body and slamming a senbon into the back of his knee.

Hearing his screech of pain, Sakura grinned, but then leant back to jump off of her hands away from the incoming blow. It slammed into the branch below, and shattered it to splinters.

"You bitch," he hissed. "If you think that's enough to beat me-!"

'Dipped in a deep disorienting poison,' Sakura thought. 'Provided I can occupy him for twenty minutes, and provided this will even work on someone half demon - I might have a chance at winning.'

From his defense, Gaara's sand melded into tiny bullets, and hurled towards Sakura.

She swung down to the branch below, and then doubled back to avoid another barrage.

'The more senbon I get in there, the faster he'll go out,' she thought. 'But hitting the proper points is going to be impossible if I'm not close range...'

Running forwards, Sakura launched a kunai towards Gaara's face - it was caught quickly, and absorbed into the sand and launched straight back her way. It went straight through her.

"Bunshin," he breathed, and then felt a great stripe of shocking pain as Sakura grabbed the senbon buried in the back of his knee, and pulled it upwards into his thigh.

Gaara's leg trembled and collapsed. Sakura smirked.

'That's a major muscle, straight in half,' she thought with glee.

Gaara's reinforced arm swung down like a war hammer, but met with the log that Sakura swapped with. She ran upwards on a branch below.

"You're a rat," he spat. "All you're doing is running!"

Sakura wiped her mouth through her heavy breaths. "If fighting like a coward kills you and sets Naruto free," she said, slipping metal between her fingers, "then I'll fight like a coward until I die!"

Sticking chakra to the soles of her feet, Sakura sprinted up the bark and fired a barrage of senbon from her left and from her right, dodging their deflections with mere milliseconds to spare.

'They're just being absorbed.'

Then she looked at him again. The part of Gaara's body that was man was being infested by sand, that was encroaching on his flesh. Sakura cursed.

'If that covers him completely, and he becomes whatever that is,' she thought, 'this poison might not work at all…!'

She needed to shorten the time.

Leaping backwards, Sakura ran again, her lungs burning but desperately needing to re-evaluate. Gaara wasn't even moving. He was strong no matter where she was. Except for his human side, but it was so incredibly well-protected by the demon side that there was very little opportunity for proper damage.

Grabbing her senbon again, Sakura lunged for Achilles heel, but this time he was prepared. The defense was too fast, and she was thrown to the forest floor.

The impact sent her spine shuddering and grinding against itself like a rusty machine. Sakura bit her lip to keep from crying.

'He's anticipating all of my moves. I have to do something from here.'

Running up the tree trunk opposite him, Sakura climbed into the canopy, prepped 4 senbon in her hand, and ran back down, launching them from her fingers in a barrage.

They headed for the face, but only one of them hit their mark: the eye.

Gaara shrieked, the needle having embedded itself straight through the eyelid and the eyeball. He howled at the pain, breathing deeply. The needle was there like a javelin at bullseye, and Gaara, teeth bared, pinched the needle by its end. Sakura felt bile rising.

He began to pull, edges of the eyeball pulling out of the eyesocket steadily as though centred in a spider's web. It strained, on the verge of tumbling out of the socket, before the needle pulled out of the eye and it twanged back into equilibrium, spurting jelly and blood and forming tears a pinky mix of the two.

Sakura tried to quash a bout of vomit, digging her nails into her palm as she tried to keep up her pace. The sand was on her tail now, edging closer and closer to her heel as she sprinted across the bark.

When she reached the end, Sakura jumped, but it was too slow.

Gaara yowled with laughter. The sand latched to her leg from the knee down, and twisted.

Sakura shrieked.

The kneecap shattered, and the bone cracked. Gaara let her dangle for a single, painful moment in the air, before dropping her to the ground even more painfully. Sakura tried to move her leg, but was met only with an incapacitating pain that sent her eyes watering.

"It's no use…" Sakura looked to Naruto. "He's going to die…!"

Gaara's giggles moved into howls, reels and gasps that bent and looped. Sakura tried to pull her leg again, but cried out at the sheer pain of trying.

She dug her nails into the ground, and pulled herself forward, using her good leg to push her into a disordered stance. Shockwaves of pain rushed through her. Whimpering, Sakura limped to where Naruto was tightly plastered to the tree. She could see the grip growing tighter.

Falling to her knees, Sakura dug her nails into the sand, desperately trying to rip it from Naruto's body.

'That,' she thought, looking at Naruto's face, stuck in a permanent, rigor melancholy, 'Or he's already dead.'

Hearing Gaara's laughter, she couldn't keep from crying.

Chapter Text

Ino fell into darkness, and waited.

'What a stupid thing to do,' she thought. 'How could I have thought jumping down here was a good idea?'

But even so, Ino knew better than to blame herself. This oppressive landscape had overcome her for a mere moment, and she'd been consumed by the idea of just throwing herself into the darkness without a thought for her survival, and perhaps a couple of thoughts to the contrary.

'How horrible. To think that those were some of Naruto's true feelings…'

Ino curled deeper into herself. She was uncertain she was falling: there was no atmosphere to rush past her ears.

Great brass pipes faded in by dim orange light, and Ino blinked, before she emerged from the water and gasped for air she hadn't known she'd needed.

Heaving for breath, Ino stood herself up and twisted the water out of her hair. She looked around. The alley was empty of all but the pipes, the water, and a way forward shrouded in darkness. The water felt heavy and resistant, as though she were pushing through thick grass.

'Or perhaps it's this atmosphere,' she thought, thinning her lips and leaning onto the wall. 'Making me feel weaker and weaker…'

A corner glimmered in the darkness, and Ino forged towards it, clasping it with her fingers and leaning past it.

In the darkness, she made out bars. They reached up to a ceiling she couldn't see, and were sealed in the middle by a piece of paper that read just so.

She frowned, stepping forward and squinting through the darkness.

And then Ino saw it.

There was what could be called a face behind those prongs of metal, though it was simply too humongous to be anything close. It opened a single eye to look at her: the eyelid it shifted sucked itself from the flesh of the lower eye audibly.

A fox.


Ino held her chest and did all she could to not pass out.

'I thought I'd seen all there was to see in Naruto's mind,' she thought, trying to steady her wobbling legs. 'How… How does a human mind even come up with this kind of scale?'

She felt a consciousness behind the bars. This thing was alive. There was an entire other mind in here.

What the hell was going on?

"Where is Naruto?" she said, mustering all of her courage. The beast scoffed at her.

"You'd dare question me?" it said, eyes narrowing, "You tiny, pathetic bug?"

She suppressed a squeal and clenched her fist. "Where is he?" she said again, with more force.

The stomp of her foot made tiny ripples in the water. But the simple derisive sneer the fox shot in response flung waves half her size rumbling back at her, threatening to topple her over, and Ino's fingers trembled in their grip.

The fox, its breath forcefully blowing Ino's hair out of her eyesseemed to brush her off, setting its head down and closing its eyes.

"O-Oi! I'm talking to you!"

The fox did not stir.

Ino took a deep breath, and looked around. She couldn't see anything but the cell, and she bit her lip.

'Can I even intimidate something this immense?' Ino thought, biting her lip. 'Obviously not. I don't think I could even measure up to one single claw…'

Taking a deep breath, Ino pointed at the fox directly and spoke. Her index finger quivered.

"Naruto's out of control," she said, "I don't know whether that's your fault or not, but it's in your best interests to help me out."

The fox rose from its slump and blinked, incredulous. "My best interests?" it said. It chuckled for a moment, baring a wide set of canines. "You'd dare assume my best interests?"

"Well, u-uh." Ino took a breath, suppressing a stutter. "Maybe you're not too invested in Naruto's wellbeing," she said, "but Naruto's attacking everyone and everything in sight, y'know. Someone's gonna take him out eventually. If not, Konoha'll have to. Either way, if this carries on, Naruto's dead."

It was silent, and then the eye widened in its fury.

"You are threatening me."

Ino smirked, putting a hand on her hips and praying her confidence would last.

"Maybe!" She stepped back, motioning to the cage. "After all, it doesn't seem like you can leave, whatever you are. I'd say if Naruto dies… you'll die, too."

Now the thing revealed its full grandeur, stepping back and splaying nine great tails in the street-like glow of the sewer. The movement sent a wave so overwhelming that she was washed back a good few paces, and the killing intent in its eyes made Ino fear for her life.

"You arrogant brat," it hissed. Its claws curled inwards, raking through the floor. "If this cage were not between us, you would be nothing more than paste!"

Spitting water, Ino looked at the great beast and breathing deeply, was struck by the silhouette. She looked again, and clamped her hands over her mouth.

"Wait!" she said. "You're the Nine Tails! The... The Nine Tailed Fox!"

The cage rumbled with its grunt.

Ino blinked, and took a moment. "This is so not real. Has to be an illusion. Like everything else in this messed up brain."

'But Gaara… he said that too… and behind those bars - I know for certain that there's an entity behind there!'

The Fox looked at her, with an abyssal black pupil sucking away at a red iris, and then looked to the ground. "The parasite is here."


"Don't question me!" it roared, and then it narrowed its eyes, attention drawn to the stagnant sewer water. "There is a man who has been absorbing my chakra. The energy of a man named Orochimaru beneath this cage."

The fox looked at Ino, appraising her, before it curled its tails around beneath its chin, and nestled down into its fur. "Ensure my container lives, or I will crush you."

The look in its eyes reassured her of the threat more than its words, and Ino nodded furiously before scanning the floor.

Dipping her hands into the warm water, she hooked her fingers around a loop of metal stuck to the ground. She took a breath, and pulled.

The trapdoor snapped up, and Ino ducked into the water with her breath held, diving into the cavern.

In the way that the mind is, the room was absent of water. It was small, with a nest of snakes at its centre. Or what looked as that, but was one snake, long and coiled in the centre of the room with its head stretched out to something in the corner.


He was curled up, hands covering his face and the snake's fangs buried in his gut. Ino felt discomfort at the sight, but ran to him, grabbing him by the wrist.

"Naruto, come on," she said, offering an urgent smile. "We have to go."

Naruto pulled his hand back, and his efforts to cover his face became even stronger.

"Please, Naruto," she said. "I know-"

"I know you know!"

Ino recoiled, feeling a bitter snap of guilt. He peered at her for a moment through his fingers before locking his palms over them.

"I'm here, but I felt it." He lowered his head into his knees. "You went through everything, didn't you?"

Ino pulled at his shoulder. He toppled to the side slightly, and caught himself at the cost of exposing his face. It didn't help. Ino could see nothing in his expression, and she gritted her teeth.

"I wouldn't have had to if you weren't hiding!" she snapped. "People in Konoha are dying right now and if you don't get the hell out of here and take back control, then more people will die - and this time, it will be your fault!"

"Everyone in Konoha saw what happened. What I became." Naruto wouldn't meet her eyes. "There's no point anymore."

"Point?" she said. "Sakura's out there. She's trying to help you, and if you don't get out, maybe you'll be the one to hurt her. And we have to find Satsuki, too-"

"Do it on your own," he said, pulling his knees to his chest and burying his head between them again. The snake buried in his gut purred. "I don't care any more."

"Stop being a child!" Ino hissed. Her fists shook. "We…" She took a breath. "We became ninja so that we could protect those we love and our village! If you can't do either of those, that's when there's no point! Get up!"

Naruto looked up. Ino stuttered.

"I- Look," she said. "There's... plenty of time to give up when it doesn't matter. But if you give up when it does, then there's no going back. There are people you care about, right? So... now's the time to save them."

Naruto did not meet her eyes, but moved to stand. The snake dug in deeper. He hissed, but Ino leant down to the snake, pulling both sides of its jaw and extracting it. His gut was smooth, and even as Ino slowly let go of the snake, it did not attack, merely coiling back into the centre of the room.

They climbed out of the trapdoor and began to walk. Naruto's steps were lethargic and lagging, and Ino took him by the wrist, dragging him through the thicket-like water. The Kyuubi was quiet at her back, and Ino, reaching the corner of the corridor, turned back.


It did not move.

"Thanks," she said, with a wink. "Couldn't have done it without ya."

She heard some sort of annoyed noise, but turned the corner.

A voice like poison poured through the walls, and they froze.

"What a brave little girl. But what sort of bravery does violating someone's privacy really take?"

Ino put her hand in front of Naruto, gritting her teeth and stepping back through the water. She looked up. The dark ceiling above them leaked with a thick black slime. She shivered.

"After all, deep inside, we're all dying to know what's going on in the heads of others..."

The black slithered down, meeting in the centre of the corridor to congeal into a thick viper. Ino recognised it as the one that had taken Naruto in its jaws, and it recognised her in turn, narrowing its eyes.

"Or even inside of their bodies."

The viper dissolved into the water, before leaning back to reform, rolling over in pleasure. It grinned, and spoke again. "Is that why we're always trying to get inside of each other? Mentally and physically...? Kukuku..."

Ino stood forward. "Who are you?"

The snake buried its head underwater, and began to circle the room, its tail never coming about as it circled it over and over again, burying Ino and Naruto threateningly in its coil.

"I'm Orochimaru," it said. "But Naruto here could have told you that all on his own."

"Then what the hell are you doing here?" Naruto said, clenching his fists. "You think you can go through my head too?!"

The viper seemed to laugh, the rattle of its chest slinking down the coil like a frequency through a glass of water.

"Well, I certainly don't have any business in stopping you right here in your own mind," it said. "Good luck, Naruto."

And then the viper tightened, constricting suddenly and clasping Ino. For a moment, she gaped at Naruto, reaching for his hand, before she was pulled upwards with a shriek into the nothing above.

He stared up into the darkness where she had disappeared to. The ceiling was gone: now, only a ladder.

At the time, he hadn't had the mind to call her name, but he did so now. The sound was limp and fragile, and did not penetrate the darkness as he'd hoped.

"Ino?" he called. His call turned to a cry. "Ino?!"

Satsuki awoke slowly.

"-awake? For god's sake-"

She saw nothing, but smelled mud, and a strange pungent scent. Her stomach ached. Something was digging into it.

"What a pain in the ass."

Satsuki frowned, trying to blink sleep out of her eyes. 'Is that Temari?' The person carrying her stopped, and their shoulder jabbed into Satsuki's stomach. She coughed.

"Will we have to do it while she's awake, then?"

A sigh. "You tell me, Kankuro. We were supposedto have more of the knockout drug, but-"

"I get it, it's my fault! I'll just punch her or something. Knock her out the old fashioned way."

Satsuki tensed, still unable to even see her assailants.

"No," said Temari. "If we accidentally kill her, we'll be in deep shit. She's basically paralysed. She's not gonna get away, so just put her down and we'll get to it."

Kankuro sighed.

"Faster, Kankuro."

"Okay, okay!"

Satsuki tumbled to the ground off of his shoulder, and was left sprawled looking upwards. The sky was unfocused, and she heard Temari and Kankuro talking, but couldn't figure out the words. Satsuki focused on her breathing: she felt close to vomiting.

After a moment, Satsuki tried to pull herself up into a more comfortable position, but found her movements too sluggish to make a difference. She hauled herself up onto one elbow and gazed over to the two.

'What's going on? Have I been drugged…?'

"Okay, so, you hold the scroll," Temari said, walking over with Kankuro in tow. "I'm going to mix these. I'll tell you when to open it. And I'll do the injecting too, since you're such a little bitch about needles."

"You're cold, big sister. You know that?"

Kankuro knelt down, and as Satsuki tried to bring her foot closer in an attempt to at least stand herself up, the two of them placed down their tools and pushed her down by her shoulders. Satsuki's head spun, and she vomited to the side of her.

"See? There we go. You must've given her too much the first time. Now she's sick and we can't even knock her out-"

"Shut up! Do you know what you're doing or not?"

"Yeah," Temari said. She reached for the equipment. Satsuki could make out a small vial, a needle, and a scroll.

Unfurling the paper, Temari poured the vial of liquid onto a seal in its centre, and the paper stirred for a moment before absorbing the solution and excreting a thick-black ooze. She took it up by the needle, and then faced Satsuki.

"Take off her top, Kankuro."


"Just do it, she's got a chest like a boy anyway."

For a moment, Satsuki could see nothing but blue, but then she was hit by the sudden cold and was scarily aware of Temari holding a needle coming much closer to her, and before she could jerk away Temari had driven it into the flesh just beneath her collarbone.

The scent of it hit her before anything else, and her pupils tightened in horror.

"No," she whispered, "You haven't-"

"It's a gift from Orochimaru," Temari said, pushing the final droplets into her body. Her body knew poison when it crawled through her veins, and Satsuki's spine curled into an arc, begging the sky. "Your very own Cursed Seal."

"Temari, she's-!"

"We have to go! Now! Hurry up, Kankuro!"

White thunder split her vision. Satsuki bit straight through her lip, slamming to the ground with every muscle as stiff as a board. She had no power to move her limbs, only a body-curling agony that slammed her head to the ground again and again.

"We've got to get out of here-"

"-Gaara's crazier than usual-"

Two pairs of feet, deeply hazy through shaking vision, began to move, fading away into the mirage of forest.

Satsuki was left alone with her pain, pain like poisonous ash that rushed through her vein, that burned through every tissue it passed, that stole every ounce of her attention and focused it on the cancer beneath her neck. She screamed, and it was a plea like breaking glass.

Naruto stared at the ladder, putting his hand on the first rung. The coldness made him pull away, and he looked up into the darkness once more, but found nothing. Hesitating, Naruto clasped the next rung and pulled himself upwards.

Clang. Clang.

Every step took just as much effort as the last, and yet the darkness did not waver. Naruto climbed higher, and higher-

Clang. Cl-Clang. Cl-Clang.

Naruto's hands froze on the rungs, and he found the air going into his lungs icy cold.

He knew there was something behind him. Something that wasn't an echo that hung on the end of his steps.

Naruto went faster. It separated itself from his pace, but then merged again, speeding up, and Naruto felt a fear possess himself heart-first and he began to claw his way up, desperate to escape his shadow and run.

The rungs never seemed to end, but then they did, and he clambered up and kicked the ladder.

It fell forward, into the great pit, slowly, quietly, before ending with a noise much softer than metal.

Naruto stepped back from the edge, trembling, and yelled into the nothing.

"Orochimaru," he said, "I- I know you're here! You're... You're a fucking coward, do you know that?!"

Laughter. "You simply do not understand. I am merely doing what is best for you. Keeping all these things locked up inside will just leave you…" Another chuckle. "All tied up."

Naruto clenched his fists, feeling his heart beating as he stared at the pit below. "I'll decide that, you shitbag! Where the hell is Ino?!"

And then everything was gone. Naruto frowned, blinking at his surroundings.

The tap in front of him was running water into a full basin. It was lapping over the edges and onto his feet in waves; it felt soft and natural. He didn't move to turn it off.

It was his bathroom, but it felt deeply out of focus. Naruto tried to see himself in the mirror. It was fogged up, and he tried to wipe it with his palm, but he misjudged the distance between himself and his reflection and the coldness of the glass was sooner than expected. He wiped left, and then right, and was met with his face.

He bared his teeth, looking at them. His canines were large. Larger than usual. His hand met with his tooth and his enamel felt bursting at the seams, a strange and distant sensation.

The moment of static silence was broken by the crack of his teeth as they caved beneath their own growth.

Naruto shrieked, clawing at them and feeling the stretching crevices in the dentin. The crumbling of the bottom set followed, caving under the pressure. Two teeth fell.

He was mesmerised by their descent, and when they bounced from the ground, they were dice.

The pain in his mouth became a limp and distant thing. He stared at the dots that rolled and tilted on their edges and corners, before they clattered to a stop.

"Snake eyes?"

They were snake eyes, yellow and putrid, and then they blinked. The darkness of his bathroom floor in the twilight swathed the eyes, and then they belonged to a thick black viper, which stared at him for a long moment.

It moved slowly, the turn of its spine slow, black and thick like tar. It disappeared into a nothing at the edge of his sight.

His mouth felt deformed, teeth haphazardly pierced through his lip. The sink quivered; it was filled with blood that was slipping down the drain. He could hear it like a parched man glugging water, and Naruto could see the figure of something at the bottom of the basin; something he'd see if he waited a moment longer.

'This is Orochimaru,' and the thought came rushing to him in an instant. 'Orochimaru's trying to stop me from getting out. I can't let him confuse me, I can't let him-'

Naruto stepped back, tearing his gaze from whatever it was that was clinging to the bottom of the sink, and he grimaced, holding his teeth as though he could push them back into his mouth. Saliva dribbled from his lips.


He blinked.


He turned. She was sitting on the floor. It was a public bathroom, a stall swathed in dingy neon light, and there was water everywhere, a film of it coating the floor: it was saturated with soggy white pieces of paper, covered in text he couldn't read.

She was cross-legged on the floor, waving.

"Come over here!" she said. Naruto walked with caution, but felt her warm aura calling him all the same. She pulled him down to sit by her, and the world felt so far away.

Naruto wanted to smile back, but he felt for the ground. "These pieces of paper... what are they?"

Sakura's pleasant expression faded a little bit, and she bit her lip. "They're all to Satsuki," she said. "Letters. Is that your handwriting?"

Naruto tried to pick one up, but the material was so weak it split apart in his fingers. It slipped down his arm and reformed in the water.

"Why were you writing letters to her?"

Naruto frowned. "Why?"

She nodded, leaning towards him in an odd way. "Why are there so many?" Sakura blinked, and she was very close to him now. Her eyes were large from this angle.

"I wrote a lot."

"None of these say anything about me, Naruto," she pouted, but the image was grotesque. Her closeness was melding her face into a fish-eye distortion, and her eyes were far apart. "You don't talk about me?"

Naruto felt an odd guilt and anger. "But I was writing to Satsuki."

"But why were you writing to her?" she pressed. "You wanted to say something to her? There's something you can't tell her?"

Naruto froze.

"Are you even who you say you are?" she asked, and Naruto tried to jerk away, tearing to his feet but Sakura grabbed his hand and was weeping in a strange heartless way, tears falling too fast like oil.

Naruto tried to pull his arm from her grip, but the tug he gave was pathetic, and didn't shift Sakura's intense look.

"Let go of me."

"You're leaving?" she said, and her grip twisted into his sleeve. Her eyebrows knotted and her tone became doused in a deep disgust. "Why do you leave? Is it because you're frightened of me?"

He was kneeling next to her again, and his eyes were fixated on his right hand. She twisted her hand around his, clutching tightly.

"Do I make you feel guilty, Naruto?"

His fingernails, usually short, were lengthening. It didn't feel smooth, but more like an insect emerging from a stone sac.

"Is it that I make you feel anything at all? Is that it, Naruto? Do you like to pretend that you don't feel anything? Or that you feel something different?"

The nails, long, sharp and weird, began to curl around Sakura's protective grip. They were coming closer and closer to the thin flesh at the back of her hands, and Naruto felt an agency to move, but could not find it, or it could not reach his hands. He only watched, and Sakura only stared at him, directly into his eyes, and did not see.

Sakura did not move, even as the nails pressed at her skin. It was a gentle pressure, and then stronger, marking her skin. But it was only when it broke through her skin that Sakura looked down, wincing.

"Naruto, your nails," she said.

They didn't stop, and Naruto could not move, only watching and listening and feeling as they pushed through the dough of her flesh and tapped a bone. It was sudden and only as Sakura's attention became more focused that the nails pushed through with a burst of energy; they jutted from her palms like a bloody ribcage.

Sakura screamed.

The noise was unbearable.

In that blur of a moment, Naruto had pushed her onto her back, her jaw wide and screaming yet still, and her mouth was stuffed quiet with those letters. One hand still wrapped in a piercing embrace with hers, Naruto stared, and tried to reconcile the past moment in his memory. It was vacant.

Sakura looked at him slowly, and wheezed. Blood spattered past a fluttering note in her windpipe, the sound like paperwork scattering off a desk, and then she was silent. Dead.

The bliss of quiet was broken by the pattering of tiny steps.

Streams of words were scrawling out of her mouth, black lines of his familiar scrawl scurrying across her flesh like little ants, and they hurried down Sakura's arms. 'Satsuki, I'm sorry' met with his palm in a swarm of biting insects, and Naruto hissed, and then as each apology and explanation wormed its way onto his skin the pain became miserably consistent, he screamed.

As the words made it into his eyes and clogged up his irises, he was elsewhere.

The pain was gone, and he sighed for relief in the void. A familiar darkness surrounded him, but then that turned out to be a door that swung open before his eyes.

Satsuki let her typical dead gaze meet his, before she turned away.

He stepped through the frame, feeling some guilt at his complete relief at being away from Sakura. Satsuki was quiet, lithe and ghostlike, in a white dressing gown that his eyes couldn't track the end of. The teacup he'd shattered so long ago was in pieces on her floor.

Her apartment flickered with warm and inconsistent light. Naruto followed its source and found that plant he had nurtured a long time ago, burning, and placed in the middle of the floor.

Satsuki knelt beside it, as though it were a dying loved one, and brought her hand to touch it lovingly. He saw her fingernails burning, charring, curling.

He moved faster this time, and was with her in an instant, pulling her hands away. But the movement was too long for his intention, as though Naruto had left on a recording by accident, and he was slamming her hands above her head on the ground, the noise creating a disconcerting cracking sound.

Satsuki looked at him, and he was paused, eyes locked onto hers, and she smiled as though remembering something anew.

He sat back, putting a hand beneath her head, looking into her eyes desperately.

"What?" he said. "What is it?"

Satsuki's voice was soft.

"My eyes look so empty… and your eyes look so full of light. And yet… the reality of it is so different."

She lifted her hand to touch him, and the fingertip crumbled, clattering away into the hollow. He stared.

"In the end, we don't feel the same way," she said, wistful. "Not one bit."

Satsuki shattered in his arms.

For a moment, Naruto stared at them, the fragments that were still rocking from the force of their expulsion, the pieces that were slipping through his arms, but then he looked to his right and saw one that had come close to that teacup. The pattern matched, and Naruto jerked away.

He stared for a long moment, before he sat up, careful to separate the teacup he'd shattered from the shards of teacup that had been Satsuki only moments ago. He collected them, the shards from the feet first and the shards from the head last, and scooped them up into his arms like picked fruit.

The plant, ashes and embers now, had died. He left.

The twilight outside, when he opened the door, had become an absolute night.

As he walked, the town formed around him like a halo. The cobblestone beneath him was uncertain and inconsistent, but he didn't question it. His arms felt heavy and full.

"I have to bury this," he said, and the thought was strange and out loud. This thing in his arms, Satsuki - he had to bury it, with respect, with dignity, he had to.

He was at the graveyard in moments, maybe days. The fences were swarmed with dandelions, pushed through the bars, seeds pouring from their centres onto the ground. He pushed the gates apart and walked.

The empty grave was before him shortly. There were two to his left, but he couldn't move his eyes from that empty hole of soil. He stepped forward, and opened his arms.

The shards clattered to the bottom, and with his feet scraping through the dirt, Naruto turned away.


He froze.

"Are you going?"

Satsuki's voice was more genuine than he'd ever heard it before. He turned; her expression was the same, bar her left eye. Its absence was marked by a jagged-looking hole that left only shadows to show her vacuity.

His hand twitched, and stung, and then he looked. There it was: Satsuki's eye was in his hand, still spinning, all two-dimensional and entrenched in the porcelain flesh. He looked down at her again.

"Help me," she said. Her voice cracked; her fingers twitched as they reached out for him. "Please help me out."

Naruto stepped back, and turned to run: when the rain came, and he stopped in his tracks.

He heard the noise of filling porcelain, like a filling sink, or pouring tea. It was followed by a cough, and then silence; after stilling for a moment, Naruto looked to Satsuki.

Her body was soft, as ghostlike as before, but submerged and in gentle stasis. Her mouth was open, and for a moment Naruto thought she would dissolve into the thrumming rainwater, leaving only her hair and her eyes.

When the water sucked at his ankles, Naruto ran.

Naruto's running turned into swimming, clawing for the surface in his final efforts. He did not break the surface, and lost his breath, but felt no worse for wear, staring upwards.

The sky above the water was seared orange and the blue of evening.

Satsuki was there, younger, sat on the pier, the soles of her shoes close to his face. Touching the surface of the water, Naruto clawed his way beside her, sat on the planks of wood beside her.

She skipped a stone.

"Some things in life are given when we deserve them," Satsuki said.

"Like what?"

She frowned. "Like anything you work hard for." She skipped another stone. It bounced three times, and then sank. "But some things in life are given when you think you deserve them."

Naruto shrugged. His body felt so much smaller. He felt larger. "Isn't that easier?"

She gritted her teeth.

"Not for us," she said, and she grabbed his hand and plunged into the water. Naruto hit the water a millisecond afterwards.

As they passed through the surface they were older, themselves once again, and then Satsuki smirked at him, holding his hand still.

"Can't you breathe?" she said. "I can."

Naruto brought his hand to her hair at the back of her head, a lover's hold, burying his fingers in five different strands. In the quiet of submergence, there was a power that sucked all the water from around him. He saw it in her scalp first: chunks peeling away with the hair, and then it pressed through her head, her eyes bulging and pushing back and forth with the pressure. Her skin, bone and brain came away and was thrust out into the water, but her expression remained the same as the Rasengan pulled her tresses into its centre and knotted them into his palm.

The power faded, and then he was left with nothing but that knot and the parts of her disconnected floating in stasis around him. Her hand came up to hold his cheek.

Naruto trembled at her touch. Her eyes were staring straight into his, deep into his head, and her smile was so unimposing he felt his heart would break.

"Are you real?"

Her look softened.

"If I was real," she said, "there would be no way I could love you, Naruto."

He was stood nowhere again, with a key in his hand, already turned in a door. He looked, and wondered, before he bit his lip.

He turned it an inch more, and the door opened.

Team 7. Mizuki. Hinata, everyone, all there. It was ordinary, it was unusual, but it was there.

His hand was still on the door.

"I have to go make sure everyone's alright," he said after a moment, feeling like his mouth wasn't even his. "I need to get out."

Kakashi raised an eyebrow at him, and Sakura waved him off. "Oh, stop talking rubbish, Naruto. Come on. We have a mission today."

The two of them turned towards the path expectantly, but Satsuki did not, staring straight at him and blinking. She opened her mouth once, closed it, but then spoke.

"Don't be an idiot, Naruto," she said. "You're always ignoring your responsibilities."

The line, quiet, lonely, brought a strange feeling to him. An odd feeling, like truth, as small and empty as it may have been had seeped through into a tale of lies. It was not warm enough for a smile, but gentle enough for hope.

Naruto stepped into the darkness, and reached that snake. The snake eyes stared at him. Blinked.

"You won't stop here, then?" it hissed. "Even when peace is handed to you, you simply won't have it?"

For a moment, he waited, looking at the viper, before he snapped its neck and wrapped it around a bar. He kicked the chair, and hung himself.

Naruto awoke. He could hear laughter and sobs, layered over each other.

Holding his breath, he tried to move slightly, but found his legs obstructed by sand. After the numbness of unconsciousness wore away, he felt distinctly the pressure that was on the verge of cracking his bones.

"Kukuku… trying to draw chakra after so coldly subduing me, Naruto?"

"Listen, asshole," Naruto said, "I know there's a reason you're lending me your power. Even Ichiraku keep me on a tab! So this is what you want, right? There's no way someone like you is giving me power if there ain't no benefits for you. This is better for the both of us, and I'll be dead either way if you don't give me it now."

He heard Orochimaru's laugh, and felt bones curling from his sides, marrow ripping from his tailbone. The tree behind him began to splinter.

"You're bold, Naruto. I like that. But it'll get you in the end."

Sakura did not have to look at Naruto's face to know he'd awoken. She felt it like the electricity before oncoming rain.

So did Gaara, who turned slowly like a stone gear to look at him. "You're awake."

She could hear the ripping and tearing of wood behind Naruto, and he scowled.

"Awake's one word for it," Naruto spat, pulling his foot up to put it sole first on the remains of trunk behind him. He pulled back his mass like a bow, pushed chakra into his muscles, and twanged forward through the sand, foliage, and straight onto Gaara.

The force of the hit sent them both through a tree trunk and into the ground like a meteorite. The earth shook; a displaced leaf fell from the canopy onto Sakura, her back against the mangled bark. Her leg throbbed.

"I won't let you get away this time, Gaara!"

Naruto's cry was marked by Gaara's impact with a tree a few paces away from Sakura. She only saw the aftermath of the impact, with Gaara lodged into the wood, and then Naruto was there, pinning Gaara's tail to the branch with one foot and lifting him by his hair to face him.

Sakura could not see Naruto's face.

"This character," he said, lifting a hand to the corner of Gaara's forehead. "It says love."

The only sound in the clearing was Gaara's heavy and pained breaths.

'Is this because of the disorienting poison?' Sakura thought. 'Or… is Naruto that strong with this power? Strong enough to restrain someone I couldn't stop, even with all my training - with my very best efforts…?'

"Love," Naruto repeated, as though reading it for the first time. "Like someone like you could even…"

Sakura heard the scowl in his voice. He lifted Gaara higher, casting shadow over himself. "Like someone like you would know anything about love!"

He threw Gaara down faster than Sakura could track, his body slamming straight through the branches below and hitting the ground flat. Naruto was there to see his body crack the ground. He was shaking.

"You're disgusting," he said. "Killing people for fun."

Gaara lifted his head from the soil, his nose running with blood that smeared across his lips and sank into the gaps between his teeth. "Uzumaki Naruto," he said. "We are the same. Don't deny it."

"The same?" Naruto whispered, and then he laughed, scooping down to pull Gaara up by the collar. "You killed Hinata! How-"

"What is this?" Gaara said, chuckling. His chuckles were rising into laughter, and he spoke through it. "What do you call this?!"

Naruto froze.

"We're both just trying to tame our own demons," Gaara whispered, looking down at Naruto from above the fist that clasped him by the collar. "Just trying to earn some quiet inside of our big bloodthirsty heads! Does it matter how?! We want it to stop! We need it to stop!"

He was silent, and his gaze was intense, locked with Naruto's.

"Even if that means killing you," he said. "Even if that means killing that girl. For you… even if that means killing me."

"Who are you…" Naruto gritted his teeth. "To compare me to the things you've done? To compare yourself to Hinata, who was-!"

Gaara retaliated, his tail swinging too fast for Naruto to react. It cracked into his side painfully, the impact bending Naruto's spine before it sent him bouncing through the canopy like a pebble across water.

"You're trying to reject what we are!" Gaara roared. "You're trying to reject where we came from, the truth of our existences! That we need validating, or we may as well be dead! It doesn't matter how we do it!"

Gaara was there before Naruto could lift himself from the tangle of his own limbs, lifting him up with his human arm. "That's the reality," he hissed, his breath catching, "for demons like us!"

The other fist hit him hard in the ribs. The second hit Naruto blocked, his scorpion tail latching onto Gaara. The stinger at the end writhed and spurted blood onto Gaara's face.

The moment it gave Naruto was all he needed. He grabbed onto the human arm clasping him in the air, pulling it off and pushing Gaara to the ground. Gaara's tail pushed upwards on Naruto's torso, but the scorpion tail tightened around his neck. Gaara clasped Naruto's windpipe with his human hand.

"You have- nothing to say," Gaara choked out. His satisfied smile was marred by the blood trickling down his face.

"I don't need to say anything," Naruto said. "There's no way I'm like you."

"No way?" Gaara whispered, and his clumsy, larger hand of sand reached into Naruto's kunai pouch. He plowed the blade into Naruto's side, and Naruto shrieked.

Gaara pulled the blade through the flesh before he yanked it out, and Naruto released a hand holding Gaara to try and cover the wound, the blood seeping past his fingers and dripping onto him.

Gaara grinned, and shoved the blade into his own flesh, wincing, taking a moment before he twisted it through his own flesh the same.

Gaara's grip released, as did Naruto's, and they both fell back, the pain rattling them.

"Look," Gaara said, smiling. "It's just as I'd hoped."

Naruto looked at Gaara's wound, and then lifted his hand from his own.

Flesh, on them both, almost identically began to weave itself back together, fresh tissue overproducing and bubbling its way to the surface of the cut. Gaara's was marked by the sand that filled the cracks; Naruto's hummed with a red-purple glow.

Naruto gritted his teeth, pulling himself to his feet.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "I'm going to end this."

Gaara laughed. It was almost carefree. "Yes," he said. "It's over."

Naruto, tired, brought a hand up to form a seal. A clone appeared beside him.

For all her coldness, Sakura froze.

'What's wrong with me?' she thought. 'What's wrong with… this?'

She heard the hum of the Rasengan.

'Even though this is a victory, through and through…'

"I won, Uzumaki Naruto," Gaara said. "But even though you know the truth, it's just too painful to admit." He closed his eyes, as though imagining the ground beneath him as something else. "I think I can understand… a reality like that."

'All I can feel is…'

Naruto stared at him for a moment, the Rasengan fluctuating in his palm, before he leant down. Yanking him up by his shirt and pulling him so close their breaths mingled into one, Naruto's tone sounded like utter loathing, so strong the words he managed felt like a mere echo.

"Just shut up and die."

Sakura closed her eyes.

'...a deep, unmoving despair.'


Naruto strained his hands, the Rasengan pulling in and shredding the material of Gaara's shirt. It was centimetres from the flesh. He wondered whether the moment had been suspended, time had stopped, all for this moment - the most important moment.

But then Naruto looked at the hand on his wrist, thin, graceful, and shaking with the strain.

"Stop," Satsuki said. "Naruto."

Her grip on his wrist tightened, and she lashed him backwards, throwing him onto the floor. The Rasengan fizzled into a breeze.

Naruto stared at her, the scorpion tail behind him quivering. "Satsuki," he said. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Stopping you." Satsuki looked at Gaara, and looked at Naruto. She tried to smile. "This isn't what you want."

"This isn't what I want?" he said, eyebrows raised. And then he laughed. The noise was unhappy in its very essence. "How the fuck would you know what I want?!"

"This isn't right, Naruto," she said. "Revenge is a dark colour."

"Isn't right?" he said. His eyebrows raised, and he laughed the laugh of a man beneath the executioner. "And your revenge is, somehow? Even when we're doing the same horrible things, you're still better than me? Is that it?"

"No," she whispered. "But this will ruin you."

"Then I'll be ruined," he snarled. "I… I'm already ruined!"

Satsuki's desperation sent a wave of dizzying pain through her from her collarbone. The seal pulsed, Orochimaru's poisonous tone slithering through her skull. She hissed.

Naruto drew a kunai from his pouch. He pushed it into the ground, clambering to his feet and pulling the blade from the soil. Satsuki stood before Gaara, who was motionless, silent.

"Satsuki," he said, "Get out of my way."

She didn't say anything.

"Are you deaf?"

"I won't let you do this."

"It's not your choice," he hissed. "This is my life."

"Is it?" Satsuki said, trying to maintain eye contact with Naruto. "If you kill him, who's to say that whatever's inside of him doesn't come out? Who's to say it doesn't take over him completely, and destroy the village? We're gambling more than our own lives on this guess, on this needless-"

"Needless murder?" Naruto said, and his eyes darkened beneath the crease of his brow. "Like you, or Gaara, or- or any ninja can talk about needless murder! Gaara will kill more people if we let him go today-!"

Satsuki felt coldness run through her, at Naruto's stuttering, at his gaze which flickered to Gaara more than it did to her. "And that's why you're doing this?"

Orochimaru's chakra ruptured through her once more, and she fell to her knee, heaving for breath. Naruto brought his hands to form a seal, and the clone beside him began to run his fingers over the air cupped in Naruto's palm.

"Don't," she said again. The seal sent another wave of chakra rumbling through her veins, and she reached for the seal, letting out a cry. She toppled and hit the soil softly; the shriek of the Rasengan began to ring in her ears.

"Naruto, please."

Opening her eyes, she saw Naruto, walking towards her.

'Why?' Satsuki's nails dug into the ground. 'Am I not good enough?'

His footsteps drawing closer, her eyes set on his, desperately trying to catch his gaze.

'Am I not trying hard enough?'

His eyes were seeing through her, never locking with hers, focused on something beyond her: as though she were made of dazzling, transparent glass. A window to something greater.

She felt angry tears spill from her eyes.

'Why won't you just look at me?!'

She reached out, her shaking grip tight on his ankle. He looked at her for one second: but that was all she needed.

"I won't let you do this to yourself!"

The Sharingan flared up, and Naruto fell down.

Chapter Text


Satsuki awoke to silence.

She could feel her body twisted in the sheets, the tough mattress, a segment of sunlight warming her foot. It was a moment of peace, until she remembered.

The events of yesterday hit her. Her fingers knotted the blankets in a curling dread.

She smelled bleach and sterility, and heard, beyond her own breath, the breathing of someone else. There was movement. It startled her, and she opened her eyes.

The light focused, and she saw a ceiling, clean and familiar, but a scene not so. There were only two beds in the room, and between them, an end table with a vase of fresh lilac bellflowers. The hospital again, with its abundance of white, reciprocated in her and Naruto's clothing.

He sat a couple paces from her, on the edge of his bed; red bandages peered from beneath his shirt. The sun behind him burnt his silhouette into her eyes, and blinded her into a squint.

He was staring at her with expectation, as though he'd spoken. His expression changed in some way before he turned back to the window.

Satsuki sat up, rubbing at her eyes with her wrist. The glare of daylight poured over Naruto, over her, and spilled across the floor.

"Do you remember?"

The sunlight seemed impossible to look past, but she tried to see Naruto in its glare, her eyes watering. The IV at the bedside refracted the daylight onto her lap.

"Or have you forgotten already?"

It didn't take her long to look away, blinking away strange sunburnt tears. Satsuki shook her head slowly; the room, a mix of off-whites and waning evening sunlight, scattered light like shooting stars across her vision. "No, I remember."

"Then, what?" Satsuki didn't need to see his face to know he was sneering. "You got nothing to say?"

She clasped the sheets.

"Naruto, what I did," Satsuki faltered, and tucked her hair behind her ear. "What I had to do-"

"You had to do that? You just had to do what you did?" Naruto stood up, and turned to her. She flinched. "Even though it has nothing to do with you, and you're just doing it so you can feel good-"

"That's not it," Satsuki snapped. She caught herself, and pulled back the covers, bringing her legs to the side of the bed. "If… And if you think your life is the only one at stake here, then-"

"Stop it."

Naruto's right fist shook at his side. He gritted his teeth. "Stop talking like you're me. Stop thinking you have- that, you have any kind of last say on my life." He stepped towards the window, putting both hands on the windowsill. "I can't… I can't believe you did that, Satsuki."

Satsuki opened her mouth, and then closed it. Her words came out gentler than she expected, more uncertain. "If you kill Gaara, you won't ever be happy." Her lip trembled, and she breathed in deeply through her nose. "I did it because… that's... "

Naruto snorted, tilting back his head and turning from the window to look at her intently. His focus was piercing. "But you're still going after your revenge? That's okay?"

"Because how can I turn back now?" Satsuki said, holding onto the edge of the bed and trying to come closer. She spoke louder. "But you don't have to do this."

"You think you know me, Satsuki," Naruto said, her name a mix of hisses and spit. His back, outlined by the sky and sun, was bitter and angry in its shade. "But you just don't. You think you know what I want, and you don't!"

She hesitated. Her eyes focused in the light at last, and she saw his face; but wished she hadn't. It was knotted by a strange, alien despair.

"You're acting like you know everything about me, and it's pissing me off." Naruto's eyes locked onto hers before she'd noticed, and the look was so cold, so nothing, that she was voiceless. "There's no way you understand me at all. Not if you think what you did was the right thing to do, that I'd be happier that way. I'm not gonna be be some half-assed avenger like you- I will kill Gaara. And nothing will stop me. Especially not you."

"Half-assed avenger?"

She put her feet to the cold floor and grounded herself with the bedrail, her grip on it straining the metal into a loud and promising creak. Her knuckles whitened, and as she stood, Satsuki marked Naruto with her index finger and scowled down its length.

"What would you know about revenge, Naruto? About what it does to you?" Her anger only stewed in that silence, burning in her, and she moved closer, grinding her teeth with her voice rising. "Do you know what it's been like? All these years? Like drowning in blood, that floods your nose, your mouth, your ears and eyes and under your fingernails-"

She stopped, taking a breath, and spoke in a low shadowy tone of her voice. "I know what it means to want revenge, to want blood so bad you'd gasp it into your lungs, to do this to yourself. And, that's why-"

Her finger, once sure, was shaking, lowering, and her gaze flickered away. "That's why I can't let you do this."

There was a moment as Naruto's lips tracked her words, repeating them silently, until he reached the end of them and an anger ignited in his eyes. "You don't get it." He grabbed great tufts of his hair and seemed to rack his head in a spur of anger, his eyes wide and his teeth bared. "You don't get it at all!"

His hands pulled from his hair and floundered in the air for a moment, before he seized the vase on the beside table and smashed it into the floor at Satsuki's feet. She stumbled back a step, water seeping between her toes.

"Like that's enough!" Naruto shouted, throwing down his hands as if he would smash another vase if he only he could find one. The shards of the shattered vase between them clinked and gleamed the crimson red of sunset. "Like you can even begin to understand-"

"Look at me, Naruto."

He stared. She pointed a finger to her eyes, which shone the red of Sharingan, and spoke before his fury could speak for him.

"These are the eyes of my clan that dye the world in their colour," she said. "I have a face like my mother, hair like my father. And every day that I walk through this town I remember from my childhood - every moment I live in this body…"

She stepped forward. "I'm reminded that it's not mine," she said fiercely, clenching her fists. "I'm reminded that I see through the eyes of my heritage, that I breathe from their lungs! I owe them the debt of my life, and I'm drowning in the history they left behind! Do you understand that?!

"I didn't want this path," she said. "It's the only one I've got left. And you'd choose a fate like this?"

Satsuki's face felt dry, and she sat down slowly, the springs creaking.

"If it means drowning to do the right thing, then I'll drown," Naruto said. He sat on the bed, facing Satsuki, before he pulled his limbs to his chest like a yellow gazania curling shut in the shade. "If there's no surface for someone who wants justice, then I'll drown in this revenge. I'll take that burden on my shoulders and sink to the bottom of the ocean. That's what it means to be someone who sticks to my word. Who- takes responsibility for what they do."

"But why?" Satsuki said. "If you can sever these ties to your history, then-"

"What if I don't want to?"

The hospital room was quiet, and the distance between them, Satsuki felt, stretched beyond feet, and into miles, into light and hertz, into themselves - like even if they were one, maybe they still wouldn't understand one another. She stared at the tiles through the gaps in her fingers, but couldn't rise from her hands.

"I never asked for you to make these decisions on my life," he said. He got up from the bed. "I don't want your smug little power-play over my life and my decisions. This more than just a game to me. This is everything - this is my life, my future-"

"Your future has never been a game to me, Naruto."

His voice moved with the twist of his lip.

"Really? You treat it like one," he said. "Ha. You interfere when you wanna, care when you wanna, but when my happiness interferes with yours you have no problem disregarding me so you can stand by your- your so-called moral code!"

Satsuki let the silence sit for a moment. And then she looked up.

The sunlight that had blinded Naruto from her eyes just minutes before was gone, set behind Konoha's jigsaw skyline. She was very conscious of those gaps, of the sky, of the emptiness. She saw his eyes, herself in them.

"Don't you understand?" she said. Her voice cracked, and he turned away.

Naruto paused, and then said, "I can't."

He stopped again.

"I don't want to," he said, this time with conviction. He stood.

Conviction that, Satsuki found, faded into nothing but his fumbling hands as they picked up his clothes. She turned away from him and knelt to the floor, where the lilac bellflowers, soft, small, and singing some sort of silent gossip to one another, lay.

Her throat was tight as she cleared the glass. She picked them up with her right and held them in her left. Outside of her peripheral vision, she saw Naruto, gathering up his clothes. The silence between them was marked by the soft sound of touching material, and the ghost-like clinking of glass.

"Y'know, the Hokage's dead, too."

The glass slipped out of Satsuki's hand onto the floor once again. The refracting beams scattered from them wavered with their bounce, and the room seemed to spin with the swaying light.

"Would you believe that?" He laughed. It was a laugh of disbelief.

Looking up, Naruto's hand was on the doorknob, his back small and dwarfed by the clothes spilling out of his arms. His voice was bright, wavering, as though he'd sucked back a sob and put out a great big lonely smile that she couldn't even see.

"His death, Hinata's death… all of it." Naruto didn't move. "There's someone responsible. I know that, and I need to make sure that- that they know it too. I'll make sure of it. I promise.

"And I'm sure you know what I'm going to say next." Satsuki heard the rattle of the lock, the creak of the hinge, the scuffle of footsteps. "Uzumaki Naruto never goes back on his word."

The door slammed.

Satsuki's legs slid out from beneath her until she was lying on the cold hospital laminate, bellflowers to her right and glass to her left. She tried to swallow past the lump in her throat. The shattered glass in her vision melted into nothing but shine; she heard his footsteps fade into the chatter of nurses, into the beep of machines, into the day.

With nothing but broken aesthetic, her tears felt worthless.


This time, Sakura waited for the door to open, and it wasn't Naruto's green and faded one, but rather Satsuki's door. She heard the clinking of dishes, some scuffling, and the door opened.

Even Satsuki, so different from Naruto, brought up a familiar feeling. She wasn't sick nor ragged looking, but her eyes were ringed with red, her hair scattered across her face, and her eyes unable to meet Sakura's. The apartment behind her was dark.

Sakura didn't speak for a moment. "I was just coming to ask… to see…"

Satsuki rubbed her wrist against her eyes. Her arm fell limp against her side afterwards.

"What is it?"

"Ino," Sakura said, struggling. Her throat clicked, as though she'd spoken with nothing to say. "She's in a coma."

"Ino?" Satsuki put a hand onto the door frame.

"It's not the sort of coma, that…" Sakura trailed off. "Kakashi-sensei told me that it was because of the possession technique. That she didn't return properly…"

Satsuki stepped back, and then tilted her head upwards, hair falling back and looking as though she was searching for something. She closed her eyes and let her head fall forward, leaning on the doorframe.

"I was just hoping you could come with me. I think Ino's dad is there, but-" Sakura stopped. She spoke again, quieter. "I just wanted you to come, too."

Satsuki felt a humidity in the air of the hospital, and reached a room like all the others with some apprehension.

Inside was Ino, in the bed, immersed in some sort of deep sleep, hair spread blonde and beautiful on the pillow.

A blonde man who Satsuki could only assume to be her father was sat with his hand pressed to her forehead, immersed so deeply their entry was unheard. Sakura didn't walk forward, but stood close to the door.

"He's been here all day," she said. "All night, probably."

"Trying to get her out?"

Sakura nodded. Birds sang outside.

"It's funny," she said in a morbid manner. "The village needs every single one of their ninja today, and yet here he is with his daughter, who could easily be left until later."

Satsuki didn't say anything, watching closely the rise and fall of Ino's chest, the dim glow of chakra from Inoichi's hand to her forehead that illuminated the knots of stress in his brow and the glimmer of sweat on his skin.

Sakura laughed. "I guess there's something to be said for the bond between a father and a daughter. Even if it's at the cost of others… hardly a good thing."

She stared. Ino was still, and her lip seemed to tremble a moment.

"But that's love," Sakura said, blinking. "Hardly a good thing."

Satsuki took a long moment, but nodded. The whir of chakra, muffled footsteps and the shaded sound of day were not enough to fill the silence.

As days passed, Sakura's knocks on the door, always unanswered, became infrequent, but one day, her knocks paused, and she tried the door. Satsuki heard it open behind her, but didn't turn, her eyes focused on the stitching in front of her.

"Satsuki-san, I was just coming to tell you that Naruto's going away with Jiraiya-sama for a while. Sorry to intrude like that..."

Sakura stopped, sighing.

"I… I know you're arguing, or… something, but… do you want to see him off?"

Satsuki's fingers quivered, golden thread half-pulled through the black material, the taut thread was crinkling the cloth-

"No." The thread slipped out of the eye of the needle. She gritted her teeth. "It's fine."


"I said it's fine, Sakura."

A silence passed. Satsuki imagined Sakura to nod, and she heard her door click shut, the sound of the wind disappearing, footsteps fading away, the chaos averted for now.

'It's not like he wants to see me.' Satsuki pulled the thread up, trying to focus her eyes on the needle to push the thread through. She pulled it through a short length before digging the point into the black cloth. 'He doesn't need my approval.'

Her fingers shook, but the needle pulled through all the same.



The noise was so loud and rapid that the needle pulling through the fabric slipped into her finger, a jolt of pain fumbling through her. The door frame rattled with another bang, and a flake of the paintwork fell to the floor.

Sucking the blood from her finger, Satsuki stood up, leaving a threaded needle half stuck in her work.


"Give me a second," Satsuki said. She struggled to lose her temper with Sakura, but that incessant knocking-

"It's Naruto!" Sakura said, and then the door swung open to her face, heaving, brow speckled with sweat.

"Naruto?" she said. "I thought he left."

"Yeah, he did, but," Sakura breathed in again, "I heard something about some guy in this town looking for Naruto. Ino's dad was saying about it-"

And then Sakura leaned forward, stepping into her house with her muddy shoes and holding Satsuki by the forearm with an odd sort of urgency. Her heart sank.

"But it's not just that, Satsuki-san," she said, "I mean, yeah, Naruto's out of town and this guy and stuff, but-"

"Get to the point."

"This guy," she said. "He's called Uchiha Itachi."

If Satsuki could describe weight, heartbreak and fright all in one, it could easily be "Itachi", even easier "Uchiha Itachi". So she stumbled backwards, the laminate suddenly very slippery, and her feet and arms and head felt wobbly and insecure in their places. Her heart trembled and banged all at once. Her breath refused her, or she refused it. So it came out in a whisper:

"U-Uchiha-" cough "Itachi?"

"Satsuki-san, do you know him? I always thought you lived alone-"

Satsuki, in her plain clothes, hair half-up, barefoot, felt her lip quiver and her heart shake. Clasping her hands to her chest, she felt stuck in her place. Sakura looked uncertain, and took another step into her apartment. She left a big muddy footprint on the doorstep.

In a fury that eclipsed all else, Satsuki felt her cheeks flush red, her hands burying themselves tightly into her hair. "I don't have time for this!" Looking around, she yanked her shoes from the rack and pulled them onto her feet, cycling through the entire town of Konoha in her head, and then through every neighbouring town, every heartbeat bringing pause to a brief still of Naruto's dead and cold body.

"Where was he going? Do you know?"

Sakura looked uncertain. "He? That man, or Naruto?"

"Both! Either," Satsuki said, and her lips didn't feel in line with her thoughts. "Just- Just where? Where was he going?"

"I don't know about that man," Sakura said with uncertainty, "But Ino's dad said Naruto was with Jiraiya-sama, in Tanzaku Gai..."

Satsuki felt her heart swing to a conclusion, like a spinner, onto Tanzaku Gai, her mind fumbling around a mental map.

Her heart stilling, and her mind, in many places, all morbid, converged into a single point.

Satsuki pulled on Sakura's shoulder, muttered thanks, before using the motion as a springboard and launching herself out onto the streets.

The sun reflected glaringly from everything in her path. It felt a million miles away; all Satsuki saw on the streets of Konoha was red, and she felt as though tears should have fallen. But she was empty of anything, anything but the fear and anxiety that were slowly melting away to leave her only with one single thought:

'I'll never let him get his hands on you, Naruto. I won't let him take you away from me!'

Satsuki's arrival was thunderous.

Even before Naruto had seen her, he'd heard her feet, usually so light and purposeful in their movements, slamming every step into the wooden floor with no observable rhythm, until she skidded around the corner and stopped. He hadn't recognised her by the noise.

Her breathing was laboured, her knees quivering and her face twisted by a scowl. Naruto realised she was not looking at him, but instead the man before him who looked her spitting image: the man who didn't return her stare.

She was paralysed, eyes wide, and Naruto awoke from his trance and dashed forwards.

Kisame's sword slammed straight down in front of him, cracking the floor, and Naruto winded himself on its curved edge. He felt the unnerving feeling of weakening, felt his chakra being pulled from him, and fell back.

"Satsuki," he said, trying to pull himself to his feet. She still didn't look at him. "Satsuki, these guys - they're way out of our league! You need to-"

His words faded into nothing, dripping, frothing away.

Satsuki was laughing. Quiet, soft laughter, and as he watched both horror and disgusted glee come through into her expression, Satsuki clasped her left wrist with her right, barely able to contain her smile. Ecstasy took her by the heart, and she opened her eyes.

"I've been waiting for this moment…"

If anyone spoke, Satsuki heard nothing. Singing lightning sparked in the dimples of her clawed hand, and she was possessed by a name, a creed, a man:

"Uchiha," she said, the word crawling across her teeth, "ITACHI!"

Satsuki sprang forward, dragging that fistful of lightning through the walls, her every step bringing a heart-throbbing beat to the shrieking of birds-

Itachi blocked the hit with one hand to the wrist.

The chidori fizzled out.

Her fingers twitched with the dying shock, and Naruto saw her look up, as though seeing him for the first time, to Uchiha Itachi.

A despair overwhelmed him, and he ran forward, fingers outstretched.


Satsuki's attention whipped to Naruto. The price of that look resounded through the hall in the teeth-grinding crack of her arm. She reacted only to the noise for a moment, until her jaw tightened, she cringed, and howled as she hit the floor knees first.

That man's appraising gaze didn't shift as she choked, cradling her arm with her breath barely escaping her. Every gasp prompted a whimper, tears of pain leaking from her eyes as she struggled to keep her arm still.

Naruto watched from the ground.

'I'm… weak?'

Jiraiya's entrance was complete with bells and whistles, but Naruto could only recognise it by the momentary shift in Itachi's attention. But the Uchiha turned away, and for a moment, Naruto wondered whether he saw through Satsuki's eyes, because everything about that man seemed like evil alive.

"Kisame... take care of that one."

The blue-skinned man beside Naruto laughed, shifting his sword in the chasm it had created. He lifted it over his shoulder, and turned to Jiraiya.

"Here's me thinking you slaughtered every last one," that man said. "She looks terribly like you, Itachi. What, did you leave one little piglet squealing in the barn?"

Naruto saw the fury in Satsuki's eyes, recognised it as his own. 'The pain reminds you. The ache of your knees reminds you. This terrifying, unceasing weakness…'

"You could say that," Itachi said.

' reminds you of what you have at stake.'

"Well, take good care of her. Blood is thicker than water, you know?" Kisame's grin poured through every word. "That goes for you too, Jiraiya-sama. Let's leave them to sort it out between them."

Jiraiya and Kisame engaged at Naruto's side, but he couldn't draw his gaze away.

As though burned, Satsuki gathered her strength in her step, and screamed, throwing a punch to Itachi's gut. Itachi didn't even seem to anticipate it, effortless in his evasion, before he twisted his leg and slammed it into her side. For a moment, her body absorbed the shock, and the next she was flung to the wall. Her impact was marked by the crack of bones and plaster.

Naruto called out, but Satsuki lay in the rubble, unmoving until Itachi lifted her by the collar. She looked at him, dazed.

"So," he said, slow and calculating, "Why are you here?"

Naruto would never know what was spoken in that expression, but he saw its cold spectre in the icy wind that passed through Satsuki's eyes, the fear that awoke and webbed her heart.

"You're so weak, Satsuki," Itachi said, pulling her closer. "My dear little sister..."

"Why are you after Naruto?" she said. "What's so special about him?"

He looked like he was laughing again, staring straight at her.

That one functional arm lifted, grabbing Itachi's arm. "Why did you do it?" she whispered, her eyes glimmering. "Why did you do it?"

Itachi didn't flinch, pulling her closer. "My dear little sister," he murmured. "I thought you were past such menial questions."

"I was. But... But then I remembered." Her voice tilted upwards, as though she were on the verge of tears, choking.

"I remembered that you were crying that night, Itachi."

Itachi seemed to stop.

Satsuki reacted in that hesitation, her unbroken hand snatching her fan from its hook and lashing it toward his groin.

The noise of its contact was flat and muted by the flesh of Itachi's palm, a counter so fast Naruto didn't even catch it. Itachi seemed to smile, and closed his hand around her fan.

"You're grovelling, little sister."

It snapped in his grip. Satsuki's eyes widened, and she tried to reach down for it, her hands scrabbling, but Itachi pulled her up further, the fan clattering to the ground.

"That was- that was a-" Satsuki choked on her words. "Mother gave me-"

Itachi chuckled, and leaned his lips towards her ear.

"It appears you've forgotten the true events of that day," he said. "How... unseemly."

Satsuki froze.

"Allow me to show you them again."

There was no bang, no crack, but only Satsuki's open mouth, on the verge of a scream but silenced just in time. Her limbs slackened, her neck lolling back, the indiscernible darkness of her eyes glassy and dead. She fell from his grip and hit the ground like a corpse.

'Is this the weakness you felt that day, Satsuki…?'

Satsuki was on the ground, and as the world passed moment by moment, everything else blurred into one instant.

Itachi and Kisame fled the scene in a blur. Jiraiya was at his right, a comforting hand on Naruto's shoulder, Satsuki was still lying there, but Naruto just couldn't-

'Cowardice, blindness, all in one becoming weakness…'

The outside world tuned out, Jiraiya, black fire, everything, she was in his arms-

'Because if so… then maybe I'm beginning to understand you. But somehow, I just hate myself more for it.'

Naruto lifted her higher, her body bending as though broken in his embrace, and sucking breath into his lungs, he shuddered and held her tighter still. He buried his head into the crook of her neck. He breathed in.

'I'm sorry.'

The scent of tea and blood sank into him. At last, Naruto cracked, and cried.

Chapter Text

He stared. A snake was biting his wrist, two teeth neatly on the vein, and as he went through the darkness, he saw her; at the other end, bound by that same snake at her ankle.


She didn't look up, staring at her own right hand, her fingers twitching.

Naruto looked to his wrist, and tried to lift out the the teeth of the snake.

The coil tightened, and Satsuki's ankle broke. She screamed.

Naruto awoke violently. He sprang up and then fell down, dragging something to the ground with him. He lay there for a moment, and then something hit him in the stomach hard. He gasped and opened his eyes.

Satsuki was lying there, her hospital gown so large it left one shoulder exposed. Her limbs were crooked and bent, her mouth slightly agape, but her eyes still closed. He'd pulled the blanket from beneath her in his awakening, the white sheets tangled with his legs.

The IV was still running straight into her arm. The heart monitor was still beating steadily. Her hair was long, strewn around her shoulders. The gown was gaping at the stomach.

Naruto froze, registering the moment, where he was, what she was-

He stumbled up to his feet in a hurry, tripping over the blankets as he tried to untangle himself. He lifted her - trying not to expose her and not quite succeeding - and found himself off balance from her unexpected lightness. Naruto cringed, clumsily wrapping her up as he pulled her onto the bed, and sitting down with a loud sigh.

He rubbed his eyes, trying to blink himself out of his drowsiness. The beep of her heartrate was so steady he almost fell asleep again.


He started and whipped his head up to see Kakashi. The door was open at his side; perhaps Kakashi had opened it quietly, or Naruto had fallen asleep for a moment. He didn't know which of the two it was.

"Yo," Naruto said, opening his mouth and closing it again. He sat up, wiping water from his eyes. "What're you here for?"

His teacher walked to the other seat and sat down, eyes still glued to his book. "Same thing as you, I imagine, Naruto."

Naruto nodded slowly. "I guess." He drew his gaze to Satsuki, nervously noting the displacement of her features, the way her hair was swept to one side of the pillow, her hand splayed outwards.

"We sure spend a lot of time in the hospital, huh?"

Kakashi looked up, and raised an eyebrow. "Well. That's probably to do with you, isn't it? All of those dangerous situations you get yourself into."

Naruto huffed, leaning back in the chair and tilting up his chin. "Hmph. I didn't ask for all these weird things to happen."

"So, did you sleep here?"

Naruto flinched.

"Uh, yeah. Didn't mean to."

"That explains where you were, then," Kakashi said. "You weren't here when I checked earlier. I was looking for you."

"What for?"

"A quick meeting," he said. "I've spoke to Sakura as well. She'll be here soon."

"Oh," Naruto said. He couldn't pull his eyes away from how the sheets were caught under Satsuki's right side. Was her mouth slightly open, too?

"Y'know, it's kind of weird to watch someone in a coma, right?" Naruto said, laughing nervously. He twisted a curl of his hair between two fingers. "Like, when I sleep, I bet I look pretty weird. I wouldn't want someone to watch me. What if she starts drooling, or sleep-talking about her undying love for me?"

"It's hardly like a nap, Naruto."

"Looks like it. I bet she's super happy getting a nice rest and not having to help out around the village at all." Naruto leaned back in his chair and stuck his tongue out at Satsuki. She didn't move. "See? Her heart just beat. She so heard me. Lazy bastard."

"I think her heart may have been beating for a while now, Naruto."


The door opened.

The air in the room became a little colder. Sakura was clasping a small vase in her hands, the water in it shaking just the slightest. She looked at Satsuki, before turning away and taking a deep breath. Her grip on the vase tightened.

"Hi, Sakura-chan," Naruto said with a gentle smile. The edges of it were wistful.

"Hi, Naruto. Kakashi-sensei, too."

"Come now, Sakura," Kakashi said, standing up and taking the vase gently out of her hands. "I'll put them by her. You take a seat."

"Thanks, sensei."

"Sakura-chan," Naruto said, losing his loose stance in favour of helping Sakura sit down. "I… I, uh… Satsuki will be better soon, okay? And Ino, too…"

Sakura didn't say anything, sniffling quietly when Kakashi placed the flowers on the table. Naruto looked at the vase beside Satsuki's face, refracting gentle light onto it, and cringed at the memory.

"So, uh," he said, "What flowers are those?"

Sakura seemed to perk up a little, giving Naruto a small smile. "Bellflowers. They're for wishing good health for a friend. I think the last vase got broken… clumsy nurses, I guess."

"Ah," Naruto said, a wave of guilt coming over him. He laughed nervously, and simmered off into a sigh. "Yeah. Clumsy nurses."

"Now," Kakashi said, "As for that news I called you here for."

"It wasn't just to wish Satsuki-san well?"

"I'm afraid not, Sakura," he said. "As you both know, our Hokage has passed away, and there is no one suitable to take the role at this moment."

The two of them quieted. Sakura's fingers twisted in her lap; Naruto's clasped the metal frame of his chair.

"The original plan was to convince Tsunade-sama to take up the title, but that hasn't really worked out," he said. "She's only temporarily taken up the title."

"I went looking for her with Ero-sennin," Naruto said. He folded his arms and rolled his eyes. "But it's not like anyone could take Hokage-ojii-chan's place anyway."

"Well, as you should remember, Naruto," Kakashi continued, "Tsunade-sama is a world-renowned medical ninja."

The two of them were at attention, and leaning to him.

"So, do you mean-!"

"Yes, Sakura," he said. "It's possible that she could heal Satsuki, and Ino, too."

Sakura's face lit up, and she sat back, a sigh of relief escaping her.

"Don't get too excited." Kakashi put up his hand. "Tsunade-sama is currently refusing to take any patients."

The two of them wilted slightly, and Naruto groaned. "Then why'd you even tell us, Kakashi-sensei?"

"I think you should try and convince her." The two of them looked up, and Kakashi sighed. "I have tried myself, before you ask. But I think her heart may be softened by you two, as a woman and potential mother."

The two sat back, humming.

"Motherly?" Naruto said. He grinned and cracked his fingers. "I guess I could work with that!"

"-the fuck out of my office, in fact, the building, and don't come back unless you've installed a sake dispenser inside of your ass!"

"She is not motherly. I don't know what the hell you've been on, Kakashi-sensei, but nothing about that woman screams motherly to me. At all."

"Hell hath no wrath like a woman scorned, Naruto. And that goes double for Tsunade."

"You really think I can convince her, Naruto?" Sakura said, shuffling on the spot nervously. Tsunade's door was large, ominous, and just a couple of paces away.

"Yeah!" Naruto laughed. "You, uh… just… make use of your… cuter side?"


"Yeah, like," Naruto said, "I bet if you act really sweet and stuff… things will be okay…"

Sakura frowned, looking Naruto up and down as though appraising him. "Huh. Well, I'll do my best, then!"

"Good luck!"

Sakura walked up to the door with a little swing in her step, and knocked on the door with a dainty fist.

"Is it that bastard again?"

A woman peeked around the door, brunette and with a small pig in her arms. "Ah, it seems to be a girl…"


"Stop being ridiculous, Tsunade-sama."

The woman shook her head, ushering Sakura into the room whilst muttering under her breath. The pig snorted at Sakura, and she blinked.

"So?" Tsunade said, appraising her with one elbow on the desk and a bottle in her free hand. "Who are you? What exactly are you here for?"

Sakura straightened her back and bowed.

"I'm Haruno Sakura, and I'm here for my friends Uchiha Satsuki and Yamanaka Ino, Hokage-sama."

Tsunade raised an eyebrow at Shizune. "I told you to check. This is obviously the exact same kid."

"I'm not Uzumaki Naruto," Sakura said sharply. "I'm Haruno Sakura."

Tsunade raised an eyebrow.

"My friends really need your expertise, Tsunade-sama."

The Hokage let out a sigh from behind her desk, lifting the bottle to her lips and glugging from it for a second before she slammed it onto the desk.

"Listen," she said. "Since you're cute, I'll give you a little explanation of my situation."

She rolled back on her chair and motioned to the stretch of village behind her. "This is not my village," she said. "I come from here, yes, but I don't have any interest in this place anymore."

Sakura was quiet, and Tsunade took another long sip.

"I am here," she said, "Because I was given two options. Have my whereabouts leaked to the various persons to whom I owe debt, or serve a short term here as Hokage and have my debts paid off."

She smiled and threw her hands up. "The choice was obvious!"

Sakura narrowed her eyes. "So why won't you heal my friends?"

"Because if I treat one patient, I am obligated to treat others."

"And why won't you?"

"I can't be a medic nin anymore," she said. "I don't have any interest in doing medical work in this village, or anywhere else, for that matter. That's just how it is."

Sakura balled her hands into fists at her side. She breathed deeply for a moment.


"How it is." Tsunade looked at her. "Don't push it. Did you see that boy? Did you see the silhouette he left through my wall?"

"You have to heal them."

"I just explained to you-"

"You have to heal them!" Sakura said, louder. Tonton snorted, and Tsunade raised an eyebrow.

"I have to?"

"I know that you're a sannin, too," she said. "Just like Orochimaru."

Tsunade stopped.

"Now that's a name I haven't heard in a while," she said. "What would you happen to know about Orochimaru, kid?"

"I know that he's the one that's left Ino in this state."

Tsunade whistled, a noise of negative awe. She stood up, moving to the window. "I was his teammate, yes, and that's why I know better than anyone that Orochimaru is a genius without rival. If you think I'm going to try and work with his chakra, think again. He knows what he's doing, and I bet he has some pretty dangerous countermeasures."

Sakura scowled, and took a step forward.

"So you're going to let Ino suffer… let her family and friends suffer, when there's something you could do about it?"

Tsunade took a long look at Sakura.

"Right," she said. "What about the other one?"

"Satsuki-san," she said. "She fell into a coma after Uchiha Itachi used some advanced genjutsu-"

Tsunade put her hand up to stop Sakura, and gave her a long searching look before she leaned back and folded her arms.

"These cases are more than unusual. I hope you realise that."

"I do."

"Again," she said, "There's nothing I can do."

"Yes there is," Sakura said with more force, stepping towards Tsunade and putting both of her hands on her desk. Tsunade stood to meet her, a good bit taller and looking down on Sakura like a rattlesnake to a stubborn mouse.

Shizune came up between them, pig in one arm and mediating with the other. "Listen, there's no need for-"

"I'll tell you what, you obnoxious little brat," Tsunade said, leaning down to Sakura, so close their noses almost touched, "Why don't you try it? If you're so desperate to save your friends, maybe you should do it yourself."

Sakura, growled, a guttural noise gathering at the back of her throat, before she scowled and slammed her fists onto the desk so hard the wood splintered.


Tsunade and Shizune blinked.

"But if I save one of my friends," Sakura said, "You have to help the other!"

Tsunade snorted. "Fine - but don't come near this building unless you have something to show for it. Got it?"

"Yeah, I've got it," Sakura said, and she turned from the desk, pulling a large stack of paper off of it as she went. "Just you wait!"

The door slammed.

Tsunade yawned and leant back in her chair with her hands behind her head.

"Tsunade-sama, that was just cold," Shizune muttered, kneeling down and gathering the papers off of the floor with one hand. "That poor girl is going to work herself to the bone, and all for nothing."

"I can't pick and choose my patients, Shizune. It's not the way of a medical ninja. So I'll help all, or I'll help none."

Shizune turned and looked towards the door. "And what if she manages it?"

"She won't."

"I don't know about that," Shizune said. "Hell hath no wrath like a woman scorned. I think she might trouble you for a while yet, Tsunade-sama."

"When was the last time you ate any vegetables, Naruto?"

"I'm pretty sure those things in instant ramen count, right?"

"No. Let's go out and eat something proper."

"On you?"


"Yeah right, Kakashi-sensei."

"Is Sakura-chan not coming?"

"I did ask her," he said. "But she seemed to be rather busy with her studies."

"Ah, okay."

The road was wide and the evening crisp, and Naruto was walking with a swing in his step so exaggerated it made Kakashi's gait seem cold and reserved. The edges of the street were bumbling with people, but the centres were bare. This was a side street of a main street; significant but without name.

Kakashi dog-eared the page and closed his book slowly. "But I really did just want to speak with you, Naruto."

"Eh? What about?" Naruto shot him a grin. "Tips on pulling pranks?"

"Not quite." Kakashi pushed aside the curtain of a small restaurant, with a low roof and not too many tables. A woman quietly guided them to a table and set out two menus before scurrying to another table. Naruto hummed, running his finger along the options.

"I worry a little about you, you know, Naruto."

"Worry?" Naruto said. His eyes didn't follow his finger anymore, simply staying glued on one part of the menu. He looked up then. "I'm… not sure what you mean, Kakashi-sensei."

Kakashi leant back slightly, and his one eye Naruto felt on him very perceptive and searching.

"I know what it is like to make mistakes," he said, "and to regret them. But I'm not so much like you, Naruto. I was never quite so good at putting on a smile. Or at least, I had no interest in trying."

Naruto didn't respond.

"Sakura is predisposed to worry, and probably stressed enough, so I understand why you might smile around her, even if you don't quite feel like it."

The boy in front of him seemed smaller in his seat, in this restaurant, and he undid his jacket and put it on his lap.

"I think smiling is easy around Sakura-chan, for sure," Naruto said. "And if I am faking it at the start, it becomes real."

Kakashi called over the waitress, and asked for beef. Naruto asked for soup. She didn't take notes, poured some tea and left. The babble of the restaurant was low, and the many empty tables were matched by tables of people who spoke in low tones or not at all. Naruto looked odd with his jacket off, in many ways seeming like a child he didn't know.

"But you don't bother with that around Satsuki?"

Naruto stopped, and laughed, looking as though he'd felt a twinge of pain.

"That's not it at all," he said. "In fact, when I see Satsuki, even though she's a- a goddamn bastard, I want to smile more than ever." He touched his ear.

"But she just… I just somehow end up so angry now. She really brings out the worst in me these days." Naruto brightened up a little. "But Sakura-chan- I guess she's nothing like me. So smiling around her is always easy."

The lights flickered, little lightbulbs hanging on stubby cables that swayed very stiffly in the wind of an open window.

"You think it's because Satsuki's similar to you, that you get mad at her?"

Naruto held the cup of tea for a moment, taking a tiny sip and then visibly cringing at the bitterness. He set it down.

"Kind of," Naruto said. "Satsuki just reminds me of all these different things. I began to think that if I disconnected from her, I could forget about the horrible feelings. But then I realised those horrible feelings were just me. Satsuki just makes them harder to hide."

Naruto looked away. "I'm still angry at her. So angry." He shook it off, looking to Kakashi. "Why are you asking all these things, Kakashi-sensei?"

Kakashi closed his menu and put it to the side. "Well, you'd be surprised how out of the loop I am with you three. You don't tell me anything."

"You're never around," Naruto said. His gaze focused on a moth, batting at the light absent-mindedly. "It's not much use thinking about these things now."

Naruto sighed. It was a long and strange noise, accompanied by a smile which gave it a wistfulness. "Not now. If Satsuki won't listen to me, it won't matter if I regretted it or not."

The waitress came and quietly slid the food onto the table; Naruto dug in immediately. Kakashi's beef cameon a sizzling plate, and so he waited a moment.

"You know, Naruto, the reason our friends smile when we smile, or frown when we frown, isn't because they prefer a smile to a frown." He began to pour some more tea from the pot. "It's because the happiness of our friends is our own happiness."

The fat around the beef swelled and popped over and over, finding ways around the vegetables and nuzzling itself where the beef met the plate.

"I think it's because happiness is just… easier to accept," Naruto said, the hot soup searing his lips. He put it down, and blew gently on its surface. "No one wants to see unhappiness. After all, people don't try to help the unhappy. They walk away from them."

"I won't deny that sometimes the reality of unhappiness is hard to deal with, and humans can be cold at their worst." Kakashi began cutting the beef; the fat spat into the middle of the cut, the oil sizzling in the air. "But if Satsuki walks away from you when you are hurting, perhaps it's that she feels she can't make you happy… or that she even makes you unhappy."

Naruto drank from his soup, and then set it down, not looking at Kakashi. The liquid sloshed from one side to the other.

"I don't dislike Satsuki. That's not it at all," Naruto said, stirring the soup with a spoon. "I just... she brings up all of that hurt. And there's so much guilt here, that… I just find myself rejecting her. Even though I have so much more to say than..."

He seemed to choke for a moment, and he sipped from the tea, nose crinkling at the taste all the while. "Even though I know she understands. I guess it's worse if she does, 'cause that means she can withstand it and I can't."

"You have withstood it, Naruto." Kakashi set down his knife. "After all, here you are."

Naruto stared at his soup, and then after a long moment, gave Kakashi something close to a smile.

"You're right," he said. "But I hurt Satsuki. I hurt everyone. There was no… no need. And I'm not even past it. Next time I see her, I'll be the exact same." Naruto stirred his soup. "Because I am angry with her. I'm angry that I couldn't avenge Hinata. I'm angry that she's trying to control me, and I'm angry with myself that I couldn't save Hinata in the first place - that things had to end up this way."

Naruto stopped, and laughed slightly. "Our food'll get cold if we don't eat. We can talk after, right?"


And so they ate in silence, comfortable in spite of it all. Naruto focused on his food, figuring Kakashi wouldn't eat if Naruto tried to watch, and sure enough, when he looked up, there was no catching a glimpse of his face. Leaning back, Naruto breathed out and laughed.

"Jeez, Kakashi-sensei," he said. "This sort of thing is hard enough without saying it out loud."

Kakashi raised an eyebrow, leaning on his hand.

"It's just… all of this. It's not that I don't like Satsuki," Naruto went on, a peculiar look on his face. "It's just like, between us, we made all the wrong choices. And now, what with Hinata, Mizuki-sensei, Hokage-ojii-chan… it's like I'm living with ghosts. Ghosts that won't ever die."

"Ghosts," Kakashi said, and his voice was speckled with something that seemed familiar. Naruto could imagine the smile behind his mask. "Sometimes, when there are ghosts stepping on our heels, it's just best to walk beside them."

Chapter Text

"Morning, Naruto."

"Yo, Kakashi-sensei. Something up?"

"Well, the last time I checked-"

"Don't even say the sky. Man, you are so unfunny."

"You and Satsuki are too similar sometimes, you know."

"Hey. Don't say that."

Jiraiya knocked. A rattle, a squeak, and then the strange tatata footsteps of wooden clogs echoed.


Naruto jumped up. The chair knocked back with a screech, tilting on its back legs and hitting the floor with a thump. Naruto peered down the hall, fingers crooked and pressed to the tabletop.

"Ero-sennin! Sorry, I didn't realise-"

'-that I left the door unlocked-'

"-that you knocked!"

Jiraiya grumbled and stepped in. His frame dwarfed the cramped corners of Naruto's apartment, and his vibrant clothing muted the colour of his walls.

"It's fine," he said. "Could I have a word? Or a little more than that."

The sage was already setting up to do just that, letting down the heavy scroll from his back and setting out his utensils; Naruto held his tongue.

"Sure." He rubbed the back of his head. "You seem kinda serious, Ero-sennin."

"Don't call me that," Jiraiya rested his large scroll against the wall and placed a pot of ink on the table, along with a brush. He began unscrewing the lid.

Naruto frowned, and leaned on the edge of his table, eyes pinned to Jiraiya. He looked to his walls, with dusty posters and shelves. The leaves of his plants shuffled in the breeze.

Jiraiya lifted the pot to the light and swilled it. "You remember the trip we were going to make? To find Tsunade-hime?"

"Yeah," Naruto said. "Until she got brought back with a bribe, or something."

Jiraiya nodded. "I carried on, but you returned home."


Naruto pressed for the key of the argument, but Jiraiya narrowed his eyes. He folded his arms, tapping his fingers on his right bicep, and sighed.

"You remember what happened in the Chuunin exams?"

Naruto opened his mouth.

"The third exam," Jiraiya said again, his voice low.

Naruto shrunk back. He picked up something from the table, and fumbled it through his fingers. Jiraiya noted the brightness of his laughter and the shine of his smile; it provided a sharp contrast to his despondent gaze.

"I need to see that seal."

Naruto's gut tingled. It was a sweet and painful pin needle caress from the centre of his seal to the small of his back. He shivered. Naruto pulled off his shirt, and Jiraiya knelt down to peer at the seal.

Fidgeting, Naruto looked over his right shoulder to the window. "I'm still not sure what that has to do with that lady you were looking for, y'know."

Jiraiya didn't turn from the seal. He stared at it as though it would flee if he looked away.

"I'm not gonna lie to you, Naruto," he said. "After that show in the exam, the villagers became… worried."

He twisted the lid of the bottle, avoiding Naruto's gaze, and dipped a small brush into the ink. He touched it to Naruto's skin: it was cold, but dried fast.

"When we were going on that journey," Jiraiya said, "Keeping you at my side was what was keeping peace. People are easily frightened. Especially..."

Jiraiya coughed, and finished a character with a flat force that sprayed the bristles. "Especially by the undead."

Goosebumps travelled from Naruto's knuckles to his elbows and shoulders.

"So under my surveillance, people felt safe - especially when you were going to be out of the village. I'm sure it would have died down, but even so."

"Surveillance?" Naruto said, his tongue unable to keep up with what he wanted to say. "I... I'm not-"

"You're not a danger, Naruto," he said. "But Orochimaru is."

The silence, the reality weighed on Naruto for a moment. Jiraiya's concentration on the seal smothered them both into silence: the orange of the setting sun, the yellow of his flickering kitchen light, and the bright white of Jiraiya's hair against the dull colours of Naruto's home all called out to him.

But his mind couldn't be swayed from it. Naruto tuned out stares and whispers as second nature now. When they stood left, turn to the right; if they were stood right, turn to the left. If they were both, look to the ground, and if even their shadows mocked you, look to the sky.

Jiraiya drew his brush from the seal. His markings on the Cursed Seal were like a little angry language of their own, muttering around the seal. Naruto squinted to read them upside down; in its centre were three characters. One he didn't know at all.

"'Great counterstrike'."

Jiraiya's rumbling tone startled him, and he looked up; the man was packing away. Naruto pulled down his shirt and rubbed his left arm with his right. He smiled half-heartedly.

"What exactly did you do, Ero-sennin?"

Jiraiya picked up his scroll, his back to Naruto. "Don't activate that seal, and you won't have to find out."

Naruto resisted the urge to scratch his neck, and nodded.

The evening sun burned through Naruto's windows. The burbling life of the town was a little distant now. All he heard was the clinking of ink pots and Jiraiya's heaviness on his floorboards.

He turned to Naruto.

"And if you do..." Jiraiya shook his head. "By accident, or on purpose, whatever it is- just… just come to me straight away. But if you don't absolutely have to, don't use it. It puts everyone at risk, but mostly yourself, Naruto. More than that - your mental state."

He put a hand on Naruto's head, an unexpected gesture, and ruffled his hair with a deep and rich chuckle. "Only saying because I don't want ya goin' crazy on me, kid."

"I won't use it, Ero-sennin," Naruto said, grinning and laughing. "You don't have to tell me twice, y'know."

Jiraiya chuckled, but looked at him in a long way, before he flicked the ink off his brush, put it away and twisted the handle of the door.

"I don't know, Naruto," he said. "You just don't know what other people are thinking."

He left, waving.

Naruto locked the door after he heard him go down the stairs.


Kakashi lifted a slightly cracked mug to his masked lips, and peered curiously over its rim. The hot steam misted his forehead protector. Naruto twisted his hands in his lap, sighing.

"Sakura-chan… is she okay?"

His teacher didn't respond immediately, lowering the mug to the table. He studied the tea a moment.

"Well," he said. "I imagine she's just working hard. Sakura has a certain uncanny determination about her, when her mind is set."

Naruto tapped his fingers on the side of his cupboard. "Determination."

"Yes. Determination to continue," Kakashi said. "A determination driven by hope. Sakura's the most hopeful of all of us."

A fly buzzed past Naruto's ear, so fast he thought it was a passing ghost. He twitched.

"Sakura-chan?" He opened the door tentatively, peering around it with a knot in his brow.

In spite of Sakura's bedraggled look, her smile caught him off guard all the same. If Naruto had spoke, he would have stuttered.

"Hi, Naruto," she said. "I was just coming about... a plan I have. The studying I've been doing. Do… you mind if I come in for a minute?"

Naruto nodded dumbly, stepping aside. She walked into his kitchen, and her eyes seemed to flick between his various plants. She sat down.

"But I dunno," he said, scratching the side of his face, "I'm not exactly, uh, the person to come to about studying. If you know what I mean."

"This time you are!" Sakura said. In response to Naruto's confused look, she reached into her bag and rummaged around, before pulling out a large scroll, a sealed ink pot, and a brush. Her enthusiasm was dazzling.

Naruto laughed awkwardly. The utensils brought a bad feeling to the surface. "I don't know anything about sealing either, Sakura-chan… I'm surprised even you do, but… you were always pretty clever."

Sakura unravelled the paper, letting it roll off the table, and pointed to the seals with an uncut nail.

"I've got… kind of a plan," she said. "It's sort of provisional though, and, well - before I get any further with it, I need to make sure you're co-operating, too."

Naruto nodded. She gestured to a large character.

"I've created two seals here," she said. "They match. So if the contents of them match, they'll resonate, so that we know. It's, uh, not a hard seal to make."

"You're so clever, Sakura-chan," Naruto marvelled. The strokes were precise, but not loose like a seals master. It reminded him distinctly of her. "So, uh, what are they for?"

Sakura nodded. "This is why I'll need you, Naruto. I need to get a really good sample of Orochimaru's chakra from you."

Naruto froze.


"Yeah," she said, and her expression changed. "I… I know that might… that you might not want to do that. So it's okay if you don't.

"But if we get a good sample of Orochimaru's chakra from you," she said, her voice rising a little in excitement, "I'll be able to draw out Orochimaru's chakra from Ino with the other seal, and then Ino will be okay, and then Satsuki-san-"

"Of course I'll do it."

Sakura stared, and then leaned forward.

"Really?" she breathed. "You will?"

Naruto clenched his fists, his nails digging in. He remembered Orochimaru's voice, he remembered everything, he remembered that power-

"Yeah," he whispered. He lifted his head, shooting her a wide grin. "Yeah, Sakura-chan! I can't let Satsuki stay like that for too long. She'll end up even more below me than she already is, and that's- just embarrassing, right?"

Sakura's bottom lip trembled, and grabbing Naruto's hand with both of hers, she clenched it, bowing her head. She lifted it again, and smiled.

"Right," she said, her voice shaking. "We'll definitely fix this."



"Lying to people- is… is it okay to lie to people if you're doing it for a good reason?"

"I think," Kakashi said, pausing, "The only person it's important to stick to is yourself. It sounds cliché, but if you turn your back on someone's morals, they might reprimand you when they're around, but you can always walk away. You can't turn your back on yourself."

"You say that, but…"

Naruto trailed off, and Kakashi chuckled.

"No, you're right," Kakashi said. "After all, sometimes, people care so much about the acceptance of others, they'd wither and die without it."

He lay down on a large scroll carefully, the core of his chakra aligned with a large seal pressed to his back. Sakura knelt at his side.

"So," she said, "How… How do you draw out that chakra? Try to do it now…"

'Sakura-chan looks even prettier from this angle,' he thought. "I'm… not even sure myself, but, I'll try."

Sakura smiled at him encouragingly, and he closed his eyes. Pulling chakra to his core wasn't enough to provoke Orochimaru's intent, and he lacked any kind of immediate danger. Naruto bit his lip.

He clamped his eyes shut and let twisted things crawl their way to the forefront of his thoughts. Jealousy, misery, loathing - they churned bitterly. A tempest rose.

Naruto struggled to muster a storm, and struggled yet more to keep it at bay; he held back from purging its ghosts by their delicate and snappable necks. But for Satsuki he tempered it. For her he found himself wounded, wet wounds that wept like a little blonde child, and to his dismay, as he writhed in the underbrush, the dust and hair that was Orochimaru stuck itself to the sopping pink.

Perversion and a deep red gathered momentum in Naruto's head, until in a single moment it popped. The spectre of a smile it left behind sent shivers down him, but he stared it in its putrid eye. Orochimaru smiled back.

After a long moment, feeling choked and as though he was drowning in these horrendous and unforgivable feelings, the chakra disappeared with a sharp hum. Naruto realised he'd had his hands over his face; his fingernails had left little cuts below his hairline. He opened his eyes.

Sakura looked at him, eyes shiny with tears, and she took a deep breath to bring out her best smile. "It's over."

"Sakura-chan, don't worry," he said, clamoring to her. "I'm doing this for Satsuki, you know- and she needs my help, so, I don't mind this. It's fine- she'll get better so it's fine. And Ino, too. This is nothing compared to that, so it's-"

Sakura sniffed, shaking her head. "I know. It's okay… I'll take home that chakra sample and see what I can do, so, thanks Naruto. You did great."

Naruto grinned, his worry melting away beneath her tone. "Thanks, Sakura-chan. But I did kinda think when I lied down wth you in a green field one summer, it'd be like, for a date or something."

"Shut it, you goof." Sakura rolled up the scroll. She lifted it up with some difficulty. "Besides, it's not even summer anymore."

Naruto had failed to notice the transition whatsoever, but as he parted ways with Sakura and made his way home, he spied his reddening barberry shrub in the window. Autumn, the season of death, loomed.

"You've seen Sakura, then?"

"Uh… yeah."

"I heard about that rather outlandish bet she made with Tsunade-sama." Kakashi had taken a bite of his dango at some imperceptible point. "I hope you aren't endangering yourself for her sake."

"I'm only doing what- We're both just doing what we have to."

"We can all do wrong for our own ends, Naruto. Even if you can convince yourself it's the right thing to do."

"It's the closest thing."

"Just don't overdo it." Kakashi looked away. "After all, none of us are perfect, Naruto. We live desperately."

Time passed.

Naruto divided his time between Kakashi's frequent visits, Sakura, and training. Training stopped him from going to the hospital. He still went there too much.

One sample wasn't enough. With dread, Naruto became well-acquainted with his own ugliness, day after day facing his own demons with his back to a seal. And with every one of those days, the dire weight of ignoring Jiraiya's advice became heavier: Orochimaru's name had found a comfortable spot on his tongue, a familiar villain, someone he didn't like that much.

That said, Naruto was beginning to learn that truth isn't always what you expect.

The village repaired itself slowly; Kakashi's presence became a more secure thing in Naruto's life, and Sakura's less so; his demons became more like wild animals, caged, at either side of him snapping at his earlobes; Satsuki remained in stasis; the village repaired; time passed.

Naruto stopped counting down, because he didn't even know where to finish.

Tsunade was imposing at her desk. She hung delicately between inert and reactive.

"You have so little time to explain yourself, it's not even funny."

"Sakura-chan sent me to get you."

Tsunade raised an eyebrow. "Couldn't she come here herself? Or is it a bout of cowardice after her big promises all that time ago?"

Naruto gritted his teeth and slammed his hands on her desk. "Yeah? Well, get your ass to the hospital and she'll show you!"

Something in his eyes froze Tsunade. The shine of aspiration; the glare of dreams.

Shizune gripped her shoulder. She jumped.


Tsunade stepped back from her desk. Her fingers trembled in their fists. "Let's go, Shizune. You've never known me to look away from the results of a bet."

She walked down the halls of Konoha's major hospital. Naruto walked ahead, his head high and his stride wide, until he got to the door of a certain indistinct room and pushed open the door.

The three of them entered.

No one moved. Inoichi Yamanaka was slouched over, a hand pressed to a seal stuck to Ino's forehead: Sakura was by his side, with nothing but her fingers knotted in a tightness so absolute every joint was white and every muscle shook from the effort. They didn't stir from the entrance, but Naruto still closed the door with great care.

The three of them watched with varying degrees of trepidation. Tsunade had a strange mixed feeling; for the first time in her short term as Hokage, it was a reluctant feeling of hope that turned her gut.

Inoichi sat up, opening his eyes and allowing the creases to fall from his forehead. Sweat slipped down the bridge of his nose, and he was silent, looking to Sakura. She met his gaze. They waited, eyes flickering between Ino's face and her vitals on the monitor.

There was a stir in her heartbeat, and then it dropped. Sakura stood in a moment of panic.

Ino gasped.

"Oh my god." She fought for air, clutching her chest and blinking. "I like, totally just had the worst nightmare ever. You wouldn't even believe-"

She stopped on her breath, seeming to take in the bright white of the sheets, the open windows, the people in the room, her father-

"Dad," she breathed and pulled him to her chest. Sakura, at her left, opened her palms, her fingers uncurling.

Tsunade froze. The young girl's palms were soaked in blood, blood from the tips of her nails piercing into her palms, blood that seeped down every valley of flesh -

Sakura let out a tinkling laugh. Ino heard it, and she grinned, leaning over to pull Sakura into the hug with her free arm.

The bedframe squeaked, and the three of them were laughing. Sakura wrapped an arm around her friend and smeared red on her hair and right cheekbone- it stuck the hair to her cheek, glistening, trickling-

"Oh, you're bleeding, you big idiot-!"

There was a sense of freedom in the moment, a happiness, a joy, an existence that made something so wound up in Tsunade untie itself and fall apart like a knot.

She felt a prickle on the back of her neck, and looked to the side; Naruto's gaze didn't shift from her, and she conceded with a small nod.

He held the door for Tsunade and Shizune, and they left so quietly that the others didn't even notice in their joy. The door clicked; the young laughter of Ino and Sakura tuned out and became distant.

Naruto's footsteps were inaudible bar the occasional squeak of rubber sole. Tsunade's were heavy on the heel and clipping on the toe, and Shizune's were light and rapid behind her.

She watched the boy's hands swinging at his side, every muscle so tight that they were clenched into peach-white fists, until he came to a stop at another door. He pushed the door.

Satsuki's pristine expression would have better suited a scene where she was swathed in a nest of silken blankets, or laid flat on a table of white marble: but she was neither. With machines beeping behind her like an audience, Satsuki looked neither like she was sleeping nor dead. Her face was expressionless.

With practiced awkwardness, Naruto sat on the chair closest to Satsuki's right hand side, facing the door. Tsunade walked towards her, and ignited a chakra in the ball of her wrist, the energy humming like bees towards her fingertips. Naruto's gaze was focused on her, and she knew it as she knew the cautious distrust of many who required her help.

Tsunade leant down, settling her mass for security, before she brought her hands to Satsuki's forehead and closed her eyes.

Her chakra pushed through a tenketsu on Satsuki's forehead. Tsunade felt a great knot of chakra; a bundle of it, festering at the back of Satsuki's head, that left only tiny strands to flow through the chakra system. She pushed her chakra forward with greater care, every movement engineered so as to not intrude on the body or confuse it; she curled her chakra into a hook, and set about pulling apart the knot of chakra in Satsuki's cranium.

Time passed, perhaps even an hour, and Tsunade sat back.

Naruto leaned past her from the side, off of his chair so he was kneeling by Satsuki. "Is she gonna wake up? Did you do it?"

There was a long moment. Tsunade stepped back. Shizune, who had sat at the back of the room, watched in silence with her hands in her lap.

Satsuki opened her eyes.

For a moment, it was like she didn't see anything; the white of the walls and the sheets and the outside reflected in her eyes, a strange and dazing glassiness, a white dome over a deep black which seemed to deepen behind the reflection.

She looked at Naruto, blinking slowly. His grin broadened.

"Yo, bastard. It's been a while."

Satsuki didn't respond, only moving to sit herself up. Naruto sat back. She shifted up from the blankets slowly, struggling under her weight for a moment before she leaned her head against the wall. She stared at Naruto for a moment, who was watching carefully, the smile on his face unsteady now.


Satsuki pulled her gaze away, staring at the ceiling, frowning, moving her fingers. She blinked a few times, and then she looked at Naruto again.

This time, something about her closed: she pulled her legs towards herself, clasping the sheets, and Naruto pulled away too.

Tsunade watched, her fingers still warm from the thrum of chakra.

Satsuki looked up at Naruto, really seeing him this time, and it was like bubbles from the bottom of a very deep lake were finally making their way to the surface.

"What are you doing here?" she said. Her voice was rough. Naruto didn't respond; she didn't give him room to.

She looked around for a second, her eyes settling on the vase beside her table. The bellflowers peered over the glass rim, like wet clothes left out to dry, and for a moment, her eyes traced the water in its base, that rippled gently from the tiny vibrations of everyday life.

"Satsuki, I-"

"Shut up." Satsuki rubbed her eyes. "Just… shut up."

Her hair, unwashed, fell beside her ears in messy clumps as she pulled the covers back. She swung her legs to the side of the bed, and pressed them with force against the cold tile. She stood, holding the frame for balance, before she lifted her gaze.

She looked at Naruto, her closeness strange, and her teeth ground and her fingers clasped the metal bedframe like the handle of a blade.

"I want to fight you." Naruto opened his mouth, and she lunged forward, clasping his collar and yanking him a step closer. "Now, Naruto."

Naruto trailed off. Satsuki's eyes, dim with delirium moments before, were locked onto him now. She was close, her shoulders hunched and low, and her lips turned up into a snarl. He reached up to pull her hand from his collar, but she yanked back before he could touch her.

"Is that what you want?" Naruto said. "If it is-"

"You can just shut up," Satsuki snarled. "This is what you've always wanted to hear, isn't it? I'll fight you. So stop with the- that act like you're doing it for my sake."

Naruto looked as though he was scrabbling for balance, and he looked anywhere but Satsuki, stepping back. "You've only just woke up. I-"

"You've always wanted to fight me!" She pushed forward, hitting Naruto in the shoulder with the palm of her hand. "It's all you're ever yelling about, isn't it? Or is that just another lie you tell yourself to feel tough?!"

Tsunade cringed. Shizune behind her, stepped forward to intervene, but she put a hand out slightly, giving her student a sidelong look.

"Lies?" Naruto stopped hesitating. "I'm not lying. I don't want this, and I don't think you do, either."

"Let me decide what I want."

A cold, angry silence fell like a curtain.

Tsunade turned and walked. Shizune followed.

There was a stretch of window to her left; the sun that poured through it came from an empty sky, and warmed her feet.

She acclimatised to these places with unnerving ease, to the smell of bleach and blood. To the quiet hurry of young medics, to the panic numbed by repetition. Konoha was filled with these unwanted ghosts.

The hall was empty. The heel to toe sound of her footsteps cli-clack cli-clack was like the cold rhythm of her heart; it resounded in the hospital helplessly, heartbeat too weak for the body, noise too quiet for the silence. Futility.

Yes; Tsunade walked.

Chapter Text

It was sunny.

Damp bedsheets were strung across the rooftop; the sunlight made them a stinging white, and the wide blue sky sucked heat from the earth. Naruto saw clouds nestling at the horizon.

A bristling wind skimmed Konoha's rooftops, and the sheets shuffled, weighted with damp. Naruto caught a glimpse of Satsuki's feet, and saw one lift off the ground.

He yanked a kunai to his front.

Satsuki tore through the white of the sheets like a demon, a kunai tearing the sheet and a fan cutting in an arc toward Naruto's chest. The flat of his kunai met the fan in a parry: Satsuki scowled, and she pivoted, her leg spinning to undercut him.

Naruto cursed, and scrabbled for the sheet above him with his free arm. He yanked himself upwards, and missed the hit by a hair: the sheet slipped from the pegs, pulling from the line.

He flung himself backwards, barely evading a punch from Satsuki's empty hand. The sheet covered her for a moment; she dived forward into a roll and stopped behind a thick blue blanket. Her feet were still for a moment. She quaked with heavy breaths.

There was a lull, a tiny one; Naruto wondered what she was thinking, and yearned for something to say. His tongue clicked off his bottom teeth, and his breath was lost in the sweeping air of the rooftops.

Her stance lowered a little; he saw her eyes now. Perhaps she'd heard the words he almost spoke. Her right hand was in front of her, shrivelled and empty, and her left curled around to her back, but he couldn't see the hand. He imagined the curve of the fan like a half-hidden red sun shining over her back. The gleam of her Sharingan stained his eyes, and for a moment-

"-and turn off your Sharingan, you bastard, you scared me!"

'This seriously isn't the time to be thinking about ghost stories,' Naruto thought, but there was a tenderness in the memory of that night. He remembered the glow of her eyes, the hiccup of her tears, and the shooting star that had cut the sky in two; all swathed by darkness.

'So why am I thinking of that now?'

He shook himself from his reverie a moment too late; Satsuki's fist was inches away from his face, and though he jerked away her fist slammed into his shoulder painfully. He began to fall, twisting, legs sprawling, and a glee lit in her eyes- she pulled him to face upwards with one arm, and slammed her knee into the small of his back. White hot pain shot through him. His shadow clone pulled her back, but he hit the floor hard, not rolling an inch. His frame shook.

He looked over. The smoke of his dispelled clone cloaked her, but even through it, he saw her bright Sharingan. He marvelled at their strange and unique ability to scorch themselves into the darkness behind his eyelids; the stains that had stared into him on too many sleepless nights.

Naruto stood, his back protesting the movement, and jumped forwards feet first, launching shuriken from both hands. She ducked, latching onto his ankles, and he gritted his teeth. He leaned backwards, flattening one hand onto the roof and scrabbling for the fallen white sheet with the other. He threw it into the air: Satsuki's eyes followed it, and seizing the distraction desperately, he kicked her away.

He spun on the still grounded palm of his right arm, landing securely. Steadying himself for a moment, Naruto lunged forward into a wild haymaker. Satsuki caught it in her palm, smirking, and Naruto allowed her a moment of it before he slammed her blindspot with a painful left hook to the jaw.

Blood spurted from Satsuki's lips, her cheek rippling from the hit, but before she stumbled back Naruto felt his grin cracked by the edge of a fan and slammed into a grimace. He bit his tongue.

They both recoiled.

Satsuki wiped blood from her chin, but it lingered brazenly in the tight spaces of her gritted teeth, like an animal. Naruto felt his tongue burning with the Kyuubi's chakra;. it tasted like dirt, fire and something painfully spicy.

"Can you just listen for one second, you bastard?"

"What's there to hear?" she sneered. "You spoke enough for the both of us the last time I tried."

Naruto cringed. "Listen-"

"No," she said, angrily. "You listen. I want to become stronger. And you can't hold me back anymore. I won't let you."

"Last time we spoke, Satsuki, I-" Naruto shook his head, and then threw his hands out desperately. "What do you want to hear?! I thought I wanted to fight you. But we're not on the same wavelength at all! You're- I don't even know what you're thinking, but this isn't about a fight as equals at all. I don't want to do this, and I don't know why you do, either!"

"What is this really about, Satsuki? Because it's not about rivalry. I don't know why- why you're looking at me with eyes like-"

'like everyone else'

Naruto's voice caught, and fell into something a bit more pathetic. "Like you hate me."

Satsuki lifted herself a little, and stood upright. It reminded Naruto of unfolding and flattening a crumpled paper ball, every bend remaining in the tiny corners and crumples. Satsuki didn't look right to him now, when she stood up like that. What he'd once even been able to see as an elegant beauty now felt forced and out of place- perhaps that was what Satsuki saw, too. Perhaps as she had become twisted by hatred, it had become less like ironing the creases out of clothes and more like trying to repair a broken mirror. Disjointed, almost accurate, but in the end- irreparable.

"After the Tsukuyomi, I dreamt," said Satsuki. She looked away with him, her eyes a faint grey. "I dreamt of... a perfectly normal life. More normal than anything I've lived for five years."

"My mother made me breakfast everyday," she said dully. "She trained me. I was short, I was weak- an inexperienced child. My hands could barely hold a fan. I yearned for my father's attention." Her face twisted a little. "Itachi would dote on me, calling me his dear little sister, and all I felt when I looked at his goddamned face-" she spat the words like venom sucked from a wound "-was warm love."

Satsuki lifted a hand to the her hair, pulling out a strand and staring at its dull grey glint in the sun. She let out a single mirthless chuckle. "Back then, I really was playing ninja." She sighed. "Because I could afford to. I didn't even know any different. It was just- a monotonous contentment. I loved that. I loved my parents, I loved my clan, and I even loved my brother. All of it- I loved it all more than anything."

Satsuki's drifted into fists at her sides, like a flower tightening itself back into a bud.

"But then I woke up," she said, her tone wavering. "I woke up to you, and for those first few moments… it seemed real. I forgot everyone was dead. I forgot what Itachi did."

Her jaw tightened.

"And I really, really hated you when I remembered," she said. "Because as the truth crashed down upon me, you were smiling like everything was fine. Like I could even indulge this… pretense."

She finally looked at him. "But the reality is that things aren't ever going to be bearable again," Satsuki said. "Especially while my brother's still walking."

"Why?" he said. "What difference will it even make?"

"What difference? You should understand!"

Naruto felt a pang of guilt. Surely he should, and yet-

"So," Naruto said. "Once it's over-"

"That's my decision," Satsuki hissed. "I'm carving this path to him- to revenge -on my own, and I don't need you to approve of it, or how it ends."

This was a rage Naruto knew well; this was his rage. A rage that boiled, that bubbled, that died - or didn't. It died, or it stewed, burning away everything until there was only the most condensed, disgusting and congealed hatred, lying thickly at the bottom of the pot.

Satsuki tore forward with no warning at all, her foot hitting the ground with a deafening clap. Naruto hadn't seen that before - a chakra trick? - and the disorientation knocked him off balance.

She swung towards him first. They danced, a dance of anger marked by her lethal balance of tessen jutsu and the sheer violence of her other three limbs. It was unlike her usual grace, marked so strongly by a want to hurt him that it sent hits normally so perfect wide and scattered in spite of the frightening force behind them.

And with every hit exchanged, her anger only grew, her teeth baring and her knuckles whitening. She landed a winding blow on Naruto's gut. He gasped, gagged, and tumbled backwards, cradling his abdomen. She stepped back, using the moment to catch her breath.

"Satsuki," cough "I don't care about what comes after the revenge because I think revenge is wrong," he said. "I think Itachi deserves whatever you do to him. He's- he's on a whole new level of sick and wrong. But I care because I don't want you to-"

Her foot slammed into the side of his head so hard Naruto's vision went white and he flew for a moment before hitting the floor and tumbling across the roof. He coughed, the sky readjusting itself in his vision.

He felt a sharp pain on the back of his neck, she was lifting him by his collar, her hand shaking with the strain. "Then stop caring," she snarled. Spit hit his upper lip.

'Stop caring? After all of this, how could you ask me-'

"You don't seriously think that you're going to feel better, right? You're just planning to-"

"Shut up!" Satsuki punched him so hard something in his mouth cracked. She dropped him, and he slumped to the ground, wincing. "Just shut up, you loser!"

Naruto hooked his leg back quickly- Satsuki tripped and hit the floor. Naruto drew back a punch, and she captured it just barely. She tried to reach for his throat, and he grabbed her by the wrist. They struggled against each other, eyes locked.

"Use your brain," Naruto spat, overpowering her a little. "All Itachi wants is for you to die there with him! If he wanted the Uchiha gone, then there's only one good reason he left you alive."

He hauled a knee over her right side, his left shin pinning down her legs. She scowled, gritting her teeth.

"Either you're stupid, or you know that- and if you do know that, then-" Naruto was speechless for a moment, but then his eyebrows knotted, he yelled- "-then you're even worse,you stupid bastard!"

His punch broken from her grip missed her narrowly, burying itself painfully into the rooftop, and Satsuki slammed a foot into his ribs so hard he was thrown off to her side.

"Stupid bastard? What about you?" Satsuki hissed. "You're even worse. I lost everything. You didn't lose anything! You had nothing to lose!"

Naruto tasted blood, and began to rise, pressing one hand flat against the floor.

"Just because everything you've ever had is bigger and better than mine," he said. "Just because, when I had some old guy who used to take time out to come see me, you had an entire clan of people who loved you-"

Satsuki slumped forward, pulling one knee to her chest and straining every muscle to stand. Naruto couldn't help but feel the only thing supporting her was the weight of her bones; trying to unfold herself, she seemed so much thinner. He drew his knees to his chest.

"-and when you had everyone yearning to be your friend, I had a teacher who treated me to ramen every once in a while-"

Naruto moved his weight to his feet shakily, and rose from a crouch, stumbling. He winced - his jaw stung from the hit with her fan.

"Just because what you had might have been better-"

Naruto said, and he felt himself on the verge of tears, "doesn't mean I didn't love what I had with everything I possibly could! So don't tell me these people meant nothing! To me, they were everything!"

"Strangers aren't family," Satsuki said, "and no matter what you say, that won't change. So don't compare those people to the people I lived with my whole life!"

She slung a punch at him. Naruto threw himself to the side, grabbing a handful of her hair and landing on his side. She grabbed his in turn - her grip was painfully tight, and Naruto gritted his teeth.

"Don't decide my feelings, you prick!"

He slammed his head into hers.

Satsuki's head jerked back violently. Naruto's ears rang; his vision pulsated with his heartbeat, and the pain was making his teeth grind. He couldn't see her properly, his sight whirring in and out.

Wincing, his forehead feeling wet, he realised Satsuki had let go of his hair, and she was curled inwards, clutching her chest. He saw black flames creeping up her next, and watching her struggle, his pain seemed to distance.

'The cursed seal,' Naruto thought. He leaned over, but Satsuki held up her free hand to stop him; he heard her ragged breaths coming in bursts. She clambered to her feet, and winced from the pain once, before snorting.

"All day, every day, since we were kids," Satsuki said, chuckling, "You've been spoiling for a fight. Making all sorts of claims about how you could beat me. And yet here you are, backing down."

Naruto got up himself, keeping steady eye contact with her.

"I'm not going to beat the shit out of you when all it will be to you is something to prove you're better than me," Naruto said. "I want to beat you when it's… something else."

"What?" she hissed. "When will my opposition be enough to you? Do you really care about what I think of this? This isn't a personal thing, Naruto. I want to surpass my brother, and- and I can't even surpass you."

Naruto fell silent.

"Once I'm past you, and this… mess, I can move on to my brother, and have him clearly in my sights." Satsuki bent a knee down, looking as though she was going to spring forward, and clasped her wrist. Lightning crawled and arced from her palm. "Don't get in my way."

Naruto couldn't meet her eyes, and swallowed with difficulty; his throat felt tight.


Naruto summoned a clone, and clawed his hand, wind and motion gathering in it like a contained hurricane. He closed his eyes. The rooftop smelled like freshly cleaned clothing but he smelled like a fight. The sun was warm, but the breeze was cold and soft. The palm of his hand burned from fast moving dust. He heard the bright whirring of air. Chirps.


He opened his eyes, and began to move off of his right leg. Satsuki was coming straight at him, the moment was slow with the buzzing of his thoughts. And that chirping.


It was all so unfamiliar - even Satsuki, for that face that was so bitter and twisted and unlike her. But he knew that chirping. Definitely. She'd used this move before, but only now had Naruto stopped to listen to its twittering melody, and it rang like bells in his head, in his memories... where-?

Second step. It didn't throw him forward, but upward - Satsuki rose in parallel. The chirping was getting louder.

"Naruto! Satsuki!"

Naruto looked to his left, and Sakura was there, weeping, running, desperate, too slow to stop them but fast enough to get in the way. Naruto saw Satsuki's eyes fill with panic, as he felt desperation rise up. That incessant chirping-

Kakashi grabbed him by the wrist. The metal handguard on the back of his glove glimmered in the sunlight. Naruto remembered.

The birds chirped.

He was crumpled against a massive metal cylinder, hand lodged into the distorted steel. Shrapnel pressed against his hand, water leaked down his jumpsuit, Sakura was crying. She cried, rushing water- Naruto was speechless.

Kakashi began talking. Naruto curled his fingers into the shape of a tulip, trying to remove his hand without slicing it open. Water burst from the cylinder when he pulled it free, and Naruto rolled over to lean his back against the metal. He felt Satsuki's gloating eye moving to the small hole made in his cylinder, but he couldn't focus.

"I'm disappointed in you both," Kakashi said. Naruto felt like he was underwater, fully clothed, weighted and drowning. He climbed to his feet slowly, placing the full force of his palm against the cylinder, taking every effort to remain on his feet. The world swayed as he did.

He lifted his eyes.

Sakura moved to Satsuki, said something in a high tone. Satsuki didn't respond, storming away- Sakura followed, but not without a glance back. The two left. Kakashi did not.

"Kakashi-sensei," Naruto said. On the last syllable, his voice tripped. "I… I don't want to sound stupid. I- I just need to ask you something."

The rooftop fell into silence. Water trickled through the tiles. For a moment, Naruto mistook his heartbeat (bu-bump) for two heavy steps behind him, like an angel cut from its wings and landing majestically on its feet. Perhaps it was stood on top of the metal cylinder; perhaps it beamed forward with a great ominous nakedness. A godly strength of truth. He breathed deeply.

'There's no way he did it.' Naruto's lip trembled. Why did Kakashi's face never seem to show anything? Even in that shred of it, that one eye he could see, there just wasn't anything. Wasn't it all just guesswork? Even a smile could only be guessed by the warm squinting of his eye. His other eye could be spinning beneath the cloth, ticking like a clock. "I- I really want to believe that it wasn't you, Kakashi-sensei, so you have to say it. Tell me that-"

Naruto choked, his throat was so dry, even though he was soaked to the bone.

"You can't have," Naruto said. He slid down the metal, his soggy jacket leaving a trail of droplets against the metal. His knees crushed his ribcage, he put a hand in his hair, racking his head for a reason. "Because…" Light. "Because- Kakashi-sensei, you're- you're not in the ANBU, right?"

Kakashi didn't say anything, but he turned a little, looking elsewhere. A telephone line. Perhaps his Sharingan could see through the cloth, at that telephone line, perhaps it could read every little vibration down to the ingredients Mora-san would put in the soup for her husband that evening.

"No," Kakashi said. "I'm not in the ANBU. You're right."

Naruto felt relief pass through him like a long needle, entering from the tip of his spine and edging out midway through his back. He forgot about the lightning, the chirping, the taste of lungs. Almost.

"So, Kakashi," the birds were singing, little chirps that tailed the cheerful trills. One tapped its talons on the top of Satsuki's water cylinder; he didn't know the bird, but it was small. "It doesn't make any sense, because you- you aren't in the ANBU."

"It seems that way."

"Then it can't be you, can it?"

"What are you asking, Naruto?" Kakashi's look over his shoulder was something cold. From a single eye, was that enough? "Do you-"

"I trust you, Kakashi-sensei." The rooftop fell into another silence. Naruto stood himself up, stepping forward with one foot. His smile that clung on; his jacket didn't, slipping down his wet shoulders. "We've- you're the root of Team 7. You believed in us and let us become ninja," his smile twitched, "You even spent- so much time helping me this past month."

His throat tightened. "So," he said, "even if- even if all the evidence seems to be pointing to you Kakashi-sensei, I- I can't, I won't believe it- not if you don't say it yourself."

Kakashi stopped looking over his shoulder, and looked towards the door Naruto and Satsuki had come through.

"Naruto, there's a big difference between being kind and being foolish. Don't confuse them."

"Why won't you just answer me?" Naruto said, voice hiking into something desperate. "Kakashi-sensei, I believe in you! I trust you! I know you wouldn't ever have killed a person unless you had to- I know you would never kill Mizuki-sensei-!"

"Then that's all there is to it." Kakashi didn't move. "There's no need to push this any further."

Kakashi left the roof. Satsuki and Sakura too, were gone. Naruto sat for a long time on the rooftop, until what had been a nest of clouds at the edge of the sky coated it in a thick stormy white, and it began to drizzle with rain.

Things carried on as normal. A strange, underwater normal - like the dreams of everyday life, where nothing out of the ordinary happens.

One day, he saw Sakura and asked her about Satsuki's chidori. She explained about Kakashi's similar move, used in the Land of Waves; how it had pierced Zabuza right through.

Naruto was unsettled. But he persevered desperately with his truth, the truth he had learned to content himself with - the truth that doesn't hurt. He continued to believe.

It was only a week or so later when Naruto sat down at Ichiraku Ramen, ordered his usual, and began eating. A couple bowls in, two off-duty ANBU sat beside him, masks pushed to the top of their heads, and ordered. They chatted, and Naruto wasn't really listening; his food required all of his attention.

Only the mention of Kakashi's name made Naruto stop.

"It sucks. If Kakashi-senpai hadn't quite the ANBU, his team would have been taking all of these hellish S-ranks instead of us."

Naruto froze.

After that, the conversation moved on, and soon, so did the ninja. But Naruto did not. He sat. He sat, he waited - his food went cold. But then he knew it wasn't true. Naruto was assuming things, because Kakashi wouldn't just lie to him like that.

'Not even- not even if I asked him to.'

So he asked Kakashi again.

As it turned out, Naruto had misunderstood: Kakashi might lie once.

But he would never lie twice.

Chapter Text

Knock, knock.


She didn't answer. Sakura had expected that.

Knock, knock.

Naruto didn't answer. Sakura had half expected that; it wasn't uncommon these days.

"Naruto?" She knocked again.

But when she said his name, she was very used to hearing a keen scrabbling of feet, a cry down the hall of "Just a minute, Sakura-chan!" - something other than biting silence.

She wanted to think he wasn't here, but peering through the window, his shoes were by the door. She'd spent the day looking for them both; her effort was felt in her knees and the soft evening sun which would soon paint the rooftops orange.

Sakura put her back to the door and slid down to the floor. Konoha was dream-like in its confusing array of colours and movement, people walking in the shadows of almost-evening light. She hiccuped, unwanted tears springing up at the corners of her eyes, and she buried her head in her knees.

"For god's sake," she whispered. "You're both- both idiots!"

She slammed her fist into the door. It cracked, and Sakura felt a sob squeeze unbidden from her. She breathed in, wrapped her arms around her knees, and held herself.

"Kakashi-sensei, what should I do? We have a mission tomorrow, don't we?" Sakura sounded desperate. "I just want them to talk to each other. I can't deal with this."

"Well, it's times like this when shinobi do what shinobi do best." Kakashi stirred his tea. "Endure."

Sakura stared at him.

"I'll be doing my best too, Sakura," he said. She imagined his smile under the mask. "So don't worry."

In reality, even her imagination couldn't create a smile under that mask real enough to convince her.

The mission was just basic construction. It sounded easy enough at first, but Sakura knew that construction was tougher than it seemed and required both endurance and teamwork. Sakura failed to inspire any semblance of teamwork - and Satsuki and Naruto had far too much endurance. Unlike her, they could endure the horrible, long silences.

As they worked to nail in planks of wood, Naruto hung onto Sakura for all conversation, not that there was much to talk about. He refused to speak to Satsuki, or even look at Kakashi, and when Kakashi gave orders he followed them reluctantly.

Satsuki refused to even speak to Naruto, and she cold-shouldered Sakura's questions with such short answers Sakura soon let up.

'How have things ended up like this?' Sakura thought, fumbling in a box of nails for one small enough. Even the nails didn't co-operate, and she clasped a handful of them so tightly blood dripped from her palm. She wept quietly.

'I'm so pathetic…!'

When Naruto and Satsuki went home (walking different ways even though Sakura was so sure they used to walk the same road), Sakura stayed and waited until her tears stopped before she left.

The dynamic was failing, regardless of Sakura's efforts, and her desperation felt crushing.


Sakura jumped, and felt her cheeks burn red. He must have seen her crying, heard her- of course. She wiped her eyes quickly, blinking, and looked down.

"I have some business but a little while to kill," Kakashi said, still buried in his book. "You don't mind if I keep you company on the walk home, do you?"

Rolling her eyes at him and sniffling, she smiled reluctantly, smacking him on the arm.

"Fine. But I wish you'd put that stupid book away, sensei. You're making me look bad."

Knock knock.


She jerked up at Kakashi's voice, turning to stare at the door from her desk. The door stared back at her, rattling with another knock.

Satsuki lowered her eyes and turned back to the desk, picking up the needle again. She lifted her feet onto the chair and sat cross-legged.

"Well, I'm coming in."

The door had swung open before Satsuki could protest, and Kakashi stood in her doorway with his hands in his pockets, blinking. Satsuki stared. He lifted a key and twiddled it between his fingers. "Sakura leant me the key. You don't mind, do you?"

Satsuki put down the needle and material, and stood up.

"What do you want?"

"Not much," Kakashi said. "Just for you to listen a little."

Satsuki scowled. 'That's a familiar expression,' Kakashi thought. 'Things really have gone back to square one.'

Kakashi leaned against the wall, not quite encroaching into her apartment. Satsuki wondered if he was trying to be conscious of her boundaries. 'Ha. It's too late for that.'

She turned away from him again, digging the needle with some force into the material. "So, what is it?"

"Your behaviour is affecting Sakura probably a lot more than it's affecting Naruto, you know."

Another vicious stitch. "I've always ignored her. What difference does it make?"

"You know very well that there is a big difference," Kakashi said, raising an eyebrow. "Large changes like this don't come about from nothing."

"Go talk to Naruto about that one." She pulled the needle wide.

"Naruto's behaviour doesn't give you a free pass to make things worse. Sakura is worried sick about you two, and you don't tell her anything. All you two do is worry her and leave her out. I'm surprised she even bothers with either of you."

The thread came loose from the needle, and Satsuki licked the end of the thread, squinting to push it through the eye. "Is that what you came here to talk about?"

Kakashi sighed. "Well, you're right. I do have more than one bone to pick with you today."

Satsuki felt her arms yanked to the chair and something digging into her stomach. She gritted her teeth, looking down. Wire. The needle clattered to the ground.

Kakashi kicked the side of the chair, spinning it to face him and rocking precariously against the floorboards.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she hissed, straining against the wire.

Kakashi twirled the end of the wire between his fingers. "Well, I suspect you're not going to listen, so I decided to make sure you couldn't just run off on me."

Satsuki strained against the wires again, before leaning back, conceding Kakashi her silence with a scowl.

"Forget about revenge."

She gritted her teeth. Hard.

"They say, before embarking on a journey of revenge, you must dig two graves," Kakashi said. Satsuki could see the reflection of the town outside of her window in his forehead protector. She refused to look him in the eye. "Because people say that by pursuing revenge, you only condemn yourself. But that's not the truth, is it?

"When you condemn yourself to this path, you only lead your friends and family down the same, ugly road. Revenge."

"What would you know about it, huh?" Satsuki spat.

"More than you'd think," Kakashi said. "This isn't the first journey of vengeance I've seen. It may not be the last. If you want to understand what I mean, just look around you. Team 7 is falling apart. You and Naruto can't see eye to eye. And you aren't the easiest to judge, Satsuki, but I'd say you're unhappier than ever.

"At the end of all of this? You'll be alone or dead, and really, it won't matter which." The wire in his fingers glinted in the sunlight. "An unworthy end for someone like you, and probably what Itachi's wanted all along."

Satsuki scowled, clenching her fists. "I'm willing to dig my own grave to kill Itachi as much as I'm willing to dig his," Satsuki leant forward, her hands outstretched as far as they would go. "And don't talk about that like you understand, because there's no way you could know anything about what it feels like to lose everything!"

"Would you undo all of the time you spent with Naruto and Sakura? All the time you spent in Team 7?"

Satsuki opened her mouth, but stopped. A strange flash of green caught her eye in Kakashi's forehead protector, and her gaze flicked to the windowsill. The plant swayed under her gaze.

She hadn't looked at it in a while. When had it developed those tiny buds? Had she forgotten about them?

"You know what Naruto's revenge did to him," he said. "If you pick at your wounds, they simply won't heal, and when they do, they'll leave a scar behind that's bigger than ever. You can understand that, can't you?"

"And what would you know about these wounds of mine?" Satsuki's lips curled downwards, and when she spoke, spit flew. "What would you know about what it's like to lose your entire world?! If I killed everyone you've ever loved, then maybe I'd listen to you - because then maybe you'd understand what it's like to exist with this burden on your back!"

"It's far too late for me to lose the people close to me," Kakashi said. "They were killed a long time ago."

Satsuki's eyes widened, an uncomfortable chill running through her, and she looked away in shame. She heard people chattering in the streets; the sound was usually comforting to her, but now it pierced her ears like white noise.

"Ninja live lives marked by loss, and we've both suffered more than most," Kakashi said. "That's for sure.

"But that doesn't mean things can't change." Satsuki looked up at him. "That things can't get better. We both know that, don't we?"

Satsuki lowered her eyes, and Kakashi noticed their odd shine. She bit her lip.

"Team 7 is the best thing that has happened to the two of us in a long time," Kakashi said. His smile beneath the mask seemed so genuine and convincing. "Naruto, too. Even Sakura is falling apart without it."

Satsuki gazed at those twisted buds, blinking. Her vision was blurring.

"The chidori was something given to you because of the precious comrades that you have now. It's not for hurting them, or seeking revenge." The wires loosened, and Satsuki slumped forwards, her elbows resting on her thighs and her gaze straight at the floor. "I think you know what it's for, Satsuki."

Satsuki didn't say anything.

"I'll leave you to think, then."

Kakashi left. A minute later, Satsuki sat on the floor, leaning against the chair. She lifted the needle she'd dropped, scraping out dirt from beneath her nails with it. The apartment grew dark.

"Is it Uzumaki Naruto?"

"No, Tsunade-sama," Shizune said, exasperated. "But it is- ah… I'll let her in."

Sakura walked in, and she bowed stiffly.

"Hokage-sama," she said. "I heard that you're practicing again."

"Yes," Tsunade said, raising an eyebrow. "I'm easing back into it. I wouldn't treat one patient and not another." She stood, looking out the window. "What is it to you? I've healed your friend."

Sakura stopped, clenching her fists and bowed her head. "I.. I have a request."

"Oh?" Tsunade turned from window, eyebrow raised. "Go on."

Sakura took a deep breath, before she knelt down to the ground and pressed her forehead to the floor.

"Please take me on as your apprentice!"

Tsunade was silent. Sakura pushed on, feeling an uncomfortable rejection in the quiet. Her desperation was bubbling up.

"I've shown you my potential," Sakura said. "I can work as hard as I need to. I extracted Orochimaru's influence from Ino and woke her up. I have good chakra control, I have patience, I can work as hard as I have to, but you just- you have to give me a chance.

"For these past months, Team 7 has been falling apart piece by piece," she said. "And I've been powerless to do anything at all. I haven't been able to interfere with Satsuki and Naruto- I haven't been able to help them when they've needed me most. No matter how hard I've tried. Please."

"Sakura," Tsunade said, "Stand up."

"I'm not standing up until you agree to train me," she said. "I'll do anything-!"

Tsunade yanked her up by her collar, and dropped her roughly on her feet. She looked her in the eyes for a long moment, searching for something.

"Honestly, you piss me off," she muttered. "Because you're loud, you're gutsy, and you're goddamn stubborn."

But then Sakura saw a softness she'd never known in Tsunade's eyes, and for a moment she understood why Tsunade's beauty was so renowned. If you saw a sweetness like that for too long, perhaps you could fall in love with someone like her.

"But I was like that as a kid too," she said, a half-smile passing her lips. "So I'll give you a chance, kid. Come to this office tomorrow morning."

Sakura felt tears that had been welling in her eyes spill out unexpectedly, and she puffed her chest out and nodded fiercely. "Yes, ma'am!"

Tsunade watched with a tenderness as Sakura left the office. Shizune frowned.

"You have a meeting tomorrow morning, Tsunade-sama," she said, looking intently at a clipboard. "With the Elder Council."

"Oh no," Tsunade said dully. "I guess you'll have to cancel it."

The training was hellish.

Tsunade's guidance, Sakura felt, was about as guiding as a mothering spank to a child. It hurt.

She persevered.

Sakura got her house key back from Kakashi, and she soon went herself to see Satsuki.

Knock, knock.


This time, she opened the door. Sakura instinctively bundled her hands behind her back, one foot rubbed the other, and she smiled. Somehow, no matter how tough she got, looking at Satsuki who she looked up to so much made her feel like such a schoolgirl.

Satsuki's expression was softer, but Sakura couldn't tell what she was feeling from her expression. She just looked tired. She was wearing some white pyjamas.

"Sakura," she said.

"Hi," Sakura said, feeling a smile on her face. "I was just wondering if you want to come out for lunch with me. And Ino."

Satsuki stared for a moment, before she looked to the ground. She scratched the side of her face.

"Okay," she said. "I need to get a shower. Come in."

Sakura came in and sat down, and she felt a deep nostalgia to when she had stayed with Satsuki. Those days had been so bizarre; she and Satsuki had coexisted harmoniously, even melodiously. It had been an odd but perfect peace.

Satsuki's place didn't evolve much with her state of mind, like Naruto's seemed to. She was too clean. Her plant wasn't, though. Somehow, it seemed to be in disarray.

The shower ran. Satsuki didn't sing in the shower. Living alone, too- if Sakura lived alone, she'd sing so loud the windows would crack. That fit Satsuki, though.

'But I bet she secretly really wants to sing in the shower. Everyone does.'

Satsuki left in a towel, and once again had little shame about getting changed in front of Sakura. 'Typical.'

But the typical, the normal, was exactly what Sakura wanted. She wanted normal back, so she sat back in Satsuki's seat, and smiled.

They left, Satsuki only having dried her hair a little bit. The day was bright, cheery, and Konoha was alive. Sakura loved the uniquely warm breeze of autumn - even if the leaves didn't change colour in the evergreen of Konoha.

Satsuki didn't talk much, but this was an odd day where Sakura didn't even feel the need to. The fact that Satsuki agreed to come out at all left Sakura feeling just an inch more hopeful about it all.

When she entered the small café, Sakura had no trouble identifying the right table. Ino's hand was high enough, but she didn't forget to yell anyway.

"Satsuki-san! Sakura! Over here!"

Sakura scurried over, pulling Ino down to the table. "Jeez, Ino, we saw you. Stop shouting."

"Hmph," Ino pouted. "Well, maybe I'm just excited to see Satsuki-san. You get to see her all the time, but I don't!"

Satsuki looked vaguely uncomfortable, but sat down anyway at Sakura's motion. They settled, with Satsuki sitting beside Sakura and Ino opposite. Sakura spread a menu between her and Satsuki, but Ino didn't look; Sakura supposed she must have already decided.

"How have things been?" Sakura asked. Ino was looking around for the waitress, but turned to shoot her a smile.

"Fine," she said. "Things have been super boring, actually. All of my missions have just been D-rank construction, or outside of the village gathering resources…"

"Yeah, same here," Sakura said. "We were doing construction yesterday."

"Ahh, isn't it the worst? Not that I want anything, like, super intense, but it's also not easy labour, or quick. It's just long, boring, and it tires me out!"

Satsuki nodded. The waitress arrived, and Ino ordered sweet chicken with rice, Sakura the same. Satsuki ordered ramen, and though Ino carried on talking, it was so uncharacteristic of her that Sakura hesitated.

"But y'know, I tell you what, having the opportunity to just do boring tiring things? It's relaxing," Ino said. "When I see the village working together in hard times like this, I really know why the Third was willing to die for sacrifice himself, you know?"

"When you talk like this, I just- it's just weird, Ino," Sakura muttered. "All of a sudden, you're taking it all so… seriously."

"It's not like that. Seeing people get along just cheers me up, Sakura," Ino said. "No one likes arguments. It's like, y'know, rhododendrons are some of my favourite plants. A lot of them are evergreen, and they can bloom in the late winter.

"But if you try to plant a rhododendron in a garden with other plants, they can poison the soil," Ino said. "Sometimes plants use their roots to choke out the rest of the garden.

"Even despite being beautiful and sweet alone, they become vicious in the face of other competing plants. So even if you want the perfect garden, sometimes certain plants simply can't coexist. It sucks." Ino sighed. "But at times like this, it's like… the whole garden has decided to thrive together instead of competing. There's no equivalent for plants though - that's what convinces me that although plants are incredible, they're not quite as incredible as people." Ino winked. "When we work together, anyway."

Sakura rolled her eyes, smiling a little. "You need to get out of that shop more."

"Speaking of which, my dad has been doting on me ever since I woke up," Ino said. "Man, he must have been worried sick."

"Yeah," Sakura said. "He really was."

"Well, Satsuki-san," Ino said, and Satsuki looked up, "We're both super lucky that Sakura's got such a big brain behind that forehead, huh? We both owe her our lives. Who knows what would have happened if she hadn't worked her ass off to get Tsunade-sama to help us."

"No, no, it's uh- it's nothing," she said. "I was just- worried about you two. I couldn't just do nothing for all that time, y'know?"

"Shush, Sakura. I'll pay for this meal, okay?" Ino smiled. "But don't forget, Satsuki-san. You really do owe her!"

Satsuki stared, and Sakura seemed to panic. "No, it's really no-"

"No, you're right, Ino," Satsuki said, staring into her ramen. "I really do owe her. Thank you, Sakura."

"Take care of our Sakura," Mebuki says. "Please keep her safe."

Satsuki pauses, and then nods, resolute.

"I promise."

She clasped the chopsticks so tight the wood began to splinter somewhat. "I'll repay you somehow."

"Well, there's that festival next week, isn't there?" Ino said. "Are you going to get dressed up for it, Sakura?"

"Ah, I didn't hear," she blinked. "What festival?"

"Jeez, Team 7 really is in a special little bubble of its own. The one celebrating the… defeat of the Nine Tails," Ino said, stuttering oddly with the memory of that spectres glistening white teeth. "Uh, I'm sure it has an actual name. But it's a big one! So you've gotta get dressed up."

"Uh, well, I don't really… have anything to wear."

Ino rolled her eyes. "You're so easily outdone, sometimes, Sakura, it just makes things boring. You have to get dressed up so we can go together! There's no way Shikamaru or Chouji will go, you know?"

"What date's it on?"

"Uh... " Ino counted off on her fingers, muttering quietly. "October 10th?"

"That's Naruto's birthday."

The two stopped. "Oh," Sakura said. "You knew that, Satsuki-san?"

Satsuki blinked, and an uncomfortable blush crept across her cheeks. She nodded and turned away.

"Oh, I see," Ino said, and a gleeful smile spread across her face. Satsuki was staring out of the window with determination, stifling a blush, and Ino gave Sakura a wink and suppressed a giggle. "Perhaps we'll invite him out too!"

As the day went on, Sakura felt more and more as though perhaps things were looking up.

Chapter Text

"Orochimaru-sama wants to make you an offer. An offer of power."

"You have until tonight to decide."

Satsuki turned on her hot tap and let the water run. She left it on too strong; a fine film of water droplets was forming on the rim of the sink. She filled the kettle, turned off the tap, and put it on the stove.

She put the tea in the strainer, rinsed and dried the teapot and cups, and set it all out on her table. The windows steamed up somewhat as she poured the water into the pot.

Satsuki poured the tea slowly, a hand on the lid of the teapot as she did.

Standing up with her cup of tea, she felt the waxy leaves of her plant. It had bloomed. Tiny white flowers, but the true attraction was the papery shell around the budding fruit. It would never split, but decay, leaving a web-like husk to protect the fruit within. A rotten shell of a lantern. The lantern plant; hōzuki.

She sat on her windowsill, bringing her knees to her chest. The sun was rising over the stony heads of the Hokage.

'If I wanted to leave tomorrow,' she thought, the teacup heating her fingertips, 'I could.'

Satsuki heard people setting up for that festival. She didn't particularly feel like going. Not with Naruto there.

Thoughts of him came into her head, and she picked up that needle and thread again, working them through, over and over as she stared at the people propping up stands on the street below. She began to wonder.

'What would he do?'

Satsuki had picked at the thought, looking for guidance - but she didn't know anyway. Naruto's name alone made her feel bitter.

But what would he do?

Satsuki didn't think Naruto would leave. Naruto liked Sakura too much. And Ichiraku ramen.

And hated Orochimaru far, far too much to ever even entertain the idea. Surely.

Satsuki sipped at her tea, scalding her lips and swallowing it quickly. No, she decided. Naruto wouldn't go.


A bold, singsong voice sounded outside her door. She set down the tea, and the sewing, and opened the door with trepidation.


She was clutching a big and well-stuffed bag, and she stepped in with confidence, taking off her shoes neatly. "Did you forget what day it is, Satsuki-san?"

Satsuki blinked, counting days in her head as Ino opened her bag and started setting up on her kitchen table. "The… 10th?"

"Mhm! The 10th! Today's the festival. And you, me, Sakura, and Naruto are all going to go together!"

Satsuki looked down. She was barefoot; her toes twitched as she looked at them, as though perturbed by her gaze.

"Ino," she said, as she clenched her fists, her toes curled a little into her feet. "Naruto can't even bear the sight of me."

"That's not-"

Satsuki grabbed the teapot - how it burnt her - and flung it at the window. It cracked in two, but shattered on the windowsill, tea dribbling down the window to join the spatters of it between the shards.

Ino froze.

"And I can't bear the sight of him!"

Satsuki stormed to the windowsill, scraping up painful handfuls of the ceramic and throwing them into a bag. "Don't try and comfort me."

Ino took a careful step. "Satsuki-san, I know you're hurt-"

"I'm not hurt," she spat, a trail of blood dripping down from the crease of her palm. "I'm angry."

Ino didn't say anything, and Satsuki fell quiet again, pushing the last of the shards into the bag and leaving a curved smear of blood on the windowsill. She set the bag down with a clatter and began to twist a cloth under the running tap, the water running pink in spurts.

"Naruto talks about my goals, my revenge, like a priest," Satsuki hissed, her nails scraping out some blood that had embedded itself in the cloth. "But he has no problem with pursuing his own personal slaughter. All he is is an obstacle. A selfish fucking obstacle that I won't let get in my way anymore."

"If you think Naruto's a hypocrite," Ino said, "then maybe you should take a look at yourself."

Satsuki turned to her, glaring, and for a moment Ino thought she had lit the Sharingan - the reflection of the sunlight illuminated her eyes ominously. She scowled.

"Don't condemn Naruto for being selfish when you won't take one day out of your miserable wallowing to make Sakura feel better," Ino hissed, putting down a can of hairspray with a controlled and angry motion. "All you have to do is lie. Just go out, be civil, and convince Sakura things have a chance of returning to the way they were. For one day."

Satsuki didn't respond. She wrung the cloth out once more, and began to wipe the window.

"Sakura's over at Naruto's right now, actually," Ino said nonchalantly. "She'll ask him to go out tonight. She'll go get ready herself, and then she'll go out. Y'know what that'll look like?

"Naruto will look kind, and you'll look bitter. And from the looks of it, that's how it is. Because all you care about is you."

Satsuki found herself squeezing the rag hard, and water trailed down the window. It distorted the face of a woman who was trying and failing to light a lantern. Still, she stuck another match.

Bitterly, she remembered the promise she'd made to Sakura.

Satsuki recalled the promise she had made to Sakura's mother, imagined Sakura's sleepless nights of worry and study to protect her, and clasped her chopsticks so tight they almost splintered in her hands.

"I'll repay you. Somehow."

She sighed, reaching the bottom of the window and bringing the cloth to the bloodstain.

"So, will you do it?"

Satsuki bit her lip, and felt a sharp pain as it split.


Ino's tone turned gleeful. "Great! We'll make you look lovely. I've brought all this stuff over-!"

Satsuki felt a dreadful regret, and sighed. She eyed the sewing. "I'm almost done with this sewing. I'm finishing that first."

"I'll be waiting!"

Satsuki grimaced.

Naruto was lying on his bed when Sakura knocked. He didn't know what possessed him to answer.

"Sakura-chan, it's nice to see ya," Naruto said. His hair was mussed and strewn all over his forehead; one strand was tickling his eyelashes.

Sakura's eyes flicked to the room behind him. She saw the shards of a plant pot and soil strewn on the floor. 'The place is a mess...'

"You too, Naruto," she smiled. Her arms were awkwardly twisted behind her back, and she hooked them out from behind her with a flourish.

Naruto's throat was too dry to talk.

"Happy birthday, Naruto," Sakura said. Her smile tickled her cheeks to a colour as pink as her hair.

Naruto blinked three times, and he swallowed, taking the basket from her tenderly. He stared at it.

A big basket of fruit, and other strange little tidbits; lollipops, sweets, and tiny little bits of origami. Cranes and tiny bundled up stars on patterned paper. It was beautiful, and the handle had a big bow on it.

He struggled, "Sakura," The honorific was lost somewhere in his shock. "I…"

Where did she get that smile?

"Well, I'd say I have another gift, but it's more like I'm asking you a favour," Sakura said, rubbing one foot against the other. "So, wait before you thank me, okay?"

Naruto was quiet.

"I was hoping we could all go to the festival together," she said, her lips twisting into a wistful half smile. "Me, you, Ino, and… Satsuki-san, too."

Her name made Naruto look down. Satsuki. As much as he hadn't seen her, her name was too familiar in his thoughts for it to bring up anything new.

Naruto sighed, leaning on his doorframe. Behind Sakura was the little mezzanine that the door to his apartment had always been on; he couldn't see the sun itself, but he could see the bright light it cast over the city, and the shadows it cast in the street below.

"I knew you wouldn't want to," Sakura said. She didn't sound bitter, just hesitant, a little resigned. "But I really thought it would be fun to go out today. All four of us. I know you two aren't…"

She trailed off. Looking up at her, she smiled again, that smile that made him feel alive from shoulder to shoulder. "And I want to spend the day with you, Naruto. It'll be just like old times."

Old times. Surely it wasn't that long ago, Naruto thought. He didn't want to go. He didn't want to see Satsuki, when there was way too much between them for them to ever understand each other again, and he didn't want to go out into the busy city. Especially not now.

"Sure, Sakura-chan," he said, smiling like there was a knife to his nape. "It'll be like old times."

Sakura clasped her hands together in front of her chest, and bounced on her feet, barely containing her excitement before she threw her arms around him with a smile.

"It'll be great, Naruto!"

'Definitely not,' Naruto thought, tentatively putting his arms around her too, 'But how many other people has she suckered in with that smile?'

Naruto waited by the stands near the Hokage Tower, as Sakura had very firmly told him. Some faces he sort of knew occasionally passed him. The town was buzzing.

The festival was in full swing. Konoha was a place of many talents; people who were otherwise regularly serving ninja were conducting special events. Some were relevant, like professional samurai performances; others not, like goldfish scooping, warm sake, skewered foods on open grills. It was lively, and despite being in layer after layer, feeling somewhat strung up his yukata, Naruto yawned.

The perpetual glow of lanterns made the sky seem some nameless colour, the stars indiscernible, and most of all, made him feel like falling asleep.

Sakura had gone home to get changed. She'd helped dress him for the most part, though. Like hell he knew how yukatas worked. They looked cute enough, but underneath, it was a confusing maze of towels and cloth and other strange things.

The night drew by him like a flat fast-flowing stream and he felt like a rock that peeked from the surface. You wouldn't be able to discern how fast the water was flowing, how lively the night was, unless you saw it push past his unmoving self.

Naruto was told boys wear dark yukata, but Sakura had somehow found an orange. It was the only thing that felt right about him. People passed him by, for the most part, enthralled in the glitz of the festival.


Sakura was the one waving broadly, her cheeks pink with excitement. Her hair was pinned back with some elaborate clip, her makeup pristine, and her kimono was a bright turquoise with flowered patterns rising from the bottom. Ino was there too, her long hair elaborately curled into a high ponytail that cascaded down the left side of her head. She was stunning, and grinning all at once.

Between them was Satsuki, and she made his breath disappear somewhere into the crisp evening air.

She was in a blue so dark it made her seem almost like a spirit. Her hair was pinned up into a bun, two sticks passing through it and cascading decorations of flowers. Naruto hadn't ever seen a girl in such a dark colour before; in fact, he was pretty sure only men and older women were supposed to wear such dark colours in yukata.

The colour faded into a gradient of lighter blue at the end of her sleeves, and at the bottom of the fabric was embroidered a single sprawling white chrysanthemum.

'Chrysanthemums,' Naruto thought. 'The flower that blooms in late Autumn, despite the cold.'

She didn't even look real. Her lips were red, not especially well-applied - he imagined she begrudgingly let Sakura paint them - and her eyelashes were as black and striking as her hair. A single strand of it fell by her eyes; the edge of her eyeliner flicked outwards. She looked as though an amateur had painted a beautiful doll, but she was pouting, her steps dragging behind Sakura and Ino's. Naruto imagined if they weren't linking arms, she would have long taken off. They stopped walking, talking to him. Apparently.


"-to! Come on, what do you think?" Sakura tilted her head encouragingly.

"I," Naruto said. His throat was dry for the second time today. "Um, why's Satsuki wearing that dark colour?"

"Well, you're wearing orange, aren't you?" Ino said, raising an eyebrow. "You aren't one to talk."

Satsuki's cheeks turned pink even through the makeup, but she scowled and turned away.

"You look good, Naruto," Sakura said.

"You dressed me, Sakura-chan."

"I know." She winked. "So what about me?"

"You look," Naruto coughed, "Lovely, Sakura-chan. You three look really nice."

Ino smiled warmly. "Bet you've never gone out with three girls at a festival before! Everyone will be so jealous."

Naruto couldn't ever remember going to a festival like this at all. Let alone with three pretty girls. He felt distinctly embarrassed.

"Yeah," he said. That was it, then. Sakura took him by the arm - had she ever been so cosy with him before? Naruto felt as fuzzy as the warm lighting that pervaded the festival, as fuzzy as the passing conversations, as fuzzy as his stomach had felt when he'd looked at Satsuki.

Satsuki made eye contact with him, and scowled, but Naruto saw a tiny twist of a smile crawl onto her lips.


A chinese lantern went up.

Satsuki's stumbled, ankles wobbling in her geta. Walking on water was one thing, walking in awkward footwear was another. She hadn't even wanted to be here.

When she looked at Sakura, and then Naruto, though, it was undeniable she felt something. No matter how angry she got, no matter what, she knew, Naruto knew - just one day.

'Just one day,' Satsuki thought. 'For just one day, we can pretend, right?'

They walked, the four of them, clogging the main walkway a little. Ino and Sakura got caught up by some elaborate masks, and so Naruto and Satsuki stood as the girls chattered.

Satsuki didn't know what to say to him. She didn't look at him, instead staring intently at a painted lantern. Satsuki felt like a strung up puppet, her obi so tight her back was forced into an entirely upright posture. She smelled food, and her stomach mumbled quietly.

Naruto, having bought some skewers of beef at an obscure point, held one up to Satsuki. She scowled.

"I'm not hungry."

"Okay," Naruto said, and he grinned mischievously onto his lips. "Then hold it for me."

She clasped it. She resisted the urge to bite her lip - it was still stinging. It smelled nice.

"And if uh, that food somehow disappears, I won't be too upset!"

Satsuki rolled her eyes, and bit into the food with extreme reluctance.

Naruto winked, and she almost threw the skewer right back at him. But she was hungry, so she settled for chewing with a scowl. Naruto took the opportunity to take a bite of his and send her a wink, and she used her free hand to throttle him.

"Satsuki-san! Get off of him!"

"I'm making this world a better place."

After she'd separated the two, Sakura began to absorb the full decor of the festival, and she breathed out with a face the picture of delight. "Isn't this all so wonderful, Ino?"

"It is, huh," Ino said, grinning. "Like… it's nice to see that ninja can let loose every once in a while, too! It's like an entire garden blooming in uni-"

"Don't ruin this with a flower metaphor, Ino. Not everything is a garden."

"It's not my fault my best friend is named after a beautiful flower," Ino giggled. "It makes it extra-relevant!"

But then, loudly, the soft strumming of a shamisen was projected down the main square, and the strong nasal melody of enka-singing. People parted to make way, and Naruto peered down the path; a massive float was coming along slowly.

It was made of paper, and little gasps of awe went through the crowd like a ripple - orange paper that glowed from the inside, painted with painstaking care. A shinobi from Suna at the front of the float twitched his fingers carefully, moving each tail with care and pulling at the jaw to make it seem as though the Nine Tails was panting. Steam puffed out from a well placed mechanism in its mouth. People applauded at the masterful modelling and paintwork.

Everyone was absorbed in the grandeur, but Satsuki saw Naruto fumble awkwardly, looking away from the model.

The enka singing segued into a chord of melancholy and grandeur. Extravagant horses walked between each float, presumably pulling them along. Their saddles and blinkers were adorned with beautiful patterns.

The shamisen played briefly alone, and the woman singing and the band passed by them on a small float. A child on their father's shoulders reached forward excitedly; the singer smiled at her, waving.

"I wish I could sing like that," Ino whispered.

"Me too…"

One by one, scenes passed; next was the giant frog, Gamabunta, with the Fourth Hokage atop his head, hands poised in a seal. Gamabunta blinked mechanically, puffing from his pipe occasionally. Then there was the slain Nine Tails, and the Fourth Hokage dramatically falling to the ground. Satsuki saw the final float of dancers throwing out petals in the distance, and then saw Naruto beside her, looking as though he wished he were anywhere but there.

Satsuki felt a pang of pity, and rolled her eyes. She saw a stand a little behind them, and came up with an idea.

'I can't believe I do anything for this ass.'

"Oi, usuratonkachi."

That nickname again. "What."

"I was just wondering," Satsuki said. She seemed sullen. "Ninja are adults, right?"

"Sure they are," Naruto said, confused. "Why, what?"

She folded her arms, letting out a little huff that he could only tell by how that one loose strand of hair blew up for a moment. "They're giving out free warm sake."

"Sake?" Naruto said, frowning. "But we're not old enough."

Satsuki didn't look at him. Abruptly, he realised how much this was killing her to try and do, and he smirked.

"You wanna go get some?"

"If you insist," she said hurriedly, and Naruto laughed, grabbing her by the sleeve and "dragging" her over to the stand she'd been looking at. Sure enough, one free warm sake to every customer, in lovely homely characters at the side.

Naruto couldn't help but laugh. Watching Satsuki try to be rebellious was like watching a middle-aged nobleman try and suggest a wild night of opening his vintage brandy and using the country club's lounge past closing hours.

"Two warm sake?" A man with big dimples said, smiling. He placed them down before either of them could say anything, and quickly lifted two used dishes from the counter, rinsing them with a wet cloth.

"What are you two doing?"

Naruto had never seen Satsuki turn so fast, and he lost it, doubling over with laughter. She blushed furiously, and Ino raised an eyebrow.

"N-Nothing," she quipped. Naruto laughed harder.

Sakura, at Ino's side, put a dainty hand in front of her mouth and gasped, smirking. "Are you two drinking?"

Naruto's laugh had become silent in its hysteria. Satsuki began to stutter.

"We're… We're just-"

Sakura shook her head, the corner of her mouth quirking upwards as she sent a wink toward Naruto. "Satsuki-san, Satsuki-san… How you've fallen from grace."

Ino leaned back to look at the sign on the side of the stall. "Wait, it's free?"

Before Sakura could fit a word in edgewise, Ino had bounded forward, slamming her fist on the counter and giving the man behind the counter a hard look. "Two warm sake for two hot ladies, sir!"

"Ino," Sakura scolded, laughing. The man placed two more on the counter, and Ino grinned, pulling Naruto to his feet and lifting her choko of sake suggestively.

"To being completely of age!" She grinned. Sakura, Naruto and Satsuki begrudgingly lifted their sake, before throwing them back.

The four of them spluttered in unison, falling into various positions of recovery from throwing back a hot drink like a shot. The man behind the counter laughed. Naruto choked particularly violently.

"That's- That's awful, old man!"

"Do you down your coffee too? I never told any of you to throw back a hot drink!"


Naruto looked at Satsuki, gaping. "What?"

"I'll have a full tokkuri of chilled sake."


They all poured one more choko for themselves from the tokkuri - and sipped at them as the floats went by. But then the dancing started, with the enka singing returning to do a proper number, and everyone encouraged to dance in pairs. Whilst Sakura and Ino took it upon themselves to go dancing, Naruto and Satsuki both decided they weren't the dancing type. So Ino and Sakura drank the last of their drinks and wandered over in search of boys to dance with.

"Oi, old man," Naruto said. "Do you mind if we order some takoyaki from the stand next door and bring it in here?"

"Not at all," he said. "Go ahead."

As Naruto ordered the food, Satsuki found herself zoning out in thought. She imagined that alcohol was muddling her brain a little, but this wasn't so bad.

Being around Naruto wasn't unbearable - in fact, forgetting all their bad blood was unnervingly easy. In favour of happiness, was it easy to accept something you didn't truly believe? How easy? If she became too comfortable, would she even forget about Ita-


She twitched. "Don't call me that."

Naruto pushed a plate of seared octopus onto the counter, and grinned mischieviously, picking some as Satsuki did.

Soft, somewhat chewy, and seared with delicious spice. She unwittingly let out some sort of noise as she ate, but not quite as audible as Naruto's very tangible delight.

They both finished their takoyaki around the same time, and if Satsuki hadn't been feeling a little off-step from the alcohol, she'd have wondered what that said about her eating speed.

She finished her drink. The taste of sake and spiced seafood mixed quite nicely in her mouth, and Naruto at her side seemed to agree, patting his stomach and grinning.

He stretched, his orange yukata sliding down his shoulders. "Right! Where should we go now?"

"Let's walk," Satsuki said. "We'll see."

Walking made the sake a little more obvious. It wasn't too bad. Just her body was a different… weight. And she wasn't as good at proportioning that weight. It was only one night, she supposed. A treat.

Naruto walked close to her. Everything felt a bit fuzzier now. She didn't mind the noise now, the people. The bustle. It felt warm, like how Naruto's hand batted hers.

One night, she supposed. A treat.

'Could things always be this way?' She wondered. 'If Naruto and I just… let all of these things go, and looked at each other for who we were, could we always be this…'

Naruto grinned at her, stumbling in his step.


As much as Sakura liked the idea of dancing with a boy, she didn't like being touched by a stranger whatsoever.

This boy was pretty enough, though older than her, with a broad smile. He pulled her close and interwove her hand with his. She tried to pull it back a little, politely, but his grip was firm enough to dissuade her. She grimaced slightly.

"What's your name?" he said, pulling her in yet closer. Sakura struggled not to step on his feet with her shoes.

"Uh," she said.


Ino suddenly pulled her aside then. "I've been looking for you everywhere!" She winked.

"Ah, I didn't- didn't know," she stuttered.

"You're looking lovely for our date!"

Sakura blushed to the tips of her ears, and then the boy beside her raised an eyebrow.

"Sorry," he said, slightly embarrassed, and drifted into the crowd, and Ino stepped back, laughing.

"Ino, you're so embarrassing!" Sakura huffed.

Ino smiled. "Sorry, Sakura. I kinda wanted to get away from my partner, so I was hoping you would too."

"I wasn't too comfortable either," Sakura admitted. "So... thanks."

Ino interwove her hands with hers then, pulling back a little to grin. "We can dance together, can't we? Boys are a little overrated. Got no idea how to move their feet."

Sakura laughed. There was a blue and orange whir beside them, and Naruto smiled at them both.

"Sakura-chan! Ino!"

"Are you two coming to dance?" Sakura asked. Ino winked at Sakura, and she struggled to keep a grin down.

"Nah, I can't dance," Naruto chuckled. "We're gonna go find a stand."

"Well, be back here at midnight, okay?" Sakura said. "There's a big fireworks display. You don't wanna miss it."

"We won't! Come on, Satsuki!"

"Don't drag me."

The two passed by and Ino smiled, moving gently back to the twang of the shamisen. "Places like this don't remind me of plants, you know," she said. "Warm, happy places like this just remind me of you, Sakura."

"Don't get sappy, Ino. They remind me of you too. Loud and overbearing."

"I think you mean hot and charming, Sa-ku-ra."

The two of them came across goldfish scooping. Naruto liked the look of it - and seeing as they were ninja, surely it would be easier.


Maybe not.

The net broke again. How did people do this? The fish just broke through! Satsuki watched on at his side, and Naruto gritted his teeth and tried to gently scoop the fish in.

Satsuki's hand clasped his, suddenly. Naruto jumped, and looked at her, but she was looking at the water.

"Watch," she said. And she guided his hand beneath the fish, coaxing it forward, before batting it gently with the net so it sprang out of the water and into the net. One simple and perfectly done movement. Naruto blinked.

Her hand felt warm. When was the last time him and Satsuki had ever gotten along like this?

"Thanks," he said.

The little fish looked up, wiggling appreciatively. Their reward was apparently the fish - Naruto and Satsuki passed it on to a kid who was pointing insistently at the stand, and were on their way.

They walked slowly, absorbing the scenery at their own gentle pace..

Someone knocked into Naruto, so hard that he tripped in his yukata clumsily and hit the ground, a geta slipping off his foot.

He looked up at them, and they looked back.

Two of them, both looking from over their shoulders. Those four eyes boring into him, and he knew very well what they said, what they had always said. They didn't need to speak. They didn't need to stay. They didn't need to look at him for more than a moment for Naruto to understand.

They walked away, and their mouths moved once they were five foot away from him. He only made out one word.


Naruto felt his fingers digging into the ground, dry dust pushing underneath his fingernails. The sweet orange glow of the night suddenly seemed like the oppressive glow of streetlights, or of fire, or of orange chakra that ate away at his skin and his substance. He bit his lip, the night blurring before his eyes.


Satsuki didn't wait for Naruto to see her outstretched hand, yanking him up by the collar and setting him on his feet. He blinked hard, and then saw her reaching on the floor for his shoe.

"Don't think about it."

She slipped his foot into the geta and then stood. Her eyes, normally so dull, reflected the lively night around him, but were intently focused on him.

"You're you."

She grabbed his hand, and it wasn't in the slightest tender - she didn't wait for him to regain his bearings before she pulled him along the main road. And she didn't give way to others in front of her, but marched past.

"Indulging the idea of being someone else is just painful." Her geta left little scuff marks in the ground. "Painful and childish!"

The stalls thinned out, and the streets began to narrow as they met with the suburbs. Lanterns still adorned every window, but the text carefully painted on them were just smudges of black as Satsuki picked up her pace.

"Thoughts like that," she said, "I don't know what they mean to you-"

Satsuki ran into an alley, dragging him behind. Her geta clattered to the floor as she kicked them off, and he did the same. They ran in their thick socks, picking up dirt.

"-but when you wish for things like that, you're denying my world," She stuttered abruptly. "The only part of it I really-"

The alley opened up abruptly into the lighter end of the sky, into a wide open area. Naruto took it in a moment; the grassy slope before them, the nostalgic pier, and the river, where a boat adorned with torches was sailing. But Satsuki didn't, and she walked down it unsteadily, soil sticking to her socks, and dragged him down with her.

He forgot all about what she was going to say. The boat, out on the lake, had many men on the oars, two men wielding brightly burning torches, and a massive taiko drum in the middle of the boat. With the clack of a wooden instrument, the two performers on either side of the drum began beating at the skin with a baton in each hand. It was a lively and majestic beat.

"I'm taking these off," Satsuki muttered, pulling off her socks as she walked to the edge of the pier.

Naruto followed suit, and Satsuki sat down, legs swinging over the edge. He suddenly recalled in vivid clarity, the nostalgia of this pier, and grinned as he sat himself down beside her.

"So, do you remember?" He said, smiling. "This exact spot!"

Satsuki let a smile crawl onto her lips.

"I might."

The taiko drum was beating out ripples across the still lake - the relatively windless night made it seem like ripples travelling through a glass of water.

"How long ago even was that? That was like- I mean, I guess we were just..." There was a great cry from the boat, and a dramatic roll of drums. "Just kids."

Satsuki nodded. Her makeup and hair had become imperfect, what with drinking sake, eating and the general buzz of the night. Her lipstick had smeared, her foundation fading, the baby hair at her hairline falling out of its hairsprayed perfection. Strands tickled her ears. Her eyes were focused on the performance on the boat - but Naruto couldn't help but see her posture.

Her elbows resting on her thighs, slumped over a little, her legs slightly spread. A boyish and childish pose, the exact way she used to sit on that pier, cogitating about things Naruto couldn't have hoped to have understood.

Satsuki grabbed a rock from the edge of the river. She pursed her lips, leaned back a little, and slung it across the lake. It bounced and bounced, almost hitting the edge of the boat - but it sank a step too late.

"So close!"

She tossed him a rock. "You go," she said.

Naruto looked at the rock, half the size of his palm, and laughed, rubbing the back of his head with a bashful grin. "Umm... I can't skip rocks."

Satsuki raised an eyebrow.

"Don't give me that look, bastard. Why would I ever learn?"

She rolled her eyes. "Some ninja."

"At least I didn't waste my time learning how to skip rocks instead of how to be a ninja, you bastard!"

Satsuki took the rock from his hand, and sighed. "Watch me."

She leant back, rearing her arm back at the elbow, before flicking it forward and firing the rock across the technique. This time, it went wide of the boat.

Naruto sniffed. "Yeah, well, if I had the Sharingan I'd just copy it."

"But you don't. So just do it."

Naruto huffed, drew back his hands and tried. It entered the water with surprising grace, and did not come close to bouncing.

"That was awful."

"Screw off, bastard."

Satsuki sighed.

That tiresome face of hers was too nostalgic. It reminded Naruto so intently of those days they had spent, and now of all their time together - she was always so sick of his inability to do anything, but she would sit there and teach him, even if she seemed exasperated all the while

He couldn't understand it.

She leaned over, holding his hand and his arm and adjusting them herself. "So lean back, draw it back, and then-"

"Let go," he huffed, shaking himself out of her grip. "I'll do it. I can so do it."

Satsuki raised an eyebrow, and Naruto slung the stone across the water so hard it bounced three times and knocked a rower in the head. The man slumped.

Satsuki's eyes widened, and Naruto laughed in his throat, choking back a bout of raucous laughter.

"Oi, you two-!"

Naruto dived into the water, and grabbed Satsuki's sleeve as he did.

Laughter almost made him choke on the water as he swam - he could hear yelling, so he swam faster, with Satsuki at his side smirking.

They pulled themselves on shore further down, and Naruto spluttered, howling with laughter and clutching his gut.

"Oh- Oh my god, if he's dead-"

Satsuki rolled over, coughing.

"Oi! You brats!"

Satsuki hauled herself to her feet, pulling Naruto all the while.

"Yo, Satsuki," Naruto coughed, stumbling across the grass, "How much have you got on under that?"

Satsuki raised her eyebrows. "What?"

"I think we'd better take em off," Naruto said, lifting the great sopping weight of his soaked orange yukata. "Kinda heavy, and those guys are uh- kinda fast-"

Satsuki grimaced, and reached awkwardly behind her to fiddle with the complex obi. The yukata fell apart with it, and she shrugged it off her shoulders and held it in her right hand. Naruto did the same.

As they came up to the bout of woods near the river, they threw the wet yukata onto the first branch they saw, and ran.

"Oi, Satsuki, do you still remember how to climb trees?"

"Of course-"

Naruto yanked her up by her arm as he weaved his run into his run up the bark. Satsuki's feet left inexperienced gashes in the wood, before she regained her footing and ran with Naruto, each branch providing leverage as they went. They curled up against the trunk, and waited for the people to pass by.

As their angry mutters faded into the distance, Naruto exhaled loudly.

"Maan, that's nostalgic. Running away from crap I've done," Naruto said, grinning on the other side of the trunk. "Except, now you're involved."

"Thanks, usuratonkachi."

He sighed a breath of relief, and took in the scenery.

They were higher up in the foliage; night had come in full force now. They were beyond the outskirts now, and they saw the warm glow of Konoha's festival, the occasional flickering lantern rising into the sky. And they saw the stars too, and the contrasting cold of moonlight.

"It's a nice night, huh?"

Satsuki made some noise of agreement.

"The view's nice, but I'm gonna climb down. I have like, sticks stuck in weird places."

She didn't say anything, but he heard branches crackling from her side.

Naruto landed with a thump, Satsuki with the rustle of long grass.

"You have to wear that under your yukata?" Naruto said, frowning. "All I had to wear was my shorts. Seriously, that looks uncomfortable."

Satsuki picked at the sleeve of her camisole; she was wearing a white undergarment from her knees to her shoulders, loose but stuck to her skin in places. "Sakura said so."

"Your makeup is like, smudged too," he said. "Your eyes. Underneath them, it's all black."

Satsuki carefully scraped it with her fingernail in one swipe under each eye. "Is that better?"

"Mm." Naruto stretched in the clearing, swinging his legs. "It's kinda nice to be out here! It's so quiet, and in the city it's so… you know. Busy."

A droplet of water ran down his leg.

"We should dry off," Satsuki said, pulling at the sopping wet camisole. She squeezed it; water dripped from between her fists.

"You have that, like, fire technique, right?"

Satsuki looked at him.

"Like, the vomiting fire jutsu," he said. "So like."

"What," she said. "Set you on fire?"

"No, but you know. Use it to make a little fire."

"We are in the woods, Naruto. Everything here is flammable."

"Can't you make a little fire?"

"I could try. And then maybe we'd be better known as the Village hidden in the Ash."

Naruto made a general noise of complaint. "I'm cold."

A breeze passed through, and Naruto shivered.

"Ugh, whatever! Let's just- just spar, or something."

Satsuki blinked. "Spar?"

"Yes. A fight. It'll dry us off," Naruto stressed. "And it's fun, right?"

Satsuki had a painful remembrance of when she'd fought Naruto on the roof - all the awful things she'd said, half of them true, half of them born of pure spite, and she couldn't stop herself from speaking.

"As equals."

Naruto was silent.

The distant sound of music and talk phased out for a moment, and he wondered if he could do this. Just put it all aside, just for a night. A perfect night, where he could forget everything, and everyone, even the dead, even the inevitable morning.

"Well, show me you're equal then, you bastard!"

She threw her first punch like a shotput, and it swung her off balance like one too - she'd had no clue how much force she'd put into that, but it was far too much. She remembered the sake.

Naruto caught it and kicked beneath her. She almost crashed to the ground like a sack of potatoes, but she planted one hand firmly on the floor, directing her weight gently to the side. He lunged to grab one of her legs, but she slammed one foot harshly down on his head. Naruto's face almost slammed right down into the soil, but he rolled across the clearing.

Satsuki gathered her bearings, hoisting herself up into a crawl. Naruto spied her legs tensing for a sprint, and he put his hands into a familiar handsign. There was a little cloud of smoke, and a great number of ninja surrounding Naruto. She tensed herself into the defensive, sprawling one hand into a splayed fan and tensing the other into a closed one. She activated her Sharingan.

The first Naruto came with a big cocky grin. She slammed him in the neck with the hard edge of her hand. Poof.

The second she didn't even see coming. He came down from above like a bomb. She grabbed him by the leg and used all of her gravity to throw him into the third Naruto - who knows what he'd looked like.

The fourth swung a punch quite dangerously close - it skimmed her ear and let a little puff of deafening wind down it. She grabbed him by that arm, and threw him to the ground, pressing her foot into his ribcage. She actually heard the ribs cracking before he disappeared. Poof.

She ducked, her foot falling through where that Naruto had been as one threw himself over her. It was a sight to behold as he sailed over her in a complete miss, and a fine distraction too. A Naruto cracked her jaw from below. She didn't have the luxury of disappearing - she almost bit through her tongue.

She was thrown backwards, and she threw her legs over herself in an effort to catch the landing - she didn't bounce off her hands so much as fall to her knees in a clumsy somersault. Her mouth tasted like coins.

The fifth and sixth Narutos gave her a little break, but didn't fail to supply her with a little victorious giggle and even a tongue pull. She hoisted herself up on her right knee, and lifted her leg up, ready to come down like a clap of lightning. Naruto tensed, as though he knew what was coming, watching her carefully to see what she would say.

But Satsuki didn't announce the stance this time. She just slammed it to the ground, and a shock of sound flooded through the area.

Naruto was thrown off, the clone beside him disappearing, and Satsuki sprung off her her back leg into a comfortable sprint. Naruto was off-balance, but still caught her punch with the bulk of his forearm. He cursed, stumbling back, and she threw another punch towards his gut, lowering her weight. He grabbed her wrist just barely, projecting her weight to the side of him, and then he yanked that arm sharply down. The pain rippled through her arm like a radiowave, and she sprung over into a somersault to stop him from breaking it. She grabbed his hair and slammed him to the ground right beside her. He grinned, and she tightened the grip. He winced.

"Goddamn, Satsuki. A friendly spar and you're still pulling hair?"

"As long as you're still punching me in the jaw, that is."

"Fine, fine! I give up." Naruto grinned, and Satsuki laid back onto her arms. "It looks like it was a draw, huh?"

"Something like that," Satsuki shrugged.

Naruto didn't quite let it go, his eyes sparkling with something he had decided not to say as he stared at her. He settled back too then, looking at the stars.

"It's a great night. Really special." He adjusted his arms behind him, making it so he was leaning on his elbows. He shuffled into a comfier position. "Have you been to one of these before?"

"Not since I was younger."

Naruto made a noise of agreement. "I don't think I've ever been."

Satsuki didn't say anything for a minute, as though mulling over it.

"This festival's on your birthday, isn't it?"

Naruto chuckled. She didn't really like that laugh, because somehow she felt it was like he was just doing it for her. Nothing funny about it, but if he laughed like that, she wouldn't feel so bad about his answer. "Well, there's no point going to a festival on your own, right?"

She'd been right, and she settled uncomfortably into silence.

"It's not like I'm any good at goldfish scooping either way," Naruto said. "I'm not a dancer, either. But the parade was nice, and so is the atmosphere… even so, you know, the things that were most fun today weren't- well, y'know, it wasn't the festival that made it great."

Satsuki wondered what he was trying to say.

"Do you drink sake all the time, Satsuki?"

She gave him a look. "Shut up."

"Hey, you're not getting out of this! I didn't know you were secretly a rebellious teenager, out drinking every night-"

"And you complained all the way to the bottom of the jug."

Naruto laughed, and then laid back onto the grass, his face painted in shades of dark tinged blue and white tinged yellow. Moonlight and starlight, both outshone by the simple lines of Naruto's smile.

"You know what I mean, though." He smiled knowingly. "The best parts about today were… spent with other people. Fun because someone's there with you. And it's even funnier because some of it is like, especially unfun if someone's not there with you. Like… getting in really deep trouble."

"I am not in deep trouble." Satsuki raised an eyebrow. "That's just you."

"If you taught me how to skip rocks and I used that to kill someone, and not to mention, you escaped with me - I mean, at this point you're just like, an accessory to murder-"

"If that man's dead, I'm not coming to the trial."

"You're going to be the one on trial!"

"As if, idiot."

"Everyone is equal under the law, Satsuki."

"Do you even know what means?"

"I think you could kill a man. I don't know. You know, you've got that temper of yours- and not to mention, you're a trained killer- it's basically a given."

Satsuki rolled her eyes.

"Don't dismiss the law, Satsuki."

"Stop talking about the goddamn law."

Naruto looked at her, with a sudden intensity in his eyes, and he grabbed her by both shoulders, careening over so he was a few inches away from her face, held apart by his stiff arms. He leaned in closer. He'd blotted out the sky, so it was darker and darker between them, until-


Satsuki rolled over, face down on the grass, grass tickling her nose as she laughed.

If Naruto had ever heard Satsuki's laughter before, then he'd forgotten it. It was interspersed with squeaks and snorts, the laugh of someone who doesn't laugh in public, and honestly, he hoped he'd never ever forget it again.

Naruto and Satsuki dashed, at the first splutter of crackling fireworks, with trawls of yukata and towels in their arms.

As they made their way through throngs of crowd bustling to get into the main centre, Naruto winked at Satsuki and vaulted onto a porch using a pipe as leverage. She frowned, following him.

"On the rooftops in my underwear," she muttered.

Naruto laughed.

"Drunk and underage, too!"

He jumped onto a higher roof, and then began running. A pirouetting firework span its way into the sky, spinning excitedly. Satsuki almost slipped through the gaps between buildings, as mesmerised as she was. And then, at the point of closeness, they stopped, heaving for breath. Naruto fell to the floor with his legs crossed, taking a deep breath.

Satsuki knelt down on her knees, and opened her mouth to speak when there was a shrill whir of gunpowder that spun up, metres from them, and exploded in the centre of the sky into an expanding star.


She closed her mouth, looking at the shreds of starlight that frittered into dust. A fleck of burnt paper landed on the back of her hand, hot. Cheering segued through the crowd, like the rush of the tide coming in.

Another firework squealed into the sky, and exploded into tiny sparkling pieces.

Naruto kept his eyes glued onto the sky, grabbing their yukata and hanging it over the gutter. Another clap of gunpowder, and then the applause of the town.

"So pretty!" Clap. "Even if it's a bit loud up here…"


A big rush of fireworks made their way up, ones that didn't explode but died out quietly.

"Hey, Satsuki, if you were a firework, which one would you be?"

"What kind of a question is that?"

"A deep one."

Satsuki rolled her eyes, and pointed to one of the ones that went out silently. "One of those."

"Don't get lazy. No one even likes them, and like, everyone likes you."

"It's simple. Goes up, disappears. And it's not loud or annoying."

"What are you tryna say." Naruto turned his attention to the display again. A little tiny flicker of light made its way quietly into the sky, and then combusted into a shower of tiny falling pieces that left great sparkling white trails as bent as the branches of a willow.

"Well, that one's you." He folded his arms.

"Is that an insult?"

"I hope so. But it's definitely you." He squinted his eyes, staring intently. The light from it was almost dead. "Just something about it."

"How insightful."

"I dunno what that means, but I don't need a reason to think that, okay? Maybe it's 'cause it looks kinda like a flower, and you remind me of-"

Satsuki blinked.

"Of a flower?"

He huffed. "Not like a pretty and delicate one though. Like something really spiky and mean. A cactus. With a flower."


"To be honest, it looks like a tree too… and you remind me of a tree."

"Oh, it gets better."

"You're skinny, like a tree. And when you fight, you're like, all wispy and tree-like-"

"Just stop before you offend me even more." The next firework made its way up, and Satsuki snorted. "No matter which one I am, that one is definitely you."

It spun wildly, crackling as it spiralled its way up into the sky like a drill. It didn't explode, but left a shower of white behind. Naruto sighed.

"Yeah, I guess."

Satsuki eyed him carefully. "You don't like it?"

"It doesn't explode," Naruto shrugged. "Fireworks are best when they explode. That one's all talk."

Satsuki actually chuckled, but then she closed her eyes, leaning back.

"You know, I think I like that one."

Naruto looked at Satsuki, and wondered if she'd ever felt anything like this before - anything like this on a rooftop in the moonlight, anything that had felt so painful.

The fireworks finished.

"Man, my yukata is still kinda wet," Naruto muttered, squeezing its hem. Water dripped out from the gaps between his fingers. "Sakura-chan's gonna like, kill me or something."

"Just wash it and dry it," Satsuki said, but she frowned at her own sopping wet clothes too. "We lost those socks."


"And the shoes."

"Yeah." Naruto sighed. "Well, like, whatever. I'm tired."

The two silently made an agreement to walk home, but hopped across a few rooftops before lowering themselves to the street. Barefoot and in wet and dirty clothes, Satsuki not only felt strange, but strangely free. The feeling of her bare feet hitting the ground gave her a satisfaction she couldn't describe.

The glow of the town was dying as everyone began to filter home.

They made their way along that long road they both took. It was a long and nostalgic one.

Satsuki knew Naruto had visited that graveyard beside it a couple of times; she saw his eyes drifting to it now. It reminded her of the early days of Team 7, how they had so often walked this long path together.

She remembered those times she'd studied in his apartment; she remembered the times he had studied in hers. Before Team 7 had ever happened.

The yukata felt heavy on her shoulders, and her obi was tucked in one pocket. She hadn't tied it. That had earned her a few odd looks, but it could be anything about her appearance that was attracting attention at this minute.

She reached in her other pocket, and felt for it. It was a little wet, but not so bad, and she clasped it not too tightly between her fingers. Her heart seemed desperate to break free from the veins that tied it into her chest, and she bit her lip.

They came to the fork in the road, and they both stood. Naruto stared at her for a long moment. She wondered if he was going to say something, anything, or would she have to-

"Satsuki," Naruto said. His lips quirked, and he looked almost as though he was about to cry. "Tonight… Tonight was good."

"I didn't forget."

Naruto blinked.


Satsuki yanked it out of her pocket and held it out to him. Her hand was shaking.

"I didn't forget," she said. "Happy birthday, Naruto."

Naruto lifted it carefully from her fingers by the loose string, and dangled it at eye-level.

It was a hand-sewn omamori. It was a magnificent piece of embroidery, all the more beautiful for its imperfection, tied with a little string at the top and put onto durable black cord to hang around his neck. The material was black, but in a wonderful, blistering gold, she'd painstakingly embroidered on both sides.


"It's a good luck charm," she said quickly. Her heart felt like it was going to burst. "I- I practiced sewing with Sakura, and I thought about what you needed-"


Naruto's breathed word was one of shock, of disbelief, of something so much more tender. His eyes were fixated on it, and he lowered it into his palm.

"I didn't use the Sharingan. I-" Satsuki felt her hands tightening around the material of her yukata, shaking. "I learned how to sew."

"You made this yourself," Naruto whispered, his eyes flicking between the charm and Satsuki's expression. "And you're giving it to me?"


Satsuki felt the wind get knocked out of her as Naruto yanked her into his arms, hugging her so tightly that Satsuki heard his heartbeat, just as fast and frantic as her own. She could hear the quickness of his breath, of the hitches in it, of what sounded so much like tears.

"Thank you," he said, his voice wavering. "Thank you so much."

Naruto leaned back from her, and her frame felt empty then - she felt so much smaller now. He clasped it in his hand, and then lifted the cord over his neck. It sat flat against his chest, his name facing outward, and he looked down, grinning widely with shiny eyes.

"I wish I could say something that compared to this," Naruto said, his voice cracking into a whisper.

Satsuki grabbed one of Naruto's hands, and pulled it up to eye level. She felt like her jaw was trembling. "Then…"

Her breath hitched, and she closed her eyes tightly, praying she wouldn't cry.

"Then promise me. Promise you won't ever leave Konoha."

'-promise you won't ever leave me.'

In that tiny pause before he answered, Satsuki refused to open her eyes. She refused to look at him, to read him, to treat him like the book she'd always read. She kept her eyes shut and trusted.

"I promise."

Naruto hugged her then, and she felt the wetness around her eyes undoubtedly smudging eyeliner all over his yukata. She rubbed her eyes, feeling pathetic, and stood back from his embrace, blinking. Naruto stood back too.

"Thanks for today, Satsuki."

"You too, Naruto."

And they both went their separate paths, wet clothes trailing, and walked quietly home.

Satsuki opened her door, and hadn't had time to cast aside her yukata before she saw the two figures who had made themselves comfortable on her kitchen table.

"So?" The girl said. "Are you going to accept Lord Orochimaru's offer or not?"

The other figure was silent, and looking at them, Satsuki felt so intently the wet yukata on her shoulders. The bareness of her feet; her empty pocket. She saw the plates in her sink, the plant on her windowsill, the eyeliner pencil at her desk.

And so-

"No," she said. "I'm not coming."

"Are you serious? We'll just take you by force, y'know. We're-"

"Tayuya," the other one said, a mound of grey hair. "There's no time."

The girl cursed, and muttered something Satsuki didn't hear. The other one left immediately through the window, but Tayuya waited a moment.

"It's all the same in the end," she snorted. "You're just delaying the inevitable, kid."

Satsuki didn't say anything, and the girl left.

She took off her yukata, putting them behind the chair, and she stripped off the wet camisole and hung that on the one beside it. She only had two chairs there.

She turned on her bathroom light and she stumbled to her mirror, and stared at herself in the garish light. Her hair had fallen out of whatever ties it had been in, wet and sticking to the sides of her face, and her foundation had long smudged its way out of use. Her eyes were ringed with black.


She leaned back from the sink, and ran into her room, ruffling through her drawers and finding any clothes she could go out in. Black top, black pants, and she pulled on any shoes, grabbing her keys and walking quickly.

'I have to tell him.'

She found herself running.

'I have to tell him that I stayed,' Satsuki thought frantically. 'That Orochimaru asked me to leave, but that I stayed.'

She jumped onto one roof, and saw his complex. She jumped onto the next building, stumbling as she landed, and feeling her breathing hike up.

'That I stayed, because, I-'

She hit the ground running, and began making her way up the steps to Naruto's apartment-

'-because I have to change.'

Satsuki gave up halfway and climbed the side of the building, two tiles slipping from beneath her feet and hitting the ground with a crack. She hauled herself onto his floor with both arms.

'I won't let things end when I know this can change!'

Satsuki reached his door.

'When I know I can fix Team 7!'

Naruto's lock sucked, so she just lifted the door via the handle and kicked the bottom of it. It sprung open, and she opened her mouth to speak.

'Naruto, I'm-!'

Satsuki pried the door open with a kick of the door and a jiggle of the lock.

Her eyes absorbed it all bit by bit.

The floor was spotless. All of it, terribly clean. No dishes in the sink from what she could see.

She saw Naruto's bed, made, and his bathroom, with a spotless drain. But Satsuki didn't really see these things.

She saw his plants.

Every little shrub, sapling and bloom had been cut at the base of their stems, neatly cleaned and disposed of in the trash at the centre of the room. Flowers, vines, tiny branches and their fruits. All clean, all proper, all dead.

Naruto was gone.

Chapter Text

The combined heat of enjoyment, the sunset, and the orange-red ambience of the night was beginning to falter as Sakura and Ino headed home.

They were curled in on themselves in the steadily chilling air of autumn, and their tottering footsteps in their tightly bound yukata were only slightly out of sync. Sakura sniffed.

"You cold, Sakura-chan?"

"No," Sakura said quickly. The cold pink that tipped her ears and nose made her eyes seem greener in the soft night light. "I'm fine. It- I just got a breeze, is all. We'll be back in no time anyway."

Ino made a tuneful noise of sympathy, a smirk creeping onto her lips. "I'd offer you my coat, but…"

"I know you don't have anything on under that yukata. Don't."

Sakura scoffed. "But a whole lot I never asked to."

"They say the best presents are ones that you want, but you don't ask for, right?" Ino said, linking arms with her.


As they stumbled in step along the way home, the path was mostly empty. They'd been some of the last to go home, only admitting defeat when the people on the stands stopped serving them and began to blow out the lanterns.

"Let me fix my obi a sec," Ino said, shrugging Sakura off her. She missed the warmth more than she'd like to admit. "Actually, could ya do it for me? It's not tight enough, and I can't reach, obviously."

Sakura rolled her eyes, but moved forward. Ino leaned onto the brick wall at her side, humming to herself.

"Hold your yukata together, Ino."

"Yeah, yeah."

"I'm serious!"

A strange flicker of anxiety kindled in Sakura's gut, and then she caught a glimpse of her worry; even in the night, that same blistering orange never failed to make her look.

Still, Naruto almost shrank back under her gaze, wilting and then blooming so fast she'd thought she'd imagined it.

"Sakura-chan!" he said, pre-empting her greeting with dimples in his cheeks. "Uh, what are you two doing…?"

"Sakura's taking advantage of me. Help."

"I'm only fixing your yukata because someone literally can't keep their clothes on," Sakura snapped, and then turned to Naruto, blushing. "Um, I was just fixing her obi. It was, uh, coming loose."

"Oh- Oh. Getcha. That makes sense." He scuffled his feet a little, hands moving in his pockets. "Did you have a good time?"

"Yeah, we were just heading home… what about you? It's pretty late, huh?"

Naruto rolled his shoulders back, smiling. "Yeah, I was heading back too."

Her eyes drifted to the bottom of Naruto's yukata; it was mucky. She huffed. "Did you mess that up already? Where did you and Satsuki-san even go, a swamp? I swear. I can't leave you two alone for one minute."

"Sakura-chaaan, I'm sorry, but I'll wash it, okay? Really good. You won't even be able to tell I got it wet."

Sakura shook her head. "Did Satsuki-san already go?"

Naruto hesitated. Sakura wouldn't have noticed, if the night hadn't been so dead quiet around them- it made it seem as though life itself was stuttering.

"Yeah," he said. "She went back."

From where Sakura stood, the night seemed to frame Naruto's figure through a gap in the trees. If she didn't know better, she'd have thought she was staring at him from straight above as he floated on still water.

"Guess I'll see you next time we have a mission then," Naruto said, looking away. "It's getting cold, so you get home soon too, 'kay?"

Sakura frowned.

"Naruto," she said. "You'll bring back my yukata, right?"

He'd turned away and began walking, but he stopped on his heel, looking over his shoulder.

"Yeah," he said. "And I'll clean it so good you'll never know it was dirty. Promise."

And he began walking, before she could really say anything, her farewell falling away at his back like rain on a windowpane. She turned to look at her hands, rubbing the silk between her fingertips.

"Sakuraaaa. Come on. You know how to do a taiko bow, right?"

Sakura nodded, putting one piece in front of the other. Her unease was building, her fingers trembling.

"Come on, do I have to walk you through it? Left hand over right-"

"It's done already. Stop whining."

Ino stood up, brushing off her yukata. She lifted it from where it had slumped and bared her shoulder, but Sakura was dazed.


"Mm, yeah," she said, blinking. She looked at Ino and twisted her lips. "Yeah, let's go home."

"Well," Ino said, an odd distance in her eyes, "I think I have somewhere to go."

"Oh. Then… I'll see you soon, Ino?"

"Yeah, soon." Ino pinched Sakura's cheek with a wink. "Hold on until then."

She slipped out of sight, and Sakura didn't even think to wave, one hand limp by her side and another clasping her obi, fumbling with the silky material.

When she thought to look, Ino was gone, the night marked by only the whispering of rustling trees and the distant sound of someone knocking on wood.

Sakura began walking slowly home. It wasn't a long walk, but it felt endless; so many stones on the path, so many windows. She bit her lip. Unease. Slick, twisting unease that was nestling in her gut like a snake in a nest where it didn't belong.

She knew this path so well, had seen it all before, but alone in the night it felt overwhelming. Her footsteps were too loud in the dark. She took off her geta and walked barefoot, silently.

When she reached home, she applied a careful amount of chakra to her feet and climbed up the wall, lifting the window and sprawling on her bed.

Sakura half-wanted to undo the yukata and just go to sleep naked, but she felt like she was going to be sick. She stared at the ceiling.

She rolled over, staring at the clock. It was early in the morning. Her mind raced, cycling through images, the unease worming its way through her stomach and tying her lungs together, and she reached behind her to loosen the knot of her obi. It slipped from her waist, the yukata falling apart, and she shrugged it off her shoulders and cast it onto the bed.

Hairbrushes and makeup were still splayed all over the covers, eyeliner nudging her waist and eyeshadows against her back. She saw the shady blur of her eyelashes, thick with mascara at the top of her vision, and as she stared at the ceiling, she couldn't blink back the onset of tears. Sakura sat up and gulped, wiping her eyes, black smearing below her eyes and onto her fingers.

'Good things can last, can't they?' she thought, staring at twitching, stained fingertips. 'It can be that simple, right?'

Sakura slid from the edge of the bed, pulling her sheets with her, her knees hitting the floor. She opened her drawers, pulling out a black top, cottony material warm against her palms.

She hiccuped, her throat constricting under that snake, and as she wept she felt her words cracking beneath their own weight.

"Then why'd he…? Why- Why would he go?"


She stood in the trees, yukata trembling in a soft wind.

"You're going, then," she said.

Naruto looked at her, a backpack on his shoulder.

"I guess it's not too hard to guess what someone's going to do as a Yamanaka, huh," Naruto said. "Yeah. I'm going."

"Why?" Ino asked, digging manicured nails into her palms. "Why are you leaving like this?"

Naruto turned around, staring her in the eyes for a long moment. His lips curled down, like he didn't find what he was looking for. "Wouldn't you know?"

Ino was hesitant. "No," she whispered, almost to herself, and then she looked up with resolve and shook her head.

"No, y'know, I really wouldn't," she said. "Every part of you I saw was- was centred around other people. Every face was a different one. Made to please other people."

Naruto didn't respond, shuffling the backpack on his shoulder. He began walking again.

"So of courseI can't understand why you'd want to leave them all behind," Ino laughed, stepping forward. "It doesn't- It doesn't make sense to me why you would want to leave Sakura, who you made so much effort to smile at. Or- Or why you would want to leave Satsuki-san, who you wanted to be close with. Or why you would want to leave the place that Hinata, and Mizuki-"

Naruto stopped, spinning on his heel. In the darkness, Ino saw a horrid red flash in his eyes that drained away in moments. She felt sick. "Shut up."

Ino did, but Naruto carried on.

"Just- Just shut up," Naruto said, chuckles falling from his lips and growing with every one. Each laugh broke from his throat like eggshells cracking. "If you don't get it, why pretend you know who I am? Why pretend you know what those people mean to me?!"

Naruto didn't say anything, but his eyes locked onto hers, quiet. She'd seen a lot of different things in them before, but now, they made her feel like prey under watch. "Then I guess I never cared."

"What a fucking bare-faced lie," Ino snapped, fists clenched. "Is that what you tell yourself?

"Is that what you tell yourself, when you use and abuse peoples' affection for you like this?" she hissed. "You know Sakura trusts you- you know she cares about you. Kakashi-sensei is always worrying about you. And you know Satsuki-san won't replace you. That she's never going to connect to someone like that again.

"If you go, she's gonna be on her own," Ino said, choking on her words. "To her, you're irreplaceable."

Naruto didn't say anything, hunched so his shoulder blades jutted out like tiny premature wings. He remained grounded.

"But don't think for one minute, not- not even one, that I'd miss you. You aren't special. You're just lucky. And you're fuckin' ignorant of it, too."

Naruto laughed, exhaling into breathy chuckles as he cracked his joints. "No, not even for a minute, Ino. Don't worry."

He began walking.

'Like I'd let you walk away like this, you stupid bastard.'

Ino knelt down, squared her shaking fingers, and bit the bullet.

'Shintenshin no Jutsu.'


Ino heard a voice, and the noise of rushing water as she pulled herself from the film of water covering the floor. Focusing her vision, she saw glimmering, dank walls and bars so long they contorted in her vision.

The Nine Tails stared.

"Hi again," she grimaced. "Still no one cleaning your cage?"

"You haven't changed, you insolent little human."

"I suppose you've missed me, then," she sniffed. She glanced around, approaching; the dull roar of water rose, and then she saw.

Just before the gates of the Kyuubi's cage, there was a whirlpool where the trapdoor had been the last time she was here. Despite the pull of it, the water around Ino failed to deplete; little strings of red chakra fell from the gates of the Kyuubi's cage, twisting into the eddy and disappearing into the darkness at its end.

"Is this why you brought me here?" Ino said, lifting her head to stare straight at the fox. It did nothing, its cutting gaze unmoving. After a moment's stillness, it sniffed with great nostrils that disturbed the air and shifted its paws.

"I didn't bring you here, you presumptuous little mortal," it said. "I'd sooner rot than demand help from you. You couldn't clean the sleep out of my eyes without a ladder and a bucket."

Ino rolled her eyes. "That's all well and good, but you should be a little more worried about Naruto, y'know. He's betrayed the village."

"That's the business of you ninja."

"He's gonna get himself killed. That's definitely your business."

The Kyuubi traced its tongue over its teeth. "You seem keen to solve my problems for me, child."

"This is for Sakura,"Ino snapped, her cheeks flushing. She bit her tongue."And, Satsuki-san too. Not for you."

She half expected the Nine Tails to break into laughter, but instead it simply stared, unmoving, for a long moment. It closed its eyes.

"Everything collapsed," it said. "The apartments above, the things below. And now there's a void, sucking away at my power. If you want to find anything, human, your answers will be there."

Ino brightened. "Thanks." It grunted in response, nine tails drawing impatient strokes in the air behind it.

Feeling somewhat heartened, she took a few steps toward the edge of the whirlpool, prodding at its edge with her foot.

"You would trust me so much as to dive straight in?" the Nine Tails said, incredulity and laughter in its tone. "A demon fox who hates mankind?"

"That's true," Ino hummed, deep in thought with a frown. "But I dunno. You're a kind of bad liar. Uh, it's not the, like, best evidence I've had, but I trust that a little. Gut instinct, y'know?"

"Trust?" The Kyuubi's laughter rattled every word. "What would any contact between man and demon know of trust?"

"Foxes are meant to be sly and, like, kinda sneaky," she said, rolling her shoulders and cracking her fingers above her head. "And, like, I know it's naive, but I don't believe any bad liar is a totally bad person. Because I think it's 'cause some part of you wants to tell the truth, or at least- that, like. I dunno. That you don't tell lies very often?"

The Nine Tails continued to laugh, resonating from the walls and the water, until it petered off as Ino began to test the waters with her toe. Her reflection, beginning at her feet, was lost in its depths.

"I have one piece of advice for you, Yamanaka. Things like love, and morality, fail to co-exist in peace."

Ino turned to face the cage, her eyebrows knotting. "What?" she said. "What are you saying?"

"I see it, over and over," the fox said, dragging a claw through the ground beneath it and driving a crevice into it, wide as a hallway. "Absolute morality. Absolute love. Both will drive you to madness, but especially in tandem. And you are the exact sort of fool who drives yourself to madness in ignorance of that."

Ino stopped, feeling the beginnings of fire in her stomach; that indisputable fire, when you hear something you simply can't accept.

'That tone's just strange, somehow,' she couldn't help but think. 'Like… singing after years of silence, or when you try and recite a speech for the first time. Strained… like he's reaching out.'

"Any human who seeks perfection without compromise, will be torn apart. And any human who hopes to rise above that truth, will in turn have their hope matched and bested by despair."

The Nine Tails looked at her with what could be anger, but what felt almost like desperation. Her heart pounded in her chest. She breathed in deeply through her nose, and summoned a laugh.

"Morality… love," she said, rolling the words around on her tongue. "Just makes it sound like you've given up on both."

"Do you think I am blind?" the Nine Tail hissed, a great foul gust of air from between its teeth that blew Ino's hair from her eyes. She reeled from it, digging her heels in and feeling a strange fearful tremor shake her heart. "I've seen more humans dead than you could hope to see alive. I have seen men kill their brothers for the greater peace, women kill their sisters the same. Men who fall from aristocracy in pursuit of love, women falling from heights greater than that, tumbling from godhood like rotten apples."

The Kyuubi stretched itself, standing at full height and looming over her. Ino was reminded of the sheer godliness of the beast before her, of the Nine Tailed Fox - with legs taller than any building, with teeth like gravestones and eyes that blinked like the sun in eclipse.

"Man or woman, ninja or not, there is only one place for people who cannot rise above emotion. You will rot, and you will fall. Humans can never fly with these burdens on their backs."

Ino stared up, at a face far larger than her comprehension, and stepped away from the edge of the whirlpool.

'Even though... even though I've always thought of the Nine Tails as a beast… with words like 'it', 'that'...'

She began to walk around it, closer and closer to the cage.

'I just can't shake what I'm seeing.'

It stared at her approach, not with revulsion but with intensity—an absorption in her every step that made her knees unsteady.

'Aren't things like exasperation, derisiveness, humour… don't they all come from a place of humanity? Of hope, of comprehension… of that desperate need to push misery away?'

Ino laid her hands on the bars, so close now the Nine Tails could've reached out and smote her, and yet she wanted to go closer; she wondered if he was warm to the touch, wondered if heat could come from demons with neither form nor hope.

"I just can't help but think, Nine Tails," she said, "That only humans feel that need to reject their humanity when they are hurt."

She looked up, and swallowed. "But no one is above temptation. As long as you speak this same tongue, expressing these same feelings, neither are you."

She turned to the whirlpool, stepping closer. "And if emotion brings rise to temptation and failure, I'd rather fall to it wholeheartedly. Arms spread screaming, so to speak."

Ino looked back at the Nine Tails, who looked down yet still with an expression unreadable, and she beamed with a helpless grin. "Because I can't just abandon my emotion. There are people I am lucky enough to love, still walking the Earth. There's no sealed cage to protect me from the world. I live among people, and I can't help but love them."

Ino sat on the edge of the whirlpool, feeling the pull of the water at her feet, and summoned bravery from some part of her heart where her parents, her dreams, and Sakura were. "But that doesn't mean I can't do good," she said. "It doesn't mean I shouldn't try. In fact, it's the only reason I'd ever bother. Because it's hurting people like you who make me want to try to fix all of this in the first place."

Ino shuffled herself closer, and took deep breaths to steel herself. She looked at the fox, the Nine Tails, something more man than beast that listened to everything she said in silence.

"Why are you listening to me like this?" she said. "Why are you trying to help me?"

The Nine Tails didn't answer her, its tails curling around to shade his expression as he settled his maw upon his paws. Ino snorted, relaxing a little.

Taking a deep breath, she looked back to the whirlpool.

She clasped the craggy, broken edge of the ground, almost off of the edge now. She bit her lip, feeling the cold air pulling into its centre, and she pushed.

"Because there is a woman walking beside you," the Nine Tails said quietly. "A woman who suffered for dreams like that."

Ino was pulled into the whirlpool, and red was drowned by blue.

When Naruto was out of Ino's sight, he ran.

He didn't know if she'd tell anyone. He didn't know if she cared enough to. He didn't know if anyone would come after him, but every ounce of him wanted to run, so he did.

Naruto ran until he saw the bare edges of sunlight dyeing the edge of the sky baby blue, and only then did he stop to breathe; he fumbled in his pocket and felt for a tough, textured pill.

He brought it up to the light; he smelled its pungent scent. The Sound Four had poured him it from a little glass bottle. They told him he had to die once; and Naruto assured them he would not. The Nine Tails was a desperate little parasite. And if he did die, Naruto thought dispassionately, then that was how it was.

He listened.

Naruto heard the low chirping of uguisu, a distinctive trill - he heard them every morning after sleepless nights. Their cheery call was a sharp reminder of bad memories.

He grimaced, clenched the pill and then swallowed it.

In the next moment, Ino felt the distinct sensation of damp, though not saturated, soil between her toes, bitty and moist, and she breathed in.

She was in a garden, bright in some dayless twilight. It was all soil, pebbles scattered here and there between saplings and sprouts of plants that had only just begun. Milky purple sky, soft pillow clouds passing through but no sun or moon to speak of.

Ino walked to the edge tentatively, and then got onto her hands and knees, peering over it. At the edges of the garden, the sky simply continued, the garden suspended above some great never-ending abyss of sky. As she shifted, crumbly soil rolled off the edge; spidery white roots jutted out of sides. Ino gulped.

As Ino knelt down and considered her choices, the clouds above her began to knot themselves into a maelstrom; at their centre was a shaky vision of rushing trees. She heard Naruto's heavy breathing. But nothing happened- he just carried on running.

Looking around the sky garden, she reached and felt for what she knew to be a budding daffodil. It blossomed beneath her touch, petals unfurling and stigma pushing out from the centre, and she watched mesmerised until a voice made her jump.

"So how did you feel about him?"

She looked above. The sky had parted for a cold vision of what she guessed to be a counsellor's office. A clock, tissues, and an untouched glass of water on the table in front of him; she saw Naruto's fumbling hands, lush chairs, a man's patented leather shoes. A warm lamp glowed in the back.

"Mizuki-sensei was- was my teacher."

"Was he more to you? A friend, a father figure?"

"He- I liked him," Naruto said, his tone sounding almost helpless. "He was nice to me."

"I see, I see." The man scribbled. "Well, aside from the obvious, were there any other times he made you do anything you didn't want to do?"

Naruto didn't answer for a minute. Ino saw him pick at his cuticles. "Mizuki-sensei didn't ever make me do anything like that."

"Yes, of course," the man said, intonation pathetically sweet. "However, he did trick you. Did anything like that ever happen before? Did he ever make you-"

"Mizuki-sensei never made me do anything," Naruto interrupted. "He was always nice to me. Even when he lied to me, he still tried to help me!"

The man took a moment, weaving his thick calloused fingers together and leaning forward. "He encouraged you to abandon the village, Naruto," he said, pronouncing his name as a foreign specimen. "We just want to make sure that there isn't anything else he tried to-"

"So what?" Naruto whispered. "Why can't Mizuki-sensei decide to leave the village? Why can't I? Why do I owe you all anything?!"

Naruto's voice cracked, and Ino felt herself hurting somehow. The man's face, blurred by tears, didn't shift much, and Naruto wiped his eyes, stifling a sob.

"I didn't ask to be born," Naruto said. "You know that?"

The clouds swooped in, covering the still vision, and she heard Naruto's breathing again. She blinked.

'Then this really is his memories,' she thought. Taking a deep breath, Ino reached out to an oleander shrub. Clusters of soft white buds bloomed all at once, like a crowd of waving hands. The sky changed.

She saw a dark ceiling, and heard Sakura's distinctive soft snoring; it must have been a while ago. But abruptly, Ino heard a strange sound, like a cry or a sob, almost like a whisper. Naruto turned his head.

Through the darkness, Ino saw Satsuki's back, her arms curled towards herself, shoulders trembling. The sight, Ino knew, wasn't for her eyes - this was too private. Her stomach turned.

In the darkness, Naruto spoke. He talked nonsense to Satsuki, with a perfect obliviousness, like he hadn't seen her crying, like he hadn't heard her quiet tears, and dragged her to the rooftop and pointed to the sky.

And as Ino watched Satsuki, who stared at Naruto with eyes red-rimmed, and watched Naruto who comforted her with that measured shameless tomfoolery just to make her smile, she couldn't help but hate him all the more for the void he'd leave behind.

'Why am I- Why am I thinking of Satsuki all of a sudden? At a time like this?' Naruto's voice boomed from the sky. Ino recoiled at his tone; he sounded far more bitter than Ino had ever heard. 'I've- I've made my decision. I can't- thoughts like that are just a waste of time!'

Ino blinked, staring at the full blooms of oleander, and her eyes widened. 'Then, is he seeing these things too? Am I forcing him to remember these things?'

She breathed in. That was as powerful a tool as she was going to get, as powerful as she could dare to hope for, but she was sure it wasn't enough.

In fact, Ino knew deep down that she was helpless. Helpless, and as Ino watched the trees whir past Naruto, increasingly likely to die trying to get back to her body.

The vision swirling above her, having come to a stop in a clearing, reverberated with Naruto's heavy breaths, his groans of pain and the distant sound of burning. Ino bit her lip, the clouds above her beginning to drip down into gloopy soppy rain, when she heard the one voice she hoped she wouldn't.

Ino tried to scream, but no sound came out at all.

Naruto had no idea where he was now, could barely comprehend the bark pressing contours into his back, nor the breath like poison that he breathed into the cold midnight air, clouding the wavering starry sky. He was dead.

Dead, yes, by far already dead - no heartbeat left to echo in his ears - and now he stood and watched himself burn down to his bones. He vomited. Strings of bile mixed with blood clung to his teeth.


He froze.

"What're you doing here?" Sakura said. Her black clothes almost wove her into the night, even her pink hair seeming to meld with the trees, but her eyes were like searchlights. "Are you on a mission?"

Pain shuddered through him, and her face fell out of focus. He leaned heavily against the bark again, slipping down as his knees gave out from pain.

"Sakura-chan," he said, a bit raw. The Kyuubi's chakra made his skin burn; his fingertips scorched their marks into the bark. "Why've… Why've you come out here?"

She looked up at him.

"We walked home so many times," she said. "You and Satsuki-san always walked home together, too, so why are you out alone?"

Naruto could smell his fingertips sizzling, could feel the liquid in his eyes moving with the convection current of heat. His teeth were getting hot.

"I was just going on a walk," he said, head spinning. His eyes were vibrating in his skull, white stars in the sky wobbling into underscores. "The village was… it was kinda busy, y'know? So I thought I'd come out here. For some peace."

She stepped forward, sandals digging into the ground. She was laughing a little incredulously, eyebrows knotted as though begging him to come up with something.

"Do you think I'm stupid?"

Her pace quickened, and Naruto watched fascinated as she drew her fist back like a slingshot, spit flying from her lips.

"Do you think I'm a fucking idiot, Naruto?!"

Naruto didn't feel the punch so much as he felt three burning hot molars crack in his mouth, bubbling pulp whistling through the cracks and searing his soft palate. His back broke through something; he heard the crackling and rustling of a toppling tree.

"Don't take me for a fucking fool," Sakura snarled, her fingers knotting into his jacket as she lifted him from the wreckage to face her. She yanked him so close to her face he felt her heaving breaths on his skin; with his heat, they felt ice cold. "I'm taking you home. I'll take you home, and you can- you can give me back that stupid yukata, and go say hi to Satsuki-san in the morning, and we'll pretend that none of this-"

A rib burst from Naruto's chest. Sakura threw herself to the side, escaping with a graze, and as steam pushed out from Naruto's wound, she howled, lashing him aside to cradle her burns.

Five more ribs burst from his chest; his eyes pulsed in their sockets, pinpricks of multi-coloured light spinning about his vision.

"Sakura-chan," he said, gurgling through the blood slipping down the back of his tongue as he tried to laugh, "I can't go home."

He saw a red hand beyond his control lift a charred shard of wood, bitty smoke seeping through the chakra.

"Not anymore."

Naruto heard his own shriek of pain as he fell to his knees. The ghostly red hand launched the splinter like a spear.

Sakura dodged the missile of burning bark by what must have been inches—it set light to the tree it hit instead.

Naruto tore forward, every movement precise and perfect and filled with pain. His pace built, his heart beating again somewhere in this miserable exoskeleton, pain becoming constant-

"Naruto, you idiot!"

-and somewhere along the way, Naruto lost sight of Sakura's soft green eyes, like the turbulent ocean surface obscuring the lighthouse as he sank.

Naruto, moving on limbs embedded in great rib-like bones, sprung forward. His smaller steps grew into a pace, marked by steam and heavy breaths, until he was loping towards Sakura like a big cat.

She focused chakra to her limbs and climbed up a gnarled oak - the beast tore through the tree and ten others behind it. Sakura cursed, feeling the tree bark splintering. She gathered chakra in her feet and sprinted across the thickest branch she could find, jumping to the next tree. The twigs tore her palms, and the branch snapped; she fell and clung to the one below, swearing.

The beast, with a trail of toppling trees behind it, crawled through the bracken, snapping at her feet with malformed pedipalps. Sakura swallowed, a bitter taste on her tongue that was prickly like fear as she swung her legs up to the branch and pulled herself out of reach.

"Naruto, are you there?" she got out, shaky as she stood up. A tide of red chakra washed about its limbs and lashed out abruptly, wrapping itself about the tree trunk and snapping it like a skewer.

Sakura stumbled again, and as she looked around for escape, she found herself locking eyes with the beast. She didn't know when it had happened, but she couldn't see his eyes anymore. They were milky red and translucent — broken rubies, or gelatin.

As she stared, Sakura felt primal fear stirring in her.

'This is beyond biting off more than you can chew,' she thought, her stomach turning back and forth. 'This is a demon. Who do I think I am? This was the thing that almost killed Gaara, Satsuki-san, everyone- I saw it with my own two eyes, and here I am alone-'

It purred, bones tapping together, clicking as it drew closer and closer. Sakura felt her knees shaking, her heartbeat racing, her breath catching. She covered her mouth to hold back a scream, felt tears budding at the corners of her eyes.

'Who do I think I am?!'

The scorpion paused, turned, and fled.

Sakura blinked, letting out a breath she hadn't known she'd held as her knees hit the wood. She doubled over, staring into the bark, one hand pressed to her chest and the other to the tree. Ants scattered beneath her fingertips, and twilight beamed through the gaps of the foliage, onto her freshly painted fingernails. Her senses came back to her, and she heard her own breaths, so loud and panicked they were like sobs.

Her breaths slowed, as she stared at a single ant, keen and busy.

He went left, then went right, around, but then climbed onto her fingernail, hesitant. He scurried across the lacquer, and then down toward her knuckles, getting lost on the back of her hand.

Sakura stood, knees shaking, and she guided the ant back onto the tree trunk, feeling her heartbeat slowly steadying.

"It fucking sucks," she said, half-laughing, as she stared at the strange glint of her nails in the budding dawn. "It- It would be good, to run away, wouldn't it?"

She took a step forward, breathing in and out through her nose. "But it would be a perfect world, I guess, if I could just run away.

"And there's no way people like me and Naruto would be let into a place like that."

Sakura let out a laugh, and jolted herself into a run, following the scent of ash through the wood.

Ino watched Naruto flee with her heart in her throat, every inch of her knowing Sakura would follow.

And she saw it in Sakura's eyes, the painful truth that Sakura was outgunned, the even worse truth that Sakura most certainly knew it. She breathed in deeply, feeling panic like a cancer in her throat, and she took handfuls of soil and clenched them so hard that moisture leaked from between her fingers.

'What do I do? What am I supposed to do, from inside of here? What difference can I possibly make?'

Shaking, Ino ripped a sprig of lavender from its roots, plucking its petals with pinched fingernails one by one, nibbling little strips of skin from her bottom lip bit by bit. She paid little mind to the vision above her, until she noticed something unusual.

As she plucked at the petals, the vision changed. She stopped, watching intently, and pulled a petal from the stem.

With that, Satsuki, mid-speech, was silenced. Her lips pursed together, her expression went blank. The memory continued; Kakashi was speaking, as was Sakura, and then Naruto. Ino pulled an entire tiny flower from the sprig; the mood of the conversation changed, from what was seemingly tense and on edge to small talk about the weather. Ino blinked.

'So I can fabricate the past?' she thought. 'I can mess with his memories…'

Ino looked to the sky. 'But, what does that even mean? I'm still so screwed- so helpless from in here…'

Even so, Ino laughed, plucking a marigold from the edge of the earthy singularity.

"But," she whispered, her voice like a breeze through trees in the emptiness, "Perhaps a little less."

Sakura ran.

Naruto was far ahead, but his footsteps left ashen, still-burning scorch marks in the ground; she followed them, the smoke keeping her head clear.

As she ran, she counted her kunai, her shuriken, her tags and her smoke bombs; she neatly wound lengths of metal wire, she tied her hair back into a tiny ponytail, and she counted her steps in her head.

Sakura brushed her hand over her senbon pouch, feeling the tightly packed needles lined up against her right thigh, and counted them, drawing some up her sleeve.


The world opened out in front of her like a sprawling paper fan, and the scene before her was so spectacular it could have been painted onto one; the Valley of the End, a crevice carved into the earth by the battle of a man dedicated to hope and one to his own despair. Once friends, now enemies, or perhaps both at once. Naruto stood atop the First Hokage's stony head.

Despite it all, she wondered how she'd paint it - the sun rose in front of him, his figure tiny and orange against the blue, sprawling grey and sparkling water below. She'd paint the rising sun blue, his figure orange, and the sky a gory red.

As Sakura approached, Naruto turned to look at her. His transformation had receded, but one eye was gelatinous and transparent; his skin was bubbling. He opened his mouth to speak.

Sakura just didn't feel like it. She slammed a senbon pinched between her toes into his neck.

The force of the kick and the stun combined sent him tumbling off of the statue; he grabbed a kunai from his pocket, slamming it into the stone and dragging himself to a stop. Sakura jumped, metal wire secured to the rock with a kunai, and slammed into Naruto knees first and sent him careening into the river. Hanging from the wire, Sakura pulled herself up with her arms alone, wire stinging her fingers until she reached the rock. She hauled herself atop Hashirama's head, and breathed heavily, the world focused but behind a foggy pane of disbelief.

She peered down. Naruto had hit the surface with the force of her entire body hitting him; now, she saw him lifting himself from the water. His yukata, on top of his usual top and pants, hung like a regal cape from his shoulders, and he looked up at her, unmoving.

"Isn't this pointless?" he said. "Fighting me like this."

Sakura reached behind her, hooking wire through kunai and wrapping them with tags, and formed a seal with her fingers behind her back. "I'm sure not here to reason with you."

"Then why are you here?"

Sakura pressed her thumbs into the tags. One. Two. Three.

"To beat you within an inch of your life, moron."

She launched one kunai to his right, one to his left; both bound to hit the water. As they whizzed past him, Naruto heard the fizz of burning explosive tags, and jumped forward.

One. There was an explosion to the left - the kunai, red hot, veered to the right. Another explosion–the right kunai veered to the left. Two more; they turned further. Three, they were sent into spin, and Naruto noticed the wire wrapping around him too late. The Sakura before him flickered into air, and what he expected to be a fist hit him three inches deep in his back. Senbon. Sakura yanked it out like a nail from a doorframe, slammed it back in like a hammer, and dragged a line right through his spine.

His legs went numb as they hit the water.

Ino stared. Cheering would have been sucked up like breath into fog in this strange world, but she felt hope tentatively wrap around her heart. She breathed, clasping a cluster of edelweiss so tight the stems gave way; she saw an uneasy vision of Sakura's smile.

'Is this what it's come to?' Naruto thought.

Bubbles and the water's disrupted surface confused his vision, and Sakura's hair swayed in the waves like a siren as she pushed and plucked senbon from his bound-up body. Fish scattered.

Naruto laughed, incredulous - Ino could imagine it.

The blood that should have been spurting from his wounds merely span into the water like smoke. Naruto kicked, straining to speak through the water, metal stringing him up, but Sakura was focused. A small swarm of salmon hid between her legs, one daring fish biting her toes.

For a long, horrid moment, Naruto caught her gaze, and Sakura's eyes glinted like a lost coin on the seabed. A hopeful shimmer, searching for something, anything in him.

Nothing. Ino knew there was nothing. She'd looked into those eyes and sought the same honesty they all thought they'd saw. She saw Sakura realise the same, bubbles escaping from her lips as she gritted her teeth.

With frustration so blatant Ino could almost hear her scream, Sakura used Naruto as a step to propel her to the surface and emerged coughing and spluttering.

Naruto had stilled.

But Ino watched on. He wasn't dead, he wasn't struggling- what was he? Was Sakura trying to kill him? Was he dying? Was Ino staring out from the eyes of a dying boy?

He'd ceased struggling, arms bound tightly to his sides with reams of metal wire, his own blood clouding his vision; he'd long lost his breath to silent cries of pain, and now he rose upwards slowly.

It seemed like forever before he surfaced. Water gurgled in his throat, and he vomited to his side, still strung up. As his ears drained, Ino heard the distant sound of Sakura heaving.

Ino saw a storm brewing, and with shaking hands and nails full of soil, she began to arrange flowers.

Sakura saw Naruto emerge, vomit still burning her nose, and she scooped a handful of water from the river, gargling. Another handful, she washed her face - another, she slicked her hair back. Naruto was immobile, strung up, breathing heavy on the surface of the water.

Water dripping from her skin, Sakura wanted to stop and think, reflect in a moment's freshness, but instead she grabbed Naruto by the collar, hauling him out of the water and lashing him against the rock with all her strength. He bounced, landing spread eagle with his legs twisted awkwardly.

She crawled to him. Blood leaked from Naruto in pink watery streams, from deep wounds that healed sluggishly as she watched. She traced his skin with her needle, teasing the edges of wounds she saw rebuild with chakra.

"I'll scar you."

Sakura pushed the needle in until it met bony resistance at his bicep, fiddling with it like a joystick. Naruto screamed, writhing, and Sakura slammed her knee onto his shoulder, pinning him down.

"I'll scar you so badly, you won't be able to forget how stupid you are for the rest of your goddamn life!"

'Why is he just- healing?'

Sakura pushed a senbon in just above his collarbone, and pulled it to the right. Blood limply spurted from Naruto's lips. She could have cried from frustration when she looked in his eyes and saw nothing but exhaustion. She lashed the senbon to the river.

'Isn't there a single thing I can do to make him remember?'

Ino tore a sprig of lavender, and plucked it thrice.

As she slammed her fists into his face, Sakura felt every crack of her knuckles like a scream through a cup on a string. But Naruto wasn't hearing her, hadn't picked up the other end, didn't want to listen at all. What did she want?

Sakura cradled her bloody knuckles, feeling something loose and aching in one, and when she looked back Naruto was clambering to his feet. The pain disappeared. She punched him in the mouth.

Safety, Sakura thought, her knuckles driving into Naruto's molars - they tossed from his mouth like pretty white dice - yes, she wanted Naruto to be safe.

Sakura wanted him and Satsuki to laugh together again, for them to huff at Kakashi-sensei, be forgettable, do-nothing ninjas—she wanted things to go back to the way they were.

Naruto stumbled back, blood spilling from his mouth, tripping over a boulder and hitting the ground. His spinal cord was forged once more by red hot chakra before her eyes, and he scrabbled to stand in the gravel; Sakura stomped on it. Crack.

But she knew that it wasn't that simple – that it never had been, never would be; that the boy beneath her heel wouldn't just start smiling again and bouncing on his feet as they waited for mission assignments.

"Sakura-chan, I-"

That perhaps those had been nothing more than lies in the first place.

"Don't call me that!"

And that even if Naruto pretended, maybe that wouldn't be enough for any of them anymore.

A handful of hyacinth, crushed in the palm.

She grabbed a tuft of his hair and lifted him, looking into his eyes. What was she checking for? Change? Effect? There was neither; Naruto stared back dully, blood leaking from his swollen lips, a purpling bruise creeping up his jaw, and Sakura choked back a scream as she slammed him head first into the wall.

'Scarves,' Sakura thought. 'People are like scarves.'

She pulled him back from the rock, chunks of gravel embedded in his face and dropping off as she shook him. Nothing was different. Again.

'You can't erase what you've already sewn - can't pull out the stitches when you're only using a single trail of thread. You just have to carry on sewing.'

Again, nothing. She dropped him, drawing back and slamming her foot into the side of his head. His head hit the wall with a sickening smack, and Sakura stepped back, breathing heavily into the stormy, close air.

'And as the scarf gets longer, the design you wanted to get rid of becomes more distant.'

She drew an exploding tag, tying it through the loop of a kunai, and slung it into the rock at Naruto's foot. It fizzed by the fuse, and burst.

'Perhaps by the end, you'll have even forgotten about the mistakes you made at the start.'

The rocks cracked and blew apart, and Naruto blew into the cliff face, peeling off of it like a ragdoll and tumbling down. She smelled burning; clothes mixed with skin, and the pungent scent of singed hair. She took a moment of his immobility to reach into the river, washing blood from her wounds and squeezing it from her fringe.

She caught her reflection; Sakura had never seen herself look so tired.

'-but nothing ever quite disappears. It's all sewn in, stitch after stitch in the silken pile, and you sew and sew until you run out of thread.'

Sakura heard a crackling, but didn't turn fast enough; something latched onto her ankle. She looked down. She stared at the bone pedipalps with some unbearable degree of fascination as it snapped her ankle. She screamed.

A zinnia bloom wilted between her fingers.

Sakura stared at Naruto, reformed once more in chitin and bone and sloppy red chakra, and wondered if things could be that easy. Was life that simple?

He approached.

Simple as clothes? As thread?

Of course not. And yet, putting it into words like that made all feel so much clearer to her, like tiny stones in the corners of her stomach being pulled together to drop to the bottom in one painful weight.

She looked up from the ground, pain rattling her every movement, and the tail of the scorpion unfurled above her, and bore a needle from its end that glimmered like a cat's eye in the moonlight.

'-but isn't that what life's about?' she thought. 'Understanding the brutal things that are killing you slowly? Becoming acquainted with the knife that cuts you?

It descended. Sakura couldn't look away.

'Kissing death?'

Ino, weeping, flung a final broken bouquet bound by her hair into the sky.


Hinata stared from behind his fist, the craggy ground peeking through where her stomach should have been, blood on her teeth and a voice like crumbling chalk.

Naruto froze.

"Where are you going?" she said. "Why are you leaving?"

For this one moment, she was so real Naruto smelled blood and lavender, the croak of her voice like froth on the gush of the rushing waterfall.

But it was Sakura, skin around her face swollen, clothes torn and singed at the edges, bleeding with her choppy cropped hair splayed on the rocks. This wasn't the same. It wasn't, was it?

'Is it?'

He hesitated.

And then he saw Satsuki in her place, makeup still smeared about her, as angry as any illusion of her would be. For genjutsu, it was weak; her anger was familiar, too familiar to move him as Hinata had. She was crouched to the ground, fan splayed and tight to her chest.

It was only when her fan burst into flame and cut across him did he realise she was very, very real.

Naruto, cut and cauterised from shoulder to hip, stumbled backwards and when Satsuki slammed the metal side of her fan into his gut, his breath left him as steam. He hit the ground. Satsuki stood on his ribcage.

"You always were good at lying, you fucking idiot," she hissed. She twisted her heel, and Naruto felt his ribs give way.

In the garden's centre, now, a great venus fly trap bloomed, maw open wide with thorns like teeth.

Gulping, breathing deeply, Ino touched it, and the sky formed into a dimly lit apartment.

"Orochimaru-sama is willing to lend you power."

The pot had cracked beneath Naruto's fingertips. The soil spilled across the tabletop like stars, or the spatter of the toothpaste he spat into the sink.

"But there's a price," the taller, larger figure grumbled. "You're not so special as to come on your own merit."

Naruto lifted a shard of ceramic between his finger and his thumb.

"Bring Uchiha Satsuki with you."

It cut him. Blood trailed down from his fingertip, crawling down the joints of his finger, through the lines of his palms, making a roadmap to nowhere from blood and skin.

"Guess so," he grinned.

Chapter Text

Kotetsu and Izumo liked to work guard duty.

Izumo was an early riser, so they were always first to the shift assignment sheet. Guard duty wasn't fun, but they got to personalise the place the longer they stayed. They had cards under the desk, and a little table for a game of Go. Sometimes Kotetsu put on slippers.

As they settled in, he reached under the counter, reaching for the worn cardboard box and pouring out a stack of cards into his palm. The sun was snuffling at the edge of the horizon, like an old dog. "You wanna play rummy?"

Izumo pulled the stool to the counter, hitching his legs up and stretching. "It's too early for problem solving, Kotetsu."

"That's not the can-do shinobi attitude we like to see in jounin, Izumo." Kotetsu splayed the shuffled cards across the desk in a bow. "You wanna see a magic trick?"

Izumo raised an eyebrow, motioning him on, an exhausted twirl on his lips as he sipped at a coffee. "Alright, I'm watching. Go ahead."

"Okay, so, pick a card."

Izumo pulled one out from Kotetsu's hand, before glancing at it and putting it back in the pile.

"You sure you aren't just screwing with me?"

Kotetsu hummed, shuffling the pile absent-mindedly as he stared across the path. No one had passed through yet. Hot pinks and oranges on the horizon made Konoha look tropical: the birds were warbling in the trees.

Something caught his eye.

"Kotetsu? I wanna see the magic trick, c'mon. Or were you just-"

"Hey," said Kotetsu. "Izumo."

At his tone, Izumo's expression tightened. "What is it?"

"No, just…" Kotetsu put the cards on the desk. "You see that? In the grass?"

They stared: nothing. But then the sun must have rose just a millimetre more, and it caught the light again.

"There, Izumo, do you-?"

"No, no I see it," said Izumo. He stood up, stretching his arms and cracking his fingers. "Probably just some trash from the festival, though. Still. Let's go."

Izumo left first, and Kotetsu kept his eyes on the shimmering. It was almost white, and reflected the light impressively: the way it peaked out between the grass was like a lurking jungle snake.

People were opening up shop down the road. The town was quiet apart from the birds, the quiet muttering of early-risers in the road, and a strange, coarse noise. It eked back and forth like a scrubbing sponge sanding away at glass, sharp and discordant.

He grew anxious.

As Kotetsu peered over the grass, Izumo swore, taking a step back.

"Fucking hell," Izumo breathed.

Buried by the long grass, a young woman was sprawled, eyes open and unblinking.

She convulsed with gasps for breath, the noise that he'd heard wheezing past her lips as shrill rasps. Froth bubbled from her mouth. She was still wearing an expensive lavender kimono, the layers strewn across her awkwardly bent legs: her sandals had fallen off.

At least two feet of hair streamed through the grass, pins and ornaments scattered in the soil, the luminous blonde he'd spotted still tangled in near-invisible light cream hair pins. Her fingers twitched.

"That's Inoichi's daughter," Kotetsu whispered, voice failing him. "Fuck me, that's Yamanaka Ino. Izumo, have you seen him?"

"He's at T&I as usual, but-"

"Then go!"

The smell of frying eggs awoke Haruno Mebuki.

She curled into the bedsheets, before stretching sluggishly and curling her toes. The morning was in full swing.

Mebuki put on her slippers and slipped into her dressing gown, blinking the fuzz out of her eyes. She took the stairs slowly, and turned the corner to see her husband, hard at work over the stove.

"Is that eggs you're making, honey?"

"Sure is. Making coffee too," Kizashi said, whistling. "Is Sakura up?"

"I doubt it…"

"Could you get her, honey? She'll sleep forever if you leave her."

"Fine," Mebuki huffed, grinding her teeth. "We need to buy her an alarm, Kizashi."

"So we do."

She sighed, heading for the stairs. Couldn't Sakura get up in her own time? Couldn't Mebuki just read the news and eat her breakfast? Apparently not.

Mebuki sank further into her dressing gown, curling her toes into her slippers as she stood at the edge of the stairs. "Sakura! Get up!"

No answer. She stormed upstairs, and rapped on the door. "Sa-ku-ra! Wake! Up!"


"I'm coming in, Sakura," Mebuki warned, feeling a dreadful feeling accumulating like a blood clot as she held the handle. She pushed, but found no give.

The lock.

Mebuki had put a lock on the door - it'd been part of that discussion, after Sakura had gone to live with that young Satsuki girl. Privacy. Independence. Respect. It'd been about those things: so now she had a lock. It was a small cost to have her home, but now… if the door was locked, then surely-

"Sakura, you're in there, aren't you? Get up!" She rattled the handle again, checking she hadn't just gotten it stuck. "You're… You're worrying me, y'know that?"



She took three steps back and then slammed her foot into the door. The frame shuddered. So she did it once more, twice-

The lock gave way, the force pulling the chain and its attachment on the door with it right out of the wood. Mebuki felt her stomach drop.

The room was empty; the yukata and the under layers were all over the bed, but Sakura was nowhere to be seen.

She stormed down the stairs, to see Kizashi looking up at her, apron on and bewildered.

"Mebuki? Dear, what's going-"

"Sakura isn't in her room," she breathed, holding onto her knees. The kicks had rattled her right knee a bit, and the pain shot up and down her leg. "But it was locked. She must've gone out her window, or s-something."

"Mebuki." Kizashi took Mebuki by the shoulders with a firm, gentle grip, looking into her eyes. She calmed a little. "Mebuki. Are you sure you didn't miss her? Maybe she was hiding in her wardrobe or something. Have you been fighting?"

"No," Mebuki sniffled. Between anger and panic, somehow she'd ended up in tears. "No, Kizashi, we'd been- we'd done fine recently. And after she came back, we'd been talking- so why would she not respond? She must've known how worried we were- she must've gone out the window, to that Satsuki girl again, or something-"

Kizashi nodded, drawing her into his arms and massaging her back with his hand. He smelled like clean clothes and cooking. "Calm down, honey. It's okay. She might be at Inoichi's."

"Oh-Oh, you could be right," she said, tears leaking onto his shirt collar. "We should go ask, and- and-"

"Yes, dear. So you go upstairs-" Kizashi motioned up the stairs, "and go check her room again, okay? And I'll go out to Inoichi's and be back with her before you know it."

Mebuki was silent, just nodding, her face swollen with upset and panic. She clambered upstairs as Kizashi yanked off his apron and took his keys and coat, scurrying out with the door still unlocked.

The eggs were burning.

A sour taste, like battery acid, began to sting Satsuki's tongue as she looked down at Naruto's beaming, smug face.

"Guess so?" she repeated, gritting her teeth. "Keep that crap to yourself."

Satsuki slammed her foot into Naruto's face, crushing his cheek into the ground with the sole of her shoe with force so strong a couple teeth cracked. Gravel crunched beneath his head, and his skull seemed to bend under her foot a little, like a tough rubber ball.

The scorpion tail, eyeing Satsuki carefully, began to rattle then, its stinger gleaming in the light. She cut it clean in two; blood splattered across the rocks, and Naruto shrieked, convulsing and scrambling to grab his missing limb.

The sun was rising above the two statues; rushing water cast froth into the light, like the waterfall was spitting diamonds.

Satsuki's figure blotted out the light, her two fans by her sides dripping red hot chakra from their spokes. Naruto, in front of her, had been cut from his shoulder to his hip in one clean slice of a fan. The smell of cauterised flesh hung in the air: blackened pink gunge like burnt ham pulsed from his gut.

"Sakura," said Satsuki, looking over her shoulder, her features carved out by sunbeams. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah," Sakura whispered, keeping her eyes firmly on the boy beneath the sole of Satsuki's foot. Naruto twitched, his wound beginning to ooze with rancid chakra. "Satsuki-san, my… my ankle's gone. He broke it."

"Okay," Satsuki said, stepping off Naruto. He gasped, spluttering saliva and blood.

Satsuki put a foot beneath Naruto's broken ribcage, lifting her leg and rolling him over like he was a gutted pig carcass. He tumbled aside, limp limbs sprawling across the rocks, shuddering but otherwise still.

Satsuki shut her fans and strapped them to her belt, and she leaned down, putting one arm gently beneath Sakura's neck and another arm beneath her knees. Her head lolled in her arms, eyes glassy as Satsuki hoisted her up, and she curled up, leaning into her like a tired child.

Satsuki shifted Sakura's weight, and began carrying her to the greener part of the valley in long strides. Her bony arms hurt Sakura's ribcage, but she didn't even have the energy to wince.

"I've never seen you in black before," Satsuki said.

"Really?" Sakura murmured. She licked blood off her lips. "I guess I don't really wear it much. Doesn't do much for my complexion…"

The sky rolled, morning sunlight rising above them. There wasn't a cloud to be seen.

"I think you look nice," Satsuki said. "You look mature."

Sakura smiled weakly. "Hah. That's not so bad."

As they drew away from Naruto, still dripping with that stagnant chakra as he lay motionless on the ground, Sakura noticed Satsuki did not look back.

"Satsuki-san," said Sakura, coughing a little. Her ribs stung her in response. "I'm… I'm really sorry that I couldn't. I did everything I could to stop him. I didn't hesitate, or anything, but it's just- his skin, like… it was like armor."

"I know. You don't have to apologise."

Satsuki kept walking.

"Do you think that's Naruto we're fighting? That it's really him?" Sakura clasped Satsuki's top. Her nails were cracked, split apart, and some entirely missing. Swollen skin pushed through the cracks. "Is he being… possessed? Has he got… is this the Nine Tails? Orochimaru?"

Satsuki couldn't answer. Sakura leaned into her chest even more. Her hair was full of dust and gravel, and looked more grey than pink in the sun.

"Because, y'know, I'd like to think," Sakura said, "that that isn't him."

A bird landed by the stream, washing itself quickly with a dip of its head. Satsuki's lips thinned, and she held Sakura tighter.

Sakura's clothes were sodden and her skin was dribbling with water and blood, but Satsuki was warm and dry. Sakura relished it for the moment.

"Sakura." Satsuki hoisted her up, arms slipping a little. "Naruto killed all of the plants in his apartment before he left. He cleaned. I couldn't even find his toothbrush.

"Naruto left all on his own." Satsuki seemed disturbed for a moment, but then looked back at her, brushing hair from Sakura's eyes with a dry hand. Her nails were still perfect. "And in fact," she said, "I think he'd decided on it a long time ago."

Sakura closed her eyes, exhaling.

"Sakura," said Satsuki, "We didn't always get along, did we?"

Sakura snorted. "No," she murmured, remembering a moment. "No, we actually used to argue, didn't we? A lot. I used to treat Naruto like crap, and you…"

"I used to stand up for him," Satsuki said. "And I used to get angry with you for the way you looked up to me. I hated being called pretty, too."

"Yeah, you used to get so annoyed about it, right? But I really did admire you, you know." Sakura looked up at her. "I still do. You're still so far ahead of me."

Satsuki shook her head. "You got here first."

Sakura blinked, and smiled weakly. "I guess you're right. But maybe that's the difference between you and me, Satsuki-san." Sakura's smile dimmed. "Maybe I didn't trust him like you did. I don't know. Is it one of those things, where- if you expect good things of someone, they live up to it? Naruto's that kind of guy, isn't he? A people pleaser?"

"I don't really know what kind of guy Naruto is," said Satsuki, a crack parting her words. "And I really did- I really thought I knew, Sakura. Just like I thought I knew you when we were young. But I didn't. You were clever. You were brave - far braver than me. I wasn't ever brave enough to talk to Naruto honestly. About the things we… that we really needed to talk about.

"And there were a lot of things I expected of Naruto, too. I knew he could be a coward, but I knew Naruto's bravery came from when he really wanted to save us. I- More than anything, I just didn't expect him to lie to me." Satsuki's voice crumbled. "Not like that."

Sakura closed her eyes. "Satsuki-san," she said, hot tears gathering, "Naruto lied to us all the time."

As they reached the small wood, Satsuki laid Sakura down at the foot of one of the far trees. She leaned into the soil and grass, every heartbeat making her wounds sting.

"I'll be back," said Satsuki. "And we'll take him home."

Sakura tried to sit up on her elbows, at the edge of saying something when she wobbled and fell.

Satsuki caught Sakura in the nick of time, her arm behind her back and another hand in her hair. She buried her fingers into a tuft; the jagged ends had grown out, but it still barely brushed her shoulders.

"Everything will be okay, Sakura. I'm just-" Satsuki wove her other hand between Sakura's fingers. "I'm just…"

Her fingers felt calloused against Sakura's, but not as much as they used to. Sakura's fingers didn't feel so soft anymore: every finger had been nicked by her needles, by some rock or other.

"...I'm so glad you're safe. Even if…"

Tears dripped from Satsuki's chin. Sakura felt them streaming down hers too.

"It'll be fine, Satsuki-san. You're right," Sakura whispered, mustering the resolution to nod and smile at Satsuki. Satsuki nodded back. "Everything will be okay."

With great effort, and not looking away for a single moment, Sakura let go.

It was early morning, and Tsunade's office was freezing cold. The sun was only beginning to hit the building and her fingers felt clumsy and numb.

"Crap, it's cold," she muttered. Her seat was even colder, and she winced, rubbing her legs together. "Shizune, is the heating on?"

Tonton was sleeping still. Bastard pig, Tsunade thought. What she wouldn't do to eat and sleep all day.

"Well, Tsunade-sama," Shizune said, biting her lip, "There is no central heating in the building, ma'am."


"You see, ma'am, it's the Land of Fire. Quite warm comparably year round, so the heating is quite unnecessary. This is just a cold morning because the sky's clear. It'll heat up rather quick."

Tsunade drummed her freshly manicured nails on the table. "Huh," she said tonelessly. Perhaps she could use the paperwork as insulation. Put it on the walls or something.

"Would you like a cup of tea, Tsunade-sama?" Shizune asked, motioning to the back room. "We've got a kettle and a small stove."

"Stove," Tsunade repeated. In a moment's glorious idea, she yanked open her bottom drawer and brought out a bottle of sake and a brand new chokkuri. "In that case, would you mind heating this sake for me? Thanks in advance."

"T-Tsunade-sama, that sake will taste awful heated."

"Beggars can't be choosers!" She pushed two choko onto the desk and winked at Shizune. "As your boss, I give you permission to get slaughtered on the job."

Shizune sighed, taking the tokkuri and the sake and heading to the back room. "Tsunade-sama. Please. You've got a lot of paperwork to get through today, you know. And I bet there'll be repairs after the festival!"

"I do know," said Tsunade, calling after her, "and I am trying to forget, thank you very much."

As Shizune set herself about the stove and the drinks ('She's probably going to bring me tea anyway!' Tsunade thought grimly), the Hokage sat and tried to gather warmth by wiggling her toes. It was a terribly cold autumn morning, but Shizune was right: outside the window, the sprawling blue sky had probably sucked all the heat out of the earth overnight.

At least it was too early for anyone to bother her-

Bang bang, bang BANG.

Ah, now there was an obnoxious knock. ANBU then? She hated those bastards. They knocked like debt collectors.

"Come in," she growled. Drummed her nails again. She'd just got these done - she could bet some good money she'd have chipped the job by the end of the day with how much these people drove her up the wall.

"It's me!"

A familiar bellowing came from Jiraiya, who bumbled in and took a gigantic scroll off his back and slammed it on the ground. "Fooled you, didn't I! Sounded just like the ANBU, am I right?"

"Great to see you," muttered Tsunade. "I see you're as hard at work as ever."

"Well, yes, I am for a matter of fact," he huffed. "I came back to hand in some intel. Something Danzo requested I pick up. And I'm right back out, you know."

"Wonderful. Then I'll see you." She shooed him with one hand, drawing circles on the desk with the other.

Jiraiya pouted. "Don't be so hasty," he said. A more serious look settled on his face. "You remember the seal you asked me to put on Naruto?"

"The Uzumaki kid?" she said, gaze narrowing a little.

He nodded, pushing over the huge scroll at his side and unfurling it in one clean kick. "I told him it had something a bit more dangerous in it than it does, but doesn't seem like it deterred him anyway. This tells me when he's using the Nine Tails' chakra, but it's connected with his matching seal. He's far away from the village now."

The seal, Great Counterstrike, oozed with black ink that bubbled within the strokes of Jiraiya's calligraphy.

"Can you track him with that?" she said.

"Yep," he said. "About all I can do, actually. I didn't want to end up killing the kid if there was just some plain accident on a training field."

Shizune came in quietly, bowing to Jiraiya and then pouring a hot choko of sake. Tsunade sighed, taking a long sip. "Doesn't look like your caution did you much good. Go get Sakura. And that Uchiha kid too. They'll want to hear this. And Shizune, is there a map anywhere around here? Pen, too."

Jiraiya grimaced.

"Well," he said, scratching the side of his head, "there's something else."

Tsunade looked less than ready for more bad news, but judging by her grinding teeth, he would've guessed she already knew.

"Oh, don't tell me," she hissed, the choko in her hand struggling against her grip. "Those two did not."

"They did."

The ceramic split. Hot sake flooded the desk. One shard chipped her manicure.

The sun was getting higher in the sky.

Aside from smatterings of pillowy clouds at the very edges of the sky, it was a beautiful day; autumn hadn't spread here yet. For all anyone could've known, this part of the world was still in the throes of summer.

Satsuki splayed her fans, cleaning them with a dip in the river.

Naruto was still gurgling. Satsuki could see where the cut had turned septic, right through his innards. Chakra oozed from the wound all the same, red-purple sewing together pink, putty-like gunge. The mix of stringy muscle and tissue reminded Satsuki of frying bacon.

Chakra oozed from the wound, pooling below him, even pushing out of his mouth like his vomit. Naruto seemed to gag on it, but the chakra lurched and rose up behind him, pushing him to his feet.

Satsuki cleared the ground around her of dust and pebbles with a clean sweep of her right foot, brushing them aside and then standing up straight. Her fans spread between her fingers.

"Satsuki," he said. Gooey purplish-black chakra oozed from his gut now, like moldy ink. "You're here too? Not just, my mind… or anything…"

She didn't say anything, instead focusing on her center of gravity.

'One foot forward, to the right. One foot behind, facing forward. Fans, flat. Open.'

Breathing slowly, she lowered herself, weight on her back leg as her Sharingan clocked into position. The world began to fasten itself into intent shades of red, a spectrum so descriptive it had no words of equal.

She lifted one fan to her front, one to her side. To their edges she projected fire: the controlled extension of energy made her fans feel like a strange but dead part of her, like nails or hair. Waves of hot chakra licked down each chakra-conductive spoke.

Naruto's exhausted eyes fixated on her fans.

"On fire?" he murmured. She saw chakra pull together knuckle wounds filled with gravel, and spit out the rocks from the flesh like they were peach pits. "Doesn't hurt?"

Satsuki held back a crack of anger. Hearing his voice alone made her muscles scream from her neck to her fingertips. Oh, the things she'd do.

"I'm glad to see you're so concerned about me, Naruto."

She let her eyes drift to his gut. "But your intestines are tumbling out of that wound of yours."


Satsuki remembered the experience of cutting through a large fish under her mother's careful watch: tissue was a strangely forgiving thing. Bones were the problem.

Something similar happened: Satsuki stepped forward with one leg, and twisted her torso as she dropped to the ground. She brought her fan back, around, and into Naruto's ankle as he glanced down at the wound through his torso. She snagged on the bone.

Naruto gasped, scrambling to yank his leg back. She dislodged the fan from the bone with a wiggle of her wrist, reeling back for another cut. Behind them, Naruto's severed tail convulsed, hissing and moving to whip her.

Satsuki pulled her arm back, and snapped it forward before he could grab her.

Her fan went straight through his achilles tendon, and like a badly restrung bass string, it snapped back with a disgusting, meaty twang so strong that Naruto fell to the ground, his foot limp and unresponsive.

Satsuki went for the other one, teeth bared and spit flying as she threw herself into the ground and buried her fan in the back of his left ankle.

This one didn't require a second chop. She had a sense for its meaty, sinewy texture now - it parted neatly with a thwack. Naruto's second foot gave way and he stumbled: the skin seared on his fan like barbecue. There was a whiff of acrid smoke.

"I know you suck at anatomy," Satsuki hissed, "but this is simple enough. You won't be walking until the Hokage herself sews you up."

Naruto stared at her. Satsuki couldn't find his pupils: they'd closed over. Some of his teeth were pushing out of his gums, rolling out of his mouth onto the rocks.

"I don't need to walk," he said, falling gently into the filthy chakra. "I crawl now."

The chakra, as thick and persistent as tar, swallowed him whole, the red-purple eating at him. Naruto didn't struggle, even as he seemed to choke.

It pulled up from the ground, forming a shape far larger than Satsuki, congealing into something sharp and complex.

A shimmering black scorpion, dripping with chakra and gleaming as though oiled, emerged around Naruto. Muscle oozed through it, pulling the exoskeleton together like a fresh seam, tendons roping Naruto's legs and torso inside to leave his arms hanging down at its front.

Two pedipalps snapped in front of Naruto's face, and two mandibles of bone began to push from inside of his mouth, puncturing his cheeks after a couple seconds resistance. They pinned his face in place, distorting his cries.

Then came the tail, the stinger gleaming anew: six legs clicked, Naruto's two legs absorbed in the ones furthest back.

The scorpion still swayed confidently, as though it didn't feel Naruto's pain at all - as though he had been eaten by another organism altogether.

She breathed, her Sharingan flicking between every new limb. There were too many limbs. Far too many.

The stinger leered over at her, smug as it watched from above.

"SATSUKI," said Naruto, cheeks tearing apart as he spoke. A string of skin snapped and rolled down, baring Naruto's deformed teeth and bleeding gums. "GO HOME."

A foggy bridge covered in blood. A world renowned mercenary dead, for a boy no one would ever remember.

And the young boy stood, eyes full of ice, ready to die, nothing in mind but the words he spoke.

"Forge your own path," he whispered, "and find dreams."

"I let go of my ambitions so I could hold onto my dreams," said Satsuki. She snapped her fans ajar, the metal sparking alight. "It took me a long time to find them again. A long time to find my home."

Her hands shook as she focused on Naruto's face, steam whistling through his overgrown teeth.

"I won't let you take it from me," she spat, holding back furious tears. "My home is with you, and your home is with me, Naruto! And I won't let you lie to me anymore!"

"Are you going to send someone? Or… you know, just mark them as missing nin?"

"Inoichi's daughters' soul is out there, somewhere. He's one of our best men, and goddammit Jiraiya, they're kids."

"They are. So what are you going to do?"

"There's simply no one I can spare from our ranks. Genin at best, but they're the ones doing all the repair operations. It's not an easy decision."


"Well," Tsunade muttered, tracing her fingers around the rim of her remaining choko, "I've actually had some volunteers."

Until Gaara had left Suna as a genin, he had only seen plants in pots and greenhouses. When he'd gone through the desert to the edges of neighbouring towns, on uncomfortable escort missions, Gaara had seen plants grow wild for the first time. Most were cacti, Temari had nervously informed him. But then he saw a strange one.

It'd been a desert sage, a pretty purple flower that grew in bundles. Gaara had been dumbfounded at its stern resilience in a very barren scrubland.

Then, he'd come to Konoha.

Plants grew everywhere, even between the cracks of paving stones, up the gutters of the houses and across their facades. Trees grew so big their foliage smothered the weeds.

Where in Suna, the cultivation of livestock was crucial, Konoha's forests seemed abound with all sorts of wild animals. It was pleasing for a person to see a sweet brown rabbit, or a fox. People were comfortable, so the stubborn fight of life that rose around Konoha was pleasing to them.

It confounded him.

Now, dashing through the woods of Konoha as he had in the Chunin Exams, the thick canopy of life overwhelmed him.

The desert sage was a plant so resilient it could only require water once in its lifetime; Konoha's forest was so spoilt, trees, vines and shrubs all throttled each other for more sunlight. Bugs slept in the ground and swarmed through every crevice.

It was another world to him. Temari, however, seemed disinterested: she was talking about a topic Gaara didn't quite understand.


"I hate this game."

"Whatever. Tsunade."

"...I don't know."

"What? You wouldn't? I'd-"

Temari reeled off several acts that Gaara didn't really understand.

Kankurou cringed. "Sis, please. Don't."

"God, you're so easily intimidated by a pretty girl. All of you are." Temari dashed from branch to branch, counting off on her fingers as she cycle through names in her head. "Okay, okay… what about, like… Satsuki?"

"She's scary."

"But you wouldn't be able to touch her, I bet." Temari grinned. "She'd kick the shit out of you."

"No she wouldn't. I… I'd bang her."

"Wow," she said, rolling her eyes. "So manly. She'd cut your balls off."

"I know," he hissed. "This is theoretical, right? Because I don't even want to talk to her. She scares me. And I don't understand the Sharingan, either-"

Gaara's voice made them snap to attention.

"Temari," he said, pointing. "What trees are these?"

"There's," Temari coughed, trying to cover a stutter. "Theres's, uh, there's probably a few… the bigger and taller ones are probably oaks, or… they might not be real trees at all. They could be made by the First Hokage, even. He had a control of plants."

Gaara didn't respond. It felt like the wrong answer, so she gulped and kept on moving from branch to branch. Almost there.

"So, Gaara," said Kankurou, sounding as if he was making awkward conversation with his own reflection, "Why was it you, uh, wanted to come out here?"

Gaara gave Kankurou a look over his shoulder that made him wish he was dead, but didn't say anything.

"Not that we didn't want to," interjected Temari quickly. "But we wouldn't have expected you to be, um, interested. If you know what I mean."

Gaara was quiet for a minute. Sand hung around his shoulders, hissing.

"I need to speak to Uchiha Satsuki," he said. "And Uzumaki Naruto. If he's still there."

Temari had her doubts she'd find the Uzumaki kid, and if she did, she was not massively interested in tangling with the Cursed Seal herself. But Gaara seemed resolute, so she nodded, and they journeyed on.

Steam and chakra seethed from the scorpion, oozing from every gap in its form. The pedipalps clicked as large scorpion legs buried themselves in the ground one by one, inching closer to Satsuki.

'Fuck. I don't even know if I can cut through that shell.' She backed off, lowering herself a little more. 'I'm going to have to shape it.'

She backed off, grinding her feet into the ground. The scorpion didn't steady its slow walk, still approaching.

Satsuki ran her hand along the surface of her frontmost fan, dipping her fingers into hot chakra as she ran her fingers over its edge, focusing chakra to her fingers as sharp as she could.

The scorpion picked up its pace, but only slightly, proceeding as though curious. Satsuki kept her focus on the fan, grinding her feet into the ground and stepping back with care.

She could see the shape forming, just barely. She needed more.


Satsuki didn't respond, still swiping along the surface of her fan. Almost there.


The scorpion drew closer in an instant, and Satsuki careened back. It was almost-

Naruto reached out, arms scrabbling to reach her with a dazed expression. The legs gained on her almost instantly and she fell flat on the ground below him. The fan hummed.

"C'MON," he whispered, his voice resonating as though she could hear his voice from hundreds of clones across the valley. Pedipalps hung above her head. "I WANT TO SEE, SATSUKI."

Satsuki spat in his face, and Naruto blinked, her saliva dripping off his eyelashes.

"Third stance."

Before he could say another word, Satsuki drew back her fan, and with a pulse of chakra, flicked it forward.


A lick of sharp hot fire blew through three legs like a butchers knife.

The scorpion scuttled for a moment, before collapsing, stumps landing on the fresh wounds. The chakra hissed, tissue bubbling, and Satsuki rolled from beneath him, Naruto grabbing onto her clothes in a strange desperate clasp.

"Get off me," she snarled, slamming a foot into his face. His jaw cracked to the side, and she rolled back, fumbling through her bag with one hand as she kept her eyes firmly on him.

She felt soft little smoke bombs. Conductive wire. Plenty of shuriken, plenty of kunai. Tags. Think. How to disarm a demonic, hyper regenerating beast? Satsuki had no idea whether there would be an end to the chakra. The Nine Tailed Fox was a supposedly infinite being. Orochimaru, perhaps less so, but Satsuki could say nothing for the forbidden techniques he used.

'I've got to try and trap him,' she thought, 'or really hit him where it hurts. Maybe I can slow down the regeneration if I dismember him, or…'

Maybe dismembering would work, Satsuki thought grimly, but the thought made her stomach feel like stone. Something else had to work. She didn't want to bank on being able to cut Naruto up, only to find a brand-new limit to the Nine Tails' chakra.

The scorpion was fumbling, trying to balance on one leg on the right. It was limping across the rock, the other legs scrabbling, struggling, bubbling with chakra and raw tissue. Naruto gritted his teeth, trying to look at the missing limbs.

"If you're surprised at how long it's taking to regenerate," Satsuki hissed, "I've got great news."

He stared at her, still no pupils, face still half-torn apart from the mandibles.

"My mother died before she could teach the third stance of the Gliding Edge. So I created it myself. I had to strip my fans and replace the metal to make this work.

"This," Satsuki flourished a fan, setting it alight with a snap, "is my Suzakugami. I've infused my fire with shape manipulation to send out a wave of sharp, burning chakra.

"I can cut you and cauterise you at the same time," she murmured, the flames making the shadows on her face dance. "Your chakra network becomes confused. Neither chakra nor blood can get to the wound. You won't die, but you won't regenerate.

"I'm sure you can tell, Naruto," she whispered, unclipping the other fan from her belt, "but I developed this technique specifically to deal with you."

Passing birds cast a brief shadow overhead.

"For a day just like this."

Satsuki lunged forward, throwing herself off her back foot, her fans coming down like a guillotine. Naruto scurried backward with a limp, and her fan only caught the end of one of his mouth-pincers. A chunk dropped to the ground.


Satsuki dropped down. His legs were coming through, malformed and unprotected. She cursed.

'Those are going to come in quick. Got to do something before then.'

As Satsuki lowered herself to try and see the tendons tying Naruto into the shell, the pedipalps lunged for her, snapping off a lock of her hair: above it, far more threatening, loomed the stinger.

A thought she'd been pushing off struck her. 'He doesn't want to use it. That's probably the most lethal thing here.'

Satsuki didn't want to entertain the thought of Naruto holding back on her.

She veered backwards, away from the sharp pedipalps and the looming, glistening stinger. She had no idea the type of venom that thing would boast, but she had no intention of finding out.

'Think. Think.'


Fumbling in her bag, Satsuki clasped a smoke bomb, and hoped.

The area was filled with smoke and dust for a moment, and as Naruto's form searched for her, she made a hand sign.

'Kage Bunshin no Jutsu.'

Her other self appeared, quickly transforming into a small pebble.

Satsuki felt an indescribable pull on her chakra: if this didn't work, she'd die right here. She had no idea how Naruto produced the hundreds he did. For her, there was no chance of another one.

She looped two kunai through one string of wire, tying them carefully at either end of the wire, and then grabbed her fans again.

Satsuki positioned her feet carefully, brushing the ground to check for obstacles, before she focused chakra to her feet and span. Smoke pushed outwards, blinding Naruto for a moment, and Satsuki stopped, focusing chakra to her knees and jumping upwards.

Her clone, out of Naruto's sight now, began to move.

The scorpion kept its eyes on her, scuttling to the side when she landed. Satsuki's knees ached with the force, but she was steady. She'd expected to miss.

Satsuki lunged forward again, flaming fans just as keen to cut, and the plan went into action.

Her clone cut through the tail of the scorpion with a fan. It took two hacks: the tail stung her clone after the second one, and it disappeared. The dismembered tail still hissed frantically on the ground behind Naruto as the creature turned to see how it'd been injured.

Seeing opportunity and her ready-made trap, Satsuki threw one of her wire-tired kunai beneath the scorpion, skimming under Naruto and landing in the stony ground beside him. The trail of wire it left tied neatly to the matching kunai in her hand.

He didn't have the time to react when she threw the second kunai over the top of him with a chakra-enforced swing. The kunai plowed into the ground, the wire strung between the two throwing him onto his back and pinning him to the ground. The fit was so tight that the wire cut the scorpion shell.

The scorpion writhed, the knives buckling a little.

Breathing heavily, Satsuki walked over to where the creature was pinned to the ground, and slammed her foot down on either kunai, pushing them further into the rock. The wire became tighter then, and seemed to have made its way to Naruto's skin; as he screamed, she made a few handsigns and sent a spurt of an uncharged chidori down the metal.

Naruto went quiet, still twitching a little, but a lot easier to handle.

As his human arms began to struggle, Satsuki grabbed his left arm, pinning it above his head.

He shrieked as she stabbed a kunai right through it to the rock. The right hand seemed to hurt even worse. Maybe she'd hit something.

Naruto's scorpion legs were scrabbling at the air, desperate to grab her but just inches away. Satsuki eyed the stumps, which were now forming a set of joints. She drew back, focusing the last dredges of her chakra - her Sharingan faded - to the edges of her fan.

"I don't want to do this," she said.

"THEN DON'T," he begged. "PLEASE, SATSUKI, I-"

Somehow, that annoyed her more. Satsuki cut off the left pedipalps.

Naruto seemed dumb with pain, choking on his own cries as she threw away the limb.

The right one came off easier. It was as if he'd gone into shock each time, but with each new blow, he struggled beneath the wire anew. She didn't have enough chakra to deliver another chidori shock: if he started gathering chakra again, she'd be, to put it lightly, fucked.

The pedipalps had been the most formidable. The first leg came off quite nicely, but Naruto's legs were roped in with muscle to the bottom two, along with his torso on the underside of the shell. She'd have to cut him out.

Second, and third leg met with little resistance. Fourth leg, Satsuki could feel herself getting slightly dizzier. She could do it. Had to do it. She threw the severed limb into the river. Naruto seemed to be shuddering with the shock.

"I'm going to cut you out," she said, holding her fan near his face for effect. It hummed near his skin like a broken electrical fuse. "Stay still."

Satsuki reached down, holding every ounce of her energy to the edge of the fan as she began to - as gently as she could - hack the tendons away. She hit Naruto's skin. A lot.

After three tendons work, Naruto's torso was largely free, but his legs were still tied into the final scorpion limbs. Satsuki reached down.

There were more tendons than she'd hoped. Her fan was unlikely to be active for much longer. Even if it was, she though, there was no way she'd be conscious, and if she used kunai, the task would take twice as long. His limbs might already have grown back.

'But,' she thought, her fan humming at the edge of his skin, 'if I could just cut off the calves…'

She hesitated.


"Shut up, usuratonkachi! I'm thinking!"

She felt a stab of pain in her foot.

"I'm sorry," he said.

She looked down. The rest of the legs hadn't grown back at all, still oozing stumps.

Then she realised. The scorpion stinger glistened, a little droplet of her blood on its end.

He'd focused the regeneration.

Satsuki felt ice cold venom crawl up her leg like a saline shot, and she toppled with the pain, hitting the ground beside him with a hiss.

Naruto pried one hand free, pulling the kunai out of his hand with his teeth, clumsy slippery fingers pulling the kunai out of the second one. He flung them across the valley. His palms were healing, albeit sluggishly.

"I don't know what's in the venom," he whispered. The mandibles had retracted, leaving holes that were slowly stitching themselves back together. "I don't know- Satsuki, I wouldn't've- I've already gone so far, haven't I?"

As he wrenched the chakra conductive wire off of him out and out of the ground, the scorpion shell started to detach from him like a snake's skin.

"Not far enough," she hissed breathlessly. She couldn't move her leg. "Kill me. I hate you. If you really believe- until you do it, I won't- I won't believe you-!"

"That'd defeat the point, right?" he said. "You can't believe anything when you're dead anyway."

"I hate you." The venom was paralysing her. It made her feel as though she was slowly turning to ice. "Fuck, Naruto, I hate you!"

"Sakura's coming. She'll help you," he said, dripping with blood as he crawled out of the shell. Sure enough, Satsuki could see Sakura, limping, stumbling across the valley. "Someone else is coming too. Satsuki, I…"

The paralysis was overwhelming her, slowly. With every last word she had, she was honest with him.

"I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I'll kill you. God, I'm going to fucking kill you!"

As honest with him as she could bear to be.

"You can't leave Sakura," she whispered. Her voice was becoming scarce from the venom. "You can't leave Konoha. Naruto, don't leave-"

'Don't leave me.'

Her voice wasn't coming anymore. So cold.


Naruto crawled to her. How she wished she could throttle him. She couldn't move. Couldn't even blink.

"I'm sorry for doing this," he said.

The sun was blinding now. It must've been directly overhead, Satsuki thought, but it was barely a warm touch on her skin.

"The Sound Four came to me," he said. "They asked me to take you with me, as an offering to Orochimaru. I'm gonna… I dunno, say something else happened. Guess I'll say Sakura-chan stopped me.

"I don't know how I feel about Konoha. I don't want to be forced to stay around people that think I'm a burden, y'know? But this- this wasn't all for nothing. Sakura-chan, you… even Kakashi-sensei, who lied to me all that time… Team 7 was the best thing I'd ever had. The only thing I'd ever had.

"But I have to avenge everyone," he said. "I have to avenge Hinata. Hokage-ojii-chan. Mizuki-sensei." His voice jilted. "I've got to avenge them. I didn't want it to go this far. I didn't think you and Sakura-chan-"

Naruto stopped. Satsuki could hear him try and gather breath.

"I didn't think you cared this much."

The water was rushing by. For a moment, there was silence as Naruto seemed to be deliberating with himself.

"But I have to do it," he said. "I have to kill Orochimaru."

Satsuki couldn't feel the sunlight anymore.

"We'll meet again," he said, certain. "And when we do, I'll've killed that bastard Orochimaru with my own two hands. Mizuki-sensei, Hinata, and Hokage-ojii-chan- I'll have avenged them all. They'll be at peace. I'll be myself again. And I'll give you this necklace back.

"When we do," said Naruto, "you can decide whether to kill me."

He stood up, legs shaky and newly reformed. She saw the necklace she'd sewn for him glisten on his torso, the good luck charm catching the light. His knee buckled for a moment.

"You screwed me up really fucking hard," he said, laughing, wincing, his voice cracking. "You bastard."

She couldn't see his face, but she heard his tears fall.

Satsuki felt herself cry. She couldn't even blink the tears away.

Chapter Text

Kakashi had not always been a man of leisure.

In fact, as a child, he'd had a lot of trouble staying still. He trained, he did missions day and night, and when he could do neither he hung around the mission office like a ghost.

Sleeping was worse. He had avoided it at all costs. If he did sleep, it was on foreign soil; what he did in his own time was best described as brief and feverish lapses into unconsciousness. And when that happened - when he slept - Kakashi was pulled into strange woods of shimmery white plastic, of no mother, no father, and his unmade, unwelcoming bed.

But the reckoning came. Kakashi realised he was a tool, and like a tool, his lethality was all he had - and that no matter how quick he was, how sharp he was, how deep the wounds he cut, he was powerless to ever do anything but lay in the hand of his superiors. Alone, he could not wound.

Now everyone was gone.

The things that Kakashi yearned for flourished in his head, in a dense luscious wood where the only bed was the one they rolled out beside the fire. Laughter. Flickers among the trees of annoying things they'd said or done; ghosts of himself, saying and doing all the wrong things; lunches he'd rejected. Feelings he'd hurt.

These images didn't haunt him. Kakashi was the one haunting the forests of Konoha, the woods of his head. The twist of the knife when Obito shrugged off another comment, muttering, or the way he felt himself seize when Rin grabbed his arm, or when Minato sighed, trying to round them up like unruly dogs: these were proof of life. The pain they caused him was evidence he had lived.

So he lived in those woods, in the gaps between the trunks and the branches, where his life was supposed to have been. When he took the long route to training or mission assignment, that was where he wandered.

As Konoha's humid heat-haze resettled on his last couple days, Kakashi stopped at a stream on his long journey; hanging his clothes on branches and reading with his calves in the water like he was fresh out the academy. The fish nipped at his feet before pulling back suddenly, which was what he imagined to be the aquatic equivalent of wrinkling your nose.

"Ouch. Guess I taste bad."

His journey back to Konoha after reconnaissance in Grass was marked with short stops. After he had sent back the coded intelligence Konoha needed, Kakashi decided to take his time - just a little.

"Hey, Rin, do you think Kakashi even knows how to swim?"

Rin was smiling ruefully at Obito, as she always did when he said stupid things like this. He  could see the slightly crooked bite of her teeth. His left eye remembers this especially: her smile was warming to the sight. The eye could see distantly how Kakashi was sat on the shore, striking firewood. He remembered listening to this conversation: how he'd so patiently pretended to be deaf. Likewise, all the eye could see was his back.

"Of course he knows how to swim, Obito!" she pouted. "Don't tease him. Not everyone likes swimming with other people around…"

Obito huffed. "Well, maybe it's because Goody Two-Shoes over here doesn't know how to swim, and knows I'd beat him in a heartbeat in a race!"

"Obito…" Rin rolled her eyes.

"Ooh, maybe he has super webbed toes, that's why he never swims. Like he's a fish or something. He's so aqua-dynamic that his legs just spread like big ol' flippers and he just bobs through the ocean. Not like a merman, but, ah, a shark. Yeah. A shark dude, with gills and everything." Obito moved his hands to imitate the motion of gills. "Ah, maybe he doesn't talk because it's a fish mouth? Can fish talk?"

"I don't know… maybe? Still, a man like a shark would be pretty creepy though… but hey, Obito, stop teasing Kakashi! I know you don't get along, but..."

"Maybe vampires are just shark men? And they don't go out in the daylight cause they'll like dry out, or like, they just look really dumb so they stay in the dark."

The eye only just caught the movement of Kakashi's shoulders, a blip in its peripheral vision that Obito hadn't seemed to notice. But Kakashi remembered it: he was laughing .

The water was sparkling with light. Kakashi set aside his book on the rocks, and untied his headband, setting it aside. Stretching, he washed his face and hair, even opening his Sharingan to clean the eye; the world flickered red, the sun hot and angry, and then it was gone. His stomach rumbled.

He stretched. Then Kakashi picked some worms for bait, and hooked some ninja wire through them and melded its end with some fire. With a bit of luck and time, and a couple of failures, he caught three fish.

It was later, when the sun was beaming through the tree trunks, when Kakashi was interrupted. The fire was alight, the fish were cooked, one still hot on a stick and the others nothing but bones and eyes, when something flitted into the wood.

It took Kakashi a moment to realise what the huffy creature at his feet was: a puffy swallow, with a strip of yellow atop its head. One of Konoha's fastest messenger birds.

"Minato," he said, moving his hand toward the bird. It did not back away, and he gave it a gentle stroke on its yellow tuft. "Everything alright back home?"

Minato chirped. Kakashi chuckled. The swallow fluffed up his feathers, looking at Kakashi's hand, searching for nuts or berries, and Kakashi noticed a small note strapped to its leg. The bird hopped, giving him an impatient look.

"Just give me a moment, alright?" Kakashi said, laughing. As he took out a handful of slightly overripe juniper berries, and Minato began to gratefully stuff his face, he turned his attention towards the note, and untied it. With a deep breath, Kakashi unfurled it between his thumbs.

He was met with a sight that made his stomach sink: an extremely short note, written in the robotic ANBU cipher that reminded him of the empty wood. The fire sizzled out. The ink had bled through.


Gaara wasn't drooling, panting, or grinning with his teeth, and Temari considered these good signs, but not good enough to relax. They approached the valley. It was far too steep to possibly climb down, and too big a jump to be safe; they hesitated at its edge.

"I think there's a way down that way," Kankurou said, pointing to the farther end of the valley. His finger was shaking a little.

Temari nodded. "Okay, so-"

"There's no need for that."

Gaara's voice made Temari's skin instinctively prickle. She had an urge to turn on her heel, to run or hide, but there was no blood, or weeping, or the sound of his moist breath. She looked at him.

His eyes were calm, pupils dilated, a clear green in his iris and a focused look. "I'll do it."

Sand poured from the gourd, sifting across the ground and sweeping under their feet. Temari stumbled, and they lowered into the valley on a very gently undulating platform of sand. Every moment she felt as though she were under the gaze of a fed tiger, in the palm of a warm, clawed paw, fetid breath panting down at her. Temari stayed as still as she could, breathing through her nose.

As they descended, the three of them laid eyes on the person remaining in the valley.

"We're late," Gaara said, his voice softer than usual.

As they got closer, they saw the one person was two, one laying flat on the ground, battered and completely motionless, and another on top, her foot facing the entirely wrong way, both hands urgently pumping the dead girl's chest, soft sobs choking out with every push.

They met the ground, the sand slithering away until they were firm on the ground.

Temari's stomach turned, as she watched as Haruno Sakura slammed her locked arms against Uchiha Satsuki's chest. Again. And again. Satsuki's body shook with the motion, but her fingers did not twitch, she didn't cough or splutter or heave for breath. She was still. Sakura pressed harder, pumped faster, sobs escalating. Temari heard a rib crack.

"Haruno," she said, slowly reaching out. "It's me, Temari. We haven't gotten along in the past-"

She didn't respond. Temari took a couple steps closer, Kankurou and Gaara completely still behind her. "Hey, Haruno." She crouched. Sakura snapped another of Satsuki's ribs; Temari could hear the bone grind against itself with each push. "Hey-"

As she reached out, Sakura's gaze snapped to her. Her eyes were wild. She had bitten through her lip. "Don't touch me," she hissed, her voice half a wail. "Get the fuck away from me, I've got to-"

"You have to stop," Temari said, shaking her head. "She's already dead."

"She's not dead!" Sakura screamed, angry tears leaking. "Can't you see? She's paralysed- Naruto poisoned her, and her lungs can't- her heart's stuttering - but her eyes, she's still-!"

Temari realised, slowly, that Sakura was right. Satsuki's eyes were moving.

"Kankurou," she hissed, turning back. "Kankurou, goddammit, what antidotes do you have on you? Get your ass over here!"

"Well, it's- what type of poison?"

"Scorpion," Sakura whispered. "It was a scorpion."

As Kankurou rooted through a large organised bag of poisons and respective antidotes, and Sakura continued to slam her locked arms into Satsuki's chest, Temari sat beside them, watching.

Kankurou found the antidote, and opened Satsuki's jaw with one hand, as though she were a nutcracker doll, preparing to pour the antidote down her throat. Sakura would not stop pumping. Every compression ground the broken bones together. Temari imagined Satsuki probably couldn't feel it anymore, but even so, tears were flowering in Satsuki's eyes, trickling down her pallid cheeks as she stared into the empty sky.

It was truly unbearable weather.

Satsuki had a strange dream.

The only echo of it was the sound of cracking, of something coarse and splintered grinding against itself. When she awoke, she only saw the ceiling of the hospital, no one around at all, and she tried to think of what that noise had been. Then, her dream slipped from her. What had she imagined? Where? It was gone.

Heart still fluttering strangely, Satsuki sank into the bed, flexing her fingers beneath the thinly stretched cotton sheets. She sighed. The exhale made her chest seize painfully, and she caught her breath, trying to keep her breathing as light as possible.

The day was hot, and she debated buzzing for more painkillers, her chest still quivering with the pain. She dared not look down, to see the IV filtering into her wrist, or to see her body, laden with bandages, undressed by someone she didn't know.

Perhaps she'd been operated on. For all she knew, she'd be so injured that she wouldn't be able to be a ninja anymore. Paralytic fluid could have given her brain damage. There was no way to know until she looked down, or until she tried to get up and move about, so she laid quite still.

Her IV no doubt dosing her with some medication, hearing nothing but gossiping birds and trolleys moving eerily along the halls, Satsuki dozed, slipping in and out of a dreamless sleep, somewhere between thoughts and peace.

There were lulls in her sleep where she heard people come in to change sheets or deliver food, heard people come to Satsuki's bedside and scribble on their clipboards; even heard what sounded like Sakura muttering strangely to herself. A moment of vague awareness came to her for a while, and she heard Sakura's parents.

"Oh, Sakura, we were so worried…"

Dazed, Satsuki realised they must have placed Sakura adjacent to her, separated by a curtain which did nothing to muffle the noise.

"Me and your father have never been hospitalised once, you know that? And you've been doing this for about a year, and already-!"

"Is there some medical ninja here you have a crush on, Sakura? You can tell us, you know. You don't have to get brutally injured-"

"No, Dad, shut up- God…!"

They laughed. The curtain did nothing.

Satsuki lay as still as she could, not moving her neck even an inch to eye the seats beside her, empty, or to inspect for gifts beside her table, of which she knew there were none.

No; instead, Satsuki let her eyes close, a slender arm reaching up and squeezing the IV to feel a rush of cold sedatives and saline through her arm. Sleep washed over her like a sluggish tide. Numbness spread.

She dreamt that she was dying, one paralysed arm dipped into the running water of the Valley of the End, and then she ceased to dream at all.

Tsunade massaged her temples.

"Shizune, where's the Uzumaki pursuit file?"

"Still on your desk, under those, uh, ownership dispute papers you've been ignoring today, Tsunade-sama." Shizune placed a hot teapot on the desk, Tonton sleeping with a stern expression in her arms. "And what exactly do you need it for?"

The Godaime sighed, standing up and hoisting her proudly printed green coat. "Keep the tea warm, I'm going down the hospital to see the Uchiha girl."

"Tsunade-sama," Shizune sighed. "She's not even awake yet. And you still have to sign off on what to do with the Suna visitors, so please-"

"Oh, Shizune, we both know you're better at this job than I am. I'll be back in an hour."

As Tsunade strolled out of her office with a brief wave, Shizune sat down, massaging her forehead and taking a deep breath.

"We won't ever retire, will we, Tonton?"

The piglet snorted sleepily.

When Tsunade made it to room 752, she entered with no amount of grace. To tell the truth, her kick almost broke the door off its hinges. Whatever. She ran this damn hospital.

Still, although Haruno Sakura continued to snore away like an old dog behind the curtain, Uchiha Satsuki had jolted upright, bony, cross-legged and bandaged like a taped-together house of cards. When Tsunade shut the now-dented door, the girl shot her a sour look. Her breath sounded ragged. Probably in pain.

"Good morning," Tsunade said curtly. "Satsuki."

"Godaime." Satsuki's breath sounded rusty, and she looked like she could use more than a little maintenance. She was more bruises than she was unharmed skin, now, her skin covered in purple-yellow spots like month old bread.

"I see you awoke at last." Tsunade's lips pursed. "Did you sleep well?"

She said nothing.

"Are you proud, then? Proud of this mess you've caused?"

Satsuki sat up straighter, hands balling the sheets, but then she loosened them. She rolled her shoulders back, looking Tsunade straight in the eye like a defiant stray dog.

"Do I strike you as proud," she sneered, her dark eyes flickering red and dying quickly like Tsunade had stoked some dying coals. "Hokage-sama?"

Tsunade placed a scroll on her bedside table, which was scarce for anything but some plastic flowers and an uneaten orange. "Do you know what this is, Uchiha Satsuki?"

Satsuki scowled. "No."

Tsunade, with a displeased curl of the lip, rolled open the scroll as though she were smearing a greasy slug across the table with her palm.

It was handwritten search warrant, that documented reports of Sakura's concerned parents, Satsuki's empty apartment, Naruto's stark front room and Kotetsu and Izumo finding Ino's frothing body by the front gates. It recommended pursuit, and capture of Sakura, Satsuki and Naruto, signed and stamped by the Godaime herself.

The sickly young girl stared at the paper, expression shifting slightly. Tsunade could see her knuckles whitening, and rolled the scroll up with one slick flick of the wrist.

"I see."

"So, does this-" -Tsunade pressed a very firm, very red nail to the scroll, leaning in close- "-give you any indication of the gravity of what you did yesterday? Do you think you are above my authority, Satsuki? Do you understand what the word 'missing nin' means? Most importantly, do you understand that if I were not the Godaime right now, you would be considered a defector?"

Satsuki had the decency to sit silently for a few seconds before she looked up at the Godaime. Though her fury was felt through her clenched fists and grinding jaw, Tsunade didn't feel like she was in the picture at all; as though Satsuki were looking right through her.

"I understood the gravity of what I did," she said. "I'm not sorry."

Tsunade scoffed.

"Why should I be?" Satsuki scraped her hair back with a thin hand. Tsunade could hear her nails catching on the knots in her hair. "It's pointless for me to apologise."

Tsunade stilled, pursing her lips, and passed the scroll into her hands.

"Pointless? You're an arrogant brat. Not to mention the fact that Yamanaka Ino keeps getting messed up in your teams problems." Tsunade tucked away the scroll. "Her dad's still by her bedside. It's hardly fair, huh? It's almost like she cares about the two of you."

Satsuki's expression dropped, the slightest bit.

"I didn't know."

Tsunade sighed, shaking her head. "We're not too concerned - her soul, of sorts, will be taking a long journey back to Konoha, but we expect it back in due time. If Kakashi had been in the village, I doubt we'd have been able to keep him from chasing you, too."

"I know."

Tsunade stared right back at Satsuki, who had kept her level gaze. 'She's just one of those, huh? God, they were all like this, those Uchiha. So hardheaded.'

"Fine." She tightened her hands around the report, and stood upright, tossing a blonde pigtail over her shoulder. "You're an idiot. Write up a report, apologise to Inoichi, and next time, Uchiha, just come ask me."

Tsunade stood up, scribbling something on her clipboard. She opened up the door, but turned back to give Satsuki a meaningful look. "Don't pass up any good opportunities that come your way."

Satsuki took the old orange from the table beside her and pierced an overgrown nail through the flesh. Juice spurted out, and she curled her finger beneath the skin and peeled.

"I won't."

Satsuki ate her orange but little else, and found herself unable to contest a couple days hospitalisation, her wobbly legs barely able to accommodate a bathroom visit, let alone an escape.

The Harunos took Sakura home, the next day it seemed, although Satsuki had no real concept of when. There was a drugged sleep, there was sunlight, sometimes there was moonlight. It all felt indistinct.

Satsuki saw Sakura as she walked out on crutches. She pretended to be asleep; they hadn't exchanged so much of a word. She eyed the cast around Sakura's ankle - the only serious injury she could spot at all. With a pang of something sour in her stomach, Satsuki felt almost angry at the realisation that Naruto had been gentler with Sakura, and then felt angrier again for even entertaining the thought.

Either way, Satsuki remained in the empty room, tired most days and sedated others. She had the curtain drew back, so occasionally she would see a bird or two, once even a crow land on the windowsill.

The crow was particularly odd, giving her a long, engaging look. It tested the glass with its beak, met her gaze, and after a strange stare down, was gone.

It was the closest she had to a conversation for the first couple of days. Nurses didn't make any small talk with her. So she slept, but even that drained something from her; her sleep seemed to be dreamless, but she always awoke with the taste of salt on her tongue, like she'd been back in the Land of Waves.

Satsuki woke up, at a time where the sun was setting and the air itself seemed a strange hot colour, and her vision took a while to settle before she noticed.

She sat and rubbed her eyes.


"Ah, so you're awake."

She wiped sleep out of her eyes, trying to focus them again. "Yeah. It's just chakra exhaustion."

"Does chakra exhaustion make you snore?"

Satsuki shot him a look. "Well, you're certainly not an impostor."

"How hurtful." He turned the page. "I thought you were an appreciator of my comedy. My cute little students turning against me."

At that though, they both quieted, and Kakashi closed his book, tucking it away and weaving his fingers together.

"And you wouldn't even be the first," he said. "It's been almost a week since Naruto left."

"I've been here that long?"

Kakashi nodded, and Satsuki breathed out.

"You've lost some weight, too," said Kakashi, motioning to her jutting shoulders and elbows.

"What else is new?" she muttered. "It's this place. They won't feed me anything even slightly edible."

Kakashi shrugged. "Well, it's a hard time for the hospital." He reached down to rustle about in a small plastic bag tucked behind the front legs of his seat. "Seeing about the invasion and all. Botched, but Suna nin are still trained murderers, after all." Her teacher sat up, and then gently tossed her a small netted bag of ripe tomatoes.

"Did you catch them fresh?" Satsuki muttered, digging her nails into the gaps and pulling with all her strength to rip the twine.

"Wow, hilarious. I hope you'll be joining me for my comedy tour." Kakashi stood up and closed the door, moving to open the window. They both audibly breathed in the fresh air.

She fished out the smallest tomato first. Satsuki savoured the fresh first bite, watery juice dripping down her chin.

"Satsuki," Kakashi began, an awkwardness in his tone. It struck Satsuki as though he were singing the introduction of a song before the instrumentalists arrived, the key uncertain on his tongue. "Do you remember how you were before?"

"Before?" Satsuki swallowed a hefty chunk of tomato.

Kakashi breathed in another lungful of fresh air before he came to sit beside Satsuki once more; and he met her with a somber look.

"What I mean is- do you remember when you first joined up with Team 7? All of us, as a whole, trying to work together for the first time."

"Of course. You were horrendous. Your whole test was just a big excuse to not have a genin team."

Kakashi chuckled, waving a hand placatingly. "Now, now, that's not the point." He folded his arms and leaned back, thinking. "Do you remember your own behaviour? It's a hard thing to be critical, even in retrospect, but you were quite a stubborn little brat."


He put his hands up placatingly. "I had to train you, you know. It wasn't easy trying to train someone who thought I was a skiving lowlife."

"When did I change my mind?"

Kakashi rolled his eyes. "Alright, sure, sure," he said. He leaned forward then. "But that's not my point. My point was, there wasn't much on your mind except your brother. You might have had some drive, but in a lot of respects, it was easy to see why you were so antisocial and detached from the world around you."

Satsuki was quiet.

"Sakura, right now," he went on, "Something about her reminds me of that."

Satsuki frowned. "What? Sakura?"

Kakashi shook his head, scratching the side of it and exhaling deeply once again. "I don't know how to describe it to you, Satsuki. She's not herself."

Satsuki ate the rest of the tomato in the silence that followed, drawing her legs up to herself and using the pillow behind her as a makeshift couch. The juice that leaked from the fruit had stained all down her front, like she had been chewing the head of a small red bird. When she was done, she placed the tiny stem on the table beside her.

"I'm not sure," she said, "that I'm myself, either."

Kakashi looked at her, and with a warmth to him - something mutual - he nodded. "Yeah. I don't think it ever really feels the same."

They both sat for a moment. Satsuki picked little bits of tomato skin from between her teeth with her tongue and grotesquely long nails.

Kakashi took a deep breath.

"What happened, Satsuki?"

She raised her eyebrows. "You don't know?"

"Only you and Sakura were there," he said, "and Sakura is not talking. And Naruto isn't sending his report in, naturally, so… we've been waiting for you."

Satsuki stared then, at Kakashi, and then at her toes, where the nails had overgrown their hasty pedicure by Ino. "I'm not sure," she said. "It's hard to remember. Me and Naruto ended up going to the festival. Ino did my hair, my nails. Things like that. And Sakura went and gave Naruto a yukata, so we could all go together. I was really angry, at first. But we made up. It was like nothing ever happened. Then, I had a bad feeling."

"A feeling?"

"That Naruto was going to leave. I had a feeling he was going to leave us forever. It was just a momentary thing, but… then he was gone.

"Orochimaru's men had come to me in the morning, asking me to go to Otogakure. I said I'd think about it. But… at the end of the day, two of them came to me and I told them I would stay. Naruto told me at the end that he'd got the same choice."

Kakashi was quiet.

"You didn't tell the Hokage about the offer you got?"

Satsuki buried her face into her knees, letting out a pained chuckle, and scoffed. "Of course I didn't."

Silence for a moment. Satsuki felt shame run through her, putting her hair on end and muffling her thoughts, when she felt a warm hand on her shoulder.

"Thanks for staying, then," Kakashi smiled. "You're stronger than you know."

She felt a strange pain at the kindness, as though she'd put on a mask and been given a friendly hug by someone she didn't even know: as though she'd been loved in a pretend life. Her chest felt tight with fake affection, a lump of someone else's woe in her throat.

"Thanks," said Satsuki, and her eyes filled with tears.

When Ino awoke, the foot of her bed was swathed in beautiful flowers. Her father was asleep in a chair, a book dangling limply from one hand, head bowed and snoring.

The window was wide open. The breeze drifted across her forehead. Dazed, Ino vaguely remembered how she had walked and walked and walked back to Konoha, a soul without concept of energy but without much concept of direction, either. Like how in a dream sometimes you feel weak but weightless, Ino had felt like no time had passed at all.

Now she was home.

"Hey-" Whoops, her voice was raspy. Ino coughed. "Hey Dad."

Inoichi dropped his book, blinking at Ino for a moment, looking for a moment very old. Then, he laughed heartily, shaking his head at her, and they embraced.

Sakura had returned earlier than Ino, with no serious injuries that couldn't be tended to out of hospital. After all, they were inundated with patients from the invasion; plus, Sakura's parents were more than happy to have her back. When she came back, they had made her bed, folded up her yukata and put away the shoes she'd tossed across the room. There was no indication that night had ever happened at all.

Apart from her.

It'd been a few nights she'd been home, and her parents had asked nothing more about that incident. They seemed determined to return to daily life, and had done their utmost to make Sakura comfortable. They had fed her every meal without complaint, had not once mentioned doing missions or going outside, and hadn't asked anything about what had happened.

Like everyone else, Sakura thought, they were going to try their best to erase that day. To help Sakura forget.

But she was not lying around like a child; Sakura had been trying to stretch the atrophying muscles in her legs, but she'd been particular about only training at night. She didn't want to see all those eyes. It wasn't like any of them had been there.

Sakura sat at her desk, on her small cushioned chair, and had removed a glossy image from its frame when her mother called up to her. The sound angered her more than she expected, especially because she couldn't hear her properly. She ignored it, rifling in the drawer for a craft knife.

"She's coming up!"

The door opened, and Sakura stood up abruptly, knocking the chair aside. It was Ino, a bundle of fresh cut flowers in her arms, looking out of place and a little thin.

"Hey," she said. "Didn't mean to scare you, forehead."

Sakura blinked for a moment, breathing for a moment. She picked up the chair, putting it in place as she moved the image and the craft knife out of sight with her spare hand. "No, it's okay."

"Can I come in?"

Her breath caught in her throat. "Um- yeah, sure. It's not a problem."

Ino sat gingerly on the edge of her bed, simple sheets well made and very clean. Sakura was usually a bit of a slob. But not right now.

"How have things been, then, forehead?" she said. "You got roughed up?"

Sakura did not want to talk about this. "Aside from my ankle, I was fine, actually." She tapped the desk. "And you're fine too?"

"Yep, just a bit out of shape." Ino touched her shoulder, fingers tracing over the abrupt bones. "Hey- Sakura. You're alright, right?"

"Of course I am!" she snapped. "God, why won't you people leave me alone about this? I didn't even get that injured! Satsuki was the one who got the shit beaten out of her."

The tone startled Ino, and the dropped honorific on Satsuki's name perhaps even more so. She stared at her. "Gotta be honest, forehead. You're not convincing me you're alright."

Sakura stared back, and Ino heard a deep inhale, her expression twisting to one extreme before settling into a blank expression. Then, she smiled.

"Jeez, Ino, you have got to stop worrying about me. I'm just exhausted."

Ino gave her a weary smile back, but as far as convincing her had gone, Sakura could see the ship had sailed. She stood, brushing off her lap and moving a little towards the door.

"I have to get a shower, okay, Ino-pig? So I'll see you later."

"Wait." Ino's fingers trembled, just a moment, as she stood and almost bumped into Sakura with her urgency. "I'm sorry, I- hey, just take these, okay? I um, well, obviously I arranged them for you. What's the point in flowers otherwise? Yeah, um, anyway. Here you go."

Sakura stared down at them, and took the bundle with both hands, giving her a tired smile. "Thanks, Ino. I'll get a vase."

Ino took a moment then, gave a little wave and headed down the stairs - but not before glimpsing at Sakura's desk, something glinting back. Her stomach sank.

As Ino headed out the front door, saying goodbye to Sakura's mother and father politely, Sakura breathed out, lashing the flowers onto the bed and pulling the chair to the desk once again. She took the team photo in both hands and placed it firmly onto the wood. It sickened her.

With a steady hand, and a steadier eye, Sakura brought the craft knife to Naruto's smug fucking face, and carved him out of the picture.

Chapter Text

Though Naruto's waterlogged sandals squelched wet footprints into the ground, the hot, cracked dirt of the clearing seemed to drain them away instantly.

It was scorching.

Even in the shade, the air was humid. Cicadas cried from the trees, the ground itself radiated heat, and Naruto himself was soaked with sweat. As he slogged through the wood, sunlight nipped the back of his neck, like a vulture testing the flesh of a slowly starving creature.

The road ahead was not worn, and he only had a vague sense of direction to guide him. Tree roots made him stumble occasionally. Sweat and dust made his eyes sting.

Naruto had done his utmost to avoid ever thinking about this moment, but he'd definitely imagined it with rain.

The next day, Satsuki was discharged.

Her legs were functioning, sort of. Her regular clothes hung off her, and a new set had to be collected from her apartment, because the ones she'd fought in were ruined. It felt as though the new pair didn't even belong to her, but she supposed that was the lost weight.

She went home, ignoring the whispering neighbours as she rattled her way through the crappy old lock, and she slammed it behind her with the modicum of strength she still had. It went quiet.

Her things were still everywhere; there was the yukata left on the chair, underclothes thrown all over the floor. She could hardly care: Satsuki curled up into her bed, pulling her blanket over herself, daylight nothing but a distant itch, with no thought but for more sleep.

When Satsuki awoke, Kakashi was in her house.

"Get out."

"I was just checking you weren't dead, when I accidentally made you a healthy breakfast!" Kakashi placed dishes on the table. "And you didn't wake up through the entire cooking process, which is testament to your near death state, honestly. Get up here and eat."

"I said get out."

"Eat this and I'll consider it."

Satsuki crawled out of bed, hair tatty and her lips dry as she sat on her small dining table. Breakfast covered every inch of it, with miso soup, a nice stack of sticky white rice, and fish on little plates. She didn't feel like being grateful, but she did feel like eating, so she stopped short of sticking her face in the rice and dished it into her bowl, devouring it in hearty scoops.

"Thanks, Kakashi," Kakashi said under his breath. "That was really delicious. Thank you so much for making this, with your very valuable morning."

"Morning?" Satsuki got out through mouthfuls of rice. "It's- mff- the morning?"

"That's what we call it when that big yellow ball appears again, Satsuki." Kakashi spooned more grilled fish onto a plate. "Are you talking about the fact you've slept an entire day?"

"Shut up." God, how did she sleep an entire day? Was she dying? No time for that, she had to eat. Another slice of fish brought her closer to being alive.

Kakashi took off his apron and switched off the stove then, sitting across from Satsuki and taking a modest amount of rice and soup.

They ate quietly, though Kakashi quieter than Satsuki - she didn't have the energy to try and see Kakashi's face, let alone the patience to wait. Too hungry.

"Is it better to be home? I'm not the biggest fan of hospitals, I'll admit." Kakashi sipped some water.

"Yes." Satsuki hoovered up another slice of salmon. "I hate those places. And I hate their food."

"It must be nice to have your own personal chef," Kakashi muttered. "Not like I'm doing this out of the kindness of my own heart or anything."

"Thank you, Kakashi-sensei," she enunciated, "for your kind delicious breakfast."

"Oh not at all," Kakashi gushed, waving a hand in embarrassment. "I'm just a natural-born housewife and cook, please, I really do just love cooking for my friends and family. You don't need to thank me!"

Satsuki quirked a smile.

"So," Kakashi said, smacking his lips after a sip of miso. "You've gotta write a report, huh?"

"Mmm. It all happened pretty fast."

"They've requested one from Sakura. I don't know what she'll write - perhaps she just won't do it."

Satsuki stared at her fried egg, its yolk still wobbling gently on the slightly unsteady tabletop. "Is she really that bad?"

"I'm not sure that's the right word." Kakashi tapped his chopsticks against the dish. "Her cheery voice and smiles just remind me of Naruto. Because, it's not like you bothered to fake it, after all."

Satsuki pressed a chopstick into the yolk, the yellow bending beneath the wooden tip.

"Maybe I'm overthinking it."

"No," Satsuki said. "Probably not."

The yolk split.

Otogakure was dusty at best, but Orochimaru's base struggled to qualify as oxidised whatsoever. The air felt recycled at best, unbreathable at worst.

That said, Kabuto had actually developed a very sophisticated system of fuuinjutsu that kept the air clean and fresh, but it required a lot of upkeep. He only used it for his most vital patients.

Humming a moment and dusting off his glasses, Kabuto made a few handsigns, slathered ink into a careful pattern on a slip of paper, and then tested it. It didn't glow. Cursing, he did it again. No dice.

Growing slightly frustrated, he calmed himself, inked it in a flurry and charged it once more. An agitated blue glowed back, and he let himself breathe.

Gathering his ink, placing a face mask on and gathering his seals, Kabuto rushed from the room, an urgency about him.

Several turns of the labyrinth later, and he arrived at Kimimaro's door. First seal, the door: slam.

He put on his gloves, and opened the door with an application of chakra to the seal. The room felt cold and crisp, and beeped with the fake ambience of chakra-powered life support machines.

"Good morning, Kimimaro."

Kabuto didn't wait for a response, pressing a second seal to the back of the door. Charged it: bzz.

"Kabuto-kun," whispered Kimimaro. His breath sounded slightly less ragged than usual, but it was hard to tell. Kabuto was impressed he was still alive: at this point he might as well have been made of paper, because so much as a jab could have murdered him. Or perhaps that was just appearances, because he was so bare that it looked as though a child had put papier-mache over a class skeleton.

He went and pressed a new seal to each wall, pressed one carefully to the machine beside Kimimaro's bed, and peeled the one off his face mask with care and replaced it with a new one.

Despite the importance of it, keeping Kimimaro alive was the last thing Kabuto wanted to be doing right now. He might have had the intelligence to plan these seals, but Kabuto was appallingly bad at fuuinjutsu, and more importantly, Orochimaru was currently in a terrible rage. He could still hear him, bellowing down the halls.

Kimimaro was trying to sit up in his bed, and Kabuto kept himself from wincing at the sight. He was painfully thin, his arms so slender that each contour of every bone was entirely distinct.

"Please lay down," sighed Kabuto, inking a brush and drawing it between the seals on either wall. "Orochimaru-sama is really in quite a state at the moment. I can't afford to be taking care of you right now."

"Is Uchiha-san here?" Kimimaro rasped. "Has she become Orochimaru-sama's vessel?"

"No." Kabuto scowled. "Orochimaru-sama was forced to take someone else at last minute. That Naruto boy's body instantly rejected him, as we suspected it would. He will be punished, but for now, it can't be helped."

"I can give my body to-"

"It's too late," Kabuto snapped. "Lie down, Kimimaro-kun. You're enough of a waste of space as it is without dying after all of my effort. The least you can do is survive to give Orochimaru-sama some decent samples and test results. Understand?"

Kimimaro lay back, eyes reddened and sleepless. His greenish eyes looked as grey as his hair in the candlelight, and he stared right into Kabuto.

"Good," Kabuto smiled, suppressing a shudder.

He finished his seal work in silence. Kabuto hated being around this child; even besides a certain jealousy - after all, Orochimaru had been very fond of him - he was quiet yet somehow imploring, like a statue at a shrine.

Gathering his ink and spare paper, Kabuto nodded to Kimimaro, smiling and refusing to look at him. "Rest. I will be back in twelve hours."

Kabuto closed the door without a word to Kimimaro, who watched his every step unblinkingly, and left as quickly as he could.

That child consumed so much of his time, and for what? For what time Uzumaki Naruto had wasted, at least something could be said for the child's resolve. Kimimaro was like a monk praying to an evil god, empty of anything but submission.

But it didn't matter. Soon, Kimimaro would wilt.

Kakashi had called a team meeting.

'If Kakashi wanted to talk to me, we could have just gone out for dinner. And if he wanted to talk to Sakura too, we could have all gone out together,' Satsuki thought. 'Things have changed.'

"You're here first, huh, Satsuki."

Satsuki stared. Kakashi was waiting beneath the thick foliage of a tree in their regular training grounds, leaning against the trunk and flicking through his book.

She blinked.

"Kakashi," she said slowly. "This has to be the first time I've ever seen you come early. To anything."

He nodded, turning the page. "Well, I'm late for most things, but not for business."


"I guess you're right there," he put the book away and tilted his head back, stretching, "But some business is too important to be late for. I have a bad feeling. I don't want to give Sakura any reason to skip this meeting."

Satsuki took her place beside him on the trunk, settling down lower to the ground. "A 'meeting'. It's so obviously a farce, Kakashi. She might not even come."

"Maybe not."

They waited, for an hour or so, until they saw Sakura approaching, a slow walk until she spotted Kakashi and stopped for a moment. When she made it to them, she gave Kakashi a long look up and down.

"Good... morning, Kakashi-sensei?"

Kakashi smiled. "Well, actually Sakura, it's afternoon now. You're late."

Sakura stared.

"That aside, I'm sorry for dragging the both of you out here. I know neither of you are in the best shape to be doing anything. Sakura's ankle, and Satsuki's, well- whole body, it's probably best neither of you do anything strenuous."

Out of the corner of her eye, Satsuki noticed that at the mention of their injuries, Sakura seemed to tense.

Sakura huffed, folding her arms. "Why exactly did you bring the both of us out here, sensei?"

Kakashi sat down, and patted the ground next to him. The two of them sat down too, avoiding Konoha's strange autumn heat in the shade.

"I wanted to apologise."

Although he looked as sincere as he perhaps ever had, Satsuki could see Sakura looking anywhere but at him. Her right hand was plucking strands of grass.

"There's no need to say sorry, Kakashi-sensei," said Sakura, giving him a smile. "It's not your fault all of this happened."

"No, that's not right." He shook his head. "It was my fault."

He leaned down, splaying himself on the balls of his feet, at their eye level. "Before we formed Team 7, I wasn't really in the ANBU anymore. That said, I still went on the occasional mission in urgent cases, or times of shortage.

"When Naruto stole the Scroll of Sealing, on the orders of your academy teacher, Tohru Mizuki, I was one of the only qualified trackers around to deal with it. I used Pakkun to find him. That was an ANBU mission." He glanced away, and one of his hands brushed through his hair, mussing it, before adjusting his headband once again.

"Instead of trying to deal with Mizuki, or capture him, like I should have, I assumed the worst when I saw him with Naruto: that he was trying to flee with our jinchuuriki and most valued collection of scrolls. So I murdered him. Impaled him right through with my Raikiri. I didn't ask questions. I didn't take him alive. I just killed him.

"Naruto ended up soaked in Mizuki's blood. I didn't know anything about him then. And because of my ANBU mask, I didn't think he'd know anything about me." Kakashi's hands wound themselves together, fingers tensing, and then untensing, rhythmically.

"When it came time to teach Naruto, I didn't think he'd pass. But then he did. You all did. You surprised me. It wouldn't have been fair to fail you, even though I didn't want a genin team. Maybe I felt I owed Naruto, too." Tense. Untense. Tense. Untense.

"Naruto ended up seeing my Raikiri, the murder weapon, despite my best efforts. When I should have been apologising to Naruto, or explaining- anything close -I didn't. I avoided him, like a child. I didn't comfort him. I was horrified by what I'd done. As a ninja, I face repercussions for my choices. This time I couldn't."

Kakashi's hands went still. "Now, Naruto is gone. I won't know if apologising would have made the difference, because I couldn't make enough peace with myself to do it."

"Did Naruto really like Mizuki?" said Satsuki, quietly. "He was just our academy teacher."

Kakashi sighed, laying back onto the grass and crossing his arms. "He definitely trusted him, because Mizuki managed to trick him into stealing the Scroll of Sealing. And given how hurt Naruto was, I'd say he liked Mizuki a lot."

"Even though Mizuki tricked him?"

"Well, afterwards, I think we had trauma therapists talk to him. I don't believe he said very much. And I think eventually, he stopped turning up." Kakashi breathed out, thinking. "The question is really whether Mizuki cared about Naruto at all. It seems unlikely - we found out he had ties to Orochimaru, so there's no doubt who the scroll was for - but maybe, in a twisted way, he really did. It's impossible to know now."

Satsuki lay on the grass too. Sakura was still quite upright.

"It's not your fault, Kakashi-sensei," Sakura said. "You were just doing your job."

"Well, I made an error, and it happens," he said. "But I killed someone. I had an obligation to tell Naruto the truth. And if I hadn't been ashamed, I would have."

Sakura stared intently at a plucked daisy, revolving it in her fingers. "No, Kakashi-sensei. Nothing would have been different."

"How do you know that, Sakura?"

"Why would it have changed anything?" Sakura spat. Her sharpness took Satsuki aback, but Kakashi kept a level gaze. "Naruto was always going to do this. He was just- Naruto was always like this! He was always spineless like that! Always making excuses, being a coward- all he needed was the right push. If you'd told him, Kakashi-sensei, he would have just used that as a reason to leave us even sooner."

The autumn breeze picked up.

"Maybe he would have," said Kakashi. "Maybe not. Maybe if I'd had the chance to explain it myself, he would have really understood that I wasn't trying to hurt and isolate him, the way many people did."

"Who?" said Sakura. Her voice was verging on a sneer. "Naruto just felt persecuted. Being alone is horrible, but that didn't give him the right to do what he did."


Sakura turned to Satsuki abruptly, and she was surprised at the strange, almost angry expression on Sakura's face. "What?"

Satsuki sat up. "Don't act coy. You know how Iruka used to treat Naruto. It wasn't that he abused him. But Naruto's feelings, his opinion, his entire existence did not matter to Iruka. If Naruto stepped out of line, Iruka didn't have an ounce of sympathy for him. Even though we all knew he was an orphan, and always had been. You remember those days, don't you?"

"It's not a teacher's job to be nice."

"It's not a teacher's job to make students feel like they don't exist, either, Sakura."

Sakura sighed deeply then, running her hands through her hair. "We all have teachers that don't like us, right?"

"Don't be blind," Satsuki snapped. "You saw it! Everyday that Iruka pretended Naruto didn't even exist, you were there- when he'd make fun of him in front of everyone- the way he was so kind to everyone but Naruto- you were next to us! You saw it with your own two eyes, Sakura!"

"Why should I care?" she hissed.

Satsuki felt her fists tightened. "You don't have to care," Satsuki seethed, "But don't just lie to yourself, and don't do it to my face. I'm not here to listen to you fabricate the past, Sakura. That's not why you're my friend."

"Now, now," Kakashi said uncomfortably. The two girls were hackles raised, up close, Sakura's jaw grinding and Satsuki's gaze unblinking and intense. "Let's settle down…"

"Did that passive attitude help you with Naruto, sensei?" Sakura snarled. "Did telling us all to be quiet and get along change the fact that he defected?"

"Sakura. Stop." Kakashi's tone was firm. "This isn't going to change anything."

"Neither's talking to you," Sakura snapped. "I'm going home."

Sakura stood up and left. Only the grass she'd pulled out in the handfuls was left behind.

Satsuki lifted her leg above her head. It felt rather like she was going to die.

Her muscles screamed during her usual stretches, and her injuries twinged if she exerted herself in almost any way. Her weight loss made her balance a little worse, too. Or maybe that was the onset of puberty. Who knew? She didn't feel very pubescent.

Satsuki stretched her arms and her sides. Her back cracked. It was late. That was all the better for training, she thought. It kept her reflexes sharp, even without the Sharingan, and kept other people away.

Breathing deeply, injuries still nagging at her, Satsuki went through the kata of her first stance. She almost fell over in some. When one of her ribs send pain searing into her side, she swore loudly and lay on the ground. Bugs tickled her hair as she heaved for breath, staring at the stars.

"Wow, I thought at least you Uchiha bunch were tough. God, Konoha is full of wimps."

A figure was upon her then, with some great big wooden block about to slam into her. Satsuki caught it. Her wrists hurt. Familiar voice.

"What 'bunch'?" Satsuki hissed, pushing back the block. "Huh?!"

"Oops," she saw a toothy grin reflect in the moonlight. "Sorry about that. I hear it's only a pair-!"

The woman above her pulled back, narrowly avoiding a strong kick. Satsuki rolled to the side and jumped back, feeling sore. Her breath came to her in sharp gasps.

"Oh? Too weak to fight back? Konoha ninja sure need a lot of love and care."

"Shut up," she hissed back. Satsuki took her fans from her belt, and with a crack of her wrists, illuminated them in fire. She lifted one level with her gaze, but the flame wasn't enough to see through the dark. "Who are you? Another of Orochimaru's dogs?"

"Who knows?"

"Don't fuck with me!" Satsuki snapped the fan forward, a flame licking out across the dark. She missed the woman, but the grass hissed. "If you don't tell me, I'll burn you to the bone and take your headband from the ashes!"

"That's the attitude you Konoha nin really need right now, huh? Your failsafe has disappeared. With no Nine Tails, where's your threat? I think the cold war will heat up rather soon unless you find some way to hold weight over these foreign nations."

Satsuki took a moment to manipulate the chakra in her fans, before sending a slice of fire shimmering across the clear. The woman ducked. The trees did not; their tops toppled slowly, trunks charred.

"Naruto wasn't some kind of weapon, and nor was he a weight," Satsuki hissed, measuring her voice. "Naruto couldn't even control it!

She heard something from her left, something that went cascading past her, missing her by barely an inch. Her chakra was unresponsive to her attempts to turn on her Sharingan; sure enough, her hands were shaking too, her flames no doubt temporary. This had to end quickly.

"Oh?" said the stranger, humming. Satsuki sent a shuriken in the direction of the voice, but only heard the thunk of wood. Then the voice came from somewhere else. "That's very interesting. I wonder why Konoha's sealing was so unsuccessful? Not that ours was any better. I've heard they have a good handle on that kind of thing up in Cloud."

Something sharp almost cut Satsuki's hair off. She ducked, pivoting on her stronger leg. Gliding Edge was strange like that, like she was a heavy ball on a string, always swinging back to center. A gravity.

"What the hell are you talking about?" She slapped shut one fan, smothering the flame, and then sent an uncharged chidori down its spokes. Where the fuck was she?

"Wasn't Uzumaki Naruto your friend? See, I really thought you'd kn-"

Satsuki saw a flicker of movement, and finally she caught her, jamming the electrified fan into her stomach. The woman convulsed, electricity humming down her limbs for a second. Satsuki brought her other, fire-soaked fan to the front of her face, illuminating her expression.

"Fuck," she gasped. "H-Hey, Satsuki. It's your old pal."

Satsuki stared, and then the familiar eyes and nose finally clicked. "Temari?"

Laughing, Temari put her hands up, laying them on the grass beside her like someone handing themselves to authorities. "Heyo. Just messing around. Truce is still on, right?"

Satsuki brought the flame closer to Temari's face.

"Hey, hey! Put that down! We're supposed to have peaceful relations, you know!"

"You just attacked me." The flames crackled. "Explain."

Temari giggled uncomfortably, holding her jaw away from the flame as far as she could. "To be honest, I just wanted to see that style of yours. Your tessenjutsu is totally different to us in Suna!"

With only the heat below her hand to ground her and the light it cast to guide her, Satsuki studied Temari's face, before withdrawing slowly, clamping her fan shut.

"Ahh, that's better." Temari breathed out, and stood up, brushing herself off. "Well, anyway, I did originally come here for a chat. Come with me."

Satsuki glowered back. "Give me one good reason I should follow you anywhere."

"Fine, fine! You decide where we go. I just wanna sit down. You did electrocute me, you know."

"You're lucky I didn't kill you."

"Yeah, alright, zombie girl. It's amazing you aren't dead. You can even hold a kunai to my back like I'm a prisoner of war, okay? Just pick where you wanna go. I've got some stuff to talk about."

"I-chi-ra-ku," Temari sounded out, tapping her feet. "That some dude's name, or some special type of cool Konoha drink? One shot of Ichiraku, stat."

"Name. And it's a ramen bar." Satsuki lifted aside the curtain, and held it open for Temari. Like hell was this random woman seeing her back.

Temari sat comfortably on the chairs, eyeing the menu. "Shame. Can't drink much alcohol in Suna, it's 'discouraged'. Because, you know, it messes with the body's homeostasis? If you got drunk and passed out in Suna at night, the cold might kill you. Or the morning sun."

"I can't drink much alcohol in Konoha because I'm thirteen."

"Interesting. You Konoha people are lax in silly ways and strict in others."

Satsuki took the menu and pushed it to Temari. "Don't call me that."

"What, Konoha people?" She hummed, her finger trailing down the list. "You are Konoha people, right?"

Satsuki internally decided on miso soup. She didn't feel like ramen. "This is a big place. I don't think we are unified in many ways."

"Yeah, peace and plenty is a strange thing. Seems to make people divide, sometimes." Temari squinted at a ramen option. "Maybe Suna's strict and unified force is down to the constant threat of, uh, y'know. The sun. Um, can I have the uh, tonkatsu ramen?"

Ichiraku, clearly listening absent-mindedly, gave her a wink. "Of course. I'll give you extra, since you're a visitor."

"Thanks," Temari said, grinning.

"Miso for me."

"'Course, miss!" Ayane smiled, cheeks flushed.

They settled on their seats, waiting. Satsuki felt just as vaguely confused as she did at the start. She breathed in through her nose, exhaling slowly. Given Temari was such a blunt person, she wished she'd just come out with it. "What is it?"


"What you started a fight with me for. What is it you wanted to ask?"

Temari blinked. "Oh! Well, there was a few things. First off…"

She took an unsplit pair of wooden chopsticks, and tapped them against the wood. "How's that Sakura girl? I had some real trouble getting you both back to Konoha."

Satsuki snapped up in alarm. "That was you?"

"Yeah," she said. "I gave you that curse mark, after all. Just because our father told us to - or so we thought - we all did a lot of… things. Things that aren't going to be easy for Konoha to forgive now that we're, uh, allied again. So we're trying to make it easier."

She subconsciously traced it, but there was no bump in her skin at all; it felt like her skin, it just didn't look that way. A painless bruise.

"Gaara as well," said Temari. "He was interested in saving you. Wanted to talk to you."


"Sakura broke those ribs of yours real bad, though," she said. "Maybe some of them were already broken, but she hammered it. Her CPR was a little excessive, but hey. Better than nothing. Literal nothing, I mean."

Satsuki nodded.

"You still haven't really explained yourself."

"Yeah. Well, I spoke with some of the people from my village, and I spoke with Gaara, Kankurou, you know. Your Hokage, too. We have a lot of reparations to make. I wanted to start with you.

"Come to Suna, and learn our Tessenjutsu." Temari shot her a big smile as their bowls were placed in front of them. "What do you say? Oh, and thanks, old man."

Satsuki stared at her miso. Tofu peaked out in little cleanly cut blocks. "I don't know."

"Well, the thing I was thinking was, you've got a totally different tessenjutsu style to us. Which is cool, but I figure you don't actually have… a teacher, anymore."

"No," Satsuki said, splitting her chopsticks. "No, I don't."

"Suna's got a lot of experts. I'm not comparable to the best. But they're pretty excellent, and I bet some will have insight about styles from elsewhere in the world too. I know it must be hard to advance your style alone. I'm not asking for a yes right away, or even a yes, but consider it. Good for my village, good for yours. Also, probably good for you."

The heat of the small shack getting to her, Satsuki felt the miso in front of her making her cheeks flush with heat. Her block had little bits of tofu, bobbing at the top, and disintegrating blocks of potato milling about at the bottom; onions, mushroom, seaweed that seemed to be drowned out by the murky dashi. It was a familiar dish. She'd had it just yesterday, even.

It was like a stagnant pond, she thought, where everything would eventually dissolve, and where nothing could leave to the river or the sea, and nothing new would happen. Everything would become muck.

Perhaps it was time to just go somewhere else.

"I'll think about it, but don't hold your breath."

"Good enough for me."

Chapter Text

"How does that feel, Naruto-kun?"

Naruto couldn't talk. He could hear his kneecap cracking back into place, like a dislocated limb.

"Ah. Well, your regeneration has slowed… Kabuto, has the tendon finished reforming?"

"Just now. 34 seconds this time, Orochimaru-sama."

"I see." Orochimaru leaned in, his breath reeking like that familiar poison that leaked from his cursed seal, permeating the blood and gore and dust. "You're doing well, Naruto-kun. Slowing down, though, aren't you? Are you tired? Or are you just ready to give in?"

Naruto tried to muster the words, but instead there was just a sputter of saliva from his throat. The man's face, white and snake-like, was nothing but a blurry ghost before him.

"Well, there's a long way to go. Stomach now, Kabuto. And please pass me that longer scalpel - I'm curious to see if that seal can be carved out."

Naruto was wheeled into a strange room. It smelled much nicer than the rest of the compound, but still a bit like death. No blood either. Just machines.

The machines were strange, too. Although Kabuto seemed to have various contraptions around, he didn't have them around his regular patients, as far as he could tell. Certainly not him. Not like he got a tour, though.

He was stuck to the bed he was on with seals, not belts or anything similar, but it wasn't like he had the energy to struggle. Besides, he'd cut those ties. There was no longer an escape. No around, no over; simply through.


After a few hours of laying there, his stomach still concave and bubbling with regenerating tissue - perhaps he fell asleep, actually, maybe it had been days - he heard something. What he thought was the whirring of a strange machine was actually more like a rasping. He shifted his head to the right, stretching to see what else was in the dark room.

"Oi," his voice was a whisper. "Someone else here?"

The rasping changed a moment, but carried on. The pain was overwhelming, and Naruto gasped, the bubbling flesh sending crippling waves of agony through him.

"Fine," Naruto said, heaving for breath. "Bastard."

Whereas the flowers on Satsuki's balcony had rotted, the Yamanaka flower shop was in full bloom. She was overwhelmed by the scent of plant life as she walked in. The bell above the door rang.


The greeting went right over Satsuki's head. In front of her, the array of flowers was overwhelming; she didn't know all of their names, but their wild shapes and scents captivated her in a way she could not pinpoint. Most enticing was a strange bundle of sprouting flowers, almost star shaped with petals of pure velvet black. She reached out and touched one.

"Oh, those? You like 'em, Satsuki-san?"

Ino almost frightened her, but she still didn't pull away. The petals felt ticklish under her thumb.

She nodded. "Are they rare?"

Ino hummed. "I guess so. I've never seen any in the wild, but you'd be better asking my dad. I think they come from Kumo, or something. They're called black cat petunias."


"Well, I assume you didn't come to just chat, right? Unless you wanna take me on a date?"

"I came to ask a favour."

Ino smiled knowingly, beckoning Satsuki to follow her as she swept behind the front desk. "Yep. That's the Satsuki-san I know. What kind of favour?"

Satsuki put her hands in her pockets, running her fingers over her nails. Many of them were still sore and short from the fight.

Ino finished scribbling something at the front desk, and when she looked up. "C'mon. What is it?"

"It's not important," Satsuki began, feeling uncomfortable. "I just have a houseplant. And I'm considering… going somewhere."

"A trip? Ohh, so you want me to water it. What kind of trip? How long?"

She shrugged, feeling uncomfortable at the thought. There was no easy answer to that. "Maybe months. Maybe years. I don't know."

Ino raised her eyebrows. "Wow," she said. "That's certainly, like, an excursion. And a half. How sure are you that you'll go?"

"I don't know. I'm thinking about it."

"Have you told Sakura yet?"

Satsuki flinched, cotton of her pockets rubbing against her anxiously fumbling fingers. "No. Last time I spoke to her, the conversation didn't end well."

Ino sighed, looking downcast too. She leaned against an empty but soil-spattered shelf. "Yeah. I feel you on that front. She's been a bit of a crank as of recently. I can't get a straight answer out of her on anything."

Satsuki nodded.

"On that front though," Ino said, brightening and letting loose a toothy smile, "I actually have a favour you could do for me, too. If you do it, it won't really be a problem for me to take your plant and put it on the shelves here. I'll just water it with the rest."

Satsuki hadn't moved the plant in a long time. But if it had to move, it had to move, she supposed. It wasn't like that thing would survive in the desert. Satsuki wasn't sure she would survive in the desert.

The whole excursion was a ridiculous idea, but it was one she couldn't get out of her head.

"I'd like for you to talk to Sakura," said Ino. "As difficult as that is."

Satsuki frowned. "I'm not sure how well that will go, Ino."

Ino sighed, shrugging in her quaint Yamanaka shop apron. "I'm not sure either. But she's so bubbly around me. If she's snapping at you, at least that's something. I just want you to try and get what's going on with her. When I ask what she plans to do, she's so vague, and like- just plays into what she thinks I want to hear, you know? But I don't think Sakura tries to predict you in the same way. So like, maybe she'll listen instead of lying for once."

Satsuki exhaled through her nose. "I'll try. And I'll bring the plant down before I leave."

"Cool." Ino came around the desk, the bell above the door jingling gently as more customers came through. "I'll see ya then!"

Dear Sakura,

'No. Too formal. Will spook her.'


I've noticed that you've been-

'Too official.'


We should talk.

'Bad. Makes it sound like its about my feelings. Again.'


Let's meet up for tea and dango, at the usual. I know that's what you like. I know you don't want to come, but I need to talk to you about something.

I'll be waiting there at 4 tomorrow, whether you answer or not. I'll pay, and it'll just be you and me.

I don't like sweet things, so if you don't turn up, the dango will go to waste.


Although Naruto was expecting to be abandoned by Kabuto until he was sick with hunger, Kabuto actually came into this room quite regularly - though how regularly, Naruto couldn't tell.

There weren't any windows or anything, in this stuffy old lair, and no one but Kabuto seemed to come this way. The only relative measurement he had was his own heartbeat, and the rasps of the pale boy in the bed across from him, but like the ticking of a clock, it was too constant to be useful.

When he felt he could stand up, he hauled himself upright. It hurt like a bitch, but he staggered over to the door, and tried the handle.

It was jammed. Locked, whatever. Obviously Kabuto didn't want him going anywhere.

When he tried to open the door, he found it locked from the outside. The only light of the room were dimly lit seals, which now he saw more clearly, and some candlelight shimmering gently from beneath the door.

The seals were no help. He couldn't even read those characters anyway.

Defeated, Naruto eventually stumbled back to his bed and lay back. His pain kept him awake; he could still feel his body reeling from the shock of injury, even as his body returned to decent shape. His mind had not forgotten. Sleep would not come, or if it had, it was so brief and so light he didn't even notice it.

Eventually he took note of the sick boy again. Now he could sit upright, he could see that he was wearing a mask with a seal on it. He looked, frankly, almost dead.

"Oi," he said into the darkness. "What's that say on your mask?"

There was a brief pause in the rasping.

"Hey. Don't ignore me, bastard."

"I can't see it either."

The response surprised him. Naruto blinked.

"Yeah," he said. "Guess I didn't think of that. Sorry."

The silence between them spread, especially since Naruto knew the boy could talk. It felt like a world of opportunity. Somehow, in however much time he had been here, it felt urgent. Perhaps the lack of light was what made it so endless.

"I'm Naruto. What's your name?"

"Doesn't matter."

Naruto rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on. Don't be like that. Next you're gonna say something like, I don't have a dream, but an ambition. I just wanna know."

"They say, who you are at the end defines you," the boy whispered. "In those final moments, I don't want to be thinking of my own name. I want to die thinking of Orochimaru-sama."

Naruto stared.

"Do you need a barbecue? You need some noodles or something?"

No response.

"Some pork ramen? Come on. Good broth can probably like, give you a new brain and everything."

"I'm dying."

"Wow. Well, then you definitely need some good ramen. I haven't seen any noodles since I got here- you guys must have, uh, a proficiency."

"Deficiency," the boy coughed.

"Yeah, that. You ever had ramen? You gotta have had ramen or something. Does Orochimaru do an own-brand knock off? Like, 'Orochiraku'?"

Silence again.

"Maybe I'll have to set up my own chain. I don't know anything, but if everyone here is this dead then maybe I'll be the only dude who can do it. Do you guys have a chef or do you just eat the weird snakes that this place is infested with? I'm uh, not the best cook, but-"

"Let me die in peace," the boy snapped, "you incessant loudmouth."

Satsuki arrived at tea, ordered the dango, so on and so forth. Sakura arrived somewhat late.

"Sorry about that," she said, giving Satsuki a small smile. "Busy."

Satsuki nodded, and Sakura pulled up a chair, lifting a stick of dango to her mouth.

"So," she said, "What you wanna talk about, Satsuki-san?"

"Given that I bought you dango for this occasion, I'm sure you know what."

Sakura's face dropped a little, but she carried on chewing the dango. "Well, good job you bought a lot of it."

The lights were low, and Satsuki's tea looked almost black in the orange lighting.

"About Naruto," said Satsuki. "There was some stuff I didn't explain."

The dango shop was burbling a little, like a stream, but Satsuki could still make out the ripples; the waitresses; the couples; the silence behind it all. Sakura's expression was difficult to decipher. It wasn't quite nonchalance, but there was certainly something in it. When she waited for some go ahead, none came.

"Naruto paralysed me, and like the- the selfish idiot he is, he explained to me when I couldn't say a single word back that he was going to kill him." She lifted the tea to her lips. "Orochimaru."

Sakura scoffed.

"That's one stupid plan." She popped another dango into her mouth. "If he thought it was anything but stupid, he would have told us about it before."

Satsuki sipped the tea, but set it down, weaving her hands together. "I think he only made the plan that morning before the festival."


"Yeah," she said. "Because Orochimaru's men came to me that morning and asked me if I wanted to go. To Oto."

Sakura gave her a sharp look.

"And you never said."

"And I never said."

It felt, quite abruptly to Satsuki, that Sakura might have still been a friend, but she was almost a diplomatic one - one that couldn't be trusted all that entirely - one that kept the truth stuffed down - one that had very different interests.

"They offered me to go," she went on. "Get trained by Orochimaru."

"Satsuki-san." Sakura's gaze was level, but what with the lack of natural light in the room, the green of her eyes looked sepia. "Good for you."

Satsuki's grip on her cup tightened. "That's not what I'm saying, Sakura."

"I know," she said. "You stayed. I get it. I'm glad you're here, Satsuki-san." Her lips seemed to be battling a bitter twist to them. "But sure sounds like Naruto got a good deal. Got to coward out of fixing all this mess he made, and he's gonna get his revenge too."

"Sakura," said Satsuki. "I get where you- I know where you're coming from. But I do think he didn't do it out of hate for us. I think it was out of hate for Orochimaru."

Sakura polished off a stick, and picked up another. "So," she placed the skewer in her mouth, pulling away the dessert to leave only a sharp wooden edge, "Naruto just hated Orochimaru more than he liked us?"

Syrup dripped from the corner of her mouth, a tiny shimmering bead she licked up with a tongue covered in crushed dango. She chewed. Then she swallowed. Then on to the next.

It felt increasingly as though Satsuki were in a land she did not know, convincing a diplomat of something she herself didn't fully understand. She could feel invisible steel at her neck. Her skin prickled.

"Is it a sum, Sakura?" she said.

Sakura poured herself some tea too, from the still-hot cast iron teapot, covered in cherry blossom engravings and coated in coarse purple paint. "Whether it's a sum or not, Naruto picked one.

"It wasn't us, and we're here wondering why. If it's not a sum - if Naruto didn't measure our worth to him on a scale - then how did he choose?"

The burbling conversation of the café felt like it was streaming straight past them, like water around a rock, the fast-moving life of it not touching the cold between the two of them.

"I think Naruto was more frightened of living happily here than he was of killing Orochimaru. Perhaps because he thought he'd fail at the second," Satsuki said. "Maybe the idea he could move on was frightening."

Sakura stared at the varnished, stained wooden table. Her fingernails drove crescent shaped cuts into the worn wood.

"So what did you really call me here for, Satsuki-san?" she said. "Was it just to talk about this again?"

Satsuki found herself running a hand through her hair, unlike herself, unsettled.

"I was going to travel to Suna for a while. Get some training."

"You don't need my permission, you know."

"I just… if you wanted me to stay. I would."

Sakura softened.

"Satsuki-san," she said. "Do what you've got to do. I'll be here either way."

Something in Satsuki unwound a little bit, a tight knot that had been kneading in her chest. Permission. She breathed out quietly, and sipped her tea.

"So. What about you?"


"What are you going to do?"

Sakura picked up the final stick. "I suppose I'll get training from Tsunade-sama. Maybe Anko. If I found a weapon or a jutsu I really liked, maybe I'd go to some kinda specialist." She swallowed a dango, chased it with now cold tea.

Satsuki nodded, tapping her broken nails on the table.

"What about your dreams, Sakura?"

Sakura blinked. "Huh?"

"Your dreams," Satsuki repeated. "When we met, you told me you wanted to become a kunoichi worthy of my respect."

It was a strangely warm memory, despite how unamused she'd been at the time.

The young girl next to Satsuki gave her a couple furtive looks, an awkward blush from the tips of her ears to her nose. Satsuki had to keep herself from groaning.

"My dream is to be a kunoichi worthy of Satsuki-san's acknowledgment!"

"Things have changed," said Satsuki. It was true; she wasn't really looking at the same girl anymore.

Aside from the fact that Sakura was taller - what with girls going through their puberty first - and stronger, she wasn't the same in many ways. There were scars from her fights, sure, her hair was shorter too; but she didn't blush anymore, didn't get so bashful. When she called Satsuki 'Satsuki-san', it almost felt like a throwback. She didn't feel like a strange admirer anymore. More of a friend. Maybe a sister.

If that was what this felt like, anyway.

"Sakura," she said. "I've acknowledged you. You're my equal. My teammate. There's no need to chase that dream anymore."

Sakura looked taken aback, staring at Satsuki for a couple of moments, blinking slowly. Then she smiled, a wonderful grin that warmed her cheeks and made her shiny eyes glimmer in the café lights.

She reached over the small table and hugged her, and Satsuki, who had always struggled with this kind of thing, found that it was with ease she wrapped her arms around Sakura - found that it was with ease that she smiled too.

"Thanks, Satsuki-san. I always wanted to hear you say that."

When they drew apart, Sakura wiped her eyes, her smile still lingering.

"So what about now, you mean?" Sakura repeated back to her. "Dreams? Goals?"


Something in Sakura's eyes turned, like the tide washing over the sand, being pulled back beneath the foam. It was indistinguishable. The same green. But something moved.

"Nothing, really."

And despite it all, if there was something that Satsuki could have pinned as a lie in the entire conversation, it would have been that.

"Is it okay?"

Kakashi was cooking again, this morning. It'd been a surprise visit, but somehow he had quite good timing for someone who was always late, and Satsuki really hadn't felt like cooking.

He stirred the eggs. "Is what okay?"

Satsuki tapped her fingers on her kitchen table. "Going to Suna."

He jostled one pan, turned over something in the next, and then shrugged, wiping his hands on his apron. "It's your choice. No one can make that for you, you know."

Satsuki shook her head. "Sakura. I mean Sakura."

Kakashi hummed. The eggs were jostling slightly with the oil and the heat. "Don't put your life on hold for her grief, Satsuki. Nothing good's ever come of that."

"But for a friend," Satsuki said.

Her teacher turned around. "I don't know about that. But grief is a long process. Ultimately, Sakura is going to process most of it on her own. You've tried to explain to her why Naruto did what he did, and if she can't accept that, repeating it to her won't change anything."

Kakashi set the table between them, then went back to the eggs.

"So do what's best for you," he said, spooning the food onto a dish. "Or you might regret it."

Satsuki arrived to give Ino the plant. It was a bit sad looking, leaves wilted and no sign of the hanging lantern flowers anymore.

Ino whistled. "Wow. Lantern plant - those are nice. But not so good shape, huh?" She gave it a once over. "New soil, I think, and it'll be fine. I'll repot it."

Satsuki nodded. "Thanks for this, Ino."

"No need." Ino went back, and brought back a new pot and an already open bag of soil. She pulled on thick rubber gloves, and poured a little bit of moist compost into the new pot. Then, with a focused expression, dug her fingers in beside the plant, gently tugging it from the soil and potting it gently in the new pot. A little more soil to top it off, and she looked satisfied. "Where'd you find this? I've seen them, but they aren't local. They're actually, like, super high maintenance. Dunno how you got it to this size, really."

"I bought it at a sale in the main square."

"Hmm. Maybe it just ended up there, one way or another. I think they're actually a little expensive." Ino watered the plant a little, the soil sucking it away gleefully, then slid the pot onto a back shelf behind the counter. "So you spoke to Sakura?"

"Yeah. Something was off, but it wasn't as bad. She wouldn't really say about what she wants to do next."

Ino looked uncomfortable. "Right. But she's alright?"

"She hugged me. I think she's alright."

The blonde nodded. "Well, that's something. Haven't got much of that from her recently." Ino folded up the soil bag, putting it in the backroom and disposing of the old pot. "Did you bring up Naruto at all?"

"She was very sour on the subject. But she didn't get angry at me in the same way."

Ino seemed to nod a little, and sighed. "Well, Satsuki-san, that's all I could ask of ya."

The bell rang, and someone came in the shop. "Back to work," she said, a sheepish smile on her face, and she took off her gloves before holding out a hand to Satsuki. "I'll see you whenever you're home. Hopefully I'll be chuunin by then."

Satsuki took her hand and nodded. "I hope so too."

"Alright. Gotta go," said Ino. "Go show Suna what a real sunburn looks like."

"Shut up." Satsuki quirked a smile. "I'll see you soon, Ino."

"See ya!"

When Kabuto had placed Uzumaki Naruto in Kimimaro's room, his hopes had honestly been that Kimimaro would die from being around the cruel and corrosive chakra.

Alas, no such thing had happened yet. For some godforsaken reason, Kimimaro still lived. He was growing quite frustrated with it. He wasn't just a burden, he was one that Orochimaru still quite favoured and wouldn't allow him to cast aside. If he killed him on purpose, Orochimaru would surely know.

Perhaps today was the day that the sickly child would finally die. Hopefully Uzumaki Naruto too, for that matter, but Kabuto had his doubts that he could die at all. There was always hope, he thought smugly.

He opened Kimimaro's door.


What he saw made him freeze.

Kimimaro was sat upright, haunting green eyes glowing in the dark. His mask was still bound with a seal, and his hands were as spidery as they'd ever been, but he was holding out a palm to the boy sat at the end of his bed.

In it was a small white flower, and when Kabuto looked closer, he went cold. It was made of his jutsu. Kimimaro had created a flower of bone.

"Man, that's super cool. That your only jutsu though? Summoning weird plastic flowers? Cause I mean, a kekkei genkai is a kekkei genkai, but I had this friend and hers was way cooler. Made her eyes look cool, was like, I mean kinda like cheating. You got anything like that?"

"It's made of my bones."


Kabuto stared.

"Ah, Kabuto-kun," said Kimimaro, looking up. Naruto turned around, blinking.

"Kimimaro." Kabuto was speechless.

"My Shikotsumyaku is no longer so taxing," Kimimaro said. "It seems my power is returning."

"So it seems." Kabuto's ground his teeth, jaw aching. "But I am actually here for Naruto-kun."

Naruto blinked. Kabuto felt warm satisfaction at the pang of terror that flitted through his expression.

"Well," the young boy said, pushing a smile onto his face and standing up, "I'll see you later, Kimimaro. You gotta show me more of those, uh, nasty bone flowers you got."

Kimimaro stared, but nodded slowly.

As Kabuto led Naruto from the room, he found fury curling his fingernails into his palms.

Kimimaro was healing?

With all the painstaking research he did, desperate to heal Orochimaru's vessel, the mere presence of a useless child like Uzumaki Naruto was enough to heal his broken body? Was that the truth Kabuto had to face?

As Naruto's sluggish steps echoed behind Kabuto's, he focused his rage to the knife, to the scalpel.

There would be answers in that shell. There had to be. And if Naruto would not reveal them, Kabuto would cut them out of him.

Satsuki had found packing up her home a surprisingly painful affair.

Not that there was much sentiment to most of the things there. She had nothing but that team photo, some sewing- those things she took with her. And the plant was at the Yamanaka flower shop, so really, the place should have been done with.

She did own the place, so it wasn't like she had to get rid of everything. But she deliberated hard over the small space in her backpack. Satsuki was aware that Suna was quite painfully hot, and that her clothes wouldn't be so useful in that unbearable heat, so she left most of those.

But there were small things that she'd come to enjoy. Her tea, the view outside, the quiet. Satsuki did not know where was going, or what it would have, or what the people were like. Whether she'd have her own room or not. Perhaps they would travel.

Even so, she decided to go. Satsuki knew she liked Konoha. She could always come home. But it wasn't everyday she got to go somewhere new.

Satsuki put away her porcelain tea set, put away her pots and her pans, cleaned the sides and made her bed. She locked the balcony door, cleared her scrolls into the cupboards, took a mangled family photo where Itachi had been cut off the end. Even her father might have been smiling behind the permanent weight of frown lines, there.

All was sorted. She locked the door.

Satsuki met Temari, as they'd agreed, at the gates, with her brothers and a few other Suna nin. Gaara was quite calm, and there was a sense of excitement among the group.

Temari nodded toward her. "Ready to go?"


Kakashi arrived, with a wave. "Yo."

Satsuki looked at him, smiling a little. "Yo."

"Well, that's not like you. Where's 'you're late', or 'Shut up'? They grow up so fast." Kakashi went to ruffle her hair.

She batted him off, smirking. "Shut up, Kakashi."

He put his hands in his pockets, chuckling. "You all ready to go, then? Got all your things?"

She nodded, her few belongings feeling light on her shoulder. "I realised I don't own so much."

"Best way to be," he said. "No use attaching sentiment to items. Best kept in memories - they're lighter."

Satsuki shook her head at his proverbial wisdom. "Where do you get this stuff?"

"I've lived a long and hard life, you know. Learned much along the way. Went grey and everything."

"Aren't you 27?"

"Age is on the inside." Kakashi held out a hand. "I'm proud of you, Satsuki. Go learn everything I won't be able to teach you. Work hard."

She took his hand with a fair grip, and smirked at him. "I'm not a slacker like you. So don't worry."

"I was pretty hard-working at your age too, you know." Kakashi put his hands back in his pockets. "Well, good luck and safe journey."

"Thanks, sensei."

With a nod to Temari, Satsuki hoisted her bag up and over her shoulders, and was on her way.

Chakra bubbled over Naruto like a cancer, rebuilding gorges of missing skin from nothing but blood, sweat, and never-ending pain. But the bindings did not break. Orochimaru was still laughing.

"Not yet, Naruto-kun," he purred. "So much more testing. I was quite excited for Uchiha Satsuki-kun's vessel, you know. To learn every technique simply by looking at it. Oh, I was very- very excited."

The knife dug into him. How was it still so sharp, even now? After all that cutting?

"You really ruined my plans by turning up here without her. I can hardly let you go unpunished. It's not just a bad example, I'd even argue you deserve it." Orochimaru leaned in. "Did you try to bring Uchiha Satsuki-kun to me at all?"

Naruto vomited to the side of the bench, but Orochimaru didn't flinch. The knife cut something thick; there was a twang, a rattling of pain up his spine. He shrieked, he cried.

"We're just getting started." Orochimaru held the blood and tissue marred scalpel close to Naruto's face. His eyes focused on the shimmering steel. "Far from done yet."

"I'll kill myself then," he said, desperately shaking in his bindings. "I'll die. I'd rather die. Tell me why I shouldn't release it."

"Release it?" Orochimaru raised an eyebrow. His face split with a grin. "Ohohoho, you plan to release that natural disaster upon my base? I'd be interested to know if I could contain it."

"Good," Naruto gasped. "Fuck all of this. I can't-"

But to his surprise, Orochimaru laughed. It was an awful thing, not conspiring, not evil, simply excited and giddy. "Oh, Naruto-kun, you are a fascinating subject. But indeed, you can't release the Kyuubi. Not yet."

"Fuck you. There isn't- give me one good reason I shouldn't."

"Because," Orochimaru purred, leaning in so close Naruto could see his blood spattered reflection in his cornea, "Survive all of this, Naruto-kun, and I just might tell you where your family is."

Chapter Text

"He's a looker," whistled Temari over the top of her glass.

Satsuki raised an eyebrow. "Him?"

The aforementioned man was across the bar, sat at the counter and sipping gently at a tall glass of something transparent. Probably lemonade, or at least spring water. Anyone drinking that tall a glass of tequila would be nothing short of a maniac, and though Suna was full of those, passing out was quite lethal in the cold desert night.

"Him." Temari narrowed her eyes, like she was staring down an enemy. "I'll get him."

"He looks old." Satsuki sipped her drink. God, she hated this drink. Tequila - called asa here - was so potent it was obviously not meant to be tasted. Yes, they salted it, yes they added a twist of lemon, but that did nothing to disguise the truly industrial taste of it. What was the point in pretending it was anything but medicine for the social soul? Recreation was a generous word to the experiences it gave. Especially the hangovers: that was why they called it 'asa', for 'morning'. That's, after all, what you were buying: a very bad morning after.

Satsuki did not drink more than three anymore. That was enough, unfortunately, to get her - as they liked to say here - 'quite smashed'. Though Temari liked to laugh at her, she knew her limits now, and it kept these nights cheap.

"Old enough," Temari said, licking her lips. Satsuki shuddered.

"Get ahold of yourself. He looks old enough to be your dad."

"Oi. My dad's dead, you know."

Satsuki nodded, bringing the shot to her lips. "Mine too. We respect the dead back in Konoha. That's why we don't mess with men as old as our dads in bed."

"I'm commemorating his memory."

"That's disgusting." Satsuki tasted the drink: ugh. "You're going to break his hip. Can you pay for a doctor on that salary?"

"I reckon he's a shinobi actually," Temari hummed, tilting her barstool back and propping her legs on the table in a very subtle sexual hint to the man across from her. "Got that build."

"Ten years ago maybe." Satsuki took the lemon off the rim of her glass, squeezing a couple drops into her drink. "Before the divorce."

Temari stood up, clearly feeling that her target was not getting her hints quickly enough, and stretched her legs like she was preparing for a marathon. "Ah, Satsuki. Don't kill the vibe. Just having a good time."

"If your idea of having a good time is trying to seduce the elderly, don't let me stop you." Satsuki threw back the rest of the shot. "Ugh- god, this drink is disgusting."

"But it's so cheap! And that's what matters, right?" beamed Temari, and then she motioned to the bartender with two fingers. "Two more, random, please!"

Satsuki soured, shaking her head. "I don't want another one."

Temari ribbed her with a sharp elbow. "Sure ya do. Just one last one, okay? Besides, you might get something wild. Who knows?"

What could be said for 'the Well' - the bar they were in - was that they did asa for exceedingly cheap prices. It was 100 ryo a shot, and they had over 300 flavours. The entire behind the bar was just asa, stacked from top to bottom, all sorts of flavours from strawberry, to pork ramen, to natto - a type of fermented bean they had back in Konoha, and perhaps the worst flavour on the shelves. That said, it added at least some excitement to the nights out, but the first time they had come, Temari had ordered a welcoming stack of shots, six shots high. It had culminated with the delightful natto shot - and with vomit on the walls, in colours Satsuki hadn't known the human body could produce.

It had taken a long time for her to learn how to keep asa down, but it came eventually. It had to really, because neither Satsuki nor Temari were paid well enough to drink at any kind of classier establishment.

"Gonna go for it. Wish me some of that Uchiha good luck."

Satsuki almost inhaled her drink, and she coughed asa all over the counter. "You think the Uchiha had good luck?"

But Temari was already halfway across the bar, swaying adventurously in an outfit atrociously skimpy for the cold desert air. There was no denying it: Suna women were truly dedicated to the cause.

The bartender came back, a woman from Cloud with striking cheekbones and a warm smile. "Two shots, two hundred ryo, ma'am."

Satsuki looked down the bar at Temari, engaged in boisterous conversation with the busy man, and sighed. "I'll get it," she said, and slapped three notes on the bar. "Keep the tip. I'm out."

The bartender winked back. "Thanks, doll."

She winced at the unfamiliar greeting, but nodded back before downing the shot, pocketing her hands and going on her way. Temari was very capable on her own, so Satsuki just offered her a quick salute as she exited the bar.

Too capable, really. That man would probably gain health problems after that encounter. Muscles would be pulled. Backs made bad.

As she left the bar, a cloud of cigarette smoke burned her nostrils and the cold desert air bit at her cheeks. Temari, of course, went as all out as ever on these nights out when they got their paycheques. Satsuki wasn't as into it, but she still liked to wear svelte long-sleeved black tops, black pants. Nothing more revealing. But it was comfortable, if a little odd next to her Suna friend's snake-skin heels and cocktail dress.

Sometimes, if it looked as though the air itself might freeze, Temari went for a fur coat.

"You got a light?" asked a young man. Satsuki shook her head, pocketing her fists and heading on her way.

One of the beautiful luxuries of Suna, that Satsuki felt they should perhaps sell to tourists a little more, was how astoundingly beautiful the night sky was. Though Suna had a little light pollution, if you got high up enough, or headed to the very outskirts, you got a stunning view of the solar system. Stars splayed across the entire sky, every single spot occupied by light distant or far. It was not quite the show you got in the middle of the desert, but it also didn't require the same ice-cold conditions. So for a moment, Satsuki stopped, activated her Sharingan, and admired.

Perhaps it was a little much, she thought, but the sight that the Sharingan gave her was like nothing else: it was an entirely different colour spectrum, so attuned, so aware. The stars were like a kaleidoscope before her, the tilt of drunkenness giving her nothing but a shamelessness in her admiration. As drunken ninja stumbled around her, people milling past left and right, Satsuki climbed atop a small set of shops with a few clumsy steps, to gape, fixated by the beauty of the starry night.

Something flickered.

At first, Satsuki thought it was the stars twinkling: but it was something more than that, something rhythmic. As she focused past the drunken haze with her Sharingan, she saw it was in fact something blotting out the stars: a bird, circling.

A bird. Huh.

Satsuki didn't really remember whether birds did stuff like that at night. Maybe vultures, but was something dead? Did birds make nests this far out here? Circling? Did desert birds do that? After four years of living in Suna, Satsuki felt as if it were something she ought to know, but that didn't change her obliviousness. She stared.

Hearing a familiar giggling, Satsuki glanced back to the street. Temari was staggering about laughing, arm in arm with the older man. Satsuki's judgmental revulsion was gone, and she kept her eyes on the bird as she called to her. "Temari. Oi. Up here."

Temari's giggling didn't cease, as she leaned on the arm of the older man, smiling and looking left and right. "Satsuki? Where are you? Hiding?"

"Up here." Satsuki gave the roof a firm smack. The person inside was probably having an aneurysm. "Can you see that in the sky?"

"Wha?" Temari stopped, dazedly suitor also looked up. "What do you mean? Can't see nothing. What are you doing up there?"

"There." Satsuki pointed firmly at the rhythmically blinking circle. "It looks like a bird, blocking out the stars. It's circling. Can you see it?"

Temari squinted. "Huh. Uhh," she hummed. "Hmm, yeah, I guess I do. That weird… thing? Can't see it properly."

"It looks like a bird," Satsuki repeated. "Do you get birds like that out here?"

Temari stopped, staring. Something about her looked a little odd then: her athletic frame, squeezed into a tight dress, seemed less like the art she had prettied it into for the bar and more the weapon that Satsuki saw when Temari was beating her black and blue in training. She was suddenly attentive. "Birds… out here at night…?"

The Suna girl blinked once, blinked twice, and then stopped.

"I've never seen a desert bird that big in my life."

The sky exploded into flame.


"Don't call me that, you son of a fucking-!"

"Hey, hey! Calm down, you know?"

Her swing missed. It was all very foggy. She hit something hard, metal scraped across the floor. Naruto sidestepped her. He was somewhere else now, laughing. She was so angry.

"I'm not fucking around! I'm gonna-"

"Don't you wanna hear about the past couple of years? And hey- where's Satsuki?"

Sakura awoke.

She often had this, she thought, but it was worse than usual. That moment where the dream felt very real, where everything else felt very distant. What had she just been doing? Trying to hit Naruto? She was so mad at him. When would she next see him?

But then she tried to backcycle. Why was she mad at Naruto? Why was it such a big deal? That eluded her. Then she thought: 'when was the last time I even saw him?'

That question sent her spinning. When was the last time she saw Naruto? And why was she in the hospital?

A bouquet on the side table, fresh and gorgeous, with sunflowers in the middle. That had to be Ino's. So- ah, she remembered now. The Chuunin exams. The Sound invasion. That must have been it, she thought sagely. She'd gotten injured. Well. She could still wiggle her toes, so that was a start.

Though she was thankful to see all of her limbs looked relatively unscarred, when she sat up, she found her whole body feeling very strange. As she looked down though, what exactly was different eluded her. It all seemed to move properly. Her hair felt a little- different, though that wasn't really what she was so fixated on-

She pressed the nurse's button, and looked at her hands, front and back, front and back. They looked different. Definitely something different. Nothing wrong. But something different.

When had she even gotten hurt? The whole invasion had been pretty peaceful - had she been to a festival? That was all so foggy. Weird. Her head hurt. Was she mad at Naruto?

No, that wasn't right at all. Naruto and Satsuki were… arguing? She wasn't mad at him, right?

A nurse came dashing through the door, and upon seeing her, broke into a wide smile. "Ah! Haruno-san!" he said, and he grabbed a passing nurse. "Haruno-san on bed thirty is awake. Call her parents for me." He moved into the room and right towards her, reading her vitals off the monitor. "How are you feeling? Does it hurt anywhere?"

"My head hurts," she said, a bit spaced. "Have I been out for a while?"

"It's been a month," he smiled ruefully. "Your parents will be overjoyed to see you're well. They were here day and night, worried sick. Hospital staff had to escort them out, they were disobeying the visiting hours rule so much. It was quite an endeavour, I hear. They're ex-shinobi after all."

She nodded, not really knowing what to say. A month. It could be worse, she supposed, but a month was a month.

"So let me conduct a few tests. I'm gonna see how your reflexes are doing," he said.

And so he did. He tapped her knee with a hammer, shone a light in her eye, a few other things; then he started talking to her. That was when things started to feel bad.

"Okay, Haruno-san," he said, writing on a clipboard and not looking up. "Your reflexes seem to be in good order, so I'm going to ask you a few things. What's your name?"

"Haruno Sakura."

"And when were you born?"

"March 28th, 67 AK."

He nodded, cross referencing it with another piece of paper at his side. "Right, right. And who's the Hokage?"

"Hiruzen Sarutobi."

The man almost dropped his clipboard. "Sorry- excuse me?"

"Hiruzen?" Sakura repeated. "I'm sorry, I don't hear his first name much. Is that offensive? I mean the Sandaime. Did I get it wrong? I thought it was his dad who was called Sasuke."

The nurse shook his head. "That's quite alright, Haruno-san. And- ah, what year would you say it is?"

"Year 80 after the founding of Konoha," she said. "I just finished the Chuunin exams. Orochimaru's just invaded- is everyone alright? Did we win?"

He gave her a long look, where his lips struggled to set in a straight line or in a smile, before deciding on a pained mix of both. "Ah- yes, we won, Haruno-san. But…"

"What?" she said.

He sighed, looking rueful. "That was almost four years ago. Your 17th birthday is in a week."

Naruto awoke in his room, and stretched.

Each day as he awoke, he couldn't help but notice how prison-like the room was. But he was nothing if not dedicated, and he had decked the place from top to bottom in strange drawings, images, anything he could find.

He wasn't necessarily all that into the traditional Japanese decor, with calligraphy on the walls and scenic sliding doors, however he was even less into the barren brick of Oto's underground base. There were nice watercolour paintings in big, wrinkled paper on the wall, and pretty calligraphy he'd bought from the very nervous and sometimes unwilling townspeople. If he used henge, even, they seemed to recognise his Konoha accent: no one was comfortable with it, but no one ever said no. His worst responses were silence, but he certainly felt awkward.

Most important in his room was his calendar. He liked that. It was very hard to tell the passing of time otherwise.

"Naruto-kun," purred Kabuto from down the hall. "Don't keep Orochimaru-sama waiting."

"Oi four-eyes, don't call me that." Naruto hated that honorific. It was creepy as hell. "I'll be down in a minute, I gotta brush my teeth, and like, put on clothes."

He heard Kabuto scoff as he walked away. "Disrespectful child."

Yeah, whatever.

Naruto yawned, casting aside the threadbare bedsheets and cracking his back. It made a satisfying pop, and he sighed deeply. God, he was bored. Whatever. He needed to go get some vitamin D supplements from Kabuto, but Naruto could never be sure whether the guy was secretly drugging him or something. He pulled on the very fashionable Oto gear - oh yes, very cool. Got all the girls interested. Except of course, it didn't, but whatever. That was beside the point. Naruto had made do: he wore an orange yukata-style thing over those weird baggy pants Orochimaru liked.

Perhaps the snake man fancied himself the master of a dojo or something, and not just the master of a really stinky, mold-infested dungeon of sadness. The mold really was an issue: so much damp and mildew. It was no wonder all his favourite test subjects seemed to die miserable deaths.

Naruto pulled on some thin ninja chainmail beneath the yukata, brushed his teeth and hair. No time for shower. Rather, the water was ice cold. Not fun. He cracked his fingers, brought his kunai tucked into his yukata, and was on his way. Breakfast time.

Naruto reached the dining room. The usual suspects were there: the Sound Five, Orochimaru, and the uncomfortable looking cook, an older man with a tight grey knot in his hair and a tighter knot in his forehead. Stern. The food was cooking.

"Nice of you to join us, Naruto-kun," said Orochimaru. He was sat aside from the rest of them, at the head of the table, with a couple of separate dishes in front of him. All sushi, all traditional. He really did fancy himself a dojo master. "Please, take a seat."

He sat next to Kimimaro, easily the most agreeable of quite a bad bunch. Naruto reluctantly admitted that he had never missed Satsuki and Sakura so much as when he spoke to Tayuya or Sakon. These people weren't freaks in the "inhuman" sense, but in the sense that they didn't value things Naruto valued whatsoever. They didn't tell ghost stories, they didn't escape the base on strange and fun escapades. They were dedicated. Orochimaru was all they knew.

He was their law. Very depressing.

Kimimaro was perhaps even more dedicated to the cause of Orochimaru, but he also humoured Naruto, talked to him sometimes. He was very quiet, but very witty. Naruto always enjoyed hearing Kimimaro's insights, even when he got the sense that Kimimaro knew more than he ever would, and knew it far more intimately than he could ever hope to know anything. That was fine. It was something. And there was not much but mold, mildew and misery in this very big, very confusing base, so Naruto would take what he could get.

The food served was the same traditional breakfast as always. Rice, sashimi cut with a very sharp chef's knife right in front of them - Orochimaru was very particular about that. Almost as though he had enemies or something - and wholesome soups, fresh cooked fish. Naruto did not take much issue with the food. Yes, there was no ramen, but somehow that was the least of his problems here.

He was served his food in moments, and finished it within a minute or so: the only one who could parallel him on that front was Tayuya. With an obedience cultivated through a healthy fear of Orochimaru's ability to inflict pain, he placed his chopsticks aside and bowed his head. "Thank you, Orochimaru-sama."

Orochimaru had a gleam in his eye when he leaned on one hand, a curt smile on his face. "You're very welcome, Naruto-kun." He wiped his fingers on a cloth, tapping his empty bowl bowl. The chef took it aside attentively, washing it promptly in the sink. "Now. Kimimaro was asking to practice on you today."

That was no surprise. Naruto held back a wince when he nodded. "Sure."

Orochimaru grinned. "Excellent. The rest of you will practice together effectively, I'm sure."

There was a chorus of affirmations from the rest of the Sound Five, and as Kimimaro finished his soup at last (god, he was such a slow eater), Orochimaru finally lifted his hand and motioned to the door. "Off you go. I'll expect you to make a good display at the end of the week."

They all stood incredibly quickly and made for the door with bowed heads. They scattered across the base in seconds, and quickly Naruto was alone.

He took solace in that this display that he felt at least confirmed that the Sound Five were compelled by a very real fear of Orochimaru, and that perhaps he was not the only one who had nightmares about that knife.

A thick drape of sand covered Sunagakure, and the quake of the explosion above made grit leak from the cover like an unstable ceiling. Satsuki's eyes stung.

"Did Gaara do that?" whispered Temari. They were both lying on the ground, looking upward. "Goddammit. An attack now? I wore my really nice necklace for tonight."

The man Temari had been courting gave her a look before scarpering. Satsuki snorted. "Ex-shinobi my ass."

"Yeah, maybe he was a wrestler or something. C'mon, we have to get to Gaara now. Whatever's attacking us is in the sky, and he's best for that."

Both of them made their way onto the rooftops, and headed towards the Kazekage's tower as fast as they could. The drape in the sky hung, like a thick storm above the town.

"Gaara." Temari reached the top of the tower, where Gaara stood, heaving for breath as he held the cover of sand in place. "What the hell is going on? What is that?"

He shook his head, one hand over his eye. "I'm looking with my extra eye. I can't tell. It's a massive white bird, a man. He's far away for now, but I think... it's the Akatsuki."

"Akatsuki?" whispered Satsuki.

Temari looked pale. "The Akatsuki are-"

"I know what the Akatsuki are," Satsuki snapped. Her heart felt weird, unstable, like it was made of glass and rattling with a high pitched scream. "I'm- Why are the Akatsuki here?"

Gaara looked at her. Her heart felt like it was going to fall out of her chest.

The village was going into uproar; they were coated in complete darkness, the only light that of people turning on their lights as they woke from the noise. Countless black figures opened their window to gape at the starless sky.

"Three years ago, they came for Naruto." Gaara was calm. "It seems they've now come for me."

Another explosion rattled the sky. The Kazekage hissed, crumpling forward as though under a great weight.

Satsuki felt shaky. She hadn't faced this in so long. It had been missions, exams - it had all been much simpler for the past few years. She'd almost forgotten that terror, and now she was being punished for it afresh. She reached into her pockets, where her fans lay, and she snapped them apart quickly in her hands. Flame burned.

"Is he still in the sky?" Satsuki asked, steadying her feet on the ground. "Has anyone been mobilised?"

"I've got the guard staff preparing ballistas," Gaara gasped. "I don't think anyone else can reach him. The border jounin should have caught him long before this point."

"But they didn't," muttered Temari, pulling a small scroll out of her pocket and unfurling it with a flourish. Her massive fan came into existence, and she caught it with both arms. "That's beside the point now. We've got to bring this fucker down."

As the staff returned, ballistas in arms, Satsuki yelled out.

"Get those ballistas behind me," she ordered. "Fire on my command, and exactly where and when I say."

Temari looked like a deer in headlights. "I don't think this is going to be enough, Satsuki," she said. "It's too dark. We can't see anything at all. And if we move Gaara's sand-"

"There'll be another explosion," finished Satsuki. She sounded a lot braver than she felt. "I know. We've got to count on it. What's your best Wind technique? Get the next best expert you can find up here too."

Temari nodded, fleeing the roof. Satsuki took a deep breath as the Suna shinobi aligned behind her, prepping ballistas as she stared at the cover of sand.


He looked at her, looking very worn. "What?"

"How many more hits can you take?"

He looked at the sand. "Why?"

Satsuki's voice turned sharp. "How many?"

"Of that size? Two. Maybe three if I drop dead afterwards."

"Two is what we'll need. Three if I screw it up." Satsuki projected her chakra down the conductive spokes of her fans. They turned red with flame. "I don't know if this is going to work. Have you got any better ideas?"

He shook his head. "No. He's too fast. I'm trying to catch him, but it's a waste of energy. My sand can't keep up with him, and because it's my other eye tracking him, it's too slow."

"No other experts who can try?"

"No," he said. "That's what the border jounin are for."

Satsuki's heart hammered in her chest. She breathed in deeply. "Fine. Then on my count, open the cover of sand. Where is this guy?"

"About 11 o'clock," he said. "Open it?"

"When I tell you to."

Temari returned with another expert, an older man with quite an impressive moustache.

"I want you both to use your strongest Wind technique, right through the hole Gaara is going to make," Satsuki said. "Same for the ballistas. "I'll use my Sharingan to direct you. Follow my flame." Satsuki stared. "No. Actually, carry us beneath where he is."

"He's moving."

"Then as near as you can get."

There was the squelch of flesh being pierced, quite a dull but wet noise. Naruto yelped.

"Oi, oi!"

Kimimaro withdrew his Shikotsumyaku, his bright green eyes tracing over Naruto's pierced shoulder, the blood that leaked from the wound. "I apologise."

Naruto pouted. "Yeah, you should! Jeez."

As Naruto massaged his bleeding shoulder, the deep wound still oozing, Kimimaro stepped forward to gaze at the wound. He was still much taller than Naruto, so he knelt down a little, an elegant long finger reaching toward the cut but stopping just short. Naruto turned his jaw up, peeling the torn material aside and shaking the shoulder off his yukata. He tapped the slowly weaving skin around the cut. "Look, see? As always."

Kimimaro's eyes were still unmovingly fixated on Naruto's wound. He always did this. The entire point of them training together was that Naruto could take the deep wounds Kimimaro cast out when he let himself loose: that he healed easily from them, whereas someone else risked being crippled or badly scarred. Even so, Kimimaro always watched: he always stayed firmly fixed on Naruto's injuries until they healed over, as though his gaze alone was a rejuvenating force. For someone so lethal, Naruto couldn't help but marvel at his gentility, and wonder how he had ended up here.

But he'd never asked. Kimimaro's dedication to Orochimaru was renowned. Naruto feared maybe just the question alone would make Kimimaro push away from him. So they waited in silence as Naruto's flesh wove itself back together, until his skin was as new, if stained with blood.

"You've gotta stop doing that," Naruto said, shaking his head. "Orochimaru wouldn't like ya wasting all that time."

Kimimaro's bright eyes glinted toward him. It was almost certain Orochimaru would have thought that was a waste of time. After all, Naruto was a waste of space as far as their leader was concerned. Kimimaro didn't say anything, though.

He was still as ever elegant and gentle, as he withdrew a whip of vertebrae from his spine, straightening it out between his hands.

"I'm ready!" said Naruto brightly, bouncing on his legs.

"Very well." Kimimaro cracked the whip against the wall; bone chipped stone.

As a carpet of sand gently lifted them into the sky, Satsuki kept her eyes focused on the above. Another explosion came through; Gaara gasped for air, and it felt much more immediate now that they were closer. The sand ceiling was feet away from Satsuki's face.

"Open it up!" Satsuki commanded, her Sharingan bleeding into life. "Ballistas, follow my fire!"

With a drawn back crack like a fiery whip, a ball of fire like an arrow shot from Satsuki's fan straight into the sky. Seconds later, the ballistas fired.

"Temari! Wind!"

Something small and white was sailing through the air.

Temari and the elderly man sent a chorus of wind straight up after the ballistas, and the little white object went up too.

And finally, Satsuki went through the handsigns, knelt down, and poured heat from her gut to her lips.

'Katon: Goukakyu no Jutsu!'

Turns out Satsuki didn't have to ask. The moment Gaara saw the flame pass through the drape, he filled the hole in the sand, and dropped the platform, leaving them tumbling through the air.

They landed in a sifting pit of sand, and as the bomb, ballistas, wind and fire met in a hot cacophony, Satsuki and the rest of Sunagakure watched in awe as sand so hot it liquidated into magma for a moment dripped from the ceiling like a bathroom leak. Gaara was spent: he parted the drape of sand and let it collapse beside the village, pouring into the desert like flour into a mixing bowl. Whatever it was - whoever it was - fell from the sky like a hunted eagle, and its rider parted from the mount as they fell through the air.

Satsuki could see the Akatsuki cloak burning.

"One?" she whispered, feeling her chest seize. "Only one?"

Temari looked up. "What?"

She turned her head toward Gaara, her heartbeat loud and erratic like the hooves of a horse. "There's definitely not another one?"

He was sat with his legs to his chest, and he shook his head. The ballista men were seeing to him.

"Did you see something?" Temari urged her.

"No, that's not right. Definitely not right." Satsuki stared at the falling, burning figure. "Gaara, can you crush him?"

He looked at her skeptically, heaving for breath. "Anything else?"

"Immobilise him," Satsuki ordered. "Kill him if you have to. The intel isn't worth it." She turned toward Temari, muttering in a lower voice. "Temari, can you do a reverse summons for Gaara?"

Her eyes widened. "Satsuki, I can't just teleport him away. He's the Kazekage. That's like treason."

"You have to. They're coming after him. If he's gone, then what do they care?"

"They'll kill us," Temari hissed.

"Then that's what they'll do," snapped Satsuki. "We're better off with him alive and uncaptured. It's the Akatsuki."

Temari splayed a manicured hand emphatically towards the burning falling figure. Gaara's sand was reaching up towards it. "He's already finished!"

"No," Satsuki said, dread making her heart feel like a solid lump of stone in her chest. "The Akatsuki always come in pairs."

Chapter Text


"Loss, loss…"

Today was Sunday, day of rest. Machida was huddled at the window despite his parents best efforts. The bells were ringing. The sparrows were fleeing. Somewhere far, an enka singer lamented, a taiko drum thrumming through the image like a the heartbeat of a dying dragon.

"To endure without tears," went the singers lament, as it did every Sunday.

Machida sat at the window. He could almost hum the tune.

"Perhaps one only look upward…" he murmured along. His mother, behind him, facing away from the window, bristled: his father shook his head. The procession drew closer: he could hear it booming down the road.

"-to be met with faith?"

"Come back from the window," snapped his older sister Mika. "It's bad luck. Awful boy."

Machida shrugged her off, sitting his chin on his hands at the windowsill and watching intently as the drums drew closer. "If your ears may not bear witness," he sang louder now, defiantly.

"Mother!" Mika hissed.

Their mother, however, stared. "Don't," she whispered. "Machi-kun, please come sit over here. You'll get us in deep trouble."

The street had cleared. Not a soul to be seen outside. The procession drew closer. Machida opened his mouth wider.

"May your eyes also cast doubt…"


His mother smacked him with a palm as hard and sharp as wood, pressing him to below the curtains. The mother, the sister, the brother all lay on the floor with baited breath, staring into the street.

They were there outside. The white cloaked woman sang, her robes dragging the floor: the purple robed man banged the taiko drum. The Kyuubi child stood, tails swaying like an extravagant float behind him.

"Open your heart, listen carefully…"

The fox boy's yowls of pain chorused the street now: his hands were still bound together by something glowing bright blue. Orochimaru, their pale leader, as quiet as ever, perused the houses with bright yellow eyes, searching for someone to meet his gaze. He stood atop a slowly horse-drawn platform, Kyuubi child in front of him. It seemed Orochimaru was pressing something sharp into the child's back. Something hot. They heard it hiss. The child screamed.

Machida was silent, as entranced as ever. The mother felt her hand sting as she cowered back behind the curtain: Mika had turned away. Orochimaru scanned the windows: searching as always, for something.

The Kyuubi boy cried. The Yamada household was quiet.

"Witness it yourself."

God, his flesh was burning.

Deidara hadn't expected them to fire ballistas at what he had demonstrated was obviously going to be a bomb, but then again, he hadn't been forewarned that the Kazekage could summon so much sand for protection either. Deidara doubted Sasori hadn't known that. Figures he would have held that interesting information back.

He heaved for breath. Burns were covering- well, a lot of his body. Most worryingly, some parts of him didn't hurt. Which probably meant that his tissue was close to dead. Where the hell was Sasori? His cloak was still on fire, too.

"Deidara." That familiar low growl.

"About time!" snapped Deidara. His limbs throbbed in response to his enthusiasm, and he hissed. "Have you got any medicine for… this kind of thing? I'll make a bird, but we both have to go straight away."

"We came for the Ichibi," said Sasori, puppet eyes giving him a close look. He could hear the thing's mouth clacking. "You want us to go so soon?"

"Do I look in any condition to catch a Bijuu?!" he retorted, his hand-mouth chomping on some clay. "Come on and get ready. As soon as I summon it, we have to go. And as I said! You don't have anything for burns?"

Sasori gave him a sharp look, before giving him a generous splash of water from a flask. "You're welcome. Now let's go."

"You gotta give me more than that! These have to be third degree! And goddamn, that hurts..."

"I need the rest of the water," Sasori snapped. "We're in the desert, you bomb-crazy fool. You didn't bring water in case this happened?"

"If this had happened before, I wouldn't be so handsome, yeah? Talented bomb-crazy fools stay gorgeous. The stupid ones die. Water is for babies." Deidara enlarged the bird with a painful hand seal. "Man, that water just made it hurt more. Hey, put me on it, yeah?"

The spiny scorpion-like tail that Sasori so liked to wear lifted him by the bridge, putting him stomach first onto the bird, before Sasori himself hopped on and the bird nose-dived, soaring nimbly out of the village. A cluster of hooded ninja spotted them, quickly pursuing but lagging behind.

"I hate to be kept waiting," said Sasori. "And I hate to keep others waiting. You've made us go back empty-handed. Leader will be kept waiting even longer."

"Can't be helped," Deidara muttered. "And on that topic! You had to have known how strong the Ichibi was! Why didn't you say?!"

Sasori scoffed, but seemed to shrug. "I've never seen it use power like that. I only know about the other containers, and they couldn't do anything like that."

"I think you sent me in and let me get toasted 'cause you knew how strong it was!"

"Do I look like an idiot to you?" Sasori snapped. "You're so injured I have to escort you back. Why would I waste my own time?"

That was a fair point. Deidara huffed. "Even so. I woulda appreciated a bit more direction."

"You insisted on heading in on your own. This is your own fault. Now shut up until we get away."

Deidara sulked.

"Can't believe you didn't bring water into a desert. Degenerate."

"You just told me to shut up, bastard!"

"How long, Sasori?"

"Shut up. The ANBU are still after us, thanks to your extremely obnoxious-looking bird."

"Pft. Where's your bird, huh?"


"Thought so."

"Sasori... It's been so long..."

"I told you to shut up."

"Oi, Sasori-"

"Stop bothering me," snapped Sasori.

"My skin's really hurting, y'know. And some of it's not hurting at all. I think I'm pretty badly burned."

"That's because you blew yourself up, moron. Only an absolute imbecile wouldn't create a failsafe for their own explosives backfiring. That's all you do. The only reason you're here is your explosions."

"What? Art is… an explosion! Boom! That's the beauty of it. If I protected myself, there'd be no fear, no excitement! A failsafe? Pah. Fear is a part of art."

Sasori snorted. "I'll put your ashes into a firework then. Now sit down and shut up."

It was the ordinary breakfast meal they had together, the Sound Five, Orochimaru, and Naruto, all in the familiar but unbearably uncomfortable silence of the lair. Worse, sometimes they heard something: Kabuto walking around outside, the chef chopping fish, an escaped prisoner. All unnerving.

Sometimes Naruto would mutter to Kimimaro, when Orochimaru-sama's back was turned. Always about uncomfortable things, like, "How do they even get orange juice into here? Is there a secret orange juice importer?" or "What's the deal with the random purple ropes everyone likes to wear?" or "Does Orochimaru have a hair stylist?"

It was even worse when it was about things Naruto clearly thought were very funny, because they were almost always at the expense of someone in the room.

Kimimaro had the gall to feel a slight sense of dread for these comments this morning (because after all, even when they were funny, there was absolutely no way he could possibly laugh), when something far more uncomfortable happened. After drinking his juice, Naruto lifted his glass to the candlelight, squinting at the refracting light, and then slammed to the ground with a smack.

Not in a sort of, dazzled-fainting-maiden kind of way. Naruto slammed to the ground like a sack of bricks, taking half the table of food with him. Fish, everywhere. Orange juice went all over Orochimaru, giving him a hint of colour he had never had before. If Naruto had not been likely dead on the floor, Kimimaro was sure he would have cracked a joke about it. Even more bizarre, although Kimimaro instinctively reached over the table and tried to catch Naruto, no one else did: uneasy and wary, the rest of the Sound Five simply sat where they were, looking at Orochimaru nervously as Kabuto came from the hall to carry Naruto out.

"Oh dear," tutted Kabuto, barely catching him by the arm. "I'm very sorry, Orochimaru-sama. I thought it would be best to deal with him this way, but even then he managed to break something."

Orochimaru shook his head, chuckling a little and patting his face dry with a cloth. "It can't be helped. As long as you're dealing with him, Kabuto."

"Of course." Kabuto bowed his head deeply, and carried Naruto out of the dining room like one might carry a heavy bureau, or a rather large cat.

The Sound Five all shared looks, eyebrows raised. Tayuya looked closest to saying something when Orochimaru lifted a hand.

"Do not worry," he said gently. "It's simply the proper preparations for my transfer into a new container."

Kimimaro knew exactly what it was: Orochimaru suspected Naruto was trying to kill him.

In all of his time with Naruto, he'd never seen anything indicating he wanted to kill Orochimaru, nor did he hear anything from Naruto that would have indicated why. Of course Orochimaru came from Konoha, but it was so long ago he'd abandoned them that Naruto could hardly have been alive at the time.

Kimimaro found Orochimaru's logic somewhat baffling, but on the other hand, Naruto and Kimimaro were - sort of - friends. Perhaps he was trying to protect Kimimaro.

But Naruto didn't seem to understand the special relationship Kimimaro and Orochimaru had: that Orochimaru had saved him. Naruto didn't ever say Orochimaru was no good, but that Kimimaro would be just fine without him.

Kimimaro knew that. It wasn't the point. He'd always wanted to serve Orochimaru-sama in this way. He had no one else, nor did he need anyone else.

He plucked a slice of fish with his chopsticks, lifting it from rows of orange. Strange, he thought, pinching it tightly: no blood at all.

That was what he had lived for. Recovering, so he could now give his body as a container, was the best thing he could have ever hoped for.

Kimimaro had always thought that. He'd begged to gods he didn't believe in to recover for such a purpose. It had been a dream for him, the idea of becoming well and serving Orochimaru with his powers. So surely this ought to be enough.

It ought to be, he thought, staring at the sashimi, squeezing it tighter. No. It was. There was no question.

He bit. He chewed. He swallowed.

Kimimaro was happy to die. He had no doubts at all.

Click. Clack. Shuffle shuffle. The clean sound of paper being stacked, pages being turned. A pen scribbling.

"Bashtard," Naruto hissed, spitting the bloody saliva pooled at the bottom of his mouth towards the shoes pacing outside his cell. Kabuto looked at the murky red globule, and shook his foot absent-mindedly.

"Don't disturb me, Naruto-kun," said Kabuto, adjusting his glasses. "We've got a very busy week coming up."

"Oh," Naruto sneered, trying to lean forward threateningly but collapsing on the floor of his cell. He sat up, wiping blood off the side of his mouth. "I'm gonna dishturb you sho hard, you're gonna… your asshole is gonna have nightmaresh about my foot for… at leasht a year."

Orochimaru's very loyal assistant scoffed, moving something heavy and metal out of sight with a loud scrape. "I see the poison has had its expected effect. That's always good news."

"P… Poishon?" Naruto slurred.

"Yes," Kabuto enunciated. "Poison, Naruto-kun. It's what'll keep you docile for the next… well, month, I imagine. Give or take a couple days. Good enough for my purposes."

Naruto gazed up at him, Kabuto's gaze still unfocused. "Why?"

Kabuto's glasses glinted in the candlelight, and with barely contained glee, he turned to the barred cell. "I'm not a fool, Naruto-kun. Orochimaru-sama is taking a new container, and I don't trust you."

Naruto kept his defiance to a soft simmer, staring up at him. That was the key. He couldn't know. He wouldn't. "You're… jusht gonna messh up my training. Stupid Kabuto. If you're such good… medical… medal… nin, why you shtill need glashes?"

The medical nin snorted, turning back to his desk. "Perhaps I should have gagged you."

"Can't even heal your eyes. Big idiot."

Kabuto stopped a second, and with barely contained glee, turned back towards the cage, giving Naruto a broad, boisterous grin. He knelt down, very close to the bars, a wooden pencil poised in his fingers. He twisted it left and right between his fingers, a pink eraser poised right in front of Naruto's eyes.

"You know, Naruto-kun," he mused, "I've killed hundreds of people. Perhaps over a thousand.

"Likewise, I've watched countless animals, countless people, die. I'm familiar with how they turn desperate and crazed moments before death. I see the frenzy in their eyes before they succumb. It's as common to me as target practice is to you." He lifted the pencil, looking at it thoughtfully. "You see, that is when people are most dangerous. When they are hopelessly desperate."

Kabuto lowered the pencil, leaning in ever close to Naruto, almost touching the bars. Naruto saw the tiny remnants of saliva at the edge of Kabuto's lips; he saw scars. He saw Kabuto's weathered glasses. He saw Kabuto's broad, glistening teeth, lining his grin like the bars lined this cage.

"I see your desperate will to live, Naruto-kun," he whispered. "That's why I have caged you. And I know your abilities better than anyone. Do you know that? I know your liver, your heart more intimately than you could ever hope to. There's nowhere to go. Even if you're not frightened, take my advice."

Kabuto pressed the pencil eraser to the bars, and the eraser hissed back. His excitedly shivering hand pressed the pencil further and further into the metal. A rancid smell of burning rubber permeated the cell: acrid smoke wisped between them both.

As the last of the rubber burned away, Kabuto drew the pencil back and held it just before the bars, a stringy drop of melted rubber suspended from its end.

"Be good, Naruto-kun."

With the clatter of the pencil, Kabuto stood upright, a grin still twitching at his lips like a muzzled dog aching to bite. A couple slow, confident footsteps, and Kabuto was gone.

Sakura was home now. They'd said bedrest: her parents had agreed, but insisted on their bedrest.

If she had been able to describe the sensation, it was like coming home to your house after a burglary, but even that was a little off.

Someone hadn't just ransacked her room. There were no cute posters on the wall: her desk was a mess, her equipment was everywhere. It gave her goosebumps: just the right amount of wrongness. Someone foreign had been here. Someone had been through her room, someone had looked at her things, someone had lived here. She had no idea what had happened. It was an unknown that made her skin crawl.

It felt like someone else had been living here. In a way, someone had. The last few years - poof. And her body was quite different too: it wasn't even as if she'd suddenly grown. She was still very accustomed to her movements, but in the mirror, she double-took. Her reflection was unfamiliar. It was all very unfamiliar.

"Sakura," her mother called up. "Ino-chan is here!"

"Okay! I'll be down in just a second!"

Sakura looked around her room one last time, when something caught her eye. The portrait, the lovely team photo they had, was placed face down on the desk. Huh.

She walked over absentmindedly, lifting it up, when she saw-

"Sakura! She's waiting!"

"Okay!" she called back exasperatedly. But there was no mistaking it.

Naruto wasn't in the image anymore.

Ino too was not how she remembered. She was taller, her hair was back - beautiful and long - but she was the same old Ino, bright and bubbly. That, at least, was a relief.

"Awake at last, Sakura!" she beamed. "I'm gonna take ya to Tsunade-sama. We were both gonna catch you up on the past couple of years… training, and stuff too. See what the damage is, y'get?"

Sakura nodded, and pulled a thin black coat off of the end of the stairs. "I'm going," she called to her mother.

"Be back soon! And stay safe."

"Yeah," she said. Stay safe. Psh. She was a ninja too.

She closed the door behind her, heading down the road. Most of the houses looked the same; the local butcher had a new sign. It all looked relatively similar - relatively.

"So," began Ino. "Anything you remember?"

Sakura frowned, pulling a long piece of hair out of her face and behind her ears. "I have no idea," she said, biting her lip. "How am I supposed to figure that out?"

"Well," said Ino, putting a hand under her chin. "I suppose… do you remember anything after Orochimaru invaded? That's when you last remember, right?"

Sakura nodded. "Yeah. I don't think I remember anything else."


They carried on down the dirt road together. Sakura was longer than she was in her memories: tougher, too. Her muscles felt stronger, she felt a little- well, more grown-up. Her hair was a little longer, but not so well-groomed. Particularly-

"Man," she said. "My fingernails are terrible."

Ino leaned over, looking at them. Where they weren't long and dirty, they were broken and cracked. She laughed. "Yeah. Probably from the hospital."

"Yeah. They're not even painted, though. It's like I was climbing a rock wall with just my fingers or something."

At that, Ino drew back a little. They carried on walking, Sakura still staring at her broken, dirty, or overgrown fingernails. Ino had her hands in her pockets. The Hokage tower was drawing closer.

"Well," said Ino. "I think that became less important to you recently…"


"Your nails. Your hair. Things like that," she said. "You were really into your training. Your studying too. Super focused."

Sakura hummed. "Huh. Well, that's kinda cool."

Ino looked hesitant. "Yeah, I guess. Well, anyway, we're here, so after you!"

Knock knock.

"Who is it?"

"Uh," said Sakura.

"It's us!" called Ino. "C'mon, why are you being such a crank? Jeez."

A brunette woman holding a rotund pig opened the door, looking a little apologetic.

As they came in, Sakura was greeted by an even stranger sight. A buxom and sharply beautiful blonde woman sat in the Hokage's seat, the sprawling blue sky over Konoha behind her. Stacks of paper like thick rectangular skyscrapers lined the desk: a bottle of sake stood like some ornamental gourd.

"Tsunade-sama," the pig-holding woman warned, giving a pointedly look to the bottle. Tsunade (presumably) coughed, tucking it under the table and next to her feet, and gave them a curt nod.

"Glad to see you back up, Sakura." She tapped her nails on the desk. "Though, I've heard about the memory loss. How bad is it?"

Sakura shrugged nervously at her familiar tone, and Ino thankfully seemed to take the hint.

"Actually, Tsunade-sama," she began carefully, "It seems Sakura can't remember much at all. Only up until just after the invasion of Oto, which means…"

Tsunade's eyes widened a little, and she leaned back in her chair. All of a sudden, under her quite searching gaze, Sakura felt it was quite a cold day indeed. Tsunade closed her eyes, leaning back.

"Which means you don't even remember me," Tsunade finished. "Is that correct?"

Sakura gave a low bow. "Yes. I'm sorry, Tsunade-sama."

Tsunade sighed, motioning for her to stand up straight with a hand. Her other hand massaged her temples, and she looked quite troubled. "That's quite difficult. I don't have any experience with amnesia of this kind. I've dealt with a couple cases of motor amnesia, but as far as I can tell, nothing of that sort has happened. Your head injury was nothing to sniff at, but for so much memory loss…"

"Actually," said Sakura, with some hesitation. Ino and Tsunade both looked at her, a little surprised, and she felt distinctly uncomfortable. "Actually - I don't… I'm kinda confused. What happened to the Third? And where's Naruto?"

Sasori and Deidara's bird had passed into the territory of Fire Country, far more favourable for losing a team than a vast open desert: it leaped skillfully between the trees, dipping into sharp hills and between tight trees in an effort to lose their pursuers.

Likewise, the ANBU were tenacious, but it wasn't great conditions and the treaty didn't count for pursuing 'attempted' murderers across the border. Soon, Sasori could see no one, and he instructed the bird to come to a stop at the top of a nearby mountain.

"Oi, Deidara. We ought to contact Leader."


"Deidara," he repeated impatiently, as the bird came to a stop. "Are you listening?"

The silence persisted. Sasori turned, climbing off the bird, fully prepared to snap at Deidara for his insolence.

But Deidara was limp. Not pale, because much of his skin was scorched, but as still as he'd ever seen him.

Sasori blinked.

It had somehow not occurred to him that Deidara might be too stubborn to ask for the proper assistance. Even so, it wasn't as though Sasori treated burns often. He would've imagined Deidara to be the expert in that field. Somehow - unfortunately, randomly, and as unexpectedly as death often was - Deidara had died from quite preventable shock.

Lifting him up with his scorpion tail, he tried to place Deidara with some care on the ground - after all, Deidara had always given him the proper respect - and unfurled some scrolls of embalming. Of course, if Sasori had the choice, he'd do it in a studio or somewhere secure, but Deidara's body was already somewhat wrecked. The puppet would be ruined if he waited.

The bird watched curiously at his side as Sasori unfurled a small pouch of scalpels.

"Don't you have somewhere to go?" he muttered, picking the right one and moving to the side of Deidara's forehead. "I'm surprised you're still here. I never did understand how Deidara's jutsu worked."

The bird tapped the ground with its beak, and folded its legs beneath itself, sitting firmly beside Deidara. Sasori sighed, but began to cut.

Staring at Deidara's somewhat peaceful expression, the sleeping face he was slicing around, Sasori allowed himself to wonder.

"An explosion, huh," he grunted, nicking the bone. "An instant versus an eternity. It's a shame art can't be both."

Scratching. Paper shuffling.

Kabuto was pleased to see the drug had made Naruto considerably quieter.

'Quiet. Ate. Sleeping.'

Next line. 'Seems as normal. Mood appears to have deteriorated over past days. Negative affect. Less shouting.'

Writing these last words, and then scribbling the date, Kabuto had the feeling as when one does when they step on a piece of glass, and comes to understand that a piece of glass has pierced their foot while yet painless. He stared at the paper, the metaphorical glass in the foot, his brain whirring but not yet comprehending.

He tried to speak. Nothing came out. The noose tightened, his throat crumpling like bent metal. It twisted under the grip. He reached up to pull the thing - the rope, the hand, the necklace - pull it away, but god, it burned. He smelled his fried flesh.


He was gasping. It was burning. His neck couldn't feel it anymore, his hands burned as he tried to pull at the noose - why was it burning? His fingernails were melting. His hands didn't have opportunity to blister. Melting. His fingerprints were gone. Smooth. Shiny.

"Did you know, Kabuto?" Naruto whispered, his voice low. "There was something you miscalculated. Bet you aren't used to that."

Kabuto stared, amazed at the candle on his table: how straight it stood, despite the fact he couldn't breathe. It was blurring. Candle and room were becoming one.

"You used way too much poison, y'know," he said. "You killed me. Not that it matters now. The Kyuubi's not so good with that kinda stuff. Poison, I mean."

Gasping. Air. Where? He fell. There was Naruto, he was upside down, the cage. The cage? Bars coming from the ceiling. Where was his mother? Did he even have one? His glasses fell off.

"The more you tortured me," Naruto whispered, "The better I became at summoning the Kyuubi's chakra, too. The more you injured me, the more connected I became to it. I don't even get angry anymore. The slightest pinprick, and it races to the surface. Like, an uh… a geyser? More like a volcano?

"Anyway, Kabuto," Naruto said, and he stood upright, from the ceiling? His eyes were red. Unmoving. Cat. Fuck that kid. He hated that stupid fucking kid. Mother? Where were his glasses?

Now Kabuto saw it. The red fist of chakra, clasping his neck. Hot. His windpipe must be melting. He'd stopped feeling that a while ago. That couldn't be helped. Shock, he thought sagely. His body was shutting down. He needed his glasses. Can't see. Just colours.

White teeth. Orange smile. Red fox.

"Be good."

With the demonic heat, his glasses cracked.


A small dimly lit room was filled with rasping breath.

"Kabuto," Orochiamru gasped, clasping his sheets tightly. "How longer for Kimimaro-kun? Is he prepared?"

"Just a little longer," Kabuto promised, bowing his head. "He is being prepped as we speak. Soon the preparations will be complete."

Orochimaru swallowed more pills, sweat beading on his forehead. "Hurry with it. This body will only do for a couple more days. Naruto-kun is still safely sealed away?"

He fixed his glasses. "Of course, Orochimaru-sama. He's become quite… compliant now. That cage suits him. I'd suggest you keep him in there longer, to teach him a lesson."

Orochimaru chuckled at that, leaning back into his bed. "Now, now. He makes a good set piece, don't you think Kabuto-kun? Otogakure may be but a pawn to the Five Nations, but with Naruto-kun… we are rather akin to a Knight, or a Queen, no?"

Kabuto nodded, his head bowed.

"Naruto-kun has no one left to turn to," Orochimaru continued, lifting a glass to the light. "He is quite alone in the world. Let us keep him soft. He's taken quite a liking to Kimimaro-kun… so perhaps my new container will make defection difficult."

He sipped a little at his water. "Or it shall make him angrier than ever. It will be clear soon enough."

"No one at all," Kabuto said. "Is Naruto-kun truly entirely alone?"

"Most likely," said Orochimaru thoughtfully. "Karin of the North base is undoubtedly a distant relative. But I have never encountered another Uzumaki. Truly, you would have had a field day, Kabuto-kun. I hear they were an extraordinary people before the untimely destruction of their homeland.

"It's quite an unreachable place, however. I never found the map, even after years of searching." Orochimaru placed down his glass with a shaky hand, then lifting a shivering hand to his forehead. "This body is failing me. Hurry."

"Of course, Orochimaru-sama." Kabuto bowed, before quickly making to exit.


"Yes, Orochimaru-sama?"

"What happened to your glasses?"

Kabuto let a little smile quirk his expression. "I broke them. An accident."

"Clumsy," said Orochimaru.

"Yes," said Kabuto. "Very clumsy of me indeed."

Chapter Text

Dear Sakura,

I'm not writing to you to talk about Naruto, so I hope you will respond.

There was an incident in Suna the other day – it's confidential, so I can't tell you by messenger bird. But I am returning home.

I will visit Suna again someday. It's nice here. But I'm looking forward to seeing you.

I made jounin here, and I heard you made rank too a while back from Ino. I don't know if Konoha are going to recognise it officially or not, what with taking them externally, so I might have some administrative difficulty when I arrive. I hope it's been working out for you.

I've missed you, and Kakashi. So I hope we can go out for dinner when I get home. I'll pay, and you can pick where we go.

Take care of yourself.


Tsunade dragged her mahogany chair to the middle of the room before responding to Sakura, and Ino sat on the desk, running through her fingers through her long hair with a nervous disposition. Sakura felt like they were going to tell her that her mother had died – or that she had cancer. Something similarly dire. She supposed it was quite dire.

"The Third was killed by Orochimaru in the Oto invasion," Tsunade said, her brows knotted. "I'm sorry I have to tell you like this."

Sakura felt like her heart fell to the pit of her stomach. "Killed? The Third was-"

"Damn good is what he was," Tsunade snapped, biting her lips, and massaging her temples. "He taught me. Sarutobi was a damn good man, and I feel like a fucking fool for not being in Konoha to do something at least. In a straight fight, Orochimaru wouldn't have won. But he's a conniving bastard, and he had the advantage. It's not like Orochimaru invaded Konoha to engage in a fair fight. If I'd been here...

"But I wasn't here." Tsunade let out a sigh, and leaned back in her chair, looking watery-eyed. "I was gambling, somewhere- God knows where. I don't know even know where I was when he would have died. A messenger came from Konoha eventually, from the Elders, asking me to come ask as substitute Hokage until an appropriate substitute could be found. If I came, the Elders would pay off my debt. If I didn't, they'd tell the debtors where I was. So I came, and I am here. If you didn't know, I had a horrendous gambling addiction and I was in a hell of a lot of debt. It wasn't really a choice."

Sakura stared, feeling dumbfounded. "I see. So you're… Tsunade of the Sannin. I've heard of you. You were… Orochimaru's teammate."

"Don't call me that," Tsunade muttered. She fumbled for a bottle of sake she didn't have by her feet, her hands grasping at the air, and then she sighed pulling it back to her lap. "I was Sarutobi's student. I hadn't seen Orochimaru in a long time. A very long time. I was doing my very best to hopefully never see him again. Anyone from here, actually."

Ino was braiding her hair through her fingers, anxious. The air of the office was sweltering somehow, with that gentle autumn heat.

"In the end though," Tsunade murmured, "I took you on as my apprentice. You proved you were, well. Exceptional. I taught you in those years you don't remember. You were a focused and fantastic student.

"Your teammate, Uzumaki Naruto, is much more complicated. Much more personal. If your teammate Satsuki was here, I would have her explain it to you, but she went on a trip to Suna for training. Fan experts and so on. It was an offer that the Kazekage's children made to Satsuki after the entire incident, and given that we didn't want to lose friendship of Sunagakure in that… time of political weakness, it worked out."

The new Hokage looked genuinely dumbfounded, rubbing her forehead and leaning back in her chair. "I wasn't even there for that," she muttered. "Yamanaka, can you-"

"Of course, Tsunade-sama. Just a second, " Ino gushed, rushing back to Tsunade's desk and pulling out a bottle.

Tsunade, despite herself, laughed. "No, I- uh, I didn't mean that," she chuckled, waving Ino off. "I meant that you know more about this than I do. I'm going to speak to Shizune about making a full examination of Sakura, testing her working memory and so on to measure the full extent of the amnesia. Could you go over this?"

Ino blinked, putting down the bottle. "Oh- yeah, of course."

Tsunade leaned over then. Although it seemed Sakura knew her well, there was barely a flicker of recognition as she looked into her honey brown eyes. Those eyes sparkled with tears, a wistful smile and a forlorn look to her as she ran her eyes over Sakura's features. What affection could she offer this woman who'd she never seen before now? But the Hokage looked at her with such real feeling.

"I'm really sorry, Sakura," said Tsunade, squeezing her shoulder. "I'll do all I can for you. But I'm sorry for this awful news when you're already going through all of this. I'll get Shizune and we'll figure out what to do. Yamanaka, the rest's for you."

Tsunade stood upright, pulled her green coat from her desk and left, walking from the office. Then it was just Ino and Sakura.

Ino's company should have felt more comfortable than the company of a stranger, but it was more similar than Sakura would have liked. The longer she looked at Ino, fumbling behind the desk, the more she felt like she was in a foreign world: Ino was similar enough to be familiar, but not similar enough to be the girl she knew. She had gone through puberty, sure - tall enough to be a walk-about jounin – but not only was she not the Ino that Sakura knew, Sakura wasn't the Sakura she knew either. Foreign scars, foreign muscle, even. But Ino had foreign maturity as she sat in front of her, and she'd shared moments with Sakura that Sakura herself couldn't even remember. Either she knew Sakura better than Sakura knew herself, or she was seeing a ghost. Neither felt good.

"So," Ino began, sitting down on Tsunade's seat. She crossed her legs. "Can you walk me through the last things you remember? Just - y'know, so I know where to start."

Sakura nodded, and walked Ino through what she remembered. It was fuzzy in parts, horribly clear in others. She remembered the whole bloody mess, the awfulness, the way Suna betrayed them, the way Ino went ahead the way she did – watching her back – and she knew no feeling like it. Now it was far off, like Sakura had felt many feelings after it, but they were gone now. She was she.

"Well," said Ino, nodding, "What happened after that whole incident was… well, since Satsuki stopped Naruto from killing Gaara then and there, that was a pretty big fracture. They started fighting, not talking to each other for a while. We tried to patch things up – you really tried, super hard. But it just didn't work. We made a last ditch effort on the Fourth's festival day, but Naruto ended up defecting. You tried to stop him – Satsuki did too – and Naruto, well. He kicked the shit out of Satsuki, particularly, but he broke your ankle pretty bad. And then he was gone, to Orochimaru."

"To Orochimaru."

"To Orochimaru, yeah." Ino sighed, shaking her head. "I'm sorry."

"I'm not getting this," said Sakura. "I'm not… why would Naruto go to Orochimaru?"

Ino sat back, frowning and letting out a long breath, a trail of blonde hair on her lip. "I'm not sure. I couldn't tell you why exactly. But when I used my Shintenshin on him, I honestly saw things that made me wonder – not about his sanity, but about just how much he was seeing. I think Naruto thought about things more than he ever let on."

"What difference does that make?" Sakura said, feeling detached almost. "I still don't understand. Is there something I'm missing?"

"I think," Ino began, crossing her arms, "and full disclosure, you were never satisfied with, or y'know - well, you never really believed this. But Satsuki told me – and you – that Naruto told her before she left, that he was going to kill Orochimaru. And that was why he went.

"When I used my Shintenshin on him, I saw a lot of stuff that would make sense if that was what he wanted to do. He seemed obsessed with, well, people. Mizuki-sensei from the academy and… Hinata, particularly. I know they both died thanks to Orochimaru, if by proxy. So it makes sense he would want to go and stab him in the back using that offer he got. I don't think the Third's death helped either."

That made more sense, Sakura supposed. She nodded slowly. "But you're saying I never believed that."

"No, you didn't," Ino confirmed. "You thought it was cheap if it was true, and maybe not true at all – that Satsuki was lying to make you forgive him. You told me you thought it might be to dissuade you from hating him."

Sakura didn't say anything.

"So I don't want to lie to you," said Ino, "make you… you know, forget about that. That was your vendetta, and you're entitled to it."

"Yeah, I get it. Thanks." Sakura didn't know what to think. That explained the cutting in her room. Those letters – maybe she needed to see those.

Ino sat back in the chair, exhaling deeply and pulling her hair from its tie. It was a long stream of blonde now, reaching far past the seat of the chair as she scraped it into a fresh ponytail.

"So," Sakura said, moving on awkwardly. Even fidgeting in this foreign body wasn't comforting: every motion felt new and strange like she was wearing prosthetics. "I heard from the doctors after I woke up that I was on a jounin mission when I got that head injury, so I know about that, but… I don't know much else about it. Also, I made jounin?"

"You did, yeah." Ino looked pained. "We were on a mission. It was to investigate Orochimaru's hideout for a later retrieval for Naruto – just espionage. But it went wrong, Orochimaru's guys clocked us, and we had to get out. But you got concussed hard, really bad head injury on the way out, and me, and everybody else had to pull you out. It was a failure in pretty much every respect, actually, because the intel we got afterwards from the area was the Orochimaru left almost immediately, and probably Naruto with him."

"Did we find Naruto?" Sakura frowned.

Ino shook her head.

Now that sounded strange to Sakura. She felt sure, not certain or anywhere close, but there was something – she remembered Naruto in strange clothes, older. Was she imagining it? A month long dream?

"You're sure?" she repeated, looking Ino in the eyes. "There's no way I could have met with him – I definitely never saw him?"

"Nah, I don't think so," Ino said, shaking her head. "You weren't really separated from us – we were even together when you got injured."

"Huh." Sakura frowned. "Who's 'we'? Like, was someone else there on that mission?"

"Yeah, there was a guy, but I honestly don't know his real name," Ino chuckled, looking a little sad. "It was a guy from ROOT, you know Danzo's division? He didn't actually have a name. He had us call him Sai. No surname or anything. Think he had a number before he came there. A real weirdo, but not a bad guy. Seems kinda screwed up that Danzo is allowed to do that to people."

Sakura stared at Ino, the ghostly older girl who was looking at her with a careful affection. She had no idea what to think. Who was she? What had happened? Why did she feel so uncomfortable?

"This is a lot," she said at last.

"Well, ask me anything you need to ask me!" Ino motioned to herself with a flourish. "Reconstruct yourself, y'know? I'll try and tell you the truth about everything."

"You'll try, huh."

"I sure will," Ino winked.

Tsunade came in with a creak of the door, Shizune at her foot. "Sorry," she said. "Figured you'd be done. The wound there is fairly cut and dry, it's just the reason it happened that's complex."

"Complex is an understatement," said Sakura, rubbing her head. "I don't think I understand it at all."

Tsunade nodded, walking behind her desk as Shizune fumbled with papers on the other side of the room. "Well, if we knew why people defected, I'm sure it wouldn't really happen as much as it does. Anyway, I need a drink."

Ino looked to Tsunade, about to stand up and pour her one when Tsunade lifted a hand. "It's quite alright. Sit down. I'll pour us all a drink for Sarutobi."

"Hokage-sama, I'm not-" began Sakura.

"Legal?" Tsunade finished, raising an eyebrow. She scoffed, setting out three choko cups from her second drawer. They were embellished with sparrows on their sides, and clean as a button. She picked the bottle up from below the desk. "Well, not technically. But let me tell you, Sarutobi Hiruzen could throw 'em back with the rest of us. Let's have a cup to him."

Sakura nodded slowly, and Tsunade poured with a deft hand, one, two, three, four. She pulled over Shizune, and passed her a cup as well.

"To Sarutobi-sensei," Tsunade said, "The Third Hokage, a strict teacher, and a man with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and an endless trust in the good of man. May the Will of Fire you nurtured in your lifetime burn through this country, so someday from the ashes might rise a man like you again."

"To the Third," said Sakura, lifting her choko. The four of them clinked choko, sake spilling from cup to cup, and drank.

Satsuki did not enjoy the Kazekage's office. It was more of a meeting room, filled with ominous statues of the previous Kazekage's looming on the walls. It was as lightless as a bunker, and filled with – usually – decrepit old men. Next to baby-faced Gaara, who was carefully situated near the statue of his father, the room felt cult-like.

The Intelligence Division's leader coughed, continuing through his notes. Satsuki snapped to attention.

"We don't, unfortunately, have many specifics on the Akatsuki as an organisation," the Intelligence Division went on. "The poison used on the border patrol is likely to belong to Sasori. However, we don't have enough information to determine the scope of the organisation, how many members, and their goal. Konoha corroborated Uchiha Satsuki-san's account that they are likely to be chasing the Jinchuuriki, but it seems that Konoha and the other nations are keeping most of the information they have under their belt. Reports from Kumo and Kiri confirm…"

Satsuki considered herself patient, but she was always impressed at Gaara's patience. He was simply very focused.

"So," Temari interrupted. Satsuki could still see the smears of her late-night makeup. "What do you advise we do next? I get that we don't know enough about the Akatsuki to track them, or prevent this from happening again. But what if it does happen again? Are we supposed to be twiddling our thumbs, or what? One skilled bomber almost vaporised our town. If Gaara wasn't here, Suna would be molten rock-!"

The head of the Intelligence Division nodded, looking alarmed, but Gaara raised a hand, looking a little tired. "Thank you for your concern, Temari," Gaara said, inclining his head, and then turned to the head of Intelligence. "And thank you for your report as well, Kamakura-sama. Council: what do you make of this, then?"

The Council obviously had something to make of this: Gaara was too young, they needed someone experienced, and so on. Also, what was a young Uchiha from Konoha doing in the office of the Kazekage, some might call it treasonous! Those Uchiha were known for a disposition to violence, a history of instability one might say… but Gaara's asking put the Council under a pointed scrutiny. Satsuki, in particular, kept a firm gaze on the older woman Miyajima, who had a tendency to bring up these things.

"Suna has always been an independent nation," began Miyajima, keeping her gaze firmly away from Satsuki.

"However, after the Oto invasion failure, it is safe to say relations with Konoha are of utmost importance, and Konoha's goodwill in espionage and in diplomacy are eminent." The slightly older council member, Nakano, tapped the table. "We cannot underestimate the powers Konoha has. Sasori made evident that our borders, along with our weaknesses, have been circulated, and that spies have entered our territories. We will be better off in every way if we communicate this threat thoroughly to Konohagakure, if not every nation. We may get information, and the act of goodwill might allow us to get into better positions for future negotiations."

Miyajima, with visible displeasure, sighed, the lines working around her mouth as she ground her teeth.

"Then are we decided?" said Gaara. "I will send a bird to Konoha, our trusted ally, about these proceedings. Uchiha Satsuki-san, our esteemed Konoha contact, should pen this letter as a sign of our goodwill, in the Konoha cipher."

No one dissented, so Gaara nodded to the scribe, who began quickly noting the new direction.

"Furthermore," said Gaara, "Uchiha Satsuki-san is returning home soon, after her trip. This will consolidate our goodwill with Konoha – they will know she is well, and we can send accompanying persons to inform Konoha in detail of our situation. My sister Temari should be ideal, as she is present, participated fully and should be able to update the Hokage fully on the situation without compromising on our administration."

Nakano nodded, as did the various other clan heads. "That works well, Gaara-sama," he said. "Satsuki-san, please work on that letter as soon as you can, and we should prepare for the trip to Konoha sooner than expected as well. This situation is dire, certainly, but politically the consequences we could face could be far worse than anything so far."

Nods came from around the table, and with Gaara's adjournment, they all began to leave. Miyajima, the older woman, shook her head, still sat at the great stone table.

Gaara bowed respectfully. "Miyajima-sama, is something wrong?"

"No," she said, sighing. "It astounds me."

The other council members continued packing away, bustling amongst each other as they set about their established tasks, but Miyajima sat still, and as she did, so did Gaara, who sat back down in the seat just beside her.

"Do you disagree with my ruling?" he said.

Miyajima shook her head. "No," she said. "You've bloomed like a rose through rock. That's the insult of it."

Gaara was quiet, but nodded.

"You've become such a respectable Kazekage, even despite your age," she said. "Perhaps age really is just a number, and I'm not just told that whenever I go shopping on my own. It's amazing how a young man like you can do what you do."

She stood upright, straightening the scroll of notes in front of her and putting it away. "Few will thank you for what you did last night," she said, "because we are a meritocracy, and you are expected to be the best of the best. But you were sublime. Thank you for protecting us all. I know you could be doing many, far worse things with that power of yours – I think you taught us that."

"And I wish I hadn't," said Gaara. "But thank you all the same, Miyajima-sama."

Kimimaro was prepared to become Orochimaru's new body, having been covered in the appropriate seals. When Naruto came to him, laying in that sterile room, Kimimaro had looked somehow empty, docile beneath crumpled sheets.

"Hey," whispered Naruto. "You're gonna become Orochimaru's new vessel tomorrow, huh?"

Kimimaro gave him a slow nod, detaching his gaze from Naruto and lifting it to the ceiling again. "Yes," he said quietly. "It's my greatest pleasure to be of service to Orochimaru-sama."

The words made Naruto's heart sink, but he smiled anyway. "Let's go outside, then."


He shrugged, opening a hand to Kimimaro. "Why not? It might be the last time you ever get the chance to, as you, yourself. I've never seen Orochimaru stop to admire the scenery. Dunno, maybe he does- never seen it though."

Kimimaro gave him a long look, with those pale green eyes that brought out the red rings around them. He didn't say anything, shake his head, sigh or roll his eyes; he was different to say Satsuki, or Kakashi, that did show their exasperation with him. Kimimaro wasn't like that. He was difficult to read, and Naruto's only real skill in the world was understanding other people.

Even so, the boy took Naruto's hand, climbing off his gurney and following him into the hall. They slipped past corner after corner in silence, the only sound the soft scuffling of their feet. Turn after turn they passed, torch after torch blown out as they walked and walked and walked. Soon they saw the dim white light of the moon gaping through the exit, and quietly Naruto pushed through.

The gibbous moon was waning, peeking through misty clouds like a smoke-shrouded face; most fantastically, there was snow, coming down in thick, shapeless flakes. Naruto held little snowflakes like amorphous little ships upon the air, chunks of cotton.

Kimimaro caught a flake in the palm of his hand. As it met his warm skin, it seemed to crumple and wither away, collapsing like an icy nest of sticks melting into the lines of his palm. Proof of life, he thought. Proof I'm alive.

"They don't really have snow like this in Konoha, y'know," Naruto said quietly, as they walked into the glade ahead. Their bare feet tracked hefty tracks into the snow, the loose material pulling on the blanket of white. "I've seen it once when I was a kid, but… it's more humid there. Green. Like here, but a little less dry."

Kimimaro nodded slowly, the moon reflecting on his eyes. Naruto couldn't see where he was looking exactly, so he looked away, kneeling down to grab a handful of snow from where it had buried itself between tufts of grass. He crushed it, and it melded to the form of his hand, turning to ice: he pulled together an armful of snow, and pressed it into a snowball.

"Hey," he said, grinning and dropping it smarmily into Kimimaro's hands. "For you."


"I've never been in a snowball fight," Naruto said, motioning to his chest. "Go on, launch it! Gimme that patented Kimimaro overhand. Give me chest pain so bad Kabuto has to use, uh, the shrethoscope."

Kimimaro looked at him as Naruto pulled back through the snow, the falling flakes concealing his form a little. But as Naruto knelt down to gather a snowball of his own, Kimimaro did pull back, that familiar form of his as he pulled back his arm and slung the snowball into his ribs. The force of it sent him onto his back, knocking the tree behind him and sending a fresh cascade of snow from the branches into the clearing.

So Naruto gathered another snowball and threw it back; Kimimaro gathered his own, throwing it at Naruto with brutal force. Over and over again they wounded each other, until Naruto was breathless from laughter and even Kimimaro was keeled over a little, holding his knees. They both sat down in the snow, the stars twinkling through the snow clouds here and there, a flurry of flakes still pushing its way down to the ground. The glade was no longer filled with discernible footsteps: just piles of disturbed snow. The cold turned to wetness against Naruto and Kimimaro's legs, but still they sat beneath the trees, staring at the stars.

"Naruto-kun," said Kimimaro at last. "Why are we outside?"

It was something Naruto didn't even know how to broach with Kimimaro: that question of loyalty. But he liked Kimimaro. He wanted to stay with Kimimaro. He stared, then he looked at his hands, ignoring the cold water sticking his clothes to his legs, ignoring the bark of the tree at his back. He scratched his head.

"Are you really okay with this?"

"What?" Kimimaro was really looking at him. Naruto felt like he never really was. He was always looking somewhere else: but no. This time, he was definitely looking at Naruto.

"Are you really, really okay," Naruto whispered, "with like- leaving all of this behind?"

Kimimaro didn't get angry, nor did he yell or walk away. He lay there, as still as Naruto, his breath in cold puffs in front of him. "Yeah," he said.

"Did you uh, have a good life?"

Kimimaro smiled, ducking his head and lifting up a handful of snow. He lifted it right before his eyes, staring at the softness of the snow. Naruto felt, as he always felt around Kimimaro, that Kimimaro was so barely there: a spectre.

"I didn't see snow until I was older," said Kimimaro, and he was laughing, just a little. "Really, Naruto-kun. I'd heard about it. Someone told me that it was frozen water, from the sky. So I thought of little blocks of ice, crumbling down from the clouds like a rockslide. I was kept inside a long time, so I didn't see it until they were… gone, and I was free. I was not truly free."

He cupped the snow with both hands, lifting it before his eyes. The moonlight made it sparkle, little snowflakes catching the light for just a split second. "I thought it would be hard, or maybe slippery. But… it's like it isn't even there at all. It's so soft, but I can't feel it. When I can feel it, it's already melting. I can walk through it like water, it melts like ice. It sparkles like water, but I can throw it. When it hits the ground, it's completely silent, and it holds footprints like soft dirt…"

Kimimaro tilted his hands to the left, then to the right, then back again; the light sparkled from his diminishing little cup of snow, like a large gem deposit catching the moonlight.

"When I saw that snow for the first time, I realised that our lives are so inscrutable and small," he said. "Even if I lived forever, up until the day I died I would have countless moments of such wonder. Those moments where I could see the irregular, senseless form of the world. Like snow, those moments pass so quickly. Like a snowflake, or like a flower, I will die, and my life will be a mere snowflake in a flurry of wonder, and I will someday be forgotten as I am known now. One day no one alive will know my face.

"Orochimaru wants to learn everything, know everything, own it through his manifested understanding. He wants to remember others, to be known and not remembered. That is a fine life for him. But it's not what I want." Kimimaro parted his fingers, ice cold water trickling through. "Moments are moments because they end. The transience of these moments is what makes them so marvellous. The nature of things to hide themselves from us – that one day I will be a dust, inside of a tree or a fox, that will maybe bear structure to a house or feed a hunter. I am a servant to that unknowable world, and to Orochimaru-sama, who gave me the life to see it. I'm comforted by the fact I will be forgotten, Naruto-kun. I'm comforted by how much I truly do not matter in the end."

Naruto was quiet beside him. Kimimaro never talked. Now he did, what was there for it? That wasn't a logic Naruto could understand. His life was him, there was no bigger picture. He'd realised that when he saw people dying in front of him: that he had to live. That that was all there was. That wasn't it for Kimimaro, but he could at least appreciate the guy.

It was with a deep satisfaction that Naruto observed Kimimaro wouldn't get what he wanted. Kimimaro would live, and witness the world. And Orochimaru would die, and become one with the dirt.

"And what would you do if Orochimaru was gone, and there was just you?" said Naruto. "Just you, living a life. Where would you go? Who would you be?"

Kimimaro didn't shift, his bare feet buried numb in the snow. "Only God knows," he said. "But I would be me."

The evening was hot red with twilight.

Suna's sandstone buildings became like a terracotta town with the sunset, and as the skin spread black at the other edge of the desert, and the moon shone dimly like a white talc fingerprint on a dark blanket. Satsuki admired it from her small apartment balcony, a protected cove of stone that was not as sprawling or makeshift as Konoha's homes. Everything in Suna was built to last, to weather storms and to do so as economically as possible. Paint on buildings was soon worn away, so people learned to make the beauty of their homes less permanent. Sunagakure was a place where people didn't stick to tradition to the detriment of efficiency, but when the sun set like this and the day began to cool, it was brighter and more beautiful than any place in the Five Nations.

As the night bloomed in Suna, someone began to play a koto in the square and carried its tune with an accompanying song. The town was humming with people. Though it was past afternoon, it was as busy as noon in Konoha: the days didn't start as early in Suna, and when they did, people took break from midday to early afternoon to avoid the blistering sunlight. People worked in the evenings, and spent as much time as they could in the evening light to appreciate Suna's most beautiful and habitable time of day.

Today was Thursday, and it was Oyasumi, the holiday of relaxation here. People didn't necessarily take Thursdays off, but they did try to make time to enjoy the events that people held those days. Temari, Gaara and Kankurou were avid participants, but Kankurou was away from the village: even so, Satsuki knew she may not be back for a long time, and so she headed to the village gates, to see the events.

She walked through the town, hot evening air dotted with an evening breeze that pushed a gentle speckling of sand onto her cheeks. The buildings all around had their washing strung between the alleyways, great loose trails of red, blue, yellow material billowing from the white webs. The sun turned white to red. Everything was hot and red at this rare time of day, no more than an hour of this warmth. Satsuki savoured it as she walked to the gates: Konoha had nothing like it, no red eye on the horizon that shone down until the earth forced it below.

The familiar border guard, Haruko, nodded at her from the gate's booth with a smile. "Out to see Gaara-sama?"

"All of it, really," said Satsuki. Suna was stricter about this kind of thing than Konoha, but Satsuki was distinctive looking here, and she was almost as well-known here as in Konoha because she had sat the jounin exams here, with some controversy. But many liked her, and she had no complaints about her treatment. Haruko particularly never gave her any trouble.

Haruko scribbled on the paper quickly, and passed it to Satsuki, who tucked the receipt into her pocket with a nod. "Have fun! Tell me who wins the Sandsurfing, by the way."

"I will," said Satsuki.

Out Satsuki went. The great sprawling desert was blinding in the midday, but now it was just monotone, like a simple painting. But out to the north west of the gate were great big tents for Oyasumi, a small market, competitions, and Gaara had – as was customary – shifted a massive dune of sand to make for the sandsurfing competitions. It had a habit of wearing out if left be, so Gaara moved it for the occasion. Satsuki walked over: even this tiny bit of sun exposure used to kill her, but now she wore thin, loose and dark clothes, and she was much cooler for it. The tent grew in size, and she could hear the people jostling.

The market was tucked beneath the bright purple tent, and was to the brim with people. Makeshift tables and stools were all about, and up to the right people lugged great big windsurfing boards up the slope with difficulty. It was a steep walk, and those things were by no means light. Satsuki could smell the stalls of fruits – sugared plums, fresh dates, and there was cold coffee, too. Most of it was far too sweet for her, but it was nice all the same.

It was the windsurfing for now, while it was still sunny enough to see what they were doing. Satsuki wove her way through the throngs of the tent to the other side, where Temari among others lined up for the sandsurfing. Throngs of people sat on stone stands beside the competition, where there had, before Satsuki had arrived, been a couple other competitions – but Satsuki, quite frankly, wouldn't come out to endure that much sunlight if she could help it. Not even if this was her last Oyasumi in the country.

She reached the stands, seeing Temari lining up to compete and seeing Gaara, clothes billowing, at the top. She strode up beside the slope's track, doing her best to stay out of the way, and gave them both a nonchalant wave.

"Hey," she said to Gaara.

Gaara nodded. "Good to see you."

"You didn't call this off."

"This may be your last Oyasumi here with us," said Gaara, frowning softly. "And of course, I think people need these celebrations in times of anxiety more than ever. But, of course, you are my friend, and the village is the village. No one resents an extra celebration – I hope."

"Perhaps the budgeters do."

Gaara shook his head. "It costs nothing more than my time and effort," he said, motioning to the dune itself. "And it is a nice break. That is the idea of Oyasumi, after all."

"So it is." Satsuki turned to Temari, who was stretching her waist and pulling her legs up behind her one at a time to warm up. "Are you feeling confident?"

"No," Temari sniffed. "But I usually don't, so maybe that's a good sign. I'm just excited."

Satsuki nodded, putting her hands in her pockets and letting Temari get back to her stretching. She turned to Gaara. "You didn't displace any bodies when you moved the dune this time, did you?"

"Forgive me, but I think I'll choose to-" Gaara coughed, "sweep that incident under the rug."

Satsuki smirked, putting her hands in her pockets. "Miyajima and the rest of them are only making a stink because they know it makes you look bad."

"It doesn't help that they were bleached skeletons who had been there for perhaps decades," sighed Gaara, sitting down on a perfectly melded sand chair. With a small lift of his hand, one drew itself up beside him, and Satsuki settled into it. "I'm sure they're older than me."

"Seems likely."

"Still," he said, turning to Satsuki with a gentle smile. "That's a dark topic for now. We must celebrate, to ensure that we're well worn for the time we may spend apart."

"Could be a while."

"It could indeed," nodded Gaara. "I'm sure I will see you, or you will visit, but perhaps we won't spend such leisurely time together until better time has passed, and you've brought Uzumaki Naruto back to his hometown."

The ease with which Gaara brought Naruto up soothed Satsuki, more than anything. With other friends, it was though his name was a duck egg: too delicate to be tossed about, too heavy to be ignored. Gaara was easy with it, and it made it feel – to Satsuki – as though Naruto was still about, just stomping his feet in a huff somewhere.

Satsuki let her eyes wander to the slopes, flurrying with dust as a breeze cast over its curve. "I think so. I still have to bring him home."

Gaara nodded his head at her. "You will bring him home. There may be trials and tribulations, but I have faith in you. As we did yesterday, and as I made it to this title, it is difficult, but it will be done. What of your friend Sakura?"

That was, for no one but Satsuki, a much heavier name than Naruto right now. Naruto, she had a vague idea of what he might be doing. Sakura? None. Ino gave her a vague overview when she responded – no one else was really in contact with her. She had sent that recent letter to Sakura, and still no response. That at least, was a burden she would shed in Konoha – worrying for her teammate.

"Nothing yet," Satsuki said. "But I'll help her myself. With whatever it is, as soon as I'm home."

"Then that is one worry shed," said Gaara, and he poured her a small cold coffee from a pitcher, and lifted his own to her. "Good oyasumi to you."

"Good oyasumi to you too."

As they watched, Temari winked as she lodged her feet into the windboard. Satsuki could see her muscles pulling taut and relaxing as she clung onto it, lodging herself firmly into the sand as she waited for the whistle to below. Competitors lined up along the row, all perfectly poised like a spread deck of cards, women and men all wielding that wild looking equipment.

The whistle blew, and Satsuki covered her eyes to avoid the spray of sand that came hurtling towards them.

The crowd was roaring. The competitors cut lines into the sand like a calligrapher cuts lines into paper, effortless at every turn, sand sheering away into a fine dust: clouds of it whipped across the audience like a storm. Temari was focused, her curled hair pulling behind her as she tugged the windboard back, veering across the field and cutting ahead.

A girl, black with a white board and an illustrious blue headscarf, pulled ahead as well. They soared down the curve, sloping and cutting into the sand down the slope with unforgiving speed. The heat was gone, the sun was gone, it was just boards that disappeared into the distance like fast-flying paper boats. Despite it all, a petite young boy with a board that dwarfed him caught the breeze at the end, cutting to first as he glided across the line.

Temari hurtled past the line too, the other girl close behind, and after Temari had crashed into a barrier and destroyed her windsurfer, they shook hands amicably and Temari forlornly trawled towards Gaara and Satsuki as they came down the slope to greet her. The crowd was still seated, waiting for the juniors race.

"Very interesting play, Temari," said Gaara, eyeing Temari's savaged windsurfer curiously.

"Don't appreciate this attitude," she muttered. "Wasn't like I broke it out of anger, I just lost control when that other guy took me by surprise."

"He must be younger than you," said Satsuki.

"They've got an advantage!" she sighed, rolling her eyes. "Small people basically float depending on the weather. We should have a rule about keeping your board on the ground."

Gaara had a teasing smile on his face. "You were excellent, Temari."

Temari huffed, pulling the board toward her as they headed to the tent. "Hope you're not rigging it against me by moving the sand under my feet."

"People will be unhappy if they realise I can do that," he said. "Don't tell people that."

"I won't, I won't," said Temari, grinning. "Providing your birthday presents are good enough. Let's go get some snacks."

As they headed to the tent, Temari bought her favourite snack of the day - a cream filled pancake, fried quickly and sprinkled with crushed nuts, called kataiefu - and they sat under a small pavilion, watching as the sun set.

"So you'll have the Chuunin exams without me, then," said Satsuki.

Gaara nodded. "It seems so. But perhaps I'll invite you to serve as proctor. It may to serve the bias accusations we get from other villages when we do almost anything." He took a small plum sweet and chewed on it slowly. "Then again, perhaps not. We may just get more accusations of favouring our allies."

"Maybe you do," said Temari, eating the kataiefu. "Would you invite Otogakure to proctor here?"

Gaara scoffed. The pavilion rustled with a gentle wind; the sun was a mere blip now, its edges spurring the edge of the horizon and shining upwards. A single strip of clouds was luminous above it, pink edges beaming. "If our father was alive, he might make a worse showing of diplomacy than Orochimaru."

Temari hummed. "Probably."

They finished their food, and for a time Gaara went to the other pavilions, to speak with people and make well with them. Satsuki and Temari ate quietly. Temari said about this competition or other, just small talk, until Gaara returned, the sun was silence, and it was time to go. They walked home.

"Who won the sandsurfing?" said Haruko at the gates.

Satsuki shrugged, but Gaara spoke. "It was Sanjima's son. He made quite a showing."

"Oh, that is impressive," whistled Haruko, scribbling on the receipt as she took it back from Satsuki. "But he is very good."

Temari lowered her windboard below the booth inconspicuously, looking a little sullen.

They bade Haruko goodnight, and headed home.

"What're you going to do then, Satsuki?"

"Start clearing out my home," she said, strolling through the emptying streets. "We're going sooner than I thought, so I'm going to get to it."

"Mm," said Temari. "Good plan. You could leave it last minute though."

Satsuki rolled her eyes. "Yes, that's a very good idea."

They reached the parting, and Temari stretched, lifting her board over her shoulders and sighing. "Well, I'm going to head to Kitanaka's and see what he can do for this board. Or just leave it there for parts. We'll see. I'll see you on the day we go, Satsuki, if we don't meet before then."

Satsuki lifted a hand. "See you then."

Temari hauled the board off, giving her a wide wave as she parted. Gaara, however, stood for a moment beside Satsuki, giving her a long look.

"You enjoyed Suna?" he asked.

"I haven't left yet," she said, "but yes. It was very nice. Very different, but nice."

"Your training will be useful to you?"

"No doubt. The tessenjutsu here is different, but I have no doubts it'll help me."

Gaara nodded. "That's good to hear."

They were quiet a moment.

"I may not see you before your leaving day," he said, "so take this."

He took out a small, palm-sized frame, with a single desert rose pressed in its glass. They were unusual blooms - Satsuki had seen one in the greenhouses there, but nowhere else. They were difficult to cultivate, and most likely kept indoors, she thought; its bloom was bigger than she had realised, taking up almost the entire frame with its pink, fluorescent glow.

She took the frame from him, a simple wooden border, and looked at the pressed flower, dry and perfected.

"Thank you," she said, feeling strange.

"When I met you, Uchiha Satsuki," he said, "I was not in the place I am now, as we both know."

Gaara certainly looked different, too. He met her eyes completely, but looked a little distant too. He was a friend: he was at peace with himself enough to be a friend, which Satsuki had learned - through Naruto, Kakashi, Sakura, and everyone else who had tolerated her - that that was not always the case.

"I was struggling with my mind, and my status, and my past. I couldn't find myself because I couldn't acknowledge what had happened. I saw myself in you and Uzumaki Naruto. You were both tormented, and you both struggled. One of you planted roots, and one of you went north. It was not something I understood at the time, and it took me a time to understand what had really happened."

"You taught me, Satsuki," he said, "that this struggle may never disappear, but if I fight, it can become a smaller part of me. That despite the… damage, I can make roots.

"I'm grateful to you for that."

Satsuki stared, but shook her head in the end. "No," she said. "You taught me something too. Thanks to you, even if it was through your mistakes, I realised that revenge - that hurting other people wasn't going to alleviate my own pain at all. That I will hold onto it forever. I'd become fixated with the idea that some measure of killing would fix that pain. It won't. This pain has scarred me. It lives in me.

"The fact that I still feel it," she said, feeling choked all of a sudden, in the cooling desert air, "is a sign I still have things left to lose."

Gaara nodded.

"Yes," he agreed. But he turned away then, looking at the set sun, the sky that was now speckling with stars like bugs rising from the moss. "I had thought once, Uchiha Satsuki, that you were a monster made in ice. I thought that of myself too.

"I was wrong. We Suna are forged in fire, and so are you," he said. "My friend. You are welcome here anytime."

Satsuki took his outstretched hand. "I know, Gaara. I'll be back. Anytime."

It hurt.

Orochimaru was not above a bit of pain. He put his patients in pain, and he could happily, if necessary, remain in pain for as long as required for his science. He was a man who believed pain was part of life. So he waited, patiently, for Kabuto to prepare his body today. Kimimaro had recovered, by the grace of science, and so he thought excitedly of that body.

With the Shikotsumyaku, he would be in pain often, he fantasised. He would investigate the use of the jutsu, see how he could potentially give his next bodies such an ability. Perhaps he would harvest cells, with Kabuto's aid, from his spine or bones to make new bodies with the Shikotsumyaku. Clones, whatever was necessary for progress. Once the body was his, such research would be far easier. Wonderful. Kimimaro's graceful body would be his, as he had always hoped.

The candles flickered gently. Stony walls gently illuminated. He could see this body rotting. His arms were no longer fully functional. Walking, even more difficult. Problematic indeed. He needed to perfect this jutsu - make these bodies last longer. Cloning could certainly circumvent this issue, but he needed something new, a better jutsu for preservation. Kabuto was working on that, but Orochimaru was far better at it than he. He was an innovator, a perfect innovator.

Kabuto had been very busy these past few days. Preparing Kimimaro. But Orochimaru felt far weaker than he had during the last body transfers - the body seemed to be rejecting him so rapidly and so fervently. He could barely use chakra at all. But he reassured himself: today was the day. Kimimaro would be ready.

Sweat dripped from his brow. Every ounce of him hurt: his ears pounded with his heartbeat, his breaths came in ragged gasps. Just one more day. Just one more day.

"Kabuto-kun," he rasped. "Kabuto-kun!"

Kabuto rushed in, eager to serve. He bowed deeply. "Orochimaru-sama."

"The body. When will the body be ready?"

"Soon," Kabuto said, bowing even deeper. "Kimimaro will be ready by the end of the night."

Yes, the end of the night, Orochimaru thought fervently. Soon, soon, soon.

"Assist me," he said. "I must shower. The pain is overwhelming."

"Yes, of course." Kabuto came to his side. His glasses were still broken. Testament to the constant work, Orochimaru thought. Kabuto was truly a tireless servant. Such a loyal boy.

Kabuto assisted Orochimaru to his feet, helping Orochimaru to his shower. Quietly he stripped Orochimaru of his clothes as he kept himself steady against the tile, breathing, one, two, it hurt. God, it hurt.

"Kimimaro is almost ready, Kabuto-kun?"

His servant loyally folded his clothes on his seat, pulling the comb out of his hair to let his hair fall free. He crept to the cupboard and found a towel, pulling this over the chair as well. Then Kabuto reached under his arm to gently guide him into the shower, and put on the water, as Orochimaru held the wall and gasped at the fresh wave of ugly pain that the water brought.

As the sweat that furrowed his brow was washed away, pain brought more: it was overwhelmingly painful, excruciating, like his entire skin was burning. Everything hurt. So painful, unbelievably painful. But he would endure. Pain was temporary, he told himself. Unlike Orochimaru. He would endure forever. Body to body, self to self, Orochimaru would be eternal, Orochimaru would outlive the pain-

He howled, gasping from the excruciating sensation. "Kabuto-kun," he got out through his cries.

"Yes, Orochimaru-sama?"

"Kabuto-kun," he gasped. He couldn't take it much longer. "Wash me."

His servant reached for the soap and lathered his hands. He took Orochimaru's hair and ran his hands through it, distributing the lather all through. Then he washed Orochimaru's back and body, gently soaping to wash away the sweat and muck from this ceaseless pain. Every gentle caress was pain unspeakable. The soap itself seemed to sear his crumbling skin.

"I'm," he gasped, "Kabuto-kun. Are you almost done?"

"Almost, Orochimaru-sama," he said. "Please stay under the water a little longer to wash it off."

He could do that, he reminded himself. Pain was temporary. He stared at his hands, pressed firmly against the tile, shaking from the unimaginable agony. It was hot. It was painful. It was acid. It was constant. It was a rain of anguish.

"Kabuto-kun!" he howled at last. "Turn the water off!"

"What, Orochimaru-sama?" Kabuto turned the heat up. "I can't hear you."

"You fool," he hissed, "Turn it off."

"I can't hear you over the water, Orochimaru-sama." His servant walked from the shower, seeing to his towel. "Please stay there a little longer, to properly clean yourself."

It was unbearable. The water was so hot it turned to steam as it struck the tile, every part of him was burning, he could see his skin blistering beneath the stream. No, no, no. He was trembling, a foot slipped-

He stumbled, cracking his head against the tile as he crumpled into the corner. The stream, Kabuto was turning the knob, it came down yet more forceful, so hot, searing-

"Kabuto!" Orochimaru screamed. It was hitting his face now, he could feel his lips swelling, his eyes seared, he scrunched them shut, but it wouldn't stop. He lifted a hand that creaked like an old mechanical joint, it wouldn't obey, he couldn't reach, the water, it was burning-

Kabuto turned up the heat.

"Yes, Orochimaru-sama?" his loyal servant said. His cracked glasses were hot with the heat, he could barely see him at all through the steam. Orochimaru squeezed his eyes shut again, and he clawed the tile for anything, were his fingernails still there? Were they coming off? His skin, he could barely feel it anymore. It all hurt. His tongue lolled from his mouth like a dumbly attached eel.

"Turn… Turn… the heat..! Turn it…"

His devout servant took his glasses from his eyes for a moment, taking the towel and rubbing them in circles along the lenses. They were clean again, and he lifted them to examine them.

"Of course, Orochimaru-sama," said Kabuto.

He turned the heat up. The water was nothing short of lava.

PAIN, now Orochimaru knew it. This was pain. This was the pain that made his patients squirm, that made his enemies beg, that made the great men of the war and of the table and of Konoha screech and wail. The pain that made wild animals eat their own skin. His skin was fire. He was pain made man. Anything. Something. All. One. He would do it all, to stop the pain, to stop the water, to stop the CEASELESS WATER-

"Help me!" Orochimaru clawed for momentum. He couldn't move himself. His body wasn't working anymore. It was pain. His face had swollen. He was going blind. The heat. The water. The heat. The water. Every droplet felt like a hot knife. No, no, no, NO, NO, NO-

Was he dreaming? Was this a dream? Retribution? All of it? Would it end? Ever end?

"Orochimaru-sama," Kabuto said, taking his glasses off to clean again against the towel. His expression was bliss, a peaceful smile he had never seen Kabuto wear. "Speak their names."

The realisation struck him, as he struggled naked, limp against slippery tile, all known skin either crumbled black or blistered red. Fury possessed his heart only a single moment, a desperate fury that did nothing to aid him, a desperate fury that would do nothing to save him. He knew. He knew, he hated himself for knowing, to die here? NO. Someone would revive him, but another him, or perhaps he would flee from here, but this self - it may- it might-

His body rejection medications had been placebos, he realised. That was why he was so ill, why now he could not use a single ounce of chakra to summon his sword or his other form. Kabuto had been dead. It was him.

"Tohru Mizuki," said Uzumaki Naruto, facestealer. He stepped in the shower, Kabuto's face uncomfortably twisting as the scalding water boiled his legs. "Hyuuga Hinata. Sarutobi Hiruzen. Countless other fuckers you've killed."

Skin. Heat. Skin. Heat. SKIN. HEAT. UZUMAKI NARUTO.

"If you can recite all their names," his vision was blackening, but he could see the steam white cracked spectacles still. When had Kabuto died? He was to die like a fool, as Kabuto had died a fool, as countless patients had died fools- skin. Heat. Skin. Heat.

"Recite the names of every person you've killed, and I'll let you live."

Slippery wet. Snake on ice. Couldn't move, couldn't go anywhere, it was sticking to his skin like wet skin on dry ice, peeling away, he could SEE it peeling away! Right there! And Naruto was there then, looking at him one last time, blonde and toothy.

This insult of a child. That accursed face! He should've crushed Minato's spawn the moment he came under his knife. But he loved playing with his food. He couldn't help it. But how he regretted it.

"How dare you," Orochimaru spat, heaving for breath. His breath came in gasps and it was never enough, every intake misted with water so thick it was like drowning. "I'll TEAR YOU APART!"

"No? Can't remember?" Naruto smiled then. "It's a lot of people. I get it, y'know. I was never actually very good at tests."

"Burn in hell, you orphan brat!" Orochimaru howled at the blur of a boy. The steam. The heat. His eyes. His teeth hurt. It was all so hot. All so wet. "May that Nine Tails burn you from the INSIDE OUT!"

"Inside out, huh."

The boy, the facestealer, had killed Kabuto, now he would kill him, shamefully, skin, heat, SKIN, HEAT, Orochimaru's right hand was disintegrating. Blackened skin was splitting beneath the heat and water, it was separating, he could see the bone as he tried to bend a finger, protruding in the joint- curse this bastard-

"Well." The boy stepped from the shower, his legs were blistered too, the hot water ceaseless, was he going into shock? He couldn't die. But thank god the pain would end. He wouldn't die. He couldn't die. He wouldn't give in.

"Take your medicine, Orochimaru-sama."

Uzumaki Naruto, FACESTEALER, turned the knob to its final degree. Orochimaru began to scream, agonising screeches that made his own ears ache. He writhed. He howled. He reached helplessly for the knobs. His limbs trembled beneath his weight, giving out as he reached and reached and reached again. It was all for naught. Lobster in pan. Snail in salt. Ant in oil. Then the names came.


Naruto closed the curtain. Hung the towel on the rail.


Shuffle. Shuffle.


Click went the door.



Footsteps down the hall.


Footsteps fading.


Quieter now.


Sweet silence at last.