It begins with Uchiha Sasuke’s betrothal to Uzumaki Naruto.
Like a painting, tall trees with their rippling canopies and colourful buildings come into view, framed by the slim rectangle opening of the single window. The setting sun is a red ball suspended in the milky purple sky and it is a beautiful sight; a beautiful painting of a glorious setting, but Sasuke feels nothing. The palanquin moves slowly and he kneads his fingers into his thigh muscles to get the blood moving as he continues watching the outside world. Rich browns and every shade of green and dying golden sunlight saturate the scenery, unlike the muted colours of Oto. Behind everything, a mountain ridge carved with six imposing faces loom over the village. It is as though their blank eyes track the progression of their contingent and are staring down at him, seeing straight through him and into his soul.
Sasuke stares right back at the sixth face before leaning back and away from the window. He closes his eyes. The air smells strange — not bad, but unlike anything he’s ever known. It does not smell like something, like wood or grass, because it smells like a feeling . Warm is the first word that comes to mind, even as the sun is falling faster and faster below the horizon.
This is Konohagakure.
There are four other Oto shinobi bearing the palanquin, accompanied by two elite shinobi that flank the father of Otogakure: Orochimaru. Their two-day journey is almost over as they inch closer and closer towards the Hokage Mansion at the heart of Konoha, and once there, Sasuke can finally stretch out his legs and begin his longest mission yet.
Clapping and excited chatter float into the space he’s sequestered in — most likely from excited villagers who line the street, trying to catch their first glimpse of the Sixth Hokage’s new bride. Everyone in the shinobi world knows what Uzumaki Naruto looks like. Very few people know what Uchiha Sasuke looks like. No one, other than Orochimaru and Kabuto, has seen what he looks like now. All they can see is a dark oak palanquin that houses someone important, carved with fine musical notes and inlaid with smooth shards of mother of pearl. Oto has not spared any expense on this farce.
Finally, the palanquin lurches to a stop. It’s time. Sasuke gathers up the red veil by his side and adjusts it over his head as the chamber is set down gently onto the ground. It is as though a curtain falls over his world, because now everything is awash in crimson and all finer details are wiped away, leaving only broad shapes and hazy outlines behind. The silk is heavy. Bodies move on the outside and then the fluttering hangings of the palanquin part.
A familiar rasp sounds out, steel running through still air. “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” he answers. His voice sounds different; it is light and airy and much higher than before.
Orochimaru must be pleased by the tone of his new voice, because he is the one who leans in and helps Sasuke out by taking his hand and guiding him down two low steps. The kimono swishes around his bare legs, cool as river water, as he steps onto Konoha soil. A deeper part of him seems to expect something, anything, but nothing happens. All air escapes his lungs in a quiet exhale.
Sasuke straightens up in his glowing white kimono, the red veil cascading down over his shoulders, covering every inch of skin except for his exposed hands and fingers. Even his feet are socked in the geta, pure white against even more white. His veil and his kimono are unadorned and together it is just pure, smooth silk; ripples of fabric flowing off his frame.
His outfit is plain because there are hidden bells sewn into the edges of the wide sleeves and between the two layers of fabric around his hips. As he moves faster, haunting chimes that mimic the sound of air and light melt from him, staining the air, and the crowd falls into a revered silence.
Where Sasuke moves, music follows.
There are several figures waiting in front of the Hokage Mansion waiting to welcome them, and Orochimaru leads him forward slowly with a hand on his shoulder.
Behind them, the Otogakure shinobi who follow are silent shadows.
A male voice calls out. Sasuke cannot tell what this man looks like even though they are standing in front of each other now. “Orochimaru-sama, welcome to Konoha.”
“Thank you. We will formally introduce her in the presence of the Hokage.”
“Of course. Please follow us,” another voice says, from a man by his side. This voice sounds older.
Sasuke is breathing quietly, shallowly, as they enter the building and into a long, dim hallway. The silence is only broken by the controlled tap tap tapping of his geta and the ethereal melody of bells. The two figures who had first spoken lead them and up close, he can tell from their backs that one of them has short dark hair while the other has spikey lighter hair. They are dressed in standard Konoha flak jackets. There are several more personnel in front of them, dressed in some sort of armoured vest. They turn around occasionally, and the first time Sasuke catches sight of their smooth, bone white faces that are marred with flashes of red and black, he feels a chill down his spine. A second later, he realises that they are ANBU.
He grits his teeth and pulls his shoulder blades together to stand slightly straighter; this is barely the beginning and weaknesses cannot exist here and especially not now. Orochimaru and Kabuto had killed most of his fears in the months of preparation before this moment. Now it’s his job to eliminate the rest. Orochimaru’s fingernails dig into his shoulder like senbon, piercing through silk and skin. The sharp pain drags him out of his head and keeps him anchored to the present.
Sasuke does not falter.
They venture further into enemy territory until they enter a vast circular room, brightly lit with a ceiling that spirals high up above their head in a dome. There are only two figures seated on one side of the large, circular table. From their postures, they look aged. The Hokage is not present. Under the light, he can see that one of their ushers has white, spiked hair. He takes a seat at the side of the seated figures. Their other black-haired usher leads their contingent to the seats directly opposite the seated Konoha representatives.
Orochimaru leads Sasuke to a seat slightly off to the side. Their leader and the rest of the party settle into the seats directly in front of the other four figures. Even without moving his neck, Sasuke can see ANBU figures lining the room. Sasuke sits with his hands folded on top of his lap, still as a statue. There can be no sound coming from him until it is time.
The black-haired man begins the meeting. “Welcome to Konohagakure, Orochimaru-sama and Otogakure. I am the Sixth Hokage’s advisor, Sai. Here we have Hatake Kakashi, Mitokado Homura, and Utatane Koharu present. Hatake-san is a senior advisor while Mitokado-san and Utatane-san are executive council members.”
Sasuke cannot tell who is who, but that does not matter — yet. There is only one person he has his eyes set on.
“Will the Hokage be gracing us with his presence?” Orochimaru asks smoothly.
A beat of silence. “He will be here shortly. Please enjoy some refreshments before we begin our negotiations,” Sai says and the doors open as several figures come in holding trays. They arrange the cups in front of them. One of his fellow shinobi stops the server heading towards him by lifting an open palm. She stops in her tracks. He deftly lifts the sweating cup from her tray and serves Sasuke instead, placing it in front of him on the table. Sasuke keeps his eyes staring straight ahead.
A new voice introduces the drink to them. It must be either Mitokado or Utatane. “These are made from the honey extracted from the beehives kept by the Aburame clan. It is extremely rare and it is said to possess extremely healing properties.”
“Of course,” another voice adds, “we all know that Orochimaru-sama’s gifts for healing are next to none. Please enjoy it for its unique taste and not for its supposed properties.”
From his side, Orochimaru chuckles but he does not touch the drink. None of the Oto shinobi do.
Before the tension in the room can simmer any more, the door clicks open and a figure rushes in. “I’m sorry I’m late. I’m here now—Sai?”
“Hokage-sama,” Sai says as he stands and points towards the seat at the side, diagonally from Sasuke. He turns back to their party. “We can begin the negotiations now.”
Orochimaru begins. “It is a fact that Uzumaki Naruto is the youngest, most eligible bachelor in the shinobi world. It is also another known fact that Konoha wants to enter into a new alliance and it is between two key villages: us at Otogakure or Sunagakure. Do correct me if I am wrong about anything.”
“Please continue,” the man named Hatake replies.
Sasuke can feel Uzumaki Naruto’s unblinking eyes on him.
“Suna is a larger village and they possess the power of a tailed beast because their Kage is a Jinchuriki, just like the Hokage. Whichever side Konoha chooses, they will make an enemy out of the other. We are here today because we want to be allied with Konoha. Tailed beasts and Jinchuriki are rare, but Oto has something no other village can offer: a bloodline once thought purged from our world forever.”
Now every face is turned torwards him.
“Yes,” Orochimaru continues, and Sasuke can hear the slick pride in his voice, dripping off the words. Even now, even here, it makes his blood run cold. “We have her. As the leader of my humble village, I am proposing an alliance between Otogakure and Konohagure through marriage.”
Of course, this is not brand-new information for Konoha. Sasuke knows negotiations have been going through Orochimaru and the Hokage’s office for several months now via hawks and messenger birds, but this is the first time these words have been uttered aloud. The weight of this proposal hangs heavy in the air, like the silence that surrounds them all.
One of the eldery councillors speak. “And why would your village willingly surrender your most important bloodline to another?”
“Oto is powerful, but we are small. We don’t know how much longer she can be safe in Oto. She is a shinobi as capable as you or me but she — we — might not be able to fend off an entire army if they attack. Also, as they say, better to work with the devil you know than the one you don’t. As the Hokage’s wife, she will be safer here, I assume?”
“You assume correctly, Orochimaru-sama,” Hatake drawls.
“Wait.” The Hokage has finally spoken, and Sasuke can see Sai glance at him. “Are we really talking about my future marriage just like this?”
“With all due respect Hokage-sama, we are not talking about the marriage of Uzumaki Naruto. We are talking about the marriage of Konoha’s Sixth Hokage. For this, we have to take geopolitics and a mutually beneficial alliance into account.” Orochimaru’s voice is hypnotically smooth but this is not genjutsu — it is more powerful than that because this is the truth.
“Of course,” one of the councillors says.
“He’s right,” Sai adds quietly.
“Orochimaru-sama, why do you think Konoha would want another Sharingan user in the village after all that has happened with the Uchiha clan?” This query comes from Hatake.
“Because she has all the power, potential, and promise of an Uchiha without any of the bad luck or tragedy associated with its name,” Orochimaru answers smoothly. Hatake is silent. Sasuke cannot see Orochimaru’s face, but he knows the man is grinning, snake-like mouth carved wide open.
“Please allow me to introduce our princess before we continue any further,” Orochimaru continues. Everything is falling into place. “As outlined in previous letters, she belongs to a clan distantly related to the Uchiha family. Not unlike Konoha’s most tragic clan, their powers have been so feared that they have also been eliminated from villages around the world. Her parents arrived in Oto as refugees many years ago, where she was raised as an Oto kunoichi. The Sharingan didn’t take for her parents, but she was different. Special. Now her parents are dead, leaving the village as her only family. And now her new family will be Konoha, as the Hokage’s wife, if they are willing to accept her.” For the first time, Orochimaru turns to the side, looking straight at Sasuke.
They have rehearsed this; he knows what to do and he knows what will follow.
Sasuke rises. His silk kimono shifts. The bells begin to chime, clear and true, as a sweet melody colours the air. No one can look away even though this is not genjutsu either and this, Sasuke knows, is true power. Konoha’s most important eyes burn into him, transfixed.
He is here as harmony personified.
The burning deep in his limbs have radiated outward and into his entire body. His heart still pounds, but there is nothing to feel because all he must do is focus on breathing properly. The brief interlude of music starts to die away as Sasuke stills. This is the moment that all future consequences will be borne upon.
Orochimaru stands and covers the short distance between them. Sasuke can feel his fingers catch the edge of his veil from the back, on both sides of his head. The silence is deafening because all music has ceased.
“She is the only person left alive with a bloodline that can awaken and control the Sharingan naturally,” Orochimaru says, and his voice is the loudest thing in the world. “The Uchiha were named after their ability to control fire. Her clan drew their name from another source of eternal light: the moon. This is Tsukino Sachi.”
With this, Orochimaru lifts the veil and the world and all its colours flood back to Sasuke but he does not react, doesn’t move: all he does is continue standing still, breath even, and most importantly, eyes lowered. All he can see is the Hokage’s scuffed shoes and the cuffs of his long, black pants. It is as though no one else is breathing in the room.
Without the red veil, Sasuke’s face and hair are revealed: a pale, poreless complexion is exposed, along with straight glossy hair that runs down his back and a long fringe that hang straight down in the dead air of the room. The only makeup he has on are on his lips, painted the same vivid shade as his veil. Against skin, it stands out like a wound: startling yet natural, like the promise of death. Everything else is an expanse of pale flesh, the bone white silk of his kimono, and the contrasting darkness of his hair.
This is not a henge. The hair is his own, grown out over months for this very mission and the fine features are his own; eyes and the smooth curve of a chin inherited from his dead mother and a nose from his dead father. At least, that is what he can see from the single photograph he has of them because he cannot trust his memories. There are many things Sasuke will have to conceal from here on out, but physical beauty is not one of them.
“We want to verify her Sharingan,” the Hokage’s advisor says. Sai.
“She will show it to the Hokage first—”
“No,” the senior advisor says lightly. “Please show it to me. It is merely a precaution, but my own Sharingan can counteract genjutsu from another.”
“The implication is insulting, but this just tells us all how powerful and valuable the Sharingan truly is,” Orochimaru says smoothly.
Sasuke turns towards his left, eyes still downcast but he can already feel the Sharingan spinning slowly in his eyes. Without flourish, he looks up at Hatake to find a set of mismatched eyes. Staring into another Sharingan for the first time is unnerving and he cannot read anything in Hakate’s face because it’s just as blank as an ANBU mask; he merely nods and Sasuke drops his gaze.
“There is no doubt of its authenticity,” Hatake says, all lightness evaporating from his voice.
Now, slowly, slowly, Sasuke lifts his eyes again, still spinning red, until his gaze meets Uzumaki Naruto’s.
His eyes are even bluer in person, even more vivid than in the photos they’ve gathered of him and they are the same shade of cloudless skies and oceans that Sasuke has never seen but knows must exist. The Hokage’s mouth falls into a small ‘O’ but Sasuke does not allow his gaze to waver. There is also something else in those eyes, something he cannot place and Sasuke does not allow himself to be distracted.
Feeling the seconds flow by and even more slowly now, Sasuke drops his gaze and curls his lips up into a soft smile, making sure the Hokage catches sight of it. It does not feel as submissive as the one they made him practice, over and over again until the muscles in his face seized up and the edges of his mouth cracked and bled — Uzumaki Naruto’s dumb expression makes him look younger and more ordinary and it’s funnier than he expects. No, Orochimaru won’t notice how the edges of his mouth are turned up a tiny bit higher than needed, not when he’s busy analysing the quiet awe radiating off everyone who can only stare at him.
Sasuke stares back at his feet with his gaze set; his eyes will not lift any more. Now, again, he waits.
Uzumaki Naruto is the first one who speaks. It is just a single word, more breath than verbalised sound: “Wow.”
It’s almost disappointing, Sasuke thinks, how the Hokage, this famed Uzumaki Naruto, has turned out to be such an ordinary man and so easily swayed by beauty and power. This was exactly what they had planned, and now the most powerful man in the village has played right into their hands.
Relief and sheer amusement spill brightly through him but his face is a mask. With absolute control, unblinkingly, Sasuke bends his knees to lower himself back into the seat. His gaze remains soft. Everyone in Oto is trained in music and the art of sound, and Sasuke had laboured over these bells on endless nights, a hammer in his blistered palm as he shaped pure silver into the bells that have been painstakingly sewn into silk, the same bells that have brought these exact notes to life. The music echoes — a domed ceiling could not have been more perfect because the notes continue dancing in the air long after Sasuke sits.
Sound lingers, ghost-like.